We resume our reflections on the Torah (Pentateuch) and turn our attention to the second of its five books-Exodus. This is a powerful yet at times disturbing work.
It is powerful in its portrayal of God delivering the people of Israel at the hands of Moses and establishing the covenant with them at Mount Sinai, climaxing in God's instructions to Moses to have the people build a sanctuary so 'that I may dwell in their midst' (25:8).
The all-powerful transcendent God, the completely 'other', is the one who is also completely immanent; able to live in the midst of the people without losing anything of divine transcendence.
It is also at times a disturbing book because it portrays God bringing Israel's enemies to a violent end: the classic text being the destruction of the Egyptian host at the Sea.
The violence gets worse in the books of Leviticus and Numbers in which God punishes even wayward Israelites with death.
How do we make sense of such violent texts about God in our Bible, texts that can turn people off the Old Testament altogether? And not only the Old Testament. Chapter 5 of the Acts of the Apostles tells how Ananias and Sapphira dropped dead upon the word of Peter, while death and destruction cut a swathe through the book of Revelation (Apocalypse).
From one point of view, such texts are a testimony to the incredible honesty of the Old Testament. To put it another way, ancient Israelites were true to their experience.
Israel was a small, fragile power in a violent corner of the world. This is not to say that ANE people were any more violent than other peoples but Israel happened to live on the main caravan route between the great western (Egypt) and Eastern (Assyria, Babylon, Persia) powers of the ancient Near East.
Control of lucrative trade routes was then, as now, keenly contested. When quarrels broke out national gods were invariably invoked; there was no separation of religion from affairs of state.
A nation's victory was a sign of the god's power; a nation's defeat could provoke a crisis of faith. Is our god weak or has he or she abandoned us to our enemies as a punishment for something?
Those who lived through the two world wars of the 20th century would have little difficulty appreciating Israel's situation and its conviction that God delivered them from their enemies.
The challenge for those who have never known war is to appreciate and learn from the experience of those who have.
Israel belonged to the ancient Near Eastern world and sought God in their experiences of this world. It challenged them to trust their God in seemingly hopeless situations and to treasure stories of deliverance from hopeless situations.
On the reverse side, the prophetic claim that God would punish sinful Israel by sending an enemy to invade them at least gave some order and meaning to what otherwise seemed meaningless violence and chaos. People could still believe that God was in charge and that the period of punishment would come to an end.
Israel's divine calling did not transport them to a magic realm. They were challenged to find God in the joy and terror of their world. Presumably, the same goes for us.
Yet, for all their honesty and integrity, ancient Israel's experience and articulation of it in story form is limited-just like ours. The portrayal of God in Exodus is limited and there is evidence that ancient Jewish commentators recognized this.
In commenting on the deliverance at the Sea (Exodus 14-15) some of the great Sages said: "When the Egyptians were drowning in the sea, the ministering angels were about to burst into song. The Holy and Blessed One rebuked them, saying, my creatures are drowning in the sea and you rejoice?"
There is a recognition here that the particular biblical text, powerful though its description of God may be, is limited and needs to be balanced by other views.
A biblical text that provides a different image of Egyptians is Genesis 12:10-20.
No text or combination of texts can do justice to the mystery of God. As a further comment, notice how these early commentators interpreted a biblical story about God by telling another story about God.
This is a way of conducting theological reflection and debate that is very biblical: time and again the Old Testament will develop or challenge a particular story by telling another story or another version of a story.
A similar phenomenon can be observed in law texts and prophetic texts.
A Division of the Book of Exodus
In keeping with the approach outlined for Genesis, we will pay attention to the relationship between content and form: human beings always communicate something (content) in a certain way (form).
The main constituent parts of the book of Exodus are as follows:
- the scene for the narrative that follows is set in chs. 1-6 with the oppression of Israel and the call of Moses; chs 7-15 tell how YHWH delivers Israel from this oppression through Moses, culminating in the victory at the Sea; chs. 16-18 describe Israel's journey to Mount Sinai to meet God while chs. 19-24 recount the establishment of the covenant with God and the laws that enshrine this unique relationship;
- in chs. 25-31 YHWH outlines the plans for the sanctuary (dwelling place) that is to be erected in the desert; however, this great gesture of intimacy on God's part is interrupted by Israel's apostasy to the golden calf in chs. 32-34; Moses is able to intercede successfully on Israel's behalf and the sanctuary is constructed in chs. 35-40. The book of Exodus ends on a grand note with God sweeping into the sanctuary in a cloud of glory.
People's Oppression: God's Deliverance
At the end of the book of Genesis, the family of Jacob/Israel is safely ensconced in Egypt under the patronage of Joseph, dreamer, sage and saviour. This rosy picture changes dramatically in the opening verses of the book of Exodus. Joseph dies; Pharaoh dies, and a now teeming people of Israel are enslaved by a new Pharaoh who 'did not know Joseph'.
According to 12:40, Israel was in Egypt for 430 years. Attempts to confirm this claim via extra-biblical records have been largely unsuccessful. All we have is the biblical text.
Exodus 1 reports the growth of 70 members of Jacob's family into a multitude within the space of a couple of verses (1:6-7). Either Israel's narrators did not have information about this long sojourn in Egypt or, what is more likely, their interests lay elsewhere.
Their aim was to celebrate faith in God as Israel's deliverer. Nevertheless, they provide us with a couple of intriguing vignettes about Israel's oppression.
An Opening Vignette
The first one is the tale of the Hebrew midwives who save Israel from Pharaoh's plan to kill all the boys (1:15-22).
The contrast in characters is telling. Pharaoh is portrayed with mocking irony: killing off his workforce is illogical. He is not only a bad man but a madman.
The midwives are portrayed as smart and God-fearing: a winning combination.
What is intriguing about this tale is that it shows Moses is not necessary for Israel's salvation. God chooses Moses as God chooses Israel, but God can deliver Israel just as effectively through two seemingly insignificant women.
Indeed, the narrative surrounds Moses with female saviours: his mother, his sister, Pharaoh's daughter, and his Midianite wife in the strange episode of 4:24-26.
Not just Israelite women but foreign women too save Moses' life.
The latter provide a much-needed balance to the very negative description of the foreigner (Egypt) in this narrative.
The Second Vignette
The second intriguing story tells of the arrival of Moses on the scene (2:1-22). Born a Hebrew, he is brought up by the daughter of the very man bent on killing him and his kind; another ironic touch.
It is one thing to be born a Hebrew/Israelite; it is another thing to become one.
The portrait of Moses the man is ambiguous: is he Egyptian or Israelite? He kills an Egyptian but then faces a hostile reaction from Hebrews as well as Pharaoh and is obliged to flee to Midian.
The daughters of Midian think that the refugee who helps them is an Egyptian (2:19).
Just who is Moses and what will he become?
The slaying of an Egyptian may be an allusion to the role Moses will play in delivering his people but the Hebrews see him more as a threat than an ally.
A Turning Point
The turning point comes when Moses meets God at the burning bush in Exodus 3. By now Moses is married to the Midianite Zipporah and seems to have opted for life in Midian.
In 2:21, he refers to himself as 'an alien residing in a foreign land'. Is Moses referring to himself as an Egyptian or an Israelite?
Whatever the case, Exod 2:23-25 implies that God has other plans. As the text unfolds, it is God who calls Moses to 'become' an Israelite.
According to many scholars, the form of the call of Moses in 3:1-15 is similar to that of prophetic call narratives in 1 Samuel 3; Isaiah 6; Jeremiah 1. If this is so, the text is casting Moses in prophetic guise.
The emphasis lies more on him becoming a messenger of God's word than a military hero who defeats Pharaoh in battle.
The Revelation of God's Name
A key element in the text is the revelation of the name of God in 3:14-15; a name which Jews out of reverence do not pronounce but write as a tetragrammaton of four letters (YHWH).
The name is derived from the Hebrew verb 'to be' but the traditional English rendering of 3:14 as 'I am' is inadequate and lacks the dynamic, creative element that scholars judge is inherent in the Hebrew original.
A satisfactory explanation of the meaning of this name escapes us and this is probably the point: the name of God, though revealed, remains a mystery.
Although God reveals this name after Moses requests it (he does not yet know it), 4:1 implies that it is already known to the Israelites.
Knowledge of the name may therefore be a critical point in Moses' makeover from Egyptian refugee to Israelite saviour.
It provides him with the crucial 'password' that will make him acceptable to his people.
If they initially refuse to recognize him, his knowledge of the divine name will convince them that he has indeed met their God (cf. 3:13).
We saw in Genesis that reconciliation between hostile humans is difficult to achieve, despite God's efforts. Here, despite God's personal call and intimacy in revealing the divine name, Moses proves a reluctant leader.
He objects and complains, much as Israel will later object and complain during the desert journey. It is difficult for humans to change but God keeps plugging away.
The narrator uses the series of objections and replies in Exodus 3-4 as an opportunity to preview highlights from the narrative to come (the plague stories) and ends by introducing Moses' older brother Aaron as his assistant.
Moses is finally willing to return and confront Pharaoh and does so in Exodus 5.
To Know that I am the Lord
Our third reflection on the book of Exodus will focus on the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh.
There is an initial one in ch. 5 which does not turn out well for Moses and his brother Aaron. After a series of pep talks from God, they resume the struggle in the famous plague stories of chs. 7-11 which culminate in the death of the first-born of Egypt in ch. 12.
There have been several attempts by movie makers to translate this narrative onto the silver screen. In my opinion the lure of spectacle leads them to miss the point of the narrative.
Its aim is not to showcase divine power but to proclaim something far more fundamental from the biblical point of view-that people, whether Israelite or Egyptian, acknowledge YHWH as God (cf. 6:7; 7:5).
Human beings need to believe in something even if it is that there is no God. The pressing issue is not 'whether' faith but 'what kind' of faith.
The OT proclaims that believing YHWH alone is God is ultimately what matters: all else flows from this.
God's Strength in Human Weakness
Moses, rebuffed by an arrogant Pharaoh in ch. 5, drops his bundle (cf. 5:22-23). But, God can turn our failures and crises into creative opportunities.
Moses is assured that his moment of apparent failure and Egyptian power is in no way a setback for God's plan.
God will 'now' (6:1) deliver Israel from the Egyptians by a mighty hand in order that Israel (and Moses) 'shall know that I am the Lord (YHWH) your God' (6:7).
And, instead of replacing Moses with a more able player, God elevates him to the status of the ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and makes him custodian of the ancestral covenant (6:3-8).
Moses' moment of failure and crisis is the moment in which God enrolls him among the mighty ones of Israel.
This is similar to Jesus' commissioning of his failed disciples after his resurrection: God's strength is shown in human weakness.
Moses' character shown through his call
Despite all this, Moses is a hard man to convince and tries to avoid further confrontation with Pharaoh by giving the 'poor speaker' excuse another try (6:12; cf. 4:10).
One suspects that our inspired narrator may be mocking the figure of Moses a little here.
According to some critical scholars, the repetition of this motif, along with other factors such as the unusual name for God (El Shaddai) in 6:2, is a sign that there were once two independent traditions of Moses' call in circulation (chs. 3:1-6:1 and 6:2-7:5).
They have been cleverly linked together here as 'initial call' and 'renewal of call'. If this is the case, the tradition in 6:2-7:5 has been placed where it is for two important reasons.
One is the statement in 7:5 that 'the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord'. It signals that God's purpose is not just for Israel as 6:7 might imply. The second is the further elevation of Moses to godlike status for his confrontation with Pharaoh, with Aaron as Moses' prophet (7:1).
It is a testimony to the skill of OT narrators and editors that they could make such bold theological moves without losing sight of the fragile and flawed side of Moses and Aaron's humanity.
The genealogy in 6:14-25 was probably inserted by a later editor (note the repetitions before and after) to supply family information about our leading characters before the story of the plagues gets under way.
A Preface to the Plague Stories
As a 'preface' to this story, Moses' snake devours the snakes of Egypt's magicians (7:8-13).
In 4:2-5, the snake is a sign for Israel that God is with Moses: here it is a sign that God is against Pharaoh and Egypt.
The 9 plagues that follow in chapters 7-10 remind one of the horror stories that foreigners love to tell about Australia, the 'land of bugs and flies'.
Stories about the horrors of Egypt may well have been told originally to entertain: in the present text, they play a more serious role and have been shaped to proclaim and bolster Israel's faith in God.
Modern critical scholarship detects at least two traditions that have been woven together. Some plagues or signs involve Moses only (e.g. 9:1-7) while others involve Moses and Aaron (e.g. 9:8-12).
These variants have been combined to portray three nuisance plagues of warning (water to blood, frogs, gnats), three plagues that are more threatening and afflict Egyptians but not Israelites (flies, death of livestock, boils), and three that signal doom for Egyptians (hail, locusts, darkness).
The onset of darkness evokes the reversal of creation in Genesis 1. The Lord alone is creator and able to wield the forces of creation.
A recurring theme in the narrative is 'that you may know I am the Lord' or words to that effect. The penny drops for Pharaoh's magicians who warn him in 8:19 that 'this is the finger of God'.
In 10:7, his servants urge him to let the Israelites go. The figure of Pharaoh appears somewhat ambiguous, another sign of variant traditions? In some texts, he hardens his heart (cf. 8:32), in others, his heart is hardened (cf. 9:7)-by God (cf. 7:3).
Perhaps Israel's theologians sought to link divine initiative and human responsibility, always a mysterious relationship. Pharaoh seems to acknowledge the Lord in the wake of the death of the first-born (12:31-32), but he soon changes.
The logic of this narrative cannot allow Egyptian conversion except in 14:25 where they are allowed to do so by the narrator as they drown. Their confession verifies God's prediction in 7:5. Perfect narrative timing for a timely theological point.
Passover and Exodus
The nine plagues that we looked at briefly climax with the tenth and final plague in which God strikes dead all the first-born of Egypt (Exodus 11-13). Whether we take these chapters literally (which I don't) or as a narrative way of doing theology (which I do), the picture of God as executioner is disturbing and even dangerous: it can, and has been, invoked to claim the killing of people as God's work.
It can prejudice us against ancient Egyptians who were no better or worse than other peoples and who probably knew nothing of this story and its condemnation of them.
In part, this is a story about good and evil and in such stories, as we know from our TV dramas, someone has to play the bad guy and come to a sticky end. In this case it is the Egyptians (who get better billing elsewhere in the OT).
I do not pretend to know the answers to the challenges posed by this text: thankfully, parts of Isaiah move beyond the theology of the warrior God that we meet here and in the book of Joshua.
But, revulsion or rejection is too one-sided a reaction. We would object to people doing so to us; we should look at the text to see what positive things it offers.
God's justice according to the text
If we set aside historical speculation and stay with the text, we can see that the death of the first-born is part of the logic of the narrative: it provides an appropriate counter-point to the planned death of Israel's first-born in Exod 1:15-22, which includes Moses in 2:1-10.
God will requite Egypt for this evil plan with the death of its first-born.
As well as this, it provides an appropriate lead-in to the dedication of Israel's first-born in 13:2, 11-16, a ritual that will remind future generations what they owe to their God.
The correspondence between death of Israel's first-born and death of Egyptian first-born also provides the moment for the narrator to engage Israel.
In the earlier chapters, Israel is passive-the oppressed one. Now, at the command of God mediated through Moses, Israel becomes active, but it does not become an oppressor.
All Israel is permitted to do is 'despoil' the Egyptians (12:35-36). God alone executes the death penalty; by definition, what God does is right and just.
The central ritual associated with the death of the first-born is of course Passover. The principal element is God's initiative, which has two components.
One is God's slaying of Egypt's first-born at midnight (the text may back off too direct an involvement of God in this by speaking of a 'destroyer' in 12:23).
The other is the 'creation' of a new life for Israel, symbolized by God announcing the beginning of a new era for Israel ('This month shall be for you the beginning of months' [12:2]).
From now on Israel will live in the freedom of the children of God. Israel's response to this divine initiative is to be one of faith and obedience.
As a sign of their complete trust that God will do as God promises, Israelites are to hold a simple meal in their hovels within the ghettoes of Egypt.
God will reward such faith and trust by 'passing over' Israelite houses to smite the Egyptians.
It is a powerful narrative moment: those who from an outsider's perspective look to be enslaved are awake and celebrating (in faith) their freedom: those who look to be in charge and secure (asleep in their beds) are about to be enslaved by death.
As a further sign that Passover ushers in a new era for Israel, the text integrates it with the feast of Unleavened Bread, apparently an ancient Canaanite harvest festival.
This is a 7 day event, a suitable symbol of order and harmony that evokes the first account of creation in Genesis 1.
The text provides for the continued remembrance of the once only Passover by stipulating that it is to be celebrated on the fourteenth day of the first month, the first day of Unleavened Bread (12:6, 18).
Altogether, three festivals are invoked to give liturgical expression to Israel's faith in God as their deliverer: Passover, Unleavened Bread, Dedication of the First-born.
The first recalls the decisive moment of deliverance; the second celebrates the firm establishment of harmony and order in Israel's world, the 7 day week; the third serves as an ongoing sign of Israel's complete commitment to its God.
The exodus from Egypt, begun at Passover, is completed with the account of Israel's deliverance at the sea.
The text makes clear in 14:1-4 that there is no danger to Israel: how could there be, given God's action in chs. 12-13?
What the text focuses on is faith in God and profession of that faith. Predictably, Israel panics and its faith has to be shored up by the faithful Moses. Faith it seems can be fragile despite peak experiences such as Passover.
Only when they see the Egyptians dead on the shore in 14:30-31 do the Israelites believe fully in God and Moses. For their part, the Egyptians, as noted last week, get to profess faith in God just as they drown.
God achieves the two key purposes outlined in 6:7 and 7:5.
This first great narrative arc of the book of Exodus concludes with a hymn of thanksgiving to God in Exod 15:1-18.
The focus on women in 15:21 may be meant to acknowledge the deliverance by women in chs. 1-2. The next stage of the book, the journey to Sinai, and thence to the promised land, begins in 15:22.
Looking Back and Looking Forward
Before pressing on, a few remarks about what we have read in Exodus so far. The story of Israel's deliverance from oppression reveals the strengths and weaknesses of this literary form.
Like any form of communication, story enables one to be creative but also imposes limitations. A story of deliverance allows a narrator to celebrate God's justice, but to do justice to God's mercy may complicate the plot too much.
For this, another, different, story needs to be told. Modern critical scholarship has found evidence that ancient Israel's theologians were well aware of this and sought to enhance their communication by combining versions of the story of Israel's deliverance.
I have already mentioned the two accounts of Moses' call and the two versions of the plagues. Another example is provided by the account of Israel's deliverance at the Sea.
Two versions of the Sea story
A careful reading of Exodus 14 indicates the combination of two versions. In one, God drives the sea back by an east wind all night while Israel remains camped by the shore; at dawn, God panics the Egyptians to flee and they are drowned as the piled up waters return to their normal level.
the other, Moses stretches out his hand at God's command, the sea divides and Israel crosses on dry ground; the pursuing Egyptians are drowned as the divided waters rush together.
If this scholarly proposal is correct it suggests two things. First, Israel's theologians endeavoured to get the best from limited literary forms by cleverly combining them.
One version enabled them to emphasize God as destroyer of threatening evil, the other Moses as leader and saviour of his people.
Second, they were the heirs of faith traditions that they reworked for the benefit of their listeners and readers. The present text is not historical report but Torah (catechesis or instruction via narrative), assembled many centuries after the time in which the narrative is set.
The tools of modern historical research do not enable us to penetrate behind these traditions to raw event.
Symbols and Themes?
In terms of the larger context, Pharaoh and Egypt seem to serve as an illustration of God's promise to Abraham in Gen 12:3-'I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse'.
Is Pharaoh (and Egypt) meant to be a figure of the one who curses Israel by threatening its very existence?
Patristic and Jewish exegetes were adept at spotting what they believed to be the symbolic or figurative function of key persons depicted in biblical texts.
There is no explicit connection to Gen 12:3 in Exodus, except perhaps in 12:32 where Pharaoh, the curser who is in turn cursed by the death of the first-born, asks for a blessing.
Nevertheless, the suggestion is an attractive one and points to thematic relationships within the larger Torah.
The Journey to Sinai
Let's now look at Israel's journey to Sinai in 15:22-19:1.
In this section of the book we find accounts of Israel complaining on the journey and God's response (15:22-27; 16 and 17:1-7), an account of war with Amalek (17:8-16) and the intriguing reunion of Moses with his Midianite family in ch. 18.
The brief episode in 15:22-27 serves as a kind of headline or introduction for the more expansive texts that follow.
It contains the essential ingredients of these 'murmuring stories': a need (here water), Israel's complaint, Moses' prayer, God's intervention, resolution of the crisis.
The little episode ends with God making an unspecified statute and ordinance (15:25-26).
Perhaps this serves as a distant signal of the law to be given at Sinai, something that Israel evidently sorely needs. It also serves to heighten anticipation in the reader.
Complaint in the Desert
Two more stories of complaint and God's provision follow, making a trio altogether.
In ch. 16, the need is food and God's solution is manna. There are some important theological points to this story.
One is to note how need, desire or complaint can distort Israel's (and our) perception, an echo of Adam and Eve in the garden.
Egypt, the land of slavery and deprivation, is now 'seen' as paradise.
More ominous is the people's accusation in v. 3 that the exodus spells death, not life. This is an implicit repudiation of all that God has done.
Despite this, a merciful God delivers food and this provides an opportunity for Moses (and our narrator) to offer an important piece of Torah that counters Israel's distorted perception of reality.
God, not Egypt, is the true provider and God provides equally and fully for all. There is no need to hoard (v. 18); by the same token, laziness is not an appropriate response to God's generosity (vv. 19-20).
Most importantly, God provides for the Sabbath rest by supplying double on the sixth day (vv. 22-26). The former slaves need to trust God and Moses in the desert (the unfamiliar) and learn how to live in freedom where there is a rhythm of work and rest.
All this will take time and be difficult, as the third story in this trio intimates, with Moses fearing for his life (17:1-7).
Moses and his team
As if in answer to this threat to Moses, the story of the battle with Amalek in 17:8-16 and the visit of Jethro and family in ch. 18 serve to reinforce Moses as leader, albeit in a somewhat paradoxical way.
He is crucial to Israel's victory in the battle with Amalek, but Aaron and Hur have to assist him as he tires (17:11-12).
For his part, the wise foreigner Jethro recommends that Moses delegate authority to ease his burden (18:19-23). Moses is indisputably Israel's leader but, like Israel, he is limited and in need of all that God provides at Sinai.
Covenant at Sinai
The text on the covenant at Sinai runs from Exodus 19 through to Numbers 10. In order to get a handle on this massive block of material, we poor readers need to divide it into manageable portions.
Exodus 19-24 recounts the establishment of the covenant; 25-40 is about the construction of a sanctuary for God in Israel's midst (threatened by the crisis of Israel's apostasy in 32-34); Leviticus instructs Israel how to relate to God in their midst, and Numbers 1-10 deals with a number of preparatory matters before the journey to the promised land resumes in Numbers 11.
We will look now at Exodus 19-24. Chapter 19 provides an appropriate setting for the proclamation of the Decalogue or ten commandments in 20:1-17.
There is a short piece of narrative in 20:18-21 followed by further instructions in chs. 21-23, with a concluding covenant ceremony and meal before God in 24:1-11.
As one reads this text, two key things come to mind. First, the covenant does not mark the establishment of Israel's relationship with God; Israel has been 'my people' since 3:7 at least.
The covenant spells out important elements of Israel's relationship with God.
Second, Israel's obedience is not a condition for maintaining the relationship but a consequence of it.
According to OT theology, God 'chooses' Israel and is unconditionally committed to this choice. Israel's appropriate response to God's initiative is to be completely committed to the laws of the covenant.
The laws serve as a sign of God's love of Israel; Israel's obedient response is a sign of its love of God.
In 19:3-8, God outlines for Moses how Israel can become God's 'treasured possession', 'a priestly kingdom', 'a holy nation'. The establishment of the relationship depends completely on God.
However, within that relationship, Israel is not simply a passive recipient of divine favours. It will be empowered and thereby expected to do its part in realizing God's great purpose. In this sense, one may speak of a conditional element in the covenant.
Israel shows that it is willing to meet God by preparing itself according to Moses' instructions. For his part, Moses is the tireless go-between; an obvious candidate to become Israel's intermediary in 20:18-21.
Verses 16-19 weave a mix of images that evokes the sense of a powerful mysterious presence that envelops all the senses (sight, sound, feelings). Ever realistic, OT theologians knew that such peak experiences, though important, need to be placed in their proper context.
Verses 20-25 hasten to ensure correct boundaries between God and people are preserved: relationships only flourish when such boundaries are respected.
Chapter 20 reveals that all the preceding is really a prelude to the main point of the covenant-the commandments. The covenant aims to foster the freedom God won for Israel in the exodus and this involves Israel making right decisions.
To do so, it will need a framework or context and the Decalogue is designed to provide the right one.
The link between exodus and Sinai, between freedom and law, is clear in the opening verse of the Decalogue.
The commandments establish the appropriate boundaries that will protect Israel's relationship with God and with one another. Relationships with God and one another are really two sides of one coin: Israelites who worship the God of Israel according to 20:2-8 will relate to their neighbour according to the social stipulations of the covenant in 20:12-17.
How could one do otherwise?
Equally, those who behave toward their neighbours according to the covenant do so because they worship God according to the stipulations of 20:2-8.
Whatever the debates in the NT about the burden of the law, this is not how the book of Exodus presents it.
Here, Torah is God's gift that enables Israelites to live freely and responsibly.
The brief narrative in 20:18-21 brings Moses forward to act as intermediary for the instructions given in chs. 21-23.
Two things emerge from this.
ne is that the Decalogue is given preeminence by being God's word addressed to each and every Israelite without any intermediary.
The other is that Moses, as recipient of chs. 21-23, becomes the chief mediator of God's Torah-with Israel's approval.
He is instructed so that he in turn can instruct Israel. One has the impression that the laws in chs. 21-23 are designed to show Moses, and then the people, how the brief stipulations of the Decalogue are to be implemented.
Law Codes in the Pentateuch
There are three major 'law codes' in the Pentateuch: in Exodus 21-23, in Leviticus 17-26 (called the 'holiness code'), and in Deuteronomy 12-26.
It is now thought that these stem from different periods and groups in Israelite history and that the Decalogue is a late summary of their content. It is given authority by being placed in a preeminent position in the Sinai text.
The account of law making at Sinai is appropriately concluded in 24:3-8 with the people's agreement (a sign of their freedom), followed by a meal on the mountain in the presence of God (24:9-11), with the text maintaining a delicate balance between intimacy and separation (the theme of boundaries again).
One recalls the garden story where man and woman failed to observe appropriate boundaries. Part of the function of Torah is to instruct Israel about appropriate boundaries (that need to be maintained) and inappropriate boundaries (that need to be dismantled).
The covenant of Exodus 19-24 is clearly central to Israel's faith but it is still a preliminary to something even more central. As often happens, the OT foregrounds something only to displace it in favour of something else. Is this because it sees the limited angle of each theological perspective?
A Far From Silent Sanctuary
Things may be changing these days but, for a long time, Christians in the English speaking world were schooled to keep quiet in church. God’s sanctuary is a sanctuary of silence: a nice idea and it allowed people to pray undisturbed.
Ancient Israelite worship was anything but quiet, if we go by OT texts about it. People milling about; prayers sung aloud with musical accompaniment; bleating animals being ritually slaughtered for priests to sacrifice; fire, smoke and the pungent smell of burning flesh. Bedlam to an outsider perhaps but to a believer a solemn and efficacious liturgy.
And, according to the text, God seems to have been quite keen to get it all rolling. No sooner has the covenant meal been completed than Moses is summoned to God’s presence and instructed to build a sanctuary ‘so that I may dwell among them’ (Exod 25:8).
So much text is devoted to the construction of this sanctuary that it effectively takes over centre stage from covenant and law. Presumably, these prepare Israelites for the ultimate privilege of having God dwell in their midst.
The text that leads up to the instructions for the sanctuary is somewhat complex. In Exod 24:12, God summons Moses up the mountain (where he already is according to vv. 9-11) to receive the law and commandments written on tablets of stone. Moses has however already written down a law in 24:4.
Once into ch. 25, we hear no more of the stone tablets because the instructions for the sanctuary take over. They only reappear in ch. 32 in the story of the golden calf. It looks as though two traditions have been combined: one about the sanctuary, the other about the stone tablets and the golden calf. We will stick with the texts about the sanctuary in Exodus 25-31 (instruction) and 25-40 (construction). Modern scholars regard them as a priestly projection of Jerusalem temple theology back into the desert setting to enhance its legitimacy.
The instructions about the sanctuary are so detailed and technical that we might be tempted to skip over them for the more entertaining fare of the stories. This would be a pity.
The sanctuary is crucial to Torah theology for a number of reasons. The Sinai covenant and its law are in large part about establishing appropriate boundaries between God and people, and among the people. Recall how Exodus 19 portrays God on top of the mountain with Israel at its base, forbidden to even touch it.
Now, God proposes to ‘come down’ to be with the people. It is a radical theological move that, in a sense, turns the notion of boundaries and of God as the completely transcendent ‘other’ upside down. For a Christian reader, there is an analogy here with incarnational theology, of God becoming a human being.
Of course, the priestly theologians who probably composed these texts were well aware that they needed to maintain a sense of divine transcendence even as they celebrated God’s immanence. Hence, the careful instructions from God about how the sanctuary is to be built and how the people are to comport themselves around it.
Boundary violation and creation theology
Recall too three earlier stories in Genesis about boundary violation: Adam and Eve who wanted to be like God; the sons of God (or the gods) who came into the daughters of men in 6:1-4; the tower or Babel built to reach heaven in 11:1-9. All these tell of the human desire to transcend earthly barriers; all fail.
According to Torah theology, transcending boundaries (human transformation) can only be done through God’s grace and in God’s way: the Sinai covenant and the theology of the sanctuary claims to show the way: is this the blessing that Israel is meant to mediate to all the families of the earth (Gen 12:1-3)?
The sanctuary can also be seen to evoke aspects of creation theology in Genesis 1 (a text that betrays evidence of priestly authorship). Like creation, the sanctuary is carefully planned, with everything in its proper place.
Its layout evokes the text of Exodus 19 where the mountain is the central focus with God invisibly present on/above its summit while the people gather around it on the plain beneath. The central feature of the sanctuary is the tabernacle which houses the ark and cherubim throne where God is invisibly enthroned.
Around this central area is the gathering space for the people; the tent of meeting. But, this symbol of the order of creation and God’s commitment to Israel is a portable, temporary tent that gradually fades from view. Another intriguing Torah puzzle.
Constructing the Sanctuary
On God’s insistence, the construction of the sanctuary involves everyone, with individuals singled out by God because of particular skills (35:10-19, 30-35).
As long as the people follow God’s instructions, they are creative ‘in the image and likeness of God’. All the material for the sanctuary comes as free gifts from the people (35:4-10).
It is their response to God’s gift of the divine presence among them. Exod 31:12-17 and 35:2-3 ensure that construction takes place according to the rhythm of six days of work and the Sabbath rest (cf. Gen 2:1-3).
One has the distinct impression that all this is presented as part of God’s purpose to heal the dsyfunctional and disordered humanity described in Genesis 1-11.
In Exod 40:34, the glory of God fills the tabernacle: the cloud imagery recalls the pillar of cloud at the Sea (ch. 14) and the cloud upon Mt. Sinai. Pilgrim Israel journeyed to meet God at the mountain; God now, as it were, becomes a fellow pilgrim to guide them to the promised land.
What we may call the ‘sanctuary narrative’ is of course interrupted by the crisis of the golden calf.
The Golden Calf Episode
Exodus 32-34 seems to be a different tradition to the one about the sanctuary (mainly 25-31 and 35-40). The stone tablets of 24:12 reappear in 32:15; a tent of meeting appears in 33:7 before the one in 25-31 is constructed. Moreover, it is ‘far off from the camp’ whereas the other one will be in the midst of the camp.
Exodus 32-34 itself looks to be a combination of traditions: 33:21-23 seems to presuppose a location on the mountain whereas Moses in the preceding verses is in the tent of meeting. These chapters are a good example of how ancient Israelites took a variety of received traditions and reworked and reshaped them to serve the purpose of the present text—Torah.
Rather like the wise scribe in Matthew 13:52, they brought forth things ‘both new and old’; masters at combining continuity and change.
There are two things to keep in mind about Exodus 32-34. One is that although these chapters tell of the most serious sin of all—apostasy, it is forgiven. It is a sin that deserves destruction (32:10) but God relents. In a sense, Exodus 32-34 forms an Israelite parallel to the flood story.
The second is the modern exegetical opinion that this story is told for a theological purpose. The account of Levites executing their kin, though distasteful, serves as a ‘visual aid’ to illustrate the theological point being made.
Subsequent texts of the Torah are laced with such visual aids, particularly in what exegetes identify as priestly material (Leviticus, much of Numbers). When a lot is at stake one tends to employ graphic teaching aids. A contemporary parallel would be graphic warnings on TV to give up smoking and drive safely.
The ‘Theatre of the Absurd’
The arrangement of the present text of Exodus 32-34 is itself a catechesis. It shows how well the disparate material has been put together and how narrative serves theology.
There is the account of the apostasy in 32:1-6; the highlighting of its deadly nature in 32:7-10; the prayer of intercession that God hears in 32:11-14; the need for sinners to be confronted by their sin, recognise it and express repentance in 32:15-33:6; the restoration of relationship, initially symbolised by the tent ‘far off’ to which Moses goes to make intercession in 33:7-17, followed by a more intimate encounter with God in 33:18-34:9; the renewal of the covenant relationship with further instructions from a merciful God to help Israel avoid such folly in the future (34:10-35).
There is something of the ‘theatre of the absurd’ about 32:1-6, captured nicely in the orgy masquerading as liturgy in v. 6. Distorted perceptions run riot, like the people.
God is forgotten and Moses discarded. Aaron, about whose ordination God waxes lyrically in Exodus 28-29, is deeply compromised, moulding a golden calf and then proclaiming a feast to YHWH.
Such, in the bitter, mocking tones of our OT theologians, is what happens when Israelites fail to keep God’s covenant commands. Judgement about the deadly nature of the breach is made appropriately by God the just judge in vv. 7-10.
However, the point of this episode is not so much punishment of sin but how a damaged relationship with God may be restored.
Changing God’s mind
In an encouragingly bold move, our theologians claim in vv. 11-14 that the prayer of a faithful human being, like Moses, can change God’s mind (v. 14). If the plot of a story requires that God’s mind change, then OT theologians change God’s mind.
If the plot requires that God’s mind not change then a suitable statement will be made to this effect (cf. 1 Sam 15:29). This flexibility may worry some modern theologians but not God apparently. It is, after all, the inspired text.
It is important at this juncture of the narrative to assure readers that God will hear the prayers of those who intercede, even when all have sinned the sin that deserves death.
God is now on side but what about the people? For a relationship to be restored, both parties need to be involved. Hence, the text next portrays Moses confronting the people with their crime. They are challenged to decide one way or the other (v. 26) and the Levites rise to the challenge.
The account of their fierce loyalty in vv. 27-29 may reflect conflict between different classes of clergy about who stayed loyal and who didn’t during the exile (see Ezekiel 44:10-31 for the opposite view). In 33:4-6, the people finally recognise the seriousness of their sin and repent.
The choice of fidelity
God has forgiven and the people have repented. But, will God go ‘in the midst of the people’ in the sanctuary, as planned in Exodus 25-31? Again, Moses is portrayed as successfully interceding for the people. In 32:32 he offers himself in place of his sinful people.
Such commitment to the people wins a like commitment from God via the elegantly crafted conversation Moses has with God in the tent. The author may be borrowing here from royal court etiquette.
The text also paints a sharp contrast between Moses and the people. Moses has proved faithful, the people unfaithful. Moses enjoys intimacy with God while the people stand at a distance, repentant. No one can see God’s face but Moses’ face shines with a divine light that makes the people as afraid as they were before God in Exod 20:18.
Israel has failed but Moses shines as a model of what Israel should be and can become. The renewal of the covenant and further instructions in 34:10-26 signal that God will rejoin them on their journey.
The plans for the sanctuary can resume in ch. 35. But, will the people emulate the fidelity of Moses and enjoy the same intimacy with God?
Old Testament Law Texts
It is worth reflecting a little on OT law texts, because the Book of Exodus is the first part of the Torah where we come across laws that look and sound something like ours: ‘you shall not do this’, ‘if someone does this, then this is the penalty’. These two forms are the basis of OT law texts, the former being termed ‘categorical’ or ‘apodictic’, the latter ‘casuistic’ (dealing with particular cases). The categorical imperatives are often accompanied by exhortations or warnings, particularly in the book of Deuteronomy.
As noted previously, scholars identify three main law codes (perhaps better ‘collections’) in the Torah besides the Decalogue (Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21). There is the so-called ‘covenant code’ in Exodus 20:21-23:33, the ‘holiness code’ in Leviticus 17-26 (because of the refrain ‘you shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy’ that occurs in it), and the ‘deuteronomic code’ in 12-26, the core of Deuteronomy.
Other smaller collections are located at various strategic points, such as in Exodus 34:11-26 which is mainly about worship. The OT can hardly be called legalistic: there are about 613 laws in all, a modest number compared to modern codes. The collections are attributed to God but they do not cover all the areas of conduct that we think necessary for the well-being of society.
Some ancient Near Eastern laws appear to us more advanced in particular areas than OT parallels. As well as all this, they differ on some important issues. For example, Exodus 20:23-26 legislates for correct worship of God at ‘every place where I cause my name to be remembered’, but Deuteronomy 12:8-12 requires the centralization of worship at one place.
Exodus 21:1-11 legislates for the release of Hebrew slaves/servants in the seventh year; Leviticus 25:39-44 in the fiftieth jubilee year. That’s a long wait for freedom from debt and perhaps Leviticus presumes a shorter period before the fifty is reached. The possibility of a longer period may explain its emphasis on treating such servants well.
Explaining the texts
What are we to make of all this? For modern scholars, the variation between laws is a sign that they come from different times and places in later Israelite history. They are attributed to God and located in the foundational ‘story of Israel’ to give them status and authority.
This is a smart move and approved by God—they are part of the inspired text. Except for a certain preeminence given to the Decalogue, which alone of the codes is delivered directly to the people, this move gives them equal status and challenges readers to compare similarities and differences, argue the toss and hopefully make a wise decision.
OT law texts reflect a long tradition of debate and hard work in Israel’s legal circles. They reveal wisdom in having a limited number of laws, awareness of their limited nature by including differing views, and trust in listeners and readers to make wise decisions.
Israel believed society is not ultimately based on the rule of law but on faith in God and in the covenant. Paul, another wise Israelite, wrote of the trio of faith, hope and love as foundational. Laws help Israel to be faithful to their relationship with God, they don’t establish the relationship.
The perception that some ancient laws look more advanced is recognized in a way by the OT with stories about foreigners showing Israel the way (cf. Jethro in Exodus 18). Good law making is a learning process that never really comes to an end: hence, the rich tradition of Jewish commentary on law in the Talmud and Mishnah.
It is encouraging to think that the vigorous debates at the city gate (OT law courts) by opposing lawyers and their clients, as well as the painstaking toil of scribes copying and editing laws are just as inspired activities as the preaching of a charismatic prophet.
The Covenant Code
Finally, a few comments on the ‘covenant code/collection’ in Exodus. One can see that it adds details to some of the rather cryptic Decalogue commands that precede it, but not all.
It begins in 20:22-26 with legislation about correct worship (notice that this text and the corresponding Decalogue commands in 20:3-7 presume the existence of rival gods). It then moves to a series of laws that expound the sabbath principle by requiring the release of Hebrew slaves (same term for servant in Hebrew) in the seventh year. It is thought these were Israelites obliged to sell themselves as indentured labourers to pay off debts.The slaves referred to in subsequent legislation may be different (slavery was an accepted part of life, as in the NT).
The legislation in 21:12-22:17 is more casuistic in style and deals with the protection of life and property. The clause ‘he shall be put to death’ may indicate the offender was ‘liable for the death penalty’. It would be up to the court to decide.
Exodus 21:24 has the famous ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth’ stipulation. This was probably designed to stop blood vengeance between warring clans. It is the OT equivalent of our ‘let the punishment fit the crime’.
Exodus 22:18-23:33 switches from the impersonal casuistic form of the preceding laws to the second person address making it more homiletic in style (like Deuteronomy). This may indicate that two once separate collections have been combined. The second covers some of the same issues as the first but in a different way: cf. cult (22:18-20; 23:14-19), fair treatment of the poor and marginalised (22:21-27), just conduct towards neighbours and their property, particularly during a lawsuit (23:1-9), respect for the sabbath (23:10-13).
The concluding homily about the angel (messenger in Hebrew) in 23:23-33 is not referred to again but serves to establish the (faith) principle that God will continue to guide and instruct Israel.
Copyright © Mark O'Brien, OP. Catholic Institute of Sydney