Fourteen thousand feet above sea level the air gets kind of thin. It gets even thinner as a couple 50 year old men run (yes run) by. The runners were from back east who were spending their vacation time running up and down fourteeners (mountains whose peaks are between 14,000 and 15,000 ft above sea level) in the Rockies of Colorado. They passed me like I was was standing still. Mt. Princeton wasn’t a terrible climb, but it was long. I, along with about 10 other family members began our ascent around 630 and reached the summit around noon. The trek down was just as arduous. Later that afternoon, there was a picture taken of me asleep on a river bank with weary feet in the water. It was a cruel realization that I wasn’t physically what I used to be…and that is part of what makes me so interested in Exodus 19.
Moses was 40 years old when he struck the Egyptian and fled Egypt (Exodus 2.11-15; Acts 7.23). In Midian, he spent forty years following flocks of sheep over the same sands that he now walks. At 80 years old, Moses is now called into ministry. (Acts 7.30) On the very mountain that God would speak to him from a burning bush, Moses now speaks with the Lord agian. Instead of a burning bush, the whole mountian looked ablaze. Instead of an audience of sheep, an audience of God’s people. Exodus 19 is a precursor, a laying of ground rules, to everything that would eventually include the Book of the Covenant.
The first time, Moses came upon the burning bush and thought to himself: “I will go over and see this strange sight–why the bush does not burn up.” (Ex. 3.3) This “strange sight” [et-hammar’eh hagadol] conveys a great and powerful appearance. The NIV renders it strange sight, in sort of a “wow that’s odd” kind of way. The Hebrew seems to indicate the intensity of the situation to which Moses walked into in Exodus 3. However, Exodus 19 has Moses playing the runner between God and His people in a fascinating feet for a man of 80. In short:
- Moses went up the Mountain to God (Ex. 19.3). God told him that they were his “treasured possession” if they obeyed.
- Moses went down the Mountain to the people (Ex 19.7) where he gave them God’s message and he people responded that they would follow God.
- Moses went up the Mountain to give the people’s answer to the Lord. (19.8) God told them to get ready.
- Moses went down the Mountain (19.14) to tell the people to prepare for God to come down in the sight of the people (19.11)
- Moses went up the mountain when God had covered it with a cloud. (19.20) Again God warned the people not to touch the Mountain or approach it, but this time it was accompanied by some pretty awesome pyrotechnics. (Exodus 19.16-19) Next time he was to bring Aaron up with him.
- Moses went down the Mountain to the people (19.25) where, as I understand it and contrary to Charleton Heston’s interpretation, it seems that the Ten Commandments were given to the entirety of the people, spoken out of the cloud/smoke from the mountain. That is part of the reason the people pleaded with Moses “speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” (20.19)
- Moses went up the Mountain where he receives the rest of the book of the Covenant. (Ex 20.21)
Moses must have looked more like the runners than I did on my climb. An 80 year old man should not be climbing mountains, especially four times. If a moment is taken too bracket the discussions between Moses and the Lord with the ascents/descents of the Mountain, the structure of Exodus 19-20 takes on an interesting crescendo. On the first trip up, there was a short discussion, most of it centered on the identity of Israel (kingdom of priests; treasured possession). The second stay on top was a bit longer talk with God that was heavy on instruction about the Mountain and what was to happen. The third trip really built upon the second. Finally after all these trips up and down the Mountain, Moses and the people receive the 10 commandments. The foundational blocks upon which all else falls.
I was baffled that God, in His infinite wisdom and love, would ask an 80 year old guy to march up and down the path of Mt. Sinai. But I must ask: why? It communicates how much God went through to give His teaching, revelation, and instruction to man. Because it “was for our instruction” (Ex 24.12) that God gave his commands and decrees. The whole narrative, no matter the elevation of Moses, was about obedience and instruction. It wasn’t just God marking the spot with an X and Moses finding a stone with all the words inscribed on it. There was a lot to God communicating with man…even if it meant one man doing a lot of running.