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Everything the Lord Has Said, We (Can’t) Do


While in Egypt, the Israelites maintained a tenuous connection to their Jacobean lineage but not to Jacob’s God. In fact, it could be argued they had no God. Of course, they had some knowledge of—and probably believed in and worshipped—the many gods of their adopted country. But they did not know their patriarch’s God. This is excusable in that they lived among the Egyptians for 400 years. That was roughly 15 biblical generations, which by any measure is likely too long for any ethnic group in a foreign land to hold on to their unique ways.

Assimilation, which often leads to near-total acculturation into the surrounding civilization, is a common historical occurrence. Aiding this process is a people’s language, probably the most distinctive vehicle that binds them to their ethos. But immigrants typically lose this crucial gluing characteristic by the third generation. It is therefore highly unlikely that the assembled montage, who had recently escaped Pharaoh’s clutches and were now camped at the base of Mount Sinai, had any common ethnic linguistic identity besides the Egyptian they had adopted from the host country. So they had neither a god nor a language to call their own.

Two months into their flight from Egypt and drained of the adrenaline that had fueled their escape, Jacob’s progeny were resigned to a hard reset that included a closeup introduction to their new God. It was this first encounter between God and his self-proclaimed people that would set the boundaries and basic understandings of their mutual relationship. And here is where, I suspect, something went terribly wrong during God’s attempt at self-disclosure. Because from here on, the Israelites came to perceive him not as a compassionate father figure but as a “wholly other” who should be feared and only approached from a distance. This dawning did not come to them suddenly but was fostered through small, incremental misadventures while traversing the unforgiving desert.

Until now, the unhappy pilgrims had struggled with two main existential concerns—food and water. And whenever they were hungry or thirsty, they directed their frustrations at Moses: “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” (Exodus 17:3 NIV). Or the time when their unending calamities caused a reassessment of their erstwhile Egyptian overlords, who they now saw in a glowing light: “And the whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness: And the children of Israel said unto them, Would to God we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:2–3 KJV).

But neither God nor Moses was fooled by the people’s misdirected anger. Both knew their quarrel was really with God. Moses would make a point of this by naming the rock that finally produced drinkable water “Massah and Meribah” because “the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” (Exodus 17:7 NIV).

In recounting the first two months after crossing the Red Sea, the narrator of Exodus treats the Jewish God with suspicion, almost painting him as an unapproachable demigod. The accusation was clearly implied through God’s actions. Why, for example, would a good god, who could easily conjure up clean drinkable water, look on with indifference while his people and their livestock risked dying of thirst? Or allow children to go hungry before raining down bread and meat to arrest the situation? What is gained by exposing these sorry desert travelers to such privation?

The Israelites faced a situation analogous to the proposition that the universe is governed by an all-powerful loving deity that: 1) is fully capable of assuaging the pain and suffering of his vulnerable subjects but refuses, or: 2) is incapable of stopping their plight. And we make things worse by asserting, as Moses did, that “God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not” (Exodus 20:20 KJV).

This does not pass the kindness test, and if we can’t imagine Jesus frightening the wits out of people to keep them from sinning, then it is questionable whether God would do this either. So where did the idea come from? It’s a good question that we should direct to the writer(s)/composer(s)/redactor(s) of the narrative, but it is regrettably outside the scope of this essay. What we could say, based on the accounts of Jesus’s life and teachings, is that deliberate cruelty—whether practiced by a god or the devil—serves no useful purpose and should never be justified simply because God purportedly uses it as a loyalty test.

It was against this murky background of accumulated, unnecessary, avoidable hardships that God asked Moses to get the people ready for their first-ever face-to-face encounter. But the setup for the meeting seemed ominous from the start, as God stipulated some “strange” and potentially life-threatening conditions: “Be careful that you do not approach the mountain or touch the foot of it,” God said. “Whoever touches the mountain is to be put to death. They are to be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on them. No person or animal shall be permitted to live” (Exodus 19:12-13).

By now, the sojourners likely had grown weary of their benefactor God, and this portentous event did not ease their apprehensions. It is not surprising, therefore, that “they said unto Moses, ‘Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die’” (Exodus 20:19). If we view the narrative from this standpoint—of a moribund people reeling with fear and uncertain of God’s intentions—it is understandable why they would be leery of any personal contact with him. Their unanimous chorus: “We will do everything the Lord has said” (Exodus 19:8 NIV) should therefore not be construed as a willing acquiescence to what God expected of them. Instead, it could be considered, given the prevailing context, as a desperate plea calculated to minimize any unintended provocation that might elicit a violent reaction from an unfathomable god.

After all, what was the “everything” that they were promising to obey? The proposed meeting was still a future event, as were all the commandments. And nobody knew what God had in mind. But in their haste to avoid offending him, they pledged fealty and obedience even before they knew what God had to tell them. And having made the fateful commitment, they felt bound by a vow they could never keep. Humans are often quick to work out their own salvation when what is called for might simply be our acknowledgment that we are incapable of obeying the rules and accepting God’s proffered hand.

And as promised, God made his appearance, but not as a personalized being. He showed up through the symbols of shock and awe, preceded by thunder, lightning, and billowing smoke. The God who emerged was as a bolt of fire perched on the mountaintop, causing the mountains to shake with frightening magnificence. Taking a cue from this scene, Jews, and later Christians, have defined and often projected God’s authenticity through images of power, violence, and the esoteric. It may be that this event is the beginning of our fascination with a fearsome God who, in our religious messaging, delights in the bizarre and outlandish.

These were the types of misconceptions and mischaracterizations of the Old Testament God that Jesus aimed to rectify. At every opportunity, he used welcoming language and imagery as a corrective. Consider this: “Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Or this: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Matthew 10:14). Contrast these intimate, non-threatening portrayals with the pre-Jesus God and we understand why many find it difficult to reconcile the two.

We seem to miss Jesus’s attempts because, even in our time, we mine Daniel and Revelation for their oddities, sometimes appearing to relish gory details while ignoring the simple teachings of Jesus. The popularity of Daniel and Revelation seminars among Adventist professional evangelists is partly due to thinking that they, as an initiated class similar to the Gnostics of the inter-testament period, can decode some perceived hidden meaning or knowledge within these texts.

So, in short order, the Ten Commandments became the face of the blanket promise they made in response to an unknown or imagined order from God. Since then, we’ve attempted to get into God’s good graces by obeying rules. Paul tells us this is futile. We’re not wired to do what is good. Here is his succinct diagnosis of our common malady: “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19). The good news is that contrary to the high premium we place on law-keeping, God doesn’t require performance in exchange for salvation. Salvation is, and has always been, free. He always takes us out of our Egyptian bondages—and only afterward introduces the rules.


Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home. 

Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found by clicking here.

Image Credit: Philip De Vere (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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