Abide: Exodus 18-20
President Spencer W. Kimball said in 1976 that “Few men have ever knowingly and deliberately chosen to reject God and his blessings. Rather, we learn from the scriptures that because the exercise of faith has always appeared to be more difficult than relying on things more immediately at hand, carnal man has tended to transfer his trust in God to material things. Therefore, in all ages when men have fallen under the power of Satan and lost the faith, they have put in its place a hope in the “arm of flesh” and in “gods of silver, and gold, of brass, iron, wood, and stone, which see not, nor hear, nor know” (Dan. 5:23)—that is, in idols. This I find to be a dominant theme in the Old Testament. Whatever thing a man sets his heart and his trust in most is his god; and if his god doesn’t also happen to be the true and living God of Israel, that man is laboring in idolatry.” What can we learn from the Old Testament about worshiping God and rejecting idols? We’ll explore that, and much more, in today’s episode of “Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast.”
President Spencer W. Kimball said in 1976 that, “Few men have ever knowingly and deliberately chosen to reject God and his blessings.” Rather, we learn from the scriptures that because the exercise of faith has always appeared to be more difficult than relying on things more medially at hand, carnal man has tended to transfer his trust in God to material things. Therefore, in all ages when men have fallen under the power of Satan and lost the faith, they have put in its place a hope in the arm of flesh and in Gods of silver, of gold, of brass, of iron, wood, and stone which see not nor hear nor know that is,” President Kimball says, in idols. What can we learn from the Old Testament, especially the book of Exodus about worshiping God and rejecting idols? We’ll explore that and much more in today’s episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast. My name is Joseph Stuart. I’m the Public Communications Specialist at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Kristian Heal is a research fellow at the Maxwell Institute and each week we’ll be discussing the week’s block of reading from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Come, Follow Me curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson, but rather hit on a few key themes from the scripture block so as to help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints and their testimonies of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ and engage the world of religious ideas.
Joseph Stuart: Today we are once again joined by Aaron Gorner, one of our research assistants who studies Ancient Near eastern Studies and Comparative Literature here at BYU. Aaron is from Raymond, Alberta and upon graduation plans on attending graduate school to further study in these fields. Welcome back, Aaron.
Aaron Gorner: Thank you.
Joseph Stuart: Now Kristian, what is going on in these chapters, specifically Exodus chapters 18-20.
Kristian Heal: It’s interesting that chapter 18 of Exodus is largely occupied with Jethro. He’s an illusive figure in the Bible, known by at least two names. Jethro and Ruel, suggesting a synthesis of traditions. He’s said to be a priest of Midian, though it’s unclear which God he served. He certainly a respecter of the God of Israel and acknowledges that the Lord is greater than all the Gods. He’s treated with great respect by his son-in-law Moses, by Aaron, and the elders of Israel. Perhaps he was a leader among his own people. Or perhaps it was his innate wisdom that enabled him to offer such excellent advice to Moses regarding the distribution of civic and legal responsibilities. His short visit among the people of Israel had a significant impact on Moses because Moses showed himself to be open to wise counsel. Chapters 19 and 20 are set at the foot of Mount Sinai. In the absence of a temple or tabernacle, the Lord administered the law from Sinai, speaking to Moses from the mountain. But this was the sight of more than law giving. Here in the wilderness of Sinai, God declared the people a kingdom of priests and a holy nation if they will obey the law faithfully and keep his covenant. Mount Sinai is transformed at this point into a sanctuary, a great natural temple from which God spoke to Moses and where Israel was invited to enter into the presence of God. The sacred space is established by creating boundaries and through consecration. Purity is paramount. Israel stands in this sacred space and covenants with God. “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do,” they say. Unlike the story of Elijah where the Lord spoke in a still, small voice, here God speaks in the thunder and the whole mountain trembled violently. The people of Israel are all struck by the power of God. They did not want to ascend the holy mountain, and instead say to Moses, “You speak to us and we will obey, but let not God speak to us lest we die.” All of this was intentional. “God has come,” said Moses, “…only in order to test you and in order that the fear of God would be ever with you so that you do not go astray.” The sentiment is of course aspirational and conditional. As an aide to keeping the fear of God forever with them, God gives Israel commandments from Mount Sinai.
Joseph Stuart: Thanks for that summary, Kristian. Aaron, Kristian just spoke about fear, but how else can we relate to God, especially learning from the book of Exodus.
Aaron Gorner: You know, there’s this word in the Hebrew Bible that’s very problematic to translate and many translations have used different words. It’s often translated in the King James Version as mercy, or as loving kindness. This word is chesed and it’s used in a lot of contexts to describe a certain kind of relationship, and in special times it’s used with an idea of describing the relationship between God and Israel. In exploring the meaning of this word, Dr. Katherine Sakenfield writes in her book, The Meaning of Chesed, that “it’s a constant warmth of feeling that constitutes a loyal friendship”. Others have said that it denotes action in a psychological state, that it’s essential and often indispensable service and assistance which exists between those who are in a relationship of chesed, and there has to be an element of reciprocity. This is not bound by law, or punishment, but freely chosen by those who engage in such a relationship. There’s irresistible power and never failing constancy. This idea of chesed helps us understand many stories in the Old Testament. A few instances in which it’s used may surprise you. Here are some examples from the Hebrew Bible. “For the mountains shall depart and the hills shall be removed, but my chesed shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed saith the Lord that has mercy on thee.” That’s Isaiah 54:10. Or perhaps, “Praise the Lord of Hosts, for the Lord is good for chesed. His chesed endureth forever.” That’s Jerimiah 33:11. And this one is particularly interesting. “Incline your ear and come unto me. Here in your soul shall live and I will make an everlasting covenant with you. Even as the confirming chesed of David.” That’s Isaiah 55:3. It’s often puzzled many people through reading the Hebrew Bible. Why does God constantly relate these wicked kings back to David and say that their sin is because they weren’t like David? Because to us, the way we think, we tend to define people by their worst moments and we say, oh well David did this with Bathsheba and then he did this to Bathsheba’s husband, and this makes him a bad person, and that may be true in a moral sense. But what God values with David seems to be this chesed, this relentless yearning to be close to God, this relationship that endures through time and through trial and through failure, and that seems to be what God wants from his people here in Exodus 19 and 20.
Joseph Stuart: Thanks for that Aaron. I’m thinking though that in this relationship of chesed and I won’t even try to say it with the right Hebrew intonation. But thinking about how the Lord expects a reciprocal relationship, which is to say a covenant relationship. Where both parties are bound by duty and by oath to fulfill certain parts of chesed. And thinking about the last episode that you were on, thinking if this suggests that if we might have a more personal relationship with God because he knows of our love for him and we know of his love for us, that we can speak to him as we would a partner in a relationship and try our best to work out what to do with him. That we can try to engage him and figure out where we are in his plan.
Aaron Gorner: Yeah. I think that’s the beauty of this whole idea. One scholar once wrote that carnal minded people content with the letter cannot ascend the mountain. And I think there’s this idea that when the prophet speaks, the thinking has been done. And what’s happening here is God’s saying, actually, I want more than that. I don’t want a kingdom of minions who follow every word from my leaders. I want people that want to know me. Hosea 6:6 is my favorite scripture and it says, “For I desired mercy and not sacrifice, a love of God more than burnt offerings.” But the word there is chesed. “For I desire to chesed and not sacrifice.” What God really wants is for us to engage him. For the Israelites back then, they were sacred. There were thunders and lightning and smoke on the mountain and these genuine things that you should fear. I mean, God sounds majestic and unapproachable and I think there are things that scare us today. I mean, a wise man once told me, he works for the Maxwell Institute, I’m not going to name any names, but he said that the only question worth asking is one that exposes you to risk. What are the risks of approaching God in a way that will help us to have chesed? What are the risks to doubting that everything a leader says may be right or true? What are the risks for having your own discipleship which is foundational in a relationship in a knowledge of God that is, when we approach God with the possibility that anything can be true it’s terrifying because maybe we’ve been wrong all these years, maybe we’ve based our whole lives and our discipleships on these ideas that aren’t true. And I think when we approach God in allowing him to tell us who he is, and approach God allowing him to show us his nature, we are able to get the reward. We can see God for what he is. If we approach the mountain despite the lightning and the thunder and the smoke, we can confront a chesed relationship and we can have a closeness with God which is what he desires in the end.
Joseph Stuart: It reminds me of President Hugh B. Brown’s wonderful address, The Current Bush, where he has this imaginary conversation with a bush that he’s pruning and the bush says to him, “Why are you cutting me down? Why are you doing this?” And President Brown says, “Listen, I know what’s best for you. You have to trust me on this.” And I see that as an example of a chesed relationship where we have to love enough to not only be willing to take a step into the dark, but be willing to look at the dark at all. I’m also thinking about the two great commandments that we must love God and love others, but that in Exodus we see the Ten Commandments, which according to my math skills are eight more than the two that Jesus gives. What’s significant about the Ten Commandments? What are some things we should take away in thinking about those, Kristian?
Kristian Heal: This is a really useful way to frame the Ten Commandments in terms of this loving kindness, this idea that Aaron has shared with us, and also to frame them as a relational set of commandments. What we see in Exodus 20, and for the following chapters in the Pentatuk all the way up until Numbers chapter 10 verse 10, are a series of commandments given that are doing all kinds of things in organizing a community and establishing relationships and establishing consequences and establishing a code of conduct. The rest of these commandments sound similar in many ways and in fact, we can find direct parallels between commandments in Exodus and Leviticus with commandments that we find in other ancient law books, such as Hammurabi’s Code. So there’s something going on there in the establishment of a society, the establishment of a covenant society which has parallels to and feels similar to the ways that order is established in the world around Israel. But the Ten Commandments seem to be doing something different and seem to be based on a different kind of relationality. If we look at the way that they open for example, the Ten Commandments open with an expression of God’s action. “I am the Lord thy God which have brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” So we are immediately in this relationship with God as the commandments are given and I think that this is a relationship of love. One scholar has noted, “the Exodus emancipation and the Sinai covenant belong inextricably together.” So this action of God and this giving of the commandments are entirely related. The purpose of God bringing his people out of Egypt was to establish a covenant relationship with them. And so the deliverance is in order to establish the new covenant within Sinai. So this dynamic, this tension of God acting and then inviting a covenant relationship reminds me of two New Testament passages. In 1 John 4:19, we read, “We love him because he first loved us,” referring to the Lord. And this reminds us of the saying of Jesus, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” And so we have this logic, we love him because he loved us first. So God acts in our lives, in the world, showing his grace, showing his power, showing his majesty, and our response to that is one of love. And Jesus then guides his disciples and said, well this feeling that you have, this desire as Aaron has said, to enter into a covenant relationship, a relationship of chesed, has certain obligations: “If ye love me, keep my commandments” he said. This is a natural extension. This is not a punishment. Commandments are not there to punish or to restrain or to control. Commandments are there as a way to perpetuate a covenant relationship it seems to me. That is what the Ten Commandments are establishing. God is establishing a covenant relationship with Israel. So before he covenants with them, he rescues them from enslavement and certain death, through this extraordinary display of his power and love and remembering that love creates an entirely different relationship with laws and commandments.
Joseph Stuart: So you connect more than just the two great commandments to the Ten Commandments, but to the whole law of Moses that’s given throughout the Pentatuk. And these laws and ordinances can seem both really specific, but also really complex at the same time. So both overwhelmingly simple but also so connected into the rest of the text that it can be dizzying to try to figure out what’s going on. How can we approach reading these commandments in their context or within the understanding the ancient Israelites might have had.
Kristian Heal: Yeah that’s a great way to think about this problem as we tackle these parts of the Old Testament, which I think, are difficult to read as Christians because we have this sense that somehow the law is irrelevant, we have this sense like the Nephites said that, “The law has been fulfilled in Christ,” quoting from 2 Nephi 25, “…for this end was the law given, therefore the law had become dead unto us and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith yet we keep the law because of the commandments.” So obedience becomes something perfunctory, whereas obedience to these commandments within Judaism is at the heart of the religious tradition. There must be something that we can learn from the Old Testament and from how the Old Testament presents these laws.
Aaron Gorner: I’ll say it’s also very interesting that there’s this idea when we read this part of the Old Testament that oh, God tried to give them the higher law and then they didn’t want it, so he gave them the lower law. But he actually first gives them the Ten Commandments, and it’s not until after he gives them the Ten Commandments that they tell Moses, “Speak thou with us and we will hear but let not God speak with us lest we die.” They don’t make that decision until after the Ten Commandments have been given and so these laws are important to any relationship with God, not just a law of Moses relationship.
Kristian Heal: Yeah, I think you’re exactly right, Aaron. There’s something here for every reader of scripture. And these as part of those scriptures which are given, are prophet. Scholars argue, Old Testament scholars, that we need to reconsider how we approach the idea of commandments, how we think about the commandments and that there is in fact nourishment for a Christian readership here. Part of that comes from thinking how this first part of the law is presented to us. In the study of the book of Exodus, one of the things that becomes clear is that we have two quite distinct sets of laws given right at the beginning, between Exodus 20 and the end of chapter 23. We have the Ten Commandments given in Exodus 20, we have a break, and then we have something which scholars will call the book of the covenant, based on Exodus 24:7, or the book of statutes and ordinances based on Exodus 24:3. This goes from Exodus 20:19 through to Exodus 24:2 or the end of chapter 23. And so we have these two, independent law codes given and many scholars will say actually that the second one is older, is more ancient than the first. It looks like an ancient law code. It’s something like the code of Hammurabi. But the Ten Commandments frame that and provide an interpretive lens through which to view all the rest of the commandments.
Joseph Stuart: I wonder if we might draw a parallel here between the Articles of Faith and the entirety of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, where there’s much to consider in the 13 Articles of Faith, but it only scratches the surface. Like you said, it frames or outlines the broad philosophies that we embrace as Latter-day Saints.
Kristian Heal: Yeah, exactly. They kind of give the key to it and all the rest of the scriptures and the teachings of the prophets, they work this out and they develop it. Anyone who’s read the Articles of Faith and then turned to James E. Talmadge’s book, The Articles of Faith, know there’s a lot of working out to do and an even larger book can be written today. And so as we look at the Ten Commandments, which resonate with us, we understand these principles with some slight adaptation to our world today, the rest of the commandments beginning with debt slaves, for example, among the Jews and how to resolve that problem. The rest of these commandments seem odd and strange and out of place in the contemporary world. But I think that there are principles that we can learn from them as we approach them through the lens of the Ten Commandments.
Joseph Stuart: Something that I really like is thinking about both the Ten Commandments and the broader law of Moses. That it’s meant to bring out obedience. That it’s an opportunity to demonstrate love from us to God, but also from God to us. What do you think about that?
Kristian Heal: Yeah, I think there’s this, for me this companionship between obedience and compassion. We are showing obedience to God in this sense that Jesus asks “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” What we feel is this desire to maintain this relationship. The Doctrine and Covenants tells us that commandments are given so we know how to conduct ourselves before God. And this is how I think of these laws. Where if God is trying to make a kingdom of priests, how do these people conduct themselves so that to maintain themselves in the presence of God. So obedience, even obedience with exactness as we read about in the strippling warriors, this obedience with exactness is a virtue. The commandments also admonish us to be compassionate, to find ways to think about our own history and our own experiences and how that changes the way we think about others. If we have suffered, let’s look for those who have suffered and try to alleviate their suffering. We see this worked out with the commandments, for example, with respect to aliens in the land of Israel. You’ve been aliens, you should know how it feels to be a stranger in a foreign land. You should be helping immigrants, helping those who have come in becomes a commandment, becomes an admonition for Israel because of the experience that they had.
Joseph Stuart: When you say that it reminds me of an experience on my mission when I got a call from a missionary after midnight saying that he was considering harming himself and having a conversation with my companion that yes, it was okay to leave the apartment even though it was after 10:30 because there was a greater need to show compassion to others, to extend the love that God has for us. I don’t mean to throw that companion under the bus because I know that I did the exact same thing. I made an idol out of obedience, out of following all the rules I was given as much as I could, and priding myself on that obedience. And it seems that it’s important for Latter-day saints to consider that we can make an idol out of not making idols. That we can become so attached to this idea of ourselves as covenant people as obedient people that we can completely lose the mark of what God is trying to teach us about obedience.
Kristian Heal: I think that’s a great example and we end our world in the Old Testament, but we quickly discover that it’s our own world in which there is this sort of constant competition for our devotion. There seems to be something innate in human nature that we want to worship things. That we want to have external means to provide safety, security, comfort and these are the things that we can make idols of that can become obedience. It can become body image, it can become all kinds of things that we fetishize, things that we turn into idols. I’ve always loved a particular story about Abraham in respect to idols that comes from Genesis rabbah, an ancient Jewish text. We learn in Joshua that your ancestors including
Terah, the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates river and worshiped other gods. So we know that Abraham is brought up in this idolatrous world. Here’s the tradition that we find in Genesis rabbah, it says,
“Terah was a manufacturer of idols. He once went away somewhere and left Abraham to sell them in his place. A man came and wished to buy one.
‘How old are you?’ Abraham asked him,
‘50 years,’ was the reply.
‘Wo to such a man!’ he exclaimed. ‘You are 50 years old and would worship a day old object.’
At this he became ashamed and departed. On another occasion a woman came with a plate full of flour and requested him,
‘Take this and offer it to one of them.’
So he took a stick, broke them and put the stick in the hand of the largest idol. When his father returned he demanded, ‘What have you done to them?’
‘I cannot conceal it from you,’ he rejoined. ‘A woman came for a plate full of fine meal and requested me to offer it to one of them. One exclaimed, I must eat first! While another idol exclaimed, I must eat first! There upon the largest idol arose, took the stick and broke the others.
‘Why do you make sport of me?’ His father cried out. ‘Have they then any knowledge?’
To which Abraham retorts, ‘Should not your ears listen to what your mouth is saying?’
This is a lovely example in which Abraham is catching his father out in the inherent illogical nature of worshiping idols. There are deep problems here with the worship that he has. And this tension between idols and idol worship seems to find its way into the story of Abraham’s descendants. And we find it appearing again and again. From this point forward the commandment to have no other gods apart from Jehovah, the Lord God. But the story is one of betrayal and return. And in fact we are going to see that in the next few episodes, that as soon as Israel makes a covenant with God, they immediately make another God to worship and to bring them comfort. So idolatry seems to be Israel’s great weakness.
Joseph Stuart: I think that it’s notable that as soon as Israel runs into trouble, they are looking for something that they can see. They are looking for something that they can touch, something corporeal. And it fits in with what President Kimball said about idols in his 1976 address. Sometimes we worship our wealth or our own ability to do things for ourselves rather than trusting the Lord enough to take care of us.
Kristian Heal: Yeah, I think prophets have a particular role. Prophets of God have a particular role to call people away from idolatry. Listen to Jerimiah in Jerimiah 10, “Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, though the nations are terrified by them. For the practices of the people are worthless. They cut a tree out of the forest and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold. They fasten it with hammer and nails so that it will not totter like a scarecrow in a cucumber field, their idols cannot speak. They must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them, they can do no harm nor can they do any good.” And this prophetic cry, this warning against finding security in places other than God, is a cry that prophets continue to make throughout the Old Testament and I’m looking forward to studying the prophet and looking at the prophets in this podcast for this very reason. To be reminded and refreshed and engaged with the excitement of those messages. President Kimball’s 1976 address is just another great example of a prophet calling us away from idols. In his case, the idols of our own making. He reminds us for example that our own dispensation opens in the first section in the Doctrine and Covenants with this saying, “They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness but every man walketh in his own way and after the image of his own God whose image is in the likeness of the world and whose substance is that of an idol which wax with old and will perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall.” So we are in 1830, and yet the rhetoric, the language the images are taking us right back into the Old Testament world. We are making idols, we are thinking of Babylon, we are thinking of all these things that are dragging the children of Israel away from the worship of their God. And notice the specific language that’s used. They are walking in their own way, and are making an image in the likeness of the world. So this establishment of idolatry is no longer the sort of silver covered wooden idols of Jerimiah, but something more subtle and something more insidious as a result. And President Kimball warned us against precisely these things. “Our assignment is affirmative,” he said, “…to forsake the things of the world as ends in themselves to lead off idolatry and press forward in faith, carrying the gospel to our enemies that they might no longer be our enemies. We must leave off the worship of modern day idols, he said, and a reliance on the arm of flesh. For the Lord has said to all the world in our day, I will not spare any that remain in Babylon.” Relying on the arm of flesh is simply concerned about two things, the two big messages. Don’t acquire wealth as a way to think that you’re protecting yourself, and don’t build up armies as a way to think that you are protecting yourself. Trust in God. That’s his message.
Joseph Stuart: And that’s the ideal place for us to close our podcast today. Have a blessed week y’all.
Thank you for listening to Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast. Could you please rate, review, and subscribe to the podcast wherever you are listening to this podcast and follow us on social media at @byumaxwell on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, FaceBook and sign up for our newsletter at mi.byu/edu? Thank you, and have a great week.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)