The Story of Israel
TO THE PROMISED LAND: OUT OF EGYPT
Read Exodus 1-4
The Bible does not give a precise date for the exodus from Egypt. The text never names any of the pharaohs involved. Biblical scholars are divided between two possible dates. The early date would place the exodus about 1446 BC, based on 1 Kings 6:1, which says the dedication of the temple (966 BC) occurred 480 years after the exodus. However, the number 480 may be symbolic, as Hebrews thought certain numbers have special significance, especially 40 and 12 (which multiplied gives 480). It may refer more loosely to 12 generations rather than a precise time. The late date falls during the reign of Rameses II after 1279 BC; one of the cities the Israelites helped to build was named Rameses (Ex. 1:11). Also the people of Moab and Edom, which Numbers 20 says opposed Israel, did not exist as nations until the 13th century. We have found no archaeological remains to settle the question.
Pictured here is the stele (historical marker) of Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Rameses the Great, who ruled over Egypt in the late 13th century BC. The Merneptah Stele is significant to biblical archaeologists because it is the earliest extra-biblical reference to the nation of Israel yet to be discovered. The mention of Israel in the land of Canaan is very short; it simply says, “Israel is laid waste, its seed is not.” Nevertheless, despite its brevity, the reference is very telling. It indicates that at the time the inscription was engraved, the nation of Israel was significant enough to be included by name among the other major city-states which were defeated by Merneptah in the late 13th century BC. From the Cairo Museum.
Exodus picks up the story of Israel several centuries after the end of Genesis. The text says that this Pharaoh did not remember Joseph or what he did for Egypt. Jacob’s descendants are now a large population whom the Egyptians fear might revolt against them, so they have enslaved them to build great cities.
The Hebrew midwives stand up to Pharaoh in an act of civil disobedience, obeying the laws of God rather than man. Note that the midwives are named in the text, but not Pharaoh. God honors those who serve Him, rather than the powerful in the eyes of the world.
God provides a deliverer with the birth of Moses. His Egyptian name means “drawn from the water” as a reminder of his rescue in the basket. The text does not indicate that God led Pharaoh’s daughter to this spot, but God can use even unbelievers to fulfill His purposes. “Pharaoh thus unwittingly protects and nurtures the very agent through whom God will deliver his people from Pharaoh’s oppression. Egypt may have forgotten Joseph, but despite the outward appearances, God has not forgotten his covenant with his people” (Briley).
Moses’ sister Miriam is not named until 15:20.
The Statue of Moses is by Michelangelo (in Rome).
As an adult, Moses kills an Egyptian and flees to Midian in the Sinai peninsula east of Egypt. God hears the cries of his people and tells Moses that he is the one to confront Pharaoh, telling him to let the people go.
Mt. Horeb, “the mountain of God,” is the same as Mt. Sinai (Deut. 4:10). The precise location of the mountain on which Moses met God is unknown, but the general region possibly lies in the south of the Sinai peninsula (modern day Saudi Arabia).
When he nears the bush that burns but isn’t consumed, Moses hears a voice, saying he must take off his sandals for this is holy ground. The word holy means sanctified or set apart by God for special use or service. A Jewish family would set aside special candlesticks for the Sabbath. Christians are called holy, not in the sense that we are morally perfect (“holier than thou”), but that God has set us apart from the world for a special purpose (1 Corinthians 1:2). God’s calling makes us holy, not our own actions.
God tells Moses to explain to the people that “I am” has sent him. The name Yahweh, which God reveals to Moses in 3:15 and 6:3, is a form of the Hebrew verb “to be.” God is the one who exists and gives life to everything. Only He exists within Himself, depending on no other source of power. In many English Bibles, Yahweh is translated as LORD (all caps). The King James version translated this name as “Jehovah.”
Almighty God calls a weak man to do an extraordinary thing. Moses is full of excuses, but God ultimately says – “Moses, this isn’t about you. It is about me! I am the great I AM.” God permits Moses to have his brother Aaron speak for him.
God gives Moses miraculous signs to prove that he is from God. Two of these signs he later demonstrates before Pharaoh: the staff becoming a serpent, and the water turning to blood. The text never says if he used the sign of leprosy.
God, Pharaoh, and the question of free will
In 4:21 God says that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart against letting the people go. This raises a difficult question: did Pharaoh never have a chance to accept God’s message and obey Him? Did God condemn Pharaoh beforehand in an act of predestination?
Notice that the text says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart several times (7:13-14, 22; 8:15, 32; 9:7, 34). Perhaps an illustration will help to explain. If Tom says, “Bill makes me so mad!” we understand that Bill isn’t manipulating Tom’s emotions in some mysterious way, so that Tom’s anger is beyond his control. Something Bill does causes Tom to react in a negative way.
In a similar way, God’s command to let his people go challenged Pharaoh’s authority, which the Egyptians believed derived from their gods. Egyptians believed that Pharaoh represented a god on earth. The presence of the one true God and His mighty power caused Pharaoh to harden his heart in stubborn refusal to acknowledge a Being greater than himself. In this sense, God’s actions hardened Pharaoh’s heart by opposing him, without assuming that God had taken away Pharaoh’s free will. God merely affirmed in Pharaoh what Pharaoh had already decided to do. There is no one whom God rejects who has not rejected Him first.
Throughout the Bible, God gives men and women a choice to follow Him: “Now choose life, so that you and your children may live, and that you may love the Lord your God” (Deut 30:19-20). “Choose this day whom you will serve … but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). “They hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the Lord” (Proverb 21:9).
Jesus says, “If any man chooses to do God’s will, he will know of my teaching, whether it is from God or whether I speak for myself” (John 7:17). Also in Rev. 3:20, he states, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in.” Jesus offers himself as salvation for everyone, but we must choose to let him into our lives.
Final note: the strange passage in Ex. 4:24-26 when God seemingly wants to kill Moses puzzles most commentators, given that there is no explanation for this action. The Hebrew text is ambiguous, saying “the Lord met him and was about to kill him,” thus some believe this refers to Moses’ son, not Moses himself. Why would God threaten to kill Moses’ son? One suggestion: in the previous verses God says that he would take Pharaoh’s first-born son if he does not let Israel (God’s first born) go. Perhaps God wanted to emphasize that obedience to his commands applies to everyone. Moses had not circumcised his own first-born son for some reason (perhaps his wife had objected to it since she gets so upset about doing it). God shows that he would punish Moses for disobedience just as he would punish Pharaoh. All sin is equal in the eyes of God. But since the text does not say this, we can only speculate about this mysterious passage.
Read Exodus 5-13
Moses initially requests that the people be allowed to leave temporarily to worship in the desert. Pharaoh fears they will not return. He thinks they are lazy and makes their work even harder by ordering them to collect their own straw for bricks. The people complain that Moses has made their lives worse, not better, and in turn, Moses complains to God: “You have not rescued your people at all.” But God confirms his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give their descendants the land of Canaan.
Pharaoh’s magicians could duplicate the serpent from the staff and the two plagues of blood and frogs, but not the gnats (one wonders where the magicians got their water, as the text says that all the water, even in buckets and jars, had turned to blood). Perhaps these were mere tricks, or perhaps power from Satan to confront God; the text does not say. They could duplicate the plagues but not reverse them — which would have been more helpful to Pharaoh; they didn’t need more frogs! Usually frogs were a good sign, as it meant that harvest time had come. But in this case they were too much of a good thing.
As the plagues grow worse, Pharaoh tries to negotiate with God. He will allow the men to leave but not their families, to ensure that they will return. Then he says that they must leave their livestock. But unlike the time when God allowed Abraham to negotiate the rescue of Sodom, God is in no mood to bargain with Pharaoh.
Ex. 12:12 says that God sent the plagues to “bring judgment against all the gods of Egypt.” Several of the plagues appear to strike at specific gods and question their power. The Nile was the lifeblood of Egypt, sometimes called the blood of Osiris, god of the underworld; thus it is fitting that the Nile turned to blood. Heqt was a frog-headed goddess but could not control the second plague. Sehkmet (lion) protected her followers from epidemics, but she could not stop the death of the livestock, nor could Hathor (cow). The ninth plague, darkness, blotted out the sun, worshipped as Ra or Amun-Ra. The jackal-headed Anubis, lord of embalming, did not prevent the death of the first born.
Osiris Sehkmet Hathor
Amun-Ra Ra Anubis
Note that God protected his people from the plagues. Even darkness did not cover the land of Goshen where the Israelites lived, indicating that this was not a natural phenomenon such as an eclipse.
The Passover bread was unleavened for two reasons; they were in a hurry to leave, and leaven (yeast) was a symbol of impurity to the Jews.
Lamb’s blood on the doorposts was a sign for the angel of death to pass over the house. In 1 Corinthians 5:7, Paul describes Jesus as our Passover lamb, whose blood causes God to overlook our sins. Just as Israelites remembered their salvation from Egypt by eating the Passover, Christians today eat the Lord’s supper in memory of Jesus’ sacrifice. The original Last Supper given by Jesus for his disciples was in fact a Passover meal.
The month of Aviv falls around the end of March or first of April. Passover does not fall on the same date every year because the Jews use a lunar calendar based on the moon’s phases.
Read Exodus 14-17, 19-20
The Greek translation of the OT called the place of crossing the Red Sea, but the Hebrew actually says, “sea of reeds,” possibly one of the fresh water lakes above the Gulf of Suez. In any event it was deep enough to drown the Egyptian army.
Egyptian chariots held two people, the driver and an archer and were very deadly on the battlefield. No wonder the Israelites panicked when they saw six hundred of them coming after them.
An Egyptian chariot from the Museum of Cairo
Exodus 15, sometimes called “The Song of the Sea,” is possibly one of the oldest poetic passages in the OT. In Hebrew Bibles it is traditionally printed in a special pattern to set the poetry off from the rest of the text, thus enhancing the beauty of the poetry with artistic visual design. The lines are broken up into a brick-work pattern of three blocks of words alternating with two blocks.
Even after God rescues them by a spectacular miracle (one of my all-time favorite movie scenes from The Ten Commandments), the people begin complaining almost immediately. Despite their ingratitude, God continues to give them what they need. He provides fresh water from bitter, and sends quail and manna to eat each day. Manna sounds like the Hebrew words “man hu” meaning “What is this?” (16:15), probably what the people asked when they first saw it lying on the ground.
Notice that the people are told not to hoard the food from one day to the next, as any leftovers would spoil. Perhaps this is a lesson for us today on how we should not seek to keep more possessions than we need. Our lives should not focus on accumulating more things. In his example of how we should pray (Matt. 6), Jesus includes only one personal request: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Most of our prayers are long lists of things we want God to do for us, rather than being grateful for what he has already done.
Jesus relates these events to himself: “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. … Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. … The one who feeds on me will live because of me. [I am] the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and [eventually] died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:27, 56-58)
In ch. 17 Israel fights with the Amalekites. They were descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau and continued to be an adversary of Israel throughout their history. The hero Joshua who becomes more prominent after Moses’ death is first mentioned in 17:14
Additional thoughts on freedom in the Bible
- The Exodus from Egyptian bondage begins a significant theme in the Bible about freedom. In Luke 4:18 Jesus begins his ministry by “proclaiming freedom.” The idea of freedom becomes a key term in Paul’s letters, mentioned over 40 times.
- But many people today are confused by what this term truly means from God’s perspective. Christian freedom should not be confused with the American idea of freedom. The freedom which our society promotes, “My right to do whatever I want,” is not what the New Testament teaches.
- Americans are obsessed with our “rights” — the right to own a gun, to smoke, to have an abortion, to live whatever lifestyle we choose, to wear a mask or not despite the risk to others, etc. Christ calls us to a higher standard. We should be more concerned about our responsibilities toward others than insisting on our personal rights and freedom.
- In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul explains that, although he had the right to be supported financially by the church to which he ministered, he did not exercise this right for fear that it might compromise his reputation with the Christians there (some might accuse him of preaching for profit). He argues that it is better sometimes to give up our rights for the sake of others.
- Jesus gave the supreme example of self-sacrifice. In Phil. 2 Paul writes that Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped; rather he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
- Rather than being free to do whatever we want, freedom in Christ means being free from the bondage of sin, free from our own self-centered nature, free now to live for God and to serve others more than oneself.
A few comments on these famous commands:
- The first four commands discuss our relationship with God; the other six cover our relationship with other people. Jesus summarizes these two groups of commands as “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-9).
- Idolatry was a continual temptation for the Jews throughout their long history, following the practices of the pagan cultures around them. Even after being rescued from the Egyptian army, they soon began worshipping a golden calf.
- The third command tells us to respect the name of God. How many times do we misuse that name, such as saying, “Oh my God, that’s a good hamburger!” This trivializes God’s holy name.
- The Jews worshipped on the seventh day which is what the word “Sabbath” means. This was to remember symbolically the end of creation when God ceased his creative work. However, the NT mentions twice (Acts 20:7, 1 Cor 16:2) that the new church worshipped on the “first day of the week.” We assume that this was to remember Jesus’ resurrection, but the NT never gives a theological rationale for the change, nor are there reports of any controversy over the change, which is surprising given the importance of the 4th commandment in Jewish life. The NT never describes Sunday as the “Christian Sabbath” (as we sometimes hear people say today) nor makes any connection to the command that this be a day of rest from work. Paul says that the Sabbath day observance no longer applies (at least to Gentiles) since Christ has come (Col. 2:16-17).
- The commandment against killing more accurately refers to murder. It does not apply to killing in wars, self-defense, or killing animals for food or sacrifices, since all of these are permitted in the OT.
- The command against adultery is amplified by the 10th command. It’s not just the act of adultery which is sinful but also coveting your neighbor’s spouse. Jesus says something similar in Matt. 5:27-28: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
- Side note: some people say that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of American law and should be posted in our courthouses. However, only three of the commandments against murder, theft, and lying (false witness, perjury) are in our legal system. There are no laws about worshipping one God on a particular day, honoring parents, adultery, or coveting. Our legal system is not based on the Bible. Our constitution specifically prohibits the establishment of any official religion.
The Ten Commandments are the foundation for all the laws in the Old Testament. The books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy record many other laws which God gave his people, some of which seem strange to us today: “Do not mate different kinds of animals. Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material” (Leviticus 19:19). Why did God command these things?
Jewish ceremonial laws (concerning sacrifices, food, dress, washing, circumcision) were not trivial matters but were the distinguishing marks that set Jews apart from pagans. These regulations served as symbols of purity, God’s way of teaching his people to live distinctively, to be set apart in all things, big and small, permeating their everyday lives. God wanted to remind his people that they were to be different from the unbelievers of the world around them. God called the nation to be “holy,” which means to be set apart.
We should distinguish between the ceremonial laws which applied to the Jews and the moral laws which are universal. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul explains that the ceremonial laws such as circumcision and food restrictions do not apply to Gentiles, but the moral laws dealing with murder, sexuality, idolatry and such things are still authoritative for everyone to follow today.
Sometimes when they read the OT, people get the impression that all God cared about in those days was practicing rituals such as animal sacrifices and circumcision. However, several passages in the OT stress that God was always more concerned about matters of the heart and true faith than ritual action. “The multitude of your sacrifices — what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats” (Isaiah 1:11). “I hate, I reject your festivals, nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them” (Amos 5:21). The prophets criticized the people for relying only on conducting rituals and not practicing true religion as defined in Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Some OT laws may seem harsh to us today, such as capital punishment for children cursing their parents (Ex. 21:17), but we must remember that God provided means for forgiveness as well. Individuals could offer sacrifices for specific sins, and each year the high priest on the Day of Atonement sacrificed for the entire nation. The death penalty emphasized the seriousness of these sins (honoring one’s parents was one of the Ten Commandments, after all), but this punishment would not be carried out if a person repented.
Some people assume that the Ten Commandments are the oldest written laws in world history, thus the foundation for all other law codes, but that is not the case. For instance, the Code of Hammurabi from ancient Babylon dates from around 1750 BC, or about 500 years before the estimated time of Moses. Many of the laws in this code are similar to those found in the Old Testament.
Ex. 21 (optional reading) gives laws concerning Hebrew slaves. Some may find it surprising that the people of Israel, having recently been slaves themselves in Egypt, would make slaves of their own people. Given America’s shameful history of slavery in the 19th century, we might wonder why God allowed such things with his own people. However, the slavery described in the Old Testament was different from the slavery our country practiced. Many people chose to sell themselves into slavery in order to pay off debt. This arrangement was not forever; the law stated that after six years, all debts were paid and the person would be free. In some cases a man might choose to remain a slave in order to remain with his family (Ex. 21:2-6). Further laws (v. 26-7) protected slaves from brutal treatment. In Deut. 15:12-15 the law states, “When you release [your slaves], do not send them away empty-handed. Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your wine press. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you.”
Additional note: the commands for tithing
The biblical term “tithing” means giving a tenth of one’s wealth to the Lord’s work. In the OT this meant giving to the priests and Levites to support their work in the Tabernacle or Temple, and also giving to the poor, in particular, widows, orphans, and needy foreigners in the land.
The practice of tithing began with the patriarchs. Abraham and Jacob promised to give a tenth of what they had (Gen. 14:20, 28: 20-22). In Leviticus 27:30-34, Moses commanded as “orders from the Lord” that the people should give a tenth of their livestock and their harvests. This is also mentioned in the laws found in Numbers 18 and Deuteronomy 12 and 14, citing this should be done not grudgingly but freely from the heart (Deut. 12:6). Other verses: 2 Chron. 31:4-5, Neh. 10:35-37, Mal. 3:10-12.
In the NT, Jesus notes that the Pharisees gave the tithe but neglected righteousness, mercy and faith. He told his followers, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20). He praised a poor widow who gave much more than a tithe, giving all that she had (Mark 12:41-44). After Jesus met and showed mercy to Zacchaeus, the rich tax collector was so moved that he gave half of his wealth to the poor (Luke 19).
Some Christians today argue that tithing is no longer required since it was primarily a law given to the OT Jews, but as we see, Jesus supported the idea and encouraged giving even more than a tenth when possible.
Americans like to think of ourselves as very generous. However, statistics show that on average, Americans give only 2% to charity, based on our Gross Domestic Production figures (Philanthropy Roundtable). This statistic has remained about the same for decades.
Giving among American Christians isn’t much better and falls far short of the tithe, averaging 2.3%. Churchgoers are donating an increasingly smaller share of their incomes year after year. The percentage Protestants gave of their income fell from 3.1% in 1968 to 2.3% in 2011. Percentage of Christian giving was higher in 1933 during the Great Depression (3.2%) than in 2011.
Furthermore, most Christian giving is spent on church programs such as minister and staff salaries, large buildings, and youth activities rather than on outreach efforts, missions and services for the poor. Congregational finances, which fund the operation of the church for the benefit of current members, on average claim 85¢ of every dollar given to the church. Donations for benevolence outside the church declined from a meager 0.66% of income in 1968 to 0.34% in 2011 (http://www.emptytomb.org/).
God’s people should be setting a better example in our society for generosity and compassion toward those in need.
Read Exodus 32-33
When God tells Moses about the people’s idolatry, he says, “Let me alone so that I may destroy them and start over.” Similar to Abraham pleading to save Sodom, Moses asks God to spare them, not based on the people’s innocence but on God’s reputation among the other nations and his faithfulness to his promise to Abraham. We may understand this story as God’s way of testing Moses’ faith as he earlier tested Abraham.
In this story notice how Aaron refuses to take responsibility for his actions; he claims that once he threw the gold into the fire, a golden calf simply “came out.” This shifting of responsibility for sin resembles the excuses that Adam and Eve made: “The woman gave it to me” … “The serpent told me to do it.”
Given their recent experience in Egypt, it’s likely that the calf was an image of the goddess Hathor who was very popular in that land.
The shameful episode of the Golden Calf represents the theme we see throughout Exodus: the contrast between God’s faithfulness and Israel’s faithlessness. After reading about God’s performing numerous wonders on behalf of his people, we may shake our heads in disbelief at their willingness to abandon the living God for a dead idol. However, the Bible tells us that idols do not have to be physical objects, that any thing or attitude that takes priority over God becomes an idol for us.
Today many of us worship at the altar of materialism. Our consumer culture tells us that we can never have enough. We must buy the latest gadgets or clothes or fads, even as our closets and shelves are already full of things. In Colossians 3:5, Paul calls greed idolatry. In Luke 12 Jesus calls the rich man a fool for building bigger barns for his possessions.
Individual freedom has become an idol in our society. We insist on our right to do what we want: our right to protest, to smoke, to own a gun, to have an abortion, to sue anyone who offends us, to ignore social health requirements. Christianity stands in sharp contrast to this attitude, calling us to consider our responsibilities toward others more important than fighting for our own rights as if our personal freedom were the greatest good of all.
Our careers and achievements can become idolatrous. If all we think about is getting ahead, the next raise or promotion, winning the most games or awards, achieving fame and recognition for our accomplishments, our focus in life is on ourselves rather than God.
Nationalism is the belief that one’s country is superior to all others because God has chosen us above all others. “Nationalism becomes idolatry when it replaces the scriptural values of love and peace with secular values of power, arrogance, contempt and hate. … Nationalism makes a religion out of the nation, with the flag commanding loyalty that belongs to God.” (link)
For some Christians, politics may become an idol, whenever they insist that their party or candidate will “save” America from the evils of the other side. Salvation belongs to God alone, something all political parties need.
Until we rid our lives of these idols, we should not criticize the Israelites for theirs.
“After dealing with Israel’s sin, God reassures Moses that he still intends to drive out the current inhabitants of Canaan and give Israel the land he had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yet God also speaks of distancing himself from Israel out of concern that the people will sin again, leading him to follow through with his threat to destroy them (33:3-5). This strong statement by God reveals just how challenging it is for God in his holiness to dwell in the midst of an unclean people. In addition, it may represent another test for Moses. If so, Moses once again passes the test, as he says, ‘If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us?’ Moses realizes that even though God’s presence poses a danger if Israel does not respect his holiness, without God’s presence Israel possesses no distinctiveness and cannot fulfill God’s purpose.
“In keeping with Moses’ recognition of the critical need for God’s presence, he boldly asks to see God’s glory (33:18). Although the great disparity between God’s holiness and human sinfulness makes it impossible for a person to see the fullness of God’s glory, Moses receives a partial fulfillment of his request. The language in this passage represents another concession to human limitations in understanding God and the nature of a relationship with him. Rather than suggesting that God has a physical body, it conveys the sense that Moses sees as much of God’s glory as a human being can. In verse 11 of this same chapter, the text says that God would speak to Moses ‘face to face’ in the tent of meeting. In this context ‘face to face’ is an idiomatic expression that conveys how God speaks to Moses directly in contrast to the way he typically speaks to the rest of the people through Moses.
“In ch. 34, God also reveals himself to Moses in one of the great summary statements of his nature in Scripture: ‘the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished.’ The emphasis in this statement falls upon God’s patience and graciousness without denying his punishment of those who are hardened in rebellion. These are the very qualities God has demonstrated in his restrained response to the sin with the golden calf. Israel has suffered significant losses but has not received the fate the nation deserves.” (Briley)
The remaining chapters of Exodus describe the design and construction of the Tabernacle. This was not a place where people gathered to worship like a church building. Only priests could enter the Tabernacle itself, and only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant rested. A veil separated this inner sanctuary from the rest of the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was primarily a physical sign of the presence of God, dwelling in the midst of His people.
Priests offered daily sacrifices on behalf of the people. Later, when Israel had a king, he would perform certain rites on their behalf. On festival days such as Passover, the people would gather around the Tabernacle, but not inside it.
The Ark of the Covenant contained the Ten Commandments, a jar of manna (Ex. 16:33), and Aaron’s rod that miraculously budded (Numbers 17:10; Hebrews 9:4). The lid on the Ark was decorated with two cherubim with wings outspread. No one could touch the Ark because of its holiness. Priests carried it by poles inserted in rings on the side. Because the Ark was probably destroyed by the Babylonians when they sacked Jerusalem in 586 BC, no one knows exactly what it looked like, but here is one artist’s conception.
On the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the high priest would first sacrifice a bull for his own sins, then choose one of two goats to sacrifice; the other (called the scapegoat) he would let go free in the desert, symbolically carrying away the sins of the people. Then he would enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle blood from the sacrifice onto the lid of the Ark (Lev. 16). Unlike our images of a shiny gold ark, after years of this sprinkling the Ark would have been covered with layers of dried blood, a gory symbol of the people’s sins (remember, no one could touch the Ark so it was never cleaned).
In the NT, the Greek word for this lid, hilasterion, became the word used for atonement, as Jesus’ blood washes away our sins today. An early translator of the Bible into English, William Tyndale invented the word atonement, “at-one-ment” to mean being reconciled to God, being “at one with God.”
In the NT, Hebrews 10:4 says that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” These sacrifices for Israel were temporary, having to be repeated every year, but they foreshadowed the ultimate and eternal Day of Atonement in the death of Christ for us, after which no other sacrifices are necessary: “We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (10:10). Unlike the high priests of the past, Christ had no sin himself. He served as high priest and the sacrificial victim, dying not for his sins but the sins of the world.
Related discussion: Why did Jesus have to die? Why couldn’t God simply forgive us without this terrible sacrifice?
God cannot be just and uphold the laws He has made if He simply said, “Your sins do not matter to Me; there is no price to pay for breaking My commands.” That wouldn’t be justice in a human court, so how could it be justice for God, who represents ultimate justice? What if God told Adolf Hitler, “It doesn’t matter what you did, you’re free to go” ? That would be an outrage against justice, even in a human court. God does not treat sin lightly, as if it were a minor thing without significance, something He could simply overlook. Sin must be punished one way or another for justice to exist.
As a perfect being, God represents both perfect mercy and perfect justice. If God merely dismissed our sin, then He would be merciful but not just. In Romans 3:25-6 Paul argues that in order for God to be both just and the justifier of the faithful, the price of sin had to be paid by someone. Jesus willingly took our sins and our punishment upon himself; he “became sin for us” (2 Cor 5:21).
We see the background for this concept of suffering in the place of someone else in Isa 53:4-6: “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
The amazing thing is that God in His mercy decided to place the punishment on His Son, rather than on us. That’s the meaning of forgiveness, the “amazing” part of grace. Simply saying “I forgive you” wouldn’t have cost God anything. That kind of forgiveness is easy, with no consequences for anyone. The gospel says that forgiveness cost God His only beloved son, making grace priceless.
The importance of art and beauty to God
Exodus includes many verses describing the artistic design of the Tabernacle. While we usually skip over all these details as irrelevant, these sections reveal something important about God, a creative being who appreciates art and beauty.
In Exodus 35, we read of the calling of Bezalel, chief artisan of the tabernacle: “Then Moses said to the Israelites, ‘See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel . . . and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic craftsmanship. And he has given both him and Oholiab . . . the ability to teach others’” (vv. 30-34).
This passage highlights several important principles. First, art and beauty have a place in God’s plan, who appreciates the aesthetic dimension of life and intends for us to do so as well. Exodus 35 describes patterns, colors, and textures fashioned from all kinds of wood, cloth, fine gold, precious jewels. These “merely aesthetic” decisions mattered to God (who created things like color), so much that he chose to record them in his scriptures for all posterity. These designs served no function other than to be beautiful and to glorify God.
Second, artistic ability is a precious gift from God. Christian artists should not hesitate to express themselves through their talents, knowing that their source lies in God’s own creativity. Being an artist was Bezalel’s special calling, his ministry, and he willingly dedicated his efforts to the divine purpose. Interestingly, Bezalel is the first person in the Bible described as receiving the gift of God’s spirit. Christians who have been blessed with creative talent should rejoice in knowing that, by using their imaginations to make something beautiful, they participate with God in the creative process in a small but significant way.
Third, God desires that the artist teach his knowledge of his craft to others. Creativity is not intended to be a private experience but one shared with the community for mutual enjoyment and benefit.
In A Christian View of Philosophy and Culture, Francis Shaeffer has said, “Made in God’s image, man was made to be great, he was made to be beautiful, and he was made to be creative in life and art.”
NEARING THE PROMISED LAND
Read Numbers 13-14
The Hebrew title of this book, Bamidbar, means “In the Wilderness.” The book of Numbers gets its English title from the census of the tribes of Israel. Numbers 1:46 gives a total of over six hundred thousand men of fighting age. Many commentators consider this number to be unrealistic, as it would indicate a total population of two or three million people staying together as they moved through the desert. The Bible describes the Israelite camp as no larger than the distance covered by the sound of two trumpets (Numbers 10:1).
With an army this size it seems unlikely that Israel would have feared the Canaanites as they express in ch. 13. Archaeology indicates that there were no more than three million Canaanites in the land at this time. Furthermore, Deuteronomy 7:7 says, “The Lord did not choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples.”
One possible solution to this puzzle recognizes that the Hebrew word eleph, translated “thousand,” can also mean a family clan (Numbers 1:16; Judges 6:15) or a military unit (1 Samuel 17:18), in which case the actual number would be much smaller. English translations do us a disservice by not making this distinction. A better translation might be “six hundred units” of indeterminate size. So the total number of Israelites at this time was probably less than a strict reading of the census suggests; some commentaries suggest 100,000 or less, but we cannot know for certain.
Numbers 10:11 picks up where Exodus left off, as the Israelites prepare to leave Mt. Sinai for Canaan. They had camped at this place for about a year.
In ch. 13 the people have reached the outlying borders of Canaan. Moses chooses 12 men to spy out the land before they attempt to enter. Ten of the men report that the people there are too powerful for them to conquer. Only Caleb and Joshua believe that God can lead them to victory. Unfortunately, the people follow the majority view, and begin complaining to God once more, at the very moment of their potential success.
When God becomes angry with the Israelites and threatens to destroy them, Moses argues not on behalf of the people (who have no excuse) but for the sake of God’s reputation. If He were to abandon his people now, the nations would scoff at Him for failing to provide for them after their escape from Egypt (14:13-16). God does not destroy the people but condemns their generation to wander in the desert for 40 more years (a round number; Deut. 2:14 says 38 years). Ironically, this was an answer to their prayers: “Would that we had died in the wilderness!” (Num. 14:2)
Upon hearing God’s judgment, the people change their minds and try to enter the land by their own strength, but are beaten by the Amalekites and Canaanites. They cannot take the promised land by their own efforts, but only with God’s help. For their unbelief, this generation must die out before any of Israel will receive the inheritance promised to Abraham.
In the NT, the unknown author of Hebrews uses the unbelief of the Israelites to warn Christians:
“So, as the Holy Spirit says: Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did. That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.’ So I declared an oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. … So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief (Heb. 3:7-12, 19).
Read Numbers 17, 20:1-13
The miraculous budding of Aaron’s staff was a sign from God demonstrating his priestly authority, which some had challenged (ch. 16). The role of priests was very important in the nation of Israel, as they were the only ones who could enter the tabernacle and offer up sacrifices for the people (Num. 18:1-7). This ritual had to be performed exactly as God commanded. Num. 3:4 says that Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu died because they offered “strange fire” to the Lord and did not follow the commands about proper sacrifices.
Once again the people complain to God about having no water. He tells Moses to speak to a rock and God will provide a fountain of fresh water. However, Moses, in anger at the people, strikes the rock instead. The text does not clearly say, but this act of disobedience seems to be the reason that Moses is prohibited from entering the promised land. Some commentaries suggest that his sin was aligning himself too closely with God, as he tells the people, “Shall we bring forth water out of this rock?” Moses was claiming power which only God has.
Read Numbers 21:4-9, 22-23:1-12
The story of the bronze serpent as a cure for snake bite becomes an interesting symbol in the NT. In John 3:14-15 Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
In 2 Kings 18:4, King Hezekiah destroys this bronze serpent which some Israelites had begun to worship as an idol, taking God’s blessing and turning it to evil.
After a generation has passed away, God tells Israel to prepare to enter Canaan once again. But he prohibits them from attacking Edom because they are descendants of Esau (Deuteronomy 2:4-6) and from fighting the Moabites and Ammonites because Abraham’s nephew Lot is the ancestor of these two nations (Deuteronomy 2:9, 19). God remains faithful to the promises made to Abraham’s larger family.
The Moabite king Balak, however, fears the Israelites and plots against them. The tale of Balaam and the talking donkey adds a humorous element to an otherwise serious theme, that God can use even his enemies to bring about his will. Rather than curses, Balaam eventually delivers four blessings on Israel.
However, despite God’s protection, Israel’s encounter with Moab turns tragic. Balaam later advises the pagan women of the land to tempt the Israelites into worshipping Baal and participating in sexual immorality (Numbers 31:16), and God punishes them with a plague (Numbers 25). Balaam is killed during one of the battles (31:8).
In 1967 archaeologists found an 8th century BC inscription at Deir Alla, Jordan (photo link) mentioning “Balaam son of Beor,” a seer or prophet. The text uses similar language to the Bible, describing the Ammonite gods as “El Shaddai” (or God Almighty). The fragmented text contains Balaam’s warnings from the gods about coming destruction, a similar curse to what Balak wanted Balaam to say against Israel until God persuaded him otherwise. If this is the same Balaam as mentioned in Numbers, this inscription would be the earliest historical confirmation of a person named in the Bible.