Exodus 20:22-24:8 is referred to as the book of the covenant. These are basic laws that deal especially with the protection of human life and property. By accepting this book, the Israelites were agreeing to enter into a special, covenant relationship with God. That meant they were obligated to obey Him. These laws were not random or arbitrary. They are based on the character of God and the unchanging moral principles expressed in the Ten Commandments. Many of these laws seem very foreign and archaic. Keep in mind the Israelites had been slaves for many years with people telling them when, where, and how they were to do things. Being free was new. Becoming a country with God alone as the ruler would take some getting used to. For Moses, it was like herding cats.
There are laws here about servants, both fellow Israelite and aliens as well. God provided guidance for capital crimes. The law made a distinction between premeditated murder and accidental manslaughter. If death was accidental you could flee to God's altar for safety until the elders had a chance to review the case. Later, after the Israelites were settled in the promised land six cities were set aside for the same purpose. We will see them assigned in the Book of Joshua. It is here we see the familiar saying an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Many see this as condoning revenge, but the reality is this. What this means is that the punishment cannot exceed the crime. So, if you cause someone to lose an eye, you cannot be sentenced to death. The worst thing that can happen is that you lose an eye.
This reading also speaks to religious festivals, sabbath laws and laws of justice and mercy. Many of the laws also address practices pagan religions followed that did not honor God. Because God wants His people to worship only Him other religious practices were abhorrent to Him. We see that first fruits belong to the Lord, whether it is a firstborn son, a firstborn male animal or the first fruits of orchard or vineyard. However, the firstborn could be redeemed by bringing an offering to the Lord to buy it back. Some of the laws here and then later in Leviticus are strictly to keep people safe. God told them not to eat defiled meat...meat that came from animals torn apart by wild animals. This is for both religious and hygienic reasons. Animals offered to the Lord for sacrifice were killed and all the blood drained out of them, because they believed that life was in the blood. Therefore, they could not eat any blood. They could not offer this dead animal up for sacrifice nor could they eat it. Roadkill would still have blood in it. And animals that had been killed and left out in the field would quickly spoil causing sickness and even death. This free meat could be very costly sometimes.
The Israelites stayed at Sinai nearly eleven months and then set out for Kadesh-Barnea. From there they would begin to enter the promised land. However, they failed to trust God and His provision. As a result, they were condemned to wandering in the wilderness until the generation 20 years and older had all died, all except for Joshua and Caleb. As the Israelites move out from Sinai God promised to send an Angel before them to keep them in the way. In other words, the angel will help the Israelites be obedient to the Lord and keep His covenant. The word angel here can be translated as messenger, human or supernatural. Some believe this Angel was Jesus, Son of God. He would lead and protect them just as the pillar of cloud and fire did. God told the Israelites that His name is IN this angel, the strongest identification of this angel with God. Only He can pardon transgressions and only in Him is the name of the Lord. Again, God warned His people about the sin of idolatry. God did not want His people worshiping the false gods and idols of the people they would encounter as they wandered.
God made a promise that if the Israelites were obedient, He would go before them and drive their enemies out of the land. God promised to keep His people healthy. He would bless the food they ate. He also promised to send His fear before the Israelites and indeed as people encountered the Israelites the fear of God preceded them. People were not afraid of the Israelites. They were fearful of the God of the Israelites. God would send hornets, or the hornet before them. This could be the actual insect we know. The people of the East respected the hornet. Hornets are part of the wasp family and they have painful stings. God may have in fact called upon large swarms of hornets to drive people away from the promised land. Or hornet could mean some sort of a plague.
Lastly, we see the Israelites ratifying the covenant with God. The Lord invited Moses, Aaron, and Aaron's two oldest sons to come to Him. This invitation speaks to God's grace and His holiness. God could only be approached on His terms. God gave specific instructions to Moses, Aaron and the 70 elders who also went up to the Lord, but only Moses could come near the Lord. Today we are all called to come near to God through Jesus. The ratification of the covenant would take more than just a raising of the hands vote. With one voice the people pledged to keep all the commands the Lord had given them. Moses built an altar to the Lord. He set up twelve stones, one for each tribe. The young men set aside to serve as priests offered both burnt offerings and peace offerings. Burnt offerings were incinerated in their entirety upon the altar after the blood was drained out of the animals. Some of the blood was sprinkled on the altar signifying God had forgiven the sins of His people. Moses also took some of the blood and sprinkled it on the people. This ratified the covenant. Both God and the people had been sprinkled with the blood of the sacrificial animal. Peace offerings were the prelude to a great celebration.
The Lord's promise from Exodus 6:6-8 was about to move into its third phase. God had redeemed His people. He had taken them to Himself as His people and now He is preparing to come among them and be their God. Tomorrow we will see the instructions for the building of the tabernacle in the wilderness.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W