'Studies in the Old Testament'

Moses and the Nation of Israel - 6

August 2009

(Continued from page 491)

Moses on Mount Sinai

In chapter 18, we are introduced to an important task apparently designed by God to be performed by Moses' father-in-law Jethro, who carried a double name, Reuel-Jethro as a Kenite of the Reuel clan. He visited the Israelite encampment, taking Zipporah, the wife of Moses, and their two sons, with him.  After the proper Oriental greetings Moses and Jethro retired into Moses' tent to discuss the wondrous things the Lord had done for Israel.  In Exodus 18:1, Jethro is called "a priest of Midian," a designation whose meaning is rather uncertain, but it appears that he had not previously been a worshipper of the God of Israel.  But when he heard of God's act in delivering the Israelites out of the hand of Pharaoh, he confessed (Exodus 18:111):

11  "Now I know that the LORD is greater than all the gods; indeed, it was proven when they dealt proudly against the people."

As a token of conversion, he offered a sacrifice to the God of Israel and ate a meal with Moses, Aaron and all the elders of Israel before God.

Jethro was a skilled organizer and quickly saw the flaws in the loose governmental order of the Israelite horde.  Among the tribes of the desert it was, and still is, customary for the sheik of the tribe to sit in front of his tent for a short period each morning.  During this period various members of the tribe bring their disputes and grievances to him and he passes judgment on these matters.  Moses was trying to fill this role for the Israelites.  The trouble was obvious to Jethro! Although this system was practical for the average desert tribe, it was completely impractical for a group the size of the Israelites.  Moses was having to hold court all day everyday, and the people who needed to see him were forced to stand around his tent for long and tiresome periods, waiting for their turn to come.  Doubtless, Moses was aware that this was not the well-oiled governmental machine one might desire, but his limited experience as a leader had not provided him with an alternative solution.  Fortunately, his wise old father-in-law, a leader among his own people, immediately suggested a practical solution.  Under the new decentralised arrangement the Israelites were divided into groups and sub-groups, with leaders over thousands and leaders over hundreds and leaders over fifties and leaders over tens. The leader handled the everyday complaints and disputes.  The more difficult cases were still brought to Moses, but having these assistants freed him from the lesser matters that had been robbing him of time and energy. We see the same problems in Christian fellowships today when a single pastor attempts to be a "jack of all trades" instead of the body of Christ putting the approved elders and deacons into their Holy Spirit inspired positions (Acts 14:23; 20:17, 28; Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4; 1 Timothy 3:2-13; 5:17; Titus 1:5-9).

In the third month (Exodus 19) Israel reached the area of Mount Sinai where God began to reveal Himself as thunder and lightning came down (vs. 16).  If the experience in the wilderness had failed to convince the Israelites of God's superiority and their own helplessness, the scene at Sinai was designed to remove all doubt.  Sinai's heights were wrapped in a thick dark cloud of God's power.  Thunder, lightning, and the blast of trumpets declared his awesome presence.  The wide gulf of holiness which separates men from God was emphasized by the instructions to the people to stay away from the base of the mountain, on pain of death. There, He also manifested Himself to the children of Israel, not just as a physical presence, but as a powerful, unseen, and eternal
moral Being. We know He is a moral Being because He gave the Ten Commandments, because we are created in the image and likeness of God, and we have to manifest these moral attributes in order to maintain that relationship with Him. There is probably no document in the history of mankind that has had greater influence on moral and religious life than the Decalogue.  The Book of the Covenant contained regulations for the common things of everyday life, but the Ten Commandments were "straight from God." The other laws were developed under divine guidance, but these ten "Words" were straight from the finger of God in a sense that other laws weren't (Exodus 31:18; 32:16; 34:1; Deuteronomy 4:14; 5:22, 10:1-4).  The Decalogue served as a summary statement of the basic duties of the Israelites toward God and toward their fellowmen.  Unless these minimum moral and spiritual requirements were heeded, there could be no religious community.  Morality and religion could not be separated.  We take this for granted, but many of Israel's neighbours saw no necessary connection between the two - as is the case with so many people today.  We have all quoted the Ten Commandments so often that we feel we have a fairly good understanding of them, but the state of today's society shows clearly that man by himself, with his fallen nature, cannot exhibit these moral qualities, he is worthy of death. Only by realizing this and recognizing that either we must die, or a substitute must die in our place, can we maintain fellowship with our awesome Almighty God.  Thus the Old Testament substitutionary system was established whereby God could have fellowship with His creation. It was also a symbol of the reality of the New Covenant when Jesus Christ would die as the one-time sacrifice for all and, through His death and resurrection, we now can have fellowship with our Great and Moral God, throughout all eternity. 

Chapter 20 lists the Ten Commandments. When the people began to hear God speak, they cried (vs. 19): "let not God speak with us, lest we die."  In chapters 21 through 24, God gave further provisions necessary for fellowship. He invited Moses, Joshua, and the elders of the people up to the mountain (Exod. 24).  Finally (24:18), Moses entered the cloud and spent forty days and forty nights on the mountain with God. At that time, Moses remained on the mountain while the Lord gave him the instructions for building the tabernacle and all of its contents (Exod.25-31) and concerning the tabernacle and the priesthood.  Down below, camped around the foot of the mountain, the Israelites waited for their leader to return.  While the weeks passed they revealed again their true human nature and began to fear he was dead, or had deserted them.  They demonstrated mankind's sinful need for something tangible, something they could see and feel, to hold them together. The crowd convinced Aaron, rather easily it seems, to melt down some of their jewellery and to make a golden calf, and thus slipped into idolatry once again.  When the calf was finished, Aaron ordered a special feast to the Lord, and they rose up early on the morrow and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings; "and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play" (Exodus 32:61).  When God saw the insulting orgiastic celebration he told Moses of their behaviour (v7-81):

7  Then the LORD spoke to Moses, "Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves.  8  "They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed to it, and said, 'This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!'"
We note in this passage of Scripture that God did not say Satan had tempted them and they had fallen prey to his devices. He said that the people had sinned. We learn more of man's propensity to sin in the book of James, where James says (James 1:13-151):
13  Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am being tempted by God"; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.  14  But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.  15  Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.

God made clear His intention to annihilate the entire multitude of faithless Israelites and to fulfill his promises to Abraham through Moses' descendants (32:101).  Here Moses proved his selfless concern for his people and for God's ultimate purposes.  This impulsive action of theirs was as much a rejection of Moses as it was of God.  We could hardly have condemned him if he had agreed that annihilation would be the best thing for them, but instead he demonstrated his Christ-like shepherd's heart of love for the people and pointed out that their destruction, though wholly deserved, would cause the Egyptian pagans to mock the Exodus as a trap laid by a deceitful and capricious God (Exodus 32:11-12).  The Lord heard him approvingly, and turned the discipline of the Israelites over to him.  Thus we see that Moses was given the opportunity to express his feeling about God and his feeling and love for the nation of Israel - and he passed the test.

In the following scenes, we see Moses the Avenger of God, storming down the mountainside,  where he was confronted by Joshua who told him of the activities in the camp below. When confronted by Moses, Aaron said that the people wanted the thing, and as they put their gold into the fire, the calf "just came out." How lame are our excuses when we are caught in sin!  People were dancing and worshipping a golden calf as the god who had brought them out of Egypt. Then Moses ordained the punishment to be meted out to the idolatrous crew.  When the sons of Levi answered his call, "Who is on God's side?" he ordered them to take their swords and go through the camp, executing everyone who was involved with the wild orgy, and they went among them with their swords, killing the offenders. By nightfall 3,000 had fallen.  Moses smashed the tables of the Decalogue against the base of the mountain, snatched up the molten calf and threw it into the fire, then mixed the ashes in the drinking water and made the Israelites drink it.  A heavy price had been paid for Israel's idolatry.  Even so, it was but a token of the suffering she would bear throughout her history for this same sin.

Chapter 33:6 begins a period of national repentance as the people stripped themselves of their ornaments and began to move out.   The next day, Moses again ascended the mountain of the Lord.  Already, his anger had abated.  Now, he asked the Lord to forgive them their sins, even at the cost of his own life.  But the giving of a human life for the life of God's people was not the appointed role for Moses.  That remained for another man and another day.  Moses' task was to continue to lead Israel to the land promised to Abraham and to do what he could to make them faithful to the Lord of the covenant.  Moses spent time in the Tent of Meeting, over which the pillars of fire and of cloud hung, and in which "God used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend." We also notice that Joshua, the young warrior of Rephidim, was spending more and more time at Moses' side and at the tent, in preparation for the day when he would assume the leadership of God's people (Exodus 33:11 ).

Soon Moses ascended Sinai once more.  This time, since he had destroyed the two tablets that God had written on with His own finger (31:18), Moses had to cut his own tablets and carry them up the mountain.  New tables of the Ten Commandments were prepared to replace those Moses had smashed, and new instructions were given for the "stiff-necked" Israelites, including a severe warning against participating in the idolatry of Canaan.  During this period of forty days  (Exodus 34:28), Moses communed with God in a manner that even he had not previously enjoyed.  We are here introduced to a new set of God's  attributes. Because the nation sinned, repented, and had been shown mercy, the occasion was appropriate for the revelation of this new dimension of God's character. When Moses had again ascended the mountain, the Lord God descended in the cloud and met with him there. We read in (Exodus 34:6-71):

6  Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in loving-kindness and truth;  7  who keeps loving-kindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations."

When Moses heard these new attributes that God revealed, following His forgiveness for the sin of the people, he bowed down and worshipped Him.  Such was God's glorious appearance, described in Exodus 33:17-22 and 34:5-9, that when Moses finally descended the mountain, "the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God."  Because of the rays that literally shot out from his face, it was necessary that he put on a veil.  We learn more from reading the New Testament revelation in 2 Corinthians 3:13-18 and see that when Moses spoke to the people they could see the glory on his face - and they were impressed by it.  But Moses knew that the glory would fade and the veil over his face prevented them from seeing the glory disappear.  People have postulated that a people inclined to frequent rebellions needed every encouragement to be reminded of the presence of God and his glory - and considering their attempts to kill Moses they would be even more likely to turn against a leader who was losing his glory?  In 2 Corinthians the Greek word (
telos) translated "end" in verse 13 has two meanings: "purpose" and "finish." The veil prevented the people from seeing the "finish" of the glory as it faded away. But the veil also prevented them from understanding the "purpose" behind the fading glory.  The law had just been instituted, and the people were not ready yet to be told that this glorious system was only temporary.  The truth that the covenant of Law was a preparation for something greater was not yet made known to them.

12  Having therefore such a hope, we use great boldness in our speech,  13  and are not as Moses, who used to put a veil over his face that the sons of Israel might not look intently at the end of what was fading away.  14  But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ.  15  But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart;  16  but whenever a man turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.  17  Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.  18  But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.

The verses are given a national application by the apostle Paul who had a special love for Israel and a burden to see his people saved (Romans. 9:1-3). Why were the Jewish people rejecting their Christ? As the missionary to the Gentiles, Paul was seeing Gentiles trust the Lord, but the Jews - his own people - were rejecting the truth and persecuting Paul and the church.  The reason?  There is a "spiritual veil" over the minds and hearts. Their "spiritual eyes" are blinded, so that when they read the Old Testament Scriptures, they do not see the truth about their own Messiah. Even though the Scriptures were read systematically in the synagogues, the Jewish people did not grasp the spiritual message God had given to them because their eyes were blinded by the Pharisaical interpretation of God's truth which causes man to offer his own righteousness, his own "filthy rags" (Isaiah 64:6), to God.  Is there any hope for the lost Children of Israel?  The Word of God tells us clearly there is a way:

15  But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart;  16  but
whenever it [the heart] turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.

When Moses descended from the mountain, chapter 35 tells us that he reassembled the congregation and they took up an offering to build the tabernacle, and its contents, according to God's revealed blueprint.  This time Moses had returned to find a chastened people ready, for a time at least, to serve God with all their might.  They were beginning to understand that God had chosen them - and not because of their moral or spiritual superiority.  They were as idolatrous as any pagans when they forgot the stipulations of the covenant.  Their role as a chosen people was purely an act of God's grace.  Now, they yearned to respond to this grace in any way that would be acceptable.  When Moses returned with the order to build the tabernacle, they gladly responded.  "And they came, everyone whose heart stirred him, and every one whose spirit moved him, and brought the Lord's offering to be used for the tent of meeting" (Exodus 35:21). According to Exodus 36:5-71, Moses had to tell them to stop their gifts, "for the material they had was sufficient to do all the work, and more."

Finally, the dwelling-place for God's continual presence was completed and consecrated.  Aaron and his sons were ordained as priests, and the daily worship and sacrifice was begun.  The stormy book of Exodus closes on a secure and peaceful note.  God's people have escaped the army of Egypt in a breathless chase through the sea.  Through the providence of God they managed the trek to Sinai, where the covenant was entered.  Doubt and division have been overcome and a house of the Lord erected.  Chapter 40:17 records that the construction was completed in the first month in the second year on the first day of the month. This was approximately thirteen months since the exodus from Egypt.  Now, the Israelites were truly the people of God and, in their midst throughout all their journeys, "The cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel" (Exodus 40:381).

The book of Leviticus contains no time span and details the means by which Israel could have access and fellowship with God, receiving its name from the fact that it deals primarily with the religious obligations of the priests, all of whom came from the tribe of Levi.  Chapter 8 contains the record of the preparation for Aaron and his sons to enter the office of high priest and the priestly offices. No sooner had this taken place and the worship system with its sacrifices established, than a fire from the Lord consumed the burnt offerings (9:24). When the people saw it, "they shouted, and fell on their faces. "They knew that God was pleased with their worship and that the fire validated His acceptance of their offerings.  The fire also served as a preparatory step for their entry into the land of Canaan. Once they were exposed to the Baal worship system practised there they would be told by the inhabitants of the land that Baal was the one responsible for fire. God had given them an advance demonstration that He is the one responsible for this physical element.

Immediately after this demonstration we read the account (Chapter 10) of Nadab and Abihu, two sons of Aaron, who offered "strange fire" to the Lord. It would seem that after such an example of the power of God, and after very precise instruction from Moses as to how the priestly office was to be administered, that they would have refrained from so foolish an act. Nevertheless, they offered strange fire. Evidently, in being "strange," it was not in the prescribed fashion and could therefore have been of man's foolishly evil imagination or from Satan, and the outcome was an awesome lesson for the people for Leviticus 10:2 tells us:

And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord." 

We do not know what kind of fire this was but, whatever its actual nature, it was not a fire that would consume what they were wearing, nor was it one that would burn them to ashes, for verse 5 says that men "carried them in their garments (or coats)." Perhaps this gives a partial clue to the unique nature of God's holy fire, which can consume without burning (as in the burning bush in Exodus 3:2).  Whatever kind of "fire" was witnessed by the Israelites, we know that it consumed the life force within the sons of Aaron and yet left their physical body intact!  When Aaron saw this judgment on his sons he was moved

(Continued on page 493)

'Moses and the Nation of Israel!'

Moses parentage

God changes Moses during forty years in Midian

The Ten Plagues in Egypt

The Crossing of the Red Sea

God uses Joshua to bring victory over the Amalekites

Moses on Mount Sinai

Aaron and the priest's garment

Leviticus 26 and God's future Judgments on Israel

The Three Divisions in the Book of Numbers

Levites not to be part of the "numbered men"

Twelve Spies report on 'the land of Canaan'

God's Judgement of Israel's failure to enter Canaan

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