Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God, and they ate and drank. (Ex 24:9-11)
Today’s Old Testament reading is no less profound for being so short. Indeed, this brief story of Moses, his brother, and other leaders of Israel seems an appropriate point in this series to acknowledge something important: I’m hoping to spend more time with God, but I have never seen God.
But then neither did Moses. He, Aaron, and the others may have “beheld God,” but only in part — and all but Moses kept their distance (Ex 24:1-2). Moses might speak to God “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Ex 33:11), yet he could not “see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (33:20). God would make his “goodness pass before” Moses, and show him his “back, but my face shall not be seen” (33:19, 23). At best, he and those who joined him on Sinai could describe their encounter by analogy: “Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone” ( v 10). (Much later, the prophet Ezekiel would also associate his vision of God with that precious stone, in a long, bewildering description full of more simile and metaphor.)
For early Christians, the witness of Moses and others exemplified faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1); on the other side of the Incarnation, they modeled what it meant to believe in the one God who was “King of the ages, immortal, invisible” (1 Tim 1:16). “No one has ever seen God,” affirmed the most glorious theological poem in Christian history. “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18).
But most Christians must continue to believe in a God made flesh whom they have never seen. On this side of the Ascension, we continue to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). We turn “our eyes upon Jesus,” but none yet looks “full in his wonderful face.”
But every day of every month of every year of our life, we do see the image of God, in the faces of humanity (Gen 1:26-27).
This summer I re-read the greatest of Graham Greene’s “Catholic novels,” The Power and the Glory, a story about a disgraced priest trying to fulfill his vocation as he evades police in a violently anti-clerical part of 1930s Mexico. As he cares for a feverish Mestizo man who will ultimately betray him, the priest remembers children asking “What is God like?” and thinks about the “convincing mystery” standing “at the centre of his own faith”:
…that we were made in God’s image. God was the parent, but He was also the policeman, the criminal, the priest, the maniac, and the judge. Something resembling God dangled from the gibbet or went into odd attitudes before the bullets in a prison yard or contorted itself like a camel in the attitude of sex. He would sit in the confessional and hear the complicated dirty ingenuities which God’s image had thought out, and God’s image shook now, up and down on the mule’s back, with the yellow teeth sticking out over the lower lip, and God’s image did its despairing act of rebellion with Maria in the hut among the rats. He said, “Do you feel better now? Not so cold, eh? Or so hot?” and pressed his hand with a kind of driven tenderness upon the shoulder’s of God’s image.
However distorted, those images are not shattered. However disillusioning, they are no delusion. However disgusting, they are still beautiful.
In the Middle Ages, the great Jewish scholastic Maimonides insisted that Moses and the others in Exodus 24:9-11 had only experienced an “intellectual apprehension” of God; no other was possible, for the reason God had just banned idolatry was that he had no physical image. But centuries later Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel disagreed:
It is precisely because God has an image that idols are forbidden. You are the image of God. But the only medium in which you can shape that image is that of your entire life. To take anything less than a full, living, breathing human being and try to create God’s image out of it — that diminishes the divine and is considered idolatry.
Any more than Moses or Aaron, we cannot see God fully. But however imperfectly, may we see the living God in the lives of each other.