13. In the Wilderness
14. The Ten Commandments
15. The Book of the Covenant
16. Revelation of the Tabernacle and the Two Tablets
17. The Golden Calf
18. Restoration of the Covenant
19. Construction of the Tabernacle
Despite all that God had done for them, the Israelites, being mere flesh and blood, were slow to learn trust in divine providence. The establishment of true religion would be won only through many trials, during which the people were tested and they faltered, only to be saved by a merciful God at the behest of His servant Moses.
Scarcely three days after they had crossed the Red Sea, the Israelites met their first challenge as they were unable to find drinking water. The water at Mara (which means "bitter") was unfit to drink, but God showed Moses a tree that, when cast into the water, made it fresh and drinkable. Subsequently, the Israelites found palm trees in Aelim, where the water was fresh, and there they encamped. The miracle at Mara was a sign of God’s power to provide for His people, teaching them to trust in Him, and providing a foretaste of the providential discovery of fresh water at Aelim. Christian commentators have observed that the tree at Mara is a figure of the Cross, whereby sins are cleansed and souls are made acceptable to God.
The trial at Mara took place while the Israelites were still in the "wilderness of Shur." According to Numbers 33:8, this was the "wilderness of Etham." Some Biblical critics have thought this to be a contradiction, and resort to the usual contrived method of invoking multiple sources. We have seen, on the contrary, that both "Etham" and "Shur" refer to the Egyptian border fortifications, the first term being Hebraized Egyptian and the latter term being Hebrew. This area of the wilderness is the northern part of Sinai, from which the great wall protected Egypt.
On the fifteenth day of the second month, or forty-five days after the Passover, the Israelites entered the wilderness of Sin, which is all of the peninsula south of the wilderness of Shur. By this time, they had traveled about 100 miles, consistent with the slow movement of a large body of people, including days of rest. Though they had replenished their water at Aelim, their food supplies were disappearing, so again they complained to Moses and Aaron. God now worked a greater wonder, offering bread “from heaven,” again to test whether the Israelites would walk in His way or not. They were to gather only enough bread for that day, except on the sixth day, when they were to gather for that they and the next. In this way, God teaches observance of the Sabbath and trust in His Providence.
Moses and Aaron told the people that in the evening they would be given meat to eat, and in the morning they would be given bread. In the evening quails came, providing meat, while in the morning a “dew” appeared around the camp. It appeared small, “like hoar frost on the ground,” or like “white coriander seed,” as the Septuagint has it. (16:14) The Israelites called it “manna,” which simply means “what is it?” The sudden appearance of this manna, like that of the quails, was undoubtedly miraculous in its abundance, yet we may inquire if the quality of this substance was equally foreign to natural experience. Manna was certainly unknown to the Israelites, but it may have been a foodstuff indigenous to the region, such as the juice extracted from the tamarisk plant by certain insects. This identification is problematic, however, since this juice is mostly sugar, and would be unsuitable as a staple. More likely the manna was some substance unknown to man, for it tasted like “flour with honey,” and was like a sweetened bread, a bread from heaven. Indeed, whatever the quality of this substance, there certainly was not enough naturally occurring food in the wilderness to sustain a large population, so miraculous Providence was needed. For forty years, the Israelites lived solely by the special favor of God, to teach them later to trust in His Providence even when miracles were absent.
Each man gathered a daily ration of one omer of manna. An omer is a dry measure unit equaling one tenth of an ephah, a standard measure of grain. The omer, or tenth part, is the tithe of grain offered to God. Aaron kept an omer of manna to remind the Israelites of what God had done for them, and later Jewish custom would require bringing an omer of grain to the Temple, in repayment to God for the manna that was given to them.
In Raphidim, the Israelites were again without water, so they complained to Moses. Despite all the wonders God had wrought for them, they did not believe that God was truly among them, for they could not understand why they would be permitted to be consumed by thirst. No matter how many blessings God gives us, even of a supernatural order, weak human will tends to doubt if we are forced to endure any severe hardship, as if we expected God to prove Himself by removing all serious difficulties from life. In this case, God miraculously provided water from a rock, thereby rebuking Israelite doubts.
A further test awaited Israel at Raphidim, as the Amalekites came to attack. The rod or staff of God, by which Moses brought water forth from the rock and revealed other divine miracles, is the same instrument by which God will deliver Israel from the Amalekites. Joshua, son of Nun, the same who would lead Israel in wars against the people of Canaan, was appointed by Moses to lead the battle against Amalek. The fate of Israel against Amalek ebbed and flowed with the ability of Moses to keep the staff of God raised. Ultimately, Israel prevailed, and Joshua put the Amalekites to flight in a rout.
God promised to Moses that He will someday destroy the nation of Amalek. The Israelites will be the instruments of this destruction. Amalek is singled out for destruction because they dared to oppose God by trying to prevent Israel from reaching the promised land. From what little we know of the Amalekites, it would seem that they were marauding nomads. Deuteronomy 25 provides clarification of Amalek’s offense, stating that “he met thee, and slew the hindmost of the army, who sat down, being weary, when thou wast spent with hunger and labour, and he feared not God.” The Amalekites, violating the laws of Middle Eastern hospitality and of basic human decency, took advantage of wayfarers and slaughtered the sick and weak straggling in the rear. In this, Amalek defied divine law as inscribed in nature. When an entire society, in its constitution, is opposed to natural law, God might decree its destruction.
As the Israelites were now not far from Mount Horeb, they encountered Jethro the priest of Midian. This is the same as Raguel, Moses’ father-in-law, but now he is called by his title of authority: Jethro, “your excellence.” Moses’ wife and sons had remained with Jethro in Midian; now they were reunited.
When Jethro learned of all the wonders God had wrought for Israel, he recognized that YHVH is above every other god, and offered sacrifices to Him. The following day, he observed that many Israelites came to Moses so that he may judge their disputes according to divine precepts. Jethro sagely suggested that Moses appoint some honorable men to judge most of the lesser disputes. Moses heeded this advice, and appointed a sort of judicial hierarchy to take care of these matters. These judges are predecessors of those who would govern Israel in the pre-monarchical period. Prior to kings, prophets, rabbis, and even priests, Moses appoints judges as the means by which Israel is governed, following the precepts of God.
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In the third month of the exodus, after two weeks had passed, Israel departed from Raphidim and entered the desert of Sinai, approaching God’s holy mountain. God called Moses to come up the mountain, and there revealed that He would make Israel His special possession, a “priestly kingdom,” a “holy nation,” if they will keep His covenant. All the Israelites were to be washed and purified, for on the third day God would speak directly to the people from a dark cloud. They were not to go up the holy mountain. Anyone who did would be stoned to death, a method of execution that guarantees “no hands shall touch him.” The purpose of this severity was to instill a recognition of the holiness of God, before which no one is clean. None can see God in his proper abode, which is heaven, and of which the mountain is a symbol. Still, God would condescend to manifest Himself before the people, who must take every human precaution to purify themselves before this theophany. Moses would sanctify them, and they would wash their garments. They would abstain from their wives, so that the sacred was not mixed with the profane.
A dark cloud with thunder and lightning appeared on the morning of the third day. Smoke rose from Mount Sinai, “because the Lord was come down upon it in fire.” (19:18) A trumpet sounded, signaling that the Israelites may approach the bottom of the mountain. Only Moses and Aaron would be permitted to come up the mountain. First Moses descended to speak to the people, and then God spoke the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments (or Decalogue) summarize the moral core of the divine law delivered to Israel. Extensive commentaries have been written on these precepts, and catechisms have often used these as a structure for Christian ethics. For the purposes of this exegesis, we will confine ourselves to examine the basic structure of these divine laws. They appear to be in descending order of importance, from offenses against the highest authority to the lowest.
The original enumeration of the Ten Commandments was likely indicated by each imperative expression, which was "Thou shalt not" in most instances. Thus the commandments would be: (I) you shall not have other gods; (II) you shall not make idols; (III) you shall not take the name of the Lord in vain; (IV) keep holy the sabbath day; (V) honor your father and mother; (VI) you shall not murder; (VII) you shall not commit adultery; (VIII) you shall not steal; (IX) you shall not bear false witness; (X) you shall not covet. Note that the traditional Christian distinction between coveting your neighbor's wife and other forms of coveting as separate commandments is not supported by the text of Exodus, though it is consistent with Deuteronomy.
The first commandment, by Jewish reckoning, is "I am YHVH your God." In other words, the first commandment requires that we worship God alone and no other gods. All morality, all righteousness, and all justice proceeds from God, so to Him alone do we owe worship. Not only are we to shun the worship of other gods, but neither should we create idols, even for the true God. The second commandment, against idolatry, insists on the utter transcendence of God and the impossibility of representing Him with any created thing. This commandment emphasizes that God is above creation as its sovereign, and not a fellow creature.
The first two commandments were known, however imperfectly, even to the ancestors of the Israelites, but the third pertains to the Holy Name that God revealed to Moses. This Name, we have said, indicates the personal, transcendent God. The Name was revealed to the Israelites because they were to be His people, yet they must not speak this Name idly, as if God could be summoned or invoked. The orthodox Jews are so scrupulous about this commandment that they do not speak the Name at all, under any circumstances. (The sole exception, ages ago, was when the high priest entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur.)
The first three commandments concern duties toward God Himself, but the fourth concerns the day that God has made holy, the sabbath. The sabbath honors the holiness of God's act of creation, so the Israelites are to dedicate this day entirely to the Creator.
While the first four commandments concerned religious duties, the fifth identifies the source of all human authority and morality, the family. The most basic moral duty among humans is to honor one's father and mother, the font of all conscience, from whom we learn the rest of the moral law. Father and mother are images of God's paternity over all mankind, so they are to be obeyed when we are children and respected when we are adults. We owe all we have to them, just as we owe all to God on a more fundamental level.
The last five commandments enumerate the chief offenses against the moral law. First, we should not murder. This has often been mistranslated as "You shall not kill," leading to many shoddy moral arguments and Biblical criticisms, but the Hebrew term (ratsach, as opposed to harag) is restricted to homicide. Murder is the gravest offense against another person since it wrongfully deprives him of what is most sacred, his life. As with all moral offenses, the morality of an act is determined by circumstances. Killing is wrong only when it is contrary to justice. It is not murder to kill in self-defense, nor to execute a criminal, nor to fatally injure by accident. In all of these cases, there is lacking an element of injustice. To kill the guilty is not morally the same as killing the innocent, just as it is not morally the same to imprison the guilty as to imprison the innocent.
Second only to murder is the crime of adultery, to take the wife (or husband) of another unlawfully. Even abstracting from the question of monogamy, adultery would be unjust because we take from another, without justice, what is perhaps as dear to him as his own life. It is not enough that the adulterous spouse consents, for she (or he) deprives her spouse of the fidelity that she solemnly swore to him, a necessary vow for them to be husband and wife in any meaningful sense.
Next, one must not infringe upon the lawful property of another in a way that is contrary to justice. Property is a human institution, but it is necessary in order to secure one's livelihood. We must not seize the property of another without just cause. Property is not an absolute right, but is subordinate to the right to life.
Not only must we abstain from taking real property from our neighbor, but we must not defraud him even of his reputation. Thus we are enjoined not to bear false witness. The virtue of honesty is mentioned only implicitly, with regard to this practical end. The Ten Commandments are written as prescriptive laws, not as an abstract treatise on moral virtues and the rights of man.
Lastly, we are not even to covet in our hearts what belongs to our neighbor. If it is wrong to actually do something, it can hardly be right to desire to do it. It is often when we permit illicit desires that we can find ourselves committing illicit acts. The things not to be coveted are mentioned in descending order of importance to a household. First, we should not covet the house itself. Neither should we covet the lady of the house, nor the servants, nor the ox, nor the ass (the two most expensive animals, essential to agriculture), nor anything else.
All of Israel heard these commandments, perhaps not as intelligible words, but as great thunder and trumpet blasts, accompanied by lightning and smoke. So terrifying was the voice of the Lord that the Israelites begged Moses to speak to them for God instead of having God speak to them directly. Moses explained that God intended to test them, instilling them with a holy fear so they avoid sin.
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Then Moses ascended the mountain, presumably with Aaron, as indicated previously. Alone, he entered the dark cloud where God was. There God revealed to Moses additional commandments to be addressed to Israel.
“Vos vidistis quod de caelo locutus sum vobis. Non facietis mecum deos argenteos nec deos aureos facietis vobis.” (20:22-23)
“You have seen that I have spoken to you from heaven. You shall not make gods of silver, nor shall you make to yourselves gods of gold.” (20:22-23)
As the Israelites have heard the voice of God from heaven, they must know that He is the true God. They are therefore not to worship other gods of gold and silver. They shall make their offerings on an altar of earth; should they make an altar of stones, they will be uncut. God forbids any mark of human artifice in sacrificial altars, so the Israelites will learn not to worship the work of their own hands, as the pagans do. Not only should the altar itself be free from artifice, but it should not be mounted atop a staircase, as though to simulate an ascension toward heaven, as the pagans did. Forbidding the Israelites to climb Mount Sinai, under penalty of death, teaches them not to presume that they may ascend to heaven by their own strength. This teaching may seem elementary to us, for we benefit from millennia of inculturation in sound religion, but the Israelites inhabited a world where pagans universally practiced such presumption. When examining the laws given to the Israelites, we must remember that they did not exist in a cultural void, but served as a corrective to the existing culture of that time.
Chapters 21-23 continue with ordinances to be given to Israel. These laws, combined with what preceded, constitute the Book of the Covenant. These are the original, essential statutes that will constitute Israel as the people of God. As Israel is to be ruled by judges, these ordinances constitute the principles by which the leaders of Israel shall render judgment.
While the Decalogue summarized essential moral principles, and God’s subsequent words to Moses emphasized the necessity of worship purged of pagan artifice, the present set of ordinances begins with practical principles of society. Instead of simply saying, “Thou shalt not,” these laws give positive prescriptions for what the Israelites should do in concrete circumstances.
First among these is the practical abolition of slavery among the Hebrews. Since God has freed Israel from bondage, it would be a grave offense to keep one of His children as a perpetual slave. Thus all Hebrew slaves are to be freed after a maximum of six years of service. These indentured servants may keep their wives and property, if they possessed these prior to the period of service. If, however, the wife was provided by his master, and the servant wishes to remain with his wife and his master, he may voluntarily and publicly choose to remain a servant for life.
Hebrew women who are servants or concubines are likewise guaranteed greater rights than a slave. If they displease their master, they are to be let free, and not sold to foreigners. If a servant is betrothed to the master’s son, she is to be treated as a daughter. If the son decides to take another for his wife, the betrothed servant is still entitled to a marriage, clothing, and a dowry. If these are not provided, she is to go free.
Having dealt with the basic rights of the lowliest servants, the law proceeds to discuss offenses of life and death. Those who commit intentional murder shall be put to death. For those who kill unintentionally, a place of refuge will be appointed. This will not be practicable until the Israelites occupy Palestine, at which point they can designate cities of refuge. By contrast, the one who commits calculated, premeditated murder shall be killed even if he must be dragged from God’s altar.
He that curses father or mother shall surely die. The Decalogue lists honoring one’s mother and father first among the commandments pertaining to human affairs. All respect for human law derives from the authority of the family. One who curses mother or father curses human authority, and curses one’s own birth. This seemingly harsh commandment was expressly endorsed even by Christ in the new dispensation, as the one who curses mother or father is truly not fit to live. In its practical application, of course, we do not condemn to death one who utters an offense against his parents out of rash impulse or anger. A grave, deliberate denunciation of one’s forebears is needed; according to rabbinic tradition, it must be thrice repeated to give evidence of irrevocable purpose. Even then, it is not certain that a juridical execution must take place; only it must be acknowledged that such a person deserves to die. The one who assaults his mother or father, however, is indeed subject to execution, provided the requisite degrees of intention and severity are present.
The one who kidnaps and sells a man into slavery, having effectively denied that man his life, shall himself be put to death, if criminal culpability is shown.
If a man injures another in a fight, and the victim recovers well enough to walk with his staff, the offender need only pay restitution for loss of work and medical expenses.
The text for Exodus 21:20-21 has yielded some confusion in translation. Verse 20 clearly states that a man who kills his servant by striking him or her will be liable for the crime. The particular circumstances will determine whether the crime is murder or manslaughter, with the penalties defined previously. However, the subsequent verse can lead to some strange interpretations:
Sin autem uno die supervixerit vel duobus, non subiacebit poenae, quia pecunia illius est. (21:21)
But if the party remain alive a day or two, he shall not be subject to the punishment, because it is his money. (21:21)
This seems to imply that if a man beats his servant severely, but the servant does not die until more than a day or two later, the master is not guilty of any crime. Such a rule would be not only manifestly unjust, but in marked contrast with the attentive respect for the rights of servants expressed in preceding verses and in Verses 26-27. In Verse 27, we see that a servant may go free if he loses so much as a tooth, so it would be grossly incongruent for a fatal beating to go unpunished.
In fact, Verse 21 does not expressly state this unjust rule, but it is incorrectly inferred from the text. Verse 21 makes no mention of the servant dying. We commonly translate the verse, “if the servant should endure/continue/survive for a day or two,” suggesting that the servant dies after that. The Hebrew term translated as “endure/continue/survive” is ‘amad, whose primary definition is “to stand,” from whence we get secondary definitions such as “to remain” or “to endure,” or “to stop moving or stand still; tarry or delay.” These last senses are more in keeping with the statute’s prescribed punishment. A beaten servant who is forced to lose a day or two of work is not compensated by the master, since that work belongs to his master in the first place, or in the words of Exodus, “it is his money.” The law is not concerned with tort claims for pain and suffering; it deals only with actual injury and loss. Thus the servant who loses nothing but time from work has no claim under the law.
If a pregnant woman is struck during a quarrel between men, causing her to miscarry, damages are to be awarded as the husband demands, provided that independent arbiters concur. (21:22) Yet if she herself is injured, the lex talionis is to be applied“life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” (21:23-25) The woman has the right to demand tit-for-tat compensatory justice from a man, but the unborn infant does not, being a fragile life that is highly susceptible to accidental death. A free man or woman is entitled to repayment for accidental death or injury according to the lex talionis“life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” Note that we are not speaking of retributive justice here, since we are dealing with an accidental injury. The “eye for eye” refers to repayment or compensation for loss, to the exact measure of the injury. If a woman loses a tooth while men are fighting, she gains nothing if the one who struck her has a tooth removed. Rather, the one who struck her must compensate her in full for the tooth. This was how the lex talionis for accidental injury was applied by the Jews in practice. When a servant loses an eye or a tooth after being struck by his or her master, he or she may go free.
If an ox should gore a man or woman to death, it shall be killed by stoning and its flesh shall not be eaten. (21:28) An animal that does not respect the sovereignty of man is not allowed to live. Its flesh is not fit to be eaten, for that would be to profit from the innocent death of another. The owner is not held liable for the acts of his livestock, unless he knew of the ox’s violent tendencies, yet did nothing to shut him up. For such criminal negligence, he is to be put to death. (21:29) However, since this is not a crime on a par with murder, the owner has the option of paying a price in exchange for his life, though no limit is placed on this price, since the value of a life is without measure. (21:30)
Similar penalties apply if a child is killed by an ox. If the ox kills a servant, the master must be recompensed thirty shekels of silver, in addition to stoning the ox. (21:32) Again, if the owner of the ox was criminally negligent, he would be subject to the harsher penalty of owing his life. As a master is not absolved from the crime of killing his own servant (21:20), much less can we suppose the owner of the ox to be held unaccountable for criminal negligence in killing a servant.
If a man leaves a pit uncovered, and someone else’s ox or ass falls into it, the owner must pay the price of the beasts, either in money or in kind, while the dead animal becomes his. (21:33-34) If a man’s ox gores another man’s ox, the two owners split the price of the live ox and divide the carcass of the dead ox, as neither is held culpable. (21:35) If, however, the owner of the offending ox was culpably negligent, he must pay “ox for ox,” in money or in kind, while keeping the carcass. (21:36) From these laws it is clear that an animal is considered to have no legal value except as property, unlike servants, women and children, whose life and limb demand justice. What has been said about oxen naturally applies to any other animal or possession of a man that causes injury to others. The penalty depends on whether the owner acted negligently.
Moving beyond physical injuries, the next set of ordinances deal with theft. The existence of private possessions is assumed as a raw fact. As private property is at least partly an artifact of human positive law, the divine ordinances regarding theft also have the character of positive law, and are not the only treatment of this matter that is consistent with natural justice. Since they are imposed on Israel by divine authority, they will be accepted humbly, and there will be less dispute regarding the damages due.
The penalty for theft is severe if the thief sells or kills stolen livestock. He must repay five oxen for one ox, or four sheep for one sheep. (22:1) The harsher penalty in the first case reflects the greater severity of the crime, as a man depends on an ox for his livelihood. In modern terms, theft of unrecovered property is to be paid with compensatory plus quadruple damages for capital property, and triple damages for non-capital property.
A thief killed in the act of burglary at night forfeits his life, and the one that slew him incurs no blood guilt. (22:2) However, if this is done during the day, it is considered murder to slay the thief, for help is available at that time, making killing unnecessary. (22:3)
If the thief is not able to make restitution for his theft, he is sold into servitude. (22:3) The modern equivalent of this penalty is imprisonment. We note that crimes against property are not given the death penalty, for property has no transcendent value, only monetary value. Thus crimes against property are only paid with commodities of economic value or their equivalent.
There are moral qualities to crimes against property that may alter the penalty. If the stolen goods are found with the thief, he must only pay double, which is compensatory plus single punitive damages. (22:4) The higher penalty for unrecovered property (22:1) recognizes that there are certain aspects of a particular possession that are irreplaceable.
For accidental damage, such as livestock feeding or trampling on another man’s field, the offender must repay in equal quantity, using the best of whatever he has among his own possessions. (22:5) A similar rule applies for a fire that burns another’s crops, for the spread of the fire is presumed to be accidental. (22:6)
Sometimes money or possessions may be stolen from someone who is not the owner, but only a borrower or temporary keeper of the goods. If the thief is captured, he must restore double per the usual rule. (22:7; cf 22:4) If the thief is never found, the one who was robbed of his neighbor’s goods must solemnly swear before the judges that he was not himself the thief. (22:8)
The reliance on oaths in the practical administration of justice makes it essential that there be guarantees against fraud. In private disputes over property, where there is no question of outright theft, but of cheating another man of his due, these are to be arbitrated by judges. Judgments of guilt in civil suits require restoring double to one’s neighbor. (22:9)
For accidental loss of borrowed property, the borrower must take an oath that he did not cause the loss, and he shall not have to make restitution. (22:11) Presumably, the borrower should return any damaged goods, such as slain livestock, so he does not profit from the owner’s loss. (cf 22:13) If borrowed property is stolen, the borrower must repay the owner, for he is responsible for the security of a commodity while it is in his custody. (22:12) Further, the borrower shall be responsible even for accidental loss if he borrowed the goods when the owner was not present. (22:14) The borrower shall not be liable for accidental loss if the custody of the lost or damaged goods was entrusted to him as part of his job for hire. (22:15)
If a man lies with an unwed virgin, he must give her a dowry and take her as a wife. (22:16) If the maid’s father will not allow this marriage, the man must still pay the dowry. (22:17) Thus the dignity of maidens is preserved; they are not to be used sexually without being offered the status of a wife.
Next come several ordinances utterly forbidding certain classes of people to live among the Israelites. First are wizards or sorcerers, those who would pretend to have mastery of the realm beyond nature, implicitly claiming for themselves the power of God. Since the entire identity of Israel is based on its worship of the one God who has made the children of Abraham His own children, the existence of a sorcerer in Israel is impossible. Thus sorcerers shall not be allowed to live among them. (22:18) Those who copulate with beasts must be put to death, for this abomination has no place among humanity, and the children of God should never be on a par with beasts. (22:19) The one who sacrifices to any god other than the Lord will also be put to death, as this is also incompatible with being a child of God, and Israel lives only by virtue of its covenant with God. (22:20)
All people are God’s creation, yet only the Israelites were chosen to be children of God. Thus they were held to higher standards of dignity and holiness, some of which (e.g., the injunction against bestiality) are evident principles of natural law. This is because the natural end of man is only perfectly fulfilled when he is supernaturally elevated as a child of God. Since God saved the Israelites so that they owed their lives to Him, they could be persuaded to enter a covenant with Him, explicitly establishing the laws and statutes that natural law and justice might demand. As we have noted regarding property, there is also an element of positive law in the covenant, where divine authority serves to apply generally accepted principles, without leaving judgments of damages to the arbitrary whims of individuals.
While some types of individuals are not to be tolerated in Israel, others who are lowly in stature are to be treated with hospitality. The laws described so far apply only to the children of Israel, yet foreigners who live among them are not to be molested or afflicted in any way, “for you yourselves also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (22:21) Neither shall anyone hurt a widow or an orphan, for “they will cry out to me, and I will hear their cry; and my rage shall be enkindled, and I will strike you with the sword.” (22:23-24) The ira Dei(“anger of God”) is figurative, as God has no human emotions, yet there is a real analogy between the ira Dei and human anger, as they are both kindled in response to injustice. Those who hold that anger is always wrong should consider how heartless it is to be unperturbed by the plight of the weakest. One would have to be weak in one’s love for widows and orphans to not be outraged at those who abuse them. It is only consonant with divine love that God promises to avenge the widows and orphans of Israel who are wronged.
In a similar vein, the Israelites are enjoined not to abuse the poor by lending to them at interest “as an extortioner.” (22:25) It is immoral to profit from someone’s desperation. Not only should the poor man be lent money without interest, but even his pledge of a garment should be returned to him. (22:26) The lender’s right of property is inferior to the pauper’s right to basic necessities for survival.
Having first dealt with the dignity of the lowly, the law now demands that the highest authorities also be given their due. Neither princes nor judges should be cursed. (22:28) Tithes and firstfruits must be offered as religious sacrifices. Firstborn oxen and sheep are allowed to live seven days, and on the eighth they are offered to God. (22:29-30) Following this analogy, Jewish custom has the rite of circumcision performed on the eighth day after birth, the day the boy is ceremonially offered to God.
As the Israelites are to be a holy people, they shall not eat flesh that was first tasted by beasts, for the children of God shall not be in any way equals of brute animals. (22:31) Neither shall they heed lies nor assist in bearing false witness. (23:1) They are not to follow the multitude in doing evil, nor succumb to the opinion of the greater part of the world. (23:2) They must stand for truth even when it is unpopular. This fealty to truth demands that they must judge justly, and not favor a litigant simply out of pity that he is poor. (23:3) Economic inequality is not to be corrected by injustice. Zeal for justice demands that you return even your enemy’s lost property. (23:4) The lover of justice cannot neglect to help a wayfarer, even if it is his enemy, nor can he decline to hear the case even of a pauper. (23:5-6)
God’s holy people must be honest. They should not lie, nor put to death the innocent and just. (23:7) Neither shall they take bribes. (23:8) Verse 23:9 repeats 22:21, enjoining the Israelites not to oppress the foreigners among them, with the added emphasis that the Hebrews “know the hearts of strangers,” having been strangers in the land of Egypt. In the first instance, regard for foreigners was placed in the context of caring for the lowliest peoples; here, it is linked with the need to be holy and honest. The lover of justice will not deal with foreigners unjustly.
The law of the sabbath year requires that the land not be farmed every seventh year. This allows the soil to be replenished, and the poor to eat from what is left. (23:10-11) Similarly, the Israelites shall abstain from work every seventh day, allowing even servants, foreigners, and animals to do likewise. (23:12) The sabbath rest is not merely for practical purposes, but is also a religious observance.
The sacred text continues with a summary of religious duties, beginning with an admonition to keep the entire Law, and not to swear by the names of foreign gods. (23:13) Three feasts are to be kept. First is the feast of unleavened bread, discussed previously. Second is the feast of the harvest of the firstfruits, and last is the feast of the harvest at the end of the year. (23:14-16) The sacrifices associated with these feasts are to have certain characteristics to set the Israelites apart from the pagans. The sacrificial lamb is not to be offered upon leaven, out of reverence for how God delivered the Israelites from Egypt; similarly, the fat of the offering is to be consumed in its entirety, as prescribed for the Pasch. (22:18; cf 12:1-20) All males are to present themselves to the Lord at the three feasts. (22:17) Firstfruits are to be brought to the house of God, the place of worship. A kid is not to be boiled in its mother’s milk. (22:19)
These ritual ordinances exist to purify existing religious practices of idolatrous aspects. The Israelites were certainly familiar with the spring and autumn rituals of the pagans, both of the Egyptians and of the Semitic peoples who had lived in the Nile delta. The Israelite feasts of firstfruits and of the harvest would offer their fruits not to false gods, but to the honor of the living God who fed them in the desert. Sacrificial victims were to be treated in a way that commemorates the Pasch, and gives due reverence to the God who delivered Israel. For this reasons, blood offerings were not to be linked to nature-worship or fertility rites, such as boiling a kid in its mother's milk. The feasts of firstfruits and of the harvest were naturally prescribed for future observance, as the Israelites planted no fields in the desert, nor did they yet have a house of worship.
The covenant promises that God will make possible the observance of these feasts in the land of Canaan, and warns against adopting the pagan customs of its current inhabitants. God’s angel will guide the Israelites in their journey to the promised land. They are to take heed of this messenger, “for he will not forgive when thou hast sinned, and my name is in him.” (23:21) This withholding of mercy is a necessary discipline to establish the worship of God in Israel. As the Israelites learn that misfortune befalls them whenever they fall astray, they will learn the necessity of keeping the covenant. This way, it will be clear that the Israelites are able to conquer Canaan only by God’s will.
The enemies of Israel are identified as “the Amorite, the Hittite, the Pherezite, the Canaanite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite.” (23:23) All of these groups inhabited Palestine. The Amorites and Jebusites included the Hyksos, who would retreat to Palestine shortly after the Jewish exodus. The Jebusites, who inhabited Jerusalem, would be among the very last to be defeated, in the time of David. The Israelites are warned not to worship the gods of these nations, but to destroy their idols. (23:24) The land of Israel is to be purified of public idolatry, though pagans may live there as foreigners.
Israel’s service to the Lord will be rewarded with blessed bread and water, good health, long life and fertility. The promise of fertility is especially strong: “There shall not be one fruitless nor barren in thy land.” (23:26) The Mosaic covenant is grounded in the covenant with Abraham, where God promised to the patriarch innumerable descendants. Fruitfulness is the measure of God’s favor. Even the pagans understood this in their way, but the Israelites must give worship to the true God, and they will be rewarded in the only way they appreciate, with fruitfulness and abundance in this life. This bounty will be proof that theirs is the true God, eventually enabling God’s people to have confidence in promises of higher rewards beyond this life. While these may seem like simple lessons to a Christian, in historical practice these developments were won only with great difficulty.
The enemies of Israel will flee in terror; even beforehand, God will send a plague of hornets to drive out some of the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites. (23:27-28) The occupation of Palestine will take many years, as the Israelites gradually grow in number, and take occupied cities rather than a wilderness overrun with beasts (for there were still lions in Canaan in those days). (23:29-30)
Ultimately (in the time of David), their territory would span “from the Red Sea to the sea of the Philistines, and from the desert to the river.” (23:31) The desert is the Negev to the south, and the river is the Euphrates, so these mark the maximum extent of Israel from north to south. Indeed, King David was able to defeat the king of Damascus at the Euphrates, in fulfillment of the divine promise. The “sea of the Philistines” is the Mediterranean to the west, which means the “sea of reeds,” commonly interpreted as the Red Sea, must in fact refer to Israel’s eastern border. This would be the Dead Sea and the Jordan River, which are due north of the Gulf of Aqaba, which was reckoned as part of the Red Sea in antiquity. Again, the complete fulfillment of this promise would come in the time of David, who defeated the Philistines.
Israel shall enter no pact or alliance with a foreign nation, as this generally involved a pagan ceremony, and could commit Israel to the service or defense of foreign gods. (23:32) The pagan nations of Canaan were forbidden to live in Israel, lest they should lead people into idolatry. (23:33) Individuals from these nations would be permitted to dwell in Israel as foreigners, but public idolatry was to be abolished.
Having delivered the words of the covenant, God instructed Moses to return to the mount with Aaron and some of the elders of Israel. These others may worship God from afar, while Moses alone shall come up to face God Himself. (24:1-2) In preparation for this great theophany, Moses went down to tell the people “all the words of the Lord, and all the judgments;” (24:3) that is, the ordinances of the Book of the Covenant, and the subsequent promises of blessings and punishments. The Israelites agreed to be bound by “the words of the Lord,” that is, His ordinances. (24:3) Moses put the Book of the Covenant in writing. (24:4)
The next morning, Moses built a simple altar, upon which calves were sacrificed to the Lord. Moses put half the blood in bowls, and the rest was poured on the altar. He read the Book of the Covenant aloud, and the people confirmed their assent to these laws. Then he sprinkled the blood from the bowls upon the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant, which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words.” (24:4-8) Without explicit divine instruction, Moses formalized the covenant between God and Israel using an existing custom. The blood of the sacrificial offering is used to signify a bond between God and Israel, with half being sprinkled on the altar and half on the people.
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After solemnly ratifying the Covenant, Moses, Aaron and the elders approached the mountain of God:
Et viderunt Deum Israhel; sub pedibus eius quasi opus lapidis sapphirini, et quasi caelum cum serenum est. (24:10)
And they saw the God of Israel: and under his feet as it were a work of sapphire stone, and as the heaven, when clear. (24:10)
The elders saw God as a radiant, clear, sky blue form above them. The brilliance of the heavens is a sign of divine glory, and the Israelite elders were permitted to see this sign in a magnified form. God did not strike down those among the Israelite masses who happened to see the theophany from afar as they ate and drank, (24:11) but permitted even these humble souls to partake of the revelation.
God then called Moses up the mountain, where He would give him “tables of stone, and the law, and the commandments which I have written, that you may teach them.” (24:12) Moses rose with his attendant Joshua, and Moses went up the mountain, which was covered by a cloud. (24:13-15)
Et habitavit gloria Domini super Sinai, tegens illum nube sex diebus; septimo autem die vocavit eum de medio caliginis. (24:16)
And the glory of the Lord dwelt upon Sinai, covering it with a cloud six days: and the seventh day he called him out of the midst of the cloud. (24:16)
The sabbath, or seventh day, is the day of the Lord. The divine glory was hidden in a cloud for six days, but on the seventh the Israelites were permitted to see it as a burning fire, (24:17) and Moses was called into the cloud. Moses was alone with God for forty days and forty nights, (24:18) much as the Savior would spend forty days alone in the desert.
God asked that the children of Israel voluntarily offer some of their firstfruits, not of a harvest, but of what they brought from Egypt. Precious metals, linens, skins, wood, oil, spices, and gems would be offered to build a divine sanctuary, where God would dwell among them. The specifications for the tabernacle and its vessels were given by God Himself, in contrast with the Temple later built by David.
The ark was to be two and a half cubits in length, and one and a half cubits in breadth and height. Being overlaid with gold on the inside and outside, the ark would have twenty-seven square cubits of gold, or three to the third power. The divine glory contained therein was signified by a golden crown. Four golden rings enabled the ark to be carried on wooden poles overlaid with gold. The poles were never to be removed from the rings; as God is One, it is unfitting that His ark should be divided. Inside the ark would be placed the divine commandments. It is these laws that are sovereign over the Israelites, as they shall honor the Law rather than an idol of gold.
The ark was covered by a propitiatory, or mercy-seat, of pure gold, which was covered by two cherubim, with their wings spread over the propitiatory. The exact form of these cherubim, or angelic creatures, is unknown, save that they were winged. God would speak to Moses and his successors from above the ark, from between the cherubim. Thus it is fitting that this ark be lined with man’s most precious metal, and that symbolic representations of divine messengers should adorn it. The wood of the ark was from the Egyptian acacia, which grows in the desert and is imperishable even in water. The Egyptians considered the tree sacred and associated it with their sun god Ra; now this sacred wood was to honor the God of Israel.
A gold-plated table of acacia wood was to be built, and upon it the priests of Israel would keep showbread and pour libations. The table was a cubit and a half (twenty-seven inches) in height, with a frame of about a handbreadth and with all around it. It is not clear whether this frame was above or below the table top. At any rate, the height of the table suggests that priestly duties would be performed standing. Twelve loaves of showbread would be kept on the table as a sign of communion between God and the twelve tribes of Israel. Libation wine was poured from pitchers into bowls, not on the ground as was the pagan custom.
A golden lampstand with seven lamps, one on the shaft, and three on each side, would form the familiar menorah to light the entrance of the tabernacle. According to Josephus, three lamps were kept lit at any given time. Each lamp on the side branches has a cup shaped like a blossom with a knob and petals, while the central shaft has four cups. God told Moses, "See that you make them according to the pattern shown you on the mountain," (25:40) suggesting that these instructions came in the form of a visual revelation.
The tabernacle or tent of dwelling had gold-plated walls of acacia wood covered with fine linens of goat hair. The tent was covered with ram-skins dyed red to protect it from rain. Inside the tabernacle, the ark of the covenant was placed in the holy of holies, furthest from the entrance and hidden behind a veil of violet and scarlet. Outside the holy of the holies, the lampstand was placed on the south wall, with the table on the north wall. The entrance of the tabernacle was to the east, so the sun's first rays shone inward.
An altar of acacia wood, plated with bronze, would serve to offer holocausts outside the entrance to the tabernacle. Like the ark and the table, this too was to be mounted on poles, for transport in the wilderness. Like the lampstand and the tabernacle, the instructions for its construction were given visually. (27:8)
The tabernacle was surrounded by a court which was walled by columns with bronze pedestals and silver hooks supporting fine linen. The court was 100 cubits long and fifty cubits wide.
The vestment of the high priest was to bear twelve gems inscribed with the names of the tribes of Israel. This ephod or apron worn over his chest would be tied to a breastpiece called the breastpiece of decision, for in it were contained the Urim and Thummim, which mean "lights" and "perfections." According to ancient Jewish commentators, these were precious stones that would shine in a certain way as God made His will known. Josephus maintains that God ceased to speak to the high priest about two centuries before Christ, with the death of the last good high priest in the Maccabean period. The high priest must wear a plate engraved with the expression, "Sacred to YHVH," over his forehead. This represents that the high priest bears whatever is sinful in the Israelites' offerings, and God will only recognize what is holy in them.
The priests would take care to keep their loins covered at all times. This care for modesty is emphasized in several places, to contrast Israelite religion with lewd pagan practices.
For the consecration of priests, unleavened cakes and unleavened wafers, a calf and two rams would be offered. Each of these offerings has a special meaning. The priests to be consecrated laid their hands on the calf's head, to represent a transfer of their iniquities, as this was a sin offering. The blood was daubed on the horns of the altar and poured out at the base. The liver, kidneys, and surrounding fat, which were considered the choicest part of the calf, were burned on the altar of the tabernacle court. The flesh and hide, however, were burned outside the camp, for they represent sin. Thus this sacrifice means that God will accept only what is good in the priests, and look not upon what is unclean in them.
The two rams represent the union between God and the priests. One ram was to be burned as an offering to YHVH, while the other ram was used for the consecration of the priests. The blood of the second ram, the ram of consecration, was applied to the tip of each man's right ear, right thumb, and right foot. This signifies that a priest should hear God's word, do His will, and walk in His way. Some of this blood was sprinkled on the priestly vestments, to sanctify them, and the rest was splashed on the sides of the altar. Blood is the life of an animal, so this ritual symbolizes the shared life of the priesthood, which is consecrated to the service of God. The choice organs and fat were burned as a holocaust, together with a loaf or bread, a cake made with oil, and a wafer, so that it burned sweetly. Since divine service is a joy, it is fitting that this sacrifice be sweet.
The right shoulder and breast of the ram of consecration was to be boiled and eaten by the priests, along with the rest of the bread. Whatever they did not eat was to be burned. All other peace offerings made by Israelites shall also reserve the shoulder and breast for the priests.
The hands of the priests shall be consecrated for seven days, with a calf sacrificed each day as a sin offering, followed by a cleansing of the altar. In this way, God will recognize the altar as holy, and only the consecrated priests may touch it.
Every day the priests will offer a lamb in the morning and a lamb in the evening, mixed with flour, oil and wine for sweetness. These sacrifices will remind the Israelites that God truly dwells among them.
An altar for burning incense was to be one cubit square and two cubits in height. Incense shall be burned just outside the veil hiding the ark. No libation or blood victim shall be offered there. The Israelites are forbidden to use incense of this composition for any other purpose, to teach a sharp distinction between the sacred and the profane. Once a year the high priest will pray upon the horns of the altar of incense, and only then shall he apply the blood of sin offering on that altar. This is on the most holy day of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, when the sins of Israel are forgiven.
Every Israelite aged twenty years or more will pay a ransom for his soul. This payment, which would later be known as the temple tax, was a minimal amount of a mere half shekel, due to God's mercy. A shekel of the sanctuary was set at twenty gerahs or obols. According to Josephus, the shekel of the late Second Temple period was twenty percent greater in weight. All men, rich or poor, pay the exact same amount, as all souls are valued equally. These contributions are used for the upkeep of the sanctuary, to serve as a perennial reminder to the Israelites of God's mercy on their souls.
A bronze laver was placed between the tabernacle and the altar of holocausts, for the priests to purify themselves before entering the tent or approaching the altar. They must never presume themselves worthy on their own merit to perform religious service or to approach the divine presence.
A special mixture of oil and spices was used to anoint the tabernacle and all its furnishings, as well as the priests themselves. Like the holy incense, this unction was to be used exclusively for the sanctuary, and was not to be replicated for profane use. Indeed, any Israelite who dared defy this injunction would be cut off from his people, as the distinction between the sacred and profane was essential to Israel, the nation devoted to the worship of the transcendent God.
God chose by name Bezalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, to oversee the design and construction of the sanctuary and all its articles. He would be aided by his assistant Oholiab son of Ashimach, of the the tribe of Dan, and all the skilled artisans of Israel.
Lastly, God told Moses that Israel must keep the sabbath rest sacred, under penalty of death. The severity of this penalty is due to the fact that the sabbath is a sign of the covenant between God and Israel, so the man who renounces it denies the covenant to which Israel owes its existence. The choice of the seventh day as a day of rest is based on the revealed account of creation, where God rested on the seventh day, His work of creation complete. By resting on the seventh day, Israel acknowledges the completion of God's act of creating the universe, and gives due honor to God as the Creator.
This completes the revelation to Moses. God gave Moses two stone tablets made by divine power (32:16), and inscribed by "the finger of God." (31:18) Jewish tradition holds that these tablets had the Decalogue inscribed on them, though it is conceivable that the entire Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21-23) was included. The purpose of these tablets was not merely to provide a written record of the Law, but to serve as God's testimony of the Covenant. This is why it was necessary for it to be written in God's own hand, so to speak.
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Meanwhile, the Israelites grew impatient in Moses' absence, and asked Aaron to make them gods to lead them. Aaron told the Israelites to bring the golden earrings they wore, and out of these he made a molten calf. The Israelites, perhaps recogninzing in this a representation of Baal, proclaimed that these were the gods who had brought them out of Egypt. In an apparent attempt to direct this pagan impulse toward the worship of YHVH, Aaron declared a feast of the Lord the following day. Holocausts were offered before the calf, and the people ate, drank, and reveled. These practices resemble Canaanite religion more than Egyptian, suggesting that the Israelites had not distinguished themselves religiously from their Semitic cousins while in Egypt.
God told Moses that He intended to destroy the Israelites for their wholesale repudiation of the Covenant, and instead He would make a great nation out of Moses' descendants. Selflessly, Moses beseeched God for mercy upon the Israelites, just as Abraham prayed for Sodom. He asked that Israel be permitted to flourish so that God may be glorified among the nations, and that the promise to the patriarchs should be most perfectly fulfilled. God agreed to spare Israel; like all divine judgments, this decision for clemency was made from eternity, but God revealed to Moses the destruction He would have wrought had He judged the Israelites strictly according to what they deserved.
When Moses came down from the mount and heard and saw for himself the depravity to which the Israelites had descended, he dashed the tablets down in anger, shattering them. The broken tablets reflect the broken covenant. Moses took hold of the calf, burned it, and strew its powder into the water for the Israelites to drink as punishment. In Deuteronomy, it is clarified that this was done by pouring the powder into a stream. Turning to Aaron, Moses asked: "What has this people done to thee, that thou shouldst bring upon them a most heinous sin?" (32:21) Aaron explained that the Israelites were inclined to idolatry and demanded that he make gods for them. Thus he took their gold and put it into the fire, and it came out in the form of a calf. Moses saw that the unruly Israelites had been "let loose" by Aaron; the Hebrew may also be translated as "made naked," but this should be understood metaphorically, signifying that they were without law and order, and thus vulnerable to their enemies.
To restore order and the worship of YHVH, Moses called all those who would be on the Lord's side. All the sons of Levi volunteered themselves, upon which Moses said to them:
Haec dicit Dominus Deus Israhel: "Ponat vir gladium super femur suum; ite, et redite de porta usque ad portam per medium castrorum, et occidat unusquisque fratrem et amicum et proximum suum." (32:27)
Thus saith the Lord God of Israel: "Put every man his sword upon his thigh: go, and return from gate to gate through the midst of the camp, and let every man kill his brother, and friend, and neighbour." (32:27)
The Levites were instructed to go from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay those who were so obstinate as to persist in idolatrous revelry even then. Though the Israelites had heard the voice of God and had sworn to keep His covenant, they abandoned this promise at the first opportunity, forgetting the God to whom they owed their deliverance and their very lives. Three thousand were put to death that day, and the Levites were considered consecrated to the Lord, because their allegiance was to God rather than man, even if that man should be of the same blood.
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With the leading idolaters slain, Moses turned to the remainder of Israel and told them that he would beg God that they be forgiven. Indeed, so charitable was Moses that he made the following prayer to God:
Obsecro, peccavit populus iste peccatum magnum, feceruntque sibi deos aureos. Aut dimitte eis hanc noxam, aut si non facis, dele me de libro tuo quem scripsisti. (32:31-32)
I beseech thee: this people hath sinned a heinous sin, and they have made to themselves gods of gold: either forgive them this trespass, or if thou do not, strike me out of the book that thou hast written. (32:31-32)
Moses asked that his own name be stricken from the Book of Life so that Israel might be spared. He is what Christ called a good shepherd, one who would lay down his life for his sheep. Yet God answered that only those who sin shall be stricken from the Book of Life. (32:33) The virtuous man shall not be condemned so that sinners are pardoned. For now, God would send forth his angel to lead Israel to the land of promise, but on the "day of revenge" God would punish Israel for having made the golden calf. (32:35)
The Israelites were to move northward, toward the land promised to the patriarchs. God would send his angel ahead of them, to bring plague to the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Pherezites, Hivites, and Jebusites, so the Israelites would not be threatened by them. Yet God would not travel with Israel, for they are so obstinate in idolatry that they could not live in His presence. The Israelites therefore set aside their ornaments in mourning. (33:1-6)
Once more, Moses interceded, meeting with God in his tent, which came to be known as the Tabernacle of the Covenant. Here God revealed Himself in a pillar of cloud at the door of the tent. He spoke to Moses "face to face," that is, intimately, as a friend. Moses asked God to tell him what the angel who would lead them - God's face, so to speak - would look like so that he may recognize him. God replied, "My face shall go before thee," (33:14) but Moses sought an assurance that God would continue to walk with the Israelites in the wilderness, so they could know they have grace in His sight, and may be glorified by all nations. God ultimately agreed to do this, for Moses' sake. (33:17)
Moses then asked God to show him His glory. God responded: "I will show thee all good, and I will proclaim in the name of YHVH before thee, and I will have mercy on whom I will, and I will be merciful to whom it shall please me." (33:19) Nonetheless, "Thou canst not see my face, for man shall not see me and live." (33:20) Instead, God directed Moses to a place to stand in the hollow of a rock. God's glory would pass before Moses, but God would cover Moses with His hand so that he does not see God's face and die. He would then remove His hand after passing by, so that Moses may see His back.
Man in his present state cannot bear to see the glory of God in His heavenly state, that is, his "face." God's glory is His goodness, as Matthew Henry observed, and sinful man cannot bear to behold that majestic holiness. Instead, Moses could behold God only imperfectly, as though seeing someone from behind. The terms "face" and "back" should not be construed literally, for they are but metaphors of perfect and imperfect revelations of God. This non-literalism should be evident from the reference to God's "hand" that covers Moses as the divine glory passes, an act that would be impossible for a concrete human form passing by. Still, the revelation of God's glory took place in a definite physical location, and this vision passed by the hollow in which Moses stood.
God instructed Moses to hew two new stone tablets, upon which God would write the words that were upon the broken tablets. The following morning, God came upon Moses in a cloud, speaking his name YHVH, and proclaiming mercy:
Qui custodis misericordiam in milia; qui aufers iniquitatem, et scelera, atque peccata, nullusque apud te per se innocens est. Qui reddis iniquitatem patrum in filiis ac nepotibus in tertiam et quartam progeniem. (34:7)
Who keepest mercy unto thousands: who takest away iniquity, and wickedness, and sin, and no man of himself is innocent before thee. Who renderest the iniquity of the fathers to the children, and to the grandchildren unto the third and fourth generation. (34:10)
Moses spoke these words, yet he was only speaking of the glory he beheld, which is God's mercy. This revelation of divine mercy is the proclamation promised in verse 33:19. God's mercy removes iniquity, but does not excuse it or "clear the guilty." On the contrary, He will see that the consequences of sin affect even the descendants of those who offend.
Moses begged God to travel with Israel to the promised land, and to take away the sins of Israel, possessing them as a people. God effects His mercy through the Covenant, which would be confirmed with greater signs than had yet been seen, as the enemies of the Israelites are driven out before them.
The Covenant that the Israelites must keep is described in these commandments, paraphrased:
Note that there are ten of these commandments, and that God instructed Moses to write down "these words, by which I have made a covenant both with thee and with Israel." As Moses fasted for forty days (a round number for an indefinite period of time), he "wrote upon the tablets the ten words of the covenant." (34:28)
Our familiar Ten Commandments were first spoken to all of Israel (20:1-18), but the Israelites feared God's voice and asked Moses to speak on their behalf. Then God gave Moses a list of juridical and religious precepts (Chapters 21-23), which Moses wrote down as the Book of the Covenant. Only after this did God call Moses up to the mountain to receive two stone tablets with the commandments written on them (24:12). These tablets were made by God and written in His hand on both sides. (32:16) It is not clear if some precepts other than the Ten Commandments were also written on these tablets, or if the same Decalogue was inscribed on both sides.
The second set of tablets were hewn by Moses rather than God, for it was by Moses' intercession that the Covenant was restored. God told Moses that He would write on these tablets the Commandments that were on the original tablets (34:1), yet He also told Moses to write down "these words," in apparent reference to the ten religious laws listed in Chapter 34. It would seem, then, that these new tablets had the Ten Commandments on one side, in God's hand, and the ten religious precepts of the restored Covenant on the other side, in Moses' hand. Thus the tablets served as a sort of treaty between God and Israel, with God granting Israel the justice and mercy of divine law, and Israel honoring God with divine worship. Since the Israelites had broken the Covenant through idolatry, their religious duties were now emphasized.
When Moses came down from the mountain, his face was radiant from having beheld the divine glory, albeit imperfectly. The Vulgate renders the Hebrew literally, saying his face "grew horns," but the sense of this is that it sent out rays of light. Traditional Christian art, nonetheless, has often depicted Moses with a horned forehead, following a literal reading. After proclaiming the restored Covenant to the Israelites, Moses put a veil over his face, which he continued to wear except when he went to converse with God.
We see a repeated theme of the Israelites' unworthiness of the Law. When God speaks the Ten Commandments, the Israelites cannot bear it, and ask Moses to intercede for them. They grow impatient when he does not return, and lapse into idolatry. They are reprieved from their just punishment only by the intercession of Moses, who even offers to be condemned in their place. In all this we see a prefiguring of the saving intercession of Christ. Yet even Moses himself is limited in what he can behold, for he cannot bear the full glory of God's majesty, but only His mercy. The Israelites are even more limited in what they can see, for Moses must veil even the secondary effect of God's glory from them.
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Before summoning the Israelites to build the tabernacle and its furnishings, Moses reminded them of the sabbath rest, which should be observed even for this holy work. They should not so much as light a fire on the sabbath. He then asked everyone to make voluntary contributions of materials, after which he summoned the skilled craftsmen to work under Bezeleel. Bezeleel himself built the ark.
603,550 men are said to have made a contribution to the sanctuary (38:25), which we have noted was a half-shekel. This would amount to a total of 301,775 shekels. At 3,000 shekels a talent, this amounts to the 100 talents and 1,775 shekels of silver mentioned explicitly in the Septuagint, (38:25 [39:2]) and implicitly in the Masoretic text. (38:26-28) The ancient Hebrew shekel is reckoned by archaeologists to have been about 10 grams, so a talent is 30 kg (66 lbs). According to a literal reading of Exodus, the tabernacle was made with 29 talents and 730 shekels of gold, and 100 talents and 1,775 shekels of silver. This converts to about 28,200 troy ounces (1,930 lbs) of gold, and 962,000 troy ounces (60,000 lbs) of silver. At current values of about $800 an ounce for gold and $10 an ounce for silver, this amounts to $22.5 million of gold and $9.6 million of silver.
The brass offered was seventy talents and 1,500 shekels, according to the Septuagint. The Masoretic text has 72,000 talents and four hundred shekels, a wildly large amount, attributable to a faulty rendering of the Hebrew, transferring the figure for a thousand from the shekels to the talents. Throughout Genesis and Exodus, we have consistently found that the Septuagint more reliably renders numerical values, probably because the translation was made at a time when ancient Hebrew numbering, which used unsystematic strings of letters, was better understood.
The scale of the wealth carried by the Israelites is plausible when we understand that they were indeed a numerous nation and not just a band of small tribes. As far as we can tell, no single item weighed much more than a talent, so all the parts of the tabernacle were portable, including the hundred columns with their silver bases. We shall see in fact that the Israelites migrated only sporadically, not continuously, and would pass many years in a single spot. Their ability to manufacture all the various items of the sanctuary indicates that they were a fully functioning nation.
The amount of silver, we have noted, matches exactly what would have been the census tax for 603,550 men. However, no census was taken until after the sanctuary was complete (Numbers 1), and the number of men in Israel must have been far fewer, if the Amalekites were to have given them any trouble. 1,775 shekels is added to the 100 talents of silver by a later editor, possibly from the late pre-monarchical period, in order to match the value of 603,550 half-shekels. This last number comes from adding the figures from the Israelite census in Numbers, assuming that an elem is a thousand. The gloss in Numbers giving the sum is repeated here in Exodus, where it would give occasion for future commentators to grossly overestimate the number of Israelites in the wilderness. By contrast, the book of Joshua, finished shortly before the monarchy, has only 40,000 fighting men (forty being a rough estimate in Hebrew, like our colloquial "dozen") in the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh combined.
In Exodus, the evidence of a gloss is apparent by comparing the Septuagint with the Masoretic text. In the Massorah, the offering of twenty-nine talents gold is mentioned first, followed by the 603,550 men who offered it. Only afterward is the silver mentioned. Verses 38:25 and 38:28 have numerical glosses. The Septuagint inserts a verse (38:25 [39:2]) in between the mentions of the gold and the census total indicating the sum of silver offered.
In fact, the gold and silver was offered by all voluntarily, according to their ability and inclination. The sanctuary tax of the half-shekel, which was to be taken repeatedly, would yield more modest revenue, as Israel probably numbered in the tens of thousands. This tax was for the maintenance of the sanctuary, as originally indicated in Exodus. Otherwise, the sanctuary would have been awash with gold and silver in a short time after its construction.
On the first day of the year, a year after leaving Egypt, the tabernacle was assembled and the ark was placed inside, as were all the other prescribed items. The priests were washed and anointed so they could perform religious service. Incense and holocausts were offered as had been commanded previously. Moses, Aaron, and his sons washed their hands and feet at the laver as prescribed before entering the tabernacle. Yet when everything was prepared this first time, the glory of YHVH filled the sanctuary, so none could enter it. A cloud covered the tabernacle as the divine glory shone from within. As long as the cloud remained over the sanctuary, Israel remained in its place, but when it moved away, Israel followed, just as they had followed the pillar of cloud out of Egypt. With the anniversary of Israel's deliverance culminating in the establishment of the holy place where God travels with Israel, the book of Exodus ends.
© 2008 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org