Exodus has been hailed as the foundation for God’s liberating character. Throughout history, multiple people groups have leaned on this story in times of despair as a source of hope. When we examine the Sinai even in Ex. 19-24, we find that the Exodus story is not a nice neat liberation story. When God gives his commandments at Sinai, it is within a particular socio-historical context. So, these laws are reflective of the context they come from and purpose for which they were given. As a result, they complicate the liberating nature of the Exodus. Yet still, the Covenant Code in Ex. 21-23 is the foundation for the Israelite nation, and provides direction for constructing a just and liberated society. We will examine Ex. 19-24 to get a fuller understanding of the Exodus and how this should inform our liberation theology.
Before we start analyzing some of the complicating features around the liberating nature of the Exodus, we need provide some context around what is happening in Ex. 19-24. Starting in Ex. 19:4, we see that God liberated Israel from Egypt to make his covenant with them. The Hebrew word used for covenant here is בְּרִיתִ֑. God is establishing a divine constitution between him and the Israelite people. Israel was not liberated so they may be an entirely self-determined nation that becomes like all the nations around them. No, God liberated Israel so they may be his nation, his treasured possession among the entire earth.
Gutierrez makes an astute observation that God’s first act of liberation was a deeply political action. Yet that political liberation needs to be seen within the context of all that God is doing, and the purposes that God has. Israel was liberated to be in service to God, to be God’s. A liberation theology that is founded on Exodus should reflect this. Gutierrez has this as a main feature of his thinking when he frames salvation as being the communion of humans with God among themselves. Liberation should not be less than political, social, or economic concerns, but it should always be more than just that. Liberation that is not tied to a resultant relationship with God does a disservice to the heart and purpose of Exodus.
When we see that the Exodus was for the purpose of God making his covenant with Israel, we see that liberation does not come without terms or requirements. Again, God does not liberate Israel for freedom’s sake, but to give them freedom to follow and serve him. This means that God’s liberation of Israel has to be seen in light of what he has liberated them for, his covenant. It’s also important to recognize the dynamics and environment around God making his covenant with Israel.
Ex. 19:21-25 details God telling Moses to tell the people not to try to come up and see him, בָּהֶ֖ם יְהוָֽה יִפְרֹ֥ץ פֶּן־. This Hebrew phrase is typically translated as “lest YHWH break out against them”. The verb being used here, יִפְרֹ֥ץ, is in the qal imperfect 3rd masculine singular form. The root for this verb is פרץ, which means to break out in judgement against. Given that this is an isolated situation, we should not view the qal imperfect as indicating a custom or habitual habit, but rather this is a possible future action. We see this warning of God breaking out against the people twice in these four verses.
God gives this warning right before he gives the Decalogue and the following laws of the Covenant Code. This frames the covenant God is giving the people in an interesting manner. God is clearly a personal God, coming down to Mount Sinai to make a covenant with the people. However personal God is though, there is still distance between him and the people. God’s holiness maintains this distance. The message God gives is clear, I want a relationship with you but do not approach me in ways I have not permitted.
The people do not seem to be bothered by this though. After God delivers his ten commandments to the people, the people וַיָּנֻ֔עוּ וַיַּֽעַמְד֖וּ מֵֽרָחֹֽק. The verb וַיָּנֻ֔עוּ is in the qal welcomes 3rd masculine plural form. The root for this verb, נוע, means to wander or to shake (with fear). Since the people here are just standing at the base of the mountain, it’s clear the use here is that they are shaking or trembling with fear and not wandering. So as tremble with fear in response to hearing God give the ten commandments, they also begin to “stand far off”. In fear, the people tell Moses in Ex. 20:19 to go and speak to God himself since they are afraid they would die if God continued to speak to them.
It’s important for us to recognize that God’s covenant, which is to be the manifestation of his liberation of the Israelites, is conducted in a way that displays God’s might and power. Given that the covenant largely resembles a suzerainty treaty, it is no surprise that God as the suzerain would want to display his power to Israel, his vassal. The liberation of the Israelites has to be understood within a framework that introduces YHWH as a powerful God who liberated Israel so he could make a relationship with the people, but does not let them get to close, and so has specific laws for how they are interact with him. The people are compliant and honestly afraid to get to close to God.
God’s liberation of Israel is already starting to look peculiar in the sense that Israel is afraid of their liberator. Given the biblical emphasis on fearing the Lord, we should not think this compromises God’s picture of liberation though. A proper perspective on the comparison between our nature of existence in reference to God’s should illicit overwhelming awe and sincere fear. As oppressed people strive for and follow God for liberation, their fear of God should help restrain them from becoming oppressors who God later will have to oppose and tear down. With this context we can now start to look at the covenant God makes with Israel.
We will start with looking at the Decalogue. It has long been connected with natural law, an indication of universal human morality. To the extent that this is true, I think this could be part of the reason God has made the Decalogue the first set of laws or commands he gives to Israel and why they are separate from the laws he gives throughout Ex. 21-23. It is clear that the Decalogue is given specifically to the Israelites though, and has specific regulations about how Israel is to interact with God that do not get revealed to other people for a long time. This should temper the extent to which we want to see the Decalogue as a universal moral code for all humanity.
The Decalogue would serve as a foundation for the Covenant Code as God constructs Israel’s society for justice. It also serves as an indication for Israel that their new society will be built on just morals that will foster and maintain a nation of liberation rather than oppression. The intended audience of the Decalogue and the Covenant Code is tricky though. Both present all the laws in the masculine you form, which makes them seem to be given to the men and not the women. This may likely just be a feature of the androcentric perspective of the biblical writers though. Yet, even in the last of the ten commandments, the wife that is not to be coveted seems to be classified as just another part of the man’s property, rather than her own subject. It seems we are starting to see the limitations of God’s liberation for Israel already. Women are not experiencing the level of liberation and self-determination that the men are receiving.
As we move into the Covenant Code in Ex. 21, we should see the ways these laws differ from the Decalogue. The Covenant Code laws, in conforming with Ancient Near Eastern legal tradition, are casuistic and case specific, rather than general like the Decalogue. As we start these case rulings, we are struck by the fact that the first 11 verses are about how Hebrew slaves are to be treated in Israel. This is stunning because God has constantly been referring to himself as Israel’s liberator because he rescued them from slavery in Egypt. Then as God is setting up this new nation of Israel, he seemingly sanctions the practice of slavery of Hebrew people inside Israel itself. The sort of slavery does appear to be different from what was described in Egypt though.
This slavery was almost certainly not what occurred in the America’s and probably is more of a debt servitude, which also differs with their experience in Egypt. The slavery in Israel is on a personal level, where individuals are masters over other individuals. In Egypt, the impression we get is that Israelites were more slaves of the state, i.e. Pharaoh, rather than slaves of other individual people. In contrast to the ways Pharaoh made work more untenable for Hebrew slaves in Ex. 5, God requires a Sabbath rest for servants in Ex. 23:12. Also, in Israel, the slavery that is sanctioned is limited to six years, where the slave should be sent free during the seventh year. This is a much more liberating picture than the perpetual slavery the Israelites experienced in Egypt for hundreds of years.
We should not overlook the fact though that the slavery in Israel was still a fairly robust form of slavery. Slavery in Israel meant that if a master gave his slave a wife and the slave’s wife had children, the wife and children still belonged to the master. The family was under control of the master. For the slave to stay with his family, he has to commit to being the master’s slave forever (Ex. 21:6). To have to decide to be with your family or a slave forever hardly seems like a liberating society. It’s clear how Israelite society was structured to benefit those with power.
Another interesting observation about this law is it seems like concerns of adultery or divorce are not present. This indicates to me the profound way that slaves were considered property, and not a part of the audience that God has given his laws to. The property status is made clear in other laws as well. Abuse of slaves is allowed in Exodus 21:21 because the slave is “his money”. Although they are property, there is still a recognition that slaves have some humanity. The abuse of slaves is limited since the master will be punished if they kill their slave (Ex. 21:20), and the slave will be let go if they are abused too much (Ex. 21:26-27). Again, the presence of slavery cuts against notions that Israel is a liberated nation, but we should recognize the ways their form of slavery was to be less oppressive than what they experienced in Egypt.
There also seems to be different conditions for females who are sold into slavery. The use of the Hebrew words יִמְכֹּ֥ר and אָמָ֑ה in Ex. 21:7 is somewhat confusing for me. The Hebrew words mean “sell” and “slave” respectively. However, what is described in the following verses 8-11 do not seem to reflect the reality of a slave, but more of an indentured female servant who could be married by her master. She is to be betrothed to her master or his son after her servitude. If she is not betrothed and treated properly as a wife or is an unsatisfactory wife, then she is to be released and is no longer owned by the man who originally purchased her. Again, the language of selling and slavery do not seem to reflect the sort of relationship the woman would be engaged in. That is not to deny the fact that women and wives were often treated and viewed as property of men in the Ancient Near East.
Despite the obvious second-class status of women, the Covenant Code does elevate women by putting mothers at the same status of fathers in many respects. It also provides protection to limit the oppressive power men had over women. By requiring the man in Ex. 21:7-11, to either marry the woman himself and treat her fully as his wife or have her married to his son, the law is making sure that the woman has some sort of security and protection. In a patriarchal society where men own everything and have the control, a woman being on her own could be a vulnerable and desperate situation.
A woman not a part of a male’s household would have no property and almost no opportunity to earn a living and accumulate property. That’s why in Exodus 22:16, a man who sleeps with a בְּתוּלָ֛ה, a virgin or young woman of marriageable age, is required to pay the bride-price to the father and take the woman as his wife. In a society where sexual purity for women was required for marriage, not being sexually pure was a sentence to be in poverty and on the margins of society. The verse is slightly complicated though as it does not just function to protect the woman, but really seems to be aimed at protecting the father and making sure that the father gets the bride-price that is due to him for his daughter.
If slavery and relegation of women to the status of property was not enough to challenge the liberating nature of God’s new nation of Israel, an evaluation of the punishments may also bring some cause for pause. Eight times God commands capital punishment as the consequence of breaking a particular law. Such a severe punishment would indicate the value of such a law. There is also the reality that this is happening in a time that is pre-Christ, where people had to bear the punishment of their sins and God thus dealt with sin differently. As a Christian though, these punishments still are uncomfortable because there seems to be no intention or thought of redemption. Such a retributive system offends many of my sensitivities that want to display God as a restorative and redemptive God, rather than a God who teaches a society to get even when you have been wronged.
Lastly, the conquest of Canaan promised in Ex. 23:20-33 is startling. Israel has been liberated from Egypt for only a few weeks at this point, and God is already talking about them going into another people’s land to conquer them and expel them from the land. Just as liberation for Israel came at the expense of the Egyptians, it seems like further liberation for Israel will have to come at the expense of the Canaanites. This should cause us to pause and question if liberation for one people group always has to come at the expense of another people group. This section of conquest makes the Exodus feel more like a specific vision of liberation for a particular people, rather than a paradigmatic story that exemplifies liberation for any and all oppressed people.
As we consider God as a liberator and look at the sort of liberation and just society he is providing for Israel; slavery, the status of women, strict punishment, and prospect of further conquest are components that offend our sensitivities of what a liberated just society would look like. Despite some of these complications, the content found in Ex. 19-24 does have foundations for a just society and reasons to see God as a liberator. We see this is the way God instructs Israel to treat the poor, needy, sojourner, widowed and orphaned. Not only has God put it into their laws that they are to not mistreat those who are on the margins, but he also puts in positive commandments demanding that they go out of their way to take care of the least of these.
The word used for sojourner in the Covenant Code is גִּר. The root for this word means a new comer, a temporary dweller. Twice, in Exodus 22:21 and in 23:8, God says Israel is not to oppress or wrong the גִּרbecause they were once sojourners in Egypt. God is establishing that outsiders, those new to Israel or just temporarily dwelling in Israel, are to be treated well and with dignity, unlike their experience in Egypt. Since God saved them from oppression, he is not going to allow Israel turn around and inflict that sort of oppression and other people just because they are non-Israelites. Just like how the Egyptians mistreated the Israelites because they were non-Egyptian. We are starting to get the formation of universal human dignity in laws like these. The acknowledgement and valuing of the sanctity and dignity of all humans, no matter their social, political, or economic position is a foundation for a liberation theology and we find the building blocks of it here.
God’s protection of the marginalized is hard to miss in the Covenant Code. In Ex. 22:22, God proclaims that those who mistreat a widow or orphaned will be killed, causing their wives to be widows and their children to be fatherless. We have to remember that in this patriarchal society, adult men had all the power. So, widows and fatherless children would be especially at risk because they have no power, and no real means or access to power. God is setting the standard in his society that abuse of the powerless and defenseless will not be tolerated. This law in it of itself may fall short of actually providing power to the powerless, but it protects them from being treated as though they are not human. In restraining the abuse of power, God is providing liberation from oppression.
Next, we should look at what God says about how the poor should be treated. Four times God gives specific directions on how the poor are to be treated. They are not to be taken advantage of economically (Ex. 22:25), they are not to be taken advantage of legally but treated equally by the courts (Ex. 23:3, 6), and they are to be provided for by those who have enough (Ex. 23:11). In these passages, we get three different Hebrew words that are translated as “the poor”. One is עָנִי֙ which means without property and so dependent on others, or in a needy condition. Another is דָ֕ל which means helpless or powerless or insignificant. The last is אֶבְיֹנְ, meaning poor or needy.
In Ex. 22:25, you are not to lend at an interest to those who are עָנִי֙, meaning without property and so dependent on others. This is to protect those who are desperate for help, from being taken advantage of by those who would prey on someone who is in a desperate situation. This shielding from oppression liberates those in despair to actually pursue help without having to worry about excess charges piling up on them making it impossible for them to get out of poverty. In Ex. 23:3, God prohibits the taking advantage of the דָ֕ל, the powerless or helpless. This is to even the playing field for someone to appeal to the legal system when they have been wronged. God wants to be sure to provide assurance to the powerless that if they bring a grievance against those who have power, they cannot just be overpowered in the courts. The courts are to equalize power dynamics so justice will reign.
This is why when God warns against obstructing justice and bearing a false testimony in Ex 23:1-2 and 6-8, it is also connected to the plight of the poor. God knows that for there to be true justice in a society, it must be provided for the poor. If the powerless are able to receive justice, then anyone else should be able to receive justice as well. Justice is essential to liberation. It is a prerequisite condition for there to be liberation, and is also necessary for the continuation of liberation. It’s no surprise then that many in America today have been proclaiming, “No justice, no peace.”
Lastly, the אֶבְיֹנְ, are to be cared for by the fields of their neighbors in the seventh year of farming. It is the poor and needy who do not have what they need to live a dignified and fulfilled life. That is why God has provided a system that will provide relief and support for the poor and needy. There is also just good farming wisdom at play here in giving the fields a break from farming activities. It is also important to see the way this is connected to the Sabbath and creation story. Our Sabbath rest and the fields Sabbath year rest are to mimic God’s rest after creating the world. What happened during God’s time of rest? Creation got to enjoy God’s grace and enjoy what God had created. As such, when Israel rests their fields for a year, the poor and needy enjoy the grace and produce of those who worked for the six prior years.
What does all of this mean about Exodus? Like almost everything, it is more complicated and complex than we want it to be. God’s liberation of Israel was done at a particular time in history and for a particular purpose. One of those purposes was to display his might and power to Pharaoh. Hence, he brought overwhelming signs and wonders to make his name known to the Egyptians. The other purpose was to create a special nation for himself, a nation of priests. Israel is a special kind of liberation in this case. Undoubtedly, God wants all people to be liberated from oppression, and wants their liberation to be directed toward subsequent service and devotion to God since we will never be fully liberated until we are devoted to God. That being said, God is not looking to create nations to be his special treasure anymore.
So, although liberation is ultimately directed toward communion with God, each liberated people will not be met with a Covenant Code when liberated but with the new covenant made in Christ’s blood. As such, the Covenant Code is something that is unique to Israel as God was forming them as a nation. This is not to suggest that the Covenant Code is a relic of history that does not reveal anything about God, our relationship with God, or that it was a strictly cultural product. Yet it does force us to recognize that the Covenant Code was given to a particular people, with particular experiences, understandings of the world, and culture. For the Covenant Code to be relevant and useful, it would need to be understandable, and so in many ways it reflects cultural understandings.
This needs to be kept in mind when we try to understand the content of the Covenant Code and the Decalogue. In many instances God is condescending and operating within the cultural framework of the Israelites. This is why we see some of the more offensive content like slavery and a low view of women. The Israelites just came out of Egypt and so would understand the world within the framework of their experience there and the prevailing culture of the Egyptians.
For example, the Israelites complained about their slavery in Egypt, but really only because they were the one’s suffering oppression. It was not so much that they had a fundamental moral objection to slavery itself, but they had a grievance with themselves being oppressed as slaves. So, it would be likely that slavery was just the way they viewed the world and they could not really imagine constructing a society without some form of slavery. In fact, even God’s indignation with Israel’s slavery does not seem to be predicated on a moral repudiation of slavery itself but rather motivated from the sense that God having his people enslaved as an afront to him directly.
I want to be clear though, that just because God is operating with the Israelite culture, this does not mean that he is bound or limited by their culture. God has made alterations to cultural understandings around how you treat those who are vulnerable in the world to change and improve the culture. They were significant changes for sure, but not so radical that the society was not able to grasp and understand the vision God had for their new nation. From here, we see as God continues to move forward with Israel to shape their society to be more and more just as time progresses and as God reveals himself more and more to Israel. It’s important to understand that at this time, the Israelites do not have the sort of relationship with God that the early Patriarchs did. They have to learn about God and get to know him. The Covenant Code was an opening to understanding God, but is not the fullest picture of who God is.
A liberation theology that is rooted in the full picture of the Exodus will have to confront and deal with much of the difficult content we have gone over. However, there is still a wealth of rich content to pull from to form a solid foundation for liberation. It most certainly must draw inspiration from the radical and undeniable reality that God desires all people to be free of oppression. It has to be rooted in a trust that God will be source and actor that will deliver them from oppression and into a liberation that is experienced at its fullest when directed at devotion to God. Once liberated though, there needs to be a recognition that liberation does not happen in a vacuum, and for practicality sake may need to be tempered by cultural constraints in order to make the liberated circumstance palatable for the liberated people.
If we look back now on the many areas of tension, we find in Ex. 19-24, it makes it a bit more difficult to see the Exodus story as this paradigmatic example of liberation to be universally appropriated to any and all oppressed people groups throughout all of history. This is not to say that the Exodus story is not a beautiful and moving example of God’s liberating character and power, as this is clearly the case. What it does mean though is that we need to be careful in how we appropriate this story for other contexts. God’s liberation of Israel represents a particular point in history and had a particular purpose for the people of Israel. Thus, it’s goals, methods, and results were in respect to that, and not necessarily to be a blueprint that all oppressed groups should follow to get liberation. Exodus may operate better as a beginning point to understanding God as a liberator, rather as the central point.
Baden, J. (2019). Exodus and Civil Rights. In The Book of Exodus (pp. 157-185). Princeton University Press.
Baden, J. (2019). Liberation Theology. In The Book of Exodus (pp. 188-215). Princeton University Press.
Baden, J. (2019). Sinai and the Law. In The Book of Exodus (pp. 89-125). Princeton University Press.
Brenner, A. (2012). The Decalogue. In A. Brenner & G. A. Yee (Authors), Exodus and Deuteronomy (pp. 197-204). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
Brown, Francis, S. R. Driver, Charles A. Briggs, Edward Robinson, James Strong, and Wilhelm Gesenius. The Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: with an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic: Coded with the Numbering System from Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2015.
Coogan, M. D., & Chapman, C. R. (2016). A brief introduction to the Old Testament: The Hebrew Bible in its context. New York: Oxford University Press.
Fretheim, Terence E. Exodus. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991.
Meyers, Carol. Exodus. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005.
Seow, Choon Leong. A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2007.
The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Leiden: Brill, 1996.
 Brown, Francis, S. R. Driver, Charles A. Briggs, Edward Robinson, James Strong, and Wilhelm Gesenius. The Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: with an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic: Coded with the Numbering System from Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2015. 136.
 Baden, J. (2019). Liberation Theology. In The Book of Exodus (pp. 188-215). Princeton University Press. 191.
 Fretheim, Terence E. Exodus. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991. 213.
 Baden, J. (2019). Liberation Theology. In The Book of Exodus 189.
 Meyers, Carol. Exodus. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005. 145.
 The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Leiden: Brill, 1996.
 Seow, Choon Leong. A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2007. 208.
 Meyers, Carol. Exodus. 155.
 The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament.
 Coogan, M. D., & Chapman, C. R. (2016). A brief introduction to the Old Testament: The Hebrew Bible in its context. New York: Oxford University Press. 104.
 Baden, J. (2019). Sinai and the Law. In The Book of Exodus (pp. 89-125). Princeton University Press. 109.
 Coogan, M. D., & Chapman, C. R. (2016). A brief introduction. 104
 Meyers, Carol. Exodus. 165.
 Brenner, A. (2012). The Decalogue. In A. Brenner & G. A. Yee (Authors), Exodus and Deuteronomy (pp. 197-204). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. 201.
 Meyers, Carol. Exodus. 185.
 Meyers, Carol. Exodus. 190.
 Meyers, Carol. Exodus. 191.
 Coogan, M. D., & Chapman, C. R. (2016). A brief introduction. 113.
 Meyers, Carol. Exodus. 191.
 Meyers, Carol. Exodus. 196-197.
 Meyers, Carol. Exodus. 194.
 Meyers, Carol. Exodus. 198.
 Coogan, M. D., & Chapman, C. R. (2016). A brief introduction. 113.
 Brown, Francis, S. R. Driver, Charles A. Briggs, Edward Robinson, James Strong, and Wilhelm Gesenius. The Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. 158.
 Fretheim, Terence E. Exodus. 247.
 Coogan, M. D., & Chapman, C. R. (2016). A brief introduction. 130.
 Fretheim, Terence E. Exodus. 246.
 The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament.
 The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament.
The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament.
 Meyers, Carol. Exodus. 200.
 Fretheim, Terence E. Exodus. 249.
 Meyers, Carol. Exodus. 202.
 Fretheim, Terence E. Exodus. 212.
 Fretheim, Terence E. Exodus. 239.
 Coogan, M. D., & Chapman, C. R. (2016). A brief introduction. 104.
 Coogan, M. D., & Chapman, C. R. (2016). A brief introduction. 112.
 Baden, J. (2019). Exodus and Civil Rights. In The Book of Exodus (pp. 157-185). Princeton University Press. 159.
 Meyers, Carol. Exodus. 185.