The episode at mount Sinai serves as the centerpiece of the book of Exodus, and is the focal point of Israel’s identity as the “people of God”. The stated goal of the Exodus in the narrative (3:12; 5:1; 7:16, etc) was for the Israelite people to be set free and allowed to travel out of Egypt to worship their God (YHWH) at the sacred mountain (Horeb in chap. 3, Sinai in chaps. 19ff). When they finally reach the mountain, YHWH reaffirms and establishes His covenant with them, the same binding agreement (tyr!B=) made with their ancestors (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob).
The Sinai Covenant (Exodus 19-24)
According to the introduction to the narrative in chapter 19, the people arrived at mount Sinai three months to the day after they left Egypt (v. 1). They stretched out their tents and camped there before the mountain (v. 2). The scenario of the covenant episode is played out as a kind of sacred drama, with Moses repeatedly ascending the mountain to communicate with God, and then returning back down to address the people. This dramatic pattern is established in verse 3. The message which YHWH gives Moses to convey back to the people is significant in terms of the tradition regarding Israel as the people of God.
“You have seen (the things) which I did to the Egyptians, (and how) I carried you upon (the) wings of a soaring (bird) and brought you to me. And now, if hearing you will hear [i.e. if truly you will hear] by my voice, and will guard my binding (agreement with you), then you shall be a (prized) possession to me from (out of) all the peoples. For all the earth (belongs) to me, and (yet) you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These (are) the spoken (word)s you [i.e. Moses] shall speak to the sons of Yisrael.” (vv. 4-6)
There are several key ideas expressed in this message which would be fundamental in shaping the religious and cultural tradition of Israel as God’s people:
- God chose Israel, separating them from all the other nations/peoples of earth
- They are a people that belongs to YHWH, as His own special possession
- As a nation they are set apart as holy; even as priests are set apart for sacred service to God (administering the ritual, etc), so the entire people of Israel are to be set apart in this way.
Unifying these ideas is the theme of holiness (vd#q)), which entails (and denotes) the setting apart (i.e., separating, making distinct) of something as sacred, being closely associated with the worship of God. This was not so much of an emphasis in the original covenant established with Abraham (and the ancestors of Israel), but it would be in the binding agreement (tyr!B=) established anew with the people of Israel (as a whole) at Sinai. The specific aspect of the covenant will be discussed in detail in the next division of this series, but it must be kept in mind as we proceed through the subject here as well.
The dramatic framework of the scene is carried through as the people hear and respond to the message given by YHWH to Moses: “All (the things) which YHWH has spoken, we will do” (v. 8a)—a response which Moses carries back again to God (v. 8b).
The central event of the Sinai episode is the theophany (i.e. manifestation of God), in which YHWH makes His presence visible on the mountain—Sinai/Horeb itself serving as a local manifestation of the cosmic mountain where, according to ancient Semitic tradition, the Creator had His dwelling place. The theophany at Sinai may be characterized as a storm theophany, where the elements of the storm—cloud, wind, thunder, lightning—appear (19:9, 16-20; 20:15ff). Any high Deity in the ancient world, associated fundamentally with the majestic expanse of the sky, could be seen as manifest specifically in the storm. El-Yahweh, like the Canaanite Baal Haddu, was recognized as possessing control over the forces of nature—especially those of the sky and storm. It meant a control over the life-giving primeval waters, to be distributed through seasonal rains, etc, but also of the more destructive and terrifying aspects (wind, thunder, lightning) connected with storms.
Here, in the context of the narrative, the theophany has a twofold purpose: (1) it marks the manifest presence of YHWH, as he comes to meet his people; and (2) it demonstrates his holiness, the transcendence (and ‘otherness’) of the Creator that sets him apart from all human beings (and indeed, all of creation). In the face of God’s holy presence, the people of Israel are required to consecrate themselves—that is, to make themselves holy, in preparation for encountering YHWH their God. This “setting apart” is indicated, symbolically, through the washing of clothes (v. 10), and marking out a period of time (v. 11) and space (v. 12) designated as sacred, associated with the very presence of God (v. 13). The importance of maintaining the holiness of the people, throughout the process of the covenant-encounter with YHWH, is made clear in verses 21-24; the space around the mountain is literally to be “made holy” (vb vd^q*).
While the primary reason for such consecration is the theophany itself, it also has far-reaching implications for the covenant that God will establish with Israel. As noted above, the covenant will be the subject of the next segment of this series, which will include a detailed study of the Sinai Covenant narrative in Exodus 19-24ff. It must suffice here to highlight the key components of the narrative which relate to the idea of Israel as the people of God:
- The “Ten Words” (or Decalogue, the Ten Commandments), which YHWH speaks directly to the people (20:1-14). These will serve as the core terms of the covenant (cf. 34:28), and the basis of the Instruction (Torah), given by YHWH, that will further define Israel’s identity as God’s people.
- The people, unable/unwilling to hear God speaking to them directly, designate Moses as their representative, an intermediary who will hear the direct address from YHWH, and then repeat the substance of it back to them (20:15-18). This is essentially an extension of Moses’ role as a ayb!n`, or “spokesperson” of God (for the development of this theme, cf. on the Golden Calf episode, below).
- YHWH gives further Instruction to Moses, regulations and requirements for the people, which builds upon the “Ten Words” (20:19-23:19). In their limited way–that is, as but a rudimentary law code—these regulations cover nearly all areas and aspects of Israelite society, thus illustrating something of what it means to be God’s people in practice.
- The promise that YHWH will be with His people, during their journey to the land guaranteed for them in the earlier binding agreement (covenant) with Abraham (23:20-33). God’s protection is a key component of the covenant, representing the divine obligation; but His continued protection is dependent upon Israel living up to their obligation in the covenant-bond.
- The covenant itself is reaffirmed, re-established, and ratified in a ritual ceremony performed partway up the mountain (24:1-11). The people are represented by seventy elders, and YHWH Himself (the other party of the covenant) appears through a second theophany (verse 10); the two parties join together in the ceremony (v. 11).
- Moses ascends all the way back up the mountain, where he will remain (forty days and forty nights), receiving still more Instruction from YHWH to bring to the people (24:12-18)
The Role of the Torah (Leviticus 19, etc)
The Torah represents the terms of the covenant between YHWH and Israel. Their identity as God’s people is dependent upon their fulfilling these terms. While typically translated as “law”, the Hebrew word hr*oT (torah) more properly means “instruction”, based on the idiom of instruction as something “cast” or “shot” out (vb hr^y`) like an arrow, pointing the way for people to follow. The Torah (Instruction) given by God for His people, is defined traditionally by the sections of regulations and decrees recorded in the books of the Pentateuch. There are “law code” sections preserved throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These various collections are not always consistent or harmonious with each other, though much effort has been made by Israelites and Jews over the centuries to produce a comprehensive and systematic law-code. The Mishna and Talmuds represent the great flowering of this effort, producing lengthy collections of law (and discussions of law) which themselves have achieved an authoritative and canonical status in Judaism to this day.
One of the great sections of Torah in the Pentateuch is the so-called “Holiness Code” of the book of Leviticus (chapters 17-26). The theme of holiness is brought out most clearly in chapters 19-22, with chapter 19 serving as the key section, containing a set of regulations that mirror the “Ten Words” (cf. above) in certain ways, and which are woven around the central statement of holiness in verse 2:
“You must speak to all (the) appointed (gathering) of (the) sons of Yisrael, and you shall say to them: ‘You shall be holy (one)s, for I, YHWH your Mighty (One), (am) holy’.”
Additional statements, on the need for the people to keep themselves holy, follow in 20:7, 26 (also 21:8), repeating a similar declaration made earlier in the book (11:44a). I have discussed all of these statements in some detail in a pair of recent notes, related to this series. The important point to make here is that the various regulations of the Instruction are all related to the fundamental idea that the people of Israel are to be “set apart” as holy to YHWH, and that this distinction is rooted in God’s own holiness. The conceptual language (and imagery) affirms the idea that Israel is a people that belongs to God. This will be discussed further in Part 4 of this article, as well as in the upcoming studies on the Covenant.
To fulfill their role as God’s people, bound to Him through the covenant, Israel is obligated to observe the terms of the covenant—which are the decrees, regulations, and requirements laid down in the Torah. Thus the Torah-sections of the Scriptures (Pentateuch), such as the Levitical “Holiness Code” are fundamental, and essential, to the idea of Israel as the people of God. This is a point close to the heart of all Israelites and Jews, and it served as a tremendous point of conflict with early Christians, regarding the important issue of religious identity—what it means to be the people of God. Differences over the role and place of the Torah, primarily, have resulted in the great divide between Jews and Christians, which has lasted to the present day, even if the Torah itself is no longer so central to the difference in religious identity as it once was. I have discussed this subject at great length in the series “The Law and the New Testament” (cf. especially the notes and articles on “Paul’s View of the Law”).
The Golden Calf Episode (Exodus 32-34)
The turning point in the Exodus narrative, as it relates to the Sinai Covenant (cf. above), is the “Golden Calf” episode in chapters 32-34. However one may judge the underlying historical tradition from a critical standpoint, the way that the tradition has been developed and incorporated within the wider narrative gives to it a special significance. It demonstrates the way in which adherence to the terms of the covenant—that is, the “Ten Words” and the Torah regulations—defines and determines Israel’s status as God’s people.
If the “Ten Words” represent the heart of the Torah, then the first command—the declaration in Exod 20:2-3—is its very center. It states quite clearly that the people of Israel are to acknowledge (and worship) no other deity but YHWH. The prohibition against making images, by which is meant primarily the images of deities (for worship, etc), follows directly upon the first command (vv. 4-5ff). In the Golden Calf episode, the people effectively violate both the central command and the prohibition against images. In so doing, they violate the terms of the binding agreement, thus abrogating the covenant itself, and leaving themselves open to punishment.
This idea—that the sin of the Calf invalidates the entire agreement—is not always appreciated by readers and students of Scripture today; but the point is clear enough in the narrative. Moreover, we must note how the violation of the covenant affects the identity of Israel as the “people of God”; quite simply, they cease to be God’s people. This may not be immediately apparent upon a casual reading of the text, but consider how the idea is expressed in YHWH’s response to Moses in vv. 7-8ff, as He now refers to the people of Israel as “your people” —that is, Moses’ people, with the implication that they now belong to Moses, instead of to Him. God’s anger at the blatant violation of the covenant results in a desire that He should destroy the people completely, and to start again with a new people—with Moses and his descendants replacing the Israelites (vv. 9-10).
It is Moses who intercedes on the people’s behalf, urging God not to destroy or abandon them (vv. 11-13). Notably, Moses still refers to them as YHWH’s people (“your people”, v. 11), and appeals to the original covenant God established with Abraham and the ancestors of Israel (v. 13). As a result of this intercession, the people will be punished, but not destroyed (vv. 14-35); only those who actively instigated rebellion against YHWH would be put to death immediately. At the same time, the shattering of the two stone tablets vividly illustrates the termination of the covenant (v. 19). YHWH admits a continuation of the covenant promise to Abraham and his descendants (33:1ff), and will fulfill the covenant obligation of providing protection for the people, but He refuses to dwell or travel along with them on their journey to the promised land; to do so would be a tacit acknowledgment that the Israelites are still His people.
This leads to a second intercession by Moses, urging YHWH not to abandon the people in this way; once again, he continues to refer to Israel as God’s people (“your people”, 33:16). In response, YHWH agrees to put in place a new covenant, one which essentially reproduces the first Sinai covenant (cf. above), but with a number of key differences. The most important aspect of this new covenant is that it is established directly with Moses, and not the people of Israel; the Israelites are part of the agreement only through Moses as an intermediary. We see this new emphasis beginning with verse 17, where YHWH specifically shows favor to Moses, and cuts the new covenant directly with him. The people are still Moses‘ people (“your people”), and the covenant extends to the people only through their connection with Moses (34:10); note especially the wording in verse 27: “For (with) these words I cut a binding (agreement) [tyr!B=] with you, and with Yisrael”.
The new Sinai covenant is established according to the same pattern of the first agreement: Moses is again on the mountain forty days and nights (34:28), the “Ten Words” are recorded again, there are two stone tablets produced (vv. 28-29), and another collection of laws and regulations given to Moses (34:10-26; 35:1-3). There are, however, two key differences. First, it is Moses who writes down the commands (vv. 27-28), whereas, with the first covenant, it would seem that the tablets were inscribed supernaturally by God Himself (24:12; 32:15-16). Secondly, YHWH does not appear Himself to establish the covenant with the people (cp. 24:1-11); this time He appears only to Moses, and it is he alone who receives the theophany (33:18-23; 34:5-7ff). The rest of the people can only experience this manifestation of God through the splendor reflected on the face of Moses (34:29-35). Paul makes powerful use of this particular tradition in 2 Corinthians 3, where he applies it (antithetically) to the new covenant (of the Spirit) for believers in Christ.
The mediation of Moses in the second Sinai covenant is yet a further extension of a dynamic that we see throughout the book of Exodus. Moses was initially established as a aby!n`, or spokesperson for God, in the theophany episode of chapter 3; he would serve as one who communicated the word and will of YHWH to the people. This role intensified when the people, unable/unwilling to hear God speaking to them directly, designated Moses as their intermediary (20:15-18). Then, following the Golden Calf episode (and the termination of the first Sinai covenant), the second covenant, in its entirety, was effectively mediated to the people through the person of Moses.
This process of mediation (by Moses) in establishing the covenant reaches its climax with the directions for constructing the Tent-shrine (Tabernacle), the details of which comprise the remaining chapters (35-40) of the book of Exodus. The Tent-shrine would serve as the point of contact between YHWH and the people; but only Moses (and, subsequently, the Aaronid priests) would enter the sanctuary or “tent of meeting” itself. The Hebrew term for the Tent-shrine is /K*v=m!, literally “dwelling place” —that is to say, a place where God would “dwell”, figuratively and in a ritual sense, among the people. In 38:21 it is called the “dwelling place of the record” (td%u@h* /K*v=m!), primarily because it was in the golden box (ark) in the sanctuary where the stone tablets, the record of the covenant, were stored. The word tWdu@ preserves an ancient Semitic term that gradually fell out of use in Hebrew; its fundamental meaning (as a technical term) is of a written record, a copy or “witness”, of the agreement (the more common term in Hebrew for the agreement itself is tyr!B=, denoting something that is binding). The term tWdu@ is preserved here as part of the early tradition (cf. Exod 25:22; 26:33-34; 31:18; 32:15; 34:29; 39:35; 40:3, 5, 21; Num 9:15; 10:33; 14:44; 17:22-23; 18:2; Deut 31:9, 25-26; Josh 3:3, 6, 8, etc).
With the completion of the Tent-shrine, the book of Exodus comes to a close. YHWH will accompany the people of Israel on their journey to the promised land (40:36-38), providing protection along the way, and thus fulfilling His covenant obligation. However, from the moment of the Golden Calf incident, YHWH never again refers to Israel as His people (“my people”) in the book of Exodus, and only rarely elsewhere in the Pentateuch (Lev 26:12), though it does reoccur frequently in the Historical and Prophetic writings. The fundamental premise of the Exodus narrative, however, is that the Golden Calf episode altered the nature of the covenant relationship; after that episode, Israel comes to be considered God’s people only in a qualified sense, through the special mediation of Moses.
In Part 4 of this article, we will focus on the book of Deuteronomy, and how the idea of Israel as God’s people was expressed in that particular line of tradition.