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.

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