da rule book: understanding Exodus

When reading through the Bible, sometimes we go against our better judgement and skim some passages. Until skimming turns into mindless skipping of entire chapters.

I found myself doing this when reading the Book of Exodus. Since the origins of the Ten Commandments come from this second biblical text, I wanted to gain as much insight as I could from its words.

Except there are a lot of words, many of which I found irrelevant to my modern life. I don’t plan on interpreting the Bible literally, but I do think we can study its message when taken symbolically.

What’s in the Book of Exodus?

The Book of Exodus is the second book of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and Judaism’s Torah. The title of this book is taken from an ancient Greek word meaning “going out.” Quite an appropriate title when depicting the oppressed Israelites being evicted out of Egypt. 

Moses serves as the author to describe how God, or Yahweh, chose the Israelites as His people and all the miracles He performed to demonstrate His power and steadfastness to Israel. 

The Book of Exodus is probably best known for telling us about Moses, the parting of the Red Sea, the message he received from God in the burning bush and Mount Sinai, and the Ten Commandments Christians and Jewish people alike follow in their doctrine.

A LOT to take in.

The Book of Exodus is jam-packed with lots of information, some of which we probably don’t find much meaning in today. We follow Moses and the Israelites as they witness God’s ten plagues set upon Egypt, the first observance of Passover, the exodus from Egypt, and then the trials of wandering in the desert.

There’s a reason why Abrahamic religions rely so heavily on the Book of Exodus. It’s some of our first intimate encounters with God as He directly communicates with the people. Not only does He provide them support and sustenance, such as giving them manna as food to eat and keeping them victorious in any battles they face, but He also gives them pretty strict guidelines on how to live, act, and worship Him.

Indiana Jones wasn’t hunting down the Ark of the Covenant for nothing: several chapters of Exodus are just God laying out the rules of His laws and the way to build His Ark and Tabernacle. The book finishes off with the people then building their portable place of worship.

We can appreciate that these verses were meaningful for the Israelites, awestruck that God was speaking to them and making rules for His people to follow, but a modern reader isn’t about to build a tabernacle, nor do most of God’s earliest laws correspond well to our lives.

How do we interpret Exodus?

I’m a firm believer that English translations of the Bible don’t necessarily do it justice. While Greeks used language to describe everything in detail for readers and listeners to visualize, the Hebrew language is much simpler, forcing the recipient to make inferences and read between the lines.

You’d think with a very long but straight-forward book like Exodus, we don’t have much more to learn. These events happened, and that’s that. However, as modern Christian, the acts themselves and the role God’s Law served for the people tell a story we can still value today.

Laws create a community.

The long list of rules God lays out in Exodus chapters 19-24 don’t do us much good, but there’s a bigger theme at play. Rather than analyzing what each individual rule means, the very act of giving out a universal code for the Israelites to follow is important.

This is the first time in the Bible we see the ground-works of religion starting to form. Having standards sets the Israelites apart from other groups of people. It designates this wandering bunch as a community tied together in a common purpose: follow God.

We might not have a full list going at all times, but humanity groups itself according to beliefs, differences in appearance, every detail you can think of. We like putting labels on people to help us better understand each other. But saying you’re Christian means so much. Within a single religion, we have millions of people with different lives, opinions and experiences, but we’re tied together in a common purpose: follow God. That uniting faith strengthens us as individuals, churches, and an insanely diverse religion.

Materialism hinders faith.

The Ten Commandments have stood up pretty well to the test of time, but one idea in particular remains especially true: “You shall have no other gods.” In Exodus, we witness God’s anguish and disappointment in the doubting Israelites who begin to worship a golden calf over Him. Think of how you feel when you work so hard to help somebody else, putting all your thought and energy into it, but that person ends up shrugging off your efforts and turns a blind eye to you. Doesn’t feel great.

It’s easy for us to do so in today’s high-tech, capitalistic society. We focus upon the money and material possessions we have without much thought into how and why we have them. We go about our days not paying much attention to how amazing it is for us to simply exist and live comfortably.

Even if we don’t treat our objects as idols above God, Exodus still serves as a reminder to be humbled in God’s presence and the countless blessings we have. Our lives should not be defined by the material wealth we possess, so our ultimate priorities and securities should not be reliant upon it.

God is active, not passive.

Exodus presents many times when we question who God is and what role He plays in our lives. When Moses asks God what His name is, He replies, “I AM WHO I AM” (3:14).

Why the ambiguity? If we want a relationship with God, shouldn’t we know what to call Him? Rather than seeing God as a single person or subject, sitting off in the clouds of Heaven, we should see Him as an active participant in our lives. He is not stagnant, but evolving.

Don’t expect manna to fall from the sky, the Red Sea to part in half, or a staff to turn into a snake. Many people question God’s existence because we don’t see these miracles happening, forcing God to constantly prove Himself as He did for the Israelites. But we see such proof every single day because God is not an entity we can place into human definition; He describes Himself not with a noun, but a verb because He isn’t refined to the limits of people’s expectations.

No wonder God’s ways remain a mystery to us, this almighty something that is omnipresent in everything we are and do. Every scientific discovery, every act of kindness, every person we encounter, every atom in nature and in the universe, is God. This is the proof we seek.

There’s so much we can delve into from the Book of Exodus, but having overarching themes helps us approach all God reveals, even in the minute details we may overlook. Overall, this famous story transcends every plague, law and instruction, instead serving as compass to begin understanding what God means to us as individuals and as a community. Even if we turn the page before reading every word.

Mindful meditation: Merciful Lord, Your Word opens our minds to the love and power You wield. Just like the Israelites, we are flawed and hold doubts about what You and the Bible represent. Help us as we grow and understand how these ancient texts still enrich us today. Amen.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

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