Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Episode 125- Big Ideas that Shaped Biblical Scholarship: Julius Wellhausen and the Pentateuch

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete discusses the legacy of Julius Wellhausen in biblical scholarship as he explores the following questions:

  • Who is Julius Wellhausen and why was he so controversial?
  • When did Wellhausen date the Law of Moses?
  • What is the difference between the Law of Moses and the Pentateuch?
  • What evidence did Wellhausen use to support his dating? 
  • What did scholars notice that caused them to question the historicity of some of the Bible’s claims?
  • What is the documentary hypothesis? 
  • Who is Jean Astruc and why is he important?
  • What idea of Astruc’s is still influential to biblical studies today?
  • Why do our Bibles say LORD in stead of the divine name?
  • What is the significance of Israel’s worship location in the dating the Pentateuch?
  • Why did the priestly source write about the tabernacle?
  • What are some characteristics of the J, E, P, and D sources?


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Pete you can share. 

  • “It’s quite revealing to see how little a presence the detailed regulations of the Law of Moses has [in the prophets and book about Israel’s monarchy].” @peteenns
  • “Jeremiah says that God never said what the Law of Moses said He said, and that’s at least worth thinking about.” @peteenns
  • “Wellhausen and others read the Bible carefully and they saw inconsistencies.” @peteenns
  • “It just strains credulity that this divinely commanded system for worship would have no controlling function for Israel’s worship when they settled in the land.” @peteenns
  • “There probably was no Tabernacle, at least not one as elaborate, with a fully functioning and highly organized system as the one we read about in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.” @peteenns
  • “The way the priestly editors present the story in the Bible by putting their stuff at the beginning, actually obscures Israel’s actual history.” @peteenns

Mentioned in This Episode

Recommendations for Further Reading

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Read the transcript



Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty Intro Music]

Pete: Hello everyone, welcome to this episode of The Bible for Normal People. Well, you know there certainly are a lot of important things happening in our world at the moment and you know, things far more important than a podcast episode, but I want to thank you for listening. You know, we’re all carrying on as we’re isolating and that goes for me and everybody else, so, here we are. Right, well, let’s get started.  

As you know, we’re committed to bringing other people’s big ideas to you, and especially the best of biblical scholarship down to earth for normal people, which brings me to today’s podcast. Today’s topic is a little different from others, but it’s something that we’ve been thinking about for a while. Now, you may have noticed that all of our guests thus far, over four seasons, have something in common. They’re all present voices. Well, beginning today and wherever else I might, in the months and years to come, feel like it, I’d like to switch gears and talk about voices from the past. So, you know, biblical scholarship has had a rich history with towering figures with big ideas who have asked perceptive questions about the Bible and given answers that have, you know, influenced generations of scholars, even shaped and redirected the entire discipline. Figures that our academic guests are familiar with, but that many normal people have never really heard of, so let’s fix that shall we? Yes, let’s do that. 

Our first guest from the past is a good one to start with because he is, without question, the most influential, and probably controversial, and in some circles demonized Old Testament scholar of the modern period. His name is Julius Wellhausen and he was born in 1844 and he died in 1918, the year of the flu pandemic by the way, not to bring that up. He also lived in an era, the late 19th to early 20th centuries where other controversial, big ideas were challenging conventional thinking. You know this is the same era roughly as Charles Darwin who forced a conversation about human origins that’s still with us today or Sigmund Freud who said most of our actions are not under our rational control but directed by the subconscious. And no need to mention people like Albert Einstein and Karl Marx. Profound shifts in knowledge were happening all over the place and Wellhausen fit right into the spirit of the time. He also turned things upside down in the field of biblical studies and specifically what he did was he flipped the history of Israel on its head. What was thought to be first is actually last and fleshing that highly influential idea out is the topic of this podcast. 

So, what did he do? Well, in 1898, he wrote this long book Prolegomena to the History of Israel. It always starts with somebody writing a book. We’ll come back to the title later, because it’s revealing, but for now it’s enough to know that it’s six hundred pages long and really detailed, because he’s German, but thankfully, in literally the first two sentences he tells you exactly where all of this is going and I just want to paraphrase. See, his focus is on the law of Moses, the law that Moses received from God on Mount Sinai, right? That stuff that’s found in Exodus and Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy. So, here’s what he said, here’s how he flipped the history of Israel around. The law of Moses isn’t from Moses, rather it came from a much later time. Hundreds of years after Moses. Okay, that’s crazy. You know, what kind of a nutso theory is that? Has he never read the Bible? Well, he did, and his six-hundred-page book is the results of what he found. See, he argues – this is the thing – he argues that the biblical evidence itself drives him to his conclusion. Well, how can that be? We all know, don’t we, just from reading the Old Testament that Moses received the law from God on Mount Sinai early on in the story. Halfway through the second book, the second of thirty-nine Old Testament books in the Book of Exodus, and then continuing through the third book, Leviticus, most of the fourth book, Numbers, and then at the end of Moses life, in the fifth book, we have Deuteronomy where Moses just sort of reiterates what he received years earlier.


By the way, those four books plus the first one, Genesis, together are called the Pentateuch. Not everyone is familiar with that term, so that’s what it is, the Pentateuch, which means Five Scrolls or Five Books. In Judaism it’s called Torah, which means something like instruction or teaching, and sometimes those five books are simply called the Law even though there’s more than law in it, or the Law of Moses. I just bring that up in part because I use the word Pentateuch all the way through, but when Wellhausen says Law of Moses, what he means isn’t the whole Pentateuch, he means the laws, specifically the laws given at Mount Sinai, the actual laws found in the Pentateuch. Again, I just say that in case all these terms might get confusing. I’m using Law of Moses in Wellhausen sense, to mean those laws given on Mount Sinai which begins in the Book of Exodus. Alright? 

Any who, the Law of Moses is frontloaded in the Bible. We all notice that, you know, over four of the first five books. And it’s clearly a big deal because it’s, it’s the foundation of Israel’s entire story. I mean, what could be more obvious? But, ya know, Wellhausen, this is his thing, he saw it differently. He said, you know sure, on the surface, okay, that’s how the story goes, but if you paid close attention to the details, because he’s German, it’s pretty clear that the Law of Moses is late. How late? Well, pretty darn late. Specifically, from at least the time of the Babylonian exile, which lasted from 586 to 539 BCE, if not later. Now, the time of Moses, depending on whom you ask, was somewhere between the 15th and 13th centuries, so if you’re doing the math, that means the Law of Moses, according to Wellhausen, did not appear until at least 700 years after Moses. And so, we can see why Wellhausen’s idea might have caused some problems.   

Okay, to sum up the Law of Moses, it’s not chronologically first in Israel’s history, but basically last. It’s not the foundation for Israel’s history, but a later development, and not a very positive one for Wellhausen, we’ll come back to that a little bit later. But, you know, if Wellhausen is right, if the law is late, he just flipped the main storyline of the Bible front to back. It’s like saying the Declaration of Independence doesn’t stem from the 18th century but was written much later in the 20th century after the Vietnam War, that would take some getting used to. 

Okay, so that’s the gist. Now, it sounds weird, I know, and I said he’s the most influential Old Testament scholar of the modern period, because he is, but I didn’t say that everyone agreed with him. I didn’t say he was right about everything. But I am saying this big idea shifted the field of biblical scholarship, and no scholar since, including today, who deals with the Pentateuch has been able to simply ignore him, because his work has stood the test of time pretty well. Not all of it, there are some problems, but the main idea. You know, I’ve heard it said, I was in graduate school and the professor said that the modern study of the Old Testament since Wellhausen is basically, simply, footnoting Wellhausen. And that’s an exaggeration, but you know, think about it, you still have to be a pretty big deal to get an exaggeration like that. So, Wellhausen was something. 

Anyway, what exactly is the biblical evidence that the biblical storyline is wrong, which is Wellhausen’s point. And that’s exactly what the six hundred pages are for, but let me give you just two relatively brief concrete examples that I think will help us get a sense of why he thinks the Law of Moses was late. Okay?  

Well the first, is from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived right around the beginning of the Babylonian exile, around 600-ish BCE and he was not a popular figure. He found himself butting heads with the people and the leaders. The Babylonians were coming, and it was assumed the sacrifices that they made would appease God and keep the Babylonians off their backs. Spoiler alert – it didn’t. See, Jeremiah really leans into this idea that gee, sacrifices should just appease God.  


And in chapter 7, in verses 21 – 23, Jeremiah says something you can’t pass over, and he’s a little sarcastic too. This is what he says, he goes, “Thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices, eat the flesh,” it’s like ‘go ahead, knock yourselves out, it’s not going to make a hill of beans worth of difference.’ Then he continues, “for in the day that I,”… this is, you know, the prophet speaking for God, right, so he uses ‘I’, so this is technically God speaking, “for in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt,” right? That’s the time of Moses, right? “For in the day I brought your ancestors out of the Land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Hmm. “But this command I gave them, obey my voice and I will be your God and you shall be my people. And walk only in the way that I command you so that it may be well with you.” 

Hmm. You hear that? See, whatever those commands were that they were supposed to obey, they apparently didn’t include commands about sacrifices and offerings, which God says through Jeremiah, “I never commanded.” Which is hard to accept if you’ve read the story of Moses. And yet, incidentally, I mean, not to dwell on this, but if you have the Bible on your computer with a search engine and maybe a couple of hours on your hands, type in words like ‘law’ or ‘Moses’ or ‘Law of Moses’ and see where they occur in the books of the prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and all that kind of stuff and the books that cover Israel’s monarchy, mainly 1 and 2 Kings. They don’t occur nearly as often as you might think. See, even without this passage in Jeremiah, it’s quite revealing to see how little a presence the detailed regulations of the Law of Moses has in these books. There are implications to that, we’ll get to it in a minute. And even when we see a phrase like Law of Moses or something similar, it’s either in books written later or maybe around or after the exile or the phrase in context Law of Moses clearly doesn’t refer to the whole Law of Moses, but part of it. Namely Deuteronomy or maybe even just some early version of Deuteronomy. Now listen, I know that’s a lot and maybe that’s more detailed than necessary, so, just listen, the bottom line – Jeremiah says that God never said what the Law of Moses said He said, and that’s at least worth thinking about.  

Another example comes from the book of Exodus, chapter 20. Here God gives the Israelites instructions on how to build an altar for offering sacrifices. You know, they’re sort of being prepped to enter the Promised Land, so here is the blueprint. They are to build it out of earth or stone, and if stone, for some reason, they weren’t to use any tools. Okay, so what? Exodus 20:24 is the key. After telling them all this stuff about building an altar out of earth or stone, but not using tools if you’re going to build it out of stone, after all that, God says, “in every place where I cause my name to be remembered, I will come to you and bless you.” In every place, which means multiple places. Hence, multiple places for building altars for sacrificing. And wherever God’s name is remembered, basically means honored like this, God will show up and bless them.  

Alright, Pete, you’re boring me. What’s the big deal? Here’s the big deal, this command in Exodus 20, given by God through Moses, runs up against later commands likewise given by God through Moses where sacrifice is restricted to one central place, namely Jerusalem. And the classic passage in the Pentateuch to see this is Deuteronomy chapter 12 where Moses says to the Israelites, “you shall not worship the Lord your God in such ways,” meaning like Canaanite ways, where there are altars all over the place, “but you shall seek the place out of all your tribes as His habitation to put his name there.” In Deuteronomy that’s all code for Jerusalem. 


You shall go there, bringing there your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes, and your donations, your votive offerings, your free will offerings, the firstborn of your herds and flocks, etc., etc. And that’s Deuteronomy 12, that’s verses 4 to 6 if you’d want to look at it later.

Okay. So, why would God give two commands to Moses? One saying I will bless you wherever you sacrifice, and the other restricting sacrifice to a central location? That’s a good question, and my point here is just that Wellhausen noticed things like this, like inconsistencies, contradictions, the presence of different voices in the Bible, and he treated those moments not, maybe the way we might be tempted to. He didn’t treat them as problems, but as clues, clues to a mystery. They revealed something under the surface about how the Bible came to be.  

Now, I realize that this is a lot to take in, especially in a podcast where you might be driving or working out in your basement gym. So, to bring this down to earth, let me just give a hypothetical but entirely plausible example from my always exciting life as a college professor. Imagine a college student in a Bible class who hands in a twenty-page paper that he says he wrote. Okay? I’m always suspicious about that, but he says he wrote it. So, you read it carefully and you notice, in this paragraph he speaks in the first person, he says I, and then for a few lines he switches to the second person, you, and then back to first person. He does that later too. Okay, maybe he’s a lousy writer and doesn’t know how English works, but just something seems off. Did someone help him? Here’s my theory, maybe his smart friend did research for him and she kept writing you addressing him, and he’s a bit of a dolt, and just forgot to change the you’s to I’s, if you follow me. Anyway, you’re not sure, so you keep reading and you get to a part where he refers to David as the greatest king, but a paragraph or two later, he calls David an abysmal king, only to switch back a page later to David was the best. And then you notice, because you’re reading carefully, that the David is great parts, they line up really nicely with the first-person parts. And the David is abysmal parts, they line up with the second-person parts really nicely. Hmm. I’m sorry, something is going on.  

And then a few pages later, you’re greeted later with a sentence you just know that he didn’t write. I mean, up to this point, he seems semi-literate. “The temple was a big building, and it was beautiful. It was in Jerusalem. I think the temple is way important and I think everyone should know more about the temple.” Okay. But the next sentence goes like this. “It goes without saying, of course, that the socio-culture milieu of Israelite temple architecture, to which we have already referred, is hidden behind the dark veil of antiquity, and yet the influence of Phoenician and Canaanite exemplars cannot be ruled out.” Alright, listen, this isn’t Agatha Christie, it’s pretty obvious this student did something weird, some pointing and clicking and cutting and pasting. So, now you’re on the alert. See, no way, no how, was this paper the creation of one person. He clearly edited together, badly, information from multiple sources, let’s call them, at least two, his friend and the internet, and not including himself. And these sources are signaled to me the reader, or to you the reader, by these abrupt changes in style and contradictions and inconsistencies.  

Now, of course, that’s just an analogy. The Pentateuch is frankly a beautiful piece of literature. It’s much longer and more complicated and far better written than a half-hearted college paper, but the analogy still basically holds. See, Wellhausen and others read the bible carefully and they saw inconsistencies.  


Tensions that jumped out at them and they wanted to explain them and the explanation at the time, was that the Pentateuch, as we have it in front of us, must have come from earlier independent sources. Now that explanation is called the documentary hypothesis. The hypothesis, it’s not proven, but the hypothesis that the Pentateuch was made up of previously existing documents, four to be exact, and those four documents were different versions of the same stories that an editor stitched together. And when you stitch things together, it leaves traces, what scholars call seams. You know, the unevenness, inconsistencies, contradictions, and some awkward transitions.  

You know, I can’t help but think about the kitchen counter we had installed a few years ago. They had to do it in two pieces, and they did an amazing job of connecting the two, but the seam is there. All you have to do is run your fingers over the countertop and you know exactly where the seam is. Seams stand out. You can’t hide seams. So anyway, the student paper had seams, and so does the Pentateuch. Even though it’s incomparable to a student paper in terms of its value and its literary quality, it still has a lot of seams. And so, the documentary hypothesis is proposed by Wellhausen as an explanation for why the Pentateuch has these rough spots.  

Alright, I just mentioned four sources and I just sort of dumped that on you, but I need to explain that just a little bit. Wellhausen did not come up with this idea; it was actually about a hundred years old by the time Wellhausen got a hold of it. The first person who came up with the idea, that there were these sources that make up the Pentateuch, is a rather unlikely figure, he’s a Frenchman by the name of Jean Astruc who died in 1766. Now, Astruc, he was, listen to this guy, he was a French professor of medicine and a physician to Louis XV, and I think, ya know, a busy guy by most people’s standards. But he apparently had enough spare time to more or less invent modern Biblical scholarship without even knowing it. See, he wasn’t a biblical scholar, but he knew Hebrew, of course he did, it was the old days, who didn’t know Hebrew? And he noticed that Genesis chapter 1 and chapter 2, right, the seven days of creation, that’s chapter 1, and the creation of Adam, that’s chapter 2. He said these are two very different creation stories. For a lot of reasons, but one difference that really grabbed him was the different names they used for God. In Genesis 1, it’s simply God, Elohim in Hebrew, begins with the letter E. In the Adam story, God’s personal name is used, Yahweh. Which I’m sure many of you have heard that name Yahweh before, but just a little sidebar and you may thank me. Don’t go looking for that name, Yahweh, in the Bible. You won’t find it anywhere because it’s always written as Lord, specifically where the Lord, the ‘o-r-d’ are in small capital letters. Okay, so why do our Bibles say Lord instead of Yahweh? Well, this follows Jewish tradition for showing reverence for the divine name, so much so that you don’t utter it. And to be safe, just hide it, just say Lord. 

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So, if you want to know the details, Google is your friend, but if I may add a little comment here, you know, especially for people who are learning about the Bible, like college students for example. You know, I really respect the reverent reasons for doing this, for using Lord instead of Yahweh, but it’s sort of a shame that when the Bible uses God’s personal name, all we see is a title, Lord, and we lose something. I think God becomes a bit detached and distant. I feel a big difference between “the Lord is my shepherd” and “Yahweh is my shepherd.” Maybe that’s another podcast, but anyway, the Elohim/Yahweh thing in Genesis 1 and 2 isn’t exactly a cliffhanger, it’s right there and people have noticed. And, by the way, if you want to see that first appears in Genesis 2:4. But you see, here’s what Astruc did that kicked off modern Biblical studies, he didn’t just notice this stuff, he offered an explanation for why they are different. Why do we even have this situation? Sort of like questions we might ask of that student paper. Why does it look like this? Well, long story short, Astruc theorized, and with this, modern biblical scholarship is born, that these two very different stories that use different names for God, that are sitting right here in Genesis, two creation stories right next to each other. He said they were originally two separate documents written by different, anonymous people at some point or points in the past. Moses didn’t write either one, but he played the role of editor, tying them together and in doing so he left a seam, the change in God’s name from chapter one to chapter two. 

 Now, Astruc called the first hypothetical document, the one that uses Elohim, that’s in Genesis 1, he called that A. And the second in Genesis 2 that uses Yahweh, he called, wait for it, B. Not the most creative effort, but it is what it is. See that’s Astruc’s big idea. But yeah, he had some doubts about it. He wasn’t a biblical scholar. Not terribly confident he was right, so he didn’t really try to publish it, but he passed it around to some scholars, and lo and behold, guess what? They jumped all over it like he cracked the code, and the theory got expanded.  

Now, we had to do all this, we have to jump back to Wellhausen now. See, by his time, these two hypothetical documents had become four hypothetical documents or sources as they were called. And they were all referred to by a letter and not A and B. One of these came to be called P, hmmm, meaning the priestly document. Why? Well, remember the student paper again, because there seemed to be a distinct language and a distinct style that was shared by certain portions of the Bible that dealt with priestly things like, well priests, and sacrifice, and laws of all sorts like not to eat pork. Just think of the book of Leviticus, the third one, the one we never read, and you’re basically in P territory. And P, by the way was Astruc’s A, so Genesis 1 is P according to Wellhausen. Okay, Astruc’s B document, the one that uses the name Yahweh, came to be called, and please hang with me here folks, it came to be called J. Not Y, but J. Why J? Because Germans don’t make the “yuh” sound with the Y but with the J. Hence, the source that prefers Yahweh over Elohim is forever referred to as the J source and its hypothetical author as the Yahwist. The two other sources, just quickly here, they came to be called E and D. The E source is called E because this author liked referring to God as Elohim, just like P does but without all that priestly stuff that we see in P. E contains a lot of stories and narratives, and some laws too, but mainly stories and narratives. And then D, that’s basically the book of Deuteronomy. So, you have these four sources: P, J, E, and D. And Wellhausen, see, he was down with all this. He couldn’t agree more. But had Wellhausen just said, yeah, this is cool, we wouldn’t be talking about him. See, for him, talking about sources was just the first step, it led to a far bigger, sweeping, and somewhat mind-bending conclusion for Wellhausen, and that’s the big idea we looked at, at the very beginning. Namely, the law of Moses is not from Moses, but from a much later time. And to see this, I think it’s best to go to another example.


Straight from Wellhausen’s book, in fact, it’s the example that he opens with. Okay, so Wellhausen begins his book by making, you know, a casual observation. He says, like, you know, in the Pentateuch you can’t help but notice chapter after chapter of specific, binding, unyielding regulations about offering sacrifices to God and the worship of God. It’s all structured, controlled, centralized, not free-floating, there are definitely rules. But have you ever noticed that when you turn to the next books, especially like Judges and Samuel, what do you see? Well, you see unregulated sacrifices offered on altars, plural, all over the place without a moment’s hesitation like it’s just a thing. You know in places like Shechem, or Bethel, or Hebron, or Beersheba, or Gibeon, Gilgal, Shiloh – you’ve got all these sacred sites and altars, like it’s just normal.

So Wellhausen said, how interesting. It seems to me that the only way to make sense of this is to say that Judges and Samuel had never heard of all these regulations. Now, of course, at this point in time, we’re talking about the time of Judges and Samuel, before you have a monarchy and all that kind of stuff. Now of course at this point, the time of Judges and Samuel before the monarchy, at this point there’s no temple. That won’t be built until Solomon’s time, hundreds of years later. So, maybe we can forgive books like Judges and Samuel for not having a centralized worship location, and that’s a fair point, but, they did have the Tabernacle constructed under Moses, that portable sanctuary they had for forty years in the wilderness and Wellhausen raises this point and he asks, and frankly it’s a good one, he says, what happened to it? What happened to the Tabernacle? See, its presence isn’t felt in these books. It seems to have dropped out of the story, like, what happened? Is it in the attic? Did they just misplace it? Did they forget about it? What happened? I mean, surely, they could have set it up someplace and carried through with what they had been doing those forty years in the desert. It just seems odd that the commands of God which had supposedly been followed for forty years would get tabled, forgotten so completely, and so quickly. It just strains credulity that this divinely commanded system for worship would have like, no controlling function for Israel’s worship when they settled in the land. That’s Wellhausen’s observation, you know, and it’s a pretty good one. And he launches a book with it.  

So, you might be wondering, oh yeah, where is the Tabernacle? Never thought about it before. Well, Wellhausen argued, and this is a common academic view still, that there, hold on to your seats, there probably was no Tabernacle. At least not one as elaborate, with a fully functioning and highly organized system as the one we read about in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. A simple tent of some sort perhaps, okay. But a Tabernacle? And that’s not such a crazy idea, I mean, think about it, the Tabernacle, you have to admit, just read Exodus 25-31. The Tabernacle is a pretty elaborate structure. It’s made of twisted linen of various colors and embroidering along with all sorts of like high-end furnishings made of gold and silver. Hmm. Now I know, the Book of Exodus mentions that the Israelites left Egypt with gold and silver, sort of an act of plundering, but still. Smelting and weaving and all that stuff, it just seems like a huge task for a mass of humans moving from place to place in the wilderness for four decades.  

And Wellhausen brings up another issue about the Tabernacle, he says when Solomon built the temple, and that’s in 1 Kings, it’s a pretty quick episode first of all, but you’d think he would’ve built it according to the predetermined design, according to the blueprint of the sacred tabernacle, the heavenly pattern as it’s called in Exodus, a design given by God Himself, it seems important. But the Tabernacle isn’t mentioned, not a word about how the temple is the permanent continuation of that temporary sanctuary. And Solomon actually seems to be so out of his element in building a sanctuary like this that he needed to hire people from neighboring Tyre, a Phoenician city, to do the work. And even some of the furnishings that are built for the temple, like the bronze basin for washing, Wellhausen points out this was made from scratch by Solomon rather than just, sort of taking it from the Tabernacle.  


Wellhausen concluded, after all this, that the ancient elaborate Tabernacle didn’t exist, but was a, like a literary creation, more fitting a description for a temple than a portable shrine. In other words, the temple was written into the early parts of the story as a portable sanctuary. Now, that’s the theory, right? So, who’s responsible for this literary creation? Wellhausen said, well, it’s those priests who gave us the priestly source, the P source. And, this is really the crucial point, since Judges and Samuel and the temple building episode with Solomon clearly never heard of any of these regulations, Wellhausen concluded that the P source, did not yet exist. Right? The Law of Moses, the P source, did not yet exist, it was later. Which leads to a follow-up question: why did these priestly writers do this? Why did they create a tabernacle with an elaborate religious system around it on paper and then put it in Moses’s time?  

And now we’re getting to the really uncomfortable part. They did it, the priests did it to legitimate the religious system with its complex, centralized sanctuary under their tight control. See, what we do is legit because it goes way back to the time of Moses. Now, we’ve all seen this sort of thing in our day, this kind of an argument. And, think of certain Evangelical Christians, not all, but definitely some, who claim that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were basically Republican, Bible-believing, church-going, prayer-in-school Evangelicals and if that’s how our country started, by golly and dagnabbit, that’s how it should be today. Our beliefs go back to the beginning, and therefore, we have history on our side. And if you’re against us, you’re against our founders and you’re against our very nation.  

Now, I do think those Evangelicals who think that way are often times sincere. They just can’t imagine any other way. So, they read their way back into history, perhaps the ancient priests, by putting their beliefs into ancient times were likewise not deceptive, but simply unable to comprehend a time when there was any other way of worshipping God.  

Either way, whether they meant it or they couldn’t imagine some other way, regardless of how it happened, the result, as Wellhausen argued, is that history was obscured and that priestly take on Israel’s history, it stuck, that’s the one that stuck because, again, as Wellhausen argued, the learned priestly class was largely responsible for shaping the Pentateuch and really the entire Old Testament as we know it. They were the final editors, the editors-in-chief so to speak. That’s the heart of Wellhausen’s very challenging idea. You know, you pay close attention to the seams of the Pentateuch that just jump out at you and that are evidence of these four documents, these four voices, and furthermore, if you pay attention, you’ll also understand what order the four sources need to be in.  

So, for Wellhausen, the data, as he saw the data, P had to be last. So, you have these four sources and the order is very important: J, E, D, and P. In that order, P is last. Wellhausen even assigned dates to these four documents. J and E, basically and long-story short, nerds please do not email me, okay? You promise? Good. J and E stem from somewhere between, let’s say, the tenth and eighth centuries. They contain some laws, but they are mainly the stories we read about in Genesis and elsewhere. And then came the D source in the seventh century with laws and as we’ve seen, and very importantly, the first hint of centralized worship. Right? Not altars anywhere like J and E say. D is a move toward organization, toward institutionalized worship. Alright, remember Deuteronomy chapter 12.  

And then, finally, P with all those endless strict and detailed laws about sacrifice, clean and unclean foods, pure and impure activities, how priests should dress, etc., sort of bureaucracy gone amuck. Again, in putting it that way, I’m sort of channeling Wellhausen, but see, his real legacy comes in taking that idea, P is last, a step further by being very explicit about the implications of P being late. And that gets us back to the title of his book which says it all – Prolegomena to the History of Israel


Prolegomena, not a word you use every day, it’s a fancy word for a long and necessary introduction, something you need to grasp first before you move onto something else. And for Wellhausen, seeing four sources and putting P last, well, that was the prolegomena, that was the Prolegomena to the History of Israel. See, the Bible demands that you put P last, right, that’s his point, and when you do that, it’s clear that the way the Bible presents the story on the surface, where P is early, that that’s wrong. The complex system of sacrifice we see in Exodus through Numbers is presented as early, but it’s really late. But when we put P, the Law of Moses, last as it needs to be, we see that Israel’s worship evolved. Maybe not the best choice of words, but it’ll work. Evolved from simple, J and E, to more complex D, to highly regulated P. The way the priestly editors present the story in the Bible by putting their stuff at the beginning, actually obscures Israel’s actual history. The real history is seen only when you put the sources in their proper order, not giving the priestly source, the priestly editor, the final say.  

Now the example of the student paper that we used before, it’s got a flaw. It doesn’t account for the passage of time that we see in the four sources that span, you know, four to five hundred years. All those sources the student used were contemporary. A better analogy would include sources that are actually chronologically distinct, so here’s a better analogy: the history of baseball. And indulge me here people, please? The 2020 season might not happen, so this might be it for me. Alright, so a history of baseball written in 1940 before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier would likely not address at all the racism in baseball that’s been there since the beginning. Ken Burns’ monumental PBS series from 1994, which is also a big book by the way, it made racism one of its central themes. Okay? Two different perspectives written at two different times. Now imagine weaving these stories together, and because you’re entirely sympathetic to Burns’ narrative of racism, you open your book with a scene that communicates the cruelty of racism that was, you know, part of baseball life from the beginning and you pass judgement on it. It’s very clear what your opinion is. And then as you continue, you weave together as best as you can, scenes from both sources, resulting, now and then, perhaps in some awkward transitions. Later, not only could someone come along and read your book and pick out the different perspectives, the different voices, but they could also take a really good stab at which came first. A history of baseball that you wrote that you edited together that begins with the scene that is fully-aware of the problem of racism is probably written around the time, or after the time of Jackie Robinson, definitely not in the 1860’s. And actually, it could’ve been written much later than the time of Jackie Robinson, we don’t know simply from that comment that’s, you know, condemning of racism, you don’t know exactly when it was written, but it wasn’t before Jackie Robinson and it wasn’t in the 1860’s when baseball more or less began, that’s for sure. And the editor, that would be me or you or whoever, has also obscured history by placing that later perspective first. To find the actual history of baseball, one would need to take that first story and put it where it belongs. Now, an editor might have a very good reason for doing what she or he did, like the need to stress the ever-present problem of racism at the time, and that motive is great, but a true history hasn’t been produced. If you want to know what really happened, which by the way, was like a rallying cry in Wellhausen’s day. To know what really happened, you need to follow the clues.  

Alright, well this has been a lot to take in, I know that, though you might be interested in knowing that I’m leaving a lot of stuff out. But, if we had time, we could talk about something that a lot of people talk about with Wellhausen, which is his anti-Semitism.  


You know, he thought the law of Moses, you know, courtesy of P, was a distortion of Israel’s simple religion, and that needed correcting. See, in fact, for Wellhausen, the gospel was essentially a correction of the P theology with all its rules and likewise a celebration of J and E, you know, a simple religion of the heart. Well, I mean Jews would and have begged to differ, you know the Law of Moses is central to their faith tradition. And now, you know, especially after the Holocaust, Gentile biblical scholars have been very careful to be more self-aware and not to repeat some of this rhetoric, but Wellhausen’s anti-Semitism so engrained in German culture and had been for centuries, it certainly had an effect on his handling of the evidence and people have pointed that out, and they’re right.  

Also, if we had more time, we could talk about the various theories that spun out of Wellhausen’s scholarship, some that supported his view, others that nuanced it and maybe took it different directions, and some that rejected it. But you see, in a way that’s the point. When you’re taken seriously enough to engage a century after your death, I mean, that is a legacy. So, we began by seeing Wellhausen as part of his cultural moment as well as other movers and shakers like Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud, and just know that you know, no evolutionary biologist today is Darwinian, I actually hate that term, is Darwinian, a disciple of Darwin. But there are still evolutionary biologists who stand in a scientific trajectory, let’s say, that Darwin began. And psychoanalysis has also grown and adapted to new data, but there are still psychoanalysts. You know, Einstein was flat out wrong about quantum physics, but that doesn’t erase his being one of the most influential humans of the 20th century.

Likewise, the field of biblical scholarship has changed in some rather dramatic ways since Wellhausen. In some respects its changed in ways that only experts care about, and in other ways that have sort of exposed Wellhausen’s blind spots, but the idea that the Pentateuch grew in stages, with the priestly stage being relatively late, not early, but also probably not quite as late as Wellhausen insisted or as negative a move as he thought it was, well that idea is still, I would say with confidence, foundational to any serious academic study of the Pentateuch that’s interested in answering the question: why does it do this? Why does it look the way that it does? And if you’ve read the Pentateuch and you’ve noticed things, these tensions or inconsistencies or whatever and if that’s your question, why does it look like this? Why does it do this? Then you are entering the legacy of Julius Wellhausen.  

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Pete: Okay folks, well that’s it. Thanks for listening and please keep listening. Consider supporting us on Patreon, we would love to have you on board. We have a list of projects we want to get moving on and your support is just so huge for that. And as always, thanks to our team, Dave Gerhart, our audio-engineer; Reed Lively, our community champion; Megan Cammack, our podcast producer; Stephanie Speight, our podcast transcriber. See you next time, when we return with real, live guests. Thanks folks! 

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Pete Ruins Exodus Part 4

Pete Ruins Exodus: Part 4

September 2, 2019

In this episode, Pete continues his deep dive into the book of Exodus covering chapters 14-19 and the following topics:

  • The Red Sea
  • Mount Sinai
  • Manna and the Sabbath
  • Genesis (who knew the books of the Bible were connected!?)

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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?”

27:42 BREAK


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.

55:57  MUSIC

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.