After the revelation at Mount Sinai where God spoke the Ten Commandments to the nation of Israel, this week’s Torah portion Mishpatim opens with two chapters of laws (Ex. 22-23) spoken by God to Moses at that time. Then, in chapter 24, the Bible tells us that Moses relayed these laws to the people (Ex. 24:3). Moses then wrote the words of the law, built an altar, offered sacrifices to God, and sprinkled some of the blood on the people as a sign of the covenant (v.4-8). And then we read the following:
Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up. They saw the God of Israel; and under His feet was like a configuration of sapphire brick, and it was like the very heavens in purity. – Exodus 24:9-10
What exactly happened in this scene is unclear. Moses, Aaron, Aaron’s sons, and the elders of Israel experienced a prophetic vision. That much is clear. But how are we to understand the description of what they saw? Does God have feet? And what does “like a configuration of sapphire brick” mean? What is the meaning of this vision?
Sapphire appears in two other prophecies in the Bible. Isaiah 54 is a prophecy spoken by Isaiah to the city of Jerusalem. Speaking to the holy city, Isaiah comforts Jerusalem by describing the future rebuilding of the city in the End Times. In that context, Isaiah prophesies that Jerusalem’s foundations will be laid with sapphire.
Afflicted and stormed-tossed one, who has not been comforted. Behold I will set your flagstones with carbuncle and lay your foundations with sapphire. – Isaiah 54:11
The other prophetic vision involving sapphire is in Ezekiel. Chapter 1 of Ezekiel is one of the most difficult-to-understand passages in the Bible. It describes the “chariot” or throne of God. In this vision, Ezekiel saw God sitting – so to speak – on His throne of glory.
Above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, like the appearance of sapphire stone; and upon the likeness of the throne was a likeness, like the appearance of a person on it from above. – Ezekiel 1:26
To sum up, our verse here in Exodus 24 describes a vision “like a configuration of sapphire brick” under the feet of God in the wake of receiving the law at Sinai. Isaiah prophesies that the foundations of Jerusalem of the future will be made of sapphire. In Ezekiel’s vision of God sitting on His throne, the throne is made of sapphire.
Sapphire is a beautiful gemstone. Although it can appear in a variety of colors, including colorless, its most common color is sky-blue. Like many gems, sapphire is transparent like glass. To describe something as “like sapphire” is to say that it is beautiful, sky-blue, and transparent.
When we say that an object is transparent, we are describing the fact that its inside and outside are visible simultaneously. For a transparent object, it’s difficult to tell where the outside ends and the inside begins. An object that is not transparent, on the other hand, cannot be seen on the inside by looking at the outer surface. The internal nature is concealed by the opaque outer layer.
God is the creator and sustainer of all things. The inner purpose of everything in creation is the glory of God. The goal of a life according to the Bible is to see God in everything. Unfortunately, this isn’t how we experience the world on a day-to-day basis. When we look at the world around us, the internal essence and purpose of creation is not readily apparent to our senses. We don’t easily see Godliness in all things. Our vision is obscured by the dark outer layer of reality.
When practiced properly, the laws of the Torah sensitize us to God’s presence all around us. A life of obedience to God’s law allows us to see God. For example, when I praise God before and after I eat, the experience of eating becomes about so much more than the taste, texture, and nutritional value of the food. By reminding myself that the food I am eating was created for me by God, I experience the Godliness inherent in the food.
The goal of the entire Bible, the goal of a life of faith and service of God, is to make everything like sapphire. With the Bible as our guide, everything in creation speaks of God’s beauty and reminds us of the heavens. More importantly, everything becomes transparent, meaning that the inner essence and purpose – the glory of God – becomes visible. Like sapphire, external material existence and its internal Godly essence become indistinguishable.
So when Isaiah said that the foundations of Jerusalem of the future will be sapphire, what he meant was this. Jerusalem, the capital city of the kingdom of God on earth, will be a place where the beauty and Godliness inherent in everything is visible and tangible.
This same idea is expressed by Ezekiel’s vision of God’s throne. Kings sit on thrones. God is all-powerful. God is creator and ruler. This is true in all times and all places. It is true whether or not people recognize Him. But when the Bible refers to God as king it means something more specific. Consider this verse in Zechariah, one example among many verses that convey this same idea.
The Lord will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one Lord, and his name the only name. – Zechariah 14:9
The Lord will be king…? Isn’t He already king? When the Bible refers to God as king, it means much more than the fact that God is supreme ruler. It means that people recognize Him as such. So, when Zechariah said that “the Lord will be king,” he means that everyone will know Him and serve Him. When Ezekiel described God’s throne as made of sapphire, he was telling us that God’s kingship is all about what sapphire represents, seeing the inner heavenly truth of the earthly material world.
Let’s return to our verse here in Exodus 24. Recall that this vision occurred Immediately after the children of Israel received God’s law at Sinai. The vision of Moses, Aaron, his sons, and the elders is described as, “like a configuration of sapphire brick.” In the original Hebrew, this phrase is ke’ma’aseh livnat hasapir, which literally translates to “like the work of the brick of sapphire.”
I’d like to suggest that this vision was a description of the covenant itself.
After spending generations making bricks in Egypt, the children of Israel are told that they have a new task. They will no longer make bricks for Pharaoh. Their new construction project is to build the kingdom of God “under His feet,” in the lower, material world. They are to build a world in which God’s presence, the inner essence of everything, is tangible and perceptible. This work is “the work of the brick of sapphire.”
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is a regular contributor to Israel365news.com. He serves as Executive Director for Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation. He is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast.