Bible study 90 – Exodus 40

Moses is instructed by God to set up the tabernacle and all its furniture, and to anoint Aaron and his sons as priests “throughout all generations to come”. Inside the holy box he puts the “covenant”, by which is presumably meant the two stone tablets on which the alternative ten commandments are written. Whenever God in the shape of a cloud goes into the tabernacle tent, everyone has to set up camp; only when the cloud leaves the tent can the Israelites continue their journey.

This is the end of Exodus. But there is one thing I have wanted to mention for a long time, which I never found the right timing to. While the contents of the previous book, Genesis, is nowadays largely accepted as fiction by everyone but hardcore orthodox Christians, Exodus is often implied to be describing real, historical events. I remember, for example, having seen Discovery Channel programs searching for evidence of Moses’ parting of the Red Sea. More gravely, the history book I am currently reading largely assumes that the biblical narrative is a description of historical events. This is wrong; we are not yet in the realm of history. While the Bible is a treasure trove of historical information, these texts were written down long after the events they purport to describe, and (crucially) there is virtually no extra-biblical textual or archaeological evidence to support their historicity.

There may possibly have been a person called Noah (or something similar, or something else entirely) in the deep past, who did something that eventually gave birth to the myths of Genesis. Similarly, there may possibly have been some Hebrews (or someone related to Hebrews, or someone else entirely) that fled from oppression in Egypt sometime in the deep past, which eventually gave birth to the myth of Exodus. But it’s still a myth, and nothing I have described so far should be taken for historical fact. It’s a story, sometimes a really weird one, which gives insight into what Jews in 500 BC considered important, and which has profoundly affected later Jewish and Christian thinking and ideals.

Exodus 40:38
For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey.


Bible study 89 – Exodus 39

Finally, the priestly clothes for Aaron and his sons are created, again exactly as God has earlier instructed in excruciating detail. All the individual items they just made (curtains, mercy seats, lampstands etc. etc.) are listed up again (for the last time, hopefully), and when Moses sees that all has been created successfully, he blesses the Israelites.

Exodus 39:28
(…) and the turban of fine linen, and the headdresses of fine linen, and the linen undergarments of fine twisted linen, (…)

Bible study 88 – Exodus 38

Next, the sacrificial altar and the courtyard are constructed. After it follows a list of how much gold, silver and bronze was used to create the temple: About a ton of gold, three tons of silver, and two tons of bronze. It sounds like a lot, but I guess if they are a million people and they all contribute a few grams each, it’s not impossible. Still, it will be quite a lot of work to drag this “portable” shrine through the Sinai desert.

Exodus 38:18
The screen for the entrance to the court was embroidered with needlework in blue, purple, and crimson yarns and fine twisted linen. It was twenty cubits long and, along the width of it, five cubits high, corresponding to the hangings of the court.

Bible study 87 – Exodus 37

The craftsmen create the furniture of the tabernacle exactly as per God’s instructions, and then the anointing oil and incense. Again, a ridiculously detailed repetition of earlier chapters.

Exodus 37:20
On the lampstand itself there were four cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with its calyces and petals.

Bible study 86 – Exodus 36

Construction of the tabernacle begins. Since they make everything exactly the way God instructed Moses to, most of the text of this and the next few chapters is an almost verbatim repetition from the earlier instructions. They start with the structure of the tabernacle.

Exodus 36:12
(…) he made fifty loops on the one curtain, and he made fifty loops on the edge of the curtain that was in the second set; the loops were opposite one another.

Bible study 85 – Exodus 35

Of all the myriads of rules that God has given him, Moses tells exactly one of them to the Israelis once he gets down; to have a Sabbath every seventh day. This is also one of the few commandments that are present in in both the regular Ten Commandments and the Ritual Decalogue given in chapter 34; it thus seems like the most important of the rules.

He then asks everyone to bring offerings of metal and wood to build the tabernacle, but receives so many materials that he has to ask people stop bringing them. He describes the overall layout of the tabernacle, and repeats the names of the people that God assigned as chief artisans.

Exodus 35:3
You shall kindle no fire in all your dwellings on the sabbath day.

Bible study 84 – Exodus 34

God (who recently approved of mass-murder over a statue) reads a poem about how he is “slow to anger”, and asks Moses to come back to mount Sinai with a couple of fresh stone tablets for another 40 day sojourn, this time with nothing to eat or drink.

It is unclear exactly what was written on the first two stone tablets that Moses broke, but they almost certainly contained the Ten Commandments from chapter 20. Do you remember that the number “ten” did not appear in that chapter? Well, this time Moses (not God) explicitly writes “the ten commandments” on the tablets – except they are ten completely different commandments!

The first two commandments are much the same as in chapter 20, but the rest seem to be randomly picked from the various rules he listed in the following chapters (keep the Passover festival holy, sacrifice all firstborn livestock, don’t boil young goats in their mother’s milk, etc.). In fact, if the text didn’t explicitly say “he wrote on the tablets (…) the ten commandments” after literally listing up ten commandments, I would have just assumed that Moses wrote all of God’s rules down once more, and that the text given in the Bible was just a summary.

All of this goes completely contrary to everything I have ever read about the ten commandments and the stone tablets, so let me just be very clear here: The first pair of stone tablets (in chapter 24) probably included the standard ten commandments, but they were broken and never mentioned again in the Bible. The second pair of stone tablets explicitly contains ten commandments and nothing else, but these commandments do not include things like “thou shalt not murder”, but rather “thou shalt not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk”; and this is the pair that will be enshrined in the Ark of the Covenant. There is no hint whatsoever that the same text was written on both sets of tablets (as all Christian and most Jewish accounts I have read imply), and certainly not that the entire Torah/Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) was written on them (as I believe orthodox rabbis sometimes say). And there is no suggestion that the first ten commandments are more important than the second set of commandments. Maybe my translation is just very different on this point from earlier translations, but at least with my text there isn’t that much room for interpretation. I also don’t understand why this information isn’t prominent in the Wikipedia articles on the Ten Commandments and Tablets of Stone. Overall, this chapter leaves me pretty confused.

When Moses comes down from Sinai, his face is radiating so strongly from having met with God that he needs to wear a veil.

Exodus 34:26
The best of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.