Guide for the Perplexed, by Moses Maimonides, Friedländer tr. , at sacred-texts.com
THE three words karab, "to come near," naga‘, "to touch," and nagash, "to approach," sometimes signify "contact" or "nearness in space," sometimes the approach of man's knowledge to an object, as if it resembled the physical approach of one body to another. As to the use of karab in the first meaning, viz., to draw near a certain spot, comp. "As he drew near (karab) the camp" (Exod. xxxii. 19); "And Pharaoh drew near (hikrib) (Exod. xiv. 10). Naga‘, in the first sense, viz., expressing the contact of two bodies, occurs in "And she cast it (va-tagga‘) at his feet" (Exod. iv. 25); "He caused it to touch (va-yagga‘) my mouth" (Isa. vi. 7). And nagash in the first sense, viz., to approach or move towards another person, is found, e.g., in "And Judah drew near (va-yiggash) unto him" (Gen. xliv. 1).
The second meaning of these three words is "approach by means of knowledge," or "contact by comprehension," not in reference to space. As to naga‘ in this second sense, comp. "for her judgment reacheth (naga‘) unto heaven" (Jer. li. 9). An instance of karab being used in this meaning is contained in the following passage, "And the cause that is too hard for you, bring (takribun) it unto me" (Deut. i. 17); this is equivalent to saying, "Ye shall make it known unto me." The verb karab (in the Hiphil) is thus employed in the sense of giving information concerning a thing. The verb nagash is used figuratively in the phrase, "And Abraham drew near (va-yiggash), and said" (Gen. xviii. 23); this took place in a prophetic vision and
in a trance, as will be explained (Part I. chap. xxi., and Part II. chap. xli.; also in "Forasmuch as this people draw near (niggash) me with their mouths and with their lips" (Isa. xxix. 13). Wherever a word denoting approach or contact is employed in the prophetic writings to describe a certain relation between the Almighty and any created being, it has to be understood in this latter sense [viz., to approach mentally]. For, as will be proved in this treatise (II. chap. iv.), the Supreme is incorporeal, and consequently He does not approach or draw near a thing, nor can aught approach or touch Him; for when a being is without corporeality, it cannot occupy space, and all idea of approach, contact, distance, conjunction, separation, touch, or proximity is inapplicable to such a being.
There can be no doubt respecting the verses "The Lord is nigh (karob) unto all them that call upon him" (Ps. cxlv. 18); "They take delight in approaching (kirbat) to God" (Isa. lviii. 2); "The nearness (kirbat) of God is pleasant to me" (Ps. lxxii. 28); all such phrases intimate a spiritual approach, i.e., the attainment of some knowledge, not, however, approach in space. Thus also "who hath God so nigh (kerobim) unto him" (Deut. iv. 7); "Draw thou near (kerab) and hear" (Deut. v. 27); "And Moses alone shall draw near (ve-niggash) the Lord; but they shall not come nigh (yiggashu)" (Exod. xxiv. 2).
If, however, you wish to take the words "And Moses shall draw near" to mean that he shall draw near a certain place in the mountain, whereon the Divine Light shone, or, in the words of the Bible, "where the glory of the Lord abode," you may do so, provided you do not lose sight of the truth that there is no difference whether a person stand at the centre of the earth or at the highest point of the ninth sphere, if this were possible: he is no further away from God in the one case, or nearer to Him in the other; those only approach Him who obtain a knowledge of Him; while those who remain ignorant of Him recede from Him. In this approach towards, or recession from God there are numerous grades one above the other, and I shall further elucidate, in one of the subsequent chapters of the Treatise (I. chap. lx., and II. chap. xxxvi.) what constitutes the difference in our perception of God.
In the passage, "Touch (ga‘) the mountains, and they shall smoke" (Ps. cxliv. 5), the verb "touch" is used in a figurative sense, viz., "Let thy word touch them." So also the words, "Touch thou him himself" (Job ii. 5), have the same meaning as "Bring thy infliction upon him." In a similar manner must this verb, in whatever form it may be employed be interpreted in each place, according to the context; for in some cases it denotes contact of two material objects, in others knowledge and comprehension of a thing, as if he who now comprehends anything which he had not comprehended previously had thereby approached a subject which had been distant from him. This point is of considerable importance.