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Bible Commentaries

Parker's The People's BibleParker's The People's Bible

- Exodus

by Joseph Parker

The Second Book of Moses

A continuous perusal of the book of Exodus from end to end leaves upon my mind the impression that there is in it the protoplasm of the whole action of God in the complete sphere of human history; in other words, I have not met with any phase of Divine revelation or ministry which is not to be traced in at least a dawning outline in this second book of Moses. Emphasis is to be laid upon the continuousness of the reading, for it is quite conceivable that a casual glance would discover a ruggedness amounting almost to chaos in the distribution of the infinite materials; a ruggedness not to be subdued, and smoothed into the general music, but by a mood of soul at once ardent and devout. Take, first of all, the personal revelation of God, the abruptest of all the miracles, and yet the most suppressed; a flame in a wilderness, barred in and made intense by branches that the wind might have broken, and a Name as mysteriously human as the bush is mysteriously equal to the solemn occasion; then another Name not human at all, in its first impression on the mind, a Verb whose conjugation cannot go beyond a line, an I AM that doubles back upon itself and waits with mysterious patience to "become flesh and dwell among us." Meanwhile it will leap like a spirit into the Shepherd-wanderer and find in him a rude and temporary incarnation. But the first name is the human one, and truly most unexpected and startling when we consider its import. "I am the God of ." Given such a beginning to find what the end will be? Where does the Speaker begin his historical Godhood? Surely Adam and Eve will be recovered from their unaccountable obscurity, and in the bloom of Edenic beauty will be to Moses an almost rival revelation, or Abel who died at the altar, or Enoch who never tasted death, or Noah who began the new world: all these surmises, so obvious because so natural, are contradicted by the fact. Abraham is the head of the new race; the larger Adam; the living Faith. God did not date himself so far back in history as to bewilder the solitary and overpowered inquirer, but placed himself within domestic associations and in living relation to names that made the very earth and sky of the lone man's little world. Thus was God quite near to Moses, yet in a moment he withdrew into Eternity and spoke as the I AM, without angel, or child, or spirit, to break his awful solitude. For what purpose is he so revealed? That he may bring to pass the most terrific collision yet known in human history. A battle is being arranged within the sanctuary of the burning bush. Egypt is the pride of the world, and her power is to be broken. No doubt her arm is mighty, but the bones of that mean strength shall be melted like wax by the fire that spares the frail bush. Chariot against chariot shall dash in war; the lightning of heaven against the iron of Egypt, so now we shall see whether the Lord's thunder or Pharaoh's noise conceals the heavier bolt. And why this trial of arms? Will the Lord set himself in array of battle against a candle which a breath might extinguish? For one reason only, viz., that he may deliver and redeem and sanctify a people, that his strength may make a way for his love, that the education of the world may be moved one battlefield nearer the temple of wisdom. If God fought for victory he need never fight; he fights that he may teach; he lengthens the day of battle that he may enlarge all human conceptions of his purpose and sway with infinite persuasion every human will in the direction of holiness and truth The details of the mortal contest must be separately studied. How it ended may be known from the song and the dance, the passionate refrain and the clanging timbrel, the harmonious shout and the ordered rapture, which in all their ecstasy but dimly typify the apocalyptic music whose storm shall welcome the completion of the purposes of God. To the Revelation, the Battle, the Song, many an addition must be made if Exodus is as complete as it has just been supposed to be. A little wandering and chiding, a miracle or two, and then comes the first magnificent addition, the LAW! The moral universe begins to take shape. Instincts, habitudes, wordless motions, aspirations which cannot fall immediately into fit speech, now undergo crystallisation and stand out in many a strange figure as might stand the world to the opened eyes of a man born blind. A greater battle than the fight with Pharaoh began with the giving of the Law, a subtler contest, a strife between darkness and light. The law vindicates its own Divine origin, so exceeding broad is the commandment, so infinitely exquisite the infusions of Mercy, a mere flush of warm colour on the neutral grey of the steel statute, a tint, rather than a stain, of blood-like hue, as if an Atonement were not far away, yet the time of its agony not fully come. The Law will not have any man smitten with impunity, the pregnant woman shall be sacred from all injury, the eye of the slave shall be paid for with liberty, no man shall wantonly feed his beast in another man's field, no stranger shall be vexed or oppressed, no widow or fatherless child shall be afflicted, the ass or the ox of the enemy shall not be permitted to go astray, the innocent and the righteous were not to be slain, a pathos so profound brings tears of joy to the reader's eyes, and so tenderly is the heart moved that when Israel cries in battle music "the Lord is a man of war," we answer in a thankful hymn, "his tender mercies are over all his works." So Israel was not taken out of Egypt merely to humble the oppressor, or destroy the tyrant. The purpose vindicates the means. The river must be turned into blood, frogs and lice and flies must be sent, boils and blains, and hails in blackest tempests of ice must not be spared; in themselves they would be but a display of dramatic violence, but in the purpose they were intended to express they were servants of righteousness and liberty and education. By such means, initially, were the evil effects of four centuries of servitude to be overcome; the violence is the love, in adapted action. The same process is repeated in every age, with change of accidents it may be, but the purpose is unchangeable.

Revelation, Battle, Song, and Law. What more is needed? God himself will answer, so our invention need not disquiet itself. Perhaps the answer may be so expressed as to be its own proof of origin. This is the answer: "Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them." This comes after the compassionate parts of the law with tender grace. All the way God seems to have been coming nearer as the law softened in its tone almost into gospel. At the beginning of the law no man was permitted to come near; if so much as a beast touched the mountain it was to be stoned or thrust through with a dart; and so terrible was the sight that Moses said, "I exceedingly fear and quake"; and now God says, as if his heart ached with some agony of desire, "Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them." The movement is thus evermore from law to grace, from distance to nearness, from the throne to the Cross. In no rhetorical sense, or sense needed to make up halting rhythm, but in a solid and historical way exact enough in its throb for science itself, yet sublime enough in its symbolism to throw prophecy into despair. Beginning with fire, with smoke as the smoke of a furnace, with a trumpet sounding long and waxing louder and louder, who could have foretold that the Majesty thus accompanied would desire to dwell with the sons of men? But this is the effect of all true law. At the one end it cleaves asunder, at the other it enlarges itself into new relations and looks wistfully over happier possibilities. The course of literal law is always self-vexatious. "Why is the letter impotent? Because man himself is not a letter. Man is a spirit and can be ruled by spirit only. Not the Law, but the Lawgiver can satisfy the soul that burns in the bush of the body. The rod smites and hurts, but not until it blossoms does it fulfil even the purpose of law. So now the meaning of the burning bush begins to dawn: it meant that God wished to "dwell" with men, to set his tabernacle side by side with human habitations, and to be accounted Father by all generations. Sinai was too high, the cloud too thick, the lightning too awful, so a house must be built, and the very building of it should be to the builders a spiritual education, a most gracious condescension, and on the one side of it a mystery profoundly adapted to human nature by permitting man to build the house whilst forbidding him to fashion the God. In view of these spiritual and transcendent revelations, all other questions drop into secondary interest. We care but little at this lustrous point whether Philitrion built the pyramids, or Rameses the oppressor of Israel was the best or worst of Theban kings; in view of Sinai the avenue of sphinxes sinks into contempt, and "the petrifactions of the sunbeam" look small beside the unhewn towers of the rock: not only Egyptian history but the history of Israel also assumes new valuations: it is now quite matter of secondary interest to trace the march from Succoth to Etham, from Etham to the encampment between Migdol and the pastures of Pihahiroth over against Baal-zephon, and on to the point made memorable by the passage of the Red Sea, whether in the north by Magdôlon or in the south under the shadow of Jebel Attâka. The mind is in no temper for such holiday investigations, for the Lord God has himself proposed to "dwell" with men. It is of small import at this critical moment to know that the Song of Moses is marked by the usual "parallelism of clauses," and that from a critical point of view the triplet stanzas interrupt the regular cadence with unusual frequency, for we are about to witness the setting up of the very presence-chamber of Jehovah.

The character of the book of Exodus seems to change immediately upon the announcement of the Divine purpose. Although still in the wilderness we are imaginatively amongst the treasures of Memphis, and Zoan, and Heliopolis, and Rameses, with abundance of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen, and with such wealth of metal as to be able to make the very hooks of gold and the sockets of silver. The Temple of the Sun is to be extinguished by a new glory, and the consecrated calf of Ra is to give place to sacrifice charged with sublimest meanings. Is there not a subtle and suggestive harmony between what Israel had seen in Egypt and what it was about to see in the wilderness? The gods of Egypt had been well housed, could Israel suppose that the God of heaven would dwell in a mean habitation? For spiritual realisations men have to be long and almost severely prepared, a wilderness requires a contrast. So this tabernacle is no fancy work. The sequence in which it follows is as severely logical as the point towards which it tends is ineffably spiritual. A strange thing is thus wrought in the earth. Invention is not invited, or any form of natural cleverness; the inspired house like the inspired Book employs but willing hands to carry out the labour, the Builder and Maker is God. He builds all houses all lives all books that rest on the true Foundation: at first the sacred house was outlined in cloud far up the hill; but was not the universe itself thus outlined "from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was, before the heavens were prepared, or a compass had been set on the face of the deep," was it not all wrought in mystic but palpable cloud? Did not the cloud revolve at his touch, and wheel in gyrations infinite, and cast out sparks that held in their heat the astronomic pomp that glows like a tabernacle in the wilderness of space? What is all that upper glory, but blue and purple and scarlet, with an atmosphere for a vail, and a lamp fed eternally with consecrated oil? He that built all things is God. If he built them out of a cloud, the greater is the miracle; if he elaborated them from a molecule, he is even vaster in power than our imagination had dreamed. The nebulous tabernacle may be a hint of the nebulous universe. The most wonderful of God's visible creations are still wrought out in cloud; what landscapes, cities, temples, forests, minarets of snow, and palaces fit for heavenly kings, are to be found in the clouds, let them say who have watched the sky with the patience of love.

The meaning of all this had a mysterious relation to the shedding of blood! We come upon this revelation with a shock. The sequence is shattered by a tremendous blow. Up to this point we have been conscious of more than human refinement, and in a moment we burn with shame as if we had done some deed forbidden. So long as we were working with acacia wood, and pure gold, and blue and purple and scarlet and fine twined linen, and stones precious as sardius and topaz, ligure and jasper, we were content, for a certain elevation moved us to nobler consciousness: but suddenly, even whilst we gaze with religious delight upon the ephod, the breastplate, and the mitre of Aaron, the blood of a young bullock flows by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and whilst the flesh of the bullock is being burned as a sin-offering without the camp, two rams without blemish are slain, and the blood of the second is put upon the tip of the right ear of Aaron, and upon the tip of the right ear of his sons, and upon the thumb of their right hand, and upon the great toe of their right foot, and their garments are sprinkled, and the altar is bathed with the red stream; thus in a moment we who had touched with reverence the Urim and the Thummim, and the robe of the ephod blue as heaven's fairest summer, must watch "the fat that covereth the inwards, and the caul that is above the liver, and the two kidneys, and the fat that is upon them," burn upon an altar whose horns dripped with the bullock's blood. The revulsion is infinite For the explanation we must wait. Nevermore shall we get rid of blood. There was a mystery about its being sprinkled on the door-posts in Egypt a mystery about the paschal lamb that mystery will now follow us to the end, and re-appear in a heavenly anthem. It may be that the blood will become the true refinement, and that what we once accounted precious shall be less than nothing when compared with its infinite value.

General Notes on the Book of Exodus

In order to understand almost any book it is necessary to read it right through at once, without entering minutely into its detailed portions, or asking any special questions regarding its local structure. Dean Stanley was accustomed to say that he read a great work of fiction first for the story, secondly for the thought, and thirdly for the style that is to say, he perused the work three distinct times, these being the distinct objects which he had in view in the respective perusals. It will be well, therefore, for the reader to begin Exodus and go steadily through it, with a view of getting a general conception of the outline of the history. After that he may sit down to a critical perusal of the exact purposes of the writer in each section of the work; but he will find this second perusal very much aided by the general conception derived from the first complete reading.

The best books upon the structure of Exodus that I have seen, are essays by Canon Cook, in the "Speaker's Commentary," and by Canon Rawlinson, in the "Old Testament Commentary for English Readers." If to these two essays we add Dean Stanley's "History of the Jewish Church," with special reference to the period of the exodus, we shall have a good notion of what the ripest scholars have to say regarding this section of Holy Scripture. It has been pointed out by one of those writers that the Book of Exodus consists of two distinct portions. Canon Cook shows that the first portion extends from chapter 1 to chapter 19 inclusive, and that it gives a detailed account of the circumstances under which the deliverance of the Israelites was accomplished. The second part includes chapters 20-40, and describes the giving of the law and the institutions which completed the organisation of the people as "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." The Canon points out a very distinct difference in the styles of the two portions, but contends that their mutual bearings and interdependences are evident, so much so as to leave no doubt as to the substantial unity of the book.

The word "Exodus" means "departure," "outgoing," or "setting forth." It is perhaps needless to say that Exodus the Latin word which represents the Hebrew title, and that "Exodus" was adopted by Jerome in his translation of the Bible.

Canon Rawlinson has pointed out that although the outgoing of the Israelites from Egypt is one of the principal matters treated of in the Book of Exodus, yet it was not the sole, nor even the main purpose of the writer to give an account of that remarkable passage of history. According to the Canon, the purpose of the author was a wider and grander one, being theocratic rather than historic. It was, in the words of Keil, "to give an account of the first stage in the fulfilment of the promises made by God to the patriarchs, with reference to the growth of the children of Israel," by tracing their development from a family into a tribe, and from a tribe into a nation. It has been strikingly shown that Genesis left Israel in Egypt a family or "house" ( Gen 1:22 ); Exodus leaves them a nation of about two millions of souls organised under chiefs ( Exo 18:21-24 ), with a settled form of worship, a priesthood, a code of laws and a judicature. It finds them still a family (ch. Exo 1:1-6 ); it leaves them the people of God (ch. Exo 30:3-13 ). By the entrance of the "glory of the Lord" into the tabernacle (ch. Exo 40:34 ) the theocracy is completed God locally dwells with his people as their Ruler, Director, and Guide. The nation receives its head and becomes a "kingdom" (ch. Exo 19:6 ). It is still nomadic it has no settled country but it is an organised whole.

Canon Cook says that the first seven verses are introductory to the whole book. In accordance with the almost invariable custom of the writer, there is first a brief recapitulation of preceding events, and then a statement of the actual condition of affairs. The narrative begins with the eighth verse of the first chapter. The second division, from chapter 3-6, opens after an interval of some forty years, but from this point the narrative is almost critically minute in its statement of facts. Chapter Exo 6:2-27 forms a distinct portion, in which Moses is Instructed to explain the bearings of the Divine name upon the relations of God to the people: his mission to the Israelites and Pharaoh is renewed, Aaron being formally appointed as his coadjutor. It is essential to understand this portion thoroughly, as it is structurally in its right place, and has a distinct bearing on preceding and succeeding sections. "In chapter Exo 6:28 to the end of Exodus 11:0 . the narrative," says Canon Cook, "makes a fresh start." The next section (ch. Exo 12:1-42 ) gives an account of the institution of the Passover and the departure of the Israelites from Rameses. This section, though closely connected with the preceding one, is evidently intended to be read as a separate lesson, and, according to the Canon's theory, may possibly have been re-written or revised for that purpose towards the close of the life of Moses. The narrative begins again at chapter Exodus 13:17 , giving the history of the march of the Israelites towards the Red Sea, the passage across it, and the destruction of Pharaoh's hosts. Then comes the song of Moses, which does not interrupt the history. In the third month after the exodus, Israel came to the Wilderness of Sinai and camped before the Mount; and in Exodus 19-20 we read of the promulgation of the law. The remainder of the book gives the directions received by Moses touching the tabernacle and its appurtenances, and the institution of the Aaronic priesthood.

Referring to the fact that the credibility of Exodus is assailed on two principal grounds viz., first, the miraculous character of a large portion of the narrative, and secondly, the exaggeration which is thought to be apparent in the numbers, Canon Rawlinson says: "It is observable (1) that the miracles were needed; (2) that they were peculiarly suitable and appropriate to the circumstances; and (3) that they were of such a nature that it was impossible for eye-witnesses to be deceived with regard to them." The Canon is very distinct and emphatic in his view of the reality of the circumstances recorded in Exodus. There is no mistake about such language as the following: "Either the plagues of Egypt happened, or they did not. Either the Red Sea was divided, or it was not. Either the pillar of fire and of the cloud guided the movements of the hosts for forty years, or there was no such thing. Either there was manna each morning round about the camp, or there was none. The facts were too plain, too simple, too obvious to sense for there to be any doubt about them. The record is either a true account, or a tissue of lies. We cannot imagine the writer an eyewitness, and reject the main features of his story, without looking on him as an impudent impostor. No 'enthusiasm,' no 'poetic temperament,' could account for such a record if the exodus was accomplished without miracles. The writer either relates the truth, or was guilty of conscious dishonesty." This is the only sound view, as it appears to me, to take of such circumstances. We must have no evasion, or verbal refining, or skilful doubling, but a distinct acceptance or rejection of the substantial body of the text. The Canon's remarks upon the numerical difficulties are such as he is entitled to make: "It is to be borne in mind in the first place that numbers are peculiarly liable to corruption in ancient works, from the fact that they were not fully expressed, but written in a sort of cipher. It is quite possible that the numbers in our present copies of Exodus are in excess, and express the ideas of a reviser, such as Ezra, rather than those of the original author. The million of full age who quitted Egypt may have been one hundred thousand, or sixty thousand, instead of six hundred thousand, and the migration one of four hundred thousand or two hundred thousand souls, instead of two million. But, on the whole, judicious criticism inclines to uphold the numbers of the existing text. Alarm would not have been felt by the Egyptian kings until the people had greatly multiplied, and become formidable from a military point of view, which they could not have been until the fully grown men numbered some hundreds of thousands. For the population of Egypt was probably from seven to eight millions, and the military class, at a far less flourishing time than that at the exodus, was reckoned at about four hundred thousand. Nor could Canaan well have been conquered by an emigrant body which did not amount to some millions, since the country was well peopled at the time, and its occupants were brave and warlike. The difficulty of subsistence for two millions of persons in the desert is entirely met by the continuous miracle of the manna, and that of sufficient pasture for their numerous flocks and herds by the far greater fertility of the Sinaitic peninsula in ancient than in modern times, of which abundant indications have been observed by recent travellers. Ewald, Kalisch, Kurtz, and Keil, accept the numbers of the present text of Exodus, and believe the migration to have been successfully accomplished by a body of about two millions of persons."

Canon Cook makes some suggestive remarks regarding the particular times at which some of the plagues appeared. He calculates that two full months elapsed between the first and second interview of Moses with the king, and that during that time the people were dispersed throughout Egypt, subjected to severe suffering, and impelled to exertions of a kind differing altogether from their ordinary habits, whether as herdsmen or bondsmen, and he rightly suggests that this was the first and a most important step in their training for a migratory life in the desert. Canon Cook fixes the end of June at the beginning of the rise of the annual inundation of the Nile, as the time when the first series of plagues began. Three months, he adds, appear to have intervened between this and the next plague. The plague of frogs is fixed as coinciding in time with the greatest extension of the inundation in September. The plague of frogs assailed native worship in one of its oldest and strangest forms. An ancient vignette represents the father of Rameses II. offering two vases of wine to a frog enshrined in a small chapel, with the legend, "The sovereign lady of both worlds." It is then pointed out that the third plague differed from the preceding in the important point that no previous warning was given. It is thought to have followed soon after the plague of frogs, namely, early in October. The second series of plagues viz., swarms of poisonous insects began probably soon after the subsidence of the inundation, which was a season of great importance to Egypt, because from that season to the following June the land is uncovered, cultivation begins, and a great festival marks the period for ploughing. The cattle plague is thought to have broken out in December, or at the latest in January, and is pointed out as thoroughly Egyptian both in season and in character. Next came the plague of boils, which appears to have lasted about three months. Speaking of the next plague, Canon Cook says the hailstorms followed, just when they now occur in Egypt, from the middle of February to the early weeks of March. This plague drew from Pharaoh the first confession of guilt. The plague of locusts occurred towards the end of March. The Egyptians had now given way, and only the stubbornness of the king's will remained to be overcome.

One or two remarks respecting the account of the tabernacle may be profitably quoted from Canon Cook: "In form, structure, and materials, the tabernacle belongs altogether to the wilderness. The wood used in the structure is found there in abundance. It appears not to have been used by the Israelites in Palestine; when the temple was built it was replaced by cedar. The whole was a tent, not a fixed structure, such as would naturally have been set up, and in point of fact was very soon set up, in Palestine; where wooden doors and probably a surrounding wall existed under the judges of Israel. The skins and other native materials belong equally to the locality. One material which entered largely into the construction, the skin of the tachasch, was in all probability derived from the Red Sea. The metals, bronze, silver, and gold, were those which the Israelites knew and doubtless brought with them from Egypt. The names of many of the materials and implements which they used, and the furniture and accessories of the tabernacle, the dress and ornaments of the priests, are shown to have been Egyptian. It is also certain that the arts required for the construction of the tabernacle, and for all its accessories, were precisely those for which the Egyptians had been remarkable for ages, and such as artisans who had lived under the influence of Egyptian civilisation would naturally have learned. The rich embroidery of the hangings, the carving of the cherubic forms, the ornamentation of the capitals, the naturalistic character of the embellishments, were all things with which the Israelites had been familiar in Egypt, but which, for ages after their settlement in Palestine in which the traces of Canaanitish culture had been destroyed, as savouring of idolatry, and where the people were carefully separated from the contagious influences of other nations on a par with Egypt must have died out, if not from their remembrance, yet from all practical application." Further on the Canon continues: "The peculiar way in which the history of the erection of the tabernacle is recorded suggests another argument, which has not hitherto received due attention. Two separate accounts are given. In the first, Moses relates the instructions which he received, in the second, he describes the accomplishment of the work. Nothing would be less in accordance with the natural order of a history written at a later period than this double account. It has been represented as an argument for a double authorship, as though two sets of documents had been carelessly or surreptitiously adopted by a compiler. It is, however, fully accounted for by the obvious hypothesis that each part of the narrative was written at the time and on the occasion to which it immediately refers. When Moses received these instructions, he wrote a full account of them for the information of the people.... When, again, Moses had executed his task, it was equally appropriate, and doubtless also in accordance with the habits of a people keen and jealous in the management of their affairs, and at no time free from tendencies to suspicion, that he should give a formal account of every detail in its execution; a proof to such as might call for proof that all their precious offerings had been devoted to the purpose, and what was of far more importance, that the Divine instructions had been completely and literally obeyed. It is a curious fact that in the two accounts the order of the narrative is systematically reversed. In the instructions given to Moses, and recorded for the information of the people, the most important objects stand first. The ark, the mercy-seat, the cherubs, the table of shewbread, the golden candlestick, the whole series of symbolic forms by which the national mind was framed to comprehend the character of the Divine revelation, are presented at once to the worshippers. Then come instructions for the tabernacle, its equipment and accessories; and when all else is completed, the dress and ornaments of the officiating priests. But when the work of Bezaleel and his assistants is described, the structure of the tabernacle comes first, as it naturally would do when the ark was commenced; the place was first prepared, and then the ark and all the sacred vessels, according to all that the Lord commanded Moses."

I have only to recommend the critical reader to peruse the essays to which I have referred, and the commentaries which they introduce, as presenting all that the ripest learning can furnish as to the purely archaeological and critical matter of this wonderful book. My object has been to discover the modern uses to which the whole teaching of the history can be put. From time to time it will appear in the following discourses that where difficulties have arisen to my mind as to matters of merely Oriental or local significance, I have inquired into the moral purpose of the writer, and having satisfied myself as to his exact spiritual design, I have fixed attention upon that in order that I might throw into proper perspective and proportion things which, from their very nature, could only be local and transient.

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