Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Mosaic Covenant: Its Origin and Conditions


This is the 6th of a series of essays that cover the origin of the Israelite nation and conclude with a discussion of the Ten Commandments. Links to the prior essays can be found in the left hand column of this post under Blog Archives.

We are ready to understand God's Covenant with Moses and the people that will lay the foundation of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments. Without this Covenant there would be no Chosen People. There would be no Israelite nation. There would be no Ten Commandments. It all comes down to this event that we are going to discuss now.

Camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the Israelites wait as Moses goes up the mountain to God, who proposes to change the very nature of his relationship with the Israelites. God does this in two carefully distinct stages. First God tells Moses, "Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself."

Notice how God recites what He has done as the basis of everything that is to follow: how He saved them from the Egyptians, and "bore them on eagles' wings," protecting them, watching over them, as an eagle watches over its young.

This image, of God raising us up as on eagles' wings, has become one of the most beloved and treasured symbols of faith. Moses, in his farewell speech at the end of Deuteronomy, elaborates on God's theme, when, speaking of "Jacob", another name for the Israelites, Moses said to the Israelites, "He shielded him [meaning Jacob, the Israelites], cared for him, guarded him as the apple of His eye. As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions, the Lord alone guided him, no foreign god was with him."

And, most importantly, God tells Moses to tell the people that God alone, "brought you to myself." Here we get, for the first time, a glimpse of God's plan, of His overall intention: to bring this chosen people to Himself.

The flight from Egypt and all the hardship that they endured, all the times God intervened on their behalf, the miracles God performed to keep them alive, all this was not simply so that they might be free from bondage, or to bring them to the Holy Mountain, or even to have a better land to live in. Actually, the Promised Land will prove to be nothing like as fertile and productive as Egypt, which has the Nile river.

But the destination of the Israelites turns out not to be a place at all: the destination turns out to be God. "I brought them to me." All that God has done for them, He did that they might become his own beloved people.

We must understand that this grace, this deliverance, precedes any idea of establishing the Torah. God intends that the Israelites clearly understand what He has done for them before He makes any demands on them. And He will make demands upon them only if they understand and appreciate the enormity of God's love for, and commitment to, them. This point is critical in understanding the origin of and the intent of the Ten Commandments.

God has a plan; but it will be revealed to them only in stages, because that plan will succeed only with their cooperation. They must willingly understand all that God has done, and be grateful for it. And they must trust Him to provide in the future, as he has in the past.

This relationship is not to be founded on some theological abstraction. This relationship is to be based on God's deeds in the past and God's promises for the future. God has saved them for himself. They should now know that unequivocally. And Moses is to tell them. But the larger question remains, "Having saved them, what will God do with them?"

The answer is that God proposes to enter into a covenant with them. "Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation."

There are several critical things that we need to understand about this invitation to covenant.

First, it comes only after God's grace, God's gift of deliverance.

Second, it is conditional. "If" you do this, "then" you shall be.... God's love for them is not conditional. But their particular, chosen, relationship to him is. He loves them, that is clear. After all, He wishes them to be his " treasured possession out of all the peoples". Yet God also makes it clear that this special, covenantal relationship is conditional: While all the earth is his, and all the people in it, the Israelites alone shall have this special relationship with God -- If.

Third, "obeying God's voice" comes before keeping the covenant; and before the Torah. Already, in the desert, God has tested the Israelites to see if they would obey him. Some did. Some did not. But the point is not whether the Israelites obeyed or failed, but that to obey the voice of God entails something more than simply obeying the Torah that will be given to them shortly. To obey the voice of God requires more than simply abiding by the rules.

To obey God's voice is an act of the heart. It starts with our intentions to listen for and be alert to what God is saying to us, and to act accordingly. To obey in love, and with love toward others, is an even greater obligation than keeping the Law. Remember, first, God says, "obey my voice." Only then, second, does God say, "and keep my covenant."

If they do this God tells Moses that the Israelites "shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation." Now we are not going to go into great detail about what that means in this essay. For now, just remember that to be a "priestly" nation is to be one who mediates between God and others. Because the earth, all of it, is God's, Israel's role will be that of mediator, intercessor, between the rest of the world and God. It is to function in the world as a priest would function in a religious community.

More importantly, it is to be "a holy nation," that is, one which embodies God's own purposes in the world. To be "holy" is to be set apart for God's purposes. Israel is to reflect God's light to the world; to set an example, to show the world what it is like to live the good life under God. All this goes back to the original covenant with Abraham some 400 years prior, where God told Abram, "...In you all the nations of the world shall be blessed."

We are ready for the big question: "How will Israel respond?" Knowing the story to date, and being aware of what will happen in the future, one should be surprised to know that, after Moses reported all this to the people, the Bible tells us, simply, "The people all answered as one: 'Everything that the LORD has spoken we will do.'"

What is amazing about this response is that it is totally uncharacteristic of what has preceded this encounter. Up to now they had whined and complained and tried to get around God's tests in the desert. They have hardly been ideal candidates for holiness!

And we already know that the rest of the Hebrew Bible is as much the story of their disobedience as it is of their obedience. And we will learn soon enough that their disobedience starts up again immediately! We also know that their disobedience results in them wandering in the desert for forty years rather than two.

But now, at this critical juncture in the history of the world, they say "Yes!" And, with that "yes" everything changes. Nothing will be the same from this time forward.

Let us not be hard on the Israelites for their disobedience. After all, we all know something about "good intentions," don't we? I can not even begin to count the times I have told God that I intend to do what he wants. Nor can I begin to count the times that I have failed. But that is the nature of the human condition. We even have a name for it. It's called sin.

Thankfully, the nature of God is something else entirely. God's nature is love and that love is manifest in forgiveness. It should not surprise us that a God who loves us so much, who forgives our sins, will do everything in his power to keep the covenant going, in spite of every error the Israelites - or we - might commit.

Do not look down you nose at "good intentions." God looks upon the heart. What you "intend" to do is far more important to God than what you actually are able to accomplish.

The Israelites intended to obey God. And that was enough for him. Today, we believers intend to obey God. And God will forgive us when we do not. That much has not changed.

Likewise, when we intend NOT to obey Him, but only go through the motions trying to convince others that we are in obedience, we are only fooling ourselves. God is not fooled, because God knows our intentions.

My advice to those of faith who want to try to please God is to keep having "good intentions." They have been important to God since before the foundation of the earth.

Next: we'll look at the rest of Chapter 19 and then it will be time to really take a hard look at the Ten Commandments.

God bless.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Exodus: the Gathering of the Traditions


Traditional Site 0f Mt. Sinai.

This is the 5th of a series of essays that cover the origin of the Israelite nation and conclude with a discussion of the Ten Commandments.

Prior essays are

This will, in some ways, be the most difficult essay to understand of this series. But it will answer questions about the Bible that too many in the past have forgotten to ask; which has led to the misuse of Scripture to further not theological but ideological goals.

The Ten Commandments are also known as The Decalogue, a word worth knowing. We are now at Chapter 19 of Exodus. The Decalogue comes in Chapter 20.

But, unless we understand why and how we came to have the Decalogue we will miss much of what God is telling us; and, we can fall into the common Christian trap of taking the Commandments out of context and missing their true meaning. We want to avoid doing that. You can't truly understand any Biblical text without understanding the context in which it is written.

We come now to a point in our story that is absolutely critical to our understanding of who Jews and Christians are as people of faith: the formation of the nation of Israel.

Up to now the people had been led by and protected by Yahweh, but they claimed no special allegiance to him; and he made no universal demands on them.

In fact, when they complained it was usually to and about Moses, not God. Moses knew that when they complained against him they were really complaining about God. But the people did not quickly realize that to be the case, as the incident of the Water from the Rock showed us.

Yet, increasingly, they had begun to realize that Moses had no power except that which God gave him, and they were more and more turning to Moses not to provide his counsel, but to seek God's counsel through Moses.

God had tested the people in several specific ways, such as how they were to treat the manna he provided. Now a bigger decision will be made by God: he will decide to keep them as his own chosen people through whom he will seek to bless the nations of the world. That will be a monumental task, one at which they would sometimes succeed, but one at which they, like all humans, would often fail.

So Chapter 19, at the very heart of the Book of Exodus, is where God does make universal demands upon the people; and where they commit themselves wholly to God. By agreeing to become God's "priestly kingdom and a holy nation," they become partners in the covenant between God and Abraham.

This "new covenant" will be known as the "Mosaic Covenant," the "Covenant with Moses." It is more than its name for it is a covenant not only between God and Moses but between God and this chosen people. And it is really an extension of the larger covenant that God made with Abraham.

At its core what this covenant between God and the Israelites does is expand upon the covenant with Abraham to include an entire people, many of who bear no known direct relationship to Abraham, but who now form an elected, redeemed, believing, worshiping community.

In a similar way, Christians, who also have no known direct blood relationship to Abraham, will much later be called by another Jew whom Christians know as St. Peter, "...A chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his possession...." (1 Peter 2;9) Christians see themselves as descendants of this covenant because of the "New Covenant" which we entered through the blood of our Jewish Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

While this Mosaic covenant is really not new in its intent, this is truly a "new" covenant for those involved in it, those whom we call Israelites; a covenant made with a people who were held in slavery for over 400 years, a bunch of refugees, for whom the promises made by God to Abraham were but the dim recollections of a clouded history. For them it would be the beginning of a whole new way of life under God.

All of the covenant making, the giving of the Ten Commandments, and the expansion of the law in the "Covenant Code" which follows the Decalogue and details instructions on how those people were to live, as well as the establishment of all of the fundamental rituals of worship, the construction of the tabernacle, the ark of the covenant and all the related fixtures of worship: all of this takes place at the foot of Mr. Sinai.

Everything that happens in the rest of Exodus, in all of Leviticus, and in the first ten chapters of Numbers, all of it, happens at the Holy Mountain, where the people camp for just under one year. And all of it is further summarized in the Book of Deuteronomy.

In the Book of Exodus, what happens in Chapter 19 lays the foundation for everything that will follow in the rest of the Bible, both in the Old and the New Testaments. The section of text, the pericope, starting at chapter 19 through Chapter 24, informs forever the Israelite experience.

It is here where God offers His covenant with the people and demands obedience. It is here where the people respond positively. It is here where the Torah, the instructions for life under God, is promulgated. It is here where God shows himself to the people, and speaks directly to them, issuing the Ten Commandments, which are the foundation of the "Law", or Torah.

It is here where the people, fearful of further direct contact with Yahweh, seek Moses as an intermediary between them and this Almighty God. It is here where the "Covenant Code," that long list of detailed rules for day-to-day living, is given to the people; and, finally, it is here where God once more appears to the leaders of the people, and where the Covenant is completed. In other words, it is here that Israel is born. And, in a very real sense, it is here where the faith of modern Jews and Christians begins.

When we look at the critical first verses of Chapter 19, the first thing that we notice is that the first two verses repeat the obvious: That the Israelites came to the wilderness of Sinai about two months after they left Egypt, coming from Rephidim, and camped in the wilderness. Now they camp at the foot of the Holy Mountain, which we call today, Mt. Sinai, but was then more often called Mt. Horeb.

I am going to use this obvious repetition here at the beginning of Chapter 19 as a reason for us to take a side trip for the rest of this essay.
This side trip could have been taken earlier, but I wanted to wait until we were at a crucial point in the text. We need to understand how this part of the Bible was put together, so you'll begin to understand why the Bible often repeats itself, and sometimes even contradicts itself.

This repetition is obvious in the first five books of the Old Testament, which are called the "Pentateuch," (literally, "Five Books"), although it is readily apparent in other parts of the Old Testament and also in parts of the New Testament as well. In the Old Testament, for example, the 10 Commandments appear twice, not once, in Exodus and again in Deuteronomy. And the Commandments are not exactly the same in both places. (Deuteronomy translates roughly: "the second telling." That book is written as a series of speeches by Moses to the people prior to entering the Promised Land.)

In the case of Exodus and all of the Pentateuch and in many subsequent chapters of the Old Testament, you will find a lot of this overlapping repetition and the taking of different slants on the same event. This is because these books are an edited accumulation of at least four separate text streams. They were "redacted," that is cut and pasted together, and bound into a text with transitional words by the "redactor."

The sources of these words come from the different traditions of different groups of Israelites, and were gathered over a period of hundreds of years. They were first passed along by word of mouth, and only much later were they written down.

The four most obvious text sources in the Old Testament are called J, E, P and D.

"J" stands for "Yahwist," meaning that in that source God is called Yahweh. The "J" comes from the German spelling of Yahweh, which is "Jahweh." The J source is believed to come from*the traditions of the Southern tribes of Israel.

[ * When I say "believed to come from" I do not mean it is just a guess. Conclusions as to these source streams come after decades of careful analysis of the words, the forms of the language and careful and laborious study of the text.]

The "E" strand of tradition stands for "Eloist," because, in these sections of text, God is called "El" or "El-ohim," or some other variation of "El," which is translated as "God." The E source is believed to stem from the traditions of the Northern tribes of Israel.

The "P" source stands for the "Priestly" writer or editor. We do not know if it was a single editor, although that is how it is usually discussed. Likely there were multiple writers who worked together on these complicated texts.

This source is primarily responsible for all the information and details about building the tabernacle, the forms of ritual and ceremony, and other details of sacrifice and worship. In other words, this source is interested in the way the people are to worship of God. A huge part of the first five books of the Bible is devoted to this.

"D" stands for "Deuteronomist" and, in many ways this is the most important textual source of all. In addition to adding textual material to the Bible, it was the Deuteronomist who pulled all of the threads together. This source came hundreds of years after "J" and "E" and comes from the same writer, or writers, who compiled the Book of Deuteronomy.

Although the source is likely composed of a school of writers, this source is called often called simply the "Deuteronomistic Historian" because the writers' strong interest in getting a clear understanding of what actually happened to the Israelites from the time they left Egypt.

This interest continues through not only the Pentateuch but also through the books that follow. The Deuteronomistic History of the Bible runs all the way to the end of Second Kings. Thus, much of the heart of what we know as the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, was gathered together by this writer or group of writers.

The final form of the Bible that we see today is called the "canon," or "canonical" text. It is the text accepted by Jews and Christians who are members of the worshiping community as the authentic, sanctified record of God's relationship to us. It is this text that is "normative" for us: that is, it is the text from which we base our actions on how to live under God's leadership.

The "canonical text" of the Old Testament is the final result of many redactions over literally hundreds of years. And the New Testament underwent similar, but not as complete, redactions as well.

The final editors had to accommodate many different ideas, stories, and theological positions. That it is as coherent as it is seems to me truly amazing. So, as we read the Bible we need to keep in mind that the Bible is not a book written by one person at one time for one reason. Rather it is a beautiful tapestry, a quilt, woven over centuries.

As such we must try not to get hung up on the little inconsistencies, or the repetitions, or the lack of historical sequence in some of the chapters. It is important to remember that the Bible is primarily theology, not history; It is God's revelation of God's self to us.

Remember also that the so-called "history" in Bible comes to us through many different sets of eyes. Believers must evaluate the Bible through the eyes of faith. It is not science. Nor is it written as it would be written by a modern day historian. If you subject it to the tests of modern science or history writing, then you have simply missed God's purpose in giving us this documentation of God's relationship to us. It is to be judged by God's standards, not ours.

Just as we learn when looking at the gospel accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus, different communities of faith often saw the same events slightly differently, saw some events that the other groups did not see at all, and reported all the events a little differently, one from the other.

But Jews and Christians believe that God guided the hearts and hands of those who wrote and edited these words. In other words, we believe that they were inspired by God.

Most conservative Christians also believe that the Bible as we have it today is also infallible and inerrant, even though wholly translated from texts written long after the events depicted, and even though no original manuscripts exist to our knowledge. Nevertheless, these Christians believe that these words are to be taken literally.

I do not think that position is tenable. It is based on assumptions long ago proven to be unsubstantiated. But each reader of the texts that make up the Bible must make that decision for him or her self.

One final thought on this. The canonical text of the Bible is often called "The Word of God." While I understand why that is said, I believe that to be wrong and I do not think it is just semantics when I say that. It is far too easy to say that and become so enamored with the Book that we forget that it is the Witness to God. It is not God.

The Bible stands as witness and contains many words of God to us. But we must never fall into Bibliolatry. We do not worship a book. We worship God. And there is a big difference. The Bible was written within, and is addressed to, the worshiping community. But God is still speaking to us and we must evaluate the words of the Bible in the context of the worshiping community today.

The Bible is both spoken to us and interpreted by the worshiping community. What may have been seen as acceptable interpretation of certain texts in the Bible in one generation or century may well not be acceptable to the worshiping community in a later generation or century in the light of a different understanding of how the Bible speaks to that later generation.

The Bible does not and cannot stand alone, isolated, out of the context of its intended audience. The traditions of the worshiping community and the experiences of that community today must be taken into account when deciding how God would have us live, and how we are to interpret what the Bible means for us today.

And so, while the Bible is ancient and honored, it is not to be confused with the whole truth that God has to reveal to us. Each generation of the faith community must read and understand the Bible within the context in which we find ourselves. In other words the Bible is, and has always been, a Living Bible.

We need to work to keep it as such and not become obsessed with anachronistic teaching which makes no sense for a current generation of believers.

Next: God calls Moses to take a message to the people! That message, and their response, will change everything!

God bless.