Praiseworthy or Blameworthy?
Shemot 24 describes the covenant at Sinai. After detailing the bringing of sacrifices, reading of the covenant, and sprinkling of blood on the nation, the verses share how a select few were privileged to see Hashem:
(ט) וַיַּעַל מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא וְשִׁבְעִים מִזִּקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. (י) וַיִּרְאוּ אֵת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם לָטֹהַר. (יא) וְאֶל אֲצִילֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא שָׁלַח יָדוֹ וַיֶּחֱזוּ אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים וַיֹּאכְלוּ וַיִּשְׁתּוּ.
(9) Then Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up. (10) They saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was like a paved work of sapphire stone, like the skies for clearness. (11) He didn’t lay his hand on the nobles of the children of Israel. They saw God, and ate and drank.
At first glance this appears to be a positive event, indicative of the worthiness of the elders. Verse 11, though, might make one question this assumption. We are told "וְאֶל אֲצִילֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא שָׁלַח יָדוֹ". What does this mean? Often when the text employs the phrase "שליחות יד", it refers to harming another.1 Does this imply that the nobles were deserving of punishment, but for some reason were spared? What, though, did the elders do wrong? How else might the term "לֹא שָׁלַח יָדוֹ" be understood?
The verses raise several other textual and theological questions as well:
- Seeing Hashem – What does it mean to see Hashem? If Hashem is not a corporeal being, how can He physically be seen?2
- "וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר" – What does this phrase suggest that the elders saw? What is "מַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר", and how does it describe Hashem?
- "אֲצִילֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל" – Verse 9 speaks of Moshe, Aharon, Nadav, Avihu, and the 70 elders, while verse 11 speaks of "אֲצִילֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל". What is the relationship between the two groups? Are they identical or two distinct sets of individuals? If the former, why are they referred to in different ways in the two verses?
- "וַיִּרְאוּ אֵת אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל" vs. "וַיֶּחֱזוּ אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים" – Is there a difference in meaning between the roots "ראה" and "חזה"? Why is the vision described in one way in verse 10 and in another in verse 11? Moreover, why is the fact repeated twice?
- "וַיֹּאכְלוּ וַיִּשְׁתּוּ" – Why does the story conclude with the fact that the nobility "ate and drank"? How is this connected to their seeing of the Divine; was a meal part of the encounter? Is eating an appropriate response to seeing God?
- "וְאֶל הַזְּקֵנִים אָמַר שְׁבוּ לָנוּ בָזֶה" – When Moshe ascends the mountain to get the tablets, he tells the elders to remain below with Aharon and Chur. Should this be read as an admonition and warning, betraying Moshe's fear lest the elders breach any boundaries? Or, should this be viewed as an honor, as the elders are tasked with sharing in the overseeing of the nation in Moshe's absence?
The Elders Elsewhere in Tanakh
Several other episodes in Tanakh mention the elders and might shed light on their character:
- Elders in Egypt – In Shemot 3, Hashem tells Moshe that he should gather the elders to join him when he confronts Paroh. Though Moshe gathers the elders, when he goes to the palace in Shemot 5, they are not mentioned. Does this indicate that they did not heed the directive, being reluctant to defy Paroh, or is the text's omission of their presence insignificant?
- Elders and the Sin of the Golden Calf – Though the elders are mentioned as joining Aharon and Chur when Moshe ascended the mountain, we hear nothing of their role during the episode with the calf. Where were they when the nation approached Aharon? Does their absence from the text imply innocence or guilt?
- Elders in Bemidbar 11 – When Moshe can no longer bear the nation's grumblings in Bemidbar 11, Hashem suggests that he select 70 elders to help him, implying that no such group existed at the time. Where, though, were the elders of our story? Why were they not tasked with aiding Moshe?