Friday, May 12

Exodus 19: The Book of Exodus, having treated of Israel’s deliverance, now speaks of Israel’s election and the Covenant. Over the next six chapters two sections will emerge as especially prominent—the Decalogue (20:1-17) and the Book of the Covenant (20:22—23:19), the latter containing a detailed, practical application of the rules of the Covenant.

The things narrated in these chapters are not naked events, but events that received theological and liturgical elaboration reflected in the narrative. It is arguable that Israel devoted more attention to these events than to any other in its history.

The people have now arrived at Mount Sinai, where the rest of the Book of Exodus, and all the Book of Leviticus, will take place. Indeed, the Israelites will not move from Sinai until Numbers 10:33.

The stories begin with Moses’ scaling of Mount Sinai (verse 3), still known among the local Arabs as Jebel Musa. This peak, 7467 feet high, can be climbed in under two hours. When Moses ascends to speak with God, the people wait below at the base of the mountain, the plain of er-Raha (verses 2,17).

God’s election of Israel (verses 5-6) is an invitation to become His chosen people, an invitation that marks Israel’s history until the end of the world, because God will never reject the descendants of those with whom He made Covenant at Mount Sinai (cf. Romans 11:1). What God proposes, however, is only an invitation, requiring Israel’s ratification of His choice and the resolve to abide by its conditions and strictures (verses 7-8). Moses mediates this Covenant (verses 9,25).

The people of God are to be a “royal priesthood, a holy nation” (verse 6). Both the kingship and the priesthood of the Old Testament are prophetic preparations fulfilled in Jesus. Like Melchizedek of old, Jesus Christ is both king and priest (cf. Hebrews 7:1-3). Moreover, because of their awareness of sharing in the royal and priestly dignity and ministries of the risen Jesus, the early Christians were prompt to see this Exodus promise as fulfilled in the Church (cf. 1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 1:6; 5:10; 20:6).

The subsequent terrifying scene on Mount Sinai (verses 9-25 and 20:18-20) is contrasted with the invitation to Christians’ “draw near” to God (Hebrews 12:18-24). The theme of a bold “drawing near” or “approaching” to the divine presence is an important one in the Epistle to the Hebrews, serving as part of its sustained contrast of Christ with Moses (cf. Hebrews 4:16; 7:19; 10:1,22).

Saturday, May13

Exodus 20: We come now to the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, a code the Bible contains in two forms: the one here and the other in Deuteronomy 5:6-21. All the elements of the Decalogue are based on God’s self-revelation in the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods in My stead” (verse 3). This commandment is not the “first” simply in the sense of being the earliest in the sequence. It is not as though the order within the Decalogue could be switched around, so that it might begin with the prohibition of murder, say, or the injunction of the Sabbath.

The first of the Ten Commandments is the first, rather, in the sense that it is the source and fountainhead of the other nine. It is not just the principal, but also the principle of the other commandments. The commandments are not equal, and the first is formally different from the others. Its priority, that is to say, is not just material but qualitative. Its “firstness” pertains to its essence, not merely its assigned place in the Decalogue’s sequential disposition. It is not only first, but the first.

The first commandment of God’s Law is analogous to the way that the number “one” is the first of the numbers. “One” is not simply the numeral that precedes “two”; “one” is, rather, the number out of which, and by reason of which, that second number comes. “One” is the cause and necessary condition of “two” and all the subsequent numbers. “One” is logically one, then, before it is first. “One” becomes “first” only by the emergence of a second.

One (to hen) is the root and font determining the identity of two and the subsequent numbers. “One” is what we call a principle, an arche. The principle of something is that which confers its qualitative and identifying form. In this sense, there is a formal, and not merely material, disparity between the “one” and all other numbers.

Analogously, the first commandment of the Decalogue is the arche, the principle or origin of the other commandments. Perhaps this truth will be clearer if we examine that commandment in its entirety: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods in My stead.”

Unlike the other commandments, this first commandment commences with God’s self-identification; only then does there follow the immediate prohibition against idolatry. Three things must be said about the auto-identification of God in this commandment.

First, it places the Ten Commandments firmly in the context of God’s revelation. This fact needs to be asserted explicitly, because of a widespread idea that the Decalogue is simply an expression of Natural Law. It isn’t. While it is true that there are a number of material equivalents between certain components of the Decalogue and certain dictates of Natural Law (those governing murder and theft, for instance), there is a formal difference between them. In the case of the Decalogue, each of the commandments is rooted in God’s self-revelation within specific biblical history—Mount Sinai. The Ten Commandments are essentially revelatory. They are all extensions of “I am the Lord your God.” This is why we call them the “Decalogue,” or “ten words” (deka logoi).

Second, God’s self-identification places the Decalogue entirely in the context of unmerited grace. He is not simply “the Lord your God,” but the One who “brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” The observance of the commandments is man’s grateful response to the God who “first loved us” (1 John 4:19). The Ten Commandments, almost any time the Bible speaks of them, were “given” to Moses on Mount Sinai. Holy Scripture regards them entirely as gifts, component dimensions of God’s redemptive grace and covenant.

Third, God’s self-identification makes idolatry necessarily the first sin: “You shall have no other gods in My stead.” All other sins are material extensions of idolatry. When men exchange “the truth of God for a lie,” all other sins follow, because idolatry is the root cause of “all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness,” and so on (Romans 1:18-32). It is always the case that idolaters do “not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts” (Revelation 9:20-21).

Sunday, May 14

Exodus 21: The material in these next three chapters is often called “the book of the covenant,” a term suggested by Exodus 24:7. In substance this code is largely identical with the core section of the Book of Deuteronomy (and hence the name of the latter, which means “second law”).

Whereas Chapter 20 enunciated universal legal principles, Chapter 21 commences a series of specific “judgments” (mishpotim—verse 1), or “case laws.” The latter are particular applications of the earlier legal principles. Thus, the judgments in the present chapter are concrete applications of the established principle, “You shall not steal” (20:15).

The prescriptions in these chapters come under the heading of “case law” or casuistry, because they deal with the practical applications of laws to certain hypothetical cases. We find this legal style in our most ancient legal codes, such as the formulations of Ur-Nammu, composed in Sumerian about 2050 B.C. and named for the ruler of Ur in southern Mesopotamia (cf. Genesis 11:31).

By reasonable recourse to comparison and analogy, the accumulation of such judgments serves to indicate certain directions in which future ethical cases—those not specifically covered by law—might be appropriately judged. The study of case law is also intended to give a proper contour to moral sentiment, a certain “feeling” about moral situations that may arise. By the sustained examination of God’s judgments (mishpotim) in the various hypothetical situations described in these passages, the moral imagination is given a godly shape in order to make proper moral decisions in the future, particularly in cases not governed by specific laws.

The laws in these next few chapters are civil (21:1—22:14), liturgical (20:22-26; 22:28-30; 23:10-19), and moral (22:16-27; 23:1-9).

The present chapter begins with slavery (verses 1-11), the state from which the Israelites have just been delivered. The functioning principle here—through all the hypothetical cases being reviewed—is that no man may be enslaved against his own will beyond six years. The “Sabbath year” becomes the time of release.

In verses 22-36 we have what is the Bible’s first and perhaps clearest enunciation of the legal principle of equity. Thus, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” and so on (cf. Leviticus 24:17-20; Deuteronomy 19:21). Eyes and teeth are understood, of course, as metaphors (that is to say, no one benefits from really depriving another person of an eye or a tooth).

All such laws are founded on the perception of proportions—“an eye for an eye,” not two eyes for one. Justice has something to do with the principles of mathematics (symbolized in the scales that often appear in artistic representations of Justice as a blindfolded figure holding a scales), a proper conformity to correct measure. Moral truth is perceived like mathematics or any other truth, by the correct application of a properly reasoning mind.

Monday, May 15

Exodus 22: This chapter begins with some more applications of the commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.”

Whereas Chapter 21 presumed situations in which the harm inflicted was unintentional—and thus involved only commensurate restitution—the present chapter looks more closely at situations in which the harm inflicted is deliberate and intentional. That is to say, a malicious motive is introduced. In this chapter, then, we are dealing, not only with laws of compensation but also with punitive laws. Here we have not only restitution of damages but the punishment of malice. The penalties in these latter, one we notice, are quite a bit harsher. They are obviously designed to discourage certain sorts of behavior!

The Bible takes very seriously the concept of ownership, a fact that explains the serious penalties imposed for theft. These include a manifold restitution for stolen or damaged property, and the lack of a guaranteed protection for a thief who is taken in the act (verses 1-4).

Whereas modern philosophy tends to distinguish public from private property, the Bible is more interested in what we may call family property, property as a family’s substance of labor and inheritance. That is to say, in the Bible property is more closely associated with the experience of tradition, including respect for the labor of one’s ancestors. Property is regarded as an extension of family; it is that component that binds the generations of a family together.

For this reason there is a close alliance between “Honor thy father and thy mother” and “Thou shalt not steal.” It is hardly surprising, then, that those who disregard the claims of tradition are more likely to be thieves. Of this latter phenomenon we have a good illustration in the case of Ahab and Jezebel in the instance of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21).

Family property, moreover, is a community concern, over which the newly appointed judges (18:13-26) have jurisdiction and the right of determination (verse 9).

Community concern is also directed to another important dimension of social life: sexuality. In the present context, however, this concern pertains to the (consensual) defilement of a virgin (verses 16-17), a situation in which the offense directly affects the financial worth of the father of the girl. This is the reason for its inclusion in the present section of Exodus.

This brief consideration of a sexual matter, however, prompts the inclusion of another sexual offense: bestiality (verse 19). Even this inclusion is prompted by the consideration of property, inasmuch as the animal must be slain. In this chapter neither fornication nor bestiality is considered except under the aspect of property and value.

By an association difficult to follow, the subject of bestiality leads in turn to rules about sorcery and idolatry (verses 18,20). Apparently the common element in all these rules is the prescription of the death penalty.

There next follows a concern for sojourners and others deprived of a normal domestic life (verses 21-24), those with whom the Israelites, remembering their own sojourn, are to commiserate (cf. 23:9: Leviticus 19:33-34; Deuteronomy 1:16; 10:17-19; 14:28-29; 16:11-14; Jeremiah 7:6). Sins in violation of this concern are included in this section because of their social nature.

Laws concerning pledges and usufruct are characterized by a concern for the disadvantaged party (verses 25-27).

Tuesday, May 16

Exodus 23: Pursuant to the Decalogue’s prohibition against false witness (20:16), the present chapter opens with directions about judicial proceedings (1-3,7-8).

Because it appeared unlikely that a poor man (dal), in ancient times, would be favored in court, some textual historians suspect that verse 3 has been corrupted in the transmission. They suggest a slight emendation (the supply of one letter in Hebrew), causing this verse to read, “Thou shalt not favor a great man (gadol) in his cause.” This appears to be a responsible emendation that renders the text more understandable in the historical context.

Nonetheless, in more recent times we have seen the rise of political ideologies that have tended in exactly the opposite direction: favoring the poorer, disadvantaged classes as a matter of principle, sometimes at the expense of specific determinations of justice. It is not unknown, in modern times, that the courts are used in an activist way, in order to rectify inherited social inequities, instead of simply adjudicating individual cases on their just merits. This text reminds us that it is not the business of courts to rectify social ills, but to punish evildoers. This is the reason that Justice is portrayed as blindfolded—that is, does not consider the social class or financial standing of a litigant.

The Sacred Text moves on to treat of the effective charity that a believer owes even to his enemies, out of an elementary sense of humane compassion (verses 4-5; Leviticus 19:17-19). This motive also prompts concern for the stranger and sojourner (verse 9), the same motive given earlier (22:21-24).

Following the stated solicitude for the poor and disadvantaged, attention is given to the “Sabbath rest” of the cultivated fields, because this practice too serves a kind and humane purpose (verses 10-11, Leviticus 25:2-5; Deuteronomy 15:1-3; Nehemiah 10:31; 1 Maccabees 6:49,53).

From this metaphorical application of the Sabbath rest, the Text takes up the literal Sabbath rest, enunciated in the Decalogue (20:8-11). Once again the motive given here is humane more than theological (verse 12).

Continuing the theme of consecrated time, Exodus goes on to treat the three annual feasts (verses 14-17): Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. Each of these is here briefly explained, not in relation to their specific meaning in salvation history (deliverance, covenant, and desert journey), but with respect to the annual agrarian cycle. Both aspects of these feast days remain somewhat in tension throughout the Old Testament period.

Wednesday, May 17

Exodus 24: As we have considered in our comments on Exodus 19, God does not impose the Sinai covenant on Israel. He does not force them to become His elect people; rather, He invites them. The covenant is to be ratified by Israel, and in the present chapter, which follows the Decalogue and the Book of the Covenant, we come to Israel’s ratification (verse 7).

This narrative seems to be derived from two accounts of the event, joined but not entirely reconciled with respect to some details. For instance, it is not entirely clear which actions take place on the mountain and which on the plain. The ratification itself is marked by both a sacrificial meal and by the sprinkling of sacrificial blood (verses 8,11). We find references to this ratification in Zechariah 9:11 and Hebrews 9:18-20.

Indeed, our earliest Christian reflection on verses 3-8 is found in the Epistle to the Hebrews 9:16-23, in a context emphasizing that the deep significance of the sacrificial blood in the Old Testament is its prophetic reference to the redeeming blood of Jesus, shed on the cross for the salvation of mankind. The blood of Jesus is called the “blood of the covenant” also in Hebrews 10:29 and Mark 14:24.

Moreover, in quoting Exodus 24:8, the Epistle to the Hebrews (9:20) slightly, but very significantly, alters the wording of it. Whereas Exodus reads “Behold (idou) the blood of the covenant,” the author of Hebrews wrote: “This (touto) is the blood of the covenant.” There is no doubt that his wording reflects the traditional words of Jesus with respect to the cup of His blood at the Last Supper (cf. Matthew 26:28).

Moses ascended the mountain with three men (verses 9-18), two of whom were brothers, and there was a six-day delay. Compare the remarkable parallel to both points in Mark 9:2. In the scene of the Lord’s Transfiguration, He is joined by the two figures most clearly associated with revelations given on Mount Sinai/Horeb: Moses and Elijah (cf. 1 Kings 19:8-18).

Moses is again summoned to ascend the mountain in order to receive the stone tablets and certain liturgical regulations (verse 12). The engraving of laws on stone was characteristic of many ancient legal codes, all the way from the Decree of Hammurabi to the inscriptions on the walls of the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Law represents inheritance, binding one generation to the next. Hence, it is appropriate to write laws on stone, a substance that does not quickly pass away.

The chapter ends with Moses on the mountain for forty days and nights.

Thursday, May 18

Exodus 25: Here begins a lengthy and detailed instruction about the construction of the tabernacle, the instruments of worship, the ordination and vestments of the priests, and so forth (chapters 25-31). Meanwhile, as all of this important instruction is taking place, Aaron and the Israelites will do a bit of liturgical experimentation on their own (chapters 32-34)! The juxtaposition of these two scenes will constitute one of the great examples of narrative irony in the Bible. After the story of the golden calf, the narrative of Exodus will continue in chapters 35-40 with the enactment of the earlier prescriptions.

Chapters 21—31 are composed of seven prescriptive oracles (“the Lord spoke unto Moses, say . . .”), each with its own introduction (25:1; 30:11,17,22,34; 31:1,12).

In some of these oracles we recognize points of correspondence with the different days of creation. Thus, the first oracle, which speaks of the candelabrum and of Aaron’s custody of the sacred fire, corresponds to the creation of light on the first day. The third oracle (30:17-21), which describes the brazen sea in the tabernacle, corresponds to the third day’s creation of the seas. The fourth, which prescribes the oil for the lamps (30:22-33), is parallel to the fourth day of creation, when the various lights were placed in the heavens. Thus, finally, this “sabbath” of oracles end with the Sabbath itself and appeals to God’s own rest after the works of creation (31:12-17; cf. Psalms 89 [88]:21).

Prior to describing all these matters in detail, the author outlines the subjects that will be treated in the ensuing chapters (verses 3-8). Then Moses is given a vision of the archetypal tabernacle (verse 9,40)—that tabernacle not made with hands—the everlasting holy place into which, in due course, the eternal high priest and one mediator between God and men will enter, having obtained eternal redemption for us (cf. Hebrews 8:1-5).

The ark’s dimensions (verses 10-15) are about 45 inches long, and 27 inches in height and depth. The permanent poles indicate that it must always be ready to travel, and it did move around quite a bit even after the Israelites settled in the Promised Land. Eventually it came to rest in Jerusalem, where Solomon pretty much built his temple around it. The ark was lost when the temple was destroyed. Originally it contained the tables of the Decalogue, but it seems to have been the receptacle of other sacred objects at certain periods (cf. Hebrews 9:2-4).

The hylasterion (translated variously as “propitiatory” or “mercy seat”) in verses 16-17 will be the place where the high priest sprinkles the expiatory blood on Yom Kippur, thus symbolizing the reconciliation between God and man. Hylasterion, then, the place of reconciliation, the place of atonement. As the meeting place of God and humanity, it is a symbol of the Incarnation, where God and humanity are radically reconciled—bound together—forever. Jesus Himself is called the hylasterion (cf. Romans 3:25).

Israel came to think of this hylasterion, overshadowed by the cherubic wings (verses 18-20), as God’s throne in this world (cf. Psalm 80 [79]:1; Hebrews 9:5). One is reminded also of the two angelic figures on the empty tomb of the risen Lord, suggesting that the empty tomb is the great symbol of the reconciliation of God and man (cf. John 20:12).

Twelve loves of fresh bread, representing the full assembly of Israel, are to be kept on the table in God’s presence in the tabernacle (verses 23-30). This “holy bread” (1 Samuel 21:4)—“bread of the presence” (21:6)—and “continual bread” (Numbers 4:7) was a type of the Holy Eucharist, the mystical bread of God’s presence, contained in all the tabernacles of the Church throughout the world until the end of time.

Friday, May 19

Exodus 26: The construction of the Tabernacle is described in the first part (verses 1-14) of this chapter. This structure had four coverings, divided into workable sections. The first covering was made of linen, over which were coverings of goats’ hair, rams’ skins dyed red, and dugongs’ skins.

Two things are noteworthy about this last item: First, the dugong, or sea cow, is a native of the Indian Ocean. The availability of this product indicates the extensive trade carried on through the Red Sea. One speculates that the sea-going power of Sheba was the medium by which this product reached Egypt. Second, the skin of the dugong, which sat uppermost over the Tabernacle, rendered it rainproof.

Next are described the wooden side-frames of the Tabernacle (verses 15-30), indicating that this shrine stood about 14 feet high, was 62 feet long, and measured over 42 feet wide.

Finally comes the internal division of the Tabernacle between the holy place and the Holy of Holies (31-37), the latter measuring about 14 feet square. It contained the Ark of the Covenant and the tablets of the Decalogue (cf. Hebrews 9:3-4).

The division within the tabernacle was later duplicated and further developed within the Jerusalem temple. Indeed, the sense of separated space is intrinsic to the very notion of a “temple,” a word derived from the Greek temno, meaning “to divide.” A shrine of any kind is already a section of space devoted to the things of God, and divisions within a shrine are related to the ordered structure of the community that worships there. The building reflects the congregation’s conception of itself. In the case of Israel and the Christian Church, the ordered structure of the worshipping community is “hierarchical,” meaning that its organizational structure is holy and reflects a divinely appointed order.

This hierarchical aspect of biblical worship, that is to say, is enacted even in architecture. (Indeed, if one looks closely, both “hierarchy” and “architecture” are formed of a common root, a Greek word meaning, roughly, “a principle that gives structure and explanation to reality.”)