What a provocative passage: “And Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu and 70 elders of Israel ascended, and they saw the God of Israel, and under His feet was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the heavens for purity… they beheld God, and they ate and drank” (Ex. 24: 9-11).
Everything Jewish cries out against interpreting these words literally. Ex. 33:20 warns us, “You cannot see My Presence, for no human can see Me and live”. Deut. 4:12,15 insists that no physical form was seen when God spoke at Chorev.
Yet in our passage there seems to be such gross physicality that we are offended to read it.
Unlike the mystics of the Kabbalah, the rationally minded reader finds it too hard to cope with such verses. For them it is easier to follow the Targum Onkelos, which views the Torah as saying, “They beheld the majesty of the God of Israel”, or to understand “saw” in a metaphorical sense, i.e. not that they actually saw God, which is a logical impossibility in view of the fact that He has no material shape or form, but they perceived His overwhelming Presence.
If an analogy is necessary, think of the fact that sometimes we say, “I see the point”, which does not mean physical but metaphorical perception.
Presuming that this is the meaning of “they saw”, how do we handle the statement that “under His feet was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire”?
Here too we cannot read the words literally. If God has no body, how can He have feet? Sforno finds an approach to the answer in Isa. 66:1, which says that the earth is God’s footstool.
In this sense our verse is saying that the beauty of the earth testifies to the greatness of the Creator.