Exodus: What Kind of God is God?

The character of God is revealed to Moses in his mountain top experience.

When we come to chapter 34 of Exodus, we find Moses still on top of Mount Sinai. He has successfully negotiated with God, extracting from God the promise that God will go fully with the people of Israel on their journey to the promised land. The covenant has been preserved. Israel will continue to be God’s people, and God their God. One can almost imagine Moses crying out the liturgical response: Thanks be to God!

Then follows another remarkable scene. God is said to have descended onto the mountain in a cloud and to have stood with Moses there. God pronounces his sacred name–YHWH–the name he revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3). This is a sign of the intimate personal relationship that has been established between God and Moses. 

God then goes on to say:

“The LORD, the LORD,

            a God merciful and gracious,

            slow to anger,

            and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,

            keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,

            forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,

            yet by no means clearing the guilty,

            but visiting the iniquity of the parents

            upon the children

            and the children’s children,

   to the third and the fourth generation.” [Exodus 34:6-7]

These words are momentous words in Scripture, for they are a declaration of the character of God. If Israel wants to know what kind of God is this God who has called them out of Egypt—what is his character—then they are to turn to these words given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. 

Truly and abundantly compassionate, yet also truly just. A vision of wholeness in perfect balance…This is the God Israel has come to know from its exodus experience.

Israel’s God is a God who is merciful, gracious, abounding in steadfast love, a love so expansive that it extends to thousands of generations. Israel lives, and moves, and has its being within an ocean of God’s love and mercy. That love and mercy is like a spring of overflowing water that never stops. 

Yet this God is also a just God who does not shrink from a confrontation with evil. Evil and sin will have their consequences, consequences that can reverberate down through multiple generations. 

Truly and abundantly compassionate, yet also truly just. A vision of wholeness in perfect balance. One therefore who is holy. This is the God Israel has come to know from its exodus experience.

Resonance through the Old Testament

These verses become so revealing of God that they come to serve as something close to a creed in the life of Israel. We shall find them quoted or alluded to in other parts of the Old Testament. 

One citation, for example, comes in a prayer by the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 32:16-25).  The prophet Jeremiah has just purchased a plot of land from his cousin even though the city of Jerusalem is soon to fall to the Babylonians. Through the purchase, Jeremiah expresses a word of hope for the future.

Immediately after the purchase Jeremiah launches into a prayer, whose opening words are:

Ah Lord GOD! It is you who made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you. You show steadfast love to the thousandth generation, but repay the guilt of parents into the laps of their children after them, O great and mighty God whose name is the LORD of hosts, great in counsel and mighty in deed; whose eyes are open to all the ways of mortals, rewarding all according to their ways and according to the fruit of their doings. (Jeremiah 32:17-19)

As sanction for his prayer, Jeremiah quotes the language of Exodus 34.

An example in the Psalms comes in Psalm 103. This psalm praises God for all his blessings in sustaining his people. As part of that song of praise, the psalmist quotes Exodus 34:

He made known his ways to Moses,

            his acts to the people of Israel.

The LORD is merciful and gracious,

            slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

He will not always accuse,

            nor will he keep his anger forever.

He does not deal with us according to our sins,

            nor repay us according to our iniquities.

For as the heavens are high above the earth,

          so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him…(Psalm 103:7-11)

In quoting Exodus, however, we notice a definite shift in the psalmist’s emphasis. In Exodus God’s compassion is balanced by God’s justice. In the psalm, the emphasis has decidedly shifted in focus on God’s compassion and merciful love. The possibility of God’s anger is still there, but the overwhelming reality for the psalmist is God’s mercy.

That shift of emphasis to the side of mercy and compassion is also noticeable in another passage quoting Exodus 34. This appears in the Book of Jonah. Jonah has reluctantly preached God’s judgment on the wicked city of Nineveh. The unexpected result is not the city’s destruction, but its profound repentance. God changes his mind.

Jonah is not pleased. He is in fact incensed at God, spitting back at God these words

“O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:2-3)

Why had Jonah fled from God in the first place? He knew from Exodus 34 that the character of God was to be compassionate and merciful. Jonah did not want to extend this mercy to the wicked Ninevites.  

We see in all three of these examples how the revelation of God’s character given to Moses on Mount Sinai has sunk deep into the Israelite soul.

This revelation of the character of God describes too the character of the God of us Christians, because of our roots in the Israelite revelation. It underlies the preaching and ministry of Jesus and the apostles. For me, this statement on the character of God is the climax of the Book of Exodus.

Exodus: Audacious Moses, Part 2

Moses does not give up until he exacts a promise from God.

Moses, a drawing by Jacob de Wit, Dutch, 18th century

As I noted in my last blog posting, the infidelity of Israel in worshipping the golden calf poses an existential danger to Israel. God wants to destroy the nation and begin all over again. Moses challenges God not to do so, arguing that God must be true to God’s character. God changes his mind. 

This sets Moses free to descend the mountain and deal with the crisis himself. There is a confrontation with Aaron, followed by a purging from the nation of those who constitute an unruly mob (said to be running wild). This work done, Moses again ascends the mountain, where God still seethes with anger over what Israel has done. 

Moses shows unbelievable solidarity and loyalty to the people despite their sin. 

Then the text (Exodus 32:30-33:23) carries us back to the dialogue between Moses and God. When they broke off their conversation on the mountain, God had determined not to destroy Israel. But will he forgive Israel? That is not yet certain. This sets the stage for Part 2 of Moses’ audacious challenge of God. 

Moses asks God to forgive Israel. And if he will not, then Moses asks that God blot him Moses out of the book of life. Moses shows unbelievable solidarity and loyalty to the people despite their sin. 

So when we come to chapter 33, we find God responding that Moses may lead the people to the land God has promised to them. God will honor at least that part of his promise. But ominously, God says he will not go with them. Israel is a stiff-necked people. They are not docile and obedient. As a result, God in his anger might just consume them if they sin again. So instead God will send an angel to take God’s place. This is an assurance of something less than God’s full presence. 

This word of God devastates the people. It means that their future is precarious. They may survive for the moment, but they can have no confidence for the future. They will live with constant anxiety that they may just trigger God’s destructive anger once again. 

I often think that describes well the spiritual situation of many Christians who live in constant fear that they will do something so heinous that it will trigger God’s anger. God will bring upon them something truly evil, like a serious illness, a tragic death, or some other terrible misfortune. It is not a way to live with a sense of spiritual peace, because we can never truly trust that when the pinch comes, God will truly be there for us. 

Moses in the Breach

This leads to further negotiation between Moses and God. Moses is not willing to settle for an angel to lead them. It must be God himself. Will God’s own presence go with them or not? If not, then Moses says, Let’s call a halt to this project immediately. Will you go with us with your full presence, God, or not?

What this question does is ask the question: Will you, God, fully forgive your people, or will you hold back on forgiveness? If you are going to hold back, then there is no reason why this whole exodus event should go forward. Only full forgiveness will satisfy Moses and meet the needs of Israel. No half-way forgiveness will do the trick.

God continually shows favor and partiality to Moses, but Moses does not use that favor to his own aggrandizement. Instead he plays that partiality as the final card in his effort to get God to fully forgive the people. 

Only full forgiveness will satisfy Moses and meet the needs of Israel. No half-way forgiveness will do the trick.

We come to the climax in verse 33:17. God promises to Moses to do what Moses asks. He will forgive the people and go with them with his full presence. He does so as a special favor to Moses who has stood by his people. Moses has won in his negotiation with God. 

Then God grants Moses a special blessing. He permits Moses the special favor of a partial vision of God’s glory. Not a full vision. Moses is allowed only to glimpse the backside of God as he passes by in glory. But it is something no one else has been granted.

God will revive the covenant with Israel. As a sign of that restoration, God presents Moses with new stone tablets. Israel’s relationship with God is secure.

Majestic Moses

As I read through this extended session of negotiations between God and Moses, I feel utter astonishment at what I have called the audacity of Moses and Moses’ solid spiritual backbone. Moses could easily have been cowed into unquestioned submission to whatever God proposed to do. Afterall, God was the far superior power. But Moses does not cave. He stands up to God and stands up for his people. 

…Moses holds God accountable. God is not allowed to be an arbitrary and irresponsible authority.

Moses also steers his way through what for most people would be irresistible temptations. God proposes to make Moses patriarch of his own nation. Moses turns downs that proposition. 

Instead Moses holds God accountable. God is not allowed to be an arbitrary and irresponsible authority. God must honor God’s character and exercise his power in accordance with that character. Moses will settle for nothing less.*

In this part of the Book of Exodus, we see Moses rise to his true majesty. He remains humble in his ambitions. And we see the immense love that he has developed for his own people. Over and over again the people will try his patience and treat him with some disrespect. But Moses will never waver in his commitment to them and their welfare. He will become a living icon of God. No wonder he is the prophet without compare for the Jewish tradition. 


* One is reminded of the famous aphorism of Lord Acton that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Moses will not allow God to fall for the potential temptation to corruption posed by God’s own absolute power.

Exodus: Audacious Moses

After the incident of the golden calf, Moses stands up to God.

When we come to chapter 32 of Exodus, we find Moses is still on top of Mount Sinai. He is continuing in his kind of “classroom” experience as God instructs him on how to build the tabernacle and set up Israel’s institutions of worship. 

Moses by Michelangelo

Meanwhile on the plain below, the people have set up the golden calf and proclaimed it to be their god. Infidelity has invaded the sacred relationship between God and Israel. This leaves us with the question: What will be God’s response? Is divorce or destruction the next step? We are left with that hanging question as we read that on the morrow the people of Israel rise up early and join enthusiastically into sacrifices to the calf image and a reveling feast afterwards.

The text then turns back to the mountain top where God and Moses have been in dialogue.  We get God’s angry response to what is happening on the plain below. God says to Moses:

“Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’ “(Exodus 32:7-10)

Note carefully the wording. God begins the Ten Commandments with the statement, I am the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery….(Exodus 20:2).

But now God disavows any connection to Israel. It is Moses, he says, who brought the Israelites out of Egypt. (That’s why I boldfaced the your and you in the text above.) They are not God’s people. They are Moses’ people. 

In the legal language of the covenant, these are words of divorce. God threatens to destroy the people and then start out a new course by creating a new nation out of the descendants of Moses. If God does this, he will be stepping back from his promises to Abraham. 

His words pose a severe temptation for Moses. God holds out the option to Moses of becoming the patriarch who replaces Abraham. If he wishes, he can reach out and seize this special honor which will redound to his glory. 

Moses Argues with God

We now come to a passage that I consider one of the most extraordinary in all of the Bible. It takes my breath away. Something totally unexpected happens. Moses turns down the temptation. Instead he engages in an audacious argument with God. 

First, Moses throws God’s word back into God’s face. It is not Moses who brought the people out of Egypt. It is God. He says God cannot disavow that responsibility.

Second, he pulls out the public relations card. He says to God in effect, “Think of how this would affect your reputation in the world. The Egyptians whom you have just defeated would laugh uproariously, saying, “Look at this God, who freed the people from slavery only for the purpose of destroying them.” Does God want to acquire that reputation?

Third, he reminds God of the promises God had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Is God going to refuse to live by his own promises? Is God going to be untrue to himself? Who then in the future would ever believe in one of God’s promises? 

I find this dialogue extraordinary because of Moses’ boldness in challenging God himself. This is the Moses who earlier in Exodus told God frankly at the bushing bush to find someone else to free the Israelites from Egypt. Now we have a Moses who boldly insists that God be true to himself. Isn’t that extraordinary in showing us the evolving character of Moses?

Also, we see Moses’s own humility. Offered to become the ancestor of another great people—something most kings and dictators dream of—Moses turns down the offer and instead remains committed to the people of Israel, a people whom God has described at still-necked. 

Again we are given an insight into the developing character of Moses. As a matter of fact, when Moses dies, he is not succeeded by his son or grandson. His descendants vanish into history.

And maybe most astonishing of all to me, Moses’s audacity works with God. God steps back from the disaster of destroying Israel. Possibly that audacity is what God was looking for from Moses all along. 

Faith as Bold Assertion

If that is true, then this passage turns our conventional ideas of what faithfulness looks like on its head. Rather than faith becoming synonymous with meek resignation and passivity, faith is pictured as strong assertion. Moses holds God accountable for being true to God’s character. God is not allowed to evade his own promises. And Moses is not shy about doing this.

Lest we think this passage is without parallel in Scripture, I call our attention to the fact that we encounter this same faith as bold assertion throughout the psalms. In psalm after psalm, the psalmist calls upon God to be true to his promises.

One notable example is Psalm 89. In this psalm, the psalmist celebrates the covenant that God establishes with David. God promises that he will show faithfulness and steadfast love to David and his descendants. Their kingship will last forever. 

But the psalmist is writing after Babylonian imperialism has brought an end to the Davidic dynasty. Jerusalem with its royal palace and temple have been razed to the ground. The psalmist questions how this is consistent with God’s promises to David. He concludes his lament with these words:

Lord, where is your steadfast love of old,

            which by your faithfulness you swore to David?

Remember, O Lord, how your servant is taunted

    how I bear in my bosom the insults of the peoples,

         with which your enemies taunt, O Lord,

            with which they taunted the footsteps of your anointed.

        (Psalm 89:49-51)

Implicit in the psalmist’s complaint is the assertion that God be faithful to his promise to David. The psalmist has stepped into the shoes of Moses.

The psalmist as well as Moses give us warrant for being bold in holding God accountable. The life of faith never gives us grounds for manipulating God. We must accept that God’s ways and God’s will may not be our ways and our will. But we can always hold God accountable to his promises and his character.



Exodus: Betrayal

Impatience drives the Israelites into breaking the covenant.

Worship of the Golden Calf, painting by Nicholas Poussin, French, 17th century.

Impatience drives people to do many foolish things. We have a clear example in Exodus 32. This chapter tells the story of Israel’s apostasy. The Israelites construct and then worship a golden calf as their god. 

As the chapter begins, Moses has been on top of Mount Sinai in conversation with God. God has been giving him the instructions for constructing the tabernacle and its furnishings and setting up the priesthood and the rituals of Israel’s worship. During this conversation, Moses has been absent from Israel’s base camp for 40 days–a long time.

This long absence seems to have triggered a growing anxiety among the Israelites. They complain, as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him (Exodus 32:1). Behind this anxiety may be the hidden fear that Moses has died and left them abandoned in the wilderness. 

We as readers of Exodus are given a taste of how this anxiety may have arisen by the fact that six long chapters (Exodus 25-31) precede that comment. Those chapters give us the details of those instructions God is giving Moses on the mountain top.

Many readers find these descriptions tedious reading. We must wade through six chapters of boring description before we can land back into the narrative. Literarily these six chapters give us a taste of the tedium in the Israelite camp that set the stage for what was to come next. We long to skip over them and get on with the narrative. 

The Israelites want to get on with their journey just as we want to get on with the story. Impatience becomes the root cause of the incident of the golden calf.

One other factor may be feeding this anxiety, too. The God of Israel has no visible form. No image can capture his appearance. What the Israelites must rely on for confidence that God is with them is God’s presence and actions in their midst. 

But during the 40 days Moses has been on top of the mountain, God’s focus has been on Moses. The Israelites may be feeling they have been forgotten or abandoned by God. They feel a need for some visible token, some memorial or symbol, that God is with them. They demand a visible image to reassure their fears.

Violating the First Commandment

In response to these two factors, the Israelites pressure Aaron to construct for them the golden calf. Once it is erected, they gather around it to sacrifice. They acclaim it in the words: These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt (Exodus 32:4). 

These words repudiate the opening words God speaks when he gives the Ten Commandments: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. 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 (Exodus 20:2-4).*

Just 40 days after the ritual celebrations of ratifying the covenant (described in chapter 24), Israel violates the foundational principle of that covenant. This despite the fact that in chapter 20 we read of how Israel experienced God’s presence on the mountain in the spectacular natural phenomena of the earthquake, smoke, fire, and trumpet blast. Israel at that time had experienced emotions of terror. 

That can be a reminder that awesome religious experiences need not always be transformative. We would have thought that after their experience with God at the mountain, Israel would have settled into a profound trust. But the nation did not. Instead it slipped so quickly into apostasy.

The Corrosive Power of Impatience

When I read this Exodus narrative, I am reminded of the deadly, corrosive power of impatience, the demand for instant gratification that repeatedly afflicts mankind. To build anything lasting, anything of substance, in life–whether in personal character development, in relationships like a marriage, in academic achievement, in architecture, in business, in nation-building–takes time and persistence. 

We have the best evidence of this truth in God’s creation of the world through the evolutionary process. The arrival of homo sapiens upon the earth is the end result of a long period of development of the planet earth. Our planet is some 4.5 billion years old. Life has arisen and grown in complexity over the course of some 3 billion years. That is an awesome but also sobering fact to ponder.

The story of the exodus bears witness to this reality by telling us that it took 40 years for Israel to make its trek from Egypt to Canaan. Important spiritual and national developments were happening in that 40-year period to prepare Israel to take up life as an independent nation in its own land. Likewise human beings must go through a long process of childhood and adolescence before they are prepared to take up the responsibilities of adulthood.

This is why the exodus story is such an important paradigm for us in our spiritual lives. Our spiritual lives are always spiritual journeys. We may begin our spiritual journey with a one-time act of faith, expressed in the sacrament of baptism, but we do not grow into mature saints instantaneously. 

It is not accidental that Jesus turns to the agricultural world for parables about life in the kingdom of God. We grow into spiritual maturity through a process, a process which proves to be a lifetime process. And if the early church father Gregory of Nyssa is right, it is a process that does not end with death, but continues on into the next life.**

Impatience then can cause serious damage, if not thwart, those processes of development and growth.*** Patience, however, is not easy to endure. It can be painful. It causes us anxiety and a longing to speed up the process with easy shortcuts. Maybe that is why patience is one expression of the need to bear our cross that Jesus says describes the life of discipleship (see Mark 8:34).


* Note that God says I am the Lord your God… (singular). The Israelites, however, say in the presence of the calf, These are your gods…(plural). The Israelites have not only repudiated the command about idols, but have also denied its fundamental monotheism.

** Gregory of Nyssa saw the whole story of the exodus as an allegorical guide to the spiritual life. He expresses that interpretation of the exodus in his book The Life of Moses

In his book he states his belief that the spiritual journey does not end with death. It continues on into the next life without end. About the beatific vision of God which traditional spirituality sees as the end goal of the spiritual journey, Gregory says: This truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in our desire to see him (The Life of Moses, Book II, Paragraph 239). 

*** One of the three vows that Benedictine monks take is the vow to stability. This vow means they promise to remain with their particular monastic community for their whole lives. This vow mirrors the vow married couples take when they promise to remain faithful to each other “until death do us part.” The vow to stability is a vow to perseverance. Perseverance is the key virtue in the journey to professional, personal, and spiritual maturity.  

Exodus: Holiness Made Visible

The wilderness tabernacle creates a visible image of holiness.

A modern Israeli reconstruction of the Sinai tabernacle.

If a people are to survive as a distinct social entity through the many vicissitudes of life, they must have traditions and institutions that sustain their identity through the generations. That was true of ancient Israel just as it is true of nations today.

One element in Israel’s survival is the story it tells over and over again of its liberation from bondage in Egypt and its journey, under God’s guidance, to a new homeland. That story is enshrined in the five books of Moses along with Joshua—and also in the annual festival of Passover.

A second element is the laws that govern its life with God and with one another. We encounter an initial deposit of those laws in Exodus 20-23, where we encounter the Ten Commandments and the so-called Book of the Covenant. As we work our way through the rest of the five books of Moses, we will find the deposit of law growing, as more and more regulations are laid down. 

But we need to notice an important point in how the authors of those books present them. The laws of Israel are not seen as creations of human beings, but as gifts from God. God is the law maker. Law is one of his blessings upon the people. The laws are not meant to oppress life, but to enable life to flourish. We see this sense of the divine goodness expressed in the gift of the Torah celebrated most ecstatically in Psalm 119

Sustained through Worship

A third element essential to Israel’s existence is its traditions and institutions of worship. The gift of them is presented to us in the next chapters in Exodus, chapters 25-31, and then after a break, again in chapters 35-40. (Regulations on worship continue in the following book, the book of Leviticus.) The fact that these 13 chapters constitute nearly a third of the text of the Book of Exodus gives us some idea of how important the authors/editors of Exodus regarded these institutions of worship. 

They likewise, like the laws of Torah, are a gift of God. God gives detailed instructions on what the Israelites are to construct as a focus of their worship life and how they are to construct it. This is underlined in Exodus 25:9 by these words spoken by God:

In accordance with all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.

That Israel is faithful in following this revealed pattern is stated emphatically at the end of the process of construction, in Exodus 39:42-43:

The Israelites had done all of the work just as the Lord had commanded Moses. When Moses saw that they had done all the work just as the Lord had commanded, he blessed them.

Icon of Holiness

Throughout the texts on the construction of the tabernacle, we find two words repeated over and over again: the noun holiness and the adjective holy. The wilderness tabernacle and everything related to it becomes a locus of holiness. This becomes the rationale for why God commands Moses in Exodus 30 to anoint every item going into the tabernacle and the priests who serve there with a holy anointing oil. For God says: …you shall consecrate them, so that they may be most holy; whatever touches them will become holy (Exodus 30:29)

The very design of the tabernacle is, in fact, to present an image of holiness. One of the striking features of that design is how the layout of the tabernacle complex is carefully structured upon the repeated use of the square. This is shown in the following diagram:

The outer courtyard of the complex composes two squares side by side, each measuring 50 cubits on each side. The tabernacle proper is composed geometrically of three squares. Two squares side by side compose the outer chamber, the Holy Place. A third square forms the innermost sanctuary, the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies in fact composes a perfect cube. Its length, width, and height are all equal–ten cubits on each side.

This geometry of the complex becomes sacred geometry. It expresses the progressive sanctification that we encounter as we enter more deeply into the structure. That progression is reinforced by the value of the construction materials. The hardware for the fixtures used to hang the outermost curtains that define the courtyard are bronze. The fixtures used for construction of the Holy Place are silver. And the fixtures for the Holy of Holies are gold. 

Let me call special attention to the fact that the Holy of Holies composes a perfect cube. Throughout many cultures, the square and the cube as well as the circle and the sphere become sacred symbols of perfection. It is not by chance, I believe, that the Holy of Holies is a cube.

The belief was that this inner chamber formed the dwelling place of God within Israel. It was God’s throne room. The ark of the covenant is either regarded as the throne of the invisible God or his footstool on which the invisible God rests his feet. This God is absolute holiness. This is expressed in the choice of the cube as the shape of his residential chamber.

The Symbolic Importance of the Cube

Why the cube? (Or for that matter, the sphere?) Why is either a good visible representation of perfection? Because both visibly represent perfect wholeness. All dimensions are in balance and form a unity. And maybe we can say that the essence of holiness is wholeness. Human beings lack that perfect wholeness both in their inner individual lives and in their outer communal lives. We live in the tension and conflicts of disparate forces seeking to come into unity, but we never fully achieve it. Such wholeness, such unity, however, lies at the essence of God. It constitutes God’s holiness. It is also why the psalms describe that holiness as beautiful. 

A striking parallel to the Holy of Holies as a cube in found in the New Testament in the vision of the new Jerusalem that the elder John sees in Revelation 21. There he sees the new Jerusalem descending out of heaven at the end of days when God creates a new heaven and a new earth. 

This new city composes a perfect cube, although a gigantic cube. It measures 1,500 miles in length, width, and height. We cannot imagine a city constructed this way literally, but then the vision is not of a literal, physical city. It is a symbol of the human community that will flourish in that new creation. That community will be a perfectly united community. It will be balanced. It will be whole. The visible expression of that unity is rightly a cube. 

God’s Dwelling with Fences

The holiness of God, however, can be a danger to sinful humanity. In our unwholesomeness we can experience that holiness as judgment and threat.It becomes necessary for the welfare of imperfect Israel for the tabernacle to place progressive fences around the inner core of the sanctuary. And only the High Priest alone is permitted to enter the Holy of Holies and then only once a year at the great Day of Atonement.

Yet paradoxically the tabernacle complex composes the center of the Israelite encampment. The tribes of Israel erect their tents around it in another square, three tribes each making up one of the four sides of the encampment. 

When the tabernacle is finally erected in chapter 40, God takes up residence, a residence symbolized by the pillar of fire/cloud that hangs over the tabernacle. God dwells at the intimate heart of the Israelite encampment and yet God does not dwell with them in a cozy complacency. God is not Israel’s best buddy. God is always Israel’s loving father, but also Israel’s majestic king. 

Israel is assured that God goes with them. This is the significance that Israel’s sanctuary is a tent, not a stationery stone structure (like Solomon’s later temple). Yet Israel can never be perfectly relaxed with God’s presence with them. God is a principle of mystery. Israel is in awe of this God, but can never be complacent. Maybe that is why the Hebrew Bible aptly describes perfect piety by the phrase the fear of the Lord.

Note: I recognize that in this posting I am trying to express a delicate and perfectly attuned balance that the symbolism of the tabernacle is intended to express. It is easy to distort this balance by choosing inappropriate words. If I have fallen into distortion, please forgive me. It is not easy to express the amazing beauty of the conception of the human relationship to God that we see given concrete expression in the construction of the tabernacle.

Exodus: Ratified in Blood

The covenant making at Sinai ends in a ritual ceremony.

Mosaic of the sacrifices of Abel and Melchizedek in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. 6th century.

Beginning with chapter 19, the Book of Exodus recounts the making of the covenant between God and the people of Israel. That account extends over the next five chapters. It includes the giving of the Ten Commandments and the laws that scholars now call the Book of the Covenant (chapters 21-23). 

The account comes to its conclusion in chapter 24, which recounts the formal ratification of this agreement between God and Israel. That ratification ceremony contains details that will resonate into the New Testament. 

That ratification begins with Moses reviewing with the assembled people the words God has spoken (the Ten Commandments) and the ordinances he has given Moses (the Book of the Covenant, chapters 21-23). These are the specific provisions of what we might call the contract between God and Israel. Will the people of Israel accept them?

The ratification ceremony contains details that will resonate into the New Testament. 

The people respond unanimously: All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do (Exodus 24:3).* By these words, the people have announced their consent to the covenant God offers. Negotiations (if I might call them that) have come to an end. All that is left is the official ratification. By analogy to procedures we would follow today, the contract has been laid out on the table. Now all the participants must sign and seal it.

“Signing” the Covenant

That “signing” (again if I may call it that by analogy) occurs through a ritual ceremony. Israel builds an altar and sacrifices on it oxen as a burnt offering. Moses takes some of the blood of the slaughtered animals in basins and dashes it against the altar. This seems to represent God’s ratification of the covenant. 

Then he takes more basins of the blood and dashes it on the people, saying: See the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words (Exodus 24:8). This splattering of blood seems to represent the people’s ratification of the covenant. Now we might say the covenant has been signed by both parties–in blood. 

Israel is now–by their own consent–committed to being God’s people and to the mission of being a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, as God proclaimed that mission in chapter 19. This mission will have significance for the whole world. What it will mean, however, for Israel will only become clear as Israelite, and then Jewish, history unfolds. 

This ratification in a bloody sacrifice may strike many readers today as distasteful and primitive. It seems to have been expected in the ancient world, as we read of accounts of other covenant “cutting” (as it was called) in other ancient nations. It was followed in the ratification of the covenant between God and Abraham recounted in Genesis 15. There Abraham cuts a heifer, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon into halves and lays out the halves in parallel lines. In a mysterious event during the night God passes between the two lines, signifying his ratification of the covenant he has made with Abraham. 

We should also keep in mind the significance blood can have in many cultures. In American mythology when we talk about two friends becoming blood brothers, they signify that by each friend puncturing a vein in his wrist and then mingling his blood with the other’s. They are now committed to the welfare of each other for life.

Once this ratification ceremony is complete, God summons Moses, Aaron, two of Aaron’s sons, and 70 elders of the people to ascend Mount Sinai. There they are given a ineffable vision of God. We are not told just what they saw. The text says they saw beneath God’s feet a transparent pavement of sapphire.** The wording may suggest that all they saw of God was his feet, but we cannot be sure. What is amazing about the vision is that all of them live, for it was the rule that no one could see God and live. They have been granted an experience of enormously condescending grace. 

After that they all enjoy a celebratory feast on the mountain. One thinks of the kind of feast that concludes a wedding ceremony. 

Resonances in the New Testament

As I said earlier, this account has resonances in the New Testament. At the Last Supper, Jesus takes bread and wine and serves them to his disciples giving these elements new meaning. We need to note especially the words Jesus uses as he hands the cup to his disciples. They vary slightly depending upon which gospel account we are reading. But here they are:

Matthew 26:27-28

Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 

Mark 14:23-24

Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.

Luke 22:20

And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

1 Corinthians 11:25-26

In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

In all these four accounts Jesus associates the cup of wine with his death. And he gives significance to his death by linking his death to the blood that was used in the Exodus account to seal and ratify the covenant between Israel and God. He says that his death will usher in a new covenant. 

We who are Christian have heard these words so many, many times in celebrations of the communion service that we can lose touch with what Jesus is saying. By his death, Jesus is ratifying a new covenant. But just what is this new covenant? 

Proclaiming the New Covenant through the Eucharist

It is a new development in the old covenant God entered into with Israel at Mount Sinai. In this new covenant God opens up the exclusive covenant he established with Israel to embrace the Gentiles as well. The exclusive covenant with Israel becomes a covenant universal in scope. We Christians are wrong to say the new covenant replaces the covenant God has with Israel. Rather the new covenant preserves that covenant, but now enables Gentiles to share in its benefits and responsibilities.

The one who seems to have first grasped the full significance of this development is the apostle Paul. He expounds upon it throughout his letters, but most especially in his Letter to the Galatians and his Letter to the Ephesians. And in this development God was fulfilling his promise to Abraham that in him (Abraham) that all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Genesis 12:3).

The Eucharist proclaims the message of Christianity. We call it Gospel…

It is this new development in God’s covenant with Israel that we Christians commemorate in our repeated celebrations of the communion service, which Christian tradition calls the Eucharist. The word Eucharist comes from the Greek word eucharisto, which means to give thanks. In the Eucharist, we give thanks to God for the astounding blessing that God has conferred upon humanity in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. 

The Eucharist proclaims the message of Christianity. We call it Gospel (god spell in old English or good news in modern English). In Jesus God was at work to open up the exclusive covenant he made with Israel at Sinai (the old covenant) to embrace all of humanity (the new covenant).*** Now all of humanity can share in the privileges of the covenant and also in its responsibilities of being a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. 

The death of Jesus becomes the sacrificial blood that signs and seals that new covenant. As a Christian, I can only respond: Thanks be to God!


* The people had previously said these words in chapter 19:8 when Moses first reveals to the Israelites God’s intention of establishing a covenant with Israel. But they speak in ignorance. They do not yet know any of the specific provisions of the covenant. After chapters 20-23, with the Ten Commandments and the Book of the Covenant, they now know something of the specifics of what they are agreeing to. When they speak in chapter 24, they speak, therefore, from a more informed basis. This gives much more heft to their promise.

** There is an allusion to this transparent pavement in the vision the elder John has of God’s throne room in heaven as recounted in Revelation 4. There John sees the pavement in front of God’s throne as something like a sea of glass, like crystal (Revelation 4:6).

*** The Latin word used to translate the Hebrew word for covenant (berith) is the word testamentum. It is the origin of the English names we give to the two parts of the Christian Bible: the Old Testament and the New Testament. 

Exodus: The Lex Talionis

What are we to make of a provision in Torah that seems barbaric?

In my last posting, I make a case for the rather humane values we find expressed in the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21-23). Humane, I say, when compared to other laws codes of the ancient Near East, such as the law codes of Mesopotamia. 

But I can imagine a critic immediately charging: How can you say that when the Book of the Covenant contains that barbaric instruction: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. This provision is known by its Latin designation: the lex talionis (the law of retaliation). And to most modern people, such maiming punishment sounds far from humane.

So what are we to make of the lex talionis? Does it subvert the humanity of the Torah law tradition? I think the critic deserves an answer. And I will try to give one. One that I will acknowledge I have picked up from the great Jewish scholar Nahum M. Sarna from his discussion of the lex talionis in his book Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel.*

The principle of the lex talionis is not exclusive to Israel. We also find it expressed in the law code of the Babylonian king Hammurabi. In fact, Sarna sees the principle as being already a part of Israel’s cultural heritage in pre-Exodus times. 

The expression of the lex talionis appears three times in the Torah, once in the Book of the Covenant, once in Leviticus, and one more time in Deuteronomy. Each time it fits oddly into its context. Sarna says this indicates that the principle, absorbed from the wider Semitic culture of the ancient Near East, has undergone a distinct development in Israelite penal law.

So let’s look at those three appearances.

First Citation

First, Exodus 21:22-25:

If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

This is surely an odd context in which to introduce the lex talionis. The situation described is a physical fight between two men in which a pregnant woman is injured as collateral damage. But just what is the serious injury (the word is ‘ason in Hebrew). How do we translate this rare word? It is referring to a premature delivery, a miscarriage, or the mother’s death. The NRSV translation makes the choice of serious injury, but that is only one translation option.

Only if the woman dies could we have a situation in which the lex talionis could be applied. Then the offender’s wife would need to die. But if it is a miscarriage or premature birth, how would the penalty of tooth for a tooth be applied to a fetus? 

Concludes Sarna: In short, the list of talionic provisions must be understood as a general statement of legal policy. It is a rhetorical formulation in concrete terms of an abstract principle–the law of equivalence. On an operational level this is possible only in respect of the death penalty.**

Second Citation

Second, Leviticus 24:17-22:

 Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death. Anyone who kills an animal shall make restitution for it, life for life. Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return:  fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.  One who kills an animal shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death.  You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen: for I am the Lord your God.

This passage falls in the middle of a narrative about a man of mixed Israelite-Egyptian heritage who blasphemes the name of God in a curse. When he is brought before Moses, Moses decrees that he shall be put to death, because anyone who blasphemes God’s name must be executed by stoning

Then Moses supports his judgment with the words recorded in verses 17-22. Here is where the citation of the lex talionis occurs. But how is the law applicable in this case? The blasphemer has caused no death or physical injury to anyone. Rather Moses seems to cite the law to make the point that Israel’s laws are applicable to both alien and citizen alike. There is to be no distinction made because of one’s ethnic identity. 

For Sarna, this second example demonstrates that the lex talionis has become a legal formula establishing fairness before the law. 

Further evidence that it has become a legal formula appears in Judges 15. There we are told that in a dispute between the Philistines and Samson, the Philistines burn to death Samson’s wife and her father. In retaliation, Samson goes on a rage and massacres a large body of Philistine warriors. 

When challenged about his action, Samson replies, As they did to me, so I have done to them (Judges 15:11). He does not mean he has burned their wives and their wives’ fathers. Rather he alludes to the lex talionis as a formula that the Philistines have received a deserved revenge.

Third Citation

Now, for the third citation: Deuteronomy 19:18-19, 21:

If the witness is a false witness, having testified falsely against another, then you shall do to the false witness just as the false witness had meant to do to the other. So you shall purge the evil from your midst… Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

In this case, the text is dealing with a situation of a false witness in a court case. If the false witness is shown to be deliberately false, then the consequences that would have fallen on the defendant shall be applied to the false witness. In this context, the text cites the lex talionis.

But this too is an odd place for the citation. The false witness has caused no physical damage or death. So the citation seems to function to emphasize the legal principle of equivalence in an effort to establish fairness in justice. Says Sarna: It cannot possibly be interpreted here literally.***

As mentioned earlier, the lex talionis appears in other ancient Near Eastern legal contexts, like the law code of Hammurabi. There it is often applied with some real brutality. Social class could also moderate or intensify the application. As an example, consider these laws from Hammurabi’s code that apply the lex talionis:

Law 196: If a seignior has destroyed the eye of a member of the aristocracy, they shall destroy his eye.

Law 197: If he has broken another seignior’s bone, they shall break his bone.

Law 198: If he has destroyed the eye of a commoner or broken the bone of a commoner, he shall pay one mina of silver.

Law 199: If he has destroyed the eye of a seignior’s slave or broken the bone of a seignior’s slave, he shall pay one-half his value.

Law 200: If a seignior has knocked out the tooth of a seignior of his own rank, they shall knock out his tooth.

Law 201: If he has knocked out a commoner’s tooth, he shall pay one-third mina of silver.†

Israel accepts the legal principle of the lex talionis that was current in legal circles in the countries surrounding it. But concludes Sarna: [In Israelite law] unlike its Near Eastern predecessors, the ‘eye for an eye’ formula was stripped of its literal meaning and became fossilized as the way in which the abstract legal formula of equivalent restitution was expressed. The thrust of the talionic principle was not vengeful or penal, but compensatory.††

Adopting an Attitude of Humility

Whether you find Sarna’s argument convincing or not, his discussion should instill a sense of humility in our reading of Scripture. We often assume we know exactly what a biblical passage means and how it should be applied. But both a close reading of the text as well as a study of the cultural world in which the biblical writers were writing may call into serious question any hasty assumptions we make about a particular text. 


* Nahum M. Sarna, Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel. New York: Schocken Books, 1996.

** Sarna, Exploring Exodus. Page 186.

*** Sarna, Page 188.

† The Code of Hammurabi, translated by Theophile J. Meek, published in The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, edited by James B. Pritchard. Princeton University Press, 1958.

†† Sarna, Page 189.

Exodus: Law as Torah

Law continues the mission of Torah to instruct.

An open Torah scroll

Exodus 21-23 forms a block of laws that are inserted into the narrative that the Book of Exodus is telling. (Scholars give these three chapters the title The Book of the Covenant.) There does not seem to be any grand organizing structure that governs the arrangement of the laws. Instead we find a mixture of laws dealing with a miscellany of concerns. 

For this reason many people reading Exodus for the first time can feel that they enter into a kind of tangled maze. What are we to make of this miscellany? Frustrated, we quickly skip over this section, eager to get back to the narrative.

Israelite law is a complicated field. It has stimulated a mass of scholarly exposition and debate over the centuries, especially in Jewish circles. One example, the massive learning to be found in the Talmud

Americans make a strong distinction between the two realms of social and personal life. But the Torah does not. The life of Israel is seen as a unified whole.

I am in no way so deeply learned in this subject that I can claim with any authority as an interpreter of Israelite law. I will not try to explicate these three chapters of Exodus in any detail. But I would try to make a few broad statements that might assist ordinary readers to navigate their way through this block of material that can feel so foreign to the average reader, especially if they come from a Christian background as I do. What I say owes a special debt to a number of Jewish scholars I have read.*

God as the Law’s Authority

First, we should note the opening words (Exodus 21:1) of the Book of the Covenant: These are the ordinances that you [Moses] are to set before them [the Israelites]. We see from the closing verses of chapter 20 that the speaker is God. The import of this opening sentence is that the laws in the Book of the Covenant are not presented as cultural customs and precedents coming from the tribal life of Israel. They are set before us as expressions of God’s will.

We notice, too, that the laws in the Book of the Covenant cover both cultic/religious activities and secular/social activities. Americans make a strong distinction between the two realms of social and personal life. But the Torah does not. The life of Israel is seen as a unified whole. God’s concern in ordering the life of the people covers all aspects of their lives, not just the activities directly involved in religious worship. So we find laws governing agricultural life as well as laws governing sacrifice and religious festivals all expressing God’s area of concern.

Social Context of Agricultural Life

Second, the laws of the Book of the Covenant reflect a life anchored in villages and in an agricultural economy. There are no laws that reflect the concerns of urban dwellers. For, example, there are no laws governing trade and commerce nor the work of urban artisans. 

This anomaly may be evidence for the antiquity of the laws in the Book of the Covenant. They may source back to the very earliest years of the Israelite people, before Israel had begun to develop an urban culture. Life appears simple and uncomplicated. For example, the instructions for building the altars for sacrifice specify that the stones used should not be finely dressed, but rough and unhewn (Exodus 20:25). On the other hand, this instruction may reflect that the editors who put Exodus together preferred a more simple, unadorned style of worship in contrast to the sophisticated liturgies we might encountered in the grand, ancient temples of the Near East. 

No Distinction Among Social Classes

Third, the Book of the Covenant shows no awareness of any stratification in society, apart from the reality of slavery. By contrast, ancient Mesopotamian law codes (like the law code of the Babylonian king Hammurabi) assume that society is divided into  three classes: the upper class of aristocrats and property owners, the lower class of peasants and laborers, and the lowest class of slaves. Provisions in the law vary according to one’s social class, especially in the assignment of fines and punishments. 

…the Book of the Covenant shows that it places higher value on the rights of the person than on the rights of property.

There is none of that in the Book of the Covenant. If there is any stratification in Israelite society, it is to have no impact on the administration of justice. All free Israelites are to be treated fairly before the law. 

Rights of Persons Take Priority over Rights of Property

Fourth, the Book of the Covenant shows that it places higher value on the rights of the person than on the rights of property. This, too, is in stark contrast to the Mesopotamian law codes, where preferences are given to the rights of property owners. Two examples illustrate this.

The first is the law governing the interaction between a creditor and a debtor expressed in Exodus 22:25-27:

If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.  If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down;  for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.

This law assumes that a debtor had given his lender his cloak as security governing repayment. But the debtor may have only one cloak. That cloak serves not only as clothing, but also as a blanket when he sleeps on a cold night. The law shows a concern for his welfare, and so places a restriction on the right of the lender to retain the cloak during the night. The welfare of the debtor comes before the rights of the property owner.

A second example comes in the laws governing slavery in Exodus 21. The Book of the Covenant assumes that slavery will be a fact of life in Israelite society. But it shows a concern for placing safeguards on abusive behavior by slave owners. One example is found in Exodus 21:26-27:

When a slaveowner strikes the eye of a male or female slave, destroying it, the owner shall let the slave go, a free person, to compensate for the eye. If the owner knocks out a tooth of a male or female slave, the slave shall be let go, a free person, to compensate for the tooth.

Similarly the Book of the Covenant assumes that slaves have the right to enjoy rest on the sabbath day just as the master and his family (Exodus 23:12). Its ordinance is consistent with the commandment on keeping the sabbath day in the Ten Commandments, where the commandment explicitly embraces slaves and the farm animals in addition to the free members of the family (Exodus 20:8-10).

There is a consciousness that slaves remain persons, even if they serve in a state of bondage.

Sensitivity to the Needs of Society’s Marginalized

The Book of the Covenant also shows a consciousness of its setting in the exodus experience. The laws (as do the prophets later on) show an acute sensitivity to the needs of society’s poor and marginalized. The marginalized are referred to in the stock phrase: the widows, the orphans, and the resident aliens.

For example, in Exodus 22:21-24 God says this to the Israelites:

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.  If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry;  my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.

And in Exodus 23:9, these injunctions are explicitly tied to Israel’s experience of bondage in Egypt:

You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

Israelites are to constantly keep in mind their own bitter experience as marginalized people in Egypt as they regulate their own behavior towards the marginalized in their own midst.

This awareness of the poor and marginalized lies behind the Book of the Covenant’s demand for uncorrupted justice in lawsuits. In Exodus 23:6-8, we read:

You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in their lawsuits. Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and those in the right, for I will not acquit the guilty. You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials, and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.

And most unexpectedly, the Book of the Covenant seems to even have a consciousness of the enemy as a person, too. We find this surprising instruction in Exodus 23:4-5:

When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back.When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free.

This should startle Christians. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus counsels his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44). Christians often assume this is some unprecedented new teaching on Jesus’ part. But the Book of the Covenant makes clear that Jesus is teaching in the tradition of the Jewish Torah. 

Law as Agent of Character Formation

Lastly, we notice something surprising about the Book of the Covenant. It offers a miscellany of laws governing social and cultic life, but it is far from being comprehensive in covering all aspects of Israelite life. There are many omissions, as I have already noted when it comes to covering urban life and urban commerce and trade. There are no laws governing the highly conflict-ridden area of inheritance. 

This surprises us, because we would expect a much fuller coverage if the Book of the Covenant is meant to be a comprehensive law code that judges and administrators can consult when faced with particular lawsuits. Instead the Book of the Covenant is patchy in what it covers. 

Mindset breeds character. And character. when deeply embedded into our personalities, can ensure that our behavior begins to take on the character of instinct. We act because of the way we are. 

Why it that? The Jewish scholar Edward L. Greenstein suggests that is because the laws in the Torah are not meant strictly to be a law code. They serve a didactic function. It is not accidental therefore that they are included in the Torah. He writes:

…the word torah itself means “instruction” or “teaching.” The laws of the Torah are one of its means of teaching; they are the specific behaviors that God inculcates his ways–what we call values–in his human creatures. If we are to understand these values we must read the laws, in a sense, as a sort of body language that outwardly symbolizes something of much deeper significance…The various norms that God commands the Israelites in the Torah were calculated to instill abstract values through concrete acts.**

This suggests for me a way Christians can read these laws of the Torah. The world they describe may seem very different from the world in which we live today. But as we meditate upon them, we can begin to absorb some of those enduring values that constitute a godly mindset, whether we are Jewish or Christian. Mindset breeds character. And character. when deeply embedded into our personalities, can ensure that our behavior begins to take on the character of instinct. We act because of the way we are. 


* For a non-scholarly reader (like most participants in small Christian Bible study groups, I would recommend two resources that I have found helpful. Both are learned, but very accessible to the average reader:

** Edward L. Greenstein, “Biblical Law” in Back to the Sources. Pages 84-85.

Exodus: The Ugly Duckling Commandment

The Tenth Commandment breaks the mold of the other nine.

Moses with the Law, by the French artist Philippe de Champaigne, 1648.

Author’s Note: This posting is a repeat of one I posted on my blog site on October 25, 2017. I repost it here (with some minor editor changes) as part of my discussion of the Book of Exodus. 

The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17Deuteronomy 5:6-21) are like the Lord’s Prayer. We recite them so often that we become numb to the words. We mouth them thoughtlessly. 

So it is helpful now and then to slow down our recitation and pay attention to the words. When we do, we find something unexpected in the Ten Commandments.  

The first nine commandments prescribe actions that God’s people are to do or not to do. For example: You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. You shall not kill. You shall not steal.

Even the first commandment–You shall have no other gods before me–implies action. You shall not honor, reverence, or worship any other god before the Lord.

…I call it [the Tenth Commandment] the ugly duckling commandment. It may walk in line with the other ducklings, but it is not a duck.

Then we come to the tenth commandment–You shall not covet.* The sentence structure mirrors that of the previous commandments. But the prohibition is not against an action, but an emotion

The emotion of coveting usually leads to some kind of action, such as an act to deceive and seize another person’s property. The commandment, however, focuses on the motivating emotion that precedes the action, not the action itself.

In this respect, although the tenth commandment parallels the structure of the others, it is a commandment of a totally different kind. That’s why I call it the ugly duckling commandment. It may walk in line with the other ducklings, but it is not a duck.

Why the Difference?

That fact raises a question in my mind. Why is it included in the ten commandments? It makes sense to command actions. We take it for granted that we–to a large degree at least–can control our actions. Our laws presume that fact. Otherwise all our legislation makes no sense. 

But can we presume that for our feelings? I have come to believe that we cannot. I don’t think we can compel people–or even ourselves–to feel in a certain way. 

…it seems odd to me that God is here commanding an emotion, not an action.

Our feelings come and go, without any input from our decision-making will. Sometimes we wonder where those feelings come from. We may not want to feel them. We do our best to suppress them. Yet feelings have an uncanny way of making themselves present in our psyche whether we want to feel them or not. 

So it seems odd to me that God is here commanding an emotion, not an action. Sure, coveting is a terribly destructive emotion. It has caused untold injustice and suffering in the world. We badly need to limit it. And, sure, God is God. His wisdom sometimes exceeds our comprehension.

But how can God command something that goes against the very dynamics of human nature? How can God command what we should feel? That’s the nagging question the tenth commandment raises for me.

The Driver of Human Behavior

Where that question leads me is the many places in the Bible where the heart is seen as the locus of our motivation. In the Biblical viewpoint, what ultimately drives our behavior is not rational reflections, but the motivating desires of our inner being. 

Yes, rational considerations often drive our decisions and the actions that grow out of them. But if rational considerations come into conflict with our desires, desire is likely to win out. For in the Biblical viewpoint the core of the human problem is not our ignorance, but our disordered hearts. Time after time our desires drive us into destructive behavior in spite of our knowing that the course of action we choose to follow is wrong.  

This fundamental insight first came to me with my study of the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. In chapter five of that letter, Paul talks about the battle that is going on constantly between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit. 

The good qualities of character that we so admire–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control–are not products of our will-power, but gifts given to us as we deeply root our lives in the Holy Spirit. They grow as the mature fruit out of a heart transformed by the Spirit.**

When we stop to think more reflectively about it, we realize that behind all the commandments of God concerning our behavior lies the more central issue of the desires of our heart. Our wrong actions grow out of our disordered motivations. And if we would change those actions, then we must ultimately deal with the disordered feelings that lie behind those motivations.

The Viewpoint of Jesus

I think that is the great insight of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. He takes the commandments—like the commandment You shall not kill—and realizes that we have not solved the spiritual problem of our behavior until we deal with the feelings that lie behind it. So he directs our attention to the feeling of anger that drives murder. 

Likewise when he comes to the proverbial commandment You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, he directs our attention to that deadly binary cast in our feelings that causes so much civic, ethnic, and international strife and violence. We must deal, Jesus says, with our emotional cast of mind that divides people into friends and enemies. We must grow beyond that dualism if we are to resemble God our Father. 

All this then gives deeper meaning to Jesus’ remark to Nicodemus, You must be born anew (or from above). The experience of being born anew is not primarily some insurance policy against going to eternal damnation. It is an experience of being remade in our inner being, of having our hearts transformed. Instead of the language of born again, the apostle Paul will use the language of new creation (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). And that is the great hope that drives the spiritual journey for Christians. 

So the tenth commandment has a reason for being the ugly duckling in the list of the Ten Commandments. It cautions us against any spiritual complacency, the assumption that we can fulfill God’s expectations by simple obedient action to the law. What is required to fulfill those expectations is something much deeper and more radical than we customarily assume. 


* In calling it the Tenth Commandment, I follow the ordering of the ten commandments in the Reformed (Presbyterian) tradition, the religious tradition in which I live. Although all Jewish and Christian traditions keep to a consistent ten commandments, some number them differently than others. Roman Catholics and Lutherans, for example, split the commandment on coveting into two commandments while merging the first two commandments into one. What I have to say about the commandment on coveting remains true whether we regard it as one or two commandments. 

** I reflect on this insight of Paul at length in my book Charter of Christian Freedom. It is a study guide to the Letter to the Galatians written especially for people with no or a limited theological education. It can be ordered from the website of the publisher Wipf and Stock

Exodus: Scared to Death of God

Israel has one direct encounter with God and does not want to repeat it.

Chapters 19-24 of Exodus recount the process of establishing the covenant* between God and Israel. That process begins with a direct encounter between God and the people centered upon Mount Sinai. It is recounted in 19:16-25. 

The encounter is preceded by preparations. The people are to wash their clothes. They are to refrain from sex. And Moses gives them strict instructions on respecting boundaries. No one is to climb the mountain or even touch it. These preparations suggest the solemnity of what is about to happen. 

On the third day, God descends upon the mountain. No one actually sees God, but dramatic natural phenomena indicate his presence. Thunder and lightning occur. Fire and smoke enwrap the mountain. And a loud, blaring trumpet sound pierces the air. 

It is not possible to scientifically identify just what natural phenomenon are happening on the mountain. The language uses powerful forces of nature to suggest something of the awesomeness of God’s direct presence upon the mountain. The people are meant to be impressed that they are in the presence of the divine. 

Why is this so important? What’s at stake in this experience? 

I think the answer is that God wants to make unmistakably clear that this covenant is a true pact between God and the people. The covenant is not a pious fraud. It has not been foisted upon them out of the fertile imagination of Moses or of his drive for power. Nor is it the product of some mass hysterical delusion that sweeps through the people. The covenant is a true initiative of the true God with this people Israel.

It also does two other things. First, we notice that in the appearance of God on the mountain, God speaks. But he speaks not directly to the people but to Moses. The text suggests that the people overhear the voices, but the voice of God is not addressed to them.

The words God speaks are the Ten Commandments. This theophany (a technical theological word meaning a visible appearance of God) is meant to give great authority to those words. They are the direct words of God. Instead of seeing the face of God, the people receive the words of God. 

Moses as Mediator

And second, the theophany underscores the role of Moses as leader of the people and as the mediator or go-between between God and the people. The laws of the Torah will be communicated to Moses and Moses will them communicate them to the people. Likewise Moses will be the vehicle for communicating the people’s concerns and requests to God.

Important as this role is, it will not make Moses’ life comfortable and placid. When God is angry at the people, he will vent his anger on Moses. Moses then will have to communicate that divine displeasure to the people or try to persuade God to change his course. Likewise when the people grumble and complain about their experiences, they will voice their complaints about God to Moses. He will have to either deflect them or carry them to God. 

One has to sympathize with Moses. Like the CEOs of many companies, he will become the target for complaints from many directions.

One has to sympathize with Moses. Like the CEOs of many companies, he will become the target for complaints from many directions. He will have to come to practice the virtues of patience and forbearance. No wonder Torah will come to laud Moses as the humblest of all men (Numbers 12:3).

God may be intending the theophany to underscore the true reality of the covenant and Moses’ role in it, but it has an unintended consequence. The theophany scares the people of Israel to death. In verse 20:18, the text tells us:

When all the people witnessed the thunder and the lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.’

The people do not seem to be able to tolerate such a direct encounter with God. They need a protective shield, and ask Moses to become that shield. Moses’ role as mediator is one laid upon him not only by God, but by the people, too.

Behind the people’s reaction lies the old Hebrew conviction that no one can see God directly and live. We see it expressed in Exodus 33:20, where Moses asks to see the face of God, and God responds: …you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.

People sometimes express the wish that they could see or perceive God directly in a way that would banish all doubt. But maybe it is a blessing that we cannot.

People sometimes express the wish that they could see or perceive God directly in a way that would banish all doubt. But maybe it is a blessing that we cannot. For one thing, it would so overwhelm us that we would be coerced into believing. That would destroy any relationship between God and human beings from being a free relationship based on love.

The other is, I think, that if we were to experience an undiluted perception of God’s presence—what we mean when we say we want to see—we would experience it as a light so intense that it would feel like fire. I often wonder if that is not the experience of judgment after death. We come face to face with God in his full purity and so see ourselves too in that experience in the fullness of our reality, both good and evil. That will be the final purifying experience before entering the kingdom of God. That we do not have that experience in this life may be an act of compassion on God’s part.**

Jesus as Compassionate Mediator

Because of the compromised lives we live as human beings, we need the mediator that can serve as the go-between between God and us. In the Israelite covenant, that role is given to Moses. In the Christian tradition, that role is given to Jesus. He is the mediator of the new covenant, which he fulfills through his incarnation. 

As son of God, he comes to us from the realms of heaven, uniquely authorized to speak the word of God to us. But because of his human nature, he is a mediator who has experienced the challenges of life as a human being and therefore can be the compassionate intercessor before God on behalf of suffering humanity.

This is a theme deeply embedded in the New Testament (especially in the gospel stories of Jesus’ healing and exorcisms). There we encounter a Jesus who is deeply touched by the sufferings of human beings, touched because he too is human. He knows our trials and tribulations and our sufferings because he has experienced them, too. This makes him a deeply compassionate man, one who reaches out to heal and release suffering people from their bonds.

Unfortunately I think the Christian church lost touch with this Jesus as it came over time to see Jesus more as the all-righteous judge at the Last Judgment. Jesus became the stern one who divides the saved from the damned. He becomes a more fearful figure, one whom we need to stay on his good side. 

This understanding of Jesus was visually presented to each Christian who entered a medieval cathedral above whose main door would be sculptured an image of the Last Judgment. (A good example is the tympanum sculpture above the west door of the Autun Cathedral.) On the right of Jesus would be the saints entering heaven; on his left the sinners driven into hell.

The tympanum of the west door of Autun Cathedral.

That must have been a deeply disturbing image of Jesus to many a worshipper. If they could not find compassion and benevolence in Jesus, where would they find it? In his mother. And so in medieval religion, Mary became the locus of compassion and loving care. Under her cloak sinners could find the protection and reassurance they craved. 

To me one of the most hopeful developments in contemporary Christianity is the recovery of Jesus as the compassionate and loving shepherd. This is a correction that has been long needed if we are to be true to the New Testament.


* A covenant is the word that the Bible uses to describe the solemn and formal agreement that God and Israel establish at Sinai. It is a form of pact or treaty that governs the two sides of their relationship. 

** I want to assert that this paragraph is pure speculation on my part. It is not stated explicitly in the Bible, apart from some suggestive words the apostle Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. There the apostle warns the Corinthian believers about their behavior in treating one another, saying that the quality of behavior towards one another will one day be tested by fire, with eternal consequences.