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Shemot/Exodus 19:20 Adonai came down upon Mt. Sinai, to the top of the mountain
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The authors of theMekhilta are puzzled about the apparent contradiction between this verse and 20:19 where HaShem reminds Moshe and the people that "You yourselves have seen that I have spoken to you from heaven" (NASB): did HaShem speak from heaven or the top of the mountain? They answer by suggesting that HaShem somehow bent the heavens, like a mattress on a bed, to enable Him to speak to Moshe at the top of the mountain without leaving the heavens. After using the verse "The heavens are the heavens of the L-RD; but the earth He has given to the sons of men" (Psalm 115:16, NASB) to show that heaven and earth cannot mix: "Rabbi Jose stated, Neither did the Shechinah ever descend to earth, nor did Moses or Elijah ever ascend to Heaven" (b. Sukkah 5a), the Sages of the Talmud are very precise, asserting that the heavens came to a distance of ten handbreadths of the summit of the mountain; they also link this to the verse "in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives" (Zechariah 14:4, NASB), claiming that the L-rd's feet will also rest ten handbreadths above the ground. Scholars suggest that this claim is probably an attempt to counter the idea of Yeshua's ascension to heaven as described in Acts 1.
Ibn Ezra is indignant that the readers should imagine HaShem actually being on the mountain. He says, "The L-rd came down: The spirit, which is not a body cannot be said to 'come down' or 'go up'. How much less so the L-rd, who is G-d of the spirits of all flesh! The text is speaking of the Presence of G-d, the Shekhinah" (Carasik).Targum Onkelos shares the same concerns, paraphrasing the text to read, "The L-rd was revealed upon the mountain of Sinai on the top of the mountain." Nachmanides adds, "If you gain enlightenment about this passage, you will understand that His great name came down upon the mountain and dwelt there in fire, and it was this that spoke with Moshe." All these commentators are trying to avoid the plain meaning of the text that G-d Himself was actually present, in some kind of physical manifestation, on the mountain, talking with Moshe. Scholars suggest that this way of interpreting this verse and similar passages that refer to G-d as if He might have human form, is a deliberate choice made by Rabbinic Judaism in order to distance themselves from believers in Yeshua.
In the twelfth century,Maimonides proposed thirteen principles of Jewish faith which include as the third: ", I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His name, is not physical, that no physical attributes can be applied to Him, and that there is nothing whatsoever to compare to Him." (ADP). Although the principles were originally widely resisted and have never been totally accepted by the whole of world Jewry, still being contested by many academics today, they have gained a significant position within Jewish orthodoxy. They are present at the start of the Shacharit prayer service in the poem known as the Yigdal, , containing the words, "He has neither bodily form nor substance" and are recited by some at the end of the service after the Ten Commandments.
By contrast, it is a cornerstone of our faith that Yeshua the Messiah of Israel came not only as a human being, but communicated G-d's message of love and righteousness in a unique and final form: "Long ago, at many times and in many ways, G-d spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed the heir of all things, through whom also He created the world" (Hebrews 1:1-2, ESV). The Psalmist prophesies that "Sacrifice and burnt offerings You did not desire, but a body You have prepared for Me" (Psalm 40:6, Septuagint) and "For You will not abandon My soul to Sheol, or let Your holy one see corruption" (Psalm 16:10, ESV) seems not only to apply to a physical body but cannot apply to David, to whom the psalm is attributed, since David clearly died and was buried.
However strange it may seem, or however strongly resisted by others, we have in the pages of the Scriptures the classic three-step pattern used today by teachers, educators, consultants and marketing people the world over: tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you have just told them.
In a consistent thread, from the very earliest chapters of the Torah, through Israel's history and the words of the prophets, G-d made sure to tell our people what He was about to do. For example, the Servant Songs - three or four passages in the book of Isaiah - portray the mission and life of G-d's Messiah, the one who was to come to save not just Israel but all who would acknowledge Him. Although the texts had an immediate application and meaning to the original hearers of Isaiah's words, in his time, successive generations recognised that the text had an enduring meaning yet to come. The Midrash Tanhuma from the ninth century and the later Yalqut Shimeoni say that "this is the King, the Messiah, who will rise and be greatly exalted, higher than Abraham, greater than Moses, above the worshipping angels."
The Gospels then tell us the first-hand, eyewitness accounts1 of Yeshua's life and earthly ministry. They recount the many miracles that He performed, demonstrating the power of the Kingdom of G-d breaking through into the world of His time: "We know that G-d doesn't listen to sinners; but if anyone fears G-d and does his will, G-d does listen to him. In all history no one has ever heard of someone's opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from G-d, he couldn't do a thing!" (John 9:31-33, CJB). They record the way that He taught with authority - "They were amazed at the way He taught, because His word carried the ring of authority" (Luke 4:32, CJB) - and maintained and interpreted the Torah and the prophets "Don't think that I have come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete. Yes indeed! I tell you that until heaven and earth pass away, not so much as a yud or a stroke will pass from the Torah- not until everything that must happen has happened" (Matthew 5:17-18, CJB). They relate the way even His Roman executioners saw him: "And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way He breathed His last, he said, 'Truly this man was the Son of G-d!'" (Mark 15:39, ESV).
Acts and the letters then report how the news of Yeshua was received and spread around the Jewish communities in the Diaspora, to the G-d-fearers and then into the surrounding Gentile population. We hear the words of the twelve disciples: "This man was arrested in accordance with G-d's predetermined plan and foreknowledge; and, through the agency of persons not bound by the Torah, you nailed Him up on a stake and killed Him! But G-d has raised Him up and freed Him from the suffering of death; it was impossible that death could keep its hold on Him" (Acts 2:23-24, CJB), the words of Rav Sha'ul: "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of G-d, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me" (Galatians 2:20, NASB), and the vision of John whose eyes saw that which is yet still to come: "And I saw heaven opened; and behold, a white horse, and He who sat upon it is called Faithful and True; and in righteousness He judges and wages war. And His eyes are a flame of fire, and upon His head are many diadems; and He has a name written upon Him which no one knows except Himself. And He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood; and His name is called The Word of G-d. And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. And from His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may smite the nations; and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of G-d, the Almighty. And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, 'KING OF KINGS, AND L-RD OF LORDS'" (Revelation 19:11-16, NASB).
Should we be surprised, then, at the statement in the original text: G-d came down upon the mountain? No, for Yeshua - the Son of G-d - came in the flesh and shared our life and the human experience, so that He might uniquely bridge between G-d and man, reconciling man to G-d. Truly this was fire on the mountain.
1 - See particularly "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: the Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony", Richard Bauckham, Eerdmans 2006, 0802831621 for an outstanding and contemporary presentation of the case for the Gospels being authentic eye-witness accounts and documents.
Further Study: Nehemiah 9:13-15; 1 John 4:2-3
Application: Are you ever taken in by those who try to tell you that Yeshua was just a man, or that He just swooned on the cross? Don't let the enemy steal this key part of our faith; pick up your Bible today and start re-reading one of the Gospels and see afresh what G-d has done for us!
© Jonathan Allen, 2009
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