9 Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, 10 and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. 11 And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.
12 The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and wait there, that I may give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” 13 So Moses rose with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. 14 And he said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we return to you. And behold, Aaron and Hur are with you. Whoever has a dispute, let him go to them.”
15 Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 The glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. 17 Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18 Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights. – Exodus 24:9-18 ESV
After completing the ratification ceremony, Moses and his 73 companions made their way to the top of Mount Sinai, where they “they beheld God, and ate and drank” (Exodus 24:11 ESV). Over the centuries, these verses have confounded many Jews and Christians alike because they seem to contradict other Scriptures that deny man’s ability to look upon the face of God.
Later in the book of Exodus, Moses asks for permission to see the glory of God, and God responds by accommodating his request but with conditions.
“I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” – Exodus 33:19-23 ESV
Yet the prophet, Isaiah, claims to have seen the Lord.
“I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.” – Isaiah 6:1 ESV
And Isaiah was shaken by the significance of his encounter with the Almighty.
“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” – Isaiah 6:5 ESV
It is impossible to know exactly what Moses and Elijah saw, but both men were dramatically impacted by their experience. Elijah was struck by the weight of his own sinfulness, while Moses “immediately threw himself to the ground and worshiped” (Exodus 34:8 NLT).
The apostle John muddies the waters even further when he seems to categorically deny man’s capacity to look upon God. According to John, it was not until the incarnation of Jesus that humanity was able to gaze upon the glory of God.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. – John 1:14, 18 ESV
So, what happened that day on Mount Sinai? What exactly did Moses and the other men see? The text explicitly says, “they saw the God of Israel” (Exodus 24:10 ESV), and then it adds, “under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness” (Exodus 24:10 ESV). This description echoes the one given by Ezekiel after the heavens were opened and he “saw visions of God” (Ezekiel 1:1 ESV).
And above the expanse over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance. And upward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were gleaming metal, like the appearance of fire enclosed all around. And downward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness around him. Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around.
Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking. – Ezekiel 1:26-28 ESV
Ezekiel states that what he saw was “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of God” (Ezekiel 1:28 ESV). It was as if he knew that he had been gazing at the manifestation of God’s glory and not God Himself. But the experience left him prostrate on the ground in abject awe and reverence.
But when it came to Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai, he clearly states that he and his companions “saw the God of Israel.” And then he adds a note of clarification.
And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel… – Exodus 24:11 ESV
Why did Moses include this statement? Could it be that he grasped the significance of the moment and understood that they were unworthy to stand before God? He seems to have known that God was too glorious and holy to be looked upon by mere men. Yet God did not strike them down. He graciously allowed these men to come before His presence and even dine with Him. This is in keeping with what God later said to Moses when he asked to see the Lord’s glory.
“I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” – Exodus 33:19 ESV
This entire encounter is described in just three verses. Few details are given. But it is meant to culminate the entire covenant ratification section. The law of God had been given, read, written down, and agreed to by the people. Now God sealed it by revealing Himself to the Israelite leadership. In doing so, He placed His divine approval on the covenant and demonstrated the gracious and merciful attitude He would show toward them.
We can only imagine how these men felt when they eventually had to part ways with God and make their way down the mountainside to the valley below. You would think that this once-in-a-lifetime encounter with God would have left them unalterably changed. But we know that the two sons of Aaron, who had joined their father on the mountaintop, would later commit an act that forced God to take their lives. Serving as priests alongside their father, “Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them” (Leviticus 10:1 ESV). As a result of their actions, “fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (Leviticus 10:2 ESV).
Perhaps their earlier glimpse of God had made them overconfident and a bit too comfortable in their role as His priests. After all, they had dined with God and lived to tell about it. This may have left them feeling too familiar with God and too self-assured for their own good. They neglected to remember that God put a high value on obedience, and their decision to offer “unauthorized fire” proved to have deadly consequences.
Sometime after the Israelite leaders had come down from the mountain, God commanded Moses to return. This time, he was accompanied by Joshua. Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the 70 elders were told to remain behind and care for the people in Moses’ absence.
God clearly explained the purpose of this latest trip up the mountain.
“Come up to me on the mountain and wait there, that I may give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” – Exodus 24:12 ESV
God had hand-written the Decalogue on tablets of stone. We know this from the book of Deuteronomy.
“And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments, and he wrote them on two tablets of stone. And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and rules, that you might do them in the land that you are going over to possess.” – Deuteronomy 4:13-14 ESV
The tablets of stone contained the Ten Commandments only. The Book of the Covenant was not included. But Moses had already made a written record of all those statutes and regulations. It is important to note that there were two tablets, not because God needed the additional space to contain all the ten commandments, but because He made two duplicate copies.
…he gave to Moses, when he had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God. – Exodus 31:18 ESV
These were covenant documents, one copy for each of the parties in the agreement, and they had been drawn up by God Himself. They even bore His handwriting. These were not man-made laws and they were not written on scrolls of papyrus. They were divine mandates from God Himself and engraved on tablets of stone. As such, they were to be viewed as binding and permanent.
Moses and Joshua made their way to the mountaintop, which was covered in a dark and foreboding storm cloud. As the leader of God’s people, Moses was required to enter the cloud of God’s presence and intercede with the Almighty. From the valley below, all the people could see was “a devouring fire on the top of the mountain” (Exodus 24:17 ESV). They knew this was a manifestation of God’s presence and power and it left them in a state of fear and awe.
But Moses was required to enter into this fearful storm and face the glory of God. For 40 days and 40 nights, Moses remained on the mountaintop as the people waited in the valley below. Ensconced in the cloud of God’s glory, Moses found himself in the presence of the Almighty and serving as a secretary to the Lord of the universe. He would spend the entire time on Mount Sinai recording further instructions from God regarding everything from the design of the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle to the institution of the priesthood and the Day of Atonement.
For the next seven chapters, Moses will painstakingly record all of God’s instructions. But as will become readily apparent, the people in the valley below soon lose interest in the events taking place high above them. They have no way of knowing what Moses is up to on the mountaintop. Their leader is nowhere to be found and it doesn’t take long before they become distracted and discomfited by his absence. And the contrast between chapters 25-30 and chapter 31 could not be any starker.
The mountaintop and the valley. In one place, God met with His servant and delivered His instructions for proper worship and reverence. But the people down below were far from God’s presence and safely distanced from His glory. They could see the storm cloud high above their heads but felt no immediate threat. Their leader was gone and their God was distant and difficult to ascertain. He was holy and in the midst of delivering His requirements for proper worship, but they had lost interest. Both God and Moses were out of sight, out of mind. And in their case, the old adage – distance makes the heart grow fonder – was far from applicable.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.