They saw the God of Israel
I have read Exodus 24 before. I know I have. Several times, in fact. But somehow I have never noticed this section before. It comes in the middle of lots of laws, and I suspect I have always just glossed over them - or my eyes have glazed over and my mind wandered as I ‘read’.
I only noticed it this time because I spotted Joshua coming down the mountain with Moses in the golden calf episode, when I was sure it was Aaron who had gone up it. I scanned back through the chapters and eventually came to this one (there was a lot more ascending and descending the mountain than I realised!).
This chapter begins with God telling Moses to bring Aaron and two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, up the mountain, with seventy of the elders of Israel. But he tells them the others must not come too close - only Moses may approach.
Moses goes back down, tells everyone what God has been saying, writes down the laws he has given so far, then builds and altar and makes sacrifices on it. He sprinkles (or splashes) both the altar and the people with the blood of the sacrifices - the blood of the covenant, then ascends the mountain again with his brother, his nephews and the elders.
I’m sure they did keep their distance - in chapter 19 even the priests weren’t allowed to set foot on the smoky, fiery, shaking, thundering, trumpeting mountain, and in chapter 20 the people were afraid to go anywhere near it. Yet wherever they were, this passage is quite clear, “they saw the God of Israel”.
They saw him and lived.
Not only did they live, but they sat (presumably) in his presence and ate and drank with him!
I’ve recently been writing about the significance of food in the Bible, of meals, in particular. When God freed his people from slavery to the Egyptians, he gave them a meal to mark the occasion with. When Jesus made a new covenant with his people on the night he was betrayed, he gave them a meal to mark the occasion with, and ate it with them. And here is another meal eaten to mark a covenant. It seems probable that they were eating the meat they had sacrificed earlier that day. That would be consistent with similar meals before the Lord, outlined in Deuteronomy.
There are also two other occasions cross-referenced in my Study Bible - Exodus 18:12 and Genesis 31:54 - where people sat and ate together (though eating specifically bread on those occasions) as a way of making a ‘peace pact’ between two parties. I wonder if something similar is happening here.
A resource from Our Daily Bread that explains what the sacrament of communion is all about, says:
Even today in Arab cultures, there is a phrase, ‘There is bread and salt between us’ which shows a special loyalty between host and guest. To betray your host after sharing their bread (as Judas did in John 13:18) was the worst possible insult, and showed a shameful lack of integrity.
The upshot is that two parties eating from one piece of bread made strangers—or even enemies—into friends.
The Exodus passage doesn’t specifically mention bread, but it is clearly a meal that affirms a covenant, that speaks of loyalty between host and guest, that takes those who were once enemies and makes them friends. And it is eaten in the actual presence of God.
What an incredible event! And not one I have ever heard preached on. I’ve heard about Moses seeing God’s back, and Jacob wrestling with ‘a man’ and realising in the morning that he has seen God and lived, and Isaiah seeing God in a vision - how is this passage not as familiar as those?!
Also, I’ve been chatting with my mum about it on Twitter, and she pointed out that this was the same Nadab and Abihu who later offered ‘unauthorised fire’ before the Lord and were killed because of it (Leviticus 10:1-3). Another link to Judas - even those who sit in the closest communion with the Lord, eating and drinking of the sacrifices with him, are not immune from falling away.
So much richness in three little verses hiding in plain sight in the middle of Exodus. How amazing. And that’s without even mentioning the fact that God’s glory was so inexpressible that all they were able to put into words was what the floor was like!
Yet more amazing still is the passage in Hebrews 12 that points back to these chapters. It says that we have not come to such a blazing, shaking, tempestuous, terrifying mountain, but we have come to:
Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
We don’t simply get a day of feasting in God’s presence, but by the blood of the once-and-for-all sacrifice, we are already in God’s presence - we have come to Mount Zion; we are where he is. When we eat our communion meal in celebration and affirmation of the covenant, we are eating it in his presence. We may, for now, only be able to see what his feet are resting on, but that is glory enough. One day we will see that pavement of sapphire, as clear as the heavens, but for now, let us
Exalt the Lord our God;
[and] worship at his footstool!
Holy is he!