One of the most beautiful places in Israel is the Golan Heights. It's a high, grassy plain that overlooks the Sea of Galilee and stretches all the way up to Mt. Hermon, the highest mountain in Israel. In modern times, and in the negotiations between Israel and Syria, the name is often "stretched" to include some of the lowlands leading up to the heights, the many cliffs and steep slopes above which the heights level out, and the slopes of Mt. Hermon itself. This challenging terrain, both the slopes and the heights above, is home to abundant wildlife. There's a good chance of spotting gazelle, wild boar, and different kinds of eagles, not to mention the funny little badgers that live among the rocks (also known as hyrax: this is the correct name of the animal mentioned in Psa. 104:18, Pro. 30:26, and elsewhere).
One of the reasons the Golan abounds with wildlife is that most of the Syrians living there were pulled out before the Six-Day War in 1967 (with the exception of a few Druze* villages). The Jews that settled there after the war clustered in a few small areas for defensive purposes, leaving large sections of the Golan open.
*The Druze are a secret religious sect that broke off of Islam nearly 1,000 years ago.
This "greater" Golan is one of the areas Jesus visited when he withdrew from Galilee to get some time away from his opponents. Matthew tells us he spent time in the district of Caesarea Philippi (Matt. 16:13). This was the largest city in the area, in the lowlands at the foot of Mt. Hermon. But Jesus and his disciples probably stayed outside of town in the small Jewish villages ("the district"), some of which perched on the slopes leading to the heights above.
Here he began to ask his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" (Matt. 16:13, Luke 9:18). The answers they gave included John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, and one of prophets of old (Matt. 16:14, Luke 9:19). By this time, John the Baptist was dead, killed by Herod Agrippa, the ruler of Galilee (Matt. 14:1-12). Which means that all the names offered to identify Jesus were the names of dead prophets, one of whom, they believed, had miraculously come back to life again. But why would they identify Jesus as a dead prophet raised to life? Why not a new prophet?
Their anticipation of a prophet raised from the dead was based on one of the most popular Messianic prophecies: Deut. 18:15. "The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers; you will listen to him." In Jesus' day, it was understood that the words "God will raise up" meant resurrection. People were looking for a prophet raised from the dead.
This would not be an ordinary prophet, but a 'prophet like Moses,' with the ability to interpret and clarify God's instructions in the Law. This contributed to the expectation that the Messiah would deliver a new and updated version of the Law: a Law for the Messianic age.
The difference between Moses and the other prophets is explained in Numbers 12:8. "With him I speak mouth to mouth and openly, and not in dark sayings; and he sees the form of the LORD." Moses did not hear from God in dreams and visions with images that were hard to understand. God spoke to him openly and directly. But what does it mean that Moses saw the "form" of the Lord? This is a reminder of the direct intensity of Moses' interactions with God, one of the most dramatic of which took place in Exodus 33 and 34, while the children of Israel were camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai.
After the incident of the golden calf, when Moses had smashed the tablets, he hurried back up the mountain to repent before God on behalf of the people. But the Lord told him that he would no longer go up with them to Israel, "because you are a stiff-necked people, lest I destroy you on the way" (Exo. 33:3). This message was met with grief in the Israelite camp, and no less on the part of Moses himself (33:4,15,16). After this, Moses pitched the tent of meeting outside the camp, in what seems to be a sign of God's rejection of the people (33:7). Yet God continued to meet with Moses, the pillar of cloud descending to the tent of meeting, while all the people looked on from their own tents inside the Israelite encampment (33:8-10).
But Moses didn't give up trying to persuade God to accompany the people to Israel. He reminded him of the favor in which God said he held him, and that Israel was his people (33:12-13). Finally, God relented, saying, "My face [or presence] will go with you" (33:14). Moses is so relieved and encouraged that he bursts out, saying: "Please let me see your glory!"
God agrees. And they begin to plan one of the most exciting moments in human history. God will make his "goodness" pass over (or before) Moses, while he (God) calls out in the name of the Lord (33:19). The wording here seems a little strange. Why would God call out in his own name? And what exactly is his "goodness"?
But there's a limit to what he will reveal to Moses: He will not show him his face, for "man cannot see me and live" (33:20). So God instructs Moses to stand beside him on the rock, so that when his "glory" passes over, he can overshadow him with his "hand," so he will not see too much of the glory while he is passing by (33:21,22). Here again the wording is strange. How can God be standing beside Moses on the rock, overshadowing him, while he himself is passing by? It sounds like God will be in two places at once.
The big event was set for the next day, in the morning (34:2). Morning is the best time to climb the mountains of Sinai even today. In the early morning hours, the desert is still cool and pleasant. But later in the day it gets scorching hot. At the traditional Mt. Sinai, there is none of the abundant grass we saw in the Golan. This is deep desert, where it is extremely dry. The mountains are solid chunks of rock that jut up from the desert floor. From the top of the mountain, there is a beautiful view that stretches on and on for up to 90 miles.
When Moses reached the top of the mountain, God descended in the cloud and stood there beside him, according to plan (34:5). This seems to be the same pillar of cloud that appeared to Moses at the tent, the pillar of fire and cloud that led the children of Israel through the desert. Then, from the cloud, the Lord called out in the name of the Lord (34:5). In response, the Lord passed over above him (34:6). This second Lord is distinct from the first one. Remember, the job of the Lord in the cloud is to overshadow Moses, so he will not see God's face. But the Lord passing overhead is not in a cloud, but revealed in all his "goodness" or "glory."
There are clearly two Lords here: the Lord hidden in the cloud next to Moses and the Lord revealed overhead. This mystery may be confirmed by the words the Lord cried out: "LORD, LORD, a compassionate and gracious God" (34:6). There are two Lords, yet one God. This seems to be the way Moses understood it: in verse 9 he, too, mentions two Lords: "Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, please let the Lord walk among us" (34:9). In other passages, Moses does not address God in the distant third person. Why the switch of language here? The simplest explanation is that Moses is asking Lord #1, the one in the cloud, if Lord #2, the "face" or "glory" of God, can go with them.
The rabbis after the time of Jesus explained such puzzling epiphanies as the activity of angels operating in the Lord's name. But the early Jewish believers in Jesus, and Christianity after them, understood that these two Lords, the "cloud" and the "face" (or glory) of God, were in fact God himself, just as the Bible says: God in the cloud is the Holy Spirit, and the face or glory of God is the Word or Son of God. Two Lords, yet one God.
The effect of this incredible experience was dramatic: Moses' face shone so brightly that it frightened the others when he came back down the mountain (34:30). No other prophet ever had an experience like this: until Jesus went up into the Golan.
Just a few days after asking his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?," Jesus went up one of the steep slopes beside Hermon in the Golan (Luke 9:28).* The solid bedrock of the mountain is exposed nearly everywhere. Plants and small trees grow out of cracks and cavities in the rock here and there. This was one of Jesus' all-night prayer vigils; the disciples fell asleep (9:32). While he was praying, his face was changed and his clothing began to glow (9:29). This was quite a spectacle against the starry mountain sky. Matthew says his face shone like the sun (Matt. 17:2). Does that remind you of anything? It's a hint back to Moses' experience at Sinai.
* It could not have been the traditional site on Mt. Tabor. In addition to their location in the Golan implied by Matthew and Mark, there was a settlement on Tabor at the time. The gospels say they were alone on the mountain ("apart by themselves"; Mark 9:2). Also, Matthew and Mark specify that this was a "high mountain" which, compared to its neighbors in Israel, Tabor is not.
Beside Jesus appeared Moses and Elijah "in glory," a code word for heavenly splendor (Luke 9:30). Elijah too, like Moses, had his own experience on Mt. Sinai, when he ran away from Queen Jezebel (1 Kings 19:9-18). But this time, instead of God ministering to them, Moses and Elijah minister to Jesus, in his earthly nature, preparing him for the opposition he will face in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31).
When Peter and the others awake, they see Jesus' "glory" (9:32). This, too, is a hint back to Sinai, and the appearance of the "glory" of God. But no sooner do they see it than a cloud appears and "overshadows" them (9:34). This, too, is a hint to Mt. Sinai. Just as with Moses, God in the cloud hides them from the "glory." Here again are two Lords, one the Lord in the cloud and the other the "face" or "glory" of the Lord revealed in Jesus.
Then, out of the cloud comes a voice: "This is my son, my chosen, listen to him" (9:35). Notice the words used here: "Listen to him." Does that sound familiar? It's a hint back to the prophecy of the prophet like Moses: the one of whom Moses says, "Listen to him" (Deut. 18:15). Could the message be any clearer? Jesus is the prophet like Moses. Jesus is the one we should listen to.
This revelation in the Golan is an interpretation of the revelation on Sinai. The face, the glory, the goodness of God that appeared on Sinai is Jesus, the Son of God, who is God, the Lord. Two Lords, yet one God.* Wow! What an awesome experience and what an awesome message!
* The third Lord of the Christian Trinity, the Father, is hidden in heaven, just as the rabbis considered God to be hidden from man ("man cannot see me and live"). Yet Christians believe he reveals himself through his two "arms": the Son and the Spirit. (The imagery of God's "arms" is developed by Isaiah in Isa. 51:5; 51:9; 52:10,13; 53:1,2; etc.)
The word for "listen" in the prophecy about the prophet like Moses is shma (Deut 18:15). This Hebrew word means not only to hear, but to obey. As Jesus himself said, "Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them..." (Matt. 7:24). Jesus' word can sometimes be a little overwhelming, as when he challenges us to "lose" our lives for his sake (Matt 10:38,39). But God sent not only the glory of his Word. He also sent the comfort of his Spirit to stand beside us and give us the power to do what Jesus tells us to do. With these two at our sidesthe Word and the Spiritwe cannot fail. And don't be surprised if your face starts to shine more, too!
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