Exodus 20:18-26: At a Distance
We are now on the other side of the Ten Words (Exodus 20:18-26). Usually this is where people quit reading, preaching, or teaching the book of Exodus. While there is still some narrative left, the bulk of the material is comprised of detailed regulations for worship, ethical instructions, and rules for societal order. While many of these regulations are arcane or antiquated for the 21st century, the principles underlying the practical ways that the people of God ordered their life under God remains instruction for us today.
Exodus 20:18-21 records the people's response to Yahweh's self-giving. I don't mean to re-cover the same material again and again, but the context is crucial to getting at the material of our text. The very fact that the Biblical account continually circles back over and repeats this context tells us that such a recounting is a crucial part of understanding what follows.
Yahweh had brought the people of Israel to Himself on Mount Sinai. This had been Yahweh's purpose from the very beginning. Yahweh's desire was to give Himself to Israel in an ever-fuller way and to make them His people, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. They are to be mediators of His Presence to all peoples. An integral aspect of Yahweh's self-giving is the Ten Words - they are Yahweh's Word for Yahweh-centered living. For the relationship to grow, for Israel to be transformed by Yahweh into His mediating people, Israel must hear and obey the Instructions, they must accept and abide by the voice of Yahweh.
Thus, the Ten Commandments must not be seen as an independent set of rules distinct from the "person" of Yahweh. Rather, they are central to Yahweh's self-giving, to Yahweh's move towards a more intimate and transforming relationship with Israel. Yahweh was not just giving rules on Mount Sinai. Yahweh was giving Yahweh's self, and that self-giving includes instructions and expectations for receiving and remaining in Yahweh's Presence.
The people responded to Yahweh's move towards intimacy by keeping at a distance. They saw the mountain on fire and backed up with fear. They told Moses that he could speak to them and they would listen, but did not want to let Yahweh speak to them lest they die. As we noted before, they were partly right about this. They would die; not so much a physical death as a death of their wills. After all, when Moses appeared before the burning bush something about him surely died, for he did not want to go back to Egypt – to his own people who rejected him and to Pharaoh's people who were trying to kill him – and yet go back he did. His life and will were transformed, put to death and resurrected, at that burning bush.
The same thing would happen to Israel if they accepted Yahweh's invitation to intimacy. The burning mountain would mean their death. They could not see through the flames that it would also mean their resurrection. Thus, they backed up from Yahweh's self-giving. Yahweh could give Himself to Moses (he's already died) and they would listen to Moses, but they didn’t want Yahweh to come any closer. They didn't want to die.
Israel had praised God for what God had done for them, but now they were putting their hands up and saying, "Don't come any closer." This is one of those places where we are too much like Israel. We rejoice over what God has done for us, ranging from the forgiveness He has granted us in Christ to the many other blessings we have received, but we put our hands up and back away when we see that God wants an intimate, transforming, "cross" relationship with us. Let God come in fire to someone who is already dead, but don't let that fire, that God, come near us. We want to enjoy the benefits of God, not be transformed by the Presence of God. And yet such transformation is the whole aim of the benefits. God is single-minded in His desire to make us a holy people. From His self-giving at Sinai to His self-giving at Calvary, this is His goal. And here is Israel, and us with them, remaining at a distance, attempting to enjoy the blessings without being touched by the fire.
Israel was under the illusion that they could remain at a distance without becoming more distant. Yahweh had come to give more. Israel did not want more, but only to keep what they had. They opted to remain at a distance thinking that the relationship could be maintained as is. They sought to continue to enjoy Yahweh as their Liberator but not as their Sanctifier. But relationships do not work that way, especially when one party will only be satisfied with intimate surrender. To remain at a distance is to create greater distance. Just think of your various relationships. I'm sure that you can testify from both sides of the matter. You know that the one seeking an intimate relationship, if rebuffed enough, will ultimately seek it with someone else. Remaining at a distance eventually means the end of the relationship.
How did Yahweh respond to Israel's "rejection" of intimacy? How do you respond when someone remains at a distance while you give your self? That's the difference between us and God. We would stop giving. Not Yahweh. We see in 20:22-26 that Yahweh continued to pursue the relationship. Yahweh spoke with Moses, who had dared to approach the Thick Darkness. And notice that Yahweh did not just speak to Moses about Moses, but His concern was still with the people as a whole. Yahweh, through Moses, would continue to seek the people, continue to speak to the people, continue to make the effort towards intimacy. Yahweh had not given up on the transformation of Israel, even though they sought to remain at a distance. Likewise with us! The Lord will find a Moses through whom to speak His Self-giving, self-demanding Word to us. Perhaps He will even use us to speak to someone else. That is Grace; God's relentless pursuit towards transforming intimacy.
Given Israel's penchant for distance, Yahweh's first directive to Moses was to remind Israel of the first two commandments: no other gods and no idols of silver or gold. Yahweh knew that when there is distance there is also temptation to make gods with which to fill the distance. Notice the "making" language. When we don't like the Non-Made God, the One Who Is that encounters us with the fiery call of transformation, we are tempted to make for ourselves a god that is a little more palatable, one that we like more, one that is not so demanding or ambitious as far as our transformation goes. When we remain at a distance, refusing to surrender to God's desire for transforming intimacy, we actually place our will against and above God's will. Having done so, it is a very small step to making gods. Having resisted God our Maker, we quickly become a god maker, and start making gods to take God’s place. In actuality, we have usurped God's place.
It is dangerous to remain at a distance, for when there is distance there is room for all kinds of things to creep in, especially of the silver and gold variety. We like silver and gold, because on the surface they do not demand anything from us. They just make our lives nicer. Yahweh attempts to guard Israel from the dangers of distance. "Moses, remind them to keep the first two commandments!"
Yahweh not only sought to guard against the dangers of distance, but also to overcome the distance via some prescriptions for worship. Worship was to be a bridge that brought Israel near to Yahweh. Two types of sacrifices are prescribed: whole burnt offerings and fellowship offerings. A whole burnt offering is exactly what it sounds like - the whole sacrifice is consumed by fire. If offering a goat, the goat is killed and its whole body is burned upon the altar. The whole offering goes up in smoke to God, who resides in heaven. How else are you going to get something up to heaven where God is? By burning it, the fire consumes it and "transfers" it via the smoke up to heaven, where it becomes a pleasing aroma to God.
What is significant about the whole burnt offering is that nothing is pulled from the fire for consumption or use by persons. It is utterly relinquished to God. Even more, the worshipper is not just giving a goat to God, but in laying hands upon the goat the worshipper is identifying himself and his family with the goat and thus utterly relinquishing himself to God. Nothing is to be pulled out of the fire. Everything goes to God. Of course one could just go through the motions, much as we do in worship, but the intent behind the action is utter relinquishment to God.
The fellowship offering is basically a barbecue. In contrast to the burnt offering, the meat is roasted over the fire of the altar and then removed when it is "medium rare" for the consumption and enjoyment of the one offering the sacrifice and his party. Only the inedible parts are left upon the altar to be completely consumed by fire. This is a celebration offering which promotes fellowship both with God and among the people. The nourishment of the community is rooted in the worship of Yahweh. Thus, worship involves relinquishment to God and fellowship with God and God's people.
These two sacrifices are in essence the sacraments of the Ten Words. The God-oriented commandments, the first four, reside in the burnt offering, while the social commandments, five through ten, are in the fellowship offering. The practice of authentic worship by means of these sacrifices would bring Israel into Yahweh's transforming Presence. Yahweh promises to come and bless wherever "I cause My Name to be honored."
Yahweh is concerned that this worship be pure. He prohibits the use of "dressed" stones for an altar - "you will defile it if you use a tool on it" - and He also prohibits steps up to the altar - "lest your nakedness be exposed on it." Interesting. Yahweh wants "naked stones" and "clothed worshippers." That's quite the opposite of our society. We much prefer dressed stones and naked, or at least scantily clad or revealingly dressed worshippers.
Why would Yahweh be against dressed or finished stones? When we stand at the base of a high-rise skyscraper, looking up into the blue sky, what do we think? "Wow, look what we humans have made!" Even though we are looking up into a vast blue sky awesome in majesty, our focus is on what we have made, what we have done. Worship is supposed to be a celebration of what the Lord has done. When we fill it with dressed stones that have been painstakingly worked by a hammer and chisel, there is a terrible temptation to celebrate what we have done, even when we are looking in the right direction. Such worship is not worship at all, but merely the celebration of humanity. Humanity is worth celebrating, but let us never confuse such celebration with true worship.
Dressed stones cry out, "Look what I/we have done!" Revealing dress cries, "Look what I've got!" Both call attention to oneself and are a hindrance to worship, time set aside to give attention to God. Both are typical of the mindset of our society, which glorifies the power of self-attraction. When these become part and parcel to our worship, and often they are without us even realizing it, we have perverted true worship, turning it into a celebration of what we've got and what we've done. It becomes a time for putting ourselves on display rather than relinquishing ourselves to God.
I'll leave you with one question to ponder. Can a church grow if the Presence of the Holy, Transforming God is the main attraction? Or does growth depend upon the powers of "self attraction," ranging from dressed stones to skimpy clothing and everything in between? Is there a balance, or is balance just a way to justify compromise? Or is the whole question wrong and the issue is not growth but intimacy with Yahweh/Christ and the transformation of whoever dares enter His holy Presence?
Worship in Spirit and in Truth, lest the distance grow.