The Bible Says What? Approaching God is dangerous

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The Bible Says What? Approaching God is dangerous

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild takes a controversial passage from the Torah and looks at a progressive Jewish response

At the foot of Sinai, the people tell Moses: “You talk to us and we’ll listen, but don’t let God speak to us, lest we die.”

It’s a repeating trope: After Jacob fought the “being” at Jabok, he named the place Peniel because “I have seen God face to face and my life has been preserved”.

We are reminded that approaching the sanctuary without permission is to court death. Possibly most famously, Moses is hidden in the cleft of a rock as God passes by, for God tells him: “You cannot see My face, for none can see Me and live!” Yet just a few verses earlier we read: “God spoke to Moses face to face, as one speaks to their friend.”  

We can infer that God and the first humans in Genesis have a close relationship, because once they understand their nakedness they hide. 

They hear God’s voice calling to them – the Hebrew is ambiguous; one can read the verse as them hearing God’s voice walking in the garden, a distancing of God’s presence from before.  

Much of our searching for closeness with God resonates from this time.  Moses’ greatness stems from the fact he achieves it; at his death, the Torah tells us: “There has never arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Eternal knew face to face.” 

Chronicles tells us to “seek the Eternal… seek God’s face continually”. While we yearn to have the face of God shine on us, turned towards us and not hidden from us, at the same time the deep fear evinced by the people at Sinai is built into our tradition.

So which is it? Dangerous or sustaining? Our tradition contains both ideas – to seek God’s presence but never to take God for granted.

  •  Sylvia Rothschild has been a community rabbi in south London for 30 years

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