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Or read the whole section Exodus 20:17-23:33
How do you read the Bible? How do you understand it? As the literal Word of God, to be obeyed exactly? As a truth retold through story and parable? As a guiding metaphor for what God wants for us? As a narrative description of human life? Today’s scripture forces us to wrestle with how we understand and do God’s will.
The passage of Exodus 20:18-21:1 fear, promise of deliverance, obedience
Our first passage begins with the people’s fear of the awesome physical power of God’s presence conveyed through thunder, lighting, the sounds of a trumpet and smoke. Terrified of God’s presence and proximity, even at a distance, they beseech Moses to be their intermediary. Their fear is responded to with the promise of God’s deliverance. They are not to be afraid of God, rather that fear aroused in them is to convey the gravity of the issues related to their obedience and betrayal of God’s covenant. How are we to be respectful of God’s power, promise and passion? How do we understand what obedience means to what God has said, what’s in the textual testimonies of the Bible, and what God is saying today?
The second half is a guide to how to worship, to respond or be in relationship with this awesome God. In the middle of four prohibitions and permitted things is a radical promise (v. 24): “I will come to you and bless you.” How do we understand these three types of this word? In that day small figurines (or statues of god and goddesses) were common as a form of personal piety among Israel’s neighbor. Often local worship in these lands were organized around stone altars, each cut and shaped by a particular community so not necessarily looking the same. Sexual rituals and actions were also sometimes included in such worship to enhance and ask for fertility. No so for the Israelites – who didn’t even wear loin-cloths (underwear), and so were prohibited from having stairs in their sanctuaries for fear that such nudity would be on display even accidentally. So what are these stipulations really about? Being distinct from existing worship? To be followed literally?
The text of Exodus 23:20-33: a mandate to cultural imperialism & ethnic cleansing
This last passage, a sort of epilogue to the giving of the 10 commandments and all recorded in Exodus 20:18—23:33 is challenging. Is it a justification for cultural or religious imperialism?; an un-challengeable mandate for the power and scope of the Church? In our interpretation of this particular text, we would do well to remember the larger context of the Exodus promise to the ancestors. Moving from God’s concerns for the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, to that of Israel as it escapes and then enters Canaan, and finally God’s concern for all the people of the whole world. That first couple was blessed to be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3). We can’t dissociate God’s concern from the ancestors of the enslaved Israelites from the whole world. In Hebrew the world for “teach” is horah, which means to point out, to direct, to guide, to teach, to instruct. From that verb comes the noun torah which means teaching, instruction, covenant law. Maybe it’s less about rules and regulations than it is a guide and teaching of how to live well, as God intended? In life we move from what is comfortable, familiar and nurturing to what is foreign, disorienting and sometimes painful. Think of a baby being left with a babysitter for the first time. A child’s first day of school. Your first job. Leaving home. A promotion with new work that seems impossible. The unavoidable challenge of getting old(er). Philosopher Martin Heidegger describes this essential challenge of all of life as “thrownness” – the experience of being thrown into the world and having to make one’s way in the world. It’s an uncertain way of looking at life – one in which life seems like chaos, or even hell. But the life rhythm spoken of in the Bible, that the torah inites us to in one in which God is our beginning, our path and our end. Maybe God gives us the torah to guard, or keep us on the right path, to show us the best way to live. Maybe God is not just warning the Israelites to not worship foreign idols, but reassuring them that they won’t need to – that God –their God – will more than suffice. In this text is God asking the people to reject all other peoples, to embrace a platform of cultural imperialism and eventually ethnic cleansing? There is a difference between truth and untruth, between justice and injustice. How do we understand that in this text? How do we understand it – and this text – in our life today, if the Church is the extension of Israel? Are we to strip others of idols of their false Gods so that they might know the truth? Or are we called to strip ourselves of our idols and to worship and serve the one true God?
Other Biblical passages that build upon Exodus 20:18-21:1 & 23:20-33
Questions for wondering and exploring:
1. What troubles you and/or encourages you in these texts? Why? How?
2. The first passage explains how the Israelites can worship God at home, with their own gifts of agriculture and herds. We don’t worship like that today (with animal sacrifices). So how does it apply to us, in particular in a time when there is a large cultural alienation to our institutionalized and institutionalizing rituals and styles of worship? How might we worship in a way that is clearly different than our culture, and differentiated from our past traditions which keep some from entering the Church? How is our worship, or might it become, a place where people encountered and our blessed by God?
3. How might we see, like Marcion in the 2nd century, that the Bible speaks of 2 Gods – the God of the consuming fire of the Old Testament and that of the dying savior in the New?
4. What mandate do we have to proclaim the gospel? What reassurance do we have that the God of the Bible, of Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life? In an age of radical pluralism what fundamentals must we hold on to in our faith?