The People of God: Holiness (Part 1)


This is the third set of articles in the series “The People of God”. The first two dealt with the topics of “Israel as God’s People” (Part 1, 2, 3, 4) and “The Covenant” (Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

The primary characteristic of the People of God is holiness. This is especially clear from a number of declarations (by YHWH) presented in the Torah, as in Leviticus 11:44-45:

“For I, YHWH, am your Mighty (One) [<yh!l)a$], and (so) you shall make yourselves holy [vb vd^q*], and (so) you shall be holy [<yv!d)q=]—for I am holy [vodq*]…. For I (am) YHWH, the (One) having brought you up from (the) land of Egypt, (in order) to be for you (your) Mighty (One) [<yh!l)a$], and (so) you shall be holy [<yv!d)q=], for I am holy [vodq*].”

This is summarized in the terser, and more famous, directive in Lev 19:2:

“You shall be holy, for I, YHWH, your Mighty (One), am holy.”

Because the People of God are God’s people, they are to share His fundamental (and central) attribute of holiness. In Lev 11:44-45 above, both the verb vd^q* and the related adjective vodq* are used. Thus, we can see that the root vdq represents the principal word-group in the Hebrew Old Testament (and in ancient Israelite thought) used to express the idea of holiness. It is important to begin our study with an examination of this word-group.

The RooT QDŠ

First, it is interesting to note that the root qdš (vdq), both in ancient Hebrew and the other Semitic languages, is used almost exclusively in a sacred or religious context; there is very little evidence for ordinary ‘secular’ usage. This is problematic for scholars who wish to assign it an original meaning of “cut” or “separate”. While vdq can, at times, carry the specific meaning of “set apart” (i.e., separate), this seems to be secondary, as a result of the more primary meaning “(be) clean, pure”. That which is pure, and which must remain pure, is to be set apart for this purpose. This secondary meaning covers the entire realm of the sacred, both from a religious and ritual standpoint (cf. the three aspects of holiness outlined down below) within society. That is to say, certain places, objects, and people are set apart and treated as holy.

As we see from the declarations in Lev 11:44-45 and 19:2 (above), purity or holiness is a fundamental attribute of God. The people are to be pure and holy because YHWH, their God, is pure and holy. This theological point is expressed throughout the Old Testament Scriptures—see, for example, Exod 15:11; Josh 24:19; 1 Sam 2:2; 6:20; Job 6:10; Psalm 22:3; 60:6; 77:13; 99:3, 5, 9; Prov 9:10; Isa 5:16; 6:3. The substantive adjective “Holy (One)” (vodq*), used as a Divine title, is relatively common, and obviously reflects the fundamental Divine attribute of holiness—cf. Job 6:10; Isa 40:25; 43:15; Ezek 39:7; Hos 11:9, 12; Hab 1:12; 3:3. Particularly important is the use of this title in the expression “Holy (One) of Israel”, which occurs frequently in the book of Isaiah (1:4; 5:19; 10:20; 12:6, et al), and is attested throughout the Scriptures—cf. 2 Kings 19:22; Psalm 71:22; 78:41; 89:18; Jer 50:29; 51:5. Only rarely is the title “holy one” used of lesser heavenly (angelic) beings or a (consecrated) human being (Num 16:7; Psalm 16:10 [in its original context]; 106:16; Dan 4:13, 23; 8:13. There are examples of a cognate divine title (Qudšu) in Canaanite, used to represent a particular female deity (goddess), similarly emphasizing her holiness (cf. Cross, pp. 33-5).

Holiness: The Realm of the Sacred

Obviously, the longer title “Holy (One) of Israel”, noted above, captures the unique relationship between YHWH and Israel—He being their God, and they being His people (i.e. the People of God). The key declarations in the Torah clearly express this. In addition to Leviticus 11:44-45 and 19:2 (cf. above), we may note: Exod 19:5-6; Lev 20:7, 26; Deut 7:6; 14:2, 21; 26:19; 28:9. The Deuteronomic treatment of this theme will be discussed at a later point in this set of articles.

If YHWH, as God, is holy, then everything associated with Him is (and must be) holy as well. His name is holy (Lev 20:3, etc; 1 Chron 16:10; 22:19; 29:16; Psalm 30:4, and with some frequency in the Psalms; Isa 29:23; 57:15; Ezek 20:39; 36:20-23; 39:7, etc; Amos 2:7). The place where He dwells is holy—both in heaven (Deut 26:15, etc), and in his symbolic/ritual dwelling-place on earth among human beings (His people). The idea of the holy mountain of His dwelling rests midway between these two concepts—heavenly and earthly dwellings. The Temple locale, on the hilltop site of Zion, fulfills this sacred mountain typology at the local level (cf. Psalm 2:6; 3:4; 15:1; 24:3; 44:3, etc). The Temple sanctuary, like that of the earlier Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) is called the vd*q=m! (“holy place”), the –m preformative indicating a location or place (Exod 25:8, et al); the noun vd#q) (“holiness”) can also have a similar locative meaning (“holy place”), Exod 26:33ff; 36:1, etc. The innermost shrine of the sanctuary, where the Golden Chest (Ark) that represented the dwelling-place (and throne) of YHWH resided, was called the “holy (place) of the holy (place)s” (<yv!d*Q(h^ vd#q))—an idiomatic syntax that carries a superlative meaning, i.e., “the holiest place” (Exod 26:33-34, etc).

The maintenance of the symbolic/ritual dwelling of YHWH among His people—that is, in the sanctuary (“holy place”) of the Tent-shrine (and later Temple)—required an ‘apparatus of holiness’ to match that of the holy dwelling-place itself. Everything associated with the shrine had to be set apart and consecrated (i.e., made holy). For this reason, the vdq word-group—verb, adjective and noun(s)—occurs scores of times within the Torah regulations, documented in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. Every object and utensil, the altars, the curtains and framework of the building itself—all of it had to be consecrated. Similarly, those who are to serve and work in the shrine—the sacred officials (priests) and related ministers—all had to be consecrated; for the priests, this meant both their person and their garments had to be made holy.

Moreover, it was necessary that this level of holiness be maintained, throughout the operation of the shrine, requiring a related set of purity restrictions and regulations. That which applied to the priests in this regard, however, was simply an extension of the purity regulations that applied to the people as a whole. This principle is expressed at a number of points in the Torah. For example, there is the key declaration in Exodus 19:6, in connection with the establishment of the covenant at Sinai:

“And you shall be for me a kingdom of sacred officials [i.e. priests] and a holy [vodq*] nation”

The entire kingdom and nation is essentially required (by YHWH) to function like priests ministering the “holy things” of God. As we proceed in our study, this requirement of holiness for the People of God will be broken out into three main areas, or aspects:

    • Ritual—the need to maintain ritual purity, particularly in connection with the sacred domain centered around the sanctuary of the Tent-shrine (and Temple). Many of the Torah regulations deal directly with this idea of ritual purity.
    • Ethical—i.e., holiness as expressed in socio-religious terms, through proper conduct and behavior.
    • Spiritual—though specific use of the term “spirit” (j^Wr) is generally lacking in the holiness-references, the basic concept has it parallel in the idea of the heart, i.e., the willingness of the people to fulfill the requirements of the covenant, and the obligations associated with living out their identity as God’s people.

In the next study (Part 2), representative passages, primarily from the Torah/Pentateuch, will be examined in relation to all three of these aspects of holiness outlined above.

References above marked “Cross” are to Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard University Press: 1973).


The People of God: The Covenant (Part 5)

Exodus 32-34 (continued)

In our discussion in Part 4 of this article, on chapters 32-34 in the book of Exodus, three primary themes, or motifs, were identified in chap. 32:

    • The role of Moses as leader and representative of the people before YHWH
    • The identity of Israel as the people of YHWH, and
    • The violation and invalidation of the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and His people

These same themes are developed in the narrative in chapters 33-34. The historical traditions, however they were incorporated into the original narrative, serve this purpose in the book as it has come down to us. As a result, certain details and peculiarities in the text, which might be analyzed variously from the standpoint of historical and source criticism (see again the discussion in Part 4), finally take on a distinctive narrative (and theological) coloring which must be examined carefully. This exegetical survey is intended to point the way toward such a study.

With the dissolution of the covenant agreement, as narrated in chap. 32, a new situation maintains, which is indicated at the beginning of chap. 33 (verses 1-6). This may be summarized as follows:

    • Israel was God’s people
    • With the invalidation of the covenant, they are no longer treated as His people; indeed, it is God’s intention to establish a new covenant, with Moses (32:10) and his descendants
    • Through Moses’ intercession there is a partial restoration (vv. 11-14)

At the start of chapter 33, Israel is still not regarded as God’s people. Note the language YHWH uses in speaking to Moses in verse 1:

“Go, go up from this (place), you and the people which you brought up from the land of Egypt…”

It is Moses, not YHWH, who “brought up” the people from Egypt. This almost certainly reflects the violation of the covenant, as echoed in the wording of 32:1. In place of Moses, the people seek for a different sort of tangible indication of God’s presence—namely, the Golden calf:

“Stand (up and) make for us God(s) which will go before us; for, see, this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has come to be for him [i.e. what has happened to him]!”

This wording is repeated in the exclamation at the creation of the Golden Calf: “These are your Gods, (O) Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (v. 4). Even so, there has been a partial restoration of the covenant; certainly, YHWH will honor the agreement established with Abraham, regarding the promised Land (33:1-3a, see Gen 15) and the protection which He is obligated to provide for Abraham’s descendants on their journey to the Land. However, He will not travel or reside in the midst of the people (vv. 3b, 5), a detail which would otherwise be fundamental to the identity of Israel as His people (and He as their God). In vivid description, this announcement leads to mourning on the part of the people (vv. 4, 6). It also establishes the setting for verses 12ff, which are preceded by the (historical) tradition included here at vv. 7-11. It is important to examine briefly the way this tradition is utilized within the narrative.

A detail often neglected by commentators is that the Tent described in vv. 7-11 is set up outside the camp. While it is possible that, originally, this was a neutral indication of the tent’s location (note the wording in v. 7), in the context of the narrative, it can only mean that YHWH is forced to meet with Moses away from the people, since he can no longer reside among them due to their violation of the covenant. This serves to deepen Moses’ role as the people’s representative before God. The encounter on Sinai, which took place in the general vicinity of the people at large, now becomes an entirely private event. The same dark cloud, which indicated the presence of YHWH at the top of Mt. Sinai, now descends, in less dramatic form, to appear at the entrance of the Tent, where God would meet/speak with Moses. Even though the people could still see the tent, and the cloud, they were cut off from the event (this is true even of Joshua, though he was within the tent itself, v. 11).

In verses 12-23, following the setting established by the tradition in vv. 7-11, Moses intercedes again for the people (vv. 12-13). YHWH agrees to lead the camp in its travels, which partially mitigates his earlier refusal to dwell among the people. At the same time, the people are brought closer to God from a different direction—through Moses’ request in verse 13 that he more completely reflect the presence of YHWH for the people: “Let me know your way(s) and know You…”. This is expressed again, in even more daring form, in verse 18: “Let me see your weight [db)K*]!” The Hebrew word db)K* (k¹»œd), which I have rendered literally as “weight” (i.e. “worth, value”), is often used in the more abstract, figurative sense of “honor”, especially the honor one ought to show to God. When used of God, the term can also refer to His manifest Presence; it is customarily translated “glory” in most English versions. An example of such a Theophany is the vision accorded Moses and the elders/leaders of Israel in 24:9-11 (“they saw the God of Israel…”, v. 10). As previous discussed, this was related to the initial establishment of the covenant, just as with its re-establishment here. Moses is apparently asking for an even more direct and personal revelation by YHWH. This Presence had otherwise been covered by the dark cloud during Moses’ previous encounters. What is most significant, in context, is that YHWH does not appear to the people this time, but only to Moses—the theophany is given to him alone.

At this point in the narrative, there is also a theological transformation (and deepening) of the ancient Theophany motif (i.e. the storm cloud). YHWH promises to Moses a vision of His Presence which is not direct—i.e., not the face (hn#P* [plur. <yn]P*])—but which reveals it from behind (roja*, that which follows or comes after). This entirely unique mode of revelation is characterized by four components or attributes, which really can be distilled into two aspects of a single dynamic:

    • God speaking/calling to Moses with the Name [YHWH]
    • God revealing “all (his) good(ness) [bof]”
      • Showing (all of his) favor
      • Displaying (all of his) compassion

While this is referred to in terms of a vision, when the moment comes in the narrative it is described in terms of the spoken word. There can be no doubt, however, that the declaration in 34:6-7 is to be understood as the fundamental revelation of YHWH’s presence from within the dark cloud (v. 5). Even more important, from the standpoint of the narrative, is that this theological message is central to the idea of the restoration of the covenant in chapters 34ff. The Presence of God becomes transferred and accessible to the people through the ministry of Moses.

In Exod 34:1-9, there is a new Theophany on Sinai, but with several important differences from the previous encounter. This time Moses is to ascend entirely alone—there should be no one on or near the mountain at all (vv. 1-3). Moreover, special emphasis is given to the new set of stone tablets which were carved out by Moses (vv. 1, 4). In obedience, Moses follows this directive and encounters YHWH (vv. 4-9). The promised revelation, as noted above, is described as a spoken declaration, centered on the utterance of the Divine Name YHWH (hwhy), vv. 6-7. The encounter reaches its climax with Moses’ request that YHWH take the people again as His own. And, indeed, in verses 10-26, God responds by establishing the covenant again with Israel, after which they are once again regarded as His people (compare with v. 10). There are, however, some important points of difference with this second covenant, as expressed through details often overlooked by commentators.

    • First, it is a covenant with Israel and with Moses (v. 27, Moses’ name is given first). This indicates the enhanced role of Moses in ministering the covenant, and in communicating God’s word and presence to the people.
    • Second, the same basic idea is indicated by the difference in the character of the stone tablets which provide the written basis of the agreement. The first covenant was written on the tablets by the finger of God (31:18; 32:16); by contrast, the second is said specifically to be written by Moses (34:27-28). Some commentators are inclined to gloss over this apparent difference, or to attribute it simply to differences in the underlying traditions. While the latter is certainly possible, in my view it does not change the meaning of the difference in the overall narrative as we have it.

The remainder of chapter 34 further emphasizes, in vivid and dramatic fashion, the mediatorial role of Moses. The Divine Presence is marked and reflected on Moses’ own person (rays of light from his face), visibly and symbolically, as he descends from Mt. Sinai (vv. 29-30). In this glorified condition he communicates God’s instruction (Torah) to the people (vv. 31-33), a process which is repeated at regular points, at least until the Torah is complete and the communal Tent of Meeting (Tabernacle) is built. Indeed, within the narrative structure and setting, this Torah (35:1-3) leads into specific instruction regarding the building of the Tent, through which the people would come to encounter YHWH. This is unquestionably meant as a parallel to the Tent “outside the camp” which only Moses would enter (34:34-35). After the great new Tent is established, God’s Presence fills it (40:34), effectively taking Moses’ place as the one who communicated the Presence to the people (v. 35). Here the Presence of YHWH would reside with Israel through all of the people’s travels (vv. 36-38).

Paul recognizes the significance of Moses’ role as mediator of the Sinai covenant, and how the covenant bond between YHWH and Israel was experienced (by the people) only through the presence of God reflected in the person of Moses. He draws upon this very point in a most powerful way in 2 Corinthians 3, using the ancient tradition to establish a contrast between the Sinai covenant and the new covenant (of the Spirit) for believers in Christ. The contrast was fundamental to the early Christian understanding of the identity of believers as the people of God. Which is not to say that there were not serious disputes regarding the role of the Torah (and the old covenant) in this new religious identity, as Paul’s own letters testify. I have discussed the subject at great length in the series The Law and the New Testament (cf. especially the articles on “Paul’s View of the Law”), and will do so again later on in this current series.

The People of God: The Covenant (Part 4)

Exodus 32-34

In Part 3 of this article, we examined the covenant scene in Exodus 24, pointing out along the way the place of this episode in the structure of the book as a whole. The entire second half of the book, chapters 19-40, involves the idea of the binding agreement (covenant) established between God and his people at Mt. Sinai. From the standpoint of the narrative of the Pentateuch (or, at least the Tetrateuch, Genesis–Numbers), this extends to encompass the entire book of Leviticus and the opening chapters of Numbers (up to 10:10)—all of which is set at Sinai.

Chapters 32-33 (+ 34:1-9) of the book of Exodus have a special place in this narrative structure, set between two blocks of legal material (instruction, Torah), 20:1-23:33; 25:1-31:17 and 34:10-40:15. At the same time, there have been numerous critical questions surrounding these passages, which continue to be studied and debated in earnest today. Because of the importance of Exod 32:1-34:9 in understanding the place of the Sinai covenant in early Israelite tradition, it is worth devoting an extended critical study to this passage. We may divide this study into the different areas of Biblical criticism:

    1. Textual Criticism
    2. Source Criticism
    3. Historical Criticism
    4. Exegetical analysis of the received Text

1. Textual Criticism

Generally speaking, the text of the Pentateuch is consistent and secure, as compared with other portions of Scripture. The numerous Dead Sea manuscripts tend to confirm the later Masoretic Text (MT), with a few notable exceptions, one of which is the ‘paleo-Hebrew’ manuscript from Qumran labeled 4QpaleoExodm. This (fragmentary) copy of the book of Exodus covers the material spanning from 6:25 to 37:16. The text of this manuscript differs from the MT at a number of points, where it tends to agree with the Samaritan Pentateuch (against the MT). The differences are relatively minor, but they are significant enough to allow us to regard the manuscript as representing a distinct recension, or version, of the text. It appears to be the recension which, with some adaptation, was used by the Samaritans in their version of the Pentateuch. There is a particular example from our passage (Exod 32-34):

Exodus 32:10-11

The Masoretic Text (MT), following the BHS/Westminster critical editions, reads (in translation):

(YHWH speaking to Moses): “And now, bring rest to me [i.e. let me alone], and my anger [lit. nostril] will burn on [i.e. against] them and I will consume them, and I will make you to (be) a great nation!” And Moshe (trie)d to soften the face of YHWH his God, and said (to him), “For what [i.e. why], (O) YHWH, does your anger burn on your people…?”

Now, note the reading of 4QpaleoExodm, in agreement with the Samaritan text:

(YHWH speaking to Moses): “And now, bring rest to me [i.e. let me alone], and my anger [lit. nostril] will burn on [i.e. against] them and I will consume them, and I will make you to (be) a great nation!” And with Aharon YHWH was very angry, (enough) to destroy him, but Moshe interceded on behalf of Aharon. And Moshe (trie)d to soften the face of YHWH his God, and said (to him), “For what [i.e. why], (O) YHWH, does your anger burn on your people…?”

The portion in bold italics is not present in the MT. In such an instance, we must consider whether the longer text is original or represents an addition (interpolation). In this particular case, it is unlikely that the longer text is the result of an accident (copying mistake); nor can the shorter text be explained as an obvious mistake (omission). If, on the other hand, the change was at least partly intentional, then we must consider how or why it was made. The arguments cut both ways:

    • The longer text could be explained by the fact that the shorter text, if original, does not really record any reaction by God against Aaron, nor punishment, for his specific role in the Golden Calf incident; scribes thus might have been inclined to add such a detail, whether from authentic tradition or as a pious invention.
    • Scribes may also have been inclined to minimize Aaron’s role in the sin of the Golden Calf, and to eliminate specific details which cast him in too bad a light (esp. in comparison with Moses). This would be an argument in favor of the longer text.

It is not possible to make a definite determination on these grounds (though I tend to favor the shorter text at Exod 32:10-11a). In such cases, where there is corroborating evidence from Qumran to support either the Samaritan Pentateuch or the Greek Version(s), against the MT, we ought to give it serious consideration in our study.

2. Source Criticism

According to the common critical analysis of the Pentateuch (the so-called Documentary Hypothesis), Exodus 32-34 is a composite, made up of at least three distinct strands (or sources):

    • The core narrative of 32:1-33:23, usually assigned to the “E” (Elohist) source
    • The appearance of YHWH to Moses (34:1a, 2-13) and a parallel version of the Ten Commandments (34:14-28 [cp. 20:1-17]), assigned to the “J” (Jahwist/Yahwist) source
    • A layer of editing and additional material, referred to as the “Priestly” (P) layer or source—31:18; [34:1b]; 34:29-35ff (to the end of the book).

Interestingly, the “E” source was so labeled based on its presumed preference for the divine name Elohim over Yahweh (YHWH). However, chapters 32-33 consistently use YHWH throughout, the only exception being in 32:16. In this instance, the critical theory is more properly based on the presence of “doublet” traditions (two ascents by Moses, two sets of tablets, two versions of the Decalogue, etc), as well as historical considerations (see below). Traditional-conservative commentators, while often respectful of these analyses based on the Documentary Hypothesis, tend to accept the text at face value, as a unified composition reflecting authentic historical tradition throughout. Even so, there are a number of apparent inconsistencies and peculiarities which require explanation. It is certainly possible to recognize the presence of various traditions which have been brought together in the narrative, without necessarily adopting the Documentary Hypothesis as a whole.

3. Historical Criticism

There are two aspects to what we call historical criticism: (1) analysis of the historical background of the text as we have it (including when it was authored, etc), and (2) consideration of the historicity of the events and traditions contained in the text. Both aspects have been somewhat controversial over the years, in the case of the Pentateuch, on the basis of two factors: (a) the detailed critical studies and hypotheses which indicate many different and varied traditions, and (b) the strong tradition identifying Moses as the effective author/source of the books. Students and scholars who adopt (or insist on) extreme positions regarding either of these two factors, in my view, end up distorting or neglecting important pieces of evidence related to the text. Let us briefly consider several critical approaches to Exod 32-34:

a. The blending of contrary or opposing traditions

Commentators who recognize different, distinct strands of tradition in the text, often claim that these are contrary or opposed to one another, in various ways. This may include:

    • Different wording or formulation of a tradition, such as in the two “versions” of the Decalogue—20:1-17 (usually assigned to “P”) and 34:14-28 (“J”).
    • Geographical distinctions—esp. interests of the Northern kingdom (Shechem, Bethel, Mushite priesthood), compared with those of the South (Jerusalem, the Temple, the Davidic legacy, Aaronid priesthood). The presumed source documents “E” and “J” are often thought to come from the North and South, respectively.
    • Religious and theological differences—e.g., the northern Bethel cultus vs. that of the Jerusalem (Temple), cherub-throne (the Ark) vs. bull-throne, the position of the priestly lines of Aaron and Moses, specific traditions associated with the religious centers of Gilgal, Shiloh, Shechem, etc.

As just one example, it is often thought that the Golden Calf episode in chapter 32, along with Aaron’s involvement in the incident (vv. 1-5, 10-11 v.l., 21-24f), is intended as a (Northern) polemic against the religious establishment of Jeroboam (at the sites of Bethel and Dan, etc). There can be no doubt that an intentional parallel is at work. All one has to do is to consider the basic iconography (of the bull) and the words used to introduce it:

“These are your Gods, (O) Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (Exod 32:4, cf. also verse 8) “See, your Gods, (O) Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (1 Kings 12:28)

How should this parallel be explained? There are two main possibilities:

    • The declaration in 1 Kings 12:28, and/or the golden bulls of Jeroboam’s religious establishment themselves, are meant to reflect the earlier Exodus tradition.
    • The Exodus scene of the Golden Calf reflects the later development by Jeroboam, being projected back into the time of Moses and the Exodus. At the very least, one might say that the Exodus narrative has been shaped (its wording, etc) in light of the later history.
b. The tendency to include traditions with variant details

Apparent discrepancies in detail do not necessarily mean that traditions are unreliable or inaccurate. However one views the composition of the Pentateuch, the author/editor(s) of the books as they have come down to us has included many different traditions, and narratives, which seem to result in certain inconsistencies. Consider, for example, the shifts in setting and emphasis in chapters 32-34, which do not always flow smoothly in the text:

    • The details surrounding the Golden Calf, including the fact that it seems to be understood as representing both distinct “gods” (i.e. separate from YHWH), and YHWH himself (his throne?)—32:1, 4, 5-6
    • The different expressions of God’s anger, judgment, and the punishment of the people (with multiple intercessions by Moses), without a clear sense of how they relate to each other in the course of the narrative—(these will be discussed in the last section of this study [#4]). In particular, Aaron does not seem to face any definite punishment for his role in the Golden Calf incident (see above).
    • The differing descriptions of what God says to Moses on the mountain, and how it relates to what Moses writes, and to what is written on the “two tablets” of stone—24:3-4; 31:18; 32:15-16; 34:1-5, 28-29, etc.
    • In this regard, there are also some interesting repetitions in the sections of legal instruction (Torah)—examine the passages closely, 25:1-31:17; 34:10-35:3ff, as well as the earlier “book of the Covenant” (20:22-23:23).
    • Certain apparent inconsistencies regarding where/how God appears to Moses, etc—chap. 19; 20:18ff; 24:1-18; 33:7ff, 17-23; 34:5ff, 29ff.

Our modern ideals of composition would perhaps require a bit more clarity, harmonizing and smoothing out of details in these various episodes and traditions. The ancient author (and/or editor[s]) did not compose and shape the text in quite this way. We must consider that the apparent rough edges and inconsistencies are intentional, meant to bring out certain details and aspects of the narrative which might otherwise be overlooked.

c. The unifying structure of the narrative

A number of the discrepancies or inconsistencies mentioned above, however one chooses to judge them from the standpoint of source– and historical-criticism (see the discussion above), can be explained, in large measure, when one considers carefully the structure of the narrative as it has come down to us. In this regard, the “doublet” and repeating elements, far from being problematic, are actually vital to a proper understanding of the narrative. Consider the basic outline:

    • Moses ascends Mount Sinai and receives instruction (Torah) from God, which includes material written down on two stone tablets (i.e. the covenant)—24:15-31:18
      • The people violate the covenant and Moses descends—chaps. 32-33
    • Moses re-ascends Mount Sinai and (again) receives instruction (Torah) from God, including that written down on two stone tablets (the covenant)—34:1-28
      • Moses descends and the covenant with the people is re-established34:29-35:1ff

The simplicity of this outline masks a richly-detailed structure of motifs and associations, particular points of emphasis, and the like. This is part of the uniquely inspired character of the text which cannot be reduced merely to questions of historicity.

4. Exegetical analysis of the Received Text

This wider view relates to the area of Biblical Criticism called literary criticism—analysis of the passage as part of a written text and literary document, examining its structure, points of emphasis, its themes, and the images and concepts which reflect the story and message with the author wishes to communicate.

In approaching Exodus 32-34 within the context of the second half of the book (chaps. 19-40), the first point to note is the way that narrative alternates with a record of legal material. The latter is more properly presented within the narrative framework as instruction (laws, regulations, precepts) which God (YHWH) gives to the people, through Moses. This is reflected in the Hebrew word (tôrâ, hr*ot) which traditionally is used to refer to this material, and which gives its name to the Pentateuch as a whole (Torah). We can see how this torah dominates the second half of the book, being recorded in four main sections, as indicated in the following outline (torah marked by asterisks):

    • Introduction: The people at Mt. Sinai—Preparation for the appearance of YHWH (chap. 19)
      —The role of Moses as intermediary between YHWH and the people (vv. 14-25)
    • Part 1: The covenant is established at Sinai (20:1-24:11)
      —The Decalogue*: YHWH speaks to the people (20:1-14)
      —Moses functions as intermediary/representative for the people (20:15-23)
      —The Book of the Covenant*: YHWH speaks to Moses (21:1-23:33)
      —Ratification of the covenant (24:1-11)
    • Part 2: The ceremonial/ritual dimension of the covenant (24:12-31:18)
      —Moses ascends Sinai (24:12-18)
      —Religious instruction*, regarding the Tabernacle, etc (25:1-31:17)
      —The two tablets of the covenant (31:18)
    • Intermediary: The covenant is abolished (chaps. 32-33)
      —Moses descends Sinai
    • Part 3: The covenant is re-established at Sinai (34:1-28)
      —Moses ascends Sinai again (34:1-9)
      —Second ‘Book of the Covenant’* (34:10-27)
      —The two tablets of the covenant (34:28)
    • Intermediary: The restored covenant (34:29-35)
      —Moses descends Sinai
    • Part 4: The ceremonial/ritual dimension of the covenant (chaps 35-39)
      Religious instruction*, regarding the Tabernacle, etc
    • Conclusion: The people at Sinai—Preparation for the presence of YHWH (chap. 40)
      —Moses’ role of leadership in preparing the Tabernacles, etc (vv. 1-33)

There is a thematic symmetry to this structure, and to the character of the Torah, as it relates to the establishment of the binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and his people:

    • Establishment of the covenant—Moses ascends Mt. Sinai
      • Theophany—Appearance of YHWH (chap. 20)
      • The “Book of the Covenant” (21:1-33)
      • Religious instruction—the Tabernacle (25:1-31:17)
      • The two tablets of the covenant (31:18)
    • Re-establishment of the covenant—Moses ascends Mt. Sinai
      • Theophany—Appearance of YHWH (34:1-9)
      • Second ‘Book of the Covenant’ (34:10-27)
      • Religious instruction—the Tabernacle (35:1ff)
      • The two tablets of the covenant (34:28)

The Torah itself may be summarized two ways, according to two fundamental aspects:

    1. The regulations and precepts which are to govern Israelite society, and their identity as God’s chosen people; and,
    2. As the terms of the binding agreement (covenant) between God and his people; in written form (the two tablets, etc) it provides the legal basis for the agreement. Transgression of the torah represents more than violation of a law or regulation; it means the violation of the agreement itself, which entailed very specific punishment, tied to the ritual image of cutting (dismembered animals, circumcision, sacrificial offering [with blood])—the one who violates the covenant will similarly be “cut off”.

Any attempt to understand and interpret the legal material in the book of Exodus, without keeping this connection with the covenant clearly in view, will be doomed to failure. It is absolutely essential to the thematic structure and message of the book. You may wish to review our study of the covenant episodes in Genesis 15, 17, and Exodus 24, in Parts 1, 2, and 3. Indeed, it is the idea of the covenant, or binding agreement (Heb. tyr!B=, b§rî¾), which governs the intermediate scenes in chapters 32-33—the episode of the Golden Calf, and its aftermath, marking abrogation of the covenant. Let us examine briefly these chapters, along with the following chap. 34, in light of this overriding theme. Several aspects come to the fore:

    • The tension involved in Moses as the leader/representative of the people
    • The identity of Israel as God’s people, which is central to the covenant
    • The violation and abrogation of the covenant, and what this entails

1. Moses as the people’s representative

Problematic from the beginning is the people’s dependence on Moses as their representative, serving as an intermediary before God. It is they who request that God speak to Moses, and no longer directly to them (20:16-18), and it is thus only Moses who ascends all the way up the mountain to the place where God’s presence is (24:12-18). This sets the stage for the Golden Calf episode (32:1). The people feared to hear God’s voice, and now they begin to fear what may have happened to their leader and representative. During the 40 days and nights when Moses is on the mountain, the people are without contact with God; implicit in this condition is that it becomes a time of testing. Indeed, this provides the psychological basis for their violation of the covenant (vv. 2ff)—they seek a tangible sign of God’s presence, which, inadvertently, it would seem, leads to idolatry and the worship of “other” gods.

The Calf itself, in its historical context and background, almost certainly is to be understood as representing the seat (or throne) of God’s presence, much like the winged figures of the golden Ark. It is, however, a fine line between the creation of such images, and a perversion of true worship. This is a theme which runs through virtually the entire Old Testament, and helps to explain the centrality of the first command(s) in the Decalogue (20:3-5a, see also 34:17). It is the command in 20:4-5 which is violated initially; but the declaration in 32:3 (“These are your gods…”, also v. 8) effectively results in a violation of the first command in 20:3 as well. The words of YHWH in v. 8 reflect his anger over how quickly the agreement was violated, and with the very first words of the Torah.

2. The identity of Israel as God’s people

Verse 10 introduces the idea that God will destroy the people—death/destruction being the punishment for violating the covenant. He intends to start over with Moses, replacing Abraham and his descendants (see the covenant episodes in Gen 15 and 17, etc). Violation of the covenant essentially invalidates this identity of a people belonging to God, who submit to his authority and have established a reciprocal relationship with him. Indeed, in verse 7, God refers to them as Moses‘ people (“your people”, see above on Moses as the people’s representative), no longer referring to them as his own people (v. 9). Moses, however, intercedes for them with God (i.e. the other side of his role as intermediary), requesting that YHWH continue to regard them as His people (vv. 11ff), and this identity seems to be restored, at least in part, in verse 14. There it is stated that YHWH ‘relaxed’ himself over the “evil” (i.e. punishment, destruction) which he was going to do to “His people”. This theme, and the tension involved with it, continues into chapter 33.

3. The violation and abolishment of the Covenant

Even though God may have decided to soften the punishment against the people, the agreement established with them has been invalidated and is over. The breaking of the tablets (v. 19) makes this absolutely clear, according to ancient Near Eastern tradition and practice; e.g., see the Akkadian expression “break the tablet” (tuppam —epû). Still, it is a lesser punishment which is to be administered, in several stages:

    • The people drink water containing powder from the Golden Calf after it was burned down (v. 20). This is presumably for a ritual ordeal to identify the guilty (see the parallel in Num 5:12-31).
    • Once the guilty are identified, they are “consecrated” for destruction and are put to death (vv. 27-29)
    • Apparently, there is also a punishment inflicted on the people through disease (v. 35), though this is stated very briefly, and the exact relation to the events described in the prior verses is uncertain.

Thus, it is not the people as a whole who receive the punishment of (immediate) death/destruction, but only the specific individuals who are guilty. This important religious principle, which would come up again at various points in the Old Testament, is emphasized in Moses’ second encounter with God (vv. 33-34).

The invalidation of God’s agreement (covenant) with Israel suddenly leaves the narrative at an impasse. The dramatic tension of the scene becomes even more evident in chapter 33, where all the themes from the Golden Calf episode are developed in a unique way, drawing perhaps from a separate line of tradition. In Part 5, we will be continuing this thematic and exegetical examination of the powerful narrative of Exod 32-34. In particular, close attention will be paid to the dialogue between Moses and YHWH, and how this relates to the covenant theme of the narrative.

The People of God: The Covenant (Part 3)

Exodus 24:1-11

In Parts 1 and 2 of this article, we examined the covenant-scenes in Genesis 15 and 17, which are foundational for an understanding of the concept of covenant (literally, binding agreement) in the Old Testament. To this we add a third key passage, the covenant episode at mount Sinai in Exodus 24. Actually, this covenant theme covers the entire second half of the book, beginning with chapter 19 and God’s manifestation (theophany) at Sinai. God appears to the people, just as he did to Abraham in Gen 15 and 17. The principal narrative in chapter 20 can be divided into two parts:

    • God speaks to the people, i.e. to the leaders (vv. 1-14), and then
    • God speaks to Moses as their representative (vv. 15-18ff)

This sets forth the agreement between God and the people Israel (Abraham’s descendants). The “ten words” (20:1-14) and the laws/regulations in 20:19-23:33 represent the terms of the covenant—that is, the binding obligation which the people are to fulfill. This material is called the “account of the agreement” (tyr!b=h^ rp#s@ s¢pher hab®rî¾, 24:7, i.e. “book of the covenant”). The legal basis of this agreement requires that it be established in writing. The agreement itself is finalized (ratified) by the ritual ceremony in chapter 24.

Here, in Exodus 24:1-11, the people promise to fulfill their part of the agreement; indeed, the binding obligation in this instance is only on one party—stated in 19:8 and repeated in 24:3 (and again in v. 7):

    • “All (the words) which YHWH has (said by) word/mouth (to us) we will do!”

In the latter instance, the people are represented by their leaders—seventy elders, along with Moses, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu. The unity of the people (as a common party) is emphasized in both declarations:

    • “And all the people answered in its unity [i.e. in unison, united] and said…” (19:8)
    • “And all the people answered (with) one voice and said…” (24:3)

This vow covers the first portion of the episode, which may be outlined as follows:

    • Verses 1-4a: The elders, representing the people, affirm their part of the agreement, which Moses puts in writing.
    • Verses 4b-8: This affirmation is ratified by sacrificial offering and ritual.
    • Verses 9-11: The elders ascend (partway up the mountain) and encounter God (theophany), and the covenant ritual is finalized.

There is obvious symbolism and significance to the seventy elders (see also Num 11:16, 24-25; Ezek 8:11) who represent the people. Most likely it draws upon the idea of completeness connoted by the numbers seven and ten (i.e. 7 x 10). The seventy elders truly represent the entire people of God. The action of the elders bowing low (reflexive stem of the verb hj*v*) reminds us again of the ancient Near Eastern background of the covenant (tyr!B=) idea. It is the act of a loyal and obedient subordinate, or vassal, paying homage to a superior authority, and indicating submission. This is in accordance with the suzerain-vassal treaty form of agreement, with Yahweh, as the one Creator God, representing the ultimate sovereign.

In each of the covenant episodes we have been studying, the agreement is accompanied by ritual involving cutting. In Genesis 15, animals were cut up into pieces, and God (symbolically, in a vision) passed between the pieces, indicating the binding obligation on him to fulfill the agreement. In the Genesis 17 episode, the ritual cutting is of a different sort (circumcision), and reflects the binding obligation on the other party (Abraham and his descendants). Now, in Exodus 24, the cutting is expressed through: (a) sacrificial offerings, and (b) the use of blood. More important, the ritual symbolism involves both parties—God and the people Israel. This dual-aspect is sometimes overlooked by commentators, but it is clear enough in the account of verses 4b-8.

First, we should note that there are three elements to the ritual scene:

    • The mountain location—symbolically a meeting-point between heaven (God) and earth (humankind)
    • The altar—representing the presence of God, and
    • The twelve pillars—representing the people (i.e., the twelve Tribes of Israel)

Mount Sinai is thus a (sacred) location where both parties can meet to establish the agreement. The use of pillars (or stones) to represent the parties of an agreement is attested elsewhere in the Pentateuch (Gen 31:45-54); see also Josh 24:27, where a stone serves as a witness to the agreement.

With regard to the sacrificial offerings themselves, they are of two kinds:

    • Offerings which are entirely burnt by fire on the altar (i.e. “burnt offerings”, Leviticus 1ff)—these are consumed (“eaten”) entirely by God, through the burning; the very Hebrew word for this offering (hl*u), ±ôlâ) indicates the symbolism of the savory smoke ascending (“going up”) to God in heaven.
    • Offerings which signify the wish to establish (or restore/maintain) good will and peace between parties—i.e. between God and the people. It sometimes called a “peace offering”, based on the customary translation of the Hebrew <l#v# (šelem, “peace”). Both parties “eat” of these offerings—a portion is burnt by fire (i.e. eaten by God), the remainder is consumed by the human participants in a meal.

Only in the case of the “peace offering”, consumed by both God and the people, is the term jbz (noun jb^z#, verb jb^z`), “[ritual] slaughter”, used; this is the offering which involves cutting. Interestingly, while the cutting in the previous covenant scenes (Genesis 15, 17) would have resulted in blood (see Exod 4:25-26, etc), only here, in this episode, does blood play a part in the ritual. It is applied to both parties in the agreement:

    • For God, symbolically, through the blood thrown against the altar (v. 6), and
    • For the people, the blood thrown (or sprinkled) on them (v. 8)

We must consider the different possible aspects of this symbolism. First, note the declaration accompanying the use of blood:

“See—the blood of the (binding) agreement which YHWH has cut with you upon [i.e. regarding] all these words!” (v. 8b)

In the case of the cutting up on the animals in Genesis 15, as we discussed, the background of the symbolism involved the punishment which would befall someone who violated the agreement (i.e., he/they would be “cut up” just as the animals were). In a similar manner, in Genesis 17, the person(s) who violate the agreement, which was marked by the cutting off of the male foreskin, would themselves be “cut off”. The symbolic use of blood here may also reflect the idea that death would be the result of violating the agreement.

At the same time, blood could symbolize the life-essence of a person (Gen 9:4-6), and thus possess a sacred, life-giving (and life-preserving) quality. In the underlying symbolism of the Passover ritual, the blood from the sacrifice specifically protects the person(s) from death (Exod 12:13, 22-23).

A third aspect—perhaps the one most relevant to the covenant scene in Exodus 24—is the use of blood to consecrate persons and objects within a religious setting (Exod 29:12ff; Lev 4:5-7ff; 8:15-24; 9:9ff, etc). The consecration of priests, those responsible for managing the ceremonial/sacrificial elements of the covenant, is accompanied by a ritual use of blood which is very close to that of Exod 24:6-8. In a sense, the consecrated priests are representatives of the entire people (like the elders in Exod 24), who are called to be a holy nation (Exod 19:6). In this respect, the “blood of the agreement” marks the sacred and holy character of the agreement between the people and God. Symbolizing both aspects of life and death, blood serves to finalize the binding agreement—the very bond—between the two parties.

It hardly needs to be pointed out that the use of blood in Exod 24:6-8 is drawn upon by Jesus in the Gospel tradition of the Last Supper. This is found in the institution of the “Lord’s Supper” in the Synoptic Gospels (also echoed by Paul in 1 Cor 11:25):

“This is my blood of the covenant [diaqh/kh] th(at is) being poured out over many” (Mark 14:24 par)

Similar language is used in the Gospel of John (6:51, 53ff) and elsewhere in the New Testament (Rom 3:25; 1 Cor 10:16; Col 1:20; Heb 9:14ff; 10:29; 13:20; 1 Pet 1:2, 19; 1 John 1:7; 5:6, 8). In these passages, the “blood of the (new) covenant” clearly refers to Jesus’ death, as a sacrifice—an offering slaughtered (cut up), and its blood poured out (onto the altar, etc), just as Jesus’ body is ‘broken’ and his blood ‘poured out’ in his death (see John 19:34).

Finally, we must note the climax of the Exodus 24 covenant episode: the manifestation of God (YHWH) to the leaders of the people (the seventy elders, etc) in verses 9-11. As in the vision of Genesis 15:17f, here God appears—the presence of both parties being required to ratify the agreement. To be sure, God was present, symbolically, by the altar, but now he becomes visible to the people (as he did in the initial Sinai theophany of chapter 19). We may outline this section as follows:

    • Ascent of the elders (v. 9)
      —Appearance of YHWH (v. 10)
      —They behold Him and live (v. 11a)
    • They eat and drink (conclusion of the ritual, v. 11b)

The use of the verb hz`j* in verse 10 indicates that the manifestation of YHWH was, at least in part, a visionary experience (see Ezek 1, etc). The parallel with the Genesis 15 episode would seem to confirm this aspect. The precise nature of the “eating and drinking” mentioned in verse 11b is uncertain, but it would seem to reflect the conclusion of the meal related to the sacrificial offerings in vv. 6ff. The people’s participation in this meal serves to finalize the agreement (specifically, their part in it). It is noteworthy that the establishment of the “new covenant”, marked by Jesus’ blood, is also part of a ritual meal (Mark 14:12-26 par).

As significant as the Exodus 24 covenant episode is, it should be pointed out, again, that chapters 19-24 represent only the beginning of a larger covenant-narrative complex which continues on to the end of the book (and, one might say, into the book of Leviticus). By proceeding with a study of the remainder of the book of Exodus, one can see how chapter 24 fits into the structure of the book—both the legal material in chapters 25-31, 34ff and the important narrative scenes in chapters 32-33. The covenant agreement between God and Israel cannot be separated from the Instruction, or Torah—the regulations and instructions given by God to his people. These regulations function as the terms of the covenant. While this applied initially to the “ten words” (Decalogue) and the “book of the covenant” in 20:19-23:33, it came to encompass a much larger body of instruction and tradition. The importance of these associations—the leadership of the people (Moses/Elders), the covenant ritual, and the Torah—must be realized and studied closely, as they relate precisely to the language and symbolism used by early Christians in the New Testament. We continue to use this language, to some extent, even today, though its fundamental meaning is largely lost in the modern age. It is possible for us to regain and restore its meaning through a critical study of Old Testament passages such as these in the books of Exodus and Genesis.

The People of God: The Covenant (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this article, we looked at the episode in Genesis 15—the binding agreement, or “covenant”, God made with Abraham (Abram). Here we will examine another, closely related, passage which records key historical traditions regarding the “covenant” God established with his people. As I discussed previously, the Hebrew word tyr!B= (b§rî¾) refers to a binding agreement, usually between two parties. They may be parity agreements (i.e. between equal parties), or agreements (treaties, etc) made with a superior; there are many examples of the latter in the surviving ancient Near Eastern texts and inscriptions from the 2nd-1st millennium, usually referred to as suzerainty treaties—that is, between a suzerain (state or ruler) and his vassal(s). Rather unique in this regard is the way that this standard agreement-type was adapted in the ancient Israelite context, to establish the relationship between God (El-Yahweh) and the people of Israel. Such an agreement, by its very nature, follows the suzerainty-treaty pattern—of a superior ruler (God) and his faithful/loyal vassals.

Genesis 17

In many ways, the covenant episode in chapter 17 parallels that in chap. 15 (discussed in Part 1), to the point that many critical scholars view them as variant (traditional) versions of the same essential historical episode, emphasizing different aspects. According to the standard “Documentary Hypothesis” analysis, accepted by many commentators, Genesis 15 is part of the “J” (J/Yahwist) source, using the divine name YHWH (Yawheh) throughout. By contrast, chapter 17 is usually attributed to the so-called “Priestly” (“P”) strand, viewed both as a distinct source, as well as an editorial layer which incorporated earlier traditional material (from “J”, etc). The divine ‘name’ used in chap. 17 (except for the initial references in verse 1), is the plural <yh!ýa$ (°§lœhîm, “Mighty Ones”, as an intensive, “Mightiest [One]”), usually translated blandly in English as “God”. Traditional-conservative commentators (along with a few critical scholars) are less willing to accept the “Documentary Hypothesis” source analysis, at least not without serious qualification. Indeed, if we read the texts here at face value, it would seem that chapters 15 and 17 occur at very different points in Abraham’s life. In Gen 17:1, it is stated that Abraham was 99 years old, whereas in Gen 15, presumably, he would have been somewhat closer to the 75 years indicated in 12:4. And, if we accept the essential historicity of the narratives, and the traditions recorded therein, then we would have to posit two distinct historical episodes.

Along these lines, it is important to realize that the nature of the agreement (or covenant) recorded in chapter 17 differs in several important ways from that in chap. 15.

First, there is different language used. Of course, this could be due to a difference in the source of the tradition itself. One need not accept the “Documentary Hypothesis” entirely in order to realize that the consistent use of “Yawheh” vs. “Elohim” suggests a different source for the tradition. This would seem to be confirmed by the use of the divine name (or epithet) yD^v^ (Šadday). This is an ancient title, the meaning of which may well have been lost for later Hebrew-speakers, much as it is still uncertain for scholars today. The name occurs in the Old Testament independently (preserved in poetry, Gen 49:25; Psalm 68:14; 91:1; 30 times in the book of Job, etc), and also attached to the divine name la@ (°E~l), as here (and 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; Exod 6:3). The original meaning may have been something like “the mountainous One”, “the One of the Mountain”, etc. Deities in the ancient world were often associated, in various ways, with mountains, symbol of the numinous and as a meeting point between heaven and earth. Even before the revelation at Sinai, the Creator God El-Yahweh would have been connected with important mountains and high places. The mountain is also symbolic of height, greatness, exaltedness, etc., and this connotation was likely understood in the name. For Abraham, and the earliest Israelites, the one true God would have been called °E~l (“[the] Mighty [One]”; see my earlier discussion on this name). According to Exod 6:3, when El-Yahweh appeared to the Patriarchs, it was not by the name YHWH, but as El-Shaddai.

If we were to posit a tentative source-reconstruction of chapter 17, it might be as follows:

    • An ancient tradition, passed down from the time of the Patriarchs, which speaks of God (El [Shaddai]) appearing to Abraham and establishing an agreement with him
    • An editing layer (Mosaic/or post-Mosaic) which identifies the God of the Patriarchs as Yahweh (verse 1).
    • A layer of traditional editing, including normalized translation, etc, which uses the common name/title for God (Elohim) throughout, when El (not Yahweh) was used in the original tradition.

Apart from the use of divine name(s), there are other differences in language and terminology between chapters 15 and 17. For example, instead of the idiom “cut an agreement” (15:18), we have “give [i.e. make] an agreement” (17:2). There is also the repeated expression <l*ou tyr!B=, b§rî¾ ±ôl¹m, “agreement of [i.e. lasting into] (the) distant (future)”, i.e. “eternal/everlasting agreement” (verses 7, 13, 19). The terminology describing the inheritance of the Promised Land, etc, is also distinct, compared with chapter 15.

Second, the character of the covenant agreement is not the same. While the principal themes are comparable (the promise of descendants for Abraham, the land they will inherit, etc), the form of the agreement itself differs. In Genesis 15, the agreement takes the form specifically of a grant of land to Abraham (and his descendants) as a reward for his faithful service. The binding obligation is entirely upon the superior party (God), and it is He who, symbolically, passes between the pieces, indicating that he his bound to fulfill the agreement. By contrast, in chapter 17, the agreement is binding on both parties—God and Abraham—and it is also a conditional agreement. This is summarized and stated simply in vv. 1b-2:

“Walk before me and be complete, and I will give [i.e. make] my binding-agreement between me and you…”

God’s part of the agreement, his obligation, is described in verses 4-8, entailing (1) giving descendants (a vast number) to Abraham, and (2) assigning the land which they will possess. The fundamental religious nature of this agreement is capped by the closing words, “and I will be God [Elohim] for them”.

Abraham’s part of the agreement, which is to continue on with his descendants, is narrated in vv. 9-14. It fundamentally consists of a promise to maintain the agreement, marked by the rite of circumcision.

Third, there is no sacrificial ritual associated with the covenant agreement in chapter 17. As I noted above, instead of the expression “cut an agreement” (indicating the cutting up of an animal), we have here “give/make and agreement”. However, there is still cutting involved, but of an entirely different sort. It is the rite of circumcision—to “cut off” (lWm) the foreskin of the male genitalia. Primarily, the ritual is meant to be a sign (toa) of the agreement, marked in the person’s flesh. However, the act of cutting does, in fact, still carry a connotation similar to the cutting up of an animal in the covenant ceremony. Recall that the underlying idea of the cutting symbolized the fate of the person who violated the agreement—i.e., “just as this animal is cut up, thus it will be for {so-and-so} if he/they were to break this agreement”. In this instance, Abraham and his descendants are to “cut off” the male foreskin, signifying their loyalty to the covenant; if they violate the covenant, they likewise will be “cut off” (verse 14).

An important observation to make here, as with many points in Old Testament tradition, is that both the covenant agreement forms, and the rite of circumcision itself, are not unique to Israel, nor were they invented and introduced in the time of Abraham. On the contrary, they follow customs and practices already established and widespread in the ancient Near East. Indeed, various forms of male circumcision are known from ancient and traditional cultures worldwide. This establishes the important principle that God, in the Scriptures, deals with his people in terms that they will understand, accommodating many of the ideas and practices established in the culture at large. In so doing, however, the traditional forms are given a new meaning and significance; and this is certainly the case with the rite of circumcision. At two key points, the Israelite ritual of circumcision may be said to be unique:

    • It is to be performed on the eighth day after birth. This differs from many traditional practices, where circumcision is related to puberty and/or pre-nuptial rites. The Israelite is marked as belonging to God, obliged to follow the covenant agreement he established, from the very time of birth. The eighth day may be connected with the traditional seven-day creation period, or, more generally, with the symbolic idea of seven as indicating completeness. Similarly, according to Exod 22:29, a first-born animal is dedicated on the eighth day after birth. This is likely tied to ancient concepts surrounding purity and sacrificial ritual (see Lev 22:27).
    • As a mark of God’s covenant with Abraham (and his descendants), circumcision fundamentally has a religious, rather than cultural, significance. Whereas in many cultures it marks rites of passage, i.e. into adulthood and one’s place within society, for Israelites, circumcision signifies their identity as a people belonging to God, i.e. God’s own people.

Thus we find two distinct covenant-models in Genesis 15 and 17, each with specific characteristics, as recorded in Scripture:

    1. The first is characterized by:
      (a) The superior party has the sole binding obligation
      (b) This takes the form of a land grant to his faithful ‘vassal’ (Abraham and his descendants)
      (c) It is accompanied by the ceremonial ritual involving the cutting-up of an animal (and passing between the pieces)
    2. The second is characterized by:
      (a) Both parties have binding obligations
      (b) It takes the form of a promise (of descendants for Abraham), and that the superior party (God) will continue to show favor, upon the condition that the vassal-party (Abraham and his descendants) fulfills its promise to uphold the covenant agreement
      (c) It is not accompanied by any ritual slaughter of animals, but involves the cutting of (human) flesh in the rite of circumcision

In Part 3, we will turn the third key covenant episode in the Pentateuch, the establishment of the covenant at Sinai recorded in Exodus 24 (part of a wider covenant narrative in chaps. 19-24ff). In terms of the tradition, and how it is dealt with in the book of Exodus, the Sinai covenant is not seen as a new agreement, but is understood fundamentally as a reaffirmation of the original agreement between YHWH and the ancestors of Israel, such as recorded in the narratives of Genesis 15 and 17.

The People of God: The Covenant (Part 1)

The Covenant

The next set of articles in this series on “The People of God” deals with the important idea of a covenant made between God and his people. It has been discussed previously in the articles on “Israel as God’s People”, in which we explored the early background and traditions related to the religious identity of Israel as the people of God. However, in order to gain a proper understanding of the significance of the covenant-concept in this context, we must devote a more detailed study to the subject. The covenant idea is central to the thought (and theology) of the Old Testament, which early Christians inherited; and yet, the concept is almost completely foreign to us today. This is an instance where a measure of historical criticism is required in order to understand the Scriptures. It is necessary to be aware of the ancient Near Eastern cultural and religious background of the covenant idea, and the language (and symbolism) used to express it.

To begin with, the Hebrew word usually translated as “covenant” is tyr!B= (b§rî¾), most likely related to the Akkadian bir£tu/birtu, and the (Semitic) loanword bi-rí-ta in Egyptian. The fundamental meaning is “bond”, specifically in the sense of a “binding agreement”. Its use has been preserved in the record of various formal agreements or treaties, along with the parallel term °âl¹ (Akkadian a°¹lu/a°lu). Such agreements can be made either between equal parties (parity treaties), or between a superior (suzerain) and his loyal associates (vassals); sometimes in the latter case, only one of the parties would be bound by the agreement.

In fact, there were all sorts of binding agreements and treaties in the ancient Near East, even as there are contracts and agreements in Western society today. They applied to all areas of society and daily life, though we are perhaps best informed of those in the political and diplomatic sphere, being more often preserved as they are in inscriptions and written texts. It is worth distinguishing between two basic categories of agreements noted above: (a) those where the parties are of equal standing, and (b) those between a superior and a subordinate. In the political realm, the latter is often referred to a “suzerainty treaty” or “suzerain-vassal treaty”. A number of suzerain-vassal treaties are known from the ancient Near East; examples of both Assyrian and Hittite treaties, in particular, have come to light which help to elucidate the “covenant” form and language used in the Old Testament. For a good survey of the evidence, see F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Harvard: 1973), pp. 265-73.

An early example in the Old Testament of an agreement between more or less equal parties, is found in Genesis 31:44-55, which records the tradition of an agreement between Jacob and Laban. The wording used in verse 44 is “let us cut a binding (agreement), I and you [i.e. between you and me]”, using the common word tyr!B= (cf. above). However, the tradition also preserves an older Semitic term du, pointed in v. 44 by the Masoretes as du@ (±¢¼), but which perhaps should be vocalized as du* (±¹¼), similar to Akkadian ¹d¥/¹d¢ and the cognate word ±ahd in Arabic. The basic denotation of this root is “agreement”, and is thus comparable in meaning with tyr!B=. The word du@ (as pointed in the MT) would more properly refer to a record, or witness, of the agreement, indicated by the stone pillar and heap of stones set up by both parties (vv. 45ff) to mark the covenant bond between them (entailing mutual protection, etc). The term for the heap of stones is called dulg, pointed as du@l=G~ (“heap of [the] witness”), but which scholars such as Albright and Cross (p. 269) would read as du*l=G] (“heap of [the] agreement“).

What is especially unique in ancient Israelite tradition is how the cultural conventions of the Near Eastern “binding agreement” were applied in a special religious (and theological) context—of an agreement made between the people and God. While deities are regularly called upon as witnesses to an agreement (and to punish violators), extra-biblical examples of a binding agreement between human beings and a deity are quite rare. There is, for example, a Phoenician text from Arlsan Tash which includes the statement “The Ancient [±lm = Heb <lu] One has cut a binding (agreement) with us” (cf. Cross, pp. 266-7); but other instances are hard to find. However, the idea is prominent in early Israelite tradition, associated quite strongly with Abraham and the ancestors of Israel (see below).

Some Old Testament scholars refer to this line of tradition as a special “god of the father” agreement; that is to say, a relationship is established between a particular deity and a family, clan, or tribe (headed by a patriarch). The deity actually functions as the head and protector of the clan/tribe, like a “Great Patriarch”; as such, the deity is a fellow kinsman, and can be called variously “father”, “brother”, etc. A good example of this sort of tradition in Genesis is the account in 28:10-22, involving the vision-experience of Jacob at Beth-El (“house of [the] Mighty [One]”); cf. the discussion in Cross, p. 270. The main “covenant” traditions in the book of Genesis, however, and the ones most relevant to the idea of Israel as the people of God, are the Abraham narratives in chapters 15 and 17. It is worth examining each of these in some detail.

Genesis 15

There are two covenant episodes which are central to the Abraham (Abram) narratives in Genesis; the first of these is in chapter 15, which follows directly upon the war and Melchizedek episodes of chapter 14. Both chapters appear to derive from the same cluster of traditions and have many similarities of language. The term tyr!B= (b§rî¾) appears in 14:13, where three Amorites (Mamre, Eshkol, Aner), who are allies of Abraham, are referred to as tyr!B= yl@u&B^ ba±¦lê b§rî¾ (“lords [i.e. men, chieftains] of a [binding] agreement”, i.e. with Abraham). One important consequence of both the war, and the Melchizedek episode, is the faithfulness (to God) shown by Abraham, and, especially, his refusal to receive any material benefit (i.e. spoils, reward) himself from the war (vv. 20b-24). This sets the stage for Abraham’s encounter with God (El-Yahweh) in chapter 15.

The actual encounter with God occurs at the prophetic, visionary level, as is clear from verse 1: “…the word of YHWH came to be unto Abram in a vision”, that is, where one sees and looks with the mind rather than the eyes. The oracle is simple and in three parts, the last of which declares to Abraham, “your payment [rk*c*] will increase very (much)”—i.e., in lieu of what he might have gained from the war, Abraham will receive an even greater reward. Verses 2-5 set forth the nature of this reward: that of progeny (children, offspring) which will keep his family line intact for generations to come. The covenant setting of this “reward” is clear from the way it is tied to Abraham’s faithfulness (to God), both in the chapter 14 narrative, and also here, as the statement in verse 6 brings out: “And he was firm with [i.e. trusted in] YHWH, and it was counted as faithfulness [hq*d*x=] for him”. The noun hq*d*x= (ƒ®d¹qâ) is typically translated “righteousness, justice” but it can also signify someone who is victorious (on one’s behalf), trustworthy, faithful, loyal, etc. The covenant-context of the passage suggests a connotation of this sort. In other word, God considers Abraham as a loyal friend.

This relates to the idea of vassalage (and vassal treaties) in the ancient Near East. Loyal supporters (vassals) were bound to a superior (suzerain) by an agreement which was established and ratified through oath and symbolic ritual. Many such agreements involved a grant of land, and that is what occurs here between God and his loyal vassal (Abraham) as well (verse 7). A special ritual act establishes the agreement (vv. 9-21). The details of this episode doubtless seem most strange to readers today; however, they are part of the ritual process associated with treaties in the ancient world.

The idiom in verse 18 (and elsewhere in the Old Testament) is “to cut an agreement”, using the verb tr^K* (k¹ra¾), “cut” (cf. on Gen 31:44 above). This language is not merely figurative, but concrete. It was common practice for the establishment of a treaty to be accompanied by the ritual cutting up an animal. This is known by way of texts from Mari, Alalakh, and other sites, as well as parallels in Israelite and Old Testament tradition (Judges 19:11ff). The meaning of the ritual cutting is clear enough from Jeremiah 34:17-20 and the Aramaic Sefire treaty; it is a curse formula, meant to symbolize the fate which will befall the one who violates the agreement—i.e., “Just as this {animal} is cut up, thus {so-and-so} will be cut up” if he/they violate the treaty.

However, in Genesis 15, while the ancient ritual symbolism is preserved, it is infused with an entirely new meaning. For one thing, it is God (El-Yahweh) who is the sovereign, not an earthly ruler, giving the covenant-form a unique religious aspect (cf. above). Moreover, there is no emphasis on the oath/curse associated with the symbolism of the cutting up of the animals. Instead, at the heart of the scene in verses 9-21, is a prophetic visitation and divine manifestation (theophany) of God to Abraham. Note the structure:

    • The cutting up of the animals and arrangement of the pieces (vv. 9-11)
    • The “word of YHWH” comes again to Abraham in a vision [at sundown] (vv. 12-16)
    • God manifests himself to Abraham, passing through the pieces [at night] (vv. 17-21)

Interestingly, there may be a subtle allusion to the curse-symbolism (see above) in the content of the prophetic message given to Abraham (vv. 12-16), as it foretells the suffering and exile of Abraham’s descendants.

In the ancient treaty-format, the party (or parties) bound by the agreement would pass between the cut-up pieces of the animal(s). Here it is God himself, through the vision-symbol of smoke and fire (see Exod 19:18; 20:15, etc) who does so. This effectively ratifies the agreement, confirming that the one(s) bound by it will fulfill their obligations. In this instance, the obligation involves the granting of land (i.e. the Promised Land) to Abraham and his descendants. God declares what he will do for his loyal friend/vassal Abraham; it is a one-sided agreement, in which superior’s binding obligation is established. What significance does this have for the ritual imagery of the cutting up (into two pieces) of the animals? If God is the one who takes on the covenant-obligation, and the associated ritual symbolism, is it possible to find any special theological significance for this episode?

In Part 2, we will be looking at Genesis 17 in detail, as well as introducing a third covenant episode (in Exodus 24). I would suggest that these represent three important aspects of the covenant-idea in the Old Testament, each of which exerted a major influence on the development of early Christian thought in the New Testament, where the religious identity (of Israel) as the “people of God” was given an entirely new meaning.

The People of God: Israel as God’s People (Part 4)

This article on Israel as the People of God concludes with a study on the theme as it is expressed in the book of Deuteronomy. The focus in this four-part article has been on the early background of the concept, of the historical traditions as preserved in the writings of the Pentateuch. Later development of the “people of God” theme—such as in the Prophets, Psalms, and Wisdom literature—will be dealt with at subsequent points in this series.

The book of Deuteronomy is of special importance for the purposes of our study, for several reasons: (1) it represents a separate line of early tradition, (2) the entire narrative is rooted in the person of Moses (on the importance of this in the tradition, cf. the discussion in Part 3), and (3) it is related to the wider Prophetic (Deuteronomic) history as expressed in the books of Judges, Samuel, and (most importantly) the books of Kings. The latter point, unfortunately, is wrapped up in complex critical questions regarding the origins and composition of Deuteronomy. For more on this, see the discussion at the conclusion of this article below. From a narrative (and literary) standpoint, the entire book of Deuteronomy is framed as a great speech delivered by Moses to the people at the end of his life—and, correspondingly, at the end of the people’s forty years of ‘wandering’ in the deserts of Sinai. The opening verses establish this quite clearly; cf. in verse 3:

“And it came to be, in (the) fortieth year, in (the) eleventh new (moon), on (the) first day of (the) new (moon), Moshe spoke to (the) sons of Yisrael, according to all (the things) which YHWH charged him (to give) to them…”

The first section of the book (1:6-4:40) is presented as a speech in which Moses summarizes the history of Israel, from the Exodus to the present moment; as such, it corresponds to what is narrated in the books of Exodus and Numbers, but with certain points of difference (a critical discussion of which is beyond the scope of this article). The whole purpose of the historical summary is to set the context for the admonition that the people must remain faithful to the covenant with YHWH. This faithfulness is defined primarily, if not exclusively, in terms of the worship of YHWH alone. According to the first command of the “Ten Words” (Exod 20:2-3; par Deut 5:6-7), which functions as the heart of the Instruction (Torah) given by God to Israel, the people are to acknowledge (and worship) no other deity but YHWH. Transgression of this command (along with the prohibition against making images), was at the root of the Golden Calf episode, which (according to the narrative in the book of Exodus) resulted in the termination of the first covenant and a change in Israel’s identity as God’s people (cf. the discussion in Part 3).

The same theme—warning against worship/veneration of other deities, and of related improper religious practices—is found repeatedly throughout the book of Deuteronomy. It is no coincidence that the main division of the book (chapters 5-28) begins at the point of the first covenant at Sinai/Horeb, and with the “Ten Words” (5:6-18). All the subsequent laws and regulations presented in Deuteronomy—like those in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers—are essentially founded upon the “Ten Words”. And, much as in the so-called “Holiness Code” (Leviticus 17-26, see esp. chapters 19-22), all the regulations are likewise woven around core declarations regarding Israel’s status as a people “set apart” as holy to God (cf. the previous notes on Lev 19:2, et al).

The Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9ff)

The key declaration in this regard in Deuteronomy is the Shema (Deut 6:4-5ff), which follows the introductory exhortation in vv. 1-3. It reads as follows:

“You must hear (this), Yisrael: YHWH (is) your Mighty (One), YHWH (the only) One! And you shall love YHWH your Mighty (One) with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all (the force of) your very (being).” (vv. 4-5)

The initial declaration of v. 4 is somewhat problematic in terms of rendering its syntax. Particularly difficult is determining the force of the numeric term dj*a# (“one”). It has typically been understood in the sense of a theological statement—a monotheistic confession of the nature of YHWH; in this case, the phrase dj*a# hwhy would mean something like “YHWH (is) one (God)”. However, based on the overall context of the book of Deuteronomy, as well as other evidence from early Israelite tradition, it seems more likely that the point of emphasis is on YHWH as the only deity Israel is to recognize (and worship). The numeral dj*a# occasionally is used in this way, in the sense of “only, alone” —e.g., 1 Chron 29:1; Josh 22:20, and a few comparable examples of °µd in Ugaritic could be cited as well (cf. Tigay, p. 358). In view of this, the proper rendering of the declaration would seem to be: “YHWH (is) your Mighty (One), YHWH alone”; or, perhaps, the latter phrase translated as “…YHWH (the only) One”, which I adopt above. Much the same thought is expressed in Zech 14:9. On <yh!ýa$ as “Mighty (One)” (literally “Mightiest [One]”), typically translated “God”, cf. the article on the divine name “Elohim”.

In any case, there can be no doubt of the fundamental point that YHWH is Israel’s God, and He alone is to be worshiped. The point is so important, so vital to the religious identity of Israel, that the people are commanded to keep the Instruction close to them at all times, teaching and reciting it to the children, inscribing it on the doorposts of one’s house, and so forth (vv. 6-9). All of the regulations and requirements of the Instruction (Torah) are built upon the “Ten Words”, the foremost of which is the declaration that YHWH alone is to be recognized (and worshiped) as God. This is especially important for the people of Israel as they settle among the other Canaanite peoples, each of whom have their own established religious practices, worshiping deities other than YHWH. The warning against syncretism—of adopting foreign religious practices and beliefs, including the worship of other deities alongside of YHWH—is driven home repeatedly in the book of Deuteronomy (cf. below), and is the focus of the Instruction that follows immediately in vv. 10-15ff.

The Instruction (Torah) represents the terms of the covenant between YHWH and Israel, as I have noted previously, and violation of the terms meaning violating (and invalidating) the covenant itself. According to the tradition(s) as recorded in Exodus 32-34 (cf. the discussion in Part 3), this occurred with the episode of the Golden Calf; only through the intercession of Moses, was a new covenant put in place, though with certain changes that qualified Israel’s identity as God’s people. In Deuteronomy, the focus is not on the past, but on the future—that is to say, on how the people of Israel will conduct themselves once they have settled in the land of Canaan. The principle of the people’s holiness (vd#q)), that they have been “set apart” as a people belonging to God, and holy to Him, informs nearly every aspect of the Instruction. This is stated explicitly in Deut 7:6, echoing other passages in the Pentateuch (such as Leviticus 19:2, discussed in prior notes):

“For you are a people (set apart as) holy to YHWH your Mighty (One). In you YHWH your Mighty (One) made a selection, for (you) to be a people prized to Him, from (out of) all (the) peoples that (are) upon (the) face of the ground [i.e. the earth]” (7:6, cp. 14:2)

The point is further made that Israel was chosen by God, not because of their own characteristics or merit as a people, but through a special favor shown to them. This favor extends back to the covenant made with Abraham and the ancestors of Israel; in freeing the people from bondage in Egypt, and guiding them to the promised land, YHWH was fulfilling His obligation in that earlier agreement (vv. 7-8). YHWH’s current covenant with the people (mediated through Moses) is an extension of the former agreement, which God, for His part, faithfully observes. The question is whether the people will fulfill their obligation and faithfully observe the terms of the agreement—namely, the regulations and requirements as given to them in the Instruction (Torah), vv. 9-11.

The Covenant Preserved through Ritual (Deut 21:8-9, etc)

The ceremonial or ritual side of the Instruction was absolutely fundamental to preserving the covenant, and, with it, Israel’s identity as the people of God. It is hard for Christians to appreciate the importance of this ritual aspect, especially since nearly all of it was abandoned by (most) believers at a very early period, and, with each passing generation, people today are increasingly further removed from the ancient religious mindset which formed the basis of the various rituals in the Torah. However, much of the corpus of regulations in the Torah is related to maintaining the purity of the sanctuary—as the sacred space where people encounter God—and, with it, the apparatus of the sacrificial ritual.

The other side of this emphasis on purity has to do with the idea of Israel as a holy people, set apart as sacred to God (cf. above). If the sanctuary space and apparatus must be kept pure (being consecrated as it is to God), then so also must the people themselves be made (i.e. kept) holy and pure. Certain of the rituals and sacrificial offerings were formulated especially for this purpose; chief among these was the “Day of Atonement” ritual, presented in detail in Leviticus 16.

The Instruction in Deuteronomy 21:1-9 lays out regulations to deal with the situation when a dead body (of a person who has been slain) is found in the open, and the person guilty of the murder/manslaughter is unknown. This particular situation involves two aspects of communal holiness and purity: (1) the ritual cleansing required due to the presence of a dead body, and (2) the social/moral guilt from the crime itself. The ritual outlined in vv. 2-8 deals with both aspects; the wording in verse 8 is significant as it relates to the idea of Israel as God’s holy people:

“‘(May) you wipe away (the stain) for your people Yisrael, whom you ransomed, YHWH, and may you not give (this) blood of a clean [i.e. innocent] (one) (to remain) in (the) midst of your people Yisrael’. And (so) the blood shall be wiped away for them.”

Many other regulations have the same thought in mind, even if the specific language regarding Israel as God’s people is not used.

Blessings and Curses of the Covenant (Deut 26:16-28:68)

Within the literary framework of the book of Deuteronomy, as Moses’ speech (and the accompanying Instruction) comes to a close, and Israel is about to enter into the promised land, instruction is given for a reaffirmation of the covenant. This begins in 26:16-19, following the climactic word of prayer (by Moses) in v. 15:

“(May) you look out from (the) covered (dwelling) of your holiness, from the heavens, and (may) you bless your people Yisrael, and the soil that you have given to us, according to that which you (swore) sevenfold to our fathers, a land flowing (with) milk and honey.”

The point in vv. 16-19 is that, if the people faithfully observe the terms of the covenant (the Torah), then they will confirm that they truly are God’s people, a people set apart as holy and belonging to Him. As a result, they will continue to receive God’s protection and blessing, which includes the fruitfulness of the land promised to them. Instructions are given for a solemn ceremony, to be performed (it would seem) on the slopes between mount Ebal and Gerizim (near Shechem), in which the covenant is ratified and affirmed by the people.

Unlike the ceremony ratifying the initial Sinai covenant (Exod 24:1-11), YHWH is not a direct participant; instead, it is the people who are to affirm the covenant from their side, accepting the terms of the covenant as laid out by YHWH. According to the conventions of the ancient Near Eastern covenant format, blessings and curses—tied to the fulfillment and violation, respectively, of the terms of the agreement—are formally recited. A set of curses is given in 27:14-26, followed by a corresponding set of blessings in 28:1-14, and still further curses (in graphic detail) variously throughout 28:15-68. On the relation of these latter curses to the wider Deuteronomic history, cf. the note below.

The “Song of Moses” (Deuteronomy 32)

The book of Deuteronomy reaches its climax with the great “Song of Moses” in chapter 32. By all accounts, this is an ancient poem, to be dated (on objective grounds) to at least the 10th or 11th century B.C. Most critical commentators would maintain that the poem was composed, and originally circulated separately, prior to being included as part of the book of Deuteronomy. However that may be, in the book as we have it, the poem is clearly integrated with the narrative in chapter 31, as well as the following narration in 32:44ff. I have discussed the poem at considerable length in prior studies, and will be presenting a series of daily notes on it here as well. The theme of Israel as God’s people occurs at various points in the Song, even as the poem draws upon the early traditions regarding the covenant-bond between YHWH and Israel. The Song itself is not so pointed as the narrative in chap. 31, but it does still contain a strong exhortation for the people to remain faithful to the covenant.

Note on the Deuteronomic History

The so-called “Deuteronomic History” is a scholarly construct that refers to a certain unifying set of themes and points of emphasis that occur throughout the historical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. These thematic and stylistic points seem to reflect much of the thought expressed in the book of Deuteronomy, though the precise relationship between Deuteronomy and the wider History remains much debated by commentators. One view of the theory posits that an older version (or core) of Deuteronomy served as the inspiration for the History, often believed to date from the time of Josiah (see above), and updated to cover the period ending in the Exile of Judah. This critical theory was effectively introduced and popularized in the mid-20th century by German scholar Martin Noth, whose work is best accessed (in English) as The Deuteronomistic History, JSOT Supplement (Sheffield Academic Press: 1981 [subsequent editions 1991, 2002]). F. M. Cross has a valuable summary, along with his own modification of the theory, in the now-classic Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History and Religion of Israel (Harvard: 1973), pp. 274-89. For a good moderate critical treatment of the book of Deuteronomy, and the Song of Moses in particular, see Jeffrey H. Tigay, JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy (Jewish Publication Society: 1996), pp. xix-xxviii, 508-18.

It is in the books of Kings that we find perhaps the strongest Deuteronomic influence, which would not be at all surprising if the reforms of Josiah essentially serve as the background of both works. In particular, the reigns of the various kings are evaluated almost exclusively in terms of the extent to which they avoided (and eliminated) foreign and aberrant religious practices, serving as an example for the people to do the same. The polemic against Canaanite (syncretistic) religious influence, along with the emphasis on preserving a single central sanctuary for worship (in Jerusalem), so important to the message of the books of Kings, is very much found in the book of Deuteronomy as well.

The failure of the Israelite/Judean rulers to remain faithful to the covenant leads directly to the suffering and misfortune of the people. In this regard, the covenant curses in Deuteronomy 27-28 (especially those in 28:15-68) very accurately summarize what would occur in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah—with terrible punishments culminating in conquest, destruction, and exile. In the mid-6th century B.C., in the Exilic period, the theme of Israel as the people of God would be resurrected and given a new meaning and significance; however, in the Prophetic writings and history up to that point, it is the Deuteronomic framework of covenant faithfulness—with its associated blessings and curses—which dominates the tradition.

The next articles in this series will deal with the concept of the covenant, in the Old Testament and Israelite tradition. As we have seen, the idea of a binding agreement (covenant) between YHWH and Israel was central to the idea of Israel as God’s people.


The People of God: Israel as God’s People (Part 3)

The episode at mount Sinai serves as the centerpiece of the book of Exodus, and is the focal point of Israel’s identity as the “people of God”. The stated goal of the Exodus in the narrative (3:12; 5:1; 7:16, etc) was for the Israelite people to be set free and allowed to travel out of Egypt to worship their God (YHWH) at the sacred mountain (Horeb in chap. 3, Sinai in chaps. 19ff). When they finally reach the mountain, YHWH reaffirms and establishes His covenant with them, the same binding agreement (tyr!B=) made with their ancestors (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob).

The Sinai Covenant (Exodus 19-24)

According to the introduction to the narrative in chapter 19, the people arrived at mount Sinai three months to the day after they left Egypt (v. 1). They stretched out their tents and camped there before the mountain (v. 2). The scenario of the covenant episode is played out as a kind of sacred drama, with Moses repeatedly ascending the mountain to communicate with God, and then returning back down to address the people. This dramatic pattern is established in verse 3. The message which YHWH gives Moses to convey back to the people is significant in terms of the tradition regarding Israel as the people of God.

“You have seen (the things) which I did to the Egyptians, (and how) I carried you upon (the) wings of a soaring (bird) and brought you to me. And now, if hearing you will hear [i.e. if truly you will hear] by my voice, and will guard my binding (agreement with you), then you shall be a (prized) possession to me from (out of) all the peoples. For all the earth (belongs) to me, and (yet) you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These (are) the spoken (word)s you [i.e. Moses] shall speak to the sons of Yisrael.” (vv. 4-6)

There are several key ideas expressed in this message which would be fundamental in shaping the religious and cultural tradition of Israel as God’s people:

    • God chose Israel, separating them from all the other nations/peoples of earth
    • They are a people that belongs to YHWH, as His own special possession
    • As a nation they are set apart as holy; even as priests are set apart for sacred service to God (administering the ritual, etc), so the entire people of Israel are to be set apart in this way.

Unifying these ideas is the theme of holiness (vd#q)), which entails (and denotes) the setting apart (i.e., separating, making distinct) of something as sacred, being closely associated with the worship of God. This was not so much of an emphasis in the original covenant established with Abraham (and the ancestors of Israel), but it would be in the binding agreement (tyr!B=) established anew with the people of Israel (as a whole) at Sinai. The specific aspect of the covenant will be discussed in detail in the next division of this series, but it must be kept in mind as we proceed through the subject here as well.

The dramatic framework of the scene is carried through as the people hear and respond to the message given by YHWH to Moses: “All (the things) which YHWH has spoken, we will do” (v. 8a)—a response which Moses carries back again to God (v. 8b).

The central event of the Sinai episode is the theophany (i.e. manifestation of God), in which YHWH makes His presence visible on the mountain—Sinai/Horeb itself serving as a local manifestation of the cosmic mountain where, according to ancient Semitic tradition, the Creator had His dwelling place. The theophany at Sinai may be characterized as a storm theophany, where the elements of the storm—cloud, wind, thunder, lightning—appear (19:9, 16-20; 20:15ff). Any high Deity in the ancient world, associated fundamentally with the majestic expanse of the sky, could be seen as manifest specifically in the storm. El-Yahweh, like the Canaanite Baal Haddu, was recognized as possessing control over the forces of nature—especially those of the sky and storm. It meant a control over the life-giving primeval waters, to be distributed through seasonal rains, etc, but also of the more destructive and terrifying aspects (wind, thunder, lightning) connected with storms.

Here, in the context of the narrative, the theophany has a twofold purpose: (1) it marks the manifest presence of YHWH, as he comes to meet his people; and (2) it demonstrates his holiness, the transcendence (and ‘otherness’) of the Creator that sets him apart from all human beings (and indeed, all of creation). In the face of God’s holy presence, the people of Israel are required to consecrate themselves—that is, to make themselves holy, in preparation for encountering YHWH their God. This “setting apart” is indicated, symbolically, through the washing of clothes (v. 10), and marking out a period of time (v. 11) and space (v. 12) designated as sacred, associated with the very presence of God (v. 13). The importance of maintaining the holiness of the people, throughout the process of the covenant-encounter with YHWH, is made clear in verses 21-24; the space around the mountain is literally to be “made holy” (vb vd^q*).

While the primary reason for such consecration is the theophany itself, it also has far-reaching implications for the covenant that God will establish with Israel. As noted above, the covenant will be the subject of the next segment of this series, which will include a detailed study of the Sinai Covenant narrative in Exodus 19-24ff. It must suffice here to highlight the key components of the narrative which relate to the idea of Israel as the people of God:

    • The “Ten Words” (or Decalogue, the Ten Commandments), which YHWH speaks directly to the people (20:1-14). These will serve as the core terms of the covenant (cf. 34:28), and the basis of the Instruction (Torah), given by YHWH, that will further define Israel’s identity as God’s people.
    • The people, unable/unwilling to hear God speaking to them directly, designate Moses as their representative, an intermediary who will hear the direct address from YHWH, and then repeat the substance of it back to them (20:15-18). This is essentially an extension of Moses’ role as a ayb!n`, or “spokesperson” of God (for the development of this theme, cf. on the Golden Calf episode, below).
    • YHWH gives further Instruction to Moses, regulations and requirements for the people, which builds upon the “Ten Words” (20:19-23:19). In their limited way–that is, as but a rudimentary law code—these regulations cover nearly all areas and aspects of Israelite society, thus illustrating something of what it means to be God’s people in practice.
    • The promise that YHWH will be with His people, during their journey to the land guaranteed for them in the earlier binding agreement (covenant) with Abraham (23:20-33). God’s protection is a key component of the covenant, representing the divine obligation; but His continued protection is dependent upon Israel living up to their obligation in the covenant-bond.
    • The covenant itself is reaffirmed, re-established, and ratified in a ritual ceremony performed partway up the mountain (24:1-11). The people are represented by seventy elders, and YHWH Himself (the other party of the covenant) appears through a second theophany (verse 10); the two parties join together in the ceremony (v. 11).
    • Moses ascends all the way back up the mountain, where he will remain (forty days and forty nights), receiving still more Instruction from YHWH to bring to the people (24:12-18)

The Role of the Torah (Leviticus 19, etc)

The Torah represents the terms of the covenant between YHWH and Israel. Their identity as God’s people is dependent upon their fulfilling these terms. While typically translated as “law”, the Hebrew word hr*oT (torah) more properly means “instruction”, based on the idiom of instruction as something “cast” or “shot” out (vb hr^y`) like an arrow, pointing the way for people to follow. The Torah (Instruction) given by God for His people, is defined traditionally by the sections of regulations and decrees recorded in the books of the Pentateuch. There are “law code” sections preserved throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These various collections are not always consistent or harmonious with each other, though much effort has been made by Israelites and Jews over the centuries to produce a comprehensive and systematic law-code. The Mishna and Talmuds represent the great flowering of this effort, producing lengthy collections of law (and discussions of law) which themselves have achieved an authoritative and canonical status in Judaism to this day.

One of the great sections of Torah in the Pentateuch is the so-called “Holiness Code” of the book of Leviticus (chapters 17-26). The theme of holiness is brought out most clearly in chapters 19-22, with chapter 19 serving as the key section, containing a set of regulations that mirror the “Ten Words” (cf. above) in certain ways, and which are woven around the central statement of holiness in verse 2:

“You must speak to all (the) appointed (gathering) of (the) sons of Yisrael, and you shall say to them: ‘You shall be holy (one)s, for I, YHWH your Mighty (One), (am) holy’.”

Additional statements, on the need for the people to keep themselves holy, follow in 20:7, 26 (also 21:8), repeating a similar declaration made earlier in the book (11:44a). I have discussed all of these statements in some detail in a pair of recent notes, related to this series. The important point to make here is that the various regulations of the Instruction are all related to the fundamental idea that the people of Israel are to be “set apart” as holy to YHWH, and that this distinction is rooted in God’s own holiness. The conceptual language (and imagery) affirms the idea that Israel is a people that belongs to God. This will be discussed further in Part 4 of this article, as well as in the upcoming studies on the Covenant.

To fulfill their role as God’s people, bound to Him through the covenant, Israel is obligated to observe the terms of the covenant—which are the decrees, regulations, and requirements laid down in the Torah. Thus the Torah-sections of the Scriptures (Pentateuch), such as the Levitical “Holiness Code” are fundamental, and essential, to the idea of Israel as the people of God. This is a point close to the heart of all Israelites and Jews, and it served as a tremendous point of conflict with early Christians, regarding the important issue of religious identity—what it means to be the people of God. Differences over the role and place of the Torah, primarily, have resulted in the great divide between Jews and Christians, which has lasted to the present day, even if the Torah itself is no longer so central to the difference in religious identity as it once was. I have discussed this subject at great length in the series “The Law and the New Testament” (cf. especially the notes and articles on “Paul’s View of the Law”).

The Golden Calf Episode (Exodus 32-34)

The turning point in the Exodus narrative, as it relates to the Sinai Covenant (cf. above), is the “Golden Calf” episode in chapters 32-34. However one may judge the underlying historical tradition from a critical standpoint, the way that the tradition has been developed and incorporated within the wider narrative gives to it a special significance. It demonstrates the way in which adherence to the terms of the covenant—that is, the “Ten Words” and the Torah regulations—defines and determines Israel’s status as God’s people.

If the “Ten Words” represent the heart of the Torah, then the first command—the declaration in Exod 20:2-3—is its very center. It states quite clearly that the people of Israel are to acknowledge (and worship) no other deity but YHWH. The prohibition against making images, by which is meant primarily the images of deities (for worship, etc), follows directly upon the first command (vv. 4-5ff). In the Golden Calf episode, the people effectively violate both the central command and the prohibition against images. In so doing, they violate the terms of the binding agreement, thus abrogating the covenant itself, and leaving themselves open to punishment.

This idea—that the sin of the Calf invalidates the entire agreement—is not always appreciated by readers and students of Scripture today; but the point is clear enough in the narrative. Moreover, we must note how the violation of the covenant affects the identity of Israel as the “people of God”; quite simply, they cease to be God’s people. This may not be immediately apparent upon a casual reading of the text, but consider how the idea is expressed in YHWH’s response to Moses in vv. 7-8ff, as He now refers to the people of Israel as “your people” —that is, Moses’ people, with the implication that they now belong to Moses, instead of to Him. God’s anger at the blatant violation of the covenant results in a desire that He should destroy the people completely, and to start again with a new people—with Moses and his descendants replacing the Israelites (vv. 9-10).

It is Moses who intercedes on the people’s behalf, urging God not to destroy or abandon them (vv. 11-13). Notably, Moses still refers to them as YHWH’s people (“your people”, v. 11), and appeals to the original covenant God established with Abraham and the ancestors of Israel (v. 13). As a result of this intercession, the people will be punished, but not destroyed (vv. 14-35); only those who actively instigated rebellion against YHWH would be put to death immediately. At the same time, the shattering of the two stone tablets vividly illustrates the termination of the covenant (v. 19). YHWH admits a continuation of the covenant promise to Abraham and his descendants (33:1ff), and will fulfill the covenant obligation of providing protection for the people, but He refuses to dwell or travel along with them on their journey to the promised land; to do so would be a tacit acknowledgment that the Israelites are still His people.

This leads to a second intercession by Moses, urging YHWH not to abandon the people in this way; once again, he continues to refer to Israel as God’s people (“your people”, 33:16). In response, YHWH agrees to put in place a new covenant, one which essentially reproduces the first Sinai covenant (cf. above), but with a number of key differences. The most important aspect of this new covenant is that it is established directly with Moses, and not the people of Israel; the Israelites are part of the agreement only through Moses as an intermediary. We see this new emphasis beginning with verse 17, where YHWH specifically shows favor to Moses, and cuts the new covenant directly with him. The people are still Moses‘ people (“your people”), and the covenant extends to the people only through their connection with Moses (34:10); note especially the wording in verse 27: “For (with) these words I cut a binding (agreement) [tyr!B=] with you, and with Yisrael”.

The new Sinai covenant is established according to the same pattern of the first agreement: Moses is again on the mountain forty days and nights (34:28), the “Ten Words” are recorded again, there are two stone tablets produced (vv. 28-29), and another collection of laws and regulations given to Moses (34:10-26; 35:1-3). There are, however, two key differences. First, it is Moses who writes down the commands (vv. 27-28), whereas, with the first covenant, it would seem that the tablets were inscribed supernaturally by God Himself (24:12; 32:15-16). Secondly, YHWH does not appear Himself to establish the covenant with the people (cp. 24:1-11); this time He appears only to Moses, and it is he alone who receives the theophany (33:18-23; 34:5-7ff). The rest of the people can only experience this manifestation of God through the splendor reflected on the face of Moses (34:29-35). Paul makes powerful use of this particular tradition in 2 Corinthians 3, where he applies it (antithetically) to the new covenant (of the Spirit) for believers in Christ.

The mediation of Moses in the second Sinai covenant is yet a further extension of a dynamic that we see throughout the book of Exodus. Moses was initially established as a aby!n`, or spokesperson for God, in the theophany episode of chapter 3; he would serve as one who communicated the word and will of YHWH to the people. This role intensified when the people, unable/unwilling to hear God speaking to them directly, designated Moses as their intermediary (20:15-18). Then, following the Golden Calf episode (and the termination of the first Sinai covenant), the second covenant, in its entirety, was effectively mediated to the people through the person of Moses.

This process of mediation (by Moses) in establishing the covenant reaches its climax with the directions for constructing the Tent-shrine (Tabernacle), the details of which comprise the remaining chapters (35-40) of the book of Exodus. The Tent-shrine would serve as the point of contact between YHWH and the people; but only Moses (and, subsequently, the Aaronid priests) would enter the sanctuary or “tent of meeting” itself. The Hebrew term for the Tent-shrine is /K*v=m!, literally “dwelling place” —that is to say, a place where God would “dwell”, figuratively and in a ritual sense, among the people. In 38:21 it is called the “dwelling place of the record” (td%u@h* /K*v=m!), primarily because it was in the golden box (ark) in the sanctuary where the stone tablets, the record of the covenant, were stored. The word tWdu@ preserves an ancient Semitic term that gradually fell out of use in Hebrew; its fundamental meaning (as a technical term) is of a written record, a copy or “witness”, of the agreement (the more common term in Hebrew for the agreement itself is tyr!B=, denoting something that is binding). The term tWdu@ is preserved here as part of the early tradition (cf. Exod 25:22; 26:33-34; 31:18; 32:15; 34:29; 39:35; 40:3, 5, 21; Num 9:15; 10:33; 14:44; 17:22-23; 18:2; Deut 31:9, 25-26; Josh 3:3, 6, 8, etc).

With the completion of the Tent-shrine, the book of Exodus comes to a close. YHWH will accompany the people of Israel on their journey to the promised land (40:36-38), providing protection along the way, and thus fulfilling His covenant obligation. However, from the moment of the Golden Calf incident, YHWH never again refers to Israel as His people (“my people”) in the book of Exodus, and only rarely elsewhere in the Pentateuch (Lev 26:12), though it does reoccur frequently in the Historical and Prophetic writings. The fundamental premise of the Exodus narrative, however, is that the Golden Calf episode altered the nature of the covenant relationship; after that episode, Israel comes to be considered God’s people only in a qualified sense, through the special mediation of Moses.

In Part 4 of this article, we will focus on the book of Deuteronomy, and how the idea of Israel as God’s people was expressed in that particular line of tradition.



The People of God: Israel as God’s People (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this article, we explored how the central theme of Israel as the “people of God” was established in the early chapters of the book of Exodus—especially in the scene of the theophany (manifestation of God) to Moses in chapter 3. There, the Creator (°E~l) revealed and declared His name as Yahweh (YHWH/hwhy, the tetragrammaton name), and affirmed His ancient binding agreement (covenant) with Abraham and the ancestors of Israel. This effectively defines the special place of Israel a people belonging to YHWH, His own chosen people (cf. verses 7-15).

The importance of the theme of the Israelites as God’s people continues throughout the book of Exodus—indeed, it is an idea that binds the narrative, and the message of the book, together. It will be helpful to explore this literary dynamic by looking at how the theme is presented and developed at several key points of the narrative.

The Plagues and Israel’s Freedom (Exodus 4:19-13:16)

A major section of the book of Exodus narrates the great drama of the plagues on Egypt, and how this divine judgment worked to secure Israel’s freedom and release from bondage. In directing Moses on his return to Egypt, YHWH orders him to go before the Pharaoh demanding the release of the people (4:21-23). The wording of the command Moses is to give to Pharaoh builds upon the central theme of Israel as God’s people (cf. above), but with the added motif of a filial relation—that of a father to his son:

“And you shall say (this) to Pharaoh: ‘So says YHWH: Yisrael (is) my first(born) son. And I say to you, you must send out my son and he will serve me; and (if) you refuse to send him out, (then) see! I (will be) slaying your first(born) son.'” (vv. 22-23)

Israel is not only God’s people, but also, figuratively and collectively, His firstborn (rokB=) son. The idea of Israel as God’s son, or child, is found at a number of points in Old Testament tradition (e.g., Deut 32:5-6, 18-20; Hos 1:10; 11:1; Isa 43:6; 45:11; 64:8; Jer 3:19; 31:8 [9]). The specific designation of Israel as God’s firstborn is less common, though it is implied in certain passages—cf. Jer 2:3; 3:19; 31:8 [9], 19 [20]. It is also implicit in the religious concept of the sacredness of the firstborn—as belonging specially to God—and of the principle that Israel is the first, the chosen one, among all the nations (who also could be thought of as His “sons”, but not the “firstborn”). On the consecration of the firstborn (like the firstfruits of the harvest), cf. Exod 22:29; 34:19-20; Lev 27:26; Num 3:40-46ff; 8:16-18; 18:15-17; Deut 12:6, 17; 14:23; 15:19; 21:15-17. On the choosing of Israel among all the other nations, see Deut 14:1-2 (among numerous other passages).

Israel as the firstborn son is particularly important in terms of the Exodus narrative. The entire Plague-narrative cycle is rooted in the climactic moment of the death of the firstborn in Egypt, and this is established already here at the beginning of the narrative in 4:22-23. We can see how carefully the narrative has been constructed, around this key theme, by considering the place of the peculiar episode that follows in 4:24-26. Whatever we make of it in terms of historical tradition (cf. my discussion in the upcoming daily note), its thematic importance is clear enough; note the following points:

    • The episode involves Moses’ firstborn son
    • YHWH is about to kill the firstborn son
    • The blood (from circumcision) protects the child from death
    • The importance of the circumcision ritual

All of these motifs prefigure, and are symbolic of, the events surrounding the Passover and the death of the firstborn of Egypt. It may even be said that this thematic juxtaposition of firstborn-circumcision frames the entire narrative (cf. Sarna, p. 24-5):

    • Israel as God’s firstborn son (4:22-23)
      • Circumcision of Moses’ firstborn, which protects him from death (4:24-26)
        • The Plague-narrative—death of the Egyptian firstborn, and freedom for Israel
      • Circumcision as the mark of belonging to Israel, God’s firstborn (12:43-49)
    • Consecration of the firstborn as belonging to God (13:1, 11-15)

When Moses delivers the message to Pharaoh, given to him by YHWH (in 4:21-23, cf. above), it is stated specifically in terms of Israel as God’s people:

“So says YHWH, (the) Mighty (One) of Yisrael: Send out my people [i.e. let them go]…!” (5:1)

This same directive runs like a refrain through the Plague-cycle (7:16; 8:1, 20f; 9:1, 13; 10:3f, etc), accompanied by the conditional statement to the effect that, if Pharaoh does not send away the Israelites, the people of Egypt will be struck by this terrible plague. The formula in 5:1 repeats the key theme from the chapter 3 theophany—that YHWH, the Creator and true God, is the God of Israel, which means that they are his special people and under his protection (according to the covenant-bond). This is explained more clearly in the word of YHWH that comes to Moses in 6:2-9ff. All of the key points from chapter 3 are stated more succinctly here:

    • YHWH is to be identified with the Creator °E~l (the “Mighty [One]”), by which name the ancestors of Israel worshiped Him
    • He is the same “Mighty One” (God) who established the covenant-bond with Abraham and his descendants
    • The covenant bond included the promise that Abraham’s descendants would come to possess the land of Canaan
    • This promise, along with the divine protection (for Israel) that is part of the covenant bond, means that YHWH must, and will, deliver the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt

All of this is further summarized forcefully in the declaration by YHWH in verse 6:

“I (am) YHWH, and I will bring you out from under (the heavy load)s (you) bear (from the) Egyptians, and I will snatch you away from (your) service (to) them, and I will redeem you with an arm stretched out and with great (act)s of judgment.”

The affirmation of the covenant follows in vv. 7-8:

“And I will take you to (be the) people for me, and I will be t(he) Mightiest (One) [i.e. God] for you…
And I will bring you (in)to the land, of which I lifted my hand [i.e. in an oath] to give it to Abraham, to Yiƒµaq, and to Ya’aqob, and I will give it to you (as a territorial) possession. (For) I (am) YHWH.”

The Passover (chapter 12)

The release of the Israelites is effectively achieved on the night of the “Passover” celebration, according to the tradition recorded in chapter 12. On that very night, the firstborn of Egypt were slain (by God), while the people of Israel, the firstborn of YHWH, were protected and saved from death. This salvation-aspect is summarized in verses 11-13, which appears to function as an exposition of the meaning of the term js^P# (pesaµ): “it (is) a pesaµ to YHWH” (v. 11). From an objective linguistic and etymological standpoint, the precise meaning of jsp remains uncertain and much debated; however, the narrative would seem to adopt the meaning “pass over”, as a reference to the Messenger of Death “passing over” the homes of the Israelites to strike only the Egyptians. Some commentators would define the fundamental meaning as “protect”, according to the usage, for example, in Isaiah 31:5, as well as other factors; this meaning would also suit the context of the narrative. At the earliest level of the tradition, based on the wording in verse 11, it would seem that js^P# was a technical religious term—that is, a specific kind of offering (perhaps made in gratitude of God for his protection)—the exact meaning of which was lost for later generations, replaced almost completely by its association with the Exodus tradition.

Indeed, the importance of the Passover celebration is indicated by its central place in the religious identity of Israel as God’s people. This is abundantly clear from the detail of the instructions given, regarding the celebration of the ritual, in verses 14-20, 24-27, 43ff (cf. also 13:4ff), and it remains a fundamental component of the religious and cultural identity for Israelites and Jews even today. Perhaps no ritual or religious practice emphasizes the communal aspect—the common bond of a people—the way that the Passover celebration does. From the standpoint of the narrative, the night of the Passover marks the very moment when Israel was freed from bondage in Egypt (vv. 41, 51), emerging as people with a new religious identity and consciousness.

The Event at the Sea (chapters 14-15)

The freedom of the people was not complete until their escape from the Egyptian forces, made possible by the ‘event at the Sea’. According to the accounts—both prose and poetic—in chapters 14-15, along with other notices recorded in Old Testament tradition, this involved a nature-miracle performed by YHWH, by which a great wind blew back the waters of the “Reed Sea”, allowing (or making it easier) for the Israelites to cross. When the Egyptians followed in pursuit, the wind blew the waters back to their original position, thus drowning the Egyptian soldiers and chariotry.

Though it is not so stated in the narrative, this event must be understood in terms of the covenant-bond between YHWH and Israel, which involves protection for the people (from their enemies, etc) to be provided by God. It is in the poetic account of 15:1-18, the so-called “Song of the Sea” (sometimes referred to also as the “Song of Moses”), that this covenant-aspect comes more clearly into view, along with the idea of Israel as God’s people. I have discussed the Song in considerable detail in a recent set of daily notes, and will not repeat that here. The first half of the Song (vv. 1-11) deals with the event at the Sea, while the second half (vv. 12-18) describes the effect, or result, of the event—on both the people of Israel and the nations of Canaan. Clearly, the settlement of Israel in the land of Canaan is in view, according to the covenant promise regarding the land (cf. above, on 6:6-8). Just as Israel “crossed over” (vb rb^u*) the Sea to freedom, so, in a similar (symbolic) fashion, will the people “cross over” the Jordan river into the promised land (note the obvious parallel in Joshua 3, along with the apparent allusions to the second half of the Song in Josh 2:9-11).

Here is how this is presented in the refrain of vv. 15-16 of the Song:

“Until your people passed over, YHWH,
until your people whom you created passed over.” (v. 16b)

The temporal preposition (du^, “until”) has a dual meaning: (1) in the context of the miraculous event at the Sea, it refers to the time during which the people crossed, when the power of God kept the Egyptians from being able to act; (2) in the immediate context of the second half of the Song, it refers to the fear and terror that similarly stymies the rulers of Canaan (vv. 15-16a), allowing for the Israelites to enter and settle/conquer the land. On the meaning of the verb hn`q* in the second line, cf. my recent note on vv. 15-16.

The concluding lines of the Song (vv. 17-18, also discussed in a recent note) emphasize even further the special place Israel holds as God’s people. They are to take root in a sacred place where God Himself will dwell—a reference, it would seem, to the Temple sanctuary in Jerusalem, but more fundamentally to the core idea of God dwelling among His people. This theme is developed extensively in the second half of the book of Exodus, focusing particularly on the design and construction of the Tent-shrine (Tabernacle). The book closes with the marvelous and beautiful image of the presence of YHWH, in the form of a great theophanous cloud, residing at the Tent-shrine, and in the midst of the Israelite encampment, all throughout their journeys to the promised land (40:34-38).

References above marked “Sarna” are to The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus twm?, commentary by Nahum M. Sarna (Jewish Publication Society: 1991).

The People of God: Israel as God’s People (Part 1)

Israel as the People of God

The first part of this series (cf. the introduction), looking at the Old Testament background of the “people of God” concept, will focus on the central idea of Israel as God’s uniquely chosen people. This ethnic-religious aspect of the concept is fundamental to the thought-world of the Old Testament, and deserves careful consideration, especially since it differs so markedly from the later Christian understanding, and is apt to be misunderstood by many today.

It is to the Pentateuch, containing as it does traditional narratives of Israel’s earliest history, that we must turn for the key passages which establish the idea of Israel as the “people of God” (on this expression itself, cf. the brief discussion in the introduction). With the exodus from Egypt, Israel essentially comes into being as a distinct nation, though the roots of the Israelites as a chosen people go back to the traditional (patriarchal) narratives in Genesis, and the binding agreement (covenant) God established with Abraham and his descendants. This subject will be discussed in detail (along with the Genesis passages) in the next part, on the Covenant. Instead, it is best to begin with the exodus traditions, as recorded in the book of  Exodus.

Exodus 2:24-25

Chapter 1 establishes the point of conflict for the narrative—viz., the mistreatment and oppression of the Israelites (the descendants of Jacob) by the Egyptians. The resolution for the conflict is set forth in chapter 2, presenting Moses as the chosen one who will lead the people out of bondage; two episodes are used for this—the perilous birth of Moses (vv. 1-10), and his flight to Midian (vv. 11-22)—both episodes illustrating the conflict, between Israel and the oppressive Egyptians. At the close of these two chapters, the stage is set for the Exodus narrative, with the notice of Israel’s continuous cry to God for help (v. 23), and God’s response (vv. 24-25) to it. The wording of the latter is most significant for our study, as it introduces the theme of Israel as God’s people:

“And (the) Mightiest [<yh!ýa$] heard their groaning, and (the) Mightiest remembered His binding (agreement) [tyr!B=] with Abraham, with Yiƒµaq, and with Ya’aqob, and (the) Mightiest saw (the) sons of Yisrael, and (the) Mightiest knew.”

There are four repeated statements here which specify <yh!ýa$ (°E_lœhîm, “the Mightiest [One]”, i.e. God) as the subject of the verbal action—four verbs in sequence: hear (um^v*), remember (rk^z`), see (ha*r*), know (ud^y`). These verbs are used to focus the drama:

    • hear—God heard the collective groan of the people =>
      • remember—it brought to mind the binding agreement (covenant) He had made with their ancestors (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) =>
        • see—He recognized the Israelites, as the sons of Jacob (Israel), and thus heirs to the promises/obligations of the covenant =>
          • know—He truly recognized them as a people belonging to him (through the covenant bond)

The climactic statement that God “knew” His people must be understood as in contrast with the earlier notice that the king of Egypt (the new Pharaoh) did not “know” Joseph (1:8). This key verb (ud^y`) occurs repeatedly in the book of Exodus, and has a wide semantic range which the English translation “know” does not entirely capture. Here, as in the earlier notice of 1:8, the term carries a strong covenantal connotation. A bond had been established between Pharaoh and Joseph (cf. the Joseph narratives in Genesis), which extended to the Israelite people as a whole. For a time they obtained a privileged and protected position in Egypt; but this all changed with the “new king” that came to the throne. The new Pharaoh did not recognize the prior relationship with Joseph and his people, and, instead of the covenant bond, there was active hostility against Israel. As noted above, this hostility and oppression serves as the conflict-point for the Exodus narrative.

Exodus 3:1-6ff

The historical traditions of chapter 3, follow directly upon the notice in 2:24-25, and serve to develop the theme of Israel as God’s people. Exodus 3:1-4:17 narrates the call and commission of Moses, whereby God chooses him as the leader who will bring Israel out of Egypt. It is, however, the details in chapter 3 which are most relevant to our study, since here we find the fundamental religious (and theological) tradition identifying the God of Israel as YHWH (hwhy). This is altogether more significant, from the standpoint of the Exodus narrative, than many readers and students today realize. The two propositions go hand in hand: Israel as God’s people, and the identification of YHWH as Israel’s God.

Chapter 3 begins (vv. 1-6) with the manifestation of God (theophany) to Moses in the ‘burning bush’ on Horeb, called the “mountain of God” (<yh!ýa$h* rh^, “mountain of the Mightiest”). This marks what follows as a unique revelation of God, to Moses, and, at the same time, for the people of Israel as a whole. The climactic moment of revelation comes in verse 6, which echoes the earlier notice of 2:24 (cf. above):

“…I (am the) Mighty (One) [i.e. God] of your father, (the) Mighty (One) of Abraham, (the) Mighty (One) of Yiƒµaq, and (the) Mighty (One) of Ya’aqob!”

The expression “God of (the) father” (ba* yh@ýa$) involves a genuinely ancient tradition, well-attested in the book of Genesis (26:24; 28:13; 31:5, 29, 42, 53; 32:9; 43:23; 46:1, 3; 49:25; 50:17; cf. also 24:12; 48:15, 21), and confirmed by 2nd millennium B.C. parallels in the Semitic world (cf. Cross, pp. 4-12ff). It is, distinctively, an ethnic-religious expression, identifying a deity with a particular family, clan or tribe. The recognized deity serves as the patron and protector of the people, in a manner comparable to the ancient “binding agreement” (i.e. covenant) concept. Certain ancestral deities (i.e., deified ancestors) fill this role as well; however, in the case of Israel, it is the Creator and high God °E~l who acts on their behalf as the “God of the(ir) father(s)”. It was He who appeared to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as is stated here, and as the Genesis narratives clearly indicate.

The word used here, <yh!ýa$ (°§lœhîm), came to be the common term for referring to deity (comparable with “God” in English). It is related to the older Semitic word °il(u) (= °E~l, la@), which would appear to mean something like “mighty (one)”. The plural form <yh!ýa$ is, in my view, best understood as an intensive or comprehensive plural—i.e. “the Mightiest (One)”. For more on this, cf. my earlier articles on El and Elohim, respectively.

What is most important in the Exodus 3 narrative is how the deity who reveals himself to Moses identifies himself as the God of the Israelite ancestors (i.e., the Creator °E~l), and also by the name represented by the tetragrammaton (hwhy/YHWH)—Yahweh. This is the focus of God’s message to Moses in verses 7-15, which may be divided as follows:

    • Vv. 7-10—Announcement that He will act on behalf of His people, through Moses as His chosen representative
    • Vv. 11-12—The promise that He will be with Moses
    • Vv. 13-15—His identification as the God of the Fathers (v. 13), with the divine name of YHWH (v. 14), both aspects now definitively united together (v. 15)

For a more detailed discussion of the critical issues involved in these verses, see the supplemental set of notes, as well as my earlier article on the name Yahweh.

In his subsequent commission to Moses (vv. 16ff), God (YHWH) reiterates his role as protector of the Israelite people, implying that the belong to him (as His people), in a special covenantal relationship going back to the time of Abraham. Moses is to gather together the leaders (elders) of the Israelites in Egypt to give them this message (v. 16), a point repeated again for emphasis in 4:5. This assembly of the representatives of Israel symbolizes an early stage of the new nation taking shape—the people that will emerge from Egypt with a new ethnic-religious identity, centered on the revelation of YHWH as their God.

In Part 2, we will examine how this theme is developed further within the Exodus narrative, by looking at the exodus event itself, the essence of which had already been expressed in chapter 3—most notably, by the declaration of YHWH in verse 10:

“And now, go, and I will send you to Pharaoh, and (you must) bring out my people, (the) sons of Yisrael, from Egypt!”