24 July 2021Exodus 19:1-25
'You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.' (vs 4-6)
Today’s reading brings us to the climax of Exodus, literally – as Moses ascends the holy mountain three times in this chapter – and spiritually, as the writer describes an extraordinary appearance by God (a theophany) in which the foundational covenant for the nation is made. The location of this event is vague and impossible to pinpoint now – perhaps that is deliberate. God’s opening words indicate that this covenant is rooted in the deliverance from Egypt described in the early chapters of Exodus and, at last, the eagles’ wings of this week’s theme are featured! This dramatic imagery is described more fully in Deuteronomy 32:11.
The covenant to be made is reciprocal, although the more detailed terms (which might be regarded as circumcision and sacrifice) are not spelled out here. Rather, there is a general demand that the people are to obey the voice of God. The previously discontented grumblers now have their finest hour and respond, as one, that they will do "Everything that the Lord has spoken" (verse 8). In return they will be God’s "treasured possession", although this apparent exclusivity is balanced out with a reminder that the whole earth belongs to the Lord (verse 5).
As in other places in the Bible, the appearance of God takes place in a dense cloud [cf Exodus 13:21; 24:15; Matthew 17:5] and is redolent with holiness – a key concept throughout the book of Exodus. Moses began his mission as he approached Yahweh on holy ground; now, at last, they have reached the holy mountain and they are to become a holy nation. All this is symbolised with careful cleansing, sexual purity and due regard and reverence for the holy mountain, which is to be protected by barriers, lest anyone break through and die as a result. The pure holiness of God is depicted as dangerous if approached too closely by mere mortals.
The final verses are theatrical and evocative, containing all the classic symbols of theophany – thunder, lightning, cloud, trembling, smoke… and, in the midst of all of this – a conversation between a holy God and a humble human being. For those reading this passage from a Christian perspective, the repeated reference to ‘the third day’ may well call to mind another hilltop, another interface between humanity and divinity and another covenant, in the drama of the Easter story.
- Reflect on God offering the succour of an eagle; has this ever been your experience? (If you are a fan of The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, you may recall the role played by eagles at different points in the story.)
- How important is the idea of holiness in your relationship with God?
- Have you had an experience of encountering God? What was it like?
The Lord is the strength of his people; he is the saving refuge of his anointed. O save your people, and bless your heritage; be their shepherd, and carry them for ever. (Psalm 28:8-9)