Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bible Commentary - Leviticus 4

In this chapter, the LORD gives Moses the regulations of the sin offering.

Beginning right in verse 2 we can see that this is a sacrifice of atonement for accidental sin with regards to "things which the LORD has commanded not to be done," i.e. the prohibitions of the Law of Moses.  I'd like to point out that there is no atonement for intentional sin, possibly because intentional sin is punishable by death and there is no atonement for it.  But possibly this is because the text here is making a presumption that people will not willfully violate the covenant.  Certainly we see this presumption later in verse 14, because if the whole congregation sins intentionally, then what could that mean but the destruction of the whole nation?  We had already seen their potential destruction in Ex 32, with the result that Moses prayed for mercy to avert disaster.  Even then, some thousands of the people still died.

Anyway, there are four different types of offerings listed here depending on who commits the unintentional sin: in order, there is the high priest, the general community, "a leader", and "anyone of the common people".  In general terms, these four different sacrifices are nearly the same.  The main difference is that the high priest and the community are expected to sacrifice bulls, which are more expensive than the goat offering of a leader and the goat or lamb offering of the people.  This is because the high priest and the whole community are expected to have more wealth available than the other two groups, so it is reasonable that they could sacrifice more lavishly.

Another interesting difference amongst the four offering types is that in the first two, the flesh of the bull must be burned outside the camp, but for the last two, it is not specified what is to be done with their flesh.  Possibly it is given to the priest, I guess we'll find out in a few chapters.  Sin offerings are expected to be more rare (you can only unintentionally sin until you find out: after that, it's intentional), so maybe it's considered less important what happens to the animal.

As I noted above, with regards to the sin offering of the high priest and the community, the fat is burned on the altar and the flesh and hide are burned outside the camp.  As with the burnt offering and peace offering, the offerer (either the high priest or the "elders of the congregation") is to lay his hand on the bull's head, to transfer his sin and guilt to the animal, and this is possibly related to why the animal is burned outside the camp.  The idea of burning it outside the camp is to physically bring the sin away from the people, after transferring it from the sinner to the animal.  Back in Exodus 19:13, we are told that any man or animal who touches the mountain is to the stoned or shot with arrows, and is not to be touched.  As with here, that shows a presumption that physical contact with a sinner transfers the sin.  In Ex 19, touching a sinner brings that sin into the person who is touching the sinner, and here, touching the animal brings the sin into the animal.

Therefore removing the animal from the camp also removes the sin to a place where it cannot "infect" any of the people who are within the camp.  I don't know why this is the case for the sin offering and not the earlier substitutionary offerings (burnt, peace).  Possibly it's because this offering is more directly focused on the removal of sin, while the earlier offerings it was more tangential to their purpose.

In the case of all four sacrifices, the high priest is supposed to do something or other with the blood (sprinkle some, paint some on the horns of the altar of incense, pour the rest out on the ground, basically just get blood everywhere).  As with the peace offering, the fat is always burned on the altar: in fact, this chapter refers to doing things "just as the... peace offerings" (v. 31).  Unexpectedly, the gender of the first three sacrifices (high priest, community, leader) must be male, while the gender of the last sacrifice (common people) must be female.  It's peculiar to me that the commoners must sacrifice females, given that females are more expensive, but also because I would have expected these various classes of sacrifices to be more consistent.  At the end of the day, I am not aware of any particular significance to this difference, so there isn't much more that I can say about it.

Bible Commentary - Leviticus 3

In this chapter, the LORD instructs Moses on the regulations of the peace offering (also known as a fellowship offering).

The first thing to note about this chapter is that it is largely similar to the burnt offering of chapter 1.  There are some differences however.

The peace offering allows the sacrifice of a male or female, while the burnt offering only allowed the sacrifice of a male.  I don't know why they made this distinction.  When it comes to animal genders, note that the females are typically more valuable than the males.  This is interesting because as it regards to people, the culture of that time valued male children more than female, because it was the male child that carried on the family line.  When it comes to animals however, more practical concerns dominate: to wit, it only takes a single male to impregnate many females, while each female can only bear a single child at a time.  So in order to grow one's herd very rapidly, only a handful of males are required, while every single female can contribute by bearing forth offspring every year.  That means you can sacrifice male offspring with few consequences to the general growth rate of your herd, and hence their value.

Offering males, then, would be the cheaper of the two genders to sacrifice, even though when it comes to human society the people would think the opposite.

In the ritual of the peace offering, the only part that is supposed to be burned in the fire is the fat of the sacrifice.  All of the meat is retained and contrary to the earlier sacrifices, it meant to be eaten by the offerer and not the priest.  This is because the sacrifice is meant to be a shared meal between the offerer and the LORD, with the fat (i.e. the best part with the most calories) burned and given to God (in a sense), and the rest eaten by the worshiper.  I have previously emphasized the importance of sharing meals in the bible, as it pertains to ratifying covenants.  We could think of this meal as being similar.  In addition, this shared meal allows for a sense of identification or friendship between the LORD and the offerer: hence the name, peace offering or fellowship offering.

The last big difference I see is there is no statute for the sacrificial offering of birds in the peace offering, while that is allowed for burnt offerings.  I would guess the reason is that the peace offering is rarely (if ever) required by statute for the people to maintain ceremonial cleanliness or to obey the law of the covenant.  That is, this sacrifice is largely voluntary, and so there is less reason to consider the financial status of the person trying to make the offering, because logically if there is a poor person who cannot afford it, they are under no obligation to do so.  Contrariwise, the burnt offering is required under a variety of conditions in order to maintain compliance with the law, so it is necessary to make it possible for all of the people to make a burnt offering on occasion.

After mentioning all of these differences, there are also many similarities.  We see the placing of one's "hand on the head of" the offering, a self-identification with the sacrifice and a transference of guilt to the animal (i.e. substitution).  It's interesting that even a peace offering involves the transference of guilt.  It seems like every sacrifice involves some acknowledgement of the sinfulness of the offerer and a corresponding purge of that sin.

We also see that the priest again sprinkles blood around the altar, because as with the Passover, it is through the shedding of blood that the people are protected from the Genesis 3 death.  There are a few more minor details, but that's pretty much it for the peace offering.

Bible Commentary - Leviticus 2

In this chapter, the LORD establishes the ritual of the grain offering.

This chapter is substantially similar to the last one in its general attitude, although the specific details vary a bit.

Probably the most significant variation is that, unlike the burnt offering, only a handful of the grain offering is burnt on the altar: the rest is given to the priest as his sustenance.  In the case of the burnt offering, it is likely that the officiating priest would have been given the skin of the animal, but in the case of the grain offering, the priest is given nearly everything.  This is similar to what we saw in the sacrifices for consecrating the priests back in Ex 29:26-28, where the "wave offering" was given to the priest as food.  The consecration only happens once: the sacrifices here would have been given by many Israelites throughout the year, and so it was by receiving portions of the offerings that the priests made their livelihood.

We can already see that some offerings are more "profitable" than others, but since the offerings are often made in combination, this isn't really an important distinction.  Neverthless, I think it's interesting to observe the duality of the offering, that part of it is offered to the LORD ("a soothing aroma") and part of it is given to the priest.  In a certain sense, the entire offering is supposedly given to the LORD, in the sense that the people are "present[ing] a grain offering as an offering to the LORD" (v. 1).  Obviously the people are not supposed to make offerings to the priests in any way, because that would be ascribing honor to the priests that is intended for the LORD.  However, the LORD has created a provision that part of the offering goes to the priests, but it's almost like this is downplayed in the text because that's not really the intention of the sacrifice.  And yet the priests are allowed to take from the offering, which positions them in the offering that is ostensibly between the people and God.  This is another aspect in which the priest intermediates between God and the people.

Many ways to prepare the grain offering are allowed.  At first, this seems like a parallel to the last chapter where three different types of sacrifices were allowed (calf, goat/sheep, bird).  However, the big difference is that the various burnt offerings had different monetary values, while the various grain offerings are largely equivalent in cost.  In fact, we are not even told the quantity of grain that must be offered, which makes it impossible to assess the actual cost of performing a grain offering.  My suspicion is that there was some social standard or extra-biblical regulation governing the quantity of a grain offering, but I have no confirmation for this.

Still, one can hypothesize that the poor could offer less grain than the rich, because these regulations do not restrict the poor from doing so.

The people are commanded to use no leaven in their offering.  Obviously this is reminiscent of the Passover regulations.  Remember that with the Passover, the bread was unleavened because of the haste of the people in their departure from Egypt.  Now there is no such rationale.  Either the ritual is intended to remind us of the Passover (certainly possible) or there is an alternative reason for not leavening the bread.  My understanding is that in later times, leaven was considered a metaphor for sin, and it's possible that this metaphor was also intended back when Leviticus is written.  Since this chapter does not tell us, it is left to the reader to discern what meaning one will.

Lastly, verse 13 uses the phrase "salt of the covenant".  This is yet another unexplained expression, and this is the first place it is used.  It is repeated in similar terms later on in the OT as well, in the book of Numbers and 2nd Chronicles.  In my opinion, salt is a metaphor for preservation and endurance.  Salt was historically used as a preservative, so I think it's sensible to think that "salt of the covenant" is meant to emphasize the preservation or endurance of the covenant itself.  Alternatively, we can think of it as the preserving influence of the covenant upon the people.  Either way, this phrase is only used a handful of times so it is not a major theme in the OT.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Bible Commentary - Leviticus 1

In this chapter, the LORD establishes the ritual of the burnt offering.

This chapter is the first of five different types of ritual offerings which were to be made at the Tabernacle (i.e. tent of meeting).  If that doesn't get you excited, I honestly don't know what will.  Maybe the sections covering ceremonial purity later on.  Those are pretty good too.

Seriously though, the way this book is divided is that first, we are told how to make these different kinds of sacrifices.  Then later on, we are told when each type of sacrifice is appropriate or required.  Because there are many situations where a burnt offering is appropriate, it is defined here in a single location and then simply referenced later.  For instance, we have already seen burnt offerings commanded for the consecration of the priests and the altar back in Ex 29, although since Ex 29 predates Leviticus, it was necessary to also explain the sacrificial process there as well.

The language in Ex 29 and here is nearly identical (in particular, look at Ex 29:15-18).  In fact, we see mentions of a burnt offering going all the way back to Noah, but as is common to Genesis, the sacrifices of Noah were not tightly prescribed like the Levitical law here.  Genesis 8:20 simply says that Noah "offered burnt offerings on the altar": we are told nothing about the particular way he killed the animals, how (or if) he sprinkled the blood, washing of entrails, etc.  Similarly with Abraham's offering in Genesis 22:13, the ram is simply "offered up for a burnt offering" and that's all we are told.

The Hebrew word is the same in these four places (Gen 8, Gen 22, Ex 29, Lev 1), "Olah" (lit. "that which ascends", figurative, "ascends in smoke", i.e. burn), and the textual similarity between Ex 29 and Lev 1 is beyond doubt, both in terms of the ritual significance of the offering as well as the procedure for offering it.  However, given the many thematic differences between Exodus/Leviticus and Genesis, I don't believe the same can be said for the earlier Genesis references.  It's clear that the author is referring to the same kind of thing, in a general sense, especially because the term "olah" is only ever used in the OT to refer to burnt offerings.  We are perhaps intended to draw an allusion from the ritual slaughter in Leviticus when we read Gen 8 and 22, which leaves the patriarchs appearing yet more righteous (they made proper sacrifices in accord with the Mosaic Law) and also further solidifies the legitimacy of the sacrificial system by appealing to those same patriarchs.

It might seem contrary to modern readers that I say Genesis is alluding to Leviticus, when Genesis precedes Leviticus in book-order and in story chronology, but in the world of the Hebrew readers of the Pentateuch, they would have been familiar with hundreds of years of ritual sacrifices as prescribed by Leviticus.  This is their religious experience year after year, generation after generation.  The stories of Genesis are distant and largely folkloric compared to the much more commonplace reality of the Levitical sacrificial system.  Perhaps a good modern parallel is (in the US) the stories regarding the founding of America.  We have a set of somewhat folkloric stories about George Washington, Valley Forge and so on, which in the end produced the US Constitution which is a much more concrete legal basis for our society since then.  To us, stories about the revolution are distant, but it seems like almost everybody knows about freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and various other components of the Bill of Rights.  There are many other aspects of the Constitution of which most Americans are ignorant, but that too is possibly a valid parallel to ignorance of the Covenant that is shown by the ancient Israelites.  Certainly we see lots of ignorance in the biblical text, but it is reasonable to suppose that ignorance remained in Israelite society for quite a while, given the complexity of the Mosaic Law and the difficulty of communicating information in this time period.

The last meta-comment I want to make before getting into the specifics of the text is, why are there five types of sacrifices?  Leviticus doesn't really answer that question, but my opinion is that the different kinds of sacrifices are used in different situations as a natural consequence of what I said in the preceding paragraph: namely, the sacrifices are like tools that are naturally going to be useful in some situations but not others.  For instance, if you have to make a sin offering, it's because you committed some sort of sin and are atoning for it.  If you make a fellowship (or peace) offering, it's because you are seeking to fellowship or have peace with the LORD, which is subtly different.  In a lot of cases the different sacrifices are compounded together, and that's because the various sacrifices, when put together, establish a process whereby men draw near to God.  Each sacrifice is a different step in the process, first of atoning for sin and then after purifying oneself, drawing near to God.  This is like the three days of self-purification when the Israelites were preparing for the LORD in Ex 19.  One does not simply "approach the LORD" under the Mosaic Covenant.  There is a process and a pattern to be followed; that's the message here.

Also, some commentators say that five is the biblical number for grace, just like seven and ten are numbers of completion or fullness.  In general, I have a hard time finding support for this assertion, because as we can see these sacrifices are just as much about atonement or mercy as anything else.  I don't know if there is any way to clearly delineate grace versus mercy or atonement in these rituals.

With all that in mind, there are a couple details I'd like to comment upon.  First, we see three different types of burnt offerings, depending on whether one offers a bull, a sheep/goat, or an offering of birds.  The reason for this is to establish a variety of acceptable sacrifices in accordance with the financial status of the offerer.  In terms of cost, a bull is more expensive than a lamb/goat which is far more expensive than a a bird.  Even the poorest people of the land would be expected (and generally be able) to pay for a burnt offering of birds, and this is equally acceptable to the more expensive offerings.  We hadn't seen this type of flexibility with the Tabernacle offerings in Exodus, because those were offered by the community as a whole and not mandated on any particular individual.  There was also the census tax of half a shekel, but half a shekel is a small amount of money, so most likely the poor would have been able to afford it.  Since the sacrifices described here are required to attain ceremonial cleanliness and therefore approach the LORD, it is important that they be affordable to anyone in Israelite society.

This is an important lesson and it teaches us some important things about sacrifice.  We can see that sacrifice is not meant to be "out of reach".  Sacrifice is meant to be costly, yet attainable, and it is usually crafted to match your circumstances as well.  The expectation here is not that you would meet someone else's standard (i.e. give a bull because the rich can afford to give bulls) but rather to meet your own standard (give an animal in accordance with your means).  Yet even in the sacrifices of the poor (the birds), it is a standard and the process is just as well defined as the sacrifices of the wealthy.  Verses 14-17 define how the bird must be killed and burned.  I guess what I mean is that offering a bird is not "sloppy" or careless, it is intended to have the same rigor as any other burnt offering.

Still, sacrificing birds is very unusual given that we have never seen (and never will see) any reference to the Israelites raising flocks of birds.  We know that going all the way back to Abraham and even Abel that the people were raising herds of cattle and sheep and goats, and these were the sacrifices of Abraham and the patriarchs of Genesis.  As such, I can't help but wonder where the people would get these birds for sacrifice.  Later in the Pentateuch there are regulations of what birds can be eaten and what to do if you "happen to find a nest" of birds, so my guess is that the people would just go around and try to simply catch a bird, or shoot them with arrows or something.  I don't believe the people will ever actually raise birds for offering because that would involve building cages for them and stuff like that.  I don't really know.  Biblically, there aren't any references to people actually offering birds in the rest of the OT, but we will see references to this practice in the NT (dated roughly 1st century CE).  So clearly the practice persists, or at least is later re-adopted.  For the purposes of the OT however, virtually all of the sacrifices are of the other types: bulls, sheep, goats, grain offerings and so forth.

Next, the text notes that "he shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering" (v. 4).  This is the same physical symbolism of substitutionary atonement that we saw back in the offerings for the priests (Ex 29:10, 15, 19, etc.).  It's interesting that this is part of the burnt offering, because there is a separate "sin offering" which is much more directly related to atonement ("sin offering" is Hebrew "chattath", closely related to the Hebrew "chata" which means sin).  Of course, the sin offering also involves laying one's hand on the animal's head (see Lev 4:4), so both of them are related to atonement.  I suppose this is just a common aspect.

Next, we can see from the descriptions how bloody these sacrifices can get.  Of course, intuitively one would know that killing an animal involves a lot of blood, but given how disconnected most people are from the actual process of killing an animal, we perhaps underestimate the gore of destroying a living being.  Nevertheless, this chapter makes it clear that performing a burnt offering involves the shedding of blood.

Lastly, we can note that it is most likely the offerer who has to slay the animal, rather than the priest.  In fact, there appears to be a sort of interplay between the priest and the offerer in that the offerer slays the animal, then the priests sprinkles some of the blood, then the offerer skins the animal, then the priest arrange the fire, and so on.  The involvement of the offerer wasn't immediately obvious to me when first reading this passage because the OT is full of ambiguous pronouns.  Readers of English translations might not realize this because the translators often guess whom a pronoun is referring and fill that into the translation.  The Hebrew itself, however, is frequently ambiguous, and we partially see that here.

This isn't a huge problem because one can usually discern the nature of these pronouns through context, but it sometimes makes the passage harder to translate (a good example is Ex 4:24).

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Bible Commentary - Leviticus Introduction

Leviticus, the book of ceremonial and religious laws.

Leviticus, the standard English title, means "relating to the Levites", while the traditional Hebrew name for this book is Vayikra, which means "And he called".  Conveniently, this is just the first word of the book.

Much of the biographical information about Leviticus is the same as Genesis and Exodus. They are written cohesively in a common structural framework, possibly even by the same author(s), in the same time period and with the same cultural background. As such, I would encourage my readers to go back and review my introduction to Genesis, because I'm not going to repeat that material here.  JEDP theorists would disagree with me.  They would not consider Leviticus to be a single book at all, but rather a compilation of multiple sources with a variety of editors, which makes questions like "when was Leviticus written" partially nonsensical, because in their view "Leviticus" is not a unified book.  Since Leviticus is presented to the reader as a cohesive unit, that is how I will regard it for the purposes of my commentary.

Thematically, I pointed out many differences between Genesis and Exodus.  Leviticus in general is much more closely aligned with Exodus than with Genesis.  Both Exodus and Leviticus contain substantial legal sections ordaining parts of the Mosaic Covenant.  While Exodus is substantially focused on the architecture of the Tabernacle, Leviticus is mostly (but not entirely) focused on ceremonial law, covering a range of topics like the protocol for animal sacrifice, a variety of laws governing ceremonial uncleanliness, how to diagnose and treat skin diseases and mold, the institution of an annual atonement (separate from the Passover), and the list goes on.  So immediately one can see that the topics of Leviticus are very different from Exodus, and yet the broad theme is the same: establishing the rules and regulations governing the Israelite community in how they relate to each other and to God.  In effect, it is really more of a continuation of Exodus than anything else.

Many of these subjects do not seem religious, like the laws governing skin diseases and mold.  That's why I specifically pointed out in my commentary about Exodus that the LORD was seeking to build both a religious, legal and cultural framework for the nascent Israelite people.  Of course it seems peculiar to our modern, secular sensibilities that their legal code would be religious, since the very essence of secularism is the separation of church and state.  As should be immediately evident, this has not always been the case.  Also remember that when I talk about the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants as types of suzerainty lordship treaties that this language is only partially metaphorical.  In many instances, especially in the Pentateuch, the LORD in fact does regard himself as the lord of the Israelites, and that gives him a lot of authority to institute exactly the sorts of legal and cultural rules that are embodied in Leviticus, as well as the religious rules that we would expect.

Even more so than Exodus, the book of Leviticus is chiefly composed of Things The LORD Said, i.e. extensive, multi-chapter monologues.  In fact, this is nearly the entire book, with only a few stories mixed in to exemplify the laws that the LORD is trying to establish.  As such, Leviticus is perhaps best known as "the book nobody reads".  In conversations with friends, I have anecdotally observed that most people who start reading the bible from Genesis onward usually grind to a halt in Leviticus because the material is so dense and to many, so uninteresting.

In the words of one of my friends, in Genesis every chapter seems like it has a thousand years of history, while in Leviticus every year in the story seems to take a thousand chapters.  I.e. Genesis has tons of events packed into every chapter, while the entire book of Leviticus is just one long speech, while the Israelites are still at Mount Horeb. (Remember when the Israelites arrived at Mount Horeb back in Ex 19?  They are still there.  Seriously.)

So I have something of a challenge to present this book in an interesting and engaging way.  The upshot is that we can learn a lot about how ancient Israelite society functioned through these laws.  Also, I might put cat pictures in my later posts.  But you won't know which ones have cat pictures unless you read them, so... there's that.  Everyone loves kittens, right?  Yeah, this will work great...

In addition to the kittens, I think there are a couple broad points that I want my readers to look for while we go through Leviticus.  The first, that I've already mentioned, is what this book implies about Israelite society. We can see through these regulations what are the common problems and social expectations that they held.  Second, I want my readers to look at how the Israelites are expected to relate to God.  In particular, we will see the concept of atonement in many of the rituals of this book.  What was established in passing in Genesis and Exodus is firmly driven home by Leviticus: the people must atone for the sins that they have committed by sacrifice.  Third, look at the roles and responsibilities of the priests.  Most of this book establishes laws governing the people, but many of these laws are administered by the priests.  Even in social and legal arenas, the priests have the authority to oversee the compliance of the people.

The priests were initially introduced in Exodus for the purpose of maintaining the Tabernacle and offering sacrifices, but now we can see that their role is expanding into other realms of Israelite society, in parallel with the institution of ceremonial cleanliness laws.  However, their central role will always be servicing the Tabernacle, as it relates to sacrifices, atonement and all the other rituals.

With all that said, I think we are ready to move on to Leviticus 1.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 40

In this chapter, Moses is commanded to erect the Tabernacle, and when he does so the cloud of glory descends upon it.

We haven't been told yet about the "showbread".  Also, we haven't been told the various rituals related to the bronze altar, the proper way to slaughter animals, or the details of how the atonement is made before the ark of the covenant.  These have all been left out of the Exodus account.  If you think about it, we were given the construction plans for the Tabernacle and told that priests were appointed to serve in it, but we haven't really been told what the priests do or how the Israelites are supposed to relate to the Tabernacle.  We have been told that the lamps are always to be lit, incense must always burn, and there are to be two daily sacrifices on the bronze altar, but there are lots of other rituals that have been left out.  Fortunately, these areas will be filled in by the next three books.

Note when the author writes that certain things "shall be holy", v. 9, or "shall be most holy", v. 10.  These are ceremonial designations, which we saw earlier, but I didn't mention it at the time (cf. Ex 29:37, Ex 30:29).  Basically anything related to worship or the Tabernacle is considered ceremonially holy to some extent, and then there is a whole system of rules designating various objects, animals or behaviors as unclean, which is more or less the opposite of holy.  This part of the ceremonial system is only mentioned in passing here, but will be substantially elaborated upon in Leviticus and later.

The bread of the presence is mentioned again, but we still haven't exactly been told what's the deal with this bread.  Of course, that's true for a lot of things, but in my foreknowledge I know that the bread of the presence will be explained a bit more later on, so we are fortunate that the bible will not leave this a total mystery.

The testimony (i.e. the stone tablets with the covenant written on them) is placed inside the ark of the testimony, conveniently enough.  We can also infer that the jar of manna is placed inside the ark of the covenant, because we are told back in Ex 16:34 that the jar was placed "before the testimony", even though we hadn't yet been told what the testimony was or where it was kept.  Now those mysteries are solved, and we know that both the jar of manna and the tablets are kept within the ark of the covenant, inside the Tabernacle.

The chapter emphasizing again and again that everything Moses does is following directions from the LORD.  This obviously encourages precision in following all of these commands, both because Moses is the leader of the congregation and also because of the result in verse 34, the descent of the cloud of glory upon the Tabernacle.  We see that the way to God is through the covenant, but following the covenant is not exactly simple, and certainly more complex than the lifestyles of the patriarchs.

I'd like to conclude by reviewing a few of the points I made in the introduction to Exodus.  First is that the way to God is now tightly structured.  This chapter in particular shows us that it is by doing what "the LORD had commanded" that one can approach God, and it is by following these rules that the manifest presence of God appeared to the Israelites.  On the one hand, this makes God accessible to everyone.  On the other hand, it might prove difficult to follow all of the laws, ordinances and regulations.

Second, I have frequently pointed out the various sins and rebellion of the people, most notably in Ex 32 with the golden calf, although before that the people complained several times against Moses and threatened to kill him.  This should leave us all with a skepticism and apprehension towards the Israelites' future behavior with respect to the LORD and the covenant.  If they cannot obey the covenant for 40 days, how will they do so for generations after Moses dies?  We will see, but the omens are not felicitous.

Third, and lastly, is the subject of redemption and forgiveness.  The plagues of Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea were both acts of redemption, bringing the people out of slavery and leading them to the promised land.  After introducing the people to a new covenant, the LORD also conveyed to Moses the plans for the Tabernacle, which is itself an act of redemption, because it restores the people's ability to commune with God.  This was broken when Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden of Eden.

In summary, the book of Exodus shows us how to reverse the curse of Adam, through an atoning sacrificial lamb and through the adoption of the covenant, which is most prominently signified by the Law of Moses and the Tabernacle (i.e. residence).  Now, through following the Law of the LORD and through the covenant, the way has been opened for all people to draw near to the LORD and his manifest presence in the Residence: a cloud by day and a fire by night, visible guidance and protection.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 39

In this chapter, the priestly garments are created and Moses reviews the finished products.

This chapter is very similar to the previous ones, detailing the construction of the priestly garments precisely as it was commanded in Ex 28.  As before, this emphasizes the importance of following the commands of the LORD precisely, especially as it relates to the covenant.

It's interesting that this comes after the summary of the cost of the Tabernacle, and that's probably because the materials that go into the priestly garments are a pittance compared to the many talents of gold and silver of the Tabernacle.

Nevertheless, the description of the priestly garments is virtually identical to that from chapter 28, so rather than reproduce my comments here, I would like to simply direct my readers to review chapter 28 if they so desire.

This chapter concludes with Moses's review of the entire Tabernacle and related furnishings, including the priestly garments.  Moses blesses the people for following his instructions "just as the LORD had commanded", which again shows the significance of the legalistic approach being fashioned here, that it is through obedience to the law and to the commands of the LORD that the people maintain their position under the protection of the covenant.

With all this in mind, I will now proceed to the last chapter of Exodus, chapter 40.

Bible Commentary - Exodus 38

In this chapter, we continue with the construction of the bronze altar, the bronze basin, the hangings of the courtyard, and conclude with the total cost of the Tabernacle.

Much of the material in chapter 38, just like chapters 36 and 37, is nearly copied from an earlier section of Exodus.  In this case, it is Ex 27.  As in chapters 36 and 37, the redundancy is here to teach the Israelites to follow the commands of the LORD precisely, especially as it relates to the covenant.  Unlike the earlier chapters of this section, most Israelites would in fact be allowed into the courtyard when properly consecrated, so they would be able to directly observe the form of the bronze altar, the hangings and so forth.  Even so, this is not a substantial difference and the tone of chapter 38 largely parallels that of the earlier chapters.

Fortunately, we are nearly at the end and we also get to see something new, an inventory of all the costs of the Tabernacle and everything associated with it.

I don't think there is much purpose in looking at the numbers in detail.  I will make some general points, however.  The number of men over twenty years is about 600,000.  From this, we can statistically approximate the size of the whole community (including children and women) to be around two to three million.  This gives us an idea of the scale of the Israelite camp, and I will be quoting this number many times in the next couple books.

Next, we can see that the construction of the Tabernacle involved a significant amount of money.  As I have said many times before, this money was almost certainly looted from Egypt in the events of the Exodus which we have previously read.

Lastly, I will mention that throughout these chapters it has been ascribing the construction labors to Bezalel and Oholiab, but in practice there is far too much for two people to build, so they were almost certainly just overseers of the construction, which was practically carried out by many members of the community.  Interestingly, neither Bezalel nor Oholiab are from the tribe of Levi, which means that non-priests were the ones who actually built the ark of the covenant and the other sacred relics.  By ritual convention, they would be the first and the last non-priests to ever see these things.  It's not particularly important, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

With that, I will proceed to chapter 39.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 37

In this chapter, the construction of the Tabernacle continues with the ark of the covenant and the other Tabernacle furnishings.

As I discussed in my analysis of chapter 36, there isn't much need for a commentary here because the material is virtually identical to the LORD's speech in Ex 25-31, so I simply refer my readers to read those chapters.  This chapter substantially corresponds with Ex 25.  As I mentioned in Ex 36, the correspondence between 25-31 and 36-39 reinforces to the ancient Israelites the importance of the Tabernacle as an institution and also the importance of following the laws and ordinances of the LORD.  Also, most Israelites would never see the objects of the Tabernacle in their entire lives, so it is important to tell them that everything was constructed in accordance with the LORD's plans.

With that, I will move on to chapter 38.

Bible Commentary - Exodus 36

In this chapter, construction of the Tabernacle begins in earnest.

This chapter begins by noting that the people brought in even more freewill offerings than were required for the construction, so Moses commands the people to cease contributing gold and the other stuff.  It's a charming little anecdote, one that I have only ever heard referenced by pastors trying to encourage tithing, which is amusing until you remember that these people also worshiped idols.  They are not exactly the best role models, but in this case I'd have to agree that their "giving spirit" cannot be questioned.  I think it can be debated how much peer pressure they would have to contribute to this "free will" offering, but that's left to speculation because the text itself never states or implies that the people felt any compulsion to give other than through Moses's request.

Either way, they gather what is needed and begin construction.  The text describing the construction process is virtually identical to the text where God commanded Moses how to build the corresponding thing.  If you compare the characteristics such as the length of the curtains (28 cubits), the number of loops (50), or any other thing, it precisely matches with the earlier description in Ex 25-31.  The only difference is that here Bezalel is constructing things, while in Ex 25-31 God is commanding Moses how to construct the things.

So if my readers wish to learn more about the significance or meaning of any of the things being built, simply go read my commentary for the corresponding earlier chapter.  This chapter largely corresponds with the commands in Ex 26.

There really isn't much else for me to say, so I'll just leave one parting thought before I move on to the next chapter, which is this: so much of the book of Exodus is about obedience to long, detailed commands and numerous prohibitions.  The longest of those commands is the command to build the Tabernacle, and now we're seeing its fulfillment.  As we observe the Israelites' adherence to all of the fine details of the commands, including the dimensions, colors and patterns of the various objects, think about what message this sends both to the Israelites to whom Moses spoke, but then also the ancient Hebrew readers of the written (or oral) Torah, that their faith is largely being defined by adherence to these highly specific rules?  I've already talked a lot about how Exodus is a book filled with many rules, but what we're seeing now is that the ancient Israelites followed them precisely, with the obvious implication that its ancient readers should follow these rules precisely too.

I will continue to discuss "the Law" as we move along through the OT, but for now, let's move on to the next chapter.

Edit: I found some interesting notes from John Wesley discussing Ex 36-39.  He notes the significant fact that the people who were not priests (i.e. 99.9% of the population) would by law never enter the tabernacle, which means that they would never actually see the ark of the covenant, the lampstand or anything else that resides within the tabernacle.  Therefore describing the construction of these things is important because it shows the people that the LORD's instructions for their creation was followed precisely.  To quote Wesley directly,
These several ornaments where with the tabernacle was furnished, the people were not admitted to see, but the priests only; and therefore it was requisite they should be thus largely described, particularly to them. And Moses would thus shew the great care which he and his workmen took to make every thing exactly according to the pattern shewed him in the mount. Thus he appeals to every reader concerning his fidelity to him that appointed him, in all his house. And thus he teacheth us to have respect to all God's commandments, even to every jot and tittle of them.

Bible Commentary - Exodus 35

In this chapter, Moses relates the plans for the Tabernacle to the people.

The prior chapter contains the words of the LORD related to Moses, now we are hearing the words of Moses related to the people.  Moses begins by mentioning the Sabbath again, which was one of the ten commandments, so the people have actually heard this before when they agreed to the covenant the first time.

After that, Moses is relating the ordinances for the construction of the Tabernacle, which we read in Ex 25 through 31, but the people have not heard yet.  Everything is substantially the same between the prior version and here.

While I don't have much to say, considering I have already discussed the elements of the Tabernacle in detail, I did find it interesting how these sections are positioned directly after the idolatry.  In particular, there appears to be a parallelism between the offering that Aaron takes in Ex 32, gathering the gold rings to melt them down for an idol, and the offering that is taken here, also gathering gold from the people (v. 22), in addition to the many other required things.  In this chapter, the Israelites are presented as willing followers of the LORD: since it is a freewill offering, there is no compulsion to give.  Their generosity here is tainted by their equal willingness to make an idol in chapter 32.

The only other interesting thing I find about this chapter is how different groups of people are described as making different contributions.  For instance, verse 25 says that "the skilled women" wove the fine linen and the goat hair, while "the rulers" contributed the precious stones and spices, presumably because the rulers were wealthier and had access to these rare gemstones and spices, while commoners did not.  On the other hand, both men and women contributed gold, bronze and silver that had been looted from the Egyptians.

For anything else about the Tabernacle, I'm not going to repeat my prior commentary, so just read from Ex 25 to 31.

Bible Commentary - Exodus 34

In this chapter, Moses sees a new revelation of the LORD, renews the covenant between God and the people, and Moses's face shines as a result of these encounters.

The first thing that happens in this chapter is the command to recreate the two stone tablets.  These new tablets are cut by human hands, while the last ones were possibly shaped by God (the text says that they were "inscribed by the finger of God", they do not state who cut or shaped them).  Since the tablets are inscribed with the words of the testimony, when Moses smashed the last pair of tablets, it was more than a sign of anger or frustration: it was an annulment of the covenant itself.  Now, after Moses's intercession, the LORD is willing to re-commit to the covenant, and the first sign of that is the reconstruction of the tablets which is ordered here.

After Moses crafts the tablets and returns up the mountain, he has the divine encounter that was promised in the last chapter, that the LORD would "show [Moses] your glory".  Just as was implied in chapter 33, the LORD appears as both a physical manifestation and announcing his moral and personal character, and all this is to be considered the glory of the LORD.  Here is what the LORD says, from verses 6 and 7, one of the most compact self-representations that the LORD makes in basically the entire OT.
The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.
Compassion and grace are the two attributes that the LORD ascribed to himself in the prior chapter.  As I stated then, this is in the context of (mostly) forgiving the Israelites' sin, so it seems appropriate to me.  Probably the most interesting part here is the juxtaposition of "lovingkindness to thousands" vs. "visiting the iniquity... to the third and fourth".  This gives us both a sense of the greatness of God's love to many, while reserving punishment for "the guilty".  Have we even seen the love of God before?  I don't remember.  I know we've seen the blessings of God on the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we have seen the favor of God over Joseph and the sons of Israel, but I don't believe it was ever spoken about as love.

The LORD in Genesis was positioned as the divine sovereign, the king to whom the patriarchs made obeisance.  Now, in this declaration of the LORD's name and character, this astonishing manifestation of manifestations, the LORD is calling himself the God of compassion, grace, love and mercy.  While his justice runs to three and fourth, his love runs to thousands.  The patriarchs (usually) didn't need mercy; Abraham was a righteous man.  Jacob is the most troubled of the patriarchs, but he didn't have nearly the problems of rebellion and sin that we see now.  I am amazed how this rebellion and sin, combined with the prayers of Moses, draws out mercy and forgiveness from the LORD.  Most people think of the OT as the book of wrath, and I understand why, but in this declaration we see that even in the OT, this is not what God calls himself, this is not how his nature is self-defined.

The thing that I found most confusing when I first read this is how the LORD can say, I forgive iniquity and punish people for their iniquity.  It seems like a contradiction.  The second thing that bothered me about it is how sin appears to result in generational punishment; it seemed unjust to me that children are punished for the sins of their fathers.

To the first issue, I think the best way to read this is that the LORD is expressing mercy in the first part and justice in the second part: mercy in forgiving people their sins upon request, but justice demands punishment for the sins that are not forgiven.  Mercy and justice are fundamental attributes of God, so it makes sense that we would see them here when he declares his name.  Without mercy, humanity has no hope, because the sin and curse of Adam has doomed the world to die.  Yet, without justice, there is no fairness or equity in the treatment of one person versus another.  You can have justice without mercy and the result is death because man cannot survive without mercy.  I don't believe you can have mercy without justice, because I don't see how forgiveness can exist without fairness.  Mercy is the forgiveness of equitable punishment: without equity, then one person may be punished less than another, but it's not mercy, it's injustice.

To the second issue, I think I've substantially addressed this issue previously back in Ex 20.  Partly, the bible treats families as units because of the way that parents bring up their children in the same ways that they know.  For instance, how many times are child abusers themselves former victims of child abuse?  We live in a more individualistic time than the Hebrew people did, but parents still shape their children in the same ways.  Nevertheless, as I noted in Ex 20, the bible actually prohibits punishing children for the acts of their fathers.  If this seems like a contradiction, there isn't much more I can say to address that.

Immediately after this encounter, Moses prays once more that the LORD would go with the people, as well as forgive the people of their sins and iniquity.  In such a short time, it seems that forgiveness has become a really big theme here.  Also, Moses is again primarily concerned with the welfare of the people under his leadership, in spite of their poor treatment of him.

Just as Moses is commanded to fashion new tablets, the LORD initiates a new covenant, yet one that is virtually identical to the prior covenant from chapter 24.  Verse 10 clearly shows that this is a different covenant than the last one, which like the broken tablets is considered by the LORD to be broken by the people and no longer in effect.

The laws of the covenant are substantially the same as before.  The LORD reaffirms the principle of separation by outlawing any treaties with the natives, commanding the destruction of their religious sites, or else the Israelites would risk spiritual adultery (Hebrew, "zanah", to commit adultery).  This is a striking term, because it implies that the Israelites are married to the LORD, that following other gods would be adultery.  Now the first commandment is starting to make more sense.  Just as Adam and Eve were married, so the LORD wishes to "marry" his people.  This is radically different from the lordship treaties we have previously seen, because lordship does not imply intimacy, does not imply "yada", does not imply emotional bonding.  Relating to God like a spouse is a really important biblical theme that we will see again and again, so I will address the subject again.  For now, just remember that the LORD considers idolatry and following other gods to be adultery, spurning him to pursue other "lovers".  No wonder the LORD calls himself "jealous" (v. 14).  I promise to talk more about this later.

The LORD affirms the Passover and the three feasts, the redemption of the firstborn, the Sabbath, and a few miscellaneous rules.  While only a subset of the prior covenantal laws are listed, we can infer that the rest of the covenant is also implicitly included.

Lastly, Moses's face shines.  This is another way that man reflects the image of God.  Though the relationship between man and God is broken by sin and the curse, when Moses spends time with God, speaks with God and learns to follow the LORD's ways, he comes to reflect the glory of the LORD in his own appearance, and this glory scares the other Israelites.  Just as the dwelling place of the LORD, between the cherubim on the ark of the testimony, is shrouded by a veil and the tabernacle, the glory that resides on Moses's face had to be covered by a veil.  Yet when Moses speaks to God, the veil is removed just like one's shoes are removed when treading on holy ground.  The removal of shoes, the removal of the veil: in all things, there shall be no barrier between the heart and body of a man or woman seeking God and the holy one.

The people are afraid of the glory they see on Moses, just like they are afraid of the cloud and the fire and the earthquakes and all the things on the mountain.  The people live behind the veil of the tabernacle and the veil that covers Moses, because they are "obstinate", yet they hold the covenant and I believe God wishes to raise them up and train them to follow his ways, that they too might live behind the veil, because the intent of the covenant is to reverse the sin and curse of Adam.  Going forward, we will observe whether the people follow the covenant and grow into the ways of the LORD like Moses has done.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 33

In this chapter, Moses asks for the LORD's presence to travel with his people.

The first thing to note is that while God commands Moses to depart on the journey, they don't actually leave for some time.  At this point, there are still some issues to be resolved before they can leave.

The first is that the LORD says he "will send an angel before you" as the people travel to Canaan, rather than go himself, because if he went with them, "I might destroy you on the way."  I think this is a reinforcement of the holiness theme which we saw previously, relating to the tabernacle.  In that case, there were many barriers placed between people and the LORD such as the tabernacle itself, the veil of separation, and the other courtyard.  In addition, there were many regulations governing the priests and failure to keep these also result in death.  This is in recognition that while the LORD wishes to be near the people, he possesses a holiness that is deadly to those who approach him improperly.

In this case, we have already seen the people rebel against the LORD and it was only through the intercession of Moses that the people were spared.  This clearly shows, however, that the people are not holy enough to safely dwell with the LORD.  Yet, we know that by the construction of the tabernacle (i.e. residence) that the LORD wished to dwell with the people and that was his original intent of the covenant.  This shows that the people's sinfulness has damaged their relationship with the LORD.

The people remove all of their "ornaments" as a sign of contrition, at the LORD's request.  This is, of course, a continuation of their punishment for idolatry in the last chapter.

Next is a brief interjection explaining the phrase "tent of meeting", which as I previously stated is a synonym for the tabernacle.  We are told that the people would see whenever the LORD came down to meet Moses, and would stand, each man at the entrance of his tent (they did not have a permanent dwelling: just as the LORD dwells in a tent, so do his people dwell in tents).  It's a short story, but I think it gives us another insight into the distance between the people and the LORD.  The LORD would come down to speak to their leaders, the people would observe it, and yet they stood at a distance, just like in Ex 20:19 when the people say, Moses, tell us what to do because we cannot bear listening to the LORD directly.  In both Ex 20 and here, the people are portrayed as both respectful and fearful of the LORD.  These are reasonable responses, and yet it is contrasted with v. 11, "thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face", which is a really powerful expression of God's intention for humanity.  I think the phrase "face to face" sums up much of the purpose of the covenant, in bringing a restoration of the Edenic life.

The last interesting little nugget from this vignette is that Joshua would remain in the tent after Moses left.  We had already seen Joshua as the military leader of Israel against Amalek, but now he is shown in piety remaining in the presence of the LORD even after their official business is concluded.  Keep this in mind when we read about Joshua in the future, because remaining in the presence of the LORD voluntarily is a portent of things to come.

Continuing on with the story, Moses objects to the LORD remaining distant from the people and he issues a series of requests of deep significance.  Starting in verse 13, Moses says, "If I have found favor in your sight, let me know your ways that I may know you, so that I may find favor in your sight."  This is a very interesting statement, because Moses is petitioning on the basis of his favor with the LORD, that he might earn even more favor with the LORD.  It seems circular, and perhaps it is, but that's how a lot of things in the world work.  (Consider gravity, a process of accretion where some block of matter attracts other matter, and that's how it gains even more gravity to attract even more matter.  Here, it is favor with the LROD that leads to knowing his ways, which earns more favor, which leads to knowing his ways even more, etc.)

This helps us answer the question how Moses earned favor with the LORD in the first place: he knew and followed the "ways of the LORD".  I have spoken a couple times about the ways of the LORD (see Ex 12 and Ex 4), and it's a subtle and deep topic.  Much of the bible is really about teaching people the ways of the LORD and it is revealed to us through things like the covenant, the stories that we have read, and what the LORD has said to Moses.  We can also learn more about God's ways in the rest of Exodus, because as Moses has requested, the LORD will teach Moses his ways.

Also, the word "know" in "know your ways" is Hebrew "yada", which means to know intimdately and deeply.  For instance, when Adam has sex with Eve in Gen 4:1, it says that he "yada" her.  That doesn't mean the word "yada" is supposed to be sensual or sexual, it means that sex (in the context of Adam and Eve) has an operative context of profound familiarity and awareness.  This is what Moses seeks with the ways of the LORD, that he would know them in a way that strongly implies he follows them, because it is only by interaction with the ways of the LORD that he could "yada" them.  I think the Amplified Bible conveys the intent very well with its parenthetical, "progressively become more deeply and intimately acquainted with You, perceiving and recognizing and understanding more strongly and clearly".  That's yada.

It's interesting also that Moses says this in response to the LORD refusing to go with the people, because it appears that Moses is praying both personally for his own knowledge of the LORD, but also for the people, because if the LORD travels with the people then he will implicitly impart knowledge of the ways of the LORD to the people as well.  The LORD's response is to go with the people, contrary to his earlier statement.

Moses's second objection is that without the presence of God, there is nothing to distinguish them from the other peoples.  This is consistent with the principle of separation, which is that the people should be separate from the idolatrous nations to show the distinction of the LORD compared to other gods.  Now Moses wants the LORD to be with them, that they might be distinct from the other nations.  Note that while Moses is appealing on the basis of his personal favor: "I have found favor in your sight", he deliberately includes the Hebrew people in an attempt to transfer the favor and blessings to them as well: "I and your people".  I suppose you could think of this as the second dimension of Moses's humility, that not only would he try to preserve the Hebrew nation rather than build his own nation (at the LORD's suggestion), but now he is trying to leverage his favor with the LORD to attain blessings for the people.  Similarly, in verse 13 he says, "consider too, that this nation is your people".  While the LORD favors Moses because of Moses's character, Moses is now appealing for the nation because they are the LORD's people, i.e. appealing to the LORD's responsibility as their sovereign lord to bless them and travel with them.

The first prayer of Moses is to (deeply) know the ways of the LORD.  The second prayer of Moses is that the LORD's presence would go with him and the people.  The third and final prayer of Moses is to see the glory (Hebrew, "kabod") of the LORD.  I will discuss the LORD's response in a moment, but even the request is profound and instructive.  There is clearly a progression here, and I also think it's fairly evident that these three prayers are interrelated, with knowledge of the ways of the LORD and experiencing the presence of the LORD leading into a true vision of the glory of the LORD.

What is the glory of the LORD?  That's hard to answer, but we can learn some things from the LORD's answer in the following verses.  Also, note that the Hebrew kabod has a literal meaning of weight or heaviness, which figuratively means splendor, copiousness, glory, honor or majesty.  Moses, then, is asking to see the majesty of the LORD, and the LORD's response is that he would "make all my goodness pass before you, and... proclaim the name of the LORD before you."  As I discussed before, when the LORD shared his name with Moses in Ex 3 (which I discussed more fully in Ex 6), that divine name is more than just an identifier, it also refers to the divine character, the nature of what God is like.

The LORD is implying that his name is a proper answer to Moses's quest for glory, which makes sense when you consider the glory of the LORD to be part of his attributes or character.  This is also defined by his goodness, which is a moral attribute.  When most people think of splendor or majesty, they think of the material appearance of a thing, like a majestic king sitting on a golden throne ensconced with light and surrounded by attendants.  The LORD considers his glory to be his goodness, or how he favorably relates to other people in kindness.  More specifically, "I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion."  The glory of the LORD is grace and compassion.

I don't have too much more to say on this topic, so I'll just say the obvious: this is a pretty radical redefinition of the LORD's character when compared to the book of Genesis, where he was the God of material provision and protection, and even earlier in Exodus, where he was the God of avenged wrongs, fighting to free the Israelites from unjust bondage.  In the context of the increasingly rebellious Israelite nation, I think redefining himself as a God of grace and compassion is fitting, because having forgiven their idolatry just previously, the LORD is going to have to forgive many more wrongs going forward.

Lastly, the LORD repeats that Moses cannot see his face and live, which is a theme we have seen before but this time it seems the LORD really means it.  We see a peculiar anthropomorphic vision of the LORD, that his "hand" would cover Moses, whie his "glory" is passing by, and then Moses shall see his "back", but not his "face".  This is strange because having just equated his glory with his character and attributes, now his glory appears to be directly equated to this definite, possibly material, and very human-like form that will "pass by" Moses.  I'm not sure what to say, other than both relations are true.  The LORD's glory is his character and it is also his appearance.  Of all the manifestations of the LORD we have seen, this one might be the most interesting yet.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 32

In this chapter, the people create an idol, Moses destroys it, and then the Levites kill fellow Israelites as punishment for their sin.

The first thing we see in this chapter is the "golden calf incident".  We see in verse 1 that the people basically assume Moses is dead, since they last saw him over a month ago walk into this burning fire, and they figure he's not coming back, or at least, "we do not know what happened to him."  Strangely, their response is to ask Aaron to "make us a god", and even stranger, Aaron goes along with this plan.  Some revelry ensues, and the LORD sends Moses down to stop the madness.

According to the popular JEDP theory, the book of Exodus was written in various pieces between 900 and 600 BCE, with a principle purpose of eliminating idol worship and establishing the various principles we have seen (worshiping the LORD alone, avoiding idols, the Sabbath, etc).  The struggle over the golden calf, then, is meant as a rebuke to the Israelite people of that later time, that they should give up idolatry.

Crucially, the Hebrews identify this idol with the LORD in particular (v. 5), suggesting that they did not actually intend to betray the LORD and worship another god, but rather felt that creating an idol was a proper way to worship their newfound sovereign.

Whether or not the JEDP theory is true, we can see that this chapter is certainly a rebuke of the Israelites in the story, because they were enamored of idols, regardless of which particular god they thought the idol was.  Since the Israelites clearly worshiped idols at some point, I think given the context we can tell that they learned this pattern from the various peoples of the area, both Egypt and the Mideast at large.  This again demonstrates the relative immaturity of the people in their worship of the LORD, whose ten commandments clearly delineate their behavior from those of the peoples around them.  In other words, the ten commandments are an embodiment of the principle of separation, and idolatry is one of the things that they are supposed to be separated from.  Here we see that they are not, in fact, separated from it, in spite of their earlier agreement to the covenant.  I had previously remarked that the people appear rebellious towards Moses: now we are seeing another dimension to their immaturity, which the LORD treats as rebellion (v. 9-10).

One can reasonably infer from the text that the people and Aaron thought they were worshiping the LORD with sacrifices and an altar, that their behavior was appropriate and good, in particular when v. 5 says that they will celebrate a "feast to the LORD".  The LORD's response seems pretty harsh in light of that, which is another reason why I think the author cares so much about the principle of separation.  It is simply not good enough to worship the LORD in the manner of how other peoples worship other gods, for two big reasons.  First, if the Israelites worship in the manner of other peoples, then there would be no distinction between the LORD and other gods, which would dishonor the LORD.  Second, if there is no distinction between worshiping the LORD and other gods, then like an alcoholic taking just one drink, it would open the door to the Israelites returning to their idolatrous and polytheistic past.  This would undermine the first commandment, that they would have no other gods besides the LORD.

In conclusion, we can see that at the heart of the principle of separation is the exclusivity of worshiping the LORD.  The barriers designed to separate the Israelites from the other peoples is to isolate the Israelites from the spiritual adultery and polyamory of the peoples, who as we have briefly seen, are willing to worship any and every god that impresses them in some way.  The LORD, as the sole and exclusive creator of the universe, desires primacy in the life of every person within the covenant.  As I think I have made clear, this is completely contrary to the social and cultural standards of the time, which is most exemplified by the large and complex panthea of Greece and Egypt.

Idolatry is outlawed because in the Hebrews' immaturity in their new faith, they might be temped to relapse.  Verse 4 says that the people exclaim the idol "is your god, O Israel", which establishes another reason why idolatry is outlawed: an idol is not meant to represent a god, an idol is considered (or at least spoken of as) the personage of that god, hence the expression, "make us a god".

This has two important effects.  The first is that it constrains the god into the form of the idol, allowing the human makers to shape this god in whatever fashion they please, ultimately leaving the humans in power over the form of the god (while granting that god lordship over their lives in other areas).  The second is that it limits the size and majesty of the god into the greatness of the form that the makers are able to construct.  With reference to the LORD, he is reduced from the grandeur of lordship over all creation to a golden calf, a simple and inanimate creation.

After all the chapters of me pointing out the various manifestations of the LORD, whether human or clouds of fire and smoke, or thunder and lightning over a mountain, or burning bush, or whatever else we have seen, there are now people attempting to forge their own manifestation of the LORD, in their own wisdom and determination.  It is at heart an act of extreme pride, that they would choose to know the LORD so well they can craft a form for him, just as they were once crafted in turn by the LORD, the maker of the universe.  It should be evident to my readers after so much emphasis on the manifestations of the LORD that people trying to craft their own manifestation is a big problem, and it appears that the LORD thinks so as well.

Why a calf?  Probably because that's what they would be familiar with, as a semi-nomadic herding people.  Also, for whatever reason most of the idols in the OT are fashioned after animals, fish or birds, which we can infer from Ex 20:4, when it calls out the three realms of creation, which from Gen 1 we know are related to the three or four main populations, birds, fish, mammals and crawling things (snakes, insects, etc).  This is probably the way idols were made during this era, that they would typically be shaped after various animals.

Lastly, since the Israelite people were explicitly commanded to not make idols in Ex 20, doing so here is a direct violation of the Mosaic Covenant, which is in turn an expansion and restatement of the Abrahamic Covenant.  Since this covenant is what governs and defines the people's relationship with the LORD, violating it is a very serious offense even when ignoring all of the issues I've laid out above.  Just like the people were splashed with blood when they agreed to it, the price of breaking the covenant is that one's own blood be shed in death.

Fortunately for the people, Moses intervenes on their behalf.  I wonder what God would have done if Moses didn't intervene.  Verse 10 states that God would destroy the tribes of Israel and build Moses into a great nation.  Moses is a descendant of Abraham, so this would maintain the earlier promises.  I also noted that the Mosaic Covenant was conditional on the Israelites' obedience, so performing idolatry could be reasonably construed as an annulment of the covenant.  The main reason why I think that God wouldn't do this is the earlier prophecies of Jacob from Gen 49, which are predicated on the existence of the twelve tribes.  However, these prophecies of Jacob are not directly affirmed by the LORD anywhere, so upon reflection I really do believe it's possible the LORD would have destroyed Israel.

Moses intercedes for the people, emphasizing that these are the LORD's people and that it would dishonor the LORD if other peoples saw the Hebrews destroyed.  As a result, the LORD "changed his mind", which is not the first time this has happened (cf. Gen 6:6, the same Hebrew word "nacham").  While philosophers debate whether an omniscient being can change his mind, the bible clearly affirms that he can.

This passage is also frequently used to emphasize the humility of Moses, that he turn down the LORD's offer of greatness and instead intercede for the people who have given him so much trouble in the past (and future).  I think this is true, but doesn't require much elaboration because the text is pretty clear and it's easy to understand what's happening.

Moses made the sons of Israel drink gold water possibly because of its bitter flavor, teaching them the "bitterness of the idolatry they committed", so to speak.  This is just my speculation, as the underlying purpose is clear: Moses is angry, wants to destroy the idol, and force the people to identify with the wrong they have committed.

When Moses challenges Aaron, his immediate response is to shift blame to the people, which is not entirely unreasonable because by the account of verse 1, the people did pressure Aaron to make an idol for them.  However, as the leader of the camp, Aaron was in a position to resist the people.  Even if they killed him for it, it is his responsibility as the second in command and elder of the people who met with God in Ex 24 to refuse to commit idolatry and break the covenant.  It is obvious from verse 2-5 that Aaron fully commits to idolatry, from planning and making the idol to declaring a feast celebrating the idol.  Also, Aaron deflects blame by stating that the idol jumped out of the fire, rather than admitting that he forged it with a graving tool (v. 4).  From Aaron's account, one could almost say he was an innocent victim, for who could have said that this magical golden calf would jump out of the fire when he threw some gold into it?  And the evil people made him do it, anyway.  This mostly reminds me of the various blame-shifting we saw in Gen 3 when Adam and Eve both deflected blame from themselves to another.

For whatever reason, Aaron is not punished for this indiscretion, but the people are punished as Moses commands the Levites to strike down their fellow Israelites.  Moses declares that the Levites are "dedicated" to the LORD, and we will later see what this means (hint: it means they will serve the priests in the ministry of the tabernacle).  Note that Moses and Aaron are from the tribe of Levi, so it is possible that they are banding with him out of their tribal bond to Moses rather than any particular zeal for the LORD.

Moses intercedes for the people again, asking for forgiveness, which the LORD seems to partially grant, not destroying the people entirely but "sm[iting]" them in v. 35.  Yet, there is no more punishment at this time; rather, "in the day when I punish, I will punish them", a darkly ominous promise.

The Levites actions in v. 25-29 notwithstanding, I think we can see a broad picture of 1) the people quickly and unquestioningly return to their idolatrous roots the moment Moses departs, 2) the restraining influence of Moses both on the people, drawing them into the covenant, and on God, restraining God's wrath towards the people, 3) the obvious ineffectiveness of Aaron as Moses's delegated authority, 4) the LORD is obviously hostile to the people's rebellion, yet he allows himself to be restrained by the rather meager prayers of Moses.  This whole episode is yet another instance where we see the prayers of a righteous man saving someone else, in this case, saving many someone elses.  We saw the sacrifice of Noah in Gen 8:20-21 restrain the LORD's wrath that he would never bring a great flood upon the earth again, we saw the prayer of Abraham arouse the LORD's mercy for Lot and "righteous men" of Sodom in Gen 18:22-33, and now we see the prayer of Moses quelling the wrath of the LORD against his rebellious people.

While the most common message I have heard from this chapter is the humility of Moses in refusing personal glory, in my opinion it's just as important to note the impact of Moses's prayer to attain mercy for a people who don't seem to deserve it.  This is especially interesting because Abraham's prayer was for the protection of righteous men, while Moses is praying for the forgiveness of wicked men, a wholly different affair, and it is a prayer that the LORD grants (while punishing the people later in the chapter).  The claimed basis of this protection is the covenant with the patriarchs, and I already analyzed why the covenant could have been maintained through Moses, which leaves us with the honor of the LORD, that killing the people would dishonor him in front of other peoples.

However, I don't believe the LORD changed his mind because of logical persuasion, because God is omniscient and already knew everything that Moses was arguing (this is why philosophers question whether God can change his mind).  Moses offers logical arguments, but we can deduce that logical arguments by definition cannot convince a being who is already familiar with those arguments.  This leaves an alternative hypothesis, which is that God simply respects the opinions and prayers of his people, righteous people (both Noah and Abraham are called righteous) under the covenant, walking in accordance with his ways, and he will literally change what he was planning to do because of the words of these people.

This is derivative from the relational aspect of how God interacts with people, first established back in Gen 3 when it says that God walked in the garden of Eden, but reaffirmed in multiple places since then.  Simply put, because God wishes to relate to the people made in his image, he will speak with them, listen to what they say, and upon request change certain actions or situations to fit their desires.  That's not to say that God will do everything they ask, which I have already noted in this chapter regarding mercy and the punishment of the Israelites, but we also see that God genuinely listened to Moses and his actions reflect Moses's wishes.  This is an immensely powerful principle and is the basis of prayer in Judeo-Christian religions.

If logical arguments do not convince God to do something, then why did Moses try them?  Well, probably because Moses wasn't a philosopher and wasn't gifted with the plentiful analyses that we have today.  :)  In all seriousness, the reasons that Moses lists probably are important to God here, and another reason God wants to hear them from Moses before he changes his mind is so that Moses knows the reasons God is changing his mind.  Remember, while we may think of Moses's prayer as Moses trying to change God's mind, God quite possibly views this prayer as a way for him to change Moses's mind.  In general, that by us praying to God, we would ourselves realize the truth (or in some cases, the falsity) of what we are praying.  Prayer is a two-way street, even if we don't realize it.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 31

In this chapter, the LORD lengthy discourse finally ends with the selection of craftsmen to build all these things and another affirmation of the Sabbath.

The first part of this chapter is the appointment of the skilled craftsmen, Bezalel and Oholiab.  Most of this is just a recap of the various articles that we saw before, and I don't feel any need to comment on it.  One thing I will note is verse 3, when it says that Bezalel is filled with the "Spirit of God" (Hebrew, "ruach Elohim").  This hearkens us back to Genesis 41, when in verse 38 Pharaoh says, "can we find a man like this, in whom is a divine spirit?"  The expression "divine spirit" is also "ruach Elohim", and the NASB translates it inconsistently from here ("divine spirit" vs. "Spirit of God", capitalization in original).  Probably the reason for the inconsistent translation is that the translators felt that Pharaoh could not possibly worship the LORD, and so they wanted to make his question seem more animistic, like he's trying to find someone who is possessed by a tribal spirit to come guide him.  Contrariwise, the LORD is 'obviously' talking about his own spirit in Ex 31.  The NIV takes a slightly different tack on Genesis 41, by quoting Pharaoh as saying "spirit of God", but with a footnote, "or, of the gods", trying to imply Pharaoh's polytheism.  It's a different approach to the same intent: implying to the reader that "Pharaoh is not talking about the real spirit of God".

Nevertheless, the two expressions are the exact same in the Hebrew, so in my opinion it would be proper to translate them both, "spirit of God", which the Message and the NIV both do (with the NIV's footnote not withstanding).  In this regard, I personally disagree with the NASB and agree with the Message and the NIV.

With this in mind, I've heard some commentators say that Bezalel is the first person filled with the spirit of God, and as I stated back in Genesis 41, I disagree.  Joseph appears to be the first person explicitly filled with the spirit of God, and then there are several earlier figures we could argue were implicitly filled with the spirit of God.  Even so, the purpose of such commentators is usually to emphasize the importance of the arts, and I think their point stands even after considering Gen 41.  It is definitely notable that a very obscure craftsman like Bezalel is just as filled with the spirit as the much better known Joseph son of Jacob, who is responsible for saving his entire family from the famine.  Just as Moses is told all of the divine plans for the construction of these various articles, it means nothing to have a divine plan without having a divinely skilled craftsman to carry them out, and that is what we find here.  With a skilled craftsman appointed, an offering taken, and all the construction plans set, we are now ready to build the tabernacle and all its instruments, that the LORD might dwell in his residence amongst the people.

The second part of this chapter is emphasizing the Sabbath once again, that whoever violates it shall (still) be punished by death.  It is called a "sign" here, but what is it a sign of?  It is a sign of the covenant, perhaps, but I think in a deeper sense it is a sign that the Israelites are supposed to emulate the LORD: the Israelites are required to rest on the seventh day, just as the LORD rested on the seventh day.  Man was created in the image of God, and now we can discern that man is supposed to act in a similar way to God as well.  This is an interesting extension of the earlier principle, which I will discuss in the future as we read more relevant passages.

And at last, the LORD is done speaking.  Moses is given the tablets, and we can return to the Hebrew camp to see what has been happening while Moses was gone for 40 days.

Bible Commentary - Exodus 30

In this chapter, the LORD details the construction of the altar of incense, the washing basin, and gives the recipes for the holy anointing oil and incense.

Starting with the altar of incense, we can see that it is going into the tent of meeting, because it is covered with gold.  Verse 6 confirms that it is to be placed "in front of the veil", which I'm fairly sure means that it's in the outer portion, the "holy place", and not the inner portion, the "holy of holies".  The text says the priest has to burn incense every day, but in other places it is stated that the priest only enters the holy of holies once a year, so it could not have been in the holy of holies.  The altar of incense is much smaller than the bronze altar for offerings which is outside of the tabernacle.  This makes sense, because it takes a lot less space to burn some incense than a whole ram.

I think it's interesting that this altar also has horns, and just as the horns of the bigger altar are covered in blood when it is consecrated, the horns of this smaller altar are to be painted with blood once a year.  The only annual sin offering I can think of is the Passover, but that involves the sacrifice of many animals and not just one.  So I am pretty sure v. 10 is referring to a sacrifice which has not yet been instituted (i.e. a slight anachronism).  I believe this sin offering is instituted later in the Pentateuch.

The LORD also institutes "perpetual incense before the LORD throughout your generations," that in parallel with the everburning lampstand, there should be everpresent incense offered on the altar of incense.  There is a third "everpresent" we haven't reached yet, which will relate to the last object in the holy place, the "table of showbread".

These instructions are so specific and so peculiar, pretty much every teacher both Jewish and Christian has their own interpretation of the significance of the incense or the burning lampstand.  I mean, it's as if I commanded someone to plant a big fork in their backyard and to periodically clean it off, except instead of me, it's God.  It's not the sort of thing that naturally suggests a meaning, and yet by its placement in the text and in the biblical traditions, it almost certainly has one.  The cynical or non-religious jump on points like these (much as they jump on other parts of the Pentateuch) as evidence for the irrefutable confusion and meaninglessness of the bible, and yet I believe the complexity and subtlety of the bible gives the lie to the atheists' assertions.

Yet the text here does not state a meaning for these symbols (burning lampstand, burning incense), leaving us somewhat at a loss.  Nevertheless, I am confident in my foreknowledge of the later books of the bible that these symbols will appear again, albeit very infrequently, and when they do, we will be given evidence of their proper interpretation.  I encourage my reader to ponder these symbols and how you interpret them, just as its ancient readers must have pondered them until the days of the NT when we are given some vital clues as to their proper meaning.  The third symbol (related to the table of showbread) will be partially elucidated in Deuteronomy, so we don't have to go as far for that one.

Moving on, the LORD establishes a census tax which is to pay for "the service of the tent of meeting".  Unlike the earlier contribution for the construction of the tabernacle (a one-time offering largely paid for with Egyptian wealth), this is a mandatory tax that is instituted for all generations.  The text doesn't specify what the funds are used for, but we can imagine it includes upkeep and repair, as well as paying for the animal sacrifices, oil for the lampstand, and the burning incense.

The census is called "atonement money", so it appears this is another type of atonement, along with the Passover.  It is also similar to the Passover in that everyone must sacrifice equally.  For the Passover, it was stated that everyone should slaughter lambs in accordance with what they would eat and the number of their household.  Verse 12 also says this is to prevent a "plague" from breaking out when they take a census.  There are two aspects to this.  First, the word "plague" is the same Hebrew, "negeph", as we saw in Ex 11:1 and 12:13 to describe the death of the firstborn.  So just as the Passover was the atonement for the Hebrews during that plague, the offering of atonement money is the "passover" for the Hebrews whenever they perform a census.  The second aspect is that of constraining pride.  Basically, whenever the Israelites perform a census, it is a sort of pride in demonstrating their own strength (in numbers).  Also, it is a kind of challenge to the LORD's promise, that the descendants of Abraham would number as the stars in the sky.  By counting themselves, it's sometimes treated as a challenge to that promise, like the Israelites don't believe the LORD so they want to count and see.  Either way, taking a census is considered risky, and should only be done when accompanied by atonement.

Next the LORD directs the construction of the washing basin.  It is made out of bronze, which is consistent with its position outside of the tabernacle.  That the priests must wash before ministering is similar to earlier commands, like when Moses commanded the people to wash their clothing before meeting the LORD in Ex 19:10, and when the priests were washed before their consecration in Ex 29:4.  In my opinion, the command to wash is a corollary of the earlier command for Moses to remove his shoes when treading on holy ground (Ex 3:5).  As I explained there, you remove your shoes on holy ground because Moses, like all the servants of the LORD, are supposed to be in fellowship and proximity to the LORD.  Moses is called into the cloud on the mountain because he is shielded and healed from the curse of Adam by the Abrahamic covenant.  The holiness that in some ways risks to kill the priests (do this or you will die, do that or you will die) is something that Moses is commanded to walk upon, because his heart is purified and sanctified.

Here, the priests are commanded to wash before ministering to the LORD for the opposite reason: the outside world, the dirt and grime, is not holy, and these influences should be washed away before approaching the LORD.  So on the one hand, the people of God are to walk directly upon holy ground, but on the other hand, they are commanded to wash away the non-holy dirt that accumulates through simply living in a fallen world.

The shekel of the sanctuary, contrary to the earlier "shekel of the merchants" that we saw in Gen 23:16, was considered a fairly reliable standard.  As the name implies, it was established according to a scale in the sanctuary, i.e. the tabernacle.  This becomes the standard unit of currency for essentially the rest of Israel's biblical history, although the measurement of currency is never explicitly ordained by the Law of Moses (or anywhere else in the OT): it's simply a cultural tradition that, as here, is implicitly assumed.

Next, the LORD gives the formula for the "holy anointing oil", which I've heard some people try to explain as metaphors for various things, but I consider it fairly prosaic.  More notable is that Moses is commanded to anoint the tent, the utensils, the altars: everything, really.  This is not the first time we've seen something anointed, and I don't believe I commented on it much before, but this is yet another religious practice (like animal sacrifice, or the construction of altars) that is utilized but never explained in any meaningful way.  This leaves the search for meaning up to the reader, because the author never felt he had to teach his ancient readers what the purpose of anointing is: they simply "knew".

The first instance I can think of is when Jacob poured oil on the rock of Bethel in Gen 28:18.  The LORD calls this "anointing" in Gen 31:13, the Hebrew "mashach", from which we derive the transliterated Messiah, which means "anointed one".  This is the same "mashach" that is present here in verse 26 and a derivative is in verse 25 to describe the "anointing oil" (Hebrew, "mishchah shemen"), and so forth throughout the chapter.  The next place we see anointing is when Aaron and his sons are anointed as priests in Exodus 28:41, and now we are seeing that the entire tabernacle and everything in it should be anointed.  We can also infer from verses 32-33 that there were "common" anointing oils which would be used in normal situations, similar to skin lotion today, both to protect their skin from the desert and for cosmetic reasons.  We will see this appear later in the bible when covering oneself in oil is a sign of joy or normalcy.

In this case, and in the prior instances of Jacob and Aaron, the use of anointing oil is only religious, with a general theme of consecration.  The idea is that Jacob consecrated the rock as a future "pillar in the house of God" and Aaron and his sons are consecrated for the ministry of the priesthood.  Here, not only is the oil used for sacred purposes, but the oil mixture itself is to be considered sacred.  And from a humorous perspective, I might note that this is the world's first instance of intellectual property, because what is protected here is not the physical oil, but the recipe for the oil.

So while it's clear that the purpose of anointing is to consecrate something for religious service, it's not clear to me why anointing is the act to do that.  While it's easy to discern the symbolic meaning of "anointing oil" in the biblical text, it's not as clear to me why the intrinsic act of anointing would hold this meaning.  One could hypothetically ponder, what if it were "splash with water" instead of "anoint with oil"?  All of the internal references would still be consistent, but now it's water instead of oil: would this change the meaning of the text?

I suppose referencing oil could be an analogy to preservation, that the oil is supposed to preserve whatever is anointed from damage, just as anointing one's skin preserves it from dryness?  But I'm not sure how I can relate that back to consecration.  Maybe I will back-edit an explanation into this post later, because I can't think of anything interesting right now.

The incense is similar to the anointing oil in its description.  In this case, the primary attribute is most likely the smell, but again it's not clear to me why this has religious significance.