For the Bible it would seem most obvious that this beginning is the opening chapters of Genesis. After all, Genesis is at the front of the book that we all have become familiar with it. Moreover, Genesis deals with origins, as its very name implies. In fact, Genesis ferrets out the original Big Bang beginning, when from nothing (or out of primeval chaos) God blasted the universe into existence. After that, Genesis goes on to describe beginnings of all other sorts—the origins of fauna and flora, the elemental steps of the human race, the critically disruptive entrance of evil, the formation of communities, nation states, cultures, and races, and even the birth of the tribal grouping called Israel which will dominate the rest of the Bible’s pages.
But, as logicians caution, simply because pages currently are found in a certain order, this does not mean that the first ones we encounter necessarily came into being prior to those that follow. There are many theories about the origins of the Pentateuch which suggest that what we see today may be an end product which actually differs significantly from the composition and chronology of its parts. While we will pursue this in more detail later, for now it is critical to look deeper into the Bible’s own understanding of its origins. Did someone sit down one day and decide to write about the creation? Was the Bible initiated by an obscure scribe with too much time on his hands who was exploring the family tree, and then hit upon the idea of writing a best-seller about Abraham and Kin, only to be bested over the centuries by others who turned the tale into an endless serialization with subplots that finally destroyed the original narrative? Or were there ethicists in collegial dialogue who despaired of the condition of their societies and together formulated a new code of behavior, surrounding it with a mythical world to give it staying power?
While speculations might swirl, the Bible’s own pages are quite clear about its presumed beginnings. If by “Bible” we mean a book of writings that purport to have revelatory or religiously shaping significance (i.e., “scripture”), then we must ask where such writings first happened and under what conditions within the Bible’s own literary self-understanding. With this in mind it becomes apparent that we need to start by looking at the events reported to have taken place at Mt. Sinai, in the middle of the book of Exodus.
Why? Because none of the stories reported in the Bible about events occurring prior to the Sinai event make mention of or imply the presence of a written source of revelation or inspiration. For instance, important as he was to biblical history, Adam had no “Bible.” Nor did Noah, during all those years that he tried to hear a voice speaking of impending world destruction. Even Abraham, whose story is so central to the biblical record in both Testaments, was not guided by a collection of sacred writings to which he could turn for devotional reflection each morning.
In clear and unambiguous testimony, the Bible’s own internal evidence expresses that the writing down of important ideas or history as a sourcebook of revelatory insight was begun when the Israelites encountered God in a unique way at Mt. Sinai. It was there, according to the pages of Exodus, that God and Moses collaborated to create written documents which would travel with the community that eventually became the settled nation of Israel.
So it is imperative to understand more clearly what was taking place at Mt. Sinai. To do that, we need to know something of the broader history of the second millennium B.C.
Suzerain-Vassal Covenant Documents
One of the dominant civilizations of the second millennium was the Hittite kingdom. Somewhat secluded in the mountainous plateaus of Anatolia (eastern Turkey today), the Hittites shaped a vast web of international relations which, at the height of their power in the 14th century B.C., encompassed most of the ancient Near East. While they were companions of other similar civilizations that shared commonalities of culture and conquests and cities, the Hittites linger in archaeological and historical studies for, among other things, their standardization of a written code used extensively in the normalization of international relations. In order to establish appropriate structures that would spell out the Hittites’ ongoing interactions with subjected peoples, a prescribed treaty form appears to have been widely used. The parameters of the typical Hittite Suzerain-Vassal Covenant included:
A Preamble which declared the identity and power of the ruler responsible for establishing this relationship.
An Historical Prologue outlining the events leading up to this relationship, so that it could be set into a particular context and shaped by a cultural or religious frame.
Stipulations which specified the responsibilities and actions associated with the relationship.
Curses and Blessing that evoked the negative and positive outcomes if this covenant were either breached or embraced by the parties.
Witnesses who were called to affirm the legitimacy of this covenant-making event, and who would then hold the parties accountable.
Document Clauses which described ratification ceremonies, specified future public recitations of the treaty, and noted the manner in which the copies of the covenant were to be kept.
What makes this bit of ancient historical trivia so intriguing for biblical scholars is the uncanny correspondence between the elements of this Hittite covenant code and the literature at the heart of Israel’s encounter with God at Sinai. Note the following:
When God is first heard to speak from the rumbling mountain, the words are essentially the Preamble of a Suzerain-Vassal covenant: “I am the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:1).
Immediately following is a brief Historical Prologue reminding the people of the events that precipitated this encounter: “…who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2).
Then comes a recitation of Stipulations that will shape the ethics, morality and lifestyle of the community (Exodus 20:3–23:19).
Following these are the Curses and Blessings (Exodus 23:20–33) of a typical covenant document. What is unusual in this case is that the order is reversed so that the blessings precede the curses. This provides the same rigors of participatory onus, but gives it a freshness of grace and optimism that are often absent from the quick condemnation of the usual ordering.
The Witnesses are the Elders of the Israelite community (Exodus 24:1–2), bringing authentication of this process and these documents into the human realm, when it was often spiritualized in other covenants by listing local gods as moderators of these events.
Finally there is the Document Clause (Exodus 24:3–18) that spells out the ratification ceremony. It will be followed by a further reflection on the repositories of the covenant document copies once the Tabernacle has been built.
The striking resonance between the usual form of the Hittite Suzerain-Vassal Covenant and the essential first speech of Yahweh to Israel at Mt. Sinai makes it difficult not to assess the beginnings of conscious Israelite religion in terms other than that of a Suzerain (Yahweh) Vassal (Israel) covenant-making ceremony. Furthermore, this appears to elucidate the mode and function of the first biblical documents. They were not intended to be origin myths, ancestor hero stories, mere legal or ethical or civil codes, sermons, prophecies or apocalyptic visions (though all of these would later accrete to the initial writings of the first community encounter with Yahweh); they were initially the written covenant documents formulating the relationship between a nation and the (divine) ruler who earned, in battle, the right to order her world.
This is why the word “covenant” becomes an essential term for all the rest of the literature that will be garnered into the collection eventually known as the Bible. The Bible begins with a covenant-making ceremony that produces certain documents, and then continues to grow as further explications of that covenant relationship are generated. One can read theology or ethics or politics or history out of the Bible, but one cannot do so while ignoring the essential role of the Sinai covenant between Yahweh and Israel. Even the idea of “kingdom,” so prevalent and pervasive in the Bible, is predicated on the covenant, for it is by way of the covenant that Israel becomes the dominion of the great King. The Kingdom of God is the context for all that is portrayed in the Bible, but the Covenant is the administrative document through which the Kingdom takes hold and adheres in the human societies which form the front ranks of Yahweh’s citizenry.
The Battle of the Superpowers
This perspective is further confirmed in the rest of the writings that surround Exodus 20–24. First, Exodus 1–19 forms an extended “historical prologue” to the Sinai covenant by declaring Israel’s precarious situation in Egypt (chapter 1), the birth and training of the leader who would become Yahweh’s agent for recovering Yahweh’s enslaved people (chapter 2), the calling of this deliverer (chapters 3–4), and the battle of the superpowers (the Pharaoh and Yahweh) who each lay claim to Suzerain status over this Vassal nation (chapters 5–19). Second, Exodus 25–40 focuses on the creation of a suitable residence for Israel’s Suzerain. Thus the whole of Exodus may be quickly outlined as Struggles (1–19), Stipulations (20–24), and Symbols (25–40) surrounding the Sinai covenant-making event. Each of these deserves some further reflection.
The struggles of chapters 1–19 involve a number of things. At the start there is the nasty relationship that has developed between the Pharaoh of Egypt and the Israelites. An editorial note declares that “Joseph” has been forgotten, and this small reference forms the bridge that later draws Genesis into an even more broadly extended historical prologue to the Sinai covenant. We will find out, by reading backwards, that Joseph was the critical link between the Egyptians and this other ethnic community living within its borders. When the good that Joseph did for both races was forgotten, the dominant Egyptian culture attempted to dehumanize and then destroy these Israelite aliens.
The deadly solution proposed by the Pharaoh in dealing with the rising population of his slave community may sound harsh, but it was likely a very modest and welcomed political maneuver among his primary subjects. Because there is virtually no rain in Egypt, with most of its territory lying in or on the edge of the great Saharan desert, the Nile is and was the critical source of water that sustained life throughout the region. The Nile “miraculously” ebbed and flowed annually, responding to the rains of central Africa, thousands of miles away. Far removed from Egypt’s farmlands and cities, this process was attributed to the gods that nurtured Egyptian civilization. Thus it was fitting for the people to pay homage to these gods, especially by giving appropriate sacrifices to the power of the Nile. In that manner, having the boy babies of the Hebrews tossed into the Nile’s currents would not have been considered genocide, but instead it would be deemed a suitable civic and cultural responsibility. Such a practice provided the Nile god with fittingly dear tribute, and at the same time allowed the bulk of the Egyptian population to save its own babies by substituting those of this surrogate vassal people living within their borders.
Moses’ own name ties him to the royal family of Egypt and its influence (note the frequent occurrence of the letters MSS in the names of Pharaohs of the eighteenth through twentieth dynasties—Thutmoses, Ramses, etc.), and his training in the palace schools would provide him with skills that set him apart from the rest of the Israelites in preparation for his unique leadership responsibilities. Moses’ time in the wilderness, on the other hand, made him familiar with Bedouin life, and similarly fortified his ability to stand at the head of a wandering community once Israel was released from slavery.
In Moses’ unique encounter with God at Mt. Horeb (chapters 3–4), he experienced the power of the forgotten deity of Israel, and learned a name by which this divinity would soon become known again to the people. “Yahweh”(יהןה)is a variation on the Hebrew verb of existence, and that is why translators bring it into English with terms like “I am” or “I will be.” Furthermore, through the voice from the burning bush, this God immediately connected the current events with a specific past through a historical recitation that would later be explicated at length in the extended Genesis historical prologue to the Sinai covenant: Yahweh is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Because of the promises made to that family, Moses is now to become the agent through whom the Israelites will be returned to the land promised to their ancestors. Of course, this is what triggered the battle for control of the nation, and eventually set the stage for Yahweh to claim Suzerainty over Israel at Mt. Sinai.
The conflict intensifies in Exodus 5:1–6:12 when Moses makes his first dramatic appearance back in Egypt. The Pharaoh’s initial reaction is disdain; why should he listen to the apocalyptic ravings of a wilderness wild man, even if he seems unusually aware of Egyptian language and protocol?
At this point the famous plagues enter the story. While these miracles of divine judgment make for great Hollywood screenplay, the reason for this extended weird display of divine power is not always apparent to those of us who live in very different cultural contexts, especially when it is interspersed with notes that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, sometimes, in fact, seemingly as an act of Yahweh. Could not Yahweh have provided a less destructive and deadly exit strategy for Israel?
The plagues begin to make sense when they are viewed in reference to Egypt’s climate and culture. After the initial sparring between Moses and the Pharaoh’s sorcerers (Exodus 7:10-13) with snakes to show magical skills, the stakes are raised far beyond human ability merely to manipulate the natural order. First the waters are turned to blood; then the marshes send out a massive, unwelcome pilgrimage of frogs; next the dust is beat into gnats, soon to be followed by even peskier flies; subsequently the livestock gets sick from the dust, and this illness then spreads to human life in the form of boils and open sores; penultimately the heavens send down mortar shells of hail, transport in a foreign army of locusts, and then withhold the light of the sun; finally, in an awful culmination, the firstborn humans and animals across Egypt die suddenly.
Strange. But not quite as much when seen in three successive groupings. Among the many deities worshipped in ancient Egypt, none superseded a triumvirate composed by the Nile, the good earth, and the heavens which were the home of the sun. So it was that the initial plagues of bloody water and frogs both turned the Nile against the Egyptians, and showed the dominance of Yahweh over this critical source of national life.
The ante was then upped when Yahweh took on the farmland of Egypt, one of the great breadbaskets of the world. Instead of producing crops, Moses showed, by way of plagues three through six, how Yahweh could cause these fertile alluvial plains to generate all manner of irritating and deadly pestilence, making it an enemy instead of a friend. Finally, in the third stage of plagues, the heavens themselves became menacing. Rather than providing the sheltering confidence of benign sameness, one day the heavens attacked with the hailstone mortar fire of an unseen enemy. Next these same heavens served as the highway of an invading army of locusts. Then old friend Ra (the sun), the crowning deity of Egyptian religion, simply vanished for three days. The gloom that terrified the Egyptians was no mere fear of darkness but rather the ominous trepidation that their primary deity had been bested by the God of the Israelites.
All of this culminated in the final foray of this cosmic battle, when the link of life between generations and human connectedness with ultimate reality was severed through the killing of Egypt’s firstborn. The Egyptians believed that the firstborn carried the cultural significance of each family and species, so in a sudden and dramatic moment the very chain of life destroyed. Furthermore, since the Pharaohs themselves were presumed to be deity incarnate, descending directly from the sun by way of firstborn inheritance, cutting this link eviscerated the life-potency of the Egyptian civilization not only for the present but also for the future. It was a true cultural, religious, political and social knockout punch.
This explains why the plagues originally served not as gory illustration material for modern Sunday school papers, but rather as the divine initiatives in an escalating battle between Yahweh and the Pharaoh of Egypt over claims on the people of Israel. The plagues were a necessary prologue to the Sinai covenant because they displayed and substantiated the sovereignty of Yahweh as Suzerain not only over Israel but also over other contenders. Israel belongs to Yahweh both because of historic promises made to Abraham, and also by way of chivalrous combat in which Yahweh won back the prize of lover and human companion from the usurper who had stolen her away from the divine heart. Furthermore, Yahweh accomplished this act without the help of Israel’s own resources (no armies, no resistance movements, no terrorist tactics, no great escape plans), and in a decisive manner that announced the limitations of the Egyptian religious and cultural resources.
This is why the final plague is paired with the institution of the Passover festival (Exodus 12). The annual festival would become an ongoing reminder that Israel was bought back by way of a blood-price redemption, and that the nation owed its very existence to the love and fighting jealousy of its divine champion. In one momentous confrontation, Egypt lost its firstborn and its cultural heritage, while Israel became Yahweh’s firstborn and rightful inheritance.
These things are further confirmed in the reiteration of the importance of circumcision (Exodus 13:1-16). The rite of circumcision was practiced by a number of peoples of the ancient Near East, but invariably as either a mark of elitism (only those of a particular class in the community were circumcised) or as a rite of passage (boys or young men who did heroic deeds in battle or the hunt would be circumcised to show that they had become part of the adult warrior caste). What is unique about the commands regarding circumcision for Israel is that it is egalitarian (all males are to be circumcised, and through them all females gain the right to be called the people of Yahweh), and that it is to be done typically on babies or young boys prior to any efforts on their part to perform deeds of valor. This transforms a regional practice that had been identified primarily as a badge of honor earned, into a mark of ownership given, as expressed in the patriarchal antecedent found in Genesis 17. It is through this lens that the New Testament practices of baptism must also be viewed; John’s baptism (along with many purification rituals among, e.g., the Essenes and Pharisees) carried with it the flavor of a ritual of passage leading to earning the colors of heightened spiritual maturity, while the use of baptism in the church followed the ownership markings of Israel’s practice of circumcision (see, for instance, Jesus’ command regarding baptism in Matthew 28:18–20 and Paul’s connection of baptism and circumcision in Colossians 2:11–12).
Related to this divinely-initiated ownership theme is the miraculous deliverance of Israel through the Red Sea, coupled with the annihilation of the Egyptian army and its national military prowess in the same incidents. While Exodus 14 narrates the episode in the nail-biting urgency of a documentary, chapter 15 is given over largely to the ancient song of Moses, which unmistakably identifies the entire exodus event as divine combat against Pharaoh over the possession of Israel. Furthermore, the victory ballad also clearly anticipates the effect of this battle on the other Near Eastern nations, with the result that Yahweh is able to march the Israelites through many hostile territories, and eventually settle the nation in Canaan as an ongoing testimony to Yahweh’s rightful prestige. So it is that the exodus itself is not the divine goal, but only the first stage toward something else.
A House for God
What this further divine intention might be is then illumined by the singular event which follows from the covenant making-ceremony of Exodus 20–24: the construction of the Tabernacle. The narrative of Exodus 25–40 has three major sections. In chapters 25–31, preparations for the Tabernacle are made, and detailed plans are formulated. Then comes the intruding and jarring incident of the golden calf (chapters 32–34), in which not only Israel’s loyalty to Yahweh but also Yahweh’s loyalty to Israel are tested. Finally, the architectural initiatives of Exodus 25–31 are resumed in the actual construction of the Tabernacle and its dedication (chapters 35–40), almost as if the dark blot of the interlude had never happened.
Why all of this emphasis on building the tent-like Tabernacle? Why invest in a movable shrine rather than rally around some sacred hilltop (Mt. Sinai, for instance)? The answer is intrinsically related to the covenant-making event itself. If Israel is now the (reclaimed) possession of Yahweh, then Yahweh must take up visible residence among the people. The Tabernacle is not a strange phenomenon of the natural order, like an unfailing spring or a volcanic vent or a residual meteor rock. Instead, it is the fabrication of a civilization that is intentionally on a journey, guided by an in-residence deity who travels with them. These people do not make pilgrimage to a shrine and then return to their homes; rather they move about in consort with the source of their identity actually residing within the center of their unwieldy sprawl.
Testimony of this is contained within the very architectural plans for the Tabernacle. Although parts of the facility will be off-limits to most of the people (and thereby somewhat mysteriously remote), the basic design is virtually identical to that of the typical Israelite portable residence and the living space that surrounds it. First, the cooking fire of any family unit was found out in front of the tent. Second, there would be vessels for washing located near the door of the tent. Third, while many meals might be taken around the fire, some were more ordered and formal, and occurred in the initial spaces within the tent. These required atmospheric accoutrements like dishes, lamps for lighting, and the aromatic wafting of incense. Finally, the privacy of the intimate acts of marriage and family were reserved for the hidden recesses of the tent where visitors were not allowed.
This, then, became the plan for the Tabernacle. Its courtyard was public space for meals with God and others of the community around the Altar of Burt Offerings (see Leviticus 1–7). The Laver or Bronze Basin held waters for washing and bodily purification. In the closest part of the Tabernacle itself was found the hospitality area where Yahweh figuratively dined more formally with guests at the Table, in the soft ambience created by the Lamp and Altar of Incense. To the rear of the Tabernacle Yahweh reserved private space, yet had it fashioned with all of the symbolism of royalty. The Ark of the Covenant was essentially a portable throne upon which Yahweh was carried with the people, for its uppermost side was designated as the Mercy Seat. Furthermore, this throne was under the guard of two representative heavenly creatures simply called “cherubim.” In a manner akin to the sentries posted at the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3, these beings stood watch to ensure that the holiness of the deity was protected.
Thus the Tabernacle existed uniquely in its world, representing the physical home of the community’s deity as a residence within its own spatial and temporal context. Israel was not a people who needed to create representations of powers that it then idolized; instead, the very society in which it lived emanated from the identity of the chief citizen who lived at its heart.
It is in this context that the Golden Calf incident of Exodus 32–34 must be understood. Moses’ delay on the mountain, talking with Yahweh on behalf of the people, bred frustration and anxiety within the community. So they begged Aaron for symbols around which to rally, and what emerged was a bull calf made of gold. The Israelites were probably not seeking to worship something other than the God who brought them out of Egypt so recently; rather they were trying to find a representation of that God within their cultural frame of reference, so that they could cajole (or manipulate) this deity into further meaningful actions, rather than wasting time in the seeming stall of their current lethargy. Since the bull calf was revered among the Egyptians for its ability to portray the liveliness of sentient power, it could well serve the Israelites in their quest to display national adolescent brash energy.
The problem for Yahweh, however, was twofold. First, the calf was an Egyptian symbol, and thus essentially blasphemous in light of Yahweh’s recent decisive victory over all aspects of Egyptian power and civilization. Second, the calf reflected brute strength in the natural order, and of a kind that could be controlled by human will. A bull was meant to be yoked and harnessed and guided by whips and goads. True, it was more powerful than its human driver, but at the same time it became a tool in service to the human will. For Yahweh to be represented in this manner undermined the significance of the divine defeat of Egypt and its culture, and appeared to turn Yahweh into a mighty, albeit controllable, source of energy serving the Israelite will.
Under Moses’ leadership, his own tribe, the Levites, rallied to avenge Yahweh’s disgrace. Because of that action they were appointed to the honored position of keepers of the House of God. Meanwhile, Yahweh himself wished to break covenant with Israel and instead start over with Moses’ family; after all, Moses and Yahweh had become great partners and almost friends over the past few years, and especially through their time on the mountain. Moses argued against this divine turnabout, however, for two reasons. First, he reminded the Great One that Yahweh had sealed this Suzerain-Vassal covenant with Israel, and it could not so easily be discarded or broken. Yahweh had deliberately invested Yahweh’s own destiny into this people, and while they might wrestle with the chafing fit of the new relationship, Yahweh no longer had a right to deny it. Second, Moses raised the card of shame. What would the nations say if Yahweh quit this project now? The peoples of the ancient Near East had begun to tremble because of Yahweh’s decisive victory over Pharaoh; if the God of Israel was able so clearly and convincingly to topple the deities of Egypt and their power in both the natural and supernatural realms, what hope could there be for any other mere national interest or powers? But if Yahweh now suddenly left the Israelites to die in the wilderness, the nations around would see that this god was no more than a flash-bang, a one-hit-wonder, a dog with more bark than bite. Moses used Yahweh’s own covenant to make the deity toe the line and get back into bed with Israel on this honeymoon night.
All of this is affirmed in various ways through the text of these chapters. For instance, prior to the construction of the Tabernacle Moses sought to commune with Yahweh not only on the mountain but also in a small structure called the “Tent of Meeting,” which was located slightly outside the camp (Exodus 33:7–11). Once the Tabernacle had been built, however, this designation of the “Tent of Meeting” was transferred to that newer edifice (Exodus 39:32–40:38). Furthermore the term used to describe the grander “Tent of Meeting” is mishkan, which means place of dwelling. The same root is also found in the Hebrew term shakhen, which means neighbor (so the significance of Yahweh moving into the neighborhood), and again in the shekina (“presence”) cloud of glory that settled on the Tabernacle as its divine occupant moved in.
Similarly, Moses was to chisel out two tablets of stone (Exodus 34:1, 4) on which Yahweh would inscribe the summary of the covenant stipulations (Exodus 34:27), which were identified as the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28). Most of our representations of the Ten Commandments today picture them as too large to fit on one stone surface, so two tablets are needed to contain all the words. Furthermore, since the first four commandments seem to focus on our relationship with God while the last six have the human social arena in purview, the Ten Commandments are typically arranged on the two stone tablets to reflect this division. This is not the intention of the ancient text, however. There were always two copies made of a Suzerain-Vassal covenant: one to remain with the subjected people in their homeland and the other to take up residence in the distant palace library of the king. What is unique about Israel’s situation is that the two copies of the covenant were to be kept in the very same place—within the Ark of the Covenant. While we might miss the significance of this because of our lack of sensitivity to the ancient customs, the impact on the Israelites would be nothing short of astounding—the king was planning to live in the same place as the his people! Both copies of the covenant could be kept in the same receptacle (which also functioned as the king’s throne) because Israel’s monarch was not a distant absentee landlord. As went the fortunes of Israel, so went the identity of Yahweh, for Yahweh covenantally committed the divine mission to the fate of this nation.
This is why the Tabernacle was more than a religious shrine for Israel. It was different than a mere ceremonial place for offerings. It was, in fact, the home of Yahweh at the center of the Israelite community. When the sun settled behind the horizon and the cooking fires were banked to save wood as the people traveled through the wilderness, one tent continued to have a light on all night. In the heart of the camp the Lamp glowed in the fellowship hall of the Tabernacle; Yahweh kept vigil while the community slept. In the morning and evening, a meal could be taken with Yahweh (the sacrifices, burnt so that Yahweh might consume the divine portion by way of inhaling the smoke), and constantly the feasting room was made ready for the King to meet with his subjects.
What happened at Mt. Sinai? God formally claimed Israel as partner in whatever the divine mission was for planet Earth. Israel, in turn, owned Yahweh as divine King and Suzerain. In effect, Yahweh and Israel were married, and their starter home was built at the center of the camp.
The Beginning of the Bible
Thus the literature of the Bible began as the documents of a divinely initiated covenant-making ceremony, using the formulae of the common Hittite Suzerain-Vassal treaty to shape its words. Added to this, almost immediately, were the plans for the divine residence within the community, and an extended covenant prologue which rehearsed the very recent context in which Yahweh had battled the Pharaoh of Egypt for the right to dance with Israel. So it is that in its literary origins, at least as portrayed in the text of the Bible itself, the purpose of scripture is to identify the parameters of the covenantal partnership between God and the people who share God’s life and mission. It exudes ethical pronouncements not because it is a book of morality, but because it functions as the shaper of a culture where Yahweh has chosen to move into the neighborhood and breathe through Israel an ethos of witness in a world that was no longer consciously aware of its Creator or of its own truest character.