Law of Moses

Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy

The life of the people of Israel is foretold in the old stories of its forefathers, for Abraham was promised that he would be the father of a multitude. That promise is reaffirmed through Abraham's son, Isaac, and grandson, Jacob. The events surrounding the coming of Jacob's son, Joseph, to power in Egypt prepare the way for the beginning of the story of Moses and the Israelites.


In the book of Exodus we read that the people of Israel live in Egypt in peace for several generations, before Pharaoh begins to fear their numbers and to persecute them. Pharaoh orders the Israelite midwives to kill all the newborn boys and, when they refuse, commands that these boys be thrown in the Nile river. To preserve the life of her son, one of the Israelite women hides him among the reeds along the bank of the Nile in a basket made of bulrushes. He is found by the daughter of Pharaoh, who adopts the child and names him Moses. As a young prince, the story tells us, Moses becomes aware of the burdens of his people. When he sees an Egyptian beating an Israelite, he intervenes and kills the Egyptian. Then he flees from Pharaoh's house to the land of Midian, where he marries the daughter of a local priest and becomes a shepherd.

While tending flocks at Mount Horeb "the angel of the LORD" appears to Moses "in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush." (Ex. 3:2) And Moses hears a voice calling to him: "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." (Gen. 36) The voice tells Moses to return to Egypt in order to lead his people out of bondage and into the land promised to their forefathers. Moses argues against undertaking this seemingly impossible task. He says that the people will ask for the name of God, that they will not believe him, and that he is not eloquent enough to speak convincingly either to the people of Israel or to Pharaoh. But the angel has an answer for each of the questions raised by Moses. He is told to tell the people that the LORD, "I AM," has sent him. To verify his authority, Moses is given a rod that becomes a serpent when cast on the ground. Finally, the angel of the LORD promises that Moses' brother, Aaron, will assist him in communicating the will of God to the people of Israel and to Pharaoh.

The rest of the tale is well known. Moses returns, convinces the leaders of his people that God has sent him to help them escape from Egypt, and confronts Pharaoh and his counselors. When Pharaoh rejects his request that the people of Israel be allowed to go off into the wilderness to worship in their own way, Moses causes all kinds of difficulties for the Egyptians. Frogs, gnats, and flies plague the land, then boils appear on animals and on the people of Egypt, and then hail, locusts, and darkness threaten the very life of the nation. Yet, after each of these calamities Pharaoh still refuses to allow the Israelites to go into the wilderness to worship. And so the LORD went through the land at night, killing all the first born animals and children of the Egyptians, but passing over the homes of the Israelites who have marked their doors with the blood of a sacrificial lamb.

With this catastrophe Pharaoh relents and allows the people of Israel to leave. They flee into the wilderness but soon, because Pharaoh has a change of heart, the armies of Egypt pursue them. With a body of water blocking the way before them and with the armies of Pharaoh behind them, the people turn on Moses and berate him for leading then into the wilderness to be killed. But Moses stretches out his hand and rod over the waters, and the water part to allow the people to pass through. When the Egyptians try to pursue the Israelites, the waters close and drown the soldiers. Then Moses and Miriam, the sister of Aaron, lead the people in celebrating their victory: "Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea." (Ex. 15) Through the breaking of water and shedding of blood, a people is born.

Moses leads the people into the wilderness and on Mount Sinai he meets God face to face and receives the Ten Commandments. The first three commandments identify their author as "the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt." (Gen. 20:2) The people are told that they are not to worship other gods and not to bow down before idols. "For I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments." (Gen. 20:5) The people are also commanded not to take the "name of the LORD your God in vain." (Gen. 20:7) Then they are told not to work on the seventh day of the week, in remembrance of the rest that the LORD took after creating the world in six days. And they are instructed to honor their father and mother. The last five commandments direct the people not to kill, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet.

The Ten Commandments form the backbone of the law given to the people of Israel through Moses. Moses receives this law on a mountain covered by clouds, amidst thunder and lightning. To seal this covenant with the LORD seventy of the elders of the tribes are called to worship. At the foot of the mountain Moses builds an altar with twelve pillars, and the people sacrifice animals and birds to the LORD. Half of the blood from these animals is thrown on the altar. Then Moses reads the law of the covenant to the people. When they pledge themselves to keep the covenant, Moses throws the remaining blood on the people, saying: "Behold the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you in accordance will all these words." (Ex. 24:8)

Moses ascends the mountain once again and is instructed in priestly rituals and practices. After forty days and forty nights he descends only to find that under Aaron's direction the people of Israel have molded a golden calf to worship. In a rage Moses breaks the stone tablets of the law, melts down the golden calf and after grinding it into powder makes the people drink it. Then he calls warriors to "the Lord's side" and purges the camp. Having exacted vengeance, Moses appeals to the LORD to forgive the sin of the people. And the LORD responds by promising: "in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them." (Ex. 32:34) And so the book of Exodus ends with a plague coming upon the people of Israel.

Leviticus and Numbers

The book of Leviticus and the first part of the book of Numbers provide the details of Israelite worship. While both of these books are attributed to Moses, it is generally believed by scholars that they were written much later, as was much of the priestly material in the book of Exodus. The book of Numbers also records the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness for forty years. In the wilderness life is hard, there is often insufficient food and water, and so the people complain to Moses and murmur against him and against the LORD. The LORD judge the Israelites for their lack of faith, but also provides them with food and water. In addition, the LORD aids them in their battles with other tribes, and instructs Moses to commission from among his warriors Joshua, the son of Nun, to succeed Moses as leader of the people.


The book of Deuteronomy that follows is also attributed to Moses, and it reads as a farewell address by him to the people of Israel. Although the book is presented in the story as contemporary with Moses, scholars believe it is probably the book of law discovered in the temple by Josiah in 621 BCE that prompted a period of reform in the history of the kingdom of Judah. Deuteronomy contains a review of the Ten Commandments, as well as a reinterpretation of other aspect of the law of Moses. And it contains the famous "Shema" of the Jewish tradition: "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." (Dt. 6:4-5) In the book of Exodus the LORD promised to bless the people "in every place where I cause my name to be remembered." (Ex. 20:24) The book of Deuteronomy, however, stresses that worship of the LORD is to take place only at one place "which the LORD your God will choose, to make his name dwell there." (Dt. 12:11) Worship at other altars and shrines is strictly prohibited. The book ends by recording the death of Moses and affirming the leadership of Joshua who "was full of the spirit of wisdom," (Dt. 34:9) for as reported in the book of Numbers, Moses has "laid his hands upon him." (Num. 27:23)

The Testing of God

The story of the birth of Israel is simple enough. A people freed from oppression by God is brought through a period of testing and trial into possession of a new land. But it is a puzzling story as well, especially with regard to the LORD God who has the central role. And thus by reflecting more particularly on the tale itself, we may see through the particularities of time and place to the issues that are more timeless and thus of concern to us today.

The contest between Moses and Pharaoh ultimately proves the power of the LORD. However, it seems strange that the LORD does not succeed in freeing Israel without all the various plagues leveled against Egypt. In the story we are told that Pharaoh refused to let the people of Israel go, because his heart was "hardened" by the LORD. It seems then that God not only gave power to Moses to challenge and defeat Pharaoh, but also made Pharaoh resist the challenge of Moses. To conclude merely that the LORD chose to handle the situation in this way is unsatisfying, when we recall that the prolongation of the conflict not only made life miserable for the Egyptians but also extended the suffering of the Israelites. 

Moreover, the Exodus story tells us that while the people of Israel were finally able to escape from Egypt, for a long time prior to their escape they were oppressed. The tale does not interpret their oppression as the result of any wrong they have done, or as a judgment by the LORD God for their sin. But it also does not deny the presence of God in the events of the life of the persecuted people. We are told that Pharaoh refused to free Israel because the LORD hardened his heart. The LORD God is the author of all events in the life of Israel, and thus he is also the cause of Pharaoh's recalcitrance. Again the Old Testament story affirms that God is present in life as we experience it, not merely in those moments when life is as we would like. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that even as the LORD God is responsible for liberating Israel, so the LORD God has something to do with Israel's oppression.

In the wilderness the people of Israel frequently murmur against Moses and God, for it seems to them that they have merely left Egypt to die. Their complaining is understandable, and we are able to identify with their puzzlement at the purpose of the LORD in bringing them out of Egypt to struggle for survival in the wilderness. Hostile tribes block the way to the land promised the Israelites, and life in the wilderness is hard. The LORD God does provide them with water and food, but not the food they are accustomed to eating. And while their hunger is satisfied, their longing for an explanation is not. 

the LORD tells Moses that if the people are faithful, they will receive the promises made to their forefathers. And the LORD God punishes the people for their complaining, apparently to motivate them to be more obedient. Moses generally sides with the LORD against the people, but on more than one occasion he argues with the LORD and urges the LORD to repent of the evil intended for Israel. Furthermore, he LORD does repent at times, but more frequently renders harsh judgment upon those who refuse to accept their life in the wilderness as God's will.

In the wilderness the LORD God gives to the people a set of rules to govern their life together. These rules are as well known to us as the Ten Commandments and as little known as the rules for burning incense before the tent of the tabernacle. The law of Moses provides for the civil and criminal governance of the people as well as for its religious rituals, and the law establishes ther LORD God as the ruler of the people of Israel. Moses communicates for the LORD to the people the commandments of the law, but he does not interpret them. If the rules seem rigid and at times the enforcement unduly harsh, it is said to be God's will. The first commandment makes it very clear that the law of the LORD God is simply to be obeyed: "You shall have no other gods before me." (Ex. 20:3) God has chosen the people of Israel, and now they are told to submit in order to receive the promise given to their forefathers.

If we reflect on the pattern of the wilderness experience of the people of Israel, we might liken it to a primitive rite of passage. In tribal societies children are prepared for adult roles by passing through an elaborate and ritualistic time of preparation. In the biblical story the people of Israel are given the law in the wilderness and are tested by deprivation. God is like the elder who prepares the youth of a tribal people for adulthood. As in any rite of passage not all are found able to pass the tests. And so many of the people of Israel are killed for their lack of faith, or in the words of the text, for being "stiff-necked." One is reminded of a father with a rebellious son. An explanation of what is right and what is wrong is seldom sufficient to prepare for adulthood. Even a loving father may hurt his son, or allow his son to suffer, in order to prepare the young man to live successfully on his own.

In the wilderness Israel is tested and prepared for life in a new land. The people murmur against the LORD and Moses because they are tempted to return to Egypt, where as slaves they had less to decide for themselves. But it is the LORD God's purpose that they live on their own, as a people in their own land. And so they must prepare for the struggle that such a life entails. They must learn to endure deprivation, because as a people they will know deprivation. And they must prepare for battle, because as a people they will have to contend with other for their land. 

If the wilderness is a hard time for Israel, so is adolescence for most of us. It is an in between time, a time of transition, and a time in which we may be tempted to return to the ways of childhood in order to avoid the challenges of becoming an adult. For Israel it is a time in which the LORD God makes clear the way before the people, and clearly it is the LORD God's way and not the way of their choosing. For they would choose a life without deprivation and struggle, a life more like that of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. But it is the LORD God's will that they enter instead a land where they will not only have to labor but fight for their survival.

As a tribal people, Israel worshipped a tribal God. The LORD leads the people on its march, in a pillar of smoke by day and in a pillar of fire by night. The LORD fights for Israel and gives the Israelites the law they are to obey. The LORD God is understood wholly through the experience of the people. And so the LORD God is as jealous as the people, as quick as they are to seek vengeance, and as faithful to them as they are to the commandments given to them. The presence of the LORD God is doubted by the people, but always reaffirmed through Moses. And the purpose of God's presence, while never entirely clear, is never denied.

The tale of the birth of Israel goes back to the beginning of time. For the conception of Israel takes place at creation, in the mind of the LORD God. And so the LORD God's purpose is affirmed through the story of the people, even as it is assumed in the rearing and formation of a child. Only later, when Israel is older and less pressed to prove itself, will time be taken to reflect on the nature of the LORD God who has created life to be as it is. Now it is time for Israel to struggle for greatness, to build its cities and its towers, and to seek to secure its name among the nations. © Robert Traer 2016