The Mystery of the Mountain - Reflections on Exodus 24:12-18
by Dr. John Holbert on Monday, February 13, 2023
The Mystery of the Mountain
I have long thought that Transfiguration Sunday was among the strangest celebrations of the church year. If it occurred closer to Halloween, it would be far more appropriate. Pity those poor disciples of Jesus! In Matthew’s version, right after Jesus has warned his followers that he is bound for the cross and that they should be ready to join him there to lose their lives in agony and humiliation, he then, six days later, drags the three insider disciples, Peter, James, and John, up a high mountain. Most obviously, Matthew, as is his usual gambit, is reminding his mainly Jewish readers and hearers that Jesus is nothing less than, and in this case and a good deal more than, the exalted Moses, law-giver, and deliverer of Judaism. After all, Jesus has been born of a virgin, unlike Moses, and like Moses has delivered a famous speech from a mountain. This is unlike Luke’s Jesus who gives his most famous sermon “on a plain.”
But instead of another spoken teaching, this time Matthew narrates that “he was transfigured before them, his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Mt.17:2). Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters? And then the scene becomes even weirder. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah show up at Jesus’s right and left hand, and the three worthies begin to chat! Peter, bless his terrified little heart, blurts out, “Lord, it is good for us to be here!” You might expect the apostle to take the drink orders and bring in some snacks! Instead, he says, “If you like, I will make three tents (dwellings), one for each of you” (Mt.17:4). When Mark tells this story, he adds that Peter was so scared that he just did not know what to say! But at the end of the tale, in all three synoptic recountings, after a huge voice has spoken from the cloud that descended on the mountain, announcing that Jesus is the beloved son of God, the frightened disciples look up from the ground and see only Jesus; Moses and Elijah have left the scene.
The stories from the Hebrew Bible that lie behind these New Testament tales may be found in two places from the book of Exodus: 24:12-18 and 34:29-35. This year’s lectionary offers the former for our perusal. Ex.24 appears at an unusual place in the ongoing text of Exodus. The narrative of Moses, from his birth to his maturity in Egypt to his decision to answer YHWH’s call from the bush to his defeat of the pharaoh to his leadership of the former slaves through the Sea of Reeds and the wilderness to the holy mountain, is suddenly stopped by a long cultic and legal section, Ex.20:22-23:33. The narrative then briefly picks up again at Ex.24:1-18. But then immediately, an even longer section speaks at exhausting length of how to build an ark of the covenant and other cultic bits (Ex.25-31). Exodus is hardly a book written by one person at one time! But a careful look at selected parts of it yields valuable insight.
At Ex.24, Moses, like Jesus later, calls selected followers to join him on a high mountain, this time the sacred hill of Sinai (or Horeb in another tradition). Though Moses asks Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and other elders of the people to come up the mountain, none of them want any part in drawing too close to the fiery top of the mountain, and the powerful God who apparently lives there. Yet, the text does say something quite astonishing: “Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and 70 of the elders went up, and they saw the God of Israel” (Ex.24:9-10). Rarely does the Hebrew text ever say that anyone actually sees God! But here 74 people are said to see God, and not one of them dies on the spot.
But then, Moses goes alone up the mountain to commune with God, leaving the elders, along with Aaron and Hur (not earlier named) to deal with any “disputes” among them that may arise. If we read on in the story, a hum-dinger of a dispute in fact arises (Ex.32), but Aaron not only cannot solve the dispute; he is in reality the fomenter of it! But back on the mountain, Moses alone “enters the cloud” on the mountain, and remains there for the familar biblical number of days, namely forty days and nights (Ex.24:18), apparently communing with God. The onus of divine communication is plainly on Moses, both here and in the later Ex.34, when he exits the tent after a divine chat with his face glowing with the experience.
One can easily see the tokens in Exodus of the later Jesus story of transfiguration: clouds and fire and divine voice. Also, the followers can only go so far with the leader to confront God; the leader must speak for them when God needs communication with the people. And in the New Testament, Jesus plainly is superior both to Elijah, the bringer of divine justice to the people, and to Moses, the savior of the people and the bringer of the Torah. Jesus, according to the writers of the Gospels is not only the savior of the people and the bringer of the new law of the Beatitudes, but he is nothing less than the son of God, as the voice from the cloud makes plain. Matthew may imagine that his portrayal of the transfiguration scene will convince his Jewish readers that Jesus is in fact a better Moses than the one they have long known; I cannot speak to that concern. But I can say that the transfiguration of Jesus directly recalls the work of Moses and tells us that Jesus is in the same business as his Jewish forbear. He, too, is the bringer of the law, and he, too, is the savior of the people, but in quite unique way, a way of sacrifice and self-giving.