Exodus 18-23: Establishing boundaries for a nation

Welcome to part six of Exodus! This part begins just after the crossing of the Red Sea and continues through the Ten Commandments and the rest of that initial set of laws.

Chapter eighteen

The Hebrews have made camp at the “mountain of God” which you may remember is the mountain where God first talked to Moses. This means that after all that mess in Egypt, he went back home first. Only this time, he has all the Hebrews with him. Given his rather large company, it makes sense why his father-in-law brought his family to him, rather than him retrieving them. This is one of those places where I don’t quite agree with the Woman’s Bible. While it is clear that women are not generally treated like they are important and valued members of society, that Moses’ wife and sons are brought to him by his father-in-law doesn’t rub me wrong at all.

I don’t know about your father, but mine loves a good story. Why would we assume that bringing Zipporah to Moses was the only reason his priest father-in-law would want to come see him after he has brought the Hebrews with him to their countryside? Is it so outrageous to think that he was just curious about what had happened and wanted to hear it from his son-in-law?

I like the advice that Jethro, the father-in-law, gives him after seeing him, further making his visit useful. They establish a system for judgement that won’t wear everyone out. It makes good sense and is still the way many governments work. In his description of how it should work, he also says “man” about it, but it’s in the same way that they say “people”. Remember that, like Spanish, Hebrew is a language where everything is given a gender and the plural always takes the masculine.

While this has it’s own feminist implications, it also means that reading the Bible and such passages need to be taken with an ear for that occurence. When they say “male” they are referring to only the male plurals, when they don’t specificy, I have found that it is usually a plural that would be unisex in English. If there is a Bible scholar reading this that is better educated on this point, please let me know if I have interpretted this wrongly. So far, my research points in that direction.

Chapter nineteen

After stopping for what seems like a night at Moses’ old home, they procede to Mount Sinai. It takes roughly three months to get there. Then God wants to talk to Moses in front of the people and there are some rituals to get them ready. He tells Moses to pass along that He wants to make them a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” This gets a little strange when part of Moses’ command on their ritual cleanliness includes

Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.

What strikes me as weird is that he’s talking to everyone, not just the men. So why? The going theory appears to be that the impetus is just to not have sex or engage in other fluid transferring activities. It should be noted that this last one is said by Moses, but wasn’t said by God.

None of the Israelites actually get to speak to God, though. They just get to stand at the base of the mountain and watch God talk to Moses instead while He appears as a giant black cloud over the mountain and there’s a mention of the mountain being covered in fire or something too. At this point, God even gives Moses a warning to go back down and remind the people to not touch the mountain or else they might die.

I don’t care if it sounds cowardly, I can’t imagine wanting to touch it.

Then He also tells Moses to bring Aaron up with him. I had no idea Aaron was this big a part of the story. I knew he was a big deal, but not doing half the plagues and on Mount Sinai big deal.

Chapter twenty

This is where the Ten Commandments are brought in. Here’s the thing, Moses was not alone with God when it happened! Sorry, I know I mentioned it just one paragraph ago, but really, did you know Aaron was in on that conversation?

Okay, we don’t need to get into the details of all the commandments, if you aren’t familiar with them, here’s a link.

Let’s spend a minute on the third commandment. This is the one against carved images. Part of the problem is that it is actually quite a bit longer than I had been taught. God comes right out and admits to being jealous and that He isn’t above taking out his jealousy on more than one generation but that His benevolence would last even longer. This is the first mention of how the “sins of the fathers” effect the children. Again, bear in mind that the pluralization that is used (and I did look it up and verify as best I can) means that the sins of both parents effect their children. We should know that from experience, but I’m not always so sure. I’ve seen in several places that it can be the mother’s who keep harmful traditions just as much or more than fathers at times.

The fifth commandment gets incredibly specific about what it means to hold the Sabbath. It also reiterates that the world was created in six days, but what’s a day to a being who can create that much? Is it the same few hours that we experience? Or did he pair it down to an amount of time that is relevant and understandable to us? It is for the old Earth and new Earth creationists to duke out.

The sixth commandment (honoring parents) has a tale end that is strange:

so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

I don’t know about you, but that one reminds me of the old threat from parents, “I brought you into this world, I’ll take you out of it.”

The last one also has quite a bit more at the end than I knew. This is the one about coveting your neighbor’s wife. Apparently, it doesn’t stop at wife. There’s also his male servant, female servant, ox, donkey and “anything that is your neighbor’s.”

When Moses and Aaron come back down, the people are freaked out and don’t want to go anywhere near the mountain and never want to talk to God themselves. He tells them:

Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.

If only it was that simple.

The chapter does end with some laws about not making silver and gold images and how to construct an altar. Interestingly, the commandments are rules we should abide but we are physically capable of not doing so. Are there other things that work that way?

Chapters 2123

There are actually a ton of laws brought up right here after the ten commandments are laid down. The laws in these chapters cover the following topics:

  • slaves
  • restitution
  • social justice
  • the Sabbath and festivals

The laws don’t quite stay in the order the headings appear to want them to, but they are covered and interesting. It’s important to remember that these are an initial set of laws, they are not perfect and do not cover every single aspect of life. It also becomes clear that whatever religious justification people may have ever had about keeping slaves, they obviously didn’t abide by the ways they should be kept or treated or the conditions upon which they should be freed. Quite a few of these laws set the slave free based on the conduct of the master.

For our purposes here, these are a few that I’d like to draw attention to:

  • the wife of a man who was taken into slavery must be set free when he is; this doesn’t appear to preclude her from being set free prior to him, though. But it’s interesting that she should not be a slave while he is not.
  • when a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do; the rest of this paragraph covers the daughter that was sold and sounds like it may be for sex or marriage purposes. The study section of my Bible even explains that a poor man might sell his daughter to a wealthier one as a second wife. It’s a little disturbing that the marital status of some wives are contained within the slavery section, however it is interesting that the rule for having more wives is that those who came before can not be diminished.
  • whoever steals someone and sells them shall be put to death
  • anyone who hits and harms a pregnant woman will pay an eye for an eye, foot for foot and so on; no harm means that the husband can fine them and the judges determine the amount – bear in mind that this is even if it is accidental, the passage even assumes that the two people would be fighting each other and not purposefully hitting the pregnant woman and they still get an eye for an eye
  • if a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price and this is whether or not the father allows the man to marry her.
  • no harm or oppression shall come to sojourners

After these laws, there is a promise that they will conquer the land of Canaan. Within the promise there is another interesting note for women that sure would be nice to still be in effect:

None shall miscarry or be barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days

So there are my feelings and impressions on chapters 18-23 of Exodus. Have you read it? What do you think?

Chapter links go to the ESV translations at Biblehub.com but I’m reading from the ESV Global Study Bible, which is available for free on the Kindle Reading App.


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