We begin by rooting this part of our adventure in history by stating that it was “the third month after the sons of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt.” The Hebrews had left Egypt on the 15th day after a new moon. The third new moon following would indicate the entire journey had taken about two and one half months. A “wilderness was not a forest or even a desert, but generally referred to an uninhibited region. It was usually rough, rocky, and uninviting. It was the kind of place where there would be no distractions.
Israel arrived and made an encampment at the base of Mount Sinai. This must have stirred Moses. The sign that had been given to Moses in his initial call had been that Israel would eventually serve God “upon this mountain.” (Exodus 3:12) Moses would have been most certainly overwhelmed with awe as he drew near to this mountain. It was here that had all began for him.
Moses’ first instructions from God were to remind Israel of the fact that their deliverance, both from the Egyptians and the wilderness, had been accomplished by God’s acts. That Moses was to set forth the demand for faithfulness: “obey My voice and keep My covenant.”God’s redemption is accompanied by demands. Let us note here that obedience did not bring deliverance, but deliverance is expected to be followed by obedience. Israel was told that the end result of such obedience would be a special relationship with God. Israel would be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” This new relation would demonstrate to the world their dedication to God. Israel would bear the responsibility of serving as priest (mediators) between the world and God. It is significant that the New Testament picked up this image to describe the nature and function of the Christian community. (1 Peter 2:5,9)
Israel’s response to the message from God through Moses was complete surrender: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” It is important to note that they promised obedience without knowing all the demands of the covenant. The Israelites were signing a spiritual blank check.
It may not be important to recapture all the details of the conversation between God, Moses, and Israel. God certainly did not need Moses to tell him what the people of Israel had said. On the other hand, since Moses was reporting God’s demands to them, it was to be expected that he should report their response to God.
God’s promise to speak with Moses from the “thick cloud” was intended to demonstrate to Israel that Moses was really receiving a revelation from God. A thick cloud was a common symbol in the Old Testament for the presence of God. The visible manifestation of God’s presence was intended to serve as Moses’ authorization to speak for God.
We are not told the words of the people reported to the Lord by Moses. But the people had said they were willing to hear the words of God and to obey them. So the next step for Israel was to get ready to receive the covenant demands.
Several things were involved in the consecration of the people. The concept itself rested on the Old Testament understanding of holiness. The verb “to consecrate” is the root from which the noun holy comes. Basically holy means something that was to be set apart from the world to God. Places, objects, or people were made holy (consecrated) as they were withdrawn from the world and turned over to God. Looking from the other direction, such things were made holy as God took them over and possessed them.
The three days of preparation indicated a sacred and complete time for the accomplishment of the necessary cleansing. As of yet the full ritual of cleansing had not been given to Israel, but such rituals were common in the ancient Near East. Certainly Israel would have some certain standard procedure to perform in order to accomplish this. The specific commands given to Israel involved three matters.
They were to wash their garments. This would have not been easy in the wilderness. But the difficulty did not remove the necessity. The physical cleansing was probably understood as symbolic of an inner moral cleansing.
There were boundaries set around the mountain. Man could not approach God too closely. The penalty of death shows the how serious violating this restriction would be and how serious they should take it.
The final demand for their purification was they were “do not go near a woman.” This expression would refer to a sexual relationship. Our understanding of this is not to believe that a sexual relationship was something unclean. The Old Testament has a far higher understanding than this. The restriction was to focus one’s energies and attention on a spiritual confrontation with God. Nothing else was to take their attention away from this at this time.
The entire ritual of consecration had one essential function: to demonstrate that the approach to God must be taken seriously. The ritual of consecration made sure that anyone approaching God did so with a through consciousness of God’s awesome holiness.
On the third day the Lord descended on Mount Sinai. The images of thunder, lighting, cloud, fire and earthquake are familiar ones in the Old Testament for God’s drawing near to man. It was an event of terror for the Hebrews. The sound of the trumpet announced the divine appearance. In the ancient world, the trumpet was used for three purposes. It served as a call to worship, as a warning, or as an announcement of the presence of royalty. All three of these purposes are to be understood in the experience as recorded here.
Moses went up the mountain to meet with God. It is important to make note that Moses could only approach God when God choose. This particular confrontation was different than before when Moses was with God. This was to be the time of the divine gift of the covenant. As such, their conversation was unique. It was, in a since, God’s self giving. Moses was warned to make sure the people did not “break through,” the boundaries that had been established. It was apparent the need to control the crowd from the pressure of their curiosity.
The special instruction for the consecration of the Priest is an interesting point. There has been no indication that Israel had priest prior to the giving of the law code at Sinai. It may be that clan or family leaders served in this compactly of priest until the establishment of a regular order of priest. It is thought here then that these leaders are the ones to who the special instructions were given.
Having responded to God’s invitation by a willing submission, and having made preparation in accord with the divine design, Israel was ready for the awesome approach of God. Here is an essential message of the Sinai experience and it is also the message of the cross. When man submits himself obediently to the command of God, he is ready to receive the divine revelation.
God was visibly on the Mountain Sinai and the people and Moses waited expectantly. The stage is now set for the curtain to rise on the next act of the divine drama.
1 Peter 2:5,9
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