A Kingdom of Priests and its Earthen Altars in Exodus 19-24

in Vetus Testamentum
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This study analyzes the altar law in Exodus 20, the statement that frames it in Exodus 19, and its application in Exodus 24 as a single narrative that denies the professional configuration of sacrifice as essential to religion and divine blessing. It puts the gift-blessing exchange into the hands of every family, and reverses the basic trope of hosting-visiting and the social poetics that govern hierarchical religion: rather than host at his palace through mediating attendants, Yahweh visits wherever he is invited. The study argues that the narrative attacks an Israelian and Judean ideology in which royal success defines territorial extent, shapes the polity, enshrines divine power in temples, and controls divine blessing. It reconfigures the elements such that territory and nationhood are defined by the divine king, who roams freely throughout the land to bless each of his subjects, so long as they invite him to receive a gift.

A Kingdom of Priests and its Earthen Altars in Exodus 19-24

in Vetus Testamentum



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See the excellent analysis by BlumStudien45-53 91-99 169-172; also Schwienhorst-Schönberger Das Bundesbuch 284-299 406-414; Kratz The Composition of the Narrative Books 133-140; Schmidt “Israel und das Gesetz.”


See BadenJ E and the Redaction of the Pentateuch153-161; idem The Composition of the Pentateuch 116-118; Stackert A Prophet Like Moses 75-77. Compare also Patrick “The Covenant Code” 145-151. At the same time this study diverges from just about all analyses and hypotheses by warranting the inference that the (“Elohistic”) historical work that contained all three of the passages now in Exodus 19 20 and 24 did not originally include Yahweh presenting his extensive set of laws in 21:1-23:19 (or Moses transmitting them in the relevant direct-object clause in 24:3); see below n. 85. Note also my view that 20:1-13 too appears secondary (below n. 57). Both additions seem to me essentially uninflected by Deuteronomic texts and concepts and as many have shown (e.g. Levinson Deuteronomy; Baden J E and the Redaction of the Pentateuch 153-172) both appear to have made up a part of the Elohistic history by the time Deuteronomic authors engaged it.


So CassutoExodus178; Tigay “The Presence of God” 195 n. 3.


Contra Levinson“Is the Covenant Code” 300-315. The three manuscript traditions of mt sp and lxx can agree yet still contain a secondary reading: Num 15:39 mt לְצִיצִת; sp לציציות; lxx ἐν τοῖς κρασπέδοις should undoubtedly read לאות (Fox “The Sign of the Covenant” 569 578-580). See Tov’s critical review of principles and practices in the evaluation of readings which he wryly boils down to “common sense” and an “art” and in conjectured emendations regarding which he notes the randomness of preservation and rediscovery (Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible 265-281 327-340 esp. 270 280-281 329). For confusion between the letters ת and א in the old Hebrew script as a factor in the change of Exod 20:20 see Tigay “The Presence of God” 204 n. 29 (for this problem in general Tov Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible 228); the presence of the first-person formulation in sp which has been copied continuously in the old Hebrew script makes it nearly certain that the interchange took place in a copy in old Hebrew script. As an alternative Tigay raises deliberate harmonization or assimilation (“The Presence of God” 204 n. 29). However the recurrence of divine self-declaration throughout so much of the Torah—in all its sources—could easily predispose a copyist to expect the first-person form and to find it there so to speak when faced with graphic ambiguity; namely the process need not have involved conscious exegesis as much as instinct. For the mentally complex nature of the production of some variants see Tov The Text-Critical Use of the Septuagint 162-171 (on translators).


So Tigayibid.203; he only refers to worshippers but also includes parallels in cognate languages from the regions around Israel and Judea.


See GinsbergThe Israelian Heritage58-60; Levinson Deuteronomy; Chavel “The Second Passover” 14-17 21-22.


Alpert NakhaiArchaeology and the Religions of Canaan and Israel49. At the same time others correlate it with the altar at Arad (Mierse Temples and Sanctuaries 126) although enough typological analogues occur throughout the Levant to make any particularistic claim for Judea (and Israel) problematic.


See especially BöhlExodus142.


E.g. Sforno; EhrlichMikra Kifshuto1:170; Holzinger Exodus 67; Randglossen 1:337; Cassuto Exodus 156 Paul Studies in the Book of the Covenant 29-31; Childs Exodus 367; Houtman Exodus 2:445-446.


See BlumStudien51-52. The prophecy in Isa 61:1-9 in the context of a series of prophecies recognizing the single temple of Jerusalem seems directly to engage and adapt the ideas of Exod 19:3-6. It does not appear to predict literally that all Judeans will serve in the Jerusalem temple but it does not shift the emphasis to the abstract notion of Israel’s intermediation on behalf of the other nations either. To be precise the prophecy envisions the thoroughgoing blessedness of the complete nation leading foreigners to consider them all an entire nation of priests namely enjoying divine proximity service and rewards. Compare Blum ibid. 170-172.


So HolzingerExodus79; Levinson “Is the Covenant Code” 280.


CassutoExodus176. Tigay considers this understanding “forced” but does not explain why (“The Presence of God” 199). Ibn Ezra who from a traditional perspective addresses the seeming contradiction with 19:20 resolves the matter by having recourse to the deity’s representation as of great size: a manifestation like his feet is perceptibly lower on the mountain while a manifestation like his head from which he speaks is up in the sky (the so-called long commentary at 20:18; see too Ramban; Sforno).




Contra Schmidt“Israel und das Gesetz” 169-170 181-183. It may be due to the pragmatics of Moses’ single-handed management of the covenant and its rituals that the author has him build only one altar rather than have every family build its own. This will be matched by Aaron building a single altar and a golden sculpture in Exod 32:1-8. Cassuto analyzes the complete configuration of the altar and the twelve stones as representing the two parties to the covenant Yahweh and the tribes of Israel respectively (Exodus 217). Accordingly he suggests that just as Moses tosses part of the blood on the altar he tosses the other part representatively on the twelve stones not directly on the people (218; so too Stockton “Stones at Worship” 59). Abusch emphasizes blood’s ability to effect relations between god and human and exemplifies with this passage (“Blood in Israel and Mesopotamia” 677-678). Lewis draws on a variety of ancient Near Eastern and modern critical sources to argue that the use of blood in this text has multiple meanings but he overlooks the artifice and argument of the text as narrative historiography (“Covenant and Blood Rituals”).


So Patrick“The Covenant Code Source” 155.


Contra BlumStudien170.

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