In the third month, when the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they [into] the wilderness of Sinai. For they were departed from Rephidim, and were come [to] the desert of Sinai , and had pitched in the wilderness; and there Israel camped before the mount.
I suspect that this chapter overlaps slightly with the previous chapter, since they both take place near the mountain of God.
And Moses went up unto God, and the LORD called unto him out of the mountain, saying, Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel;
I must admit, I’m not sure why God called (qara’) Moses to a mountain (har). What does God need with a mountain? After all, Moses was apparently able to converse with Him just fine on the road, without all the special effects. God certainly makes a point of the fact that He’s not limited to a single location:
Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and [how] I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth [is] mine:
And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests , and an holy nation. These [are] the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.
Extraordinary. These ragged refugees are not merely escaped slaves, or are they a privileged people God wants to make into a ruling elite. Rather, they are set apart (qadowsh) to be a kingdom of priests (kohen), religious mediators who presumably represent Yahweh to the nations, and intercede for the nations before Him.
This certainly reflects Abraham’s role of blessing the nations, but I still find this externally-oriented attitude a very radical basis for group identity — despite the fact that I consider it the only effective road to happiness.
And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words which the LORD commanded him.
Moses passes this peculiar offer down to the elders (zaqen), who presumably relay it to their respective clans, who respond in the affirmative:
And all the people answered together, and said, All that the LORD hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people unto the LORD.
Having gotten buy-in on the basic premise, God’s next priority appears to be establishing Moses’ authority:
And the LORD said unto Moses, Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with thee, and believe thee for ever. And Moses told the words of the people unto the LORD.
As first glance, this seems to contradict the intent of the prior section. If they are a kingdom of priests, then shouldn’t they all have direct access to God? Why need they believe (‘aman) Moses?
Then again, perhaps that is the precise misinterpretation God wants to guard against. All may have equal rights and responsibilities as priests, but that doesn’t mean all have equal authority. In fact, the more responsibility someone has, perhaps the greater their obligation to submit to legitimate authority. In order to fulfill their role as priests, they must submit to the apostolic leadership of Moses. Even pastors need pastors, after all.
And the LORD said unto Moses, Go unto the people, and sanctify them to day and to morrow, and let them wash their clothes, And be ready against the third day: for the third day the LORD will come down in the sight of all the people upon mount Sinai.
That’s reassuring. Though God will speak primarily to Moses, He does still want to be seen (`ayin) by all the people (`am). They need to pay a price for that, however, in terms of being sanctified (qadash) and washed (kabac).
Perhaps that is why God insisted on a special location for this dialogue: He wants to reveal Himself to all the people, yet be sure they take it very seriously:
And thou shalt set bounds unto the people round about, saying, Take heed to yourselves, [that ye] go [not] up into the mount, or touch the border of it: whosoever toucheth the mount shall be surely put to death:
There shall not an hand touch it, but he shall surely be stoned, or shot through; whether [it be] beast or man, it shall not live: when the trumpet soundeth long, they shall come up to the mount.
Interestingly; they are warned not to touch (naga`), but also commanded to approach (`alah). That does seem to be the difficult balance: having the intimacy to draw near to God yet never becoming so casual we take Him for granted. Then again, that’s probably the same in human relationships.
So, they purified themselves as instructed, and on the third day they arose:
And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that [was] in the camp trembled.
And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount.
And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.
And the LORD came down upon mount Sinai, on the top of the mount: and the LORD called Moses [up] to the top of the mount; and Moses went up.
And the LORD said unto Moses, Go down, charge the people, lest they break through unto the LORD to gaze, and many of them perish. And let the priests also, which come near to the LORD, sanctify themselves, lest the LORD break forth upon them.
Not only must we not approach God with the wrong motives, but even with the right motives we need to be prepared. Or else. Moses confirms that he did what God commanded:
And Moses said unto the LORD, The people cannot come up to mount Sinai: for thou chargedst us, saying, Set bounds about the mount, and sanctify it.
But God is concerned enough that He repeats His warning a second time:
And the LORD said unto him, Away, get thee down, and thou shalt come up, thou, and Aaron with thee: but let not the priests and the people break through to come up unto the LORD, lest he break forth upon them.
So Moses apparently goes and tells them again:
So Moses went down unto the people, and spake unto them.
Hmm. Think God is trying to make a point?
God, teach me to draw near to you with an appropriate spirit. I have too often either gone my own way or unthinkingly profaned the sacred. Make me a priest of God Most High, who draws others to you. Sanctify me by the blood of Christ, and save me from everything which defiles. Help me to honor and respect both You and those You appoint to speak to me, that I may be fit to speak to others in Your name. In which I pray, Amen.
About the Title:
“The Mountain of God” was the original title for my poem on the relationship of truth and love.