Welcome to the Ten Commandments, also referred to as the Decalogue. In Judaism, they’re known as the Aseret ha’Dibrot, which might be translated “the Ten Sayings,” “the Ten Statements,” or, as my dad is fond of putting it, “the Ten Words.” They’re not technically imperative sentences, but they do prescribe certain behavior, or more accurately, they proscribe certain behavior. And they certainly are sayings, as the chapter says right out the gate that God says them.
I suppose it’s time for me to start thinking of the passages surrounding Exodus 16 as Complaint Central. Previously, it hadn’t really clicked for me that the Israelites begin griping almost as soon as Moses and Miriam have finished leading the people in their triumphant Song of the Sea. Nor had it registered that manna, the magic sky bread, came as God’s response to more griping. Then, in today’s chapter, Israel continues griping. There’s something about writing about these passages, not just reading them or even merely reflecting on them, that draws one’s attention to these patterns. So: welcome to our last stop at Complaint Central, at least for the time being.
Happy Magic Bread Day! This is the chapter with the manna, and so many things about it seem foreign to me in so many different ways. I have no clue what it’s like to travel in the desert or to travel long distances on foot. I don’t know a whole lot about what’s normal for storing food without refrigeration or sealed packaging. And I don’t know that I’ve ever heard it said that someone “grumbled against” someone else outside of the Bible. But there’s one thing here that I’ve got half a clue on, and that’s people being people.
The Pentateuch is weird. Genesis is mostly narrative with periodic genealogies. Exodus, too, consists of sizeable portions of narrative containing occasional genealogies, but here in Exodus 12, we see detailed instructions for observing Passover woven into the story. The ancient Hebrews had no problem deriving what ought to be from what is, because in their view, a moral God had created a moral universe, and he had told them how things should be in it. The bulk of the chapter consists of God issuing Passover norms to Moses and Aaron. But you can set those aside for the moment, because I want to talk about that narrative portion in the middle where God does what he’s been saying he’s going to do, namely, killing the firstborn of Egypt.
Houston, we have a problem. I was all set to examine how God answers Moses’ questions and frustrations from our passage yesterday, make a point about how he doesn’t get angry with him this time, dig into the content of his response, but almost immediately I encountered complications. As God appeals to his history with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to underscore his commitment to their descendants, he makes a claim that is, prima facie, hog-bonkers.
Today’s chapter features the first half of a conversation with God that will turn Moses around and send him back to Egypt. It features a miraculous flaming bush that burns for far longer than a bush has any right to, and which emits God’s voice. It features Moses’ commission to bring the people of Israel back to the land that is their birthright. It features God’s holiness and compassion in equal measure. And, famously, it features God formally giving his name, the tetragrammaton YHWH. But the event raises a question: why the crud does Moses need to be told God’s name?
Here we are at the end of Genesis. It’s also, in a sense, the end of Jacob and the end of Joseph, as we have two deaths in this final chapter. On the other hand, though, it’s not the end of Jacob and Joseph; the end is not the end. But in between these two deaths we have a scene between Joseph and his brothers that I think bears consideration.