Exodus 27: More interior design

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This week, we’re finishing up our interior design project, which is awesome because I confess to having nil interest in what coloured linens go best with what kinds of tanned hides. Next week won’t be much better, but at least it won’t be this.


In this part, God tells Moses how to build an altar, and finishes up with instructions for the “court of the tabernacle” (Exod. 27:9). The idea of having separate enclosures is a common one in the ancient world (and, to a certain extent, can still be seen in some church designs). The idea is that you have the space for common plebs, then you’ll have a doorway or a screen leading to a smaller area for low level priests, then another doorway for higher level priests, etc etc until you get to the holy centre, like a classist KinderEgg.

You can see some examples of what this might look like in an Egyptian context, and a Hindu context. In Latin, the innermost court is called the sanctum sanctorum, or holy of holies.

One thing that I think we need to point out is that God finishes up this chapter by telling Moses that “Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the Lord. It shall be a statute for ever to be observed throughout their generations by the people of Israel” (Exod. 27:21). And yet it’s been about two thousand years since there’s been a temple and since these instructions have been followed. Just sayin’.

And that’s really all I have to say about this chapter because oh. my. god. I am so bored.

Exodus 26: Picking out the curtains

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Now that the furniture is done, God turns his eye towards the curtains.

In this chapter, we get the instructions for building the tent that will house the Ark-throne-couch, the coffee table, and the lampstand. I won’t bore you with all the details about the many coloured linens and the goat hair and the tanned hides and how they all fit together.

Dedication of the tabernacle by Michiel van der Borch, 1332

Dedication of the tabernacle by Michiel van der Borch, 1332

But I do want to touch on the general structure of the tent, because it reminded me of a much later building: the Temple of Solomon. If I’m reading correctly (and it’s hard, with all the loops on the edges of the curtains and the clasps of bronze), it seems like the design calls for a larger tent with a smaller, inner tent where the tabernacle itself is to be stored.

This is similar to the temple design, where we have a holy place that is screened from the public, and then an inner holy of holies that is also screened off and can only be approached by – if I remember correctly – the high priest. You can read more about it on the Wikipedia page, and they have some nice diagrams of what this would actually look like.

The only other thing I want to point out about this very boring chapter is that the Hebrews are once again asked to decorate with images of cherubim (Exod. 26:31), which – you remember – violates the agreement the Hebrews have just finished splashing themselves with blood to make (Exod. 20:4). Either God is trolling, or he has a very short memory.

Or, we have to look at the first part of Exodus 20:4, where he says that “you shall not make for yourself…” (emphasis mine). I suppose you could argue that the Hebrews are not making all these cherubs for themselves, but rather for God, so it’s okay. But if the idea is to prevent idolatry, wouldn’t all idols be made for gods? And then what if I’m carving my idol to give as a mother’s day present? It all gets very confusing.

Exodus 25: Blueprints

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In this chapter, God gives Moses instructions for building a couch, coffee table, and lampstand, and I wish that were a joke. Apparently, God is now an interior decorator.

The good news is that at least this time participation in God’s latest career foray is voluntary. He needs materials to redecorate the living room, but asks for help only from “every man whose heart makes him willing” (Exod. 25:2). I’m sure there’s a gay decorator joke in there somewhere, but I’m too classy to make it.

This’ll be a super short post because this chapter is literally just a list of details and I would never put you through having to read all of that. But let’s just say that the couch has under-seat storage space for the tablets containing the ordinances we covered in Exodus 20-23, and looks something like this:

Ark of the Convenant

There are some problems with the design, however. For example, God would like his couch to have “two cherubim of gold” (Exod. 25:18). Unfortunately, this will require outsourcing some of the detail work since the Hebrews are forbidden from making any “graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exod. 20:4).

As I read the description of the cherubim (Exod. 25:20), I thought of Isis and her protective wings. I’ve already talked about how Egyptian-y the name Moses is, so I thought it was interesting to see more possibly Egyptian details cropping up in this story. See for yourself – coincidence?

Ark of the Covenant

Now, The Bible Slam points out that the Ark (in addition to being impractically heavy for a currently nomadic people), really does seem to be Egyptian in its design. We already know for Exodus 11 that God instructed the Hebrews to steal from the Egyptians, so Bible Slam wonders if all this dwelling on the instructions and construction of the Ark might not be a bit of “doth protest too much” to convince people that the Hebrews really really did build it for themselves and totally didn’t would never steal it from the Egyptians.

According to Collins, portable tent-shrines were A Thing in the Semitic world, so there may well have been an Ark, or at least many things like it. However, this one seems “too elaborate to have been transported in the wilderness” and may either be an idealised construction from a priest with too much time on his hands and not enough access to porn or a description of a later, sedentary shrine, “possibly at Shiloh, where the tabernacle is set up in Josh 18:1” (Hebrew Bible, p.74-5).

In closing, God reminds Moses to make sure that he makes the couch, coffee table, and lampstand “after the pattern for them, which is being shown you on the mountain” (Exod. 25:40). This, according to my Study Bible, is a reference to the belief that “earthly temples and their cultic equipment were made according to the pattern or prototype of heavenly models” (p.100). We see this again in Plato’s theory of forms, where all earthly stuff is patterned after an ideal archetypal version of itself.

So, since we’re about to start actually building the Ark, I’m sure you’re wondering what eventually happened to it – where is the Ark? There are many theories, of course, but I personally subscribe to the Hangar 51 theory.

Exodus 24: Signing on the dotted line

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When I first started this project, I was sitting at home waiting to go into labour and I had nothing but time on my hands. Then I had a super easy newborn who slept all the time, so I was able to write a lot. Then the kid started crawling and being able to sit in one spot long enough just to read (let alone think and write about) a chapter of the Bible became next to impossible. But I’d like to get back in the swing of things. I’ll be taking it easy and trying not to push myself too hard, since I don’t want to burn out, but I do want to “git er done.” So I will try to publish one chapter per week and we’ll see how that goes. 

We’re finally done (for now) going through the contract, and it’s time for both parties to sign on the dotted line.

But first, we need a little recap about the whole “Moses alone shall come near to the Lord” (Exod. 24:2) thing, and Moses telling the people about the ordinances. When he’s done, we’re told that the people agree to follow all the rules, and Moses wrote them all down.

“I have to do this, man. We splashed blood over it!”

Moses and the elders see God by Jacopo Amiconi

Moses and the elders see God by Jacopo Amiconi

The first step is for Moses to build an altar and twelve pillars, which obviously represent the twelve tribes. Next, the young men of the people sacrificed oxen. Moses took half the oxen blood and splashed it on the altar, and took the other half and threw it all over the Hebrews.

This mutual blood bathing seals the deal. The idea of blood having special significance in the making of contracts can still be seen today in the popular image of signing a contract with the Devil in one’s own blood (as we see, for example, in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus). I tried to get an article talking about this, but the five seconds I allotted to Google search for something just gave me several pages of “Why is there blood in my stool?” and “The significance of blood in stool,” so I gave up.

Heading back up

If splashing blood around is one way to sign a contract, breaking bread is another. So Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy of Israel’s best fogeys head up the mountain and “saw the God of Israel” (Exod. 24:10), though my Study Bible notes: “The leaders did not see God directly; they saw only the lower part of his heavenly throne-room – the sapphire pavement (the firmament) above which the Lord was enthroned” (p.98). In other words, it was a nice day and they saw the sky. OooooOOOOoooo….

We’re told that God “did not lay his hands” (Exod. 24:11) on the people, which is nice of him, I guess… We get a repeat of “they beheld God” (Exod. 24:11), and then everyone eats and drinks.

Now it gets a little complicated. We’re told that Moses and Joshua go up the mountain together, leaving Aaron and Hur in charge. Then we’re told that six days pass before God calls Moses up the mountain to hang out for forty days and forty nights, and there’s no mention of Joshua.

As I see it, there are two possibly interpretations:

  1. The first mention of Moses going up the mountain is the same act as the second mention, but there’s some poetic repetition happening.
  2. Or, there are two separate traditions being cobbled together, one in which Moses and Joshua go up together and one in which Moses goes up alone.

I haven’t read ahead, but Joshua is kinda famous so I know we’ll be getting his story later on. I wonder if the oral tradition about the folk hero Joshua included a bit about him getting to meet God on Mt. Sinai – with or without Moses – and this was grafted onto the oral tradition about Moses getting the tables of stone.

That would be my guess, anyway.

Regardless, now I have an image of God sitting around on the top off the mountain for 47 days smoking so much weed that he’s creating this magical cloud cover.

Final note on the ordinances

In A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Collins comments on the tone of the ordinances we’ve just been sloshing through:

These laws were formulated in a settled agrarian community; they are not the laws of nomads wandering in the wildness. (p.70)

Exodus 23: Breaking their pillars in pieces

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Unfortunately, our adventure into the ordinances continues. I’m really hoping we get back into stories soon, although I have to admit that these posts are quite a bit easier to write.

  • No bearing false witness. Nor shall you ally yourself with a “wicked man, to be a malicious witness” (Exod. 23:1).
  • “You shall not follow a multitude to do evil” (Exod. 23:2). How awful that a prohibition against creating art merits highlighting in the ten commandments, but this, this absolutely essential lesson, is buried in the third chapter of ordinances.
  • If you happen to encounter an enemy’s cattle going astray, you must return it to them. Another excellent lesson.
  • Do not make a false charge in the justice system, and don’t kill the innocent and righteous.
  • Don’t accept bribes.
  • The prohibition against mistreating foreigners is repeated.

The Cultic Calendar

  • Fields should be sowed for six years, then laid fallow for the seventh year.

exodus-23While I can understand the necessity of giving fields a rest, laying a field fallow every seven years seems very impractical. Rather, it seems that it would make more sense to rotate the types of crops so that the field is continually in use without ever depleting it. This system was in widespread use in Medieval Europe. Shouldn’t God be able to figure it out?

It seems that the field is laid fallow “that the poor of your people may eat” (Exod. 23:11). It seems that stuff is left out in the fields for the poor to come and collect? What the poor leave, the wild beasts may eat. I really don’t understand this rule, although it’s apparently a Sabbath writ large.

  • Keep the Sabbath by not working on every seventh day. It emphasises once again that the entire household must be given a rest, including the slaves and cattle.
  • Don’t mention the names of other gods, “nor let such be heard out of your mouth” (Exod. 23:13).
  • Special feasts are held three times a year, and all Hebrew males must make a pilgrimage to a central altar: 1) The feast of the unleavened bread. None should come without a sacrifice. 2) The harvest feast, held when the wheat is harvested in June. 3) The feast of ingathering, held at the end of the Hebrew year, in autumn, when other crops are harvested.
  • When sacrificing an animal, the blood from the sacrifice should not be served with leavened bread, and the fat should be finished before morning. As we found out in Exodus 12, leavening is a fermentation process. So both of these rules have to do with preventing any kind of corruption from mingling with the holy sacrifice.
  • Much like the sacrifice of first-born children and cattle, Hebrews must also offer their first crops.
  • “You shall not oil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exod. 23:19). According to my study bible, this is “a protest against a Canaanite method of preparing a sacrifice.”

Behold, I send an angel before you

We’re finally done with the ordinances!

So God sends an angel who is also himself down to guard the Hebrews on their way. If they show proper submission to this angel, then God “will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries” (Exod. 23:22). We had a couple really good ordinances there, but it looks like we’re back in violent mode now.

God warns the Hebrews that this angel will lead them through the territories of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites, and the Jebusites, and God “will blot them out” (Exod. 23:23). The Hebrews will “utterly overthrow them and break their pillars in pieces” (Exod. 23:24).

Further, God “will send my terror before you, and will throw into confusion all the people against who you shall come” (Exod. 23:27). And so forth goes the language of warmongering, violence, and hate.

But at least God won’t kill these people all at once. No, this would leave the land too empty so that it becomes desolate and populated by wild beasts. Instead, he’ll drive them out little by little until the Hebrews have a chance to breed enough to fill the land.

Just in case it wasn’t quite hateful enough already, God also forbids making any covenants with non-Hebrews (Exod. 23:32).

According to David Plotz, this kind of hatred enshrined in scripture has far-reaching consequences: “There are too many reasons to count why Arabs and Jews distrust each other, some good, some bad. I am beginning to see some of the biblical roots for the Jewish suspicion.”

Exodus 22: More Ordinances

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In this chapter, we continue ploughing through the ordinances, beginning with property issues.

  • If someone steals an ox or sheep and either kills or sells it, he must pay five oxen for one ox, or four sheep for one sheep.
  • If he can’t pay his fine, the thief is to be sold as a slave.
  • If the thief still has the animal alive, he must pay back double.
  • If a thief is killed while in the process of breaking in to someone’s home, there is “no bloodguilt for him” (Exod. 22:2)
  • If, on the other hand, “the sun has risen upon him, there shall be bloodguilt for him” (Exod. 22:3). I interpret this to mean that killing a thief in the act is okay, but coming after him later is not.
  • If someone lets his cattle loose and it feeds on someone else’s field or vineyard, the cattle owner must make restitution from the best of his own field or vineyard.
  • The Sin of Witchcraft by William Brassey Hole

    The Sin of Witchcraft by William Brassey Hole

    If a fire breaks out and burns stacked or standing grain, the person who started the fire must make full restitution.

  • If someone asks his neighbour to hold money or goods for him and it gets gets stolen and the thief is found, the thief must pay double.
  • If the thief is not found, the person holding the money or goods must “come near to God” (Exod. 22:8) and swear that he isn’t the thief. In other words, they must approach an altar and swear that they didn’t cheat their neighbour
  • For “every breach of trust,” both parties must “come before God, he whom God shall condemn shall pay double to his neighbor” (Exod. 22:9). In other words, an oracle is used to determine guilt.
  • If someone gives cattle to someone else but it dies, is injured, or is lost before it gets there, he must swear that it was unintentional. If he refuses to swear, he must make restitution.
  • If someone borrows something from a neighbour and it’s harmed or dies, the borrower must make full reinstitution
  • If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and he “lies with her” (Exod. 22:16), he must pay his “marriage present” and marry her.
  • If the father refuses to give her to him, he must pay the equivalent of the “marriage present” anyway.

Rape isn’t specifically addressed, although we saw from Dinah’s story that no distinction seems to be made between rape and consensual sex. Either way, a crime has been committed against the girl’s marriageability and, therefore, against her family.  Interpreted this way, Exodus 22:16 may well be suggesting that a girl be forced to marry her rapist unless she happens to have a empathetic father.

Cultic Laws

  • “You shall not permit a sorceress to live” (Exod. 22:18).

Much suffering has this little sentence excused! Of course, no instructions are given for telling the difference between magic and miracle. As we saw in Exodus 7, the difference cannot be assumed to be obvious. So what causes a sorceress to be put to death but Aaron and Moses to be hailed as leaders?

  • Bestiality is deserving of the death penalty.

In light of the rape issue mentioned above, it seems that raping a cow is taken more seriously than raping a girl.

  • Anyone who makes a sacrifice to a god other than God “shall be utterly destroyed” (Exod. 22:20).

Social Laws

  • Israelites are not to harm strangers. Nor to harm widows or orphans. My study bible calls these groups the “legally defenseless.” If such a person is harmed and they cry out to God, his “wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless” (Exod. 22:24). There’s some divine humour for you.
  • If an Israelite lends any money to “any of my people” who is poor, he must not “be to him as a creditor” (Exod. 22:25). He must not exact interest.
  • Further to the lending, if he takes a garment in pledge, he must give it back “before the sun goes down; for that is his only covering” (Exod. 22:26-27).
  • “You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people” (Exod. 22:28). Hear that, Tea Partiers?
  • Israelites should not delay to offer “from the fulness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses” (Exod. 22:29).
  • “The first-born of your sons you shall give to me” (Exod. 22:29).

God is clearly asking for child sacrifice. In his An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Collins points out that “it is difficult to believe that any society would systematically require the sacrifice of the firstborn sons, but it may have been proposed as an ideal in early Israel” (p. 72).

  • Further, the first-born among the oxen and sheep must also be given in sacrifice. It should sray with its dam for seven days, but on the eighth day, “you shall give it to me” (Exod. 22:30).
  • And, finally, the Israelites must not eat any flesh that has been “torn by beasts in the field” (Exod. 22:31). Such meat was, apparently, considered unclean because it wasn’t properly drained of blood.

Exodus 21: The Ordinances

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The Ordinances provide supplemental information to the Decalogue (the ten commandments).

Regarding Hebrew Slaves

It’s specified that the following rules apply only to Hebrew slaves who have been bought.

  • They are to serve for six years. In the seventh year, they are to be set free.
  • If he was single when bought, he must leave single. If he was married when bought, his wife goes with him.
  • If his master provided him with a wife during his term as a slave, she and any children they’ve had together belong to the master even after the slave’s term is finished. If he wishes to stay with his wife and children, he must be made a slave for life (in a ceremony that involves boring a hole through his ear).

I think it goes without saying that this gives masters huge manipulative power.

  • When a Hebrew girl is sold by her family, she doesn’t get to be freed as male slaves do. Rather, she “must be married at a marriageable age to her master or his son, or released” (p. 106, A Woman’s Place).
  • A Hebrew female slave is protected against being sold to foreigners, even if she “does not please her master” (Exod. 21:8).
  • If the Hebrew female slave is intended for the master’s son, “he shall deal with her as with a daughter” (Exod. 21:9), presumably even before the wedding takes place.
  • If, after buying his wife, he decides to take another, he “shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights” (Exod. 21:10). If he fails in this, she is to be freed.

You read that correctly. The Bible just conflated being a wife and a slave. Take from that what you will.

Regarding Murder

  • Murder earns the death penalty.
  • However, if the murder was not in cold blood – “if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand” (Exod. 21:13) – the murderer is exiled instead.

Regarding Personal Injuries

  • Hitting your parents merits the death penalty.
  • Kidnapping merits the death penalty. It’s specified that this is the case regardless of whether the kidnapper is found with the victim or if he’s already sold his victim.

It’s often argued that slavery in the Bible wasn’t like the more modern forms, that it was merely a way for people to pay off debts and that slaves weren’t abused as they were in antebellum America. But this provides us a hint of just how silly that claim is. If slaves were merely debtors who willingly entered into slavery themselves, a kidnapper would not be able to sell his victim (as we saw in Genesis 37).

  • Cursing one’s parents merits the death penalty.

I think it’s important to point out that this doesn’t mean the kinds of cursing that we’re familiar with today, which would involve kids shouting profanities as they slam doors. At the time, a curse was believed to be capable of very real harm, and the act of cursing someone “released an inexorable power” (as my study bible puts it).

  • exodus-21If one person strikes another so that the stricken person must keep “to his bed” (Exod. 21:18) but is eventually healed, the striker must pay for the loss of time and have his victim healed.
  • If a slave dies when beaten by the master, the master shall be punished. If the slave survives a day or two before dying, there’s no punishment, “for the slave is his money” (Exod. 21:21).

The punishment for killing another human being in this case is not specified. Further, this passage has lead people like Philo to conclude “that one who kills his own slaves actually injures oneself more by being deprived of the slave’s service and property value” (p. 106, A Woman’s Place). Certainly, the argument is there that the loss of the slave’s value is punishment enough.

  • If two men are fighting and they hurt a pregnant woman causing a miscarriage but she is otherwise unharmed, the one who hurt her is to be fined.

I find this point really interesting in light of the abortion debate. Exodus 21:12 stipulated that the punishment for an unintentional or “heat of the moment” killing is exile. So the implication of this passage is that there is something qualitatively different between killing a person and killing a fetus. Further, the punishment given, a fine, is the same as we shall soon see given for property damage.

  • If the pregnant woman is harmed, the punishment is “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exod. 21:23-25).

While it may seem barbaric on the surface (and certainly is by modern standards), I think it bears mentioning that this is less a call for vengeance and more a limitation on what otherwise might be an unending cycle of vengeance. It works two ways: The first is that if someone pokes out your eye, you can only poke out his in return, not kill him, for example. Secondly, because it’s written down that the punishment for poking out your eye is a loss of his own, he can’t then demand vengeance for the harm you have done. So penance is paid and the incident doesn’t become a much larger feud.

  • If a master ruins a slave’s eye or knocks out a tooth, the slave is allowed to go free.

As Sam Harris points out, “the only real restraint God counsels on the subject of slavery is that we do not beat our slaves so severely that we injure their eyes or their teeth (Exodus 21). It should go without saying that this is not the kind of moral insight that put an end to slavery in the United States”  (p. 16, Letter to a Christian Nation).

(For more on the use of the Bible to both condemn and defend slavery, there’s a fantastic post over at Daylight Atheism.)

  • If an ox gores someone to death, it should be stoned at the flesh not eaten, but the owner is guiltless.
  • If an ox gores someone to death and has a history of goring but the owner neglected to keep it locked up, both the ox and the owner should either be killed, or the owner forced to pay a “ransom.”
  • If an ox gores a slave, the ox’s owner must pay a fine to the slave’s owner.
  • If a man leaves a pit uncovered and an ox or donkey fall in, he can keep the dead animal but must pay its owner.
  • If one man’s ox kills another man’s ox, both should be sold and the money split between the two men.

According to Collins, laws regarding damage done by livestock can also be found in the codes of Eshnunna and Hammurabi. The instructions in Exodus 21:35 for what to do if an ox kills another ox “corresponds exactly to the Code of Eshnunna” (The Hebrew Bible, p.71).

David Plotz says that these laws “are far more revealing” as a window into the daily lives of the ancient Israelites “than the more dramatic biblical stories. They depict the Israelites at the time of the Torah as obsessed with property rights and focused on the health of their livestock, on which their economic health depended.”

The Politics of the Ten Commandments

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Many scholars have understood that the passages in which the ten commandments are given resemble certain kinds of treaties, such as Assyrian and Hittite vassal-suzerain treaties. As Collins points out, these “are not made between equal partners but involve the submission of one party (the vassal) to the other (the suzerain)” (p. 64, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible).

There are several components to these types of treaties. For example, the suzerain would demand that the vassal serve no other overlord (Collins, p. 67), which is precisely what we find in the first commandment.

In the treaties, there would often be an introduction that names the suzerain and describes the historical context, as we find when we read: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exod. 20:2). Further, this follows the same logic as the treaties. “The Isrealites are obligated to obey the law because of what God has done for them in bringing them out of Egypt” (Collins, p. 65-66), just as a vassal might be compelled to serve a suzerain in return for military protection.

The major part of the treaty is the portion that holds the requirements or terms. “These are often couched in highly personal terms. An Assyrian king, Esarhaddon, demands loyalty to his son Ashurbanipal by telling his subjects, ‘You will love as yourself Ashurbanipal’ ” (Collins, p. 65).

The message is clear. The Israelites may have their own kings, but they are still subject to God. The authors are using a recognizable form of writing to further illustrate relationship between God and the Hebrews. Or, if you prefer, “when God establishes His covenant with Israel, He does so using a legal language that they could understand” (p. 108,Geoghegan and Homan, The Bible for Dummies).

Exodus 20: The Ten Commandments

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God gives Moses ten thou-shalt-nots:

  1. “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3). This language suggests that other gods exist, but that God claims exclusive worship from the Hebrews. Taken alone, it’s a rather weak argument, but taken with all the other passages we’ve been covering over the last few chapters and it seems rather clear that the ancient Hebrews were Henotheists.
  2. The next is a prohibition against graven images, or any likeness of anything found in heaven or on earth. The fact that this is an actual commandment makes it doubly hilarious when certain groups insist on having carvings of stone tablets inscribed with the commandments displayed in courthouses. An interesting point brought up by Collins on page 41 of his Introduction to the Hebrew Bible is that this commandment suggests that we are the idols. Just as other groups were making figures in their gods’ images, we were created in the image of our god.
  3. No taking God’s name in vain. In Genesis 2, I talked about the power of names. There, the power was in choosing names, while here it’s in speaking it. In many ancient cultures, knowing someone or something’s “secret name” gives you the ability to control them or cast spells on them. Here, God is talking about his secret name, YHWH. So the prohibition is about using God’s name when reciting a spell or curse to control God and make him do your bidding. Think of the phrase “God dammit!” or “God damn it!”
  4. Keep the Sabbath. This applies to individuals, as well as to their servants, cattle, and even any foreigners staying in their cities. This is actually a very progressive rule and the only commandment that isn’t either concerned with cultic segregation or with obvious behaviours that are were already prohibited in every culture.
  5. The Ten Commandments, c.1480-1490

    The Ten Commandments, c.1480-1490

    Honour your parents.

  6. No murder.
  7. No adultery.
  8. No stealing.
  9. No “false witness against your neighbor” (Exod. 20:16). This seems to suggest that it isn’t lying that’s wrong, but rather lying against someone. So telling grandma that you love the reindeer sweater she knitted you with the real bells attached wouldn’t actually be a sin because that lie is for someone.
  10. No coveting your neighbour’s possessions, including their house, wife, servant, ox, ass, or anything else. Sorry, ladies.

The second commandment understandably made some Roman Catholics rather nervous, so they sweep it under the carpet by combining it with #1 and expanding #10 into two separate commandments (no coveting your neighbour’s house and no coveting his stuff, either!).

Some Jews will see the first part of the chapter, called the declaration (where God introduces himself as the speaker), as the first commandment. They then also combine #1 and #2 to fix the numbering.

Some have noticed that 10 seems like a rather arbitrary number, and that the ten commandments could really be condensed into just two:



Or, if you’d prefer, just one: “Don’t be a dick.”

Do not fear

So God is yapping away at Moses, and all the while the rest of the Israelites hear only thunder claps and the sound of a trumpet (which was associated with cultic occasions). Having presumably never been caught out in a storm before, they start to get pretty freaked out, so they ask Moses to make sure that God doesn’t address the crowd lest they be killed.

To which Moses replies: “Do not fear; for God has come to prove you, and that the fear of him may be before your eyes, that you may not sin” (Exod. 20:20). Soo… God will keep the people from sinning by scaring the bajeezus out of them, so they shouldn’t be afraid? What’s Moses trying to accomplish here?

Altars of earth

God wants an “altar of earth” built and sacrifices made there in any place where “I cause my name to be remembered” (Exod. 20:24). He does allow for stones to be used in their construction, but they must not be hewn. “For if you wield your tool upon it you profane it” (Exod. 20:25).

My study bible says that this is in contrast to the fancy pagan altars.

Unfortunately, my study bible is distressingly silent on the next part. “And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it” (Exod. 20:26). So basically, God really doesn’t want your “tool” anywhere near his altar!

But seriously, this probably has something to do with wearing robes, and people’s ability to see up said robes when someone is climbing stairs.

Additional notes

God then re-emphasises that people shouldn’t be making idols. “You shall not make gods of silver to be with me” (Exod. 20:23). I wanted to touch on this because it’s a nice illustration of how utterly alien the Bible is to what most modern day people believe. Today, we have no problem with the idea that God can create people, but this shows a mutual creative power. God seems to believe that people can create other gods by making idols. So the ban on idolatry, really, is so that the creative power flows only in one direction.

I also wanted to mention a titbit that came up while God was giving his commandments. He says to Moses: “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exod. 20:5). Quite contrary to the individualism of “Christian-founded” America, the Bible is all about collective guilt and collective salvation.

Exodus 19: Thunder on the mountain

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After three months of travelling, the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai and set up camp. Once there, Moses climbs the mountain to talk to God, who makes the Israelites a deal. “Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all people; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:5-6).

Now, the language of possession, essentially reducing the Israelites to things (albeit treasured), is rather creepy from a modern perspective. Sorta reinforces that view of God as the kid with the ant farm, doesn’t it?

The Israelites don’t seem to think so. When Moses relays the message, “all the people answered together and said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do’ ” (Exod. 19: 8). Much as it disturbs me to see a whole culture willingly subjecting themselves to being possessions, this is certainly a welcome break from hearing them whine.

Then, God institutes a rule about Mount Sinai: No one, be they human or beast, is to approach the mountain lest they “be put to death” (Exod. 19:12-13). This emphasises the mysterium tremendum of the sacred location.

Next, God tells Moses that in three days time he will appear to the Israelites personally. In the meantime, Moses should busy himself consecrating every individual and they should make sure that they was their clothes (probably a good idea after three months in the wilderness).

And for the feminists among my readers, please note that on the third day, God’s rule for all Israelites is: “Do not go near a woman” (Exod. 19:15). Just in case you were wondering who the Old Testament considers worthy of personhood, there’s your answer. When God addresses “the Israelites,” that’s only the ones with penises. The rest don’t count.

God’s appearance

The Ten Commandments by Isabella Colette

The Ten Commandments by Isabella Colette

“On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightenings” and “Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in a fire” (Exod. 19:16-18). If we subscribe to the theory that there’s a kernel of truth to the Exodus stories, and that they can be traced back to misunderstood naturalistic phenomena, this one’s pretty obvious. There’s a big storm, which the Israelites think is God talking to them.

We seem to get confirmation of this in the next verse, where we’re told that Moses speaks and “God answered him in thunder” (Exod. 19:19). This suggests that God isn’t speaking in a way that the Israelites can understand him, but rather that Moses is interpreting the thunder.

And when we were told in Exodus 19:12-13 that there’s a bound set around the mountain so that only Moses can approach, is this because Moses is just pretending to talk to God? Is he actually just reading the latest Harlequin novel for a bit before going down and telling the people whether God thinks lamb is best served with mint jelly or not?

In other words, does the emphasis on secrecy (or “sacredness,” if that’s the term you prefer) suggest that Moses is a conman rather than just a naif who is misinterpreting natural phenomena?

God forgets his rule

God tells Moses to bring up the priests to meet him, but Moses reminds him of the prohibition against letting anyone go near the mountain. That’s right, God issued a rule and, within three days, had already forgotten it. No matter, God asks Moses to bring up Aaron instead. Then he reminds Moses not to “let the priests and th epeople break through to come up to the Lord, lest he break out against them” (Exod. 19:24).

Points for talking about himself in the third person. But also, this really makes it look like Aaron is an accomplice, and Moses needed a story to tell the Israelites that would let him bring his brother up without all the priests and elders wanting to see God too.

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