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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Two Takes on the Test at Mount Sinai
Series: Exodus Scroll E11
Podcast Date: May 16, 2022, 61:56
Speakers in the audio file: Jon Collins, Tim Mackie
Tim: Hey everybody. This is Tim at BibleProject. We've been in this series walking through the Leviticus scroll, and we would love to hear your questions. You can send them to us by recording your question any time before August 1 and send it to us at email@example.com. We would love to hear your name, where you're from. And if you could try to keep your question to around 20 seconds, that would be awesome. Also, if you can write down or transcribe your question and send that with the email that is a huge, huge help to our team. Thank you. Okay, on to this week's episode.
Jon: I'm Jon Collins. This is BibleProject podcast. Today, Tim Mackie and I get to talk with our friend and Hebrew Bible scholar Dr. Carmen Imes. Carmen has been on the podcast before talking about her book Bearing God's Name: Why Sinai Still Matters.
Because she's a good friend of ours and because (00:01:00) she has an emphasis on the scroll of Exodus in her studies, we thought how great would it be to sit down with her at the end of our journey through Exodus and debrief a bit about the things we've been talking about. It was wonderful to talk with Carmen, but it was also a little discombobulating, actually, because Carmen presents a few alternative interpretations to stories that we've been reading. Namely, the story in Exodus 19 where Israel comes to the base of Mount Sinai, God asks them to become ritually pure and prepare themselves to make a covenant with him.
As Tim and I talked through that story, Tim made a compelling case for how Israel was meant to go up the mountain when the trumpets blast. And when they don't go up the mountain, they've failed a test. They failed to trust God. But Carmen is going to give us an alternative perspective from this story, (00:02:00) in which Israel was never meant to go up the mountain, and they passed the test by fearing God and staying at the base of the mountain and sending Moses up instead as an intercessor.
So as we listen along, as two Hebrew Bible scholars discuss a passage in the Bible and come to fundamentally two different perspectives on what it means, if you're like me, you might get a little flustered. But it's also good to remember that the Bible is meant to be read in community and we're meant to challenge each other.
Carmen: And isn't it a beautiful thing that we can sharpen each other and trade ideas? Like, isn't this what the rabbis did as they read Scripture together? And well, it could be this and it could be this. And somehow they were able to sit with more unresolved tensions than we are. We want to know, like, well, which is it?
Jon: So let's prepare ourselves to sit in some unresolved tension around Exodus 19 and whether Israel was meant to go up the mountain. (00:03:00) Thanks for joining us. Here we go.
Tim: All right, Carmen Imes, thank you for joining us today in this conversation on Exodus.
Carmen: It's great to be here.
Tim: Let's see. So it's been a couple of years ago that we actually interviewed you about the book of Exodus, even about the same section of the book of Exodus, and many people in our audience learned a lot from that, learned about your work, and really were excited about you. So we were excited to have you back on because Jon and I have been talking our way through Exodus, and we've stacked up some questions that we've been talking through and are excited to hear your perspective. Let's see.
So maybe real quick, just as a quick bio, for those of you who haven't heard that interview in the archive, feel free. We encourage you to go do that. (00:04:00) But real quick, tell us about yourself, Carmen, and also about recent updates in your family's life story.
Carmen: Sure. So the three of us go way back. We went to Multnomah Bible College together back in the day. So that was our connection. And I'm a big fan of the BibleProject. I use the videos in all my classes. So I currently have students in Old Testament History and Literature class who are watching, I think, 40 Bible project videos and taking quizzes on them. So they watch them outside of class.
You guys kept making so many videos, I used to show them in class, but then there were so many that there was no time left for me to talk. Now I've created an outside of the class dimension where they watch them and take quizzes on our learning management platform. And it's consistently their favorite thing about the class is that they just love engaging visually with the text. So that's fun.
I am an associate professor of Old Testament at Biola University. So having just moved down (00:05:00) here from Alberta where I was teaching at Prairie college for four years. So I'm in the thick of it with lots and lots of undergrads and love what I get to do.
Tim: It's great. And let's see. Last time we had you on, we invited you to talk about both your dissertation and your book Bearing God's Name. So we'll talk about some of those themes from the book today. But you haven't left the orbit of the book of Exodus, you're still there in other projects you're working on. Maybe talk about some of those.
Carmen: Yes, I will be here for a while. I'm working on the Exodus commentary for the Baker Commentary on the Old Testament series. So it'll be somewhere around 750 pages by the time it's done. It's a big project. And I am just thrilled to get to do it because it's giving me the space to work through things on a detailed level, to ask all the questions I want to ask, and to chase down all the rabbit trails. And I love it.
Tim: Well, wonderful. When I learned that you were working on that project, as Jon and I (00:06:00) have been talking through Exodus racking up our questions, we were like, "Let's call Carmen. Let Carmen speak into some of these things." So yeah, we are going to hang out at Mount Sinai as we did last time we had you on, but we're going to focus in on some specific things.
Maybe real quick, for those of you who don't know about kind of your first series of projects on Exodus, you really zeroed in on both the moment of Israel making a covenant with God at Mount Sinai, and that what God calls them as a title, but also what he calls them to be and do. So maybe kind of wrap that together. That's where we are. For this conversation, we're parked at the foot of Mount Sinai. So talk about those first paragraphs and moments of the story, how that connects to one of the ten commandments. Just talk about that.
Carmen: Yes, great. As you mentioned, I wrote my dissertation (00:07:00) and I wrote my master's thesis on 1 Peter 2:9-10, which is an echo of Exodus 19. So I've really been in these chapters for 10 years now and just think they're fantastic. And I really believe that if we want to understand our identity and vocation as believers, we have to go back to Sinai, because this is where it really is fleshed out.
So yeah, that people arrive at Sinai in Exodus 19, they've crossed through the desert. And the first thing that happens is God speaks to them through Moses. And in Exodus 19:3 he says, "This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob, and what you are to tell the people of Israel. You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagle's wings and brought you to myself. Now, if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations, you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (00:08:00)
That moment is so important in Israel's development as a nation because it's defining who they are, and what they are designed to do, what is the vocation that God has for them. And my favorite phrase there is "treasured possession," which is just one word in Hebrew, the word “segullah.” And segullah is not just a warm, fuzzy term that you might use if you really like somebody. It's a technical term used in treaty contexts to indicate a special treaty partner that has a representative role.
And so God is appointing Israel to a special task of representing him among the nations. And that's before they get the law. The second half of Exodus is known for having lots of laws. Before we even get to that, God makes clear "This is who you are: you as a nation are holy, you're set apart for my service, you represent me among the nations."
Tim: Excellent. Okay. So let's talk about how that connects to (00:09:00) this language of kingdom of priests, and then also about carrying the name, I think. Because then that tees us up for what we would like to do with you, which is actually to kind of walk through the steps of this narrative of how God shows up on the mountain and then how they come up to the mountain. And then are they supposed to go up it but only Moses does? So there's things we'll talk about there. But all the way back here, this is setting out the ideal picture as it were.
Carmen: So he calls them his treasured possession, kingdom of priests, and that's before he's given them any laws. But then he does give them laws. And those laws are the means by which they carry out the mission he's just given them: to be the treasured possession, the segullah and the kingdom of priests.
So why is kingdom of priests important? Well, it's very interesting that God would designate an entire nation as having some sort of priestly status. This would be totally unique in the ancient world, the idea that everyone in this nation is a priest or that together they function in priestly ways. (00:10:00) And so in just a few chapters, we'll meet the people who are designated priests in Israel's tabernacle, Aaron and his sons. And we'll see that they become like a visual model of what the entire nation is supposed to be and do.
And so the high priest in particular is interesting to watch because he's the best dressed Israelite; he has this elaborate costume that he wears made with gold and jewels and fancy, dyed fabrics and embroidered fabrics. And we're told in chapter 28 … Exodus chapter 28 is where God gives Moses the instructions for how to make his garments. And we're told that he's supposed to bear the names of the sons of Israel over his heart.
So he's got twelve gemstones on his chest. Each gemstone corresponds to one of the twelve tribes. As you know, there are actually thirteen tribes. We don't count Levi in this because he himself is a Levite. So I presume the twelve stones are the twelve other tribes. (00:11:00) But anyway, he is bearing their names, he represents them before Yahweh.
And then he also wears some kind of golden medallion on his forehead. And that medallion is engraved in Hebrew with two words: Qadesh La Yahweh. "Holy belonging to Yahweh" is the meaning of it. So it's setting him apart as somebody who's designated by Yahweh for this special task. So with that in mind, we can then circle back to they're the kingdom of priests. If the high priest stands between Yahweh and the rest of the nation as a representative, then they as a nation are in a sense standing between Yahweh and the rest of the nations, the rest of the world, and having that kind of mediatorial role.
Presumably, they have this … Well, not presumably. God tells them they have this representative role. So it's as if they are wearing God's name, too. So when we get to the ten commandments, (00:12:00) and God says, "You shall not bear the name of Yahweh your God in vain," which is what it actually says in Hebrew, “bear the name,” nasa, using the same Hebrew word that's used to describe what the high priest is doing with names on his chest, he's nasaing the names, and they are supposed to bear the name of Yahweh, it seems clear to me that that command is not prohibiting them from saying God's name or from using it as a swear word or using it in oaths. Although we have to think carefully about how we speak God's name, the command is much broader than that. It's telling them, "You are my representatives. I've put my name on you, so represent me well."
Tim: Jon, I realize I didn't invite you to say hi at the very beginning.
Tim: I'm sorry. We just like—dove right in.
Jon: No, I think I'm gonna let you guys nerd out.
Tim: We just dove right in. So as Jon and I were talking about this, he had an interesting question that I wanted to hear your response to. I bet, Jon, it was about the way (00:13:00) that the ideal of a kingdom of priests and then there is a family of priests within the kingdom of priests. And are those two at odds with each other? You had a way of putting it that was a really helpful way of asking that question. Do you remember asking that question?
Jon: I don't know if I remember the exact question you're thinking of. What conversation was it from?
Tim: Well, it's the ideal—it begins with the nation of priests.
Jon: Oh, and they become a nation with priests?
Tim: It's clear they later become a nation with priests. And the question is, is that a lessening of an ideal, or is it possible to have a select priesthood and all the nations and priests and that's just a happy situation? Or are we meant to see some kind of idealism that all the people are priests?
Jon: So, Carmen, I'd love to hear your perspective on the priesthood of Israel. When I talk with Tim, Tim, when we talk about the priesthood, (00:14:00) especially in our series on the priest, the royal priest, you make a pretty candid case that the priesthood is a concession. And that felt new to me that it wasn't the ideal. And here at Sinai, Israel is called to be a kingdom of priests. So is the fact that not everyone in Israel is now a priest, is that a concession? Or is there actually something really beautiful and important about what the priesthood is doing within Israel? Or is it a little both? How do you weave through that?
Carmen: Well, let me first admit that I have not listened to all of your priesthood podcasts. So I don't know at what point—
Jon: It's really good.
Carmen: Of course it is. Of course it is. But you guys turn out content faster than I can keep up. So at the risk of disagreeing with Tim, which I would hate to do …
Tim: Oh, feel free.
Carmen: … I think it's interesting that God calls them (00:15:00) a kingdom of priests and then before the golden calf incident, he's already giving instructions for how to build a tabernacle and what the priests are supposed to wear. So I feel like in terms of literary design, it doesn't seem like it's a concession there. God's anticipating the need for it, at least. And there's something really beautiful about the high priest and his elaborate garments that he wears that I think then help the nation to see what it is they're supposed to be and do on a broader scale.
Tim: You're saying there's a harmony between the nation envisioning itself as a priesthood and then looking to one tribe set apart as a priestly tribe as it were like a visual cue.
Carmen: I think we could look ahead to the New Testament and see a similar dynamic because we talk about the priesthood of all believers, and yet we do have people who are set apart for (00:16:00) apostolic pastoral ministry. Like in leadership roles, we have elders. I think the fact that we all have priestly access does not get rid of the need for there to be specialists.
Tim: Wow, that's a good point, actually. And even more to the point would be Jesus is our high priest, but not to the exclusion of his followers being the kingdom of priests, right? Those two work in sync together. I've never really thought about that parallelism being parallel to Israel and its priests.
Carmen: I probably thought about it because of my master's thesis because I was hanging out in 1 Peter where he calls them a kingdom of priests and looking at that symmetry.
Tim: I think the conversation, Jon, that you're recalling, and actually it feeds into what we'll maybe get to if we get to the golden calf today, that Aaron is introduced into the Exodus story, as you know, as a concession to Moses' unwillingness to be God’s mediator before Pharaoh. So it's just interesting that Aaron is introduced into the story because of God's (00:17:00) anger at Moses. And I've just always thought that seems really important that that's when Aaron gets brought up.
Carmen: Let me just throw out a thought with that. Because in chapter 4 when Moses is saying, "No, I really, really don't want this job. I didn't sign up for this," I wonder if part of why God is angry is because he has already accounted for Moses' weakness as a speaker and he has already provided a solution and Moses is failing to trust him for it. Because he says in chapter 4 verse 14, "And the Lord's anger burned against Moses." And he said, "What about your brother Aaron, the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you."
And I think one way to read that is God already had this covered. The reason God's angry is not that he needs to call Aaron, he had already called Aaron, but Moses is the one who's failing to trust that God's going to work this out and give him what he needs.
Tim: Okay. So what you're saying is (00:18:00) because he says Aaron is on his way, implied because I prompted him or something like that, to compensate for your fourth objection. But now with this fifth objection, you're just kind of ticking me off.
Carmen: I mean, you could take it as God's answering Moses’ plea before he even prayed it, which is how I initially read it. But then as I was looking at it again and thinking about the area of disability, like thinking about reading Moses’ disability, the Lord said to him, "Who gave human beings their mouth? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I the Lord?" Like, God knows Moses intimately and knows what sort of support he's going to need. The problem is that Moses doubts his own ability and needs to trust. So maybe Aaron was the plan all along?
Tim: Thank you for that. So let's tuck that away when we come back to the developments later. But when we're at Mount Sinai, I appreciate your perspective that to be a kingdom of priests (00:19:00) is not at odds with having a priestly tribe with high priests, that those can all work in sync together.
Section break (00:19:08)
Tim: So let's move on to kind of the next step in this story, then. You read God's opening words to the Israelites through Moses. After that God invites them to become covenant partners. So if you just listen to me, this is an invitation, keep my covenant, and you'll be my representatives. So then God tells Moses, "All right, we're gonna make this official. I'm gonna come down on the mountain in storm and fire cloud. And on the third day, you're going to hear the ram's horn …” Now I'm into Exodus 19:12 and 13.
And verse 13 introduces a really interesting detail where God says, "On the third day when the ram's horns are sounding, let the people come ..." And depending on what translation you read, you get a very different sense of what's happening. So the New Revised Standard Version says, "Let them come up onto the mountain," which is I think the most natural way of reading the Hebrew text there. But many of our other English translations say, "Let them come up to the mountain." Not on to it, just to it.
So Jon and I talked about this at length in the previous episode already. But maybe kind of tee us up. What do you see as the interpretive challenges in this story? Why these translation differences? And how have you sorted your way through this challenging story?
Carmen: Well, it's challenging because the people say (00:21:00) they don't want to go up the mountain, and so then God says, "Okay, you can." There seems to be a tension in Scripture about whether it was a good idea or a bad idea for them to not want to go up the mountain. I remember first reading these texts in Bible college and thinking, "What a missed opportunity. They could have gone up the mountain and they didn't. And now in Jesus, we can, and so let's lean into this."
I think I've shifted on this. I think I have a different opinion now than I did when I first read it. And I'm basing this opinion on the work of Michael Kibbe, who is a professor of New Testament and academic dean at Great Northern University. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on this conundrum. He did his doctorate in New Testament. So he was looking at the way Hebrews 12 recapitulates or recaps this event. So tracing it from Exodus to Deuteronomy and then into Hebrews.
And he says that this moment, verse 13, is a test. So you've done a test video, (00:22:00) you've talked about how God sets up these tests. He believes that this is a test designed to demonstrate Israel's fear of God and that the proper response to an invitation to come up on the mountain where God is just to say no, no, we can't approach a holy God. That that was the right response. And that this would then sort of galvanize their commitment to obey Moses as a mediator.
So when they see that Moses can approach God and that they shouldn't, that shows both their fear of God and their trust in Moses as the mediator. And he traces that from Exodus into Deuteronomy, and then on into Hebrews to kind of show exegetically how it works.
Tim: Okay, all right. So that's good. You're at a different place than where I was taking Jon too, which is wonderful. And this is why reading the Bible in community is so important because we can learn from each other. So let me say back to you what I'm hearing you say as you summarize Michael Kibbe. (00:23:00) Because what God does say to Moses right before all of this is, "Listen, I'm going to come in a thick cloud," this is Exodus 19 verse 9, "... so that the people can hear when I speak to you, and so they can trust in you permanently." So I'm guessing that's where Michael is really … He sees that as a preview that the goal of this is to set up Moses and the people's trust in Moses as a sole mediator. Is that right?
Carmen: Yes, I can read you a little section here. This is from page 32 of his dissertation. So the chapter on Sinai and Exodus. He says, "Israel has not consistently demonstrated proper fear of God in the events leading up to Sinai. So he's not confident of their ability to respond appropriately to his presence. So the test here is to see whether they will respond appropriately." He says, "The human recipients’ recognition of the divine presence and subsequent fear is a necessary precondition for moving forward in the story." (00:24:00)
He surveys there's seven different options for how to reconcile these. You know, how could God say this twice? Are we translating it wrong? Or what's going on. He talks about Sailhamer's approach to it, which I'm guessing you're familiar with, and shows why he doesn't think that works exegetically. But he concludes the contradiction between saying, "Don't come up the mountain, come up the mountain" is intentional, and therefore necessary for the flow of the narrative, and it plays a crucial role in the fulfillment of God's broader purposes at the mountain," which as I already said were to show fear of God and to establish that mediation is necessary.
So when Moses intercedes for them, the narrative is showing that he's ready to move forward as the mediator God appointed him to be. And that's jumping ahead to chapter 32. When he intercedes for the people in chapter 32, that's the test of Moses. And God's presenting him with a test, "Hey, should I destroy these people (00:25:00) and start over with you?”
So they both get a test. Israel gets a test here at the foot of the mountain and they say, "No, we fear God." And then Moses gets a test in 32 with, "Hey, should I destroy these people and start over with you?" And he says, "No, I'm going to mediate." So they both passed the test and now we can go forward with the intended mediator.
Tim: Interesting. Okay, this is great. So, I'm curious if you or Kibbe … So here were the other two things that compelled me in the direction of Sailhamer's interpretation. And that has to do with the narrative patterning of the story is massively patterned after Abraham's test on Mount Moriah and then Adam and Eve's test on the Eden mount when God showed up in the wind of the day.
And there Adam and Eve hide themselves from God's presence, and that's viewed as a sad fear of the Lord. It was a fear that came too late. And whereas Abraham's decision to go up the mountain (00:26:00) and even surrender of the life of his seed even though he knew that God said, "The nations will be blessed in my seed," so how does that work? So same kind of seemingly contradiction.
Carmen: It seems to contradict.
Tim: Yeah. But for Abraham, his fear of the Lord is demonstrated by going up the mountain, not by staying away. So what do you think about how those narratives interact with each other? Because it's also become a question of how do we interpret later stories when they're echoing earlier stories?
Carmen: Well, this is going to totally throw a wrench in the whole thing. I have in the margin of Kibbe's dissertation, how does Middleton's reading change this? Because Kibbe says on page 43 that Abraham passes the test. So he sees the same parallel that you do. Abraham passes the test because he fears God enough to obey him when doing so makes no sense in light of previous revelation. Israel passes the test because they fear God so much that they cannot do what he's commanded. However, Richard Middleton just released a book last year (00:27:00) called Abraham's Silence.
Tim: Yes, yeah. I haven't read it yet but I'm excited to.
Carmen: You must read it.
Carmen: It is absolutely mind-blowing. So he argues that Abraham failed the test. That the test was would you intercede on behalf of your son? Like he reads the Abraham story in light of the lament psalms and the book of Job where our questioning of God when he seems to be acting out of character is held up as a positive thing—that we should question God. And Abraham fails to do this; he just slavishly obeys in a case where there's a clear contradiction between promise and command.
So he shows exegetically, he does careful work through the Abraham story in Genesis 22 to show why this is the case. And I'm not going to be able to do it all off the top of my head. But his basic point is Abraham is treating God like a Canaanite deity that would require child sacrifice. He doesn't even question it. (00:28:00) And what God wanted him to do was to intercede the way he interceded for Sodom and Gomorrah.
When he intercedes for Sodom and Gomorrah, he gets down to, "What if there's ten righteous?" But he doesn't go lower than that. And so Middleton thinks that here in Genesis 22 that God is asking Abraham to press in and find out that God would make a sacrifice just for one. Keep negotiating down or keep pressing into know God better. So yes, Abraham shows faith, but his faith is misplaced. He shows that he actually doesn't know Yahweh as over and against other gods. So that throws a bit of a wrench in the parallel.
Tim: That's interesting. I'll need to work through his argument. But in Genesis 22, when God responds to Abraham and says, "Now I know that you fear God because you didn't withhold your only son—"
Carmen: Yeah, I know that you fear God but you don't seem to really know me.
Tim: So that is not an affirmation?
Carmen: Yeah. You don't seem to really know me. (00:29:00) So like God steps into save Isaac because Abraham kind of failed to intercede for him. Like, "Okay, so you fear me? Okay, we're good, but I'm gonna go ahead and save your son because otherwise the promise is in jeopardy."
Tim: Now, we're two stories deep.
Carmen: We were supposed to be talking about Exodus here.
Tim: But this raises an interesting question. When you have these narrative patterns, what does it mean to read one story in light of an earlier story? And how much do you import of the message of an earlier story into a later story? Is that just replay or is that a contrast? Does it invert? Does it reverse? And these are interesting questions because the narrators obviously want us to make these kinds of connections. So the question is, how do we … does the narrator want us to see the people at the mountain in some kind of analogous relationship to Abraham in analogy to Adam and Eve? And if so, what's the comparison? And what's the contrast? (00:30:00)
Carmen: And there's this clear allusion right back to Genesis because they're not even supposed to touch the mountain, which echoes the language of not even touching the tree that Eve says.
Tim: Yeah, that's right.
Carmen: There's some clear verbal parallels.
Tim: So you're persuaded by Kibbe that the people deciding not to go up the mountain and to say, "Moses, you go up for us" is a sign of positive. It does have an interesting parallel to when God tells Moses in the same spot that the burning bush, "Don't come any closer." And there that's a sign of his faithfulness is by honoring the divine fire.
Carmen: So then the idea would be that Moses goes up on their behalf as a mediator and God gives him the blueprints for the tabernacle, which is going to help provide proper boundaries so that they can approach God appropriately.
Tim: I see. Got it.
Section break (00:30:52)
Tim: Jon, I'm curious, at this point, where you are watching two people who have dedicated a lot of time to understanding these and all of a sudden there's more than one way to read these texts, what does that feel like for you? Maybe it's energizing for you, I don't know.
Jon: No. Actually, it's a little frustrating. Well, I mean, I spend so much time with you, so I just get inside of your brain. So I can get really comfortable and just being like, oh, yeah, this is great. There's a nice coherent way to view all of this. So it's a little jarring to kind of go, oh, that's how you read that story? Or there is a compelling case to be made to read that story in that way? But I think that's just my initial reaction.
And then also I can hear Tim's response being like, "Ooh, I want to engage. I want to kind of hear that argument through." I'm like, "Okay, I'm gonna let Tim hear that argument through because I don't know if I have the brain space. But I think what is cool is for me to be able to engage with these ideas on the level of narrative patterning. Just having that perspective and toolset is nice.
I will say I'm very empathetic to the reading that we've been having, so it's kind of hard for me to detach from it and try to completely understand how the test for Abraham would be "second guess me." I mean, that's interesting.
Carmen: It's like an invitation to wrestle with God. And Abraham doesn't take the bait. Like, he doesn't wrestle.
Tim: It's what Moses does, right, in the golden calf story?
Carmen: Yeah. (00:33:00)
Tim: That's interesting.
Carmen: I'm thinking of the Jewish Meditation Literature video in the How to Read the Bible series and just how you guys have laid it out as this is complicated and there are all these resonances, and it's going to take us a lifetime to sit with these and wrestle with them. You know, the complexity means we just can't wrap our minds around it and be done, like check it off the list.
I just also want to say that I'm still in the early stages of actually writing my commentary. So I haven't worked in-depth on that question. Like I quickly turned to Kibbe's dissertation to help me answer it because I knew he had sat with that question for a long time. But I haven't worked my way all the way to that point of my commentary. So I may listen to your explanation of it and be persuaded by that.
Jon: I have a thought. Can I jump in?
Jon: It seems like these two interpretations cash out in pretty different ways. And they're both really cool ways. One is where we took our video on the test, (00:34:00) which is a test is an opportunity to trust God, even though it doesn't make sense. And we have this image at the end of the video where there's this flaming door. You're like, "I'm not gonna walk through that flaming door." But then an arm comes out, you know, to lead you through it. And you picture Moses going up the top of Sinai, and it looks like he's going into his death. I mean, that's what Israel sees. But through the flaming door into the space where God and him can be together.
And so it's this picture of can I trust God even though I have this sense of self-preservation that's telling me not to? Or I'm second-guessing God's wisdom based off of my own assessment of what I need. That's a cool thing to think about.
Carmen: It is.
Jon: The other way to think about this that you're suggesting is the opportunity that we have as God's human partners to engage with him. And we see that with Abraham (00:35:00) as he negotiates about Sodom and Gomorrah, we see it with Moses negotiating on behalf of Israel. And that's a cool thing to think about that we actually are invited to participate in, actually, actively negotiating with God. And those are kind of two completely different … They almost feel opposed to each other in some way. Like, just trust God even though it doesn't make sense. There's something beautiful there. I think there's something biblical there. Or here's an opportunity to engage with God and almost second guess God in a way because he wants to actually engage with you as a partner.
Carmen: I think the key that unites those two beautiful approaches is the character of God. We can trust God blindly because we trust his character. When something looks like it's not lined up with the character of the Yahweh we know, that's where we would be invited to wrestle. (00:36:00) This is what you see, say, in Psalm 89, where the psalmist is saying, “Look at all these great promises you made to David to have a king on the throne.” And then halfway through the song, it's this, "Where are you? You don't seem to be upholding David as king the way you said you were going to." So there's a disjunction between what God says or what he promises, and what we're observing in life. And I think we can trust God that he's going to work out his purposes. But I think he invites us to engage with him like that.
Jon: When we get to the part of the narrative where Moses is on top of the mountain for 40 days with God, there's this sense of perhaps that should have been all of Israel up there with God in the Eden space? Or are you pretty comfortable kind of going, "No, that's great. That's the ideal." Like, Israel up there would have been a mess in some way, and they needed a mediator. And that the ideal was (00:37:00) the mediator goes up there?
Carmen: I think they needed a mediator. I think it would have been a mess because they hadn't been made holy yet. And so they needed a mediator because they didn't have a tabernacle yet and they didn't have a priesthood. So, therefore, there was not an operational sacrificial system that would repair that relationship so that they could safely be in God's presence.
So I actually think what resulted was even better than if they had gone up the mountain. God said, "No, I'm going to come move down into your neighborhood. I'm coming down to where you are." But the tabernacle facilitated that move so that they could safely be in the presence of God.
Tim: I think for me, this raises a whole set of questions about—well, I already named it—how when earlier stories are patterned … excuse me, when later stories are patterned after earlier ones. So for example, the establishment of the fire and the angels at the boundary of Eden, and you can't go back in. But the whole narrative is like, "But I wish somebody could go back in. Like we need somebody to go back in. (00:38:00) And wouldn't it be great if it was everybody?"
Then you start having these narratives patterns of people, characters facing these life and death decisions, really life and death for the next generation, where they stand at that door as it were, and whether or not they're going to trust and step towards what looks like death and then discover that its actual real life. That was the … what would you say? That's the force, or the pressure that the Eden story was exerting on me all through Genesis leading me up to be inclined to see that same dynamic here. Namely, that the ideal would be for all the people to be reentered back to Eden. But what happens is the people stay distant.
I do think there's something to the macro design, how the moment where the people say, "We don't want to go," or they stand far away and push Moses up, and Moses says, "This is a test." (00:39:00) That's in chapter 20, verses 18 and following. That's at the literary center of all of 19 through 24. So there's something there that it's really highlighting that moment, that they want to be distant and Moses is the one who goes up. The pressure of the earliest patterns is what led me to see that as another concession, as it were. So it's good that we have one, because if you have one God can work with that one on behalf of all of the others. But it does point still to a lost ideal.
Carmen: But even that one ends up not being able to go into the tabernacle at the end of Exodus, right?
Carmen: Like in the literary design, this is what your Exodus video brings out so well. There's like this unfinished element. And I think that's setting us up for why we need Leviticus. We don't have a priesthood yet. We don't know the sacrifices yet. And that's going to be necessary if we're going to reenter God's presence. I think it's the mercy of God, isn't it, (00:40:00) that he drives Adam and Eve out of the garden because he doesn't want them to eat from the tree of life and live forever in that state, in that state of brokenness. So the people aren't ready yet to approach the tree of life until that healing happens.
Tim: Oh, I appreciate that. That's good. I need to think about these things more.
Carmen: You need to make a cup of coffee and go for a walk?
Tim: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah. The problem is I don't want to wait till I'm 98 to say anything about the Bible. So there's nothing for it, though, to just say this is my current understanding. And I might actually land at the same place but with greater conviction, or I might adapt my views along the way and likely both will happen many times over.
Carmen: And isn't it a beautiful thing that we can sharpen each other and trade ideas? Isn't this what the rabbis did as they read Scripture together? And well, it could be this and it could be this. And somehow, they were able to (00:41:00) sit with more unresolved tensions than we are. We want to know like, well, which is it?
Tim: Yeah. Yeah.
Carmen: It seems like there's maybe more room for ambiguity there.
Section break (00:41:10)
Tim: Yeah. Let's transition to a couple other questions that we had for you. The first one, I think I know, but I haven't heard you quite speak to it. So I was curious because you brought up the tabernacle. Setting up the tabernacle as a place where the relationship can be healed. So the tabernacle is full of garden-like imagery in its description. People have interpreted that symbolism in different ways, however, over time. And that is going to lead to another question about the dress and the role of the high priest within that place. So maybe first, what do you make of the tabernacle garden imagery within the larger storyline of the Torah?
Carmen: I think it's unmistakable that there's all this garden imagery. I have an article about it where I sort of assembled all of the different—
Tim: Oh, you do? It's published?
Carmen: Yeah. It's in the Festschrift for John Walton For Us, but Not to Us. The article is titled "The Lost World of the Exodus." So I kind of take Walton's style of Lost World books and I apply it to seeing Exodus as a creation story. And in so many ways, the book of Exodus is a creation story, the creation of the nation of Israel. So I think that the tabernacle chapters echo the creation event because it's finally bringing them to the place where they can dwell in the presence of God as Adam and Eve dwelt in God's presence in the garden.
So, so many things. (00:43:00) God consecrates the seventh day of creation, he consecrates the tabernacle. There's cherubim guarding the way to the tree of life, there's cherubim in the inner sanctuary of the tabernacle. There's a tree of life in the garden, there's a tree-shaped candelabra in the sanctuary. There's gold and onyx in the garden of Eden, there's gold and onyx on the high priest's garments, and in the … The other furniture has gold. The creation days go from evening to morning, and evening and morning first day and evening and morning the second day, and the lamps in the tabernacle are lit from evening to morning. So, so many echoes between the two.
There's all these sevens in both stories, right? We have the seven days of Genesis 1, but we have God issues the tabernacle instructions on Moses' seventh day on the mountain. So he waits six days and then he hears them on the seventh day. We hear that in chapter 24. The priest's ordination ceremony spans seven days and then they're clothed with new garments, (00:44:00) just like Adam and Eve are clothed in the garden. The ordination has seven days of atonement on the altar, and the seven-day ceremony is repeated for Aaron's successors.
At the very end of the tabernacle instructions, the last thing we're told is that they should keep the Sabbath. So the instructions are happening on the seventh day, and we hear about the tabernacle, and then we get Sabbath last. And it's the Sabbath instructions are the seventh of the speeches. So we're on the seventh day and there are seven speeches about the tabernacle and the lats one’s about the Sabbath. I mean, it just seems like it's everywhere through the story. Like it's very Eden-focused.
Tim: All right, that's a very compact list. Okay, so all that being the case, what do we make of just kind of these three sections that the Exodus story lays out then? So Moses sees all of this. He’s shown what you just described up on the mountain, and he sees a high priestly, you know, figure and description of what it all looks like. (00:45:00) That's what he sees.
Then the next narrative after the seven speeches conclude is the guy who's supposed to be wearing those clothes, the camera shifts down to Aaron, who is not only not being somebody who's ready for that kind of role, but he's making an image of a golden calf. And then you get the image, but Moses is the one up on the mountain, and he's actually being the mediator and he starts shining while he's up there mediating. So you have this ideal priest, the guy who's supposed to fill the role who's like not fit for the job, and then you have his younger brother, who actually seems to be doing the thing of what Aaron should be doing on a good day. So what do you make of that juxtaposition of roles and failed figures and but the wrong person doing the right thing? What do you think is going on there?
Carmen: Moses is clearly exalted. Like he clearly has an exalted role over Aaron. (00:46:00) And we see this again and again. In the priestly ordination ceremony in Leviticus, Moses does all the things and Aaron is passive. Moses washes him, Moses dresses him, Moses does the sacrifices, Moses puts the stuff in Aaron's hands. So we see Moses as a strong actor. He's the prophet. He's the one authorized to lead.
Aaron is an interesting figure. And I need to spend more time thinking about it. But he's a model for every Israelite, but he's almost like mute. Aaron doesn't say anything except the blessing, the priestly blessing that we see in Number 6. He doesn't even dress himself. I have an article about Aaron's garments, his high priestly garments in which I talk about the clothes make the man. So Aaron actually has no special qualifications, you know, skill-wise. When he puts these clothes on, and these things are done to him, he is able to perform his role.
And I wonder if part of what we're seeing in the golden calf story (00:47:00) is that God is going to take a very ordinary flawed human being, and that the ordination ceremony and the clothing is going to transform him so that he can be put in God's service the same way the whole nation is flawed as a kingdom of priests and God takes them as they are and transforms them to be his representatives.
Aaron's interesting because he's not autonomous, he has no authority outside his office. In the book of Numbers, when there's that brush up between Aaron and Miriam and Moses, and they're complaining about Moses, because well, we're prophets too. You know, what's so fascinating about that is Miriam gets leprosy, or lepra, however we translate that, and Aaron is powerless to do anything about it. And he has to come to Moses and say, "Will, you pray for her?" Because priests actually don't cure skin diseases, they just let you know if they are cured. And so Moses’ authority is so much greater. (00:48:00) He's not just one of them with access to God. He has a different level of access than Aaron does, and it's consistent through his life.
Tim: Okay, so how does that difference between the two brothers and the ideal role, how should that affect how we think about the role of the priesthood, not in the history of Israel, but how the biblical authors want us to view the role of the priesthood? It's a good thing that there is this mediator, but at the same time, the first character to ever fill the role, it's like the volume is turned up on his failure. And the same will happen with the only other main priest highlighted, which is Eli and his sons. And they're just as much a failure as Aaron.
So there's something I think very significant about that, about the portrayal of this priesthood contrasted with Moses. What do you think those overall implications are for how we think about (00:49:00) the Hebrew Bible's message about the Aaronic priesthood?
Carmen: I feel like the stories are fascinating because they're showing us the priests at the same time issuing a strong warning against any kind of innovation or any kind of syncretism. So the priests aren't … they never become their own thing. They can't run the show. In fact, the very first story we have about priests after the priestly ordination in Leviticus 8 and 9 is the story of Nadab and Abihu. Like, first day after this thing is up and running, we hear about Nadab and Abihu, who bring unauthorized fire into the tabernacle. They're innovating. Right away they get too big for their britches. They're thinking, "Oh, I work here. Here's what I want to do. Here's what I feel like doing today."
And it's very clear that there is no tolerance for any kind of innovation. This is about strict adherence to protocol. So they don't have some kind of greater authority outside of the commands that God's given. So it does turn our eyes (00:50:00) to Moses as mediator. Maybe it turns our eyes to the role of the prophet in the Old Testament or the TaNaK as a whole. We shouldn't be relying on the priests who at every generation seem to be corrupt. We should be looking to the prophets who then critique the priesthood and call people back to accountability.
Tim: You would say it's fitting into a larger theme in the Hebrew Bible that's not like anti-priesthood.
Tim: But it's just saying we need something more—
Carmen: Chastened priesthood maybe.
Tim: It's just fascinating to think about these Scriptures are read and highly valued, say, in the Second Temple period, where after the return from exile in Babylon, there are no other institutional authorities apart from the priests. But this is their Bible.
Carmen: These are the stories they preserved and passed on, which is fascinating.
Tim: So fascinating. Yeah, it's sort of like … You know, I'm trying to think of a … I never think of good parables on the spot. (00:51:00) But you know, a group that are the ones running the show and the main story that we have to tell about our people is all about how the people who have had our jobs throughout history were total failures.
Carmen: Well, it kind of makes me wonder whether there is this scribal class that’s separate from the priests who are actually preserving and passing on the stories. Like I'm thinking of Qumran who felt like the priesthood was corrupt, and they were going to be even more pure, and they're the ones collecting and passing on stories. So I don't know enough about textual transmission to feel confident, but it seems to me like somebody wanted us to see the failures of the priests for real.
Tim: I guess you could say the same. There's a lot of failed prophets, too. Moses being both successful at certain moments, and then he has his failures.
Carmen: Are there a lot of failed prophets? Like we have the Moses moment in Numbers 20.
Tim: I guess it depends on how you read the Elijah story. Currently, I am persuaded that he is a failed intercessor (00:52:00) by his story on Mount Sinai. Let's see what else. Then you have the weird prophet who gets deceived and eaten by a lion—
Carmen: Which is a parable. I mean, not a parable, in the sense that it didn't happen, but yeah … I'm pretty persuaded by Peter Leithart's reading of that story as like symbolizing the northern and southern kingdoms and their failure to follow the prophetic word.
Tim: Getting eaten by lions. And kings, of course, are both exalted as the royal seed of David but also failures. So maybe this is part and parcel of how the Hebrew Bible works is to say we need these figures, but at the same time, we just keep producing ones that fail.
Carmen: So maybe we need Yahweh to rescue us.
Tim: Yeah, yeah.
Carmen: Yahweh to come shepherd us himself because all of our shepherds are bad.
Tim: I think, for me, it's the priests stand out because even the first priest is not … (00:53:00) There are no good priests. There's just the description of the ideal. But every human priest we meet ends up being a pretty miserable failure from the start of their stories. That is so fascinating to me.
Carmen: Aaron's a total pushover in Exodus 32. Like everybody's pressuring him to make an idol, and he's like, "Well, okay, I guess I have to do this." And then you can see him kind of trying to quickly rescue the moment by saying, "Hey, let's have a festival to Yahweh," as if that's gonna somehow solve the problem. It is a very negative story.
Tim: So maybe I'll make this the final question. And Jon, if you want to do any twists on it feel free. And this is kind of summarizing a theme from what we've been talking about. What is the significance of the story about the Sinai covenant, Israel, and the law that both the priest and the people fail in the very moment of its inception? Thinking globally, because it's so … especially depending on what (00:54:00) Christian tradition you've been brought up in, you think, "Oh, the Old Testament that is teaching people about the law. And now that Jesus has come it's about grace, and so on.”
So I know that you don't buy into any of that, and I've learned a lot from you about how to correct those things, but it just seems so significant that in the story about the inception of the introduction of the law to Israel, it’s total failure from the start. What's the significance of that in the larger framework of the Hebrew Bible?
Carmen: Yeah, good. I mean, I think anyone who's tried to do a Bible read-through and they got to Exodus, the end of Exodus, and waded through five or six chapters of tabernacle instructions would be able to tell you it's kind of a letdown to, you know, get some stories again in chapter 32 and 33, and then we're back into more tabernacle instructions. Like we get all of the process of building the tabernacle takes as long to recount as the instructions and it feels like, why is this in here twice?
But I think in the literary design of Exodus, it's super important (00:55:00) that the instructions came before the golden calf and that the implementation of those instructions came after it. Because what it says to me is that Yahweh anticipated the need for forgiveness. He anticipated that these are sinful people and they're going to need a way to reconcile with me. So before they even worshipped the golden calf, he was already designing a way to safely live in their neighborhood, and he was already putting into place what would need to happen so that they could be cleansed and the covenant would not be called off.
This is one thing that persuades me with my Kibbe's thesis that when Moses is interceding in chapter 32, he's passing the test. That God was, in fact, giving him a test when he said, "I will destroy you." That Moses passes the test by correctly discerning that he should mediate not do away with these people. And so then when you have the building of the tabernacle, we get such detailed instructions, I think, on purpose to mirror (00:56:00) the instructions that Moses was given to show, "Okay, we're actually following God's plan now, and this time it's going to work."
So these two things are framing the golden calf, which is where we see a total apostasy. And I think maybe important to note that it's not like God just kind of snaps his fingers and says, "Oh, okay, I'm not going to punish you then for that terrible thing you did," right? Like there's this moment of violence where the Levites run around killing the people who were involved in this terrible orgy worship, whatever they're doing. There's a sense in which those who have participated in apostasy have to experience the consequences, but the rest of the community now has a path for cleansing. Like the residual effects of that sin are not going to hamper the covenant going forward because they have a tabernacle where those things can be dealt with, sort of the sin of the community as a whole. (00:57:00) So I think it illustrates both that God takes sin really seriously, but that he's very serious about forgiveness and about creating pathways for forgiveness for his people.
Tim: Those are great reflections. Yeah, I can’t improve on those even. I think as we come to the conclusion of this conversation, that's good. Severe and strong commitment to justice on human evil, but just as equal, if not a greater, as James would say, "Mercy triumphs over judgment commitment to creating pathways of forgiveness." That's maybe not what most people would get after a first reading of Exodus, but those are really great reflections. Thanks for sharing those.
Carmen: Thanks for your great questions.
Jon: Well, thank you, Carmen, for being on the podcast again, and engaging with us more in Exodus, and sharpening Tim. Some pushback is wonderful. I did say it's overwhelming. I think it's also good for those following along (00:58:00) to realize that there's a lot going on, and not to just let us simplify things, but invite us into deeper engagement with these texts, which help us understand the character of God and our place in the story. I'm encouraged, though, that Jesus is our high priest and we can enter the throne room on the mountain, we can enter the fire on the mountain. At least I know that to be true. And that is not less intimidating, I suppose, but encouraging.
Carmen: Maybe more intimidating, right? Like, we're actually going to ascend the mountain? We’re allowed to now?
Jon: Yeah. The trumpet is blasting. It's go time.
Carmen: And we realize that we need to take it seriously.
Jon: That's true. Don't carry the name in vain.
Tim: Awesome. Thank you, Carmen. We wish you all the best, and I'm sure we will be talking again about the Bible at some point. So to be continued.
Carmen: Thank you. (00:59:00) Thanks for having me and thanks for all your work.
Jon: Okay, how's everyone doing? We did it. I'm sure you have no questions. Actually, speaking of questions, we are going to do a question and response for the Exodus scroll. It's going to be in a few weeks because we wanted to give enough time for questions to come in for these last few episodes. In the question and response, Tim and I are going to debrief this conversation. Tim is going to read the scholar that Carmen has cited, and we'll discuss his thoughts. But also I want to talk with Tim about what to do when we find ourselves disagreeing fundamentally about the meaning of a biblical passage. So I look forward to that conversation in an upcoming Exodus Q and R. Next week we're going to begin the scroll of Leviticus.
Tim: The Leviticus scroll begins first with that good danger kind of tension. (01:00:00) But then chapters 1 through 7 of Leviticus are one long speech from God to Israel through Moses that are an invitation, a divine gift, telling the Israelites how they can approach the source of all life and beauty and power and goodness even though they are frail and mortal and morally corrupt. But God wants them to come near, so he gives them the gift of the corban.
Jon: Today's episode was produced by Cooper Peltz, edited by Zach McKinley, and lead editor Dan Gummel. Lindsey Ponder did our show notes and the annotated podcast for our app is done by Ashlyn Heise and Hannah Woo.
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