Chapter 2: The Making and Meaning of Covenant (Exodus 19:1-24:18)
This section of six chapters is in its present form and position in the Old Testament the introductory unit to a tremendous block of material extending through the remainder of the Book of Exodus to embrace all of Leviticus and the first part of Numbers, terminating with Numbers 10:10. This unit, Exodus 19: 1- Numbers 10:10, is an editorial creation, comprising varied traditional materials brought together from a broad span of centuries, and provided with integrity as a unit in the place, Sinai. This giant block of material appears to have been inserted in the midst of a section unified in the place, Kadesh, for Kadesh appears as the area of operations both before and after the extended material centered at Sinai. Kadesh is not, to be sure, mentioned by name in Exodus 16-18, but parallels to these stories in Numbers (especially Numbers 11 and 20) clearly belong to the Kadesh cycle, toward which center Israel moves directly from Sinai (Num. 10:11-13:26); and it is highly probable that the contest with Amalek (Exod. 17:8-13) as well as the meeting with Jethro (Exod. 18; Num. 10:29-32) took place in the vicinity of Kadesh.
Most of this material centered at Sinai shows signs of long association with priestly circles; that is, it owes its preservation if not necessarily its origin to this increasingly influential element in the life of the Old Testament people. But it also contains a significant nucleus which is distinctly not of priestly cast, although certainly incorporated with the approval and by the design of the priestly perspective. We may term this material “Yahwistic,” or even prophetic if we push back, as we must, the limits of essential prophetism to the tenth century, and possibly earlier. This material largely comprises Exodus 19-24, the six chapters now before us, and Exodus 32-34; and within this core, Exodus 19, 20, and 24 appear to have provided the basic framework for the unit. The initial structure was simple and theologically eloquent: The glory, the presence, of the Lord is revealed with uncommonly convincing power – the term which is often used for this kind of revelation is “theophany” – signifying the Lord’s commitment to the Covenant (a pact, an agreement, a working arrangement between two parties) implicit in the divine-human encounter (ch. 19). The senior party to the Covenant, the Lord, having already committed himself, and having revealed his glory, now makes known his will – the Ten Commandments – for the other Covenant party, Israel (ch. 20). In chapter 24, Israel’s acceptance of and commitment to this Covenant with its fundamental responsibilities is symbolized and celebrated in a cultic act which includes the shedding of blood and a communion meal, both signifying the absolutely irrevocable quality of the commitment. It is surely unnecessary to point out that this same essential theological pattern reappears, this time centering in the person of Christ, in the New Testament which is the New Covenant. The glory of God is revealed, his Word is given, uniquely (such is the Christian affirmation) in Christ, signifying God’s commitment to that Covenant in which he offers to redeem man from all his multiform, perennial Egypts, and bring him into the freedom of his service, to take him for his own. He then makes known his will, in the person and gospel of Christ. Christian acceptance of and commitment to this Covenant is symbolized in faith’s appropriation of Christ’s death, and its continued celebration and reappropriation in the Holy Communion.
As has so often been the case in preceding episodes in Exodus, here too we must be cautious in moving from the articulation of the event to the actual historical form, sequence, content, and significance of the episode. We have no doubt that, in substantially the simple form just described, the making and meaning of the Sinai Covenant was from early times re-enacted in a kind of liturgical celebration. There is no reason to doubt a firm relationship between the early form of the celebration and the structure of the historical occasion giving rise to it. One sees little ground for denying that Moses did return with Israel to the scene of his first encounter with the Word and Presence of the Lord – an encounter utterly transforming his and Israel’s existence; that the Covenant between the Lord and Israel was here, in precisely such simple, moving terms, solemnly attested by both parties; and that the first pre-Christian biblical celebration of Holy Communion actually occurred in conjunction with the sealing of Covenant.
But in its final form the Sinai tradition is obviously vastly expanded, leaving with the reader the impression that virtually the total structure of thoroughly formalized and institutionalized religion came into full-blown existence at Sinai. The process of augmentation is already apparent in what we have termed the nucleus in chapters 19, 20, and 24. The Ten Commandments themselves (in Hebrew, literally, “ten words”) are certainly not now in their earliest form; and there is some reason to suspect not only expansion and even modification, but the substitution of another “edition,” so to speak, for what was originally there, although it is to be remarked that, if so, little difference existed between the two editions. To this probable nucleus of the three chapters, the long section of instructional material, chapters 21-23, was added, as was the material in 32-34; and in the centuries following, there were incorporated other materials relevant to the character of the Sinai event.
Here we are immediately concerned only with that section in Exodus (chs. 19-24) which constitutes the introduction to the whole body of material associated with Sinai and which contains the original nucleus around which the whole complex ultimately formed.
The Glory of the Lord at Sinai (19:1-25)
The word “theophany” is compounded of the Greek word meaning “God” and the verb “to appear.” There is nothing objectionable in referring to chapter 19 as a “theophany” if it is understood to mean a manifestation of God. But it is crucially important to observe that the narrative makes no claim that the Lord himself, the very Person of God, the Deity, here made his visible appearance.
The Initiating Word (19:I-9a)
One notable feature of the introductory scene is the prominence of words having to do not with vision but with audition. Four such words occur in verse 3 alone: “The LORD called. . .saying, ‘Thus you shall say . . . and tell . ..'” With reference to the past, the passage continues in the next verse, “You have seen what I did” in Egypt, but again a succession of words denoting audition follows: “Obey my voice and keep my covenant [the first covenant is the “ten words”] . . . These are the words which you shall speak. . . So Moses. . . called. . . and set before them all these words which the LORD has commanded him. And all the people answered . . . and said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do.’ And Moses reported the words . . . And the LORD said . . .” (vss. 5-9). Israel understood her own history and discovered its meaning, to be sure, in the mighty acts of God – the Lord’s acts as determined by the interaction of Word and word, and recognized as his acts only by the instrument of the Word.
Somewhere along the way there was a touch of the Deuteronomic literature, leaving the language of a few verses characteristically modified. The eloquent figure of the “eagles’ wings” (vs. 4) is movingly employed of the relationship of Israel to God in the “Song of Moses” in Deuteronomy. The Lord found Israel
. . .in a desert land,
and in the howling waste of the wilderness;
he encircled him, he cared for him,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Like an eagle that stirs up its nest,
that flutters over its young,
spreading out its wings, catching them,
bearing them on its pinions,
the LORD alone did lead him. . . (Deut. 32:10-12).
Verses S and 6 of Exodus 19 should also be compared with Deuteronomy 26:18 and especially with Deuteronomy 7:6 and 14:2. The Deuteronomists stress with some pride the conviction of faith that Israel is a people chosen of God: “. . . the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth” (Deut. 7:6). All of the strata of tradition show an awareness that “chosenness” is God’s Word and that the Word means service – Israel is chosen by God to serve his inescapably universal purposes. The “Yahwist” historians convey this understanding of the Word of chosenness in the call of Abraham in Genesis 12:3: “by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.” The somewhat later “E” material lifts up its Joseph figure to symbolize the Lord’s chosenness, and sees fulfillment in the statement that not only Joseph and his brothers and his father’s house and Egypt were saved by the fact of Joseph’s chosenness, but “all the earth came . . . to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth” (Gen. 41:57). Prophecy gives its most emphatic interpretation of the Word’s chosenness in one of the Servant Songs, all of which essentially deal with the meaning of chosenness and the function of the entity chosen by the Lord (Isa. 42:1-7; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12). In language which appears strikingly to give ultimate theological interpretation to the Joseph story, we read:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the preserved of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the
end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6).
The Deuteronomists – far less lyrically, to be sure – possess and preach the same Word. Their insistence that Israel is a holy people, set apart, dedicated, consecrated, to the service of God, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:6; compare again Deut. 7:6 and 14:2, “For you are a people holy to the LORD. . .”) makes essentially the same affirmation.
The Word of “chosenness” is subsequently affirmed as this Old Testament body of material dealing with the faith and life of the people of Israel is shaped in such a way as to affirm totally the hope and expectation of Israel’s fulfillment of that Word. Thus there is produced in final fixed form a Testament which, while in no sense suppressing the human word, nevertheless gives predominant place to the divine Word, justifying on the whole the prophetic theme:
It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the
shall be established as the highest of the
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths”
(Isa. 2:2-3; see also Micah 4:1-4).
On the other hand, it is to be affirmed with equal force that this Testament is a testament of Word and word; that men persist here as everywhere, then as always, in representing their own, human word as his Word, in substituting thoughts for Thoughts and ways for Ways (see Rom. 1:18-23). It is the pride not alone of little Israel but of little Everyman to interpret God’s seeking Love and confronting Presence and covenanting Proposal as the sign, guarantee, and promise of superiority and special privilege. It was true of the people of the Old Covenant. The same ones who understood, believed, and preserved the Word also passed on (sometimes surely believing) the word. It has not been and is not different in the New Covenant where, from the time of the disciples’ association with the Word made flesh to the moving present, Word and word are not merely confused; sometimes the human word is given the authority of the divine Word.
It is evident here that Israel was absolutely clear herself about the character of the Word which she heard at Sinai: “All that the LORD has spoken we will do.” We are ready to enter into Covenant – on his terms who initiates the Covenant (vs. 8). God’s Word now promises an “appearance” (implicitly as tangible divine commitment to the Covenant); but it is to be a manifestation also by audition – “that the people may hear . . .” (vs. 9).
The People’s Preparation (19:9b.15)
This description of preparatory rites for a ceremony reflects ancient religious practices and beliefs surviving from the past centuries of Israel’s existence. The Lord will make himself manifest before all the people (vs. 11). A visual manifestation is anticipated: he will come “in a thick cloud” (vs. 9) “in the sight” of all (vs. 11). It is thus the Presence or the Glory – not the Person – that is seen (see also Isa. 6 and Ezek. 1).
Three days of ceremonial purification are required, including the washing of garments and sexual abstinence: one must come into the Presence “clean.” Even so, on pain of death no one, man or beast, may approach too closely to the Presence (vss. 12-13). Old notions of “taboo” may still survive here; but even so we may well prefer this sense of appropriate distance between God and man to the all too common representations of chumminess which are characteristic of popular religion in our own days. To be sure, Christ gives us access to the Presence, but we must not confuse the Presence and the Person; we must not reduce God to any manifestation of him we are able to comprehend!
The narrative is shaped in a tradition which especially reveres the name, memory, and person of Moses. While Israel stands in awe, looking from afar, seeing and hearing at a well-calculated distance, Moses ascends to the very summit and into the cloud itself! The greatest tribute to Moses is preserved in the statement that the Lord “used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exod. 33:11, possibly from E; the point, however, is not subscribed to by all strata of tradition – compare 33:20, possibly from 1). The critical, inviolable power of the Presence, so strongly underlined in the prescribed preparation of the people, is to Moses uncritical, fully approachable, and benign; and in this implicit estimate of Moses we are confident that tradition remembers well and accurately.
The Lord’s Commitment (19:16-25)
In the narrative of Israel’s experiences at Sinai we find, by and large, a remarkably coherent, instructive account of the faith of Israel as Israel looks at her own past and the meaning of her continuing life. But verses 2 1-25 are another matter. It is likely that the section properly ends at verse 20, with Moses ascending Sinai at the call of the Lord. Verse 21, however, represents him as commanded to go right back down again to keep the foolish people from breaking through to stare at the Lord – and so perish! In the next verse the priests are warned to consecrate themselves or suffer the dire consequences of the Lord’s fierce wrath, although presumably they would have joined in the people’s consecration. The sense of verse 23 is that God must be reminded by Moses that he has already taken care of the matter (19:12). And verse 24 is concerned only to say that Aaron is the co-star with Moses in the Sinai act and, in distinction from verse 22, that Moses and Aaron alone with no priests attending, enter the Presence; and furthermore that any others attempting to join this company of two will find themselves “broken out against” by the Lord himself.
Now two positive statements are in order. Despite the long centuries of tradition’s fluid, unceasingly changing form, and despite the fact that it passed through many minds and lips and hands, it is remarkable that such miscellaneous accumulations occur so infrequently. Second, such inconsequential confusion occasionally encountered reminds us that this whole treasure of the Word is given us in earthen vessels (II Cor. 4:7) and serves to check us sharply when and if we begin to equate the Word with the vessel which contains it. It is surely only the Living Word, the Third Party to our conversations with the Bible, who can help us in distinguishing the Word from the word, the communicated nature and will of God from the vessel which preserves it.
But there is emphatically none of this uncertainty in verses 16-20. Questions, yes. Are the natural phenomena to be interpreted as the violent manifestations of storm? Or erupting volcano? Or are these simply metaphors, intentional metaphors, to describe the otherwise indescribable – the sense of overpowering awe, mystery, and violently eruptive force in the actual Presence, in confrontation with the Glory of the Lord? There is a further persistent and often frustrating question: What is the relationship of the account to the actual episode?
Again, we must acknowledge that such questions as these cannot be answered conclusively. Granted that from the point of view of understanding the faith of ancient Israel these are not critical questions, we of typically Western frame of mind, who put so much significance upon delineation of fact, cannot but regret this kind of frustration. If it were conclusively demonstrable that tradition here preserves the eyewitness report of the sacred mountain under such violent natural seizure; and furthermore if such natural phenomena were unmistakably attributable to volcanic action (the strongest but still indecisive indication of this is the phrase in verse 18 “the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln”), we could with some assurance locate Sinai Horeb in the only area within possible range where volcanic phenomena have existed – that is, in the territory of ancient Midian (present Arabia) east of the northern end of the Gulf of Aqabah. Or if it could be shown conclusively that volcanic activity is not the explanation, but that what is literally described here is what is also literally and accurately recorded in the very old Song of Deborah (Judges 5), we should have strong, if not compelling, reason to locate Sinai in the general vicinity of Kadesh-Edom – somewhere to the south of the Dead Sea and north of the Gulf of Aqabah.
“LORD, when thou didst go forth from
when thou didst march from the region
the earth trembled,
and the heavens dropped,
yea, the clouds dropped water.
The mountains quaked before the LORD,
yon Sinai before the LORD, the God of
Israel” (Judges 5:4-5).
Or, if we knew that the description in Exodus 19 has no external (archaeological) relationship to place, time, and event and that it is simply and intentionally metaphorical, we would be afforded the luxury of shedding at least for the moment the responsibilities of geographer-topographer-historian; we could then read the passage in the knowledge that here at least no clues exist to aid in the possible reconstruction of an actual event.
But although these uncertainties of external structure remain, the account leaves uncomplicated and emphatic this “event” as internally apprehended – that is, as in faith remembered and appropriated and celebrated in that community which knew itself in subsequent centuries to be, as it were, the child of Sinai Horeb. It is the faith of the community which came ultimately to read the meaning of its own life predominantly from that event. What is said in this record is said in faith. it is said categorically; it is put beyond the limits of dispute. It is affirmed colorfully, vividly, in descriptive language appealing to and involving all the senses: to every instrument of human perception God made known his Glory and Presence. It is still not himself that is perceived, but the unqualified fact of his now immediately impinging Life and Nature and Will.
What happened at Sinai constitutes an “appearance” – a “theophany.” The appearance is emphatically not an end in itself, although the concluding verses (2 1-24) try very hard to make it so, but with notable lack of success. No. What is impressed on all is the awe and the magnitude and the certainty of the Presence at Sinai; but the basic motif of the account is the validation of the Word which is given there and of the Covenant which there comes into being.
Tradition deals here with Word and Covenant. It deals with what is to become in Israel’s history the most important quality of its life – the Covenant quality. Israel is in time persuaded that what meaning her life bears is exclusively Covenant-meaning; and the Covenant between God and Israel is formally and tangibly brought into existence at Sinai. As remembered in the subsequent life of Israelism-Judaism, it is so overwhelmingly and powerfully the Covenant event that it tends to draw to itself, like a giant magnet, subsequent occasions and actions by which Covenant is further defined, redefined, expanded, and modified. This being the case, then, tradition must be concerned with more than validating the Word which is Torah (the divine instruction defining Israel’s commitment and responsibility to Covenant); it is necessary also to affirm past any possible rebuttal that the Lord himself assumed the power and nature of his own commitment implicit in the revelation of his glory on Sinai-Horeb.
It is faith that is on record here. The Covenant is the subject. The Lord is Lord of nature, outside and above nature, more powerful than nature at its most powerful, able even to use nature’s power as a cloak or a garment. This Lord, chiefly by the instrument of his Word, has created a people. Now by the same instrument, he initiates a Covenant, a God-People contract which is precisely defined in these simple terms: I will be God (a term without meaning except in relationship), bringing to this relational responsibility the qualities you experienced in the Egyptian deliverance and have overwhelmingly sensed in the revelation at Sinai; you will be People (a term also without meaning. biblically, except in relationship), bringing to this relational responsibility the performance of the Word (Torah) which is given here.
The Decalogue (20:1-17)
In a form differing only in a few details, this same series of statements appears again in Deuteronomy 5:6-21. What we call the “Decalogue” or the “Ten Commandments” is simply designated in the Old Testament as the “Ten Words” (34:28; Deut. 4:13; 10:4; see the marginal notes on these three verses). Such a compact definition of responsibility is by no means unique in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy we find a series of vigorous prohibitions known as the “Twelve Curses” or “Dodecalogue”; they are “Twelve Words” delivered at Shechem, which was between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim (Deut. 27:12-26). It seems probable that in Exodus 21:12, 15-17 we have four surviving “words” from an originally longer series of offenses punishable by death. Leviticus 19:13-18 presents a series of ten or twelve items (depending upon how one divides the text) defining, largely by prohibition, the nature of social responsibility and concluding with the powerful statement later to be identified as “The Second Great Commandment” (Matt. 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-31). In ethical sensitivity and nobility it is a series unsurpassed in the Old Testament even by the Decalogue of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5.
That the present form of the text means to present a list of ten commandments is certain. But on the precise counting of the ten, three different opinions have long been held. Briefly defined, and placed side by side, this is how the three suggested schemes appear:
Any one of these arrangements of the Decalogue is obviously possible, and each has commended itself to large numbers of people. Judaism’s conventional counting of the commandments will be followed in this discussion. It seems arbitrary to make a division in verse 17. The present form of the verse certainly represents an expansion of the original prohibition which, on the analogy of the four preceding prohibitions, probably read simply, “You shall not covet,” or perhaps, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house” (that is, the totality of what is your neighbor’s). Similarly, the separation of verse 3 from verses 4-6, and the making of two commandments out of the apparently single prohibition of other gods (vs. 3) and images (vss. 4-6), appear unjustified. Judaism’s reckoning has been criticized on the ground that verse 1 is a declaration, not a commandment or prohibition; but it is certainly integral, the first necessary foundation “word” in support of the following, sequential nine “words.”
Is the Decalogue Mosaic – did it originate in Moses’ time? Not in its present form, according to many interpreters. This is not to deny the overwhelming testimony of tradition that Moses was a lawgiver, the author or mediator of torah (instruction). In ascribing the first five books of the Old Testament to Moses, ancient tradition attributes to him the accumulation and refinement of some eight centuries of torah – a fact which testifies to the strength of the memory of Moses’ capacity as lawgiver. And in support of this, one may point to the obvious necessity of a constitutional body of instruction and control, a concrete, if initially simple, code of incorporation for the people.
But if we see no reason to doubt Moses’ role in this regard, we must at once also concede the extreme difficulty of determining what – out of the extensive collection of torah attributed to him – is actually Mosaic. It may be pointed out that formal regulations obviously do not and cannot precede the conditions which it is their purpose to regulate. Thus, for example, traffic regulations do not precede the traffic problems with which they are concerned – unfortunately! In the same way, torah which is unquestionably aimed at conditions of monarchic political existence in Canaan (for example, instructions as to the appropriate conduct of the king himself in Deuteronomy 17:18-20), or at the control of problems demonstrably presupposing settled agricultural life (for example, the oft-repeated limitation on the gleaning of fields and vineyards, as in Deuteronomy 24:19-22 and Leviticus 19:9-10) – such torah can hardly be Mosaic in the literal sense.
Similarly, we may suppose that, as presently formulated, the commandments respecting Sabbath and parents and the prohibitions with regard to the making of images and to coveting are not Mosaic. Is it possible, then, that Moses was responsible for an original “ten words” on the order of verses 13, 14, and 15, each of which is in Hebrew two short words? The prudent answer to this question is that while this is possible, it does not appear probable. A more likely view, and one held by many competent interpreters, is that this present collection of ten commandments, this Decalogue, this aggregate of “ten words,” probably represents not an original nucleus around which the growing fullness of Old Testament torah formed, not a chronologically prior basic code which was subsequently expanded, but rather a self-conscious, consummately discerning effort to reduce to its most significant essence a relatively comprehensive and detailed body of torah. In short, the Decalogue has been most competently interpreted as the summation of the will of the Lord for the community of Israel, drawn from an established body of legal and instructional material.
Now if this is true, it in fact enhances the importance of the Decalogue, for what is given is the deeply pondered, concentrated meaning of life under Covenant, as that meaning is apprehended in faith. To the possible objection that to regard the Commandments as a summation appears to reduce the Decalogue to merely human and therefore uninspired origin we should respond in vigorous denial: rather, this is to interpret the Word as we think the Word always comes – in interaction with the word. The Decalogue, so interpreted, is the Word; but more, it conveys the community’s receipt of the Word and the community’s response to the Word. The Lord has spoken: this is what we understand him to say; this is the significant minimum and essence which may not be further reduced; and this embraces his will for us.
If this interpretation is true, we can only say further that in a profound sense the Decalogue is Mosaic; what is formulated here in essence was certainly implicit in the words in and around which Moses first sought to order Israel’s previously unordered existence. For the relationship of Israel to the Lord in a Covenant, the content of the Commandments was inherent from the beginning; the violation of any one of the “ten words” was from the beginning the violation of that relationship and that Covenant.
The Integrity of the Lord: The First Pentalogue (20:1-12)
The first five “words” have to do with that which is directly related to the Senior Party of the Covenant: God’s (1) Identity, (2) Nature, (3) Name, (4) Day, and (5) Claim.
(1) The intensely concentrated definition of Covenant must first deal with the identity of the Initiator of the Covenant:
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (20:2).
This definition of the Person of the Lord, this identification made in terms of Israel’s own historical experience this is itself a commandment. It demands: Know me and acknowledge me as the One without whom chaos would still embrace you, formless and void. Know me, for only in my Identity do you become an entity, only in my Identity can you be identified! Know me as Creator; but know me too as Deliverer, who brought you out of the “house of bondage,” out of the condition of slavery. It was I who brought you from the closed to the open, from the bitter to the sweet, from the shackled to the free, from the lost to the saved! I am the Lord your God, who wrought this for you! Know me. Acknowledge me. Remember me. Know my identity.
(2) The second Word continues: It is my Nature to be God alone. In the notion that there are other gods – although not in itself a denial of me – I am in fact denied, since this notion denies my Nature, and in this notion therefore I cannot Be.
“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything . . . you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the Iniquity of the fathers upon the children. . . but showing steadfast love [devotion quite beyond the obligation of the relationship as such] to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (20:3-6).
Elsewhere the same concept is affirmed in Israel’s larger torah in a single remarkable sentence capable of sustaining four differing translations, which are nevertheless unified in meaning:
The LORD our God is one LORD.
The LORD our God, the LORD is one.
The LORD is our God, the LORD is one.
The LORD is our God, the LORD alone (Deut. 6:4).
It is the Lord’s nature to be One, and Alone. And this nature of oneness-aloneness is such that it cannot in its very nature be represented; and since it cannot in its very nature be represented, any representation of it, in any form, is necessarily deceiving, untrue, and therefore prohibited. A vigorous (and ultimately fruitless) debate has been in process for years as to whether the prohibition of images could have become a part of Israel’s traditional torah earlier than the time of the prophets of the eighth century B.C. There have always been some who have argued (inconclusively, we think) that in earlier times the Lord was represented in various forms. But there is no clear evidence anywhere in the Old Testament of an actual image of God that was not contemporaneously condemned. What we know of Israelite religion in its earliest expressions is consistent with the prohibition of images; and it is not an unreasonable inference that there would have been resistance to any representation of deity among the Israelites moving into Canaan – if only in defensive reaction to the vast variety of images in the many cults of the Canaanites.
Brief attention should be called to the characterization of the Lord as a jealous God. Perhaps this is in one sense a time-bound declaration; that is, perhaps something of Israel’s unworthy exclusivism and pride is reflected here. On the other hand, if it is God’s nature to be One-Alone-Unique, then it must also be his nature to be “jealous,”‘ which in this case means neither more nor less than to maintain this nature consistently. To condone an image – to be un-jealous – would be for God to deny himself. In later Judaism the interpretation of verse 5 held that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children “when they retain the evil deeds of their fathers.” And even when this is not the case, we must agree that there is a degree of bitter realism in the statement; children can and do suffer, sometimes generation upon generation, for the sins, the stupidities, the shortsightedness, and the selfishness of the fathers. Of course, we must acknowledge that men in all time have been far more ready to acknowledge God as Redeemer than as Judge, even though it should be obvious that if God is Good he must be both! The expansion of the original commandment respecting the nature of God concludes on the note of his devotion to those who honor his nature.
(3) God’s Identity; God’s Nature; now God’s Name:
“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain;
for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (20:7).
The “name” may not be treated lightly because it is inseparable from the reality. The name concerns the essence, the very being, of that which it identifies. To speak the name is to involve the person. More than this, when we push the matter of the name back to its most primitive conception, we find that “to name the name” is to seek to appropriate and command the power of the one named.
The most distant significance of this commandment lies shrouded in mystery. But we know that Israel occasionally did use (in transformed but still identifiable fashion) elements borrowed from the world of popular beliefs. The mark of this now dim world is still on the commandment concerning the name: men have sought to use the divine name, and even the name of “the LORD,” to bring under their own control the power of the Deity, and so to coerce the unseen agent by knowing, speaking, and controlling the name. The mark of such superstitious magic, we may say, is still here; but the arrogant intent of magic is prohibited by the very commandment. The power of magic is denied. The would-be magician is implicitly threatened with death – as in 22:18 the death sentence is imposed on any sorceress.
And there is more than this. The commandment is the third “Word,” coming after those referring to Identity and Nature. The “name” is the name of the Lord-Who-Created-You, of the Lord-One-Alone-Unique. It is this name which may not be taken in vain, which may not be uttered in trivial use, in prideful use, in use for personal gain and personal prestige or for the imposition of one’s own will. And since, indeed, to know a name is to know identity and nature, no man can be guiltless who denies the Name by perverted use!
(4) To the first three “words” of Identity, Nature, and Name, a fourth is added concerning the Day that is the Lord’s, or, better, the Day that is peculiarly his – for all are his.
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath [the Hebrew word is directly related to the word for “seven”] to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (20:8-11).
The form of the commandment in Deuteronomy 5:12-15 differs only in minor details from the first part, but after the phrase “within your gates” it reads:
“that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.”
The seventh day is to be kept holy, that is, it is to be set apart from the other days although “remembered” through all days. The tasks of the week, fretful labor’s anxious preoccupation with the maintenance of life – all this is to be suspended every seventh day in overt acknowledgment of the Lord and implicitly as a declaration of trust in the Lord.
It is interesting and instructive to note that the two forms of the Sabbath commandment seemingly stress different bases of trust, appearing to establish two different primary grounds for observing the Lord’s Day. In Exodus it is the Creation faith that is affirmed in the observance of the day, and one sees a very close relationship between the present form of the commandment and the story of creation in Genesis 1:1-2:4a (see especially 2:2-3). While this suggests that the present form of both these passages is relatively late, it is not at all to say that either the Creation faith or the Sabbath commandment is also relatively late. Indeed there is every reason to believe that both concepts appeared early in the structure of ancient Israel’s faith and practice. In this coupling of Sabbath and Creation, faith is affirmed in God’s indisputable power, inherent in the nature and prerogatives of the Creator – power in and over the resources of man and nature.
In Deuteronomy the appeal to Sabbath observance rests not upon a primeval “event” but upon a historical event. The seventh day’s rest, in respect of all who labor, commemorates the days of Egyptian bondage and remains a binding commandment because the observance constitutes an acknowledgment of God’s lordship and power over all conditions of servitude, and a confession of faith that Israel is God’s people. Yet it remains essentially the same quality of faith in both forms of the statement of the fourth commandment, since in Deuteronomy “Sabbath” is also an affirmation of the Creation faith. The observance is a confession of faith that Israel is God’s people, that she exists because he brought her into existence in the deliverance from Egypt. The fundamental sanction of the Sabbath in both statements of the commandment, therefore, is creation – in Deuteronomy the creation of a people, in Exodus the creation of the world.
To remember the Sabbath day and to keep it holy is to remember God as Creator and Sustainer and to acknowledge that life continues under his reign and providence. More particularly, and at its best and deepest understanding, the Sabbath is the perpetual reminder of the Covenant, not only with Israel but, through Israel, with all the families of the earth.
The Christian observance of Sunday is, of course, not a seventh- but a first-day observance. It is in the nature of a new commandment, based on a New Covenant: but both the new commandment and the New Covenant are fully appropriated only out of the old to which they are related and which, in Christian faith, they fulfill. The fact is that the Christian first-day observance also commemorates Creation in a double sense. The first first-day event was the day of Christ’s resurrection, the first Easter day. This is the Christian’s deliverance from Egypt, this is his redemption from chaos, this is his birth into life that is abundant life, life in the present with indestructible meaning. This is for every Christian a faith which is confirmed historically, in his own experience of Christ. But the first day also commemorates the Christian faith in the same Covenant proffered to all men – the assurance climactically affirmed in Christ that he who creates is also concerned, that he who is concerned also loves, that he who loves so loves as to give his Son, and that so giving, he offers through Christ the supreme gift of the Creator which is life forgiven, cleansed, fulfilled, and eternal.
(5) The structure of the Decalogue appears to be thoughtfully wrought out and conceived as a concentrated statement of the expansive body of Israel’s torah – that body of instructional matter which has to do with the regulating of Israel’s life in the Covenant community and which was recorded as carrying in itself the authority of Moses and God.
The order and progression of the “ten words” is in no sense, then, accidental. From God’s Identity the sequence moves through his Identity, his Nature, his Name, and his Day, to his Claim:
“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the LORD your God gives you” (20:12).
In view of all that inheres in the first four “words” and in the light of what is there already affirmed both explicitly and by inference; in consideration of ancient Eastern modes of thought and the characteristic psychological identification one always made of his own life with the life of immediate and also more distant progenitors; in recognition of the meaning of Covenant, together with Israel’s faith in God’s creation and his continuing exercise of the powers and prerogatives of Creator and Sustainer – in acknowledgment of all this it is apparent that the intention of the fifth commandment is to establish and perpetuate not merely the parental but by and through the parental the divine claim upon every life in Israel. It is, in effect, God’s saying: “Your life is my gift. I created you in the image of the divine; the essential breath of life is transmitted through your parents. In these regards, but surely not alone these, my life impinges directly upon your life. The life your parents bear and give to you is my life. To dishonor them is to dishonor me!”
One suspects that in our own society, as was also the case in ancient Israel but apparently to a much lesser degree, honoring of parents is withheld because this profoundly theological basis of honor is ignored or denied. It is the sense of the fifth commandment in its present place and sequence – taken, that is, in context – that parents are to be honored not in terms of their achievement as persons and parents, certainly not for reasons of sentiment, not at all because the practice is expedient in society or because common sense or common duty demands it. None of this. They are to be honored in acknowledgment of God’s claim upon every individual life, in acknowledgment that all life is his and therefore sacred; and that the holiness of life can best be affirmed by honoring and respecting those two persons through whose combined life the divine image and animating breath are given.
The concluding phrase – peculiarly Deuteronomic in character – that in such honor one’s day in the God-given land may be prolonged, need not be interpreted as an appeal to cheaper motives of reward. The motive was more noble; it is intended to affirm the proposition that in acknowledgment of this relationship of God-to-parents-to-child and in appropriate acceptance of life as holy gift, life is lived in praise of God and therefore is fulfilled life, gratified life, meaningful life, completed life. In this sense, we think the phrase may sum up God’s Pentalogue. Acknowledge and observe God’s Identity, Nature, Name, Day, and Claim and it cannot be otherwise than that, in the land which “God gives you,” the life which he presents and the existence which is of his ordering – that is, your days – will be “long.” Your life will be fulfilled, abundant, and redeemed.
The Integrity of Israel: The Second Pentalogue (20:13-17)
The first five “words” of the Decalogue speak to the relationship between God and man in the Old Testament, which is the relationship of Israel to the Lord. It is a compact, five-member definition of the being and character of God himself, as he comes into relationship with, and lays responsibility upon, the Israelite. In these five essential respects the life and lordship of God are directly acknowledged in the life and service of Israel.
The second pentalogue, a series of five categorical prohibitions, voices succinctly and powerfully that which is destructive of the man-man relationship. Violation of any one of these prohibitions is violation of community. To perform or enact or perpetrate (Jesus added, of course, even to contemplate; see Matthew 5:21-46) any of these, is to introduce what is inevitably destructive of the man-man relationship and of the peaceful, co-operative, and productive coexistence of persons living in community, in critical, interdependent mutuality.
But let no one suppose that the second pentalogue is “secular” or “civil” as against a preceding religious or theological pentalogue. Nowhere in the Old Testament, or in the Bible as a whole, is human life seriously regarded as definable simply in terms of human relationships – that is, as a man-man relationship on a single horizontal plane. In the biblical faith, the horizontal relationship of man to man is what it is because of the vertical relationship of men to God. We may speak of a man-man relationship in the Bible, but it is prevailingly a God-man-man relationship. What one man is to another, what one person must assume and carry out with respect to another, is in ultimate analysis determined by the fact that both stand in primary relationship to God.
If, then, we speak of the second pentalogue as defining the integrity of the community of Israel, we must understand and take for granted the fact that Israel’s integrity is a Covenant-integrity. Any words which attempt to order, guarantee, or maintain her productive life in community are also “theological” words, giving further form to faith in the Lord of the Covenant and in the Creator of Israel and the world.
It is in the light and meaning of God’s Identity, Nature, Name, Day, and Claim – simply because God is God-that in the community of Israel there must be mutual, universal, inviolable respect of (6) life, (7) person, (8) property, (9) reputation, and (10) status.
(6) “You shall not kill” (20:13). The three prohibitions against murder, adultery, and theft appear in the Bible in varying order. In Luke 18:20 and Romans 13:9, for example, it is adultery, murder, theft. Hosea 4:2 equates lack of knowledge of God with, among other sins, “killing, stealing, and committing adultery.” Jeremiah 7:9 lists “steal, murder, commit adultery,” in a similar indictment. Ancient Greek translations of the Hebrew texts, both in Exodus and in Deuteronomy, also present variant orders for the three prohibitions. This is perhaps inevitable in the case of three such brief and tightly related restrictions.
The prohibition against killing is a defense of the integrity of a man’s life. The term which is used does not have the limitation of the word “murder,” which in current legal usage denotes the premeditated act of killing. In Deuteronomy 4:42 the same word is used of one “who kills his neighbor unintentionally.” Every mans life is God’s life (see the comment on 20:12), and no one, therefore, may violate the life of another.
In one of ancient Israel’s oldest stories (Gen. 4:2-16), the tragic nature and consequences of this kind of violence are portrayed in the strange, brilliant account of the brothers, Cain and Abel (surely representing the close relatedness of human community). It is a story enacted in history over and over again, to man’s continued anguish. One man, or one group, or one nation, or one race assumes arrogant power over the life of another; and God, also violated, must act in judgment. Not only is community destroyed, but loneliness and alienation ensue precisely for the party perpetrating the violence! Israel’s historians read their own history in the sure understanding that to violate the integrity of another’s life (and hence viciously and actively to deny community) is to bring the violator himself under the judgment of anguished alienation. An example of this is to be seen in the virtual collapse of King David’s hitherto phenomenally beneficent existence, for his total reign is interpreted as having turned on the Bathsheba incident, combining murder, coveting, theft (of a man’s wife), adultery, and even in a sense false witness (see II Sam. 11). The same understanding of murder as disruptive of community and as violation of God is to be seen in the account of Naboth, Ahab, and Jezebel in I Kings 21.
The commandment denies the right of any man to take the life of another. Life is God’s. Only he may give it. Only he may take it away. Converted to positive terms, this prohibition would maintain the integrity of the individual life as basic to the functioning of community, both man-man and God-man.
Jesus, in the New Testament, reiterates the prohibition against killing, and he sensitively extends it to its ultimate limit. This commandment can be violated not only overtly but as well in mind and in intention (Matt. 5:21-24).
(7) “You shall not commit adultery” (20:14). If life is to be held inviolable in the community, so is the person. The two stories of creation (Gen. 1:1-2:4a and 2:4b-25) lay strong emphasis on the differentiation and function of sex: as the life itself is creatively given of God, so also is the sex. That which is involved in the distinction of man and woman, male and female, is purposively and functionally given; and the abuse of that purpose and function involves violation of the Giver as well as of both persons involved. And since the prohibition specifically deals with adultery (implying the violation of marital relationships) rather than fornication (although this is surely also, by intention, prohibited in the commandment), the integrity of three and even four persons may be involved in a single case of adultery.
In the full Old Testament context adultery, the fundamental disrespect and violation of person, not only destroys the human community; like the violent act of the destruction of the life of another, it is also destructive of the God-man relationship. One cannot mistake in the David-Bathsheba story the historian’s sense of broken communion between king and God (see especially II Sam. 12:13) as well as of the wretchedly abused Covenant community (Bathsheba’s husband, originally a Hittite, is a naturalized Israelite who has taken a name compounded with the divine name – Uri-Yah, “The Lord is my light!”). The classic Old Testament declaration is put on the lips of Joseph who, on grounds of respect both for the husband and the woman, rejects the invitation to adultery and also cries, “. . . how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (Gen. 39:9).
(8) “You shall not steal” (20:15). This prohibition is a defense of a man’s property. It cannot be interpreted in such a way as to support an economic system which facilitates the acquisition by a relatively few of a nation’s or a people’s wealth. It cannot he taken to sanction the accumulation of goods and possessions and economic power in disproportionate, and inevitably unjust and unrighteous, measure by attempting to restrain, on divine authority, those whose rights have been fundamentally abused in the process. On the other hand, the creation and perpetuation of the prohibition is certainly not due merely to an attempt of a wealthy class in Israel to protect their property.
This commandment is linked with the two which precede it. In the relative poverty which prevailed in the ancient East there was, of course, a more direct identification of a person with his property than is true today; and this was no doubt due in part to the dependence of the person upon certain minimal possessions for his very life – his subsistence and his continuation in existence. For the overwhelming majority of people in all the world’s history, life has been and still is quite without the “cushions” to which we have become accustomed, that is, such things as savings, or the privilege of credit, to say nothing of socially created buttresses against the fundamental threats of hunger and the elements. In a time which did not know modern medicine, the theft of a garment, put aside during a warmer day, could result not only in the owner’s bitter suffering from cold through the night, but actually to complications leading even to death. Or the theft of a meager flock, by which a shepherd eked out a literal hand-to-mouth existence, could easily result in intense suffering from malnutrition for the shepherd and his family, always undernourished at best, if not in the actual loss of one or more members of the family.
In a society where property and life are thus immediately related, the prohibition against theft is certainly not primarily designed to protect the accumulated wealth – whether well-gotten or ill-gotten – of society’s small minority of economic barons. This prohibition is as serious and significant as the two preceding prohibitions in defense of life and person and is at one with them. In a society where virtually all property is in an immediate sense the means of subsistence rather than items of mere convenience or luxury or pleasure or whim, to steal is potentially as great a violation of human integrity as to murder or to commit adultery.
In the biblical faith, which in multiple ways affirms that “the earth is the LORD’S and the fulness thereof” (Ps. 24:1) and which understands community finally in terms of the God-man-man relationship, to take what is another’s – be it life, person, or property – is, of course, to take what is Another’s: it is to violate God.
It is the interesting opinion of some interpreters that the original form of the prohibition against stealing is still preserved in Exodus 21:16 (as the third in a surviving fragment of four offenses punishable by death):
“Whoever steals a man, whether he sells him or is found in possession of him, shall be put to death.”
We have now no way of proving whether this was the original formulation of the prohibition or not, but we can easily understand the importance of such a prohibition in a very simple nomadic or semi-nomadic society, where the vast bulk of property was the communal possession of the tribe as a whole, and in an age when a slave was a common and valuable marketable item (as was still true in the United States as of about a hundred years ago). In such times man-stealing offered the greatest reward for the risk involved and constituted the grounds for Israel’s first commandment against theft.
The matter is raised here not merely for reasons of academic interest, but to underline again the more profound and theological understanding of the act of stealing. It is possible that the more general prohibition in the succinct commandment “You shall not steal” bears still the weight of indictment in man-stealing; as interpreted here, stealing is as direct and as powerful an assault on human integrity and the God-man-man community as is murder or adultery.
(9) “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (20:16). The neighbor’s reputation must not be violated. If it is true, as seems probable, that the Decalogue is an effort to compress an established, formalized, and extensive torah – that is, a body of instruction – what is given pointed summary in this prohibition?
Certainly the language of the ninth commandment suggests juridical practice. “To bear false witness” is to give false testimony in court (the word in the text is literally “to answer”). It is, therefore, unquestionably the sense of the prohibition that formal “witness” must for no reason be inaccurate. In this sense it can be argued that the commandment is only indirectly concerned with a man’s reputation, and that its primary motivation is the defense of the integrity of the judicial system.
This is true enough; but at the same time it appears that the commandment intentionally embraces a broader and more general element of torah. The essential relationship in the Covenant community is God-man-man, or man-God-man, which is simply to say again that men stand in relationship to one another only as both stand in immediate relationship to God. Rights are never merely human rights. Faith in God as Creator and Sustainer implies that rights which pertain to man are divine rights in the sense that God bestowed them. Again, as in the case of life, person, and property, reputation may not be falsely violated without also violating God and the aggressor’s own relationship with God. And there is no doubt whatsoever that the prohibition intends to suppress any and all “answers” that constitute false testimony against the neighbor.
Such non-specifically juridical words of the broader torah as these are implicit in the commandment:
“You shall not utter a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man, to be a malicious witness. You shall not follow a multitude to do evil [all of this is in the nature of general admonition against damaging words: and now the same passage turns to formal legal consideration; nor shall you bear witness in a suit, turning aside after a multitude, so as to pervert justice; nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his suit [if formal false witness may not damage the innocent it must also refrain from endorsing the guilty]” (Exod. 23:1-3).
The same juxtaposition of informal with formal incriminating words appears in one of the commandments and prohibitions listed in Leviticus 19:13-18:
“You shall not go up and down as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand forth [this is juridical language] against the life of your neighbor: I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:16).
The sense of the ninth commandment as summation is clear: in no way whatsoever may one falsify his witness, his report, even his casual conversation, about another. To do so is to violate that which a man is, and it is therefore a violation not only of the two-member, man-man relationship, but of the three-member, God-man-man community.
(10) “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s” (20:17).
This final commandment, the fifth prohibition in the second pentalogue, has also almost certainly been expanded since its original formulation. But its intent is consistent with the four preceding “words” in defense of life, person, property, and reputation. As no one may assume arbitrary damaging rights over the essential qualities of another’s being, so the full status of a man – all that is implicit in the word “house” – must be inviolable, not only from physical or material injury, from any kind of overt abuse, from any explicit, assessable damage, from another’s appropriation, but (remarkable concept!) from another’s wish to appropriate, another’s thought of appropriation, another’s envious dream of appropriation – in short, from another’s covetousness.
Biblical torah repeatedly finds modern counterparts in the complex systems of Western law. But legal systems as such do not produce anything that corresponds to the biblical sensitivity which forcefully enjoins against the source of all violence, namely, the realm of thought and contemplation, the intangible but critically powerful world of human imagination.
Just as the fifth commandment of the first pentalogue bears a climactic and summary relationship to the four preceding commandments (see comment on 20:12), so this injunctive word against illicit traffic through the mind is sum and climax of the pentalogue in protection of Israel’s integrity. As climax, it conveys the sure knowledge that the overt act in perversion of justice stems from the unseen recesses of mind and imagination, where in contemplation the perversion is already effected. As summary and condensation of the broad torah, it stands in direct or indirect relationship to many commandments which have nothing directly to say about covetousness as such. Many which ostensibly regulate overt conduct have unmistakable implications for what a man thinks in his heart. One recalls, for example, the law in Exodus 23:4-5 (see comment) respecting one’s obligation when confronted with one’s enemy’s straying ox or overburdened ass. Whether one acts in such a situation justly, or by inaction perverts justice, is entirely determined by the way in which the neighbor’s “house” is contemplated in the mind. If contemplation is covetous, community is already violated and all possibility of mutuality is crushed.
More directly, the prohibition of covetousness embraces and condenses the meaning of the most sensitive and penetrating item in all of Israel’s torah, from that same list of “words” in Leviticus 19:
“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:17-18).
The Ten Commandments, then, comprise two pentalogues: one purposes to maintain the integrity of God, the Author of the Covenant with Israel; the other is concerned with the community thus created and with that community’s integrity thus defined. This collection out of Israel’s full torah is thought to convey the very essence of God’s total will with respect to his own Person but also, and at the same time, with respect to every other Covenant person. The place of the Decalogue in the life of ancient Israel, then, can hardly be overemphasized. Once formulated, it was understood and celebrated in Israel as itself a major “event,” almost on a par with and inseparably linked to the event of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. In the same way it is a “celebration” event, disclosing the fact, and the meaning and purposiveness, of Israel’s election by the Lord.
It would appear that this “event” of the Decalogue came to be celebrated in Israel sometime after the origin of the very ancient confessions of Israel’s faith which move from the event of the Exodus by God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm directly to God’s gift in the possession of Canaan. Examples of such early confessions are found in Deuteronomy 6:21-25 and 26:5-9 and, in considerably expanded form of the same essential confession, in Joshua 24:2-13 (see especially verses 7-8). The form of this essential credo is very early indeed and may have had its original formulation (in a much simpler version) as early as, or not long after, the firm establishment of monarchy in the tenth century B. C.
Finally, it must be insisted that this central Covenant event of God’s disclosure of his will is in a real sense Mosaic. Moses returned with his liberated people to worship God at the same mountain where first his own little shell of finitude was invaded was invaded by the Word: “Moses, Moses!” And as Moses knew would be the case, Israel’s communal enclosure was in terrifying certitude penetrated by the same Word – a Word in fact ultimately responsible for the “ten words,” a Word in equal fact which was to appear in the fullness of God’s time as the Word made flesh.
The Ordering of Covenant Life (20:18-23:33)
Introduction to Torah (20:18-21:1)
The first and oldest code of instruction in the Old Testament, known as the Covenant Code, is contained in chapters 20-23 of Exodus. The relatively brief section in 20:18-21:1 is apparently transitional, like a bridge: it serves as a conclusion to the scene of chapter 19 and as a religious addition to the Decalogue (it restates the prohibition against images and sets certain limitations with respect to the building of an altar); at the same time it serves as an introduction to the Covenant Code.
Verses 18-22 resume the narrative interrupted by the Decalogue. We stand again with ancient Israel before the sacred mountain, Sinai-Horeb, which is now in violent seizure (thunder, lightning, trumpet sound, smoke). This is God on the mountain. It is the appearance of God. Or it is that which accompanies his Presence, the actualization of his Voice, his Word. For ordinary men it is an occasion of fear. The role and stature of Moses are again emphasized. “You speak to us,” the people cry, “. . . but let not God speak to us, lest we die” (vs. 19). And Moses, with a word of reassurance for his people, ascends the mountain, disappears in the cloud, and receives the Word.
The transition adds to the categorical and broadly inclusive prohibition of images (20:3-6) the seemingly unnecessary itemization of “gods of silver” and “gods of gold.” But in verses 24-26 there is incorporated a very ancient prescription concerning altars, which reflects simple tastes and which stands through all the years of ancient Israel’s life as a vigorous reminder of her earliest days as a Covenant People.
The altar is the focal point of communion of God and man, and of man and man together with God. An altar may be absolutely anywhere, since it may be made of earth. Wherever the altar is, the Lord’s name is there “remembered,” and the Lord bestows his blessing. In this very old prescription only two simple sacrifices are called for: the burnt offering (the complete consumption by fire of an animal victim), signifying the worshiper’s homage to the god-ness of God; and the peace offering, a joyous, religious, communion meal celebrating the full three-member relationship of the Covenant by enacting the oneness at the common board of the Lord with his people, and his people with each other.
If an altar is to be built and worship is to be entered upon in any area where stones are at hand, these may be employed in the making of the altar. But the same rule of uncompromised simplicity still holds: the stones may not be hewn; they may not be fashioned or worked or tooled. And the altar itself must be unassuming, unimposing, and modest, accessible without steps which would expose the “nakedness” of those directly serving at the altar (see 28:40-43, where short skirts are later forbidden for the officiating priests).
This is an early and effective way of saying that what is important in worship of God is the fact and content of the worship itself. It forms an early and discerning protest against the powerful and perennial tendency in every cult, ancient or modern, so to proliferate, so to elaborate, so to glorify the total “equipment” of worship as to make of worship’s material representation an end in itself. These prohibitions of immodesty and pretension in and at the altar were not uncommonly violated in ancient Israel. The careful insistence upon properly modest dress for the priests (28:40-43) bears the mark of some adjustment: the fault in the elevated altar, so it came to be reasoned, was merely in the priests’ embarrassment, a matter to be remedied not by a more modest altar but by the priests’ more discreet apparel. Exodus 27:1-8 and Ezekiel 43:13-17 are more open testimony to an irrepressible disposition to elaborate the structure of the altar. On the other hand, Joshua 8:30-31 and I Kings 18: 3 1-32 both recall in different epochs the ancient demand for the unpretentious altar.
On Servitude and Freedom (21:2-11)
While it is not always possible to define the extent of Israel’s “borrowing,” she did draw from the common practice (as defined both by custom and law) of the people already resident in Canaan upon her entrance. And indirectly, through them, she drew from the common custom and law dominant in the ancient Near and Middle East of that day. It is necessary, however, to add the unqualified judgment that what Israel borrowed she always transformed in significant degree; which is to say that what Israel took over she modified by incorporating it into the total structure of faith and the Covenant community.
Israel met the crises of her existence – which was suddenly made unfamiliar and vastly more complex when the people settled in Canaan – by adopting many formal regulations already and for long successfully in operation there. From 21:2 to 22:16 the Covenant Code presents laws which must have been predominantly “borrowed” from Canaanite practice, and borrowed very early for the most part – that is, in the two centuries immediately following Israel’s entrance into Canaan and before the establishment of the monarchy under Saul, David, and Solomon in the eleventh and tenth centuries.
From 22:17 to 23:19 religious regulations are dominant. These, apparently, more directly express the original character and mind of Israel. The concluding section of the Covenant Code, 23:20-33, is cast in the form of divine speech, assuring Israel of the nature and reality of the Covenant:
“You shall serve the LORD your God, and I will bless your bread and your water. . . I will fulfil the number of your days” (23:25-26).
In present form the Covenant Code is no older than this latest concluding section, but this can hardly be later (at the very latest) than the middle of the eighth century. But the Code as a whole embraces a span of many centuries, reaching back into both preoccupation Canaan and pre-Mosaic religion. Its formulation and preservation, all in all, represent a stupendous achievement.
It is altogether appropriate that the Code opens on the theme of servitude and freedom: it follows immediately upon the record of the experiences of Israel in both states of existence. The section, verses 2-11, is in two parts, dealing respectively with the male and the female slave.
Verses 2-6, dealing with the male slave, provide freedom in the seventh year for a Hebrew slave, who leaves as he came, whether single or married. If he has been married during slavery, he may leave alone; or, electing to remain, he commits himself in an appropriate ceremony to lifetime slavery (vs. 6). The same law in the Code of Deuteronomy (15:12-18) reflects a marked refinement of feeling which must have taken place in the intervening years (possibly during late eighth and early seventh centuries). There continued slavery remains an option, but, at least inferentially, the slave is freed with all his family. And what is more,
“. . . when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed; you shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your wine press; as the LORD your God has blessed you, you shall give to him” (Deut. 15:13-14).
And why? What is the ground and justification for such liberality with the slave?
“. . .if your brother becomes poor beside you, and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: he shall be with you as a hired servant and as a sojourner. . . For they are my servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves” (Lev. 25:39-42; see also Deut. 15:15).
Female slavery in Exodus 21:7-11 is not what it is for the male. The term for slave here is “concubine,” and this is the relationship contemplated between the master and the female slave. There is no parallel to this regulation in other codes of the Old Testament, and the rights here maintained for the woman are remarkable. “If she does not please her master” she may not be sold as a slave, but may only be “redeemed,” presumably by her family or by another who will bring her into the same relationship. And, strikingly, her master under these circumstances is deemed to have “dealt faithlessly with her.” If the female “slave” is given to the master’s son, she becomes as the master’s daughter! If the master-husband takes “another wife” (the “slave” is inferentially a wife), the concubine may leave without penalty if she is in the least neglected as to food, clothing, or marital relationship.
Israel’s life must be seen and comprehended against the broader background of the ancient Near and Middle East; when so viewed it is indisputable that the religion of Israel refined and even transformed much that she inevitably took over from her total environment. It is the sense of Covenant, of God’s presence and holiness, of the relationship between God and people, and of God’s grace and redemption experienced in history, which is responsible for the remarkable disposition and rights of slaves in the Old Testament (see also Exod. 12:43-44; 21:20-21, 26-27; Deut. 12:17-18; 16:10-11; 23:15-16; Lev. 25:10).
What is apparently the mutilated torso of an originally longer code still survives in 21:12 and 15-17 in four “words” which impose the death penalty for murder (see also Gen. 9:6; Lev. 24:17; Num. 35:30-31), for physical violence against parents, for man-stealing, and for verbal abuse (cursing) of parents. These four brief, unqualified declarations (“whoever. . . shall be put to death”) must have been a part of a decalogue or of a dodecalogue (12 laws). The first of these four has been expanded (vss. 13-14) to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. If death is accidentally inflicted (expressed in the phrase “God let him fall into his hand”) the inadvertent killer may take refuge – in early times at any altar of the Lord anywhere, and later, when the one Jerusalem altar replaced all others, in any one of several designated cities of refuge (Deut. 4:41-43; 19:1-3; Num. 35:9-15; and Joshua 20:1-9). Here, for example, is the word of the Lord to Joshua:
“. . .’Appoint the cities of refuge.., that the manslayer who kills any person without intent or unwittingly may flee there; they shall be for you a refuge from the avenger of blood'” (Joshua 20:2-3).
The old, primitive principle of blood revenge (see the vicious and very ancient Song of Lamech in Genesis 4:23-24) has always clung tenaciously, even to relatively sophisticated societies down to our own day. Obviously it persisted also in Israel.
Israel’s powerful feelings about the sacredness and significance of the parental relationship are of course made explicit in one of the “words” of the Decalogue (see the comment on 20:12). Here to strike or curse either parent is a capital offense (vss. 15, 17; on the whole question of the appropriate honoring of parents see also Deut. 5:16; 21:18, 21; 27:16: Lev. 19:3a; 20:9).
Manstealing, that is, any form of kidnapping, is also punishable by death. The original form of the declaration in 21:16 appears to have been expanded by the addition of the explanation, “whether he sells him or is found in possession of him.” In the opinion of some this may be the original sense of the prohibition against stealing in 20:15, a judgment which in any case underlines the great antiquity of the sentence. Deuteronomy 24:7 preserves a later reformulation:
“If a man is found stealing one of his brethren, the people of Israel, and if he treats him as a slave or sells him, then that thief shall die; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you.”
In common with ancient Hittite and Babylonian laws, the Covenant Code provides compensation for injury inflicted, and for time lost in recuperation and convalescence (vss. 18-19). Punishment, here unstipulated, must be inflicted for the death of a slave from a beating (vss. 20-21); and yet, oddly enough, if the slave survives the beating for even a day or two, punishment of the owner’s brutality is waived on the ground that he has lost his property, which apparently is regarded as penalty enough! Here, of course, the law is in conflict with itself over two opposing principles: a slave is at once human life and mere property. If we look at verses 26-27, which may well have been at one time connected with verses 20-21, we will understand that in Israel the first principle became and remained dominant: if the slave’s owner should inflict the loss of an eye or even a tooth upon the slave, the slave must be given his freedom in compensation!
In verses 22-25 the famous lex talionis, the law of retaliation, is given setting and declaration (see also Lev. 24:18-21 and Deut. 19:15-21). The actual statement of the proposition, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” appears in a particular case setting: a pregnant woman is injured by men in strife. Miscarriage results but no other harm. The person responsible pays a fine proposed by the husband and subject to the approval of judges. “If any harm follows” (in addition to miscarriage), it must be then “life for life, eye for eye,” and the like.
Two observations are in order. Looked at from the perspective of concepts of justice prevailing before the formulation of the lex talionis, this is properly seen as a significant advance, firmly and humanely limiting the imposition of damages: under this restriction the vindictive man of power is prevented from extorting exorbitant damages – for example, from taking the life of one who inflicts upon him or upon a member of his family only relatively minor injury. The law thus appears in the ancient world in wide application a thousand years before the time even of David and Solomon.
It is also emphatically to be observed that in very fact the principle of exact retaliation is not normative in the Old Testament; that the law is demonstrably of Canaanite formulation as it appears here, borrowed for an interim period by Israel, and retained only for certain particular cases as a norm of judgment in specific instances of injury. We think it is no accident that it appears in this setting; apparently this is one of those few cases in which the law remained applicable.
The same thing is to be said of the other two contexts in which the law of retaliation appears in the Old Testament. In Leviticus 24:18-21, in the case of a beast, it is life for life. This is, strictly speaking, beside the point. But in verses 19-20 the principle of exact retaliation is applied to physical, bodily disfigurement, and the sense is of deliberate disfigurement premeditatedly and maliciously inflicted. Under these circumstances, then,
“. . . as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has disfigured a man, he shall be disfigured.”
Deuteronomy 19:15-21 makes the point even more emphatic that lex talionis is in Israel not a universally binding principle, but an ancient item of elemental justice still appropriate and applicable only in certain particular judgments. Here the despicable witness maliciously perverts his testimony so as to bring injury upon his innocent “brother.” Under these circumstances, in this particular case,
“. . . if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother; so you shall purge the evil from the midst of you. And the rest shall hear, and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. Your eye shall not pity; it shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
Israel’s law and all her torah is Covenant law, Covenant torah. In Covenant life, in Covenant meaning, in Covenant regulation, the primary quality is set by God himself. In Covenant law – as is also the case in Covenant history – the mercy and gentleness and forgiveness and redemption of God are known, repeatedly and marvelously tempering the rigidity of the older principle of exact retaliation. (But see also what Jesus does with this in Matthew 5:38-42!) But the purity and the righteousness of God are also known and seriously regarded as imposing demands upon the Covenant community. And where his purity and righteousness are most brutally and maliciously repudiated, then – against the surging indignation which would exact exorbitant payment of damages – let it be only in the exact measure, specifically, “eye for eye. . .”
Verses 28-3 6 continue the general theme of penalties for physical violence, but the focus shifts to the ox. Verses 28-32 prescribe procedures of justice applicable in the case of the goring ox, whose owner is thus fixed with dire responsibility (vs. 29). Incidentally, in this section the slave is regarded merely as property (vs. 32).
The ox remains the subject in verses 33-36, but in verses 33-34 the animal is the victim, not the culprit. In verses 35-36 it is ox against ox and owner against owner.
The ox remains the subject in 22:1; but it is well to follow the chapter division because the theme of physical violence, dominant down to chapter 22, here gives way in the main to regulations of a broader and less personal character.
On General Conduct and Responsibility (22:1-23:33)
These two chapters fall into three sections. The first, 22:1-17, differs from the second, 22:18-23:19, both in form and content. The first section is characterized by the formula, “If so-and-so. . .he (the offender) shall do thus-and-so. . .” This is termed “casuistic” law, and is generally thought to have been derived largely from the Canaanites; for the most part it has to do with what we should commonly call secular rather than specifically cultic or religious matters. The second section employs the “if” form occasionally (as in 22:25; 23:4), but with the second person “you” instead of the third person “he.” It is characterized throughout by what is called the “apodictie” law – that is, the non-casuistic, non-theoretical formulation, the flat, unqualified, direct commandment or prohibition. Apodictic law has to do with specifically cultic or theological matters (for example, 22:20); it is implicitly much more closely related to the religion of the Covenant community. It is, as such, much more characteristically Israelite in origin and character.
The third section in this block of material, 23:20-33, is in the form of a hortatory speech of the Lord. In its present form it is later than the preceding laws of the Covenant Code and was affixed to this code sometime after its present organization. A detailed comparison of the three sections follows.
Exodus 22:1 -17. The Revised Standard Version has restored to a more logical order the first four verses by placing verses 2-3a (which interrupt the subject of appropriate restitution for stolen animals and justify the slaying of a thief for robbery by night but not by day) after verse 4.
Matters of proper restitution then continue to be the subject throughout this section:
for crop damage by loose, foraging animals – restitution by the owner of the animal or animals (vs. 5);
for the loss of grain by fire – restitution by the one setting the fire (vs. 6);
for theft of property committed to a neighbor’s trust – restitution by the thief (double) if apprehended; or if not, inferentially but in unspecified fashion, by the neighbor if, when he comes “near to God,” it is shown that he is himself guilty (guilt or innocence apparently to be determined at the sanctuary either by oracle [sacred lots?] or by oath) (vss. 7-8);
for any disputed breach of trust – restitution (double) by the one of the two parties pronounced guilty “before God” (vs. 9);
for the loss of an animal committed to a neighbor’s trust – no restitution by the neighbor if through an “oath by the LORD” (before God) the trustee is shown to be innocent or the loss is demonstrably accidental; but if guilty and/or responsible, the neighbor-trustee must make restitution (vss. 10-13);
for damage to or destruction of anything borrowed – full restitution by the borrower, unless the owner was with it, or it (the damaged or destroyed property) was rented, in either of which cases it is the owner’s loss (vss. 14-15);
for forcing a virgin – restitution by the aggressor male, the act of marriage or, if unacceptable, “money equivalent to the marriage present for virgins” (vss. 16-17).
These are casuistic laws. They are laws clearly under lay auspices and jurisdiction. There is nothing peculiarly Israelite about them; indeed, parallels to laws such as these appear in profusion over the ancient East and in considerably expanded form, for example, in the Code of Hammurabi of Babylon (eighteenth century, B.C.). In these laws the Lord plays no direct role. (The phrase “an oath by the LORD” in verse 11 is an Israelite addition, or modification.) If the deity is mentioned it is only by the general name for God (“Elohim,” as in verses 8 and 9); any theological or ethical content is extremely weak. These are laws commonly current over the broad area into which Israel came; and she took them over in the years between conquest and monarchy.
Exodus 22:18-23:19. Even the most casual reader of the Covenant Code cannot fail to observe the change in the form of statement beginning in 22:18. In quick succession three offenses are brought under categorical sentence of death – sorcery, perverted sex act (with an animal), and idolatrous sacrifice. The gender of the first offender is feminine (“sorceress”). So it is in I Samuel 28 (where, very early, sorcery is outlawed, but in vain), and so also in Jeremiah 7:18 and 44:15. But sorcery is also known in the Old Testament as a male occupation (for example, see Lev. 20:27; Deut. 18:10; and Mal. 3:5).
Satisfaction of the sexual appetite by intercourse with beasts is regarded as a capital offense also in Leviticus 20:15-16 and Deuteronomy 27:21. This, like the prohibition of sorcery, has a strong theological relationship. All efforts in any way to probe or influence the unseen and the unknown – other than by the established functions of the prophet and the priest – are prohibited on the primary ground that such constitutes an illegitimate invasion of the exclusive domain of God. Divination, witchcraft, sorcery, necromancy – all these stand in defiance and violation of the God-man relationship, and are therefore anathema. This sensitive understanding of faith was doubtless given added support by restrictions rooted in expediency and motivated by the prevalence of the magical and the occult in surrounding religions which were always in some measure competitors. But while, for example, Hittite (not Babylonian) law also places this kind of debased sex act under sentence of death (vs. 19), in the context of Israelite apodictic law the prohibition must be understood as being rooted in the same essential theological perspective as the immediately preceding and following prohibitions against sorcery and idolatrous sacrifice. To be an Israelite is to be a Covenant person in relationship to the Lord; and thus to debase and pervert that human function by which the Covenant community continues to reproduce itself – and so to perpetuate within itself the life of God – is to deny the Covenant, the God-man relationship, and God himself.
The third prohibition (22:20) puts idolatrous sacrifice under sentence of death. It is the most vehement of the three. In some circles today it would be termed an intolerant prohibition. But this is a part of Israel’s apodictic law, a part of that element in her legal, formal torah which is distinctively her own. The prohibition is laid down in the midst of a people whose confession of faith is that “the LORD. . . saw our affliction. . . and the LORD brought us out of Egypt. . . into this place” (Deut. 26:7-9). The people are his by right of redemption, as well as by creation and sustenance. Hence, “Whoever sacrifices to any god, save to the LORD only, shall be utterly destroyed” (vs. 20).
Verses 21-24 cite three classes of persons repeatedly given special mention in Old Testament law – the stranger (here it is the word more commonly rendered “sojourner”), the widow, and the orphan (or, often, “the fatherless”). These are all persons who must live without the crucial support given by the male head of a family, and they are therefore often singled out for special protection. The stranger is not to be wronged or oppressed, and the widow and orphan are not to be afflicted, on pain of God’s appropriately avenging wrath (“your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless”). The sense of the directness and immediacy of God’s relationship is remarkable. There is also sensitive discernment of the relationship between Israel’s Egyptian experience and her proper treatment of a sojourner (vs. 21), an insight which appears again in 23:9 (see comment).
Verses 25-27 continue with admonitions on other aspects of Covenant life. “If you lend money to any of my people” (this is God’s torah), you do so not as a creditor, exacting interest, but (such is the implication) out of compassion (see vs. 27) for a Covenant brother (compare Deut. 23:19-20; and Lev. 25:25-28). The garment offered to secure the loan “is his only covering” against the cold of the night and may not therefore be retained overnight. Again the Lord himself, who is compassionate, is an immediate party to the relationship between the lender and the poor.
Some interpreters say that verse 28 presupposes the institution of monarchy. This is hardly so; but in any case the prohibition gives support and protection to authority, divine and human, and it shows an awareness of the potential threat to community order inherent in the very utterance of contempt. Elsewhere (Lev. 24:16) the death sentence is imposed for the most extreme verbal blast against God, that is, blaspheming “the name of the LORD.”
Verses 29-31 turn to cultic requirements. Verse 29b has been taken as evidence that ancient Israel at one time believed that God demanded the sacrifice of a first-born son. This is most unlikely. The willingness to offer the son, in some unprescribed ritual act which would symbolize that willingness, is here called for (see 13:2, 12, 15). The mainstream of the Israelite faith, from Moses through the prophets (see, for example, Micah 6:7) and on into post-exilic Judaism, persisted in unqualified repudiation of literal human sacrifice.
It was an old taboo, common among shepherd peoples, that animals of the flock which had been killed by wild beasts could not be eaten (in the primitive belief that the evil inherent in the attacking animals would be transferred to the eater). But characteristically, the old practice is given theological significance in Israel (vs. 31). You are mine, says the Lord, “consecrated to me”; and you may not therefore play the unworthy role of scavengers to the beasts of creation.
In 23:1-9 the Covenant Code gives its most eloquent instruction on the theme of justice. Verses 1-3 are surely part of the broad torah made succinct in the Decalogue’s prohibition “You shall not bear false witness. . .” (20:16; see the comment). With great sensitivity the changes on the theme are rung, with admonitions against a false report; against false witness with malicious intent, entered into with a wicked accomplice; against the larger company’s (the mob’s) headstrong purpose to pervert justice; and against the tendency to temper justice on behalf of the poor (since Israelite torah itself exhibits this partiality, let the witness always be true). Leviticus 19:15 warns also against partiality to the great:
“You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.”
The principle of justice, but especially of justice qualified with mercy, continues to be the theme in the verses that follow. Verses 4-5 are no less concerned than verses 1-3 with the perversion of right. Here what might pervert justice is one’s reaction to one’s “enemy,” to the neighbor one would happily see removed to a far country. He and his animals must be treated with justice, righteousness, and compassion. That he and you are at enmity in no way qualifies your obligations under Covenant torah. The essential theme is passionately sounded elsewhere in the Bible (for example, in Prov. 25:21-22; Job 31:29; Matt. 5:43-48).
Verses 6 and 7 return to the particular concern of the opening verses of the chapter, with the added word of the Lord:
“I will not acquit the wicked” even if – such is the inference – by your false witness you do. Verse 8 outlaws the use of that all-pervading instrument for the perversion of justice, the bribe, which “blinds the officials” and subverts righteousness. Deuteronomy 16: 19-20 records the Old Testament’s most eloquent statement in this whole regard:
“You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show partiality; and you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land which the LORD your God gives you.”
Verse 9 again (as 22:11) holds up justice with particular regard for the “stranger,” that is, the sojourner or the non-native who is now a resident temporarily, semi-permanently, or permanently. The point of appeal in support of the admonition is again (as it is also in 22:21) the principle of identification – you, Israel, know what it is to be a sojourner! But the matter is put here with the most acute sensitivity, saying literally:
A sojourner shall you not oppress; for as for you (the form is plural and emphatic), you know the heart (!) of a sojourner because you were yourselves sojourners in the land of Egypt.
In the light of what is said here, it is not surprising that in the subsequent development of torah it was declared of the sojourner, “You shall love him as yourself” (Lev. 19:34).
Verses 10-19 are concerned exclusively with matters of religious practice. During the Sabbath year the land was to have rest, in order to give aid to the poor; any uncultivated yield was to go first to them, and after them to the wild beasts. But surely also, implicitly, the purpose of such a commandment was to symbolize and memorialize God’s ownership of the land (vss. 10-11).
Verses 12 and 13 deal with the Sabbath day (see also 20:8-11; Deut. 5:12-15). They are marked by a characteristically gentle consideration for ox and ass, servants and aliens. There appears here also, in defense of the Sabbath, a warning against the temptation to throw it over in “the names of other gods.”
The three major annual feasts of the religious year are dealt with in verses 14-19. The feast of “unleavened bread” (“Passover” in 34:25) commemorated the exodus from Egypt (vss. 14-15; see comment on 11:1-13:16). The feast of “harvest” (“weeks” in 34:22; Deuteronomy 16:10, 16; or “Pentecost,” since it was observed fifty days after the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread in Acts 2:1; 20:16; I Corinthians 16:8; or the “first fruits of wheat harvest,” also in Exodus 34:22) celebrated the first harvests of the fields, ready in Palestine in April. This continued to be observed as an agricultural festival in the Old Testament; in later Judaism it became associated with the giving of the Law. The third feast, that of “ingathering” (so also in 34:22; but in Deuteronomy 16:13-16, the feast of “tabernacles” or “booths”), celebrated the grape vintage in the fall. These “three times in the year shall all your males appear before the Lord God” (vs. 17). In ancient Israel – as is still true to a considerable extent in Judaism – women played no role in the cultic festivals, save that they were in no sense excluded from accompanying the male members of the family to the sanctuary and supporting the cultic ceremony with their presence (see I Sam. 1). In this connection one must also recall the very significant roles in the total life of Israel played by women like Miriam, the sister of Moses (15:20-21), Deborah, one of Israel’s most notable pre-monarchic leaders (Judges 5), and Huldah, the influential prophetess of the seventh century B.C., whose personal-professional sanction set in motion the sweeping reforms of King Josiah (II Kings 22:14-20).
Verses 18-19, to which 34:25-26 is almost identical, give four specifications for the regulation of sacrifice. Verse 18 surely has reference to the Passover (as in 34:25), which is here known as the Feast of Unleavened Bread, warning against carrying the Passover celebration beyond its appointed day. Verse 19a reiterates verse 16. Verse 19b may or may not have had a human motivation; the matter continues to be debated by interpreters. The prohibition (occurring also in 34:26 and Deut. 14:21) came to be interpreted as excluding any mixture of milk and meat, and, at least in later rabbinic Judaism, was understood as a repudiation of gluttony. No such prohibition, whatever the motivation, appears in extrabiblical law.
Exodus 23.20-33. The concluding section in the block formed by chapters 22-23 is of a markedly different character from the two preceding groups of casuistic laws and apodictic torah. But the common theme of conduct and responsibility continues, although there is no explicit reference to what has gone before. Sharp attention is given to what ostensibly lies immediately ahead for Israel; that is, the taking and the disposition of the land of Canaan and its inhabitants, and Israel’s settling in that land. In their present form these verses reveal at points the characteristic vocabulary and style of the Deuteronomic editors (compare, for example, Deut. 7:1-5); but the basic structure of this speech of the Lord (probably verses 20-22, 25b-28, and 3la) may be as old as the tenth century and may rest upon an oral form of still earlier date. The predicted limits of the land (verse 31: from the Reed Sea – in this case undoubtedly the Gulf of Aqabah – to the Mediterranean, and across the desert eastward to the Euphrates River) represent approximately the extent of the Israelite kingdom in the tenth century, at the close of David’s reign – the peak period of Israel’s political power.
The speech also includes in its present form some indication of the relatively slow progress of the occupation and acquisition of Canaan: “Little by little I will drive them out from before you” (vs. 30); and it refers to some force, designated as “hornets” (vs. 28; see Deut. 7:20 and Joshua 24:12; see also “the fly” and “the bee” in Isa. 7:18). This force, perhaps unwittingly, assists in Israel’s conquest of the land.
Whatever the original date of these words of the I..ord in the Covenant Code, they come firmly and timelessly together in one eloquent affirmation of the Covenant relationship, of God’s continuing gracious purposes in Israel, and in a statement of the response that is appropriate for Israel – a single, uncompromised trust in the Lord. The mention of the guiding, accompanying angel (vss. 20, 23; see also 14:19; Gen. 31:11 and 48:16) reflects the general tendency in Israel and in the Old Testament to avoid the assumption that there could be a direct revelation of the totality of the Person of the Lord. The angel functions as the Word – that is, as the revelation of God which is sufficient for and appropriate to the particular moment of history. “My name is in him,” declares the Lord (vs. 21). It is, then, in God’s Name, in the representation of his essential Person, that the land is theirs. Sustaining food, sweet water, days without illness, births without accident, parental love fulfilled and without frustration, and a satisfying length of years (vss. 25-26) – these are the terms in which the abundant life is offered in the Covenant relationship in which God creates a people and in which a people serve him in faithfulness. The specific, detailed, and even arduous ordering of Covenant life which begins at 20:18 is thus gently and warmly rounded out with a moving affirmation of the powers, gifts, and commitment of the Senior Party to the Covenant. If all the preceding Covenant Code is the recitation of Israel’s obligations under the Covenant, this conclusion reassuringly sets forth God’s participating responsibilities. And if the detailed prescriptions of the Code seem difficult of fulfillment, what will a man give for such fulfilled existence, lived out in trust and love of God?
The Sealing of Covenant (24:1-18)
God and People (24:1-11)
The term “tradition” is used to describe the total work, over a span of five, six, or seven centuries, of collecting, arranging, and editing the tremendous variety of materials which make up the present Old Testament record. Exodus 24 shows more clearly than many other passages the fact that tradition’s work is a cornposite labor. Two ceremonies which ratify and seal the Covenant are described here. The chapter apparently records two different “memories” of the way in which the Covenant was formerly closed – memories which originally were preserved independently of one another, finally to be brought together and combined in this process which we call “tradition.”
The earliest understanding of Covenant in Israel saw God as the initiator of Covenant and, in the act of Covenant-making, or Covenant-sealing, as the active member in the two-party pact. Covenant is of his ordering alone; and it is he who, in the rite of ratification, symbolizes his own commitment to the Covenant. This understanding of Covenant-making appears here in verses 1-2 and 9-11 (unfortunately in fragmented form, for more space is given to the later view of Covenant-making). Here God himself prepares a communion meal to which he invites Israel’s leaders. Israel’s function, as seen in this representation, is only to eat: it is God who gives the food and who, in giving it, commits himself to the Covenant.
Such an act of Covenant-sealing appears, of course, not only at Sinai or in the narratives which make up the total Sinai tradition. It also appears in connection with the patriarchs and most graphically in connection with Abraham in Genesis 15 where the point is made, with even greater emphasis, that God is the active party of the Covenant irrevocably committing himself (compare Jer. 34:18) in a binding ceremony of ratification, while Israel, in the person of Abraham, only stands by.
In this understanding of Covenant, Israel’s remarkable faith is attested. It is God’s Covenant, not ours; it is dependent for its continuing existence upon him, not upon us. He is the Senior Partner who has voluntarily and unequivocally committed himself. And so, in Israel’s bleakest and most dismal hours, faith in the ultimate fulfillment of Covenant purpose, hope, and promise was never abandoned. That faith survived every catastrophe, to be reformulated as the New or the Renewed Covenant (see Jer. 31:31-34). And that same faith identified Jesus Christ as the final and complete fulfillment of Covenant, old and new (see Mart. 26:28; Mark 14:24; I Cor. 11:25; Heb. 9:15-22).
We know that covenants in the ancient East were of several kinds. Some covenants, in fact, involved simply the commitment of the senior to the junior member; others required a decisive mutuality, the acceptance of formally defined obligation, and appropriate ceremonial ratification of mutual covenant by both parties. In the patriarchal narratives the rite of circumcision is designated as the rite by which a covenant is sealed (Gen. 17). Here in Exodus the Decalogue and the Covenant Code are identified as Israel’s obligation under the Covenant, and the rite which is described in Exodus 24:3-8 is seen as the appropriate ceremony which enacts and symbolizes Israel’s acceptance of and commitment to such a covenant.
In all the biblical forms of Covenant-making, blood plays a decisive symbolic role. In Genesis 15 God (symbolized by the flaming torch) passes between the severed (bloody) halves of sacrificial animals. Circumcision (Gen. 17; Exod. 4:24-26; Joshua 5:2-7), whatever else it symbolizes, involves the shedding of blood. The ceremony described in Exodus 24:3-8 binds people to God as blood is sprinkled on people (vs. 8) and on the altar (vs. 6). The ancient ceremony of a communion meal bound guest to host as they ate together of meat (necessarily involving the “sacrifice” of the animal and the shedding of blood). In the New Covenant, of course, the same essential symbolism appears (Mart. 26:28 and I Cor. 11:25). But of the two types of ceremony illustrated in Exodus 24, the New Testament clearly puts its emphasis upon the older of the two. “God so loved the world that he gave. . .”; and we, the junior partners in this Covenant, witness his commitment, made in love and grace. We have only to receive the gift and to respond to the giving of the gift (his ratification of Covenant) with the same kind of love.
God and Moses (24:12-18)
In the opening verses of chapter 24 Aaron and his two sons, Nadab and Abihu (see Lev. 10:1-3), plus “seventy of the elders of Israel” are given significant roles (24:1, 9). In the scene described in verses 12-18 Joshua is introduced (vs. 13; see 33:11; Joshua 1:1).
The Law given on Sinai is vested with such authority as to give rise to the repeated assertion that God himself wrote it (see 31:18, “written with the finger of God,” and 34:1; but contrast 34:27-28). But this is really not the primary motif of the scene described here. The purpose here is to round out the section beginning with chapter 19 and, at the same time, to set the stage for the long Priestly section which follows in chapters 25-31, having to do with plans for institutionalizing all that has occurred in the making of the Covenant. The section serves to indicate again the absolutely unique role of Moses in Israelite history. It also emphasizes the fact that in the practice of Israel’s faith in succeeding generations, each development of form and content came with the authority of God directly mediated through Moses.