Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Bible Road Trips: The Long Sojourn at Sinai

The Bible has many stories of roads and highways. This is an occasional series of meditations based on those scriptures.

The Long Sojourn at the Mountain
Exodus 19-Numbers 10

Journeys to mountains make for great trips. I remember a childhood trip to Pike’s Peak; we didn't get to the top, because of Mom's acrophobia, but I remember the spectacular view going up. When she lived in Alaska during her college years, my wife Beth made a trip to Denali, then still called Mount McKlinley. Living in proximity to mountains is wonderful. One of the happy periods of my family’s journey together were the years we lived in Flagstafff, AZ, at the foot of the San Francisco Peaks. I loved the way the clouds formed and and sometimes obscured the peaks, and I understood why mountains and their meteorological phenomena have tremendous significance in many religious traditions.

I’ve never been to Mount Sinai (Mount Horeb) in the southern Sinai region, although some of my colleagues have. This mountain is the traditional site of the giving of the Torah to the people. Two or three other mountains have also been claimed as the place.

In this lesson, I’m thinking about the Israelite's long journey through the wilderness, but specifically, their sojourn at the mountain, where God gave them the laws and commandments.

Many Christians don’t turn to the Torah as often we we should. We become intimidated by the many laws that were not meant for us Gentiles to follow anyway. Laws that seem picky us (abstention from certain foods, prohibit from blending kinds of cloth, capital punishment for offense that don’t seem so serious) are brushed aside as somehow representative of all the law, and we forget the moral grandeur of laws such as love of neighbor, care for the poor, ways to prevent permanent indebtedness, hospitality and compassion for strangers, and others (not the mention the Ten Commandments). We’ve little idea how the rabbis over the centuries have honored the laws—-even declaring that certain laws are most important, like those regarding the care of the poor. We also miss how foundational many ideas and themes of the Torah are for Christian life and experience—Creation, covenant, God’s identity as a savior, God’s concern for ethics and morality and holiness, the creation of God’s people (Jesus’ own people, the Jews), and others.

For Jews, these laws and stories are a beautiful gift from God, to be read for daily living, understanding, and devotion. I discussed in my Lenten study (1) that about 300 of the laws can still be followed today (out of the original 613). If a law seems strange and even contradictory, or if the law can no longer be followed, Jews will try to deepen their understanding of that law rather than waving it aside. If you ever want to do a really, really serious Bible study, the Torah laws would be a good focus.

A large portion of the story of Moses and the people is focused on the long sojourn at the mountain. In the Bible, this sojourn begins at Exodus 19, proceeds through the rest of Exodus and through Leviticus, and finally ends at Numbers 10. Much of the forty-year wilderness experience is skipped in the biblical narrative, but the covenantal time at Sinai occupies much space.

But since the Israelites were journeying to their promised land, why didn't God wait until the people were safely there, or close to it? Jewish commentators have thought about why God chose this remote and inhospitable location for such a momentous event.

I’ve a wonderful set of books by Harvey J. Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times (URJ Press, 1993). In volume three, Fields writes that the question has been raised by great Jewish thinkers over the centuries. “Why does so much importance in Jewish history happen in the Midbar—in the desert?” (p. 9). The answers have been varied the historian and statesman Abba Eban suggested that the long sojourn was for strategic reasons, to build the people’s strength so they could eventually conquer the land (p. 9). The ancient philosopher Philo said that while the cities are filled with luxury and corruption, the wilderness was a more pure place, that is, it was separated from the temptations of urban society, and as such it was more suitable for learning the Torah. Rabbi Akiba believed that the wilderness was a place of suffering for the Israelites, and their trials “allowed them to merit receiving the priceless gift of Torah” (p. 10). (Akiba himself died a terrible martyr’s death.) Other writers, states Fields, have called the wilderness time an enduring model for Jews, who are so often persecuted and, historically, have been forced to uproot from their countries. The fact that the Torah was a wilderness gift has helped Jews to remain focused upon God through years of difficulty and tragedy, via love and study of Torah.

We Gentiles can humbly learn from the Israelites and their descendants the Jews. Times of prosperity and well-being may certainly be times of closeness to God. (Job, prior to his sufferings, was a notably devout and caring person.) But times of trouble, loneliness, and uncertainty can also be very powerful times when God teaches us. (Perhaps that is why there are Bibles in motel rooms, when a person might seek God while lonely and far from home.) Difficult times can be moments when Bible promises really open up and become “proved” in our experiences.


(1) Walking with Jesus through the Old Testament (Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), p. 81.

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