The Jagged Cliffs of Mount Sinai: A Theological Reading of the Book of the Covenant (Exod. 20:22-23:19)

Article excerpt

Scholars often attempt to explain away the tensions and jagged edges the reader can observe in the text and thought-world of the Book of the Covenant. If one works with these tensions, however,er one stands to gain profound insight into the ethics and theology of this book.

THE PENTATEUCH CONTAINS three distinctive collections of laws: the priestly laws in Leviticus, Exodus, and Numbers (including the "Holiness Code," Lev. 17-26); the deuteronomic laws in Deuteronomy, and the Book of the Covenant (also called the "Covenant Code") in Exodus 20:22-23:19. The Book of the Covenant is widely regarded as the most ancient of these legal collections. Its name derives from the scene where Moses descends from Mount Sinai with the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments and an additional set of laws: "He took the Book of the Covenant," the text narrates, "and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, `All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient '"(Exod. 24:7).

Most scholars agree that these laws do not date to the Mosaic period of the wilderness but originate for the most part sometime after the settlement in Canaan and perhaps before the rise of the monarchy in Israel. The interest these laws exhibit in issues related to farming and domesticated animals presumes a settled agricultural life in the land of Canaan. Some argue that they predate the rise of kingship and the Jerusalem Temple, since no mention is made in them of a centralized government or cult. They pertain to worship, slavery, murder, human violence, death caused by animals, theft of domestic animals, agricultural damage, safekeeping of property, loaning of farm animals, the regulation of sexuality, the treatment of resident aliens and the poor, the practice of justice, and the proper observance of the sabbath and religious festival days.

The Book of the Covenant is found within a larger literary context associated with the covenant God makes with Israel at Mount Sinai (Exod. 19-24). This Sinai narrative stands between the other key narrative events in the Book of Exodus: the exodus of Israelite slaves out of Egypt (chaps. 1-15) and Israel's idolatrous worship of the golden calf and its aftermath (chaps. 32-34). The Sinai material in Exodus 19:1-24:18 has the following structure:

Israel's arrival at Mount Sinai (19:1-25)

The Ten Commandments spoken directly by God to the people (20:1-17 cf. 19:9; 20:1; Deut. 5:22-33)

The people's request that Moses function as mediator for any further words from God (20:18-21)

The Book of the Covenant mediated by Moses to the people (20:22-23:19)

God's promise of an "angel" to lead Israel's conquest of the promised land of Canaan (concerning the angel: "do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression") (23:20-33) In their present literary context, the laws of the Book of the Covenant function as an interpretative extension of the Ten Commandments into various details of the community's life. The Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:1-17) are clearly more comprehensive, broad, and abstract than are the covenant laws (Exod. 20:2223:19). The polished and timeless qualities of the Ten Commandments have enabled its imperatives to speak directly and immediately to countless generations in diverse cultures throughout the history of both the Jewish and Christian traditions. By the same token, the laws in the Book of the Covenant are much more specific and time-bound. They seem more rooted in their ancient place and culture and less amenable to direct translation into contemporary life.

The jumble of legal forms, functions, themes, and values that make up the Book of the Covenant creates for the reader a sense of tension and thematic fractures that defy easy resolution. Examples abound. The list of laws that begins in Exodus 20:22 is unexpectedly interrupted by a superscription that seems to mark the beginning of another collection of laws: "These are the ordinances that you shall set before them" (21:1). …