Creation 2.0, interior decorating, and the genocide that (maybe) wasn’t: the resolution of Exodus

For Lent, my wife and I are reading (and I’m blogging my way through) the first several books of the Old Testament, sometimes known as the “historical books” or the Covenant History. Today’s installment is the last from Exodus.


The second half of Exodus features (among other things) some very specific interior decorating tips, a troubling story involving a golden calf and 3,000 slaughtered Israelites, and a renewal of the covenant between God and his people.

Oh yeah… and the Ten Commandments. But why go for the obvious?

Tabernacle: creation 2.0

According to Exodus, the Israelites are commanded to build a tabernacle, basically a great big tent for worship.

Exodus describes the tabernacle design in great detail.

Mind-numbingly great detail.

There’s a whole section of Exodus that’s full of riveting stuff like this:

The tent curtains will be a cubit longer on both sides; what is left will hang over the sides of the tabernacle so as to cover it.

But there’s something we shouldn’t miss in all the mundane details of what kind of yarn to use for which curtains and the like. The tabernacle is meant to be God’s dwelling place. He is coming to live among his people.

For Christians, the tabernacle is a preview of coming attractions — of a time when God will dwell among his people again, this time in the tent of a human body. As John wrote in the prologue to his gospel: “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.”

Jesus, in effect, becomes our tabernacle.

But the Exodus tabernacle also looks back to the original creation. According to Wheaton professor John Walton, Genesis describes the making of a cosmic tabernacle. Creation itself is God temple, as indicated by the final act of the creation story: God rests. As Walton writes in The Lost World of Genesis One:

Deity rest in a temple, and only in a temple. This is what temples were built for. We might even say that this is what a temple is — a place for divine rest.

The tabernacle echoes creation itself. It’s a reminder that God is in our midst. The tabernacle is, in effect, creation 2.0 — except in this case, God’s people are invited to participate in the act of creation. Human beings are God’s co-creators, his junior partners.

The Canaanites: driven out or wiped out?

Easily the most vexing problem in the Bible is the Canaanite genocide, supposedly commanded by God and carried out by Israel.

All manner of rationalizations have been offered, many of which come down to arguing that the Canaanites were really, really bad and basically had it coming.

Maybe they were as bad as they’re sometimes made out to be. Maybe they really did sacrifice their children to Molech. But it seems strange to argue, as some have, that God punished the Canaanites for slaughtering some of their children… by slaughtering the rest of their children.

Others appeal to the inscrutability of God’s justice. But if divine justice is anything, it had better be scrutable. Otherwise, God is no different from the many other capricious, temperamental deities of the ancient Near East.

What struck me when reading Exodus was how surprisingly vague it is about the anticipated conquest of Canaanite territory. Exodus mentions the conquest several times. But it never uses the language of annihilation.

It’s strongly implied that Israel will have a passive role in clearing the land. God will do the heavy lifting, thank you very much:

I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites, and Hittites out of your way.

But there’s more. Exodus directly contradicts the idea of a decisive conflict in which the Canaanites are wiped from history. Exodus predicts a far more gradual (and far less apocalyptic) process:

But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land.

Time and again, Exodus uses the phrase drive out to describe what will happen to the Canaanites. The same phrase (Hebrew, garash) is used four times in the first part of Exodus to describe what happened to the Israelites in Egypt. This is the language of upheaval and displacement — but not extermination.

Other passages elsewhere in Scripture will give the Canaanite conquest a genocidal tinge. But Exodus, which is first to mention the conquest in detail, strikes a milder tone.

Covenant renewal

The last half of Exodus features an alarming story in which Israel worships a golden calf (after deciding that Moses and his God have been away for too long). In retaliation, those loyal to Moses kill 3,000 of their own people, and God threatens to wipe out the rest and start over with just Moses.

The story is troubling on many levels. How could the Israelites turn from God so easily? How could Moses order the seemingly random slaughter of his own people? How could God even think about destroying his people on the way to Canaan?

Whatever we make of this story, it highlights the seriousness of the covenant between God and his people. A covenant was a binding treaty with obligations for both parties. It was serious enough business that God had once said to Abraham, in effect, “May I be dismembered like a bunch of dead animals if I don’t keep my covenant with you.”

When Israel made the golden calf, they violated at least two of the Ten Commandments. They nullified the covenant. God had no further obligations to them.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that God reinstates the covenant after it has been obliterated. God reiterates the covenant law and gives Moses a new set of stone tablets. The people get busy building the tabernacle and, amazingly, God fills the finished structure with his presence. The “creation 2.0” project is very much still on.

People say the Old Testament is a book of law, and the New Testament is a book of grace. But you can’t get much more “grace” than the last half of Exodus.

Foreigners among foreigners: Israel’s journey out of Egypt

I’m blogging my way through the first several books of the Old Testament, sometimes known as the “historical books” or the Covenant History. Today’s installment is the second from Exodus, covering the Hebrews’ escape from Egypt and one of the more distinctive features of the covenant law they’re given… 


God has led his people out of Egypt, but he’s got some unfinished business with Pharaoh. Shortly after the Hebrews’ escape, he tells them to turn back. God baits Pharaoh into going after his former slaves. By downing Pharaoh’s army in the sea, God asserts his supremacy over the watery abyss so widely feared in the ancient Near East.

After dealing with the Egyptian army, God closes the waters behind the Hebrews. There’s no going back to Egypt.

Emigration, immigration, or all of the above?

There’s something surprising about the people who leave Egypt. They’re not all Hebrews. According to the text, “many other people went up with them.”

From the beginning, there were “foreigners” in Israel’s midst. Which might explain why the Torah repeatedly addresses how they are to be treated.

The first of many regulations concerning foreigners comes right on the heels of the exodus. Foreign households are to be included in the Passover — as long as their males are willing to be circumcised.

In addition, foreigners are not to be deprived of justice. They are not to be mistreated or oppressed. They are to enjoy the benefits of a Sabbath rest, just like their Hebrew neighbors.

The Hebrews are told to remember what it felt like to be foreigners living in a foreign land. They’re forbidden to treat others how they were treated in Egypt.

Even in the embryonic stages of Israel’s existence, we get a glimpse of how God wants to use them to bless “all nations.”

The Torah’s mandated compassion toward foreigners should be kept in mind when we come to the conquest passages later in the story. They might also be worth meditating on before we as Christians speak into the modern-day immigration debate.

God’s magician: the story of Moses

I’m blogging my way through the first several books of the Old Testament, sometimes known as the “historical books” or the Covenant History. Today’s installment is the first from the book of Exodus.


Exodus picks up after Joseph and his brothers are dead. The children of Abraham are more than just a family now; they’re a nation. The land of Egypt is “filled with” Hebrews.

Pharaoh tries various means of population control to deal with this growing nation-within-a-nation. Each attempt backfires.

At one point, Pharaoh orders all newborn Hebrew males to be cast into the Nile, most likely to stop Israel from becoming a military threat. His callous action foreshadows his own fate; after delivering the Hebrews from bondage, God will cast Pharaoh and his army into the watery depths.

Pharaoh’s attempted genocide also sets the stage for Israel’s deliverance. Pharaoh tries to eliminate the Hebrew “problem” by casting them into the Nile. Meanwhile, Moses — God’s answer to his people’s Egyptian problem — is drawn out of the Nile.

Moses the misfit

At first, Moses doesn’t seem to fit anywhere. He’s adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, sparing him the hardship of his people. But he doesn’t seem to be at home in the Egyptian royal court. He’d rather see himself as his people’s deliverer, but his own people don’t want anything to do with him.

One day Moses visits the Hebrews and kills an Egyptian for beating one of them. Next he tries to settle a dispute between two Hebrews, but they’re not having it. In the eyes of his countrymen, Moses is more Egyptian than Hebrew. He hasn’t borne their suffering. He’s “watched them at their hard labor,” but he hasn’t done a day of it himself.

God gets a name

Moses goes into hiding, taking refuge in the wilderness. (Can you say, “preview of coming attractions”?) God appears to Moses through a burning bush and declares that Moses will, in fact, deliver his people — but on God’s terms, not his.

God tells Moses to go back to his people and tell them the God of their fathers is about to rescue them. To which Moses says, in effect, “And which God is that?” Apparently they haven’t been on speaking terms lately.

God reveals himself as the “I AM,” a term which in Hebrew sounds a bit like another name God uses for himself here:


Yahweh, God says, “is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation.”

It’s a name that emphasizes God’s imminence — his closeness — more than his transcendence. A name that depicts God as entering into the story and walking alongside his people.

It’s ironic that the name God used to reveal his closeness was eventually deemed unspeakable by the Jewish tradition.

God’s magician

Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh culminates in ten deadly plagues. But this is not just a power struggle between two leaders. It’s a cosmic confrontation between the magic of Egypt and the power of God — between Pharaoh’s sorcerers and God’s magician, Moses.

The plague narrative has to be read against the backdrop of Egypt’s ancient traditions of magic. Pharaoh was surrounded by magical advisors who were apparently capable of doing extraordinary feats.

Earlier, God had given Moses a magician’s staff with which to “perform signs” of his own. In Pharaoh’s presence, Moses and Aaron turned their staff into a snake, just as God instructed. What makes the story so unsettling is that Pharaoh’s magicians were able to do the same with their staffs.

But then, Aaron’s staff swallowed up the staffs belonging to Pharaoh’s magicians. In Egyptian magic, to swallow something was to absorb its power. Pharaoh’s magicians aren’t merely deprived of power to work wonders; their power is coopted to serve God’s purposes.

When God turns the Nile to blood and unleashes a plague of frogs, the magicians try to discredit Moses and Aaron by performing signs of their own. Ironically, their magic only exacerbates the situation. They can only do “the same thing” as Moses and Aaron, turning more water into blood, unleashing more pestilent frogs — which only makes things worse for Egypt.

And after the first two plagues, they can’t even imitate Moses and Aaron any longer.

Both Pharaoh and God have their magic, but God’s magic is of a fundamentally different order. Which may help in explaining Moses’ apparent speech impediment. At the burning bush, Moses asks God to send someone else to deliver the Hebrews because, as he puts it, “I have never been eloquent.”

Later, Moses repeats his concern: “Since I speak with faltering lips, why would Pharaoh listen to me?” At which point God tells Moses he’s made him “like God to Pharaoh.”

In Egyptian tradition, the power of speech was vital to the ability to perform magic. Moses’ statement that he’s never been “eloquent” might actually be a confession that he’s never been able to do magic.

But it’s also a sign of misplaced faith, which might explain God’s irritated response:

Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, Yahweh? Now go; I will help you speak and I will teach you what to say.

God is angry with Moses because Moses is still looking within himself for the power to confront Pharaoh — just as he was doing when he killed that Egyptian for beating a Hebrew.

God himself will be Moses’ power.

Happy new year

Finally, as the Hebrews prepare to leave, God institutes the Passover, a festival by which they are to commemorate their miraculous deliverance from Egypt. The exodus was the central redemptive event of Israel’s story — just as the story of Jesus is for his followers.

The exodus changed everything for Israel. It gave them a new start, a new life, a new identity. So it’s fitting that Passover came to mark start of a new year for them. “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year,” God said to them.

Similarly, Advent (the season of Christ’s appearance) marks the beginning of the Christian liturgical calendar. Because redemption — the arrival of our deliverance — changes everything. It even changes how we mark the time.

Election in the Old Testament, part 3

In the Old Testament, God kicked off his redemptive plan by forming a covenant nation called Israel. The nation as a whole was a chosen instrument, predestined by God.

But each person had a choice to make. If you were born into the covenant, there were dozens of ways you could opt out — that is, be “cut off.” If you were born outside the chosen nation, there was nothing but your own pride to keep you from joining it.

Which leads to another important point about predestination in the Old Testament: it’s always for the benefit of others — i.e. the not-predestined. This idea is woven into the very first promise God made to Abraham:

I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

Notice the promised blessing is unlimited in scope. Anyone who blesses God’s people (and by extension, God himself) will be blessed by God in return. And notice that God’s action comes in response to human action.

Yes, God is orchestrating redemptive history. Yes, he alone initiates salvation. But he does so in a way that leaves room for us to play a meaningful part.

The promise ends with “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” This is the whole reason for God’s covenant with Abraham. God is not raising up a chosen nation for its own sake, as if to carve out a tiny portion of the human race for himself. He intends to use this nation as a vehicle to bring salvation to the entire world.

After the exodus, God established his covenant with the whole nation at Mount Sinai, calling them a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19). A priest is a human conduit for grace. Someone who not only points the way to God, but helps others walk the path.

In other words, the Israelites were not predestined to be “saved” for their own sake. They were predestined to be priests. They were predestined to draw others to God — or as Isaiah puts it, to be a “light for the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42, 49).

In the New Testament, we see the same connection between predestination and priestly proclamation. Paul refers at one point to his “priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God” (Romans 15). Elsewhere, Peter writes to the church:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession [all of which is predestination language], that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

Predestination is never an end unto itself. We are not predestined to be members of a club, we are predestined to be ambassadors and priests, proclaiming the good news to others so they in turn can be predestined to do the same.

Calvinism views predestination as a means by which God narrows the scope of his redemptive agenda, applying its benefits to a select few. But in the Old Testament, predestination works in reverse, gradually expanding the circle to include more and more people — with the end goal of blessing “all peoples on earth.”

Election in the Old Testament, part 2

The predestination debate often gravitates toward the same handful of New Testament texts. The problem, to quote Paul Eddy, is, “There’s an entire 39 books before the New Testament that use the same kind of [predestination] language.”

In other words, if you want to understand what the Bible says about election, don’t skip the Old Testament. (To be fair, many Calvinists don’t. They just read it differently.)

Jesus and Paul were steeped in the Hebrew scriptures. One was a rabbi, the other a Pharisee. The New Testament quotes the Old at least 300 times and alludes to it as many as 4,000 times, according to the late Roger Nicole. In other words, it’s important.

When you read the Old Testament, you’ll find that God called or “predestined” a number of individuals: Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, David, Jeremiah, etc. But each was chosen to play a specific role in God’s redemptive plan. Their stories do nothing to bolster the Calvinist view that God predestines every individual to salvation or damnation.

If you want to argue that, there should be some evidence for it in the Old Testament.

And there isn’t.

Again, quoting Bethel University theologian Paul Eddy:

If you ask, ‘Who’s chosen in the Old Testament?’ it’s Israel. It’s not particular individual Israelites. It’s the nation of Israel. It’s a corporate category.

God ordained there would be a group called Israel (Genesis 12). He predestined this group to be his “chosen people,” a covenant nation. But there is nothing to indicate that he determined the individual composition of that group. From the beginning, God intended for everyone in that nation to benefit, even though clearly not everyone did. Notice Moses’ parting words to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 29:

All of you are standing today in the presence of the LORD your God — your leaders and chief men, your elders and officials, and all the other men of Israel, together with your children and your wives, and the foreigners living in your camps who chop your wood and carry your water. You are standing here in order to enter into a covenant with the LORD your God . . .

The fact that there would be a covenant nation was fixed, determined, foreordained. The individual composition of that nation was not. Anyone could opt in; anyone could opt out.

If you were an Israelite, there were several ways you could opt out. For example:

But anyone could opt in, too — even if they weren’t an Israelite. Foreigners were invited to celebrate the Passover, the Jewish precursor to the Eucharist (Exodus 12). They were welcome to make offerings to God (Numbers 15). Any foreigner who chose to live among the Israelites was presumed to be part of the covenant and to be treated accordingly (Numbers 9).

What’s more, God didn’t just give people a choice; he gave them the ability to make that choice (Deuteronomy 30):

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach . . . I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.

Calvinism says that individual election is necessary because humans, in their depravity, are utterly incapable of choosing God. Specifically, John Calvin wrote that we are deprived of “soundness of will,” i.e. the ability to choose what is acceptable to God.

But God appears to think otherwise.

In the Old Testament, God initiated redemption, no question. But there was a still choice to be made. And God gave people the ability to make it, even after the fall.

It’s not because people are so awesome. Not because we deserve it. But because that’s the kind of God he is.

I believe that a God who gives us freedom even though he doesn’t have to is greater than a God who predetermines every tiny detail of the universe.

Reformodoxy (or, the hazards of theological arrogance)

Recently, I had a conversation with someone from a neo-Reformed background about the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus.

As background: Exodus indicates that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to rescue the Israelites from slavery on his own terms. But sometimes the text says Pharaoh hardened his own heart. In some cases it just says his “heart was hard” without clearly indicating who did the hardening. Elsewhere Pharaoh’s advisors are implicated.

In Hebrew thought, the heart can represent the human will, our volitional capacity. So the question is, did God unilaterally harden Pharaoh’s heart — that is, did he coopt Pharaoh’s will? And if so, does he do the same with all of us?

Neo-Reformed believers answer yes and yes, while maintaining that humans are still responsible for their actions.

In this exchange, I suggested the “hardening” texts should be read in light of Exodus’ opening lines. Long before there’s talk of anyone hardening Pharaoh’s heart, we read this:

Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. ‘Look,’ he said to his people, ‘the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them…’

At which point, Pharaoh enslaves the entire Israelite population.

Then another Pharaoh comes to power and orders all Hebrew males to be killed at birth.

Add to this the fact that all Pharaohs, including the one who squared off against Moses, claimed to be gods incarnate.

All of this, I believe, tells us what Pharaoh’s character was like, long before God did anything to harden his heart.

But that’s not really the point of this post. What interests me is the response I got, arguing that there’s only one reason anyone would believe as I do:

 It keeps God from offending your sense of fairness because you could never worship a God that decrees such things.

So I asked if it’s fair to assume the worst possible motivation of someone, just because they don’t embrace a Calvinist reading of the Bible. This was his answer:

 If you genuinely desired to understand the text, you wouldn’t have a problem with Calvinism.

If you don’t come to the same conclusions as I do, then it’s because you’re not really interested in understanding the Bible. You’re just trying to twist its meaning to fit your preconceived notions — or dismiss it altogether. That’s how the argument goes, anyway.

Granted, this is one person. But I’ve heard this argument before. A lot. Heck, I used to make this argument.

This, I believe, is an example of a kind of theological arrogance that’s not uncommon among the neo-Reformed. Not that theological arrogance is their exclusive domain. We all struggle with this. But this is the lens through which many neo-Reformed believers view non-Calvinists — and sometimes even other Calvinists who just aren’t as “doctrinally pure” as they are.

Neo-Reformed theology seems to be redefining orthodoxy to insist upon the tenets of high Calvinism. This despite the fact that the tenets of Calvinism are nowhere to be found in any universal creed (Apostle’s, Athanasian, Nicene). Nor are they to be found in what Scripture identifies as the “gospel.”

If the tenets of Calvinism are essential to orthodox faith, why are they wholly absent from the Church’s most universal, enduring statements of orthodoxy? Why are they missing from what Scot McKnight calls The King Jesus Gospel?

Why do the writers of these great creeds — much less Paul himself, when he sums up the “gospel [he] preached” — fail to mention neo-Reformed dogmas like predestination, limited atonement, and meticulous sovereignty?

I don’t have to embrace the core tenets of Calvinism to appreciate its rich heritage and its rightful place within the Christian tradition. But there are some who would make it the only option — and that, I believe, is just wrong.