Sunday, April 22, 2007

Exodus 1 - 4: Meet Mr. Moses!

When we last saw the Israelites, at the end of Genesis, I was a little confused by how well they seemed to be doing. With Joseph basically running Egypt for the Pharoah, his kinsmen looked to be in pretty good shape. With their flocks happily grazing on the lush fields of Goshen, they were living well, multiplying fruitfully and the whole bit. You certainly didn't get the impression that they needed to led away from oppression and subjegation in a biblical epic starring Charlton Heston.
Chagall, 'Pharaoh's Daughter and Moses'
As Exodus opens, however, a generation has passed, and we are told that in the meantime things have not gone well for Jacob's descendants. A new administration has come to power, and shows no interest whatsoever in courting the Israelite vote. Consolidating his power by exploiting anti-immigrant sentiment -- a strategy that has proved sadly durable -- the new Pharaoh encourages the enslavement of the group that is now called the "Hebrews."

In a particularly grim piece of public policy, the new Pharaoh further decrees that all male Hebrew babies must be killed by being thrown in the Nile. One Hebrew woman interprets this loosely, throwing her baby into the nile in a waterproofed papyrus basket, whereupon he is found a way downstream by Pharaoh's daughter, and... well.... you know how this goes, right?


There is nothing written about Moses' upbringing in the royal family. We meet him as a young man, when he kills an Egyptian who is beating a Hebrew. The episode seems incomplete, in that Egyptians were by this point apparently beating Hebrews pretty ubiquitously, but no matter. Moses dodges the rap by getting out of town. He goes and lives in the Sinai, where he marries a nice local girl, Zipporah, and settles down to work in his father-in-law's business, which is of course herding.

It is at work, tending herd, that Moses sees the famous burning bush, from which God speaks to him. Moses and God have a long conversation, in which Moses is charged with the responsibility of going to Egypt and leading the Hebrews to the land that they have been promised so often. [This property, interestingly, is referred to twice (3:8, 3:17) as the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. That God is giving the Hebrews a territory which already belongs to six other nationalities, none of whom are privy to the deal, is ominous foreshadowing of certain troubles that will crop up over the next 4000 years.]

God has an answer to both of Moses' main objections. Because he worrys that he will not be believed by the Hebrews, God provides him with a magical staff that can, among other things, turn into a snake. And because Moses is not especially articulate, God fetches his brother Aaron, who will function as the mouthpiece and press secretary. So, Moses and Aaron return to Egypt, and rally the Hebrews.

Wonder of Wonder, Miracle of Miracles

It's interesting that God, who I was always taught pretty much demands faith up front, is going to offer the Hebrews miracles to extablish Moses' credentials. It kind of begs the question, why can't we get some miracles to reassure us of God's existance?

Now there are of course people about who claim to have experienced miracles, but it is important to emphasize -- with all due respect to their experience and belief -- that they are dead wrong. They were, in whatever circumstances they wish to report, merely very lucky. A miracle is not required to enjoy good luck. To call one's own good luck a miracle is to claim God's favor relative to those suffering bad luck, which is really, when you think about it, self-serving at best and potentially quite odious. So cut it out, y'all, with claiming miracles.

Raphael, 'The Burning Bush' (detail)Unless, that is, you want to say something along the lines of "every [sunrise / waterfall / look at my baby's face / container of Ben and Jerry's Peanut Butter Cup Ice Cream] is a miracle." I recognize this kind of thing as a fine and healthy sentiment. It does rather dilute the concept of "miracle," however.

A miracle, a true miracle, needs to be a twist in the laws of physics or of the line between life and death. And really, it makes perfect sense that God wouldn't want to hand them out like candycorn. If everyone got to witness a miracle every time their faith was a little shaky, they would be so common that they would no longer be a violation of the basic laws of the universe. (and you know how we are. We'd just want one little miracle -- but then, a year later, we'd want some kind of confirmation that what we'd seen was real, or that God still existed -- and before long, we'd be wanting them as a regular part of the Sunday service. We're annoying that way, we humans.) They would become merely one of those things that happens sometimes, something encompassed by rather than outside of the basic constants that dictate how the world works.

So if you buy all of that, we can assume that God would be pretty sparing in playing the miracle card. His use of it here suggests that this is a pretty important point in his overall plan, but it doesn't show a lot of confidence in Moses' ability to get the team fired up with his natural leadership skills.

Solitaire on an Epic Scale

We naturally think of the coming conversations between Moses and Pharaoh as being a dialogue carried out between the leaders of two communities, each acting with their personal and political agendas at heart. But if you were to strictly follow the text, it's something closer to a puppet show.

Moses, preparing for his journey, is heavily coached by God, who tells him not to worry, I will help you speak and will tell you what to say. (4:12) He is told that he must tell Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go. But, says God, I will harden [Pharaoh's] heart so that he will not let the people go. (4:21) So, God is controlling not only the message, but the reaction to the message, which would seem to really reduce any active role that they humans are playing in all this. It's a bit like God is playing ping-pong with himself.

Trippy Passage of the Week

Then, there's Exodus 4:24-26, for my money the oddest passage since Jacob wrestled with God back in Genesis 32. If any of you gentle readers can give me some idea of what this is all about, you will be officially ordained as a MRTB Biblical Scholar, with a certificate suitable for framing.

Ready? Here goes. Moses and his family are on the road back to Egypt. But before they get there,

24 At a lodging place on the way, the LORD met Moses and was about to kill him. 25 But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son's foreskin and touched Moses' feet with it. "Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me," she said. 26 So the LORD let him alone. (At that time she said "bridegroom of blood," referring to circumcision.)
I hope somebody can clear this up for me. Speculations, or for that matter wild guesses, are encouraged.

See ya next week.


Jennifer said...

Damn! And I really wanted a certificate, too. . . I'm going to have to ponder this one.

(Isn't it interesting that the knife is flint, too? I don't know how sharp you can get flint, but I'll be if you ask 10 guys, they'll all agree that it can't be sharp enough!)

Anonymous said...

Can we read this passage as another example of God's disturbing tendency to trust the faith of his followers by threats, usually at night, and usually in the desert? God seems to demand his pound of flesh--take your son Isaac into the wilderness and sacrifice him to me. Go walking after midnight like the Patsy Cline song and perhaps you will be ambushed by an angel. The OT god by any reading is a petulant thug. You're going about your business? Stop! Pay attention to me! Show me some R-E-S-P-E-C-T or I'll kill you. Or someone in your family.

The response to this obsessive relationship is also odd to me. We have all these patriarchs setting up for us the paradigm of the abusive relationship. It is not enough to declare one's devotion. One must continually prove it, or as Janet Jackson would sing, "What have you done for me lately?" God turns on these guys with the fury and self-indulgent demands of a B-movie actress married to a wealthy octagenarian.

Why circumcision? It seems to me that God asks always for the thing that will be most painful to give. This is common to every world mythos. Think here of the myths of Crete. Had King Minos sacrificed to Poseidon the bull from the sea, things would have gone differently. However, he kept it for himself, sacrificing a lesser animal, and brought upon himself the whole saga of bestiality, the Minotaur, Theseus, and Daedalus. Again, the story of the world (and by extension, civilization and all of us) cannnot be born except by sacrifice of what is dear. The myths of Crete unfold as a series of sacrifices of one's eldest or most beloved sons, the losses of faithful daughters, and so on.

Why would this be so? I can't help thinking that the instinct to hoard, to own, even to assert one's power over one's body, works contrary to the necessary entropy of the world. Every character has to lose the thing he values most in order to be made again, to keep growing. The image of the shattered vessel occurs to me here--the shattered vase mends, but at each crack there is some morticing, thus the vessel, each time it breaks, becomes a little larger. (The Grinch's heart seems in the cartoon to grow the same way after the heartbreaking self-knowledge of what a pud he is, standing there over little Cindy Lou Who.)

Is it fair to say that God needs transgression and sacrifice, needs turmoil, in order to ensure the continued evolution of the world? Why else would he harden Pharoah and strengthen Moses if not to create an impasse whereby the world could be made anew. (I could draw parallels to current world leaders who seem to knock each other's heads in without a lot of respect for what any of the people they supposedly represent might say about it.) When I read these stories, it's clear that God does not protect his flock, the good shepherd ensuring the safety and security of his chosen. Rather, God (and world leaders) deliberately creates storms which pitch about his characters and often drown them. It is God's goal to assert himself in the way that we can least ignore, which is by asking for that which we most value.

Spiritual gurus always tell us to let go of earthly things. It is Jesus who will say later that we should "keep not for [our] treasures those thing which thieves may steal and moths and dust doth corrupt." Spirituality, a closeness to God, seems to require the ascetic negation of the flesh and the world. Interesting that the human perception of what God thinks will glorify him is to despoil or deny oneself participation in the very things God created for his own glory and in his own image--the world and ourseleves.

I see the attacking with the flint knife any number of ways, but most obvious is the primitive nature of this--in a moment of weakness or doubt our tendency is to negate some part of ourselves as a means of salvaging the whole. We also tend to deny the body as a means of purifying the spirit. It's a primitive urge, and usually pursued by deliberatly primitive means. The same logic whereby the health nut stops focusing on the enjoyment of beautiful food and starts eating bowls of un-hulled millet, which seem all the more healthful or closer to the "pure ideal" by nature of being served in earthenware bowls. Okay, maybe now I'm over-reaching the metaphor.

Of course it could mean a lot of stuff.

Jessica said...

Regarding miracles - I would like to say that there are still miracles taking place- and they are pretty amazing when you get to hear of them - be present when they take place - or at best, be a part of it! A very close friend of mine (In fact, he is officiating my wedding) - was able to be a part of one of the most amazing miracles! He was on his way home and it was late - he needed to stop at a gas station - as he pulled in, he kept hearing God telling him to do a cartwheel. He was baffled - and ignored it as a passing random thought - but as he was in the station - he felt it even stronger - it was just him and the attendant in the store - so he decided "what the heck" and just did his estimation of a cartwheel. As he approached the counter - the clerk was staring at him in awe - and asked him, "did you just do a cartwheel?" So my friend said, a little shyly, "yes - I don't know why - I just felt like God wanted me to". At that moment that clerk started to cry and told him that he just finished telling God he was planning on killing himself, " and that if You/God exist - the next person that comes into this store will do a cartwheel."
How amazing is that?

We should never test God - or demand miracles from him - but when we need him most, He will show Himself to us. We just have to open our eyes to it.