“I am YHWH thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2).
The climactic moment was upon them.
YHWH had delivered His people Israel out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The Egyptians now knew that He is YHWH and they feared His name, and for good reason– they saw the devastation of their country with the plagues and the destruction of their army in the Red Sea (Exodus 7-14). As God had promised Moses, He brought the people to serve Him on Mount Sinai (cf. Exodus 3:12). He was sustaining Israel with manna and water from His hand, and brought them victory in war (Exodus 15-18). Furthermore, Israel had been preparing themselves for three days, cleansing themselves, becoming a consecrated people, trembling before the power of God manifest on Sinai (Exodus 19).
And now God begins to speak. And the first thing He declares to all Israel is something they should already know– that He is YHWH, that He brought them out of Egypt, and had delivered them from slavery! Why would this be the way that God begins the declaration of His law for Israel?
First of all, we must remember that while YHWH is speaking directly to the Israelites standing before Him around 1450 BCE, He is also speaking to every Israelite who would follow for 1500 years. While those Israelites who were the ones actually delivered from slavery would remember it, future generations might not.
The statement is not something over which we should just gloss and move on. God’s declaration of being the One who delivered them from Egypt and bondage is, in fact, the foundation of the Law He is about to establish.
Let us think about this for a moment. Why does YHWH wait until this point to give Israel His Law? By all accounts, it would have been more convenient if YHWH had revealed His Law before the Exodus when it was just Moses upon the mountain (cf. Exodus 3-4). Israel would have known everything that God would expect of them before they even left Egypt. As it stands, God has been working with this people for at least a few months without any operating covenant between them.
Yet if God had given the revelation of His Law directly to Moses before the Exodus, how would that have been accepted by the Israelites? Didn’t they, at some level, have the same question about YHWH as Pharaoh did (cf. Exodus 5:2)? Who is YHWH? Why should we believe in Him or follow what He says? If He is God, why are we in bondage and in terrible distress?
The Exodus and the sojourn in the Wilderness represent YHWH’s demonstration of His power and authority, not just to the nations, but especially to Israel (Exodus 7:1-5, 14:4, 14:30-31, Deuteronomy 8:3). God answers their questions in these actions. Who is YHWH? He is the One who devastated Egypt and delivered Israel from their grip. Why should we believe in Him or follow what He says? Because He has proven Himself to be the One True God, superior to all the “gods” of Egypt, and has delivered us and sustained us by His power alone. YHWH orchestrated all of this so Israel could never declare that it was by her own hand, her own power or strength, that delivered her from Egypt and persevered through the Wilderness. There was to be no doubt, in that generation or in any future generation: YHWH is the powerful God without whom Israel would still be slaves in Egypt.
This is why YHWH’s declaration of Himself as the Deliverer of Israel from Egypt and slavery is the foundation of the Law. It is how He proved His power, love, and compassion upon Israel. Israel can have complete confidence in YHWH’s Law because they can have complete confidence in the power and love of YHWH who delivered them.
Today we Christians live under a new covenant enacted on better promises (cf. Hebrews 8:6). Yet the nature of God has not changed (Malachi 3:6, Hebrews 13:8)! He has acted in similar ways in the inauguration of the new covenant.
While it is true that Jesus provides many of the ethical guidelines for the lives of His disciples while He lived (cf. Matthew 5-7, etc.), He does so as a proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom that is coming (cf. Matthew 4:17, 23). In reality, nothing in the old covenant could be changed until the new was inaugurated (Matthew 5:17-18, Hebrews 9:15-22).
Israel could trust the law of YHWH because He brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. So how can we trust in the law of Christ? Because God, in Christ, brings us out of the land of sin, out of the house of death (Romans 8:1-3). This was attested to us through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the ultimate demonstration of YHWH’s love, mercy, and power (Romans 5:6-11, 1 Corinthians 15:54-58). Whatever questions people might have had about who Jesus was or what He was doing before His death should have been finally and decisively answered in His death and resurrection and the resultant proclamation of the Kingdom of God (Acts 2:1-41, Colossians 1:13).
The foundation of the Law of Moses was YHWH’s deliverance of the Israelites from the hand of Egypt. The foundation of the new covenant between God and man through Jesus the Christ is His death and resurrection. In Jesus’ death and resurrection God defeats sin and death and provides us the means of doing the same (Revelation 12:11). The death and resurrection of Jesus are assurances of His Lordship and of His return to judge the living and the dead (Acts 17:30-31, Philippians 2:5-11). God has definitively acted; we should not doubt, for He has proven His love for us and the basis of our hope of eternal life through the death and resurrection of His Son. Let us serve God to the full!
Ethan R. Longhenry