When the book of Deuteronomy places the terrified Hebrew slaves before Mount Horeb, they are doubly afraid.
The nascent people of Israel fear not only the traditionally lethal prospect of seeing YHWH. They also express mortal fear of hearing him. The people’s terror of sensory contact with YHWH leads to their counter-proposal that Moses serve as mediator between the Liberator of Sinai and the only half-grateful beneficiaries of his salvation.
So now why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any longer, we shall die. For who is there of all flesh that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and remained alive? Go near, you yourself, and hear all that the LORD our God will say. Then tell us everything that the LORD our God tells you, and we will listen and do it. (Deuteronomy 5:25–27 NRSV)
Whether the Hebrews’ plea to remain safely remote from YHWH reflects a proper appraisal of YHWH’s dangerous holiness or abject cowardice is a matter that evokes sustained conversation in the history of interpretation. Some see it as a rejection of the intimate relationship that YHWH here puts on offer. Indeed, a certain current of interpretation sees priesthood and legal codes as compromises that flow—lovingly but lamentably—from what is understood to be Israel’s refusal of unmediated interaction with their Lord.
It’s a little surprising, then, that YHWH’s response to Moses’ communication of his people’s distaste for proximity elicits from YHWH at least a half-commendation.
The LORD heard your words when you spoke to me, and the LORD said to me: ‘I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you; they are right in all that they have spoken.’ (Deuteronomy 5:28 NRSV)
Israel’s adventure with YHWH—here and often—takes the shape of a compromise. They need and occasionally want YHWH to be near. Or nearer. Just as often, they consider that his presence is not worth the risk.
Deuteronomy’s odd narrative allows a poignant glimpse of YHWH’s heart, if one might speak in this way.
If only they had such a mind as this, to fear me and to keep all my commandments always, so that it might go well with them and with their children forever! Go say to them, ‘Return to your tents.’ (Deuteronomy 5:29–30 NRSV)
It is not only Israel, as things turn out, who longs for something different than what they can presently have. One can almost detect YHWH’s yearning to bless Israel more than Israel itself will allow.
So does the text both inaugurate binding covenant … and wish for more.