Exodus 24:12-18

Lectionaries typically combine stories of God’s revelation to Israel at Sinai with the gospel accounts of the Transfiguration. Such juxtaposition is tempting when we look at surface details. Exodus 24:12-18 and Matthew 17:1-9 both mention a period of six days, a high mountain where people go to be alone, a cloud from which the voice of God emerges, the pervasive feeling of fear, and the fact that the details of what happened on the mountain are to be withheld from the majority of believers. Yet the preacher should be wary of emphasizing the parallels too heavily, for a closer examination of the two texts reveals that the fit between them is not necessarily comfortable.Exodus 24:12-18 recounts Moses’s preparation to ascend Mount Sinai in order to receive “tablets” from God. These tablets appear suddenly in the biblical text, without preparation or clear explanation. Traditionally we understand that there were two tablets, based on Exodus 31:18, but our visual images of the contents are probably more influenced by Renaissance art and Charleton Heston than by Exodus 24 itself, for the number “two” does not appear there. Some traditions picture two tablets, each bearing five commandments-the first five addressing our relationship with God and the second five addressing our relationship with our neighbors, in keeping with Jesus’s two-fold Summary of the Law. The number two may also simply be a confusion resulting from the two trips that Moses made to the top of the mountain to receive a written text (Exodus 24 and 34), since the first set of tablets was destroyed in a fit of rage after Moses discovered the people worshipping the Golden Calf.

The number “two” may also be explained by citing scholarship fifty years ago connecting the Sinai covenant with Hittite suzerainty treaties. Anthony Phillips points out [“A Fresh Look at the Sinai Pericope: Part 2,” Vetus Testamentum 34:3, 1984, p. 293]: “Such treaties were inaugurated by being recorded in duplicate, one copy being retained by each party and placed in his sanctuary…Further to indicate that the treaty was broken, the tablet on which it had been recorded was smashed. For it to be restored fresh tablets were required.” However, the parallel between Israelite and Hittite covenantal forms is no longer taken for granted; and again, Exodus 24 does not mention that there were duplicates. [For a summary of the controversies on suzerainty treaties, see Richard Sklba, “The Redeemer of Israel,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 34:1, Jan. 1972, pp. 2-3.]

The narrative in Exodus 24 revolves around three principal characters or agents: God, Moses, and people of Israel. Other characters are also introduced, including Joshua, Aaron and Hur, but they do not eclipse the importance of the three main characters in the story. We might understand these three characters as paralleling God, Jesus, and the crowds in the Transfiguration story, but herein appears the first significant difference between the two stories. At Exodus 20:18-21, the people of Israel elect Moses as their intermediary with God. The gospel accounts do not portray Jesus as “elected” by his followers or the people of Judea and Samaria, but as elected by God. The Gospel of John states boldly: “the world did not know him…his own people did not accept him” (John 1:10-11). Thus both Moses and Jesus are mediators, but their mandate of authority differs markedly.

The content of the tablets mentioned in Exodus 24:12 is disputed. This is due primarily to the many layers of editing which have shaped Exodus 19-24, to the extent that our present text makes Moses scramble up and down Sinai a number of times. The Decalogue appears first in Exodus 20, delivered as an oral text only. Exodus 24 then describes a second ascent and a first set of tablets, whose contents are designated “the law and the commandment” by the NRSV. The Hebrew text says “I will give you the stone tablets and the Torah and the commandment which I wrote,” as if the tablets and the Torah were different items. Phillips [p. 293] believes that the content of these tablets was the Decalogue and the Book of the Covenant, but this makes the Hebrew text more specific than it can bear, and many scholars disagree with him.

Martin Noth [Exodus, The Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962, p. 200] believes that “the law and the commandments” is a scribal gloss, and that the instructions delivered to Moses were limited to the regulations of cultic worship described immediately after our pericope, in Exodus 25-31:17. Some scholars have observed that to carve these six and a half chapters into stone would have produced more than two manageable tablets, and thus presume the entire episode to be a historical fiction constructed to justify the Deuteronomic reforms (see Noth ad loc.). Obviously, some readers would reject the designation “historical fiction”; the medieval commentator Nachmanides argued that the Sinai tablets contained the entire Torah, and that they were inscribed thereupon before the world was created [Commentary on the Torah: Exodus, trans. by Charles B. Chavel. New York: Shilo, 1973, p. 431). Some would here be reminded of the Christian doctrine of the pre-existent Logos.

Moses’s role as mediator is consistent with the text’s portrayal of him as a judge. Before ascending the mountain, Moses charges Aaron and Hur to stay behind in order to arbitrate disputes among the people of Israel.

The two thus function as appointed judicial interims (Nachmanides, 433, reads “Wait” [Hebrew: shevu] as “Sit as a court”). Hur’s identity is enigmatic; he is mentioned only twice in the Bible, the other instance being in connection to the battle with Amalek in Exodus 17:8-16. Rabbinic tradition describes him as the son of Miriam, thus making him Moses’s nephew.

The text’s emphasis on Moses’s judicial function seems designed to contradict any identification of Moses as a prophet. A judge stands in close connection to his community, acting to preserve its loftiest virtues. A prophet often stands in opposition to his community, contradicting social structures and customs. Jewish tradition forbids conflation of the two roles, raising interesting questions about our understanding of Jesus as a teacher of behavioral expectations versus Jesus as a prophet of the Kingdom of God. When Elijah appears in the “vision” at Matthew 17:3, it is not to emphasize the prophetic character of Jesus, for Matthew knew that Jewish tradition did not view Elijah as a Messianic forerunner. Rather, Jesus, Moses and Elijah stand together as three forerunners of the Kingdom of God. [For further discussion on this issue, see Daniel Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991, pp. 157, 254-56.]

Matthew 17:1 suggests that Jesus prepared six days before ascending the mountain. Exodus 34:16 suggests that Moses spent six days on top of the mountain before God spoke, presumably purging himself and focusing his concentration. In both instances, the number six is surely figurative, since it would make the revelatory event happen on the seventh day, underlining its theophanic character. Also in both instances, a cloud covers the mountain top. The wording of Exodus 34:15 is confusing, and we must carefully distinguish between “the glory of the Lord” and the cloud. Both rested on the mountain top, but the cloud is not God (at 34:16, Moses walks inside of it).

In either instance, the cloud seems to serve as a veil to prevent people from seeing what God looks like; only God’s voice is audible from within the cloud (compare Psalm 81:8). But whereas we are not told that those accompany Jesus see anything, Exodus 34:17 tells us that the Israelites waiting at the foot of Mount Sinai did see something which looked like “a devouring fire” on the mountain top. A literal translation of the Hebrew would read “an eating fire,” one which consumes whatever gets too close to it; this should be contrasted to the flame at the burning bush in Exodus 3:2, which appears not to consume (but compare Hebrews 12:29). Some scholars explain the connection between cloud and fire in the Exodus 34 account as describing a volcanic eruption. In any case, both texts carry a strong undercurrent of fear.

We are not told why Joshua accompanied Moses part of the way up the mountain, but Moses’s fear of being alone with God would be a logical explanation. Matthew 17:6 records that the disciples “fell to the ground” in fright. This parallelism challenges the common but completely untenable distinction between “the Old Testament God of fear and the New Testament God of love.” In both testaments, God is always to be both feared and loved (the Hebrew yir’a is difficult to translate into English, but sits somewhere between “respectful awe” and “sensible fear”). The same affective response is common in the Resurrection narratives: though the initial fear may eventually resolve to joy, whenever God or God-in-Christ appears to us, we are deeply unsettled by the presence of a power so much greater than our own.

The other affective character of both texts is loneliness. Th. Booij [“Mountain and Theophany in the Sinai Narrative,” Biblica 65:1, 1984, p. 11] explains the remoteness and isolation of Mount Sinai: “One has to journey three days into the wilderness in order to be out of the Egyptian cultic territory. So…the mountain of God is extra-territorial; it lies outside Egypt, first of all, and outside Midian, ‘behind the wilderness’ (Exod 3:1). There, beyond human territory, it is a holy place and a meeting place for nomadic or partly nomadic groups…” [see also Belden Lane, “Fierce Landscapes and the Indifference of God,” The Christian Century, Oct. 11, 1989, pp. 907-910]. Moses is alone at the top of a lonely, holy place. Jesus is not alone on the un-named mountain; Peter, James, and John are with him. The difference between three companions and no companions is significant, though no amount of companionship could easily reduce the loneliness of Jesus’s messianic vocation.

Connecting Exodus 24 with Matthew 17 is sometimes justified by the current opinion that Matthew portrays Jesus as “the new Moses”. Typologically this may be true, but the preacher’s failure to grasp the poetic license behind the juxtaposition of Moses and Jesus ultimately does violence to both texts under consideration. Both Moses and Jesus are influencers and mediators in bridging God’s will to humanity, but neither is the source of Torah. That is God’s role alone. Both Moses and Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is to be worked out here among humanity, and both attempted to provide “a pattern of life which alone measures the capacity of the human heart” [Sklba, p. 16]. But to the dynamic revelation at Sinai, that the will and presence of God can be discerned in the “tablets” of scripture and tradition, Jesus adds a new dimension: the will and presence of God can be discerned in the lives of individuals among whom we live. Jesus did not come to destroy the authority of all that Moses brought down from Sinai (see Matthew 5:17), but rather to teach us yet one more way to access God’s love, by turning to the lives and characters of our own human brothers and sisters.

Philip Culbertson
Auckland, New Zealand

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