The Voice of God in the Bible

MountSinaiRashi says about the final verse in our Torah portion: Here we apply the principle, when two verses contradict, a third comes along and resolves it.

The first verse he has in mind is Leviticus 1:1, “Hashem called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.” It seems here that the voice comes from the outer room of the tent, from outside of the Holy of Holies. But . . .

Then there is Exodus 25:22, “There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you — from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Testimony.” Here it sounds as if the voice comes from the inner room, from the Holy of Holies.

But along comes a verse that resolves the conflict: “When Moses went into the tent of meeting to speak with Hashem, he heard the voice speaking to him from above the mercy seat that was on the ark of the testimony, from between the two cherubim; and it spoke to him” (Num 7:89). In other words, both Leviticus 1:1 and Exodus 25:22 are true. “From the tent” in Leviticus means the place where Moses stood when he heard, not the place the voice emerged. Rashi spells out the procedure this way: The voice would emerge from the heavens to the space between the two cherubim and from there it would go out to the Tent of Meeting.

And then Rashi comments on another feature of Numbers 7:89. It says, “he heard the voice.” Rashi comments, One might be able to think it was a quiet voice. To teach us otherwise the Torah says, “the voice.” Which implies it is the same voice that communicated with him at Sinai. So the voice of God to Moses did make a real sound.

But then you might think anyone standing close to the Tent might hear when God spoke to Moses. Not so, says Rashi, When it would reach the entrance of the Tent of Meeting it would stop and it would not go outside the Tent. So Rashi saw this completely as a supernatural phenomenon. God’s voice to Moses was audible but stopped miraculously at the Tent so no one else could hear it.

What Rashi is dealing with is the mystery of the divine voice. We have a similar mystery. How is the voice of God there for us in the Bible? How is it that we enter into the text of scripture and hear the voice of God? We can easily doubt the Bible. Isn’t it merely human?

I have read many people’s views of the Bible and I make my living largely by teaching, writing, and speaking about the Bible. And no one has taught me anything more profound on the subject than Abraham Joshua Heschel.

It really matters whether we think we can encounter the divine voice in this book. And Heschel says we can. We have to begin by admitting that the idea of prophecy is possible. From there we find it is more, that it is also probable: Are we, then, because of the indescribability of revelation, justified in rejecting a priori as untrue the assertion of the prophets that, at certain hours in Israel’s history, the divine came in touch with a few chosen souls? That the creative source of our own selves addressed itself to man? (God in Search of Man, 172-3).

Think about this: those who say the idea of an inspired collection of writings is impossible — they have a hard case to prove! As Heschel refutes their argument: Why should we assume God is forever imprisoned in silence?

But we might ask why God spoke to so few? God’s revelation, we learn, is subtle. He spoke indirectly through a few chosen souls.The voice of God in the Bible is, in some ways, like the voice that spoke to Moses in the Tent. It came to Moses only. It stopped at the Tent and no one else heard it.

Sometimes we have to accept the facts the way they are. If the Bible claims to be the legacy of a small number of people who discerned the voice of God, will we doubt them? Heschel says, We are confronted with a stubborn fact. A galaxy of men such as Moses, Nathan, Elijah, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, claim to have perceived a word of God . . . If Moses and Isaiah have failed to find out what the will of God is, who will?

The Torah kept alive the story of God speaking to Moses. I have come to believe that the initial revelations of God to Abraham and the patriarchs and matriarchs and to Moses and the scribes and priests and prophets came down to us in a chain of transmission. A chain of people stands between us and the original utterances of God’s voice. There were priests and scribes and prophets involved.

That is to say, we do not get it directly. Some people misread the Bible by ignoring history, literary context, and other features. They attempt to short circuit the process by which God intended us to read this literature that is the Bible. What they end up doing is picking and choosing some verses here and there and making them the direct voice of God.

But God gave us something else, not a set of unfiltered words directly to us. He gave us a sublime literature filled with his voice in similes and metaphors and aphorisms and oracles and narratives.

I have come to learn something else about the Bible. It is not all direct revelation of God to certain people. The Bible also contains man’s insight. The prophets and poets were human. They did not only speak prophecy. Heschel says, There is in the Bible God’s word to man, but there is also man’s word to him and about him.

The Bible not only says things like “hear the word of the Lord,” but also contains our words about him and to him like, “this is my God and I will praise him.”

What we have now in the Bible is not simple. It has layers. It has a chain of transmission. Some people find out that the Bible has discrepancies and historical errors and it causes them to doubt the whole thing, to throw it all out, and to give up on faith. Religious leaders often try to fix this by denying that the discrepancies and errors exist.

This is not right. We do not increase faith by lying or ignoring what is plainly there. The Bible came to us in a chain of transmission and it is human as well as divine. There are points of view in tension with others in the Bible. Deuteronomy sees it somewhat differently than Exodus and Numbers. The Gospels give eyewitness testimony with the expected differences in the way people remembered the stories. Some prophecies did not happen because they were conditional. Some laws were concessions to the evil of the times and were meant to change.

Don’t let these differences make you miss what is crucial. The voice of God is there. The prophets did discern what God was saying.

And in reading and studying the Bible we hear his voice too. Heschel puts it this way: The Bible is holiness in words . . . if God is alive, the Bible is his voice.

The way God’s voice comes to us can be so much more than just reading off a page. The voice of God really is an experience. Think about this with me. Just reading the words of the Bible is not encountering God. The devil can read and hear the words, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and with all your might.” But can the devil experience those words?

Many believers have found that God’s voice is to be experienced. Heschel says, as if the echo of an echo of a voice were piercing the silence, trying to get our attention.

How do we begin experiencing God through the Bible? Or, if the voice of the Bible has lost its inspiration for you, how do you begin again?

Don’t worry. Take it slowly. Just start. Have a plan for reading it regularly, not choosing just the parts that you think are inspiring. But read it in a way that covers first the most important parts: Torah and Gospel. And when you have spent some time in them, read also wisdom and poetry and prophecy and letters and apocalypse.

There is no hurry. It is a lifelong process and it works best like daily exercise. Heschel says, In our own lives the voice of God speaks slowly, a syllable at a time.

And I know that for many people it is hard to listen to the quiet voice of God speaking through the text. We might want what Moses had. We might want to hear the audible voice in the Tent. This is not granted to us. My words are sufficient for you, God says.

But instead of lamenting what we don’t have, we need to reawaken our sense of wonder at what we do have. It is not an audible voice. But the words of God can be experienced in here.

If we understand that and let that truth penetrate us, we should find in ourselves radical amazement. Something sublime is happening. The voice emerges from the heavens, travels to the space between the cherubim, travels to the space between Yeshua’s outstretched arms, passes the empty tomb, lifts up from the Mount of Olives to the throne of God in heaven, and comes back down to us. Yeshua said, Heaven and earth will fade, but my words will not pass away.

Do you want a reading plan and some explanation of what the Bible means? I send out a daily email with Torah and Gospel with my commentary called the Daily D’var. Sign up for it (free) right here.

1 Comment

  1. When I am reading the scriptures, I feel close with God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob because when I partake of his word it is as if the word is shared with me at the Heavenly table. As Yesuha said, ‘Man does not live by bread alone… So they are not words that return void but an ongoing conversation where the narrative enters my life at that time and place speaking to the events that are unfolding. This perspective helped me move from an external reading of the text to an intimate exchange with the originator that provides for the prophetic power to enter the time and place of the selected reading with the one that has eyes that see and ears that hear. This conversation can only take place with one that has sought the Father and Son with all their heart and has found them within a living relationship. So for me the conversation arises from the relationship, and the relationship from seeking his face.

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