While the story of the Israelites escape from Egypt is one of the best known stories in the Bible, what happened next is not as well known (mainly because it’s not as dramatic). But the Book of Exodus continues with the wanderings of Moses and the Jews and the first government run by God. This part is significant as it is the first time God gives rules that must be obeyed.
No sooner had the Jews escaped from Egypt than problems started to emerge. The people asked the very obvious question of what they were supposed to drink. Now this is depicted in the Bible as the people being troublesome and they “grumbled against Moses” (Exodus 15:24) but shouldn’t God have seen the problem coming? I mean, they’re in a desert. But Moses throws a log into the water and the water became sweet. God then makes a deal with the Israelites, if they obey his rules he won’t inflict them with the plagues he cursed the Egyptians with (Exodus 15:26). As the Mafia would say, this is an offer they couldn’t refuse. While you could read this as a promise to protect, it does also sound like a hint of blackmail, with a veiled threat if they dare refuse.
After two months, the people begin to grumble and complain about the hunger and worry if they will starve to death. So God makes the morning dew turn into bread, called manna (Exodus 16:2-4). However, he throws on an arbitrary rule that everyone must have the same, regardless of how much or little you collect. Moses got angry with those who collected more than they needed to save for later found and the bread melted by afternoon. They lived on manna for 40 years.
In a desert, the issue of water is extremely important, which for some reason Moses doesn’t understand. So when people look for water, Moses responds “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” (Exodus 17:2). Moses seems to be quite a testy ruler, who loses patience straight away. Why does he become angry at people for being thirsty? Not wanting to die is hardly a fickle request, yet Moses treats it almost like insubordination. So God solves this crisis by telling Moses to strike a rock and making water appear.
The Israelites get attacked by Amalek (what they were doing in the middle of the desert isn’t said) but whenever Moses raises his staff the Israelites start to win, but when his lowers them, they lose. So he uses some stones to prop up him arms and they win the battle (Exodus 17:8-13). This is a silly story; I mean if God was helping the Israelites, why did Moses need to lift his arms? Would God be powerless if Moses kept his arms down? This story has nothing to do with the rest of the book and it looks like it was crudely inserted in as propaganda to justify later wars of the Israelites against the Amalekites.
God declares that he will appear to people on Mount Sinai, but he forbids anyone to even touch the mountain under penalty of death (Exodus 19:11-3). Why the secrecy? Why can’t God appear to everyone? It sounds almost like a scam. Magicians never let people look behind the curtains and this almost sounds like the Wizard of Oz where a little man uses smoke and loud noises to make himself look like a God. To prepare for God, the people are told “do not go near a woman” (Exodus 19:15) (presumably in a sexual sense, but with the Bible you never know). A thick cloud comes down on the mountain because God is made of fire and gives off smoke (the passages are not very clear or coherent). Moses speaks to the cloud and God answers with thunder (Exodus 19:17-9). Maybe I’m missing something, but how did they know it was God? How do you tell the voice from God from the regular sound of thunder? What if God wasn’t hiding in the fog and the people were talking to no one? Many pagan religions believed that thunder was sent by the Gods and worshipped it accordingly, so what made the Israelites different?
God warns the people to stay away because they’ll die if they see him (Exodus 19:21). Why? Why does God have to kill anyone who sees him? Seeing as Christianity is based around having a personal relationship with God, how can you have a relationship with someone who will kill you if you look at him? Only Moses and Aaron can see him. Why does God not want everyone to hear his commandments? Is he not afraid that people won’t believe just Moses? Are the people not leaving themselves open to being fooled? What’s to stop Moses just making something up and claiming God told him?
Then God gives the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), which you are all familiar with. I‘ve discussed this before, but his priorities are a bit twisted. Why is the first moral codes God gives about trivial stuff like not cursing, not breaking the Sabbath and not making sculptures of anything on Heaven or Earth (a point which the Catholic Church doesn’t seem too fussed about). Actually important stuff like not murdering or stealing is left until the end and gets far less detail. The first four are the only commandments that are provided with justifications and also punishments. One interesting point is that the Commandments are not numbered in the Bible, so depending on how you count them, you can have between 9-11. In fact Catholics and Protestants count the Commandments differently. They also are given far less attention than you would have expected and not overly differentiated from the following list of rules.
God gives some more rules such as when you buy a Hebrew slave, you must release him after seven years. However, his wife and children remain the property of their master unless they were married before they became slaves. This right is only for male slaves, female slaves have no right to leave (Exodus 21:1-7). There is also no mention of non-Hebrew slaves, presumably they had no rights. The fact that the Bible and God seem to have no problem with slavery is a serious problem for believers. Many come up with excuses, essentially saying that times were different back then. But aren’t God’s rules supposed to be eternal? Is God not supposed to be the supreme source of right and wrong? If justice comes from God and God has no problem with slavery, does that mean there is nothing wrong with slavery? Or is God and justice separate issues so that even if there was a God, he would not be deserving of worship?
“When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his property.” (Exodus 21:20-1)
Now take a moment and consider this passage. Here we have God, who must of us were raised to believe is just and all-loving, declaring that you may beat a slave as badly as you like, so long as they do not die straight away. Presumably if they die after a week or are crippled, that’s fine. Is it any wonder that the American South, the most religious part of the country, had no problem with slavery, considering God himself had said that slaves are property?
There are more rules, which are quite random and arbitrary with the punishment usually being death. If you kill a man, you should be punished with death, but if you didn’t lie in wait for him, you may flee (Exodus 21:12-3). Considering that this is still murder, I don’t know why the murderer should be allowed to escape. If you strike your mother or father, you shall be put to death (Exodus 21:15). No word of whether or not they deserved it or it was self-defence. If you curse your parents, you shall be put to death also. This is absurd and needlessly murderous. If two men fight and one is injured but not killed, the attacker will not be punished, he must only pay his victims medical treatment (21:18-9).
If you steal a man and sell him or own him, you shall be put to death, which seems contradicts the passages before about owning slaves (21:16). Perhaps the rule refers to slaves and is to prevent thieves stealing their “property”. If a man beats his slave causing them to lose an eye, they can go free, likewise if they lose a tooth (21:26-7). This seems contradictory to allowing them to be beaten near death. There doesn’t seem to be much reasoning behind these laws as you can beat a slave as much as you want, so long as you avoid the face.
There is a lot of petty rules about animals and crops, where they graze and what happens if they are harmed etc. Now I see why this would be important to people at the time, but what’s the point of modern people reading it? Can we just agree that this part of the Bible doesn’t have any relevance to us? It doesn’t have any relevance for modern life, so can we just take it out? So if an ox gores a person, the ox will be killed, but the owner will not be punished unless they have a reputation for goring people, in which case the owner is executed (how many people does an ox have to gore before it gets a reputation?). However, if the ox only gores a slave then there is no death penalty, only a fine of 30 shekels, because obviously slave’s lives are worth less (21:28-32).
If a man sleeps with a virgin, he must marry her and pay her price (because, you know, women are the property of their father) (22:16). Once again, the Bible’s sexism is showing as women are not only viewed as property, but also most of the rules are addressed to men, the women are ignored. In a phrase that would lead to thousands of innocent women being killed in the infamous Medieval witch hunts, 22:18 says “You shall not permit a sorceress to live.” Interestingly, it doesn’t deny that sorceress have magical power or claim they are frauds, the Bible seems to believe that they are real. I’ve noticed that in Exodus there is no sense that God is the only God or the only source of magic in the world, the Israelites seem to view him as one of many, with him being merely their personal God.
I find it ironic when Christians claim they are being denied their freedom of religion or claim that Islam is violent and intolerant because Exodus 22:20 says that whoever offers a sacrifice to another God, “shall be devoted to destruction” (offered as a human sacrifice). So much for peace and tolerance, this theocracy makes Saudi Arabia look liberal.
For a change, there are actually some decent rules like protection of travellers and widows and orphans, for if you do, God will kill you. The only surprise is that we had to wait so long before getting to it. There is also the forbidding of charging interest on loans (22:25) which is well meaning but not a smart way to run an economy. There is also rules against lying and perjury, which is nice to see and a law against killing the innocent, which God himself doesn’t seem too fussed about.
People are forbidden from cursing their ruler which probably warmed the heart of every Medieval tyrant. Perhaps Moses added that bit to make his job easier. There is no contract with the ruler or responsibilities to their people in exchange. Instead people were simply ordered to obey. As you can imagine, this lead many Kings to presume that they were sent by God with a Divine Right to rule and acted accordingly arrogant. God then tells the Israelites that when they come to the promised land, they are not to deal peacefully with the inhabitants but to utterly destroy them. God will send killer bees (I swear I’m not making this up, look it up it’s 23:28) to drive them out. Their religion must be destroyed and not a single person must be allowed to live in the land. When people say there are lessons for us in the Bible or that we can learn a lot from it, what are they talking about?
The strange thing about God and his laws is that they are no better than any other tribe at the time. You would have thought that a people chosen by God would be enlightened and morally superior to those around them, but their laws are no better than any other tribes. By modern standards they are barbaric. If the Israelites were making up their own laws, you would expect them to be petty and vicious as was the norm at the time. But if the laws were coming from a Divine Creator of the universe, source of morality and making laws for all people and all time, you would expect them to be far superior to anything else at the time. The laws of the Bible look more like the petty rules of an insignificant tribe, than the divine rulings of an all-knowing God. Where is the justice? The abolishment of slavery? The equal treatment of women?
So Moses gets these rules from God on top of Mount Sinai, which is covered in smoke, because God apparently looks like a devouring fire.