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Donnerstag, 14. Januar 2016

THORA Exodus- The PaterNoster Archbishop Uwe AE.Rosenkranz

The Robe (vv. 31–35)

Beneath the ephod and the ḥoshen the High Priest is to wear a long robe (Heb. meʿil) woven entirely of woolen thread dyed the aristocratic color tekhelet, on which, see Comment to 25:4. In 39:22 this garment is described as “woven work.” It seems to have been ankle-length, with armholes but no sleeves, and rather free flowing.52 The neck opening is reinforced to prevent fraying. The hem of the robe is fringed with tassels of three colors representing pomegranates, and with gold bells. Other biblical references to the robe suggest a garment distinctive of persons of high social rank.

31. of pure blue With no admixture of the other two characteristic colors listed in 25:4.

32. a binding Hebrew safah, literally “lip, edge,” here “edging,” implying something like a turnover collar.

a coat of mail The unique Hebrew taḥraʾ (so 39:23) has traditionally been so understood. The reference is probably to the leather collar that protected the neck, a feature of the kind of armor worn by Canaanite charioteers and depicted in a chariot relief of Thutmose IV.

so that … tear Hebrew loʾ yikkareaʿ either explains the reason for reinforcing the collar, or it is a prohibition: “It may not be torn.” Both interpretations are given in Yoma 72a.

33. hem Hebrew shulayim otherwise refers to the skirt of a garment.

pomegranates This is one of the seven characteristic fruits of the Land of Israel as listed in Deuteronomy 8:8. The columns of Solomon’s Temple were adorned with hundreds of pomegranate figures.58 In Second Temple times the fruit appears as a motif on the coins struck by the Hasmonean kings from Alexander Yannai (103–76 B.C.E.) to Mattathias Antigonus (40–37 B.C.E.), as well as by Herod (37–4 B.C.E.). It also appears on coins struck during the first two years of the Jewish revolt against Rome (66–68 C.E.). The significance of this use of the pomegranate is not clear. In the Song of Songs, however, it is mentioned several times as a symbol of beauty and fertility.60

between them Hebrew betokham may also mean “inside them.” Hence the difference of opinion among the commentators as to whether verse 34 prescribes an alternation of bells and pomegranates, as held by Rashi, Rashbam, and Maimonides, or whether the bells were to be fixed inside the pomegranate-shaped figures, as maintained by Ramban.

34. all around In Zevaḥim 88b the sages are divided as to whether there were seventy-two or thirty-six bells in all.

35. while officiating Hebrew le-sharet, literally “to officiate,” implying that anything short of scrupulous and undeviating adherence to the detailed prescriptions disqualifies the officiant and renders his priestly service null and void.

the sound of it is heard The unexplained role of the bells has given rise to various conjectures. Rashbam refers to the requirement of Leviticus 16:16–17 that only the High Priest—and nobody else—shall be present in the Tent of Meeting when he enters it to make expiation. Thus the tinkling of the bells alerts the other priests to vacate the premises. The cited text speaks only of Yom Kippur, however.
Bekhor Shor and Ramban draw an analogy from the convention governing the entry of a subject to a royal palace. Just as one should not appear abruptly and unceremoniously before royalty, so the delicate sounds of the bells signal one’s presence and intention. Still other suggestions are that the tinkling attracts the attention of the worshipers outside the Tent to the fact that the High Priest is performing the ritual; or the bells sent out a message that no mishap had occurred in the course of the priestly duties such as had happened to Aaron’s two sons (see Leviticus 10). Another possibility is that the High Priest is himself reminded by the sound of the bells on his robe that he is to attune his heart and mind to his solemn duties and that he must be fully conscious of the fact that he is in the presence of God.

that he may not die This conventional formula probably refers to the entire section and not just to the matter of the bells. Any deviation from the prescribed rules places the priest in the category of an unauthorized person and invalidates his service. He is thus an encroacher—Hebrew zar—in the sacred precincts. The formula expresses the severity with which such an offense is viewed.
The Frontlet (vv. 36–38)

The prescriptions now turn to the High Priest’s headwear. Once again, they follow the pattern of commencing with the most important and most sacred element; in this instance it is the gold plate worn on the forehead over the head-dress and bearing the inscription kodesh l-YHWH, “Holy to the Lord.” According to one tradition, cited in Shabbat 63b, the gold plate extended from ear to ear and was two fingerbreadths wide. The plate is termed tsits in Hebrew, a word that usually means “a blossom, flower.”
In biblical texts, the tsits is used in parallelism with ʿatarah, “a crown,” and is either identical with or associated with the nezer, “a diadem,” or the ornamental headband, which was emblematic of royalty and aristocracy.66 The diadem is well known from Egyptian paintings. Its outstanding feature is the lotus flower, a symbol of nascent life.
The Hebrew inscription most likely signified the sacred nature of the office and person of the High Priest, the one who is consecrated and committed to the service of God all his life. Several biblical texts testify to this understanding. Additionally, “Holy to the Lord” may also refer to Israel, who is explicitly so referred to by this term in Jeremiah 2:3, as Rashbam notes. The role of the High Priest as Israel’s representative before God is visibly projected by his vestments, as vv. 9–12, 21, and 29–30 demonstrate.

36. “Holy to the Lord” The ancient sources differ as to how the two Hebrew words were inscribed on the tsits. One talmudic view is that the divine name alone appeared on the left side of the upper line, and KDShL (“Holy to”) was placed on the right side of the lower line. Eliezer ben Rabbi Yose, who claimed to have seen the object in Rome, said that the entire two words were inscribed on one line. Both the Letter of Aristeas (2nd cent. B.C.E.) and Josephus record that only the tetragrammaton, YHVH, the most sacred name of God, was written on the tsits, and in the ancient Hebrew script.

37. a cord of blue This was apparently threaded through holes punched in the tsits and served to hold it in place.

the headdress Hebrew mitsnefet is not actually prescribed until v. 39. Its mention here, with the definite article, implies an item of apparel that is taken for granted. Elsewhere in the Bible it is a symbol of royalty. It clearly means “a turban.”

38. It shall be on Aaron’s forehead This instruction is repeated with the addition of Hebrew tamid, “at all times,” meaning, “whenever the High Priest performs the service.” (See Comment to 27:20.) Rashi and Bekhor Shor, contrary to the traditional accentuation, connect tamid with the following clause.

to take away any sin Because the Hebrew expression nasaʾ ʿavon may mean both “to remove sin” and “to bear sin,”73 that is, incur responsibility, the present verse is ambiguous. Analogous texts like Leviticus 22:15–16 and Numbers 18:1 indicate that the reference is to the High Priest’s assumption of responsibility for any infraction of the rules governing the sacred offerings. The wearing of the tsits inscribed with the legend “Holy to the Lord” helps to concentrate his thoughts on his duties and on his accountability. At the same time, this consciousness effectively secures atonement for such offenses.
The Tunic (v. 39)

Once again, the definite article indicates a well-known garment, and Hebrew kuttonet is mentioned many times in the Bible. It was fashionable in the Near East in the Late Bronze Age, and became standard dress in the Iron Age. Both men and women wore it, mainly as an ankle-length undergarment, usually next to the skin.75 Some types were clearly marks of prestige, such as the garment that Jacob gave to Joseph as well as those worn by princesses in the days of David (see Gen. 37:3 and 2 Sam. 13:18–19).
The High Priest’s tunic is defined as the tashbets type, and the same verbal stem, sh-b-ts, is used here. Usually understood as “chequered work,” it is here translated “fringed,” but neither rendering is certain. Josephus reports that the tunic of the High Priest was “of a double texture,” of ankle-length, and had long sleeves tightly laced around the arms.77
The Headdress (v. 39)

This item has been discussed in the Comment to verse 37. According to one account of Josephus, the headdress was a tiara wreathed with blue and encircled by a crown of gold. However, in a second report,79 he describes it as a nonconical cap over which was stitched another cap embroidered in blue, encircled by a three-tiered golden crown, and topped by a golden calyx. The origin of these descriptions is not known.
The Sash (v. 39)

Hebrew ʾavnet is specified in 39:29 as being made of “fine twisted linen, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, done in embroidery.” It was girded over the tunic. Beyond the priestly context, the ʾavnet is mentioned only in Isaiah 22:21, where it belongs to the regalia of a high official. According to Maimonides, the cloth of the ʾavnet was three finger-breadths wide and thirty-two cubits (48 ft. = 14.6 m.) in length, and it was wound around the body. He maintains that its function was to demarcate the upper from the lower part of the body.
The Vestments of Ordinary Priests (vv. 40–43)

Four in number, the last of which is mentioned in verse 42.

40. turbans These probably differ from the High Priest’s headdress because a different Hebrew word, migbaʿot (pl.), is used, although no description is given. Josephus84 describes the item as a nonconical—that is, flattish—cap that only partially covered the head. It consisted of a band of woven linen wound round and round, and repeatedly stitched with a muslin veil enveloping it from the top down to the forehead in order to hide the unsightly stitches.

41. This verse and the following chapter prescribe the manner in which the priesthood, anticipated in verse 1, is to be officially installed into office once the Tabernacle is erected. The ritual involves laving the body, robing, anointing, ordination, animal sacrifices, and offerings of unleavened bread. The actual consecration of the priests is described in Leviticus 8.

put these That is, the vestments, as they apply respectively to Aaron and his sons.

anoint them The formula for compounding the special aromatic oil for this rite is specified in 30:22–25. The oil was forbidden to be duplicated for any other purpose. The vestments for both Aaron and his sons were sprinkled with the oil; in addition, the High Priest had oil poured over his head.86 The Tabernacle vessels too were anointed. This symbolic ceremony effectuates the transition from the profane to the sacred.

ordain them The Hebrew idiom milleʾ yad literally means “to fill the hand.” It is most frequently used in the sense of installing persons into priestly office. The phrase must have originated in some concrete situation wherein some object was ceremoniously placed in the hand of the novitiate.89 It then became a mere figure of speech meaning “commissioning, issuing a mandate.” This last English word itself derives from Latin manus + dare, “to give into the hand.”

consecrate them This probably does not signify another distinct ceremony but sums up the consequence of performing the entire complement of rituals. Ibn Ezra understands the verb to be declarative: “and so declare them to be consecrated.”

42. Hebrew mikhnasayim, “breeches,” occurs in the Bible solely in connection with the priestly attire. They are here listed separately because they cannot be subsumed under the rubric of vestments that are “for dignity and adornment” (v. 40), and also because, to avoid unseemliness, the priest put these on by himself, unlike the vestments, into which he is helped by others (v. 41).

to cover their nakedness See Comment to 20:23(26).

43. This instruction most likely refers to the aggregate of vestments and not just to the last item.

The Installation of the Priests (29:1–46)

All the details regarding the priestly vestments having been set forth, the instructions to Moses now concentrate on the rituals for the installation of the priests themselves. Moses is to preside over the ceremonies, during which he will act as the sole priest. This role underlies Psalm 99:6, which speaks of “Moses and Aaron among His priests.”
The installation rituals, which are to last seven days, comprise animal sacrifices, cereal offerings, the washing of the body, robing, and anointing. The performance of the installation is reported and described in Leviticus chapters 8–9.

These are listed first, just as in 25:1–7, and their functions are specified subsequently.

1. In the narrative of Leviticus 8 the three animals are termed “the bull of sin offering,” “the ram of burnt offering,” and “the ram of ordination,” respectively.

to them To Aaron and his sons.


without blemish This requirement applies to all three animals.

2. The cereal offerings are to consist of three varieties of unleavened bread, matsah, made of choice wheat flour: (1) plain, oven-baked; (2) with the dough mixed and kneaded with oil; (3) with oil smeared on top after the baking. The significance of the variations is unknown. These unleavened breads are only for the ram of ordination.

3. present Literally, “bring forward,” that is, to the Tent of Meeting.

Before being dressed in the sacred garments of office for the first time, Aaron and his sons must undergo ritual purification by immersion of the entire body in water. For the regular daily services, only the hands and feet need to be washed, as prescribed in 30:17–21.

For reasons of delicacy, the linen breeches are not mentioned. Aaron puts on this undergarment himself. The order of robing prescribed here inexplicably differs from that described in the narrative of Leviticus 8:7–9.

6. diadem Hebrew nezer, on which see the introductory Comment to 28:36–38.

7. See Comment to 28:41. The present verse implies that Aaron alone is to be anointed. The narrative of Leviticus 8:12 also makes no mention of the anointing of Aaron’s sons. In fact, the biblical title “the anointed priest” (Heb. ha-kohen ha-mashiaḥ), refers exclusively to the High Priest. Other passages, however, make clear that the ordinary priests were indeed anointed.9 Either the texts reflect two strands of tradition, or the citations pertaining to the sons refer to the ceremony of sprinkling the oil on their vestments, as prescribed in verse 21 and as described in Leviticus 8:30.

In the Hebrew text these instructions deal in turn with the vestments of the ordinary priests and with the items common to them and Aaron. For the sake of clarity, the present English rendering rearranges the order of the clauses.

8. turbans Hebrew migbaʿot applies only to the headdress of the ordinary priests. That of the High Priest, called mitsnefet, was mentioned in verse 6.

sashes The sash of the High Priest was described in 28:4, 39, but was not mentioned in the instructions of verses 5–6 above.

9. their right for all time According to Sanhedrin 83b, the instructions for the investiture close with this pronouncement in order to signify that the priestly prerogative is effective only so long as the priest is fully and properly attired in his sacerdotal vestments.

You shall ordain See Comment to 28:41.
THE ANIMAL SACRIFICES (vv. 10–26, 31–42)

Immediately before the slaughtering of each of the three animals listed in verse 1, the priests are to perform “the laying on of the hands” (Heb. semikhah). The text clarifies neither the manner in which this is to be done nor the meaning of the ceremony. According to rabbinic tradition, it applies, with only rare exceptions, to the sacrifices brought by individuals and not to communal sacrifices, and it is always done by the owner of the animal, who presses down on the head with bare hands.13
In certain circumstances the rite is also performed on persons, and no single explanation accounts for all the occasions that require it. It sometimes seems to designate the animal or person for a specific role or fate; at other times it serves to identify and affirm ownership of the sacrificial animals. And in the case of the installation of the Levites prescribed in Numbers 8:10 and of the appointment of Joshua as Moses’ successor recorded in Numbers 27:18, 23 and Deuteronomy 34:9, the action appears to signify the transfer of authority. It is this last interpretation that gave rise to the use of the Hebrew term semikhah for rabbinical ordination.
The Bull of Sin Offering (vv. 10–14)

This is essentially a purificatory and expiatory sacrifice.

10. hands The plural is always employed when the object of the rite is a person; the singular is mostly used in connection with an animal.16 However, on the basis of the cardinal number “two” defining the singular form of the Hebrew consonantal spelling of the noun (shetei ydw not ydyv) in Leviticus 16:21, rabbinic exegesis inferred that two hands are required in all cases.

12. See Comments to 24:6–8 and 27:2. The precise significance of daubing specifically the horns of the altar with blood is not known.

13. the protuberance on the liver Hebrew yoteret ha-kaved literally means “the redundance of/upon the liver.” In Mishnah Tamid 4:3 the same is called “the finger of the liver,” and without doubt the reference is to the lobus caudatus. The requirement to remove and burn this part is quite likely a reaction against the great importance attached to the liver in ancient Near Eastern divination, a reference to which appears in Ezekiel 21:26. Numerous clay models of the liver have been uncovered in Mesopotamia, some divided into fifty sections and inscribed with omens and magical formulas for the use of diviners.
The Ram of Burnt Offering (vv. 15–18)

The first of the rams is to be an ʿolah offering, one that is completely consumed by fire on the altar.

16. against all sides The blood was collected in a vessel and dashed against the altar from diagonally opposite corners in such a way that each of the two sprinklings spattered two of the sides.

18. a pleasing odor This phrase is a technical term in ritual texts connoting divine acceptance of the sacrifice.

an offering by fire This rendering of Hebrew ʾishsheh assumes a derivation from ʾesh, “fire.” Another possibility connects it with Ugaritic ʾušn, “a gift.”
The Ram of Ordination (vv. 19–26)

This comes under the category of Hebrew zevaḥ shelamim, “an offering of well-being” or “a sacred gift of greeting.” It is only partly burnt on the altar. The rest belongs to the priests. This offering consummates the entire ceremony of installation and is accompanied by elaborate rites.

20. The daubing of the blood of the sacrifice on the priest’s extremities has its counterpart only in the law of Leviticus 14:14ff., governing one who has recovered from the severe dermatological affliction called tsaraʿat in Hebrew. There the ceremony has a purificatory function, and it most likely serves the same purpose here. The singling out of the ear, hand, and foot may well symbolize the idea that the priest is to attune himself to the divine word and be responsive to it in deed and direction in life.

the ridge It is uncertain whether the part of the ear denoted by Hebrew tenukh refers to the cartilage or the lobe.

21. As the text explains, and as the description of Leviticus 8:30 repeats, this ritual effectuated the consecration of the priests.

22. for this is a ram of ordination This explanatory note is needed because normally the right thigh of the animal is assigned to the priest and not, as here, offered up in smoke on the altar.

24. an elevation offering Hebrew tenufah is the technical term for an offering that undergoes the special ritual of being “raised up.” Mishnah Menaḥot 5:6 describes the procedure as follows: The priest places his hands beneath the pile of offerings and waves it forward and backward, upward and downward. Based on this source, the tenufah has traditionally been rendered “wave-offering” in English. A different tradition has been preserved by the Aramaic Targums, which employ the stem r-w-m, “to raise up,” in both nominal and verbal forms. This understanding is supported by the inherent difficulty in performing a waving motion: it would tend to unbalance the pile of offerings. Further, several biblical passages support a meaning of “elevate” for the stem n-w-f.
Shadal suggests that the function of this ritual was to signify that the object elevated has passed from the domain of the owner to the domain of God.

26. Here, because the installation ceremonies are not quite completed and because Moses acts in a priestly capacity, he is entitled to that which would routinely be the priest’s portion in the future.

These verses interrupt the theme. They explain that the foregoing applies only to the present inaugural and that different rules will govern the installation of priestly successors.

28. their gift to the LORD Who assigns these parts to the priests.

29–30. The eight garments that are the uniform of the High Priest, as described in 28:3–4, 42, are to be handed down from father to son to be worn for the successor’s installation ceremony, which is also to last for seven days. Numbers 20:22–29 narrates the death of Aaron and the investiture of his son as the successor High Priest: “Moses stripped Aaron of his vestments and put them on his son Eleazar.”

The instructions for the present installation of Aaron and his sons now resume.

31. in the sacred precinct In the enclosed court of the Tabernacle.

32–33. The ritual of the shelamim offering involves a sacrificial meal, as prescribed in Leviticus 7:15. See Comments to 18:12 and 24:6, 11.

33. a layman Hebrew zar, literally “strange, alien, removed,” is used in cultic contexts to refer to an outsider or an unauthorized person or thing in relation to specific roles or functions.

34. On the law of notar in connection with sacrifices, see Comment to 12:10.

These verses appear to mean that the entire installation ceremony is to be repeated each day for seven days. Leviticus 8:33–36 is less explicit on this point, but there the priests are forbidden, in addition, to leave the Tabernacle precincts throughout the seven-day period.

36. As a piece of furniture fashioned by human beings, the altar is assumed to possess a natural impurity. Hence, it must be anointed, purged of defilement and consecrated before being used for its sacred function. Ezekiel, in his vision of the Temple rebuilt, similarly provides for a seven-day period of purification for the altar (43:18–27).

37. most holy Hebrew kodesh kodashim, literally “holy of holies,” is usually a technical term for the inner sanctum of the Tabernacle. However, it is also used, as here, in the sense of superior, rather than superlative, holiness.

shall become consecrated That is, its holiness is contagious. In Mishnah Zevaḥim 9:1 some sages restrict the application of this principle to those items for which the altar is the proper place. Libations, for instance, would not contract holiness by coming into contact with the altar, according to this view.

The fourfold mention of the altar in the previous two verses affords appropriate occasion for introducing its primary, permanent function: to accommodate the daily burnt offering. This was the core of the whole sacrificial system. Twice daily, a lamb was wholly burnt on the altar. Called in Hebrew ʿolat ha-tamid, “the regular burnt offering,” the sacrifice came to be known simply as the tamid in postexilic times. First instituted with the installation of the priesthood, it was thereafter to be continued on a regular basis. The prescription is repeated in the comprehensive register of public offerings given in Numbers 28–29, where it heads the list.
The great importance that attached to the tamid in Temple times may be gauged by the fact that its suspension by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the year 167 B.C.E. was regarded by Jews as a disaster. The Book of Daniel (8:11–12; 11:31; 12:11) and 1 Maccabees 1:41–45 record the calamitous event. Mishnah Taʿanit 4:6 includes the abolition of the tamid among the disasters to be commemorated by the Fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz.

38. regularly On the meaning of Hebrew tamid, see Comment to 25:30 and 27:20.

39. at twilight On Hebrew bein ha-ʿarbayim, see Comment to 12:6.

40. a tenth of a measure Specifically of the ephah, on which see Comment to 16:36.

hin This term for a liquid measure is of Egyptian origin, as Ibn Ezra observed. It appears originally to have designated a type of vessel.

42. there This refers back to the Tent of Meeting, not to the entrance. See Comment to 33:9.
A SUMMATION (vv. 43–46)

The wealth of technical detail relating to the physical structure of the Tabernacle, its constitutive elements, and its ritual and practitioners may tend to obscure its original higher purpose. Therefore, the chapter closes with an emphatic reaffirmation of its religious and spiritual content, values, and meanings.

43. I will meet See Comment to 25:22.

it shall be sanctified That is, the Tent of Meeting.

My Presence See Comment to 16:10.

44. The Tabernacle as such possesses no innate sanctity, nor does the regimen of ritual produce it. No efficacious magic derives from them. The sacred status of the priests and of the edifice, with its furniture and utensils, flows solely from Divine will.

45. I will abide See Comment to 25:8.

I will be their God See Comment to 6:7.

46. they shall know A key phrase in the Exodus narratives. See Comment to 1:8. God’s Presence is manifest and meaningful to Israel through His intervention in the events of history.

An Appendix to the Instructions (30:1–38)

This chapter comprises supplementary instructions relating to the construction of the Tabernacle and to its rituals. It contains five sections in all: (1) the incense altar (vv. 1–10); (2) the expiation money (vv. 11–16); (3) the bronze laver (vv. 17–21); (4) the aromatic anointing oil (vv. 22–23); and (5) the ingredients of the incense (vv. 34–38). All the materials needed for these final items were anticipated in the list of invited donations in 25:3–6. There may be a specific reason why each of these items is relegated to an appendix and not included in the preceding instructions.

The use of incense in rites of worship was widespread and had a long history in the ancient world. It is surprising, therefore, that the instruction to build an altar for the ritual burning of incense in the Tabernacle is not included in the main pericope. A possible answer is that although incense is foretokened in 25:6, it plays no role in the installation ceremonies of the priesthood. Hence, notice of its use is deferred until those directives are completed. As to the reason for omitting the incense offering from those rituals, the symbolism that attached to it made it inappropriate to the occasion. There are grounds for believing that the cloud of aromatic incense in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple was perceived to be emblematic or a reminder of God’s invisible, active Presence, just as was the cloud that accompanied the Israelites at the Exodus from Egypt and in the course of the wanderings in the wilderness, as noted in the Comment to 13:21. The ritual for the Day of Atonement requires that the High Priest “shall put the incense on the fire before the LORD so that the cloud from the incense screens the cover that is over” the Ark (Lev. 16:13). It is explained that God appears “in the cloud over the cover” (Lev. 16:2). Thus, the cloud of incense screens the High Priest from the Divine Presence even as it serves as a constant reminder of It. The cloud of glory is said to descend on the Tabernacle and to suffuse it only after the structure is entirely completed and only at the end of the seven days of ceremony. That phenomenon expresses divine satisfaction and acceptance of the shrine and signifies its divine legitimation as the house of worship.2 Hence, it would have been premature to produce the cloud of incense at the installation of the priesthood.
The present sequence of topics also allows for certain verbal and thematic connectives with both the previous chapter and the following section: Mention of God’s “meeting” with Moses appears in 29:42–43 and 30:6; the performance of purification occurs in 29:36–37 and 30:10; the phrase “throughout the ages/generations” is featured in 29:42 and 30:8, 10; and the description “most holy” is applied in 29:37 and 30:10. Moreover, both the incense of verses 1–10 and the half-shekel of verses 11–16 fulfill an expiatory function.
The importance attached to the altar for incense is shown by its placement in the Holy Place just outside the curtain that veils the Holy of Holies. This contrasts with the siting of the altar of burnt offerings in the outer court.
The altar is known by several names: “the altar of gold” (Heb. mizbaḥ ha-zahav), to distinguish it from the “altar of bronze” used for animal sacrifices; “the altar of incense” (Heb. mizbaḥ ha-ketoret), to designate its exclusive function; and, in rabbinic literature, “the inner altar” (Heb. mizbeaḥ ha-penimi), to differentiate it from the other altar of the outer court.
The object in question was quite small, measuring a mere 1.5 feet (0.45 m.) square at the top and standing 3 feet (0.9 m.) high. This is 9 inches higher than the table. It had a flat top, unlike the other altar, which was hollow and had none. Like the Ark and the table, it was embellished with a molding,8 and also like them, it was transported through the wilderness by means of poles inserted through rings affixed to its sides.

1. an altar Hebrew mizbeaḥ, literally “place of slaughter,” is strictly applicable only to an altar for animal sacrifice but is used for this object because of its similar shape.

for burning incense Maimonides maintains that the use of incense was originally instituted to ameliorate and sweeten the stench of the burning flesh of the sacrifices. While this may be so, there is no doubt that it became an independent ritual in its own right, with its own significance and mystique. The ingredients of which the incense is to be compounded are listed in verses 34–38.

3. pure gold See Comment to 25:11, 31.

7–8. Although it would appear from these verses that both the incense offering and the tending and lighting of the lamps are to be the prerogatives of the High Priest, we know that the daily performance of these rituals was carried out by the ordinary priests as well. Not only does 27:21 make this clear in respect of the lamp lighting, but 2 Chronicles 26:18, Mishnah Yoma 4:4, and Mishnah Tamid 6:3 all attest to it in regard to the incense offering.

7. aromatic incense Hebrew ketoret sammim. The noun ketoret derives from a stem meaning “to burn, smoke”; it eventually became the generic term for the substance that produces the aroma. The identical semantic development is seen in the English words “incense,” from Latin incendere, “to burn,” and “perfume” from a combination of Latin per, “through,” and fumum, “smoke.” The second Hebrew word, sammim, is of uncertain origin. It points to a specific type of incense. In later Hebrew sam denotes a drug, medicine, or poison.

tends Literally, “makes good,” that is, cleans the lamps of refuse and replaces the wicks and the oil.

9. alien incense Hebrew ketoret zarah. On the latter word, see Comment to 29:33. Any incense not precisely compounded according to the formula of verses 34–36 is invalid. Compare the narrative about the infraction of the cultic rules by Aaron’s two sons, as told in Leviticus 10:1–7.

or a burnt offering … It is to be used exclusively for the prescribed incense offering.

10. The sole exception to the last-mentioned rule is when the High Priest has to perform the purificatory rites for reconsecrating the altar each Yom Kippur, as prescribed in Leviticus 16:16–19.

most holy See Comment to 29:37.

Ki Tissaʾ

A census of males above the age of twenty is to be accompanied by the imposition of a poll tax of one half-shekel on each. This payment is considered to be a ransom for the life of the individual; it serves to avert a plague. In other words, it has an expiatory function, which connects this topic with the one immediately preceding it. Both feature a threefold emphasis of the Hebrew stem k-p-r, variously translated “purification, ransom, expiation.”
This passage recognizes that census taking is a necessary administrative measure but regards it as fraught with danger to the public. The several such head counts recorded in the Bible are usually related to army service and warfare. In only one other instance is there any mention of the payment of ransom money or of ill consequences—the remarkable exception of the census ordered by David, which resulted in a visitation of pestilence, as told in 2 Samuel 24. Joab’s reluctance to undertake the assignment, and David’s subsequent uneasy conscience about it, reflect the same underlying notion as stated here: a peacetime census is a perilous enterprise that engenders popular anxiety. There may have been sound historical reasons for Joab’s reaction, for a census almost invariably portended preparation for war or the imposition of some new tax. It is of interest that the postbiblical term kenas, a Hebraized form of Latin census, means “a penalty,” and the verbal form denotes “to sentence, impose a fine, confiscate property.”
The head count envisaged in the present section is separate from that commanded in Numbers 1. This one precedes the construction of the Tabernacle, as 38:24–28 shows; the collected half-shekels are used for casting the sockets of the sanctuary. The census of Numbers 1 must postdate the completion of the Tent of Meeting, since it was ordained to Moses from inside it.
The present poll tax is a one-time imposition for the building of the Tabernacle, and not an annual obligation. In later times, however, the injunction was treated as a precedent, and the text came to be interpreted as such. In Second Temple times Jews contributed the half-shekel annually from all the lands of their dispersal.16 The money was used to maintain the communal offerings and for other public projects. Following the destruction of the Temple in about 70 C.E., the emperor Vespasian forced the Jews to contribute the annual tax to the imperial treasury for the god Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome. This levy, known as the Fiscus Judaicus, was still in force in the third century.
In Temple times the payment of the half-shekel was due during the month of Adar. On the first thereof, messengers departed to all the Jewish communities to collect the tax. Hence, on the Sabbath before that date, or on the New Moon of that month should it fall on a Sabbath, Exodus 30:11–16 is added to the weekly Torah reading, and the day is known as shabbat shekalim.

12. take a census The Hebrew phrase literally means “to raise the head,” that is, to take a head count. The idiom in this sense is peculiar to priestly texts.

a ransom for himself Hebrew kofer is a monetary payment made in lieu of a physical penalty incurred. See Comment to 21:30. Numbers 35:31–32 proscribes taking such redemption money for the life of a murderer. In the present case, the idea seems to be that a census places the lives of those counted in jeopardy.

13. who is entered in the records An idiomatic rendering of the Hebrew, which literally means “who passes by the numbered ones.” The stem ʿ-v-r, “to pass,” used here is found a few times in connection with the method of counting sheep. Mishnah Bekhorot 9:7 describes the system of tithing sheep as follows: The animals are taken into an enclosed area that has an opening large enough to permit only one sheep at a time to go through. The officer counts them as they emerge and places a mark on every tenth one. A similar system may have been in vogue for taking a census. Those mustered passed single file before the officer in charge. It is also possible that the tally was made indirectly by counting the number of half-shekels.

a half-shekel Not a coin but a unit of weight for gold and silver. The present such is defined as “the sanctuary weight.”25 This would have been heavier than the shekel “at the going merchants’ rate.” There was also a standard known as “the royal weight.”27 Many marked shekel weights have been found in Israel. Although they are not uniform, they indicate an average weight of 11.4 grams.

twenty gerahs The gerah was the smallest subdivision of the shekel. The term, which probably means “a grain,” is derived from Akkadian giru, which was one twenty-fourth of a shekel in the Mesopotamian system. Weights marked gerah that have been found in Israel have an average weight of 0.5658 grams.

14. twenty years This is the age at which an Israelite became subject to military service.

15. The contribution of the half-shekel has two purposes: to support the work of the Tabernacle and to effect expiation for each individual. The Tabernacle belongs equally to every Israelite, irrespective of one’s social status or wealth. As all human beings are equal before God, there is to be one standard contribution from all, to be neither exceeded nor reduced.

16. expiation money Hebrew kesef ha-kippurim, a designation based on the use of the stem k-p-r in verses 12, 15.

the service of the Tent Hebrew ʿavodah may refer both to the maintenance of the worship and to the work of construction. It has this latter meaning in 39:32. And since the silver was used for casting the sockets of the sanctuary and for the manufacture of other items (38:25–28), it should be so understood here.
THE BRONZE LAVER (vv. 17–21)

This vessel was not included in the earlier instructions for several reasons: (1) The use to which it was put was not an act of divine worship but was preparatory to it. (2) It was not needed for the installation ceremony because that required immersion of the entire body, whereas the laver was solely for washing the hands and feet. (3) It was not fashioned with materials provided by the public donations but from the bronze mirrors of the women who served at the entrance of the Tabernacle. See Comment to 38:8.
For practical reasons, the laver was placed between the entrance of the Tabernacle and the altar of sacrifice, so that the priest entered the sanctuary in a state of ritual purity and bodily cleanliness. Its importance may be weighed by its inclusion among the vessels that were consecrated by being anointed with oil (v. 28).
The dimensions of the laver are not given. According to Zevaḥim 19b, it had to be large enough to contain sufficient water for the washing of four priests. The same source reports that the priests washed in a standing position, but with each hand on the corresponding foot so that each pair was washed simultaneously.

20. that they may not die On this formula, see Comment to 28:35. The washing is an indispensable requirement; its neglect renders the priest’s service invalid.

The anointing oil and the spices needed for it were mentioned in 25:6. Ibn Ezra points out that because the ingredients were supplied by the tribal chieftains and were not acquired by donations from the public,32 the instructions for compounding the oil were deferred to this appendix. The association of washing and anointing the body may have determined the sequence of topics.
Spices and perfumes were rare, highly prized commodities in the ancient world. As 1 Kings 10:2, 10 relate, the queen of Sheba arrived in Jerusalem bearing gifts of spices, gold, and precious stones for King Solomon. Like silver and gold, fragrant oils and spices were stored in the Judean royal treasury (2 Kings 20:13). These products were costly due to the huge amounts of raw materials needed to manufacture the desired quantity and to the great distances they had to be transported by land caravan or by sea from distant locations in Arabia, Somaliland, India, and even China. It will be remembered that the caravan of Ishmaelites to whom Joseph was sold by his brothers was on its way to Egypt from Gilead with a load of precious spices (Gen. 37:25). Finally, the highly specialized art of perfumery demanded a high level of skill and experience.
The formula for blending the anointing oil given here specifies four “choice spices” mixed with olive oil.

23. The list is set out in decreasing order of value.

solidified myrrh Southern Arabia and Somaliland were the sources of this aromatic gum resin. The substance exudes naturally as globules from the ducts of the trunk and branches of the trees, but it flows freely if one makes a cut in the bark. It hardens slowly when exposed to air.

fragrant cinnamon As Rashi notes, the adjective is needed because there are nonaromatic species of cinnamon. The tree is indigenous to Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) but was also cultivated elsewhere in Asia.

aromatic cane Although Hebrew kaneh is mentioned several times in the Bible, its identity is uncertain. Here again there appear to be nonaromatic species of the plant. Jeremiah 6:20 refers to the “fragrant” (literally “good”) cane from a distant land.

24. cassia Hebrew kiddah, so rendered by the Targums (ketsiʿata), has not been identified with certainty. The Greek translation understood it to be calamus.

25. expertly blended Literally, “the work of a perfumer.” The skill was practiced by both men and women.

26–28. The sacred aromatic oil is to be applied both to the priests and to the articles of furniture and their utensils. The act of anointing consecrates them to divine service. Henceforth, their holiness is contagious. See Comment to 29:37.

31–33. This sacred aromatic anointing oil, with its specific ingredients blended in the appropriate proportions, must never be duplicated or used for any purpose other than that here stipulated.

a layman See Comment to 29:33.

The original list of materials to be assembled for the construction of the Tabernacle and the order of divine service included “spices … for the aromatic incense” (25:6) but without specification. Instructions for the fabrication of the golden altar of incense were given above, in verses 1–10. Now the four ingredients of the incense to be offered on it are listed.
An ancient rabbinic text in Keritot 6a and TJ Yoma 4:5 (41a) enumerates eleven kinds of spices used for the incense offerings in the days of the Second Temple and treats the precise implementation of the prescription as a matter of the utmost seriousness. Several sources report that the priestly family of Abtinas retained a monopoly on the compounding of the incense and jealously guarded the secret formula.

34. stacte Hebrew nataf, derived from a stem meaning “to drip, drop,” refers to a resin of a certain tree, apparently balsam or persimmon.

onycha The identity of Hebrew sheḥelet is uncertain. The Greek and Latin translations have onyx, literally “a nail,” apparently referring to a nail-shaped mollusk from which an aromatic substance was produced. A similar tradition seems to be behind the corresponding rabbinic term tsipporen, literally “a fingernail.”

galbanum Hebrew ḥelbenah, a gum resin extracted from a plant of the ferula class that grows in Turkistan, Persia, and Crete. It emits a disagreeable odor when burned; but this is diffused when the substance is blended with the other aromatics, and it has the effect of making the latter more pungent.
This phenomenon gave rise to a rabbinic homily about tolerance. Just as the galbanum with its unpleasant odor is an indispensable ingredient of the incense offering, so the sinners of Israel must be included in the prayer services on a fast day, otherwise it is no fast.

frankincense Also called “olibanum”; cf. Hebrew levonah, literally “whiteness,” so called because of the white smoke it emits when burned. It is a gum resin extracted from trees of the genus Boswellia that is native to southern Arabia and northern Somaliland.

35. refined Hebrew memullaḥ literally means “salted” and refers to the addition of salt to the incense, for the practical purpose of enhancing the rate of burning and smoking. This was commonly done in the ancient world in regard to sacred as well as profane incense. There is no warrant for the rendering “refined.”

36. Each day, morning and evening, some of the blended and pulverized incense is to be placed on the golden altar for the incense offerings.

37–38. Like the aromatic oil (vv. 31–33), the incense, in composition and function, must not be produced for use in any but its prescribed ritual.


The final instruction to Moses that directly relates to the work of the Tabernacle concerns the appointment of a supervisory master craftsman named Bezalel, a Judahite, and his associate Oholiab, a Danite. Presumably, Moses, Bezalel, and Oholiab are to recruit the subordinate workers, here described as those “who are skillful.” In 38:21 special mention is made of Levites who work under the direction of Ithamar son of Aaron.

2. singled out by name Commissioned for the task.

Bezalel The name means “in the shadow [that is, protection] of God.”

Uri Probably a short form of Uriel or Uriah, meaning “God/Yah is my light.”

Hur Six different persons bear this name in the Bible. Its origin is obscure, and it is uncertain if the one mentioned here is the same Hur who is frequently associated with Aaron. See Comment to 17:10.

3. a divine spirit See Comment to 28:3.

6. Oholiab The name may mean either “the tent of the father” or “the father is my tent” (that is, my protection). It may contain a word play since it is the person with this name who is to construct the Tent of Meeting (v. 7).

granted skill to all who are skillful Citing Daniel 2:21, Rabbi Johanan states: “The Holy One Blessed Be He imparts wisdom only to one who already possesses it.”

7–11. These verses summarize the components of the Tabernacle, its furnishings, and appurtenances in an order that differs slightly from that of the foregoing instructions.

7. the Ark for the Pact The Ark that is intended to house the two tablets that symbolize the pact between God and Israel. See Comment to 25:22.

8. the pure lampstand See Comment to 25:31.

10. the service vestments Hebrew bigdei serad. Serad is an obscure term for which there is no satisfactory Hebrew etymology. Rashi, Rashbam, and Ibn Ezra connect it with Aramaic s-r-d, meaning “to plait” and so understand the phrase to mean “plaited cloths.” They connect it with the coverings spread over the Tabernacle and its furnishings during the wilderness journeyings, as prescribed in Numbers 4:7–14. In Yoma 72b the term serad is associated with the priestly vestments. The Targums and the Peshitta, as well as the Septuagint and the Vulgate, all take it to mean “service vestments.” This rendering is supported both by the explanatory phrase “for officiating in the sanctuary” and by the appositional “sacral vestments,” which follows all other usages of the term.

The concluding—and, appropriately, the seventh—literary unit within the pericope of the instructions for the Tabernacle is devoted to the observance of the law of the Sabbath. Correspondingly, the resumption of the Tabernacle narrative in chapter 35 commences with the Sabbath law. This structural pattern is intended to make an emphatic statement about the hierarchy of values that informs the Torah: The Tabernacle enshrines the concept of the holiness of space; the Sabbath embodies the concept of the holiness of time. The latter takes precedence over the former, and the work of the Tabernacle must yield each week to the Sabbath rest.
Quite deliberately the present unit features Creation as the rationale for the Sabbath (v. 17), as is found in the Decalogue (20:8–11), rather than the Exodus, as in the version in Deuteronomy (5:12–15). It is in the Creation narrative of Genesis that the first occurrence of the idea of the holy is encountered, and it relates to time—the Sabbath. This is in striking contrast to the Babylonian cosmology, which culminates in the erection of a temple to Marduk, thereby asserting the antithetical primacy of the holiness of space. See Comments to 3:5 and 20:8–11.

13. Nevertheless Hebrew ʾakh has restrictive force. Even though building the Tabernacle is a divine command, it does not supersede the observance of the Sabbath.

My sabbaths This phrase is defined in verses 15 and 17. The Sabbath, that is, the sanctity of the seventh day of the week, is an integral part of the cosmic order ordained by God.

a sign The idea of the Sabbath as a sign is reiterated in verse 17. Its observance is a declaration of faith, an affirmation that Israel is a holy nation not inherently but by an act of divine will; that the relationship between God and Israel is regulated by a covenant; and that the universe is wholly the purposeful product of divine intelligence, the work of a transcendent Being outside of nature and sovereign over space and time.

15. a sabbath of complete rest See Comment to 16:23.

16. The obligation to observe the Sabbath is eternally encumbent upon those who participate in the covenant with God.

17. and was refreshed Hebrew va-yinnafash is derived from the noun nefesh, a multivalent term that can refer to a person’s life essence, vitality, psychic energy, or essential character. The verbal form used here conveys the notion of a fresh infusion of spiritual and physical vigor, the reinvigoration of the totality of one’s being. Of course, as applied to God, it is an anthropomorphism, the ascription to the Deity of human characteristics. But such language has a didactic purpose: to impress upon the Israelite an awareness of the transcendent value of Sabbath observance. Thus, the same verb is used in 23:12 to describe the invigorating consequences of the Sabbath rest: “that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed [ve-yinnafesh].”
A CODA (v. 18)

This concluding verse, recording the receipt of the tablets of stone, picks up where the last narrative left off—Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai to receive those tokens of the covenant (24:12–18). It also serves as the transition to the next episode, which involves the smashing of those very tablets.

stone tablets Bekhor Shor notes that stone, as an enduring substance, is emblematic of the eternity of the content.

inscribed with the finger of God On this figurative language, see Comment to 32:16.
The Violation of the Covenant: The Golden Calf (32:1–33:23)

The account of the Tabernacle is interrupted by the story of the making and worship of a golden calf. This episode separates the detailed set of instructions from the report of their implementation. The literary arrangement conveys the impression that the apostasy of the people—that is, their alienation from God—interfered with the building of the intended sanctuary that was to be the “Tent of Meeting” between God and Israel. The work could begin only after their reconciliation through the mediation of Moses.


1. This verse is intelligible only in reference to 24:18, which told of Moses’ ascent of the cloud-enveloped mountain and of his seclusion there for forty days and nights. Because Moses has until now fulfilled the role of exclusive mediator between God and Israel—at the urgent request of the people, as told in 20:15–18—his protracted absence generates deep anxiety, a mood exacerbated by the awareness of the impending departure from Sinai.

gathered against Hebrew nikhal ʿal always carries a menacing nuance.

make us a god Something that is emblematic of immanent divinity. Rashbam suggests that they had in mind some instrument for determining the divine will as a replacement for Moses, the absent human medium of divine revelation.

that man Moses A disrespectful manner of speaking.

who brought us from And has now abandoned us.

3. gold rings These may have been among the items the Israelites received from neighbors when they left Egypt, as related in 11:2–3 and 12:35–36. From the story in Genesis 35:4, where earrings are coupled with “alien gods” and are ritually buried with them, it is clear that they were not mere adornments but also had some cultic significance. This conclusion is reinforced by the narrative about Gideon in Judges 8:24–27. He too specifically requested gold earrings and manufactured from them an ephod, after which “all Israel went astray” and which “became a snare to Gideon and his household.”

4. cast in a mold The meaning of the Hebrew phrase is uncertain. The verb va-yatsar can denote “he fashioned” or “he tied up”;6 the noun ḥeret can signify “a stylus” or “an engraving tool.” The phrase may therefore mean that Aaron fashioned the gold with a tool. This, however, would be inconsistent with the description of the image as being “molten,”8 and one does not use an engraving tool on gold. It is possible that ḥeret is a variant form of ḥarit, “a bag”, which appears with the same verb as here in a similar context in 2 Kings 5:23: “He wrapped [va-yetsar] the two talents of silver in two bags [ḥaritim].” In Exodus, then, Aaron tied up the gold earrings in a bag. It is noteworthy that when Gideon made his image, he “spread out a cloth, and everyone threw onto it the earring.”11 Finally, the Hebrew phrase may well have originated in the technical vocabulary of ancient metallurgy and then become a metaphor simply expressing the imparting of shape to metal, regardless of the technique employed.

molten Most likely a wooden model was overlaid with gold.

calf Hebrew ʿegel is a young ox or bull. Thus, Psalm 106:19–20, in reference to this episode, alternates ʿegel with shor, “ox.” Throughout the Near East the bull was a symbol of lordship, leadership, strength, vital energy, and fertility. As such, it was either deified and worshiped or employed in representation of divinity. Often the bull or some other animal served as the pedestal on which the god stood, elevated above human level. The particular animal might be suggestive of the attributes ascribed to the god who was mounted upon it. Aaron seems to have followed contemporary artistic convention. The young bull would have been the pedestal upon which the invisible God of Israel was popularly believed to be standing. His presence would be left to human imagination.
This last interpretation is supported by the people’s association of the manufactured image with the God who operates in history, not with some deity possessing mythological associations. It is strengthened by Aaron’s proclamation (v. 5) that the following day would be “a festival of the LORD [YHVH].” In other words, the people, in demanding “a god” because of Moses’ disappearance, wanted an appropriate visible object that would recall the Divine Presence in their midst. It should be noted that in verse 8 the focus of the indictment is on the making of a molten calf, not on worshiping “other gods.”

they exclaimed The ringleaders of the people, not Aaron.

This is your god Rashbam and other medieval Jewish commentators have pointed out that the people “could not have been so stupid” as to believe that this freshly manufactured image was itself a deity responsible for the Exodus from Egypt. Rather, they felt that the object was a potent symbol that acquired a numinous quality, and that they could invoke the Deity through it.
It is to be noted that the demonstrative pronoun (ʾelleh) and the verb governed by ʾelohim, “God,” are in the plural form, and that a plural verb is also used in verses 1 and 23. Plural forms with ʾelohim are found in a monotheistic context several times in the Bible, and there is as yet no satisfactory explanation for this anomaly. In the present chapter the plural usage may be a scribal device to emphasize the unacceptable nature of the object. Aaron made only one image, and, significantly, Nehemiah 9:18, in recalling this episode, has the cry of the people in the singular, “This [zeh] is your God who brought you out [heʿelkha] of Egypt.”

6. Aaron plays no further role. The rabble has taken over and has plunged into pagan orgiastic rites. Five verbs of action are employed to describe popular behavior. See Comment to verses 19–20.

to dance This appears to be the meaning of tsaḥek in Judges 16:25. Verse 19 below explicitly refers to dancing. However, the same verb in Genesis 26:8 and 39:14, 17 connotes sexual activity.

7–8. When the boisterous revelry has reached its height, God informs Moses of what is happening in the camp below.

7. your people A strong intimation of their alienation from God in contrast to “My people,” repeatedly employed hitherto in divine speech.17

have acted basely The calf, even if only intended as the pedestal of the invisible God of Israel, was very much an image of a living entity. It would inevitably divert human attention to itself and away from the invisible One that it was meant to invoke. The popular mind would regard the image-pedestal as an object endowed with divinity. By putting God back into nature, the people violated and nullified the fundamental distinctive idea of the religion of Israel.

8. to turn aside from the way Significantly, the text does not say “from Me”; they have adopted pagan modes of worship, but in worship of the God of Israel.

9. I see Divine “seeing” as opposed to Aaron’s “seeing” in verse 5.

this … people God sardonically turns on the people their disrespectful reference to Moses (v. 1).

stiffnecked A frequent image of willful obstinacy, derived from the farmer’s experience with work animals.

10. let Me be This phrase both intimates and anticipates intercession for Israel on the part of Moses. As such, it is a tacit comment on Moses’ extraordinary character. At the same time it implies that such intercession can be effective. Thus, it is also a statement about the nature of God: He is responsive to human entreaty. Intercession before God on behalf of man is an indispensable aspect of the prophetic role. In fact, the first scriptural usage of the term naviʾ, “prophet,” appears in such a context. In Genesis 20:7 Abimelech is told, “Since he [Abraham] is a prophet, he will intercede for you.” Moses frequently acts as intercessor, as do Samuel,21 Amos, and especially Jeremiah.23

A great nation The phrase evokes the divine promises to the patriarch. This is seized on at once by Moses.

11–14. These verses together with 34:1–10 comprise the Torah reading at the afternoon (minhah) service on fast days other than Yom Kippur. Ibn Ezra takes note of an inconsistency. The present section concludes with a declaration of divine forbearance (v. 14); nevertheless, verses 30–34 record Moses’ entreaty of God and verse 30 expresses his hope that, “perhaps I may win forgiveness for your sin.” To this complication may be added the fact that the parallel account to Deuteronomy 9:15–21 has Moses descending the mountain immediately after being apprised of the situation below and making intercession only after breaking the tablets.
Many modern scholars explain the anomalies as resulting from the amalgamation of varying traditions. Ibn Ezra concludes that verses 11–14 are out of chronological sequence and belong after verse 31. They have been placed here because they are Moses’ response to God’s intimation (v. 10) that intercession would be effective. Understanding the text differently, Ramban believes that verses 11–14 are in the correct place and that Moses made two separate intercessions. The first (vv. 11–14) was intended to gain rescission of the threat to destroy Israel, whereas the second (vv. 30–34) was to obtain forgiveness after the pulverization of the golden calf and the punishment of the transgressors. Ramban notes that in the version in Deuteronomy, events are telescoped because the story appears in a different context and is narrated for a different purpose.
Moses’ petition rests on the following considerations: Israel is God’s chosen people; God manifested His power in delivering Israel from Egypt; the destruction of Israel would diminish God’s honor in the eyes of the Egyptians; further, God made promises to the patriarchs.

11. Moses’ love of Israel is such that he nobly and selflessly rejects God’s offer to make his own descendants the sole heirs to the promises made to the patriarchs. This same characteristic is once again displayed in verse 32.
The language of Moses’ prayer echoes that of God’s censure. God stated (v. 10), “My anger may blaze forth,” and Moses prays, “Let not Your anger, O LORD, blaze forth,” “Turn from Your blazing anger.” God spoke of “your people, whom you brought out” (v. 7), and Moses counters with “Your people, whom You delivered.”

12. The thrust of the events in Egypt was that the Egyptians might “know” the Lord, that is, recognize His incomparability. The theological impact of the events of the Exodus would now be undone. This sensitivity concerning God’s reputation is a recurrent motif in the Bible.

13. Remember See Comment to 2:24.

14. the LORD renounced Moses’ intercession succeeded in averting the threatened punishment. As the psalmist has it, “He would have destroyed them had not Moses, His chosen one, confronted Him in the breach to avert His destructive wrath.”

15–16. The description of the tablets is not germane to the present context; it more appropriately belongs in 31:18. Ramban suggests that it functions here to point up the strikingly audacious nature of Moses’ action in smashing the precious objects.

15. bearing the two tablets Their size is not recorded here, but their maximum dimensions are determined by the size of the Ark in which they were to repose. This was given in 25:10 as being 2.5 cubits in length and 1.5 cubits in width and height (approximately 3.75 ft. × 2.25 ft. = 1.12 m. × 0.67 m). A rabbinic tradition recorded in Bava Batra 14a has the size of the tablets as I cubit by 1.5 cubits. At any rate, they could certainly have been carried without difficulty.

tablets of the Pact See Comment to 31:18.

inscribed The description here and in the next verse is obscure, but it is clearly intended to express its singular nature.

16. God’s work … God’s writing This verse amplifies the statement in 24:12. Rashi observes that these descriptions may be taken either literally or figuratively. If the latter, they convey the idea that the Torah is God’s preoccupation. Maimonidcs rejects the literal interpretation that a physical action on the part of God occurred. He cites Mishnah Avot 5:6, which places the inscribed tablets of stone among the extraordinary phenomena that were created just before the onset of the Sabbath at Creation. He explains this verse to imply that the tablets came into being at Creation by divine will as part of the cosmic order. He notes that references to God’s “work” and God’s “finger” appear also in Psalm 8:4 in reference to the creation of the heavens, which were brought into existence by divine will (Ps. 33:6). Put a different way, our text expresses the fundamental biblical teaching that the Ten Commandments are divine imperatives that are as much constitutive of the cosmic order as are the laws of nature.

incised Hebrew ḥarut is unique in the Bible. Mishnah Avot 6:2 utilizes it for word play on ḥerut, “freedom”: “No person is free except the one who labors in the Torah”; that is, the spiritual and moral discipline instilled by the Torah is the essence of true freedom because it liberates human beings from servitude to animal appetites and depraved instincts.

17. Joshua He was stationed partway up the mountain awaiting Moses’ return, as told in 24:13; thus, he could hear the rising din but could not view the scene.

18. But he answered Moses has already been informed (32:7–8).

song Hebrew ʿannot is an intensive (Piel) form of the preceding ʿanot. It may designate a specific type of cultic singing.

19–20. As he approaches the camp and personally witnesses the scene, Moses realizes the full extent of the degradation and recognizes the enormity of the people’s sin.

enraged The same Hebrew term is used of God’s reaction in verse 10.

he hurled the tablets This was not an impetuous act; rather, it quite deliberately signified the abrogation of the covenant. In Akkadian legal terminology to “break the tablet” (tuppam ḫepû) means to invalidate or repudiate a document or agreement. Moses is no longer the intercessor but the decisive, energetic leader. His actions are recorded in a series of ten verbs, delivered in quick succession (vv. 19–21).

at the foot of the mountain Where the people were assembled.

20. The same series of destructive acts is found in Ugaritic literature. It conveys a picture of the total annihilation of the obnoxious object.33 This parallel suggests that our narrative has been crafted in conformity with conventional literary patterns. For this reason, it is hypercritical to question the burning and pulverizing of the golden calf on the grounds that the metal is neither combustible nor friable.

the water Unidentified here, the water is characterized in the duplicate account of Deuteronomy 9:21 as “the brook that comes down from the mountain.” This implies a single source of water for the entire camp, the idea being, apparently, that no individual could escape drinking the mixture.

made the Israelites drink it In Avodah Zarah 44a this move is seen as a trial by ordeal modeled upon that administered to the sotah, or suspected adulteress, whose treatment is described in Numbers 5:12–31. She was forced to drink the bitter water mingled with dust taken from the floor of the sanctuary. Supporting this interpretation is a phrase in the next verse and also the frequent use of the unfaithful wife motif in biblical literature as a metaphor for Israel’s infidelity to the covenant with God.36 The purpose of the ordeal was to identify the transgressors.
AARON’S APOLOGIA (vv. 21–24)

Moses now breaks his silence. His questioning of Aaron is really a harsh rebuke.

21. this people See Comment to verse 9.

great sin This is a legal term found in documents from Ugarit and in Egyptian marriage contracts, always referring to adultery. This same usage appears in Abimelech’s reproof of Abraham in Genesis 20:9, which is couched in language almost identical to that used here. A reflex of it shows itself in Joseph’s rebuff of Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39:9. There are four other biblical occurrences of “the great sin,” all in reference to idolatry.

22–24. Aaron excuses himself by vilifying the people. He repeats their words but abbreviates his own response to their demand and glosses over his own involvement in the fashioning of the calf image.

24. out came this calf As though it fabricated itself! Moses does not respond. In recounting the episode in Deuteronomy 9:12–22, he ignores Aaron’s excuse as though unworthy of consideration, and he clearly states that “the LORD was angry enough with Aaron to have destroyed him.” Only by Moses’ intercession was he saved.

The destruction of the golden calf seems to have triggered a riot among its worshipers. The Levites are called in to suppress it and to punish the guilty ones.

25. out of control The consonants of the Hebrew verb p-r-ʿ are the same as those used in connection with the sotah, the alleged adulteress, in Numbers 5:18—which provides another point of association between the two themes.

Aaron … out of control An unequivocal rejection of Aaron’s lame excuse and a condemnation of his action.

menace The unique Hebrew shimtsah has usually been understood as “an object of derision” or of “malignant joy.” In Job 4:12 and 26:14 the masculine form shemets means “a whisper”; it offers no clue to the meaning here.

26. Whoever is for the LORD The question implies that regardless of the intention of the worshipers at the calf, the use of an image is irreconcilable with true monotheism.

all the Levites Moses’ own tribe. They remained faithful to the covenant and loyally maintained the purity of Israel’s worship. This note, as verse 29 and Deuteronomy 10:8 imply, is intended to provide a background for the election of the tribe of Levi to be in charge of the Tabernacle and to be surrogates for the first-born. It is quite likely that the first-born played a leading role in the worship of the golden calf and for that reason were displaced as cultic officiants.

27. Thus says the LORD See Comment to 4:22. This solemn formula is employed here to signify that the assignment to the Levites is extraordinary, that is, beyond the purview of any human authority to impose. It cannot be taken as a precedent for the disposition of future cases. The presumption is, as explained above, that the water ordeal exposed the guilty ones. See Comment to verse 35

slay brother They must be absolutely impartial and evenhanded in carrying out their grim task. It is likely that Moses’ farewell blessing of Levi in Deuteronomy 33:9 refers to this episode: “Who said of his father and mother,/‘I consider them not.’/His brothers he disregarded,/Ignored his own children./Your precepts alone they observed,/And kept Your covenant.”

29. dedicate yourselves On this idiom, see Comment to 28:41.

Having secured annulment of the decree to destroy Israel by his first intercession, Moses now attempts to gain complete forgiveness for the people.

30. The next day After the carnage.

go up To the summit of Sinai.

31–32. As would be expected, the prayer blends confession with a plea for pardon; but another element is introduced. Moses nobly ties his personal destiny to his people’s fate. There can hardly be a more impressive example of selfless “love of Israel” (in Hebrew ʾahavat yisraʾel).

31. Alas Hebrew ʾannaʾ often introduces an entreaty.

32. [well and good] This phrase is to be supplied by the context—a literary device known as aposiopesis.

erase me from the record This request seems to reflect a well-rooted and widespread Near Eastern popular belief in the existence of heavenly “books.” The Hebrew Bible differentiates three types. There is the book of life, mentioned in Psalm 69:28, in which God is thought to inscribe the names of all living. This notion undoubtedly drew its inspiration from the civil census lists that were kept by municipal or state authorities.45 Then there is the book of divine decrees, in which the destinies of men and women and of peoples are recorded. Lastly, there is the book of remembrance in Malachi 3:16 in which the deeds of human beings, both good and evil, are written up. This last must have its origin in ancient court procedure. It is hard to decide whether or not the notion of heavenly books was taken literally in ancient Israel. Maimonides48 unambiguously emphasizes the figurative, nonliteral nature of the biblical phraseology. The perennial Jewish greeting on the High Holy Days—“May you be inscribed …”—echoes the ancient idea.
In the present instance, Moses’ request is framed in the figurative language of the book of life, so that he is really asking to die if Israel is not forgiven.

33–34. God responds to Moses’ entreaty: There must be individual accountability (see Comment to 20:5). But the people also bears collective responsibility. Divine promises of national territory to the people of Israel are immutable, but total absolution for the sin of the golden calf cannot be given. Israel receives a suspended sentence; the people is on probation.

34. my angel See Comment to 23:20–23.

35. This verse more appropriately belongs after verse 20, where it would indicate that the water-ordeal caused the guilty ones to be stricken—as the similar procedure was designed to do in the case of the suspected adulteress. The calf worshipers would thus have been readily identifiable to the Levites.

for what they did This difficult sentence seems to mean that Aaron and the people shared the blame equally; they, for demanding a visible “god”; he, for yielding to them.

There was a tragic irony in the episode of the golden calf. The people wanted to provide themselves with a reassuring symbol of God’s continued presence in their midst; yet that very symbol became the instrument of their alienation from God. Although Moses’ intercession saves the people from annihilation, Israel has not yet secured full pardon and reconciliation with God.
The unifying theme of this chapter is Moses’ concern for the continued presence of God in the midst of His people, as symbolized by the mobile sanctuary.

The chapter opens with a reiteration of the command to lead the people to Canaan, but it is clearly implied that the punitive decree of 32:10 was canceled because of the oaths to the patriarchs (32:13), not because of the people’s merit.

1. set out Hebrew lekh ʿaleh, literally “go, ascend,” in contrast to 32:7, lekh red, “go, descend,” signifies that a reversal of fate has taken place.

you Moses’ request in 32:32 is emphatically denied.

the people It is no longer “your people” as God said to Moses in 32:7. The shift connotes some mitigation of the impact of Israel’s alienation from God.

2. an angel The promise of 23:20–33 and 32:34 is repeated, but the emissary is not here designated “My” angel. The change is ominous.

Canaanites … On the list, see Comment to 3:8.

3. a land … For this standard description, see Comment to 3:8.

I will not go This statement contradicts the promise of verses 2 and 32:34. Even assuming that the “angel” is to be understood as an entity apart from God, God has nevertheless just pledged to drive out the native peoples. Accordingly, God’s absence from the midst of Israel should be understood, with Ibn Ezra, to mean the cancellation of the order to construct the Tabernacle.

lest I destroy you Paradoxically, God’s withdrawal of His presence is a mercifully preventive measure; it is intended to avert what would inevitably be the very destructive consequences of another episode such as that of the golden calf.

4. This decision has a shattering effect, for it was the want of a mediating representation of God’s immanence that generated the demand for a material image in the first place.

5. leave off Hebrew imperative hored can only mean “remove!” But the people have already done this. Hence, it is best to invert the order of verses 4–5 and to take verse 4 as the response to the divine command.

6. from Mount Horeb on From that time on, throughout the wilderness wanderings. It is a sign of remorse by the people over their transgression. On Horeb, see Comment to 3:1.

This section continues the theme of the presence of God and connects directly with verse 3. Because God withholds His indwelling in the camp of Israel, Moses employs an extraordinary stratagem. He pitches “the Tent” outside the camp. This is not the Tabernacle—which is not yet constructed—but a private tent where he might commune with God. There is no priesthood, cult, or ritual of any sort. The Tent was also accessible to the individual Israelite worshiper.
This highlighting of the special status of Moses serves as preparation for the succeeding episodes.

7. would take The verbal forms denote customary and repetitive action, not a one-time occurrence.

the Tent The definite article seems to indicate a well-known specific Tent, although one not hitherto mentioned. It was apparently the locus of Moses’ previous dialogues with God.

pitch it Hebrew natah lo is literally “pitch it for himself”—for his personal use.

outside the camp, at some distance The description draws attention to the alienation of Israel from God. The camp has become spiritually polluted by the impurity produced by the golden calf affair.

Tent of Meeting See Comment to 27:21. A temporary substitute for the Tabernacle is thus designated.

8. This symbol of alienation was reflective of a heightened mood of contrition and an enhanced respect for Moses.

9. at the entrance As distinct from the Tabernacle, in which the Divine Presence is said to rest continuously, and in which God converses with Moses from within the Holy of Holies in its interior,5 here the locus of communication is at the entrance; God’s self-manifestation is intermittent.

10. The sight of the pillar of cloud inspired reverential awe; the people responded with a gesture of homage.

11. face to face The same expression is used in Deuteronomy 34:10, whereas in Numbers 12:6–8 it is said that God communicated with Moses “mouth to mouth.” This figurative language is intended to convey the preeminence and uniqueness of Moses as a prophetic figure who experiences a special mode of revelation. The experience is personal and direct, not mediated through visions or dreams, and the message is always plain and straightforward, free of cryptic utterances.

Joshua He remained inside the tent and did not share in Moses’ revelatory experience.

This section illustrates how Moses and God engage in intimate discourse, as verse 11 stated.

12. Moses now reverts to the subject matter of 32:34 and 33:1–3—the order to proceed to the promised land without the Tabernacle, the token of God’s immediate presence in the camp of Israel. He complains that the aforementioned “angel” is unidentified. Is it to be human or celestial? Is God’s name to “be in him,” as is promised in 23:21, or not? If Moses enjoys a special intimacy with God, he should be made fully aware of God’s intentions in this regard.7

I have singled you out by name Literally, “I know you by name.” This Hebrew idiom, with God as the subject, is applied to no one else in the Bible. It connotes a close, exclusive, and unique association with God. On the Hebrew stem y-d-ʿ, see Comment to 1:8.

you have, indeed, gained My favor The only other biblical personality who enjoys this unequivocal approval is Noah.

13. let me know Your ways From God’s response to this request, as given in 34:6–7, it is clear that Moses here asks to comprehend God’s essential personality, the attributes that guide His actions in His dealings with humankind, the norms by which He operates in His governance of the world. This understanding of what is meant by “the ways of God” is corroborated by Psalm 103:7–8, the earliest extant commentary on this text: “He made known His ways to Moses,/His deeds to the children of Israel,/The LORD is compassionate and gracious,/slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.” Moses’ request, like the assertion of Abraham before him—“Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”—rests on the postulate that God is not capricious but acts according to norms that human beings can try to understand.

this nation Moses stresses that it is the present people of Israel and none other that is God’s people, and he wants to extend God’s favor to embrace Israel as well as himself.

14. God does not yet relate to Moses’ last point but addresses only his personal concerns.

lighten your burden Literally, “I will give you rest,” a phrase overwhelmingly found in a context of giving relief from national enemies, especially in relation to the occupation of the land.

15–16. Moses, sensitive to God’s omission of any mention of Israel, reacts immediately by stressing the people’s interests, thereby affirming once again that he sees his own reputation inextricably bound up with the fate of his people. Note his repetition of “us” and “Your people.”

16. we may be distinguished Israel’s singularity lies in its unique relationship with God.

17. also … this thing The reference is unclear but seems to be a promise to be present once again in the camp of Israel, that is, to grant permission for the erection of the Tabernacle.

18. “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” Hebrew kavod is one of the seminal terms of biblical theology. In the Comment to 16:7 it was explained that it often signifies God’s self-manifestation, some outward, visible sign of His essential presence. At Sinai, the Presence (kavod) of the Lord appeared as a consuming fire on top of the mountain (24:17). Numerous texts use the verb r-ʾ-h, “to see,” in conjunction with the kavod. What, then, does Moses request? Maimonides,14 followed by Radak, understands the phrase figuratively: Moses asks for an intellectual perception of God’s essential reality, not simply for what is observable through the senses. Ramban, by contrast, interprets the words literally: Moses actually requests a glimpse of the Divine Presence. In favor of this understanding is the fact that the kavod is generally something visible and usually refers to the supernatural effulgence that registers the intensity of God’s immanence. It may be pointed out that every other instance of a visible kavod in the Torah is characterized by three features: (1) It is a mass experience; (2) the kavod is distant from the observers; and (3) God initiates the manifestation and freely chooses the time and place. Here Moses pleads for an exclusively individual experience, one that is close at hand and that occurs in response to his personal request there and then.

19. all My goodness The benevolent attributes that God manifests in His dealings with His creatures. These are detailed in 34:6–7. The theme of divine goodness is frequently featured in the Bible. In classical rabbinic literature tov, “the Good One,” and tuvo shel ʿolam, “the Goodness of the World,” are epithets of God. In Bava Metsia 83a the injunction of Proverbs 2:20 to “follow the way of the good” is interpreted by Rav to mean that one must act with generosity, beyond the requirements of the strict letter of the law. In Mishnah Avot 3:15(19) Rabbi Akiba asserts that “the world is judged by goodness,” that is, by divine grace.
In ancient Near Eastern treaties and in several biblical texts, the term tov bears the technical, legal meaning of covenantal friendship, that is, amity established by the conclusion of a pact. In light of this, it is possible that the present verse also contains an intimation of the renewal of the covenant between God and Israel.

proclaim … the name LORD The Tetragrammaton: YHVH. As noted in the Comment to 3:13, a name is understood to connote one’s character and nature, the totality of personality. Hence, this clause parallels the preceding one and reaffirms God’s intention of voluntarily disclosing to Moses His defining characteristics. This is fulfilled in 34:5. Nowhere else in the Bible does this familiar formula appear with God as the subject of the action.

and the grace Literally, “I will grant the grace that I will grant and show the compassion that I will show.” The exercise of God’s attributes is an act of pure volition on His part. In the religion of Israel there is no magical practice that is automatically effective in influencing divine behavior.

20. Moses’ second plea is only partially granted. By virtue of their humanity, human beings (ha-ʾadam), including Moses, cannot directly and closely observe God’s kavod. See Comment to 3:6.

21. on the rock At the top of the mountain (34:2).

22. My Presence passes by Rashbam notes that His action is a feature of covenant-making, as in Genesis 15:17 and Jeremiah 34:18, 19, so that the ensuing epiphany, or manifestation of God, would actually be a ceremony that signals the renewal of the covenant. This suggestion is in line with the use of tov in verse 19.

My hand A poetic term for a screen, most likely a cloud.

23. My back This daring anthropomorphism is conditioned by the contrasting repeated use of panim, “face, presence.” Here the term means the traces of His presence, the afterglow of His supernatural effulgence.

must not be seen No human being can ever penetrate the ultimate mystery of God’s Being. Only a glimpse of the divine reality is possible, even for Moses.

Renewal of the Covenant (vv. 1–35)

Having been assured of a private manifestation of the Divine Presence, Moses is instructed to prepare for the experience, which actually constitutes the reinstatement of the covenant. This is underscored by several points of contact between this narrative and the account of the original theophany at Sinai: The shattered tablets, which once testified to the reality of the covenant, are to be replaced; the original text incised upon them is to be reproduced; Moses is told to “be ready” by morning just as the people had been ordered to “be ready” for the occasion (19:11, 15); access to the mountain is severely restricted in both experiences (34:3; 19:12–13); the Lord again “comes down” upon Sinai (34:5; 19:9, 18, 20); and the event evokes such fear that the people back away (34:30; 20:15–18).

1. carve The first set is said to have been given to Moses by God.

the words Identified in verse 28 as the Decalogue. Ibn Ezra suggests that the second set of tablets contained the Deuteronomic version.

3. No one else This time Aaron is excluded—a silent reminder of his role in the breach of the covenant.

5. stood … proclaimed The subject of the two verbs may be either Moses, as verses 2 and 33:21 indicate, or God, as the first clause and 33:19 would suggest. Or perhaps the first verb is governed by Moses and the second by God.

6–7. These verses constitute the divine response to Moses’ two requests—that he “know” God’s ways (33:13) and that he “behold” His presence (33:18). God’s mysterious passing before Moses answers to the second; the recital of the divine attributes, to the first. Significantly, the description of the theophany lacks a visual element. God’s self-disclosure is confined to an oral proclamation of His moral qualities. These are the essence of His character and to “know” them is to achieve a higher conception of Deity.
In Jewish tradition these verses are called the Thirteen Attributes of God (Heb. shelosh ʿesreh middot). They play a prominent role in the Jewish liturgy, where they are recited aloud in the synagogue on festivals and other holy days (except Sabbaths) when the Ark is opened for the taking out of the Torah scroll in readiness for the appropriate Torah reading. They are also chanted aloud during the Torah readings on fast days and in the Seliḥot—the penitential prayers recited on those occasions as well as during the High Holy Day period. This practice is based on Rabbi Johanan’s comment in Rosh Ha-Shanah 17b that God’s recital of His moral qualities was intended to set the pattern for Israel’s future petitions to God. There is evidence that the liturgical use of these verses preceded Second Temple times and had a long history in Israel, for they are frequently quoted in one form or another in the Bible. Such persistent and widespread popularity could only have derived from the forms of institutional worship.
It should be stressed that the incorporation of the Thirteen Attributes into the liturgy is not to be interpreted as an automatically effective means of attaining forgiveness of sin. Rather, the idea is to inculcate the human imitation of God’s moral qualities: compassion, graciousness, forbearance, kindness, fealty, and forgivingness.

6. the LORD! the LORD! The Hebrew text also allows the first YHVH to be taken as the subject of the antecedent verb “proclaimed”; it was so understood by Saadia and Maimonides. Ibn Ezra counters that the repetition of the name in summons or invocation is not uncommon.10

compassionate and gracious As opposed to the order in the Decalogue (20:5–6), emphasis and priority here are given to God’s magnanimous qualities rather than to His judgmental actions.

kindness and faithfulness Hebrew ḥesed ve-ʾemet appears frequently as a word pair to express a single concept. Each of the components has a wide range of meaning. Ḥesed involves acts of beneficence, mutuality, and often also obligations that flow from a legal relationship. See Comment to 15:13. ʾEmet, usually translated “truth,” encompasses reliability, durability, and faithfulness. The combination of terms expresses God’s absolute and eternal dependability in dispensing His benefactions.

7. extending kindness See Comment to 20:6. The phrase may express either God’s continuous and unchanging ḥesed or the idea that the merit for the ḥesed that people perform endures beyond their own generation.

thousandth generation Hebrew ʾalafim, as in 20:6.

He does not remit Divine forbearance does not mean that sinners can expect wholly to escape the consequences of their misdeeds. Yoma 86a interprets the sentence to mean: “He remits punishment for the penitent, but not for the impenitent.” For this reason, the liturgical recitation of the thirteen Attributes closes with “acquitting” (the penitent) and omits the negative element.

9. Moses emphasizes God’s merciful qualities in asking that the punishment in 33:3 be rescinded.

even though Make allowance for human frailty.

This section concentrates on two fundamental issues that flow directly from the apostasy: inauthentic modes of worship (vv. 10–17) and the legitimate festivals and ritual obligations to God (vv. 18–26).
Apostasy (vv. 10–17)

Mindful of the people’s sin, the renewed covenant contains stricter admonitions than those given before (23:23, 24) regarding the incursions of foreign cults into the religion of Israel. Pacts with the indigenous peoples of Canaan are prohibited because of their deleterious consequences—religious corruption, intermarriage, and the resultant undermining of national religious integrity. If Israel is to be “distinguished … from every people on the face of the earth” (33:16), then it must make itself distinctive by unswerving and exclusive loyalty to its covenantal relationship with God.

10. wonders Rashi and Rashbam note that Hebrew niflaʾot echoes Moses’ niflinu, “that we may be distinguished,” of 33:16. Bekhor Shor and Ibn Ezra specifically apply the term to the wonder of Moses’ radiant face mentioned in verse 29, but it may also relate to the extraordinary events that lie ahead in the course of the wilderness wanderings and the wars of conquest.

13. sacred posts Hebrew ʾasherim (sing. ʾasherah) are pagan cultic objects often mentioned in the Bible. They derive their name from the goddess known in Babylon as Ashrat, consort of the god Amurru. She bears the titles “bride of the king of heaven” and “mistress of sexual vigor and rejoicing.” In Ugarit she appears as Athirat, consort of Il, who was head of its pantheon, and she is termed “the progenitrix of the gods,” “mother of the gods,” and “Lady Athirat of the Sea.” She was a fertility goddess, and in 2 Kings 23:7 she is associated with sacred prostitution. That text testifies to the assimilation to Canaanite culture on the part of a segment of the Israelite population—a reality demonstrated by an inscription from Kuntillet ʾAjrud in northwestern Sinai that mentions “YHVH and his asherah.”
The ʾasherim mentioned in the Bible must have been man-made wooden objects, most likely poles of some kind, that served as the cultic symbols of the goddess. The verbs used for the destruction of these abhorrent objects are frequently those of “cutting down,” “lopping off,” and “plucking up.” It is clear that the adoption of foreign cults involved not only religious but also moral corruption.

14. any other god This Hebrew phrase in the singular—ʾel ʾaḥer—is unique. Hence, Hebrew ʾaḥer has an enlarged resh (resh rabbati) to avoid confusion with the graphically similar dalet, which would yield ʾeḥad, “one.” The reverse phenomenon is evident in Deuteronomy 6:4.

Impassioned See Comment to 20:5. The emphasis on this punitive aspect of the divine personality is prompted by the apostasy of the golden calf.

16. lust after The Hebrew stem z-n-h, literally “to engage in prostitution,” is often used figuratively to express infidelity to the covenant with God. Its use here may allude to the sexual immorality often associated with pagan cults, and particularly with the popular excesses in connection with the golden calf, as mentioned in 32:6. The story about the apostasy at Baal-peor, as recounted in Numbers 25:1–9, illustrates the pertinence of the admonitions listed in these verses.

17. molten gods The warnings against idolatry in all its forms conclude with this prohibition because the golden calf is frequently so categorized.
Festivals and Related Religious Obligations (vv. 18–26)

The topics in this section are associated with those of the preceding because the narrative about the golden calf recounts that a “festival of the LORD” was proclaimed and burnt offerings and sacrifices were brought (32:5–6). Similarly, when Jeroboam set up golden calves at Dan and Bethel, he too invented a special festival (1 Kings 12:28–33). Hence the need to recapitulate the list of the legitimate festivals of Israel. These have previously been set forth in 23:12–19.

18. Feast of Unleavened Bread See Comment to 23:15. The list begins with this feast rather than with the Sabbath because the golden calf had been identified with the God of the Exodus and because the religious new year occurs in the spring. See Comment to 12:2.

19–20. The law of the first-born follows since it too, in 13:2, 11–15, is grounded in the Exodus. The text presupposes familiarity with that passage. In Deuteronomy 16:1–17, the list of festivals follows the law of the firstlings.

19. drop a male Hebrew tizzakhar, a grammatical form of the stem z-kh-r, is not found elsewhere. Also, it is feminine, whereas its subject, mikneh, “livestock,” is elsewhere always masculine. The Targums render the phrase “all the males of cattle you shall sanctify.”

20. See Comments to 13:13 and 22:29.

None shall appear See Comment to 23:15. As Rashi notes, this is a separate injunction, unconnected to the law of the first-born. It properly belongs after verse 23.

21. The inclusion of the law of the Sabbath here, after the passover and the first-born, presupposes that the institution of the Sabbath is based on the Exodus, as in Deuteronomy 5:15, and not on Creation, as in Exodus 20:9.

work The soil.

even at plowing time and harvest time The busiest times of the agricultural year must give way to the overriding imperative to observe sacred time. This sacrifice becomes a true test of faith.

22. Feast of Weeks See Comment to 23:16.

23. See Comment to 23:17. The present formulation, an expansion of the parallel text, is even further elaborated in Deuteronomy 16:16.

24. Another test of faith. This injunction presupposes the future existence of some central or, at least, regional sanctuary that, for many, will be far from home. It obviously cannot refer to a local shrine. The absence of males on the festivals might tempt an external enemy to time his aggression accordingly. Therefore the people are assured of divine protection on such occasions.

enlarge your territory Compare Exodus 23:31 and Deuteronomy 12:20.

covet See Comment to 20:14

when you go up The central shrine is assumed to be situated on an elevation.

three times a year See Comment to 23:17.

25. the sacrifice of the Feast of Passover See Comment to 12:11.

26. See Comment to 23:19.

The narrative now reverts to the role and status of Moses, thereby forming a literary framework with the opening verse of the entire section (32:1). The episode of apostasy began with a disparaging popular reference to him and closes with an account of his glorification. The key verb y-d-ʿ, “know,” is employed at both the beginning and the end (32:1; 34:29).

27–28. Apparently, Moses is instructed to write down the commandments contained in the foregoing, verses 11–26, just as, following the original covenant, he wrote down “all the commands of the LORD” (24:4).

27. in accordance with Hebrew ʿal pi, literally “by the mouth of,” is taken by the rabbis to mean “orally” and to refer to the oral Torah that accompanied the written Torah. Hence, this oral law is known in Hebrew as the torah she-be-ʿal peh. It functions to illuminate obscurities, to harmonize contradictions, and, in general, to make possible the practical application of the laws of the written Torah in the everyday life of the people. It has served to make Jewish law responsive to the needs created by changing social, economic, and cultural conditions.

with you and with Israel This unexpected order signals the transition to the final episode, which concentrates on the exaltation of Moses. It reflects his role as the dominant figure in dealing with the apostasy and in successfully interceding with God on Israel’s behalf.

28. The first half of this verse is the scriptural way of describing Moses’ withdrawal into solitude at the onset of his mystical/spiritual experience on the mountain. In the presence of the ultimate Source of holiness and in communication with Him, Moses realizes a transformation of his self. He achieves a state that is beyond the ordinary range of human experience. In this extrasensuous world he transcends the constraints of time and is released from the demands of his physical being.
This same phenomenon is included in the retrospective summary of the first theophany on Sinai found in Deuteronomy 9:9, 18, although it is omitted in the primary narrative in Exodus 24:18. Its emphasis here must be taken as another indication that the thrust of this epilogue is to elevate the status of Moses. It serves as the background for the culminating and extraordinary experience recounted in the following verses.

forty A symbolic number in the Bible, often associated with the purging of sin and with purification.

wrote down In light of verse 1 and Deuteronomy 10:2, 4, it is clear that the subject of the verb is understood to be God.

the Ten Commandments Hebrew ʿaseret ha-devarim, is also the title given in Deuteronomy 4:13 and 10:4. See introduction to chapter 20.
The Radiance of Moses’ Face (vv. 29–35)

Having succeeded in his mission as an intercessor, Moses descends the mountain carrying the two inscribed tablets that testify to the reality of the renewed covenant between God and Israel. According to rabbinic tradition, this occurred on the tenth day of the seventh month (Tishrei); for this reason that date was decreed to be the annual Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).
The awe-inspiring radiance emitted by Moses’ face may be understood as the afterglow of the refulgent splendor of the Divine Presence. It functions to reaffirm and legitimate the prophet’s role as the peerless intimate of God, the sole and singular mediator between God and His people; it also testifies to the restoration of divine favor to Israel. As such, the narrative forms a fitting conclusion to the entire episode of the golden calf. It further serves as an appropriate transition to the last segment of the Book of Exodus—the account of the construction of the mobile Tabernacle that is to symbolize the presence of God in the camp of Israel.

29. tablets of the Pact See Comment to 25:16.

was radiant A unique phenomenon conveyed by a unique Hebrew verb, karan. The traditional meaning given here is favored by the context and by Habakkuk 3:4 in which karnayim, “rays of light,” appears in parallelism with “a brilliant light.” This reference relates to God, and numerous biblical passages bear witness to a widespread, poetic notion of God being enveloped in light. Moses’ radiance is a reflection of the divine radiance.
Similar imagery was in use in ancient Mesopotamia, where an encompassing, awe-inspiring luminosity known as melammu was taken to be a characteristic attribute of divinity. This supernatural radiance was thought to be shared by royalty and was a sign of the king’s legitimacy. The present narrative about Moses shows that this notion was not considered to be incompatible with Israelite monotheism, although it appears in the Bible only in connection with Moses.
The peculiar threefold use of karan rather than the regular verb ʾ-w-r is probably a pointed allusion to the golden calf, for keren is the usual word for a horn. It subtly emphasizes that the true mediator between God and Israel was not the fabricated, lifeless image of the horned animal, as the people thought, but the living Moses.
The association of karan with keren gave rise to the mistaken notion that Moses grew horns—even though the text speaks not of his head but of “the skin of his face.” The rendering of karan by cornuta in the Vulgate translation, based on the commentaries of Jerome (ca. 347–ca. 419), helped foster the error, and a horned Moses later became a familiar figure in art from the eleventh century on. The most famous such portrayal is, of course, Michelangelo’s at San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome.

31–35. In the immediate presence of God Moses’ radiance is, as it were, recharged. When he mediates the divine word to the people, his radiance authenticates the Source of the message. On neither occasion is a veil appropriate. In his capacity as a private individual, however, Moses veils his face.
The verbal forms used to describe these activities imply repetition of the actions, indicating that from the time that Moses returned to the camp from Mount Sinai until his death his face remained radiant.


The Construction of the Tabernacle (35:1–40:38)

The renewal of the covenant between God and Israel, as symbolized by the second set of stone tablets, allows the construction of the Tabernacle to proceed. Moses convokes the people to make a public announcement to this effect. Just as the divine instructions about the Tabernacle concluded with the law of the Sabbath rest, so the narrative about its construction commences on the same theme—to the same purpose. See Comment to 31:12–17.

1. According to the Sages, this convocation occurred on the morrow of the Day of Atonement, when Moses descended Mount Sinai bearing the tablets, having obtained divine pardon for Israel.

the whole Israelite community The construction of the Tabernacle is to be an enterprise of all Israelites.

2–3. The injunction is practically a verbatim repetition of 31:15, with an addition. The manner in which the prohibition against kindling fire on the Sabbath is worded led the rabbis of the Talmud to understand that fire may not be kindled on the Sabbath itself; however, fire lit before the Sabbath and not refueled on the Sabbath is permitted. The Jewish sectarians known as Karaites rejected this interpretation and spent the day in darkness, although some later adherents did accept the rabbinic practice. It was probably to demonstrate opposition to the early Karaite view that the kindling of lights on the eve of Sabbath gradually became obligatory. To this end, the geonim, the post-Talmudic heads of the Babylonian academies, instituted the recital of a blessing over them.

throughout your settlements Abravanel suggests that the intent of this clause is to apply the prohibition comprehensively—wherever Jews reside.
A Call for Contributions (vv. 4–19)

4–9. Moses issues a call for donations of materials in accordance with 25:1–9. He specifies the various materials and explains how they are to be used. The actual goal of constructing the Tabernacle is not explicitly stated, as in 25:8; it is assumed that the audience is already aware of the project.

12. the curtain for the screen The workmanship and function of the curtain, which partitions off the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place, is described in 26:31–33. In Numbers 4:5 it is explained that at the breaking of camp during the trek through the wilderness, Aaron and his sons would enter the Tabernacle, remove the screening curtain, and cover the Ark with it.

15. the entrance screen The curtain that partitions off the Holy Place (the outer sanctum) from the outer court, as described in 26:36–37.

17. the screen for the gate of the court The curtain on the east side, at the entrance from the outer perimeter, as described in 27:9–19, especially verse 16.
The People’s Response (vv. 20–29)

The people—men and women alike—respond to Moses’ call with unstinting generosity, freely contributing their most precious possessions as well as their skilled services.

27. The chieftains of the tribes contributed the precious stones on which the names of the tribes are to be incised, in accordance with the instructions of 28:9–12, 21, 29.
The Master Craftsmen (35:30–36:1)

The people are informed of God’s designation of Bezalel and Oholiab as the chief artisans and supervisors of the entire project, as recorded in 31:1–11. Berakhot 55a remarks that this public announcement by Moses is to teach that one must not appoint a communal leader without first consulting the people.

34. and to give directions They are endowed with the ability to instruct others, which is a divinely bestowed gift. Ibn Ezra notes that “there are many scholars who are incapable of teaching.”

The Overabundance of Donations (vv. 2–7)

The popular outpouring of donations produced materials far in excess of what was needed, and the people had to be exhorted to contribute no further. See Comment to 12:36.

There now follows a lengthy and detailed account of the work. This is really a repetition of the instructions already given, but here the verbs are phrased as completed action, and the various items are listed in a different order.
The organizing principle in the original set of instructions was ideological; here practical considerations are paramount. Whereas the earlier instructions moved from the furnishings to the structure of the Tabernacle, here the sequence is reversed. By presenting the building of the Ark first, the former injunctions highlight the symbol of the covenant as the focal point of the entire enterprise and place it at the apex of a hierarchy of values. From Bezalel’s pragmatic perspective, however, priority must be given to the construction of the edifice that is to house the furniture.
In Berakhot 55a, Bezalel is said to question Moses’ instruction as follows:

Moses our teacher, it is universal practice that one first builds a house and then brings in the furnishings; but you say, “Make me an Ark, furnishings, and a tabernacle.” Where shall I put the furnishings I am to make? Can it be that the Holy One, blessed be He, said to you, “Make a tabernacle, an Ark, and furnishings.”? Moses replied, “Perhaps you were in the shadow of God [Heb. be-tsel-el, a play on Bezalel] and you knew!”

Another characteristic of the narrative is the oft-repeated affirmation that everything was executed in precise fulfillment of the divine instructions to Moses.

The Manufacture of the Furniture and Accessories (37:1–38:20)

The order of narration reflects descending gradations of holiness: the Ark, which is to be located in the Holy of Holies, comes first, to be followed by the three items that belong in the Holy Place—the table, the menorah, and the altar of incense. The anointing oil and aromatic incense are next because both are needed in the Holy Place. Last are the altar of burnt offering and the laver, both of which are placed in the outer court.
The Ark (vv. 1–9)

1. Bezalel made the ark This section corresponds to 25:10–21. It is to be noted that there the instruction reads, “They shall make an ark,” Ramban suggests that Bezalel personally made the Ark, given its paramount importance, but only directed and supervised the manufacture of the other objects. Moses’ statement in Deuteronomy 10:3, “I made an ark,” is to be understood in the same way as the phrase “the House which King Solomon built” in referring to the Temple.
The Table (vv. 10–16)

This section corresponds to 25:23–30.
The Menorah (vv. 17–24)

This section corresponds to 25:31–40.
The Altar of Incense (vv. 25–28)

This section corresponds to 30:1–10.
The Anointing Oil and Incense (v. 29)

This verse summarizes 30:22–33, 34–38.

The Altar of Burnt Offering (vv. 1–7)

This section corresponds to 27:1–8.
The Laver (v. 8)

This section summarizes 30:17–21 and provides additional information about the material of which the laver was made and the source of the donation.

8. the mirrors In ancient times mirrors were mainly of the kind held in the hand. They were highly polished disks of molten metal, copper or bronze, and were fitted with handles made of metal, wood, faience, or ivory. Egypt was the manufacturing center of this article of toilet for the entire Near East. One of the letters found at Tell el-Amarna, in Egypt, mentions a dispatch of mirrors from Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten, ca. 1364–1347 B.C.E.) to Burnaburiash, the Kassite king of Babylon. Due to the high cost of metal in Egypt, metal objects were not discarded but were eventually melted down and reused, as here.2

the women who performed tasks Hebrew ha-tsoveʾot. Nothing is known about this class, which is otherwise mentioned only in 1 Samuel 2:22. The Hebrew idiom tsavoʾ tsavaʾ is also used of the Levites and means “qualified to serve in the work force,” so that it is likely that these women performed menial work. None of the evidence supports the notion that they exercised any ritual or cultic function.5 The idea here is that even these women at the bottom of the occupational and social scale displayed unselfish generosity and sacrificial devotion in donating their valuable bronze mirrors.

the entrance of the Tent of Meeting At this stage, however, the Tent had not yet been erected. Hence, Ramban refers to Moses’ private tent situated outside the camp, described in 33:7. More likely, the designation is a retrojection from the later role of these women in performing the lowly tasks in the Tabernacle.
The Enclosure (vv. 9–20)

This section corresponds to 27:9–19. It marks the completion of the report of the construction of the edifice, its furniture, and appurtenances.


Moses now orders an inventory of the metals. This is to be undertaken by the Levites under the direction of Ithamar son of Aaron. The tally is prefaced by a restatement of the roles of the two master craftsmen.
The inventory described here is in accord with Egyptian practice. Egyptian art depicting scenes of metalworking regularly features the master weigher weighing the metals on balances and the scribes recording the results in their ledgers before issuing the materials to the artisans.

21. records Rather, “inventory, tally.”

Tabernacle of the Pact This rare designation once again emphasizes the emblem of the covenant with God as the focal point of the entire Tabernacle.11

Ithamar His birth was recorded in Exodus 6:23, and his nomination to be installed as a priest, in 28:1. Throughout the wilderness wanderings he directed the work of the Levitical clans in connection with the Tabernacle.14 David is said to have appointed the house of Ithamar as one of the twenty-four priestly courses in charge of the cult. The clan was still in existence in the exilic and early postexilic periods.

23. These qualifications of Oholiab repeat 35:35 and include some additional material as well.

24–30. The metals are listed in descending order of value.

24. talents Hebrew kikkar is the largest unit of weight mentioned in the Bible. It was equivalent to 3,000 shekels, as is made clear by the data given in verses 25–26. The same term (pronounced kakkarum), having the same equivalence in shekels, is known from Ugarit. In Mesopotamia the talent equaled 3,600 shekels. By one estimate, the kikkar would have weighed 34.27 kilograms (75.6 lbs.). The name seems to derive from the rounded shape of the weight. On the shekel, see Comment to 30:13.

26. a half-shekel Hebrew bekaʿ as a weight is mentioned elsewhere only in Genesis 24:22. The stem means “to split,” here, in half. Several weights have been found inscribed in paleo-Hebrew script with bekaʿ or its abbreviation, b. Their average weight is .210 ounces (6.019 gr.).

a bend The reference is to the census prescribed in 30:11–16.


This section corresponds to chapter 28. It contains some additional information and affirms—seven times in all—that each item was made exactly in accordance with the divine instructions.

1. The omission of the fine linen from the list is especially puzzling since it is included in verses 2, 3, and 5.

3. The process described here is typically Egyptian. The highly malleable gold was hammered over a stone into a thin sheet from which very narrow strips were cut to make fine gold wire. Gold thread was created by cutting the sheet in spiral form.

The Tabernacle in all its several parts and with all its appurtenances is completed and brought to Moses for inspection. The text does not record how long the work took nor the dates involved. According to a rabbinic tradition, it was finished on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is Kislev. In the time of the Maccabees, the dedication of the new altar in the Temple took place on the same date, commencing the festival of Hanukkah.

32. the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting A combination of the two distinct terms for the sanctuary. Together they express its dual function as the symbol of the indwelling of the Divine Presence in the camp of Israel and as the site of communication between God and Moses.4

42. the Israelites The entire project is presented from first to last as an enterprise of all the Israelites; compare verse 32.

43. This finale is patterned after the Creation narrative of Genesis, in which the completion of the work evoked divine approbation followed by a blessing. A rabbinic tradition formulates Moses’ blessing as follows: “May the divine spirit rest upon the work of your hands.”6


Moses receives divine instructions to set up the Tabernacle and put each item in its assigned place. He personally is charged with this task because the entire enterprise is said to be based on a celestial image or prototype that had been shown to him on Mount Sinai. Hence, he alone possesses a mental picture of the completed whole. Once again, priority is given to the Ark of the Pact. The order of emplacement of the furnishings is from the interior outward, from the most sacred to the less so.
The Tabernacle is to be erected just two weeks short of the first anniversary of the Exodus from Egypt, and exactly nine months since arriving at Sinai. This is New Year’s day, a date which forges another link with the Creation narrative. See the introduction to chapter 25.

3. the curtain See Comment to 26:31–33.

4. lay out its due setting The twelve loaves of the bread of display set out in two rows. See Comment to 25:30.

During the next stage every item is anointed with the sacred aromatic anointing oil. See Comment to 30:22–29.

See Comment to 29:1–9.

16. This Moses did This affirmation applies to all the foregoing instructions. The details are spelled out, item by item, as though to emphasize the point.

29. he offered up According to Rashi, the subject is Moses; but according to Rashbam, it is Aaron and his sons.

34. cloud … Presence The function of the Tabernacle was to create a portable Sinai, a means by which a continued avenue of communication with God could be maintained. As the people move away from the mount of revelation, they need a visible, tangible symbol of God’s ever-abiding Presence in their midst. It is not surprising, then, that the same phenomenon as occurred at Sinai, related in 24:15–17, now repeats itself. It will recur at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple, as is narrated in 1 Kings 8:10–11. The cloud is the manifest token of the immediacy of the Divine Presence. (See Comment to 13:21–22.) The Hebrew term kavod for God’s Presence, also rendered “majesty,” actually expresses His intangible immanence. See Comments to 16:7 and 33:18.

35. A similar comment is made in connection with the dedication of Solomon’s Temple. It is unclear whether entry is literally hindered, or is impermissible, or that he simply dared not enter.

36–38. Henceforth, Israel’s wanderings through the wilderness en route to the promised land are determined by the movements of the luminous cloud. This process is repeated in Numbers 9:15–23, and an example is given in 10:11–28.

The Book of Exodus, which opened with a tale of misery and oppression, closes on an auspicious note. Israel is assured that, day and night, the Divine Spirit hovers over it, guiding and controlling its destiny.
סכום הפסוקים שׁל ספר
אלף וחמשׁ מאות
ושׁלשׁים וארבעה
א֗ך֗ ל֗ד֗
וחציו ועל־חרבך
וסדרים מ֗ה֗
תם ונשלם תהלה לאל בורא עולם
חזק חזק ונתחזק


The Hebrews 1:15
The designation “Hebrew(s),” ʿivri(m), is found approximately thirty times in the Hebrew Bible. It can only derive from an original ʿiver or ʿever, and its form permits a connotation that is either geographic or gentilic—that is, having an ethnic denotation like kenaʿani, “Canaanite,” or moʾabi, “Moabite.” The former possibility is based on the use of ʿever, meaning “the region beyond,” as used in Genesis 50:10 and Numbers 21:13, so that ʿivri is “the man from the other side.” Such an understanding might be reflected in Joshua 24:2: “In olden times, your forefathers—Terah, father of Abraham and father of Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates.” The Septuagint rendered ʿivri in Genesis 14:13 as ho perátes, “the one from beyond,” or “the wanderer.” Opposed to the geographic interpretation is the associated “Mamre the Amorite” in that verse. This and the vast majority of citations weight the balance heavily in favor of the ethnic nature of the term.
Biblical references to “Hebrews” are concentrated within three contexts. The first is the cycle of Joseph stories, always having to do with relationships with Egyptians. The second cluster appears in the early chapters of Exodus,2 in which, again without exception, “Hebrew” contrasts with “Egyptian.” The third collection is in the Book of Samuel, in which the term is invariably in opposition to “Philistines.” The only other narrative usage is in Jonah 1:9, also in a non-Israelite ambience. It will be noted that, apart from this last source, which is most likely a conscious archaism, all citations are pre-Davidic; all refer only to Israelites (including 1 Sam. 13:3, 7; 14:21) in contrast to other peoples.
Apart from a narrative context, there is the sociolegal term “Hebrew slave,” ʿeved ʿivri, in Exodus 21:3 and Deuteronomy 15:12. This, too, means an Israelite, as is proven by the descriptive “your fellow” (ʾaḥikha) in Deuteronomy 15:12 and by Jeremiah 34:9, 14.
The foregoing data overwhelmingly support the view that ʿivri is an ethnic term. The alternative geographic explanation is, moreover, discounted by the fact that Abram’s family back home in Mesopotamia, “beyond the River,” is not called “Hebrew” but “Aramean” (Gen. 25:20).
There are, however, several curious aspects of the biblical employment of the word “Hebrew.” Of the three patriarchs, why does Abram alone bear this epithet, and why only in Genesis 14:13? Why are the other peoples who are related to Israel and also descended from Eber, grandson of Noah, called “sons of Eber” in Genesis 10:21 but never “Hebrews”? And why is the description reserved exclusively for the descendants of Abraham through the line of Isaac and Jacob but not used of the lines of Ishmael or Esau? Not all of these questions can be satisfactorily resolved in the present state of our knowledge, but the possible relationship of the Hebrews to a well-documented Near Eastern phenomenon needs to be examined because this latter has often been adduced as evidence to provide a solution.
From the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E. through the twelfth century B.C.E., cuneiform tablets from Sumer, Babylon, Upper Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and the Syrian-Canaanite area, as well as hieroglyphic texts from Egypt, register the presence of groups of people variously referred to as SA.GAZ, ḫapiru, ʿpr(m), and ʿpr(w). The meaning of these terms has long been the subject of scholarly debate, but each term is concerned with the same class of people. SA.GAZ is a Sumerian ideograph that is read in Akkadian as šaggašu and to which the scribes often attached the gloss ḫabbātu. Šaggašu in Akkadian means “killer, aggressor, violent person.” In West Semitic languages the same stem denotes “to be restless, ill at ease.” Ḫabbātu means “a robber” as well as “a migrant,” but ʿpr, which must be West Semitic, is as yet of uncertain meaning.
The people referred to by these terms are distinguished not only by extensive geographic distribution but also by considerable ethnic and linguistic diversity. Everywhere, they constitute a recognizable subservient social class, essentially an urban element. They are rootless aliens, deprived of legal rights, who often hire themselves out as professional soldiers of fortune or as slaves. Within the Egyptian sphere of influence, where authority was weak and centralized control was lax, this group exhibited independence and aggressive behavior and appeared as a socially disruptive element. The phenomenon as a whole seems to be the product of the convulsions that afflicted the Near East in the course of the second millennium B.C.E. By the end of the period, conditions became more stabilized, and the ʿApiru (ḫapiru) disappeared from history.
Were the Hebrews part of the ʿApiru? Various lines of evidence converge to reject the likelihood. First, there is no doubt that ʿapiru, an adjective, is the correct form of the name, as Egyptian and Ugaritic texts show, and the differences in the vowels and middle consonant between it and ʿivri, a gentilic, cannot easily be reconciled. Further, the ʿapiru are a social entity, not an ethnic group like the Hebrews. They possess nothing remotely resembling the Israelite tribal system. Extrabiblical sources of the second millennium B.C.E. do not identify ʿapiru with Israel, and where Israel is mentioned, it is not identified as belonging to the ʿapiru. If Abram is an ʿapiru, it is surprising that he enlists the support of Amorites in Genesis 14, rather than call upon his fellow ʿapiru for help. Even more persuasive is a comparison between the descriptions of the ʿapiru in Canaan, given in the El-Amarna letters (14th c. B.C.E.) and the activities of the invading Israelites under Joshua. The ʿapiru are never portrayed as being invaders from without, as are the Israelites; they often collaborate with the local Canaanite rulers, absorb local elements into their ranks, and defy Egyptian suzerainty over the land. The Israelites, on the other hand, are implacably hostile to the Canaanites, and Egypt never appears as a factor in the Israelite wars of conquest. Significantly, the term “Hebrews” is never featured in Joshua or Judges, which report on the Israelite wars of conquest and settlement in the land—precisely those books in which they would be expected to appear, were they to be identified with the aggressive ʿapiru.
The true origin of the term “Hebrew” is still to be determined. Perhaps it came to be used of social elements marginal to a society. If it was a self-designation for the people in the formative period of Israelite history, it would explain why it was used exclusively of Israel. At any rate, the term fell into disuse with the founding of the monarchy and was revived in much later times.

The Abandoned Hero Motif 2:3
The story of the baby Moses placed in a basket and abandoned to the River Nile has attracted the attention of scholars, especially folklorists, because it appears to conform to a widespread motif that is characteristic of tales about the birth of heroes.
A well-known example is the nativity of Oedipus in Greek mythology. Laius, his father, had received an unfavorable oracle from Apollo; therefore, when a son was born to him, he handed him over to a shepherd to be exposed on Mount Cithaeron. Disregarding instructions, the shepherd entrusted Oedipus to another shepherd, who, in turn, gave him to Polybus, King of Corinth. The monarch and his wife reared Oedipus as though he were their own son.
Another example of the same genre is the story of the birth of Heracles (Hercules). He was abandoned by his mother Alcmene but was found by Athena, who handed him over to Hera. She, unaware of the baby’s parentage, gave him to his own mother.
A third instance from classical literature is the famous tale of Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of the city of Rome. The twins were born to Rhea Sylvia, a princess and Vestal Virgin, who had been violated by Mars. Amulius, younger brother of her father Numitor, deposed the king and ordered the infants to be thrown into the River Tiber. However, the chest in which they were placed washed ashore; the twins were found and suckled by a she-wolf until their discovery by Faustulus, the royal herdsman. He and his wife brought up Romulus and Remus as their own sons.
The identical motif occurs in the biographies of two Near Eastern heroes. One concerns the birth legend of Sargon of Accad, the great empire builder of Mesopotamia. Purporting to be autobiographical, the cuneiform text claims that he was the love child of a high priestess of noble descent, the father being unknown. Disclosure of his mother’s indiscretion would have entailed the loss of her office, for which childlessness was an indispensable precondition. Accordingly, Sargon’s mother placed him in a basket of reeds, which she caulked with bitumen, and abandoned him to the River Euphrates. Carried downstream, the infant was discovered and saved by Akki the water drawer, who adopted him. Later in life, Sargon was favored by the goddess Ishtar and seized the throne of Akkad, which he held for fifty-five years.
The other Near Eastern example of this popular theme pertains to Cyrus, son of Cambyses, founder of the Achaemenid Persian empire. His grandfather Astyages, king of the Medes, experienced two dreams that were interpreted to mean that his newly born grandson Cyrus would one day usurp his throne. He therefore ordered his trusted servant Harpagus to murder the infant. Forebearing to commit the deed himself, the man summoned a herdsman named Mithradates, handed him the baby, and commanded him to leave him to die on a mountain range. The herdsman, however, took the infant home, only to discover that his wife had just given birth to a stillborn baby. The couple substituted Cyrus for the dead infant, whose body they left on the hills instead. Ten years later, by a quirk of fate, Cyrus’s true identity was uncovered.
A close examination of the account of the birth of Moses clearly demonstrates striking differences that distinguish it from the foregoing examples. Other than the life-threatening exposure of the infant, all the significant details of the Torah’s narrative are antithetical to the conventional characteristics of the literary genre that has to do with the birth legends of heroes. First of all, a singular feature in the biography of Moses is the absence of a divine announcement foretelling his birth. There are no prophecies about his destiny or fate, no omens of future greatness, and no supernatural phenomena appear in connection with the event. The absence of these items conspicuously distinguishes the biblical narrative from the popular biographies of heroes.
There are many other considerations as well. The baby Moses is neither the issue of an illicit relationship nor the child of nobility or royalty. There is no parental or grandfatherly hostility to the newly born. The mother desperately makes every effort to retain her offspring at home as long as possible, and she cedes him to the river only to circumvent the pharaoh’s decree of genocide. Even then, she does not assign the task to someone else but carefully and tenderly puts the baby in a well-caulked basket that she places among the clumps of reeds by the river bank so that it would not float away and would be spotted by the princess. She also takes measures to make sure that she keeps track of developments. Again, the finder in the Exodus story is not the usual person of humble birth but the daughter of royalty, who at once recognizes the Hebrew identity of the infant.

“God of the Father” 3:6
A distinctive and characteristic feature of the Book of Genesis is the frequent use of a certain type of divine epithet that is made up of the phrase “God is my/your/his father,” often with “Abraham” or “Isaac”2 or both names added in apposition to “father.” In some instances, God is further identified as YHVH.4 This designation appears once again in Exodus 3:6 in God’s self-manifestation to Moses, where it is intended to emphasize continuity. The God who speaks at the Burning Bush is the selfsame One who spoke to the patriarchs. Thereafter in the Torah the epithet becomes “God of your/their fathers,” the plural referring to the entire people of Israel.
The epithet “God of the father” is not unique to the Bible. It is, in fact, documented over a wide area of the ancient Near East over a long period of time, from the nineteenth century B.C.E. on. In these texts the “god of the father(s)” sometimes appears anonymously, sometimes with an accompanying personal name. For example, we find “Ashur, god of my father,” “Ashur and Amurrum, the gods of our father,” “Shamash, the god of my father,” “Ilaprat, god of your father,” an oath “by the name of the god of my father,” an appeal to the king “by the name of (the god) Adad, lord of Aleppo, and the god of your father.”
The connotation of this divine epithet is a special, personal relationship between the individual and his god, who is his patron and protector. This designation is particularly appropriate in the patriarchal narratives, since they revolve around the lives of individuals. It is highly significant that it is never used in reference to Abraham’s father. This is to be explained by the tradition, preserved in Joshua 24:2, that Terah was an idolator. It indicates that the advent of Abraham constituted a new stage in the history of religion. Similarly, the change from the singular to the plural form, “fathers,” following the commissioning of Moses, registers a further development.

ʾEl Shaddai 6:3
This is the most common of the several divine names constructed with an initial ʾel element. Like ʾel ʿelyon, it could be a fusion of an initially independent element shaddai, with ʾel, or the compound could be original. One way or the other, the distribution of shaddai both with and without the accompanying ʾel is highly instructive. This divine name appears nine times in the Torah, of which three are in poetic texts. All but two of the Bible’s other thirty-nine usages are likewise poetic (Prophets, Psalms, and Job). The prose exceptions (Ruth 1:20–21) are more apparent than real, since the Book of Ruth possesses a poetic substratum and frequently displays archaisms.
These statistics have an important bearing on the question of the antiquity of usage. The overwhelming appearance in poetic contexts points a priori to a venerable tradition, for Hebrew poetry tends to preserve or consciously to employ early forms of speech. The remarkably high incidence of shaddai in Job is of particular importance in light of that book’s patriarchal setting. All the true prose usages are concentrated within the Genesis narratives, a fact that is in perfect harmony with Exodus 6:3: “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai,” a tradition explicitly assigning the divine name to the pre-Mosaic age. Significantly, of the vast store of biblical personal names, only three are constructed with the element shaddai. These are Shedeur (=?shaddai-ur), Zurishaddai, and Ammishaddai—all appearing solely in the lists of Numbers 1–2. Each is the father of a tribal representative at the time of the Exodus. In other words, the divine name Shaddai lost its vitality in Israel with the advent of Moses and was preserved only as a literary relic in poetic compositions. Interestingly, the personal name shaddai-ʿammi—that is, the biblical Ammishaddai with its two components inverted—has turned up in a hieroglyphic sepulchral inscription as the name of a petty official in fourteenth-century B.C.E. Egypt. Since it cannot be explained as Egyptian, and because it is written in the syllabic orthography often reserved for foreign words, there is every reason to believe that the name belongs to a Western Semite in Egyptian employ. It is indeed known that Semites served the Egyptian bureaucracy in the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries B.C.E. There is thus additional evidence of the use of shaddai in pre-Mosaic times.
The great antiquity of the name and its obsolescence in Israel in the Mosaic period explain why there are no consistent traditions as to its meaning and why the ancient versions have no uniform rendering. The Septuagint variously has “God,” “Lord,” “All-powerful,” and “The Heavenly One,” among others, as well as the transliteration shaddai. The Vulgate has “Omnipotens,” whence the English tradition “Almighty.” The Syriac has “The Strong One,” “God,” and “The Highest,” as well as shaddai. The Greek rendering hikanós, “He that is Sufficient,” found in the versions of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodo-tian, reflects a rabbinic suggestion explaining the name as a combination of the relative particle sha with dai, meaning “sufficiency” (Gen. R. 46:2). The modern conjecture that has gained widest currency connects shaddai with Akkadian šadu, “a mountain,” often used as a divine (and royal) epithet. The name would originally have meant, “The One of the Mountain,” probably referring to a cosmic mount or corresponding to the divine epithet “The Rock.”
Notwithstanding the various conjectures, the original meaning of the divine name shaddai still eludes us.

Tefillin 13:9, 16
Exodus 13:9 states as follows: “And this shall be as a sign (Hebrew, ʾot) on your hand and as a reminder (Hebrew, zikkaron) on your forehead.” The same is repeated in verse 16 with a variant term: “And it shall be as a sign upon your hand and as a symbol (Hebrew, totafot) on your forehead.”
The terms “sign,” “reminder,” and “symbol” evoke some material object that serves to jog the memory, but they do not in themselves require a literal meaning for these verses. Rashbam actually considered the “deep, straightforward meaning” of the verses to be metaphorical. He adduced, in support, Song of Songs 8:6: “Let me be a seal upon your heart,/Like a seal upon your arm.” Abraham Ibn Ezra mentions, but rejects, this figurative interpretation, which its proponents bolstered by citing additional biblical sources such as “For they are a graceful wreath upon your head,/A necklace about your throat” (Prov. 1:9). “Let fidelity and steadfastness not leave you;/Bind them about your throat,/Write them on the tablet of your mind” (ibid. 3:3). “Tie them over your heart always;/Bind them around your throat” (ibid. 6:21). Other texts of the same order are Proverbs 7:3 as well as Jeremiah 17:1 and 31:32.
Apparently, both the Samaritans and the medieval Jewish sect of Karaites also took the instructions of Exodus 13:9, 16 metaphorically, for they do not have tefillin. Traditional rabbinic exegesis, however, interpreted Exodus 13:9, 16 literally as enjoining the wearing of tefillin. This understanding is upheld by two other texts in the Torah that reiterate the precept. Deuteronomy 6:8, which is part of the section that has traditionally become known as the Shema, states: “Bind them [i.e., God’s teachings, v. 6] as a sign on your hand, and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead.” A literal meaning is here favored by the immediately adjacent verse: “Inscribe them on the doorpost of your house and on your gates.” The other text is Deuteronomy 11:18, which is part of the second paragraph of the Shemaʿ in the Jewish prayer book: “Therefore, impress these My words upon your very heart; bind them as a sign on your hand, and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead.”
The tefillin comprise two small, cubelike, blackened leather capsules that are called in Hebrew battim (sing. bayit, lit. “house”). One is placed on the arm and one on the forehead, preparatory to the morning prayers. Because the singular form is tefillah, which is also the Hebrew word for “prayer,” a widespread explanation for the term “tefillin” is “objects worn during prayer.” It has been argued that this is not entirely satisfactory because in tannaitic times it was the custom among many to wear the tefillin all day long. Still, the designation could have derived from their being first put on for morning worship. Another possible derivation is from the biblical Hebrew stem p-l-l in the sense of “to intercede.” That is, the tefillin, with their expressed purpose of reminding the worshipper of God’s teachings and commandments, perform indirectly a propitiatory and expiatory function.
The English rendering for tefillin is usually “phylacteries.” This is an unfortunate misnomer. It is based upon the Greek term used in the Christian Bible. The Greek noun phylakterion derives from a stem that means “to protect, guard,” the noun form indicating “a safeguard, amulet.” It is quite possible that at the lowest popular level the tefillin were regarded as being charged with magical power, able to protect the wearer from malignant influences. Such a misconception may have arisen from the similarity in shape of tefillin to amulets in the ancient world, and from the fact that the preferred area of the body for the wearing of amulets was the forehead and often the arm as well, as Song of Songs 8:6 shows. Also, inscribed amulets were frequently stored in small leather cases.
Ancient popular misinterpretation notwithstanding, and despite the widespread use of the designation “phylacteries,” the tefillin have nothing to do with amulets. Their contents carry neither incantations nor petitions—standard items in all such paraphernalia. Rather, the biblical passages inscribed within the capsules express fundamental doctrines of Judaism. They proclaim the existence and unity of God, the call for the loving surrender of the mind and will to His demands, the charge to make God’s teachings the constant subject of study and to ensure the education of the young, faith in divine righteousness with its corollaries that society is built on moral foundations, that there is reward for virtue and punishment for evil, and finally, and above all, that the experience of the Exodus is of transcendent importance in the religion of Israel.
Aside from the contents of the tefillin, which in themselves preclude any phylacteric function, there is also the confounding fact that halakhic requirements exempt from the obligation to wear tefillin precisely those who, in the popular mind, would be expected to be most in need of protection from baneful influences—namely, minors, slaves, women, those who labor under certain sicknesses, and pall-bearers. Moreover, it is in places such as the cemetery and toilet, where, in the pagan world, people were thought to be most vulnerable to evil spirits, that Jewish law forbids the wearing of tefillin.
The biblical sources are silent on the implementation of the command. It is only from the Second Temple period that the evidence is forthcoming. The Sadducean faction that departed in so many ways from Pharasaic interpretation of Scripture, adhered to this command. Since that party was formed about the year 200 B.C.E., it must have already enjoyed a venerable past by then. The earliest post-biblical literary source to comment upon the tefillin is the Hellenistic-Jewish propagandist work known as The Epistle of Aristeas, composed about 170 B.C.E.; however, it mentions only the hand tefillah. From the last years of the Second Temple we have the testimony of the Jewish historian, Josephus, who records both the hand and head tefillin. In addition, rabbinic sources mention the existence of tefillin that originated two generations before Hillel and Shammai,8 that is, to about 70 B.C.E., and also a pair that had belonged to Simeon ben Shetaḥ, of the same century.
The aforementioned literary traditions about the use of the tefillin have been abundantly reinforced in recent years by the finds from the region of Qumran in the Judean wilderness near the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. Here was uncovered the headquarters of a sectarian Jewish community that occupied the site from about 135 B.C.E. to about 68 C.E. Among the hoard of manuscripts and numerous objects found in the nearby caves were many fragments of tefillin, including the capsule of a head tefillin that still contained its four inscribed slips. Other fragments have been found in the Wadi Murabaʿat region in the Judean wilderness, about twelve miles southwest of Qumran. During the first and second centuries C.E., this site served as a refuge for Jewish soldiers who fought against Rome.
The widespread use of tefillin in this period contrasts with the surprising silence of the Mishnah, edited ca. 200 C.E., about their makeup and contents. Maimonides suggests that it is because the public was so thoroughly familiar with the rules that it was not necessary to specify them. Be that as it may, the details are discussed at length in the Talmud, tractate Menahot 34a–37b.
As stated above, the tefillin are cube-shaped, although the height need not be the same as the equal length and breadth. The capsule for the arm is hollow and contains a single slip of rolled or folded parchment, called klaf in Hebrew, on which are inscribed all four relevant biblical passages in the same script as used for writing a scroll of the Torah: Exodus 13:1–10, 11–16, Deuteronomy 6:4–9 and 11:13–21. For the head tefillah, these passages are transcribed onto separate slips, and each is inserted into one of the four compartments into which the capsule is divided. The order of the passages was a matter of dispute in talmudic times and was still an issue in the eleventh and twelfth centuries between Rashi (1040–1105) and his grandson Rabbenu Tam (1096–1171). The view of Rashi became universally accepted in the Jewish world. It is now clear that both systems existed in the time of the Second Temple, as the finds from Qumran prove.
As to the makeup of the tefillin, the two capsules rest on a wider, square base of thick leather known in the Talmud by its Aramaic name, titoraʾ This has a hollow projection at the back, called maʿabartaʾ Through it the strap (in Hebrew retsuaʿ) is passed. Both capsules and straps are made from the hide of a ritually clean (kosher) animal. They must be especially prepared for their sacred purpose. The entire tefillah is sewn together with twelve stitches, using tendon thread derived from a kosher animal.
The two straps, which are blackened on their visible side, are made from a single piece of leather. They hold the tefillin in place on the arm and forehead. The strap for the hand tefillah needs to be long enough to be wound seven times around the arm, three times around the hand, and three times around the middle finger. The strap for the head tefillah must reach to the navel on the right side and the chest on the left; or, according to another ruling, that on the right should reach down as far as the genitalia and that on the left to the navel.
The hand tefillah is put on first, following the order of mention in the passages in the Torah. Its proper position is on the left arm (unless the wearer is left-handed), directly on the biceps, slightly inclined toward the heart, thus symbolizing the literary image “Impress these My words upon your very heart” (Deut. 11:18). The strap is tied in the form of a noose and is knotted so as to form the Hebrew letter yod at the end of the side nearest the heart. The winding round the hand shapes the letter shin, and that round the finger, the letter dalet, so that in combination they make up the divine name shaddai, “Almighty.”
The proper place for the head tefillah is at the high point in the center of the forehead at the edge of the hair line, “between the eyes.” The knot of the encircling strap lies on the nape just where the skull ends. The Hebrew letter shin, probably standing for shaddai or shemaʿ, is embossed on both sides of the head capsule. That on the right is the standard form with three upright strokes, but that on the left side has four such strokes. The meaning of this unusual shape is uncertain. An interesting hypothesis is that it arose to indicate that the tefillin so marked are normative, having four, not five, compartments. The extra parchment slip would have contained the Decalogue, which was recited daily at the morning service in the Temple, but which practice was discontinued in the face of sectarian polemics.15 It is theorized that the Decalogue also once had a place in the tefillin and was removed at the same time and for the same reason. Mishnah Sanhedrin 11:3 refers to those who claim that there should be five compartments in the head tefillah, and similar references are to be found elsewhere in Rabbinic literature. The findings at Qumran provide evidence of the early existence of tefillin containing the Decalogue. The Church Father Jerome (347–420 C.E.) reported that the tefillin contained the Decalogue. He apparently saw a sectarian pair.
Tefillin are not worn on Sabbaths and scriptural festival days, nor are they worn at night; hence, this precept falls within the category of “time-conditioned performative mitzvot.” According to rabbinic halakhah, women are exempt from all such obligations and, therefore, are not duty-bound to wear tefillin. Nevertheless, rabbinic sources mention that Michal, daughter of King Saul, did assume the obligation to put on tefillin, and the sages of the day did not object.20 The Code of Rabbi Aaron ben Jacob ha-Kohen of Lunel (ca. 1330–1360), called Orhot Ḥayyim, quotes Rabbi Solomon ben Abraham Adret (Rashba, ca. 1235–ca. 1300) to the effect that women are permitted to recite the benedictions even over performative, time-bound precepts. Rabbenu Jacob b. Meir Tam (ca. 1100–1171), grandson of Rashi, made a similar ruling, thus allowing women to wear tefillin. However, these views did not become the norm.

Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Law (21:1–22:16)
If, as the Rabbis frequently stated, God employed the everyday language of human beings in order to communicate His will, then there is no section of the Torah in which this principle is more patently manifest than in the collections of legal ordinances. Extant corpora of laws, records of court proceedings, and judicial decisions provide ample evidence to prove that in its external form, in legal draftsmanship, in its terminology and phraseology, the Torah followed long-established, widespread, standardized patterns of Mesopotamian law.
Documents from the practice of law run into the many tens of thousands, uncovered at several widely dispersed sites in the Near East. Collections of laws recovered number no more than six.
Two such collections have survived in the non-Semitic Sumerian language spoken in southern Mesopotamia during the third and early second millenniums B.C.E., written in cuneiform script. The older one is that of King Ur-Nammu of the city-state of Ur, founder of the Third Dynasty of that city in the twenty-first century B.C.E. The original has not been found, only a fragmentary copy from Nippur, a city about one hundred miles (ca. 160 km.) south of Baghdad. This has been supplemented by two broken tablets from Ur itself, both of which are much older. The extant materials preserve the prologue to the collection, together with twenty-nine stipulations, probably less than half of the original number. The prologue refers to “principles of equity and truth” and describes social abuses that the king sought to correct in order “to establish equity in the land” by standardizing weights and measures and by protecting the orphan, the widow, and the poor. The stipulations cover sexual offenses, support of divorcées, false accusations, the return of runaway slaves, bodily injuries, the case of an arrogant slave-woman, perjured testimony, and encroachment of another’s private property. The laws are formulated in “casuistic” style; that is to say, they are conditional, the opening statement beginning with “if” followed by the hypothetical, concrete case, and the concluding statement giving the prescribed penalty.
The second Sumerian collection of laws comes from Lipit-Ishtar, king of the city of Isin, in central lower Mesopotamia, in the nineteenth century B.C.E. Although an Amorite, he wrote his laws in Sumerian. There may once have existed also an Akkadian version, now lost. The laws, of which about thirty-eight remain, are estimated to have originally numbered about two hundred. They are framed by a prologue and an epilogue. In the former, the king writes that his god had commissioned him “to establish justice in the land” and “to promote the welfare” of his people. In the latter, he declares that he has restored domestic tranquility and established righteousness and truth. The extant laws, which belong to the concluding part of the corpus, deal with a variety of civil cases: the hiring of a boat, horticulture, the institution of slavery, house ownership, family laws such as marriage, divorce, polygamy, inheritance, and responsibility for injury to a rented animal. In these laws too, the casuistic formulation is the rule.
The other law collections from Mesopotamia are all written in Akkadian. The earliest in this language derives from the city of Eshnunna, situated about twenty-six miles (42 km.) northeast of Baghdad, on a tributary of the Tigris River. Its author is unknown, and its date is uncertain. The laws, some sixty in all, are preserved on two tablets, neither being complete. These were copied in the time of a contemporary of Hammurabi, but the original is believed to be considerably older. Neither prologue nor epilogue, if there were any, has been preserved. The legislation concerns the prices of various commodities, the cost of hiring a wagon and a boat, negligence on the part of the hirer, the wages of laborers, as well as laws pertaining to marriage, loans, slavery, property, personal injury, a goring ox, a vicious dog, and divorce. As before, the casuistic formulation is predominant. A peculiarity is that the application of the laws may vary according to the social status of the persons involved.
Mesopotamian jurisprudence reached its zenith in the seventeenth or eighteenth century B.C.E., with the promulgation of Hammurabi’s great collection. These were inscribed on an eight-foot-high black diorite stele that was originally placed in the temple of Esagila in Babylon. In the early part of the twelfth century B.C.E. it was looted by the Elamite king Shutruk-Naḥ-ḥunite and carried off to Susa (Hebrew, shushan), capital of his kingdom, where French excavators discovered it in 1902. It now resides in the Louvre in Paris.
The upper front part of the stele bears a relief that features King Hammurabi standing before a seated deity, either the sun god Shamash or the chief god of Babylon, Marduk. The scene is often misinterpreted in popular books as Hammurabi receiving the laws from the god, but it is nothing of the kind. The god is really investing the king with the ring and the staff, which are the symbols of sovereignty. He thereby endows him with the authority, and perhaps also the wisdom, to promulgate the laws. The text makes it perfectly clear that Hammurabi himself is the sole source of the legislation.
Written in cuneiformed Akkadian in fifty-one columns, the stele now contains what is calculated to be two hundred and eighty-two legal paragraphs. About thirty-five to forty paragraphs were erased by the Elamite king; a few of these have been restored from other tablets. An extensive literary prologue and a lengthy epilogue frame the legal section. The prologue abounds in lofty sentiments about the purpose of the legislation, which is to further public welfare, to promote the cause of justice, to protect the interests of the weak, and to ensure the rule of law. The epilogue repeats these noble ideals and adds that the statutes are there so that anyone may know the law in case of need and that a future ruler may be guided by Hammurabi’s ordinances. It closes with a series of blessings invoked on him who is faithful to the laws and heaps fearful curses on him who is perfidious. Both prologue and epilogue are unabashedly replete with Hammurabi’s copious and effusive self-praise and with massive hyperbole extolling his own greatness and mighty deeds.
The corpus of the laws, mostly styled casuistically, includes a large variety of legal topics. The first forty-one paragraphs deal mainly with matters of public order; the rest belong overwhelmingly to the domain of private law, matters that affect the individual citizen. Distinctive features of the laws are the extraordinarily large numbers of capital offenses (some thirty in all), the penal mutilation of the body, vicarious punishment, the principle of talion, or legal retaliation in kind, intense concern with the protection of private property, and an innovative approach to several areas of private wrong that are now recognized as issues of public welfare to be regulated by the state. Finally, as in the laws of Eshnunna, those of Hammurabi reflect a stratified society; as mentioned above, the penalties and judgments may vary according to the social standing of the litigants.
Considerably different from the collections hitherto described is the body of legislation that has come to be known as the Middle Assyrian Laws. Uncovered at the ancient city of Asshur on the Tigris River, about two hundred and fifty miles (563 km.) north of Babylon, the several clay tablets on which these are inscribed come from the twelfth century B.C.E., but the legislation itself may well go back three centuries earlier. Although they conform to the casuistic pattern, the legal formulations and terminology as well as the prescribed penalties suggest influences, presently unknown, other than the standard Mesopotamian traditions. One hundred and sixteen paragraphs are preserved in full or partial form. An extraordinarily large number deal with matters relating to the status of women and to family law. Peculiarly characteristic of these Assyrian laws are the savagery and severity of the punishments they mete out: numerous instances of the death penalty, even for offenses against property; mutilation of the body; flogging, even to the infliction of one hundred lashes; pouring pitch over the head; tearing out the eyes; subjection to the water ordeal; forced labor; and the exaction of grievously heavy fines. There are also instances of multiple punishments imposed for a single offense.
Greatly under the influence of Mesopotamian legal traditions but deriving from quite a different cultural and linguistic milieu and geographic region are two hundred Hittite laws that have survived from the Old Hittite kingdom in Asia Minor, now central Turkey. The extant tablets date from about 1250 B.C.E., but they go back to a much larger corpus of laws, apparently promulgated or collected for the use of jurists about five centuries earlier. A unique feature of this compilation is the clear references to earlier laws that have been revised. Capital punishment has been restricted to but a few offenses and has been replaced by restitution. The casuistic style is extensively employed.
At this point it should be emphasized that none of the collections discussed can be considered to be codes in the usually understood sense of the term. First, one and all, they omit important spheres of legal practice, and none comes close to being a comprehensive regulation of the citizens’ lives. Second, not one of the compilations decrees that it is henceforth to be binding on judges and magistrates. Third, none is ever invoked as the basis of a legal decision in all the thousands of extant documents from the actual practice of law in the courts. For these reasons, the various collections are to be regarded as recording emendations and additions to bodies of existing unwritten common law that are seen to be in need of reform. This conclusion applies equally to the corpus of laws embedded in the Torah. It is silent on matters of commercial law, on such indispensable practices as sales and contracts, the transfer of ownership, the legalization of marriage, the regulation of professions, and on most aspects of inheritance. Clearly, there existed in Israel a body of unwritten common law, orally transmitted from generation to generation, knowledge of which is assumed. What is prescribed in the Torah is a series of innovations to existing laws.
It should be further underlined that the review of the legal corpora of the ancient Near East given above unquestionably establishes that when the people of Israel first appeared on the scene of history, their world was already heir to a widely diffused common legal culture of long standing. No wonder, then, that Israelite laws exhibit so many points of contact with the earlier collections. Like them, the Torah expresses itself in terms of concrete, real-life cases, and, like them, the underlying legal principles are not abstractly stated but are to be deduced from the resolutions of those cases.
Another feature that is common to both ancient Near Eastern law collections and their Torah counterpart is the difficulty in uncovering the organizing principle that determines the arrangement and sequence of legal topics, although some progress has been made in this regard in recent years.
The affinities and analogues that abound between the Israelite and the other Near Eastern law collections tend to obscure the fundamental distinctions that exist between the two, a subject that must now be addressed. First and foremost is the essential fact that biblical law is the expression of the covenant between God and Israel. Several important consequences flow from this. The legal sections of the Torah cohere with the Exodus narratives and cannot be separated from them without losing their integrity and identity. Their sole source and sanction is Divine will, not the wisdom and power of a human monarch. As imperatives of a transcendent, sovereign God who freely entered into a covenanted relationship with His people, the laws are eternally binding on both the individual and society as a whole. Hence the public nature of the law. There can be no monopoly on the knowledge of the law, and the study of it is a religious obligation. Further, there can be no differentiation between the branches of public and private law and between both of them and religion and morality. All topics that fall under any of these rubrics are equally binding. Law is not severed from morality and religion. As to the substance of the law, the Torah allows of no vicarious punishments, no multiple penalties, and, apart from the special category of the slave, demands equal justice for all, irrespective of social status. Finally, whereas the Near Eastern laws place great stress on the importance of property, the Torah’s value system favors the paramount sacredness of human life.
Sarna, N. M. (1991). Exodus (S. 182–276). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
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