Moses then went up, along with Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of Israel’s elders. They saw a vision of the God of Israel, and under His feet was something like a sapphire brick, like the essence of a clear blue sky. God did not unleash His power against the leaders of the Israelites. They had a vision of the Divine, and they ate and drank.
What, precisely, did the 74 ranking leaders of Israel observe?
In the first third of Mishpatim, the entire multitude heard the divine voice speak the Ten Commandments. In this reading, an elite (though still sizeable) group had a visual encounter with the Speaker.
We are given few details. There was a pedestal, which resembled a sapphire brick, but wasn’t exactly an oversized gemstone. It was transparent and blue like the sky. Was the vision something in the sky, or was it something more abstract? Commentators have interpreted the sapphire as “pure empty space, formless matter, or pure spiritual essence.” The God of Israel had feet. Did His feet have calluses and toenails? Or were they the allegorical kind of feet, the part of the Divine that comes in contact with the level below?
Did this platoon of witnesses see a God who resembled a human? This possibility is suggested elsewhere in the Torah. We are told that God created Man in His image, and there are numerous references to God’s body parts. If so, what about this anthropomorphic being suggested to the leaders of Israel that they weren’t just looking at an ordinary human being? Was the God of Israel exceptionally large or small? Did He fluoresce? Did He float in the air on white-feathered wings? Was He dressed in blindingly bright, outlandish apparel?
Or did they see a God more like a god of the Nile delta? A chimera, a standing man with the head of an ox and the talons of an eagle? A scarab? A cat? We aren’t told, after all, how many feet God planted upon that shiny blue stone – maybe four feet or six. There is evidence to support this possibility: Consider the keruv, the strange creature depicted on the doors of the ark.
Or did they see a brilliant light, a rainbow of color, a spinning wheel of rays, an ever-changing fractal surface, or a pattern of successive expanding wave fronts? Did they see the kavod, the Glory of God, and know that the God of Israel was inside the luminous display, just out of their view? Were they able to glimpse God in their peripheral vision only to lose the image when they looked directly? Perhaps the description in the Torah is so scanty because they didn’t have the vocabulary to explain what they saw.
Or did they see, emanating from that sapphire block, a holographic time-lapse movie of the entire past and future of the people of Israel?
Or did they all see the God of Israel differently? Did each of the 74 people up on Sinai have a unique personal experience? Did they talk with one another afterwards, realize that they couldn’t come to a common description of their epiphany, and agree to leave the details unsaid?
When, after seeing their vision, the 74 people ate the sacrifice made by Moses, what was the mood? Did such an unfamiliar experience frighten them into sweaty silence? Did the seal of heaven fill them with smug satisfaction because God had ratified their mitzvot of the Mishpatim? Did they suffer from unpleasant physical after-effects? Did they giggle, shout and dance until they were exhausted? Or was their mood one of awe, a blend of terror, placidness and ebullience so rarely experienced, and so little understood?
How did the other Israelites react to the odd stories and behavior of the 74 visionaries? Did they see them as unimaginably privileged, or as fakes, or as crazies, or as nobody special? How did the 74 visionaries themselves adjust, years later, to their memories of the day they saw God? How do you think of them today?