Light from the Sidra

Ki Tisa (when you take....)

Torah: Exodus 30:11-34:35.Haftarah:1 Kings 18:1-39

The Shining

I once came across this interesting observation: ‘Sometimes I wonder which is worse, a child afraid of the dark or a man afraid of the light.’

Film-makers like Steven Spielberg make effective use of light to create dramatic and sometimes ominous effects. I get scared when I’m driving at night along a dark, winding, country road and an oncoming car appears with headlights full on. As I’m blinded by the light, I’m always momentarily gripped by fear and inevitably breathe an involuntary sigh of relief after the road-hog has passed and darkness again descends.  

In Exodus 34, when Moses returns from a six-week sojourn with God at the top of Mount Sinai, the Israelites are terrified because his face is literally shining with the radiance of the glory of God.

After Moses’ returned from his first ascent of Sinai in chapter 32, carrying the two tablets of the law, he found the people dancing around a golden calf his own brother had made. Moses had been to the top of the mountain but he had to return to the valley, and the prospect of leading a rebellious, insubordinate rabble through the wilderness depressed him. The only thing that could sustain him would be a sight of the glory of God and, in desperation, he appealed to Yahweh to show him his glory.  

We tend to associate the glory of God with brilliant light, which is true, but the Hebrew word kavod (glory) means ‘weight’. The glory of God is far more than an ethereal, insubstantial glow but, in fact, God’s glory is the most weighty and solid thing in the universe. A glimpse of the kavod of God would give Moses something substantial to cling to throughout the wilderness wanderings.

God granted Moses’ request but in an unexpected way. He hid Moses in a crevice and passed by him pronouncing his ‘name’ which is his glory. God’s name reveals his glorious nature and character. To know the name of God is to know who and what he is. His name is his glory.

The LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed: 'The LORD, the LORD, God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth; keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation' (Ex 34:6,7).    

The ancient sages of Israel saw in this proclamation thirteen attributes of God.

Yahweh, Yahweh: ‘I am’. The God of Israel is the one reality of which we can be certain. Mankind is as frail and insubstantial as the grass of the field but Yahweh is.

El rachum ve channun: ‘a God merciful and gracious’.

Erekh appaim: ‘slow to anger’. God’s anger is a reality but the good news is that he is slow to anger.

Ve-ray chesed ve emet: ‘Great in steadfast covenant love and truthfulness.’ I recently heard Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, state that emet is not merely abstract ‘truth’; the Bible uses emet to express reliability and trustworthiness.

Notzer chesed la-alaphim: ‘keeping covenant love for thousands (of generations)’.

Nose avon ve pesha ve chatta’ah: ‘bearing crookedness and rebellion and failure’. Nose means more than forgiveness; it is the word used in Leviticus 16:22 to describe the scapegoat bearing the iniquities of Israel, and in Isaiah 53:4 to describe God’s righteous servant the Messiah bearing the sins of Israel.

Ve naqqeh lo yennaqqeh: ‘and will by no means clear (the guilty).’

What a glorious God! Moses would be assured from this encounter that in spite of the waywardness of the Israelites Yahweh, the only rock-solid, unchanging reality in the universe would remain trustworthy. He could be counted on to be merciful, gracious and faithful to his covenant while at the same time remaining just and righteous.

Moses spent forty days with the glorious of God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, during which he chisled the ten commandments into two new tablets of stone. When, six weeks later, he returned to the camp with the tablets, Moses was unaware that his face was radiant with the reflected glory of God. And it terrified the people.

If the reflected glory of God is terrifying, what must it be like to see God face to face? Little wonder that God says no one can see his face and live!

There is something glorious about the Torah because it was accompanied by glory. But it was a fading glory. Moses’ face did not continue to glow until the end of his life. The glory eventually faded away. The fact that the glory on the face of the mediator of the Torah faded, suggests that the glory of the law was a fading glory. A mediator and a new Torah possessed of even greater glory were to one day replace that which came with glory on Mount Sinai.

According to Jeremiah 31:31ff, God would institute a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, through which  he would put his Torah in their inward parts and write it in their hearts. Under the new covenant, he will truly be Israel’s God and they will truly be his people because he would forgive their iniquity, and no longer remember their sin.

Glorious though the covenant established at Sinai was, its fading glory could not compare with Messiah’s New Covenant through which the merciful, gracious, truthful and eternal glory of God would be manifest in all its fulness.

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