Sunday, March 24, 2013

Exodus 16:1-18:27


In Exodus 16 the Israelites come into the Desert of Sin. The place name has a nice John Bunyanish quality. The Desert of Sin should be geographically adjacent to the Slough of Despond. Unfortunately, it is just a transliterated place name of uncertain derivation and has not relationship to the English word that means "iniquity" or "moral failing."

In that desert the Israelites begin to grumble and frankly I can't blame them. They're hungry. They miss what the KJV called the "flesh pots" of Egypt. Here's another provocative phrase. Flesh pots are just stew kettles, though.

Moses and Aaron insist that the people are not complaining against them, but against God. It's a question of trust. Having brought them out into the desert, will the Lord abandon them? Happily YHWH comes through providing the people with quail in the evening and, in the morning, a mysterious bread-like substance that sounds kind of tasty. The people call it "manna" a word that means something like "what is this?" The manna is provided daily. The quail, apparently, just this once because the people will be complaining about a lack of meat when we get to Numbers 11.

Manna requires the people to trust in God. They cannot gather more than a days ration at a time. Manna kept overnight gets wormy and stinks. Except on the Sabbath. Although the commandment to rest on the Sabbath has not yet been given*, the Israelites are prohibited from gathering manna on the sabbath. They gather a double portion on Friday and it does not go bad.

The day's ration is an omer per person. The text helpfully explains that an omer is one-tenth of an ephah. If that isn't really helpful, an omer is a measure of volume, about 3.5 dry liters.

Martin Luther is supposed to have said "God feeds the little birds but he does not drop it into their nests." God provides manna, but the people must gather it. God still provides food, though we must work for it. What's more, God provides enough food for all human beings. That some people go hungry is not a problem of supply. It's a question of distribution. In a world where the poor starve and the rich diet, what is our responsibility?

I want to just note that the Apostle Paul makes a strange use of Exodus 16:18 in 2 Corinthians 8:15. The New Testament frequently uses Old Testament allusions in strange ways, divorced from their original context and meaning.

In chapter 17, when there is a lack of water and the Israelites complain about being thirsty**, God tells Moses to strike a rock with his staff and water comes gushing out. It's not in Exodus, but a later, extrabiblical tradition says that the rock followed the Israelites. Paul, in another strange use of the Old Testament, equates this rock with Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4).

When the Amalekites attack the Israelites, Moses' staff once again comes into play. Moses stands on a hillside overlooking the battle. As long as he holds the staff aloft, the battle favors the Israelites. When Moses' arms get tired, Aaron and someone named Hur support him. This passage is also the first mention of Joshua, who will be a major player in events to come. He comes on the scene without introduction as the general of Israel's army.

The Amalekites are defeated and YHWH, angry that they attacked, vows that their remembrance will be blotted from the earth. Ironically, if they weren't mentioned in the Bible, their remembrance probably would have been blotted from the earth.

In chapter 18, we are informed that Moses had sent his wife Zipporah away at some point. The first we hear of it Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, is bringing her back along with her two sons. The sons are Gershom, whom we met back in Exodus 2, and Eliezer, whose name we have not read before though he may have been referred to back in Exodus 4.

Here's the curious thing: In 4:20 Moses was taking his sons to Egypt. Here in 18:4 the origin of Eliezer's name is related to the Exodus out of Egypt. You may do whatever mental gymnastics you wish to explain this curious fact. I am satisfied to say that the text of the Pentateuch*** is not completely consistent. That's what happens when books are complied and redacted from other sources.

Jethro sees that Moses is overwhelmed with the work of judging disputes among the Israelites. He gives his son-in-law some sound advice: Delegate.

Before he goes home, Jethro offers sacrifices to YHWH and everyone enjoys a feast. Animal sacrifices, depending on their purpose, were disposed of in either of two ways. They were either consumed as a feast or burned entirely. They were a meal for God's people, or a gift to God.

*As we've seen before, the text is not always consistent.

**I mean, really! These people want food and water. What a bunch of whiners.

***The word Pentateuch refers to the collection of the five "books of Moses." i.e. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

Next: Exodus 19-21.

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