Sunday, March 25, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 29

In this chapter, the LORD commands how the priests and the altar are to be consecrated by animal sacrifice.

This chapter contains sacrifices of consecration, which in my opinion are very similar to sacrifices of atonement.  The concept of atonement is to atone, or compensate, for some wrong committed in the past.  The concept of consecration is to somehow purify or change an object/person so that it is now "holy", i.e. different or set apart from the common.  Since holiness is always associated with the LORD, I believe it is also meant to express a sense of sanctity, that not only is it different from the "common", it is also pure.  This is how inanimate objects like the altar are sanctified: obvious the altar has no sin to be atoned, yet it is still regarded as "common" until it is consecrated.  The process of consecrating, then, must be a method of purifying and sanctifying the altar so that it is no longer common, it is now holy.

The priests, who are also consecrated, both have their sins atoned (because the sinful or impure cannot be holy) and their lives sanctified and purified in the same sense as the altar.

We definitely see an element of substitutionary atonement when the priests lay their hands on the animals' heads.  This is a specific act of transference of guilt, which is a direct embodiment of substitutionary atonement, and another reason why I think consecration implies atonement.

As I previously noted, the priests are commanded to set blood on the horns of the altar.  Later we will see more references to acts specifically performed on the horns of the altar.  This shows that the horns are considered representative of the larger altar and what the altar itself represents.

Putting blood on the right ear, thumb and toe is reminiscent of the Passover (putting blood on the doorframes) and when Moses sprinkled blood on the people.  On the one hand, it is an act of atonement like we see in the Passover, but on the other hand, it is a way of confirming and sealing a covenant (in this case) between the priests and God.  I don't know the specific reason why they used the earlobe, thumb and toe, but there is a clear similarity to the Passover in how they are sealed with blood.

The anointing oil is a very specific oil mixture, which we will see the recipe later.  This is a "sacred anointing oil" only used for religious purposes.

Also note that the priestly garments are only worn near the tent of meeting, within the courtyard (v. 4-9, 29-30).  This confirms my hypothesis from the last chapter based on the usage of gold in creating the garments.

Emphasis on unleavened bread, even though this is not the Passover anymore.  It is hard to explain this in the context of haste, which was true for the Passover.  No other explanation given, but later Israelites considered leaven to be symbolic of sin or impurity.

The text here doesn't explain why the fat is burned on the altar but not the other parts of the bull.  My guess is that it's because the fat is the highest caloric part of the animal and is considered the "best part", so burning the fat is a metaphor for giving the best part of the sacrifice to God.  On the other hand, the entire (first) ram is burned on the altar, while the second ram has its fat burned on the altar, while the leftovers are given as food to the priests.  I'll save my explanations of these rituals for now, because we will re-encounter them later.

The terms sin offering, wave offering, heave offering (NASB) and burnt offering are specific technical terms that are defined later in Leviticus, which prescribes the proper way to offer various types of sacrifices.  Again, I will explain these when we reach Leviticus, because if I explain them now I'll have nothing to say then.  :)

The priests eat from the sacrifice.  This is the beginning of a professional ministry, because their fulltime job will be the maintenance of the tabernacle and the performing of sacrifices.  It is only last chapter that an Israelite priesthood was introduced at all, and now they are to be considered a professional (and permanent, hereditary) class  This is a significant shift, and it happens in parallel with the growing complexity of the LORD's religious rituals.  That is, a fulltime ministry is only required because there are so many tasks that the LORD is commanding to be done.  Assigning these tasks to a specific minister is efficient, yet it denies access to the holy place to the vast majority of the Israelites, as the family of Aaron will be less than 1% of the total population.

The LORD further institutes permanent, daily sacrifices.  We aren't told where the animals are to come from, but I would guess either donations or some sort of national tax.  Although it's not stated here, I believe the priests also eat from the daily sacrifices (and not just the sacrifices for their consecration), which will become their daily provision while they minister by maintaining the lampstand and also overseeing the sacrifices and other rituals.

We are not told what is the purpose or reason for these sacrifices, but I would speculate that they are intended as a sacrifice of worship, not atonement or consecration.  We have seen a few sacrifices of worship before, such as Gen 4:3-4 and arguably also Gen 22:13.  In both instances, there is no obvious sign that the men offering sacrifices are atoning for anything, they are just offering sacrifices as a token or respect or worship to God.  I believe it's similar here because there is nothing specifically being atoned.  I believe this is partly the basis for God's "dwell[ing] among the sons of Israel".  Alternatively, one could view it as sacrificial atonement for sins the Israelites commit on a daily basis, in which case they would have daily atonement in addition to the annual Passover festival.

However, I think there's a lingering question, which is, "why does a sacrifice of worship make sense?"  I already tried to address the reasoning of substitutionary atonement back in Ex 12, and I think I was able to find a sort of logic in the sense that one can transfer one's sins to the animal and then kill the animal.  In this case, for the daily sacrifices, there is no apparent "transfer", so what purpose does it serve that an animal die?  I honestly don't have a good answer for this, but I have some ideas.  Back in Gen 4, we saw that Cain offered of the fruit that he grew from the soil, while Abel offered fat from the flocks he raised.  In both cases, they offered food which was the direct result of their labor.  I think this represents the duality between the results of labor and the food that we need to eat to live.  These two concepts are intertwined first in Gen 3 when God says that it is by harsh labor that man shall bring plants from the ground, which he shall eat.  This is analogous to the harsh labor required to shepherd a flock and eat the slaughtered lambs of that flock.  This further explains why there are sacrifices of bread and oil (and in v. 40, wine) in addition to animals, because this represents the approximate diet of the Hebrews.  There was no sacrifice of bread in the Passover or when the covenant is confirmed in Ex 24, because those were sacrifices of atonement, while these are sacrifices of consecration and worship.

Like the offering of firstfruits, I believe the sacrifices in this chapter are intended as an acknowledgement that God is the source of all the food we eat, that our success comes from God.  God sends down rain and causes the sun to shine, and provides us all the tools we need to have a successful crop.  Offering a sacrifice to God, then, shows that we recognize our dependence on him and his favor towards us.

Does it take a sacrifice to acknowledge one's dependence on God?  I'd lean towards no, I don't think it does.  I think the sacrifice here is instituted in part to teach the Israelite's their dependence on God, possibly more than as an acknowledgement.  And why a sacrifice?  Probably the logic is, "from God this came, to God shall it return."

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 28

In this chapter, the LORD designates Aaron as the high priest and describes the garments of the priestly ministry.

In my mind, the biggest implication of this chapter is with respect to the "kingdom of priests" that the LORD promised back in Ex 19.  If Israel is supposed to be (or become) a kingdom of priests, they why are Aaron and his sons selected "from among the sons of Israel, to minister as priest[s]"?  I think this is an important question, and I think the answer is also partially revealed by the elaborate structure that is being built to contain the ark of the covenant.  That is, it is increasingly clear that access to the LORD is going to be mediated by some process that will exclude the majority of Israelites.  As I defined priesthood before, it is the act of "mediating between man and God", generally for the purpose of interceding for mercy, favor or specific blessings.  In general, it is the establishment of a direct relationship between the priest and God in the context of priestly ministry, cf. Adam's relationship with the LORD in Gen 2 and 3.

Since Aaron is established as priest, we can reasonably surmise that he will intermediate between the Hebrew people and the LORD, in a similar way to Moses.  I previously stated that Moses is acting as a prophet, while Aaron shall act as a priest.  These are two different modalities, with the priest primarily focused on intercession and mercy, while the prophet is focused more on divine direction and relating the words of the LORD.  More vaguely, you can imagine the priest as being the "up-channel", speaking from the people to God, while the prophet is the "down-channel", speaking from God to the people, although these are general principles that will have exceptions (for instance, Moses relates the words of the people to God in Ex 19:8).

The priestly intermediation does not seem like a proper aspect of the Abrahamic Covenant, where Abraham (the holder of the covenant) related with God directly and had no priestly intermediary.  That is why I believe that the priestly intermediary is perhaps best viewed as a temporary institution until the people come into the fullness of Ex 19:6, although on this point I admit that I do not currently have textual support.  It just strikes me as contrary to the precedent set in Genesis that the holders of the covenant would not directly relate with God like Moses or Aaron are authorized to do.  Verse 43 also establishes the priesthood of Aaron and his sons as a "statute forever", which expresses a permanence, but I believe that this statute, like the rest of the Mosaic Covenant, is conditional on the Hebrew's obedience to the LORD (Ex 19:5, "if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant...").  This is a point that is debated by some factions within Christianity, but in my opinion it is pretty clear that the covenant is conditional on Hebrew obedience.

The next overall theme I want to mention is the increasing complexity of the covenant and the Hebrew faith.  Establishing a set of moral laws and a few festivals is one thing, but now we're seeing a tremendous amount of highly detailed clothing which is mandated for the priest: the breastpiece, ephod, robe, tunic, turban and sash, each with its own particular design and significance.  Contrast this with Abraham, and we were never even told what Abraham was wearing, while now the high priest Aaron has this whole regalia that he must wear "so that he will not die" (v. 35) and "so that they do not incur guilt and die" (v. 43).  This is incredibly severe, although it's generally within keeping of the patriarch's expectations (consider Gen 16:13, Gen 32:30, possibly others).  In some sense, given the patriarchs' expectation of death upon seeing God, the freedom of Genesis might be the exception and the restraint of Exodus be the rule.  The patriarchs of Genesis certainly didn't expect to see God and live, and yet I feel that exception (seeing God yet living) is what lies at the heart of the Abrahamic Covenant, because as I have already demonstrated, the Abrahamic Covenant is chiefly portrayed as a reversal of the curse of Adam.  To wit, how can someone die when seeing God if they dwell in the garden of Eden, a land of communion between man and God?

In conclusion, these seem like subtle yet important contradictions.  I believe the best resolution is to view them in light of the people's general ignorance of the LORD.  It's clear there is some sense in which the "holiness of God" can kill people who approach him in the wrong way, and in my estimation the LORD is trying to guide and govern this new people until they are ready to approach him in the correct way with a purified heart.  I think it's fair if people want to challenge my conclusions, that we can already regard the Aaronic priesthood as a temporary institution and that the tabernacle should also be regarded as a temporary restraint on the interface between the covenantal people and God.  However, those who wish to challenge my conclusions are left with an evidentiary basis they have to explain: why the Mosaic Covenant is so constrained when compared to the Hebrew forefathers, and why the interface between man and God is so constrained when the Israelites are protected from the other effects of the curse of Adam (like the plagues in Egypt, cf. Goshen principle).  Lastly, one must offer an alternate explanation for the meaning and purpose of Ex 19:6, which is stated as an explicit conclusion to 19:5, "if you... keep my covenant".

Before discussing details of the garments, I want to ensure my reader understands how they all fit together.  First, the priest would put on a linen tunic which is basically ancient underclothing.  Next is a robe which covers most of the tunic.  On top of that are two shoulder pieces which are connected by golden chains.  There are two rings on the shoulder pieces, which are used to hang the breastpiece in front by a blue cord.  Then the priest would wear a turban with the attached "plate of pure gold", and then the priest would wear a sash too.

Also, the materials for constructing the priestly garments are very similar to those used in the tabernacle, with a fine cloth of blue, purple and scarlet and gold predominating.  From the usage of gold in these garments we can infer that they will be used primarily, if not exclusively, within the confines on the tabernacle.  Later passages will explicitly confirm this.

The word ephod is a simple transliteration of the Hebrew, "ephod".  This transliteration is used by most major bible translations, including the NIV, NASB, NLT and Message.  We can deduce from the context that the ephod is basically a robe with two shoulder pieces.  However, the precise translation of "ephod" is somewhat ambiguous, because in verse 4 it is listed separately from the robe, which implies that it is properly only the shoulder pieces.  However, verse 31 uses the phrase "robe of the ephod", implying the robe might be considered part of the ephod.  I don't know which is correct, but in later passages the word "ephod" is used to vaguely describe priestly ceremonial garments, possibly including other elements which are considered distinct in this chapter.

With all of that said, I would next like to emphasize the aspect of Israelite unity that we see in the priestly costume.  This is first established in the two stones on the shoulder pieces, where all of the twelve tribes of Israel are listed equally and together, though in birth order (v. 10).  Therefore when Aaron enters the holy place (v. 43), he bears all of the tribes of Israel before the LORD in full solidarity.  We next see the unity of the sons of Israel in the twelve stones on the breastpiece.  Even though they are represented by separate stones, all twelve stones are together and to the best of my knowledge, the same size.  The text does not seem to imply any supremacy of one stone over another, like we saw the supremacy of Judah over his brothers in Gen 49.  Before men, the tribes may be stronger or weaker, but before God they are all equal.

I think it's peculiar that v. 29 says the "breastpiece of judgment".  We don't actually know what that means yet, but it will be made clear when we come to understand the Urim and Thummim (more transliterations, they respectively mean "fires", or figuratively "lights", and "perfections", in the sense of "complete", "not lacking").  These are mentioned here without explanation, but later we will see that these are used in some fashion of authorized divination.  It's related to judgment because the Urim and Thummim are used to discern the will of God in judgment of various situations or people.  I will discuss this more later when we see them again.  The usage of the priestly garments to ascertain the will of God certainly seems like a prophetic function (since it receives from God information for the people), and I would consider this another exception to the general rule that priests are up-channels, speaking from the people to God.

Lastly, on a minor note, I had previously heard some teachers state that the color blue should be associated with the prophetic ministry.  I think here we can see it is clearly associated with the priestly ministry which calls into question the prophetic association.  We would expect the color blue to be associated with Moses, but so far his garments have not been described (or commanded by God).  This contradicts, but does not fully disprove, the assertion that blue is a prophetic color.

Bible Commentary - Exodus 27

In this chapter, the LORD details the construction of the things outside the tabernacle: the bronze altar and the courtyard screen.

First, note the change of materials in this chapter.  While in chapter 25 and briefly in 26 the furnishings were made of gold (except for the bases of the tabernacle, which needed to be weight-bearing), in this chapter all of the furnishings and ornamentation are made of bronze.  Partly I think this is because they are external, subject to the elements, and require more durability: I previously noted that pure gold is very fragile, while bronze is a very durable metal alloy that can sustain a lot of abuse.  I also think it is because gold is more valuable than bronze, so all of the things closer to the holy of holies are gold, while radiating out from that the courtyard is filled with bronze.  Or conversely, we can imagine the effect on Hebrews who go in to the tabernacle and passes first into a courtyard of bronze, past the outer screen and into the holy place where everything is made out of gold, except for the curtains, which are woven fabric of many colors with cherubim everywhere.  Then, passing beyond the veil of separation, he enters into the holy of holies where resides the ark of the covenant and the LORD's abiding presence.  The effect is to heighten the appearance of majesty and grandeur to the visitor.

The construction of the altar is more elegant than the altars of earth or stone that was recommended before.  Now we're seeing an altar of wood covered in bronze, with this bronze network (whatever that means) and some bronze carrying poles.  Of course everything has carrying poles because the Israelites are going to carry these things through the desert to the promised land.  The "horns" of the altar are small ornaments that don't have any explicit purpose, yet symbolically are used to represent the essence of the altar, in that the Israelites are frequently command to put the blood of sacrifices on the horns.  Verse 3 makes it clear that something will be burned on the altar, requiring shovels and pails for the removal of ashes.  Later we will see what they are burning.  The wood obviously wouldn't handle fire well, so the entire surface of the altar is covered with bronze.

Next, we are told there is to be an outer courtyard which surrounds the tabernacle.  This courtyard is notably larger than the tabernacle (which, in the last chapter, we noted was around 22 feet long and 7-8 feet wide).  The courtyard, in turn, is a rectangle of dimensions 150 by 75 feet, with the entrance on one of the narrow sides (although I don't believe the text tells us which one).  This is another physical barrier to enter the holy place.  Although it is open above, towards the sky, it is not open for people to freely enter.  I don't think there's anything notable about the structure or design of the courtyard, other than its construction with bronze which I reference above.

Lastly, we are told that the lampstand whose construction was detailed earlier is to be burning continually, which possibly means every day, but more likely means 24/7/365, all of the time, although it would possibly have to be put out while moving from one place to another.  I'm not sure about that, maybe later text will make it clear.  This is a "perpetual statute", but perhaps most surprisingly is that Aaron and his sons are commanded to do this.  We have known that Aaron was Moses's right-hand man for a long time and we also knew that he was counted amongst the "elders of the people" along with his sons Nadab and Abihu, but now Aaron appears to be getting his own particular assignment.  In the next chapter we will see that this is a very extensive assignment, but here it is to maintain the perpetually burning flame in the tabernacle.

On a minor note, in verse 21, the author calls the tabernacle the tent of meeting.  This is the same structure that we are reading about, but a name that emphasizes the LORD "meeting" with the Israelites there, while tabernacle (i.e. residence) emphasizes that the LORD lives there and it is his home.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 26

In this chapter, the LORD directs the construction of the tabernacle in its various stages.

Before anything else, I'd like to note that the word tabernacle is also a KJV word, just like I was talking about "mercy seat" and "ark" in the previous chapter.  Tabernacle is not a wrong translation, but it is outdated, and only remains in bible translations because of historical precedence.  You ask someone today what a tabernacle is, and the only answer they know how to give is religious (i.e. here in the bible or church names), because that's the only place this word still exists in modern language.  The Hebrew word "mishkan" can be reasonably translated "habitation" or "residence".  The primary characteristic is "as a place where [someone] lives or dwells".  Strong's Lexicon notes that this would include, "a shepherd's hut, an animal's lair, figuratively, the grave, and the Temple".

We had already seen the generally abiding presence of the LORD in the cloud of fire and smoke that was with Israel coming out of Egypt.  Now we're seeing that the LORD intends to construct a much more specific dwelling place, where he can "live" amongst the Israelites.  We can call this "the tabernacle", but I could just as accurately call it "the residence".  Just as I discussed in the last chapter, this is yet another reversal of the curse of Adam from Genesis 3, which fractured man's relationship with God by driving man out of his proper dwelling place, where God also dwelt.  Now it appears that God is seeking to construct a new dwelling place for himself, which is accessible to man.  However, as we can begin to see, it does not have the same freedom of the Garden.

First we see 10 curtains of woven fabric which form the basis of the residence.  There are cherubim woven into the fabric, which recalls the cherubim guarding the entrance to the Garden in Gen 3, similar to the ark of the covenant in the previous chapter.  There are clasps of gold, but no other gold is referenced in part of this construct.

Next is a nearly identical covering of goat's hair, which is slightly larger than the woven fabric.  That's because the goat's hair is laid over the inner fabric to protect it from weather damage.  Its clasps are made out of bronze, which is generally cheaper and tougher than gold.  (Bronze is a very durable metal alloy, while pure gold is extremely soft and easily damaged.)  This covering is itself covered by yet another layer of rams' skin and porpoise skin, which would protect the inner layers from water damage.

Next is a set of wooden boards which are the framework of the residence.  It is around this framework that the prior curtains of woven fabric, hair and skins are to be laid.

The NASB has yet another KJV loaner word here, "tenon".  This is a word that is still in use in modern English, but I still think that the other major translations (NIV, NLT, Message) do a better job here of using idiomatic English that is just as accurate at capturing the underlying Hebrew.  Anyway, the idea is that these are pegs or small extensions which are used to secure the silver bases, which hold the planks upright.

This passage gives us a very good idea for the dimensions of the residence.  There are 20 boards on each side and 6 boards in the back, meaning it is roughly three times as long as it is wide.  It is also ten cubits high (probably 15 feet, as a cubit is probably a unit of 18 inches).  The boards and crossbars are to be overlaid with gold, which is consistent with all of the golden overlays of the last chapter.  We can combine this information with the sizes of the ten curtains to see that the tabernacle is probably about 15 cubits long (~22 feet) and 5 cubits wide (~7 feet).  From my perspective, this seems pretty small, but remember they had to carry this building (deconstructed of course) around with them on the journey, so it makes sense that you wouldn't want it to be too big.

Next is the veil, which is woven almost identically to the initial curtains, using the same material with the same cherubim pattern.  There are four more pillars used to hold up this veil, and it separates the residence into two areas, the "holy place" (Hebrew "kodesh") which is outside the veil (i.e. closer to the entrance) and the "holy of holies" (Hebrew "kodesh kodesh") which is beyond the veil (i.e. towards the back).  The ark goes in the back (in some unspecified position, probably towards the back end, but the text doesn't say), and the table and the lampstand go in the front, opposite of each other.

Last, there is yet another screen constructed for the entrance, which is held up by five wooden pillars.  It's not clear to me if this screen would be outside the residence or inside.

All of these things form the enclosure for the "holy of holies", which is in an immediate sense the residence of the ark of the covenant, but obviously the bigger picture is that it is where the LORD "will meet you" and the resident for this residence is obviously intended to be the LORD.  As we will see in the future, this is correct.  I think a reasonable reader would wonder what is the purpose of the various ornaments, the ark of the covenant, the table and the lampstand.  These are questions that will be partially answered later, so I will reserve my commentary on this front.

What I would like to discuss now, however, is the sense of constraint that I get from reading this.  The holy of holies is the intended dwelling place of the LORD, but there are so many layers and screens separating the LORD from his people.  In fact, we aren't even done with all of the layers yet.  There are more still to come.  In the garden, man dwelt freely with God, but here, there are many barriers.  Even within the residence itself, there is a holy place and an even more holy place.  If the goal is the reversal of the curse of Adam, this feels like a very poor substitute already.  Before the residence, there was no permanent dwelling of God amongst man, so this is still an improvement.  But I think even now we can start to wonder exactly how accessible this divine communion will be, if it must be sheltered from curious eyes by so much.  More on this subject in the coming chapters and books.

Note: Going forward, I will call the residence "the tabernacle".  This is not because it's more accurate, but to be less confusing to any readers who skip this chapter but read the next ones and only know of this structure by its archaic KJV name.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 25

In this chapter, the LORD details the construction of the ark of the covenant, the table of showbread and the golden lampstand.

First, the LORD establishes a voluntary offering for the materials needed.  Sometimes the sacrifices in the Law of Moses are voluntary and some are mandated.  This one is voluntary.

I could spend a lot of time talking about the sourcing of these various materials, how different spices are produced and so forth, but I'll leave that out for now.  What I will mention is that with the Israelites departing Egypt and just freed from slavery, they would not have the materials to donate except for how they "plundered the wealth of Egypt" during the exodus.  The ultimate purpose of all this is described in verse 8, that the LORD "may dwell among them."

Beginning with the ark of the covenant, we can see that it is constructed for a desert lifestyle.  It is built with poles to allow it to be carried around, as would be necessary for a nomadic people.  We also see it is built with acacia wood, which is a type of tree that grows in the Sinaitic desert.

Next, I would like to point out some unusual language and what we can learn from it.  First is the word ark.  This is a similar Hebrew word to what we found in Genesis 7 describing the ark that Noah built to escape the flood (which is the Hebrew "tebah": lit. box).  In this case, it is the Hebrew "aron", a box, chest or coffin, with the connotation of "a container used for gathering"  This is perhaps fitting, given that a variety of different objects will eventually be "gathered" into the ark of the covenant.  The first object is stated here, which is the testimony, or a written record of the covenant that the people just agreed to.

I'm not sure if ark is the best translation here (which is probably why The Message translates it as "chest"), but in this case "ark" is the King James translation of "aron", and what happens a lot of the time is that modern translations use KJV translations for well-known phrases or names, to maintain consistency with people's expectations.  For instance, if you say to someone, "ark of the covenant", it conveys images in their mind of Indiana Jones and this whole historical background that pervades our culture.  If you say the somewhat more accurate, "chest of the testimony", my bet is that a lot of people would not immediately know what that is.  This is also true to a certain extent for proper names like Zechariah, which could be rendered Zekariah for a slightly more phonetic spelling since the "ch" sound might be soft in English, but it must be hard in Hebrew.  Yet nearly all translations adhere to the KJV standard in regards to this name.  We also see the continuing influence of KJV translations in the term "mercy seat", which I address below.  It's interesting to see how even translations that avoid many of the KJVs mistakes are still bound in some ways to the KJV through historical precedence and how that shapes reader expectations.

This leads to a very interesting, but inconsistent, position of where major bible translations will use KJV translations for well-known terms like "ark of the covenant", but prefer more accurate and idiomatic language for all of the obscure passages.  I mean really, do people even use the word "ark" in casual conversation anymore?  We don't talk about "steam-arks" or "cruise-ark", or "hey guys, I'm going on an Alaskan ark tour".  The word is boat, or ship.  Ark is still accepted English, to be sure, but it's not idiomatic, which is the whole point of modern translations.  Even so, I understand why they made these decisions and can respect that point of view.

The second is the term mercy seat (NASB), or atonement cover (NIV and Message).  In this case, I was surprised to discover that the NASB translation is less true to the original text, because the Hebrew word "kaporet" does not actually refer to a seat, but rather roughly means "thing of covering/atonement", and from this is derived the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, which means "day of atonement".  This is another instance of the NIV and Message adhering to modern English, while the NASB used the term from the KJV, because this is a broadly known bible term and it would confuse some readers to change it.  In fact, the NIV 1984 edition has a note that "traditionally, [this is translated] a mercy seat".  For whatever reason, this note was removed from the NIV 2011 edition.

Either way, it's very interesting that the "thing of atonement" is to be placed directly on top of the "ark of the testimony", which contains the record of Israel's covenant with the LORD.  This is yet another sign that Israel's protection from God's wrath in the Passover is strongly and directly associated with its divine covenant.  We have not yet been told the process whereby Israel is supposed to use this "thing of atonement", but spoiler alert, it involves the shedding of animal blood from ritual sacrifice.  Perhaps we can see that, not only should Israel celebrate a Passover every year in remembrance of their departure from Egypt, but the LORD is now building a process for other "Kippurs" to occur in the context of their covenantal relationship with him.

Continuing with the implied theme of the "mercy seat", however, is the LORD's implication in verse 22 that he will "meet with you... from above the object of atonement".  This is one reason that "mercy seat" is not entirely unfounded, because from v. 22 we can imagine the LORD as if he were sitting on top of this atonement piece when he "meets with" the Israelites.  Later we will see the significance that the ark of the covenant and the atonement cover play in Israel's interactions with the LORD.

The last term I want to jump on is the somewhat unexpected re-emergence of the cherubim.  The first time we saw a cherub was in Genesis 3, protecting the garden of Eden from any encroaching humans.  The second time is here.  This implies what we've already seen, that Genesis is largely focused on a physical history and does not concern itself with spirits, and even the miracles in Genesis are usually pretty muted.

More specifically, in Genesis 3 we are told nothing about the appearance or form of the cherubim.  Here, we are told they have wings.  Even more, we now know that the Israelites would know what a cherub looks like, because they are told to sculpt two of them.  Unfortunately, what the author and his ancient readers could take for granted, we have to piece together from the incomplete historical records of books like this.  But yeah, wings.  Maybe this is where the mythos about angels having wings comes from?  I wonder.

Also, the text implies that the cherubim are guarding or overshadowing the LORD, when he appears "between the two cherubim".  This is similar to their role as guardians of Eden in Gen 3.  Interestingly, in this case the cherubim do not prevent man (as represented by Moses and the Hebrews) from approaching the LORD, while in Gen 3 there was no way back in the fellowship of the garden.  Here, the LORD "will meet with you" when people approach him on the basis of a covenant and through the application of sacrificial blood.  In this respect I would almost say that the cherubim on the ark are a deliberate allusion to Gen 3, creating a contrast between the uncompromising denial of the latter with the openness (under proper conditions) of the former.

Edit: I just recently read the commentary of John Wesley and he notes that the cherubim show the unity of their purpose by facing towards each other and towards the mercy seat.  I agree.  They show unanimity in their devotion as well, both looking towards the appearance of the LORD, from which we can hypothesize that all the angels of heaven look towards the LORD for their purpose.  They live in service, waiting upon him.

Next, the Hebrews are to make a table of acacia wood and covered in gold, which by material sounds very similar to the ark.  While I think it's reasonable that everything would be made out of the same kind of wood, I think it's notable how both the ark and the table are to be completely covered in gold.  Even the carrying poles are covered in gold.  So far, gold has not played much of a role in the bible thematically.  It's used in various places to describe objects of wealth or value, so for instance we are told that Abraham was a man who was "very rich in livestock, in silver and in gold". (Gen 13:2)  These are clearly some of the top measurements of ancient wealth in their culture, and this is how it has been used in most every other place.  So I suppose we can take this to describe the richness or ostentation of these objects, that everything should be covered in gold.

Other than that, I don't think the table is notable.  We are told that the "bread of the presence" should be placed on it, but this sentence is left unexplained.  In this case, the author is writing about something we have not yet been told, the ritual of the "showbread" (another KJV term, fortunately not used by the NASB in this instance).  Since the bread of the presence is explained later, I will also reserve my commentary for when we read about it (Lev 24).

Lastly (for this chapter), we read about the golden lampstand.  I've read this passage a bunch of times and what's always stood out most to me is 1) how incredibly detailed the appearance of the lampstand is, 2) how hard it is to figure out what the lampstand looks like.  The best I can tell, there are three branches coming out on each side and each branch is covered with three almond blossom cups, and then the base has another four almond blossom cups?  And then there are seven "lamps", which I guess means one for each branch and another mounted on top of the base?  I'll be honest, I just looked for an illustrated bible which has a picture of the lampstand for me, and studied that.  The point is, there are almond blossoms and lamps.  It's all made out of gold, and there's nothing else that's important here.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 24

In this chapter, the elders and the people agree to abide by the LORD's covenant.

The LORD's speech finally ends, and we're ready to begin the covenantal ceremonies.  The LORD has spelled out some of the terms of the covenant, and now the people need to agree with them.  In the spirit of this, Moses tells everything to the people in verse 3 and the people accept the terms.  Their declaration of obedience is auspicious, but as I said before, there are already clouds on the horizon: Moses equates their frequent rebellions against his authority as "grumblings against the LORD" (Ex 16:7).  This suggests that perhaps their obedience will prove to be less than complete when it faces the challenges of time and circumstance.

Nevertheless, the people agree and Moses establishes the covenant by building an altar and sprinkling the people will blood from some sacrifices.  He writes down all the words of the covenant, and then reads it to the people (written in verse 4, then read in verse 7: this is the "book of the covenant").

Before I move on, I want to make a few notes about the sprinkling of blood.  This act draws allusions to a couple things we have seen before.  The most notable comparison is to the Passover, which secured the homes of the Israelites by covering their doorposts and lintels with blood of ritually slain animals, as we read in Ex 12.  The major theme of Exodus 12 is the concept of sacrificial atonement, that sin is transferred to the slaughtered animal and this preserves the Hebrew people.  However, comparing it to the ritual slaughter here and also the killing of animals back in Genesis 15, when Abraham established his covenant with the LORD is inclining me to think that the Passover is very probably a covenantal act as well.  I had discussed in some depth the connection between the Goshen Principle (protection from divine wrath) and the Israelite people's inheritance of Abraham's promise and covenant.  Now we are seeing an even stronger connection between the shedding of blood and formal acceptance of divine covenants.  It is plausible that this would have been true of contemporary covenants between earthly kings, but I don't have the historical records to verify that, so I will leave it as an exercise for the reader.

The next act of covenantal establishment is when the two parties share a meal with each other.  We saw examples of this in Gen 31:43-55, when Jacob and Laban first establish a covenant to not harm one another, and then conclude by eating a shared meal.  Another meal shared in a similar sense is Exodus 18:12, although it's harder to pinpoint a specific covenant that is established between Jethro and the Israelites.  The covenantal meal here, however, is absolutely breathtaking.

In verse 10, it says that Moses and the elders saw the God of Israel.  We are told that underneath his feet (implying human form?) there was a "pavement of sapphire", and again in verse 11, "they saw God".  This is a very short passage (only 3 verses) and it leaves us pondering what they saw.  For all of my emphasis on the manifestations of the LORD, we are not actually told the LORD's appearance in this chapter, which leaves it ambiguous.  I believe we can partially answer the ambiguity by noting the word "feet", which as I said implies human form.  I don't see how the people could see that the pavement is translucent "as the sky itself" unless they could see through it, i.e. it were floating in the air.  I'm not sure.  And lastly, we can analyze the LORD's appearance by considering his functional purpose for appearing: as the Lord and party to this covenant, a legal agreement.  The LORD is clearly established in a position of power and lordship, while Israel is the dependent vassal, so his manifestation will likely be intended to imply that level of authority.  Beyond that, the text does not say and I cannot speak.  What they saw will remain a subject of our imagination.

At the end, the LORD declares that he will write down the commandments (possibly the ten commandments, but possibly also a reference to the whole law covering the feasts, the sabbath of the land, personal injury laws, etc).  In yet another act of astonishing boldness, Moses goes up the mountain and enters the "glory of the LORD" which "was like a consuming fire on the mountain top."  Moses spends 40 days there, which is reminiscent of the 40 days of rain during the great flood of Genesis 7.  That Moses waited for seven days before entering the "midst of the cloud" is likely evoking the seven days of creation and the Sabbath of the seventh day.  As I've said before, the number seven symbolically refers to completion.  We also see this in the 70 elders of Israel (multiplying 7 by 10, both numbers that signify completion or fullness).

This is Moses's second major convocation with the LORD on Mount Sinai.  In the first one, which we have just read, Moses was given a set of religious and moral commands, some embellishments on those commands, and then a few other unrelated commands for good measure.  In this second conference, Moses will be given a much longer and highly detailed set of instructions for the construction of the "Tent of Meeting", a.k.a. the tabernacle, the various holy objects associated with the tabernacle, and the establishment and provision for the priesthood.  This is the definitive framework through which the Israelite people will interact with their new sovereign.  I will add much more specific detail in later chapters, as we read through these new provisions, but I would like to urge my readers to view this as the LORD, for the first time, providing a definitive and concrete process whereby his new followers can seek his blessing in keeping with their new covenant.  It is best to not view these as dead relics of a bygone era, but to view them in the light that the early Hebrews would have seen: the rituals through which they can "meet" their new God.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 23

In this chapter, the LORD establishes the Sabbath of the land, the three national feasts, and formally announces the invasion of Canaan.

This chapter first expands on the command to not falsely testify, that one would neither favor the rich nor the poor, and that a witness would not succumb to a mob mentality.  This principle is extended to maintaining justice in many respects, such as refusing bribes, "keep[ing] far from a false charge", and once again not oppressing strangers, again because of the injustices the Israelites suffered in Egypt.  The injustices of Egypt, afflicted when the Israelites were foreigners and vulnerable, have become a rallying cry for the need to make Israel a just society, that Israel should not be like the nations of the world that exploit the vulnerable members of society.

What I think is most interesting is that kindness to "your enemy" and the "one who hates you" is commanded as part of this just society.  This is quite possibly the world's first Good Samaritan law, or more specifically a duty to rescue provision.  This is interesting both because it contradicts the general sentiment that the OT is unduly harsh, but also because the term Good Samaritan is derived from an NT parable which post-dates Exodus by at least 600 years.

Next, the LORD establishes the Sabbath of the land every seven years, just as the Hebrews are to rest every seven days.  This expands and further establishes the command to honor the Sabbath.  This is an important agricultural principle: to allow the land to lie fallow means that the plants which grow on it can decompose there and replenish minerals and nutrients in the soil.  Along with growing multiple crops (known as polyculture, which we saw implied in Ex 9:31-32), this helps preserve the land and allows for sustainable agriculture.  I'll take this as an opportunity to point out the subtle shift towards agriculture and away from pastoralism.  While animals are extremely important to both societal modes, the importance of maintaining the soil is much greater in agricultural societies because pastoral nomads can simply move when a patch of land is fully grazed.  We also see the triumvirate of Israeli agriculture: cereal crops (typically wheat, but also including flax, barley and spelt), vineyards and olive groves.  These three crops become the backbone of Israeli society and are mentioned again and again.

I should also mention that this transition to agriculturalism is happening at a specific timing, which is the soon-arrival in the promised land.  Because the people are going to settle into the promised land, they will not longer have the flexibility to depart to Egypt whenever a famine strikes, like Abraham and his children did.  They can no longer migrate around to find better pasture, like when Abraham and Lot wandered the land.

Some parts of Israel (as we will discover) remain largely pastoral and scarcely populated, because there are large swaths of arid land that is unsuitable for farming.  Notably, this includes southern Israel (the Negev) and eastern Israel, especially trans-Jordan.  Most of the major farming centers were in central and western Israel around Jerusalem and along the coast.  So the transition is never completely from one modality to the other, yet the emphasis largely shifts to farming, as here.

The national feasts are established in more detail elsewhere (we have already seen the Passover), but reiterated here.  They are not only religious convocations ("all your males shall appear before the Lord GOD"), but become cultural and social centers as well.  That all of the people would appear together brings the whole nation of Israel into a unity through their faith that extends into other realms by mere social contact.

The three feasts are also positioned around the Hebrew agricultural cycle, with the Passover just before planting, the Feast of the Harvest ("the Harvest") at the beginning of the harvest, and the Ingathering at the end of the harvest season.  The last two feasts are intended as celebrations of a successful harvest.  The Harvest is a parallel to the consecration of the firstborn, where every firstborn animal is killed and every firstborn male is redeemed.  In this case, the "firstborn" of their crops are offered to the LORD as thanksgiving for another year of successful farming, while the Ingathering is a celebration at the end of the harvest.  I will write in more detail about the agricultural cycle later, because this is something most modern readers do not know about, yet it is critical for a proper understanding of the bible.

Nobody should appear empty-handed (v. 15) because it would be ungrateful: everybody has something, no matter how poor.

The last provision of this section is that "you are not to boil a young goat in the milk of its mother."  At first glance, this seems like a really strange and unexpected command, but I think it fits the context here for two reasons.  First, this is written in the context of the festival celebrations, so it's natural that the author should write about the preparation of food (the previous two verses talk about sacrificial offerings and the offering of firstfruits, which both relate to the festivals).  Second, this command is established as a matter of justice: the milk of a mother is meant to nourish and feed its young.  It would be a perversion to turn that milk into a weapon to cook that same animal.  This one command (repeated two more times) is what gives rise to the best known requirement of a kosher diet, that one not eat meat and dairy in the same meal, lest one "cook" a hamburger patty with a slice of cheese that through some incredible situation is the former cow's mother.

Clearly the kosher requirement is far broader than what is required here in Exodus, but that's what rabbis would call "building a fence around the Torah," or deliberately expanding the scope of the Torah's requirements so that there is no possible way one could ever violate the commands of the Torah.  The idea is  to always interpret ambiguous passages broadly and to encompass even well-defined rules with broader terms to keep oneself as far away as possible from potential violations.  That is, it's impossible to "cook a goat in its mother's milk" if you simply do not eat milk and meat in the same meal.  The narrower command is encompassed or "fenced" by the broader command.  This is important context for the NT, when Jesus criticizes religious leaders for establishing overly harsh demands on the people, but the Fence principle is nevertheless still utilized by many Jews today.

We have sortof known about the destruction of the peoples of Canaan from back in Genesis 15:16, "After four generations your descendants will return here to this land, for the sins of the Amorites do not yet warrant their destruction."  The Amorites are only one of the many peoples of the promised land, but here in v. 23 the LORD says about all of the various peoples, "I will completely destroy them."

Similarly, the LORD has previously announced that the Israelites would return to the promised land back in Ex 3:8.  However, it only implied that there would have to be warfare to violently take the land from its inhabitants.  Here the implication is spelled out in detail for the first time.

The language of this passage is fairly obscure.  There are several expressions that are difficult to understand, even for bible experts.  For instance, what does it mean in verse 21 that "he [the angel] will not pardon your transgression, since my name is in him"?  Fortunately, I have already given the reader some of the framework needed to interpret this sentence.  The name of the LORD is symbolic of his attributions and personality, so I think the most realistic interpretation is, "the angel will not pardon your transgressions, since he possesses my attributes of holiness and fiery righteousness, which does not abide by sin."  The Message Bible translates this as, "because he's acting on my authority," which is also reasonable.  It's passages like this that make the Message Bible worthwhile, and I largely agree with his interpretation here.

Once again the LORD strongly reiterates the principle of separation in verse 23-24.  Not only are the natives to be destroyed completely, but "you shall not worship their gods... but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their sacred pillars in pieces."  This frames the conquest as a battle of religions, the sacred pillar being an instrument of pagan worship, and this also teaches us why the LORD is so strictly focused on separation.  The LORD is trying to prevent syncretism between the native faiths of the various peoples and his teachings.  In some respects this battle between syncretic influence and the purity of faith in the LORD alone is the central battle of the entire OT, a battle that the Israelites generally lose.  This threat is stated most clearly in verse 33, that the idolatrous peoples would "make you sin against me; for if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you."  The LORD clearly intends to be the only god for the Israelites and he will not give them leave to worship any other.

The LORD reaffirms various covenantal blessings, such as blessed food, healing from diseases, fertility, longevity and military victory.  In particular, the LORD promises confusion and fear in their enemies, that they would flee from the Israelites and be defeated.

The strangest expression in this passage is verse 28, "I will send the hornet ahead of you."  The Message translates this as "Despair", but there isn't really any textual support for this.  The Hebrew word is literally hornet, or wasp.  Nevertheless, we can translate it from context more than anything else.  It is clear that it is a force hostile to their enemies, possibly intended to evoke imagery of an angry hive of wasps attacking some intruder.  Or possibly it is a folkloric term for some angel or monster that has since been lost to history.

What is clear is the intended effect, that the natives of the promised land would be driven out "little by little" so that the Israelites can take over the land without having it overrun by wild animals.  And with that, the conquest is promised.  We will not see the conquest occur, however, until the book of Joshua.

Bible Commentary - Exodus 22

In this chapter, the LORD tells Moses laws governing personal property and various other things.

While the last chapter added real punishment to murder and disrespecting your parents, this chapter adds real punishment to theft.

Even more than the last chapter, the laws governing property largely deal with livestock and to a lesser extent, crops.  Theft or death of livestock appears to be the central issue here, with various procedures depending on whether the animal was on loan to another, hired out, or stolen directly from its owner.

Other than that, I don't think there's anything remarkable about the property laws.  Verse 2 establishes a "Castle Doctrine" for Israel, which is still part of modern law.  The Castle Doctrine states that a person has the right to defend their home (castle) from any threatening trespasser.  Verse 3 puts a limitation on the right to self defense, that one cannot kill a thief if the thief enters your home at a time when it is unlikely he would attempt to harm the victims.

Punitive damages for theft (i.e. being fined more than what was stolen, which would merely be compensatory damages) is also part of modern law, just as it is established in verses 1, 4, 7 and 9.  That is, the punishment is more than just to restore the lost property, it's also to punish the thief and therefore deter the crime.

I think the "various laws" from v. 16-31 are more interesting because most of them do not have modern parallels.  While these laws are grouped together, it seems unlikely that they are related to each other because the topics vary widely.

First we see that premarital sex is not socially accepted.  If a man "seduces" a virgin, then bam, they are now married, unless the woman's father "absolutely refuses."

Second, we see that "sorcery" is punishable by death.  The word sorceress is also translated "witch" by the KJV, but most modern translations use the term sorceress.  In my opinion this is pretty nebulous, because it's not defined anywhere what exactly constitutes sorcery.  While I probably shouldn't spend too much time on this, I feel like the abrupt usage of the term sorceress gives us some insight into the culture of the time.  It's notable that the author did not feel any explanation was necessary, that the audience would already understand what is prohibited by the nature of their familiarity with it.  On the one hand, this leaves us mystified what is prohibited, but on the other hand, it teaches us that whatever it is, it would have been commonly understood if not commonly practiced.

Fortunately, other parts of the bible and contemporary research has shown that sorcery is probably constituted of divination (reading the future from animal entrails), communicating with spirits, or pronouncing ritualistic curses or blessings to achieve desired goals.  In broad terms, it is the application of what we would call "magical power" to manipulate the world.

The next question is, why was this outlawed?  This has various answers, but I see two central issues related to this.  The first is that sorcery is possibly related to other religions and would tempt Israelites to follow other gods, in violation of the first commandment.  Nothing that I said about sorcery above mentions other gods, but I believe that the actual practice of sorcery is strongly related to the sorts of "folk religions" or cults that dominated the ancient Mideast and north Africa at the time.  The second issue is that sorcery is an alternate means of power outside of the bounds of the divine covenant, and therefore it is subversive to the LORD's goals, which is unity with his people.  The LORD is the divine sovereign of the Hebrew people, so the expectation is that the people would turn to him in their time of need and he would provide for them.  This pattern is broken if the people can turn to other practices to influence the world and achieve their goals.

Having sex with an animal is prohibited likely because it's considered unnatural and a perversion of the natural order, which was established back in Genesis 1 during the creation of the world.  This is similar to the prohibition against same-sex relations, for similar reasons.  Of course, the OT does not state a reason for the prohibition, so it's mostly left as speculation on my part (and on the part of anyone who says differently).

We also see one of the first protections for the "stranger", or foreigner, "for you were strangers in the land of Egypt".  The OT has numerous prohibitions against mistreating or oppressing foreigners, which is interesting because in other respects, foreigners are less protected than Israelites (see, for instance, the last chapter's notes regarding slavery).  Even here in this chapter, v. 25-27 prohibit charging interest against "my people" but not prohibiting usury against foreigners.  To a certain extent, these abuses fall under the category of doing wrong or oppression, but the protection for foreigners is much less specific.  Historically, Jews have interpreted v. 25-27 as not prohibiting charging interest to foreigners, validating my argument.

Foreigners, widows and orphans are all grouped together in this passage because they are all vulnerable social groups.  Foreigners would generally not have the land or social ties of the natives, who are protected by their family or clan.  Widows and orphans are vulnerable because the father of the household was their protector in a very real sense, responsible both for materially providing for them and also physically protecting them from attackers.  Without a husband/father, they are comparatively defenseless and hence the LORD affords them special protection.

The idea of verse 25 is not that the Israelites would not lend to each other (this is generally encouraged), but that they would not charge interest or fees for the loan, because typically the people seeking loans are the "poor among you" and the most vulnerable to abuse.

The other laws are pretty self-explanatory, except perhaps v. 31.  It seems strange that the author would relate not eating torn flesh with being "holy men".  I suppose it was considered disgraceful to do?  What's clear is that the author is trying to establish social standards above what was common in their time, that Israel would be distinct from the other nations in behavior.  It is that distinction which is the essence of holiness.

Bible Commentary - Exodus 21

In this chapter, God establishes a variety of laws governing slavery and restitution for personal injury.

This is the second chapter in a row where literally the entire chapter is nothing but the LORD speaking (probably to Moses, who later recounts these things to the people).  I hope you're getting used to lengthy dialogue because we still have a lot left.

The ordinances regarding slavery are one of the things I had in mind when I gave my prior rant about progressive revelation.  People sometimes interpret this passage as, "not a negative makes a positive."  That is, because it does not prohibit slavery, God is actually OK with slavery.  There are three reasons why this logic is not correct.  The first is that all of the rules here are limitations on slavery, constraining male slavery to 6 years and several different protections for female slaves that would not otherwise exist.  The second is that these rules are progressively revealed: from the beginning of the bible up through this point, slavery existed without any governing rules from the LORD.  That means these rules exist as a form of progressive revelation.  However, the most important part is to keep in mind what the LORD is revealing.  The revelation here is not about the nature or acceptability of slavery, it is about creating a governing structure and covenantal treatise between the new Hebrew nation and the LORD.  To read it otherwise is contrary to the purpose of the text.

The last point is that the revelation here is itself superseded by by further progressive revelation from the NT.  Contrary to popular criticism, this is not a "bloodthirsty OT god" and "cheerful NT god" thing, it's the same God but revealing different attributes to suit the time and place of the revelation.  Remember that the OT is the very first picture that we have of the LORD.  All of the things that people take for granted when discussing God, such as omnipotence, omniscience, etc, are concepts that were first established by the OT itself, and we have seen many of these aspects already.  One cannot criticize the OT for not covering these much more specific topics (like slavery) while presuming so many more basic topics that the OT is, in fact, trying to demonstrate (like the omnipotence of the LORD).  One might as well criticize a calculus textbook for not also including differential equations; yet the critic would not understand differential equations without a priori knowing calculus.  The same principle applies here: when reading the OT, try to learn what the OT is trying to teach, because so many things we take for granted now were controversial when first written.

With all that in mind, we can obviously imply from this passage that slavery would indeed be an institution in ancient Israel.  This passage only deals with Hebrew slaves, who would sell themselves (or by sold by their parents) in exchange to pay off a debt of some kind.  This slavery is term-limited for males, so that's closer to indentured servitude.  For women, the expectation is that their new owner would appropriate them as a concubine or wife, which is why their slavery is not term-limited, but rather most of their protections are to keep them from abuse by their new husband.  Foreign slaves would either be bought or acquired through military victory and would not have the same level of protection as native Hebrews.

The laws regarding personal injury are strikingly similar to our own.  We can see that they had multiple classes of murder depending on the intent and premeditation of the murderer that are treated accordingly.  When it says "I will appoint you a place to which he may flee", this is foreshadowing certain "cities of refuge" which are later opened up that unintentional murderers can flee to and be immunized from retributive punishment (i.e. execution).  When verse 14 says "you are to take him even from my altar", the reader should understand that clinging to an altar is a Hebrew concept that basically equates to begging for mercy. While the altar is currently just a symbol of worship or homage, it will later become a symbol of atonement or mercy, for those seeking divine favor.  This verse foreshadows that later symbolism.

Similarly with the "ox goring a man" part; if the ox is "in the habit of goring and its owner had been warned", then to not restrain the animal is negligence and earns a death penalty.

The part that's different is their obvious acceptance of the death penalty for many crimes that only lead to imprisonment in the US today.  Not a single crime here results in imprisonment, so one can wonder if they even had prisons.  We also see laws prohibiting "striking" or "cursing" ones parents, both on pain of death.  The laws regarding injured slaves is obviously specific to slavery and is not found in most modern laws.

Verse 22 has been debated because it is one of the only references to whether the bible treats an unborn infant as alive for the purpose of legal protection (cf. abortion).  I think there are other places that can better inform our views on abortion, but this is one of the most direct.  Most of the commentaries I've read believe that "yet there is no injury" includes injury to the prematurely born child as well as the woman.  I've heard some people say that "premature birth" specifically indicates that the child also dies, i.e. stillborn.  I don't believe that's correct, although on this point it greatly depends on the specific interpretation of the Hebrew for this passage so I won't push this point too much.  Possibly if miscarriage (i.e. abortion) were inferred, the author would have used "shakol", to miscarry, abort, destroy or cast off [one's young], like we see in Ex 23:26, instead of "yatsaw", to go forth or depart.  Verse 23-25 indicates that any further injury to the without specifying the injured party (could possibly include both woman and child) would be met with equal force.

From a sociological perspective, we can discern a number of things about Israelite society from this chapter. I already mentioned they used slavery, widely accepted and used the death penalty and legally protect parents' authority over their children.  We can also see their free use of animals and the sometimes dangerous nature of these animals, that an ox could have a reputation for goring.  And people would just dig pits?  I wonder what they would use these pits for, that they would dig a pit and leave it uncovered such that animals accidentally fall down them and die.

Now we're starting to see legal enforcement of the ten commandments, as there are now laws (with applicable punishment) against murder and disrespecting one's parents.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 20

In this chapter, God gives Moses the ten commandments and other laws.

Verse 2 indicates that these laws are to be followed because of how the LORD brought freedom to the Israelites.  This assertion is repeated over and over in the Pentateuch, which is perhaps fitting because this is the book supposedly written by Moses after their departure from Egypt.

The ten commandments are certainly the most famous laws in the Pentateuch, but as we have seen they are not the only laws.  The ten commandments are important however as they are the laws later written on the stone tablets, quoted by Jesus, and embody the central principles of the Hebrew faith.  The first five commandments are the religious commands, related to their faith, and the last five commandments are the moral laws, governing Hebrew society.  Obviously the Hebrews had no concept of separation of church and state as so many Americans desire these days.

Almost all of these commands are new to the bible.  The only command that appears to be repeated is to honor the Sabbath.  However, note that the Sabbath here is much more expansive than the one in Ex 16.  In chapter 16, the only command is that the people would not gather manna: here, the people are commanded to not do any kind of work.

The first commandment is exclusive devotion to the LORD.  The ancient Mideast was polytheistic, so it would have been common for a single person to worship multiple gods.  We see this sort of flexibility in how other peoples relate to the LORD, such as Melchizedek (Gen 14) and Jethro (Ex 18).  While they are not devoted to the LORD, they are happy to offer him a few sacrifices to honor his military victories.  For its part, Egyptian society has a whole cast of gods, just as the later Greek nation-states built an elaborate hierarchy of deities.  In Canaan, many races had specific patron gods, but they also intermixed with other gods.  The command that the Israelites would worship their LORD alone is therefore part of the principle of separation, keeping them away from the malign influence of their neighbors' faiths.

The second command is outlawing the creation of idols, graven statues to represent their god(s).  This is another common Mideast religious practice.  Since the first command is against having other gods, this verse most specifically prohibits creating an idol of the LORD.  While no specific reason is given for this command, in my opinion it gets back to the topic of the various manifestations of the LORD.  I think the LORD wishes to control how he appears to people so that he can build and influence their opinions of him in this way.  If people create idols of him, then they can shape those idols and develop their own image of who God is.  This is an error of presumption, because only God can tell us who he is.

Verse 5-6 are very interesting and much has been written about this passage, especially the notion punishing children for the iniquity of their fathers.  Later in the Pentateuch we will see that God specifically prohibits punishing children for the sins of their fathers.  However, we also earlier read the LORD command Israel to never forgive the Amalekites and to pursue them to destruction because they attacked Israel.  Many people dislike this because it goes against our modern notion of personal responsibility, that children are not responsible for the actions of their fathers.  As I said, the OT partially supports this position as well.  I think there are two reasonable answers I can give to this critique.  First, parents guide and shape their children in many ways obvious and subtle.  So even if children are not directly responsible for the sins of their fathers, it is frequently the case that they walk in the same sins and therefore deserve the same punishment.  Second, the bible does not have the same individualistic notions as modern western society.  Consider the example of Abraham, how he passed down the divine promise to his son, from Isaac to Jacob, from Jacob to his children, and all the way down to Moses and the sons of Israel.  Isaac did nothing of his own to receive the promise: he was given it by God in honor of his father Abraham.

To many westerners this seems unfair, but in some respects it's no less unfair than the fact that different people have parents who guide them in very different directions.  I myself had a family who guided me to get a college education, and in this way I was blessed by my family through no action of my own.  If this is unfair, then life is unfair, but that doesn't have to do with the bible.  I think the more important question here is where God is fair in his judgments of people's lives.  I believe the answer is yes, because God judges people both by what they do and also by what they have been given.  You cannot look at one without looking at the other.  End tangent.

The third command is just another form of reverence, to hold the name of the LORD in high regard and to use it carefully.  Historically, the Jews treated this command so severely that the proper pronunciation of of YHWH has been lost, because they refused to speak it under nearly any circumstances.  This is also why many Jews today write God as "G-d"; they omit the middle character so that they do not even say the word God, in fear of violating the 3rd commandment.  I think it is unduly inflexible to not use the word God to describe God, and this is a small example of the big differences between the Law of Moses as it was written and how Christianity is practiced today.  I personally still adhere to the 3rd commandment, but that does not preclude speaking the name of the LORD in any situation, only when such speaking is disrespectful or dishonorable.

The fourth command is a restatement of the Sabbath, which as I said above is an expansion of the command in Exodus 16.  This passage specifically ties it to Genesis 1 and the creation of the universe.

The fifth command is to honor one's parents.  It's peculiar that this is grouped together with the religious commands rather than the moral commands, but that is how the commands have traditionally been divided.  I don't really have anything else to say about this command.

The next five commands cover various aspects of moral fault: murder, adultery, theft, false testimony (in the context of legal proceeding), and covetousness (or, desire for the possessions of another).  The first four have been pillars of western morality for a long, long time.  Only recently has adultery exited the purview of judicial action, though it is still considered a fault for the purposes of divorce (i.e. gives a legal advantage to the wronged party).  The other three, murder, theft and false testimony while under oath, are still illegal in most countries.

I think the last command, covetousness, is more interesting because the first four moral commands outlaw various actions.  The last one outlaws various desires, which is inherently impossible to enforce.  It's similar to the first command which is also more of a mindset (desiring other gods) compared to the various other religious commands.

Keep in mind, there is no stated enforcement mechanism for these laws.  While it's true these laws become the governing constitution of Israel, there are no stated punishments here because it is a contract that they are making with God himself, and so God is the ultimate authority and judge of the Israelites' behavior.  It stands to reason that God can understand the desires of the human mind just as much as he knows the intricacies of the human body, for he has created all of these things.  While there are no specific punishments stated, we know that it is by following these commands that the Israelite people would be the LORD's special possession, a royal priesthood and holy nation.  The ultimate punishment for violating these laws is the broken covenant and the loss of the covenantal blessings.  Note once again that this covenant is corporate and treats the Israelite people as a singular thing.  This is why those people who do not keep the Passover must be cut off from Israel, because if they remain within the nation then the nation as a whole becomes liable for the broken covenant.

After all this, the people reiterate their fear of the LORD and ask Moses to intermediate between them and the LORD, as he has previously done (v. 19).  I have heard some commentators say that by asking this, the people have abdicated their "royal priesthood" from Ex 19:6, but I don't believe this is accurate.  Moses was already speaking to the people on behalf of the LORD for the entirety of Exodus up to this point, and the royal priesthood of 19:6 was conditional on their fulfillment of the commandments, so it was not yet a present reality.  In the future, if the people hold to the commands then they will receive the promised blessing.

I don't know what v. 25 refers to when it says that using tools on a stone altar profanes it.  I have never heard a good explanation for this peculiar belief.  Verse 26 is probably a reference to people seeing the "nakedness" under a priest's garment if he is climbing up steps, since they possibly didn't wear pants or underwear.

Bible Commentary - Exodus 19

In this chapter... what can I say?  God comes down onto the mountain and meets with Moses there.

Note poetic parallelism in verse 2: "Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel".  Not a big deal, but I saw it and think it's cool.  I love the stylism.  I also like the picture we see in verse 20 when it says the LORD came down and Moses came up, where they have a summit (pun intended) on the mountain.
You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.  (vv. 4-6)
 This passage is absolutely huge, so I'll break it down.

First, God gives a recap of the exodus story.  He "did" stuff to the Egyptians, sheltered the Israelites like a mother eagle, and "brought you" to himself.  This shows that the whole "going into the desert to celebrate a festival to the LORD" might not be as pretextual as I had earlier assumed.  At the time, God was emphasizing the departure from Egypt as a permanent venture into the promised land, and this is still true.  However, we're seeing that along the way they are going to stop at Mount Horeb, the "mountain of God" (Ex 18:5), and what we see in this chapter is that God has planned something very rare and totally unprecedented in this meeting with Israel.  This is quite possibly the festival that the LORD had in mind.

Second, the LORD expresses a condition that the people should obey him and keep his covenant, and in exchange they would be his special possession, above and beyond his divine rulership over the whole world.  We have already seen several covenants expressed in the past, such as the Adamic Covenant (Gen 1:28), the Noahic Covenant (Gen 9:8-17), and most relevantly, the Abrahamic Covenant (Various, but first referenced in Gen 12:1-3).  I wrote numerous times about the various covenant holders, specifically referring to the Abrahamic Covenant, as it passed down from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to his sons, down to the Israelite people who are listening to Moses in this chapter.  They still hold the Abrahamic Covenant, but as we have seen, there have been a number of changes and additions as well.  God relates to the people differently than he did Abraham, and further restrictions have been added as well such as the Passover, the redemption of the firstborn sons, and most recently the Sabbath.

What God is about to introduce is a new covenant that subsumes the Abrahamic Covenant, and this one is generally known as the Mosaic Covenant, also known as the Law of Moses (I will use these interchangeably).  As we will see, the Mosaic Covenant is much longer, more specific, and broader than the Abrahamic Covenant.  The Abrahamic Covenant was a short and simple contract that Abraham and his seed would obey the LORD and receive commensurate protection and blessing, which we readily observe in Abraham's life.  Since it demands full obedience, one cannot technically do anything more restrictive.  Nevertheless, the Mosaic Covenant codifies far more rules of behavior which govern the people, compared to the much more relational and "soft" rules that governed Abraham.  Of course, Abraham was once commanded to sacrifice his son, so that doesn't mean it's easier, but it is definitely more dynamic and relational compared to the written law transcribed by Moses.

I have a fairly evident bias against the codified Law of Moses and a much greater affinity for the relational Covenant of Abraham for the simple reason that Abraham's relationship with God is much more aligned with modern Christian theology and practice (in evangelical circles anyway), which tends to elevate individualism and personal experience over the more structured and communal organization of the Mosaic Covenant.  While acknowledging my personal bias, I think I can see a good justification for the codified Law of Moses, which is that the Israelite people who have emerged from Egypt do not have a cultural structure that is capable of carrying them through the desert and into the promised land.  They have more social and survival problems than I can reasonably list, but some examples are widespread food and water shortages, lack of judicial structure, no social cohesion between the many tribes and clans, an only vaguely defined faith in some god who they barely know and trust even less, widespread skepticism towards their erstwhile leader, and a major power vacuum after being released from captivity (equivalent to modern prison recidivism that comes from long periods of not having to make decisions).

The Law of Moses addresses several of these issues.  In particular, it establishes national laws governing social, moral, religious, ceremonial and legal affairs.  All of these are important issues for building a proper judicial structure, establishing the national religion, filling the power vacuum left by the Egyptians, establishing the national leadership of Moses, and to a certain extent resolving some of the tribal cohesion problems.  All of these issues are especially important in light of the immaturity of Israel as an independent nation, which I emphasized in the prior chapter.  Since many of these issues have been left unresolved or ambiguous until now, the precedents set by Moses and the new covenant will go on to define the Israelite nation for the rest of its existence.

These are the reasons why I think structure is important during this time period, but my belief is that ultimately this structure was created to carry the people through a period of infancy and that, properly grown in wisdom and stature, they could move on to something that more closely resembled the fluidity of Abraham's faith: that structure is helpful for a time, but to cling to the structure beyond its proper function and season would ultimately cripple the people and constrain them from moving onwards in their faith in God.  I should emphasize this is just my opinion and I haven't proven it yet from the texts we have read, but I think this belief is well-grounded in later biblical texts.

Third, I think the ultimate goal of this process is stated at the end of the quotation, which is to establish Israel as a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation".  This sentence establishes three core points: Israel as a kingdom, priesthood of the people and holiness of the nation.

Israel is not yet a kingdom.  Right now they are a conglomeration of related tribes and clans with leadership ostensibly unified in Moses, but in practice we see that the people frequently challenge his authority (i.e. everything he does or says).  Later there will be a king over Israel, so some readers probably consider this statement an anachronism (implying that it was written during the kingdom period and not by Moses).  Alternatively, others believe that this statement establishes the royalty of the followers of the covenant.  I think it's vague enough that I would not go that far, but we will see that in later portions of the bible, the royalty of the believer is confirmed.

The holiness of the nation is a general guiding principle behind the entire Law of Moses, which is related to the "principle of separation" that I have repeatedly referenced.  Holiness is basically just a word for "separate", "apart from", or "uncommon".  It is used to refer to things that are devoted to God and should not be treated like a normal [whatever].  We will see this principle in action later.

Possibly the most important connotation is the believer-as-priest.  This verse establishes that it is a kingdom of priests, opening the priesthood to all the people of Israel.  The priesthood is a complex subject, but I can summarize it with one key attribute: intermediation between people and God, by interceding on behalf of the people with respect to God or speaking to the people on behalf of God.  Since it is an entire nation of priests, that means that they do not have to intercede for each other, but rather implies they would intercede on behalf of other nations and the peoples of the world.  One of the byproducts of priesthood is that the priest is always closest to God since he or she speaks to God on behalf of others.  This is a critical expansion of the promised blessing of Abraham which says, "And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed." (Gen 12:3)  We are now starting to see the definition of that blessing in the form of interlocutory appeals for these other "families".

I wouldn't make such a big deal out of such a small phrase, except that it occurs here at the beginning of the Hebrew nation and is therefore a founding principle.

In the immediate period of chapter 19, we see that Moses is the interlocutor on behalf of Israel, relaying God's words to them and their words to God.  This shows that while the people are promised a priesthood, in reality Moses is still their intermediary.  I believe the form of verses 5-6 implies that this is a future promise conditional on their obedience, so it makes sense that they are manifestly priests yet.

With all of this in mind, the LORD initiates a meeting with the people: he will come down to the holy mountain and meet with them, because they accepted his offer of lordship (v. 8).  This is clearly a good start to their relationship with the LORD, proclaiming obedience, but we've seen how they react to the leadership of Moses so perhaps we should not take their declaration at face value.

To me, the most striking part of this next passage is that after declaring the priesthood of Israel and their closeness to God, God demands they not touch the mountain on pain of death.  We see that Moses alone is authorized to go up, which further cements his role as the prophet of Israel.

I said before to focus on the various manifestations of the LORD.  In that respect, this chapter is unique.  All of the prior manifestations were gentle things, like clouds of fire or a burning bush or the appearance of a man.  Now we are seeing an entire mountain set on fire, earthquakes, thunder and lightning and a "very loud trumpet" that continually increases in volume.  It seems like an understatement to say that the LORD is teaching the people his greatness, power and glory.  We saw his victory over the Egyptians, we saw his sovereignty over natural creation, now we see the raw, manifest force of God's greatness and majesty.

The reactions to this manifestation are informative.  We see a juxtaposition between the "trembling" of the people and the boldness of Moses.  As the trumpet grows louder and louder, the people cower and Moses speaks to God.  We can infer from this that the people are unfamiliar with the LORD and for good reason find this new manifestation frightening.  I would like to emphasize again the immaturity of the people's faith in the LORD.

What's even more interesting is that in spite of their fear, the LORD has to warn the people repeatedly to not go up the mountain "so that they do not break through to the LORD to gaze".  Apparently they were curious enough to overcome their fear and desire to climb up the mountain to "gaze" at the LORD.  I'm not sure what's going on with that other than it possibly showing some irreverence.  The LORD is certainly trying to establish a certain degree of reverence, that he would not be treated as a spectacle.  This reverence is intended to be mingled with the closeness of priesthood that we see in Moses.  This seems like a paradox.  It's also interesting that here, God tells the people to not draw near "to gaze", while in Ex 3, the LORD creates a burning bush so as to draw Moses's attention and get him to come closer.

It's peculiar that this chapter talks about priests (v. 22, 24) because while this chapter talks about the "kingdom of priests", we have not actually seen the establishment of a formal priesthood yet.  This happens later.  Maybe this is an anachronism or maybe it's a reference to informal or cultish priests, I don't know.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 18

In this chapter, Midian brings Moses's family back to him and counsels Moses on how to administrate the nation.

The first thing we see is the return of Moses's family with his father-in-law, where he sent them after things started heating up with Pharaoh.

Jethro is an interesting person.  He is one of Israel's few allies in this time period through his family relationship with Moses.  Although it appears as if Jethro is a follower of the LORD by his words and subsequent sacrifice (verse 12), this is probably just customary on his behalf.  We see something similar back in Genesis 14 when Melchizedek blesses Abraham "and God Most High" after Abraham's military victory.  As before, Moses and Jethro eat a meal together to affirm their mutual alliance.

Moses's emergence as a leader gives him more and more responsibilities.  Up to this point I haven't focused much on Moses because he has demonstrated stability and reliability in virtually every circumstance.  He was unwavering throughout the entire series of plagues in Egypt.  We have seen a bit of strain after entering the wilderness, but it seemed a reasonable reaction to the challenges he was presented with.  In all of these things he has proven that God was wise in selecting him to lead the people.

In this chapter, we finally see a bit of immaturity in Moses as he had not instituted any leadership structures in the nation.  It appears that every dispute was being sent for him to mediate.

On the other hand, this shows that the entire nation has very nascent laws and customs and that Moses is the only person who can hear the word of the LORD directly.

This is something that has been implied to us by the text for basically the entire book, as we see long, long segments preceded by, "and then the LORD said to Moses".  It appears that nearly everything spoken to the Israelites is mediated through Moses, even though the presence of the LORD is visible to everyone in the cloud of glory.  But beyond this, we see that the Israelites appear... ungrounded.  With the establishment of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the consecration of the firstborn, the institution of the Sabbath, and now with the institution of leaders over divisions of the people, this is truly the birth of a nation.  We see this very clearly in the present chapter as we can imagine a crowd of people waiting all day for Moses to speak to them, to judge their dispute and to "make known the statutes of God and his laws."  (v. 16)  That's what I call a nation in search of its identity.

And the man who's leading all of this is a desert hermit.  This must be very straining, as leading large groups of people was the last thing he was doing while tending small flocks in the desert.  And while Moses has done admirably so far, he also demonstrates immaturity by not putting organization in place, which his father-in-law tries to correct.  It's a nice picture of the "glorious leader" (as some people imagine Moses) accepting advice from another person who isn't even an Israelite.  One wonders why none of the elders of the people previously suggested this, and I can speculate it's because they are under Moses's authority and dare not challenge him with even constructive suggestions.  Maybe it takes an outsider to bring this much-needed criticism.  Anyway, it seems like the elders are too busy complaining about the food or water to consider such things.

I think it's really interesting how we can observe this mass of people be shaped into a more stable, enduring structure.  So much of this structure relates to their faith and this is a people who did not even know their God's name just a little while ago.  One wonders if all their complaining is a sign that they do not entirely accept their new divine sovereign.  Nevertheless, this is the course that has been set and while I repeatedly highlighted the unstructured nature of the patriarchs' faith in Genesis, in this book we will see a effusion of structure and rules governing the Israelites' behavior in all things political, social and religious.  Once the rules have been set, we will see how the people respond.

Bible Commentary - Exodus 17

In this chapter, the Israelites need miraculous water again and they fight some Amalekites.

When I talked before about bringing "water out of a rock", I was taking that expression from this chapter, although somewhat ironically.  When I said that, I meant it in the way of "doing the impossible", but it's ironic because in this passage that is exactly what happens: Moses does the impossible by bringing water out of a rock.

The previous miracles in the wilderness were bizarre to the point that "manna", the name for the heavenly bread, sounds like the Hebrew for "what is it", a sign of their astonishment at this unexpected food.  Bringing water from a rock, however, is truly amazing, because it's such a paradox.  Water does not come from rocks, a rock is a hard, dry object that is endemic to their journey in the wilderness.  The Israelite people are surrounded by rocks and none of these rocks are helpful to them.  Drawing water from a rock is impossible because the rock does not have any water to give you, but here that is exactly what God commands Moses to do.  It's more than just a little water, too; there is enough water coming out of this rock that it can satisfy the thirst of approximately two million people, so this must have been a substantial amount of water.

A rock is harsh and unforgiving.  A rock was the pillow under Jacob's head when he fled from Esau in Genesis 28, a symbol of his poverty and desperation.  However, the same rock became the pillar of his worship for the LORD when he poured oil on it, demonstrating the stability and endurance of his devotion.  And not just any rock, Jacob says the same rock that symbolized his poverty would be the monument of his devotion if the LORD would be with him.  Now we are faced with the paradox of a rock being the source of sustenance for the Israelite people.  This shows that out of the objects that define Israel's hardships he can create a source of nourishment.  Perhaps there is also an undertone that this rock also symbolizes the worship of the Israelites, just like Jacob set up his rock as a pillar in the house of God (bethel).

This is the second time the people have quarreled about water (or lack thereof), and we can see the growing tension as Moses says, "A little more and they will stone me".  No matter how many times Moses tells the people that God is their true leader, they still appear to blame Moses for all of their situational difficulties.

It's also worth noting that this rock is called the "rock of Horeb" and Horeb is the name of the mountain where God first met Moses back in Exodus 3 when Moses was in exile.  Now the people have returned to Horeb and the sign that God gave Moses is about to come true: "When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain." (Ex 3:12)  This also associates the rock that is the source of water with Moses's encounter with the LORD.  In the next chapter this place is called the "mount of God", so this rock is part of God's domain.  We will read more on this subject later.

Next, the Amalekites come out to fight against Israel.  This is the first battle we have seen since Abraham and his men attacked the four kinds in Genesis 14.  We previously saw that the LORD wished to take the Israelites through the desert and Red Sea crossing because "when they see war, they might turn back".  Now, it appears, war is coming to them and they cannot avoid it.  This is a harbinger of things to come, because Canaan is a densely populated land and the Israelites are invaders; everyone will fight to keep them out because the only land they are going to get is land taken from someone else.

In this case, we aren't told why the Amalekites attacked, or even exactly who the Amalekites are.  I don't believe they are exactly Canaanites because Israel is still out in the Sinai desert, but we will discover that the nations through which Israel seeks passage are also generally hostile to it, so that's possibly the case here.

Then there's this peculiar note about the "staff of God" being raised up and how that influences the battle.  This is a miracle which shows that just as God was able to give Joseph favor and success in whatever he did, God is also able to influence human events here by giving victory to the Israelites.  We have already seen something similar in Genesis 14 when Abraham and his 318 trained men were able to defeat an entire army.  While not overtly supernatural, it is unexpected enough that I think it warrants mentioning.  Combining Abraham's privileged position as a servant of the LORD with the extreme odds that he beat in winning that battle leaves me with a fairly strong belief that it implies supernatural assistance.

Here, however, it is more than implied: we are told that victory or defeat depended entirely on whether the "staff of God" was raised over the battle or lowered.  In this act, Moses enlists the aid of two of his top leaders, Aaron his brother and Hur.  Aaron is well known, but Hur is rarely mentioned again in the bible.  We see people with the same name, but it is difficult to tell if it's the same Hur or a different man with the same name.

After a victory, Moses constructs an altar.  Two chapters ago the LORD declared himself the healer of Israel.  Here Moses declares him the "banner" of Israel, as their captain and symbol of military prowess.  They will need that when they get to the promised land, and this chapter foreshadows all of this.