Back on Wednesday morning, I heard a little homily about Moses standing in the breach for Israel, looking at Exodus 33:12-23, and I found that it connected back to a recent study of Galatians wherein the topics of covenant, promise, and law were meticulously explored. The relevant pieces are here and here.
The situation by Exodus 33 is rather grim; Israel has proven faithless after Moses went down the mountain to find the golden calf some chapters back, and God has been talking about destroying Israel and starting again. Moses already ‘stood in the gap,’ so to speak, and interceded for his people, but now in this passage he’s pushing further, asking God to remain with him and the Israelites. God says that his presence will be with Moses, but Moses insists that God needs to be with his whole people. God relents, and all is well.
A verse that particularly stood out to me here is v13, “If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.” In particular, “teach me your ways” is Torah/Law language (for example, it’s all over Psalm 119). What I’m getting at is this: God made a promise to Abraham, recorded in Genesis 12 and reiterated a couple times thereafter. This promise stated that all peoples would be blessed through Abraham’s descendants, particularly the Israelites, and particularly through Christ as Paul points out. To be a blessing to others, one must first be oneself blessed. Unholy people don’t convey God’s holiness to others! And Israel had proved exceedingly unholy in Moses’ time, which created a two-sided problem: not only did it render them unable to be a blessing to the nations, but it also held them back from the presence of God who alone could make them holy to begin with! (Even Moses could not see God’s face.) It was a lose-lose situation.
So God’s solution was to give them a Law. The law would not fix the problem of their unholiness (in fact, it would prove to highlight their unholiness all the more intensely), but what it would do is provide a way for God’s presence to remain with his people. God’s presence was highly mediated through the Aaronic priesthood, the Ark of the Covenant, the Tabernacle (or later, the Temple), and all the ritual that went along with these, but it was a real presence nonetheless. This was, however, only a temporary solution. God’s plan was to restore full communion between himself and his creation, like Adam & Eve had enjoyed before sin destroyed them. This whole business with the Law, and different levels of holiness officially sanctioned actually held back the process of redemption; it could not solve anything. All it did was provide a temporary solution to the problem of mediating God’s presence with unholy people while those people (ever so slowly) learned just how unholy they really are, so that eventually God can take them to the next step – giving his Holy Spirit. This, of course, did not happen until Christ’s ascension into heaven and the subsequent day of Pentecost.
So that, I believe, is one of the best ways to understand the Mosaic Law – as a support for the promise God had made to Abraham. It was an advancement of God’s plan of redemption because it did allow for God’s presence amidst his people in a new and special way, but it was so limited that it was nothing like what he ultimately had in store.