The Word Made Fresh
1The LORD said, “Moses, come up to me with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel. 2You alone may come near to me. The others must stay at a distance, and the people must not come up at all.”
3Moses then went and recited the LORD’s words to the people. They all answered, “We will obey everything the LORD has said.”
Then Moses wrote down everything the LORD had spoken. 4Early the next morning, Moses arose and built an altar to the LORD at the foot of the mountain. He set up twelve stone markers, one for each of the tribes of Israel. 5He selected some young Israelites and sent them to prepare oxen to burn as peace offerings to the LORD. 6Moses gathered half the blood in containers and sprinkled the other half against the altar. 7Then he read what he had written of God’s words, the agreement God was making with them, to all the people, and once again they responded, “We will do everything as the LORD has commanded. We will be obedient.” 8Then Moses took the blood in the containers and sprinkled it toward the people. He said, “This blood represents the agreement, every word I read to you, that the LORD has made with you.”
9Then Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up the mountain. 10They saw the God of Israel, standing on something that looked like a pavement made of sapphire, clear and blue as the sky. The leaders and elders of Israel saw God. 11They ate a meal of food and drink, and God did not raise a hand against them.
12The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and wait, and I will give you tablets made of stone on which the law and the commandments are written for teaching the people.”
13So, Moses, with Joshua’s help, ascended God’s mountain. He told the elders, “Wait here until we return. Aaron and Hur are with you, and anyone who has a dispute can argue before them.”
15Moses climbed up the mountain. The cloud obscured everything. 18The glorious presence of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai as the cloud covered it. Six days passed. Then, on the seventh day, the LORD called to Moses from within the cloud. 17To the people of Israel the LORD’s appearance was like a fire raging on the mountaintop within the cloud. 18They watched Moses enter the cloud as he climbed up the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and nights.
1-2: It is a bit confusing to picture where all these conversations take place. The Ten Commandments are given to Moses and the people while they are all down at the foot of the mountain. The laws following in chapters 20, 21 and 22 are given to Moses to relay to the people, but apparently he is still down below. Now Moses receives word that he is to “come up” to the LORD, presumably on the mountain, and to bring Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy elders with him. Nadab and Abihu are two of Aaron’s sons (see 6:23). They are to meet with the Lord but stay at a distance and worship (bow down), and Moses is to come near the LORD.
3-8: Moses goes to the people and relays to them all the laws God has given him (from 20:22-23:33), and they agree to abide by them. Moses writes down all the laws, and next morning erects an altar at the foot of the mountain and 12 pillars, or piles of stones, to represent the 12 tribes. He appoints “young men” to offer burnt offerings and to sacrifice oxen as offerings of well-being (thanksgiving). Moses dashes half the blood of the sacrifices against the altar. Then he reads to them the laws he has written down, now called the “book of the covenant.” They again agree to abide by its’ terms, and Moses sprinkles the rest of the blood on the people. It is the “blood of the covenant,” he says. This becomes a metaphor for the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross (see Hebrews 9:15-22).
9-11: They go up the mountain and there they actually see the God of Israel, standing on a fantastic platform of some kind. Even though they see God, God does not lay his hand on them — that is, does not strike them down.
12-14: Moses is summoned further up the mountain where he is to wait for the LORD to give him stone tablets with the law and commandments. Moses goes with Joshua, a surprise because Joshua hasn’t been mentioned before, and so this paragraph reads like it is a separate event altogether, and perhaps it is. Moses tells the others to wait for them. He puts Aaron and Hur in charge. Hur hasn’t been mentioned before, either, and so it is clear that what we are reading now is a separate event from the appearance described in verse 10
15-18: Moses leaves Joshua somewhere on the slopes and enters a cloud towards the mountain’s summit. Six days pass (a new creation is about to emerge?). On the seventh day Moses hears the LORD calling to him. Down below the people see fire and smoke on the top of the mountain, again recalling images of volcanic activity. Moses has entered the cloud, and the people see him no more. He is there for forty days and forty nights — another metaphor for drastic change about to emerge (as in the forty days and nights of rain during the great flood).
The one thing I don’t like about these stories of Israel’s wilderness wanderings is the distance between God and the people. In most of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, Moses is the only person through whom God communicates except for a few scattered times when God speaks to Aaron as well. Before the birth of Christ, only a handful of people — mostly prophets — have direct “access” to God. We should be deeply grateful that we are invited to come directly to God through the name of Jesus.