Exodus, Mt. Sinai and Creation
In the last several posts on Exodus, we have seen that Yahweh waged a battle to get the Israelites out of Egypt. Now there is one more stage of this story we need to look at: the whole reason why Yahweh went to battle in the first place. This is where Mt. Sinai comes in.
The exodus story is not about a bunch of slaves “set free” to go their own way and do as they please. Remember the tug of war between Yahweh and Pharaoh. Pharaoh wanted the Israelites to “serve” him as slaves. Yahweh, on the other hand, wanted to lay claim on his people and deliver them so they can “serve” him. Israel’s life of service began at Mt. Sinai.
The plague narrative hints at this. Moses told Pharaoh to let the Israelites go so that they could “worship” God and hold a “feast” to him in the desert (see Exodus 5:1 and 7:16). What is meant here is not a party somewhere in the desert. The goal of the exodus was to get to God’s holy mountain where they worship and hold a feast (Exodus 24). This is already announced in 3:12 when Yahweh first appears to Moses in the burning bush: “When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”
Yahweh defeated the powers of Egypt in order to get the people to Mt. Sinai. Why? What’s so important about Mt. Sinai? Two things: law and tabernacle; behavior and worship. These are the parts a lot of us skip over in our daily Bible reading—pages of tedious and irrelevant laws and even more about a tabernacle with odd furnishings.
But, nearly half of the book of Exodus takes place on Mt. Sinai. Why all the stress?
Here the topic of creation is important. Even though the cosmic battle is over, we have not left the creation theme. Think of the exodus as God “creating” a people for himself out of a cosmic battle. After that act of creation, he gives them two things the people of Yahweh need if they are to be called his people, if they are going to serve him.
The law is God’s pattern of conduct for this newly created people. The tabernacle is God’s pattern of worship. In other words, this newly created people of God is to live like he wants them to and worship him as he deserves. If these things do not happen, the cosmic battle that brought them to Mt. Sinai will be for nothing. Yahweh went into battle for them to save them—for a purpose.
Let’s focus on the tabernacle for a moment. For centuries readers of Exodus have seen that the tabernacle is described in a way that makes one think of Genesis 1.
- The tabernacle instructions (Exodus 25-31) are given in six segments, each beginning with “Yahweh said to Moses” (25:1; 30:11, 17, 22, 34; 31:1). “Speaking” these six “creative” words to Moses parallels the six creative words of Genesis 1 (vv. 3, 6, 9, 14, 20, 22).
- The seventh word creative word in Exodus 31:12 introduces the Sabbath command. As in Genesis 1, we see a seven-fold creative act culminating in rest.
- In Exodus 39: 32 we read that the work was “completed.” This is the same Hebrew word used in Genesis 2:2 to refer to the completion of God’s creative work.
- In Exodus 39:43 we read that Moses “inspected the work and saw” that they had completed the work according to plan. Likewise in Genesis 1 God inspects his creative work and “sees” (same Hebrew word) that it was good.
- Just as Moses “blessed” the people after completing the work (Exodus 39:43), God “blessed” (same Hebrew word) his creation in Genesis 1:22, 28; 2:3.
- In Exodus 40:33 we read that Moses “finished the work,” which parallels how God “finished his work” (same Hebrew vocabulary) on the seventh day (Genesis 2:2).
Further, the structure itself has creation overtones. The very fact that it is to be built according to exact specifications, no less than a heavenly “pattern” (Exodus 25:9) speaks to the “ordered” nature of the tabernacle as well as to its “heavenly” identity. The tabernacle is an earthly representation of God’s heavenly temple. Commentators regularly also note that the lampstand (Exodus 25:31-40) represents a tree and so likely symbolizes the tree of life, not only found in the creation story but a common ancient Near Eastern motif. The curtains of the tabernacle are blue, purple, and scarlet linen with cherubim woven into them (Exodus 26:1). This is not just a nice design. Rather, when you walk into the tabernacle and look around, you are to think of the heavenly place the tabernacle symbolizes.
All of this means that the tabernacle is more than a really nice tent. It is a micro-cosmos. It is a smaller version of what God did in Genesis 1. It is a “world” that symbolizes created order. It is a “sacred space” separate from the surrounding “chaos”.
And this is where Israel’s God dwells. Like Marduk in Enuma Elish or Ugaritic Baal, conflict ends in the building of a residence suitable for the high god. The tabernacle is the resting place of the victorious Yahweh. It is not an afterthought. It had to be built in response to the cosmic battle.
Now for the law. It is very important that we resist a common Christian misconception of the law. It is not a list of rules to be followed so that the Israelites can prove themselves worthy of Yahweh—like “earning their salvation.” God saved them because they already were his people—he kept an ancient promise to the Patriarchs (Exodus 2:24-25). Note, too, how the Ten Commandments begin, “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Yahweh declares that he is their God and the law follows. The law is given to a people already redeemed.
So what then is the purpose of the law if not for Israel to prove itself worthy? It is the code of conduct for this newly created people of God. God “creates” a new people and now gives them the stipulations to follow to cultivate true fellowship with the God who saved them. It is God saying, “I have fought a battle on your behalf, made you a new people. Now, this is how a people like you are to conduct themselves, toward me and toward others. Follow these commands and you will be blessed—and the world will take notice.”
Next week we are going to tie all of this in to how we can read the creation story in Genesis. The parallels between the creation of “man” (Adam) and the creation of Israel are well worth our time to explore.
Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.