Exodus 24: Committing Covenant (at the Risk of Death)
In Exodus 24 we are still on Mount Sinai, but we are finished receiving law. It is now covenant making time. It is decision time for Israel.
Again, we need to see the big picture, succinctly expressed in Exodus 19:3-6. Yahweh had brought Israel to Himself, up out of Egypt and through the desert to Mount Sinai. "Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant I will make you a treasured possession, a kingdom of priest, a holy nation to mediate My Presence to all nations." Exodus 20-23 is the presentation of the covenant. It includes the Ten Words given to all the people (20:1-17) and the "Book of the Covenant" (20:22-23:33) given to Moses to give to the people. If Israel keeps all of this word for living faithful to Yahweh's Presence, then Yahweh will make them His mediating people. It was now time for Israel to decide how they would respond to this if from Yahweh. Yahweh had brought Israel this far. Yahweh had spoken His expectations. Israel must now decide if they wanted the relationship to continue. It was decision time.
Moses presented all the word to Israel and Israel responded with a resounding "Yes, we will do everything the LORD has said." So Moses got busy arranging a covenant cutting ceremony. This entire sequence of events might be analogous to a courtship, engagement, and wedding. The courtship was Yahweh bringing Israel out of Egypt, through the desert, to Himself. Of all the nations, Yahweh had singled out Israel to be His bride, His people. Having courted Israel away from Egypt to Himself, Yahweh now made a proposal about a future life together. Israel said yes. Yahweh and Israel were engaged to be married. Next would be the wedding ceremony, which was the covenant cutting ceremony that Moses officiated. Moses built an altar to represent Yahweh. Israel was represented by twelve pillars of stone. Visualize the relationships communicated by means of the placement of the altar and the stone pillars.
This covenant cutting ceremony was far more serious than our wedding ceremony. In a wedding we say, "Till death do us part." In the covenant cutting ceremony, the pledge was, "If I part, death unto me." In the specific ceremony that Moses performed, burnt offerings (the whole animal was consumed by fire, thus communicating total relinquishment to Yahweh) and fellowship offerings (the fat was burned but the meat was roasted and then eaten by the people as a fellowship meal) were sacrificed to Yahweh. The sacrificial animals were killed and their blood drained before they were placed on the fire. Moses had the blood collected in bowls. Half of the blood was sprinkled upon the altar; the other half was sprinkled upon the people.
We might ask what is the significance of this blood sprinkling? It is tempting at this point to jump to the cleansing, forgiving, atoning power of the blood, first expressed in the atonement sacrifices of the Old Testament, and brought to completion in the blood of Christ. But if that were the purpose of the blood, then this would be an atonement ceremony rather than a covenant cutting ceremony. Besides, at this point for what does Israel need atonement? They have yet to break Yahweh's commands. Indeed, they have just heard them for the first time.
No, I think (contrary to the more common view) that this blood has nothing to do with cleansing or atonement. Rather, verse 24:8 needs to be taken in full seriousness, "This is the blood of the covenant that Yahweh has made/cut with you." To understand the significance of this, we need to understand a little of the cultural context of the Ancient Near East.
In that cultural context, covenants were literally "cut." This cutting does not refer to cutting the words into stone, but the cutting of animals. We see this most clearly in Genesis 15:8 ff and Jeremiah 34:18-19. When two parties agreed to enter into covenant they would cut an animals (goat, cow, etc.) in pieces and lay the pieces opposite each other, leaving a center aisle between the pieces. Upon the reading of the stipulations of the covenant relationship, typically the weaker party would walk between the cut animal pieces. In passing between the pieces of slaughtered animals the statement was being made, "May it be unto me, as unto these slaughtered animals, if I do not maintain the stipulations of our agreement." Or in other words, "If I am unfaithful, if I part from my promise today, death unto me."
You can see that entering into such a covenant is pretty serious business, even more serious than marriage - after all, none of us married folks had to walk through cut up animals and say, "May it be so unto me, honey, if I ever forsake you." (That might very well be the case, but it's not technically part of the marriage ceremony/promise.) So when Israel hears Moses read all the word from Yahweh and says, "Yes, we will keep them all!" and then Moses sprinkles the blood upon them, I understand them to be making a blood commitment to Yahweh. Israel is saying, "May our blood be poured out if we do not live faithful to You." That is a blood-serious commitment.
But it is the kind of commitment Yahweh demanded. And it is still the kind of commitment Yahweh demands. Hear the call of Jesus. "Whoever would come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me." "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters - yes, even his own life - he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." Christ calls us to a blood-serious commitment. There on Sinai it was decision time for Israel. They had been courted by Yahweh. Now Yahweh was asking for blood commitment if the relationship was to continue. They had to give an answer. Likewise Christ brings us to such decision times. Nothing less than blood commitment is asked for, if the relationship is to go forward. We must give an answer.
I suppose I could stop here, but notice that only half of the blood was sprinkled upon the people. The other half, the first half, was splashed upon the altar before the words of the covenant were ever read. Remember, the altar symbolizes Yahweh's Presence. And also remember that in Genesis 15 where Yahweh has Abram cut up the animals, Abram is not required to walk through them (eventually he does, in a certain sense, in both Genesis 17 with circumcision and in Genesis 22 when he is asked to sacrifice Isaac). Rather, Yahweh passes through the cut pieces and covenants with Abram to fulfill His promises. Yahweh says, "May it be so unto Me if I fail to keep My word to you." That is radical. Yahweh, the stronger party, willing to make a blood-serious commitment to the weaker party, Abram.
I think the same thing is going on with the blood being splashed upon the altar. Yahweh is making known His blood-serious commitment to Israel. His commitment is to make them into a holy nation and a royal priesthood. His commitment is to go before them, oppose their enemies, and give them the promised land. His commitment is to be Present among them and to bless them with wellness of life. His commitment is to be faithful to this people that He has been courting. Of course there is an if involved, but nonetheless there is blood-serious commitment on Yahweh's part.
It is significant that the first blood that is poured is that which is poured upon the altar/Yahweh. It is poured before Israel ever hears the covenant, before Israel ever answers in covenant. Israel's commitment is preceded and made possible by Yahweh's commitment. Yahweh's blood-serious devotion provokes, calls forth, enables, even demands such blood seriousness from Israel. We need to catch how radical this is! The party in power binding Himself in blood to the one with no power. That is the nature of grace.
That day on Mount Sinai Yahweh and Israel were married. The rest of the Old Testament is the story of their marriage, the story of Yahweh's total faithfulness and Israel's partial faithfulness. It is quite a rocky marriage, for partial faithfulness means times of unfaithfulness. Israel's unfaithfulness is so bad that Yahweh comes close to completely enforcing Israel's vow of "Death unto me if I part from you." But just as Yahweh chose Israel out of His own free volition, so Yahweh chooses to remain faithful and even restore Israel out of His own free volition.
Jeremiah 31:31-34, "'The time is coming,' declares the LORD, 'when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them... I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people... For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.'"
When we think of someone re-marrying after a bad marriage, we expect that they will marry a different person. Not Yahweh. Yahweh keeps the same spouse. Yahweh enters a new marriage with the old, unfaithful spouse (note Hosea 1-3). And Yahweh commits not just to be faithful, but that He will also make His spouse new through forgiveness and through giving her a new volition, a new heart to be faithful to Him. In the face of tremendous unfaithfulness, Yahweh increases His promise and His own covenant faithfulness.
I think you know where this is going. "Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins. . ..'" In Jesus God cuts a new covenant with all of humanity. There is the blood commitment of forgiveness. There is the blood commitment of a new heart. What radical devotion on the part of God.
I do not know how you are doing in your devotion to Christ. I do not know whether or not your commitment is at the blood-serious level. I do not know to what degree you have heeded Christ's call to the cross. But I do know this: God in Christ has made a blood-serious commitment to you!
May we celebrate this commitment! May we celebrate this God! And may we respond in grace-empowered faithfulness!