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Connections 02.23.2020: Holy Imagination

Exodus 24:9-18

Our high school English teacher Mrs. Powers was teaching us about similes and metaphors.

“’The baby is like a rose,’” she said, “is a simile.”

“’The baby is a rose,’” she said, “is a metaphor.”

Similes and metaphors, Mrs. Powers explained, are both symbolic ways of speaking and writing. She said that such language can be very powerful.

I have learned since that symbolic language can be more powerful than literal language. That’s because it can be so thought-provoking, so emotion-engaging, and so spirit-expanding.

I was a pastor back when the book The Shack was a big deal. Folks would ask me what I thought about its depictions of the persons of the Trinity. It pictured the Father as an African-American woman and the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman (the depiction of Jesus as a Middle Eastern carpenter seemed more straightforward).

I’d answer, “Any language we use to describe God is symbolic.”

That includes biblical language.

Long before The Shack, the Bible was using similes and metaphors to describe God and people’s experiences with God. It does so for several reasons.

For one thing, straightforward language can’t describe such experiences. For another, we need parallels we can grasp to help us think about experiences we can’t understand. And for yet another thing, symbolic language opens up our imaginations in ways that more literal language can’t.

And without imagination, we can’t experience God.

Our lesson text contains at least two similes that require us to think imaginatively.

When Moses and other leaders go up the mountain to encounter God, “under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness” (v. 10).

Later, when Moses has gone farther up the mountain, “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” (v. 17).

The text doesn’t say that God’s platform is “a pavement of sapphire stone”; it rather says that it is “something like a pavement of sapphire stone.” The text doesn’t say that God’s glory is “a devouring fire”; it rather says that it is “like a devouring fire.”

Also, when Peter, James, and John had their own experience on a mountain, this one with the transfigured Jesus, “his face shone like the sun” (Mt 17:2). I bring this up because this Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday on the Christian calendar. Matthew 17:1-9 is the lectionary’s Gospel reading.

Not all biblical language is symbolic. For example, Jesus really was transfigured, Jesus really died on the cross, and Jesus really rose from the grave. But if the Bible and we are going to talk about such indescribable events, we’re going to have to use figurative language.

We’re going to have to use our imaginations, not to make things up, but to find ways to think about, talk about, and do something about our encounters with God as revealed in the transfigured, crucified, and resurrected Jesus Christ.

After the three disciples’ experience with the transfigured Jesus, he tells them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” (Mt 17:9).

We need to see, understand, and approach everything we experience from the perspective of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

That’s going to take some imagination.

We then need to go and literally do what we need to do to serve a crucified and resurrected Lord.

That’s going to take some imagination too.

Discussion

  • Read Exodus 24:1-8. How does this context help us think about what happens in our lesson text?
  • Why do you think Moses took other leaders up the mountain with him? Why does he eventually proceed alone?
  • What can we learn from the leaders’ sharing in a banquet in God’s presence?
  • How do we experience the glory of the Lord?
  • Why is Transfiguration Sunday an important observance? What should we learn from it?

Reference Shelf

After the explanation of v. 14, the narrative of the P-edition resumes. In the immediate context, v. 15a picks up v. 13b: “[As has been said,] Moses went up into [the preposition is the same, despite NRSV] the mountain.” The phrase, “he called to Moses . . . out of the cloud” (v. 16), makes reuse of some of the D-material in 19:3b, again in the interests of P’s hierarchical interpretation. Here Moses is on the mountaintop; there he is on the plain. Commentators who espouse P as a separate source suggest that v. 15a resumes P’s narrative from 19:2a.6 In traditional Jewish commentary, that resumption provides the absolutely clear connection of the revelation of Torah at Sinai with the Feast of Weeks. The seventh week that v. 16b implies, “on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud,” completes the six weeks since the fifteenth of the first month that 19:1 implies. Moses’ preparation for six days is, appropriately, double the number that YHWH demanded of the people as a whole in 19:11. In view of the cosmic significance that P attaches to the events of the exodus, a connection is plausible between the six days of creation in Genesis 1 and Moses’ six-day preparation for the revelation of the tabernacle.

P’s conception of the “cloud” dwelling on and enveloping the mountain and as veiling the glory of the LORD, yet at the same time betokening its descent, dominates vv. 15b-18ai (see 16:10; 19:9, and, in fuller terms, 40:34-38). The verb “to dwell…” with which v. 16 begins comes from the same root as “tabernacle…” where the glory seen on the mountain will thereafter dwell. This cloud associated with a six-day blaze on the mountaintop (v. 17; see 19:20) is like the smoke created through the fire of ritual (incense and sacrifice), rather than the cloud that accompanies the fire of lightning as in the D-version (20:18).

In this analysis, the second phrase at the beginning of v. 18, “and he went up into the mountain,” marks the editorial resumption of v. 13a. The D-version may originally have contained the amplification in Deuteronomy that in this first period of forty days and

nights Moses neither ate nor drank, a phrase that Exodus now reserves for Moses’ second period of forty days and nights (Exod 34:28).9 The immediate sequel that the following verse in Deuteronomy presupposes (Deut 9:10a) is the handing over to Moses of the two stone tablets. The corresponding verse in Exodus is Exodus 31:18*, thus confirming that the large body of material on the tabernacle in Exodus 25:1–31:18*, which has no matching material in Deuteronomy, is the addition of the P-editor.

William Johnstone, Exodus 20–40, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2014), 230-31.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan and Isabella. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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