Exodus 20 – Dangerous Presence

Exodus 20 Bible with Justins Dark Chocolate Organic Peanut Butter Cups
No, this isn’t another Justin’s Week. We are merely observing Justin Monday; another Justin’s week would just be extravagant. Rest assured that tomorrow we will have a different chocolate.

Today’s ChocolateJustin’s Dark Chocolate Organic Peanut Butter Cups

Today’s PassageExodus 20

Welcome to the Ten Commandments, also referred to as the Decalogue. In Judaism, they’re known as the Aseret ha’Dibrot, which might be translated “the Ten Sayings,” “the Ten Statements,” or, as my dad is fond of putting it, “the Ten Words.” They’re not technically imperative sentences, but they do prescribe certain behavior, or more accurately, they proscribe certain behavior. And they certainly are sayings, as the chapter says right out the gate that God says them.

I can’t help but conclude that, here on Mount Sinai, God is audibly saying all of these things. The people react with fear after he delivers the Decalogue. They beg Moses to go back to mediating for them, saying, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we will die” (19). In the previous chapter, God’s messages to Moses appear to be preparing the Israelites to hear his actual voice, and after he has spoken, they find his words as harrowing as the thunder and trumpets of the previous chapter.

God humors the people’s request for a go-between. But he sends Moses back with a message that begins, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘You yourselves have seen that I have spoken to you from heaven…’’” (22). God uses the verbal form dabar (“to speak”) of that same word ha’Dibrot (“the Sayings”). We see the same verb used for out-loud speech by both God and man in such passages as Genesis 18, in which Abraham has a conversation with three men, at least one of whom is in some sense the one true God. The word appears 1,144 times in the Bible, and while the NASB may sometimes translate it as “talk” or “promise” or such, it translates a whopping 914 of those forms of dabar as some variation of “speak.” It’s a word for saying things, and I can only conclude that God actually said these words.

Even though the text doesn’t identify God as manifesting bodily here, God’s presence on Sinai has an undeniable physicality to it. It brings with it thick clouds, lightning, earthquakes, and an actual speaking voice that makes the people fear for their lives. Cartoonist David Willis, as a punchline, has his aggressively Protestant character Joyce describe God’s presence in church as “like double-ply.” But if God is omnipresent, we must still conclude that his presence admits of degrees. Sometimes he is more in location X than location Y.

Just as when we are in a room of a house, we are more present in that room than in any other room (while still being present in the house), so God is present in the world, but more present at certain places during certain times. And here on Mount Sinai, God draws back the curtains and allows himself to be dangerously present.

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