Job 1:1, 2:1-10

The recent box-office hit, “The Fifth Element,” pits Good against Evil in a struggle for the future of humanity. As the movie blasts to its conclusion, we are told that more than the traditional elements of Wind, Earth, Fire and Water, it is the fifth element, Love, which protects the earth from Evil’s victory. The homilist may be tempted to preach this passage from Job as a struggle between Good and Evil, like “The Fifth Element,” because of the joint appearance in chapter 2 of God and Satan. This, however, would be a mis-interpretation, for the appointed verses are not about a cosmic struggle but about the contrast between God’s “humanity” and Job’s “divinity.”Structurally the Book of Job divides into a Prologue (1:1-2:13) and an Epilogue (42:7-17), and in between a long section in which variety of additional themes are developed. Most scholars believe that the Prologue and Epilogue are adapted from a popular folk-tale known in a variety of Ancient Near Eastern cultures (Marvin Pope, Job. The Anchor Bible. Garden City: Doubleday, 1973, xxiii). Just as “The Fifth Element” is set in mythical time, so the opening verse of the book (1:1) informs us that we are in the world of “once upon a time.” With the words “There was once a man” (in Hebrew, ish hayah), we have left the profane and entered the mystical. Perhaps this explains why in the 3rd century Rabbi Simeon ben Laqish proclaimed “[Job] never was and never existed, but is only a mashal [parable]!” (BT Baba Batra 15a). Was there a real “Forrest Gump”? Probably not, but from the sufferings of one innocent man, we have much to learn.

As the story opens, Job is described as tam and yashar. Literally the words mean “innocent/complete” and “honest.” Taken together they indicate Job’s personal integrity and moral perfection. Job’s personal life, his relationships, and his possessions are all in proper balance. He is a man who has been blessed with all of the good things in life. (Dianne Bergant, Job, Ecclesiastes. Old Testament Message. Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1982, 25) His vast wealth is measured in terms of cattle and slaves, and he has the perfect number of children (7 sons and 3 daughters). Today we would identify him as a pillar of the church, exemplary in his prayer life and in his charity, as successful in business as in his happy home life.

Unbeknownst to Job, another drama is unfolding in heaven. God has convened a regular assembly of the celestial court. Among them is one of God’s angels to whom the KJV mistakenly gives the proper name “Satan.” In the Book of Job, this figure is not to be confused with the one whom later Jewish and Christian traditions called “evil personified,” but is merely one of God’s many minions. His role in this drama is to be “the accuser” (in Hebrew, ha-satan) of Job’s motivations; the same word “accuser” appears in 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 Kings describing human adversaries (see Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan. New York: Vintage Books, 1996). The Hebrew text clearly pictures this accuser as being among the many “sons of God” who were proper members of the divine assembly, and whose job is to walk the earth, on the lookout for any evil which might need reporting back to God. The accuser here can initiate no action, evil or otherwise, without God’s permission. Whatever ultimately befalls Job, then, is the result of God’s own decision, and not of a cosmic struggle.

This angel accuses Job of being faithful only because he is so obviously blessed. In 1:11, he wagers God that if Job lost his wealth and his children, he would also lose his faith. However, in 1:21, pious Job does not curse God for his monumental losses, but responds “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Unwilling to concede, the accusing angel makes a second wager (2:5), on the premise that the worst thing that can happen to a human being is to lose one’s good health. Both wagers are based on a theology popular in certain parts of scripture, that those who serve God will prosper because God will bless them, whereas those who sin will receive God’s wrath. Marvin Pope (lxxvii) calls this “the doctrine of exact individual retribution, or terrestrial eschatology.” This simplistic equation assumes that God’s justice will be apparent in the midst of human social intercourse. Yet we also know that this equation doesn’t really work – that bad things happen to good people – and so the eternal cry goes out, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper?” (Jer. 12:1).

If we have doubts about the simple Biblical equation, then is it not logical to think that God might also have doubts? Psychological theorist Carl Jung thought so. For Jung, “the accuser” in this drama was not a person, but simply a brief instant of doubt, a momentary suspicion, within the divine mind: “Does Job really only love me because he has so many blessings?” (C. G. Jung, Answer to Job. Trans. By R. F. C. Hull. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1954) Plenty of human beings had tried to manipulate God’s love before. How could God be sure this was not simply another “same-old, same-old?”

Again, this is no cosmic struggle, but a rupture in the divine unity, when for a split second, “God is at odds with himself” (Jung, 10). Yet pious Job, who never doubted for a moment God’s unity, “is quite certain of finding in God a helper and an ‘advocate’ against God.” The same theme of “fleeing from God to God” is expressed in a poem by 11th century Jewish poet, Solomon ibn-Gabirol: “Therefore though You slay me, I will trust You./ For if You pursue my iniquity,/ I will flee from You to Yourself,/ And I will shelter myself from Your wrath in Your shadow,/ And to the skirts of Your mercies I will lay hold/ Until You have mercy on me,/ And I will not let You go till You bless me.” (Robert Gordis, The Book of Job. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1978, 527)

What gives Job the power to “flee from God to God,” thereby God’s inherent justice, is what liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez calls his “disinterestedness.” (On Job: God-talk and the Suffeirng of the Innocent. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1987, 4-5) Disinterestedness is the opposite of reward-seeking; the accuser is defeated because indeed, Job does not connect reward with his love of God. Job embodies the ancient saying, “Be not like servants who serve the master for condition of receiving a gift, but be like servants, who serve the master not on condition of receiving a gift” (M. Avot 1:3). Whatever we offer to God must be without thought of gain or advantage, either in this life or in the life to come. Of course, not every one of us can be a Job. But at the same time, as Moshe Greenberg points out, “The terrible paradox is that no righteous man can measure his love of God unless he suffers a fate befitting the wicked.” (“Reflections on Job’s Theology,” The Book of Job. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1980, xviii)

The homilist must also take care with the sharp rebuke delivered by Job’s wife: “Curse God, and die” (2:9). Her appearance is so brief, and her words so shocking, that she can accidentally be portrayed, as did St. Augustine, John Chrysostom, and John Calvin, as “an agent of the devil and a worse scourge than leprosy.” The Septuagint, the apocryphal “Testament of Job,” and later rabbinic literature all picture her as one who begs alms to bury her children killed during the first wager, who sells her hair to buy bread once her husband is expelled from society to sit on the dunghill, and who finally cracks under financial and social strains which are no doing of her own. Surely her cry can be understood as “Look at me! You at least can vent your feelings toward God!” (Pope, 22) She is given various names in post-Biblical literature: Dinah or Sitides in Jewish tradition, Rahmat or Makhir in Moslem tradition, and in Archibald MacLeish’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, (J. B. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956), she is Sarah, a humanistic, post-religious visionary. The innocent suffering and frustration of Job’s wife have struck a chord with women down through the centuries who have been victims of their husbands’ obstinacy. And yet, as Carol Newsom points out, “For Job, to hold fast to his integrity means to insist on the validity and authority of his own experience, even when it seems to be contradicted by what all the world knows to be true. [In the same way] it has been one of the tasks of feminist thought to encourage women to hold fast to the integrity of their own experience.” (“Job,” The Women’s Bible Commentary. Carol Newsom and Sharon Ringe, eds. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992, 133)

The Book of Job begins as an inquiry into the motives of human piety. Through the innocent suffering of Job and his wife, it becomes an examination of the character of God. At first it seems that by accepting the accuser’s wagers, God’s character is malicious and God’s justice arbitrary. Yet if we follow Jung’s arguments, God entertains doubts, and in acting so “humanly,” heaven and earth move one step closer to each other. Some will prefer this more immanent God over the transcendent and distant one of doctrinal theology. In his epic poem “In Memoriam” (Part 96, stanza 3), Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, Believe me, than in half the creeds.” In God’s moment of “human doubt,” Job finds his own transcendence, modeling in his own disinterestedness what he would not doubt about God: that God loves not for God’s own pleasure or reward, but simply because it is God’s nature to love. The issue at stake in the testing of Job is not simply the winning of a wager, idle or diabolical, but the vindication of the mutual faith of God in humanity and humanity in God. (Pope, lxxiv)

For those who minister in economically comfortable, middle-class congregations, perhaps the final word should go to Guterriez (4-5): “A utilitarian religion lacks depth and authenticity; in addition, it has something satanic about it…The expectation of rewards that is at the heart of the doctrine of retribution vitiates the entire relationship and plays the demonic role of obstacle on the way to God. In self-seeking religion there is no true encounter with God but rather the construction of an idol.”

Philip Culbertson
Auckland, New Zealand

Acts 2:1-21

Commenting on Acts 2, British biblical scholar Michael Goulder (A Tale of Two Missions. London: SCM Press, 1994, 46), “Tongues were a new phenomenon, in the sense that we have no evidence of them in the Old Testament, or rabbinic sources.” Yet one must wonder at such a claim, when we now understand that so many of the major concepts within the Gospels and in Acts are rooted somehow in the Jewish tradition which proceeds or parallels them.The outpouring of many languages in Acts 2:4 is sometimes referred to as glossolalia, though a careful comparison of the Acts text with various Pauline passages in 1 Corinthians will prove that glossolalia does not accurately describe the first human response at Pentecost. The Greek word “glossa” can mean both “tongue” and “language,” and the difference between these two is significant.

The best known passage about glossolalia is 1 Corinthians 13, “If I speak human language or even angelic language, but I do not have love…” Ecstatic utterances as both product and proof of divine inspiration are common in the pre-New Testament world of Hellenistic culture (Plato, Cicero, Dio Chrysostom), in the Hebrew Bible (the ravings of prophetic bands in 1 Samuel, and see Isaiah 28:10 in the Hebrew), and in the intertestamental period (Testament of Job 48-52; Josephus, Antiquities 4:119). Such glossolalia originally referred to speech-like babbling that was widely esteemed, thought to derive from “possession by the deity,” or “enthusiasmos” in Greek (Luke Timothy Johnson. The Acts of the Apostles. Sacra Pagina. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1992, 42). “Speaking in tongues,” then, cannot be defended as a uniquely Christian phenomenon, but is a practice common to many cultures in the ancient world out of which Christianity evolved.

We have no idea how wide-spread glossolalia was in the early church (C. K. Barrett, The Acts of the Apostles. ICC. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1994, 1.115-6). While esteemed in Corinth, there is no significant evidence of its practice in any of the other Pauline churches. It is significant that Paul does not use the term “problem” when he discusses glossolalia. Apparently it is a gift, a charismata, and Paul himself claims to be expert at it (1 Corinthians 14:18). But Paul argues that “tongues” (a) must never be considered as a sign of spiritual superiority; (b) is a private matter not necessarily even to be shared with the congregation; (c) does not build a sense of community within a parish, but rather increases jealousy and competition; and (d) should never be employed in public evangelism (Krister Stendahl. “Glossolalia – The New Testament Evidence,” in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976, 109-124).

All the New Testament mentionings of “ecstatic speech” also require an interpreter who can translate “the tongues of angels” into comprehensible human speech, except for Acts 2. The point is exactly the opposite in Acts 2: that no interpreter was needed, for “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” The speech that Luke refers to, then, is intelligible, communicative speech, rather than unintelligible, ecstatic speech, and certainly is not glossolalia in the manner it is understood in contemporary pentecostal Christianity.

The distinction between intelligible and unintelligible speech is a common principle of exegesis in early Judaism. The medieval commentator Maimonides make the difference clear (The Guide of the Perplexed II.33 to Deut. 4:12. Trans. by Shlomo Pines. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963, 363-365). When the Hebrew text uses “dabbar” to mean “says,” it refers to speech which does not need interpretation. When the Hebrew text uses “amar” to mean “says,” it refers to speech which is open to interpretation, speech in which the meaning must be drawn out exegetically or homiletically, and which can be understood in a variety of says. In Exodus, when God speaks to Moses, the word is “dabbar”; when Moses conveys God’s instructions to the people, the word is “amar,” implying that there is room within the words of divine inspiration for humans to interpret them and to make decisions concerning their application. Using this same argument, both patristic and early rabbinic authors could claim that every verse of Scripture has multiple meanings (see Philip Culbertson, A Word Fitly Spoken: Context, Transmission, and Adoption of the Parables of Jesus. Albany: SUNY Press, 1995, chapter 2). Because all biblical texts are received through human mouths, God’s original “dabbar” only comes to us as “amar.”

The “speech act” in Acts 2, then, is unique. Nowhere else in the New Testament or in the early extra-canonical literature is there ever a reference to such an event. Oddly, such a unique event hardly figures in the New Testament. While virtually all Christian literature hails the event of Easter, there is no reference to Pentecost as an event except in Acts (Stendahl, 118). And surely no one would lay more emphasis on the Spirit than Paul (e.g., Romans 8:9), but he knows nothing of that Spirit-filled day in Jerusalem (Barrett, 100). The description of the event itself takes only four verses (2:1-4) and is extremely circumspect. There is something which is LIKE a strong wind blowing, and something which is LIKE tongues of fire, but beyond these analogies, we have no accurate description of what happened (Johnson, 45). How is it possible that the “founding event” of the new Christian community appears totally insignificant to all NT writers except Luke? If this event occurred some twenty years before St. Paul penned his epistles, why does he seem unaware of it?

Many biblical scholars presume that the entire event is a Lukan construction. Even the conservative Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (ed. by Gerhard Kittel, trans. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964, 1:725) refers to it as a “legend.” But rather than concentrating on the obvious lack of factual basis behind Acts 2, we should rather ask what are the theological points which would cause Luke to construct such a story.

First, Luke wishes to highlight the scandalously inclusive nature of Christianity by portraying a reversal of Genesis 11:1-9, the Tower of Babel. There the divisions in the human family created by human brokenness destroyed the human attempt to build a tower into heaven where humanity and divinity could be united. The symbol of that division was the confusion of languages. Now Luke was saying that in the outpouring the Holy Spirit, the human family was invited anew into God. And in that divine presence human divisions ceased, the barrier of different languages was overcome, oneness with God and with one another was established. The Tower of Babel’s confusion was finally overcome because the language of love is universal. It was a great story, a great truth being communicated in a Jewish style. (John Shelby Spong, Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. HarperSanFrancisco, 1996. 319)

Second, he wishes to portray a unique beginning of a new and distinctive religious community, by paralleling the Christian day of Pentecost with the Jewish Feast of Pentecost, or Shavuot. When the Torah was given at Sinai, it was accompanied by wind and fire. The Ten Commandments of the Torah were heard in seventy languages, so that each nation received the commandments in its own tongue (see bT Shabbat 88b). John Calvin (Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, 1-13. Trans. By John Fraser and W. J. G. McDonald. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1965, 50-51) remarks that if the Gospel had been proclaimed at Pentecost in only one language, the recipients would not have comprehended its universal intent. C. K. Barrett (111) summarizes: “The gift of Torah was an act of divine revelation in which the nature and will of God were made known on the basis of his gracious act of deliverance and with the result of a covenant between himself and his people; the Christian Pentecost is the new revelation through the Holy Spirit, based upon the new act of redemption and deliverance and issuing in the formation of a new, or renewed, people of God, based upon a new covenant.”

Third, Luke parallels Christ’s baptism with the baptism of this new community. In both cases, the Spirit descended and thereby created a special relationship between humanity and God. Both events were public, witnessed by many; both events assumed a willingness to receive God’s grace freely given. And both unleashed a potentially transformative power in the world.

Approaching Acts 2:9-10 as a manifestation of glossolalia obviates the point Luke wishes to make, though even here he is obscure. We must remember that those gathered in Jerusalem would have been, perhaps exclusively, Jews, gathered for the great pilgrim festival of Shavuot. The “catalogue of nations” which Luke presents, however, is primarily a list of non-Jewish ethnic groups, coinciding with the “Sons of Noah” (bnei Noah) listed in Genesis 10. (Michael Goulder, Type and History in Acts. London: SPCK, 1964, 153) So Luke claims that faithful Jews from “every nation under heaven” were assembled (for they were the only ones to have reason to be making pilgrimage to Jerusalem), and then for reasons I do not comprehend, presents instead what the biblical tradition assures us is a list of all the ethnic groups within humanity, 90% of whom are not Jews. Nor do they represent “every nation”; the mainland of Greece is missing, as are all the nations of Europe (J. A. Brinkman, “The Literary Background of the ‘Catalogue of the Nations’ (Acts 2,9-11).” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 25 (1963), 419). We are stuck with the choice of calling Luke (the learned physician) “geographically challenged,” or comprehending that he has presented us with a symbolic map. Indeed, the catalogue moves more or less from the East toward Rome, which is after all the shape of the Gospel’s spread throughout the book of Acts. This symbolic geography is further confirmed when we realize that the catalogue of the Sons of Noah in Genesis 10 connects immediately with Genesis 11, the story of the Tower of Babel.

The last interpretive word must go to the great Reformation preacher John Calvin. The Lukan Pentecost story must not be preached as a factual reporting of an event, but as a challenge to the formation of Christian identity, couched in type and symbol. Formation is the result of seeking, and seeking begins with questions. Calvin (54) remarks that while it is important that the listeners were astonished to hear, each “in our own languages,” it is even more important that they were moved to ask questions, saying to one another “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12). Preaching any Biblical text as literal gives the listeners no room to ask questions, for all the easy answers are provided. Only God can provide a revelation whose meaning is absolutely clear (“dabbar”); once we enter the realm of human discourse and preaching, the meaning is available only to those who ask and seek.

Philip Culbertson
Auckland, New Zealand

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