JEF Sunday School Lesson #14

March 21, 2006 | 19 comments

Lesson 14: Exodus 15-20, 32-34

There is a great deal of material in this reading, but perhaps the overview below will help put matters in context. As you read the chapters ask yourselves what kinds of parallels and types you see? How do these things help us understand our own lives? How do they help us understand our relation to Christ? To help you think about that more profitably, also ask yourselves “What did these things mean to the Israelites when they happened? What might they mean to Jews today?

Chapter 15: Moses rejoices in song that the Israelites have been saved from the Egyptians (verses 1-21). The bitter waters of Marah are made sweet and the Israelites are promised health (verses 21-27).

How would Israelites have understood this miracle? How would Jews understand it today? What can the miracle of the waters of Marah symbolize in the Gospel?

Chapter 16: The Lord provides mannah and quails when the Israelites hunger and complain.

What can the mannah and the quails symbolize?

Chapter 17: The Lord provides water when the Israelites thirst and complain (verses 1-7).

What do the stories of chapters 15 through the first half of 17 have to do with the story of the drowning of the Egyptians? Is it significant that the Lord provides water, then mannah and meat, and then water? How are the stores of chapter 15-17 related to each other?

Chapter 17: Amalek attacks and is defeated (verses 8-16).

Chapter 18: Jethro comes to meet Moses, bringing Moses’s wife and sons (verses 1-12). Jethro counsels Moses on how to be a judge (verses 13-27).

How do the stories of Amalek and Jethro contrast? What does that contrast teach us about Israel’s relations with others? Why is it important that Moses learn to be a judge before he receives the Law? What does that say to us about our own responsibilities?

Chapter 19: The Lord reveals his covenant with Israel to Moses: they are to be a peculiar treasure, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation (verses 1-6). Moses reveals the covenant to the people and returns to the mountain to tell the Lord of Israel’s response (verses 7-8). The Lord tells Moses that he will speak to Israel from a cloud and that the people must purify themselves and wait for his appearance on the third day. He also tells Moses that he must set up limits so that no one will come onto the mountain (verses 9-13). Moses returns and on the third day a cloud descends on the mountain and a trumpet is heard coming from it. Moses is called back to the mountain (verses 14-20). Moses is told to tell the people not to come up on the mountain and to have the priests purify themselves (verses 21-25).

In Exodus 19:5, the root of the word translated obey means “hear.” What do hearing and obeying have to do with each other? The word translated “peculiar people” means “enclosed” or “kept secret.” The sense is that the people of Israel are a prized and special treasure. What makes them special? Does their specialness imply that they are morally superior to others? Why or why not? What does it mean to be a kingdom of priests? With what is the Lord making a contrast? In other words, what would a kingdom be that wasn’t a kingdom of priests?

Chapter 20: The Lord gives Israel the Ten Commandments (verses 1-17). The people fear and beg Moses to be their intermediary (verses 18-21). Moses returns to the mount and the Lord repeats the first and second commandments (verses 22-23). The Lord gives instructions for how the altar is to be built (verses 24-26).

Deuteronomy 14:2 suggests that the Mosaic Law is a sign of Israel’s calling to be a treasure, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. How would the Law be such a sign? How might we understand our own commandments as a sign of our status before God? Compare Romans 3:1-2, where Paul answers the question, “What is the advantage of being a Jew?” by saying “chiefly because that unto them were committed the oracles of God.” The Greek word translated “oracles” means, literally, “messages.” Presumably that includes the commandments. How are the commandments a sign of our covenant status? What would it mean for us to be a treasure, a kingdom of priests and priestesses, and a holy nation? How would we go about being that? Why do you think the Lord reiterates the commandments against idolatry so soon after giving them the first time?

Chapters 21-23:19: Particulars of the Mosaic Law.

How are the Ten Commandments related to the laws that follows? Notice that Exodus 21:1 describes the things that follow as judgments, which could also be translated “acts of justice” or “ordinances,” as when we speak of the ordinances of a city. What does that suggest about how we should understand the laws? Why are both laws and rituals such as baptism called ordinances?

In the beginning, the firstborn son of each family in Israel was dedicated to the service of the Lord (Exodus 22:29). How is that like the order of the priesthood under the patriarchs? How do the several stories of second-born sons receiving the blessing fit into this pattern? What are we to make of the fact that Moses did not receive the priesthood through the lineage of the firstborn? As the Firstborn of the Father, Christ offered his life as an atoning sacrifice. How do these patterns illuminate the meaning of the killing of the firstborn in Egypt? Later the tribe of Levi was called to take the place of the firstborn (Numbers 3:11-13), and each Israelite family had to ransom its firstborn by making an offering to the Levites in recognition of their service as replacements for the firstborn son (Luke 2:22-24).

Chapter 23:20-33: The Lord promises that an angel will lead Israel, that they will have health, and that they will drive the Canaanites out of the Promised Land.

Chapter24: Moses and the seventy elders go up the mountain, though only Moses is allowed to approach the Lord (verses 1-2). Moses returns, tells Israel what he has received, and the people covenant to obey the commandments they have received (verse 3). Moses and the priests offer sacrifice to seal the covenant (verses 4-8). Moses and the seventy elders have a vision of the Lord and take part in a covenant meal (verses 9-11). Moses is promised tablets of stone, a law, and commandments, and he goes up onto the mountain for forty days (verses 12-18).

Chapters 25-27: Israel is commanded to build a tabernacle.

Chapters 28-31: Aaron and his sons officiate in the tabernacle, the fittings of the priestly robes and the tabernacle, and the ordinances prescribed for the tabernacle, particularly ordinances of atonement. The commandment to keep the Sabbath holy is reiterated (Exodus 31:12-17). Moses receives “two tables of testimony” (Exodus 31:18).

Why do you think the Lord reiterates the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy? Is it significant that he reiterated the commandments against idolatry just before giving the particulars of the Law and he reiterates the Sabbath commandment at the end of giving it? Whose testimony is engraved on the stone tablets? What might that testimony be of? The word translated “testimony” in Exodus 31:18 can also be translated “warning.” How might the tablets have served as a warning?

Chapter 32: The people are concerned with Moses’ delay; Aaron builds the golden calf and proclaims a feast day (verses 1-6). The Lord threatens to destroy the Israelites for their idolatry but Moses intervenes and pleads for them (verses 7-14). Moses returns to the Israelite camp. In his anger, he breaks the tablets, then he burns the golden calf and has the children of Israel drink the ashes (Verses 15-20). The Levites slay 3,000 Israelites in retribution (verses 21-29). Moses pleads for forgiveness for Israel, offering his life for them (verses 30-35).

Some Jewish commentators argue that Aaron did not make a calf for Israel to worship as an idol. (The wording of Exodus 32:4-5 is the key to their interpretation.) Rather, they say, he made a calf to serve the same purpose served by the cherubim on the ark, namely as a symbol of God’s resting place. (See Exodus 25:18-19.) Nevertheless, the Israelites worshiped it. What does that suggest about Aaron? About Israel? When are we like Aaron? Like Israel? Where did the Israelites get the ornaments that they melted down to make this calf? What purpose was that gold to serve? (See, for example, Exodus 25:11, 24, 28, 29, 31-32.)

Chapter 33: The Lord tells the Israelites to leave for the Promised Land, but he threatens to have an angel lead them rather than lead them himself (verses 1-3). The people strip themselves of their ornaments as a sign of remorse (verses 4-6). Moses speaks with the Lord in the tabernacle and pleads with the Lord to be with Israel (verses 7-23).

What does it mean for a leader to plead for the people? What is the point of arguing or bargaining with God, as Abraham did in Genesis 18 and as Moses does here? Who can we plead for?

Chapter 34: Moses returns to the mountain with two tablets of stone (verses 1-4). He encounters the Lord (verses 5-9). The Lord makes a new covenant with Israel and promises to protect them (verses 10-12). He demands that they destroy the idols of those they conquer (verses 13-17), that the firstborn of all their cattle be sanctified to him (verses 19-20), and he gives them other commandments (verses 18, 21-27). Moses returns to Israel with the new covenant; his face glows (verses 28-35).

Be sure to read the JST expansion of this chapter. Compare D&C 84:18-27. How does this new covenant differ from the first covenant?


19 Responses to JEF Sunday School Lesson #14

  1. BrianJ on April 8, 2006 at 9:53 pm

    A question from my reading: The Ten Commandments and the following chapters that deal with laws of justice, honesty, relationships to servants, murder, rape, etc, etc–how different were these from the “laws of the land” or of the Egyptians in Moses’ day? In other words, were these pretty typical rules among the civilized or was this really revolutionary? (Was Moses a “liberal”?)

    A thought from my teaching: I have focused a portion of each of my lessons this year to “selling the Old Testament.” What I mean by that, is that I have tried to break down the stereotype of the OT as a hard, confusing, mostly unnecessary book, and replace that with the idea that the OT is exciting, sacred, beautiful, and vital to our understanding of God. The major purpose has been to get people to read a book they maybe have only skimmed in the past. My effort has paid off immensely: several people told me they are now reading the OT for the first time, two couples said they now make OT study a regular part of their week, one person has purchased extensive (and expensive) study notes because he is now so interested in the OT, and several other people have made very positive comments along these lines. (One of the stranger occasions was when I was at an XBox party and a couple of game-crazy guys prefered to have a discussion of Lot rather than play the video games.) I give a lot of the credit and thanks to the many people who write thoughtful comments on these posts and especially thank JimF for keeping this going. Your efforts bless many more people than you know!

  2. Bryce I on April 8, 2006 at 11:48 pm

    Well, guess who just got called to be a Gospel Doctrine teacher? Give up? Me.

    Many thanks again for posting these notes, Jim. I suspect I’ll be looking for inspiration here. I’ll see what I can do to contribute as well, although it looks like your preparation is well in advance of mine (we’re doing this lesson tomorrow).

  3. Jim F. on April 9, 2006 at 1:36 am

    BrianJ: Thank you very much, both for your question and for the compliment.

    I think that your goal of selling the Old Testament is an admirable one, and I’m amazed by your results. I wish I’d been even somewhat as successful as that.

    Bryce I: I hope you will contribute when you can. And, if you’ve not already seen it, go to where you will find both a lot of thinking about scripture (less about the Old Testament than others, but that is changing) and a chance to contribute your thoughts.

    I’m teaching this lesson tomorrow too. That’s why I’m up at 12:30 a.m. trying to figure out how I’m going to do so.

  4. Maureen on April 9, 2006 at 1:41 am

    Thank you for the time and effort you put into your lessons. Believe me, I cannot teach GD without looking at these lessons! They are insightful and full of information, and give me the confidence I need to teach weekly. Thank you again.

  5. Robert C. on April 12, 2006 at 8:13 am

    Nehama Leibowitz raises an interesting question regarding Ex 16:4 where God seems to refer to the manna as a test—why a test instead of calling the manna a blessing? I posted a brief summary of different readings Leibowitz discusses here.

    One view is that God is testing the people’s ability to trust and depend on God. I think this view has rich impliciations for the way we understand manna and bread as symbols—for example, in the Lord’s prayer, the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, Christ as the Bread of Life, etc.

  6. Jim F. on April 12, 2006 at 9:58 am

    Robert C. Thanks very much for that comment. I wish I’d seen it before I taught my lesson. I’d forgotten or overlooked Leibowitz’s comment when I wrote my lesson.

  7. Robert C. on April 13, 2006 at 6:06 pm

    I’m actually a week behind in my reading/teaching, so shame on me. Hopefully I’ll get caught up over the next few weeks in hopes that I might make a timely comment sometime.

    As a follow-up to my question/comment on the “stretched out arm” in Ex 6:6, I read something interesting regarding Ex 17:5:

    In telling Moses to use his staff/rod to strike the rock and cause water to come forth, God says “thy rod, wherewith thou smotest the river.” In her usual very careful reading, Leibowitz suggests (quoting several Midrashic commentaries in the process) that this otherwise superfluous characterization of the rod is to emphasize the fact that “Objects have no independently good or bad uses, neither have the forces of nature; it is God who uses them for His own needs, and man has ony to fear God” (since the rod was up to that point mainly used as an instrument of punishmet).

    I think this reading could also lend support for the idea that the stretched out arm is not exclusively a symbol of punishment….

  8. BrianJ on April 13, 2006 at 7:40 pm

    Robert C: Your comments always get me thinking and re-studying, so I look forward to them whether they are “on schedule” or not. Is it possible that in your search for scruptures that support the “benevolent stretched out arm” concept, you will read into some a meaning that isn’t real? I’m sure you’ve thought of this problem, so how do you plan to counter it? What test will you use to verify whether the scripture really relates to God’s mercy? (Sorry if that sounds too much like a scientist.)

    In regards to your reading of this verse, there is some symbolism that might support your view: Moses smites the rock with the rod is akin to God smites the sinner with some kind of punishment. And what is the purpose of the smiting? For pure water to flow from the rock is akin to For the wicked person to “flow” with righteousness.

  9. Robert C. on April 14, 2006 at 9:56 am

    Brian: Thanks for the comment/question about the symbolism of Moses smiting the rock. I think it actually relates to the other very good question you raise about whether I’m proof-texting the outstretched arm. The relation is that I think I’ve sort of painted a false dichotomy between the outstretched arm being a welcoming/embracing gesture vs. a punishing/vengeful gesture. As a heavenly parent, God punishes his children out of love (a common scriptural theme, esp. Heb 12:6).

    But in terms of proof-texting, one reason I posted the quote from Leibowitz above is because Leibowitz never seemed to hint at the streteched out arm being a welcoming/embracing gesture. Her comment above jumped out at me since she seems not to have any agenda to find this kind of significance/symbolism like I probably do. Because of this, reading her comment felt sort of like a personal rebuke to me for suggesting the symbolism of the outstretched arm may represent only bad (i.e. punitive).

    Which raises another issue I’ve been wondering about more and more regarding how to approach the scriptures. I’ve only recently begun reading much scholarly commentary on the scriptures. Some of it is very secular. Although sometimes I find points in such comentaries that are very convincing and/or interesting, it usually (but not always) only directly feeds my intellectual hunger, not any spiritual hunger. I know such thinking is just raising the age-old mind vs. spirit issue again, but I’ve been thinking about it in new ways. For example, if ultimately the case for the outstretched arm as a welcoming/embracing gesture in Ex 6:6 fails, that doesn’t invalidate spiritual insight gained by contemplating an outstretched arm as a welcoming gesture, and the ensuing contemplation about God’s parental love for us which requires that he at times punishes us and at times comforts us.

    What I’m may be getting at is the following: although I think it’s fruitful to read the scriptures very carefully and thoughtfully, there can be a temptation in so doing to squelch the process of personal revelation. Done correctly (which I believe requires humility), careful study can facilitate not only a greater intellectual understanding of the scriptures, God, our relation to him, etc., but it can also facilitate personal revelation. Done at its highest level, I think this entails an understanding/appreciation of what can be textually supported by the scriptures, and a recognition that this understanding need not discourage personal revelation. Personal revelation sometimes just uses the text of the scriptures as a springboard. By the same token, I think careful textual analysis can serve as an important check that prevents us from mis-interpreting personal revelation for personal preference (i.e. revelaton that is self-inspired rather than God-inspired).

    This is why I like the literary criticism of the scriptures more than just textual or historical criticism (thanks again Jim for recommending Robert Alter’s books). Rather than confining the scriptures to only what can be rigorously substantiated via textual or historical analysis, a literary approach seems to leave the door open for more symbolic and subtle insights (that may or may not be of a personal revelation nature—that is, I think sometimes it can be worthwhile to discuss insights that are not necessarily intended by the author; of course this raises the question of whether we view the scriptures as authored by a mortal with limited understanding, or by an immortal, omniscient God…)

  10. Justin on April 14, 2006 at 6:10 pm

    Regarding the outstretched arm as a non-punitive gesture: I was recently reading an article by David Rolph Seely entitled, “The Image of the Hand of God in the Book of Mormon and the Old Testament” (Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, ed. John Sorenson and Melvin Thorne). Seely notes that

    “[m]any Book of Mormon expressions involving the hand of God differ from those in the Bible but are similar enough to have apparently developed from Bible phrasing.

    The image of the lengthened arm. One of these speaks of God’s arm being “lengthened.” A Hebrew phrase meaning lack of strength or power is “short of hand.” This occurs three times in the Old Testament. In each of these cases, the Lord poses a rhetorical question whether mortals think that his hand is shortened; that is, whether men consider that God is powerless to save his people. Obviously, the question is a roundabout way of stating that the Lord does have power to save.

    Seely cites Isa. 50:2 here (noting that 2 Ne. 28:32 uses a reversal of the image of the shortened arm). Isa. 59:1 is similar.

    Jer. 27:5 and 32:17 speak of the Lord making the earth with an outstretched arm.

  11. BrianJ on April 14, 2006 at 9:00 pm

    Robert C: Interesting analysis of Leibowitz’ view. I like what you say about studying the scriptures, and I can second the notion that Jim F offers good advice on this subject. I’m remembering, in particular, his “Hermeneutics” post (a word I had never heard before but have heard maybe 30 times since!). I like the approach you describe here, and I believe that it is closer to what God intended when he gave the scriptures in the first place. Getting hung up on numbers, dates, and other was-it-possible’s misses the point of the text. I told my Gospel Doctrine class that I sometimes wish we would read the scriptures like we do Greek mythology: we don’t care about whether their stories really happened, we just look for the moral within. I still think a reader can reach many wrong conclusions about what the author meant, but–like you say–the process of study, error, and discovery is as informative as the answer.

    P.S. I’m going to steal this quote: “I think careful textual analysis can serve as an important check that prevents us from mis-interpreting personal revelation for personal preference.” It’s because I repeat thoughts like that that my friends think I’m smart.

  12. Jim F. on April 15, 2006 at 6:04 pm

    BrianJ: Its because you “steal” quotes like that that you are smart. Otherwise you wouldn’t notice how good they are.

  13. BrianJ on April 15, 2006 at 10:26 pm

    JimF: post 12 made my day! You won’t remember, but about 10 yrs ago I took a class from you. Let’s just say that I had never learned so much, worked so hard, and scored so poorly in all my life! So to get any praise from you really feels like an accomplishment. I’ve come a long way, baby!

    (Anyone reading this cooment should know that Jim is an excellent, honest, fair, and caring teacher. My low grade was probably merciful on his part. I have said many times that I would take that class again–no hesitations.)

  14. Jim F. on April 15, 2006 at 11:38 pm

    BrianJ: You made my, day! Thanks very much for the endorsement. I can’t pay you now, but I’ll get the check in the mail as soon as possible.

  15. Kathy J on April 16, 2006 at 4:11 am

    Robert C. You have probably already taught this lesson and will never read this comment. I should really prepare my lessons before 3 in the morning the night before, but alas, some habits die hard. I have been meaning to read over old class notes (if I could find them), or at least do a little research for you, but life and my 5 children have gotten in the way of that. I just remember having the same epiphany on the outstretched arm image when I was taking an Isaiah class from Ludlow 16 or so years ago. I can’t remember what specific references lead me there, but when I read your comment, the memory struck me hard. You have probably already gone through Isaiah with a fine toothed comb, but if you haven’t, that might be a place to look. I wanted to do that for you, but have decided to admit that I will never get around to it. Again, I can’t remember which verse it was, and as an English major, I have never had a problem reading more into a text than may have been intended. The whole deconstructionist thing and all–especially when I already know that God is both merciful and just, so I am not afraid that I am espousing false doctrine. So it may have been one of those unsupportable epiphanies. I just remember it added so much to my reading of certain parts of Isaiah to bestow that image with both meanings. There you go, for what it’s worth.

  16. Robert C. on April 16, 2006 at 9:38 am


    I’m usuaully don’t actually prepare my lessons till Sunday morning, partly b/c that’s my schedule and habit (to procrastinate), but partly so I can be the last one to poach everyone else’s thoughts. Plus I usually spend the first 15 minutes reviewing previous material with my kids anyway, which gives me a chance to slip in any new insights regarding older lessons.

    Regarding kids and staying up late, we’ve been pondering here how to make sense of Psalm 127. Reading the psalm as a whole seems to contrast staying up late and rising up early with having children. That’s certainly not been my experience!

    Regarding the outstretched arm, thanks for the Ludlow lead. I think I also heard this interpretation in my BYU Isaiah class by Monte Nyman, and I think I’ve read it somewhere in one of Gileadi’s books on Isaiah, so they should all be given credit too (though I think they get the embracing connotation of the outstretched arm directly from Nephi, I’d have to go back to look up the exact references—and I think Nephi may suggest this in the context of quoting Isaiah…). This is partly why I was surprised I couldn’t seem to find the connotation anywhere in the OT (or NT) itself. By the way, I think the “kinsman” connotation of “redeem” you guys discussed in a previous lesson could be read as support for this view: inasmuch as family doesn’t just protect each other, but also loves each other (a question I think Shakespeare addresses in King Lear).

  17. Robert C. on April 16, 2006 at 9:41 am

    Jim and Brian, I was remiss not to link to Jim’s hermeneutics post above. I second Brian’s recommendation of that post which has definitely influenced my own thinking. I should add that what I post probably 95% unoriginal (and unuseful for my SS lessons), but I post as an excuse to try and clarify my own thinking, which is usually just my chewing of something someone else has said….

  18. Robert C. on April 16, 2006 at 10:27 am

    So this Amalek is Esau’s son (Gen 36:12)? Interesting b/c I made such a big deal about Esau and Jacob’s reconciliation, but their posterity seems to have rekindled the ill feelings. More interesting to me is that the scriptures here are so silent regarding the reasons for the ill feelings….

  19. Jim F. on April 18, 2006 at 11:03 pm

    I’m glad to hear that the hermeneutics post and discussion were useful. However, in the discussion I realized I had not been clear. My remarks were easily misunderstood. To try to waylay any misunderstanding by someone going to the thread from here and, perhaps, not reading the discussion, let me repeat a comment that I made in comment number 34:

    Learning about scripture is not a matter of learning something that is merely internal to the scriptures. My experience is that I have learned and continue to learn a great deal from the scriptures, things about myself, things about God’s relation to me and his demands of me, things about the commandments–on and on. All of those things are things about our lives together here, not just things we learn if we treat the scriptures as hypothetically true. But what I have learned has come because I gave up treating the scriptures as if they were either naive history (the best description that an unrelenting secularism can give them) or a history written in the way we currently understand it (the usual view of those we call–I think mistakenly–literalists).

    The scriptures teach me how to see the world, neither through the eyes of thorough-going secularism nor through the eyes of a fundamentalism that takes most of its understanding of the holy from an out-dated secularism, but through the eyes of God and his prophets. When I see the world that way, there are things that I cannot answer intellectually–such as how much of the world the flood covered–but they cease to be important. However, the kinds of things you mention remain important. Can God work miracles? I can be skeptical about the flood. I can perhaps be skeptical about some other particular miracle. But I see no way to take the scriptures seriously, to see the world that they open to me, without seeing a God of miracles, a God who answers prayers–and also one who often does not answer them as we would like.

    In my times of trial, nothing I suspect in comparison to yours, several things have, together, kept me going. Standing out among them are the faith and confidence of my wife, prayer, the remembrance of past blessings, and the scriptures. They are not merely allegorical. They are not merely stories. They are not to be treated merely hypothetically. But I can neither teach nor understand them if I approach them from the understanding of things that the contemporary world–secular and fundamentalist–has given me. However, because I do not think that fundamentalism is the alternative to secularism, I also do not believe that understanding the scriptures as they understand themselves and seeing the world that they give to me means rejecting every other possible understanding. I am comfortable having understandings that cannot be made part of a final rational structure because I do not believe that the world has such a structure. The scriptures reveal God’s world to me, but there are also other revelations of the world, many of which have a place in human existence.


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