I just finished writing the last bit of commentary for Exodus at Westminster Reads. The first part of Exodus – at least some of it-is familiar to most of us.
Israel in slavery in Egypt.
The burning bush.
“Let my people go”.
The parting of the Red Sea.
The Ten Commandments.
The golden calf.
Then, around the section of the golden calf story, we start reading lots of instructions. A bunch of laws called the “Covenant Code”. Detailed instructions for making the tabernacle and its furniture and altars. Instruction for clothes for the priests. Some instructions about installing the priests and making offerings. Then after Moses receives all these instructions we read- in detail again- about the making of the tabernacle and its contents and about the making of the clothes for the priests. It is difficult as a modern person not to skip over this part. And then the last five verses tell us that God fills the tabernacle with a cloud by day and a fire by night. When the cloud moved, Israel moved. “For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey.” (Exodus 40:38)
It is easy to skim or even skip the “boring” parts of Exodus. It is easy just to peek ahead once the instructions begin and decide that all that is left are detailed instructions and to stop reading. But we miss some important themes if we do that. I think it is helpful to read through it and then to take a moment to consider what we just read.
The people who will become Israel are in slavery at the beginning of the book and are a free people at the end. In the beginning they are so poor they must ask the Egyptians for jewelry and clothing (Exodus 11:2; 12:35)in order to have anything to take with them. By the end of the book, the detailed descriptions of the tabernacle and vestments tell us that Israel was able to provide goods for themselves. They leave as slaves dependent on God to stir the generosity of their masters and grow into a people who can now give freely and abundantly to God.
In the beginning of the book, the people cry out to God and God remembers the covenant with Abraham. God acts and then after the people have been delivered into freedom God offers a closer relationship to them. The order of events is important. God saves without asking anything of the people who will become Israel. In fact, slaves besides the descendants of Abraham are rescued (Exodus 12:38). Anyone who wants rescue is rescued. Once they are safely across the sea and manna and water have been provided, then God asks the people who will become Israel to enter into covenant with him.
The covenant is not a precondition to salvation- promise to do these things and then I will save you. No, first they are saved and then God asks. Asks- not demands- asks. (Exodus 19:3-6). After the giving of the Covenant Code (Exodus 20:22-23:33), once Israel knows what is expected of them, then they agree and the covenant is made. (Exodus 24:1-18).
Exodus means the road or the way out. Of course every road out also takes us somewhere else. The people who will becomes Israel leave slavery and the false gods of Egypt for freedom and the one true God of Israel. They leave a “mixed multitude” and becomes Israel- God’s treasured possession, a priestly kingdom and a holy nation (Exodus 19:5-6).
There are no tricks in this relationship. No “got ya’s”. God hears. God responds. God invites. God explains what the covenant entails. God doesn’t compel but allows the people to decide. God takes their response seriously. Each party of the covenant takes the other seriously.
Sometimes people say that the God of the Old Testament is a different God than the God of the New Testament.There are some differences between the Old and New Testament in the way God is understood to act. Those differences are worth our thought and attention. But really there is one God. When you think about it, God’s actions in the Old Testament are not unfamiliar. We can recognize this God.
I’d like to know, what do you think?