29 Oct




“The covenant and the Mosaic code are God’s instruments for the forging of the Chosen People of God. Through them God will make for Himself a people fit to represent Him to the world.

As God’s people the Israelites are bound to worship Him only. Their worship must be founded and spring from love. ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul and with thy whole strength’ (Deuteronomy 6:5). The first three Commandments established God as the centre of the lives of the Israelites. All their actions, all their daily living is to be transformed by, informed by their loving worship of God.


This loving union with God will be the foundation of the love of men for one another. The Israelite must honour his father and mother, respect the rights of his neighbour, neither envying him his possessions nor coveting them.

The love of neighbour which the Commandments give as a guide for human behaviour highlights the fact that all men belong to the same family, they are all equally the descendants of Adam and, more importantly, they are all made in the image and likeness of God; they are all alike God’s erring children, children whom God loves, children whom God wills to save.


But at Mount Sinai this universal law of love cannot be extended universally and simply to all men. God tells the Israelites that they must not intermarry with the Canaanites when they enter the land of Canaan. They must destroy the Canaanite temples to false gods and, if necessary, destroy the Canaanites themselves.


This strong attitude toward the Canaanites might seem shocking to minds already accustomed to the fullness of Christian love. But in its historical circumstances it can be seen as prudent. It was made necessary by the weakness of man. As a people of God the Israelites were still children. Their defection to the Golden Calf proves this. If they were to intermarry with the Canaanites they would be in danger of deserting the true God for false gods. The Canaanites, in their turn, with minds darkened by polytheism and idolatry and even cultural immorality, would strive to draw Israel away from its loyalty to Jahweh. Granting the real weakness of the Israelites and the real ignorance and wickedness of the Canaanites, and granting the importance to the human race of belief in the one true God, the Mosaic attitude toward the Canaanites seems a practical necessity. The necessity is founded not only on the divine justice, on the divine severity toward the crime of polytheism and idolatry, but also on the weakness of men.

In pursuit of man God has chosen to Himself a people. But the people must be trained, they must be educated in the knowledge and the worship of the true God. They must be taught to worship God in the way which God Himself desires. The core, the heart of this training is to be found in the ritual legislation of the Mosaic code.


The first lesson of the ritual prescriptions of the code is the dominion of God. God is the omnipotent creator of the universe. Everything in the universe, even man himself, belongs to God. Man must recognise this primary, fundamental fact. The Mosaic code calls attention to this in several ways. First of all there is the great Commandment to adore God alone. God’s ownership of the universe is made real to the people by the law commanding that the first-fruits of their labours must be given to God.

‘Thou shalt carry the first-fruits of the corn of thy ground to the house of the Lord thy God’ (Exodus 23:19). This law extends even to man himself: ‘Thou shalt give the first-born of thy sons to me’ (Exodus 22:29). One day a week is to be devoted to God: ‘Six days shall you do work: the seventh day, because it is the rest of the sabbath, shall be called holy. You shall do no work on that day: it is the sabbath of the Lord in all your habitations’ (Leviticus 23:3).

Three times a year all the men of the people must appear before God to worship Him: at the feast of the Pasch and of the unleavened bread, at the harvest of the first-fruits and at the harvest at the end of the year. In addition the first day of each month was a feast-day on which special holocausts and sin-offerings were made to God. Finally, on the day of Atonement the whole nation was to enter into the spirit of atonement for sin. In all these ritual celebrations the dominion of God was made the central theme of the life of the Israelites.


In the rites performed on these days the Israelites were reminded both of God’s dominion over them and of their sinfulness in His sight. If the sacrifice were a holocaust, or whole-burnt offering, the total consumption of the victim symbolised God’s total dominion over the offerer. To make sure that this was surely understood such offerings must be of victims ‘without blemish’ (Leviticus 1:3). Man must sacrifice to God of his best possessions; he must hold nothing back from the Lord. Moreover, his offering is made in expiation of sin: ‘… He shall put his hand upon the head of the victim: and it shall be acceptable and help to its expiation’ (Leviticus 1:4).

The ‘feast of weeks’ at the early harvest and the ‘feast of tabernacles’ at the late harvest emphasised both God’s ownership of the world and man’s duty to thank God for His benefactions to men. The ‘day of Atonement’ made the Israelites realise the need for repentance from sin. The great feast of the ‘pash and of the unleavened bread’ recalled to the Israelites the great historical fact that it was God who had rescued them from slavery in the land of Egypt, and reminded them that their trust should be only in God.

With this insistence on the dominion of God, with this persistent emphasis on the all-pervading influence of God in their lives, the Mosaic code was God’s way of reversing the course of human history. By his sin Adam had set the whole race of man marching away from God. In the Mosaic legislation God sets man back on the proper path. Through sin man seeks to be independent of God. By obeying the prescription of the Mosaic code the Israelites acknowledge their utter dependence on God.



The second great lesson of the ritual legislation is that God is present to His people. In accordance with God’s wishes and with the commands of Moses the people build an ark and a tabernacle (or tent). The ark and the tabernacle provide the people with a place to worship God. But more importantly they provide a habitation in which God Himself dwells. God Himself promises to dwell there: “And they shall make me a sanctuary: and I will dwell in the midst of them’ (Exodus 25:8). When the tabernacle is finished God comes to dwell in it: ‘The cloud covered the tabernacle of the testimony, and the glory of the Lord filled it. Neither could Moses go into the tabernacle of the covenant, the cloud covering all things, and the majesty of the Lord shining: for the cloud had covered all’ (Exodus 40:32-33).

Once again, in this covenant between God and the Israelites we see God undoing the work of Adam and the devil. Adam had dwelt in the garden of paradise and talked familiarly with God. He had lived in God’s presence. But tempted by Satan he had forsaken God, and God cast him out of the garden and out of God’s presence. Now through the covenant with Israel God returns to man to dwell with Him and to guide him.


The next great lesson of the ritual legislation is the holiness of God and the holiness required of His chosen people. ‘For I am the Lord your God. Be holy because I am holy… You shall be holy because I am holy’ (Leviticus 11:44, 46).

The holiness of God is shown in the minute prescription for the building of the ark and the tabernacle and the furnishings of the tabernacle. Only fine materials and silver and gold and bronze and jewels are to be used. The ark, the tabernacle and all its furnishings are to be anointed with ‘holy oil’ (Exodus 30:25). ‘And thou shalt sanctify all: and they shall be most holy. He that shalt touch them shall be sanctified’ (Exodus 30:29).

A special priesthood is chosen by God to minister unto Him, and the priests must be sanctified to the Lord: ‘Thou shalt anoint Aaron and his sons, and shalt sanctify them: that they may do the office of priesthood unto me’ (Exodus 30:30).


God is so holy that his priests must wash their hands and their feet in a laver of water before they minister to Him. ‘And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Thou shalt make also a brazen laver with its foot, to wash in; and thou shalt set it between the tabernacle of the testimony and the altar. And water being put into it, Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and feet in it: when they are going to the tabernacle of the testimony, and when they are to come to the altar, to offer on it incense to the Lord: lest perhaps they die. It shall be an everlasting law to him, and to his seed by successions’ (Exodus 30:17-21).

God is so holy that the priests who minister to Him must be consecrated and sanctified for their work, ‘Take unto thee also Aaron thy brother with his sons, from among the children of Israel, that they may minister to me in the priest’s office… And thou shalt consecrate the hands of them all, and shalt sanctify them: that they may do the office of priesthood unto me’ (Exodus 28:1 , 41).


The thoroughness of the ceremony of consecration indicates both the holiness required in the priests who are to approach God and the holiness of God. Aaron and his sons are to be consecrated for seven days. A calf, two rams and other offerings are to be made. The priestly vestments must be anointed and sanctified. The altar must be sanctified. Aaron and his sons must be anointed on the head and hands. Their hands must be consecrated for seven days. The altar must be sanctified for seven days. A calf was sacrificed every day for seven days as an expiation for sin. The elaborate and lengthy ceremonial emphasises the holiness required in the priests of God.

The Levites, who are chosen to assist the priests, must also be purified for this service: ‘And thou shalt set the Levites in the sight of Aaron and his sons: and shalt consecrate them being offered to the Lord. And shalt separate them from the midst of the children of Israel, to be mine. And afterwards they shall enter into the tabernacle of the covenant, to serve me. And thus shalt thou purify and consecrate them for an oblation of the Lord: for as a gift they were given me by the children of Israel’ (Numbers 8:13-15).


God is so holy that no one but the High Priest may enter the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle, where God dwells. And the High Priest may do this only once a year, on the ‘day of Atonement.’ Moreover, when he enters the Holy of Holies, he must sprinkle it with the blood of a calf ‘and may expiate the sanctuary from the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and from their transgressions and all their sins. According to this rite shall he do to the tabernacle of the testimony, which is fixed among them in the midst of the filth of their habitation’ (Leviticus 16:16). Now, since no one ever enters the Holy of Holies except the High Priest, and he only on one occasion, it is clear that the Holy of Holies itself does not need purification. The ceremony indicates rather that God is so holy that He abhors the sinfulness of the people amidst whom He dwells.

Not only is God holy, but His Chosen People must be holy: ‘You shall be holy because I am holy’ (Leviticus 11:46). The priests and Levites, as we have already seen, must be purified so that they may minister worthily in God’s sight. Since the people are really sinful, sacrifices are offered in expiation of their sins. In atonement for sin incense must be burned twice a day on the altar of incense, and ‘Aaron shall pray upon the horns thereof once a year, with the blood of that which was offered for sin: and you shall make atonement upon it in your generations’ (Exodus 30:10). The sprinkling of the blood of sacrificial victims upon the altar of holocaust has the character of atonement: ‘Because the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you, that you may make atonement with it upon the altar for your souls, and the blood may be for an expiation of the soul’ (Leviticus 17:11). The ‘day of Atonement’ was celebrated once a year to atone for the sins of the people during the preceding year.

In a more positive way the people are to seek holiness by keeping the Commandments and the prescriptions of the Mosaic Law. In fact God said to the Chosen People: ‘Sanctify yourselves and be ye holy, because I am the Lord your God. Keep my precepts and do them. I am the Lord that sanctify you’ (Leviticus 16).


The last great lesson of the Mosaic code is the lesson of mediation. The people approach God through their priests, and God speaks to the people through his priests, through a race of priests chosen by Himself. Only the priests officiate at the altars. Only the High Priest may enter the Holy of Holies, where God Himself is present.

The High Priest represents the people in the sight of God. This role as mediator is given to the High Priest by express divine command: ‘And thou shalt take two onyx stones: and shalt grave upon them the names of the children of Israel: six names on one stone, and the other six on the other: according to the order of their birth. With the work of an engraver and the graving of a jeweller, thou shalt engrave them with the names of the children of Israel, set in gold and compassed about. And thou shalt put them in both sides of the ephod: a memorial for the children of Israel. And Aaron shall bear their names before the Lord upon both shoulders for a remembrance… Thou shalt make also a plate of the purest gold: wherein thou shalt grave with engraver’s work: HOLY TO THE LORD. And thou shalt tie it with a violet fillet: and it shalt be upon the mitre, hanging over the forehead of the High Priest. And Aaron shall bear the iniquities of those things which the children of Israel have offered and sanctified, in all their gifts and offerings. And the plate shall be always on his forehead, that the Lord may be well pleased with them’ (Exodus 28::9-12, 36-38).

Thus, through the law of Moses, God intends to raise up to Himself a godly people, holy as He is Holy. Through the law the people of Israel become holy, holy in principle, if not in fact. As the representative of the people, the High Priest bears on his forehead the legend HOLY TO THE LORD. At the foot of Sinai the Chosen People are not yet holy in fact. But by entering into a covenant with God, by embracing the Mosaic law, they set their feet upon the path of holiness. The law will teach them the majesty and dominion of God, the ineffable holiness of God, their own obligation to become holy, their obligation to atone for their sins.


As a pledge of the faithfulness of His promises and to encourage the Chosen People to fulfil their contract with God, God comes to dwell with them, to dwell in the tabernacle, in the Holy of Holies.

But God knows the ignorance and the weakness of men, even of the nation He has chosen to be the vehicle of salvation to the world. Consequently He appeals frequently throughout the Mosaic code to the memory of what He has already done for His people: He has rescued them from bondage in Egypt. To keep this memory of His love and power alive, to confirm their faith in God’s promises, the Chosen People must celebrate annually the feast of the Pasch and of the unleavened bread.”
– Martin J. Healy, 1959


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