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Shemot/Exodus 33:21 And the L-rd said, "Behold [there is] a place with Me; and you shall stand on the rock."
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These words come as part ofHaShem's response to Moshe who has asked to see His glory. "You cannot see My face," HaShem replies, "but I will cause My goodness to pass before you while you are a cleft of the rock and you may see My back." Umberto Cassuto1 offers a simple confirmation: "A place known to Me, where it is suitable for you to hide and you shall station yourself at that place on the rock", while Rashi too seems to confirm the straightforward meaning of the words: "On the mountain where I always speak with you, there is a place ready for Me for your need, where I will hide you so that you shall not be harmed; this is its simple meaning." But even those comments seem to raise more questions that they answer. Why is the place particularly known to HaShem? How can Moshe hide and yet stand on the rock? Why is the place ready for Moshe? How are we to understand this? Over the years, many of the commentators have tried to provide answers.
Targum Onkelos, in the usual fear of anthropomorphism or appearing to cross that unbridgeable gap between man and G-d who is completely 'other', extends the text to read, "a place prepared before Me", inserting 'prepared' and 'before' to lessen the possibility of mistaking this place as an area in close proximity to the deity. Hirsch, on the other hand, spiritualises the text: "Moshe is not to try and get a sight of G-d, but, elevated by G-d and godliness, to look at men from G-d's point of view." He puts these words in G-d's mouth: "Not at Me, nor up to Me, next to Me is the stand-point you are to take to look at things, place yourself high up on the rock, look down on the earth from the height to get a glimpse of the earth, a glimpse of understanding the mighty guidance of G-d in human conditions."
TheSforno takes a different tack, explaining that this was "a place ready for the vision of G-d, as our Sages say regarding the cave wherein Moshe and Elijah stood. This cave is one of the ten things created at twilight on the sixth day". This is a reference to the Babylonian Talmud: "Our Rabbis taught: Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath at twilight, and these are they: the well, manna, the rainbow, the writing2, the writing instruments, the tablets, the sepulchre of Moshe and the cave in which Moshe and Elijah stood, the opening of the ass's mouth, and the opening of the earth's mouth to swallow up the wicked. While some say, also Aaron's staff, its almonds and its blossoms" (b. Pesachim 54a). The ancient rabbis maintained that the supernatural elements that appear in the Torah were actually created during the time of creating the world and held in abeyance until they were needed.
Other Sages wanted to know why one of G-d's names is HaMakom - The Place. "Rabbi Huna said in Rabbi Ammi's name: Why do we give a changed name to the Holy One, blessed be He, and call him 'the Place'? Because He is the Place of the world [The world is contained in Him, not He in the world]. Rabbi Jose ben Halafta said: We do not know whether G-d is the place of His world or whether His world is His place, but from the verse, Behold, there is a place with Me (Shemot 33:21, our text), it follows that the L-rd is the place of His world, but His world is not His place. Rabbi Isaac said: It is written, The eternal God is a dwelling place (D'varim 33:27): now we do not know whether the Holy One, blessed be He, is the dwelling-place of His world or whether His world is His dwelling-place. But from the text, L-rd, You have been our dwelling-place (Psalm 90:1), it follows that the L-rd is the dwelling-place of His world but His world is not His dwelling-place." We cannot speak of G-d being in a place, rather that He is the place.
Richard Elliott Friedman is more concerned with relationship than a precise physical explanation of the text. He points to the verse where G-d tells Moshe, "Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink" (Shemot 17:6), and comments that "Earlier, in the episode of the water from the rock, G-d stands on the crag of Horeb, while Moshe stands opposite. But now, Moshe stands on the crag with G-d. Whatever this means physically, it shows Moshe moving close to G-d." This is important, as it shows G-d inviting mankind to stand beside Him, to appear in His presence; it betokens relationship and a way of living with G-d in closeness.
The use of the word 'place' in this text is interesting. It occurs in over 800 verses in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. If we follow Onkelos' choice of adding 'prepare' to his translation of the text, that reduces the list to just two other places where 'prepare' and 'place' occur together. The first is an instruction that G-d gives the prophet Ezekiel: "As for you, son of man, prepare for yourself an exile's baggage, and go into exile by day in their sight. You shall go like an exile from your place to another place in their sight" (Ezekiel 12:3, ESV). Here, Ezekiel is to pack just a small set of essential items, such as exile might be permitted to take with him and which he could carry on a long journey. He is told to leave his own place, where he is currently located, and travel as an exile would, to another place. He is to dig a hole in the wall of his house and creep out at dusk, yet in full sight of the people so that he will be asked what he is doing. The preparations and the travel - even if only a very short distance - are to teach the people the lesson that Jerusalem and all its inhabitants are going to be sent into exile, fleeing from their houses with just what they can carry. They are to be sent, with the minimum of preparation, from their homes to a place of exile. During the exile, they will have the time and opportunity to make that place of exile a place where G-d is remembered and worshiped, even though it is not in the Land.
The other place where the words 'prepare' and 'place' occur in the same text is in Yeshua's words to the disciples at the Last Supper. He has washed their feet and told them that He is going to go away; they are distressed and want to know where He is going. He replies, "In My Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to Myself, that where I am you may be also" (John 14:2-3, ESV). Presumably such a place did not exist at the time Yeshua spoke, because He says that He is going in order to prepare that place. Yet at the same time, there are many rooms in the Father's house - is it that they need to be prepared for the disciples (and us)? Once again, connecting with Ezekiel's instructions, there is preparation and travelling: Yeshua went there - to that place - from here; we will be with Him, there, in the Father's house, not here.
Avraham left his place - his home, his family, his country - and answered G-d's call to travel to the land of Canaan. The book of Hebrews tells us that Avraham, his son Yitzkhak and grandson Ya'akov, lived in tents as travelling nomads in the Land of promise, surrounded by their familiar "place" of home, yet always moving on, because Avraham "was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is G-d" (Hebrew 11:10, ESV). He knew there was more than bricks and mortar, more than material possessions and land to occupy and rule; he knew that he was on a journey with G-d, travelling onwards to the place where G-d has called him. He traveled with G-d, for he was already in a place of obedience and blessing.
Yeshua left His place - in heaven - and became incarnate in human flesh, pitching His tent with mankind so that he might partake in the journey that led through the cross to the place of exaltation by the Father, being given the name above every name and raised to the highest possible place before G-d. He travelled light, walking in obedience and humility, fulfilling the plan of the Father and setting His face towards Jerusalem. He became the rock on which we stand and our strong tower against the storms and tempests of this life; our lighthouse against the darkness, wind and waves in which we are immersed each day.
We too are called to make preparations: for Yeshua's return, for the day when He will judge the earth and all its peoples. We also prepare our own journey, walking with Yeshua, who has promised never to leave us. We have our place here, our 'home' in this world, of which we are to be good stewards while all the time holding it lightly and being prepared to move on to the place that Yeshua has prepared for us in the Father's house. We look for the restoration of all things, the repair and release of creation and the rule of Yeshua as king of Israel and L-rd of the universe.
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983, 965-223-456-7
2. - "the writing, the writing instruments and the tablets" are the tablets and the fixings for the Ten Words written on two tablets that HaShem gave to Moshe during his first first day period on Mt. Sinai.
Further Study: Psalm 91:1-4; John 14:18-23
Application: Are you secure in the place that G-d has given you? Do you spend time with Him, in Messiah, in the place next to His presence, standing on the rock? Press on and never give up, seeking always to get closer and knowing Him better, for this is our calling and privilege in Yeshua!
© Jonathan Allen, 2014
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