Book Extract: The Story of Moses, Exodus, and Sinai
Note: This section of the book is introduced as Jesus, as a child, hearing the stories of his people from Hebrew scripture.
Freedom for God: The Story of Moses, Exodus, and Sinai
Jesus continues to listen as his people’s story unfolds in a new chapter. Through the vagaries of history and under the providence of God, Abraham’s family ends up in Egypt under the sponsorship of Joseph (Jacob’s exiled son turned chief administrator of Pharoah’s empire) to weather a famine. After Joseph’s death, however, a new Pharaoh grew anxious at the Israelites’ increasing numbers and began oppressing them with harsh labor. The people cry out to God
and God gives them Moses.
Moses emerges as the Israelites’ leader and challenges Pharaoh to let his people go in the name of YHWH.71 After failed negotiations, a series of divine plagues do the trick and the people leave
Egypt. Pharaoh changes his mind, however, chases them down, and soon the people are trapped – the sea behind them, Pharaoh’s troops in front of them. YHWH, however, delivers his people with a mighty act, opening the sea for his people to cross and then closing it back again on their Egyptian pursuers. After journeying for some time in the desert, Moses and the people arrive at Mt. Sinai.
There God formally ratifies his relationship with them, establishing a covenant through Moses at the heart of which lie the Ten Words.72 These words constitute the people God has graciously chosen and redeemed as his distinctive covenant people among all peoples and nations, a people through whose life together God and God’s way will be made known to the world.73 The Ten Words form the distinctive life of the people around worship (the words or commandments
prohibiting idolatry (basic issue), graven images (sin of and against the eyes), false language toward God (sin of and against the tongue), and Sabbath (sin of and against the body).
And from this worship of YHWH flows the community life that pleases YHWH and reflects his character abroad (the remaining six Words). These Ten Words (and all the other laws given to Israel) are not requirements to merit salvation or gain entry into God’s people. God has already seen to that by calling Israel and redeeming the people from Egypt. Redemption has been accomplished; the relationship between YHWH and the people secured by his gracious love and mercy (formalized in the Abrahamic Covenant). The Ten Words guide the people in living out the proper response to such great salvation. As is sometimes said today, these commandments
are not given for Israel to keep to “get in” to covenant with God, rather they are given to help them “stay in,” that is, function effectively and faithfully as God’s covenant people. Thus this Mosaic Covenant made at Mt. Sinai is conditional upon obedience to achieve its purposes of showing forth the life designed by God to the world. However, it is not determinative for salvation, that is, membership in the people of God.
But what kind of world does God desire? What shape is human life to take? How are the Israelites to model this distinctive calling they have received to be the prototype of what YHWH intends for everyone?
Hidden away in the book of Leviticus (and I say “hidden away” because so few people ever read Leviticus anymore), Jesus listens to a stunning and provocative display of the fundamental
dynamics of the model Israel was to be for the world. So stunning and provocative, in fact, that Israel itself never quite managed to live it out. So powerfully did this Levitical vision mark Jesus that he picks up the substance and symbolism of this divine dream as the banner under which he marches as he announces and inaugurates the Empire of God. This model is known as the “Jubilee” laws and they are found in Leviticus 25.
In essence, these laws required Israel as a society to build into its pattern of life legal mechanisms that, when practiced, would display YHWH’s compassionate justice as the only viable means to genuine human flourishing. These laws promote justice because they show right relationships functioning at every level of society. They are compassionate because they weave a network of these right relationships in which the well-being of the community is fostered only when everyone cares for the well-being of each other, especially the well-being of weak, vulnerable, and needy.
The core of these laws requires a fundamental reorientation of Israel once every generation.74 First, slaves were to be freed. All were to have the chance to produce and contribute as they were gifted and able to the common future of Israel as God’s people. Second, all land was to be returned to the family to which it had been given when Joshua and his generation first settled the land. As the basic form of capital in an agrarian economy, land was fundamental to any hope of long-term economic viability. As a consequence, every fiftieth year, Israel was to economically empower each family to be productive members of the community. Haves and have nots were
not to be a permanent of life in the community God desires. All this is, of course, rooted in the proper worship of YHWH.75
You may well imagine that those who had benefited and grown comfortable throughout those forty-nine years might not be too anxious for such a “leveling.” And they would most likely have
sufficient political and economic clout to sabotage it. And that apparently is just what happened. We have no evidence that the Jubilee was ever enacted. And we have only to look within our
own hearts to know why! Nevertheless, the Jubilee remains “on the books” as God’s as yet unfulfilled dream for his people. And Jesus, once captivated by this monumental vision, could not help but cast his own vision as a reinterpretation of its imagery and substance for his “Empire of God” movement.76
71 The personal, covenant name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14). Jews do not pronounce this sacred name but substitute “Lord” whenever it appears in the biblical text. I will use the four consonants without vowels to respect Jewish convictions concerning this
72 Traditionally called the Ten Commandments though the Hebrew text of Exodus simply calls them the “ten words.”
73 Deuteronomy 4:5-8.
74 That is, after seven sabbatical years have passed, sabbatical years being every seventh year. Thus every fiftieth year was to be a Jubilee year. Or it could have been the forty-ninth year depending on how one reads the evidence.
75 Leviticus 25:18.
76 In this respect, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) might serve as Jesus’ basic reinterpretation of Jubilee.