< February 03, 2008 >

Commentary on Exodus 24:12-18


Exodus 24:12--18 has shaped the traditions of transfiguration that we find in the Synoptic Gospels. Placed on Transfiguration Sunday, this passage, which describes Moses' encounter with the Lord on Mount Sinai, brings the season of Epiphany to conclusion. Thus, in this season of reflection upon God's manifestation and incarnation, today's lesson brings us to the place of revelation--God's holy mountain--where heaven meets earth and humans encounter the divine.

The chapter of Exodus 24 is full of seams and internal tensions, because it contains different source traditions that overlap one with another. This can make the details of the text difficult to understand on first glance. In its final form, Exodus 24:1--11 represents a concluding ceremony at Sinai between the Lord and Israel. This ceremony ends with a ritual of blood (vv. 4--8) and a sacred meal (v. 11). Thus, the Lord's descent upon the mountain and Moses' ascent into the cloud in vv. 12--18 emerge from the broader context of covenant ratification. One can divide today's passage according to Moses' movement up toward the Lord's presence on the mountain:

  • The Lord's instructions to Moses (v. 12)
  • Moses' ascent to the mountain (vv. 13--15a)
  • The glory of the Lord settles on the mountain (15b--17)
  • Moses enters the cloud (v. 18)

As Moses ascends the mountain and draws closer to the glory of the Lord, he is removed spatially from the others who are with him.

There are three prominent themes in this passage: 1) Moses the mediator; 2) the manifestation of the Lord's glory; and 3) the significance of the revelation. The entire event is a holy occurrence, a specially marked encounter between God and human upon the mountain, from which divine instruction emerges. The event points simultaneously to the Lord's presence among the people and the uniqueness of Moses who alone enters the cloud. The sanctity of this encounter emphasizes the importance of the directions for the Tabernacle that follows (Exodus 25 ff.).

Moses' special status among the people and among the leadership of Israel is accentuated in this passage. In v. 12, the Lord instructs Moses to approach the mountain in order to receive the tablets of stone, upon which the Lord has written "the law and commandment." Earlier in chapter 24, the Lord makes clear that only Moses will draw near to the divine presence (v. 2). In vv. 13--14, he departs on his journey toward the mountain, followed by his assistant Joshua. Moses gives instructions to the others before he proceeds up the mountain alone (v. 15a). As the story progresses, Moses becomes further removed from Israel's leadership as he draws closer to the divine presence. Finally, at the climax of the passage, the glory of the Lord covers the mountain (vv. 15b--17), and Moses enters the cloud (v. 18). This narrative movement emphasizes Moses' privileged status as mediator, representing Israel before the Lord, and therefore stresses the importance of the words that emerge from this divine/human encounter.

The manifestation of God's presence in this passage is characterized through the expression "the glory of the Lord" (v. 16 and v. 17). Priestly writers from the period of the Babylonian exile incorporated vv. 15--18 into the traditions found in Exodus 24. God's transcendence is a prominent theme within this source. The Lord's glory (Hebrew, kābôd) in this passage is described as being "like a devouring fire" on the summit of the mountain. This awesome spectacle has at least two functions. First, it emphasizes God's holiness. The Lord is the awesome holy other, whose glory descends upon the mountain. Divine otherness is stressed through descriptive language. The doubly modified phrase, "the appearance of the glory of the Lord" (v. 17, emphasis mine), characterizes God's presence. A similar expression is found in Ezekiel's chariot vision (Ezek 1:28). This careful use of language emphasizes transcendence. The Lord becomes manifest on the mountain, but the author qualifies the description of the divine presence as "the appearance of the glory of the Lord" (v. 17). The image of a cloud that covers the mountain's summit (vv. 15--16, and v. 18) also emphasizes the mystery and holiness of God's manifestation.

The second function of this awesome spectacle is to set apart the event itself as a holy occurrence. The Lord's descent upon the mountain sanctifies the mountain's summit, setting it apart as a holy place. The author evokes the language of creation in Genesis. The cloud covers Mount Sinai for six days, and on the seventh, the Lord speaks to Moses (v. 16). The setting apart of the seventh day, makes this time and space holy just as God hallowed the seventh day as a Sabbath in creation (Gen 2:2--3) The sanctifying of this event suggests that the words that proceed from this place will be of particular binding significance for the people of God. Thus, as stated earlier in v. 12, the Lord will give to Moses the tablets of stone with the "law and commandment" written upon them. Moreover, this holy encounter signifies the importance of the Lord's very specific instructions regarding the Tabernacle that follows.

The meeting of the divine and human at Sinai signals the importance of this time and place in Israel's memory. The event itself is set apart as a holy occurrence in which the Lord speaks a particular word of revelation to the people. In the ancient Near East, mountains often represent the dwelling places of the gods. Within these Israelite traditions, however, the divine encounter was not simply an end to itself. The words that emerged from this hallowed place were given particular significance in the life of the community. The utterances that come forth from the mountain's summit are holy commandments and divine instruction. It should not surprise us that the Synoptic writers evoke this tradition of revelation at Sinai, when God's voice from the cloud instructs those present at the transfiguration to listen to God's "Beloved Son."