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THE IMPORTANCE OF THE COVENANT OF MOUNT SINAI (EXODUS 19:17 – 20:19) FOR THE SALVATION HISTORY OF ALL MANKIND

27 Oct

THE HEBREWS BECOME GOD’S CHOSEN PEOPLE

“The events at Mount Sinai are significant in the history of the Chosen People and the history of all mankind. The immediate effect of the covenant is clear. The Hebrews become God’s Chosen People. God accepts them as especially His own. They give themselves wholly to God. They promise to worship no other God but Jahweh. In return, God Who has already led them safely out of the land of Egypt, promises to lead them to the land of promise, the land of Canaan, which shall belong to them.

THEY ARE STILL A WORLDLY PEOPLE.

Apparently the Israelites are still a worldly people. They hope and trust in Jahweh because He has rescued them from oppression in Egypt. They give their loyalty to Jahweh because He has promised them the conquest of Canaan.

HOW GOD WORKS TO RAISE THEIR MORALITY AND SPIRITUALITY

But God is working slowly to raise the level of their morality and religion. He begins by binding them to Himself alone, by making them forswear any other gods but Himself and by making them forego the use of any graven images to represent Himself. In this way He is leading them to a higher notion of His own spiritual nature and holiness. They are to worship a God Who is so pure, so spiritual that He cannot be symbolised in any statue. He is not an idol, nor can any idol be His suitable representative. The people themselves must seek to imitate the purity and spirituality of God. They must avoid even sins of thought or desire. The covenant establishes not merely an external religion but a religion of the spirit.

NO IDOLS ARE TO REPRESENT GOD; RATHER HIS PEOPLE ON EARTH ARE CALLED TO IMITATE GOD’S PURITY.

It is noteworthy, too, that the Mosaic covenant is an agreement made between God and the Israelites as a people. Up to this moment God had dealt only with individuals. He spoke to the Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob – individually. It is true that He spoke to them as the forefathers of a nation; but still, He spoke to them alone. But at Mount Sinai God appeared to the whole people in the form of clouds and of flame and lightning. All the people hear Him speak. They are asked by Him to dedicate themselves to Him as a people. In that spirit, as a people, they enter into the covenant with God.

GOD SHOWS THAT HE INTENDS TO SAVE NOT MERELY INDIVIDUALS BUT A RACE.

Surely there is here a mystery which we may never fully understand. When God in His love for man sets out to save man from sin and ignorance, He speaks first to individuals, to Noe [Noah], to Abraham, to Isaac and Jacob.

But when, through their faith, God has raised up to Himself in the world a numerous people, when He has, as it were, recommended Himself to this people by His mercies to them, by showing them His almighty power, His dominion even over the great empires of the earth and His sovereignty over the forces of nature, then God speaks to them as a people, as a living unit composed of members who have a common inheritance of belief in Him and hope in Him and a common experience of His presence to them and of the manifestation of His power before them. At the very least this shows that God intends to save not merely individuals but a race, a family of men.

SALVATION WILL COME ABOUT IN A WAY THAT IS BOTH INDIVIDUAL AND SOCIAL.

Even more, God’s way of acting seems to show that salvation will come about in a way that is both individual and social. He appeals first to individuals, then to a people. Israel is first of all the name of an individual, then a name of a race, the name of the Chosen People of God.

Even at Mount Sinai, where at last God speaks to the whole people, still the person Moses stands out. The people are filled with awe at the manifestation of God’s presence among them; they are afraid to speak to God directly. It is Moses alone who ascends the mountains and speaks familiarly with God for days and days. God will deal with the Israelites as with a people, as with a living family unit. But He will deal with them through the services of a mediator. Moses speaks to God for the people and to the people for God.

EVEN THEN, THE BLESSINGS OF GOD WERE EXTENDED BEYOND BLOOD RELATIONSHIP TO ABRAHAM.

CIRCUMCISION WAS THE SIGN OF GOD’S BLESSING

Again, there are not lacking indications that the blessings which God promises to the Israelites at Mount Sinai are to be extended to all mankind. At the moment only the Israelites seem to be God’s Chosen People.

But even in the time of Abraham the blessings of God were extended beyond the bounds of blood relationship to abraham. God commanded Abraham to circumcise – and circumcision was the sign of God’s blessing – not only his own family but ‘the bought servant… and whosoever is not of your stock’ (Genesis 17:12).

Isaac, Jacob, Juda and Joseph married non-Israelites and so opened the gate of God’s blessing to them. Moses himself married a woman of the Madianites. Through his relationship with Moses his son-in-law, Jethro, the Madianite, is led to sacrifice to Jahweh. In all these incidences it is, perhaps, permissible to see that God will extend His blessings to the world through the people of Israel.

WHY DID GOD NOT APPEAR TO ALL MEN AT THAT TIME, INSPIRING AWE IN THEM WITH HIS POWER?

There is, perhaps, an even more profound aspect of God’s behaviour toward the Chosen People. If we think seriously of the extent of God’s power and His dominion over men, it is hard not to wonder why God did not deal more summarily, perhaps even more violently with mankind.

If He could appear to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, why did He not appear simultaneously to all men, terrifying them with His power and majesty and driving them, as it were, to repentance and to allegiance to Himself? Naturally we cannot hope to penetrate completely into the mind of God and perceive fully the reasons for the behaviour of God with men. But the facts themselves give indications of the inner meaning of God’s actions.

In the first place it is evident that God is pursuing men. In Adam God offered the whole human race the opportunity to live familiarly with Him, to share His dominion over the world, to share His ineffable happiness. In Adam the human race refused this divine blessing and chose instead to assert its own dominion over the world and over itself, to carve out its own happiness independently of God. When thousands upon thousands of years had elapsed – perhaps even more than a hundred thousand years – when the first great primary civilisations of the Egyptians and the Sumerians had made their appearance, then man seemed for the first time to be achieving some mastery of the material world.

But he had lost his way in the world of the spirit. He had lost the true God. In polytheism and idolatry he had reduced God to the stature of man. Instead of recognising the infinite perfection and almighty power of the true God, man had created for himself gods of limited power and, even more dangerously, gods debased with the evil of human passions. Any poet or philosopher would be ready to agree that it would have been a delicious divine irony if God at this point in human history had left the race of man to complete the work of its own destruction.

But instead at this precise moment God approaches man again. In Abraham He begins again the divine work of making man in the image and likeness of the one true God. What can we say but that God is pursuing man as a father will seek after his erring son? And what can this mean except that God loves man as a man loves his own son? Human history, then, cannot be simply human. It is filled with the mysterious love of God for man.

HUMAN HISTORY IS DEEPLY COLOURED WITH THE WEAKNESS OF MAN.

But it is no less evident that human history is deeply coloured with the weakness of man. There is first the primordial pride of Adam which lost for man the golden occasion for glory which God offered. Then there is the ignorance and sinfulness of the race which led even to the ignorance of the true God Himself.

And this pride, this selfishness, this ignorance and sinfulness appear even in the lives of those whom God has chosen to be the vehicle of His salvation. The sins and deceits of the Patriarchs we have already noticed. But even at Mount Sinai the Chosen People, the only people in the world to whom God has up to this moment manifested Himself visible and audibly, this people so singularly blessed by God, this people who have every motive to remain faithful to God, fail God again. They have scarcely made their agreement to worship Jahweh alone and to forswear the use of idols when they make for themselves a golden calf and worship it. What can this mean but that the history of man is the history of a self-willed, erring child.

A HUMAN RACE WEAK ENOUGH TO FALL BUT STRONG ENOUGH TO BE RAISED UP AGAIN

Still the fact also show that this erring child is not all bad, his situation is not hopeless. Abraham is a man of faith; Juda is a man of courage; Joseph is a man of wisdom, and Moses is a mystic, a man who lives familiarly and submissively and lovingly in the presence of God. The people may fail, but they can also rise again. They may worship a golden calf, but they can also acquiesce in its destruction and turn to the work of making a tabernacle and an ark for a habitation for the true God Who has manifested Himself to them. In this way the Israelites are typical of the whole human race.

A human race weak enough to fall but strong enough to be raised up again – this is the race which God pursues with love from the garden of paradise to Ur of the Chaldees, from Canaan to Egypt to Mount Sinai. Here perhaps we may perceive the last secret of God’s love which can be known by us in this present life. Because God is pursuing His erring child, man, He seeks him out not simply with power but with power flowing from love.

Hence He respects the free will of man. He will not compel man against his will. He will cajole man or be stern as the occasion and man’s dispositions may require. But always He will respect man’s free will. He has made man for Himself, but He wishes man to come to Him willingly, with love. He desires man’s love, but it must be a free love. And so His love of man is merciful and patient. He will work slowly, with infinite care and consideration, to win foolish man back to Himself.

GOD RESPECTS MAN’S FREE WILL.

God will win man back, but slowly. First He approaches an individual, Abraham. Then He speaks to a people, Israel. And through Israel He will speak to the world. But Israel must be made strong in faith and love. They must be educated in the love and worship of God. They must be tried and tested until their faith and love are a shining beacon in the night of mankind’s ignorance and selfishness.”
– Martin J. Healy S.T.D., 1959

 

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