Skip to content
May 28 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

May 27, 2018 – Exodus Chapters 21-24

Israel Says, “I Do”

Then the LORD instructed Moses: “Come up here to me, and bring along Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy of Israel’s elders. All of you must worship from a distance. Only Moses is allowed to come near to the LORD. The others must not come near, and none of the other people are allowed to climb up the mountain with him.”
Then Moses went down to the people and repeated all the instructions and regulations the LORD had given him. All the people answered with one voice, “We will do everything the LORD has commanded.
Then Moses carefully wrote down all the LORD’s instructions.
 Exodus 24:1-4

Intro: The chapters I asked you to read comprise the covenant-making ritual

We want to link the idea of God’s “covenant” with “relationship”
– there were other “social covenants”: political, commercial and relational
• beneath the political and commercial covenants was a basic lack of trust
◦ in these contexts, covenants, contracts and treaties acted as guarantees
• one of loveliest relational covenants was that of Jonathan and David

Then Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as his own soul (1 Sam. 18:3)

– covenants have a specific beginning in time
• in Exodus chapter 24 Moses performed the ritual that bonded Israel to God
• that sacred ritual is to covenant what a wedding is to marriage
the wedding is a ritual in time–a rite-of-passage
marriage is the ongoing relationship that follows

Let’s suppose that this covenant ritual is a liturgy
– liturgy refers to worship that is mapped out in a specific order
• the greeting, prayers, songs, scripture readings, sermon, benediction
◦ it usually includes the celebration of Eucharist as well
• the liturgy contains all the necessary elements of a sacred service
◦ there are also special liturgies for baptisms, weddings and funerals
◦ liturgies are written out for people to follow, and they repeat every week
(liturgies for Christian worship have been around since the third century)
– we will take a closer look at each part of the covenant-making liturgy
• but first, there are these three chapters of legal stipulations
◦ that is because both parties need to know the conditions of their covenant relationship
◦ each vows to fulfill certain responsibilities to the other
• the Book of the Covenant (24:7) begins with the Ten Commandments
◦ but a more formal introduction is found in chapter 20:

These are the regulations you must present to Israel (Ex. 20:1)

Israel’s part: legal stipulations and religious celebrations
Yahweh’s part: to lead them safely to the land and settle them there

A word or two about these regulations

The logic of how these laws were arranged was not like ours
– all of our laws related to a particular regulation are grouped under the same heading
• but reading through the Mosaic law, it is difficult to see how they’re connected
◦ it seems like they were pulled out of a hat and randomly thrown together
• there were certain rules followed in the arrangement of these laws
◦ but those rules appear foreign to us
– Robert Altar identified two parts to these laws:
◦ the first group of laws (21:2-22:17) are laid out as hypothetical cases
(If someone does this, then the judgment will be this)
◦ the second group (22:17-23:19) are laid out as direct commands
(You must not allow . . . .)

Here are some ways the laws were put in order:

  1. Some laws are grouped according to a shared theme or key words
    – Regulations that deal with the rights of Hebrew slaves
    – Regulations that deal with crimes of assault that entail capital punishment
    – Regulations that deal with crimes of assault that may not entail capital punishment
    – Regulations that deal with accidental injuries
    – Regulations that deal with property damage, loss or theft
  2. Some laws are loosely related, not according to the prohibition, but some other factor
    – Three Ex. 22:18-20: three laws in which the common theme is capital punishment (22:18-20)
    – Seven laws in which the common theme is justice or right actions (23:1-9)
  3. A few laws include explanations
    – Regarding the exploitation of widows or orphans (22:22-24)
    – Regarding the oppression of foreigners (23:9)
  4. A beautiful aspect of all Hebrew writing is that poetry can be found everywhere
    – So several laws contain poetic language or a poetic structure

Robert Alter, (Ex. 23:22) “I shall be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes. The perfect parallelism of this statement recalls the symmetry of a line of biblical poetry, and several verses in this concluding section of the Book of the Covenant approximate the formal balance and high solemnity of poetry.”

– another problem with Old Testament law: in general it falls far short of our standards
• it’s surprising that God’s law regulates slavery rather than outlaws it
◦ we must remember the these laws matched their time and culture
◦ they had relevance to the world as it was then
• the law was not an attempt to change culture, but to shape behavior in it
◦ to set limits, constrain violence and abuse

The point of all of these regulations is that the brought God’s will into their everyday lives
– the covenant is not a religious add-on to life in the world
• it is a life-changer – it speaks to social interactions and wrongdoing
• it also speaks to how people on the margins are to be treated
◦ God’s people to be devoted a social practice of inclusion
◦ no one is left out because he or she was too poor, weak, or did not belong
– the law makes them aware of what surrounds their everyday lives
• and it addressed not only what they did, but their underlying feelings and motives

Daniel Doriani, in a different context, reminds us,  “In the matter of wants versus needs, adults have a duty to meet basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter for themselves and their children. But both rich and poor are prone to the character flaws of avarice, worry, greed, and the ingratitude that promotes self-pitying comparisons to others who have more than we do.”

• the law sets boundaries to these “character flaws”

Certain preparations were made for the covenant liturgy

To me, verse 3 looks like an informal rehearsal for what the people will say formally in verse 7
– instructions are given regarding Aaron, his two sons and the elders of the people
• they will have an important role in sealing the covenant with a shared meal
◦ but immediately we notice something unusual
◦ previously, not even the priests were to touch Mount Sinai
◦ now the priests and elders are given backstage passes
• perhaps this is because the ritual calls for intimacy
◦ as Israel’s representatives they were allowed to cross boundaries and come close to God
◦ their actual experience on the mountain will remain a mystery to us
– what is clear is that three different “stations” of holiness were established
• the people at the foot of the mountain, priests and elders part way up, and Moses ascended the summit alone

This is the sort of thing that we have lost touch with, but I find fascinating
– in scripture, all landscapes and topographies have spiritual significance

Mircea Eliade was professor of History of Religions at Chicago University and a renown interpreter of religious symbols. He wrote  that “. . . the mountain [symbol] occurs among the images that express the connection between heaven and earth.” Also, “temples are replicas of the cosmic mountain and hence constitute the pre-eminent ‘link’ between earth and heaven . . . .”
Mary Douglas saw a “parallel between mountain and tabernacle. Each was divided into three zones, each zone represented a further step in approaching God, the graduated holiness coming to a double climax at the top of the mountain and in the inner recesses of the tabernacle.”

• in other words, God’s sacred tent of meeting, like Mount Sinai, was divided into three zones:
◦ the people were allowed to enter the courtyard only
◦ the priests would enter the holy place to perform their service to Yahweh
◦ only the high priest could enter the most holy place, and only once a year
– these zones define three levels of nearness or distance, depending on one’s perspective
• also, like Mount Sinai, when the tent of meeting was set up God’s cloud filled it (Ex. 40:34-35)
• with a portable sanctuary, they were prepared to leave Sinai and continue their journey to the land

Early the next morning Moses got up and built an altar at the foot of the mountain. He also set up twelve pillars, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Then he sent some of the young Israelite men to present burnt offerings and to sacrifice bulls as peace offerings to the LORD. Moses drained half the blood from these animals into basins. The other half he splattered against the altar.
Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it aloud to the people. Again they all responded, “We will do everything the LORD has commanded. We will obey.”
Then Moses took the blood from the basins and splattered it over the people, declaring, “Look, this blood confirms the covenant the LORD has made with you in giving your these instructions.” 
Exodus 24:4-8

The ritual required specific objects and actions

Specific objects were needed to perform the ritual
– the altar, a sacred object, represented God’s side
• on it, offerings were made to God
• to make it holy, Moses consecrated it with blood
– the objects that represented people’s side were not necessarily sacred
• those objects were twelve pillars – each one representing one of the tribes
• interestingly, God had told Israel to smash the “sacred pillars” of the Canaanites
◦ these were treated as points of contact with the divine (Ex. 23:24)
◦ but that was not the meaning of the twelve pillars, which were stand-ins for humans, not God

(I have known Christians who would have taken Moses to task for thinking he could reinterpret and introduce what had been pagan objects into the worship of God, but apparently the Lord was okay with this.)

With the first ritual actions complete, Moses read “Book of the Covenant” to the people
(that is, the regulations recorded in chapters 21-23)
– and like the people had rehearsed earlier, they said, “I do”
• their words committed them to the covenant
• that is to say, the words they spoke not only meant something, but did something
◦ this is an example of performative speech
spoken words are an action that affects in the real world

Moses moved to the next ritual action and applied the remainder of the sacrificial blood to the people
– he does this for the same reason he splattered blood on the altar — to consecrate them
– while performing this action, Moses proclaims its significance
• the words he spoke in Hebrew, literally translated, were:

Look, the blood of the covenant that Yahweh cut with you (v. 8)

• sometimes an attorney or salesperson will say that he or she has “cut a deal”
◦ it comes from the practice of cutting an animal in half and dismembering its parts
◦ the two parties would walk the path between the parts
◦ meeting in the middle, each would swear an oath to keep the covenant (cf. Gen. 15:8-18 & Je. 34:18)

Then Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel climbed up the mountain. There they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there seemed to be a surface of brilliant blue lapis lazuli, as clear as the sky itself. And though these nobles of Israel gazed upon God, he did not destroy them. In fact, they at a covenant meal, eating and drinking in his presence! Exodus 24:9-11

The ritual concludes with a covenant meal

God’s portion of the meal was offered on the altar
– the portion for people was eaten by their representatives
– what we are told about their experience is shocking
• in some unexplained way, God manifested his presence to them
◦ Moses will later remind them, that they did not see a “form”
◦ there was nothing they could draw a picture or make an idol of (Deut. 4:12)
• but still, the encounter was real enough that God had to set aside natural consequence

The point of this scene is that their encounter with Yahweh was real

With the ritual concluded, Moses returned to his solitude with God
– it was time to undertake the next task at hand
• verses 15-18 describe Moses’ return to the cloud as viewed from below

Conclusion: I want to bring what we’ve gone over into the New Testament

Jesus used his last meal with his disciples to make a new covenant
– it was almost like he was following the Old Testament covenant liturgy

  • Jesus gave them regulations for their part of the covenant
    – his “new commandment” to “love one another”
  • The twelve apostles around the table were like the twelve “pillars”
    – they were there representing all of us
  • They shared a covenant meal with Jesus
  • Jesus applied his blood to them
    – he did this using almost the same words as Moses
    This is my blood of the covenant, that which is being poured out for many (Mk. 14:24)
  • In Jesus, the apostles saw the face of God

What does the new covenant of Christ mean for us?

Writing to the Romans, Saint Paul said, For God knew His people in advance, and he chose them to become like His Son (Ro. 8:29)

– for every believer, there is a “becoming”
• it is a process — this is obvious when we study the lives of his apostles
• we make better progress in the process if we admit that we’re lost
◦ and if we let God’s Spirit take us by hand and lead us

There are people consider themselves Christians because they said a prayer
– now they embrace a set of doctrines
• for many of them, that is as far as they progress
• they may work hard at getting a better understanding of their doctrines
◦ and they will remind us that their doctrines are biblically sound
◦ but after conversing with them, it doesn’t feel like I’ve been with Jesus
– there are other Christians, some of whom started out with a prayer and doctrine
• and maybe they spent many years being formal Christians
◦ but then God led them along a path that brought them to Jesus
◦ not as doctrine, but as living person
• these Christians have become gracious people
◦ they have a gentle spirit, depth of joy and sorrow and breadth of love and acceptance
◦ after spending time with them, I feel closer to Jesus and my heart has been warmed to him

This is the authentic life of daily taking on more of the character of Jesus
It is our “becoming”
For all the importance of sound doctrine,
that is not how we progress in the depth, goodness and love of Christ
Rather, it is through God’s Spirit,
leading us by the hand

Leave a comment