The appearance of God above the sapphire, or lapis lazuli, pavement is what is known as a theophany. God appearing. And yet the Bible also tells us that no man can see God and live, and that no man has seen God, so what the seventy saw was some kind of representation of God, but what?
The most common form of vision of God in the Old Testament is just that – a vision, in which God appears in a vision or dream, often in a trance like state. An example of a vision of this sort is the vision in Isaiah 6:
6. 1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:1-5)
The second most common form of theophany, and default meaning of the term ‘theophany’, is a representation by an angel, such as the angel in the burning bush which represented itself as the LORD to Moses. Or such as the LORD the first of the three angels who met Abraham. It is also possible that God was represented by an angel in Genesis 3:8-10, although the text only says that Adam and Eve heard the sound of God walking in the garden and his voice.
So what did the seventy elders see?
The text is as follows:
24 Then he said to Moses, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship from afar. 2 Moses alone shall come near to the Lord, but the others shall not come near, and the people shall not come up with him.” 3 Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the rules. And all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” … 9 Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, 10 and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. 11 And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank. 12 The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and wait there, that I may give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” 13 So Moses rose with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. 14 And he said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we return to you. And behold, Aaron and Hur are with you. Whoever has a dispute, let him go to them.”
The key to understanding this vision – and the term vision is required by the scenery that accompanied the figure – is in comparison with what Moses himself saw pass by behind him as he hid in the cleft in the rock in Exodus 33
So the LORD said to Moses, “I will also do this thing that you have spoken; for you have found grace in My sight, and I know you by name.” 18 And he said, “Please, show me Your glory.” 19 Then He said, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” 20 But He said, “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.” 21 And the LORD said, “Here is a place by Me, and you shall stand on the rock. 22 “So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by. 23 “Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.” (Exodus 33:17-23)
This encounter with Moses is clearly a step up from the vision seen by the seventy elders. Moses saw something of ‘God’, but did not see Him fully, as God Himself says that if anyone saw His face, he would die. (33:20). So the conclusion is that it is a daytime vision.