“THE MAKING OF THIS CONTRACT WITH GOD WAS THE MOST IMPORTANT FREE DECISION MADE BY THE CHILDREN OF ABRAHAM SINCE ABRAHAM HIMSELF FIRST ANSWERED THE CALL OF GOD IN CHALDEA.”
“After their miraculous escape from the Egyptians the Israelites wandered in the desert and the wilderness for three months. At Mount Sinai God and the Israelites made a covenant or agreement binding upon both of them.
YOU SHALL BE TO ME A HOLY NATION
The agreement was made in the midst of wonderful signs which proved to the Israelites the reality of God’s presence among them. God spoke to Moses from the mountaintop: ‘Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: You have seen what I have done to the Egyptians, how I carried you upon the wings of eagles, and have taken you to myself. If therefore you will hear my voice, and keep my covenant, you shall be my peculiar possession above all people: for all the earth is mine. And you shall be to me a priestly kingdom, and a holy nation. These are the words thou shalt speak to the children of Israel.’ (Exodus 19:3-6).
Moses delivered God’s message to the people and they replied: ‘All that the Lord has spoken, we will do’ (Exodus 19:8). When Moses told God that the Israelites were willing to become God’s people, God commanded the people to sanctify themselves and prepare for the coming of the Lord on the third day.
FIRE AND SMOKE
On the third day the Lord came to Sinai to speak to Moses in the hearing of the people. ‘And when Moses had brought them forth to meet God from the place of the camp, they stood at the bottom of the mount. And all Mount Sinai was on smoke: because the Lord was come down upon it in fire, and the smoke arose from it as out of a furnace. And all the mount was terrible. And the sound of the trumpet grew by degrees louder and louder, and was drawn out to a greater length; Moses spoke, and God answered him. And the Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, in the very top of the mount: and he called Moses unto the top thereof. And when he was gone up thither, He said to him: Go down, and charge the people: lest they should have a mind to pass the limits to see the Lord, and a very great multitude of them should perish. The priests also that come to the Lord, let them be sanctified; lest he strike them.
‘And Moses said to the Lord: The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai: for thou didst charge, and command, saying: Set limits about the mount, and sanctify it. And the Lord said to him: Go, get thee down. And thou shalt come up, thou and Aaron with thee; but let not the priests and the people pass the limits, nor come up to the Lord, lest He kill them. And Moses went down to the people and told them all.
THE 10 COMMANDMENTS
‘And the Lord spoke all these words: I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt not have strange gods before me. Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not adore them, nor serve them. I am the Lord thy God, mighty, jealous, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me. And showing mercy unto thousands to them that love me and keep my commandments. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain: for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that shall take the name of the Lord his God in vain. Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day. Six days shalt thou labour, and shalt do all thy works. But on the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: thou shalt do no work on it, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy man-servant, nor thy maid-servant, nor thy beast, nor the stranger that is within thy gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them, and rested on the seventh day: therefore the Lord blessed the seventh day and sanctified it.
‘Honour thy father and thy mother, that thou mayest be long-lived upon the land which the Lord thy God will give thee.
‘Thou shalt not kill.
‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.
‘Thou shalt not steal.
‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house; neither shalt thou desire his wife, nor his servant, nor his handmaid, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is his.
‘And all the people saw the voices and the flames, and the sound of the trumpet, and the mount smoking: and being terrified and struck with fear, they stood afar off, saying to Moses: Speak thou to us and we will hear. Let not the Lord speak to us, lest we die’ (Exodus 19:17 – 20:19).
AN ATMOSPHERE OF WONDER AND FEAR
To impress the Israelites with the solemnity of the contract they were making with Him, God manifested His presence by lightning and thunder and black clouds. To convince them of His holiness and power they were forbidden to ascend the mountain.
This encounter of the Israelites with God at Sinai is one of the most awe-inspiring in the history of man. On this occasion not only does God speak to the prophet Moses but He speaks in the hearing of all the people, and the people are so struck with fear at hearing the voice of God sounding clear over the thunder and the trumpets that they beseech God to speak to them directly no longer.
In this atmosphere of wonder and fear God proclaimed His Ten Commandments. By accepting these Commandments the Israelites bound themselves to worship only the one true God and to abstain from idolatry, the worship of images. Moses ratified the contract between God and the people by sprinkling the blood of sacrificed beasts on the altar and on the people. The contract was sealed, as it were, in blood.
THEY FREELY CHOSE GOD
The making of this contract with God was the most important free decision made by the children of Abraham since Abraham himself first answered the call of God in Chaldea. By it they became God’s chosen and favoured people, a priestly kingdom through which and in which the one true God would be properly worshipped, a priestly kingdom through which salvation would come to the world. It is significant that this solemn ratified covenant was not made until Israel had become a numerous people, a nation, and that it was made by the free decisions of all the people. In the garden of paradise Adam and Eve, misled by the devil, freely deserted God. At Mount Sinai the Israelites, under the inspired leadership of Moses, freely chose God, the one true God Who had freely chosen them.
THE MOSAIC LAW
In addition to the Ten Commandments Moses also gave the people other laws which were intended to make practical the general moral principles contained in the Decalog [the 10 Commandments].
It has been noticed by historians that many of the prescriptions found in the Mosaic Law resemble laws found in the codes of other Oriental peoples, especially the Babylonians and the Egyptians. It is possible that Moses incorporated in this code laws which came down to the people from some older code. But the important thing about the Mosaic code is that it is all placed in the framework of the Ten Commandments. This gives it a quality of uniqueness which is found in no other ancient code of laws.
The most striking characteristic of the Mosaic Law is its inherent monotheism. The Israelites are to worship no other God but Jahweh, the one true God. They are to avoid the polytheistic and idolatrous practices of other nations. It is true that the Israelites will need a long time and many severe divine chastisements to rid their minds of the idea that other divinities exist besides Jahweh. But in the end the monotheism of the Decalog will triumph and the people will recognise the existence of no God but Jahweh. Through the Israelites the knowledge of the existence of the one true God will be restored to the human race.
INSISTENCE ON SPIRITUAL HOLINESS
Also striking is the insistence of the Decalog on internal or spiritual holiness. The Decalog condemns not only adultery and theft, it condemns even internal thought of adultery and theft. For it says not only ‘Thou shalt not steal’ but also ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house’; not only ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ but also ‘Thou shalt not desire thy neighbour’s wife.’
THROUGH THE ISRAELITES THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE EXISTENCE OF THE ONE TRUE GOD WILL BE RESTORED TO THE HUMAN RACE.
It is clear that the Mosaic Law was intended to bring men back to God, not only externally through the regulation of their outward behaviour but also internally through the purifying of their inmost thoughts and desires. It served thus to preserve them from the polytheism and idolatry of their neighbours and to lead them back to God in purity and holiness. In the field of ethics and holiness it surpasses all previous legislative codes. In this field it represents a divine revelation. It represents God calling man to return to his Father’s house. Through the Mosaic code man is given another chance to be what he was meant to be from the very beginning, a child of God, with his whole life centred in God. Until a new and a higher covenant shall come, the law of Moses is the moral code which binds men to God.
UNTIL A NEW AND A HIGHER COVENANT SHALL COME, THE LAW OF MOSES IS THE MORAL CODE WHICH BINDS MEN TO GOD.
Of course, the mere making of this contract with God did not of itself make the people perfect. The covenant was the means to perfection, the way to perfection. Both God and man would still have to labour to make the code the real expression of perfection in the lives of the people.
THE GOLDEN CALF
This is clearly seen in the regrettable behaviour of the Israelites shortly after the ratification of the covenant. Moses stayed at the summit of Mount Sinai for forty days, conversing with God. Deprived of his leadership for even this short time, the people relapsed into their former ignorant and sinful ways. They induced Aaron, the high priest, to make for them a golden calf which should represent Jahweh. This was in direct disobedience to the commandment that they were not to make any graven image to represent God. It indicated that the people were still influenced by the idolatry of the Babylonians and the Egyptians.
THE WEAKNESS OF MEN DELAYED THE FINAL FRUITION OF THE CONTRACT.
God was angry with them and sent Moses to reprove the people. Moses appealed to God not to destroy the people utterly, and God granted his request. But God knew that He was dealing with a stiff-necked and stubborn people. Through the Israelites God had entered into a contract with mankind. But He knew that He would have to purify men even more before He could save men from their weakness and folly. At Sinai, man through the Israelites entered into a contract with God. But the weakness of men will delay the final fruition of the contract.”
– Martin J. Healy S.T.D., 1959