Exodus: The Forever Presence

The portable tabernacle bears witness to a God on the move.

The incident with the golden calf is a close call for Israel. God’s first instinct is to divorce Israel, to invalidate the covenant God has made with Israel, and to start all over creating a new chosen people for himself from the descendants of Moses. It looks as if the story of Israel will end in a tragedy. Because of its folly, Israel will be discarded in the midst of the arid Sinai desert, an image of death.

But no one, possibly even God, had counted on Moses. Moses steps in on behalf of Israel and argues with God–all in an effort to get God to forgive Israel and to continue to travel with Israel. At the end of his herculean negotiation with God, Moses says to God:

If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance. (Exodus 34:9)

Moses will accept from God nothing less than full forgiveness. And amazement upon amazement, Moses succeeds. God grants his request, saying:

I hereby make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform marvels, such as have not been performed in all the earth or in any nation; and all the people among whom you live shall see the work of the LORD; for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you. (Exodus 34:10)

This story astonishes me every time I read it. It offers a message of hope to everyone who seriously flubs the spiritual challenges of our own lives. That includes every one of us. As the apostle Paul says: …all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God… (Romans 3:23). Yet the apostle will go on to assert confidently:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

The apostle has absorbed deep into his spirit the hopeful message of Exodus. It forms the substratum of the New Testament.

Focal Point for Faith

Now that God’s forgiveness is firmly established, work can begin on constructing the tabernacle following the directions God has given Moses on the mountain top. The story of the construction follows in chapters 35-39. These chapters make a repeated point that Israel follows God’s instructions completely, down to the very letter. Because of that, these chapters strike many readers as a tedious repeat of chapters 25-31. Many commentators skip lightly over the construction process. I will do so also. 

With chapter 40, we come to the assembling of the finished tabernacle, under Moses’ watchful eye. In no way will the omnipresent God be confined to the tabernacle. Israel will never domesticate God, as temples in the ancient world tried to do. But it will provide a focal point for Israel’s confidence.*

Once the tabernacle is completed and assembled, the text tells us a cloud, symbolizing the presence of the Lord, comes to settle upon the tabernacle. The glory of the Lord fills the sanctuary. And that cloud continues to proceed with the people throughout their journey. Whenever it picks up and moves out, the people move out. When it settles down, they settle down.

The event of the exodus does not come to an end with the ending of the Book of Exodus. The Book of Exodus only covers the first year of what will be a 40-year-long journey. That journey continues on through the books of Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua. But the ending of the Book of Exodus tells us something very important about this continuing journey. 

A God on the Move

Moses has received what he had so ardently prayed for. The full presence of the Lord is with Israel in its continuing journey. And the presence of the Lord will remain with them forever. 

This God, however, is not a settled God. He is a God on the move, and because of that his people will also be a people on the move. Biblical faith will affirm the goodness of creation and the goodness of daily life. But it will never settle simply for an affirmation of the status quo. 

As God speaks through the prophet to Israel in another time of crisis: 

Do not remember the former things,

            or consider the things of old.

I am about to do a new thing;

            now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness

            and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:18-20)

So it will always be in the life of faith. Life with God will always be full of challenges and calls to change.

I want to end with one more jump to the New Testament. The image of the tabernacle as the locus of God’s continuing presence with his people comes up in the New Testament in one surprising, but important passage. 

In the prologue of the Gospel of John, we find the famous statement that we hear read every Christmas eve at the climax of our service of lessons and carols. It goes in the traditional King James Version:

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth. [John 1:14]

The word that the translators have translated as dwelt is literally in the Greek the word tabernacled. What this text says is that for Christians, Jesus is our tabernacle. In him we experience the presence of God fully dwelling with us and moving with us through the many vicissitudes of life. The story of exodus has become gospel.


* I want to note one interesting but easily over-looked detail about the construction of the tabernacle and all its furnishings. God through Moses places supervision over the construction in the hands of Bezalel the son of Uri and of Oholiab. Both men are said to be superb craftsmen and designers (Exodus 35:30-36:1). But of Bezalel, the text says (Exodus 35:31) that Bezalel will be filled with the Spirit of God as he pursues his work. In effect, Bezalel will be one more of the anointed ones in Israel, taking his place alongside the anointed priests, kings, and prophets. All are anointed with the Spirit as a sign of their being set apart for their specific mission. What this says to me is that we ought to recognize that artists–painters, sculptors, dancers, musicians, poets, weavers–may all receive a special empowerment from God for service to God’s people on a par with the service of priests, ordained ministers, and teachers. 

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: Exercising Care in Using God’s Name

The third commandment is about much more than careless profanity.

Moses with the tablets of the Law, by Gustave Doré, French, 19th century

Chapter 20 of Exodus gives us the Ten Commandments (as Christians call them) or the Ten Words (as Jews call them). The ten commandments have played a huge role in Christian instruction, such as the many catechisms that theologians have composed to instruct believers in the doctrines and morality of Christian living. 

Those catechisms have provided extensive exposition on the meaning of the commandments and their application to daily living. I do not want to add to that mass of words. My readers can explore that exposition by turning to the many catechisms that they will find in traditional churches, both Catholic and Protestant. 

One of the most popular in my own Presbyterian circle has been the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563. Questions 41-81 of this catechism contain a detailed explanation of each of the commandments. 

Instead, in this posting and the next, I will comment on just two of the commandments—Commandment 3 and Commandment 10*. The first, because a frivolous interpretation of it drains it, in my opinion, of its more serious meaning. The second, because it stands apart from all the others by its focus. 

The third commandment reads: 

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 (Exodus 3:7).

When I was a child, parents and Sunday school teachers drilled into me that this commandment prohibited any kind of profanity. Especially that meant any swear words that used a variation of name of God or of Jesus. For example, we could not say the word Gee (it was regarded as an abbreviated form of Jesus) nor Yikes (it was regarded as an abbreviation for Christ). If we did as children, we found our mouths washed out in soap. 

We find throughout Exodus–and for that matter, the whole Bible–a concern with protecting the good name of God.

For good measure, the prohibition was extended to any other swear words, especially words referring to sex or bowel movements. I grew up in an environment largely free of foul language. It continues to influence my speech to this day.

A Deeper Interpretation

But I’ve come to believe that this interpretation of the commandment distracts us from a more serious violation of the commandment.

We find throughout Exodus–and for that matter, the whole Bible–a concern with protecting the good name of God. Like all of us, the God of the Bible shows a concern with his reputation in the world. His work in liberating Israel is motivated in part by the purpose that God’s name be proclaimed throughout the earth. That is said explicitly in Exodus 9:16, when God tells Moses to say to Pharaoh: 

But this is why I have let you live: to show you my power, and to make my name resound through all the earth.

We find an echo of this thought in Psalm 135. The psalm contains a celebration of what God did to liberate and lead Israel out of Egypt. The psalmist concludes that celebration by saying:

Your name, O Lord, endures forever,

            and your renown, O Lord, throughout all ages. (Psalm 135:13)

Isaiah sees word about what God has done on behalf of Israel as triggering a curiosity or longing to learn more about this God. In Isaiah 2, the prophet foresees a time when all nations will stream to Jerusalem. Why? Because…

Many peoples shall come and say,

‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,

            and to the house of the God of Jacob,

That he may teach us his ways

            and that we may walk in his paths.’

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,

            And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:3)

The word-of-mouth spread of the news of what God has done on behalf of Israel is expected to cause astonishment in other peoples. They will be moved to ask questions about this God. 

Nothing is more inclined to turn people away from God, to reject and despise God, than the linking of God’s name to attitudes and behaviors that misrepresent the character and purposes of God…

In this sense we might say that evangelism will not be a deliberate mission of Israel. Rather it will be a by-product of other people hearing and talking about the story of Israel in what might amount to casual conversation. This happens all the time when we share excitedly with one another some tidbit of news we have heard (“Have you heard that….”).

Advertisers say nothing works so powerfully as word-of-mouth endorsements of a product from family members, friends, and colleagues. We trust such endorsements because we trust the people giving them. The same is true in matters dealing with the spirit. 

Nothing is more inclined to turn people away from God, to reject and despise God, than the linking of God’s name to attitudes and behaviors that misrepresent the character and purposes of God, especially when we link the authority of God to some social or political ideology we espouse. When we cite God’s will as authority for some such ideology, we need to be quite sure we are understanding God’s will correctly.

A Case in Point

A good example of what I mean was reported in a recent issue of The Washington Post.** A columnist was commenting on the oral arguments that went on in the Supreme Court over whether the new Texas law on abortion was constitutional. Many saw this case as a direct challenge to the Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade

Outside the court demonstrators assembled in vocal protest of or in support of abortion. Metal barriers divided opposing sides. The columnist reported that the two sides tried to outshout each other. One woman opposed to abortion used a bullhorn to drown out the others. 

She screamed at those who support abortion in these words (according to the columnist): Maybe some of you should have been aborted, you wicked, nasty, disgusting, ungodly–I don’t even want to call you women! You are bloodthirsty animals! This is what happens when you allow women to emasculate men! God hates you! In the name of Jesus Christ, shut your vile, sick mouth!

I shuddered when I read that. Personally I don’t favor abortion. But to scream at someone who supports abortion that God hates them and that in the name of Jesus Christ, they should shut their vile mouth is a direct violation of the third commandment, as I see it. It is defaming the character of God. In my theology, God does not hate anyone, nor does Jesus order any person to silence their voice. This kind of talk brings disrepute upon the proclamation of the gospel. I recoil in horror at this misuse of the name of God.

The third commandment targets this kind of practice by which we malign the name and character of God when we clothe our misunderstandings and willful purposes in the language of divinity.

A Legacy of Skepticism

I experienced this disrespect for God’s name frequently as a child when I grew up in the church. Many a minister in a sermon thundered from the pulpit about some issue or action which he demanded that we practice because it was God’s will or which he denounced as a violation of God’s will. This is in fact standard content in many sermons. As I grew more mature in my faith, I came to believe that so many of them were dead wrong in their understanding of God. 

… a preacher should feel some sense of fear and trembling when he or she mounts the pulpit and sets out to declare the word of God for the assembled congregation.

This has left me with a deep legacy of skepticism. One who expresses how this unintended consequence happens is the Biblical scholar Terence E. Fretheim. Here is what he says about the third commandment:

A central issue at stake for God is the declaration of this name to the world and the effect the hearing of that name will have on people. Will they be drawn to it or repelled by it or remain indifferent to it? If that name has been besmirched in some way by the manner in which it has been used by the people of God or by the practices with which it has been associated, then the divine intentions may fall short of their realization.***

This is not to say that preachers have no right to claim the authority of God as sanction for some of the things they say. There are some clear indications in the Bible about God’s will, and the Ten Commandments are examples. But it seems to me that a preacher should feel some sense of fear and trembling when he or she mounts the pulpit and sets out to declare the word of God for the assembled congregation. How easily we can unwittingly deceive ourselves and mislead the people of God. 

Jesus, too, is aware of the great danger arising from careless speech about God as well as from our hypocritical actions. After instructing his disciples that they must change and become like little children in order to enter the kingdom of God, he then goes on to warn them of misleading those who seek to enter the kingdom. He says:

If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes! (Matthew 18:6-7)

A Proper Reticence

Another way we can disrespect the name of God is when we use God’s name in empty phrases or in easy religious talk. I often wonder if people are even aware of what they are saying when they spontaneously say “Oh, my God” in a casual conversation. Often it strikes me as nothing more than an empty phrase, although unconsciously they may be acknowledging a divine presence of which they appear unaware in their daily living. 

Another example is the kind of testimony giving that is a common practice in the churches where I grew up. A genuine testimony to God’s action in one’s life can be a powerful experience for a listening congregation. But too many of the testimonies I heard in church as a child struck me as cliched and vacuous. They were often an occasion for people to demonstrate how pious they were. 

Reticence in using the name of God seems to me one way we can honor the Third Commandment.

I recognize that I need to be cautious in making this criticism. People may use cliched language because it is all they have available to express their genuine experience. When that is the case, the genuineness is likely to come through in the tone of the voice. But too many testimonies do not pass the test of genuineness for me. 

As a result, I have become highly reticent in attributing things that happen in my life, good or bad, to God. It is not that I believe God is not at work in the events of my life. Rather it is that I am highly skeptical of my ability to discern what is of God and what is not. The way of wisdom, it seems to me, is to be careful in what I say. 

Reticence in using the name of God seems to me one way we can honor the Third Commandment. Devout Jews set what I regard as an instructive example for many Christians. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the proper name for God is spelled YHWH. Whenever Jews encounter this name in the text, they do not pronounce it. Instead they substitute the word Adonai (My Lord). 

This has been such a long practice that scholars do not know for sure what is the proper pronunciation of the name. They speculate that it is Yahweh. And some English translations adopt that pronunciation. But it remains speculation. No one knows for sure. So reticence is proper.


* Different faith traditions number the commandments in different ways, by separating some and uniting others. I follow the enumeration in my faith tradition, which is Reformed and Presbyterian. 

** Dana Milbank, ‘Roe’ is dead; the Roberts Court’s ‘stench’ will live forever, a column in The Washington Post, December 2, 2021. Page A23.

*** Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation Commentary. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991. Page 228.

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.

Exodus: Israel’s Unique Identity

Israel’s identity as a chosen people is linked to its mission.

Jabal Musa in the Sinai wilderness, traditional site of Mount Sinai.

With chapter 19, the Book of Exodus marks a momentous moment in the story of Israel’s liberation. The people have arrived at Mount Sinai.* There Israel will accept its new identity, which will also be its new mission in the world at large.

Once at the mountain, Moses ascends it to meet with God. God shares with Moses the proposition that God will present to the people of Israel. God has selected Israel out of all the nations of the earth to be his treasured possession (Exodus 19:5). 

What does that honor mean? It means Israel will be given a special mission among the nations of the world. The text delineates that mission in two phrases (Exodus 19:6):

  • Israel is to be a priestly kingdom (as translated by the NRSV). Another translation could be a kingdom of priests.
  • Israel is to be a holy nation.

These two phrases are not singling out a select group within Israel for these two missions. They are conferred upon the whole people. 

Israel will go on to set apart a particular group of men to preside and serve at the people’s worship and sacrifices and to instruct the people in God’s law. That select group will come to define the functions of priesthood. But in Exodus 19:6 the particular mission of priests is extended to include the whole people, and not just the designated priests alone. Israel as a people will function as priests on behalf of all the peoples of the earth. 

In the life envisioned for Israel, the sacred and the secular will never be fully divided. The binary life will be transformed into a unitary life.

Also Israel is to be a holy nation or people. Their way of living is to reflect the holiness of the God who has chosen them. In the way they live their lives and conduct their affairs in the world, they are to reflect God’s ways. And how are we to understand God’s holy ways? That will become clearer in the chapters ahead (and in the rest of the Pentateuch) as Moses spells out the laws that are to govern Israel’s life.

Note that holiness, however, will not be limited to just cultic actions in the context of worship. It will embrace the wholeness of life–in all its family, political, economic, social, and cultural dimensions. In the life envisioned for Israel, the sacred and the secular will never be fully divided. The binary life will be transformed into a unitary life.

Bringing God’s Blessing to the World

God is giving Israel this unique mission not so Israel can stand as superiorly privileged in contrast to all the other nations of the world. They are not given the role of ruling the world. (That is the role Rome will later claim, as is clear from a reading of The Aeneid, Rome’s great national epic.). 

Instead, the creation of Israel serves a far larger purpose of God. Through Israel God intends to bring God’s blessing to all the world. This is emphasized by the phrase indeed, the whole earth is mine (Exodus 19:5). The Biblical scholar Terence Fretheim suggests that the import of the word indeed is because. He goes on to say: Israel is commissioned to be God’s people on behalf of the earth which is God’s.**

This gives a special cast to the concept of chosenness. Israel is given a special honor indeed. Israel is to be a kingdom of priests. But that honor is not understood as a privilege of superiority, but as an honor of service. So as priests preside in cultic events throughout the world (in all religions) on behalf of the people they serve, so Israel is to provide a kind of priestly service on behalf of the nations of the world. And their service is tied up with the holiness of their way of living. They are to manifest to the world the way of life that mirrors God’s ways in the world. 

If they fulfill this mission well, they will experience their life as a nation in which all Israelites experience the blessings of shalom—the blessings of personal and national well-being and of an inner, social, and spiritual harmony with God and neighbor. This life will become so alluring to other peoples that they will want to learn how the Israelites do it.*** Thus the blessings of God’s shalom will be shared throughout the world.

That seems to be the understanding of the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 2:3:

	Many peoples shall come and say,
	“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
		to the house of the God of Jacob;
	that he may teach us his ways
		and that we may walk in his paths.”
	For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
		and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

Unfortunately for the prophets like Isaiah, historic Israel has botched its mission by a way of life that is manifestly not consistent with the way of God, as outlined in the Torah. So he places the fulfillment of the mission in the future, in days to come.

What I think we need to notice in this conception of the role of Israel in the world is that the emphasis moves strongly to the side of responsibility over privilege. Indeed one might say: Is not the responsibility in fact a burden? The great Jewish rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is not afraid to use that word in describing the mission of the Jewish people. He writes:

The sages tell us that when we become a holy people and a nation of priests, we accepted ‘the burden of the kingdom of heaven.’ This expression shows that accepting the sovereignty of heaven is not a matter of uttering a watchword or expressing enthusiasm. On the contrary, even an agreement in principle means the acceptance of a burden that is not at all easy or comfortable.  

God’s Proposal to Israel

Two other things need to be noted about the account that Exodus 19 gives. First, this mission is offered to Israel as a consequence of its liberation from Egypt. Israel is not offered it as a prerequisite of liberation. Rather God has liberated Israel first, and now God offers this unique mission as a further development of the relationship that was established first with Abraham and now with all the people through their liberation from Egyptian bondage. 

That liberation was an expression of love. That comes through in God’s words: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself (Exodus 19:4). We find by reference to a passage in Deuteronomy 32:10-13, that the import of the imagery of the eagle is to focus our attention on the motherhood of God. Throughout its wanderings in the wilderness, God has been hovering over the people as a mother eagle hovers over her young and feeds and protects them. It is a loving God who invites Israel into this mission, not a rapacious deity. God’s loving grace precedes God’s call to a holy life.

Second, God does not impose this mission on Israel without Israel’s consent. The text uses the language of condition. The text reads God saying: Now therefore, IF you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. (Exodus 19:5). Israel has the choice of accepting this role in the world.††

In verse 8, we find Israel accepting God’s proposition. Moses sets before the people the offer God has made. And the text says: The people all answered as one: ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.

What is striking about Israel’s acceptance is that Israel accepts even before the people know the specifics of what it means to obey the voice of God and to keep the covenant…Israel will have to trust that what God comes to ask them to do will be an expression of his motherly love.

One might envision this as a proposal of marriage. God has proposed to Israel. Israel has accepted. They are now betrothed. The marriage will be sealed in chapter 24, with the sealing of the covenant. 

This pact between God and Israel will be known in the Bible as the covenant. It carries both rights and responsibilities. And it will become the organizing principle of Israel’s religious and national life. Violations of this pact will become consequential chapters in the life of Israel, bringing national disaster.

Extension of Israel’s Mission to the Christian Church

I cannot leave this text, however, without acknowledging its influence not only on Jewish thought, but also on Christian thought. The most striking example comes in the First Letter of Peter in the New Testament. The apostle writes to scattered Christian communities in Asia Minor. He writes to encourage them, but also to remind them of their responsibilities. 

In verses 2:9-10, we find himself saying to these communities of Christians:

…you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. You once were not a people, but now you are God’s people. You were shown no mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Here the language of Exodus 19 is applied to the Christian community. How can he do that? I think the only legitimate way he can do so is if he understands these Christians as adopted and extended members of the people of God. And as members of God’s people they share in the mission of historic Israel.

In sharing that mission, Christians share with Jews in the burden. For anytime our life as individuals or as church communities fall short of the holy standards we express, we bring discredit not only on ourselves, but also on the loving power and powerful love of God. Hypocrisy is the constant sin that haunts a religious vocation. 


* There is no scholarly agreement on the location of Mount Sinai. Long standing tradition identifies it with Jabal Musain the middle of the Sinai. Interestingly, the Israelites never established any commemorative shrine at the site of the mountain, nor was it ever a goal of pilgrimage. That awaited Christian action, with the establishment of the monastery of St. Catherine in the 6th century A.D.

** Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation Commentary Series. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991. Page 212.

*** We see a similar dynamic at work in many business self-help books on the market. The authors focus on a particular company or companies, try to analyze their secrets for success, and then hold up those success strategies for others to emulate and copy.

**** Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, We Jews: Who Are We and What Should We Do? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005. Page 150.

† I have specially highlighted the word if to make this point clear.

†† What is striking about Israel’s acceptance is that Israel accepts even before the people know the specifics of what it means to obey the voice of God and to keep the covenant. The Ten Commandments as well as the rest of the Torah law have not yet been given to Israel. Israel will have to trust that what God comes to ask them to do will be an expression of his motherly love. Is this not the experience of Christians as well when they accept baptism and incorporation into the people of God which constitutes the church? We accept God’s grace without knowing the full consequences that acceptance will have for our lives. 

The Warning Light Is Glaring Bright

American Christianity is following in the footsteps of ancient Israel.

I am taking this post to depart momentarily from my series on the book of Exodus. I do so to call attention to a recent article published in Atlantic magazine by the author Peter Wehner. It is titled: The Evangelical Church Is Breaking Apart: Christians must reclaim Jesus from his church.

I do so to recommend your reading it. There is a serious crisis going on in America’s evangelical churches. They are being torn apart by politics and cultural issues taking priority over Jesus and the gospel. You may not agree with Wehner, but I think he is right on target in analyzing what’s happening in the evangelical world, and to some degree in American Christianity as a whole. Mainline Protestantism and Catholicism are not immune to these kinds of factional forces.

When I read an analysis like this, my mind goes back to the Hebrew prophets like Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. They picture an ancient Israel that placed Israelite nationalism, spiritual complacency, prosperity, and the worship of false gods/values above the values of justice, righteousness, and a compassionate commonwealth. The prophets called for a radical change of mindset and of public spirit. 

The Israelites ignored their prophets. In fact, partisans within both kingdoms fought strongly to silence the prophets. The result? Both the kingdoms of Israel and Judah had no strength to resist invading foreign powers. They were wiped off the political map of the Middle East. 

We encounter a similar story in the Judean/Galilean commonwealth of the mid-1st century. Political and religious factionalism tore that commonwealth apart, leading to the launch of a disastrous revolt against Rome. It resulted in the fall and destruction of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 CE and the destruction of the Temple.

Factionalism played an important role in that downfall. We get the sense in ancient accounts of the siege of Jerusalem* that terrorizing factions within the city may have done as much to ensure the city’s fall as did the besieging Romans. 

I fear something similar awaits American Christianity as a whole if it continues in the ways that we see today. Today’s Christians will so discredit the name of Christianity that future generations will eschew anything containing the Christian label. We will have produced a spiritual antibody in the public spirit that will ensure future stalwart resistance to anything Christian.** 

The more I read the Hebrew Bible, the more I come to believe that it is essential reading for interpreting our own spiritual condition accurately. 


* The most extensive account of the revolt and the fall of Jerusalem is the account given by Josephus in his The Jewish War.

** Something like this happened in the European Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries. Enlightenment values like rationalism, promotion of science, and rejection of supernaturalism were in part spiritual reactions to the violence and religious wars of the Reformation.