Exodus 19:16-20:21: The Greatest and the Saddest
Our text today is Exodus 19:16 - 20:21. Here we find what is possibly the greatest event in the Old Testament, and also what is perhaps the saddest event in the Old Testament. Exodus 20:1-17 is the Ten Commandments, or the Ten Words as they are called in the Hebrew Old Testament (Ex 34:28). Rather than focusing on the commandments at this time, we are going to focus on the narrative that surrounds the "words." In this session we are going to focus on the event of Yahweh's giving the commandments as opposed to the content of the commandments.
Recall that when God first appeared to Moses back in chapter three it was by means of a burning bush on Mount Horeb (which is another name for Mount Sinai). As Moses approached the bush God told him not to come any closer, but to take off his shoes for he was on holy ground. God met with Moses, called Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery, and revealed that God’s Name is Yahweh. Among the signs that Yahweh gave Moses was that one day the Israelites would worship Yahweh on this mountain. Yahweh's fire transformed Moses' reluctance into obedience (see Devotional 4: Fire that Calls).
Now we are back at the same mountain, and instead of meeting with just Moses Yahweh is going to meet with the whole people of Israel. Instead of just a burning bush for one man Moses, the whole mountain is on fire, a burning mountain for a whole people Israel. Ex. 19:16-17 reads: "Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire."
Where was Moses when the Ten Commandments were initially given? To be honest, I always envisioned Moses being on the top of the mountain meeting with God while the people remained below. But look closer at the text. Moses went up the mountain but then came back down before God spoke the Commandments (19:25). Reading around Moses' up and down trip gives a better feel for the situation (go from 19:19 to 20:1, skipping the verses in between): (19:19) "Then Moses [with the people at the base of the mountain] spoke and the voice of God answered him. (20:1) And God spoke all these words." God spoke the Ten Commandments to all the people. God met with Israel on Mt. Sinai, not just Moses.
Yahweh had brought the people to the mountain and now Yahweh was descending upon the mountain to meet the people. This is what makes this the greatest event in the Old Testament. In the Garden God used to walk with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day. But with their sin Adam and Eve hid from God. Part of the consequences of their sin was expulsion from the Garden. Humanity and God no longer walked together. From Genesis 3 to this point we do not find God meeting with peoples, but only with individuals. God walked with Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and most recently Moses, but nowhere had God come to meet/dwell with a people.
Now God was coming to Sinai to meet with all Israel. This is a huge step towards reversing the consequences of the couple's sin in the Garden of Eden. God is doing a new thing. God is Present-ing God’s self to a whole people. Recall that in Exodus 19:4-6, Yahweh brought this people to Himself for a treasured possession, to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Through this people, or better, through His Presence among this people, Yahweh intended to become Present to all of humanity. Yahweh is coming to redeem and dwell among humanity through His Presence among Israel. What an incredible move Yahweh is making! We might state it this way: "While we were yet sinners, Yahweh descended on Sinai to meet with us and dwell among us, to become savingly present to all humanity." Yahweh is looking to restore His lost walking partner, humanity.
How did the people respond to Yahweh's move towards intimacy? The greatest event is followed by the saddest event. The people "stayed at a distance and said to Moses, 'Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.'" How incredibly sad! Yahweh is seeking intimacy and Israel is seeking distance. Yahweh comes and the people turn away in fear. Their reaction is just the opposite of Moses at the burning bush. Moses drew closer, Israel backed up.
Israel backed up lest they die. In a way, they were right. They would die if they remained in the holy presence of Yahweh. But like Moses it would not have been a physical death so much as a transforming death. Something about Moses did die at the burning bush. How else can we explain the change that took place in him, from running from Pharaoh and his own people, to going back to lead his own people and standing before Pharaoh? The fire of that bush was a transforming fire, doing something to the heart of Moses so that he became a servant to Yahweh and a vessel of His Presence. And now Israel stood before the same Fire, facing the same transforming death. It was a Fire that sought to meld them into a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, a Fire that sought to purify them and make them into a Moses-like people, servants to Yahweh and vessels of His Presence. And Israel backed up, turning away from this treasured calling. How sad!!!
Lest we be too harsh on Israel for not wanting to go through this death, we need to remember the call of Jesus upon us. "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me." Recall Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s summation, "When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die." -1- How often do we back up from God's fiery intimacy and transforming intentions? I think we know Israel too well. We do not want to get too close, lest we die.
Moses attempted to ease the people's fears, explaining that "God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning." We have encountered this word "test" twice before in Exodus: at the bitter waters (15:25) and with the manna (16:4). It is also used in Gen. 22:1 where "God tested Abraham" by asking him to sacrifice Isaac. The purpose of the Sinai test, like these other tests, is to transform and strengthen those who are being tested. Testing is a tool for training and shaping character, for developing and purifying faith and commitment.
Thus, Yahweh came in a holy fire that the people might learn the fear of God, which according to Proverbs 1:7 is the beginning of wisdom, that is, the practice of making godly decisions. In other words, as the people encounter the Holy One the impurities of their lives will be purged and they will be reoriented towards godly living. Fear/reverence for Yahweh will become the central issue in their decision making process, and as they make their decisions according to Yahweh's purifying Presence they will not sin. God's fiery Presence will transform Israel so that they indeed become a holy nation.
Moses was unable to persuade the people to open themselves up to this Holy One that had come to them by means of a burning mountain. "The people remained at a distance while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was."
We might ask how God can be both light and thick darkness. God is too big for any one metaphor to contain. Thick darkness points to the truth that God is ultimately beyond our comprehension and control. More, it reminds us that our knowledge of God is dependent upon God's self-revelation to us. We know God only as God makes God’s self known. Had Israel approached the thick darkness they might have discovered that God is light, that God chooses to reveal God's self. They would have died, but they also would have lived. They would have experienced the fire as cleansing rather than annihilating. The darkness would have illuminated their lives. But they kept their distance. Only Moses ventured forward to meet with the Holy God who sought a meeting with sinful humanity.
Fortunately, God was not/is not content to allow humanity to remain at a distance. God continues to come, continues to reveal God’s self. The ultimate coming/revelation was God coming to us in Christ Jesus. God continues to come through the Holy Spirit, who bears witness to God's saving presence in Christ Jesus. The question is, what is our response to the One who calls to us from the purifying fires of the cross? Do we keep our distance, or do we approach the thick darkness? Do we permit the testing to transform us, or do we back away from the tests? May we follow Moses. May we heed the call of Christ. May we know and receive the purifying Presence of the Holy One.
This is a very heavy text. We have only begun to get at the gospel of it. We'll hit it again next time. Amazing. God comes to meet the people He has just saved, and they all back away except Moses. Scary. How often do we the recently-saved-church back away from our Savior? Hopefully less and less.