April 2008 - Vol. 18

Scripture Study and Reflection on the Life of Moses - Part III

Crossing of the Red Sea
Crossing of the Red Sea  by Francois Tissott

God Chooses Israel as He Chose Moses 

By Mark F. Whitters, Ph.D.

This is the third in a series of Scripture meditations on the life of Moses as presented in the Book of Exodus. The struggles of Moses as savior of the children of Israel prefigure Jesus Christ, savior of the world. 

Dr. Whitters is a member of The Servants of the Word, an ecumenical brotherhood of men living single for the Lord. He leads the Servants of the Word household in Detroit, Michigan, USA, which serves urban youth and seeks to foster racial dialogue in the inner-city. He is a lecturer in ancient history and religion at Eastern Michigan University and a regional coordinator for a scholarly guild called the Society of Biblical Literature. 

Background: [see Part II: Moses and the Burning Bush]

The encounter between God and Moses in the early part of the Book of Exodus serves as a model for how God will relate to Israel. Moses stands in place of Israel, and the lessons he learned parallel what the people will learn. If Moses must be persuaded to enter into a covenant with God through a time in the wilderness of Midian, so must Israel. In Part III of Lessons from the life of Moses, we will see how the experience of Moses wandering in the Midian wilderness served as a precedent for the experience of Israel wandering in the Sinai wilderness. For both Moses and Israel, the wilderness represents a “liminal” entrance into a world where God is able to deal with them directly and exclusively. “Liminal” is derived from the Latin word for threshold or boundary. We might compare the wilderness to an alternate reality, something like a retreat for a spiritual seeker or a honeymoon for lovers. The divine choice now shifts to include Israel, and Israel must respond to this special relationship with God. 


The Decalogue - print by Jeanne Kun
Moses and the People at Sinai: Exodus 19:1-6 

1 On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone forth out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai.  2 And when they set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, they encamped in the wilderness; and there Israel encamped before the mountain.  3 And Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel:  4 You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself.  5 Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine,  6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.”

Literary Dimension of Sinai  
The Exodus story returns to its central focus: Sinai (or Horeb). This place will dominate the Pentateuch now until Numbers 10:10. We are now at the midpoint stage of the pilgrimage of Israel in the wilderness – the last stage being the entrance into Canaan. For the discerning reader, this midpoint stage would be the propitious one. The Sinai revelation (chapters 19-24) is also the textual center of Exodus. The reader would be well advised not to overlook these literary signals. 

Sinai does not ever again dominate the biblical landscape of Israelite history, except for one instance: Elijah goes back to Mount Horeb for renewal (1 Kings 20).  Apart from the poetic allusions to the wilderness and the Sinai pact, the biblical writers generally wanted to keep the focus on the land Israel had inherited. The Pentateuch however stresses that the actual foundation and identity of Israel occurred outside of its national boundaries, as it were, and outside their own efforts. God accomplished the work unilaterally; Israel did not generate itself as a nation, devising its own laws or political processes. Thus, the operative word again is “liminal” zone where man and God meet.   

The same thing happened to Moses, who was unilaterally selected and safeguarded by God in his infancy and non-Hebrew upbringing. Even more relevant was his sojourn in the Midian wilderness and his marriage there. Once Moses was isolated from his familiar surroundings, God revealed himself directly in the burning bush. So also once Israel is isolated from its adopted refuge in Egypt, God offers the covenant.

Interpretive Dimension of Sinai  
The rabbis conceived of the Sinai revelation as a wedding image. The Lord called his bride out of Egypt, won the permission of her guardian Pharaoh to take her to himself, wooed her in the wilderness, quarreled with his lover and reconciled himself to her, and now tells her about the home he has planned for her (Fox, Five Books of Moses, 360). Similarly, Moses was involved with a mystical marriage in the wilderness of Midian, and his wife’s name Zipporah means “bird.” 

If we take this angle on divine election we see that Sinai tells the story of the “romance” with Israel from the Lord’s (the “bridegroom's”) point of view. The text suggests that the relationship is easy from his point of view: he took her into his grasp like an eagle with its fledgling (v. 4). He is completely in charge; though she may not be completely trust him. The wooer knows where he wants to take the relationship and all the cards are in his hands as far as strength and wealth and experience are concerned. The eagle is a virile and high-flying bird. It epitomizes self-control, transcendence, and freedom – and yet the image of the eagle also connotes risk, danger, and courage.

The marriage image also might flow from the idea that Israel is God’s “treasured possession (segulla) among all the peoples” (v. 5). This is the first time the term occurs in the Scriptures, and it occurs often thereafter. Even in the New Testament it occurs twice. Titus 3:14 says, “[Jesus Christ] gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” It also appears in 1 Peter 2:9-10 with two other terms that seem to be rather parallel: “holy race and royal priesthood.” It is the “treasured possession” idea that is not obvious in its meaning. 

What does it mean to be a “peculiar people” or a “treasured possession”? How are God’s people singled out and designated as God’s favorites? It seems unfair that God would have such preferences, but perhaps a marriage metaphor is intended. The word in its Akkadian context suggests “possession,” as in a king being the possession of a goddess. So perhaps it is something that has been purchased at a great price. Perhaps a great redemption price or dowry has been required of the Lord to obtain it. This would fit the marriage image from above. Another Near Eastern parallel comes from a Ugaritic treaty: “Now [you belong?] to the Sun, your Lord; you are [his serva]nt, his property.”

What about the relationship between God and his “possession” Israel, from Israel’s point of view? We can only imagine Israel's experience of the relationship based on other chapters of Exodus, but clearly Israel is learning to trust on a day-by-day basis. Will the manna come through today like yesterday? Should the Israelite  not take twice or three times as much today just in case it does not come tomorrow? Now Israel is  trying to survive on daily faith that the manna will miraculously appear instead of a constant and altogether ordinary diet of lentils and onions.   

The other image is that of the eagle with its fledgling. Imagine what it would be like to be the fledgling, learning to fly either by being dropped from the eagle wings into a free fall or by holding for dear life to the back of a high-flying bird!  The fledgling is unskilled, lame, and dependent. Thus, one might now see Israel’s point of view. The beloved is wholly dependent on the lover in this espousal covenant, that is, Israel is in quite a vulnerable place as it follows God in the wilderness. A covenant with such a sovereign and transcendent God is a risky business. 

It was much easier for Moses who won Zipporah as his bride. Even then it was Zipporah who saved him from death, putting Moses in her debt as a “bridegroom of blood” (4:25-26). Now the shoe is on the other foot, with Moses and Israel dependent on God for their lives. One might understand why Moses was so reluctant at first to serve as God’s representative to Pharaoh and why Israel remained stiff-necked.

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