Friday, January 24, 2014

A Simpler Sinaitic Covenant, Replaced by God's Plan B?

For its Bible study, my church is going through The Unbreakable Promise: God’s Covenants with Abraham, Moses, and David with Michael Rydelnik.  In our latest session, Michael Rydelnik made some interesting points on the DVD.  Essentially, Michael Rydelnik speculated that God’s original design was for Israel to observe the Ten Commandments alone, for all Israel to be a priesthood to God, and for Israel to come up on the holy mountain.  But Israel was afraid of God on account of the lightning that was accompanying the Sinaitic theophany, as the Israelites pleaded for Moses to go up the mountain in their place to hear God’s revelation.  As a result, Rydelnik argued, God changed God’s plans for Israel.  All of Israel would not go up the holy mountain, but only Moses would.  Rather than just requiring Israel to keep the Ten Commandments, God also gave Israel the Covenant Code; God would give Israel more laws (i.e., the Tabernacle, the Holiness Code, etc.) in response to her sins, in order that Israel might not be able to find loopholes.  Rather than Israel being a royal priesthood, God would require for Israel to have priests.  Instead of being a kingdom of priests, Rydelnik contended, Israel would now be a kingdom with priests.

I’m still not sure what to make of all this.  One person in the group, whom I have called “Joe” on this blog, said that he did not know where Rydelnik was getting his ideas.  Joe did not see any evidence that God wanted the Israelites to go on the holy mountain, for he said that what is stated repeatedly in Exodus 19 is that the Israelites are not to ascend the mountain.  The NIV of Exodus 19:13 states: “He shall surely be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on him. Whether man or animal, he shall not be permitted to live.’ Only when the ram’s horn sounds a long blast may they go up to the mountain.”  I can see why one would think that this is saying that Israelites could eventually go on the mountain, but it had to be at a specific time, namely, during the blast of the ram’s horn.  The thing is, though, God is wanting to restrict the Israelites from ascending the mountain even after (or maybe even during) the trumpet blast (Exodus 19:19-24).

I was skeptical about Rydelnik’s idea that God’s original plan was for the Israelites to be priests, but God then decided to go with a Plan B of establishing a priesthood within Israel.  I thought that there were other passages besides Exodus 19:6 calling Israel as a whole a priesthood, and I did not think that there was a contradiction between Israel being a priesthood and having a priesthood.  Even when Israel had a priesthood, the Israelites served and worshiped God like priests did; Israel was holy and set apart from the nations, as her priests were set apart within her midst; and Israel arguably performed a function of exposing the Gentiles to the worship and ways of the true God, as the priests within Israel served a function of mediating God to the Israelite people.  I did not think that Israel’s role as a royal priesthood vanished after she requested that Moses ascend the holy mountain in her place.  Now, I’m not so sure.  The only passage in the Pentateuch that I can find that calls Israel a kingdom of priests is Exodus 19:13.  I do not see that idea of a democratized priesthood pronounced later in the Pentateuch, at least not explicitly.

What about Rydelnik’s idea that God originally intended Israel to observe only the Ten Commandments, but then decided to give Israel more laws in response to her sin and disobedience?  On some level, I have heard and read those kinds of ideas.  When I was doing my weekly quiet time in the Book of Exodus, I encountered the idea that God gave Israel the Decalogue of Exodus 34 specifically in response to the sin of the Golden Calf.  Israelites made an idol and had a festival, and God in Exodus 34 exhorted Israel to shun idolatry and paganism, and also told her what festivals to celebrate, and how.  On pages 143-144 of Early Biblical Interpretation, James Kugel states that Justin Martyr regarded the Torah as an accommodation to the Israelites on account of their wickedness.  I grew up in religious circles that observed the seventh-day Sabbath, and there were a number of Sabbatarians who believed in keeping the Sabbath but not the annual holy days.  They justified their stance by distinguishing the Ten Commandments from the rest of the law.  The Ten Commandments were God’s eternal standard, they claimed, whereas the rest of the law was added because of Israel’s transgressions, to allude to Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:19.

Rydelnik seems to see a major factor in Israel’s fall to be Israel’s reluctance to ascend the mountain and hear God themselves, as she preferred for Moses to do so in her place (Exodus 20:18-21).  Was Israel necessarily bad in feeling that way?  Within Christian circles, I’ve often heard Israel portrayed as somehow wrong in her reluctance and in her request that Moses go to God in her place, but I wonder if the text itself supports that.  Moses in v 20 tells Israel: “Fear not: for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not” (KJV).  That looks to me as if Moses believes that Israel is right to be afraid, on some level, and that her fear can serve a godly end: it can inspire obedience. 

Rydelnik was going pretty fast in saying what laws he believed were in response to what sins.  He may have said that the Tabernacle was a response to the Golden Calf—-I only vaguely remember, so don’t quote me on that—-but God’s plan for the Tabernacle appears before the Golden Calf story.

(UPDATE: I just rewatched that lesson.  The scenario that Rydelnik laid out was as follows: God wants Israel to ascend the mountain, she is too afraid, and so God adds the Covenant Code of Exodus 20-24 to the Ten Commandments that God was originally planning to give to Israel.  Moses ascends the mountain again to receive instructions about the Tabernacle, and the Israelites meanwhile worship the Golden Calf.  Because Aaron was instrumental in this sin, God added laws concerning the priesthood.  The people sin with goat idols in Leviticus 17, and so God adds the Holiness Code of Leviticus 17-26.)

I am not entirely convinced by Rydelnik’s overall scenario, but there may be something to it, somewhere.  It does appear to me that the Covenant Code can function as an elaboration of the Decalogue, whether or not that was its original intent.  Does that mean that God originally intended to give Israel the Decalogue alone and later decided to expand on the Decalogue in response to Israel’s sinfulness, as a way to close loopholes?  My question then would be: Why would God give Israel the Decalogue in the first place, unless God already knew that Israel was sinful?  Did not the very existence of the revelation of the Decalogue to Israel imply that Israel needed to be told what was right and wrong, since she was not doing good and avoiding evil by herself?

Rydelnik’s scenario may also unwittingly highlight the fissures within Exodus 19-20.  There do seem to be two currents in Exodus 19-20: an assumption that God wants Israel to ascend the mountain or to approach God eventually (I base this on Exodus 19:13 and 20:18-21), along with a desire on God’s part to keep Israel from getting too close.  Perhaps there were priests who added the latter part because they were uncomfortable with any Israelite being able to approach God directly.

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