Exodus 23:14-33: Calendaring Yahweh
This section of Exodus (23:14-33) provides a short transition between the social regulations and obligations of the community in the previous section (chapters 20-23) and a much longer section concerning religious observances (chapters 24-31). This short section provides a preview of some of those regulations concerning sacred people, time, space, and things. But it also provides a conclusion to the instructions that worked out the Ten Words in practical living.
The setting has not changed. Israel is still on Mount Sinai, brought there by Yahweh to receive Yahweh. His purpose was to make Israel into a holy nation, a royal priesthood, a people who will mediate His Presence to all the nations. Yahweh has been giving instructions on life to Moses, and thereby to Israel, so that the people will live in such a way as not to violate the Presence of Yahweh. The only way Israel can be Yahweh's people and fulfill Yahweh's purpose is for them to live Yahweh centered, abiding in Yahweh's Presence.
The overall structure of this section with its many (to us) peculiar directives is worth noting. Following the giving of the Ten Words to all of Israel there is a brief narrative before the many specific instructions are given in chapters 20-23. The narrative does not pick back up until after today's passage in 24:1. This entire section of 20:22-23:33 is known as the Book of the Covenant or The Covenant Code. It begins with a restatement of the first two commandments (no other gods, no idols) and some instructions on worship. Our text, which closes the regulation section, also offers instruction on worship and reemphasizes the first two commandments, forming an inclusion.
In other words, the commandments to worship Yahweh and Yahweh alone form bookends or brackets around all of the other commandments. While we have seen that these particular commandments are quite diverse and often social in nature, it is significant to realize that they all fit between these bookends of worshiping only Yahweh. Worshiping Yahweh alone is the essential commandment to keep. It is the key to remaining fit for Yahweh's Presence. But keeping that commandment will take the shape of faithfulness to all the other instructions for living. Worshiping Yahweh alone entails the development and expression of compassion towards one's neighbor, including the powerless who are unable to return favors and the enemy who is out of favor (and likely withholding favors).
While the setting and theme of our text is the same, two shifts in focus take place. The first shift is from daily life to Feast Days. Three times a year Israel was to have a festival to Yahweh. The feasts that Israel were to celebrate are: (1) Unleavened Bread, which is in the early Spring, commemorates the Exodus, and also celebrates the barley harvest; (2) Feast of Harvest or Pentecost, which comes seven weeks after the Unleavened Bread and celebrates the wheat harvest; and (3) Feast of Ingathering or Tabernacles, at the end of Summer, which celebrates the harvest of the vineyards, orchards, all the Summer produce, and also commemorates the wilderness journey (see The Hebrew Calendar of the Old Testament). These feasts probably originally corresponded to "secular" harvest festivals. But unlike the secular, for Israel these feasts are to be feasts to Yahweh and Yahweh alone. More, they are connected to Yahweh's salvation as well as Yahweh's bountiful provision.
The second shift in focus lends greater perspective to this focus on Feast Days. Yahweh now offers Israel guidance regarding their entrance into the Promised Land, which up until now has been largely unmentioned. This new land would be filled with various peoples, each with their own gods. It is in this pluralistic context that Israel was to make sure it kept its three annual Feast Days to Yahweh.
Feast days are important, especially in pluralistic contexts, because they serve as identity markers. We know a people by their holidays. These feasts marked Israel as being Yahweh's people. Who is Israel? Oh, they're the people who give thanks only to Yahweh (and not Pharaoh) for the barley harvest. They're the people who remember that it was Yahweh who set them free from bondage in Egypt so that they can actually enjoy a barley harvest. Who is Israel? Oh, they're the people who praise only Yahweh (and not Baal) for the wheat harvest and who remember that if it were not for Yahweh they would have no land upon which to even grow wheat. Who is Israel? Oh, they're the people who worship only Yahweh (and not Marduk) for the entire summer harvest, and who remember that Yahweh brought them through wilderness poverty to such a glorious bounty. Who is Israel? Israel is the people that celebrate to Yahweh and Yahweh alone, no matter to whom everyone else might be celebrating.
Given this defining nature of holidays, what holidays define us? I suspect that we American church folk are more defined by American holidays than Christian holidays. Some of the American holidays that shape our lives are Mother's Day, Memorial Day, Father's Day, July 4th, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving. Our Christian holidays are Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. Which holidays does your church celebrate the loudest?
For Mother's Day weekend our church had a mother-daughter brunch and gave out roses to all the women. For Father's Day we had Dad's Root Beer for all the dads. We even had a BBQ after church during Memorial Day weekend. Could this be an indication that we are more American-centered than Christ-centered? Do my holiday celebrations, or the lack of them, betray me? Do our churches celebrate America and American life louder than Christ and Christian life? I am ashamed to admit that this year, rather than being the people that celebrated the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, we were the people just like all the other peoples that celebrated Mother's Day, Memorial Day, and Father's Day. Yes, we celebrated them to Christ, but it was still our American calendar that was defining us rather than Christ's salvation calendar.
Yahweh promised to guide Israel to the place He had prepared for them. The promise included provision and protection, but most of all Presence. Yahweh God’s self would deal with the peoples in the land of Canaan, wiping them out that Israel might possess the land. Israel needed only to "listen carefully and do all that I say." The key point at which to listen is, "Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them [their gods] and break their sacred stones to pieces. Worship the LORD your God, and His blessings will be upon [you] . . .."
Yahweh was leading Israel into the land of pluralism. Yahweh charged Israel that among these people with their numerous gods and religious practices, Israel was to worship only Yahweh and abstain from their practices. In fact, they were charged to demolish not the peoples, but their gods. I sense that the church in America is in somewhat of a parallel position. We live in a pluralistic society. Could it be that we are charged to demolish the false gods that would lay claim to our allegiance? We are not to demolish people, but false gods. The first step in demolishing false gods is to expose them for what they are: powers making ultimate claims that cannot deliver, powers that have no right to be ultimate.
The battle between Pharaoh and Yahweh comes to mind. Yahweh said, "I AM!" and then went on to show that He Is and pharaoh is/was not. Israel's part in the (ongoing) demolition was to live according to "Thus says the LORD", to live according to Yahweh. So our part is to live true to the WORD, to follow Christ in the face of competing claims for our allegiance, for Christ alone is worthy. Christ who was crucified is the One who is risen. The Lamb that was slain is the Lamb upon the throne.
How much do we, the church in America, participate in the worship and the practices of the American gods, as opposed to demolishing them? I'm sure you can come up with your own list of American gods. Status, wealth, beauty, self-attraction, knowledge, independence, and self-serving power come quickly to mind. What is interesting is that the key for Israel's well being in the land was the keeping of the command to worship Yahweh and Yahweh alone. If they would demolish rather than participate in the worship of the other gods, they would enjoy Yahweh's blessing. They would enjoy the "I will" of Yahweh (vss. 27-33).
I cannot help but wonder about us, the church in America. Often it seems that we think the key to our well being is participation in the practices of our American culture. We want to attract Americans to our churches so we engage in all the American practices, often including the practices and worship of American gods. And I suspect the same temptation exists for those in other countries and other cultures who have different cultural gods.
Yet for all of our efforts to be well, we the church in America on the whole do not find ourselves well. Could it be that the key to our wellness is the same as that for Israel's wellness? Could it be that our engaging practices are actually a source of our sickness, a cause for the lack of Christ's Holy Presence in our services? Could it be that the key to our health, the key to enjoying the blessing of God's Presence, is to worship Christ alone and to engage only in the practices of Christ? Perhaps we need to rethink our strategy towards wellness. There is only one way to dwell in the Presence of Christ: "Listen carefully and be sure to do all that I say." There is only one way to be a people that mediate the Presence of Christ: "Listen carefully and be sure to do all that I say." If this does not mark us, we are a sick church. We have lost our distinctiveness and become just like all the Americans around us.
I do not have all the answers regarding what it means to be a Christian living in America. As American as we might be, as grateful as we might be for the privilege of living in America, we are first and foremost not Americans living in America. We are Christians living in America. We are followers of Christ who happen to make our home in America. Paul reminds us that our citizenship is in heaven. Peter calls the church "aliens scattered about." Jesus says we are in the United States but not of the United States, or something like that (John 17).
The Ray Boltz song "I Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb" captures this well. We may pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, but we can only pledge ultimate allegiance to one. For us, that One is Christ. We are blind if we think that does not create tension with the pledge to the flag. The challenge is to live faithful to Christ no matter what that tension might be. At our core, we are not Americans. We are Christians living in America, the land of pluralism.