IT IS NOT EASY TO SORT OUT some of the sequence of events in these chapters of Exodus. What is clear is that God graciously provides enough of the revelation of his covenant that the people agree to its terms (Ex. 24). More of its stipulations, especially with respect to the tabernacle and priestly arrangements, are spelled out in the next chapters. Moses’ long departure on the mountain begins about this time, and precipitates the fickle rebellion that produces the idol of the golden calf (Ex. 32), which brings Moses down the mountain, smashing the tablets of the Ten Commandments. We shall reflect on those events in due course.
Here we must think through several elements of this covenant ratification.
(1) The Israelites would have already been familiar with suzerainty covenants that were not uncommon in the ancient world. A regional power or a superpower would impose such a treaty on lesser nations. Both sides would agree to certain obligations. The lesser power agreed to abide by the rules set down by the stronger power, pay certain taxes, maintain proper allegiance; the greater power would promise protection, defense, and loyalty. Often there was an introduction that spelled out the past history, and a postscript that threatened curses and judgments on whichever side broke the covenant.
(2) Parts of Exodus and Deuteronomy in particular mirror these covenants. Some elements in this chapter are unique. What is clear, however, is that the people themselves agree to the covenantal stipulations that Moses carefully writes out: “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey” (24:7). Thus later rebellion reflects not merely a flighty independent spirit, but the breaking of an oath, the trashing of a covenant. They are thumbing their nose at the treaty of the great King.
(3) To strengthen the allegiance of the covenantal community, God graciously discloses himself not only to Moses but to Aaron and his sons, and to seventy elders. Whenever Old Testament writers say that certain people “saw God” (24:10-11) or the like, inevitably there are qualifications, for as this book says elsewhere, no one can look on the face of God and live (33:20). Thus when we are told that the elders saw the God of Israel, the only description is “something like” a pavement “under his feet” (24:10). God remains distanced. Yet this is a glorious display, graciously given to deepen allegiance, while a special mediating role is preserved for Moses, who alone goes all the way up the mountain.
(4) The covenant is sealed with the shedding of blood (24:4-6).
(5) Throughout the forty days Moses remains on the mountain, the glory of the Lord is visibly displayed (24:15-18). This anticipates developments in later chapters.