This post argues that Israel is presented as the assembly of the Lord in the Old Testament. This is an integral part of the overall theme of God’s people as assembly that runs throughout the canon of Scripture.
Even before the great day of assembly at Sinai, God let His plan of creating an assembly of redeemed humanity be known. In Gen. 28:3, Isaac demonstrates that he understands the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant in terms of the formation of an assembly. As he passes this blessing on to his son Jacob he states, “May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples.” The word translated “company” is קָהָל, a term used by Moses to refer to Israel both as an actual assembly and, more generally, as an institution characterized by assembling (both at Sinai, and the feasts of the cultic calendar).
No doubt, as the congregation in the wilderness would have heard Moses’ use of קָהָל they would have thought of themselves as part of the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise passed on to Isaac, Jacob, and finally to themselves. The congregation in the wilderness, constituted as God’s covenant assembly at Sinai, would have seen themselves as part of the fulfillment of the promise to make Abraham “a company [or assembly] of peoples” (Gen. 28:3).
Israel’s gathering at the foot of Mount Sinai came to be referred to as “the day of the assembly” (9:10; 10:4; 18:16; and 4:10 in the LXX). It was on this day that the people of God were constituted as “the assembly of YHWH” (Num. 16:3; 20:4; Deut. 23:1, 2, 3, 8; [2, 3, 4, 9 in Hebrew] 1 Chron. 28:8; 29:20; Micah 2:5). Thus, as Edmund P. Clowney notes, “The ‘assembly in the desert’ (Acts 7:38) was the definitive assembly for Israel, the covenant-making assembly when God claimed his redeemed people as his own.”
The importance of the act of assembling at Sinai is seen in the fact that the Sinai assembly sets a pattern of assembling that becomes a regular part of Israel’s cultic life. Three times a year Israel is commanded to celebrate feasts in which “all your males shall appear before the Lord God” (Exod. 23:17). Clowney is surely correct when he points out that “[t]he later assemblies of Israel recalled that great assembly [Sinai].”
Donald Robinson also rightly notes that “the ‘congregation’ of Israel which was constituted at Sinai” is the same congregation that “assembled before the Lord at the annual feasts in the persons of its representative males.” There is probably even a sense in which these subsequent assemblies are to be viewed as renewals, or reenactments, of the Sinai assembly. Thus, the exodus results in the constitution of Israel as YHWH’s assembly, and through the reassembling of this congregation at the annual feasts, provision is made for this constitutive act to be recalled throughout their days as a nation.
The qualifying phrase “throughout their days as a nation” must be added because if Israel was to break covenant with YHWH (as they in fact did) “the assembly of YHWH” would be scattered (Lev. 26:33; Deut. 4:27; 28:64). This means that the punishment for breaking covenant with the Lord takes the form of a reversal of the act of assembling—the dispersal of the assembly. YHWH will “scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth; and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone, which you or your fathers have not known” (Deut. 28:64).
Yet, in His mercy, the Lord holds out the promise of restoration. If Israel will repent, “then YHWH your God will restore you from captivity, and have compassion on you, and will gather you again from all the peoples where YHWH your God has scattered you. If your outcasts are at the ends of the earth, from there YHWH your God will gather you, and from there He will bring you back” (Deut. 30:3-4). That Israel placed its hope in such a promise is evident from its place in the Psalms (106:47; 147:2), as well as the prophetic literature (Isa. 11:12; Jer. 32:37; Ezek. 34:13; 39:28; 56:8; Zeph. 3:10; Zech. 10:6).
All of this is significant for the New Testament understanding of the church, because, as Thomas Schreiner notes, “The term ‘church’ (ekklēsia) reaches back to the Old Testament term qāhāl, denoting Israel as God’s assembly.” The assembly Jesus builds (Matt. 16:18) is the reconstituted “assembly of the Lord.”