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Shemot/Exodus 19:5 And now, if you will surely listen to My voice and will keep My covenant ...
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Rav Sha'ul's readers will be used to the powerful way in which he focuses attention on a key decision or point of doctrine by using the word 'therefore'; therefore, in the light of what I have just said, now take note. In these words,HaShem is doing exactly the same thing. He starts with - literally "and now", but rhetorically equivalent to 'therefore' - and segues straight into the subject of covenant. A subject that Moshe and the people were not, perhaps, immediately expecting. When Moshe is equivocating at the Bush about whether he is really the right person to lead the departure of Israel from Egypt, HaShem tells him, "This shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain" (Shemot 3:12, NJPS). Here they are already, but before they have decently got unpacked, while Moshe makes his initial ascent of Mt. Sinai, HaShem calls to him and starts talking about covenant. Therefore, He says, now that you have seen all that I can do and have done to the Egyptians, now that I have brought you safely this far through the desert, now that you have experienced My provision for a couple of weeks - "At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread. Then you shall know that I am the L-RD your G-d" (16:12, NJPS) - do we really need to go through the formalities? Let's cut to the chase, let's get straight down to brass tacks.
What follows 'and now' looks suspiciously like what salesmen would refer to as "the close". It seems to be a proposal or an offer of covenant, based on Israelite compliance with the terms. RabbiHirsch paraphrases for us: "Now you have come hither to the place to which I invited you to, to enter My service upon this mount. If this is what you really earnestly wish, to obey Me and to carry on the bond and relationship you have started with Me, then the fundamental condition I make is, that you become, more than all the other nations, a chosen and exclusive possession." Hirsch lays out some critical terms here that we need to understand to be able to see just what this offer is.
Firstly, what covenant is HaShem talking about? TheMekhilta reports that "Rabbi Eliezer says: This refers to the covenant of the sabbath. Rabbi Akiva says: This refers to the covenant of circumcision and to the covenant against idolatry." Ibn Ezra, the Sforno and Rashi think it is the covenant "that I will make with you on this mountain", "the covenant which I will make when you accept the Torah." The Ramban, citing the verse "I will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring to come" (B'resheet 17:7, NJPS), insists that it is "the covenant I made with your ancestors, to be their G-d and the G-d of their offspring after them." The key question here is whether it is a new covenant or a renewed covenant. Slightly hedging his bets, Nahum Sarna says, "A new dimension is now introduced into the relationship between G-d and Israel." But Peter Enns, also citing Scritpure - "G-d heard their moaning, and G-d remembered His covenant with Avraham and Yitz'khak and Ya'akov" (Shemot 2:24, NJPS) - agrees with the Ramban: "The covenant with the patriarchs. What is about to transpire on Mount Sinai is not a new covenant, but the continuation and deepening of an existing covenant G-d made with Israel's ancestors long ago."1
Secondly, we must recognise that the proposal is being made by HaShem. It is not being made or requested by Israel. While HaShem is certainly accepting upon Himself some obligations as a result of the proposal, the Israelites are the recipients of the proposal, its benefits and its obligations. The Ramban explains, "the true interpretation is, 'You must keep My covenant and cleave to Me, for if you obey Me and do all I say, you shall be My treasured possession.'" Connecting with the previous point that this is a renewed covenant rather than a new covenant, Terence Fretheim observes that "obedience to the commandments is thus a concern that grows out of a relationship already established by G-d ... Keeping covenant has as broad a reference as obeying the voice of G-d. In the widest sense, it is doing justice to, being faithful to, the relationship with G-d in which the people stand, a responsibility that is more extensive than obedience to Sinai law."2 Peter Enns adds a further essential point: "The Israelites are not to keep the law in order for G-d to save them. They have already been saved; G-d has brought them out of Egypt. The law he now gives is the subsequent stage in Israel's developing relationship with G-d. It is what is expected of a people already redeemed."3
Thirdly, the proposal starts (after "and now") with the word , 'if'. The proposal, or offer, of covenant is conditional. On what? The next two words are clear: is the Qal infinitive absolute of the root , to hear or listen; is the Qal 2mp prefix form of the same root. This "infinitive absolute + prefix" combination is used for strong emphasis and is usually translated "you will surely ..." or "you shall certainly ..." Walter Brueggemann comments sharply that "the future of Israel is governed by an 'if' and by a powerful infinitive absolute; Israel's future is conditional. Everything depends on Israel's readiness to listen and to keep covenant. While Yahweh's initial rescue is unconditional and without reservation, a sustained relation with Yahweh is one of rigourous demand for covenant."4 A little more blandly, Thomas Dozeman agrees: "The offer of covenant is conditioned upon two things. The people must hear the divine voice and observe the covenant."5
Lastly, returning to the opening word of our text, we can sense the salesman's touch: introducing a little pressure to close the sale - "and now!" Masterfully squeezing at just the right moment, HaShem urges the people to accept His offer now, without delay. The Mekhilta paraphrases: "Take it upon yourselves now, for all beginnings are difficult." It may take a little getting used to, but let's do it right now.
Here's the point: to make a covenant, the offer must be accepted and ratified. We see this happening several chapters later in the next parasha in the formal covenant ceremony where Moshe officiates for both HaShem and Israel. First, Moshe "took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, 'All that the L-RD has spoken we will faithfully do!'" (Shemot 24:7, NJPS); this is the acceptance. Like taking marriage vows in public, before witnesses and an official (minister, judge, registrar), there is an agreed set of words by which the parties formally accept the terms and make the covenant. Once Israel has accepted, Moshe then ratifies the covenant: he "took the blood and dashed it on the people and said, 'This is the blood of the covenant that the L-RD now makes with you concerning all these commands'" (v. 8, NJPS); I now pronounce you man and wife!
In his magisterial chapter, Isaiah first of all tells the people who will be in exile in Babylon what they will need to do - "In the wilderness prepare the way of the L-RD; make straight in the desert a highway for our G-d" (Isaiah 40:3, NJPS) - and then calls upon Jerusalem to make the offer of renewed covenant to those who would return to the Land: "Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, 'Behold your G-d!'" (v. 9, NJPS). G-d intends to visit His people, to remake covenant with them if they will return from Babylon and prepare a place for Him in their lives in the Land. The prophet calls the people to look up from their work, their daily concerns, and see that G-d is there for them and wants to engage with them. We can see signs of acceptance and ratification in the narratives of Ezra and Nehemiah, when first the temple, then the city of Jerusalem are rebuilt, and when the people gather in Jerusalem to hear the Torah being read and celebrate the festival of Sukkot.
Not surprisingly, we find Yeshua making the same offer to His disciples. He tells them, "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments. And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever" (John 14:15-16, NASB) and "If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father's commandments, and abide in His love" (15:10, NASB), conditioning ongoing relationship and the gift of the Spirit upon their obedience. Although out of sequence, we hear Peter's words of acceptance - "You have words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of G-d" (6:68-69, NASB) - and we hear Yeshua Himself first pronouncing, "And while they were eating, Yeshua took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is My body." And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:26-28, NASB), and then enacting, "He said, 'It is finished!' And He bowed His head, and gave up His spirit" (John 19:30, NASB) the ratification of the covenant. We use those same words to re-affirm our part in that covenant to this day: "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes" (1 Corinthians 11:26, NASB).
In the same way that Israel's covenant keeping follows their status as redeemed people, rather than something that redeems them, so Rav Sha'ul tells the Ephesians, "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of G-d; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Messiah Yeshua for good works, which G-d prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:8-10, NASB). Our obedience as believers is just as important as that of the Israelites; it should be a normal part of who we are as redeemed people, followers of Yeshua.
1. - Peter Enns, Exodus, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), page 387-388.
2. - Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), page 199.
3. - Enns, page 387.
4. - Walter Brueggemann, "Exodus", in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 401.
5. - Thomas B. Dozeman, Exodus, Eerdmans Critical Commentaries, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns, 2009), page 444.
Further Study: Ephesians 4:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:11
Application: And now, will you consistently hear the voice of the L-rd and obey His covenant? Will you go out of your way to make sure that you hear and then obey His commands and the nudging of the Spirit? It may be difficult to begin, but let's step forward together, resolved to honour the L-rd and keep His covenant.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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