Light from the Sidra

Mishpatim ('Laws')

Torah: Exodus 21:1-24:18.Haftarah: 2 Kings 12:1-12:17(16)*

Dining with Melech Olam

When I was six years old, the Queen visited my home town. At school we made paper Union Jacks to wave when Her Majesty arrived and we were given the day off school to see her. As we lined the street waiting for the young Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh to arrive, the atmosphere was charged. Suddenly, a cheer went up as a shiny Rolls Royce sped by and it was all over. I managed to catch a brief glimpse of the lady whose face I knew from the Anigoni print that hung in our School Assembly Hall. That was as close as I have ever been to Her Royal Highness.

In Exodus 24, there is a short but remarkable passage of just three verses in which Moses, his brother Aaron with his sons Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel ascend Mount Sinai and not only see the King of the Universe but also eat and drink in his presence. Exodus 24:11 says, God ‘did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites.’

No man, God says to Moses in Exodus 32:20, can see his face and live and yet those seventy-four men saw God and lived to tell the tale. How, was it possible for these representatives of Israel to see God whose face no man can see and live? The answer is found in what took place immediately before the men climbed Sinai.

God had entered into a covenant with Israel and, in the ancient world of the Bible, covenants were established and ratified by certain ordinances. In Exodus 24, three ordinances are apparent. The first is sacrificial blood: ‘Moses took one part of the blood, and put it in basins, and the other part of the blood he dashed against the altar… Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD now makes with you concerning all these commands [Heb. ‘words’]”’ (Ex 24:6ff, Tanakh-The Holy Scriptures: The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text).

Rashi comments on this verse: ‘Our ancestors entered the covenant with circumcision, immersion [in a mikvah], and the sprinkling of the blood [of the sacrifice on the altar].’

The blood of the sacrificial offerings was ‘dashed’ on the people and also the altar, which represented God. Both parties were undertaking a solemn covenant commitment which was sealed in blood to drive home the fact that the entire arrangement was a matter of life or death. Without sacrificial blood there can be no covenant.

Now, as then, binding agreements needed to be stated in writing. When God gave the ‘Ten Words’ which laid down Israel’s covenantal obligations, they were engraved on two tablets of stone. From what we now know about ancient Near Eastern covenants and treaties, the two tablets of the law were identical; one copy was for the people to remind them of God’s requirements whilst the other copy was for God and was placed inside his throne, the ark of the covenant.

In Exodus 24:9ff, Moses, his brother, his two nephews and seventy elders of Israel, climbed Mount Sinai where they ate a covenant fellowship meal in the presence of God. In the ancient Middle East, to be invited to a meal in someone’s home was a great honour. The highest courtesy was shown to the guests, who could be secure in the knowledge that their host would not soon become their enemy. For a host to harm a guest or for a guest to betray a host was a heinous crime so, on Mount Sinai, God’s seventy-four honoured dinner guests could eat and drink in the knowledge that their heavenly host would not raise his hand against them.

According to Pirkei Avot (‘The Ethics of the Fathers’) 1:2, ‘Shimon the Righteous … used to say: On three things the world is sustained: on the Torah, on the (Temple) service [which included sacrifices], and on deeds of loving kindness. Without any Scriptural warrant, after the destruction of the temple, that principle was changed. From that time, it has become an unquestioned article of Jewish faith that the world rests on Torah, on deeds of loving kindness and on repentance.

Judaism may have changed but God does not change. His ways of dealing with his creatures remains the same. If we are to enjoy intimate fellowship with him, it must be at his invitation and we must approach him under his conditions. And those conditions must include approaching him through under his new and better covenant established through the ultimate sacrifice of the Messiah.

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