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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 23

Peake's Commentary on the BiblePeake's Commentary


III. Israel at Sinai ( XIX. XL.) .

The division Num 19– 40 presents difficulties due to its very importance, see introduction to Ex. (last paragraph). But Num 25– 31, 35– 40 readily fall apart from the rest, as containing P’ s account of the Tabernacle ( see on Exodus 25:1), the introduction to which is found in Exodus 19:1-2 a and Exodus 24:15 b Exodus 24:18 a, Exodus 34:29-35 being a link section. All critics confess that in the remainder many details must remain doubtful. The Oxf. Hex. is for the most part followed here. It does not differ very widely from Baentsch, who has made a special study of this part. Gressmann’ s drastic reconstruction is highly suggestive in particulars, but as a whole is over-bold. The noteworthy fact is that both J and E preserve important traditions. In each there is an older stratum preserving these elements of the national memory of the religious and political confederation of the tribes: an awful appearance of God upon Sinai-Horeb (Exodus 19 JE, Exodus 20:18-21 E), and the giving of a sacred code, the (Ten) Covenant Words, inscribed upon stone tablets ( Exodus 31:18 b E, Exodus 34:28 J) and sealed by a solemn sacrificial feast ( Exodus 24:5 E, Exodus 24:11 J). Now these passages concur in presenting a favourable view of Israel at this period: he is the son gratefully responding to the compassionate love of his Father ( cf. Exodus 4:22 *), or the lowly bride returning the affection of her Husband. And this agrees with the view of the period taken by all the pre-exilic prophets who refer to it (see Hosea 2:15; Hosea 11:1; Hosea 11:3 f., Hosea 12:9; Hosea 12:13, Amos 2:9-11; Amos 3:1 f., Jeremiah 2:1-3; Jeremiah 2:34). Even Ezekiel’ s severe view rather points to the ancestral heathenism of the tribes (Egyptian, Exodus 23:3, but Canaanite or Amorite-Hittite, Exodus 16:3) than to any apostasy just at this epoch. Only Hosea 9:11, if it refers to the incident Numbers 25:1-5 JE, implies such a lapse. On these grounds it is probable that Numbers 32 JE (the Golden Calf and its destruction E, and the vengeance of the Levites J), together with not a little expansion elsewhere, belongs to a later stage in the moulding of the tradition. The order of incidents is hard to follow, because the editor who united J and E, in his care to preserve as much as possible of both, took the story of the tablets in J as a re-giving and rewriting of them with a renewal of the broken covenant. Much of Numbers 33 containing the colloquies with the Divine Leader belongs to this stage. All this, of course, involves a considerable disturbance of the Bible order and representation in Ex., which, but for one section, is substantially followed by D. But the essence of the great religious facts is irrefragably secure: Israel did, by whatever stages short or long, emerge from a condition little removed from contemporary heathenism, and learned to worship one gracious and holy God (p. 84). Differences concern only the manner and form of events, and their times. Later historians have so accustomed us to having at least the main events fitted neatly into their centuries B.C. or A.D. that we find it hard to think that serious writers could be centuries out in their reckoning. But just as prophets saw future events near and distant in a foreshortened perspective, so it may be that the Bible historians— called “ the former prophets” (pp. 38, 244) by the Jews— saw their instances of the nation’ s glory and shame as more closely crowded together than they actually were. The main thing is that they actually saw them, and that, too, in the mirror of eternity.” Throughout the whole we see the material, as it were, in a plastic state. As older conceptions were outgrown new touches could modify the details, though, fortunately for our chances of recognising the earlier levels of inspiration, traces of the old were not always obliterated. Sometimes we must suppose that these modifications had already been made during the period of oral tradition.

Verses 1-9

Exodus 23:1-9 R. Justice.— Form and substance also separate this group from the Judgments and ally it with the Words of Yahweh in the Covenant Book. Circulating groundless reports ( Exodus 23:1 a), conspiring with “ him that is in the wrong” ( cf. Exodus 2:13) to be a malicious witness ( Exodus 23:1 b) , siding with the strongest in action or witness-bearing ( Exodus 23:2), and partiality in judgment ( Exodus 23:3) are condemned. Read in Exodus 23:3 , for “ poor,” “ great” : partiality for the poor needed no prohibition. The injunctions about a straying or fallen beast of an enemy ( Exodus 23:4 f., render Exodus 23:5 as mg.) breathe a generous spirit: they are here out of place, and were perhaps a marginal illustration to Exodus 23:9 . Justice must be administered fairly and strictly, and bribes must be rejected, and not Buffered to “ pervert the cause of the righteous” ( Exodus 23:8). In Exodus 23:7 b it is better to read with LXX “ and thou shalt not acquit the guilty.” The alien, like the poor, is to have justice ( Exodus 23:9 a, Exodus 23:9 b being a gloss). We see the true democratic ideal of law and justice emerging in this paragraph, and also the obstacles before it: the man with money, or a large family ( cf. Psalms 127:3-5), or many friends had a tremendous advantage; he has not lost it all yet.

Verses 10-19

Exodus 23:10-19 E. Calendar and Rules for Worship.— This passage may originally have followed Exodus 23-26 in the Covenant Book. It has been expanded, Exodus 23:13 being a conclusion (perhaps displaced from after Exodus 23:19), and Exodus 23:15 b, Exodus 23:17, and Exodus 23:19 copied by a harmonist from Exodus 34:18; Exodus 34:20; Exodus 34:23; Exodus 34:25 J. Every seventh year the land ( i.e. probably each owner’ s, not the whole country at once) was to be fallow, not from a religious or agricultural motive (as Leviticus 25:1-7 *, Leviticus 25:20-22 *), but on charitable grounds ( Exodus 23:10 f.). The origin of the custom probably lay in the ancient rights of the village community as distinct from those of its members (p. 102). The weekly Sabbath also is enjoined on social grounds, for the ease and refreshment of cattle, slaves, and foreign hirelings. Field work seems mainly in view. Next are named the three “ times” ( Exodus 23:14, lit. feet, i.e. “ footprints in the sands of time” ) in the year when each Israelite was to keep a pilgrimage-feast ( hag) . See on these, pp. 102- 1 04. The spring festival was mazzoth or unleavened cakes, when the barley harvest began in late April or early May, the idea possibly being to ensure the fertility of the seed for the next harvest, and the absence of leaven being due to the stress of work (but cf. Exodus 12:34; Exodus 12:39 J). The completion of wheat harvest in June was to be marked by the “ harvest festival” proper (in E and D, “ feast of weeks” ), when the worshipper presented “ the firstfruits of (his) work” on the land ( Exodus 23:16 a), the year being crowned by “ the feast of ingathering” in autumn, when threshing was over and the juice pressed out from grapes and olives ( Exodus 23:16 b) . This was the grand occasion in the year for festivities, lasting seven days, spent by custom in booths (AV “ tabernacles” ), whence came a common title for it. Leavened bread must not accompany a sacrifice, being regarded as unsuitable because unknown in primitive times when the only bread was like the “ dampers” of the Australian bush, or because more liable to corruption ( Exodus 23:18 a); and the fat, the portion best esteemed, must be consumed while fresh in sweet smoke as an offering. A kid might not be seethed in its mother’ s milk, but it is not clear for what reason. [The prohibition was hardly inspired by the sentimental desire to keep the feelings delicate and refined; it was aimed presumably at some religious or magical practice. Goat’ s milk was used as an agricultural charm to produce fertility. But this does not explain this special injunction. Robertson Smith connects it with the taboo on blood as food, and thinks milk may be regarded as a substitute for blood. This hardly explains why the kid is specially selected for mention, nor yet the mother. He supposes, with several scholars, that “ mother’ s milk” simply means goat’ s milk. This is very dubious; and if we interpret the term strictly of relationship we get a clearer light as to the meaning. Goat’ s milk possessing a magical quality, we might infer that a sucking kid would possess the same quality, and this would be intensified if the two were united, especially when the relation was already so close as between the kid and its own dam. We have to do, then, with a charm to which a peculiar magical efficacy was attributed. Probably it was originally a pastoral charm designed to secure the fertility of the flocks. It was natural that it should survive as an agricultural charm when the nomad tribes settled down to till the soil.— A. S. P.]

Verses 20-33

Exodus 23:20-33 E. Closing Discourse ( Exodus 23:23-25 a, Exodus 23:27, and Exodus 23:31 b Exodus 23:33 Rd).— This passage is highly complex. The verses just noted bear marks of the school of D; they condemn “ pillare,” which E approves ( Exodus 24:4 and elsewhere); their warning tone is inconsistent with the dominant tone of promise; and they reflect the view of the Conquest as a clean sweep, which Rd expresses throughout Jos. E’ s Covenant Book has its epilogue ( cf. Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28) presenting God as the Guide and Guardian of His faithful people. While J regards the pillar of cloud ( Exodus 13:21) and the Ark ( Numbers 10:23), if not Hobab ( Numbers 10:31), as the instrument of the Divine guidance, E here promises the companionship of “ an angel,” who is, however, equivalent to God, whose “ name is in Him” ( Exodus 23:21, cf. Genesis 24:7, etc.). The conception of God as manifested under the guise of an angel may be viewed as a preparation for the revelation of the Incarnate Son and the Indwelling Spirit. Abundance, health, fertility, long life, and national stability should follow loyalty to His leading ( Exodus 23:25 d Exodus 23:26). A plague of hornets should help in the conquest ( Exodus 23:28), which should, however ( Exodus 23:29 f.), be gradual ( cf. Judges 1:19, etc.), till it reached the Euphrates ( Exodus 23:31), as once happened under David and Solomon. In Exodus 23:31 b – Exodus 23:33 Rd, Israel, not God, is to drive out the Canaanites. Perhaps originally in E this epilogue followed the ratification of the covenant ( Exodus 24:3-8) and the construction of the Tent of Meeting ( Exodus 33:7-11).

Bibliographical Information
Peake, Arthur. "Commentary on Exodus 23". "Peake's Commentary on the Bible ". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pfc/exodus-23.html. 1919.
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