One thing I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord
and to inquire in His temple.
“Come,” my heart says, “seek His face!”
Your face, Lord, do I seek.
Psalm 27:4, 8
The Biblical book of Exodus tells the story of Moses, a man who was born into slavery, saved from death by his parents’ willingness to hide him in a basket floating in a river, rescued by a princess, and raised as a prince. It’s a stirring story that has captured the imaginations of people throughout history. Eventually, Moses claimed his identity as an Israelite, giving up the privilege of being treated as Pharaoh’s grandson and fleeing Egypt in order to live as a shepherd in the desert. There in the desert Moses had an encounter with God.
This is not the first account in the Bible of someone having a direct encounter with God. God spoke to Adam and Eve, to Cain, to Noah, to Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. But with Moses, God begins not only to speak but to show Himself. And with Moses, God shares His name.
The first time Moses encounters God is when he sees a bush in the desert that appears to be on fire but that is not burning up.
Moses … led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians…. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations. (Exodus 3:1-8a, 10-15)
So an angel or messenger from God attracts Moses by creating a sign in the desert, a bush that blazes but is not consumed by the fire. Moses is paying attention and turns aside. The poet R.S. Thomas meditates on this moment of turning aside:
The Bright Field
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
Thomas suggests that attentiveness to beauty, the willingness to stop and turn aside is key to the sort of encounter with God that Moses had. In another post, I suggested that different people perceive different things as beautiful because people give careful attention to different things. Moses (and R.S. Thomas) are especially attentive to things in the world that function as symbols of God, access points at which God’s presence is being offered to us.
Then God, the Lord Himself, speaks to Moses, telling him that He has been listening to His people’s prayers and paying attention to their suffering. The people of Israel have been enslaved for a long time; doubtless many of them believed they were forgotten by the God of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But they were not forgotten. As Psalm 22 assures us, even when it appears to us that God has turned His face away, in point of fact He is always paying attention. He does not turn His face away (22:24); indeed, if He did turn away, we would no longer exist, since our very being is dependent on His loving attention. God has been preparing the deliverance of His people by preparing Moses.
God begins the process of bringing Moses into a closer relationship with Him by revealing His name: I AM. The Hebrew word that we translate I AM is YHWH, sometimes written Yahweh. It is a form of the verb “to be.” God names Himself as The Existing One. In giving Himself this name, YHWH sets Himself apart from all the other gods of the surrounding nations. He is not merely one existing being among all the other existing beings in the world. He is not a nature deity, connected with a river, or with the sun, or thunder, or sky. He is Existence or Being. He is the One on whom all other existing things depend for their being. He is the One who must exist.
Later, after Moses has led the people of Israel out of Egypt, God appears to them as a cloud of glory, known as the shekinah, leading them through the desert back to this mountain. He reveals His glory on the mountain in thunder and lightning, and He envelops the mountain with the cloud of glory. You will remember that “glory” is the word the Bible uses for God’s brand of beauty, when who God is shines out and is made perceptible to us. God’s glory is not a tame sort of beauty, but something wild and more than a little dangerous. The people of Israel beg Moses to go up the mountain on their behalf rather than make them come into the presence of this flaming God.
The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights (Exodus 24:16-18). The experience of the burning bush is intensified as Moses enters into the glory cloud.
And yet, for Moses, even this experience of encountering God on the mountain was not sufficient. Moses longed to see God’s face, and in Exodus 33 he begs to be shown God’s glory. YHWH responds: “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” The caveat is that Moses still cannot perceive God directly, because, as God tells him, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” As a great concession, God tells Moses that he will see the divine glory passing by; he will see God’s “back” but not His face. (Exodus 33:18-23)
Throughout the Old Testament the desire to see God’s face is a constant, repeating note. Those who love God long to see Him. We are made for this purpose. But we are too small, too weak, too sinful to see Him. Our God is a consuming fire, and to see Him is to die. And yet the story of Moses began with the vision of a bush that was on fire but not consumed. Bushes are by nature flammable, ideally suitable to being used for fuel, just as we are by nature consumable when we encounter God’s glory. The miracle of the bush at the beginning of Moses’ calling points ahead to his experience of glimpsing God’s glory but not dying. The first encounter deepens Moses’ knowledge of God, while also being a sign of this more intimate, burning knowledge given while hidden in the cleft of the Rock. Moses is set on fire by God, so that he glows with the reflection of God’s glory. Like the bush, he is able to bear the burning without being destroyed, a sign of God’s grace and favor. Moses’ face glowed for a long time after he went down the mountain, so much so that he took to wearing a veil in order to shield the Israelites from the sight.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul expands the significance of Moses’ experience, suggesting that the veiling was also to keep the Israelites from seeing that the glory was fading and that the veil is a symbol of the incomplete knowledge that Moses received. Jesus is the human being who is able to burn with the fullness God’s glory without being consumed. When we see the glory of God expressed in Jesus, then the Holy Spirit does a great work in us. “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image [as Jesus] from one degree of glory to another…” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Our union with Jesus makes it possible for us to bear the touch of God’s glorious splendor. Rather than dying, we are united more deeply with Jesus, sharing in the divine beauty that He translates into human form. This process of transformation is already begun in those who belong to Jesus, though it is far from complete. The glimpses we have now of God’s glory are a hint of what it will mean for us to glorify God and enjoy Him forever in the new creation.