Summary: God’s servants need to focus on God’s activity rather than the negativity of God’s people.
1) And Yahweh proceeded to speak to Moses, “Go, ascend from this place, you and the people you caused to ascend from the land of Egypt toward the land which I promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your seed, I will give it
2) And I shall send a messenger (angel) before your presence (lit. “faces”) and I shall drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites,
3) TO a land flowing with milk and honey BECAUSE I will not go up in your midst BECAUSE a PEOPLE OF A STIFF NECK you are, lest I destroy you along the way.”
The personal name of God reflects a personal relationship, the reference to the past promise reflects a history of relationship, the promise itself suggests that God’s plans are considerably bigger than ours, and the last part suggests that even when God means the very best for us, His Holiness is so incompatible with our apathy and rebellion that we run the risk of being destroyed by His presence—a presence we take far too lightly.
4) And the people proceeded to hear this bad word and they themselves proceeded to mourn and, as a result, each man did not place his ornaments (jewelry) upon himself.
Although this verse was typically used in the traditional Pentecostal movement to forbid all use of make-up and jewelry, I think that approach has overlooked some important facets here. First of all, it wasn’t just the women. The Hebrew says that the men did not place their ornaments on themselves. Now, of course, that surely means the women, as well. It was a male-dominated world and what applied to the men (at least in restrictions, not necessarily in freedom) applied to the women. I believe we should read this as most English translations do that the people didn’t put on their jewelry.
Why is this significant? I think it is significant because there were several reasons to wear ornamentation in the ancient world. The most harmless reason was as a sign of authority—signet rings, torques (those big necklaces that predate modern street culture’s bling by millennia), and the like could signal who you are and how important you are. That’s not necessarily bad, but if we want to experience the presence of God, we have to be willing to let God transform us from who we ARE to whom He wants us to BECOME. A relatively harmless reason was to accessorize. Then, as now, jewelry was meant to set off the best features of a person’s appearance and distract from the rest. Yet, God knows exactly how we are. When we enter into communion with God, there should be no exaggeration of our good points (they all come by grace anyway) and no attempt to hid our bad points (He’s died for them already).
But the most damning aspect of this ornamentation relates to two things: sexuality and idolatry. You see, there is some evidence that young girls did not wear jewelry until they reached that time of womanhood that we call puberty (this is hinted in Ezekiel 16 where God uses the metaphor of wooing Israel from girlhood into womanhood). This may be because the cult prostitutes of the ancient world wore necklaces between their breasts to accentuate their desirability, married women wore different types of jewelry to express the idea that they “belonged” to their husbands (I once referred to my wedding ring proudly as Wailam’s “brand”), and married women often wore frog amulets or goddess amulets to increase their chance of fertility—depending upon other gods than the real God. Regardless, this verse suggests that the people knew that you had to avoid surrounding yourself with things that hide, things that distract, things that seduce you away from God, and things that are opposed to God.
We have all sorts of jewelry or ornamentation to remove (or not put on) if we are to make God welcome in our midst without risking destruction, judgment, and missed blessings. We wear reputation, awards, privilege, titles, tradition, bias, prejudice, desire, wealth, and pride as our modern ornamentation. But if we want God in our midst, we have to be willing to refuse even the most easy and seeming natural of these.
5) And Yahweh said to Moses, “Say to the sons of Israel, YOU, you are a people of a stiff neck. Let me go up in your midst ONE MOMENT and, as a result, I would destroy you. And now, take off your ornamentation from upon you and, as a result, I will know what I will do with you.”
Do you ever have a problem with some of these sayings? If God knows everything, why is God looking for a sign of obedience? If God knows everything and He has already said that His presence would destroy them, what’s happening now? God knows, but God limits His actions based on that knowledge to give us time to respond in freedom. Such a statement and such an action is merely grace in action. God guarantees our freedom, even when He knows it may go against Him. In this case, the decision didn’t.