Monday, April 22, 2013

Reboot the Pentateuch: A New Nation is Formed (Exo 19-24)

This is part 16 of 20 in a series about the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. In it we will explore the context of the book, specifically its relationship to the Egyptian culture of its day.

Click here to read the entire series.

Last week we saw God start to get involved with the politics of the world, rescuing His people from being enslaved in the most powerful kingdom of the day, Egypt. Today, we will see Him form this new group into a new nation.

God's Plan (Exo 19)

In the third month of their flight from Egypt, the Israelites have reached the Desert of the Sinai peninsula. 

Remember that at this point, they are still largely in shock. They had been enslaved in Egypt for longer than the United States has been a country--and here they are without a whole lot of food, dragging their children and elderly across a hot desert toward an unknown area for the second straight month.

As they started month three, they made camp at the base of Mount Sinai, in modern Saudi Arabia. (Note: The name Mt Horeb is also used in other parts of the Bible to refer to the same location, so do not be confused by this.) This mountain, with a peak of 7500 ft, is about half the size of Pike's Peak in Colorado, as a reference.

Mt. Sinai, on the Sinai peninsula

While they were camped here, Moses decided to go up the mountain to reflect and talk to God. There are two routes to the summit--a steep climb up the one face, or about a 2 1/2 hour steady climb on the part passable by camels.

After climbing up the mountain, God speaks to Moses and says:

"This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: 'You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites."  (Exo 19:3-6, NIV)

Notice here how God tells us the explicit purpose He had for saving the Israelites from bondage in Egypt: to make them into a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation."

God always had a two-fold purpose in forming Israel: it was to be both a kingdom filled with priests, and a nation which was holy--that is, set apart from the common, as an example to all.

Imagine how amazing this must be to Moses! Here is a scraggly band of half-starved, escaped slaves in the middle of the desert, and God tells them that He is going to make them His own nation. Until this point, they did not know where they were going: they had been freed from slavery but had no home to return to. Imagine that the U.S. slaves were freed...but told that they couldn't stay in the U.S. It had been centuries since they had been to their home countries, so wouldn't it be terrifying and overwhelming to consider making the return trip?

The same had to be true for the Israelites. Yet here God is letting them in on the plan: I'm not just getting involved to free you...I'm getting involved to create My own nation. One in which you will all be priests.

Again, imagine the questions they must have had. What do you mean priests? There isn't a specific YHWH religion yet! The only priest we have in all of recorded history to YHWH is the priest-king Melchizedek from centuries before, when Abraham was living in Canaan. None of the Jews here, including Moses, really know what worshipping YWHW is going to look like, much less what priesthood looks like.

Still, He did rescue them: so Moses goes down and delivers the message to the elders of the tribes of Israel. The leaders of the tribes agree to form this new nation, and Moses walks the 2.5 hours back up the mountain to respond to God (19:7-8). 

The Lord then tells Moses that He will speak to Him in a cloud, so that the people will know that Moses isn't just making it all up. So Moses walks back down the mountain and tells the people, then walks back up the mountain a third time (19:9).

God then told Moses to go back down the mountain (he's getting quite a workout here), and prepare the people to receive God's plan. God said that in three days He would return in full glory on Sinai for all to witness. 

This is a big deal.

I don't think I can over-stress this. YHWH has not been all that present for the Jews at this point. His covenant with Abraham promised that Abraham's offspring would expand, and He upheld His end of the bargain--as was evidenced by the many tribes at the base of Sinai. But few people had seen God throughout history. Adam and Eve walked with Him in the Garden unknown ages before. Enoch walked with Him, also in ancient history. Abraham spoke to Him as a man while en route to Sodom and Gomorrah, and Jacob wrestled with Him as a man:  but again this was centuries ago--ancient history. Since then, they had been in slavery for centuries with no word whatsoever from God. It is quite possible, in fact, that many did not believe in Him until the plagues started happening.

But now all of a sudden, God has proved to be bigger and more real than the Egyptian's gods. And He is telling them that He is going to let them see His glory...and telling them when it will happen. 

This is a big deal.

So they have to get ready for it--they have to consecrate themselves, making themselves ritually ready to see such an awe-inspiring sight. The mountain was about to become hallowed ground, so people were forbidden (upon pain of death) to even touch the mountain; in addition, they were to abstain from sex for three days (9:10-14).

Three days later, in the morning, a massive thunderstorm forms above the mountain. There is massive thunder and lightning and a very loud blast like a trumpet--so loud that it made everyone in the camp tremble in fear. When the people walked to the foot of the mountain, it was covered in thick smoke, the mountain was rumbling, and fire was everywhere. The voice of God audibly called Moses to come up to the top of the mountain (19:15-20).

(You have to believe this trip of the mountain was just a bit more intimidating for Moses.)

God's first command to Moses when He reaches the top is...go back down the mountain! This time to warn the people that coming up the mountain will kill them, even those who aspire to priesthood. This trip is for Moses and Aaron only.

So Moses goes down and tells the people. They agree...and I can't blame them (19:21-25).

The Mosaic Covenant (Exo 20-24)

God then speaks to all the people from the top of the mountain:

  • Do not worship other gods.
  • Do not make or worship idols--even to Him.
  • Do not misuse His name.
  • Treat the seventh day of each week as a Holy Day, resting to reflect on God's Creation.
  • Honor your parents.
  • Do not kill.
  • Do not commit adultery.
  • Do not steal.
  • Do not perjure/give false testimony.
  • Do not covet -- neither the things someone has nor the wives someone has.
These are the famed Ten Commandments, also called the Decalogue (Ten Words).

It appears (but is not certain) from the text that all of Israel heard these Ten Words, and then Moses went up the mountain for the fifth time and acted as their envoy for further instructions (20:1-21).

Moses' election in 20:19 is fairly important--it establishes his right to negotiate a suzerain covenant between the Hebrews and God. Since the Hebrews are in separate tribes, no one man had a natural right to speak for them, so this verse is fairly important from an ancient legal standpoint.

Moses went up the mountain into the "thick darkness" where God was--which is kind of chilling when you think of it. While there, God tells Moses the specific criteria required for them as part of the new kingdom He is forming.

Remember, His purpose is NOT to say, "Doing everything below is what it takes to make Me happy," or "Doing this list is what every Godly nation should do." What He tells Moses are the ground rules of being a new nation set apart for Him, a holy nation of priests who will represent Him before the world. These priests are explicitly defined as the descendants of Jacob, the Chosen People of God. One of my personal pet peeves is when Americans act as though we somehow have supplanted Israel as this chosen nation! Not at all--the descendants of Jacob are those who are to represent YHWH to the world...and in 20:22-33:23, God defines the laws of this new theocratic nation.

God tells Moses that the basic legal code of His new kingdom are listed below. If you look at the list, most of them are really practical laws for setting up a kingdom at this time. Most are not specifically religious in nature, but are more about how to live and coexist in the same land. Many are, in fact, exceptionally progressive for their time.

  • Idol worship is not allowed. (20:22-23)
  • Altars shall be out of earth or stone, but only with natural materials, uncut by man. (20:24-25)
  • Keep altars at ground level so people can't see your genitals when you climb the steps (20:26). Note: I love this one: God is nothing if not practical!
  • Male Hebrew slaves must be freed every seventh year. If they wish to be a slave for life, they must testify of this to the judges and gain permission. Woman Hebrew slaves, if married to the master's daughter, are freed from slavery and treated as a daughter. If female Hebrew slaves are not pleasing to their new master, then they may be bought/redeemed from slavery. Hebrew slaves should not be sold to foreigners--only to other Hebrews who must abide by these laws, to protect the slaves. (21:2-11)
  • The penalty for premeditated murder is death. (21:12)
  • The penalty for accidental murder is exile. (21:13-14)
  • The penalty for assaulting one's parents is death. (21:15)
  • The penalty for kidnapping is death. (21:16)
  • The penalty for laying a curse on your father and mother is death. (21:17)
  • The penalty for assault where the victim lives is that the criminal must pay the medical costs and lost wages during recovery. (21:18-19)
  • The penalty for killing a slave is death. (21:20)
  • There is no penalty for beating a slave, if there is no permanent injury. (21:21)
  • The penalty for beating a slave and causing permanent injury is that the slave must be freed and his debt wholly forgiven. (21:26-27)
  • The penalty for hitting a pregnant woman and causing premature birth will be set by the woman's husband and court, as long as there is no injury to either mother or child. (21:22)
  • The penalty for hitting a pregnant woman and causing a premature birth which results in injury will be repaid exactly in proportion to the damage caused to her or the child--whatever happens to the mother or child will be inflicted on the criminal (up to and including death). (21:23-25)
  • The penalty for death by animal attack is that the animal be put to death, and the meat not eaten. (21:28)
  • The penalty for death of a free man or woman by animal attack, if the animal has a history of attacking people, is that both the animal and the animal's owner is put to death. Alternately, if the victims agree, the owner can redeem his life by paying any sum requested by the heir of the victim. (21:29-31)
  • The penalty for death of a slave by animal attack is that the animal is put to death, and the slave's owner is reimbursed for the cost of the slave. (21:32)
  • The penalty for negligently causing the death of someone else's animal is that the dead animal must be purchased at fair live animal value from the owner. (21:33-34)
  • The penalty for one animal killing another person's animal is that the dead meat and the offending animal are both sold and the value split between the two owners. (21:35)
  • The penalty for one animal killing another person's animal, if it is known that the animal has a history of attacking others, is that the owner of the killing animal must buy the dead animal at fair live animal value from the owner. (21:35-36)
  • The penalty for stealing livestock is that the thief must pay back 5x the cost of cattle/oxen and 4x the cost of sheep. (22:1) If the animal is alive it must be returned and paid back 2x the value. (22:4)
  • There is no penalty for killing a home intruder after nightfall, when it is dark. (22:2)
  • The penalty for a homeowner killing a home intruder during daytime shall follow the aforementioned laws for murder. (22:3)
  • The penalty for stealing is to repay the debt; if the debt cannot be repaid, the thief must sell himself into slavery. (22:3)
  • The penalty for allowing your livestock to graze from someone else's field is to pay back from the best of your field. (22:5)
  • The penalty for arson or accidental fire is to pay to replace anything destroyed. (22:6)
  • The penalty for stealing something which was given to another for safekeeping is to pay back its value, doubled. In cases of doubt, the judges shall decide who pays double the value. (22:7-9)
  • There is no penalty for animals dying while being watched by a neighbor, as long as the neighbor can prove that the death was accidental. (22:10-11, 13)
  • The penalty for killing an animal which was given to you for safekeeping is to pay the fair live value of the animal to the owner. (22:12)
  • The penalty for borrowing an animal and having it accidentally die is to pay the value of the animal to the owner. (22:14)
  • There is no penalty for a borrowed animal dying if the owner is present, or if the animal has been hired at a paid rate. (22:15)
  • The penalty for seducing a virgin is that the offender must pay her bride-price. If the father allows, he also must marry her. (22:16-17)
  • The penalty for sorcery is death. (22:18)
  • The penalty for bestiality is death. (22:19)
  • The penalty for sacrificing to false gods is death. (22:20)
After this impressive list of legal codes, God also gives some more traditional commandments--that is, you are commanded to do something, but the penalty is not listed. God is the one who promises to "make you pay" for failure on these:
  • Do not mistreat foreigners
  • Do not mistreat widows or orphans. (God will make you pay with your life.)
  • Do not charge interest when lending to other Chosen People. 
  • Do not take advantage of fellow believers who are being generous and lending you things - pay it back immediately.
  • Do not blaspheme God
  • Do not curse your rulers
  • Do not hold back offerings 
  • Do not eat meat torn apart by wild animals
  • Do not spread false reports
  • Do not show favoritism for the rich against the poor -- ensure the poor receive justice
  • Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong
  • If you see something lost by someone, return it to them
  • Do not have anything at all to do with allowing false charges to come against someone
  • Do not accept bribes
  • Do not oppress foreigners
  • Every seventh year, do not sow or harvest in your fields, let it be freely accessed by wild animals and the poor, and let the land rest
  • Celebrate three festivals:  a feast of unleavened bread (Passover) to celebrate your escape from Egypt; a festival of harvest to celebrate the firstfruits of the crops; and a festival of ingathering when you gather all the crops from the field. These should be celebrated in the presence of God, with offerings

Having laid out the basic laws and rules of behavior for the new kingdom, God tells Moses that He will send an angel before them to wipe out those who have taken Canaan and establish for the Jews a kingdom from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates--an area far larger than modern Israel, basically including all of modern Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, half of Iraq, and the northern tenth of Saudi Arabia. It was an area roughly the size of the Thirteen Colonies in the United States--modern Israel accounts for only about 4% of the total Promised Land. However, the promise of these borders come at a price: the careful observance of God's Law, as outlined above. God wishes to have a nation of priests...not just a nation. He makes no promises if the Hebrews abandon this religion which He is setting out (23:20-33).

Having negotiated this suzerain covenant, it is time to seal it and make it official. So God calls Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy elders to come up and worship Him. Only Moses is allowed to approach closely. Everyone agreed to the covenant, and Moses wrote it down on a scroll. He then read it aloud, and they again agreed to obey its commands. All 74 of these representatives saw God during this process (24:1-11).

God again calls Moses to the top of the mountain, to receive  the Ten Commandments written in stone for all eternity. By this point the cloud has covered the mountain for six days, and it appears to be on fire. Now, on the seventh day, Moses and his aide Joshua climb the mountain into the cloud, and remain there with God forty days and nights. 

When he comes back down, he will come bearing the Ten Commandments written in God's own hand, and start the forming of the new religion to go along with this new nation that God just formed (24:12-18).


I don't want to draw too fine a line between the religion and legal government of ancient Israel, for the two were of course intertwined. But notice that of the 57 bullet-point commandments above, only 17 actually deal with the rituals of Jewish religious life. Over 70% of the focus of this section deal with God establishing the rule of law for His newly-formed nation.

Next week we will begin to see the religion of Judaism form around this covenant, clarifying what it means to join this priesthood.