Light from the Sidra

Mishpatim (‘Ordinances’) 25 January 2013. 24 Shevat 5774

Torah: Exodus 21:1–24:18. Haftarah: Jeremiah 34:8–22; 33; 25–26.

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)


The Face of God

A Jewish friend I’ve known for over 25 years believes Christianity is basically a hotchpotch of ancient pagan myths but he’s never read the New Testament. Anyone vaguely conversant with the New Testament recognises that the Tanakh is quoted or alluded to on virtually every page so, whatever else Christianity may be, it’s Jewish. The school of thought that came into vogue at the end of the nineteenth century, which claimed Christianity was a thinly-veiled amalgam of pagan ideas, was defunct by the middle of the twentieth century and survives only on the webs sites of non-scholars who, blissfully believe they are setting forth cutting edge ideas.

Whether you believe Jesus is the Messiah or not, the roots of Christianity lie deep in the pages of the Tanakh and his life, ministry, death and resurrection are paralleled in the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures, not least in Exodus 24 where a remarkable event takes place in which Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel see the God who, a few chapters later (33:20), declares to Moses, ‘No human can see Me and live.’


The Book of the Covenant

At Sinai, God established a covenant with Israel, a conditional covenant into which were built promises of blessing for obedience and curses disobedience. In ancient Middle East covenants the conditions and stipulations were written in a book and God’s covenant with Israel was no different: ‘Moses came and told the people the words of HASHEM and all the ordinances and the entire people responded with one voice and they said, “All the words that HASHEM, has spoken we will do.” Moses wrote all the words of HASHEM. . .’ Notice that Moses wrote all the words of God. Not one yod was to be trusted to memory because the faintest ink is more reliable than the best memory. In the kingly code of Deuteronomy 17 Moses wrote: ‘It shall be that when [the king] sits on throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself two copies of this Torah in a book, from before the Kohanim, the Levites. It shall be with him, and he shall read from it all the days of his life. . .’ (Dt 17:18-19a). The king was to write the entire book of Devarim under the supervision of Levites and to read it daily throughout the rest of his life ‘so that he will learn to fear HASHEM, his God, to observe all the words of this Torah and these decrees, to perform them’ (Dt 17:19b). Note that all the words of God are in the book and by reading the book the king will learn to obey all the words of the Torah. The only Torah is the written Torah.

The Blood of the Covenant

If, as my Orthodox friend believes, the New Testament terminology of being cleansed from our sins by the blood of the Lamb of God is an echo of a supposed Mithraic ritual in which the blood of a sacrificial bull was poured over a neophyte, what can we say about Moses who literally threw bull’s blood over the Israelites? Ancient Middle Eastern Covenants were established through blood sacrifice, which is why covenants were ‘cut,’ and God’s covenant with Israel was no different. In Exodus 24, three ordinances are apparent. The first is sacrificial blood: ‘Moses took half the blood and placed it in basins, and half the blood he threw upon the altar . . . Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and he said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that HASHEM sealed with you concerning all these matters”‘ (Ex. 24:6-8).

The sacrificial blood was sprinkled not only on the people but also on God, represented by his altar. Both parties were undertaking a covenant commitment. The covenant was sealed in blood, which graphically illustrated the fact that the entire arrangement was literally a matter of life or death.


The Banquet of the Covenant

In Exodus 24:9ff, Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and seventy elders of Israel eat a meal in the presence of God on Mount Sinai. From the narrative it is not clear if the food they ate was from the sacrifices that had been offered at base camp or whether it was supernaturally created but, either way, the meal was provided by God. David rejoiced in Psalm 23:5 that the Lord, who was his shepherd, prepared a table for him in the very presence of his enemies. That table provided protection for David.

In Bible times, to be invited to a meal in someone’s home was a great honour and guests who could be secure in the knowledge that their host would not soon become their enemy. To harm a guest or for a guest to betray a host was a heinous crime so on Mount Sinai, God’s 74 honoured guests ate and drank in the knowledge that their heavenly host would not stretch out his hand against them.

After the fellowship meal, Aaron, his sons and the seventy elders returned to the Israelite camp while Moses ascended the mountain to be shown the pattern for the tabernacle. Exodus 25 consists of instructions for constructing three main pieces of furniture for the tabernacle: the ark of the covenant, the menorah and, what most English versions call, the ‘table of showbread.’

Every Sabbath, twelve unleavened wafers were set on the table with pure frankincense as a memorial offering made by fire.’ There were two kinds of offerings in the tabernacle – bloody and unbloody – and the showbread was ‘most holy . . . from the [unbloody] fire offerings of HASHEM made by fire, an eternal decree’ (Lev 24:9).


The Bread of the Face

Many English Bible versions now refer to the show bread as the ‘Bread of the Presence’ but the literal meaning of Lechem ha Panim is ‘Bread of the Face’ which, in all probability commemorated the astonishing fact that Israel’s leaders ‘saw God’ and lived to tell the tale.

Three times in the year, says Exodus 23:17, all Israel’s males had to ‘appear before the Lord, HASHEM.’ The literal meaning of the Hebrew text is that the men of Israel were to go to Jerusalem to ‘see the face of God.’ In Psalm 42:2, the Psalmist cries, ‘My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. “When shall I come and appear before God?”‘ The literal translation of verse 2 is, ‘When will I see the face of God?’

In Menachot 29a in the Talmud, there is a remarkable statement that at the festival times the priests used to lift up the table of showbread and exhibit the bread of the Face, saying to the gathered pilgrims, ‘Behold, Gods love for you!’ (emphasis added). Removing the table from the sanctuary was an astonishing breach of temple etiquette. Why did the priests break temple protocol in such an apparently blatant manner by removing the holy table? Any answer must to some degree be guesswork but it might help if we remember that, according to Exodus 23:17, the Israelite pilgrims travelled to Jerusalem to ‘see the face of God’. Apart from the bread being a symbol of God’s covenant with Israel and a reminder of the heavenly banquet on Mount Sinai, the bread was the ‘Bread of the Face’ and in the Hebrew Scriptures, the greatest expression of the love of God is the shining of his face.

So perhaps the table, bread and wine were brought out to the crowds at the time the high priest pronounced the benediction in Number 6:24-26: ‘May HASHEM bless you and safeguard you. May HASHEM illuminate His countenance [panim] for you and be gracious to you. May HASHEM lift His countenance [panim] to you and establish peace for you.’


The sunshine of God’s love

That strain of thought continues in the New Covenant scriptures in what is called ‘Holy Communion.’ The books of the New Covenant do not encourage the belief that the bread and wine, eaten and drunk during ‘Communion,’ become the literal body and blood of Jesus. The reality is far greater than that crude superstition. When believers in Messiah partake of the bread and wine, they eat and drink in the presence of HASHEM, knowing that because they are his guests his hand will not be against them. They ‘have an altar,’ says the Letter to the Hebrews 13:10, ‘from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat.’

Just as no one can stare at the sun without being blinded, so no man can see God’s face and live but Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:6, that ‘the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness . . . has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus the Messiah.’ It is at the communion table, as believers in Jesus focus on the meaning of the bread and wine, that they may stare safely at the sun and see the love of their God most clearly.

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