Sunday, February 26, 2017

Transfiguration Sunday

Today is Quinquagesima, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, or the fiftieth day (hence the name) before Easter. The three named pre-Lent Sundays have been eliminated from the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, although a few Anglican provinces still mark these days. In many Western Christian denominations, this is also Transfiguration Sunday, commemorating the event, recorded in the Synoptic gospels, where Jesus transformed into his glorified appearance along with Moses and Elijah atop Mount Tabor in Galilee.

The Facebook page of Christ the Bridegroom Monastery in Burton, Ohio, had a lovely piece in 2013 in commemoration of the Feast of the Transfiguration, observed in August in Eastern churches. (A former student is a nun at that Byzantine Catholic monastery.) I found the quoted-from book and the passage:

"The disciple must see 'Jesus only', Jesus in his humility. If, at rare moments, his image does seem to us to be clothed in light, and if we seen to hear the voice of the Father commending the Son to our love, these lightning flashes do not last; and we must immediately find Jesus again where he is normally to be found, in the midst of our humble and sometimes difficult everyday duties. To see 'Jesus only' also means: to concentrate our attention and our gaze on Jesus alone, and not to allow ourselves to be distracted either by the things of this world or by the men and women we meet, in short, to make Jesus supreme and unique in our lives. Does this mean that we must shut our eyes to the world that surrounds us and often needs us? Some of us are called to be absolutely alone with the Master: let them be faithful to this vocation. But most of Jesus' disciples, who live in the midst of the world, can give another interpretation to the words 'Jesus only'. Without renouncing a grateful contact with created things, and a loving and devoted contact with men, they can attain a degree of faith and love which will allow Jesus to become transparent through both men and things; all natural beauty, all human beauty will become the fringe of the beauty that is itself Christ's; we will see its reflection in everything which attracts and merits our sympathy in others; in short, we shall have 'transfigured' the world, and we shall find 'Jesus only' in all those on whom we open our eyes."

--- from "The Year of Grace of Our Lord: A Scriptural and Liturgical Commentary on the Calendar of the Orthodox Church" by a Monk of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1992), 241-242.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Landscape: John Martin

John Martin (1789-1854), "Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Upon Gideon", 1816.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Bible in a Year: Numbers 20-Deuteronomy 6

I liked to visit my friend Rabbi Plotkin at Temple Beth Israel
in Phoenix, AZ; when I visited him, the synagogue was still
 located on Tenth Ave. Here is a photo of that complex.
I’m reading through the Bible this year at a rate of about 22 chapters a week (1189 total chapters divided by 52 weeks), and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week, I'm studying Numbers 20 through Deuteronomy 6. I apologize that this post is nearly twice as long as the others, but I include some material on Deuteronomy that connects that book to the other four Torah books, and also considers the way Deuteronomy looks ahead to the history in Joshua through 2 Kings.

When we arrive at Numbers 20-25, we enter the last year or two of the Wilderness period. When I was a little kid, I learned that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years, and I thought they were on the move and lost all that time! Actually the people remained at Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran, near the edge of the Land. Miriam dies here (20:1), as does Aaron (20:21-29). Though the priesthood continues under his son Eleazar, the founding high priest and his sister pass away short of the Promised Land.

And, of course, Moses is forbidden to enter the Land after the incident of Numbers 20:1-29. In a tragic parallel to the incident of Exodus 17, the people complain for the lack of water, and in anger, Moses strikes the rock rather than (as God required) speaking to it. Moses’ sin does not seem severe enough to warrant God’s judgment. The Torah: A Modern Commentary seeks a possible explanation: Moses does not go to God and intercede for the people as he did in the past; he is more passive and then angry, indicating that he has become wearied in his leadership. But furthermore, the entry into the land requires a warrior-leader like Joshua, whereas Moses has been primarily the prophet and shepherd.

The narrative turns positive in chapter 21, when the people have successful conquests over Arad (21:1-3) and Sihon and Og, 21:10-35), but yet another rebellion occurs 21:4-9, over the quality of food that God provides. Here we find the famous story of the bronze serpent; God sends snakes to torment the people, but anyone who looks at the bronze snake will live (21:4-9, cf. 1 King 18:4). The bronze serpent has been called a type of Christ, as anyone who looks up to Christ will be spiritually healed and live.

In all these stories, the Israelites must trust in God, and if they do, things will go well; if not, disaster follows. This is difficult theology, as I mentioned last week, for we know in our experience that things sometimes go poorly for the best people. We have to remember the context of the scripture, where God is shepherding a resistant people through dangerous circumstances and also teaching them a covenant relationship with God. Our own painful situations aren't sent by God, but God is close by, loving, and helping.

The section 22:1-24:25 is the well known story of Balak the king of nearby Moab, and the seer Balaam. As the Harper’s Bible Commentary points out, this story happens apart from the Israelites, who don’t realize how God is protecting them from the threat of a curse. Balak sends Balaam to curse the Israelites, which Balaam attempts three times, but each time God allows him to bless the people, making Balaam a kind of prophet of the Lord. Like many kids, I learned the story of Balaam’s donkey at an early age; it’s a kind of folk tale wherein the donkey perceived God’s angel before Balaam, and God allows the ass to speak and testify to God’s presence to his irritated master.

Sadly, chapter 25 is another story of rebellion, this one involving Israelite men who have relations Midian women. The women, in turn, invite them to worship Midian gods, especially Baal of Peor. One of my commentaries comments that this story is placed right after the Balaam stories for ironic effect, showing how the people were unfaithful to God right after God had saved them (see note 1 below). The Baal-peor story is an early example of the connections of idolatry, cult prostitution, and the metaphoric “harlotry” of worshiping gods other than the Lord—a theme that we’ll see in the Prophets. In our own time, we'd call it a very "patriarchal" story, with the women and their sexuality portrayed as negative influences.

The Israelite Phineas takes the initiative and slays the Midianite Cozbi and the Israelite Zimri; since he kills them with a single spear, the two are presumed to be engaging in sex when they are killed. The savagery and divine jealously of this story are troubling; God is like a spurned lover for whom punishment against his beloved is justified. And although he is not to be emulated as a lesson, Phineas’ actions are praised! Where I live, there was a recent news story where a husband killed his wife and then himself, and so these kinds of biblical stories, wherein God is like an enraged husband, are troubling.

In this story, Phineas' slaying of Zimri and Cozbi stop the plague that God sent agains the Israelites. The 24,000 who die in the plague are likely the end of the old generation.

Now we are on a new generation. Numbers 26 is a census of the twelve tribes, connecting back to the census that opens the book. But this census sets up the concern for how the land will be distributed among the people. The Harper’s Bible Commentary notes that there are correspondences in this concluding section and the earlier chapters, like the celebration of the passover (chapters 9 and 28), the provision for the Levites (chapters 18 and 35), legal issues for women (chapters 5 and 27), and others.

The last long section, chapters 26-36, has a variety of material. Mitzvot about inheritance, sacrifice, and vows (27:1-11, 28:1-30:16) are provided along with the succession of leadership from Moses to Joshua. But Joshua will not have the direct interaction with God that Moses had; as the Harper book reminds us, Moses is a unique leader whose stature in Israel’s history is never reached by subsequent prophets. In the New Testament, the book of Hebrews discusses Jesus’ superiority to Moses, but that also indicates the unique and high place of Moses; only God’s Son can supersede him.

The victory of the Israelites over the Midianites is another savage story. In the context of the narrative, it illustrates the fact that the new generation trusts God as they should, and the debacles of Numbers 13-14 and 25 are reversed. The story of Reuben and Gad also serves to illustrate the right path that the new generation is taking. These two tribes requested to settle outside the boundaries of the Land, that is, on the east side of the Jordan River. The request troubles Moses, who fears a negative response on the part of the people (as in Numbers 13-14), but a compromise is successfully achieved.

Chapters 33-36 conclude Numbers—and would conclude the whole story of the Bible so far, before we even get to Deuteronomy. Chapter 33 summarizes the travels of the Israelites from Egypt and all their campsites. Chapter 34 provides the boundaries of the Land as God gives the tribes this place to live. Chapter 35 establishes cities of refuge and the Levitical cities. Chapter 36 has more material on the daughters of Zelophehad, providing (as the Harper book indicates) a frame for the section of chapters 27-36.

I like to find “story arcs” in the Bible. Good commentaries are essential for me, because otherwise I wouldn’t notice the connections. Exodus 29, which concerns priestly ordination, connects to Leviticus 8-9. The covenant of the Sabbath, Exodus 31:12-17, connects back to Genesis 1: the God who created all things has created a beloved people whose very lives reflect God’s pattern of creation. The laws of Leviticus connect back to the events of Mount Sinai in Exodus 19-24.(16) The stories of the spies and the rebellion of Israel in Numbers 12-14 connect us forward to the book of Joshua and set the stage for the long sojourn in the wilderness. The story of Numbers 20 connects us back to Exodus 17, two similar rebellions of Israel. Of course, the very promise of the Land connects us to Genesis 12 and God’s promise to Abram and his family.

The conclusion of Numbers circles back even further, for as commentators note, the passage describing the land of Canaan and its settlement (chapters 34-36) belongs to the Priestly Source that is also the source of Genesis 1. Thus the promise of land for God’s people reflects God’s love of all creation and God’s desire for new human relationships (see note 2 below).

In the upcoming Deuteronomy: In chapters 29-30 Moses reiterates the covenant to the people and promises that God’s word is not remote in time and space but always very near (Deut. 30:11-14, and chapters 29-30). The reminder and promise of the covenant takes us back to the beginning of the covenant (Ex. 19-24).But Deuteronomy circles back to Genesis as well. “A wandering Aramean was my father,” says Deut. 26:5, meaning Jacob, and the passage 29:5-10 remembers Egyptian bondage, God’s salvation, and circles back again to the promise of the land, which the Israelites are about to enter.

The story could end with Numbers, for the people are about the enter the land and new leadership has been established with Moses’ impending death. It’s interesting to me that these hypothesized ancient accounts like the Priestly Source and others provide this shape of the overall story. We already saw how the Priestly Code is found throughout this material.

With Deuteronomy, we begin a section of the Bible that will extend to the end of 2 Kings Scholars hypothesize a “Deuteronomistic history” that now forms the basis of all this material (see note 3 below).

The Deuteronomistic history continues the theme of the earlier Torah books: the keeping of the covenant. God will reward faithfulness and will eventually punish wickedness and apostasy. So the connection of the historical books and the Torah is, at one level, the failure of the Israelites to keep their part of the covenant faithfully; thus God’s judgment in the form of the Babylonian conquest and exile at the end of 2 Kings. But throughout these centuries, God has remained faithful.

The land is another ongoing theme that we’ll find through the upcoming historical books—the land promised to Israel since Abram in Genesis 12. God guides his people, establishes his covenant with them, gives them his law, and leads them to the Land under the leadership of Moses and then Joshua.  Holding and keeping the Land, though, remains a challenge across the centuries: the campaigns and conquests of Joshua are far the end of the story (see note 4 below).

Eventually we’ll get to the history of the monarchy and the great figure of David, whom we can connect to Moses as the Land’s greatest king, though not a prophet like Moses.

Deuteronomy contains another hypothesized, ancient source of law, the Deuteronomic Code, which is much longer than the Book of the Covenant that we saw earlier. This code stretches across Deut. 12-26 and includes laws about the destruction of Canaanite holy places (ch. 12), apostasy (p. 13), food and tithes (ch. 14), sabbatical year (ch. 15), annual pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Pentecost, and Shavuot, ch. 16), and many other laws about Levites, cities of refuge, rules of warfare, murder, livestock, and so on. While some laws (especially Deut. 13) seem cruel (and were not known to have been carried out), many laws reflect justice issues protecting people’s rights and encouraging social interdependence (32-33). My Harper’s commentary points out aspects that indicate Deuteronomy’s likely authorship during the time of the monarchy, perhaps the reign of Josiah: the indication of a monetary rather than agricultural/barter economy, the fertility rites that tempted God’s people during a later time, the importance of a just judiciary, and the overall importance of reform (pp. 209-210).

There are differences among the laws compared to similar ones in other parts of the Torah. There are also differences in the conception of the priesthood—another connection among all these Scriptures. One of my teachers, Brevard Childs, discusses the distinction of Aaronic and Levitical priests. Childs notes that in Ex. 28-29 and Lev. 8-10—where we find much information about the biblical priests—Aaron and his sons are consecrated to an eternal priesthood. The Aaronic priests performed cultic rites while Levites were responsible for maintenance of the tabernacle (e.g. Num. 1:47ff). But, Childs notes, we don’t find that distinction in Deuteronomy, which describe “Levitical priests” who have cultic responsibilities. We also find no Aaronite clergy in Judges and Samuel; Eli is the chief priest but he is from the Ephraim rather than the Levi tribe. When we get to Chronicles, we return to the separation of priest and Levites that we saw in Exodus and Leviticus.  Scholars like Julius Wellhausen explains the discrepancies in terms of the time period of the material: Ex. 25-40, Leviticus, and Numbers are post-exilic, while Deuteronomy is pre-exilic (i.e., late monarchy, from the time of Josiah), but Childs sees the historical development of the priesthood as largely irretrievable background history for the canonical text, in which the post-exilic form of priesthood has become normative. (See note 5 below).

The ten paragraphs above are from another informal Bible study that I did a few years ago: Now, back to the text!

Deuteronomy reflects a common practice of covenant renewal and is presented as a long, farewell speech from Moses, who will soon die at the edge of the Land. In the beginning section, chapters 1-3, Moses begins with a recounting of the journeys of the Israelites. The Harper author notes, “Even before Israel left Mount Horeb, it was structure into a society shaped by God’s justice” (p. 213), and this opening section certainly reminds the Israelites of the importance of justice for Israelite and stranger, powerful and powerless alike. It is a timely message for many time periods and many circumstances! Moses also reminds the people of the importance of trust in God, compressing the disaster of Numbers 13-14 and the success of Numbers 21 and 29 (cf. Psalm 136:17-22).

Moses promises God’s faithfulness, recounting the richness of the land and the protection that God provides when the people are obedience (3:12-29, 4:1-40). The section 4-11 (I’m reading 4-6 this week) is a sermon about the mitzvot. Moses preaches about the Ten Commandments and connects them to God’s faithfulness, the Sabbath, the Covenant, and the importance of worship of God alone and of justice.

Chapter 6 is worth quoting as a whole, as it relates to so much else, and it contains the beloved Shema (Hear, O Israel).

“Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

“When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and when you have eaten your fill, take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you, because the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a jealous God. The anger of the Lord your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth.

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. You must diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and his decrees, and his statutes that he has commanded you. Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may go in and occupy the good land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you, thrusting out all your enemies from before you, as the Lord has promised.

“When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The Lord displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household. He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land that he promised on oath to our ancestors. Then the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive, as is now the case. If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right’” (NRSV).

Here are the parshiyot, Torah readings, and haftarot readings.

Chuqat               Numbers 19:1-22:1             Judges 11:1-11:33
Balaq               Numbers 22:2-25:9             Micah 5:6-6:8
Pinchas               Numbers 25:10-30:1             I Kings 18:46-19:21
Mattot               Numbers 30:2-32:42        Jeremiah 1:1-2:3
Masei               Numbers 33:1-36:13             Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4 (Jeremiah 2:4-28; 4:1-4:2)
Devarim               Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22     Isaiah 1:1-1:27
Va'etchanan       Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11     Isaiah 40:1-40:26


1. Stephen K. Sherwood, C.M.F., Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Brit Olam Series, Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry, COllegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 180-181.

2. Thomas B. Dozeman, “The Book of Numbers,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume II (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1998), 267-268.

3. The first of several books on this subject is Martin Noth, The Deuteronomistic History (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002; originally published in 1943).

4. An excellent study is Walter Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith (second edition, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).

5. Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 145-150, 152-153.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Thomas Ford's "History of Illinois" (1854)

Here is a link to my other blog. In a book review, I discuss Governor Thomas Ford's History of Illinois from Its Commencement as a State in 1818 to 1847, published in Chicago in 1854. The book is a classic of political commentary and Illinois history, dealing with most of the thirty-year period of Illinois' first constitution, and offering Ford's account of the Mormon history that transpired while he was state governor. I included photos of three editions of the history. When I wrote a history of my hometown's period as state capital (1819-1839), I used Ford's book and loved his accounts of Illinois society and politics.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Ghost Sign: Vandalia, Illinois

Brunswick Tires. Side of the old Craycroft Company at Main and Fifth Streets, Vandalia, IL. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Women Composers: Joan Tower

Beginning with my 8/23/16 post on Barbara Harbach, I'm exploring the works of some women composers whose music is unfamiliar to me.

Joan Tower (born 1938) is an American composer, pianist, and conductor. She was the first woman to win the Grawemeyer Award (in 1990 for "Silver Ladders"). She also won the Delaware Symphony's Alfred I. DuPont Award for Distinguished American Composer, and three Grammy Awardss for the 2008 recording of her "Made in America". Her numerous compositions have been widely recorded.

Here is "Made in America":

Here is her "Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, #1"

Here is her string quartet "Night Fields"

And here is her Piano Concerto.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Bible in a Year: Leviticus 23-Numbers 19

Old postcard of my childhood church, where
I first learned Bible stories and psalms. 
I’m reading through the Bible this year at a rate of about 22 chapters a week (1189 total chapters divided by 52 weeks), and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we tend to read verses and passages without also digging into the context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week, I’ve been studying Leviticus 23 through Numbers 19. The material from Exodus 25 to Numbers 10 reflects the time when the Israelites sojourned at the foot of Mount Sinai. But as they moved northeast toward the land of Moab, at the outskirts of the Promised Land, the Israelites lost their chance to enter the Land and camped for many years at Kadesh-Barnea. The Bible seldom dates anything, so it's good to realize that, when we begin Numbers 20-22, we've jumped over 38 years to the near-conclusion of the wilderness period.

Numbers has many more stories than Leviticus, but legal material spreads across Numbers and continues from Leviticus. As I wrote about in previous posts, the Priestly Code, a hypothesized pre-canonical collection of mitzvot, is found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. The code includes offerings and sacrifices (Lev. 1-7), priests (Lev. 10), dietary laws (Lev. 11), diseases and discharges (Lev. 12-15), vows, tithes and offerings (Lev. 27). Continuing into Numbers, the Priestly Code includes the passages on uncleanness (Num. 5-6), Passover (Num. 9-10), priestly laws (Num. 18), inheritance laws, festivals, and vows (Num. 27-30), and also Levitical towns, more inheritance laws, and laws concerning murder (Num. 35-36). So all these passages are interconnected, and they also connect back to the Sinai covenant and the Tabernacle (see my Exodus 19-40 post.)

Here is the outline for the remainder of Leviticus---including the block of laws that begin with chapter 17.

Holy living (17-26)
 Prohibition of eating blood (17)
 Unlawful sexual relations (18)
 Other laws about holy living (19)
 Punishments for sin (20)
 Priestly regulations (21:1—22:16)
 Acceptable and unacceptable sacrifices (22:17–33)
 Annual feasts (23)
 Use of oil and bread in the Tabernacle (24:1–9)
 Punishment for blasphemy (24:10–23)
 The Sabbath and Jubilee years (25)
 Covenant blessings and curses (26)
Regulations for Offerings Vowed to the Lord (ch. 27)

My Harper’s Bible Commentary indicates that the chapter 20 laws have two purposes: inculcating the obedience that protects the land from uncleanness/defilement, which in turn ensures that the people won’t be expelled from the land. God has set aside the people from others of the land, so they would be a holy people. The priests are to be particularly holy, even lacking physical abnormalities (chap. 21). The single narrative in this section, the execution of the blasphemer (chapter 24), illustrates the concern in Leviticus for removing unholiness from among the people.

Chapter 23 reiterates the importance of the Sabbath and also provides the mitzvot for Peach, ‘Omer Reshit, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. Mitzvot for the Sabbath of the land and the Jubilee year, both very important for social equality and ecological renewal, continue in chapter 25.

Chapter 27 forms an additional section to the other mitzvot, this one concerning holy things devoted to God. Chapter 26, however, is a divine speech that could summarize the book, wherein God reiterates the possibility of judgment—in quite fierce terms—but also promising compassion and restoration to those who turn back to God.

Leviticus 26 contains difficult theology: the connection of piety and virtue with earthly rewards, the connection of wrongdoing and retribution, the idea that the people would proper or suffer together, and the idea that morality alone brings prosperity or disaster. As The Torah: A Modern Commentary notes, the book of Job provides a corrective to these ideas; although good and bad actions do lead to corresponding results, good people do suffer while many evil people do seem to prosper. Likewise, whole peoples have suffered terribly in spite of their virtue (for instance, Native Americans, victims of Soviet persecution, Holocaust victims, and others) (pp. 954-956). The straightforward theology of this chapter, meaningful in its early context, requires ongoing prayer and reflection. But, as that same writer points out, Leviticus 26 also stresses that faithfulness and morality are among the keys to an upright society, and also that hope is always available even in difficult circumstances! God never abandons his people Israel and never will (p. 956)

Here is the outline for Numbers 1-19, taking us to the end of the old generation.
Israel prepared to depart for the Land (1:1-10:10)
  The census (1-4)
  The commands concerning purity of the people (5:1—10:10), which includes among other things the Nazarite vow and the Aaronic benediction (6), the observance of the Passover (9:1-14).
  The Journey from Sinai to Kadesh (10:11—12:16)
     The journey commences (10:11–36)
     Fire and quail (11)
     The sin of Miriam and Aaron (12)
Israel at Kadesh, and God's judgment (13:1—20:13)
     The report of the spies (13)
     The people's rebellion and defeat (14)
Several laws on offerings, the Sabbath, tassels on clothing (15)
Korah's rebellion (16)
The budding of Aaron's staff (17)
More laws about the priests (18)
The red heifer (19)

The Hebrew title of the book translates, “In the wilderness,” which is perhaps a more comprehensive title than “Numbers,” which comes from the census that dominates chapters 1-4, with lists of the adult males—those who can go into battle—among the twelve tribes. But the transition from the old to the new generation is nevertheless a theme of the book, and the initial census forms an arc over to chapter 26, the census of the new generation. As Israel sojourns at Sinai and then moves toward the land, their experience of wilderness is critical, as I write about in another post:

The section 5:1-6:21 gives us more laws, also regarding purity as the people begin their approach to the promised land. 6:22-27 gives us the beautiful priestly blessing used in many Jewish and Christian traditions.

The Israelites’ approach to the land includes the guidance of God through the cloud (Numbers 9:15-23, which echoes Exodus 13:21-22), the sounding of the trumpets (10:1-10), and then the march toward the land, nineteen days after the census and eleven months after the people had arrived at Sinai (Num. 10:11).

But then chapters 11-14 is a terrible “twist” in the story. After all the preparation to ensure the people’s faithfulness and holiness, the people rebel and are punished. First there is a general complaining about misfortunes (11:1-3), then there is controversy among the people for variety of food (11:4-35). In chapter 12, even Miriam and Aaron speaking ill against Moses because of his foreign wife. Miriam is stricken with leprosy for seven days, so that she stayed outside the camp. The Torah: A Modern Commentary suggests that although Aaron was not similarly cursed, he may have suffered the psychological pain (arguably worse than some kinds of physical pain) in having to submit to his younger brother. (On the other hand, it may also be a case of patriarchy: in the thinking of the time, Aaron was too important to be exiled from the camp for a week, but being a woman Miriam was more expendable.)

God authorizes Moses to send spies into the land to gather information (13:1-14:45). One man from each of the twelve tribes set out, and forty days later they return with a favorable report of the land, but with a fearful report about the strength of the inhabitants. Only Caleb and Joshua recommend that the people trust God. (Some of my books point out that two ancient sources underlie this story, one in which Caleb is the faithful one, and the other in which both Caleb and Joshua are the heroes.)

In response to the fearful report, the Israelites rebel and plan to find a leader which will help them return to Egypt. As the Harper Bible Commentary discusses, this is a far worse sin than the golden calf, for that sin was “only” a way to represent God in a familiar image, while the rebellion struck at the heart of all of God’s promises and preparation. If you read the Bible from Exodus 19 through Numbers 14, you do get a sense of the tragedy of the people’s rebellion after so much preparation and guidance by God.

So…. the people were afraid to die at the hands of the Canaanites, and instead they must die at the threshold of the land. Of the first generation, only the faithful Caleb and Joshua will enter the land. And yet, God’s promise endures. While God could have wiped the people out (cf. Num. 16:38-50), the second generation will endure and will live in the land.

At this point, the major part of the first part of the wilderness journey ends, but we also have the story of the rebellion of Korah and 250 laymen, and the subsequent rebellion that results in a divine plague. The Korahites complain: If the people are holy, a “nation of priests,” why can’t non-priests bring incense to the tabernacle? It is actually a very good question, pushing the envelope concerning holiness and identity. Norah and his people claim the status of holiness and resent Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership.

Things end badly for the rebels—-and in the Numbers story, that’s what they were, rejecters of God’s chosen intermediary and shepherd, Moses. But somewhere in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, the great theologian comments that although Korah and his followers perish in God's judgment, the Korahites are honored later in scripture, as singers (2 Chronicles 20:19), and as authors of Psalms 42, 44-49, 84-85, and 87-88. Barth sees therein a subtle affirmation of Korah's original concern: what does it mean to be a holy people?

Other laws in this section emphasize priesthood and validates the Aaronic priesthood and the service of the Levites (17-18). The section ends with the strange mitzvot about the Red Heifer. Once such a heifer is sacrificed and burned, its ashes purify from uncleanness---and yet the ashes confer short-term uncleanness upon him who handles them! In the Jewish tradition this is a famously difficult mitzvot, making Solomon himself despair of his own wisdom (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, p. 1149). The placement of the mitzvot at this point in Numbers forms "a literary bridge that now binds the red heifer ritual with the concern for uncleanness from the dead” (Harper Study Bible, p. 196). Tragically, death will be a concern for the next 38 years, as the old generation dies.

Here are the parshah and haftarah (from the Judaism 101 site):

Emor                     Leviticus 21:1-24:23 Ezekiel 44:15-44:31
Behar                    Leviticus 25:1-26:2        Jeremiah 32:6-32:27
Bechuqotai Leviticus 26:3-27:34 Jeremiah 16:19-17:14
Bamidbar Numbers 1:1-4:20           Hosea 2:1-2:22
Nasso                   Numbers 4:21-7:89         Judges 13:2-13:25
Beha'alotkha Numbers 8:1-12:16         Zechariah 2:14-4:7
Shelach                Numbers 13:1-15:41 Joshua 2:1-2:24
Qorach                Numbers 16:1-18:32 I Samuel 11:14-12:22
Chuqat                Numbers 19:1-22:1          Judges 11:1-11:33

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Ghost Sign: Downtown St. Louis

B and R Dry Goods Co., Close[illegible] of Nationally Advertised Brands. 14th and Washington. Among the last buildings of the old Washington Ave. garment district, according to

Old Highway Alignments

Before roads were widely numbered, people relied upon AAA “Blue Books” to help them get around. You’d need a navigator every time you drove much distance in an unfamiliar territory! That’s because roads were imperfectly marked and followed zigzagging, sometimes informal paths. I’ve a copy of the 1915 AAA Blue Book. Here’s part of the directions if you were driving from St. Louis to Vincennes (p. 291):

66.2 7.3 4-corners, church and blacksmith shop on right; turn left and take first right crossing RR.
66.6 0.4 End of road; jog left and take first right, following poles.
70.2 3.6 End of road; turn right across RR. And immediately left, bearing right away from tracks. Go straight ahead into
75.9 5.7. Salem, Court House on left. Keep straight ahead cross R.R. 76.4. Road is direct with poles. Jog left and right, 77.2, winding through woods 81.5 past Xenia (on right—92.8)

That’s actually one of the easier routes!

I found physical evidence of a very old, winding road like this. It's on U.S. 51, about twenty miles south of my hometown, Vandalia, Illinois. As you approach a small rest area, just north of Sandoval, IL, you're southbound but you can see seams in the pavement where the road once made a left-hand curve. Turning there, you visit a small rest area, from the era when people (like my dad!) fixed their own food for road trips. Following the old road south, you soon come to a tall bridge for the narrow pavement. I love the bridge partly because you rarely see concrete bridges this tall (over four feet), and partly because the bridge has a plaque that preserves the name of the builder). Continuing south, you can also see the seams where the old road curved to the right. After a short while, the road rejoins the modern pavement of U.S. 51.

But think back to the early days of automobile travel, and you realize that  a major highway would’ve once included such an indirect pathway! You have to assume that the original highway routes followed the paths of existing local roads.  If you look on 1920s and 1930s Illinois maps, you can see how this road is depicted with these turns. The photos below are from a February 2017 road trip.

Locating such early alignments is interesting. I’ve spotted other abandoned alignments along U.S. 51 near Vandalia. U.S. 40 between Troy and Highland, and near Marshall, Illinois, parallels abandoned and overgrown stretches of roadbed, presumably from the 1910s or the 1920s. Heading back north to Vandalia, you come to the small communities of Patoka and then Shobonier, and you can see the old pavements at the outskirts, where old 51 had once got straight through those towns, instead of a short distance around them.

I remember another interesting find, which I haven't revisited for years. It's a highway bridge deep in timber. I was scouting the remains of a pioneer town, Old Loogootee in Fayette Co., Illinois. I found a few bricks from buildings, but I also found that narrow bridge fording a stream. There was little evidence of a road there, the old Vincennes Road that became state route 185. The bridge was haunting in its incongruity.

At Vandalia, the original path of Route 40 has until recently been signed Illinois 140 but, for reasons having to do with state and local maintenance, it carries no number at all until the outskirts of Mulberry Grove.  I wish I had a picture of the Abe Lincoln Motel that once stood well within the city limits on the old route (in town called St. Louis Ave.); one of my earliest memories was the small motel (no more than ten rooms) and a sign along the street.  It had not operated for many years as a motel before it was finally razed in the late 1990s.  But just beyond the city limits, an early alignment veers off the old road and makes a curve of several hundred feet.  This is a remnant of the original automobile highway, State Route 11 or National Old Trails Highway of the teens and twenties.  Further east, just beyond Hagerstown, a 1920 Route 11 bridge sits alongside the modern pavement, overgrown with small trees.

A few years ago I found a wonderful book about landscape exploration, Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places by John R. Stilgoe, New York: Walker & Co., 1999. If a person is interested in evidences of 20th century American culture (not just roads but railroads and small town life), Stilgoe is a good author for ideas and inspiration!

Rest area/old US 51, curving toward the main road northbound

Rest area/old US 51, curving toward the main board northbound

After taking the previous photo, I turned around and looked south:
the original road dead-ends but soon resumes southbound
toward an old bridge

Old US 51 and bridge, about 4-1/2 feet fall

Bridge plaque, dating it to 1920,
when this stretch of old US 51 was still
Illinois State Route 2.

Bridge plaque, identifying the builder! 

South of the bridge, old 51 curves to the right and
rejoins the present alignment. 

Barefoot on Fourth Avenue

Going barefoot in public was a kind of fad in the 1970s that continued into the 1990s. You'd see young people and sometimes adults pad down the summer sidewalks of our hometown, including the downtown. Going to places like the grocery store without shoes on was also a joy on pleasant days. I really enjoyed the "fad" and, over the years, I've loved staying barefoot on walks and occasional summertime errands. Six or seven times over the years, I made more "epic" journeys among stores on warm days during vacations or trips. They're happy occasions to remember, the way as my father recalled going hunting barefoot in his younger days (yet he had little tolerance for hippies...).

Back in the 1980s, while my wife Beth was at a conference in Tucson, I bummed around on my own for the day and visited Fourth Avenue. This area of Tucson is a wonderfully artsy shopping district: see and also , which calls the area "Proud to Be A Little Out There... hip back when most hipsters you know were still in diapers." The author continues, "Most Tucsonans have their own story set on the 'Ave.' Now, it's time to write yours."

Well, my story, such as it is, fits into the website's description. As I looked for a parking spot that morning, I thought about going barefoot for the visit. As I recall I wore a summery shirt and old, straight-legged jeans, and my sandals were kicked off on the floorboard. When I parked, I didn't slip back into my sandals but stepped onto the street and with a happy sigh. I fed the meter and then padded down the way to my first destination, a bookstore. I loved the fellowing of the cool floor beneath my feet after the rough warmth of the sidewalk. Exploring the selection, I found an Annie Dillard book that I still have, and a couple others.

Then I walked down the way among the other shops for an unhurried time. What a joy to be out and about with no shoes on! I watched the sidewalk in front of my strolling toes and felt the gentle thud of my heels. The stores had a variety of crafts, jewelry, books, environment related items, and Southwestern-y products. I felt so happy and quirky as I browsed shops, and I had excellent luck. The textures of cool floors alternating with the sidewalk---warm like a back porch---felt delightful, and I did see one other person enjoying the day the same way.

No one seemed to mind. A clerk in a rock and gem shop  gave me a strange look as I strolled around the beautiful displays (I should’ve asked first), but I did make a purchase.

Toward the end of my visit, I padded down the sidewalk, shopping bags in hand, and paused at a window display of a clothes and accessories store. A clerk, standing outside, invited me to check out their sales! So I tiptoed in and, strolling among several shoppers, I found the day’s last treasure, a purse for Beth.

This past year, my wife Beth had some business in Tucson, and I came along. As I spent time during the day while she was busy, I decided to revisit Fourth Avenue. This time, I had my shoes on! Too many years had gone by to revisit specific places, although two bookstores that I had visited still operated, though in different locations. I had a terrific time browsing the shops again and ended up with an ice cream cone from Dairy Queen before I caught a ride back to our hotel.

How pleasant to visit a favorite location, even though quite a few years had gone by!

The fad of going barefoot seems to have returned, to some extent, here in the 10s. I've had a couple students show up for class without shoes on, and I kid with them that I loved to go that way in my own younger days. Everything comes back into fashion, as they say.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Bible in a Year: Leviticus 1-22

Old postcard of my childhood church, where
I first learned about Moses and other Bible figures.
I’m reading through the Bible this year at a rate of about 22 chapters a week (1189 total chapters divided by 52 weeks), and taking informal notes on the readings. This week, I’ve been studying Leviticus 1-22.

Some folks will say, "Don't read the commentaries, read the Bible!" But commentaries clarify and explain the Bible content, and you still have the Spirit and your own intellect and emotions to help you gain insight. So I have six or seven of my commentaries and study Bibles on hand to help me with all these readings.

For instance, the Berit Olam series has a volume devoted to Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (see note 1 below). The author reminds us that Leviticus is the heart of the Pentateuch, and is precious for Jews; yet Christians regard the book with less esteem, for instance, only nine verses appear in the three-year Lectionary (p. 4). I don't know how many books of Christian theology I've read that refer to "Jewish legalism," a misunderstanding of the Torah (see note 2 below).

If Christians could appreciate the Torah from the Jewish point of view, and then understand the Torah's significance in the New Testament, we could learn much and cherish these books, too. I'm reading the Jewish Study Bible this week; the introduction to Leviticus reminds us that the book is part of the long narrative, from Exodus 25 to Numbers 10, which could be called “When the Tabernacle Stood at Sinai” (p. 203). That period is less than a year, and Leviticus, though lacking much narrative material, is a critical part of that overall story. We saw last week how important the Tabernacle authorization and construction is, occupying the last 16 of Exodus’ 40 chapters. Following immediately from that material, Leviticus contains the mitzvot, the priesthood, the aspects of worship, and foundations for Israel’s and Judaism’s history (p. 203).

Purity and holiness are key concepts to all of the mitzvot of Leviticus, underlying our readings this week that relate to sacrifice, the priesthood, the Day of Atonement, kosher food, and other laws. Once the Temple, sacrifice, and priesthood ceased in Judaism, the dietary laws, certain festivals, family ritual, and other mitzvot remain aspects of ongoing Jewish life and are based on the same foundations of holiness. (Orthodox, conservative, and Reform Jews approach these mitzvot differently.) And rather than being “picky” laws, they are rooted in the Jewish concern to be in service to other people and to witness to God (p. 205).

I'm also reading Harper’s Bible Commentary this week, which discusses the three realms of being in the Israelites’ world view: the holy, the everyday, and the unclean. Think of being an Israelite: we live in the everyday realm. The unclean realm include things like dead bodies, bodily fluids that are now out of the body, non-kosher living things, and so on. We come into contact with the unclean realm but can perform ritual acts to clean themselves (Lev. 12-15, for instance) to make us able to approach and properly worship the holy. Although everyday people cannot fully enter the realm of the holy, people can worship the Lord, do the rituals, sacrifice, and honor the Sabbath, and those of the priesthood are set apart and ordained for divine service to the holy on behalf of the people. This three-level worldview is the foundation for the Torah mitzvot. To bring the unclean into proximity with the holy, without the sanctifying rituals, was dangerous, as shown by the tragedy of Nadab and Abihu in chapter 10 (pp. 167-168).

Importantly, Leviticus also connects us back to Genesis, for as God sought friendships among the ancestors of the Israelites in the post-Eden world, God now defines a close relationship with the people and returns them, if not to Eden itself, to proximity to God through covenant and mitzvot. My NRSV Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible notes that the tabernacle, which Leviticus presupposes, has several symbols of creation, while Leviticus 11-16 "instruct in how to restore the created order in the tabernacle" (p. 153).

This material has additional relevance for Gentile Christians. The Berit Olam author shows that there are numerous allusions to Leviticus in the New Testament, some negative expressions of the particular law, others positive adoption of the laws and the imagery. Most of these apply to the chapters I’m reading this week (pp. 5-7). Leviticus is foundational for aspects of New Testament theology, in ways many of us don’t realize:

Lev 1:2, the first of several verses that uses the expression “bring near,” is echoed in Eph. 2:13, Heb. 7:19, James 4:8
Lev 1:4, the word translated “be acceptable” is alluded to in Rom. 15:16 and 1 Peter 2:5
1:9 and several subsequent verses has the expression “a pleasing odor,” which is echoed in Phil 4:18, Eph. 5:2, Rom. 12:1
Lev. 4:12, 21, 8:17, 9:11 — Heb. 13:11
Lev. 4:25, 34, 5:9, 6:30, 16:15, 27 — 1 John 1:7, Eph. 1:7, Rom. 3:25
Lev. 5:11 — Luke 2:24
Lev. 6:16, 18, 26, 7:61 — 1 Cor. 9:13
Lev 6:2 — Heb 7:23
Lev 7:20 — Rom. 11:22
Lev 10:10, 11:47, 20:24-26 — Gal. 2:12
Lev 11 — Acts 10:25
Lev 11:4 — Matt. 23:24
Lev. 14:1-32 — Matt 8:4, Luke 17:14
Lev. 15:25 — Matt. 9:20
Lev. 16:1-15 — Heb. 10:19, 9:12
Lev. 16:29 — Acts 27:9
Lev. 17:10-14 — Acts 15:20
Lev. 18:16, 20:21 — Matt. 14:4
Lev. 18:22, 20:13 — Rom. 1:27
Lev. 19:23-25 — Luke 13:7
Lev. 20:10 — John 8:5
Lev 21:1 — Luke 10:31
Lev 21:10 — Matt 26:65
Lev. 21:18 — Matt. 11:5
Lev 24:5-9 — Matt. 12:4
Lev 25:10 — Luke 4:19

The Christian name of the book (which means, pertaining to the Levites) is misleading, because he Levites only appear in two verses, and even the priests are not the only focus of the book (Berit Olam, p. 3), for the book is addressed to Israel as a whole. The Hebrew title is the first word of the text, Vayikra, “He [God] called [Moses].” Although there are only a few stories in the book, the whole book can be thought of as a kind of narrative, as it looks to the past (Israel’s salvation from Egypt), stresses obedience in the present, and sets up conditions for the future faithfulness of the people (p. 12). It is also a kind of narrative because numerous laws set up a problem, which in turn is addressed and solved by the mitzvah (see pages 3-44 for an in-depth discussion).

As I also said in last week's post, the Holiness Code (Lev. 17-26) is one of the four pre-canonical law collections that were incorporated into the Torah text after the exile. The Priestly Code, another pre-canonical collection, is spread through Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers; in Leviticus, the code includes offerings and sacrifices (Lev. 1-7), priests (Lev. 10), dietary laws (Lev. 11), diseases and discharges (Lev. 12-15), vows, tithes and offerings (Lev. 27). Here is an outline of this week's chapters:

The primary offerings (chapters 1-7)
The burnt offering (chap. 1)
The grain offering (chap. 2)
The fellowship offering (chap. 3)
The sin offering (4:1-5:13)
The guilt offering (5:14-6:7)
Other regulations concerning offerings (6:8-7:38)

The ministry of Aaron and his sons (chapters 8-10)
Their ordination (chap. 8)
Their ministry (chap. 9)
The deaths of Nadab and Abihu, and other regulations (chap. 10)

Cleanness and uncleanness (chapters 1-15)
Food (chap. 11)
Purification after childbirth (chap. 12)
Skin diseases (13:1-46)
Midweek (13:47-59)
Skin diseases (14:1-32)
Discharges (15)
Day of Atonement and the scapegoat (16)

At this point, the "narrative" of Leviticus shifts from the Tabernacle to the land. Although chapters 21-22 concern the priesthood, the section 17-26 focuses overall on the land and the importance not to introduce uncleanness to the land via unholy actions, lest the Lord eventually expel the people from the land.

Holy living (17-26)
Prohibition of eating blood (17)
Unlawful sexual relations (18)
Other laws about holy living (19)
Punishments for sin (20)
Priestly regulations (21:1—22:16)
Acceptable and unacceptable Sacrifices (22:17–33)
… and I’ll continue with the remainder of this block of laws next week.

Interestingly, the sacrifices of chapters 1-3 are voluntary responses to God’s goodness, while those of 4-6 are required.

Chapters 8-10 concern the consecration of the priesthood of Aaron. But the story ends with the death of the two sons Nadab and Abihu, who brought pans of burning incense into the holy place and the fire of God’s presence consumed them. The Jewish Study Bible explains, “[T]he sin of the two brothers was not simply that they went too far in their misguided super-piety. Rather, they acted in utter disregard for the deity. God intended that the manifestation of His Presence would ignite the altar fire, marking His acceptance of His people’s devotion. Their intent was for the divine fire to ignite their own pans; that is, they were attempting to arrogate control of the deity to themselves” (p. 227).

Chapter 11 are the famous laws of kosher (acceptable) food. The Judaism 101 site has a wonderful explanation: Interestingly, no plants are considered non-kosher.

That site also explains the significance of Yom Kippur,  In Leviticus 16, the day is a cleansing of the Tabernacle to remove the effects of impurity and unintended sin, and then the day is named in Leviticus 23:27, 28, 25:9.

Chapter 18 concerns prohibited sexual unions, which are also “abominations of the Canaanites” (Jewish Study Bible, p. 249). Lev. 18:22, regarding homosexuality, addresses not the sexual orientation that we understand today, but forceable intercourse that degrades and humiliates (p. 251). When people cherry-pick this verse to condemn gays, they ignore the underlying assumptions and context of the verse.

Chapter 19 addresses individual holiness. The Ten Commandments are echoed throughout 19:1-18, culminating in that verse 19:18, which many rabbis, and Jesus as well, regarded as one of the greatest commandments, implicitly summarizing all the others.

Lev. 19:33-34 has been cited a lot in recent days, with President Trump’s executive order concerning refugees. God commands hospitality and care for the stranger among Israelites, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (vs. 34).

Chapters 20-22 address other issues of holiness and concludes with God’s admonition not to profane God’s name so that God may be sanctified among the people—-the people whom God rescued from Egypt 22:31-33).

In synagogue readings (according to the Judaism 101 site), the parshah and haftorah readings are:

Vayiqra: Leviticus 1:1-5:26, Isaiah 43:21-44:23
Tzav: Leviticus 6:1-8:36, Jeremiah 7:21-8:3; 9:22-9:23
Shemini: Leviticus 9:1-11:47, II Samuel 6:1-7:17 (Sephardic: II Samuel 6:1-6:19)
Tazria: Leviticus 12:1-13:59, II Kings 4:42-5:19
Metzora: Leviticus 14:1-15:33, II Kings 7:3-7:20
Acharei Mot: Leviticus 16:1-18:30, Ezekiel 22:1-22:19  (Sephardic: Ezekiel 22:1-22:16)
Qedoshim: Leviticus 19:1-20:27, Amos 9:7-9:15  (Ezekiel 20:2-20:20)
Emor: Leviticus 21:1-24:23,  Ezekiel 44:15-44:31


1. Stephen K. Sherwood, C.M.F., Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Berit Olam Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002).

2. My NRSV Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible has this: "One may recall how the book relates to what comes before in Exodus. Leviticus is part of the Sinaitic covenant instruction. The book is a gift from God instructing in the structuring of this covenant community. It is not legalistic in the sense that it provides the people with a means of earning God's favor; rather, it is a multi-faceted response of the people to God."

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Landscape: Kensett

John Frederick Kensett, "Mount Washington from the Valley of Conway" (1869).  From: Copied under fair use principles.

John Frederick Kensett, "Mount Chocorua from North Conway" (1864-66). From: Copied under fair use principles.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Bible in a Year: Exodus 19-40

I'm reading through the Bible this year at a rate of about 22 chapters a week (1189 total chapters divided by 52 weeks), and taking informal notes on the readings. This week, I’m reading Exodus 19-40.

“At the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain” (Ex. 19:1-2). There they stay, until Numbers chapter 10. In Exodus 19-40, God's greatness is everywhere apparent with the beginning of the covenant (19-23); its confirmation (chapter 24, a ceremony which becomes the basis of Jesus' Last Supper covenant); the authorization of the Ark of the Covenant, the Altar, Priesthood, and Tabernacle and the sanctity of the Sabbath, (25-31), the incident of the Golden Calf (32-34), and the creation of the Ark and Tabernacle and furnishings (35-40). Something I read indicated that we have a great lesson in God's faithfulness in that the work of creating a sanctuary carries on after the people had sinned so seriously.

The Sinaitic Covenant is established in 19:1-24:11, and as the Jewish Study Bible author notes, “The moments encounter with God at Sinai is, for the Torah, the defining and seminal moment in Israel’s relationship with God” (p. 145). But Chapter 19 is a very confused chapter,; the Lord's voice comes form the fire, or from the thunder, and Moses seems to go up and then down and then up again the mountain. Aside from textual challenges arising from ancient sources edited together, the theophany depicted in chapter 19 is momentous and sets the stage for the coming covenant.

The Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments, begin God’s revelation (20:1-17):

1 Then God spoke all these words:
2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me.
4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
13 You shall not murder.
14 You shall not commit adultery.
15 You shall not steal.
16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (NRSV)

The remainder of chapter 20 notes that only the Commandments were told to the people directly; they were fearful of the divine voice and insisted that Moses mediate for them.

The section 20:22-23:33 is called the Covenant Code, or the Book of the Covenant. I’ve an interesting book by a Presbyterian minister, William J. Doorly (1931-2011), called The Laws of Yahweh: A Handbook of Biblical Law (Paulist Press, 2002). Doorly describes the four pre-canonical law collections that were incorporated into the Torah text after the exile:

The Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21-23)
The Deuteronomic Law Code (Deuteronomy 12-26)
The Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26)
The Priestly Code (spread through Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers)

The Book of the Covenant contains cultic laws about altars and images, 22 secular laws about restitution, bodily injury, and property, 20 cultic and social laws (including God’s demand for justice) and finally 6 more cultic laws, including three festivals (p. 12). While not the oldest laws, they may be associated with the reform work of Hezekiah and then were preserved by the Aaronic priests during the exile from the Jahwist and Elohist sources (J and E) (pp. 7-9).

Doorly points out the presence of the Priestly Code that has been edited into the Torah text in ancient times. He notes that the Priestly Code is found in Ex. 12-13, 25-30, Lev. 1-7, 10-15, 27, Num 5-6, 9-10, 18, 27-30, and 35-36. This code includes laws about Passover (Ex. 12-13), the tabernacle (Ex. 25-30), offerings and sacrifices (Lev. 1-7), priests (Lev. 10), dietary laws (Lev. 11), diseases and discharges (Lev. 12-15), vows, tithes and offerings (Lev. 27), uncleanness (Num. 5-6), Passover (Num. 9-10), priestly laws (Num. 18), inheritance laws, festivals, and vows (Num. 27-30), and Levitical towns, more inheritance laws, and laws concerning murder (Num. 35-36) (p. 65).  So all these passages are interconnected. This code was probably laws intended for the Jerusalem temple priests (p. 49). While some scholars believe the Aaronic priests preserved these laws in order to assert their superiority to the Levitical priests, Doorly believes that both the Aaronic and Levitical schools sought to preserve laws in light of their creative rewriting of Israel’s history, with the Levites beginning with the events of Deuteronomy, and the Aaronids beginning with the time of the Exodus (pp. 72-73).

If you’re a Christian, unaccustomed to meditating on the laws, you might overlook their deeper meanings. My NRSV Harper Study Bible (p. 274) gives a list of “major social concerns of the covenant.” Here are some from the Covenant Code:

* Personhood: everyone should be secure: e.g. Ex. 21:16, 26-31, etc.
* No woman should be taken advantage of: Ex. 21:7-11, 20, etc.
* Everyone’s property rights should be secure (Ex. 21:33-36, etc.)
* Everyone is to share produce of the ground (Ex. 23:10-11, etc.)
* Everyone should rest on the Sabbath, including servants and resident aliens and animals (Ex. 20:8-11, etc.)
* Everyone deserves a fair trial (Ex. 23:6, 8, etc.)
* No one should be exploited or oppressed, including the impoverished and disabled (Ex. 22:21-27, etc.).
* Animals well being should be protected (Ex. 23:5, 11, etc.).

So we should not look and these laws and think: this is just ancient stuff that we can ignore. Precious to Jews, they have much to teach us Christians, too. How we interpret all the laws and their spirit (originating in ancient agricultural and monarchical society) in our contemporary, technological and liberal capitalist societies is the ongoing challenge of biblical interpretation for both Jews and Christians.

The section 24:12-31:18, and the section 35:1-40:38, concern the Tabernacle. I found an interesting article at this site, that provides quite a bit of information about the Tabernacle, which was the portable sanctuary that serve God’s people in the Wilderness and beyond: My Harper’s Bible Commentary has a chart about the Tabernacle and its furnishings and functions, providing the correspondence in the text between God’s commands and the resulting actions (p. 150):

“The contribution: commanded in 25:1-9, executed in 35:4-29.
The Ark: commanded in 25:10-22, executed in 37:1-9
The table: commanded in 25:23-30, executed in 37:10-16
The lamp stand: commanded in 25:31-40, executed in 37:17-24
The tabernacle: commanded in 26:1-37, executed in 36:8-38
The sacrificial altar: commanded in 27:1-8, executed in 38:1-7
The tabernacle court: commanded in 27:9-19, executed in 38:9-20
The lamp: commanded in 27:20-21, executed in Numbers 8:1-4
The priestly garments: commanded in 28:1-43, executed in 39:1-31
The ordination ritual: commanded in 29:1-49, executed in Lev. 9:1-9:24
The incense altar: commanded in 30:1-10, executed in 37:25-28
The bronze laver: commanded in 30:17-21, executed in 38:8
The anointing oil: commanded in 30:22-33, executed in 37:29
The incense: commanded in 30:34-38, executed in 37:29
The craftsmen: commanded in 31:1-11, executed in 35:30-36:7
The Sabbath: commanded in 31:12-17, executed in 35:1-3”

Before I conclude with aspects of the significance of the Tabernacle, I want to think about 32:1-34:35, the breaking of the covenant and its renewal, otherwise known as the story of the Golden Calf. The  Harper’s Bible Commentary notes (p. 153-154) the irony of the calf: “The people’s demand is for ‘gods who will go before us’; that is, they want palpable assurance of the divine presence among them on their march. This, however, is precisely what the tabernacle will provide. Thus the irony in the situation is that the thing the people are demanding is exactly what is being prepared for them on the mountain [by the Lord through the mediation of Moses]. Seen in this light, the manufacture of the golden calf is a travesty of the tabernacle just authorized.” As we all know the story, Moses’ brother Aaron is a leader in the effort to construct the idol (a fertility idol, for the calf or young bull symbolizes virility). When Moses returns from the mountain, he smashes the tablets, and yet only the intercession of Moses saves the people and makes possible the renewal of the covenant.

Exodus 34:29-35 tells us that Moses’ face shone with light as he returned from the mountain. 2 Corinthians 3 Paul interprets this passage in a supersessionist way to stress the glory of the New Covenant. If you ever wondered why Moses is sometimes artistically depicted as having small horns (Michelangelo and others), it comes from this Exodus passage. The Hebrew root qrn can be translated “horn” or “radiant light." I suppose you could thereby discern Moses from among other robed and bearded biblical heroes.

I’ll double-check these references, but I find on good ol’ Wikipedia that, after the Joshua conquest, the Tabernacle was located at Shiloh (the area of Joshua’s Ephraim tribe), where is was located during the 300 years of the Judges. (See Joshua 18:1; 19:51; 22:9; Psalm 78:60, and 1 Kings 6:1; Acts 13:20), but the tabernacle with the Ark was located at Bethel, too (Judges 20:26-28), and Saul moved it to Nob (1 Samuel 21-22) and later it was located at Gibeon (1 Chronicles 16:39; 21:29; 2 Chronicles 1:2-6, 13). Then the Ark itself came to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:17; 1 Chronicles 15:1), while the Tabernacle stayed Gibeon (1 Chronicles 16:39; 21:29; 1 Kings 3:2-4). Finally Solomon brought it and its furnishings to the Jerusalem Temple (1 Kings 8:4). The Ark and furnishings are never mentioned in the scriptures after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem.

Why is so much space given in the narrative to the authorization, description, and construction of the portable sanctuary and its furnishings? Is it only for historical purposes?

A favorite book, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (edited by W. Gunther Plaut, UAHC, 1981) provides some possibilities. For one, the deity of ancient religions had to have a personal house, and this is the story of Israel’s (p. 598). But specially for Israel, the Tabernacle was the presence of God, in a portable sanctuary. The great Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig saw the Tabernacle as the high point and “pinnacle” of the Penteteuch, which “concretized [the Israelites'] freedom. For even as God ‘made’ the world so Israel now ‘makes’ the sanctuary in a new act of creation, and the same words used in the opening chapters of Genesis characterize the creation of the Tabernacle” (p. 598).

In the text, the Tabernacle is connected to the Sabbath, which the great Jewish teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel calls Israel’s sanctuary in time. The institution of the Sabbath begins the authorization and the construction of the Tabernacle (31:12-17, 35:1-3; Plaut, p. 666), and the Sabbath has endured for the Jews as a faithful "place."

The Tabernacle also forms an connection back to the beginning of Exodus: “The erection of the shrine was the symbolic conclusion of the Exodus tale. The latter had begun with the ‘absent’ God during the years of enslavement and now ends with the ‘present’ God who will lead His people to the Promised Land” (Plaut, p. 688). With the end of Exodus we read through Leviticus, which is primarily laws, but is its own kind of narrative that continues Israel's ancient story. Next week I'll study Leviticus 1-22.


In the Jewish tradition, the weekly passage from the Torah is called the parshah, each with a name coming from the Hebrew text. The corresponding reading from the Prophets is called the Haftarah.  Here are the readings (from the Judaism 101 site), with the haftarah in parentheses indicating the Sephardic readings:

Mishpatim                 Exodus 21:1-24:18              Jeremiah 34:8-34:22; 33:25-33:26
Terumah                    Exodus 25:1-27:19              I Kings 5:26-6:13
Tetzaveh                    Exodus 27:20-30:10              Ezekiel 43:10-43:27
Ki Tisa                       Exodus 30:11-34:35              I Kings 18:1-18:39 (I Kings 18:20-18:39)
Vayaqhel                    Exodus 35:1-38:20              I Kings 7:40-7:50 (I Kings 7:13-7:26)
Pequdei                      Exodus 38:21-40:38              I Kings 7:51-8:21 (I Kings 7:40-7:50)

Landscape: Thomas Cole

Thomas Cole, "The Hunter's Return" (1845). Cole was born on this day (February 1) in 1801!