So, this happened on top of Sinai according to the book of Exodus.
Ex. 24:9 Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up 10 and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky. 11 But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.
Before they climbed that mountain the whole community was involved in elaborate preparations, not just those who actually got to make the journey. Some of the community would get to see God, but everyone needed to prepare.
In Zornberg’s book Moses: A Human Life, she asks a rather obvious question about those verses quoted above. But it was one that had never occurred to me: did they actually see the God of Israel or merely what was under his feet? What a great question.
Because it seems to me that even if we allow that the text indicates they actually saw God, how come we get a detailed description of the pavement he was standing on, which is the least interesting part of the vision surely?
Zornberg points the reader to a midrash which links the lapis lazuli bricks in the pavement to the bricks without straw that the Israelites made in slavery. This is possible because the Hebrew word translated as ‘pathway’ in the NIV is the same word used in Exo 5:7 for the bricks they were ordered to make by the Pharaoh. The vision was a sign to them that throughout the slavery in Egypt God was, as it were, enslaved with them. She writes:
The midrash associates the sapphire brick not with sublime, ineffable realities but with the bricks of Israelite slave labour. God identifies so totally with Israelite trauma—he was with them in their suffering—that this identification becomes a dimension of His being. He contemplates the brick and is constantly reminded of Israel’s suffering. What Moses and the elders see is that God is implicated in the Israelite history of trauma and redemption.
I’m struck by the notion that God’s identification with suffering becomes a dimension of his person. His being with them becomes part of his being, his essence, and is reflected back to them in this ineffable way. This fact surprises the elders so much that they tell only of the path God walked and not what God looked like. That makes sense to me.
As Christians we celebrate it every Christmas. God is with us. It’s in the name!
Zornberg goes on to say:
The effect of this midrash is unexpected. Instead of a vision of the transcendent God, Moses and the elders have seen something of God’s associative process, as it were: the process that leads him to identify with human suffering.
Renowned Jewish scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg is leading a seminar for Corrymeela on 5 September in the Connor Lecture Theatre at Ulster University Belfast Campus at 7pm. Her writings on Genesis and Exodus are startling and challenging and I’ve quoted her countless times over the years, including on this blog. The seminar title is “Trauma, Resilience and Remembering: Reading Moses in the Context of Conflict.” Tickets for the event are available HERE.