Where We’re at…
In the diagram above we see a pictorial model representing the gospel, or good news, from Genesis to Revelation. It has become my unceasing ambition that the gospel be thoroughly explained, understood, and properly represented to anyone through a one-page presentation of linear time as we know it (redemptive history) and a handful of Scriptures that emphasize the main points of the Bible. By God’s will I want to help people understand the Biblical Story and be able to find themselves in it, living in context to the truth of the scriptures.
This is the fifth post in the series, the others of which you can find under the Understanding the Bible (Theology) tab on the website.
At this stage we have successfully gone through the scriptures starting in Genesis 1 on the diagram and have proceeded linearly to Genesis 12-22 which we finished two posts ago. Now, we can continue descending through the verses on the second pillar of the diagram.
Understanding the Biblical Covenants
As we look at these individual covenants, we should perceive them as each forming part of the same whole: Redemption for mankind. While they each are promised to different people, they are all given in response to man’s fall from the garden and God’s plan to overturn the tyranny and consequences of sin that ensued, ending it forever. You could picture each of these covenants as runners in a relay race. The baton is being passed, but the same race is being run start to finish. When the race is over the serpent is crushed and man is restored to the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve held the first baton, Noah the second, Abraham and his descendants the third, and we will now turn to look at Moses and Abraham’s descendants carrying the fourth from Mt. Sinai forward. Just remember, they are all running to accomplish one purpose which is God’s final ordained redemption for man and the heavens and the earth.
The Context of the Sinai Covenant
On the second pillar entitled Covenantal in the diagram above, underneath Genesis 12-22, we identify Exodus 20. As we come to the mountain burning with fire we must again set a little extra context.
As the first What is the Gospel? post communicated, God miraculously delivers the Israelites from Egypt proving Himself to be the Divine Creator through demonstrating His sovereignty over the earth and over life. But these wonders in Egypt also attest to another facet of the Divine identity––His covenantal union with Abraham and his descendants. In His spectacular deliverance of the Israelites from captivity, the sovereign Creator is in effect saying “I am acting upon the words that I spoke to Abraham when I promised him that I would be the God of his descendants forever as an everlasting covenant.”
In Exodus 3:15 we read,
“God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM’; and He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ 15God, furthermore, said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is My name forever, and this is My memorial-name to all generations.'”
The breadth of this passage is often overlooked. We must take the whole name given here, and not just the I AM WHO I AM, for God very simply states that this entire Name is the name by which He will be known forever. Very plainly, He is saying that I AM WHO I AM is understood by what follows: “The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” This is how God has chosen to be known throughout the ages. He chose this when He promised those things to Abraham in Genesis 12-22. He is declaring His distinctive Name, so we do well to pay very close attention.
Indeed, we do well to take pause and consider the firmness of purpose God displays–– through His dealings with the Patriarchs themselves––in establishing a foundation for this identity before His revelation to Moses.
First, we have to understand that every time LORD appears in all caps in our Bible it has been substituted in the place of the English letters YHWH. This decision was made by translators long ago. So, whenever we read LORD, it is actually the four Hebrew letters יְהֹוָה (transliterated: Yod Hey Vav Hey). These four letters make up what is called either the Tetragrammaton, or in Hebrew Hashem, meaning The Name, because to the Jews His name is too holy to be spoken. The first appearance of LORD is in Genesis 2:2 and from there forward God operates under the distinct name of YHWH. It is therefore necessary to consider who the Patriarchs understood YHWH to be.
YHWH in the Patriarchs
We established in the first session that Abraham clearly understood God to be the Creator and Possessor of the heavens and the earth, as is his declaration in Genesis 14:22. Abraham knew that it was this particular Creator who was making a covenant with him. We see that God keeps his immediate promise to Abraham by appearing to Isaac twice in Genesis 26 and making Himself Isaac’s God also.
The LORD appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; stay in the land of which I shall tell you. 3“Sojourn in this land and I will be with you and bless you, for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath which I swore to your father Abraham. 4“I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; 5because Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws.” (v. 2-5)
“The LORD appeared to him the same night and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham; Do not fear, for I am with you. I will bless you, and multiply your descendants, For the sake of My servant Abraham,” (v24).
Most likely Abraham had communicated to his son Isaac who the God of their family was––YHWH––understood by Abraham to be the Creator of everything. Isaac had also personally experienced the divine deliverance on the altar as Abraham prepared to sacrifice him and had seen the ram take his place at the herald of an angel. Besides this, Isaac would have also gained practical understanding through seeing his father Abraham worship YHWH and build altars to YHWH. It is likely that Isaac knew YHWH well and knew Him as the Creator of the heavens and the earth. However, YHWH ensures the covenant made with Isaac’s father Abraham by taking it upon Himself to appear to Isaac twice, and to tell Isaac who He is and what He’s done. It is remarkable that YHWH made such effort to see His covenant sustained within the next generation of Abraham’s lineage.
In the same way, Jacob would’ve been well acquainted with knowledge about his grandpa Abraham’s God whom they called YHWH and cognizant that this Creator God had become his father Isaac’s God as well. Yet, YHWH again sets out to personally make Himself Jacob’s God also. It seems God wants there to be no mistake concerning who He is, what He said, and whom He has chosen. And all of this is to be understood perfectly as relating to this one family’s lineage. This is what marks out the calling of the Patriarchs––YHWH appears to all three of them and confirms His covenant!
At Bethel, God speaks to Jacob atop the heavenly stairway stretched between heaven and earth (Genesis 28:13-17) which Jacob perceives as beginning on earth and ending in heaven. He also beholds God’s hosts traversing these stairs, ascending and descending. In that moment it would’ve been clear in Jacob’s mind who this was––this God was YHWH whom He had been told about––the possessor of the heavens and the earth, the Creator. YHWH’s identity was also self-evident in that no other God possessed a staircase that connected both the heavens and the earth. Jacob had heard of this God from his grandpa Abraham, he had seen his father Isaac worship this God, and now he himself had beheld YHWH and heard His voice from atop this divine stairway.
“I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspringd 15I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you,” (Gen. 28:13-15).
It is there at Bethel that Jacob declares “surely YHWH is in the place and I did not know it,” (Gen. 28:16) confirming his understanding that it is not an arbitrary god whom he has seen, but truly YHWH–– his fathers’ God–– the Possessor of the heavens and the earth. Through this experience, God crystallizes His identity to Jacob, tangibly substantiating who He wants to be perceived as. He wants to be known as the “God of your father Abraham, and the God of Isaac” and He also wants it to be understood that He is the Possessor of created reality, seated in the heavens, reigning over all of the earth.
Although I am emphasizing this point to the nth degree, we must take one look at the passage where Jacob wrestles with God. Although this is one of the most mysterious episodes in scripture, we must again not doubt but just stand in awe and pray as we also wrestle with God. We focus on Jacob’s declaration just as the match ends:
Then he said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” But he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me. So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, ‘Jacob’. He said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed. Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him,” (Gen. 32:26-29).
Here we have what is most likely an incredible prophetic picture of God’s struggle with Israel through redemptive history and yet in the end God relents and allows her to prevail (end-time salvation of the remnant). Although this is the deep, implied theme which concerns the entirety of our study, it suffices here to focus on Jacob’s final words to God: “Please tell me Your name!” Did Jacob ask this question simply because he wanted to hear what God called Himself? Obviously there is more to this episode than we can perceive from its brief description; Jacob wrestled with God from dusk until dawn and we only have a few sentences describing those long hours. It seems Jacob wanted to know WHO this was because he was wrestling with a man. Everything he knew about YHWH prior to this experience was greatness, magnificence, glory and sovereignty (it is possible that he also knew of the time YHWH came to Abraham before He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah). He probably also wanted to know how this could be, because, if this was who he thought it was, he should probably be dead.
Maybe Jacob wanted to verify that this was in fact YHWH, the God his grandpa and father had worshiped, and the God he had seen and heard atop the heavenly stairway. Regardless, his suspicion concerning the man whom he had wrestled the span of that long night was confirmed in the response of a rhetorical question: “Why is it that you ask my name?” Jacob was assured through that response that his suspicion had been correct. Somehow he had just wrestled with YHWH, and YHWH was a person! We will address this wonderful mystery when Messiah is born, several posts from now. For now, we long for a similar match with Jesus.
YHWH in the Exodus
Just as He made Himself known to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in the Exodus, God provides proof to the enslaved Israelites of His past revealed identity. A people enslaved over four hundred years within the great Egyptian kingdom would have been bombarded with idolatry. In fact, they were the ones building the gigantic stone idols, temples for the Egyptian gods, and the massive stone obelisks! How would all of this have affected Abraham’s descendants and their perception of “God?” Chances are, by the time the things God had spoken previously regarding the Egyptian captivity were fulfilled, His Name likely didn’t carry the same emphasis it once had for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So, again God personally sets out to prove that He is indeed the very God who lays claim to the identity of YHWH and establishes firmly the significance of His name.
It is apparent that YHWH is very familiar with the frailty of the human mind as He conducts the divine reminder of His identity through the miraculous events of the exodus, designed to remain etched indelibly in the consciousness of those who witnessed them. To the Israelites experiencing the outworking of the ten plagues it would have been clear that the One performing these events was truly the Most High God––the God that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had worshiped, the only possessor of the heavens and the earth, and the only sovereign Creator. This was YHWH. God saw this confirmation as necessary for the people to understand who was actually delivering them, and He didn’t want it to be misunderstood.
Hence, the Israelites witness ten divine causations from the heavens and the earth crystallizing YHWH’s identity in their minds as the One who had sovereignty over everything. There would have been no doubt that He was in fact the God of their patriarchs as He showed His sovereignty over earthly and heavenly elements (first nine plagues), and also over human life (tenth plague). He took great care in revealing this identity to them, and it is the identity He has sought to keep throughout the ages.
The central idea is this: when the name of YHWH was spoken it was supposed to register these intrinsic attributes––He was the Possessor of the Heavens and the Earth exercising total sovereignty over them, and He was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is simply a long explanation of God’s self-declared identity in Exodus 3 where He confirms and even memorializes this very identity. Moses would have most likely announced in his first address to the Israelites that YHWH had heard their prayers and was going to deliver them, not any Egyptian god or so-called god. When the people heard this statement it would to them have meant something very distinct… it would’ve possessed a confirmation of their history, a reinforcement of the promises, and the glorious truth that what was said to the Fathers was actually going to be fulfilled by the divine God who had promised such things. I hope the implications are very clear and fill your heart with joy as they do mine.
YHWH in Exodus 20
By the time we come to the mountain in Exodus 20 we behold God confirming His desire that His memorial identity be attached to the descendants of the Patriarchs just as promised to Abraham. We see God actually joining His own name and identity to the Israelite people––the lineage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is insurmountably profound.
Whereas before, God was understood as being the Possessor of the heavens and the earth, God tells Moses in Exodus 3 that He is to be known as: The Creator of the Heavens and the Earth––the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Then, a similar relational transaction takes place at Sinai. From atop the quaking mountain, burning with fire and covered with smoke and amidst the trumpet blast growing louder and louder, God now applies this Memorial Identity to the very people standing there, by saying, “I am the Lord your God.” Meaning, “I am not just their God any longer. I have now made myself your God.” In effect, He is saying, My identity as God is to be possessed by you. This identity doesn’t transcend the previous one, but adds to it, making Possessor of the heavens and the earth, synonymous with The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob which now applies distinctly to the people standing in awe there at the mountain––the whole congregation of Israel. Here we witness a personal transaction of relational identity taking place in which God chooses for His identity as God to be recognized in relation to this people from Mt. Sinai forward. I hope the immensity of these implications are clear.
If we understand this we are beginning to grab a hold of the true nature of God’s identity as revealed in covenant and that this identity is how He is still desiring to be recognized today. It is God drawing near to His elected Israel, and attaching Himself to them without option of divorce. It is almost as though God has taken His maiden name of Possessor of the Heavens and the Earth and hyphenated it with The God of Israel. It is not that He isn’t still the first, but rather that His first name has been married with this distinct people. Or, we could understand it as we understand names today. In this case, His given name (because He gave it to Himself) is The God of Israel and his surname is Possessor of the Heavens and the Earth. God confirms this exact identity in passages such as Isaiah 54:5,
“For your husband is your Maker, Whose name is the LORD of hosts; And your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel, Who is called the God of all the earth.”
In this passage we hear God identify Himself verbatim in the ways we just described. God calls Himself: Israel’s Husband, The Holy One of Israel, and The God of all the earth, making these identities one within the revealed identity of YHWH.
Let’s strengthen the case so that it doesn’t appear to some that we are stretching Scripture, or making something out of nothing from one passage. First, God calls Himself the Holy One of Israel around 50 times in Scripture. So, this identity is not a one-off, it is a Name He regularly uses to define Himself (Is. 12:6; 17:7; 29:19; 30:11; 45:11; 47:4; 48:17; 49:7 to name a few instances).
Second, this helps us understand that when God says “The Lord your God,” He indeed means the very same thing as The Holy One of Israel. “I am the Lord your God,” is God decisively stating that He belongs to no one other than Israel. The previous attributes of YHWH as God are now possessed by Israel in this distinctive, everlasting marriage. Moreover, these two names are often used synonymously in Scripture as the Lord your God appears well over 100 times in the Bible, and both of them only appear when God is speaking directly to Abraham’s ethnic descendants.
In conclusion, in Scripture God has intentionally made His identity as YHWH possess these several elements: He is the Creator, or Possessor of the heavens and the earth; He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; He is the Holy One of Israel; and when speaking to Israel directly He is The LORD your God, meaning the LORD their God. This observation is important to our study and gives helpful insight into how God identifies Himself in Scripture; i.e. who God wants to be known as in the Bible. This identity is vitally important as we continue this study, and especially as we later approach Jesus, the birth of God in the flesh, and who God is thought to be today. For if we later come to Jesus in the New Testament and oddly divorce Him from the identity He so clearly and purposefully defined previously, there is a harmful possibility that we give Him identities He is unfamiliar with. That is to say we give to Him an identity that is potentially idolatrous, disconnected from the identity He is seeking to be defined by.
We are unapologetically defining the God of the Bible as Israel’s God YHWH. We as Gentiles must come to Israel’s God to be saved because our gods for past millennia have been nothing more than idols! Yet, there, distinctly revealed in Israel is the one true God who is the Creator. Gentiles did not create Him, nor think of Him, or ever come to Him by their own knowledge. But, by His mercy He has allowed gentiles who will humble themselves to His election of Israel and their unique calling, to possess Him and partake in the everlasting promise made to Abraham and his descendants.
With this understanding in place we can now approach the mountain in Exodus 20 and peer deeper into the covenant made with the people there, possessing the proper understanding of who this God was.