Exodus 24: Sealing the Covenant and Approaching God at Sinai

David Roberts, Mount Sinai (1839)

Exodus 24: 1-8 Sealing the Covenant

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 at a distance. 2 Moses alone shall come near 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 ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, “All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do.” 4 And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. He rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and set up twelve pillars, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 He sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed oxen as offerings of well-being to the LORD. 6 Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he dashed against the altar. 7 Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” 8 Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people, and said, “See the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

Moses has taken the words of the LORD and the ordinances, presumably the content of the previous four chapters, and returned to the people to communicate and teach them these commandments and laws. The people again answer that “All the words the LORD has spoken we will do.” But now there is a liturgical sealing of the acceptance of the words of God. The covenant is cut, to use the Hebrew phrasing, and these pacts or covenants were often sealed by sacrifice or blood of some type. Genesis 15 is an example of this type of ceremony where God makes a covenant with Abraham and both pass through the pieces of the sacrificed animals, passing through the blood and in effect saying that faithfulness to the covenant is a deadly serious business. Here the blood of the oxen is sprinkled on the people and dashed against the altar binding both parties.

The place of sacrifice is very simple with an altar and twelve pillars. The pillars here correspond to the people rather than some representation of God, the prohibition against forming images of God holds here, although in later times these places with pillars will come to represent the idolatry of the people. Here an altar or earth or uncut stones (see Exodus 20: 22-26) along with the pillars at the base of the Mount Sinai becomes the only things necessary on this holy place. The mountain itself is a holy space, a place where God has come down to dwell among the people. Much of the rest of the book of Exodus will be concerned with the construction of a mobile place that God can come down to dwell with the people, but here, like when God speaks to Moses in chapter three, the people are on holy ground.

The blood of the covenant seals the relationship between the people and their God. They have now received some initial guidance from God on the type of community they are to construct and how they are to live into their identity as a ‘treasured possession, a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.’ (see Exodus 19: 5-6) They are now marked and set aside for their calling. Within Christianity this type of liturgical language of covenant sealing gets echoes both in relation to baptism and in communion. The wine in communion is the ‘blood of the new covenant’ and baptism is a point where the individual is ‘baptized into the death of Christ’ so that they might be dead to sin and alive to Christ.

Jean-Leon Gerome, Moses on Mount Sinai (1895-1900)

Exodus 24: 9-18 Meeting with the LORD on the Mountain

 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. Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. 11 God1 did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God, and they ate and drank.

 12 The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” 13 So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. 14 To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.”

 15 Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. 17 Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18 Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

We are given multiple views of the theophany on Mount Sinai. There is the perspective of the majority of the people at the base of the mountain which is described in a way that the closest analogy would be a volcano. To the people on the ground the approach of God is terrifying and dangerous, a devouring fire on the top of the mountain. For the seventy elders and the three priests there is the appearance of a dwelling place of God, beautiful in its description and an appearance of God that is only modestly described. There is a physical manifestation of the LORD, whose feet rest upon a pavement of sapphire stones of great clarity and the LORD is described anthropomorphically (using human features even when done metaphorically like when it states God did not lay his hands on the chief men). Yet, unlike in Isaiah 6 or Ezekiel 1 (and even these theophanies are very reticent to discuss the actual appearance of the LORD) there is no description of the LORD. Unlike other religions where there are vivid representations of the gods and goddesses, Judaism’s aniconic relationship with their God also extends to descriptions of God’s appearance with words. Yet, within the book of Exodus, there are multiple times where there is a tangible presence of God, even if it is not something to be described or even fully seen (as in Exodus 33). Finally, there is the experience of Moses who will spend extended periods of time in God’s presence.

The scene also sets the stage for the drama that will come in Exodus 32. Moses departs up the mountain for forty days and forty nights in the cloud with the LORD. The people remain at the base of the mountain waiting on Moses and Aaron and Hur are left to hear the disputes of the people. The next several chapters will have God describe to Moses the vision for the tabernacle where God can come down to dwell with the people. Yet, during this absence the people will come to Aaron and move away from God’s command not to create an image of God by creating the golden calf which they will worship. Yet, for a time we get to ascend with Moses into the cloud and see the vision of the tabernacle and enter into this time away from the people and with God.

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