As ever, there is a great deal of material in this reading. Perhaps the overviews I provide of each chapter (including some material on chapters 21-21) will help put matters in context. As you read the chapters ask yourselves what kinds of parallels, types, and other meanings 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?” Thinking about how someone else understands these things might help us see things we would otherwise miss.
For this lesson, rather than asking questions about each verse, I will give an overview of selected chunks of verse and then ask questions about them. I’m trying to figure out a manageable way of dealing with the large portions of text assigned. I worry that creating many pages of detailed questions about verse after verse is more likely to intimidate someone and make close scripture study less likely rather than more. So this is an attempt at a different approach.
A hint for reading the story anew: as you read, remember that the story was written for theological purposes rather than for historical ones. The writer is telling the story of Israel so that we will learn something about God and his relation to his people, not so that we will know the facts concerning Israel’s movement from Egypt to Canaan. That is not, of course, to say that the events didn’t happen. It is just to say that the writer, traditionally assumed to be Moses but probably redacted by later editors (as was the Book of Mormon), tells us the things he does—and, presumably, omits the things he does—in order to fulfill his purposes. As you read, therefore, ask yourself about the theological purposes of the things you read: what is the narrator showing us about God’s relation to Israel? about Israel’s relation to God?
Chapter 15: Moses and Miriam rejoice 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 22-27). Were I to choose a theme for this chapter as well as chapter 16 and the first part of 17, it would be “The Lord provides for his people.”
How would Israelites have understood this miracle? How would Jews understand it today? What can the miracle of the waters of Marah symbolize for a Christian? Is it reasonable, for example, to compare the tree to the cross?
How does the promise made in verse 26 compare to the blessing promised the descendants of Lehi over and over again in the Book of Mormon: “If ye keep my commandments, ye will prosper”? What does that commandment mean to the Israelites? To the Lehites? To us?
Notice that this way of making covenants—the promise of obedience by the inferior party brings the promise of blessing and judgment by the Lord—is common in all Old Testament covenants as it is also throughout the ancient Near East. How far can we go in assuming that the properties of covenant peculiar to that culture at that time are properties of all covenants with God?
Why doesn’t the narrator tell us anything about how the Israelites responded to God’s offer of a covenant relation in verse 26?
Chapter 16: When the Israelites hunger and complain, the Lord appears to them and promises manna and quails.
Are the Israelites exaggerating when they complain that in Egypt they had plenty of meat and could eat bread until they were full (verse 3)?
Why does Moses promise that Israel will “see the glory of the Lord” (verse 7)? Isn’t it strange for them to receive such a blessing in response to their murmuring? Few righteous today receive that blessing. Why was it given to murmuring Israel?
The experience of Israel here at a place called Sin (a name that has nothing to do with our word “sin”) anticipates the experience they will have at Sinai when the Lord will appear to Israel. Why does the Lord give them this preview, as it were?
What did the manna and the quails mean to ancient Israel? What might they mean to Jews today? What things might they mean to us?
What is the point of having manna last only one day, except on the Sabbath, when it lasts two? What does the story in verses 22-30? Remember that this is prior to the time when the Lord gave Israel the Ten Commandments. Does tell us anything about the Sabbath? What might it suggest about the rest of the Ten Commandments?
Chapter 17: The Israelites thirst and complain; the Lord provides water (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?
Note that in verse 2 Moses equates Israel’s quarrel with him, on the one hand, and them testing (“tempting”) the Lord, on the other.
Compare and contrast the Israelite motif of them doubting Moses, followed by proof that God is with him, with the Nephite motif of prosperity, followed by pride and then war. What do these suggest? Are they versions of the same cycle? How so or not so?
Why does Moses name the place “Testing and Contention”? Is it significant that Moses has reversed the order of the events: first they contended with him, then they tested the Lord?
Chapter 17: Amalek attacks and is defeated (verses 8-16).
Why do you think the ancient Israelites kept this record in their holy books? In other words, how was it spiritually or theologically relevant to them? How might it be relevant to us?
Might the fact that the Amalekites are descendants of Esau also be a reason for keeping a record of this battle, the first battle of Israel as a nation? What purpose would it serve in that case?
What is the point of Moses’ name for the altar he has built: “the Lord is my ensign”? What do you make of Moses’ explanation in verse 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?
As a Midianite, Jethro is a descendant of Abraham’s wife, Keturah (Genesis 25:1-6). Is Moses’ marriage into Jethro’s family theologically significant? Does it tell us anything about the fate of Abraham’s family? If so, how is that related to the Abrahamic covenant? Is it significant that Moses is reunited with his family at “the mount of God” (verse 5), Mount Sinai? How might this unification of the two sides of Abraham’s family be relevant to the Sinai covenant that is about to be given?
How is the information of D&C 84:6-14 relevant to what we see happening in this reunion of Moses and his family?
Why does Jethro rather than Moses offer the burnt offering (verse 12)?
Does Israel distinguish between sacred and civil law? So what? Does that tell us anything about how Israel understood its covenant with the Lord?
On what authority can Jethro tell Moses that God commands him to take Jethro’s advice?
Chapter 19: The Lord reveals his covenant with Israel to Moses: they are to be a peculiar, in other words special or valued, treasure, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation (verses 1-6). (See also Deuteronomy 14:2.) 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).
Note: André LaCocque (“Thou Shalt Not Kill,” in André LaCoque and Paul Ricouer, Thinking Biblically: Exegetical and Hermeneutical Studies, translated by David Pellauer [Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 2008], 71-109, esp. 74-75) argues that the Mosaic Law was originally understood as something much more like Wisdom literature—sound advice for living a holy life—than like juridical law, that it came to be understood in juridical terms only after the return from Exile. He quotes Rolf Knierim: “The motivation for observing the law is not fear of punishment but the desire to conform to the will of God.” If that is true, then when Jesus preached against the ancient Pharisees he was not introducing something new, but calling Israel to return to the original understanding of the Law. One could probably say the same thing about Paul’s teaching.
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 (verse 6)? (The phrase “kingdom of priests” appears to refer to Israel as a whole rather than saying that it will be a kingdom in which there are some priests.) With what is the Lord making a contrast? In other words, what would a kingdom be that wasn’t a kingdom of priests? For what people would Israel serve as priests? If Israel were itself a nation of priests, if everyone were a priest, then presumably they would be priests for someone else.
What do you make of the promise in verse 11 that the Lord will appear to all?of Israel? When he does appear, how does he do so (verses 18-19)?
Chapter 20: The Lord gives Israel the Ten Commandments (verses 1-17). The people fear, and they 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).
John I. Durham (Word Biblical Commentary: Volume 3, Exodus [Dallas: Word Books, 1987], 274) call the Ten Commandments “Yahweh’s Principles for Life in Covenant.” Does thinking of the Ten Commandments in those terms give us a different perspective on them? How so?
What do you make of the fact that the first commandment does not say that the Lord is the only God, but that he is the only God whom we may worship? What does it tell us about Israel that, in essence, it is defined by the fact that it worships Yahweh, the Lord?
Why are the second (no graven images) and fourth (remember the Sabbath) commandments so much longer, more expanded, than the other eight? Ought we to infer anything for ourselves from this?
Given ancient Near Eastern culture and society, we ought to be surprised that the fifth commandment (honor your parents) specifically mentions both the father and the mother. (Compare Leviticus 19:3, which reverses the order: “mother and father.”) What do you make of this exception to the norm?
Why does the Lord use adultery as perhaps the predominant figure of sin against him and as a symbol of idoltry? (See, for example, Jeremiah 3:1 and Isaiah 57:1-13.)
Deuteronomy 14:2, which duplicates the language of Exodus 19:5-5, suggests that the Law itself 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.” 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 might 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?
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