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Peter on Exodus: Part IV

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

A Graven Image Is Worth A Thousand Words

What is a “graven image?” Why are they forbidden, not just in the arcane dictates of the Mosaic Code but front-and center in the Ten Commandments themselves? And, given that, why do so many Christians today and throughout history flat out ignore the commandment?

What it says is:
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. You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the LORD your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments. (JPS, Exodus 20:4-6)
Murder, adultery, and stealing He let go with a simple statement. For graven images, He goes out of His way to promise punishment down to the great-grandchildren. And it's not just idols, not just images of God(s), it's images of anything. What's up with that? And, given its prominence in the Law, what's up with all those crucifixes in churches?

Marshall Massey, in a comment on an earlier post, says:
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?
As always, Marshall is very thought provoking and has a depth of historical and scriptural knowledge that makes him impossible to simply dismiss. But, as is often the case too, Marshall's comment leaves me feeling that there is something wrong in what he said that I just haven't been able to put my finger on yet.

Yes, there have been iconoclastic sects within Christianity, including the forebears and early roots of our own Quaker tradition. And I'll take Marshall's word for it that the early Christians made no images. But even at their most extreme. Christian iconoclasts have only objected to religious iconography. Islam is the only Abrahamic religion I know of that avoids all representational art of any kind. I don't draw any great conclusions from this. It just puzzles me. This one has always puzzled me, ever since I was a child turning the pages of the big black King James we had from the Reader's Digest Press.

For that matter, what about the golden cherubim that ornament the Ark of the Covenant? *shrug*

Where I sharply disagree with Marshall's comment is when he compares the Hebrew injunction against images to the attitudes of the Taoists and Buddhists. He's very right in describing the Taoist conception of “God as beyond all such.” But that's not what the Hebrews were saying.

Lao Tsu tells us:
Even the finest teaching is not the Tao itself.
Even the finest name is insufficient to define it.
Without words, the Tao can be experienced,
and without a name, it can be known.

(Tao Te Ching, chapter 1, Stan Rosenthal trans.)
This stands in direct opposition to:
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.

(RSV, Gospel of John 1:1)
The Hebrews forbade sculpted images, and Hebrew culture never did much with the visual arts generally, but with their words they painted pictures that could make your hair stand on end or your spirit soar.
I looked, and lo, a stormy wind came sweeping out of the north—a huge cloud and flashing fire, surrounded by a radiance; and in the center of it, in the center of the fire, a gleam of amber. In the center of it were also the figures of four creatures. And this was their appearance:

They had the figures of human beings. However, each had four faces, and each of them had four wings; the legs of each were [fused into] a single rigid leg, and the feet of each were like a single calf's hoof; and their sparkle was like the luster of burnished bronze. They had human hands below their wings. The four of them had their faces and their wings on their four sides. Each one's wings touched those of the other. Their did not turn when they moved; each could move in the direction of any of its faces; they went wherever the spirit impelled them to go, without turning when they moved.

(JPS, Ezekiel 1:4-12)
The description goes on for another two pages, and it is some of the most visually intense writing I've ever read. They did make pictures of their God. It's not sculpted, but there's no way you're going to tell me those words don't make an image.

So I'm still just really puzzled by what the second commandment means. To us. To them. To anybody.


Deborah said…
Islam is the only Abrahamic religion I know of that avoids all representational art of any kind.

The Amish don't allow images of any kind, hence their avoidance of photography. The children play with dolls that have no faces, and their walls are decorate with framed sayings.
Amy Branham said…
I just wanted to say that I enjoy your blog and learning a little bit about how you view religion and the world. Thank you!

Daniel Wilcox said…
Thanks for the provoking post, Peter.

I think a partial answer is read such rules in the OT "in the spirit, not the letter" of the prohibition. Most if not all of us humans tend fixate on the material, the immanent, the viewable, even the legalistic. We want to pin down Truth, visualize it so as to grasp it.

The commandment emphasizes that we need to focus on the transcendent or in the words of Paul Tillich--the ultimate. But that goes against our usual inclinations. Notice how nearly all of us make idols of finite things. Even the Muslims do when they venerate, almost like saints, suicide bombers' pictures.

And as you so well point out, there are plenty of visual/graven images in the OT from the cherubim to the prophets such as Jeremiah. So, at least from a historical/progressive truth view, it would seem probable that the commandment isn't to be taken legalistically, but spiritually.

A prose paraphrase would look something like this:
You shall not make yourself anything finite to worship or to bow down to. For the I AM/I AM BECOMING is transcendent/ultimate/infinite.

As for God punishing the children to the fourth generation this is clearly a contradiction to Ezekiel who declares no child is punished for what his parents do wrong. And it extremely contradicts Jesus' statements about children and the love chapter of 1 Corthians 13.

There does appear to be a lot of dross in the OT. Right now I am studying Alter's literal Hebrew translation of The First Five Books of Moses, but I am behind you in my reading, only half way through Genesis, getting all caught up in the marvelous puns and word order of the original Hebrew.

Furthermore, I am in deep trouble if the commandment is to be taken legalistically since I am a Quaker artist and love all things imagined:-)

In the Light (which is a graven image in Jewish Marc Chagal's wonderful paintings!)

Daniel Wilcox
Hystery said…
If the Divine is Ineffable, than all words and images utilized to express it are insufficient. We are therefore limited to insufficient metaphors, descriptions, and theories to discuss this wonderful Something our very souls compel us to express. When we elevate any one of these expressions to the level of Primary Expression, we lull ourselves into the delusion of idolatry; mistaking the image, word, or metaphor for the Divine itself.

That's a little different take on a more old-fashioned description of idolatry which is to dismiss other people's metaphors as unholy and one's own metaphors as just fine. Abrahamic prohibitions against graven images of course must be understood within the context of a developing religion setting itself in juxtaposition and opposition to the powerful and often corrupt polytheisms of the ancient world. This was neither a painless nor a complete process. I think Abrahamic monotheism still struggles with the results of these early challenges.

I could also point out that the injunctions against graven images also result from Judaism developing out of its own polytheism. If one is a Priestly Author, and a strict monotheist dismayed by the people's troubles and corruption in the midst of exile, what is one to do about that influence? How does one interpret memories of all those beloved asherim (goddess figures) that some scholars maintain existed throughout Israel, even within the Temple itself? The canonical writers are going to have to confront this and one of the ways they do so is through a little bit of revisionist history.

I also think that to those of us who do not believe in a hierarchal division between the Creator and the Created, avoiding graven images of the divine would be impossible unless we gave up speaking and making art completely. All life is Divine. All existence Holy. And a soul's gotta sing praises with voice, pen, brush, and dance.
Marshall Massey said…
The following is written in haste before I leave for my job, Peter, so I hope you will forgive any typos. Quotations from your own words are italicized —

"Murder, adultery, and stealing He let go with a simple statement. For graven images, He goes out of His way to promise punishment down to the great-grandchildren."

Loyalty to God is the first and most basic commandment, and this provision underscores that fact. If you're not loyal to YHWH, then why would His commandments against murder, adultery and stealing carry any weight in your mind and heart? If you're making images of something else to worship, why would you feel loyal to YHWH?

"And it's not just idols, not just images of God(s), it's images of anything. What's up with that?"

Propp asks roughly the same question in the Anchor Exodus, p. 167: "Why stifle what is probably a universal human impulse ... to depict Nature?" He answers himself (pp. 167-68): "Presumably, as the Rabbis would put it, to 'make a fence around the Torah" (m. 'Abot 1:1). That is, lest one worship images, one may not even make an image."

"...Even at their most extreme. Christian iconoclasts have only objected to religious iconography. Islam is the only Abrahamic religion I know of that avoids all representational art of any kind."

Your previous commenter Deborah has already mentioned the Amish, but there are other counter-examples. There have been cases in Colorado, Indiana and Nebraska in which the courts ruled that individuals with certain clearly held religious beliefs have a right to obtain licenses without photographs; all these involved non-Amish who were trying to honor the second of the Ten Commandments.

In the Colorado case, Dennis v. Charnes, 571 F. Supp. 462 (D. Colo. 1983), the plaintiff was a member of The Assembly of YHWHHOSHUA. In the Indiana case, Bureau of Motor Vehicles v. Pentecostal House of Prayer, Inc. 380 N.E.2d 1225 (Ind. 1978), the defendants were a group of Pentecostal Christians.

In the Nebraska case, Quaring v. Peterson, 728 F2d 1121 (8th Cir. 1984), aff.'d sub nom. Jensen v. Quaring, 472 U.S. 478 (1985), 10 5 S. Ct. 3492 (1985), the plaintiff did not belong to any organized church, though she attended a Pentecostal church and participated in nondenominational Bible study groups. She was able to demonstrate her seriousness regarding the second commandment by showing she possessed no photographs of her wedding or family, did not own a television set, and refused to allow decorations in her home that depicted flowers, animals, or other creations in nature. When she bought products with images of creatures on them, she either removed the images or blacked them out with a felt tip pen.

"For that matter, what about the golden cherubim that ornament the Ark of the Covenant? *shrug*"

Propp notes the same (p. 170): "...The Decalog notwithstanding, the Israelites did make images. The Bible ... mentions Nehushtan (Num 21:8-9, 2 Kgs 18:4), several gold calves, the Griffins of the Tabernacle and Temple, the bulls beneath the Temple's great basin and figured bulls and lions. And archæology has revealed numerous examples of Israelite pictorial art."

I agree with your shrug. The commandments are given; they are also neglected and violated. The Bible itself bears witness to how very seldom the Hebrews/Jews were of one mind about anything religious: there were plenty of "Quaker Pagans" in Israel, although they did not get very good press.

"[Marshall]'s very right in describing the Taoist conception of 'God as beyond all such.' But that's not what the Hebrews were saying."

Propp, p. 169: "Israelite worship, i.e., prayer and sacrifice, is essentially a vertical affair, with Man on Earth and God in Heaven. Idolatry adds a new vector: worship may be conceived as horizontal, directed to God on Earth. Thus an idol binds the divine essence to the lower realm."

Or to put it in more contemporary terms: God is not part of His Creation, and should not be confused with it.

You offer John 1:1 as evidence that this was not what the Hebrews were saying. But in the first place, it should hardly be necessary to point out that John 1:1 was written at least thirteen centuries after the Exodus. By tradition, we use the term "Hebrews" to refer to the people of YHWH only in the time prior to their Babylonian exile in 586 BC; the people who returned to Judah from Babylon had a culture so deeply changed from before that they were given the new name of "Jews". And John's culture, almost a century after Christ, was substantially different in its turn from the Jewish. His concept of the Logos (translated in your quotation as "the Word") invoked that of the Greek philosopher Herakleitos, who was the fellow who originally came up with the term "Logos", and that of the Stoics, for the satisfaction of the Greek-speaking audience he was addressing.

And in the second place, the term Logos is not a label for the word-images describing God. The early Quakers were quite pointed about this fact, and as it happens they were right. The word-images were not present in the beginning, but the Logos was. The Logos, says John, took flesh as Jesus and dwelt among us; but Jesus was not merely a word-image made flesh. If he had been merely a word-image made flesh, he would have conformed to the expectations of those who had that word-image in their minds, but the record shows that his behavior took everyone by surprise.

"They did make pictures of their God. It's not sculpted, but there's no way you're going to tell me those words don't make an image."

Absolutely. The ban is explicitly on graven images, not on images in the mind. We might note that images in the mind are (at least for most people) a good deal more plastic and open to change than images made of wood or carved in stone. Your previous commenter, Daniel Wilcox, makes a very good point when he observes that "we want to pin down Truth", and that the ban on graven images works against that.
Yewtree said…
If you're not loyal to YHWH, then why would His commandments against murder, adultery and stealing carry any weight in your mind and heart?

Because murder and stealing are wrong; it's just obvious. I don't need a deity to tell me that. (Though maybe you would say YHWH implanted the knowledge that they are wrong in my heart...)
Yewtree said…
For more on the topic of non-theist ethics, I refer you to Richard Carrier's Sense and Goodness without God.
Marshall Massey said…
In response to "Yewtree":

Friend, it sounds like you're not loyal to YHWH. Do I understand you correctly?

It also sounds like you reject murder and adultery and stealing, not because YHWH's commandments carry any weight in your mind and heart, but because the fact that they're wrong is just "obvious" to you.

If I've understood you rightly, then by saying these things, you do not contradict my point; you illustrate its truth.

You're not loyal to YHWH, and you reject the things He forbids, not because His commandments carry weight for you, but for other reasons.

Therefore, it may truthfully be said that because you're not loyal to Him, His commandments don't carry any weight in your mind and heart. And that was the point I was making.
Karen said…
I grok both the truth (for me) that images/symbols can be a starting point for inner exploration and worship which does not involve worship of the image itself, AND that images/symbols can be a distraction from worship.

When I attend Quaker Meeting for Worship, a plant or vase of flowers is placed on a small table in the centre of the room, along with a copy of Quaker Faith & Practice and Advice & Queries. A Bible is placed there, and sometimes copies of other religious texts snuggle up with it. The texts are there partly so that we may take them up and read them if we're moved to do so, but they're there as symbols, too, and the flowers are surely purely symbolic. I've never heard anyone express concern that these symbols might distract from worship, because they're so integral to the (British) Quaker way of doing religious ritual that we don't notice it (and yes, I do believe that unprogrammed Quakers have ritual - it's just really pared down and elegant, and it has all the power of truly functional and beautiful ritual; it is ritual that has real meaning in the Meetings I've attended, but could easily become mere empty form if there weren't weighty members to keep it on track).

I do not know where I am with Paganism and Christianity, symbols and rituals. I often wonder whether YHWH makes a difference between the worship of a symbol and the use of a symbol to facilitate worship, and whether his attitude to it fluctuates as much as mine.
Hystery said…
Kinda a fun aside regarding the connections between Logos and the Canaanite asherim (those nasty little graven images that so tweaked the Priestly authors). The Johannine text indicates, as we all know, that in the beginning was the Word (Logos) which is, in Greek, a masculine term. Theologian Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza points out that the early Christian literature presents Christ/Logos as the messenger of Sophia/Wisdom, also, as we know, present with God in the beginning (Proverbs 8). The early Hellenistic Christians referred to Jesus with masculine terms like kyrios and soter (also titles of Isis whose worship was immensely popular in the Hellenistic world at that time).
So there we have Logos (m) and Sophia (f) identified as that which is present with YHWH from the beginning. Fiorenza also discusses how Philo explained that Wisdom was feminine to indicate her inferiority to YHWH but in truth, Wisdom should be considered masculine despite her/his gender and referred to as a father who was daughter to God. So many difficulties with those darn grammatical genders! lol
Christ/Sophia shares the Isis pattern of speaking in the "I am" style and utilizing symbols of bread, wine, and living water and making promises of everlasting life. Furthermore, we see more ancient connections between the Johannine text and ancient Goddess traditions. Baring and Cashford point out the similarities between John and Sir. 24 and the voice of the Sumerian Goddess:

Begetting Mother am I, within the spirit I abide and none see me.
In the word of An, I abide and none see me (Baring and Cashford, 612).
The Sumerian Goddess was linked to Isis. In the Canaanite pantheon she is Asherah (plural is asherim, the word used to describe the goddess figures found throughout Israel), consort of El (the same El who we find in the OT as another name of YHWH. There are 40 references to her in the OT and lots of archaeological evidence linking her as consort of Ba'al, El, and YHWH (who many scholars think were at times all the same god) including inscriptions found at Ajrud in N. Sinai from the 9th-8th c. BCE invoking the blessing of Yahweh by his Asherah"(Sandra Scham, "The Lost Goddess of Israel" 2005).
The truth of it is that the Israelites do not develop their spirituality in a vacuum nor do the early Christians. A good portion of their religious thinking and symbolism is heavily influenced by the traditions surrounding them. It simply isn't sensible to try to consider the injunctions against graven images without considering the relationships these folks had with those images. The early Christians would have been highly aware of the Eleusinian Mysteries and of the religions of Isis and Ceres. The priestly authors of the Torah would have been influenced by the Babylonian religion with Ishtar/Asherah. Even more ancient Hebrews who lived through the cultural upheavals of the Iron Age, the time associated with the Exodus, would have been influenced by the cultural tranference resulting from migration. These herders of sheep and goats, these Apiru, and rejects of the urban Canaanite society would eventually migrate to Egypt from whence they later experience the Exodus and with them they bring their ancient Canaanite/Egyptian asherim. The Babylonian Exile will only more deeply embed this goddess tradition as the asherim are deeply connected to the Sumerian/Babylonian Ishtar who is linked to Isis who is, if you recall Fiorenza's work, connected to the ancient Wisdom traditions of both the post-exilic Jewish traditions and the primitive Christian movements. Essentially, the graven images so disgusting to Moses and to the priests of Kings, etc. was the very image of the Woman/Dove/Wisdom Goddess that would become Logos/Christ.
Of course I’m giving you an abbreviated (believe or not) and much less interesting version. The messiness of this crazy gender bending divinity thing is sometimes called "Sophia's Revenge” and was a real pain in the ecclesiastical butt way back when.
Now how much fun is that?
Karen said…
Hystery, that is a big barrel of fun :D

So I find myself wondering how much of the injunction against graven images is actually about distraction from genuine, deep consciousness of YHWH, and how much is an effort to differentiate one sect from another (in a Roman Catholic vs Anglican kind of way).

And I love the complexity of the gendering.
Mr. Bishop said…
Thank you to everyone who has commented. Probably the most heartening thing that can happen for a writer is to learn, not just that he is being read, but that he (or she) is making people think.

I'm seeing in the exchange between Yewtree and Marshall Massey some of the inevitable confusion that the monotheist assumptions bring into any conversation. To Marshall, I'm pretty sure that "loyalty to YHWH" and "loyalty to the Divine" and "loyalty to transcendent values" would all be synonymous. To a non-theist like Yewtree or to a polytheist like myself, they are not at all synonymous. For Yewtree, the values are "just obvious" and she doesn't need a deity to tell her what to do. For me, the values are closely related to my relationship with the divine, but doesn't have much to do with that particular Mesopotamian tribal deity.

Thoughts and feelings about God/the Gods are starting to percolate up through my psyche in some surprising ways. I think my next post, when it comes, will be rather different.

Alas, February break was all too short. It feels like all I did all week was read & write about the Bible. This will slow down again for a while, I'm afraid.
Marshall Massey said…
"To Marshall, I'm pretty sure that 'loyalty to YHWH' and 'loyalty to the Divine' and 'loyalty to transcendent values' would all be synonymous."

Huh? Doesn't it depend on whose YHWH we're talking about here, and whose Divine, and whose transcendent values?

I don't think I own any of those things, so we're surely not talking about mine.

Peter, friend, are you trying to yank my chain?
shak el said…
Shiite islam allows pictures and representational art (save for the prophets' face which is left blank).
Mr. Bishop said…
No, Marshall, I’m not trying to yank your chain. Though when I went back and looked more closely at your response to Yewtree, I think I may have misunderstood it the first time. Though… To be honest, Marshall, I’m not sure exactly where you come down on the whole question of One God or Many.

With most Christian monotheists, though, there’s a pretty clear equation of YHWH = Jesus = the Divine = all that is good. If something is of God, it is good; if it is not of God, it can’t be good, and therefore, if something is clearly good, then it must be of God, and if people practicing other religions seem good and Godly, then they must be worshiping Christ in some way even if they don’t realize it. By this logic, Yewtree perceives that murder is wrong because YHWH’s truth penetrates even to the unbeliever because it is just so profoundly, divinely true. I thought, on first reading, that that’s what you were saying, Marshall. That first, one taps into the source of all goodness, and then one’s understanding of specific good and bad action flows from one’s deep connection to that ultimate… uh… Gospel Order (to borrow a phrase from Lloyd Lee Wilson). And that ultimately, that Gospel Order comes from God, comes from Jesus, comes from YHWH, whether one acknowledges it or not.

But that’s not what you said. I’m not sure what you did say. You were a little cryptic, there.

What I was saying is that monotheist logic like what I just said about Gospel Order necessitates some real mental gymnastics at times to avoid the contradictions that arise, and it can also lead to some pretty horrific practices when we encounter other cultures. If the Native Americans aren’t worshipping God, then why not obliterate their culture, force their children into boarding schools, and eradicate their language? Ours is better, because we call God by His true name, Jesus.

Yewtree, I think I’m interpreting your comments correctly when I infer that you are a nontheist, and that you feel you can tap into a sense of right and wrong that is more or less universal without having to wrap it in God-talk. I would expect a monotheist to ascribe that—and I thought on first reading that Marshall had ascribed that—to a subliminal understanding of God’s will, even if you didn’t understand that that was where it was coming from.

As a polytheist, I believe that there are Gods who truly partake of the Divine but who are not infinite, and in my own spiritual journey I have had a series of Patron Deities, because They had a series of lessons to teach me. I also feel, as a polytheist, that we are responsible for the Gods we choose to worship. A God of war may truly be God, but I choose to live as a man of peace so I turn away from that God. Were I born into a different time and place, I might have followed a very different journey and still been true to “God.”

*sigh* It’s the end of a long day of teaching, and I’m too sleepy right now to go any further with this.

Hystery, I’m just going to say very quickly that I’m totally intrigued by what you have to say about Christ/Sophia and Mesopotamian Goddess worship. Every door I open seems to lead onto at least four new paths for inquiry, but I’m definitely going to look for a copies of some of the books you mention. You cite at least three: Fiorenza, Baring and Cashford, and Scham. Which one would you suggest I start with?
Hystery said…
Phew! I'm glad the universal response to my message wasn't just "who the heck is this irritating person?" I can't think of any one source offhand that would directly discuss the connections between pre-Christian goddess worship and Christ but I guess I would start with Sandra Scham's "The Lost Goddess of Israel" because that's an article and short so it would quickly give you an idea of what was most interesting to you and where to go from there. I like Raphael Patai's the Hebrew Goddess and Baring and Cashford's Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image. Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza's feminist Christian book, Jesus: Miriam's Child, Sophia's Prophet is a classic.
Yewtree said…
Apparently the British poet laureate thinks that the Bible should be taught to all children (The Guardian); they also have a quiz: How much do you know about the Bible? - I scored 9 out of 10. Not bad, considering I haven't read it for 25 years...
Marshall Massey said…
Um. Peter, I've been writing my comments based on an assumption that we were talking about Exodus and what sort of beliefs and teachings it contains — not about Marshall and what he contains.

"With most Christian monotheists, though, there’s a pretty clear equation of YHWH = Jesus = the Divine = all that is good."

Exodus was not composed by Christian monotheists, and if we want to understand Exodus, we must take it on its own terms, not on theirs.

On its own terms, what is going on is that YHWH and Moses are gathering a people out of Egypt who, in the centuries of their Egyptian captivity, have lost most of their unique culture. YHWH and Moses are therefore doing what is necessary to bind them together in a new culture and a new worldview, one that will hold them together as a people after they come to the freedom and prosperity of Canaan, and that will moreover make them a ready tool for YHWH's designs for the future.

Thus, loyalty to YHWH is the first, overriding need of the hour.

And thus, it is not enough for the Hebrews to refrain from murder because they know it is wrong. It is necessary for them to learn to refrain from it because they are loyal to YHWH and YHWH told them not to. That is why loyalty to YHWH is the first commandment, and why all the other rules are set out in "because I, YHWH, said so" language.

Certainly the Gentiles, like "Yewtree", yourself, and myself, also understand that murder is wrong. I am sure the Hebrews were able to observe in Egypt that the Egyptians understood this, too. And certainly they didn't need the Ten Commandments to tell them murder was wrong. You may recall that at an earlier point in the story, Moses slew an Egyptian overseer and hid the body. Why did he hide it, unless he knew that what he had just done was wrong? So the Ten Commandments weren't telling the Hebrews something they didn't already know, in saying that murder was wrong; rather, they were putting it in a new frame. "Henceforth, when you refrain from murder, you will not do because of your own knowledge, but out of obedience to Me. Thus, your very knowledge of what is right will bind you to Me the more closely."

Much of the story of the Hebrews' time in the desert is a story of the Hebrews being given disciplines to teach them just this sort of attentive obedience to YHWH — the most obvious of which is, God taking the form of a pillar of fire and smoke and saying, "Follow in My track, day after day, follow Me through this otherwise inhospitable desert, and I'll keep you alive." In this account, we see the Hebrews managing to be obedient for a while, and then slipping from obedience in very understandable ways.

The Golden Calf was the biggest slip the Hebrews made: they were overcome with doubt as to whether this weird YHWH they had followed into the stinking desert was really a better bet than, say, the animal-gods who made Egypt so rich, or some Canaanitic combo of phallic Stimulus Package and fertility-goddess Swedish Model.

But there were also the rules for gathering manna, which the Hebrews just had to test by breaking them; and there was the report of the spies from Canaan, in which nearly all the spies failed the test of trust in YHWH, thus demonstrating that the training was not yet complete.

Each time the Hebrews slipped, we see YHWH altering His training strategy, looking for the best ways to raise up the crowd He had chosen. This adds up in the end to forty years of very intensive, very powerful training in corporate discipleship under a God who has personally taken direct daily control of the situation and has temporarily made miracles the everyday stuff of existence. It is an extraordinary story, unlike anything I've encountered in any other religious culture.

And unless we see the Ten in that perspective, we are bound to misunderstand their nature.

I hope this is sufficiently uncryptic to clarify things!

You also write, "To be honest, Marshall, I’m not sure exactly where you come down on the whole question of One God or Many."

That's a separate question from the interpretation of Exodus. But since you ask, here is my truthful answer:

I think one can parse the observables of the universe either way: monotheistically or polytheistically. But I don't think the gods you get by parsing the observables in a polytheistic way are gods you can depend on to look after your own best interest in the context of eternity. If that's what you are betting on, I think you've picked the wrong horse.

Again, I hope that is sufficiently non-cryptic!

"If the Native Americans aren’t worshipping God, then why not obliterate their culture, force their children into boarding schools, and eradicate their language? Ours is better, because we call God by His true name, Jesus."

But this is not the way of the God of Love, the One God Jesus revealed. The God of Jesus orders His servants to let the tares among the wheat continue to grow without interference, until the time of harvest comes. (Matthew 13:24-30) To this, Jesus added that when the Kingdom of Heaven becomes fully grown, all the birds of the air will nest in its branches — which I think implies, don't bother stamping out the unbelievers' culture, but focus on the growth of the Kingdom, and when the Kingdom is full-grown, any unbelievers actually capable of relocating themselves will come and nest in its branches of their own accord. (Matthew 13:31-32)

The majority of Quakers, who were very emphatically monotheists, understood this perfectly well — George Fox used to preach about the tares — which is why the Quakers refused to employ violence against the Native American culture.

It is awfully easy to use cheap smears of this sort against someone else's religion. But I know you object when it is done to paganism!
Taking Exodus "on its own terms" seems a mistake to me, because it is its very terms which are in need of critical, scholarly, and comparative examination. As a piece of literature, there is no proof whatsoever that we can take any of its terms literally. There's no archaeological evidence that such an event ever occurred, so we must treat this as we would treat a novel, as a series of characters and plot-lines edited by priests with a particular agenda. And as with any novel, we get to use inter-textual analysis as well as intra-textual analysis.

As far as "letting" Native Americans have their religion which is presumed to be false, and comparing this to the tares and the wheat, that's arrogant, imperialist presumption ; and while it may deign to not be violent, its assumptions of superiority and supremacism certainly are. I'm not taking a relativist position that there's no distinction between right and wrong, but the idea that one particular tradition has a monopoly on right is one of the most obnoxious things ever asserted.
Ben Newman said…
Taking Exodus "on its own terms" seems a mistake to me, because it is its very terms which are in need of critical, scholarly, and comparative examination.

But, unless you can read it in its own terms, you have nothing to critique! How can you glean the agenda of the people who wrote down this story unless you have read the story they thought they were writing? You don't have to agree with it, of course.

If I have my history right, the Torah was written mainly from a henotheistic worldview (there are many gods, but this one is mine), but the transition to genuine monotheism had already begun by the time it was redacted and compiled into the text we know. A reading in which Y**H is the only G!d that exists is possible, as is a reading in which Y**H is no more than one tribal godling among many active at that region at that time (but this one is ours!), and both of them are misleading.

Marshall is exactly right that the system of commandments in Exodus makes no sense except in a frame where loyalty is the root value that contains all others.

In that frame, it's very important to know which deities are and are not "the same", because if you and I worship deities that aren't the same, then we have no shared loyalty, and this affects how much we can trust each other.

I prefer to think that deities are more like clouds than like beans, difficult to count or to identify as the-same-one or not-the-same-one over long stretches of time.

As a (pagan) Jew, I sometimes bristle as the mention (among pagans) of Y**H as "just another Mesopotamian tribal deity among many", because that is not what I worship — and yet, clearly, there's a historical chain of fervently believed equals signs that connects just such a tribal godling to the Holy One that I serve. I guess equality isn't transitive in this domain...

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