Book excerpt

Disaster in
the desert


WHEN JACOB AND HIS ENTIRE FAMILY MOVED TO EGYPT at the request of Jacob's son, Joseph, an interval of over four hundred years' disenfranchisement from the land of promise began for Abraham's descendants, just as God had promised him:

Then He said to Abram: "Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years" (Gen. 15:13).

As the years wore on, the Egyptians' attitude towards Jacob's progeny grew more and more embittered, and they forced the people of God into ever harder slavery. But God had not forgotten His promises to Abraham that his descendants would multiply and inherit the land Abraham had lived in for so many years; finally, God acted decisively to bring Israel's misery to an end. Moses, the man God would use to deliver Israel, was born. At the age of forty, in the midst of a brilliant career in Pharaoh's service, he was forced to flee for his life after murdering an Egyptian foreman. Another forty years dragged by before.

… the king of Egypt died. Then the children of Israel groaned because of the bondage, and they cried out; and their cry came up to God because of the bondage. So God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob (Ex. 2:23-24).

God told Moses to return to Egypt. The time had come for the patriarchal covenant to burst into bloom: Israel would be released from slavery and would march unswervingly across almost five hundred kilometers of no-man's-land to the rich preserve reserved for them by God — "a land of milk and honey". There they would look on in stunned silence as the occupants of the land would flee in panic before their eyes with plagues of stinging wasps in hot pursuit. All these things would happen because of the covenant God had made with the patriarchs almost half a millennium before the words "Mount Sinai" were a tinkle in the ear of their descendants, the Israelites.

After commissioning Moses to lead Israel from Egyptian bondage, God made a startling promise to him:

… I will certainly be with you. And this shall be a sign to you that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain (Ex. 3:12).

Telling Moses to go and bring back Egypt's slave labor force with him to Sinai would be like God visiting an intrepid traveler in the Simpson Desert and telling him to go to Sydney and bring back all its prison inmates to the desert to worship Him there. Nothing less than a miracle could grant success.

That God was poised to establish all aspects of His promises to the patriarchs, though in an order and speed that only He knew, seems clear in the powerful anticipatory passage of Exodus 6:2-8:

And God spoke to Moses and said to him: "I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I have also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their pilgrimage, in which they were strangers. And I have also heard the groaning of the children of Israel whom the Egyptians keep in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Therefore say to the children of Israel: I am the Lord ; I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, I will rescue you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I will take you as My people, and I will be your God. And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and I will give it to you as a heritage: I am the Lord."

Though not every feature of the patriarchal covenant is listed, the powerful sense of impending fulfillment suggests that this passage should be taken as summarizing all features of the promises to the fathers. Once He had safely settled Israel in the land pledged to her under the terms of the patriarchal covenant, God would make her a great nation and bless her with staggering prosperity. Surely such physical redemption paved the way for spiritual redemption. He would bring out His promised pièce de résistance, the gift of faith in the One to Come and access to the Holy Spirit. Israel would become the mightiest, blessedest, happiest and goodest nation on the face of the planet as a result.

But it didn't happen that way. What went wrong?

Pilgrims' retrogress

Few stories in the annals of human ingratitude vie with Israel's behavior after liberation from Egypt. In Egypt they suffered unimaginably at the hands of brutal slave drivers who would make Arnold Schwarzenegger look like Popeye — before taking spinach. Beaten and worked from dawn till dusk, harassed and harried from dusk till dawn, Abraham's seed undoubtedly ate, slept and talked, with ever-increasing hope, of God's words to Abraham. They knew their promised liberation drew nigh; but where was a sign that it would ever actually happen?

Yet it did happen. If you have seen the ancient blockbuster movie, "The Ten Commandments", you don't need a blow by blow description of events leading up to history's greatest miracle, the parting of the Red Sea. You probably remember the death angel passing over Israelite homes, leaving the inhabitants unscathed, while reaping a rich harvest of Egyptian souls. You undoubtedly have at least a dim memory of mobs of Israelites with all their beasts, even the ducks, striding purposefully between walls of water as if it were the sort of thing they did every day. (Even Cecil B. De Milles couldn't get it perfect.)


You undoubtedly have at least a dim memory of mobs of Israelites with all their beasts, even the ducks, striding purposefully between walls of water as if it were the sort of thing they did every day.

If you are like most, you can picture the scene where Egyptian bodies, clad in fighting regalia, slightly crushed by the pressure of crashing waters, washed up on the shore.

Remember what happened next? Ah, that's where it gets much harder. You possibly have a fuzzy mental picture of what's-his-name smashing a stone idol upon discovering the Israelites stuffing pork down their gullets at a wild orgy after coming out of the parted waters. or, something like that, anyway.

Few people realize the significance of what occurred in the weeks immediately afterwards. Coming out of the Red Sea, the Israelites found themselves in one of earth's more hostile environments, the Sinai desert. A few hundred kilometers away lay the land of milk and honey, inhabited by squatters awaiting their fate at the hand of Israel's God. (If only they had left peacefully, they would have been unharmed. But that's another story.) All Israel had to do to claim her inheritance was to proceed forthwith and watch God do the rest. There she would become God's special people, set up a model nation and society, and live happily ever after basking in the light of faith in the One to come.

Ah, the gratitude they must have felt towards God for smashing the bars of their Egyptian prison, for replacing bone-crushing slavery with lazy days of leisure and bushwalking. Ah, the unalloyed joy of anticipating utopia in their new milk-and-honey home, free, free at last.

Madness! Sheer madness!

But no, not them. An inexplicable, incomprehensible madness gripped them. Let the Word of God, written forty years later, fill us in:

… but truly, as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord — because all these men who have seen My glory and the signs which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have put Me to the test now these ten times, and have not heeded My voice, they certainly shall not see the land of which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who rejected Me see it (Num. 14:21-23).

At the end of forty years' wandering in the wilderness, God declared that Israel had rebelled on ten separate occasions, not counting their abhorrent behavior in Egypt itself. (Read Ezekiel 20:5-10 for yourself.) A poor showing, indeed. Scherman says that, "The sages take this to be the exact number of times that the nation tested God" (p.  807).

"Putting God to the test", as Numbers 14:22 puts it, sounds rather benign. Psalm 78:16-19, written years later, describes the same events in language that makes the serious nature of their transgressions much clearer to us:

He also brought streams out of the rock, and caused waters to run down like rivers. But they sinned even more against Him by rebelling against the Most High in the wilderness. And they tested God in their heart by asking for the food of their fancy. Yes, they spoke against God: they said, "Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?"

Read also Psalm 95:8 where again Israel's actions are branded as rebellion. Can you imagine anybody doubting the power of God, or criticizing Him, after such staggering displays of His goodness and greatness? But that's exactly what Israel did.

Treachery unlimited

A closer look at the incidents referred to yields a truly shocking, unbelievable picture. Six of the ten instances occurred in the first seven or so weeks — an average of one a week! That leaves over 39 years for only four of the ten incidents — an average of one every ten years. Barely had their liberation become final and irrevocable, barely had the characteristic smell of salt water mingled with seaweed and fish perfume worn off their clothing, than they were up to some revolting tricks. Israel's stinking attitude left her on the nose in more ways than one.

The six incidents highlight the deeply-rooted spirit of rebellion evident from the earliest hours of Israel's liberation. According to Ezekiel 20:7-8, God had commanded the Israelites in Egypt to discard their precious pagan idols before departing the land. Yet they blatantly defied God's order, packing them away or tucking them under their arms at the very time God scooped them up under His saving wings. One wonders how many Israelites clung reverently to their carved figurines while passing through the Red Sea.

The following passages in Exodus give substance to the six rebellions: 14:11-12; 15:24; 16:2-3; 16:20; 16:27; 17:3. They quickly accused Moses of deliberately leading them out of Egypt's bliss (yes!) into the desert so that they would die there. (Can you believe it?) They complained bitterly when they went a little longer than they would have liked without fresh water. They disobeyed God's command not to store manna overnight. Many flagrantly ignored the command not to go collecting manna on the Sabbath. They bellyached continually.

They complained bitterly when they went a little longer than they would have liked without fresh water.

What a tragedy. Israel had started out so well; as they stood on the opposite side of the Red Sea staring at the thousands of bodies of Egyptian soldiers washing up on the sand, they remembered, almost in disbelief, their own safe passage through that impassable body of water. And so we read,

Thus Israel saw the great work which the Lord had done in Egypt; so the people feared the Lord, and believed the Lord and His servant Moses (Ex. 14:31).

But it didn't last. Quicker than you can say "oak of Shechem", Israel lost her faith, returning to her evil, faithless ways, ignoring the laws that God had given her to obey (15:26). The starkness of Israel's betrayal of God takes on another order of magnitude when compared with God's faithfulness in beginning to implement the Genesis promises point by point and in such a sensational manner. It's not as if Israel was blind to God's faithfulness. She even composed the famous "song of Moses" (Ex. 15:1-18) in response. Notice in particular verse 13:

You in Your mercy have led forth the people whom You have redeemed; You have guided them in Your strength to Your holy habitation.

The term "mercy" here comes from Hebrew hesed , which carries, as one specific connotation, the meaning of God's loving-kindness in remaining faithful to His covenants (see especially Deut. 7:12). The people were overjoyed and inspired by God's faithfulness to the Abrahamic covenant's promises, and the song expresses their gratitude with ardor. But the very next verses paint a very different picture of Israel's attitude:

Now when they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter. Therefore the name of it was called Marah. And the people complained against Moses, saying, "What shall we drink?" (vss. 23-24).

Inspired by the supreme master of literary genius, Moses' recounting of Israel's disgruntlement in the verses immediately succeeding their praise fest must be seen as a remetz, or hint, of special significance. The contrast between God's covenant faithfulness and Israel's confession of it, on one hand, and Israel's immediate apostasy, on the other hand, surely provides powerful commentary on the rebellion that followed.

Trespassers will be executed

In just seven or so weeks after their triumphant departure from Egypt the Israelites had provoked God six times. When they reached Sinai at the end of that time, God made a covenant with them. Should we see a cause-effect relationship between the staccato acts of defiance and the ensuing deal God made with Israel at Sinai immediately after? We answer "yes" to that question, because the story suggests it and Paul declared it.

"Does the story really suggest it?", I hear you saying. Stop and think. The first fourteen chapters of Exodus emphasize God's gracious acts of redemption for those He repeatedly terms "My people". The next four chapters emphasize Israel's diabolically ungrateful, rebellious response. Within a few weeks of cutting the old covenant on Sinai, God was ready to blot Israel out of existence and start from scratch, showing plainly that the old covenant was anything but a triumph in the history of Abraham's seed. Everything about Sinai smacks of failure, not of success.

With that thought in mind, consider the stage setting and props used in the Sinai drama, as described by the author of Hebrews:

For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore. (For they could not endure what was commanded: "And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned or shot with an arrow." And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, "I am exceedingly afraid and trembling.") (12:18-21).

What is this passage's assessment of the Sinaitic setting? The thrust is plain — it was laced with human fear, the threat of death, and divine anger. The word for "darkness", zophos, helps us understand what the author was on about. Bauer, Arndt & Gingrich (p. 340) define it as "darkness, gloom. esp. the darkness of the nether regions. and these regions themselves". It is used only four other times in the New Testament, every instance invoking the darkest of images. In 2 Peter 2:4 it describes the gloom where fallen angels live.

The Exodus account itself reads similarly. There one reads also of a violent earthquake. Everything about the event trumpets death and danger. Sinai's pyrotechnical displays were intended to strike fear into human hearts.

Behind bars in paradise

A covenant can modify another covenant only as long as such an appendix fits snugly within the pre-existing framework without altering the promise's essential meaning and thereby breaking faithfulness. Faithfulness to the original bargain must never be compromised; changes to the benefits would never be tolerated. Such a piggyback appendix, faithful to the essence of the mother contract, can either vitamin-enrich the benefits or, temporarily, reduce them.

A modern analogy for such an arrangement can be found in computer software. When software giants develop a computer package, they cannot think of everything that users might want to do. Some users think of ways of modifying the package to enable it to do other things; they develop what are called "plug-ins", additional software that can be linked to the original software package to enhance or, in theory, suppress original capabilities. Software designed to manipulate graphical images lends itself to the development of plug-ins that enable the user to produce some interesting effects. The plug-in doesn't override or cancel the "mother" program, but works in cooperation with it.

This publication argues that the covenant God made on Sinai was a plug-in to the patriarchal covenant, temporarily acting as a tourniquet, restricting the patriarchal covenant's circulation, slowing the rate of fulfillment of some of the promises, even changing the manner of fulfillment. Above all, it put the further development of one feature of the Abrahamic promises on total, but temporary, hold. That feature was none other than the promised blessing, and all it entailed, made possible by the divine, prophesied seed, Jesus Christ.

… the covenant God made on Sinai was a plug-in to the patriarchal covenant, temporarily acting as a tourniquet, restricting the patriarchal covenant's circulation…

God promised that those who lived by the terms of the old covenant made on Sinai in the midst of fire and smoke would be blessed beyond their wildest imagination. To be a special treasure to God, a holy nation of priests, as promised under the old covenant, were great benefits, no doubting it. But, oh, if only Israel had not rebelled they could have enjoyed the better benefits of the patriarchal covenant, in full, without Sinai's dulling plug-in effects.

The Sinaitic covenant cut Israel off from access to true forgiveness through faith in the Messiah. It imprisoned her, with the keys to the cell out of reach and the Holy Spirit on the far side. And it all happened because Israel snapped her fingers at the God who redeemed her physically from Egypt in preparation for spiritual redemption.

Why was this constraining plug-in covenant added? Because of the transgressions of the people of Israel in the wilderness when they rebelled six short times in a matter of weeks. Their defiance led to God's just decision to postpone the spiritual blessings of the patriarchal covenant until "the seed should come" in whom the promise was made. Israel could have been blessed with faith in the One to come centuries before he actually came if only she had not spat the dummy in the desert.

That the chief effect of Sinai was a postponing of all the spiritual gifts of the blessing-in-the-seed promise is evident from the whole thrust of Galatians 3 where Paul speaks about its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. In that context he makes the statement that is so central to this publication:

What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator (3:19).

The spiritual blessing made possible by the single seed was delayed by Sinai until the actual historical event upon which the blessing is grounded occurred.

The Sinaitic covenant's bad press

Which is why the old covenant gets such short shrift in Scripture. Scripture's negative attitude towards it is not because some nasty laws were added but because, by slapping a postponement clause on the patriarchal covenant's blessing-in-the-seed promise, Sinai denied Israel access to the saving elements of that covenant. (Interestingly, the occupation of the Promised Land was also postponed when the people's fear weakened their faith. The entire older generation was denied entry into the land — every one of them died during a forty year punitive postponement period.)

The Old Testament itself stigmatizes the old covenant. Though varying combinations of some of the elements of fire, smoke, darkness and earthquake attended the making of all three major covenants — Abrahamic, Sinaitic and new — the difference between the manifestation of those elements in the Sinaitic, on the one hand, and in the Abrahamic and new, on the other, should teach us something. God deliberately created a threatening atmosphere at Sinai, with the angel of death hovering overhead, ever ready to snatch up wayward wanderers. What a contrast with the quiet, peaceful smoke and fire attending the cutting of the patriarchal covenant — so tranquil by comparison that Abraham slept through it! Compare Genesis 15:17 with Exodus 19:18.

Although darkness and an earthquake occurred when the new covenant was made for the purpose of linking new to old, the contrast between the deaths of some at Sinai and the resurrection of some at Jerusalem (Matt. 27:52) underscores Sinai's banishment of salvation.

Tragedy strikes — salvation lost

Salvation, built into and promised under the patriarchal covenant, was lost, temporarily, through the imposition of the Sinaitic covenant. When God redeemed Israel from Egyptian captivity, all the signs pointed to His plan to carry redemption through to completion at that time by giving the Israelites faith in the yet-to-come Messiah. Paul says they were baptized in the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10:2), hinting that regeneration would come soon. Abraham, the father of the faithful, could have had millions more spiritual seed back then had the Israelites not rebelled. But their contempt for the promises God made to their forefather and their deliverance from captivity could not go unpunished by a righteous God. How could He extend His grace to such ingrates?

But their contempt for the promises God made to their forefather and their deliverance from captivity could not go unpunished by a righteous God.

This imprisonment did not prevent God from administering salvation to a small few, both Israelite and Gentile, exactly as He had done from the days of Abel to Abraham. But it did mean that Israel as a nation would be cut off from salvation until the Savior actually came.

Interestingly, the evidence suggests (and Jews have long taught) that God made the old covenant with Israel at Sinai on the day of Pentecost, on which same day, fifteen hundred years later, the Holy Spirit was actually given. Ironically, the day on which Israel might have received the Abrahamic blessing was the very day on which it was postponed.

Israel's attitude to covenant

These facts about Israel's abominable spiritual condition belie the universally held notion that Israel somehow was delighted to be in covenant with God, and that for most of her history she faithfully toed the line, only falling apart in later years. Quite the contrary. Apart from the period of the Judges, when the people truly did try to serve God their king, their history stands out as a stark, only fitfully-broken record of unmitigated spiritual degradation. After a track record spanning seven hundred years, God said about Israel,

… the Lord testified against Israel and against Judah, by all of His prophets, every seer, saying, "Turn from your evil ways, and keep My commandments and My statutes, according to all the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you by My servants the prophets." Nevertheless they would not hear, but stiffened their necks, like the necks of their fathers, who did not believe in the Lord their God. And they rejected His statutes and His covenant that He had made with their fathers, and His testimonies which He had testified against them. (2 Kin. 17:13-15).

Such she had almost always been. With the facts so plainly stated, one wonders why most scholars, even one so insightful and brilliant as Leon Morris, should misjudge Israel's integrity so badly. He declared that,

The covenant with God dominated Israelite religion. It mattered intensely to Old Testament Israel that the nation was in covenant relationship to the one and only God. All its thinking and living revolved around this fact (1983, p. 22).

To the contrary, the covenant was conceived in shame and, by its faith-denying constrictions, held Israel imprisoned within her shame. As long as God was Israel's king during the time of the Judges, His ongoing administration of justice kept her somewhat in line. But once she rejected God as king, and His administration ceased, she rapidly spiraled down into the vilest of practices. In Elijah's time the state of the nation sank so low that Elijah traveled to Sinai to tell God His covenant had been a total failure (1 Kin. 19:8-10). Only occasionally and fleetingly do we see any suggestion in the Old Testament that the nation cherished its covenant relationship with God. Not until "faith came" (Gal. 3:25) did God begin to put an end to such shame.

Sinai was a day of gloom and darkness, not sweetness and light.

Though Israel proved unfaithful to God in all her dealings, the perfectly faithful God was not about to let them torpedo His plan. He was going to make His covenant with Abram stick — though getting Israel to fulfill her covenant obligations faithfully was going to take a lot of work and thousands of years.

The story is not over yet.

This article is excerpted from the Dawn to Dusk book "Shechem to Calvary: the story of the covenants ". Please click here if you would like more information about this book.

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