Formations 02.12.2017: The Space Between

Exodus 19:1-8

Icon of Moses from Saint Catherine’s Monastery at Sinai.

I have a typewriter that I sometimes use. It’s modeled after an IBM Selectric, and even though I use it less than my computer, it reserves a permanent place on my desk. I recognize the absurdity of giving it exclusive access to this space. Still, I defend it by arguing that it makes me write more than edit an early draft. This is true, at least for me, but my defense that typewriters make writing easier and more bearable crumbles when I hear people remember past days of formatting footnotes. Then I thank God for computers, word processors in particular.

A typewriter may seem to be an odd place to begin thinking about the Sinaitic covenant, but when the Israelites come to Sinai, they are in the space between their past and future lives in Egypt and Canaan. God frames this covenant by connecting Israel’s past slavery to Israel’s future freedom. Saying to Moses “You saw what I did to the Egyptians, and how I lifted you up on eagles’ wings and brought you to me,” God first calls Israel to remember. But looking forward, God promises, “you will be my most precious possession out of all the peoples…you will be a kingdom of priests for me and a holy nation” (Exod 19:4-6).

So I must confess my own tendency for nostalgia. The problem with nostalgia, of course, is that it looks to the past but forgets parts of it too. It ignores experiences, either individual or social, that challenge our own memories. In this, the present moment becomes little more than a canvas on which to paint the past.

But on the other side of nostalgia, I’m reminded of the phrase my Dad offers my sister and me when we’re at the edge of burning out. After listening for a while, he says, “These are days of preparation.” Despite many arguments, both she and I admit that it shows up in our own thoughts and keeps us looking forward when times get hard. And yet, because I have inherited the stubbornness that comes with being a Scruggs, I still repeat the argument that this attitude towards the future comes at the risk of treating life in the present as only a step toward something more.

But at Sinai, the present moment is nestled between Israel’s memory of the past and their hope for the future. In this space they agree to the covenant. And, in the legal codes they receive, we can see that this covenant teaches them to build a nation framed by the memory of their past and their hope for the future. Among other things, this story reminds Israel that, indeed, these are days of preparation, but not for just anything.

They are days to prepare a new nation, one that remembers its past and cares for the foreigner instead of enslaving them. After all, we were once strangers, too (Exod 22:21). These are days to create a nation that doesn’t make slaves build storage cities, but lets its fields go unharvested in the seventh year so all can eat (Exod 1:11; Lev 25:5). At Sinai, they learn, and we may too, that memory and hope come at the confluence of the past and future. In the present between them, we may hear God call us more clearly and find a world more attuned to God’s grace.

Discussion

• How do your memories shape your hopes for the future?
• In what ways are your memories of the past limited? How might you remember the past more fully?
• In what ways do your hopes for the future ignore the experiences of the past? How might you combine these two parts of experience more fully?
• What lessons from the Torah’s covenant codes might help us attend more fully to the present moment?

Reference Shelf

At Sinai

In Exodus 19, the Israelites arrive at the mountain of God, the immediate goal of their exodus from slavery in Egypt. The story of Israel’s stay at that mountain continues unbroken to the end of Exodus, then on through the whole of Leviticus down to Numbers 10:10, when, a year and two months later, they resume their trek through the wilderness toward the promised land. At the mountain, YHWH reveals his Torah, the traditional 613 commandments beginning with the Decalogue in Exodus 20: 17, that dominates this great central section of the Pentateuch (roughly one-third of the whole). Exodus 19 (a single section in MT) marks the preparation of the Israelites to bind themselves to these commitments.

William Johnstone, Exodus 1–19, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2014), 393.

A New Type of Covenant

Without doubt, the most prominent portrayal of covenant in the OT is that between Yahweh and the Israelite people as a whole, which differs from the covenants with Noah, the patriarchs, Phinehas, and David. In the latter, the covenant was concluded with an individual although on behalf of subsequent descendants. It also differs from personal or national bilateral treaties in that the deity is a primary partner in the relationship.

The first of these is made after the arrival of the Hebrews at Sinai, the second after the golden calf episode, and the third in the plains of Moab. All three blocks of material presume and reflect elements of a covenant based on reciprocal obligations and refer to a collection of divine commandments to be obeyed by the people (Exod 20—23; 34:17-26; Deut 12–26), the writing down of these divine words (Exod 24:7, 12; 34:1, 27-28: Deut 31:9), the promise of blessings and the threat of curses (Exod 23:20-33; 34:10-16; Deut 28; c.f. Lev 26), and the people’s acceptance and pledge of obedience (Exod 19:8; 247; 34:31-32; Deut 26:17).

John H. Hayes, “Covenant,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: MU Press, 1995), 179.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

*****

For further resources, subscribe to the Formations Teaching Guide and Commentary.

Additionally, the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary series is a scholarly but accessible means for enhancing your study of each lesson. To purchase the volume quoted in today’s Reference Shelf, please click Here.

Print Friendly