Exodus 19 and Behavior Befitting a Covenant
These days there is much discussion among evangelicals about behavior. The discussion is cloaked in the language of “family values” and is part of political platforms and rhetoric. The Northwest Conference of the Covenant Church is devoting the theme of its winter conclave to the issue as well. I want to add to this discussion by wondering about behavior that befits people in a covenantal relationship with God. I am not as concerned with the content of this discussion as with the process that underlies living in covenant. It seems to me that how we talk about these matters is as important as what we are actually talking about.
Let me begin with the 19th chapter of Exodus. This chapter often gets overlooked because it sits next to the more famous 20th chapter, in which the ten commandments are given to the people. The 19th chapter sets the stage for the actual commandments. (In truth, these are not actually called commandments in the Hebrew, but rather “sayings.”) Here is a case in which the preliminaries are critical to the actual commands. If chapter 20 offers the content, chapter 19 helps us understand the process that shaped the actual material.
The action is developed by the writer through the repetition of the verbs to go up or to come up, which in Hebrew have the same “root,” and also to go down or to descend, which are also conveyed by a single Hebrew word. These two words determine the choreography of the drama and are essential to understanding the process.
It might be helpful to visualize the setting of this chapter, in your own mind, with the people at the base of Mount Sinai and with God at the summit. As you read the text, underline the verbs and watch especially for Moses.
It is a wonderful scene. The author has our eyes following Moses as he goes up and down, up and down, literally back and forth between God and the people—the two parties hammering out the conditions of the covenant contract. The choreography challenges the predominant view of Moses’ receiving the law from God as a series of decrees, a view presented by the movie, The Ten Commandments. I will never forget Charlton Heston, as Moses, pressed against the great rocks at the top of the mountain, as the deep voice of God explodes in a laser light show burning the will of the divine power into the stone tablets. This is an image of God as a great and mysterious power issuing decrees or edicts, which Moses is ordered to bring down to the people.
In fact, the movement of the text—all that going up and down—seems to fit more comfortably with that of a labor negotiation or of shuttle diplomacy, suggesting that each part of the covenant was continually being checked out by both parties before it was sent up for final approval.
Highlighting this quality of the text, the great medieval philosopher and Jewish theologian Maimonidies says that we must be very careful not to read the giving of the commandments in the 20th chapter as following this up-and-down negotiation process. Rather, the ten commandments are created while Moses is running up and down the mountain.
This is a very crucial insight because it allows us to see into the very heart of the covenant relationship—a relationship of mutuality in which both parties participate in the process of negotiation. This suggests that the very commandments that help give shape to the people of Israel are mutually accepted, a process that describes a dynamic relationship between God and the people. The covenant is a relationship based upon conversation, argument and struggle, concession and acceptance.
This makes all the difference in the world. Decrees can obtain obedience—if that is the central goal. Negotiation encourages participation in what is being agreed to, in the very stuff that shapes that relationship. The process grants to each the dignity of choice. It is a process that empowers rather than seeks submission. Some argue that herein lies the difference between Lutheran and Calvinistic Pietism in regard to their views of covenant. But I am not so concerned about these latecomers. Moses seems the authority on this point.
We can see how this difference is evident in our present world. For example, until recently the peoples of Eastern Europe have been, by and large, obedient to decrees. We might even use the term submissive. In those countries that did revolt from time to time, like Poland and her labor unions, the people who were in control would be pushed to the point where tanks were mobilized so that the commandments could be reinforced. It was obedience that was demanded and it was the power of the state which was sovereign, not the will of the people. Indeed, the will of the people was feared and therefore given no access for expression.
As we have witnessed with our own eyes this past year, the peoples’ desire to participate in the process of making the very commands that affect their lives has been more powerful than the capacity of those in power to remain in control. The forces of inclusion were more powerful than the forces of exclusion. The forces of expression of will were stronger than the forces that tried to suppress it. Upon these forces of inclusion the world was created, says Hannah after the birth of Samuel. The moral arc of the universe bends slowly, but it bends toward justice. So preached Martin Luther King.
These processes are not only part of the great events in our world, but they are also part of the drama of our own daily living—in our places of work, in our churches, and in our family relationships.
Parents, for example, often see their roles as “doing what is best for the child.” This usually means making the decisions for them or, in matters of discipline, coming up with the consequences or punishment when children break the family rules.
And yet, even when our intentions are at their best and even when we really want to act in what we believe is our children’s best interest, knowing what is best and asking the child what he or she thinks might be best for her or him are often two different things. The trouble seems to be that we have learned the myth all too well, that children do not know what is best for them and that they should see us as having that special knowledge. Though I know that children need guidance from adults, generally I find that I under estimate my own children. If I just drop my need to want them to know that I know more than they do, I am usually surprised at how capable they are. Discipline can be much easier and less of a power struggle if I engage them in coming up with the consequences of their own behavior rather than sit on high and issue edicts.
To ask or negotiate with children helps them become participants rather than passive receivers of adult paternalism. This does not mean that parents allow children to do anything they want. It does grant children access, a process with which to explore their own issues and feelings in an atmosphere that is open to who they are and what they want. Rather than having children who are simply obedient (which really means doing what I want and respecting my will), the result can be that they learn to trust themselves and become responsible persons.
The goal of good parenting is not to have nice obedient children, but to help them become persons who have self-confidence and who believe that what they feel and what they want matters, persons who learn how to grapple with discovering what is truly best for them and for others in the world into which they are growing.
Is it difficult to believe that this is what God also wants, if we imagine God through parental images? In watching Moses run up and down between the people and God, we can see beyond the words to the very process that allows the people to participate in the making of the covenant. We see that God is after not only their will but also their hearts and minds. The goa1is not only their obedience but also their love.
By giving access to the people, God encourages the people to be thinking, choosing, and competent. In this kind of relationship, we are able to discover our true dignity as creatures of God and to believe in our capacity as the work of God’s hands.
For Jews, this dynamic process between God and people has been maintained in the interplay between oral and written law. What Jews call Halakah, the oral law, is the ongoing interpretation of what had been written following the experience at the mountain of Sinai. In other words, the same back and forth and up and down process that engendered the commandments at Sinai has been the process Jews employ to bring these ancient commandments into the issues facing them in different places and times. It is this process, initiated at the beginning, that continues to invite debate, discussion, and prayer within the whole community. It is a living process that keeps the original covenant relevant to present needs and fresh and vital in the hearts and minds of the people.
We do not share in the same dynamic legal process as the Jewish community. We do not define our community by what we eat or how we spend the Sabbath. More is our loss. However, as Christians, we share in a rich covenantal relationship with and through a person, not the commandments. The same covenantal dynamic is at work here, too. Jesus becomes flesh and is therefore an active participant in our humanity. This Jesus is not prepackaged and presented as something that we receive only in submission. Jesus invites us to participate with him in his incarnation. We know Jesus in and through the mix of our own humanity. In the gospel narratives we experience a Jesus who rarely comes with edicts and decrees. Instead, Jesus opens himself to questions and debates, speaks in riddles and parables, and leaves much unsaid.
Jesus teaches and instructs, encourages and invites. Jesus listens and asks questions himself: Do you want to be well? he asks the paralytic. What do you want me to do for you? he asks the leper.
With Jesus, as Paul himself was forced to discover, we have one with whom we can work out our salvation—with whom we actually participate as we struggle with the meaning of his life in our life, his story in our story—in our places of work, in our families, and with the people and issues we face in our day to day living.
Our own pietistic heritage has understood this covenant dynamic in a vigorous and personal relationship between Jesus and each believer; and we have always believed that the evidence of this is best seen in the life of the worshipping community. That is why we hold to a high view of church and call ourselves a covenant
To begin with, then, behavior that befits covenant living must first return to that process of running up and down, back· and forth. The conversation must be honest and vigorous. We cannot be afraid to argue with each other and to argue with God. We cannot hide our differences and drive out all voices from our midst with whom we disagree. Mostly, we cannot afford to hold congregational, regional, or annual conferences in which full and open debate is prevented. Time must be given for this to happen. People must be free to talk! This is what brings1ife to a covenant people. It is the best expression of a faith that is alive. Without this process, all conversation about values and behavior will end in restriction and fear—all that is associated with law as described in edicts and decrees. This is not the Torah of God, the great gift of instruction from God to a people he loved and redeemed and with whom this dynamic relationship was offered.
We stand at the same place with the children of Israel, at the base of the mountain, with God at the summit and by our side. We do not need to ask who will go up for us now. The word is in our hearts and minds. That was the final instruction of Moses to the people. It is more than time to jump in with all that we have—in study, prayer, discussion, art, political action, and even passionate argument. We have been granted that trust, and it is our inheritance.