In the Old Testament, one of the most profound ways God makes His presence known is through His voice.
This is evident from the very beginning, in the Garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve have sinned and God is looking for them:
When they heard the sound of the LORD God walking about in the garden at the breezy time of the day, the man and his wife hid themselves from the LORD God among the trees of the garden (Genesis 3:8).
Reread that first line again: When they heard the sound of the LORD God walking. The word translated as sound here could more literally be rendered as voice, which only reinforces the weirdness of the sentence. Voices don’t walk. And yet, that is what the verse says. If we embrace the meaning of these words they compel a particular conclusion: that God’s voice has substance, so much so that it can ‘walk,’ noisily enough so that its very own walking is heard.
Looking back at this text from the perspective of the Incarnation, it starts to make more sense. John 1 describes the event of the Incarnation as the word of God, or the logos, taking flesh. So it is fitting that God made Himself known in a substantial way through His voice in the Old Testament because it looked forward to the Incarnation. As Catholic philosopher Emmanuel Falque reminds us, wherever there is a voice, there is always a body. One might say that the word first takes flesh in the voice.
This means that ancient Israelites’ experience of the voice of God is relevant to us today. They did not directly see the body of Christ. Instead, He came to them through His voice. Likewise, today, we do not directly gaze upon the body of Christ, since it is veiled by the appearance of the Eucharistic bread and wine.
So the Old Testament can teach us how to hear Christ’s voice. As we follow God’s voice throughout the Old Testament, two aspects stand out: it is both substantive and subtle.
This duality comes to the fore in two classic accounts.
First, there is Moses’ encounter with God on Mt. Sinai.
It begins with the burning bush in Exodus 3:
There the angel of the LORD appeared to him as fire flaming out of a bush. When he looked, although the bush was on fire, it was not being consumed. So Moses decided, “I must turn aside to look at this remarkable sight. Why does the bush not burn up?” When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to look, God called out to him from the bush: Moses! Moses! He answered, “Here I am.” God said: Do not come near! Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your father, he continued, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God (Exodus 3:2-6).
Just as the fire does not consume the burning bush, so also God’s voice does not overwhelm, or ‘consume,’ Moses. We can better appreciate the tenderness of God’s encounter here in light of what happens later: later on, during the exodus itself, Moses enters into dialogue with God. Again, God’s presence is indicated by fire. But this time the fire has become terrifyingly immense: Exodus 24:17 reports that “the glory of the LORD was seen as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain.”
And yet Moses, who had once been afraid to look upon the burning bush, is able to step into the fire and talk to God. The Israelites, on the other hand, shrink back in fear. In Exodus 20, God delivers the Ten Commandments to Moses. His words are intelligent to the Israelite leader, but to the mass of people his words are as thunder:
Now as all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blast of the shofar and the mountain smoking, they became afraid and trembled. So they took up a position farther away and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we shall die” (Exodus 20:18-19).
This account is consistent with how God’s voice is described elsewhere in the Old Testament:
The LORD thundered from heaven;
the Most High made his voice resound (2 Samuel 22:14).
The voice of the LORD is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the LORD, over the mighty waters.
The voice of the LORD is power;
the voice of the LORD is splendor.
The voice of the LORD cracks the cedars (Psalm 29:3-5).
When he thunders, the waters in the heavens roar,
and he brings up clouds from the end of the earth,
Makes lightning flash in the rain,
and brings forth the wind from his storehouses (Jeremiah 10:13).
In the case of Elijah, the pattern is reversed. Instead of approach Elijah in a less imposing manner, as He did with Moses, God takes the opposite tack: Elijah is overwhelmed with natural terrors of a wind storm, an earthquake, and a fire. Only after that is His tenderness disclosed:
Then the LORD said: Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will pass by. There was a strong and violent wind rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD—but the LORD was not in the wind; after the wind, an earthquake—but the LORD was not in the earthquake; after the earthquake, fire—but the LORD was not in the fire; after the fire, a light silent sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. A voice said to him, Why are you here, Elijah? (1 Kings 19:11-13).
It is perhaps fitting that Jesus selects both Moses and Elijah to appear with Him during the Transfiguration. In a particular way, these Old Testament prophets have important things to teach us about how we encounter the voice of God, about how we hear Jesus.
One key lesson is that God approaches us in different ways. Moses first met Him in the humility of a flaming bush. Elijah’s initial interaction, on the other hand, required hiding out in a cave as one natural disaster after another rocked the mountain.
There is a corollary to this: at first it may be hard to hear what God is saying to us. In His immensity and majesty we might hear the roar of thunder. Just because we may not be able to understand Him, doesn’t mean God isn’t speaking to us.
One may draw an analogy with the contemplative concept of the ‘dazzling darkness’—the idea that God’s brightness is so intense that it can be blinding. Likewise, His voice is so great that it may deafen us with His thunder.
We may need to train our ears to listen to thunder. But there is good news here. After the thunder has passed, God may speak to us quietly as He did to Elijah. So we must also be attentive to the subtle ways God may be speaking to us. Thunder He might, but the thunder also whispers to us.