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The Book of Books Book Club weekly blog

Exodus 14-20

And... finally God rescues his people from slavery in Egypt. We barrelled through the plagues last week (just a bit of repetition there, I know!), when suddenly the plot stopped completely while the instructions for celebrating Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread (soon enough these two festivals are combined into one) were given in chapters 12 and 13. Then we got the offhanded 13:17, "When Pharaoh let the people go…," as if after all that we don't need to make anything special of it. So back to the plot! Here we get the parting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptian army. Think about the image of water in creation, as chaos subdued by the creator God, and thus the defeat of a so-called god, Pharaoh, by water. Might all that hardening of Pharaoh's heart start to make sense if we see this as a battle between divine forces in which one demonstrates the utter inequality of their divinities? Note that chapter 15, the songs of Moses and Miriam, are thought to be among the oldest pieces of writing in the Bible.

Stunning, then, isn't it, to find the people of Israel in the very next chapter complaining about being hungry and wishing they were slaves again, and God provides miraculous food and water. This contrast between the fickleness of the people and the mighty acts of God establishes the core dynamic of the rest of the Bible.

And then the Ten Commandments. What is it about lists? Everybody loves lists! And the Bible contains lists galore, particularly in the form of genealogies. We've already encountered three distinctive lists: the seven days of creation, the twelve sons of Jacob, the nine plagues. Here we find the biggest list of all: the Ten Commandments. There are actually 613 commandments given in the books of the Torah, but these ten are different. These set out the basic organizational structure that transforms a mass of former slaves now wandering in the desert into the People of Israel. We'll explore this more thoroughly when we meet; in the meantime, see what you make of these familiar-and-yet-not-so-familiar laws. Is it possible to read them in a less punitive and restrictive fashion than popular culture assumes?

Next week's reading is largely for skimming, so focus here - this is good and important stuff!

Questions to consider as you read:

- What do you know about, or imagine to be, the meaning of this Exodus liberation for ancient Israel? Modern Judaism? African American slaves? The twentieth century civil rights movement?


- Does the context of the entire narrative arc we've read so far, from Creation to the parting of the Red Sea, change the way we look at the Ten commandments?


- The first four commandments focus on the relationship of the people of Israel to God – how do they characterize that relationship? How does that relationship help identify ancient Israel?


- The last six commandments are about the relationships of the people of Israel to each other. How do they shape those relationships? How do they connect the Israelites' relationships with each other to their relationship with God?