Reflections for 9-16: God’s Appearance, the Law and Covenant

1)There are several places where God appears in Exodus 19-24 and 33-34. The first Exodus (19:9-20:20) involves a dense cloud of black smoke and fire. God explains that it is so the Israelites will have faith in Moses when they see the cloud (Exodus 19:9). God also warns Moses not to let the Israelites touch the mountain or else they will have to be put to death (Exodus 19:12). When Moses speaks with God the mountain shakes and there is a great fire at the top and God communicates the Ten Commandments and other laws.  Following this there is something which may be a repetition of Moses approaching God in the same instant or a distinct appearance but it continues with God giving Moses more laws for several more chapters.

In Exodus 24:9-11 the Israelite elders go up to the mountain the Bible says that they “saw God” and had a ritual meal. This seems to indicate that they spoke to him face to face.  God was also standing on a “sapphire tilework.” This strange imagery shows anthropomorphism and perhaps has something to do with God not wanting to touch the ground directly.

Again in Exodus 24:12-18 God is on the top of the mountain and there is a cloud of smoke.

In Exodus 33:7-23 God and Moses speak face to face intimately inside a tent while the cloud of smoke stands at the tent entrance.  Presumably this cloud makes it so only Moses can see God and to show the Israelites that he is in fact talking to God.  The intimacy is also emphasized in this section when Moses makes reference to their friendliness.

Finally, in Exodus 34:5-35 Moses is back on top of the mountain with God and the smoke is there too.  Moses seems to be talking to him face to face and this has the effect of making Moses’ face “radiant.”  Here God gives Moses another long list of laws.

In Exodus 14-15 God moves and the cloud moves with Him.  God takes a stand between the Israelite and Egyptian camps to protect the Israelites and then seems to manifest as fire and disrupt the Egyptian army.

Across these events God acts as a protector (Exodus 14-15) and is occasionally intimate with particular people (mainly Moses).  God’s presence clearly has supernatural significance and God’s power is emphasized when he destroys the Egyptians and when God’s presence shakes the whole mountain.  However, the contradiction of the assumption that seeing God directly would cause death is interesting.  God is usually hidden from most people so it seems that the Bible here is trying to emphasize just how close He is to Moses.  One might draw a parallel between this and revelation where God “comes down” in a sense to give us divine knowledge despite the fact that this should seem impossible for us to comprehend in the same way it should be impossible for Moses to see God.

Simkins sees Exodus as a “dramatic and persuasive written narrative” as opposed to a strict historical account (pg. 36).  This seems to be supported by the way God makes the impossible possible and the magnitude of God’s actions.  Shaking mountains and destroying armies are things which you might expect other records of, and since they aren’t there it seems possible that while Exodus can be based on genuine events, those events may not necessarily match the exact text of the narrative.

2) According to Lenzi Hittite and Neo-Assyrian influences were very present at the time when Deuteronomy was written. Moreover, Lenzi points out that Judah was probably an Assyrian vassal at the time. Since the Neo-Assyrians imposed similar treaties upon vassals and their populations it makes sense to say that the covenant establishes that the true authority to whom Israelis are subject is God.  It is a perversion of the natural order for the Assyrians to disrupt this, and the covenant story may be meant to encourage people to challenge Assyrian rule.  Moreover, in this context we see God as the basis of political power.  It is God’s authority as a leader, as a sort of king in God’s own right, which constitutes Israel, and their loyalty to him is an oath of love in the same way vassals were sometimes made to swear to their rulers (Lenzi).

When we take this view of a treaty the covenant becomes more contractual and fulfillment of duties is clearly contingent on the other party fulfilling their duties. So there is a list of curses if the people disobey God and a list of blessings if the people obey.  This is the same as many treaties in the ancient world (Lenzi and Wells).  This means that the people get the land and prosper only if they follow the law as it was given to them.  The land is not a free gift but the Israelites may only keep it if they follow God.

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One thought on “Reflections for 9-16: God’s Appearance, the Law and Covenant

  1. Awesome, awesome thoughts! I really liked what you inferred about God’s relationship to Moses and intimacy with him in revealing Himself and speaking face-to-face, and I definitely agree; it’s very interesting that the Pentateuch authors would write that seeing God causes sudden death, but Moses did see God face to face and even spoke to Him as an “intimate friend.” I also really liked the connection you drew between God “coming down” and physically revealing Himself to the people at Sinai, and also “coming down” to reveal Himself through revelation in Scripture.

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