Scripture Reading: Exodus 19-20, 24-25, 32-34, 40
Significant Moments in The Story
The Ten Commandments – Exodus 20
Instructions for Building the Tabernacle – Exodus 25-31
The Golden Calf – Exodus 32
Commandments & Covenant
The concept of covenant is very familiar to us at this point. We have seen again and again God establishing and fulfilling the promise that he made to Abraham and to his descendants. And there have been times, such as when God commanded Abraham to circumcise all the males of his household, that we have seen God ask His people to put forth particular actions as a sign of their acceptance of God’s covenant. However, it is here at Mt. Sinai that we perhaps most clearly understand that what God is seeking to create is more than just a people who are marked as His. This covenant is designed to establish a relationship that will transform His people in word and deed. Their entire lives, from their worship to their day to day relationships with one another, will be identifying marks of the presence of the living God in their midst and the liberation and salvation that He brings.
God’s holy otherness
On Mt. Sinai, God is revealed in thunder, smoke, and fire. His face cannot be seen. His glory gives a glow to the face of Moses. Even as God is giving Moses the commandments that express and define His desire to be in the midst of His people, we are reminded that God is other than humanity. The commandments are not a call to follow rules, but to live out the earth-shaking holiness that defines the character of God, in the reality that no action or word can ever bring us into a place of equality with God. Even Moses, who spoke with God face to face, has to be protected from that part of God’s holiness which would overwhelm him. The relationship between God and humanity is not a relationship among equals. When we deal with God, we are dealing with the “holy other.” As God’s people, we are called to be holy, meaning we are called to honor God as God (as opposed to the Fall when Adam and Eve chose to be gods unto themselves) and to seek a proper relationship with God in the midst of a world of disorder and sin (Creation brought order out of chaos, sin brought chaos out of order).
In the midst of all of these commandments that God gives, we come to understand that obedience is not just following rules. To be obedient is to trust in God who can speak at any time or place. Even in the face of overwhelming displays of God’s power and glory, Israel still turns to other gods, building golden calves and giving them the credit for leading them out of Egypt. Certainly, we see a pattern here that we will see again and again in the story of God’s relationship with Israel: God will deliver His people, they will proclaim faithfulness, and then they will disobey, losing trust in God. Of course, we see this story in our own lives as well. In this section of the story, we see that God, in the face of our disobedience, is indeed “merciful and gracious, … abounding in steadfast love.” However, this story also confronts us with the idea that there are consequences for our disobedience, and that sometimes those consequences are not limited to our lives alone, but affect others.
The children of Israel will remain at Mt. Sinai for almost a year, their departure from Sinai described in Numbers 10. This mountain is associated with the same mountain that Moses met with God in the burning bush in Exodus 3. There, the name given to the mountain was Horeb. Horeb and Sinai will be interchangeable names for the “mountain of God” in the Old Testament. Not enough information is given for us to accurately identify the location of Mt. Sinai today.
The Law (Torah)
We pay a lot of attention to the Ten Commandments, and rightly so. However, we often lose sight of the fact that the Ten Commandments, as expressed in Exodus 20, serve as the introduction and foundation of the entire Jewish law, known in Hebrew as the Torah.
God’s purpose for giving the Torah is perhaps most clearly expressed in Deuteronomy 5:33 – “You must follow exactly the path that the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you are to possess.” To live in relationship, whether with God or with our fellow man, requires some kind of structure. This structure is necessary to insure the stability and well-being of all involved in the relationship. It should be noted that among the many commandments that will be handed down at Sinai will be several that speak directly to the most disadvantaged among the people of Israel – the poor, the elderly, the alien. Even the commandment to honor father and mother was a commandment to insure the well-being of parents who could no longer work to take care of themselves.
Obedience to the Torah was not a matter of appeasing God. Instead, obedience to the Law was about living life so that God could be revealed to the world. In Exodus 34:10-14, the Lord tells Moses that he is about to marvelous things for Israel, and that all the people who live around Israel will see God through the works that He will do for Israel. Obedience to the commandments was required to insure that the surrounding peoples would have a clear understanding of God’s work and, therefore, God’s character.
It must also be noted that, in the giving of the Torah, God shows that it is just as important to Him how Israel lives with one another as how Israel lives with Him. The first 4 of the Ten Commandments focus on Israel’s relationship with God. The last 6, however, focus on Israel’s relationship within the community. In the Torah, we see the sacred and the secular blended together. God is not only a religious obligation; He is indeed the Lord of all creation!
We sometimes think that the Israelites had a belief that obedience to the Law was what brought salvation. However, note how God begins his address to Moses in Exodus 20:2-3, the beginning of the Ten Commandments.
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
God did not liberate Israel because they had been obedient. He makes it very clear that obedience follows salvation. Obedience to the law is not earning God’s favor but joining God in reclaiming all of creation through His saving work. This is why, in Deuteronomy 10:17-18, Moses describes God as one who is “…mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, … who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” To think that obedience to the Law was the way to win God’s favor is a misinterpretation of the Law’s purpose. Israel was chosen as God’s people not on any accomplishments of their own but by the unmerited favor of God.
The sacrificial system – Exodus 24
The Torah contains within it many examples and instructions regarding animal sacrifice as part of the community’s worship life. For many today, such a system seems meaningless, cruel, and archaic. How we understand the sacrificial system will impact how we understand much of the rest of Scripture.
It should first be noted that the offering of sacrifices was not about appeasing God. The sacrifices were not an act of “making up” with God or keeping God satisfied. It should also be noted that the Israelites did not believe that killing was required to gain forgiveness. In Leviticus 5:11-13, we are told that one could bring an offering of grain as atonement for one’s sins. So the law did not require blood to gain forgiveness.
It also should be noted that animals, cattle, and produce were the currency of a wandering culture. We place our cash, change, and checks in the offering plate every Sunday as a sign of trust and thanks to God. In one sense, the sacrificial system was a similar act – placing a portion of what one owned into the care of God.
However, the most important meaning of sacrifice had to do with atoning for sins. In Leviticus 17:10-13, God tells Moses, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.” The blood of the animals served as a substitute for human life, and the sacrificial act was the act of giving life back to God, reversing the consequences of the Fall in which humanity’s actions took their lives away from God.
Interestingly, later passages will call into question the place and understanding of sacrifice within Israel. Psalm 51:16-17, a prayer to God, reads, “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” In Hosea 6:6, God says, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” From these passages, it seems clear that a proper understanding of atonement within the sacrificial system cannot be limited to the shedding of blood.
Obviously, the sacrificial system of Israel would become a foundation point for Christianity’s later understanding of Jesus’ death on the cross. There are many theories to explain the meaning of Christ’s death and the forgiveness of sins. Language that we hear and use sometimes, that Christ “paid the price for our sins” or that Christ “died in our place”, are based on understandings not only of Jesus Christ but the meaning of sacrifice as understood in the Scripture.
The tabernacle and the ark – Exodus 25
God instructs Moses and the Israelites to build a tabernacle and different instruments for the tabernacle using the gold and jewelry that they carried out of Egypt from the Egyptians (Exodus 12:35-36). Exodus 25:8 states the purpose for the tabernacle – “And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.” God’s desire is still to be in the midst of His people, as He was in the beginning, walking in the Garden of Eden.
Much of this chapter is instructions for building the ark which will contain the words of the covenant that God is making with Israel at Sinai. We are probably more familiar with the ark of the covenant because of Indiana Jones that we are these biblical passages. However, the ark will remain significant as we move through Israel’s history. The ark was more than just a container. It was built to be a throne for God (Exodus 25:22).
The golden calf – Exodus 32
The calf was a symbol of fertility in the ancient Near East. It should be noted that the items that the people donated to create the golden calf were the same items that God told Moses the people should donate to build the tabernacle and the items within the tabernacle.
The people ask Aaron to “make gods for us” when Moses stays longer on the mountain of God. Interestingly, though, after crafting the calf, Aaron says in Exodus 32:5, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.” This raises the question of whether the calf is representative of some false god (breaking the first commandment, Exodus 20:3) or if the calf is intended to be an image of the LORD, thus breaking the second commandment (Exodus 20:4). The story also resonates with a familiar tone: when Moses confronts Aaron, Aaron’s first response is to blame the people (Exodus 20:2) just as Adam’s first response was to blame Eve. In addition, Aaron says that the calf magically appeared out of the fire (Exodus 32:24) even though we are told in two different places that Aaron made the calf himself (Exodus 32:4, 35). The golden calf story thus is not only a story of breaking commandments; it is a story that reveals the threat of sin that is still present.
Moses breaks the tablets – Exodus 32:19
It was a relatively common practice in the ancient world to inscribe treaties on stone tablets. When one party wanted to invalidate or repudiate the treaty, then that party would break the tablet. It is interesting that it is Moses, in this case, who breaks the tablets, not God. In Exodus 34, God instructs Moses to cut two new tablets, indicating that God’s mercy and faithfulness was not an excuse to take the covenant for granted. However, the people could be restored and the covenant could be reestablished. The formation of the two new tablets is an act of God’s grace.
Some Questions that Might Come Up
Why could Israel not make an altar out of chiseled stones (Exodus 20:25)?
No explanation is given as to why the Israelites, if they make an altar out of stone, must be built from raw stones. Some think that these simple, raw altars were to be distinguished from more ornate pagan altars. One wonders if another possible explanation was to insure that the attention and purpose of the altar was to praise God as opposed to praising the work of man.
Why does Moses order the Levites to kill “…your brother, your friend, and your neighbor”?
Exodus 32:25-29 is one of the passages that explains how it is that the Levites came to be set apart from the other tribes of Israel and recognized as the priestly clan. This story is intended to show their zeal and passionate loyalty to the Lord above any social or family bonds. It is interesting to note that it is Moses who attributes this instruction to God, even though we have not specifically heard God give this instruction in the midst of all the dialogue that we have heard between Moses and God. Perhaps the story serves also as a cautionary tale about how we invoke God’s name into a situation.