In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
As far as the Law is concerned, we’ve been trying to take a large-scale view of things, trying to locate the Law within the context of what God is doing to create a people (i.e. Israel). I’m hoping that this helps us know what to do with these passages as you read them, and at the same time not get bogged down in them. Therefore, I would encourage you to not skip over the Law passages.
Today, we will wrap up our discussion of Law in the book of Exodus. We will probably spend a little bit of time on the Law portions in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but we don’t want to lose track of our overall approach to our Old Testament Survey (and reading of the Bible), which is to understand the story – the story of God’s redemptive purposes for creation.
Our passage today is sort of a mid-way point in the presentation of the Law. We’re actually going to be considering a greater portion of the Law in Exodus. But it’s a useful stopping point because, in the midst of God’s giving of the Law, we see the Israelites apparently committing to the covenant enacted by God. This becomes especially poignant when we come to the later passage in Exodus where the Israelites abruptly turn away from YHWH and to gods of their own making. Now we’ve already spent time going over principles for reading and understanding the Law, so I don’t want to go over old territory. However, I do want to add one more piece of information that I hope will be helpful and add to your appreciation of what’s going on.
When we look at the Pentateuch, specifically the portions on the Law, we will see that there are four main sections of Law. (As usual, people will agree or disagree to various degrees on this kind of categorization).
- Exodus 20-23: What’s known as the Book of the Covenant (including the Decalogue). Including the Ten Commandments, this generally covers laws which demonstrate how the Israelites are to conduct themselves. This includes things like: Treatment of slaves; Laws around property (e.g. livestock); Laws about society (widows, foreigners, family, inheritance); Laws around bearing false witness, taking advantage of people, etc.; Laws regarding Sabbath (which includes dealing with the land).
- Exodus 25-50: Tabernacle Laws: These are Laws pertaining to worship.
- Leviticus: Expands on the Tabernacle Laws: Includes laws on offerings; Laws about purification; Laws regarding holiness. These are often considered as connected to but distinct from Tabernacle Laws, per se.
- Deuteronomy: Deuteronomic Laws: Essentially a re-iteration, a second-giving, of the laws as the Israelites prepare to enter the promised land.
For our purposes today, we want to pay special attention to the laws given in the second half of Exodus (and continuing in Leviticus – though we are not considering those). My basic point is that these laws have to do with worship. And that this is because worship is central and constitutive of who Israel is. Worship connects the people with God.
Now this may seem obvious, but I hope we can understand this more fully. The tabernacle laws in Exodus, and the laws found in Leviticus regarding offerings, purification, holiness, are passages of scripture that we often struggle with. There is so much cultural distance between these laws and our lives today that we don’t know how to understand them or apply them – they seem completely irrelevant to life in 21st century Canada.
The tabernacle, and then the temple, were to be the dwelling place of God. They were to reflect the creation of God and God’s lordship over all of it. In the tabernacle, the people were to encounter this God, their redeemer God. It was because of this that the temple became so closely related to the identity of the Israelite people.
It seems significant to me that so much sheer space is devoted to instructions on worship. Now part of this is probably simply that the nature of the material lends itself to requiring a lot of detailed explanation. The material on the building on the tabernacle can’t be given in general terms (imagine if we were building a house and the architect’s instructions to the contractor was “about yay big”). But it seems to me that the fact that so much space is devoted to worship is noteworthy.
So I have a few thoughts about worship that I thought I’d share. Note that it would be a stretch to say that any of these are derived from the Exodus passages on Tabernacle Law. These are simply my thoughts, inspired by the fact that scripture seems to say (clearly, to me) that worship matters.
So firstly, worship is not about us; it’s about God. Again, the tabernacle was the dwelling place of God. The people went to meet God (this required purification). We frequently say things in our worship like “God, meet us here,” which seems like an innocent enough thing, but it might reveal a human-centered idea of what’s going on.
Secondly, and because of the first point, worship is more about what we give than what we get. Worship has a strange place in contemporary, evangelical, protestant Christianity. I want to preface this by saying that this is only one side of the coin. The other side is that real, genuine, sincere worship happens all the time, even within the midst of worship that is “problematic.”
Frequently, I encounter situations or people where we talk about worship being “good.” “That was a good worship service,” or “I really felt God moving in that service,” or some permutation of that. Again, I want to note that there’s nothing really wrong with any of that. I suppose the question I have is, what are we really saying? Often, I worry, that what we are saying is something along the lines of, “I enjoyed that,” or “I got something out of it.” Sometimes it’s evaluated by or accompanied with some sense of emotional response. Occasionally it’s determined by how many hands are raised or how many people come up to the altar call. Sometimes it’s as simple as, I learned something new or the pastor said something I already agree with. But whatever the metric, the problem arises when what lies behind the judgement is myself as the center. What did I get out of it versus what did I give to God.
A sub-point to this is that we are called to give our best to God. (I don’t mean to pick on anyone, nor do I have anyone in mind, but…) Worship is not something that we do only when we have nothing better going on. Nor is worship something that we do when we’re feeling down and we need a pick me up. At the same time, we don’t worship simply because “that’s what you’re supposed to do,” as if we’re earning religious points.
Now we all have good days and bad days, and some days we are more present than others. So this doesn’t mean that, for example, if we’re not feeling up to it, then we “shouldn’t” participate in worship. Rather, what I mean is that, in whatever state we find ourselves, we should be offering God our best.
Third, worship, as I’ve said, is constitutive of the people of Israel. Worship is related both to formation and to identity of the people of God. This makes sense because if who we are and who we are becoming flows out of the character, nature, and purpose of God, then we must orient ourselves to God. Because God is not an abstract idea but a divine, three-in-one person, because He has qualities of faithfulness, graciousness, righteousness, Loving-kindness, we worship. And because He is sovereign, because He alone is the ruler and the judge, we remind ourselves of who we are in God’s creation in worship. A negative way to say this is that when we lose worship as a central element of our faith, we risk losing touch with our identity as the people of God.
Simply put, worship matters. It’s not a tack-on; it’s not an after-thought. Worship matters because God matters. Not because God “gets something out of it,” like an ego boost or something. Worship matters because God is God and we are not. Worship allows us to orient our lives around this basic and foundational truth.
I think, again, that this may be why the bible has so much to say about worship – the tabernacle laws, the priests, and etc. I think this is why God commands that the instructions for the tabernacle are to be followed precisely, and built by skilled workers who have been blessed by God.
Now what does have to do with today’s passage. Honestly, not much. As I said, we’re looking at our passage today sort of just as a placeholder as God gives Israel the Law. But it seems to me that the Israelite leaders, in the course of events, missed this (worship). In our passage, after the giving of the book of the covenant, God once again re-institutes the covenant with His people. The Israelites were all too willing to accept God’s covenant after they had been rescued from Egypt, had their enemies destroyed, received water and quail and manna in the desert. It was all too easy to simply say, “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey.” (24:7b)
But, as we’ll see in only a few chapters, the Israelites quickly forgot the covenant. They quickly lost sight of who God is and who they were as God’s people. We will see in the golden calf incident (Ex. 32) that they precisely lost sight of the fact that they were called to serve God, not the other way around. So because God didn’t live up to their expectations (which, incidentally were remarkably inane – they had to wait), they made their own gods according to their own preferences. Now I’m not suggesting that the Israelites betrayed God because they didn’t worship. But I do think that they lost sight of who God was and, therefore, who they were in light of the calling of God.
So What Now…?
It matters. It matters that we remember who God is. It matters that we remember that our lives are because of Him. It matters that neither height nor depth, neither angels or demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. When our lives are centered around worship, and when our worship is centered around God, rightly understood as revealed in scripture, we are guarded against these tendencies. When we worship, we remember that we are the people of God.