20220122 Parsha Yitro – A covenant for all times

Torah Portion                                                Exodus 19:1-8

Haftarah                                                        Isaiah 6:1-7

Brit Chadashah                                            Matthew 19:16-26

The seventeenth reading from the Torah is named Yitro, which is the literal Hebrew behind the name Jethro. The title comes from the first words of the first verse of the reading, which says, “Now Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people” (Exodus 18:1). The portion tells the story of Jethro’s visit to the camp of Israel, then relates the great theophany at Mount Sinai, where God gives Israel the Ten Commandments and invites the people to enter a special covenant relationship with Him.

Today I’m going to look at the Ten Commandments and the language leading up to them with two different lenses.  Many scholars consider the language surrounding the Ten Commandments as being what is called a Suzerain Treaty.  What is a Suzerain Treaty.

A Suzerain treaty was a document or peace treaty between a strong entity, (suzerain, king, conqueror, etc.) and a lesser entity, sometimes called a Vassal, and usually was the loser in a war.  Over the years Israel had most likely been a signatory to several such treaties.  We don’t have any surviving copies of treaties between Israel and Assyria or Israel and Babylon for example, but there are other treaties that survived the ravages of history dating back to the time of the Hittites, 1400 BCE, so we know what they looked like.

The typical Suzerain treaty consisted of several sections.

  1. Preamble – identified who the Sovereign was.
  2. Historical prologue – described in detail the circumstances of the previous relations between the two parties, listing the many great things the suzerain king had performed for the benefit of the vassal.
  3. Stipulations and obligations were varied depending on the situation, the condition of the vassal nations, and the whim of the suzerain.
  4. Provision for deposition and periodic reading of the covenant
  5. List of witnesses
  6. Blessings and curses – Blessings accruing to the vassal for obedience to the treaty and curses or penalties for disobedience.

I don’t have the time this morning to go into a detailed description of all the parts of a Suzerain Treaty, but we can identify how the Ten Commandments and Deuteronomy fit the pattern of the typical Suzerain Treaty.

The preamble – Exodus 20:2a “I am Adonai your God”

Historical prologue – Exodus 20:2b “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” This section is greatly expanded in Deuteronomy 1:9 – 4:20

Stipulations – As the Lord’s vassals, the corporate nation of Israel and, individually, the people were forbidden from forming an alliance with any other foreign deity. Enmity against the true God or showing disrespect for their Suzerain, was also forbidden. Lack of respect indicated a rebellious attitude, and the Suzerain would not tolerate it. Hashem knew that fraternizing with ideas and material things of the foreign nations would turn the minds of the people away from Him, so He included stipulations regarding just these situations. Paralleling the requirement of the vassal to appear before the Suzerain on a regular basis, we find that the Decalogue stipulates that each week the vassal was to appear before the Lord and hear the reading of the words of the covenant. This would show enduring confidence in the Suzerain as their Lord and Master. It was understood that the word of the Sovereign Lord and Master could not be changed in any way. Tribute could be defined as taking the form of tithes and offerings, and sacrifices as set forth in the ceremonial laws.

The remainder of the 10 Commandments was the core of human behavior that was expected by the vassal Israel.  These rules were given so that God’s Chosen people had a framework from which to live their daily lives in peace, harmony and mutual respect.

Deposition and witnesses– the two identical copies of the commandments were to be placed in the Ark of the Covenant.  One copy was for Israel and the other for God.

Blessings and Curses – These were spelled out later in the Book of Deuteronomy and were to be reinforced by the tribes gathering on two mountains and shouting the blessing and curses.

The covenant that God made with Israel there at Sinai was an eternal covenant.  It was not one that God would break.  The people broke it many times but God never did.  The times of exile and punishment were a direct result of their own disobedience and had been clearly delineated in the terms of the covenant.

Unfortunately, with the coming of the Messiah and his work on the cross, there are those that say that the Law of Moses is no longer in effect.  We are now under the law of Yeshua the Messiah.  Certainly, there are things in the law that are no longer being observed such as sacrifices because the Temple doesn’t exist.  But that is only a pause.  Temple sacrifices will be reinstated.  Yeshua said that:

Matthew 24:35  Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will never pass away.

The law is here to stay.

But let’s go back to Sinai and take another look at the circumstances leading up to the giving of Torah.  Perhaps we need to even redefine the relationship between God and Israel.  Was it a relationship between a Sovereign and a subservient people?  There are those that point to the format of the Suzerain Treaty and believe that to be so.

I think there is another relationship between God and the family that was led out of Egypt.  First Fruits of Zion have several articles from which I am drawing today.

In Exodus 6:7, the LORD told the children of Israel, “I will take you for My people, and I will be your God.” This phrase was an adaptation of an expression from the sphere of marriage. The ancient Near Eastern wedding formulation was “You will be my wife; I will be your husband.” In the Hebrew Bible, it is common to speak of marriage as “taking” a wife. God likened Himself to a suitor and the people of Israel to the young woman He was courting. He was not content to simply redeem them from slavery; He wanted to take them as His very own people and enjoy an intimate relationship with them, like that of a husband to a wife.

Exodus 19:5  Now then, if you listen closely to My voice, and keep My covenant, then you will be My own treasure from among all people, for all the earth is Mine.

This is covenantal language. God wanted to enter into a covenant with Israel. A covenant is a contractual arrangement that specifies the terms and conditions of a relationship. The marriage metaphor is a good way to understand the covenant at Sinai. The sages speak of Exodus 19 as God’s betrothal of Israel. At the foot of Mount Sinai, God officially asked for Israel’s hand in marriage.

He spoke to her lovingly. He reminded the people of how He had carried them out of Egypt, as if on the wings of an eagle, and how he had brought them to Himself. He promised to make them His own special treasure above all other peoples. He said, “You shall be my own possession” (Exodus 19:5). The Hebrew word that the NASB translates as “possession” is the word segulah (סגלה). Some versions translate it as “beloved treasure” or “peculiar treasure.”

In the ancient Near East, the term segulah was used to describe a king’s prized trophy. When a king’s army vanquished an enemy, the king kept the most valuable items for his own treasure. A precious object like this was called a segulah. In Exodus 19:5, the word is used as a term of endearment for Israel. God says that He will make the Israelites into His specially prized treasure. He says that even though He owns the entire earth, Israel will always be His special people.

This can be compared to a king who had conquered many lands and possessed great wealth. His treasuries were filled with valuables, but he had one precious gemstone that he valued above all others. Rather than leave it in the treasury with the other valuables, he had it hung on a golden chain and wore it around his neck every day.

That’s the way God looks at Israel and each of His children.

In a traditional Jewish wedding, the bride and groom are married beneath a canopy called a chuppah, just like here where we bless the children, only much more elaborate.  The word is used several times in the Bible.

Joel 2:16  Let the bridegroom come out from his bedroom and the bride from her “chuppah” or chamber.

Psalms 19:6  It is like a bridegroom coming out of his bridal chamber (chuppah).

The chuppah represents the new house being formed by the union of bride and groom.

Was there a chuppah at Mount Sinai?  The cloud of glory over the mountain can be compared to a chuppah.  A similar image appear in the prophecies of Isaiah.  Isaiah says that in the Messianic Age, God will spread a canopy of cloud over Jerusalem.

Isaiah 4:5  then Adonai will create over the whole area of Mount Zion and over her convocations, a cloud by day, and smoke and shining of a flaming fire by night. For over all, glory will be a (chuppah).

Mount Sinai itself is sometimes likened to a chuppah.  Exodus 19:7 says that the people stood “beneath the mountain”.  This would be like a bride standing beneath a chuppah.  Ok, so don’t take that literally, it is a symbol of a chuppah to give us a picture of a wedding at Sinai.

Exodus 19:20  Then Adonai came down onto Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. Adonai called Moses to the top of the mountain, so Moses went up.

God descended on Mount Sinai in the middle of smoke, lightning, and symphony of trumpet or shofar blasts.  The mountain shook before Him. The writer of the book of Hebrews described it as “a blazing fire, and…darkness ad gloom and whirlwind.” Hebrews 12:18.  So terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I am quaking with fear.” (Hebrews 12:21)

It was the grand entrance of the groom into the chuppah.  God knows how to make an entrance.

In a traditional Jewish wedding, a marriage contract is read aloud to the bride and the groom as part of the covenant ceremony.  This written contract is called the ketubbah (כתבה).  The ketubah spells out the terms and conditions incumbent upon the man and the woman.  After the ceremony, witnesses sign the ketubbah.  In Jewish tradition, the ketubbah is displayed in the home as evidence that the marriage is legal.

In the wedding at Mount Sinai, the Torah is the ketubbah.  It is the legally binding covenant contract between Gd and His bride, Israel.

From atop Mount Sinai that day, God spoke the Ten Commandments to all Israel. This can be compared to the reading of the ketubbah in a wedding ceremony.  (Similarly, according to Exodus 24:4, Moses will read the book of the covenant to the assembly of Israel.)

This is a different way of looking at the commandments o the Torah.  We should not think of them as rules imposed by an impersonal government.  They are more like the wedding vows joyously taken by a blushing bride on her wedding day.  If we understand the Torah as a ketubbah, we see that it is far more than an ethical system or moral list o dos and don’ts.  Instead, it functions as the sacred marriage covenant between God and His people.  It lays out the parameters for the relationship and outlines the expectations.  Its specific instructions and stipulations are designed to make the marriage happy, fruitful, and functional.  It defines the obligation of both the husband and the wife and describes how they are to treat each other.

So is Torah a legal document handed down by a conquering king?  Or is it a legal document jointly entered into by two parties that love each other?

I think it can be a little bit of both.  God gave us the Torah as a roadmap and to document His standard of holiness.  Paul said without Torah, we would not know what God expected of us.

But Torah is also a gift of grace.  It teaches us God’s ways and lets us know thousands of times that He loves His bride.  He loved us so much that He gave his only son to die for us so that we can be forever in right standing before him.