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Exodus, Mt. Sinai and Creation

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February 23, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
Exodus, Mt. Sinai and Creation

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

In the last several posts on Exodus, we have seen that Yahweh waged a battle to get the Israelites out of Egypt. Now there is one more stage of this story we need to look at: the whole reason why Yahweh went to battle in the first place. This is where Mt. Sinai comes in.

The exodus story is not about a bunch of slaves “set free” to go their own way and do as they please. Remember the tug of war between Yahweh and Pharaoh. Pharaoh wanted the Israelites to “serve” him as slaves. Yahweh, on the other hand, wanted to lay claim on his people and deliver them so they can “serve” him. Israel’s life of service began at Mt. Sinai.

The plague narrative hints at this. Moses told Pharaoh to let the Israelites go so that they could “worship” God and hold a “feast” to him in the desert (see Exodus 5:1 and 7:16). What is meant here is not a party somewhere in the desert. The goal of the exodus was to get to God’s holy mountain where they worship and hold a feast (Exodus 24). This is already announced in 3:12 when Yahweh first appears to Moses in the burning bush: “When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”

Yahweh defeated the powers of Egypt in order to get the people to Mt. Sinai. Why? What’s so important about Mt. Sinai? Two things: law and tabernacle; behavior and worship. These are the parts a lot of us skip over in our daily Bible reading—pages of tedious and irrelevant laws and even more about a tabernacle with odd furnishings.

But, nearly half of the book of Exodus takes place on Mt. Sinai. Why all the stress?

Here the topic of creation is important. Even though the cosmic battle is over, we have not left the creation theme. Think of the exodus as God “creating” a people for himself out of a cosmic battle. After that act of creation, he gives them two things the people of Yahweh need if they are to be called his people, if they are going to serve him.

The law is God’s pattern of conduct for this newly created people. The tabernacle is God’s pattern of worship. In other words, this newly created people of God is to live like he wants them to and worship him as he deserves. If these things do not happen, the cosmic battle that brought them to Mt. Sinai will be for nothing. Yahweh went into battle for them to save them—for a purpose.

Let’s focus on the tabernacle for a moment. For centuries readers of Exodus have seen that the tabernacle is described in a way that makes one think of Genesis 1.

  1. The tabernacle instructions (Exodus 25-31) are given in six segments, each beginning with “Yahweh said to Moses” (25:1; 30:11, 17, 22, 34; 31:1). “Speaking” these six “creative” words to Moses parallels the six creative words of Genesis 1 (vv. 3, 6, 9, 14, 20, 22).

  2. The seventh word creative word in Exodus 31:12 introduces the Sabbath command. As in Genesis 1, we see a seven-fold creative act culminating in rest.

  3. In Exodus 39: 32 we read that the work was “completed.” This is the same Hebrew word used in Genesis 2:2 to refer to the completion of God’s creative work.

  4. In Exodus 39:43 we read that Moses “inspected the work and saw” that they had completed the work according to plan. Likewise in Genesis 1 God inspects his creative work and “sees” (same Hebrew word) that it was good.

  5. Just as Moses “blessed” the people after completing the work (Exodus 39:43), God “blessed” (same Hebrew word) his creation in Genesis 1:22, 28; 2:3.

  6. In Exodus 40:33 we read that Moses “finished the work,” which parallels how God “finished his work” (same Hebrew vocabulary) on the seventh day (Genesis 2:2).

Further, the structure itself has creation overtones. The very fact that it is to be built according to exact specifications, no less than a heavenly “pattern” (Exodus 25:9) speaks to the “ordered” nature of the tabernacle as well as to its “heavenly” identity. The tabernacle is an earthly representation of God’s heavenly temple. Commentators regularly also note that the lampstand (Exodus 25:31-40) represents a tree and so likely symbolizes the tree of life, not only found in the creation story but a common ancient Near Eastern motif. The curtains of the tabernacle are blue, purple, and scarlet linen with cherubim woven into them (Exodus 26:1). This is not just a nice design. Rather, when you walk into the tabernacle and look around, you are to think of the heavenly place the tabernacle symbolizes.

All of this means that the tabernacle is more than a really nice tent. It is a micro-cosmos. It is a smaller version of what God did in Genesis 1. It is a “world” that symbolizes created order. It is a “sacred space” separate from the surrounding “chaos”.

And this is where Israel’s God dwells. Like Marduk in Enuma Elish or Ugaritic Baal, conflict ends in the building of a residence suitable for the high god. The tabernacle is the resting place of the victorious Yahweh. It is not an afterthought. It had to be built in response to the cosmic battle.

Now for the law. It is very important that we resist a common Christian misconception of the law. It is not a list of rules to be followed so that the Israelites can prove themselves worthy of Yahweh—like “earning their salvation.” God saved them because they already were his people—he kept an ancient promise to the Patriarchs (Exodus 2:24-25). Note, too, how the Ten Commandments begin, “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Yahweh declares that he is their God and the law follows. The law is given to a people already redeemed.

So what then is the purpose of the law if not for Israel to prove itself worthy? It is the code of conduct for this newly created people of God. God “creates” a new people and now gives them the stipulations to follow to cultivate true fellowship with the God who saved them. It is God saying, “I have fought a battle on your behalf, made you a new people. Now, this is how a people like you are to conduct themselves, toward me and toward others. Follow these commands and you will be blessed—and the world will take notice.”

Next week we are going to tie all of this in to how we can read the creation story in Genesis. The parallels between the creation of “man” (Adam) and the creation of Israel are well worth our time to explore.

Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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dopderbeck - #5164

February 23rd 2010

Very cool.  In a seminary class, just this past week, we happened to be studying how the tabernacle is a pattern of Eden.  I had exactly the same thought about the parallel between the calling of Israel and the placement of Adam in the Garden.  Perhaps this lends some credence to the view that the narratives of Adam’s creation are more “spiritual” than “biological.”

Karl A - #5165

February 23rd 2010

I’m looking forward to the thrilling finale! 

This post makes me think of Denis Lamoureaux’s presentation on Genesis 1 and tohu wa-bohu (formless and empty); how the first three days of creation are spent dealing with the ‘formless’ issue and the second, parallel, 3 days are spent dealing with the ‘empty’ issue (http://www.ualberta.ca/~dlamoure/evolutionary_creation.pdf).  Do you see similar motifs with the Sinai story, where tabernacle or law correspond to “formed” or “full”, or any “parallel panels” in the tabernacle creation similar to Genesis 1?

Gregory Arago - #5166

February 23rd 2010

Spiritual, biological, linguistic, historical, anthropological, sociological. These all seem relevant and serious. Don’t forget the non-natural sciences’ contributions to knowledge and human self-understanding.

Craig Robinson - #5184

February 23rd 2010

Dr Enns, I agree that creation, both Gen 1 & 2, has a huge influence on the building of the tabernacle, and that creation language has a huge influence on the description of the building of the tabernacle. That being said, I have looked at your point 1 above that has been made by others in the past. I feel it is forced. The phrase “Yahweh said to Moses” occurs everywhere throughout Exodus, not just in these seven places. Plus there are 10 (or 11) creative words in Gen 1, not 6. Plus the amount of text devoted to the first creative word is way out of proportion to the others. Certainly the 7th creative word finds a correspondence in the Sabbath, but none of the other words find any true correspondence to days of creation. Certainly there is a definite relationship between creation and the tabernacle, but I don’t see how point 1 really helps make that point. It seems very tenuous to me.

Craig Robinson - #5185

February 23rd 2010

Dr Enns, Besides you and TE Fretheim, and Ziony Zevit, what other scholars in your opinion develop connections between creation and the plagues? Some scholars will make short comments about creation, but it does not seem that too many go to any length in developing those connections.  Thanks.

Dale Campbell - #5214

February 23rd 2010

Enjoyed the article - thanks!
One question I have is how the institution of the New Covenant contributes to your discussion of the giving and purpose of the law at Sinai (particularly the bit about the Sinai Law being “the code of conduct for this newly created people of God”)?  I personally understand that the Law of Moses/Sinai, though holy/good (as Paul says), is nonetheless ‘fulfilled’ such that it becomes an entirely new thing altogether - so ‘new’ that the author of Hebrews could well have the Sinai code in view when he speaks of the old being ‘obselete’.  I also like to use the death/resurrection pattern to speak of the Law of Moses ‘dying’ and ‘rising’ as Law of Christ.  In this sense, I can agree with your description (‘law as the code of conduct for ...people of God’); i.e. those who belong to Christ (by grace through faith!) are ‘under’ the Law of Christ.
Hope this makes sense,

Pete Enns - #5222

February 23rd 2010

dopberbeck: Thanks for seeing how cool I am.  I do agree that the creation narrative is more about Israel’s self-definition than some realize. more on my next post. Karl: I think Denis is great. I have never deliberately pursued the connection you are making. My first reaction is that this may be pressing things too far, but don’t hold me to that. I’d want to think about it. Gregory: I agree the non-natural sciences are huge—in some respects more challenging that the natural sciences. Craig: It is not really relevant that Y said to M occurs elsewhere. It is a common phrase. But it’s occurrence in the tabernacle section with the other indicators is significant. Re: the plagues, I am library-less at the moment, but look at Sarna’s commentary or his Exploring Exodus. That rings a bell. Dale: I appreciate your point. But I was focusing only on the law’s function in the exodus story. What happens to the law thereafter, esp. in the NT, is a hermeneutical adventure in and of itself.

#John1453 - #5323

February 25th 2010

Usually when societies generate the myths that define their culture and themselves as a people, they are not just forming a “positive” definition, but also reacting to the culture around them and to how others are trying to define them.

We have in Genesis a substrate of material, written and oral, that was formed in the coastal ANE that reacted to other operative creation myths (Egyptian, etc.). Then, at the end of its development we have an exilic context in Babylon. What creation and national myths were operative at that time in the broader Babylonian culture? Was there a different Babylonian week and day of rest?

It seems that the ealier cosmic battle has become less important, though its residue and base remains, but that the final shaping of the material is picking up and reinforcing a seven day pattern that may not have been so obvious or important earlier.

I guess my basic question is whether the context of the final formation of Genesis was substantially different that the context of its initial stages, and if so, whether this different context played a significant role in the reshaping of the material, and, of course, how it did so.


Dan Lioy - #6001

March 6th 2010

An interesting series of blogs, especially since the various topics closely parallel my own research in several overlapping areas, including the following:

The Decalogue in the Sermon on the Mount (dealing with the issue of the Mosaic law and its possible relevance for believers today; ISBN-13: 978-0820470825)

The Search for Ultimate Reality: Intertextuality between the Genesis and Johannine Prologues (dealing with Genesis 1 and John 1; ISBN-13: 978-0820481210)

Jesus as Torah in John 1—12 (dealing specifically with the issue of the relationship between Jesus and the Torah / Tanakh; ISBN-13: 9781556354755)

The Divine Sabotage: An Expositional Journey through Ecclesiastes (dealing in various places throughout the book with issues related to science and Scripture; ISBN-13: 9781556359613)

Axis of Glory: a Biblical and Theological Analysis of the Temple Motif in Scripture (dealing with issues related to the temple motif, cosmic mountain motif, divine warrior motif, etc.; ISBN-13: 978-1433110122)

Matthaeus Flexibilis - #6342

March 9th 2010

Regarding the design of the tabernacle as a microcosmos, I listened to a sermon by Gordon Hugenberger of Park Stret Church in Boston called “God’s Signature in Creation” (http://www.rededicate.org/media/audio/2007-12-16-am.mp3). Starting around the 32 minute mark to about the 40 minute mark, he argues that the tabernacle/temple design were unlike other ancient temples.

First, he takes Ps. 78:69 (“He built his sanctuary like the high heavens, like the earth, which he has founded forever.”) to suggest that the temple design mirrors the creation. The temple is thus seen as a compressed and stylized model of the whole universe: the courts, with dirt beneath and sky above, represent the earth; the laver, the sea; the horned altar, the mountains (horn and mountain peak are the same Hebrew word); the holy place, the cosmic heavens lit by the seven-candle lampstand (symbolizing the seven roving heavenly bodies – sun, moon, and five visible planets); and the most holy place, God’s dwelling.


Matthaeus Flexibilis - #6343

March 9th 2010


Then he discussed the precise proportionality of the temple and its accouterments (everything is related by tidy ratios) and the walls are constructed at right angles. Nothing is haphazard or irrational, and it can all be described with mathematical simplicity. This, he says, is different that pagan temples. (This mathematical rationality in conjunction with Ps 78:69, he argues, led some to believe that the cosmos which it mirrors is also rationally comprehensible and open to accurate mathematical description. Hence they believed that science was possible.)

I’d be interested to hear what you think of this approach, Dr. Enns.

Also, here’s an excerpt from the Zondervan Bible Background Commentary called “The Temple and the Cosmos”: http://zondervan.typepad.com/koinonia/2009/01/templecosmos.html

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