Exodus 19:1–6, 10–14, 16–19comment (0)
April 4, 2013
By Scott McGinnis
Related Scripture: Exodus 19:1–6, 10–14, 16–19
Bible Studies for Life
Associate Professor of Religion, Samford University
Called to Holiness
Exodus 19:1–6, 10–14, 16–19
The linchpin of the Mosaic Torah is the meeting of Israel with Yahweh at Mount Sinai. It was there that a group of slaves were made into a people, a holy nation, through an encounter with God. This week’s passage discusses the consecration of Israel as they prepare to meet God and receive the law.
In his book “The Idea of the Holy,” German theologian Rudolph Otto wrote that even before we consider the moral component of holiness, we must recognize that at the heart of the holy is a God who is wholly other. Encountering this God causes all creatures to experience feelings of awe, fascination and even terror, all at the same time.
We answer the call to holiness when we allow our encounters with God to alter our way of being in the world.
Who We Should Be (1–6)
In the Old Testament, theophanies — appearances of God — serve to reveal God’s nature or identity. When he first encountered God in the burning bush, Moses asked for God’s name. “I am who I am” came the perplexing reply (Ex. 3:14). In this passage the identity of God is revealed by God’s own acts: God is the deliverer, the eagle who has borne Israel out of danger and “to myself.” Elsewhere in Scripture the image of the eagle is a sign of both nurture (Deut. 32:11–14) and also power and endurance (Isa. 40:31).
What will be Israel’s response to God’s act of deliverance? Over the entirety of what follows in the next several chapters hangs the small word “if.” If they obey (alternatively, “really listen to”) God and keep the covenant, Israel will occupy the special role of a “priestly kingdom” in the world. The role of the priest is to intercede between humanity and God. Thus Israel’s status as God’s “treasured possession” was not intended as the basis for arrogance or exclusivity. Through their ethical conduct, Israel will reveal God to the world. Then as now, the end of holy living is never to be smug self-satisfaction or feelings of superiority.
How We Should Prepare (10–14)
In verse 9 Yahweh declares to Moses His intention to “come to you in a dense cloud” and so legitimize Moses’ authority among the people. In order to prepare for the coming of the holy God, the people are to be consecrated through ritual washings and observing clear demarcations of the place of meeting. Crossing the boundaries meant death. Both the restrictions and the severe punishments for violation were to remind the Israelites (as well as readers) that the God they encountered was powerful, dangerous, out of the ordinary and out of their control.
Although ritual washings and other such preparations may not be a part of every person’s worship experience today, readers are well served to remember that encounters with God are not to be approached casually or without the necessary forethought. The appearance of God always comes at the divine initiative, but that does not mean we do not prepare ourselves for the presence of God through ordered thinking and holy living.
What We Should Expect (16–19)
After all the preparations are completed, God comes. The narrator of the story struggles to find adequate words and metaphors to describe what could only have been indescribable. The writer employs the images of an intense storm — thunder, lightening, clouds — but the reader infers much more. Just as Yahweh cannot be contained, so too human language fails to render the fullness of experiencing the divine.
As Otto reminded us, that indescribable something that lies at the heart of any real encounter with the divine necessarily precedes the call to holy living. It was only after meeting God at Sinai that Israel received the Ten Commandments. Meeting the God who is wholly other gives power and meaning to our lives that allow us to fulfill our calling to be both in the world and for the world — the call to holy living.