After making a covenant with him, God put Abraham into a deep sleep in order to speak to him from within a nightmare, “Thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them… but in the fourth generation they shall come hither again, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full” (Gen 15:13-14, 16). Just as the sin of Adam set the stage for the first revelation of Christ, and the covenant made with Noah required the depravity which preceded it, the slavery in Egypt was a necessary precursor to knowing God. By rescuing them from physical captivity God was showing by analogy what spiritual rescue from sin looks like.
It’s important to draw the correct inference from this. That God wanted Israel to go into bondage doesn’t mean He delights in inflicting misery on His creation, nor does it mean He’s impassable, cruel, or numb to the suffering of people. On the contrary, by giving the Canaanites 400 years to repent of their wickedness before bringing destruction on them God was demonstrating His longsuffering and otherworldly patience with obstinate sinners. By putting Israel amongst the xenophobic Egyptians who wouldn’t so much as eat a meal with them (Gen 43:32) He was safeguarding the existence of the people through whom Christ would come, and by extension, the appearance of Christ Himself. Egypt was for them a safe harbor, much like it was for Joseph who remarked to his brothers about his own bondage, “As for you, ye thought evil against me, but God meant it unto good to bring to pass as it is this day, to save much people alive” (Gen 50:20). Slavery in a foreign land wasn’t pleasant, but away from the destructive influence of the Canaanites they were in a place where God could bless and multiply them.
And when the time was right He delivered them out of that oppression—though they didn’t deserve it. Like Noah and Abraham before them the children of Israel were chosen not for their faithfulness or attractiveness, but because their incompetence, rebelliousness, and foolishness would serve as the perfect medium to show off God’s goodness. As He said to Moses, “The LORD did not set His love upon you or choose you because ye were more in number than any people—for ye were the fewest of all people—but because the LORD loved you, and because He would keep the oath which He had sworn unto your fathers. This is why the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage” (Deut 7:7-8). By grounding the good done to them in Himself rather than in them, they could see His plan was first and foremost to display His own good character, not to prosper them materially, which is why in light of Deuteronomy 7:7-8 verse 9 goes on to say, “Know therefore that the LORD thy God, He is God, the faithful God, who keepeth covenant and mercy with those who love Him and keep His commandments to a thousand generations; and repayeth those who hate Him to their face, to destroy them. He will not be slack to Him who hates Him, He will repay him to his face.” In saving a nation of idolaters (Acts 7:43) and grumblers (Num 11:1) rather righteous saints, God showed the depth of His love and mercy.
Psalm 106:6-12, the divine commentary on the exodus, makes the same point when it says, “Our fathers understood not thy wonders in Egypt, they remembered not the multitude of Thy mercies but provoked Him at the sea, at the Red Sea. Nevertheless He saved them for His name’s sake, that He might make His mighty power to be known. He rebuked the Red Sea also, and it was dried up, so He led them through the depth, as through the wilderness. And He saved them from the hand of him who hated them, and redeemed them from the hand of the enemy. And the waters covered their enemies, there was not one of them left. Then they believed His words; they sang His praise.” It was only after God showed His power that they believed, and that only after seeing their own weakness.
From a human perspective the days immediately following the exodus weren’t perhaps the best of times. Although free, the people were attacked by enemies, marched through waterless wildernesses, and forced to make camp before a mountain of fire and thunder (Ex 19:18).
But from a divine point of view this was a joyous occasion, a time of fatherly tenderness and great compassion. In Deuteronomy 1:31 God compares the exodus to a man carrying his child, and in Ezekiel 16:8 He likens it to taking a woman out of crushing poverty by marrying her. “’Behold I spread My skirt over thee,” He says, “and covered thy nakedness. Yea, I swore unto thee and entered into a covenant with thee’ says the Lord God, and thou became Mine.” Indeed, Sinai has all the components of a marriage covenant. There’s a recounting of the couple’s previous relationship (the book of Genesis), God’s vow to be true to Israel (Ex 19:5), a vow of faithfulness from Israel to God (Ex 19:8), a sign given (Ex 31:12), and a celebratory meal eaten (Ex 24:11).
This is also why Sinai is an order of magnitude more wonderful and impressive than the previous covenants. While those were given in a moment with only a few words, this one fills books and takes over a month to deliver. Moses initially goes up the mountain only to receive God’s offer to covenant (Ex 19:3), then returns to deliver the message to the people (Ex 19:7). They agree to obey, and Moses goes back up the mountain a second time to give their response to God (Ex 19:8), which in turn pleases Him, and causes Him to send Moses down with the message that in three days He’ll covenant with them (Ex 19:14).
After the three days Moses ascends the mountain (Ex 19:20), but before God will speak to him Moses is sent back to be among the people (Ex 19:24). Once everyone is on an equal footing before Him God then announces the Decalogue to the assembly (Ex 20:1-17), but the experience so badly frightens them that they flee and send Moses to receive the rest of the law in their place (Ex 20:21). Moses goes and brings back the words of Exodus 21-23 to the people, who then affirm it with a sacrifice (Ex 24:8) and a meal with God (Ex 24:11). Finally everyone leaves the mountain except for Moses who stays forty days to receive the remaining instructions.
Why did God take so long to deliver the covenant? Why did He make Moses to go up and down so many times? To reveal His character of course. Because the giving of the law is tentative and probing, with many stops and starts, it resembles a young man courting the woman he adores. As the proverb says, “Three things are which too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not: the way of an eagle in the air, the way of a serpent upon a rock, the way of a ship in the midst of the sea, and the way of a man with a maid” (Prov 30:18-19). So although Sinai is a solemn and holy occasion, it’s the joyful seriousness of marriage, not the somber terror of an execution.
The other thing this lengthy process communicates is that the covenant at Sinai is big. Really big. The book of Genesis serves as a preamble to it. Its story is contained in the first five books of the Bible and forms the backbone for the remainder. It consists of 613 commandments, 248 of which are positive requirements (you shall) and 365 of which are prohibitions (you shall not). There were laws governing how to treat people (Ex 21:27), how to treat animals (Ex 23:5), and how to treat the land (Ex 23:10). There were laws regarding important things like how to be sexually pure (Ex 22:16) and how to properly worship God (Ex 22:20), and mundane things like how to build a roof (Deut 22:8), when to wash (Lev 15:11), when to travel time (Ex 23:15), and what to eat (Lev 11).
Moreover there are an equally impressive number of commands for the priests. It told them what they cannot touch (Lev 5:3), when to wear linen (Lev 6:10), when to offer their dough as a heave offering (Num 15:20), and how many times they must dip their right finger in the pool of oil in the palm of their left hand before the Lord (Lev 14:16). It tells them who is to construct the tabernacle (Ex 35:30), and how (Ex 35:10-19), when they must move it (Num 4) and what constitutes respect for it (Lev 17:6).
In short, there were laws for everything.
Don’t get the impression that these numerous laws were oppressive or arbitrary however. These were good laws, given by a benevolent God so the people could be fruitful and joyful. As Moses said “the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always” (Deut 6:24). Reflecting on them caused the Psalmist to say, “O how love I thy law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps 119:97). It was necessary they be so numerous because they give form to the Israel’s relationship with God. They told the people what fidelity to Him actually meant beyond a feeling, what abiding in His presence looks like from day to day. How do they love Him in the morning when making breakfast? The law told them (Ex 23:19). How should they show their appreciation to Him if they were to walk along the road and see the animal of someone they hate fallen under a heavy burden? The law told them (Ex 23:5). It guides and shapes the course of the believer’s life, mercifully supplanting a fallen conscience as the path to Him.
It’s fitting that this grace is given by this particular covenant, because as redemptive history has progressed the definition of what a covenant is has grown. To Noah a covenant was God’s one sided promise to do good. To Abraham it was a promise to do good plus a small invitation to reciprocate. But Sinai pulls back the curtain all the way to reveal that a covenant is really a promise which centers, defines, and ushers in a deeper relationship built on mutual trust and love. Seen from this vantage point a plethora of laws given in the form of a covenant makes sense, because relationships require laws to function as their boundary markers, which means by obeying God’s commandments the people were able to enjoy a relationship with Him and all the blessings it entails. This is why the Scripture says “If ye walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and do them… I will walk among you, and will be your God, and ye shall be My people” (Lev 26:12). It’s also why it says the law gives life: “You shall therefore keep My statues and judgments, which if a man does he shall live in them” (Lev 18:5). They were given so that men might try to keep them, and in so trying, live.
Does this mean that by keeping the law men could gain eternal life? No, absolutely not, and to even entertain such a thought is to grossly insult God. If it were possible for men to make themselves righteous then God would have needed to make two mutually exclusive covenants with Himself in eternity past (since nothing can happen apart from His sovereign will). The first would be the covenant of revelation made to glorify Himself, and the second would be a decree to show off man’s power. One covenant to reveal His strength, mercy, and love, and another to reveal a saving ability men possess in and of themselves. But not only would such a universe not maximize His glory (and for that reason would not maximize our joy), it would contradict the oath He gave to Abraham, for “If the inheritance be of the law it is no more of promise, but God gave it to Abraham by promise” (Gal 3:17). Moreover how could a jealous God who will not share His glory with another (Is 42:8) tolerate such an arrangement? And why if such a thing were possible, would He have needlessly allowed His Son to die on a cross? For “if righteous comes by the law then Christ is dead in vain” (Gal 2:21).
What “the man who does them shall live” means is that anyone who tries their best to keep the law will discover it’s actually impossible to do so. The law was not given to make us righteous, but to show us we need someone outside ourselves to make us righteous—exactly the same lesson Adam learned when God made clothes for him. Once our desire to justify ourselves is dead, God is free to justify us by faith in Christ. As it is written, “By deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight, for by the law is there knowledge of sin. Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid! We establish the law” (Rom 3:20, 31). The covenant at Sinai is therefore to be understood as another piece of revelation, not as something independent of what’s gone before. In the same way the Abrahamic covenant doesn’t set aside the previous revelation given to Noah, Sinai does not cancel out the truth that salvation is by faith alone in the work of Christ alone. From Abraham we learn Christ is all that is necessary for salvation, from Sinai we learn salvation by Christ is absolutely necessary. The law helps to uplift and strengthen faith by herding us into the place where we can see the full need for it. As Paul says, “the law entered, that the offence might abound” and “the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Therefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Rom 5:20, Gal 3:22-24).
Just as He did in the other covenants, God gave a sign to remind the people of the objective nature of His grace. The covenant that demanded men work would be denoted by the sign of rest. “Verily My Sabbaths ye shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations that ye may know that I am the Lord that doth sanctify you” (Ex 31:12). Although God had mandated Israel keep the law (in order to find out for themselves that salvation by law keeping was impossible), what He was really driving at was the need for them to rest in the finished work of the Son of Man. The Sabbath was their hint that righteousness isn’t through imperfect human effort but through patient waiting for deliverance. It does a number of other things too, to be sure. It teaches men that because they are made in God’s image they must work six days and rest on the seventh as He Himself did at creation (Ex 20:11). It teaches them that slaves work, but free men rest (Deut 5:15). It increases their trust in God by showing them He’ll provide for their needs while they’re idle (Lev 25:21). But its chief function was to remind men they must trust the Son of Man to accomplish redemption for them. The Psalmist understood this, which is why he says, “If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou mayest be feared. I wait for the LORD, my soul doth wait, and in His word do I hope. My soul waiteth for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, I say, more than those who watch for the morning. Let Israel hope in the LORD, for with the LORD there is mercy, and with Him is plenteous redemption. He shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities” (Psalm 130:3-8).
Thus the rainbow shows His work as an objective, cosmic reconciliation, circumcision shows that His righteousness is counted to men when they believe, and the Sabbath shows that men must not attempt to earn this righteousness for themselves but must wait for a provision from the one who loves them.
Israel was to keep the law in order to be blessed by God then, but the law didn’t make men capable of keeping it. The law was designed only to inform them of God’s requirements. In this way it set them up for failure so that they would stop trying to be perfect and go to the priest who could make atonement for their sins. Consequently the revelation at Sinai is made up of both prophetic and priestly, working and resting.
In the next two posts we’ll look at both of these idea, beginning with the prophetic first.