Saturday, March 17, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 19

In this chapter... what can I say?  God comes down onto the mountain and meets with Moses there.

Note poetic parallelism in verse 2: "Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel".  Not a big deal, but I saw it and think it's cool.  I love the stylism.  I also like the picture we see in verse 20 when it says the LORD came down and Moses came up, where they have a summit (pun intended) on the mountain.
You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.  (vv. 4-6)
 This passage is absolutely huge, so I'll break it down.

First, God gives a recap of the exodus story.  He "did" stuff to the Egyptians, sheltered the Israelites like a mother eagle, and "brought you" to himself.  This shows that the whole "going into the desert to celebrate a festival to the LORD" might not be as pretextual as I had earlier assumed.  At the time, God was emphasizing the departure from Egypt as a permanent venture into the promised land, and this is still true.  However, we're seeing that along the way they are going to stop at Mount Horeb, the "mountain of God" (Ex 18:5), and what we see in this chapter is that God has planned something very rare and totally unprecedented in this meeting with Israel.  This is quite possibly the festival that the LORD had in mind.

Second, the LORD expresses a condition that the people should obey him and keep his covenant, and in exchange they would be his special possession, above and beyond his divine rulership over the whole world.  We have already seen several covenants expressed in the past, such as the Adamic Covenant (Gen 1:28), the Noahic Covenant (Gen 9:8-17), and most relevantly, the Abrahamic Covenant (Various, but first referenced in Gen 12:1-3).  I wrote numerous times about the various covenant holders, specifically referring to the Abrahamic Covenant, as it passed down from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to his sons, down to the Israelite people who are listening to Moses in this chapter.  They still hold the Abrahamic Covenant, but as we have seen, there have been a number of changes and additions as well.  God relates to the people differently than he did Abraham, and further restrictions have been added as well such as the Passover, the redemption of the firstborn sons, and most recently the Sabbath.

What God is about to introduce is a new covenant that subsumes the Abrahamic Covenant, and this one is generally known as the Mosaic Covenant, also known as the Law of Moses (I will use these interchangeably).  As we will see, the Mosaic Covenant is much longer, more specific, and broader than the Abrahamic Covenant.  The Abrahamic Covenant was a short and simple contract that Abraham and his seed would obey the LORD and receive commensurate protection and blessing, which we readily observe in Abraham's life.  Since it demands full obedience, one cannot technically do anything more restrictive.  Nevertheless, the Mosaic Covenant codifies far more rules of behavior which govern the people, compared to the much more relational and "soft" rules that governed Abraham.  Of course, Abraham was once commanded to sacrifice his son, so that doesn't mean it's easier, but it is definitely more dynamic and relational compared to the written law transcribed by Moses.

I have a fairly evident bias against the codified Law of Moses and a much greater affinity for the relational Covenant of Abraham for the simple reason that Abraham's relationship with God is much more aligned with modern Christian theology and practice (in evangelical circles anyway), which tends to elevate individualism and personal experience over the more structured and communal organization of the Mosaic Covenant.  While acknowledging my personal bias, I think I can see a good justification for the codified Law of Moses, which is that the Israelite people who have emerged from Egypt do not have a cultural structure that is capable of carrying them through the desert and into the promised land.  They have more social and survival problems than I can reasonably list, but some examples are widespread food and water shortages, lack of judicial structure, no social cohesion between the many tribes and clans, an only vaguely defined faith in some god who they barely know and trust even less, widespread skepticism towards their erstwhile leader, and a major power vacuum after being released from captivity (equivalent to modern prison recidivism that comes from long periods of not having to make decisions).

The Law of Moses addresses several of these issues.  In particular, it establishes national laws governing social, moral, religious, ceremonial and legal affairs.  All of these are important issues for building a proper judicial structure, establishing the national religion, filling the power vacuum left by the Egyptians, establishing the national leadership of Moses, and to a certain extent resolving some of the tribal cohesion problems.  All of these issues are especially important in light of the immaturity of Israel as an independent nation, which I emphasized in the prior chapter.  Since many of these issues have been left unresolved or ambiguous until now, the precedents set by Moses and the new covenant will go on to define the Israelite nation for the rest of its existence.

These are the reasons why I think structure is important during this time period, but my belief is that ultimately this structure was created to carry the people through a period of infancy and that, properly grown in wisdom and stature, they could move on to something that more closely resembled the fluidity of Abraham's faith: that structure is helpful for a time, but to cling to the structure beyond its proper function and season would ultimately cripple the people and constrain them from moving onwards in their faith in God.  I should emphasize this is just my opinion and I haven't proven it yet from the texts we have read, but I think this belief is well-grounded in later biblical texts.

Third, I think the ultimate goal of this process is stated at the end of the quotation, which is to establish Israel as a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation".  This sentence establishes three core points: Israel as a kingdom, priesthood of the people and holiness of the nation.

Israel is not yet a kingdom.  Right now they are a conglomeration of related tribes and clans with leadership ostensibly unified in Moses, but in practice we see that the people frequently challenge his authority (i.e. everything he does or says).  Later there will be a king over Israel, so some readers probably consider this statement an anachronism (implying that it was written during the kingdom period and not by Moses).  Alternatively, others believe that this statement establishes the royalty of the followers of the covenant.  I think it's vague enough that I would not go that far, but we will see that in later portions of the bible, the royalty of the believer is confirmed.

The holiness of the nation is a general guiding principle behind the entire Law of Moses, which is related to the "principle of separation" that I have repeatedly referenced.  Holiness is basically just a word for "separate", "apart from", or "uncommon".  It is used to refer to things that are devoted to God and should not be treated like a normal [whatever].  We will see this principle in action later.

Possibly the most important connotation is the believer-as-priest.  This verse establishes that it is a kingdom of priests, opening the priesthood to all the people of Israel.  The priesthood is a complex subject, but I can summarize it with one key attribute: intermediation between people and God, by interceding on behalf of the people with respect to God or speaking to the people on behalf of God.  Since it is an entire nation of priests, that means that they do not have to intercede for each other, but rather implies they would intercede on behalf of other nations and the peoples of the world.  One of the byproducts of priesthood is that the priest is always closest to God since he or she speaks to God on behalf of others.  This is a critical expansion of the promised blessing of Abraham which says, "And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed." (Gen 12:3)  We are now starting to see the definition of that blessing in the form of interlocutory appeals for these other "families".

I wouldn't make such a big deal out of such a small phrase, except that it occurs here at the beginning of the Hebrew nation and is therefore a founding principle.

In the immediate period of chapter 19, we see that Moses is the interlocutor on behalf of Israel, relaying God's words to them and their words to God.  This shows that while the people are promised a priesthood, in reality Moses is still their intermediary.  I believe the form of verses 5-6 implies that this is a future promise conditional on their obedience, so it makes sense that they are manifestly priests yet.

With all of this in mind, the LORD initiates a meeting with the people: he will come down to the holy mountain and meet with them, because they accepted his offer of lordship (v. 8).  This is clearly a good start to their relationship with the LORD, proclaiming obedience, but we've seen how they react to the leadership of Moses so perhaps we should not take their declaration at face value.

To me, the most striking part of this next passage is that after declaring the priesthood of Israel and their closeness to God, God demands they not touch the mountain on pain of death.  We see that Moses alone is authorized to go up, which further cements his role as the prophet of Israel.

I said before to focus on the various manifestations of the LORD.  In that respect, this chapter is unique.  All of the prior manifestations were gentle things, like clouds of fire or a burning bush or the appearance of a man.  Now we are seeing an entire mountain set on fire, earthquakes, thunder and lightning and a "very loud trumpet" that continually increases in volume.  It seems like an understatement to say that the LORD is teaching the people his greatness, power and glory.  We saw his victory over the Egyptians, we saw his sovereignty over natural creation, now we see the raw, manifest force of God's greatness and majesty.

The reactions to this manifestation are informative.  We see a juxtaposition between the "trembling" of the people and the boldness of Moses.  As the trumpet grows louder and louder, the people cower and Moses speaks to God.  We can infer from this that the people are unfamiliar with the LORD and for good reason find this new manifestation frightening.  I would like to emphasize again the immaturity of the people's faith in the LORD.

What's even more interesting is that in spite of their fear, the LORD has to warn the people repeatedly to not go up the mountain "so that they do not break through to the LORD to gaze".  Apparently they were curious enough to overcome their fear and desire to climb up the mountain to "gaze" at the LORD.  I'm not sure what's going on with that other than it possibly showing some irreverence.  The LORD is certainly trying to establish a certain degree of reverence, that he would not be treated as a spectacle.  This reverence is intended to be mingled with the closeness of priesthood that we see in Moses.  This seems like a paradox.  It's also interesting that here, God tells the people to not draw near "to gaze", while in Ex 3, the LORD creates a burning bush so as to draw Moses's attention and get him to come closer.

It's peculiar that this chapter talks about priests (v. 22, 24) because while this chapter talks about the "kingdom of priests", we have not actually seen the establishment of a formal priesthood yet.  This happens later.  Maybe this is an anachronism or maybe it's a reference to informal or cultish priests, I don't know.


Anna Tan said...

I would say that the Mosaic Covenant/Law seems to be very specific to the times and the people, otherwise there would be a requirement for all Christians to observe them.

However, the Abrahamic covenant, whilst very personal to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is also used inclusively as a covenant for all people who approach God through faith. (Referencing Romans 4; which is why "Abraham's relationship with God is much more aligned with modern Christian theology and practice.")

Daniel S. said...

If I could rewrite this blog post today, I would probably phrase it differently. I think what I would say is that many of the details of the Mosaic covenant do not have direct parallels in modern life, but I think there are a lot of important principles we can learn from this. For example, Hebrews 8-9 quote the construction of the tabernacle as being a "copy and shadow" of a heavenly tabernacle. So there are things we can certainly learn from the Law of Moses. At the same time, we do not offer animal sacrifices anymore and do not obey many of the specific commands. As far as I can remember, the covenant of Abraham does not have commandments, so it is structurally very different. Etc.