15 November 2014

Exodus 19:1-25

“You shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Be careful not to go up the mountain or to touch the edge of it. Any who touch the mountain shall be put to death.’” (v. 12)


Through history people have tried to make sense of their surroundings and, humanly, we seem to feel that there is more to life than just our earthbound existence. Bookshelves lined with body, mind and spirit titles witness to this in our age. For the wandering people of Israel in the time of Moses this was no different. Something else, allied perhaps to a sense of awe, is the feeling that God is above us in spatial terms. So we feel near to God in the mountains. And this is where we begin.

The people are at the foot of Mount Sinai. What is confusing is the description of the mountain clouded with fire, smoke and danger. This sounds like an active volcano, and some geologists suggest that this might better site the biblical Mount Sinai in Saudi Arabia than in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Be that as it may, it should not disturb what the story tells us of the developing faith of the Hebrew people. What it does do is to explain the description of the mountain that we find in Exodus.

Now none of this should surprise us as the ancients, every bit as much as we today, needed to rationalise their faith in relation to their experience. It is rather like us trying to make sense of a tsunami while worshipping a God of love. And so this embryonic faith was developing in a context of geological activity which was, naturally, attributed to God and began to give shape to belief. Here is 'El Shaddai', the mountain God, the God of destructive power.

Positively this reminds us that God is beyond our capacity to contain or understand. The downside is that we see God as remote and, worse, we set boundaries around God so that only the pure or priestly can approach. "The people are not permitted to come up to Mount Sinai" (v. 23): this attitude can still pervades the Church today as we fence the sacraments and sometimes seek to elevate the ministry above the laity.

To Ponder

  • Do you ever underestimate God's power? How does this affect your faith and life?
  • How do you think the Church puts up barriers between people and God? How might we break these down, or even better avoid building them in the first place?

Bible notes author

The Revd Andrew Pratt

Andrew is a Methodist supernumerary presbyter, Honorary Research Fellow at Luther King House, Manchester, and author. He has written over 1,300 hymns.