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In this episode, Pete continues his deep dive into the book of Exodus covering chapters 14-19 and the following topics:
Pete: You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. Serious talk about the sacred book. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
Hey everybody. Welcome to Part 4 of the Pete Ruins Exodus series. Before we begin, a couple of very quick announcements because I’m afraid I’m going to forget. First of all, October 4 and 5, I’m going to be at Evolving Faith which is in Denver, CO this year. That should be fun. Also, on September 23, we’re offering a one-time only, one evening, one-hour class on Genesis. Here’s the good news. You pay what you want. Just have to reserve your seat. You can get information about that on the website, like exactly when and where. Hope you can make it to that. It should be fun. It’s a one-hour only class. I’m just talking about what I think are highlights of the book of Genesis and why I think is really important and what I think is really cool about the book that doesn’t always get picked up in casual readings of the book itself.
Commercial’s over. Let’s get into Part 4 of Pete Ruins Exodus.
This is going to take us from the departure from Egypt over the Red Sea through Chapter 19, and that is specifically beginning in Chapter 13, verse 17. The middle of Chapter 13 through to the end of Chapter 19. That’s the departure from Egypt and the journey to Sinai.
Just to review where we’ve been up to this point in this series as a whole. We started with Moses and he gets this call from God to be the agent through which the Israelites will be delivered. He has early struggles. He really doesn’t want to do it. But he finally gives in and goes ahead and he confronts Pharaoh. Pharaoh doesn’t care what Moses says or what their no-name God says. He never heard of Him.
Of course, that results in the plagues which wind up convincing Pharaoh that, “Yeah, I’m no match for Israel’s god.” Especially the plague of death, which is the tit-for-tat, payback for what Pharaoh did drowning the male infants in the Nile way back in Chapter 1. Now they’re dead as well. The firstborn of Egypt are dead. That’s how the story goes.
So now they depart. All that’s over. Now, they’re leaving Egypt never to go back again. Remember, Mount Sinai, also called Horeb—we talked about that in several places in Exodus—Sinai is the goal of the rescue. Aaron and Moses say, “Let my people go so that they might worship Me in the wilderness.” The wilderness is where Sinai is.
They have no clue at this point about where they are going afterward, namely into the land of Israel to take over for the Canaanites and to eradicate them and exterminate them and take their land. They don’t know where that’s going. All they know is that they’re going to Mount Sinai. Even though the land and entrance to the land, and I’m going to say, just frankly, the monarchy, is really the true end goal of Israel in the Hebrew scriptures.
I’ve written about this elsewhere, but the Pentateuch as a whole is really an entrance ramp onto that central, important period of time when the Israelites are in the land. That’s where I think all this is going.
We’ve got six plus chapters. They can be divided into two parts. The one is the actual departure from Egypt itself. That starts in 13:17. It goes to the end of Chapter 15, 15:21. Then the journey to Sinai, which picks up at 15:22 and goes to the end of Chapter 19.
These six chapters have some pretty well-known stories in them.
First, let’s look at some highlights from part one, the departure from Egypt across the Red Sea. One thing to note is that we have two versions of the same event. We have a prose version, which is 13:17 through Chapter 14. Then the poetic version, which is in 15:1-21.
This is similar, if you’re familiar with the book of Judges, in Chapters 4 and 5, we also have a prose version and a poetic version of the exploits of the judge Deborah. The poetry, the poetic version, is, according to biblical scholars who study Hebrew, it is certainly older. At least, the core of it is older, if not the whole thing. There are reasons for saying that. That becomes important in a minute when we get into Chapter 15 because of the kinds of things that it says.
This is just a reminder to us that we have, here again, as we have so often in the Bible, evidence of different traditions that are probably written or originated orally in different times and places, and here we have editors at a later time putting them together, just back-to-back.
It’s like Genesis 1 and 2. You have two creation stories and they are back-to-back, edited together and left there, even they don’t say exactly the same thing.
Let’s look at that prose, the narrative version first. That’s the first one that pops up in 13 and 14. They depart from Egypt and Yahweh makes them look lost in order to pick a fight with Pharaoh. The people freak out (Israelites) and God drives back the Red Sea to open an escape route. The Israelites pass through safely, but the Egyptians drown and they wash up on the shore. That’s how the story goes. Very famous story.
One thing to note is that Pharaoh was all ready to let them go. He had been convinced after the last plague. He said finally, “Just go. I don’t want to see you again. Just get out of here.” He was ready to let them go, and he did. But God wants Pharaoh to follow the Israelites. God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. You see it in Chapter 14, verse 8 and 17, and especially 17 is explicit that the purpose of the hardening is so that the Egyptians will follow the Israelites. It’s hard to pass over the fact that God wants them dead.
As harsh as that is, and I think it is harsh, we can offer a contextual, theological explanation. By contextual, I mean the groove of the story itself up to this point. We can read this drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea as tit-for-tat, payback for another Pharaoh drowning the Israelite male infants in the Nile way back in Chapter 1. Also, “You’ve been treating my people harshly,” says Yahweh, “so I’m going to treat your people harshly.” Although, I still wonder if this is necessary to drown them. How about just letting the sea close up so they can’t cross. But they drowned. That’s how the story goes.
This is an example of violence in the Bible and it raises some eyebrows, not just for today, but this is a story that has made people think for quite a while. It’s caused a lot of consternation for one of my own children. When she was very young, she came home from Sunday School and this was the story and she came home just very, very upset, asking, “What kind of a god is this? Aren’t these God’s children too? Why does God do stuff like this?”
This is not the Bible’s best moment, in my opinion. But this is how the might and power of God is expressed in an ancient tribal context. Your god is great because your enemies are destroyed before you.
Some of you know how I handle this sort of divine violence, not as a depiction of what really happened, or not as a depiction of what God is really like, but as a depiction of ancient people of faith, true ancient people of faith, albeit in a tribalistic, Iron Age society—the Iron Age started in 1200 BCE and goes well into the first millennium BCE. That’s the basic time of Israel’s existence as a people is during the Iron Age. This is how people in the Iron Age expressed their faith, expressed their understanding of the gods or of God. This is what gods did. They go to battle.
Remember, way back in the first episode, along with most biblical scholars, I said that I don’t think Exodus is a historical account, even if it preserves an ancient, historical memory, as biblical scholars like to call it. I don’t think we would see this if someone had been videotaping, so to speak. This reflects an ancient understanding of ancient Israelites about what their god is like. That’s my opinion. That’s how I “get out of it.” But I’m not trying to get out of anything. I’m trying to understand it.
If you’re interested, you can see some blog posts that I’ve written on violence. You can just type, “violence” in the search bar or in an earlier chapter in The Bible Tells Me So, I deal with biblical violence as I understand it. It’s the number one question I get from young people today. That and human sexuality. Those are the things that they really want to talk about.
Another thing about this prose narrative section. The Israelites see the Egyptians coming and they grumble and they complain. Basically, “we could have died just as easily in Egypt, Moses. Why bring us all the way out here to just trap us at the sea?”
Then Moses says something interesting that I think is often misunderstood, which is why I want to bring it up. He basically says, “Don’t be afraid. After today, you’ll never see these Egyptians again.” I’m quoting verse 14 of Chapter 14. “The Lord will fight for you. You only have to keep still.” That’s not a soothing word. It’s typically interpreted, “There, there. Just calm your hearts. God will take care of everything. Just be still and know that I am God,” as we read in the Psalms. “The Lord will fight for you, but just chill.”
I don’t think that’s at all what Moses is saying in this story. This is a rebuke. “The Lord will fight for you. You need to keep your mouth shut. You need to stop complaining.” This is the first of many rebukes of Moses that we’re going to see toward the Israelites in Moses’ lifetime. This is the real beginning of this grumbling theme that we’re going to see a lot of.
He’s not making them feel calmed about this. He’s just saying, “Just shut up. You’ve seen plagues, the Red Sea open, for heaven’s sake, and you’re still complaining. Come on.”
Another thing. This concerns the actual parting of the Red Sea. This is in verse 21. The Red Sea is really the Sea of Reeds. That’s what it says in Hebrew. Where the Sea of Reeds is a topic of a lot of discussion among people who look for these sorts of things. Is it a lake? Is it a marsh or something like that? But the reason why we say Red Sea in our English translations is that this has to do with influence of Greek translators of the Bible before the time of Jesus.
There was a little bit of confusion about what body of water was actually represented by this term “red sea.” If you look at a map today of the modern Middle East and where it says “Red Sea,” it’s this massive body of water, that’s not what anybody meant. It’s hard to know exactly what they meant, when they said “Red Sea” back in this Greek period.
In the biblical text, the Hebrew text, it says, “Sea of Reeds,” but again, we don’t know where that is either. All that to the side. The parting of the Red Sea echoes the creation story. This is the theological point I want to make. Moses stretched out his hand with the staff, and an East wind divided the waters of the Red Sea and they parted.
Now wind—the Hebrew word is “ruach,” which means “spirit” or “wind” and that’s the same “ruach” of Genesis 1 that is hovering over the “deep.” What’s the “deep?” The deep is the primordial sea at the dawn of creation that God has to tame, that God has to put in its place to allow for life to appear. The wind drives back water giving life. That’s the same in both the Genesis creation story of Genesis Chapter 1 and this parting of the sea here in Exodus.
The wind, “it turned the sea to dry land”—I’m quoting here. “And the waters were divided.” It’s better to think of the waters as not maybe divided, although that’s fine, but as pushed back, pushed out of the way, revealing the dry land beneath, which is also the language in Genesis Chapter 1. The third day of creation, it’s the same thing. The waters were divided, revealing the dry land beneath.
In both stories, waters are separated, pushed aside, revealing what was there all the time: dry land. In other words—this is getting into Genesis 1 a little bit more than you’re paying for here—in Genesis 1, this is why it’s not creation out of nothing. What you have is a “deep,” a massive chaotic water that God divides and splits, revealing the dry land, i.e., the earth beneath it. Those things were already there in Genesis Chapter 1.
Actually, Genesis Chapter 1 makes no sense unless we understand the ideology of the ancient Israelites here and how they thought about what a creator god does. It’s not out of nothing. That comes later. It’s in the Bible. It’s just not here.
Think of taking a leaf blower to a big puddle on a sidewalk after a heavy rain. The water is pushed aside by the wind, by the force of the leaf blower, and the sidewalk is revealed, that’s always been there underneath. That’s what’s happening in Genesis 1 and in Exodus 14 in the parting of the sea.
Now the point—we touched about this is a couple of earlier episodes—the point is that God’s act of redemption, here crossing the Red Sea, is a replay of God’s act of creation, which is to say, redemption (saving, delivering, redeeming) is an act of re-creation. Hang with me.
As with the plagues, parting the sea is getting creation involved in saving God’s people and destroying the enemies of God’s people. In the flood, you have the waters of the upper atmosphere above the vault, above that dome, those waters are let go and they come crashing down to defeat the bad guys, which is basically everybody but Noah and his family.
That’s what’s happening too, here in the Exodus story in Chapter 14. These waters are again separated and just like the flood story, they come crashing back down again. But Israel, or Noah, are not affected negatively. They’re actually delivered through that. To save is to create again. We here echoes of that in the New Testament. I know I’ve mentioned this, but just very briefly I want to mention it again, because I think it’s so important theologically, in the New Testament we see echoes of this. For example, where Paul says, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.”
To be saved means to start anew and to use the language of John’s gospel, that you’re “born again.” You’re starting over. You have a new start. Which is certainly what is happening here at the Red Sea. Israel is being transformed, re-created from a group of slaves and now beginning to be formed into what it’s going to become, namely a nation.
Having said all that, it’s still a really violent story. Let’s not cover over that. But there are theological things happening there as well. Speaking of violence, let’s turn to Chapter 15 here, the poetic version of the Red Sea crossing.
For one thing—I alluded to this before—this may be one of the oldest pieces of Israelite literature we have, because of the Hebrew style. Scholars can tell where we are in stages of the evolution of biblical Hebrew.
Biblical scholars—this is routine. This is very early. This is not written during the monarchy, but probably going back to before the time of David. It could be that old, which is very old. Here’s the thing: this very, very old piece of ancient Hebrew literature depicts God as a fierce warrior. It’s not uncommon to hear scholars muse that Israel’s view of God began as one of being a warrior, understandably due to the cultural influences and then the view of God grew to include other metaphors like gardener, planter, potter, law-giver, things like that.
Warrior might become less prominent, less harsh, perhaps. God’s depiction might become less harsh. I don’t want to paint that in too simplistic a way, like there’s an evolution where God starts off as a warrior and ends as a tree-hugger. But we do have the earliest reflections of Israelite religion in these poetic sections. There, God is a fierce, no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners warrior.
You come later to the book of Jonah, where God says, “I actually have compassion on Israel’s enemies. I don’t want to kill them.”
Something is going on in this trajectory within the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament itself.
So this song praises Yahweh for destroying his enemies by drowning them in the sea. For that reason, Yahweh is praised as a god who has no equal, as we read in verse 11. “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?”
Catch that there.
“Among the gods.” We have here
one of many examples, and you’ve heard this before, in the Old Testament of
Israel’s belief that their god, Yahweh, was not the only god, but was the best
god, the one truly worthy of worship.
In fact, as I said before, that might be the point of the whole Pentateuch, to make the case that Yahweh alone is worthy of Israel’s worship. Israel does not practice—I have a whole blog post series probably and a podcast from way back in Season 1 talking about this—but Israel did not practice monotheism, at least through most of its history that we see in the Old Testament, but monolatry.
The difference is this: monotheism means there’s only one god. Monolatry means you only worship one, but you acknowledge the existence of others.
We saw this is the plague story. God is passing judgment on all the gods of Egypt. Exodus 12:12. What does that mean? Passing judgment on all the gods of Egypt? It means—there’s an assumption there that there are other gods that Yahweh is passing judgment on. If we miss this dynamic that Yahweh is better or the best by far of all the other gods or if we try to step around it because the theology bothers us a bit, we’re gonna miss the theology of the book.
Making the Israelites into monotheists here is premature. That happens later on in Israel’s history. I would say certainly by the time you get to Jesus and well before that, we can call the Israelites monotheists. Only one god exists.
The heavens might be active places, but they’re not gods. But here, that’s not the case. Making these Israelites here of Exodus into monotheists just creates confusion in the story. You can’t make sense of things like Exodus 12:12, where Yahweh says he’s passing judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I’ve beaten that dead horse enough.
Next point. This song that’s sung at the sea mentions something. It’s subtle. It mentions something that doesn’t happen until much later in the biblical story. Namely, I’m talking about verses 17 and 18.
Here’s how it begins: “You (Yahweh) brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your possession, the place, O Lord, that you made your abode.” What is this mountain of your possession? What is this about? Maybe, it’s talking about Mount Sinai, because that’s where they’re going. They’re not there yet, but nearly so. Give it a couple chapters. They’ll be there. Still in the past tense, though.
This raises another question. Could it be referring to another mountain and another abode all together? Hang in there. Keep reading. “The sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands have established.” The sanctuary. The holy place. What is that sanctuary? Could it be Sinai? Perhaps. It could be Mount Sinai. Or perhaps another sanctuary entirely.
Keep reading. Verse 18 says this: “The Lord will reign forever and ever.” From where? From the mountain? From the abode? From Mount Sinai? Probably not, since Yahweh will leave forever Sinai when he goes with the Israelites into the Promised Land. He doesn’t go back. Yahweh doesn’t show up on Mount Sinai again and say, “I live here really.” He’s going to live with Israel. Where is he going to live with Israel? In the temple.
In Old Testament theology, the language we see here fits very nicely with the ideology of the temple in Jerusalem as the sanctuary, the abode, the mountain. Mount Zion. The temple is on a mountain. Theology, Mount Zion takes the place of Mount Sinai in Israelite theology. It’s from there that Yahweh will rule. Through the kings, but forever and ever.
We see this language in various places in the Old Testament, including the Psalms and II Samuel 7. So what? Well, for one thing, this illusion to the temple suggests that this ancient poem, as in pre-David, may have been added to as time went on to reflect Israel’s growing theology. It’s developing theology. In other words, this ancient poem, Chapter 15, may have gotten its final shape after the Israelites were settled in the land with their own king and temple.
Note that (and I hope that your English translations get this because some don’t) the entire poem, all the stuff that talks about the Exodus and all the stuff that seems to be talking about the conquest of the land and entering it and building a temple where Yahweh’s going to be worshipped, all that stuff is in the past tense.
For this writer, both the Exodus and the establishment of the monarchy and the religious life of the people, those things are past events. I think that’s interesting because it suggests something, once again, of the dating or at least the general time frame of when this stuff was written or when this poem, when this song got its final form. Probably well into the monarchy, if not later.
Again, it’s interesting. Some translations put the second half of this poem that talks about the land and the temple as future to avoid this kind of conclusion, but I think that they’re wrong. I think the Hebrew really lends itself very naturally to just keep reading everything in the past tense. There is no indication that you should switch to future in Hebrew when you get to this part.
Another so what. Why am I dragging this out? I’m not dragging it out. I think it’s really interesting. Another so what.
This is a huge issue because scholars routinely, and I think correctly, see the temple on Mount Zion as a replacement for Mount Sinai. The temple mount replaces Mount Sinai. Or perhaps, as is more commonly thought among biblical scholars, maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe Sinai is the later Israelite temple brought back into ancient mythic time. How is that for a mouthful?
Which came first? The depiction of Mount Sinai as a sanctuary, as an abode, as a holy mountain and then the temple is modeled after that? Or is the temple there first and then the stories of Sinai are written in such a way to reflect that later glory of the temple? Which came first?
That’s a lot to wrap our arms around. That’s actually a few podcast episodes all by itself. I only bring it up here because it might help to explain the ambiguity of verses 17 and 18. You’re reading it, and what are we talking about? Sinai? Or Zion? That’s a good question. Maybe that ambiguity is intentional. Maybe they are both the same.
If you’re really motivated, I highly recommend a book by one of my professors, John Levinson, called Sinai and Zion. The book is those two mountains, comparing them and how they’re analogous to each other. It’s a fascinating book.
I should plug my own books, not somebody else’s. What’s wrong with me?
Okay, a lot more to this. Let’s move on to the second part, the journey to Sinai itself that begins at the end of 15 and goes through 19.
Here’s the big picture. After Moses’ song that we just went through, his sister Miriam and the women, they sing what looks like the same song and then they all head out to the dessert where they are immediately thirsty and wonder why no one thought ahead that this might be a problem. They are in the wilderness, for heaven’s sake.
They take a couple of drinks in a couple of special places. Then they receive the manna from heaven, the bread from heaven. Manna is the Hebrew word, “manna,” which means “what is it?” Because that’s what the Israelites said. I might say, “What the heck is this?” but I don’t think there is a Hebrew word for that. “What is this stuff that lands like dew on the ground? We’re supposed to eat it? Come again. What is this stuff?”
Next, after that, they get a miraculous supply of water from a rock just in time to ward off an attack from the Amalekites. Where did they come from? This is the first battle. Things are moving rather quickly here in this story.
Next, they keep moving. They’re going toward Mount Sinai. Next, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, shows up and he advises Moses to get help “herding the cats,” so to speak, judging the people, adjudicating differences, things like that.
You might be asking what Jethro’s doing there. Remember, he is where? He is from Midian. On the way to Sinai, we are close to Midian, it seems. That is—I touched on this in the first episode—Mount Sinai, in the logic of the story, seems to be in Midian, not in the Sinai Peninsula way south at Saint Catherine’s Monastery. Look on a study Bible map. It seems to be some place in Midian. That’s the logic of the story.
Finally, after three months, they reach Sinai and the people are consecrated by going through a cleansing ritual, because they’re going to need this powerful god who defeated the Egyptian pantheon and the army by all these signs and wonders.
That’s the gist of what’s happening in the end of 15 through 19.
Just a few highlights:
First, water and food are going to be a problem because we are in the wilderness. We actually see two miraculous supplies of water. The first is turning the bitter waters in Mara into sweet water. It happens to be that “Mara” in Hebrew means “bitterness.” This story is often seen by scholars as a story written to explain some phenomenon, in this case, why this location is called “bitterness,” of all the things to call a town. Why call it “bitterness?”
The story is written to explain that. We know of stories like this too. Where do things like sickness, death and evil come from? Pandora opened the box. Adam and Eve ate a piece of fruit. These are stories that are called etiological stories that seem to be written to explain why things are the way they are.
Why is the Grand Canyon so deep? Because Paul Bunyan and his ox had a wrestling match. It’s a story written, told to explain a phenomenon. That might be what’s happening with this site, “Mara,” calling it “bitterness.” This story of making the bitter water sweet by throwing a branch in there.
The second miraculous supply of water happens at a place called Rephidim. This is in chapter 17. The people grumble again, which makes sense, because they had gotten a drink at Mara and at another place called Elim, which is an oasis. But now, they left those places and they still need water. So they complain. Again, “Moses, what are you trying to do? Kill us?”
Moses is told by God to strike the rock to let water flow out of it which he does. Moses promptly gives the place two names: Massa and Meribah, which mean “test”—they’re testing God—and “quarrel.” Again, possibly stories to explain how locations got their names. Possibly.
Here’s the thing: water, for the Israelites, presented more of problem for them than food because in between these two water stories, the waters of Mara and the waters of Rephidim, in between these two stories, God gives them bread from heaven, the manna to eat. That manna is promised by God to come every morning dew, except on the Sabbath, so gather twice as much the day before.
Side issue: gathering bread on the Sabbath would be work and you don’t do work on the Sabbath even though there’s no Sabbath command given until Chapter 20. I just wonder, in the logic of the story, were the people thinking, “What’s a—what do you mean Sabbath? Where did that come from?” Or are we seeing, again, the story written from a later point of view where Sabbath-keeping was already a thing.
Questions that are really hard to answer definitively, but I’m intrigued enough to ask them because they let us in a little bit on the nature of this literature.
The manna is a daily gift from God for the entire 40 years they wandered in the wilderness. It doesn’t cease until they come to the borders of Canaan. We read that in 16:35. It’s also stated in Joshua Chapter 5. In other words, it ceases after they’ve entered the land. They have bread to eat for 40 years. Great!
No such permanent supply of water is given in this story. They’re left to wander, maybe stress out about all that. Not to get off the track, but again, this is so intriguing again to me. This is the kind of stuff that reading Exodus jumps out at me as I read it.
We see a close version of this very same story of getting water from a rock in Numbers Chapter 20. That’s toward the end of Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness. There, too, water comes from a rock. Ancient Jewish interpreters—this is before the time of the New Testament—perhaps also wondering why there was no daily provision of water, came up with a rather ingenious solution. The rock of Exodus 17 that gave water and the rock of Numbers 20 that gave water, though they’re separated by 40 years and located in completely different places, were one in the same rock, which had apparently rolled around the wilderness for 40 years supplying water, like a portable water fountain.
One reason I find that so fascinating is because Paul, our very own Paul, in I Corinthians, seems to be aware of this rather creative explanation and even drops it into Chapter 10, verse 4 of I Corinthians. He recalls this episode of the Israelites in the wilderness and he talks about how the rock back in Moses’ day was Christ. Paul is trying to say that Christ’s presence was with them too. A very Paul thing to say. A very New Testament thing to say.
Note that Paul doesn’t just say the rock was Christ making a Christological connection. He says “the rock that followed them,” followed the Israelites was Christ. Followed. He got that idea from somewhere. He got it from his Jewish tradition.
I know we’re just biting off a big chunk off to the side here. If you’re interested, I talk more about this in the Bible Tells Me So. Sorry for the deviation, but I just love looking at how Jewish the New Testament writers were when they used their Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament. It’s actually this story, specifically, that started me down a different path over 30 years ago, about thinking about how the Bible actually works and what it is and how we read it.
One more comment on the manna. Let’s pause there for one more second. We’re told that they’re to gather an omer of manna per day, two omers on the day before the Sabbath so you can eat for two days.
An omer is a unit of measurement. It’s about one to two liters. Frankly, that’s no help to me because I’m American and my phone app says that a cubic liter is about a half dry gallon. My point is that Exodus 16:36 seems like it needs to explain what an omer is. Because this is what Exodus 16:36 says. It says, “An omer is a tenth of an ephah.” An ephah is about 23 liters or somewhere between five to six gallons.
Could I pick a more boring verse to mention? I don’t think so. Not for me anyway. An omer is a measurement known to us only from this story. The ephah is the more common measurement in the Old Testament used over 30 times. We’re seeing here, again, a clue about when this story was written. It seems the story of omers of manna being gathered preserves something of the past, maybe the deep past from the point of view of the later biblical writer.
He needed to explain what that was to his readers, who lived at a time when ephah was the measurement used. In other words, we’re seeing here in this little editorial comment a hint of how these biblical stories have a history. Maybe they’ve developed and they’ve evolved and things needed to be added as things were handed down. It’s like us reading in the New Testament—maybe you’ve come across this—we have footnotes that explain a denarius, a unit of coinage. A denarius is about a day’s wage. That’s what my study Bible says.
Today, a day’s wage—I actually Googled this—an average laborer’s day’s wage today is $14.57 an hour which is $116.56 cents a day. It actually helps to know that a little bit. A denarius is about a day’s wage. What was a day’s wage? What would it be for us? It helps us to put it into context. Because simply to say denarius—what do I care? I don’t even know what that means. Oh, it’s about what a worker makes in a day. $15 an hour. $120. Okay. I get it.
So much for food and water.
Another point. This Israelites right away find themselves in a battle against the Amalekites. This is in Chapter 17, verses 8 to 16. For one thing, it’s worth asking whence the Israelites got their weapons. Exodus does say earlier in the story that they left Egypt with plunder, likes clothes and valuables. It’s really unlikely that the Egyptians would have decked them out in military gear. I don’t think I’m crazy for suggesting that.
One explanation for where they got their armor and their swords and their shields from—one explanation that ancient Jewish interpreters came up with is that the Israelites stripped the armor and the weapons off of the Egyptian soldiers whose dead bodies washed up on the shore of the Sea of Reeds.
That actually makes some sense if you think about it. It’s worth noting that the story itself doesn’t seem at all concerned about with filling in this logical gap. I don’t think the writer actually cared very much.
I also think that a story about an Amalekite battle here might be for the purpose of giving the later reader something to chew on seeing that the Amalekites were enemies during the times of David and Saul, in their attempts to unify Israel around a monarchy.
I’m willing to think more about that, to entertain that possibility. I have a feeling that this may be more complicated than what we’ve seen before, reading Israel’s later history back into an earlier time. The Amalekites have been around for a long time. I don’t think this is a made-up thing. But there may be something more to it than what I’m seeing. Again, we do see this sort of thing elsewhere, where a writer places something of his present back in the past. In other words, I don’t know, but it is curious that the first thing that happens when they come into the land is that they have a battle with the Amalekites. It’s not just that they have a battle, however we explain that, the story also serves a purpose of a couple things: 1) introducing Joshua as Moses’ general and he plays a huge role later on in the conquest of Canaan. I see this as a bridge between the Egypt experience and then the later experience in Canaan. We have here Joshua teaming up with Moses, so-to-speak, bringing an end to an enemy. Joshua is going to be that bridge for the people between the Egypt experience and then later, the conquest of Canaan.
Let me elaborate on that a little bit more. Again, I think it’s important. We have to look at how they win the battle at all, this whole deal of how they win the battle. Moses climbs a hill and he stands there with his arms raised. You know this story. I’ve heard many sermons on this. As long as his arms are up, the Israelites are winning. When they drop down, they begin to lose. So brother Aaron and some guy named Hur, who will appear later in this story, they see what’s happening. They rush over to help Moses. They have him sit down on a rock and they prop up his arms with rocks. By sunset, the Amalekites were defeated.
Frankly, folks, that’s a little bit weird. Some commentaries say that this seems somewhat magical almost. One way of looking at this is that Moses was holding his staff in his raised arms. It’s not mentioned, so I want to be very cautious about that. When we’re thinking about that, he’s holding his staff in his raised arms. That’s why his arms are raised. He has a staff.
In other words, this is another Egypt-like miracle which makes some sense since the Amalekites are playing an Egypt-like role in trying to squash the Israelites, even when their god was with them and had other plans.
The power that delivered them from Pharaoh will also now deliver them from the Amalekites, who would also be the god who delivers them from the Canaanites. Joshua and Moses are in this Amalekite episode. It’s just Moses in Egypt. It’s just Joshua in Canaan. But here, the two are together. It’s like a continuation of the promise that the warrior god will continue being with them in fighting battles.
“Moses isn’t here. That’s okay. Joshua is. He was with Moses before. They’re tight. So it will be good.”
It’s still weird. This whole battle depends on Moses not getting tired. The best explanation that I come up with is what I just said. I think this is an extended Egypt-like experience where the staff comes into play and as a result, the sign and the wonder is done. It’s a better explanation. It’s the one that I go with. It’s better, in any case, than some more common explanations like Moses’ arms were raised in prayer to God. There’s nothing in the context that hints at that at all. Or a popular Christian explanation is that Moses’ arms were raised like Jesus’ arms were raised on the cross.
On one level, I think that’s fine. It’s well-attested in church history. It’s fine for Christians to bring these stories and Jesus together like this. But that doesn’t really help me what the writer here is trying to communicate. I don’t think he’s saying, “Let’s slip something in here about Jesus.” It means something to them. Again, as I said, perhaps this is an extension or continuation of Exodus power at this moment.
But it’s still one of the weirder episodes in Exodus, along with God almost killing Moses right after he had told him to go to Egypt and deliver the Israelites, back in Chapter 4. These are just weird things that happen in Exodus.
Another point here in this second big section on the way to Sinai, just a quick comment on Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. Moses and the Israelites are close to Sinai in Midian. Jethro comes out to meet them with Moses’ wife and two sons. This is in 18:6. They had been staying apparently with Joseph (I THINK YOU MEAN JETHRO) while Moses was busy at work.
Early in Chapter 4, we hear of just one son, Gershom. Now, we see he has a second son, Eliezer. Fine. Not a big deal. Just didn’t mention Eliezer. Who cares? But there is actually a bigger problem here.
According to Exodus 4:20 in that story where God almost kills Moses, we read there that Moses’ wife, Zipporah, and their one son were with Moses on his way to Egypt. That’s when the angel of the Lord almost attacks them and kills Moses. They weren’t with Jethro in Midian. They were with Moses on the way to Egypt.
It seems here in this boring little detail that we’re seeing evidence of multiple traditions of the Exodus story that were respected enough to be woven together in the making of this book we have before us today. As is usually the case, the fact that the traditions don’t line up with each other doesn’t seem to bother the editor at all. I want to suggest it shouldn’t bother us. It should be a window to helping us understand the nature of this literature.
Here’s Moses. He tells Jethro all that had happened in Egypt, which is a nice development in their relationship. You remember when he left Jethro, Moses couldn’t quite bring himself to tell Jethro the truth of why he was leaving, which is to say, “God told me to leave to deliver the Israelites.”
Moses just mumbled something about needing to see how his kindred were doing. “I’ve got to check in on my family” (4:18). Now Moses puts it out there. He’s just got this feeling of confidence. He puts it out there like a son-in-law who earned his stripes and now, his father-in-law can be proud of him. By the way, I have a son-in-law and was a son-in-law myself. I get this. Anybody who’s lived this can understand.
It’s like they’ve reached a new stage in their relationship where shy and unconfident Moses feels like, “Sure. I stared down Pharaoh. I stood there and watched the sea split in half. I think I can handle Jethro.” “Hey Jethro. Let me tell you what’s been going on.”
How does Jethro react? He’s blown away enough to confess Yahweh as greater than all the gods. Again, another monolatry thing.
Not so fast Moses. Right after that, Moses, we read, is burned out from judging disputes between the Israelites who apparently form a line outside his door from morning to night. Jethro sees what’s going on. Maybe this is actually too much for Moses. He tells him, “Well, looks like you could use some help there, Pal? You should get some able men to help you divide the tasks and leave you to handle only the most important ones. Not feeling so big now, are you Moses?”
I’m not sure if that family dynamic is central to this episode. I know some friends of mine who think this story is a prooftext for how God ordained Presbyterian church government. You have a head pastor surrounded by his male elders. Maybe.
Maybe the biggest point of this story is that this bureaucracy of Israel is the brainchild of a non-Israelite, a priest of Midian, Jethro. Israel seems to owe a lot to Midian. After all, that’s where God’s mountain is. There’s something about Midian that’s important for the origin of the Israelites religion.
Scholars have long wondered whether the origin of Israel’s religion, which historically is a very complicated thing and very mysterious thing, might owe something to Midian in the deep south, with respect to where Israel is, alongside of other stories that the Israelites preserved. Liked our ancestor Jacob was a wondering Aramean. This is more in the north. You can see this in Deuteronomy 26:6. Or if they were from the far east in the land of Babylon. That’s where Abraham is from. Or as we read here in this story, some connection historically, some rootage in the land of Egypt.
This story of
Israel in the Old Testament seems to suggest that Israelites have various
points of ancestry and that were later united under Yahweh’s banner. Maybe.
I think that’s true. To me, that
explanation makes the most sense.
In this story, the only point is that Midian is very prominent in this ancient telling of the story of the departure from Egypt.
Moving toward the end here.
They all reach Sinai three months to the day after they left Egypt. Two things strike me. First, even those God rules all the earth, as we read, Israel is God’s special possession and their role will be to be a—this is in verse 6 of Chapter 19—their role will be to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. I think this is huge.
This means that Israel’s purpose, already here in the story, is to be priestly, to mediate between God and who? The nations. Feel free to think back to the story of Abraham in Chapter 12 where Abraham is called. Abraham will have an influence on the nations themselves.
Here you have it. You’re to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. That’s why you’re here. That was the plan anyway. They were rescued from Egypt, not to go free, but to become holy, which means “set apart for special purposes.” It’s not about moral perfection. To act as priests mediating God to the nations around them. A priestly kingdom and a holy nation. Those aren’t two separate things. They’re actually two parts of one role.
That’s why it’s so tragic in Israel’s story as we read on in the Old Testament. Rather than mediating God to the nations, Israel, through its kings, winds up becoming a problem that God needs to solve somehow. In some cases, He doesn’t solve it at all. The northern tribes, the northern kingdom go to Assyria and never come back. The southern tribe of Judah goes into exile in Babylon and comes back and has to rebuild, but never really does.
This plan to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation doesn’t work out very well. But that was the plan.
Another point here. It seems that no one is to touch the mountain itself. “Keep your distance.” In fact, they’re to wash their clothes and to abstain from sex to prepare to meet God. At a distance.
Now Moses, of course, may go up the mountain. He can go to the top, but only he. The holiness of the mountain must be protected. I only mention this here because a little later in the story, in fact, I mention it in the next episode of this podcast series, we will see more clearly how the holy mountain is marked off in segments, three to be specific, which reminds us of the Tabernacle, which is also the model for the temple later on during the time of the monarchy.
Hanging around the outside of the sanctuary at a distance is fine. Say the temple. Only priests can enter the next stage, the holy place. But into the holy of holies, the third stage, only one may enter: the high priest.
Moses here on Mount Sinai is like a high priest entering God’s most sacred presence. You may remember that Chapter 6 which is sort of a boring chapter because there is a genealogy in it, but it makes a big deal of letting you know that Moses and Aaron are from the tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe. Here, we’re beginning to see why.
We also see here what is glimpsed earlier in the song of Moses in Chapter 15, that the temple and Sinai are closely connected. To speak of one is to speak virtually of the other. Both are marked off in segments of approachability.
In Chapter 19, Moses is spending some time hearing from God on the top of Mount Sinai. He is about to come down and tell the people what he heard and what God wants from them and what God is going to do for them. But that is the topic of the next episode, where we look at the section of law in the book of Exodus.
All right folks, thanks again for listening to another episode here of the Exodus series. I appreciate you listening and pressing download and all that stuff again. Just a quick reminder, the “pay what you want class” discussing Genesis is September 23. Also, I’ll be at Evolving Faith October 4 and 5 in Denver, CO. Tickets are still available. I hope you can make it.
All right folks, thanks so much for listening. See you next time.