Torah scroll

Notes on Exodus 35 20-29 and 2 Corinthians 9 6-8

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, May 6 is actually two texts, Exodus 35:20-29, and 2 Corinthians 9:6-8. Both of them are familiar to Presbyterians from “stewardship season,” and the Exodus text is part of the Torah portion Va‘yakhel (“and he assembled,” Exodus 35:1-38:20), which came up just a few weeks ago in synagogues. Both are about enthusiastic offerings. In the context of the Uniform Series schedule, which is focusing on worship themes this quarter, they’re reminders that offering – in these two cases, material offerings – is an element or aspect or form of worship.

Background and Context

Exodus is the story of the Hebrews’ escape from Egypt, the establishment of the covenant with YHWH at Mt. Sinai, the episode of the Golden Calf, and the restoration of the covenant and construction and setting up of the Tabernacle. So it includes story, legal material, and a long list of instructions for the design of the Tabernacle, and an almost equally long list of the actions taken to execute the instructions.

The text for Sunday occurs right after Moses has gathered the people together to reiterate the commandment to rest on the Sabbath, and to announce YHWH’s command concerning the offerings for the Tabernacle (Exodus 35:1-19), and right before Moses announces the Holy One’s appointment of Bezalel and Oholiab as the chief artisans on the project (Exodus 35:30-36:1). The people are the same ones who impatiently insisted on having visible “gods” back in chapter 32, precipitating a crisis in which God almost changes plans in the middle of the exodus, so to speak, and requiring a re-do of the commandments. So, after having given up some significant fraction of their earrings to the golden calf project (Exodus 32:2-4), they will now bring an even greater offering, including lot of other jewelry, for the Tabernacle project.

Where did the Hebrews/Israelites get all this booty? The narrative has an answer: from the Egyptians. They asked for it in Exodus 11:2-3 – at Moses’ instruction, at God’s instruction – and received it in Exodus 12:33-36. They may have been refugees, but they were not traveling light, apparently. As Calvin might say, “How providential.”

2 Corinthians is presented in the Bible as a single letter, but it has convinced many scholars that it’s a collection of pieces of several letters. The pieces refer to a series of events concerning Paul and the Corinthian church, and to another letter we might not have a copy of. Chapters 8 & 9 refer to money being collected for Christians in Jerusalem who are in need. There has evidently been a fair amount of scholarly debate about this collection, how it relates to other references to taking up collections and helping the poor elsewhere in the NT, and how it relates to Paul’s overall work. (There’s an interesting summary of some of that here.) The text for Sunday seems to be one element of Paul’s urging the Corinthians to hold up their end of the collection-gathering project.

Closer Reading

In Exodus, Moses has assembled all the people to tell them God’s instructions for constructing the Tabernacle and its furnishings. Now, “all of” the people withdraw – the first of 17 references to “all of,” either “all of” the people, or the men, or the men and women, or “all of” the work that has to be done, or “all of” the things that have to be made. “All of” the people, “all of” the work.

It isn’t quite all of the men and women, it’s all whose hearts and spirits were moved to action (v21, 22, 26, 29), but this includes all of the people who had cloth (v23), silver and bronze (v24), acacia wood (v24), and all the women who could spin (v25). The rabbis tell us that the women in v26 were especially skillful, because they spun the goats’ hair right on the backs of the goats. (They don’t say how the goats felt about that, or why that was a good thing.) So we infer that this was at least almost everyone in some way or other. The text reads like an exercise in everyone wanting to do their part, and people getting caught up in the excitement of the project.

The “skillful” women are literally “wise” or “wise-hearted” – they have “know-how.” The “leaders” are literally the “princes,” and the rabbis’ story of why they bring the gemstones is that they waited to see what the people would do, figuring they would make up whatever was lacking, and then since there was almost nothing lacking, they ended up with the gemstone detail. So because they were lazy, there is a letter missing from the Hebrew text that refers to them. The material translated “fine leather” in the NRSV in v23 is translated “dolphins’ skins” in JPS, and is a notorious textual puzzle – the word might refer to some mysterious creature whose skin is multi-colored and which is now extinct or hidden, or it might not … it’s a mystery.

Later we will learn that the people are so enthusiastic about giving what they have for the work that the contractors have to go to Moses, and Moses has to announce to the people not to keep bringing things, it’s more than enough already (Exodus 36:3-7).

[These are obviously people who like to get involved, hands on. It makes me wonder whether, if only Aaron had been a little more imaginative and organized some productive activities, that whole episode in ch. 32 could have been avoided. Or at least postponed.]

In 2 Corinthians Paul is drawing on well-known proverbs to make his point (which he says he’s summing up in v6) that abundance, a kind of lavishness, is what’s needed. This is true in farming (v6), we reap what we sow – this is in Galatians, too (6:7), but Cicero apparently said it first, so Paul might have gotten it from him. The use in Galatians might be important, because there he is encouraging the Galatians to “sow to the spirit,” to be rich in doing good. That seems to be the main point here, as well. He is reportedly quoting Proverbs 22:8, in Greek, when he says God loves a cheerful giver. The contrast is with people who are giving “reluctantly” – literally, “out of grief,” who are being forced to do something against their will.

Still in v6, the word translated “bountifully” is the same word that gives us the word “eulogy,” and in other contexts can signify praise or blessing. Giving in the ancient world might have been a cause for being praised or blessed, and being praised or blessed for their giving might have been something the Corinthians have in mind. (That this is probably not what Paul has in mind is clear from v8.)

In v7, “as you have made up your mind” is evidently a well-known idiom – literally, in Greek, it is “as you have chosen your heart,” which is suggestive. Sometimes, when we make our minds up, we do “choose our hearts” – since, as Aristotle would say, we are what we repeatedly do.

In v8, Paul switches to a different verb to point out that the abundance of blessings come from God, are God’s provision, and are a mechanism of making it possible for the Corinthians to share in God’s work of providing abundantly.

[Here it might really be shades of Exodus, where as providence would have it, thanks to the keenly motivated generosity of the Egyptians, the Israelites were packing a treasure-trove of gold, silver, bronze, blue and purple and crimson yarn, acacia wood … almost as if someone had planned for them to have more than enough Tabernacle-building material … Whether Paul was thinking of that when he wrote 2 Corinthians is beside the point; we’re thinking of it now, thanks to the Uniform Series committee.]

Paul’s point (“the point is this”) seems more to be: what is the point of having a lot? What’s that for? And his answer seems to be: for being an agent of God’s abundance.

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