Week 9 – The Faith of a Foreign Woman

Scripture Reading:  Ruth 1-4

Significant Moments in The Story

Naomi’s family leaves famine-stricken Israel for Moab – Ruth 1

Naomi and Ruth return as widows to Bethlehem – Ruth 1

Ruth gleans in Boaz’s fields – Ruth 2

Boaz and Elimelech’s next-of-kin agree that Boaz will marry Ruth – Ruth 4

Obed, the grandfather of King David, is born to Ruth and Boaz – Ruth 4

Key Themes

Kindness and faithfulness

The book of Ruth is a book about hesed, a Hebrew word which can be translated as “kindness” or “loyalty” or “faithfulness”.  Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz all speak of hesed (Ruth 1:8, 2:13, 2:20, and 3:10).  Ruth and Boaz are put forth as models of what it means to live life with kindness and faithfulness, and their hesed has a direct impact on the life of Naomi.  Hesed is also a word commonly used in the Old Testament to describe God.  God never appears directly in the story of the book of Ruth, though his name appears frequently.  Perhaps Ruth and Boaz are also living parables of the character of God.

The stranger and the alien

The story never lets us forget that Ruth is a Moabite.  The Moabites were long-time enemies of Israel, spanning from the Exodus until the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah after Israel’s return from exile in Babylon.  And yet, it is this foreigner – this enemy even – that models and lives out the faithfulness expected of Israel.  What more, Ruth is the great-grandmother of King David, of whose line the Messiah will be expected to arise.  Therefore, the story of Ruth would have struck the ears of the ancient Israelites with much the same shock as the Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), where the “enemy” turns out to be the good neighbor.  Ruth’s story reminds us, at this point in the biblical story, that God has chosen Israel as His people, but his ultimate will and purpose expands beyond the people of Israel.  We are also forced by the story to ask the same question that Jesus is asked when he tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, “Who is my neighbor?”  Ruth’s story calls into question our attitudes towards those we automatically deem our enemy and those who are strangers to us.

God’s more subtle ways

Though God never directly speaks or appears in the story of Ruth, His presence and His work are understood as running throughout the narrative.  The story of Ruth has no burning bushes, parting waters, or angel appearances.  Instead, we are reminded that God works in the quieter, more subtle ways.  A life of faithfulness believes in God’s miraculous and amazing works, but also makes room for the still, small voices and the gentle guiding of God’s Holy Spirit.

Background Information

“In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land …” – Ruth 1:1

The story of Ruth takes place during the days of the judges, a time we have already seen as an often dark and violent period in Israel’s history.  Perhaps we see in this verse a subtle hint of Deuteronomic theology (righteousness will be blessed, unfaithfulness will bring curses) – there was a famine in the land because Israel was once again unfaithful.  This might be heightened by the fact that we are told that Elimelech takes his family and leaves Israel to go to the land of Israel’s hated enemy, Moab.  Is this an act of unfaithfulness?  Is Elimelech unwilling to trust that God will provide, and so he forsakes the land God gave Israel to depend upon the land (and the gods) of Moab?

Understanding the setting as the time of the judges also helps us understand the circumstances in place when Ruth and Naomi return to Israel.  Here are two single women returning to a land where women have been the victims of horrible violence and exploitation (Judges 19,21).  Boaz’s concern for Ruth in Ruth 2:8-9 is perhaps an indication that circumstances have not changed much.  The challenge that Naomi and Ruth faced living in Israel was great indeed.

Mara – Ruth 1:20

The name Mara is best translated as “Bitter”, whereas the name Naomi means “Beautiful” or “Pleasant”.  Thus, Naomi’s name change indicates that her circumstances have changed her physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  In one sense, we could say that, though this book is named for Ruth, it is really a story about Naomi.  She is the only character in the story that truly goes through a dramatic change.  The woman who begins the story as Bitter, sure that God has intentionally sought to bring harm to her and complaining that she is “empty”, ends the story with all the women of the town pronouncing her blessed.  Throughout the story, we have seen this empty woman’s arms be filled with grain and, in the end, with a child who will preserve her family’s name and place in Israel.

Gleaning – Ruth 2:3

Deuteronomy 24:19-22 instructs the Israelites to open their fields to the widows and aliens in their midst.  If crops were forgotten, dropped, or left behind in the fields, they were to be left for widows, orphans, and aliens to gather for their own needs.  Boaz’s faithfulness is exhibited by his obedience to this law as he allows Ruth and other women to glean in his fields.

The threshing floor – Ruth 3

Winnowing depended on the winds to blow away the chaff, and those winds would blow strongest late in the day and in the early evening.  Afterwards, the remaining pile of grain would need to be guarded overnight from theft.  Often times, threshing floors would be open air floors on top of a hill to maximize the wind.

Ruth 3 cannot be read without admitting that there is a strong essence of the sensual and sexual in the text.  Around the time when Ruth was likely written, threshing floors had a connotation connected with prostitution (Hosea 9:1).  To “uncover his feet” was a euphemism used to refer to exposing one’s genitals.  The phrases about “making yourself known” and “lying with” were common phrases used to refer to sexual relations.  The storytelling in Ruth 3 is exquisite, leaving us wondering exactly what happened between Ruth and Boaz during that night.  This tension though only serves to heighten the understanding that both Boaz and Ruth are examples of hesed – Ruth is faithful to her promise to Naomi, and Boaz honors both Ruth and Naomi as well as honors the law which indicates that there is another kinsman that must be given the opportunity to marry Ruth.

Elimelech’s next of kin – Ruth 4:1-12

The story of Boaz’s meeting with the next-of-kin seems rather odd to many modern ears.  It was customary that, if a man died without fathering any children by his wife, that the man’s brother would marry his sister-in-law and father children with her (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).  These children would be understood to be the children of the deceased man and thus the inheritors of the deceased man’s property.  Boaz is not Elimelech’s closest relative, and so he cannot marry Ruth until the closest next-of-kin renounces his right to marry her.

The city gate was often where legal hearings would take place.  Often times, townspeople would serve as a jury.  Thus, Boaz convenes a legal hearing when he asks the ten men to hear the case between him and the next-of-kin.  They will also serve as witnesses to the agreement that Boaz and the next-of-kin make.

Some Questions That Might Come Up

Why does Boaz take the next-of-kin’s sandal in Ruth 4:7-8

The way the story is told – “Now this was the custom in former times” – indicates that at the time this story was written down, this custom was no longer in practice.  Deuteronomy 25 states that, in a case where a brother-in-law refuses to marry the wife of his dead brother in the presence of the elders, the widow is to come and pull the shoe off his foot, spit in his face, and announce, “This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.”  The practice seems to be an act of humiliation as punishment for not following through on one’s obligation to one’s family.  In the case of Ruth 4, the humiliating aspect of the ceremony seems to have been removed, leaving only the removal of the shoe to serve as a visible reminder of the agreement.

Some Reflection Questions

  1. Meanings of Biblical names are always significant. Elimelek’s name meant “my God is King.” Naomi’s name meant “my pleasantness,” but later asked to be called Mara, meaning “bitterness.” Ruth’s name meant “friendship.” Boaz’s name meant “swift strength.” Who best lived up to their names and who did not?
  2. Compare Naomi’s attitude at the beginning and end of this story. How does her view of God and the Upper Story change?
  3. Look at Ruth and Boaz’s interaction with Naomi. What can you learn about the challenges and benefits of caring for an aging parent? What challenges do you face with your parents?
  4. The period of the Judges was marked by weak faith and irresponsible living, but this foreign woman gives hope. What specific examples of strong faith and responsible living can you find in the characters of Ruth and Boaz?
  5. The story of Ruth demonstrates laws that God had given Israel to take care of marginalized people (Deuteronomy 25:5-10, Leviticus 25:25, Leviticus 19:9-10). What do these laws and customs reveal about the heart of God for the poor, the widow and the orphan? How could your group care for the less fortunate and thereby reflect the heart of God?
  6. The love story of Ruth and Boaz stands in contrast to many of the “love” stories we hear today. What can single men and women learn from their example (note Ruth’s reputation in the community, p. 123, 125, Ruth 2-3).
  7. The word for redeem is used twenty times in this story, making it a key theme. What does it mean to be redeemed? How does Boaz’s redeeming of Ruth compare to our redemption found in Christ?
  8. What some people might call coincidence others call divine providence. What are some key examples of God’s divine providence in this story?

Additional Resources

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Week 8 – A Few Good Men…and Women

Scripture Reading:  Judges 2-4, 6-8, 13-16

Significant Moments in The Story

The death of Joshua & Israel’s “cycle of disobedience” – Judges 2

The judge Deborah & the Canaanites – Judges 4

The judge Gideon & the Midianites – Judges 6-8

Gideon’s fleece – Judges 6:36-40

The judge Samson & the Philistines – Judges 13-16

Samson & Delilah – Judges 15

Key Themes

The cycle of disobedience

Judges 2:11-19 establishes what will be the overarching pattern of the book of Judges – Israel will forsake God to worship other gods, they would fall to opposing nations, they would cry out to God for help, God would raise up a judge to deliver the people from their oppression, and a time of peace would follow.  Some interpret Judges not so much as a book of history but a book of religious instruction about the consequences of disobedience.  Indeed, as will be touched on later, there are a number of historical questions surrounding the book of Judges.  However, it also clear from the book itself that the stories told serve a didactic purpose:  even when God’s promises are fulfilled, the covenant relationship with God cannot be ignored.

An understanding of “the land”

To this point in the narrative of Scripture, the Promised Land has been the goal that Israel has been waiting to attain.  The book of Judges, at the very least, is the first descriptions of what living in the Promised Land looked like.

  • The land is a gift.  God intended the land to be a safe place for those who did not previously have a land of their own.  They did not acquire it by their own strength and power, but by the power of God.
  • The land is a summons.  Judges 2:1-2 is God explaining all that he has done for Israel in leading them out of slavery and giving them this land.  God says he will never forsake his covenant.  He then says that the land is both a gift and a calling, a calling to remain faithful to the relationship God has formed with Israel.  How will Israel respond to the gift they have received?
  • The land is a temptation.  Israel is no longer wandering in the wilderness having to look for sources of water and food. They now possess land, it is theirs.  With that safety comes the seduction of security – to forget the land is a gift they received rather than property they earned, to make possession of the land of greater significance than the covenant relationship with God who gave them the land.  Will Israel still be able to see God as the source and foundation of their life when they get into the day-to-day routines of living in the land?

Flawed heroes

The Bible does not put heroes on display through rose-colored glass.  Certainly, this is the case in the book of Judges, perhaps even more so.  Both Gideon and Samson are judges who deliver their people from oppression by foreign nations.  However, they are almost anti-heroes.  Gideon is constantly expressing doubt that God can do what God says He will do.  Before every action, Gideon asks God to prove Himself.  Even in the moment when it seems Gideon finally gets it – when he is asked to be king and he responds “The LORD will rule over you” (Judges 8:22-28) – he follows that up by asking the Israelites to give him their gold so that he can fashion an image which Israel will ultimately bow down to (think about the golden calf story).  Samson, for his part, is portrayed as a brash jerk who has little consideration for anyone besides himself, including God.  The only time that we hear any kind of faith on Samson’s part is when he asks God to give him the strength to bring the roof down on the Philistines (Judges 16:28).  Many of the stories of the judges are stories where we see God’s deliverance worked out through some of the most flawed people and circumstances.

Background Information

Baal – Judges 2:11-13

Baal was the name associated with the Canaanite god of fertility and storms.  In an agrarian culture, where life depended upon good crops and good soil, Baal was the chief god and the worship of Baal was central to the life of the people.  In the book of Judges, we see Israel settling into Canaan, a land where many of surrounding peoples worship Baal.  As Israel establishes roots in Canaan, it seems that they struggle with assimilating the worship of Baal into their worship of God and/or replacing the worship of God with the worship of Baal.  Though it might be easy for us today to ask why they would continue to do this after so many warnings to avoid such entanglements, it must be remembered that matters of faith were not separated out from other aspects of life.  For an agrarian society, the temptation to revere a god who was associated with the storms that renewed the land every year would have been not just a matter of belief but a matter of good business.

Astartes – Judges 2:13

Associated with the Canaanite fertility goddess Ashtoreth, an ally of Baal.

Judges – Judges 2:16

It is important to understand that a judge was not a king – their authority was neither absolute, permanent or hereditary.  Neither was a judge necessarily a legal figure, though Deborah seems to have had some kind of role in settling questions and disputes.  However, that may have been more associated with her role as a prophetess, one who explained the will and word of God to others.  In the book of Judges, the judges are instead portrayed as military leaders who are called out by God’s Spirit to deliver the people from oppression and rule over them for a time.  In some cases, these judges may have only been leaders in their specific tribes or over an alliance of a couple of tribes.

The nations the LORD left – Judges 2:21-23

Joshua 11:16-23 summarizes Joshua’s victories.  The picture that this passage portrays is that Joshua’s conquests were vast and almost absolute, that the people of Canaan save for the Gibeonites were “utterly destroyed.”  However, at the beginning of Judges, the picture that we see is vastly different.  We are told in Judges 1 of numerous groups of nations that continue to live in the land, and Judges 2 clearly says that there were nations that Joshua left when he died.  Judges portrays the continued existence of these nations in the Promised Land as God’s way of testing Israel’s faithfulness.

So how do we explain the two differing accounts that Joshua and Judges present of the Israelites’ conquering of the Promised Land?  There are a good number of historians who believe that Israel’s move into the Promised Land was a much more gradual process, more in line with the portrayal in Judges than in Joshua.  There are some who wonder if the narrative of Joshua reflects Israel’s initial entry and success in the land, basically summarizing the details of many years of fighting.

What should not be overlooked is that both Joshua and Judges are trying to do more than just recount history.  They are seeking to interpret history from a theological perspective.  They are not only seeking to speak to past events, they are seeking to address present issues in the relationship between God and His people.  Perhaps rather than taking on the difficult task of trying to make these seemingly contradicting timelines synchronize, we are better served letting each book speak its unique message.

The tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun – Judges 4:6

Another distinction between Joshua and Judges is that the action in Judges seems more regionalized and restricted to certain tribes.  For example, in the story of Deborah, only 2 tribes are called to fight against the forces of Sisera.  In Joshua, the Israelites are depicted as acting more as one nation.  In Judges, we see much more fragmented action.  This, along with the fact that the total number of years for the judges spans longer than the period of history that these battles actually would have taken place, has led to the idea that Judges may be a collection of stories of specific tribal leaders, some of whom were judges simultaneously.  Israel, at this time in their history, was much more a confederation of twelve tribes than a unified state.  It will not be until well into David’s reign that we will be able to really speak of a unified “Israel”.  Judges probably gives a more accurate portrayal of how Israel existed at this time – a loose alliance of tribes who expected their neighbors to join with them against an enemy or else face dire consequences (see Judges 8:4-17).

Choosing Gideon’s army – Judges 7:1-7

The story of how God leads Gideon to choose his army is fascinating.  However, it must be remembered that God’s purpose, as He explains to Gideon, is to insure that Israel does not take the credit that belongs to God.  First, Gideon tells all those who are afraid to fight to go home.  Then, from those that are left, God tells Gideon to take them to the water to get something to drink.  God tells him to send all those who knelt to get water home and keep all those who lapped the water like dogs.  Why is this such a significant difference?  It might be because those soldiers who lapped the water were likely the least trained, least prepared of all the soldiers.  The soldiers who knelt to drink probably did so that they could keep their head up and their weapon in their hand, ready for a surprise attack.  However, those who lapped the water like dogs would have to put their weapons down and would be completely oblivious to what was happening around them while they drank.  So, God sent Gideon into battle with the smallest group of Israel’s worst soldiers!

Nazirite – Judges 13:5

Interestingly, Samson is referred to more frequently as a nazirite than a judge.  The term means “one consecrated” or “one separated”.  As Judges describes, a nazirite’s dedication to God was symbolized by their refusal to drink of wine or intoxicating beverage and their refusal to cut their hair.  Some were believed to be set apart by a work or calling of God, others chose to become a nazirite of their own volition, in some cases maybe even just for a certain period of time in order to accomplish a specific task.

Some Questions That Might Come Up

Why would Gideon proclaim that only God would rule over Israel and then create a golden ephod that the people would worship?

First off, it should be noted that what God had feared earlier in the Gideon story has come true.  Notice in Judges 8:22 that Israel says, “Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also; for you have delivered us out of the hand of Midian.”  Remember when God was reducing the size of Gideon’s army because He was afraid if the army was too big that Israel would take the credit for victory themselves?  Sure enough, Gideon is getting all the credit for victory with no mention of God anywhere.  So, Gideon’s answer to this offer is indeed the seemingly righteous and faithful answer to give.

Which makes what happens next all the more perplexing and frustrating.  Gideon asks each person to give a golden earring that he melts down and has formed into a golden ephod.  Typically, an ephod was understood to be a priestly garment that was worn over the shoulders of the priest or might have been placed on the shoulders of an idol.  In this case, we are not certain if it is a garment or something else, perhaps even a replica of the ark of the covenant.  In any event, the result of his actions is that he creates an idol that Israel worships in place of God.

There are some who call Gideon’s motivations into question.  Notice that Gideon places this golden ephod in “his town” of Ophrah.  There are some who wonder if Gideon wasn’t trying to say all the right things about God being the ruler of Israel and, at the same time, control Israel in more subtle ways by controlling the religious life of the Israelites.  Or perhaps Gideon, whose family had been worshipers of Baal, is knowingly or unknowingly mixing foreign religious practices with the worship of the one God.  Dennis Olson, in the New Interpreter’s Bible, raises the possibility that Gideon may have offered Israel the ephod as a replacement for human leadership as a way of trying to shirk his responsibility to lead Israel as a judge.  The last verse of Judges speaks of the days when “… there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25).  Perhaps the Gideon story is a foretelling of coming chaos when there is no responsible leadership.

Gideon is one of the most complex figures of Scripture.  He is constantly asking God to prove Himself before following His commands.  Outside of Judges 8:23, we might define Gideon as more of a coward than a courageous and faithful leader like Joshua.  This episode with the golden ephod is one more factor that complicates how Gideon is remembered, both in our memories and the memory of Scripture.

Some Reflection Questions

  1. Israel is constantly running from the true God to other false gods. What are some of the false gods in our culture today? Which of them have you trusted?
  2. False gods trigger a cycle: a web of sin, God’s judgments, crying out for help, and God providing deliverance. What are some destructive cycles you have seen in your own life?
  3. Do you think that the Israelites did a good job of passing their faith to the next generation? How can we do this better in the church and in our own families?
  4. How would you describe Deborah? In what way does her story influence your view of women in leadership?
  5. Do you think Gideon’s request for a sign was an act of faith or an act of faithlessness? Does his faith change over time?
  6. Your friend, Samson, confides in you that he has trouble with women but doesn’t understand why. What would you tell him?
  7. In what ways was Samson a faithful man of God? In what ways was he not?
  8. What was Samson’s true weakness? How can you deal with your weaknesses before they become your downfall?
  9. Where do you see God’s grace in this chapter?
  10. Which character in this chapter stands out to you and why? How can you be more like them?

Week 7 – The Battle Begins

Scripture Reading:  Joshua 1-2, 6, 8, 10-11, 23-24

Significant Moments in The Story

Joshua sends spies to Jericho – Joshua 2

Israel crosses into the Promised Land – Joshua 3

The fall of Jericho – Joshua 6

Joshua retells the story of Israel and challenges Israel to recommit to covenant – Joshua 23-24

Key Themes

Conquering the Promised Land

The book of Joshua is the story of God inviting Israel to share in the fulfillment of the promise that God had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Though it is the armies of Israel that fight on the battlefield, Joshua is insistent that it is the LORD that gives the victory in battle.  The battle for the Promised Land is also understood to be an extension of God’s judgment upon those nations who were settled in the Promised Land (see “Some Questions That Might Come Up” below).

Faithful Obedience

Though the book of Joshua is dominated by scenes of battle and military victories, the book’s climax comes in Joshua 24, when Joshua stands before Israel and says, “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15).  The entire narrative rests upon the idea that Israel will hold onto the land for the same reason that they enjoy success in conquering the land:  faithfulness to God and obedience to His commandments.  This will set up the story of Judges and ultimately the story of Kings, when faithlessness to God and His covenant is what will ultimately be understood to lead to defeat and exile.

God’s Fulfillment of His Promise

Through challenges of infertility, sibling rivalry, famine, slavery, and rebellion, God proves faithful to his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Their descendants are given possession of the land which Abraham was first promised all the way back in Genesis 12.  At Shechem, Joshua reminds the people of their entire history with God (Joshua 24:1-13).  This narrative is not just a family history; it is Joshua’s way of reminding them that God has delivered on His promises.  The question is: will Israel remain true to their promises to God? (See Joshua 24:16-27 for Israel’s promise and Joshua’s doubt about their ability to keep their promise!).

Background Information

The Great Sea – Joshua 1:4

This refers to what we know today as the Mediterranean Sea.

The Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh – Joshua 1:12-18

This refers to 3 of the 12 tribes of Israel – the tribe of Reuben, Gad, and part of the tribe of Joseph.  In Genesis 48, Jacob blesses Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, and says they will be equal inheritors of the covenant.  Thus, the half-tribe of Manasseh was part of the tribe of Joseph.

In Numbers 32, these tribes approached Moses about receiving their inheritance of land not in Canaan but in territory just outside of Canaan that the LORD had conquered for Israel.  The reason for their request, according to Numbers 32, was that these tribes possessed a lot of cattle and the land on the other side of the Jordan River from Canaan was good for grazing.  It was agreed that they could settle in this land, but only on the condition that they would still go in and fight with the remaining tribes to conquer the peoples who lived in Canaan.  Thus, here in Joshua 1, Joshua is reminding these tribes of this promise, and they are reaffirming their commitment to fight alongside the rest of Israel.

 

Jericho – Joshua 2, 6

Jericho was a city east of Jerusalem near several fords in the Jordan River, making it an entrypoint to Canaan from the east.  Archaeology has had a difficult time verifying the events of the battle of Jericho as they are described in the Bible.  Some believe that Jericho at the time that we believe Israel entered Canaan would have been nothing more than an unfortified village.  There are several other cases of such discrepancy in Joshua’s accounts of battles, leading some to wonder if these battles were later episodes that were ascribed back in history to the great military leader Joshua.

 

Ai – Joshua 8

The battle of Ai is another circumstance where the Biblical description and the archaeological evidence have a hard time synchronizing.  Many archaeologists believe Ai was an unwalled village that was uninhabited during the time of Israel’s settlement in the land.  It’s name means “ruin”, which some have taken as an indication that the Biblical story was a later narrative intended to explain the existence of a ruined city in the land.

In Joshua 7, Israel attempts to attack Ai, a city where “there were so few people” that Joshua did not even take the whole of Israel to battle against them.  When Joshua confronts God to explain why Israel was defeated, God responds that the defeat came about because someone had taken for themselves some of the gold and silver from Jericho that was to have been put into the treasury of the LORD.  The story of the battle of Ai is seen as an example of the demand for faithful obedience to every command of God.

 

Shechem – Joshua 24:1

It seems that Shechem was a place of some significance to early Israel.  Both Abraham (Genesis 12:7) and Jacob (Genesis 33:18-20) are said to have been altars to God at Shechem.  Now, Shechem becomes the place where Joshua asks the Israelites to reaffirm their commitment to God and to His covenant.

 

“Put away the foreign gods that are among you…” – Joshua 24:23

The question that arises is, where did these “foreign gods” come from?  There are several possibilities, and the answer may lie in some combination of them.  Though the book of Joshua portrays the conquest of the Promised Land as total, swift,  and complete (Joshua 11:23), the book of Judges portrays the occupation of the Promised Land as a gradual process with ebbs and flows, indicating that the Israelites were living among other nations who worshiped different gods.  We have also already seen that, even before crossing into the Promised Land, some Israelites were marrying foreign spouses that were leading them to worship other gods (Numbers 25).  Perhaps some of that influence remained intact at this stage of Israel’s journey.  The book of Joshua does tell us that some of the peoples of Canaan were allowed to live, namely Rahab and her entire family (Joshua 6:22-25) and the inhabitants of the city of Gibeon (Joshua 9).  Perhaps Joshua’s command to “put away the foreign gods” was an indication that these peoples were keeping alive some of the religious practices of Canaan.  It must also be remembered that it was more than just the original 12 tribes of Israel that made up the nation at this point.  Other clans and tribes are likely to have joined with Israel not only in the Exodus but in their journey to the Promised Land.  Perhaps what we have here is an indication that some of the religious practices of these peoples who had joined with Israel had been kept alive either alongside the worship of the LORD or maybe even in secret.

 

Some Questions That Might Come Up

Why does God command that all the people of the cities be killed?

The book of Joshua is a story of war, and thus it presents a very difficult challenge to many and their picture of God.  We see Joshua and the Israelites decimating entire cities, killing all the women and men of a city.  The book portrays all of this as action, if not directly ordered by God, at least endorsed by God.  We are left asking the question, “Why would God want all of these peoples killed, especially those that we would identify as innocent non-combatants?”

In Deuteronomy 9:4-5, Moses tells Israel that God has not brought them into possession of this land because of their righteousness.  Instead, he has done so because of His promise to Abraham and because of the wickedness of the people of Canaan.  Thus, the settling of Israel in the Promised Land is portrayed, in part, as an act of God using Israel to punish the people of Canaan for their worship of false gods and some of their religious practices, which may have included the offering of children as sacrifices.  Thus, the violence of Joshua is at least, in the Biblical witness, shrouded in an understanding that this violence is an act of divine judgment.

Some also wonder if perhaps, similar to Moses in the situation of the golden calf, Israel is ascribing to God commands that God did not actually give.  In Exodus 32:27, Moses says that the LORD has ordered the Levites to kill brother, friend, and neighbor because of their unfaithfulness to God.  This command is not recorded anywhere in the Biblical account of Moses’ dialogue with God.  Thus, it appears as if Moses is “putting words in God’s mouth” to justify his own command.  There are some who wonder if Israel, in it’s historic memory, is not doing the same thing in the book of Joshua, ascribing commands to God to justify the actions of their ancestors.

The authors of A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament raise some interesting points that should be considered in reflecting on the violence of this book.  First off, the book makes it clear that violence will not be how Israel will maintain possession of the land.  Instead, only faithful obedience to God’s Word will allow Israel to remain in the Promised Land.  Thus, the book is not advocating a “might makes right” mentality.  As a matter of fact, in the case of the city of Ai (Joshua 7), Israel learns that disobedience undermines military strength.

The second point that the authors make is that we should not be so quick to write off the violence of this book.

Such privileged opposition to violence, that “such things must not be done,” is itself an ideological claim in the interest of maintaining the status quo.  What may seem to us readers in our privilege (and most who read this book will be profoundly privileged) as completely unacceptable violence may not seem so objectionable to the oppressed, marginated, and economically abused who know deep in their bones that such oppression cannot be “right,” and cannot be willed by the creator of heaven and earth.  Thus the overthrow of entrenched, abusive power, albeit by violent means, is not as ethically objectionable to the disenfranchised as it is to the safely and prosperously ensconced.  This literature may be understood, at least at one level, as the primitive literature of desperate liberation movements who know themselves to be allied with and vouched for by the God of all social transformation. … There is something to be appreciated in the pervasive affirmation of this literature that the God of the Exodus stands massively against every system of exploitation. (p. 195, ATITTOT, Birch, Brueggemann, Frethem, and Petersen, Abingdon Press, 1999).

Though the violence of the book may be disturbing to us, it should also force us to ask ourselves, “Is there unrighteousness that I am simply allowing to exist, without taking any action of any kind to stop?”

 

Some Reflection Questions

  1. In the original languages both “Joshua” and “Jesus” mean “Jehovah saves.” How is Joshua’s relationship to Israel similar to Jesus’ relationship to the Church?
  2. What basis did Joshua have for being “strong and courageous” (p. 89, Joshua 1)? Which assurances that God gives Joshua most strengthen and encourage you?
  3. What concerns might Joshua have had as he accepted the reigns of leadership from Moses? What can we learn from the people’s response to Joshua that can apply to changes of leadership at our church?
  4. Rahab told the two spies: “I know that the Lord has given you this land” (p.90, Joshua 2:9). Upon what was her declaration of faith based? How could she be a prostitute, so easily tell lies, and not be a part of God’s chosen people, yet be attributed with great faith?
  5. Rahab hid the spies and then lied to the authorities when they came looking for them (p. 90, Joshua 2). When, if ever, is it okay to lie? How do you know?
  6. Review the main points of the covenant that God made with Abraham. (See the summary for Chapter 2, also p. 13., Genesis 12:1-3) What examples can you find in this chapter that show God’s faithfulness to its fulfillment?
  7. How does God’s command to annihilate entire cities fit into the Upper Story of the Bible? In what way do these battle stories fit into God’s Upper Story? (Hint: review p. 86, especially the first full paragraph., Deuteronomy 9:1-7)
  8. Some people doubt the Bible because of miracles like Joshua’s “long day” (p. 97, Joshua 10:12-14). But some people, like Rahab, come to believe in God because of His miraculous works. Discuss how you might respond to the skeptic who discounts the miraculous as myth.
  9. What character traits of Joshua most impress you? Which of those would you like to be known for?
  10.  Joshua is known for his statement “As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD” (p.101, Joshua 24:15). How can you lead your household to serve the Lord?

Additional Resources

Week 6 – Wandering

Scripture Reading:  Numbers 10-14, 20-21, 25, 27; Deuteronomy 1-2, 4, 6, 8-9, 29-34

Significant Moments in The Story

Israel leaves Mt. Sinai – Numbers 10

Spies sent into Canaan – Numbers 13

The people rebel against Moses and God – Numbers 14

Moses strikes the rock at Meribah – Numbers 20

The death of Aaron – Numbers 20

Joshua commissioned as Moses’ successor – Numbers 27

The death of Moses – Deuteronomy 34

Key Themes

Faithlessness

It is easy to read this part of the story and hear the details of Israel’s grumbling, God’s anger, and the wandering of Israel in the wilderness.  It has to be noted, though, that at the heart of all of these details is a fundamental problem:  faithlessness.  After seeing the forces of Egypt defeated in the waters of the sea and seeing the majesty of God on Mt. Sinai, Israel still cannot believe that God will do what He says He will do.  Their constant complaining and rebellion reveals a lack of faith in God’s trustworthiness and God’s power.  We often say that faith would be easier if we could see God do certain things or hear God speak, as if the difficulty of faith was all God’s fault.  However, this part of the story reveals that faith’s struggles are also found in our inability to trust that God will really do what He says.  Israel got all the proof that we ever ask for, and still could not believe that God would lead them to the Promised Land.  Would all the proof in the world really alleviate our own struggles to believe?

Punishment, purification, and preparation

Why does God force the Israelites to wander in the wilderness for 40 years?  It is not because somebody couldn’t follow a road map!  The answer could center around 3 “P”s:  punishment, purification, and preparation.  The books of Numbers and Deuteronomy certainly contain a message that God was punishing Israel for giving into fear rather than trusting that He could lead them against the inhabitants of the land of Canaan.  This part of the story of Scripture hits us with a hard truth:  faithlessness has its consequences.  It should be noted, though, that God’s punishment is, in one sense, exactly what the people say they would prefer:  “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt!  Or would that we had died in this wilderness!” (Numbers 14:2).  They would rather have died in the wilderness than followed God into the Promised Land.  And so that is what God allows to happen.

There is also a sense that the wandering in the wilderness was a time of purification.  This part of the story provides some very extreme, very violent examples of rooting out sinful behavior in the community (see the story of Phinehas in Numbers 25).  The violent nature of such stories make us cringe.  However, perhaps we can best understand them in the light of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”

These are very violent words that Jesus is speaking, seeming to be right in line with some of what we read in Numbers!  However, both Numbers and Jesus are pursuing a point that, as God’s people, we must confront the realities of sin in our lives and seek to remove the presence of sin from our hearts, words, and deeds.  Such passages do not deny the existence of God’s grace.  However, they remind us that God’s grace is not an excuse to allow sin to continue to guide our lives.

Deuteronomy 8:2 touches on the third “P” – preparation.  Moses says, “Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.”  Israel’s relationship with God didn’t end the moment they took residence in the Promised Land.  God’s intent all along was to dwell with his people – remember the tabernacle?  God wanted to remain in his people’s midst.  The time in the wilderness was time that God used to teach them what life with Him looked like so that they would be ready to transition from liberated slaves wandering in the wilderness to a nation living at peace with their God.

Background Information

Leaving from Sinai – Numbers 10:11-12

Based on the calendar dates given here and in Exodus 19:1, the Israelites spent 11 months at Mt. Sinai.

The prophesying elders – Numbers 11:25-30

This is the first of what will be several references in the Old Testament to a type of ecstatic prophecy where men and women are overcome by the divine spirit and break into some sort of speaking that they cannot control.  The image portrayed here of prophets is certainly slightly different from that of later prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, who seem more “in control” to us.  There are some who hear in this passage, especially Moses’ words in Numbers 11:29, a validation of the prophetic movement which will become a huge part of Israel’s later religious life.

The Anakites and the Nephilim – Numbers 13:33

The Nephilim are mentioned in Genesis 6 as those peoples born from the union between divine beings and humans.  Ancient tradition held that the Nephilim were taller than normal humans and possessed extraordinary strength.  Numbers describes the Anakites, among the inhabitants of Canaan, as descendants of the Nephilim and possessing their unusual height.

Ten times Israel tested God – Numbers 14:22

Referring to previous events when Israel has doubted God’s ability or failed to heed God’s commands:  Exodus 14:11-12, Exodus 15:24, Exodus 16:1-3, Exodus 17:3, Exodus 32:1, Leviticus 10:1, Numbers 11:1, Numbers 11:4-6, Numbers 12:1-2, and Numbers 14:1-4.

Edom, the brother of Israel – Numbers 20:14-21

The people of Edom were believed to be the descendants of Esau, the brother of Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel.  Thus, this story of mistrust and rivalry between Edom and Israel continues the narrative that began with Esau and Jacob.

The bronze serpent – Numbers 21:4-9

This bronze serpent that Moses creates will be given the name Nehushtan.  It seems that it would become an object of worship, perhaps even an idol, later in Israel’s history.  In 2 Kings 18:4, we are told that King Hezekiah, noted for his reforms of Israel’s worship life, destroyed Nehushtan because the Israelites were bringing offerings to it.

Serpent magic was a popular form of magic practiced in certain ancient cultures, especially among the Canaanites and the Egyptians.

Baal of Peor – Numbers 25:3

This is the first reference to the Canaanite god Baal, the god of storm and fertility.  As we move forward in the story, we will see that the worship of Baal will remain a consistent temptation for Israel.  As part of the worship of Baal, the people would offer sacrifices to Baal and eat a portion of what they offered as a burnt offering.

The daughters of Zelophehad – Numbers 27:1-11

In ancient Israel, as in many ancient cultures, women were typically not allowed to inherit property.  Thus, this act of allowing the daughters to inherit their father’s property was a radical and unusual step.  The book of Numbers ends by coming back to another situation regarding these daughters and the concern that, should they marry men from another tribe, their property would leave the possession of their native tribe.  In a society where family inheritance was an important part of maintaining tribal heritage, this would have been considered a tragedy.  Thus, Moses commands that, though the women have the freedom to marry whom they think best (also a radical idea for this culture) they must marry within their family’s tribe.

Deuteronomy

The book of Deuteronomy is considered by some to be the beginning of what will be called the “Deuteronomic History”.  This history encompasses the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings.  These books are grouped together, in part, because they share a common theme that loyalty to God brings reward while disobedience brings catastrophe.  In the book of Deuteronomy, there is a heavy emphasis placed by Moses on “blessings and curses” and his dramatic call to “choose life”.  The later books will bear out the practical implications of this theology and tell Israel’s history through this sort of lens.  We also see in all of these books a pattern of Israel’s relationship to God – apostasy, judgment, repentance, and deliverance.

Deuteronomy is presented as Moses’ last testament, his final words to Israel before they enter the Promised Land.  Traditionally, the authorship of the book was attributed to Moses himself.  However, since the last chapter of the book details the death of Moses, it is highly unlikely that Moses himself put the pen to paper.

Horeb – Deuteronomy 1:6

Horeb is another name for Mt. Sinai.

Cities of refuge – Deuteronomy 4:41-43

Within Israel certain cities were set apart as places of refuge for those who had unintentionally caused the death of another person.  The law operated by a “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” concept.  Thus, if you caused the death of an individual, that family had the right to kill you.  While this sounds barbaric, the law was actually intended to limit bloodlust and force individuals to operate by a mindset of equitable justice.  You could not, for example, wipe out an entire family in return for the death of one person.  Cities of refuge were sanctuaries where those who had unintentionally caused the death of another could flee and be safe from the repercussions the law allowed.

The Shema – Deuteronomy 6:4-9

“Shema” is the Hebrew imperative for our English word “Hear” or “Listen”.  These verses in Deuteronomy came to be known as the Shema because this is the first word in the passage.  The Shema became the core statement of faith for the Israelite people.  Still today, many Jews will recite the Shema as part of their corporate worship and devotional life.  Some orthodox Jews will literally wrap little boxes around their hands and head that contain verses of Scripture.

Some Questions that Might Come Up

In Numbers 12, why is Miriam punished but not Aaron?

There is no clear explanation for why Miriam is struck with leprosy but there is no apparent punishment for Aaron after both of them have called into question God’s choice of Moses as a leader.  Their complaint about Moses’ marrying “a Cushite woman” was a reference to Moses’ marriage to Zipporah, indicating that Cushite was a broad term that included several Arabic peoples.

Isn’t Moses’ punishment rather harsh?  Why is he even punished in the first place?  Just what did he do wrong?

In Numbers 20:2-13, we read the story of Israel at the waters of Meribah.  There is no water, and the people are complaining.  Moses takes their complaint to God, who tells him to take his staff in his hands and command water to come from the rock.  We are told that Moses gathered all the people together, took his staff, and struck the rock twice, and water came out of it.  Everybody drinks and is happy, but God says, “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them” (Numbers 20:12).

The first thing that should be noted is that, in an earlier story (Exodus 17:1-7) when Israel was thirsty, God commanded Moses to take his staff and strike the rock.  When he struck the rock, water came out of it.  There are some who have wondered if this is a case where Moses gets confused, assuming an earlier action and repeating it rather than truly paying attention to what God has said.  Such consideration leads one to wonder why such a harsh punishment would be handed down for a misunderstanding.

The most common explanation given for why Moses is punished is that he disobeys God.  God did not tell him to strike the rock, but to command the rock to bring forth water.  I think this is part of the idea.  A concept of disobedience must be partnered with the idea that God was intending to show His power to provide for Israel, thus why He instructed Moses to command the rock and not strike the rock.  However, Moses’ action brought the appearance that it was Moses, not God, providing the water.  This point is emphasized by Moses’ words before he strikes the rock – “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10)  This is really the first time we have seen Moses try to “replace” God, a problem that the rest of the Israelites have struggled continuously with, most clearly in the story of the golden calf.  Thus, Moses is now guilty of the same sin that prevents Israel from entering the Promised Land:  his actions seem to indicate that he does not believe that God can provide for Israel what God has promised.

Philip Yancey, in his book The Bible Jesus Read, points out that Moses’ story does not end in Deuteronomy.  In Matthew 17:1-9, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up to a high mountain and is transfigured in their presence.  All of the gospel accounts of the Transfiguration tell us that standing there next to Jesus on the mountain was Moses.  Moses’ dream, his goal, was realized:  he was finally standing in the Promised Land.

Week 5 – New Commands and A New Covenant

Scripture Reading:  Exodus 19-20, 24-25, 32-34, 40

Significant Moments in The Story

The Ten Commandments – Exodus 20

Instructions for Building the Tabernacle – Exodus 25-31

The Golden Calf – Exodus 32

Key Themes

Commandments & Covenant

The concept of covenant is very familiar to us at this point.  We have seen again and again God establishing and fulfilling the promise that he made to Abraham and to his descendants.  And there have been times, such as when God commanded Abraham to circumcise all the males of his household, that we have seen God ask His people to put forth particular actions as a sign of their acceptance of God’s covenant.  However, it is here at Mt. Sinai that we perhaps most clearly understand that what God is seeking to create is more than just a people who are marked as His.  This covenant is designed to establish a relationship that will transform His people in word and deed.  Their entire lives, from their worship to their day to day relationships with one another, will be identifying marks of the presence of the living God in their midst and the liberation and salvation that He brings.

God’s holy otherness

On Mt. Sinai, God is revealed in thunder, smoke, and fire.  His face cannot be seen.  His glory gives a glow to the face of Moses.  Even as God is giving Moses the commandments that express and define His desire to be in the midst of His people, we are reminded that God is other than humanity.  The commandments are not a call to follow rules, but to live out the earth-shaking holiness that defines the character of God, in the reality that no action or word can ever bring us into a place of equality with God.  Even Moses, who spoke with God face to face, has to be protected from that part of God’s holiness which would overwhelm him.  The relationship between God and humanity is not a relationship among equals.  When we deal with God, we are dealing with the “holy other.”  As God’s people, we are called to be holy, meaning we are called to honor God as God (as opposed to the Fall when Adam and Eve chose to be gods unto themselves) and to seek a proper relationship with God in the midst of a world of disorder and sin (Creation brought order out of chaos, sin brought chaos out of order).

Disobedience

In the midst of all of these commandments that God gives, we come to understand that obedience is not just following rules.  To be obedient is to trust in God who can speak at any time or place.  Even in the face of overwhelming displays of God’s power and glory, Israel still turns to other gods, building golden calves and giving them the credit for leading them out of Egypt.  Certainly, we see a pattern here that we will see again and again in the story of God’s relationship with Israel:  God will deliver His people, they will proclaim faithfulness, and then they will disobey, losing trust in God.  Of course, we see this story in our own lives as well.  In this section of the story, we see that God, in the face of our disobedience, is indeed “merciful and gracious, … abounding in steadfast love.”  However, this story also confronts us with the idea that there are consequences for our disobedience, and that sometimes those consequences are not limited to our lives alone, but affect others.

 

Background Information

Mt. Sinai

The children of Israel will remain at Mt. Sinai for almost a year, their departure from Sinai described in Numbers 10.  This mountain is associated with the same mountain that Moses met with God in the burning bush in Exodus 3.  There, the name given to the mountain was Horeb.  Horeb and Sinai will be interchangeable names for the “mountain of God” in the Old Testament.  Not enough information is given for us to accurately identify the location of Mt. Sinai today.

The Law (Torah)

We pay a lot of attention to the Ten Commandments, and rightly so.  However, we often lose sight of the fact that the Ten Commandments, as expressed in Exodus 20, serve as the introduction and foundation of the entire Jewish law, known in Hebrew as the Torah.

God’s purpose for giving the Torah is perhaps most clearly expressed in Deuteronomy 5:33 – “You must follow exactly the path that the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you are to possess.”  To live in relationship, whether with God or with our fellow man, requires some kind of structure.  This structure is necessary to insure the stability and well-being of all involved in the relationship.  It should be noted that among the many commandments that will be handed down at Sinai will be several that speak directly to the most disadvantaged among the people of Israel – the poor, the elderly, the alien.  Even the commandment to honor father and mother was a commandment to insure the well-being of parents who could no longer work to take care of themselves.

Obedience to the Torah was not a matter of appeasing God.  Instead, obedience to the Law was about living life so that God could be revealed to the world.  In Exodus 34:10-14, the Lord tells Moses that he is about to marvelous things for Israel, and that all the people who live around Israel will see God through the works that He will do for Israel.  Obedience to the commandments was required to insure that the surrounding peoples would have a clear understanding of God’s work and, therefore, God’s character.

It must also be noted that, in the giving of the Torah, God shows that it is just as important to Him how Israel lives with one another as how Israel lives with Him.  The first 4 of the Ten Commandments focus on Israel’s relationship with God.  The last 6, however, focus on Israel’s relationship within the community.  In the Torah, we see the sacred and the secular blended together.  God is not only a religious obligation; He is indeed the Lord of all creation!

We sometimes think that the Israelites had a belief that obedience to the Law was what brought salvation.  However, note how God begins his address to Moses in Exodus 20:2-3, the beginning of the Ten Commandments.

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

God did not liberate Israel because they had been obedient.  He makes it very clear that obedience follows salvation.  Obedience to the law is not earning God’s favor but joining God in reclaiming all of creation through His saving work.  This is why, in Deuteronomy 10:17-18, Moses describes God as one who is “…mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, … who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.”  To think that obedience to the Law was the way to win God’s favor is a misinterpretation of the Law’s purpose.  Israel was chosen as God’s people not on any accomplishments of their own but by the unmerited favor of God.

The sacrificial system – Exodus 24

The Torah contains within it many examples and instructions regarding animal sacrifice as part of the community’s worship life.  For many today, such a system seems meaningless, cruel, and archaic.  How we understand the sacrificial system will impact how we understand much of the rest of Scripture.

It should first be noted that the offering of sacrifices was not about appeasing God.  The sacrifices were not an act of “making up” with God or keeping God satisfied.  It should also be noted that the Israelites did not believe that killing was required to gain forgiveness.  In Leviticus 5:11-13, we are told that one could bring an offering of grain as atonement for one’s sins.  So the law did not require blood to gain forgiveness.

It also should be noted that animals, cattle, and produce were the currency of a wandering culture.  We place our cash, change, and checks in the offering plate every Sunday as a sign of trust and thanks to God.  In one sense, the sacrificial system was a similar act – placing a portion of what one owned into the care of God.

However, the most important meaning of sacrifice had to do with atoning for sins.  In Leviticus 17:10-13, God tells Moses, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.”  The blood of the animals served as a substitute for human life, and the sacrificial act was the act of giving life back to God, reversing the consequences of the Fall in which humanity’s actions took their lives away from God.

Interestingly, later passages will call into question the place and understanding of sacrifice within Israel.  Psalm 51:16-17, a prayer to God, reads, “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.  The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”  In Hosea 6:6, God says, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”  From these passages, it seems clear that a proper understanding of atonement within the sacrificial system cannot be limited to the shedding of blood.

Obviously, the sacrificial system of Israel would become a foundation point for Christianity’s later understanding of Jesus’ death on the cross.  There are many theories to explain the meaning of Christ’s death and the forgiveness of sins.  Language that we hear and use sometimes, that Christ “paid the price for our sins” or that Christ “died in our place”, are based on understandings not only of Jesus Christ but the meaning of sacrifice as understood in the Scripture.

The tabernacle and the ark  – Exodus 25

God instructs Moses and the Israelites to build a tabernacle and different instruments for the tabernacle using the gold and jewelry that they carried out of Egypt from the Egyptians (Exodus 12:35-36).  Exodus 25:8 states the purpose for the tabernacle – “And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.”  God’s desire is still to be in the midst of His people, as He was in the beginning, walking in the Garden of Eden.

Much of this chapter is instructions for building the ark which will contain the words of the covenant that God is making with Israel at Sinai.  We are probably more familiar with the ark of the covenant because of Indiana Jones that we are these biblical passages.  However, the ark will remain significant as we move through Israel’s history.  The ark was more than just a container.  It was built to be a throne for God (Exodus 25:22).

The golden calf – Exodus 32

The calf was a symbol of fertility in the ancient Near East.  It should be noted that the items that the people donated to create the golden calf were the same items that God told Moses the people should donate to build the tabernacle and the items within the tabernacle.

The people ask Aaron to “make gods for us” when Moses stays longer on the mountain of God.  Interestingly, though, after crafting the calf, Aaron says in Exodus 32:5, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.”  This raises the question of whether the calf is representative of some false god (breaking the first commandment, Exodus 20:3) or if the calf is intended to be an image of the LORD, thus breaking the second commandment (Exodus 20:4).  The story also resonates with a familiar tone:  when Moses confronts Aaron, Aaron’s first response is to blame the people (Exodus 20:2) just as Adam’s first response was to blame Eve.  In addition, Aaron says that the calf magically appeared out of the fire (Exodus 32:24) even though we are told in two different places that Aaron made the calf himself (Exodus 32:4, 35).  The golden calf story thus is not only a story of breaking commandments; it is a story that reveals the threat of sin that is still present.

Moses breaks the tablets – Exodus 32:19

It was a relatively common practice in the ancient world to inscribe treaties on stone tablets.  When one party wanted to invalidate or repudiate the treaty, then that party would break the tablet.  It is interesting that it is Moses, in this case, who breaks the tablets, not God.  In Exodus 34, God instructs Moses to cut two new tablets, indicating that God’s mercy and faithfulness was not an excuse to take the covenant for granted.  However, the people could be restored and the covenant could be reestablished.  The formation of the two new tablets is an act of God’s grace.

 

Some Questions that Might Come Up

Why could Israel not make an altar out of chiseled stones (Exodus 20:25)?

No explanation is given as to why the Israelites, if they make an altar out of stone, must be built from raw stones.  Some think that these simple, raw altars were to be distinguished from more ornate pagan altars.  One wonders if another possible explanation was to insure that the attention and purpose of the altar was to praise God as opposed to praising the work of man.

Why does Moses order the Levites to kill “…your brother, your friend, and your neighbor”?

Exodus 32:25-29 is one of the passages that explains how it is that the Levites came to be set apart from the other tribes of Israel and recognized as the priestly clan.  This story is intended to show their zeal and passionate loyalty to the Lord above any social or family bonds.  It is interesting to note that it is Moses who attributes this instruction to God, even though we have not specifically heard God give this instruction in the midst of all the dialogue that we have heard between Moses and God.  Perhaps the story serves also as a cautionary tale about how we invoke God’s name into a situation.

 

Additional Resources