Exodus 20.22-23.19 The Book of the Covenant, A Literary Approach

Book of the Covenant a Literary Approach by Joe Sprinkle

This book being reviewed and explored here is a shortened version of Joe Sprinkle’s PhD dissertation: A Literary Approach to Biblical Law: Exodus 20.22-23.19 (Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion, 1990) written under the supervision of H.C. Brichto and S. Greengus. I had the privilege of doing a module on this as part of my undergrad Hebrew studies at Queen’s University Belfast Department of Semitics before it closed down, sometime around 1999 and have the pleasure of revisiting it in 2018 as I finish up Level E advanced Hebrew with the online Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, formerly eTeacher, in conjunction with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Format of Sprinkle’s Book

An Introduction, followed by 8 chapters which look at the literary structure of ‘The Book of the Covenant’ within its narrative framework in the book of Exodus as a whole, and in individual literary units themselves, as well as their narrative context.

  • He introduces the literary structure and gives his own translation of the Hebrew
  • Then discussion on structure, style, genre, relationship with other passages
  • Problems of interpretation
  • Comparisons and contrasts with source-oriented analysis

Chapter 1: The Narrative Framework of Exodus 20.22-23.33 This is where he examines the placement of the Book of the Covenant precisely where it is in Exodus, looking at what precedes it and what comes after it, and why.

Chapters 2-7:  This is his section by section analysis of Exodus 20.22-23.19

  • Ch 2: On Images and Altars, Ex 20.22-26
  • Ch 3: The Question of Servitude and Freedom, Ex 21.2-11
  • Ch 4: Offenses by Humans Against Other Humans, Ex 21.12-17
  • Ch 5: Goring Oxen and Dangerous Pits, Ex 21.28-36
  • Ch 6: Theft and Damage of Property, Ex 21.37-22.16
  • Ch 7: Cultic Regulations and Social Justice, Ex 22.17-23.19

Each of these units is concluded with a discussion on ‘Law or Morality?’

Chapter 8: Evaluations, Observations, Conclusion


Synchronic vs Diachronic Approaches

Sprinkle seeks to determine whether a synchronic ‘literary approach’ to biblical law could be superior to the heavily source-oriented methodologies that have dominated biblical studies for over 100 years. And whereas literary approaches have been applied to other parts of the bible, they had not been applied to law before this.

Source Oriented Approaches: are diachronic and genetic in orientation, with a goal of defining and dating the ‘sources’ oral or written ‘used’ by the biblical authors and they are highly influenced by these hypothetical sources that they posit to have been used by the editors of a biblical text. This leads them to explain any seeming incongruities in the text as ‘textual corruptions’ or ‘secondary insertions’.

Discourse Oriented Literary Approaches: But using solely a literary approach, Sprinkle gives a detailed interpretation of Exodus 20.22-23.19 showing how it resumes and expands the Decalogue and has no need to resort to source-oriented explanations, and that it is an artfully crafted unity where every verse has its part in fulfilling the purpose of the literary work as a whole.

My opinion: Most importantly here to realize is interpretations and reading of the Biblical Hebrew text based on the hypothetical sources can be very different to and even conflict with a literary reading of the actual text at hand.

Does it have to be Either Or ?

Sprinkle notes that the choice does not have to be between source oriented and discourse oriented analysis, that he is not in principle opposed to geneticism, however that many scholars are too quick to resort to source oriented explanations and overlook the better literary explanations and interpretations of the text, and that it is possible here to avoid source oriented exegesis altogether.

Chapter 1: The Narrative Framework of Exodus 20.22-23.19

A quick overview of Chapter 1, pp. 17-34 of Joe Sprinkle’s book:

The Book of the Covenant, Ex 20.22-23.19, has been placed in between the Theophany at Ex 19-20.21, and the Making of the Covenant at Ex 23.30-24

narrative framework book of the covenant


Question: What is the relationship of The Book of the Covenant Ex. 20.22-23.19 to the surrounding narrative framework?

Different Opinions: Opinions on this vary according to whether you take a Source Oriented or Literary approach:

  1. Source Oriented Criticism: These verses are a literarily awkward insertion
  2. Literary Approaches: They are a well crafted unity, arftully placed in the book of Exodus, an intelligent and purposeful placement of 20.22-23.19 in its narrative framework.
Result: One approach thinks the text is coherent and makes sense, the other approach does not!

So you can see immediately how a Literary approach reads the text intelligently, assuming the biblical author had a meaning and purpose in the sequence of verses as they stand today; while the approach that posits extra sources does not see the story making any sense, but rather a hodge podge whose ‘lack of coherence’ indicates the hypothetical sources.

The Intertwining of Narrative and Regulations in Exodus

Ex 19-24 exhibits an alteration of narrative and regulatory sections, an alternation of haggadic and halachic sections:

  • Narrative: Ex 19 is narrative / haggadah representing  Adonai’s offer of a covenant and preparing the people for the theophany. Any instructions here mostly apply to the specific situation in the narrative rather than long range regulation.
  • Regulations: 20.1-18 presents the regulations of the Decalogue /halachah
  • Narrative: 20.18-21 returns to a narrative / haggadah describing the people’s fear at the theophany at Sinai
  • Regulations: 20.22-23 the text returns to the regulation / halachah
  • Narrative: Ex 24 returns to narrative of the consummation of the covenant / haggadah
  • However as a whole, 19-24 are all narrative since even the halachic or regulatory sections are put in the mouth of Adonai in the context of the narrative.

This intertwining of narrative and regulations is not random, but a consistent stylistic feature through Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, including for example the Passover and Tabernacle regulations, which are surrounded by narratives.

The Problem: The Chronological Sequence of Exodus 19-24

It is difficult to follow the chronology of the events at Sinai eg the movements of Moses up and down the mountain seem out of order, and that has led to much source-oriented speculation. It is speculated that Ex. 20.22-23.33 is a later addition to the narrative which now disrupts the chronology, because Moses was told to go down and warn the people not to go up the mountain and to return with Aaron, but when he went down he didn’t have to warn them not to go up as they had withdrawn in terror, and then he goes up without Aaron! He only brings Aaron up the mountain after all the regulations of the book of the covenant have been read – however positing a later insertion of the Decalogue doesn’t resolve this according to Sprinkle whereas a literary approach does.

The Resolution: The Literary Technique of Resumptive Repetition

The biblical narrator tells a story once then picks up the story again somewhere in the chronological sequence and retells it, often expanding the story or telling it from a different point of view.

– Like in the movies today where one version of a story is told then it is retold from another perspective, emphasizing another aspect. This one event told in two episodes resolves all the chronological difficulties according to Sprinkle.
The technique of resumptive repetition is also referred to as synoptic/resumptive or synoptic/resumptive -expansive repetition and examples of this technique are also seen in Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Kings, Jonah, according to Sprinkle, and perhaps also to be investigated in Judges, in our reading of the Song of Deborah too.

Sprinkle provides a word by word verse by verse exegesis based on a literary reading, and demonstrates the purposeful coherence of the current arrangement of the verses, which form one unit without any afterthoughts or secondary insertions, in which case uprooting any source oriented criticism that was born out of a previously inadequate reading of the text.

This reading resolves the chronological difficulties without any appeal to hypothetical insertions or sources.

Rationale for the Non-Chronological Arrangement

Sprinkle proposes the use of a literary technique like Resumptive Repetition allows for a number of things including:

  1. It can show simultaneous actions, contemporaneous actions by simply retelling the story from a different vantage point.
  2. It isolates material for didactic purposes.
  3. It can allow for different viewpoints, eg seeing things from a particular character’s point of view.
  4. And by placing the reaction of the people in between the Decalogue and Book of the Covenant 20.22-23.33 the author has formed a chiastic structure for his account of the establishment of the covenant:

What Does A Chiastic Structure Achieve for Interpretation ?

Chiastic Structure for Establishment of the Covenant

chiastic structure narrative framework exodus 19-24

  1. A and A’: The emphasis is on the first and last units that deal with the establishment of the covenant.
  2. B and B’: The two units of regulations represent the stipulations that the people must follow to be in compliance with the covenant.
  3. C: the chiastic center, accentuates the operating principle of the covenant, namely, the ‘fear of God’.

”It is the proper fear of God, awe not terror, that operates within that covenant to inspire the people to obedience rather than sin. The obedience that ‘the fear of God’ produces is central to the idea of a covenant with God cf 19.5-6 and 24,7, and accordingly the section portraying and redirecting the people’s ‘fear of God’ has been placed at the center of the account of the establishing of the covenant.”

*Sprinkle continues the topic of the narrative framework for another 8 pages showing how the literary approach explains everything without any need to resort to source critical theories and imaginary sources. I will be doing a more detailed examination of all these sections on this site, reading the Biblical Hebrew and exploring his translations and conclusions 🙂 *I’ve started this at Ch5, Goring Oxen

Chapter 2: On Images and Altars

Why Are These Verses 20.22-26 Introducing the Entire Section?

The question is why the regulations of Exodus 20.22-23.19 should be introduced with this material of Ex. 20.22-26? And the answer usually given by biblical scholars is there has been some sort of mistake:

‘A loosely organized miscellany with little purpose’, ‘a later redactional section without exegetical significance’.

However Sprinkle rejects the suggestion that these verses are ‘without exegetical significance’ pointing out that it ignores the text that we have in favor of a hypothetical one that may never have existed. Whatever the prehistory of this collection, our author, if competent , would not leave a ‘loosely organized miscellany’ but is likely to have had a purpose in introducing the regulations of 20.22-23.19 with 20.22-26. And using literary approaches he discerns the purpose of the biblical text as a whole here.

Inclusios – Cultic Matters Envelope Non-Cultic Matters

Exodus 20. 22-26 are cultic matters and the section Exodus 20.22-23.19 begins and ends with cultic matters, which envelope non-cultic regulations. This ties in perfectly well with the central purpose of chs 19-24, i.e. a covenant relationship between Adonai and Israel will discuss how the god is to be worshipped.

He shows that other legal corpora in the Bible likewise exhibit inclusios in which cultic matters envelope non-cultic regulations and that emphasizes their religious rather than secular aim, afterall, the covenant is theological in nature.

Biblical Legal Corpora

  • The Laws of Holiness in Leviticus 17-26
  • Deuteronomy 12-26
  • Exodus 22.22-23.19
  • and the Decalogue


Non-Biblical Law Collections

  • Cuneiform law collections, which are secular and non-cultic in nature

Sprinkle expands his exegesis of these verses fully and overturns the assumptions of source-oriented scholars that these verses are ‘clumsy insertions’ by showing an intelligent purpose.

Semi-Chiastic Structure at v.24b Highlights the Meaning

He shows a semi-chiastic structure with v.24b at the center of the chiasm:

exodus 20.22-26 structure

A – B – X – B*- A*
  • AA* verses 23, 26: Although element A  is not strongly parallel with element A*, i.e. the prohibition of iconoplasm is not strongly parallel with the prohibition of stairs
  • BB* verses 24a, 26: Nonetheless elements B  and B* are strongly parallel, i.e. where altars of earth are permitted and altars of stone prohibited.
  • X verse 24b: And there is a balancing of two cultic regulations before 24b and two cultic regulations after 24b.

– Now instead of a ‘clumsy insertion’ we have verse 24b is actually a parenthetical remark and the biblical authors placed this verse in brackets between AA* and BB* to highlight it’s meaning.

The meaning highlighted at the center of this chiasm is a central principle: ‘The goal of worship is to meet with God and to find his blessing.’

So the principle of v24b at the center of the chiasm instead of being a ‘clumsy insertion’ as thought by mainstream expert scholarship for over 100 years, now is shown to be undergirding the particular regulations that surround it. This literary technique will come up again, it is a common stylistic feature of biblical literature.

Pronouns, Style, and Other Rhetorical Features

Sprinkle goes point by point through each verse, bringing up every difficulty encountered in biblical scholarship through the ages and meeting it with what he proposes are better interpretations of the text by using syncrhonic literary explanations:

  • Including the change from second person plural to second person singular, which has caused a lot of confusion.
  • He overcomes the difficulty in interpretation of gods of silver and gold by showing silver and gold forms a merismus here, representing precious material of whatever sort regardless of value.

Ch3 The Question of Servitude and Freedom

p.52 Ex. 21.2-11 and Structure

There are two cases, Case A the ‘Hebrew’ bondsman and Case B the ‘slave wife’.

Artful Literary Crafting

  • There is a formal balance in that both cases consist of an introductory כִֽי followed by four related אִ֡ם clauses.
  • Literary scholars also see a chiastic structure egTurnbam sees a chiasm characterized by the movement from freedom to servitude in case A and from servitude to freedom in Case B.

exodus 21.2-11 literary structure

*Note: Chiasm doesn’t always hold the emphasis, it can be on the outside too.

While one scholar, Turnbam, sees the emphasis in the chiasm as its center, that the text encourages the bondsman to remain in the remain in the  master’s care, to choose faily and servitude over freedom, in contrast Sprinkle chooses to see the emphasis in this case of chiasmus not in its center (servitude) but in its beginning and the end (freedom). As with the Rabbinic tradition, as frowning upon the choice of servitude over freedom.

Ch.4 Offenses by Humans Against Other Humans: Exodus 21.12-27

Accidental or Deliberate Ordering?

Four cases that allow death as penalty, there is a question about the organization of these eg the separation of two offenses against parents by one condemning kidnapping, which leads source-oriented scholars immediately to claim it is secondary, or an error was made and the order accidentally reversed.

However Sprinkle finds the order to be deliberate and driving home an unexpected message, and he proposes the following:

Cases A,B,C, and D follow a descending order of physical violence:

  • Striking someone to death / Case A
  • Striking a parent with a blow short of causing death / Case B
  • Kidnapping, which involves overpowering without intent to injure / Case C
  • ‘repudiating a parent which involves neglect of filial duty rather than physical violence / Case D

The poetic purpose is that though one might suppose that decreasing violence would result in decreasing penalty, according to divine justice that is not the case. The penalty for each case is the same, implying that each offense is just as bad as murder. Striking a parent is as bad as murdering an ordinary citizen. Repudiation of a parent, though it only involves neglect rather than direct violence, is just as bad as actively beating him. Kidnapping is also a serious offence against the parents: it removes from the stolen person’s parents a mena of support in their old age, just as repudiation of a parent does, and is equally condemned. Thus Cases B, C, and D are fundamentally crimes against parents that are consdierd as serious as murder.

exodus 21.12-17 literary structureexodus 21.12-17 sprinkle

Ch.5 Goring Oxen and Dangerous Pits: Exodus 21.28-36

This is in 3 parts: A-B-A*

  1. A: The first part, Pericope A vv. 28-32 has to do with an ox goring a human to death
  2. B: The second Pericope B vv.33-34 treats the death of an animal due to someone negligently leaving a pit uncovered.
  3. A*: The third part Pricope A* vv.35-36 has to do with an ox goring another ox.

The Problem & The Resolution

Many scholars are troubled by the fact that Pericope B vv.33-34 concerning pits disrupts the theme of the goring ox and again resort to source-oriented theories that this is a secondary insertion that wasn’t even done carefully and remains unintegrated into the text as a whole.

However Sprinkle demonstrates that Pericope B by its interruption of the cases involving goring oxen and by the differences in penalites inovlved indicates that the case of an ox goring an ox is an entirely different category from that of an ox goring a man – the placement is therefore to stress that point and deliberate.

exodus 21.28-36 literary structureexodus 21.28-36 joe sprinkle

Click here to follow this discussion further…/coming soon!/

Ch.6 Theft and Damage of Property: Exodus 21.37-22.16

Ch.7 Cultic Regulations and Social Justice: Exodus 22.17-23.19


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