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).


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


Week 4 – Deliverance

Scripture Readings:  Exodus 1-7, 10-17

Significant Moments in The Story

The enslavement of Israel – Exodus 1

God calls Moses – Exodus 3-4

The first nine plagues – Exodus 7-10

The institution of Passover & the tenth plague – Exodus 12

The parting of the Red Sea (the Sea of Reeds) – Exodus 14

Manna in the morning – Exodus 16

Key Themes

God’s salvation

“Then the LORD said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.  Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey …” (Exodus 3:7-8).  In these sentences, we find the next major movement of God in his relationship with Israel as we have followed through the narrative of Scripture.  In these words, we also find a strong declaration of God’s character:  God will not allow His people to continue to suffer under the torment of the powers that keep them enslaved.  Thus, God acts in history to bring salvation to His people.  This theme of salvation and liberation will echo throughout the story of Scripture, from the exile in Babylon to the New Testament account of Jesus Christ.

God’s rule over all creation

Throughout this narrative, we see God declaring that He is only true authority and power in the world.  In the ten plagues (Exodus 7-12), God reveals the Pharaoh, representing the most powerful human force of oppression, as powerless to stop God and as ultimately answerable to God’s will.  The plagues also represent a direct assault, in several cases, on the gods that the Egyptians worshiped.  Many have seen in the Exodus narrative an attempt to support the radical monotheism of Judaism that was rather unusual in the ancient world.  We also, in this section, are introduced to what will be a recurring theme throughout the story of Moses as well as all of Scripture and our own faith stories today:  humanity’s tendency to question whether or not God knows what God is doing (Exodus 16-17).

God’s call

The story of the call of Moses (Exodus 3-4) is important for several reasons.  First, we are reminded that God’s desire for us to be partners with Him in His work has not changed since Creation, even when we have so often wanted to try to go it alone. The text is very clear throughout that God is the one doing the saving.  However, God wants Moses to be a part of what He is doing.  At the same time, this story of God’s conversation with Moses is enlightening to how we often respond to God’s call in our own lives:  we list all the reasons why we can’t do it and God should find somebody else.  However, God has an answer for every one of Moses’ excuses, just as He has an answer for every one of our excuses.  Over and over again in Scripture, we have seen God call the very people we would least expect Him to.  Moses probably fits into that same category (why call a man who has been separated from his people for some time to now come and lead them?)  However, to borrow a familiar phrase, God does not call the qualified, He qualifies the called.

Background Information

A king who did not know Joseph – Exodus 1:8

Trying to accurately date the events of the Exodus are very difficult.  For one thing, we are never told the names of the two “kings of Egypt” mentioned in the narrative.  Some have speculated based on the names given to the cities in Exodus 1:11 that Rameses II was one of the kings, who we know oversaw massive building projects and a decline in Egyptian power.  However,  there are other speculations that involve Seti I or Thutmose III as well as other Pharaohs.  A second complicating factor is that nowhere in the Egyptian records is there any mention of the Exodus event.  However, as John Bright in his A History of Israel points out, this would not be unusual since Pharaohs would rarely record stories of their defeats, especially stories that involved runaway slaves.  Thus, it is very difficult to date accurately when the Exodus took place.  There are some who even speculate that the Exodus was not one single event, but a series of migrations out of Egypt over a lengthy span of time.  For Israel, the Exodus story would be remembered as their birth as a nation and the defining moment of their relationship with God.

God’s name – Exodus 3:13-14

The story of the burning bush is significant for many reasons, but perhaps most important to the faith of Israel is that this is the moment when God reveals his name. Even though God has had an ongoing relationship with Abraham and his descendants, God has never shared with anyone His name (see Exodus 6:3-4). When Moses asks for God’s name, the reply that God gives is the Hebrew word Yahweh. The English translation of this Hebrew word is complicated in part because we are unsure of the tense. The name is a form of the Hebrew verb “to be”. Some English translations read I AM WHO I AM, others read I AM WHAT I AM, others read I WILL BE WHATBI WILL BE. “He causes to be” is another possible translation. Whatever its meaning, God’s name is treated as sacred. The Israelites would not pronounce God’s name, even when reading Scripture, substituting the word Adonai , or “Lord”, for the name. That is why, in our English translations, every time the name of God is used in the Old Testament, you will see the word LORD in all caps.

A hardened heart – Exodus 4:21

There are numerous references to Pharaoh’s “hardened heart”.  To understand this phrase, we must remember that we are dealing with a culture that believed that the heart rather than the mind was what guided human actions.  So to say that someone’s heart was hardened meant that the individual or people were stubborn, indifferent, or unable to understand something.  One of the interesting issues in this story is the recurring references to Pharaoh’s hardened heart.  Was his stubbornness a willfull act of the Pharaoh or an act of God?  There are references to both.  One interpretation notes that, through the first 5 plagues, the Scripture references seem to indicate that Pharaoh’s hardened heart was the result of his own will (Exodus 7:22-23; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7).  However, starting with the sixth plague, the Scripture references indicate that the Pharaoh’s hardened heart was the result of God’s action (Exodus 9:12, 35; 10:20, 27).  Thus, God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was an allowing of the Pharaoh to continue on the path that he had already determined to go down.  Another possibility is that God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is indicative of the fact that God’s purpose was greater than the liberation of Israel.  God was determined to reveal his sovereignty to Israel and to all the nations, and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart set in motion an entire series of events that served as such a statement.

The first 9 plagues – Exodus 7-10

The plagues are rich with meaning.  We often think of them simply as God punishing Pharaoh for not letting Israel go.  However, the plagues were both a revelation of God’s power and a direct assault on the cultural and religious systems of Egypt that enslaved Israel.

1)  Turning the water of the Nile to blood – the Nile river was literally the lifeblood of Egypt.  It was the commercial highway and it waters would overrun the banks and provide fertile soil for agriculture.  Maintaining the security of the waterway was one of the chief responsibilities of the Pharaoh and his government.  There were two gods, Hapi and Isis, associated with the Nile river.  Thus, to turn the water to blood was to turn a source of life into a source for death.

2)  The frogs – Haget was an Egyptian goddess who was believed to assist women in childbirth.  She was commonly depicted as having the head of a frog.  Now, Egypt is overrun with this symbol of fertility.  Pharaoh had been concerned about the Israelites “filling his land” and had ordered the midwives to kill the Hebrew boys, turning their purpose upside down.  So God turns the purpose of Haget upside down – the land is now overrun with her symbol, frogs, bringing disease and stench.

3 & 4)  The gnats and the flies – gnats, or possibly sand flies, were a huge problem in arid lands like Egypt, bringing disease to cattle and humans alike.  Flies, likewise, were so common in Egypt that they are associated with Egypt elsewhere in Scripture (Isaiah 7:18, 18:1).

5 & 6)  Pestilence on cattle – Hathor and Apis were both Egyptian gods who were associated with cattle.  In the plague of boils, the pestilence that began with the cattle now spreads to humans.  No one, not even the magicians of Pharaoh, can protect themselves from it.

7)  Hail – In this plague, God makes it clear that He is not only interested in setting His people free.  He is wanting to display to Pharaoh and to the world His ultimate sovereignty (Exodus 9:14-16).  Pharaoh believes he determines the fate of Egypt and Israel.  God is proving him wrong.

8)  Locust – Osiris was the Egyptian god of the crops.  God sends locust that destroy the work of Osiris.

9)  Darkness – the Sun-God was the supreme deity of Egypt’s religion.  Now, with three days of darkness, God has vanquished the best Egypt had to offer.


The tenth plague and the Passover – Exodus 11-12

The Passover celebration was a festival celebrated by the Jewish people to remember the night that the spirit of God passed over the homes of the Hebrews and struck down all the firstborn children of Egypt.  The celebration would become closely associated with another festival, the feast of unleavened bread, which also traced it’s origins to this story.  The children of Israel had to leave Egypt in such a hurry that they had to carry their unrisen bread with them.  The celebration of the Passover in the centuries that followed would allow each new generation to be formed and shaped by the Exodus story, to become a part of this Exodus community.  Later, in the New Testament, the celebration of the Passover meal is the setting of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples.


The Red Sea – Exodus 14

Perhaps the most well-known part of the Exodus story is the parting of the sea which allowed the children of Israel to escape from Pharaoh’s pursuing army.  In Exodus 14, where the story of the parting of the sea is told, the sea is never given a name.  We do not get a name until Exodus 15:4, “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea; his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea.”  In most of our Bibles, there is probably a little letter next to “the Red Sea”, which points to the bottom of the page where we are told that the phrase used here also means “Sea of Reeds”.  This is the translation of the Hebrew name given in this verse.  The translation of the “Red Sea” actually comes from later Greek and Latin translations of the Hebrew.  It is likely that it was not the Red Sea that the Israelites crossed, but instead a shallow body of water farther to the north of the Red Sea.


Miriam’s song – Exodus 15:21-22

Miriam’s song is believed to be the oldest poetry in all of the Old Testament.


Some Questions that Might Come Up

Who was Moses’ father-in-law?

In Exodus 2:15-22, we are told that Moses saves the daughters of Reuel from harassment by local shepherds.  We are also told that these are the daughters of the priest of Midian.  In gratitude for Moses’s actions, Reuel gives his daughter Zipporah to Moses for a wife.  In Exodus 3:1, we are told that Moses “…was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian …”.  In Exodus 18:1, we are told, “Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses …” and so he comes to visit Moses.  Numbers 10:29 reads, “Moses said to Hobab son Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law…”.  The most common explanation seems to be the simplest:  that Reuel and Jethro are two different names for the same person, though there are some that think that the Numbers 10:29 passage actually reads that Hobab was Moses’ father and Reuel was Hobab’s, or Jethro’s, father.

Why does God try to kill Moses?

Exodus 4:24-26 is one of the most confounding pieces of Scripture in the entire Bible.  Why does God, right after calling Moses to lead his people to freedom, try to kill Moses?  And why is it that Zipporah’s act of circumcising her son abates the attack?  And what about what Zipporah says, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!”?  These are questions with no easy answers.  One explanation is that this was originally a story about a demon attacking Moses in the night.  Over time, the spiritual demon was erroneously replaced by God, perhaps as an attempt to maintain a strict monotheism that there are no other gods but God.  Some speculate that this is a remnant of an ancient ritual that, over time, lost its meaning and fell out of practice, thus rendering it incomprehensible to us today.  However, it had early on gotten connected with the Moses story and thus remained there, even though it had no significance any longer.  Others have wondered if this story is an attempt to explain the importance of circumcision as part of the covenant.  Since Moses was raised as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, there is a chance that he was never circumcised.  God, therefore, could not recognize him as part of the covenant and, thus, considered him an enemy.  However, Zipporah’s circumcises her son and touches the circumcised foreskin to Moses’ own genitals (“feet” is a common Hebrew euphemism for male genitals) as a substitution for Moses’ lack of circumcision.  However, problems and challenges arise with each of these explanations, and there are many more that I could mention here.  The truth is, this passage remains a Biblical enigma.  Perhaps the best last word to be said was written by Walter Brueggemann in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Vol. I, p. 718).

The larger narrative is not solely about liberation.  It concerns, rather, the claim that all parties, Israelite as well as Egyptian, must live in the presence of unleashed, unlimited holiness.  There are provisional strategies for safety in the face of holiness, but none that will finally tame this dangerous God.  One is struck at the end of this brief encounter with the peculiar juxtaposition of threat and safety, a resolve to kill and safety found only in a primitive act of blood and genitalia.  But then, holiness is perplexing beyond all explanation.


Additional Resources