The first two chapters of the book set out the problem to which God responds and introduce the person through whom he will
act; they are the exposition of the plot. God is hardly mentioned; it is implied that he is active behind the scenes, but
he does not appear on stage until he hears the cry of his people (
). At first sight Pharaoh's command to kill the baby boys (
) does not fit in with the main story in which the Israelites are subjected to forced labour, especially as it is not mentioned
again after ch. 2
. It was clearly intended as context for the traditional story in
. However, there is no contradiction. In Pharaoh's speech Israel is presented not as a convenient source of labour but as
a danger. The two measures have the same object: to crush and weaken the Israelites (Houtman 1993: 245). To destroy only boys is not a very efficient way of wiping out a nation: the object could rather be to deprive it of its
belongs to J, but P is responsible for
1:1–5, 7, 13–14
These verses form a link between Genesis and Exodus. They refer back to Gen 46:5–27 and 50:26
, and set the scene for the story of the oppression and deliverance of Israel in Ex 1–15
. We are reminded in v. 7
of the promise to the patriarchs that they would have a multitude of descendants (e.g. Gen 15:5
), but at the same time it begins the exposition of the plot of Exodus. We are reminded of it twice in the following verses
); whatever the Egyptians may do, the Israelites continue to increase, so God is perhaps secretly at work. v. 1
, the Jewish name for Exodus, šēmôt, ‘Names’, comes from the first words. v. 5
, seventy names are listed in Gen 46
This section relates the beginning of the oppression of Israel. The new king ‘did not know Joseph’. ‘Know’ in Hebrew often
has an overtone of relationship. The relation of friendship and service set up between Joseph and the earlier king is forgotten.
In the king's speech (vv. 9–10
) the writer uses irony to undermine the king's credibility. He grossly exaggerates the numbers of the Israelites, but in
doing so confirms the divine promise to the patriarchs. He says ‘let us deal shrewdly with them’, but the story shows that
his plan is anything but shrewd; and he ends by posing the danger that the Israelites may escape—which was exactly what happened!
The Israelites have to perform conscript labour for the state. Often the OT writers describe them as slaves. Strictly speaking
this is not the same thing: a conscript labourer is not the property of his master. But understandably the writers tend to ignore the distinction. Forced labour was a practice of Israelite
kings also, but the biblical tradition has a moral repugnance to it (1 Kings 12:18; Jer 22:13
). v. 11
, the names of the supply cities (see ABD for each, and Redford 1963
; they are in the east of the Nile Delta) have often been taken as a clue to the historical setting of the Exodus. Rameses
is probably the capital of Rameses II, abandoned after his death in 1212 BCE. On the other hand, the form of the name Rameses in Hebrew suggests that it was borrowed no earlier than 700 BCE (Redford 1963: 411–13). A writer at a later time could have used the names to give his story colour without having an old tradition.
Pharaoh's attempt to deprive the Israelites of male leadership is first of all frustrated by the courage of two women, and
three more frustrate the second stage of his plan. For feminist reflections on this irony, see Exum (1993, 1994). v. 15
, ‘the Hebrew midwives’. This is the first appearance of the word ‘Hebrew’ in the book. It is used to refer to the Israelites
from the point of view of the Egyptians (or, later, of other foreigners). For the origin of the word see ‘Hebrew’, and ‘Habiru,
Hapiru’ in ABD iii. v. 19
. The midwives' lie is not disapproved of—the OT reflects the moral sense of ordinary people, not moral philosophers!
The birth story of Moses appears to be based on a very old folk-tale, which we first find as the birth story of King Sargon
of Akkad (about 2300 BCE; ANET 119). Moses is destined to die; the human compassion of Pharaoh's daughter impels her to disobey her father and rescue him.
, ‘a Levite woman’: the Hebrew text actually says ‘the daughter of Levi’, but may be influenced by
(Schmidt 1988: 50). v. 9
, Moses is brought up as a Hebrew, even though adopted as an Egyptian. This ironic twist serves to explain his later role.
, the name ‘Moses’ is probably derived from an Egyptian word often found in personal names such as that of the Pharaoh Thutmosis.
But here, as so often in the OT, it is given a fanciful Hebrew derivation: ‘Moses’ is Moshe (mōšeh), which means ‘one who draws out’.
Can it be right for the oppressed to take justice into their own hands? The story neither approves nor disapproves. It shows
us that Moses is a man who is passionate for justice (so is God's choice of him so odd?), but also imprudent. For without
the divine authorization which he later receives, there is no possibility that his action could succeed. As far as the plot
is concerned, the episode gets Moses from Egypt to Midian, where he is to meet God.
Moses in Midian. The resemblance of this story to that of Jacob in Gen 29
, and more distantly to Gen 24
, has often been noted. It may be a literary convention, in stories of the hero's finding a wife in distant parts (Alter 1981: 47–62), or a deliberate imitation (Van Seters 1994: 32).
‘Midian’ was an Arab people occupying an area to the east of the Gulf of Aqaba; but it is possible that their shepherds came
as far west as the Sinai peninsula (Mendenhall 1992b
), where Mt. Sinai/Horeb (
) has traditionally been located. In v. 17
the word translated ‘came to their defence’ is the word which the OT regularly uses of God's ‘saving’ people. Here is another
sign marking Moses out as one who is ready to save people who are suffering injustice. v. 18
, Moses' future father-in-law is called Reuel here and probably in Num 10:29
, Jethro in
3:1 and 18:1–12
, Jether in
, and Hobab in Judg 4:11
and perhaps Num 10:29
. He is a Midianite in Exodus and Numbers and a Kenite in Judges. Probably he originally had no name in the tradition (Schmidt 1988: 85–7), and the writers, or the traditions they draw on, have filled in the blank in various ways. In Exodus this may point to
different source material. v. 22
, there may be a hidden meaning in Moses' words. Which is the ‘foreign land’, Midian or Egypt?
In this section the Israelites call for help, and the God of Israel responds by appointing Moses as his agent, and promises
him he will deliver the Israelites; but Moses' first attempts to ask Pharaoh to let them go meet with failure. This creates
a crisis which can only be overcome by a further and more powerful divine intervention.
The God of Israel is usually given his name YHWH, but in places he is referred to by the more general ᾽ĕlōhîm, ‘God’.
(and probably not much else here) belongs to P, who avoids using ‘YHWH’ before YHWH himself reveals the name.
is often ascribed to a distinct source, E; but the writer (J) may simply find it appropriate to use ᾽ĕlōhîm in describing the dialogue with Moses, who does not yet know the name. See Moberly (1992: 5–35).
, the statement about the death of the king expresses the passage of time, and prepares for
. But this makes no difference to the oppression.
adds a theologically important link between the Israelites' oppression and God's action. God's action is a response not only
to what he sees, but also to what he hears, the cry of a suffering people. His action is then determined by his prior commitment
to Israel's ancestors (see Gen 17; 35:11–13; 6:2–8
). ‘Covenant’ here refers to a solemn promise made by God to the patriarchs. In Israelite society it was the responsibility
of the nearest relative to redeem a person from the grip of the creditor and the slaveholder (Lev 25:25, 47–9
). P expresses YHWH's responsibility to Israel, which was not based on physical kinship, in the concept of this ‘covenant’
with the ancestors. See further
This passage follows basically the same pattern as some other accounts of God's call of individuals to special tasks, e.g.
Gideon in Judg 6:11–24
, Jeremiah in Jer 1:4–10
. In all of them, five things happen. There is a meeting between God and the chosen one; God gives him a commission; he objects that he is unfit; God reassures him; God gives him a sign (Habel 1965
). Here, however, the pattern is expanded. It is complete by
; but Moses keeps finding new objections, which God responds to seriously; the elements of commission and assurance are thus
taken up again in various ways, and a whole section (
) is devoted to signs. It is often suggested that Moses is here cast in the role of a prophet. It is true that much of the
material is typical of prophecy (e.g. Moses is to speak to a king in the name of God); but some is more typical of a military
leader, for example the assurance ‘I will be with you’ (
3:12; see Gowan 1994: 56–61). Moses is both. This simple storytelling device of repeated objections enables the passage to be much richer than a simple
call to service. It is in the first place God's promise that he himself will act to deliver Israel. Moses' work takes its
place within the divine plan, and is impossible without God's action. God's words dominate the passage, and they refer backwards and forwards; the whole of the Pentateuchal story is set out here. The story of Exodus is a plot with few surprises,
because the chief character promises beforehand everything that is to happen. It is essential to this that God should here
reveal his name YHWH (
), backing his promise with it, as we might sign our name to a contract.
The passage pictures the interplay of divine sovereignty and human freedom. It ends, of course, with total victory for YHWH.
Moses, for all his show of independence, is forced to submit, and for many chapters will play the role of a mere agent. Yet
he has not been deprived of his humanity, and will later (
14:13–14 and esp. 32–3
) show that he can take the initiative (Gunn 1982: 84–7).
Moses' meeting with God is the experience of a mysterious and awe-inspiring, but attractive presence, an example of the experience
of the holy, as defined by Rudolf Otto (Gowan 1994: 25–53). It cannot be described literally, but only pictured, as in e.g. Judg 5:4–5; Ps 18:7–15; 50:1–6; Hab 3
. When God is described in such passages as coming in visible ways to judge and save, scholars call it a ‘theophany’. Fire
is the most regular accompaniment of theophanies. Therefore, although people have tried to explain what the burning bush was
in natural terms, this misses the point. But who is it who appears to Moses? The narrator calls him first ‘the angel’ (lit.
messenger) of YHWH (‘the LORD’) (v. 2
), and then in one verse (
) both YHWH (‘the LORD’) and ᾽ĕlōhîm (‘God’). It is common in theophanies for the one who appears to be called ‘the angel of YHWH/᾽ĕlōhîm’ (as in Judg 6:11–24
); but it normally becomes clear (as in Judg 6:14
) that it is YHWH himself who is speaking. In this way the narrator makes it clear that the event is a real visitation of
God, but avoids saying that YHWH himself became visible. v. 6
finally makes it clear that the mysterious apparition is none other than the God who is spoken of in Genesis, and was known
to Israel's ancestors and Moses' own father. v. 1
, for Jethro see EX
. Horeb and ‘the mountain of God’ are alternative names, particularly in Deuteronomy, for the mountain called Sinai in Ex 19
where God reveals himself to Israel. v. 5
, similarly Josh 5:15
. The practice of removing footwear in holy places is regular in Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism, but its meaning is disputed:
see Houtman (1993: 351–2).
The divine promise and commission, Moses' initial objection and God's fundamental reassurance. Because v. 9
seems to repeat the substance of v. 7
, it has often been thought that vv. 9–12
come from a different source (E) from vv. 7–8
. But it is important that God's promise to ‘bring up’ the Israelites out of Egypt stands alongside his commission to Moses
to ‘bring them out’. Neither the divine initiative nor the human agency can be dispensed with. The phrases in v. 8
are conventional. The list of former inhabitants occurs in many places with slight variations; it is impossible to give a
precise meaning to the names, except for the Jebusites, who were the people of Jerusalem before David captured the city (2 Sam 5
). Moses' objection in v. 11
is a standard expression to avoid commitment. See Judg 6:15, Jer 1:6
, which get the same answer; 1 Sam 18:23
. The ‘sign’ in v. 12
has caused problems, since it is not something that Moses can see and be convinced by now (contrast
). Gowan (1994: 55–6) rightly says that ‘I will be with you’ is sufficient in itself as an assurance; if Moses hangs on to that, he will eventually see the confirmation of his mission in the meeting of all the people (the last ‘you’ is plural) with their God.
Here the god in the bush, so far nameless to Moses, reveals his name. Why does Moses ask this question (v. 13
)? The call is to be a messenger, and a messenger needs a name to authenticate his credentials. Moses, however, does not know
the name of his ‘father's god’; but he cannot be sure that the Israelites do not know it either. The story at this point does
not commit itself on whether the Israelites know YHWH's name already; it focuses on Moses' ignorance, not Israel's. But while this is Moses' reason for raising the question, the author has a deeper motive for highlighting
it. A strong tradition held that the bond between Israel and YHWH went back to the time of the Exodus from Egypt (see Hos 2:15; 11:1; 13:4; Jer 2:2–8
). Therefore it is appropriate that it is at this point, when he announces his intention to save, that YHWH becomes known
to Israel. But here the episode is part of a larger story in which Israel's ancestors have already encountered this God, so
the story must be told in a way which allows for this.
(P) clears up the ambiguity of this passage.
God answers Moses' question in v. 15
. But first he tantalizes him with a play on words. The Hebrew for ‘I am’ or ‘I will be’ is ehyeh. Changed into the third person this would be yihyeh or in an older form yahweh, which was probably the pronunciation of YHWH. Many meanings have been seen in ‘I AM WHO I AM’ or ‘I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE’; probably the simplest is ‘I will be whoever I will be’, that is, while I will graciously reveal my name to you, I will
not be bound or defined by it (Gowan 1994: 84). But as a wordplay the meaning is not as important as the sound! The actual origin of the name YHWH is quite uncertain (see de Vaux 1978: i. 338–57).
YHWH follows up his revelation of his name by telling Moses how he is to use it, and so goes into his commission in detail, along with the assurance that he will unleash his own power to compel the king to let the Israelites go. Thus the whole story up to Ex 12
is given here in outline.
‘The elders of Israel’ do not in fact accompany Moses to the king (v. 18, cf. 5:1
). Is this an inconsistency in the story, or a mistake on Moses' part? The request they are to make of the king (v. 18
) is of course a ruse, which ought not to worry anyone's conscience when dealing with tyrants (see EX
). But it also picks up
The puzzling instruction is carried out in Ex 12:35–6
. Daube (1947: 49–50) offers a plausible explanation. There was a custom (Deut 15:14
) that a released slave should get a generous endowment. The Israelites are to deceive the Egyptians—if it is deception—into
giving them their rightful due!
Moses may well mean that he does not know whether to believe YHWH. YHWH's answer is to demonstrate his power by means of ‘signs’ that he enables Moses
to perform. These signs achieve what that in
could not, in immediately convincing a wavering Moses. Such signs, however external and artificial they may appear to us,
are common in OT narrative (compare Judg 6:17–22, 36–40
). In the story that follows they are used not only to convince the Israelites (
), but, with variations, to impress the Egyptians (
; foreshadowed in
Moses offers his final excuse (v. 10
). YHWH's answer (vv. 11–12
) shows that the author takes for granted that YHWH is the Creator. Moses has now run out of excuses and simply turns the
job down (v. 13
). And YHWH runs out of patience, but his answer harks back to Moses' pretext in v. 10
. Moses must go, but his brother may do the speaking for him. However, in the event, this does not happen in any consistent way (explicitly
); and Aaron sometimes performs the signs (as in
, etc.) rather than, or as well as, speaking. It is probable that Moses' pretext is simply, for the author, a device to bring
Aaron into the story, for the sake of a group in Jewish society that was attached to him, presumably the priests who claimed
descent from him. It is not clear why Aaron is called ‘the Levite’ (v. 14
) when Moses was one himself according to
. It probably refers to his task rather than his descent. ‘You shall serve as God for him’, Moses is told in v. 16
. That is, the relation between Moses and Aaron is like that between God and his prophet.
Moses' return to Egypt is told in a rather disjointed narrative which probably shows the effect of the piecing together of
different sources or traditions. v. 19
refers back to
, but seems to ignore all that has happened in between, since Moses already has his marching orders and has even said goodbye.
develop Moses' instructions in a new direction as compared with
. Pharaoh will refuse to let Israel go because YHWH so wills. This important theme is taken up again at
. The mention of the ‘firstborn son’ anticipates another major theme of the story (Ex 11–13
In the obscure vv. 24–6
the biggest puzzle is: why should YHWH try to kill the messenger whom he has only just commissioned? There are other questions.
Why does Zipporah do what she does and how does it work? What is the meaning of her words? Many scholars have regarded the
piece as an old legend in which the attacker was a demon, possibly intended to explain the origin of the practice of the circumcision
of infants. Maybe, but this does not really explain what it means in this context. The first question is not really answerable,
but at least two other episodes are in some way similar: the command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Gen 22
) and Jacob's wrestling with God at the Jabbok (Gen 32
). The God of the Bible has a dark side. Zipporah circumcises her son and touches Moses' own penis (‘feet’ is a euphemism)
with the severed foreskin. Along with her words, this suggests a symbol legitimizing this marriage between the leader of Israel
and a foreign woman, which may have been a scandal to some of the first readers of Exodus in the Second Temple period (Römer 1994
—only one of many proposals). For circumcision, see GEN 17 and ‘Circumcision’ in ABD i.
describes Moses and Aaron's first attempt to carry out YHWH's commission. It fails, and Pharaoh's oppression of Israel is
simply intensified; a common experience for many who have challenged tyranny. Significant for the future development of the
story is Pharaoh's dismissal of their request in
: ‘I do not know the LORD’. The long series of ‘plagues’ in chs. 7–12
, according to YHWH's own statement in
, has just one aim: that the Egyptians should know YHWH. See EX
. For ‘the Hebrews’ in
‘ “You are unjust to your own people” ’ is odd, since the Israelites are not Pharaoh's people. The text is uncertain, and
a better reading may be ‘The fault is with you.’
This is the key act of the story, in which YHWH's powerful action enables the Israelites to leave Egypt, though not yet to
escape finally from Pharaoh's reach. It has much the same structure as the previous act: the appeal to God, his response of
promise and commission, Moses and Aaron's request to Pharaoh. The vital differences are God's supporting action (the plagues)
on the one hand and his delaying action (hardening Pharaoh's heart) on the other.
In response to Moses' despairing complaint, God again reveals his name, confirms his promise to deliver the Israelites from
slavery, and repeats his commission to go to Pharaoh.
advances the story and points forward to the plagues. Eventually, in
, we return to this point. But from
) the episode appears to go over the same ground as
, but with new language. In the context this is quite appropriate, since Moses has been brought to the point where only fresh
encouragement and a fresh mandate from God can restore his confidence. But it is also the sign of a fresh hand at work. The
whole passage from
is the work of P, probably working on the basis of the existing story. (
may be a still later expansion.)
The formal speech of God in
has an elegant structure (see Auffret 1983
for details). The pronouncement ‘I am the LORD [YHWH]’ occurs in key places and is clearly the key to the entire speech (see also Zimmerli 1982
). It is more than a bare statement of authority: it is the self-giving of a person, whose personality and character are summed
up in his name, but who can be fully known for who he is only in his gracious act of salvation (
The ambiguity in
is cleared up in
. How could Israel's ancestors have known the God whose name is now newly revealed? Answer: they knew him under another name.
Therefore Moses can be sure that the promise to them is still valid. ‘God Almighty’ (NRSV, etc.) is a conventional translation
of ᾽ēl šadday. ᾽ēl means ‘God’; the meaning of šadday is unknown. See Gen 17:1; 35:11; 28:3
. For ‘covenant’ in
takes up the wording of Ex 2:24
Something new is introduced at
. YHWH's rescue of Israel from Egypt is the beginning of a permanent relationship between them. This promise will be fulfilled
at Sinai in Ex 19–40
, with the establishment of institutions by which God and people are related. In
the speech returns to its beginning, by promising the imminent fulfilment of what God swore to Israel's ancestors.
. The genealogical material in
is to our mind quite out of place in the middle of a story. But the author had different ideas of literary appropriateness.
His object is expressed in
: to locate the heroes of the tale within the Israelite social structure and so validate them as historical according to his
ideas of history (Childs 1974: 116), and probably to claim them as members of his own social group. Social and political status depended mainly on kinship,
and genealogies, real or fictitious, were essential to validate it (Wilson 1977
). As in many genealogies in the Bible, many of the names are those of kinship groups who trace their descent from a supposed
ancestor with the same name. Moses and Aaron, then, belong to the Kohathite Levites, and Aaron is the ancestor of the Jerusalem priests. Aaron's wife (
) is a Judahite (see Num 1:7
), which signifies the close connection between the priests of Jerusalem and the people of Judah. Korah (
), the sons of Aaron (
), and his grandson Phinehas (
) will all play parts in the story which follows (Num 16; Ex 24 and Lev 8–10; Num 25
takes up the story again by summarizing
) completes Moses' recommissioning, and like
3:20 and 4:21–3
points forwards very clearly, and in more detail, to the plague story, which follows straight away.
takes up the theme of
several points are made which define the meaning of the following episodes. I will discuss most of them at greater length
in the next section,
. YHWH will ‘harden Pharaoh's heart’. The ‘heart’ in Hebrew refers to the understanding and the will. What YHWH will do is
to make Pharaoh uncomprehending and obstinate. The effect is that he will ‘not listen to you’ (
), and it will trigger YHWH's move to ‘multiply my signs and wonders’, ‘lay my hand on Egypt’, and bring the Israelites out
‘by great acts of judgement’. A sign is anything that shows God's power; a wonder is a remarkable event of any kind; ‘hand’
usually means power at work; and a judgement is not necessarily a punishment, but an act of force undertaken to effect the
decision of a judge or ruler. So in several different ways YHWH makes it clear that by making Pharaoh obstinate he will be
enabled to display his power as ruler of the world on the Egyptians. And the result is that they ‘shall know that I am YHWH’.
Israel will know YHWH in his gracious act of deliverance (
), Egypt in a very different way.
, the apparently excessive ages of Moses and Aaron fit the widespread belief that age brings wisdom.
(a traditional rendering of the Hebrew word in
, which would be better translated ‘blows’, with which YHWH strikes Egypt). Here general remarks will be made on the passage as a whole, not on the separate plagues, followed only by notes
on individual verses.
There are ten plagues, starting with the turning of water to blood in
and finishing with the death of the firstborn in 11–12. But as the book has been edited, the section is introduced by
, though it does not describe a ‘plague’ but only a sign, and closed by an obvious summary in
; the last plague has been announced, but its execution is tied up with the Passover narrative. In this part of the story
the narrative, usually so concise, spreads itself at length. Attempts to explain the series of plagues historically as the
effect of natural causes (Hort 1957–8
) surely miss the point of the story, that they are the direct work of God for his purposes. From a literary point of view,
they can be seen as intended to create tension. Since we already know the final result (
3:20; 6:6; 7:4–5
), we know that YHWH will achieve his purpose but we can still be intrigued as to how he will. To some extent the number of the plagues and the length of the narrative may be accounted for by the likelihood
that different authors have had a hand in it. But the division of sources is very much disputed. The simplest theory ( 1994:
80) is that the original narrative (J) had seven plagues, and the Priestly editor added three more, as well as extra material
in the others.
Table 1. Patterns in plague narratives
Patterns in the plague narratives. The story is composed by taking a couple of basic patterns and repeating them with variations (see Table 1
). In the first pattern YHWH tells Moses to go to Pharaoh and require him to let YHWH's people go, and to threaten him with
a plague if he does not. Moses' delivery of this message is not described, but taken for granted. (This is varied in plagues
8 and 10.) Pharaoh's response is not given either; YHWH's first speech is immediately followed (except in plagues 4 and 5)
by another telling Moses (and often Aaron) to bring the plague. Except in plagues 1 and 5 Pharaoh then summons Moses and Aaron
and attempts to negotiate, and asks Moses to pray to YHWH for the plague to be removed, which he does, and it is.
In the second pattern, there is no message to Pharaoh, but YHWH simply tells Moses to bring the plague. There are negotiations
in plague 9, but in this pattern Pharaoh does not ask for the removal of the plague. In both patterns, and all the episodes
except the last, the conclusion is the same, though expressed in different ways: Pharaoh's ‘heart was hardened’ (see above, EX
, for the meaning of this), and he refuses to let them go. This enables another round to begin. It is P who has added the
three plagues in the second pattern, each after two plagues in the first pattern. This helps to create a larger recurring
pattern: three groups of three, according to the start of YHWH's speech to Moses, followed by the final plague.
We would expect the plagues to get steadily worse, and this is broadly true. Other climactic effects include the contest with
the magicians. They can duplicate the staff-into-snake sign, and the first two plagues, but they stick on the third, and the
boils, finally, make it impossible for them even to appear in Moses' presence (
). Then there is the series of negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh. Much of the interest of the section lies in them, for
these are the only parts of the whole story where Pharaoh is allowed some human personality. Broadly speaking, Pharaoh's concessions
(always withdrawn once the plague has gone) are progressively more generous (
8:8; 8:25, 28; 9:28; 10:8–10; 10:24
). True, if he realizes that the Israelites do not intend to come back, they are nicely calculated to be always unacceptable
to Moses. So even before the removal of each plague Pharaoh seems not to understand the real situation, that he cannot win.
Other variations include the gradual downgrading of Aaron, who in spite of
4:14–16 and 7:1–2
never actually speaks, but uses his staff in the initial sign and the first three plagues, but never after that; and whether
the protection of the Israelites is mentioned (
8:22–3; 9:4, 6–7; 9:26; 10:23; 11:7
—five out of nine).
‘That they may know that I am YHWH’. More serious issues arise when we ask why YHWH brings the plagues. YHWH himself says that it is so that Pharaoh and his people (and Israel,
) may know him:
7:5, 17; 9:14; 10:2
; cf. also
8:10, 22; 9:29; 11:7
. Pharaoh had said in
that he did not know YHWH. He will now—to his cost. From each new round of the struggle he will find that YHWH, not he, emerges
with the real power in his own land, and indeed throughout the world.
is especially clear. If it had just been a question of liberating Israel, one stroke would have been enough. This long-drawn
torture has a different goal: ‘that you may know that there is none like me in all the world’.
The hardening of Pharaoh's heart. We may well wonder why YHWH's demonstrations of his power must be so violent and destructive. And why do they have to be
repeated so often, with increasing destructiveness? The answer is there at the end of every single episode. Pharaoh fails
to draw the right conclusion from his experience, so it needs to be repeated. Other people get the point (
), but not Pharaoh.
Now if we had not already had the clues in
4:21 and 7:3
, we might at first think that Pharaoh was responsible for his own incomprehension and obstinacy, especially as in three places
we are told that ‘Pharaoh hardened’ his own heart (
8:15, 32; 9:34
). It is after all quite natural in the first three episodes (
7:13; 7:22; 8:15
), when his own magicians can produce the same effects, so that there is no clear demonstration of YHWH's superiority; though
even here we are reminded that YHWH had foretold it, and that only he can remove the effects (
). Pharaoh's obstinacy in
seems to be a response to the respite from the frogs, but as plague succeeds plague this gradually ceases to be a convincing
explanation. The magicians themselves point out the truth after the third plague (
), and his continuing blindness at
8:32 and 9:7
becomes increasingly puzzling. From
, after the sixth plague, it becomes increasingly plain that it is YHWH who is hardening Pharaoh's heart, for his own purposes;
10:1, 20, 27
, and in the summary at
. This is something which Pharaoh himself and his officials do not know, hence the officials' despairing protest at
. Even if Pharaoh appears to act independently, he is in fact a puppet in the hands of YHWH. Taken as a whole the narrative
gives little support to the common preacher's idea that Pharaoh falls victim to a paralysis of the will set up originally
by his own free decision. (This paragraph summarizes the fine analysis of Gunn 1982
It is possible (Childs 1974: 172) that an older version of the story was much simpler: YHWH's sole purpose was to force Pharaoh to release the Israelites,
and the successive plagues were simply a response to Pharaoh's own refusal to act sensibly. But that is not the case in the
story as we have it. Here YHWH prevents Pharaoh from acting sensibly in order to have an excuse for bringing the plagues on him. Gowan's comment (1994: 138) is to the point: ‘If freeing the Hebrews from slavery had been God's main intention … then for God to harden Pharaoh's heart
so as to extend the agonies of the process would be indefensible on any grounds.’ But if his purpose is as stated in
, etc., to make Pharaoh know that he is God, it is strange that he acts every time to frustrate his own purpose. For that
is the effect of the ‘hardening’, to prevent Pharaoh from understanding the truth. However often and destructively YHWH displays
his power, it will have no effect on Pharaoh until YHWH wants it to. As Gowan sees (1994: 138), the truth must be that the object is not to enlighten Pharaoh but to triumph over him, to ‘gain glory over him’ (
). He will truly ‘know that I am YHWH’ only at the very end of the process (
), when it will do him no good at all: this must be ironical. Durham (1987: 96) and Gunn (1982: 84) may well be right in suggesting that the true audience for the demonstration is Israel, certainly from the point of view
of the authors. The account is shaped by a theology interested above all in maintaining the absolute sovereignty of the God
Believing readers will need to reflect on the question whether a God so anxious to display his power and triumph over his
enemies is the God that they believe in. See Gunn 1982: 84 and, by contrast, Croatto 1981: 29. But Brueggemann (1995: 47) suggests that the struggle between YHWH and Pharaoh is not a matter of personalities; they are embodiments of opposed social
policies; so that the victory of YHWH is the victory of a no-slavery policy.
Notes on individual verses.
. The motif of the contest between courtiers is a popular one (see Gen 41
; Dan 2;
4; 5; 1 Esd 3–4
), and it serves here as a comic counterpoint to the tragic struggle between YHWH and Pharaoh. Not that the magicians are
clowns. They have real power, but it is soon shown not to compare with YHWH's (Durham 1987: 92). The turning of water into blood takes up
, but is much more extensive and drastic. There is a seasonal reddening of the Nile waters at the time of the inundation (Hort 1957
), but it cannot be taken seriously as the origin of an account of water being actually turned into blood (Durham 1987: 97). For ‘Hebrews’ in
, and for the request to Pharaoh, obviously a blind, see EX
, the lesson about YHWH's power is derived by Moses from the exact fulfilment of Pharaoh's definition of the time.
, ‘gnats’ (NRSV), or lice: biting insects at all events.
, ‘swarms of flies’: the Hebrew simply says ‘mixed swarms’, without specifying the insects.
: the land of Goshen, see Gen 45:10
, has never been satisfactorily identified. There is no particular reason known why any animal the Israelites sacrificed would
be ‘offensive’ (
; same word as in Deut 14:3
) to the Egyptians; presumably it is meant to be the invention of the wily negotiator. It is odd that after all the Egyptians'
livestock have died in the cattle pestilence (
), there are still some alive to be affected by the boils (
) and the hail (
). OT authors or editors are not concerned for narrative coherence in the way we might be.
, the seventh and longest of all the plague episodes, except the last, things are moving towards a climax, and this is signalled
by YHWH's especially detailed explanation of why he is acting as he is (
is a note added, not in the right place, perhaps to explain how the locusts had anything to destroy in the next plague. Pharaoh's
is ironical, actually a curse. Of course he understands very well what Moses really wants; he imposes a similar unacceptable
is awkward; Moses appears to be leaving in
, but at
it turns out he has been speaking to Pharaoh since
. No doubt there has been some rearrangement of the text, in order to accommodate the detailed ritual instructions which are
before the final blow is actually struck. But the chapter does impressively introduce this final act.
repeats the instructions of
sums up the section, so that it is tied up before launching into the Passover instructions, which will be followed by the
final blow and then immediately by the leaving of Egypt.
Once more the style of the narrative changes abruptly. The climax of the account of YHWH's blows against Egypt does not come
, and this brief narrative is surrounded with detailed ritual instructions. Some of them concern not what the people are to
do immediately, but how they are to repeat the rite in time to come, which to us seems inappropriate in the context. Once
again we need to understand the motivation of the writers. They are not simply writing about the past; they are offering to
their people an account of events which made them a people, events which are to be celebrated and relived. The little dialogues
between child and parent in
12:25–7 and 13:14–15
show how by celebration a people can keep memory alive and recreate the saving and founding act of their God. As this passage
is the climax of the story of deliverance, it is natural that the theme of observance should be concentrated here.
Three ritual observances are presented in this text as memorials of the Exodus, but the first two are held at the same time
and virtually merged: Passover (pesaḥ), the Festival of Unleavened Bread (maṣṣôt), and the consecration of the firstborn. The first two celebrate the Exodus in other texts: Unleavened Bread in Ex 23:15
, and Passover (and Unleavened Bread) in Deut 16:1–8
; but the consecration of the firstborn is related to the Exodus only here (compare Deut 15:19–20
). All three are widely believed to be very old rites of various origins which at some stage have been given an interpretation
related to the Exodus. (For details see Childs 1974: 186–9; de Vaux 1961: 484–93; ABD vi. 755–65; Van Seters: 1994: 113–27 dissents.)
A widespread opinion (following Rost 1943
; disputed by Van Seters 1994: 114, following Wambacq 1976: 206–24) is that Passover was originally a rite carried out by nomad shepherds when moving to new pastures in the spring, while Unleavened
Bread was an agricultural rite, marking the beginning of the barley harvest (which takes place in spring in the Near East)
by getting rid of all the remains of bread from the last year's harvest and starting afresh. However, if that is so the distinctive
features of the rites are given quite different interpretations, relating them to the last night in Egypt.
The very name pesaḥ is interpreted in this way. The verb in
translated ‘pass over’ is pāsaḥ—a wordplay characteristic of Hebrew narrative. The verb is rather uncertain in meaning: a more precise translation might
be ‘leap over’. This is connected with the use of the blood to protect each family. Though this may be an ancient rite, and
may have been thought of as a kind of magic, forcing evil spirits to swerve away, the text avoids this idea: the blood is
a ‘sign’ (v. 13
), YHWH sees it and of his own goodwill ‘passes’—or leaps—‘over’. Then there is the continuing importance of Passover as a
mark of identity. All Israelites must celebrate it, and no one who does not belong to the community may share in it (
). But it is not only a question of national identity. The eating of the passover lamb is a family activity, must take place
within the house, and cannot be shared with those who are not members of the household:
. So the Passover serves to strengthen and celebrate ritually both the identity of the nation and its social structure of patriarchal extended families. Unleavened Bread is not explained in
, simply commanded; but in
it is explained in story terms. Probably the story was invented to explain it, and Moses' subsequent commands in
do not refer to it, simply emphasizing the feast's commemorative function.
The relation between the consecration of the firstborn, also probably a very ancient practice, and the events described in
the story is obvious, and is explained in
. It is not just that the firstborn males of cattle are consecrated to YHWH in sacrifice, but that human firstborn are redeemed
(by payment or substitution), just as they were in Egypt. There may have been a time in Israel when firstborn sons were sacrificed—see Ezek 20:26; Jer 7:31
. Therefore it is appropriate that the ‘horrifying’ edict, as Ezekiel calls it, should be presented as revoked as a symbol
of the deliverance of the whole people from slavery.
Instructions for Passover and Unleavened Bread are also given at Deut 16:1–8
; there are striking differences. Jewish interpreters have traditionally distinguished between ‘the Passover of Egypt’ and
‘the Passover of the [subsequent] generations’. Critical scholars have tended instead to see the history of the rite in the
differences: the usual view is that Passover began as a family observance, and was transferred to the temple in the time of
Josiah as part of the centralization required by Deuteronomy, and that during the Exile P kept the festival alive by reviving
its family character.
YHWH gives instructions for each rite to Moses before Moses passes them on to the people; but the speeches are interwoven
in a curious way which points to the editorial history of the text (see Table 2
Table 2. Speeches of Moses and YHWH
In each case YHWH's speech is the work of the P writer; but scholars have disagreed about the attribution of Moses' speeches.
The simplest solution is that in J Moses gave instructions for the Passover before the Exodus and for the other two observances
after it; and that P added the speeches of YHWH, taking Passover and Unleavened Bread together because they belonged together
in the liturgical calendar. However, many scholars take
as P work (see Van Seters 1994: 114–19).
The first speech falls into two parts.
gives immediate instructions, while
looks forward to the future. This part is generally thought of as referring exclusively to Unleavened Bread; but the natural
order of the speech shows that it is closely bound up with Passover.
12:2, 3, 6, 18
: the month of Passover is called Abib in Ex 23:15; Deut 16:1
. This is the old name for the first month of spring. P, writing after the Exile, always uses numbers instead of names, and
begins the year in the spring as the Babylonian calendar did. It is likely that under the monarchy the new year began in the
autumn, as it does for Jews today, and possible that
is to be interpreted as a call for a new calendar. See ‘Calendar’ in ABD i. The Hebrew word translated ‘lamb’ in
, etc. by NRSV is wider than our word ‘lamb’, as you can see from
. The requirement for a yearling male is quite practical—these were the most expendable members of the flock. The ‘bitter
are today taken as a symbol of the bitterness of oppression: the interpretation of the rite is an ongoing process. The requirement
for the animal to be roasted whole (
) differentiates it from a public sacrifice, which was boiled (as in Deut 16:7
), and also perhaps symbolizes the integrity of the family and the nation. The identification of the lamb as the passover
is held back to the climax of YHWH's speech in
Moses passes on the instructions in
. ‘The passover lamb’ may be intended to refer back to
, ‘the destroyer’ has been taken as a relic of an ancient belief in demons as the object of the blood-smearing; but it can
just as well be interpreted as YHWH's own angel.
resumes the thread of the story broken off at
is a reference back to Pharaoh's last negotiations with Moses in
, and at
. ‘Succoth’ in
may be identified with Tell el-Maskutah on the east border of Egypt, close to the present Suez Canal (ABD s.v. Succoth).
The 600,000 in
is obviously historically impossible, but it is the standard biblical figure, repeated in the censuses in Num 1 and 26
. The origin of the figure is disputed. But it was habitual for ancient scribes to exaggerate numbers. The writer produced
a number which seemed fitting to him as a representation of the might of YHWH's people marching out in freedom.
The P editor, or a later one, adds his own reflections in
. The figure of 430 years is fitted to his scheme of chronology. The Exodus happens 2,666 years after creation—two-thirds
of 4,000 years (Blenkinsopp 1992: 48; but see Hughes 1990: 5–54).
again liken the Exodus to the marching out of a military force.
some further provisions for Passover are added. They underline the close connection of the feast with the integrity of the
nation, symbolized by circumcision, and of the family. The translation ‘bound servant’ in
NRSV is very dubious, and the word is more usually thought to refer to a lodger or temporary visitor. A very brief speech
by YHWH in
ensures that the theme of the consecration of the first-born is given divine authority; but Moses has first to introduce
the Israelites to the festival of Unleavened Bread in
. This speech has strong Deuteronomic overtones (see EX C.1); many of the phrases can be found in Deuteronomy (e.g. the sign on the hand and the emblem on the forehead is in Deut 6:8
), and the device of the dialogue with the child is used in Deut 6:20–5
. But there is also a reference back to Ex 3:8 in 13:5
. Moses goes on to instruct the people about the consecration of the first-born. The first offspring of every female, if it
is male, whether human or of domestic animals, belongs in principle to YHWH. However, only cattle, sheep, and goats can be
sacrificed. The donkey is an ‘unclean’ animal which cannot (Lev 11:3
—it has undivided hoofs), so a sheep must be sacrificed instead, or the donkey simply killed (
). A substitute sacrifice must be offered in place of human first-born.
The Israelites have left Egypt, but they are not yet out of the reach of Pharaoh. His attempt to recapture them is rewarded
with the total destruction of himself and his army. With the end of Israel's oppressors the story of their deliverance reaches
a conclusion. It has been argued that the story of the deliverance at the sea is the original basic story of the Exodus (Noth 1962: 114–15). But we have already seen that the commemoration of the Exodus is concentrated on the last night in Egypt. It is better
to see this as the last twist in the tale, the final example of the pattern where a crisis evokes a desperate cry from the
people, to which YHWH graciously responds, as in
2:23–5 and 5:22–6:1
. From another point of view this is the beginning of the Israelites' ‘wanderings in the wilderness’. We are introduced to
the way in which YHWH will lead them in the wilderness, and the story is the first of several in which the people complain
to Moses and YHWH graciously provides for them.
The Israelites are, in fact, not ‘wandering’ in the wilderness, even if it looks like it. Their movements are determined by
the purposes of God.
tells us why God does not lead them by the obvious route; vv. 18, 20
trace the route on the map, first in general terms, then by mentioning the staging posts; and vv. 21–2
tell us how God leads them.
The quickest route to Canaan was along the Mediterranean coast. The author appears to suggest they would meet the Philistines
there—an anachronism if the Exodus took place in the late thirteenth century BCE. But this is imaginative history which cannot be fixed in time (EX C.3). Instead, they went inland ‘by way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea’. In other places (
23:31; Num 21:4; 1 Kings 9:26
) ‘the Red Sea’ (Heb. ‘sea of reeds, weeds’) refers to the Gulf of Aqaba. It is often thought that the Gulf of Suez is meant
here, or one of the lakes north of it, because
and other texts (but not 14) fix it as the place where the great deliverance took place, and the Gulf of Aqaba is too far
away (see 14:2
). For Succoth (v. 20
) see EX
; Etham is unknown. For all topographical details from this point on, see Davies (1979). v. 19
refers back to Gen 50:25
, and forward to Josh 24:32
. In vv. 21–2
God's leadership is represented in a literal, visible manner. Cloud and fire are two of the commonest accompaniments of God's
presence in theophanies (see EX
). In the pillar of cloud and fire God's presence becomes permanent and mobile. This visible presence continues with them
presumably to the borders of the promised land.
It is clear that the action of this chapter is presented from two different points of view; but these do not clash, because
they are focused on different characters. vv. 1–4, 15–18
are words of YHWH showing us the events from his point of view as the climax of his struggle with Pharaoh in the plagues
narrative. (For a full discussion of this, see EX
.) YHWH deliberately entices him out to recapture the Israelites, so that he may ‘gain glory’ for himself (vv. 4, 17
). One last time, with deepest irony, he announces ‘the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD’ (v. 18
): as they sink to their deaths, they will know that YHWH is the true ruler of the world.
But in vv. 10–14, 30–1
we see things from the Israelites' point of view. They are in panic, but Moses tells them to trust in YHWH's deliverance:
‘Do not be afraid… you have only to keep still’ (vv. 13, 14
). Moses uses a form of assurance that recurs again and again in the accounts of Israel's wars, where prophets urge the king or commander not to be afraid,
but to trust in YHWH. Cf. particularly Isa 7:4; 28:16; 30:15
. However, in the end faith comes as a result of seeing YHWH's act of salvation (v. 31
). This pattern of events is repeated several times in the story of Israel in the wilderness: three times in the next three
chapters, so that the lesson is rubbed in.
Although these points of view do not clash on the theological level, there are obvious unevennesses in the story, v. 4
seems at first to be fulfilled in v. 5
, but actually looks forward to v. 8
. YHWH's order in v. 16
is carried out only in v. 21
and has effect only next morning! According to a widely accepted source division, in J (vv. 5–7, 10–14, 19–20, 21b
, 24–5, 27b
) Pharaoh changes his own mind, and the sea is driven back by the wind and then returns to overwhelm the Egyptians. This is
the account which concentrates on the Israelites and Moses' call for faith. In P (vv. 1–4, 8–9, 15–18, 21a
, 22–3, 26–7a
(to ‘over the sea’),
) YHWH ‘hardens Pharaoh's heart’, and the sea is split into two walls when Moses stretches out his hand, which fall in when
he stretches out his hand again.
On one central point the text is at one. The Israelites are delivered and the Egyptians destroyed by God's power. Whether
he uses the natural elements or the hand of Moses, he triumphs in person over the enemies of Israel, who are his own enemies.
YHWH's opening instructions to Moses (v. 2
) are to turn back. This is intended as deliberate deception: it is to make Pharaoh think the Israelites are lost, and tempt him to follow them
). The place-names in v. 2
cannot be located exactly, but they are on the borders of Egypt, and by ‘the sea’ (see EX
). In v. 5
Pharaoh's motive is different. He receives an intelligence report that the Israelites have ‘fled’. Since he knew they were
going, this must mean that they have not returned as implied in the negotiations (
, etc.). In vv. 9, 18, 23, 26, 28
the NRSV has ‘chariot drivers’ where other versions have ‘horsemen’ or ‘cavalry’. The Hebrew word normally means ‘horseman’.
NRSV is probably based on the fact that armies are known not to have had mounted cavalry before the first millennium BCE. But the author of Exodus would not have known that, and almost certainly meant ‘horsemen’. A different word is translated ‘rider’ in
What the Israelites claim to have told Moses in Egypt (v. 12
) they have not said anywhere in the text of Exodus; but this kind of allusion is very common in Hebrew narrative. In v. 15
YHWH asks Moses why he is crying out to him (‘you’ is singular), but the narrator has not told us he has. Moses may be assumed
to have relayed the Israelites' cry in v. 10
to YHWH. In v. 19
as elsewhere (see EX
) ‘the angel of God’ may be a substitute for YHWH himself (cf. 13:21
). But the statement is repeated with reference to the pillar of cloud; so it is often held that in v. 19
there are two parallel sources. v. 29
is not a simple repetition of v. 22
. It tells us that the Israelites had passed through in safety while the Egyptians were destroyed behind them.
Pieces of poetry occasionally break the flow of prose in the Pentateuch, often at significant points. This one is particularly
suitable here: it is fitting that Israel should praise YHWH when they are finally delivered from their oppressors. This is
a victory song, but the victor is God, so it is also a hymn of praise and thanksgiving. It has parallels in the Psalms, which
are pointed out in the notes, but it does not rigidly follow any one model of psalm. Psalms of praise often begin with a call
to the people to praise, such as Ps 118:1–4
. The song sung by Miriam in v. 21
is such a call and could be intended as the opening to which the men's song in 1–18 is the response (Janzen 1992
). The song does not describe the previous state of distress or the cry to God for help, unlike many thanksgiving psalms (Ps 18; 30; 118
). Everything is concentrated on YHWH and his victory. The song achieves its effect by repeating the account of the victory
in several different vivid and allusive ways, punctuated with words of praise.
There is a dispute about the age of the song. One school (see Cross 1973
), argues that the grammar and poetic style mark it out as very old, perhaps from the eleventh or twelfth century BCE, so a very ancient and important witness to the event of the Exodus. Others (recently Brenner 1991
) say that the song relies on Ex 14
as it now stands, so that it must be quite late (fifth century?), and composed to occupy its present place; the author has
deliberately created a song which looks old enough to be sung by Moses. But it is possible (Houston 1997
) that v. 8
was the source from which the P author in Ex 14
took his account by interpreting its imaginative picture literally. This would make the song older than P, but not necessarily
older than J. Of course, now that the song is part of the Ex text we inevitably read it in line with the account in ch. 14
. The song looks forward to the completion of YHWH's work in the settling of Israel in his own land. All the promises in
3:7–12 and 6:2–8
are seen as fulfilled, really or virtually, in the miracle at the sea.
The song can be divided into: an introduction, vv. 1–3
; a main section praising YHWH for the victory,
; and a coda looking forward to the entry into the promised land,
. For ‘rider’ in vv. 1, 21
see the note on
, etc. in
. But the word here could mean ‘charioteer’. v. 2
is closely similar to Ps 118:14, 28
. The word for ‘heap’ in v. 8
is used in the account of the Jordan crossing in Josh 3:13, 16
. As the text stands, this verse has to be taken as describing the ‘walls’ of water in
; but if the poem is older, it could have been a poetic description of a wave rearing up and about to break; the breaking
is described in 10 (Houston 1997
For the question ‘who is like YHWH’ (v. 11
) cf. Ps 89:6–8
. ‘Your holy abode’ in v. 13
could be Sinai or the temple at Jerusalem, but v. 17
makes the latter more likely. The song praises YHWH not just for the settlement in Canaan but for the establishment of his
dwelling among them at Zion. The final verse is another psalm-type motif: see Ps 93:1; 95:3; 96:10
; etc. v. 19
recalls the essence of the story after the look into the future in vv. 13–18
There was a custom, when men came back victorious from a battle, for women to come out from the towns to meet them (hence
‘went out’ in v. 20
) with victory songs and dances (see 1 Sam 18:6–7
). Since this victory has been won by YHWH, not by the men, the men have celebrated it, but the women's role is not forgotten,
and may well be intended to be prior to the men's (see above, and Janzen 1992
; against Trible 1994: 169–73). Miriam is called a prophet probably because of this song, which is seen as inspired.
The two main accounts in Exodus are of YHWH's deliverance of Israel from Egypt and of his gracious provision for their future
life with him at Sinai. But Israel have first to reach Sinai through the wilderness. What is meant by ‘wilderness’ in the
Bible is not totally barren sand-desert, but steppe with low rainfall and sparse vegetation, suitable as pasture for sheep
and goats but not much else. So there is a linking section describing this journey, but it is more than a simple link. The
episodes are based on the well-known conditions of life in the wilderness, but these are used as an opportunity to develop
the characterization of the Israelites and the relationship between them, Moses, and YHWH. The first three episodes in particular
go very closely together. Two short stories about water frame the much longer one about the manna. In each the people raise
a complaint against Moses, to which YHWH responds with gracious provision for their needs. In each Moses acts as the intermediary
between YHWH and the people, both ruling them and interceding for them. The word used for ‘complain’ implies bad-tempered
16:3 and 17:3
they even suggest they would have been better off back in Egypt—thus rejecting YHWH's act of salvation. In spite of this
YHWH is patient and gracious. Yet there is a harder note to the relationship, for another word which occurs in each story
is ‘test’. YHWH tests Israel (
) to see whether they will be faithful and obedient; Israel tests or provokes YHWH (
) by their grumbling. The theological point is very clear: life for Israel depends on trust in God's provision and obedience
to his requirements. This is a lesson that reaches far beyond their temporary life in the wilderness; the best commentary
is Deut 8
. The main outlines of the relationship that will be literally cast in stone at Sinai begin to emerge; hence we should not
be surprised that most of these stories anticipate points that are eventually grounded formally in the law given there: the
‘statute and ordinance’ at Marah (
); the sabbath provision in the manna story (
); the legal system established on Jethro's advice (
). There is a similar group of stories in Num 11; 12; 14; 16; 20:2–13
, but in most of these the people's grumbling arouses YHWH's anger and his punishment. This arrangement is surely deliberate.
Once the people have received the law and accepted the covenant, there is no excuse for them.
It is impossible to say to what extent these stories are based on a tradition in Israel (see EX C.2). The references to the wilderness time in Old Testament literature are very varied: in some it is a time of happiness
and obedience in contrast to the apostasy of the time in Canaan (e.g. Hos 2:14; Jer 2:2–3
), in some a time of disobedience (e.g. Deut 9:7; Ps 95
). Deut 8
comes closest to Exodus in seeing it as a time of testing.
By putting in place-names, the authors must have intended to give a precise idea of the Israelites' route, but this no longer
works for us because we do not know where the places are. The people are now on their way to Sinai. If Sinai was, as traditionally
supposed, in the south of the Sinai peninsula (see Davies 1979: 63–9), the places mentioned in
15:22, 27; 16:1; 17:1
are likely to be strung out along the west side of the peninsula. But there are other theories about the location of Sinai,
and they would change the location of these places.
For general comments and comments on the location of the place-names, see the previous section. Nothing is said about how
or why the ‘tree’ or ‘piece of wood’ (
) made the water sweet. It seems like magic, but to the author it is simply the way in which YHWH chooses to act. And it is
YHWH who ‘tests’ them. They have known YHWH as a ‘healer’ in his ‘healing’ of the water; they should beware lest he act in
the opposite way (as he does in Numbers).
For general comments and comments on the location of the place-names, see EX
. This story seems to have originally been based on the fact that the tamarisk tree of the Sinai peninsula in May and June
exudes drops of a sweet substance which is gathered and eaten by the local people, who still call it man. But the amounts are small, and obviously the story goes far beyond that natural fact. It speaks of a miracle which provides
enough food every day, all the year round, to sustain a whole people on the march. And to that miracle of provision are added
two further miracles which test the obedience and faith of the people. There is the miracle of precise quantity (vv. 17–18
). God's providing is always enough for the day, it cannot be stored (v. 20
). And there is the miracle of the sabbath exception to this miracle (vv. 22–30
). The meaning of these miracles is found first in the saying in v. 5
which has echoed in one form or another through the narrative since
. Here it is a rebuke to the Israelites who have spoken of Moses and Aaron as having brought them out of Egypt (v. 3
). They need to understand that it is YHWH alone who can and will provide for them. The second lesson is that the generosity
of YHWH is only of value to them if they on their part obey his commands. The full meaning of the sabbath will not be revealed
; but for the moment they need to understand simply that it is possible to rest for a day and still live, by YHWH's grace.
This chapter has been through a process of editing. It is mainly P, but there is probably an older narrative behind it. It
is a somewhat awkward effect of the editing that when YHWH appears he simply repeats what Moses and Aaron have said already;
and another awkward feature is the half-hearted way in which the quails are introduced into the narrative from Num 11
, where they play a greater part. It is only the manna that the people eat for their whole time in the wilderness. v. 1
, ‘the second month’. The reckoning is inclusive: it is exactly a month since they left Egypt. In v. 7
‘the glory of the LORD’ is probably another way of referring to the way YHWH makes himself known in his miraculous provision; but in 10 it is the
usual way in P of describing the appearance of YHWH in brightness wrapped in a cloud. In v. 15
the word translated ‘what?’ is man, which is not the normal word for ‘what?’ (mah), but near enough for a Hebrew pun: it is the word for ‘manna’ (v. 31
). Aaron kept the preserved manna ‘before the covenant’ or ‘testimony’ (v. 34
), that is before or in the ark, which is made in ch. 37
. Since they ‘ate manna forty years’ (v. 35
), Moses' order could have been given at any time: there is no anachronism.
For general comments and comments on the location of the place-names, see EX
. The episode closely follows the general pattern of the two previous episodes; its distinctive feature is the people's ‘testing’
or ‘provoking’ of YHWH, which gives its name to the place (vv. 2, 7
). Once again Moses directs their attention away from himself, whom the Israelites blame, to YHWH who is able to provide. ‘Horeb’
in v. 6
is the name in Deuteronomy, but not in Exodus (except
), of the mountain of revelation. It may be identified with Sinai here, which cannot be far away. It is confusing that the
place is given two names, not only Massah, ‘testing’, but Meribah, ‘quarrelling’, and that the latter is given to another
place where a similar thing happens in Num 20:13
. The poetic references at Deut 33:8 and Ps 95:8
use the two names. Possibly the author has taken both names from one of the poems and assumed they referred to the same place.
Amalek was a nomadic people dwelling in the wilderness to the south of Canaan. All references to them in the HB are fiercely
hostile: see especially Deut 25:17–19 and 1 Sam 15
. There seems to be a long-standing feud: Deut 25
offers a reason for this, but it is not reflected in this story. The strangest feature of the story is the connection between
the position of Moses' arms and the fortunes of the battle. Older commentators presume that his arms were raised in prayer;
but if so why does the narrative not say he was praying? As Van Seters (1994: 203) points out, Josh 8:18–26
is similar. In both cases the automatic connection suggests magic; it is only implicit that God was in action. It is only
the end of the story (
) that makes it clear that Israel's battle is, as always, YHWH's—to the death in this case. The Hebrew text in v. 16
is unclear. The NRSV's ‘A hand upon the banner of the LORD’ is the best suggestion, since it explains the name Moses has just given to his altar.
This episode links up with the early part of the story (chs. 2–4
). Cf. in particular v. 5
. There are difficulties in the placement of the story. The Israelites have not at this point actually reached the mountain
of God. Moses' father-in-law appears to be still with them in Num 10:29
; and the measures of
are placed after leaving Horeb in Deut 1:9–18
. For all these reasons it is often believed that the story originally belonged after the Sinai narrative; but the reason why it was moved is unclear (see Childs 1974: 322; Durham 1987: 242; Van Seters 1994: 209 n. 3). Zipporah and her family also create a problem. In
we are only told of one son of Moses (but see 4:20
); and we last heard of Zipporah and her son on the way to Egypt, not left behind with her father (
). The best explanation may be that
is a late addition to the narrative. ‘After Moses had sent her away’ would then be an addition in v. 2
to harmonize the narrative with
. ‘Took her back’ in v. 2
(NRSV) is not a correct translation of the Hebrew, which refers to what Jethro did after hearing about Moses: he ‘took her and her two sons…and came’ (v. 5
The author has a tolerant acceptance of foreign peoples, and sees no sharp distinction between their religion and Israel's.
Jethro, a foreign priest, gladly acknowledges the supremacy of YHWH (v. 11
); but he makes this acknowledgement from within his own religious tradition, not as an act of conversion. Probably for this
reason (unless one accepts the existence of a special E source (see PENT)) the chapter tends to use ᾽ĕlōhîm rather than YHWH except in vv. 8–11
. For the multiple names of Moses' father-in-law, see EX
The theme of this section is also addressed in Num 11:11–17; Deut 1:9–18
. It is not clear why the advice to Moses to share the burden is given by his father-in-law. Moses here is a judge deciding
civil disputes, and a lawgiver mediating God's ‘statutes and instructions’; and people come to him ‘to inquire of God’ (v. 15
), that is, to seek directions in particular situations. There is no sharp line drawn between these functions in the Bible:
so in Deut 17:8–13
the priest is associated with the judges in the decision of difficult cases, because the direction of God must be sought.
The legal system which is established is actually based on a military organization (v. 21
). Practice in the ancient Near East tended to give military and judicial functions to the same officers. The organization
is artificial, it does not arise out of the existing social structure. Moses here acts like ancient kings, who tended to impose
their systems on society. Possibly the story is intended to account for the later judicial system of the Israelite/Judean
The interesting theological point is seen by Childs: that hard-headed, practical advice is seen as the ‘command of God’ (v. 23
). There is no distinction between divine revelation and practical wisdom: the latter is as much the will of God as the former.
The people of Israel are no longer slaves. They have been saved from the land of oppression. But they are not yet a nation.
The authors of Exodus believed that their being as a nation depended on the presence of their God with them, and that in turn
depended on certain conditions. The second half of the book of Exodus is mainly concerned to set these out. The chapters contain
two main kinds of answer to the question: on what conditions can Israel be YHWH's people and YHWH their God? The first answer
is: on condition of obeying his commandments, which can be summed up as to worship him alone, and to behave with justice towards
one another. These are set out in chs. 20–3
, and the people's formal acceptance of them is narrated in ch. 24
. This solemn imposition of requirements and undertaking of obedience is what this part of the book means by ‘covenant’ (
19:5; 24:7, 8; 31:18
; for covenant see EX C.1; and for law and commandments, Patrick 1986
). The book then goes on, in chs. 32–4
, to deal with the question: what happens if the people break the covenant? They then depend essentially on the mercy of God
). But interleaved with this account is another way of dealing with the question. It is not contradictory to the first, but
its presuppositions are different. YHWH safeguards his presence among his people by locating it in a physical site which moves
as they move, and is hedged about with restrictions so that they receive blessing rather than harm from the presence of the
holy God among them (
). YHWH gives Moses directions for the establishment of this ‘tent of meeting’ or ‘tabernacle’ in 25–31, and it is set up
in accordance with his directions in 35–40.
The first answer sees the relationship as above all a moral one—not a matter of morals in a narrow sense, but based on how
God and people behave towards one another. It is deeply marked by the influence of the prophets and the Deuteronomic writers,
and is the work of the author I call J (see EX C.1). The second answer sees the main issue as being that of holiness. From God radiates a power that is the source of life
and blessing, but is destructive to anyone who approaches too close or does not take precautions. This answer is the contribution of P.
Before any of this can happen, the coming of YHWH to his people must be described. Mount Sinai becomes the symbol, not of
the permanent presence of YHWH, which goes with them, but of his coming in unimaginable power and glory. This is the work
of an imaginative writer, not a record from history. But it describes, symbolically, the experience of the presence of the
holy and righteous God. The account proves difficult to follow, at least with our ideas of narrative logic.
appears to anticipate the whole process which culminates in ch. 24
, and vv. 20–5
seem inconsequential. YHWH's speech to the people in ch. 20
breaks off with: ‘and Moses said to them’ which ought to be followed by what he said (NRSV ‘and told them’ smooths over the
difficulty). After YHWH's speech, in
, the people react in a way that suggests they have not heard what he has said. Two main types of solution are on offer. The
first is that the difficulty arises from a complex literary history (see, for different analyses, Childs 1974: 344–51; Van Seters 1994: 248–52; Albertz 1994: 55). It is possible, for example, that the Ten Commandments are a late addition to this context, from Deut 5
, although they are fundamental to the covenant in the text as it stands. The alternative is that a literary technique is
being used which we tend not to understand. For example, Sprinkle (1994: 18–27) suggests that ch. 19
gives us an overview of events to come, which are described in greater detail later: possibly
19:19 and 20:21
; YHWH's command to Moses in
is taken up again in
. Patrick (1994) suggests that
makes clear at the outset the nature of the transaction. YHWH does not give commandments until the Israelites have formally
declared themselves ready to accept them.
The description of YHWH's coming is created from traditional materials. So far as the site of the theophany (see EX
) is concerned, there was a very ancient literary tradition describing the coming of YHWH in power from the deep southern
wilderness, and one of the geographical names used was Sinai (Judg 5:5; Ps 68:8
). The idea that the gods live on a high mountain was a very widespread one. But here the idea is more refined: YHWH does
not actually live on the mountain, but comes down on it (
19:11, 18; cf. 3:8
). The theophany (
) is described in terms drawn from thunderstorms, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions, the greatest displays of natural power
that can be observed; and such descriptions are found in Hebrew literature of all periods—see e.g. Ps 18:7–15
. They are ways of describing the indescribable, and certainly should not be taken to mean that what the Israelites actually
saw was a thunderstorm or earthquake, or that Mt. Sinai was a volcano. The one unusual feature in the theophany is the sound
of the trumpet (
19:13, 16, 19
; more precisely the ram's horn). This was used in temple services. YHWH comes so that the Israelites may come to him in worship.
They have to make preparations to meet a holy God (
), preparations which are similar to those undertaken before entering a temple for sacrifice, and the mountain is fenced off
in the same way as the most holy parts of a shrine are fenced off. ‘On the third new moon’,
; more likely ‘in the third month’, reckoning inclusively. This would bring them in the Priestly calendar to the feast of
Pentecost, when the Jews to this day celebrate the giving of the Law.
‘A priestly kingdom and a holy nation’ (
): each of the two phrases expresses both sides of Israel's future existence. They will be a nation, with a social and political
structure; they will at the same time and through their nationhood and state structures be dedicated to YHWH as priests are dedicated to the God they serve. The covenant to
be announced will explain how this will be possible. A further purpose of YHWH's coming is explained in v. 9
: it is to confirm the position of Moses as the confidant of YHWH in the eyes of the people, so that they trust him (cf. 14:31
). The severe rules for anyone touching the mountain in
arise from the idea that holiness is a physical infection which can be ‘caught’ and is dangerous for people in an ordinary
state. The command ‘do not go near a woman’ (v. 15
)—a euphemism for sex; the ‘people’ who receive the command are the men—again arises because of the conception that certain
bodily states create a danger in the face of holiness (see Lev 15, esp. 31; 1 Sam 21:4
). The mention of priests in
is difficult, since at this point Israel has no priests. Presumably it means those who will become priests later (Lev 8–9
The central place which this passage has had in the religious and moral teaching of Judaism and Christianity is a fair reflection
of the centrality which it is given here in Exodus and in Deut 5
. The Ten Commandments are, in this story, the prime expression of the covenant demands. They stand first in the account of
the covenant-making. It is unclear whether they are spoken directly to the people; they certainly are in Deuteronomy. But
the centrality also emerges from the very form and content of the text. In the first place it begins with YHWH's self-introduction
(cf. 6:2 and see Zimmerli 1982
), and asserts his right to authority, by recalling to the Israelites his goodness to them. And the first and much the greater
part of the text is concerned with the requirements of his honour. Secondly, it is obviously designed to include all the most
basic religious and moral requirements over a wide sphere of life. Thirdly, every command is expressed in the broadest possible
way, sometimes by detailed elaboration (vv. 8–11
), sometimes by avoiding any details which might narrow down the application (vv. 13–15
). In a word, it is the most basic statement possible of the conditions on which Israel may be in relationship with YHWH.
It combines in one text the specific demand for Israel to worship YHWH alone with those few moral requirements which are essential
in one form or another for any human society.
But it is not a legal text. What laws in ancient Israel looked like we see in chs. 21–2
. It is instruction addressed personally to Israel, or to the individual Israelite (the ‘you’ is singular and masculine, but
that does not necessarily mean that women are not addressed; see below on vv. 8–11
). It does not suggest how it is to be implemented or say what is to happen if the commands are ignored, but simply asks for
obedience. (But Phillips 1970
regards it as Israel's fundamental law, and many scholars connect it with the form of ancient treaties: see Mendenhall 1992a
.) If the setting in life of this type of text is not legal, what is it? Material of this kind, with its brief memorable clauses,
could be designed as an aid to religious instruction in the home (Albertz 1994: 214–16). But this text goes beyond that function. With YHWH's self-announcement and personal demand for exclusive loyalty, vv. 2–6
belong nowhere else but in this present setting of covenant-making. Afterwards, in vv. 7–12
, he is referred to in the third person, which is more suitable for a catechism. Perhaps catechetical material has been adapted
to its place in the narrative.
This is the fundamental text of the covenant, but that does not mean that it is necessarily historically the earliest of the
OT ‘legal’ texts, although many scholars firmly believe that it is, at least in an older form (see Durham 1987: 282). Reflection on all God's commands and requirements may have led to a more profound grasp of their basic meaning, which has
then been expressed in this text. In fact vv. 2–12
are written very much in the style of Deuteronomy, except for v. 11
, which is Priestly, so they are unlikely to be earlier than the late seventh century. Although this passage has always been
called (literally) the Ten Words (Ex 34:28; Deut 4:13; 10:4
), it is not obvious how the roughly twenty sentences of the text are to be grouped into ten. Different religious traditions
have come to different conclusions. Jews call v. 2
the first Word and vv. 3–6
the second. Roman Catholics and Lutherans group vv. 2–6
as the first commandment and divide v. 17
into two to make up the tally of ten; other Christians separate v. 3
as the first commandment and treat vv. 4–6
as the second. (See further
.) This commentary will simply use verse numbers. (For detailed discussion of the Commandments see Childs 1974: 385–439; Weinfeld 1991: 242–319.)
The first section of the Commandments is quite different from the rest, being spoken in the first person and expressing what
is most distinctive of the religion of the OT: the requirement to worship YHWH alone, and the prohibition of using images
in worship. Two basic demands: can the Catholic tradition be right in treating it as one ‘commandment’? Many scholars (e.g.
Durham 1987: 286; B. B. Schmidt 1995
) would see v. 4
as prohibiting images of YHWH in particular, after v. 3
has dealt with worshipping other gods. However, there is no sharp break anywhere in these verses: they treat throughout of
YHWH's exclusive claim. The ‘them’ in v. 5
must refer to the ‘other gods’ in v. 3
, because all the nouns in v. 4
are singular (Zimmerli 1968
). This means that the command not to make an idol is part of a context forbidding the worship of any god but YHWH. That YHWH might be worshipped by means of an idol is simply inconceivable for this text. If you are using an idol, you must be worshipping
another god. In those OT passages where people appear to be worshipping YHWH with idols (Ex 32:4; Judg 17; 1 Kings 12:28
), the context implies that they are not genuinely worshipping YHWH. In the Syria–Canaan area generally, the central worship
symbol in official sanctuaries tended not to be an image, but images of subordinate gods and especially goddesses were freely
used (Mettinger 1995
). But in the pure monotheism demanded here YHWH brooked no such rivals.
Modern preachers interpret this command in a moralistic way: anything which absorbs a person's devotion is his/her god (cf.
Luther). But this is not what it means in the OT context. It was not self-evident to people in OT times that there was only
one God; the demand to worship only one God had to struggle against a polytheism which to many people seemed more natural,
reflecting the complexity and unpredictability of the world. Even the Bible has to recognize the existence of other powers;
the uniqueness of its demand is that even so only one of them is worthy of Israel's worship, the one ‘who brought you…out
of the house of slavery’; who is ‘a jealous God’—better, perhaps, ‘passionate’, ‘watchful of my rights’. The issue is one
of YHWH's honour as the protector and saviour of his people. The harshness of the threat in
(see also 34:7
) has to be evaluated in the light of a far stronger community feeling than is normal with us. The worship of a god could
not be an individual matter: the whole extended family shared in the sin—and therefore in the punishment. But contrast Ezek 18
It is uncertain what this command was intended to refer to: suggestions include deceitful oaths (as in Lev 19:12
), unwarranted use of formal curses (Brichto 1963: 59–68), the use of God's name in magic spells, or all of these and other things (Childs 1974: 410–12). But it is quite clear that the improper use of the name YHWH is prohibited. The command is closely related to
. It is YHWH's honour that is at stake. To wrest his name to one's own private and deceitful purposes is to dishonour the
one who bears it.
The sabbath likewise is an institution for the honour of YHWH; it is a sabbath ‘to YHWH your God’, and must be ‘kept holy’.
The day is dedicated to YHWH by abstaining from work, that is, from anything that is intended for one's own benefit, or human
purposes generally. In order to ensure that the entire community keeps it, the householder is required to ensure that everyone
in the house, which is also the work unit in peasant society, abstains from work on the seventh day. The list of persons does
not include ‘your wife’. The best explanation is that the lady of the house is not mentioned because she is addressed along
with her husband (as in e.g. Deut 16:11; Smith 1918: 169; Weinfeld 1991: 307–8; contrast Clines 1995a
). v. 11
gives a motivation for observing the commandment. The primary emphasis is on the special character of the day, determined
by YHWH in the beginning, rather than on the need for people to rest (contrast Deut 5:15
). The verse is obviously P, referring back to Gen 2:1–3
(so also Ex 31:14
). The sabbath commandment is the only positive ritual requirement among the Ten Commandments. The main reason is likely to
be that it had to be observed by every individual in the community without exception (the dietary laws, for example, did not
have to be observed by aliens).
Ancient Israel was a hierarchical society in which respect for superiors, parents in the first place, was fundamental. Care
for their honour therefore comes next in the series after the honour of God (similarly Lev 19:3–4
). This commandment is formulated positively, so its effect is broader than the law against insulting parents in Ex 21:17
, etc. It will include care and comfort in old age (Mk 7:9–13
). The commandments are addressed to adults, not children, and the need for this commandment may arise from tension between
older men at the head of extended families and their sons with their own families.
The remaining commandments define serious transgressions against the rights of members of the community (generally of male
‘Murder’ is the correct translation, i.e. the unlawful killing of a member of the community. The commandment does not cover
capital punishment, killing in war, or the killing of animals for food; which is not to say that the OT is unconcerned with
the ethical problems posed by these things.
Adultery in the Bible is definable as intercourse between a married (or betrothed) woman and a man not her husband. The commandment
is concerned with a man's rights over his wife. As in all traditional patriarchal cultures, the men of the family need to
be assured of the faithfulness of their wives to be sure that their children are theirs. No similar restrictions apply to
a husband in OT morality. It is the only sexual offence in the Ten Commandments, since others do not infringe the rights of
a third party in a serious way.
This commandment would include kidnapping as well as the theft of movable property. The word translated ‘steal’ does not cover
the violent or dishonest alienation of land and houses: that is probably covered by
This is concerned with testimony in the courts. In Israelite courts the witness was in effect a prosecutor, as there was no
state prosecution system. False accusation could put one's life, not merely one's reputation, in danger (see 1 Kings 21; Deut 19:15–21
The dominant interpretation of this commandment is that it is concerned simply with the desire to possess what is not one's own as a sin in itself (Rom 7:7–8; Calvin 1953: i. 354–6). However, there is also an interpretation which sees it as concerned with overt action to dispossess one's neighbour (Mk 10:19; Luther, J. Herrmann 1927
). Even if the Hebrew word refers primarily to desire (Moran 1967
), the concern is for the danger to one's neighbour posed by one's covetousness; and in particular the kind of covetousness
described in Mic 2:1–2
. As Luther saw, the machinations of the powerful to dispossess the weak are not covered elsewhere in the Ten Commandments.
Moses' point is that they should not be terrified at the divine appearance because it is for their good: ‘fear’ in v. 20
is not the panic terror that is now seizing them, but reverence and awe which should lead to the right conduct that God asks
of them. Once again (cf. 15:25
) they are being ‘tested’ or ‘challenged’ to make the right response.
The very long speech that YHWH now delivers to Moses to pass on to the Israelites includes a much wider range of religious,
moral, and legal instruction than the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments make absolute demands; this speech shows how
the demands of God for fairness and justice and for the proper honouring of himself work out in practice in a particular society.
That is why much of it is at first sight of little interest to people who live in a different society under different conditions.
It has been given the name Book of the Covenant by modern scholars, from
. The name suggests that the speech existed as a single document simply slotted into the text. (There continues to be discussion
among scholars about its date (see Albertz 1994: 182–3).) But it is unlikely ever to have been a single document. Most of the material has been taken from earlier sources, but
it has been shaped to fit its narrative context (see 20:22; 22:21; 23:15
), and as it stands is likely to have been put together by J.
The main areas covered are religious observance; civil law, specifically the law of bondage for debt, personal injury, and
property torts; social justice; and judicial integrity. The arrangement of material sometimes seems capricious to us, but
there is logic behind it, as Sprinkle (1994) shows. There is a general heading in
, which suggests that
could be described as a prologue; and
is concerned with the immediate situation rather than with permanent rules, so it might be described as an epilogue. The
material between is arranged as follows:
The speech contains material of very different types. Most of the material between
21:2 and 22:17
is in an impersonal legal style which contrasts sharply with the personal address of most of the rest, in which YHWH speaks
of himself in the first person and addresses Israel as ‘you’ (usually in the singular, sometimes the plural). For detail on
these different types of law see Patrick (1986: 13–33). The impersonal style sets out a legal case, giving the situation ‘when such-and-such happens’, and laying down what should
then be done. This is the style used in the Mesopotamian legal codes such as the Code of Hammurabi (see ANET 159–98), and it is technically referred to as ‘casuistic’ law. There is also a good deal of overlap in content between this
section and the Mesopotamian codes (summarized by Childs 1974: 462–3). This does not mean that the laws have been borrowed from a foreign source, simply that legal style and stock examples were
similar all over the ancient Near East. Laws of this type were probably not used as the basis of judicial decisions (see Jackson 1989: 186). The skill of judges lay not in the interpretation of a body of written law, but in being able to perceive how a dispute
could best be resolved and where justice lay in a particular case. Laws such as these would help in educating them in this
skill, but they did not have to rely on them in reaching a verdict. That is why the laws here do not have the detail and precision
one would expect in a modern body of law. They are probably borrowed from an old legal text to illustrate the kind of justice
required by YHWH in the resolution of disputes.
The other main style is that of personal admonition. This is the kind of style in which a tribal elder might give moral instruction
(cf. Jer 35:6–7; Gerstenberger 1965: 110–17), but in this text it is clear that God is the speaker. It is therefore unlikely to have been borrowed from a specific social
setting; the suggestion of a ritual of covenant renewal (see Childs 1974: 455–6) is pure speculation. So although the content of the instruction would have been derived from Israel's moral and religious tradition, its form has been designed to fit its present literary setting.
In each case the style is appropriate to the subject-matter: casuistic for the settlement of disputes, personal address for
religious instruction and for teaching about justice as a personal responsibility.
YHWH begins his address to Moses by speaking of his own person and presence in worship. The first point, as in the Ten Commandments,
is his intolerance of idols, that is, other gods, alongside him: see EX
20:2–6, and Sprinkle (1994: 37–8) for a different view. He goes on to speak positively of how he should be worshipped. The altar must be of natural materials
(E. Robertson 1948
; for the different kinds of sacrifices, see LEV 1–7). The key religious point, however, is in v. 25
. YHWH's presence and blessing depends not on the humanly organized cult, but on his own decision: ‘where I proclaim my name’. This has generally been understood as permitting many altars for sacrifice, while Deut 12
permits only one, so that it would belong to an earlier stage in religious history than Deuteronomy. But it could be saying
that while one altar is allowed, YHWH's blessing may be received quite apart from altars and sacrifice (Van Seters 1994: 281).
The ‘ordinances’ begin with the demands of justice in relation to the use of people as slaves, no doubt because the people
addressed have just been released from slavery themselves. For detail on the laws of slavery, see Chirichigno (1993); also ‘Slavery’ in ABD vi. The law is concerned with ‘Hebrew’ bondservants, not with foreign slaves who might be owned outright (ibid. 200–18; another
view of the meaning of ‘Hebrew’ in e.g. Childs 1974: 468). It is an attempt to deal with social distress caused by debt among peasants (see Lang 1983
for background). A creditor could seize a defaulting debtor or a member of his family (2 Kings 4:1
) and either sell or use him/her as a slave; or a man could sell a member of his family into bondage to pay off his debts
). The law limits the period of such bondage to six years. Permanent bondage could only be at the bondsman's own choice; but
often he may have had no genuine choice.
is concerned with a girl who is sold as a concubine or slave-wife. A woman who had been sexually used and might be the mother
of her master's children could not normally be released after six years; but the law lists situations in which justice would
demand that she should be. In effect she is given the privileges of a legal wife.
Four capital cases are listed in descending order of severity. All are worthy of death; this indicates how seriously the requirement
to honour parents (
) was taken. In v. 17
‘dishonour’ or ‘reject’ might be a better translation than ‘curse’. It was customary for the relatives of the victim to take
vengeance. v. 13
limits this by protecting someone who is accidentally responsible for a person's death (Deut 19:1–13
elaborates); traditionally the altar provided sanctuary (1 Kings 2:28
). Frequently the victim or relatives would accept monetary compensation (see 21:30
), though in the case of murder Num 35:31
The general principle of justice exemplified here is that of fair compensation for injury. The principle is stated in general
terms in the famous vv. 23–5
. Later this was interpreted as requiring reasonable monetary compensation (Daube 1947: 106–9; Childs 1974: 472), but at some earlier stage its literal application prevented excessive vengeance and would have ensured the rich were not
at an advantage. In the case of slaves, the compensation for serious injury or unintended killing (v. 21
) is that the owner loses his property. If he murders his slave he must face punishment (v. 20
). It is important that as against Mesopotamian codes the slave is treated as a legal person.
The case of the goring ox is a topic also in Mesopotamian codes. It serves as a standard example of the way to treat cases
of negligence, and of how to distinguish between accident (vv. 28, 35
) and culpable negligence. The one feature that would not be found in contemporary or modern laws is that the ox itself, if
it has killed a person, is treated as a criminal and stoned rather than slaughtered in the normal way (vv. 28, 29, 32
). Here religious factors enter in. The ox has transgressed boundaries between human and animal and between wild and tame
animals (see Houston 1993: 182–200), so is treated as ritually detestable and not simply dangerous; see Gen 9:5
The principle adopted in the property section of the laws is that equal compensation is acceptable for negligence (vv. 5, 6, 12, 14
), but is enhanced as a deterrent to deliberate theft or fraud (vv. 1, 4, 7, 9
); while no compensation is payable in the case of accident or force majeure (vv. 11, 13
Theft and sale of livestock (v. 1
) is treated more severely than theft of money or articles (v. 7
), perhaps because they represented the farmer's livelihood; oxen are compensated on a higher scale than sheep perhaps because
of their working capacity (Daube 1947: 133). vv. 2–3a
draw a line between justified killing in self-defence and unnecessary killing, which is murder. The time of day is simply
an example of the factors that could be taken into account. The other issue raised in this section is that of evidence. Where
the matter could not be settled by witnesses, the only recourse was religious. ‘Before God’ (8, 9) probably means at a sanctuary;
but how was the decision made? In 11 it is clearly by oath; this may be true in 8 and 9 as well (Sprinkle 1993: 146–7); other
suggestions include ordeal and divination by the priest.
Seduction is treated on the one hand as a matter of responsibility on the part of the seducer: he does not have the right
to decide not to marry the girl. On the other, it is a matter of the father's rights. Normally a father had the right to dispose
of his daughter, and to receive ‘bride-price’ for her. If he chooses to exercise his right, he is compensated for the difficulty
he will have in giving her away. The girl has no say in the matter.
gives a series of three practices which the advocates of exclusive loyalty to YHWH saw as fundamentally threatening to it,
and therefore deserving of death. We do not know precisely what is meant by sorcery, but it probably involved treating with
spiritual powers other than YHWH. Bestiality transgressed fundamental ritual boundaries (cf. 21:28 and see Lev 18:23
). Here it is the community which must inflict punishment on YHWH's behalf.
Earlier sections have treated disputes in the community as resolvable by applying norms of justice. But there were great disparities
in wealth and power in Israelite society, as in ours. Some people were in a dependent situation either temporarily or permanently. It was easy to take advantage of
them and prevent them from obtaining legal redress. So those who hold power over them must be both reminded of what is just
and warned of the possible consequences when they have to deal with a just God. The ‘resident alien’ meant an incomer from
another area without a property stake in the local community. Widows and orphans were vulnerable because they had no adult
male protector in the immediate family. A ‘poor’ person means primarily a peasant who cannot maintain his family until the
next harvest, and so needs a charitable loan.
As the independent Israelite has duties to his dependants, he also has duties to those above him, especially God (see also 13:11–16
In an economy of scarcity, people would be inclined to make use of any source of food, however suspect. But being dedicated
to YHWH means using a diet fitted to his dignity. Mangled meat is fit only for the universal scavenger. This theme is developed
in much more detail in Lev 11; Deut 14; see Houston (1993: 241–4, 248–53).
It is all very well to have norms of justice. But unless the courts can be relied on to enforce them fairly and impartially,
they are of no use. vv. 4, 5
, which do not seem to fit this theme, underline the requirement of total impartiality. You may have a long-standing dispute
with another family: but you should be fair to them in daily life, and, just the same, you should show no partiality against
them in court. v. 9
ties up the section on social justice by repeating the warning not to oppress the alien which begins it in
A people dedicated to YHWH, who are called by him to act with justice, honour him particularly in ways which serve the cause
of justice. Two institutions particularly characteristic of Israel's religious culture are the sabbath year (vv. 10–11
) and the sabbath day (v. 12
). Neither of them is called that here, possibly because the name was attached to a different holy day in the pre-exilic period
when these verses may have originated (Robinson 1988
). The original function of the sabbath year (cf. Lev 25:1–7
) is unclear, but here it is given a charitable purpose; likewise the sabbath day is commended for its beneficial effects
on dependants, as in Deut 5:15
, not as in
(P!) for its sacral character in itself. v. 13
looks like a concluding verse, so what follows may be an addendum. vv. 14, 17
bracket the brief instruction about the major pilgrimage festivals of the agricultural year. Passover is not mentioned, possibly
because it was not yet a pilgrimage festival at the time of writing. The Israelites are reminded that they have already been
) of Unleavened Bread. The other two festivals are described in exclusively agricultural terms, and are given different names
from those customary later. ‘Harvest’ is Weeks or Pentecost, Deut 16:9–12; Lev 23:15–21
; ‘Ingathering’, when all produce is taken in before the autumn rains begin, is Booths or Tabernacles, Deut 16:13–15; Lev 23:33–6
The instructions in vv. 18–19
are connected with festival worship. The taboos in v. 18
possibly arise because the ideas of fermentation and corruption are opposed to the purity of the sacrifice. The ‘kid in mother's
milk’ prohibition is an old conundrum. See the full discussion in Milgrom (1991: 737–41).
As the whole of the speech has looked forward to Israel's settled life in the land, it is appropriate that it should be concluded
with a word of promise, along with some admonition, about their journey to and entering of it. The promise of an ‘angel’ or
messenger does not really revoke YHWH's personal presence with them (
; especially in view of YHWH's statement that ‘my name is in him’. vv. 23–33
look back to the promises in
and expand them. Here, as in Deuteronomy (see Deut 7
especially), the native nations stand for the constant threat of the worship of the gods of the land (seen as idols, as in
the opening of the speech at v. 24
): ‘you shall…demolish them’) to the exclusive loyalty demanded by YHWH. He will do all the fighting for them (as in ch. 14
!); their sole responsibility is to be faithful to him. v. 31
very much exaggerates the territory that Israel ever held at any time in her history; but as in vv. 25–6
the implication may well be that they never received the fullness of the promise because they were not faithful.
is the climax of the Sinai narrative, but it contains a number of themes rather roughly pieced together. There has never
been any consensus among critics about the sources or editing of the chapter. vv. 1–2
take us back to the end of ch. 19
. v. 1a
is most accurately translated in the Jerusalem Bible: ‘To Moses he had said’, i.e. in
. YHWH's invitation here includes more people, but variation is common when speeches are repeated. Though we are reminded
of the invitation here, it is only taken up at v. 9
. vv. 3–8
are the account of the ceremonial sealing of the covenant on the basis of the words which YHWH has given to Moses, that is
the Ten Commandments and the Book of the Covenant. The meaning of the covenant has already been explained in
. There (
) we heard of the people's response in advance, and it is repeated twice here (vv. 3, 7
): first Moses secures their acceptance of YHWH's terms, then he formally seals their covenant with YHWH by writing the terms
down, reading them to them, and hearing their acceptance again; then he consecrates them as YHWH's holy people (
) in a sacrificial ritual. Nicholson (1986: 171–2) has shown that although there is no ritual precisely like this in the OT we can understand its meaning by comparing rituals
which have some similarity, such as the ordination of priests in
. The blood of the holy offering makes them holy to YHWH. This is an imaginative way of expressing in narrative form the bond
of will and obedience between YHWH and Israel.
The invitation of
) is now taken up. Representatives of the people, and of the future priests (Aaron and his sons), ascend the mountain and
receive a vision of God himself. As with other similar visions (Isa 6; Ezek 1
), the Bible avoids describing the appearance of God, but simply gives one vivid glimpse of the glory that surrounded him.
‘Sapphire’ (NRSV) should probably be ‘lapis lazuli’, a common material in the decoration of temples. The eating and drinking
of the people's representatives in the presence of YHWH himself is an appropriate conclusion to the story of how they became
his holy people. The promise of
is at last fulfilled. (See Nicholson 1986: 121–33, 173–4.) vv. 12–14
prepare for YHWH's giving of the tablets of stone to Moses, and it also makes a bridge to ch. 32
. What exactly is written on the tablets is not made clear here: it is only at
(and Deut 5:22
) that it emerges it is the Ten Commandments. It is also unclear how the tablets relate to the book that Moses has written.
The tablets are to be placed in the Ark when it is made (
25:16; 40:20; Deut 10:2–5
); as Cassuto (1967: 331) notes, this is similar to the provisions in ancient treaties for copies to be placed in the sanctuaries of the contracting
parties. Perhaps, then, the tablets are meant to be the official original of the covenant, while copies on papyrus may be
made for practical purposes. vv. 15–18
are a P paragraph preparing for the giving of the instructions about the tabernacle which now follow.
This third long speech by YHWH from Sinai is an entirely Priestly passage. He gives instructions here for the building of
a portable structure which has two functions. It enables the living presence of YHWH, which the Israelites have met at Sinai,
to go with them on their journey and continue to bless them (
); and it enables Moses to continue to receive instructions from YHWH after the people have left Sinai (see 25:22; 29:42; Lev 1:1
This double function is reflected in the names ‘tabernacle’ and ‘tent of meeting’. In part, these names refer to different
parts of the structure (see ch. 26
, especially v. 7
): the tabernacle is the arrangement of frames or boards over which curtains of fine material are stretched, and the tent
is the curtains of goat's hair which cover the tabernacle. But theologically the name ‘tent of meeting’ implies (as in
) the place where God meets with Moses as the prophetic representative of Israel; while ‘tabernacle’ (miškān, lit. ‘dwelling’) implies the place where God dwells among his people. Both these understandings are expressed in the conclusion
to the main body of instructions in
But though the name ‘tent of meeting’ is rather the commoner of the two, the physical image is that of a temple, differing
from other temples only in being portable; and a temple was primarily thought of as a god's permanent dwelling-place on earth.
(For thorough discussion of the priestly picture of the tabernacle and its service see Haran 1985: 149–259.)
The main body of instructions, chs. 25–9
, moves outwards from the centre which represents the divine presence. First (
) the sacred furniture is prescribed, beginning with the ark and its cover which stand in the innermost sanctum; then (ch. 26
) the tabernacle-tent structure which screens these sacred objects from public view; then (ch. 27
) the altar outside and the hangings which surround the court where it stands. A consecrated priesthood is required to serve
in this holy place, so the instructions proceed by prescribing their vestments (ch. 28
) and the rite of their ordination (ch. 29
) which qualifies them to serve. Chs. 28–9
on the priesthood are framed by two passages which prescribe the permanent daily service which is to be carried on, and so
explain why a priesthood is necessary:
on the tending of the lamp in the tabernacle; and
on the daily burnt offerings.
The instructions are rounded off (
) with a statement by YHWH of how he will use the sanctuary, as the place of meeting and of presence. However, some additional
prescriptions follow in ch. 30
; the first (vv. 1–10
) is part of the main speech, the others, like those in ch. 31
, are added as separate short speeches. As a conclusion has already been given to the instructions, and the incense altar
and basin have not been mentioned in their logical places, these prescriptions are generally taken as later additions.
The whole passage is framed by the call for contributions in
and the provisions for design and manufacture in
. Why this is followed by the repetition of the sabbath commandment in
is discussed below.
The general outline of the sanctuary is similar to that of Solomon's temple described in 1 Kings 6
, and to that of many of the shrines in Palestine and its surrounding area found in archaeological excavations. It clearly
reflects very ancient ideas of the deity's dwelling in the temple and having his needs attended to there by his priestly servants.
A covered rectangular structure stands in an open court, and is divided by a crosswise partition into two rooms (for a slightly
different picture see Friedman 1992
). The inner, smaller room contains the principal symbol of the presence of the deity. The two cherubim originally represented
a throne for the invisible YHWH (see 1 Sam 4:4
). In the outer room stands furniture required for the personal service of the deity: the lampstand for light, the table for
the ‘bread of the Presence’, and the incense altar for pleasant scent. Outside in the court stands the ‘altar of burnt offering’,
where offerings are burnt, wholly or partially, as a ‘pleasing odour’ to YHWH (
Taken literally, this mode of service would imply a very crude conception of God. But the ritual goes back to time immemorial,
and the text does not imply such a literal conception. It avoids implying that YHWH was enthroned over the ark (Mettinger 1982: 88), and gives no indication beyond the use of traditional clichés that YHWH was literally benefited by his service. In fact
no one had ever believed that gods literally lived in their temples, in the sense that they were bounded by them. God's true
temple is in heaven, where he sits enthroned in glory (see Isa 6
); the temple on earth is a copy of this (Ex 25:9; Cassuto 1967: 322), and there he makes himself present to his people in a particular way.
The presence of God in the centre is believed to generate and intense holiness which is like a physical influence, radiating
outwards in declining degree. This is marked by the materials used and by the persons allowed to enter. The materials decrease
in value as one moves outwards (Haran 1985: 158–65). No one may enter the inner sanctum except the high priest once a year (Lev 16:2, 29
); no one but priests may enter the outer hall or ascend the altar. The high priest (Aaron) and the priests (the sons of Aaron)
are specially consecrated (29) and must preserve a special degree of ritual purity (Lev 21
) so that they can venture into these holy areas. Any Israelite who is ritually clean for the time being (see Lev 11–16
) may enter the court, but the hangings mark out the area beyond which the unclean may not proceed. (For further details see Haran 1985: 158–88.)
Clearly this whole arrangement is symbolic. At the centre of the people's life stands the Presence of God, and order, life,
and blessing flow out from there. But there are also powers of disorder and death that have to be kept at bay. Contact between
these would be deadly: hence the carefully ordered gradation of boundaries, material, and personnel. (See also Jenson
1992: 56–88.) At the same time the system would have served to guarantee the power of the priests who controlled it.
The system is more obviously appropriate for a settled people, despite the great care with which it is adapted to life on
the move. No doubt it represents what the priests believed about the temple. The question arises whether the picture of the
mobile tabernacle is imaginary or derived from a real sanctuary. Portable shrines existed, but the one described is far too
elaborate to have been produced in the wilderness. Critical scholars have tended to argue that it is an imaginary projection
of the Jerusalem temple into the period of the wilderness. Some (e.g. Friedman 1992
), however, have suggested that there was a real portable shrine, not as elaborate as is here described, referred to in Ex 33:7–11
and in Num 11 and 12
, which was preserved at Shiloh and perhaps later at Jerusalem, and that this is what the writer is describing.
But if P is dependent on the earlier sources, it is likely that it has taken the idea of a tent-shrine and the name ‘tent
of meeting’ from
, and with it the function of the shrine as a place of meeting between God and his prophet, and has combined that with the
temple image (similarly Childs 1974
). But there are details that do not accord with the Jerusalem temple either before or after the Exile.
The Israelites are to make a ‘holy place’ (v. 8
; NRSV ‘sanctuary’), a place marked out for and by YHWH's presence. The verse is echoed by
at the end of the main body of instructions. In v. 9
, YHWH does not merely tell Moses what to make: he shows him a ‘pattern’ (very necessary in view of the obscurity and ambiguity
of some of the prescriptions!). Perhaps the writer believed that the tabernacle was a copy of a heavenly temple (as Heb 8:5
deduces). Other ancient Near-Eastern priestly writers claimed this for their temples.
The word translated ‘covenant’ (vv. 16, 25
) in the NRSV and ‘testimony’ in many other versions is not the same as the word for ‘covenant’ earlier; it is P's regular
term for the written record of YHWH's commandments on the stone tablets. P follows the conception in Deut 10:2–5
, so that the ark becomes not only the place of YHWH's meeting with Moses (v. 22
), but also the sign of the obligations he lays upon Israel. v. 18
, ‘cherubim’ were probably imaginary winged four-footed creatures such as are found constantly in ancient Near-Eastern art.
YHWH is depicted as ‘riding’ or ‘seated’ on cherubim in e.g. Ps 18:10; 80:1
The table is used both for the bread of the Presence (v. 24; see Lev 24:5–9
) and for vessels for drink-offerings; however, these were not offered inside the tabernacle. The prescriptions for the lampstand
are hard to follow, but the well-known relief of the lampstand from Herod's temple on the Arch of Titus in Rome probably gives
a fair idea of what the writer had in mind; see also Meyers (ABD iv. 142; cf. Meyers 1976
). Solomon's temple had ten lampstands (1 Kings 7:49
), but it is not said that these were branched. The branched lampstand appears to be a later innovation, thrown back into
the time of the wilderness.
The description is ambiguous, and various reconstructions have been made. The main structure is the ‘frames’, or boards, described
in vv. 15–25
. These are set up on end, so that the height of the tabernacle is 10 cubits (a cubit was about 50 cm. or 1ft. 8 in.); but
disagreement arises over whether they are set side by side, giving the tabernacle a length of 30 cubits, or overlapping (Friedman 1992
), giving a length of (perhaps) 20 cubits. The breadth is very uncertain, because of the difficulty of vv. 23–4
. The tabernacle curtains are meant to be stretched over the top of the structure, forming its roof and hanging down the sides;
they are joined together lengthwise to make an area 28 × 40 cubits, with the long side running the length of the tabernacle
and hanging down the back; similarly with the tent curtains which are stretched over the top of the tabernacle curtains and
cover the parts these cannot reach.
The key ritual element here is the ‘curtain’ (not the same word as in v. 1
, etc.) in vv. 31–5
, which marks off the ‘most holy place’ (Heb. ‘holy of holies’). Within the curtain is the ark, outside it the other furniture.
Most scholars envisage the curtain as dividing the tabernacle crosswise in the same way as the solid wall dividing the main
hall from the inner sanctum of permanent temples, with the pillars side by side; Friedman however sees it as a canopy hanging
down from four pillars set in a square.
This description is once again very ambiguous. The altar is a hollow box of wooden boards overlaid with bronze: so much is
clear. But as it is doubtful whether such a structure could stand a fire, it is argued by Cassuto (1967: 362) that it has no top and in use would be filled with stones or earth (cf. 20:24–6
), so that the fire would be laid on the stones. Even more unclear is the placing and function of the ‘grating’. The horns
) at least are a regular feature of altars in that cultural area. Their origin is uncertain, but their use in Israelite ritual
The dimensions and function of the enclosure which surrounds the altar and tabernacle are clear, even though details of the
spacing of the pillars on which the hangings are hung are not, and the placing of the altar and tabernacle within the court
is not specified.
It is not immediately clear why this passage is placed here (it is repeated almost word for word in Lev 24:2–4
); for my suggestion see above, EX
. Why it speaks of only one light is also unclear; it is likely that it is a fragment of a different tradition from that which
calls for seven, which has become dominant in the text.
This chapter now introduces the priesthood to serve in the holy place, and details the vestments they are to wear for that
purpose. Aaron is to be the high priest, his sons the priests. Obviously what is said of Aaron will apply to each high priest
after him. Most of the chapter (vv. 2–39
) is concerned with Aaron's vestments, which are designed for officiating within the tabernacle (Haran 1985: 210–13). v. 40
lists the garments of Aaron's sons, for service at the altar, and v. 41
points forward to their vesting and ordination prescribed in detail in the next chapter. The undergarments or drawers prescribed
in vv. 42–3
may be a later development, but as their function is a negative one (cf. 20:26
) they might in any case not be mentioned along with the garments which are designed for ‘glorious adornment’ (vv. 2, 40
). These are made of the same costly materials (v. 5
) as the tabernacle itself. The ephod (vv. 6–14
) appears to be a sort of apron with shoulder-straps; it is the most visible and impressive of the vestments. The ‘breastpiece
of judgement’ (vv. 15–30
) is so called because it holds the Urim and Thummim (v. 30
), which are objects used for divination (Num 27:21
). The robe (vv. 31–5
) is worn under the ephod, and is of simpler workmanship, except for the hem. The bells protect Aaron (v. 35
) perhaps by preventing him making an unannounced approach before the throne (Cassuto 1967: 383). Like the other elements of ritual in the tabernacle, they go back to a more primitive conception of deity. The tunic goes
under the robe, but it may have sleeves, unlike the other vestments.
The balance and structure of the account emphasize those elements in Aaron's attire which express his representative function:
the stones on which he bears the names of the sons of Israel ‘before the LORD’—that is, in the tabernacle; Urim and Thummim in which he would ‘bear the judgement of the Israelites’; the rosette with
its inscription, which reminds YHWH that the whole people (not just Aaron) is ‘holy to YHWH’, so that any unintentional failures
may be over-looked. During the monarchy, it was the king who was the representative of the people before God; it is likely
that it was in the post-exilic period that the high priests took over this function, and perhaps much of the array ascribed
here to Aaron was originally the king's.
This chapter prescribes a ritual which is carried out in Lev 8
, where it is again described in detail; Lev 9
goes on to describe the ritual of the eighth day, when Aaron enters fully on his priesthood. Fuller comment will therefore
be found at LEV 8–9; for the details of the different sacrifices LEV 1–4; and for the ‘elevation offering’ (vv. 24, 26
) Lev 7:28–38
. Briefly, the elements of the ordination ritual are as follows: investiture in the sacred vestments (vv. 5–6, 8–9
); anointing, a symbol of appointment (v. 7
; only for Aaron, though
mentions anointing for them all); and ordination proper (vv. 10–35
), which is a seven-day rite of passage (v. 35
) consisting of particular sacrifices. The defining moment is the ritual in vv. 19–21
, in which some of the blood of the ‘ram of ordination’ is smeared on representative extremities of the ordinands and the
rest dashed on the sides of the altar. Cf. 24:6–8
: the smearing or sprinkling of a token portion of the blood of a sacrifice which is at the same time made holy by its offering
to God makes the person holy to God. The altar (vv. 36–7
) also requires purification from any uncleanness it may have contracted, and consecration. ‘Sin offering’ and ‘atonement’
(NRSV) are clearly unsatisfactory translations in reference to an inanimate object: ‘purification offering’ and ‘purification’
(Milgrom 1991: 253–4) are better. Its consecration is not simply dedication: it becomes actively holy so as to engulf in its holiness anything
that touches it: this is a warning, for it is certain death for anyone who is not already consecrated.
Mention of the altar leads into instruction for its one regular daily use; but as I have suggested it also serves, with
, to frame the instructions for the priesthood with a representative reminder of the daily need for a priesthood: Aaron to
enter the tabernacle to dress the lamps, and his sons to serve at the altar. The prime reason for the existence of a public
sanctuary is to offer public offerings paid for out of public resources (see 30:11–16
) as a formal expression of the community's homage to its God. The Jerusalem temple under the monarchy would have had such
a regular offering paid for by the king: P needs to emphasize the importance of continuing it by placing its beginning in
The speech comes to a fitting climax in which YHWH defines the purpose of all the elaborate provisions which he has been reciting,
and makes it clear that they are the fulfilment of the promise he had made while the people were slaves in Egypt, that ‘I
will take you as my people, and I will be your God’ (
). What he had not said there was that he would meet with them and dwell among them. It is the tent of meeting that makes this possible. And even though he has been giving directions for Moses to consecrate the tent, the altar, and the priests, he makes it clear that it is he himself, YHWH, who will really consecrate
them, and he will do this by his presence, which is summed up in the symbol of his ‘glory’, which for P is a literal dazzling
radiance. ‘And they shall know…’ (v. 46
): of all the acts by which Israel comes to know their God, this, for P, is the supreme one, that he dwells among them and
speaks with them.
This may reflect an addition to the furniture of the Second Temple. Incense was at all times in the ancient Near East a common
element of ritual; its sweet smell was held to attract the favour of the deity and appease the deity's wrath. But we more
commonly hear of its being offered in censers carried in the hand. Although it is an addition to the ritual, it is fully integrated
into the complex of acts of ‘service’ which Aaron performs in the tabernacle (vv. 7–8
) (Haran 1985: 230–45). For v. 10, see Lev 16
During the monarchy the regular offering would have been the king's responsibility; in Neh 10:32–3
we find the community as a whole taking the responsibility on themselves through a poll-tax; the census ransom is P's version
of this. It was an ancient belief that carrying out a census was a dangerous act which might arouse the envy of the deity:
see 2 Sam 24
. The token offering averts this, as well as providing for the offering.
The concern here is not for ordinary dirt, but for ritual uncleanness (Lev 11–15
), which to the priests, who are constantly in the holy place and handling holy things, is a constant threat. Washing the
body is the normal way of removing low-grade uncleanness.
These two sections each provide for the compounding of distinctive substances which are to be used exclusively in the service
of the tabernacle. They are ‘holy’ (vv. 25, 36
) both in this sense and as far as the oil is concerned in the sense that it is a sign which conveys holiness to the objects
and persons which are anointed with it.
Bezalel's qualifications come to him by a twofold action of YHWH, who both calls him and fills him with divine spirit. Although
these graces are most frequently referred to as bestowing gifts of leadership and of prophecy, they are clearly not confined
to those connections. P has laid stress throughout on the importance of the materials and design of the tabernacle and its
furniture; they help to give them their holy character. It is therefore natural that the skill which is needed to create them
should be seen as a divine gift.
It is appropriate that the sabbath command should be repeated here, with its grounding in the creation account in Gen 1:1–2:3
. The tabernacle represents God's heavenly dwelling-place, where he rested after his exertions in creation, and the sabbath represents his heavenly rest (cf. Levenson 1988: 79–99). The passage bears a number of marks of the style and concerns of the editor of the Holiness Code (Lev 17–26
), who may have been the final editor of the Priestly material (Knohl 1994
). The sabbath is not only holy itself, but is a way God has given of expressing the holiness of the people (v. 13
). For the first time a penalty is given for breaking it (vv. 14–15
): as with other offences against Israel's holiness to YHWH, it is death (cf. Lev 20
(For a thorough treatment of 32–4, see Moberley 1983; also Van Seters 1994: 290–360). The story here takes a turn which is of great importance for the theological message of the book. After the people have
solemnly accepted YHWH's covenant on the basis of his commandments, the first thing they do is to break the most fundamental
of them; they desert the worship of YHWH for an idol. This is a ‘test’ (see 17:2
) of the covenant, and of YHWH's commitment to his people, of the most radical sort. He would have every justification in
destroying them and starting afresh, and says so in
. But this does not happen; why not?
The story makes Moses responsible for reconciling YHWH to the people. Moses struggles with YHWH from
, first to avert the threatened destruction, and then to ensure the full restoration of his presence with them and graciousness
to them. And this he achieves. The people do nothing towards this, and make no renewed promises. They express no repentance
for their apostasy; Moberly (1983: 60–1) shows that their mourning in
is not repentance. Moses here comes into his own as a heroic figure (see EX A). For months he has simply obeyed orders; now he not only acts on his own initiative, but, with deference but determination,
sets himself against YHWH's expressed intention and fights on behalf of the people whom YHWH himself has made his responsibility,
ignoring inducements (
), and putting his own life on the line for their sake (
). Aaron makes a pitiful contrast: ‘Aaron was too weak to restrain the people; Moses was strong enough to restrain even God’
(Childs 1974: 570). But if Moses acquires new stature in this episode, so too does YHWH. What Moses appeals to is YHWH's own promise and character.
He cannot persuade him to do something that he does not want to do. And when YHWH at the climax of the story proclaims his
own characteristics, what comes first is his mercy, steadfast love, and forgiveness (
). He proves himself a God able in the end to bear with a people who not only have sinned but are likely to go on sinning,
as Moses confesses (
). The legalistic interpretation of the covenant, that breaking the commandment means death, suggested in
, is set aside without being formally repudiated (
). It is on this basis that YHWH's presence is able to go with the people, as he has already promised in
; and so the elaborate provisions that he has made for this are able to go forward.
We may treat this passage as a literary unity, though many would see 32:9–14 and 25–9
as later expansions (see Moberly 1983: 157–86 and Van Seters 1994: 290–5). Interesting questions arise when we compare the story, particularly
, with the story of Jeroboam and his calves in 1 Kings 12
. In both cases the cultic object is described as a golden calf, and the cry in
is identical to Jeroboam's announcement in 1 Kings 12:28
. There can be no doubt that one or other of the writers has deliberately described the event in terms drawn from the other
account. It is likely that Kings is the source. The bull was a common symbol of deity in Canaanite culture; it fits with this
that the kingdom of Israel should have had bulls as its official cult symbols, and the story in 1 Kings 12
is a slanted and polemical account of how they were introduced. Calling the bulls ‘calves’ is deliberate disparagement, probably
begun by Hosea (Hos 8:5, 6; 10:5
). J follows his usual practice of tracing back key themes in Israel's later history into the wilderness period. (For another
view, see Moberly 1983: 161–71.)
The calf which Aaron makes is in the first place a subsitute for Moses, who represented God's guidance in a concrete way.
Without him, the people feel the need for a visible expression of divine guidance. The course they urge on Aaron is described
in terms which suggest that they are behaving exactly like pagans. Gods are something that can be made. Why ‘gods’, when there
is only one image? Because to speak of ‘gods’ in the plural is typical of pagans (see 1 Sam 4:7–8; 1 Kings 20:23
); the sentence is probably taken from 1 Kings 12:28
, but not unthinkingly—the fact that there are two calves does not make it more appropriate there (see Moberly 1983: 163). Is the calf intended as an image of YHWH? It is hailed as having ‘brought you up out of the land of Egypt’, and the feast
which Aaron announces is a festival for YHWH. But the author leaves no doubt that they are not really worshipping YHWH. See EX
. Therefore the people have indeed broken the first commandment.
This passage has caused difficulty. Why should Moses react so violently in v. 19
if YHWH had already told him on the mountain? How can the long process of intercession in
be understood if Moses has already secured YHWH's forgiveness in v. 14
? It is a matter of literary technique. The key issues are set out here, right after the account of Israel's sin, and they
govern the whole story. There is, in any case, no real difficulty in understanding Moses' reaction on actually seeing the
worship of the golden calf; and it is often overlooked that Moses is not himself told of YHWH's change of heart. v. 14
is a narrative comment which gives the reader the advantage over Moses; as far as he knows, there is everything still to
play for; and YHWH, as befits the seriousness of the sin, will not immediately reveal his forgiveness. ‘Stiff-necked’ (v. 9
) is one of the motifs of the story, repeated in
33:3, 5; 34:9
. In YHWH's demand ‘Now let me alone’, ‘he pays such deference to [Moses'] prayers as to say they are a hindrance to him’
(Calvin 1854: iii. 341); and he then indirectly reminds Moses of the right basis for such prayers. ‘Of you I will make a great nation’ recalls his
promise to Abraham, Gen 12:2
. Moses in his reply picks this up, as well as reminding YHWH of the danger to his reputation, which had been one of the main
themes of the struggle with Pharaoh.
The tablets are the focus in vv. 15–19
. Moses' breaking of them appears to signify that the covenant is at an end, and this is confirmed in ch. 34
, where a new covenant is made on conditions inscribed on new tablets. Could a calf made of gold be burnt and ground to powder?
It is possible that the description has simply been taken over from Deut 9:21
(Van Seters 1994: 303–7); Deuteronomy does not say what the calf was made of. vv. 21–4
recall Gen 3
. Aaron contrives to throw all the blame on the people and minimizes his own part, in contrast with Moses, who identifies
himself with the people in his struggles with God.
is another passage that has caused difficulty, partly because Moses inflicts a fearful punishment on the people, whereas elsewhere
he pleads for forgiveness, partly because the punishment seems quite random. It should be noted that what Moses pleads against
is the total destruction of the people, and then YHWH's withdrawal of his presence from Israel's midst; this does not rule
out an exemplary punishment. v. 35
expresses the same idea, though it has been interpreted as the much later fulfilment of the threat in v. 34
. The passage serves to account for the special position of the Levites in Israelite society.
In this episode of intercession, Moses clearly does not achieve his object, though it is not easy to follow the conversations
between Moses and YHWH because of their polite and allusive language.
rejects Moses' offer, and v. 34
warns that a time of punishment is yet to come. YHWH is not yet reconciled. For v. 35
, see above on vv. 25–9
YHWH sends the people off to Canaan, but without his presence among them. The ‘angel’, as in
, may represent YHWH and even be a form of his presence. But what he refuses to give them is his presence among them. Moberly (1983: 62–3) suggests that this presence would be experienced through the medium of a sanctuary; and the following section supports this.
This section is a digression from the main thread of the narrative, but not an irrelevant digression. It describes not what
Moses did next, but what he regularly did; the period over which he did it is not specified, but see Num 11 and Deut 31:14–15
. It is mentioned to make clear how Moses was still able to communicate with YHWH although he had refused his presence in
their midst. He does it through the medium of a tent shrine; but unlike the one provided for in chs. 25–6
it is pitched way outside the camp, a clear enough sign of the danger of YHWH's coming any closer. v. 11
underlines the special privilege of Moses in speaking with YHWH ‘face to face’, and this leads in appropriately to the next
passage of intercession.
Although P takes over the name ‘tent of meeting’, there are many differences between this tent and his, besides its location.
It is a place not of priestly service and sacrifice but of prophetic revelation, and YHWH appears not in its innermost recesses
but at its entrance. It has been conjectured that this tent of meeting was an ancient prophetic institution in Israel. But
Van Seters (1994: 341–4) suggests that it is J's imaginative reconstruction.
The story of Moses' intercession with YHWH is taken up again at the point where it was left in
. Moses' object is to gain YHWH's personal presence among the people. In v. 14
the translation ‘I will go with you’ (NRSV and others) makes nonsense of the conversation. Only in v. 17
does YHWH finally grant Moses what he has been asking for, his presence with the people. At v. 14
all he says is ‘My presence will go’, without the vital word ‘with’. Moses' success is remarkable: a holy God has agreed
to be present with a people who are still sinful and show no serious sign of repentance. Moses' further request in v. 18
seems at first sight to be purely selfish. But it becomes clear when YHWH grants it (in his own way) in
that the vision of his ‘goodness’ which he has promised Moses has everything to do with the people's need of mercy and forgiveness.
Moses has achieved much, but he has still not gained the main point, absolute forgiveness. The answer he got to the direct
was not encouraging, so he tries an indirect one, and this time receives definite, though still indirect, encouragement (v. 20
). YHWH is merciful, though he reserves to himself absolute discretion in deciding whom to be merciful to.
The episode moves to its climax. YHWH's order to Moses in v. 1
leaves no doubt now that he intends to restore the covenant shattered with the tablets in
. Moses alone goes up the mountain. The people's rebellion leaves them no role but humbly to accept their Lord's good pleasure.
YHWH's proclamation of his own name and qualities in vv. 6–7
is another version of the descriptions in
20:5–6 and Deut 7:9–10
, and is itself repeatedly quoted elsewhere (e.g. Ps 103:8
). It lays stress on his forgiveness, and avoids saying that he is gracious ‘to those that love me and keep my commandments’.
The centre is his ‘steadfast love’ (Heb. ḥesed; other translations ‘faithfulness’, ‘mercy’). This is the gracious favour which a patron shows to those who have come under
his protection (or the loyalty which they show to him); it is gracious and yet at the same time required of him by the relationship,
an idea difficult for us to grasp in a society which has separated institutional obligation and personal motivation (cf. Kippenberg 1982: 32). There remains a paradox in the proclamation: YHWH forgives iniquity, and yet he also punishes it, even to the fourth generation.
As we have already seen, punishment is not excluded even where he has resolved to forgive. The essential thing is that the
relationship is restored and maintained in perpetuity, however much Israel's sinfulness may test it.
And this is what YHWH promises in his proclamation ‘I hereby make a covenant’. A covenant, because what he now does is new.
The precise reference of the rest of v. 10
is unclear; even whether ‘you’ is Moses or Israel; but it is clear that the covenant is primarily YHWH's promise to Moses
to forgive Israel. There are conditions; they are not new, but almost entirely a selection of the commandments from the Book
of the Covenant (see EX
) with particular emphasis on the exclusive worship of YHWH. vv. 11–16
are a rewriting of
23:23–4, 32–3; v. 17
is a version of
; and vv. 18–26
with some expansion, mostly from
). The implication is that, as YHWH has already said in
, the covenant terms are still in force, but it is not necessary for the author to repeat the entire code, as only certain
things need to be emphasized. Moses is commanded to write the words, as he had done in
. The text in 28 seems to say that Moses wrote on the tablets. But YHWH has already said (
) that he himself would write the words on them. So probably the subject of the last sentence in v. 28
is YHWH, and Moses is thought of as writing a separate copy. But what did YHWH write? Up to this point the implication has
been that it would be the words in vv. 11–26
, yet the text adds that it was ‘the ten commandments’. This can only mean
. The likely explanation is that someone has added the words ‘the ten commandments’, remembering that in Deut 5
it is these which are written on the tablets and trying to make Exodus and Deuteronomy agree.
The shining of Moses' face as a sign of intense spiritual experience is not unparalleled: one might think of Jesus' transfiguration
) or the experience reported of St Seraphim of Sarov. It is not clear why Moses puts a veil over his face when he has finished
reporting YHWH's commands, unless perhaps simply to avoid standing out unnecessarily when not performing his religious and
With the covenant relationship restored, the instructions given by YHWH to create a sanctuary for him can now be carried out.
This account obviously depends very closely on chs. 25–31
; in the parts which describe the actual construction the instructions are reproduced word for word with the appropriate changes.
As the incense altar and laver are described in their proper places, the account was obviously written from the start in dependence
on the whole passage chs. 25–31
including its afterthoughts. Every paragraph concludes ‘as YHWH had commanded Moses’ to underline the authority behind the
construction. As the instructions had concluded with the repetition of the sabbath command, Moses' commands to the Israelites
begin with it. A detailed account of the offering follows in
, together with the calling of Bezalel and Oholiab. The construction of the various items occupies
. The account begins with the tabernacle itself before moving on to the furniture which is placed in it. It is broken only
by the account of the contributed metals in
. This does not reproduce any single passage in 25–31, but is deduced from its data; as far as the silver is concerned the
is derived from the census figure in Num 1:46
on the assumption that the ransom commanded in
was intended for the construction.
No one can really explain this odd note. 1 Sam 2:22
is no help.
When all is complete, YHWH gives the order to set the tabernacle up and consecrate it and ordain its priesthood (
). For the fulfilment of much of this we must wait till Lev 8
; but here we are told of the setting up of the tabernacle (
), and this is followed immediately by the climax of the whole account, the entry of the glory of YHWH into his dwelling-place.
The glory is described as cloud and fire, as it appeared on Sinai in
. The object of all the work has been achieved: the presence of YHWH, as it had been on Sinai, is with his people for ever,
and guides them on their journeys.
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