This is the type of mystical experience that leaves us in fear and trembling. This passage is the Grandaddy of that type.
In the middle of the desert a lone mountain rises up. It is called Sinai. The Israelites camp at the base, and Moses climbs up. Somewhere along the way, God calls from the mountain. God tells Moses to remind the people below how God rescued them from the Egyptians to “be my own little flock….a kingdom of priests to God, a holy nation.” The context is important. God appears with fire and thunder in the passage below, and then he gives to Moses the commandments for creating that reverent and just society: a holy nation.
God appears once again without disguise, even the disguise of a burning bush. This aspect of holiness that we see in Exodus 19 is unpopular or unknown these days, even despised–even among Christians, Jews, and Muslims, sometimes. To believe someone is so different from us, so set apart (one of the meanings of “holy”), so much better than we are, may defy our democratic principles. It certainly hurts our egos.
But unless we understand this aspect, we cannot understand how infinitely morally good God is compared to us. But when we do understand it, we also get a glimpse of how much love and humility is poured out in the life and death of Jesus Christ. We understand why we need Jesus, why he is “the way, the truth, and the life,” the end as well as the means. We understand that only a man who was God, and a God who would become a man, could bridge that awe–full gap between us and God.
Moses returned from the mountain and called together the leaders of the people and told them what the Lord had said.
They all responded in unison, “We will certainly do everything he asks of us.” Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.
Then [God] said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in the form of a dark cloud, so that the people themselves can hear me when I talk with you, and then they will always believe you. Go down now and see that the people are ready for my visit. Sanctify them today and tomorrow, and have them wash their clothes. Then, the day after tomorrow, I will come down upon Mount Sinai as all the people watch. Set boundary lines the people may not pass, and tell them, ‘Beware! Do not go up into the mountain or even touch its boundaries; whoever does shall die— no hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot to death with arrows, whether man or animal.’ Stay away from the mountain entirely until you hear a ram’s horn sounding one long blast; then gather at the foot of the mountain!”
So Moses went down to the people and sanctified them and they washed their clothing.
He told them, “Get ready for God’s appearance two days from now, and do not have sexual intercourse with your wives.”
On the morning of the third day there was a terrific thunder and lightning storm, and a huge cloud came down upon the mountain, and there was a long, loud blast as from a ram’s horn; and all the people trembled. Moses led them out from the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. All Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because Jehovah descended upon it in the form of fire; the smoke billowed into the sky as from a furnace, and the whole mountain shook with a violent earthquake. As the trumpet blast grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God thundered his reply. So the Lord came down upon the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses up to the top of the mountain, and Moses ascended to God.
But the Lord told Moses, “Go back down and warn the people not to cross the boundaries. They must not come up here to try to see God, for if they do, many of them will die. Even the priests on duty[a] must sanctify themselves, or else I will destroy them.”