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The Introduction of the LawAfter celebrating the defeat of the Egyptians in song (Exodus 15:1-18), the Hebrews made their way into the desert for three days. There they found a spring with bitter water. The LORD showed Moses a log which, when cast into the water, made the water sweet. We then read:
There the LORD made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested them, saying, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer” (Exodus 15:25-26).What is most striking about this bargain to me is the fact that God says He is the one who put diseases on the Egyptians. Now it is certainly possible that God is referring solely to the diseases that were part of the plagues, but this seems unlikely to me given the context of God adding that He is the healer of Israel and Israel did not experience all the plagues. In addition, the plagues were not simply punitive acts of judgment due to any specific sins the Egyptians had committed, but were specifically said to be designed for God to show His power and make His might known by the destruction of Pharaoh. So the purpose of those plagues was to ensure that all people would know He is the LORD. In verse 26, on the other hand, God is saying He would bring diseases due to the sinfulness of Israel. (It’s stated in the opposite manner as: If Israel obeys God then He will “put none of the diseases” on them that He had done to the Egyptians.)
I would not want to press this point too far here, but it appears to me that God is referring not to the plagues against Pharaoh, but instead to other “routine” diseases that the Egyptians had experienced due to the fact that they were sinning against God. In other words, we can glean from this that the existence of illness in general is due to the existence of sin in general. That is not to say that everyone who experiences a specific illness is suffering for any specific sin, of course. Rather, because we are all sinners, diseases exist and, as a result, we sometimes get sick. It is in that sense that I believe God is saying that if Israel obeyed Him, they would experience no illnesses at all, because God would be their healer.
This also serves as a good introduction to the next phase of the book of Exodus. Having freed His people from the physical bondage of Egypt, God will now seek to show them the spiritual bondage of their sin. He does this by simultaneously granting mercy in some areas and stipulating obligations in others. The miracle of manna—bread from heaven—displays both sides of this beautifully in chapter 16.
The people were grumbling against Moses because they had no food. Once again, they did so by lamenting the fact that they were no longer slaves to Egypt: “Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you [Moses] have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3). This statement is not only melodramatic, but is based on the obviously ludicrous presupposition that Moses intended to starve the people! If this reminds you of certain political debates in America today, it’s because people never really change. Still, while Moses was the primary target for their complaints, ultimately the people were complaining against God. They had seen God destroy Egypt and they had seen God provide a miraculous escape for them through the sea. Surely they knew that a God who would provide for them in that manner would not leave them to starve in the wilderness, yet instead of turning toward Him they longed for their old bondage.
So God displayed mercy and gave them manna for food, but along with it some obligations and restrictions about when and how to gather it:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily” (Exodus 16:4-5).God had given a gift with a simple condition. They were to only gather a day’s portion of food except for the sixth day (modern day Friday), when they were to gather twice as much as usual. The purpose of this was because God would rest on the Sabbath and provide no manna that day. Therefore, the people would need to get double the amount on Friday so they’d have bread throughout the Sabbath day.
God provides strict measures for how much manna people were to get each day:
And Moses said to them “…This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Gather of it, each one of you, as much as he can eat. You shall each take an omer, according to the number of the persons that each of you has in his tent.’” And the people of Israel did so. They gathered, some more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack. Each of them gathered as much as he could eat. And Moses said to them, “Let no one leave any of it over till the morning.” But they did not listen to Moses. Some left part of it till the morning, and it bred worms and stank. And Moses was angry with them. Morning by morning they gathered it, each as much as he could eat; but when the sun grew hot, it melted (Exodus 16:15, 16-20).So everyone was to get exactly “as much as he could eat” with not a bit more or less. Any extra manna they tried to store would rot, and if they did not gather it in the morning, it would melt away. Therefore, anyone who did not gather would have no food and those who gathered more than one day’s worth would suffer by having rotten food instead of good, healthy food. In this way, God ensured that His rules would have to be obeyed, whether the people wanted to or not.
But what about the sixth day?
On the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers each. And when all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, he said to them, “This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD; bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over lay aside to be kept till the morning.’” So they laid it aside till the morning, as Moses commanded them, and it did not stink, and there were no worms in it. Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a Sabbath to the LORD; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is a Sabbath, there will be none” (Exodus 16:22-26).In this way, the importance of the Sabbath would be hammered home. It was a special day, one that would result in a miracle. There is no natural reason why a substance that would rot if extra portions were stored any other day would not rot if stored on Friday. Clearly, God was behind it.
And when you think about it, the Sabbath is an interesting day in that it’s God commanding people not to do something. The Sabbath was a day of rest. No labor was permitted, including the gathering of manna. Yet despite the fact that it was a day off, even then some of the people did not obey:
On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. And the LORD said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws? See! The LORD has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day” (Exodus 16:27-29).It is astonishing to me, when I think about it, how hard-hearted humans can be in that we would disobey God even when He was commanding us to literally do nothing. This task could not possibly be easier. Yet even then, people still disobeyed God, and as we look back to the previous passage we mentioned earlier, this would mean that they were now putting themselves in a position where God would pour out the diseases of Egypt onto them too.
After all He had done, you would expect that the Hebrews would begin to trust God more, but Exodus 17 begins with yet another complaint: “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” (verse 3). It wasn’t enough to accuse Moses of trying to starve them, now the people wanted water. Once again, God provides by having Moses strike the rock at Horeb, causing water to gush out.
Following that, “On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt…they came into the wilderness of Sinai” (Exodus 19:1). There, they camped on the mountainside while Moses “went up to God.” And at this point, God made a covenant with the entire nation of Israel:
The LORD called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel” (Exodus 19:3-6).We can note that this covenant is different from the one God made with Abraham, promising the land and the multitude of descendants. That covenant was based on God promising to Abraham what He would make happen. This covenant is instead based on obedience. If the people obey God and keep the covenant, they will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
It is worth noting that God declares “all the earth is mine” too. Again, He rules with sovereign power over all of His creation and can do as He wishes with the nations on Earth. That is why He makes a covenant now with Israel, but not with Egypt (or any of the other nations that existed at the time).
After Moses spoke these words, the people agreed to this covenant. God therefore had them wash their garments and clean themselves, then set limits that no one was to go upon the mountain. Just as God had declared the ground by the burning bush holy, here he declares the entire mountain of Sinai holy. So important was this decree that it was enforced by death: “Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live” (Exodus 19:12-13).
Moses and Aaron then proceeded up the mountain and God delivered them the 10 commandments. They are worth noting in full, taken from Exodus 20:1-17.
And God spoke all these words, saying,These are by no means all the laws that God was to give to His people, but they function as a good summary of what God wants from His people as a whole. Indeed, the Ten Commandments are actually in the form of a miniature suzerainty covenant. At the time, when a suzerain (i.e., a powerful king) made a contract with a vassal (i.e., a weak or lesser king), it began with a preamble identifying who the suzerain was and who the vassals were, often listing what the suzerain had done on behalf of the vassal. After that would come stipulations that the vassal would have to uphold, along with blessings and curses for keeping and breaking the covenant respectively. There would also be provisions for public reading of the document and a divine witness of the covenant (typically with sacrifices to the various gods the people in the area worshiped).
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
“You shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
“You shall not murder.
“You shall not commit adultery.
“You shall not steal.
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”
In the case of the Ten Commandments, we have the preamble summed up in Exodus 20:2. “I am the LORD your God.” This identifies YHWH as the suzerain and “you” (the people of Israel) as the vassal. We then read “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This constitutes a brief summary of what the suzerain had already done for the vassal: namely, rescued Israel from Egypt.
Now come the stipulations together with the blessings and curses. For instance, when God says not to take His name in vain, He gives the “curse” that “the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (verse 7). Likewise, there is a promise when honoring one’s parents “that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.”
Of course, there are some differences so it cannot be said to be an exact duplicate of the Hittite suzerain covenant, which is why I say that this can be viewed as a sort of miniature version of one. As we shall see later, the book of Deuteronomy actually functions more as a fully-developed suzerain covenant, although even it is not a 1:1 correlation either.
Another aspect of the Ten Commandments that we can see is that they begin by dealing with man’s relationship to God: you shall have no other gods before Him (note that “before” in this case does not mean “first in a list”, but rather “in the presence of”, such as in the sentence, “The prisoner was brought before the court to face charges”). God thus claims exclusivity from His people. He then commands them not to make any images, nor to worship them—including images designed to represent Him. Thus, we can rule out as legitimate any practice that involves praying or worship through icons, images, relics, or the like. We can note also that God’s mercy is asymmetrical to His wrath. While His wrath extends to the third and fourth generations, His mercy extends to thousands—an uncountable number meaning that His mercies are forever. And finally, the command not to take the LORD’s name in vain wraps up the commands that are focused solely on our relationship with God.
After that, God commands Sabbath obedience. This command bridges the commands that are focused on God to the commands that are focused on man. The Sabbath was something that God gave for rest, and therefore was a day of worship of Him, but it was also a day designed to bless mankind. Thus, while God was, for lack of a better term, the recipient of the actions of the first three commands, this fourth commandment impacts both God and man. After that, God addresses our relationship with our parents, then commands us not to murder, commit adultery, steal, or bear false witness. Each of these are actions men do toward others.
The final command is not to covet. This command is a purely internal one. No other person can tell, just by looking, whether or not you are coveting. In this way, the commandments deal not just with external behaviors but also with internal states of mind.
From this, we can also extrapolate that God intends for us to have a right relationship with both Him and with our fellow man. It is not enough to have only one of those prongs satisfied. If we worship God alone and make no idols and are careful not to misuse His name, yet we murder, lie, and sleep around, we are not righteous. Likewise, if we are always righteous toward our fellow man, but we do not observe the Sabbath, we worship other things than God, or we curse His name, we are not righteous. The commands cover both aspects, and only if both aspects are right can we be right with God.
The next few chapters of Exodus give us a lot of insight into the kinds of Laws that God institutes for Israel. Time does not permit us to deal with them in great detail, but it is worth sketching a brief outline.
A. Exodus 21This chapter deals primarily with people. First, with the people having just been released from slavery, are regulations on how long a Hebrew could serve as a servant or slave. As mentioned before, this slavery was not identical to the American South. Everyone who sold themselves into slavery was released on the seventh year, along with anyone (e.g., his wife or children) who came along with him. However, the option for someone to remain a servant or slave was permitted if they went before a judge to request it.
There was one distinction between male and females, however. Daughters sold this way would not be freed. Instead, they were released if the master didn’t like them. Furthermore, they could not be sold to foreigners, but they could be given in marriage to the master’s sons (at which point they would have full legal rights as a daughter, no longer a servant), and if the master later married someone else he was not allowed to deprive her of food, clothes, and any marital rights (deprivation of any of those things would grant her her freedom).
The end of the chapter deals with personal injuries, instigating capital punishment in the case of intentional murder, kidnapping, the cursing of one’s parents, if a slave is beaten to death, and even if a pregnant woman’s unborn child is injured during a fight. This passage is, in fact, the origin of the phrase “eye for an eye”, and extended not just to the unborn but also to slaves. Now the phrase “eye for an eye” was never literally imposed. Instead, it meant that the punishment should fit the crime. For example, if a slave lost an eye or tooth, the slave would automatically be set free for compensation (again, demonstrating that what the Bible sanctioned as slavery was nothing like what we think of slavery due to American history); the master never lost his own eye or tooth.
Finally, if any animals killed people, the animals were also put to death. If a bull had consistently gored others, and the owner was aware of this but did nothing to stop the bull from killing another person, the owner would also be put to death. However, if the victim’s family demanded a payment instead, an owner was still allowed to “give for the redemption of his life whatever is imposed on him” (Exodus 21:30). As mentioned above, “an eye for an eye” was never meant to be taken literally.
B. Exodus 22Exodus 22 deals primarily with the protection of individual property as well as how societies should behave. Thieves who stole ox or sheep and killed the animals were required to pay back five ox and four sheep for each ox or sheep taken, but if the animals were still alive they had to pay back just double. What this meant was that if you took something, not only did you have to return it but you also had to feel the sense of justice at being deprived that which you took. Just as an “eye for an eye” was designed to mete out parity in judgment, here you had to not only pay back what you took but then take on the loss you inflicted. In the case where the animal died, since one cannot raise the animal from the dead, the penalty is increased.
This included judgments over disputed animals too. If two people both claimed the same livestock, whomever the judges ruled was guilty had to pay double to the other. This would help mitigate against unscrupulous individuals who would try to steal an animal through the courts. Anyone who did that was risking losing double what they were falsely claiming as their own.
If an owner killed a thief at night, he was not guilty of bloodshed since he had been awakened in the night without any obvious way to see who was attacking; but no one was allowed to kill a thief who broke in during the day, because seeing the thief would enable the owner to enact other means of protecting his property. Theft was not, typically speaking, a capital offense. But restitution was required for all theft, and if one was too poor to make restitution, he was sold into slavery to pay for their theft.
When the chapter moves to social interactions, we learn that if a man seduces a virgin, he must pay the dowry and the woman will becomes his wife if the father allows it. If he does not allow it, the seducer is still required to pay the price but the daughter does not become is wife. (This disproves a common notion that the Bible requires two people who are sleeping together to marry each other. To be clear, it is sinful and they ought not do it, but having done it would not make a marriage. Rather, the father is presumed to know if the man is so unfit as a husband that it would do his daughter harm to marry, and if so he should not permit it.) Additional death penalty ordinances were put into effect for sorcerers, bestiality, and idolatry. Finally, several ordinances are put into effect to help widows and orphans, as well as prohibiting usury (i.e., interest with a loan) and not allowing anyone to keep everything that someone has as a pledge for their loan.
C. Exodus 23This chapter continues with some social themes, before moving on to Sabbath laws and festivals. The social themes are most appropriate for us now. The Hebrews were once again enjoined not to spread false reports, and not to help a guilty person by lying on their behalf in court. They were told not to side with the crowd, but rather to side with truth, and not to show favoritism in a lawsuit. There were also commands not to take bribes, and again not to oppress foreigners.
Property was so valued that even if you see your enemy’s livestock wandering off, you were required to return it; and if you see their beasts of burden collapsing due to a heavy load, you were to help.
In addition to the weekly Sabbath, fields were to be left unplowed and fallow every seventh year. This allowed the poor and wild animals an opportunity to eat what was left.
Finally, there were commands to celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread, Harvest, and Ingathering.
Before returning to the narrative of Moses, it is worth pointing out an event in Exodus 23. There, God promises to send an angel before the people: “Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him” (Exodus 23:21). Part of the job of this angel was that God’s terror would spread before the Hebrews:
“I will send my terror before 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. And I will send hornets before you, which shall drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you. I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply against you. Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased and possess the land” (Exodus 23:27-30).So we see God sovereign over nature (using hornets to drive out people) as well as being able to cause terror and confusion in men. I find it interesting that God does this incrementally, in order to ensure that the wild beasts do not become too numerous. In other words, the evil people who occupied the land would be driven out and Israel would take over, but the fact that the evil people were there in the first place was actually serving God’s purpose. They were, unwitting as it was, stewards of the land.
D. Exodus 24—InterludeExodus 24 now stands as an intermediate chapter. In it, the covenant God has made with the people of Israel is reconfirmed. After this chapter will be another seven chapters dealing with the ceremonial law, but this reconfirmation of the covenant is important to look at in detail.
Moses built an altar, setting up twelve stones to represent each tribe. Israel then offered burnt offerings and young bulls. Moses read the Book of the Covenant to them (possibly the rest of the Pentateuch, or even some of the various passages we have just read). The people of Israel promise: “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (Exodus 24:7).
We then read: “And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words’” (verse 8). Just as blood was important in Passover, and indeed all the way back to the animal skins God used to cover Adam and Eve, it is important here.
At this point, God ordered Moses to climb the mountain, where He would give the law and commandments on tablets of stone (verse 12). So Moses climbed Sinai and remained there for forty days and nights (verse 18).
E. Exodus 25-31The next several chapters deal with the institutions of the Jewish religion. These chapters do have vital importance for understanding how Israel was to be separated from the other cultures, but the minutia can drown out the salient points. As a result, I am going to take a wide approach here. Broadly speaking, Exodus 25 deals with the sanctuary and Ark of the Covenant; chapter 26 with the tabernacle’s construction and layout; chapter 27 with the bronze altar and internal court of the tabernacle; chapter 28 with the priest’s clothing; chapter 29 with how the priests were consecrated; chapter 30 with the remaining equipment of the tabernacle as well as the census tax that would pay for the priests; and chapter 31 with the calling of Oholiab and Bezalel to be the craftsmen.
It is perhaps worth noting how Bezalel was called:
The LORD said to Moses, “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft (Exodus 31:1-5).While it is certain that Bezalel worked hard on his artistry throughout his life, we see here that God has taken credit for this. It is God who gave him the “ability and intelligence” that he needed “to device artistic designs” and then turn them into reality. Bezalel would not have been as good at his tasks had God not done this.
Once again, this seems to echo the constant Biblical theme of compatibilism. Bezalel was a craftsman, but it was also God working through him. It’s a both/and, not an either/or.
God doesn’t stop with just claiming this about Bezalel either: “And behold, I have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan” (verse 6a), and if that was not sufficient: “And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you” (verse 6b). Note that it is ability itself that God has granted to men, so the second half of this passage could be read as: “Everyone who has ability has it because I have given it to them, so that they can make everything I commanded.”
We can therefore look at this in two ways, both of which I think have some merit.
First, we see that if God calls one of His people for a specific task, He also equips them for that task. He does not call them to do something and leave them without the ability to complete it. This stands in contrast to how He dealt with Pharaoh, where Pharaoh was ordered to release His people yet God hardened his heart.
For our second point, when we do have abilities, then we are on safe ground to say they are God-given abilities, even if we put in lots of work for that skill. There is a real sense that every artist is good to the extent God has enabled him or her to shine. In other words, even today, the good things that we can do are almost certainly a result of that same compatibilistic work. We do that which God has prepared in advance for us to do, and He makes us the way we ourselves are so that we are able to do that very same work.
To finish our overview of this chapter, God ends with commands about the Sabbath. Then: “And he gave to Moses, when he had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18). Now the law was set into stone and available, for the first time, for all His people to see. But what has been going on while God revealed His law?