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.