Revelation is Terrifying
Or: Why We Run From What We Need
This is Life as a Sacred Text, an expansive, loving, everybody-celebrating, nobody-diminished, justice-centered voyage into one of the world’s most ancient and holy books. We’re working our way through Exodus these days. More about the project here, and to subscribe, go here.
And then it was time for Revelation. For receiving the Torah. The final warnings, and the event itself.
In the movies, we often see the moment of revelation as one of pure joy and awe, the people’s eyes open in wonder and delight.
But the text itself teaches that this moment of ultimate communal theophany was more discomfiting than that by several orders of magnitude.
And God said to Moses, “You shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, ‘Beware of going up on the mountain or touching the border of it. Whoever touches the mountain will be put to death.’” (Exodus 19:12)
Then, on the third day,
“There was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the shofar horn, and all the people who were in the camp trembled…. Mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because God descended upon it in fire, and the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder; as Moses spoke, and God answered him by thunder.” (Exodus 19:16-19)
Then, Moses goes up on the mountain and God tells him to go back down and
“Warn the people not to break through to God to gaze, lest many of them perish.” (Exodus 19:21)
There is something of a cultural cliché about how great it would be to hear God’s voice—suddenly, all of the ambiguities and confusions in our life would dissipate. It would all be clear! We’d stop being confounded by decisions great and small; our rudders would glide effortlessly through the murky sea of our lives; we’d never have to wait in line at the post office again and we’d befriend all of the animals of the forest. God called—fade in the violins!
But here, we see that revelation is nothing short of terrifying.
The willingness to hear God’s voice here, is, indeed, a life-or-death scenario.
What is being asked of the Israelites is huge, profound. Their lives will change drastically after they receive Torah.
They’ll have to face all of the ways in which responsibility—covenant—can be uncomfortable, can push us, challenge us, force us to be accountable to the divine, to others, and to the best version of ourselves.
At the heart of the Torah, deep in its center, is the commandment, “You shall be holy.” (Leviticus 19:2). How many distractions, pettiness, and indulgence of our less admirable qualities do we have to give up to do that?
Did the Israelites want to receive Torah? Surely, they weren’t certain that they could handle it. After God gives the Ten Commandments, the narrator of the Torah tells us,
“All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. ‘You speak to us,’ they said to Moses, ‘and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.’” (Exodus 20:15-16)
Hearing God… wasn’t that fun for them, it turns out.
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Many, many midrashim—Rabbinic legends—echo this overarching feeling of terror and ambivalence. One suggests that the Israelites died in the face of the power of the first word that God spoke, only to be revived by divine intervention (Talmud Shabbat 88b); another suggests that God demanded that Israel receive the Torah, threatening to return the world to the formless void before Creation if they did not (Talmud Shabbat 88a); another suggests,
“Just as a prince has the ability to cause others to die and live, so too have the words of the Torah the ability to cause death and life.” (Talmud Shabbat 88b)
Another imagines the direction of God’s voice constantly changing direction, so that the Israelites run in circles chasing it, unsure of where divine wisdom can be found. (Exodus Rabbah 5:9)
Perhaps most tellingly of all, another reads as follows:
“And they stood under the mount” (Exod. 19:17). Rav Avidimi, son of Hama, son of Hasa said: This verse teaches that the Holy One overturned the mountain upon them, like an inverted cask, and said to them: If you accept the Torah—it is well, and if not, this will be your grave. (Talmud Shabbat 88a)
This midrash is based on a wordplay. The Exodus verse tells us in the Hebrew that, waiting to receive the Torah, Israel stood b'tachtit the mountain, either right at the mountain’s base (as the plain meaning of the verse would suggest) or, as Rav Avidimi dryly suggests, literally underneath it.
What the Torah, and all these midrashim, seem to tell us is this:
What God—what ultimate truth—demands is not always easy.
In fact, it’s usually not easy.
We might not want to have to rise to meet the obligations to live in truth and connection and service.
And yet, even so, as this last midrash reminds us:
Saying yes to it might be the only thing that saves us.
I think here it’s worth distinguishing for a moment between what we want for ourselves and what God—or truth, or the universe, or our deepest needs, whatever resonates with your theology or lack thereof—might demand of us.
Because there’s a difference between wanting and needing. Wanting is endless, and can be manufactured to aim at just about anything. There’s a billion-dollar ad industry out there, for example, that exists solely to make people want more, to want what they don’t really want, let alone need.
What God needs of us—what we, in the deep recesses of our being, need of ourselves, is almost never what we want.
We spend most of our lives finding ways to avoid tuning into the truth of our needs, running, like the Israelites chasing around in circles, from the voice trying to tell us who we are and what our obligations and gifts are in the world. What we will need to give up in order to become the person we can be. What burdens we will carry in order to do so.
The fear is in the hearing—and facing the implications of what has been heard.
The fear is grappling with what might be lost, and with the responsibility that hearing demands.
Entering covenant isn’t easy. Becoming holy isn’t easy. Becoming the best, greatest, truest versions of ourselves is an ongoing process—not a one-time event—and the fear and need for discernment returns again and again. But it is how we do the work. It is how we walk this path.
For, after the thunder and the lightning, after the blaring horns and the smoke and the fire, there remains only the inexorable voice of God. Exodus doesn’t say whether this voice is a still, small voice, but I have no reason to believe that it wouldn’t be.
I Kings 19 tells the story of another prophet—Elijah—who is brought to Mt. Horeb, another name for Mt. Sinai, and experiences the following:
“God passed by and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces…; but God was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake; And after the earthquake a fire; but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.” (I Kings 19:11-12)
Revelation is like this. First, it’s terrifying. And then, from somewhere, there is the voice of the divine (or, perhaps, of our intuition—depending on your theology)—sometimes perhaps it is clear and ringing, sometimes perhaps so quiet it can barely be perceived.
Sometimes maybe there is great theophany at the mountain. And sometimes it simply demands that we get clear on what is and isn’t God, what phenomena are not the message of deepest truth, so that we can find a way to tune into the still small voice whispering to us beyond our comforts and our wants, telling us who we have needed to be all along.
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