Dec 3, 2010

Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the LORD?

10 Min Read

Once a soul has come to understand something of the unutterable majesty of the holiness of God, the question asked in Psalm 15 and 24 suddenly weighs upon the heart: “Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord?” That is, who can draw near to this living God in worship? Who can climb their way to the summit of his dwelling place and gaze upon his beauty? Who, what’s more, could ever abide with God in his house?

Ezekiel 28:13-14 describes the Garden of Eden as being upon “the holy mountain of God,” a landscape we may have been able to figure out from the description in Gen 2:10-14 of the river flowing down from Eden, branching out into four riverheads to fructify the earth. Our first parents, then, had tasted the bliss of living in the presence of God upon the holy mount. They once knew a little of what it means to be human, having experienced the goal of our creation: fellowship with God in a life of all-encompassing worship that could only be described by the word “glory.” But from this breath-taking height, radiant with the countenance of God, Adam’s sin plunged all humanity into the dark abyss of exile from the divine Presence–a “fall,” to be sure. Humanity, once enjoying the paradise of God himself, was made to descend the mountain of the Lord. Who, now, shall ascend? It was, after all, God the Father our Maker who, in holy justice, expelled us, for “He drove out the man,” and “He set cherubim,” angelic warriors, to guard the gateway to himself, threatening us with a whirling sword of flame (Gen 3:24). Who dares enter through that gate? Indeed, how can any human attempt at approaching God not be considered presumptuous?

This central tragic event, humanity’s exile from the presence of God, drives the plot of history itself. The tragedy of the fall is the catastrophe about which the drama of the Bible turns, a drama that finds its denouement (or resolution) through the promised Messiah who, in bearing our sins upon the Cross so to bear the holy wrath, will one day bear us into the glory of our Father’s Presence. What was once the goal of creation, in other words, is now the goal of salvation, namely, worship. And in God’s inscrutable wisdom, that worship—that blinding glory of life before the triune Godhead—will, in the new creation, far exceed what would have been had there never been a tragic fall, for then we could not sing about the vast immensity of that love poured out with the blood, the blood of God’s own Lamb.

But I get ahead of myself. Between the original creation (and subsequent fall) described at the beginning of Genesis and the glory of humanity dwelling with God in the new creation at the end of Revelation, there is a sweeping drama. Being so used to life in a “fallen” world, we may easily forget that all the biblical narratives following the fall of Genesis 3 are in some fashion or another, and by varying degrees, moving this drama forward, developing the plot that eventually resolves in, to borrow Dante’s insight, a “comedy.” That plot can be followed by keeping one’s eye (and, surely, one’s heart) fixed upon the central question given us in Israel’s book of worship: “Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord?” This theme at the heart of Scripture would, I think, be profitable for us to explore together.

The paradise atop Eden’s mount is described in Genesis 2-3 as a well-watered garden with an abundance of fruit trees, a place where humanity and animals lived in harmony. These physical blessings, however, were but tokens (and small ones at that) of the greater delight of their source: the very life-giving presence of God. After Adam and Eve’s sin, and consequent descent from the mountain of the LORD, the biblical narrative continues to deal with the dilemma: How shall we abide in the divine presence—who shall ascend?

Sadly, as the narrative continues we find a progressive movement away from the presence found in paradise. We read of Cain who, after offering what the Reformers and Puritans would have called “will worship,” murders his brother and so must go “out from the presence of the Lord” and dwell (presumably, farther) “east of Eden” (Gen. 4:16). From here, the descent into Sin and away from the Lord continues: we are introduced to the tyrannical Lamech who changes God’s mercy into a license for violence (Gen. 4:23-24)—a wickedness that spread until the whole earth became corrupt, filled with violence (Gen. 6:11). And so the narrative that had begun with “In the beginning” leads to the divine declaration that “the end” has come (Gen. 6:13). God, the righteous Judge of all the earth, will reverse His creative act of separating the waters above from the waters below, causing a deluge to overwhelm the world. So much for the history of “the world that was.” And yet, the focus of the flood account is not so much on the destruction of the wicked as it is on the deliverance of Noah and his household. In other words, and given that we, too, are promised “the end” to this world as well, how is it we can escape the judgment? How is it Noah escaped? This question, as will become evident, is not so very different than that of the psalmist in Psalms 15 and 24: “Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord?”—for that holy mount is the only place of refuge (see Ps. 46, 48).

By the power of God’s Spirit, a renewed world emerges from the watery deep just as it had done once before (compare Gen. 8:1 with Gen.1:2). There, at the summit of one of the mountains of Ararat, stands Noah with his family, surrounded peacefully by all the creatures of the animal kingdom, and enjoying the Presence of God. “Be fruitful and multiply,” comes the Creator’s blessing, “and fill the earth.” Noah, delivered through the waters, was conveyed by the ark to the mountain of the Lord. Salvation, then, being inseparably bound up with worship, Noah builds an altar and (how unlike Cain) offers a lavish burnt offering, well pleasing to the Lord.

The Tabernacle cultus, then, was a theological drama. This drama called upon memory, looking back to Adam’s lost communion with the Creator atop Eden’s mount.

Now it is when we come to understand the significance of the ark that the psalmist’s question will come into view. Because the ark was the divinely revealed means of salvation, its doorway receives fitting prominence in the narrative: Who may enter and be saved? Just as the divinely barred gateway of Eden, so the ark’s doorway is presided over by God. The Lord calls Noah to enter, “Go into the ark, you and all your household” (Gen. 7:1), and the Lord Himself shuts the door, barring entry afterward (Gen. 7:16). Life upon the holy mount may only be found within that doorway—who may enter? Why was Noah given entrance? The narrative, allowing us to hear the Lord’s explanation, leaves us in no doubt as to the answer: “ . . . because I have seen you are righteous before Me” (Gen. 7:1). Indeed, Noah is introduced to us in Gen 6:9 as “righteous” and “blameless,” the same two qualifications given in Psalm 15: “Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy mountain? He who walks blamelessly and who works righteousness” (Gen. 7:1–2). Otherwise, the term “blameless” is most often translated as “without blemish,” describing the kind of sacrifice acceptable to the Lord, brought to him at “the doorway of the Tabernacle of Meeting before the Lord” (Lev. 1:3). (There’s another doorway, the Tabernacle dimensions curiously proportional to the ark’s—more on that, perhaps, another time.)

The Scriptures, then, are uniformly consistent. Who may ascend the mount of the Lord? The blameless and righteous one alone. As the first human being called “righteous” in the Bible, Noah’s righteousness is, to be sure, emphatic. Yet lest we are tempted to think Noah’s was a self-made righteousness, the verse preceding his description preempts us: “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen. 6:8). Indeed, when we come to the next righteous man in Genesis, Abraham, we learn that such righteousness is credited to those who believe the Lord (Gen. 15:6). Whose account that righteousness is debited from—well, that story begins with an advent that was really a descent, a descent from the heavenly mount by One who “tabernacled among us” and then ascended on high.

Worship—approaching the living God—is the central concern of Scripture, and a vital aspect of its narrative drama. Who may climb the summit of the Lord’s dwelling place to gaze upon his beauty? Against the backdrop of this prevailing question, the Tower of Babel episode in Genesis 11 is especially stark in its depiction of fallen humanity’s titanic pride. “Come,” they say, having journeyed from the east, “let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top reaches into the heavens” (Gen. 11:4). The word translated “tower” is migdol in Hebrew, understood here as referring to a ziggurat, that is, to an architectural sacred mount. Interestingly, most religions around the world appear to make use of an artificial mountain structure, a ziggurat or pyramid of some sort. Given names like “the gate of heaven” and “bond of heaven and earth,” ziggurats, considered the heart of a city, were humanly devised attempts at mediating the chasm between the sacred and the profane. Within the context of the Bible, however, this city-building is the enterprise of the rebellious. The City of Man project, founded by Cain himself (Gen. 4:17), is an attempt at reclaiming what God has denied, a defiant ambition for an earthly paradise devoid of the divine presence. Needless to say, God’s response to the religion displayed by the Tower has justly been considered even more devastating than the deluge—one need merely attempt a tally of War’s death toll to be engulfed in this staggering reality.

In contrast to the city-builders, the godly line is made up of pilgrims who wait and “call upon the Name of the Lord” (Gen. 4:26; cf. Gen. 12:8; Gen. 26:25), journeying worshipers looking for the City of God to descend upon them by grace (cf. Heb 11:13-16; Rev 21:1-2). How could it be otherwise? Even Adam, blinking in the light of creation through an innocent soul, did not climb his way into paradise—rather, he was carried there by God, “placed” in the garden (Gen. 2:15). This word for “placed,” difficult to translate into English, may be rendered literally “caused him to rest” in the garden, and is the same root used for Noah’s ark coming “to rest” upon the summit of the mount in Genensis 8:4. (This arrival was also utterly by grace, as the ark, lacking wheel and rudder, was no ship and Noah no “captain” of his destiny.)

Ultimately, the antipode of Babel’s ziggurat—and so, the ordained way of approaching God toward which the narrative arc leads—is the Tabernacle consummated at the end of the book of Exodus. The movement from the beginning of Genesis through to the end of Exodus, then, is from the creation of the cosmos (macro-temple) to the creation of the Tabernacle (micro-cosmos), from the divine presence lost to the divine presence received. The God who exiled sinners from paradise is the God who descends to dwell among them in the wilderness. Between these bookends of descent (humanity’s in Gen. 3 and God’s in Ex. 40), there are relevant and notable narratives, like Jacob’s astonishing discovery of the “stairway” whose “top reached into the heavens” (Gen. 28:12), the very “gate of heaven” (Gen. 28:17) being opened to one who never knocked; and like the hallowed ground of Isaac’s binding atop Moriah (Gen. 22)—“in the Mount of the Lord it shall be provided,” indeed. The most immediately significant narrative, however, is that of Mount Sinai. In chapters 19 and 24 of Exodus, one consistently reads that “Moses ascended up to God” (Ex. 19:3) and that “Moses alone shall draw near to the Lord” (Ex. 24:2); this feature, coupled with the warning that the people themselves are to take heed “not to ascend” (Ex. 19:12) and “not to draw near, nor ascend with him” (Ex. 24:2), provides a clear answer to the question we have emphasized as an undercurrent throughout the Bible: as ordained mediator, Moses alone is able to ascend the Mount of the Lord. The fiery thundering upon Sinai equally (and graciously) testified to the inherent dangers of approaching the Holy One—rather than an inviting garden, Israel found a volcanic fury. Yet after the sixth day, portraying Moses as a new Adam, God called Moses to ascend into the glory at Sinai’s summit (Ex. 24:16-18). Adam atop Eden’s mount, Noah atop Ararat’s mount, Moses atop Sinai’s mount; this is the Bible’s glorious picture of approaching the Maker of heaven and earth in worship. But how does this relate to the Tabernacle cultus?

Many commentators have rightly noted the correspondence between Mount Sinai and the Tabernacle. Both, for example, exemplify a three-fold division of sacred space: Israel gathers about the foot of Sinai (corresponding to the Outer Court of the Tabernacle); the elders approach the mid-section of the mount (corresponding to the priestly access to the Holy Place); and only Moses ascends the summit (corresponding to the High Priest’s sole access to the Holy of Holies once a year on the Day of Atonement). The High Priest’s entrance into the Holy of Holies was therefore understood as an “ascent” to God’s throne at the summit of the Mount of the Lord. Whereas with Noah, the gate liturgy had become “Who may enter the Ark?” here the question becomes: “Who may enter the Holy of holies?” To capture this drama, the Holiest Place was decorated with paradisiacal features and was “guarded” by cherubim fittingly portrayed on the entrance Veil. Thus when the Lord’s cloud of glory descended from Sinai’s summit upon the Tabernacle, it was as a culminating act of catechesis: the Tabernacle had become Israel’s portable Mount of the Lord, that is, Israel’s regulated means of approaching God. The Tabernacle cultus, then, was a theological drama. This drama called upon memory, looking back to Adam’s lost communion with the Creator atop Eden’s mount. More profoundly, this drama called upon faith, prophetically looking forward to the last Adam and ultimate High Priest’s ascent into the reality of the heavenly Zion’s summit.