Exodus: Outlines and Commentary
By Derek Leman
© 2017 Derek Leman
Table of Contents
Parashat Ki Tisa
In commenting on Exodus I want to balance history and theology, commenting on each. A realistic view of the Exodus and Sinai events is important. I believe the events of the Exodus and Sinai really happened and a few problems that have entered the story through transmission over the generations need to be explained so thoughtful readers can appreciate them as history passed down in story by word of mouth long before being committed to writing. But more than history, Exodus is a powerful and mysterious theology challenging us to penetrate the thick cloud and see more of the Glory.
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Little Israel in Egypt grows into a large people (1-7), a new Pharaoh and Israel’s enslavement (8-14), the Hebrew midwives ordered to commit genocide (15-17).
Exodus begins assuming the reader has knowledge of Genesis, affirming the longstanding tradition that the books of the Torah (Pentateuch, Chumash) go together as one. The first paragraph owes its structure and content to two passages in Genesis (35:23-26 and 46:8, 26-27), recalling that seventy persons entered into Egypt and that there was a blessing of fertility. The number seventy is famous for its ambiguity — who is included and excluded to get this precise number — between the various lists and for variations in the Septuagint and New Testament. It is a numerologically significant figure, signifying blessing and the potential for divine election, which the author desires to use (7 X 10). The Israelites were fertile and grew in population. Yet, as we will note in this commentary in the appropriate sections, we do not know with certainty how long Israel was in Egypt. Nor do we accurately know how many Israelites there were (see below, comments to ch. 12 and following, on the problems with the population numbers that have been passed down in the Bible). The length of Israel’s sojourn and the number of Israelites is an issue that has become confused with the transmission of the Pentateuch. The Pharaoh of vs. 8 best fits Rameses II (1290-1224 BCE), who moved Egypt’s center up to the Nile Delta (which is the scene of Moses’ life in Egypt) and built the storage cities of Exodus 1:11. This information supports what is commonly known as the “late date” for the Exodus (c. 1250 BCE, vs. the early date c. 1450). The naming of only two midwives, even if we assume a much lower and more realistic population of Israelites, cannot mean all the midwives who served the Israelite population. Cassuto suggests the story has a poetic background and that the names are symbolic: Shiphra (beautiful) and Puah (childbirth). The mighty kings of the world can be thwarted by righteous followers of the God of Israel. Concerning the book of Exodus, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, “No story has been more influential in shaping the inner landscape of liberty, teaching successive generations that oppression is not inevitable, that it is not woven into the fabric of history.” He cites Friedrich Nietzsche who called Exodus “the slave revolt in morals,” because it is the faith of those lacking power who are rescued and brought to Sinai to receive a moral and spiritual vision from God for a just, divinely blessed, and peaceful society. The daily portion ends at vs. 17 because of the midwives’ awe of God, which is the basis of Torah in a practical sense. The entire nation will be called out of slavery and if the people will hold God in awe, like these midwives, there will be a great blessing in the Promised Land.
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EXODUS 1:18 – 2:10
The Hebrew midwives fear God and thwart Pharaoh (18-21), Pharaoh orders Hebrew babies thrown in the Nile (22), the birth and rescue of Moses (2:1-10).
In vss. 15-21, the word midwives occurs precisely seven times. The symbolic two midwives with emblematic names (see on 1:15-17) are able to thwart the mightiest man on earth by fearing God. The midwives lie to Pharaoh. In the biblical view, there is a hierarchy of values, so that lying to save lives is righteous (the midwives could continue saving lives if they preserved their own). Failing to get the Hebrews own midwives to kill babies, Pharaoh orders his own people to drown them in the Nile. Ironically, Moses’ mother will cast him into the Nile, but in a way that enables him to survive. Moses’ parents are not named at first, but we find later they are Amram and Jochebed (Yocheved, Exod 6:20). The reason they are not named here is part of the artistry of the account, which is sparse on detail and reads like a heroic tale (Cassuto). Moses is placed in a small craft which is called an ark, the same word as in the Noah narratives. This word is used nowhere else in the Bible and the connection is deliberate: the one saved by the ark will save others (Cassuto). The placing of Moses must have been deliberate in hopes the Pharaoh’s daughter would find him, for a person would not bathe in the main river, but in a canal running from the river (Sarna). Miriam is able to contrive to have her own mother wet-nurse her own son. Pharaoh’s daughter adopts the child and names him Moses. The explanation of his name from a rare Hebrew root here does not perfectly fit (“. . . Mosheh, because mesheeteehu [I drew him out]”). Egyptian names in the form of Ptah-mose and Ra-mose are well-known. The meaning of such a name is “born of Ptah” or “born of Ra” (the Egyptian deities, with “mose” meaning “drawn from” or “born”). The name Moses, then, appears to be a shortening of a name which originally had a deity prefixed to it. What happened to the prefixed name of the deity? A likely explanation is that Moses in his childhood had a longer name, with an Egyptian deity attached to it, but when he became the servant of the one and only Lord of Israel he dropped the Egyptian divine element and became only Mose or Moses (Mosheh). The name of Moses is hard to explain on the theory that his life story is an invented tale and that he never existed. His name is not the sort that later people inventing a history would create.
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Moses sees his people and kills an Egyptian (11-12), Moses finds that his act is known and flees to Midian (13-15), Moses meets the Midianite priest and marries his daughter (16-22), God remembers his people and covenant (23-25).
The account of Moses growing up, seeing the reality of injustice, and despite his position of rank and privilege, taking action against the oppressor, shows that he is a deliverer. The incident helps explain God’s choice of Moses. The next event foreshadows Israel’s unwillingness to accept a deliverer, a theme which will continue throughout. Moses flees to the land of Midian. The Midianites are related to the Israelites, the children of Abraham’s second wife, Keturah (Gen 25:1-4). Later texts indicate the Midianites had five coalitions (Num 31:8). They were a people spread out. The “land of Midian” is far to the south of Israel, east of the Gulf of Elath. It is possible, however, that “land of Midian” could mean any place Midianite clans were dwelling, since they were a semi-nomadic people. The scene at the well is a type scene in biblical literature (a scene that is repeated with variations in different periods), like Abraham’s servant meeting Rebekah and Jacob meeting Rachel. A heroic action at a well often brings a man and woman together (Rebekah watering the camels, Jacob removing the heavy stone, Moses rescuing the girls from the shepherds). There is some uncertainty about the identity of Reuel. Various texts describe Reuel, Hobab, and Jethro. Some harmonize these references and assume all three are the same person. Others interpret Reuel as the grandfather and Hobab/Jethro as the father. Others think the names are confused because they resulted from different and contradictory sources. In 3:1, only seven verses after he was called Reuel, the father of Zipporah is called Jethro. Cassuto theorizes that there were different traditions that used different names for the same person. When describing him as priest of Midian, the editor used Reuel. When describing him as Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, a more honored name, is used. Another explanation is that the Torah is a document put together from different sources by someone like Ezra after the exile. One source in the Torah, called E, is from the northern kingdom, and in these texts he is called Jethro (3:1, 18; 18:1-27). Another source, called J, is from the southern kingdom, and he is called Reuel (2:16-18; Num 10:29). Vss. 23-25 are a way of describing why a momentous event in history happens, from the viewpoint of heaven. God heard, then remembered, then saw, and then knew. All that God will do for Israel is because of the covenant with Abraham. It is personal with God. Of course, this raises the question whether God was not looking when Israel’s enslavement started or if he had forgotten his special relationship with Israel. The language of the text leaves this as a mystery. Why is God silent during suffering, but then he acts suddenly? No answer is suggested.
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The burning bush (1-6), the mission of Moses (7-10), Moses’ uncertainty (11-12), God’s Name (13-15).
This potent and foundational story of Jewish and Christian belief raises many questions. Is it God or God’s angel who appears to Moses in the bush? Is it Mount Horeb or Mount Sinai? Why the custom of removing the sandal on holy ground? How had Israel in Egypt been thinking about “the God of your father” during their enslavement? Why do vss. 9-10 virtually repeat vss. 7-8? Why does Moses question his readiness or qualification in vs. 11? What is the sign of vs. 12 exactly, the bush or the fact that Israel will serve God at Horeb-Sinai? Why does Moses ask about the divine Name? Is God’s answer an evasion or does it have some meaning that made sense to Moses and later generations of Israel? The theophany in the bush is not explained specifically. It is the angel of Hashem who appears (vs. 2) and yet Elohim calls to him from the bush, the ground is called holy suggesting the divine Presence, and Moses is afraid to see God. How are we to explain the dual identification of the One in the bush? Some think the narrator received a tradition that it was God, but felt this was beneath God’s dignity and said “angel” in vs. 2. Yet this would not explain the retention of the signs of actual divine Presence (“this is holy ground”). Others see the presence of a chief angel of God, angel meaning “messenger,” as requiring the same obeisance and honor as if God were present in person. A third option is to see that either God and his angel (messenger) were both there or that the angel-messenger is an aspect of God himself. In other words, possibly the One in the bush is an immanent presence of God within the world, an aspect of his Being but not his totality. In Jewish terms, this could be an emanation of God’s Being. In New Testament terms, this could be the Spirit or Son, though such language is not used. The mountain is called Horeb here and also in all the references in Deuteronomy and in other places such as the Elishah story. Yet in Exodus 19, most of the Torah references, Psalms, and poetic references it is called Sinai. It has long been though that the northern kingdom (from which the E source comes) preferred to call it Horeb and the southern kingdom (from which the J source) preferred Sinai. This is all one more piece of evidence in the theory that the Torah as a finished book is an edited work and that someone such as Ezra the priest collated the sources and put Torah together as a finished work. The doubling that can be seen in vss. 7-8 compared to vss. 9-10 is also well explained by the theory that two sources have been combined. Vss. 7-8 are from the J source (southern) and vss. 9-10 from E (northern). Is the mountain called “the mountain of God” because it was already regarded as such by Jethro and the Midianites? While this is possible, there is not enough evidence to confirm it. Rather, from the standpoint of the narrator in later times, this mountain was a divinely chosen place because of what will happen in Exodus 19 and following. Moses must remove his sandal because the priestly custom in Israel and other Ancient Near Eastern cultures is to be barefoot in a sanctuary. The descriptions of the garb of the priests later in Exodus does not include footwear, suggesting the possibility that the priests entered the holy precincts barefoot. We cannot know exactly how Israel in Egypt thought of the God of the fathers, but they must have told the stories of the patriarchs and wondered if God had abandoned them. This is likely why Moses asks about God’s Name. He wants to know what God’s character and intention are, as names were intimately associated with the character and destiny of people. God’s Name must say something about who he is and what his sovereign plan must be. Moses’ feeling of unworthiness is common to scenes involving the call of a prophet. Coming before the divine Presence and receiving a call is terrifying. Further, Moses is the first prophet in the sense of one who transmits words of God so directly in the way he does. Childs says: “The patriarchs received revelation in theophanies, but had no commission to transmit a message to others. Moses’ call recounts the deep disruptive seizure of a man to whom neither previous faith nor personal endowment played a role in preparing him for this vocation.” The sign in vs. 12 is best interpreted as referring both back to the Presence in the burning bush and also ahead to the foretelling that Israel will return to this mountain to serve/worship Hashem (see Childs). Moses will relate the sign of the burning bush, showing the validity of what he has already seen, and foretell their escape to Horeb-Sinai to worship Hashem, confirming that his vision was true. Finally, God’s explanation of his Name is a word-play on the root from which his Name is derived. Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey (Y-H-V-H) is from the root of the verb “to be” (was, is, will be). It means, in a theoretical earlier Semitic form of the verb, “he will be.” So God’s answer is ehyeh-asher-ehyeh, “I will be what I will be” (arguably this translation is to be preferred over “I am what I am”). The meaning is that God is about the reveal the power of his Name to Israel by setting them free and giving them the Torah covenant. They will see his Name by his deeds. God’s Name will be shown in great power, the power of redemption and the promise of consummation in a kingdom with potential to be the Age to Come.
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EXODUS 3:16 – 4:17
The stipulation to Pharaoh (16-18), God foretells the outcome (19-22), the first sign to Moses (4:1-5), the second sign to Moses (6-9), Moses angers the Lord and Aaron is chosen as the spokesman (10-17).
Is it disingenuous for Moses to ask only that Israel be given a three-day journey into the wilderness to worship the Lord? Is this a pretext for Israel to escape from Egypt while pretending to go only for worship? This cannot be the case. If the people prepared for a permanent departure, as opposed to a three-day journey, the difference would be obvious to observers. Cassuto sums it up well: this is a modest request of Pharaoh designed to show that his heart is completely against even a modest freedom for his slaves to worship their God. But God will bring to pass the covenant with Abraham, “I will curse those who curse you.” Egypt will be smitten. And Egypt will bless Israel even if grudgingly, for Egyptian commoners will look with favor on the Israelites and send them out with gold and silver! The promises to the patriarchs are heavy in this tale. After all, in Genesis 15:14, God had said to Abraham, “I will execute judgment on the nation that they will serve and they will come out with great wealth.” Moses remembers how his Israelite brothers challenged his authority before (2:14) and cannot imagine they will listen to him now. God shows him two signs as foreshadowings of the plagues to come. Egyptian magicians did tricks with snakes and wax models of sea-monsters (Cassuto). It would seem that the rod and snake sign is a deliberate evocation of Egyptian magic. It may be that the second sign, making Moses’ hand leprous and then healing it, also was powerful in the Egyptian context (Cassuto speculates that such skin diseases may have been fairly common in Egypt and incurable). If needed, God promises to perform another sign: turning the life-giving Nile water so vital to Egypt, into blood. Moses now tries a different objection to escape this hard assignment from God. The signs may convince Israel to listen, but Moses does not believe he is the capable spokesman who can convince Pharaoh. Aaron is suddenly introduced into the narrative, not having been mentioned before at all. Many have wondered why Aaron is called “the Levite.” Isn’t Moses also a Levite? At the very least, this is a recognition that Aaron later will be the priest. Though God may be angry with Moses, the addition of Aaron to the mission is accepted and the plan is established.
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Moses asks Jethro’s leave to go (18), the Lord tells Moses it is time (19-20), the Lord tells Moses about the firstborn (21-23), the Lord tries to kill Moses (24-26), Aaron meets up with Moses and acts as spokesman (27-31).
This narrative raises many questions. Why does vs 20 say sons when we know of only one son for Moses thus far? Why does God say he will harden Pharaoh’s heart and not soften it? Why is the issue of the killing of the firstborn added here almost as an afterthought? Why did the Lord want to kill Moses? How did Moses or Zipporah know about circumcision as the covenant sign? Why is Aaron not enslaved with the rest of the Israelites? The statement in vs. 21, that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart, need not mean that God originated Pharaoh’s stubbornness. Cassuto observes that it was Hebrew convention to use causative verbs for happenings as if God caused them. For example, Exodus 21:13 describes manslaughter as if “God opportunely put it in his hand.” Just as God does not induce manslaughter, neither does he induce Pharaoh’s cruel will. Later we will see that Pharaoh makes his own heart hard to the unhappiness of the Israelites. We should probably assume that God increases Pharaoh’s own stubbornness as a sort of judgment, increasing the consequences of Pharaoh’s own folly in resisting the divine will. The statement, “Israel is my firstborn son,” (vs. 22) explains the place Israel has in God’s heart and also the other nations, who would be God’s other children. Cassuto indicates the statement about the firstborn is placed where it is for reasons of dramatic tension. God demands release of his firstborn or he will kill Pharaoh’s firstborn. Yet then, ironically, Moses is nearly killed by God for not circumcising his own firstborn! The story is told without any explanation. Did Moses not know about circumcision and the covenant? Did Zipporah know more about circumcision than Moses? She touches the foreskin to Moses’ “feet” (almost certainly his genitals) as a sort of expiation offering to save his life. Zipporah’s strange statement likely means, “You are now a second time a groom to me, acquired by blood,” since he is practically raised from death and given a second life through her sacrifice. There must have been a well-known longer version of this story and in present form, many details have been omitted. The early rabbis, with their reverence for Moses, wonder how such a great figure could have failed to circumcise his son. One midrash suggests Moses was only one hour late in doing so, but due to his greatness, God held him accountable for that one hour! Modern commentators have come up with many theories about the Zipporah-circumcision story being a folk tale with many strange elements. None of these theories are necessary (see Childs for a thorough explanation). The meaning of the story, as most readers with no specialized knowledge can deduce, is that God was going to kill Moses (perhaps he came down with a grave illness) and Zipporah recognized it was due to failure to circumcise. She saved Moses’ life by her recognition (she was a priest’s daughter after all) of the workings of divine wrath and her knowledge (how, we do not know) of the requirement of circumcision going back to Moses’ fathers. Touching the foreskin of her son to her husband’s private parts made sense to her as a way to ritually atone for his sin in failing to circumcise. Why didn’t Moses circumcise? Could it be his Egyptian background caused him to think of circumcision as a rite of puberty instead of practicing the infant circumcision of Abraham? We can only guess. Meanwhile, there is a mystery in the next part of the story, how it is that Aaron is not enslaved in Egypt, but is free to meet Moses in the desert. Finally, when Moses and Aaron initially speak to the Israelite slaves, their message is well-received, but only until there is adversity.
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EXODUS 5:1 – 6:1
Moses and Aaron deliver the message to Pharaoh (1-4), Pharaoh increases the burden on the Hebrews (5-9), the taskmasters carry out Pharaoh’s order (10-14), the Hebrew supervisors complain and are rebuffed (15-20), the Hebrew supervisors curse Moses and Aaron (21), Moses complains to God (22-23), God says he will show his hand (6:1).
Moses and Aaron speak to Pharaoh as prophets, using the same, “Thus says Hashem” formula that will be found 350 times in the prophetic books. This formula is only used in the Torah for confrontations between God’s mouthpieces (Aaron and Moses) and Pharaoh (Childs). Given the low view of deity in pagan society, Pharaoh is not impressed. No doubt the god of a slave people would be inferior to Egyptian deities. Interestingly, in the wording of the first request, Moses and Aaron say that God has commanded them to make a feast to him in the wilderness. The idea of a feast is a sacrificial feast, such as the later peace offering described in Leviticus 3 and 7. The sacrifices of Torah are nearly identical to types of offerings known long before the Torah by many different cultures. Pharaoh uses a strong arm tactic, knowing how to treat slaves in order to defeat their will to resist. He increases their burden, knowing that the oppressed worker is too bent under his burden to see much beyond immediate suffering. Though Moses brings hope of freedom, the pressing strain of new misery dulls the hopes of the slaves and diverts their attention to their agony and its unfairness. Predictably they blame the one trying to free them instead of the one oppressing them. The story is true to human nature. It also reflects accurate knowledge of Egyptian brick-making (Childs). Moses’ complaint to God in vss. 22-23 will become a standard practice with him. Childs says, “In a complaint reminiscent of Jeremiah’s, he accuses God of bringing evil on the people.” From the early days, Israel has had a tradition of lament. Moses set the standard and God did not punish honest lament, even though the words blame God. The pattern will be repeated in the future with Moses’ prayers at times of tragedy and in Israel’s later poetry. God does not require insincere groveling but welcomes honest lament and even blame. The cathartic effect of lament is in part knowing that God does not condemn it. But God responds to this lament strongly by assigning to Pharaoh a terrible price, a price which Pharaoh has brought on himself and his people by his own cruel hand.
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By my Name they did not know me (2-3), I will fulfill the promises in your generation (4-8), the Israelites cannot believe in their oppressed state (9), the Lord further instructs Moses and Aaron (10-13).
This second call story of Moses (the first one was 3:1-22) raises many interesting questions. How did it originally happen that more than one story about Moses’ call existed? What purpose did the final editor of Torah see in including this second call story here? What is the significance and meaning of El Shaddai (often poorly rendered as “God Almighty”)? Does vs. 3 literally mean the patriarchs were unaware of the four-letter Name of God or does it mean something else? Doesn’t vs. 12 sound as if Moses has not yet been rebuffed by Pharaoh? That this second call story originally existed independently is fairly easy to see. It repeats many of the features of the first one (3:1-22) in that God gives some explanation of his Name, says he has heard Israel’s outcry, will bring them to the Land, will take them as his people, and has Moses object because he has some problem concerning his confidence in speech (compare 6:12 with 4:1-17). Thus far, many of the signs that Exodus is a combination of accounts from multiple sources have been explained by the theorized J and E accounts (a southern and northern set of stories). Now in this passage we come to a passage widely believed to be from the traditions of the priests of Jerusalem (the P source). Stories about Moses existed in multiple forms among different strands within Israel and they have been combined after the exile by a skillful editor (someone like Ezra the scribe). Although this second call story repeats many features of the first one, it is shorter, and it can for the most part be understood by the reader as a repetition and confirmation of the first one. Just as God spoke more than once to the patriarchs about the covenant (Gen 12, 15, 17, etc.), so here the final editor of Torah uses an independent call story to narrate something very true to life: God reassuring a discouraged Moses after the initial failure of the mission to Pharaoh. Still, we can see signs, especially in vs. 12, that 6:2-13 was originally written as the initial call story. So, for example, vs. 12 seems unaware that Pharaoh already has not listened and oblivious to the fact that God already solved the fears of Moses about his speech by making Aaron the mouthpiece. Once we understand that some strangeness of 6:2-13 is due to the way Torah was put together, we are ready to proceed with its meaning. The patriarchs knew God as El Shaddai, but what does that name mean? The translation “Almighty” is a misnomer, based on a suggested parallel from Akkadian (shadu, mountain) and from the Greek translation (the LXX, a.k.a. Septuagint). But the Hebrew shad means breast ((Isa 60:16; 66:11; Job 24:9; and ten more times in the plural form). The -ai ending (rhymes with pie) is either an archaic form meaning “my” or is a special form reserved for speaking to the deity. As for the strange idea of referring to him as “God, my breast,” the practice of the Canaanites prior to Israel’s new ways of worship was to worship on the hills, which are abundant in the Land. Hills resemble breasts and the gods could be thought of as sources of provision like mother’s milk to a baby. It seems an old understanding of God, one which was beyond gender since only female breasts give milk, is as the God of the hills to whom the people look for daily provision. Thus, God is explaining to Moses, the patriarchs knew him as the God they experienced on the hills of the Land who cared for their every need. Are we to understand that the patriarchs were unaware of the four-letter Name (Y-H-V-H) of God? First, we must admit this is possible. Though the Name of God occurs frequently in the patriarchal stories, this could be understood as anachronism (later writers telling the stories in terms familiar to the audience at the time of the writing, not the time of the events themselves). However, this is not necessarily what vs. 3 means. The meaning of “I am Hashem” (the four-letter name) is something formal, a declaration of the power and imminent action of God to fulfill his promise (Childs). So, in vs. 2 when God begins by saying, “I am Hashem,” and when this is repeated in vs. 6, 7, and 8, we are to understand God is promising by his Name to now take action (see Childs for background on divine oath formula and see Ezekiel 20:5-6). The meaning of vs. 3 is then clear: the patriarchs knew God as their provider and shepherd as they lived among the hills of Canaan, but they did not live to see the promise of Hashem fulfilled in which the Land would be given to their offspring. Moses and his generation, however, are about to see what was promised to the patriarchs come to fruition. God is swearing by his Name to at last carry out the promise and show his Name to be true to Moses and all generations to come.
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Genealogy of Reuben, Simeon, and Levi (14-16), the Levitical families (17-25), Aaron and Moses (26-28).
This genealogy is placed after the main action of the story is set up and now places Aaron and Moses in the larger context of the tribal history of Israel. Reuben and Simeon are delineated only because their tribes are elder to Levi. The tribes further down than Levi are not mentioned because the purpose of this genealogical information is only to locate Moses and Aaron on the spectrum. The number of years mentioned perfectly illustrates the problems with taking the numbers in Exodus “literally.” Cassuto discusses the various numbers of years in depth and always gives good attention to the wonderful numerologies in Genesis and Exodus (where patterns of sevens and other preferred numbers are common). The problem here can be simply stated by adding up the years: Levi’s years are 137, Kohath’s are 133, Amram’s are 137, and Aaron was 83 (7:7). These add up to 490. But there would (obviously) be overlap between the lives of Levi, Kohath, Amram, and Aaron, so we cannot say that 490 years have elapsed. We can, however, notice that this is a perfect 7 X 70. Further, in Genesis 15 we were told two things about the length of time the Israelites would be in Egypt: 400 years and (oddly) that they would come back to the land in the fourth generation (impossible to reconcile). Note that the genealogy in Exodus 6 makes Aaron the fourth generation. Further, we get the number 430 in 12:40 as the number of years Israel was in Egypt. How do we take all these various numbers “literally”? Cassuto argues they were never intended that way and that tracking periods of time accurately was not an intention of the Torah at all. The numbers are all significant numerologically. He demonstrates throughout Torah the use of the sexagesimal system (numbers based on sixties). The 430 years of 12:40 is six periods of sixty years (each period of sixty years is called a sus in Babylonian accounts) plus seventy. The 490 years total in the Exodus 6 genealogy is also a symbolic number, one sus more than 430. As for the names in the Levitical genealogy, only the families that will be important in the later story of Israel are mentioned. Moses’ and Aaron’s mother, Jochebed (Yokheved) is the first person mentioned in the Bible with God’s name embedded in theirs. She is also her husband Amram’s aunt, a forbidden union once Torah was given (Lev 18:12). This is further evidence that the commandments were not known before Torah was given. Aaron’s mother, wife, and daughter-in-law are mentioned because they help form the background the priestly genealogy in Israel. Aaron’s line is doubly Levite, since his father and mother were grandchildren of Levi. The people named in the Levite branch of the genealogy will all be named in other parts of the Torah (Rashbam, Cassuto). The genealogy must have come from a book of records and was inserted by the final editor of Torah (so Friedman) in order to establish the names of the Levite branch of Israel who would be named in other parts of Torah. The importance of the priesthood and genealogies in Israel’s later history can be seen in the prominent place this genealogy takes in the story.
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EXODUS 6:29 – 7:7
The Lord reissues the command to speak (29), Moses reiterates his inadequacy (6:30), the Lord will make Moses as God to Pharaoh (7:1-2), Pharaoh will not listen because of his hard heart (3), the Lord will send marvels to set Israel free (4-6), Moses at 80 and Aaron at 83 (7).
When we left the story after 6:13 for a digression into genealogy, the Israelites did not believe the tale Moses and Aaron bore, for they were too beaten down from their bondage (6:9). The story resumes, but this is a bit of recap, since it repeats the same information as 6:10-13 and 3:7-4:17 (God sends Moses to speak to Pharaoh, Moses objects that he is not an adequate spokesman for God). Exodus continues to show signs of being a composite account, put together from multiple sources. Now in this version of Moses’ complaint about speech, God explains more clearly how Moses and Aaron will function. In 4:14-17, God had said Aaron would be Moses’ spokesman (which passage Friedman interprets as coming from the E source, from the northern kingdom). Now in 7:1-2, this double spokesperson role is described as if Moses is God and Aaron is his prophet (which Friedman assigns to the P or priestly source, from Judah). Those who speak for God through direct revelation speak as if they are God, just as messengers of the time spoke in the authority of the kings who sent them. The reason Pharaoh will not listen has nothing to do with Moses’ inadequacy, but rather Pharaoh’s hard heart. The repeated statements about Pharaoh’s hard heart continue to bring up the issue of determinism (all our actions are determined from outside us) and free will (our actions are based on our own choice). Free will is affirmed in so many scriptures and is an essential idea: humans choose wrongdoing because God allows us to. If God were to cause the sinful actions and thoughts of our heart, it would be God who was sinning! The answer to this puzzle with Pharaoh comes from careful reading. There are sixteen references between Exodus 4:21 and 14:8 to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. In some of them, God foretells in a future tense “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” Then, in the first five plagues, we find that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. The change does not come until 9:12, with the sixth plague. At this point, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Thus, we find that God casts judgment at times on people who repeatedly do evil. In the words of Paul, God gives people up to the evil that is already in their hearts (Rom 1:24). In the case of Pharaoh, we could say that the plagues at some point would have made him repent, but God further hardened his heart to increase both the judgment against him and the glory of Divine Power in delivering Israel. The whole account of sending Moses and Aaron to bring release for Israel emphasizes the nature of God known by his Name: “I am Hashem” (yod-hey-vav-hey). Just as Israel will know God by his Name (3:14; 6:3), so Egypt will know he is Hashem (6:29; 7:5). The meaning of this revelation is that he is the saving God, who redeems and brings covenant blessing to those who hold him in awe.
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EXODUS 7:8 – 8:6 (8:10 in Chr Bibles)
Turning a staff into a serpent (8-13), 1st Plague: making the Nile red as blood (14-25), 2nd Plague: frogs (7:26 – 8:6).
Christian Bibles divide the chapter after 7:25, when the 2nd Plague begins, resulting in different verse numbering in ch. 8. Cassuto notes that the staff-to-serpent sign was probably something Pharaoh would have required of Moses and Aaron since they claimed to be prophets. Kings might demand that any prophet seeking audience prove their worth with a miraculous sign. The sign is done with Aaron’s rod, not the “rod of God” (see 4:17). It is quite possible that here the staff turns into a crocodile (native to the Nile where the scene takes place) as the Hebrew word tannin is ambiguous (crocodile or serpent both fit its meaning). In 4:3 the staff turns into a nahash, clearly a snake. Pharaoh has his sorcerers perform the same trick to show that Egyptian gods are as powerful as Hebrew gods. Aaron’s serpent swallows (something hard to imagine literally) those of the Egyptians. The Egyptians use spells. Aaron simply waits on God. The Nile was the symbol of Egypt’s strength and wealth, the source of abundant food through irrigation. The first plague challenges Egypt’s superiority by defiling the Nile. Cassuto argues that this is not an actual turning to blood, but a natural miracle of red algae or similar phenomenon. This is not an attempt to deny divine power, but to suggest that God’s miracles generally work with nature, not against it. The reference in vs. 19 to wood and stone may refer to the fact that Egyptians washed their idols (wood and stone) with Nile water. The Egyptian magicians are also able to turn water (in vessels? in the direction Moses had not pointed?) red as blood, so Pharaoh feels his superiority is maintained. In 7:13 and 22, the heart of Pharaoh was hard, a neutral expression not indicating whether Pharaoh or God did the hardening. In the second plague, Cassuto explains that in the receding of the Nile waters, frogs are often abundant. Egyptians regarded them as fertility symbols. Hechet was a goddess with a frog head who breathed life into bodies her god-husband made on a potter’s wheel. God causes a super-abundance of frogs to the point of causing stink and defilement in Egypt. Pharaoh is willing, at first to relent. But the plagues will follow a pattern of triads: two plagues with warning, first outside and then in the palace, followed by a third plague with no warning (Carol Meyers, Exodus: New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Pharaoh is about to see a third plague which will defy him and leave him hardened and wondering why the finger of God is against him.
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EXODUS 8:7-18 (11-22 in Chr Bibles)
Moses prays and the plague of frogs is relieved (7-10), Pharaoh will not relent (11), 3rd Plague: Gnats (?) (12-15), 4th Plague: Flies (?) (16-18).
In the previous section we read that Pharaoh’s heart was hard and so he would not listen (7:13, 22). God had said in 4:21, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” This has led many to wonder if God makes people sin and then punishes them. But the solution to this enigma begins with our section today, in 8:11. For in this verse the verb about hardening is causative (“and, hardening his heart, he did not listen”). In other words, Pharaoh is said to harden his own heart. It is not until the sixth plague that we begin to see God hardening Pharaoh’s heart (9:12). Thus we see that Pharaoh sinned by his own free will and God then punished him by hardening him further only after he had already been obstinate and unbelieving repeatedly. Pharaoh did not keep his word, though God was faithful to the word spoken through Moses (it is a common idea in biblical prophecy that things happen as the Lord had said). In the third plague, we can only guess that these were gnats or mosquitoes as we do not know the meaning of the word kinnim. The Egyptian magicians fail this time and call it the “finger of God,” an expression used only twice more and for the writing on the tablets of the commandments (Exod 31:18; Deut 9:10). In other words, they say this is really a divine act beyond the power of men. Yet Pharaoh’s heart is hard again. The story emphasizes that no matter what happens, even in variations such as we see in plagues two and three, Pharaoh will not listen. The fourth plague is similarly difficult to define, but the traditional explanation of “mixtures” (of animals) is unlikely. The guess that this is another swarming fly is more likely, so that plagues three and four are similar (gnats, flies). The fourth plague is the first in which the place where Israel lives, Goshen, is spared. This time the magicians do not even attempt to match the miracle. Carol Meyers helpfully explains how the plagues come in three triads. In each set of three signs, Pharaoh is first warned in the morning as he is traveling to the Nile, the second is a confrontation in the palace, and the third comes with no warning. The first triad concerns threats from the water (blood, frogs, gnats), the second harms people and livestock (flies, pestilence, boils), the third triad is airborne (hail, locusts, darkness).
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EXODUS 8:19 – 9:16 (8:23 – 9:16 in Chr Bibles)
The Lord makes a distinction in the 4th Plague (19-20), Pharaoh agrees to let Israel worship and changes his mind a second time (21-28), the 5th Plague: Pestilence (9:1-7), the 6th Plague: Boils (8-12), the 7th Plague begins: Hail (13-16).
Vs. 19 says that God puts a “ransom” between his people and Pharaoh’s people, which is rendered “distinction” from the context. Nonetheless, the root meaning of the word as rescue or purchasing out of bondage should still be seen here. When God punishes Egypt, but spares the region where the Israelites dwell, he is delivering his people. Pharaoh for the first time agrees to let Israel go, but after the plague is removed, he does not keep his word. The plagues have been escalating. During the negotiations in which Pharaoh first relents, he offers to let them have their festival within the land of Egypt. Moses refers to some practice of the Israelites in sacrifice which is an offense to the Egyptians. What is the nature of this offense the Egyptians will take? The ancient Targum Onkelos (an Aramaic paraphrase) suggested the Egyptians regarded cattle as sacred. The Palestinian Targum says sheep were sacred to Egypt. This is likely the same offense mentioned in Genesis 46:34, “every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians.” We do not know exactly what the issue was in those times from any Egyptian source (Childs, Meyers). The tradition history of the plague stories shows through here in an inaccuracy. Moses says, “will they not stone us?” but stoning is the Israelite method of capital punishment whereas in the Nile region there are not an abundance of stones (Meyers). The written account of the plagues comes after a time of oral tradition in Israel and over time the element of stoning entered into the telling because it made sense to the audience hearing the story. In the 5th Plague, Moses uses a play on words. God’s Name is based on the verb “to be,” and Moses uses a rare form (not used elsewhere in the Bible) of the verb to say something like, “the He-Will-Be is about to be against your cattle.” Again the Lord distinguishes between Israel and Egypt on the 5th Plague. In the 6th Plague, Moses takes soot from a furnace, probably a brick-making kiln (Cassuto suggests that Rameses II made fired brick, further evidencing the later date of the Exodus). Ironically, then, God uses an element of brick-making, the very thing with which Egypt has been afflicting Israel, to smite the Egyptians. The Egyptians are plagued with smallpox or something similar and the magicians cannot heal the illness. And it is in this 6th Plague that something changes with Pharaoh. Whereas before he has hardened his own heart, now God hardens it. God has given Pharaoh over to greater judgment and hardens him even more than he would have hardened himself. In the 7th Plague, God says something new and profound. He will show Pharaoh that there is none on earth like the Lord. And the last four plagues will strike Pharaoh’s heart, which he has hardened before and now God is hardening even more. God’s justice will be to absolutely break the heart of the hard-hearted monarch. Poetically speaking, the very reason for Egypt’s existence at this moment is for God to show them and the world his power.
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The plague of hail announced (17-20), some officials in Egypt fear the word of the Lord (21), hail smites the land (22-26), Pharaoh’s plea and Moses’ insight (27-32), Pharaoh hardens his heart again (33-35).
The 7th Plague begins a third cycle and the descriptions are longer and more detailed. The time of year is February, based on vss. 31-32 and the young flax and barley (Sarna). By giving people in Egypt a chance to secure their families and animals (vs. 19), God gives an opportunity for faith and deliverance. Some Egyptians feared the word of Hashem and listened to his warning, a step of faith, and any step of faith brings a person nearer to God. It may be that this type of lesson from God is what will later lead a “mixed multitude” to come out with Israel.
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God’s hardening and making sport of Egypt (1-2), the threat of the 8th Plague: Locusts (3-6), Pharaoh’s officials urge him to relent (7), Pharaoh’s sarcasm and inadequate response (8-11).
This section adds a new level of complexity to the story. For the first time, God says specifically “I have hardened his heart.” This statement is most likely to be understood as God’s follow-up to Pharaoh’s own hardening. Pharaoh has been cruel and stubborn and now, God is hardening him further, so that the full divine wrath for evils already committed can be played out on Egypt. Egypt the oppressor is about to be judged by God the liberator. Pharaoh is now so stubborn, his own officials can see that “Egypt is ruined.” Their words are more true than they realize. Yet Pharaoh plays games with Moses and Aaron. He acts as if he might relent, but then, perhaps sensing that the Israelites really want to go free and not simply worship in the desert, he says he will allow only the men to go, and not the little ones. Vs. 10 is sarcasm, an unusual example of it in biblical narrative. It should be taken to mean, as Cassuto paraphrases, “May the help of your God be as far from you as I am from giving you permission to go forth with your little ones.” Should we read the story as if Moses would really have been satisfied with a three-day festival in the desert? If we take Moses’ request as a an honest one, it would seem his intent is to show Pharaoh is not willing to grant even a short liberty, much less a total remission of enslavement. Egypt’s oppression of Israel is total and unrestrained and, thus, deserving of punishing justice. The counselors of Pharaoh have it right: Egypt is ruined because it has opposed the redeeming will of Israel’s God.
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The locusts summoned with an east wind (12-15), Pharaoh’s plea (16-17), Moses prays and a west wind disperses the locusts (18-20), the 9th Plague: darkness (21-23).
The hail had ruined the barley and flax; now the locusts will destroy the wheat and spelt which were likely tender shoots already but too small for hail to destroy (cf. 9:32). “East wind” is the proper term for someone from Israel describing the sirocco, or withering desert wind (a hint that our story was written down or updated after Israel was in the land), but in Egypt it would be a south wind (from the south, from Sudan). This detail along with the previously noted reference to stoning as a method of capital punishment (which would be true of the land of Israel, not Egypt) helps us to see that the plague narratives were written down after some time of being told and retold in a later era and not, as many suppose, in the time of Moses. When Pharaoh begs Moses to ask God to relent, he does go out pray as Pharaoh has asked, but offers no response to Pharaoh himself. Sarna suggests that Moses and Aaron’s silence after Pharaoh’s plea is deliberately cold. Pharaoh had just dismissed them rudely in the previous scene. The power dynamics are shifting and Moses and Aaron are less supplicants now and instead are becoming dominant over Pharaoh, or at least unafraid of his power. A wind from the sea drives the locusts away, which is God’s response to Moses’ prayer. Then the 9th plague, as usual for the third plague in each triad of plagues, comes without warning. Cassuto interprets this event as a sandstorm rather than an eclipse. The fact that Goshen is said to have light while the rest of Egypt was in darkness fits with the sandstorm theory. Meanwhile, the chief god of Egypt is Ra, the sun god, and blotting out the sun is a powerful statement of God’s authority over the Egyptians.
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EXODUS 10:24 – 11:3
Pharaoh is willing now to let the children go but not the flocks (24), Moses insists on all the flocks as well (25-26), Pharaoh hardens and says he will kill Moses if he sees him again (27-29), preparation for the final plague (11:1-3).
It is hard to know what has been really going on in the negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh. Moses has been requesting that the Israelites be allowed a three day festival in the desert. Was this genuine or a pretext for escape from Egypt? Pharaoh has assumed it as a pretext. In 10:8-11, Pharaoh granted that the men could go and Moses refused. Now Pharaoh grants that all but the flocks can go. Moses’ reply seems excessive: they must bring all the flocks and herds because they do not know which animals God will choose for an offering. Cassuto reads the negotiation in terms of national pride: Moses will accept no concessions and sees the festival as a right. It is also possible to read this as a deception, to assume Pharaoh is correct: we accept no concessions and will leave behind no pledge of our return because we are escaping. Or there is another way as well: God demands only the three-day festival to show that Egypt’s oppression is too severe to even allow that, though God will actually bring about something greater, a complete deliverance. In other words, Egypt’s guilt is increased by the fact that it will not allow its slaves to have any freedom at all to worship their God or risk the escape of the slaves. But, as foretold to Abraham in Genesis 15, Israel will not only escape, but the slaves will receive compensation for their time of service in the form of jewelry and money from the Egyptians (cf. Deut 15:13).
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EXODUS 11:4 – 12:20
Moses’ stern speech to Pharaoh about the coming death in Egypt (4-8), epilogue (9-10), Passover observance instructions (12:1-13), observance of future Passovers (14-20).
In this first announcement of the 10th Plague, God says he himself will go out and bring death. The idea of God going out is like a king riding to battle himself. All families, rich and poor, will lose their oldest sons. What should we make of 11:7, which says that Israel will be completely spared? Some have seen it as a different tradition than 12:13, where Israelites must apply blood to the doorpost to be “passed over.” But the answer may simply be that all the Israelites would apply the blood (and we do not know of any case of an Israelite failing to do so). The judgment on Egypt is corporate, for all Egypt’s oppressions against various slave peoples. In corporate judgments the innocent die for the sins of leaders, a problem with divine justice that we should not overlook. Vss. 9-10 round out the section of the nine plagues and prepare for the new section to come: Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Vs. 9 should be translated, “The Lord had said to Moses.” In other words, it recapitulates what has happened up to this point. Cassuto catalogues at this point the many uses of the number seven throughout the plague narratives. The stories are highly artistic. 12:1-13 is instruction only for the first Passover (something which has confused later readers, who have wondered if Passover was always to be slaughtered at home). Cassuto takes 12:2 not as a command to make Nisan the first month of the year, but a promise saying, “This month is a new start for Israel.” However, since Torah calls the month in which Yom Kippur falls “the seventh month,” it does seem that one calendar in Israel counted the month of Passover as the beginning. The Passover lamb is a peace offering, an offering in which the people eat the meat at a covenantal meal in God’s presence. The meat becomes sacred and is to be treated as holy, which is why there are instructions about the number of people, not breaking bones, and not leaving any over at the end. Bitter herbs and unleavened bread are to be eaten with it. This too is thought by many to be a later addition: in one tradition the unleavened bread came about as Israel left Egypt and could not make leavened bread, while in another, they already were told to eat unleavened bread even before they left Egypt. The command to roast and not boil the flesh, according to Cassuto, was to avoid a spring rite of eating half-raw meat of the flock. It is likely there was already a spring rite involving a fellowship offering from the flock (like the Passover sacrificial lamb or goat) but the Exodus experience gives it all new meaning. What was simply a spring sacrifice is now a celebration of the greatest deliverance any people has known to this point in history, a nation of slaves liberated by divine power and promised a land of abundance. Vss. 14-20 spell out the future Passover instructions, a seven-day festival with a strict prohibition of leaven in their dwellings.
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Moses relays the instructions for the first Passover (21-23), Moses relays instructions for future Passovers (24-27), Israel obeys (28).
In vss. 21-23, Moses adds two things in his summary and passing on of instructions about the Passover in Egypt: details about how to implement the placing of blood and a warning not to go outside on this night when the Lord will be passing through. To apply the blood, Moses tells them to use hyssop. The exact identity of biblical hyssop is a much discussed question. Many identify it with marjoram or Syrian oregano. Hyssop features in a number of texts as the official tool for sprinkling blood (see for example Lev 14:4 and Num 19:6). The Lord himself will pass over if the blood is on the door, yet he says it is “the destroyer” (ha-mashkhit) who he will prevent from coming inside. Sarna thinks the destroyer is simply a personification for the plague. Others have assumed it is an angelic being unleashed by God upon the houses in Egypt. In a different plague in 2 Samuel 24:16 we read of an “angel of destruction,” and this is clearly meant to convey an angelic being, since he has hands and stretches them out. Nonetheless, the Passover haggadah contains a section which emphasizes that it was God in person and not an angel who destroyed, taking perhaps the interpretation that “destroyer” is a personification of the plague. On this night, Israelites should avoid going outside to avoid contact with the manifestation of the divine that will be in Egypt’s streets. In vss. 24-27, Moses adds something important for future observances of Passover, a liturgy (“it is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses,” ESV). For future Passovers, Moses introduces the notion of parents passing the story and its meaning down to children. This is fulfilled literally in the reading of the Passover haggadah.
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The 10th Plague (29-36), the Exodus (37-42), who may eat the Passover (43-49), summary (50-51).
A lot of issues vital to the history of Israel and to modern understandings of Jewish identity and the meaning of Passover are bound up in this section. Why is it noted that the Israelites bound up their dough before it was leavened? How does this correlate with the instructions already given previously to eat unleavened bread with Passover? Do we have two conflicting origin stories for the festival of Unleavened Bread? What should we make of the report of 600,000 Israelite men when we know that populations of cities were so small in that time period? The notion of 2 million Israelites cannot be historically accurate. What are we to make of the time period of 430 years since it does not compare well with other mentions of time in Genesis 15 and the genealogy of Exodus 6? And, finally, what does the section in 12:43-49 tell us about Jewish identity today? Concerning the first question, the origin of the custom of unleavened bread, Sarna and Cassuto both note the problem that there seem to be two origins suggested in Exodus. In 12:8, Israel is already commanded to eat unleavened bread with the Passover on the first night in Egypt. Yet, now in 12:34, 39 we seem to have another origin rationale, which is referred back to in later scriptures (see also Deut 16:3). Sarna says “the present rationale is a reinterpretation . . . of a preexisting practice.” Cassuto reads it all in harmony. Since the Israelites had made bread without leaven the night before, they have no leavened dough to use as a starter when the Exodus sets out. Therefore they put the dough in containers bundled in their clothing so the body heat might speed fermentation (but to no avail). Thus, there is a double explanation: it was preexisting as a custom and it also reflected the difficulty of the journey. As for the number 600,000, it is simple to explain why this number is impossible. Estimates of Pharaoh’s army put it at 25,000 soldiers. Towns in Canaan like Jericho could house a few hundred soldiers within their walls. The entire population of Canaan was probably less than a million. The number of Israelites is far out of keeping with reality. Two possibilities commend themselves and can only be mentioned briefly here: (1) later scribes confused the word elef (troop) with the word for thousand and the numbers got confused in transmission, or (2) Cassuto’s theory about the sexagesimal system, a Babylonian numbering system based on the number sixty (see Cassuto on Exodus). The same issue applies to the 430 years. It is an ideal number: six periods of sixty with seventy added (6 X 60 + 70). Cassuto demonstrated how the number could be arrived at. It is a stylistic number, not fitting with our modern notions of historical reporting (which did not matter to ancient peoples). Who would have counted the years? Chronology was not an issue for them. As for the mixed multitude, some rabbinic commentators felt (for a grammatical reason, since the Hebrew terms for “mixed multitude” and “riffraff” have similar form) they are to be identified with the “riffraff” of Numbers 11:4. But this identification has little evidence. Since they have just left Egypt and since Egypt no doubt enslaved a variety of peoples, it makes sense that other slaves (and perhaps some Egyptians) left Egypt with the Israelites. We do not hear of this mixed multitude later, which likely means they assimilated into the people Israel and became part of the tribes (much as Caleb the Kennizite’s family became part of Judah). Finally, in 12:43-49 we find that only circumcised members of the tribes could eat the Passover (meaning the sacred meat of the lamb, not talking about non-Jews eating a Passover Seder, which is perfectly allowable). Resident aliens (sojourners, gerim, etc.) were not full members of the covenant people unless they submitted to circumcision and thus joined the people of Israel (as did Caleb and others, apparently). This text is one of the bases for differentiating between Jewish and non-Jewish people today with regards to covenantal roles and responsibilities in the community of Yeshua. Although vs. 49 says there is one law for native and resident alien, this refers to equal justice, not to identical roles in the community. The sanctity of the Passover sacrifice — its blood having been dashed on the holy altar — is about God’s rescue of one specific people, Israel. For non-Jews to participate in this covenantal meal, eating the peace offering designated to represent God’s redemption of the chosen people, would be to devalue the purpose of the sacrifice.
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The firstborn are God’s (1-2), the laws of matzah and tefillin (3-10), redemption of the firstborn, pidyon haben (11-16).
The firstborn laws come in two parts. Vss. 1-2 are about the status of the firstborn immediately after the Exodus. Vss. 11-16 are for when Israel is in the land. From an editorial standpoint, vss. 11-16 follow naturally after the section on the laws of matzah and tefillin because they flow from the words the father will use to teach the children the history of the Exodus event. It is quite possible that at an early stage, perhaps even as a preexisting custom, firstborn males were regarded as dedicated to the sanctuary (priests and sanctuary servants). In Numbers 3:12 and 8:16-18, Levites replace the firstborn as the priests within Israel. Also, firstborn rites concerning animals may have already existed as a custom, but after the Exodus this is explained as remembering God’s deliverance of the firstborn in Egypt. The matzah or unleavened bread is a sign during the seven days of the festival commemorating the Exodus and a means of passing the story down to children. Redemption of the firstborn for human children is further regulated in Numbers 18, especially vs. 16. The ceremony continues to be observed today with a ceremonial payment of five shekels (usually traded for a donation to charity).
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EXODUS 13:17 -14:8
Israel’s Exodus into the desert (17-22), God leads Israel to the place of crossing (14:1-4), Pharaoh pursues (5-8).
Three issues of major historical interest come up in this passage. How can Philistines be mentioned here when they did not appear on the historical scene until the 12th century BCE (the Exodus at latest is 13th century BCE)? What route did the Exodus take and what can we discern from these references? How do the numbers of people add up when Pharaoh sends only 600 chariots chasing an army of 600,000 men (see previous section also)? The Philistines, as best we can tell from limited evidence, were among the sea people, coming probably from Crete and Greece, mentioned in an Egyptian inscription from 1190 BCE. After losing a battle with Egyptian forces, some of them settled the coastland of Canaan (the Gaza area). This area is where the Philistines would later rule in the days of the judges and kings of Israel. The anachronistic reference to the Philistines is one more evidence that at least parts of the book of Exodus were written down much later than the events they describe. This fact in and of itself does not necessitate a skeptical view of the historical truth of the Exodus and the origins of Israel. Israel probably passed down its stories orally until the Iron Age, when records began to be kept under royal administration. As for the route of the Exodus, Cassuto breaks the options down into a simple three: the northeast route or “way of the sea” which was Egypt’s guarded route and not a good option for Moses, the middle route toward Beersheba passing near to the “Philistine” region which is said in vs. 17 to be too dangerous, or the southeast route toward southern Sinai and further from Canaan, but a safer route to take. Cassuto chooses this option as the most likely route. The locations of places like Succoth are all guesswork. A southerly route makes great sense and would place the crossing either at the Bitter Lakes north of the Red Sea or perhaps over some segment of the Red Sea. The Hebrew text does not, however, say “Red Sea,” but “sea of reeds.” The LXX (Septuagint) has the reading “Red Sea” which has become traditional. The southerly route lends credence to the location of Mount Sinai (Horeb) in the southern Sinai (not in Arabia). Finally, we should be clued in to the unrealistic numbers as we have them in our traditional text by the fact that Pharaoh sends 600 chariots (plus “all the other chariots of Egypt”) chasing 600,000 men (plus women and children). The numbers are all based on six, which fits Cassuto’s theory of a sexagesimal system in the Middle East for thinking about numbers. How many chariots could Egypt muster? No army in antiquity even approached half a million, or even a hundred thousand. Pharaoh’s total army was likely in the range of 25,000 and it is doubtful so many could be quickly mustered. The most diehard defender of the biblical numbers as we have them must admit the problems here. The numbers are either figurative (no one a few centuries later would know them) or based on some type of census of troops with later confusion between the word for troop and the word for thousand (see previous section).
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Pharaoh’s army approaches Israel’s encampment at Baal-zephon (9), the Israelites despair and complain (10-12), Moses assures them that the Lord will battle for them (13-14).
Sarna notes the irony of the Israelites’ complaint (“is it because there are no graves in Egypt?”). Egypt is the land of tombs, a land obsessed with giving elaborate tombs to enrich the afterlife of its nobles and kings. Were there not enough graves in the land of tombs, the land with an elaborate cult and mythology of death? Did you have to bring us into the uncivilized wilderness to die and remain unburied? This is the first of a series of complaints by the Israelites in the early part of the wilderness experience. Enslaved peoples lose a healthy sense of self-worth and of their ability to triumph. It is a phenomenon of life that abused and enslaved people tend to prefer remaining in their state than risk change. Moses believes that God will do battle, based on God’s promise in vs. 4.
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God shows Moses the way of salvation (15-18), Israel crosses the Sea (19-22), Egypt is trapped (23-25).
The way of salvation for the Israelites will be to move forward over what seems impassable. God had brought them to this place purposefully, drawing them back from Etham and the edge of the wilderness to stand near Baal-zephon (14:1-4). Israel could have already been in the Sinai desert. Perhaps if they were, Pharaoh would have chased them even there. But now, God has chosen a seemingly impossible means of salvation. Why must Moses lift his staff when the power is all God’s? God shows his power through human mediators because his acts are a cooperation between the faith of the people and his power. The people will look to Moses as a mediator, the one God uses to rescue them. The act of God that is about to happen will resonate through all of history and turn the hearts of many to faith in God. In vs. 20, the description of the angel of God is potentially confusing. The pillar of cloud stands between Egypt and Israel. It is said to be cloud and darkness, yet it gives light toward Israel. The phenomenon can be understood in this way: God’s Presence is the fire or light in the midst of the cloud (see Exod 40:38). At night the fire was visible but in the day the sunlight made only the cloud show. The medieval commentators suggest that in this instance the Lord caused darkness and cloud on Egypt’s side and more light on Israel’s side. The parting of the sea did not happen suddenly, but was the result of an east wind blowing the waters back through the night. It seems as if the miracles of the plagues and Exodus were an intensification of natural processes. The signs arise from creation and surpass it, bringing the power of heaven into the created order.
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EXODUS 14:26 – 15:26
The Egyptian army drowned (26-29), Saved Israel believes (30-31), the Song of the Sea (15:1-21), the water at Marah (22-26).
Vs. 25 says the chariot wheels of the Egyptians were locked up, perhaps stuck in the mud (making us wonder how the Israelites got their wagons across). Now the flood waters return and destroy them. The Lord saved (yosha’) Israel and they trusted or believed (ya’aminu) in his power and good will. God has said repeatedly his wonders have a purpose to make the Egyptians and the Israelites believe he is the Lord. The Song of the Sea is a hymn that makes the act of God personal for the people of God. The wonders of God are about relationship. The song divides into vss. 1-6, 7-11, 12-16, and 17-18. The first section declares that Israel’s strength is the Lord. The second describes the Exodus in poetic detail (using the poetic ga’oh ga’ah, he has triumphed gloriously). The third section describes the consequences of God’s act, to redeem a people and cause the fear of the Lord to come on other peoples. Vss. 17-18 describe the further consequences, that God will bring them to his sanctuary on his mountain. This is almost certainly a reference to Mount Zion and the Temple, which would not be built for hundreds of years. There is little doubt the Song of the Sea is ancient as it uses Canaanite conventions of poetry (Sarna). So was this reference to God’s abode on a mountain added later or was it a prophetic foreshadowing in song? Cassuto thinks it is something that the Israelites would have known would happen, that God was bringing them to a land where he would establish his worship on a mountain. The Song has been an important part of Jewish liturgy since the days of the Second Temple, according to rabbinic sources (Sarna). Scribes write the words in the sefer Torah artistically, like a brick layer with a brick upon the joint of two bricks. The incident after, at Marah, begins to show how God will solve the problems of the people in the wilderness. God will not let the Israelites suffer plagues like the Egyptians as long as they follow him. And through this incident God teaches Israel “a statute and a rule” (or “a fixed statute” or “a binding statute”), that Israel’s fortunes in this world will depend on faithfulness to the covenant with him.
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EXODUS 15:27 – 16:10
Camped at Elim (27), the people complain about lack of food (16:1-3), the Lord’s instructions to Moses and Aaron (4-5), the Presence of the Lord and the promise of provision (6-10).
Cassuto points out some chronological gaps in this story which deserve the attention of the reader. Sabbath laws about manna gathering have not yet been given (not until 16:23) and yet they are already referenced in vss. 4-5. Up to this point, based only on what is written, we would have to say Moses has no idea what God is talking about when it comes to Sabbath laws. In vs. 8, Moses seems to know far more than God has already told him about the manna and quail. Even though God does not tell him so until vss. 11-12, Moses already declares to the people that meat will come to them in the evening and bread in the morning. Finally, Cassuto observes that the quail and manna stories are linked in unusual ways, like two originally separate stories that were combined into one. There is a general principle of Torah that events are not narrated chronologically and this shows in the story of Exodus 16. Cassuto explains the way the story is ordered by theme instead of chronology: a complaint about water (15:22-27), the complaint about meat and bread (16:1-3), the manna and quail stories combined (16:4-36), and then another complaint about water (17:1-7). The use of three stories about God proving his role as provider fits ancient ideas about storytelling (lessons come in threes). Meanwhile, though Moses and the Israelites in Exodus 16 have not yet been told about Sabbath laws, the Torah is written from the perspective of later readers who do know them. Thus, the story is told here for those who already know and who wish to learn how the first generation came to experience Sabbath. Also, the Tabernacle is alluded to in vs. 9 (“come near before Hashem”) though it has not been built or explained yet. But the editors of Torah are telling a story to later generations, who already understand these concepts. Medieval Jewish commentators also note these chronological gaps and solve them in a different way. Some of them interpret Exodus 15:25 (“Hashem made for them a statute and a rule”) as a mysterious hint that God gave Israel some Torah prior to Sinai.
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God speaks and will answer Israel’s complaint (11-12), quail and manna (13-14), instructions for manna (15-16), each person gets the same and it cannot be kept overnight (17-21), the Israelites ask why they get a double portion on the sixth day (22-26), confusion and no manna on day seven (27-30), manna and a jar kept as a memorial (31-36).
Manna gets its name from the Israelites asking, man hu? What is it? Vs. 15 gives the origin of the name and vs. 31 clarifies it. The Hebrew name is simply man. Omer is usually the word for a sheaf of cut grain and occurs only here as a measure of loose grain (thus, vs. 36 explains for those reading later who would not know the ancient measure). It is three and a half liters (thirteen cups of flour, enough for two large loaves). The descriptions of the manna do not fit with any natural phenomenon (aphid secretions, tamarisk sap, etc.), though it is possible God could have multiplied and made extreme amounts of a natural substance. The idea that each person gathered an omer no matter if they tried to get more or less (vs. 18) and that if kept overnight it bred worms (vs. 20) is a supernatural story through and through. We learn something of the institution of the Sabbath and of Sabbath halakha from this chapter. The important regulation that no food is to be cooked on the Sabbath comes from vs. 23. The principle in halakha is that already cooked food may be heated, but any use of cooking that changes the state of food (from raw to cooked, frozen to thawed, etc.) is forbidden. Moses had not relayed to the people the instructions about the double portion on day six. So when it happened, they were confused. Vs. 27 should lay to rest the notion that the Sabbath was kept by the people of God before the Exodus. Although the Israelites were familiar with the word “Shabbat,” since in Mesopotamia there was a monthly Shabbat and since the word derives from the normal word for “cease,” some have used this chapter as evidence that Sabbath observance preceded the Exodus. Yet the Israelites apparently have no idea that the seventh day is for rest and must learn it from the manna.
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The waters of Massa-Meribah (1-7), war with Amalek (8-13), permanent curse on Amalek (14-16).
The waters of Massa-Meribah story becomes a repeated theme of preaching about Israel’s unfaithfulness to the Lord (Num 14:22-23; Deut 6:16; 8:2, 15-16; and 9:22; Psa 78:65; 95:8). Sarna notes three themes from later teaching referring back to this incident: Israel trying God’s patience, the Presence and provision of God, and God’s trying Israel to test them. The last station on the way to Sinai is Rephidim. Moses’ straightforward and blunt manner of praying is reflected in this story yet again, this time with his ire directed against the people, who strove against his leadership personally. The place where the water comes out is called Massa (proof) and Meribah (contention). Israel then gets into armed conflict with Amelekites, whom Cassuto described as a nomadic people, similar to Bedouins. Deuteronomy 25:18 recounts the tradition that when Amalek struck, they hit the rear of Israel’s ranks, where the women and children and aged were. Moses is too old to lead the troops and so appoints Joshua. Yet Moses plays the vital role yet again. Just as at the Sea, his intercession (symbolized by his raised rod or, variously, a standard bearing some name or symbol of God according the rabbis and hinted in vs. 15) brings the power of God to the battle. Aaron and Hur (identity unknown, possibly the grandfather of Bezalel and of the tribe of Judah) hold up Moses’ arms. The picture is one of divine-human cooperation. As a result of Amalek’s vicious attack at a time when Israel was vulnerable, they become an unforgivable or perhaps unrepentant enemy. Amalek will attack Israel repeatedly into the early days of the monarchy, possibly as mercenaries hired by other peoples. The story of Esther draws on this history, as Haman is depicted as a descendant of Amalek.
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Jethro hears of the Exodus (1-4), Jethro brings Zipporah and sons to Moses at Sinai (5-9), Jethro’s faith and covenant with Israel (10-12).
This story is out of sequence, as recognized by virtually all commentators ancient and new. It is an illustration of the principle stated by the medieval commentators, “there is neither late nor early in the Torah.” In other words, the narratives in the Pentateuch frequently deviate from a chronological order. Jethro comes to Moses while Israel is encamped at Mount Sinai, in other words, sometime after the events of chapters 19 and 20. Jethro has been caring for Moses’ family, though Torah had not related this information to us before. Zipporah and the children have not been with Moses through the plagues and escape from Egypt. A midrashic story [a creative exposition by the rabbis] exists explaining that Aaron argued Moses into leaving his family with Jethro and not bringing them into the perils of Egypt. Jethro is the name of Moses’ father-in-law. He is called Reuel when he is simply described as a Midianite leader, but Jethro when described in his relationship to Moses (and Hobab is possibly the son of Reuel/Jethro). Jethro means something like “abundance” or “superiority.” How do we explain this narrative being placed here out of sequence? It comes right after the Amalek war narrative. The Kenite clan of Midianites of which Jethro is a priest is also a Bedouin type people like the Amalekites. Yet the Israelites had longstanding good will with the Kenites but enmity with Amalekites. Radak (David Kimhi) explains in a comment on Judges 1:16 that this story is here to show the contrast between Kenites and Amalekites in Israel’s dealings (Sarna). This is strengthened by a reference in 1 Samuel 15:6 (Sarna). Jethro’s sacrifice is likely to be understood as part of a covenant of peace with Moses and Israel.
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Moses judges morning to evening (13), Jethro criticizes this procedure (14-18), Jethro proposes a judiciary and a hierarchy (19-23).
As Sarna says, this story is remarkable in assigning a major structure of Israelite law and society to the advice of a Midianite. In the retelling of the origin of the judiciary in Deuteronomy 1:9 and following, Jethro’s role is not mentioned. In vss. 15-16, Moses’ judging involves two basic categories: deciding suits and giving instruction in divine law and guidance. In vss. 19 and following, Jethro advises that Moses continue to do what only he can do, stand before God for the people and be the ultimate teacher of divine law. But beneath him he can appoint lower judges to handle suits and known instruction in law. Vs. 21 gives an interesting set of qualification for judges: men of worth (character), who fear God (obedient), men of truth (having integrity), who hate unjust gain (not motivated by bribes). The idea of some being over thousands and others over hundreds, fifties, and tens puts the military ordering of Israel into the judicial system as well. Jethro’s system establishes a hierarchy, with Moses remaining as the supreme court for difficult cases.
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Moses follows Jethro’s plan (24-25), hard cases referred up to Moses (26), Jethro returns to his country (27).
In every section of Exodus, Cassuto notes the use of numbers and repetitions in the text. In this Jethro story, for example, the final editor has used the numbers seven and ten. The number seven needs no explanation, but the use of ten is likely an allusion to the ten words (commandments) that are about to be given. Jethro occurs seven times in chapter 18. To make this happen, his name is not used after vs. 12. After that he is simple called Moses’ father-in-law. Father-in-law occurs thirteen times and, when added to Jethro, makes for twenty uses, which is two times ten. The word davar (word, thing) occurs ten times (not counting one plural use, devarim). Of course, the ten words of Exodus 20 are each one individually a davar. The verb asa (do, make) occurs ten times and the ten words are things (devarim) to be done (asa). Jethro is a figure like Melchizedek in some ways, a priest of a foreign people who recognizes in Israel the work of the true God and who joins with the faithful.
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Israel arrives at Sinai (1-2), Moses goes up to hear from God on the mountain (3), I bore you on eagle’s wings (4), you will be my treasured possession (5), you will be a kingdom of priests (6).
The Israelites arrive on the “very day” (bayyom hazzeh), the first day of the third month, which is Sivan. Thus, the Israelites arrive at Sinai at the beginning of the seventh, or holy, week. The tradition that the Ten Words (commandments) were given on Shavuot, the fifth of Sivan, is based on Exodus 19. In 19:1-2, the narrative is told in poetry with a rhythm of 2:2:2 | 2:2 (Cassuto). This section is treated as of higher importance and the poetic language elevates its diction to alert the reader that momentous events are occurring. Thus, for example, 19:1 does not begin with the usual vayehi (and it happened). The people make camp, but Moses goes up, immediately and without rest, the poetic narrative seems to be saying. The divine voice comes to Moses from the mountain, apparently with Moses nearby but not at the top. This is an audible voice, as indicated by the verbs used for speech. In a land of mountains and desert, the eagle is a good metaphor for God bringing his people out of bondage. He has brought them, as an eagle carrying its young (cf. Deut 32:10-11), to a safe mountain peak. Vs. 5 is the first mention of a covenant God is making with the Exodus generation (prior mentions in the book refer to the covenant with the patriarchs). The covenant formula is simple: if Israel will diligently obey (an infinitive plus finite verb clause, shamo’a’ tishme’u) and keep covenant with God (shemartem et-beriti) then God will take Israel as the treasured people of all the nations. This is to say, God is God of all the peoples of the world, but he will make Israel his treasured people, the ones closest to his heart, if we will follow his covenant. God emphasizes “all the earth is mine,” so he already is Lord of Israel and all other nations. This taking of Israel is a new step in the relationship, but God’s dominion already exists in fact. Vs. 6 teaches that Israel will be as priests to the other nations. That is, we will be set apart for a special holy calling in life and other peoples will learn of God from us. The Sinai covenant is a missionary calling, a calling not embraced adequately by the people of Israel, though the prophets and psalmists celebrated it. This calling was taken up by Messiah, who gathered disciples to reconstitute Israel starting with a small group of Israelites, the Twelve, who would live in a new way for God’s kingship expressed in reverence for Yeshua, who is God’s messianic king. Cassuto says, “The proposal envisages a bilateral covenant, giving Israel an exalted position among the peoples in [light] of the acceptance of a special discipline.” Sabbath, dietary law, tzitzit, and the laws of the sanctuary are a special discipline for Israel alone as the priestly people among the nations. Israel’s holiness requirements are to be higher than those of the nations.
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The people commit to the Sinai covenant (7-8), God will appear to Moses in a thick cloud (9), consecration of the people for three days (10-15), the signs of theophany begin (16-19).
The togetherness of the people at Mount Sinai, with everyone committing to the covenant, is typical of human nature. In moments of great inspiration people are willing, but even shortly after Sinai the people will find it hard to live up to their affirmation. The account of this affirmation is a reminder to every generation: we accepted God’s calling and committed to it. Now we have to live it. The peak of Sinai is like the Holy of Holies, says Ibn Ezra. Moses alone can enter and God’s Glory appears, but is veiled in cloud. Moses will see no form. The invisible God will be seen from a distance by the people as a Glory within a cloud. A famous book of Christian mysticism calls it the Cloud of Unknowing. God makes much of the mediator role of Moses. The appearance of the cloud, a visible manifestation of the hidden God, will let people see clearly that Moses is speaking with God. It is vital to God’s plan that the people know Moses is a reliable messenger and servant. The human element of faith, the fact that it comes to us mediated by people, those who came before us and those who teach us now, is a reality of an invisible and hidden God. We must look to reliable teachers to find the truth about God’s nature and his will. The people do not know yet any purity regulations, except perhaps the customs of purity practiced in pagan religions. Yet they find now that in preparation for an appearance of a powerful theophany they must launder their clothes, a symbolic rite of purity. They must keep away from the mountain, which is now holy and not to be profaned by human contact other than Moses. They must abstain from sexual intercourse in order, again, to be symbolically pure for the revelation. When the day comes, God’s manifestation is not in some form of being or creature, but of storm, fire, smoke, earthquake, and cloud. In many other texts God is described not as being the storm itself, but in the storm or as a rider of the cloud. The atmospheric signs are not God himself, but rather like his footprints or heralds of his coming. God appears as a fire in a thick cloud at the summit. The thunderous sounds mix with a sound like the shofar. In the future, the shofar blast will be associated with God’s voice.
FURTHER THOUGHT: Among the greatest moments of God disclosing himself to us in history we would have to include the appearance at Sinai among the highest, along with the resurrection of Messiah. We commonly lack a sense of wonder at the thought of God’s presence. In our quiet relations with him, we may not realize the splendor of the One to whom we pray. It is one thing to imagine a mountain and another to stand before it and experience its grandeur. The account of the children of Israel at Sinai is a corrective to our under-active imaginations about God’s glory. Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “We have never been the same since the day on which the voice of God overwhelmed us at Sinai” (God in Search of Man; Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux).
ABOUT THE COVENANT: The children of Israel have come to hear the words of a covenant. God already has a covenant relationship with Israel — made unconditionally with the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — which is repeatedly reaffirmed throughout Genesis. The covenant at Sinai is, then, a covenant within a covenant. It promises the children of Israel something no nation on earth has ever experienced. They will have abundant food, complete freedom from war and disease, and will live in a land of paradise if they keep this covenant (Lev. 26:3-13; Deut. 28:1-14). If they do not, they will experience the same curses as other nations (war, hunger, disease, Lev. 26:14-45; Deut. 28:15-63). In this covenant, Israel is offered a chance to experience a foretaste of the world to come (Amos 9:13-15).
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EXODUS 19:20 – 20:14 (17 in Christian Bibles)
A second bounding of the mountain as sacred (20-25), the Ten Words (20:1-14 (17 in Chr Bibles)).
Vs. 18 had mentioned that God descended to the summit of Sinai only to explain the smoke and fire. Now God’s arrival is more formally heralded (Cassuto). Vs. 21 seems like a strange and redundant command to enforce the sacred boundary of the mountain. Repetitions like this frequently draw the charge from modern readers that the final editor of the Torah did a poor job in weaving together the sources. But this text is not poorly woven together. Moses is aware the boundary commandment had already been given and questions the repetition, “you yourself warned us.” God, however, does not accept Moses’ argument, but sends him down to reiterate the command that no one is to come out of curiosity to gaze on the divine manifestation. God is emphasizing through repetition that access to theophanies is strictly limited. And perhaps now that God is actually on the mountain, the earlier warnings might be ignored due to the desire of some to see God’s Glory for themselves. Another issue in this section is the strange mention of priests, the first mention of Israel having a priesthood. Yet the priesthood has not been established yet. Is this another example of contradictory sources, as if one source had a priesthood already in Israel while a different source behind the Torah thought the priesthood originated later? This is definitely not the case, as ancient peoples always had priests, and so Israel did prior to the Levitical priesthood. In Numbers 3:11-13 and 8:16-18 the firstborn in Israel were the priestly class before God established the Levitical priesthood. Meanwhile, the Ten Words (a.k.a. Ten Commandments, called “Ten Words” in Exodus 34:28 and in Deuteronomy) are given without any clear idea how to enumerate them. What is the first and second and so on? It turns out that different traditions have numbered them differently. There are three main numberings: Jewish, Catholic-Orthodox, and Protestant. In the Jewish numbering, “I am the Lord your God,” is the first. In the Catholic-Orthodox tradition, 20:1-6 is all the first commandment (in the end, the two commandments about coveting in vs. 17 of the Christian Bible become commandments 9 and 10). In the Protestant numbering, “you shall have no other gods” is the first and “you shall not make a sculptured image” is the second. Note that “you shall have no other gods” does not require disbelief in their existence, but only sole allegiance to the Lord. Cassuto lists the primary innovations of the Ten Words. Other cultures had ethical regulations backed by the religious cult. What is new in the Ten Words? Cassuto argues two things: the transcendence of God (his separation from the creation) and the nature of Sabbath. Evidence that these are the areas of innovation is simple: they need the most elaboration, whereas principles self-evident like “you shall not kill” are given without explanation. Unlike the nations, Israel is to follow one God only and to recognize only the Presence of the One (“before me” suggests that Israelites should always know they are before God’s Presence). The Sabbath, known in Mesopotamia as a monthly festival related to the moon’s cycle, is now the seventh day, holy, a day of ceasing, and a day for all creatures, even slaves and animals, to rest. The Sabbath is for Israel a constant reminder of creation and the Presence of God.
**EXCURSUS on Sabbath as Commemoration of Creation: Rather than assume God instituted the Sabbath because creation required six days of his time and he had to rest afterward, we should think the opposite way. God planned before creation to choose Israel, to institute the Sabbath and the seven-day week, and to raise Yeshua on the first day of that week. God planned into His pattern of creation symbols of His redemption and love for Israel and the world. The resting of God on the seventh day had nothing to do with exhaustion, but with the satisfaction of the heavenly King with his work. On the seventh day of creation, the universe was resting in peace because God lacked nothing and no hurt or harm existed anywhere in all his creation. It was very good (Gen. 1:31).
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EXODUS 20:15-23 (18-26 in Christian Bibles)
The people fear God’s voice (15-17), Moses hears from the cloud and relays it to Israel (18), instructions for worshipping (19-23).
The order of events in chapters 19 and 20 are a bit confusing. Vs. 15, coming right after the Ten Words, describes things during and after the Ten Words came down from Sinai. The fear of the people started with the atmospheric and natural signs of God’s Presence (thunder, shaking mountain, fire, cloud, smoke). But Moses was on the mountain and so by the time the people speak to Moses about their fear, he has come back down. The order is something like this: the people’s fear is at the same time as the appearance of the Presence and throughout the time God spoke. Then the the people’s request to Moses happened after the Ten Words were given. So the only part of the Torah the Israelites heard from God is the Ten Words. There are a number of different midrashim on this historical phenomenon. In the Song of Songs Rabbah, there is a midrash which says that if Israel had chosen to hear God’s voice for the whole Torah, then people would not have to study Torah. Descendants of the Israelites at Sinai would, in that case, always remember everything about Torah had they only heard it from God. But since they allowed Moses to intermediate and heard it from him, that power was lost, and now Torah is constantly forgotten and must be learned over and over again, requiring much study as is evident in Jewish tradition. Starting in vs. 19, God speaks to Moses from the cloud in one long section. The monologue of God goes unbroken through the end of chapter 23 and in chapter 24 the elders go up to eat in God’s presence. The entire section in chapters 21-23 is called the “Book of the Covenant.” Most do not include vss. 19-23 in that book. Rather, vss. 19-23 are provisions for worship before the Tabernacle is built. Earthen altars and stone altars were used by the patriarchs and will still be used even after the Tabernacle is built in various circumstances. No steel implement is to be used on altar stones. The rabbinic theory about this is that steel implements are weapons of war and unfit to come near the altar of God.
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The ordinances known as the Book of the Covenant (1), the male slave (2-6), the female slave (7-11), three capital offenses (12-17), injuries (18-19).
Instead of outlawing slavery, God regulates it. This raises the question, can the Torah be God’s perfect will when it allows such evil to be perpetuated? This is not a question that believers should simply dismiss. We can merely suggest that the laws of slavery fall into the same category that Yeshua addresses concerning divorce: regulations of things permitted due to the hardness of human hearts. In other words, had God outlawed slavery, his words would simply have been ignored. But in regulating slavery so that justice regulations improved the lot of slaves, God started a trajectory toward a world without slavery. It remains to be seen if in interpreting these laws we can find principles that lead toward a slave-free ideal. Vss. 2-6 deal with a male slave who is an Israelite (Hebrew slave). Those who could not pay their debts could be forced into service (cf. 2 Kgs 4:1). Additionally, a thief could be forced into service to make restitution (Exod 22:2). The laws here provide some protections for the slave including freedom. Was the slave to be freed after serving six years or whenever the next Sabbath year arose? What if a slave was taken in shortly before a Jubilee? Many questions like this are not clearly answered in Torah. A slave with a wife before entering slavery leaves with his wife. But a slave who is given a slave wife must stay with the owner if he wishes to stay with his wife. In order to keep his wife and children and also to keep from re-entering poverty, many slaves might choose to remain for life. The Torah allows a female slave to be kept indefinitely (vs. 7). The Torah permits a father to sell his daughter as a slave. Poor families might find it economically difficult to sustain girls and find a husband for them. A girl sold by her father can be forced into concubinage. The Torah does offer some protections. The concubine slave must be treated in many ways as a wife. She can be freed if the owner no longer wishes to keep her as a concubine. She is protected from sale to a foreigner. It seems that in the case of Israelite slaves, many protections are provided, but the idea that a person can be owned and a woman forced to be a concubine is not overturned by God’s law. Is this a trajectory towards a higher ideal? Perhaps the rest of Torah will answer this.
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EXODUS 21:20 – 22:3 (22:4 in Christian Bibles)
Laws in cases of injury (20-27), man-killing animals (28-32), damages to livestock (33-36), laws dealing with theft (21:37 – 22:3 (4 in Christian Bibles)).
These laws deal with a court deciding punishment and guilt. They do not reflect God’s judgment on wrongdoing. So, for example, a slave owner is punished if he kills a slave, but when a slave dies after a few days from an injury, the case is considered to exhibit reasonable doubt regarding the intent of the owner. Perhaps the owner did not mean to take a life. The owner in such cases will not be put to death. “Be avenged” means the relatives of the one killed stone the killer. The effect of this law is that a slave owner can injure a slave without being put to death, but he may not kill a slave. There is, however, a punishment for owners who injure their slaves in vss. 26-27: they must set the slave free. When a woman has a miscarriage because she interposes herself into a fight between two men, the Torah recognizes the death of the fetus but because there was no intent to kill, the penalty is a fine. In cases of injury the punishment is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. There are many evidences that this was not a literal sentence, but a payment of a fine. The Torah uses legislative terminology already in existence in other law-codes. Eye for an eye means the fine should be proportionate to the injury suffered, not that the court will put out someone’s eye. Sarna and Cassuto both give a number of evidences for this, including the beginning of the verb clause in vs. 23, “you shall give.” The meaning is “you shall give money as restitution.” In the case of man-killing animals, the owner is responsible for the death if the animal is known to be dangerous. A thief who is caught (he does not turn himself in) must pay multiple times the value of the property in damages. A thief killed when breaking in at night may be killed, but in daylight, where the danger to the homeowner is less, the thief may not be killed.
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EXODUS 22:4-26 (5-27 in Christian Bibles)
Damages to crops (4-5), property liabilities (6-14), seduction of a virgin (15-16), sorcery (17), bestiality (18), apostasy (19), the alien (20), widows and orphans (21-23), lending and the poor (24-26).
While we may be disappointed that Torah did not outlaw slavery and in some senses that certain human evils were not dealt with more severely in God’s law, we might find that the most forward-thinking parts of God’s law deal with the poor and with lending. Among the laws in this section are the social justice provisions for aliens, widows, orphans, and the poor. This includes a law of lending that might seem completely unrealistic. Sarna lists the basis of these social justice provisions of Torah: Israel’s own history as aliens in Egypt, God’s essential nature which is just and desires the good for all his children, as detailed in vss. 20-26. Furthermore, as Sarna suggests, the evils of paganism (vss. 17-19) may be deliberately contrasted with the goodness of God and his law (vss. 20-26). The alien (ger, stranger, sojourner) is in a class in between the native born (ezrach) and the foreigner (nochri, a foreigner merely passing through). The alien resides in the land at least on a seasonal basis if not permanently, in contrast with the foreigner who is merely passing through. God is the protector of aliens, widows, and orphans and promises punishment in this lifetime for those who oppress or take advantage of them. The prophets of Israel will strongly base their social justice preaching on these provisions of Torah. With regard to lending, the Torah has several sections on it: Exodus 22:24-26; Leviticus 25:35-38; Deuteronomy 23:20-21; 24:10-13. Loans at interest are allowed to a foreigner according to Deuteronomy, but this may be only because foreigners were generally merchants passing through and the risk was high. The general principle is that loaning at interest is damaging to the borrower and the principle behind interest taking from the borrower. Loans in the Torah are viewed as help to a fellow human being to meet their needs. Although the idea of charging interest for commercial loans has been excused in later Jewish law, people of faith are wise to consider that borrowing at interest is dangerous and lending at interest is taking from the borrower. The harmful effects of debt are largely why people of faith have limited resources and are unable to use their excess income to help others. In the Torah ideal, people would lend money without interest to meet needs. The motivation in lending was pure beneficence.
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EXODUS 22:27 – 23:5 (22:28 – 23:5 in Christian Bibles)
Reverence for God and leaders (27-30), justice in judicial matters (23:1-3), justice even with your enemy’s property (4-5).
The laws of Chapters 21-23 seem to be laid out in almost random fashion. They do not follow straightforward categories or logical order. Nor do we find thorough legislation on various topics, but we get piecemeal principles which are added to in other places. Cassuto’s commentary is excellent at explaining the reasons why one section follows another. In general the principle is association of words. Concerning vss. 27-30 (28-31 in Christian Bibles), the principle is simple: the previous section detailed obligations to those lower on the scale of society and these concern duties toward those higher (leaders and God). Vs. 27 could possibly be taken to mean “you shall not revile judges,” since elohim is sometimes used to describe leaders of the people. Yet the verse makes a good parallelism if we understand it as: do not revile God; do not curse your leaders. The principle is that authority is to be treated with honor. Vs. 28 is difficult to translate. In general we can simply say it is about giving God the first of the crops as well as firstborn sons. We find in Exodus 13 that firstborn sons are not sacrificed, God forbid, but ransomed with money. 23:1-3 demands truth in judicial proceedings, forbidding hearsay, false witness, partiality to social class, succumbing to a majority when the majority is wrong, and succumbing to pity for a poor man and thus perverting justice. Vss. 4-5 continue the theme: the property of a despised person is to be protected by the same moral laws as those of a friend. These verses are remarkable since they lead us to ask how the Torah can legislate that we forget about the fact that someone is our enemy and take on their burden? Sarna reminds us of Proverbs 25:21, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.” It seems the Torah is concerned not only with outward justice in our dealings, but also in transforming our hatreds into love.
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More justice laws (6-9), fields to rest in the seventh years (10-11), animals and slaves rest on the seventh days (12), transition: be on guard and do not name other gods (13), the agricultural feasts (14-17), laws pertaining to feast offerings (18-19).
The laws of justice in 23:1-9 cover many of the false motivations that would lead us to be unjust: lying, joining in with another who is lying, succumbing to the majority, siding with the poor regardless of truth, failing to assist an enemy, siding with the elite, false witness which can lead to death, receiving a bribe, and taking advantage of aliens. Vss. 6-9 are commands for judges and officials to protect the weaker parties and to carefully follow what is right in dispensing justice. The next section, vss. 10-19, concerns the calendar. In Sabbath years they will not plant a crop, but they will let grow up whatever comes so that the poor and animals will still have food. Perhaps the alternative would have been to plow it under, but letting it grow on its own is a provision in those years for the poor and animals. Similarly, in vs. 12, the law of the Sabbath as given here emphasizes its benefits for those lower in social status and for animals. It seems this calendar section is related by theme to the justice commands which it follows, where concern for the weaker party was emphasized. Vs. 13 is here perhaps because the festivals of Israel’s neighbors are similar and occur at similar times to those in Israel. But the Israelites are not to have any confusion about why they keep the festivals. They are not an occasion to participate in the culture of the Near East and the shared worship of deities as in other places. Israel’s festivals are for Hashem alone. The pilgrim feasts are three and though no mention is made here of coming to the sanctuary, it is assumed that there is some type of gathering in the very word used here for feast (regalim, related to the word ‘feet’, suggesting feasts to which they walked on foot). Vs. 15 says “as I commanded you” in the past tense, assuming that this commandment refers back to all that was said earlier in Exodus 12 about Passover. Thus, it is not true, as some commentators suggest, that this description of the festivals omits Passover and is an earlier form of the festival (some theorize that Passover and the Exodus story were invented later in Israel’s history). The commandment not to come empty handed means they are to bring to these pilgrim feasts gifts for the sanctuary and priests and Levites. The command does not specify if these gifts are tithes, sacrifices, first fruits, or other kinds of gifts (so perhaps any or all of these satisfy the command). The three pilgrim feasts are named differently here (Unleavened Bread, Harvest, Ingathering) than in Deuteronomy 16 (Passover, Weeks, Tabernacles). Vs. 16 calls Ingathering (Tabernacles) the “end of the year.” When did Israel’s year start and were there multiple calendars or did the calendar change over time? Exodus 12:2 (“this shall be the beginning of months for you”) probably means Israel counted the year from the month in which Passover occurs. Other information about the timing of the start of the year comes in Leviticus 25, concerning the Jubilee years, which are proclaimed on the “tenth day of the seventh month” (on Yom Kippur). So there were multiple ideas about the beginning and end of the year, as Jubilee years began in the fall (before Tabernacles). Perhaps “end of the year” in Exodus 23 means “end of the agricultural year” and there seems to have been two ways of looking at the year starting: spring or fall. Vss. 18-19 continue the principle of thematic association, as these laws are given in an order determined by common words. Since Unleavened Bread and first fruits have just been mentioned, the law that no leaven should be added to grain offerings and the law of bringing first fruits to the sanctuary are listed. Likewise, the commandment prohibiting killing a baby animal in the life-giving substance of its mother’s milk is probably related to festival practices of some of Israel’s neighbors.
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God’s angel to go before them (20-22), God will annihilate the Canaanites and Israel is to avoid their cult completely (23-25).
The laws thus far have not assumed that Israel is living in the wilderness. They assume the people are settled in the land and living an agricultural life. This section explains how they are to get to the land and what they are to do when they arrive. Cassuto highlights the difficulty in knowing whether the angel (messenger) of God is an angelic being or the Presence of God himself. The rabbis even wondered if angel (messenger) here means Moses (a human representative). The word angel (messenger) is broad and does not always connote a class of spiritual beings. In Numbers 14:19 and 20:16 it seems the angel is the Presence of God (the pillar of fire and cloud). Cassuto takes the phrase “my Name is in him” to mean that God’s Glory is in the pillar. The Presence is God but not God, a manifestation of God, but not God in his Direct Being. Note that this is all consistent with the theology of Yeshua as the Presence and Glory of God (“the word was with God and the word was God”). When God “blots out” the Canaanites (vs. 23) and “drives out” the Canaanites (vs. 28), the Israelites are not to follow their religious cult in any way. The cult which God will give Israel is modified and avoids the magical and pagan aspects of Canaanite worship. The idea of God blotting out and driving out Canaanites suggests that it is not necessary that all Canaanites die, if they will leave the land.
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EXODUS 23:26 – 24:18
No miscarriages in ideal Israel (26), God’s terror will drive out the Canaanites slowly (27-33), summons to Moses and elders to come up (24:1-2), covenant ratification ceremony (3-8), Moses and elders approach and see the God of Israel from afar (9-11), God calls Moses up to the top and summons him inside the cloud (12-18).
There is a tension in various narratives about the conquest of Canaan. Some speak of sudden success and make it sound as if, at least in some places, Israel quickly routed the Canaanites. Others suggest that some victories were temporary (the Canaanites moved back into walled towns after Israel defeated them) and very partial. Some think myth-like descriptions of a sudden conquest were passages used in worship, omitting the historical realities of a gradual settling of the land, and that more realistic descriptions like Exodus 23:29-30 were added later to balance the idealism of the mythic descriptions. Were vss. 27-33 written a long time after Israel’s settlement in the land? The presence of the word Philistines certainly is evidence that these verses were written or edited in period of the monarchy (later than 1000 BCE). Torah is a document with origins in the time of Moses, some parts of which go back to documents written by him. The later parts of Torah stem from the authority of what God revealed to Moses at Sinai even if Moses is not the final author of the Torah. In 24:4-7 we read of Moses writing God’s words and the “book of the covenant.” We can only guess what sort of writing Moses and scribes might have used, but Egyptian hieratic on animal skins is possible. Another possibility could be Canaanite linear script, though we’ve no indication Moses or Israel had Canaanite education. The “book [papyrus? scroll?] of the covenant” is possibly Exodus 20-23, but there are varied possibilities for what it could mean (a document which no longer exists, for example). Based on this story, one way we might guess the Pentateuch is said to be written by Moses is that core sections of its law were passed down from him. The story of Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders worshipping God on the holy mountain requires careful reading to determine what happened. In 24:1 we see that they would not come up the mountain, but remain distant from the place of God’s theophany on the mountain. Vs. 2 says only Moses will come near (but note in vs. 13 Joshua is mentioned and it is unclear if he was included). The summons is interrupted by vss. 3-8, in which Moses relates the words of God to the people, the affirmation of all Israel “we will do,” an overnight period, the building of an altar with twelve pillars the next morning, and a ceremony involving burnt and well-being offerings, applying blood to the altar, reading the book of the covenant, and applying blood on the people (the young men? the elders?). This ceremony should be understood as a covenant ratification and the nature of this covenant is that both God and the people are sworn to the death to keep it (unlike the Abrahamic promise in which God alone was sworn). In vss. 9-11, if we read them in harmony with vss. 1-2, Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders do not go all the way up, but only partially. They remain distant from the theophany. But they get close enough to have a remarkable view. Cassuto interprets it as significant that they do not see yod-hey-vav-hey (God by his Name) but “the God of Israel.” Likewise, Isaiah in his famous vision sees “Adonai” and not yod-hey-vav-hey. In other words, the way the vision is worded is a clue that they see a manifestation of God and not God directly. A further detail is the “brick” (pavement? tile?) of sapphire they see under the visible appearance of God. Perhaps it is like what Ezekiel saw, not Hashem directly, but “the appearance of the likeness of the Glory of Hashem” (1:28, mar’eh demut k’vod-Hashem). In vs. 11, it is not clear that the party of elders eats the covenant meal on the mountain itself. They certainly were not at the top. Another reading is that they came back down and ate the meal in the camp of Israel, with the meal being the well-being [peace] offerings from the ceremony. The meat of well-being offerings was eaten by the worshippers and was considered sacred. That the elders were not on the top of the mountain is clear also from vs. 12, in which Moses was called up. Moses ascends, waits six days, and on the seventh day — a day like creation, a time period considered culturally propitious for a great work — God called to him from within the cloud. From the bottom, the people could see God’s Glory as a consuming fire (aish ochelet). Moses actually entered the cloud, coming closer to the Glory of Hashem than anyone ever had or would in all of human history. He will not descend again until ch. 32, with the tablets, which he breaks at the sight of the Golden Calf.
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Offering of Tabernacle materials (1-8), the pattern from heaven (9), the Ark (10-16).
Sarna helpfully comments on ancient parallels to the Tabernacle, parallels to the idea of a divine blueprint for a sanctuary, and parallels between the Tabernacle and Creation accounts. We know of other portable sanctuaries like the Tabernacle from various ancient cultures and periods. The construction of the biblical Tabernacle follows know Egyptian techniques says Sarna. Various Sumerian and Egyptian texts describe divinely inspired building plans including temples. And the Tabernacle narratives come in seven sections each beginning with “the Lord said to Moses” (25:1; 30:11, 17, 22, 34; 31:1, 12). The first six have to do with gathering material and building and the seventh is about the Sabbath. This is an obvious parallel to the Genesis 1:1 – 2:3 Creation narrative. The Tabernacle service is also inaugurated on the first day of the year (40:17), suggesting newness and Creation. In his book The Lost World of Genesis One, John Walton explains how sanctuaries like the Tabernacle (and also pagan ones) used heaven and earth imagery (pillars, ceiling, sea, and so on). The materials are gathered by a freewill offering. 25:8 is a key verse for understanding the meaning of the Tabernacle (and later the Temple): God dwells among Israel through his Presence in the Tabernacle. The idea is not that God lives here, but that his Presence rests here. The Ark is a chest containing the symbols of God’s covenant with Israel, signs of his dwelling among them. The Ark is God’s footstool (Psa 99:5; 132:7-8; 1 Chr 28:2). Kings on their high thrones needed a footstool since their feet would not touch the ground. The Ark is the meeting place between heaven and earth for God’s Presence, the place where his feet touch. Cassuto notes, and we will consider throughout, that the Tabernacle instructions are not building plans, but accounts intended for later readers to enjoy the meaning and even numerical symmetry of the sanctuary. The instructions are not detailed enough to reconstruct a Tabernacle. God showed Moses visually what to do. What is written is here to communicate holiness and symmetry, not to enable us to build a Tabernacle of our own. There are indications, expanded later in Chronicles (1 Chr 28:19) and Ezekiel (compare the chariot in Ezekiel and the Ark cover), that the Tabernacle is an earthly pattern of the heavenly temple. The Babylonians thought the same of their Esagila temple to Marduk.
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The Ark cover (17-20), there I will meet you (21-22), the Table of the Bread of the Presence (23-30).
Why doesn’t Torah specify what cherubim look like? This is because it was already well-known. They are winged creatures with four faces (man, lion, ox, eagle) according to Ezekiel. They are similar to the sphinxes of Egypt and Assyria (also called kuribu, often human headed lions or bulls or various other mixtures). The cherubim on the Ark cover might bring to mind those that guarded the Garden in Eden (Gen 3:24), another link between the Creation narratives and the Tabernacle. They look down toward the Ark cover and do not gaze on God’s Presence. They guard his Presence and the tablets within. The translation “mercy seat” is a misunderstanding based on the name in Hebrew (kapporet) which is from the same root as “atone” or “cleanse” (kipper). Yet kapporet is based on the Kal form, which means “cover,” not the Piel form, which means “cleanse.” The “mercy seat” translation had further evidence since the high priest would sprinkle the blood on the Ark cover at Yom Kippur. Yet there is nothing about the word kapporet that suggests mercy, only covering. The Ark is God’s footstool and his invisible throne is above it (c.f., 1 Sam 4:4 “enthroned above the cherubim,” 2 Sam 6:2; 1 Chr 13:6). The Table is symbolic, not of God eating, since the priests eat the bread, but of the relationship between God and Israel.
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EXODUS 25:31 – 26:14
The Menorah (31-40), the Tabernacle coverings (26:1-14).
Composite lamps with multiple wicks, even commonly seven, are known from the ancient Middle East. The idea of putting lamps on a stand is also well-known. What is unique about the Menorah is its costliness, a talent of pure gold (3,000 shekels or about 75 lbs, Exod 38:25-26), and its exquisite workmanship. No lampstand this elaborate in any metal has been found. Sarna notes that the terminology for the design of the Menorah is Egyptian (where tree-like columns and plant decorations were used). Cassuto points out that no one can reconstruct or picture the original Menorah accurately. The description here is obscure and imprecise. The image from the Arch of Titus in Rome and in Josephus is what the Second Temple Menorah looked like, not the original one. The Tabernacle descriptions are not blueprints enabling later generations to build, but exist instead to show the holiness of worship. The four layers of the Tabernacle are, from inside to outside, linen, goat hair, ram skin, and a kind of leather thought by some to be from seals or dolphins (dugongs and dolphins live in the Red Sea).
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The wooden planks (or frames) of the Tabernacle (15-30).
The language used to describe the Tabernacle construction has elements that assume the people are already in the land of Canaan. Consider, for example, vs. 22 and the word for “west.” It is literally “toward the sea.” If the Israelites were in Egypt or Sinai, this would be north. But it is the same language used throughout the Hebrew Bible and means west, because in Canaan the sea is to the west. The directional words in Hebrew are from the point of view of Canaan (south is Negev, the desert, and north is Zaphon, a mountain in Syria). But how could such language be in a text set before Israel lives in Canaan? It indicates, once again, that the Torah narratives are in some cases written and in others edited after the time of Moses. The exact nature of the planks (or wood frames) described in vss. 15-30 is impossible to recover. Each one would be 15 feet long and 2.3 feet wide. No thickness is mentioned. More important are the numbers. The Tabernacle would consist of seventy cubits worth of plank/frame sections (the last ten cubits on the east side were open), with thirty cubits north and south and ten west. The total number of pedestals, counting the four in vs. 32, is one hundred. The structure itself was forty-five feet by fifteen feet by fifteen feet (three cubes of ten cubits each, but only divided into two rooms). Richard Friedman in Who Wrote the Bible has an intriguing theory. If the planks were placed in an overlapping manner instead of flush with each other, the width would have been only six to eight cubits (nine to twelve feet). There is evidence, not conclusive, but suggestive, that the Tabernacle was placed in the Temple under the wings of the large cherub statues Solomon placed in the Holy of Holies (1 Kgs 8:4; 2 Chr 5:5). The planks of the Tabernacle formed a holy space, a place on earth where the Presence was concentrated in the midst of Israel.
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The veil/curtain for the Holy of Holies (31-35), the screen for the entrance to the Holy Place (36-37).
Two-thirds of the space inside the tent that was the Tabernacle was the Holy Place, where the menorah, table of the bread of the presence, and incense altar stood. The final third of the space was separated by a parokhet (veil or curtain) of fine weaving — blue, purple, and scarlet with designs of the cherubim woven into the pattern. This inner curtain is elsewhere called the “veil of the screen” (parokhet hamasakh) and it hung on gold-covered pillars with hooks of pure gold. By contrast, the curtain at the entrance to the tent-Tabernacle was simply a screen (masakh) of lesser weave called “embroidery,” of the same colors of yarn, but without the pattern of cherubim woven into it. The description here also clarifies the location of the various pieces of Tabernacle furniture: the Ark and cover with cherubim inside the veil, the menorah on the south or left side, the table on the north or right side, and the altar of incense at the back of the Holy Place to the west (the entrance was on the east side). The entire arrangement communicated the concealment of God, behind a veil because even the strong emanation of his Direct Being is unbearable to mortals, and at the same time the desire of God to draw his people near and to create a desire for even greater access.
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The altar of burnt offering.
Two things are important to understand the altar of burnt offering: it is a frame for an earthen altar as described in 20:24-25 and it is not a unique design to Torah or Israel. As for the first point, 20:24-25 describe the simple stone and earth altars built before the Tabernacle was constructed. But the bronze-covered frame of the altar of burnt offering in 27:1-8 is hollow. The fire is not burnt on a bronze frame, but on the stones that apparently were piled in the hollow center (Cassuto, Sarna). The bronze frame described here beautifies the altar of stone and provides horns (triangular projections up from the corners) according to custom. As for the second point, visitors to Israel today can see many horned altars, Israelite and Canaanite. At Arad in the south and Dan in the north are examples of (illegal) Israelite altars with horns. The Arad altar is the exact dimension described in Exodus (7.5 feet across and 4.5 feet high). At Megiddo there is a Canaanite horned altar. Blood was daubed on the horns and those seeking sanctuary from blood retribution in the ancient Middle East would take hold of the horns (see 1 Kgs 1:50).
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The courtyard (9-17), summary (18-19).
The courtyard of the Tabernacle is about symmetry and numerical harmony. There are sixty pillars in all covering 300 cubits (60 X 5). The numbers ten and six are both important in the numerical harmony (six is important in the sexagesimal system of the ancient Middle East, as Cassuto discusses often in his commentary and ten has long been the basis of numerical systems because we have ten fingers). In terms of feet, the courtyard is 150 X 75 (an NFL football field is 300 X 160). The fence is made of white linen hangings that are seven and a half feet high. This height is such that people cannot see over it from level ground, making the inside of the courtyard a sacred enclosure and giving the message that drawing near to God requires coming inside. Though it is not stated, Cassuto and others theorize that the Tabernacle would be located within the enclosure so that the entrance would be on the center line of the courtyard. If so, the Ark would be in the exact center of the back half and the altar of burnt offering on the center of the front half (think of two 50 X 50 cubit squares with the Ark and altar on the center of each square). The size of the Tabernacle is another clue that the population of the early Israelites is smaller than the numbers that have been passed down in the Exodus text (see comments on Exodus 12).
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EXODUS 27:20 – 28:12
Oil for the Menorah (20-21), overview of high priestly vestments (28:1-5), the ephod of the high priest (6-12).
The oil for the sanctuary menorah is a perpetual due from Israel (though Torah does not say who will provide it). It must be olive oil (as opposed to flax, sesame, or animal fat). It must be clear (zakh), which means high grade free of impurities which cause smoke and odor from the lamps. Sarna says that this high grade oil is best made in a mortar and pestle as oppose to the usual olive press, followed by straining (based on the Mishnah and consistent with the Hebrew description of the oil). In ordinary lamps for the home, people would use the lower grade oil (third pressing and later), reserving the first and second pressing for cooking (as they are more flavorful, clear, and quality). Yet for God’s sanctuary, only the clearest oil of the olive is sufficient. Chapter 28 focuses on the vestments of the priests. First the high priests garments are detailed and are eight in number. The ordinary priests wear four of the same, but slightly different, garments (see vss. 40-42). But rather than fully describing the ordinary priests’ garments, they are summarized in comparison to the more detailed description of those of the high priest. The eight vestments are: ephod (6-12), breast-piece (13-30), robe (31-35), the frontlet for the headdress/turban (36-38), the chequered tunic (39), the headdress/turban (39), the sash (39), and linen breeches (42). Ephod is an unusual word. It comes from a root (afad) meaning “to put on tightly.” It is a sort of apron. In some texts it described a priestly garment and in some it seems to describe a type of idol (see Judg 8:27; 17:5; 18:14, 17). It is likely that the priestly apron, since it was used culturally only for sacred duties, could in and of itself by used as an idol by those who did not comprehend God’s purposes. King David wore a linen ephod (2 Sam 6:14), perhaps not as ornate as the high priest’s, but apparently to signify that he regarded himself as a priest-king (see Psa 110 for a Davidic understanding of the priesthood according to Melchizedek). The high priest’s ephod was linen woven with gold thread and blue, red, and purple yarn. The stone brooches which fastened the apron on the shoulders contained the names of the tribes engraved on lapis lazuli (like epaulets).
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Frame and chains for breastpiece (13-14), breastpiece of decision (15-21), fastening the breastpiece to the ephod (22-28), purpose of breastpiece (29), Urim and Thummim (30).
The choshen or breastpiece is a woven pouch with a gold frame and twelve stones with the tribes engraved on them. Inside it carries the Urim and Thummim. The Urim and Thummim give the high priest answers from God in making decisions and knowing truth (see Numb 27:21). How important is the Urim and Thummim? In Ezra 2:63 (also Neh 7:65), certain priests could not be validated as being of proper genealogy until a priest would arrive from Babylon (from the exile) with Urim and Thummim to verify. Apparently the Urim and Thummim were already known to Israel and already existed (no instructions to make them). The only other references in Torah are Lev 8:8 and Deut 33:8, and no description of their appearance or the method by which they rendered God’s decisions is mentioned (Sarna). King Saul once desired to know the thammim (1 Sam 14:41, a variant spelling of thummim). Many modern translations choose to follow the Greek (LXX) of 1 Sam 14:41, which includes both Urim and Thummim. The Urim and Thummim, as with other items of the biblical sanctuary, are an example of a permitted item which is otherwise forbidden. They are for divination (using objects to determine divine thoughts). God gives the power of divination only to one person in Israel, his high priest.
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Robe (31-35), the frontlet for the headdress/turban (36-38), the checkered tunic (39), the headdress/turban (39), the sash (39), linen breeches (42), requirement of wearing the vestments (43).
The robe or me’eel is worn under the ephod (apron) and is woven of wool with the color techelet (the unique blue of Israel made from dye derived from snails). Its neck is reinforced, probably with leather as in some Egyptian garments (Sarna), which is the meaning of the unusual reference in vs. 32 (“like a coat of mail”). Around its hem are yarn pomegranates alternating with golden bells. The purpose of the bells is so that God will hear the sound. But it is unusual that this is required for the high priest and not ordinary priests (who wear a linen tunic, but not the robe with bells, see vss. 40-42). This has led to speculation that the bells were especially for Yom Kippur when the priest went into the inner sanctuary (this could be the meaning of vs. 35, “when he comes into the sanctuary before the Lord”). On the high priest’s turban is a golden frontlet (vss. 36-38) inscribed with kodesh l’Adonai (holy to the Lord). Later tradition says the frontlet was two finger-breadths wide and extended from ear to ear (Sarna). The tunic or kettonet is worn under the robe and is white linen with fringes at the hem (ordinary priests wear one as well). The turban is white linen and a sash/belt is embroidered and we know from 39:29 it includes red, blue, and purple yarn (Sarna). Vss. 40-42 explain the four ordinary garments of priests (tunic, sash, turban, breeches) and includes the linen breeches which also complete the eight garments of the high priest. The high priest is covered in gold, blue, red, and purple, while ordinary priests are dressed in white. Vs. 43 probably refers to all the required vestments (but could possibly be specifically about the breeches and a taboo on nakedness in the sanctuary, even nakedness beneath the tunic).
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The materials for the installation of the priests (1-3), ceremony of cleansing and anointing and offerings (4-18).
The installation of priests is described here and its fulfillment is recorded in Leviticus 8-9. Strangely, the order of robing is different in Leviticus (Sarna). In Exodus 29 the order is tunic, robe, ephod, breastpiece, decorated band of the ephod, turban, and frontlet of the turban. In Leviticus 8 it is tunic, sash, robe, ephod, decorated band of the ephod, breastpiece, turban, and frontlet of the turban. Also, only Aaron’s anointing is prescribed in both places, but we read elsewhere that all priests were anointed and not just the high priest (Sarna, see Exod 28:41; 30:30; 40:14-15; Lev 7:35-36; 10:7; Num 3:3). Some theorize that there are two contradictory traditions (one in which all priests are anointed and another in which it is only the high priest). Sarna suggests another theory. Only the high priest’s head is anointed. For the other priests, the anointing consists in the sprinkling of anointing oil mixed with blood from the altar as described in Exodus 29:21 and Leviticus 8:30. In the portion describing the sacrifices, we have the first reference to leaning the hand (laying on of hands) on an animal as part of the ritual (s’michah, which becomes the word for ordination of rabbis in later Judaism). The Torah never specifies a meaning for this leaning of the hand and various theories have been proposed (ownership of the animal, expressing the intent that the animal’s death is a substitute, etc.).
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Continuation of ordination sacrifices (19-26), note that the right thigh and breast are the eternal due of the priests (27-30), the priestly covenant meal with God (31-34), seven days of ordination (35-37).
This section completes the ordination ceremony instructions for the priests which is also the subject of Leviticus 8-9. In the previous section, the first two types of sacrifices for the ordination ceremony were covered (the sin or purification offering of one bull in vss. 10-14 and the burnt or whole offering of one ram in vss. 15-18). The third sacrifice of ordination is a ram following the peace or fellowship offering pattern. The blood of this peace offering is rubbed on the right ear, right thumb, and right big toe of the priests (symbolic purification of hearing/obedience and doing/walking/serving). The priest is to hear and to do as God wills. Vss. 27-30 introduce an important part of the priestly income: the right thigh and breast of every peace offering made in Israel. These are the due of the priests for all time. The priests eat the meat of the peace offering boiled and in the sanctuary precincts (a holy place). As with all peace offerings, the eating is considered a covenantal meal with God, as in the ancient custom of people eating a meal together when making a covenant. Vss. 35-37 seem to mean that the whole procedure is repeated each day for seven days (Sarna).
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The daily burnt offering (38-42), summary and theology of the Tabernacle (43-46).
The strange thing about vss. 38-42 is that they could describe simply an offering to be made each of the seven days of the ordination period for the priests yet they also turn up in Numbers 28 as the perpetual offering for all time. It seems that the first ordination period of the priests was also to inaugurate the daily offering, what becomes known as the tamid. Thus, vss. 38-42 are both about the seven days of ordination and about daily practice from then on. Twice each day lambs were offering to start and end the daily sacrifices. The morning tamid was first and the evening tamid was last. The time for the evening sacrifice, as for the Passover sacrifice in 12:6 is bein arbayim, “between the evenings.” The phrase is much discussed. The sages decided it means “between the suns,” as in between noon (the zenith) and sunset. Many English translations say twilight, though this is only one interpretation. Josephus states that the Passover lambs were offered between 3 and 5 in the afternoon (Sarna). The tamid was the basic offering of Israel, the daily worship, and came to be regarded as utmost in significance, the sign of perpetual worship and obedience to God. It is reflected in the prayer times still practiced in Judaism: shacharit and minchah, the morning and evening offerings. Note that minchah prayer is before sundown just like the evening offering and that ma’ariv corresponds to the final burning of any remaining flesh on the altar after sundown (see Steinsaltz Jewish Prayer, pg. 84). In vss. 43-46 the section closes with a reminder of the purpose of the sanctuary of Israel. The tent-tabernacle is where God, by means of his Kavod [Glory], meets with the people. Therefore it must be kept sanctified. In other words, the blood of sacrifices will be used to cleanse the sanctuary to keep it pure for the Kavod. The theology of the Tabernacle [mishkan] and Temple [heichal] is about a place where God’s mystical presence dwells in the midst of the people. The Kavod in the midst of Israel is like the Spirit indwelling the nation. To keep the Kavod near, Israel has to continually cleanse (sanctify) it from impurities. And the chief impurity, according to Leviticus 11-15 and Numbers 19, is death and anything resembling death.
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The incense altar (1-10).
As Sarna observes, chapter 30 is an appendix of instructions of items related to the sanctuary and worship of Israel. It consists of five sections, beginning with instructions for the incense altar (1-10) and then the census tax (11-16), the bronze laver (17-21), the anointing oil (22-23), and the incense (34-38). Why these items are described after the sectional summary of 29:43-46 is not known. Sarna supposes that the incense altar may be mentioned after because it played no part in the priestly ordination ceremonies. The incense altar is small (1.5 feet square at the top and 3 feet tall) and has a brazier on which coals from the altar of burnt offering are placed and incense powder is poured on the coals. It figures prominently in Leviticus 16 and the Yom Kippur ritual as its smoke protects the high priest from death in the close proximity to God’s Presence that Yom Kippur entails.
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EXODUS 30:11 – 31:17
The census tax (11-16), the bronze laver (17-21), the anointing oil (22-33), the incense (34-38), the skilled craftsmen (31:1-11), the Sabbath (12-17).
This census tax is in its origin a one-time event, but it later became an annual due in the Second Temple period (Sarna). This census tax is used to make the sockets for the Tabernacle (see 38:24-28). Taking a census was considered dangerous. It was a secular means of power, relying on a census to know how large an army could be mustered. This could indicate a lack of faith in the power of God and bring his wrath. Thus, in the Israelite censuses a tax to be used for the sanctuary was a ransom for the sin of the people in relying on numbers and strength (the same custom was practiced in Mesopotamia, Cassuto). Later this tax became an annual custom to be collected on the first of Adar in the early spring (Sarna). There is now a special Torah reading of 30:11-16 on the Sabbath before the month of Adar which is called Shabbat shekalim. The bronze laver was for ceremonial washing of hands and feet, which would contract impurity through walking in impure places and touching impurity. To fail to wash was to invite death due to disrespect. The anointing oil and incense powder were made by a sacred recipe, not to be made for any other use. The craftsmen of the Tabernacle were said already to be wise (skilled) and in addition they are now given increased skill (wisdom) by God. That is, the skillful are granted skill, leading Rabbi Johanan to say that God “imparts wisdom only to those who already possess it” (Sarna, compare Yeshua’s “to him who has more will be given”). The seventh section of the Tabernacle instructions, like the seventh day of creation, is about the Sabbath. Exodus 31:13 and 17 put the Sabbath in its proper perspective: it is a sign between Israel and God, a sign of the unique relationship between God and his elect people. The false assumption that Sabbath is a universal law for all people overlooks its place in the Torah as a covenant sign of the election of Israel. The location of the Sabbath command here is a reminder that even sacred work should not be undertaken on the Sabbath if it can be done on the six days (thus, no Tabernacle construction on the Sabbath).
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EXODUS 31:18 – 33:11
The two tablets (18), the making of the Golden Calf (32:1-6), Moses’ intercedes (7-14), Moses’ anger (15-20), Aaron’s excuses and apology (21-24), the Levites rally (25-29), Moses intercedes again (30-34), the Presence withdraws (33:1-6), excursus on Moses’ nearness to God (7-11).
How are we to understand the chronology of the Sinai and Golden Calf stories? The Tabernacle instructions are an interlude between Moses going up the mountain for forty days and nights (24:18) and his descent from the mountain (32:15). Cassuto’s theory is that the first covenant, including the command to build the Tabernacle, was rescinded at the Golden Calf and only reinstated after the people were reconciled to God. It is possible, then, that the Tabernacle instructions so far have really only been given to Moses on the mountain and are unknown as yet to the people. Perhaps the whole set of Tabernacle instructions would not have needed repeating if Moses had come down to a faithful Israel. But the covenant will be reconstituted after this breakdown and the Tabernacle will be built under the renewed covenant. Cassuto has a fascinating discussion about the possible relationship of Jeroboam’s Golden Calves and the incident in Exodus (he suggests that Jeroboam was going back and siding against Moses with the people who wanted idols to represent Adonai). The Golden Calf is likely either an idol for Adonai or, like the cherubim on the Ark, meant to be a footstool for his Presence. The people are not worshipping a different God. They are worshipping the God of the Fathers through forbidden means. Moses intercedes and tries to regain the covenant relationship, which he successfully accomplishes through much turmoil. In 33:7-11, since God has withdrawn, Moses pitches the Tent outside the camp and meets with God there. Moses is the one man who reconciles Israel with God by means of priestly representation (to be compared with Messiah).
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Moses negotiates with God (12-13), God relents and will send his Presence to help Moses (14), Moses negotiates for more: that God will remain the sanctifier of Israel (15-16).
The background for this dialogue between Moses and God (which continues into vss. 17-23) is the beginning of the chapter (vss. 1-6). There God tells the people to leave Sinai and go to the land. He will send an angel before them and give them the land, but he will not go with them. He is so angry, if his Presence were to dwell among them, he would consume them. Now Moses enters into dialogue with the wronged and angry God. Cassuto says, “In order to comprehend the dialogue in this paragraph properly, heed must be paid to the fact that this conversation is not conducted in accord with Greek or modern processes of logical thinking, but follows the pattern of Eastern dialogues, which convey the intention of the speakers more by way of allusion than through explicit statements.” The nature of this dialogue is a sort of contest and the basis is relational or negotiating a covenant relationship. You tell me to bring this people up, says Moses, but you have not let me know who this angel is that will go in your place or how I should be comforted by this. You say you know me by name and that I have favor. Now, therefore, if I have favor, reveal your ways more clearly to me. Comfort and reassure me in this new position you have put me in, leading a people without your Presence. God relents, but his promise is just to Moses (“I will give you (singular) rest”). Moses negotiates for more. Of course, if you don’t go with us personally, we should not even leave here. But we need more, not just your help for me in leading the people. We need you to remain our God and to make us a distinct people. In this way, Moses uses his close relation to negotiate the divine Presence to remain with Israel, and not merely with him personally.
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God agrees to Moses’ request (17), Moses adds a new request: to see his Glory (18), God agrees with many qualifications (19-23).
Moses negotiates until God agrees in vs. 17 to personally lead Israel, and not do so merely by an angel, and to make Israel his distinct, elect people. In vs. 13, Moses had asked to know God’s ways. Now, he returns to that theme, asking to see God’s glory. As Cassuto says, God’s agreement is with reservations: “It is possible for you to hear the voice of the Lord speaking to you as one hears that of his friend (vs.11), but as far as seeing is concerned . . . there is a boundary man cannot cross.” God will let his goodness pass before Moses. “Goodness” stands for some emanation or aspect of God’s character, not his direct Being. In addition to manifesting the goodness of his character to Moses, God will let him hear his Name, a description of God’s character. None of this is even close to Moses seeing the direct Being of God. Nonetheless, the level of revelation Moses will have of God (the intensity of the manifestation or its level of proximity to God’s full Being) will be enough that Moses must be sheltered in a rock and protected. The implication is that even a glimmer of God’s Being is too much for mortals and that there are varying levels of manifestation or emanation of God (from the fire-cloud which all Israel can see to the higher levels Moses normally sees to this new level and also to level beyond what Moses can endure). One last metaphor God uses is as if he will briefly show Moses his back, covering the cleft with his hand. Moses by no means shall see the face (direct Being). Moses will see God’s attributes, a revelation leading closer to God’s essential Nature, but not too close.
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God calls Moses up the mountain to see his Glory and remake the tablets (1-3), Moses ascends (4), the Lord descends and proclaims his Nature (5-7), Moses asks for a promise of God’s future Presence with Israel (8-9).
The first tablets were “the work of God,” but these second tablets Moses cuts from the rock and then God will write on them (compare 32:16 and 34:1, Cassuto). Having obtained forgiveness for Israel and a promise of God’s Presence in the ascent into the land, Moses is making new tablets representing the covenant renewal that will soon happen. The description of Moses’ second ascent (the first being in Exodus 19-20) is much more concise than the first, but contain the same basic elements. God proclaimed his Name, says vs. 5, which is more than simply a name, but a statement of his Nature, as in vs. 6. God’s way of dealing with compassion (rachum), showing favor (chanun), having abundant loyal love and faithfulness (rav chesed v’emet) is his Name. In Judaism, these verses comprise the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy or the shalosh-esrei middot of God. In vs. 9, Cassuto reads Moses as asking for yet more: that he would promise to send his Presence not only in the next endeavor, but into the future, and to keep Israel as his inheritance. Thus, Moses has won great favor for Israel in stages: that God would go with Moses and help as he leads (33:12-14), that God will go with all Israel and not just Moses (33:15-17), and that God’s Presence with Israel will remain (34:9).
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New laws of apostasy (10-17), restatement of festival laws (18-26).
Since God has accepted Israel again, there will be covenant renewal. The first step is here, in God going back over laws of worship and festivals and even adding stricter measures regarding worship. In the first giving of the law, the people received a brief and simple injunction not to worship their gods and to destroy their cultic objects (23:23-24). No they are instructed in more detail and also told not to make any covenant with the Canaanites in the land (Sarna). Furthermore, they are told that God is jealous (or impassioned). Incidents like the Golden Calf incite his wrath. Idolatry is like adultery and God like the jealous husband. The festivals are the next subject because in the Golden Calf incident the people proclaimed a festival (Sarna). Likewise, when Jeroboam later made Golden Calves he proclaimed a festival (1 Kgs 12:28-33). Unleavened Bread appears first because the people had declared the Golden Calf to be the God that led them out of Egypt (Sarna). These festival laws do not add anything to what had been given in 23:12-19.
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Moses writes words of covenant renewal and rewrites the Ten Words (27-28), the Glory of the Lord on Moses’ face (29-35).
Moses is instructed to write the words of vss. 10-26, the covenant renewal laws including laws of apostasy and festivals. He remained a second time on the mountain with the Presence for forty days and nights (see 24:18 for the first forty). Cassuto argues that the account of the second period on the mountain emphasizes Moses being with the Presence, whereas the first emphasized him receiving revelation. During this second forty day period, Moses does not eat or drink and it is emphasized that he is “with the Lord.” Then Moses inscribes the Ten Words on the tablets (although Cassuto says it is possible that the “he” here is God). The radiance of the Glory remains, miraculously, on Moses’ countenance. The word for “shone” is the same as the word for horns, because radiant light often appears as rays which project out like horns. These verses led to a medieval notion that Moses come down with horns on his head (and to the idea that all Jews have horns!). This passage illustrates the differing levels of the Glory. Moses is so near to God, though he cannot see God’s face directly and live, nonetheless the after-radiance of the Glory Moses encounters is too bright for ordinary people. Much mysticism is based on the notion of God mediating his Presence with different levels for people at different relationships of nearness. Such a text rightly makes us want to be able to approach nearer to the divine Glory as Moses did, to ascend the levels and see God more closely.
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Assembling the people to start Tabernacle construction (1), Sabbath reminders (2-3), offerings for the Tabernacle (4-9), elements of the Tabernacle to be made (10-19), the congregation departs (20).
It is assumed that Israel’s covenant with God is renewed, symbolized by the remaking of the tablets (Sarna and Cassuto). Now the work of the Tabernacle resumes. Whereas chapters 25-31 were the instructions, now chapters 35-40 will be the implementation. Much from chapters 25-31 will be repeated verbatim. There are a few additions. For example, 35:3 is a new clarification: no fire is to be kindled on the Sabbath, not even in private dwellings. Sarna notes that this became a medieval controversy between the Karaites (who sat in the dark on Shabbat) and the rabbis (who allowed fire lit before Shabbat to continue to burn without fuel added). The lighting of candles on Friday night became obligatory as a result of this controversy, so that rabbinically traditional Jews would oppose the Karaites each week in practice.
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The people respond to the call to give to and build the Tabernacle.
Whereas the instructions for the terumah (free-will offering) for the Tabernacle were given in Exodus 25, now the people respond to the call. The offering is successful and the Tabernacle construction gets under way.
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EXODUS 35:30 – 36:7
Bezalel and Ohaliab, the craftsmen (35:30 – 36:1), the terumah and a call for no more to be brought (36:2-7).
Vss. 30-34 are a nearly verbatim repetition of 31:1-6. The craftsmen who work on the Tabernacle are skilled and even divinely endowed for the task. The people bring even more for the terumah (freewill offering) to the point that more than enough is collected and the leaders ask them to stop. The overall point is that the Tabernacle work was undertaken with great enthusiasm and skill, to be a treasure in Israel.
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Making the inner tent sections (8-9), joining the inner tent sections (10-13), making the goat’s hair covering and the dolphin [or dugong] skin outer covering (14-19).
The order is reversed from the instructions in chapters 25-31. There the articles were described first and then the tent. Here the tent is made first and then the articles. Cassuto says this is simply the ancient preference for a kind of ordering called a chiasm, a literary device in which the order of items follows a pattern (often A-B-B-A). In this case the chiastic pattern of the Tabernacle building is as follows: Articles – Tent – Tent – Articles. But the rabbis explain this change in order more fancifully with a midrash: Bezalel came to Moses and questioned the logic of his instructions, “It is a universal practice that one first builds a house and then furnished it” (Berachot 55a, cited in Sarna).
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EXODUS 36:20 – 37:16
The planks, silver sockets, and bars of the Tabernacle (20-34), the curtain of blue, purple, and red wool woven with cherubim (35-36), the screen of the entrance (37-38), the Ark and its cover with cherubim (37:1-9), the Table of the Bread of the Presence (10-16).
This is almost verbatim repetition of 26:1-37 (the planks, sockets, curtains, and screen of the Tabernacle) and 25:10-22 (the Ark) and 25:23-30 (the Table).
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The menorah of pure gold and beaten work (17-24), the altar of incense (25-28), the holy oil and incense (29).
This section is a near-verbatim repetition, except that it describes the carrying out of the work, of 25:31-39 (menorah) and 30:1-5 (incense altar). The short summary about the holy anointing oil and the pure fragrant incense does not repeat an earlier section, but simply notes that the work was done. Composite lamps with multiple wicks, even commonly seven, are known from the ancient Middle East. The idea of putting lamps on a stand is also well-known. What is unique about the Menorah is its costliness, a talent of pure gold (3,000 shekels or about 75 lbs, Exod 38:25-26), and its exquisite workmanship. No lampstand this elaborate in any metal has been found. The lampstands in Solomon’s Temple were quite different. Sarna notes that the terminology for the design of the Menorah is Egyptian (where tree-like columns and plant decorations were used). Cassuto points out that no one can reconstruct or picture the original Menorah accurately. The description here is obscure and imprecise. The image from the Arch of Titus in Rome and in Josephus is what the Second Temple Menorah looked like, not the original one. The incense altar is small (1.5 feet square at the top and 3 feet tall) and has a brazier on which coals from the altar of burnt offering are placed and incense powder is poured on the coals. It figures prominently in Leviticus 16 and the Yom Kippur ritual as its smoke protects the high priest from death in the close proximity to God’s Presence that Yom Kippur entails.
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The altar of burnt offering (1-7), the bronze laver (8), the courtyard (9-20).
Vss. 1-7 repeat 27:1-8 almost word for word. Two things are important to understand the altar of burnt offering: it is a frame for an earthen altar (as described in 20:24-25) and it is not a unique design to Torah or Israel. The bronze-covered frame of the altar of burnt offering in 27:1-8 is hollow. The fire is not burnt on a bronze frame, but on the stone that doubtless were piled in the hollow center (Cassuto, Sarna). The bronze frame described here beautifies the altar of stone and provides horns (triangular projections up from the corners) according to custom. The bronze laver is described in more detail in 30:17-21. It was for ceremonial washing of hands and feet, which would contract impurity through walking in impure places and touching impurity. To fail to wash was to invite death due to disrespect. Vss. 9-20 repeat 27:9-19. The courtyard of the Tabernacle is about symmetry and numerical harmony. There are sixty pillars in all covering 300 cubits (60 X 5). The numbers ten and six are both important in the numerical harmony (six is important in the sexagesimal system of the ancient Middle East, as Cassuto discusses often in his commentary and ten has long been the basis of numerical systems because we have ten fingers). In terms of feet, the courtyard is 150 X 75 (an NFL football field is 300 X 160). The fence is made of white linen hangings that are seven and a half feet high. This height is such that people cannot see over it from level ground, making the inside of the courtyard a sacred enclosure and giving the message that drawing near to God requires coming inside. Though it is not stated, Cassuto and others theorize that the Tabernacle would be located within the enclosure so that the entrance would be on the center line of the courtyard. If so, the Ark would be in the exact center of the back half and the altar of burnt offering on the center of the front half (think of two 50 X 50 cubit squares with the Ark and altar on the center of each square).
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EXODUS 38:21 – 39:1
A record of the metals offered for the Tabernacle (21-31), the wool yarn for the high priestly garments (39:1).
A talent would be about 76 lbs, bringing the total gold offering to nearly 3,000 lbs. Chapter 39 corresponds to Exodus 28.
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The high priestly ephod and breastpiece.
This section repeats chapter 28 about the high priestly vestments. The eight vestments are: ephod, breastpiece, robe, the frontlet for the headdress/turban, the fringed or checkered tunic, the headdress/turban, the sash, and linen breeches. Ephod is an unusual word. It comes from a root (afad) meaning “to put on tightly.” It is a sort of apron. In some texts it described a priestly garment and in some it seems to describe a type of idol (see Judg 8:27; 17:5; 18:14, 17). It is possible that the priestly apron, since it was used culturally only for sacred duties, could in and of itself by used as an idol by those who did not comprehend God’s purposes. King David wore a linen ephod (2 Sam 6:14), perhaps not as ornate as the high priest’s, but apparently to signify that he regarded himself as a priest-king (see Psa 110 for a Davidic understanding of the priesthood according to Melchizedek). The high priest’s ephod was linen woven with gold thread and blue, red, and purple yarn. The stone brooches which fastened the apron on the shoulders contained the names of the tribes engraved, perhaps on lapis lazuli (like epaulets). The choshen or breastpiece is a woven pouch with a gold frame and twelve stones with the tribes engraved on them. Inside it carries the Urim and Thummim. The Urim and Thummim give the high priest answers from God in making decisions and knowing truth (see Numb 27:21).
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The robe, tunics, and frontlet for the headdress/turban of the high priest (22-31), completion of the Tabernacle (32).
The instructions for the high priestly garments were originally given in ch. 28 and are now being carried out. The robe is worn under the ephod (apron) and is techelet (the unique blue of Israel made from dye derived from snails). Its neck is reinforced, probably with leather as in some Egyptian garments (Sarna), which is the meaning of the unusual reference in vs. 23 (lit. “like a coat of mail”). Around its hem are yarn pomegranates alternating with golden bells. The purpose of the bells is so that God will hear the sound. But it is unusual that this is required for the high priest and not ordinary priests (who wear a linen tunic, but not the robe with bells). This has led to speculation that the bells were especially for Yom Kippur when the priest went into the inner sanctuary (this could be the meaning of 28:35, “when he comes into the sanctuary before the Lord”). On the high priest’s turban is a golden frontlet inscribed with kodesh l’Adonai (holy to the Lord). Later tradition says the frontlet was two fingerbreadths wide and extended from ear to ear (Sarna). The tunic or kettonet is worn under the robe and is white linen with fringes at the hem (ordinary priests wear one as well). The turban is white linen and a sash/belt is embroidered and we know from 39:29 it includes red, blue, and purple yarn (Sarna). Vs. 32, about the completion of the Tabernacle, is almost identical to Genesis 2:1, “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them” (Cassuto). The Tabernacle is a microcosm of creation, representing the fact that the universe is God’s sanctuary.
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Moses inspects all the work of the Tabernacle and blesses the workers.
This list, very similar to the one after the Tabernacle instructions in ch. 35, is a kind of repetitive summary list which Cassuto calls typical in Near Eastern literature. Though modern readers weary of not only reading the Tabernacle details twice and also two summary lists at the end of each respective section, such was the style of ancient literature about foundational matters. The Tabernacle is the foundational context for the Temple in Israel’s later generations. Looking back to the Tabernacle is vital to establish for Israel the antiquity and divine origins of its worship tradition. Vss. 42 and 43, much like vs. 32, allude to the creation story in Genesis. Compare vs. 42 with Genesis 2:2, “On the seventh day God finished the work that He had been doing.” Compare vs. 43 with Genesis 1:31, “And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good.” And both here and in Genesis there is a blessing — Moses blesses the workers in vs. 43 and we read in Genesis 1:22, 28; 2:3, “God blessed.” The Tabernacle symbolizes creation as God’s place and is in miniature a picture of God’s intention to dwell with his creatures in eternity.
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Assembling the Tabernacle (1-8), anointing and consecrating it for service (9-11), installing Aaron and anointing his sons (12-16).
The Tabernacle is to be assembled by Moses’ direct supervision since he alone saw the pattern according to Exodus 25:9, 40; 27:8 and Numbers 8:4 (Sarna). The timing of the Tabernacle’s inauguration is symbolic: New Year’s Day, which is symbolic of Creation (Sarna). The instructions for the Tabernacle beginning in Exodus 25 consisted of seven sections, six concerning the work and the seventh concerning the Sabbath. In other words, the Tabernacle narratives parallel the creation narratives. It is two weeks short of the anniversary of the Exodus (two weeks before Passover). The assembling of the Tabernacle starts with the Ark of the Covenant and proceeds from the holiest quarters out to the courtyard (Sarna). The method of assembling and disassembling the Tabernacle will always involve dealing with the Holy of Holies (or Most Holy Place) carefully.
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Summary of Moses completing God’s design.
It is affirmed in this section that Moses completed all the parts as instructed. The section begins with vayyehi (וַיְהִי, and it was), a way of indicating a dividing point in the story. The catalogue of the things Moses accomplished follows the divine orders given in vss. 3-8, and Cassuto observes it also brings in many details from the earlier chapters about the structure and its parts. Each section ends with “as Adonai commanded Moses” (Cassuto). There are exactly seven subsections with this closing formula (Cassuto). Seven has been throughout the ideal number, symbolizing the completeness of the tabernacle and the serendipitous nature of its design. As creation was made in seven “days,” so the earthly copy of the heavenly sanctuary is assembled in seven stages.
Moses completes the assembly of the outer court and furnishings of the Tabernacle (28-33), the Glory fills the Tabernacle (34-35), the cloud and fire in the journeys of Israel in the wilderness (36-38).
A number of creation story parallels fill the Tabernacle narratives, including the structure in Exodus 25-31 with six sections of Tabernacle instructions followed by a seventh about the Sabbath (paralleling the seven days of creation). Likewise vs. 33 brings to mind Genesis 2:2, “on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done” (Cassuto). With the Tabernacle completed and assembled for the first time and its furnishings anointed for consecration, the Glory comes down. Vss. 34-38 are written in poetry, with the usual parallelism, to communicate the majesty of the descent of God’s Glory to dwell with the people. So, for example, vs. 34 has parallel terms describing both the Glory and the Tabernacle: the cloud covered / the Glory of the Lord filled, the Tent of meeting / the Tabernacle. The book ends with the note that the Glory followed Israel throughout the wanderings. This is remarkable since Israel’s time in the wilderness was one of rebellion and faithlessness. So a later midrash says that the Shechinah still dwells in exile with the Jewish people today (Talmud, Megillah 29a). This is what God had said was his desire and plan in Exodus 29:45: to live with his people. The Tabernacle, parallel to creation, is God’s desire to dwell with us, all of his children.
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