Childs on Sinai and the Decalogue

In my reading today of Brevard Childs’ commentary on the Book of Exodus, the topics were Sinai and the Decalogue.

Something that I appreciated as I read Childs’ comments on the Sinai story in Exodus 19-20 was how difficult the identification of sources actually can be.  Childs acknowledges that there are tensions within the story: Moses goes up and down the mountain, sometimes for no apparent purpose; the people are presented as fearfully standing at a distance from the mountain, and yet there are warnings against them coming too close; there is unclarity about whether God dwells on the mountain or only descends there periodically; and the theophany is portrayed as occurring with smoke and fire, on the one hand, and clouds and thunder, on the other.  But identifying sources such as J and E is not easy, and grouping together stories by the divine name that they use does not work, in this case.  There are doublets that use the same divine name.  E supposedly believes that God dwells on the mountain, yet a source that presents God calling to Moses from the mountain (which, for Childs, entails God dwelling there) uses the divine name Yahweh, which J prefers.  J is stereotyped as portraying God’s theophany with smoke, whereas E’s theophany has a rain cloud, yet passages that have a cloud refer to God as Yahweh, and a passage often ascribed to E has a theophany of thunder, lightning, trumpets, and smoke.  Moreover, what has been labeled as “J” does not even appear smooth, for J “assumes a burning mountain because of Yahweh’s prior descent”, right before it “reports the descent for the first time” (page 349).  Childs says that different traditions were combined at the oral stage, before there were written sources.  But Childs does not dispense with J and E.  He believes that underneath the E source is a presentation of Moses as covenant mediator, whereas underneath the J source is a focus on Moses’ office as the one who heard from God and communicated God’s will, an office that continued with the Tent of Meeting (which was later absorbed into Jerusalem theology).  According to Childs, the revelatory office became subordinated to the covenant mediation in the Sinai story.

Childs is a fan of the final form of the text.  After describing scholarly debates on the date of the Decalogue, he takes a swipe at scholars when he says that “to the extent to which the scholar now finds himself increasingly estranged from the very substance which he studies, one wonders how far the lack of content which he discovers stems from a condition in the text or in himself” (page 437).  And Childs sometimes takes what may be considered a harmonizing approach to the text, or at least an approach that seeks to make sense of the text in its final form.  For example, what baffles many scholars about Exodus 19:20-25 is that God tells Moses to warn the people not to push their way to see the LORD, and to instruct the priests to consecrate themselves, and Moses reminds God that the people already cannot ascend Sinai because God warned them previously, and limits have been placed around the mountain.  Childs asserts that God does not think that the previous preparation of the Israelites was adequate, and so he sees a need to warn them again to keep their distance.  Childs appears to defend the logic of this passage within the story.  At the same time, Childs acknowledges that the presence of priests in this passage is anachronistic, since Aaron has not been consecrated yet, and Childs rejects the ancient view that these were firstborn Israelites who were priests.  Moreover, when Exodus 19:9b has a strange statement that Moses reported to God what the people had said—when v 8b already said that Moses did that, and v 9a said nothing about the people’s response—Childs dismisses midrashic methods that try to make sense of that.  Rather, he just says that v 9b is a “misplaced gloss from 8b” (page 375).

From the story of Sinai, Childs draws lessons about the holiness of God and the fact that God’s covenant is not a covenant of grace devoid of content.  Childs reminds me of people I know who say that there are responsibilities in a relationship with God, and that God called us specifically so that we can bear spiritual fruit—to be conformed to his character.  There is a part of me that sympathizes with this sentiment, for, years ago, whenever I heard people plead with others to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Savior, the question in my mind was, “Okay, I did that, so what’s next?”  Actually, that’s just the beginning!  At the same time, I want God to love me simply because he loves me, not because he has the ulterior motive of making me a certain way.  I sometimes get the impression that some don’t consider God’s love to be enough in the divine-human relationship, that God’s justification of us out of love would be pointless if we did not embrace a certain lifestyle.

Regarding the Decalogue, I found Childs’ discussion of the Decalogue in Christian exegesis to be particularly interesting, for I have wondered what the Christian stance to the Torah should be: Should Christians believe that the Torah was given exclusively to Israel within that particular covenant, or that it reveals God’s will for all of humanity, and is thus applicable to Christians?  Childs states that the Didache quotes the Decalogue, but he refers to church fathers (i.e., Justin, Irenaeus, and Tertullian) who said that Christians did not have to obey the Jewish law, except for those parts that were consistent with God’s law for all human beings.  And Martin Luther essentially had the same approach.

Finally (in terms of this post), Childs discusses on page 438 a complex issue: How can Scripture be particular to its own time, and yet bear meaning for subsequent generations, meaning which is particular for their time?  Childs does not believe that Scripture equals the interpretation of it, but he also does not think that the text can mean anything and everything.  To be honest, I do not know how he tries to resolve this problem.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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