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Ten Words and a Consuming Fire

Exodus 17:8–20:21

By Christopher Yoder

For six weeks they wandered in the wilderness. They had sung with joy when they walked through the sea on dry ground and into freedom. They were deliriously happy. Then reality set in. The waste land howled around them. A few days with no water dried up the song in their mouths. The Lord made the bitter water sweet. Then they became hungry. They began to complain. Suddenly Egypt didn’t seem so bad. The Lord fed them with quails and whatchamacallit, manna (i.e., “what is it?”), bread from heaven. They wandered some more in the waste land. And they were thirsty again. The Lord poured out water for them from a rock. Wandering in the wilderness, they wondered, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (17:7).

For weeks it was like this: hunger and thirst and weariness and the unremitting waste. Then things got worse. They were attacked (17:8­–15). The Amalekites pounced on them. But Moses stretched out “the staff of God” in his hand (v. 9), and Israel was delivered from her enemies, as at the Red Sea (cf. 14:21, 27). Israel would not soon forget the ruthlessness of Amalek in warring against them in the wilderness (see 1 Sam. 15:2). They limped on.

Then joy returned. Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, met them, bringing with him Moses’ wife and sons, giving good counsel, and rejoicing in Israel’s deliverance. “Then Moses told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had beset them on the way, and how the Lord had delivered them. Jethro rejoiced for all the good that the Lord had done to Israel, in delivering them from the Egyptians” (18:8–9).

They journeyed on through the wilderness and, at last, a month and a half after leaving Egypt, they came to Sinai, to Horeb, to the mountain of God (19:1–2). They came in fulfillment of the Lord’s promise to Moses, that day when the bush blazed with fire and was not consumed: “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship [or, ‘serve’] God on this mountain” (3:12). After six weeks in the wilderness, they have come to Mount Sinai, at the start of the seventh week, at a new beginning.

And with them, we, the readers, come to the very heart of the Book of Exodus: the revelation of the Lord on Mount Sinai. The remainder of Exodus and the first part of Leviticus are set here at the mountain of God, the holy mountain from which the Lord will speak.

Moses did not delay in serving God on the mountain; no sooner had Israel camped at the foot of the mountain, than he “went up to God” (19:3). Throughout, the text emphasizes Moses’ role as mediator between God and the people of Israel. The Lord spoke to him words, which he in turn will speak to Israel: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Know therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (19:4–6; cf. 1 Pet. 2:9–10). These words anticipate the Ten Words, the Decalogue, which will soon follow. They establish Israel’s identity as the people chosen by the Lord: “I brought you to myself” (v. 4). They set forth Israel’s vocation. If Israel will keep the covenant the Lord proposes, they will be the Lord’s “treasured possession of all the peoples … a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (vv. 5, 6). As Umberto Cassuto observes, the Lord proposes that Israel should be “a people that will occupy among humanity the place filled by the priests within each nation … a nation dedicated entirely to the service of the Godhead.”[1] To be given such a vocation is to be called to a new way of life — a life given without reserve in loving obedience to the living God. “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required” (Luke 12:48).

When Moses set before the people the words of the Lord, “The people all answered as one: ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken, we will do’” (19:8). They agree to the Lord’s proposal. They will be the Lord’s.

Then Moses was sent to prepare them, “because on the third day the Lord will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people” (19:11). The people must be in a state of ceremonial purity to witness the manifestation of the Lord. All were strictly forbidden — both man and beast — even to touch the mountain, on penalty of death. Their clothes cleansed and their bodies chaste, the people waited for the third day.

Then the day arrived, the 50th day after the Passover, after the Exodus, the day later Jewish tradition would mark as the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost. That morning, the mountain was veiled in storm and tempest, and a terrifyingly loud blast of a ram’s horn which grew louder and louder and set all the people trembling when Moses brought them near “to meet God” (19:17). And “Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it like fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently” (v. 18). And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up, only to be sent down again to warn the people yet again not to draw near the mountain. And “the mountains [were melting] like wax at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the Lord of the whole earth” (Ps. 97:5), when the living God, the Source and Ground and Goal of all things, descended as a “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29) on the holy mountain.

Then God spoke the Ten Words — the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments — bestowing them as precious gifts to his beloved, speaking words of life, addressing each person individually, as thou.

God spake these words, and said:
I am the Lord thy God; Thou shalt have none other gods but me.
Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down to them, nor worship them:
Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain;
Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath-day.
Honour thy father and thy mother;
Thou shalt do no murder.
Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Thou shalt not steal.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
Thou shalt not covet.

And the Ten Words resound today, in my heart and yours. If we listen carefully — and we must (see Heb. 12:18–29) — we will find ourselves addressed in these Words. We will discover that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). We will find ourselves laid bare before the One who speaks these Words. And, through the tender mercy of our God, we may be brought to our knees, before the One who speaks, asking for the grace “to hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).

Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.
Lord, have mercy upon us, and write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee.

If we ask, we shall receive the answer to our prayers in the Holy Spirit, first poured out on the day of Pentecost like flames of fire — the day when God spoke the Ten Words on Mount Sinai — and now pours the love of God into our hearts (Rom. 5:5), ordering our “unruly wills and sinful affections,” making us love what God commands.

The One who spoke from the holy mountain still speaks. Therefore, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29).

This essay has been edited to correct the chronology.

[1] Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, trans. Israel Abrahams (The Magnes Press: Jerusalem, 1987), p. 227.


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