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Exodus 24:12-18 Forty days and forty nights

Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights, and not only on the mountain but in the midst of the cloud that had appeared there, so in the presence of the Lord. Before thinking more about this we need to place this event within the narrative of the book of Exodus; where does this event fit in the story?

At the beginning of chapter nineteen we read that “at the third new moon,” so just three months after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, “on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai.” They camped in front of the mountain and following Moses’ command they prepared to meet God. They ceremonially washed and prayed and on the third day the Lord descended to the mountain in fire and smoke. Moses ascended and there received the words of the Lord, which were the Ten Commandments and the covenant between God and his people Israel. God promised to protect and guarantee Israel’s destiny and Israel n return consecrate themselves to the Lord and live by his rule. Moses came down the mountain to tell the people all that he had been told – the people agreed with the law and the covenant saying “All the words the Lord has spoken we will do.”

Sacrifices were made, blood was dashed on the altar and upon the people so consecrating their solemn and binding agreement.

Now we reach this morning’s reading: “Come to me on the mountain” said the Lord, “and I will give you tablets of stone.” The covenant and the law had already been accepted so the tablets of stone, like all good legal documents in duplicate, were a formalising of an agreement by then already in place. Entering the cloud, Moses received additional instruction concerning the building of the ark for the covenant, a table, a lamp stand, an altar, the tabernacle itself together with rules for priestly garments and for consecrating priests, all of which is recorded in detail.

Meanwhile down below the people were unhappy: Moses had been gone a long time. “When the people saw that Moses was long in coming down the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said “Come let us make gods who will go before us; As for this fellow Moses who brought us out of Egypt we do not know what happened to him.” They gathered their gold earrings and ornaments together and fashioned the golden calf. When Moses next came down the mountain carrying the two tablets of stone he saw the revellers dancing around the calf  and he became angry – his anger burned hot – he threw the tablets from his hands breaking them at the foot of the mountain.

At the beginning of the forty days and forty nights, the people had accepted the covenant, indeed seventy of the elders had gone partway up the mountain with Moses and seen for themselves the evidence of God’s presence, the first commandment said “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, you shall have no other gods but me.” And it was amplified by the second “you shall not make for yourselves an idol.” And yet those forty days and forty nights seemed too long to wait, the calf was made and the covenant was broken and the tablets themselves broken in symbol of the disaster.

The “in between times” are difficult – as modern Christians we have seen and have the accounts of Jesus a new covenant was made “You shall love the Lord you God and your neighbours as yourself.”   Yet like our ancestors we are surely surrounded by those making false idols. The story of the forty days and nights continues.

But of course the story of the book of Exodus did not end where I left it: Moses went again up the mountain taking two new tablets with him and God inscribed the same words upon them – the covenant was renewed and God revealed as recorded in exodus chapter 34 that he is

“merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”   


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