We return to the Hebrew people, gathered around the Mountain of God, as they are being taught the basics of participation in the covenant of God. The pattern here continues to follow the typical covenant ceremonies that were common to the peoples of the Ancient Near East. These covenant ceremonies would be somewhat analogous to a modern state dinner given to celebrate a treaty of friendship or unity between a great king and a lesser king. One of the key differences here, though, is that this is no agreement between earthly kingdoms.
This is a covenant initiated by God to run between God and mankind, starting with the people of Israel. Among archaeology and such works as Ancient Near Eastern Texts Related to the Old Testament (yes, I have this book) you can discover non-Biblical examples of these events and discussions. Our example, though, comes from Exodus 24 (link). Let's take this through and see what happens:
First is the invitation of grace. Modern Americans generally live in such an egalitarian culture that we do not grasp these points of Scripture, but most of history has seen people live with boundaries about who can approach whom. For example, one does not simply stroll up to the Queen of England without showing due deference for her status and position. The greater the social and power distance between individuals, the further the physical distance has traditionally been kept.
Therefore, to be brought near to a ruler of substantially higher stature was an action of great grace. Well, grace or judgment: one could typically expect that if you were brought near the ruler of a people, it was either to be blessed or punished. It was not, though, for the lesser to force their way into the presence. Rather, the ruler held absolute right to invite those he wished.
Nor was it for an invitee to refuse to come. It was considered an honor to be named as worthy enough to enter—no refusal could dare be given! Even if one felt too low to accept, it was not that one's feelings that counted, but the declaration of the king. Now, amplify the distance and the power by multiplying it by 10 to the power of infinity, and that's what is happening here between the seventy elders of Israel, Nadab, Abihu, Moses, Aaron, and Joshua. It is an invitation of grace.
Second, though, we see that even that grace required a cost. As we see elsewhere in the Scriptures (Hebrews 9:22), the shedding of blood is required to atone for sin. As Christians, we look backward to the Cross to see the shed blood of Jesus as that atonement, but the Israelites looked forward to God accepting animal sacrifices through His grace. That is one of the next actions in this narrative: the sacrifice of animals to atone for sin.
The action in between the gracious invitation and the atonement is one of high importance. In the span of two verses, scarcely over 25 words in Hebrew, we see Moses recounting the words of God and the laws of God, writing them down, and the people committing to do "All the words which Yahweh has spoken!"
That's a big step. It's the acceptance of the covenant by the people of Israel, their effectual surrender to live life based on the covenant rather than by any prior plans. This is the moment that the rest of the Old Testament hinges around: without this point, God has no cause to send the prophets or even deliver the land into the hands of Israel. He has done all the work to bring Israel this far, and He puts the Word before them. Their surrender to His will is what comes next, and that is what happens. As such, they become His people. That's the deal.
Then, the seventy elders plus a few others go up on the mountain and eat a meal. This was part of the traditional covenant ceremony. While they are there, they see God. Seriously: Exodus 24:10. They see the God of Israel, yet the information that comes back about that meeting is twofold: first, the pavement under His feet. Really, of all that might have been visible, they barely see beyond whatever it is that God shows Himself as standing on. And it's a pavement that looks like a sapphire that is clear as the sky. Second, they come back marveling that God did not strike them dead.
After dinner, Moses and Joshua go up the mountain, the elders stay about halfway up the mountain and are told to wait there for Moses to come back. Moses disappears into the cloud, and there the people, the elders, and the story waits--
As to us, where are we? God calls us closer to Him, to hear His words, to follow His covenant. If we are not near enough that we marvel at His holiness and His grace, that we may come near and yet live, then we are not quite close enough.
Today's Nerd Note: Let us return to the treaty format and traditions that we see here. This is an example of the assumptions of a student or researcher bringing what is called 'confirmation bias' to a subject. We all have a tendency to come to an issue with presuppositions and then try to find support for those in our study.
This can be ok if the evidence is clearly in our favor. It is even acceptable if the evidence is clearly against your presupposition: you must then decide if you will follow the appropriate action and change your view or stay dogmatic against the evidence.
That bias, though, causes trouble when the evidence is ambiguous. There are several theories of the composition of Exodus and the remaining books of the Pentateuch. The prevalent theory for around 2700 years held Moses as the author, though a few minor adjustments may have been made by later scribes/editors. The last few centuries have seen an explosion of theories regarding sources and authors.
The covenant ceremony passages become a factor in those source/authorship discussions. Those who move authorship away from an eyewitness like Moses typically move the writing several centuries, if not a full millennium, after the events are claimed to have occurred. Some scholars will cite the similarity of the covenant ceremonies to other cultures of the mid-1400s B.C. as evidence that writers just copied those ceremonies and substituted God for king in them.
However, the other possibility is this: the ceremonies bear that similarity because they were done just that way. In the same way that one might pattern a ceremony like a wedding or house closing, God used a template that was known to the Israelites to express the events. They look like similar ceremonies because that is the intention.
Which is it? Well, that's where the bias comes in: I am personally biased toward a Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and so I see the ceremonies as authentic. I see very little reason why a group of scribes creating the Pentateuch during the era of Persia or Alexander the Great would research ancient (even to them) covenant ceremonies to fake it.
Those who start from the other direction see the scribes acting like some tired college students: cut and paste it from the web. That could be right, but I don't see it.