Tag Archives: Exodus

Exodus 30: Precious Things for the Sacred not the Secular

Erection of the Tabernacle and Sacred Vessels by Gerard Hoet (1728)

 Exodus 30: 1-10 The Incense Altar of Gold

You shall make an altar on which to offer incense; you shall make it of acacia wood. 2 It shall be one cubit long, and one cubit wide; it shall be square, and shall be two cubits high; its horns shall be of one piece with it. 3 You shall overlay it with pure gold, its top, and its sides all around and its horns; and you shall make for it a molding of gold all around. 4 And you shall make two golden rings for it; under its molding on two opposite sides of it you shall make them, and they shall hold the poles with which to carry it. 5 You shall make the poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. 6 You shall place it in front of the curtain that is above the ark of the covenant,1 in front of the mercy seat2 that is over the covenant,3 where I will meet with you. 7 Aaron shall offer fragrant incense on it; every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall offer it, 8 and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall offer it, a regular incense offering before the LORD throughout your generations. 9 You shall not offer unholy incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering; and you shall not pour a drink offering on it. 10 Once a year Aaron shall perform the rite of atonement on its horns. Throughout your generations he shall perform the atonement for it once a year with the blood of the atoning sin offering. It is most holy to the LORD.

This chapter finishes the description of the holy things that are to be created for the service to the LORD in the tabernacle. On first glance, it seems a random collection of things put at the end, but upon closer inspection there is an order in this chapter. The incense altar is the final golden items described and this small (roughly 1 ½ foot square) altar is near the holiest space and is used to provide a fragrant offering of incense (described at the end of the chapter) before the place where the LORD is to meet Moses or the high priest. The incense is to be set upon the altar every morning and evening and like everything else this altar is portable. An additional part of the priesthood’s job is to maintain this continual offering of incense before the LORD.

Exodus 30: 11-16 The Census of Silver

11 The LORD spoke to Moses: 12 When you take a census of the Israelites to register them, at registration all of them shall give a ransom for their lives to the LORD, so that no plague may come upon them for being registered. 13 This is what each one who is registered shall give: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as an offering to the LORD. 14 Each one who is registered, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the LORD’s offering. 15 The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when you bring this offering to the LORD to make atonement for your lives. 16 You shall take the atonement money from the Israelites and shall designate it for the service of the tent of meeting; before the LORD it will be a reminder to the Israelites of the ransom given for your lives.

The Hebrew Scriptures are of a mixed mind on taking censuses. On the one hand there is the census mentioned here and at the beginning of the book of Numbers where the people are enrolled in obedience to God’s command. On the other hand, in 2 Samuel 24 when David conducts a census it is a sin against God that results in a plague. Perhaps the answer lies in the reason for the census and how it is done. Here and in Numbers the census is an act of worship and devotion where, especially here, the people are measured by the gift they bring. The donation of a shekel allows the census to be taken without counting heads or viable soldiers but instead by measuring the gifts. In contrast, when David orders the military leaders to measure the population in 2 Samuel it is specifically a counting of how many soldiers are available and a measurement of the strength of his kingdom. As Rabbi Sacks can remind us, “The danger in counting Jews is that if they believed, even for a moment, that there is strength in numbers, the Jewish people long ago would have given way to despair.” (Sacks, 2010, p. 267)

Perhaps the wisdom for our time may be the difference between counting gifts and counting resources. We live in a world of accounting, where resources are counted and measured and it is ultimately a worldview based on scarcity. When we attempt to catalog all that we need to ensure nothing is missing and our world becomes based on measuring people, money, or possessions then we can become fixated on securing our own future. The scriptures point to a different type of reality where God is the one who provides for the needs of the people and the offering they provide is a way of giving thanks for the gifts that God has given. It is a way of measuring the gifts that people bring, it is a way that can be more grateful for what has been received rather than fearful of what one doesn’t have.

Exodus 30: 17-21 The Basin of Bronze

17 The LORD spoke to Moses: 18 You shall make a bronze basin with a bronze stand for washing. You shall put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it; 19 with the water1 Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet. 20 When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to make an offering by fire to the LORD, they shall wash with water, so that they may not die. 21 They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die: it shall be a perpetual ordinance for them, for him and for his descendants throughout their generations.

We have moved from a golden altar to a silver offering to a bronze basin. Here the basin is described in a very plain manner, it is of the lowest precious metal and is used for the functional, but necessary, washing. This ordinary thing provides a way of preparation for the extraordinary ministry of the priest. Being washed in the water of the basin becomes a necessary preparation for the work of ministry.

Stepping back from the tabernacle itself there is perhaps some reflection that we Christians can do about the way in which our own baptism prepares us for the callings that God has for us. As a pastor my calling is an extension and only possible because of the work that God has done with water and promise. I am continually called back to my baptism which prepares me for the work of ministry that I do daily. Here with the bronze basin and the water the priest is prepared for the work with the holy by things that are both mundane and essential.

Exodus 30: 22-38 Anointing Oil and Incense

22 The LORD spoke to Moses: 23 Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, two hundred fifty, and two hundred fifty of aromatic cane, 24 and five hundred of cassia — measured by the sanctuary shekel — and a hin of olive oil; 25 and you shall make of these a sacred anointing oil blended as by the perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil. 26 With it you shall anoint the tent of meeting and the ark of the covenant,1 27 and the table and all its utensils, and the lampstand and its utensils, and the altar of incense, 28 and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the basin with its stand; 29 you shall consecrate them, so that they may be most holy; whatever touches them will become holy. 30 You shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, in order that they may serve me as priests. 31 You shall say to the Israelites, “This shall be my holy anointing oil throughout your generations. 32 It shall not be used in any ordinary anointing of the body, and you shall make no other like it in composition; it is holy, and it shall be holy to you. 33 Whoever compounds any like it or whoever puts any of it on an unqualified person shall be cut off from the people.”

34 The LORD said to Moses: Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (an equal part of each), 35 and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy; 36 and you shall beat some of it into powder, and put part of it before the covenant1 in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you; it shall be for you most holy. 37 When you make incense according to this composition, you shall not make it for yourselves; it shall be regarded by you as holy to the LORD. 38 Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from the people.

Spices in the ancient world are as valuable as gold and silver, and here these precious spices are used both for an anointing oil and for the incense used in the tabernacle. The anointing oil is used over all the implements of the tabernacle and over Aaron and the priests. This is to be specifically and only used in the tabernacle and its service. The place is to have a unique odor that is not to be copied for mundane things. In a similar way the incense is a unique and precious blend to only be used in the tabernacle. Both are holy things set aside for a specific purpose.

As a Christian the myrrh used in the anointing oil and the frankincense used in the incense remind me of the story of the magi bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus and his parents as they paid him homage. On the one hand, these are very valuable substances but on the other hand gold, frankincense and myrrh are all used in the tabernacle for the most holy.

Aside: Holy and Sacred in our Secular Conversations

Over the past weekend there was significant controversy when players, coaches and owners in various ways kneeled, locked arms or stayed in the locker room during the national anthem. Within some people’s outrage the language of sacred and holy about the anthem or to the flag was used and I think we need to pay attention to the way in which our language reflects that which we worship. As a Christian I cannot say that the flag or the anthem or any secular ritual are sacred things nor do I worship my nation. But I also think the contrast in the way this language is used in times of controversy and the blasé way we typically use these items is also worth calling attention to.

As a veteran I spent a lot of years where proper respect for a flag was very important. I have always felt uneasy about the way in which the flag was used in clothing, or the modifications that people felt free to place upon the flag. For example, the blue lives matter flag where a blue bar replaces one of the red bars in the flag, or there is a person in my neighborhood who flies an American flag with the “don’t tread on me” snake emblem placed on top of it. These are all things that are improper (not to mention wearing the flag as clothing, as a bag or bandanna or many other ways it is frequently used) within the code that I had to learn as a soldier. I understand that for many people who may either be primarily secularist or for whom their Christianity is a subset of their patriotism (which one should wonder then, is it really Christianity, but I digress) references to the flag as holy or sacred or to patriotic acts as taking on these same meaning may be a part of their ‘faith.’ Yet, I am puzzled by the way in which people will take one type of ‘disrespect of the flag’ as patriotic and the protests on Sunday are somehow unpatriotic. I know these are emotional issues but we also need to acknowledge that sometimes our emotions are being played to let one thing be ok and another not.

Yet, for the Hebrew Scriptures that which is holy or sacred is used only for holy and sacred purposes. The incense or anointing oil is not to be imitated for secular use. The penalty for misusing sacred things for secular purposes is being cut off from the people. We live in a secular society where certain rights, particularly the right of free speech, are highlighted as values to be protected. One can value something secular or feel that a secular ritual to invest things like anthems or flags with religious language and fervor is a short step away from the worship of the gods of a land or nation.

Exodus 29: Ordination and Offerings

Michael Schmitt, the High Priest Aaron (1912)

 

Exodus 29: 1-37 Consecration and Ordination

Now this is what you shall do to them to consecrate them, so that they may serve me as priests. Take one young bull and two rams without blemish, 2 and unleavened bread, unleavened cakes mixed with oil, and unleavened wafers spread with oil. You shall make them of choice wheat flour. 3 You shall put them in one basket and bring them in the basket, and bring the bull and the two rams. 4 You shall bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance of the tent of meeting, and wash them with water. 5 Then you shall take the vestments, and put on Aaron the tunic and the robe of the ephod, and the ephod, and the breastpiece, and gird him with the decorated band of the ephod; 6 and you shall set the turban on his head, and put the holy diadem on the turban. 7 You shall take the anointing oil, and pour it on his head and anoint him. 8 Then you shall bring his sons, and put tunics on them, 9 and you shall gird them with sashes1 and tie headdresses on them; and the priesthood shall be theirs by a perpetual ordinance. You shall then ordain Aaron and his sons.

 10 You shall bring the bull in front of the tent of meeting. Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on the head of the bull, 11 and you shall slaughter the bull before the LORD, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, 12 and shall take some of the blood of the bull and put it on the horns of the altar with your finger, and all the rest of the blood you shall pour out at the base of the altar. 13 You shall take all the fat that covers the entrails, and the appendage of the liver, and the two kidneys with the fat that is on them, and turn them into smoke on the altar. 14 But the flesh of the bull, and its skin, and its dung, you shall burn with fire outside the camp; it is a sin offering.

 15 Then you shall take one of the rams, and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on the head of the ram, 16 and you shall slaughter the ram, and shall take its blood and dash it against all sides of the altar. 17 Then you shall cut the ram into its parts, and wash its entrails and its legs, and put them with its parts and its head, 18 and turn the whole ram into smoke on the altar; it is a burnt offering to the LORD; it is a pleasing odor, an offering by fire to the LORD.

 19 You shall take the other ram; and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on the head of the ram, 20 and you shall slaughter the ram, and take some of its blood and put it on the lobe of Aaron’s right ear and on the lobes of the right ears of his sons, and on the thumbs of their right hands, and on the big toes of their right feet, and dash the rest of the blood against all sides of the altar. 21 Then you shall take some of the blood that is on the altar, and some of the anointing oil, and sprinkle it on Aaron and his vestments and on his sons and his sons’ vestments with him; then he and his vestments shall be holy, as well as his sons and his sons’ vestments.

 22 You shall also take the fat of the ram, the fat tail, the fat that covers the entrails, the appendage of the liver, the two kidneys with the fat that is on them, and the right thigh (for it is a ram of ordination), 23 and one loaf of bread, one cake of bread made with oil, and one wafer, out of the basket of unleavened bread that is before the LORD; 24 and you shall place all these on the palms of Aaron and on the palms of his sons, and raise them as an elevation offering before the LORD. 25 Then you shall take them from their hands, and turn them into smoke on the altar on top of the burnt offering of pleasing odor before the LORD; it is an offering by fire to the LORD.

 26 You shall take the breast of the ram of Aaron’s ordination and raise it as an elevation offering before the LORD; and it shall be your portion. 27 You shall consecrate the breast that was raised as an elevation offering and the thigh that was raised as an elevation offering from the ram of ordination, from that which belonged to Aaron and his sons. 28 These things shall be a perpetual ordinance for Aaron and his sons from the Israelites, for this is an offering; and it shall be an offering by the Israelites from their sacrifice of offerings of well-being, their offering to the LORD.

 29 The sacred vestments of Aaron shall be passed on to his sons after him; they shall be anointed in them and ordained in them. 30 The son who is priest in his place shall wear them seven days, when he comes into the tent of meeting to minister in the holy place.

 31 You shall take the ram of ordination, and boil its flesh in a holy place; 32 and Aaron and his sons shall eat the flesh of the ram and the bread that is in the basket, at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 33 They themselves shall eat the food by which atonement is made, to ordain and consecrate them, but no one else shall eat of them, because they are holy. 34 If any of the flesh for the ordination, or of the bread, remains until the morning, then you shall burn the remainder with fire; it shall not be eaten, because it is holy.

 35 Thus you shall do to Aaron and to his sons, just as I have commanded you; through seven days you shall ordain them. 36 Also every day you shall offer a bull as a sin offering for atonement. Also you shall offer a sin offering for the altar, when you make atonement for it, and shall anoint it, to consecrate it. 37 Seven days you shall make atonement for the altar, and consecrate it, and the altar shall be most holy; whatever touches the altar shall become holy.

The week that I am thinking about these texts I have also been preparing to preside at an installation service for a new pastor in my conference. For a modern ordination, at least in the Christian tradition, is far less elaborate than the ritual that is described here. This is a public rite that lasts for seven days as Aaron and his sons are set aside for the ministry in the tabernacle. Not only are there special garments that are prepared (previous chapter) and the tabernacle itself with all its furnishings (chapters 25, 26 and 27) but now the people, vestments and furnishings must be set aside for the ministry in the tabernacle.

As I mentioned in the previous chapter when discussing the vestments, this process of setting aside Aaron and his sons for the priesthood and the elaborate preparation and consecration become a new beginning after Aaron’s incident with the golden calf. The rite of setting aside Aaron and his sons grants them a new start so that they might be holy before the LORD and continue to offer up the sacrifices that the people might be holy.

The community offers up the produce of their fields and flocks as gifts that are used to be a part of the service. There are three specific offerings lifted up: a sin offering, a burnt offering and an offering of ordination. The bull becomes the sin offering and is the first one offered. Ritually the sins of Aaron and his sons are laid on the head of the bull and then the bull is killed and consumed partially by fire and partially is left outside of the camp. This offering becomes a place where Moses symbolically acts as a priest for Aaron and his sons and acts as an intercessor between them and God, just as they will later act as intercessors between the people and God. The first ram is also consumed by the fire and as a burnt offering is to be pleasing to the LORD while the final ram has a portion set aside for Aaron and his sons to eat.

The ritual use of the blood of an animal may seem abhorrent to us today but was very normal in ancient times. When most of our meat comes shrink wrapped in a grocery store we may find it unimaginable to have blood sprinkled on us or place on our ear lobe or poured out on the altar, but in the ancient world this was life paying for life. The blood was never to be consumed by the Hebrew people, it was always poured out for God for that was where the life was believed to reside. Here the life of animals are used as a way to set aside these people as priests for their service to the LORD.

Exodus 29: 38-46 Offerings and the Presence of God

 38 Now this is what you shall offer on the altar: two lambs a year old regularly each day. 39 One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer in the evening; 40 and with the first lamb one-tenth of a measure of choice flour mixed with one-fourth of a hin of beaten oil, and one-fourth of a hin of wine for a drink offering. 41 And the other lamb you shall offer in the evening, and shall offer with it a grain offering and its drink offering, as in the morning, for a pleasing odor, an offering by fire to the LORD. 42 It shall be a regular burnt offering throughout your generations at the entrance of the tent of meeting before the LORD, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there. 43 I will meet with the Israelites there, and it shall be sanctified by my glory; 44 I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar; Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate, to serve me as priests. 45 I will dwell among the Israelites, and I will be their God. 46 And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them; I am the LORD their God.

Scholars may disagree on what the exact reason sacrifice was so prevalent in ancient cultures and there may have been a multitude of understandings among different cultures about sacrifice and its meaning. Yet, every religion has some manner in which the best one has (and in an agricultural culture this is the produce of the fields and the animals of the herd) and committing it to the LORD. Perhaps some understood this as a way of feeding or appeasing their gods, others may have seen it as a demonstration of their dedication to the deity they worshipped or a way of currying favor with their god. Yet, for the Hebrew people there is also the understanding that these are also ways of demonstrating their continued obedience to the God they believe travels with them each day. The tabernacle becomes a place where God’s presence will dwell among the people and the priestly actions become ways in which they mediate between the holy God and the people who are also set aside to be holy but the continual action of the priests. Just as Aaron and his sons will be consecrated, now their perpetual action becomes a way of consecrating the people as a priestly nation.

 

Exodus 28: The Vestments for the Priesthood of Aaron and his Descendants

Michael Schmitt, the High Priest Aaron (1912)

Then bring near to you your brother Aaron, and his sons with him, from among the Israelites, to serve me as priests — Aaron and Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. 2 You shall make sacred vestments for the glorious adornment of your brother Aaron. 3 And you shall speak to all who have ability, whom I have endowed with skill, that they make Aaron’s vestments to consecrate him for my priesthood. 4 These are the vestments that they shall make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a checkered tunic, a turban, and a sash. When they make these sacred vestments for your brother Aaron and his sons to serve me as priests, 5 they shall use gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine linen.

 6 They shall make the ephod of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, skillfully worked. 7 It shall have two shoulder-pieces attached to its two edges, so that it may be joined together. 8 The decorated band on it shall be of the same workmanship and materials, of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen. 9 You shall take two onyx stones, and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel, 10 six of their names on the one stone, and the names of the remaining six on the other stone, in the order of their birth. 11 As a gem-cutter engraves signets, so you shall engrave the two stones with the names of the sons of Israel; you shall mount them in settings of gold filigree. 12 You shall set the two stones on the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, as stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel; and Aaron shall bear their names before the LORD on his two shoulders for remembrance. 13 You shall make settings of gold filigree, 14 and two chains of pure gold, twisted like cords; and you shall attach the corded chains to the settings.

 15 You shall make a breastpiece of judgment, in skilled work; you shall make it in the style of the ephod; of gold, of blue and purple and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen you shall make it. 16 It shall be square and doubled, a span in length and a span in width. 17 You shall set in it four rows of stones. A row of carnelian,1 chrysolite, and emerald shall be the first row; 18 and the second row a turquoise, a sapphire1 and a moonstone; 19 and the third row a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst; 20 and the fourth row a beryl, an onyx, and a jasper; they shall be set in gold filigree. 21 There shall be twelve stones with names corresponding to the names of the sons of Israel; they shall be like signets, each engraved with its name, for the twelve tribes. 22 You shall make for the breastpiece chains of pure gold, twisted like cords; 23 and you shall make for the breastpiece two rings of gold, and put the two rings on the two edges of the breastpiece. 24 You shall put the two cords of gold in the two rings at the edges of the breastpiece; 25 the two ends of the two cords you shall attach to the two settings, and so attach it in front to the shoulder-pieces of the ephod. 26 You shall make two rings of gold, and put them at the two ends of the breastpiece, on its inside edge next to the ephod. 27 You shall make two rings of gold, and attach them in front to the lower part of the two shoulder-pieces of the ephod, at its joining above the decorated band of the ephod. 28 The breastpiece shall be bound by its rings to the rings of the ephod with a blue cord, so that it may lie on the decorated band of the ephod, and so that the breastpiece shall not come loose from the ephod. 29 So Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment on his heart when he goes into the holy place, for a continual remembrance before the LORD. 30 In the breastpiece of judgment you shall put the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be on Aaron’s heart when he goes in before the LORD; thus Aaron shall bear the judgment of the Israelites on his heart before the LORD continually.

 31 You shall make the robe of the ephod all of blue. 32 It shall have an opening for the head in the middle of it, with a woven binding around the opening, like the opening in a coat of mail, so that it may not be torn.  33 On its lower hem you shall make pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, all around the lower hem, with bells of gold between them all around —34 a golden bell and a pomegranate alternating all around the lower hem of the robe. 35 Aaron shall wear it when he ministers, and its sound shall be heard when he goes into the holy place before the LORD, and when he comes out, so that he may not die.

 36 You shall make a rosette of pure gold, and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet, “Holy to the LORD.” 37 You shall fasten it on the turban with a blue cord; it shall be on the front of the turban. 38 It shall be on Aaron’s forehead, and Aaron shall take on himself any guilt incurred in the holy offering that the Israelites consecrate as their sacred donations; it shall always be on his forehead, in order that they may find favor before the LORD.

 39 You shall make the checkered tunic of fine linen, and you shall make a turban of fine linen, and you shall make a sash embroidered with needlework.

 40 For Aaron’s sons you shall make tunics and sashes and headdresses; you shall make them for their glorious adornment. 41 You shall put them on your brother Aaron, and on his sons with him, and shall anoint them and ordain them and consecrate them, so that they may serve me as priests.42 You shall make for them linen undergarments to cover their naked flesh; they shall reach from the hips to the thighs; 43 Aaron and his sons shall wear them when they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister in the holy place; or they will bring guilt on themselves and die. This shall be a perpetual ordinance for him and for his descendants after him.

In North Africa during the 4th Century there was a schism that emerged within Christianity known as Donatism. In a time where Christians were no longer a persecuted church there were many individuals both lay and clergy who had, under persecution, denounced their faith while others had been imprisoned or martyred. The Donatists felt that clergy especially needed to be without fault for their ministry to be effective. For the Donatists, clergy who had denied their faith were unable to serve as a pastor. The conflict centered on whether it was the person or the office that made the ministrations of the priest effective and while the early Catholic church decided on the office of priesthood making the ministrations effective and not the character of the priest there are Donatists of every age who want to make priests into prophets, yet here in Exodus we have the setting aside of Aaron and his sons for the ministry of priesthood directly before Aaron fails dramatically in what his role will be.

Moses and the prophets who come after him will not have the vestments, ephods, breastplates, headpieces and all the elaborate garments that Aaron and his sons will have crafted for them as they fulfill their role within the tabernacle on behalf of the people of Israel. The type of relationship that Moses and other prophets have with the LORD will be rare, and yet there is a need for people to lead the community in worship. The clothing they wear sets them apart from everyone else, they are robed more richly than even kings would be, their garments are of incredible detail and workmanship and full of symbolism as they represent the people before their God. Aaron and his sons will not be perfect and yet they are to represent and bear the judgment of the people of Israel before God. The ephod and the breastplate also seem to have some functional role within the worship and the discernment of the will for the people of God.

On both the ephod and the breastplate there is the continual representation of the entire people before the LORD as the priest ministers. The priest acts not on their own behalf but on behalf of the entire people they intercede for. The engraved stones serve as a reminder for the priest, the people and for God of identity of the people in relation to God. The priest intercedes for the priestly kingdom. The precious stones remind us these tribes are God’s treasured possession. even though Aaron and his descendants will be consecrated to be holy to the LORD, the headband reminds both the LORD and the people that they are by extension ‘holy to the LORD.’

There is danger in the priestly role as well, for the priest intercedes for the people and must approach the holiest of spaces. Within the garments there are safeguards to protect the priest, bells sewn onto the robe that would ring as the priest approached the holiest of spaces and the undergarment to prevent the priest from accidentally exposing himself in the presence of God and the holiest items in the tabernacle.

Even though I come out of a liturgical tradition I don’t cling to the symbols of office the way that some pastors and priests do. Perhaps it is an arrogance on my part to not feel the need to be set apart by vestments that are a symbol of my office or simply comfort within my role. Yet, I do see the value in these vestments or symbols that let others know who I am and what my role is. I serve in the capacity I do not because of my own perfection or because I have lived a spotless life but simply because I trust that God and the community has called me. On behalf of the community I do serve in the capacities as priest/pastor and sometimes prophet. Clothes may not make the man (or woman) but sometimes they do grant them some of the power of the office to which they have been called.

Exodus 27: The Court of the Tabernacle and the Altar

Erection of the Tabernacle and Sacred Vessels by Gerard Hoet (1728)

Exodus 27: 1-8 The Altar

You shall make the altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits wide; the altar shall be square, and it shall be three cubits high. 2 You shall make horns for it on its four corners; its horns shall be of one piece with it, and you shall overlay it with bronze. 3 You shall make pots for it to receive its ashes, and shovels and basins and forks and firepans; you shall make all its utensils of bronze. 4 You shall also make for it a grating, a network of bronze; and on the net you shall make four bronze rings at its four corners. 5 You shall set it under the ledge of the altar so that the net shall extend halfway down the altar. 6 You shall make poles for the altar, poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with bronze; 7 the poles shall be put through the rings, so that the poles shall be on the two sides of the altar when it is carried. 8 You shall make it hollow, with boards. They shall be made just as you were shown on the mountain.

Most people assume that the sacrificial rites were at the center of the religion of the ancient Jewish people, yet this assumption is incorrect. The altar for sacrifice is placed outside of the tabernacle itself in the court of the tabernacle. The altar is made out of lesser materials than the materials used for the ark of the covenant and the lampstand and the table where the bread of the presence is placed. Instead of gold, bronze is used to overlay the acacia table and poles that make up the altar. The sacrifice is done in that space between the holy place of the tabernacle and the common space where the people live, work and worship.

The altar itself is massive, roughly seven and a half feet square and four and a half feet tall. It is also a significant departure from the low stone or earth altars discussed earlier in Exodus. Also at four and a half feet tall the priest would need some type of stair or pedestal to stand upon to be able to use the altar. This new altar is a departure from the open, simple and very modest temporary altars. Yet, it is also very functional for use with larger animals and for regular use. Perhaps the altar was placed closer to the front of the court of the tabernacle so that the priest when he ascended the stairs would be facing away from the tabernacle and not have to worry about exposing himself when climbing the stairs.

As a Christian, I also think this provokes some interesting thoughts about the way in which we arrange things in our worship spaces. Many traditions will call the fixture in the front of their worship space an altar, and particularly for a Catholic perspective where they can talk about the sacrifice of the mass this makes sense. From a Lutheran perspective, we may officially call the fixture a table but many people still consider it an altar even though we have a different perspective on exactly what communion is and what it is for. Many older churches have this table or altar pushed against the back wall there the pastor or priest faces away from the people (and presumably toward God) but most newer church buildings place the altar away from the wall and the pastor/priest faces the people. The architecture and where the pastor/priest faces makes a theological point about the character of worship and who the act is for. From a Lutheran perspective, the act of communion is primarily for the people, and for the ancient Jewish people there is a part of the sacrificial act which is for the people since much of the sacrifice was not burned up but eaten by the family or the priests. From a Catholic perspective, the sacrifice is offered up before God as a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice, and from the ancient Jewish perspective there is also the element of the sacrifice raising up a pleasing odor to God. Ultimately all of these traditions attempt to give glory and offer up their best to the God they attempt to serve faithfully.

 

Exodus 27: 9-19 The Court of the Tabernacle

9 You shall make the court of the tabernacle. On the south side the court shall have hangings of fine twisted linen one hundred cubits long for that side; 10 its twenty pillars and their twenty bases shall be of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their bands shall be of silver. 11 Likewise for its length on the north side there shall be hangings one hundred cubits long, their pillars twenty and their bases twenty, of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their bands shall be of silver. 12 For the width of the court on the west side there shall be fifty cubits of hangings, with ten pillars and ten bases. 13 The width of the court on the front to the east shall be fifty cubits. 14 There shall be fifteen cubits of hangings on the one side, with three pillars and three bases. 15 There shall be fifteen cubits of hangings on the other side, with three pillars and three bases. 16 For the gate of the court there shall be a screen twenty cubits long, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, embroidered with needlework; it shall have four pillars and with them four bases. 17 All the pillars around the court shall be banded with silver; their hooks shall be of silver, and their bases of bronze. 18 The length of the court shall be one hundred cubits, the width fifty, and the height five cubits, with hangings of fine twisted linen and bases of bronze. 19 All the utensils of the tabernacle for every use, and all its pegs and all the pegs of the court, shall be of bronze.

Over the past couple years, I have learned a lot about church design because I was involved with planning, and now executing an expansion to the congregation I serve. There is a lot of work and planning that goes into utilizing the resources that people commit to the church and to attempting to design space faithfully. One thing I have learned that designing sanctuary space or holy space is much more expensive than designing office space or fellowship space. Holy space attempts to communicate something of a connection to God and it frequently uses various types of precious things: metalwork, art, stained glass, high ceilings or large windows. Typically, when you build a church these are the first things that you design and build since they serve the central functions of worship where the other spaces serve a supporting function. That doesn’t mean these other spaces are unimportant but for religious spaces the highlight of their function is for worship and the most precious resources go into those places. The design of the tabernacle reflects this. The tabernacle itself uses primarily gold and gold overlaid pieces of furniture, clasps, and utensils. For the court, the primary metals used becomes bronze and silver.

The tabernacle’s walls are twice the height of the court’s walls and would be seen from the exterior of the structure, and yet this courtyard does provide a buffer between the holiest place of the tabernacle and the mundane place where the people live. It is an open-air area which is very common in ancient dwellings and temples since much of the activity would be outside. The court of the tabernacle is larger, roughly 150 feet by 75 feet, than the tabernacle but still not a huge space by modern standards of building. Yet, the structure is primarily a place where the priests would be and not the people, like in modern worship spaces, and the structure had to be portable so that also puts a severe limit on the size of the structure.

Exodus 27: 20-21 The Lamp

20 You shall further command the Israelites to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for the light, so that a lamp may be set up to burn regularly. 21 In the tent of meeting, outside the curtain that is before the covenant,1 Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the LORD. It shall be a perpetual ordinance to be observed throughout their generations by the Israelites.

An olive oil lamp that is to be tended by the priests is to provide light outside the tent of the tabernacle perpetually burning during the night, or perhaps perpetually depending on how the translation is rendered. Either way the lampstand outlined previously now is given its function and a part of the role of Aaron and his sons is to maintain this light and keep the lampstand burning. In many churches, they keep perpetual candles going as a symbol of the presence of God or as a reminder of the eternal light of God. Most of these in modern churches are long burning candles that are replaced regularly rather than an oil lamp, but the distinctive lampstand becomes an important symbol for the Jewish people as discussed in Exodus 25: 23-40.

Exodus 26 The Tabernacle

Erection of the Tabernacle and Sacred Vessels by Gerard Hoet (1728)

Exodus 26

Moreover you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twisted linen, and blue, purple, and crimson yarns; you shall make them with cherubim skillfully worked into them. 2 The length of each curtain shall be twenty-eight cubits, and the width of each curtain four cubits; all the curtains shall be of the same size. 3 Five curtains shall be joined to one another; and the other five curtains shall be joined to one another. 4 You shall make loops of blue on the edge of the outermost curtain in the first set; and likewise you shall make loops on the edge of the outermost curtain in the second set. 5 You shall make fifty loops on the one curtain, and you shall make fifty loops on the edge of the curtain that is in the second set; the loops shall be opposite one another. 6 You shall make fifty clasps of gold, and join the curtains to one another with the clasps, so that the tabernacle may be one whole.

 7 You shall also make curtains of goats’ hair for a tent over the tabernacle; you shall make eleven curtains. 8 The length of each curtain shall be thirty cubits, and the width of each curtain four cubits; the eleven curtains shall be of the same size. 9 You shall join five curtains by themselves, and six curtains by themselves, and the sixth curtain you shall double over at the front of the tent. 10 You shall make fifty loops on the edge of the curtain that is outermost in one set, and fifty loops on the edge of the curtain that is outermost in the second set.

 11 You shall make fifty clasps of bronze, and put the clasps into the loops, and join the tent together, so that it may be one whole. 12 The part that remains of the curtains of the tent, the half curtain that remains, shall hang over the back of the tabernacle. 13 The cubit on the one side, and the cubit on the other side, of what remains in the length of the curtains of the tent, shall hang over the sides of the tabernacle, on this side and that side, to cover it. 14 You shall make for the tent a covering of tanned rams’ skins and an outer covering of fine leather.1

 15 You shall make upright frames of acacia wood for the tabernacle. 16 Ten cubits shall be the length of a frame, and a cubit and a half the width of each frame. 17 There shall be two pegs in each frame to fit the frames together; you shall make these for all the frames of the tabernacle. 18 You shall make the frames for the tabernacle: twenty frames for the south side; 19 and you shall make forty bases of silver under the twenty frames, two bases under the first frame for its two pegs, and two bases under the next frame for its two pegs; 20 and for the second side of the tabernacle, on the north side twenty frames,21 and their forty bases of silver, two bases under the first frame, and two bases under the next frame; 22 and for the rear of the tabernacle westward you shall make six frames. 23 You shall make two frames for corners of the tabernacle in the rear; 24 they shall be separate beneath, but joined at the top, at the first ring; it shall be the same with both of them; they shall form the two corners. 25 And so there shall be eight frames, with their bases of silver, sixteen bases; two bases under the first frame, and two bases under the next frame.

 26 You shall make bars of acacia wood, five for the frames of the one side of the tabernacle, 27 and five bars for the frames of the other side of the tabernacle, and five bars for the frames of the side of the tabernacle at the rear westward. 28 The middle bar, halfway up the frames, shall pass through from end to end. 29 You shall overlay the frames with gold, and shall make their rings of gold to hold the bars; and you shall overlay the bars with gold. 30 Then you shall erect the tabernacle according to the plan for it that you were shown on the mountain.

 31 You shall make a curtain of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen; it shall be made with cherubim skillfully worked into it. 32 You shall hang it on four pillars of acacia overlaid with gold, which have hooks of gold and rest on four bases of silver. 33 You shall hang the curtain under the clasps, and bring the ark of the covenant 1 in there, within the curtain; and the curtain shall separate for you the holy place from the most holy. 34 You shall put the mercy seat1 on the ark of the covenant 2 in the most holy place. 35 You shall set the table outside the curtain, and the lampstand on the south side of the tabernacle opposite the table; and you shall put the table on the north side.

 36 You shall make a screen for the entrance of the tent, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen, embroidered with needlework. 37 You shall make for the screen five pillars of acacia, and overlay them with gold; their hooks shall be of gold, and you shall cast five bases of bronze for them.

Constructing holy space is something every religious tradition has to think about and the way in which a tradition creates that space illuminates something about the people who worship there and the god or gods they attempt to worship. The tabernacle serves an unsettled people, a people who are still on their Exodus journey. It is designed to be transported across the wilderness and set up wherever the people dwell. It is a holy space for a God who is not associated with one particular place but rather a God that can move with the people and who desires to dwell among them. Even though there is the desire for a place where the LORD will dwell among the people there is still a need for zones of holiness. Paradoxically the God of Israel is viewed as being both unapproachable and yet approaching to dwell with the people. The tabernacle becomes a place to mediate the presence of the holy God.

The tabernacle is constructed out of the most valuable materials: Gold, silver and copper, acacia wood, died wool and tanned animal skins. Within the curtains, bars, bases and clasps used for the holiest regions the best material is used: gold and precious died wools in purple, blue and crimson. Wool, and in particular the three stated colors, may seem like an ordinary commodity in our time but in the ancient world purple, blue and crimson in particular are self-fixing colors that do not fade with the exposure to sun and water but are expensive to make because of the materials to make them being rare or dangerous to work with. (Myers, 2005, p. 235)  Purple was often a color associated with royalty precisely because of the cost of producing purple cloth. These curtains or sections are probably woven together and the cherubim designs are included as a part of the weaving. Each of these curtains is roughly forty two feet by six feet and a total of ten of these sections are made to enclose the most holy portion of the space. This is a space designed around the ark of the covenant described in the previous chapter that it will contain.

The worship space itself is big for a mobile structure, but it would not be big in terms of worship space that we would design for a modern congregation. Most of the people would never enter the tabernacle and certainly not the holy of holies with the ark, instead they would be outside the tabernacle while the priests would intercede, sacrifice and mediate the presence of the LORD to the waiting people. The curtains and bars and bases all set aside space and the ark, lampstand and table sit within the set aside space. It is the uncluttered worship space of an Exodus people.

Even when King David desires to build a temple (2 Samuel 7) there is resistance to the idea of transitioning from a tent and a tabernacle to a fixed temple. The LORD does not dwell in one specific place and within the construction of the temple there are some often unnoticed contrasts between the temple work and the tabernacle work. The tabernacle work comes from the voluntary offering of the people but the temple built under Solomon will involve conscripted labor and would be a part of the building projects that placed a heavy burden on the people and would eventually lead to the splitting of Israel away from Judah. Eventually the temple itself became such a focal point that it, the Davidic king and the city of Jerusalem became central for the identity of the people. During the Babylonian exile when Jerusalem, the king and the temple were lost the memory of God’s presence moving with the people in a mobile tabernacle may have been a source of comfort as they found themselves separated from their former home in a strange land and wondered how the LORD could be present.

Exodus 25: Holy Things for Holy Space

Exodus 25: 1-9 A Voluntary Offering for the Tabernacle

The LORD said to Moses: 2 Tell the Israelites to take for me an offering; from all whose hearts prompt them to give you shall receive the offering for me. 3 This is the offering that you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze, 4 blue, purple, and crimson yarns and fine linen, goats’ hair, 5 tanned rams’ skins, fine leather,1 acacia wood, 6 oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, 7 onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and for the breastpiece. 8 And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them. 9 In accordance with all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.

For many Christians Exodus 25-31 and 35-40 are portions of scripture they either pass over or perhaps read without much reflection. Yet, particularly in ancient literature where the documents must be hand copied by a scribe, the dedication to such a significant amount of space, ink and time to the preservation of this vision of the tabernacle should make us slow down and take notice. In contrast, the construction of the temple in 1 Kings occupies only two chapters.

Perhaps because I have spent a lot of time over the past two years planning and working with an architectural firm on an expansion for my congregation I have a greater appreciation for the level of detail that goes in taking a vision and attempting to communicate it in text to the people who will construct the expansion. The term tabernacle comes from the Hebrew word which means to dwell and the project they will be constructing will be a place the LORD can dwell with the people. In one sense, it is attempting to create a bit of heaven on earth: the use of the finest resources and specific patterns to emulate in some small way the visions of the throne room of God that Moses and others will see. In another sense, it is a modeling of what creation was supposed to be. There is a creation narrative pattern where the order is brought together and God comes to dwell with humanity in a recreated garden space. Probably both heaven and earth become models for this dwelling place and the greatest resources of the earth are used for this act of creation of a sacred space.

The offering for the space is voluntary not compulsory. Unlike the temple, where Solomon’s building activity places a heavy burden on the people including compulsory labor, the tabernacle will utilize the gifts people freely bring and the divinely gifted artisans that God provides. Unlike the golden calf of Exodus 32 which is hastily molded and cast and whose worship quickly devolves into reveling and disorder, this will be a space where the orderly worship parallels the orderly vision of creation in Genesis.

As we move through the individual components set aside for the tabernacle and the construction of those elements I do believe the construction of this holy space is an act of devotion and worship. There have been times within Christianity where the focus has been upon the building and the collection for those building would also put a high toll on the faithful. My tradition, the Lutheran Church, emerges out of a conflict over the raising of funds through indulgences which would ultimately go to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. But as people of faith we do need sacred spaces, places where God promises to dwell among us. It is faithful for people to give of their own wealth and resources and talents to build these places that are a little taste of heaven here on earth.

James Tissot, Moses and Joshua in the Tabernacle (1896-1902)

Exodus 25: 10-22 The Ark of the Covenant

10 They shall make an ark of acacia wood; it shall be two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. 11 You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside you shall overlay it, and you shall make a molding of gold upon it all around. 12 You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on the one side of it, and two rings on the other side. 13 You shall make poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. 14 And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, by which to carry the ark. 15 The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it. 16 You shall put into the ark the covenant1 that I shall give you.

17 Then you shall make a mercy seat of pure gold; two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its width. 18 You shall make two cherubim of gold; you shall make them of hammered work, at the two ends of the mercy seat. 19 Make one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other; of one piece with the mercy seat you shall make the cherubim at its two ends. 20 The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings. They shall face one to another; the faces of the cherubim shall be turned toward the mercy seat. 21 You shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the covenant that I shall give you. 22 There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant, I will deliver to you all my commands for the Israelites.

Rather than an image of the LORD the people of Israel have a chair or footstool marking where God’s presence will meet them in this holy space. The ark also serves the additional purpose of being a storage space, like a chest, for the covenant or the law. The very best materials are used in this item that will occupy the central and holiest place within the tabernacle. Acacia wood and pure gold form the box and the elaborate lid for the ark of the covenant.

The ark will become a central representation of God’s presence among the Israelites in the time of Joshua, the Judges, King Saul and King David. It is brought out into the battlefield with the armies of Israel. At times when it is captured it bring calamity to the nations who are not the LORD’s priestly kingdom and who place the ark within the pantheon of gods that they worship. It is a place where God’s holiness is reflected to the people and some manner of God’s presence dwells. The ark, which is roughly forty-five inches long and twenty-seven inches wide and deep, (Myers, 2005, p. 227) becomes a mobile seat of God’s presence. Interestingly the mentions of the ark of the covenant disappear during the time a permanent temple is built and it is not mentioned from Solomon’s reign onward. The lost ‘ark of the covenant’ has occupied the imagination of writers of fiction along with items like the holy grail or Noah’s ark as a powerful relic of ancient times.

It is also notable that while the mentions of the ark of the covenant disappear in the time of the monarchy so do the references among the kings to the covenant itself. It is only when the high priest Hilkiah rediscovers the book of the law in the temple that the covenant is for a moment renewed prior to the Babylonian exile. During the exile as the people no longer have the physical structures of the temple to be a place where they can be brought close to God’s presence the written copies of the Torah and other writings become the center of life for the Jewish people. It is during this time without a tabernacle or temple, ark of the covenant or any of the other items used in the worship of God that the Jewish and later Christian followers of God would become people of the written word.

Exodus 25: 23-40 The Table and Lampstand

23 You shall make a table of acacia wood, two cubits long, one cubit wide, and a cubit and a half high. 24 You shall overlay it with pure gold, and make a molding of gold around it. 25 You shall make around it a rim a handbreadth wide, and a molding of gold around the rim. 26 You shall make for it four rings of gold, and fasten the rings to the four corners at its four legs. 27 The rings that hold the poles used for carrying the table shall be close to the rim. 28 You shall make the poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold, and the table shall be carried with these. 29 You shall make its plates and dishes for incense, and its flagons and bowls with which to pour drink offerings; you shall make them of pure gold. 30 And you shall set the bread of the Presence on the table before me always.

31 You shall make a lampstand of pure gold. The base and the shaft of the lampstand shall be made of hammered work; its cups, its calyxes, and its petals shall be of one piece with it; 32 and there shall be six branches going out of its sides, three branches of the lampstand out of one side of it and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side of it; 33 three cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with calyx and petals, on one branch, and three cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with calyx and petals, on the other branch — so for the six branches going out of the lampstand. 34 On the lampstand itself there shall be four cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with its calyxes and petals. 35 There shall be a calyx of one piece with it under the first pair of branches, a calyx of one piece with it under the next pair of branches, and a calyx of one piece with it under the last pair of branches — so for the six branches that go out of the lampstand. 36 Their calyxes and their branches shall be of one piece with it, the whole of it one hammered piece of pure gold. 37 You shall make the seven lamps for it; and the lamps shall be set up so as to give light on the space in front of it. 38 Its snuffers and trays shall be of pure gold. 39 It, and all these utensils, shall be made from a talent of pure gold. 40 And see that you make them according to the pattern for them, which is being shown you on the mountain.

Before we have the design of the building we have the details of some of the central items that will occupy the space that will be designed around it. The ark, the table and the lampstand have symbolic and functional purposes. The table is also to be used for holy things and so it is made from acacia wood and pure gold. It may not occupy the same type of visual imagery within the people of Israel’s imagination as the ark of the covenant will, but it does hold a very practical purpose of being a place where the twelve loaves of the bread of the Presence are placed as offering. Bread was the basic element of food for the Jewish people and the twelve loaves probably symbolized the produce of the twelve tribes before God visually. It is these loaves that David is given to eat since there is no other bread in the temple when he is fleeing from King Saul in 1 Samuel 21, which apparently were normally eaten by the priests who worked in the tabernacle.

The lampstand with six branches, three on each side with lamps on each branch and in the center, artistically crafted from gold to look like almond blossoms while serving a practical function of providing light in a time before electricity would also come to serve a symbolic function. Even though the ark disappears from imagery and writing once the temple is built the lampstand would remain and become a central image of Judaism to the present day. For example, when the temple is destroyed in 70 C.E. and items from the temple are brought in procession in Rome one of the easily recognizable images is the lampstand and it becomes reproduced on the arch of Titus in Rome (see below). The Menorah, as this type of lampstand will later be known, is still the Emblem of the State of Israel.

Roman triumphal procession with spoils from the Temple, depicted on the inside wall of the Arch of Titus in Rome

Exodus 24: Sealing the Covenant and Approaching God at Sinai

David Roberts, Mount Sinai (1839)

Exodus 24: 1-8 Sealing the Covenant

Then he said to Moses, “Come up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship at a distance. 2 Moses alone shall come near the LORD; but the others shall not come near, and the people shall not come up with him.”

 3 Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, “All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do.” 4 And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. He rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and set up twelve pillars, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 He sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed oxen as offerings of well-being to the LORD. 6 Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he dashed against the altar. 7 Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” 8 Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people, and said, “See the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

Moses has taken the words of the LORD and the ordinances, presumably the content of the previous four chapters, and returned to the people to communicate and teach them these commandments and laws. The people again answer that “All the words the LORD has spoken we will do.” But now there is a liturgical sealing of the acceptance of the words of God. The covenant is cut, to use the Hebrew phrasing, and these pacts or covenants were often sealed by sacrifice or blood of some type. Genesis 15 is an example of this type of ceremony where God makes a covenant with Abraham and both pass through the pieces of the sacrificed animals, passing through the blood and in effect saying that faithfulness to the covenant is a deadly serious business. Here the blood of the oxen is sprinkled on the people and dashed against the altar binding both parties.

The place of sacrifice is very simple with an altar and twelve pillars. The pillars here correspond to the people rather than some representation of God, the prohibition against forming images of God holds here, although in later times these places with pillars will come to represent the idolatry of the people. Here an altar or earth or uncut stones (see Exodus 20: 22-26) along with the pillars at the base of the Mount Sinai becomes the only things necessary on this holy place. The mountain itself is a holy space, a place where God has come down to dwell among the people. Much of the rest of the book of Exodus will be concerned with the construction of a mobile place that God can come down to dwell with the people, but here, like when God speaks to Moses in chapter three, the people are on holy ground.

The blood of the covenant seals the relationship between the people and their God. They have now received some initial guidance from God on the type of community they are to construct and how they are to live into their identity as a ‘treasured possession, a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.’ (see Exodus 19: 5-6) They are now marked and set aside for their calling. Within Christianity this type of liturgical language of covenant sealing gets echoes both in relation to baptism and in communion. The wine in communion is the ‘blood of the new covenant’ and baptism is a point where the individual is ‘baptized into the death of Christ’ so that they might be dead to sin and alive to Christ.

Jean-Leon Gerome, Moses on Mount Sinai (1895-1900)

Exodus 24: 9-18 Meeting with the LORD on the Mountain

 9 Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, 10 and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. 11 God1 did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God, and they ate and drank.

 12 The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” 13 So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. 14 To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.”

 15 Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. 17 Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18 Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

We are given multiple views of the theophany on Mount Sinai. There is the perspective of the majority of the people at the base of the mountain which is described in a way that the closest analogy would be a volcano. To the people on the ground the approach of God is terrifying and dangerous, a devouring fire on the top of the mountain. For the seventy elders and the three priests there is the appearance of a dwelling place of God, beautiful in its description and an appearance of God that is only modestly described. There is a physical manifestation of the LORD, whose feet rest upon a pavement of sapphire stones of great clarity and the LORD is described anthropomorphically (using human features even when done metaphorically like when it states God did not lay his hands on the chief men). Yet, unlike in Isaiah 6 or Ezekiel 1 (and even these theophanies are very reticent to discuss the actual appearance of the LORD) there is no description of the LORD. Unlike other religions where there are vivid representations of the gods and goddesses, Judaism’s aniconic relationship with their God also extends to descriptions of God’s appearance with words. Yet, within the book of Exodus, there are multiple times where there is a tangible presence of God, even if it is not something to be described or even fully seen (as in Exodus 33). Finally, there is the experience of Moses who will spend extended periods of time in God’s presence.

The scene also sets the stage for the drama that will come in Exodus 32. Moses departs up the mountain for forty days and forty nights in the cloud with the LORD. The people remain at the base of the mountain waiting on Moses and Aaron and Hur are left to hear the disputes of the people. The next several chapters will have God describe to Moses the vision for the tabernacle where God can come down to dwell with the people. Yet, during this absence the people will come to Aaron and move away from God’s command not to create an image of God by creating the golden calf which they will worship. Yet, for a time we get to ascend with Moses into the cloud and see the vision of the tabernacle and enter into this time away from the people and with God.

Exodus 23: Justice, Celebration and Presence

Torah inside of the former Glockengasse Synagogue in Cologne. Photo shared under Creative Commons Attribution- Share Alike 4.0, source Zeughaus

Exodus 23:1-9 And Justice for All

 You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with the wicked to act as a malicious witness. 2 You shall not follow a majority in wrongdoing; when you bear witness in a lawsuit, you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice; 3 nor shall you be partial to the poor in a lawsuit.

 4 When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back.

 5 When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free.1

 6 You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in their lawsuits. 7 Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and those in the right, for I will not acquit the guilty. 8 You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials, and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.

 9 You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

The end of the Pledge of Allegiance for the United States ends with the phrase, “with liberty and justice for all.” Yet, liberty and justice for all people has been a challenging part of the United States’ story as it attempts to live into these words. Who does the ‘all’ encompass? In the United States that definition was initially white landholding males. The Civil War and the long struggle for Civil Rights attempted to expand the all to include people of color. Women’s movements have attempted to increase the equity in the world and the workplace for women. Probably the place where this generates the largest amount of friction in our current civil discourse relates to men and women who are LGBTQ in their identity. Without justice, the alternative society the people of Israel were tasked to create would devolve into a mirror of the Egyptian society they left.

Initially the ‘all’ in Exodus 23 extends to all citizens, both the rich and the poor. Truthful speech on behalf of the neighbor was essential. Not only does the command to not bear false witness get included in Exodus 20:16 but here it is amplified. They are to be people of truthful speech on behalf of their neighbor, they are not to be deceitful for their own gain of to remain in good standing with the majority. They are to be willing to speak inconvenient truths rather than to pervert justice. The prophets will be examples of those who are charged to speak in ways that rely upon God’s witness and the truth to both leaders and people who may not want to hear. Judgment is not to favor the rich and the powerful but it is also not to be swayed by a bias towards the poor (or against the rich).

Secondly the ‘all’ extends to the enemy and their property, particularly here the animals. Exodus is realistic enough to understand that all relationships within a society will not be friendly. Yet, my enemy’s animal being loose or overburdened becomes my responsibility. Even though the loss of an animal would hurt the one who hates me, for both my enemy and the animal I bear responsibility to set it free from its burden or to bring it back to my enemy.  Ultimately my enemy is my neighbor and the law protects my enemy and their property.

The ‘all’ includes my neighbor, rich or poor, and neither are to be denied justice. Justice requires the people in authority not to take bribes, for people not to bring false charges to steal a neighbor’s property, life or reputation, or any other practice that subverts justice. Finally, the ‘all’ extends to the stranger, or the resident alien as the NRSV translates it. As in the previous chapter, these strangers who are not a part of the people of Israel are not to be oppressed. The experience of the people of Israel being oppressed as ‘strangers’ or ‘resident aliens’ in Egypt is to form a contrast to the society they are to create. Within the immigration debate in the United States is another realm where our nation struggles with the ‘all’ of the pledge. Within the Torah the inclusion of the ‘resident alien’ into the ‘all’ is stated frequently as a reminder to the people of Israel, and those who would claim their scriptures as a part of their own scriptures, that they are to be a people where the ‘all’ is very expansive.

Exodus 23: 10-13 Creation’s Sabbath Rest

 10 For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; 11 but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.

 12 Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident alien may be refreshed. 13 Be attentive to all that I have said to you. Do not invoke the names of other gods; do not let them be heard on your lips.

The practice of a fallow year for the fields may have had a positive impact on the fertility of the ground but here the justification goes back to the care of the neighbor. The year where the field lies fallow and vineyards and olive orchards grow without the tending allow for the poor and the wild animals to benefit. Much as the gleaning provisions in Leviticus 19: 9-10, 23:22 and Deuteronomy 24: 21 provide a way for the vulnerable of the land to be cared for, here this seventh-year practice is another way in which the community is to provide an opportunity for survival of the at-risk neighbor.

The Sabbath commandment is re-visited here as well along with the reminder that the Sabbath is rest not only for the people of Israel but for all in their borders to rest. Animals, slaves and resident aliens are beneficiaries along with the people of Israel in this commandment to rest. Here in Exodus there is a creation pattern which the Sabbath is modeled after: In six days the earth was created (according to Genesis 1) and on the seventh day the LORD rested. Now this seventh day which the LORD hallowed becomes the model for the seventh year where the fields lie fallow and the seventh day where people and animals of creation rest.

Painted Sukkah with a view of Jerusalem, Late 19th Century, Austria or South Germany

Exodus 23: 14-19 Festival and Sacrifice

 14 Three times in the year you shall hold a festival for me. 15 You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread; as I commanded you, you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt.

No one shall appear before me empty-handed.

 16 You shall observe the festival of harvest, of the first fruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. You shall observe the festival of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor. 17 Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord GOD.

 18 You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with anything leavened, or let the fat of my festival remain until the morning.

 19 The choicest of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the LORD your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

The calendar of festivals for the people of Israel is centered around the Exodus narrative and the yearly cycle of harvest. Exodus 12 and 13 narrate the celebration of Passover as a part of the narrative of the people leaving Egypt. This was to be the defining narrative of the people and the community in their gathering, sacrifice and ritualized eating would tell again the narrative of what made this celebration unique and how these actions defined their life as the people of God.

Deuteronomy 16 also narrates the festivals of first fruits and the festival at the end of the harvest. These were to be the times when the males of Israel would appear before the LORD. In a time where people would have to travel to the place where the LORD placed his name (either the tabernacle, shrines or later the temple) there was not the ability for most people to worship weekly like many people are familiar with. These festivals became communal gathering times and times of celebration for the harvest that was a part of the year.

The people were to bring their best to the LORD at these celebrations and times of sacrifice. There were practices they were not to do: like boiling a kid in its mother’s milk or offering anything leavened with the blood of the sacrifice, but most of these offerings were used as a part of the community’s celebration. They were times of feasting and celebration, storytelling and gathering.

Exodus 23: 20-33 Promised Presence in Future Conflicts

 20 I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. 21 Be attentive to him and listen to his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression; for my name is in him.

 22 But if you listen attentively to his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes.

 23 When my angel goes in front of you, and brings you to the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, and I blot them out, 24 you shall not bow down to their gods, or worship them, or follow their practices, but you shall utterly demolish them and break their pillars in pieces. 25 You shall worship the LORD your God, and I1 will bless your bread and your water; and I will take sickness away from among you. 26 No one shall miscarry or be barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days. 27 I will send my terror in front of you, and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. 28 And I will send the pestilence1 in front of you, which shall drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you. 29 I will not drive them out from before you in one year, or the land would become desolate and the wild animals would multiply against you. 30 Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land. 31 I will set your borders from the Red Sea1 to the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates; for I will hand over to you the inhabitants of the land, and you shall drive them out before you. 32 You shall make no covenant with them and their gods. 33 They shall not live in your land, or they will make you sin against me; for if you worship their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.

The God of the Exodus has brought the people out of the land of Egypt and is bringing them on a journey to a new, promised land. The angel of the LORD who goes with the people becomes an intermediary of God’s promised presence and a guarantee of the LORD’s provision of security. There is both promise and threat here, much as Deuteronomy’s blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 28 and 29. If the people will listen to the voice of God, mediated through the angel (in addition to Moses) then God will be with them. However, if they do not there are consequences-this representative of God is not a forgiving presence. As people who have grown up with different sensibilities than the ancient Hebrew people there may be a tension between this demanding voice of God and many passages where God is portrayed as more gracious. Yet, obedience is one of the covenant expectations for the people.

The promise of God’s presence in the conquest of the promised land as it occurs in Deuteronomy 2, 3 and the book of Joshua presents many ethical challenges which I have addressed other places (see additionally Exodus 15, Deuteronomy 20, Psalm 18 and Violence and the Bible). There is an unavoidable tension between the concern for the resident alien and the command to utterly demolish the people of the land. Especially in the United States where there is a ‘new Exodus’ narrative (the United States becoming for many early Americans a new promised land and what that meant for the native Americans who were driven from their homes). There are no easy answers, every people has times where religion has been used to justify acts of violence. Every nation has parts of their history that have been glossed over. One of the struggles and gifts of going back to parts of the Bible that are rarely used is the opportunity to wrestle with the uncomfortable parts of the tradition and see what parts of the narrative we can lift up and what parts we need to acknowledge and ask forgiveness for.

Without dwelling on this in the same way I have in the other places listed above, the positive force in this is the command to trust in the promised presence of God in the people’s future conflicts. Ultimately, this formerly enslaved people have been promised God’s intervention as they make their way beyond the wilderness into their promised land. For the people, the promise of God’s presence makes the difference between their weakness on their own and their ability to conquer their foes through God’s strength.

Exodus 21: Slavery, Capital Crimes and Responsibility for Property

Figurine of a Semitic Slave, Acient Egyptian figurine, Hecht Museum

Exodus 21: 1-11 On Slavery

 These are the ordinances that you shall set before them:

 2 When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt. 3 If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. 5 But if the slave declares, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out a free person,” 6 then his master shall bring him before God.1 He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him for life.

 7 When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. 8 If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her. 9 If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. 10 If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife. 11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out without debt, without payment of money.

For many people, once they have reached the Ten Commandments, they stop reading Exodus. Some may return for the story of the Golden Calf, but most people skip or skim over these passages which expand on the type of society the people were to construct. Yet, I think that, like the similar passages in the book of Deuteronomy, these ordinances provide an interesting opportunity to think ethically about the type of society they were attempting to create and the society we as people of faith advocate for. There is a slightly different take on the issue of slavery in Deuteronomy 15: 12-18.

When we talk about slavery in modern times it is easy to assume that ancient people should have naturally chosen a democratically structured society which outlawed slavery, but trying to impose our values on another time only insures that we will either not understand or not value the society they were trying to create. In the ancient world slavery was assumed. It was a way in which a person could pay back their debt. It is also tempting to frame slavery in the manner it occurred in the United States in the time prior to the Civil War and this can be deceiving. On the one hand, slaves had less value than a free person and you will see this in some of the coming punishments. On the other hand, at least for the Hebrew people the slave was both property and person and there were limits placed on that servitude.

The people have been brought out of the house of slavery and, in many ways, they were to be an alternate society to their experience in Egypt. For men, and the Bible is written from a predominantly androcentric point of view, this servitude is limited to six years. Typically, it is younger, unmarried members of a family that would assume debt servitude on behalf of the family and so a time of service of six years still allowed for the family to be debt free and the individual to have time to begin their own family. There were apparently times where slaves married into a family or married another slave in a household and while the male slave would be able to go free, the female and children could not. There are several situations where a person could choose to remain a slave to maintain family unity or because their life in the household of their master was better than the house they had to return to. Yet, at least in the law, the man has an ability to choose to remain a slave and must state this before the LORD and then receive a pierced ear as a sign of his lifelong servitude.

Women in the ancient world do not have the same set of protections, but even for women there are some protections. The woman may not be sold into slavery to a foreign people if she does not please her master and her life is bound to the new family. She may serve as a spouse for the master or one of his descendants and they cannot take away her rights to food, clothing and marital rights. Assuming a family’s debts appears to be one of the methods for acquiring a young woman as a bride. In Deuteronomy 21: 10-14, similar protections are afforded to captured women which are brought into the household.

I would hope that even the most ardent biblical literalist would not advocate for the reestablishment of slavery. But I do think this presents some interesting points to consider for our own society. Both young men and women enter into slavery for economic reasons and for a period, or in the case of young women for their life, they are no longer their own person. Yet, there are many people today who find themselves staggered under a debt that they cannot pay. Sometimes these debts may be a result of poor choices but other times they may result from an unforeseen disaster or medical bill. Perhaps one of the places for reflection would be should there be a limit to the time one must work to pay back a debt. Is there a place where a person in effect becomes a bond slave or indentured servant with little free will of their own?

Perhaps another place for reflection is with the image of the woman who is sold into servitude so that she becomes the spouse of the man who assumed the debt for her family. Marriage is an economic transaction. I know this is an unpopular statement when people believe they are marrying for love, but anyone who has gone through a divorce will realize there is truth in the statement. I wouldn’t want to go back to a culture of arranged marriages where man and woman may have little say in who they will marry, yet I do think it is important to realize that there is an economic and a relational stake in every marriage. This is one of the few places where divorce is alluded to in the Hebrew Bible but there is an understanding that the woman in a relationship is entitled to both her physical needs but also that there are marital rights that she too has a claim to. Dealing with indebtedness or marriage are difficult ethical issues, but they are issues that arise frequently in life and often in interconnected ways.

Peter Paul Rubens, Cain Slaying Abel, (1608-1809)

Exodus 21: 12-27 Unfolding the Commandment on Murder

 12 Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death. 13 If it was not premeditated, but came about by an act of God, then I will appoint for you a place to which the killer may flee. 14 But if someone willfully attacks and kills another by treachery, you shall take the killer from my altar for execution.

 15 Whoever strikes father or mother shall be put to death.

 16 Whoever kidnaps a person, whether that person has been sold or is still held in possession, shall be put to death.

 17 Whoever curses father or mother shall be put to death.

 18 When individuals quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or fist so that the injured party, though not dead, is confined to bed, 19 but recovers and walks around outside with the help of a staff, then the assailant shall be free of liability, except to pay for the loss of time, and to arrange for full recovery.

 20 When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. 21 But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.

 22 When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. 23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

 26 When a slaveowner strikes the eye of a male or female slave, destroying it, the owner shall let the slave go, a free person, to compensate for the eye. 27 If the owner knocks out a tooth of a male or female slave, the slave shall be let go, a free person, to compensate for the tooth.

From one controversial topic to another, this time the death penalty. In the United States, the use of the death penalty is still debated, yet in the ancient world capital punishment is assumed as an appropriate punishment for certain crimes. Lex talionis (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth) it the underlying principle of justice for these crimes. The retaliation against a person is to be equal to the crime- what is sought is justice and not revenge. This may seem a harsh justice but I think it is important to wrestle with how they thought of these various offenses (even if we disagree with their evaluation of the appropriate sentence).

Underlying these ordinances is the desire to construct a society where the neighbor is protected. The person who commits murder in Israel was to be put to death. It is a life for a life when the murder is premeditated. However, there is an understanding that not every death is premeditated and sometimes a death may be an accident. Here, and more fully in Deuteronomy 19: 1-13, there are to be set aside cities of refuge where a person may flee to so that the judgment may be fair.

Striking or cursing mother or father also are offenses that in Exodus merit death. In Deuteronomy 21: 18-21 there is further discussion of the community’s role in carrying out this sentence. These are probably referring to adult children who strike their elderly parents who are not able to defend themselves. I think this does provide an interesting opportunity to consider the issue of elder abuse and how society protects its vulnerable members. In an ancient society where children would provide for their aging parents in their old age to curse or abuse one’s elder parents could put their lives at risk.

Kidnapping, presumably with the intent to sell a person into slavery, is also a capital offense. The people were not to be a society that was based upon slavery and exploitation and apparently kidnapping was viewed as stealing someone’s life.

Justice can be retributive but at its best it is directed towards restoration. Here when a person is injured and does not die the assailant is to pay for the lost time and to pay for the recovery.

Again, the issue of slavery enters the conversation with the slave who is beaten. The slave is somehow not completely a person. When a slave is beaten to death the owner is to be punished but some level of beating is assumed and if the slave recovers the owner is faultless. Yet, there are some limits-loss of eye or tooth is paid back with freedom but the eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth justice do not apply here.

Neither is an unborn child here regarded as a citizen. Causing a woman to miscarry results in a fine but placing this type of incident next to the eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth explanation of lex talionis means, in the words of Rabbi Jonathon Sacks.

One thing, however, is clear on this interpretation. Causing a woman to miscarry—being responsible for the death of a foetus—is not a capital offense. Until birth, the foetus does not have the legal status of a person. Such was the view of the sages in the land of Israel. (Sacks, 2010, p. 169)

Early Christians, pulling from the Greek translation of this passage which translates the word for ‘further harm’ as ‘form’ made distinctions, based on the passage, on whether the fetus was formed or not, but the Hebrew makes no such distinctions. Ultimately on controversial topics, like abortion, people will have strong opinions. The distinction here in the Hebrew Scriptures is that it is not considered at the same level as murder.

Exodus 21: 28-36 Responsibility for the Actions of One’s Animals

28 When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall not be liable. 29 If the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not restrained it, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death. 30 If a ransom is imposed on the owner, then the owner shall pay whatever is imposed for the redemption of the victim’s life. 31 If it gores a boy or a girl, the owner shall be dealt with according to this same rule. 32 If the ox gores a male or female slave, the owner shall pay to the slaveowner thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.

 33 If someone leaves a pit open, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, 34 the owner of the pit shall make restitution, giving money to its owner, but keeping the dead animal.

 35 If someone’s ox hurts the ox of another, so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and divide the price of it; and the dead animal they shall also divide. 36 But if it was known that the ox was accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has not restrained it, the owner shall restore ox for ox, but keep the dead animal.

Unless one lives in a rural setting one is not likely to be gored by a bull, but underlying these sets of commandments is defining the responsibility that the owner of an animal has for the actions of an animal. Perhaps closer to our time would be issues around a pet dog who attacks a child, an adult or another pet. In Israel, an animal who attacks lethally was to be put to death and the benefit of the animal (its use as food) was lost. Animals that attack once do not reflect on the owner’s lack of responsibility, but animals with a history of attacking that are not restrained do bring strong penalties (here a death penalty) for the owner. If an animal is attacked there is to be restitution for the lost animal and if the irresponsibility of another person causes an animals death there is to be restitution made.

Exodus 20- The Decalogue

Rembrandt, Moses with the Ten Commandments

Exodus 20: 1-17 The Ten Words

 Then God spoke all these words:

 2 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before1 me.

 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation1 of those who love me and keep my commandments.

 7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

 8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

 12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

 13 You shall not murder.1

 14 You shall not commit adultery.

 15 You shall not steal.

 16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

The Ten Commandment, or the Ten Words (Decalogue) occur both here and in Deuteronomy 5 in slightly different forms. I highlight the differences in my discussion on Deuteronomy and here I will focus more on the commandments themselves and the role they have played within both Judaism and Christianity. One of the issues that has been wrestled with across time is how to divide the list into ten with different solutions based upon one’s theology. Is verse two the first commandment of a prologue to the list of commandments (many Jewish traditions), is verse three through six all one commandment (Catholic, Lutheran traditions) or is there a break between verse three and four (Reformed traditions). Ultimately the division into ten probably serves as an easy way to remember these central precepts that all the rest of the law will unfold from and regardless of how they are divided it is ultimately the way they become internalized and lived which will become the primary goal for these words.

When historical critical methods were the favored tool scholars loved to debate whether the Ten Words evolve over time or whether they borrowed from other law codes of the ancient near east (most notably the Code of Hammurabi has been noted for some parallels between what will follow in the next chapters). Ultimately historical questions reaching thousands of years back into history become incredibly difficult to answer and what we have are the Decalogue as they have been handed down in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy as they are in their final form. For both Jews and Christians, they have served to both pass on the faith and to give some key principles to form their ethics and life from.

The initial statement at the beginning of these words take us back into the narrative of Exodus. The LORD makes a claim upon them, the LORD is their God and the LORD is known by what has occurred. The bringing out of the people from Egypt and God’s choice of them gives the LORD sole claim upon their allegiance and worship. The existence of other gods is not denied here, in the worldview of the time it is assumed and other nations served them (the prophets will later move towards a view we would recognize as monotheistic) but these other gods are not to be worshipped or followed by the people of Israel. The people have been redeemed out of Egypt and are in a covenantal relationship with the LORD their God.

The worship of the LORD is unusual in the ancient world. They are not to use images to represent the LORD their God, and this will be what is at stake in the incident of the golden calf in Exodus 32. The LORD is not to be reduced to the likeness of anything in the creation. The expounding on this prohibition below in verse 23 reinforces this. There will be beauty in the space that will be constructed to worship, but nothing within that space and no other item is to contain God’s image. Perhaps there is a remembrance of the creation narrative where humanity in some manner bears the image of God, but ultimately even humanity it not to be cast in metal and lifted up as a representation of God. The LORD is an impassioned God and does not enter this covenant easily or lightly. God’s vulnerability is highlighted using the term ‘jealous’ and while we may be uncomfortable with the language of punishment we will see that the breaking of this relationship, as will be seen in Exodus 32 and in prophets like Jeremiah and Hosea, brings out an intensely emotional side of God. The LORD presented in the Hebrew Bible is never some unmoved mover or unattached stoic grandfatherly god, the LORD is a God who desires to draw near but who also is vulnerable to being wounded by the unfaithfulness of the people.

The name in the ancient world is a powerful thing. As I discussed in Exodus 3 there is both necessity in a name but especially in the ancient world there was power. The four-letter name of God, transliterated as YHWH (or Yahweh- Jehovah was an old mispronunciation of these letters) is not said by the Jewish people in their worship in respect for keeping the name holy will always say Adonai (and the vowels, which are added above and below the consonants reflect the vowels for Adonai while the consonants are YHWH), in English this is why you see LORD in all caps (frequently with ORD in a smaller font if possible). The name of God was not to be used as a magical incantation, like some other cultures would do when they called upon the names of their gods, but was to be honored and respected.

Sabbath here is linked to creation and the rhythm of the LORD’s work being a model for human life. This is one of the unique portions of the Ten Commandments, since Sabbath is primarily about rest-not worship. It also is essential in the construction of a different type of society than the Egyptian society they came out of. In Egypt they were slaves, forced to work without brake for as long as their taskmasters demanded, but here children, slaves and even animals are commanded to rest. Ultimately, they were not to place their own ability to produce at the center of their lives but they were to learn to rest and trust that the LORD would provide for them and they were to rest with the LORD on this day that has been blessed and consecrated.

The command to honor father and mother, as I mention in Deuteronomy 5, is probably less about young children being obedient to parents and more about older children continuing to respect, honor and care for their parents in their older age. There will always be the temptation to look upon those who are past their prime as a burden to society but here they are commanded to be honored.

I once heard Rolf Jacobson, who teaches Hebrew Bible at Luther Seminary, state that the Ten Commandments are not about my best life now, they are about ‘my neighbor’s best life now.’ Murder, and although I grew up with the King James ‘thou shalt not kill’ the word murder is probably a better word for what is intended, prevents my needs from becoming more important than my neighbor’s life. There are times where the Scriptures do talk about capital punishment or serving in warfare and these may be viewed within the scriptures as times where the greater community is protected by the act of the one being killed or killing others but these actions are not to be the rule of life in the community, they are the exception. Adultery, which in our current culture portrays as a crime where no one gets hurt, is taken with the utmost seriousness. The punishment for those who commit adultery will be death and this may seem in our time overly harsh. Yet, in ancient times there was, “a severe rupture of trust in family trust and structure as well as in patterns of inheritance.” (Myers, 2005, p. 176) After working with couples for years as a pastor and my own personal experiences there is wisdom to learn from the seriousness cultures took adultery. I am not advocating a return to stoning or harsh punishment, but I’ve seen too often the damage that what a person thought was a simple act of pleasure does to their health, finances, to family and to their children. Adultery is one of those acts that can shatter the trust of a family and have profound and long consequences. Similarly stealing can have life threatening consequences in a culture where people are living at a subsistence level and even in our time. In a society where neighbors relied upon one another, theft could fracture the fabric of that community. When one’s home or automobile has been broken into it feels like a violation of one’s safety and security. In some cases, the loss of security may be greater than the physical loss. In other cases, where greed or theft on a large scale has endangered a person’s retirement accounts or even the money that a person needs to pay for food or medical expenses the theft can literally steal life from another person.

For a just society one of the essential elements is truthful speech. Bearing false witness, whether in a legal setting or in casual gossip can cause heavy damage to an individual. In an age where we can see the how gossip, intentional falsehoods, and cyber-bullying in personal relationships in addition to the erosion of trust in our public institutions I do think there is a longing for truthful speech, but also there is a desire for the salacious rumor and it sometimes becomes difficult to tell the two apart. Perhaps Martin Luther’s wisdom of “interpreting my neighbor’s action in the best possible light” may be helpful here as we wrestle with finding true words in a suspicious and distrusting time.

Finally coveting, and the word for coveting is more than just the natural desire of seeing someone or something one finds attractive. Chamada, the Hebrew word behind coveting is, “an intense desire, generated by passion that is not easily controlled.” (Myers, 2005, p. 178 quoting TDOT) The word for house is more than the physical building, it is one’s household which would include the other items listed behind household: spouse, servants, livestock, etc. This type of intense and open desire would erode the trust between neighbors.

Attempting to write about the Decalogue is a challenge, partially because almost every major figure in Judaism and Christianity at some point writes in detail about the commandments. They are a source of catechetical instruction in the basics of the faith for both traditions. Here I have been in more of an exegetical mode attempting to understand and compare what the commandments meant to their original audience and compare that to our time. At other points, if I was trying to instruct someone on how the commandments would impact their faith I would probably highlight different points.

Exodus 20: 18-21 Moses the Mediator

 18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid1 and trembled and stood at a distance, 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” 21 Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.

Moses by Victorvictori, permission granted by author through WikiCommons

The approach of the LORD is a powerful thing and the people are overwhelmed. Although there will be times where Moses’ role as a leader is challenged the people do not want to stand in Moses’ place before God. They desire someone to mediate the divine presence. Moses will spend his life as a person caught between God and God’s people. Even when God’s intention is to graciously draw close it can be terrifying and frequently people want a predictable and not too close God. Ultimately the God of Israel is a God who is not controllable or tame, who is passionate. Moses is somehow safer, more understandable and therefore God’s presence continues to be mediated by the messenger.

Exodus 20: 22-26 How to Worship the LORD

 22 The LORD said to Moses: Thus you shall say to the Israelites: “You have seen for yourselves that I spoke with you from heaven. 23 You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. 24 You need make for me only an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your offerings of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. 25 But if you make for me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones; for if you use a chisel upon it you profane it. 26 You shall not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.”

The worship of the LORD is both incredibly simple and very challenging. It is simple in the reality that they don’t need images of silver or gold to represent their God. It is challenging because the people will show that they desire some physical representation of their God they can focus on and can manipulate. Idolatry will be more than just worshipping other gods, it will also be any attempt to make an image of the imageless God of Israel. It will be any attempt to limit the ways in which God can present Godself or to even metaphorically limit God’s image to being something in heaven or on earth or in the sea. It is simple that the LORD does not require elaborate tables or structures to offer sacrifices, simply an altar of earth or unhewn stones that is not set above everyone else. The worship of the LORD is to be done at a level where the priests do not ascend above the people to offer sacrifices but stand at their level. It will be a challenge not to emulate the practices of other nations that place the divine above and have their priests ascend to offer sacrifices. It is the paradox of transcendence in the mundane parts of life. God’s desire is to come down to the people’s level and to dwell, but the desire of the people tends to be to send a representative up to mediate the space between God and themselves.