Between the cherubim

I recently joined an outing to Mount Karkom, a fascinating site in the Negev desert that some believe to be the mountain where Israel received the Ten Commandments.

desert521 (photo credit: Herbert Kelly/ICEJ)
(photo credit: Herbert Kelly/ICEJ)
Irecently joined an outing to Mount Karkom, a fascinating site in the Negev desert that some believe to be the mountain where Israel received the Ten Commandments.
The traditional Mount Sinai at St. Catherine’s monastery has little to lend it credibility, other than it being the highest mountain in the Sinai Peninsula.
Mount Karkom, on the other hand, has a much older tradition behind it as the “mountain of God,” plus such archeological finds as an Iron Age stone altar that fits the description of Exodus 20:24-26 and 24:4.
The visit left me pondering many burning questions, such as why God would chose to reveal His law and holy character to a nation of slaves way out in the middle of nowhere? No doubt, it assured that He had their attention! Yet it also demonstrated just how different the Lord God of Israel – Yahweh Elohim – was from all the gods of the surrounding nations.
As we come upon the feast of Pentecost this month, let’s return to that moment some 3,500 years ago. The Israelites had just been delivered from Egypt, which had dozens of gods carved into massive stone pillars and temples across its empire. They were heading for the Land of Canaan, which had adopted the Phoenician deity of Baal into its own pantheon of gods.
Everyone made little idols of gold and silver to these gods.
Many had female consorts that also demanded adulation. So you could worship an array of gods and even borrow the gods of other peoples – none of these idols seemed to mind it that much.
At Sinai, however, God came down in a thick cloud of fire and smoke, and declared that He alone was the one true God and creator of all. Yahweh also made clear that He was a jealous God! In order to be His “special treasure,” the Israelites could not worship any other gods, nor could they have any images of other gods. Then He added something unheard of in that day – you could not even have an image of Him.
The reason is given when Moses recaps the wilderness journey before the people in Deuteronomy, Chapter 4.
The Lord God of Israel is a “consuming fire” and He came down as such at Sinai.
The people heard His voice thunder from the thick cloud, but just as fire has no “form” neither does Elohim. Thus they could not “act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure...” (Deuteronomy 4:15-16).
Still, God did want to give Israel something beautiful to look at, a dwelling place for His “presence.” So He gave Moses detailed instructions on how to build the Tabernacle with all its golden instruments of service, crowned by the majestic ark of the covenant and mercy seat – where God promised to dwell “between the cherubim.” These were not idols to be worshiped, but the Lord was giving Israel a stunning visual structure which would carry His presence. And no other nation had anything like it.
Interestingly, when Moses came up to the mountain, the very first thing God delivered to Him was not the Ten Commandments or the rituals of service. Rather, He first instructed Moses that he would need to take up a collection of gold, silver, fine linen and other choice materials from the people in order to build the Tabernacle and its implements of worship.
Yet, as Moses stayed on the mountain to receive the rest of the law, the impatient Israelites decided to take up their own collection of gold, forged it into a golden calf and proclaimed, “Israel, behold your God!” God nearly consumed them for the sin of the golden calf. But He relented due to His great “love for the fathers” – meaning the patriarchs (Deuteronomy 4:37; see also Romans 11:28).
Even so, what a mistake! They settled for a false god at the very moment the creator Himself was preparing to come dwell among them.
Yet, as Christians today, don’t we take up a lot of collections in our churches in order to build and sustain our own sacred cows, rather than to build something which will truly carry the presence of the Lord? •
David Parsons is media director for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem;