|Getting Acquainted With God (Exodus 19:1-17a)
I must have been in the eighth grade. I was the spelling champion for my class and had to represent the group in an all-school spelling bee. It was a terrible experience. I dreaded it for days. Oh, I was cramming and practicing and trying to get all the rules down in my mind. You know the ones I'm talking about: i before e except after c, and so on and so on and so on forever . . . And I didn't sleep well the night before the big event. Then came sweaty palms, butterflies, the works.
Spelling bees are unmerciful. There are no second chances. No matter how many words you've spelled correctly to that point, you only have to miss the next one to be disqualified. Surviving the first or third or seventh round doesn't mean a thing, unless you can step up and get the next word letter-perfect too.
That's the way some people think life works: one mistake, and you're a failure. That's the way some of you were taught to think about religion — and you were taught it on the authority of the church, the preacher, and the Sunday School teacher. You were left with a view of God from your training that is both wrong and unhealthy: God has set life up as a continual series of testing situations and is monitoring you so he can condemn you for getting it wrong. It doesn't matter how many rounds you've survived so far. It doesn't matter what you've gotten right. If you sin in this setting, you're out. You're condemned. You've fallen from grace and are lost. Why, you might not even know until Judgment Day that you got something wrong back there that you thought was right at the time! You'd be judged lacking and thrown into hell. Just like a school spelling bee, you only have to miss one to be disqualified.
That view of life and faith is a mockery of the truth and a wicked misrepresentation of the nature of God.
The Fear of Yahweh
After approximately two months of travel, the Israelites who had fled Egypt under Moses came to the vicinity of Mount Sinai. What happened there was crucial for all that follows in biblical history. The people remained there for nearly a year, and fifty-nine chapters of the Pentateuch are devoted to what happened there (cf. Ex. 19:1—Num. 10:11).
What awe must have been felt by the people at the base of that mountain. As Yahweh prepared to reveal his presence to them (i.e., a theophany), the sights and sounds routinely associated with such an event were evident. "On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled" (Ex. 19:16). "When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance . . ." (Ex 20:18).
Now I don't think it is a bad thing for people to be "afraid" and to "tremble" before God. That is, it surely isn't a bad thing for us to know that God is powerful, mighty, and formidable. At certain stages of childhood, that is about all we understand about our parents. They are bigger than us, and we can't get by with defying them! More often than not, that's a good lesson to get fixed in a child's mind. "Don't move!" has probably saved millions of children from getting burned, hurt by animals, or running into traffic. As adolescents, we test the limits and want to know why the rules are as they are. Rules are no longer just rules to be obeyed. We want to know why there are any rules at all or why the rules can't be different than they are. So we change some of them — and eventually realize there was a good reason for things being as they were when we came onto the scene! That final phase is called "maturity" and reflects a time of authentic participation not only in the letter of the law but in its spirit as well.
I'm not so sure Israel ever moved very far out of childhood. The history of that nation has it mired in immature challenges against God's authority. Every law was a challenge. Every prohibition was of something desirable. Every limit had to be tested and every barrier crossed! Doesn't that sound like spiritual childhood to you?
Yahweh never wanted the spirit of the people to be dominated by the sort of fear that can be generated by noise, smoke, and lightning. How can I be sure? After all the sights and sounds, warnings and boundaries, Moses told them so! He told them that the "fear" (i.e., awe, reverence) God wanted from them was not the "fear" (i.e., terror, nightmare-causing horror) they were feeling at that moment. Just read the full paragraph from which I lifted the opening verse earlier:
When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die." Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin." Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was (Ex. 20:18-21).Did you catch it? Moses first said, "Do not be afraid." Then he went on to say that Yahweh "has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin." What? "He didn't come and manifest himself in this scary-to-us theophany to make us wet our pants, cringe, and dread him!" Moses said. "No, he has revealed himself as the All-Powerful God here so we could sense his presence, so you could know that I am not misleading you but acting for him, and so we would band together to trust and follow him in this wilderness time."
In his commentary on these verses, John Durham suggests translating the word rendered "test" in v.20 with "experience" or "see" — a less common but permissible way to read the verb (Heb, nsh) in the original text here.
The use of "you must not be afraid" followed by "in order that there might be reverence (fear) of him before your face" is a deft touch of didactic narrative. Yahweh/Elohim comes to Israel at Sinai to give them so vivid and unforgettable an experience of himself, including his own statement of the principles for live in relationship with him, that they will not only not forget but will follow his way as a first priority of life.Not Law but the Law-Giver
We sometimes get to this section of Holy Scripture only to read the Ten Commandments and to remind ourselves how terrible the world has become by ignoring them. From there, it is a very short step to sounding a stern warning about the terrible punishment that awaits the people who have chosen to live in defiance of God. Are all these things true? Indeed. But is that the point of this part of Exodus?
The Ten Commandments were not the basis of Israel's covenant with Yahweh nor the intended focus for its life in community. The point was never the Law but the Law- Giver. Before listing the "must-dos" for the Israelite community, there was a recitation of the "already-done" by Yahweh. Thus the Ten Words affirm the inseparable relationship of law to grace within biblical religion. From beginning to end, grace is both the background and platform for law.
Obedience to law is not the basis of redemption. To the contrary, deliverance was by love and mercy rooted in the covenant with Abraham and expanded now in these covenant provisions for his descendants. The chronology of events cannot be debated: the good news of rescue from slavery came prior to the law. Neither can the theology of biblical faith be argued: the Good News of deliverance comes before our duties to or performance under law. Gospel before demand, grace before law, God's good deed in Christ before human good deeds for Christ — the order is fixed and constant.
Thus the beautiful "Eagles' Wing Speech" that begins this narrative:
Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, "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. 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. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites" (Ex. 19:3-6).And thus the immediate prologue to the Ten Commandments: "Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery . . ." (Ex. 20:1-2).
If the experience of God and our salvation through his grace lingers with us, what could be more natural than to give him our exclusive allegiance, to honor his name, and to worship him? But those are commandments one through four! And if the experience of God in community is real and authentic, will we not treat one another with respect? So what place would there be for theft, lies, broken promises, or ill-will toward one another? But those are simply the final six commandments!
No wonder Jesus could summarize all the Law and the Prophets with only twocommandments:
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, " ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matt. 22:34-40).Conclusion
The particulars of the Ten Commandments and similar texts in the Bible reflect the divine ideals for those who are living in covenant relationship with God and in community with each other. They mark both the noblest things toward which we should aspire and the most destructive behaviors we should avoid. Ultimately, however, they boldly underscore our inability to live up to the ideal — either of God or self-expectation — and point us to Christ for his redeeming grace.
No, biblical religion is not a spelling bee where one false move banishes you. It is not based on fear of punishment. It is more like a soccer game where you keep getting jostled or knocked down, sometimes fumble or get scored on, and depend on the rest of your team just to keep you in the game. Then, at the end, even if you are dirty and drained from the experience, the coach will put his arm around you, congratulate you on your good plays while seeming to forget the broken ones, and say, "Let's go, my child. The table is set. It will be good to be home after what we've just been through."
 John I. Durham, Exodus (Waco, TX: Word Books, Publisher, 1987), p. 304.
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