How did the Exodus prepare the Israelites to enter a covenant relationship with God?

How did the exodus prepare the Israelites to enter into a covenant relationship with God?  If in general, the experience of exodus was meant to instruct the Israelites in the graciousness of God and the need for them to acknowledge their utter dependence on him, then more specifically, it is striking how much the story of exodus and covenant was punctuated by significant episodes of ceremonial eating and drinking, sometimes in the context of animal sacrifice. Here we will consider several moments in which food and drink symbolically represent exodus and covenant. Arguably, these moments are meant to teach Israel to depend on God to “give us this day our daily bread,” as Jesus would say (Matt 6:11 ESV). If exodus is a time of testing and covenant is a commitment to fidelity, then different meals are associated with both testing and commitment.

We could point to several basic, perhaps obvious, aspects of the meal that make it appropriate for such a symbolic role:

  1. Food and drink are utterly necessary for life itself to continue to exist.
  2. A meal is a public event: witnessing someone eat (or being witnessed eating) is verifiable or indubitable (so to speak), in a way that speaking is not; that is, you can’t really “lie” about eating something. (Thus the resurrected Jesus took care to eat a piece of broiled fish, as if to say: I’m not a ghost; Luke 24:42).
  3. A meal is a communal event, signifying peace, unity and hospitality among all who partake and ‘break bread’ with one another.
  4. A meal uniquely involves literally taking substances into one’s own body, to be incorporated into one’s physical self. Thus in eating and drinking, we literally ‘become one’ with what we eat, as well as symbolically sharing in unity with fellows at the same table.

All of these observations of course derive from the eucharistic celebration as practiced by the church and inaugurated at the Last Supper; however, it is enlightening to look backward at the meals in the Exodus story in this respect.

Certainly the Passover meal and the manna from heaven set the fundamental tone for the later meals in Exodus, but since we have discussed this in the previous class session, here we can simply say without elaborating that the Passover meal sets the pattern for a meal of faithful covenant commitment, while the manna sets the pattern for a meal of utter dependence on God’s grace. As they approach Sinai, the Israelites’ perspective has been shaped by these two acts of God.

The Seventy Elders on the Mountain with God

In this light, we can ask whether the meal with the seventy elders, that concludes the Book of the Covenant at the end of the revelation on Mount Sinai, can shed any light on the preceding material in chapters 19-24. In this instance:

Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God, and they ate and drank (Ex 24:9-11 NRSV).

Most astonishingly, this records that they “saw” the God of Israel(!). It’s hard to know how to interpret this statement exactly, in light of other biblical statements about God’s overpowering holiness. After all, later God states clearly to Moses that “you cannot see my face, for no one shall see me and live” (Ex 33:20 NRSV). In any case, it must mean that in some sense not only Moses, but the whole delegation, were able to approach God. This is particularly remarkable in light of the careful and severe instructions given to the people in Chapter 19, about how not to approach the mountain too closely.

Although when the Israelites first arrived at Sinai, God declared that they would comprise a “holy nation” (wegow qadowos; Ex 19:6), the instructions that follow this imply definite limitations to the people’s holiness. They are to wait three days before the Lord appears, and especially note that Moses is to “set limits for the people all around, saying ‘Be careful not to go up the mountain or to touch the edge of it. Any who touch the mountain shall be put to death’” (Ex 19:12 NRSV). Moreover, the executioners may not even touch these condemned people in killing them by hand [for fear of contamination], but must kill them at a distance with stones or arrows (Ex 19:13). So there are definite and severe boundaries placed on the people. The holy mountain is where the holy God is to be found, while God’s people, even those deemed a “holy nation,” having waited three days, abstained from sex, washed their clothes and been consecrated by Moses, are still absolutely forbidden from setting foot across the boundary on pain of death.

(The author of Hebrews emphasizes just how inconceivable it is that believers might be able to, through the work of Christ, approach this very same unapproachable God:

You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of the trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. (For they could not endure the order that was given, ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.’ Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear’.) (Heb 12:18-21 NRSV)

All of this is to say that it is strange and wonderful that the party of seventy elders went up, “beheld God, and they ate and drank” (Ex 24:11 NRSV).  Somehow this must mean that God had declared them, in spite of everything and out of sheer grace, worthy to be seated in the presence of God, and to eat and drink in God’s presence.

The Revel of the Golden Calf

Even at the very moment of this most remarkable covenant fellowship meal, God’s people waiting below the mountain were already losing faith, with their timing “rather like adultery on the wedding night.”[1] Moses “delayed to come down the mountain,” and this delay was enough for the people to lose patience and demand that Aaron “make gods” for them, i.e. the golden image of a calf (Ex 32:1). Here we can call attention to how, in addition to melting the golden jewelry into the shape of a calf, and offering burnt offerings and sacrifices, the people “sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel” (Ex 32:6 NRSV). It appears that this feast of the calf, at the foot of the mountain, is an exact parody of the meal in God’s presence on the mountain. It would be hard to deny how directly this action, in that they “cast for themselves an image,” opposes the terms of the covenant; nevertheless, after Moses’s intercession, the Lord has mercy and “changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (Ex. 32:8,14).

But God’s having mercy on his people does not mean that they can escape all sanction for their betrayal. In another striking action, Moses, with his “anger burned hot,” is motivated to enact a measure of the retribution from which God had held back (Ex. 32:19). Moses “took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it” (Ex 32:20).  This looks like an act of proportionate retribution: as the Israelites had profaned the covenant meal by reveling with the golden calf, now they have to eat the bitter, even poisonous meal that they prepared for themselves. All of the features of the covenant meal described above are bitterly parodied here.

And still God does not break faith with his people: even as they have sinned, and are being punished for their great sin, God reiterates his ancient promise to the patriarchs, saying that the people will “Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 33:3). We can note in this context that the main way the promised land is characterized is through its bounty of food. As God had provided the manna in the wilderness, so he will provide them with milk and honey in the promised land. Again it will be provided through sheer grace: in that land they will find “cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant,” for them to eat and be full (Deut 6:11 NRSV). As God says: “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Ex. 33:19 NRSV). Again and again, this grace and mercy is symbolized and solemnized by the ceremonial meal: coming into God’s presence, breaking the bread and drinking the cup.

[1] R. W. L. Moberly, “Exodus.” Chapter 2 in Kevin Vanhoozer, ed., Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament: A Book-by-Book Survey (Baker Academic, 2008, Kindle edition), loc. 982.


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