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Peter on Exodus: God Becoming God


Part I: A Very Differen Book From Genesis
Part II: God Becoming God
Part III: Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch To Live
Part IV: A Graven Image Is Worth A Thousand Words
When I began blogging about Genesis last summer, my plan was to plow through the whole Hebrew Bible, keeping up a lively commentary the whole time. But I’m a slow reader, and every door I open leads onto four or five more corridors that need to be explored. So, my apologies to readers who’ve been waiting with baited breath, but further commentaries on my biblical odyssey will be a bit sporadic.

Tonight I’m just back from a weekend workshop on the Hebrew Bible with Quaker author and curmudgeon Dick Kelly. It was interesting, and added a little breadth to what has been a fairly laser-focused study of the Bible so far.

Exodus is giving me fewer surprises than Genesis did. Genesis was such a mix of the very familiar and the utterly odd that I had to keep stopping to say, Holy cow! Did you see that? Not so with Exodus. One reason is that Cecil B. DeMille’s adaptation of the book was really surprisingly faithful. (“Of course it was,” said one Jewish friend of mine. “He knew who his audience was.”) Though the scene where the people are gathering around the foot of Mount Sinai and the priests are setting up a perimeter in preparation for the big appearance reminds me of another filmmaker, Steven Spielberg. I wasn’t familiar enough with scripture to pick up on the biblical influence when I first saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but reading the book now and looking back at the movie, the archetypal imagery is unmistakable.

One of the few actual surprises for me in Exodus is how verbose God is in that scene on the mountain. We all know there were ten commandments on those tablets, but seriously, between “I am the LORD your God…” and “…he gave to Moses, when he had made an end of speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, the two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God,” I count at least seventy nine separate commandments spanning almost a dozen chapters.

The eleventh commandment: “An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. And if you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones; for if you wield your tool upon it you profane it. And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it.” (!)

And the twelfth: “When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. …”

The thirteenth: “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. …”

The twenty-first commandment is one specifically rescinded by Jesus: “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

It goes on and on and on. Here are commandments 33-36: “You shall not permit a sorceress to live. Whoever lies with a beast shall be put to death. Whoever sacrifices to any god, save to the LORD only, shall be utterly destroyed. You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Number 54 is the injunction, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk.”

After the first sixty or so, Moses takes a break. He “came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, ‘All the words which the LORD has spoken we will do.’ And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD.” I get the image of Moses frantically trying to take dictation on—what? Papyrus?—until finally God takes pity on him and offers to give him hardcopy. “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tables of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.”

And this is where we get the Close Encounters imagery. “The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. And Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.”

Now the instructions get much more detailed. We get plans for the Ark of the Covenant, blueprints for a tabernacle tent with patterns for curtains and designs for candlesticks, carrying handles for a portable altar, and robes and headdresses and jewelry for the priests. The robes have to have bells sewn onto them so that “its sound shall be heard when he goes into the holy place before the LORD, and when he comes out, lest he die.” There are recipes for incense and instructions for butchering bulls and rams for an ordination ceremony. God concludes by referring Moses to a few craftsmen He trusts to be skillful enough to carry out the instructions, and only then does He hand over the tablets “written with the finger of God.”

So what was written on those tablets? The original Ten Commandments didn’t come up in this last set of instructions. And, when you think about it, “Thou shalt not kill” is something you could probably remember without having to write it down, but “for the breadth of the court on the west side there shall be hangings for fifty cubits, with ten pillars and ten bases. The breadth of the court on the front to the east shall be fifty cubits. The hangings for the one side of the gate shall be fifteen cubits, with three pillars and three bases. On the other side the hangings shall be fifteen cubits, with three pillars and three bases. For the gate of the court there shall be a screen twenty cubits long, of blue and purple and scarlet stuff and fine twined linen, embroidered with needlework; it shall have four pillars and with them four bases…” For that you might want to jot down a few notes. So it’s no surprise that the tablets “were written on both sides; on the one side and on the other were they written.”

But that’s not the really interesting part. The really interesting part is that it all changes later on.

After all these detailed instructions, and more, and then still more, and after the whole book of Leviticus with all its proscriptions and prohibitions and its picky, prickly, legalistic and closely worded rules and rules and rules—after a couple of centuries God is ready to chuck it all out the window. And I’m not talking about Jesus here; I’m talking about Amos. The God who begins in Genesis and Exodus by laying out a meticulous code of conduct to maintain the purity of his people, has found by the time of the prophets that it does not satisfy. In Amos, he loses all patience with empty ritual. “I hate, I despise your feasts,” he says, “and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.” What does he want instead? “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” We also begin to see a truly universalist God in Amos. “Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt,” he asks, but then he adds, “and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir?”

The God who began as a jealous and insecure minor tribal deity is evolving into something really universal. He’s no longer a God who can be mistaken for a man in a chance meeting on the road.

Cool stuff.

Comments

Ali said…
"The God who began as a jealous and insecure minor tribal deity is evolving into something really universal."

It was probably those few centuries of intensely focused, elaborate offerings that did it! But then, most of what I know about the growth and decline of gods comes from Terry Pratchett. ;)
Liz Opp said…
Nice post, Peter. Glad there is space for you and Cat to share this blog.

Blessings,
Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up
Judy Harrow said…
Peter, I;m surprised that you repeat here, without comment, the mis-translation "thou shalt not suffer a sorceress to live." The original Hebrew word is actually "poisoner," and a great deal of innocent blood was shed because of that error.

For a lot more detail on this and other prejudicial mistranslations, see Alexei Kondratiev's essay on the Proteus web site.
Hystery said…
I love when non-Christians and post-Christians really take the Bible seriously. The narratives are deeply embedded in our culture so we dismiss it at our own risk. Of course the mistranslations are legion but there are certainly enough of what Renita Weems has called "texts of terror" within these pages to keep us busy. Your reflections, both critical and gentle are also a reminder that there is good stuff in there as well.

As an aside, I also love George Carlin's take on the Ten Commandments.
"...But seriously, between 'I am the LORD your God…' and '…he gave to Moses, when he had made an end of speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, the two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God,' I count at least seventy nine separate commandments spanning almost a dozen chapters."

Certainly. But these were not the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments. They were the lesser injunctions of the Mosaic Code.

The Exodic version of the Ten (as distinct from the Deuteronomic version) is given at verses 20:3-17. Unlike the many injunctions that follow, the Ten are not spoken by God to Moses alone, for him to repeat to the people; Moses has already come down from the mountain when the Ten are spoken (verse 19:25), and God speaks the Ten at that point (v. 20:1) with the people witnessing (v. 20:18a). Having witnessed, the people tremble and pull away (v. 20:18b). They then remain at a distance while Moses returns to the thick darkness where God is (v. 20:21), and at that point God begins the dictation of the Mosaic Code to Moses alone.

The events are recapitulated in Deuteronomy 5. Moses reminds the people that YHWH "talked with you face to face on the mountain" (v. 5:4), and begins a fresh recitation of the Ten with the words, "He [meaning YHWH] said" (v. 5:5b). Having concluded the Ten, Moses repeats, "These words YHWH spoke to all your assembly, in the mountain from the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice, and He added no more" (v. 5:22). Moses then moves on to set out the Deuteronomic provisions of the Mosaic Code, beginning in Deuteronomy 6; and again these latter are not provisions spoken by YHWH to everyone, but provisions spoken by YHWH to Moses and then passed on through Moses to the Israelites.

The distinction between commands spoken to everyone, and injunctions passed through Moses, signifies both a categorical difference between the two groups, and also a qualitative difference. The special nature of the Ten, not shared by the Mosaic Code is echoed, much later, in the prophet Jeremiah's declaration that the days are coming when God will write His law directly in everyone's hearts, and no one will need his neighbor to teach him (Jeremiah 31:31-34.

The nature of this difference can be seen more clearly by studying the two groups of commands more closely. The Ten are things that might apply in the same way to every human being, and that is why they are spoken to everyone in the camp; they relate to things that might be understood as religious and moral universals. The Mosaic Code, on the other hand, is full of tribal considerations and distinctions: one set of rights for people of Hebrew descent, another for outsiders; rules based on the Israelites' unique experiences as Israelites; provisions for a tribal tabernacle and a tribal priesthood. The Mosaic Code (like the Deuteronomic Code) exists for the purpose of distinguishing the Israelites as a people set apart and consecrated; but the Ten Commandments are things that might conceivably join the Israelites with all other children of Adam and Eve in a common path of righteousness.

You go on to say that "after a couple of centuries God is ready to chuck it all out the window." I don't see this at all. God saying, through Amos, "I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies," is saying this, not because He rejects His code, but because the observances have become reduced in practice to an empty shell, a hypocritic mummery. Notice that at the very end of Amos's book, God promises to restore the tabernacle of David and rebuild it as in the days of old. (Amos 9:11). Why would He do this, if He was chucking the feasts and assemblies performed at and around the tabernacle, out the window? Did He just want to reconstruct the physical tabernacle and then leave it empty and unused?

A final note. God was still someone who could be mistaken for a man in a chance meeting on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32). And we are warned, in Matthew 25:31-46, that we may think we are dealing with someone very unimportant, and it could turn out to be Him. Assumptions that God is not present in the seemingly unimportant are parlous things.
Mr. Bishop said…
Thank you to each of you who commented.

Judy, your point is important enough to many Pagans that I'm going to respond in a separate post.

Marshall, I don't dispute that the Decalogue is what was on the tablets. My point was just that it's not clear from the text of Exodus as written. You say:

"Unlike the many injunctions that follow, the Ten are not spoken by God to Moses alone, for him to repeat to the people; Moses has already come down from the mountain when the Ten are spoken (verse 19:25), and God speaks the Ten at that point (v. 20:1) with the people witnessing (v. 20:18a)."

I thought at first that you were simply wrong (which surprised me—you're not often wrong about this kind of detail). But Cat said no, Marshall is right, and she showed me the passage in her King James Bible. I rechecked the passage in my Anchor Bible and my JPS edition of the Tanakh, and, well...you're not wrong. Not exactly. But I think it's very ambiguous in both Exodus and Deuteronomy. In Exodus, there's a sort of hiccup in the narrative between 19:25 and 20:1. The JPS says:

"And Moses went down to the people and spoke to them.
"God spoke all these words, saying:
"I the LORD am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt..."

What's not made clear is if “God spoke all these words” is said by the narrator (Moses went down to the people and spoke to them, and then God spoke these words as well...) or by Moses (Moses went down to the people and told them, 'God spoke all these words...') The King James seems to favors the former reading:

"So Moses went down unto the people, and spake unto them.
"And God spake all these words, saying,
"I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt...

while the Anchor Bible definitely favors the latter:

"So Moses descended to the people and said to them—
"And Deity spoke all these words, saying: 'I am Yahweh your deity who took you out from the land of Egypt...'”

After the recitation, we are told that “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking,” but we are not told that they heard any intelligible words. The implication, as I read it, is that they didn't because “when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. 'You speak to us,' they said to Moses, 'and we will obey, but let not God speak to us, lest we die.'” (JPS, Exodus 20:15-16)

Skipping ahead to Deuteronomy, the ambiguity is there, too.

"Face to face the LORD spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire—I stood between the LORD and you at that time to convey the LORD's words to you, for you were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain.” (JPS, Deuteronomy 5:4-5)

Whoever did the actual talking, there was still a lot of hiking up and down the mountain and eleven whole chapters of lesser injunctions of the Mosaic Code after the recitation of the Decalogue and before the stone tablets were “inscribed with the finger of God.” (JPS, Exodus 31:18)

I still disagree with you about something else you said. You draw a “categorical distinction” between the Ten and the other, lesser commandments:

"The Ten are things that might apply in the same way to every human being, and that is why they are spoken to everyone in the camp; they relate to things that might be understood as religious and moral universals. The Mosaic Code, on the other hand, is full of tribal considerations and distinctions...”

I'm looking at them, and I don't see it. Among the Ten are “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.” This really seems like one of those quirky tribal taboos, and it's a commandment that's flat-out ignored by anyone wearing a crucifix. Among the lesser precepts, those intended “for the purpose of distinguishing the Israelites as a people set apart and consecrated,” are things like “You must not carry false rumors,” and “Do not take bribes,” and “You shall not oppress a stranger,” all of which sound pretty universal to me.

Finally, when “God” travels in cognito in the New Testament, they're talking about Jesus, not God the Father. In Genesis, when Yahweh wanted to talk to someone, He just walked up to him and said “Hi.” In Exodus, He speaks from a burning bush and then something like a volcano. By Ezekiel, He's become a hallucinogenic vision of wheels within wheels full of eyes. The whole point of the incarnation, it seems, is that God had become so grand that he could no longer relate to humans except by becoming one of us.
Mr. Bishop said…
By the way, in case it hasn't been obvious all along, I love having someone as intelligent and knowledgeable as you engage so deeply with my writing. Thank you again.
Marshall Massey said…
Oh, the pleasure is mutual, Peter!

You write, "In Exodus, there's a sort of hiccup in the narrative between 19:25 and 20:1." Yes indeed. In the Anchor commentary you are using as your base text, the author, William Propp, acknowledges, on p. 166, that "at least in the composite text, 20:1 could be taken as Moses' words, not the narrator's." Could be taken, yes. But Propp himself does not believe that that is how we should read it.

Kindly turn now in your Anchor Exodus to pp. 145-46, where Propp sets out his own considered view. Note particularly the following: "...If Moses were reciting the Decalog in Exod. 20:1, he would surely begin 'Thus said Yahweh,' not 'And Deity spoke.' That sounds like a narrator. Either some text accidentally fell out of 19:25, or else the interpolator of the Decalog, at the price of considerable awkwardness, grafted an account of the Decalog, preceded by 'And Deity spoke all these words, saying,' onto an older narrative, in order to create the impression that Moses mediated the Ten Words as in Deuteronomy. ....I suppose that the Redactor adapted a version of the Decalog like that found in Deut 5:6-21(18) and stuck it into Exodus.... In other words, the Ten Words do not properly belong to J, E or P."

You will note that Propp's reading makes the categorical distinction between the Decalogue and the Exodic Code just as sharply as I have done. Propp ascribes the Exodic "First Code", beginning at Exodus 20:22 and running into Exodus 24, to the Elohist ("E"), while he ascribes the Ten to the Redactor ("R").

You go on, Peter, to note that in v. 20:18, "...we are told that 'All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking,' but we are not told that they heard any intelligible words." No, we are not told that in that verse. But if we read just a little further, to the very next verse, verse 20:19, we find the people pleading with Moses (in Propp's translation), "Deity must not speak with us, lest we die." This is entirely logical if we understand that God had just spoken to them and overwhelmed them in so doing, so that they (as Propp put it) "recoiled". It makes rather less sense if the people have no experience yet of what it is like to have God speaking to them.

You assert that "skipping ahead to Deuteronomy, the ambiguity is there, too." I don't see any ambiguity there, Peter. The verse you quote begins, "Face to face the LORD spoke to you on the mountain," and that seems plain as day to me. The LORD (i.e., YHWH, the phrase "the LORD" being a circumlocution) can speak to the people face to face even if Moses is in the middle, just as a speaker on a podium can speak to a gathered multitude even though there are paparazzi in between. The people did not go up the mountain, but that doesn't mean that YHWH couldn't speak from the mountain to them. Moses quite certainly conveyed words from YHWH to the people, but that fact does not negate or discredit the magnificent "face to face YHWH spoke to you".

I wrote that the Ten relate to things that might be understood as religious and moral universals. You disagree with regard to graven images. Well, if you know your religious history, you know that there have always been some Christians who understood this as being more and deeper than a "tribal taboo", and honored it accordingly. Thus the first generations of Christians made no images, which is why we don't know what Christ looked like. In Byzantium, a few centuries later, there were pitched battles between the iconoclasts, who wanted to destroy all graven images of holy things, and the iconodules, who liked having them as objects of veneration. The iconodules won, but it was a near thing.

In Puritan England, at the time that the Quaker movement was beginning, there was a widespread feeling that the victory of the iconodules had been just one more instance of the general apostasy of the church; a new wave of iconoclasts arose and invaded the churches and cathedrals of England and Scotland and destroyed countless works of art, some of them great. Early Friends joined with the Puritans in rejecting crucifixes and stained glass portraits, not just on the grounds that these were forbidden in the Bible, but because their own hearts affirmed that an image is a vanity, i.e. something empty, and as such a distraction from the true God.

Even today, many Protestants uphold the ban on images; I've heard of one Scottish preacher, invited to preach in a church of a different denomination at Christmastide, who began his appearance by taking off his frock and throwing it over the crèche on the stage, so as to cover the blasphemy of that image, and its power to distract from the true God, for at least as long as he was there.

The Jewish temple was of course devoid of graven images; the Holy of Holies had no image in it. Islam makes no graven images, because it recognizes the truth of that commandment; all its art is abstract.

And the thought is hardly restricted to the so-called Abrahamic religions. The Taoists make no images of God, you know; they see God as beyond all such. The early Buddhists made no images either; all the images you've seen of the Buddha date from after the incursion of Alexander the Great. Some of the greatest Zen teachers were notoriously scornful of images, one of them even to the point of burning one.

Tribal taboo, then? Or separate discoveries of the same truth, which is that the Infinite and Uncreate cannot be contained in a form?

I wrote that the Mosaic Code is full of tribal considerations and distinctions. You point out that it also contains some universals. It certainly does. But that does not negate what I said; it merely proves that the Code contains both.

Certainly, "when 'God' travels incognito in the New Testament, they're talking about Jesus, not God the Father." In the Old Testament, they don't yet have the idea that God can be a Son as well as a Father, so in Genesis they go back and forth between calling Him an Angel and calling him God. They're talking about the same phenomenon, they just don't have the same vocabulary.
Yewtree said…
@ Marshall: that was a very detailed exegesis so I didn't follow all of it, not being as familar as you are with the text.

But I thought it might be worth mentioning that when a friend of mine converted to Judaism, she had to learn 418 commandments (apparently not as difficult as it sounds because they are organised into categories).

@ Hystery: Arthur Hugh Clough's witty take on the Decalogue is also a trenchant critique of 19th-c. mores, e.g. "Thou shalt not kill / But need'st not strive / Officiously to keep alive."
Nancy Slator said…
bated breath: held or moderated
baited breath: influence by the recent consumption of small fish

This isn't for publication! ;-)
Mr. Bishop said…
OK, good points, Marshall. I had missed that passage of Propp's. But even though you may be right, I'm still having a lot of trouble actually picturing the scene. The Bible can be very vivid in recounting the appearance of God before various mortals, but not here. When God first speaks to Moses from the burning bush, the description lets us see in our mind's eye exactly what it would have looked like. But if God follows Moses down the mountain to stand right behind him and speak over his shoulder to the people, or alternately, if He shouts down at them from on high in a loud enough voice that they can hear from below, we are left to puzzle out the details from subtle niceties of grammar and word choice. And this scene—maybe because it was so important—is criss-crossed with more than the usual seams and stitches where multiple narratives have been sewn together, making it even harder.

About graven images...that one I think I'll take up in a new post.

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