Tag Archives: sacrifice

Psalm 50 Recalled to the Covenantal Life

The Temple by Radojavor@deviantart.com

Psalm 50

<A Psalm of Asaph.>
1The mighty one, God the LORD, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.
2 Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.
3 Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him.
4 He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people:
5 “Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!”
6 The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge. Selah
7 “Hear, O my people, and I will speak, O Israel, I will testify against you. I am God, your God.
8 Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me.
9 I will not accept a bull from your house, or goats from your folds.
10 For every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.
11 I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine.
12 “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine.
13 Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?
14 Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High.
15 Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
16 But to the wicked God says: “What right have you to recite my statutes, or take my covenant on your lips?
17 For you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you.
18 You make friends with a thief when you see one, and you keep company with adulterers.
19 “You give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit.
20 You sit and speak against your kin; you slander your own mother’s child.
21 These things you have done and I have been silent; you thought that I was one just like yourself. But now I rebuke you, and lay the charge before you.
22 “Mark this, then, you who forget God, or I will tear you apart, and there will be no one to deliver.
23 Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me; to those who go the right way I will show the salvation of God.”

There is a lot of debate among scholars as to the original use of this psalm: whether it was a liturgy of covenant renewal or the words of a priest in a sermon but ultimately the original setting has faded far into the background and what remains is a psalm which lifts up a challenge to live one’s life according to the vision of God’s covenant. The book of Deuteronomy was a challenge for the people of God to live according to the covenant and commands of the God of Israel and the prophets frequently exhorted people to reorient their lives around the covenant. This Psalm, in concert with several of the prophets, places the worship of the LORD conducted in the temple in its proper perspective. The sacrificial and religious actions of the temple are not enough to appease the God of Israel, this God expects the people’s lives and their society to be ordered around God’s covenantal vision.

The psalm begins by preparing the hearer to listen to the words that God will speak through the speaker, most likely a priest addressing the community. Psalm 50 is the first psalm attributed to Asaph who is recorded as a Levitical singer in the time of King Solomon (2 Chronicles 11-13).  Asaph begins by declaring the power and might of the LORD whose voice covers the breadth of the day, whose words are preceded by fire and a mighty tempest and calls on heaven and earth so that God may judge God’s people. While there are some thematic parallels to the speaking of God to Elijah at Mount Horeb where the great wind, earthquake and fire proceed the voice of God; this is not the voice of God which comes to Elijah in the sheer silence (1 Kings 19: 11-18) but instead this is the voice of God going out before the world to testify before not only God’s people but all of creation. The people of God are placed into a conversation which the whole world can overhear and judge them by as they are gathered in Zion to hear what God will speak.

Covenant making in the bible is a serious business which took place in the context of sacrificing an animal. The covenant that God makes with Abram (Abraham) in Genesis 17 is probably the best-known example of a covenant making ceremony where the animals are cut open and the parties (God and Abram) pass between the portions of the animals obligating themselves to one another. Therefore, the phrase translated ‘made a covenant’ is literally ‘cut a covenant.’ Earlier in the psalms we have seen times where the psalmist has testified that God needs to act to keep the covenant but here the focus is on the people needing to do their part to fulfill the covenant. The covenant is not about ritual worship or sacrifices but instead is about the way of life that God expects the people to embrace- a way of justice to others and faithfulness to God.

These words were probably spoken in the context of worship, but worship is not enough. In many ancient cultures worship and sacrifice were to appease or entice the god being worshipped to grant favor to the worshippers. The God of Israel has different expectations. God will not be bribed by sacrifice or be satisfied by attendance in worship. The words of the Apostle Paul echo the content here when he appeals to the church in Rome:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12: 1-2

As master of all creation, the LORD has no need of any animal for food. God is not reliant upon the faithful ones for nourishment or life but instead is the provider of all things. What God desires is a transformed life and society which could ultimately renew the world. The people are commended to come to God in thanksgiving and to uphold their vows and the covenant and in return God will deliver and provide for them.

Knowing the right words to recite or knowing the content of the statutes, commandments and the covenant are not enough. One can worship properly and live as the wicked. The way of the wise is the way of God’s discipline. One’s company is indicative of the type of actions a person will commit and one’s words can cause deep harm to brothers and sisters. One’s words, one’s deeds and one’s associations matter in life. The wicked one may have avoided judgment and may have, by their worship and sacrifices, masqueraded as one of the righteous but God promises an end to God’s silence and inaction. To make a covenant with God and to fail to live in accordance with that covenant is viewed as a matter of life and death. There is no one to deliver the wicked from God’s words and justice. Conversely there is nothing that can separate the righteous ones from the salvation of God.

 

Exodus 37-38 Holy Things for Holy Space

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

Exodus 37 Holy Things for the Holy Space

Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood; it was two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. 2 He overlaid it with pure gold inside and outside, and made a molding of gold around it. 3 He cast for it four rings of gold for its four feet, two rings on its one side and two rings on its other side. 4 He made poles of acacia wood, and overlaid them with gold, 5 and put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, to carry the ark. 6 He made a mercy seat of pure gold; two cubits and a half was its length, and a cubit and a half its width. 7 He made two cherubim of hammered gold; at the two ends of the mercy seat he made them, 8 one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other end; of one piece with the mercy seat1 he made the cherubim at its two ends. 9 The cherubim spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings. They faced one another; the faces of the cherubim were turned toward the mercy seat.

10 He also made the table of acacia wood, two cubits long, one cubit wide, and a cubit and a half high. 11 He overlaid it with pure gold, and made a molding of gold around it. 12 He made around it a rim a handbreadth wide, and made a molding of gold around the rim. 13 He cast for it four rings of gold, and fastened the rings to the four corners at its four legs. 14 The rings that held the poles used for carrying the table were close to the rim. 15 He made the poles of acacia wood to carry the table, and overlaid them with gold. 16 And he made the vessels of pure gold that were to be on the table, its plates and dishes for incense, and its bowls and flagons with which to pour drink offerings.

17 He also made the lampstand of pure gold. The base and the shaft of the lampstand were made of hammered work; its cups, its calyxes, and its petals were of one piece with it. 18 There were 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; 19 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. 20 On the lampstand itself there were four cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with its calyxes and petals. 21 There was 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. 22 Their calyxes and their branches were of one piece with it, the whole of it one hammered piece of pure gold. 23 He made its seven lamps and its snuffers and its trays of pure gold. 24 He made it and all its utensils of a talent of pure gold.

25 He made the altar of incense of acacia wood, one cubit long, and one cubit wide; it was square, and was two cubits high; its horns were of one piece with it. 26 He overlaid it with pure gold, its top, and its sides all around, and its horns; and he made for it a molding of gold all around, 27 and made two golden rings for it under its molding, on two opposite sides of it, to hold the poles with which to carry it. 28 And he made the poles of acacia wood, and overlaid them with gold.

29 He made the holy anointing oil also, and the pure fragrant incense, blended as by the perfumer.

Bezalel, Oholiab and all the workers take the resources of the people and begin to create the holy things that will be used in the worship of the LORD the God of Israel. The ark is constructed as outlined in Exodus 25: 1-22. The focus on the construction of the objects does take less description than initially given to Moses on the mountain, but the direction of these texts points towards the obedience of the workers to the design laid out to Moses by God. Although the ark itself will come to have powerful function as a symbolic representation of God’s presence it is ultimately a box designed to hold the covenant given to Moses between God and the people. In a much later time for the Jewish people the Torah scrolls will come to have central place as their most precious and holy things, but even here it is a receptacle for the words spoken by God which takes the place of an image of God that the people would rally around.

The table for the bread of presence (based on the design of Exodus 25: 23-30) and the lampstand (see Exodus 25: 31-40) are the next two pieces that the narrative lists in the construction process of these holy things. Bread is the basic staple for life and here it serves as a place where a loaf for each tribe can be lifted up before the LORD. Light also was an essential image for the people and in a time before electricity this elaborate lampstand would have been a difficult piece to construct requiring great skill, but it is also a sign of people using their best talents to place within the holy space of the tabernacle.

Word of God, light and bread are central religious symbols that occupy a place in the center of the temple and will continue to occupy religious language, symbolism and imagery throughout the centuries. It is probably not accidental that the gospel of John takes these three images (among others) in referring to the meaning of who Jesus is for these early followers of Jesus (Jesus as the Word of God, the light that has come into the world, the bread of life).

The altar of incense comes later in the plans that are given to Moses (Exodus 30: 1-10) but the construction of the space in oriented more pragmatically around similar types of items being discussed being crafted together.  The detailed description of the anointing oil, and incense in Exodus 30: 22-28 is reduced to a simple line stating that the oils and incense were made as by a perfumer. There is an olfactory element to the worship, an element that some traditions still maintain. Although I am very sensitive to many fragrances we host a Coptic Orthodox church at our congregation which uses incense as a part of every worship service. The holy things for worship include unique smells that are only to be associated with the worship of the LORD.

  Exodus 38: 1-8 Altar and Basin for the Holy Space

 He made the altar of burnt offering also of acacia wood; it was five cubits long, and five cubits wide; it was square, and three cubits high. 2 He made horns for it on its four corners; its horns were of one piece with it, and he overlaid it with bronze. 3 He made all the utensils of the altar, the pots, the shovels, the basins, the forks, and the firepans: all its utensils he made of bronze. 4 He made for the altar a grating, a network of bronze, under its ledge, extending halfway down. 5 He cast four rings on the four corners of the bronze grating to hold the poles; 6 he made the poles of acacia wood, and overlaid them with bronze. 7 And he put the poles through the rings on the sides of the altar, to carry it with them; he made it hollow, with boards.

8 He made the basin of bronze with its stand of bronze, from the mirrors of the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.

The altar, as outlined in Exodus 27: 1-8, which is made of bronze and occupies a space farther away from the central tabernacle (and uses a less precious material) becomes one of the final items mentioned as it is constructed. Finally, there is the basin of bronze initially described in Exodus 30: 17-21. Within this brief note on the basin is an interesting and often overlooked note that the basin was made from the mirrors of the women who served at the entrance of the tent of meeting. There were women who were a part of the work of the tabernacle! We don’t know what their function was, but it places them near the holiest places. I believe that in Herod’s temple that there is a delineation between the court of women and the court of Israel where only men could approach, but apparently in the description of the tabernacle’s construction there are women who also have a function within the holy places.

Model of Tabernacle, as seen in Israel, Timna Park licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Exodus 28: 9-20 The Court of the Tabernacle

 9 He made the court; for the south side the hangings of the court were of fine twisted linen, one hundred cubits long; 10 its twenty pillars and their twenty bases were of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their bands were of silver. 11 For the north side there were hangings one hundred cubits long; its twenty pillars and their twenty bases were of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their bands were of silver. 12 For the west side there were hangings fifty cubits long, with ten pillars and ten bases; the hooks of the pillars and their bands were of silver 13 And for the front to the east, fifty cubits. 14 The hangings for one side of the gate were fifteen cubits, with three pillars and three bases. 15 And so for the other side; on each side of the gate of the court were hangings of fifteen cubits, with three pillars and three bases. 16 All the hangings around the court were of fine twisted linen. 17 The bases for the pillars were of bronze, but the hooks of the pillars and their bands were of silver; the overlaying of their capitals was also of silver, and all the pillars of the court were banded with silver. 18 The screen for the entrance to the court was embroidered with needlework in blue, purple, and crimson yarns and fine twisted linen. It was twenty cubits long and, along the width of it, five cubits high, corresponding to the hangings of the court. 19 There were four pillars; their four bases were of bronze, their hooks of silver, and the overlaying of their capitals and their bands of silver. 20 All the pegs for the tabernacle and for the court all around were of bronze.

The court is outlined in Exodus 27: 9-19 and this serves as a buffer zone between the holiest space and the space where the people live and work. The court is also a place where most of the work done by the priests is done, since the entrance into the tabernacle will only occur at the day when the camp is to move or at the specified times given to the high priest.

Exodus 28: 21-31 Stewarding the Resources for the Temple

21 These are the records of the tabernacle, the tabernacle of the covenant, which were drawn up at the commandment of Moses, the work of the Levites being under the direction of Ithamar son of the priest Aaron. 22 Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, made all that the LORD commanded Moses; 23 and with him was Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, engraver, designer, and embroiderer in blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and in fine linen.

24 All the gold that was used for the work, in all the construction of the sanctuary, the gold from the offering, was twenty-nine talents and seven hundred thirty shekels, measured by the sanctuary shekel. 25 The silver from those of the congregation who were counted was one hundred talents and one thousand seven hundred seventy-five shekels, measured by the sanctuary shekel; 26 a beka a head (that is, half a shekel, measured by the sanctuary shekel), for everyone who was counted in the census, from twenty years old and upward, for six hundred three thousand, five hundred fifty men. 27 The hundred talents of silver were for casting the bases of the sanctuary, and the bases of the curtain; one hundred bases for the hundred talents, a talent for a base. 28 Of the thousand seven hundred seventy-five shekels he made hooks for the pillars, and overlaid their capitals and made bands for them. 29 The bronze that was contributed was seventy talents, and two thousand four hundred shekels; 30 with it he made the bases for the entrance of the tent of meeting, the bronze altar and the bronze grating for it and all the utensils of the altar, 31 the bases all around the court, and the bases of the gate of the court, all the pegs of the tabernacle, and all the pegs around the court.

Even in ancient times there is a desire for accountability for the resources invested in a project. This is a phenomenal investment of resources. A talent is roughly 75 pounds, and so at the modern value of gold the 37 talents is worth roughly $46 million dollars, in addition to the cost of the silver, bronze, yarn, spices, oils and the physical labor that went into the construction project. Ithamar, a son of Aaron, is tasked with overseeing the accounting for the work that Bezalel and Oholiab oversee. It also begins to give some idea of the resources necessary to move the tabernacle in a time prior to mechanical locomotion. One hundred silver bases, each weighing around 75 pounds, in addition to hundreds of feet of curtains, poles, the bronze bases and all the furnishings-each movement was a significant undertaking. The tabernacle will involve not only a significant investment of resources to construct but for a people on the move it will also involve a large investment of human and animal strength dedicated to the movement and assembly/disassembly of the structure.

The designation of the half shekel for each man over twenty-five is outlined in Exodus 30: 11-16 and the offering for the tabernacle is described in Exodus 35: 4-29 and as Exodus 36: 3-7 where we are told the people brought more than enough resources for this project.

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 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 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 18: Jethro Models Faith, Worship and Leadership to Moses

Jethro and Moses by James Tissot (1896-1900)

Exodus 18:1-12 A Family Reunited

Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for his people Israel, how the LORD had brought Israel out of Egypt. 2 After Moses had sent away his wife Zipporah, his father-in-law Jethro took her back, 3 along with her two sons. The name of the one was Gershom (for he said, “I have been an alien1 in a foreign land”), 4 and the name of the other, Eliezer1 (for he said, “The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh”). 5 Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, came into the wilderness where Moses was encamped at the mountain of God, bringing Moses’ sons and wife to him. 6 He sent word to Moses, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you, with your wife and her two sons.” 7 Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed down and kissed him; each asked after the other’s welfare, and they went into the tent. 8 Then Moses told his father-in-law all that the LORD had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had beset them on the way, and how the LORD had delivered them. 9 Jethro rejoiced for all the good that the LORD had done to Israel, in delivering them from the Egyptians.

 10 Jethro said, “Blessed be the LORD, who has delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh. 11 Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods, because he delivered the people from the Egyptians,1 when they dealt arrogantly with them.” 12 And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices to God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God.

Jethro, called Reuel in chapter two, re-enters the story and brings with him Moses’ wife and two sons. While we aren’t told exactly when Zipporah returns to her father-in-law’s house with her children we last heard about her and Gershom (their first-born son) in chapter four on the journey back to Egypt. There could be any number of reasons for their separation including: to protect her and her two sons from being able to be used as captives by Pharaoh, to prevent Moses from being distracted from his task for the time, to allow Moses to establish his authority among the Hebrews without his foreign wife being present, or perhaps Zipporah was pregnant and it was easier for her to give birth away from the stresses of the exodus journey (based on Eliezar’s name) and we could imagine many other reasons but ultimately the text remains silent on this. We have a separation of an unknown period and what appears to be a joyous reunion.

The relationship of Moses to Jethro is one of respect and honor. Moses’ actions upon Jethro’s arrival convey respect and welcome. He is welcomed into their camp and into Moses’ tent with warmth. Moses tells the story of what the LORD has done and how they have journeyed to this point and Jethro offers his blessing.

One interesting thing to notice in this passage is the blessing that Jethro offers to the LORD in comparison to the first commandment. The first commandment begins with the statement of what the LORD has done in delivering the people from the land of Egypt and then states that the people are to have no other gods before the LORD. Jethro also begins with blessing the LORD who has delivered the people from the land of Egypt and then exclaims his new knowledge that the LORD is greater than all gods, because he delivered the people from the hands of Pharaoh. Here a foreigner demonstrates before the people what the faith of Israel will look like in the future. Like Melchizedek in the book of Genesis, he becomes one of the people of the nations that point to the LORD the God of Israel.

Secondly, Jethro becomes the first in the book of Exodus to offer a sacrifice to God after the departure from Egypt. This is increasingly surprising, as Carol Myers notices, since the justification give to Pharaoh multiple times in the beginning of Exodus is to let the people enter the wilderness to offer a sacrifice to the LORD their God. (Myers, 2005, p. 137) Yet, it is a priest of Midian who before Moses, Aaron and the elders models what this sacrifice to God might look like. As I mentioned when I was discussing Psalm 29 the Jewish people were not afraid to uses the praises uttered about other gods and modify them to talk about the LORD the God of Israel. Here is another time where a faithful outsider, Jethro, demonstrates to the people of God what a life of praise can look like.

Jan van Bronchorst, Jethro Advising Moses (1659)

Exodus 18: 13-27 Jethro’s Advice to Moses

 13 The next day Moses sat as judge for the people, while the people stood around him from morning until evening. 14 When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people stand around you from morning until evening?” 15 Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. 16 When they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make known to them the statutes and instructions of God.” 17 Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. 19 Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You should represent the people before God, and you should bring their cases before God; 20 teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do. 21 You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22 Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23 If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace.”

 24 So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said. 25 Moses chose able men from all Israel and appointed them as heads over the people, as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. 26 And they judged the people at all times; hard cases they brought to Moses, but any minor case they decided themselves. 27 Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went off to his own country.

Beyond modeling a first commandment faith and a sacrificial worship to God, Jethro brings to the people of Israel and to Moses, its leader, worldly wisdom. Moses has taken the central role in leading the people out of Egypt: he is the spiritual, military, political and legal authority and the one who stands between the people and God. He is the one who everyone comes to for support, legal ruling and whenever there has been a crisis. Already Moses has had to deal with two instances of water related strife, food related anxiety, as well as the people’s first military threat. Now the people are waiting for Moses to address their needs, their internal conflicts and to hear their cries. As Carol Myers states, “Jethro notices more than the supremacy of Israel’s god; he also notices that Israel’s leader is overburdened.” (Myers, 2005, p. 137)

Within this passage we have one of only two places in the first five books of the bible (or torah) where the phrase “not good” is used. Throughout the creation narrative in Genesis one we hear God say repeatedly that is was good, but the only other place where the phrase “not good” is used is Genesis 2: 18 where God says it is ‘not good’ for the man to be alone. (Sacks, 2010, p. 128) Here also it is ‘not good’ that Moses is alone, here he needs appropriate partners for his own good and for the people’s.

The critical task of finding officers, people who can be trusted to hear the people’s concerns and to respond fairly and who are not going to be vulnerable to bribes or coercion makes the life of the people of Israel possible. Here these officers are not given the title of judge, and there are probably several reasons for that. The office of judge in the people of Israel’s history gets developed in the times between Joshua and the time of the kings and the judges are people who lead the people for a time and have more of a Moses-like role than a purely judicial one. Also, throughout the book of Exodus, the people has been referred to in a military manner. Within many military units the commanding officer has legal responsibilities for those who serve under them, for example under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (or UCMJ) which provides the basis for the legal system used in the U.S. Military the commanding officer does hear cases and assign punishment. In disciplinary matter the commanding officers is judge and jury while still being the commander. These people who will mediate the commands and instructions of Moses to the people are foundational to the emerging structure of the people.

Moses role becomes one of intercession, instruction and of finding subordinate leaders. Moses will continue to stand between the people and the LORD their God and this will become an increasingly critical role as the people continue their journey. Moses will also become the teacher of the law that is about to be given as well as interpreting the law to the people. Moses will continue to have to teach the people how they are to live and what they are to do. But Moses cannot do it on his own, he will need multiple leaders to share the burdens and responsibility of leading the people of God. Sometimes this is the hardest task: both finding and trusting these new leaders. I, and many other leaders, struggle with this portion of leadership-with equipping others who will not have the same amount of training and experience that you do. Yet, this worldly advice was deemed important enough by the people of God that it was included within their scriptures.

Exodus 13- Sacrifice, Liturgy and Journey to Form a Chosen People

Grigory Mekheev, Exodus (2000) artist shared work under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Exodus 13:1-16: Setting Aside Firstborn and Time in Remembrance

The LORD said to Moses: 2 Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, is mine.

 3 Moses said to the people, “Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because the LORD brought you out from there by strength of hand; no leavened bread shall be eaten. 4 Today, in the month of Abib, you are going out. 5 When the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which he swore to your ancestors to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this observance in this month. 6 Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival to the LORD. 7 Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen in your possession, and no leaven shall be seen among you in all your territory. 8 You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ 9 It shall serve for you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead, so that the teaching of the LORD may be on your lips; for with a strong hand the LORD brought you out of Egypt. 10 You shall keep this ordinance at its proper time from year to year.

 11 “When the LORD has brought you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your ancestors, and has given it to you, 12 you shall set apart to the LORD all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your livestock that are males shall be the LORD’s. 13 But every firstborn donkey you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. Every firstborn male among your children you shall redeem. 14 When in the future your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall answer, ‘By strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 15 When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from human firstborn to the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD every male that first opens the womb, but every firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ 16 It shall serve as a sign on your hand and as an emblem1 on your forehead that by strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt.”

It is a common religious practice to set aside that which is one’s best in the service of the deity one serves as a sign of trust, and in many ancient fertility religions there was a sense that if one does certain things to appease the god then fertility in the fields or flocks or family would be granted. The sacrificial system in Israel brings animals and they are sacrificed to the LORD, but the family would (as described in Deuteronomy, see Deuteronomy 14, 15, and 26) take part in the eating of the sacrifice as a celebration. This practice of setting aside the first born of animals that can be eaten and redeeming animals which cannot both demonstrates trust in the LORD providing future fertility for the flocks and herds as well as providing opportunities to bring together the family and community to celebrate the abundance of the LORD’s provision. Sacrifice for ancient Israel becomes a way in which the presence of the LORD is mediated through the tabernacle/temple and the priest and the acts of worship to the people. The setting aside of the firstborn animals also adds to the annual storytelling centered around the Passover and reinforces that the people are a people redeemed from the land of Egypt.

The redemption of the firstborn male children also serves as a reminder of the narrative of the people’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. It is a reminder of the oppression of Pharaoh that sought to kill the male children of the Hebrew slaves (and to represent the oppressive form of government their society was not to represent). It serves as a reminder of the final sign where the LORD breaks the hold of Pharaoh on the people by the death of the firstborns of Egypt and as a reminder of the LORD’s power. Finally, it is a reminder of their own status as redeemed people. Their identity is not based upon their power or might but upon the choice and action of their God. This identity is reinforced through the cultic action of the priests at the tabernacle or temple in their future settled identity in the promised land.

Liturgy, which is what is being discussed here, becomes a visual narrative with signs that point back to the narrative of the Exodus. In a world where people would not be able to attend worship at the temple every Sabbath the festivals and sacrifices become opportunities for the families and communities to re-narrate their constitutive story and reinforce their identity as the chosen, and redeemed, people of the LORD. They become opportunities to reflect with thanksgiving upon the LORD’s provision through the fertility of their flocks and herds and to remember the way in which the LORD acted decisively against the might of the Egyptian empire.

Exodus 13: 17-22: The Long Road to Freedom

 17 When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, “If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.” 18 So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea.1 The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle. 19 And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, “God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.” 20 They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. 21 The LORD went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. 22 Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.

Paul Hardy, The Pillar of Fire, from the Art Bible (1896)

As the people of Israel begin their long walk to freedom, they begin by taking the circuitous route. The people, fresh from their lives as slaves of the Egyptians, are not an army ready for conflict and are not settled into their new identity as the chosen people of the LORD. They may go out of Egypt physically prepared for battle, marching in formations or carrying what weapons they may have. Yet, mentally they are not prepared for conflict nor are they prepared for the burden of freedom. Ultimately, even the long road to the promised land will not be enough to calm the fear of the people of Israel or to remove from their mind the desire to return to the fleshpots of Egypt. All journeys must begin somewhere.

Recently I was sitting with a family who was watching a loved one struggle with an unexpected illness which eventually led to their loved one’s death. As a part of their devotion one morning they read the verse eighteen which refers to God taking the people on the roundabout way and they found it speaking to their situation. They did not wish for their loved one to suffer but it took time for the family to come to the point to where they were willing to let go and they found the difficult period of waiting as a period of grace where they could come to terms with the grief they would soon experience and they made peace with the decision to follow their loved one’s stated wishes and to let him die rather than prolonging his life through intensive life support. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, discussing Maimonide’s interpretation of these verses, states, “God sometimes intervenes to change nature. We call these interventions miracles. But God never intervenes to change human nature.” Yet, in Sack’s words, “He (God) gave humanity the freedom to grow.” (Sacks, 2010, p. 99) Perhaps there are times where God grants an instantaneous change of heart but it is my experience that God often allows us to grow into that change of heart through the experiences and relationship that we live through in our lives. The LORD, the God of Israel, is a God of the journey, a God of the Exodus. The people will come to understand both who their God is and who, by extension, they are in relation to God through their experience both in their liberation but even more on their journey in the wilderness along the winding path from Egypt to Canaan and from slavery to their new identity as the people of the LORD, the God of Israel.

Ecclesiastes 5-The Gift of Mortality Before God and in the World

Samuel Cursing Saul by Hans Holbein the Younger (1530)

Samuel Cursing Saul by Hans Holbein the Younger (1530)

 Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 Silence Not Sacrifice

1 Guard your steps when you go to the house of God; to draw near to listen is better than the sacrifice offered by fools; for they do not know how to keep from doing evil. 2 Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.

 3 For dreams come with many cares, and a fool’s voice with many words.

 4 When you make a vow to God, do not delay fulfilling it; for he has no pleasure in fools. Fulfill what you vow. 5 It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not fulfill it. 6 Do not let your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake; why should God be angry at your words, and destroy the work of your hands?

 7 With many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words; but fear God.

Perhaps it is my skeptical nature but I’ve always been wary of those who knew too clearly what God wanted from them and others. I think that sometimes the quest for certainty fills that uneasy quiet space of waiting for God to speak. In our own time there has become more common for people to claim they are spiritual but not religious, where that organized religion for various reasons may not speak to them. There are times where Christianity has tried to model itself after the ancient mystery religions where you did certain acts to try to appease a god or goddess to act on your behalf, but the LORD the God of Israel’s ways are not our ways. As Amy Plantiga Pauw can say memorably, “God does not exist to satisfy human aims and desires. God is not a mascot for our favorite causes.” (Pauw, 2015, p. 166) There are many times when people have used their religious piety as a way of bringing glory to themselves or securing their own sense of place within the chosen people. Qohelet encourages us to enter into that space of silence and waiting to draw near and listen to God.

It is possible that the narrative of 1 Samuel 15, where King Saul uses sacrifice as a way to cover up his disobedience to God’s command in the defeat of the Amalekites, informs this portion of Ecclesiastes. Saul is commanded to utterly destroy the people and the animals but when the battle is won in addition to sparing King Agag’s life the people also spared the best of the sheep, cattle, and other valuables. Capturing the spoils of war was a normal practice but here the Amalekites are dedicated as herem where they are consigned to destruction. (For much more about the understanding of war, herem, as well as an ethical reflection on how to address texts like 1 Samuel 15 see my post on Deuteronomy 20). When the next day King Saul is confronted by Samuel he claims that these best animals are to be a sacrifice to God. Samuel informs King Saul that he has earned the LORD’s disfavor and states:

“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obedience to the voice of the LORD? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king.” 1 Samuel 15: 22f

Guarding one’s actions before God also involves the words that we say and the promises that we make. The misuse of the name of God was a serious offense for the people of Israel, enough so that it became enshrined within the ten commandments. When speaking about vows in verse four, Ecclesiastes begins with a direct parallel of Deuteronomy 23: 21. Making promises before God is a serious measure, in discussing Deuteronomy 23 I mentioned Jephthah’s rash oath and since I have just been discussing King Saul there is his rash oath in 1 Samuel 14: 24 which puts his son Jonathan’s life in danger. Ellen Davis shares, “To vow something before the priest (NRSV: “messenger”) that one has not considered carefully or, even worse, has no intention of fulfilling is to mock God” (Davis, 2000, p. 165)

Ecclesiastes has been pondering the place of humanity with its mortality within the seemingly timeless nature of creation and the eternity of God. Humanity, with all its limits, is placed in the position of listening to the wisdom of the eternal one. Ecclesiastes has striven to pay attention in the present moment to the gifts that God provides. It may be a paradox but a part of wisdom is learning to be patient with the finite gift of time. Making space and silence to be in that place where our words and wisdom fade before the words and wisdom of God.

Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, can take the words of Ecclesiastes a step further. Ecclesiastes stated it is better to not vow than vow and not fulfill it but Jesus says not to swear an oath at all. For Jesus all words were to be faithful to what is said, whether they are under oath or not, and as in Ecclesiastes our power to fulfill these vows is often limited by the reality that one ‘cannot make one hair on one’s head white or black.’ (Matthew 5: 33-37)

Ecclesiastes 5: 8-20

 8 If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right, do not be amazed at the matter; for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. 9 But all things considered, this is an advantage for a land: a king for a plowed field.

 10 The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity.

 11 When goods increase, those who eat them increase; and what gain has their owner but to see them with his eyes?

 12 Sweet is the sleep of laborers, whether they eat little or much; but the surfeit of the rich will not let them sleep.

 13 There is a grievous ill that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owners to their hurt,14 and those riches were lost in a bad venture; though they are parents of children, they have nothing in their hands. 15 As they came from their mother’s womb, so they shall go again, naked as they came; they shall take nothing for their toil, which they may carry away with their hands. 16 This also is a grievous ill: just as they came, so shall they go; and what gain do they have from toiling for the wind? 17 Besides, all their days they eat in darkness, in much vexation and sickness and resentment.

 18 This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot. 19 Likewise all to whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil– this is the gift of God. 20 For they will scarcely brood over the days of their lives, because God keeps them occupied with the joy of their hearts.

 

Gratitude and joy are the gifts from God in Ecclesiastes, not wealth or wisdom (even though it is better than foolishness). Our desire for wealth, power, possessions, land, position, and numerous other things we think will make us happy is insatiable. When riches and status become the central quest in life they leave the seeker unsatisfied. Governments may be corrupt, the system may be unfair, riches may be lost suddenly and all may be vanity yet joy can be found.

Ecclesiastes can recognize the problems and corruption that are a part of government and bureaucracy and still believe they ultimately benefit the land and the people. The oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right are real, and a person may not be in a position to change these things. Yet, the author is no revolutionary. Even with all of the government of his time’s flaws he still sees the king (and by extension the rest of the government) put in place to serve the land and the farmer. The people placed in positions of authority may be motivated by a quest for greed or power, yet in the balance there is justice in the midst of the injustice, protection of justice and right in the midst of the injustice and ultimately even a bad government is in service of its people. Ecclesiastes is wisdom literature, not prophetic literature, so do not be surprised that it is invested in the maintaining of the way things are. Yet, there is wisdom in learning the balance of where one can invest in change and where one learns to live in an imperfect system.

Wisdom that is applied to the increasing of goods or the increasing of position and power is never satisfied. The human appetite for acquisition is insatiable. Riches can be hoarded and lost and never enjoyed. The future is never guaranteed, permanent security is never guaranteed, one’s position in society is never guaranteed. If one lives one’s life only for the future never enjoying the food and drink that one has, never giving thanks for the banquets one can be a part of or host, then one lives impoverished. If one spends one’s nights continually plagued by insecurity over one’s possessions or plotting how to increase one’s wealth or stature, one lives an impoverished life. If one never is given the gift of enjoying their labor and their time of leisure, one lives an impoverished life. The paradox of Ecclesiastes wisdom is that it is by embracing one’s limits-one’s mortality, one’s possessions, one’s position, and one’s companions that one is able to be thankful. Gratitude and joy is a gift of God in the midst of our brief days, our limited resources, our imperfect situations and governments and in our families and friends. Ecclesiastes is not, as I once thought, dismissive of life but actively seeks to embrace life as it is lived in the present.

The Exceptional Child

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Rembrandt (1635)

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Rembrandt (1635)

Set apart and lifted up
Placed upon a pedestal
An example for the world to see
Expected to excel in every endeavor
The beloved one, the exceptional child
Living out the dreams of so many others
And weeping when no one else sees
For being the sacrifice made for other’s failures
The substitution for their own failures
Expiation for their sins real and imagined
Caught in a life that was thrust upon him
And perhaps if he completes the journey to Moriah
Carrying the wood for his own pyre
There might be a sacrificial lamb caught in the bushes
Able to take his place
So that he might know laugher

Neil White, 2013

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com