Many of us have ‘mountain top’ experiences, high-lights in our lives which enthuse and motivate us or leave us overcome with amazement. Our readings for today tell the experiences of Moses and of Jesus and some of his disciples.
Moses’ experience was very dramatic. The Israelites had gathered around the bottom of the mountain, and God had revealed himself to them – not directly, but through the amazing phenomena described in Exodus 19 onwards: thunder and lightening, a thick cloud over the mountain, a very loud trumpet blast, fire, and the voice of God speaking the ten commandments. God had then given Moses various other laws, and the covenant between God and his people was ratified. Then God had appeared to Moses, Aaron and two of his sons, and seventy elders of Israel. After all this, God called him up the mountain to receive the ten commandments inscribed by God on stone tablets. (Clay tablets, the size of a small roof tile, were commonly used for record keeping in those days. When baked they could last a long time.)
Moses took Joshua, his assistant, with him. We next meet Joshua when they were on their way down, so we have no idea what he did while they were there, nor how much he heard or saw. As the story continues we see him not only as a soldier and man of action, but also as a deeply spiritual person. Perhaps this experience was deeply formative for him too. In the Bible, as in life, most of what God is doing goes on in the background without comment.
The experience of going to meet God would have been terrifying even for Moses. He, too, had seen the lightning and fire, and knew he had to enter a thick cloud to meet God. We are told the cloud was the ‘glory’ of God, and that it looked like a ‘consuming fire’. When God had given the ten commandments, Moses approached God to receive further instructions, and that is described as ‘the thick darkness where God was’. The word for ‘glory’ carries in Hebrew the idea of ‘weight’, so maybe on this occasion also we are not to imagine a bright fog but something far more scary. After six days outside it Moses was called to enter – again, a fearful thing – and God spoke to him about arrangements for worship. These arrangements were all to do with a ‘tabernacle’ or tent, with an innermost ‘holy of holies’ reached through an outer tent (the ‘holy place’), with a courtyard outside for the sacrifices. All this would make perfect sense to Moses.
At the end, God gave Moses the tablets of stone he had promised, with the laws the people had to keep for the covenant to remain in force. The tablets therefore symbolised the newly ratified covenant relationship between God and his people. What could be more important, more precious, more holy than them? Yet when Moses came down the mountain he was faced with the sight of God’s people enjoying an orgy in honour of a calf idol. In his rage he broke those God-given tablets into pieces! The results of his forty days in the presence of God lay shattered at his feet! How could he do it?
Moses had had an incredible high, followed by a terrible let down. The people had to be punished for their sin. Yet all was not lost. Moses had to go back for another 40 days, and returned with a new set of stone tablets. The instructions Moses was given on the mountain the first time were put into effect, and the tent for worship was made. His ‘mountain top experience’ was not negated by the following events. Neither are ours.
1) What ‘mountain top’ experiences have you had? What followed?
2) What does this story teach us about God? Do we want to meet him?