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Shemot/Exodus 19:4 You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt ...
The people of Israel have been travelling for about seven weeks since leaving Egypt and have now arrived at Mt. Sinai. Whether this is the traditional site for Mt. Sinai in the Sinai peninsula or an alternative site east of the Gulf of Aqaba in northern Arabia is not mentioned in the text. Once they have pitched camp - no mean undertaking in itself, with over two and a half million people in the part, without counting the animals - Moshe goes up the mountain to talk with HaShem. These words form the start of an offer of covenant that Moshe is to take back to and share with the people. Many of the commentators draw a significant point from these words, which we need to develop and hear for ourselves in this day.
The earliest rabbinic commentary that we have, theMekhilta, expands HaShem's words to, "What I tell you is not received by tradition. I do not have to send documents to you - I do not have to present witnesses to you, but you yourselves have seen what I have done to the Egyptians." Rashi slightly paraphrases this, switching 'documents' for "a verbal account" to give: "It is not a tradition that you have. I do not send you a verbal account; I do not have testimony presented by witnesses. Rather, you have seen what I did to Egypt." This sets the tone for the rest of the comments, almost recently Umberto Cassuto1, who says, "'You have seen' with your own eyes, and not just heard from afar like strangers", pointing back one chapter to "Jethro priest of Midian, Moshe's father-in-law", who "heard all that G-d had done for Moshe and for Israel His people" (Shemot 18:1, JPS). The point they all make is that the Israelites' relationship with G-d is based on a first-hand, personal and communally confirmed experience of G-d's miracles and signs in Egypt.
Building on that fundamental point,Hirsch develops this is two steps. First, he points out that, "the basis for your knowledge of G-d and of yourself does not rest on belief, which can, after all, allow an element of doubt. It rests solidly on the evidence of your own senses, on what you have seen with your own eyes, have yourselves experienced." This is the difference between faith that, however reasonable, needs to bridge a gap of incomplete evidence, and fact that is a clear, objective and personal record of experience. He then includes the witness of the community and consequent impossibility of mistake or fake: "The two fundamental truths on which the whole of Judaism rests - the Exodus from Egypt and the Lawgiving on Sinai - stand firmly on the actual evidence of your senses and, as they were seen, heard, felt and experienced simultaneously by so many hundreds of thousands of people, every possibility of deception is ruled out." If everyone didn't have a shared memory of these events taking place, then a minority group would never have been able to persuade the majority that it was true. This was no group hallucination!
TheBaal HaTurim explains that the note in the margin of the masoretic text means that there are four verses in the Hebrew Scriptures that start with the word . These are "You must go and get the straw yourselves wherever you can find it" (Shemot 5:11, JPS), "You stand this day, all of you, before the L-RD your G-d - your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel" (D'varim 29:9, JPS) and "My witnesses are you - declares the L-RD -- My servant, whom I have chosen, to the end that you may take thought, and believe in Me, and understand that I am He: before Me no god was formed, and after Me none shall exist" (Isaiah 43:10, JPS). The Tur deduces that this means G-d said, "Because you are eternally aware that you are standing today before Me, therefore you are capable of serving as My witnesses, for I stand eternally."
Our most modern commentator, JPSCT2, writing within the last twenty years, says that it is precisely the eye-witness characteristic of the relationship between HaShem and Israel that accords HaShem the right to say, "You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth -- that is why I will call you to account for all your iniquities" (Amos 3:2, JPS). Because of the strength and the certainty of the covenant and its making, the explicit call to be a witness and the vibrant affirmative response by Israel - "All the people answered with one voice, saying, 'All the things that the L-RD has commanded we will do!'" (Shemot 24:3, JPS) - HaShem was certain to call Israel on their commitment. No-one else is responsible for a corporate witness to the nations as Israel is; no-one else has been given such promises and clear commandments as Israel has; no-one else has been formed into a covenant community and set-apart people group as Israel still is. HaShem has called, is calling and will continue to call Israel on their often deliberate and flagrant disregard for the covenant and subsequent profaning of G-d's name among the nations. Rav Sha'ul explains to the Jewish community in Rome that "For circumcision is indeed of value if you do what Torah says. But if you are a transgressor of Torah, your circumcision has become uncircumcision!" (Romans 2:25, CJB).
So where is our faith placed? We are between 2,000 and 3,500 years after most of the key events that form the basis of our faith: G-d's dealings with His ancient people Israel, what is referred to by scholars as "the Christ event" - the birth, life, death and resurrection of Yeshua the Messiah - and the witness of the early church. Do we rely on an oral tradition, what someone told us, a written tradition, something we have read, a community tradition, being part of a community, or a relationship? Most people come to faith in G-d because of an oral tradition: someone shared the gospel with them and prompted by the Ruach, they believed and orally shared that belief with someone. Being part of an oral culture - in which we hear things shared or taught by others and then discuss our faith with other believers by word of mouth - is a part of human life and has been part of the church since its earliest days. Sha'ul makes it plain that orality is a fundamental part of the life of faith: "If you acknowledge publicly with your mouth that Yeshua is Lord and trust in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be delivered" (Romans 10:9, CJB), covering the process of believing and "But how can they call on someone if they haven't trusted in him? And how can they trust in someone if they haven't heard about him? And how can they hear about someone if no one is proclaiming him?" (v. 14, CJB) describing the sharing process.
The written tradition too is critical. Some people come to faith by reading a Bible or something else about G-d. The ministry of the Gideons is based on exactly that principle: Bibles in hotel rooms, so that people will read when, perhaps, they have nothing else to read and so - still guided and prompted by the Ruach - they may come to faith. It is the written tradition that connects us with the past - copies of the Scriptures going back over 2,000 years demonstrating the age and consistency of our faith and the witness of earlier or older documents that, although now lost due to age, have carried the words of G-d froward from the earliest times - for as long as writing has existed. The written tradition also allows us almost instant access to the promises, testimony, and comfort of our faith at any time and in almost every language. Rav Sha'ul again: "Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come" (1 Corinthians 10:11, ESV), confirming the words of the gospel writers: "these which have been recorded are here so that you may trust that Yeshua is the Messiah, the Son of G-d" (John 20:31, CJB).
The community tradition is also important for us: belonging to a community of believers and taking part in events such as worship, study, prayer and fellowship. These build us up and encourage us, confirming our faith on a daily basis. The historical church, for all its failings, has - by G-d's grace - maintained a generational witness and continuity since the time of Yeshua and beyond, back into the ancient Israelite world. This witness faithfully confirms the oral and written traditions as the people of G-d refused to compromise on the faithfulness of G-d, the constancy of His promises, the greatness of His love and the steadfastness of His provision. The writer to the Hebrews specifically warns us: "Let us keep paying attention to one another, in order to spur each other on to love and good deeds, not neglecting our own congregational meetings, as some have made a practice of doing, but, rather, encouraging each other" (Hebrews 10:24-25, CJB).
Most important, though, is the relationship that we have with G-d through Yeshua. This is what brings life to the words, whether written or spoken, and to the communities of believers. Without a living relationship with G-d, everything else will fall away. It is our continuing encounter with Yeshua that makes us different from every other religion the world has to offer and gives the hope and certainty in our hearts as we walk this life with and in Him.
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983, 965-223-456-7
Further Study: D'varim 29:2-9; 1 John 4:16
Application: Do you have a living relationship with Yeshua, grounded in the written word, shared in community and spoken aloud by "lips that confess His name" (Hebrews 13:15)? Make sure that you connect with Him in every way and know His fullness in your life today!
© Jonathan Allen, 2014
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