At a Distance
Then God said to Moses, “Come up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship at a distance. Moses alone shall come near the LORD; but the others shall not come near, and the people shall not come up with him.” – Exodus 24:1-2 (NRSV)
The covenant is signed, sealed, delivered. The laws are outlined. The holy days are marked for observance. It has been a long journey to this point, but finally the ancient Israelites can celebrate the arrival of a new post-Egypt community normal.
To commemorate the moment, God invites the elders to worship at a distance.
At a distance.
After all they’ve been through.
After all their struggles. All their laments. All their longings. After the miraculous highs – crossing the sea, gathering bread from heaven, following a blazing fire. After the horrid lows – searching for fresh water, battling with other tribes, leaving behind their buried dead. After all of it, God invites the people to worship at a distance.
You would think the shared trials and triumphs would produce intimacy between God and the people. But no. “Keep your worship over there, please. Don’t come any closer.”
Always at a distance.
To be sure, God socially distances for the people’s own good – it’s not like one just runs up and hugs God without expecting to be seriously burned by holiness – but the wisdom of distance doesn’t erase the people’s desire for nearness. And touch. And comfort. Not just a pillar of fire to watch but a small bit of flame to keep warm. Not just a cloud to follow but a hand to hold.
But God is clear: “Keep your distance.”
So while Moses gets to go closer to God to receive instructions on a few carpentry projects, sewing assignments, and liturgical practices – seven chapters’ worth of crafting details – the people’s longing for God’s nearness demonstrates itself in the (understandable) golden calf fiasco.
God, I would melt all my jewelry into an idol if I thought it would bridge the distance between us. I would chase clouds forever if I just had a hand to hold. Don’t leave me lonely, despite the distance.
Rachel Hackenberg serves on the national staff for the United Church of Christ. She is the author of Writing to God and the co-author of Denial Is My Spiritual Practice, among other titles. Her blog is Faith and Water.