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Shemot/Exodus 34:27 "... for according to these words I make covenant with you and with Israel."
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Our exploration begins with an affirmation by Don IsaacAbravanel: "You thought that I would give you a new set of commandments to purge them of the sin of the Calf? No, the commandments are the same as in the covenant of chapter 24 [when Moshe first wrote down the words of HaShem and goes up the mountain to receive the first set of tablets that HaShem has written]." Although phrased as a question that he puts in HaShem's mouth, Abravanel's point is straightforward; HaShem has not changed, so His covenant has not changed, the Torah has not changed. The undeniable fact that the Israelites sinned over the Calf does not alter HaShem or His position. Our belief in G-d is founded upon exactly that characteristic: G-d is, by His own words, constant and does not change. "For I, the L-RD, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed" (Malachi 3:6, NASB).
Targum Onkelos takes the argument a step further. In its translation of the verse, it changes the text to read: "with the words of these statements I made a covenant with you and with Israel". Onkelos is saying that the very words are what makes the covenant; they themselves, the words of the Torah - in their precise form - are the covenant between G-d and Israel. It is precisely this understanding that has led to centuries of detailed analysis of the Hebrew text, the word ordering and spelling, the added punctuation and vocalisation provided by the Masoretic pointing that preserved the traditional pronunciation and emphasis.
RabbiHirsch, on the other hand, insists that the covenant is more than just the words, that they are just the written baseline upon which the covenant is built. "It is not merely the fixed written words as they stand before our eyes, on which our covenant with G-d is to be established, but the full and living meaning of the spirit as had been explained to Moshe before the 'letter' had been fixed." He even goes as far as saying that "although it is a welcome bearer of thoughts and ideas it is nevertheless, by itself, a danger to the completeness, the life and truth of the thoughts." Hirsch senses - without knowing Yeshua, the Living Word - that mere words on a page do not make a covenant or a relationship; more is required.
The JPS Commentary takes us on again, by commenting on the last few words of the verse: "with you and with Israel: This unexpected order signals the transition to the final episode, which concentrates on the exaltation of Moshe. It reflects his role as the dominant figure in dealing with the apostasy and in successfully interceding with G-d on Israel's behalf." Sarna is suggesting that Moshe has become the mediator of the covenant; the one who explains how it works, applies it to everyday situations and acts as the enforcer as well as the advocate when things go wrong. By this thought, Moshe has become the lynch pin of the covenant; he is the interface between G-d and our people. Without Moshe, the covenant would not work.
Rav Sha'ul is clearly aware of the debate in his time. While he confirms the role of Moshe as the mediator of the Sinai covenant: the Torah was "ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed should come to whom the promise had been made" (Galatians 3:19, NASB), at the same time he points forward to the time when another would come. Explicit use of the word 'mediator' of course comes in the well-known verse, "For there is one G-d, and one mediator also between G-d and men, the man Christ Jesus ... the testimony borne at the proper time" (1 Timothy 2:5-6, NASB); Yeshua is the mediator who, born at the proper time, takes over the mediator role that Moshe had been holding - keeping the seat warm, so to speak - until He came. Without Yeshua - the high priest and king of Israel, the inheritor of the promise, the fulfillment of prophecy - the covenant does not work.
Have both the Jewish and Christian communities nevertheless concretised the written word so that it has become an inflexible and often sterile source of inspiration when read through the lens of dogma and tradition? Sha'ul warns that "the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Corinthians 3:6, NASB); a warning that surely applies today as much as it did when he wrote it. He goes on, "to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart; but whenever a man turns to the L-rd, the veil is taken away" (vv. 15-16, NASB). This is conveniently taken by many Christians to apply only to what they think of as dead Rabbinic Judaism, entirely missing the point that when Sha'ul wrote, Moshe was the Scriptures and as Yeshua commented, "it is these that bear witness of Me" (John 5:39, NASB). Unregenerate man - and, frankly, often even regenerate man - has exactly the same reaction to the words of the gospel; when anyone reads from or quotes the words of Scripture, eyes glaze and people turn away, because they do not know what they are hearing. A veil remains over their heart.
The Scriptures are a source of life, because they point us to the source of all life. The writer to the Hebrew tells us that "the word of G-d is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12, NASB), but we have to be prepared to hear them speak to us. When we read and listen to the written word, we need to hear through the lens of the Ruach, the Holy Breath of G-d, who brings the words to life within us and applies them afresh to our hearts as Yeshua promised He would: "the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you" (John 14:26, NASB).
It is the words of Yeshua that make covenant with us. His words are the living water that well up inside us (John 4:14) and bring us His life in abundance (John 10:10). We ignore His words at our peril; we distance ourselves from His blessing when we treat the Scriptures casually; we kill the covenant when we study the Scriptures only as an academic exercise without letting the Spirit wash us with their meaning. G-d is constant and does not change; His word is not dated or old-fashioned. On the contrary, G-d's word is always cool, neat and sweet; it touches our souls and makes covenant with us in every way and every age. We must not dilute it or dumb it down, we must not pull its punches as if it is too strong for the people we meet - some of them need that knock-out blow! - and we must allow the Spirit room and liberty to work. For it is according to these words G-d makes covenant with mankind.
Further Study: Jeremiah 11:2-5; Mark 4:3-9
Application: How do you hear the Bible as you read it each day? Do you filter the words through a lens - cultural, archeological, denominational? If so, then you may only have half the story and so, half the covenant. Ask G-d today to let you hear His words "in the raw", straight from His mouth, so that He may make His full covenant with you.
© Jonathan Allen, 2010
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