I’ve been rereading Exodus lately. It’s really boring.
Sure, the book of Exodus has its exciting bits. The book’s first half tells the story of Moses, and how God worked through him to rescue Israel from its slavery in Egypt. It’s an engaging story: the Lord strikes Egypt with all kinds of interesting disasters, and Moses’s standoff with Pharaoh gets pretty heated.
Moses and the Israelites end up in the desert next to a mountain called Sinai, and that’s where things grind to a halt. God, who appears to the Israelites as a cloud, retreats to the mountaintop. After laying out a bunch of societal regulations for Israel, God commands Moses to climb Sinai in order to receive… more rules and instructions.
I won’t go into more details because, honestly, they’re rather tedious. Besides those details, however, something stands out to me from the second half of Exodus.
God keeps his distance.
At Sinai, God gives the Israelites very specific instructions to avoid the mountain. Only Moses is permitted to climb to its summit, and even then he isn’t allowed to see God’s full glory.
Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” (33:21-23)
From all Israel, God’s chosen nation, only one man gets a brief, incomplete glimpse of God. It’s pretty much the closest anyone comes to seeing the Lord in the Old Testament. Sure, God makes a few appearances here and there, but he mostly seems to run things from behind the scenes. Only a few priests are allowed anywhere near God’s presence in his places of worship. Just a handful of leaders and prophets ever glimpse him.
I have often wondered why God seems so distant—especially in our own skeptical, pluralist, postmodern age. The silence of God troubles me greatly, and faith sometimes seems foolish. Is it fair for God to demand obedience and fealty without providing irrefutable evidence of his existence?
I don’t know. Is it okay to admit that? I really don’t know.
Maybe God keeps his distance because we can’t handle the full measure of his power and holiness. That view certainly finds support in the Old Testament. (It’s also supported by the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark in which God’s glory fries a bunch of Nazis, but Indiana Jones movies might not be the best resource for theological speculation.) It’s possible that God hides because faith, “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see,” is a virtue he values highly. If God were obvious, faith would not be possible.
It’s worth pointing out that after seeming largely absent in the Old Testament, God showed up in the New Testament in the person of Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus didn’t keep his distance. Heck, he spent much of his time with the sort of people no one else would go near. Christ touched lepers and chatted with floozies. He was as close and immediate as God had previously seemed distant and unapproachable.
I’m comforted by some of Christ’s final words as he hung dying on a cross. He said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
These few words reveal something I find almost unbelievable: even Jesus Christ was troubled by the seeming distance and silence of God. I don’t get it. I don’t understand why God seems so far away. Apparently—at that moment—neither did his Son.
Some of my questions may never be answered, but I’m far from the only person asking, and that gives me hope.