Exodus 17-20

Good morning! Today in Exodus 17-20 we witness Moses’ response to the challenges of leadership, encounter God at Mount Sinai and learn the Ten Commandments.

In the escape from Egypt Moses has discovered tremendous gifts for leading Israel, but he’s now discovering the limits of his strength. Chapter 17 describes a rather humorous account of Moses’ arms being held up by others so that the Hebrews will win a battle, but the story is illumining if we consider what it says about needing collaborators in the practice of leadership. Chapter 18 reinforces this theme as Moses’ father-in-law Jethro counsels him to arrange for help in judging cases between Hebrew people. The principles of distributed leadership that Jethro advises here may not be unique to society from Hebrew wisdom, but they are still in use today (with the American legal courts as but one example). This helps the burden on Moses, who most importantly must maintain the figurehead role of representing God to the people, and the people to God. Joshua, the man mentioned in chapter 17 as a commander of Israel’s army, will increase in importance until he eventually succeeds Moses as leader when the people enter the land of Canaan.

In chapter 19, Moses and the people approach Mount Sinai, a place of deep power and lasting importance. If the God of the Hebrews had a physical address, this would be it. In the words of Celtic Christianity, Mount Sinai is a “thin place”, where the dividing curtain between divine and human realities is so narrow as to allow easy passage from one to the other. God is manifest at Sinai with cloud, thunder, smoke and fire. The people make themselves clean in preparation, but also keep a respectful distance. Here we see the beginnings of a theology that identifies the Holy, and sets gradual limits closer or farther away from it depending on one’s ritual cleanliness. We’ll see this developed much more fully in later instructions regarding construction of the tabernacle and the Hebrew temple. For now, keep in mind that there is no separation between “sacred” and “secular”, since there is nothing that is secular (non-Holy) in Hebrew thought. The relevant distinction here is between the sacred and the mundane (everyday life).

Exodus 20 is the first of two places in the Torah where we hear the Ten Commandments. I’m drawn to a way of understanding these that I first learned in Jewish circles. The first five commandments help to show what right relationship with God looks like: have nothing else before God, no idols (exceedingly rare in that time), no abuse of God’s name, honoring the Sabbath day (including for servants, slaves and foreigners), and honoring parents (by whom God gives us life). The second five are help to describe being in right relationship with other people: don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, don’t covet. Perhaps this understanding is what led Jesus to sum up “the Law and the Prophets” by describing two commandments: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.

There’s more that could be said, of course, but that would keep you longer from the main purpose of our shared study. Let me know what else you notice in these four chapters. Happy reading!

Read Exodus 17-20.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. Tomorrow’s passage is Exodus 21-23. Thanks for reading!

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