Chapter 3: Lord and Covenant

Song of the Vineyard
by B. Davie Napier

Chapter 3: Lord and Covenant

IN THE PATRIARCHS: Genesis 12-50

All the families of the earth.

Gen. 12:3

These chapters should be read in a single sitting, or in as few sessions as possible. The reader should read uncritically and not be concerned if parts of the whole refuse to fit into any scheme of interpretation or any pattern of meaning.

Three fairly well-defined subunits appear, which at one time were probably three separate cycles of stories. The subunits center in (1) Abraham and Isaac, 12-26; (2) Jacob (and Esau), 27-36; (3) Joseph, 37-50 (excepting 38 which deals with Judah and Tamar).

Areas of Meaning

The questions we must address to these patriarchal stories fall into three categories. How are these stories to be interpreted (1) historically, (2) etiologically, and (3) theologically?


The "age of the patriarchs" is roughly the first half of the second millennium B.C. (2000-1500). Several archaeological finds illuminate this epoch in the life of the Middle East. We know from evidence gathered all over the productive lands around the fast Arabian desert (long ago the historian J. H. Breasted designated this area as the Fertile Crescent) of a widespread eruption of desert peoples, Semitic nomads, into the more sedentary areas. The invaders were called Amorites ("Westerners") and for centuries they dominated the life of the Fertile Crescent, with city-states firmly established at such sites as Haran (from whence came Abraham, 11:31), Ugarit, Mari, and Babylon, which was ruled in the decades around 1700 by the renowned Hammurabi, Ugarit and Mari, among other ancient sites, have yielded profuse contemporary information of several kinds. At Nuzi, southeast of Nineveh, clay tablets from the patriarchal age further inform of that epoch’s practices and customs. All of these, together with a still-growing body of contemporary information from the exciting fields of archaeology, confirm the credibility of the whole atmosphere of the patriarchal stories. If no shred of specific evidence substantiating the historicity of the patriarchs has appeared, it is on the other hand impossible now to maintain that the stories are of no historical value. Whatever may be the ultimate "historical" decision with respect to the plot and the players themselves, the stage-settings are indisputably authentic.1


The array and variety of etiological stories in Genesis is striking.2 Three primary types recur again and again.

1. The ethnological story explains in terms of the "past" observable phenomena relating to known tribes and ethnic groups. Amman and Moab, recognized in Israel as related peoples, are explained in their relatedness in the simple terms of the brothers Abram and Lot (13) and the literal father-sons relationship of Lot to Ammon and Moab (19). Their consignment to territory beyond the Jordan and to the south of Israel is etiologically explained and justified in the story of Lot’s voluntary choice of that area (13).

2. The etymological legend betrays Israel’s (and, in general, the East’s) profound interest in names, their meaning, and the relationship between meaning and innate character or performance, or between meaning and situation of origin. The explanation of Isaac’s name (from a word meaning "laughter") is thrice repeated (17:17, 18:12; 21:2) as is Ishmael’s ("God hears" 16:11; 17:20; 21:17). An alleged peculiarity of Jacob’s birth and the subsequent, continuing relationship between the descendants of Jacob and Esau is etymologically explained ("heel-holder" — born holding his twin brother’s heel, 25:26); while the same man’s character (and in their own eyes, surely, that of his descendants who bear the name) is etymologically defined in his other name, Israel (perhaps "Striver with God" 32:28).

3. The cult etiology explains the existence of a sanctuary or a cultic ritual. Israel’s major sanctuaries are thus all domesticized by association with the patriarchs, as, for example, Abraham at Jerusalem (Salem, 14:18) and Jacob at Bethel (28:10 ff.). Cult etiology attributes the origin of the rite of circumcision to Abraham (17, but also to Moses, Ex. 4:24-26, and Joshua, 5:2 ff.).


But in the present context, historical and etiological relations are subservient to the broadly theological bearing of the patriarchal narratives. The "literary" judgment, for what it is worth, sees the whole, 12-50, as a JEP compendium. E is deemed to enter the structure at 15 (a prominent feature of E is the dream motif). P’s role is in substance seen to be relatively slight except in 17 (covenant by circumcision, the P parallel to the JE covenant in Yahweh’s promise, the response of faith, and Yahweh’s irrevocable commitments to promise in ch. 15); in 23 (the charming story of the patriarch’s negotiation for a burial ground, a narrative we suspect to be of very different stuff indeed from 17); and in 25, 34, and 36. The rest is in the main JE except the very odd chapter 14 which continues to defy both historical and literary analysis. But again, this "documentary" structure serves to remind us of the centuries from J to P, from Israel’s days as political state to her reconstitution as theocratic state, during which the fluid collection of traditions, the still pliable story of Israel, continued to serve as a living commentary on this people’s existence. In the following sections on the patriarchs it is essentially this meditative, theological perspective which we shall pursue.

Abraham and Isaac


The theological theme, sometimes subdued and even momentarily lost, is unmistakable. Abraham is a chosen man. The chooser is Yahweh. The reasons behind the choice of Abraham (and not some other) are decidedly unclear, but the purpose behind the choosing is most explicitly affirmed. It is to give a land (remember the Garden, 3), peoplehood (recall the Brothers, 4), the blessing (contrast the Flood, 6-9), and a name (see the Tower, 11):

Go . . . to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great. . .(12:1-2)

It is, in short, to create a people, a people of Yahweh, a people of God, a covenant people. Yahweh said this to Abraham (12:1). This is the WORD to and on behalf of a people.

But Abraham’s election by Yahweh is not confined to the two-member relationship of Word and people. It is in its end function of universal import. It is Word and people — and world:

In you all the families of the earth will be blessed.3 (12:3, RSV margin)

One strongly suspects that in ancient Israel the first patriarch was seen in terms analogous to Israel’s first historical epoch. One notes an unmistakable correspondence between Abraham and Moses. Both respond to an exceedingly difficult call in an act of profound faith. There is a sense in which neither is fully Hebrew-Israelite. Both come into Egypt and go out again with ringing success. Both are committed to covenant in circumcision (Gen. 17; Ex. 4:24-26). In both the role of intercessor is featured (Gen. 18:22 ff.; Ex. 32:30 ff.). And although both are represented as models of faith, there are notable instances of gross unfaith in each.

If Israel tends to see her own first epoch essentially "anticipated" in the Abraham cycle of stories, there can be no doubt that she also sees the many in the one, that she identifies herself as people with Abraham the patriarch, that she gives concrete articulation to her own tensions of faith in his fluctuations from faith to unfaith. In short, Abraham is at once both Abraham and Israel. This identification of one and the many accounts in part for the remarkable realism of all the patriarchal stories. This kind of story shows everywhere the tendency to idealize and the tendency to cast Abraham as the epitome of faith is apparent especially in the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac, the climax of the Abraham cycle of stories (22, but cf. 15). But Israel holds her one and her many to be indivisible. Israel knows her own repeated, irrepressible acts of unfaith, her own unceasing disposition to deny the response of faith in which she was created, by which she is sustained, and through which alone her existence has order and meaning. What she knows to be true of herself, she knows also to be true of her fathers and her heroes; and she records their stories in the realistic awareness that faith always exists in tension with unfaith.



We do not deny that the patriarchs may, as it were, speak their own lines on occasion; and we have already testified to the authenticity of the settings. But Genesis 12-50 is an incomparable and intimately informed historical document in its revelation of ancient Israel’s inner life. In depth and degree quite without parallel this is the internal history of a people — self-understanding, self-deprecation, pride, shame, fears, hopes, aspirations. The ideal response of faith so movingly portrayed in Genesis 22 is Israel’s deepest confession of her own calling — to be ready to suffer the loss of her own historical life in response to the Word and at the same time maintain her faith in the Word’s declared purpose to bless the world through her. And at the other extreme of the confessional scale, the stories of Jacob’s lies and deceits, his unscrupulous, calculated operations conducted with some considerable finesse for his own self-interest, these reveal as conventional "history" never could Israel’s acknowledgment of her own share in the distortion of creation and her own particular form of rejection of status.

For Jacob is Israel. Israel is his name (Gen. 32:28, J; and 35:10, P). The identity of the one and the many is unmistakable and unforgettable. The Jacob cycle thus effectively silences those who would persist, innocently or maliciously, in interpreting "the chosen people" as self-righteous, self-inflated, and self-praiseful. In Yahwistic-prophetic circles, in the core Yahweh-faith of Israel, Israel knew that Jacob was Jacob-Israel, and that Israel was Israel-Jacob. Israel knew and through her prophets acknowledged that she shared with all men the faithless, self-worshiping corruption of motive and action by which all creation and all human life within it are defaced and distorted.

Popular Yahwism in ancient Israel (like popular Christianity in our own day) commonly cheapened and reduced the faith. The notion of chosenness for mission and responsibility was popularly perverted to signify exclusivism and superiority. Israel certainly knew arrogant pride. But consistently in the core representation of Yahwism she acknowledged this pride and deplored it. The Jacob cycle is a declaration of realistic self-knowledge — in no sense does Jacob-Israel merit election and covenant. It is a candid appraisal of the qualities of deceit and viciousness devoid of the morbid: in the tales of Jacob, Israel accepts her own vigorous participation in the alienations of existence with remarkable candor and even with humor.4

In the Bethel and Peniel episodes of Jacob-Yahweh "meetings" (28 and 32) the stories also mirror Israel’s faith that, like Jacob, she is finally sustained and justified only by Yahweh.



For whatever reasons, Isaac lacks the impression of substance, color, and vitality returned in the Abraham and Jacob narratives. Nothing significant is told of him that is not in essence recounted of his father or son.

Four chapters serve to bridge the Jacob and Joseph stories. The story of the rape of Dinah (34) may have strong tribal implications — Dinah is a weak tribe aggressively assaulted by the tribe of Hamor. Certainly the background of the patriarchal age is reflected — frictions between tribes; a level of sexual morality upon which for a number of reasons we may not sit in judgment; and a consistent representation of Jacob who rebukes his sons not on moral but on utilitarian-prudential grounds (34:30). Chapter 35 also reiterates themes of the Jacob cycle — the tension between man and God, Jacob and Yahweh, sin and grace; the faith that Jacob-Israel is redeemed only by Yahweh; and the repetition of the promise and the blessing. In the Edomite genealogy of chapter 36 and its accompanying notices Israel affirms her claim to the land on grounds other than Yahweh’s gift and at the same time recognizes again her close relationship to some of her historical neighbors.

Chapter 38 interrupts the otherwise closely integrated Joseph story. Why? Is it in contrast with and favorable commentary on Joseph’s sterling moral deportment in the next chapter? Is it in any pious sense to say that this is what, alas, a son of Jacob is (38), but this (39) is what a son of Jacob ought to be? We note in any case, and emphatically, that it is, like so much in the patriarchal narratives, a very good story indeed especially in the graphic portrayal of Tamar, in its deft integration of plot, and in its fine suspense.

The Joseph story has been called E’s masterpiece. But J is very much in evidence as the confusion and contradictions in chapter 37 indicate (for example, E features Reuben and the Midianites, but J, Judah and the Ishmaelites). But although the story is at such points conspicuously composite, it achieves a tightness of coordination that distinguishes it from the much more loosely integrated cycles centering in Abraham and Jacob. Its settings, as for the most part in the preceding stories, are authentic. But again its function in the present context cannot he primarily historical; or rather, and again, its historical value for us lies primarily in its contribution to our historical knowledge of inner Israel.

The Joseph story also sees the many in the one; and the one this time is a projection of Israel’s most inspired hopes for what she may be, for what, according to the Word, she must be — a blessing in the earth. Joseph matures and survives to adult manhood against insuperable odds, and having gained full stature he is given to feed not only a starving "Israel" and a starving Egypt, but a starving world (41:57).

Now this kind of correspondence between patriarch and people, as with Abraham and Jacob, is imprecise. In the Joseph story too the players speak their own lines, lines created long before the historical phases to which they bear correspondence. We do not for a moment mean to suggest that Gen. 12-50 was created out of whole cloth as an allegorical, fictional, personalized "history" of Israel. . . . the bulk of the immaterial comes in fact out of Israel’s ancient past, transmitted first orally and given. . .written formulation (first) by the Yahwist. . . Nor do we mean to say, then, that the story of Joseph came into being as a messianic message with the intention of treating Joseph as a messianic figure. We do mean to suggest . . . that in the unmistakable implications of messsianism in Joseph, the germ of the later development of the concept (see, e.g., Isa. 49:6) was something already given in Israel’s early traditions, precisely as the germinal faith in one God as Creator (Gen. 2), Judge (3-11) and Redeemer (12 ff.) was also given in the same traditions received by the Yahwist.5

Genesis begins and ends declaring in faith that Israel’s created, called life will find fulfillment only in a role of instrumental service to the world. It cannot be only people and Word. It is people, Word, and world. This is the meaning of covenant with the patriarchs.


These are the words. Ex. 19:6

These two chapters introduce a very large block of material — Exodus 19:1 to Numbers 10:10 — of varied sorts and from a broad span of centuries, a block editorially created and given unity in the place, Sinai. In present form this whole block purports to have its origin there. It has been set in the midst of a section unified in the place Kadesh. Kadesh appears as the center of operations both before and after this extended Sinai complex.

Now while this block is no doubt in its present arrangement the work of priests, it contains a significant nucleus that is not of the priestly cast. Exodus 19-24 and 32-34 we may term Yahwistic-prophetic (though not necessarily limited to the old J stratum); and within this unit, Exodus 19, 20, and 24 appear to have constituted the basic framework. This prior structure was simple and theologically eloquent. In chapter 19 the glory of Yahweh is revealed with uncommonly convincing power (the term often used for this is "theophany"), signifying Yahweh’s commitment to his covenant made with Israel. In chapter 20 the instigator of the covenant and the senior party, Yahweh, makes known his will — the decalogue, the ten commandments (literally, ten words) — for the other party to the covenant, Israel. In chapter 24 Israel’s commitment to this covenant is symbolized in a cultic act involving the shedding of blood and a communion meal signifying the irrevocable quality of the commitment.

Here, again, we are faced with unresolvable historical questions. The Sinai block of material is certainly an insertion from the literary point of view. The oldest forms of Israel’s cultic recitations (Deut. 6,26 and Josh. 24) do not mention Sinai and the giving of the law, so central in later Judaism. Does the present Old Testament story here combine two originally separate "histories"? Is the exodus-Kadesh tradition the memory of the Egypt-Moses-Israel group, as cultically created and celebrated in the northern hills of Canaan where this contingent first settled? And is it possible, then, that the Sinai complex is characteristically southern, drawing upon the cultically remembered experiences of a totally different group who were later united in the Israelite monarchy with the descendants of the exodus group? We simply do not know. What is clear is that the whole entity which we know as Israel and later as Judaism accepted for its own both exodus-Kadesh and Sinai-law traditions and, with discerning theological appropriateness, combined them in what we have broadly termed the one great exodus event.

The Glory of Yahweh


It is important to remember that we are dealing with a part of the Old Testament story which had a long oral history before it assumed its written form, and no doubt the oral form was shaped, preserved, and periodically "celebrated" at some particular, ancient cultic center.

Chapter 19 is in three scenes: The Initiating Word, 19: 1-9a; The People’s Preparation, verses 9b-15; and Yahweh’s Commitment, verses 16-25.


Observe the strong emphasis on the spoken word. "Yahweh called . . . saying, ‘~Thus shall you say . . . and tell . . .(v.3). Verses 5-9 contain many further examples:

Obey my voice

These are the words which you shall speak

So Moses called . . . and set before them all these words which Yahweh had commanded him

And all the people answered ... and said, All that Yahweh has spoken we will do

And Moses reported the words

And Yahweh said

Deuteronomic traditionists (designated by the symbol D) have added to the narrative or modified the language of the story in verses 4-6. Somewhere along the way, these Deuteronomic editors have lightly touched the form of the Tetrateuch (Genesis-Numbers) here and there. But the major work of D is Deuteronomy amid the editing of the block of the Old Testament story from Deuteronomic through Kings. That these verses here show the D mind and vocabulary is apparent in a comparison of verses 4-6 with Deuteronomy 32:11; 7:6; 14:2; and 26:18.


Ancient cultic practice and belief are still mirrored here. The requirement of ceremonial purification may well reflect old notions of taboo. It is taboo (and risked on pain of death) to be "unclean" in the presence of deity; but if this is a primitive concept it still appears preferable to us to the all too common chumminess in the God-man relationship in popular religion of our own time. Better some sense of the old taboo’s awe than the reduction of God to the role of buddy, or worse, the intimate partner in a relationship with erotic overtones.

The story means, of course, to laud the stature of Moses. While Israel stands afar off under strict taboo, Moses will climb to the summit of the mountain and enter the very cloud of the Presence!


The closing verses here, 21-24, are a fine example of the sort of disaster that can befall the biblical text. This is a little collection of debris which cannot he explained and out of which little or no sense can be made. It does serve to remind us, however, that this whole treasure of the Old Testament story is given to us in earthen vessels (cf. II Cor. 4:7, in the New Testament), and serves sharply to check any man who would equate the Word and the vessel which contains it.

Verses 16-20 are something else. Is it storm or volcano? Or is it intentionally metaphorical language to convey the overpowering awe, mystery, and power in the manifestation of the Glory of God? If this is unclear, the testimony of faith is utterly unambiguous: to every instrument of human perception Yahweh made known his Presence and Glory. It is not the self of Yahweh that is revealed, but the unqualified fact of his immediately in~pinging life and nature and will. The motive? It is the validation of the Word which is given and of the covenant which here comes into being.6

The Decalogue


Other such compact definitions of covenant responsibility appear in the Old Testament. We shall be looking at some of them in Deuteronomy 27:15 ff., Exodus 21:12,15-17; Leviticus 19:13-18. And the present decalogue appears a second time in slightly modified form in Deuteronomy 5:6-21.

It would be a rash man indeed who would attempt to toss away the vast weight of a tradition which insists on the role of Moses as law-giver. But we think it would be an equally arrogant man who would attempt to define in any detail the content of actual Mosaic law. One can discern regulations which are not Mosaic in "words" which speak to Israelite existence in demonstrably post-Mosaic times, e.g., statutes unquestionably aimed at conditions of monarchic political existence in Canaan, or at the control of problems presupposing settled agricultural life.

The Decalogue is not, as one might casually infer, an original nucleus around which was formed the ever-expanding Old Testament law — or better, torah, which means "instruction." Rather, it is a self-conscious, skillfully conceived and executed effort to reduce to its most significant essence a relatively comprehensive body of torah. The Decalogue is the summation of the will of Yahweh for Israel drawn from an established and relatively extensive legal-instructional corpus.


The first five commandments are concerned with Yahweh’s (1) identity, (2) nature, (3) name, (4) day, and (5) claim.


Most of Protestantism counts verse 3 — "no other gods" — as the first commandment and verses 4-6, prohibiting images, as the second. Roman Catholics and Lutherans combine these as the first commandment and count two commandments in verse 17, against coveting. Judaism, whose reckoning we shall follow here counts verse 2 — the definition of Yahweh’s identity vis-a-vis Israel — as the first commandment and verses 3-6, combining in one commandment the prohibition of other gods and any physical representation of deity, as the second.

I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. (20:2)

This is a commandment. Know and acknowledge Yahweh as him without whom you, Israel, would not exist; without his creative, sustaining, redeeming Word, chaos, formless and void, would still embrace you. Only in Yahweh’s identity are you an entity. Know and acknowledge Yahweh who brought Israel out of shackles into freedom, from unmeaning to meaning. I am Yahweh your God, who wrought this for you. In terms of your very existence and history, this is my identity!


It is Yahweh’s nature to be God alone. In the notion that there are other gods and in their representation, Yahweh is in fact denied, since his essential nature is thus denied (see vv. 3-6).

You shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything. . . (vv. 3-4)

Here again in verses 4-6 (as in 19:3-6) we encounter the Deuteronomic cadence, characteristic of the style and point of view of Deuteronomy and commonly dated in the late eighth, seventh, and early sixth centuries. We would ourselves nevertheless affirm the relative antiquity of the essential commandment supporting Yahweh’s oneness, aloneness, and uniqueness.

What of a "jealous" Yahweh, verse 5? Is this the projection (primitive?) of a small god, vindictive, petulant, easily flattered? Something of this may still adhere to the commandment. But on the other hand, if Yahweh is one-alone-unique, then he must be "jealous" — which is neither more nor less than to maintain consistently this divine nature. To condone an image, that is, not to be jealous, would be to deny himself. And this Deuteronomic expansion on the "word" (of the original "ten words") respecting the nature of Yahweh concludes on the note of Yahweh’s devotion to those who live in accord with his nature.


The name of Yahweh may suffer no abuse because it is inseparable from the reality of Yahweh.

You shall not take the name of Yahweh your God in vain; for Yahweh will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. (v.7)

The name is of the essence of that which it names; and to push the concept back to its more primitive application, to name the name is to seek to appropriate and command the power of the one named. But Israel, clearly debtor to a broad, common background of Near Eastern culture in the second millennium B.C., repeatedly converts and transforms what she borrows. Men sought to use the divine name — and Israelites repeatedly the name of Yahweh! — to bring under their own control the power of the deity. This is, of course, magic. The ultimate background of magic is perhaps still discernible, but the intent of magic is thwarted by the very prohibition. The power of magic is denied. He who would gain his own ends by name-incantation incurs a breach in the very relationship upon which he presumes to act.


The fourth word on Yahweh’s day is added now to the preceding words on his identity, nature, and name (see vv. 8-11).

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. (v.8)

Why? On what authority? In verse 11 the Sabbath institution is validated in the very pattern of creation and in language strongly reminiscent of the conclusion of the P account of creation (cf. Gen. 2:2-3). The present form of the commandment in Exodus would appear to be dependent upon Gen. 1: 1-2:4a.

The form of the Decalogue as preserved in Deuteronomy 5 presents at this point its most considerable deviation. Keep the Sabbath

. . .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 Yahweh your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore Yahweh your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. (Deut. 5:14b-15)

Here sabbath observance rests not upon a primeval "event" but upon a historical event. Yet it is essentially the same quality of faith. The fundamental sanction of sabbath in both statements of the commandment is creation — in Deuteronomy of a people and in Exodus of the world. To "remember" and "keep" the day is to acknowledge Yahweh as creator-sustainer and to affirm that life continues under his reign and providence. It is an act of trust, All of fretful labor’s anxious preoccupation with the maintenance of life is suspended every seventh day precisely as an affirmation of the providence of Yahweh. And in its most intimate understanding. of course, the sabbath is the perpetual reminder of the covenant not only with Israel, but through Israel, with all the families of the earth.7


The climax of Yahweh’s pentalogue is the establishment of his claim on every life by and through the parental relationship.

Honor your father and mother. . .(20:12)

In context, this is in effect Yahweh’s saying,

Your life is my gift. I created you in the image of the divine (Gen. 1:27); the essential breath of life which makes you a living being is my animating breath (Gen. 2:7). The gift is given, the image of the god-like is conveyed, the breath of life is transmitted, through your father and your mother. The life your parents bear and give to you is my life. To dishonor them is to dishonor me.8

We think it is the sense of the fifth commandment in its present place and sequence that mother and father are to be honored not for what they are intrinsically or sentimentally or even out of any particular moral or ethical or sociological considerations; but pointedly in acknowledgment of Yahweh’s claim on every life. Life is his and therefore sacred and holy. The holiness of life can be upheld only in honor of father and mother through whose joined life the divine image and animating breath are given.

The deuteronomic phrase which concludes the first pentalogue is more than an appeal to the motive of reward. If Yahweh’s identity, nature, name, day, and claim are acknowledged, it cannot be otherwise than that your days will be "long," that your life will be fulfilled in order and meaning. Such is the faith always undergirding the Old Testament story.


The second pentalogue is concerned with the integrity of Israel. The first five words define the God-man relationship. The second five are prohibitions of that which is destructive in the relationship of man to man. However, that relationship is in no sense a "secular" relationship, but rather always seen in the three-member scheme of God-man-man.

It is the function of the second pentalogue to defend in human community the inviolable mutual respect for (6) life, (7) person, (8) property, (9) reputation, and (10) status.


You shall not kill (v. 13). Every man’s life is God’s life. This is the reason, powerfully implicit in context, why no one may violate the life of another (recall the Brothers, Gen. 4:2-14). This prohibition seeks to maintain the integrity of every individual life as basic to the life of community, both the community of men and the community of God and man.


You shall not commit adultery (v. 14). If community is to be community neither life nor person may be violated. What is involved in the sex distinction is purposively and functionally given by Yahweh (so in both stories of creation). The abuse of that purpose and function violates the giver, Yahweh, as well as both persons involved; or, where the marriage covenant is also violated, three or even four persons may be involved and violated. The David-Bathsheba episode provides historical commentary on the Old Testament understanding of adultery as disruptive of community between God and man (II Sam. 12:13; and see also Joseph’s classic statement, Gen. 39:9) as well as between man and man (II Sam. 11).


You shall not steal (v. 15). This is in defense of a man’s property, but in a sense more dire and stringent than we, economically cushioned, so to speak, would casually suppose. The loss of a garment, put aside during the warmer day, could in parts of the East result not only in the owner’s bitter suffering from cold through the night, but to physiological complications leading even to death. Or, in a simple pastoral economy where life is tenuously sustained in a literal hand-to-mouth fashion, the loss of a simple shepherd’s meager flock could easily be a life-or-death concern to him and his family. In a society where property and life are directly connected, the prohibition against theft is of a piece with the two preceding prohibitions in defense of life and person. To steal in a society where the vast bulk of property is in an immediate sense the means of subsistence is potentially as great a violation of community as murder or adultery. It is as powerful an assault on human integrity and the God-man-man relationship as either of these.


You shall not hear false witness against your neighbor (v. 16). His reputation may not be violated. The language here suggests juridical practice. To bear false witness is to give false testimony in court. Formal "witness" then, in this sense, must be accurate.

At the same time, this commandment, as one of a series of summary statements

expressing the larger torah of Israel, must a broader meaning. This, too, reflects the man-man relationship but theologically conceived. As in the case of life, person, and property, reputation may not be falsely violated without also violating Yahweh and the aggressor’s own relationship to Yahweh. In intention, whatever the juridical overtones, the prohibition means to suppress any and all "witness" that constitutes false testimony against the neighbor, and the depreciation, even destruction, of his reputation.


You shall not covet your neighbor’s house . . . or anything that is your neighbor’s (v. 17). This final prohibition is consistent in intent with the four preceding prohibitions. The full status of a man — all that is implicit in that inclusive word "house" — must be inviolable not only from physical or material damage overt abuse, or appropriation, but also (and this is a remarkable concept) from another’s wish, thought, or dream of appropriation — in short, another’s covetousness.

This injunctive word against illicit traffic through the mind is at once sum and climax of the pentalogue in protection of Israel’s integrity. All true community finally hangs on how the neighbor’s "house" is contemplated. If contemplation is covetous, community is already violated and all possibility of mutuality is crushed.

Ten commandments-prohibitions: a pentalogue whose purpose is to maintain the integrity of Yahweh, author of the covenant with Israel; and another pentalogue concerned with the community thus created and with that community’s integrity thus defined. This is conceived to convey out of Israel’s full torah the very essence of Yahweh’s total will with respect to himself but at once also every other covenant person.

The place of the decalogue in the life of ancient Israel can hardly be overemphasized. Once formulated (in its original form, subsequently expanded, not later than the early monarchy) it was understood and celebrated in Israel as a major

"event" on a par with and inseparably linked to the event of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. And in that same way it was deemed to be a salvation event, disclosing the fact, meaning, and purposiveness of Yahweh’s Word in Israel and the world.


These are the ordinances. Ex. 21:1

The first and oldest considerable code of instruction in the Old Testament is the Covenant Code, Exodus 21-23. The introduction to it, Exodus 20:18-21:1, resumes the Yahweh-manifestation interrupted by the decalogue; and again the story magnifies the role and stature of Moses. "You speak to us," the people cry, "but let not God speak to us lest we die" (20:19). And Moses, reassuring his people, ascends the mountain, disappears in the cloud of the Presence, and receives the Word which tradition represents to be the Covenant Code (21:1). One must not overlook the prescription for the simple, unpretentious altar which has been, a trifle irrelevantly, inserted here in 20:24-26. This is an early and discerning protest against the perennial tendency in every cult, ancient and modern, to elaborate the "equipment" of worship so as to make of the material representation of worship an end in itself. This prohibition of the ostentatious altar was, of course, violated in Israel. One can cite examples of rationalization on behalf of pretension: the fault in the elevated altar is not in the altar but in the priest’s short skirts; we will robe the officiating priests so that their "nakedness" will not be exposed (Ex. 28:40-43). Elsewhere one encounters open testimony to the disposition to elaborate the structure of the altar (Ex. 27:1-8; I Kings 1:50-51; Ezek. 43:13-17). But the demand for the simple altar was not forgotten (Josh. 8:30-31; I Kings 18:31).

From 21:2 to 22:17 the Covenant Code presents laws for the most part apparently borrowed from Canaanite practice in the course of the two centuries preceding the establishment of monarchy. On the other hand, in 22:18 to 23:19 cultic regulations predominate which tend much more to express the original character and mind of Israel. The conclusion of the code, 2 3:20-33, is a Yahweh speech summarizing and reaffirming covenant:

You shall serve Yahweh your God, and I will bless your bread and your water . . . I will fulfil the number of your days. . .(23:25 f.)

In its present form the code is, of course, no older than this latest concluding section (perhaps the middle of the eighth century). But the full code embraces a span of many centuries and draws both from preoccupation Canaan and pre-Mosaic Yahwism. It is, all in all, a stupendous achievement.

On Servitude and Freedom


On what other theme could this code so appropriately open? "We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, and Yahweh brought us out!" (Deut. 6:21).

Verses 2-6 regulate the conditions of freedom for the Israelite slave and ought to be compared with the same law in the Deuteronomic Code (Deut. 12-26) which, as a later formulation, represents on the whole considerable refinement of feeling. In Deuteronomy (15:14) the slave is freed not only together with all his family, but with liberal provision from the resources of his master. Still later, in a third major Old Testament collection of torah known as the Holiness Code, Leviticus 17-26, the very institution of the slavery of an Israelite to an Israelite is abolished (Lev. 25: 39-42).

The grounds for the firm protection of the rights of the Israelite slave (Covenant Code), for his generous consideration upon going free (Deuteronomic Code), and for his ultimate removal from the possibility of enslavement (Holiness Code) are emphatically theological. It is implicit in CC; but explicit and emphatic in DC and HC:

You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and Yahweh your God redeemed you; therefore I [thus] command you! (Deut. 15:15)

. . .for they are my servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; [for this reason] they shall not be sold as slaves! (Lev. 25:42)

It is consistently and pointedly Yahweh’s historically known grace and redemption in Israel which is responsible for the Old Testament’s remarkable regulation of slavery (see further Ex. 12:43 f.; 21:20 f.; Deut. 12:17 f.; 16:10 f.; 23:15 f.; Lev.


On Control of Violence


We have what appears to be the mutilated torso of an ancient unit — perhaps an original decalogue, "ten words" — in four surviving "words" in 21:12,15-17. Here the death penalty is decreed for murder (cf. Gen. 9:6 Lev. 24:17; Num. 35:30 f.), for physical violence against parents, for manstealing, and for verbal abuse (cursing) of parents. The first has been humanely elaborated (vv. 13-14) to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. The third has been expanded with the phrase "whether he sells him or is found in possession of him." In common with ancient Hittite and Babylonian codes of law, the Covenant Code compensates the injured (vv. 18-19).

There is apparent tension between the proposition that the slave is property on the one hand and a human life on the other. If verse 21 represents the former principle, verses 26-27 (perhaps originally connected to 21) clearly represent the second, always dominant in the Old Testament: if the slave’s owner inflicts the loss of an eye or even a tooth upon the slave, the slave must be given his freedom in compensation!

The lex talionis, the law of retaliation (vv. 22-25; cf. Lev. 24: 18-21 and Deut. 19:15-21), is a widely held legal principle in antiquity. Looked at positively, this "life for life, eye for eye" sentiment no doubt marked an advance in juridical concept and practice at some time in the distant past, in the sense that it limited damages. In the Old Testament as a whole, of course, this principle of exact retaliation is not normative. Israel took it over from Canaan for a period and retained it only for certain particular cases as a standard of judgment in specific instances of injury. In the instance before us, lex talionis remained applicable; and this is true also of the two other instances of its use, Leviticus 24:18 ff., and Deuteronomy 19:15 ff. But, in general, the Yahweh-covenant quality is dominant, and Israelite law, covenant law, is characterized by relative gentleness and mercy.

The theme of violence continues in verses 28-36 but the focus shifts to the beast, the ox, and the problems created by violence done both by him and to him.

On General Conduct and Responsibility


We mark three sections here. The first section, 22:1-17, differs from the second, 22:18-23:19, in form as we1l as in content. The first is characterized by the structure, "If so and so . . . the offender shall do thus and so . . ." Such casuistic formulation derives from the Canaanites and concerns itself with what we should call secular, as opposed to religious, law.

The second section occasionally incorporates the casuistic "if" form (22:25; 23:4), but with the second person "you" not the third "he"; but generally it is not casuistic in expression but apodictic, stating the noncasuistic, nontheoretical, direct, unqualified commandment or prohibition. Apodictic law explicitly deals with cultic or theological concerns (e.g., 22:20); it is implicitly more closely related to the particular life of covenant Israel and the Yahweh faith. Apodictic law is characteristically Israelite in origin and perspective.9

The third section, 23:20-33, is the subsequently composed postlude in the form of a hortatory speech of Yahweh.


These verses are casuistic laws of Canaanite origin for the most part; and the theme throughout the section is the determination of appropriate restitution. These are lay regulations as opposed to cultic or religious stipulations. Parallels appear in profusion over the ancient East and in specifically expanded form in, for example, the Code of Hammurabi of Babylon (eighteenth century B.C.). Yahweh plays no role (the phrase of verse 11 is intrusive), deity receives institutional mention under the vague term ‘Elohim (vv. 8 and 9), and theological-ethical content is virtually void.


Beginning in 22: 18, the characteristic form of expression shifts from the casuistic to the apodictic.

The death sentence is categorically imposed for three offenses — sorcery, sex perversion (with an animal), and idolatrous sacrifice. Hittite (but not Babylonian) law also decrees death for this kind of debased sex act; but in the present context of Israel’s torah the law is cast in the same theological perspective as the prohibitions immediately preceding and following. Sorcery (with all divination, witchcraft, and necromancy; cf. I Sam. 28; Jer. 7:18 and 44:15; Lev. 20:27; Deut. 18:10; Mal. 3:5) is anathema because it invades the exclusive domain of Yahweh. Non-Yahweh sacrifice, the most vehement of the three prohibitions, denies Israel’s very being, since it is Yahweh who "brought us out of Egypt . . . and into this place" (see again Deut. 26:7-9). So, too, by association and context, the theological basis of the middle prohibition: to debase and pervert the sex function by which covenant life is perpetuated is to deny the covenant, the Yahweh-man relationship, and Yahweh himself.

Verses 21-24 cite three classes of persons repeatedly given special mention in Old Testament torah — the sojourner, the widow, and the orphan. The sensitive discernment of relationship between Israel’s Egyptian experience and her proper treatment of the sojourner (v. 21) appears again in 23:9. Verses 25-27 (cf. Deut. 23:19 f. and Lev. 25:26-28) regulate aspects of the old institution of credit. Verse 28 is a prohibition in support of authority, divine and human (the Holiness Code, Lev. 24:16, imposes the death sentence for blaspheming "the name of Yahweh").

Cultic requirements constitute verses 29-31. Verse 29b is hardly the survival of an ancient demand in Israel for child-sacrifice. The willingness to offer the son and some (here not prescribed) symbolic act to that effect is called for (see 13:2,13,15). In the core Yahweh faith, early and late, literal human sacrifice was consistently repudiated. An old taboo survives in verse 31 but now with theological justification: it is because you are mine, says Yahweh, that you are not to play the role of scavengers to the beasts of creation.

The Covenant Code’s most eloquent lines on the theme of justice appear in 23:1-9. No comment is called for, save to urge the reader not to miss the continued relevance and pertinence (the "isness") of the Egyptian sojourn, nor the summary statement in Deuteronomy 16:19-20, perhaps the most moving single plea for justice in the Old Testament:

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, only justice, you shall follow. . .

Verses 10-19 deal with cultic concerns — the sabbath year (vv. 10-11), the sabbath day (vv. 12-13), and the three major annual festivals (vv. 14-19). The feast of unleavened bread (passover, 34:24) commemorates the exodus from Egypt. The feast of harvest (feast of weeks, 34:22 and Deut. 16:10, 16) or pentecost (so named because it came to be celebrated fifty days after the feast of unleavened bread) or the first fruits of wheat harvest (also 34:22) is by whatever name the celebration of the first harvest of the fields, ready in Palestine in April. And a third feast, of ingathering (so also 34:22 but Deut.16: 13-16, the feast of tabernacles), celebrates the grape vintage in the fall. These "three times in the year shall all your males appear before Yahweh" (v. 17). Verses 18-19 carry four regulations of the passover (unleavened bread) festival. Both stipulations in verse 18 warn against carrying the passover celebration beyond its appointed day. Verse 19a reiterates 16. And verse 19b (also 34:26 and Deut. 14:21), whether originally humanely motivated or not, came to be interpreted in Judaism as excluding any mixture of milk and meat.


From casuistic laws and apodictic torah, the Covenant Code turns in its concluding section to what ostensibly lies immediately ahead — the acquisition of Canaan. Deuteronomic editors seem to have had a hand in this (cf. Deut. 7:1-5), but the substantial framework of this Yahweh speech (20-22, 25b-28,31a) is as old as the tenth century. The "predicted" limits of the land to be acquired correspond roughly to the peak holding under David and Solomon. The speech is informed of the slow progress of acquisition; and also of some prior attacks upon Canaan unwittingly assisting Israel’s task ("hornets" v. 28, cf. Josh. 24:12, Deut. 7:20; and note the fly and the bee of Isa. 7:18). It is in any case a splendid summary section to the Covenant Code, appropriately reaffirming the powers, gifts, and commitment of Yahweh himself to the covenant with Israel.

The Covenant Sealed


We know that covenants in the ancient east were of several kinds.10 In the Old Testament story at least two primary types of covenant are emphasized. The earliest understanding of covenant in Israel sees Yahweh as initiator, definer, and sealer of covenant with Israel. It is covenant in which the human role is very nearly passive. Such is the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15; and such is the sealing of the covenant described in Exodus 24:1-2, 9-11. Yahweh himself prepares a communion meal to which he invites Israel’s leadership. It is Yahweh who gives the food and in giving it commits himself to the covenant.

Ancient covenants sometimes laid greater stress upon the role, obligations, and commitment of the junior or subordinate party to the covenant. It is covenant in this interpretation which is recounted in Genesis 17 (P), where Israel’s commitment is sealed in the rite of circumcision. And in the passage before us, Exodus 24:3-8, a rite is described by which Israel’s acceptance of covenant is symbolized — covenant as defined for Israel, as her responsibility and obligation, in the Decalogue and in the Covenant Code.

In 24:12-18 Moses (and incidentally Joshua) is again set apart, his person and stature lauded. But this closing section of the chapter is also clearly intended to serve as the conclusion of the long section beginning with Exodus 19 and at the same time as appropriate introduction to the extended (priestly) section which follows in chapters 25-31, and which has to do exclusively with the institutionalizing of all that has occurred in the making of the covenant. It is the intent of this link not only to laud the role of Moses, but to declare again that the total development of Content and form in the practice of Israel’s faith presents itself to every succeeding generation with the authority of Yahweh himself directly mediated through Moses.11

Yahweh brings order out of chaos. It is the impingement of his life upon history which imparts meaning to the meaningless. This is the faith which ancient Israel proclaims in her story. Not alone in Yahweh’s creation of a people and a world but emphatically also in the creation of covenant, he discloses himself, his nature, his purpose. Decalogue, and now Covenant Code, are deemed to be continually creative, always now sustaining order out of the stuff of chaos.

Covenant is the promise of Yahweh, and his own irrevocable act of commitment to that promise to take Israel for a people, and through her to restore to the world the lost blessing of creation, to mend the now fractured meaning of existence, and to heal history’s tragically disordered order. But covenant is also deemed to be concretely that by which Israel is to live out all the days of all her years — the ordinances which Moses set before her in response to the Word (see 20:1 and 21:1), ordinances in fulfillment of which Israel herself alone would be fulfilled. In her covenant-keeping Israel is kept. Sustaining food, sweet water, days without illness, births without accident and parental love without frustration, and satisfying length of days (23:25-26) — abundant life in these terms is offered in a covenant relationship in which Yahweh creates a people and a people serve him in faithfulness.


I know you by name. Ex. 33:17

The conception of the task undertaken in this text12 rules out any discussion of the two very similar priestly sections of Exodus having to do with the plans of institution (25—3 1) and the acts of institution (35—40). Both sections are concerned — sometimes in closely corresponding or even identical terms — with the physical means, forms, nature, dimensions, and personnel of the cultic-religious institution, the first section ostensibly as plans and the second as detailing the actual construction, realization, and inauguration of the full-fledged cultic institution.

It is impossible to determine from these sections the actual objects involved in Israel’s early cultus. The description of the tabernacle (chs. 26 and 38), for example, bears no direct relationship to any real Israelite sanctuary. Memories of a Mosaic-nomadic tent of meeting may be imbedded in the description. It is certain that the form of Solomon’s temple (tenth century) influenced the account. But any reconstruction according to these specifications would produce a tabernacle structure which never existed in fact.

The three chapters of Exodus now before us are composite. We have already noted their general Yahwistic-prophetic east and the nature of the large block of which they are a part (Ex. 19: 1-Num. 10:10). What we have termed J and E are both here, with other voices, or other hands. But the finished product is a unified achievement.

Perhaps the reminder is again in order that Israel’s interest in the original "event" rests predominantly in its present and continuing meaning that the form of the narrative before us is unquestionably cultically conditioned, that is, shaped by the influences of cultic circles at centers of worship in which, the tradition was maintained; and that this cultic tradition returns an image of Moses formed out of long years of meditation on the total significance of his life and time through the succeeding generations of Israel’s life.

The Golden Calf: Denial of Covenant


Moses is on Sinai, now himself as mysterious and unapproachable as that Presence of Yahweh which he alone may confront and the Word of Yahweh which he alone may hear. The impatient people, to whom the reality of Moses and Yahweh has become only a memory and who know the widespread representation of deity in the form of a calf (probably a young bull, denoting primarily the strength of reproductive power and fertility, natural and human), with Aaron’s consent and counsel, make Yahweh (v. 5) in this form, and to Yahweh thus materialized they hold a full-fledged cultic celebration.

Yahweh’s immediate repudiation of Israel for this breach of covenant is directly conveyed in his Word to Moses, in form charming and naive, but in communication of the sense of ruptured relationship profound and powerful:

Go down! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves! (v. 7)

Now (such is the sense of the Word) step aside, get out of my way — hold my coat — while I administer — death!

Now therefore let me alone . . . that I may consume them!

Now the thematic note:

Of you (Moses) I will make a great nation! (v.10)

But Moses will not entertain this complimentary proposal even by mentioning it. Instead he makes successful (v. 14) intercession on Israel’s behalf reminding Yahweh that Israel is his people whose destruction would frustrate the glory of the exodus (vv. 11-12) and constitute a shameful breach of Yahweh’s promise to the patriarchs (v. 13; the prayer, as other aspects of the narrative, is informed by relatively late traditional stereotypes).

Moses descends the mountain carrying the two stone tablets inscribed with the Decalogue, presumably ("the writing was the writing of God," v. 16); sees what has occurred (Joshua suddenly appears again, cf. 24:13); and in fury breaks the tablets, symbolizing the covenant which Israel has in the same way just shattered.

It all happened "at the foot of the mountain" (v. 19). Tradition recalls that Moses came here first with Jethro’s flock and first knew here the piercing of the shell of his existence by the Word of Yahweh out of the undiminished, unconsurned burning bush. To this same mountain Moses brought Israel where she — a people redeemed only yesterday out of slavery — acknowledged Yahweh as the Shatterer of her own tight little prison, and entered a covenant with him, accepting his commitment to her and reciting her own vows of faithfulness. Here, at the foot of the mountain, she brazenly denied the reality of her encounter, repudiated her emancipator, and shamelessly broke her vows. Here, at the foot of the mountain, Moses cast into the moral rubble the tables of the testimony already in effect reduced to powder and ashes.

When Moses confronts Aaron, the one on whom responsibility clearly falls, he produces a line of evasion, an emphatic disclaimer, which forever ranks with the best, the most ridiculous, and therefore the most humorous of its kind:

I said to them, "Let any who have gold take it off"; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and there came out this calf! (v.24)

What a remarkable accident. We had absolutely nothing to do with it.

One could wish for restraint in the introduction of the next paragraph (vv. 25-29). We can appreciate the seriousness of the prohibition of images in Israel and (at its highest motivation) the theological maturity which it represents. We are at the same time sure that the human word is given the status of divine Word in the command (v. 27) of indiscriminate slaughter; and we are sure that Moses never regarded such an act as ordination to priesthood (v. 29)!

The narrative concludes on the note of Moses’ moving intercession, to be ranked among the greatest prayers ever preserved (vv. 31-32); and with the response of the Word in grace (v. 34a), but with the firm reminder that Yahweh will when the occasion demands make himself known as judge (v. 34b). The final verse (35) is the contribution of a traditionist who obviously feels that Yahweh must be made of sterner stuff, or that Israel must he yet more sternly treated and so produces the disagreeable and anticlimactic notice of the plague.

Among circles of Old Testament students, it has been commonly held, almost taken for granted, that the present narrative was created as a condemnation (with Mosaic-Sinaitic authority") of the representation of Yahweh in the bull image at the two chief sanctuaries of North Israel, Dan and Bethel, beginning late in the tenth century when the united Israelite kingdom was split (I Kings 12:28-29). Now, we are sure that tradition reinterpreted and no doubt somewhat modified the story in the light of this heresy; but we are unable to see any reason for denying that the story was already in existence then and that in fact the Yahwistic heresy of image representation began in the beginning of Israel’s life as a people, in the first, Mosaic chapter of that life.

Yahweh and Moses: Renewal of Covenant


Chapter 33 opens with Yahweh’s Word still sounding in bitter tones of reaction to the broken covenant. "You (Moses) and the people whom you have brought up out of Egypt" get out of here and move on to the land. But it is the promised land; and "I will drive out" those who impede your settlement in the land. And, inconsistently, the negative note resumes in verse 3: Go ahead, but go without Me!

This divine ambivalence plays a role in the plot. Yahweh’s Word has been given. That Word cannot be broken. But Israel has behaved in flagrant defiance of all that was implicit in the covenant-Word, so that from any human point of view Yahweh is justified in having no more to do with Israel, indeed in withdrawing himself for Israel’s own protection, since to stay among them in wrath would be to destroy them! The role of this tension and duality is to serve in the delineation of the character of Moses; the person of Moses and his intercession and faith are responsible for the resolution of the divine ambivalence.

In hopes of appeasing the divine anger, Israel "stripped themselves of their ornaments, from Mount Horeb (Sinai) onward" (v.6).

More clearly than in any previous reference, the tent of meeting is the place where Yahweh may be found (v. 7). The use of the two terms "tent of meeting" and "tabernacle" leaves the reader in doubt as to whether they are the same or different structures. Chapters 29 (vv. 4,10,11,31,32,42) and 30 (vv. 16,18,20,36), for example, employ only the first term (cf. also 27:21 and 28:43) and clearly identify tent and tabernacle. In chapter 33 before us it may be that the tent of meeting is envisaged as a provisional arrangement, a substitute tabernacle for the duration of Yahweh’s withholding his own direct Presence from Israel: Yahweh meets only Moses in the tent of meeting — and that "face to face"! (v. 11; but see the contradiction, v. 20, from another of the sources employed in the shaping of the present account). In subsequent references identity or virtual identity must be assumed (35:21; 38:8,30,32; 39:40 NB; and 40: repeatedly).

This is all in Moses’ praise. Here the uniqueness of Moses is defined in terms of the uniqueness of his relationship to Yahweh. Here the Old Testament story testifies that Israel owes her existence to Yahweh, to be sure, but also to Moses, without whose intercession the Yahweh-Israel enterprise would to all intents and purposes have been dissolved. This is tradition s testimony and tribute to the absolutely incomparable Moses. He goes alone to the tent of meeting for a meeting — the Meeting — while all Israel stands in awe and reverence (v. 8). Yahweh follows, and all Israel worships "every man at his tent door" (vv. 9-10).It is a face-to-face meeting (see above).Moses speaks with such power as to persuade Yahweh of the wisdom of his words and to gain a reversal of the divine decision to withhold the immediate Presence of Yahweh from Israel (vv. 12-17). And Yahweh bestows on Moses words of rare occurrence indeed: "I know you by name (vv. 12, 17; cf. Matt. 1:21 ff.; 16:13 ff.); "you have found favor in my sight" (vv. 12,17; cf. Mark 1:10; Luke 2:40); "I will give you rest" (v. 14; cf. Matt. 11:28); and "the very thing that you have spoken I will do" (v. 17; cf. Matt. 28:18; 10:32; Luke 12:8; John 16:23).

Finally, in marked contrast to the face-to-face meeting (v. 11; cf. Num. 12:8; Deut. 34:10) Moses’ request to behold Yahweh’s Glory is granted (vv. 18-23; compare and contrast Elijah’s great hour on the holy mountain, I Kings 19). The

quality and meaning of the Glory is suggested in the coupling the proclamation of the name YHWH (33:19; 34:6) with the passing by of the Glory, and in the words goodness, graciousness, and mercy (33:19 and 34:6-7). Implicit, of course, is Yahweh’s forgiveness of Israel, won through the intercession and devotion of Moses, and assured now in the passing Glory of Yahweh’s goodness, grace, and mercy. Indeed, the actual description of the passing by of the Glory and the rounding out of this intimate Sinai-Horeb scene between Yahweh and Moses (34:6-9) expands on the theme of the graciousness of Yahweh (cf. Joel 2:13; Jon. 4:2), affirms the appropriate humility of Moses before this revelation of the nature of Yahweh, and puts on Moses’ lips a prayer which constitutes a fine summary of all that has gone before in chapters 32 and 33. "If 1 (Moses) have (in very fact) found favor in thy sight," then (and it is now a moving, timelessly relevant prayer!) let the Lord . . . go in the midst of us, although it is a stiff-necked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for thy inheritance.

In 34:1-4, the narrative takes up again the subject of stone tables of the law destroyed in Moses’ wrath at the sight of the golden calf. Tradition is making a single story of several strands; and since Moses’ marvelous vision of Yahweh’s Glory is also the renewal of covenant with Israel, the broken tablets must be replaced. These verses supply the logically necessary advice that Moses has two new blank tablets at hand and ready.

The Redefined Covenant: the Ritual Decalogue


Accordingly, the covenant between Yahweh "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" and a forgiven Israel is instituted afresh. In this completed work of tradition, that is, as the present text of Exodus 34 is handed over to us, the content of the new covenant law differs from the old, the Decalogue of Exodus 20. Following an introductory speech of Yahweh which declares the marvels Yahweh is about to perform and warns against the temptations of Canaan and its religious institutions (vv. 10-13), a decalogue is given which, however, concentrates exclusively on concerns of the cultus, and has therefore come to be known as the Ritual Decalogue, as against what is often called the Ethical Decalogue of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5:

I (v.14)You shall worship no other god, for Yahweh, whose name is jealous, is a jealous God (cf. 23:13).

II (v.17)You shall make for yourself no molten gods (cf. 20:23).

III (v.19a)All that opens the womb is mine (cf. 22:29-30).

IV (v.20b)All the first-born of your sons you shall redeem (cf. 22:29-30).

V (v. 21)Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; in plowing time and in harvest you shall rest (cf. 23:12).

VI (v. 23)Three times in the year shall all your males appear before the Lord Yahweh, God of Israel (cf. 23:17).

VII (v. 25a)You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven (cf. 23:18a).

VIII (v. 25b)The sacrifice of the feast of the passover shall not be left until the morning (cf. 23:18b).

IX (v. 26a)The first of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of Yahweh your God (cf. 23:19a).

X (v. 26b)You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk (cf. 23: 19b).

The parallel references from the Covenant Code (Ex. 20-23; but especially 23:13-19) indicate that this cultic decalogue is unique only in arrangement, and its present form is obviously an expansion of an original "ten words." How old may have been the original Decalogue? Did these cultic prescriptions first appear in the corpus of an extensive code (the Covenant Code of Exodus 20-23), to be distilled into briefer, decalogue form, or was the Ritual Decalogue original and its individual prescriptions subsequently incorporated in the longer code? And how does it happen that tradition comes to record the Ethical Decalogue as the content of the first tables of the law, but the Ritual Decalogue for the second? Questions of this kind remain still without certain answer. It may be that tradition, in combining differing, independent, but parallel accounts of Sinai-Horeb and its covenant, has, without reconciliation, brought together an older version (the nucleus of Ex. 3-34, J) which "remembers" a ritual decalogue, and a somewhat later version (E, having its locus in the North, not the South as J) which associates the Ethical Decalogue with the covenant of the sacred mountain. Or, in that long, unceasingly active process that we call tradition, an original J decalogue, very closely parallel to the F decalogue of Exodus 20, may have been at some point displaced in Exodus 34 by the Ritual Decalogue now before us. This last suggestion has the merit that in an earlier formulation, tradition was not inconsistent but recorded a renewed covenant-decalogue, on new tablets, which was essentially the reproduction of the original tables.13

Moses: A Terrible Thing


This section on the denial and renewal of covenant (chs. 32-34) is conceived, of course, in praise of Yahweh. Its theme might be the Yahweh-Word in 34:10, "It is a terrible thing that I will do with you" — terrible in the sense of awe and wonder, not simply dread and horror. But on the terrestrial plane, at the human level, the narrative concentrates on Moses, on his role vis-a-vis Yahweh and Israel, and on his incomparable stature as intermediary between God and people.

Appropriately, then, the section closes (and the J-E or non-priestly stratum of Exodus, since 35-40, like 25—31, is exclusively of priestly quality) with this almost fabulous tribute by tradition — which is, of course, the tribute of all Israel — to Moses. He has prevailed, in a sense, over Yahweh himself. By a combination of intercession and argument, he has gained for Israel full divine forgiveness. By the strength of his own person and the power of his own commitment to Yahweh, he returns again, descending the sacred mountain with the new tables of the covenant-law in his hands; and he does not know — tradition elsewhere insists that "the man Moses was very meek, more than all men that were on the face of the earth" (Num. 12: 3) — he does not know that his face is literally aglow, shining with the radiance of the very Presence of Yahweh!

This is the ultimate tribute. This is Israel’s enduring estimate of Moses. We live because Yahweh gave us life out of Egypt for the death that we lived in Egypt. By Yahweh’s Word (or his Hand, or his Presence) Yahweh brought us through the Sea, sustained us in the wilderness, made covenant with us at Sinai, forgave us our appalling denial of him, and renewed in mercy and grace the covenant which we had broken. But by the means of what amazing human instrument was all of this the accomplishment of the Word of Yahweh on behalf of Israel?

. . .for the place on which you are standing is holy ground. Moses, Moses! Put off your shoes. I know the affliction of my people. . . . Come, I will send you. . . . I will be with you. . . . I will be with your mouth. . . . and I will bring you into the land. . .

Come up to me on the mountain and I will give you the tables of stone. . . . Go down; for your people have corrupted themselves. . . . let me alone that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but I will make of you a great nation. . . . I will give you rest. . . you have found favor in my sight. . . . I know you by name. . .Behold, I make [again!] a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels. . . . it is a terrible thing that I will do with you!

No comment is better able to convey the staggering impression of such a man upon other men, not simply in Israel, but in the world of all time, than this recording of the "memory" of the face of Moses, so brilliantly shining with the radiance of the very Presence of God that that countenance could be unveiled only in the presence of the Presence.

This is Moses — by whose offices and through whose leadership and vision the covenant was first made; against whose devoted commitment to Israel’s life the covenant was shamelessly denied; and by whose strength of faith and communion with Yahweh Israel was forgiven and the covenant renewed and reinstituted.


I will make my abode among you. Lev. 26:11

We turn now to the third book of the Old Testament. In Hebrew tradition it is customary to call a biblical book by its first word. Genesis is Bereshith, "In the beginning," and Leviticus, Way yikra, "And he called." We follow the Septuagint (Greek) and Vulgate (Latin) translations. This is Leviticus, the Levitical book — laws, instructions, torah collected and arranged (but not necessarily composed) by the Levitical priests during and after the period of Babylonian exile, that is, in the sixth and fifth centuries.

Look briefly at the contents of Leviticus:

1-7 Instructions, regulations, relating to sacrifice.

8-10 On the consecration and installation of the priesthood.

11-16Torah relating to ceremonial uncleanness and purification; and to the special rites for the Day of Atonement (16).

17-26 The Holiness Code.

27-28 An appendix on offerings and tithes.

This is Lord and covenant, Yahweh and his covenanted people, as seen in the perspective of priesthood and cultus. In this perspective Levitical law is the covenant, and the keeping of it is the covenant obligation of the entire community. Leviticus is not an original unit — the inclusion of the Holiness Code, itself a prior unit, testifies to this; and in over-all editorial design, Leviticus becomes an integral part of the giant Sinai-centered block of material from Exodus 19 to Numbers 10: 10.

The completed canon (the word means "rule" by which the content and limits of holy scripture are determined) affirms that all covenant law, all torah, is of Yahweh, and, therefore, essentially of Sinai-Mosaic origin.

What is offered here in very brief commentary presupposes the biblical text. As always, these words of mine are intentionally dependent. It is precisely my aim to avoid discussion of the Old Testament which can be appropriated in lieu of the biblical text, as a substitute for the text.

The Day of Atonement


This day, Yom Kippur, has continued in annual celebration in Judaism. It is "a solemn white fast, during which from dusk to dusk the faithful partake of neither food nor drink in token of penitence, but through prayer and confession scrutinize their lives, abjure their evil-doing, and seek regeneration, a returning to God and goodness."14

Contrary to the notions of some, belief in the universality and pervasiveness of sin did not originate in the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr nor of Karl Barth, nor of Kierkegaard, nor of the Protestant Reformers, nor of St. Augustine, nor even of the good St. Paul. What is called or miscalled original sin (original in the sense that it is a primary datum of every nun’s existence) has its roots in Israel’s ancient Yahweh-faith (the Garden, the Brothers, the Flood and the Tower — these always are, in the varied forms of all men’s violations of creation). The priests of Israel and of Judaism (a term appropriate to the Old Testament community after Israel’s sixth-century political demise) institutionalized in the Day of Atonement both their conviction of ruptured creation and their faith in the mercy of God.

Indeed, priestly symbolism in the Old Testament underlines a stunning sense of the centrality of sin — and by sin we mean not the mere infraction of rules for the "good" life, but that which in any respect violates the biblically defined relationship of God and man. In the priestly-cultic institution the holiest symbol is the mercy-seat, a solid-gold rectangular plate, conforming to the top dimensions of the ark of the covenant (2-1/2 x 1-1/2 cubits: a cubit was 18 inches?), resting on the ark, supporting the two cherubim above whom resides the invisible Presence. This mercy-seat is the footstool of Yahweh, the most sacred symbol within the holy-of-holies, behind the veil of the tabernacle-temple. At the center of the center, the nucleus of the nucleus, the seat of God’s mercy.

Verses 5-10 of Leviticus 16 constitute the earliest stratum of the chapter describing a simple but complete ceremony, subsequently elaborated. The name Azazel (vv. 8, 10, 26) remains a puzzle. It appears nowhere else in the Old Testament and has been variously interpreted: the chief (or in any case one) of the fallen angels; or as denoting the place to which one of the goats was sent (according to Rashi — Rabbi Sholomon ben Isaac — incomparably distinguished medieval commentator, twelfth century A.D.Q; or again, Azazel has been taken as denoting the sins for which the goat atones.

Observe that the priest and the whole house of the priests is not exempt from the necessity of making atonement (v. 6, in the original prescription). A ram (bull) is the specifically priestly sin-offering. Of the two goats, one is sacrificed as a sin-offering for the people and its blood, its life-essence, symbolically sprinkled on and before the mercy-seat (vv. 15-16). The other goat becomes a scapegoat: the total burden of all Israel’s transgressions, all her corporate sins, is symbolically placed upon him and he is driven away "to a solitary land" (vv. 20-22).

In the traditions of the rabbis of Judaism codified in the Mishnah about A.D. 200, there is a tractate called "Yoma" which adds details to the development of the celebration of Yom Kippur. The priest’s moving prayer is recorded, pronounced with his two hands placed upon the goat.

O Lord, thy people the house of Israel have committed iniquity, and transgressed, and sinned before thee. 0 Lord, pardon now the iniquities, the transgressions, and the sins which thy people, the house of Israel, have iniquitously done,, transgressed and sinned before thee, as it is written in the law of Moses thy servant, "For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins shall you be clean before the Lord" (v. 30).

At various points throughout the ceremony the people respond:

Blessed be the Name of the glory of his Kingdom for ever and ever.

The goat, according to practice detailed in the tractate of the Mishnah, is then taken to a place called Zok, about twelve miles from Jerusalem. People follow in sober procession. Arriving there, the goat is pushed backward off the edge of a cliff. Thus profound penitence is confessed; and thus is symbolized God’s complete forgiveness and removal of Israel’s sins. Thus sang the Psalmist (103:12):

As far as the east is from the west,

so far does he remove our transgressions from us.

The Holiness Code

19, 23-26

Since A. Klostermann gave the name Holiness Code (Dat Heiligkeitsgesetz) to this distinctive section (Lev. 17-26) in 1877, its separate unity within the P corpus has been almost unanimously affirmed. This is chronologically the third major code of torah in the Old Testament after the Covenant Code (Lx. 20-23) and the Deuteronomic Code (Deut. 12-26, 28). Its precise date and origin remain uncertain. The code makes use of items of torah already long in existence: many of the regulations of the Covenant Code and of Deuteronomy are reproduced. It is not feasible here to detail even the principal supporting arguments. Let it suffice to say that while the three codes, CC, DC, and HC, all incorporate already existent torah, they may he deemed to represent in their original codification three successive centuries, the eighth, the seventh, and the sixth, respectively.

The primary quality conveyed in the Hebrew term for holiness is separateness, set-apart-ness (the root of the word, qdsh. means to cut, and so, to separate). More particularly in the Old Testament it is a term applied to that which is sacred, that is, set apart for devotional use, for the exercise of the religious function, for purposes pertaining to deity. The root, in varying forms, identifies sacred places and sacred personnel, including both male and female cult prostitutes. In Yahwism holiness is appropriated to Yahweh himself. He is holy (Isa. 6); indeed, he is the holy one (Isa. 40:29; Hos. 11:9). Thus, holiness becomes the central attribute of Yahweh, denoting that total aspect of his being which is disclosed to man. Holiness embraces the full range of his effective impingement upon human existence. It is that without which Yahweh would not b Yahweh, since without holiness Yahweh would not be known at all. Holiness is his power. It is also his character.15

Now the Holiness Code makes the (preposterous?!) affirmation that it shall be, in the Semitic idiom, like Yahweh like people. Israel’s full covenant responsibility is to be, like the great covenanter himself, holy. "You shall be holy; for I Yahweh your God, am holy" (19:2). "You shall be holy to me; for I Yahweh am holy, and I have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine" (20:26; cf. 21:8). This is the intentional force behind the thematic phrase of the Code a phrase repeated almost fifty times: I am Yahweh. Thus and so shall you do (the Code embraces the full range of torah — cultic, ceremonial, civil, sociological, theological) because I am Yahweh, I am holy; and my holiness is fulfilled in you in honoring this torah; in obedience to this, you are holy, you appropriate my power, you conform to my character.

And beyond any doubt, the fourth event (see pages 7 ff.1 is implicit in this. The covenant demand of holiness unambiguously conveys the relationship of people and Word to the world: Israel, in her "separation" and in her appropriation of Yahweh’s holiness will convey in the world the power and character of God and his purpose to heal the world’s alienation. In doing so, Israel will participate in and bring to realization the fourth event, for which the first three were made — Exodus, Zion, and Exile.


In this consummately theological conception of the function of Israel’s existence and of the force and sanction of her torah, it is no wonder that the Holiness Code embraces in Leviticus 19 the Old Testament’s supreme articulation of the theological ethic.

The chapter has to do, of course, with the broad concerns of torah. Items of the Ethical Decalogue are reiterated — parents and sabbath (vv. 3,30), other gods (v. 4), stealing (v. 11), Yahweh’s name (v. 12). Purely cultic matters are taken up — the eating of the sacrifice (vv. 5-8) and the flesh-blood restriction (v. 26). Husbandry (v. 19) and horticulture (vv. 23-25) arc regimented; and the humane law on gleaning again finds eloquent expression (vv. 9-10). All forms of the occult penetration of the unknown are prohibited (vv. 26b, 3l). Two obviously not uncommon infringements of sexual morality are given attention (vv. 20-22, 29). And the concluding verses of the chapter (33-37) eloquently sound two characteristic thematic notes in the torah of prophetic Yahwism — the equality of the foreign-born and the home-born, the stranger (sojourner) and the native (you shall love the stranger as yourself, since you know, from Egypt, what it is to be a stranger!); and in the matter of weights and measures, there must be unqualified integrity.

The Theo-Ethical Summary


But the heart of the Holiness Code and of Leviticus 19 is verses 13-18. Here is a series of commandments-prohibitions which compares favorably in every significant regard with the Decalogue. Like the Decalogue, the form is prevailingly apodictic — "Thou shalt not" or "Thou shalt." This too represents the effort to give succinct expression to the universal essence of torah. And here too the content is theo-ethical; indeed, there is nothing here corresponding to what we have termed Yahweh’s pentalogue, but a series in which every member has to do with the relationships of human community.

It is possible to count twelve commandments in the series. Perhaps this, or ten, was the original intent of the unit. It may be that the series was long perpetuated in liturgical use, and that the refrain "I am Yahweh" originally occurred after each one of the commandments. As the text now comes to us we wonder whether the unit is not best read as an eight-member series; or whether, against prevailing critical opinion, the original unit may not include verses 11-12, and so comprise a decalogue.

Within the covenant community, in the living of your days one with another,


1.v. 11 act corruptly in personal relationships

2. v. 12 and compound the corruption by a false oath in my name

1 am Yahweh

3.v. 13 abuse your neighbor

4.v. 13 delay prompt payment of wages and so abuse the worker

5. v. 14 abuse the handicapped — specifically the deaf and the blind

I am Yahweh

6. v. 15 commit injustice, either out of sympathy to the poor or out of fear of the mighty: let the consistent principle be tsdq, righteousness (which is precisely the principle of honor and integrity as appropriate to any given relationship)

7. v. 16 perform (busily, energetically, peripatetically) the function of gossip-slanderer in the community

8. v. 16 witness (the primary sense seems to be that of formal witness) so as to put in jeopardy the life of any of your fellows

I am Yahweh

9. v. 17 hate another; but if you do, you shall meet with him whom you hate and together heal the breach, and so be rid of the sin you bore, which was the hate you knew in the ruptured relationship

10. v. 18 avenge or cherish the wrong done you but (and especially in this situation!) you shall love your neighbor as yourself

I am Yahweh

This is a theological ethic derived from the sense of Yahweh’s holiness and from the conviction that the quality of his holiness must prevail in all the relationships of the community under covenant with him. Of course holiness is translated into elaborate cultic and ritual rites and regulations and it is with such that the hulk of the Holiness Code is concerned. But, without apparent conscious distinction, the HC is also moral-ethical, as the moral and the ethical are conceived under the primary fact of existence — "I am Yahweh."

Leviticus 19:11-18 (or 13-18) is a phenomenal series of community controls. A later teacher, nurtured in and informed by this torah, quoted the concluding line with the observation that herein, coupled with love of God, is the whole of the law and the prophets (Matt. 22: 34-40).

The Yahweh Speech


We have seen that the Covenant Code concludes with a hortatory speech of Yahweh. The second major collection of torah, the Deuteronomic Code (Deut. 12-26, 28) is similarly rounded out in Deuteronomy 28; but this we reserve for discussion in a later chapter. As in CC and DC, HC puts in the mouth of Yahweh the threat of disaster in the event of disobedience and the promise of unparalleled blessing and fulfillment for the keeping of torah.

It is a moving speech, revealing the vitality of the sense of relationship between Yahweh and covenant people. The lines, which appear in refrain, are charged with intimate concern — If you will not hearken to me, if you walk contrary to me, then I shall perforce walk contrary to you. But to what end? Not simply to unleash my wrath upon you, but to bring you back, to restore you in the land, and to renew my covenant.

The present text is obviously informed of the catastrophe of the early decades of the sixth century. In this crisis, the Holiness Code, with some of its regulations reaching far back into Israel’s ancient faith and practice, is freshly presented. Here, in this tangible form, is the substance of our life. It has always been the real substance of our life, and nothing can remove this from us.

An astonishing faith, this covenant faith of ancient Israel, this unquenchable, indestructible Yahwism. In the face of seeming certain death, annihilation, extinction, this faith in Lord and Covenant, in Yahweh and Word, this faith cast in history’s fires, this one-track, obstinate Yahwism — this faith is articulated in the keynote of the Holiness Code:

. . .you shall clear out the old to make way for the new . . .I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people. (26:10, 12)

Do you fear what has now befallen you? Have you forgotten that

I am Yahweh your God, who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their slaves; and I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect. (26:13)16

Walk erect even now — in holiness.


NUMBERS 5-6, 11-17, 20-24; JOSHUA 1-12, 23-24

I gave you a land.

Josh. 24:1317

The last verse of Leviticus (27:34) reminds us of the structure of the Hexateuch. "These are the commandments which Yahweh commanded Moses for the people of Israel on Mount Sinai." Yahweh to Moses to people, at Mount Sinai. This is the platform of Leviticus — in the present arrangement of the text. But it is also the foundation of the balance of Exodus from 19:1. And it is the fundamental scheme of first section of Numbers, to 10:10. At Numbers 10:11 ff. "the people of Israel set out by stages from the wilderness of Sinai." The immediate goal, though agonizingly frustrated, is the gaining of Canaan, the acquisition of a land in fulfillment of divine promise.

A glance over the full contents of the book of Numbers returns this outline:

1:1-10:10Varied torah as part of the total Yahweh-Moses-Sinai law.

10:11-20:13 Traditions and torah of the wilderness period.

20:14-36:13 Toward the land: from Kadesh to Moab.

Numbers gets its name from the fact that it opens (1-2) with the numbering of Israel, with complete census lists by tribes.

So the whole numbers of the people of Israel . . . from twenty years old and upward, every man able to go forth to war in Israel — their whole number was six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty. (1:45 f.)

This would imply a total community of about two million, a preposterous figure which may result from the retrojection of census figures compiled in the days of the monarchy, centuries later, to this early epoch. The figure 603 is hardly the achievement of numerology (it is a remarkable coincidence that the Hebrew letters in "children of Israel" total, in the sum of their numerical equivalents, the number 603). This is of course P. In passages commonly assigned to J (Num. 11:21 and Ex. 12:37) the round number 600,000 appears, perhaps, however as later glosses influenced by P. Is it possible that about six hundred families first figured in the tradition? The change from families to thousands is easy indeed in Hebrew. Again we have to say not only that we do not know but that we shall probably never know. We can only say again that the numbers were relatively small, certainly not in excess of a total of ten thousand, and perhaps only about half that number.


The Ordeal of Jealousy (5) and the Law of the Nazirite (6) represent very ancient belief and practice and ought not to be omitted in reading. Comparable institutions of ordeal in the case of confirmed or suspected unfaithfulness are found over the ancient world. And the Nazirite (from the Hebrew nazir, meaning one who is consecrated — no relation to Nazareth in the New Testament) is later represented in the figures of Samson and Samuel. That widely and justly beloved benediction, the so-called Priestly Blessing, is attached to the Law of the Nazirite (6:22 ff.). Fortunately, translation only slightly mars its beauty. The Hebrew composition presents three lines of three, five, and seven words each. "In beautiful climax it leads in three members from the petition for material blessing and protection to that of the favour of Yahweh as spiritual blessing, and finally to the petition for the bestowal of the Shalom, the peace of welfare in which all the material and spiritual well-being is comprehended."18

The Lord bless you and keep you.

The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you.

The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

Between Egypt and Canaan

11-17; 20-21

Not everything in the Old Testament is edifying, or of theological meaning, or even in and of itself worth reading. But everything comes out of Israel’s life, and it is part of the genius of the whole Old Testament story that Israel’s life is so broadly and deeply represented. Sometimes, then, we are content to read the story simply for what it adds out of the fullness of her experience and her memory to our penetration into the entity of that ancient people.

Three narrative units now before us duplicate what we have already encountered in the story as told in Exodus. The cry of hunger (Ex. 16) is here the lament, "O that we had meat to eat!" (11:4). Manna (bdellium, 11:7) is deemed unsatisfactory and "again"(?) quail fall in profusion (11:31 ff.; cf. Ex. 16:13). Chapter 11 begins and ends with a little etymological legend of the sort we have seen before. But the strong feature of this chapter is the delineation of the Yahweh-Moses relationship and the brilliance and vigor of the dialogue. Moses, sick of the faint-hearted, self-pitying wails of complaint, turns with impudent irony to Yahweh — "Did I conceive all this people . . ." (see 11:12 ff.); and Yahweh himself carries the day with as fine a speech of sarcasm as is to be found in all antiquity:

Yahweh will give you meat and you shall eat! You shall not eat one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils. . . (11:18 ff.)

The cry of thirst (Ex. 17) is also repeated (Num. 20). This time Moses responds in such fury (Num. 20:10) that the episode comes to be seen as the explanation for Moses’ failure to enter the land of promise (see Ps. 106:33). That the episode is a duplicate of that of Exodus 17 seems likely in the repetition of the etymological explanation of the name Meribah (Contention).

The appointment of an administrative staff to ease the fearful load on Moses is also duplicated in Numbers (11:24-29; cf. Ex. 18). But in this account Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, does not figure at all; and in the episode of the somewhat excessive charismatic seizure of the indefatigable Eldad and Medad, Moses is given one of the finest lines ever given a professional to speak of other professionals. When informed by some fortunately nameless busy-body that these two boys are still inexhaustibly making like prophets, old Moses thunders,

Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all Yahweh’s people were prophets, that Yahweh would put his spirit upon them! (11:29)

A notable difference between these three sets of duplicates in Exodus and Numbers is their place in the story: in Exodus these are pre-Sinai episodes; in Numbers, they follow the Sinai sojourn.

In this context where Moses appears with unparalleled vigor, if not violence, it is a remarkable touch that the story incorporates the strange little narrative of Miriam’s and Aaron’s insubordination (Num. 12) and the accompanying testimony (unthinkable if untrue) to the essential humility of the man Moses (12:3). Nor is any higher tribute paid Moses than in Yahweh’s words of rebuke to Miriam and Aaron (12:6-8).

The area of present occupation is in the vicinity of Kadesh. The Old Testament story now recalls, and surely idealizes, the tentative probe of Canaan (Num. 13) in hopeful anticipation of occupation, and Caleb’s courageous report against all the other Milquetoast spies who testify that against the stalwart occupants of the land they seemed in their own eyes like grasshoppers (v. 33).

It is not at all impossible that Numbers 14 preserves the memory of an abortive attempt to occupy Canaan by approach directly from the south (vv. 39-45). But these narratives of pre-Canaan Israel are not nearly so appropriate to the reconstruction of external as of internal history: it is the grateful impression of a Joshua and a Caleb in the living memory of a people that is best preserved (14:4-10); it is the role of Moses’ intercession in their very survival that is celebrated (14:13-20; cf. Ex. 32:30 ff.); it is the enduring shame and remorse of faithlessness, the aggressive rebellion of unfaith that is sounded as a perennially relevant theme in the existence of Israel (14:26-45).

The Rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram


As it now stands, this narrative confirms the prerogatives enjoyed by the professional hereditary priesthood, the Levites. But here is a fine example of the nature and process of a long-fluid, composite tradition. The present text betrays an original account which was simply a vindication of the position and authority of Moses; a second, variant account combined with the first; and a third account introduced still later, or a decisive, aggressive editorial hand providing the final modification. There can be no doubt of the fact of multiple oral and written sources underlying the present Hexateuch, even though our conventional symbols may be inaccurate in certain particulars of representation. Employing these symbols, nevertheless, Numbers 16 presents this interesting history and structure:

1. JE: vv. 1,2a,12-15,25-34 (omitting all references to Korah). Here is a straightforward narrative of a purely secular revolt by the Reubenites Dathan and Abiram against the civil authority claimed by Moses. They are swallowed up.

2. P: Korah, at the head of 250 recognized leaders of Israel, opposes Moses and Aaron in the interests of the entire community, protesting the limitation of priestly rights and privileges to Moses arid Aaron and the Levites on the ground that "all the congregation are holy" (v. 3). Korah and company are consumed by fire from Yahweh (v. 35).

3. R (final redactor): Korah, at the head of 250 Levites, opposes the exclusive rights of Aaron as against the Levites.

In summary, then: (1) Dathan and Abiram (cf. Ps. 106:16-18 where Korah is not mentioned) protest Moses’ civil authority. The motive of the story is, of course, to substantiate the continuing Mosaic authority. (2) Korah and all the congregation challenge the Levites in a variant designed to give ultimate confirmation to the Levitical institution. (3) The third variation centers the controversy within the professional priesthood and in upholding Aaron against the rebellious Levites, the story serves to give ancient sanction to the relatively late office of high or chief (Aaronic) priest over the Levitical priests.

The Old Testament story, we repeat, tends always toward "isness"; and where questions of external fact are hopelessly obscure (or indeed, as is often the case, irrelevant, the nature of the story being what it is), the subsequent course of Israel’s internal history may nevertheless be remarkably illuminated.



An unusual array of fascinating, if problematical, items is presented in this chapter. We can do no more here than call attention to some of them. The broad lines of the story are moving toward the entrance into Canaan. The long period of wilderness occupation is behind (how, again, are we to assess historically the obviously round number of "forty years," Num. 14:33 f., representing a full generation: was it more or less?). Israel moves now toward Moab, intending to approach Canaan from the southeast.

The place-name Hormah (root, hrm, destruction) is etymologically explained as is also, incidentally, the institution of the herem (root, hrm), in which the enemy is totally destroyed as an act of devotion — or gigantic sacrifice to the deity (vv.

1-4).The bout with fiery serpents (vv. 4-9) is enigmatic: does it preserve the memory of actual casualties inflicted by serpents; or is it a cultic etiology to explain the presence of a bronze serpent in the Jerusalem temple in Hezekiah’s time (II Kings 18:4); or is it distantly related to ancient, primitive cultic use of the serpent symbol?

Do not miss the ancient Song of the Well, happily preserved here, nor the also very old, if puzzling, song of verses 27 ff. Of several possible interpretations, the lines are most naturally and simply interpreted as celebrating a victory of the Amorites (Sihon the king, and Heshbon the capital) over Moab, and incorporated in Israel’s story with the sentiment that what Sihon conquered becomes an imputed conquest of those who conquer Sihon, namely, Israel (see vv. 25-31).

If we give literal, historical credence to the narratives of Israel’s approach to the land, we can only wonder whether the present sequence is not disordered, with the conquest of Ammon to the north of Moab, and still further north, Bashan (vv. 33 ff.), before the encounter with Moab represented in Numbers 22 ff.

Balaam, Moab, and Israel


Moab hears of what Israel has done to Bashan and Ammon, and a man of vast renown for his powers of efficacious blessing and cursing, Balaam from Aram, is summoned by Moab’s king, Balak. Internal conflict in the very charming Balaam story has been conventionally explained in terms of its JE composition: in J, for example, Balaam sets out without Yahweh’s consent; but in F (v. 20) permission has already been given.

The speaking animal is a prevalent theme in antiquity (one remembers the classic example in the Iliad of Achilles’ horse Xanthus); but in the Old Testament it occurs only here and in the Garden story (Gen. 3). It is intentionally humorous here. The story says brilliantly that even a man as gifted as Balaam may possess powers of spiritual discernment considerably less than those of an ass. In this connection I recall the finest example I have ever seen of the not uncommon foggy relationship between an undergraduate student and the subject-matter of the course. On an Old Testament quiz, I asked for a one-sentence identification of Balaam and received this answer:

Balaam was an ass that went about doing good. Not quite in touch — but almost.

Four remarkable, pro-Israel oracles stand in Numbers 23-24. In the first of these Balaam declares

How can I curse whom God has not cursed?

How can I denounce whom Yahweh has not denounced? (23:8)

With increasing impatience Balak, king of Moab, tries to secure from Balaam a formal curse against Israel. But twice more (23:18-24 and 24:3 9) the forthcoming oracle takes the form of magnificent, lyrical blessing:

For there is no enchantment against Jacob,

no divination against Israel;

Now it shall be said of Jacob and Israel,

"What has God wrought!" (23:23)

This phrase did not, of course, originate on the wireless, or was it the telegraph?

Humor underlies the whole story. Balak’s exasperation is comic when he cries, "Neither curse them at all, nor bless them at all," which, after all, puts the matter very courteously (23:25). Balak’s patience nevertheless endures a third oracle; but Balaam’s fourth is, from Balak’s point of view, utterly gratuitous (24:15-19).

The three short oracles in 24:204 are of other and later origin than the four major oracles, which (conventionally seen as E or JE) are certainly not later than the eighth century, betray characteristics of the tenth-century monarchy, and may rest on still older oracular models. From a purely theological point of view, the second oracle is distinguished for its early and profound definition of the Word, the Yahweh-Word:

God is not man, that he should lie,

or a son of man, that he should repent.

Has he said, and will he nor do it?

Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfil it? (23:19)

The sense of the Word as efficacious entity accomplishing itself is further expressed in the next verse:

Behold, I received a command to bless:

he has blessed, and I cannot revoke it! (23:20)

This is the Word that made the covenant that sustained the faith by which Israel survived.

Occupation as Fulfillment of Promise: Joshua 1-12, 23-24

From a literary point of view, the first major unit of the Old Testament is not the Pentateuch but the Tetrateuch (Genesis-Numbers). The literary framework is superficial, that is, imposed, and is unmistakably a priestly framework. Upon these four books as literary phenomena the priesthood of exilic and postexilic Judaism has exercised the final, formative influence.

In determining the actual contents and limits of the Old Testament from a canonical point of view, the first major unit is, of course, the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy). A fifth book is added to the literary unit of the Tetrateuch on the strength of the Mosaic tradition; these five books are "the five books of Moses." In the process of the formation of the Old Testament canon, they fulfill the "rule" of acceptance ("canon"), and so constitute the first unit to achieve canonical status (c. 400 B.C.?).

But the first theological unit is the Hexateuch. Everything in the Pentateuch is in anticipation of the attainment of the land, the fulfillment of divine promise, which is recounted in Joshua. Canonically, Joshua introduces the second major division of the canon (Law, Prophets, Writings). Joshua is the first of the Former Prophets — Joshua, Judges, Samuel. Kings (the Latter Prophets are the prophets proper — Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve Hosea through Malachi). Judged by the literary norm, Joshua belongs to the Deuteronomic Work, Deuteronomy-Kings — so designated because of its characteristic dominant deuteronomic editorial framework and cast. As priests have employed older sources, including their own, in the Tetrateuch, so deuteronomists have worked (and apparently more self-assertively than the priests) with the likes of J and E, and their own Deuteronomy, in the Deuteronomic Work. Theologically, we repeat, Joshua is the last scene of the first great act of the Old Testament story, the completion of the first great event, the total event of Egypt-Sinai.

These chapters mark the outline of Joshua. Deuteronomic editors working in the sixth century under the strong influence of the seventh-century Deuteronomic Code (the original Deuteronomy, probably Deut. 4:44-30:20) collected stories of conquest in Joshua 2-11 and added to this collection their own introduction (ch. 1) and conclusion (11:21-12:24). Tribal boundaries and lists of cities dating from the tenth to the seventh centuries comprise, for the most part, Joshua 13-22. The last two chapters of Joshua purport to be the final words of Joshua.

We shall look at some of this in more detail in Part Two, to which we are about to turn. It is essential here only to remind ourselves that the shape of the full Hexateuch is theologically and cultically determined, and that a people’s memory thus articulated and preserved vastly simplifies and radically idealizes the remembered events. Yahweh’s "gift" of the land is theologically dominant in the event and cultically celebrated. Accordingly the book of Joshua, while here and there acknowledging a slow, long-sustained process of occupation-acquisition, understandably emphasizes a total and utterly decisive conquest of the entire land by force of arms. The question of the relationship of this view to the probable course of events will return. We simply record here our understanding and appreciation of Israel’s faith. What is affirmed in Joshua is true of Israel’s internal history as it is made articulate in the expanded credo in Joshua 24 — the summary, confessional statement of the First Event of Israel’s existence. The Old Testament story which we have surveyed thus far is compressed in the credo, with the sharp, tight eloquence of economy, to a half-page recital of Yahweh’s creation of Israel.

Let the reading of this recital (24:2-13) round out our review of the Old Testament story’s First Event.


1. Cf. W. F. Albright, The Biblical Period, Pittsburgh, 1950, pp. 1-6; John Bright, A History of Israel, Philadelphia, 1959, Pp. 60-91. This conservative judgment is opposed by M. Noth, The History of Israel, trans. S. Godman (from Geschichte Israels, 2nd ed.), New York, 1958, pp. 120 ff.; and Supplement Vetus Testamentum VII, Oxford, 1959.

2. Cf. H. Gunkel, The Legends of Genesis, trans. W. H. Carruth, Chicago, 1901; and B. 0. Napier, From Faith to Faith, New York, 1955, pp. 71 ff.

3. Here as well as in 18:18 and 28:14 the form of the Hebrew verb is niph’al, permitting either a passive ("be blessed") or receive ("bless themselves") reading. In two other occurrences of the covenant promise of universal blessing, 22:15-18 and 26:2-5, the verb form hithpa’el requires the reflexive. From a theological point of view, the distinction is immaterial.

4. See further, Napier, op. cit., pp. 88-92.

5. Ibid., pp. 105 ff.

6. On the whole of Exodus 19, see the recent form-critical study by H. Wildberger, Jahwes Eigentumsvolk, Zurich, 1960.

7. On the relationship between the Old Testament sabbath commandment and the Christian observance of Sunday, see B. D. Napier, Exodus, in the series The Layman’s Bible Commentary, Richmond, 1962.

8. Ibid.

9. Cf. A. Alt. "Die Ursprunge des Israelitischen Rechts," in Kleine Schriften, vol. 1, pp. 278 ff.

10. Cf. G. E. Mendenhall, Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East, Pittsburgh, 1955.

11. Cf. G. von Rod, Theologie des Alten Testaments, Munich, 1957, vol. I, p. 233.

12. This section on Exodus 32-34 was first written for Exodus, in the series The Layman’s Bible Commentary and is used here, somewhat altered, with the permission of the John Knox Press.

13. See M. Noth’s recent commentary Exodus, in the series Las Alte Testament Deutsch, Gottingen, 1960.

14. Al. Steinberg, Basic Judaism, New York, 1947, pp. 130 f.

15. On holiness and the Holiness Code, see R. Pfeiffer, Introduction to the Old Testament, New York, 1941, pp. 239-250; E. Jacob, Theology of the Old Testament, New York, 1958, pp. 87-93; Napier, From Faith to Faith, op. cit., pp. 178 f., 197 f.

16. See Lev. 19:11-13.

17. Cf. Pss. 114, 135.

18. E. Kautzsch, quoted in A. R. S. Kennedy, Leviticus and Numbers, in the Century Bible Series, Edinburgh, n.d.