Three very significant events in Israel’s early history occur at Mount Sinai and are recounted for us in Exodus 19-40.
1. God becomes Israel’s; Israel becomes God’s (Exod. 19-24).
The time at Sinai begins with chapters 19-24 in which God calls Israel to Himself in a covenant, referred to as the Sinaitic, Mosaic, or even Old Covenant. This covenant formed the twelve tribes of Israel into a theocratic nation whose king was Yahweh. Exodus 19:4-6 summarizes the covenant’s basis, privileges, purposes, and responsibilities, and the rest of chapters 19-24 sees the covenant propounded, enacted, and ratified.
Through this covenant, God was bringing to Himself a nation who would belong to Him in a very special way, be fully devoted to Him, and radiate a knowledge of Him to other nations.
Exodus 24 gives us a glimpse into Israel’s very special privilege when, after the covenant is ratified, the leaders of Israel see God and eat and drink in His presence (v. 11). However, God never intended Israel to gorge themselves on the privileges of knowing Him without caring for the nations around them; in binding Himself to Israel, God purposed for them to be a “kingdom of priests” (19:6) that through His blessing on them all the families of the earth would also be blessed. This blessing is not material in nature, but rather God's plan to justify the Gentiles by faith--it is a pre-preaching of the Gospel (Galatians 3:8).
2. God forgives Israel’s breach of covenant on the basis of intercession (Exod. 32-34)
In between the instructions for the tabernacle and the actual construction of it, Israel sins grievously against God by making a golden calf to worship. At the very worst, it was a violation of the Second Commandment, and very probably a violation of the First as well. By their breach of covenant, Israel had incurred the wrath of God and forfeited the privilege to have God’s presence in their midst. But based on Moses’ intercession, God relents of His anger and promises to dwell with Israel. An important principle emerges: intercession is necessary when a breach of covenant has taken place. This is what Jesus does for us all the time. His blood propitiated God’s wrath; His ongoing intercession reminds God of that blood whenever we sin.
3. God comes to dwell in the midst of Israel (Exod. 25-31; 35-40).
Just how serious God was in drawing Israel to Himself as His unique possession becomes clearer in Exodus 25-40. Minutiae related to the construction of the tabernacle fill these chapters, but these details should not obscure the primary purpose of the Tabernacle as stated in Exodus 25:8: “and they shall make a sanctuary for me that I may dwell in the midst of them.” The Tabernacle provided the place where God dwelt in the midst of Israel.
As you read through the instructions for and the construction of the Tabernacle—the details are repeated both times—keep your eyes open for one of the most significant details of all: they made everything “just as the Lord commanded.” This statement is repeated seventeen times in chapters 39-40. Israel’s obedience in following the Lord’s instructions was critical because they were following a pattern the Lord had given Moses (25:40), and that pattern was a copy of things in the heavenlies (Heb. 8:5). The Tabernacle was a reality, but it was also a symbol of a greater reality, a “true tabernacle, which the Lord constructed, not man” (Heb. 8:2).
Israel’s effort to conform to the divine pattern paid off in the end: “the glory of Yahweh filled the tabernacle” (40:34). God had moved into the dwelling place Israel had sacrificially made for Him and in so doing, a key purpose of His in bringing them out of Egypt had been fulfilled. “And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and I will be their God. And they shall know that I am Yahweh their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt in order to dwell in the midst of them. I am Yahweh their God” (29:45-46, emphasis mine).