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Exodus: Deliverance and Covenant

1 Introduction

2 Exodus: Deliverance Traditions (1–18)

3 Sinai: Covenant Traditions (19–40)

4 Exodus as a Book

Study Guide


Aaron, Absolute law, Book of the Covenant, Covenant Code, Burning bush, Case law, Code of Hammurapi, Covenant, Ethical Decalogue, Exodus, Glory of Yhwh, Golden calf, Hebrews, Horeb, Hyksos, Jethro, Meeting tent, Midian, Miriam, Moses, Mount Sinai, Passover, Pesach, Pharaoh, Plagues, Ramses, Reed Sea, Red Sea, Ritual Decalogue, Sinai covenant, Tabernacle, Theophany, Zipporah

Michelangelo's Moses

Michelangelo’s Moses

Moses is the central figure of the book of Exodus, famously depicted by the great artist and sculptor Michelangelo (1475–1564). Moses delivered the Hebrews out of Egyptian slave bondage, led them to Mount Sinai where he received the commandments from Yhwh, and brought the people into covenant relationship with their God.

Source: Marble sculpture in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome, 1515. Drawing of the sculpture’s head by Daniel Hornschemeier Bandstra based on a photo by Barry Bandstra, 1998 (see page 144).


The book of Exodus is the bedrock of Israel’s faith. It relates two foundational experiences, the Exodus from Egypt and the reception of the covenant at Mount Sinai. The Exodus declared that Israel exists by the powerful delivering action of

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Yhwh. The covenant shaped Israel’s relationship with Yhwh whereby Yhwh became their patron deity. This relationship has clear expectations of both parties and holds the promise of a glorious future. Taken together, these events establish Israel’s core identity as a delivered people in covenant with God.

The exodus is also foundational to Judaism and Christianity. In Judaism it is celebrated as pesach, the Passover, and is the premier festival of freedom and liberty. In Christianity it has been transformed into Easter, with Jesus of Nazareth as the Passover lamb. The book of Exodus gets its name from the central event recounted therein: Israel’s miraculous departure from Egypt. A bit of clarification: Exodus is not the Exodus; the first is a book, and the second is an event. In serial order, the book of Exodus follows the book of Genesis, but in terms of its religious and national significance, it is number one. It can be divided into two main parts: traditions centering on the exit from Egypt (Chapters 1–18) and traditions associated with the Mount Sinai revelation of Yhwh (Chapters 19–40)

1.1 Deliverance and Covenant—A Summary

The opening (Exodus 1) describes how the Egyptians oppressed the descendants of Jacob, subjecting them to forced labor. Because this failed to curtail their growth, all male Hebrew infants were killed—all but one. When Moses was born (2), his parents hid him temporarily and then put him into a basket and set him afloat on the Nile River. Pharaoh’s daughter found Moses, had compassion for him, and raised him as her own in the royal court.

When Moses reached adulthood, he rashly attempted to rescue some fellow Hebrews by killing their Egyptian task master. He fled Egypt and took refuge in the Sinai wilderness. There he married Zipporah and raised a family. While shepherding the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro, he met Yhwh at a burning bush (3–4). Yhwh instructed Moses to return to Egypt, which was not exactly what he wanted to hear. Nonetheless, once back in Egypt, he mediated Israel’s deliverance from slavery and oppression. With a series of natural and supernatural disasters (5–11), Yhwh demonstrated his superior power. After celebrating the first Passover, the Hebrews escaped into the Sinai wilderness (12–13). The Egyptian army pursued them and, just when it looked like the Hebrews were doomed, God miraculously opened a pathway through the Reed Sea. The Hebrews passed through safely, but the Egyptians were drowned when they tried to follow (14–15). Then Moses led the people to Mount Sinai (16–18) where earlier he had met Yhwh at the burning bush.

At Mount Sinai, Yhwh revealed the law to the Hebrews and established an abiding covenant relationship with them (19–24). In addition to making this covenant, he gave them instructions for building worship items and a portable shrine (25–31). Soon after the people agreed to the terms of the covenant, they broke it by worshipping the golden calf instead of Yhwh (32–34). Though they deserved to be annihilated, God reestablished his covenant with them. Then, while still encamped at Mount Sinai, the Hebrews built a tent shrine as the residence for their God and called it the tabernacle (35–40).

1.2 Historicity of Exodus

The Exodus from Egypt is generally positioned in the 1200s BCE, more than two centuries before the founding of the monarchy in Israel (see Figure 3.1). The events narrated in the book of Exodus are set in northern Egypt and in the Sinai

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Early Israel Timeline

Figure 3.1 Time Line: Early Israel

Peninsula. There are details in Exodus that have been used to build a case that the story matches the situation in Egypt at this time. For example, the places that the Hebrews labored as slaves, Pithom and Rameses (1:11), match known sites, and those locations were occupied at the appropriate time. Also, various documents attest the presence of Semitic people in Egypt—that is, people like the Israelites—who were perceived to be a threat to indigenous Egyptians. Thus, there is substantial circumstantial evidence that the Hebrews could have been there at that time (see Hoffmeier, 1999, for a positive appraisal and Redford, 1992, for a more skeptical analysis).

However, there is no direct evidence to substantiate the Exodus account (it should be added that there is no direct evidence to refute it either). This means that we are not absolutely sure which Pharaoh reigned at the time of the exodus, though most presume it was Ramses II. There is no mention of the Hebrews or the Israelites in Egyptian documents of this period that would substantiate their presence at this moment in Egyptian history and no mention of a Moses. There is no archaeological evidence of the Israelites in either Egypt or the Sinai dating to this time. There is no record of a devastating series of plagues or a crossing miracle at the Reed Sea. And nobody has found the broken remains of the commandment tablets. All this demonstrates the difficulty of correlating the biblical text, especially in the early periods, with documentary history. The quip “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” could be invoked here as a caution not to rush to negative judgment regarding the facticity of early events.

1.3 Reading Guide

The book of Exodus should be read attentively for the simple reason that it is the most important book of the Hebrew Bible. Perhaps the only sections that could be read lightly are the extended descriptions of the tabernacle and its accessories and the priestly regulations (26–31 and 35–39).

The basic story line of Exodus is straightforward, and the events follow a linear chronological progression. But just because the Exodus event in Egypt and the revelation event at Mount Sinai were taken to be so vitally important to Israel’s identity, many traditions got attached to these events to give the traditions Mosaic authority. The resulting text shows signs of this clustering. For example, over time Israel accumulated a variety of statutes and law collections. All of these came to be

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attached to Mount Sinai. To get them all entered into the text, Exodus has Moses going up and down the mountain multiple times—so many times that the text almost loses track of him.


The first half of Exodus is a narrative account of the Israelites’ escape from Egyptian bondage and their journey to Mount Sinai. This deliverance account includes the story of Moses, Yhwh’s chosen leader. Moses mediated a series of disasters that culminated in the Israelites’ release. Overcoming all obstacles, including a great expanse of sea, the Israelites made their way through the wilderness until they came to the mountain of God where the terms of the covenant were revealed to them through Moses.

2.1 Israel in Egypt (1)

The first verse of the book of Exodus connects the Joseph cycle of Genesis (see RTOT Chapter 2) to the Exodus story by showing how the Hebrew people came to Egypt. In Jewish tradition, the book of Exodus is named shemot, “names,” from the first sentence of the book. Could the use of shemot here be an allusion to the importance of name in the primeval story and in Genesis 12:2, “I will make your name great”?

These are the names of the sons of Israel who entered Egypt with Jacob, each with his family. (1:1)

Using the phrase “sons of Israel” for the Israelites is deliberate because Jacob’s name had been changed to Israel. He is the eponymous ancestor of the nation; that is, the nation takes its name from him. After naming all the sons, the writer remarks that the Israelites were fruitful and prolific, so much so that Egypt was teeming with them. The language of multiplication echoes the ancestral covenant blessing (Genesis 17:2, 28:3, 35:11) and goes back even further to the Priestly creation blessing (Genesis 1:28, 9:1).

Beginning with Jacob’s clan, the Hebrews lived in Egypt for many generations. After a time, the government changed hands, and the Egyptian Pharaoh, or king of Egypt, enslaved the Hebrews. The term pharaoh is derived from the Egyptian phrase “the great house.” It designates the highest office of Egypt and is not a personal name. In the following text, notice how their covenant blessing became their curse; they had become so numerous that the new ruler considered them a threat.

A new king rose to power over Egypt, who did not know about Joseph. He said to his people, “Now, the Israelites are more numerous and powerful than we are. Come on, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will become even more numerous. If war breaks out they would join our enemies, fight against us, and leave the land.” They put slave masters over them to inflict hard labor on them. They built the store cities Pithom and Rameses for Pharaoh. (1:8–11)

Although there are no direct references to Moses or the Israelite Exodus outside the Hebrew Bible, extrabiblical sources have helped to build a plausible setting for Israel’s experience. Specifically, Egyptian history provides a context for understanding the Egyptians’ change of heart toward the Hebrews, implied by the reference in

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Ahmose I and the Hyksos

FIGURE 3.2 Ahmose I and the Hyksos

The middle panel on this ceremonial axe depicts the Egyptian Pharaoh Ahmose smiting an enemy. Egyptian sources credit Ahmose I with expelling the Hyksos, who were foreign invaders of Egypt (see ANET, 230–234). Jacob and Joseph, along with all the Hebrews, were likely considered part of the Hyksos group and would have been despised by ethnic Egyptians.

Source: Ceremonial axe of King Ahmose I, from W. von Bissing, Ein thebanischer Grabfund (Berlin, 1900), plate 1.

verse 8 to the “new king” who rose to power. Prior to this time, from 1750 to 1550 BCE, a group of non-Egyptians had ruled northern Egypt. This foreign rule, which historians call the Second Intermediate Period, was a break in the flow of indigenous African-Egyptian government.

The invaders were the Hyksos, an Egyptian term that means “rulers of foreign lands.” Most of them were Semites from Syria and Palestine, the same general area that the ancestors of the Hebrews called home. If Joseph was part of this influx of the foreign Hyksos, it might explain how he could come to such prominence and power in Egypt.

Under Pharaoh Ahmose I (1552–1527 BCE) of the eighteenth dynasty, native Egyptian rule resumed, and Egyptians began to subjugate foreigners (Figure 3.2). According to Exodus 12:40, the Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years, and perhaps as many as 300 years of that were spent in subservience. If the traditional date of the Exodus (early 1200s BCE) is accepted, the Pharaoh at the time of the exodus was Ramses II (1290–1224 BCE), the great empire builder of the nineteenth dynasty. He moved Egypt’s center of government to the eastern Nile delta and initiated sizable building projects there.

Dating the Exodus turns out to be a complex issue, dependent on chronological hints in the biblical text, evidence from history and archaeology, as well as certain assumptions. There are two recognized candidates, 1440 BCE and 1280 BCE. The early date is calculated by counting back from the known date of Solomon’s temple building using the 480 years of 1 Kings 6:1. The late date depends heavily

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Making Bricks

Figure 3.3 Making Bricks in Egypt

This depiction of the brickmaking process is from the tomb of Thut-mose III of the eighteenth Egyptian dynasty, circa 1460 BCE. Laborers are shown processing the raw mud and forming the bricks used to construct walls and buildings (see Lesko, 1999).

Source: Drawing by Karla VanHuysen after de Garis Davies, The Tomb of Rekh-mi-Rê (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art Egyptian Expedition, 1943), plate 58.

on the date of the conquest of Canaan as determined by archaeology and then working back from the forty years of the wilderness wandering to the Exodus (see Bimson, 1978 and Bimson and Livingston 1987).

Go to the companion website and see the table “Historical Evidence for Dating the Exodus.”

The Israelites were set to work building Pithom and Rameses (1:11), two Egyptian fortress cities in the eastern Nile delta region. The cities were strategic in defending Egypt from Asian attack and served as bases for extending Egyptian power into Palestine and Syria. The Israelites were forced to manufacture the mud bricks and construct the fortresses (see Figure 3.3). However, the hard work of city building did not diminish their numbers, so the Egyptians initiated a policy of male infanticide.

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives—one was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you perform midwifery to the Hebrew women, and you see them on the birthing stool, if it is a boy, kill him. But if it is a girl, let her live.” (1:15–16)

Notice that the text changes talking about them as Israelites now and instead calls them Hebrews. The term Hebrew is used only about thirty times in the entire Hebrew Bible. Interestingly, it is used mostly by people of other ethnic or national groups when referring to early Israelites, rather than by Israelites themselves. The term Hebrew may be related to the Mesopotamian habiru. Documents from Mesopotamia and Egypt from the second millennium to the 1100s BCE make frequent reference to groups of people associated with the term habiru. These habiru were evidently not a

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homogenous ethnic group but a class of social misfits and troublemakers. The term may be linguistically related to the biblical word for a Hebrew, ‘ivri. The question has been raised whether the Israelites were originally such people. If so, this would have implications for the geographical origin of the Israelites (currently a much disputed question), their ethnic constitution or lack thereof, and their social formation (see Na’aman, 1986).

Go to the companion website and see the table “Distribution and Use of the Term Hebrew.”

The midwives who serviced the Hebrews (it is not clear whether the midwives were themselves Hebrew or just helped the Hebrews) secretly refused to cooperate. So the desperate Pharaoh commanded that all Hebrew infant sons be drowned in the Nile. This set the stage for the birth story and early life of Moses.

2.2 The Early Moses (2–4)

Moses was born to Amram and Jochebed who were from the tribe of Levi (6:20). After they were no longer able to conceal the baby Moses, they placed him in a reed basket waterproofed with tar and set him afloat on the Nile, in much the same way as Sargon, a famous king of Akkad, was hidden (see ANET, 119). The Mesopotamian birth legend of Sargon of Akkad contains additional points of contact to the Moses birth story. Sargon was the illegitimate son of a high priestess. To keep her position, she needed to conceal the birth, so she placed Sargon in a basket of reeds caulked with tar and set him afloat on the Euphrates River. He was discovered downstream by Akki the water drawer, who adopted and raised him. Sargon rose to become the architect of the empire of Akkad (see Longman, 1991).

Setting Moses adrift on the Nile was a deliberate ploy to win the compassion of Pharaoh’s daughter, who frequented the river to bathe. When she discovered Moses, she took him to court and raised him there as a virtual grandson of the Pharaoh. Pharaoh’s daughter gave him the name Moses, moshe in Hebrew. The Hebrew Bible attaches a folk etymology to the name (2:10); the Hebrew verb “draw out” puns with Moshe. In reality, Moshe is a name derived from the Egyptian verb msy, meaning “be born,” with the noun ms meaning “child or son.”

Although Moses was raised as an Egyptian, apparently it was through his birthmother, hired as his wet nurse and au pair (2:7–10), that he came to realize his Hebrew origin. Clearly, Moses had a mixed and conflicted Hebrew–Egyptian identity. This explains how he could on the one hand be knowledgeable of the royal court to negotiate the departure of the Israelites and on the other hand identify with the plight of the Israelites, even if they failed to identify with him.

One day, as Moses was surveying the royal projects, he rescued a Hebrew slave by killing his abusive Egyptian master. In danger of being exposed, Moses fled Egypt, an episode with similarities to the story of Sinuhe, another Egyptian who had to take flight (see ANET, 18–22). Moses went to Midian, where he found refuge with Jethro, a desert priest. Moses eventually married one of his daughters and served as shepherd of his father-in-law’s flocks.

Go to the companion website and see the text “The Tale of Sinhue.”

Moses’s encounter with Yhwh at the burning bush in Exodus 3:1–15 marks a turning point in Israel’s history. Here Moses learned the identity of the deity who

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would deliver the Israelites from bondage. Moses would be his mediator. The full account is a mixture of Yhwh and Elohim material, with Elohim passages predominating.

2.2.1 Moses at Horeb (E)

Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian; and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of Elohim. (3:1)

Jethro is the name of Moses’ father-in-law in the Elohist source, but it is Reuel in the Yahwist source (see 2:18) and Hobab in the Deuteronomistic history (see Judges 1:16 and 4: 11). Horeb is the name the Elohim source (and Deuteronomy) and applies to the mountain of God, whereas the Yhwh source calls it MountSinaiMount Sinai.

Some authorities have suggested that Horeb and Mount Sinai are not the same place. According to such a view, Mount Sinai would be located in the Sinai Peninsula and Horeb probably somewhere in Midian; it is notoriously difficult to pin down.

2.2.2 The Burning Bush (J)

The angel of Yhwh appeared to him in a flaming fire out of the middle of a bush. As Moses watched, the bush burned but it did not burn up. Moses said to himself, “I’m going to stop and observe this amazing thing! Why does the bush not burn up?” When Yhwh saw that Moses stopped to observe . . . (3:2–4a)

Verse 2a summarizes the story. Probably added later, it gives the story an explanatory framework so that we will understand that Yhwh did not appear directly to Moses (as the story implies) but indirectly in the form of an angel or messenger; the word here translated “angel” is not necessarily nonhuman and can also mean “messenger.” The “flaming fire” that is such a prominent part of this story is typical of a biblical theophany, or appearance of God. In Genesis 15, God appeared to Abraham in a smoking fire pot. Here, he appears to Moses in a flaming bush. On Mount Sinai, he appears in lightning, smoke, and cloud. In the wilderness, he appears in pillars of cloud and fire.

2.2.3 The God of the Fathers (E)

. . . Elohim called to him out of the middle of the bush and said, “Moses! Moses!” He replied, “Yes, I’m here.” He said, “Don’t get any closer. Take your sandals off your feet. The place where you are standing is holy ground.” He said, “I am the Elohim of your father, the Elohim of Abraham, the Elohim of Isaac, and the Elohim of Jacob.” Then Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at Elohim. (3:4b–6)

Whereas the deity is referred to as Yhwh in verse 4a, in 4b the reference changes to Elohim, indicating a return to the Elohist. Note the similarity between this story and Genesis 22 (also an Elohist account) in the way that God initiates the encounter, saying Abraham’s name twice and him answering, “Here I am.”

Verse 6 explicitly associates the God of the Exodus with the God of the ancestors, thus connecting Israel’s deliverance with the history of promises to the ancestors. The phrase “God of my/your/his father” is often used in Genesis and in Mesopotamian literature of a personal patron god and protector. It suggests a special relationship between the individual and his deity. Beginning with Moses, the phrase becomes “God of our/your/their fathers,” with the plural referring to the Israelites as a people.

We are no longer dealing with the angel of Yhwh. Note also how the Elohist protects Moses from looking directly at God. Facing God directly is not allowed in Elohist theology; the fear of God is a prominent motif in the Elohist source.

2.2.4 Land of Milk and Honey (J)

Yhwh said, “I have seen the hardship of my people in Egypt. I have heard their cry for relief from their oppressors. I know of their suffering. I have come down to deliver them from the grip of Egypt and bring them up out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites.” (3:7–8)

As is typical of this source, Yhwh is a caring and compassionate deity who hates to see his people suffer and acts out of compassion. Not only will he relieve their suffering, but he will also bring them to the land promised to the ancestors. The land is described as “flowing with milk and honey.” Obviously, milk did not flow through the streams and honey did not ooze down the wadis; these images depict the richness of the land, with all the flowering plants needed to support life. The six nations listed here are often cited as the inhabitants of Palestine before the Israelites got there (for example, see Genesis 15:18–21, where these and more are listed).

2.2.5 Moses the Mediator (E)

“The cry of the people of Israel has now reached me. I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians mistreat them. Go, I will send you to Pharaoh so that you can bring my people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to Elohim, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” He said, “But I will be with you. This shall be the sign for you to know that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship Elohim on this mountain.” (3:9–12)

In contrast to the Yahwist in the prior passage, here the focus is on the Egyptians’ wrongdoing rather than on the Israelites’ suffering. Characteristic of the Elohim source, God acted through an intermediary, Moses, in this case. He revealed his deep-seated feelings of inadequacy as mediator, humility being a sign of genuine godliness in God’s prophets. The Yhwh source, which does not quite so adore Moses as does the Elohim source, later portrays him as putting up more resistance. The sign that God gave him was not something that could give him assurance right then and there but would be a later confirmation of his calling.

Then Moses said to Elohim, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The Elohim of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” Elohim said to Moses, “Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘Ehyeh has sent me to you.’” Elohim also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘Yhwh, the Elohim of your fathers, the Elohim of Abraham, the Elohim of Isaac, and the Elohim of

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Jacob, has sent me to you’: this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” (3:13–15)

Moses impertinently asked God for identification: “Who are you? How can I identify you to the Israelite elders?” In response God identified himself as the God of the fathers, later specified as the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Then God in a cryptic manner said that “Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh” is his name, enigmatically translatable as “I am who I am,” or “I will be who I will be,” from which the name Yhwh appears to be derived linguistically.

This revelation of the divine name has given rise to reams of research and speculation. Most authorities acknowledge that ehyeh is a Hebrew verbal form meaning “I am.” When the first-person verbal form ehyeh is transformed into the third-person form, it becomes Yhwh, which can be translated “he is” or “he causes to be.” However, what this name really signifies remains a mystery and maybe deliberately so. At the same time God revealed his name, he also concealed its precise meaning. We can only speculate what the deeper significance of “I am” might be. Perhaps God was suggesting that he was the only self-existing one. Others, relating the name to the verb “to be” in a causal sense, have said it is a statement about God’s creative power: “I am the one who calls into being.”

Whatever the deeper meaning of the divine name Yhwh, it is the name by which all the textual sources identify the God of Israel from now on. Each of the three Tetrateuchal sources has a specific point at which it begins to use the divine name Yhwh (Table 3.1). It is the name of Israel’s patron deity, a name that is specifically associated with the covenant.

From this point on, even the Elohist uses Yhwh for the divine name, though not to the exclusion of the designation Elohim. The change of divine name is also noted in the Priestly source at Exodus 6:2–5. This account adds that the ancestors knew God as El Shaddai (probably meaning “God Almighty”), but beginning with Moses and the Exodus he made himself known as Yhwh.

Moses offered excuses why he should not go back to Egypt. In response, God gave him signs to authenticate his calling, including a staff that could transform

TABLE 3.1 First Use of the Divine Name “Yhwh” in the Sources

YahwistGenesis 4:26To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time men began to call upon the name of Yhwh.
ElohistExodus 3:14–15Elohim said to Moses, “Ehyeh who Ehyeh.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘Ehyeh has sent me to you.’” (15) Elohim also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘Yhwh, the Elohim of your fathers, the Elohim of Abraham, the Elohim of Isaac, and the Elohim of Jacob, has sent me to you’: this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”
PriestlyExodus 6:2–3And Elohim said to Moses, “I (am*) Yhwh.” (3) “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as El Shadday, but by my name Yhwh I did not make myself known to them.”

*There is no Hebrew verb in this clause, just the pronoun “I” and the name “Yhwh.”

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itself into a snake. When Moses claimed he was not eloquent enough to speak before Pharaoh, God appointed Moses’ brother Aaron to be his spokesperson. Yhwh sent Moses away with these instructions (from the Yahwist).

“When you return to Egypt, make sure you perform before Pharaoh all the miracles I have given you the ability to do. Yet, I will harden his heart so that he will not allow the people to leave. You must say to Pharaoh: ‘This is what Yhwh says: Israel is my firstborn son, I command you, Let my son leave so that he may worship me. If you refuse to let him leave, I will slay your firstborn son.’” (4:21–23)

Having received the revelation of the divine name along with his mandate, Moses went back to Egypt and presented Yhwh’s demand to Pharaoh. “Let my people go!” Pharaoh refused to budge. Only after a devastating series of disasters did he allow them, in fact urge them, to leave Egypt—all in the name of the one God of Israel. By this, Moses stands at the center, some claim, of a religious revolution. He championed a religion devoted to one God against the pantheon of Egyptian gods and won. It is possible that Moses was influenced in a monotheistic direction by the Egyptian king Akhenaton (1360–1340 BCE), who tried to simplify Egypt’s religious system by declaring that the sun god, Aton, was the only deity (see Redford, 1984).

2.3 Plagues (5–11)

Because Pharaoh refused to grant permission to leave, God sent the plagues. The description of disasters told here is graphic and engaging. The Nile turned to blood, making the water undrinkable. Then frogs invaded the land, and after they died, there was an infestation of gnats, then flies. Soon the livestock became diseased, and later animals and humans suffered from boils. Crops were devastated, first by a hail storm and then by locusts. After all this, an impenetrable darkness descended on the land. Though the Egyptian population reeled, Pharaoh still refused to let the Israelites go.

The story of the plagues has given rise to a variety of interpretations deriving from different angles taken on the text. The varying interpretations are not mutually exclusive; rather, they demonstrate the multilayered nature of possible meanings in the text. From the perspective of biblical salvation history, the plagues were intended to reveal Yhwh’s power to break Egyptian resistance. They are called God’s great acts of judgment and were said to come from the finger of God (Exodus 8:19). From a naturalist perspective, many of the plagues can be explained by biological or climatic occurrences that have been observed in the Nile valley (see Hort, 1957). From a comparative religions perspective, the plagues may represent Yhwh’s judgment on the gods of Egypt, including Amun-Re the sun god who was implicitly attacked in the ninth plague.

From a literary perspective, the plagues are arranged in three series of three disasters, with the tenth plague as the climax. From the perspective of source analysis, there were two different traditions of the plagues, a Yahwist and a Priestly version. The core plague narrative comes from the Yahwist source. It attests eight plagues and focuses on the role of Moses. The Priestly source added two plagues and highlights the role of Aaron.

After each plague, Pharaoh refused to allow the Israelites to leave. Pharaoh’s response is variously described depending on the particular plague. Sometimes it is

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attributed to him hardening his own heart and other times to God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. A third way of putting it just has his heart hardening without the agent being specified (see Wilson, 1979). Thus, Exodus both lays responsibility on Pharaoh and indicates that his stubbornness was part of a higher purpose.

Go to the companion website and see the tables “Pharaoh’s Hard Heart,” “Descriptions of the Plagues as the Work of Yhwh,” “Plagues as Yhwh’s Judgment on the Deities of Egypt,” “Literary Structure of the Plagues Narrative,” and “Yahwist and Priestly Versions of the Plagues Compared.”

2.4 Death and Passover (12:1–13:16)

The last plague was the death of Egypt’s firstborn, both humans and animals. It was the culmination of the series and the most devastating, and it compelled Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. The Israelites avoided the tenth plague because each family slaughtered a lamb as a substitute for its firstborn. They painted blood from the sacrificial lamb on the door frames of their homes, and when God saw this evidence, he “passed over” that house, sparing the firstborn son. Beginning with the Exodus, God laid claim to all firstborn sons and provided for their redemption, or buying back, with a substitutionary sacrifice (13:11–16).

The avoidance ritual of the tenth plague developed into a ceremonial meal called the Passover, or pesach in Hebrew. During this meal, a roasted lamb was eaten along with bitter herbs and unleavened bread (bread made without yeast) called matsot. Eating matsot symbolized the rush of Israel’s departure; the bread simply had no time to rise. In pre-Israelite times, the Passover sacrifice and the feast of unleavened bread may have been two separate occasions, one pastorally based and the other agriculturally based. They were combined in biblical tradition and stand as a perpetual memorial of the Exodus (12:14).

The Passover ritual is defined not just in Exodus but also in other Torah texts (see Leviticus 23:4–8; Numbers 9:1–14, 28:16–25; Deuteronomy 16:1–8), which attests to its significance in the life of Israel. The Exodus story became so important to Israel’s identity that the prescription for remembering it came to be contained within the tradition of the event itself. Observing it or failing to observe it later became a measure of the faithfulness of Israel (see 2 Kings 23 and 2 Chronicles 30). It is still widely celebrated today as a symbol of Jewish cultural identification and as an enduring monument to human freedom and divine compassion.

2.5 Exodus from Egypt (13:17–15:21)

After leaving Egypt, the Israelites fled into the Sinai Peninsula. Pharaoh had second thoughts about allowing them to depart, so he mustered his chariotry and gave chase. The Israelites took a jagged route, avoiding the main road controlled by Egyptian troops, before heading south into the wilderness (see Beit-Arieh, 1988, Krahmalkov, 1994, and Figure 3.4).

After a short time, the Israelites were pinched between Pharaoh’s army and the Reed Sea. This is not a typographical error. Although translations and maps still use the designation Red SeaRed Sea, the biblical text actually says Reed Sea. The underlying Hebrew phrase is yam suf. Suf is derived from the Egyptian word for the papyrus reed, which only grows in freshwater. This would most likely place the crossing at one of the lagoons or inland lakes in the northeast of Egypt near the shore of the

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Exodus Route

FIGURE 3.4 The Exodus Route

Mediterranean Sea. Suf also puns on the Hebrew word for “end” and may indicate it has an additional symbolic or mythological sense (see Batto, 1984).

The Israelites, as was their tendency, blamed Moses for their predicament. But then, when all hope seemed lost, by a divine act the Israelites escaped through the sea on dry ground and the army of Pharaoh drowned when they tried to follow. This escape is the most important event in Israel’s history. It is the culmination of God’s great work in delivering the Israelites from oppression and bondage and providing salvation. Forever it would be remembered as the event that revealed both the compassion and power of Israel’s God. Its significance to the religious faith of Israel cannot be overestimated.

What exactly happened at the Reed Sea remains an open question. Some readers prefer to call it a miracle and leave it at that. Others, while not automatically discounting that a divine hand was at work here, seek a natural explanation and speculate about what might have occurred there. One writer suggests that the eruption of a volcano on Thera in the Aegean Sea produced a tidal wave that swept away Pharaoh’s army, while Israel survived because they occupied higher ground (see Shanks, 1981). Two scientists

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attribute the drying of the sea to identifiable oceanographic patterns (see Nof and Paldor, 1992).

The exit from Egypt and deliverance at the Reed Sea is the salvation high point of Israel’s history. In this event, Yhwh revealed his deep love and care for Israel. In biblical literature, it became the prototype saving event. When at a later time the Israelites were alienated from the Promised Land and oppressed by foreign overlords, especially during the Babylonian exile, they recalled the great Exodus from Egypt and were encouraged.

The crossing was remembered within Israel in at least three different ways. The Old Epic version may be a virtual eyewitness account, while the Yahwist and Priestly accounts reveal notable differences in narrative emphasis. Each seems to shape the miracle and the roles of Yhwh and Moses somewhat differently.

• Old Epic version: “You blew with your wind, the sea covered them. They sank as lead into the mighty waters” (15:10). Exodus 15 celebrates the victory over Pharaoh in a poetic song of triumph. Moses and his sister, MiriamMiriam, led the people in a victory hymn to Yhwh: “I will sing to Yhwh, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” The style and vocabulary of this hymn date it as one of the oldest Hebrew compositions in the Bible, and some scholars place it quite close to the time of the event itself (see Cross, 1968). This hymn, often referred to as the “Song of the Sea,” contains an independent description (neither Yahwist, Elohist, or Priestly) that concentrates on how the waters of the floods destroyed Pharaoh’s army. There is no talk of Yhwh splitting the sea or the Israelites crossing on dry ground.

• Yhwh version: “Yhwh drove the sea back with a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land” (14:21b). According to this version, the people were saved when God sent a wind to drive back the sea. In this version, God acted directly. Overall, the Yahwist places primary focus on Yhwh and his activity. He was present in the cloud. He was the one that saved Israel. Moses’ only role was to reassure the people that they would be saved. The Yahwist strand concentrates less on the details of the miracle and more on the faith response of the people. The Israelites moved from fear to faith as they stood back and observed what Yhwh had done.

• Priestly version: “Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. . . . And the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground. The waters formed a wall on their right and on their left” (14:21a, 21c–22). In this version, the miracle is more spectacular, with the water rising up like walls on either side of the traveling Israelites. God acts indirectly through the agency of Moses rather than directly. This version, with its motif of dividing and separating, has much in common with the Priestly story of creation, especially the dome of the second day.

Go to the companion website and see the tables “Yahwist Version of the Exodus Episode,” “Elohist Version of the Exodus Episode,” and “Priestly Version of the Exodus Episode.” The book of Exodus retains various memories of the Exodus event, and each can be read separately using these tables.

Just because the Exodus was such a defining moment, it should not be surprising that it was remembered and then described in a variety of different ways. The portrayals differ, at least in part, because they are not journalistic records but rather memories combined with mythic themes. In particular, the accounts of the Reed Sea crossing

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seem to be a combination of themes from the creation story and the divine warrior myth of the ancient Middle East (see Miller, 1973 and Dozeman, 1996). We have seen that the major action of the creation myth, which is worked out in the Elohim creation story, was the splitting of the primeval waters so that dry land and life could emerge under the dome. In the divine warrior myth, a high god slays the monster of chaos, personified as the sea or the great river, thereby ensuring order and fertility. This was often followed by the crowning of the victorious god. For example, in Canaan mythology of the period just before the Exodus, the storm god Baal subdued the sea god Yamm (whose name means sea). The myth of Yhwh as the warrior who subdues the waters finds expression in many places in the Hebrew Bible, including the Psalms (for example, 29 and 74:12–15), prophetic literature (Isaiah 51:9–11), and here in the Exodus account. The Exodus deliverance experience was creatively combined with the myths of creation and the divine warrior to portray Yhwh as the God who splits the waters—in this situation, the waters of the Reed Sea—and overcomes the forces of death. In response, Moses and the Israelites sang, “Yhwh is a man of war! Yhwh is his name!(15:3).

2.6 Wilderness Journey (15:22–18:27)

After the escape from Egypt, Moses led the Israelites into the wilderness to meet Yhwh. Moving on from the shore of the Reed Sea, they traveled toward Mount Sinai where their deity would make a covenant with them (see Figure3.5). Along

Sinai Peninsula

FIGURE 3.5 Sinai Peninsula

The Sinai is the triangular peninsula toward the lower left. It is defined by the Mediterranean Sea toward the top and the two gulfs extending upward from the Red Sea. Led by Moses, the Israelites escaped slavery in Egypt and traveled through the Sinai wilderness to Mount Sinai.

Source: STS109-708-024 (1–12 March 2002). Picture taken by astronauts aboard space shuttle Columbia. Courtesy of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration

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the way, they had numerous difficulties that tried Moses’ leadership ability and patience and tested the faith of the people. These troubles also served to test the resourcefulness of God and to reveal the character of the Israelites.

When they arrived at an oasis called Marah, the water was undrinkable. The people complained to Moses, who changed the bitter water to sweet. When they lacked food, God rained down manna and quail. Manna is called the “bread of heaven” and is described as thin flakes that are white like coriander seed and taste like wafers made of honey. The term manna is given a folk etymology in 16:15, 31 based on the people’s exclamation when they first saw it: man hu’, “what is it?” Some seek a naturalist explanation for manna, relating it to the honeylike secretion of a scale insect on tamarisk trees that is common to the Sinai (see Bodenheimer, 1947).

When they came to Rephidim expecting to find water, they found none. The people again turned on Moses and blamed him for their predicament. God instructed Moses to strike a rock and water flowed. Then the Amalekites fought the Israelites. Joshua led the counterattack, and the Israelites prevailed so long as Moses’ arms were raised to God. This episode is notable because it introduces the Amalekites, who are a persistent Israelite enemy. The Amalekites receive the honor of being the archetypal Israelite enemy because they were the first to attack this new nation. Always attentive to the worship dimension of Israel’s experience, the Elohist notes that Moses built an altar there to commemorate the event and called it “Yhwh is my banner.”

Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, met the Israelites in the wilderness. Observing that Moses was exhausting himself by single handedly administering the entire community, he convinced Moses to delegate all but the most difficult cases to subordinates. Jethro, called the priest of Midian, also made a rather remarkable statement. He professed that Yhwh was greater than any other god because he had delivered the people from Egyptian oppression. Then Jethro offered sacrifices to God. The Elohist is showing how outsiders, too, can perceive the greatness of Israel’s deity and worship him.

The wilderness experiences of Israel related in these pre-Sinai stories, getting water from the rock at Meribah, manna and quails, and meeting Moses’ father-in-law, are similar to Israel’s post-Sinai wilderness experiences (see RTOT Chapter 4). The repetitions form brackets, an inclusion, around Israel’s Mount Sinai experiences.

Go to the companion website and see the table “Israel’s Pre- and Post-Sinai Wilderness Experiences.”


Mount Sinai is the geographical setting of the second half of Exodus, as well as of the entire book of Leviticus and the first portion of Numbers. At Mount Sinai, the Hebrews received the definitive revelation of covenant from Yhwh. The covenant traditions in Exodus lay out crucial dimensions of the relationship between Yhwh and his people Israel.

Go to the companion website and see the tables “Law Giving in the Yahwist Version,” “Law Giving in the Elohist Version,” and “Law Giving in the Priestly Version.”

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All three sources of the Tetrateuch contribute components of law giving to the book of Exodus.

3.1 Theophany on the Mountain (19)

This important chapter marks the moment the Israelites arrived at Sinai. Presumably this place is also the Horeb mentioned earlier in Exodus, the place where Moses had met God (connecting Exodus 3:1 and 3:12 to the present text). Upon their arrival, God first met with Moses alone and revealed what Israel might become, if only they would keep their side of the covenant. Then God appeared to all the people who were assembled at the base of the mountain. Together they witnessed a divine apparition on the mountain. Divine appearing, or theophany, is typically mediated using the symbolic forms of the storm, including dark clouds, thunder, and lightning. In the following close reading of this chapter, we will segment the text into paragraphs and link them to the sources of the documentary hypothesis (following Campbell and O’Brien, 1993).

3.1.1 Introduction (P)

On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone forth out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. And when they set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, they encamped in the wilderness . . . (19:1–2a)

Verses 1–2a are attributed to the Priestly source, which typically tracks the itinerary of the Israelites as they travel from Egypt to the Promised Land. This passage builds a bridge between the Exodus event and the giving of the covenant at Mount Sinai.

3.1.2 God to Moses (E)

. . . and there Israel encamped before the mountain. And Moses went up to Elohim, and Yhwh called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the sons of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now then, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples (though all the earth is mine), and you shall be my kingdom of priests and holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the sons of Israel.” (19:2b–6)

Verses 2b–9 are exclusively the work of the Elohist. The destination of the people was the mountain of God, as the Elohist refers to it; here, mountain for short. God’s statement is a well-formed literary unit with an introduction (“Thus you shall say”) and a conclusion (“These are the words which you shall speak”). “House of Jacob” is an Elohist synonym for sons of Israel. This makes sense once you recall that Jacob was closely associated with the northern territories (the entity called Israel during the divided monarchy) and that the Elohist hailed from the north.

The Elohist stresses the conditional character of covenant. The people will remain God’s adopted people if they demonstrate obedience as defined in the covenant. They were separated from the rest of the nations to become God’s special possession. Yet the Elohist also knows of Israel’s broader responsibilities. They will minister to the remainder of humanity as a kingdom of priests.

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3.1.3 Moses to the Elders (E)

So Moses came and called the elders of the people, and set before them all these words which Yhwh had commanded him. And all the people answered together and said, “All that Yhwh has spoken we will do.” And Moses reported the words of the people to Yhwh. And Yhwh said to Moses, “Now I am coming to you in a thick cloud, so that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you for ever.” Then Moses told the words of the people to Yhwh. (19:7–9)

Moses presented Yhwh’s program to Israel’s leadership, and they agreed to covenant in principle. Throughout the process, Moses functioned as the intermediary between deity and the people. The Elohist portrays Moses as the prototypical prophet, standing between God and Israel to mediate the covenant. The people could not view God directly, but when they saw the luminescent cloud they were assured of God’s presence and knew that he was conferring with Moses. Here, as throughout Israel’s history, a glowing cloud is evidence of God’s presence. In the Priestly tradition, this visible aura is called the glory of Yhwh.

In the next section, largely attributable to the Yahwist, God tells Moses how to prepare the people for their meeting.

3.1.4 Yhwh to Moses (J)

And Yhwh said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments, and be ready by the third day; for on the third day Yhwh will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And you shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, ‘Take heed that you do not go up into the mountain or touch the border of it; 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.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.” So Moses went down from the mountain to the people, and consecrated the people; and they washed their garments. And he said to the people, “Be ready by the third day; do not have intercourse with a woman.” (19:10–15)

This version implies that Yhwh will appear personally. Consequently, the people had to prepare themselves ritually to be qualified to meet their God. Here, in the Yahwist version, the people meet God directly, contrasting with the Elohist version where Moses is the intermediary between God and the people.

The people made themselves ritually clean through a process called consecration. The instructions in verse 15 were obviously directed at the male population. Note the directive: “Do not have intercourse with a woman.” Laws of ritual purity demanded refraining from sexual intercourse. One writer comments that in this statement “nowhere is the secondary status of women and their exclusion from the central institutions of Israelite society more apparent” (Newsome and Ringe, 1992: 33).

3.1.5 The Theophany (J and E)

On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. All the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to

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meet Elohim; and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because Yhwh descended upon it in fire; and the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and Elohim answered him in thunder. Yhwh came down onto Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain. Yhwh called Moses to the top of the mountain and Moses went up. (19:16–20)

Verses 16a, 18, and 20 belong to the Yahwist source (italicized); 16b–17 and 19 belong to the Elohist source. In the Elohist source, God reveals himself in meteorological phenomena: thunder and lightning and a thick cloud. These signs are all associated with the thunderstorm. In such a portrayal, Yhwh is manifest as a storm God. Baal of Canaanite religion was also associated with such phenomena. The text tells us the people were fearful of God and trembled (the “fear of God” is one of the characteristic themes of the Elohist). The Elohist narrative will continue in 20:18–21 where we learn that the people pleaded with Moses to speak to them rather than have God do it because hearing God directly made them scared. Moses replied that God was only testing them (remember that the sacrificing Isaac story in Genesis 22 was intended as a test, and it too was from the Elohist) and that God was intentionally making them afraid so they would think twice about sinning.

In verse 18, which bears the marks of the Yahwist source, the appearance of Yhwh is more like a volcanic eruption than a thunderstorm. Smoke ascended in a column, and there was an earthquake. This is evidence that we might have two different theophany traditions in Exodus 19, an Elohist–Horeb one and a Yahwist–Mount Sinai one.

Verse 20 returns us to the Yahwist version. God descended upon the mountain, and Moses ascended to the top—yet another time. There he received directions for guarding the sanctity of the holy mountain, which he brought back down to the people (21–25). For the Yahwist, the mountain is where revelation takes place. It is different for the Elohist, who will make things easier for Moses; a meeting tent (also called tent of meeting)will be constructed, which will be where Moses will journey to confer with God (see 33: 7).

Thus, the theophany passages of Exodus 19 establish a model of divine communication. Revelation comes from God at the mountain of God, called Mount Sinai by the Yahwist and Horeb by the Elohist, and Moses mediates it all. This narrative lays down the structure that gives authority to all the moral and ritual laws that follow in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.

3.2 Law and Covenant (20–23)

Although the Elohist source contributed some of the ancestral material to the book of Genesis, the heart of the E source is the Exodus from Egypt and the law giving at the mountain of God. The Elohist contains one of the fullest records of the nature of the covenant relationship that God established with his people.

Covenant law traditions were stronger in the northern territories of Israel than in Judah to the south. The covenant accounts of the Elohist provide a direct link to these traditions going all the way back to the time before the monarchy. Before becoming a nation, the tribes had formed a federation with its headquarters at Shechem. There they periodically engaged in covenant-renewal ceremonies

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that affirmed their solidarity and confirmed their faith in Yhwh. The one led by Joshua in Joshua 24 is the most elaborate. It is probable that the Elohist was associated in some way with prophetic circles in Israel, most likely with an Elijah group.

Moses’ activities on the mountain of God are very much like those of the northern prophet Elijah who came after him. Points of similarity include the following. Moses, like Elijah, confronted a difficult and contentious Israelite people as Elohim’s spokesman. Each had a loyal disciple, Joshua and Elisha, respectively. And both Moses and Elijah traveled to Horeb (for an account of Elijah see RTOT Chapter 9).

The covenant making that takes place in Exodus was a response to the miraculous escape from Egypt that God had arranged. In this covenant, God formalized his relationship with the Hebrews by, in effect, drawing up a contract, very similar to what governments do when they draw up treaties.

3.2.1 Ethical Decalogue (E)

Elohim devised a set of ten basic moral mandates that defined the relationship of Israel with Yhwh and people with one other (20:1–17). Commonly referred to as the Ten Commandments (“ten words” in Deuteronomy 4:13; hence Decalogue), they are the Ethical Decalogue of religious and moral commands. The core stipulations appear to come from the Elohist, with elaboration to some of them coming from later Priestly additions. Deuteronomy 5 contains a near duplicate of the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20, with some subtle but important variations. When we treat Deuteronomy (RTOT Chapter 5), the ancient Middle Eastern treaty background of the decalogue and the covenant will be examined.

Go to the companion website and see the table “Comparison of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5.”

The narrative places the voicing of the Ten Commandments at the point where Moses is down from the mountain (19:25). It is presented as the direct address of Elohim to all the people (not just to Moses). This setting is reinforced by the narrative that immediately follows (the Elohist passage in 20:18–21) in which the people react in great fear of Elohim who has just spoken to them, asking Moses to mediate God to them in the future.

The commands are framed in the second-person masculine singular form of address—again, we might ask, were the women not included? The singular form of the imperatives might have the effect of targeting the individual person in Israel while addressing Israel as a collective unit. The ambiguity of “you” in English (is it singular or plural?) is not present in the Hebrew text. In the discussion that follows, we will not refer to the commandments by number because Judaic and Christian traditions enumerate the commandments differently.

Go to the companion website and see the table “Commandment Numbering in Postbiblical Religious Traditions.”

The commandments begin with Elohim’s self-identification and also evoke the Exodus.

And Elohim spoke all these words, saying, “I am Yhwh your Elohim, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of enslavement.” (20:1–2)

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This is the prologue to the commandments in Christianity, but in Judaism it is the first commandment. It emphasizes the loving character and concern of God, which he demonstrated by rescuing the Israelites from slavery and oppression. The sequence of historical events is significant. First, he delivered them from slavery, and afterwards he came to them with the covenant commands. An implication might be that obedience to these commands would be Israel’s expression of appreciation, not an onerous imposition from a distant and demanding God.

“You may not have any other Elohim (translated as either “gods” or “God”) except me.” (20:3)

This command prohibits devotion to any deity but Yhwh. Perhaps to your surprise, it does not categorically deny the reality of other gods. This and other biblical texts implicitly acknowledge the existence of other gods, for example, Psalm 95:3.

“You may not make for yourself a sculpted image, or any representation of anything that is in heaven above, or on the earth below, or in the water under the earth. You may not bow down to them or serve them; for I Yhwh your Elohim am a possessive god, visiting the guilt of the fathers upon the children, upon the third and the fourth generation of those who disown me, but showing loyalty to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (20:4–6)

This command prohibits constructing any material object as a representation of Yhwh. Nothing that God has created could ever adequately represent him. The only thing that bears a likeness to God is humankind, which was created in his image and after his likeness, according to Genesis 1. This command to appropriately honor God stresses the seriousness with which God treats loyalty and disloyalty. The reference to heaven above, earth below, and water under the earth in the formulation of this command is evidence that the Israelites had a trilevel concept of the cosmos, a notion also evident in the Priestly creation narrative of Genesis.

“You may not take the name of Yhwh your Elohim in vain; for Yhwh will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” (20:7)

This command originally intended to prohibit taking false oaths. More than that, it also forbade disrespect shown to God by using his name wrongly or frivolously. God’s name was special. It was the nearest the Israelites came to possessing any part of God and had to be treated with the utmost care. Later Jewish practice takes this prohibition so seriously that the name of God, and even the word God, is never spoken, with phrases such as “the Lord” and “the Name” (hashem) used in its place, and G_d used in print.

“Remember to keep the Sabbath day holy. Six days you may work, and do all your jobs; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yhwh your Elohim; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your cattle, or the resident alien who lives with you; for in six days Yhwh made heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them, and ceased from work on the seventh day; by doing this Yhwh blessed the Sabbath day and made it a holy day.” (20:8–11)

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The Sabbath command institutionalizes a periodic cessation of typical daily work. The Hebrew term shabbat literally means “cease, stop, rest.” The warrant for such a time of inactivity is the pattern of creation in which God completed divine efforts in six days and ceased work by the seventh. The explanation from creation was added by the Priestly writer to provide the reason for Sabbath observance. The Deuteronomy 5 restatement of this command warrants Sabbath rest by recalling Israel’s period of slavery in Egypt and God’s deliverance from it. In this light, Sabbath rest commemorates Israel’s freedom rather than God’s creation.

“Honor your father and your mother, so that your days in the land which Yhwh your Elohim gives you may be numerous.” (20:12)

Respect is due one’s ancestors and especially one’s parents. A high social value was placed on children’s duty to care for parents, and veneration of ancestors, even dead ones, was broadly practiced in the ancient Middle East. Note that this is the only command that is future oriented and holds the promise of blessing attached to its observance. The blessing is evidently one of communal more than individual application (even though the grammatical form is singular), assuring lasting possession of the Promised Land.

“You must not murder.” (20:13)

This is a prohibition of murder, not of killing generally. Capital punishment was mandated for a variety of offenses in the Hebrew Bible (for example, see 21:12–17). Killing in war, especially the holy war against the Canaanites, was even a religious duty.

“You must not commit adultery.” (20:14)

In its original setting, this command primarily prohibited sexual relations with another man’s wife. This prohibition against the sexual promiscuity of married persons is aimed to protect the blood line of offspring. This was a crucial issue in matters of inheritance where a father wanted to be sure he and not someone else had sired his heir.

“You must not steal.” (20:15)

Stealing, in the first instance, probably applied to persons rather than property in the biblical world. Kidnapping was a common ancient practice (see 21:16 where the same Hebrew verb is used), and this commandment was intended primarily to promote personal security; by extension, it applied to material property. Remember the story of Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery. Kidnapping fueled the slave trade, along with war and economic deprivation.

“You must not bear false witness against your neighbor.” (20:16)

Here, deceitfulness and perjury are in view, perhaps first of all in a judicial setting. However, the commandment extends to a general protection of personal reputation, which is crucial for maintaining social order.

“You must not covet your neighbor’s estate: that is, you must not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (20:17)

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This is the only command that was intended to regulate attitude rather than behavior. The reason seems understandable: coveting, or deeply desiring what is not one’s own, is a state of mind that often leads to other prohibited behaviors. Contentment with what God has already provided is implicitly recommended. Mention of “your neighbor’s wife” indicates that this, and probably all the commands, were addressed primarily to free Israelite males, not to women. Remember also 19:15 and the command Moses spoke to those preparing to meet Yhwh on the mountain: “Do not have intercourse with a woman”—clearly addressing only the male population of the Israelites.

The commands naturally divide themselves into two general categories. The first set defines behaviors that apply to the people’s relationship with Yhwh. This relationship is to be an exclusive one demanding total loyalty. These injunctions were given at a time when most of the world was polytheistic. The emphasis is on Israel adopting Yhwh as their Elohim, not on affirming that Yhwh is the only God. The practices defined by the commandments reinforced their loyalty and respect for Yhwh.

The latter commands define behaviors that apply to relationships within the community. Both categories of behavior together constitute the essence of covenant. Put positively they command this: Love God and your neighbor as yourself (see Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18).

Most of the Ten Commandments take the form of absolute law, also termed apodictic law. The commands, in other words, are unconditional. They apply with no ifs, ands, or buts. Even though most of these commands are negative in form (“do not do this”), this does not imply that God’s requirements were oppressively restrictive. In fact, they merely placed certain general types of actions and attitudes out of bounds. Beyond that, they leave a rather wide latitude for freedom of action. They were certainly not perceived as oppressive by the Israelites, who found delight in God’s law (for example, see Psalms 1 and 119). Although cast in the negative, they can be considered general policy statements that were intended to shape the broader religious and moral character of the nation.

3.2.2 The Book of the Covenant (E)

The Book of the Covenant (20:22–23:19), also called the Covenant Code, is the earliest biblical collection of covenant laws. Probably going back to premonarchic traditions, it seems to have been an independent collection predating the Elohist, but preserved through the efforts of the Elohist. Features of this law code presume a livestock economy rather than a settled agricultural or urbanized economy, and this supports the claim for a premonarchic setting.

The Book of the Covenant is introduced with a narrative describing the theophany and the people’s reaction to it.

Now when all the people witnessed the thunder and the lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled; and they stood far away. They said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let Elohim speak to us, otherwise we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. Elohim has come to test you, and so that you may be aware of his fearfulness. Then maybe you will not sin.” (20:18–20)

Following the giving of the Ten Commandments God again appeared in a storm theophany heralded by a trumpet. The people were terrified of God’s

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appearing. Fear of Elohim is very important in this narrative, as in the Elohist source as a whole. Out of fear of getting too close to God, the people enlisted Moses as their intermediary. Moses assumed the role of the prophet and explained that God was putting them through this experience so that they would be impressed with his power and think twice before sinning.

The people stood far away, while Moses drew near to the thick cloud where Elohim was. And Yhwh said to Moses, “This is what you should tell the people of Israel: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken with all of you from heaven. You must not make me into a god of silver, and you must not make for yourselves gods of gold.’” (20:21–23)

Moses approached God, who was visibly present in the form of a thick dark cloud. The Book of the Covenant proper begins with verse 22. Note that a change from the preceding verse is evident; the divine designation changes from Elohim to Yhwh. Yhwh impressed upon them that they were encountering the God of heaven. His prime directive was the absolute prohibition of making statuary representations of God. The Israelites must not represent the God of heaven with metal images, as the Canaanites did of their gods.

This general prohibition of idols and the prescription concerning the type of altar they could use (20:23–26) precedes the main body of laws that is introduced with the preface: “These are the ordinances which you must place in front of them” (21:1). The typical form of these ordinances in the Book of the Covenant differs from the form of the Ethical Decalogue. The Book of the Covenant contains case law, also called casuistic law. This type of law takes the form “If X . . . , then Y.” An example of case law is the law of the goring ox.

If an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox must be stoned, and its flesh may not be eaten; but the owner of the ox will not be liable. But if the ox has had the habit of goring in the past, and its owner had been warned but had not kept it restricted, and it kills a man or a woman, then the ox must be stoned, and its owner also must be put to death. (21:28–29)

Typical of case law, first a condition is specified—in this case, an ox that gores a person. The consequence is then specified: The ox must be killed, but the owner may not benefit from it by eating the meat. In this instance, the owner is not held responsible. This particular statute specifies a subcategory that results in a much harsher punishment. If the ox had been in the habit of terrorizing the community, the owner had done nothing to prevent it, and then the ox kills someone, the owner will be held directly responsible and must be put to death along with the animal. Biblical law obviously distinguished degrees of responsibility.

In addition to injury laws, the Book of the Covenant also contains laws regarding slaves, death sentences, bodily injuries, a calendar of feasts, and other religious duties.

Go to the companion website and see the table “Summary of the Book of the Covenant.”

3.2.3 Law Collections from Mesopotamia

Many ancient Middle Eastern cities have yielded documents through the work of archaeologists. At least seven law codes have been found. The earliest one is the

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Hammurapi Monument

FIGURE 3.6 The Hammurapi Monument

The Code of Hammurapi contains 282 laws chiseled onto a pillar of basalt rock. The upper register is a picture of Hammurapi standing before the sun god Shamash, the patron god of justice. The bottom register contains the Code of Hammurapi in cuneiform. This free-standing stone was a monument to justice rather than a reference manual for the use of judges at court. It gave public testimony to the character of Hammurapi as a promoter of righteousness.

Source: Drawing by Karla VanHuysen based on the Hammurapi Stele (Paris: Louvre Museum).

Sumerian Code of Ur-Nammu, dating to the twenty-second century BCE. Others include the Code of Lipit-Ishtar, the Code of Eshnunna, Middle Assyrian laws, Hittite laws, and Neo-Babylonian laws (see ANET, 159–198). Thus, the legal traditions of Israel stand within a well-developed context of legally ordered societies in the ancient Middle East. Israel’s law codes have many points of contact with ancient nonbiblical law codes.

The most famous collection is the Code of Hammurapi (see Figure 3.6). Hammurapi was a Babylonian ruler from the eighteenth century BCE. The code begins with Hammurapi’s call “to promote the welfare of the people . . . to cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil that the strong might not oppress the weak.” (ANET, 164).

Go to the companion website and see the text “The Code of Hammurapi.”

There are notable similarities between the Code of Hammurapi and certain Israelite legal statements, especially some in the Book of the Covenant. For instance,

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as in Israelite law, the Code of Hammurapi contains the law of retribution in kind, famously known by its Latin designation lex talionis, which prescribes proportional punishment: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth:

Code of Hammurapi (§196–197) If a man has destroyed the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If he has broken another man’s bone, they shall break his bone.
Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21:23–25) If any injury occurs, you shall take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, beating for beating.

While such physical retaliation may seem brutal, in fact, it was probably humane in its day. Specifying restitution in kind prevented resort to harsher punishments for such offenses, typically the death penalty. The existence of this code and others like it also demonstrates that Israel shared with her neighbors an ideal of justice that would be administered by a righteous king. Deuteronomy makes clear that the king must uphold the law (see 17:17–20). In Israel, David and Solomon were thought to epitomize this ideal.

3.3 Covenant Confirmation (24:1–15)

After the content of the covenant had been revealed, the covenant relationship was ceremonially initiated. Chapter 24 contains two different traditions relating to the covenant ratification ceremony. In the first tradition, probably from the Elohist source, only representatives of the people approached God.

And he said to Moses, “Come up to Yhwh, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel, and worship at a distance. Moses alone shall come near to Yhwh; but the others shall not come near, and the people shall not come up with him.” (24:1–2)

This tradition is continued in verses 9–11, which describe a meal Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the elders ate with God in a covenant confirmation (or ratification) ceremony. In this version, the Israelites as a whole take part in the covenant ceremony only indirectly through their leaders. The traditions of Yhwh’s appearing are complex. In 24:9–11, Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders all saw God. In the meeting tent, Yhwh appeared to Moses “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (33:11). In 33:18–23, an Elohist text, Moses would see only the divine backside. In 34:5–8, a Yahwist text, Yhwh descends in a cloud and stands with Moses. On the one hand, no one can see God and live (33:20), but on the other hand, many do see God.

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up, and they saw the Elohim of Israel; and there was under his feet what looked like a sapphire stone street, like the heavens itself for clarity. And he did not lay his hand on the leaders of the people of Israel; they saw Elohim, and ate and drank. (24:9–11)

Eating a meal at the conclusion of covenant making also is found in Genesis 26:30 and 31:46, 54. Eating a ceremonial meal in the presence of God is an

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important component in later sacramental meals such as the Eucharist. All in all, this is a remarkable story and quite uncharacteristic of Elohist theology, which typically guards people from seeing God. Perhaps this story is actually from a different source, even though it has the markers of E. Israel’s leaders actually saw God and ate with him, and even though they gazed on him, they did not die.

In the second version the people gathered together for sacrifices and directly took part in the covenant ceremony.

Moses came and told the people all the words of Yhwh and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, “All the words which Yhwh has spoken we will do.” And Moses wrote down all the words of Yhwh. And he got up early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, along with twelve pillars, matching the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to Yhwh. And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that Yhwh has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, “Here is the blood of the covenant which Yhwh has made with you, in agreement with all these words.” (24:3–8)

In this ceremony the altar represents God. When Moses took blood from the sacrifices and sprinkled it on the altar and on the people, the two parties were bound together in the covenant. Blood represents life in the Hebrew Bible. This ceremony symbolically states that both parties were pledging their lives to the endurance of the covenant relationship, and they would die, symbolized by the shed blood, if they failed in their commitments.

Note how the people agreed to the covenant with full knowledge of its requirements. The Book of the Covenant was read directly to them and the people knowingly accepted the covenant requirements. The covenant would remain in effect as long as they were obedient. As with Exodus 19:3b–6, here too the Elohist covenant has the condition of the people’s obedience attached to it.

After the covenant ratification ceremonies, God called Moses up to the mountain to receive copies of the law.

Yhwh said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there. I will give you the stone tablets containing the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses got up with his servant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of Elohim. And he said to the leaders, “Wait here for us, until we return. For now, Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a problem, let him go to them.” Then Moses went up onto the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. (24:12–15)

These verses record yet another trip up the mountain and seem to contain yet another tradition of meeting God. Joshua and Hur are introduced in this account, while Nadab and Abihu are absent. Moses received the stone tablets containing “the law and the commandments.” This seems to be a reference to the Ethical Decalogue, but one cannot be sure. Moses presumably already had something written down according to 24:7, which refers to the Book of the Covenant.

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Go to the companion website and see the tables “Scribing the Covenant,” which gathers the evidence in the book of Exodus related to who wrote what and where, and “Moses Up and Down the Mountain,” which gathers the evidence regarding Moses’ multiple trips.

In any case, these two stone tablets are the ones Moses smashes in Exodus 32. Exodus 31:18; 32:15; and 34:1, 4, 29 specify two tablets (or tables) of stone. Traditionally, it has been imagined that five commandments were written on each tablet. Studies of ancient Middle Eastern covenant conventions clarify that the two tablets represent two complete copies of the covenant document, one for each party to the covenant.

Reading through these chapters, we might get exhausted for Moses—he has been going up and down, up and down. It is really difficult to sort out how many trips he actually takes. Apparently, these chapters have a complicated editorial history. Each tradition associates Moses with the mountain, and episodes from each were retained in the final version.

3.4 Covenant Breaking and Remaking (32–34)

The section between Chapter 24 (the covenant confirmation) and Chapter 32 (the covenant breaking) is a collection of Priestly specifications for the main apparatus of Israel’s religious system: the tabernacle, the ark and other accessories, and the priesthood that will care for it all. This detailed blueprint will be followed in Chapters 35–39, which detail the construction phase.

When the narration of events resumes following the technical interlude of Chapters 25–31, we come to the dramatic and sad affair of Israel’s worshipping an idol. This episode demonstrates that almost immediately after the covenant was ratified the Israelites were willing, even eager, to break it.

3.4.1 Golden Calf (Mostly E)

Moses spent a longer time on the mountain receiving the covenant from God than the people had expected. Thinking that they had lost Moses and thus their contact with the deity, they demanded that Aaron the high priest provide a substitute. Responding to their urging, Aaron solicited gifts from the people and proceeded to make a golden calf.

He took the gold from them, cast it in a mold, and made a calf image. They said, “These are your gods/elohim, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” When Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it and made a proclamation, “Tomorrow there will be a feast to Yhwh.” (32:4–5)

Thus, the Israelites committed idolatry. This calf seems reminiscent of the bull of Canaanite religion that was associated with the high god Baal. Bulls, cows, and calves were religious objects in the ancient Middle East. In Canaan the high god El was called a bull. Baal, another Canaanite deity, was the god of fertility who rode on a bull, surely a symbol of virility. Technically then, the bull was not itself Baal; rather, it functioned as his mount or throne. In a functionally similar way, the ark of the covenant was Yhwh’s throne. Giving Aaron the benefit of the doubt, when he constructed the golden calf he may have intended it to be the throne of Elohim rather than a deity in its own right. Practically speaking though, this is a rather fine distinction, and one easily lost on the people.

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This episode stands as a warning against worshipping the gods of the Canaanites who inhabit the Promised Land. Also, the golden calf unmistakably echoes the golden calves that Jeroboam, the first king of Israel after the civil dispute, erected in Dan and Bethel when he established religious centers in the northern kingdom of Israel in the tenth century BCE. The negative way in which the golden calf is viewed in Exodus is a veiled prophetic condemnation of Jeroboam’s golden calf worship centers. The statement, “These are your gods,” in the plural, when only one calf was molded, evokes the multiple calves of Jeroboam. In fact, these words are the same as the words of Jeroboam in 1 Kings 12:28.

Whatever Aaron’s intensions, there is no doubt how Yhwh took it. Israel had rejected him and proved themselves disloyal. In response God became extremely angry and resolved to destroy the people and begin building a new nation from Moses. Moses argued with God, suggesting that if all the Israelites died, the Egyptians will have triumphed. He urged God, “Turn from your fierce anger, change your mind, and do not bring catastrophe on your people.” Remarkably, God responded to Moses’ plea and voided his threatened punishment.

God instructed Moses to return to the people. Going down the mountain he saw the pagan revelry of the people. Partly out of anger he smashed the two tablets containing the record and testimony of the covenant. And partly to make a point he smashed them, to signal that the covenant had been broken because the people had forsaken their pledge loyalty by worshipping another god. The people had gone wild in celebration, and Aaron was held to blame.

When Moses saw that the people were out of control (for Aaron had let them get out of control, to the point that they were a menace to anyone opposed to them), Moses stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Who is on Yhwh’s side? Come over to me!” He said to them, “This is what Yhwh, the Elohim of Israel, says, ‘Each of you, strap your sword to your side. Go back and forth through the camp, from gate to gate. Each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.’” The Levites did what Moses commanded, and about three thousand people fell on that day. Moses said, “Today you have dedicated yourselves to Yhwh, each at the cost of a son or a brother. You have earned a blessing today.” (32:25–29)

This incident demonstrates the loyalty of the Levites to the cause of Yhwh. They were the only ones who had not succumbed to the lawlessness of golden calf worship. The story again pictures the Levites in a very favorable, if somewhat violent, light; this is not surprising, for the Elohist was a Levite. Though he was an advocate for the Levites generally, the Elohist did not admire Aaron. He directly implicates Aaron in the golden calf incident. Why would he want to put Aaron in such a bad light? Perhaps because the Elohist and his group had migrated to Jerusalem after the fall of Israel in 721 BCE. Even though they were Levites, they were unable to practice their livelihood in Jerusalem because the family of Aaron, also of the tribe of Levi, had tightly locked up the priestly craft. The privilege of serving as a priest was inherited, and one had to be from the family of Aaron of the tribe of Levi to qualify. Aaron, understandably, came under their severest criticism.

Yhwh then told Moses to take the people and head on to the Promised Land without him. Distressed at this change of plan, Moses met with Yhwh in the meeting tent and urged him to reconsider. The meeting tent is the symbol of Yhwh’s

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dwelling among the Israelites in the Elohist tradition. It never mentions the ark of the covenant, only the meeting tent. Perhaps this is because the Elohist was from the north where Shiloh was situated. Shiloh was the home of the tent shrine during the days of the tribal federation (see RTOT Chapter 8). The Yahwist never mentions the meeting tent. The ark ended up in Jerusalem, and that was the focus of worship there. That was of interest to the Yahwist, who was from Judah, but the Elohist ignored it because northern priests were not allowed to minister in the temple. [[√XR:Ch8]]

Again Yhwh changed his mind and decided to continue on with the Israelites. As proof of his commitment, the glory of Yhwh passed by Moses, and Moses caught a glimpse of the backside of Yhwh.

3.4.2 Covenant Remaking (J)

Having destroyed the first copy of the covenant tablets, Moses was instructed to ascend Mount Sinai and receive another copy. However, the actual commands of this version of the covenant differ from the more famous ones of Exodus 20. While still containing ten statements, Exodus 34 consists of laws related to worship practices and is called the Ritual Decalogue. Various schemes have been devised to come up with the exact ten suggested by 34:28. This is one possible enumeration:

1. You may not worship another other god because Yhwh, whose name is Jealous One, is a jealous God. (14a)

2. You may not make molten gods for yourselves. (17)

3. Every firstborn human or animal belongs to God. (19a)

4. No one may appear before God without an offering. (20c)

5. You can work six days, but on the seventh day you may not work. (21a)

6. You must observe the feast of weeks, the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering. (23)

7. You may not offer the blood of my sacrifice with anything leavened. (25a)

8. The Passover sacrifice must not remain until the morning. (25b)

9. You must bring the best of the first fruits of the soil to the house of Yhwh your God. (26a)

10. You may not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.28 (26b; also 23:19 and Deuteronomy 14:21; the practice of boiling a kid in its mother’s milk may derive from Canaanite fertility rituals, and the prohibition of eating milk and meat together is part of the elaborate kashrut, or kosher system, of Jewish laws that regulates food and cleanliness.)

Moses descended Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant. Because he had been talking directly with God his face was aglow with the glory of Yhwh (see Figure 3.7).

The people of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone; and Moses would put the veil upon his face again, until he went in to speak with him. (34:35)

3.5 Tabernacle (25–31, 35–40)

The covenant established with Israel from Mount Sinai was foundational. And for the Priestly writer, the most important aspect of the Mount Sinai experience was

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Michelangelo's Moses

FIGURE 3.7 Michelangelo’s Moses

The phrase “skin of Moses’ face” was misunderstood in the Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible where it was rendered “horns,” influencing, for example, Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses, which places horns on his forehead.

Source: Photo by Barry Bandstra. Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome.

receiving the gift of the tabernacle, a portable tent shrine that served as God’s place of residence among his people throughout their wilderness travels and on into the Promised Land. The Priestly source in Exodus devotes two extended passages to the tabernacle because the main duty of the priesthood was to facilitate the fellowship of Yhwh and his people using it. The tabernacle assured the Israelites that God would be present to them throughout their journey.

The first tabernacle passage details the design of the worship center (Exodus 25–31), and the second narrates its construction (Exodus 35–40). The narrative itself is ordered as seven divine speeches, each introduced with the formula “Yhwh said to Moses.” The seventh features the Sabbath, suggesting a parallel with the Priestly creation narrative of Genesis 1 (see Kearney, 1977). The design is presented as a divine blueprint, a notion attested as early as 2200 BCE when Gudea of Lagash was given divine instructions to build a sanctuary (see Hurowitz, 1985).

Go to the companion website and see the table “Parallels between the Priestly Creation Story and the Wilderness Tabernacle.”

The tabernacle complex was divided into three distinct zones of increasing holiness: the outer courtyard, the holy place of the tabernacle, and the most holy place (Figure 3.8). Note the symmetry of the overall layout and the placement of the ark of the covenant within the most holy place at the precise point of intersection.

The most holy place is itself perfectly symmetrical, a cube of 10 cubits by 10 by 10. Parallels between the creation and the priesthood-sanctuary complex of

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FIGURE 3.8 The Tabernacle Complex

the Priestly source suggest that worship derives from the order of creation and is designed to bring humanity into conformity with it. The construction of the tabernacle sanctuary and its management by the priesthood is the completion of the work of God in creation (see Haran, 1978).

The head artisan, Bezalel, and the other craftsmen built the portable tent shrine, along with its accessories, and made the articles of ceremonial clothing that priests would need to perform their ritual service. Included in the list are the ark of the covenant to store the covenant documents, the table for the bread of the presence, the lamp stand (menorah in Hebrew), and the altars of incense and burnt offering. Within the tabernacle, Yhwh sat enthroned between the cherubim (Psalm 80:1; Isaiah 37:16), who represent the Divine Council. The symmetry and symbolism of the tabernacle reflect the perfection of God and his relationship to creation. The most holy place represents heaven, and the holy place represents the earth. The outer courtyard with its massive water basin may symbolize the waters of chaos, where one is most distant from God.

The climax of the Priestly tabernacle narrative comes in 40:34–38 when the cloud of God’s presence descends on the tabernacle and the glory of Yhwh fills it. The cloud presence of God, which once rested on Mount Sinai, has now entered the sanctuary. God’s presence then accompanied the Israelites throughout their travels and eventually took up residence in the temple built in Jerusalem during the time of Solomon.


As with Genesis, the book of Exodus contains material from the Yahwist, Elohist, and Priestly sources. In contrast to Genesis, however, where the Elohist had a small role, in Exodus the Elohist makes a substantial contribution. In addition, the final form of Exodus included independent traditions such as the Song of the Sea

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TABLE 3.2 Law Collections

Ethical DecalogueExodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5
Book of the CovenantExodus 20:22–23:33
Ritual DecalogueExodus 34
Ritual LawsLeviticus 1–16, Numbers 1–10
Holiness CodeLeviticus 17–26
Deuteronomic CodeDeuteronomy 12–26

in Exodus 15 and the Book of the Covenant. The deliverance and covenant traditions have been combined in the book of Exodus to tell a profound story. The final form of Exodus, in particular the way the story of the Exodus was placed before the Sinai traditions, conveys a deep truth about the relationship between God’s care and Israel’s life.

Go to the companion website and see the table “Sources of the Book of Exodus.”

The flow of the story communicates that God gave special treatment to the Israelites because of his love for them and out of his faithfulness to the ancestral promises. Only after God delivered them from slavery did he formalize their relationship with a national covenant. In other words, obedience to Torah, as defined by the Sinai covenant, was expected, but only as a response to the deliverance of the Exodus. It was not a precondition of experiencing God’s care and salvation. In fact, going all the way back to the ancestral story, God had made the first move by choosing them as his special people through Abraham.

Furthermore, the book of Exodus places the phenomenon of biblical law in perspective. When we examine Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, we see that these books contain many collections of legislation (Table 3.2). Viewed with an eye to each collection’s source and historical context, we see that they come from different settings, many of them much later than the presumed lifetime of Moses. Yet all of them are attached to Israel’s historical experience at Mount Sinai and are associated in the present books with the figure of Moses. This association was deliberate because Moses was regarded as the prime lawgiver of Israel; for any legal tradition to have full legitimacy, it would have to be associated with him. [[FT3.2]]

Rather than being presented in catalog fashion (such as the Code of Hammurapi), all this technical, legal, and ritual material is embedded within historical narrative. Biblical law does not stand in isolation but is associated with the life story of Israel. This provides law and covenant with a grounding in Israel’s experience with Yhwh, especially his acts of deliverance. Torah comes with divine authority; though Moses transmitted the laws, they originated with Yhwh.

This helps us understand the overall purpose of Torah in the sense of revelation and law. Law in its setting within the Hebrew Bible was not given as a set of conditions to be met in order to establish a relationship with God; the narrative demonstrates that the relationship, by the time of the Exodus, was already a longstanding one. The purpose of covenant law was to preserve and perpetuate an

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already functioning bond between God and his people. In this perspective, law defined the shape that Israel’s obedience would need to take to sustain that already initiated relationship.



1. Historicity. What is the probable Egyptian context for the Exodus and the extrabiblical evidence to situate it chronologically?

2. Divine name. Where and when did Israel’s deity reveal the divine personal name to Moses and how was this related to the Exodus?

3. Passover. What is the Passover, and how is it related to the Exodus from Egypt?

4. Law. What are the different collections of biblical law that are found in the book of Exodus, how do they differ, and how are they related to extrabiblical law collections?

5. Divine presence. How and to whom did the deity make his presence evident in Exodus, and what are the conflicting views of the sources regarding seeing God?


1. Freedom and law. The book of Exodus brings together two core themes that have turned out to be central to social democracies in the modern world—namely, freedom from oppression and rule by constitutional law. What is the relationship between these two themes? Why was it important, and what effect did it have that both were associated with Israel’s supreme deity and, in fact, came about through the deity’s initiative? Is it necessary that a people’s deity sanction their laws in order for the law to be respected?

2. Theophany. Describe the various ways that God revealed his presence and made himself known in Exodus. In what ways was God visible, and in what ways was he invisible? What does this imply about Israel’s understanding of the nature of its God and life in his presence? What are the conflicting attitudes people had to seeing God? Why was it important to be able to apprehend deity in some way?

3. Divine character. Exodus addresses the character of deity in major ways. What moments in the story bear on God’s character and identity? How is God’s character revealed progressively and sometimes in a contradictory manner? Is it also in some ways intentionally concealed? In what way is the identity of Israel dependent on the identity or character of its God?


The Ten Commandments is the title of two cinematic renditions of the Exodus of the Israelites, one directed by Cecil B. DeMille (1956) and the other by Robert Dornhelm (2006). They are done in radically different styles and are useful for comparing different ways to imagine the crossing of the Reed Sea, divine revelation, and wilderness life. Dekalog: The Ten Commandments, by Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz (1989), is a collection of ten drama films, each one based on one of the Ten Commandments, that explore the spirit of the moral law. Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America, by Chris Hedges (2005), is an engaging and personal exploration of the Decalogue as a lens through which to view the moral character of America today. Understanding Old Testament Ethics: Approaches and Explorations, by John Barton (2003), treats biblical moral law more comprehensively. The Nine Commandments: Uncovering the Hidden Pattern of Crime and Punishment in the Hebrew Bible, by D. N. Freedman (2000), traces the violation of the commandments through Israel’s history from Exodus to Kings as the justification for Israel’s exile. You will have to read the book to discover what happened to the tenth commandment.