Sometimes we say that people have their feet on the ground. It’s always a compliment. It implies that they’re down-to-earth, in touch with reality, imbued with practical experience. The opposite sort of person is said to have ‘their head in the clouds’ and that’s not a compliment. It implies that they’re out of touch, unrealistic, impractical - to the point of being no earthly use , more of a visionary than an organiser.
Here in this short passage we find two contrasting encounters with God, so different in fact that they appear to belong to separate traditions, although they have been brought together here in a single narrative. In some ways they mirror those contrasting personality types.
First, there is a group encounter with God. 71 people are privileged to see God face to face, although at a distance. Perhaps because he isn’t close enough, God doesn’t lay his hand on them - presumably in blessing.
The writer cannot describe what God looked like. That would be impossible. The narrative only tells us what the ground beneath God’s feet was like. It was like a bright blue, clear sky - a pavement of sapphire. So this is an image of God sitting above the mountain - slightly out of reach. He does not walk the earth.
And yet he is clearly visible and the elders share a sort of holy communion with him - a sacrificial meal in all probability, where the incense of the sacrifice ascends to God while the communicants eat together on the mountain.
And then a totally different encounter is immediately juxtaposed with the first one. This time the holy mountain is shrouded in cloud and Moses ascends for a solitary encounter with God. The rest of the people of Israel can only surmise that God is present because his glory settles over the mountain like a devouring fire.
Moses waits, with his assistant Joshua - who strangely does not figure at all in the previous encounter - somewhere on the mountainside below the cloud cover until he receives the summons to enter it. Forty days later he comes back down - with the tablets of stone that contain the ten commandments - and rejoins Joshua again. There is no suggestion that during this time Moses sees God face to face. That only comes later in this version of the story. For the moment he listens to God but cannot see him.
So here we have two different versions of encountering God, one which is distinguished by the clarity of the vision and the other by its mystery and obscurity. Which is closest to our experience, and if we have shared both types of encounter, which is the way that we encounter God more often?
It’s tempting to say that the sort of encounter which is shrouded in mystery is the way that we might expect to meet God as creator, and the much clearer vision - especially through a shared meal - is the way that we encounter God in Jesus. But, of course, there is mystery in holy communion, too. We do not see Jesus in the clear way that Moses and the elders saw God, but on the other hand Jesus does reach out and touch us, and enters into our lives and our situation in a way that they could not have imagined. And sometimes people do report very clear visions of God as creator.
What we can say for certain is that God does come down in Jesus. His feet do touch the floor. He’s not at a distance any longer and we can come near to him.