Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Pete Ruins Exodus: Part 6

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete wraps up his series on Exodus with a deep dive into the significance of the tabernacle and a look at the context of the golden calf as he explores at the following questions:

  • Why are the dimensions of the tabernacle so precise?
  • Was the tabernacle an actual tent the Israelites carried around in the desert?
  • How are the tabernacle and the temple related?
  • What historical questions are brought up by the description of the tabernacle?
  • How many tents did the Israelites have?
  • How is Israel’s sanctuary an idealized cosmos?
  • What is the connection between the tabernacle and the creation narrative in Genesis 1? 
  • How do the objects in the tabernacle reflect an ancient Near Eastern understanding of the gods?
  • What does the lampstand in the tabernacle represent?
  • How does the tabernacle follow a heavenly pattern?
  • How is the tabernacle tradition continued on through Jesus?
  • Why did the Israelites build a golden calf?
  • What did the symbol of a calf represent in the ancient Near East?
  • What does it mean that the golden calf story is connected to the story of Jeroboam?
  • Why are Ugaritic texts important for our understanding of the Bible?
  • What clues do we have about when Exodus was written?


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

  • “Reading the Old Testament stories means getting used to God’s human-like portrayal.” @peteenns
  • “The description of the tabernacle seems like a description of the temple but brought back to a much earlier period in the story.” @peteenns
  • “Some scholars doubt that there ever was a tabernacle, that is was only a retrojection… of temple theology back into ancient times. ” @peteenns
  • “The description of the tabernacle does have a lot in common with the description of other sanctuaries among some of Israel’s ancient neighbors.” @peteenns
  • “If we look closely at this long, boring section of building a portable worship center in the wilderness, we will see some overlap between the description here of the tabernacle and God’s act of creating the cosmos.” @peteenns
  • “You don’t just throw up a tent for God to dwell in… it has to reflect this higher, divine reality if God’s going to dwell there.” @peteenns
  • “The Old Testament has a context in the ancient world and these symbols didn’t need to be unique for Israel in order to have meaning for the people, in fact they might have more meaning if these symbols are not unique.” @peteenns

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Episode 110: Pete Ruins Exodus Part 6

In this final episode of the Dundee Award Winning series, Pete looks at the significance and symbolism of the tabernacle, which takes up a whopping 13 chapters, and the Golden Calf episode, which threatens to derail the entire plan—were it not for Moses’s quick intervention.


Pete:  00:01 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:  00:08
And I’m Jared Byas. 
Pete: 00:11  Well normal people, here we are at the end of this series. I know man, we’ve covered a lot. So, hey listen, thanks for hanging in there – I’ve loved it, I hope you’ve loved it too. But anyway… Listen, we have a lot to cover today in today’s final episode so let’s get right into this. First, remember where we are in the story. The Israelites have been at Mount Sinai since Chapter 19, which means, uh, 21 of the 40 chapters of Exodus take place there and they’re on Mount Sinai for two reasons. The first is to receive the law (which we looked at in Episode 5) and they’ll receive a lot of laws from here on out. I mean, the book of Leviticus is the next book, but that’s a whole other issue and probably podcast series eventually. But, the second reason they’re on Mount Sinai is to receive instructions for building the place of worship, the tabernacle, which is a tent where the priests make sacrifices and offerings to God and other sorts of things. But that’s what worship basically was back then – sacrificing. And, uh, the tabernacle is Israel’s sacred space, unlike any other space and this is where God’s presence dwells among the Israelite’s. And later, when they’re in the land, the Israelite’s under Solomon will build a temple. It’s a permanent place of worship, at least it’s permanent until the Babylonians destroy it in 586 BC. But now that they’re wandering in the desert, and a portable sacred space, a worship center… Well, that’s obviously that’s the way to go, you don’t erect a permanent structure when you’re wandering. So – the last 16 chapters of Exodus (25-40) are dominated by this tabernacle. And, no matter how bored we might get reading this section, it’s worth noticing that the Israelites thought it deserved a lot of space. And these sixteen chapters fall into three parts, and I don’t think there’s a lot of debate about how to divide this whole section. But, the first section is the instructions for building the tabernacle and that’s in chapters 25-31. That’s followed by what seems like an interruption to the story, and that’s the rebellion in 32-34, the golden calf episode, which nearly led God to like, nix the whole plan. And then the third is the actual building of the tabernacle in 35-40. So, let’s just take all three of these sections and see what happens. 

So, ya know, let’s look first at the tabernacle. And we might as well start with some historical issues that are raised by this episode. It’s the kind of thing we do here in this podcast. Let’s talk about historical issues and scholarship and things like that. So, one thing is that scholars have had some questions about such an elaborate structure, portable or not, but such an elaborate structure in the wilderness. For one thing, where did they get the building materials from, not to mention the precious metals. It seems this structure is too elaborate for a wilderness wandering people. So, many scholars have concluded that the description of the tabernacle (that we find here in Exodus) is more fitting for the permanent structure, the temple. In other words, the description of the tabernacle seems like a description of the temple, but brought back into a much earlier period in the story. And we’ve seen this sort of thing in earlier episodes. For example, in Episode 4, in Exodus Chapter 15 – the song of Moses. Well, in that song, the temple makes an appearance too. This is just part of the writing of this story, as we’ve said before, it’s looking at a time gone by, but written from a later point of view. Now, some scholars doubt that there ever was a tabernacle, that it was only a retrojection, as they say, of temple theology back into ancient times. And, that’s not surprising as we’ve seen the entire story of the exodus has its share of historical problems, we looked at some of those in Episode 1 – like the plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, and a few other things. And the tabernacle doesn’t escape that same kind of scholarly assessment. But just as some scholars say the exodus never happened, others say, well something happened, but we don’t know exactly what. Well, in the same way that scholars say that, they say that also about the tabernacle. Right? Some say there never was a tabernacle, and others say, well, there was some sort of a portable sanctuary, but its description reflects a later reality. 
Ya know, the description of the tabernacle does have a lot in common with the description of other sanctuaries among some of Israel’s ancient neighbors. Yay archeology. But the question really is whether the description of the tabernacle is literally of a historical tabernacle, or of the temple brought back into the past. And I’m not sure really if there’s a way of ever coming to a firm historical conclusion on that question (I sort of doubt it) I’m just bringing it up because, again, that’s part of what this podcast does. We’re engaging biblical scholarship, and I’m sure you can guess that we’re just skimming the surface on this issue like we do on many others that involve complex kinds of arguments and data and things like that. Another kind of historical question is raised by the fact that there is a second tent in Exodus, and it’s called the ‘tent of meeting’. Now, on the one hand, throughout these chapters we see this portable sanctuary referred to as the tabernacle or the ‘tent of meeting.’ See, the two terms, they seem interchangeable in Exodus, and ya know, who really cares anyway? But, here’s why ya care. In Exodus 33:7, the ‘tent of meeting’ isn’t at all an alternate name for the tabernacle and here’s what the verse says. Listen, and just pick up the vibe here of this verse. It goes like this, “Now Moses used to take the tent and to pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp; he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp.” See, rather than a huge tent in the center of the camp where sacrifices are made (that’s the tabernacle) the tent of meeting here, in this verse, seems small enough for Moses to set up whenever he wanted, outside the camp where he would talk to God. In fact, Joshua and anyone really who wanted to consult God could have access to it, not just priests. So, here in chapter 33, the tent of meeting has a different purpose than the tabernacle. And, ugh, how do ya, what the heck, how do you explain that? Well, this is often explained… Again, we don’t know! At the end of the day we can’t say this is as sure as the sun rises in the morning, but this is often explained as a later writer, probably one with priestly connections, who combined the originally two separate tents into one, which is what we see everywhere else in the tabernacle section. See, this isn’t simply a matter of terminology, but of two tents with different functions, which raises historical questions. Ya know – were there actually two or was the less elaborate tent of meeting that we see in 33:7 the original one, and the tabernacle got the main headline because priests edited the final form of this story, and on and on. Anyway, who knows, but 33:7 certainly complicates matters. And these are the kind of things that tend to occupy Biblical scholars who mainly are interested in what happened. 

Alright, so much for historical issues, now let’s look a bit at the symbolism of the tabernacle and boy does it have symbolic value. See, earlier, I used the term ‘sacred space’ to describe the tabernacle. It is indeed, and one way of glimpsing what that means (sacred space) is by seeing the tabernacle as a microcosm of creation. Of course, that sounds a bit abstract, but microcosm is a term used in biblical scholarship and it means that the tabernacle is a micro cosmos. Or another way of putting it, the tabernacle is a small, concrete, down to earth version of the cosmos as a whole. The cosmos where God dwells. Or an even better way of putting it, and here I’m channeling my teacher, Jon Levenson – Israel’s sanctuary, whether it’s the tabernacle or the temple is “an idealized cosmos.” Just listen to this. “It’s an idealized cosmos. It’s the world as it was meant to be. A powerful piece of the testimony to God the creator. A palace for the victorious king.” A lot going on there. It’s an idealized cosmos, the world as it was meant to be, a testimony to the creator God, it’s a palace for the victorious king. I mean, we’ll unpack some of that at least as we continue here, but all that means is that if we look closely as this long “boring” section about building a portable worship center in the wilderness, we will see some overlap between the description here of the tabernacle and God’s act of creating the cosmos because the tabernacle is a mini cosmos. And I think that tells us a lot about what the ancient Israelites thought about the sanctuary, how vital it was for them theologically. Now, of course, this microcosm idea is just one angle on the tabernacle, but it’s very important for grasping its significance and it’s the one angle I wanna focus on because it really gets at the big picture. And again, I keep saying this, but I’m gonna say it again. We, we’re just really skimming the surface. Actually, if you wanna read more, I do recommend my teacher Jon Levenson’s book, Creation and the Persistence of Evil. Very readable, but also very challenging. Especially chapter seven where he discusses this microcosm idea in more detail. 
OK, so let’s get really concrete here. How is the tabernacle a microcosm? Well first, in Exodus 25:9, Moses is commanded by God to build the tabernacle according to the “pattern” that God will give him. Well, what pattern is that? Well, good question. But it’s a pattern nonetheless. A heavenly pattern. See, you don’t just throw up a tent for God to dwell in, it has to be just so. It has to reflect this higher divine reality if God’s gonna dwell there, right? OK, so that’s one aspect, just to sort of warm things up and get us going. Second, careful readers for centuries, Jewish readers, have noticed that the phrase “the Lord said to Moses” in this tabernacle section, it occurs seven times in these chapters 25-31. Right? Those chapters that lay out the commands for building the tabernacle. “The Lord said to Moses.” The first six times we read “the Lord said to Moses” concerned the building of the tabernacle and its various furnishings. While the seventh time we read “the Lord said to Moses,” it concerns the command to keep the Sabbath. Now, it’s not rocket science to see that the six commands concerning the building of the tabernacle, followed by a seventh day of rest, all that parallels the six days where God built the cosmos followed by a seventh day of rest and those days are all preceded by “and God said.” See, that’s, it’s a big parallel. “The Lord said to Moses” seven times, and then “and God said” seven times in the creation story in Genesis 1. Now, just a side issue here — which is interesting but not central – building a sanctuary by a divine pattern and over seven days is actually not unique to Israel. The Sumerian King Gudea of Lagash — there’s a name for all you eager homeschoolers who want to give your kids ancient names — the Sumerian King Gudea of Lagash did something similar around 2200 BCE, as did the Ugaritic gods to honor the god Baal. Ugaritic is a language of Ugarit, which is an ancient culture from which we get a lot of information about Canaanite religion and that’s really important for understanding parts of the Old Testament. Anyway, the Ugaritic gods did this in honor of their god, Baal, and we get to know this god through the Old Testament, he’s all over the place. I’m just throwing that in there to remind us that the Old Testament has a context in the ancient world and the symbols didn’t need to be unique for Israel in order to have meaning for the people. In fact, they might have more meaning if the symbols were not unique. See, for the ancient Israelites, the cosmos is God’s sanctuary built in six days followed by rest. The tabernacle, likewise, is a mini version of that divine abode built in six stages followed by rest. 

OK, a third issue concerning the tabernacle as a microcosm concerns the Ark of the Covenant, which many of you know as a box basically, overlaid with gold and housed in that part of the tabernacle where the high priest enters. The most holy place, or also known as the holy of holies. This isn’t explicit in Exodus, ok, but just, it’s a very interesting possible connection here. In Psalm 80:1 and 99:1 for example, the Ark, this Ark of the Covenant, is thought of as the footstool for God’s throne. Now, if you remember the imagery of the Ark, maybe you’ve seen pictures of it, it’s a box, but there are two gold images of cherubim on top of the Ark — and cherubim are fierce angels, they’re not chubby little kids playing harps. And so, we read in the Old Testament that Yahweh, in these Psalms that I just mentioned, Yahweh is enthroned above, or maybe between the cherubim, which means his feet are on the Ark. OK, interesting Pete. Can you get on with this and sort of, maybe be done with this? What are you trying to say? Well, in other texts, like in Isaiah 66:1, the earth itself is God’s footstool, so which is it? Is God’s footstool the Ark, or is God’s footstool the earth? And the answer is, “yes, both.” See, God enthroned over the Ark and the tabernacle is a, again, a mini version of God being enthroned in the heavens with the earth as His footstool. And that’s a good example, I think, of how the tabernacle follows a heavenly pattern, as we saw earlier. 
The fourth thing that helps us see the tabernacle as a microcosm of creation is the lampstand, which is in the holy place. It’s not the most holy place which is where the high priest is. The holy place is one room sort of removed from that and that’s where the other priests may enter. And this also has these creation kinds of overtones. See, the lampstands function is to light the holy place from evening until morning, which on one level it echoes God’s presence with the Israelites as a pillar of fire by night as they left Egypt and in that sense — not to get off track here — but the smoke from the incense, which we read about in chapter 30, that might echo the pillar of cloud by day. But the lampstand has also been seen by biblical scholars as a symbol of the tree of life from the Garden of Eden. Especially given that the lampstand arms are buds and branches. That’s in 25:22. The point being that entering the sanctuary is like entering, and actually let’s say, returning to the Garden of Eden. That place from which Adam and Eve were banned by God and the way back is guarded by the two cherubim holding flaming swords, like those on the Ark of the Covenant. See, this symbolism is powerful. In the tabernacle, the curse is reversed, and Eden is regained. At least, Israel is given a glimpse of how it was all meant to be had things not gone so wrong in the first place. This is as close as you get back to Eden, by being in the tabernacle. You know, not to go into hyper speed here, but this imagery echoes throughout the Bible. The sanctuary is a symbolic Garden of Eden. In fact, so is the land of Canaan where God and God’s people are to dwell together in faithfulness to each other. But as Adam is expelled from the Garden of Eden, Israel is expelled from the land. That’s the exile. So, the sanctuary, Eden, Canaan — these are all sacred spaces, and their symbolisms, they overlap beautifully. If you’re interested, you know, I draw that out a bit more in chapter four of my book, the Evolution of Adam. Anyhow, the Eden imagery of the sanctuary symbolizes that, you know, when you enter it, the separation from Gods immediate presence in paradise is reversed. The people are restored to full communion with God, at least in principle. And to enter the Christian story a bit if I may, this is like how Jesus restores the people to full communion with God. That’s why it’s pretty huge that the opening of John’s gospel calls Jesus the tabernacle. You know, when he says, when the author of John says that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us”, well, dwelt in Greek is literally “tabernacle.” The Word became flesh — you know, Jesus — and tabernacled among us and we beheld His glory, the glory that in the Old Testament, resides in the sanctuary and also Jesus , ya know, claiming to be the temple in John 2 when He’s debating the Sadducees. The function of restoring communion, of reentering Eden and being in God’s presence, well in the Gospel this has moved from tents and buildings to God dwelling among us in human form. It’s said that John’s gospel portrays Jesus in His most exalted form, and, ya know, you ain’t kidding. There’s a lot of this stuff going on in John. 

Well anyway, another microcosm element of the tabernacle — I think this is the fifth — is the bronze basin for washing, which is in the courtyard. We’re moving further out now, outside the holy place and outside the most holy place. Its purpose, the bronze basin, is for the priests to wash themselves before entering the tabernacle itself. It’s also called the bronze sea. And some suggest that “sea” has some important cosmic overtones. A number of creation myths in the ancient world, the watery chaos that’s present at the dawn of creation is vanquished by the victor god. Echoes of that myth are certainly present in Genesis 1 where God pushes back the deep, as this watery chaos is called in Genesis. And by pushing back this deep, this allows habitable space to appear like the sky and the earth. The chaotic, threatening deep, hostile to life, is defeated by Israel’s God so that the earth and sky may be inhabited. In that sense, this bronze sea is a symbol of this vanquished, chaotic, watery foe. Put on full display in the courtyard in the sanctuary of this victorious God, Yahweh. You know, I have to say I like this angle on the wash basin. I wish that Exodus were explicit in drawing out this connection. It’s not, but I’m throwing it out there too because, I mean others talk about it and I think it’s really, really interesting. 

OK, another possible connection, this is the sixth now, concerns the curtains the cover the most holy place. They’re made of blue, purple, and scarlet with cherubim, like, worked into them it says, which probably means woven into them cause they’re curtains. Just looking up, if you’re in the most holy place, just looking up is a reminder that the tabernacle is sacred space, an earthly representation of God’s dwelling where He sits in the heavens surrounded by adoring angels. 

OK, three more quick points, if I may, about seeing the tabernacle as a microcosm. This is seven, eight, and nine. 
Seven, briefly: The dimensions of the tabernacle are very precise and geometric. Look in most, any commentary Bibles will have pictures of the tabernacle. Some have observed that this very ordered nature of the tabernacle reflects the ordered nature of the cosmos in Genesis 1 where everything is carefully designed and executed. 
Eighth, in Exodus 31:1-3, God calls these two dudes named Bezalel and Oholiab to manage the construction of the tabernacle. These fellows are filled with God’s Spirit, and, among other things, also they’re filled with wisdom, hokmah in Hebrew, which is usually translated here as “ability” or “skill.” According to Proverbs 8, however, wisdom is with God at creation. Just hang with this chain here that I’m trying to build. Wisdom is with God at creation. In fact, wisdom itself, 
[background music begins]
or I should say wisdom herself cause she’s personified as a woman in Proverbs, wisdom herself isn’t actually created but just is with God while God creates.      
24:39 [Producers Group Endorsement]
25:45 See, if wisdom is with God at the creation of the cosmos, it’s no wonder, then, that the building of the microcosm of creation likewise requires the presence of wisdom to pull it off. 
OK then finally — oh, finally – in chapter 40 when the tabernacle is completed, we see echoes of Genesis once again, specifically of Genesis of 1:31 – 2:4. This concludes this first creation story of Genesis 1. Genesis 1:31 – 2:4 when the creation was completed. So, we see in Exodus 39 and Exodus, uh, well, specifically Exodus 39:32 — if you’re taking notes — and 40:33. We read that the tabernacle was finished or was completed. The Hebrew word is kalah, which is also how the completion of the cosmos is described in Genesis 2:1. And also, the completion of the tabernacle was followed by a blessing from Moses and we read this in Exodus 39:42-43. Just as the work of the creation, once completed, is followed by a blessing from God in Genesis 2:3. See, it really just seemed like the tabernacle is a big deal – and it is! And in Christian theology, the function of the Old Testament sanctuaries, tabernacle, and temple, are tied to Jesus and it is in Christ that God’s full presence dwells, as John says. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 3 and 6, Paul makes the rather unexpected claim that God’s Spirit dwells in the church. And Paul means there both corporately, that’s in 1 Corinthians 3, in other words the church as a whole, the church in Corinth as a whole, and then the individuals that make it up, and that’s 1 Corinthians 6. Being united with Christ in whom the Spirit of God dwells means that followers of Jesus also house the Spirit, so to speak. 

OK, I could go on and on about that, but I would be remiss if we didn’t take a few minutes talking about an incident that nearly derailed everything and that’s the golden calf episode in chapters 32-34, which is placed, as we said before, right in between the instructions for building the tabernacle and the actual building of it. I make that point because this act of rebellion, ugh, fashioning and then worshiping an idol. OK, this happens after only the instructions for the tabernacle are given. Nothing’s been built yet. See, this incident raises the question of whether it’s ever going to be built or whether God will simply be done with them, and of course, He isn’t done with them. As you read this story in chapters 32-34, Moses does some damage control and he convinces God not to strike them down even though He really wants to. In fact, remember that Sabbath, we looked at this before, Sabbath is the seventh, let’s say, segment of the previous section where the building instructions were given for the tabernacle, and this ends in chapter 31, and then comes the golden calf story in 32-34. Well, the next section, the first section that begins the section that talks about the actual building of the tabernacle, well, that begins in chapter 35 with the celebration of the Sabbath. You see, the action picks up after the rebellion where we were before the rebellion, before the golden calf episode. I’m making a point of this, because first of all it was hammered home to me in graduate school as a Gentile who doesn’t pay attention to these kinds of things, but I’m making this point because, you know, some Christian interpreters have read the golden calf story as an indication of the failure of Judaism: “See, this is where laws and commands get you. Judaism doesn’t work. No sooner do they get a command that they just disobey it. Law is useless, it doesn’t get you anywhere.” But Israel’s disobedience here doesn’t derail the plan, that’s the point. Despite the rebellion, the story picks up where it left off, in essence without losing a beat. Hmm. I think that’s pretty cool. The Sabbath, the day of rest, that’s where we continue when the story of building the tabernacle commences. 
Now see, some see the golden calf story as a retelling of the Adam story. This is very interesting, like it’s a second fall. Disobedience and the threat of God’s punishment are in the Adam story and in the golden calf story. But whereas Adam is expelled from the land, this story, well, it continues. Unlike the story of Adam, these Israelites are not driven from God’s presence, even though God really wanted to do that, we’ll see that in a second. The sanctuary will be built, and they will be allowed to enter to God’s presence. 
OK, so basically what happens then in this golden calf story, and here it is. Moses is up on the mountain getting the law written on the tablets, but God tells him to go down, and pretty much get down there right away because the people are worshipping a calf. So, God wants to be done with them and basically, ya know, kill them all. So, Moses convinces God to change his mind and not to go all medieval on the Israelites. But when Moses comes down with Joshua who is waiting part of the way down the mountain, when they come down, Moses sees what’s going on and he smashes the tablets. OK, that’s chapter 32 and things are a bit touchy for the next two chapters, but Moses does damage control which results in him carving out a new set of tablets, which leads to a renewal of the covenant between God and Israel. And then at the end, Moses’ face is transformed from having been in God’s presence. It’s glowing, so much in fact, Moses has to veil his face when he’s around the people. Bottom line, the crisis is averted, and the story continues. 
Now, as you can imagine, there’s a lot going on here in this section, but as I always say – I just want to focus on a few things. Things that I think are worth knowing that might add some oomph to your own reading of this story. So first, let’s talk about the actual making of this golden calf. While Moses is away, the Israelites play. So, they do what you would expect — now here’s the important part — they do what you would expect people of the time to do. To build a symbolic representation of God’s presence with them, here in the form of a calf, a very common symbol of the divine because it indicates strength and fertility. OK, but, note what verse 4 says. This is the thing I want to get to here. Verse 4 of chapter 32. The people look at the calf and they say — now this is what they say — they look at the calf and they say, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt’. Why say ‘these are your gods’ when only one calf is made? Well, I’m glad you asked. See, this same phrase occurs later in the Bible. After Solomon, David’s son, after Solomon dies the nation of Israel tragically divides into two, the north and south. The south, Judah, is where Jerusalem and the temple are. The north, now, has no shrine and so their king, Jeroboam, he erects two golden calves at the northern and southern boundaries of the northern kingdom. Specifically, in the town of Dan in the north and Bethel in the south. And after Jeroboam erects these calves, he says to the people, and this is in 1 Kings 12:28, he says, “Behold” (or “here are”) “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” See, the plural makes sense for Jeroboam, but not for the golden calf episode and this has led scholars to the rather common conclusion that these two stories are connected. And namely, they’re connected this way, and again, we’ve seen before what I’m about to say here. The golden calf story was written with the Jeroboam story in mind. In other words, the Jeroboam incident of making two calves is, which 1 Kings seriously frowns upon, it’s written into the story from olden times, the golden calf episode. Why? Well, in order to thoroughly condemn Jeroboam’s act. That’s a lot, which is sort of dumb here. Ya know, basically, well, Jeroboam, he’s as bad as those rebellious people back in Aaron’s day and just to solidify the connection we’re going to allude to Jeroboam’s act when we edit this story of the golden calf with Moses and Aaron. So, as we’ve seen a number of times in this series, a story about a way back time was written in light of much later events. The Exodus story here and elsewhere reflects the period of Israel’s monarchy, in this case the divided monarchy. We’re seeing here another factoid that sheds some light on when Exodus was written and why it looks the way that it does. 

OK, so much for the making of the calf, second, and briefly, I don’t think that the Israelites here are worshipping another god as if they’re saying a god of another nation rescued them from Egypt. That makes really no sense, even with this heinous act of rebellion it just makes no sense logically. Rather, they are worshipping their God Yahweh, but in a manner in which Yahweh does not want to be worshipped, by means of a created idol. In other words, the Israelites are breaking the second commandment – don’t make any idols, and not the first commandment – don’t worship other gods. And we touch on this in an earlier episode, but to repeat, see, the first commandment is about the exclusive worship of Yahweh – you shall have no other Gods before Me. The second is about how this Yahweh is to be worshipped, not the way the gods of other nations are worshipped with idols. And not to go too deep into this, but, well, there’s some evidence from the ancient Near Eastern world that might help us here with this incident. It’s possible that the calf does not represent specifically a god at all, but is something like a throne, or better, a platform that God stands on. You see the difference. You see, the calf maybe isn’t actually representative of the god, but still the calf as a platform means that God is present there. Anyway, in either case that’s the big deal with this calf. It’s claiming the divine presence when God isn’t present. God is in His holy mountain, He’s not there present with them. 
Now side note, and not to get overly political here, um, although the Bible is political. But see, as I’m speaking these words, just recently a famous prosperity gospel preacher has been tagged as the President’s spiritual advisor, Paula White. She said, and maybe you’ve seen this viral video, but she said that wherever she is, God is also present, where she stands is holy ground. I’m like, lady, read the Bible. You don’t want to go there. You don’t want to claim God’s presence when that might not be the case. Especially personified in yourself, it’s almost like you’re a golden calf. Huh, anyway. 
OK, third thing about the golden calf story. The Israelites are having a party down there, and this is no subdued worship service. A lot of loud singing and dancing. It’s a very bad idea for a few reasons, apart from the golden calf itself. See, note that in verse 6, they sacrifice and then they sit down to eat and drink. This is chapter 32 verse 6. They sacrifice and then they sit down to eat and drink. Remember way back in 5:1, chapter 5 verse 1, Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh, and they say, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.’” See, the loud party with eating and drinking is a distorted version of that festival celebration. It’s an alternate covenant meal, as some put it. God’s deliverance of the Israelites was to have been celebrated by sacrifices and dining, but the Israelites have perverted it by jumping the gun. The problem here isn’t the breaking of the second commandment, not just that, but also perverting this celebratory meal with God by invoking God’s presence through a calf, but again, God is not present here in this meal. 
Furthermore, I think this is number four, though it’s connected to the previous thing. The loud noise that’s heard in the camp below, is as Moses said, the sound of revelers. And he says this in 32:18, as does the narrator back in verse 6, so it appears twice. See, the issue here is that the Hebrew word, the word is sahaq, has sexual overtones. For example, in the story where Potiphar’s wife accuses Joseph of trying to rape her in Genesis 39:14 & 17, that same word is used. Though, really side note, there in the Joseph story it’s typically translated more innocently like he insulted me. Anyway, the point is that, to add fire to the flame, there seems to be something of an orgy going on. It’s quite a mess. Alternative covenant meal indeed. 
And so, this is where Moses smashes the tablets, and this is the fifth point. And then he burns the calf, grinds it to powder, scatters it on the water and makes the Israelites drink it, which is weird, but maybe not to them. See, as commentaries explain it, this seems to be some sort of a ritual. Pulverizing the calf and scattering it implies, first of all, total annihilation. You know, we actually have an example of this from ancient Ugarit, I mentioned them earlier, where the goddess, her name is Anat, she takes the god Mot and burns him, pulverizes him, and scatters the dust in the field. Interesting. OK, so hold that thought. In Numbers 5, lot of math here folks, I’m sorry, but hey, it’s the Bible, right? But, in Numbers 5:12-31 we see a story, frankly even weirder, where a woman suspected of adulty is made to drink a concoction of water and dust to determine her guilt or innocence. So, go read that yourself if you want to. So, see, perhaps pulverizing the calf and making people drink it is for the purpose of totally annihilating this god, this false god, this idol, and also for finding out who is responsible – who the guilty parties are. But, ya know, sometimes the Bible is just not there where you need it. The text doesn’t go at all into this or explain it. The writer just assumes that we get what’s going on. And how rude of him not to know we’d be reading this millennia later with no idea of what is happening. Oh well. 
A sixth point. Everyone here is rather upset, not least of whom is God. And already before Moses comes down from the mountain, God tells Moses He intends to consume the lot of them, by fire. He’s not going to eat them, but by fire. At this point Moses intervenes and frankly he calms God down and he gets God to change God’s mind. And Moses does this by appealing to the honor and shame code that dominates not only the Bible but ancient and many modern cultures as well, though not so much our western culture. Moses’ argument amounts to this, ‘but, what will the Egyptians think of You if You just took us out to the wilderness only to kill us? You don’t want to look bad, do You?’ Well, you see, the argument worked and Yahweh, as we read, “changed His mind” and this is in 32:14. Now, some translators have that Yahweh relented, and the word can also mean that Yahweh repented but, ya know, it doesn’t really matter. If you take a step back, we’ll see that none of that wordsmithing makes a hill of beans worth of difference. It’s clear that God was angry and intended to do something and Moses talked Him out of it. And side issue, I like these side issues. Side issue, reading the Old Testament stories means getting used to God’s human like portrayal. Anthropomorphisms as they’re called. And a good place to see this human-like God is early in Genesis from the Adam and Eve story all the way through the Tower of Babel story. If you’re ever interested, just read those stories and take note of everywhere God is described in not really God-like ways but more human-like ways. Anywho, Moses calms God down, but after Moses comes down from the mountain, he stands at the gate of the camp and challenges these Israelites. He goes, ‘Who is on the Lord’s side’? And what happens? Well, the sons of Levi, you know the priestly tribe, they gather around him. And just when you think maybe nothing super bad is going to happen after all, God says through Moses to tell these Levites to go throughout the camp killing people, and by the days end the body count reaches 3,000. And then we don’t read, you know, “gee Levites, I know this was rough, but it had to be done. Thanks for putting up with it.” No, instead, and this is in 32:29, [large sigh] they’re praised. Moses says, “Today you have ordained yourselves for service to God.” See, they proved their worth to be priests and in doing so brought upon themselves a blessing. Now, we won’t get into the whole divine violence issue here. It’s too big, too complicated, and I’ve got a lot of blog posts on that if you’re interested, and I talk about it a bit also early on in The Bible Tells Me So, but it’s a real issue, you know, where people struggle with this stuff all the time. In this context, I mean, we can sort of work with what we have here immediately. In this context, this violence can be explained, sort of, within the logic of the story. See, it’s a punishment that matches the seriousness of Israel’s alternate covenant celebration. See, their act, in the logic of the story, their act was in effect an undoing of the entire Exodus story up to that point. Well, why do I say that? Well, remember that delightful pun we looked at in the first episode. The Israelites were delivered from Egyptian slavery, so they could be slaves of God. That word in Hebrew, as you no doubt remember because you’re such astute listeners, that word in Hebrew is ‘abad. And it means both to be enslaved and to worship. See, the purpose for which Israel was delivered from Egyptian ‘abad, enslavement, is so that they will be instead ‘abad to God Yahweh, which means to worship Yahweh. See, this is precisely what the golden calf story is about. It’s not like an ‘oopsie’ moment, its Israel’s false worship is in effect a potential eraser of this entire episode because they’re not worshiping God. Which is why God says to Moses, basically, ya know, “Step aside, let Me consume them all in fire and I’ll start over again with you.” And so, ya know, three cheers for Moses for stepping in and saying, “yeah, you see Lord, the whole Exodus story is threatened by Israel’s rebellion, but, if You go through with this, You too Yahweh, are putting the story at risk by putting into question the reputation you built up with the Egyptians.” In other words, wiping out the Israelites won’t solve the problem, but simply exacerbate it by wiping out God’s reputation. I mean, think about that. That’s a very clever argument by Moses in this story. 

Well anyway, listen, we need to bring this to a close. A lot more happens in these chapters of course. But, the long and short of it is that the new tablets are made, the covenant is renewed, and perhaps, most importantly, the tabernacle project continues unhindered. And as you saw earlier, these chapters 32-34, are framed by the Sabbath command at the end of chapter 31, and the Sabbath celebration beginning at the top of chapter 35. The action picks up right where it left off, crisis averted, and the tabernacle is completed. The portable sanctuary, the symbol of the Garden of Eden and of God’s immediate presence with God’s people. And all this sets the stage for Israel eventually entering Canaan, which is also seen as, as I said, sacred space where only purity can dwell, and impure elements like the Canaanites are vomited out as we read in Leviticus for example. And where the temple would be erected under Solomon. But, ya know, can’t do that now. All that is for perhaps another series one day, and I’ll see about that. I’ve got a lot of other ideas, by the way, for my solo podcast for season four, but, at this point nothing is written on stone tablets, ha ha.  

[End of recorded material]
49:07 [Music begins]
Pete:  49:08 Hey folks, again, let’s bring this to a close. Thank you for being with me during this series. I had tons of fun. I hope you did too, and that this has been helpful. Just as a reminder, that we here at the Bible for Normal People are currently in a campaign to increase our patrons on Patreon to help us fund some initiatives, the first of which is transcribing all of our podcast episodes. All three seasons going back, and from here on out. People have been asking for that. And so, our goal is to hit 1,611 patrons by the end of 2019. Right around the corner folks. Why 1,611? Well, because 1611, that’s the year the King James Bible, the Bible that Moses, Jesus, and Paul used was published. [Sigh] And please don’t email me telling me that’s not true, cause it’s just a joke. OK. You can become a patron for as little as $1 a month by going to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, and folks, thanks again for your support and for downloading and listening to this series, and for everything you do. So, thanks so much, and we’ll see you next time. 
50:18 [Music continues]

Pete:  50:26 I have to start over again, I’m sorry. After Israel died. After Solomon dies. My mouth is just so tired David, I don’t know why. I’m not sleeping, that’s why, OK. 
50:33 [Beep]
Pete: 50:34  Which is why God says to Mosec, Moses, basically, I have to start that sentence again Dave, I’m sorry. Which is why God says to Mosec. [Sigh] I can’t say the word Moses. I’ll try it again. 
50:45 [Beep]
Pete:  50:46 Chapters thirty-two to twenty, rather thirty-two, oh gosh. 
50:49 [Beep]
Pete: 50:50  Do you hear that? Mic had a scratchy litter box.  David, this is my life in a nutshell. Give it a second. 
[Cat scratching in litter box]
Hey cat, ya done?  A couple seconds…a couple seconds…
[Scratching continues]
OK, the cat left, alright. Haha, we’re just about done, what a pain. 

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Pete Ruins Exodus (part 1)

Pete Ruins Exodus (Part 1)

March 11, 2019

There’s a lot more going on in the book of Exodus than what you’ve seen on the big screen or heard in church. More than a story of deliverance, Exodus is a subtle literary creation that contains many surprises when we read it closely. Join Pete here for Part 1 of this series where he looks at some big picture issues (like “did it happen?”) before walking us through the themes of chapters 1 and 2.

Read the transcript


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.

[Jaunty Intro Music]

Hey everybody, welcome to another episode of the Bible For Normal People.  Today’s episode is a solo episode.  Not only that, but it’s the beginning of a series on the book of Exodus that I’m calling “Pete Ruins Exodus,” just because I like being that kind of guy.  This is not about ruining anything.  It’s more about digging deeper into something that is familiar to a lot of people.

The story of Exodus has this universal appeal.  But I’d like to take a look at this book from other angles, not ones we might have gotten from Veggie Tales or the Ten Commandments or the Prince of Egypt or something like that.  Because there’s a lot going on.  This is a deeply theological book.  I think it’s just a fun thing to look at.  That’s all.  I just like the Bible and I want to talk about it.  So here we go.

Also, I said a series.  This is a series.  Do not hold me to how many episodes.  I have no idea.  It just depends on how things go.  We’ll see.  It could be three.  It could be 30.  Not 30.  But, it’s going to be something more than just a couple, because there’s a lot going on.  Especially, with the first three/four chapters, those are such thick and rich chapters.  So much information is just baked into these chapters, that I think that it’s well-worth our time to maybe slow down a little bit at the beginning and take larger chunks as we go on.  That’s sort of what I’m planning.

My plan, then, is to, as you’ll see in a second, divide the book of Exodus into sections.  And for each section, drop down into the book and focus on things that, I think, are interesting or important or the kinds of things a lot of people talk about, all for the purpose of helping us understand the theology of this book more clearly, because it is a book of theology.  There’s no question about that.

Now as we get started, there are a couple of background issues that all have to do with history that keep coming up, and I want to introduce them here.  We’ll come back to them occasionally during the course of these podcasts.  But the first has to do with authorship of the book, namely who wrote it, and when.  The bottom line is nobody knows.  Nobody really knows who wrote the book of Exodus.  In fact, most scholars think that is was compiled more than written from various traditions over several centuries and then brought together at a later time in Israel’s history.  That is pretty much my point of view as well.  But it’s not the most important thing we’ll talk about here, because we are going to try to deal on the level of where theology and history sort of come together, and not focus entirely on things like where did the book come from, who wrote it.  Those things are relevant.  We’ll see that in a second.  But it’s not the focus.  But the bottom line is nobody really knows who wrote the book.  To say that Moses wrote it is really a guess because the book’s anonymous, just like Genesis.  They’re all anonymous.  We don’t know who wrote any of these books.

Tradition has Moses, but a lot of work, not just in the modern period, but even going back to Medieval Judaism and even before that, people have picked up that it’s hard to look at a book like Exodus and say, one person wrote this in one sitting at the time of Moses’ life, which might have been right around the 13th Century or something like that.  It’s unlikely that that’s the case.  But this podcast series is not about that.  I’m just throwing it out there because it will come up. 

The other issue is just, the basic(est) issue of historicity, fancy way of saying, “Did any of this happen?”  What I’ll do is, as we go through the podcast, is say things like, “In the logic of the narrative,” because I don’t necessarily want to commit myself to whether things happened or didn’t happen.  I do think things happened.  We’ll get to that in a second too.

Again, defending the book historically is not my point.  I don’t want to defend anything and I don’t want to presume anything one way or the other.  I want to just let the book have its way and talk the way it wants to talk.

Did any of this happen?  That’s a question that’s of some importance, especially for some modern readers, not for everyone.  I think of it this way.  The reason why digging into history is actually more than just interesting, but it’s important, is that, while these texts were written by people at some point in time in the past, and knowing something of context, knowing something of when might help us understand something of why these texts were written. 

I mean, think about this.  Pick a figure like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and say, “Yeah.  I want to talk about Martin Luther King Jr.  I want to talk about Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”  Somebody might say, “Okay.  Well, for Martin Luther King, Jr., we have to talk about also just the setting of the 1960s’ Civil Rights Movement.”  You say, “No way.  I don’t—I’m not interested in that.  I just want to talk about Martin Luther King Jr. or FDR.” “Yeah.  He helped America get out of the Depression and he was the president during the Second World War.”  And somebody says, “Hold on a second here.  Who cares? I just want to talk about Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”  You can see how nonsensical that is.  Right?  You have to talk about context because human beings are contextual beings and social beings.  No one’s an island.  Knowing something about the past setting might help us understand the theology of the text, which is really the goal for me.


Not only that, but you have sort of a triangle here.  You’ve got history, theology and then other aspect is the Bible as literature.  And it is.  We’ll see that too, here in the book of Exodus. 

Think of it this way.  You have a writer living in history who is trying to communicate something of a theological nature through writing.  How he writes the literature, when he writes the history affect how we read the theology.  Those things all hang together.  To just read Exodus without a view towards literature or history, it can really wind up obscuring the message and not helping it very much.

A few more words about history.  Because again, this is something that comes up a lot and so much of this book is an object of apologetic defense.  Did the Exodus happen as the Bible says it did?  Just introduce it here.  I don’t want to get into it too much.  We’ll see things along the way.  But it’s worth noting, first of all, that there is no direct evidence whatsoever for an Israelite presence in the land of Egypt at any point in time.  In other words, there’s just nothing there.  There’s nothing Egyptian, and the only source we have is an Israelite source, the Bible.  We don’t have any musings from other nations.  We don’t have any material, evidence, in other words, archeological evidence.  There’s nothing there. 

There’s evidence for a lot of things that are in the Bible.  But for this big event, we just don’t see much.  That’s at least worth stating.  That doesn’t prove nothing happened.  But it’s at least a fact.  It is a fact that we don’t have evidence.

Now some say, not to get into this too much, but some say, “Why would we expect the Egyptians to talk about this humiliating defeat on the part of a slave population that left Egypt?  They would want to bury that and not talk about it.”  That’s just not true.

What ancients did was, when something bad happened, they didn’t try to ignore it.  They spun it.  I would expect something.  We see this, actually, elsewhere in the Old Testament, vis a vis, other nations and how they talk about things.  We would expect the Egyptians to have spun and said, “Listen, our gods were mad at us.  Therefore, we lost our slaves.  It’s not that we’re weak.  It’s that we were disobedient.”  That’s a common ancient way of handling embarrassing moments.

Plus, you can’t really keep this quiet.  It’s not like no one would have heard of it.  It was pre-internet, but still, the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Edomites, the Babylonians, somebody would have heard of this mass escape of slaves and the economic and ecological destruction of Egypt.

It’s hard to imagine that the silence of Egyptian sources is actually an argument for historicity, which is how some people try to defend.  But I think it just doesn’t work.  Having said that, I think there is suggestive evidence for the fact that something happened, which is sort of my position.  Something happened.

For example, one of the oldest pieces of Hebrew literature that we have comes from the book of Exodus, Chapter 15.  The oldest manuscripts we have of Exodus are a couple of hundred years before Christ.  Nothing really before that.  That’s the Dead Sea Scrolls. That’s the oldest textual evidence we have of anything in the Bible, with a couple of exceptions, but not really relevant for this discussion.

But, Chapter 15, called the Song of Moses or the Song of the Sea—this is considered, by linguists, to be evidence of very old writing on the part of the Hebrews.  It could go as far back as about 1200 BCE, which would make it very old and would make it not long after these kinds of events would have transpired.  Just think about that.  Exodus 15 is a song praising Yahweh for killing the Egyptians in the sea.  That’s really what it is.  “You’re so great.  You’re awesome.  Blah.  Blah.  Blah.” 

Probably Exodus 15 was changed and adapted and added to later in Israel’s tradition.  Probably the Exodus 15 that we have was not all old from the 12th Century, but there are elements of it that linguists say make sense in that time period.

Think of it this way: if someone were to find a manuscript that has a lost Shakespearean play or something like that, we would know instinctively where to put that historically.  We wouldn’t put it in the 19th Century.  We wouldn’t put it in the 12th Century.  We wouldn’t put it in the 21st Century.  We’d put it where it belongs, right in the middle there somewhere.


We know enough about the development of the English language to know pretty much where things should belong.  That’s what linguists do of Semitic languages like Hebrew and others.  They’re able to see evolutionary developments in languages because all languages evolve.  All languages develop.  You can see signs of that in Exodus 15, along with passages like Judges Chapter 5.  This is the story of Deborah.  That’s another one.  Very often, scholars will look at Genesis 49, Jacob’s last words to his sons before he dies.

It’s interesting.  This is suggestive that the earliest memory we have of the Israelites is something that has to do with departing from Egypt.  It’s interesting.  That’s like the earliest record we have. 

It’s also the earliest record we have of. Yahweh as a warrior, which doesn’t stay that way throughout the whole Bible.  But early depictions of Yahweh as a warrior who rescues his people and beats up the Egyptians.  That suggests that this is a very old memory on the part of the Israelites and it’s not made up after the Exile or something like that.

Another echo of history here is several of the names, one of which is Moses’ name itself.  We’ll get back to that soon enough.  But Moses is almost—it just sounds like an Egyptian name.  You have that element.  Moses, that’s at the end of other names, like King Tut, King Tut Moses.  That’s the full name, which means something like “born of a god, born of the god Tut or Toth,” spelled, pronounced differently, depending on who you ask.

That Moses element seems to be part of an originally longer Egyptian name.  That doesn’t prove anything.  It doesn’t prove the historicity of Moses.  Doesn’t prove the historicity of the Exodus.  What is does indicate, though, is that there an Egyptian memory.  There’s something about Egypt that seems to be real and strong in Israel’s memory that would inspire the writing down of stories like this.

It doesn’t seem like this is simply made up of out of whole cloth. Who would make up, frankly, a story of national origins that goes, “Yeah, we were slaves for a long time and then we escaped.”  It doesn’t seem like the kind of story that you’re going to make up out of whole cloth.  There’s seems to be a real authentic memory of something that has made its way through Israel’s tradition and is now written down.

What some scholars say, and even Evangelical scholars (I shouldn’t say “even”), but just to indicate how relatively broad this way of thinking about it is, a way of looking at this book of Exodus is what some call mythicized history.  If you’re interested, I think I wrote a blog post about this a year or so ago.  You can find it on the website.

But mythicized history.  In other words, it’s history that mythicized.  Something happened, but then the way they tell the story gets overlaid with mythic elements.  I use that word without embarrassment or shame or hesitation, because that’s what they are.  We’ll get into this.  They’re mythic elements that are used to communicate the full force of the impact of the story.

There are ways of telling stories of origins in the ancient world and implying mythic themes is one of them.  We see that in the book of Exodus.  But here’s the point.  The root of it is some historical experience, but that gets told in any mythicized way, as opposed to the opposite, not historicized myth, but mythicized history is what I’m saying.

Others would say (this is really not a view that’s that common anymore that it would be, not mythicized history, but historicized myth.  In other words, it’s something that’s foundationally mythic, and then you just put some names and places attached to it to make it look historical.  That doesn’t seem to be the case.  You’re on pretty safe grounds saying something like, “There’s a historical base, but it’s mythicized.  That’s just the way they told stories back then.”

Again, those are just two preliminary issues:  authorship and historicity.  We’ll get back into all this stuff, no doubt, as we continue this series.

But here, let’s start this way.  The big picture.

Exodus, second book of the Bible.  Got it.  Good.

Forty chapters long and I like looking at books of the Bible from a thirty-thousand-foot view.  When I do that, I see these 40 chapters and I divide the book into two parts.  The first 15 chapters are all about departing from Egypt and then the rest of the book are all about the Sinai experience.  So 1-15 and then basically 16-40.  Most of Exodus happens on Mount Sinai.

By the way, Mount Sinai is really the location of, not just most of Exodus, but all of Leviticus and the first ten chapters of Numbers.  Basically, the center chunk, the heart of the Pentateuch, takes place on Mount Sinai.  About a year transpires in the logic of the narrative.  About a year transpires on Mount Sinai, which means, you’re really slowing down the clock here and spending a lot of time at what happens on this mount, which is an indication to us that this is important.  Exodus is really about getting to Mount Sinai.  That’s really what the story’s about.


Let’s break this down a little bit further, because this is where we’re going to go with this series.  Chapters 1 to 15.  This is all about the departure from Egypt.  I would say the first four chapters are all about preparation.  It’s about the preparation for the actual departure.  The problem is introduced.  Moses is introduced.  We can sort of see where this is going. 

Then, starting in Chapter Five and going to Chapter 13.  Now we have Moses engaged with Pharaoh and they’re battling and it’s the plague narrative.

Chapters 14 and 15 are the story of the departure from Egypt itself, the Red Sea Crossing or the Sea of Reeds.  We’ll get to that too.  It’s probably Sea of Reeds.  It’s not Red Sea.

Chapter 14 is the narrative version of the departure from Egypt.  Chapter 15 is the poetic section.  That’s one of the older sections of Hebrew literature, as I mentioned before.  You have the preparation, the plagues, then the departure.  That’s the first 15 chapters.

The rest of the book is all about, first of all, getting to Mount Sinai.  That’s Chapters 16 to 18.  They arrive in Chapter 19.  They won’t depart from there until Numbers Chapter 10.  They’re going to be there for a long time. 

Then, the laws—that’s Chapters 20 through 24—20 is the Ten Commandments.  The rest are something called the Book of the Covenant (which we’ll look at some of those laws later on in this series).

Then comes this Tabernacle section.  That begins in Chapter 25.  The last—more than a third of the book is taken with something to do with the Tabernacle.  It’s a bit tedious.  We’re not going to spend 15 weeks on the Tabernacle, but we’re going to spend a little bit of time, because there’s stuff happening there that’s really, really interesting theologically. 

This is the stuff you skip.  If you’re reading through Exodus and you make it past the laws, you didn’t give up and you’re at the Tabernacle section because “who cares,” right?  But the instructions for building the Tabernacle are Chapters 25-31.  The actual building of the Tabernacle are Chapters 35-40.

Sandwiched in-between is the famous episode of the Golden Calf, Chapters 32 to 34.  And we’ll take each of those in turn, obviously, when we get there.

That’s the basic gist of it and, I thought, today, we’ve got a little bit of time.  We can just start off her with Section One and see where we go, because I have no idea where we’re going.  We’ll see where we go.  Who knows where we’ll end up.  Anyway.  Okay.

Section One.  This is about Chapters 1 to 4.  This is about the preparation, as I said.  We’re going to take a little more time here because these are thick chapters.  There’s a lot going on.  It’s not just preliminary stuff to get out of the way.  It’s sets up what’s going to follow.  I think it’s worth paying some attention to.

The big view here (these first four chapters) is that there’s a problem, a big problem.  From the Egyptian point of view, here’s the problem.  The problem is that there are too many Israelites and they might rebel.  The solution is, eventually—well, there are actually three that are attempted.  One is enslavement.  That sort of works, but it doesn’t work.  We’ll look at that in a second.  Another is, you have—the midwives are told (if you’re familiar with this story)—the midwives, these two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, are told to kill the mail children when they’re born.  That doesn’t work.  Eventually, the third solution is to throw the male Hebrew children into the Nile.

Israel is under threat.  They’re not just enslaved.  They’re actually under threat.  That poses a problem.  Israel’s under threat.  Now another solution is offered.  This solution is, of course, Moses—Moses is called to deliver the Israelites.  We’re introduced to Moses here in this part of the story.

In Chapter One—these are just some things that I think that are worth noticing.  Throughout, I’ll be looking at the New Revised Standard Version if you want to follow along.  That would be fine too.  In fact, I hope you do, as long as you’re not driving.

Chapter One.  Here are some things that I think are worth noticing in the chapter that aren’t always drawn out.  Actually, three in the first chapter.  The first is the introduction of a theme that will become very, very important in the course of this book, and that is the theme of creation.  You can see this already.  It’s hidden a little bit, but not too much.  In Chapter One, look at Verse 7.  It talks about how the Israelites were fruitful and prolific and they multiplied. 

This is echoing Genesis One language because the Israelites are actually doing what they’re supposed to be doing.  They’re in accordance with God’s will by increasing in number, which is exactly the thing that has this Pharaoh freaked out, this unnamed Pharaoh freaked out.  And so he wants to do something about it.  He says, “There are too many.  They might actually rebel against us and join with our enemies and fight against us.  We can’t have this.  We have to keep them under wraps.”  Which is why he enslaves them.  That’s the first attempt.


But you see, we should not lose sight here of how Pharaoh and Egypt are being posited here by the writer as sort of an anti-god force.  Not just ???? enslavement, but the problem they have is that there are too many Israelites, which is exactly what God wants.  By trying to keep the population down, they’re going against the creation mandate.

As I said, is something that will come up again and again and again in, especially, the first fifteen chapters—actually, no, the whole book.  What am I talking about?  The whole book has this creation theme happening and it’s introduced to you already.  Actually, when they’re enslaved, as an attempt to curtail the population, we read in verse 12, the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread.  It actually backfires.  That attempt to reduce the population actually results in them increasing all the more.  This is an indication of God’s favor.  This is actually an indication of where this whole book’s going.

Egypt’s attempt to hold the Israelites at bay and to squash the Israelites and to squash their god are going to backfire.  They’re not going to work.  This is already hinted at here at the very beginning.

Actually, speaking of Genesis here, this is a connection back to Genesis One.  But there’s another interesting connection here to Genesis, which again, shows us something of the literary style and intentionality of this writer.  Because in verse 10, this is the people saying, “Look.  The Israelites—they’re more numerous, more powerful than we.  Come let us deal shrewdly with them.”  That same cadence, that same language is used in the Tower of Babel story.  “Come let us make bricks.  Come let us build the tower up to heaven.”

Of course, that effort (if you know that story) is squashed by God, because God later says, “Come let us go down and see.”  The divine response also begins, “Come let us.”  As you’re reading this, you see here an echo of the Tower of Babel story.  Again, this is an indication that at some point in the Exodus story, God is also going to have a “come let us” moment.  And that’s called the Plagues and the Red Sea.

It’s not terribly subtle.  It actually jumps out at you when you’re reading this story.  If we’re looking for and even expecting these writers to make these connections to other parts of their story, especially the book of Genesis, oh boy, is Genesis just a wonderful place for this writer to go to draw connections with the story of the Exodus.  If we’re expecting that, we’re going to see it and I think we should just keep our eyes open to all that stuff.


Creation theme.  That’s a big thing. 

A second thing is women in Exodus are being introduced here.  We have a few of them, especially in Chapter Two.  We’ll get to that.  They’re sort of heroes by undermining the work of this Pharaoh.  You have these two women, Shiphrah and Puah (by the way, who are named and Pharaoh isn’t).  I think one reason why Pharaoh isn’t named, because this may be very distant past memories and it doesn’t even matter who the Pharaoh is, but maybe they don’t remember his name.  But the point is that they do remember these midwives’ names, because they do something pretty good.  They outwit the king and they do so by lying.


The king says to—the Pharaoh rather—he says to “kill the male children when they’re born” and they’re not doing it.  He says, “What’s going on?”  They say, “You don’t understand, by the time we get there, these Hebrew women are so vigorous, by the time we get there, they’ve already given birth.  These are amazing women.  They just drop kids all over the place.  We can’t get there in time.”

That’s not true.  That’s a lie.  What a lot of my students wind up asking about this story (maybe you’ve asked it too), is why do they lie and why is it okay with God to lie like that.  I tell them, with complete respect, “that’s a very white question to ask.  That’s a very privileged question.”  Because when you’re living in a time where you don’t have power, where you’re disenfranchised, where you’re marginalized, you have no power.  There’s no court to go to.  There’s no lawyer.  There’s no legal system.  If you want to get away with stuff that you know is right, that you know that you have to do, in the face of absolute power, which is the king of Egypt, the Pharaoh, you have to be crafty and you have to lie.  This is not the only time we see this sort of thing in the Bible.  You have to tell stories to people in power to outwit them.  This is really not lying.  This is outwitting.  This is using your wiles and your abilities to think on your feet to allow God’s purposes to go forward.

It’s not a moral issue.  “Oh no.  They’re lying and it’s bad to lie.”  It’s not bad to lie.  Not here.  There’s actually something that scholars study.  It’s called the trickster theme.  This is the theme that appears in many places in the Old Testament, where, just like it suggests, you are tricking other because you’re disenfranchised and you’re out of power and this is what you have to do.

Again, we’re going to meet other women, especially in Chapter Two with Moses’ sister and Pharaoh’s daughter.  You have this group of women in Chapters One and Two who outwit the almighty Pharaoh, which makes him look rather ridiculous, that he’s being so easily outwitted by these women.  I think that’s, in my opinion, the intention of the writer.  It’s not simply—it’s not to elevate women in the abstract, although we can read it that way.  I don’t that’s the intention of the writer.  My opinion—I don’t think it’s to elevate women, as much as it is to make Pharaoh look ridiculous that you have his sister, Moses’ sister, and Pharaoh’s own daughter and these two lowly Hebrew midwives who are slaves, they’re able to outwit this Pharaoh so he doesn’t know what’s going on.  As a result, Moses is drawn into the household of Pharaoh and he grows up there, which will have rather significant implications as the story goes on.

Third thing.  We have the creation theme.  The introduction of women in Exodus.  Also, this idea of drowning the male children in the Nile.  That’s the third of the three attempts on the part of Pharaoh to reduce the population of the Israelites.  It’s only the male children, of course, as is with the midwives.  Here is it with the Nile.  It’s only the males because they’re the ones who go to war.  They’re also the ones through whom the lineage is traced and so if you want to further disenfranchise a people that have, let’s say, a nationalistic or an ethnic identity, the way to do that is to get rid of the men.  The women will become the property of other men, namely Egyptians.  So you get rid of them.  This makes some sense historically.

But the men here are thrown into the Nile.  Male infants are thrown into the Nile for drowning.  We have to think here of how this story will end.  The Red Sea.  Especially the Tenth Plague too.  The Tenth Plague and the Red Sea.  The way many interpreters, especially Jewish interpreters throughout history have read this, is that the Tenth Plague, which is the death of the firstborn, and also the Red Sea, which is the drowning of the Egyptians, that’s sort of tit for tat.  It’s eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth.  “If you do this to my children at the beginning,” Yahweh says, “Justice means it will happen to you at the end.”  That’s the Tenth Plague and the Crossing of the Red Sea.

The plagues as a whole are really, in my opinion, just an onramp to get to the Red Sea episode.  There are Ten Plagues.  They’re rather drawn out.  We’ll get into all that stuff.  It could have been one plague.  It could have been none.  It could have just been “go out.”  Just leave, just part, go through the Red Sea.  But you have this Ten Plagues and it goes on for a bit.  It’s all about building up the tension for that final moment where God finally does what, again, in the logic of the narrative, God finally does what God has been wanting to do, namely, vengeance on the Egyptians.  “You will die because of how you treated my children.”

It’s interesting.  When we get to Chapter Four, we’ll see how when God tells Moses to confront Pharaoh, he says, “Is this what you say?  Israel is my son, my first-born.”   Israel is like God’s child.  “If you do this to my children, then your children are going to get it too.”  It makes sense.  The theology makes sense is what I’m saying.  It may be a little bit gruesome, the violence here, but again, you’re reading the Bible, folks.  We got to get used to the violence.  It’s all over the place.


Ok, so those are three things that happen in the first chapter and some of these things we’ll come back to, namely the Nile and the Creation theme.  Those things hang together.

In the second chapter, this is where Moses is born.  We’re introduced to Moses.  We’re told that he’s a Levite.  When the Bible gives details like that, it’s probably important, because we’re not given much information about the book of characters, and when we are, there’s probably a reason for it.  But here, we’re told that he’s a Levite.  Of course, his brother Aaron will be the first high priest.  He’s of the tribe of Levi as well.  That’s an important detail for this author because Tabernacle, sacrifice, priesthood, all this stuff gets introduced in the book of Exodus.  The main guy here, Moses, is of that same tribe and nd his brother, Aaron, who will be the high priest.  That’s just laid out there right here at the beginning.

A second thing here in terms of Moses’ birth in Chapter Two, is, as you know, the famous story, he’s put into a reed basket or a papyrus basket as the New Revised Standard Version has it.  And it’s lined with bitumen and pitch to keep it from sinking.  The Hebrew word here for this basket is a rare word in the Old Testament.  It’s only used here and then way back in the flood story to describe the ark.  The Hebrew word is “tevah.”  That’s not irrelevant.  That’s pretty important because what you have is Moses—this is like another Noah, and he’s in an ark and he will be delivered from this watery threat.  As a result, there will be a new beginning for God’s people, just like the Noah story.  He and his family are saved through a threat of water and as a result, they’ll start something new.

We’re seeing the Noah story revisited here, but not just a “what a nice little literary connection.”  The point is more theological that God is doing something new and you know he’s doing something new when he’s saving people through water.  Guess where else in this story God is going to save people through water?  Exactly.  Chapter 14 and 15.  The departure from Egypt.  The crossing of the Sea of Reeds.  You’ve got this water deliverance in this story that actually echoes back to Genesis Chapter One as well.  I’m going to leave that for later, because it’s really clear when you get to Chapter 14 that it’s not just Noah, but we’re going back to Genesis Chapter One in this story.  There are echoes of the creation story itself later on, very prominently when we actually depart Egypt.

You have a reed basket.  Also, as I mentioned before, you have the sister here who puts him afloat and follows the basket and sees where it goes and Pharaoh’s daughter picks it up.  The two of them conspire to keep this infant safe from Pharaoh’s hands.  “I happen to know this guy’s mother.  You want me to bring him back and have her breastfeed him until he’s ready?”  “Yeah.  That’d be great.  Go ahead and do that.”

Three months or so and then he comes back.  Actually, it’s more than that.  It’s not three months.  Actually, we don’t know how long it is.  When he’s ready, he comes back and then he grows up in the house of Pharaoh.  We have these thoughtful women outwitting Pharaoh and finding a way to keep this infant safe, because they’re looking at this infant and for whatever reason, this is a kid worth saving.  At least, that’s Pharaoh’s daughter’s point of view.  Moses’ sister would not have that kind of an issue, but she looks at him and says, “Wow.  This is fantastic.” 

We have these women outwitting Pharaoh again.  Also, the name Moses—I mentioned before it probably has an Egyptian echo to it.  But in the story itself, the writer gives Moses a very different meaning, a Hebrew meaning from a verb, a rare verb in the Old Testament that means “to draw out,” meaning “because I drew Moses out of the water, I’m going to call him Moses.”

A problem with this is that who’s giving Moses this name.  It’s Pharaoh’s daughter, which raises a couple of questions.  Number one:  did she know Hebrew?  The chances for knowing Hebrew, maybe, maybe not.  I think it’s unlikely.  Most people think it’s unlikely.  Why would she bother learning the tongue of the slaves?  They have to learn their tongue, not the other way around. 


But more importantly, why would she give him a Hebrew name to begin with if the whole point is to keep him safe.  At the dinner table with Pharaoh: “Hi.  This is Moishe.”  You’re not going to do that.  You’re going to do something else.  It’s unlikely that she gave him this name, but here’s what’s happening.  This is the pretty standard answer in Biblical scholarship, if it’s of interest to you.  I hope it is.   This is what is called a folk etymology.  It’s not a scientific, linguistic etymology.  But it’s a folk etymology.  It’s how the Israelites later explain the name of Moses from their point of view.  It’s possible the author may not have understood Moses’ name, maybe few people did.  Who knows?  But at least, the writer intentionally gives this name a Hebrew significance that has something to do with the story itself.  So it’s unlikely that Pharaoh’s daughter named him this, because it would have been rather nonsensical for her to do that.  The name has some historical residences with Egypt.  But from the Hebrew point of view, “who cares?”  That’s not furthering our story.  We’re going to look at this differently and give him a Hebrew etymology, which means “to draw out of water.”

One more thing about Moses being drawn out of water.  Everybody talks about this.  This parallels a much, much, much older story, going back to late third millennium BCE, of a king, Sargon, of a place called Akkad (there’s where we get the word Akkadian from, if that helps).  We have a similar kind of rags to riches story.  He’s threatened and he’s saved by the court and his life is threatened.  But then he grows up in this court and winds up becoming a great king.

The Moses story follows that pattern very nicely, so much so, that scholars typically think, not so much in terms of the Moses story is borrowed from this story of Sargon from a long time ago, but it’s more like a standard way of talking about the origins of a great person, sort of like a rags-to-riches story.  That seems to be what’s happening here, and again, these are the kinds of things have to be discussed when you’re talking about the historicity, like we said earlier, when you’re talking about the historicity of this episode.  These are the kinds of things that you have to really take into account somehow and try to explain.  Again, it may not mean that Moses never lived.  But it may mean that Moses’ actual history, the way we think of it, may not be exactly how the Bible here is portraying it, like where he got his name from.  This is a Hebrew overlaying.  This is not really mythical.  We’ll get to mythical overlays later.  But this is still a legendary or a theologically meaningful way of telling this story that really speaks to the people who are recounting their past and setting a vision for their present and a vision for their future.

If we’re expecting this to be totally distant from history and have no connection with the Sargon story, I think that’s a tough hill to climb.  Using literary motifs from other nations is not unheard of in the history of humanity.  You sort of do that.  You learn how to tell stories from the environment that you’re in.  That seems to be what’s happening here as well.  Moses is already being styled as, clearly, this guy’s going to be a great leader.  Look at how history is beginning.  This is how you tell the story of a great leader in that time.

Then he flees (little Moses) to Midian and he flees there because he was found out.  He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave and he intervened and he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.  Way to go Moses!  Way to not be impulsive!  But you see what’s happening here is that we’re seeing Moses as a grown man.  We know nothing of his infancy except for that little story.  But here is a grown man and he’s doing now what he’s going to be later on.  He’s protecting his people from the threat, from the Egyptian threat.

Actually, this whole Chapter Two that talks about Moses’ flight to Midian is a preview of coming attractions.  We’re seeing Moses do things that he’s going to be doing later on his life throughout Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  He saves a slave from the Egyptians, he protects his own people.  But then the next day, he sees two Hebrews arguing and he gets in the way of them and they say, “What are you going to do?  You going to kill one of us too?”

There’s this whole grumbling and rebellion against Moses’ authority on the part of his own people that pops up a lot.  If you know where this story goes, it pops up a lot in the story of Moses throughout the next few books of the Bible.  We have another example of something is that is a preview of coming attractions. 


The biggest one is that he flees and where does he flee to?  He flees to Midian, which anticipates the same path that the Israelites will take later on.  He goes to Midian (we’re jumping ahead here).  He meets Yahweh on Mount Sinai and Yahweh says, “Go get the people and bring them back here to worship.”  It’s almost like a trial run, escaping Egypt to go to Midian.  He’ll come back and then he’ll take the people. 

More subtlety, however, this story of going to Midian has another echo of something in Genesis, namely the Joseph story.  Joseph is cast into a well by his brothers, but then sold to the Midianites, who then give them over to the Egyptians.  There’s a Midian connection that brings Joseph to Egypt and there’s a Midian connection here to with Moses that will bring him back to Egypt.  Midian is also, if I remember this right, he’s also one of Abraham’s sons through Keturah named Midian.  There’s something about the ancestors in Genesis that is evoked by the word Midian. 

Another point about this flight to Midian is this is where he’s going to meet his wife by a well.  Zipporah.  She’s the daughter of Jethro, the priest of Midian.  This, again, connects him to these ancestral stories in the book of Genesis, namely Isaac and Jacob.  They both meet their wives by a well.  What is it about a well?  It’s like a bar.  I don’t know what it is.  It’s just where you meet girls or something.  Probably not.  It’s a motif.  It’s the dessert.  You’ve got to drink and you meet people by a well.  But he’s doing it too.  This is a continuation of this theme from Genesis. 

One last point and then we’ll stop for today.  We see here at the end of Chapter Two, I think, a very, very important moment in the story that is worth remembering.  It’s the last three verses of Chapter Two.  I just want to read them.

“After a long time, the king of Egypt died.”

This Pharaoh that had impressed them and enslaved them, he dies.

“This Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out.  Out of the slavery, their cry for help rose up to God.  God heard their groaning and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  God looked upon the Israelites and God took notice of them.”

The reason I want to draw this out just a little bit is because this is giving us the reason for the Exodus.  Why does God deliver His children from Egyptian slavery?  It’s basically to keep a promise to the Patriarchs, meaning Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  This is who God speaks to in the Old Testament in the book of Genesis, especially, in Chapter 15, where he’s engaging Abraham and he says, “Listen, your descendants are going to be slaves in Egypt for 400 years, but I’ll get them out and I’ll bring them into this land and everything will be fine.” 

This is a promise that God made.  It’s not simply God hates slavery.  Forgive me.  God clearly doesn’t hate slavery because there are salves all over the place.  There are even laws in Exodus about what to do with slaves and how to keep them and how to treat them.  Slavery is not a bad thing.  Not for this god.  Not for here. 

It’s not just “I don’t want slaves and I hear you crying out.  I hear you groaning and I don’t like slavery.”  It’s more “I made a promise to Abraham and I’m going to keep it.”  That is the reason why they’re delivered from Egyptian slavery.

The last verse—I love the last verse here because if I could throw a little Hebrew on you here—in English, it’s rather cumbersome.

“God looked upon the Israelites and God took notice of them.”

But in Hebrew, it’s just a few words.  “God saw the Israelites.  God knew.”

I just love that.  God saw.  God knew. 

This is not taking God by surprise.  God is going to do something.  From here on out, what we’re really going to see is what God is going to do to deliver the Israelites.  Not so much Moses.  But God sees and God knows.  And now something absolutely is going to happen.

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Alright folks, well we’re going to stop there. That’s not bad, we did half of this preparatory section 1-4, we’ll finish it next time, whenever that’ll be. I have no idea, I’m not planning this out folks, it’s just going to happen by Divine direction I think; it’s just going to happen. But until then, and as always, thank you for listening. Folks, when you press download and then push to listen, we’re very thankful that you’re letting us into your lives. We don’t take that for granted at all, and one last thing, this is important, it’ll change your life. So 3 simple words: Grab. Some. Swag. You can go to our store at thebiblefornormalpeople.com and you can find t-shirts of various colors, even youth sizes, with all sorts of fun little sayings on them and polo shirts, which I have, and fleece hoodies, hats, beanies, all different colors and sizes. We have a lot of mugs, tote bags, and we even have onesies for your babies. We’re actually working on an adult onesie but we’re trying to figure out whether that’s actually legal in the state of Pennsylvania. But if it is, oh boy, you’re going to see adult onesies here on this website. Because, why not? That’s why. Because that’s how we roll, man, and that’s what we do. Ok folks, anyway, thanks again for listening and we’ll be with each other next time. See ya.

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