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)

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