Friday, May 27, 2011

Let us not return to our tents

In Exodus chapters 19-20, the people of Israel witnessed a spectacular, pyrotechnic event taking place around Mount Sinai. The peak, immersed in ominous roiling fire clouds, emanated streaks of lightning and peals of thunder that reverberated below for days as the people cowered in awe, especially when they heard the Voice. In verses 19:16-19, the Hebrew word ‘kol’, which means voice or sound, is used four times, shown here in red:
“[16] It happened on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain, and the sound of an exceedingly loud shofar; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. [17] Moshe led the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the lower part of the mountain. [18] Mount Sinai, the whole of it, smoked, because the LORD descended on it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. [19] When the sound of the shofar grew louder and louder, Moshe spoke, and God answered him by a voice.”
Exodus 20:19-21 “They said to Moshe, "Speak with us yourself, and we will listen; but don't let God speak with us, lest we die." Moshe said to the people, "Don't be afraid, for God has come to test you, and that his fear may be before you, that you won't sin." The people stayed at a distance, and Moshe drew near to the thick darkness where God was.”
I had always thought the people’s reluctance to hear from God directly was an undesirable reaction. That God wanted intimacy with His bride, and two way conversation was certainly part of that intimacy. I thought this was why the priesthood arose, because the people relinquished their duty. But Deuteronomy, or Devarim, has a slightly different take on it. The name of the fifth book of Torah, Devarim, is taken from the first significant word in the book, which happens to be “words”:  “These are the words which Moshe spoke to all Yisra'el...”; more specifically, it is the second telling of the giving of the Torah, for the people at this time were the children who grew up during the 40 years of wanderings and most likely didn’t remember or weren’t present at the first giving of the Torah.  It’s interesting then, that the wording is presented as though they were there:
Deuteronomy 5:2-4 "The LORD our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. "The LORD did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, those who [are] here today, all of us who [are] alive. "The LORD talked with you face to face on the mountain from the midst of the fire. "I stood between the LORD and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the LORD; for you were afraid because of the fire, and you did not go up the mountain.”
By application, we were not there either, yet did God speak to us as well?
Deuteronomy 5:23-33 "So it was, when you heard the voice from the midst of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, that you came near to me, all the heads of your tribes and your elders. "And you said: 'Surely the LORD our God has shown us His glory and His greatness, and we have heard His voice from the midst of the fire. We have seen this day that God speaks with man; yet he [still] lives. 'Now therefore, why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the LORD our God anymore, then we shall die. 'For who [is there] of all flesh who has heard the voice of the living God speaking from the midst of the fire, as we [have], and lived? 'You go near and hear all that the LORD our God may say, and tell us all that the LORD our God says to you, and we will hear and do [it].' "Then the LORD heard the voice of your words when you spoke to me, and the LORD said to me: 'I have heard the voice of the words of this people which they have spoken to you. They are right [in] all that they have spoken. 'Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever! 'Go and say to them, "Return to your tents." 'But as for you, stand here by Me, and I will speak to you all the commandments, the statutes, and the judgments which you shall teach them, that they may observe [them] in the land which I am giving them to possess.' "Therefore you shall be careful to do as the LORD your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. "You shall walk in all the ways which the LORD your God has commanded you, that you may live and [that it may be] well with you, and [that] you may prolong [your] days in the land which you shall possess.”
Despite the acknowledgement that they lived when God spoke, the people were fearful that they would die if God kept on speaking. This seeming contradiction was accepted (reluctantly?) by God with the comment, “They are right [in] all that they have spoken”. I believe God was saying: "the visual and sonic evidence is certainly worthy of fear, but I am not a God of fear; I am showing you all of this because I want you to remember that sin is a terrible thing. I want you to see beyond this demonstration to the great love that is behind it. You must see and you must hear in ways that are beyond the physical; to a spiritual reality that is as real as this mountain."  'Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever! 'Go and say to them, "Return to your tents."
God was testing them. What was the hoped-for response? Fear to be sure, but tempered with understanding followed by perseverance and faith - that God would not bring them to the altar, in the midst of the wedding ceremony, and kill them. What is our response to the tests we are given? I trust that it is more like God’s hoped-for response, than fear without understanding and faith. Note: June 7–9 is the date for Shavuot (Pentecost) this year, which celebrates the giving of the Torah and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit in tongues of flame in remembrance of the flaming Hebrew letters which spelled out the commandments over the people at Mount Sinai.  

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