Keyword:

Light from the Sidra

Mishpatim ('Judgements'). 13th February 2015. 25th Shevat 5775

Torah: Exodus 21:1-24:18. Haftarah: 2 Kings.12.1-17

'Behold the love of your God!'

February 14th is the day when everyone’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, so how convenient that we happen to be looking at a Torah portion which reveals to us HASHEM’s love for Israel. On the face of it, the account of Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and the seventy elders of Israel seeing God and enjoying a meal with him doesn’t appear to have much to do with love but when you consider that HASHEM warns Moses in Exodus 33:20 that no one can see his face and live, you can see that divine love is at work. After all, who invites someone they hate to a meal!

The key to understanding the event recorded in Exodus 24:1-18 is the loving covenant HASHEM established with Israel at Mount Sinai. God always deals with his people through covenant and when God establishes a covenant, he does so to strengthen the faith of those with whom he makes it. God is absolutely faithful but because his people are weak, he commits himself to them in such a way as to make it absolutely clear that he cannot be doubted. After Noah and those with him on the ark disembarked, God established a covenant with them and their descendants in which he promised to never again flood the entire earth with water. To strengthen their trust in his promise, HASHEM confirmed it with the sign of a bow in the sky.

When Abraham pleaded to know that God would give him seed as numerous as the stars and that they would possess the land he had promised them, God cut an unconditional covenant, the clear inference of which was that God would be willing to be cut in pieces rather than break his covenant.(Gen. 15).

All God’s covenants have certain features, most of which are present in Exodus 24. In verse 4 a book of the Covenant is written in which ‘all the words of HASHEM and all the ordinances’ are written so that Israel might remember his commandments and do them as they promised in verse 3. There was no oral Torah; everything was written. Nevertheless, even though the faintest ink is more reliable than the best memory, Psalm 106 twice states that in the wilderness HASHEM’s people forgot him and his commandments.

The importance of writing was probably what motivated the Jewish scribes to be so punctilious about the preservation of the Hebrew text of the Bible. Last year a Muslim taxi driver kindly gave me the benefit of his knowledge of the Bible which included the little known fact that the biblical text has been tampered with and adulterated. I interrupted to inform him that among the Dead Sea Scrolls was a copy of the book of Isaiah 1,000 years older than the any other copy of Isaiah. When compared with the later scrolls it was clear there had been no tampering. The copies were virtual photocopies. ‘Well, you see,’ said my chauffer, ‘I don’t know that.’ ‘Yes, you do,’ I said. ‘I’ve just told you!’ We passed the rest of the journey in silence.

Biblical covenants were always ‘cut’ because they were established by sacrificial offerings, as can be seen in Exodus 24:60: ‘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.”’ Animals were sacrificed and their blood was sprinkled on the people and on the altar, which represented God. The covenant was sealed with blood as a sign that the covenant arrangements made at Sinai were literally a matter of life or death.

In verse 9, God calls Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and the seventy elders, as the representatives of all Israel, to the banquet of the covenant. In the ancient Middle East, covenants concluded with a banquet and God calls the representatives of the nation to a fellowship meal in his presence. Astonishingly, Moses records, ‘Against the great men of the Children of Israel, [HASHEM] did not stretch out his hand — they gazed at God, yet they ate and drank.’ Ancient Middle Eastern hospitality dictated that when someone invited you to their table they were under an obligation to do you no harm; as their guest, you were under their protection.

Following the meal, the elders returned to base camp but Moses went up the mountain where he received instructions for the construction of the Mishkan. Among the furniture of the Mishkan, or Tabernacle, was the ‘table of show-bread’ on which bread and wine were kept before God constantly. Every Sabbath, according to Leviticus 24:5-9, twelve unleavened matzot were placed on the table before HASHEM as a most holy memorial, an offering made by fire to HASHEM. But of what was the bread and wine a memorial?
Just as the Passover meal remains a memorial of the Exodus, the memorial on the table of ‘show-bread’ was, in Hebrew, the ‘Bread of the Face.’ In Exodus 23:17, the males of Israel were commanded to travel to Jerusalem at Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot to appear before ‘the face of HASHEM.’ The festivals were times of rejoicing and feasting, and the feasting no doubt commemorated the meal HASHEM provided at Sinai.

‘My soul thirsts for God, for the living God,’ cries the Psalmist in Psalm 42:2, ‘When shall I come and appear before God?’ In Hebrew the poet says, ‘When shall I come and see the face of God?’ The greatest blessing for an individual or a nation is the shining countenance of HASHEM. When the Psalmist longs for the coming of Messiah in Psalm 67 he prays, in accordance with the high priestly benediction of Numbers 6:24-26, that the face of God will shine on Israel.

Tractate Menachot 29a in the Talmud, informs us that at the festivals, when the men of Israel came to Jerusalem to see the face of God, the priests used to lift up the table of the Bread of the Face, exhibit the bread to the worshippers and declare ‘Behold, God’s love for you!

With no temple, high priest or atoning blood, how can Israel know the smiling face of God? How can the Jewish people see the face of God anymore? How can they behold the love of their God?

The answer is Messiah. Messiah who appeared, as foretold by Daniel, just prior to the destruction of the temple. Messiah who offered his life as an atonement to remove not only for the sins of Israel but also of the world. Messiah who endured the worst of all curses – the face of God turned from him – in order that HASHEM might smile on us. Messiah in whom is light and whose light is the life of all. Messiah, the light of God, who shines in the hearts of all who believe in him. Messiah who, because of God’s great love for the world, came into the world so grant eternal life to all who believe in him.

You’ll find no love greater than that. Ever!


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