[Edited 2/7/2012]


I made the generalization that the Torah is the greatest law code the ancient world produced because it is more than just a law code.  Genesis Is one example of this, Exodus another.

Genesis, of course, has very little in it that we would consider law.  There are a few laws in the various covenants (e.g., whosoever sheddeth man’s blood by man shall his blood be shed), but not the lists of statutes, rules, and regulations we expect to find in a law book. 

Exodus contains more of what we would expect to find in a law code, but not right away.  We don’t get to the real laws until Chapter 20!  But in the first 19 chapters we again get some things that are important as preliminaries to a law code. 

The book we call Exodus is called in Hebrew “eleh shemot,”  “these are the names,”or simply “shemot,” “names.” This isn’t a very helpful title.  The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the OT) titles the book Exodus (“the road out”), a much better indication of what the book is about.  In Greek drama, there is a “parados” and an “exodos,” and the exodus title also is appropriate in highlighting the book as a great dramatic piece.

But, if the title were not already taken by a famous film, we might rename the book something like, “The Birth of a Nation,” because that what’s really going on here.  And all of a sudden, as we look at the creation of a nation, we’re looking at law and justice in a different way from Genesis.

In Genesis, we are looking at justice from an individual perspective. There are all sorts of examples of individuals, their choices between right and wrong and the consequences of their choices.  But we are, to a certain extent, looking at mankind in Hobbes or Locke’s “state of nature,” a state before human government.  And much of what’s in Genesis tends to support Hobbes view that life in the state of nature tends to be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish--although, in the book of Genesis, not always so short. Or, if not quite Hobbesian, there’s certainly plenty to support Locke’s conclusion that, in the state of nature, we are constantly at war with one another.  We get hints of how to move beyond that state of war, and it’s interesting that as in Locke and Hobbes, the key is covenants, agreements with God and each other.  This shouldn’t really surprise us, since both Hobbes and Locke knew Genesis well and were influenced by Covenant theology.  But Genesis doesn’t take us much beyond the level of individual justice.

In Exodus, we’re going to be looking at justice beyond the individual level, and we’re making a move like that from Socrates to Plato.  Socrates was concerned with individual justice, things like why one should never harm another human being.  For Socrates, justice is in part heeding the divine voice. In Genesis likewise, justice is obedience to the divine voice. That’s a simple enough idea, though perhaps hard in practice. But what about justice in a larger context? This isn’t at all easy.   In the Republic, Plato extends the question beyond the individual level to the investigation of a just society.  Note that Socrates’ teachings aren’t  left behind--quite the contrary.  Socrates is still the central character.  But there are some added complications for us when we try, not just to be just ourselves, but to create a just society.

Now notice opening scene of this drama: oppression. 

A pharaoh arises who “knew not Joseph,” and the fortunes of Israel change dramatically.  Perhaps what is going on here is that Joseph enters Egypt during the Hyksos period, and the pharaoh who “knew not Joseph” is Ahmose who drove out the Hyksos or one of his successors.

A question: why do the Egyptians oppress the Hebrews?  Fear? Jealousy?  Something else? Certainly a question relevant to the question of societal justice. 

Note also th particular forms oppression takes:

  --Slavery (Note that Raamses was built on the site of the Hyksos capital Avaris!!!)
  --Population control (Ethnic cleansing is nothing new!) 

Chapter 2 introduces Moses (note the Egyptian name!) and a new question concerning justice, leadership. 

There are a couple of key incidents here. 

1.  Moses kills an Egyptian. *Why?
2.  Moses tries to stop one Hebrew from hurting another. *Why? 

Clearly, Moses has a strong sense of justice and wants to intervene to stop what he considers unust.  But when Moses tries to separate quarreling Israelites, they raise a fundamental issue: who made you a ruler and a judge over us? A mighty good question! Where does authority come from?  

There are two important answers in the Torah.  The first (obvious) answer: authority comes ultimately from God.  But also very prominent here is the idea of a government based on the consent of the governed. Notice how the covenant theme introduced in Genesis becomes even more important here. 

In part, what goes on in Exodus suggests that the Hebrews are bound by earlier covenants made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  But now Moses is going to help establish a new, more detailed covenant with them. But how is Moses going to secure their participation in the covenant?  

He certainly isn’t at all sure how he’ll manage.  In Chapters 3-4: Moses has internalized the “who are you?” question.  “Who am I?” he asks God.  “How can I get them to believe me?”  

The answer doesn’t seem completely satisfactory: You’re the one I send! 

Moses’ next question is for God: Who are you?  “I am that I am.”  An enigmatic and rather brief answer for now. But God offers Moses a lot more later!!  But this is tricky.  

* How can you tell that it is really God speaking? *What’s your reaction to people who say  “God told me...”?  Generally, our guard immediately goes up—as it should!

But still we have a sense that justice and authority has just got to ultimately come from beyond ourselves.  Even the Code of Hammurabi begins with the image of Marduk giving Hammurabi the code.

*What’s the answer here in Exodus?  How is Moses to know that what he hears is truly God’s voice?  And how are others to know?  Partly, the answer is historic: I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Partly, they will know by experience: I’m going to deliver you. But notice also the signs in Chapter 4, the rod becoming a snake, turning back again; the hand becoming leprous, turning back again, and water becoming blood—but not turning back again.)

Moses has a further objection: it takes more than truth: it takes eloquence. God says: I’ll be with your mouth.  Still not enough, says Mose.  Ok. I’ll give you Aaron to speak for you, says God.

*Now what about these objections?  The Taoists say fine sounding words are not true: true words are not fine sounding!  But most people don’t think like Taoists and want eloquent words to persuade them.

Well, Aaron speaks. Moses does the signs. The people believe, bow heads, and worship.

But now there’s a tougher job: to deal with Pharaoh and the Egyptians.

Pharaoh was regarded by his people as a living god. Notice: a system where government has become god—a familiar enough situation today!

But god is having some problems. The Pharaohs of this period resort to harsh laws.   There monuments boast of non-existent victories.

[In class I read Raamses II’s account of battle of Kadesh from Miriam Lichtheim’s Egyptian Literature anthology.]

Moses is one more threat to Pharaoh’s authority and Pharaoh is not going to tolerate it for one second!

Notice also that Moses has to fight a battle he thought he’d already won. In 6:9, the Hebrew people won’t listen to Moses “for anguish of spirit and cruel bondage.”

Next comes the direct conflict with Pharaoh and ultimately God’s judgment on Egyptians. The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart a troubling/puzzling thing. Who hardens Pharaoh’s heart?

There are all sorts of important things happening here. Partly, the plagues are a challenge to the whole polytheistic system of Egypt.  The Egyptians associated their gods with the forces of nature, and the plagues are specifically directed against objects of worship.  David Guzik’ excellent online commentary does a great job of showing exactly what’s going on.  Frogs, for instance, were an object of worship for the Egyptians.  And God is saying, “Frogs?  You want frogs?  I’ll give you all the frogs you want...until you’re stinking with frogs.”  Now this is important.  Though we talk of natural law, nature itself is not a very good guide to justice....  

But even worse than making nature into a god is to make ourselves into gods.  That, of course, was the temptation for Adam and Eve, but it’s worse when we have that concept of a national ruler.  Pharaoh is an excellent example of how difficult it is to give up the notion that we are gods—and that our leader is a god.  

Look more closel at the struggle:

--8:10 (Frogs are everywhere: when do you want to be delivered? Tomorrow!)  In 8:15  there is a respite.  In 8:19: there’s no longer any excuse for Pharaoh not to accept God’s command.   And yet in 9:27 after repenting (“I have sinned this time”)  in 9:34 his heart is hardened anyway--along with his servants.  And note that the tendency to evil reinforced by those who similarly profit by it. But by 10:7, Pharaoh’s servants have changed their minds (read 10:7 (“How long shall this man be a snare?”).  But Pharaoh can’t bring himself to full obedience (10:11 “Let the men go.”) And then (10:16) it looks like Pharaoh heart is finally broken.

Anyone who doesn’t identify with this has never struggled against sin.

But Pharaoh perhaps also illustration of something else: personal accountability regardless of outside forces. Notice our tendency to make excuses for bad behavior: “the devil made me do it.” God made me do it isn’t enough!

While Moses/God dealing are dealing with Pharaoh, they are also preparing the Hebrews.  We get the first Passover celebration.

Why is Passover so important? It’s a reminder of deliverance from an unjust system and the establishing of a new system.

But as Moses ends the old system, he is confronted with the problem of how to organize the Israelites on new lines.  At first, all the work is falling on Moses himself, and Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, notes how unworkable this is.

In Chapter 18, Jethro points to the necessity of laws. But now, how does one get the right kind of laws? Well, from God. In Chapter 19 the people sacrifice and God appears on Sinai amidst fire and smoke.

In Chapter 20, we get the core of the law the Ten Commandments, and, in the chapters that follow, more commandments.

The last chapters are often not quite as interesting to students.  We get a detailed description of how the tabernacle is to be constructed, and then the same details back as the tabernacle is built.  But why is this so important?

We are back to the question Moses had for God: who are you?  Well, who is God?  At one point (Exodus 32) Aaron has an answer.  He makes a golden calf and tells the Israelites, “This is Elohim,” the God that brought you out of Egypt. 

No great surprise that Aaron and the people want a god they can see, that’s like other gods—and that lets them dance naked around an image.

But Chapters 33 and 34 show how far off this is.  When Moses sees what can be seen of God, what is it that he sees? “And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.”

This is what no man can handle face to face.  God is mercy, grace, truth—and God is justice.  And here’s our ultimate answer to the question of a just society.  A society full of mercy, grace, truth is a society that serves God and secures his blessing.