Exodus 20 outlined the foundation of God’s covenant with the people in ten overarching, all-inclusive principles of relationship. Chapters 21-23 then further explored what living in God’s community would look like, all focused on how the people were to interact and behave toward each other. God essentially had to start from scratch with the Hebrews, teaching a depraved, ignorant slave nation rules for maintaining relationships. And now, in Exodus 24, we find the formal ratification, or bi-party agreement, to this covenant.
Yet, this is not actually a new covenant at all. It is, in fact, the same covenantal promise that God made with Abram back in Genesis 15, where God demonstrated His fanatical commitment to His pledge by acting as the sole party to pass through the sacrifice. Through this dramatic act, God was declaring that He would come through on His promise no matter what, even if it cost Him His own life! (See our Stepping Stones study on “Genesis 15: The Covenant.”) The ratification of the covenant in Exodus 24, therefore, is actually meant to remind the people of the covenant that already exists. They are the people of the promise, in spite of the fact that they have forgotten.
The most important part of ratifying a covenant in the ancient Middle Eastern culture was the covenant meal. Sharing a meal together symbolized the acceptance of the agreement terms by both parties. It’s almost unbelievable that Moses and the elders of Israel are invited into God’s very Presence to partake in this sacred feast:
Then Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel climbed up the mountain. There they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there seemed to be a surface of brilliant blue lapis lazuli, as clear as the sky itself. And though these nobles of Israel gazed upon God, he did not destroy them. In fact, they ate a covenant meal, eating and drinking in his presence! (Exodus 24:9-11, NLT)
This is one of the most climactic moments of Scripture! What an awesome, overwhelming opportunity! And yet, as the reader, we are left frustrated with the limited description of the encounter. Here the elders of Israel are invited to gaze upon God, and the only description we get is of His feet?? What’s up with that? An insightful article helped me realize what is really going on here, however. Bob Deffinbaugh, in “The Magnificent Meal on Mt. Sinai,” points out the relationship between Exodus 24 and two other throne room visions which we find in Ezekiel 1 and Revelation 4. In Exodus 24, we are limited to a description of the sapphire foundation of God’s throne and God’s feet. In the next strategically-placed throne room vision in Ezekiel 1, we learn that there is a crystal firmament or expanse that acts as the floor of God’s throne. Therefore, in Exodus, 24, we get the idea that the elders are eating the covenant feast underneath this crystal firmament. Only God’s throne and feet are described because that’s all they could see. But in Ezekiel’s vision, the prophet gets to peer above that crystal floor. He describes more of God, but his view is limited, focusing vaguely on the waist up and the waist down. Finally, in Revelation 4, John who is called up to heaven gets the most complete picture yet! (Just read Revelation 4:2-8 sometime.) What a beautiful progression! You see, just as there is a greater and greater unveiling of God’s plan of salvation throughout Scripture, so there is also an ever-increasing revelation of the throne and the One who sits upon it.
Now, reading about all these visions made me start wondering whether we ever find a description of God’s face as He sits upon the throne. After searching through my handy Bible app, I found that, not surprisingly, we don’t ever get a description of the Father’s actual face. BUT, you know where my very lasts search hit took me? Revelation 22:4-5. The very last chapter of the Bible. It says this: “And they will see his face, and his name will be written on their foreheads. And there will be no night there-no need for lamps or sun–for the Lord God will shine on them. And they will reign forever and ever” (NLT). Wow, what an amazing realization! You see, in some ways the story of the Bible ends in a cliff-hanger. We read from Genesis to Revelation, and we never get a complete description of what God looks like, what it’s really like to be in His Presence. But then, when we get to Revelation 22:4, we realize that WE in fact are the ones who will get to finish the story someday! It’s a moment, an encounter, that simply cannot be described in words. We will just have to wait and experience it for ourselves.
Getting back to Exodus, we next learn that, after the covenant meal is finished, Moses alone is called up to the top of the mountain to receive the tablets of the covenant from God’s hand: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain.’ …Then Moses climbed up the mountain, and the cloud covered it. And the glory of the Lord settled down on Mount Sinai” (verses 8, 15-16). As the reader, we’re sort of left hanging here again. Moses is finally invited into God’s glorified Presence, and we can’t wait to read what this experience will be like! Disappointingly, however, the perspective of the account suddenly shifts to that of the people: “To the Israelites at the foot of the mountain, the glory of the Lord appeared at the summit like a consuming fire” (verse 17). This is all we’re told: “Then Moses disappeared into the cloud as he climbed higher up the mountain. He remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights.” That’s it? But I want to know what Moses did for forty entire days! (Besides writing down the instructions for the sanctuary, of course.) Was He just standing around and camping out? That’s where another very insightful article helped shed some light on this experience. When Exodus 24:15-16 says that the cloud of God’s glory “rested” or “abode” on the mountain, the word used is “shakan.” This word root is where we also find the concept of God’s “Shekinah glory” which would, of course, later abide in the tabernacle. Author Chaim Bentorah shares that the first two Hebrew letters here (Shin and Kap) form a dual root which carries the idea of rest. The third letter (Nun) speaks to the concept of faith, fertility, productivity, and is even used in the context of sexual intimacy (Biblical Hebrew Studies ). This insight gives amazing depth of understanding into what God’s Shekinah Presence is all about. It’s the combined ideas of Sabbath rest and complete emotional and psychological intimacy! So what was Moses doing up on the mountain for forty days? He and God were simply being together, enjoying each other’s company. Moses was able to complete rest in God’s love and bask in the experience of total, unrestricted intimacy–knowing God and being known by God… Completely vulnerable, and yet, completely safe.
But you know what the most amazing part of the story is? At the end of forty days, Moses is told to go back down the mountain. Why? To make a tabernacle so that this same Shekinah Presence of the LORD could dwell among the people! That’s the mind-blowing twist to the story. You see, the chapter starts out by dramatically delineating the distance, the gaping rift, between God and the people. God is holy. The people are not. Therefore, one would logically conclude that they (that is, “we”) simply cannot exist in His Presence. But, all along, God had a master plan–a plan that would finally allow Him to live again among His people.
God called Moses up for the purpose of sending him back down. The top of Mount Sinai had become the most holy place on earth because God had settled there. God called Moses into this holy place and then told him to go down and make a holy place at the bottom of the mountain. God singled Moses out from the people, but then sent him back to the people, that God might not just meet with Moses but dwell among the whole people.
Moses was granted this indescribable mountaintop experience of God, but the whole purpose behind it was to make a valley dwelling place for God. Moses is not supposed to stay on the mountain. Moreover, Yahweh has no intention or desire to stay on the mountain. Yahweh seeks to dwell among the people. Moses was called up to go down to make a place for Yahweh to dwell. Moses was called high to make a low place for Yahweh to be Present.
(Steve Rodeheaver, Exodus Devotionals)