God-Awful Terror on the Mount

We see with our mind’s eye Israel before the mountain on the morning of the third day. The atmosphere was charged unlike any approaching storm in the natural order. Indeed, the heights were shrouded in billowing clouds of smoke produced by the fiery presence of divine glory, of uncreated light. The thunder and lightning accompanying the cloud were not natural either, for they were not the result of weather conditions, but of transcendence coming into contact with the temporal. Along with this was a blaring noise likened to a trumpet blast, but so eerie, weird, and oppressively loud that all in the camp trembled (19:16). Because of YHWH’s immensity and sheer force of being, nothing on earth, heaven or hell, is even remotely more terrifying than His holy presence to sinful and fallen humanity.

Yet we see that this God of infinite immensity desires to become intimate with humanity. Moses brings the people of Israel out of camp to the base of the mountain for the purpose that they would believe Moses forever (19:9, 17). As the people drew near and Moses began to speak to YHWH, the supernatural phenomena intensified and the mountain itself began to quake (19:18). YHWH calls Moses up to the top of the mountain with the specific intention of commanding him to warn the people not to break the boundaries at the base of the mountain, should any be drawn to pass beyond and gaze upon YHWH’s glory. It is certainly a strange moment for Moses to remind God that He had already warned the people before (v. 23), yet this little instance of presumption serves to highlight’s YHWH’s compassion for the people who as yet have no experience with approaching the Holy. YHWH wants to make doubly sure that the people, and even the priests, do not break the boundaries.

Why is this? The answer is given in verses 22 and 24; lest YHWH “break out” against them. The language here with the Hebrew word “break out” (Heb. pāraṣ) is very sharp, even violent. We might even say that YHWH would “go berserk,” unleashing destruction in a flash of uncontrolled rage, much like warriors do in the heat of the battle. We must be careful here. It is not that YHWH is like humanity in its violence and rage. Rather, it has everything to do with YHWH’s unapproachable holiness. By virtue of just being who He is humanity cannot approach Him. For intimacy to happen, boundaries must be set and carefully observed. If boundaries are broken, death is the natural result. This is exactly what YHWH does not want to happen.

We might not like this feature of the divine. We would perhaps prefer a benign deity that is more approachable on our own terms, something like a gentle old grandfather that does not get stirred up very easily. But the God of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is all fire and passion, the fire of love and holiness that burns away all that is unholy in us, and yet purifies and preserves all that is worthy. Human life is more precious to God than it is to us, for He is the Creator, and sees in all of us His divine image, something we do not always readily see. Yet He will take life when it breaks its boundaries, for God hates the presumption which breaks and redefines boundaries as if we are ultimate. God cannot change who He is; it is left to us to conform to the reality of His immensity and holiness.

Thunder and lightning is often associated with theophanic encounter in the Bible. We have a little western highland terrier. When thunder rolls over us, she is beside herself in fear, trembles as if she was about to die, with no appreciation for the noise whatsoever. As I observe her, it is clear that she has no capacity at all for the numinous, the mysterium tremendum. When I hear the thunder, my soul is thrilled with awe and a touch of terror. There is something in my soul that is receptive to the terror of God, and this has, no doubt, something to do with the fact that I am made in His image. Our souls simply cannot be satisfied with the explainable, the predictable, and the common. We have the capacity for the holy, the exciting, the thrilling, the unpredictable, yes, even the terrifying, in short, for YHWH Himself.

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