the law and wanderings
Week 8 - Read Exodus 20-31
Key Concepts: The key concept in this section is that the Israelite people are called to live orderly lives governed by a set of laws and religious practices.
Stories: We move somewhat away from narrative stories and find ourselves enmeshed in the creation of a community which will have laws to govern itself and a set of religious practices by which it will orient its self to God. It is very easy to get bogged down in the minutia of the laws and religious practices. I encourage you to see these pieces as part of a larger whole which will assist the Israelite community in maintaining order in terms of both human interaction and its relationship with God. There is much in this section that will disturb (slavery, etc.) and confuse (who actually got to go up on Mt. Sinai), so just hang in there and get the flow of the section.
Brief Summary: We begin with a set of rules on human relationships. These include the Ten Commandments, rules for dealing with slaves, assault and murder. These rules then move to dealing with livestock, treatment of strangers, lending of money and dedication of animals and people to God. The laws continue and focus on honesty, Sabbath and a series of three annual feasts (Unleavened bread/Passover, First Fruits/Pentecost, Ingathering/Booths). A series of promises concerning the giving of the Land of Promise completes this initial section.
The next move sends us back to Sinai and the giving of more of the Law. There is some confusion as to exactly who gets to go up on the mountain. In one place it is only Moses and in another it is Moses and about seventy some-odd others. In addition the people twice agree to obey all of the laws that God has given to Moses. What Moses receives at this point is not more laws but instructions for creating religious objects.
The religious objects include the ark, along with the mercy seat which is where God will meet Moses. Next the people are instructed to build a table on which will sit the holy bread. This is followed by a lampstand with six lights. All of these objects will be housed in the tabernacle whose construction is intricately described. In addition to all of these objects there needs to be an altar upon which the sacrifices of the people will be made. The altar will also be housed in the Tabernacle. All of these religious items will be moveable in order that they travel with the people through the wilderness and into the Land of Promise.
Following the construction of these items we are told who will make use of them and be responsible for the religious ceremonies for which they were designed. The ones who will be responsible will be Aaron and his sons. They will be the priests who will insure that all things religious are done decently and in order. As we move through this section we are told what they will wear and how the garments will be constructed. We are also informed as to the cultic ceremony which needs to take place in order that Aaron and his sons become holy (set aside for a purpose) and are thus able to be the religious leaders running the tabernacle and its sacrifices. The final addition to the tabernacle is the altar itself. Again the altar will be housed on the tabernacle and will be the place upon which all sacrifices are made. Finally we are told who will build all of this and the people are reminded to keep the Sabbath.
1. What do you think about the issues of slavery and the place of women in these texts?
2. How do you see the rules dealing with strangers as being relevant today?
3. Why do you suppose the writer spends so much time dealing with the details of construction?
4. How do you keep the Sabbath?
Week 9 - Read Exodus 32 - 40
Key Concepts: The key concept is that the relationship between God and God’s people is one that, like all relationships, has its downs and ups…but God is faithful to the covenant.
Stories: The stories in this section include, the golden calf incident, God desiring to destroy the people, Moses intervening, Moses breaking the tablets, Aaron getting off scot-free, Levites killing their apostate brothers, Moses praying and God plaguing, Moses chatting with God on the one hand, then not being able to see God on the other, Moses making two more tablets, God announcing God’s identity, God commanding the people to drive out those inhabiting the land, God making a new covenant with Moses, a reminder to keep Passover, Moses having to wear a veil because he has seen God, a reminder to the people that they need to help make the Tabernacle and everything in it, the people giving up their gold and goods in order to make the tabernacle, all of the items for the tabernacle being made, Moses receiving final instructions to put the Tabernacle together, doing so and then everyone watching as the cloud of the Lord descends upon the Tabernacle.
Brief Summary: This last section of Exodus is a fascinating one because it begins with faithlessness, draws together concepts from earlier stories, appears to repeat a couple of stories and ends on a happy note. This section begins with the famous golden calf incident where the people, tired of waiting for Moses, completely abandon God and make their own golden calf god. God is so angry that he wants to wipe out the Hebrews and replace them with children from Moses…exactly like the Noah story, only on a smaller scale. Moses talks God out of it…like Abraham tried to do as regards Sodom. Moses response to the apostasy is to break the tablets on which the law is written (though much of the law is already in place). Moses then has the Levites kill all of those who followed the golden calf god (except Aaron who is ignored).
This incident is then followed by two incidents between Moses and God. In one story we are told that Moses and God talked face to face, whereas a second story explains that if Moses sees God’s face he will die. What we have here are two very different traditions dealing with the God and Moses relationship. Nonetheless Moses makes new tablets and returns to Sinai in order to receive the law again (which is obviously a warning to always back up your data). At the same time God enters into a covenant with Moses (which means we now have three covenants: Noah, Abraham and Moses). Moses brings back from Sinai laws similar to the Ten Commandments and a glowing face, for which he has to wear a veil.
In response to all of this, the people are encouraged to give up their jewelry in order to make all of the items necessary for worship at the tabernacle. The people are also encouraged to assist in the construction of the tabernacle and its components. The people agree to both of these requests and do so with gusto. As the book draws to a close we witness the tabernacle and its pieces being completed by the people under Moses direction, the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests and then the coming of the cloud of the Lord upon the tent. The movements of this cloud tell the people when to go and when to stay. It is one more way in which we watch God providentially caring for as well as guiding the people.
1. What would you say are our golden calves today?
2. Which tradition do you like best: the one in which God and Moses speak face to face or the one in which Moses cannot even look upon God?
3. What are the similarities of the three covenants?
4. How do you see God leading you in your life?
Week 10 - Read Leviticus 1 - 15
Key Concepts: The key concept of this first half of Leviticus is that God offers God’s people an orderly manner in which to approach God in worship. While many of us might see the sacrificial system as a legalistic market place in which people “buy” God’s favor; that is not what is intended. The worship rituals laid out in these chapters offer ways in which God’s people can physically act out their responses to God’s grace, just as we do in our worship services (prayers, offerings, communion, hymns). Though the content of the rituals are different, their intent is not.
Stories: This section of Leviticus contains both lists of rituals and some stories. Chapters 1-7 are offerings of various kinds. Chapter 8 concerns the ordination of the priests. Chapter 9 tells us about the initiation of Aaron’s priesthood. Chapter 10 concerns what happens to those who do not follow the priestly rules (and it is not good). Chapters 11-16 deal with issues of religious cleanliness/uncleanliness.
Brief Summary of Stories: We begin with a listing of the offerings which are to be made to the Lord. These offerings consist of Burnt Offerings (1:1-17), Cereal Offerings (2:1-16), Peace Offerings (3:1-17), the Sin Offering (4:1-5:13) and the Guilt Offering (5:14-6:7). The first three of these offerings are voluntary and the final two are required. Specific instructions for sin offerings are given for priests, the general population, rulers and ordinary people (who are given a wide variety of options depending on their economic status). Please note that both fat and blood belong to God. In a deep and profound sense life is contained within them and so they are to be always brought back to God and not carelessly shed.
Beginning in Chapter 8 we read about the dedication of Aaron and his sons as priests and of the Tabernacle itself. The ordination of these men is necessary because if a community is to have ordered worship they need to have people properly set aside for this purpose. They also need a place set aside in which this worship is going to happen (the Tabernacle). There are several interesting aspects to this event. The most notable is that daubing of blood from the sacrifice on the right ears, thumbs and big toes of the priests.
Remembering that blood is life and belongs to God, it has been speculated that this daubing gives the priests the right to move between the people and the very presence of God. They are in essence to straddle two worlds. Note as well the use of the number seven in terms of the ordination process… again reminding all of us of the holiness of seven in the creation story. The final step in this process occurs in Chapter 9 as a sacrifice is made for the priests and people in preparation for the institution of the ritual life of the people. Unfortunately in Chapter 10 we read about what befalls those who do not follow the rules.
Chapters 11-16 offer us a look at how one maintains ones’ ritual/religious cleanliness in real life. Though there has been much speculation about the purpose for dietary laws we are still a bit uncertain. Speculation centers on 1) separating Israel from their neighbors 2) not preying on defenseless animals. The remaining four chapters deal with bodily impurities; those things that come from the body rather than those things (prohibited animals) which might go into a body. Again we are somewhat unclear as to the exact reasons for these practices.
1. What worship rituals help you deepen your relationship with God?
2. How do you see ordination of ministers/elders/deacons today as being similar to and different from the ordination of Aaron and his sons?
3. What is your guess as to why Leviticus offers us specific cleanliness regulations?
Week 11 - Read Leviticus 16-27
Key Concepts: The key concept in this section of Leviticus is that everything belongs to God. While this appears especially true of Israel, it is also true of animals and the earth itself. And because all belongs to God then special care is to be given in terms of how everything from animals, to fields, to strangers and life itself (in the blood) are treated. As you read this section please consider how God’s ownership shapes the rituals.
Stories: We begin with rituals concerning the slaughtering of animals (17), followed by a long list of forbidden sexual relationships (18), a series of holiness rules covering a wide variety of topics (19), religious rules and additional rules concerning sexual relationships (20), priestly instructions (21-22), the sacred calendar (23), some more priestly rules (24), the sabbatical year and the year of jubilee (25), a reminder of the blessings of faithfulness and the disaster of unfaithfulness (26) and finally a section on religious vows.
Brief Summary of Stories: We begin with a section (17) on the appropriate slaughter of animals. The instructions are that all animals are to be slaughtered inside the camp and have their blood drained before cooking/eating. There is some debate about whether all animals or only animals intended for sacrifice needed to be slaughtered at the altar. I would argue that it includes all animals. The reasons for this are that it is a reminder that these animals belong to God and that when we kill them their life essence (blood) must be returned to God. These actions make people aware of the sacred nature of all of life.
The next couple of chapters (18-20) offer us a look at how God wants to maintain order in sexual and other relationships. Remembering that God is a God of order and not chaos, God sets boundaries on sexual relationships. These boundaries also insure order in families and in society.
A central prohibition is that children are not to be sacrificed because they are God’s and not ours. We then find relationship rules which include care for the poor, the stranger and family. In 19:18 we find the famous, “…but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There are a few quirky things which include not interbreeding animals and rounding off the hair on your temples.
Priest (21-22) are given an even more expansive set of rules including no tattoos, blemishes, trimming their beards or marrying prostitutes or divorced women. If the priests find themselves unclean they are to refrain from partaking of the food dedicated to the priesthood. In addition, no non-priest can partake of the dedicated food (which will become the heart of a story about David later on).
I want to skip now to chapter 25 in which we read about the sabbatical year and the year of jubilee. These two concepts are central to understanding God’s relationship to creation. First they remind people that creation is God’s and we cannot own it. We see this in that God demands that all fields lie fallow every seventh year, so they too can rest. We see this as well in the Jubilee year. The Jubilee year is to be celebrated every fifty years, (25:10) during which all property is to be returned to its original owners (to whom it was given by God). The only exceptions are houses within walled cities (go figure).
1. What rituals do you engage in that remind you of the sacredness of all of life?
2. How would you summarize the essence of the relationship rules laid out in this section of scripture?
3. How do you square our view of property ownership with that of Leviticus?
Week 12 - Read Numbers 1 - 25
Key Concepts: The key concept in this first section of Numbers is that God, while being true to the covenant, will discipline the people when they act in ways that put the promise of the restoration of creation at risk. We need to continue to remember that God has a long term plan for humanity and will allow no one to derail it. So God’s “ill-humor” in these stories is not because God is always angry, but because the actions of the people are detrimental to themselves and to all of humanity.
Stories: We begin with a census of the tribes (1), the arrangement of the tribes around the tabernacle (2), the setting-apart of the Levites for special service (3), another census of the Levites (4), a variety of instructions to the people (5-6:21), the Aaronic benediction (6:22ff), the giving of offerings by the Tribal leaders (7), the consecration of the Levites (8), more instructions (9-10:10), Israel finally moves (10:11-36), the people begin to complain (11), Miriam and Aaron challenge Moses (12), the spying out of the land (13), the people want to return to Egypt and God decides to let them perish in the wilderness (14), more religious regulations (15), another revolt against Moses (16), Aaron’s budding rod (17), priestly responsibilities divided up (18), more rites and rituals (19), wandering in Kadesh and the death of Aaron (20), a series of battles (21), Balak and Balaam stories (22-24), and more evil from the people (25)
Brief Summary: In this tale we watch several important events unfold.
We watch a census be taken which should have been a reminder to the people that God had blessed and multiplied them. They were a great people (as numerous as the sands on the sea-shore). In other words they were, especially with God’s help, a force to be reckoned with. Yet as the stories show, they continued to act like slaves; afraid to risk. This results in their refusal to enter the Promised Land.
We watch the circular arrangement of the tribes of Israel in the camp at the center of which was the Tabernacle (God was in the midst of them). This arrangement was also a reminder that all of the tribes had a place at the table, so to speak. While Judah, the largest tribe, had a better place, they were not inherently superior to any other tribe. In this way God made clear that God does not play favorites.
We watch the rise of the Levites. The Levites were those who stood with Moses during the golden calf incident. For this reason God gives them a unique role in the religious life of the people. While not priests like Aaron and his sons, they perform religious duties at the Tabernacle. In addition they serve as a dedicatory replacement for the first born of every tribe who were to be dedicated to God.
We watch the disintegration of the people from a faithful community. There are several instances of rebellion against Moses. People want to elect new leaders to lead them back to Egypt, Aaron and Miriam are jealous of Moses and so try to push him out and two men try and usurp Moses’ leadership position. We also witness the people inter-marry with foreigners, which was forbidden by God. In a sense this first section of Numbers is the bottoming out of the people in the wilderness.
Finally we watch Moses continually intervene on behalf of the people. While Moses was not happy with the rebellions he faced, he continually interceded for the people when God threatened to destroy them. This intercession and God’s faithfulness to God’s promises allow the people to continue on their journey toward the Promised Land even if Aaron and Moses will not cross over with them.
1. Does your faith community have persons who serve in the same sort of role as the Levites?
2. Where have you watched your faith community fail to take the risks necessary to follow God? Or where have they been bold?
3. What is your take on interreligious marriage today in light of the Numbers story?
Week 13 - Read Numbers 26-36
Key Concepts: The key concept in this section is that the “murmuring people are gone” (having died out in the wilderness) and God is ready to take a new generation of faithful people into the Promised Land. This is made clear by the taking of a second census. In addition virtually all of the instructions given to the old generation are given again to the new generation.
Stories: We begin with a second census of the tribes of Israel (26), rules for women and inheritance (27:1-11), Moses anointing Joshua to lead the people (27:12-23), Various offerings for particular occasions (28-29), women and vows (30), Holy war against Midian (31), the designating of the Transjordan to Reuben, Gad and Manasseh (32), the orderly movement of people toward the Promised Land (33), the boundaries of the Promised Land (34), designation of Levitical cities and cities of refuge (35), and a declaration that tribal territory cannot be transferred (36).
Brief Summary: As with the first half of Numbers we watch a series of events unfold before us. We watch the second census in which some tribes have flourished while others have diminished. The total number of people is slightly less, but not enough to make a significant difference. Again this is a reminder that God continued to fulfill God’s end of the covenant even in the face of rebellion.
We watch some interesting rules being offered for women. In chapter 27, if there are no sons to inherit, then the daughters receive the inheritance. Later on we learn that while women’s vows can be negated by a father or husband, if a women is widowed or divorced her vows cannot be negated.
We watch an initial instance of Holy War. In this war the Israelites slay not only all the men, but all of the women who were no longer virgins. What we need to see in this story is a theology of holiness or separation. In other words if the people of God are to remain absolutely true to God then they cannot intermarry or have foreigners living in the land that is theirs. Therefore all of those who might tempt or corrupt the people must be expelled or killed. We will discuss this more in the Book of Joshua.
We watch the first division of the Promised Land when Reuben, Gad and Manasseh are given the land on the eastern side of the Jordon. In order to get this land however the tribes need to promise to engage in the conquest of the rest of the land. Once the land is taken and settled they may return to their side of the Jordon.
We watch the orderly journey of the people through the wilderness. Note that this time there is no murmuring, no rebellion and no apostasy. This is a new group of people who have learned to be faithful and are ready to follow wherever God leads.
We watch God lay out the boundaries for the Promised Land. This is the second portion of the fulfillment of the covenant to Abraham. The first fulfillment came in the census when we witnessed the people become as numerous as the sands on the sea shore. Now we witness the giving of the land (though it will still need conquering). We will have to wait for Jesus for the final part of the covenant to be completed.
Finally we witness special cities being given to the Levites (since they do not get land), cities of refuge being designated to protect innocents and the command that all land remains with a particular tribe in perpetuity.
1. Why do you think God let one generation die off before moving the people to the Promised Land?
2. How do you deal with the idea of Holy War in this part of the scriptures?
3. What do you think is the reason behind the perpetual gift of land to each tribe?
Week 14 - Read Deuteronomy 1-19
Key Concepts: The key concept in this section is that Moses is preparing the people for their new life in the land that God had promised them by reminding them of their past (good and bad) and of their covenant obligation to be a people who follow one God and who live by the Law that God has given.
Stories: We begin with Moses summarizing the good and the bad of the journey of the Israelites in the wilderness (1-3), followed by a call to faithfulness in the God who is both jealous and merciful (4), a rendition of the Ten Commandments and their history (5), the meaning and keeping of the First Commandment (6), a reminder that in their faithfulness God will give them the land (7), a call to remember that what they have they have because God gave it to them (8), a reminder of their lack of inherent righteousness (9), a reminder of what God requires (10-11), a call to have one central place of worship (12), a warning to be careful of those who would call them to follow other gods (13), a short list of laws including a reminder of the ethics of compassion for the poor (14-15), a religious calendar (16:1-17), rules for judges and kings (16:18-17), the appropriate worship of God and the role of the prophet (18), and how justice is to be administered (19).
Brief Summary: There are several very important concepts which are presented in this first portion of Deuteronomy.
The first important concept in this section is the understanding that lessons learned in the wilderness ought to be remembered and practiced in the new land. The wilderness was not only a time of testing, but it was a time of learning and maturing. Now that the people are entering the Promised Land they are to continually remember that they have this new land because of God’s power and faithfulness. Thus they are to live lives oriented toward God alone, guided by what Moses taught them.
A second important concept in this section is a reminder that the Ten Commandments and other laws were there for their benefit. These laws were given in order that all relationships (people to God, people to people, people to creation) might be lived in life giving orderly ways. To wander away from God and the Law was to invite disaster because it meant wandering away from the life giving ways that God had set before them.
A Third important concept in this section was the Shema which we read in 6:4-5. The focus of the Shema is not on fearing God, but on loving God with all of one’s being out of gratitude for God’s amazing acts of liberation and provision. This understanding was so important that the people were to repeat it, teach it, bind it to their foreheads and place it on their doorposts. In some ways this sets God apart from the other gods. God is the one who desires a relationship with God’s people based on love and not on fear and bribes.
A fourth important concept has to do with the centralization of worship. In the past the people of God worshiped in numerous locations. Now, it appears, there is to be a consolidation of worship centered at the location of the Tabernacle/Ark/Temple. Again, this is a reflection of an ordered and regulated worship life.
A fifth important concept has to do with the ethical demands God places upon the people, especially those dealing with the poor. God demands fairness and justice for all, and especially for the vulnerable. The poor are to be cared for because God’s people were once poor slaves themselves.
1. What things have you learned on your journey of faith that help you to be faithful to God?
2. How practices do you engage in that remind you to love God with all of your being?
3. How are you caring for the poor and vulnerable as God calls God’s people to do?
Week 15 - Read Deuteronomy 20-34
Key Concepts: The key concept in this section is that the future of Israel is in their hands. If they listen to and obey God they will live and prosper. If they do not listen to God and disobey then things will not go well. They are headed to a new beginning and so must choose how to live.
Stories: Again in this section there are few narrative stories. Instead we encounter the second half of Moses final sermon to the people. This portion of the sermon includes rules for engaging in “holy” war (20), various laws (21-25), some religious liturgies (26), instructions for a religious ceremony upon entering the land (27:1-10), curses for violations of ethical commands (27:11-26), the conclusion to Moses second address (28), Moses’ third address (29-30), some final events in Moses’ life (31), Moses’ farewell song (32), the blessings of Moses on the tribes (33) and finally the death of Moses (34).
Brief Summary: There are several crucial concepts that we ought to be looking for in this section.
The first concept is that of holiness. The section opens with a chapter on holy war which to our ears sounds extraordinarily brutal and unloving. Remember however that the theological concept of holiness requires that God’s people be separate from anything or any people that might corrupt them. Thus they must rid the land of any who have been initiated into competing religions. This is also the reason that compassion can be given to lands that Israel might conquer outside of its territory.
The second concept is that of compassion. To be God’s people means to show compassion to everyone. Here are some examples: as war is brewing newly married men or those who are beginning their careers are allowed to stay home. Also note if a city surrenders, the people are to be spared; trees that bear fruit are not to be cut down when laying siege to a city; women will continue to have an opportunity for children even after their husband’s death; you shall not hold a man’s cloak overnight if it has been given in pledge of a debt; you shall not reap everything in your fields so that the poor may eat.
The third concept is justice. To be God’s people means to live in a just community. Here are some examples: a woman who cries out when raped in the city or a woman who is raped in the countryside is to spared and her attacker put to death; husbands may not unjustly impugn the reputations of their wives; escaped slaves are not to be returned to their masters (certainly ignored in the Dred Scott decision); an Israelite shall be put to death for trying to steal and enslave another Israelite; children shall not be put to death for the sins of their parents nor parents for the sins of their children.
The fourth concept is possession. To be God’s people means to respect private property. Here are some examples: the eldest son has certain rights to inheritance; the owner of a vineyard or an orchard has the right to its produce, though he must also share some; wives belong to husbands (I know not the best example); landmarks demarcating property are not to be moved in order to steal land; a neighbor’s animal who wanders away or on to the property of another is to be returned.
The fifth concept is neighborliness. To be God’s people means to love your neighbor. Examples include watching out for a neighbor’s animals; helping a neighbor in need; not violating a neighbor’s wife; not loaning money at interest; sharing the margins of production (some grapes, wheat and olives) with poor neighbors; not taking a person’s means of production as a pledge.
The sixth concept is an orderly transition of power. To be the people of God is to share power from one generation to the next as Moses did with Joshua.
1. What rules would you use in considering whether or not to go to war?
2. In what ways do you share the margins of your goods with those in need?
3. How have you witnessed power being transferred within your own faith community?