Did Israel pass or fail God’s test at Mount Sinai? And what did Yahweh mean when he made Israel a “nation of priests”? In this episode, Tim and Jon talk with long-time friend and Hebrew Bible scholar Dr. Carmen Imes. Tim and Carmen share differing interpretive perspectives of the Exodus story, reminding us that the Bible is meant to be meditated upon and studied within a community.
In so many ways, the book of Exodus is a creation story—the creation of the nation of Israel. The tabernacle chapters echo the creation event because the tabernacle brings Israel to the place where they can finally dwell in the presence of God as Adam and Eve dwelt in God’s presence in the garden.
In part one (00:00-18:45), Tim and Jon dive into a discussion about the second movement of Exodus with Hebrew Bible scholar Dr. Carmen Imes, who we’ve interviewed on the podcast before in our episode, “Taking God’s Name in Vain?”.
Carmen believes that to really understand the Hebrew Bible—and to understand the New Testament’s instructions for followers of Jesus—we have to go back to Israel’s interaction with Yahweh at Mount Sinai.
Exodus 19:3-6 …You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Here, Yahweh is defining who Israel is and what their vocation is to be among the nations. Before giving them laws to obey, he tells them who they are.
Tim, Jon, and Carmen discuss the nature of the Levitical priesthood: Is its existence a concession to Israel’s failure to become an entire nation of priests? In the past, Tim has suggested it is. Carmen makes the point, however, that God gives Moses instructions for the tabernacle and priests before Israel’s failure with the golden calf, suggesting that Yahweh always intended for only a select group within Israel to actually be priests.
In part two (18:45-30:30), Tim, Jon, and Carmen discuss Exodus 19:13-25, which we also talked about at length in a previous episode. In the previous conversation, “Testing at Mount Sinai,” Tim talked about how Israel’s refusal to go up to Yahweh on Mount Sinai is a failure of a test Yahweh was giving them.
However, Carmen thinks God’s invitation to come up the mountain was a test, which they passed by rightly assuming that proper reverence for Yahweh demanded they stay below at the foot of the mountain.
Both Tim and Carmen base portions of their interpretation of Exodus 19 on parallels with Genesis 22 and Abraham’s testing at Mount Moriah. Tim contends that Israel failed the test by not going up on the mountain like Abraham did, facing death and receiving blessing instead. However, Carmen sees Abraham as misunderstanding Yahweh’s character and actually failing the test. She argues that because Yahweh repeatedly says he hates child sacrifice, Abraham should have known Yahweh would never accept Isaac’s death—he shouldn’t have gone up the mountain in the first place.
In part three (30:30-40:45), Jon expresses frustration over the incongruities between Tim and Carmen’s interpretation of the same passages, and the group discusses viewing these differences as an opportunity to wrestle with God.
Because the Bible is designed to be meditation literature, we are not meant to understand everything on a first read. Rather, the design of the Bible forces us to sit and ponder its meaning, considering the perspectives of others as we go.
In part four (40:45-1:01:20), Tim, Jon, and Carmen explore the symbolism of the tabernacle and its ornamentation. Carmen describes the Exodus scroll as a second creation narrative, only this time it’s all about the creation of the nation of Israel. The tabernacle, patterned in many ways after the garden, reinforces this creation emphasis.
Interestingly, throughout Exodus, Moses is elevated above his older brother Aaron, including in the instructions for priests. It’s Moses who ordains, purifies, and even clothes Aaron in his priestly garments.
In many ways, Aaron becomes a picture of how Yahweh often works with humans. Notably, he has no authority or known skill set of his own, but when he puts on the priestly garments, he steps into a God-given role of authority and honor. In other words, it’s not because of his qualifications that God calls him. Rather, functioning in his calling is what qualifies him to lead God’s people.
As we leave the Exodus story for now, the severity of God’s judgment of sin may stand out to many of us. But the Exodus scroll ends with God’s provision of pathways to forgiveness. As this portion of the narrative concludes, God is already revealing his plan to reconcile with his people and dwell again with humanity.
Show produced by Cooper Peltz. Edited by Dan Gummel and Zach McKinley. Show notes by Lindsey Ponder. Podcast annotations for the BibleProject app by Hannah Woo and Ashlyn Heise.
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