A Portable Mountain and Competing Calves – 40 Days of Exoduses (19)

Head and Body

Having crossed the Red Sea, we enter into a new phase of Israel’s story. We have already observed the presence of the theme of the journey to the mountain in a number of previous studies and now we see it in the great Exodus event from Egypt, as Israel journeys towards Mount Sinai. As in some previous accounts, the mountain is the site where a new covenant is forged. Within this study, the relationship that exists between Moses and the people of Israel will be seen to be especially important. Moses’ earlier experience of exodus becomes the experience of Israel as a whole.

In Exodus 2, Moses fled from Egypt to Midian. Arriving at a well in Midian, he had to drive away some shepherds and water a flock (2:15-17). He then encountered Jethro and later met with YHWH at Mount Sinai. In chapters 16-20, Israel is included in this experience. Moses provides the flock of Israel with water from the rock in 17:1-7 and gains victory over the Amalekites with them in 17:8-16. In chapter 18, they meet with Jethro. In the chapters that follow, they meet with YHWH at Sinai.

As the story develops, the importance of this relationship that Moses bears to Israel will become more apparent, as Moses increasingly assumes the role of mediator for the people. Moses sums up the nation in himself, first as the one who ‘pre-capitulates’ the nation’s history, then as the deliverer, the head, and later also the great mediator of the nation.

The Gentiles

In chapters 17 and 18 we encounter two sets of Gentiles. The first, the Amalekites, descended from one of the grandsons of Esau (Genesis 36:12). Like Esau came to meet Jacob with four hundred men after he had crossed the Jabbok, so his descendants come out to meet Israel for battle after Israel crossed the Red Sea. Just as Jacob was tested by YHWH through the challenge of his approaching brother, so Israel is tested by YHWH through Amalek.

In contrast to YHWH’s victory over Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea, when facing Amalek, although aided by YHWH, Israel must fight themselves. If they were fearful fleeing slaves a few chapters ago, here we see them as a people with military might of their own. In the next chapter, they will be set up with more of a political structure. As Israel overcomes the challenge of Amalek, they will be established as a nation. In 1 Samuel 15, we see King Saul facing the same challenge of overcoming the Amalekites, but failing through disobedience, leading to the kingdom being taken from him.

When one leaves the childhood of the garden or slavery, one must be trained to exercise authority and power in the world under YHWH. In the state of childhood, the parent fights for and protects the child. However, as the child ventures out into the wider world, they must learn how to fight battles themselves.

The significance of the attention given to Israel’s relationship with two Gentile groups – the Amalekites and the Kenites – in chapters 17 and 18 should become more apparent when we appreciate that the calling of Israel was related to the wider nations from the very outside. Abram was first called in the wake of Babel and the formation of the seventy nations of Genesis 10. All of the families of the earth were to be blessed through him. As we studied Genesis, we saw the blessing and curse of Abraham spreading to other people groups, before the story reached its climax in Egypt, with the ministry of Joseph. A similar broadening of influence over other nations in the world will be seen as we trace the story of Israel through the prophets.

If Amalek is a wicked enemy of Israel, Jethro the Kenite (cf. Judges 4:11) is a wise counsellor. Like Melchizedek (Genesis 14; cf. Hebrews 7:1-10), Jethro is a Gentile priest who meets with the people of YHWH after their military victory, blesses them and gives food (Exodus 18:12). In both cases, we see a Gentile recognizing that the Most High God is on the side of Abram and his seed (18:10-11; Genesis 14:19-20). Significantly, in both cases it is the Gentile who takes the lead and Abram and his sons who submit themselves. As YHWH trains his people for the world, he uses other nations to do so, not merely as enemies, but also as guardians and wise guides.

Such involvement of powerful and wise Gentiles in establishing the people of God – a pattern that recurs throughout the Scripture – reveals that the boundaries of Israel never marked the limits of YHWH’s concern or activity. YHWH was going to establish his worldwide kingdom through Israel and he would use the strength of humble nations to help him to do so. As that kingdom was established, they too would be blessed.

With our focus upon the principal instruments that YHWH uses, we typically forget to pay attention to the support staff and the people whom YHWH uses ‘behind the scenes’ of Israel to help to establish her. As I pointed out in a previous study, characters like Hagar and Ishmael were never simply rejected: Ishmael’s calling was not to stand in the spotlight of the divine drama, but he had a huge task to perform in the wings. We can easily be fooled into thinking that the only people YHWH uses in his drama are those who appear on the centre stage.

Similar points can be made about Jethro, the good father-in-law, the man that Laban failed to be. Jethro’s people, the Midianites, were descended from Abraham and Keturah, the wife whom he took after the death of Sarah (Genesis 25:1-2). We have also seen the association of Ishmael with the other sons of Abraham. The other sons of Abraham were the ones who trained and equipped Isaac for the fulfilment of his calling. The wilderness period is the period of time when Israel is backstage, in the land of the other sons of Abraham, being readied for his grand appearance on the stage of the Promised Land. Only Israel can play the role that he has been called to, but without others to prompt him on his lines, set up the scenes, give him stage directions, and dispel nerves, he won’t be able to do it. Paying attention to characters like Jethro we should be reminded that YHWH’s work is not all about what occurs in the spotlight.

Later on, we see that Hobab, Moses’ brother-in-law, and the son of Jethro comes along with the Israelites as their guide in the wilderness (Numbers 10:29-32). Jethro’s descendants come to ally themselves with Israel and to live among them (Judges 1:16). Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, is one of the great women of faith who penetrates the head of Sisera with a tent peg (Judges 4:11-22; 5:24-27). The Amalekites and the Kenites appear together on a couple of other occasions in the Old Testament: in Numbers 24:20-22 and also in 1 Samuel 15, where Saul warns the Kenites of his impending military action against the Amalekites so that they can flee (v.6).

Meeting YHWH at the Mountain

It is important that we pay attention to the chronology of the Exodus, perhaps at this point more than at most others. Israel’s encounter with YHWH and forming of the covenant at Sinai occurs around the time of Pentecost. Many of the key events of the Exodus seem to correlate to the feasts that we find in Leviticus 23 and elsewhere. For instance, the Red Sea crossing probably relates to the First of Firstfruits and the forming of the covenant at Sinai to the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost.

If we are paying attention, we should also see that Mount Sinai is a prototype for the tabernacle. Like the tabernacle, Mount Sinai has a dark covering over it, but contains YHWH’s glory within. There are different degrees of access permitted. The people have to maintain a perimeter around the mountain and are not permitted to touch it (19:12-13). The elders of Israel eat directly beneath the firmament (24:9-11), the veil of which is opened so that they behold YHWH. However, Moses goes into the very midst of the cloud where YHWH is (24:12-18).

These different regions correspond to the different parts of the tabernacle. Israel, camped before the mountain, is in the court of the tabernacle, where the altar and laver are found. The elders went into the Holy Place, where they ate at the equivalent of the table of showbread, before the veil of the Holy of Holies. Moses, however, passed through that veil and went into the very presence of YHWH in his throne room, where the tablets of the covenant were given.

If Mount Sinai was the prototype for the tabernacle, we should also see the tabernacle as a movable Sinai. In the tabernacle, the covenant Mountain follows the people. Like the Mountain, the tabernacle is a site of burning and ascending smoke and fire. It is a site where things are taken up into the presence of YHWH. Even though they are all on ground level, the different areas of the tabernacle should also be seen as levels of ascent.

Mount Sinai is also a new Eden. Eden was situated on a mountain (cf. Ezekiel 28:13-14), a site from which a river flowed out to water the garden and the lands around (2:10-14). We see the same thing at Sinai. In Exodus 17:5-6, Moses strikes the rock at Mount Sinai and enough water comes out to flow some distance from the mountain to the camp of Israel, and to satisfy the thirst of many thousands of people. I think that there is good reason to believe that this rock (‘the rock’) is the same one in whose cleft Moses is sheltered in 33:22. Later in Scripture we shall see the temple being spoken of as the place from which water flows out into the world to bring life and healing (Ezekiel 47; Revelation 22:1-2), just as water flows out from Christ and from those who believe in him (John 7:37-38; 19:34-35), as both Christ and those who are his are dwelling places of God also.

The sacrificial system is also closely related to the pattern of Sinai. As we have seen that the tabernacle is a moveable Sinai, this shouldn’t be a surprise to us. Each ‘level’ of the tabernacle corresponds to a different level of Sinai and to a different level of Israel’s structure as a kingdom of priests. This can be seen in the different areas that needed to be purified as a result of different people’s sins (e.g. Leviticus 4:1-35) and also in the different degrees of access that different persons had. Only the high priest was permitted to ascend into the very Holy of Holies and only once every year, other priests were permitted to enter and serve in the Holy Place, while those who weren’t priests were not to enter. Peter Leithart writes:

Israel’s initial covenant-making involved sacrifice, and every sacrifice that Israel offered repeated and recapitulated the initial covenant-making event. We can see this by looking at the ritual of the “ascension” offering in Leviticus 1. (“Ascension” is a better translation of the Hebrew name for this offering, olah, which comes from a verb that means “to go up, to ascend.”)

Notice the sequence of this offering:

-The worshiper brings an animal to the door of the tabernacle (v. 3).
-The worship leans his hand on the head of the animal, designating the animal as his representative and substitute (v. 4). This corresponds to the setting aside of the Passover lamb (Exodus 12:3-6).
-The worshiper slays the animal (v. 5). This corresponds to the slaughter of the Passover lamb (Exodus 12:6).
-The priest splashes blood on the altar (v. 5). This corresponds to putting the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts of the house (Exodus 12:7).
-The priest stokes up the fire on the altar (v. 7). By this, the altar becomes a small-scale representation of Sinai, which was crowned with a flaming cloud (Exodus 19:16).
-The worshiper washes portions of the animal (v. 9). This corresponds to Israel’s passage through the water. It is a baptism.
-Then the priest puts the washed portions of the animal onto the altar fire, which turns the animal to smoke (v. 9). This corresponds to Moses’ ascent into the cloud as a representative of Israel.

Thus, whenever an Israelite offered an animal offering, he was recapitulating the history of Israel’s exodus and covenant-making at Sinai. Through this, he renewed covenant with Yahweh.

Once again, we see that the pattern of Exodus is constantly recapitulated in the later life of Israel, not only in the larger patterns of their history, their yearly festal calendar, their songs of worship, but also in their regular sacrifices.

The Forming of Covenant

Israel gathers before YHWH at Mount Sinai, where YHWH declares that he will set Israel apart as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (19:6), his special treasure on the earth. The whole story of Sinai is a marriage ceremony between YHWH and his people. As Ezekiel 16:8 declares: ‘I spread my wing over you and covered your nakedness. Yes, I swore an oath to you and entered into a covenant with you, and you became mine.’ The covenant binds Israel to YHWH, Israel giving the ‘I do’ to the vow that YHWH presents them with (v.8). The story culminates in a wedding feast in 24:9-11. After this, instructions for the building of the tabernacle are given, so that YHWH can travel with and take up residence in the midst of his people.

The content of the covenant is given in chapters 20-23. If the later instructions for the tabernacle serve as the model for the new Edenic ‘mountain sanctuary’, the ‘image of the heavens’, the ten words of the covenant provide the pattern for Israel to be the new Adamic image of God and the priest of the new sanctuary, just as Adam was the priest of Eden. As Israel abides by the covenant, all of the rest of the world should seek to learn from them. The Ten Words of the covenant are a new creation event: God created the world with ten commands in Genesis 1 and God creates a new covenant people for himself with ten covenant words in Exodus 20.

The Ten Words of Exodus 20 are not merely commands, but also contain a historical preamble (v.2), facts about God (vv.2, 5), threats and promises (vv.5-7, 12), and explanations (v.11). The Ten Words are followed by a few chapters of case law. These case laws are far from a complete legal system. Rather, they serve to highlight the way that YHWH’s justice works in practice. The case laws here and elsewhere demonstrate the relationship between general principle and particular application within YHWH’s justice, ensuring that the covenant justice was not something that would be applied in an impressionistic fashion.

The covenant was founded upon YHWH’s act of redeeming Israel for himself. As we saw in the study before this, through his deliverance of Israel from Pharaoh, Israel were YHWH’s servants, redeemed by him to build and serve in his house. It was YHWH’s gracious prerogative upon which all else was founded (20:2). Israel’s primary and all-encompassing duty was one of complete and undivided commitment to YHWH, above all other masters (v.3). The covenant law was founded upon and in service of this relationship. Provision was made for access to YHWH when laws were broken, but the fundamental breaking of the covenant was a different matter.

The Fall of Israel

While YHWH was giving Moses the pattern for the sanctuary, its furniture, divisions, and servants, the children of Israel, under the leadership of Aaron, denied knowledge of Moses (32:1) and made a golden calf. We shall later see this pattern recur. Peter, the Aaron figure, who had ascended the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9), where he saw a vision akin to that of Aaron and the elders of Israel in Exodus 24, later denies his Lord in the high priest’s courtyard when he is taken away from him (Matthew 26:69-75 – thanks to James Jordan for this insight).

The choice of the calf is not accidental. Leithart writes:

Exodus 32:1 indicates that the people suggested that Aaron construct an image because Moses was delayed in returning from the mountain. This suggests that they understood the golden calf image as being in some sense a replacement for Moses, who had “brought them out of Egypt.” Fittingly, Moses will later return from the mountain with a “horned” face, shining with the glory of Yahweh, the glory that had led Israel through the wilderness to Sinai. Moses is thus the true image of Yahweh, the true calf. In Leviticus 8-9, however, there is a transfer to a new image. Aaron is decked in glory-garments, his head is crowned with glorious gold, and he is now allowed to ascend to the altar-mountain and beyond the screen into the house. As his first act of ministry, Aaron, the new image of Yahweh, the new “golden calf,” offers an `egel for purification and a calf of ascension for the people.

Without Moses, the people of Israel lost all restraint and broke the covenant. Moses interceded with YHWH to prevent him from destroying the people and starting again with Moses alone. Then he descended the mountain, broke the tablets at the foot of the mountain, ground the calf to powder, and performed a ritual of jealousy upon YHWH’s unfaithful bride.

We should recognize this passage as a Fall scene, much as a number of others that we have seen in our studies to this point. The law that was given to Aaron and the new Adamic people under his priestly rule was broken. Moses, who was appointed to be as God to Aaron (Exodus 4:16), inquires of Aaron for an explanation. Aaron, like Adam, blames the bride for tempting him (32:1, 21-24; cf. Genesis 3:9-12). Moses sees that the people are naked (‘unrestrained’ v.25) and that they have rendered themselves shameful before their enemies (cf. Genesis 3:9-11).

Moses then did what God did in Genesis 3. When Adam, the priestly guardian of the sanctuary of Eden, fell, God drove him from the Garden and established sword-wielding guardians to take his place (Genesis 3:24). In Exodus 32, Moses calls those on YHWH’s side to rally to him. The Levites join him. On account of Israel’s sin, they will go on to replace the firstborn of Israel as YHWH’s priestly guardians (Exodus 32:25-29; cf. Numbers 3:40-51). They are established as the sword-wielding avenging angels of the covenant. In verse 27 we see the slaying of Israelites at their entrances. It is a reversal of Passover, with the Levites playing the part of the destroying Angel of YHWH, killing the ‘firstborn’ (God’s judgments of Israel usually have a grim poetic justice to them – Israel gets, but suffers the full consequences of, what it asks for). Three thousand people are killed (a fact to bear in mind when we read that three thousand are ‘cut to the heart’ at Pentecost in Acts 2). The Levites take the place of the cherubim in Genesis 3, guarding the sanctuary and being men of sword and flame.

The result of the Fall of Israel is that YHWH cannot dwell in their midst. Instead of driving Israel out from the camp like Adam and Eve from the Garden, however, YHWH left the camp (33:7-11). Moses moved his tent, pitched it outside of the camp and called it the tabernacle of meeting (not the same as the real tabernacle, which hadn’t been constructed yet). YHWH then met with Moses there and anyone who wanted to seek YHWH had to leave the camp in order to do so.

Moses the Mediator

The relationship between Moses and the people shifts during this period. At the outset, in Exodus 19, all of Israel was called before YHWH and YHWH was dealing with the nation more as a whole. The nation asked Moses to speak with God on their behalf (20:18-21), but their relationship with God was a clear one. However, the calf incident threw all of that into question.

The logic of the covenant has now changed. No longer are the people just represented by Moses in their relationship with YHWH. Rather, it is only through Moses’ mediation, through his refusal to give them up, that they continue to have a relationship with YHWH at all.

It is important that we recognize the play of personal pronouns. While Moses has interceded for the people so that they are not destroyed, YHWH no longer seems to recognize any relationship to them. Rather, he deals only with Moses. He promises to send his Presence with Moses and to give Moses rest, but not the people in general (33:14). Moses persists and YHWH relents, promising to accompany the people and to establish his Presence among them again.

Throughout this account, we see Moses play a role akin to that of Abraham interceding for Sodom. He is a true and faithful prophet, participating in the Divine Council. Directly following his intercession for Israel, Moses asks to see YHWH’s glory (33:18). To understand exactly what is going on here, we should cast our minds back to a couple of studies ago, where I discussed the difference and relationship between the Spirit-Glory-Presence of YHWH and the Angel of YHWH (Meredith Kline is extremely helpful here). In Exodus 23:20-33, YHWH had promised to send his Angel before Israel and then had given instructions for his Presence to accompany them also in the tabernacle.

After Israel’s sin with the calf, YHWH reiterated his promise to send his Angel before them (32:34). However, there was not the same assurance that the Presence would accompany them. The absence of the Presence meant a reversion back to a form of the covenant where God was less present to and with the people. Moses desired both the Angel and the Presence to accompany them, as they had been with them at the Red Sea. Were the Glory-Presence withdrawn, the status of the people in YHWH’s eyes and Moses’ role as mediator would both be thrown into question. This is why the theophany in 33:18-23 is so significant: the passing of YHWH’s glorybefore Moses, unveiled by the cloud, is the sign and assurance that YHWH would indeed restore his relationship to his people and be visibly present among them once again.

At this point YHWH renews the covenant with Moses and with Israel, taking back his people to himself. As Moses intercedes, the sin of Israel is pardoned, the covenant is declared again, and the people restored. However, in the renewed covenant, Moses plays the role of mediator, more than just the role of representative. The covenant is made with the people who ally themselves with Moses, not with the people as a general group. For this reason, it is very appropriate to speak of this as the Mosaic covenant: outside of allegiance to Moses there was no ordinary hope of covenant membership.

The Transfiguration of Moses

When Moses descended from Sinai and declares the covenant to the people, his face was transfigured, shining with glory (34:29). As already mentioned, the fact that the word for shining is related to the word for having ‘horns’ is probably significant. As the bright and glorious horned leader of Israel, Moses is the true golden calf: the image of God that YHWH has created for himself, not the image that others have created of him.

It is possible that in seeing the transfigured Moses, the Israelites were supposed to see something of what they had forfeited through their disobedience, and the fact that they couldn’t relate to YHWH as closely as they once had the opportunity to. However, as I shall now argue, it was also a prophetic demonstration of the telos of God’s dealings with humanity, a telos yet to be fully achieved.

The people could not stand to look at Moses’ unveiled face for long, so he veiled it when he was not speaking with YHWH (vv.30-35). As Paul makes clear in 2 Corinthians 3:7-18, in Moses’ face the end of the old covenant, which was itself of limited duration, was to be seen. The goal of the covenant was always the transfiguration and glorification of humanity, the perfecting of the Image of God. In Christ, the veil that shielded the people from the glory of God on the face of Moses is removed and we see the glory of the Lord in the reading of Moses. We also become like Moses ourselves as we remove the veil to turn to (speak with) the Lord. The Glory-Presence of the risen Christ, his Spirit, transforms us into his image.


The remaining chapters of Exodus record the building of the tabernacle, the setting up of its furniture, the creation of the priestly garments, and finally the installation of the priests and the coming of the Glory cloud upon the tabernacle (40:34-38). Here we see the fulfilment of YHWH’s promise to send his Presence with the people. We see the restoration of the covenant and the establishment of the portable Sinai/Garden of Eden.

Within this single post treatment of over half of the book of Exodus we have encountered numerous themes that will recur in later exodus events. The encounter with YHWH at the mountain is a theme of crucial importance, as is the relationship between exodus and the sacrificial system and Sinai and the tabernacle. The importance of the themes of Pentecost, the Fall of Israel, and Moses’ role as covenant intercessor, mediator, and transfigured man should also be recognized. Within the next post, we will move to study Israel’s experience in the wilderness.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Bible, Exodus, Lent, OT, Theological, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A Portable Mountain and Competing Calves – 40 Days of Exoduses (19)

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