In the third month of the going out of the sons of Israel from the land of Egypt, in this day they have come into the wilderness of Sinai.. – Exodus 19:1, Young’s Literal Translation
Most Bible translations render this passage in the more sensible phrasing, “on that day”, as in past tense, i.e., this is what happened at that time. It is a logical transliteration of the awkwardness of the Hebrew. However, as in so many other places in the Bible, the translators bring us an adulterated version, stripped of it’s deeper midrashic meaning.
We see from Young’s literal translation that the Hebrew says, “in this day they have come”, which seems to change the tense of the narrative. The great Jewish scholar, Rashi, paid careful attention to the Hebrew here and connects it to the Passover event 50 days earlier:
This month shall be the beginning of months for you; it is to be the first month of the year to you.(Ex.12:2)
The inference, which is explicit in Rashi’s understanding, is that the Passover event marks the beginning of months. This could also be understood as the beginning of new life. Fifty days later, Israel reaches the place of Mattan Torah, or the giving of the Torah.
The direct parallel of this event can be found in Acts chapter 2, which records the giving of the spirit, which lighted upon all who were gathered in Solomon’s Colonnade, where they were all in one accord in one place (Acts 2:1). The descent of the spirit and the manifestation of the utterance of foreign languages by non-native speakers, also parallels the Midrash’s rendering of “thunderings” which the people heard from the mountain of Sinai as the “voices of God”(Ex.19:19).
The important picture in our key passage, according to traditional Jewish understanding, is that the people arrived at Sinai in a place of unified repentance.
Clear out of your mind, for now, the tragic events of the golden calf which will soon follow. Here, this day, the nation is repentant and ready to receive the word of the LORD. This month, the first of months, and this day, the day in which new life is given.
Passover represents the day of salvation, but Sinai represents the terms of redemption.
As Rashi writes, “the Torah should always seem new to us, as if given today. It shall be ‘beloved to you as a newly acquired gift.'”
You may think that this interpretation is irrelevant to a modern Christian who believes that they are under the New Covenant and that all this “Torah stuff” is just a shadow of what was fulfilled in Christ. However, you should know that this concept of Mattan Torah governed the thinking of the apostles.
Our daily life in Christ should be marked by the attitude of humility and repentance which says, in effect, “this day, I will serve the Lord.” It is a daily commitment.
Perhaps this is why the Hebrew in Exodus 19:1 is written in such awkward fashion. Maybe it was not a mistake that the English translators needed to “smooth over” after all.
Mattan Torah, or the Giving of the Torah, becomes, in that context, the Going out of Torah, as in the daily act of repentance, as though it has been given on this day.
This idea is directly alluded to by the writer of Hebrews, in his exhortation to the Jewish believers in Jerusalem, when he says:
Encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today”, so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end, while it is said, “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts… (Hebrews 2:13-15)
Today is the day of our visitation. If the Lord does not return today, then tomorrow we say, “Today is the day of our visitation.” Therefore,
…let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds…all the more as you see the day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:25)
The salvation of Israel from the clutches of Pharaoh was not an end to itself, for how miserable is it to be delivered from the frying pan into the fire? God saved them when they were incapable of saving themselves, but once they have been freed, they needed to free themselves from the bondage of their own habits, attitudes and faithlessness. Thus, the exhortation to continue in faith, today.
To understand the Torah which God gave the Jewish people, one must understand it not under the lens of personal salvation, but under the lens of community being formed by man under the authority and guidance of God.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says in his essay, A Holy Nation:
“Judaism’s great concerns are with the life we construct together and the terms on which we do so: justice, compassion, human dignity, peace, the limited and proper conduct of war, care for the dependent, welfare for the poor, concern for the long-term viability of the environment, and above all, the rule of law, in which strong and weak, powerful and powerless, are subject to the same code of conduct applied equally to all. These institutions and ideals are essentially political; hence they require the constitution of a nation as a political entity…At Sinai the Jewish people…became a body politic, with the Torah as its written constitution.” – “Covenant & Conversation: Leviticus”, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Koren Publishers
In other words, far from being a “curse” which is placed over the nation for the purpose of “shutting them up” under sin, the Law is the formation of a people unified under God.
In the same way, the assembly of believers in Christ (which we call the church) have been formed as a living body of Christ, not in place of the Torah, but as an extension of it, going forth to disciple the nations under the righteous banner of the coming King of the World, our Lord and Savior, Jesus, Yeshua of the Jews. This idea is behind the statement at the beginning of John’s gospel account:
For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. (John 1:17, NASB)
The King James Version unfortunately adds the conjunction “but” between the two statements, yet this negative divider does not exist in the literal Greek, and is only added by the translators based on a wrong understanding of the passage.
Jesus does not replace the ministry of Moses, He extends it and completes it.
Great will be Christianity’s contribution during this time of global upheaval and daily terror, if she can abandon the fruitless pursuits of dogma, creeds and confessions, and reestablish the role of daily repentance. Even as the news reports continue to shock us with the horror of senseless death and acts of hatred, we can stay firmly grounded in the reality that this day, if you hear His voice, as long as it is still called “Today”, there is hope.
Great will be our contributions to peace and the fruits of the Kingdom of God if we pursue dignity, justice, equality and rights of men and women, and the godly enforcement of law and order with humility and grace. That, as believers, we would unite under the banner of Christ, and not race or national allegiance, even while striving to be loyal citizens and community members where God has planted us.
We are called, after all, just as Israel, to be the witnesses of God. Just as God spoke to the entire nation at Sinai, He also spoke to the first century believers through His spirit at Pentecost. The Great Commission is clear:
You are my witnesses that I am God (Isaiah 43:12)
From now on, if you are believer, resist the temptation to think of your salvation as something that happened on that day, 1, 2, 5, 20, or 30 years ago. Because this just isn’t so. Your salvation is only in the past tense if you have already gone to be with the Lord. No, your salvation is this day.
When were you saved? “This day, His word is new to me, and I hear His voice. This is the day of salvation.”
Now we go forth, truly, as sheep among wolves.