Exodus – Moses, Israel, and an Inflamed Mt. Sinai

Throughout lent, the scripture reading in the Office of Reading have been from Exodus. This past Tuesday the reading was Ex 32:1-20, which is the Golden Calf incident. While I was mediating on this scripture passage, something struck me that I hadn’t noticed in the past. Normally when we recount this story we focus on Israel’s infidelity, or the drama of Moses casting down the tablets, or how Aaron allowed the people to act in a way and was himself complicity in the Israel’s act of infidelity. Instead it was verse 17 that caught my attention, “Now, when Joshua heard the noise of the people shouting, he said to Moses, “That sounds like a battle in the camp.”” What was Joshua doing there and not at the camp with everyone else? Well he was Moses’ attendant and was permitted to approach closer to the mountain than the rest. But he also wasn’t aware of what the Israelites were doing, because they had withdrawn to the camp.

That Joshua was there and how he draws so close to the Lord, then his display of faith when surveying the Holy Land, and finally leading the people into the Holy Land from this perspective would be interesting to reflect upon. Instead, I turned to earlier in Exodus when the people were called to draw near to the burning Mt. Sinai and instead backed away in rejection of their heavenly Father. So let us look and reflect upon that.

What’s the Situation

Moses

Before we look at how the Israelites responded to God at the foot of the mountain, let us first look at Moses and the burning bush. In Ex 3 we have the story of Moses finding the burning bush, and his commission to free God’s people from Egypt. I want to look how Moses approaches the burning bush. As Moses is shepherding the flocks of Jethro (his father-in-law) he sees the burning bush, and in out of shock and curiosity that it isn’t being burned up, he goes over to investigate. Who wouldn’t do the same, a bush on fire without being consumed is very interesting. As Moses draws near in Ex 3:5-6 “God said: Do not come near! Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your father, he continued, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.”

There are two things that happen in these two versus. The first is God allowed Moses to come to a certain closeness, and then told Moses to stop. Moses was allowed to approach God, but not completely. We could say that Moses wasn’t yet ready to approach God any further, and so the Lord allowed him to come as close as would be beneficial for Moses. The second is that upon Moses learning who was speaking, Moses hid his face. Moses, out of filial fear covered his face. He didn’t run away, he didn’t close God out. Instead he made an act of humility and showed respect towards his Creator. Remember this two things: God let Moses approach God to a certain point, and Moses responding in filial fear and staying to listen to God.

The Israelite People

After the Israelite people had been freed from Egypt, they eventually arrived at Mt. Sinai. The Lord notifies Moses that He is going to present Himself upon the mountain and that the Israelites should approach their Lord and God upon the mountain. God also instructs Moses on how they should purify themselves and in Ex 19:12 God “set limits for the people all around, saying: Take care not to go up the mountain, or even to touch its edge. All who touch the mountain must be put to death.” Once me we see a limit being placed upon how close someone can approach to God. Then in Ex 9:17, “Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stationed themselves at the foot of the mountain.” The people are now standing at the place where the Lord had asked to be. The limit wasn’t just how close they were allowed to come, but also how close they were expected to come.

This doesn’t quite work out. Let us see how the people react to being brought so close to the Lord in Ex 20:18-21, “Now as all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blast of the shofar and the mountain smoking, they became afraid and trembled. So they took up a position farther away and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we shall die.” Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid, for God has come only to test you and put the fear of him upon you so you do not sin.” So the people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the dark cloud where God was.”” (My emphasis) The people are terrified, and they backed away from the Lord. They choose how close they wanted to be to God, instead of how close the Lord wants them to draw to Him. They act out of servile fear, instead of the filial fear of Moses.

Servile Fear vs Filial Fear

It might be helpful now to explain the difference between servile fear and filial fear. Servile fear comes from the fear that a servant would have towards their master. That is, they fear to do wrong because of the punishment that they will receive. This is the lowest form of fear. Filial fear on the other hand comes from the fear that a son would have (ideally) towards his father. The son (ideally) fears to do wrong, not because he will be punished by his father, but because it will offend his father and the son’s love for his father is so great that he wouldn’t want to do anything offense to his father. This is the highest kind of fear. Our motivation to not do wrong shouldn’t be because we fear punishment, but because it will harm our relationship with our beloved, God. This kind of fear is what leads to perfect contrition for our sins. We confess our sins, not because we will be punished, but because we have harmed our relationship with God and want to heal that relationship of love.

Wouldn’t you do the same?

Turning back to the Israelites at the foot of the mountain. Place yourself in there shoes, imagine seeing what they are seeing, hearing what they are hearing. The mountain is on fire, lighting flashes around, thunder and trumpets blasted. It must have seemed like the world was about to end. Can you really blame them for wanting to back away? Who can honestly say that they wouldn’t have done the same, or at least thought about it. Now combine this with the command that if anyone steps closer they must be put to death. But how much closer is closer, is it a single step? A few feet? If I just step back a couple steps then I don’t have to worry about accidentally drawing to close. Plus, you saw what happened to to Egyptians and know that God doesn’t mess around.

Except here’s the thing, Moses just walked right up into all this to talk to God. Admittedly he was supposed to, while the rest were to stay at a distance. Not only did Moses do this once, but twice and on the second time he brought Aaron with him. They return just fine. It was after the second time that Moses returned from the mountain that the people had backed away. So what’s going on, the Israelites are terrified by this, and Moses (and Aaron) walk into this scene unscathed and seemingly fearlessly.

Eyes of the world vs Eyes of Faith

The difference is how Moses is seeing God and the people are seeing God. Moses looks upon the mountain with the Eyes of Faith, while the people look with the Eyes of the World. God descended upon the mountain, that His people might draw physically close. He knew they were a carnal people, and needed something “physical” to relate to Him. Out of His love He called them close to Him, but only as close as He knew would be good for them. Any closer and they might think that they we more spiritually advanced than they were. Remember Moses at the burning bush could only draw so close, only latter could he draw closer. So the Lord showed His people how close they could and should come to best help them be drawn even deeper into His love.

The people in turn, looked upon this all with the eyes of the world. Instead of seeing this as a chance to draw close to their beloved God, they fear for their lives. They saw what was happening in the world, and despaired for the harm that might happen to them. Instead of excepting the challenge of being close to God, they allowed cowardice into their hearts and back away from closeness with God. Instead of approaching God on His terms, they define the terms on which they will approach God.

We might say, how could they be so unfaithful. After all, didn’t they witness all the miracles that the Lord did for them in bringing them to this point? They saw the pillar or fire and smoke leading and protecting them. Yet, now they are afraid. But, don’t we do the same thing every time the Lord calls us to Himself and we don’t act upon it? Every time we feel that urge to love our neighbor and don’t, every time we feel that urge to grow deeper and take more seriously our faith and don’t, we take a single step back. Every time that the Lord calls us closer to Him and we decide otherwise, we are no better than the Israelites in the desert backing away from the mountain. How often have we thought not now Lord, or not this close Lord, or this is to challenging Lord.

The Lord calls each and everyone of us to a place near to Him. Where that might manifest itself might be a place that is difficult to stand. Yet, this is where the Lord wants us to stand and knows is best for us to stand. As we stand where the Lord desires, we will grow in love of Him and in turn will be drawn ever closer to the mountain. But, once we start adding qualifiers, once we start saying “yes but…” we back away from the Lord.

Let us turn to Moses as our example. Moses saw with the eyes of faith, and instead of seeing a terrible thing, he gazed longingly upon the beauty of his Lord. Moses walked confidently, guaranteed by faith, where the Lord directed him. In turn Moses was brought deep into the burning love of God. There, instead of being consumed unto destruction by flame, he was purified and returned radiate with the glory of God. So to the Lord longs to happen to us. He desires to draw us ever closer, that the glory of Christ might shine forth and so enlighten the world and rid it of darkness. May the Lord give us the eyes of faith that we might look upon where He calls us and not see destruction, but the beauty and glory of God.

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