Restoring the image of God — Confrontation at Sinai

The Loving Heavenly Father entered the scene of rebellion, finding Adam and Eve hiding under a fig tree. The Man and Woman on whom He lavished His Eternal Love, to whom He had delegated the dominion of earth, whom He had created to stand tall, were now cowering under a bush.

When He spoke to them, the trust that once ran deep had been eviscerated by the knowledge of good and evil. That which flowed in their veins now spoke of murder, rage and vengeance. All he received back from them were excuses, half-truths and insinuations that it was all His fault.

Surely, the bond of unity between God and humanity (John 17:23) was broken (Genesis 2:17). Imagine how it pained the heart of God to pronounce His judgment—pain, domination, labour, exile, death.

And yet, in the middle of this heart-rending and tragic scene, God offers up a hope that would burn bright in the minds of this now-murderous, now-rage-filled, now-vengeful race of people. God said, 

“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your seed and her seed;
he shall bruise your head,
    and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15).

Mankind had been called to dominate creation, but had ignored God’s will. They who had been created in the likeness of God, had sought to BE GOD. Their eyes were opened, and they had plunged into darkness. And yet, in the midst of this tragedy, God’s words spoke of a struggle, a war, a hero who might take some punishment, but would dominate the snake to the point of crushing his head with a death-blow.

Somehow the domination mankind had fallen into would be reversed. Someone, some seed of the woman, would become humanity’s hero.

And so, in one strand of the story: the search for a hero. In the other strand: How would Adam and his seed now respond to the Almighty Creator? How would people who are born into Adam, who have this principle of sin flowing in their veins, respond to a just and holy God, whose Will is now at cross-purposes to their nature? And how would this just and holy God, whose Will Adam had departed from, and whose Commandment Adam had violated, now relate to this fallen, exiled, spiritually dead humanity?

The search for a hero, and the unveiling of two mysteries, is what constitutes the heart of the story that ensues.

The search for a hero commences

Perhaps Eve thought her first-born, Cain, might be the hero. She saw Cain as a blessing from YHWH (Genesis 4:1). YHWH instructed Cain to rule over the principle of sin, just as He had instructed Cain’s Father, Adam. With Adam, the principle of sin had been external to Him. With Cain, the principle of sin was now inside of him. 

“Sin is crouching at the door.
It’s desire is for you,
    but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7).

But Cain failed to rule the sin that lived within his flesh, and the murderous impulse that flowed in the vein of humanity sprang into life.

In Genesis 5, we read a summary of the state of mankind. Firstly, God’s design intent.

“When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created” (Genesis 5:1, 2).

But in contrast, the current state of play:

“When Adam lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image” (Genesis 5:3).

And so we learn that all humanity is born in Adam’s likeness and image: dominated; subservient; spiritually dead.

So, the search for a hero continued down the generations of men. But instead of a hero emerging, it was wickedness that emerged and flourished.

“YHWH saw that … every intention of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5).

The entire pattern and framework of human thought and feeling was corrupt. 

About the Law

I want to take a break from this story to discuss God’s Law. We frequently quote scripture that says, “Sin is the transgression of the Law” (1 John 3:4) and, “Where there is no law there is no transgression” (Romans 4:15) and “Sin is not charged where there is no law” (Romans 5:13). When we abstract these verse out of their original context, I think we often imply that people at this time lived in a libertarian, law-free paradise. A period of the world in which there is no possible consequence for sinning. But if that’s what we think, we're not coming to the right conclusion at all. 

For we’re ignoring Paul’s opening argument. Paul argues that knowledge of God’s divinity is obvious (Romans 1:20); that the natural state of humanity was to have a knowledge of God (Romans 1:21a); and that some Gentiles obey God’s requirements because it is written on their hearts (Romans 2:14, 15).

In other words, even though God’s Law may not have been proclaimed in Genesis, His Will was well known. Sin does transgress God’s law; but it also falls short of His Will. The heart and extent of God’s Will is and was obvious to anyone with a conscience.

God’s right to judge

So that’s why God is justified in pronouncing judgment on humanity—because humanity knows God’s Will, but is actively in rebellion, corrupting their consciences and forgetting Him, leading to all manner of lust and impurity (Romans 1:24).

Creational precepts

Now, if we’re reasoning preceptually, that’s all we need to say in order to establish the universal applicability of the precepts of God’s Will.

What precepts did we learn from Genesis 1? Let’s list some of them.

  1. The creation bearing testimony to God’s creative power.
  2. God’s establishing his rule here on earth.
  3. God’s authority to define food.
  4. His establishment of annual time-keeping.
  5. Sanctification of the Sabbath, established through God’s-Will-by-Word-And-Example.
  6. Establishment of marriage.

It is a simple logical deduction that each of these creational precepts are God’s will for humanity. Humanity is held to account when its knowledge of God is corrupted and lost; conversely, when humanity retains or regains its knowledge of God, it acts in correspondence with these precepts.

Legal precepts

For that matter, the basic extent of God’s Law is also being revealed through case law. Case law has so far revealed:

  1. Have no gods before Me (Genesis 3:5).
  2. Do not murder (Genesis 4:11). 
  3. Remember the LORD your God (Genesis 6:5).

This is a foundational revelation of Will and Law. One can logically derive the ten commandments from this set of precepts. All this knowledge was evident to humanity before the Flood; and it is evident, through revelation, inductive and deductive logic, to any inquiring mind today.

Paul’s assertion is a reasonable deduction of what we have now established.

“[Gentiles] show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (Romans 2:15).

God’s judgment on the world

Through Noah, God’s salvation of humanity is revealed; through Noah, God’s judgment against humanity is revealed (Hebrews 11:7). This establishes the precept of salvation and judgment being rendered simultaneously through the one action of God. The difference as to whether this action saved or damned you depended on whether you were inside or outside the ark.

God’s good creation is returned to the chaos of the waters. The waters immerse the land. When the land is resurrected, there is a new creation. This is the second major occurrence of the baptism typology. When God created the world, His Word immersed itself in the waters laying the foundation of the world, and light shone out of darkness. Here again, waters immerses the land, and what results is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).

When God forms a covenant with Noah, there is this scriptural hope that the worst is behind humanity. God has provided for a new creation. Humanity can start again. Surely this time through a family having found favour in the eyes of God (Genesis 6:8). But as quickly as that hope appears, it is dashed when Noah suffers the ignominy of drunkenness and it results in Noah cursing a member of his family. The evil of the former age has found its way into the remnant of God’s people.

God’s call for a renewed humanity

Rapidly now, people re-descend into idolatry and immorality. They gather together and focus enormous power and learning in rebellion against the Creator.

And within this environment, God calls Abram.

“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:1–3).

I want you to note God’s call here. His call to Abram is echoed by, “Come out of her my people” (Revelation 18:4). The purpose of His call is to bless “all the families of the earth.” This is a seminal moment. This is a moment when God’s everlasting purpose is revealed—that a people chosen out of this world will be vehicle of God’s blessing being received by the world. This is the fundamental precept that underpins all biblical discussion of election.

Notice that what was commanded of Adam, “Multiply and fill the earth” becomes a blessing for Abraham? There is a sense in which Abraham is being presented as a solution for Adam’s sin. For Adam received God’s judgment, but Abraham received God’s favour; Adam received a command to populate the earth; Abraham, while physically incapable of fulfilling that command, is blessed by God to enable Abraham to fulfil His Will.

So what do we find God saying of Abraham?

“Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes and my laws” (Genesis 26:5).

Where did these statutes and laws come from? We’ve already established that, for those who retained a knowledge of God, they were obvious.

The new people of God

So we see most of the inhabitants of the earth walking in rebellion to God. Yet here is Abraham, blessed by God, believing God, God counting it as righteousness to him, and Abraham responding in faith by obeying God’s voice, and keeping His charge, His commandments, His statutes, His laws. 

It looks like this might be going in the right direction? Could Abraham and his family be the answer to Adam? Would they be the vehicle for God’s blessing of the world? Would Abraham’s children follow in Abraham’s footsteps? 

God appeared to the child of promise, Isaac, and said,

“Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Genesis 26:3–5).

Thus the God of Abraham became the God of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham, and then Isaac, became a channel of blessing for his descendants. Although both of his twin sons, Esau and Jacob, were to receive the LORD’s blessings, it was the younger son Jacob who was the Lord’s choice as a source of spiritual heritage (cf. Gen. 25:21-23 with Gen. 27:1-29). It is not surprising, then, that in due course of time the Lord appeared to Jacob in a dream, saying:

“I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:13–15).

Note how this promise re-echoes promises made to Adam and Eve, to Noah, to Abraham, and to Isaac. This promise will continue to be re-echoed through God’s interaction with His people, for God does not change. Later, Jacob wrestles with God himself and obtains a new name: Israel, which means, “triumphant with God // who prevails with God”. 

And now, fast-forwarding several hundred years, is the new nation of Israel, triumphant with and prevailing with God, being called out of Egypt to offer sacrifices to God (Exodus 3:18, 5:3). Now God names Israel his firstborn son (Genesis 4:22). God has Israel cross beneath the waters of the Red Sea, which forms the third major type of baptism (1 Corinthians 10:2). Remember, the first type of baptism was when the Word of God plunged itself into the waters and light shone out of darkness. The second type of baptism was when floodwaters immersed the land, revealing a new creation when it receded. Now the third type of baptism results in a new people of God, a new nation emerging under the rule of God himself.

Now this new nation, Israel, arrives at Sinai, and God says to Moses,

“If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5).

This is the beginning of God forming a covenant with Israel. Notice that the purpose of the covenant is grounded in God’s rulership of the entire earth, King of all peoples. God calls all Israel to be a kingdom of priests and a national dedicated to Himself. 

In the scriptural narrative so far, the only priest of God Most High is Melchizedek; now Israel is being called to be a nation of priests. Notice that Melchizedek’s role in the story was to bless Abraham; now Israel is being called to bless the nations. Israel, God’s own son, is being called to be a treasured possession, representing God in a special way among all the nations of the earth. Hold your breath folks, for right here, it looks like the children of Abraham will indeed be the vehicle of blessing to the world!

Who is Israel?

Right now, we want to take short break from this story, and just reflect, Who is Israel? and What are her characteristics?

Israel is:

  1. A people living as recipients of God’s promises through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
  2. A people who receive God’s favour.
  3. A people who have, not a natural name, but a spiritual name.
  4. A people who are called to be priests, to represent God to a fallen humanity.
  5. A people who are to be holy, separate, undefiled, to demonstrate to the world what it is like to live with a holy God.
  6. A people with whom God is about to directly form a covenant relationship.
  7. A people who are about to hear the voice of God, and will be charged to hear His voice, and respond in faithful obedience.

So, ask ourselves, who is it that is camping at the foot of Sinai. Certainly, overwhelmingly, from a numerical perspective, there are the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But there are also a mixed multitude of people who have come out of Egypt. These too are camping at the foot of the mountain. These too are hearing the voice of God. And when God speaks to all Israel, all Israel responds with a single voice (Exodus 19:8; 20:18; 24:3).

It is clear that everyone who stands before God, everyone who enters into circumcision, everyone who responds by faith and obedience to the received rule of God, is incorporated into Israel (Deuteronomy 29:10–13). Right here, standing at Sinai, the status of being Israel is accorded to those who give allegiance to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whether or not they were themselves directly descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The covenant

And now, God speaks to Moses,

“If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5).

Notice, there are two requirements — obeying God’s voice, and keeping His covenant. To obey God’s voice, the people must hear that voice. To keep the covenant, they must receive that covenant.

“All the people answered together and said, ‘All that YHWH has spoken we will do’” (Exodus 19:8).

After three days of consecration, out of the darkness of the cloud, on top of the mountain, Israel heard God’s voice. Everyone heard the disembodied voice of God speaking on the mountain. All Israel heard the spoken Word of God.

Please look at Exodus 20:1 carefully. Ignore the sub-heading in your Bible. See that it says, “God spoke all these words saying”. Notice that it doesn’t say “ten” or “commandments”. The word “eser” (ten) and the word “mitsvah” (commandment) is not present. Nowhere in Torah is what God now says described as commandments. And in the three places in which these words are described as “eser” (ten), we must be aware that in Hebrew usage, the word “ten” can mean “many” or “all,” which is how they are used in the book of Job, among other usages. Therefore, what we know as the ten commandments, should probably be understood to be exactly how they are described here in Exodus 20:1 — all the words of God.

And what are these words of God?

The first word of God is this:

“I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2).

This is an identification of God. This is the rationale for the covenant God is entering into. And it sounds like the beginning of a national constitution. And it is an echo of the precept we previously heard, the precept in which God established His right to rule. Here, God is establishing his right to rule — based on both His creative act (think, the miracle that entailed the crossing of the Red Sea), and on His redemptive act (passing the people through the waters, and bringing them out the other side as a people, not as slaves).

The second Word of God, echoes something we have previously heard,

“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:3–6).

Do you notice that this is an explication of the precept that we obtained from Genesis 3:5? God is repeating a Word that was previously known. So why is He stating it here?

Having a god before God was directly involved in Eve’s temptation. She saw that she would be as God. Thus, putting a god in front of God Himself was clearly tied to the package of temptations she entered into. And the subsequent history of humanity showed that whenever people placed other gods before God, that they descended into idolatry and immorality (Romans 1:21–25).

The fourth Word of God expresses God’s Will,

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:8–11).

Here this creational institution is repeated to Israel. Here reminds Israel of His mighty action during creation, reminding all those who express allegiance to this god that He is the Creator, and He is calling them and pointing them back to His Will for them: coming under His Rule, expressing allegiance to Him through entering His weekly Rest, which signifies willing allegiance to God’s Rulership of the world. Truly this word is being made to Israel; yet it is a repetition of God’s Will as expressed for Adam.

The fifth Word of God again expresses His Will, 

“Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that YHWH your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12).

And the sixth Word, is an instruction that, again, echoes a judgment we have previously seen, 

“You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).

Notice that these Words are not unique. These words are repetitions of that which has been evident since the creation of the world. These words are expressions of God’s Will for Israel, as they had been and continue to be expressions of God’s Will for all humanity.

The covenant rules

Later, when Moses was on the mountain, God laid out in greater detail the exact implications of what His Will was for Israel. He instructed Moses with a set of rules (decrees). We can see that these rules are derivations of the Words God has just spoken. And the rules consist of case law about social relationships, economic principles, social justice, sabbatical years, weekly sabbath, annual festivals, the on-going Presence of God, the need to continue listening to this Voice (this Word).

When Moses returned from the mountain, Israel heard from Moses all these rules, and again,

“All the people answered with one voice and said, ‘All the words that YHWH has spoken we will do” (Exodus 24:3).

And Moses sealed the covenant with the blood of oxen. Israel has just formed a covenant with God Almighty, the Creator of the Universe, and now the Ruler in Israel.

Moses on the mountain

The Voice that had sounded on the mountain, now called again to Moses, instructing him to come up onto the mountain to receive tablets of stone containing the Words God had spoken to Israel.

So God’s own hand cut from a mountain the tablets of stone, and inscribed on them these Words that derive from the Eternal Will of God. These He gave to Moses.

And more. For God also instructed Moses on the design and plan of a sanctuary that was to be placed in the centre of the camp of Israel. He instructed Moses on sanctuary services. He instructed Moses in all the ways in which the holiness of Israel would be retained, and the on-going services a continuing sign of their loyalty to Him.

Moses in reflection

Over the next forty years, when Moses reflected on all these experiences, he realised that the Words, the Rules, the Judgments, the Laws, the Commandments which he had received all pointed to the spiritual reality of the intimate covenant relationship God desired with His people.

Moses, who had declared to Pharaoh that the people needed to go into the wilderness in order to sacrifice to their God, realised that the purpose of the people was not sacrifice, but  was this,

“And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good? Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the Lord set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart” (Deuteronomy 10:12–16).

Circumcise the foreskin of your heart. Moses reads the law of circumcision, and realises that it points to a greater spiritual reality. The physical action reminds Israel of the spiritual reality to which it points. So too, all the social laws, the economic laws, the civil laws, the food laws, the sacrificial laws, all point to realities that are greater than the black letter of the instruction within which they are written. These themes the future prophets of Israel would return to, again and again.

Tragedy

This story wants a triumphant ending. After all, that what Israel means, “Triumphant with God.” And yet, right when we are on the brink of the triumph of the story, tragedy strikes.

After hearing the disembodied Word of God sounding forth, Moses had told the people,

“Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin” (Exodus 20:20).

Yet within forty days of hearing these words, Israel abandoned the covenant.

In Exodus 32, we read of this tragedy,

“When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, ‘Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ So Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” (Exodus 32:1–4).

Do you notice the complete abandonment of the Words which God had spoken? Aaron contradicts God’s first Word, where YHWH declared Himself the One Who brought Israel out of Egypt. Now Aaron claims it is this calf which had done it. 

Aaron disobeys God’s second Word, making a graven image which the people put before the worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Notice also, Aaron says that this graven image will go before the people? Complete contradiction to the instruction Moses had received on the mountain for the people to obey the messenger (angel) in which God had placed His Name. 

This is a complete and utter abandonment of the covenant.

Moses realises the national constitution, the national covenant, has been abandoned, so he shatters the evidence of the covenant. God threatens to abandon and destroy Israel completely. 3,000 people die in a single day. 

The people who were called to be holy, separate, undefiled walk away from the covenant relationship, and Israel will never be the same again. Israel, God’s beautiful Israel, God’s holy nation, is irrevocably harmed. There are consequences for rebellion. Consequences that Adam knew all too well. Consequences which Noah knew all too well. Consequences which we thought may be reversed through Abraham’s children. But now we discover that even Abraham’s progeny are transgressors of God’s Law.

The consequences are felt immediately. God institutes the Levitical priesthood. No longer will Israel be priestly nation; now Israel will be a nation with priests. No longer will God’s sanctuary be positioned within the camp; now the sanctuary is positioned outside the camp. For the next forty years, no child born within Israel is circumcised. One wonders whether even the annual festivals are kept, for those who are not circumcised cannot participate. This is a terrible tragedy.

And it is not the last time that Israel rebelled, transgressed, sinned against the God of their forefathers during their desert wanderings.

The word Israel now sounds ironic — “triumphant with God” — succumbed to rebellion.

Now the explication of God’s Will and His Law to Israel stands like an accuser against them. Now when Israel look at it, they don’t see the Words which they can keep, but they see Words which testify against them. They see Words which pronounce their doom.

And yet, and yet, in the heart of the sanctuary service, perhaps they see the glimmer of a way back. For they see a God who pardons a sin that is repented of. They see the truth of a God who is more faithful than they.

Prophecy

And so, at the end of Moses’ life, he utters a prophecy that foretells Israel’s future (Deuteronomy 28–30). He tells of a blessing that would accrue if they obey the Voice of God. He tells of curses that will come upon them if they disobey the Voice of God. He tells them that should they continue disobeying the Voice of God, that He will exile them among the nations.

“And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. And the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:1–6).

Moses prophesies that the God who first commanded Adam to multiply and fill the earth, granted grace to Abraham, enabling him to do so. Now Moses is saying that God who said to Israel, obey and live, is now promising to graciously perform the circumcision of the heart that Israel simply cannot do for herself. For that is the graciousness of God that defines Who He Is.

Lessons

What have we learned?

  1. The scriptural story revolves around a search for a hero to undo Adam’s sin.
  2. It also revolves around a history of God’s dealings with a particular family of Adam who is called by God for the blessing of all nations on earth.
  3. God’s Will is immutably established at Creation, and subsequent proclamations mirror the content of this Will.
  4. The people of Israel is a spiritual designation, who have a range of explicit characteristics. Interestingly, physical descent from Abraham is NOT required in order to be counted an Israelite; but willing acceptance of and entrance into the covenant of God is indeed the qualification necessary to be counted an Israelite. 
  5. As Christians, we need to recognise the grace of God working its way through this story of triumph and tragedy. That which Man cannot do for Himself, God does on His behalf. This is a precept that continues to flow through the heart of the story of God and Israel; and it continues to flow through today.