Commentary on Exodus 24:12-18
“Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.
Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain.” (Exodus 24:17-18a) The setting of this story is spectacular. The sight of a mountain whose highest point is covered by a cloud is beautiful; it is a view featured in numerous paintings and photographs. While it is impossible to say exactly what so many people find moving about a cloud cropped mountain, it is likely that many people would describe such a vista as majestic or awe-inspiring.
Some might also say that the size of the mountain, whose top reaches into the upper atmosphere is a reminder of our own relative insignificance. The majesty of Mount Sinai in the narrative of Exodus 24 is intensified by the fact that the cloud that settled upon the mountain was no ordinary cloud but enshrouded the very presence of God, whose appearance, the text reads, “was like a devouring fire.”
The significance of all of this grandeur would not have been lost on the ancient Near Eastern audience. Mountains are the site of divine revelation throughout the ancient world, even in cultures as far-flung as Greece and Japan, a mountain is a common location for a theophany. In the case of Exodus 24:12-18, not only is the divine made visible on the mountain that one associates with the very foundation of the people of Israel as God’s people, Mount Sinai, but the story that precedes this one details a covenant meal shared by the leaders of the people of Israel and their God.
Within the story of the sacred meal, one finds another vivid description of God’s glory: “[T]hey saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.” Interestingly, in spite of the fact that the story notes that the people saw God, it does not describe God’s physical presence but the brightness of the ground on which God was revealed to them, and even this description of the “pavement” is a little vague, using words, such as “something like” and the simile “like the very heaven” to describe it.
God’s glory is beyond the capacity of the human being to describe, much less comprehend, and there is something absolutely reassuring about that power being revealed in the context of a covenant-making ceremonial meal. God’s power is on the side of the people of Israel, supporting their leaders, and establishing them as a people.
To say that God’s power is on their side is not to say that the people are entirely safe from that power being directed against them, however. And so Exodus 25-31, which seems to be the content of God’s revelation to Moses in the midst of the cloud, provides a verbal blueprint for the creation of the tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant as well as the main practices associated with the worship of Yahweh. The emphasis in these chapters falls on the necessity of maintaining the holiness of the site of the tabernacle and the cultic activity that takes place within it as well as the holiness of the people themselves.
The heart of Exodus 25-31 contains detailed descriptions of the sacrifices that are to be offered at the tabernacle along with the divine assertion: “I will dwell among the Israelites, and I will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them: I am the LORD their God” (29:45). The key is the word “dwell.” In Exodus 24:16, the text reads, “Then the glory of the Lord dwelled on Mount Sinai.”
The NRSV translates the verb in this sentence as “settle,” which makes for smoother English, but the verb there is actually the same Hebrew verb one finds in 29:45, which is translated as “dwell.” “Dwell” is also the same root one finds in the Hebrew name for the tabernacle. While “tabernacle” in another context might simply refer to one’s dwelling place, in Exodus this simple term takes on new meaning because of the identity of the one who will dwell there. It is no small matter for a god as terrifying and powerful as Yahweh to decide to dwell in the midst of a people and to enter into a covenant with them. All of the signs of God’s power in chapter 24 make this point abundantly clear.
And yet there is something altogether reassuring about God’s promise and provisions to dwell with the people. While a covenant with God is not something to be entered into lightly, it is the case that God invites and welcomes the people into a relationship. Indeed, Exodus 24:12-18 with its awe-inspiring view of the presence of God and Moses’ bold willingness to walk into that cloud of devouring fire suggests that a relationship with God, while not exactly comfortable, is exhilarating. In preaching a text like this one, it is important to balance the wonder and the majesty of God’s presence with God’s promise to be with and for the people of Israel. As the narrative of exodus continues through the Pentateuch, one sees just how tenacious and faithful God is to this promise.