This is the one. This is the podcast you’ve been waiting for, admit it. This is the one where we finally get to the big Bible question on everyone’s mind and give a definitive answer: DOES THE BIBLE REALLY SAY IT’S WRONG TO BOIL A GOAT IN ITS MOTHER’S MILK? Patience, my friends, we’ll get there. For now, just sit back, relax, and let’s crack open THE BOOK.
Hello, and welcome to BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. I’m Josh Way. Many well meaning first-time bible readers start at the beginning, sail along through the adventures of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Jacob and Moses, and then hit Exodus chapter 20 like a brick wall. Things were going so well! There were families and floods and murders and plagues, but now all of a sudden it’s all laws and feasts and rules and stonings. The “Law of the Covenant,” to our modern sensibilities, kills the momentum of the Bible’s storyline and can even make us uncomfortable with its details. What are we to make of all the legal material in the Bible? Are these God’s universal laws for all humanity? Are they just relics of an ancient society? Do they have anything to do with history or literature or the storyline of the Bible? Should we even bother reading them, and if so, HOW should we do it?
We’ll deal with all of these questions as thoroughly as we can. But as always, the first work is to catch up on the story and read some text. When we last left the Israelites, they had just escaped from Egypt in a spectacular action sequence with high production values and thousands of extras. Free from bondage and newly united as a people, Israel now embarked on what should have been a month-long journey to their new home (which was their old home, according to the boundary markers set up by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in Genesis). The trip takes a little longer than expected, however. About forty years longer.
And this is where the story slows down and begins to lose us. The Israelites – now anywhere from 50 to 500 thousand people, depending on your reading of the Hebrew in Exodus 12:37 – embark on a series of misadventures in the desert and don’t seem particularly motivated to get on with the task at hand. In fact, listen to this bit from Exodus chapter 16, just two chapters after the dramatic passage through the Red Sea. Starting in verse 2:
 And the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.  The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat and ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.”
So unhappy are the Israelites with their experience in the desert that these ex-slaves are daydreaming about being back in Egyptian bondage, where water was abundant and at least they had meals every day. This grumbling continues and God responds with some “miraculous” acts of provision, including a bread-like substance called “manna” which appears each morning with the dew, and an infestation of quail, but the overall reaction of the people continues to be a resounding “MEH.” (“Manna,” by the way, like burning bushes and locusts and blood in the Nile, turns out to be based on a known natural phenomenon native to the deserts of the Near East. Once again the “miracle” involves extraordinary timing and volume, but a mundane medium.)
After several of these episodes and lots of seemingly aimless wandering, the Israelites come to Mount Sinai, and some spectacular things begin to happen. But what was the point of all that hanging around and complaining? Let’s keep in mind that the Bible, whatever else it may be, is foremost a work of composed literature. There are no wasted bits, no “boring parts” that don’t contribute anything to the story. They only seem that way to us because of our cultural distance and unfamiliarity with this form of storytelling.
Do you remember back in the first podcast when we read a weird, kind of ugly story from the book of Judges about the gruesome murder of an obese king? We observed that it was part of a polemic meant to embarrass the old guarde of Israel and to make a strong case that the nation needed a king. The story was ugly and uncomfortable because it was supposed to be. It wasn’t just a report, it was part of an argument. This is how ALL Bible texts work, not just the “political” or “religious” ones. They are all religious, they are all political, and they are all artful and persuasive.
This is also the key to appreciating the structure of Exodus. Israel’s wandering between Egypt and Sinai is a necessary part of an argument. It’s the answer to our question, “why does Israel need all of those weird laws and feasts and holidays?” It shows us exactly why Israel needs a law and a calendar, just as Judges showed us in brutal detail why Israel needed a king. And the law – which we’ll delve into in just a moment – isn’t just necessary, it’s the BIG FAT HAIRY DEAL of the whole Exodus story. If God had simply rescued the Israelites from Egypt to be free and left to their own devices, they would never have kept the band together. The stories of wandering and grumbling show that a single, dramatic, shared experience wasn’t enough to give them the identity they needed to survive as a unified nation. The argument is: the law is good, the law is life. The law is the only hope for these lost, wandering people. Now, to the law itself…
Israel comes to Mount Sinai, also known as Mount Horeb, which – according to the text in chapter 3 – is where Moses originally met God in the “burning bush.” This kind of cyclical storytelling is also very common in the Bible. Check this out: Moses, vulnerable and unsure of himself, comes to the mountain and encounters God, who gives him a new identity, a new task, and seals the deal by disclosing his own name. Now Moses returns with all the Hebrews in tow, grumbling, vulnerable and unsure of themselves, and they all “meet” God on the same mountain once again, where he gives them all a new identity. He gives them the Ten Commandments.
Here is Exodus chapter 20:
[20:1] God spoke all these words, saying,
 “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of slavery.
 “You shall have no other gods besides me.
 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me,  but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
 “You shall not swear falsely by the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not clear the one who swears falsely by his name.
 “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work,  but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male or female servant, or your livestock, or the stranger who is within your settlement.  For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.
 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
 “You shall not murder.
 “You shall not commit adultery.
 “You shall not steal.
 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”
 All the people witnessed the thunder and flashes of lightning and the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking, and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance.  “You speak to us,” they said to Moses, “and we will obey; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.”  Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come only to test you, that the fear of him may be with you, so that you won’t go astray.”  The people remained at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick cloud where God was.
In a spectacular theophany (or “divine special appearance”) Israel’s God delivers ten commandments to his people. Actually, in this text they are called “devarim,” “words.” They won’t be referred to as “mitzvot” or “commandments” until later in the Torah. The ten words (ten being the number of perfection or completeness) are more than just a list of rules one must avoid breaking in order to find favor with God. In fact, the Hebrew words here are notably unusual. English translations say “thou shalt not” or “you shall not,” but the actual sense of the Hebrew is a little bit different. Instead of “thou shalt not,” it really should say something like “you do not…” “You do not murder.” “You do not steal,” and so on. What’s the difference? These are statements of fact, of identity, rather than just rules or obligations or entreaties. Like the strange ritual instructions we looked at during the Exodus story, these are boundary markers that show Israel how to go about being Israel. It’s all about identity.
The big question on our minds is, “Were the Ten Commandments just for Israel, or are they for everyone, and are they for today?” Of course the scope of that question is a little bigger than this humble podcast, but let’s just look at the text and gather some clues to point us in the right direction. First off, we need to recognize that these “words” are presented in a very specific ancient format. They are presented as COVENANT STIPULATIONS. Remember all those little agreements, the treaties made between God and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Well now God is pictured making a huge covenant with the whole people of Israel, but this time there are stipulations attached to the treaty. He says, “I’ll be your God, and you’ll be my people, and here’s what my people are like…”
The “preamble” to the devarim is the typical opening of an ancient treaty, wherein the king identifies himself and the authority by which he is making the agreement. “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt.” That’s a pretty context-specific opening for a “universal” set of laws. The first three stipulations are all about how Israel is to regard their God. In a world full of religious options and regional gods, they will focus all of their attention on this one. They will also avoid making carved religious images and swearing frivolous oaths in the name of this god. Outside of the context of Exodus, these might sound like universal tenets of monotheism, but within the biblical story they are clearly a boundary marker for the Israelites, who are historically prone to wandering off with neighboring gods.
The fourth commandment, about observing the Sabbath, is also remarkably specific to Israel. Note the appeal to creation in this commandment. “Observe the Sabbath because God made the world in seven days…” Later, in Deuteronomy, when the Ten Commandments are repeated, the order is different and this commandment has a new rationale: “Remember the Sabbath because you were slaves in Egypt and God delivered you.” This reinforces the connection between CREATION and EXODUS as well as the specifically Israelite context of the commandments in general.
But in particular, our biggest clue about how to read the commandments is the very specific list of who should not be working on the Sabbath, in verse 10: “you or your servants, or your livestock, or the sojourner at your gate.” Having servants, owning livestock, welcoming sojourning visitors at the gate… All of these activities have a very specific context for a very specific time and place. These are all features of life in ancient Canaan, the life that lies immediately in store for Israel after the Exodus. And then look at the commandment about honoring your father and your mother: “that your days may be long in the land the Lord your God is giving to you.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Ten Commandments were – like the Passover feast, and the seven-day calendar – designed for Israel in this moment in history, to be a foundation and a definition of who they were and where they were headed. This is not to say the principles presented in the commandments have no value beyond Israel’s borders, but I think it does begin to answer our questions about how we should read them today.
Of course, if the ten commandments were the only feature of the covenant arrangement made at Mount Sinai, there might not be such confusion for modern readers like us. But the stipulations continue, and the next several chapters are full of laws and rules. There are over 600 laws in all described throughout the rest of the Torah. Here are just a few from Exodus:
[20:25] If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it.
[21:22] “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose, and he shall pay as the judge determines.  But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life,  eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
 “When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox shall not be liable.  But if the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not kept it in, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death.
[22:16] “If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife.
 “You shall not permit a sorceress to live.
 “Whoever lies with an animal shall be put to death.
 “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.  You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child.  If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry,  and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.
[23:19] “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.”
The law goes on like this, addressing many common aspects of daily life in the ancient Near East. Many of the details are foreign or even shocking to us, but in the world of the Bible they are familiar and even mundane. The relationship between the Ten and the rest of the laws is unclear in the text. Some have argued that the ten devarim are the foundational principles, and the rest of the laws are the contextualization. This may be the case, but it is not obvious in the text. Others have tried to organize all of the laws into categories: “moral law,” “civil law,” “religious law,” and so on. This is handy when you want to suggest that some of the laws are binding, universal precepts while allowing others to fade into obscurity, but again – the categories are nowhere to be found in the text. That approach just doesn’t hold up.
My point is not that we should just dismiss all of this legal material as irrelevant and pretend it’s not there. Whether you believe devoutly in the Bible or think it’s regressive and outdated, the important thing is to get all the pieces in the right place and appreciate it for what it is, not what we imagine it to be. To read the Exodus story without the Law in place is to miss the point entirely. Likewise, to pull these laws out of their ancient context and preach them at your neighbors is interpretively dishonest and hypocritical. The irony of both practices is that they take a legal corpus firmly rooted in history and literature and turn it into something ugly and arbitrary.
Let’s sum it up like this: The Covenant Law is the founding document – the Constitution – of ancient Israel, and as such it reflects their lifestyles, their social structures, their economy and their environment. Its tells Israel how to be Israel and make the most of the reality of life in Canaan. And for modern Jews who consider themselves heirs of this covenant, the Law remains a central pillar of their identity. For the rest of us, it offers a glimpse, an insight into a unique ancient society with a very pronounced and specific notion of what it means to be human, and what it means for different types of humans to live together in a land as “the people of God.”
There is much more we could say about the Torah Law. We could inspect each rule and compare them with ancient parallels such as Hammurabi’s Code. We could look at the surprisingly distinctive sense of justice and debt-forgiveness found in some of the laws, and struggle with those principles which seem diametrically opposed to our modern notions of right and wrong. But I think we’re at least pointed in the right direction, and ready to quickly move on through the rest of the scroll of Exodus.
After the giving of the Law, Moses and his newly established team of elders and priests (headed up by his brother Aaron) begin to plan the design and construction of a “tabernacle,” a moveable temple in which to make sacrifices to God. Artists and engineers from among the Israelites will draw up the designs, and gifts given to the people by sympathetic Egyptians will furnish the materials. Not unlike the interminable chapters of law, the descriptions of the tabernacle and its furnishings are long and repetitive. But once again the literary structure of the last section of Exodus is very telling. The long accounts of the planning of the tabernacle on the one hand, and the building of it on the other, are separated by an outrageous and seemingly unrelated little story which is, of course, absolutely related.
Here’s the story, from Exodus 32:
[32:1] When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”  So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”  So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.  And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”  When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.”
And jumping down to verse 15:
 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets that were written on both sides; on the front and on the back they were written.  The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.  When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.”  But he said, “It is not the sound of shouting for victory, or the sound of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing that I hear.”  And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain.  He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it.
The people grumble, and in Moses’ absence they convince his brother Aaron – Israel’s first priest – to make them a “golden calf” to worship. When Moses comes down the mountain with the commandments and discovers what was most likely a fertility festival, he loses it and smashes the stone tablets on the ground. The thing to note here is that Israel is indeed breaking the second commandment – the one about carved images – but they are not necessarily breaking the first. According to the text they are not worshiping a different god, they are worshiping YHWH, the LORD, but they are doing so in an unacceptable way. God has already told Moses to build the tabernacle so he can visit his people and “live” among them, but the impatient Israelites opt instead for the easy fix of a pagan fertility idol.
And this is the point of the story and its placement between the designing and building of the tabernacle. It’s the same theme that has been running through the entire scroll: Left to her own devices, Israel is lost. Israel needs the law, they need the priests, and they need the tabernacle, or else they will fall into old habits and ultimately into “apostacy.” This message makes even more sense when you remember who the likely authors of the Torah are: Israel’s priests. This is their reminder to the people of what the alternatives are. Exodus ends with the construction of the tabernacle, the tent-temple in which Israel’s prayers and sacrifices would be offered until they would settle in the land, at which point a permanent temple might be built.
And with that, our journey through the scroll of Exodus is complete. I may not have answered all of your burning questions about the Bible and its commandments, but I hope we did establish some of the historical and literary reality surrounding them. It’s no understatement to say that understanding Exodus is a key – perhaps THE key – to understanding the rest of the Bible, even the New Testament. The themes of LAND, OFFSPRING, CREATION, COVENANT, REDEMPTION and JUSTICE come together in Exodus to form a template which will be the basis for how Israel looks at the world for the rest of their history. And it’s still true today that Exodus is the defining rubric of the Jewish worldview. Every Passover, Jews around the world gather to celebrate that same old feast, and when they open their haggadah, their Passover Scripture book, they all read together. And they don’t say, “A long time ago, God rescued our ancestors from Egypt.” They say, “Tonight is the night, THIS is the night that Hashem brought us out of Egypt!” For them, Exodus isn’t just ancient history. It’s a present and shared reality. It’s who they are, and the biblical scroll of the same name is how we can discover who they are.
This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. And I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast, I urge you to share, blog, like, and tweet it to your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.