A Nation in the Presence of God

In his latest book, Leon Kass invites believer and unbeliever alike to read the book of Exodus alongside him. While reading even a grocery list alongside Kass would probably be edifying, Exodus is a particularly arresting choice. To the extent that Exodus is known today, it is from its Sunday school (and Hollywood) set pieces: Israel enslaved; Moses born, hidden, and adopted into Pharaoh’s house; Moses flees Egypt, is called by YHWH in the burning bush and returns to Egypt; Pharaoh and the plagues, the Passover, and the flight from Egypt; the parting of the Red Sea; the giving of the Ten Commandments and the golden calf. Kass mines these well-known stories for deeper insights, but, more significantly, he takes us through usually ignored but crucial parts of Exodus: the Law of the Covenant (Exodus 21-23), and the momentous telos of the Exodus: the design, building, and indwelling of the Tabernacle (Exodus 25-31, 35-40). The Tabernacle is often ignored because the narrative seems to bog down in details of architectural design, construction, furnishings, and priestly vestments. Kass restores the Tabernacle to its crucial place not only in the Exodus narrative, but as a uniquely consequential turning point in the overall arc of the Scriptures.

Kass invites the unbeliever because he reads Exodus “philosophically.” By this he means that he relies on “unaided human reason” to understand the book’s inherent wisdom. Beyond being a historically significant book for the Jewish and Christian faiths, Exodus also provided a common corpus of events and experiences that, historically, Western philosophers, political theorists, constitutionalists, and layfolk drew upon for their various discussions, even as they disagreed on the meaning and implications of the shared narrative.

Yet in reading the text philosophically, Kass necessarily reads the text sympathetically. And here even believers—especially believers—can profit from Kass’s methodology. The seeming over-familiarity with Exodus due to its popular glosses entices believers to think they know its content when they don’t. Kass invites the believer to consider unfamiliar implications of familiar texts, and to wrestle with the book’s momentous, yet largely ignored, passages.

What Makes a People? What Makes a Nation?

Kass divides Exodus into three textual “pillars.” First, “the story of slavery in and exodus from Egypt” (Exodus 1-15), then the covenant and the giving of the law (Exodus 15-23), and finally, the design, construction, and indwelling of the Tabernacle (Exodus 24-31, 35-40).

In the first pillar, Kass considers the narrative’s discussion of the enslavement and liberation of Israel. He takes the opportunity to draw broader insights from the development of Israel as a nation of formerly enslaved people, as well as the development of Moses as a leader.

Noteworthy in this section are lessons Kass draws from Israel’s nationhood, lessons that relate both to the broad Biblical narrative but also to today’s wide-ranging debate over nationalism. Kass underscores the remarkable openness of membership in Israel. With few exceptions, membership was an open classification: it was a matter of covenant, not of biological descent.

The celebration of the Passover Feast was limited to Hebrew households. Yet with circumcision, a “stranger” could become as a “native of the land” and participate (Exodus 12.48). The law stipulated that “one law” applied to both the “native and to the stranger.” This construction of Israel’s nationhood contrasts sharply with that of other nations in Scripture’s narrative. Recall that Abraham’s calling follows immediately on the division of the nations in Genesis 10 and 11 (in response to the Tower of Babel). There, nations were divided and identified “according to their families, according to their languages, by their lands, by their nations” (Genesis 10.20, etc.). Blood, language, and land.

Kass takes pains to present the Ten Commandments in relation to Israel’s special vocation—particularly in the call for Israel to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”

YHWH calls Abraham (then Abram) immediately after this division, and tells him that, through him and his children, YHWH would bless the very nations he had just judged (Genesis 12.3). To do so, Abraham’s family, and with it the nation of Israel, would need to be unlike the just-divided nations. Israel would be created and identified by covenant rather than by blood. Thus, a male who descended biologically from Abraham, yet without the covenant sign of circumcision, would be “cut off from his people” (Genesis 17.14). Yet a male who had not descended biologically from Abraham would be counted as a “native of the land” if circumcised.

Israel’s cosmopolitanism did not end with formal membership in the nation. Kass highlights the textual report that a “mixed multitude” of Gentiles fled with Israel (Exodus 12.38). This should not be a surprise. After all, Genesis reports that Egyptian laypeople were enslaved prior to the Israelites’ own enslavement (Genesis 47.19). And Israel’s breathtaking cosmopolitanism continues in often unfamiliar ways in later texts: the sojourning “alien” was included in some of the national covenants YHWH made with Israel (e.g., Deuteronomy 29.10-14), Gentiles could offer sacrifices to YHWH (Numbers 15.14, Leviticus 17.8), and Gentiles were invited to pray toward the temple, with the assurance that YHWH would hear (1 Kings 8.41-42).

Contrary to Yoram Hazony’s nationalistic reading of the Hebrew Scriptures, Kass sees Israel called to a universal vocation for all the nations in Exodus: “What is striking is how open to accepting strangers the Children of Israel are encouraged to be and how generous are the criteria for allowing outsiders to join their ranks.”

Covenant and Law

Kass moves with the narrative to the creation of the covenant, the giving of the Ten Commandments, and the giving of the Law of the Covenant in Exodus 19-23. While treating the “rational content” of the commandments in detail, Kass takes pains to present the Ten Commandments in relation to Israel’s special vocation—particularly in the call for Israel to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” in Exodus 19. Kass then provides extended consideration to an often-slighted part of Exodus, the “Law of the Covenant” (Exodus 21-23), the set of laws that follows immediately on the presentation of the Ten Commandments. These laws provide a distinctive civil code, poignantly beginning with the limitation of Hebrew slavery in Israel to a six-year period. Hebrew slaves would go free in the sabbath year. The laws and discussion are fascinating.

While the Ten Commandments are usually taken to teach a universal morality, Kass refreshingly underscores that the text does not invite consideration of the Commandments as an abstract ethical system. Rather, the text presents the Commandments as a distinctive revelation of the personal character of YHWH himself. This is perhaps most obvious in the Sabbath command in which Israel re-enacts YHWH’s rest on the seventh day of creation:

Here is the most radical implication of the Sabbath teaching; the Israelites are, de facto, enjoined “to be like God” . . . Note well: their relationship to the Creator is no longer based solely in historical time and in their (parochial) deliverance from Egyptian bondage. It is ontologically rooted in cosmic time and in the universal human capacity to celebrate the created order and its Creator, and in our special place as that order’s God-like, God-imitating, and God-praising creatures.

The Ten Commandments are not the renewed bondage of Israel to a different King. Rather, the Ten Commandments reveal the character of Israel’s Father and so form the character of Israel as YHWH’s “first born son” (Exodus 4.22). Within the narrative, the Ten Commandments teach a human nature liberated to reflect the divine image in which it was originally created; the Commandments form a people who have their humanity fully restored.

The Tabernacle: Paradise Restored

This brings us to Kass’s last pillar, and to the most neglected part of Exodus. That it is neglected is ironic, because, as Kass notes, the narrative expressly states that the purpose of the Exodus is the building of the Tabernacle and what it means for Israel and for humanity. YHWH explains in the text that he delivered Israel from Egypt “so that he might forever after dwell among them” (Exodus 29.46). The ultimate purpose of the Exodus is the Tabernacle.

Starting in Exodus 40, YHWH moves from “out there”—from the mountain that could not be touched, and then from the tent pitched a “good distance from the camp”—into the very midst of the people of Israel, literally dwelling at the center of the Israelite community.

This is a momentous turn not only in the book of Exodus, but in the overall narrative of the Scripture. Kass points out that what occurs with the construction of the Tabernacle is not merely “national liberation, political founding, and decent interpersonal morality.” The point of the Exodus, Kass writes, is nothing less than the return of YHWH’s “Presence” to Israel and to humanity. The Tabernacle represents the restoration of what humanity lost with the Fall; it is Paradise restored.

In the sweep of the last half of Exodus, we see the remarkable movement of God’s Presence from distant and remote to near and accessible. The movement starts in Exodus 19. Here, YHWH descends onto the mountain to “meet the people.” Nonetheless, at this initial meeting, no Israelite but Moses and Aaron could “go up on the mountain or touch the border of it.” Darkness, fear, and distance characterized this first meeting (Exodus 19.16-24).

Israel is drawn nearer to YHWH’s Presence in Exodus 24. After a covenantal blood rite, seventy of Israel’s elders are allowed onto the mountain, an action forbidden just five chapters earlier (before the blood rite). Prefiguring the Tabernacle’s design, YHWH here bends the firmament that divides heaven and earth (Genesis 1.6-8) to meet the elders and show them hospitality as they “eat and drink” in His Presence. (The bluish coloration inside the Tabernacle and of the priest’s clothes evokes the sapphire firmament under YHWH’s feet in Exodus 24. [See the walls of in Tabernacle in Exodus 26.1, the screen dividing the holiest of holies from the holy place in 26.31, and the high priest’s ephod in 28.31] Heaven and earth  meet together in the Tabernacle as they did on the mountain.)

Drawing nearer still, YHWH’s Presence next leaves the mountain and descends to the same level as the people. Moses builds a temporary prototabernacle for God’s Presence (Exodus 33.7). But a sinful people cannot dwell with a holy God without dying (Ex 33.5). As a result, though nearer to the people, this tent for YHWH’s Presence still needed to be placed “a good distance from the camp” (Ex 33.7).

The final move is the most dramatic of all. Starting in Exodus 40, YHWH moves from “out there”—from the mountain that could not be touched, and then from the tent pitched a “good distance from the camp”—into the very midst of the people of Israel, literally dwelling at the center of the Israelite community.

Moses for the first time sets up the now-completed Tabernacle. In response, the Glory-Cloud takes up residence in it with a Presence so intense that even Moses cannot enter (Exodus 40.35).

But this is only the start. The remarkable outcome of the Tabernacle requires we follow the narrative through Leviticus and Numbers to its conclusion about a month later. All of the detailed instructions in Leviticus and Numbers—sacrifices and offerings, priests, cleanliness laws, etc.—are given to construct a social environment in which the presence of YHWH can dwell in the very midst of the people without killing them (e.g., Leviticus 15.31, 16.16, cf., Exodus 33.5, Numbers 5.3.)

These instructions allow the final dramatic move. In the camp, the Levites dwell in a circle around the Tabernacle (Numbers 1.53), with the rest of the tribes then arranged around the Tabernacle and the Levites (Numbers 2.2). The remarkable upshot is this: In the movement from Exodus 19 through the design and construction of the Tabernacle, to instructions for the work in and around the Tabernacle in Leviticus and Numbers, God’s presence has moved from the distant top of the mountain—a mountain that could not even be touched—into the very heart of the Israelite community. God once again walks among humanity; Eden has been restored (Genesis 3.8, Leviticus 26.12).

The book of Exodus is a pivotal book, both because of its place in the overall arc of the Biblical narrative, but also because of the role that narrative has played in forming conceptions of nationhood and liberty. Leon Kass’s remarkable commentary provides insights on every page, from which to learn and with which to wrestle.