18 “You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month Abib, for in the month Abib you came out from Egypt. 19 All that open the womb are mine, all your male livestock, the firstborn of cow and sheep. 20 The firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem. And none shall appear before me empty-handed.
21 “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest. In plowing time and in harvest you shall rest. 22 You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the year’s end. 23 Three times in the year shall all your males appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel. 24 For I will cast out nations before you and enlarge your borders; no one shall covet your land, when you go up to appear before the Lord your God three times in the year.
25 “You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with anything leavened, or let the sacrifice of the Feast of the Passover remain until the morning. 26 The best of the firstfruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God. You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.”
27 And the Lord said to Moses, “Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” 28 So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments. – Exodus 34:18-28 ESV
This portion of Exodus 34 has left scholars scratching their heads in confusion and contradicting one another in their attempts to explain what is going on. In these verses, Moses records the words spoken to him by God when he returned to the top of Mount Sinai. It is clear that God’s emphasis was on the covenant and the law that accompanied it. But why does God seem to give such a strange and disjointed summary of the Decalogue and the Book of the Covenant? He provides Moses with a random list of moral and ceremonial laws that appear to have no rhyme or reason behind them.
Yet, if one considers the context, it all begins to make sense. This entire exchange between God and Moses took place shortly after Israel had committed the sin of apostasy by worshiping the golden calf. In doing so, they had broken God’s laws and violated the covenant commitment they had agreed to keep. God had expressed His anger and judgment with their rejection of Him by having the leaders of the rebellion executed and by sending a plague to punish all those who had joined them in the worship of the false god they had made. But Moses had intervened on behalf of the people of Israel, begging God to extend grace, mercy, and forgiveness. He had also pleaded with Yahweh to remain with His chosen people, rather than abandon them as punishment for their sinfulness. And God had agreed to all of Moses’ requests.
But while God was willing to renew His relationship with His rebellious people, He was going to reiterate and renew His covenant requirements of them.
“Observe what I command you this day.” – Exodus 34:11 ESV
And what follows is a summary list of the laws He had previously given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Moses had already provided the people of Israel with the complete compilation of the Decalogue and the Book of the Covenant.
Moses came and told the people all the Lord’s words and all the decisions. All the people answered together, “We are willing to do all the words that the Lord has said,” and Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. – Exodus 24:3-4 NLT
God had also given Moses the original set of stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments.
The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and remain there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the law and the commandments that I have written, so that you may teach them.” – Exodus 24:12 NLT
These tablets had been shattered by Moses when he had come down from the mountaintop and discovered the people of Israel celebrating their new god. But the breaking of the tablets was not the problem; it was the Israelite’s breaking of the laws the tablets contained. They had not acted in ignorance. They had willingly disobeyed their covenant commitment by refusing to keep God’s commandments. So now, God was preparing to provide them with a second copy of the Ten Commandments and He accompanied it with a carefully chosen collection of laws that emphasized their covenant relationship with Him.
A close look at this seemingly random list of rules and regulations reveals that they have much in common. First of all, they were not to repeat the mistake they had just made.
“You shall not make for yourself any gods of cast metal.” – Exodus 34:17 ESV
No more golden calves. And no adoption and adaptation of the false gods of the inhabitants of Canaan. When they finally entered the land of promise, they were to purge it of all remnants of idolatry and pagan worship. No shrines were to be left standing. Not altars to false gods were to remain intact.
Not only that, they were to keep the feast days that God had established for them. There were to be no new feast days or special events associated with false gods or worthless idols. One of the things that infuriated Moses and caused him to destroy the original tablets of stone was to see his fellow Israelites dancing around the golden calf.
When he approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses became extremely angry. He threw the tablets from his hands and broke them to pieces at the bottom of the mountain. – Exodus 32:19 NLT
What Moses had witnessed that day was a man-made festival decreed by his very own brother. Aaron had not only given in to the people’s demand for a new god, but he also set aside the following day as an official feast day.
“Tomorrow will be a feast to the Lord.” So they got up early on the next day and offered up burnt offerings and brought peace offerings, and the people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play. – Exodus 32:5-6 NLT
So, it makes sense that God would remind His people that they were limited to celebrating the feasts that He had established for them, including the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Once a year, they were to celebrate their deliverance from Egypt by holding three closely connected days of remembrance. The first was the Feast of Unleavened Bread. For seven days they were forbidden to eat anything containing yeast, a symbol of sin. Then, on the seventh day, they were to hold a feast, commemorating and celebrating their deliverance from their captivity in Egypt. Notice that the feast was to follow a period of abstinence from and purging of sin – the opposite of the celebration that took place after their sinful worship of the golden calf.
God also reminded them of the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Ingathering. These two feasts were to bookend the annual harvest.
“You must observe the Feast of Weeks—the firstfruits of the harvest of wheat—and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year.” – Exodus 34:22 NLT
They were to recognize God as the faithful provider of all their needs by offering Him the first of all their harvests. There were to be no celebrations of false gods because they were incapable of providing any help or hope. Everything the Israelites had was a gift from God, including their food, shelter, flocks, herds, and children.
“Every firstborn of the womb belongs to me, even every firstborn of your cattle that is a male, whether ox or sheep.” – Exodus 34:19 NLT
God was reemphasizing His providential care for His people. The very thought of aligning themselves with another god should have been abhorrent to them. No man-made god could match Yahweh’s generosity and goodness. The Israelites owed all that they had to the gracious benevolence of their God, and they were to regularly celebrate His providential care by keeping His prescribed feasts. Even the weekly celebration of the Sabbath was intended to remind the Israelites that His provision was so generous that they could take the seventh day off. But this day was to be dedicated to Him.
Three times each year, at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Ingathering, the men of Israel were required to appear before the Lord. These mandatory festivals were designed to be reminders of God’s covenant faithfulness and to prompt the people of Israel to treat their gracious and generous God with the reverence and gratitude He deserved.
Every law and regulation God gave them was to be faithfully kept, including the rather obscure one that prohibited the boiling of a lamb in its mother’s milk. God seems to reiterate this one for emphasis. There were to be no commandments that were overlooked or ignored. God’s will was serious business and His call to obedience was not to be taken lightly.
For 40 days and nights, Moses communed with God, going without food or water. This reference to Moses’ extended fast is just another reminder that Yahweh was to be the provider and sustainer of all their needs. Moses was energized and fueled by his access to God Almighty. He suffered no hunger, pain, or diminishment of his strength during that time. He feasted on the words of God and was nourished by His presence. And when Moses finished his time along with Yahweh, he descended the mountain one more time with a brand new copy of the Decalogue in his hands.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.