What if I told you that God gave Moses the constitution? Yep. That’s right! I’m perfectly serious about this. Around 3000 years ago God gave Moses the constitution.
Oh. You thought I was talking about the Constitution of the United States? No. But that might make for a fun storyline in some kid’s adventure book. The constitution about which I am talking is the one written for the kingdom of Israel. The one God gave to Moses to create a newly formed kingdom nation.
Before you dismiss this as wacked out weirdness, hear me out. It all goes back to the time when God’s people who were descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob settled in Egypt. Initially, what was once a small tribe led by Jacob and his sons that ended up in Egypt due to famine in their homeland. You can read about it in Genesis chapters 46-50.
Flip over to the book of Exodus and you will read how this tribal group grew to quite a sizable nation. Some say with a population of at least one million. Because they were not Egyptian, in fact they were descendants of the Semites who lived between a rock and a hard place near Babylon, the Egyptian leaders decided to force them into slave labor. They were enslaved some time during the four hundred years they resided in that region. Things got really bad for Israel. So like we all tend to do when things get really, really bad, they cried out to God. God heard them. However, God did not answer the way they wanted. Lesson: beware for what you pray.
Exodus tells us God raised up an Israeli who was also the adopted grandson of Egypt’s grand leader. Moses was his name; a version of an Egyptian name. Though an entrenched Egyptian citizen Moses had a concern for his blood relatives. One day he saw an Egyptian severely abusing one of his kinfolk, so he became furious with the Egyptian, killed the guy, got scared, ran away, found seven women being harassed by a bunch of bully shepherds, chased off the bullies, and met the women’s father who was a priest in the land of Midian. The priest invited Moses to live among them. The priest, Reuel (not related to Kalel, aka Clark Kent the Superman) liked Moses so much that he gave Moses one of his daughters to marry. Zipporah was her name, not to be confused with Zippo the name of a lighter company. Mo and Zip lived happily ever after.
Well, if you can call living in the middle of some desert as a nomadic shepherd a happy life then that’s what they had. He and his wife had a son. And sheep. And probably a motor home. They were living the life, minding their own business for a long time. Then, one day Moses decides to take a hike up a mountain, something Coloradoans understand. While on this hike he comes to a bush that seems to be on fire. Yet the bush is not burning up. Instead, the bush talks to him. I don’t know about you but if I went on a hike up one of our mountains, saw a bush that was on fire but not burning up and it started talking to me, I’d pass out. Not Moses. He was one cool and courageous dude.
Turns out, it was God speaking through the burning bush. Not just any god, and not one of the Midianite gods, or anything like one of the Egyptian gods. This was the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob who could be heard but not seen. Back then, it was standard for the gods to be seen and not heard. God told Moses that he was going to use Moses to set his home folks free. You never know what your day may bring, especially if you hike up a mountain. Can you imagine how Zipporah handled the news when Moses came home from work that night? Okay, so ends the happily ever after, right?
You probably know the rest of the story? After arguing with God, Moses does what is told and heads back to Egypt to lead God’s people out of there. Moses, with his degree from the university of Egypt, experience as a shepherd, a bully buster with a big stick went to Egypt. Moses and his stick went to take on a major leader thought to be a god, who had a world-class army. Isn’t it odd how God does that? Moses had a stick, Samson had his hair, and David had a slingshot. They all confronted powerful armies, but did so with all that they needed: the Almighty God at their back.
God does some stunningly remarkable miracles. Destruction, bloodshed, terror was repeatedly poured out upon Egypt until Egypt got in over their heads and lost big time. Israel was free to leave. And leave they did.
Once they got out into the desert a major challenge confronted them – what kind of leadership and government would they have? The Egyptians believed their king was possessed by one of the gods, and for the most part the religious priests ran the government. No separation of church and state there. The people of Israel were influenced by Egyptian culture.
Israel knew very little about their God. They had the oral traditions passed down for four hundred years. Now, all of a sudden their God spoke directly to Moses. Moses was no man-god. The true and living God did not speak through wood or stone idols. They had no priests to run a government, though they did have elders. Later on, their familiar Egyptian traditions influenced them to make a statue through which this invisible God would speak. At least, that is what they wanted. God and Moses rejected the gold calf they made. This was all uncharted territory. What would they do?
God always communicates to people in ways people can grasp.
He uses familiar customs, traditions and languages but in ways that do not compromise his essence or his plan. To resolve Israel’s challenge of a new government God used an ancient near eastern system many people groups of that region used. What was that system?
Well, there was the king. For smaller tribes this would be someone like a sheik. Large cities or city-states would have kings. Successful kings gained more power and control over other clans, tribes, cities and states. These kings would typically claim to be man-gods. When a powerful king conquered lesser kings or leaders he would draft a covenant treaty. The covenant spelled out how the conquered people would live under the new king.
The king’s covenant treaty was typically organized in this way:
• It began with a preamble. This introduction recorded the bragging rights of the great and powerful boss. He would boast about how wise, strong, virile, and handsome he was.
• This was followed with a history of his accomplishments such as whom he conquered and how he did it.
• Then came the stipulations. This outlined what the great king will do, which was usually a promise to send troops to help fight off little kings’ enemies. It listed what the conquered people and lesser kings had to do, such as adopt the great king’s god as their main god, pay taxes, obey the kingdom rules, and not rebel.
• The covenant made it clear that the conquered people belonged to the king and he could do with them whatever he wanted.
• A clause in the treaty instructed that the original document would be put in a treasure box located at the base of the main god’s idol. This box was called the footstool, for obvious reasons. A second main copy would be given to the lesser kings, which they had to store it in their god’s footstool-box. The big god was supposed watch over and protect the treaty. This god would also know who was naughty and who was nice. The clause also said that the treaty had to be read to the people during religious feast days, so other copies would be made and given to the elders, civic authorities, and judges of the conquered people.
• The treaty invoked other gods as witnesses to the covenant. In other words, these lesser gods were there to back up the treaty.
• Finally, the covenant was unilateral. That meant it was imposed on the people whether they liked it or not. If the people listened and obeyed then they would be blessed. Blessing would mean being able to live, to trade with the king’s city, and to seek help from the army if attacked. If they rebelled and broke covenant they would be cursed and pay the consequences, like slavery or death.
In essence, these covenant treaties became the constitutions for the kingdoms.
God used this very familiar government arrangement for his newly formed kingdom nation
– but with a significant twist. The invisible God is the mighty sovereign king. No man could claim that spot. This Sovereign King was the powerful ruler who rescued a people, not conquered a people (Exodus 19). God redeemed his people from slavery, he did not enslave his people. The preamble in Exodus 19 is God’s self-declaration and legitimate bragging rights. It also declared what kind of God-King he was.
Whenever a king gained victory over other groups he had a parade and a major celebration. In that celebration the priests would use fire and loud drums and horns and choirs of priests and priestesses to make frightening noises to show how powerful the god-king was. When the Lord gave his covenant to Moses, Israel’s representative, he did so with his own show of power. Displays of thunder, lightening, thick clouds, darkness, trumpet-like noises, smoke, fire, earthquakes and then his voice (Ex. 19:16). Why? To show what real power and might is. This Sovereign Lord did not need people to conjure up pretended power. Just as Pharaoh came up with magic acts to demonstrate he was a might god, God showed what real power and control was. Anything he could do God could do better. Thousands of times better! He not only has power, he is power and a consuming fire like no other (Heb.12:29). God put on his own display to elicit fear in his presence, to confirm the mediator of the covenant, threaten all false god-kings, and to back up this kingdom constitution.
It was on the Day of Assembly (Deut. 9:10; 10:4; 18:16) when this Sovereign King issued his unilateral treaty. This constitution established his people as a new kingdom-state. Unlike all other covenants dictated by the big king to his legal secretaries, this treaty was written by God’s own hand (Ex. 31:18 cp. Deut. 9:10).
The Lord wrote it in the familiar form of an ancient near eastern covenant suzerain treaty:
• There was the preamble (Deut. 1:1-5). Unlike worldly kings, God didn’t take volumes to brag. He did not need to.
• The historical background of the Sovereign Lord is given (Ex. 20; Deut 1:6; 4:1).
• God presents a simple list of stipulations. These are the Ten Words (Deut. 5:26). This was unlike the long lists human kings wrote. These ten words were unlike the harsh words of the typical egomaniacal human kings. The Ten Words summarized what the relationship between God and his people was to be like. They also told how his people should relate to one another. All relationships would be from love. They would love their God-King as he loves them (Commandments 1-3). They would love one another in the same way that they love themselves (Commandments 5-10). They would take a special day to worship and celebrate their God-King, enjoy his presence, practice living by faith, be thankful for his blessings and protection, and then reorient their lives and time so that they could properly relate to others (Commandment #4).
• God made two copies. One for himself as King and one for the main representative of the people. Handwritten copies circulated among the leaders. Moses was unique in many different ways. He was the mediator between God and God’s kingdom people, but he was not a lesser king. He never tried to be. In the ancient near east the expectation would have been to make a leader like him into a king or for him to claim kingship. Also, Moses was not a high priest, though he did priestly things. He was the voice for God. Supposedly, statue-idols were the mouthpieces for those gods and goddesses. Moses was a human, but he spoke for God as a prophet.
• God’s covenant constitution also had a special clause that told where the covenant would be placed: in the footstool box of the only living God. In God’s own handwriting the Ten Words were written on a tablet (not to be confused with an iPad or other tablets). The second copy was written on another stone tablet. Both were placed in an ark. An ark is simply an old word for box. This Ark of God’s Covenant sat in the holiest of all places at the symbolic feet of this invisible, but very real God King (1 Chron. 28:2; Psa. 99:5; Psa. 132:7).
• Copies of this covenant constitution was read often, especially on feast days.
• This treaty invoked the heavens and earth as witnesses since there are no other gods who could be witnesses.
• And finally, the constitution declared the sanctions of curses for disobedience and blessings for obedience.
Why this history lesson?
If you’ve read this far, congratulations! Bear with me a little longer. Here are important things you need to know if you wish to get a grip on the whole point of God’s Law. This lesson provides some of the behind the scenes perspective for why the Ten Commandments exist.
The first main reason why the Ten Commandments (called The Ten Words in Israel’s ancient language) were originally given to Israel was to form his people into a different kind of national kingdom. It was their national constitution.
The Ten Words are the foundation and the bare bones for how to live with God as Lord and how to live with others in the kingdom whose God is their Lord. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy build upon the foundation and add meat to the bones. So, the first reason for the Old Covenant Law was to serve as the civil-religious constitution for the Kingdom of Israel.
The core of the covenant constitution was love. This is very important to understand. This invisible but only true and living God was unlike all other gods. He was and is real. They were not. He is just and righteous. The other kings were selfish though sometimes had righteous laws. God is gracious and merciful (Exod. 34:6). They rarely were. The kings ruled out of selfish might with the backing of the army. The basis of their relationship with their people was out of terror. Contrary to common complaints about the “God of the Old Testament” being cruel and mean who gave his law to abuse people or to taunt them with failure, he did so out of love (Deut. 5:10; Deut. 7:7-13). Yes, the Lord ruled with the force of creation to back him up. While the Lord was to be greatly feared the basis of his relationship with his people was out of love.
The second main reason for the Old Covenant Law was to show that the moral basis for all relationships is God’s love (Deut. 7:6-11; Zech. 14:9). Failure to love God and love others breaks relationships; even destroys them through contempt, divorce, murder, theft, and greed. The ultimate expressions lead to self-destruction, wars, and the like.
Overall, God’s kingdom constitution was a system to show what life would be like if everyone had a great relationship with this One True God (Deut. 6:24-25), and lived together with hearts of love expressed through authentic compassion, mercy and grace. If only God’s kingdom people took it to heart and not merely practiced it as a mechanical system.
This covenant treaty was the big blueprint, the overall picture and description of life in God’s kingdom (Deut. 10:12-21). How could they live in this way? By real faith that came from the heart, soul, mind and strength lived out through love (Deut. 6:1-6; Deut. 8:2; Deut. 11:13-14). The natural consequences God set up for a life of faith and love would bring many tangible blessings (Deut. 7:12-15).
The Lord told them how to live as his kingdom people. He told them they were to respond out of a faith-filled obedience. He said they had to live this way only. He gave promises for blessing and warnings of cursing (Deut. 28). However, he also predicted that they would fail miserably and warned them of the horrible, devastating consequences (Deut. 30). Israel’s God-King said time and again (Deut. 8) that without faith-filled obedience flowing from hearts of love they could not enter or retain the real estate God was giving for the Kingdom. At the same time, there was no divine enablement and guarantee by grace for them to love, trust and obey God. As it turned out, the first kingdom generation did not even move into the real estate God promised because they did not obey, and they did not obey because they did not believe (Deut. 9:1-7; Rom. 11:20; Rom. 11:31; Heb. 3:1-4:2). The later generations would also end up lacking faith and love, even though several generations tried to work the outward system without the inward soul (Matt. 23:27-29).
What is in it for me?
The description for what it is like to live in God’s kingdom is the same today as it was way back then. The requirement to have faith in the One True God-King is the same. The expectations and need for living a life of heart-felt, expressed love for God and for others is the same. The warnings against merely having outward performance and standards are the same. The failure rate is about the same.
Yet, other things are different now. How? Take a break, rest your eyes, and think about what you’ve just read. I’ll be back later with how things are different.