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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Exodus 23

 

 

Introduction

THE BOOK OF THE COVENANT (Exodus 20:1 to Exodus 23:33).

In Exodus 24:7 we read of a ‘book of the covenant’ written by Moses (see Exodus 24:4). Logically this must include the Sinai covenant and what follows, for the Sinai covenant was not made known to the people (they heard it as though it were thunder and the sound of a trumpet) until revealed to them by Moses. Some, however, see the book of the covenant as starting at Exodus 20:22 commencing with the words, ‘and Yahweh said to Moses’, but as these are provisions extending the Sinai covenant and gain their validity through it we would argue that The Book of the Covenant commences here, although not denying that it is in two sections. This is confirmed by Exodus 24:3 where Moses speaks to the people ‘all the words of Yahweh and all the judgments’. The ‘judgments’ are in Exodus 20:21 onwards (see Exodus 21:1), ‘all the words’ must surely refer to the ten words and Exodus 20:22-26.

Note to Christians.

As we look at this chapter, we as the true Israel, the Israel of God, made up of the descendants of those Jews who first came to Jesus Christ in such abundance to form the new Israel (‘My congregations’ - Matthew 16:18), and of all who through their testimony and its after effects have come to Him and been incorporated into the new Israel, can take to ourselves the words of His covenant. We can recognise in it our calling to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 20:6 above; 1 Peter 2:5; 1 Peter 2:9) and a holy nation (Exodus 20:6 above; 1 Peter 2:9), and rejoice in the fact that we are a people for His special possession (Exodus 20:5 above; Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 2:9). And hearing of the splendour of the revelation of God at Sinai, we can recognise afresh that we deal with a holy and powerful God, Who has not changed. What has changed is that Jesus Christ having been offered for the sins of the world, we can approach Him without fear if our hearts are right towards Him.

End of note.

Further Covenant Provisions (Exodus 21:1 to Exodus 23:33).

Exodus 21:1

“Now these are the judgments that you will set before them.”

Having made known His covenant, and having established how they must approach Him, Yahweh now provides detailed treatment on particular cases. These are mainly in the form of case law (casuistic) based on specific examples, with an occasional reference to apodictic law (direct command from God - a rare form of law outside Israel probably mainly restricted to patriarchal societies). The first example is of Hebrew bondmen and Hebrew bondwomen. This demonstrates that a good number of such must have come out of Egypt attached to Israelite families, and it shows Yahweh’s concern for those who were now in bondage as Israel had been in Egypt. Other law codes put slaves well down in the list. They were of little account.

Law codes were fairly common in the Ancient Near East. There were the laws of Ur-nammu of Ur, Lipit Ishtar of Isin (2100 BC), the laws of Eshnunna and of Hammurapi of Babylon (1750 BC) as well as Hittite law codes and considerable written material dealing with casuistic law. They were not comprehensive and by no means dealt with all circumstances, even common ones such as arson. Perhaps some of them reflected rather changes in the law. Thus like Biblical law there were gaps which were covered by custom rather than code. Indeed the law codes were rarely quoted in court. Whether they were for the use of judges or simply a propaganda exercise is a matter of debate. Possibly a little of both. The difference in Israel is that their laws were promulgated by God, and in the end enforceable by Him.

The covenant provisions that follow are carefully gathered into groups, mainly following a chiastic format.

Sundry Regulations (22:18-23:9).

The regulations in this section are mainly apodictic, direct commands made specifically by God requiring total obedience. As such they are not paralleled in the law codes.


Verses 1-9

Regulations Concerning Behaviour to One’s Neighbour (Exodus 23:1-9).

There is an interesting pattern to the following verses. (Compare Exodus 23:1 with Exodus 23:7, Exodus 23:2 with Exodus 23:6, Exodus 23:3 with Exodus 23:5).

a Taking a false report and perverting justice (Exodus 23:1).

b Following a crowd to do evil (Exodus 23:2).

c Dealing with the poor by favouring him (Exodus 23:3).

d Attitude to dumb beasts (Exodus 23:4-5).

c Dealing with the poor by preventing justice for him (Exodus 23:6).

b Following a false matter (Exodus 23:7).

a Taking a gift and perverting the truth (Exodus 23:8-9).

Exodus 23:1

“You shall not take up a false report. Do not put your hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness.”

This is a warning against perjury. To take up false information in order to use it, is to be hand in hand with the wicked, that is, with those condemned by Yahweh. Such people stand against God.

“Do not put your hand with the wicked.” A joining of hands to confirm the agreement to give false testimony seems to be in mind, an act which puts all under equal condemnation. Compare Job 9:33.

Exodus 23:2

“You shall not follow a crowd to do evil. Nor shall you speak in a cause to turn aside after a crowd to bend judgment.”

This is a warning against being influenced by the crowd, whether in private affairs or in court. If a crowd plans evil it is to be avoided. Nor must a man join with the many to bring about a wrong judgment. God’s man must stand up for right and truth even against the will of a crowd.

Exodus 23:3

“Neither shall you favour a poor man in his cause.”

Rich and poor are to be treated the same. To be prejudiced on behalf of a poor man is no better than being prejudiced on behalf of a rich man. The truth is what matters without fear or favour.

Some feel that the statement is unexpected and try to change the sense. But there is no textual justification for it and prejudice against the rich by the poor is not unknown (also see verse 6 where the converse is dealt with).

Exodus 23:4-5

“If you meet your enemy’s ox or his ass going astray you shall surely bring it back to him again. If you see the ass of him who hates you lying under his burden and would forbear to help him, you shall surely help with him.”

Concern for the animal’s welfare is possibly as much in mind here as concern for the ‘enemy’. Attitudes between people are not to prevent acts of mercy towards dumb animals. But such an act would often produce reconciliation.

This sudden switch in subject matter is typical of ancient law codes, but in fact the switch may not be as noticeable to the ancient mind as to us. After concern for the poor man comes concern for brute beasts. It is simply a step downwards The change of format is required by the content.

The phrase ‘your poor’ is found elsewhere only in Deuteronomy 15:11 and speaks of the poor as a whole. To wrest (or bend) judgment suggests the twisting or manoeuvring of the facts. Thus the command is not to interfere with true judgment just because the poor are involved. This would seem to warn against discriminating against the poor, the opposite of Exodus 23:3. The content of Exodus 23:4 and Exodus 23:5 may well have been deliberately included here to separate the two ideas in Exodus 23:3 and Exodus 23:6 so that they could be stated separately and not confused.

Exodus 23:7

“Keep yourself far from a false matter, and do not slay the innocent and the righteous, for I will not justify the wicked.”

Anything that is dubious or false is to be avoided, especially as relating to matters of justice. To assist in a false verdict is to punish and even possibly kill those who are righteous, and to declare the wicked innocent. This is something Yahweh could not participate in and therefore neither can His people. It is contrary to all that Yahweh is.

“I will not justify the wicked.” This could refer to His not participating in a verdict that brings guilt or innocence on the wrong person, or it could be referring His judgment on those who assist in a false verdict. There is One Who sees and judges (Proverbs 15:3).

Exodus 23:8

“And you shall accept no gift, for a gift blinds those who have sight (literally ‘the open-eyed’) and perverts the words of the righteous.”

This refers especially to witnesses, but it can also be seen as referring to any occasion when the reception of a gift could produce biased judgment. To accept a gift from someone about whom you are called to give an opinion, or from his friends, is strictly forbidden. We will always favour those who reward us however much we may protest otherwise, and this can apply equally in churches as well as in courts of law.

“A gift blinds the open-eyed.” This is the fact, however much we persuade ourselves otherwise. Its effect is subtle but certain. It makes us close our eyes to what we have seen. It makes even the righteous behave and speak unrighteously, in other words to say what otherwise they would not have said. ‘A gift is as a precious stone in the eyes of him who has it, wherever it turns it prospers’ (Proverbs 17:8), which simply indicates that it obtains what the giver is seeking to obtain.

As today, bribery was a common fact of Old Testament life and utterly condemned (see Isaiah 1:23; Amos 5:12; Micah 3:11; Psalms 15:5; Psalms 26:10; Proverbs 17:23).

Exodus 23:9

“And a stranger you will not oppress, for you understand the heart of a stranger seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The position of this verse shows that the previous warning is in mind. Strangers resident among us have as much right to justice as anyone else, and it is especially easy to be turned against a foreigner by ‘gifts’. But they deserve justice too. Compare Exodus 22:21, which is very similar, for the general attitude to strangers. But here the emphasis is on the resident alien receiving proper justice, in Exodus 2:21 it was on seeing him as within the sphere of God’s covenant mercy.


Verses 1-33

Expansion of the Ten Words of the Covenant (Exodus 20:22 to Exodus 23:33).

In this section, which is composed of elements put together mainly in chiastic form (see later), Yahweh expands on the Ten Words of the covenant. Notice that it begins with ‘and Yahweh said to Moses’. This proceeds as follows:

a Instructions concerning future worship in obedience to the commandments in Exodus 20:3-5, for He will be with them and record His name in places where they go (Exodus 20:22-26).

b Instructions concerning bondservants remembering the manservants and maidservants in mentioned in Exodus 20:10 (Exodus 21:1-11).

c Instructions concerning those who cause death or injury and those who dishonour their parents in obedience to Exodus 20:12-13 (Exodus 21:12-36).

d Instructions concerning a neighbour’s goods in obedience to Exodus 20:15; Exodus 20:17 (Exodus 22:1-15).

d Instruction concerning the forcing of virgins, who belong to their families, which connects with Exodus 20:14; Exodus 20:17 (Exodus 22:16-17).

c Instructions concerning wrong attitudes which connect with wider implications from the words of the covenant, which include some for which the penalty is death, and the need for avoidance of dishonourable conduct (Exodus 22:18 to Exodus 23:11).

b Instructions concerning the Sabbath (compare Exodus 20:8-9) and the regular feasts (Exodus 23:12-19).

a Yahweh’s resulting promise that His Angel will go with them until the land is theirs, finishing with a warning against idolatry (Exodus 23:20-23).

We should note here that in ‘a’ the approach to and worship of Yahweh is in mind, and His recording of His name in places as they go on their way, and they are warned against idolatry, and in the parallel the Angel of Yahweh is to go with them and they are warned against idolatry. In ‘b’ we are instructed concerning bondmen and bondwomen and in the parallel the Sabbath is dealt with which, in the announcing of the covenant, contained reference to the rights of menservants and maidservant (Exodus 20:9). The bondmen also had a right to enjoy a seven year sabbath. It may be this connection which decided the positioning of this law prior to those concerning murder and theft. In ‘c’ we have reference to death and violence, while in the parallel death is the sentence for some of the crimes mentioned. In ‘d’ we have reference to misappropriation of people’s goods, and in the parallel misappropriation of their daughters.


Verses 10-13

Regulations Concerning Acknowledgement of Yahweh’s Lordship (Exodus 23:10-13).

Here we have two sets of regulations which refer to work and rest.

A Seven-Year Rest (Exodus 23:10-11).

Exodus 23:10-11

“And six years you shall sow your land and shall gather in the increase of it, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow that the poor of your people may eat, and what they leave the beast of the field shall eat. In the same way you will deal with your vineyard and with your olive-yard.”

Agriculturally this would allow the land to rest so that it could recover its vitality. It was a practise observed also in other nations. But here it was made an offering to the poor. During the six years the farmer could gather in and store his grain ready for the seventh year, and he would cater for his bondmen, but the poor who worked for others, as they could, would have no grain on the seventh year for there would be no work. This thus catered for their need. And each seventh year would be dedicated to God in recognition of His gift of the land to His people. This is made specific in Leviticus 25:4 but it is clearly its intent here as is evident from its connection with the weekly sabbath in the following verse. Both are sabbaths to Yahweh their God (Exodus 20:10).

In Deuteronomy 14:28 to Deuteronomy 15:11 we have an extension of God’s provision for the poor. Not only could they enjoy the gleanings and this seventh year bonanza, but a provision would in future be made for them from the third year of tithes and by release from debt in the seventh year.

This connection with the weekly sabbath also implies that the same seventh year shall be observed by all. This is made explicit in Leviticus 25:2-7.

These provisions looked forward to when the land has been given to them as Yahweh promised to them in Egypt. They were a preparation for and a guarantee of what was to come. It is possible they had already been observed in Egypt. By these provisions God was reminding them of what their future will be, and encouraging their hopes. But they assumed a quick conquest of the land so that the provisions could be applied. In the end they could only be observed spasmodically. That they would not be strictly observed is brought out in Leviticus 26:34; 2 Chronicles 36:21, God knew what to expect of them, but those who did so in obedience to God would find their land more fruitful as a result.

The Weekly Sabbath (Exodus 23:12-13).

Exodus 23:12-13

“Six days you shall do your work, and on the seventh day you shall cease from work, that your ox and your ass may have rest, and the son of your handmaid and the stranger may be refreshed. And in all things that I have said to you take heed, and make no mention of other gods, neither let it be heard out of your mouth.”

This is a repetition of the fourth commandment. Compare Exodus 34:21. But here the stress is twofold. Firstly on the benefit to beasts and servants (compare Deuteronomy 5:14-15), and secondly on its provision as a means of meditating on God (compare Exodus 20:11).

It is stressed that those who have no say in the matter should be able to rest, the oxen and the asses who bore the burden of the work and the sons of handmaids (either sons of concubines or sons of servants) and resident aliens who would have no land and would therefore be labourers.

The placing of Exodus 23:13 here, while it applies to all that has gone before, emphasises that the sabbath is to be a day in which men will speak of God. They are to ensure then that they do not speak of other gods but that they concentrate their attention on the true and living God, on Yahweh.


Verses 14-17

Regulations Concerning The Annual Feasts (Exodus 23:14-19).

The people have arrived at Mount Sinai and are preparing for what lies ahead. These laws are therefore providing them with a blueprint of that future and acting as a spur. It is always a sign of good leadership to picture the final fulfilment of what is in front as an encouragement in the face of difficulties. As these specific regulations for the future were read out to them at various times and seen as God’s law they would renew their vision for that future. It was so easy in the wilderness to lose sight of that future.

Those who cavil at such detailed provisions being made in the wilderness have never been on a long march into the unknown under arduous conditions, when often the only thing that holds the spirits up is the consideration of the future. As they heard these regulations read out, it assured them that, although the going was tough now, in the not too distant future there would be harvests, there would be ingatherings, they would have fields to leave fallow, for this is what the regulations guaranteed. It was worth struggling through the wilderness for. It was worth going on for, it was worth fighting for. And later the outline would be filled in as they neared their final goal. (Moses was not expecting it to take forty years. That would be due to disobedience).

We can analyse this as:

a Three times in a year a feast is to be kept (Exodus 23:14).

b The feast of unleavened bread. None shall appear before Him empty (Exodus 23:15).

c The feast of harvest. The firstfruit of their labours which they sow in their field (Exodus 23:16 a).

b The feast of ingathering. When they gather in their labours from the field (Exodus 23:16 b).

a Three times in a year all to appear before the Lord Yahweh (Exodus 23:17).

Note that in ‘a’ they are to keep feasts three times a year, and in the parallel they are to appear before Yahweh three times a year. In ‘b’ in the seven day feast of unleavened bread none are to appear before Him empty, and in the parallel in the seven day feast of ingathering they will gather their labours from the field. Both suggest plenteous provision. In ‘c’ is the central one day feast where they offer the firstfruits of their labour, their rent and tribute.

Exodus 23:14

“Three times you shall keep a feast for me during the year.”

There were to be three feasts, the feast of unleavened bread at the beginning of the religious year, the feast of harvest (or ‘sevens’) celebrating the firstfruits, and the feast of ingathering (or ‘tabernacles’) ‘at the end of the year’, that is at the end of the period of sowing and reaping. Note the concentration on the fruitfulness of the ground. Their future was bright indeed.

Exodus 23:15

“You shall keep the feast of unleavened bread. Seven days shall you eat unleavened bread as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of Abib, for in it you came out from Egypt. And none shall appear before me empty.”

Compare Exodus 34:18. This first feast was closely connected with the Passover and has already been outlined in Exodus 12 and Exodus 13. It was the time when the harvesting began (Deuteronomy 16:9). It would ever remind them of their deliverance from Egypt when they had to eat unleavened bread because of the haste in which they came out. It would include the waving of the sheaf before Yahweh (Leviticus 23:11).

“None shall appear before me empty.” (Compare 34:19-20; Deuteronomy 16:16). All must appear bringing offerings and sacrifices from their firstlings (34:19-20) and gifts from their harvest firstfruits to Yahweh as they are able. But the especial point is that all will have such gifts to bring.

Exodus 23:16 a

“And the feast of harvest, the firstfruits of your labours which you sow in the field.”

Compare Exodus 34:22 where it is the Feast of Sevens. This feast would be held seven sevens plus one day after the feast of unleavened bread (Leviticus 23:15-21; Numbers 28:26-31; Deuteronomy 16:9-12), and would celebrate the wheat harvest. It would include the waving of two wave loaves of fine flour baked with leaven as firstfruits to Yahweh, and celebrated the firstfruits of their labours (Exodus 34:22 has ‘the firstfruits of the wheat harvest’). It was later called the Feast of Sevens (weeks), and Pentecost.

Exodus 23:16 b

“And the feast of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in your labours out of the field.”

This was celebrated in the seventh month and was later called the feast of tabernacles. This was the final celebration of the whole harvest including the grapes and olives, the vintage was gathered in and the threshing was over for another year (Leviticus 23:33-44; Numbers 29:12-38; Deuteronomy 16:13-15).

“At the end of the year”, that is, the agricultural ‘year’ when the harvests had been gathered in. We need not assume that Moses saw them as having two official calendars. The final gathering in of the vintage and summer fruits would necessarily be seen by them as ‘the end of the year’. Agriculturally the next step would be sowing for the following year. But their official calendar now began in April. Fixation of calendars was far from Moses’ mind. Whatever happened later he was dealing in practicalities.

These three feasts encapsulated all the hopes of the children of Israel. They were promised here to a landless people who were encamped in the wilderness but who looked forward in the future to owning their own land, with fruitful fields and full harvests in the land of milk and honey. In these commandments their hope for the future was written large. What encouragement must have been theirs as they contemplated them together.

This was all probably patterned on the feasts they had kept of old in Canaan, the sheepshearing and the harvests. Such customs tend to linger on, especially in a strange land, even when the specific events connected with them have ceased.

Moses would certainly have enquired into conditions in Canaan in preparation for their arrival there. He would have been incompetent not to. And there would almost certainly be a number among the people who had more recently been in Canaan before going to Egypt

Note how brief the descriptions are and their concentration on ‘none shall appear before me empty’, ‘the firstfruits of your labours’, and ‘you gather in your labours out of the field’, just the ideas suited to encouraging a pilgrimage people.

Exodus 23:17

“Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord Yahweh.”

This is the first specific indication to the reader that all are to gather three times a year at a central sanctuary to celebrate God’s goodness. At these times sections of the history and the covenants would be read out as a reminder to the people of God’s promises and requirements, including the earlier covenants with the fathers and the initial covenants with Adam (Genesis 1:28-30; Genesis 3:17-19) and Noah (Genesis 9:1-7) with their background histories, and the people would make their response. Every seven years the whole of the Law which had been given to Moses and which he had written down (Deuteronomy 31:9; Deuteronomy 31:24) would be read out (Deuteronomy 31:11).

The children of Israel would be, and indeed already were, divided into twelve sub-tribes whose unity was to be maintained by their connection with a central sanctuary. The arrangement is called an Amphictyony (the pattern occurred elsewhere including in ancient Greece). This was a well known form of organisation among such peoples and we have already seen indications of such arrangements among peoples connected with Abraham (Genesis 22:20-24; Genesis 25:2-4; Genesis 25:13-15; Genesis 31:23; various combinations in Genesis 36 (e.g. 36:15-19, 29-30, 40-43 - note that they were not only sons but chieftains or ‘dukes’). Indeed the name Oholibamah means ‘tent of the high place’).

“All your males.” The gathering was to be officially of the males, but they would often later be accompanied by their families. Such a gathering would also be called for when danger threatened (Judges 5:13-23).

“Shall appear before the Lord Yahweh.” Note the title. Yahweh is now their Overlord. The phrase ‘appear before’ occurs in 23:15; 34:20, 23, 24; Deuteronomy 16:16; Deuteronomy 31:11; Isaiah 1:12 in this technical sense. They would come to His central sanctuary to worship and renew the covenant.


Verse 18-19

Sundry Regulations Connected With the Feasts (Exodus 23:18-19).

These verses are almost paralleled in Exodus 34:25-26, which confirms that the four parts are all firmly connected together.

They can be analysed as follows:

a The blood of His sacrifice not to be offered with leavened bread (Exodus 23:18 a).

b The fat of His feast not to be left until the morning (Exodus 23:18 b).

b The first of the firstfruits of the ground to be brought to the house of ‘Yahweh Eloheyca’ (Exodus 23:19 a).

a A kid not to be seethed in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19 b).

The parallel of the first with the fourth where something stated is not to be connected with something unsuitable, together with the fact that the first three all refer to offerings to Yahweh, may suggest that the fourth item is also connected with a possible offering to Yahweh, and that to offer it in this way would be unsuitable and was forbidden.

Exodus 23:18

“You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leavened bread, nor shall the fat of my feast remain all night until the morning.”

The parallel passage in Exodus 34:25 has, ‘You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leavened bread, nor shall the sacrifice of the feast of the Passover be left until the morning.’ Thus ‘the fat of My feast’ is paralleled by ‘the sacrifice of the feast of the Passover.

In all sacrifices the blood and the fat was offered to Yahweh. The eating of blood was forbidden. And when the blood of the sacrifice was offered to Yahweh only unleavened cakes were to be offered. This emphasised that leavening was seen as corrupting, and nothing corrupted was to be brought to Yahweh. This was speaking of the festal sacrifices. But the words ‘My sacrifice’ and the connection with nothing ‘remaining until the morning’ (compare Exodus 12:10) may be seen as signifying that the Passover is in mind here, especially in the light of Exodus 34:25.

Either way we too when we offer our sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving must ensure that all corruption in our lives has been removed by cleansing.

A rare exception to the rule of unleavened bread is found in Leviticus 7:13 with reference to a peace offering for thanksgiving, otherwise leavened bread is regularly forbidden. The regulations for freewill offerings were not quite so strict (Leviticus 22:23) for they were partaken of by the people. They were not as holy.

The fat was always offered immediately without delay, for it was specifically Yahweh’s without exception, and to delay offering it would be insulting, and might also allow it to spoil and not be worthy of Yahweh. So corruption must not affect the sacrifices in any way.

“The fat of my feast.” This parallels ‘the blood of my sacrifice’ in the first part of the verse and refers to the particular ‘feast to me’ (Exodus 23:14-16) at which the offering was made. Thus it may be that we are to see ‘the fat of my feast’ as signifying, not the fat of the sacrifice, but the abundance, the fullness, of what the Passover sacrifice signified. Nothing of the abundance of what He provided at this feast was to be left until the morning. This is confirmed by Exodus 34:25.

Others have seen ‘the fat of My feast’ as referring to ‘the fat of the land’ (Genesis 45:18), and as connecting with all the feasts, when what is offered must be properly enjoyed and not wasted. But there are good grounds for rather connecting it with the Passover for in Exodus 34:25 a parallel phrase speaks of ‘the sacrifice of the feast of the Passover’. There it is the whole sacrifice that must not be left until the morning (compare Exodus 12:10).

Thus this whole verse seems to have specific reference to the Passover sacrifice, called ‘My sacrifice’ and My feast’, demonstrating its special significance to God.

Exodus 23:19 a

“The first of the firstfruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of Yahweh your God.”

Compare 34:26a. Wherever God revealed Himself could be called ‘the house of God’ (Genesis 28:17), for it meant a dwelling-place, where God had revealed Himself. Here it therefore meant the place where God was approached, the Tent of Meeting and later the Tabernacle (Exodus 34:26). The first of the firstfruits may mean the choicest of the firstfruits or literally what ripened first. The point was that Yahweh would receive His portion before His people received theirs as an acknowledgement that what they received came from Him and belonged to Him. This may have special reference to the Feast of Harvest or Sevens (Weeks) where the firstfruits were especially offered (Exodus 23:16).

On the other hand the first of the firstfruits was offered on the first day of unleavened bread in the presentation of the first ripe sheaf (Leviticus 23:10-11). This might serve to confirm that Passover and Unleavened Bread are again in mind.

Exodus 23:19 b

“You shall not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.”

Compare Exodus 34:26 b which demonstrates (as does the chiasmus here) that this is to be seen as an integral part of the series. If the connection of the other three items is with the Passover feasting it may suggest that this was also connected with the Passover feasting. Just as it was unseemly that the Passover be eaten with leavened bread, so was it unseemly that a kid eaten at the feast of Passover and Unleavened Bread be seethed in its mother’s milk. The seething of kids in milk was certainly practised among the Arabs later, and there seems no reason why that should be condemned, the condemnation would therefore seem to be of its being in the milk of its mother.

But some have connected it with the Feast of Ingathering on the grounds that both Unleavened Bread and Harvest have been in mind in verses 18-19a, and it may be so. Either way the contrast is specifically with not offering the blood of the Passover lamb with unleavened bread. In the end the thought is that no kid that is seethed at any feast should be seethed in its mother’s milk, because that would be an abomination to Yahweh.

It is thought by some that elsewhere among the nations kids were boiled in their mother’s milk so that the resulting magical mixture could be sprinkled on the fields hoping to produce fertility. (It has been suggested that it is witnessed to, for example, in The Birth of the Gods, a Ugaritic text, but this suggested reference is now seen as misread). It may have been that this was so. But the more probable reason would seem to be that it was seen as unseemly that a calf should be boiled in what should rather have been seen as maintaining its life, that is, that it was seen as a contradiction in Creation that was unacceptable. It made the mother destroy her kid rather than sustaining it. It was an attack on the conception of motherhood that could not be allowed.

Compare Leviticus 20:12 where a man lies with both a mother and her daughter, and Exodus 18:23 where sexual relations with a beast is in mind, of both of which it is said, ‘it is confusion’. They were relationships which were not to be. Similarly this could be seen as ‘confusion’. A mother’s role was to be seen as strictly that of life providing, and anything else a distortion of reality (compare the milder thought in Isaiah 49:15). Compare also how in Deuteronomy 14:21 the practise is connected with that of an Israelite eating something that ‘dies of itself’. Israelites and such dead meat were to be seen as incompatible. By this time it may be that the phrase ‘you shall not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk’ had become proverbial of any incompatible situation. But whatever the explanation it was a practise forbidden to Israel.

For us the lesson is clear. We are to have a regard to what is seemly and what is not. If we cannot see that to seethe a kid in its mother’s milk could be seen as unseemly then there is little to be said for us. It would demonstrate a lack of appreciation of motherhood, and a lack of the sensitivity that all God’s people should have, that could only condemn us. For this example stresses proper consideration of relationships, and that all distortions of motherhood are an abomination to God.


Verses 20-28

Yahweh’s Promise That He will Send His Angel With Them (Exodus 23:20-28).

Yahweh now confirms that He will go with His people into Canaan.

This section may be analysed as follows:

a Yahweh will send His Angel before them (Exodus 23:20).

b If they hear His voice then Yahweh will act for them against their enemies (Exodus 23:21-22).

c The Angel will cut off the Canaanite nations (Exodus 23:23).

d They are not to bow down to their gods, but to serve Yahweh Eloheyca (Exodus 23:24-25 a).

d Then He will bless their bread and water and take away sickness from among them (Exodus 23:25 b).

c None will cast their young or be barren among the Israelites (their seed will not be cut off) (Exodus 23:26).

b He will send His terror before them and make their enemies turn their backs on them (Exodus 23:27).

a He will send forth His hornet who will drive out the Canaanite nations (Exodus 23:28)

The chiasmus brings out in ‘a’ and its parallel and ‘b’ and its parallel what Yahweh will do for them, in ‘a’ by sending His presence before them, in ‘b’ by dealing with their enemies. In ‘c’ there is the contrast between the death coming on the Canaanites and the abundance of life coming to the Israelites. The one will be cut off, the other will not be cut off. In ‘d’ the call is to worship Yahweh only which will result in plenteousness and good health

Exodus 23:20

“Behold I am sending an Angel before you to keep you by the way, and to bring you to the place which I have prepared. Take heed to him and listen to his voice. Do not provoke him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him.”

Once again we are introduced to the Angel of Yahweh (see on Exodus 3:2. Also Genesis 16:7-13; Genesis 20:17; Genesis 22:11-14), that mysterious figure who personally represented Yahweh and yet was somehow different. The Angel brings Yahweh more physically into a situation. He is Yahweh, for Yahweh can say, ‘My name is in Him’. And He can then add ‘My Angel will go before you -- and I will cut them off’, demonstrating that the Angel and Yahweh act as One (see also Exodus 32:34; Exodus 33:2 with Exodus 33:14).

The Angel who goes before them was surely represented by the pillar of cloud and fire (Exodus 13:21-22; Deuteronomy 1:33), which itself manifested the presence of God (Exodus 13:21). God will be with them in the way.

“The place which I have prepared”. Compare Exodus 15:17. He will keep them in the way and bring them to the prepared place in which they will enjoy the harvests of which He has spoken.

“Take heed to him.” Obedience was necessary if they were to inherit the promises. If they broke His laws His Angel would not forgive it. For He was a representation of the holy Yahweh, God of the covenant. Yet such was His mercy that when they did provoke Him He partly overlooked their transgression for Moses’ sake, although warning that their sin would eventually be visited on them, and He continued to go before them (Exodus 32:31-34; Exodus 33:14).

“My name is in him.” What Yahweh is, He is. The Old Testament reveals Yahweh in three ways, under His Own name, as the Angel of Yahweh (Yahweh in personal, close revelation) and as the Spirit of Yahweh, (the invisible Yahweh seen in powerful and visible action). But each is Yahweh and reveals His nature and being.

Exodus 23:22

“But if you will indeed listen to his voice and do all that I speak, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries.”

Obedience will bring the Overlord’s support against their coming enemies. One of the great advantages of a Suzerainty Treaty was that the great overlord would come to the support of the treaty people. Their enemies would be his enemies, because they were his people and he was their overlord. But if they were not obedient to the treaty he would come and punish them (Exodus 23:21). This illustrates that we are still in the atmosphere of the great Suzerainty treaty in Exodus 20.

Note the change in personal pronouns. ‘His voice --- all that I speak’. Yahweh and the Angel speak as One.

Exodus 23:23

“For my Angel will go before you and bring you to the Amorite and the Hittite, and the Perizzite and the Canaanite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, and I will cut them off.”

The general treaty is now applied to the particular situation. As they enter the land they will meet up with the multiplicity of its inhabitants. And the Angel of Yahweh will go before them and Yahweh will cut off their enemies. The use of six may indicate three (the number of completeness) intensified and thus signify that the six nations are to be seen as all the inhabitants in the land (compare Exodus 3:8; Exodus 3:17 and contrast Exodus 13:5. In Exodus 23:28 three are cited confirming this connection).

For the names of the enemies compare especially on Exodus 3:8; also Exodus 13:5.

Exodus 23:24

“You shall not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do after their works. But you shall utterly overthrow them and break in pieces their pillars.”

Rivals to the Overlord must be rejected and their symbols destroyed. They are not to be tolerated. There is One Overlord and He is Yahweh. Peoples entering a land would often begin to include the gods of the land within their worship (see on 2 Kings 17:24-34) to ensure their protection. But this was not to be so here. They too must be cut off and cast out. The land is Yahweh’s.

“Nor do after their works.” Canaanite religion was debased and sexually perverted.

“Break in pieces their pillars.” This refers to the standing stones which were often a feature of Canaanite shrines. Pillars were often set up as memorials (Genesis 18:18-22; Genesis 35:13-15; Exodus 24:4; Joshua 4:1-9) but these were different, they were identified with a god and venerated, and offerings were placed before them. They represented Canaanite religion and its gods. Many examples have been found in and around Palestine (for example at Gezer, Hazor, Lejjun, Byblos and Ugarit), some with offerings still before them. They are constantly condemned throughout the Old Testament.

Exodus 23:25-26

“And you shall serve Yahweh your God, and he will bless your bread and your water, and I will take sickness away from among you. None will miscarry or be barren in your land. I will fulfil the number of your days.”

Yahweh Himself will provide for all their needs of food, water, fertility and long life. The gods of rain and storm and the fertility gods were a regular feature of Canaanite life and religion. But they will be irrelevant. For what Yahweh will do will be far better than anything that the Canaanites claim for their gods. He can ensure that they have food and water in abundance (compare Deuteronomy 11:14-15; Deuteronomy 28:12), that all their women are fertile and that they live long lives. This was a picture of a new Eden but it would fail in its fulfilment because of the disobedience of the people.

Note again the change of pronoun from He to I which occurs often when Yahweh speaks, as God makes a statement and then personalises it.

“You shall serve Yahweh your God.” Compare Exodus 20:2. This is a reference back to the giving of the covenant. He alone is to be served and all rivals are to be rejected. Service includes both being faithful to the ordinances laid down for worship, and obedience to His covenant stipulations.

Exodus 23:27-28

“I will send my terror before you and will discomfit all the people to whom you will come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. And I will send the hornet before you which will drive out the Hivite, the Canaanite and the Hittite from before you.”

Yahweh will prepare the way before them by bringing a great fear on their future foes. Thus they will be beaten before the battle begins, and will flee in terror from them (‘turn their backs to you’). Compare for this Exodus 15:14-16; Deuteronomy 2:25, and its part fulfilment in Joshua 2:9; Joshua 10:10; Judges 4:15. See also Genesis 35:5. He will also use physical terrors to aid in the discomfiting.

“I will send the hornet before you.” Compare Deuteronomy 7:20. This may mean that Yahweh will also support them by using natural terrors to discomfit their foes. The hornet is a larger version of the wasp with a vicious sting, which can sometimes cause death, and a fearsome reputation. All would know of the terror the appearance of a swarm of hornets could cause, and it would seem that a literal plague of hornets did at one notable stage throw the forces of the two kings of the Amorites into disarray (Joshua 24:12). The fact that the Amorites are not mentioned in Exodus 23:28 (compare Exodus 23:23) demonstrates that this was written before that event. We could translate ‘hornets’ seeing it as a collective noun. Here it probably represents all the physical terrors of nature.

“Hornet” (tsi‘rah). The word only occurs in Exodus 23:28; Deuteronomy 7:20 and Joshua 24:12. Some would translate as ‘depression, discouragement’ but a more positive foe appears to be in mind. It comes from the root word which means being ‘struck with a skin disease’. Hornets attack the skin. This promise may have been in mind in Revelation 9:1-11.

But the context may suggest that the description has the Angel of Yahweh in mind, pictured in terms of the fearsome hornet, swarming down on the enemy and causing them to flee in terror. The Israelite attacks in all quarters may well have seemed like to their enemy like swarms of hornets, coming from nowhere and buzzing round their cities and towns.

The threefold description of the Canaanites again stresses completeness. This mention of only three Canaanite nations is unusual (usually there are five, six or seven) and is a most interesting and careful use of a number. In Exodus 23:23 six nations were mentioned representing the whole. Had six been used here that would have made twelve. But twelve represented Israel (the twelve tribes). Thus here three are used, making nine in the passage in all, which is simply three intensified indicating the whole.


Verses 29-33

Yahweh’s Promises and Warnings For The Future (Exodus 23:29-33).

a The Canaanites to be driven out little by little so as to preserve the land until the Israelites are numerous enough to possess it all (Exodus 23:29-30).

b The bounds of the promised land outlined with the promise that the Canaanites will be driven out (Exodus 23:31).

b Israel to make no covenant with them or their gods (Exodus 23:32).

a The Canaanites not finally to dwell in the land lest they make them sin and their gods become a snare (Exodus 23:33).

These four statements intermingle in a most comprehensive way but may also be seen as a chiasmus. In ‘a’ we have the command to drive out the Canaanites and in the parallel they are not to be allowed to dwell in the land. In ‘b’ God commands the Canaanites be driven out and in the parallel they must make no covenant with them. But ‘a’ and ‘b’ both refer to the driving out of the Canaanites, while ‘b’ and ‘a’ refer to the gods of the Canaanites. Yet the driving out of the Canaanites in ‘b’ parallels the fact that in the parallel ‘b’ they must make no covenant with them, and the reason for ‘a’ is found in the parallel ‘a’.

Exodus 23:29-30

“I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild animals grow in large numbers against you. Little by little I will drive them out from before you until you have grown in numbers and inherit the land.”

This confirms that ‘the hornet’ which will drive them out is not to be seen as representing one particular short series of events. It is something that will work over the longer period. This would confirm the picture of the Angel of Yahweh as a buzzing hornet, continuing His work through the years as the land is taken over.

Thus the promise was that they would enter the land and establish themselves, removing the inhabitants and purifying the land, and then gradually expand until the whole land as depicted in Exodus 23:31 was theirs. Then would they be a holy people and become a kingdom of priests to take His message to the world.

God’s purpose in the delay is stated. It is so that the land will not revert to wilderness and so that wild animals might not take over. This in itself emphasises that while the Israelites entered in comparatively large numbers they were not so large a number as some have thought (see on Exodus 12:37). Once their numbers grew sufficiently they would be able to enter into their inheritance (Exodus 6:6-8; Exodus 15:16-18).

Of course the ideal was never achieved. Israel failed to enter the land and conquer it as they should have (Numbers 14), and when they did enter and multiply they did not wholly rid the land of its inhabitants (Judges 1:27-33). Because of their unbelief the great vision never came to fruition. Even the successes of David and Solomon could not hide this (1 Kings 4:21). While they were glorious they did not fulfil the conditions or the promises. They never entered into the new Eden. They never became the kingdom of priests in the fullest sense.

But it was partially fulfilled, for the later history in Joshua and Judges does partially follow this picture. While their first triumphant entry into the hill country was rapid and widespread, pictured as a great series of victories (as indeed they were) so that they were established in the land (Joshua 11:23 - but that this was partial in terms of the full picture comes out in the previous verse), it was also seen as partial and leaving much to be done. The land was divided up, but its full possession was another thing (Joshua 13:1-14). This would occur gradually until the claim in 1 Kings 4:21 could be made. ‘And Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms, from the River to the land of the Philistines, and to the border of Egypt’. But they would still only be second best. The result would not a be ‘holy’ people totally dedicated to Yahweh.

Later too they would be scattered among the nations in the Dispersion and become among them bearers of God’s ‘law’, and their ministry would be carried on by the new Israel, the early church.

All this reminds us that the promises of God are dependent on the obedience of His people. They will, of course, finally be achieved in ways far beyond our imagining, with a new heaven and a new earth. But man’s disobedience would cause these purposes partially to fail on earth just as Adam’s had previously. In the end man’s only hope would be in divine intervention of an unprecedented kind when the great Man of Sorrows called a people to Himself to take over the vision. But even they have failed. In the end He must do it all Himself.

Exodus 23:31

“And I will set your border from the Sea of Reeds even to the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness even to the River, for I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you will drive them out from before you.

The future boundaries of the promised land are set out and they are natural boundaries. The wilderness was the land of the South north of Egypt, and the River was the Euphrates. The sea of the Philistines was the Mediterranean, and the Sea of Reeds here represents the Gulf of Aqabah, the tongue of the Red Sea leading up to the rift valley containing the Jordan and the Dead Sea. Thus the promised land reached from the Euphrates to Egypt, and from the Mediterranean to the Rift Valley. This was the land promised by Yahweh in the covenant on condition that the covenant conditions were fulfilled. But they never were. God’s terms were rejected and partial obedience could only result in partial fulfilment.

“Sea of the Philistines.” This description of the Mediterranean Sea (or part of it) is found nowhere else suggesting that it was a very ancient title and superseded. This would serve to confirm the presence of some who bore a name which could be translated into Hebrew like this in Palestine before the time of Moses, as Genesis indicates. It shortly becomes ‘the Great Sea’ (Numbers 34:6-7; Joshua 1:4; Joshua 9:1; Joshua 15:12; Joshua 15:47; Joshua 23:4). To use the Reed Sea as the eastern border would be unlikely once they were in the land.

Exodus 23:32-33

“You will make no covenant with them, nor with their gods. They shall not dwell in the land lest they make you sin against me, for if you serve their gods it will surely be a snare to you.”

So the Book of the Covenant ends as it begins, with the reminder that He was Yahweh their God (Exodus 20:2; Exodus 23:25) Who would act on their behalf (Exodus 23:25-31) as He had already acted in Egypt (Exodus 20:2), and the reminder also that He would brook no rivals (Exodus 20:3-6; Exodus 23:32-33). Thus the land must be rid of all evil influences. Neither they nor their gods must be allowed place in ‘the land’. There must be no treaties made with them. They must be totally driven out. The land and the people must be holy to Yahweh.

“For if you serve their gods they will surely be a snare to you.” How true this would prove to be. Syncretism with the Canaanite worship of Baal and Asherah would plague them right up to the Exile.

Note for Christians.

Just as God would send His angel before His people as they approached the land where they were to set up the Kingly Rule of God, so does He go before us as we seek to set up the Kingly Rule of God here on earth (Matthew 28:21), that Kingly Rule which stretches to all His true people (Colossians 1:13). Those who are His are those who genuinely see themselves as under His Kingly Rule and bound by all His requirements, not in order to be saved, but because they have been saved. And they gladly seek to do His will.

It may be asked, are we required to keep the feasts as laid down in this chapter? And again the answer is clear. We do not keep the feasts because we do not possess the land. We owe no ‘rent’. We do not offer the sacrifices because they have been superseded in the one Sacrifice made for all for all time. But we should and do give thanks for our harvests and bring to Him of our produce in gratitude for all His goodness.

End of note.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Exodus 23:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/exodus-23.html. 2013.

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