Friday, February 03, 2006

A People Consolidating their Spiritual Identity

Exodus 25-40

This time my readers will be relieved to see that I’m finally finding something positive as I continue my way along this rugged journey of reading the Bible from beginning to end. But before I get to the positive, I must note first a few anomalies and puzzlements.

Anomalies and Puzzlements

In trying to trace the actual story of the 10 Commandments, I am very confused. Last time, I noted that after the listing of the 10 Commandments (Ex 20), the story seemed to begin over again (Ex 24), leading me to think that Moses hadn’t really come forth yet from the mountain with the 10 Commandments carved onto tablets of stone. In Exodus 20, the Lord tells Moses “the ten commandments” (along with all of the other ordinances), but it is never mentioned that Moses has a chance to tell the others, because then in Exodus 24 he actually goes up the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, disappearing now for 40 days and 40 nights. It is unclear what exactly will be on these tablets of stone (see Ex 24:12).

Next there is a long account of how to make the tabernacle; how to make vestments for Aaron and his sons, who will become priests; and finally how they should be ordained (Ex 25-31). Presumably the Lord is telling Moses all of this while he is in the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights. This section culminates with his now having tablets to take back down, but it’s really hard to tell what is carved on these tablets, because in the context of this entire part of the story, from the promise of tablets (Ex 24:12) to the presentation of them (Ex 31:18), the instructions that are given are about the tabernacle, clothes, and ordination procedures. There is no mention here of the ten commandments, as such. The word that is used is simply the Hebrew word eduth which gets translated “covenant” but could also be translated “treaty” or “testimony.”

At any rate, when Moses returns he is so upset at the chaos he finds (in his long absence, the people have made and have started worshipping a golden calf) that he dashes the tablets down and breaks them. (Given that he is only just returning with the tablets that we all now interpret as containing the 10 commandments, how can he be so upset that people have disobeyed rules that they did not even know about yet? Or was it that he did tell them the 10 commandments before he went up onto the mountain? If so, what was on the tablets then?)

So, Moses gets upset at Aaron for letting this all happen (and Aaron lies about his role in this). Then Moses calls forth those who are “on the Lord’s side,” and has them go forth and kill people (“Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor” (Ex 32:27)). 3000 people thus are killed. What’s clearly troubling about this is that it is a direct violation of one of the 10 commandments (Ex 20:13). Even more astonishing: their killing people is how they (the killers) are cleansed and ordained!!! (Ex 32:29). And in the long run, even though Aaron cooperated in their falling into this grievous sin of idolatry (Ex 32:4), and later lied about it (Ex 32:24), took no responsibility, and blamed the people instead, he is in fact later ordained as the first priest of the new covenant!

But back to the story at hand: next, Moses goes forth to atone for the sin of his people and beg for the Lord’s forgiveness. While the story seems to indicate a new covenant, the Lord asks Moses to make new tablets and take them up the mountain “and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke” (Ex 34:1).

But here’s what’s really strange. This time the Lord says this (shortened version of what can be found in full in Ex 34:17-26):

1. You shall not make cast idols.
2. You shall keep the festival of unleavened bread.
3. All firstborn livestock and children are mine.
4. No one shall appear before me empty-handed.
5. You shall rest on the Sabbath.
6. You shall observe the festival of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the festival of ingathering at the turn of the year.
7. Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel.
8. You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven, and the sacrifice of the festival of the passover shall not be left until the morning.
9. The best of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God.
10. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

Then: “The Lord said to Moses: Write these words; in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel. He was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments [or ten words]” (Ex 34:27-28).

So it is not at all clear to me from my reading so far that the tablets of stone really do contain the 10 commandments; nor is it clear what exactly constitutes the “covenant.” It may be that these are clarified later. It may be that this is unclear because of the difficulties of translation. But I am surprised not to find a clearer statement!

One more troubling note: Exodus 34:11-16 is chilling. The Lord promises to help Israel drive out the people who already live in the land they are to settle, and insists that the Israelites not make a covenant with those people, but instead destroy their altars, etc. Here then we have what appears to be the Lord’s approval that one people invade and violently drive out other groups of people, and the Lord’s command that trying to understand the Other sympathetically is a dangerous idea. Recall that the Israelites have been gone from their promised land for 400 years! So this is a really crucial passage for understanding the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and maybe many other land disputes as well!

Leaving this huge issue for the moment, I do want to turn my attention to what I have very much appreciated about the story in Exodus.

Appreciations, At Last!

After the new covenant is established, the Israelites now enthusiastically come forth to build the tabernacle and make the vestments, offering their best to these tasks. The end of Exodus thus gives a detailed account of the establishment of the practices of worship, and the reader gets a sense that this is a time of clarification and consolidation of their identity as a people. Most significantly, this identity is rooted in the fundamental importance of a good relationship with God. That is central.

Furthermore, this task takes something like nine months. So, Part I of the story was God’s leading them out of bondage and into freedom, and Part II is how the people must organize themselves into a community that must keep trying to stay in good relationship towards God. Before they embark on the rest of their journey, they must take this long time to organize themselves and establish the right kind of relationship with God.

I also appreciate the themes of: (1) offering your best to God—contributing your finery and best talents for the creation of something beautiful that is shared by the community and whose purpose is to honor God; (2) the structuring of both space and time to place relationship with God at the center; (3) God’s compassion receiving more prominence in how the story is told; and (4) a subtle but important shift in the human side of the relationship with God, as exemplified by Moses.

Even though God still gets upset and impatient with the people, Moses keeps intervening and convincing God to be more forgiving and compassionate. This is striking because it shows a kind of human autonomy that contributes not what God has already ordained, but something new that persuades God to change His mind (and even to become more compassionate)! Humans are not just either obeying God or messing things up – sometimes humans can add something new to the conversation and to the relationship with God, which God respects.

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