The Third Sunday of Advent - Mount Sinai (Part 3 of 4)

The story of the Ten Commandments is undeniably a turning point in the biblical narrative.  The account at first appears to be about the moment God imposes His law on the Israelites and they agree to comply and become the Chosen People.  But the actual plot is more complex and signals to us that perhaps there is more to this narrative than at first meets the eye.

Having rescued the Israelites from Egypt, God leads them to the base of Mount Sinai.   Moses ascends the mountain, and God tells him that God will make the Israelites His own people if they will agree to obey Him.  Moses descends the mountain and reports the terms of the deal to the Israelites and they immediately agree.

Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which God commanded him. All the people answered together, and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.”[i]

Moses dutifully transmits the people’s acceptance to God and the dramatic prelude to this momentous  event is set into motion.  God commands the Israelites to sanctify themselves for three days, washing their clothes, abstaining from sex, and finally marching forward to the very base of Mount Sinai.  On the third day, there is thunder and lightning on the mountain, thick clouds obscure the peak, and the people hear a deafening trumpet blast.  God Himself descends onto Mount Sinai wreathed in fire and smoke.  The earth quakes, the trumpet blast grows louder.  God summons Moses to the mountaintop again and tells him to remind the Israelites that if they see Him, or so much as touch the mountain, they will die.  Moses descends and does as he is told.  Then God dictates the Ten Commandments from the mountain to Moses and the people below.  In terror, the people ask Moses to intervene – to receive the message and transmit it to them.   The very first and second commands are not to have other gods and not to make graven images.   God interrupts the list of Commandments to emphasize the importance of this one, which the Israelites will almost immediately break:

You shall not bow down to them and you shall not worship them, for I am the Lord your God, a jealous god, reckoning the crime of the fathers with sons, with the third generation and with the fourth, for My foes, and doing kindness to the thousandth generation for my friends and for those who keep my commands.[ii]

The staccato of the initial Ten Commandments is over, and seeming to re-emphasize and provide even more detail to the first and second commandments, God reminds Moses that the Israelites are to worship only Him and never create idols of silver or gold.  The pace of command quickens again and, over the course of the next three chapters, God lays out dozens of more laws and the minimum sentencing requirements for failure to keep them.[iii]  

Again, the Israelites agree to abide by these laws without hesitation: “All the words which the Lord has spoken will we do.”[iv]  Moses writes down the laws, and reads this book of the covenant to the people.[v] A third time the people agree: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do and we will be obedient![vi]  God summons Moses to the top of the mountain again, this time to receive the Ten Commandments written by God’s finger on tablets of stone. 

Moses is away for forty days, and the people become worried.  While in Egypt, the Israelites, at the behest of God, “borrowed” silver and gold jewelry from their Egyptian neighbors before the last plague inspired Pharaoh to let them flee.[vii]  Now the Israelites take their gold earrings out of their ears and give them to Moses’s trusted right-hand man, Aaron.  Aaron casts the gold into the idolatrous image of a calf. 

From the top of Mount Sinai with Moses, God sees that the Israelites have broken the commandment He so recently imposed and they three times agreed to follow.  No longer does He refer to them as “the people”; now He refers to them to Moses as, “your people”:

Go, get down; for your people, who you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves! They have turned away quickly out of the way which I commanded them. They have made themselves a molded calf, and have worshiped it, and have sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen these people, and behold, they are a stiff-necked people. Now therefore leave me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them, and that I may consume them; and I will make of you a great nation.”[viii]

Moses, in a remarkable speech to God, essentially convinces Him not to destroy the Israelites.  God relents.  When Moses comes down off the mountain, he is furious.  As soon as he reaches the base of Mount Sinai, he throws the stone tablets to the ground and shatters them.  Moses demands to know what Aaron was thinking.  Like the blame game Adam, Eve and the snake engaged in, Aaron is quick to blame the Israelites and even tries to blame the calf on supernatural forces, telling Moses he simply threw the gold into the fire and out sprang the calf!  Moses burns the calf, grinds it into powder and forces the Israelites to drink it.    

A critical part of the story that is often overlooked is that God then summons Moses up to the top of the mountain again to receive replacement tablets identical to those Moses broke.  Moses obviously sprang for the breakage warranty with Tablet 1.0 and now receives Tablet 2.0 for no additional charge.  Upon arrival, before Moses utters a word, God pronounces his forgiveness of the Israelites using the same language He used when He first proclaimed the first and second Commandments:

The Lord, the Lord!  A compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in kindness and good faith, keeping kindness for the thousandth generation, bearing crime, trespass and offense, yet He does not wholly acquit, reckoning the crime of fathers with sons and sons of sons to the third generation and the fourth.[ix]

God then repeats some of His earlier commands and re-states His covenant with the people of Israel.  This time, God is dictating and Moses is transcribing.   For most of my life, I thought this story could have been less awkward with some fairly basic editing.  If Moses simply zapped the Israelites with the first set of tablets without destroying the tablets, there would have been no need to have Moses go and fetch a replacement pair.  But this is actually at the heart of the story.   The Israelites broke the covenant almost as soon as they entered into it.  God immediately enters into it again.  Here’s the point: God knows that we are not morally autonomous beings – we do not have free will - and our word, even written in stone, is not trustworthy.   Moses’s very strange punishment; forcing the Israelites to drink the golden calf; is not the sadistic creativity of a man blinded with rage.  Instead, it is an acknowledgement, memorialized in the most important moment of the Old Testament narrative, that we are never free of our shortcomings.  They are inherent to our nature and we carry them around with us always.  We cannot be freed from sin, and we need not bother pledging to do better.  God knows of what we are made.  In His justice He loves us anyway. Our shortcoming is always with us – we drank the powdered calf and it is part of our nature.  God nevertheless engages with us, overlooks this shortcoming that existed from the moment of our Creation and will be with us forever, and loves us nonetheless. 

The story of the Israelites at the base of Mount Sinai is not about people making the free choice to disobey commands and the forgiveness of an angry, petulant God.  It is a story about our inevitable inability to make moral choices in the first place, and God’s decision to love us anyway.   It is an echo of the Garden of Eden.  Adam and Eve’s inherent shortcoming was a lack of free will. Their mistake was not to disobey a command.  Rather, their mistake was that they asserted moral autonomy, assumed they had the ability to follow commandments, and therefore adopted reasons for all generations to come to judge one another and find each other wanting in direct contradiction of God’s advice.   They were not ejected from the Garden, but rather made themselves inevitably miserable and condemned their children to murderous hate by assuming the ability to judge and be judged despite a lack of free will.  We cannot walk back into the Garden the way we left – there is a flaming sword in our path.  To recognize our true relationship to God, we first have to recognize that we do not have free will, the fact that there are no divine commands, and accept the truly unconditional love of God.  The shortcoming God overlooks to love us is far more profound than our last bad behavior – it is the inherent inability to make free moral decisions at all.  This is the message of the Garden, Mount Sinai and finally, as we’ll see, Jesus.

We think of the Israelites as being heroes of the story.  But when Moses descends the mountain a final time and the Israelites resume their journey, there is no reaffirmation of their acceptance of the covenant or pledge to do better.  Moses descends, we are told, with the skin of his face shining with a mysterious light so bright he had to veil himself.  This is not a man who is flush with a second chance to follow laws and hopeful that the Israelites will not disappoint again – they do, and we do.  This is an exuberant man, radically amazed by the I/Thou encounter with the divine and the radical grace he found there for himself and his people.  The Israelites simply fall into line, donate their gold again, but this time to construct the Ark of the Covenant, and head off to the Promised Land.

Image: Mount Sakurajim, Tarumizu, Japan

[i] Exodus 19:3-8
[ii] Exodus 20:5-6; Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses. 430; This is already an expression of mercy for the Israelites before they even break the commandment.  Doing the math, being a foe of God must last uninterrupted for 996 generations before God will withhold His kindness.  This message is lost in the New American Standard Version and many other popular versions of the Bible because they omit the second reference to “generations” so, instead of God’s mercy being virtually assured, it appears God will punish several generations for sin, but His kindness is exhibited to unrelated others.  The difference is subtle, but the effect is not:

You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

This is a modern redaction, inadvertently having changed the meaning of the words to make them more severe.

[iii] Exodus 21-23
[iv] Exodus 24:3
[v] Exodus 24:4
[vi] Exodus 24:7
[vii] Exodus 11:2, 12:35
[viii] Exodus 32:7-10.
[ix] Exodus 34:7Again, an inadvertent redaction appears to have occurred and the first reference to generations in the New American Standard version and this time in even more versions of the Bible, has been dropped and the meaning of the passage changed.  Compare:  The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness 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