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.