In this week’s session we’re going to look at one of the most well known and most important events in the whole of Old Testament history. As we do so we’ll draw out a number of parallels and similarities between the experience of the Hebrews (plus others) and ourselves, and we’ll also draw out a number of differences.
Sinai in sight…
And so finally we arrive at Sinai, so to speak. The Hebrews and the collection of strangers who left Egypt with them in response God’s call to the promised land, have arrived at one of the most important junctures of their journey so far – their time at Sinai.
The whole of the rest of the book of Exodus, all of Leviticus and the first part of Numbers all record the events that took place at Sinai. In all the people spent two years camped at the foot of the mountain that was to become so famous.
During their time at Sinai Gods presence is again revealed, a covenant is made between God and his people, the people disobey God and the covenant is broken, God judges his people, and finally the covenant is renewed.
In this sequence numerous profound and eternal truths are established:
- God dwells with his people in covenant relationship.
- God judges his people when the covenant is broken
- God cleanses and forgives his people and restores the covenant
Truths which seen through the lens of the person and work of Christ are as true and relevant today as they were all those many years ago.
The text itself…
As with the rest of the book of Exodus the historical narrative has been interspersed with a number of passages detailing the ritual and cultic requirements that were adopted at a later stage by the people of Israel. There’s nothing wrong in this, indeed these sections, linked as they are to certain parts of the historical narrative, allowed the continued remembrance of these life changing and foundational events in the life of God’s people.
If you have time it’s interesting and worthwhile to read the historical narrative without the later additions of the ritual and legal writings. Doing so allows us to sense the drama and excitement of the early Sinai events that took place in a new and deeper way.
Why not give it a try? Read chapter 19, then chapter 20 up to verse 21, then skip to chapter 24, then finally to chapter 32…what you’ve just read is most likely the original sequence of writing…
The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing…
Putting aside questions of how the text came to be in its present form we come to you’ve guessed it…the main thing.
The section of Exodus that begins at the start of Chapter 19 is the centerpiece of the entire book. Even more than that it is the centerpiece of Old Testament belief – the establishing of the covenant relationship between God and his people.
The biblical scholar John Durham comments “The account of Yahweh coming to Israel at Sinai and entering into covenant with Abraham’s descendents is at the centre of Old Testament theology and faith…”
The importance of these events cannot be overstated. It’s not just that God has shown himself to his people. It’s not just that God has revealed his presence to his people – although when you think about it that’s fairly mind blowing – it’s more than that, God is binding himself to his people, he is committing himself to his people, he is entering into partnership with his people, as he makes a covenant with his people.
Covenant stands at the heart of Old Testament faith. It stands at the heart of New Testament faith too. The Old Covenant and the New Covenant.
A question to think and talk about: What is your understanding of covenant? In what ways does the idea of covenant frame and give meaning to your life of faith? Is this idea of covenant a new idea to you or one that you are familiar with?
So how is the covenant established:
What begins in chapter 19 is a poetic summary of covenant theology. It is a shorthand account of one of the foundational principles of Christian theology and faith that now as then undergirds our profession of faith.
So what happens?
Step 1 – Having brought the people to Sinai God refers to what he has done to get them there. The point is made that the people have experienced his power at work at first hand, and in this way they have seen the proof of his presence with them. He has guided them through the wilderness, he has provided for them, protected them. The imagery of God “lifting them on eagles wings’ is used – a picture of the Hebrews utter dependency on the tender and protective care of Yahweh. And in the final act to date Yahweh has brought the people to the mountain at Sinai – the place where his presence dwells in a special way.
Step 2 – “So now…” says the Lord, with all of this in mind, what will the Hebrews response be? With all this called to mind will Israel voluntarily serve and bind themselves to God? In establishing the framework of the covenant relationship God is not forcing them to serve him like a conquering king. Instead he is looking for a genuine and free response to the revelation of his presence and power. If the people respond with a ‘yes’ then they are to expected to pay careful attention to the terms of the covenant and keep them.
If the answer is ‘yes’ this group of people will become united in their covenant relationship with God and become a nation, and in becoming a nation they will become the jewel in Gods crown – his special and treasured possession, even though the whole of creation is his.
Step 3 – This nation, having responded with a ‘yes’ to the covenant terms will be special, a “priestly kingdom”. But what does this mean? That the people will be an extension of Gods royalty? A nation who will serve and worship God? A nation who will be king over others? (Some commentators have seen here to root of the idea of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ but that’s not the case as it’s a far later theological theme). To be a priestly kingdom could imply the above, but most likely it means simply that Israel as a ‘kingdom of priests’ is a nation committed to the extension throughout the world of the ministry of Gods presence.
Step 4 - The people accept and Moses tells them to purify themselves, to get ready for God’s coming. They are to spend two days getting ready and then on the third day God will show himself in power and glory.
This covenant theology still rules!
It’s not difficult to see this process of establishing the covenant at the heart of our New Testament faith. The very same steps apply and make up the formation of covenant relationship.
Step 1 – the initiative of God in saving and redeeming his people is the starting point. (culminating in the person and work of Christ)
Step 2 – the call to freely respond by entering into relationship and binding ourselves to God. (the call of Christ to be disciples and follow him)
Step 3 – the transformation into a ‘priestly people’ committed to the extending the ministry of God’s presence throughout the world. (the missional call of Christ to go and make disciples in each nation)
Step 4 – well ok, in New Testament terms this actually happened along with step 1… ‘on the third day God revealed himself in power and glory’ – ring any bells?
Why not spend some time as a group reflecting on this pattern of establishing covenant relationship. What does it say of God? What is your experience of being brought into covenant relationship with him?
That’s the similarities – but what about the differences?
Although there are many similarities and consistencies in the ongoing covenant relationship between God and his people, there are of course one or two differences between our experience of covenant theology and that of the Hebrews.
Firstly – our mediator, the one who comes between us and God to call us into relationship is not simply a man like Moses, but both fully man and fully God, Jesus Christ.
Secondly – the boundary drawn up to keep the people at a distance at Mount Sinai is no more. No longer are we to remain at the foot of the mountain while our mediator goes to the top to meet with God. We too are invited to ‘climb the mountain’ as it were and meet with God ourselves, coming before the throne with confidence.
In closing why not spend some time thanking and praising God for his offer of covenant relationship