Commentary

PREPARATIONS FOR THE LAW 1- The need for the Law 2- The Law of Sinai 1, 2 3- The goal of the Law 3 - 6 4- Preparations for the Law 7 - 15 5- Speaking to God 16 - 19 6- Warning to the people and priests 20 - 25 1- The need for the Law It was not possible for those who left the land of bondage, who walked along the way of the wilderness, to reach the land of promise and to settle down in Jerusalem without receiving the divine commandment and Law. That is why the Psalmist in his land of sojourn cries out saying, “I am stranger in the earth; Do not hide your commandments from me” (Ps. 119.19). The people received the Mosaic Law, presented to them in a way that suited their spiritual childhood. Yet, at the same time, it carried in its depths the secrets of the “Divine Word”. For what is the Law, but the Word of God, Who is alone, the Leader, the Savior and the satisfier of the soul who leads it to the bosom of the Father and brings it into His divine glories! That is why St. Mark the hermit says that the commandment carries in it the Lord Christ. Whoever enters into its depths and lives it with spirit would encounter the divine Word Himself. Furthermore, the scholar Origen says that in the depths of the commandment, the soul discovers its heavenly Groom and enters with Him into His secret place. The Psalmist, in Psalm 119 (118), speaks of the divine Law as his support in his sojourn. He sees in it: A. A secret of his joy amid the sufferings of the wilderness: “I will delight myself in Your statutes; I will not forget Your word” (v. 16), “And I will delight myself in Your commandments which I love” (v. 47) and “How sweet are Your words to my taste; sweeter than honey in my mouth” (v. 103). B. A secret of his praise and joy: “Your statutes have been my songs, in the house of my pilgrimage” (v. 54). C. A secret of his inner wealth: “The Law of Your mouth is better to me, than thousands of shekels of gold and silver” (v. 72). D. A benefit for the soul and a guide amid the afflictions of the enemies: “Your word, I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You” (v. 11); “The cords of the wicked have bound me, but I have not forgotten Your Law” (v. 61); “Unless Your Law had been my delight, I would then have perished in my affliction” (v. 92). E. A secret of his life: “My soul clings to the dust; revive me according to Your word” (v. 25). F. A secret of enlightenment: “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path” (v. 105); “Make Your face shine upon Your servant, and teach me Your statutes” (v. 135). G. Finally, the commandment, in its Spirit and depths, presents to us the person of the Savior, the Groom of the soul, and its satisfier. He therefore says, “I have seen the consummation of all perfection, but Your commandment is exceedingly broad” (v. 96). 2- The Law of Sinai 128 The Book of Exodus mentioned that the beginning of receiving the Law was exactly in the third month, after the exodus, in Sinai: “In the third month after the children of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on the same day they came to the wilderness of Sinai” (Exod. 19.1-2). The figure 3, as we said before, refers to the resurrection of the Lord Christ, on the third day. It is as though God wants us to have an encounter with Him through the commandment, in the glory of resurrection, so as not to look at it as orders, statutes and laws but as a secret of resurrection in the Divine glories. Through resurrection, the commandment, with its cross and burdens, becomes sweet and enjoyable. Its difficult way would turn into an easy yoke, a light burden and a fellowship in the passions of Christ to enjoy His glories. The choice of the location (the Mount of Sinai) was not insignificant. According to the scholar Origen, ‘Sinai’, like the wilderness of ‘Sin’, means bush or temptation, where man is committed to have the spirit of sound discernment in order not to fall into temptation, through visions of a false bush. According to him, ‘Sinai’ means that the soul starts to acquire the ‘sound judgment’ through receiving the Divine Commandment or Law to become capable of enjoying the Divine secrets and the heavenly visions1. 3- The goal of the Law Before speaking of the goal of the Law, God proclaimed His practical love for His people saying, “I bore you on eagle’s wings” (Exod. 19.4) as though He wanted to clarify that mutual love is the basis of that Law. He loved us, and bore us by the Holy Spirit (eagle’s wings), and brought us to Himself, namely, to His Divine bosom in order to experience His love and to recognize His fatherhood. The goal of the Law is: “You shall be a special treasure to me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19.5- 6). Although He does not need all the earth He desires us to be His own, with the privilege of sonhood: a kingdom of priests and a holy nation dedicated to Him and bearing His holy nature. 4- Preparations for the Law [1] “So Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before them all these words which the Lord commanded him” as though he was presenting to them the covenant which the Lord wished to make with His people. “Then all the people answered together and said, ‘All that the Lord had spoken we will do’” (Exod. 19.7-8). God never obliges us to accept the covenant unless we, at first, proclaim that we accept it. Unfortunately, they received God’s covenant only by words but rejected it in practice; the Law thus became for them of no benefit2. They said, “All that the Lord had spoken we will do”, but they broke the commandment, and did not respect the covenant until the Savior came, Who, alone, is able to consummate the will of God and His commandment in perfection. In Him, we would also be perfect and keepers of the Law. [2] Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and sanctify them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their clothes. And let them be ready for the third day. For on the third day, the Lord will come down upon Mount of Sinai in the sight of all the people” (Exod. 19.10-11). 1 In Num. Hom. 27. 2 St. John Chrysostom. The Gospel of Matthew. Hom. 67. 129 As it was on the third month of their departure from the land of Egypt, they had to be ready for God’s coming down in their sight, on the third day. Thus, this Book bore several confirmations of receiving the power of resurrection in us. The people would not have benefited from the Law, unless they recognize the possibility of keeping it through Christ risen from the dead, Grantor of the new nature and capable of keeping the divine commandment. Concerning the sanctification and washing the clothes, all that revealed the need for internal and external preparations, before ascending the Mountain of Knowledge (as Moses did), and recognizing the divine secrets. The scholar Origen says that if you come with dirty clothes you would hear this word, “Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment” (Matt. 22.12)? Thus, no man can listen to God’s words unless he is holy both in body and in spirit (1 Cor. 7.34); unless he washes his clothes in order to enter into the banquet of the Groom, eat the flesh of the Lamb and drink the chalice of salvation. Nobody can attend that banquet with dirty clothes. The wisdom confirmed that, saying on another occasion, “Let your clothes always be white.” Your garments were washed once you gained the grace of Baptism; your body was purified and you got rid of all defilement of the flesh and spirit. Therefore, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common (impure)” (Acts 10.15) 1. In his book of the duties of the clergy, St. Ambrose says, “Learn then, Priest and Levite, what it means to wash thy clothes. Thou must have a pure body wherewith to offer up the sacraments. If the people were forbidden to approach their victim unless they washed their clothes, dost thou, while foul in heart and body, dare to make supplication for others?” 2 St. Athanasius sees in this preparation a symbol of entering the virtuous life, without which, it would have been impossible for Moses to enter into the presence of God and to receive the Law, as he says, “For through virtue a man enters in unto God, as Moses did into the thick cloud where God was. But through vice a man goes out from the presence of the Lord; as Cain when he had slain his brother (Gen. 4.16), went out, as far as his will was concerned, from before the face of God3. The command was clear: “Be ready for the third day; do not come near your wives” (Exod. 19.15). That does not imply that marital relationships are defiled but for the sake of dedicating all energies and thoughts in anticipation for the divine commandment. The fathers saw in this commandment a reference to keeping body relationships pure not practicing it with lust, in order for the soul to ascend with Moses on the mount of knowledge and to recognize God. In a speech by St. Gregory Bishop of Nyssa concerning virginity, he says, “If you long for God to manifest Himself to you, why do you not hear Moses, when he commands the people to be pure from the stains of marriage, that they may take in the vision of God?” As the people of the old days received the word of God, engraved on the two tablets, by refraining from marital relationships and cleansing their bodies, the Church is instructing its children to do the same on the eve before they approach the “divine Word.” It has also established a beautiful rite for priests to cleanse their hands before receiving the “Lamb,” in which the priest checks the purity of his own soul and his inner readiness for the service4. 1 In Exode. Hom. 11:7. 2 Duties of the Clergy. 1:.50. 3 Festal Letters. 10:4. 4 Fr. Tadros Y. Malaty. Christ in the Eucharist. 1973. 130 [3] “Take heed to yourselves that you do not go up to the mountain or touch its base. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death…whether man or beast, he shall not live. When the trumpet sounds long, they shall come near the mountain” (Exod. 19.12-13). In order for our inner Moses to ascend the mountain of knowledge and to enjoy the divine secrets, we shall have to keep our senses, like seeing or hearing, from getting preoccupied by material matters or carnal thoughts. Thus, neither man nor beast would ascend with us, only our inner Moses, to get to enjoy “what eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man” (1 Cor. 2.9). Our inner man would be lifted up to seek what is greater than senses and sensed things, namely, what is Divine. Therefore, you should never allow man or beast inside you to hinder your vision of God, on the holy mountain in you, and your talking with Him face to face. As to saying, “When the trumpet sounds long, they shall come near the mountain.” This means that when our inner man is enjoying the vision of God, hearing the divine voice and enjoying direct talk with Him; all our senses, yearnings and emotions would be sanctified in the Lord. The things that were before hindering living with God would become holy in the Lord and tools to His account. 5- Speaking to God [1] The fathers compared between the encounters of God with people, in the Old Testament, and in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, Moses set boundaries for the people, on all sides saying, “Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death, he shall surely be stoned or shot with an arrow; whether man or beast, he shall not live” (Exod. 19.12-13). Thus, he prevented them from coming near the mountain or touching it; whoever touches it would be killed by stoning; no one should touch him lest one be defiled. On the contrary, in the New Testament, the Word of God Himself comes and sits on the mountain (Matt. 5), surrounded by sinners as His children and He opens His door to all seeking to have them as children to Him. In the Old Testament, “there were thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain, and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled” (Exod. 19.16), and “They said to Moses: ‘You speak with us and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die” (Exod. 20.19). However, in the New Testament, the Lord spoke in a gentle and meek voice that drew all to Him. St. Augustine says, “the law was given outwardly, so that the unrighteous might be terrified; here it was given inwardly, so that they might be justified.”1 In the old days, He dealt with humanity as though with little children, who become afraid as they hear the terrifying voice. Notwithstanding, in the New Testament, He speaks to us as mature children, seeking our love and friendship. St. John Chrysostom compares between the two calls: the old with narrow minds, fear and trembling; while the new, the invitation open to all. He says, “He hath invited us to heaven, to the table of the great and wonderful King, and do we shrink and hesitate, instead of hastening and running to it? And what then is our hope of salvation? We cannot lay the blame on our weakness; we cannot on our nature. It is indolence and nothing else that renders us unworthy.” 2 1 On the Spirit and the Letter. 29. 2 In Eph. Hom. 3. 131 Thanks be to God who opens before us the way to the holy mountain and makes His Word invite us all, without exception to receive, not the Law engraved on two tablets of stone, but to give His Word, Who lives within us, and His commandment written on our hearts. [2] God used the sound of a very loud trumpet, “so that all the people who were in the camp trembled…and when the blast of the trumpet sounded long and became louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by voice” (Exod. 19.19). Why did God use the sound of a trumpet? St. Athanasius answers, “For beyond any other voice or instrument, the trumpet is awakening and terrible; so Israel received instruction by these means, because he was then but a child.” 1 St. Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, believes that the sound of a trumpet symbolizes the preaching of the Divine incarnation, of which the prophets sounded loud, to proclaim to humanity its imminent coming. Nevertheless, with the coming of the apostles and their ascension to the holy mountain, “The blast of the trumpet sounded long and became louder” (Exod. 19.19)2. They proclaimed it more strongly; therefore, “Their line has gone out through all the earth, And their words to the end of the world” (Ps. 19.4). [3] God descended on the Mount Sinai as consuming fire. He talked to Moses while the mountain was smoking; “Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly” (Exod. 19.18). He is Fire and His ministers around, preceding Him as a flame of fire (Ps. 104.4), consuming everything that is wood, weed or straw, and purifying, at the same time, what is gold, silver or precious stone. [4] God says to Moses, “I come to you in the thick cloud” (Exod. 19.9) and “Then it came to pass on the third day, in the morning, that there were thunderings and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain” (Exod. 19.16). The Book says, “And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up” (Exod. 19.20). What is that cloud to which Moses approached to listen to the voice of God? St. Jerome answers this question in his comment on the words of the Psalmist, “Clouds and darkness surround Him” (Ps. 97.2) saying that two things surround the Lord: clouds and darkness. He assumes that it is the same cloud, mentioned in the Bible, “A bright cloud overshadowed them” (Matt. 17.5), that happened when the Lord transfigured and His disciples fell on their faces before Him. It is similar to the cloud, spoken of in another situation: “Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds” (Ps. 36.5), the faithfulness of the Lord spoken of in the Bible: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14.6). The faithfulness of God is Christ, reaching to the cloud, namely, to the apostles and the prophets and to those who were like the cloud, commanded by God to “rain no rain on Israel” (Isa. 5.6). That conforms with what came in the Book of Judges, when the fleece of wool on the threshing floor was dry, while rain came down on all the world (Judg. 6.39), which implies that Israel became dry while it rained over all the world. “Clouds and darkness surrounded Him”; “Behold, the Lord rides on a swift cloud” (Isa. 19.1). Let us meditate in the meaning of this. The Lord is coming to Egypt where we live; He is coming to the land of darkness, of Pharaoh. He is coming riding on a swift cloud; what is this swift cloud? He thinks it is the Virgin St. Mary, who conceived the Word without human seed. That swift cloud came to the world, 1 Festal Letters. 1:2. 2 Vita Mos. 2:158. 132 bringing with it the Creator of the world. What does Isaiah say? “The Lord will come into Egypt...the idols of Egypt will totter at His presence; and the heart of Egypt will melt in its midst” (Isa. 19.1). That cloud destroyed the temple of ‘Serapis’ in Alexandria, which was not destroyed by a human hand, but by that cloud, that was carrying Christ. Having known the cloud, let us now deal with the darkness. The Lord is in the light as well as in the darkness. He is in the light, for the beginners, with whom He speaks clearly, but for the more advanced, He speaks. With the apostles, he does not speak as He does with the multitude, but mystically says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Luke 8.8). This is the meaning of “... darkness surrounded Him”: mysteries surrounded him. That is why the Book of Exodus says that the people were down at the base of the mountain, while Moses alone went up the Mount of Sinai in a thick cloud because all the people of God, except for Moses, were still not capable of recognizing the secret. That is why the Book says, “He made darkness His secret place” (Ps. 18.11) 1. 6- A warning to the people and the priests “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to gaze at the Lord, and many of them perish. Also let the priests who come near the Lord sanctify themselves, lest the Lord break out against them” (Exod. 19.21-22). The mountain was transformed into a ‘Most Holy’ place, through God’s descending on it. Therefore, the Lord feared for His people and priests, lest they perish because of their curiosity, by breaking through the awesome divine sanctuaries. Only Moses and Aaron ascended the mountain: Moses, as a representative of the divine Word, and Aaron, as a representative of the priesthood of the Lord Christ. Christ is, alone, the Divine Word and the Priest who enters into the divine sanctuaries, without Whom we perish. 1 St. Jerome. On Psalms. Hom. 24.

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