Smoke on the Mountain
God sure does have a funny way of communicating with the Israelites. And by, “funny,” I mean strange and weird. In the beginning of this selection, God tells Moses, “I’m about to come to you in a thick cloud in order that the people will hear me…” (CEB, Exodus 19:9b). This indicates God does not want the Israelites to see Godself. Yet, we hear a contradiction to that idea: “Be ready for the third day, because on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai for all the people to see,” (CEB, Exodus 19:11).
And even more than this, God says, “Set up a fence for the people all around and tell them, ‘Be careful not to go up the mountain or touch any part of it.’ Anyone who even touches the mountain must be put to death,” (CEB, Exodus 19:12). And even more than that, God says anyone who touches anyone who touched the mountain will be killed, too (v. 13). Then, after instruction not to interact with God – despite God wanting to interact with the people – the instructions are given to stay “pure” for God. Moses told them to stay holy and to wash their clothes (God cares about a ketchup stain, y’all). And the final instruction was Moses telling the men, “Prepare yourselves for three days. Don’t go near a woman,” (CEB, Exodus 19:15).
God’s communication to the Israelites is confusing. We should be glad God speaks so clearly to us in these days. I mean, where would we be if God told us to do one thing and immediately told us to do something differently? We should be thankful God’s instructions to each and every one of us come through as clearly as a satellite TV picture during a thunderstorm in 1994.
In the event you do not pick up on my sarcasm – which I am laying down pretty heavily here – it is incredibly difficult to understand God’s direction. If nothing else, we should relate to the common Israelites in this story. “Do this! NO! Do this instead! I want you to hear me! But not too clearly!” We receive direction from God and have a hard time understanding God’s meaning. If our personal narratives are true, this seems to be the case today.
In case you are wondering how this particular narrative ends, it takes 11 more chapters. This is the beginning of the instructions from God on how to live in proper community. The laws of Exodus start with the Ten Commandments and end with “Instructions for Oil and Incense” in chapter 30 (vv. 22-38). And, even after all these laws are laid out, coming directly from the cloud of smoke, lightning, and thunder that is and was God, the Israelites still rebel. Chapter 32 tells the story of the Golden Calf.
So we relate to the Israelites. We hear the instruction from God. Sometimes this instruction is clear. Sometimes it is an enigma, wrapped in mystery, in the middle of a puzzle. Often times, after hearing the instruction, we rebel. Because we are human, just as the Israelites were. It is our course as humans.
But, as we read these stories, and hear about rebellion and confusion from humanity in discourse with God, we can always know this: God never gives up on us. Even after years in the desert and countless times of disobeying, God kept on with the Israelites. God’s answer is never a final, “No!” God continues to work with us and through us, even if God’s direction is confusing and tedious.