|God Is With His People (Exodus 40:34-38)
Exodus ends in a strange, powerful, and auspicious way.
Its ending is strange for the simple reason that the Israelites had not been rejected and abandoned by Yahweh; he rescued them from Pharaoh and gave them the covenant provisions at Mount Sinai, only to witness their irreverent and immoral display in the golden-calf debacle. Even as Moses was in the mountain with him as their redeemer-mediator, the people were putting on a spectacle worthy of pagans. The text says the people were "running wild" in their idolatry and immorality (Ex. 32:25a). It also says that what they did that day held them up to the "derision of their enemies" (Ex. 32:25b). By every measure of justice — whether human or divine — it is astonishing, remarkable, and strange that God didn't drop Israel as a lost cause after that outrageous episode.
The final paragraph of Exodus powerful because it reveals the nature of God to be restrained, compassionate, and forgiving in dealing with his people. It isn't, mind you, that he could not have started over without these former slaves. They needed God; he could have done quite well without them. He even raised the possibility with Moses in this context of annihilating the Israelites and starting over with him and his family to create a holy nation (cf. Ex. 32:9-10). Yet it is not in God's nature to be other than "slow to anger" with even the most sinful of us (Psa. 103:8-10). Yes, God is holy and will not tolerate defiance and rebellion without end. But he is not looking for a reason to destroy, but to forgive — always. And that is a powerful insight into his heart.
Exodus' closing lines are auspicious because of what they forecast about Israel's future. When Yahweh threatened to destroy that sinful nation, Moses pleaded for him to remember his covenant promise to Abraham and to relent. Responding to that intercession, he essentially said, "All right. I won't destroy them, but it serves them right for me just to let them go to Canaan alone and do the best they can without my presence among them." He would send an angel before them to clear the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, and Jebusites, but he knew that to be present with them would expose him to the same exasperating things he had just seen from them at Sinai. "Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you," he told Moses, "or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people" (Ex. 33:3). Yet the book closes with him promising not only to let Israel get to Canaan but to accompany them and to be present in their midst. That bodes well for the people, for they will need his guidance, deliverance, and mercy repeatedly in the course of their wilderness experience.
End or Beginning?
All this makes me wonder whether we should view the final paragraph of the final chapter of Exodus as an end or a beginning. In one sense, it is certainly an end. It brings together the themes that have been developed from the opening words of the book — grace, pilgrimage, covenant, and worship. But the grace that had brought them this far and the (renewed) covenant that challenged them to display Yahweh's glory before a watching world are now looking forward rather than backward. The promise that God would dwell among and abide with Israel is the beginning of all that follows in the Pentateuch.
Although we name and count the "first five books of the Old Testament," the Jewish people see these scrolls as segments of a single book of Torah. And it has only occurred to me this past week that Exodus is to the Old Testament faith community very much what Acts is to the New Testament people of God. It is a historical record of the early formative events that shaped a group into a community, a mass of people into a people for God's own possession, people who heard and heeded God's call to "come out" into his very own Chosen People and Holy Nation. It was Peter who drew on this imagery to write this: "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Pet. 2:9). Although written to the church around A.D. 60, it could have been said of the Israelites on the day the tabernacle was dedicated and opened for business well over a millennium earlier.
After the golden calf, after Moses' intercession for the people, after the nation's penitence and pledge to obey Yahweh, and after they showed their good faith with him in actually producing the furniture and structure for the tabernacle, it was assembled for the first time. Just over a year after arriving at the holy mountain, everything was complete. Only then was the time right to raise the tent for the first time, to place its special equipment in place, and to make it a place of worship.
Moses did everything just as the Lord had commanded him. In the first month in the second year, on the first day of the month, the tabernacle was set up. Moses set up the tabernacle; he laid its bases, and set up its frames, and put in its poles, and raised up its pillars; and he spread the tent over the tabernacle, and put the covering of the tent over it; as the Lord had commanded Moses. He took the covenant and put it into the ark, and put the poles on the ark, and set the mercy seat above the ark; and he brought the ark into the tabernacle, and set up the curtain for screening, and screened the ark of the covenant; as the Lord had commanded Moses. He put the table in the tent of meeting, on the north side of the tabernacle, outside the curtain, and set the bread in order on it before the Lord; as the Lord had commanded Moses. He put the lampstand in the tent of meeting, opposite the table on the south side of the tabernacle, and set up the lamps before the Lord; as the Lord had commanded Moses. He put the golden altar in the tent of meeting before the curtain, and offered fragrant incense on it; as the Lord had commanded Moses. He also put in place the screen for the entrance of the tabernacle. He set the altar of burnt offering at the entrance of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting, and offered on it the burnt offering and the grain offering as the Lord had commanded Moses. He set the basin between the tent of meeting and the altar, and put water in it for washing, with which Moses and Aaron and his sons washed their hands and their feet. When they went into the tent of meeting, and when they approached the altar, they washed; as the Lord had commanded Moses. He set up the court around the tabernacle and the altar, and put up the screen at the gate of the court. So Moses finished the work (Ex. 40:16- 33).As with everything in Scripture, though, the real story of this event is not the construction work of the people or the actions of a mortal in carrying out the order to "start the engines" for their worship. The true and profound meaning of this moment lies in God's initiative. He makes himself known. He descends into Israel's camp. He comes down from the holy mountain he had created millions of years before and which earthquakes had not destroyed into the frail little tent they had made for his dwelling place. God came to dwell among them!
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lordfilled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Whenever the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on each stage of their journey; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey (Ex. 40:34-38).Above Yet Among the People
I like the view John Durham takes of the Exodus in tracing a presence-motif through the book. He sees the divine presence in terms of promise and a variety of fulfillments — with the most dramatic fulfillment coming here.
With Yahweh's Presence promised, then demonstrated, then given to Israel in theophany at Sinai, the first half of Exodus ends. The second half of the book is preoccupied with response to that Presence, in life, in covenant, in worship, and even in disobedience. The largest part of that second half has to do with the communication to Israel of the reality of that Presence, through a series of set-apart places, set-apart objects and set-apart acts, all of them intimately connected, in one way or another, with Yahweh's Presence.At the close of Exodus, God has not only given his Chosen People a glimpse of his mighty redemptive power, not only given them the Ten Commandments, not only given them promises and exhortations, but he is present with the people in a dramatic and powerful way. And this is the beginning of all that will happen in the remainder of the Torah. Only when God moves will the people move again. Otherwise they remain in place and still. God is their guide, and the nation is to take all its cues from him. The initiative will always be his, for it is his will and purpose that are being served by these events and not the dreams of the Jews for liberation from Egypt.
This final chapter sums up the symbolisms of those places, objects, and acts, then recounts the fulfillment of the ideal of the Exodus theology of the Presence: Yahweh among his people, not in his mighty deeds, or in his rescue, or in his provision, or in his guidance, or in his judgment, or at a distance on a forbidden and foreboding mountain, but there in their midst; the symbol of his nearness visible to all, and all the time, Yahweh protecting and guiding, Yahweh teaching and blessing; Yahweh's Presence settled in Israel's center, Yahweh's Presence filling their Holiest Space, Yahweh's Presence in their living place, wherever it might be, and when; Yahweh's Presence in them.
As the day-to-day events in each Israelite's life unfolded, the Abiding Presence symbolized by the cloud and the pillar of fire would be there to reassure him or her that God was with Israel in her wilderness adventures. The God that they knew as holy, high, and lifted-up was also very near to them. This was as much as God could do for the people — unless he were actually to come among them in a body of flesh.
Completion in Jesus
Miracles of miracles, God has come among us in personal, bodily form! Jesus Emmanuel (i.e., God with us) has come to make known God's person and work. And through his Holy Spirit, he makes himself personally present by indwelling our bodies.
A few weeks ago, there was a nasty incident in the Minnesota Metrodome when some baseball fans got ugly with a player on the field. Chuck Knoblauch had left the Minnesota Twins four years ago to join the New York Yankees. Some people threw coins, hot dogs, plastic beer bottles, and golf balls at Knoblauch in left field that day. The game was delayed twice and nearly forfeited. More than 40 people were ejected, and some face the possibility of criminal prosecution.
The interesting thing to me was the event which put an end to the rowdiness. The stadium announcer had pleaded for it to stop. The umpires had communicated the threat that the game would be forfeited, if it didn't stop. Tom Kelly, the respected manager of the Twins, even walked out into left field and tried to appeal directly to the most out-of-control fans. Nothing had worked to that point. The umpires finally decided that there would be one more effort made to finish the game — or else it would become a victory for the New York team by default. What would happen?
When the Yankees began their cautious return to the field, the Minnesota manager did a magnificent thing. He left the security of his team's dugout and walked out to left field with Knoblauch. He didn't try to talk the fans this time. He didn't gesture for them to be calm. He just walked with Knoblauch, stood side by side with him, and talked with him as one friend with another. Nothing else was thrown. And many of the 36,825 fans attending the game applauded the courage and leadership of Tom Kelly.
You and I are in a wilderness situation that is always unfriendly and often hostile. God has told us that he loves us and has even spoken to us. When necessary, he sent prophets to warn us of the dangers we were creating for ourselves. At the same time, he told us of a Promised Land to which we could have access by faith. We continued to be rebels. We continued to disobey. We persisted in unbelief. So he pulled out all the stops and did the one final thing that he thought might reach our hearts. "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children . . ." (Gal. 4:4-5). "Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds" (Heb. 1:1-2). He came from his secure throne room and is standing with us now in our human frailty.
One writer whose comments I read on this final paragraph of Exodus is surely correct in seeing this as a "central thrust" to its conclusion: "The God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt is at the same time both holy and near."
God's holiness is stressed in verses 34-35. There we are told that the glory of the Lordso filled the holy tent that even Moses could not enter until that glory abated. Yet the remaining verses of the paragraph stress that God's presence was constant with his people throughout their ordeal. What Moses was unable to do because of his limitations, Jesus Christ has done. He came to us from the Father's right hand and has, by the power of his resurrection, gone through the veil into the Holy of Holies. Divine in his own person and power, he is himself enthroned today in the heavenly sanctuary. From that central position, he both invites us to "approach the throne of grace with boldness" (Heb. 4:16) and promises to be with us through all our experiences through the personal presence of his Spirit. It is our task as a community of faith not only to remember and claim those promises but to make them known to everyone else, to let everyone know that no one has to be without his saving presence.
 John I. Durham, Exodus (Waco, TX: Word Books, Publisher, 1987), p. 501.
 Peter Enns, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000), p. 600.
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