The season of Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of God in Jesus, the one chosen by God to show God’s love to the world. Running through many of the scripture passages offered by the lectionary for this season is the motif of light—for light illumines, light reveals. The passages remind us that God’s light shines brightly on our lives.
Also key to many of the passages is the gift of the Law, first given to Moses on Mount Sinai, and a millennium later explicated by Jesus on top of another mountain. The Law was the light shining the way for the people of Israel: “your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps 119:105), “the unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple” (Ps 119:130). The place where the Law was given was on the mountain: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction’” (Exod 24:12).
The readings for this Sunday, Transfiguration, thus appropriately situates the stories told on the heights of mountains: Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God” (Exod 24:13); Jesus “took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves” (Matt 17:1); the eyewitnesses “heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him [Jesus] on the holy mountain” (2 Pet 1:18); and the psalmist records the words of the Lord, “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill” (Ps 2:6).
It was on Horeb, “the mountain of God”, that Moses had the startling experience of encountering a bush, burning bright, and not consumed (Exod 3:1–6). The call that Moses received in that encounter atop a mountain would lead him to Sinai, a mountain in the wilderness where Moses would hear the call to all of Israel to be the Lord’s “treasured possession out of all the peoples … a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exod 19:1–6).
That call to Moses would see him serve as the intermediary, receiving the Law from the mountain top and delivering it to the people camped below (Exod 19:10–14; Neh 9:13–14)—although another tradition appears to place the people in direct contact with the Lord, for Moses tells the people that it was at Horeb that “you approached and stood at the foot of the mountain while the mountain was blazing up to the very heavens, shrouded in dark clouds. Then the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice. He declared to you his covenant, which he charged you to observe, that is, the ten commandments; and he wrote them on two stone tablets.” (Deut 4:11–13).
It was also on the top of Mount Sinai that Moses had the most direct encounter with God of any in the ancestral sagas: “Moses came down from Mount Sinai; as he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God” (Exod 34:29). It was said that “the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exod 33:11).
It was on the top of a “mountain of the Abarim range” where Moses appointed Joshua as his successor (Num 27:12–23), and it was on the top of this mountain, identified as Mount Nebo, that Moses would end his life, according to the account preserved in the closing chapters of Deuteronomy (Deut 32:48—34:8).
Once Joshua had led the people into the land of Canaan, he oversaw a ceremony in which the covenant with the Lord God was renewed; that took place in the land between Mount Ebla, on which an altar had been erected, and Mount Gerizim (Josh 8:30–35). In the time of the judges, the battle in which the prophet Deborah led Barak and his troops to defeat the army of King Jabin of Canaan, led by Sisera, was waged on Mount Tabor (Judg 4:1–24), whilst the downfall of Abimelech at the hands of the lords of the Tower of ash Chen took place on Mount Zalmon (Judg 9:22–57).
It was on Mount Carmel that the prophet Elijah had his famous interaction with the prophets of Baal and of Asherah (1 Kings 18:19–46). In that scene, despite all the water poured on the altar, the prophet’s petition is effective, and “the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench” (1 Kings 18:38).
The psalmist extols Mount Zion, the mountain on which David had built his city, as God’s “holy mountain, beautiful in elevation, the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great King” (Ps 48:2), and this site is praised in other psalms (Ps 68:16–20; 87:1–3); “those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever” (Ps 125:1). The people are urged, “extol the Lord our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the Lord our God is holy” (Ps 99:9).
The prophet Isaiah foresees a day after the troubles of his time when “the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over its places of assembly a cloud by day and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; indeed over all the glory there will be a canopy” (Isa 4:5) and also that “gifts will be brought to the Lord of hosts from a people tall and smooth, from a people feared near and far, a nation mighty and conquering, whose land the rivers divide, to Mount Zion, the place of the name of the Lord of hosts” (Isa 18:7).
A central vision for this prophet is the picture “in days to come [when] the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’” (Isa 2:2–3; see also Isa 66:19–20). The vision offers an assurance of universal peace, stemming from these visits to Zion (Isa 2:4; see also Mic 4:2–4 and Isa 65:25).
More than this, it is “on this mountain [Zion] the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear; and he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever” (Isa 25:6–7); “the the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain” (Isa 25:10).
When Israel is attacked by foreign armies, it is Mount Zion that symbolises the claim that the Lord God will fight for his people: “as a lion or a young lion growls over its prey, and—when a band of shepherds is called out against it—is not terrified by their shouting or daunted at their noise, so the Lord of hosts will come down to fight upon Mount Zion and upon its hill. Like birds hovering overhead, so the Lord of hosts will protect Jerusalem; he will protect and deliver it, he will spare and rescue it” (Isa 31:4–5; see also Ps 78:54–55). It is from Mount Zion that “a band of survivors” will go forth, as the remnant who remained faithful in the face of these attacks (Isa 37:32).
Other prophets likewise foresee salvation and escape from tribulation on Mount Zion (Joel 2:32; Obad 1:17); “the lame I will make the remnant, and those who were cast off, a strong nation; and the Lord will reign over them in Mount Zion now and forevermore” (Mic 4:7). This mountain holds a special place in the hearts of kings and prophets.
However, in the apocalyptic fervour that Zechariah generates, he envisages that it will be the Mount of Olives, to the east across the Kidron Valley, that will be the place where “the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle … you shall flee from the earthquake … [and] the Lord my God will come, and all the holy ones with him” ( Zech 14:3–5).
Was this the mountain where, in Ezekiel’s vision, “the glory of the Lord ascended from the middle of the city, and stopped on the mountain east of the city” (Ezek 11:23) ? Certainly, the prophet Ezekiel saw that the future of Israel, after their exile, was bound up with regeneration from the mountaintop down: “Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.” (Ezek 17:22–23; also 20:40–41).
Ezekiel sees his idiosyncratic vision of a rebuilt Temple from “a very high mountain” (Ezek 40:1–4, and the ensuing five chapters), leading to his clear assertion of “the law of the temple: the whole territory on the top of the mountain all around shall be most holy. This is the law of the temple.” (Ezek 43:12).
So mountains are the places in the story where close encounters with the deity took place. As Jesus leads his closest followers up the mountain, there might well be high expectation that God would be encountered in a direct way, given all that Israelite and Jewish tradition had collected regarding stories. And it should be no surprise that those atop that mountain saw a vision, and heard a voice, and witnessed a transformation in Jesus, that could only signal that they had, indeed, encountered the divine.