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SIMPLIFIED JOURNEY (6): The Giving of the Law

After their miraculous deliverance from slavery in Egypt, Israel was not yet ready to enter the land God had promised Abraham his descendants would inherit. They had generations of slavery; now, they had to learn how to live as free men under God.

To help them in this, God gave them His law as a covenant with them – and He led them forty years through a great and terrible wilderness where they suffered affliction. They needed both of these to be able to be what God was calling them to be.

The Giving of the Law

Within a few weeks of crossing the Red Sea and seeing the power of God as He destroyed the military and political power of Egypt, Israel came to Mt. Sinai. This was the area where God had called Moses from caring for sheep to become a shepherd of His people.

Even before arriving there, God showed them in several ways that He was with them and protecting them. After three days without finding water, they came to a pool where the water was too bitter to drink. God had Moses throw a tree into the pool and the water became sweet. They complained of having nothing to eat – and God sent manna from Heaven to feed them each day. This continued until they were in the Promised Land. Another time, they had no water, and God told Moses to strike a rock – and water flowed out to supply all the people and their cattle. They were attacked by a fierce desert nation, the Amalekites. A nation of people just freed from slavery defeated them – as long as Moses held his hands up in prayer to God. When Moses tired, the Amalekites prevailed – so Aaron and Hur held up Moses’ hands so Israel would win the victory. All of this was in the few weeks it took them to come to Mt. Sinai (see Exodus 16-18).

All of this was after God freed them from Egypt by sending the ten plagues and allowing them to escape Pharaoh by walking through the Red Sea on dry land. When they came to the Mountain, God called Moses up the mountain where He charged Moses to remind the people of how He had been with them:

You 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, they you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people, for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. – Exodus 19:4-6a

The Lord wanted Israel to know that He had called them for a special purpose, to be a kingdom of priests. Whom would they serve as priests? Just themselves? Or was this a part of God’s promise to (and covenant with) Abraham that all nations would be blessed through his seed?

You see, God had much more than Israel in mind when he called Abraham – and at Sinai He gave them a law to help keep them “in the straight and narrow” to accomplish that purpose. They could not bless the nations if they became just like the nations around them – so God’s law set forth principles of life that would definitely mark them as different. The difference was not just to be different – but a difference that would make a difference in the world by blessing others as well.

While he was on the Mountain, God also told Moses to have the people consecrate themselves “today and tomorrow, and let them wash their clothes. And let them be ready for the third day. For on the third day the LORD will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.” The people were not to come too close to the mountain, and not even an animal should touch the mount – or be stoned to death. Why was this? God was impressing on the people His awesome “otherness.” He is not like they were. He is different. He is holy.

Then it came to pass on the third day, in the morning, that there were thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. Exodus 19:16-18

After warning the people again, Moses and Aaron went back up the mountain. Then God spoke the Ten Commandments to the people from the mountain with its thunder, lightening, fire, smoke and quaking.

They heard God’s voice, but they saw no form or image. Understandably, they were terrified at this awesome display of God’s might and power. They said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die” (Exodus 20:19).

The Ten Commands are the basis of a moral code that would set Israel apart from other nations and let other nations see something of how great God is above the other gods the nations worshiped. When Moses recounted the giving of this law at the end of the forty years, he said:

Therefore be careful to observe them, for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great natiion is there that has God so near to it, as the LORD our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him? – Deuteronomy 4:6-7

God also gave to Moses instructions concerning the building of a Tabernacle where rituals of worship would take place – and where God would continue to live among His people. Later, in the New Testament book of Hebrews, we will learn that these rituals of sacrifice were foreshadowing the coming of the Christ with His sacrifice on the cross. The rituals of cleansing were foreshadowing the purity we are to have as followers of Jesus.

These laws God gave are in Exodus 20 through the book of Leviticus. Before leaving Sinai, a year later, Israel built the Tabernacle as God instructed and began the process of becoming a holy nation.

We cannot leave this part of the story, though, without noting that when Moses went up the mountain with his assistant, Joshua, to speak with the Lord, as the people had requested, he was there much longer than they expected. He was there with God forty days. Near the end of that time, the people came to Aaron, Moses’ brother. They said to him:

Come, make us gods that shall go before us, for 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. – Exodus 32:1

Aaron told them to give him their golden earrings, which they did. He then fashioned a golden calf from these, built an altar for sacrifice to the image of God, and proclaimed a feast to the LORD. God, of course, saw these things and told Moses to get himself back down the mountain – and threatened to destroy them then and there. Moses pleaded with God not to do this, lest the Egyptians say God had brought Israel out to kill and destroy them. He called on God to remember Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the fathers of the nation to whom He had given His covenant promises. So God relented.

The people did not escape unpunished, however. When Moses saw for himself what they were doing, He threw down the tablets containing the ten commandments, commandments Israel had broken. He ground up the golden calf and mixed the dust with water, which he made Israel drink.

This began a pattern that repeated itself many times in the Old Testament. The people did not follow the Law God gave to them. Something more than Law was needed to make a people who would be holy for the LORD. Israel did not live as men free from sin, which is what God wanted for them. That would not happen until Jesus came.

In the next installment, we will trace their wanderings in the wilderness in the rest of the forty years.

NEXT: (7) The Wilderness Wanderings

PREVIOUS: (5) To Your Descendants I Will Give This Land


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