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Peter on Reading Exodus

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
Reading through the Hebrew scriptures is a project that might well take me the rest of my life. Almost a year after starting, I'm now only about fifteen chapters into Exodus. I'm reading simultaneously the Anchor Bible and the JPS edition of the Tanakh. It's a personal quirk of mine that I find I prefer starting with a very technical translation and then later moving to one that's more fluid and readable. When the Anchor Bible comes to a word where the meaning of the Hebrew is unclear, it stops and tells you so, and gives you a dozen pages of notes explaining all the possible meanings along with the specific context clues or instances of the word in other texts. I just love that stuff. The JPS on the other hand, like most translations that are designed for the general reader, will simply chose the likeliest meaning, with maybe a brief footnote at the bottom of the page. You get good English prose, but often with the sense that something's missing somewhere.

Exodus is a very different book from Genesis--less mythic and more historic is its storytelling style. More coherent as a narrative. Fewer places where I find it shockingly bizarre in its implications.

Genesis was kind of amoral. Humanity was punished for "wickedness," but its not at all clear from the text what that wickedness was. Shtupping with angels? More often, punishments were allotted for anything that made God nervous or insecure. Humanity ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, so now we've got to expel them from the garden lest they also eat of the tree of life and thus become gods just like us, because that would never do. But I'll show them how to sew animal skins first, in case it gets cold out there. And the tests of Abraham were all about loyalty, not conscience. Abraham wasn't supposed to ask whether it was right to murder his own son. God says THOU SHALT KILL and Abraham asks "How high do you want me to build the altar?" and this is a good thing. Hoo boy.

In Exodus, I suppose you start to get the first glimmerings of abstract right and wrong: oppression is wrong, and the liberation of slaves is right. Except that God, if we can take him at his word, isn't so much interested in the welfare of his people as in performing a lot of showy wonders to glorify his name, and its important to him that Pharaoh not agree to his demands so that he can make a name for himself by luring his army out into the desert and then drowning it under the sea. Mind you, I don't actually take God at his word here, at least not at his word as it was recorded by the human authors of the Torah. I think what we have here is a god or a vision of god (whether it's God's vision of himself or the people's vision of their god is open to interpretation) but it's a god with big ideas, a local deity who wants to identify himself with the unknowable, with God-beyond-God, with the Ground Of All Being. So he cannot admit to being in any kind of real struggle. If Pharaoh says no, then it's got to be because God hardened his heart against the Israelites, and why would God do that? The only logical explanation is so that God could then make an example of him. Plain as the nose on your face if you can simply read the text for what it says and not impose a lot of medieval Christian philosophy on it.

One way to phrase it: Yahweh, a local Mesopotamian storm deity, was making a bid to become the acknowledged name and face for the one all-powerful unknowable Creator Of All Things and Ground Of All Being. He pins his ambitions on Abraham, an unpromising and childless Sumerian merchant, and sends him to travel and make his fortune as a nomadic shepherd. He promises Abraham that his descendents will grow to be a great nation and that the whole world will someday be blessed through them. In return, he makes repeated demands that Abraham swear absolute and unwavering loyalty to him, even pushing him to the point of agreeing to kill a son that he loves, because once you've said yes to that, it's really impossible to question any later demands. Yahweh owns him after that, body and soul. Later on, when Abraham's descendents have been enslaved in Egypt, Yahweh sees his opportunity to make an even bigger name for himself through a very ostentatious display of power culminating in the classic storm god feat of wrestling with the sea. But Yahweh himself is changed through this process, becoming deeper and wiser as he identifies more and more with that rather abstract vision of the One (and only) God. Over the centuries, his priorities shift. He becomes less insecure, less jealous, and more concerned with abstract values and with humanity as a whole. Also, as the known world becomes ever larger and the Holy Land becomes a provincial backwater of the Roman Empire, Yahweh sees that he cannot continue to represent the One God without expanding likewise. He extends his pervue, first to include gentile Christians, but becoming ever more universalist over time until it is possible to claim, today, that anyone who makes a genuine connection with the divine is encountering the one true God who is Yahweh (though other gods, and the followers of other gods, may still rankle at this).

The same story can be related from a monotheist perspective as well. No, monotheist is not the word I'm looking for. "Monotheist" has too many connotations of Thou-Shalt-Have-No-Other-Gods-Before-Me. I want a word that describes the way Cat feels about Spirit as she experiences it in Quaker Meeting. I tend to relate to that Spirit as a patron deity, perhaps because I regard all theology as ad hoc and post hoc. We experience the divine, but the experience is the only thing we can say for sure is real, so I don't waste much time any more trying to categorize the Gods. But Cat's experience of Spirit in meeting is that it is something beyond, something on a higher level of the Kabalistic Tree, perhaps, than the Pagan gods. And that it is somehow unitary.

So take that perspective, and retell the story of Abraham and Israel.

Yahweh still begins as a local Mesopotamian storm deity, part of an archetype that was common among the tribes of that area. But somehow--whether it comes from the god or from his chosen people, we're not sure--there is a vision of and a longing for that One Spirit, nameless but omnipresent, that covers and unites us all. The centuries-long, back-and-forth struggle between God and his people now becomes a struggle to transcend that paradigm of loyalty to a patron deity and to create a new language and a whole new set of concepts for talking and thinking about the divine. It's not easy, because it's brand new. There are no precedents. There are no established habits of thought. Or rather, there are plenty of habits, but they're the old habits that keep making us backslide. Abram says, "Tell me where to go," and God says, "No. Just wander. My Spirit may settle here or there at different times. Follow the leadings of Spirit." Abraham says, "I'll make a human sacrifice, because that's what you do for your God, right?" and God says, "No. You can show me your willingness, if that's what you feel you need to do, but do not kill for me this son that you and I both love. Take this ram instead, and let that be a sign that from this day forward there will be no more human sacrifice in my name." Moses says, "Free us from Egypt," and God says, "No. You can free the people yourself if you open yourself to Spirit. Just as Aaron takes your vision and speaks it to the people, so you can take inspiration from Spirit and speak it to Aaron. But know that if Pharaoh is steadfast in opposing you, it is because he also draws strength from Spirit." Moses says, "I see! You're hardening his heart so that everyone will be able to see how mighty you are, and your name will be magnified!" and God says, "Oy veh. That'll have to do for now, I suppose. I'll send you some prophets later to clarify things, but for now here's ten fairly straightforward rules we can use as a starting place."

That's a very Quaker reading of the OT, and a very liberal Quaker reading at that. I am doing exactly what I said not to a couple of paragraphs ago: imposing a lot of preconceptions on what I'm reading. But, along with my instinct to simply let the writer say what he wanted to say, I also have to ask, What did God mean by that? God is real, all the gods are real, Spirit is real, Yahweh is real...or at least our experiences of them are real, and those experiences have enough of a tendency to recur--the experiments can be replicated--in a way that lends a certain object permanence to the things experienced.

The writers of Genesis and Exodus lived in a world very different from our own and operated with a completely different set of assumptions and paradigms about the gods. On the one hand, it is crucial to let in that reality, and to strive to listen openly to Spirit as it spoke to them. And at the same time, Spirit persists, and my experience of Spirit today will--must and should--inform my understanding of their experiences of Spirit. It's a kind of double vision, experiencing the Light as both particle and wave. Hold the contradiction. Walk from Truth to Truth as you would from room to room.

My personal issues with Christianity have to do with the emphasis on fidelity and the blindness of so many Christians to the reality of God's love outside the doors of the church. The need to insist that This is good must imply That is bad. But if even Pharaoh was acting from the promptings of Spirit, then maybe I can acknowledge that narrow-minded Christians are, too.

The God that sits there behind the stories in the Bible is kind of inscrutable. I once had a vision of the veiled, star-eyed Goddess holding out Her chalice to me, and I asked Her who She was. She answered that I should know better than to ask such a question.

Enough for now.


judielaine said…
Does the Anchor translation comment on possible multiple authors? It's been a long time since i read it -- if i indeed finished -- but i found the research around "The Book of J" and the translation and Bloom's commentary interesting ages ago.
Anonymous said…
Liked your take on Exodus. And what you had to say about spirit. It is a bit slippery.
Peter Bishop said…
Yes, Judielaine. Different volumes of the Anchor Bible have different translators and each one takes a slightly different approach, but for Exodus it actually puts the passages from different authors in different typeface. One of the most interesting things (for me) about the Pentateuch is the way it was cut-and-pasted from sources that sometimes had very different agendas. That'll probably be the focus of my next post.

Riverwolf, thanks for commenting. I hope it won't be so long this time before my next post.
Yewtree said…
Just to say, I enjoyed this post and the previous one about Genesis.

I also found three other similar projects which may be of interest (an atheist, a Unitarian and a Jew reading and blogging about the Bible/Torah).
Anonymous said…
Thanks for this, Peter.

Your "liberal Quaker" rereading of Exodus, particularly as couched in your careful affirmation of Spirit speaking then and Spirit speaking now, rings true to my own leadings.

And I especially appreciate your last words:

"I once had a vision of the veiled, star-eyed Goddess holding out Her chalice to me, and I asked Her who She was. She answered that I should know better than to ask such a question."

Yep. That's how it usually happens.


Michael Bright Crow
Morgan said…
I still celebrate Pesach every year - the Passover, our Exodus from Egypt, from Mitzrayim. And this year, I was very struck by something in the Haggadah which I've heard many times before; but for some reason this year it stood out to me:

When the Egyptians died in the Red Sea, the seraphim and cherubim and hosts of heaven cheered and sang G-d's praises; but G-d wept and chastised them, saying, "Why are you rejoicing? My creatures are dying!"

The next First Day, I found myself giving this as vocal ministry in Meeting for Worship.

And somehow, I was reminded of Yahweh's weeping, when I read your post.

(All this, though Yahweh is way not my god...)
Reg said…
I was pointed at this blog by a trusted friend, and I thank you for it and this post. I have just begun as an "attender" at my local Quaker meeting house here in the UK.

At this stage in my renewed interest in things spiritual, I don't have to do so much wrestling as you evidently do, since I don't feel obliged to accept anything the bible says as the voice of God or Spirit. I'm currently relying purely on any internal promptings, but I hope I'm open to change; if, for instance, I were prompted to feel that there was any sense in which the bible might represent spiritual truth.

Meanwhile, it's fascinating to read the thoughtful words of someone who does regard the bible as some kind of source; particularly someone who is so much more knowledgeable than I am.

Thank you once again, and I will keep listening, while hoping that any comments I might make aren't too innane.

libramoon said…
thot games

I have been thinking alot about the fragility of life, the brutality of war, the emanations of hatred, despair, futility, anti-life beliefs, subjugation of the natural world and our natural ways of being, the yin and yang of human power.

They chose Hiroshima as a target because it had not been bombed, was not already disfigured, so there would be stark contrast between before and after.
I've been wondering how to possibly have faith in a world where so many suffer so regularly. Do we create such realities? Do we really learn and grow from horror and death and ugly bleeding wounds?
Collective mythology points to a pantheon, whether extraterrestrial, divine, or some other origin. Somehow the group which instituted Judeo-Christian-Islam was able to wield power so that they gained sway over this segment of human history which we call Western Civilization.
I don't know what this means, but it seems significant. The Jewish god was jealous, arrogant, warlike. These people valued patriarchic hierarchies, perhaps as being easier to control. They instituted strict rules; devaluated bodily gratification, pleasure, fun, intra or inter-species cooperation. In many ways they devalued the Earth, the eco-sphere, the kinds of interdependence that lead to valuing each and all. They favored harsh competition, violent confrontation, us-gainst-them/winner-take-all. They favored the wealthy and powerful whose ends justified any nasty means. Their moral code was about restrictions, not solutions. And Christ-be-damned, this is the god-council the Christian authorities worship. Yet, there are other gods with other values. How did this group gain so much control over man?
What is needed is to go over to the win/win concept where we each benefit when we all benefit, as opposed to survival of the fittest. Then we could do what actually makes sense rather than being preoccupied with a mythical bottom line. We could all be much calmer, easier, more usefully productive and playful. Is this the way it was before the evil gods? Was this the Eden we were booted out of because the gods had other plans? Why didn't we fight harder to keep a way of life that was good for us? The imbalance is killing us and our home.
Man is within nature. Man's habitats, no matter how grand and complex we may think, are natural in the sense of being created of by and for that which nature provides.

I have thot of this a bit, in terms of beauty. There is the often grand and breathtaking, often soft and ethereal, beauty of the natural world. There is such beauty as well in the art and architecture of man. Each has its story, its music, its water colour. Each has the power to move the rhythm of my heart and bring tears streaming down my face. Each has the power to make me feel hopelessly inadequate, or to inspire me to reach to the stars.
Mind can be more lonely than body would imagine. Mind can search for answers, for questions, for quests, for endless conundrums, and so enjoy the game. Yet mind wants other minds to play with, to bring in ideas that surprise and excite. It is spirit that knows to blend and meld into all that is. Yet spirit too can identify with loneliness, as an essence, as a way to die a little while caught in the ecstasy of exquisite pain. There must be a very important reason for loneliness. There must be a wholeness of interconnection that we truly need to attain.
I've been working the random universe/intelligent design/mystical maya one quite a bit lately. My conclusions are sometimes random, highly emotive, itchy and veiled. However, I had a revelation about the dweller on the threshhold (a revelation to me at least). It's not about going over the threshhold. It's about living it that eternal magic between the worlds and enjoying the view from each side. There may be a time when going onward is appropriate; I don't know. First I have to build my home on the threshhold, learn about living there, learn who I am that I may have myself as a trusted friend on the continuing journey.

Streaming in and out of consciousness, I don't know what I know. I feel,
but fleetingly. I feel exhiliration and fear. I feel so abysmally sad, so
ecstatically unbound, so small and insignificant, so rebellious and angry,
so tired, so endlessly used up, so guilty, so abused, so resigned, so itchy
to be free, so overwhelmed, so stagnant, so magickal, so impossible, so
dangerously close to the edge yet happy to be here dancing on the head of a
pin too small to do other than fly.
There is magic. There is the ability to send out energy and have it return
as your heart's desire. There is a magical path that will take us there
once we have the courage and grace to find it. Like the end of the rainbow
with its pot of gold, it's tied up in koans and hidden between the
dimensions. The only thing I know to do is dance.

We are social beings because we are born unable to care for our own basic needs. In our very earliest experience we learn it is vitally important to behave in ways which will enhance our value to those around us so they will keep us alive. Before we have the language to encapsulate our memories, and therefore subject them to reason, we learn to manifest certain strict behaviors that mark us as members of the group into which we were born. Primal conditioning.

However, our species is not just a few tribes in a small geographic area. There are billions of us, all over the planet. We have a vast variety of primal tribes, each with its own strict behaviors and belief systems. Yet, to each of us, encoded with our primal conditioning, only those behaviors/beliefs that belong to our tribe are vital to survival. Yet, here you are, from another tribe, with other behaviors and beliefs. This is very, very scary. You have no right to exist with such anti-survival ways. You may be a demon, or a test that I might fail.

I was dancing to Steely Dan's "Katie Lied," which brings me close to tears as I sing along because of its tale of love and betrayal. I've been reading Liz Greene and Howard Sasportas' "Luminaries" about the Sun and Moon in the horoscope, including mostly stories about family constellations and curses. Thus, I have been traveling through early lessons, about ..................................
love and betrayal.

Life lessons say trust no one. Anyone I love, anyone who professes to love me, will betray me. So, perhaps I need only learn to forgive human frailty. Perhaps my true love belongs to the gods. Yet, they as well betray me. So, perhaps the lesson is not to love. To be only for myself.

Yet, there is this need for/to love, to connect and share and be more than myself. I also want to feel real communication, that the world is more than me and what I see and feel. Like having a hand to shake the kaleidoscope and find more possibilities in the patterns.

Perhaps the lesson then, is not to have expectations of trust, of permanence, of relationship beyond the here and now. Perhaps love must be free of temporality, ephemeral, rare and precious and of the fleeting moment, exquisite beauty without further responsibility.

Yet again, "be here now" ever changing landscape; ever changing dance of me to you.
I am leaning into the whole illusion theory. Too many coincidences/synchronicities, object lessons, deja vus. There's too much that makes too much sense in a totally fantastic way. I feel like I'm slipping down the rabbit hole, through the mirror, into the Twilight Zone.
I feel like stuff keeps coming to the surface so I can embrace it, build up my resources of inner allies. It's moving suddenly, quickly, like there's not much time left before I need to be secure and strong and ready for the onslaught. "Claiming my life as my own, I turn my demons into stone" I wrote that a year ago. I have greater glimpses, here and there, of quite sensible cosmic truths. My revelations are about magick and those moments, those inebriated feelings of pure will to being that are all that life need or indeed need aspire to be. I feel like I am slowly mutating, part worm/part moth. Sometimes people, just people as they pass before my eyes, seem like some kind of mechanistic cyborgs, biological, but barely. Like beings of flesh emerging from some factory vat. I feel a chronically acute ache within my inner eye. From some chronically fatigued neural net images flash in and out, sometimes clear enough to form impressions.
I feel humble; I feel weak; I feel times are turning, I know not where.

People's lives can be so sad and frustrating. It's like we move around with cumbersome weights that just get in our way, sometimes tragically so. I find that so many incredibly wonderful bright shining stars just can't see their own beauty and crumble into hideous holes trying to hide nonexistent ugliness. And that bipolar thing, it's like a hungry beast in wait to devour any lucent progress. Very exhausting. But they say some of the greatest have had to work their way through that weight; like wearing weights to increase strength, if they don't overwhelm you first. Perhaps compassion is more effective when it is dispassionate: chop wood, carry water, dress wounds, listen lovingly to the screaming, understand it as ritual music, keep to the grace and balance of the dance. Yes, we are survivors when we survive. Sad survivors, perhaps wondering what we must do to deserve such fortune. But, yes, crisis shows us our true strength, compromised as it may have become by that very crisis.

So, maybe that is what suffering is about -- that we intimately understand the fellow suffering of our kind, that we may ultimately learn to transform the pain into creative healing. I don't know, but it is a lovely story.

Do you know about Chiron, the wounded Centaur? But he was wounded, accidentally, by a friend. He bore his wound, and made his way becoming a beloved teacher and healer. Eventually he became a hero, giving his life to end another's pain.
I look for lessons in the myths, archetypes, fairy tales. I don't know if what I find bears truth, but they can be lovely stories. They can lead me into deep, complicated emotions, into dancing and poetry, into a need to share. Perhaps I am consecrated to beauty, in all it's terrible majesty. The pain of exquisite beauty is everywhere to be discovered, held closely, and set free. I am dancing closer to the fire. Giant shadows dance with me.
Curiouser and curiouser. Alone on the precipice, while the winds blow, hot, cold, eerily.
I used to feel ancient, slogging through with barely any lifeforce. Lifeforce is still flickering, but the core seems to be warmer, maybe getting ready to ignite.

I got all in a tizzy about trying to make some metaphoric hay, shoot out arrows into opportune targets, or otherwise take advantage to advance. Same old hang-up -- don't know where I'm headed, so advance to where? So then I thot, maybe that's the point. Maybe it's all about really learning to open up and let the road unroll itself. Maybe if I let go of all the trying and frustration, the space will expand through me in feelings and thots and unbound possibilities. Let go and let Gaia? Then there's that whole trust thing, or lack thereof. And the whole what does it really matter ...

Let the games continue; let it be

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