Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1 – 24:18)

EXODUS 21:1-19

The law code of Israel, which we see in its very oldest form in the Book of the Covenant (Exodus chapters 21-23), is a realistic code for an ancient society. It is so realistic, in fact, that the things it permits offend our modern sensibilities.

God has an ideal, which is clearly communicated in some portions of the Torah. But God does not hold human society absolutely to that ideal.

We learn from this how far humanity is from the ideal, from God’s perfect teaching. We need regulations to moderate the effects of hatred, bigotry, greed, and egotism. But we also need a supreme law, an ideal, a higher vision, something society is not yet ready to accomplish but which we dream about in the future as the better way.

“They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth will be as full of the knowledge of Adonai as the waters fill the sea” (Isa 11:9). This ideal is not something that developed later in Israel, but it already existed when the ancient law code was first given. We know this because Exodus 20:22 already forbade the use of hewn stones in building the temporary altar to God. Why were hewn stones forbidden? Because the metal implements used to quarry and shape stones resemble the tools of war, which may not come into the Presence of God where his people worship.

The practical law code of Israel is of interest to us because it helps us understand how we might through government regulate a world still handicapped by evil. There has to be real world justice in a world where love and knowledge do not reign.

Of course we are even more interested in the ways the Divine Ideal peeks through the regulation and shows us a better way. “You are slaves to no one, but to me alone,” God says (paraphrasing Lev 25:55). “I am the God who frees slaves,” (see Exodus 20:2). “You were once slaves yourselves, so love the immigrant as yourself” (reference numerous verses in Torah including Lev 19:34).

The God who sets us free has a better way. While we wait for it, there is work to do in the real world. This involves in many cases permitting things that have no place in the Next World. But there is a path from here to there.

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).

What can we make of the slave laws referred to in this chapter? It is common for people to dismiss the repugnance of the idea of the Bible allowing slavery here by saying, “This refers to debt slavery, indentured servitude.” To some degree this is true and the laws of Exodus 21:1-11 are about servitude related to debt. They are related to a different set of regulations (which cannot be perfectly harmonized with them) in Leviticus 25:39-55. But there are several factors in the Hebrew slave law that do not permit us to simply dismiss this as “indentured servitude.”

First, the Hebrew slave is chattel, property, as we read in Exodus 21:21, “since he is the other’s property.” Second, although it is not explicitly stated here, reading between the lines, we see that the Hebrew slave is in most cases an unmarried child given in servitude by parent who are indebted. Children were basically sold as temporary or even permanent property to settle a debt. Furthermore, this debt servitude is not the only kind of slavery permitted in Torah. In Numbers 31 and Deuteronomy 20-21 we see that Gentiles could in certain situations be taken as permanent slaves and/or war brides. And Leviticus 25:44-46 permits an Israelite to purchase as slaves the children of immigrants.

But in contrast to this terrible thought, in which we see that Torah permitted slavery, there is a more encouraging truth: slavery is not consistent with the full practice of Torah. That is, the Torah has conflicting ideas within it. “You shall love the immigrant as yourself,” says Leviticus 19:34, in spite of the fact that Leviticus 25:44 permits purchasing an immigrant child as a slave!

It seems what we can say is this: Torah does not ultimately permit slavery, but initially it did until Israel learned to keep the fulness of Torah. At the outset, as a law code for an ancient society, Torah did permit slavery. Instead of outlawing slavery, God at first regulated it. For more, see, “EXCURSUS: How Can Torah Permit Slavery?”

Vss. 2-6 deal with a male slave who is an Israelite (Hebrew slave). Those who could not pay their debts could either put themselves or their children into temporary or permanent servitude (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. Her status is like that of a wife in a polygamous society.

Vss. 12-17 concern capital offenses. Torah gives a legal basis for the death penalty for murder in the first or second degree, murder of parents, kidnapping, and (surprisingly) insulting parents. Two cases are mentioned where the death penalty is to be avoided. If there is an accidental death, Torah will provide a sanctuary city for the killer to be protected from vengeance (vs. 13). Also, if there is a fight, and someone is injured but does not die, there is no penalty (vss. 18-19).

EXODUS 21:20 – 22:3 (22:4 in Christian Bibles)

Torah is not too far above us to transform us and it is not simply theoretical. Torah is a covenant given in real time thousands of years ago. The Bible seemingly presents it as a monolithic package, as if Moses received the whole thing on Sinai and it was known completely from then forward.

No one hearing Torah in ancient Israel thought it was given all at once or that it was unchanging. The Torah as we know it formed over centuries and there were multiple versions that came together as one. The origin was an appearance to the Exodus generation, but the teachings grew and developed. Torah was always very human and not completely divine.

In the law codes we see a society with divine light shining in and a wisdom in law bringing a people out from Iron Age ethics to something higher and better. Vestiges of Bronze and Iron Age thinking are still there. Human frailty and failure are represented with realism. We do not live as a society on the plane where God is. But ambition, greed, corruption, violence, these things mar our civilizations.

Practical justice does not deal with ideals or imagined perfection. Justice considers the worth of the criminal and the victim, a world of conflicting values and messy scenarios. Torah speaks to this also. It does not do so by giving us an unchanging law, but rather an example of how God’s ideal can be applied to real world situations. We get a glimpse into the improvement of a broken society.

There is surely good in getting involved in the legal and judicial system wherever we live and some people are improving the world from there. Torah speaks and shows us ways. But Torah also points us to something higher than any human court. One day when there are no more judges, when divine knowledge fills the earth, things only hinted at in Torah will become normal.

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. The law code is not purely about moral and ethics, but regulating society. The ideal peeks through the law code in various ways, such as in what Carol Myers (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) calls “motive clauses” (such as “for you were slaves in Egypt”). But many other aspects of these laws are non-ideal, matters for a court concerning the punishment for offenses.

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. 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 animals that kill a person, 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. If a thief is killed when breaking in at night, this is not murder, but in daylight it is not permitted to kill someone for breaking and entering.

EXODUS 22:4-26 (5-27 in Christian Bibles)

Since we discovered the literature of the ancient Near East and found many parallels to the Bible in the writings of other nations, it has become common to see the Bible demystified and demythologized. Before we knew about the parallel literature, many things we read in the Bible seemed unique. Having found numerous similarities and comparable ideas in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and other cultures, the pendulum of opinion among historians and scholars swung the other way. It is not uncommon to find statements to the effect of, “The ideas of the Bible are for the most part commonplace notions of its time and place.”

But pendulums of opinion often swing too far. The Bible does have its own unique message and take on the topics it covers. So, for example, while there are other law codes among the nations of the Bronze and Iron Ages, it would be a colossal mistake to say the Bible is just like them.

First, there is the general context in which the law codes were written. In the case of the code of Hammurabi and similar writings, these generally were about the king justifying his role and power as king. The law code played a part in the religious thought of their time and was, in effect, the king showing the gods that he had ruled with justice. It stood as a monument to the king, like many other writings from the royal administration in which rulers would boast of their successes and endeavors.

The law codes of the Torah are not like these bits of royal propaganda. The parties involved in the Torah are God and the people of Israel. The intent of the law codes of Torah is to teach the people a way of life. Power is much more spread out and democratized in the Torah.

And there are at least two other differences between Torah and the law codes of the nations. First, Torah calls the people to be something, to be different, to have a distinct way of life based on divine ideals. “You were immigrants in the land of Egypt,” says vs. 20. Remember where you came from. Treat others with the respect and evenhandedness you desired when you were a minority and powerless. Let empathy and consideration fill your life.

Second, rather than exalting the king, Torah exalts God and discloses his ways to Israel. “I am compassionate,” God says in vs. 26. Do not take advantage of your needy neighbor who must ask a loan from you. I am a God who feels compassion for the powerless. I will pay heed to the plight of widows, orphans, and all who are in need. If you mistreat them, I will see and demand an accounting.

The Bible may have parallels in the literature of the world of its time. But that does not erase the uniqueness of its message.

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).

Realistic case laws are laid out for the courts to use as a basis for awarding damages or deciding punishment in various scenarios. Issues in this section include: damages to crops, liabilities for property in cases of safeguarding or hiring or borrowing, financial damages in cases of premarital sex, punishments for forbidden acts, and then some laws related to social justice.

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 is surprisingly idealistic.

Sarna (JPS Commentary) observes that this passage gives two reasons for the laws about social justice: the Israelites’ own experience as aliens in Egypt and God’s own quality of compassion. As to the first, vs. 20 says, “for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.” Carol Myers (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) calls such statements “motive clauses.” Why do we find these laws protecting the needy in this location? Sarna interprets them as a contrast between the ways of foreign religion (vss. 17-19) and the true religion of Torah (vss. 20-26).

The immigrant (ger, stranger, sojourner, alien) is in a class in between the native born (ezrach) and the foreigner (nochri, a foreigner merely passing through). An immigrant resides in the land at least on a seasonal basis if not permanently. God is the protector of immigrants, 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.

EXODUS 22:27 – 23:5 (22:28 – 23:5 in Christian Bibles)

When you see a situation involving someone who hates you. This is a topic in our Torah portion. One who hates you (שֹׂנַאֲךָ, sōna’acha) has a relatively minor need. It is unclear how serious the need is. One reading of Exodus 23:5 could be that the donkey has fallen under the weight of its load and the one who hates you needs help (not to mention the poor donkey). But the meaning might refer to a much less serious circumstance: this person’s donkey simply has reached its destination and needs unloading. It is רֹבֵץ תַּחַת מַשָּׂאוֹ rōbeitz tachat massa’ō, “lying under its burden.”

It is possible that there was a custom involving courtesy or politeness in the ancient world, that if you came upon someone whose animal has been carrying a load, you should pause and help them unburden the animal. Even more so, if you came upon a person whose animal was struggling and fallen, you might stop to help.

But this is a person who hates you. What Torah says next also has two possible interpretations. The JPS translation says, “and would refrain from raising it.” In other words, this translation assumes you see the plight of the donkey of your enemy and you are tempted because of your feelings about the person to ignore the situation. Other translations, such as the ESV, render it, “you shall refrain from leaving him with it.” They are all translating וְחָדַלְתָּ מֵעֲזֹב לוֹ vechadalta mei’azōv lō, “you will/would refrain from abandoning/raising him.” The difference is in whether the second verb is taken to mean “abandon” or “raise.”

Either way, this is a verse about what we might be tempted to do because of our feelings about a person who hates us. In the JPS version, we are tempted to ignore the situation. In the ESV, we are commanded not to abandon the person in need based on the assumption that we are tempted to.

Since when does a law code address justice in relation to how we feel about someone? This might be compared to a “Good Samaritan law,” which is a regulation stating that we might be held legally responsible in a situation where we could save someone’s life but decide not to. However, this law in Torah is about a much less serious situation: a donkey under its load.

This comes right after a section about justice in the courts. We may not give false testimony. We may not argue a case based on the prestige of one of the parties involved. Neither are we permitted to decide for a poor person out of pity if their case does not merit the verdict. Justice has to be real or it is not justice. In the same way, our decision about whether or not to help a person even in a minor matter must ignore our feelings and their feelings. If they love us or hate us, our obligation to them is the same.

In fact, that inner feeling of resentment or jealousy is being targeted by Torah as a root of evil. Rivalries and grudges and the like are what drive our society to evil. We as holy people are commanded to have nothing to do with these things that belong to our evil inclination. The Torah is more than a code for civil and judicial matters. It is a spiritual teaching dealing with the heart and the mind as well as the workings of a just society.

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 אֱלֹהִים 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, but ransomed with money.

The prohibition in vs. 30 against eating carrion (meat found killed by beasts in the field) is related to this respect for the authority of God and also to the fact that Israelites are called to be “holy.” That is, Israelites are dedicated to God’s special purpose and this separation means giving up certain practices.

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 (JPS Commentary) 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.

EXODUS 23:6-19

“As I have commanded you.” With these words the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21:1-23:33) shows awareness of being part of a larger corpus of instruction and law. The Torah is a living tradition from the Bronze Age that adapted, grew, and and became more complex over a period of a thousand years.

“As I have commanded you.” The Torah is about commanded-ness. Our leaning as modern readers is toward personal freedom and the idea of being commanded is almost foreign to us. Perhaps we understand the power of local and national governments to regulate us and hold over our head the powers of the state. But an invisible God? An ancient tradition passed down by human beings? Can these things bind us and command us?

The Torah, of course, is specific to Israel and is given in the context of the Israelites living with God in the land of Israel with the Presence of God in their midst. Modern Judaism already has to negate a large percentage of the commandments in Torah. Most of them cannot literally be applied, even in Israel today, since there is no temple, no Shekhinah, no prophets, no active priesthood, no king. The vast majority of Bible readers are not Jewish and are thus even farther away from the original context.

Yet we read, “as I have commanded you.” It is the idea that our lives do not fully belong to us. They are a gift. And as we enjoy this gift, there is One who has a claim on us. How will we respond to his claim?

There are many questions to consider. What commandments apply specifically to me? What is the best way to keep them? What is their purpose? Why am I doing them the way I am? How should I change?

But even thousands of years ago, in an ancient law code of Israel, God said, “I have commanded you.”

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, giving false testimony, receiving a bribe, and taking advantage of aliens. Addressing judges and officials over the people, vss. 6-9 command them to protect the weaker parties and to carefully follow what is right in dispensing justice.

The next section, vss. 10-19, moves on to another topic: the calendar of Israel and its relationship to God and the covenant. 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. The alternative would have been to plow it under.

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 Adonai alone.

There are three times in the year Israel must throw a feast for Adonai (vs. 14). The feasting law here does not specifically mention a sanctuary (tabernacle, temple) but it is assumed, for example, in phrases like “you must not appear before me empty-handed.” In this most ancient description of Israel’s feasts, they are described from the point of view of those who have gathered at the sanctuary. In other parts of the Torah a variety of names will be used, but here they are simply called the Feast of Matzah (Unleavened Bread which includes Passover), the Feast of the Harvest (the same as Shavuot, Weeks, elsewhere), and the Feast of Ingathering (the same as Sukkot, Tabernacles).

Vs. 15 says “as I have commanded you.” That is, the verse assumes Israel already knows about the Feast of Matzah and has been given more instructions concerning it somewhere else. That is, this is an example of an inner biblical reference. The law code known as the Book of the Covenant is aware of other sacred writings which contain instructions for the people. This is an important realization for understanding how the literature of Torah was understood. It was a corpus. This also argues against the notion, sometimes advanced, that Passover is a late invention and the Exodus a fiction. The Book of the Covenant refers to a pre-existing set of instructions related to the Feast of Matzah. The most likely candidate would be the Passover laws from Exodus 12 and 13.

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.

EXODUS 23:20-25

To what degree is God with us, present in this world where space is limited and light mixes with darkness? Is the Omnipotent above it all, refraining from joining us in this present world to act and to cause life and redemption?

One opinion is that God remains outside of our realm, acting from above and decreeing from afar. The world cannot contain him but would rupture if he came to fill it. This Transcendent depiction of deity tends to diminish his concern for us .

Another opinion is that God is always within, acting from inside everything and heavily involved. He is the Immanent Spirit within and always present. This Immanent depiction tends to portray him as intimately involved in all the details of our lives.

The Bible resists answering this question. It is part of the mystery. The first view seems inadequate because God is involved and at various times shows up in an obvious manner. The second view is inadequate because this present world, and the lives of God’s faithful, are clearly not conformed at all times to God’s ideal. This world is separate from and in many ways alienated from God. Yet it is not without salvation and light.

So in the Exodus account, is it God or an angel who is with Israel? The ancient authors clearly struggled with this. They were aware that the heightened presence of God with Israel in the Exodus and wilderness was not the normal situation. How do we explain that God is more present at some times than others?

The answer that seems to work itself out, as the prophets and psalmists take up the issue in the later periods of Israel is this: God increases his presence sometimes and will in the future be more present than he is now.

God’s angel to go before them (20-22), God will annihilate the Canaanites and Israel is to avoid their cult completely (23-25).

This section of the law code is different from what came before in two ways. First, it is self-conscious of the condition of Israel living in the desert and needing to travel to the Promised Land. Other laws have been stated from the point of view of the Israelites already being in the land (for example, the holiday commandments that just preceded this section). But the condition of the Israelites when the law code was given was unsettled, not yet ready to fully establish all of the institutions mentioned in the code. This section is about how the will get there.

Second, this passage mentions an angel who will go before them and speaks as if this angel will command them and interact with them. The presence of a mediating angel is a characteristic of the E source. Referring most likely to the pillar of cloud-encased fire, E calls it an angel, and indicates that this angel will speak with them and that they must obey it. Other passages indicate that God speaks directly with Moses.

Pondering this question, Cassuto highlights the difficulty in knowing whether the angel (messenger) of God is an angelic being or the Presence of God himself. He says, “The initial words, ‘Behold I send an angel before you,’ do not imply a being distinct from God.” He lists examples in which texts describe an angel doing something and yet also say that God acted. The rabbis actually considered yet another interpretation, wondering if the angel (messenger) here means Moses (a human representative). The word angel (messenger) is broad and does not always connote a class of spiritual beings. Perhaps the difficulty in all of this language, in which it seems the manifestation is God but not God, an angel but God, lies in the difficulty we have in understanding the paradox between God as the Eternal and Omnipotent on the one hand and yet as the Present and Indwelling on the other.

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.

EXODUS 23:26 – 24:18

Who can see God? What do we mean by seeing God? When we look, by way of illustration, at another person, how much of them do we “see”? Our senses perceive only the outer characteristics, the mere form, like a reflection or holograph of a person. How much more, then, when we imagine catching a glimpse of God, are we seeing only a form of a form of a projection of something beyond comprehension.

God is bigger than any dimension we can take in. If we were a speck of dust very close before a galactically monstrous star and we tried to take in the horizons, what would we see? It’s monumental dimensions would be lost on us and we would see a field of fire before us, revealing very little of the makeup and depth of the star itself. We are smaller than the grain of dust before God and he is larger than any star made by his hand.

Moses and the elders and priests ascended Sinai and “they saw the God of Israel.” Yet at the same time they did not see the God of Israel. In the next scene they are eating and drinking at the bottom of the mountain with the people of Israel and Moses is called up again. When Moses goes up this time, he waits six days on the mountain before being summoned inside the cloud of thick darkness to approach the Fire and Light.

The Torah challenges our imagined perception of God. Some mortals have seen a great deal of him while most of us will at best see him only through the cloud at a great distance. There is no Sinai experience for us. We, in our lifetimes, will see far less than the lowest Israelite saw in the Torah.

Yet we are drawn to see God. To perceive him is, even when we don’t realize it, our greatest desire. It comes to us, everyone in fact, in moments that catch us unaware. An intense feeling of joy and awe somewhere in our life experience. It may have been laughter, the stars, a canyon, music, art, the feeling of love, feeling the heartbeat of a baby — some transcendent experience or series of experiences punctuating our lives — that we recognized as “God” in whatever definition that concept has for us. We felt our place in the universe like we never felt it before. We perceived a satisfaction that is possible which is beyond all earthly satisfactions.

And it was gone. Leaving us with a memory. A yearning. To hear that voice again or gaze on that joy one more time. It is a feeling intensely to be desired.

That is the Torah’s notion of perceiving God. It is rapture, ecstasy, love, a view of the Garden itself and an invitation to enter in and dwell there forever.

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).

The Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21:1-23:33) ends in this final portion with one remaining promise (no miscarriages, a promise conditional on the nation fulfilling the covenant requirements) and a description of how God will displace the Canaanites. The general form of this most ancient law code is a treaty, in which the king promises to deliver and protect the subservient nation in exchange for loyalty and obedience. Treaties from the Hittite kingdom contain similar language to what is repeated again and again in Torah, only in Torah the king is God and the promises are beyond the normal parameters of this world. What king on earth could promise that women would never miscarry?

The entire Book of the Covenant is from the E source, being written by a priest or priests from Shiloh in the northern kingdom of Israel before the Assyrian destruction (see Richard Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?). Much of the contents of the law code could very well go back to the time of Moses, but other parts seem to be aware of later history. In particular the description of victory over the Canaanites seems to reflect the realities of a gradual settling of the land and not a meteoric victory. The reader attentive to details in Joshua and Judges will realize the Bible never claimed a sudden conquest although, oddly enough, archaeologists have often claimed the Bible is in error and that Israelite occupation was gradual. This is a puzzle to close readers of the biblical text because we see numerous examples of verses like Exodus 23:29, לֹא אֲגָרְשֶׁנּוּ מִפָּנֶיךָ בְּשָׁנָה אֶחָת, lō agarshennu mippaneicha beshanah echat, “I will not cast them out before you in a single year.”

The story in chapter 24 is difficult to follow and its details require careful attention. The origin of chapter 24 is still the E source, in which Moses is the hero. The account begins with a preview of what is to come, with God instructing Moses to bring near Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders, but clarifying that only Moses will approach closely. Instead of proceeding to the story of Moses and the elders drawing near to God, however, the story first follows what happened when Moses came down from the mountain.

Moses met with the people and relayed the instructions he received, apparently from memory. The people a second time (see 19:8 for the first instance) verbally commit, “All that Adonai has commanded we will do!” Moses then wrote down the instructions. We are unsure what sort of writing and materials for writing would have been most likely at this point. Given that Moses grew up in the royal house in Egypt, it is possible that papyrus and ink were already in use or some similar writing method.

Having relayed the instruction and committing them to writing, Moses proceeds with a covenant ratification ceremony. The elements of the ceremony include sacred pillars, animal offerings, and a blood ritual. Standing stones, also called pillars or stelae, are a common artifact from the Bronze Age. Their uses include memorials to a royal victory as well as cultic use as a sort of fetish for a god. Pillars as memorials are approved by Torah, whereas all verses forbidding them refer to prohibiting idolatry (see Carol Myers, New Cambridge Bible Commentary). And for the blood ritual, it was dashed (probably with hyssop) against the altar representing God’s part in the covenant and also on the people (all of them? just the elders?) representing the people’s part in the covenant. This blood oath between Israel and God should have been kept most sacred, although Torah will quickly show us the human failure to keep the covenant.

What happens next is the most confusing part. We’ve already been introduced to the idea that Moses will bring up Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the elders of Israel to draw near to God’s theophany on the mountain. Now it happens. This is one of the most radical descriptions of human beings seeing a form of God. Cassuto argues that since it says they saw Elohim and dies not say they saw yod-hey-vav-hey, this is an indication they were seeing a manifestation and not God’s direct being. We know that God can appear in various forms, some more potent and fatal than others. This manifestation was apparently far more powerful than anything the people, other than Moses, had seen before.

The story continues in a confusing manner, depicting the elders and Moses and the priests dining. Yet in vs. 12 God calls Moses up again. When did they (Moses and the elders and priests) descend? It seems a detail is omitted from the story. After seeing the theophany, apparently they descended and the meal they ate, quite likely, was meat from the sacred offerings already mentioned.

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 (אֵשׁ אֹכֶלֶת, aish ochelet). Moses actually entered the cloud, coming closer to the Glory of Adonai than anyone ever had or would in all of human history. He will not descend again until ch. 32, with the tablets, which he will break at the sight of the Golden Calf.