The building of the ark is highlighted by a special function going well beyond the priestly rituals of the other parts of the tabernacle. Beyond storing the Torah and the Tablets, God tells Moshe that it is from between the keruvim on top of it that He will communicate with him (25:22). On the one hand, this is an intuitive place from which God would speak – the innermost section of the holiest place on Earth. On the other hand, it seems to pale by comparison with the magnificent revelation just encountered ‘under the stars’ and in front of all at Mount Sinai.
The two scenarios seem as far removed as possible. The experience at Sinai overwhelmed the senses – no matter how tightly one might have closed one’s ears or shut one’s eyes, one would have still experienced God’s word. In contrast, the Divine word that would now come to Moshe would be hidden in a room surrounded by walls and partitions: since God would not speak from between the keruvim – meaning from beneath their wings – the Divine voice would not only be behind several partitions on the horizontal plane, it would also be under several partitions on the vertical plane. Also different would be the lack of harshness and severity of the voice at Sinai. If anything, just the opposite may have been the case in the tabernacle. A hint to this is the nature of the keruvim from between which the voice emanated: the rabbis understood them to be figures of young children. And so, one would expect the voice to correspond with its surroundings.
While God doesn’t really have a voice and both experiences were – in that sense – artificial, it is still reasonable to ask which experience reflects the most natural scenario for man to hear that voice. Or to put it differently, which way most corresponds to the reality of God and which one is more of a compromise that follows man’s limitations.
Ostensibly, we could look a few chapters back and attribute God’s moving into more private quarters to the Jews’ response after the revelation at Sinai (20:16): they asked that they no longer hear the voice of God, fearing that doing so could lead to their deaths. This implies that God would have otherwise continued to speak in the way he did at Sinai. In the same way that Moshe covers his face when the people cannot stand to see his light, God covers His voice when the people cannot stand to hear His voice.
However there is a famous Biblical story that pushes in the other direction. When Eliyahu was about to end his career, he had a remarkable encounter at Mount Sinai as well (I Shmuel 19). There God presents loud sounds and bright sights but does not reveal Himself while they transpire. Only subsequently does He reveal himself while producing a still-small voice. From there, we get the impression that contrary to Eliyahu’s expectations, God does not naturally appear with great sounds and sights but specifically in quiet and hiddenness. For as opposed to the Jewish people after the revelation, Eliyahu was prepared – almost asking – for the rigors of the Voice of Sinai.
So which way is it? Perhaps we can get some clarity by looking at Frank Baum’s pop classic, The Wizard of Oz. The wizard is a charlatan that sets himself up as a god-like creature by broadcasting his voice with impressive sounds and sights. And it works – he is feared and respected. Only when Dorothy sees that there is a man behind the voice is he found out to be who he is and does he lose his credibility. While much can – and has been made – of this, there is one important take-home for our topic. Like them or not, humans are very impressed by loud voices and bright sounds. We change who we are when there is a need to impress and only present our truer selves when that is not the case. Since the still-small voice lacks is the voice not meant to impress, there is good reason to conclude that it is the voice that comes from between the keruvim that is the ‘truer’ voice of God.
If we are right, it comes out that we have a tendency to look for God in the wrong places. Many people claim that they would believe in God if they could only hear His voice at Sinai once again. But the only reason for that type of voice to begin with is our own tendency to be impressed by it. In fact, loudness and brightness are not intrinsically Godly at all. On the contrary, the truer place to find God is in the still-small voices all around us.