Reading Exodus: Holiness means obedience

‎When you’re reading a text, some parts carry more weight than others. Even if every word matters, some words shape how you understand other words. If we’re reading well, and trusting the text, we could say that every word affects how you understand every other word. But in practice some words—some parts of the text—affect our reading more than others. For example, the beginning conditions your reading of the whole. And the ending shapes how you will understand and remember the whole. This is not an unfortunate thing that happens in the head of the reader and spoils their reading of the text. It’s meant to be that way. It’s part of the author’s strategy of persuasion. It’s what the author builds into the text in order to change what you know, what you feel, what you intend.

I think about this sometimes when reading books of the Bible. For example, consider the book of Exodus. In the first half of the book, the memorable stories about how the Israelites get rescued from slavery in Egypt, despite their inability to do anything to save themselves and their great reluctance even to let someone else save them. Then in the second half of the book, lots of rules and instructions. Then it ends and you may find yourself a bit dazed—what was all that? But what if the ending is meant to tell you what it all was about?

כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָ֖ה אֶת־מֹשֶֽׁה

“Just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” This is the refrain in the final section of Exodus. How many times does this phrase occur? Want to guess? Or you can read it. This passage is Exodus 40:16–23.

So many detailed instructions have been in the latter chapters of Exodus! For the construction of the tabernacle and its furniture. For the creation of the priestly garments. The acacia wood, the gold, the jaspar, the cornelian. The fabric, the loops, the rods. It’s almost hypnotic. Mind-numbing. All the materials. All the design specifications. The specialist craftsmen Bezalel and Oholiab. Directions given—in detail; directions followed—in detail.

Why are we dragged through all these details? And the poor scribes who first wrote them, and the others who copied them out, generation after generation, in Hebrew, in Greek, in Latin. No cut and paste: every glyph, every letter, every word, every line, written by hand. Every syllable read out loud, in synagogues, in churches, in so many lands, in so many languages. Why?

I’m not sure, but maybe this conclusion tells us.

The section begins:

וַיַּ֖עַשׂ מֹשֶׁ֑ה כְּ֠כֹל אֲשֶׁ֨ר צִוָּ֧ה יְהוָ֛ה אֹת֖וֹ כֵּ֥ן עָשָֽׂה

“Thus did Moses; according to all that the LORD commanded him, so did he.”

It ends :

וַיְכַ֥ל מֹשֶׁ֖ה אֶת־הַמְּלָאכָֽה

“And Moses completed the work.”

And in between the details are recapped: he did this, he did that, and in each case:

‎כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָ֖ה אֶת־מֹשֶֽׁה

“Just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” Did you guess how many times this occurs? Did you count? This refrain occurs . . . seven times. Perfect. Moses fulfilled the Lord’s instructions perfectly.

And then: “The cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.” Exodus begins with the Lord absent from his people. Then the the Lord’s own initiative—not theirs!—the Lord rescues his people, brings them out of bondage, gives them instruction. But they fail to obey, so the Lord says he will no longer travel with them. Presence withdrawn. And yet at the end, Moses on behalf of the people obeys perfectly the instructions for the construction of the tabernacle. And God’s presence fills the tabernacle.

From absence to presence. And somehow Moses’s perfect obedience to all those detailed instructions is instrumental. The God who is holy has requirements. You did not create God. You did not even summon God to your rescue. But your obedience can maintain the tabernacle in which the holy God will deign to abide. Or not. Detailed, consistent obedience matters.

Has someone told you it no longer matters? Why? Is the Lord no longer holy? Are the accoutrements of our life, down to the last little bell, no longer meant to be inscribed “Holy to the Lord?” Is everything no longer meant to be done ka-asher tsiva Adonai, just as the Lord commanded?

So. The book of Exodus. From slavery to freedom. And from God’s absence to God’s presence. God may set you free when you don’t have the will or the gumption to free yourself. But God will not continue to force God’s presence on you if you aren’t interested in deliberately living in God’s presence. In that, you have a choice. If you are not willing to live according to all that God commands—well, maybe you’ll find yourself left to fend for yourself. If you have a theology that says otherwise, you didn’t get it from the book of Exodus. In Exodus, maintaining God’s presence means maintaining your own holiness. And holiness entails obedience. Does anything in the rest of scripture contradict this understanding? Not as far as I can see.

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