God’s Chosen People, and Other Dangerous Occupations (Parshah Yitro: Exodus 18:1 – 20:23)

nuke workersThis week’s Parshah introduces the Asereth ha-Dibroth, the Ten Commandments. This would seem much more important than Moshe meeting with his Father-in-law Jethro, for whom the Parshah is named.  However, there is another very important principle at work in these chapters which Moshe’s meeting with Jethro illustrates.  If I wrote that this principle is “something just as important as the Ten Commandments” I would be incorrect and maybe a little irreverent, but such a hyperbole would convey the vital importance this concept has to Malchut Hashem and how God relates to man.

To show you what I’m talking about, it’s best to examine certain events of this Parshah in reverse order:

  • After the giving of the Ten Commandments, the people of Israel before Sinai, recoiling at the sounds and flashes, say to Moshe “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” After Moshe consoled them, it says “The people stood at a distance, while Moshe approached the thick cloud where God was.”
  • Before the giving of the Ten Commandments, Hashem reiterates a previous instruction that the people must not break through to where he is.  Even people designated as priests, who apparently can come closer after consecrating themselves, cannot break through to where Hashem is.  Only Moshe and Aaron.  The situation is like some dangerous force field around Sinai. “Do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the Lord, lest he break out against them.” (This choice of words brings to mind Brad Young’s alternate translation of Matt. 11:12 in Jesus the Jewish Theologian,  perhaps may be an incident Yeshua was alluding to.)
  • Precautions had in fact already been made.  Moshe told Israel that Hashem was coming in a thick cloud. Pursuant to God’s command for the encounter, the people were to consecrate themselves for two days prior, washing their garments and remain celibate during that time.  Most importantly, the mountain was not to be touched!  Hashem tell Moshe to set limits around the mountain and kill anyone who makes contact with Sinai.  And even then, such a trespasser is to be killed by stoning or arrows and not by direct contact with the executioners.  In other words, don’t touch Sinai and don’t touch anyone who touches Sinai!
  • Hashem precedes setting these strict limits around the mountain with a very special calling to Israel: “If you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Moshe conveys these words to the elders of the people, and the people answer “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” Note the chain of communication: Hashem speaks to Moshe, who speaks to the chiefs, then the people respond corporately, and Moshe brings these words back Hashem.
  • This episode is preceded by Jethro visiting Moshe.  After seeing Moshe judge the people alone and warning him that such micromanagement will wear Moshe out, Jethro advises him

I will give you counsel, and God be with you. You be the people’s representative before God, and you bring the disputes to God, then teach them the statutes and the laws, and make known to them the way in which they are to walk and the work they are to do. Furthermore, you shall select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them as leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens. Let them judge the people at all times; and let it be that every major dispute they will bring to you, but every minor dispute they themselves will judge. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this thing and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people also will go to their place in peace.

Moshe takes this advice.

  • Finally, all this was proceeded by Moshe with his brother Aaron eating a sacrificial meal prepared by Jethro, who “Took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God, and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat a meal with Moshe’s father-in-law before God.”

In these chapters, God is appearing to the family of Jacob with an explicitness unheard of before in all of human history.  We can rack our brains and speculate about Hashem’s nature, whether corporeal, incorporeal, triune, echad, transcendent, immanent or some mysterious combination of all of these inadequate adjectives.  But whoever or whatever God is, God was on Mount Sinai before the children of Israel.  At that point in spacetime, before that group of people, the creator of the universe made an unprecedented nexus with his creation.  This grumbling mixed multitude of runaway slaves, these people and no other, was the people whom Hashem chose to make himself and his Torah known.

And–again at the risk of saying something wrong or irreverent–those of us who were not there should perhaps consider ourselves lucky.  At the sight and sound of Hashem presence of Sinai, the people were so scared they thought they were all going to die.  Exodus 20:18 says “When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance”  The part in bold is not a mistranslation.  Some of the rabbinic sages take this literally, with Rabbi Akiva and Rashi stating “they saw what is (normally) heard, and heard what is (normally) seen.”  In other words, the Israelites were having synaesthetic experience, actually seeing sounds.  Their senses were completely overwhelmed by the words and presence of Hashem, leaving them in a state of terror.  Some of us who are rooted in various Christian traditions may regularly pray prayers, sing hymns and hope longingly to be in God’s presence and hear his voice.  When Israel was in fact literally in Hashem’s presence and hearing from him, the experience was so frightening and terrifying that they begged for him to stop and for Moshe to act as an intermediator.

And herein we see an important truth about how God relates to mankind: he uses people who act as mediators.  “No man shall see me and live,” says Hashem, so Israel needed a mediator via Moshe to communicate with God, but Israel itself was rescued out of Egypt and convened in the wilderness to be a mediator people to the world, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”, a calling which we learn from Paul in Romans 11:29 is irrevocable.  Israel was called and Israel is still called to have a relationship with God different than other peoples.  Israel will be “closer” to Hashem (yet another inadequate adjective), but as we see, closeness to Hashem has its dangers and limits.  Those who come close must be cleansed and chastened, and even then, stepping out of line can be a fatal error.

Perhaps the best metaphor is that of nuclear power.  The technology of atomic fission can provide great benefit or do great damage to humanity, depending on how it’s used.  It can power a major metropolitan city for years or destroy that city in an instant.  In either case, using this power requires proximity to radiation, a byproduct of the underlying power within fissile materials that could cause great harm to people unless they take the right precautions.  Thus, people who work with and around nuclear power need special training, special protective suits, special equipment and need to take special precautions so they don’t hurt themselves and others.  By doing so, nuclear technicians can operate a power plant that gives the benefits of this (otherwise dangerous) atomic power to the rest of the community.

In this same way, Israel is the trained, prepared, and equipped staff for bringing his power to the nations.  Moshe’ orders for proper decorum around Mount Sinai were a microcosm and prolepsis of the many mitzvot the Jewish people would need for their proximity to Hashem–particular diet, particular dress and appearance, particular holy days, and an otherwise particularly strict code of justice and lifestyle. Deuteronomy 28 makes clear the results of keeping or not keeping these mitzvot: Do them and you will be the most blessed nation in the world, or don’t do them and you will be the most cursed nation in the world.  For Israel, the stakes of being or not being righteous before God are higher for them than any other people on Earth.  But it is through this arrangement that the rest of humanity, through Israel, knows Hashem: How he formed the Earth, what he wants from people, how much he loves good and hates evil, his plans for redeeming the world, and ultimately who he is in the (Jewish) personage of Yeshua.  This wisdom, which the Jews acquired over the tumultuous generations and millennia of wrestling with Hashem, the rest of the nations simply have to read in a black book on the nightstand.

And that brings us to Jethro, whom the NIV paraphrases as saying “Now I know that the LORD is greater than all other gods, for he did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly.”  Jethro did not come to confess Hashem by his own intuition or special revelation.  He came to that realization after seeing how God rescued Israel from Egypt after 430 years of cruel oppression.  In this, he is the type of all righteous gentile Christians who come to belief in the God of Israel via another account of Passover deliverance.  Jethro is merged with Israel through blood relation and faith in the same God even while they take different paths, Jethro to his own land and Moshe to Sinai.  Jethro gives input into Israel, both of his own progeny into the lineage of Moshe and wise counsel on how Israel should be administered which–you guessed it–involves the use of mediators.  And most importantly, Jethro offers sacrifices of his own to God, food which Moshe, Aaron and the elders of Israel feast on.  

Can the gentiles be “a holy nation and a priestly people”?  Yes, of course.  Jethro was a priest.  Jethro gave sacrifices.  He just wasn’t the priest who gave the sacrifices, the ones directly before Hashem (the ones that could get a priest killed if done wrong).  Christians peoples can, of course, achieve a holiness and worship pleasing to the Lord, but it will be different than Jewish holiness and worship, one designed specifically by Hashem for his peculiar preferences–the difference between a nice meal out and a home-cooked meal just the way you like it. 

Does this mean that Jews are inherently “better” than Gentiles? No, of course not, for the same reasons as teachers are not innately “better” than students, or clergy “better” than laity.  Whatever gifts and callings Israel has is not “to Israel”, but “through Israel” to the rest of the nations.  In Hashem’s economy, being “better” than all means being the servant of all.  It was for this service that Hashem convened Israel before him at Sinai.  It is for this service that he is convening us together before him now.

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