After the Israelites left Egypt, the Lord invited them to come unto him and be sanctified. In the same way, we of latter-day Israel are also invited to come into his presence through our own faithfulness and through the ordinances of the priesthood. The journey of Israel toward the holy mountain Sinai is like the journey we all must take to find our way into the presence of our Father in Heaven. If we take that journey under the guidance of the prophets, we will find ourselves, as Moses did, at the blessed feet of the Savior himself.
Upon passing through the Red Sea, the Israelites were at last free of the Egyptian threat. Moses then sang, “The Lord is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation: he is my God, and I will prepare him an habitation.” The temple ordinances were already in view. “Thou shalt bring them in,” Moses sang in praise of the Lord, “and plant them in the mountain of thine inheritance, in the place, O Lord, which thou hast made for thee to dwell in, in the Sanctuary, O Lord, which thy hands have established.”1
Anciently, mountains represented temples when no temple existed. The Lord spoke to prophets on the mountains, as in the case of the brother of Jared and the prophet Abraham.2 Now Moses, the constituted true messenger of God, would bring all of Israel to the sacred mountain to receive their covenants.
For us today, the “mountain of inheritance” is the Lord’s temple. In the temple we receive the covenants that make us heirs of his kingdom and presence, where we can be “planted” for all eternity.
The Covenant of Obedience
As they continued their journey to Sinai in the wilderness of Shur, the children of Israel began to murmur from thirst. After three days of crossing Shur, a desert country, they “found no water. And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter.” The word marah means “bitterness.” The test of the three days of thirst reminds us of the three days Jesus remained in the tomb, while the bitter water recalls the blood he shed for our sins.
Moses cried unto the Lord, “and the Lord shewed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet: there he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he proved them.”3 Even today, desert dwellers in the area use the barberry bush to sweeten brackish waters for drinking.4 The tree that soothed the water reminds us of the cross that cancels the bitterness of the sin to those who repent.
A covenant of obedience was connected with the water, “a statute and an ordinance” to “diligently hearken to the voice of the Lord thy God” and “do that which is right in his sight” and “give ear to his commandments.” The covenant made at Marah is very similar to the witness we bear at the sacrament table to “keep his commandments which he has given.” While the bitter water represents the anguish of sin, to one seeking the grace and forgiveness of God, the water of the sacrament, a token of the Lord’s blood, is sweet to the repentant soul.
The Bread from Heaven
Six weeks into the journey toward Sinai, the provisions brought from Egypt ran out, and the Israelites began to murmur with hunger. “Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, 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.”
Again Moses pleaded with the Lord, who answered: “I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a certain rate every day, that I may prove them, whether they will walk in my law, or no.” So the Lord fed his people. The next day, “behold, upon the face of the wilderness there lay a small round thing. . . . and when the children of Israel saw it, they said to one another, It is manna: for they wist not what it was. And Moses said unto them, This is the bread which the Lord hath given you to eat.” 5
The manna is, of course, a symbol or type of the Savior who was to come, as he taught the Jews during his ministry: “Moses gave you not that bread from heaven, but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world. . . . I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.”6 Israel partook of the manna as we partake of the sacrament bread, in remembrance of the mercy of God. Both the waters of Marah and the manna were foreshadowing symbols of the Atonement of Christ.
The next spiritual test in the Israelites’ journey to Sinai came in the form of war. The tribe of Amalek, descendants of Esau, attacked Israel at a place called Rephidim. The house of Esau, or Edom, is associated in scripture with the Amalekites and is considered the archetypal enemy of Israel. The Jewish Encyclopedia notes that the Amalekites always “displayed the most intense hatred toward [Israel].”7
During the battle, Moses stood “on the top of the hill” with the rod of God in his hand. “And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed: and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed.
” As Moses tired, his hands fell, so Aaron and Hur held up his hands and Israel won the battle. Then Moses built an altar and named the battle site “Jehovah-nissi,” meaning “Jehovah is my banner,” and announced that “the Lord hath sworn that the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.”8
But the Lord doesn’t battle against a people. He fights wickedness. The war between Israel and Amalek foreshadows in spiritual terms the war between the forces of God and the forces of an evil world. This war continues today. Only by upholding God’s prophet, as Aaron and Hur did for Moses, can we hope to prevail in this war. Upholding the prophet means sustaining and supporting him in the great mission of latter-day Israel. It means giving strict attention to his counsels. It means to “be faithful, stand in the office which I have appointed unto you; succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees.”9
The Greater Priesthood
At last the children of Israel arrived at the holy mountain. Here they were met by Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses and the priest of Midian. We know that Jethro conferred the Melchizedek Priesthood on Moses, Jethro having received it in a direct line from his fathers back to the time of Abraham.10 By the authority of that priesthood, Jethro performed “a burnt offering and sacrifices for God: and Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel, to eat bread with Moses’ father in law before God.”11
At the foot of Sinai, Moses instructed the brethren in the doctrine and ordinances of the priesthood, perhaps with the assistance of Jethro, who had ordained him. Moses “plainly” taught them that “this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God. Therefore in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest. . . . without this no man can see the face of God, even the Father.”12
To come into the presence of God, Moses taught them, they must receive the higher priesthood and its higher ordinances, known as the “mysteries of the kingdom.” President Harold B. Lee explained that these mysteries are “taught only to the faithful Church members in sacred temples. . . . these so-called mysteries are embodied in what the Prophet speaks of as the holy endowment.”13 At the foot of the holy mountain, Moses would attempt to sanctify the people of Israel to receive those ordinances.
It is perhaps significant that Jethro brought to Moses his wife Zipporah and sons Gershom and Eliezer, who had stayed with Jethro during the troubles in Egypt. They all “came into the tent” together. This reuniting of the family might have been accompanied by a sealing under the hand of Jethro, although this is speculative.
The high priest Jethro also counseled Moses in the organization of the church. First, he helped Moses understood his own role as Prophet: “Be thou for the people to God-ward, that thou mayest bring the causes unto God: and thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt shew them the way wherein they must walk, and the work they must do.” Moses was to be a “general authority,” receiving direction from God and acting as the teacher and provider of ordinances of salvation for all the people.
Then Jethro advised Moses on the proper role of Church authorities. “Provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.” Like bishops, these were to be the judges in Israel, worthy men, not elected by the people but called by the Prophet. Note the careful order of their callings; there was to be no confusion about the line of authority in the Lord’s house. These “bishops” would “judge the people at all seasons: and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge.”14
The Sanctification of Israel
Thus instructed and organized, the people were ready to be sanctified and to receive their ordinances and covenants. The Lord called Moses up to the Mount and gave this promise:
“If ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people. . . . and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.”15 The word “treasure” in Hebrew is segullah, which refers to closely held personal wealth or property. According to Hugh Nibley, the word also means “set apart, sealed, removed from the rest of the world.”16 In other words, the Lord was promising to seal all Israel his if they would only keep the covenant faithfully. Of course, the same covenant, administered by the same priesthood authority, applies to latter-day Israel as well-if we obey the voice of the Lord and remain faithful to our covenants, we too become the Lord’s “peculiar treasure.”
So Moses “called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words which the Lord commanded him. And all the people answered together, and said, All that the Lord hath spoken we will do.” (Note the answering in unison.) When they had agreed to live by this law of obedience, Moses returned to report “the words of the people unto the Lord.”
The Lord then told Moses, “Go unto the people, and sanctify them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their clothes. And be ready against the third day: for the third day the Lord will come down in the sight of all the people upon mount Sinai.” 17
Part of the sanctification process was for each individual to wash and change into clean simlah, or robes.
Additionally, the people were not to trespass into the holy place until invited: “Thou shalt set bounds unto the people round about, saying, Take heed to yourselves, that ye go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it.” They were to carefully observe the boundaries set by the Lord, for a veil surrounded the holy place: “Mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire.” The Lord told Moses to keep the people outside the cloudy veil, “lest they break through unto the Lord to gaze, and many of them perish.” 18
The Ten Commandments
On the third day after administering the covenant of obedience, Moses and Aaron went up into the mount again to receive the next phase of the covenant. Here, the Lord gave a mighty charge to the prophet and to the people, a charge that we know today as the Ten Commandments.
They are vital, eternal laws of happiness that cannot be broken without reaping the consequences in misery. They include laws of chastity and reverence for our Heavenly Father and for our brothers and sisters, as well as laws of equity and justice. The unholy practices forbidden in the Ten Commandments are the source of much of the misery in the world in all ages-taking the Lord’s name in vain, idolatry, violence, adultery, theft, dishonesty, and greed.
The Lord gave the Ten Commandments with a covenant and a promise. “An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings.” These are the tokens of the covenant, all of them pointing to the future sacrifice of the Only Begotten Son of God. To those who obey these commandments, the Lord promises, “I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee.”19
Moses then conveyed the Lord’s instructions to Israel: “All the words of the Lord, and all the judgments: and all the people answered with one voice, and said, All the words which the Lord hath said will we do.” To seal the covenant, Moses then offered sacrifice. He took the token of the covenant, “the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord hath made with you.” 20
The Presence of the Lord
At this point, Moses and the leaders of Israel were invited within the veil into the presence of the Lord: “Then went up Moses, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. And they saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness.” Thus the presidency of the priesthood and the seventy communed with the Lord himself, who stood on a luminous pavement as clear and blue as the sky. There it appears that they partook of the sacrament: “They saw God, and did eat and drink.” 21
Moses spent many days after this on the mountain in the Lord’s presence, receiving precise instruction in the ordinances of the priesthood and in the construction of the tabernacle-a portable temple where Israel could carry out the ordinances as they journeyed in the wilderness. In the meantime, among the people at the foot of the mountain, things were going wrong.
Israel Breaks the Covenant
The children of Israel had no sooner taken upon themselves the covenants of the priesthood than they abandoned those covenants. Melting down the gold they had pillaged from Egypt, they fashioned a molten calf and built an altar to sacrifice to the new god of gold. This idol represented the Apis Bull, a god particularly associated with Pharaoh, revealing the fact that their hearts had not changed and were still spiritually enslaved. When Moses descended from the mountain, he found Israel naked, worshiping an idol, eating, drinking, and “at play.”22 They had taken their covenants in vain and quickly turned back to a counterfeit god.
Because of this great sin, the Lord took from them the ordinances of the Melchizedek Priesthood and gave them a lesser covenant to live by, which is known today as the Levitical Law or the Law of Moses.
Moses had “sought diligently to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God.” They had received great promises in connection with their covenants, but now the Lord canceled those covenants and promises because of the hardness of their hearts. “Therefore, the Lord in his wrath, for his anger was kindled against them, swore that they should not enter into his rest while in the wilderness, which rest is the fullness of his glory.” The fullness of the Lord’s glory is exaltation in the celestial kingdom; because of their violation of the covenant, this blessing would not be available to Israel until a new dispensation of the gospel in the meridian of time.
We too face the temptation of counterfeit gods. Although we have prophets to guide us, we are just as susceptible as the ancient Israelites to become “idolaters.” President Spencer W. Kimball said:
“Sadly, we find that to be shown the way is not necessarily to walk in it, and many have not been able to continue in faith. These have submitted themselves in one degree or another to the enticings of Satan and his servants and joined with those of the world’ in lives of ever-deepening idolatry.
“I use the word idolatry intentionally. As I study ancient scripture, I am more and more convinced that there is significance in the fact that the commandment Thou shalt have no other gods before me’ is the first of the Ten Commandments.
“Few men have ever knowingly and deliberately chosen to reject God and his blessings.
Rather, we learn from the scriptures that because the exercise of faith has always appeared to be more difficult than relying on things more immediately at hand, carnal man has tended to transfer his trust in God to material things. . . . Whatever thing a man sets his heart and his trust in most is his god; and if his god doesn’t also happen to be the true and living God of Israel, that man is laboring in idolatry.”23
The Law of Moses Pointed to Christ
Eventually, the Lord “took Moses out of their midst, and the Holy Priesthood also; and the lesser priesthood continued, which priesthood holdeth the key of the ministering of angels and the preparatory gospel . . . of repentance and of baptism, and the remission of sins, and the law of carnal commandments, which the Lord in his wrath caused to continue with the house of Aaron among the children of Israel.”24 Without the Melchizedek Priesthood, “the key of the mysteries of the kingdom” is gone and the ordinances of exaltation with it. In his anger at the unfaithfulness of Israel, Moses destroyed the tables of the law, but the Lord restored them-this time without “the words of the everlasting covenant of the holy priesthood.”25
Still, the lesser law opened the gate of the celestial kingdom to Israel through the ordinances of repentance and baptism. The law served to remind Israel every waking moment of the coming sacrifice of the Savior. The faithful prophet Jacob taught: “For this intent we keep the law of Moses, it pointing our souls to him; and for this cause it is sanctified unto us for righteousness.”26 Nephi found joy in contemplating the many points of the law that typified the Savior who would come: “My soul delighteth in proving unto my people the truth of the coming of Christ; for, for this end hath the law of Moses been given.” All these things, Nephi wrote, “are the typifying of him.”27
In the end, the law of Moses was a gift of mercy to the house of Israel; despite their hard hearts and infidelity to their covenants, the law remained as a channel of hope for them through the atoning sacrifice of the Savior. Alma explained: “This is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice . . . the son of God, yea, infinite and eternal. And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name.”28
1 Exod. 15:2, 17.
2 Ether 3:1; Gen. 22:2.
3 Exod. 15:22-23.
4 See Cunningham Geikie, Hours with the Bible, 117
5 Exod: 16:3-4, 14-15.
6 John 6:32-35.
7 See “Amalek, Amalekites” at jewishencyclopedia.com.
8 Exod. 17:8-16.
9 D&C 81:5.
10 See D&C 84:6-13.
11 Exod. 18:12.
12 D&C 84:19-23.
13 Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, 99.
14 Exod. 18:19-26.
15 Exod. 19:5-6.
16 “Some Notes on Cultural Diversity in the Universal Church,” Maxwell Institute: Provo, UT.
17 Exod. 19:7-11.
18 Exod. 19:12, 18-21.
19 Exod. 20:2-17, 23-24.
20 Exod. 24:1-3, 8.
21 Exod. 24:9-11.
22 Exod. 32:1-6.
23 Spencer W. Kimball, “The False Gods We Worship,” Ensign, Jun. 1976, 3.
24 D&C 84:23-24.
25 D&C 84:19; JST Exod.34:1-5.
26 Jacob 4:5.
27 2 Ne. 11:4.
28 Alma 34:14.