Exodus 19: Arriving at Sinai to Encounter God

View from the Summit of Mount Sinai, Picture by Modammed Moussa. Shared under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Exodus 19: 1-9 Borne on Eagles Wings to Sinai

 On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai. 2 They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. 3 Then Moses went up to God; the LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: 4 You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6 but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”

 7 So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the LORD had commanded him. 8 The people all answered as one: “Everything that the LORD has spoken we will do.” Moses reported the words of the people to the LORD. 9 Then the LORD said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.”

The book of Exodus spends the first thirteen chapters with the people in Egypt and with the LORD and Moses working to get Pharaoh to let the people go. I originally thought of the book of Exodus being primarily about the physical journey out of Egypt to the promised land but it is telling that the movement of the people in the book comes to an end here. The books of Numbers, the beginning of Deuteronomy and ultimately the book of Joshua will narrate the long remaining journey into the promised land but in Exodus the movement ends at Mount Sinai. The LORD has made the journey out of Egypt and through the wilderness possible but the events at Mount Sinai will occupy over half of the book of Exodus.

The image of the people being borne on eagles’ wings probably takes many people to the lyrical adaptation of Psalm 91, ‘and he will lift you up on eagles’ wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you to shine like the sun and hold you in the palm of his hands.’ This image of God bearing the people on eagles’ wings is a poetic metaphor that gets used in the song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32 where the LORD is the mother eagle hovering over her chicks and lifting them into the air with her feathers as well as being a metaphor used in several Psalms (Psalm 17:8, 36:7, 57:1, 61:4, and 63:7 all mention being sheltered in God’s wings as well as the Psalm 91:4 mentioned above). This powerful image of nurturing strength resonated with the people of Israel and continues to resonate with many people today. While metaphors never completely express who God is, they bear witness to a portion of the divine identity and here the motherly attributes of a mother bird as well as the strength of the protective eagle combine in this potent image. The LORD of Israel is a God of strength who can take the people out of Egypt like a warrior, but who like a mother provides food, water and shelter. Ultimately the destination of the people in Exodus is to come into the wilderness to meet God.

In coming chapters, we will see in greater detail what obedience will mean for the covenant people but here Israel is called to be God’s treasured possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. What each of these three vocations is to mean has been a rich territory for scholarly and holy imagination. We may, with our current sensitivities, be a little uncomfortable with the first vocation where the people of Israel are called to be a treasured possession: possession may call to mind images of slavery or chattel (where women, slave, and children were possessions and not people) but we need not take this image in this way. Israel will occupy a special place in the LORD’s heart and while being drawn near to God in this way in vulnerable for both the people and the LORD. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, will bear witness to a God who is wounded by the people’s betrayal and who wants to find a way to restore the relationship and yet deals intensely with the pain of the brokenness. As Isaiah 43 can state, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name you are mine….I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight” (Isaiah 43: 1,3-4)

The people of Israel as a priestly kingdom can also be taken in several directions. On the one hand, there is the intercessory role that may be a portion of this calling. Priests in the ancient world were those who interceded between God and the people. While there is a cultic aspect of the priest’s role in offering prayers and sacrifices in the temple to God there is also the didactic role. The priests will be responsible for reading and interpreting the Torah, the law of God. Perhaps as the priests of Israel will intercede for the people of Israel with God, so the people will intercede on behalf of the nations and the world with God. Perhaps as the priests verbally read and interpret the law to the people so the people may be expected to interpret through their words and actions the content of the law to the nations around them. Both functions occupy a lot of space in the Old Testament: Leviticus for example focuses a lot of text on the priestly/cultic function while Deuteronomy and much of the second half of Exodus focuses on interpreting the law. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks also points to an additional function that may have been a part of this calling: being a society of universal literacy. While the Hebrew people probably didn’t come close to universal literacy in the ancient world he makes an intriguing argument for this type of education being essential for their being able to work with a law that can be read and written. Universal literacy which takes writing and reading out of the hands of the elite and makes possible “a non-hierarchical society” (Sacks, 2010, p. 136) If the people were to be a society different from the Egyptian society they left, and much of the law will be contrasted to their experience of being slaves in Egypt, then a worthy goal would be having a society that could read and write the law of their God and understand as individuals how they were called to live. In this respect, it could be paralleled to Martin Luther’s idea of the priesthood of all believers which required a program of catechetical instruction for all believers into what the basics of faith were.

As a holy people, a people sanctified for a purpose they also have a rich vocation within this calling of being a treasured possession and a priestly kingdom. Their lives as a part of this covenant are set aside to be something different. One of the struggles of both the people of Israel and modern people of faith is the struggle to differentiate their lives from the lives of everyone else. For the people of Israel there will be concrete practices and actions that they do that help to be a boundary marker for who they are as the people of God. Yet, the temptation will be to model their lives based on the lives of the nations around them (especially nations more powerful than them) rather than on the calling their LORD has given them. There will be times where the Torah seems to be lost or forgotten and yet, as Jeremiah can hope there will come a time where the LORD will put the law within them and write it on their hearts (Jeremiah 31: 33).

To be the people of God will be a way of life. The book of Exodus will begin the process of unpacking what it will mean to live as the covenant people of God, as God’s treasured possessions, as a priestly kingdom and as a holy people. The journey is not only the journey out of Egypt to the promised land. It is also a journey from slavery in Egypt to being a people equipped to stand in the presence of God and intercede for the nations and be bearers of the law of God.

Exodus 19: 9b-25 The Consecration of the People and the Approach of the LORD

When Moses had told the words of the people to the LORD, 10 the LORD said to Moses: “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes 11 and prepare for the third day, because on the third day the LORD will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. 12 You shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Be careful not to go up the mountain or to touch the edge of it. Any who touch the mountain shall be put to death. 13 No hand shall touch them, but they shall be stoned or shot with arrows;1 whether animal or human being, they shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they may go up on the mountain.” 14 So Moses went down from the mountain to the people. He consecrated the people, and they washed their clothes. 15 And he said to the people, “Prepare for the third day; do not go near a woman.”

 16 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17 Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. 19 As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder. 20 When the LORD descended upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain, the LORD summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. 21 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people not to break through to the LORD to look; otherwise many of them will perish. 22 Even the priests who approach the LORD must consecrate themselves or the LORD will break out against them.” 23 Moses said to the LORD, “The people are not permitted to come up to Mount Sinai; for you yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set limits around the mountain and keep it holy.'” 24 The LORD said to him, “Go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you; but do not let either the priests or the people break through to come up to the LORD; otherwise he will break out against them.” 25 So Moses went down to the people and told them.

Climbing the Trail Near the Summit of Mount Sinai, Photograph by Mark A. Wilson. Copyright holder released work into public domain.

One of the losses of the Christian tradition in recent times has been the loss of this transcendental holiness of the approach of God. One of the central features of the Christian narrative is the descent of God into the mundaneness of humanity. For the past couple centuries, there has been both a philosophical and religious movement away from focusing on this transcendent holiness. Even within my tradition seasons like Lent and Advent, once times of fasting and prayer and times of preparation for holiness, have lost this movement of sanctification. Perhaps this is inevitable in the disenchanted and more secular world in which we live but as I look at this passage I wonder how much we have lost.

The people prepare for three days for the approach of the LORD. They wash, they abstain from sexual activity, they stay away from the sacred space and they prepare for this approach of God at Mount Sinai. Here is the approach of God in all of God’s awesome power. In a description of a scene like the eruption of a volcano with fire, smoke, earthquake and lightning God approaches the people and Moses comes to introduce the LORD to the people and to stand between them. Moses and Aaron will go up to the mountain and speak with the LORD, but the people are witnesses to this display of God’s powerful approach.

There is something dangerous in the approach of God and the people are to keep their distance. One of the great tensions in the book of Exodus is the desire of the LORD to tabernacle (dwell) among the people and the danger the people’s unholiness presents for themselves in the presence of God. The people will struggle with the presence of God. On the one hand, they will want continued demonstration of God’s provision and power against their enemies. On the other hand, the presence of God is a terrifying reality and one they do not want to draw too close to.  A God who bears the power to bring the Egyptian army, its Pharaoh and its gods to their knees is not a safe and controllable deity. As a priestly kingdom, they come into the presence of God for the sake of the world, and their priestly vocation is not a safe one. As a treasured possession, they are the ones that God wants to draw close to God’s presence and they are to be a nation sanctified for the sake of the world. They are made holy to be able to dwell in the presence of the numinous and awesome holiness of the LORD.

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2 Responses to Exodus 19: Arriving at Sinai to Encounter God

  1. Pingback: Exodus 22: Boundaries, Trust and Reconciliation | Sign of the Rose

  2. Pingback: Exodus 24: Sealing the Covenant and Approaching God at Sinai | Sign of the Rose

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