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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

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Exodus

Lawrence Boadt

General Structure of the Book of Exodus

Exodus begins where Genesis leaves off. With Egypt now prosperous because of the efforts of Joseph, while Jacob and his sons enjoy great blessings there themselves, one might think that all the promises to Abraham in Genesis 12, 1–3 have been fulfilled as Exodus opens. Exodus 1, 1–7 hints as much. But the drama is to continue with a cruel twist of fate in which blessing turns to desperation, and then in a surprising rebound, a new blessing unfolds that reveals Israel's destiny is not to be in the land of Egypt but in Palestine. Like Genesis, Exodus is a tension‐filled dramatic play in which we discover God's mysterious purposes at work. Scholars see parallels between this book and a variety of well‐known literary types, such as the classic “hero as rescuer” story, or the mythical pattern of God the mighty warrior establishing his rule over enemy powers, or the rite of passage (and purification) in which Israel goes from a slave childhood to responsible covenant adulthood. It perhaps shares elements of all of these, but stands in the end as a unique literary creation.

A Literary Overview of the Book as a Whole

We must therefore expect that this book, too, like Genesis, will be structured quite artistically and purposefully. It has two major halves: chapters 1 through 18 and 19 through 40 . The first half carries the story line from success and security in the land of Egypt down through enslavement, and up again in deliverance and escape into a desolate wilderness to a meeting with God at Mount Sinai. These chapters create an exciting action story that keeps the reader wondering whether the people will really reach their goal of freedom and a new security. This is achieved by returning to each theme again and again so that they are never quite resolved; a certain tension remains whether God will be completely successful and whether the people will continue to follow where Moses is taking them—right up to the moment that they arrive at the mountain of God. Questions abound and add to the drama: Is God's promise in doubt? It seems so; yet at this same moment, God is already setting a new plan in motion with the birth of Moses. Will Moses respond to God's plan as Joseph did? Can God overcome the magic power of Pharaoh? Will the people follow Moses? When God delivers, will they believe enough to leave Egypt? In the trials of the desert, will they remain faithful? Each question receives its answer. Each stage prepares for the next. So we can diagram the book as an interlocking puzzle (see RG 117 ).

The second half, in chapters 19 through 40 , dwells at length on two key activities that take place at the mountain. The first is the making of a covenant between God and the people, and the second is the description of two key elements of divine worship: the building of a sanctuary tent and an ark to serve as God's throne, and the establishment of priestly ministers. Dramatic tension is maintained here also, as observed in the people's idolatry in chapter 32 ; but much more so than in the first half, it establishes an orderly balance and state of security by the proclamation of the law by God and the people's oath to keep the covenant, followed by the orderly and well‐planned description of the sanctuary and its auxiliary elements. This effect of balance is also achieved by interlocking the legal and liturgical descriptions. The descent of the glory of God into the sanctuary in chapter 40, 34–38 concludes the book, with the people united to the divine presence in harmony much as they were at the beginning of the book in chapter 1 , but now with a far different destiny.

So the book is really an intricate mixture of narratives and legal regulations for the community. This did not happen by accident. The story of God's act of merciful liberation from slavery lays the foundation for his merciful guarantee to be with the people for all times that is reflected in the laws and institutions for public worship.

A Second Way of Dividing the Book

Besides the larger and more complicated plan of the book, we might better divide it for ease of study into the three geographical regions in which God meets Israel:

  • 1. Exodus 1–12 In the land of Egypt God works wonders to free the people from slavery;

  • 2. Exodus 13–18 In the wilderness God guides the people to safety and a personal encounter;

  • 3. Exodus 19–40 At Mount Sinai God establishes a community in covenant, law, and worship.

In each of these sections, Moses plays a leading role as God's agent, but there is never any doubt who controls the action. This is a story where God acts in each and every place with power and authority—no land or king is outside of the divine lordship. In tracing the thread of divine action through the long series of events described in the book, we need to be alert to the sudden and unexpected. What appears to be a hopeless situation where everything may be lost is suddenly changed. God turns near‐defeat into victory, near‐despair to triumph. In a certain way, the story is constructed like the traditional psalms of lamentation that we find so often in the Psalter. A situation of desperate need calls forth a cry for help to God; God hears and answers their prayers with aid; and the people sing the divine praises (compare Psalms 7, 10, and 53 ).

Helps for Individual Sections of Exodus

In studying Exodus 1–18 , there will be very little problem following the story line or plot of the drama. We must recall that there will be a number of inconsistencies and duplications because of the combination of the three major sources which all reported the Exodus event. But these have been worked together smoothly for the most part, and only a careful examination will show how they are present. For many passages in these chapters, however, selected pieces of historical information or examples from other ancient peoples' literatures may help us to understand them more deeply.

Exodus 1: The Egyptian Setting

The narrative begins with a time of success in Egypt, but soon moves to a pharaoh “who knew nothing of Joseph” (verse 8 ), and began to oppress the Hebrew people. But who was this new pharaoh and when did this happen? To answer these questions, we can consider some significant kings of Egypt for the period between 1700 and 1200 BC.

  • Dynasties 14–17: Hyksos (foreign Semitic conquerors) rule

  • Dynasty 18: Revival of native Egyptian kings from Thebes

    • THUTMOSE I (1512–1500 BC) extended Egyptian power to Asia
    • THUTMOSE III (1490–1436 BC) subdued much of western Asia
    • AMENHOTEP III (1402–1363 BC), pharaoh during period of unrest in western Asia
    • AKHENATEN (1363–1347 BC) founded a new religion centered on one god only, the Aten, or sun‐disc
    • TUTANKHAMUN (1347–1338 BC), boy‐king whose tomb was found completely untouched; restored earlier religion of the god Amun to power
    • HOREMHAB (1333–1303 BC), a usurper of the throne who ended the dynasty by dying childless
  • Dynasty 19: A period of trying to hold on to the large empire

    • SETI I (1300–1290 BC), major shift in policy toward the lands in Asia, possibly strong against local Semitic‐population groups
    • RAMESSES II (1290–1223 BCc), moved the capital to the Delta area nearest Asia to fight against Semites
    • MERNEPTAH (1223–1210 BC), left behind an inscription stating he conquered “Israel” in Palestine
  • Dynasty 20: Period of loss of empire

    • RAMESSES III (1198–1166 BC) had to fight off the Philistines

The Bible itself gives suggested dates for the time of the Exodus. 1 Kings 6, 1 says the Temple of Solomon was built 480 years after Israel left Egypt; Exodus 12, 40 states that the Israelites had been in Egypt 430 years when they departed with Moses. If such dates are exact—and probably they are not, because they appear to be rounded out or even symbolic (12 times 40 years suggests twelve generations)—two different centuries are at stake. If the Temple was built around 960 BC, it would place the Exodus in 1440 BC; and if the Joseph traditions are associated with the Hyksos invasion of Egypt, then a date around 1270 BC is probable. Of the two, most scholars favor the latter possibility. It falls in the time of Ramesses II who did build the towns of Pithom and Raamses as Exodus 1, 11 says, and the thirteenth century BC was generally a troubled time in which a band of refugees just might be able to make their escape. A major departure under the strong rulers of the eighteenth dynasty, especially under the most powerful of all Egyptian kings, Thutmose III, seems much less likely.

Exodus 2–4 : The Choice of Moses

There are several difficult questions raised by the story of Moses' origins. He is pictured as an Israelite, but his name and upbringing are Egyptian. He seems to know he is a Hebrew when he kills the Egyptian in chapter 2 , but he is not trusted by his own people. He flees and makes his home among Midianites, where he meets God in their territory not among his own people. Even his rescue from death by means of a basket in the river is strange. It looks very much like a long‐known legend of king Sargon of Akkad, who lived a thousand years earlier. Sargon was supposedly left to die as an infant by his royal parents but was secretly hidden in a basket by his maid and sent down the river. He was rescued and raised by a fisherman, and came back to rule years later. The use of this story illustrates how Moses was a figure larger than life to Israel. Although well known as a person from the Israelites' actual past experience, and central to the most important event in their history, Moses is still described in terms more like the great mythical heroes of Genesis 1–11 , or of the founding fathers Abraham and Jacob. He dominates every book of the Pentateuch except Genesis and, when his death is finally recorded in Deuteronomy 34, 1–8 , he leaves the earth at 120 years old in the full vigor of youth and to a grave unknown. Thus, we must expect the initial encounter with such a person will be spectacular.

Note that chapters 2 through 4 form a series of scenes in a play: (1) The birth of the hero in a nearly miraculous fashion forces us to wonder what his mission in life will be; (2) The situation begins to look desperate—he is neither respected nor successful and ends up fleeing to barbarians for his safety; (3) There he is called to a nearly impossible task by God and accepts reluctantly (Ex 3, 1–12 ); (4) God gives him a special revelation of the divine name and an intimacy in communication not offered to others (Ex 3, 12–22 ); (5) God is forced to confirm the promise, reassure Moses about his mission, and give him his brother Aaron as a helper to speak on his behalf (Ex 4, 1–22 ); (6) Finally, the people accept him and his mission (Ex 4, 28–31 ).

Two notes might be added to help understand this section better:

The call of Moses has a certain pattern to it that is used throughout the Bible as the model of a call of the great prophets and leaders. Note that it is made up of the following stages:

  • 1. God appears or speaks to Moses (Ex 3, 1–4 )

  • 2. He explains the reason for his coming (Ex 3, 4–9 )

  • 3. He commissions Moses to his task (Ex 3, 10 )

  • 4. Moses objects (Ex 3, 11 )

  • 5. God reassures him and insists (Ex 3, 12 )

  • 6. God follows with a sign or prediction (Ex 3, 12; 4, 1–5 )

Note similar patterns for the call of the prophets and others. See table on RG 120 .

The revelation of the divine name to Moses is a very special moment in the story. Note how it may be the combination of both the J and E sources because of the way it starts in Exodus 3, 1 with “the Lord” (J), and continues with “God” (E). To prepare Moses to understand the meaning of the name, God first reveals that this is the same God known to his ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (a statement repeated three times in this chapter for emphasis!), and that God is showing love and compassion as he had done in the past when giving the promises to those earlier generations. It then comes to the moment in verse 13 when Moses asks for God's identity more clearly. The text gives several versions of the divine name: “I am who am,” “I am,” and “He who is” (or better, “He who causes to be”). The one certain thing is that all of these come from the same verb in Hebrew, hayah, the verb “to be.” It is not usual to use the verb in this way. So, on the one hand, God refuses to give a regular name, but hides his real identity behind claims that He simply exists. And, on the other hand, the name suggests that God exists for something specific; in this case for the salvation of Israel. Since the unique first person form, “I am who am,” is found only here in Exodus 3, 14 , the third‐person form, yhwh, must mean either “He who makes this happen” (that is, the great act of salvation about to be performed), or, just possibly, it identifies God as the creator that causes all things to be. At least in this one event, the addition of the first person “I am” strongly suggests that God is, above all, assuring Israel that “I am always with you.”

The word Yahweh occurs 6,823 times in the Old Testament and, following a very ancient Jewish custom, we traditionally do not use this name in prayer but replace it out of reverence for the divine greatness with the more formal “ Lord.” This is the practice throughout the NAB translation. Whenever the word appears in that way, printed in capitals and small capitals, it means that the underlying Hebrew word is Yahweh.

Exodus 5–12 : Confrontation with the Pharaoh

The structure of these chapters also follows the pattern of a drama. There is Moses' initial attempts to show God's power to Pharaoh, and his subsequent frustration when the powers of Egyptian magicians seem as strong as God's ( 5, 1–13 ). Then the people themselves grumble that Moses is making things worse ( 5, 14–21 ). Chapter 6 opens with what seems to repeat the call of Moses from chapters 3 and 4 , but scholars believe it was a separate account of the call of Moses from the P source. The editors added it to reinforce God's promise not to abandon Moses or the people, but to bring about their liberation.

The battle heats up when God begins to send plagues upon the land. There are a few inconsistencies in their presentation that suggest originally several sources were combined. Note, for example, that sometimes Moses stretches out his staff ( 9, 22f ) and sometimes Aaron does instead ( 8, 1–3 ). The first usage is E, the second J. So, too, sometimes Pharaoh hardens his own heart, ( 9, 34 ), and sometimes God hardens his heart ( 10, 20 ). The first is J, the second is E.

The NAB notes (at 7, 14 ) that they are typical natural disasters that regularly trouble Egypt. The miracle is not in the actual plague, such as hail or gnats or flies, but in the timing of the contest between God and the pharaoh who has placed himself higher than the Lord. Can God

1. God appears Jgs 6, 11f Is 6, 1f Jer 1,4 Ez 1, l–28a
2. The reason Jgs 6, 12f Is 6, 3–7 Jer 1, 5 Ez 1, 28b—2, 2
3. Commission Jgs 6, 14 Is 6, 8–10 Jer 1, 5 Ez 2, 3–5
4. Objection Jgs 6, 15 Is 6, 11 Jer 1, 6 Ez 2, 6–8
5. Reassurance Jgs 6, 16 Is 6, llf Jer 1, 7f Ez 2, 6f
6. The sign Jgs 6, 17 ‐‐‐‐‐‐‐ Jer 1, 9f Ez 2, 8–3, 11
actually overcome the hardheartedness of the pharaoh? Each time, a plague seems to work; then it fails as the pharaoh changes his mind. The train of events struggles forward toward the climactic moment when God finally sends the tenth plague in chapter 12, 29–36 . This last plague will be an act of terror and of death: by slaying Egypt's firstborn, God symbolically ends the universal leadership of Egypt and transfers divine favor to Israel's firstborn, who were spared.

It is not an accident, therefore, that this event is prefaced with an elaborate description, not of a meal as it might have been actually eaten in fear and haste, but of the full liturgical ritual of the annual feast of Passover. This feast was developed as a liturgy to recall and relive the miracle of the Exodus, the “passing over” of the angel of death and the liberation of Israel from slavery. Part of the significant theology of the book of Exodus is the unity between later rituals and the original events. What our ancestors experienced in the land of Egypt, we relive and celebrate anew in our feasts. Christianity has at least one excellent parallel to this way of thinking in that the synoptic gospel accounts of the Last Supper recount Jesus' words over the bread and wine, just as they were recited in home eucharists of the first century. To see this for yourself, compare Paul's description in 1 Corinthians 11, 23–26 with Luke 22, 14–20 .

Exodus 13–15 : The Escape through the Sea

These chapters can be divided into three parts. The first, in Exodus 13, 1–16 , lists two further practices that the Israelites must do in order to remember how God saved them from the angel of death: (1) avoidance of leavened bread on the feast of the departure itself, and (2) the consecration of all firstborn males to God. No doubt both the avoidance of leaven and ceremonies of special dedication of a firstborn to God were practiced by Israel as well as its pagan neighbors long before the time of the Exodus. But now they are given new meaning as a reminder that the real source of Israel's life is a God who delivered them from death. They mark the moment when God confirmed that divine favor has been transferred from Egypt's firstborn to Israel's firstborn.

The second part, in Exodus 13, 17–14, 31 , gives a detailed account of how the Israelites once more escaped from the hands of the Egyptians, this time through the sea when it seemed impossible. And the third part, in Exodus 15, 1–21 , recites a song of victory that celebrates the escape through the sea and may have been a hymn for a feast day. In structure this account of the great act of rescue in chapter 13 and 14 is preceded and followed by materials that come from the religious practices of later Israelite times. This is in line with the attitude expressed in chapter 12 that saw no problem relating the Passover escape side by side with a description of the much later rituals that celebrated those events.

The form of the third part, the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15 , is quite old. Some scholars consider the basic text under the present enlarged form to be the oldest written text in the Bible. It uses extensive poetic parallelism for effect, and it breathes the spirit of God as a warrior chieftain in battle who comes to the rescue of his besieged people. The older part occurs in the first half, verses 1–12 . It tells of the actual battle that God wages; the second part in verses 13–18 recounts how God then led victorious Israel through the desert to the Promised Land. The events that are told in verses 13–18 culminate in the establishment of a shrine (or home) of God in Palestine and could not have been written before the period of Settlement, perhaps as much as two centuries after the Exodus. Nevertheless, the hymn as a whole preserves an idea of God that belongs to the time before Israel settled in Palestine and developed a monarchy. Thus, the original poem may well have been composed sometime not long after the Exodus, during the age of the judges, with further developments added to it.

Several Egyptian documents help us to understand better the cultural background of Israel's flight from Egypt. One from shortly after the time of Moses is a report of a frontier official in the Sinai, which he sent back to headquarters in Egypt, and it reveals that Egypt regularly allowed groups of tribes to pass in and out of Egypt in times of drought or famine to save their lives:

We have finished letting the Bedouin tribes of Edom pass the fortress of Mer‐ne‐Ptah Hotep‐hir‐Maat which is in [the eastern Delta area] to go to the pools of Per—Atum…to keep them alive and to keep their cattle alive.

The second document is from the same period (about 1200 BC) and describes Egyptian military searches for runaway slaves:

I was sent forth from the broad halls of the palace…after two slaves.… Now when I reached the fortress, they told me that the scout had come from the desert saying that they had passed the walled place north of the fortress of Seti‐Mer‐ne‐Ptah.… Which watch found their tracks? What people are after them? Write to me about all that has happened to them and how many people you sent out after them.

Two points can be made here: movement of groups was common across the Sinai borders, and the problems associated with slaves, slave escapes, and slave rebellions were of some concern to Egypt, as they were to later slave‐owning societies such as Rome or the American South.

Exodus 16–18 : The Hardships in the Desert of Sinai

The next stage of the journey takes the Israelites from the location of the sea to the foot of the mountain of Sinai in two months. The journey follows an itinerary which is listed for us, but unfortunately few of the places can be identified with any certainty. Even the location of Mount Sinai is open to discussion. But we can at least note some aspects with the aid of a map of the Sinai peninsula (see map 2 at the back of this book).

If we back up to the first part of the journey in chapter 13 and 14 , we discover that Israel did not travel directly toward Palestine on the main highway along the coast. Egyptian forts guarded this way, and so they avoided it ( 13, 1–7f ). Instead, they moved along the edge of the fertile Delta area just where it met the Sinai desert. The place‐names in 14, 1–3 might be located either very close to the Mediterranean coast or perhaps near a swampy lake that lay along the depression line now followed by the Suez canal.

The name Red Sea is not certain. The Hebrew name can also mean either the “reed sea” or the “sea of chaos” or “sea of the end,” which would signify doom or the final confrontation with the power of chaos in an echo of the great myths. Possibly today's Red Sea was called the “Sea of Reeds,” but it is just as possible that it designated another body of water, perhaps one of several swampy lakes; on the other hand, if “sea of chaos” was intended, it could be anywhere, since the name is to be taken in a symbolic sense for the place where the Lord would finally defeat Pharaoh's army as the servants of chaotic evil.

Thus, scholars who try to identify the place‐names in 15, 22 and following chapters have trouble knowing where to start. Marah, Elim, the desert of Sin, and Rephidim all remain mysteriously difficult to pinpoint. There are quite a number of oases throughout the Sinai, north and south, but none can be identified for certain with these names.

Usually three possible options for the route of the journey are given. The most northern route is the so‐called Way of the Philistines and was, of necessity, avoided. The second route also went across the north somewhere and was a major caravan route to both Beersheba in Palestine and to Petra in Edom. It would also have two other strong claims: it passes very near Kadesh Barnea, Israel's main camping place where, according to Deuteronomy 2, 14 , they spent thirty‐eight years; and it was territory known to support nomadic groups such as the Midianites with whom Moses had spent time. It is listed on the chart as “The Way of Shur.” A third possibility, and the one favored since Byzantine monks arrived at the very impressive mountain Jebel Musa in the sixth century AD, is the circular route along around the southern part of the Sinai peninsula. It has in its favor that Jebel Musa and its neighboring peaks are by far the most impressive mountains in Sinai. Moreover, there is strong evidence that Egypt itself mined the Sinai for gems and minerals in this area, using Semitic slaves. Such a mine has been found at Serabit el Khadim, and it is just possible that Moses knew the place. Finally, this longer route would permit the large number of moves that the books of Exodus and Numbers say the Israelites made. This is all we can say with our present knowledge.

Identifying the geography does not really explain the meaning of these chapters in reciting the lengthy journey of Israel away from Egypt. The events of Exodus 15, 22–18, 27 are not related to tracing the physical steps of the people as much as showing the tension between them and Moses. This is, above all, a tension between their frustrations with hardship and their duty to show gratitude to God for their freedom. At Marah, their grumbling leads to the lesson that God is a healer ( l5, 25f ). At Sin, the dispute over food leads God to reaffirm his goodness as provider and to reinforce his demand that the Sabbath be observed ( 16, 16–36 ). At Rephidim, the people's anger over the lack of water leads to God's gift of water from the rock as a reminder of the miracle at the Red Sea ( 17, 1–7 ). The final two events, both in chapter 18 , show first, a divine rejection of the Amalekites, and second, a positive relationship between Israel and the Midianites, who help organize judges and leaders to assist Moses. This is done with the assistance of Moses' father‐in‐law, Jethro. But it is a preparation for the greater organization around the divine commands, which are about to be given on Mount Sinai.

Exodus 19–24 : The Covenant with God

These chapters describe the high point of the Pentateuch. If we wanted to draw a diagram to show this, we might draw a highway between point A, the moment of creation, to the final point, Z, which would be the border of the promised land. This would cover the Pentateuch as a journey from Genesis 1 to Deuteronomy 34 . The highway would climb steadily through Genesis and Exodus 1–15 to the top of Mount Sinai, go along its crest from Exodus 19 to the end of Numbers 10 , and then descend forcefully to the shores of the Jordan River from Numbers 11 to the end of Deuteronomy. See diagram below .

On the crest of the mountain there is a long pause while God teaches Moses the laws by which Israel is to live. But these laws themselves are the fulfillment of the covenant that is established between God and the people in Exodus 19–24 . So, ultimately, they are one. To understand these chapters, we should first note how they are organized into four scenes. See diagram at top of next page.

In scene one, Moses goes up and down the mountain several times, which may be a sign of more than one source combined, but it all serves to create an aura of holiness and reverence. Indeed, it so resembles the awesome experience of the Temple that many scholars have understood this to be a very late introduction built around the beautiful theological definition of Israel, found in verses 4–6 : Israel is to be God's special possession.

Scene two records God's first words as a kind of summary of all that will follow. These are the key demands of any relationship with God; they cover duties toward God and toward one another and are limited to ten for easy teaching to children, who can count them on their fingers. Many of the commandments also have a special covenant motive for why they should be kept.

This is continued in scene three with an entirely different type of requirement. Unlike the Ten Commandments, which simply demand response with no answer to what will happen if you don't obey them, these requirements give a practical situation and the proper settlement of each case. The laws of chapters 21 through 23 are usually called “The Covenant Code,” and are similar to civil laws throughout the ancient Near East. It is a minisample of how to act justly under the covenant.

Finally, in scene four, the people give their full assent to the divine offer of a covenant, and it is sealed by two rituals, again, perhaps, once separate from each other: a sprinkling with blood ( 24, 3–8 ), and a covenant meal in which Moses, Aaron, and the seventy elders banquet with God ( 24, l .9–11 ).

The entire series thus combines lawgiving and ritual in an awesome setting of divine holiness and human sanctification to impress on the reader that this is the foundation stone of Israel's relationship to God and the source of all its religious obligations.

Exodus 25–40 : Establishing God's Home in Israel

Once the Lord and Israel have been solemnly joined together, the dramatic action turns toward establishing a permanent dwelling for God in the midst of the people. Chapters 25–31 and 35–40 largely repeat each other as command and fulfillment: (1) a series of directions for building and appointing, and (2) the carrying out of those directions described in detail. The perspective on the themes of building God's house, and establishing a special office of priests who will be consecrated and set aside for divine service, seem to stem largely from the later P source, which was concerned with showing that the Lord's Temple in Jerusalem had its original mandate at Mount Sinai. The desert tent and ark are described in terms of what a nomadic people of the wilderness might use; thus they are constructed to be portable. But all the major vessels and objects of the later Temple are already given a place during this desert period. In this manner, the text shows the unbroken continuity between God's earliest covenant bond and all later expressions of it. At the same time, these stories emphasize that the covenant cannot be observed unless worship is at its heart.

With this purpose in mind, the authors have taken the stories of Israel's first failure to keep the covenant, its idolatry with the golden calf, Moses' breaking the tablets of stone, and the regiving of the covenant words ( 32–34 ) and inserted them between the two halves of the sanctuary narratives. Worship and covenant are thus inseparably interlocked. See diagram below .

The Theology of the Covenant

Before moving on to the book of Leviticus, it will be worth a short reflection on the meaning of the term covenant for the faith of Israel as presented in the Pentateuch. There are several points to keep in mind:

  • • A covenant is a solemn agreement made with a religious ritual. In the early days it may have been mostly oral and put to memory, but in later biblical times it was always written in a formal document. It serves the same purpose as a contract—it is legally binding on both parties.

  • • Covenants can be made between individuals or between nations. Examples of individual covenants in the Pentateuch can be found in Genesis 26, 26–28; 31, 44–46 . National covenants are mentioned often in the historical books: Joshua 9, 3–15; 1 Kings 5, 2–12; and 1 Kings 15, 19 . It can also be made between a god and a people. For example, at the time of the flood, God promises Noah a covenant in Genesis 9, 4–12 ; and Abraham receives a covenant in Genesis 15, 10–21 .

  • • These covenants between nations or with gods are modeled after typical treaties known throughout the ancient Near East. The particular type found at Mount Sinai is called a vassal treaty because it is made between a great king or ruler and a lesser subject state. A vassal treaty is not an equal deal. The great king promises kindness and favor; the vassal promises a long list of particular obligations that will be performed faithfully.

  • • These treaties were considered to be valid for all time. They could not be taken back or rejected once solemnly made.

  • • There are examples of covenant treaties from both seventh‐century Assyria and the thirteenth‐century Hittites. Biblical wording shows similarities to aspects of both forms. But the clearest model of a typical vassal treaty is known from the Hittite examples. It has six parts:

    • 1. A preamble stating the name of the parties.
    • 2. A historical listing of all the good things the great king has done for the vassal.
    • 3. The laws and obligations that the vassal must perform.
    • 4. A directive that the document be saved and read publicly.
    • 5. A list of gods who witness the treaty.
    • 6. Lists of curses the gods will bring on those who break the treaty, and the blessings given to the parties if they keep it.
  • • If we take these six steps, we can see them present in Exodus 19–24 in a general way:

No gods witness the treaty because in Israelite belief there are no other gods who can testify to what the Lord does. However, we must not push these similarities too far. Exodus describes, first of all, a momentous event of encountering, and then promising exclusive worship to, the Lord who has saved and shown himself a benefactor to this small refugee people.

Only later did the full legal treaty language become fixed in the tradition, such as in the covenant summary statement often found in the prophets, “You shall be my people and I will be your God” (Jer 7, 23; 11, 4; 24, 7; Ez 11, 20; 14, 11; Hos 2, 25 , etc.). Perhaps closer to the original formula of the covenant relationship is the moving proclamation put first on God's own lips in Exodus 20, 5f and then again in the renewal of the covenant in 34, 6f : “The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity, continuing his kindness for a thousand generations, and forgiving wickedness and crime and sin; yet not declaring the guilty guiltless …” This same text, as indicated by John Paul II in Dives in Misericordia, is the basis of Israel's hope, and therefore the hope of the modern world (#4).

We can appreciate the power of the idea of a covenant because it confirms the special relationship that Israel claimed with the Lord, based on a unique and moving personal experience of the favor of that God for them. At first the covenant was mostly celebrated in worship with a national sense of destiny. Only with time do we find that later prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel express a growing concern to stress the legal relationship that cannot be broken even by disasters, but can require punishment and legal penalties if the covenant terms are broken.

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