Sacred Dance #3: (Partially) Hidden Glory

Exodus 33 and 34 tell the story of the Ten Commandments. Most of us are familiar with the basic mechanics of the story – Moses goes onto the Mountain and is given tablets that have the commandments inscribed on them. He then takes them down off of the mountain to the people.

Its a powerful story, but an important element is often missing from the picture.

While he is on the mountain, the ever-hesitant Moses asks for some type of “evidence” he can show the people that he has, in fact, had an encounter with God. To satisfy this request, something very interesting happens.

I will cause all my goodness to pass before you, God tells Moses, and I will say my name. But, warns God, Moses mustn’t look at his face, for Moses would not survive the encounter if this were to happen.

Notice that God isn’t exactly saying that I will pass before you. The promise is more like this: I will disclose something about myself to you – my goodness – in ways that ordinary people cannot see it. But even then, he warns, we will need to take precautions.

God then places Moses in the cleft of a rock and covers Moses with his hand as his face passes by. Moses is able to observe only the back of the Almighty. This single experience, however, is enough to “mark” Moses’ countenance with the glory of God, in satisfaction of Moses’ request for “evidence” of his encounter with the divine.

To borrow from last week’s post, God opened the window blind a little more than usual, but most of it still remained closed.

Interestingly enough, even thought Moses had little more than the “residue” of God’s goodness on his person, the people could hardly stand to look at it. They were terrified. We are told that Moses was forced to wear a veil to hide the glory that had marked him.

The biblical witnesses are relentlessly consistent on this point: be careful about asking to know God, because you might not be able to bear what you “see.”

When the prophet is taken into the presence of God in Isaiah 6, he immediately recognizes and declares his unworthiness and that of his entire people. When shepherds encounter angels – mere messengers from God – in the early chapters of Luke’s gospel, they tremble and are afraid. Saul of Tarsus, we are told, is blinded and instantly convicted of his wrongdoing, when he is brought into the presence of the resurrected Jesus. John of Patmos, who wrote the Revelation, has a similar experience when he catches a glimpse of the risen Jesus.

When the writer of the gospel of John sat down to pen his account of the life of Jesus, he wanted a way to explain why, if God’s son had come into the world, so many people had rejected him – going even so far as to kill him. John repeatedly put it this way: light has come into the darkness of our world, but some people preferred the darkness. The uncomfortable glare of the light, good and right though it may be, was simply too much for them.

A couple of posts back, I posed the question “Does God play hide and seek?”

The answer, I think, is “yes.” And God may even do so out, at times, of playful capriciousness. But, in asking ourselves why God would do something like this, it is probably best not to focus too much on God’s motives. Instead, a more useful question may be this:

Are we ready to know God?

The biblical witnesses suggest that the answer may be “no,” – and that it our readiness for God’s presence that will ultimately determine just how open the window blinds will be.

More to come.

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