Through the Bible in a Year: Exodus 17 to 20

The Schedule

If the commentary is too much, read the Bible, not the commentary! The commentaries are well-labeled, so you can always navigate to the parts you have questions about.

Exodus 17:1-7: Massah and Meribah; the Waters of Testing

In Exodus 16, the people were wishing they could return to Egypt and die at the Lord’s hand. Today, they accuse Moses of trying to kill them of thirst.

In response, God provides for them again.

This is not the only time that God will have problems at Meribah with the Israelites, only the next time it is Moses and Aaron who do not handle it well and are rebuked by God (Num. 20:1-13).

Exodus 17:8-16: Amalek attacks the Israelites

When the Amalekites came out and fought against the Israelites, the Israelites fought back. As long as Moses kept his hands raised, the Israelites were winning. If he dropped them, then the Amalekites would prevail.

Why only when his hands were raised?

To the early Christians, the raising of hands made the figure of a cross. Thus, the Israelites were victorious only when the cross was being represented. This was all the more important because it was Joshua leading the battle against the Amalekites.

Nowadays we don’t recognize the link between Joshua’s name and Jesus’ name. However, from the time of the apostles until Latin became common in the western Roman empire in the 3rd century, the Septuagint was by far the most common version of the Tanakh read by Christians. The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, is quoted regularly in the apostles writings, and it uses the exact same name, Iesous, that the apostles’ writings use for Jesus.

If you read a King James Version, you can see that Joshua is referred to as "Jesus" in Hebrews 4:8.

Thus, when early Christians read the story of the Amalekites they knew exactly what the passage was telling us. It is only as Jesus leads the way as our general and as we rely upon the cross that we can have victory.

So that he might remind them, when assailed, that it was because of their sins they were delivered to death, the Spirit speaks to the heart of Moses, that he should make a symbol of the cross, and of the one who was about to suffer on it. For unless they put their trust in him, they would be overcome forever. Moses therefore piled weapon upon weapon in the midst of the battle, and standing over [the battle], so as to be higher than all the people, he stretched forth his hands, and thus Israel would acquire the mastery again. (Letter of Barnabas 12, c. A.D. 130)

But now, to bring us to Moses: why, I wonder, was it only at the time when Jesus [i.e., Joshua] was battling against Amalek, that Moses prayed sitting with hands expanded? In circumstances so critical, surely he should have commended his prayer by bent knees, hands beating his breast, and a face prostrate on the ground! That is, unless it was that there, where the name of the Lord Jesus was the main issue … the symbol of the cross was also necessary, through which Jesus was to win the victory? (Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews 10, c. A.D. 210)

Amalek received a strict judgment for attacking Israel like that. The Lord determined to make war upon Amalek from generation to generation.

Exodus 18:1-12

Now this is an interesting conversation, and one for which we have no background! Verse two mentions Moses sending Zipporah away with his two sons. When did this happen? We don’t know!

This leads to all sorts of interesting speculations. Did he send her away after the boys were circumcised and she called him a "husband of blood"? If so, then maybe my earlier speculation (Ex. 4:24-26) was correct, and he had already told Zipporah about circumcision.

In fact, perhaps this is a reconciliation between Jethro and Moses as well. It does sound like that from Jethro’s statement, "Now I know that the LORD is greater than all the gods" (v.11). Perhaps Zipporah left after the circumcision, went back to Jethro’s, and now Jethro, rather than keeping them, has heard how Moses overthrew the Egyptians and has decided that if Moses’ God asked for circumcision, then circumcision might not be such a bad thing after all.

Like I said, that’s speculation. God has left lots of room in the Scripture for that kind of speculation, which can be very enjoyable if we don’t divide over it. Some of you may have a better explanation for Jethro’s appearance with Zipporah and the two boys.

Because the faith is always one and the same, one who is able to discuss it at great length does not add to it, nor does one who can say but little diminish it. It does not follow that because men are endowed with greater and lesser degrees of intelligence, that they should change the subject matter of the faith itself and conceive of some other God besides the One who is the Framer, Maker, and Preserver of the Universe or of another Christ. It does, however, mean that one may bring out the meaning of those things spoken in parables … explain the operation and dispensation of God connected with human salvation … understand for what reason God, though invisible, revealed himself to the prophets, not in one form, but differently to different individuals … (Irenaeus, Against Heresies I:10:2-3, c. A.D. 185)

Exodus 18:13-37: Jethro Advises Moses

I and others at Rose Creek Village have received advice like Jethro gave to Moses here. It is great advice!

The statistics I’ve seen on pastor burnout are horrendous. I suspect that many of them need this advice. If you’re among that majority of pastors that can say that they have no close friends with which to share their heavy burdens, then you have got to change something. Make your church members carry more of the spiritual burden of the congregation.

Exodus 18:37: Jethro Returns to Midian

And finally we are left with the mystery of Moses’ wife. Did she return with Jethro? Did she stay with Moses?

We never hear about Zipporah again, but both Moses’ sons are mentioned in a short section on his descendants at 1 Chronicles 23:14-23. One of his son Gershom’s descendants was a leader of the treasury during David’s reign (1 Chr. 26:24).

Exodus 19:1-17: The People Prepare to Meet God

God has called us to be his children, and he has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, "Abba, Father."

But God is also God. He is Judge of all the earth. He is King of all the earth. It is appropriate to show God respect. The men were to stay away from women (and vice versa) for 3 days. They were all to consecrate themselves and wash their garments so that they would show up at the bottom of the mountain ritually clean.

There’s a passage—in one of the major prophets, I think—where God talks about the honor shown to earthly kings and complains that Israel is not giving him even that kind of honor. I was going to use it here in this section, but I couldn’t find it. Do any of you recognize it with just that description?

Exodus 20:1-26: A List of the Ten Commandments

  1. I am the LORD (YHWH) your God … You will have no other gods before me.
  2. You will not make any engraved image for yourself, nor the likeness of anything in the skies above, the earth below, or the waters under the earth. You shall not bow to them nor serve them.
  3. You shall not say the name of the LORD (YHWH) your God flippantly (in vain).
  4. Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy. You will labor six days, and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall not do any work, not you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor the stranger that is in your gates
  5. Honor your father and your mother.
  6. You will not murder.
  7. You will not steal.
  8. You will not commit adultery.
  9. You will not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. You will not covet your neighbor’s house; you will not covet your neighbor’s house; nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.

I have capitalized LORD in some places in that list for reasons I’ve given before. That is where the name YHWH or Yahweh is used in Hebrew. Many Bibles do the same (KJV, NKJV, NASB, NIV, HCSB, etc.). I discuss the the importance of doing this in the Exodus 3:13-16 section of this page.

Exodus 20:1-26: The Ten Commandments Are the Old Covenant

And [Moses] was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights. He did not eat bread nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments. (Ex. 34:28)

And [God] declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, the ten commandments. And he wrote them upon tablets of stone. (Deut. 4:13)

Exodus 20:1-26: The Ten Commandments Today

The apostles’ writings say over and over that we are not under the Law. So we could simply say that the ten commandments do not apply to Christians today because "we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound" (Rom. 7:6, NASB).

It is not so simple as that, however. We read last week that Jesus had said that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to "bring it to fullness" (Matt. 5:17).

Until the fourth century or so, Christians had a beautiful reconciliation of those two verses.

The link there gives a complete teaching on one of my web sites. Here’s a taste of that beautiful reconciliation from one of the most prominent early Christians, Irenaeus of Lyons, around the year 185:

We learn from the Scripture itself that God gave circumcision, not as the completer of righteousness, but as a sign, that the race of Abraham might continue recognizable. For it declares, "God said to Abraham, ‘Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins as a token of the covenant between me and you’" [Gen. 17:9-11]. Ezekiel the prophet says the same with regard to the Sabbaths: "Also I gave them my Sabbaths, to be a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them" [Ezek. 20:12]. And in Exodus, God says to Moses, "You shall observe my Sabbaths, for it shall be a sign between me and you for all your generations" [Ex. 21:13].
     These things, then, were given for a sign; but the signs were not unsymbolical, that is, they were neither unmeaning nor to no purpose, since they were given by a wise Artist. Instead, the circumcision after the flesh typified the one after the Spirit. For the apostle says, "we have been circumcised with the circumcision made without hands" [Col. 2:11]. And the prophet declares, "Circumcise the hardness of your heart" [Deut. 10:16, LXX]. But the Sabbaths taught that we should continue day by day in God’s service. "For we have been counted," says the Apostle Paul, "all the day long as sheep for the slaughter" [Rom. 8:36]. That is to say, consecrated and ministering continually to our faith, persevering in it, abstaining from all greed, and not acquiring or possessing treasures upon earth.
     Man was not justified by these things … as this fact shows: Abraham himself, without circumcision and without observance of Sabbaths "believed God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness, and he was called the friend of God" [James 2:23]. Then again, Lot, without circumcision, was brought out from Sodom, receiving salvation from God. … Enoch, too, pleased God without circumcision, and discharged the office of God’s legate to the angels even though he was a man [Irenaeus is referencing the Book of Enoch] … In addition, all the rest of the multitude of those righteous men who lived before Abraham, and of those patriarchs who preceded Mose, were justified independently of the things mentioned above and apart from the Law of Moses.
     Why, then, did the Lord not form the covenant for the fathers? [i.e., Abraham, Enoch, and the others mentioned]. Because "the law was not created for righteous men" [1 Tim. 1:9]. The righteous fathers had the meaning of the ten commandments written in their hearts and souls. That is to say that they loved the God who made them and did no injury to their neighbor. There was therefore no reason for them to be cautioned by prohibitory mandates because they had the righteousness of the law in themselves. (Against Heresies IV:16:1-4)

Exodus 20:1-26: The Roman Catholic Ten Commandments (Advanced)

I left this to the end. If you don’t know that the Roman Catholic ten commandments are different than the Protestant ten commandments, then you can just skip this section. A lot of people, however, do know.

If any of you were raised Roman Catholic and paid attention in catechism classes, then you realized immediately that the list of the ten commandments I just gave you is different than the Roman Catholic list.

The Roman Catholic list leaves out the second commandment, though they claim that it is "included" with having no other gods before the LORD.

The RCC breaks the tenth commandment into two. For Roman Catholics the ninth and tenth commmandments read:

9. Thou not covet your neighbor’s wife.
10. Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s goods.

Now the Roman Catholics claim that this is a natural reading of Exodus 20. They say that it has nothing to do with the fact that they were trying to hide the commandment that prohibits ‘making’ engraved images and ‘bowing’ to them. Even though that is what they have been doing with statues of saints, of Mary, and of Jesus for over a thousand years. (I’m not sure when that practice began, but it may have been closer to 1500 years ago.)

I couldn’t find any early Christian writings that actually list the ten commandments. That’s not really strange. There are a lot of reasons that listing the ten commandments would not be a priority to the early Christians.

I do have a page of quotes of second and third century Christians on images and idolatry.

Archeology tells us that Christians of the third century did draw pictures, even of Jesus, on walls. This was especially true of Biblical scenes. It’s the kind of thing that you might see on Christian plaques or the walls of Christian meeting rooms today. The quotes, however, make it clear that to the early Christians, bowing down to the images was entirely inappropriate.

We are expressly prohibited from exercising a deceptive art. "For you shall not make," says the prophet, "the likeness of anything which is in heaven above or on the earth beneath. (Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Heathen 4, c. A.D. 190)

God prohibits an idol as much to be made as to be worshiped. Insofar as making the thing to be worshiped is the prior act, so far is the prohibition to make the prior prohibition. It is for this reason—the eradicating of the material of idolatry—that the divine law proclaims, "You shall make no idol" [Tertullian is quoting the Septuagint]. When it adds, "Nor any likeness of the things which are in the heaven, which are in the earth, and which are in the sea," it has prohibited the servants of God from acts of that kind all the universe over. (Tertullian, On Idolatry 4, c. A.D. 210)

Roman Catholic Ten Commandments: Coveting (Advanced)

Take a look, too, at the way the command about coveting is worded. Does it begin with "wife," then list a lot of "neighbor’s goods"?

No, it begins with house. Then it says wife. After that, it lists the rest of your neighbor’s goods besides his house.

So if they were going to be honest about their division, they would have to make commandments nine and ten to be:

9. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house.
10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor any of the rest of your neighbor’s goods.

There is another list of the ten commandments. Moses sums up their entire journey in the book of Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy 5 he lists the commandments all over again. There he does list coveting your neighbor’s wife before coveting your neighbor’s house.

During much of medieval European history, the Bible was only available in Latin, so outside of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, almost no one in Europe could read the Bible, and there are countless stories of the persecution and death of those who tried to get the Bible to commoners in their own language. John Huss, John Wycliffe, and William Tyndale come immediately to mind.

In the meantime, the RCC was making countless "engraved images" of saints, Jesus, and Mary and "bowing" to them.

I was raised Roman Catholic. My entire fifth grade class at the Catholic School I attended bowed down and kissed the feet of a statue of Mary at the direction of the school’s priests and nuns.

So what seems more likely? That a thousand years of Roman Catholic Theologians were confused by Deuteronomy 5 and actually thought it was possible to obtain their version of the ten commandments from the Bible? Or is it a lot more likely that the medieval Roman Catholic Church didn’t want their non-Bible-reading members to know that the Bible forbids one of their central practices?

I’m sorry this is so long, but every time I point this out, I get comments and emails about how none of this is true, so I’m telling you enough so that you know there’s nothing doubtful about what I’m saying here. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t know why it’s not something everyone would want to know.

Related Topic: "Venerating" Icons (Advanced)

For those that are interested in the topic. There was a "Second" Council of Nicea held over 400 years after the first Council of Nicea. That second council approved the "veneration of icons," and tried to justify their decision Biblically. Icons are two-dimensional representations of saints (though I saw one of the Holy Trinity as three seated old men!!!). Orthodox believers hang on the wall and bow to them, calling them "windows to heaven." I don’t know whether they kneel in front of them the way Roman Catholics kneel in front of statues.

The Orthodox don’t approve the Roman Catholic statues; I have no idea how the Roman Catholic Church feels about icons.

Either way, I wrote a response to the decisions of the second Council of Nicea at the bottom of my Christian History for Everyman page on the Orthodox Church.

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2 Responses to Through the Bible in a Year: Exodus 17 to 20

  1. St. Thomas Acquinas has a great discussion on the separation of commandments 9 & 10. Here’s my summary of what he said:

    “9. Thou not covet your neighbor’s wife.”
    Coverting people…

    “10. Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s goods”
    Coveting possessions…

    His point is that people and possessions are two very different things.

    And FYI both Roman and Eastern Rite Catholics Catholics love icons 🙂

    • Shammah says:

      Thanks, RP.

      For those of you who don’t know, Thomas Aquinas is one of the most famous Catholic theologians. He lived in the 13th century, and it is his theory of the atonement–explained in _Summa Theologica_– that is at the basis of most Protestant views of the atonement.

      I don’t agree with Aquinas on either issue, and my post addresses why I’d disagree on separating the coveting commands, so I won’t repeat anything here.

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