The Covenant with Moses

3 And Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him out of the mountain, saying, "Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: 4 You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Ex 19:3-6)

6 And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. 7 Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, "All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient." 8 And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, "Behold the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words." 9 Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, 10 and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. 11 And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank. (Ex 24:6-11)

These quotes are bookends. The first quote begins the story of God's covenant with Israel with its beautiful imagery and its conditional promise that Israel will become God's holy priests for all peoples. The second quote is Israel's ratification of God's covenant and it contains Eucharistic imagery. The blood of the sacrifice was thrown on the altar (representing God) and on the people to denote shared life; in the same way the blood of our Eucharistic Lamb is shared between the priest of the altar (representing Jesus) and us. Also note Moses' words, "Behold the blood of the covenant," words which Jesus used at the Last Supper, modifying it slightly by inserting the word "new." Finally, note that in this ratification, the leaders of Israel ate and drank with God, whom they saw visibly; how very Eucharistic.

In between these passages from chapters 20 to 23 of Exodus, are the conditions of the covenant. First are the Ten Commandments which are very well known, a simple moral code that Jewish and Christian children memorize today. It is followed by a very short explanation on how this "kingdom of priests" is to offer sacrifice. Then are a number of laws related to slavery, violence, restitution, religious feasts and finally what to do when God leads them into their promised land. These covenantal conditions look like a hodge podge of random laws. But, as usual, Scripture is not always what it seems. Let’s look at some of them.

29 The first-born of your sons you shall give to me. 30 You shall do likewise with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall be with its dam; on the eighth day you shall give it to me. (Ex 22:29-30)

First born sons were consecrated to the Lord. This is because the first born son was to be a priest; in this way, Israel would become a “kingdom of priests.” As if to emphasize this, all first born oxen and sheep – the animals of sacrifice - were also consecrated to the Lord; such first-borns were sacrificed to God on the eighth day, in the same way the sons of Israel were circumcised on the eighth day (note another post explaining this). But compare with the Divine First Born, Jesus, who was also both priest and sacrifice. The victory of His sacrifice was accomplished in the Resurrection, which occurred on Sunday, the day after the seventh day of the week: the eighth day.

Another law:

10 For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; 11 but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild beasts may eat. You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard. 12 "Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your ass may have rest, and the son of your bondmaid, and the alien, may be refreshed. (Ex 23:10-12)

The number six is once again the number of “not the covenant,” here shown as years/days of work. The number of the covenant, seven, is here aligned with rest. But note the benefits of such rest are not for “you,” but for the poor, the servants, the aliens, even the animals. When we enter into God’s covenant, it is not only for own benefit. Refreshed by the Lord, we must bring Him to others in works of justice and charity. In our liturgy, we receive Jesus in the Eucharist. Immediately afterwards, the priest orders us, “Go! I am sending you out!” (This is the more literal meaning of the Latin phrase, “Ite! Missa est,” rather than the common English, “The Mass is ended; go in peace.”) God is fundamentally other-oriented; we who share His Life must be likewise. We are all missionaries.

19 You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk. (Ex 23:19)

This verse is, for me, the epitome of strange Bible verses. Perhaps my favorite exegesis on this verse, from the medieval Rabbi Shor, is that the Hebrew word for boil can also mean grow, in the sense of a thing growing from youth to maturity. The phrase is, then, an idiom that means a kid should not be allowed to wean from its mother’s milk; this is another reference to the eighth day consecration of the first born animals, above.

We could analyze every one of these laws, but I’d like to summarize them as a rather straight-forward set of covenant conditions, not unheard of in that time and place. If the Israelites follow these laws, they will enjoy God’s favor. The problem is, they don’t; and that sets the tone for most of the Old Testament. The history of post-Egyptian Israel is a recurring cycle of breaking the covenant, suffering the fruits of a broken covenant, asking for God’s forgiveness, and receiving restoration to God’s favor. God is faithful, but people aren’t. The joy of Christianity is that God became man and swore the covenant on both sides. We can break the covenant all the time (and we do, by sin), but the covenant stays unbroken, because “our side” still includes Jesus –we have the faithfulness of God on our own side.

After ratifying this covenant, after eating and drinking with God face to face, Exodus goes on from chapters 25 through 31 with an elaborate set of laws for everything, predominantly regarding animal sacrifice. This should puzzle us, as the covenant with its very simple sacrificial law (Ex 20:21-26) had already been given and already ratified. Furthermore, Ex 28:1 refers to Aaron and his sons as the priests; yet as already noted, all first born sons were to be priests. Something is strange here. Furthermore, chapters 35 through 40 fairly repeat these elaborate rules. That repetition is our explanation. Repetitive texts are a form of parallelism, a structural context device used in ancient languages such as OT Hebrew. The structure here is A – B – A, where A is a text repeated and B is a different text sandwiched in between the two A texts. The purpose of such a structure is to emphasize a context where A and B are closely related. In Exodus, the A texts are chapters 25 through 31 and again chapters 35 through 40. The B text is chapters 32 through 34. Let’s see what they say.

Chapter 32 recounts the infamous “golden calf” episode. Summary: Moses remained with God on Mt. Sinai for 40 days; this delay troubled the Israelites, who responded by making a golden calf idol and worshipping it, orgy-style. Per God’s covenantal condition, as the Israelites broke the covenant by worshipping idols, God intended to destroy them all. Moses asked for mercy, however, and God granted him his request. We should remember that these Israelites were born and raised in Egypt as slaves, as were their parents, grandparents and several generations prior. Their masters, the Egyptians, were idol worshippers who worshipped gods with animal characteristics. It is highly probable that these Israelites worshipped those same idols; they believed in a pantheon of gods. Yahweh was their God, but they believed in other gods as well. Yahweh was mysterious and this frightened them; when Moses did not return from the mountain for such a long time, they turned to another god for comfort – Apis, an Egyptian god of fertility. Worship of a fertility god involved orgy, as noted in Ex 32:6 – after the standard sacrificial feast, they “rose up to play,” an euphemism referring to orgy. Such orgy was the problem of pagan worship: do it often and it becomes almost addictive. God told the Israelites they were not to worship these gods anymore, which necessarily included no more festive orgies; that was easier said than done, as we see in Ex 32.

An important point to notice in this narrative is what happens when Moses descends the mountain and confronts Israel.

26 Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, "Who is on the LORD's side? Come to me." And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him. 27 And he said to them, "Thus says the LORD God of Israel, 'Put every man his sword on his side, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.'" 28 And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men. 29 And Moses said, "Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the LORD, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, that he may bestow a blessing upon you this day." (Ex 32:26-29)

We all know how Moses, in anger, smashed the stone tablets of the law. But we see here that he further invoked capital punishment, following the covenant law of Ex 22:20. His own tribesmen, those of Levi, repented and returned to Moses, carrying out the executions. As a result of their repentance, Moses declared that they have “ordained themselves.” At this point, we can understand how this story relates to the elaborate law of animal sacrifice to be carried out by the Levitical priests. Because Israel is fairly addicted to worshipping the pagan animal-gods of Egypt, they are to offer in sacrifice those same animals morning and evening every day; the men of the tribe of Levi, and in particular the descendants of Aaron, will be the sacrificing priests. This is their sad memorial, daily reminding them that such gods do not exist, that their images are themselves to be sacrificed to the true God, Yahweh. Israel failed, and a new variant of the covenant has been imposed with new, harsh terms. These terms are the repeated laws of ch. 25-31 and 35-40. We can see the A – B – A relationship: God’s simple covenant has been replaced by harsher terms, because Israel tends to worship the pagan gods of the neighboring nations. Israel is no longer a “kingdom of priests,” but will subject themselves to the priesthood of the tribe of Levi within Israel.

After Exodus comes Leviticus, with its pantheon of endless ceremonial laws and regulations. It’s followed by Numbers, which returns to the narrative of Israel during their 40 year sojourn through the wilderness. Numbers is dotted, however, with additional legal prescriptions among the narrative stories. The new conditions of the covenant are extensive and detailed. There is a great deal of symbolic meaning in these laws, but at their heart is a mindset that separates Israel from the pagan nations, that teaches every Israelite every day that they must not turn to pagan gods. After forty years of wandering, the first generation of Israel died off, leaving their children, the second generation, to finally enter the Promised Land. Before they entered, Moses gives them his own law, the second law given to the second generation, in Deuteronomy. The title “Deuteronomy” literally means second law. We can conclude the theme of the Torah: We are weak, we cannot remain faithful to God; but God is merciful and He will take us back every time. To help Israel in their quest for fidelity, God gave them the Law. For us Christians, the era of the Law was replaced by a new era of grace. We have seen that the Law cannot be kept; so God gave a new way that doesn’t rely on us doing something. He took the problem of fidelity into His own hands by the Incarnation.

[Moses said] 18 The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren--him you shall heed-- 16 just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, 'Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God, or see this great fire any more, lest I die.' 17 And the LORD said to me, 'They have rightly said all that they have spoken. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. (Dt 18:15-18)

Of course, this 'prophet' is Jesus.