Nearing Moab

I want us to keep in mind that we’ve all been given moments of mercy, not what we deserve. So much of what we can say about Israel in Numbers in some way or another could be said about us. We, too, are obstinate, rebellious complainers. Maybe not all the time, but enough of the time that we should deserve what God might give us. Yet, we have mercy. 

Miriam was dead, Aaron had recently died, and Israel was getting closer to the Promised Land. Everything that occurs from the waters of Meribah to the end of Numbers does so in one year, and it’s a busy year. After a thirty-day mourning period for Israel’s first high priest, a brief skirmish broke out when a Canaanite king heard that Israel was in transit to the land. Then, after they were utterly destroyed, Israel returns to her ways of disobedience and striving against God. 

Speaking against God and Moses because of discouragement (Num. 21:4), Israel hits replay on a somewhat regular complaint that they’ve had, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread” (Num. 21:5). God sent seraphim nahasim (fiery serpents) among the people so that many of them died. This may seem mean on God’s part, but He had already said that this generation wouldn’t see the Promised Land. Rather than seeing God as the one misbehaving, we ought to see Israel’s behavior as faithless and blasphemous. Once more, the people go to Moses (you know, the guy they spoke against) and ask that he pray to God. God gives a moment of mercy: a fiery serpent is fashioned out of bronze, and anyone bitten who looked upon it did not die. 

As Israel continues their trek through the wilderness, they send messengers ahead asking for safe passage. When it’s denied, they are once more forced to fight and defeat their enemies. As they enter the plains of Moab, the king of Moab, Balak devises a plan. Because Moab and Midian were petrified at the prospect of Israel entering their territory, Balak sends for Balaam to come and curse the people (Num. 22:6). However, God intervenes (Num. 22:12). Balak sends for him once again, and Balaam replies (Num. 22:18). God instructs Balaam to go with them should they come again, but he is only to speak the words given to him by God and nothing else. 

As Balaam goes the following day, an exciting thing occurs. As he rode his donkey, the angel of the Lord stands in his path, but only the donkey sees it. She turns aside, Balaam strikes her. She crushes his foot against a wall. He strikes her. She laid down, and he hit her. The Lord opened the donkey’s mouth to speak to Balaam, then his eyes were opened, and he saw the angel of the Lord. Perhaps to emphasize to him that he ought to be careful to speak only what God tells him, Balaam gets the point (Num. 22:38). Balaam pronounces several prophecies in favor of Israel. God blesses these disobedient, complaining, obstinate people. We see here a moment of mercy. 

While in Moab, Israelite men consort with Moabite women and begin their idolatry (Num. 25:1-3). God orders the judges of Israel to kill their men who played the harlot. Israel, meanwhile, weeps at the doors of the tent of meeting when one Israelite man takes a Moabite woman to the tent of meeting. Phineas, a priest, so moved with zeal, runs them both through with a spear. Seeing this and knowing Phineas’ heart, God relents from the harm He is visiting upon the guilty. Once more, we see a moment of mercy. 

As the year goes on, another census is ordered, and inheritance laws are given. Then, Moses is instructed to go atop Mount Abarim and view the land Israel is to possess. God reminds Moses of his rebellion and wouldn’t enter the land (Num. 27:12-14). Moses only requests that a worthy successor be chosen to take his place once he’s gathered to his people. God selects Joshua (Num. 27:18-21). This is a moment of mercy because God doesn’t leave Israel without a leader. Offerings are made, and laws are given, then Israel settles east of the Jordan (Num. 32). Next, God gives instructions for the conquest (Num. 33:50-56). Further administrative commands are given, but before Israel takes the land, they’re to be reminded, once more, of the law of Moses. That’s what Deuteronomy is, a second giving of the law. 

Israel in Paran

Most of us have been on a trip we looked forward to. Leading up to the trip, we packed, planned, and made sure we were prepared. Then comes the time to leave. We set out and go on our way, excited and ready to arrive. However, traffic jams, plane delays, and other things make the actual travel part miserable. We become impatient, tempers flare, and before you know it, if we’re not careful, the trip could be ruined by a conflict due to these circumstances. 

Israel is en route to Paran, and as they neared the area, the people began to complain (Num. 11). After God gave a solution, one might think that all is well. Now, however, there’s discord among the leadership. The High Priest, Aaron, and Moses’ sister, Miriam (a prophetess), begin to oppose Moses’ leadership. Jealousy seeped in among them, and they, first, took issue that Moses was married to an Ethiopian woman. Talk about nitpicking. Of course, when you consider the law and its command not to marry among other nations, we might see why they became frustrated. Nevertheless, rather than staying on point with finding issues in his choice of spouses, they turn to Moses’ leadership (Num. 12:1-2). 

Even more interesting is Numbers 12:3, which has led to the (wise) suggestion that the book was redacted. Otherwise, could we believe that Moses would have said that about himself? No matter, because this was said, God heard it and dealt with the issue, explaining Moses’s special relationship with Him. This resulted in a plague upon Miriam that Moses interceded on her behalf (Num. 12:6-16). 

The challenge to God’s authority figure, Moses, doesn’t end here. As Israel encamps in Paran, spies are sent to scope out Canaan. This isn’t a quick day trip. They spend forty days spying out the land (Num. 13:25). The land itself looked appealing, but it was populated with solid people. Caleb quieted the people and urged them to possess it, but those who went with him deterred the nation (Num. 13:30-33). Caleb and Joshua were the only ones of the spies to demonstrate faith in God’s ability (Num. 14:6-10). 

God, as you might imagine, is tired of Israel’s demeanor. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time they’ve misbehaved either (Num. 14:22), so their punishment is that they will not enter the Promised Land (Num. 14:23). Those who led a rebellion of unfaithfulness suggested returning to Egypt, and God judged them except for Caleb and Joshua because they had faith. After the news that they’d not enter the Promised Land, the people didn’t take this consequence well but did an about-face and mounted an assault to enter the land, but were repelled. 

The rebellion doesn’t stop there. Korah, a Levite, challenges Aaron and Moses’ authority. Everything up to this point occurred in one year, but Korah’s rebellion occurred nineteen years later. This also didn’t end well (Num. 16), so God demonstrated His chosen by causing Aaron’s staff to bud before the entire nation (Num. 17). Afterward, instructions are given regarding the Levites (Num. 18-19). Another nineteen years later, Israel sets out to continue their journey and arrive at Kadesh. Moses’ sister dies and is buried in Kadesh. 

Yet, another issue arises, demanding attention. There’s no water, and, as you might imagine, the Israelites become melodramatic once more, wishing they would die—these people. Moses has a horrible lapse in judgment too. God told Moses to take Aaron’s rod, speak to the rock, and it would give water, but Moses, in anger at the congregation, strikes the rock twice. God isn’t thrilled about this. As a result, Moses is accused of not hallowing the Lord and will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land (Num. 20:10-12).

Reading Numbers

Oxford University is believed to be the world’s second-oldest university. Some records show classes as early as 1096, but the establishment of the university isn’t altogether clear. Around the year 1230, they began appointing a vice-chancellor to run the school. In 2015, after 785 years, the first woman was nominated to be vice-chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson. Given the rise in women’s suffrage in the early twentieth century, and many laws granting women equality in the ’60s and ’70s, you might have thought that this day would have arrived sooner. Yet, as we always say, “better late than never.” Some might say, “That took longer than it should have.” 

When you think about the Book of Numbers, think, “That took longer than it should have.” From Exodus 19 all the way through Numbers 10, Israel is in Sinai. From Sinai to the Promised Land is a two-week journey, but Israel will wander in the wilderness for forty years. It takes longer than it should. The name of this book in Hebrews is not “Numbers,” but bamidbar, which translates to, “In the wilderness.” The book can be broken up into three sections: chapters 1-10 are in Sinai; chapters 13-19 are in Paran; chapters 22-36 are in Moab. The chapters not mentioned in this list are the chapters of their traveling from place to place. 

Why is it called the Book of Numbers? In the opening of the book, God orders that Israel be numbered. He even tells Moses how to organize the people in the camp. God’s presence is central to the people, His dwelling place being in the tabernacle (Num. 2:17). Surrounding him are the Levites and priests, and surrounding them are the rest of the tribes. God’s presence in the center of the nation is meant to convey that He is central to their existence. Over the tabernacle is a cloud indicative of His presence, and when the cloud moves, they move (Num. 9:15-19). The Levites break down and carry the tabernacle and the ark of the covenant (Num. 1:47-53). The ark leads the way to communicate that God leads Israel, and the tribe of Judah follows immediately behind with the other tribes in tow. 

So why did it take longer than it should have? Because Israel followed God, and God hindered them from the Promised Land. This book is about why, and the why, simply answered, is Israel’s unbelief and sin. 

Chapters 1-10

Notice, first, where we are in time. We are two years removed from the Exodus (Num. 1:1). God has Moses organize and number the entire nation, which we can guess took some time. Then, He orders for the special role of the Levites (Num. 3:5-13). From there onward, the Levites as a whole are numbered, and the various heads of the families of the Levites are given their special roles. The sons of Kohath were responsible for carrying the holy furniture of the tabernacle (Num. 4:1-20). The sons of Gershon were to carry the structure of the tabernacle (Num. 4:21-28). The sons of Merari were to carry, if you will, the nuts and bolts of the tabernacle (Num. 4:29-33). Imagine a package arrives for a new desk, but it’s one you have to build. In one bag are the nuts and bolts, then there are the actual parts of the desk, and, finally, the things you put in and on it. This is sort of the division of the Levites as it regarded the tabernacle. They were charged with maintaining the sacred space. 

God gives instructions regarding lepers, restitution, and unfaithful wives (ch. 5). Then, He gives the outline for the law of the Nazarite, a person who wanted to consecrate themselves to God for a specified period. One specific aspect of this vow, among others, was that a Nazarite’s hair was to remain uncut while keeping the vow (e.g. Samson). Aaron is given the word of the Lord as to how he can bless the children of Israel (Num. 6:22-27). Hereafter, the leaders of Israel present offerings to the Lord and they celebrate their second Passover. Afterward, God ordered two silver trumpets, shofars, made to sound to call Israel to relocate and in battle. Then, they leave Sinai. 

Everything seems to be going well. That is until Israel begins to complain only after three days of travel. These people seem to be more of a settled than moving people. They complain because they miss the land of slavery’s food, and they’re sick of manna (Num. 11:4-6). Even Moses becomes exasperated (Num. 11:11-15). Leadership isn’t always pomp and circumstance. The only time many leaders hear from people is when there are complaints. Be sure that you don’t only go to the elders of ministers when you’re unhappy. I’ll tell you now if that’s all you approach me for, it won’t be long before I actually quit listening to you and you’ll lose any effectiveness you may have. Complaining isn’t a spiritual gift, so don’t use it as one. 

God gave Moses aid in seventy elders on whom He gave His Spirit. One man shouldn’t bear the burden alone. Even seventy among the many of Israel is too little, but it’s better than nothing. Then, he listened to the people and promised to give them meat for one month, to the point that they loathed it. How quickly we go from zeal to dissatisfaction. Only because circumstances change and we aren’t as comfortable as we once were. Sometimes following God and His plan takes us out of our comfort zone and makes us move. Israel wasn’t meant to reside at Sinai, and they couldn’t see the forest for the trees. God was taking them to a wonderful land, a place better than where they were and had been. But, getting there was too hard. Don’t be afraid to put in the work. Don’t allow comfort to paralyze you. If it seems or is known to be God’s plan, trust Him and go.

Reading Leviticus

When most believers try to read the Bible in a year, they’ll begin with Genesis. By the time they get to Exodus 25, it isn’t as easy because the readings are step-by-step instructions about the tabernacle, its construction and furniture. Then, once you get to Leviticus, the average reader becomes so despondent that some give up the project altogether. However, there’s a difference between reading and understanding. Once Leviticus is understood, it makes sense.

Let’s look at the bigger picture, and we’ll see how Leviticus is actually a book of grace. First, return with me to the Garden of Eden. There, God and humanity had perfect fellowship that was uninterrupted. Until, that is, sin entered the picture. Afterward, God removed humanity from Eden, where His presence dwelt, and, eventually, humanity began to have to sacrifice an animal to atone for their sins. The first mention of an altar appears after the flood, and it was built by Noah. Just so we don’t forget, God offered the first sacrifice. Remember when Adam and Eve knew they were naked? They sewed fig leaves to provide clothing, but a little later on, God made for them garments of animal skins—which suggests that the first sacrifice was made then.

What does Leviticus have to do with Eden, you ask? What God wants more than anything is for humanity to dwell (tabernacle) with Him. He chose Israel as the vessel for this goal, but, first, Israel has to set the stage for all humanity. The tabernacle is the way that God can live among His people, and how His people can dwell before Him. Because God is holy, He cannot let sin, an injustice against heaven’s laws, go unpunished. However, because He is holy, He balances wrath with grace by offering ways that humanity can avoid judgment. Some Protestant readings of Leviticus suggest that the book is a way for Israel to not incur His wrath, and because humans are depraved they deserve God’s wrath and judgment. They might even point to Leviticus 10:1–2 as a proof of that. I read it differently. Leviticus is a book of grace where God offers to Israel how He can remain among them, and how they can dwell before Him in holiness.

Reading Leviticus reveals clusters of chapters that focus on various sacrifices and their meanings. The beginning and ending chapters consist of this material. As we move inward, we’re met with laws regardings priests, and further inward we’re shown the purity laws that must be followed. Once we reach the middle of the book, we’re introduced to the Day of Atonement—the one day that the high priest may enter the holiest place behind the veil, in God’s very presence, and make atonement for the entire nation. Encompassing the whole of the book is the theme of holiness.

God calls Israel’s attention to Himself as a recognition of all that is holy. You’ll often read God give instructions and then declare, “I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 11:44; 19:2; 20:26; 21:8). He, then, demands that Israel follow His ordinances and commandments as a show of their commitment to Him and as an exhibition of their own holiness (Lev. 18:4, 30; 22:31–32; 26:46). He always warns Israel against societal conformity. He does not in any way want Israel to do as the Egyptians did, nor as the Canaanites do (Lev. 18:3, 24–28). This is an especial notable concept for American Christians. We will not be judged on how American we are, and our level of patriotism will not be the standard. Our allegiance to Jesus will be. Holiness in Leviticus extends to how God is worshipped (Lev. 10:1–2), sexual relations (Lev. 18:6–22; 20:10–21), and how we regard our neighbors (Lev. 19:16–18; 19:32; 20:9). The second greatest commandment that Jesus gave originated in Leviticus. It isn’t a Christian command so much as one that God gave His people as far back as the covenantal relationship.

For the Christian, Leviticus and the theme of holiness is important. We have been recreated in holiness, so we are no longer slaves to sin but righteousness (Rom. 6:15–19). God has called us to holiness (1 Thess. 4:7), and without holiness we shall not see God (Heb. 12:14). This is but one concept that is as important to us as Christians as any, and it originates in Leviticus.

Paradise Restored in the Tabernacle

Moses, having received the pattern for the tabernacle, now puts blueprints into action. After calling for a free-will contribution from Israel, the assembly brought so much that they had to command them to stop (Exod. 36:3-7). God’s people, knowing of a need to glorify and honor Him, always steps up and meets that need. The wonderful part about this is that it is as true today as it was then. The construction ensues and the reader is reminded time and again that everything is done as Moses commanded, or as God commanded Moses (Exod. 38:22; 39:1, 7, 21, 26, 29, 31-32, 43; 40:16). Finally, after made and consecrated, God inhabits His tabernacle (Exod. 40:33-38). His presence dwells above the tabernacle, by day as a cloud and, by night, as a pillar of fire. Israel now knows that they dwell among God, and He among them, priests mediating between the two.

The specifics of tabernacle construction mirror that of paradise, the Garden of Eden. Upon completion of the earth as with the tabernacle, the same Hebrew term is employed for their completion (Gen. 2:1; Exod. 39:32; 40;33). After the completion of each, a blessing is pronounced (Gen. 2:3; Exod. 39:42-43). Finally, the comparison is that God now dwells among Israel just as He did among Adam and Eve. This cohesive theme throughout all of Scripture shows that if we understand the beginning, we’ll understand the end, the same being shown throughout Scripture. In a manner of speaking, paradise is restored but imperfectly. The original paradise, the word the Greek Septuagint uses for the garden of Eden, was heaven on earth and sinless. The new paradise demands sacrifices for atonement. Nevertheless, we see God’s aim to be with His people and among them.

Christians in churches of Christ, no thanks in part to Alexander Campbell’s Sermon on the Law, often relegate the Old Testament to something of a bygone era and not really significant to the church today. This is not a sentiment that I share, because Scripture has proven this to be untrue. Exodus, however, provides us with several items of significance for the church.

  • Jesus is the new lawgiver. Just as Moses ascended Sinai to receive the law to give to Israel, so God incarnate from the Mount gives the law to His followers.
  • The Lord’s Supper was born out of the Passover meal.
  • Jesus’ death is modeled as a sacrificial lamb.
  • Paul compares baptism to the Israelites walked between the waters of the Sea of Reeds as they exited slavery into liberty.
  • Hebrews depicts Christian living on earth as sojourning in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land.

Insignificant? Absolutely not.

The Divine Pattern

Decades ago, Goebel Music wrote a voluminous book, Behold the Pattern. While much of the information is helpful, he may have been capable of putting things more succinctly. Nevertheless, those of us in churches of Christ are patternists when it comes to the life of the church. As God gave the divine pattern of the tabernacle to Moses atop Mount Sinai, so Jesus endowed the apostles with the Holy Spirit to reveal to us a pattern for being Christians. Furthermore, that pattern extends to the organization and worship of the church.

The earliest account of worship appears in 1 Corinthians 11-16. While it isn’t written as a word-for-word instruction manual on how to worship, we can deduce enough from this passage to know how the early Christians worshipped and what not to do. Some disagree over whether the beginning of chapter 11 or the demarcation of 11:17-18 is the point at which Paul addresses the assembly. If we hold to the latter, which I may be more prone to, the focal point of worship begins with the Lord’s Supper. A reading through chapters 12-14 discloses that prayer and song was a part of that gathering. Prophecy or revelations of knowledge may have been akin to our modern sermon. In chapter 15, Paul invokes the Scriptures regarding Jesus’ death and arise from the grave, which may suggest that Scripture reading had a place in the worship (cf. 1 Tim. 4:13). When we arrive at 16:1-2, a contribution was given weekly, and if we take the weekly to apply to everything preceding the offering, then the Lord’s Supper, singing, praying, preaching, Scripture reading, and offering were what the early Christians did in worship. Not only should we do what they did, but we should embody the heart of Jesus too. It isn’t enough to simply do it absent the mind and heart of Christ.

As it relates to the organization of the church, 1 Timothy 3 discloses that elders and deacons were overseers and servants of the church. Timothy himself was referred to as a deacon, but the term is translated in English as “minister” (1 Tim. 4:6), which may denote a separate function. Elder, bishop, overseer, and pastor were one-in-the-same and not different offices (cf. Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Peter 5:1-5). Today, however, many fellowships follow more the Ignatian separation of pastor, elders, and deacons, or some version thereof.

Eden, Sinai, Tabernacle, and Temple

In trying to show a cohesive unit throughout Scripture, I’ve often referred back to creation and Eden. I’d like to show you nine ways that Eden was a Temple and that the later Mount Sinai and tabernacle/temple were built upon Eden.

  1. The Temple was where God’s presence dwelt, and He made Himself known to Israel. His walking with Adam and Eve is prototypical of this reality (Gen. 3:8).
  2. When placed in the Garden, Adam is to “cultivate” and “keep” it (Gen. 2:15), which were words used elsewhere regarding priestly service in maintaining sacred space (Num. 3:7–8; 8:25–26).
  3. The tree of life was the model for the lampstand in the Temple.
  4. The Temple was made with wood carvings of landscapes reminiscent of Eden (e.g., pomegranates, palm trees).
  5. The entrance to the Temple was to the east (Ezek. 40:2, 6), as was the entrance to the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:24).
  6. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the Ark of the Covenant were touched on pain of death—both being the source of wisdom (e.g., Ten Commandments).
  7. A river flowed from Eden (Gen. 2:10) and the Temple (Ezek. 47:1–2).
  8. There’s a tripartite structure to the Temple (outer court, Holy Place, and Holy of Holies), the mountain at Sinai (base, middle, and summit) and Eden (Eden as Holy of Holies, the Garden as the Holy Place, and the outer world as the outer court).
  9. Eden, Sinai, and the Temple are all associated with a mountain (cf. Ezek. 28:13–14).

I would hope it would be safe to say that a unified cohesion exists concerning the significant theme of Scripture. Now, however, we turn to the pattern God gave Moses. God, in these instructions, spoke to Moses six times, the seventh being the Sabbath law. When God created the heavens and earth, he spoke six times and on the seventh rested. The tabernacle is, therefore, a microcosm, a new creation.

Patternistic Religion

Scripture marks three times that God reminds Moses to build the tabernacle according to the pattern he received. The first time entails the Ark of the Covenant pattern and the lampstand (Exod. 25:40). The second time appears after constructing the sanctuary, something into which the former two shall be housed (Exod. 26: 30). The final admonition appears after instructions on the veil between the Holy of Holies and the Holy Place (Exod. 27:8). As Christians, we are collectively (1 Cor. 3:16) and individually (1 Cor. 6:19) the holy of holies because God’s Spirit dwells in us.

The Ark of the Covenant has over it the mercy seat where two cherubim face one another to guard it, just as they were placed to protect the entrance to Eden. Moses received the law from the summit of Sinai. Since they were deposited in the Ark, the mercy seat now functions as the summit of Sinai, thus making this place a portable Sinai. The mercy seat is vital because the High Priest could only enter the Holy of Holies once a year on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:1–3, 29–34). He was to sprinkle the blood of a bull and goat on the mercy seat to remove the people’s uncleanness, transgressions, and sins (Lev. 16:14–16).

Later, the author of Hebrews informs us that the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sins because these annual sacrifices would have only been one-time and not yearly (Heb. 10:1–4). What are we to do? Interestingly enough, when the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek in the fourth century BCE, a word was used for “mercy seat” that appears as another word in the New Testament. Rather than translating the word as “mercy seat” in the New Testament, it’s translated as “propitiation” (Rom. 3:23–25). On that mercy seat, the footstool of God, the summit of Sinai, was the conduit between humanity and God. Jesus Himself is that mercy seat—the place where sacrifice and atonement meet. The place where the righteousness of God is revealed and the wrath of God abated.

If we want to understand the end, we must, first, understand the beginning. Jesus promises that those who overcome shall eat of the tree of life in the Paradise of God (Rev. 2:7). Interestingly enough, when the Old Testament was translated into Greek, the word that replaced “garden” in Genesis is the word paradise. The original audience of Revelation would have understood that the tree of life was in Eden, the holy of holies. They would have understood Paradise as the garden. When Jesus promised the overcomers that they would eat of the tree of life in paradise, they envisioned Eden. The end takes them back to the beginning, the very initial design that God had in mind.

Meeting God at Sinai

Three months have passed since Israel left Egypt. Since they left bondage. Now, the sign that God promised to Moses is coming to fruition (Exod. 3:12). On this mountain, they were to “serve” God. This is a cognate of “tend” (ovda) in Genesis 2:15, which denotes priestly service (cf. Num. 3:7–10). This is fitting because God tells Israel that He intends for them to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. 19:6). God’s royal decree to Adam and Eve was to “subdue [the earth]; have dominion” over every living thing (Gen. 1:28). God gave the first humans both a royal and priestly service. The fall interrupted their ability to carry it out. He has now passed that service to Israel. Priests mediate humans to the divine and the divine to humans. As a “holy nation,” if they keep God’s commands, they would mediate between God and the nations, a promise God had made to Abraham (Gen. 12:3). As far as a timeline of events goes, beginning in Exodus 19—through Leviticus—and ending in Numbers 10 is one year of Israel camping at Mt. Sinai.[1]

Meeting God

Thus far, Moses and God have spoken with one another. Moses goes and informs the people of what God has said, and he returns to God to relay their affirmation of these very things. Then, God is preparing to appear in the presence of the Israelites, but before they do so, they are to prepare (Exod. 19:10–13). This would occur over three days. We have to imagine that they’ve been traveling for a few months and probably haven’t bathed or changed clothes. Perhaps they stunk and needed to do laundry. Still, the cleanness they were to appear as was appropriate for appearing before God. Boundaries are established around the mountain to show the demarcation between the sacred and the common. Wherever God is, there is holiness. Were sinful commoners to approach such holiness, the result would be catastrophic. When the third day came, Israel saw a frightful sight (Exod. 19:16–19). God once more orders Moses to remind Israel to respect the boundaries set.

The following few chapters demonstrate God’s ordering of society. Various commands, general and specific, are given—the most famous of which is the Ten Commandments. The first three have to do with respecting God, and the last seven have to do with one’s neighbor. Thus we see the first and greatest command reflected here and the second, which is like unto the first. After that, specificity reigns until chapter 24 and is referred to as the Book of the Covenant. Afterward, Moses, his brother and nephews, and seventy elders go up the mountain. Moses recounted all of God’s words, and the people assent to His law.

Early in the morning, Moses built an altar at the base of the mountain. He set up twelve columns for the twelve tribes of Israel. Offerings and sacrifices were made, the blood was taken and used to cleanse the altar and the people. Then, he and those bid to come up the mountain do so. They see God and eat and drink. Sacrifice was always followed by a communal meal of the worshippers. Notice the similarities of these events to Christianity: the Word of God is given, recorded, read, and assented to by God’s people. The sacrifice of Jesus, His body and blood, are what we partake of every Lord’s Day as a community of God’s people. We, too, eat and drink, and we do so in God’s presence. The continuity is astounding.

The preacher of Hebrews informs us of our New Covenant in light of this first covenant (Heb. 9:18–20). These sacrifices, however, were ineffective at the atonement of humanity to God (Heb. 10:1–4). Those can never take away sins like the blood of Christ (Heb. 10:11–14). God set up this system to prepare us for that which was to come. We eat from an altar far superior to the one given to Moses and Israel (Heb. 13:10). Under the Old Testament, priests were given portions of most sacrifices, but laypeople couldn’t partake. As Christians, we all partake.

[1] Enns, Exodus for Normal People, 22–23.

YHWH, God of Slaves and Destroyer of Egypt gods

A Shepherd Meets God in the Wilderness

The story begins with Moses tending his father-in-law’s flock, but he went by a different name when we last read about his father-in-law. Here in the opening of chapter 3, he’s Jethro (as well as 18:1), but he was Reuel (2:18). As if things aren’t confusing enough, he’s called Hobab in Numbers 10:29 and Judges 4:11. Now, because our translators don’t want us to be too confused, they refer to him as Jethro in Exodus 4:18, but in Hebrew, his name is Jeter. Oy vey! Since we’re on multiple names, Moses came to Horeb, also referred to as Sinai.

Moses comes upon a burning bush (seneh) in Sinai (sinay). Nice pun, no? Anyway, it’s burning but not consumed. God has previously disclosed Himself as fire (Gen. 15:13–17). As he turns to inspect, God calls out to Moses and stops him. He’s on holy ground. This is unlike anything else, so it can’t be regarded carelessly. We later read that God dwells on seneh (Deut. 33:16). Still, when He later instructs Moses on the tabernacle, it becomes a portable Sinai. Nevertheless, God knows the suffering of His people. He has heard their cry (Exod. 3:7, 9)—the same word used by Sodom and Gomorrah’s inhabitants (Gen. 18:21; 19:13). God wants Moses to do this thing, and the sign will be that they will worship Him at the very mountain where Moses stands (Exod. 3:12). God will “stretch out” His hand (shalahti), and it will cause Pharaoh to “let go” (yeshalach) in Exodus 3:20.

Moses objects several times (Exod. 3:11, 13; 4:1, 10), but God answers him at every turn, even giving him signs. The signs that God gives Moses in Exodus 4:1–9 represent a couple of things. The snake may have been the cobra that Pharaoh typically wore around their headdress. Pharaoh’s power was absolute. He was as good as a god in ancient Egypt, but, later, when his magicians duplicate this miracle, and Aaron’s rod swallows up theirs, it’s a foretaste of the downfall of Pharaoh (Exod. 7:8–12). The second miracle of Moses’ hand turning to leprosy and back to normal foretastes the plagues that are to come. Moses’ final objection is that he just doesn’t want to do it (Exod. 4:13). God becomes angry but offers Aaron as the mouthpiece.

Moses has requested permission from his father-in-law to go to Egypt and see his countrymen. Jethro bid him “Godspeed,” and Moses left. In the meantime, God spoke to Moses’ elder brother, Aaron, and asked him to meet Moses in the wilderness. After they met and talked, they go to the elders of Israel and tell them all that God has told Moses. They bow their heads in trusting what has been said to them, so the showdown begins. Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh and say that Yahweh has ordered that they go on the three-day journey to worship Him. Still, Pharaoh refuses to acknowledge Israel’s God. He thinks they have too much time on their hands to contemplate such a thing, so he multiplies their labors by requiring the same daily quota. Instead of the materials being brought to them as previously, they’re to procure them independently. It’s too hard, so they gripe at Moses, and Moses gripes to God. Yahweh reassures Moses about what He’s going to do, and Moses relays the message. Because Israel’s oppression is worse than before, they refuse to listen to Moses. For the first time in the story, God speaks to Moses and Aaron (Exod. 6:13). This is a sign of things to come—the high priesthood—because the genealogy that follows reveals that they are Levites, priests.

Plaguing Egypt

The plagues would be an undoing of God’s order, just as He allowed chaos to reign in the deluge, so He’d let chaos temporarily reign in the plagues. Each of God’s creative acts finds its negative counterpart in the plagues. Interestingly, each domain that God plagued also corresponds to the realm of a reigning Egyptian god or gods. We read ten times, “And God said,” in creation (Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26, 28–29). We also see a unique plague corresponding to most creative acts.

This particular episode has mixed in it the creation of observance, a memorial that would last through generations.            

  • Plague 1: “bodies” or “gatherings” of water (Exod. 7:19) correspond to when God created the seas in Gen. 1:10. Hapi was the god of the Nile, and it turning to blood symbolizes the god’s slaying as well as payback for Egypt’s slaying of Israelites children.
  • Plagues 2–4: This triad of plagues (frogs, lice, and flies) are associated with the three elements of the earth—water (Gen. 1:20), land (Gen. 1:24), and air (Gen. 1:22). This is all contra Genesis 1:28. The goddess Heket had the head of a frog and controlled fertility. Geb was over the dust of the earth, and Kephri was the god of creation and had the head of a fly.
  • Plague 5: Pestilence among livestock reverses Genesis 2:18–20. There was a marked distinction between Israel and Egypt (Exod. 9:6–7; cf. 8:22). Hathor was a goddess depicted with the head of a cow.
  • Plague 6: This plague corresponds to the creation of humanity in God’s image (Gen. 1:26–27). They weren’t made sickly but whole. God’s affliction of the flesh reminds the people that they aren’t superior to others, and Pharaoh isn’t a god. Isis was the goddess of medicine and peace.
  • Plagues 7–8: These two demolish the vegetation, which was a reversal of God giving it (Gen. 1:12; cf. Exod. 10:15). Nut was the goddess of the sky, and Seth, the god of storms and disorder.
  • Plague 9: When God darkened the earth, He took creation back to the state that existed between Genesis 1:4–5. Ra was the sun god and personally backed Pharaoh, so this was enormous.
  • Plague 10: Osiris was the god of death, but Pharaoh was considered the god of Egypt. The taking of life was the reversal of God breathing life into humanity (Gen. 2:7).

God instructed Moses on the Passover. A male lamb without blemish was to be taken and sacrificed for each household according to its number. The blood was to be applied to the doorposts and lintels of the houses. This meal was to be eaten in haste, and they were protected by the lamb’s blood. Egypt, however, suffered the loss of its firstborns. Keep in mind, a firstborn isn’t always an infant or toddler. I’m a firstborn, and many of us, regardless of age, are too. This doesn’t specify children but firstborn. On that note, God gives the law regarding the firstborn. Every firstborn of their livestock and children are God’s. Children may be redeemed by a sacrifice as well as donkeys, but the firstborn belongs to God. We later see this when descendants of Levi are substituted as the firstborn child (Num. 3:11–13). Descendants of Levi were sacrificed to serve the Lord all the days of their lives. This sort of reminds us of Abraham’s call to sacrifice Isaac: luckily, God provided the substitute for Isaac’s redemption.

Israel now leaves Egypt, but a detail emerges that we’d do well to notice. Moses procures the bones of Joseph (Exod. 13:19; cf. Gen. 50:25). This oath made by the children of Israel looked ahead to a day when Israel would leave Egypt. When they arrived, they did so in good standing with the Egyptians and were welcomed because of who Joseph was to Egypt. Similarly, you and I will be accepted by God because of who Jesus is and what He’s done. Our attachment to Him, the lamb of God, causes God to stay His hand and pass us over when judgment comes.

Slavish Tendencies

Shortly after leaving Egypt, Israel is once more faced with the dilemma of liberty. It isn’t always cheap, and it often means self-reliance more than anything. So, they complained (Exod. 14:11–12). Pharaoh and his army close in on Israel, but luckily, it wouldn’t be long after this complaint that they’d walk through the Sea of Reeds. One might think their mood would have vastly improved after that miracle, not to mention the fact that God placed Himself as a cloud between them, giving Egypt cloudy darkness while giving Israel light. Their mood wouldn’t improve much after that. They’d left on the 10th of the first month, and now on the 15th of the second month, just a little over a month since they departed Egypt, they grumble once more (Exod. 16:3). God provides for them and gives them instructions about the Sabbath. These complainers: do you think they followed His words to the T? Nope (Exod. 16:20). Now, God isn’t too pleased (Exod. 16:28–30). It’s not too long before they complain again (Exod. 17:3). Wouldn’t we think that having seen what they saw and having lived through what they endured would be a good enough reason to rejoice like they had in chapter 15?

Similarly, Paul wrote to the Roman Christians something similar (Rom. 6:16–23). The Roman Christians still behaved as if they had before. No transformation. No change. But they had heard the good news, obeyed the gospel, and kept on living as they had. God no more expected Israel to live as slaves as He does. We are Christians to live as slaves. We are either slaves to sin, the taskmaster that oppresses us and kills us, or to righteousness. The latter is life-giving through Jesus Christ, our Lord. The former is life-taking. As Christians, when we live after the precepts of our God and follow His path, we demonstrate that we have truly been redeemed. Many of us acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, but do we live as if Jesus is our Lord? In the ancient world, one’s lord was their master. They couldn’t do anything to shame their lord, and if their lord gave an order, they were obliged to follow it. We have a good Lord who loves us, and rather than barking orders, He tells us what to do because it’s what’s best for us. Shall we be slaves to Egypt and sin, or righteousness and God?


In our first lesson on Exodus, I pointed out how Moses used language akin to the creation narrative in Genesis as well as the flood. In the previous study, I pointed out how the plagues were demonstrative of God removing His order from certain creation elements to punish the Egyptians. Keeping with this theme of creation, when the Israelites cross the Sea of Reeds, we note a recreation theme, just as it was post-flood. Notice in Exodus 14:21 how a “wind” drives the water back to create “dry land.” The word translated wind is the same word that can be translated as “spirit”—ruach. We remember how the Spirit of God, His ruach, hovered over the face of the waters (Gen. 1:2). On Day 2 of creation, God divided the waters, and some were below, and others were above. On Day 3, God further separated the waters below to reveal the dry ground. Notice the theme?

Crossing the Sea of Reeds is a replay of creation. In Genesis, the earth came out of the water, but in Exodus, waters are split to reveal dry ground. As the distinction between land and water was created, the earth was made habitable to humans. This dry ground is life-giving to the Israelites. Then, in a replay of the flood, the waters crash down on the unrighteous Egyptians, just as God flooded the earth. Waters are tamed to bring life and released to bring death (1 Peter 3:20; 2 Peter 3:5–6). Notice how Paul ties the Christian initiatory rite of baptism to Israel (1 Cor. 10:1–2).[1] As water saved Noah and his family, and Israel and their family, the waters of baptism save us too (Rom. 6:3–6). We are, therefore, a new creation just as the earth was recreated after the flood, and Israel was created anew by passing through the waters. This is why we live as slaves to righteousness and God rather than to sin.

[1] I must give credit to Peter Enns and his book, Exodus for Normal People (Perkiomenville, PA: The Bible for Normal People, 2021). A lot of the information in these lessons that I’ve preached have come from him and his book.

What Exodus Has To Do With Creation

A recurring theme in Genesis was the threat of famine that sent the Hebrews to Egypt for food (Gen. 12:10; 26:1–2; 42:1; 46:1–4). The last time it occurred in Genesis, the entire family of Israel wound up there due to the seven-year famine Pharaoh dreamt about. That sojourn ultimately led them to settle in the land of Goshen. What began as an effort to sustain themselves would turn into a reversal of fortune. Somewhere along the continuum of time, things changed, but this is expected since Yahweh had promised Abraham that his descendants would be slaves in a foreign land for 400 years (Gen. 15:13–14). Yet, He would bring them back to the land of Canaan after the fourth generation. Before they’d return, things would get worse before they got better.

What Moses is Showing Us

In the early chapters of Exodus, we notice a retelling of the creation story in a sense, but through the history of Israel. Israel is depicted to the ancient reader as fulfilling the vocation of humanity from the beginning. The first evidence being the divine order to fill the earth and subdue it (Exod. 1:7; cf. Gen. 1:20, 28; 9:1; 17:6). Whereas it was commanded of Adam/Eve and Noah, God told Abraham that He would make it happen for him. In each instance, God is narrowing down His purpose for creation through specific ones. He began with Adam (human) and Eve (life). After their expulsion from Eden because of sin, the line was narrowed through Seth, and the mandate was once again given to Noah. As sin persisted, the vocation was given to Abraham to be realized in Israel. They had multiplied and filled the land.

Israel is God’s vessel for demonstrating His creative purposes. It’s meant to be through them that humanity comes to know the God of creation and form a relationship with Him. When we read at the beginning that they “increased abundantly” (Exod. 1:7), it might be better that we substitute that translation with “abounded.” This is the same word used to describe the sea creatures in Gen. 1:21, and it’s also used post-flood in 8:17; 9:7. These usages point initially to the creation and, then, to recreation. The author hints that a new creation is being carried out through Israel, and it is accomplished in part by their multiplication.

Fulfilling God’s divine vocation resulted in the Egyptians taking notice. To Pharaoh, the growing number of Israelites was a threat. However, the more he tried to stop it, the little it did to accomplish his goal. If anything, Pharaoh’s oppression intensified Israel’s growth (Exod. 1:12). With Pharaoh wanting Israel to diminish and God wishing them to fill the earth, a show-off and clash are sure to result. The last time such an occasion reared its ugly head was at the Tower of Babel. Those present had pitted themselves against God, and He scattered them. Pharaoh is about to do the same, and those of us who know the story know it won’t end well for the King of Egypt.

Rather than Israel subduing the land, they were stopped (enslaved). Humanity was suppressed by sin resulting in the fall. Being further subdued resulted in the flood, so the enslavement warrants a liberation just as God had previously given. As Israel continued growing and evil pervaded in their enslavement and oppression, Pharaoh ordered the murder of all male newborns. Of course, the scheme didn’t work because the Hebrew midwives kept it from happening (Exod. 1:17, 21). One specific Levite couple had a “beautiful” son. Literally, this is the same word translated as “good” seven times in Genesis 1—tov. This reminder points to the fact that this son will be used in God’s scheme of recreation.

Pharaoh began ordered newborn males to drown in the Nile. This boy’s parents put him in “an ark of bulrushes” (Exod. 2:3). In Genesis, the flood destroyed the whole human race. Still, in Exodus, Pharaoh wanted male children drowned in the Nile, threatening to destroy Israel. As the ark saved Noah, so an ark saved Moses. Noah saved humanity; Moses would save Israel. Sadly, this wasn’t the story for everyone and likely explains why God later takes the firstborn among Egypt and drowned the Egyptians in the Sea. Moreover, as God parted the chaotic waters above a vault and below as the sea, so He’d part the waters of the Red Sea for Israel’s escape. As the flood destroyed the earth’s inhabitants, God’s releasing of the parted sea would drown the Egyptians.

Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s court, raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. He kills an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew. Afterward, he tries to play peacemaker between two other Hebrews who make it known that they are aware of what he had done to the Egyptian. Pharaoh also learns and seeks Moses’ life, so Moses flees. He finds women being harassed at a well and rescues them, one of whom would become his wife after the manner of Isaac and Jacob. He meets a Midianite priest who becomes his father-in-law, and chapter two ends with a simple verse that our English complicates. “God saw the Israelites. God knew.”

Hebrew Numerology, Archaeology, and Exodus

Around 1800 BCE, people from the land of Canaan had already made their way to Egypt and established a dynasty. This comes to us from historical and archaeological evidence. It isn’t specified that these people were Israelites. Still, they may have been given the timeline of the sojourn in Egypt and the lifetime of Moses. The Israelites were to be slaves in the land of Egypt for 400 years, so this would line up rather nicely with the traditional lifetime of Moses and the writing of the books of Moses (1450–1400 BCE). However, around 1650 BCE, a group called “Hyksos” invaded Egypt and ran things until about 1550 BCE. They’re presumed to have been from Asia.

The traditional dating of Exodus is 1446 BCE, which is given to us from a literal reading of 1 Kings 6:1, which placed the building of Solomon’s temple at 966 BCE, 480 years after the Exodus. Sometimes, however, it’s hard to know if the numbers are used literally or symbolically. The Israelites and ancient peoples of the east believed numbers had symbolic and, therefore, religious meanings. In this case, if we were to read it symbolically, we’d begin with the number 40, which is a go-to number symbolizing a complete or appropriate period. Moses’ life is broken up into three periods of 40 years. Israel would spend 40 years in the wilderness wondering. Jesus fasted for 40 days and was tempted. Are we to understand these numbers literally or symbolically? 40 times 12 gives us 480—twelve symbolizing the tribes of Israel. According to the numbers, these symbolic numbers held religious connotations, which would have been viewed as a divine period of time. There can be problems reading the numbers as literal numbers rather than symbolically as they might have.

This is always something I caution when reading the Old Testament. Some who read these books read everything literally, and that’s a product of our Western Civilization, especially for us living in the twenty-first century who’ve inherited the Enlightenment way of processing information. They thought and told stories differently than we do, so we have to try to get in their minds as best as possible. This can be hard, but it makes studying the Old Testament so much more enjoyable once we’re there.  

When Did Exodus Occur?

Archaeology points to a mass Hebrew settlement in the land of Canaan in the 12th century BCE. When you look at it that way, it will make for a massive discrepancy between the actual historical exodus and the conquest of Canaan. Some figures suggest a disparity of 200–300 years. We know that much time didn’t elapse between the departure and conquest, so what are we to make of this gap of centuries between the two based on archaeological evidence?

First, just because this was when the settlements appear doesn’t mean that’s when Israelites arrived in the land of Canaan. They could have been there sooner. The settlements may point to a period of economic prosperity more than arrival in the land. Second, because the Pharaohs are unnamed in the book of Exodus, it may point us to an actual, historical conflict that occurred in the 16th century BCE between a divided Egypt. This second point is what I’ll focus on here.

From Genesis, Israelites settled in Goshen, which was located in northern Egypt. Interestingly enough, Northern Egypt is referred to as “Lower Egypt” while Southern Egypt is referred to as “Upper Egypt.” Anyway, in the sixteenth century BCE, Egypt was divided, culturally and politically. Northern Egypt was ruled by the Hyksos. Some historians believe that the Hebrews were their slaves during this period. Perhaps as we see from the story of Exodus, Pharaoh grew concerned by their numbers and that they may ally themselves with Southern Egypt against them, which would unify the country.

Near the end of the 16th century, the Southern Egyptians began a campaign to unify Egypt. There’s a notable coinciding abandonment of Semitic people, which the Israelites were, around the same time. Before these events, Egyptian sources report natural disasters that afflicted Egypt, including abnormal weather conditions and disease. Could these have been the plagues? That sounds like it. The discrepancy of dates is more about how the data is read than anything. There is a plausible explanation, and this is it.

Father Abraham

A lot of time was spent on the first eleven chapters of Genesis, but that all set us up to transition to Abraham. You’ll notice that from the beginning of Genesis until this point, God has selected individuals out of a group to represent Him in the fallen world. Adam and Eve were intended for this purpose, but they failed. Out of their two children, the good one was murdered for being good, and the murderer was further exiled from God. They bore another son through whom came Noah, and God hit the reset button on creation. Out of Noah’s sons, Shem would be the forefather of Terah, who’d have three sons, and out of those three sons, just like with Noah, one would be selected, Abraham.[1]

When we’re first introduced to Abraham, he goes by the name Abram (Gen. 11:26). He lives in Ur in Babylon, and our focus stays on him from here until he died in Genesis 25. Terah takes his family and leaves Ur, and they make it as far as Haran, some 600 miles northwest of Ur, where Terah dies. After his father’s death, Abram receives the call of Yahweh. They intended to make it to the land of Canaan (Gen. 11:31–32), but that didn’t happen. In these patriarchal times, the father, or head of the family, guided the family life. We know that Terah led the family in idolatry (Josh. 24:2). Still, we don’t understand why he left Ur and why they were headed to Canaan. However, this mirrors Israel in their later history because they would end up in Babylon because of idolatry, only to be allowed to return to the Promised Land, similarly to how their forefather traveled.

God wanted His first humans to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28), and God issued the same mandate to Noah (Gen. 9:1–3). The same request is made of Abram (Gen. 12:2; 15:5). Not only is this Israel’s story in a miniature form, but it’s also God trying to do what He intended to do from creation. In a world that’s fallen, God is redeeming it through one person, one family. “The Adam story looks forward to Israel’s story; the story of Abraham looks backward to creation.”[2]

No sooner than Abram arrives in the land God has promised to him, he leaves to go to Egypt because of a famine (Gen. 12:10). Sound familiar? This is the exact same trek Israel will follow for the same circumstance years later. Abram is concerned because his wife is beautiful, so he hands her over, and she is taken by the Egyptians. No worry, because Abram becomes rich in the process (Gen. 13:2–6). Yet, God plagues Pharaoh, and he sends Abram and Sarai off—just like He’d do for Israel. Abram and his nephew would settle apart from one another since their herds and flocks were too numerous. Lot would fall into enemy hands, forcing Abram to take his forces and retrieve him from captivity. Again, reminiscent of Israel and Egypt in a way.

After successfully retrieving Lot from bondage, Abram meets Melchizedek (“righteous king”), a king-priest of Salem, an early name for Jerusalem. This foreshadows the Davidic line from which Jesus came and the order He fulfilled. David himself somewhat fulfilled priestly roles and was also a priest-king in a sense. Much more could be written about this point, but it is an exciting study, to say the least.

Abram becomes concerned with how God will keep His promise. He proposes to God that he make an heir from his household, but God tells him that he will father a son (Gen. 15:3–4). To keep His promises, God binds Himself to Abram with an oath, a covenant (Gen. 15:9–21). This covenant’s meaning is that God will become the pieces of the sacrifices offered if He doesn’t come through with what He promised Abram. At the Exodus time, this was the promise invoked (Exod. 2:24–25).

All is well, right? Well, after some time, we’re not told how long Abram figures on helping God again. His wife, Sarai, offers her Egyptian slave, Hagar. Once the latter became pregnant, she despised her mistress, believing herself to have been elevated in status now. They have a tiff over this, and Hagar is sent away only to return after a divine revelation. Her son, Ishmael, will be a patriarch himself, and the Arabs claim descent from him (cf. Gen. 25:12–18).

A Turning Point in the Abrahamic Narrative

Let’s pause for a moment to remind ourselves how Abram has fared thus far. He has gone to the land only to leave because of famine. Talk about trusting in God, right? He lies and passes off his wife as his sister. The noble husband that he is. He returns to the land and has to divide from his nephew because their herdsmen aren’t getting along. He doesn’t want the problem to boil over into a family dispute. Good thinking here, at least. Since he’s not had children, he wants to name an heir from among his household servants, but God says, “No.” Then, after God makes a covenant with him, he goes on ahead to help God, at the behest of his wife, in keeping that promise by having a child with one of the maids. Still, that wasn’t what God had in mind, and, plus, it led to a family feud.

Between chapters sixteen and seventeen, thirteen years have passed. Ishmael is a gangly son that Abram has had the joy to watch grow up. Hagar has gone back to her place of being a submissive servant, and Sarai is happy. Yet, still no land and people. Out of nowhere, Yahweh shows up, commands that Abram walk before Him and be blameless. You kind of wonder whether or not that was an indictment of his early years of following God. Thus far, Abram has followed God for twenty-four years (cf. Gen. 12:4). Now, God commands that Abram have some skin in the game (pardon the pun). He commands circumcision (Gen. 17:9–13), likely a manner of God claiming the organ to indicate that Abram’s offspring was His and that Abram’s and Sarai’s future were in His hands. Anyone not circumcised, funny enough, would be cut off (Gen. 17:14). His (“Exalted Father”) and Sarai’s (“Princess”) names are both changed, akin to a monarch ascending the throne.

Abraham’s visited by angels who confirm Yahweh’s promise and even give him a timeline of one year (Gen. 18:10). The way it’s phrased, it was as if they said, “This time next year, I’ll return.” A condition of this promise is Abraham walking before God and being blameless, and this too is reiterated in Gen. 18:19. This time, however, Abraham is to examine God in a manner of self-discovery about himself as well as the character of Yahweh. Abraham is here and later depicted as a lawfully obedient follower of God (cf. Gen. 26:4–5), so the Israelite is simply following in his footsteps. Within the law are blessing (children) and curse (destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah). Whenever people act as depraved as those of Sodom and Gomorrah’s cities, they have nothing but to be cursed and incur God’s wrath for the pain they cause.

The promised, anticipated son is finally born. Abraham and Sarah had waited for this moment for so long, and now it had finally came to pass. After a couple of years or so, Isaac is weaned, and a big celebration follows. Sadly, the festival would turn to a wake because Sarah would finally have Hagar and Ishmael banished. Abraham isn’t thrilled about it, but God tells him to listen to her because the promise would be fulfilled in Isaac. Oh, and God would take care of Ishmael too.

Several, perhaps many, years later, God asks the impossible of Abraham—to sacrifice Isaac. Critical to understanding this story is the laws regarding the firstborn. God says that the firstborn belongs to Him (Exod. 13:1, 11–13). That which opens the womb is God’s, and in the case of animals, we can accept this because sacrificing an animal to God was a part of the customs. God took the Levites to Himself, and they served in the tabernacle/temple, and for Isaac, he would be God’s too. Yet, God would make the exception in the case of humans. He wouldn’t accept human sacrifices because that’s what the pagans did (cf. 2 Kings 16:3). He would, however, take a substitute (Num. 8:17). We know the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would say.

Abraham’s life points to the theme of God wishing to bless all peoples of the earth. He began with Adam, which was a bust, then through Seth, we’d find Noah, Shem, and Abraham. Abraham’s relationship with God is at times shaky. Still, overall he is the patriarch of the family of God in faith. He occupies many pages in the New Testament. To understand Abraham is to see the fulfillment of the promises God made over 4,000 years ago. In Abraham, we have that family through whom God promised to bless the earth in the flesh and in spirit. We are children of Abraham, who worship Jesus Christ, the Son of Yahweh.

[1] In case you hadn’t noticed, parents have a triad of children out of which one is selected. Adam and Eve bore Cain, Abel, and Seth, and Seth is selected. Enosh is named from Seth, and through him comes Noah, who also has three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Shem is from whom the Israelites would descend, and his lineage would go through Arphaxad to Terah who had three sons, Abram, Nahor, and Haran. Abram is selected, so the next logical sequence would be one son, and Abram’s one son out of two would be Isaac.

[2] Enns and Byas, Genesis for Normal People, 99.

God Confuses Languages

The story about the Tower of Babel is sandwiched between genealogies.[1] Still, these are more than portions of Scripture we’d want to skip. It’s what’s often referred to as the Table of Nations. It comes between two toledoth (10:1; 11:10), the second of which is followed by yet another (11:27). The sections become more extended from here out, so while we have ten in total and six already used, their frequency becomes less. What’s interesting to note, first, is that all of these nations have their own language (Gen. 10:5, 20, 31). Still, when we arrive at Babel’s story, it begins with everyone having the same language (Gen. 11:1). Some might see this as a contradiction, but it’s actually a literary device that beckons the reader to pay attention.

We could detail the various people and the nations from them, but I want to focus on the point leading up to the story about the Tower of Babel. Cush (Ethiopia) is the father of Nimrod, a name often used to insult someone else in our time. Nimrod built Babel and Nineveh, who would later be two of Israel’s greatest enemies (Gen. 10:8–11). Jonah would preach to Nineveh, which later became the Capitol city of Assyria—who conquered the northern ten tribes of Israel. They led them into captivity while importing foreigners to intermingle with them, thus diluting the bloodline in 721 BCE. Years later, Babylon would subdue Judah and Benjamin, the Southern Kingdom, and lead them into captivity in 586 BCE.  

Centuries before, however, these two enemies of Israel can be traced to one person, Nimrod, who we eventually trace back to the degraded son of Noah, Ham. When we look at Ham’s sons, all of them are later enemies of Israel (Gen. 10:6). Cush, whom we’ve already looked at, birthed enemy kingdoms of Israel. Ham’s son, Canaan, well, we know about him. Mizraim was the Aramaic name of the Egyptians, who were often hostile to Israel. Put (Libya) was further west than Egypt and often supported the Egyptians and other Israel enemies (cf. Nahum 3:9; Ezek. 27:10; 30:5; 38:5).

Let’s say you’re an ancient Israelite who lives either before, during, or after Jerusalem’s siege by the Babylonians. This story and the Table of Nations are especially intriguing to you. The part about the Tower of Babel appears mid-genealogy in explaining your own lineage, so you sit up straight and take note. These post-flood people come together in the plain of Shinar (11:1; cf. 10:10), which is Iraq today. Iraq was, long ago, Babylon, and before then, it was the land of the Chaldeans. That’s important because it’s where Abraham came from, Ur of the Chaldeans.

Nevertheless, these people come together to build a city and a tower. This ancient tower is what’s known as a ziggurat. This sort of structure was common in ancient Mesopotamia. They weren’t built for people to go up despite it looking like a pyramid with stairs around it and the top having an altar. Ancient people often sought high places to worship the gods because they were “up there,” so the higher you could get, the closer to the gods. In this case, the ziggurat was for the gods to come down more than for the people to go up. In Genesis 3, humanity lost the presence of God by being cast from Eden, so they build this structure with the hope that God would come to them. They were often made next to temples, and the thinking was that God would come down and enter His temple to occupy it and so that they could have His presence among them once more.  

The two indicators of what might have been wrong here are that they 1) wanted to make a name for themselves, and 2) didn’t want to be scattered (11:4). I’m going to get to what I believe was wrong here, keeping in mind the story of Genesis up to this point. Still, God’s solution is to balal (“confuse”) their language. Literally, God is going to balal babel. It’s sort of punny. Ok, so what’s the problem? Humanity is at it again. From the beginning, humanity has crossed the boundaries of being creatures. We, time and again, want to be gods. Our initial fall was aspiring to have God’s wisdom (Gen. 3:4). Sons of God come down once again, transgressing the earthy and heavenly boundaries (Gen. 6:1–4). Humanity, or a portion of humanity, wants to break through those exact boundaries, not by going up (Gen. 11:4), but by making a name for God rather than self. That was their sin. That was what displeased God. There were several ways they could have made a name for themselves, but when it came to sacred space, that was to be done for God and not for oneself.

God is the one who creates and orders. Still, in building this tower and city, these people were making their own order and unity around themselves and not God, so He confuses and disperses them. Yet, God undid His work at Babel on Pentecost (Acts 2:1–7). The Holy Spirit gave the apostles the ability to speak in languages for which they were untrained, but what’s even more marvelous is how everyone present heard in their own language. They listened to the good news about Jesus, who came to rectify humanity’s errors plagued upon the earth. He did this by dying on the cross, and those who have faith in Him will be saved. They exalted the name of Jesus rather than themselves.

[1] Archaeologists have uncovered a relief detailing the building of a ziggurat during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II. The archaeological evidence, including bricks from the ziggurat in question, plus the story in Genesis has caused scholars to date the account here to the exilic period that began in 586 BCE. A redactor is believed to have inserted it as a fictional story with a very real meaning.

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