The Book of Exodus tells one of the most iconic stories in human history. In this online course, Professor Leon Kass interprets its most important episodes and shows how this enduring text can answer the most important questions of our time.
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Leon R. Kass is Dean of the Faculty at Shalem College, Professor Emeritus in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, and Scholar Emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. A lifelong enthusiast of liberal education, he is the author of Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times (2017), and three commentaries on the Hebrew Bible: The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (2006), Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus (2021), and together with Hannah Mandelbaum, Reading Ruth: Birth, Redemption, and the Way of Israel (2021).
In this episode, Professor Kass discuses some of the central themes of the Book of Exodus, including the questions of how a people becomes a nation, and how human beings can bring God's holiness into the world. He also sets the dramatic scene of Exodus by revisiting some of the key moments from the Book of Genesis.
In this conversation, Professor Kass sets out the structure and frame of Exodus as a tale of national birth. He argues that the transformation of the children of Israel into the Jewish nation concentrates on three big ideas: a narrative story, a law to structure society, and a mission to accomplish. Kass and Silver then enter into the book itself and discuss the character of Moses, the nature of Egypt, the purpose of the plagues, the essence of awe and reverence, and much else.
Not long after the Children of Israel escape Egypt, they come to Mount Sinai. There, they enter into a covenant with God. In this episode, Professor Kass thinks about the nature of covenant and why the Children of Israel need one, before turning to a discussion of the ten ordinances that the Israelites receive from God. By learning more about who God is and what He wants from the Children of Israel, we come to understand what the text means by holiness, what elements it seeks to introduce into human life, and what the people must do in order to approach their higher purpose.
There’s great drama in the early chapters of the Book of Exodus: God takes the Children of Israel out of Egypt, whose soldiers then miraculously drown in the Sea of Reeds. Not long after in the text, God reveals Himself on Mount Sinai. After these transformative events, what does the book of Exodus turn to next? We encounter tedious details that relate to the building of the Tabernacle. What's behind that curious shift? In this episode, Professor Kass explains the meaning behind the tabernacle—what it's for, why the instructions for building it are so specific, and how it helps to form the Children of Israel into a united people. Kass and Silver discuss why humans want to offer sacrifices to God in the first place, and what the institution of the priesthood teaches us about Moses, Aaron, and the Children of Israel.
While Moses receives the law on Mount Sinai, the Children of Israel engage in one of Jewish history's most egregious – and perplexing - national sins: the construction and worship of a golden statue fashioned into the shape of a calf. But for Professor Kass, worshiping the golden calf may have been a necessary sin. In this episode, he explains why that is, how the relationship between God and Moses changes after this event, and how order is restored in the Israelite camp.
In this conversation, Professor Kass focuses on the person of Moses, asking about the nature of his character, his motivations, and his highest purposes. Kass explores Moses as a political founder and legislator. And Kass and Silver discuss how Moses relates to God through intelligible speech rather than the signs and wonders that overwhelm the People of Israel.
Every person comes to the Book of Exodus with pre-existing ideas about God. In this conversation, Professor Kass challenges us to set those preconceptions aside and think about God as He is presented in the text. Who is the God we encounter in Exodus? We learn what He admires and the manner in which He designates the Children of Israel as a holy nation.
To conclude this course, Professor Kass reflects on the nearly two decades he has spent studying Exodus. By reading the text slowly, placing himself in the story, and allowing the text to work on him, he has come to new understandings of nationhood, leadership, holiness, the Jewish people, and much else. And, just as the Children of Israel sought to do, Exodus has helped him become closer to that which is highest and best.
The Impact of the Text | 45:15
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Explore the majesty and the wisdom of the Book of Exodus.