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.

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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.

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