Interpreting Exodus 20:11


Numbers 12:6-8: An Interpretive Guide to Exodus 20:11

         God’s giving of the Law to the people of Israel on Mount Sinai is one of the most significant events to have occurred in human history. There God spoke “face to face” with the entire nation made up of perhaps as many as 2 million people. He spoke to them “such that if you had a tape recorder, you could have tape-recorded His voice” (p. 69). The people responded to this revelation in fear telling Moses: “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die” (Ex. 20:19 [ESV]). The Lord then gave the rest of Israel’s constitution directly to Moses. God’s public proclamation of the Ten Commandments to the entire nation acted to keep the people in fear of the Lord so that they might not sin, and it helped to verify the rest of the law God delivered directly through Moses. The people had heard for themselves how the Lord spoke so could accept that all of the rules that came from Moses originated with God.

In His public proclamation, God included explanations for two of the Ten Commandments: Two and Four. In Commandment Two the Lord prohibited making carved images with the intent to worship them, “for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:5). Only the Lord is God and only He should be worshipped as God. “I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols” (Is. 42:8). All of the first three commandments relate to how Israel was to relate to their God. Commandment Four concerns the nation’s calendar: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy … On it you shall do no work” (Ex. 20:8, 10). God has structured His creation in such a way as to provide a six-day work, one-day rest pattern as He explains: “For in six days the Lord made the heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them and rested on the seventh. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Ex. 20:11).

God doesn’t regularly explain Himself to His creation because we likely wouldn’t understand even if He did. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:9). This makes the fact that He did take the time to explain the reasons for these two commandments all the more interesting. There is not any dispute that I am aware for his Commandment Two explanation, but much contention exists concerning Commandment Four.

The reason for disagreement concerning Commandment Four is that many people notice the seven-day timeline parallel between Exodus 20:11 and Genesis 1 and 2 and conclude that God did indeed make the universe and everything in it in six days, then rested on the seventh. But because this simplified explanation of how the world came into being is so much at odds with the secular scientific account, other interpreters conclude that it just cannot be the case that “seven days” in these passages mean anything like seven actual days. A popular rebuttal to those who accept the “young earth” model that result from straightforward readings of the two passages include statements like this one from theologian Tremper Longman III, “Genesis 1 and 2 are not interested in telling us how God created creation. It is rather telling us that he did it, as well as a lot about who he is and our relationship with him. I’m not saying it’s not historical—it is. I consider this theological history.” Of course this seems to contradict Genesis 1. God does indeed tell us how He created creation: He spoke (cf. Gen. 1:3; 1:6; 1:9; 1:11; 1:14; 1:20; 1:24; 1:26). It is possible that He didn’t elaborate further because, well, how do you explain to a finite creature how an infinite creature’s words bring into existence stuff from nothing?

Those who reject that Genesis and Exodus provides a literally accurate account of the timeline of creation offer alternative interpretations such as this: “God gave us a pattern of behavior for our work week.  This is not to say that the days of creation were 24 hour days.  During the creation week, man was not created until the very end of Day Six, so assigning man’s limited 24-hour day concept to God is not appropriate.” We have already seen that God is well aware of man’s limitations. Other passages like 2 Peter 3:8 inform us that time is wholly irrelevant to God. This would suggest that when God says it took Him a day to accomplish something then that is how long it took, at least in human terms. If it were any more complicated, God wouldn’t have explained it at all. This is not man assigning a “limited 24-hour day concept to God,” so much as God using such a concept for man’s benefit; God didn’t use 24-hour days for His benefit, but for ours. “Days” are not things to God in the same way that they are to us, but in time God used days to create the universe providing a pattern for how we are to conduct our lives.

Besides communicating that God used six days, as we know them, to create the world, and begin redemptive history, observant interpreters have found additional interesting aspects to the creation narrative. Though edifying, such astute dissections all-too-often find ways around having to accept the chronology of the Genesis record (p. 178a). If all we had was the Genesis 1 account and a rigorous literary deconstruction as its interpretive guide, there might be a stronger case for capitulating and accepting secular scientific models of the age of the earth. But we also have the Commandment Four explanation in Exodus 20.

“For in six days the Lord made the heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them and rested on the seventh. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Ex. 20:11). When God spoke these words He was speaking to Moses and to all of Israel. Because the whole nation heard how God communicated, they could be assured that Moses would accurately transmit the rest of the message to them. Later, when Moses’ siblings, Aaron and Miriam, “spoke against Moses” because of his Gentile wife, the Lord reiterated to them that Moses was His man.

And they said, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” And the Lord heard it. Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth. And suddenly the Lord said to Moses and to Aaron and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.” And the three of them came out. And the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent and called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward. And he said, “Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” (Num. 12:2-8)

Aaron and Miriam had experienced the Lord speaking directly on Mount Sinai; this provided a clear frame of reference for understanding what God meant when He told them that He spoke to Moses “mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles.” In his paper arguing against the way in which dispensationalists handle prophetic Scripture, Tremper Longman III cites this same passage. “Consider Numbers 12:6-8. If nothing else, doesn’t this lead us to expect what indeed we find in the main among the prophets and apocalyptic seers, namely difficult to interpret, highly metaphorical language? We do not encounter obvious and easy to understand language” (p. 150). Longman understands that God’s revelation to Moses was “obvious and easy to understand” but we have already seen that he relies on a mysterious category of history, “theological history,” to interpret what God meant in Genesis 1 and 2. In doing so, he failed to consider the obvious message of Exodus 20:11, which presents Genesis 1 and 2 as being not just theological but regular history, too.

To get around having to accept the young earth implications of what it says, we can make a riddle out of Genesis 1, many people have; however, Exodus 20:11 is not an enigma. It is part of one of the most significant events in human history when God spoke clearly to an entire nation concerning His expectations for them. And not only does Exodus 20 seem obvious and easy to understand, God declares that it is in Numbers 12. Therefore, it is not necessary to make a puzzle out of such communication, but to listen. In fact, later, God spoke again from heaven concerning Jesus Christ “saying: This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” (Lk. 9:35; cf. Mk. 9:7; Mat. 17:5). Not all that God says is so straightforward, but when God speaks in a public manner from heaven, it is.


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