The Terror of Great Darkness

“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim 3:16-17). From time to time, it is a valuable exercise to remind ourselves of this passage of Scripture. It is so fundamental to our faith and invariably on the tip of the tongue of every baptismal candidate. In two verses, Paul sums up the purpose of the Scriptures. It is a book about salvation and from beginning to end that is the theme. This promise of salvation comes down to us through the Scriptures that we might be saved.

Yahweh determined to redeem mankind and He condescended to allow man through covenant to know Him as Father; in turn those faithful to Him become part of God’s family. When the children of Israel left Egypt, with a miraculous deliverance behind them and fire and cloud before them, they were beginning a new life as part of the divine family. They were going to a place where they would be offered the opportunity to be a very special people, “a kingdom of priests” in fact. In this article we consider the purpose of God in taking the people to Sinai.

When we ask “Why did God take Israel to Mount Sinai?” the answers invariably include: so that they could worship, and so that they could receive the law. Yet in Exodus 18:16 we read these words of Moses: “When they have a matter, they come unto me; and I judge between one and another, and I do make them know the statutes of God, and his laws”. So the people already had laws! Why did they need more laws?

And not only that, we are also told that there was a priesthood – “And let the priests also, which come near to the Lord, sanctify themselves, lest the Lord break forth upon them” (Exod 19:22). The people had two centuries of slavery, yet they were not unfamiliar with sacrificing to God (cp Exod 18:12).

So if they already had laws, priests and sacrifices, why give them a whole lot more, especially as they seemed incapable of keeping them? Even the important ritual of circumcision fell by the wayside in the wilderness. Furthermore, we are told in Jeremiah: “For I spake not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices: But this thing commanded I them, saying, Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be my people: and walk ye in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well unto you” (Jer 7:22-23). It has been suggested that the purpose of Sinai was not to bind the people with laws and rituals and the burden of statutes that would make the daily life of the faithful Israelite unbearable. It was not God’s intention to take them from one form of slavery just to introduce them to another. They were taken to Sinai to bring them into relationship with Him on the basis of the Abrahamic covenant of Genesis 15.

The Abrahamic covenant was based on faith not works of law; it was very low on ritual but high in personal contact and relationship with God. It was built around an altar of “unhewn stone” (Exod 20:24-26) not the elaborate man-made altar that was introduced in Exodus 27:1-7. Why are these two very different altars in the record? The possible answer is to remind Israel forever of what could have been, that is, a “kingdom of priests, an holy nation”. However, the concept deteriorated to a kingdom with a priest because of their lack of faith seen in their failure to endure the “terror of great darkness” that Abraham endured. Instead of a nation of priests officiating on behalf of the nations of the world, they became a nation that had to be hounded, threatened and punished into obedience.

So where is the evidence for this suggestion? First of all, we note the following from Exodus 3:12, “And he said, Certainly I will be with thee; and this shall be a token unto thee, that I have sent thee: When thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain”. Then in Exodus 19:13, “No hand is to touch him; for he must be stoned or shot by arrows; neither animal nor human will be allowed to live. When the shofar sounds, they may go up on the mountain” (CJB, Complete Jewish Bible).

That the people were intended to go up into the mount is also clear from Deuteronomy 5:5, “(I stood between the Lord and you at that time, to shew you the word of the Lord: for ye were afraid by reason of the fire, and went not up into the mount:)”.

It would appear from these verses that it was God’s intention that all the people would go up into the mount. This would bring them right into the midst of the thick cloud, very much like the terror and great darkness experienced by Abraham (Gen 15:12). Three days before, they had enthusiastically embraced this invitation—the prospect of becoming a kingdom of priests was very appealing (Exod 19:8). On the day, however, they were terrified. The sound of the trumpet, the thunder and lightning and the prospect of walking up into even closer proximity to the source of the noise and the thick cloud were too much, and they reneged. In so doing, they forfeited the promise that God held out to them. Some see Exodus 20:18-21 as a back reference to Exodus 19 and if placed after verse 18, it helps explain the sequence of events. By sequencing the verses in this way we get the following picture:

  • 􏰁 The people are purified for three days – Exod 19:10-11􏰁
  • 􏰁 The people are warned not to approach till the trumpet sounds – Exod 19:13􏰁
  • 􏰁 On the third day Yahweh’s presence is seen, heard and felt – Exod 19:16􏰁
  • 􏰁 Moses brings the people to the boundary line – Exod 19:17􏰁
  • 􏰁 The trumpet sounds and the people draw back – Exod 20:18􏰁
  • 􏰁 The people plead with Moses to speak for them – Exod 20:19􏰁
  • 􏰁 Moses reassures the people that they are being tested but everything is all right – Exod 20:20􏰁
  • 􏰁 God communicates with Moses; Moses as- cends alone – Exod 19:20􏰁
  • 􏰁 The opportunity for the people is now lost – Exod 19:21􏰁
  • 􏰁 God appears displeased with the whole matter and warns the priests to sanctify themselves – Exod 19:22􏰁
  • 􏰁 Moses seems harried – Exod 19:23􏰁
  • 􏰁 The nature of the relationship between God and the people changes – Exod 19:24􏰁
  • 􏰁 God gives Moses the Ten Commandments and the instruction for the altar – Exod 20

The forgoing is a suggestion and is offered for consideration. It could be inferred from Exodus 19:20-23 that while the people had withdrawn and changed their minds about ascending the mount, rather, sending Moses in their place, it is possible that after a time some of the people began to draw closer to the mountain, perhaps out of curiosity and with the intention of ascending anyway. Yahweh appears to warn Moses of this. Moses wants to assure God that the boundaries are in place but God dismisses Moses telling him to go down and attend to the matter. This same kind of behaviour by the people played out again when they refused to go into the land because they were afraid of the giants. When told that they would return to the wilderness to wander about till they died, they decided to go into the land anyway!