Tag Archives: ancient Israel

Exodus 6: God’s Response and Moses’ Heritage

Exodus 6: 1-13 A God Who Speaks and A People Unable to Hear

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh: Indeed, by a mighty hand he will let them go; by a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land.”

2 God also spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am the LORD. 3 I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘The LORD’ I did not make myself known to them. 4 I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they resided as aliens. 5 I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. 6 Say therefore to the Israelites, ‘I am the LORD, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. 7 I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians. 8 I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the LORD.'” 9 Moses told this to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.

 10 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, 11 “Go and tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites go out of his land.” 12 But Moses spoke to the LORD, “The Israelites have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh listen to me, poor speaker that I am?” 13 Thus the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, and gave them orders regarding the Israelites and Pharaoh king of Egypt, charging them to free the Israelites from the land of Egypt.

The same message may be heard very differently in different circumstances. When Moses and Aaron relay a very similar message at the end of chapter four the people receive in hope, they bow down and they worship. After the abuse received in chapter five the supervisors have called for the LORD to judge between Moses and them. Oppression changes our ability to hope and believe that a change can happen. One of the dynamics of abuse is that the abused person often feels they have no choice because all their energy is expended on survival. Slavery continues to breed hopelessness among the people and as daily survival becomes harder imagining a change becomes both more essential and increasingly difficult. It will not be words or promises that will move the people of Israel or Pharaoh away from the oppressor/oppressed dynamic.

The upcoming plagues upon the land of Egypt will be harsh and there will be much to wrestle with in these sections as they come up, but here we are at the end of what words can do. Ultimately words, without some type of recognized power and authority behind them, short of their power to convince do not sometimes break through the hardened worldviews of opposing parties. Moses may not be a person who is confident in his speaking ability but we have seen previously he is a man who acts when he sees oppression. Yet, here, where his previous words seem only to have increased the suffering and oppression of the people he again appeals to his poor speaking ability. He is unable to engender with these words of the LORD hope within the people of Israel or fear within the person of Pharaoh.

We as people who hear these words in relative comfort can also hear something new in this moment of revelation, something perhaps Moses and the people could not hear in their oppression engendered deafness. The name of the LORD, revealed to Moses on the mountain in chapter three, we now learn has not been previously revealed. Others have known the LORD and called the LORD by other names (typically describing an attribute of God: God almighty, God who sees, etc.) but now Moses hears again the unique name of the LORD. Again, there are the promises of the land of Canaan, the promise to deliver, the covenant promise that the LORD will be their God and they will be the people of the LORD, these things will unfold as we journey through the Exodus narrative, and yet all these promises are unable to heard at this time. Ultimately it will be in retrospect that the people will be able to look back and in light of the commandments remember “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2)

We are moving from the time where the time of actions in the future will become the present of the narrative. If this were our story we would move directly into the confrontation between Moses and Aaron and Pharaoh, between the LORD the God of Israel and the gods of Egypt. Yet, there is one more pause before we move into this conflict. The LORD has revealed something of Godself in both name, heritage and promise and we have seen something of who Moses is in his actions. But for the people of Israel there is something else we need to know before we can move forward.

Theo van Doesburg, Moses (1906)

Theo van Doesburg, Moses (1906)

Exodus 6:14-30 Who are Moses and Aaron

 14 The following are the heads of their ancestral houses: the sons of Reuben, the firstborn of Israel: Hanoch, Pallu, Hezron, and Carmi; these are the families of Reuben. 15 The sons of Simeon: Jemuel, Jamin, Ohad, Jachin, Zohar, and Shaul, the son of a Canaanite woman; these are the families of Simeon. 16 The following are the names of the sons of Levi according to their genealogies: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari, and the length of Levi’s life was one hundred thirty-seven years. 17 The sons of Gershon: Libni and Shimei, by their families. 18 The sons of Kohath: Amram, Izhar, Hebron, and Uzziel, and the length of Kohath’s life was one hundred thirty-three years. 19 The sons of Merari: Mahli and Mushi. These are the families of the Levites according to their genealogies. 20 Amram married Jochebed his father’s sister and she bore him Aaron and Moses, and the length of Amram’s life was one hundred thirty-seven years. 21 The sons of Izhar: Korah, Nepheg, and Zichri. 22 The sons of Uzziel: Mishael, Elzaphan, and Sithri. 23 Aaron married Elisheba, daughter of Amminadab and sister of Nahshon, and she bore him Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. 24 The sons of Korah: Assir, Elkanah, and Abiasaph; these are the families of the Korahites. 25 Aaron’s son Eleazar married one of the daughters of Putiel, and she bore him Phinehas. These are the heads of the ancestral houses of the Levites by their families.

 26 It was this same Aaron and Moses to whom the LORD said, “Bring the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, company by company.” 27 It was they who spoke to Pharaoh king of Egypt to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, the same Moses and Aaron.

 28 On the day when the LORD spoke to Moses in the land of Egypt, 29 he said to him, “I am the LORD; tell Pharaoh king of Egypt all that I am speaking to you.” 30 But Moses said in the LORD’s presence, “Since I am a poor speaker, why would Pharaoh listen to me?”

This is not how we tell a story because we see the world differently than people in the ancient world. We live in a world where we construct our identities, we are who we are because of our choices and actions is the narrative we try to live our lives within. Yet, in the ancient world you inherited your identity: you are who you are because of your parents, grandparents, etc. This is why the Bible and most ancient texts take extended sections for genealogies. Often an ancient person’s telling of who they are would be a narrative of not only their name but their name within a list of the ancestors. You still see this in the Middle East where names, Osama bin Laden for a famous example, revolve around this pattern (Osama son of (bin) Laden). Here what is interesting to me about this genealogy is its incompleteness. It begins with a telling of the ancestry of the tribe (Reuben, Simeon and Levi) but before it can get to the remaining tribes it holds up within the tribe of Levi focusing both on the upcoming divisions of labor among the descendants of Levi as well as the priestly heritage of both Aaron and Moses. Here for the first time the parents of Moses and Aaron are named: Amram and Jochebed and presumably Aaron is the older son based upon how they are listed. There is a long series of exceptions where the LORD chooses the younger rather than the older son (Jacob and Joseph for example in Genesis) and here is one more of those incidents.

Another unusual piece of this genealogy is that Amram and Jochebed are related more closely than would be allowed in Leviticus (see Leviticus 18:12) and yet here they are a man and his aunt who are lifted up as the ancestors of Moses and Aaron: the great leader of Israel and its first high priest. Again, this is one of those places where a close reading of a genealogy often renders a few surprises in the family tree.

I have done enough work with Family Systems theory and have spent enough time observing families as a part of my ministry within a congregation to know that we are never truly the crafters of our own story. We inherit a lot of our identity, knowingly and unknowingly, from our parent and their parents. Many of our opportunities are opened by the position and standing of those who came before us. In our world, we may simply attempt to judge Moses and Aaron based upon their position and actions but perhaps there is some wisdom in these ancient stories that pause and remind us who are the ancestors of the people in our stories and where are the roots of their family trees. Now that we know where Moses and Aaron came from we are ready to follow them into the rest of the story.

Deuteronomy 17: A Society Structured Around One Lord

The Blasphemer, as in Leviticus 24: 13-23, by William Blake circa 1800

The Blasphemer, as in Leviticus 24: 13-23, by William Blake circa 1800

Deuteronomy 16:20-17:7 Only the LORD your God

1You must not sacrifice to the LORD your God an ox or a sheep that has a defect, anything seriously wrong; for that is abhorrent to the LORD your God.

                2 If there is found among you, in one of your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God, and transgresses his covenant 3 by going to serve other gods and worshiping them– whether the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden– 4 and if it is reported to you or you hear of it, and you make a thorough inquiry, and the charge is proved true that such an abhorrent thing has occurred in Israel, 5 then you shall bring out to your gates that man or that woman who has committed this crime and you shall stone the man or woman to death. 6 On the evidence of two or three witnesses the death sentence shall be executed; a person must not be put to death on the evidence of only one witness. 7 The hands of the witnesses shall be the first raised against the person to execute the death penalty, and afterward the hands of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

For the author of Deuteronomy the first and central commandment that the people are only to have the LORD as their God. It comes at the head of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5:6:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me

and in Deuteronomy 6: 4-5:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

Even before this Deuteronomy 4 emphasizes this same theme, as do Deuteronomy 7, 8, and 9. Deuteronomy 12 again addresses this issue in relation to destroying places of worship for other gods, and all of Deuteronomy 13 addresses this issue in stark terms of what the punishment is to be for violating this covenant relationship by individuals or by entire towns. It comes up here again at the end of 16 and beginning of 17 because it is such a central issue for the Deuteronomist that the author wants no chance for the hearer/reader to miss it. Being an aural culture the things that are central will be repeated over and over to ensure that they are heard by the listening audience. The death penalty for following other gods may seem harsh to us, and I address this question in greater detail when I talk about Deuteronomy 13, but this unique relationship with the LORD is to be at the center of the life of the people of Israel.

The LORD is not to be worshiped in the same way that the gods of the nations around the people are worshiped, there is to be no blending of the gods of the nations and the LORD. The people are also to bring their best to the worship of their LORD, not the animals that are defective. For the Deuteronomist these are life and death decisions, and yet they are still bound by the due process of the law. Justice is expected and a thorough investigation of any claims of idolatry are to be made. Deuteronomy 17 probably lays behind the command in Matthew 18.16 of wanting claims to be confirmed with the testimony of two or three witnesses and also behind the command for the one who is without sin to ‘cast the first stone’ in John 8 (even though this deals with adultery). In a contemporary fictional setting it is similar to the insistence of Ned Stark in the Game of Thrones that the one who passes the sentence should swing the sword, but instead here it is the witness who has testified against a person who must cast the initial stone of the community’s judgment. As Walter Brueggemann can state, “The book of Deuteronomy is committed to a rule of law even if it is a severe rule of law.” (Brueggemann, 2001 , p. 181) The nation of Israel is to be a theocracy where ultimately the LORD their God is at the center of their judicial, religious and political life and the central place of their LORD their God should, in the view of Deuteronomy, impact the way they structure the leadership and judicial life of their community

Deuteronomy 17:8-13 The Levitical Judicial Function

8 If a judicial decision is too difficult for you to make between one kind of bloodshed and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another– any such matters of dispute in your towns– then you shall immediately go up to the place that the LORD your God will choose, 9 where you shall consult with the levitical priests and the judge who is in office in those days; they shall announce to you the decision in the case. 10 Carry out exactly the decision that they announce to you from the place that the LORD will choose, diligently observing everything they instruct you. 11 You must carry out fully the law that they interpret for you or the ruling that they announce to you; do not turn aside from the decision that they announce to you, either to the right or to the left. 12 As for anyone who presumes to disobey the priest appointed to minister there to the LORD your God, or the judge, that person shall die. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. 13 All the people will hear and be afraid, and will not act presumptuously again.

The vision of Deuteronomy is for a theocracy, a nation that is an extension of the covenantal relationship with the LORD their God, and so all of the functions of life are structured around trying to create that type of a nation. In many respects ancient Judaism and Islam share this desire to create nations that are structured in this manner and so in ancient Judaism, like some Muslim states, the highest court of appeals is a religious court and not a secular one. For people who live in Europe or the United States this may seem a strange concept because we live in a post-enlightenments modern society where religion is viewed as a private portion of a person’s life, but this is a relatively recent development. The law for the Jewish people was a reflection of their covenantal relationship with their God and it was viewed as a gift that God had given them. Even the judges that were a part of the tribes were expected to judge in accordance with the ideals outlined in the law. It doesn’t take long reading through books like Judges or 1 Samuel to find ways in which the judges often failed in this respect, but the ideal was that those entrusted with ministering to the LORD in the tabernacle or temple would be those most focused on the ideals of justice that the LORD called for. People are to obey the judgments of this religious and tribal courts, for a judge whose sentence holds no power is not going to be effective in enforcing this justice. So again, it is a harsh justice, where the penalty for disobeying a priest or a judge in their sentences is execution.

Deuteronomy 17: 14-20 The Model King

                14 When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,” 15 you may indeed set over you a king whom the LORD your God will choose. One of your own community you may set as king over you; you are not permitted to put a foreigner over you, who is not of your own community. 16 Even so, he must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, since the LORD has said to you, “You must never return that way again.” 17 And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself. 18 When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests. 19 It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, 20 neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel.

Willem de Poorter, 'De afgoderij van konig Solomo'-Solomon's decent into idolatry (between 1630 and 1648)

Willem de Poorter, ‘De afgoderij van konig Solomo’-Solomon’s decent into idolatry (between 1630 and 1648)

Most people assume that the monarchy, and particularly the Davidic monarchy, was universally embraced by scriptures and particularly King David and Solomon are the great kings where everything went well during their reign. The bible is not unanimous in endorsing having a king at all and for example in 1 Samuel 8, when the people are demanding of Samuel a king the LORD’s response is telling:

“Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly want them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” 1 Samuel 8: 7-9

The Deuteronomic history (the books beginning with Judges and stretching through 2 Kings) is pretty unromantic when it describes the failings of the kings that would rule over Judah and Israel, and it is telling the way that Deuteronomy describes the aspects of who the king is to be, they are the opposite of King Solomon. Most Christians know little of the story of Solomon, other than his request for wisdom and his building of the temple, but the way 1 Kings tells of his reign he quickly is drawn into a quest for wealth, military power and in making alliance is led astray from being faithful to the LORD, the God of Israel. Solomon imports horses from Egypt and has 12,000 horses and 1,400 chariots. Horses in the ancient world are a sign of military might. With power centralized and the military muscle to back up that power the king of Israel may begin to act like the Pharaohs of Egypt and the people become plunged into dependence under the burden of supplying for the hunger of a large military budget. 1 Kings goes at length into describing the wealth that Solomon accumulates as well as the incredible investment in projects beyond the temple, like his own palace. Solomon’s reign is reported to have brought in more than five tons of gold a year in addition to countless other resources. Finally Solomon is lifted up as having seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines. All of these are direct counters to Deuteronomy’s vision of what a king is to be, and are ultimately blamed for the rising opposition to Solomon in his life and the splitting of the kingdom in two after his death. I tell about this briefly in the Place of Authority posts.

The title of the book of Deuteronomy comes from verse 18 where it refers to a copy of the law (in greek deutero nomos-second law) that the king is to read from each night and to be the way in which the king stays grounded in the covenantal life the people are called to.  Ultimately in the view of Deuteronomy the king is subservient to the will of the LORD. In reality, this rarely seemed to be the case in the story of the people of Judah and Israel. In a time where the majority of the population would be illiterate and not have access to written copies of the law they did rely upon the leaders including the king and the religious authorities guiding them in their actions. The bible evaluates the kings theologically: were they faithful to the LORD their God or did they lead the people to follow other gods?

I am writing from a Christian perspective, and in the church year we are approaching Christ the King Sunday and perhaps as Christians it might be worth examining how Jesus who we call Messiah or Christ (which means anointed king) lives into this identity. In Paul’s short statement of who Christ was in Philippians 2:

Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Philippians 2: 6-8.

Many of the servant songs from Isaiah, which Christians read as talking about Jesus probably originally were trying to consider a monarch that might embody the vision of passages like Deuteronomy 17. Perhaps when the New Testament talks about explaining who Jesus was from the law and the prophets this is one of the places in the law where the early Christians went back to.