April 11, 2014

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: God makes his covenant with the Israelites

John F. Fink(Fourteenth in a series of columns)

After the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and escaped from Egypt, God led them into the desert of Sinai. They would be there for 40 years, during which time all those who left Egypt would die except Joshua and Caleb. During those years, too, they lived with all the hardships associated with living in a desert.

Time after time, they grumbled against Moses because of the lack of food and water. But God provided. Each morning, he sent down manna, a dew that turned into flakes like hoarfrost when it evaporated. “It was like coriander seed, but white, and it tasted like wafers made with honey” (Ex 16:31). Each morning except on the Sabbath, for 40 years, the people gathered manna. They gathered twice as much on the day before the Sabbath because the manna wasn’t there on the Sabbath.

For meat, God rained down quail on the camp (and we presume that they ate the livestock they took with them). For water, he had Moses strike a rock and water flowed from it.

After traveling for two months, they came to Mount Sinai (sometimes called Mount Horeb). We aren’t sure which mountain on the Sinai Peninsula that was. Many people are convinced that it’s where the Greek Orthodox St. Catherine’s Monastery has existed since the sixth century.

Here, in chapters 19-24 of the Book of Exodus, is where God made his covenant with the Jewish people. “If you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant,” he said, “you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the Earth is mine” (Ex 19:5). In return, the people were to keep his commandments.

Through Moses, God delivered his commandments. They are in Chapter 20, verses 2-17. Reading them there, it’s easy to see how the precise division of the precepts into 10 was somewhat arbitrary and why Catholics and other Christians number them differently.

But God didn’t deliver just 10 commandments. Chapters 21-23 give many rules concerning slaves, personal injury, property damage, loans, social laws, religious laws, and much more, all part of the covenant. Those laws give us a good picture of what life was like among the Jewish people when the Bible was compiled.

One of the laws is, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Ex 23:19). This is the basis for the kosher law that forbids Jews to eat meat and dairy products at the same meal.

Then, in chapters 25-31, God proceeded to tell Moses how to construct the Ark of the Covenant that would contain the tablets of the Commandments, and its furnishings. That’s followed with detailed instructions on how Aaron and his sons were to offer sacrifices on behalf of the Israelites.

After the Israelites ratified the covenant by agreeing to do what God told them, God invited Moses to ascend Mount Sinai where he would give him the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments. Moses ascended the mountain, where he stayed for 40 days and 40 nights. †

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