[Disclaimer: While this writing is my own, I learned the significant detail about the word עלה (alah) from an Old Testament Exegesis class I took with Dr. Richard Davidson at the Andrews University Theological Seminary, and I would be remiss if I did not mention that it was a result of his teaching that I have come to the following understanding of these key chapters in Exodus. - Pastor Zachary Payne]
Often we look at the Ten Commandments as if they were given in a vacuum. As if God just presented a sterile document, almost a contract if you will, and all God's people have to do is sign on the proverbial dotted line. But that is not how the story went. It is a story of epic drama, and it has immense implications for our lives today. And when we look into this story, not only do we get a vastly different picture than usually pops into our head when we think of the Ten Commandments, but the Law itself comes alive and we see it in a new light.
In today's article we're going to be looking at the book of Exodus chapters 19, 20, and 32 to take a look at the context--the atmosphere, the intention, the emotion--of that famous moment where God revealed His Law to His people, the response of the people, and the results of that response.
Exodus 19: The Setting
Three months after God led His people out of Egypt, they set up camp in the desert of Sinai, at the base of a mountain (verses 1-2). Once the camp has been established, Moses goes up the mountain to be with God and God speaks to him the following words:
The Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves 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 will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel” (verses 3-6).
God's words here are very important to the rest of the story. Did you catch the if-then construction? God tells Moses that if God's people will keep His covenant then they shall be a treasured possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. Keep that in mind as we move along.
So Moses tells all of the people what God has said, and the people hastily (perhaps a bit naively) respond that they'll do it (verses 7-8). After all: Who wouldn't want to be a kingdom of priests, and holy nation--God's own treasured possession? But they underestimate their own ability to keep to their part of the deal: Obeying God's voice and keeping His covenant.
God then tells Moses:
“Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever"....Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.” So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and consecrated the people; and they washed their garments. And he said to the people, “Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman" (verses 9-15).
So the people prepare. They obey all of these things the Lord asks them to do: They wash their garments, they keep away from the mountain until the appointed time, they fast from sex (which, comparing to God's speech to Moses, may or may not have actually been God's command, but Moses does throw it in there at the end of this passage). Thus far in the story, we find a people who are faithful to heeding God's words. However, we're not yet at the third day.
There is also something else that needs to be pointed out. When God says in verse 12 "take care not to go up into the mountain," (ESV) the Hebrew word that has been translated as the English phrase "up into" is עלה (alah), and it is translated accurately in the sense that God is telling the people not to go up the mountain. However, in verse 13 we find that God says that when the trumpet sounds, the people shall come "up to" (ESV) the mountain--but the word used is the same as in verse 12: עלה (alah), meaning "up" or "up into," not "up to." While I have used the ESC as an example here, this is a consistent interpretive inconsistency in most if not all English translations.
So, to be clear, after having read the original words in Hebrew, we find that God is indeed calling His people to come up the mountain, but not to do so until they hear the sound of a trumpet blast. They have been faithful so far: Will they be obedient to this final request?
On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly (verses 16-18).
In verses 19-25 we have a somewhat confusing order of events. Right before the giving of the Ten Commandments, we read that the trumpet sounds. However, we also find God warning Moses not to let the people up the mountain yet. His specific words from before were "When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain." Apparently, this trumpeting we're reading about before the giving of the Ten Commandments is not yet the "long blast" that God is talking about.
Exodus 20: The Giving of the Commandments and the Long Trumpet Blast
In verses 1-17, we find God giving the Ten Commandments to His people (while I will address these verses in a future post, it is outside of the scope of this article to address them now). This is a very intimate moment, amidst all of the thunder and lightning and fire and smoke and loud trumpeting. God, in the midst of this grand display of glory and power, is revealing His character to His people. Ellen White sheds light on this, comparing the revelation of God's character through Jesus Christ to the revelation of God's character through the Law:
Christ came to our world to represent the character of God as it is represented in His holy law; for His law is a transcript of His character. Christ was both the law and the gospel (Ellen White, Selected Messages 2, p106).
So, while this is an awe inspiring--even fearful--scene, something very significant is happening: God is inviting His people to get to know Him better. He wants them to know Him, He wants them to know how much He cares about them, and finally, He wants to spend time with them. After the giving of the Ten Commandments, the trumpet is mentioned again--this time, apparently, the long blast God spoke of--and this is God's official invitation for His people to come up the mountain and "meet God" as chapter 19 verse 17 puts it. But the people are not as enthusiastic as God and Moses are:
Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was (verses 18-21)
The people do not trust God--the God who sent Moses to Pharaoh to demand they be let go, the God who sent plagues on the Egyptians when Pharaoh would not listen, the God who led them out of Egypt as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, the God who split the Red Sea so they could cross safely and then crashed the waves down on their pursuers. This is the God that the people didn't trust. Yes, there was a powerful display at the mountain, but they completely missed the point. God wasn't trying to scare them: He was trying to reveal Himself to them. God in His full glory is impressive, majestic, and perhaps even fear-inspiring. Proverbs 1:7 tells us that the "fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." So it's not a bad thing to have a healthy fear and respect of God. But what is happening here is not that. The people, though God has been good to them, still don't trust Him, and they are terrified to go up the mountain. So at the end of this chapter, we find Moses headed up the mountain alone while the people stand "far off." God invited His people, and they rejected the invitation.
Exodus 32: The Results of Rejecting God's Invitation
In chapter 32, we find a people who are bored, looking for direction, disgruntled that Moses is spending so much time up on the mountain with God. He's been up there for so long, for all they know he could be dead. They are restless and decide that they need to take things in another direction.
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (verses 1-4).
Because God's people have rejected Him, they are down in the valley while Moses is up on the mountain. Just to reiterate: This is their fault, not God's. If they would have trusted God, and if they would have heeded His invitation to spend time with Him, they would not have been restless and disgruntled to the point of apostasy. They would have been up on the mountain with Moses and with God. But, as the story goes, they create a calf idol (likely representing Baal, who was often depicted as a calf or bull), they claim that this "new god" is the one that brought them out of Egypt. Not only that, but Baal required a specific kind of worship that entailed violence (1 Kings 18:28), sexual practice (which can be seen in historical accounts of Baal worship and is likely implied by the phrase "rose up to play" [ESV] in verse 6), and child sacrifice (Jeremiah 19:5). Because of their refusal to trust God and spend time with Him, they end up completely violating every aspect of the law right as God was writing it on tablets and giving them to Moses. When Moses comes down the mountain and sees for himself what the people are doing, he breaks the physical tablets containing the written Law of God, symbolizing how God's people have already failed to keep the Law.
Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets that were written on both sides; on the front and on the back they were written. 16 The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets. When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” But he said, “It is not the sound of shouting for victory, or the sound of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing that I hear.” And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses' anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain (verses 15-19).
Those who do stand on God's side are those who are in the Tribe of Levi. God, through their obedience, consecrates them as a tribe of priests, and from then on out they serve that function in the nation of Israel. God had hoped, in chapter 19 verse 6, to make priests of the entire nation, but the way things turned out only one tribe had any measure of faithfulness and so it was only that tribe that went forward as priests.
This story has obvious implications for us today. God is a God of love! He wants to free us from oppression and all kinds of evil. He wants us to know who He, the Creator of the Universe, is and to spend time with Him. One day He will invite us, not to the top of Mount Sinai, but to the top of His holy Mount Zion. Do we trust a God like that? Will we follow Him when He calls us? When He invites us to spend time with Him, will we do so? Or in light of all of these positive things, will we choose not to trust? Will we choose not to spend time with Him? Will we stand a far way off?
The result of choosing the latter is clear. When we don't trust our loving, delivering, protecting Creator, when we decline the invitation to spend time with Him, we actually will find ourselves among the restless Israelites down in the valley: Disgruntled, wondering why God is taking so long, and taking matters into our own hands--to our own destruction.
My charge to the reader today is this: When God calls you up the mountain, go up the mountain. Don't be terrified: Our God wants good for us and has no intention of harming us. The only harm we stand to face is the harm we bring on ourselves when we choose to reject God.
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord," plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV).
- Pastor Zachary Payne