Sunday, May 27, 2007

Exodus 23: 1 - 19 -- That's It, That's the Law, That's the Whole of the Law

Michael Reads the Bible was very excited this week by the first comment posted to the blog by someone not personally known by michael5000. Thank you Barry W. for your thoughts. It is encouraging to know that I am not just spouting off to my pals. I may, of course, still be just spouting off -- but it's to the global community!

In celebration of the blog's coming of age, I have disabled the feature that had me read every comment before it was posted. Now, if you want to talk back, you'll have the satisfaction of instant publication. You know I always love to hear your ideas. But hey, I understand that you're busy, too.

Other housekeeping knickknacks:

  • Michael Reads the Bible is now registered at both ORBlogs, a community of Oregon bloggers, and at the massive Technorati site. The former is a very nice site for anyone interested in Oregon and, you know, blogs; the latter you probably already know about.

  • I continue to be amazed by how few people are blogging the Bible! There are of course plenty of blogs that offer sermon-like Bible-readings-of-the-day, and plenty of blogs by theology students talking about highly technical issues of Biblical scholarship. But, except for the guy at Slate, nobody else seems to be doing a sequential reading with commentary. It's kind of disappointing, as I expected I would have all sorts of fellow travelers to compare notes with. So, I'm asking all you Michael Reads the Bible gentle readers to keep an eye out for similarly-minded blogsters, and report back to base if you find anybody.

  • State of the Craft, my quilt blog, has reopened for business.

More Laws

So, after all that, we'll only cover 19 verses in today's post (which, incidentally, borrows its title from a massively excellent Yo La Tengo song). The first half of Exodus 23 wraps up the laws that God gives to Moses atop Mt. Sinai. It is basicly the end of the long statement of rules and regulations that began at Exodus 20 with the Ten Commandments. In the second half of Exodus 23, the narrative kicks in again, so we'll hold off on that until next week.

The first subset of Exodus 23 laws govern fairness and justice, and have a quality of common-sense liberalism that I find quite heartening. Here's the gist of them:

-- Don't slander people, and don't lie to help somebody do something they shouldn't be doing.

-- Don't do something you shouldn't, just because everybody else is. Actual words: Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. Just like Mom said! See, she knew more than you gave her credit for, didn't she.

Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, from a Jewish prayer book written in medieval Germany, c. 1290.-- Don't tell lies in order to make yourself popular when you are testifying at a lawsuit. Reasonable, but suprisingly specific.

-- If you are on the jury of a lawsuit, don't side with the poorer party just because they're poor. Again, suprisingly specific, but not a pointless commandment. When I was on the jury of a lawsuit a few years ago, I found it very hard not to side with the poor plaintiff against the large, rich organization, even though the organization was clearly in the right.

-- If you find your enemy's lifestock wandering off, take it back to him. If you see your enemy's donkey collapsed under its load, help out and get donkey and cargo where they need to be. The underlying notion here, that you should be civil even with those assholes whom you can hardly stand, is an important one. It's the frame of mind that benignly stares down prejudice, road rage, office politics, ethnic cleansing, chat room trolling, and all of the other social pathologies brought on by the love of having enemies, and makes something resembling a civilization possible.

-- If you are on the jury of a lawsuit, don't side with the richer party just because they're rich. Don't frame someone, and definitely make sure you never execute an innocent person. Exodus 23: 6 - 7 is another passage that I would like to see included with any representation of the Ten Commandments that gets put up on public property.

-- No bribes.

-- Don't oppress foreigners. Worded a little differently at Ex 22:21 and Ex 23:9, this is nevertheless the Commandment so nice, God gave it twice. Congress, take note!

Sabbath Laws

-- Every seventh year, let your field/vineyard/orchard lay unused, so poor people can use it and wild animals can hang out on it. Wow! That last part, and the wild animals may eat what they [the poor people] leave (11) comes perilously close to an enironmental directive. The passage as a whole implies that property rights must be tempered with responsibility to the community and with responsibility to the stewardship of nature. Imagine that!

-- Take every seventh day off. So that your ox, donkey, and slave can be refreshed. All work and no play....

-- Don't invoke the names of other gods. Wait a minute. What other gods?

Three Annual Festivals

-- For the Feast of Unleavened Bread, no one is to eat yeast for a week.

-- Celebrate the Feast of Harvest when the first crops of the year are ready.

-- Celebrate the Feast of Ingathering when the last crops of the year are in.

-- When sacrificing, use the best specimans from the crops. Don't mix blood and yeast. No leaving sacrifice fat out all night. And, no cooking baby goats in their mother's milk.

The concept of animal or even vegetable sacrifice is beyond the pale of modern sensibilities, making the bits about sacrifice in the Old Testament uncomfortable to read through. Demands for sacrifices, and odd rules about sacrifice procedure, make God seem frankly alien, weird, barbarian, and cultish. The feasts are no problem, and the injunction to use the best specimens for sacrifices makes as much sense as sacrifice in general, I suppose. But a demand not to mix blood and yeast? It seems both occult and dazzlingly arbitrary to a modern reader.

The great canon of law as revealed to Moses, having started with the Ten Commandments and continued through a surprisingly comprehensive code of law and, in the material we covered today, calls for social justice, ends with a picayune non-sequitor of a regulation that completely fails to inspire. Do not cook a young goat in its mother's milk. Um... no worries, God. I promise I won't.

Next Week: an Ark, a Tabernacle, a Covenant, and other highly Old Testament action.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Exodus 21 & 22: Laws, with the Commentary of Michael Thereon, V.I

In previous installments of this blog, I have complained that the Bible, so often touted as a sort of guidebook or handbook to good living, seems to offer remarkably little guidance on how We Mortals are actually supposed to conduct ourselves. But now comes Exodus 21 and 22, and shut me up -- the guidance is now coming thick, fast, and unambiguous.

It turns out that the Ten(ish) Commandments are really just the first ten (or so) laws that God hands down to Moses on Mount Sinai. They will now be extended, clarified, parsed, and given teeth over the next several chapters.

As a whole, the laws in chapters 21 and 22 seem pretty much what you would expect as the basic code of conduct for a society of nomadic herders. Many of the laws seem to be perfectly pragmatic standards of behavior for a harsh physical and hostile social environment, if perhaps draconian by modern standards.

Which is all very fine and good, except that I and you, gentle reader, are not nomadic herders. For us, these laws seem like a mixture of the obvious, the old-fashioned, and the bizarre. If we are to hold to the literal truth of the Bible, as many claim to do, these laws would presumably still be on the books. Yet, can we really imagine our society really adopting, or re-adopting, them?
Rembrandt. Moses Smashing the Tables of the Law. 1659. Oil on canvas.As the laws of human behavior as dictated by God seem especially important, I am going to enumerate them for you. I hope this not disappoint anyone who wants to get back to the narrative action, or who is on tenterhooks wondering what happens next to the Israelites. But for me, this is the real meat of the thing. All of the previous adventures have been more or less interesting, but always with a certain sense of "so what?" about them. But laws -- them's the real deal. So here goes.

Laws regarding Servants
  • If you buy a male Hebrew servant, you can only keep him for six years. If you give him a wife, you can keep the wife and kids once he's free, but if he comes with a wife from the get go, he gets to keep her and their kids.

  • But, a servant can decide to waive his right of freedom. He then gets his ear pierced, and is a servant for life.

  • If you buy a female servant, she's yours for life.

  • But, if she doesn't "please" you, you have to let her "be redeemed," whatever that means. You definitely may not sell her to foreigners.

  • And if you bought her to marry her to your son, you have to treat her like any other daughter or daughter-in-law.

  • AND, if you bought her to marry her to your son, but he ends up marrying somebody else, he's still responsible for feeding her, clothing her, and taking care of her, uh, "marital rights." Otherwise, she gets to go free.

OK, this is a tough set of laws to integrate with contemporary mores, and it is a bit awkward that they are featured so prominently in the code, before such biggies as the prohibition of murder. Modern labor law is hostile to the "buy a laborer for six years, keep his kids" plan, and the idea of buying a bride for your son would seem a little unsavory to many Americans, what with the women's lib and all. I think I can safely go as far to say that fewer than 5% of Americans would support the legality of purchasing women for life. And yet it is the law of God. Tricky.

One wonders, too, how these laws would work in the current economy, in which the traditional functions of the servant have been largely spun out to service companies. Since the modern master shares his landscaping crew, caterer, housecleaner, nanny service, security patrol, drycleaner, and pool boy with the other little aristocrats of his gated community, he can't really have exclusive rights to all of them for six years at a shot, now, can he? Paying his share of their Social Security alone would eat him alive.

Personal Injury LawChagall. Moise Recoit Les Tables de la Loi(Moses Receiving the Tablets of the Law.)Original lithograph, 1956.

  • Murder is punishable by death. Manslaughter is punishable by exile.

  • Attacking your parents is punishable by death.

  • Kidnapping and human trafficing, punishable by death.

I have enormous problems with capital punishment, but it is hard not to sympathize with the gist of these laws. They address sociopathic behavior that merits a strong response. Of course, the devil is in the details. One immediately wonders about killing in self-defense, or the child resisting parental abuse, and wants to add exceptions and clauses and clarifications. And before one knows it, one has invented the legal profession!

  • Cursing your parents, punishable by death.

Yikes! Everyone curses their damn parents every once in a while, at least during the teen years. Or, does this mean casting a formal curse on your parents, perhaps using a pentagram or a bucket of ox's blood or similar exotica? Because I never went that far, myself.

  • If you assault someone or get in a fight with them, you are responsible for their medical bills and for compensating them for lost time while they are out of commission.

The very essence of the modern lawsuit.

  • If you beat a slave to death, you should be punished. But if you only beat them to the point where they are out of commission for a few days, well -- hey, your slave, your business.

This is hard to reconcile with modern sensibilities. It is also really rather unfair to the slaveholder who, in trying in good faith to beat a slave within an inch of his life -- a perfectly legal act -- happens by random chance to sever a jugular or send the slave into a fatal shock reaction, and is suddenly through no fault of his own guilty of a major crime.

  • If you are fighting, you hit a pregnant woman, and she gives birth prematurely, the woman's husband can demand any fine he wants, subject to judicial review. If you physically harm the woman, you are to be harmed in return, according to the famous eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth formula. (It continues: "hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.")
This is a VERY specific application of the eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth concept. Unless we see it again later, I'd have to conclude that it is over-quoted.
  • If you put out your servant's eye or knock out their tooth, you have to let them go free.

Don't you wonder how many servants helped a tooth along in order to qualify for this one?

Animals Rights Law

  • If a bull gores someone to death, it must be stoned to death and eaten. The owner is off the hook.

  • Except, if everybody know that this bull was dangerous and the owner didn't take precautions, then the owner must be put to death.

  • UNLESS payment is demanded of him (by whom?), in which case if he can scare up the cash he's cool. Either way, the bull still gets stoned to death.

  • Oh, and if it's just a slave that got gored, it's only a fine of 30 shekels of silver (about 12 ounces, roughly $154 at Friday's close on the silver market). But, we still get to throw rocks at the bull.

  • If you dig a hole and an ox or donkey falls in, you've bought the ox or donkey. You have to compensate the owner, but you get to keep the dead animal.

  • If your animal kills my animal, we sell your animal and split both the cash and the carcass of my animal. Except, if you knew your animal was dangerous, and didn't take adequate steps, I get to keep your live animal and you are stuck with my dead animal.

This all sounds reasonable enough to me, although the $154 figure is kind of a cold-blooded "value of human life" assessment. And stoning a bull to death seems like it would present practical, not to say aestetic, challenges.

Property Law
  • If you steal an ox and kill it or sell it, you have to pay back five cattle. If you steal a sheep, you have to pay back four sheep.

This seems like a law that will needlessly provoke a lot of argument. Wouldn't a simple penalty of four (or five) times the value of the thing stolen create less confusion?

  • If you kill a thief while he is breaking into your place, that doesn't count as murder; but, if you kill a thief "after sunrise" -- which presumably means after he is subdued or has ceased to be a physical threat -- that's murder.

Sounds fair.

  • If you can't make restitution for what you have stolen, you yourself are to be sold to raise the necessary funds.

Is it just my mood, or does this actually sound kind of reasonable?

  • If somebody steals an animal and doesn't sell it or kill it, they only have to pay back double.
  • Rosselli. Tables of the Law with the Golden Calf. 1481-82. Fresco, 350 x 572 cm. Cappella Sistina, Vatican
  • If your animal grazes on my land, you have to let me graze my animal on your land.

  • If a fire damages crops, the person responsible for the fire must make restitution.

  • When property is stolen, the thief must pay back double. When property is disputed, judges will determine a rightful owner, and the other party must pay double the item's value.

  • If an animal dies or is eaten by wild beast while being taken care of by a neighbor, it's owner is just going to have to deal.

  • But if the neighbor has borrowed the animal, then he should compensate the owner.

  • But if the neighbor rented use of the animal, and the owner was present, then the owner will, again, just have to deal.

This emphasis on theft being punished by paying back double or more is quite attractive. It certainly is fairer to victims than the modern system, and does not lead to overcrowded prisons and the social and financial costs thereof. Nice! And, it seems like it would work really, really well in a society where everyone knows each other, the average family owns about 10 items, and missing goods will inevitably resurface eventually. It might be hard to make it work in the hypermaterial modern millieaux, though. Plus, the system relies on being able to squeeze slave equity out of your poorer class of thief, and that just doesn't work with contemporary sensibilities.

Miscellaneous Laws

  • If a man seduces a virgin, he has to pay the bride-price and marry her. If her father wants to keep her, the seducer still has to fork over the bride-price.

  • Sorceresses must not be allowed to live.

Both of these are tricky, in that our society does not recognize the bride-price, and there is no such thing as a sorceress.

  • Anyone having sex with an animal must be put to death.

Bummer for an estimated five percent of the population, which is as far as I can tell about the proportion of Americans who have had such an adventure. To be sure, it is a potentially alarming topic to research on the internet.

  • Anyone sacrificing to a god other than God must be put to death.

  • Mistreating or oppressing foreigners is forbidden.

  • Widows and orphans are not to be mistreated. (In fact, God says he will punish this one himself, in person.)

  • Charging interests on loans is not allowed. Keeping a person's clothing as collateral on a loan is forbidden, since he needs it to keep him warm.

These are provisions which unambiguously render capitalism -- and all other forms of economy since very early in the dark ages, as far as I'm aware -- flagrently opposed to God's law. It would be interesting if the folks who pay for monuments commemorating Exodus 20:3 - 17, the Ten Commandments, also included Exodus 22: 25-27 on there: 25 If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest. 26 If you take your neighbor's cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset, 27 because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in?

  • Don't blaspheme God or curse your ruler.

Not even that damn Bush?

  • Another puzzling one: 29 "Do not hold back offerings from your granaries or your vats. You must give me the firstborn of your sons. 30 Do the same with your cattle and your sheep. Let them stay with their mothers for seven days, but give them to me on the eighth day.

I think I get what's going to happen to the calves and lambs, but what's going to happen to the little boys? Surely the idea isn't that we're supposed to go all Abraham-and-Isaac on them?

  • Don't eat the meat of an animal that has been killed by wild animals.

No problem.

Questions for the Biblical Bar Exam

1. Brad seduces a sorceress, Judy. After Judy's execution, her father, John, sues Brad for her bride-price. Is Brad liable? Discuss.

2. The village discovers that Wayne has cursed his parents. Unfortunately, there is not enough money in the public treasury to fund an execution. Janet offers to loan the village money for the execution at a 5% rate of interest. If you are the village's legal councel, what do you advise?

3. You are a man are fighting with a buddy, and you accidentally strike a pregnant woman, causing her to give birth prematurely. She is wounded in the incident, losing a breast. Are you off the hook?

4. You are taking care of your neighbor's ox. Your neighbor knows that the ox is prone to gore, but has not told you about this. While it is in your care, the ox attacks your father's donkey, driving it into a hole that you recently dug, where it dies. Also, you covet the ox. Who owes whom what?

In Conclusion....

Nope, no conclusions yet -- we're not quite done with the laws yet. We'll round out the list next week, and see if there are any good generalizations to be made.

I was at Powell's, the landmark bookstore here in beautiful Portland, Oregon, City of Roses, today, and ran across a copy of "The Bible for Dummies." Don't think I wasn't tempted.

Like your faithful blogster, "The Bible for Dummies" works its way through the text sequentially, summarizing and commenting as it goes. Now, having completed Exodus 22, we are now nearly finished with page 58 out of the 923 in my particular Bible, or roughly 6.3% of the way through the text. In "The Bible for Dummies," however, the Ten Commandments were about 30% of the way into the coverage. Whether this means that we are heading into a whole lot of filler, or what, I dare not speculate. I haven't read that far yet.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Exodus 19 - 20: The Ten Commandments

Mt. SinaiThree months to the day after leaving Egypt, the Israelites arive at Mount Sinai. They make camp near the base of the mountain, while Moses makes a series of climbs to the top of the mountain, sometimes with Aaron, to receive the laws of God. If the Hebrews obey these laws, God says,

then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (19: 5-6)

Now, I hope I do not seem unduly cynical if I point out that God's meetings with Moses were not exactly carried out with transparency, public scrutiny, and neighborhood forums for public input. God descends on Mt. Sinai in fire, so the meetings take place behind a smoke screen, if you will. It's the original smoke filled room, except without the room. While the meetings are taking place, the Israelites are told:

'Be careful that you do not go up the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death. 13 He shall surely be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on him. Whether man or animal, he shall not be permitted to live.'
Now, I am not sharpshooting here. Exodus 19 is really all about how and why nobody was able to see what was going on while Moses and Aaron were communing with God. To any modern person over the age of 9, it can not but raise a series of snotty, sceptical questions. So, the interesting thing about Exodus 19, really, is that it is in the Bible at all. After all, if you -- yes, you, dear reader -- were going to start a religion, would you include passages in the holy texts about how you didn't want anybody around for the key sacred events?

OK, that's a dumb question. But you see my point.

Anyway, where were we? Oh yeah, Mt. Sinai. And it is on Mt. Sinai where Moses is given:

The Ten Commandments
Painting: Moses with the Ten Commandments. Philippe de Champaigne. Oil on canvas. 91.5x74.5 cm. France. 1808.
I'd always wondered: God just speaks the commandments. There is no scriptural reference to two tablets shaped like old gravestones with five commandments on a side.

But before we go on, it's quiz time for the MRTB readers -- if there even are still MRTB readers at this point. Without peeking below or anyplace else, how many of the Ten Commandments can you name? Post your score as a comment; the best score gets a free year's subscription.

When you hear about the Ten Commandments in the media so far this century, it is usually in reference to an attempt to have them displayed in a public place. There was of course the Alabama judge who married self-promotion and religious populism with his courtroom display of the commandments. Wasn't he fun? There have been scads of states, including MRTB's own beloved Oregon, in which legislatures have toyed with the idea of mandating, or suggesting, or "permitting" the display of the commandments in classrooms. (State legislators involving themselves in the decoration choices of schoolteachers is exactly the kind of bombastic micromanagement that really sticks in my craw. But I digress.)

When advocates of commandment posting encounter the argument that, since separation of church and state is one of the first principles of our form of government, it might be good to exercise caution when displaying religious materials, they are quick to clarify that the Ten Commandments are not so much a religious text as THE FOUNDATION OF WESTERN AND AMERICAN LAW.

I have heard that argument many times, and have always bought it to an extent. Sure, I've noted the hypocracy of its use by people who are so religiously fired up about the issue that they are on the verge of peeing their pants. I've noted the lack of similar campaigns in support of posting the Code of Hammurabi or the Magna Carta. But I always took it as read that they had a point about the commandments being a critical underpinning of our legal code.

But, on closer inspection -- actually, on very casual inspection -- they ain't. They just ain't. Here, I'll show you:

Commandment I: You shall have no other gods before me.
In American law: Freedom of religion is a cornerstone of American law. Citizens are welcome to have as many other gods before God as they like.

Commandment II: You shall not make for yourself an idol.....
In American law: Citizens may manufacture, transport, purchase, sell, collect, display, distribute, or worship idols to their heart's content. There's no law against it.

Commandment III: You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God....
In American law: It is considered bad form for public officials to use religious expletives, but it's certainly no crime. I myself have been known to use a religious expletive in a moment of weakness. Haven't you?

Commandment IV: Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
In American law: Oh please.

Commandment V: Honor your father and your mother, which reminds me:
Happy Mother's Day, Mom!!!

In American law: Well, I honor MY parents, and I'm sure you do too. But we wouldn't have to if we didn't want to.

Commandment VI: You shall not murder.
In American law: Yeah, we have laws against that. Kind of like EVERY OTHER SOCIETY THAT EVER WALKED THE SURFACE OF THE PLANET. The idea that one specific religion, or religion in general, is all that stands between humanity and random sociopathic behavior is demonstrably silly.

Commandment VII: You shall not commit adultery.
In American law: This is the one where there may be a grain of truth to the assertion. Most human cultures are pretty down on adultery, but not all of them to the extent that we are. A handful are downright down with adultery. So in that sense, you could argue that this commandment is the foundation of our adultery laws. You know, our archaic adultery laws. Our flouted, anachronistic, meaningless adultery laws. Those.

Commandment VIII: You shall not steal. (Anybody else here missing the King James language?)
In American law: Yeah, this one really separates us from the world's many pro-theft cultures.

Commandment IX: You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
In American law: ....and the pro-libel, pro-perjury cultures.

Commandment X: You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor."
In American law: Covet away! This one is pretty hard to enforce, anyway. You can't slap irons on every dude who gazes longingly at his neighbor's ox.

Lucas County, Ohio.
So, more fool I for believing the hype. The nicest thing about reading the Bible is that I'm realizing how much of the common understanding of the Bible is strictly traditional, with no reference to what is actually written in the text.

My own take? I actually have no problems with the Ten Commandments being posted in public places. They really are culturally important, but also so iconographic as to not be too intimidating, in and of themselves, to someone not of an (ahem) Abrahamic faith. In terms of pushing religion, well, it ain't exactly passing out Watchtowers, is it? And nobody is going to have a charismatic conversion experience on the strength of You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

Someone who posted the Ten Commandments in their workspace would be well-advised to make absolutely sure they weren't pushing a religious agenda, of course, lest their decorating choices be cited as evidence against them. But the essence of my belief is that people should have control of their workplace, so that the labors of the day may pass more pleasantly. Teachers, judges, and anybody else should be able to decorate however they want.

Next Week: It's not just 100 good ideas -- it's 100 laws!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Exodus 12:31 - 18: Into the Desert

Leaving Egypt

So the Pharaoh finally gives up. "Leave my people, you and the Israelites!" he shouts. "Go, worship the Lord as you have requested. Take your flocks and herds, as you have said, and go. And also bless me," he says. No matter how mad this guy gets, he can't pass up the chance for a good blessing.

The Israelites pack to leave. In addition to their own belongings, they also "borrow" household goods and clothes from their plague-impovershed and bereived Egyptian neighbors: The Lord had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians. (12: 36) Wait, I'm confused. Who are the good guys again?

Now, when you picture Noah leading the Israelites, how many Israelites do you imagine? A few thousand, maybe? Yeah, me too.

But no: There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. Many other people went up with them, as well as large droves of livestock, both flocks and birds. (12: 37-38) Wow! This is a big undertaking!

So, this column of more than a million people heads for the Red Sea, God being afraid that if they run into the Philistines who are occupying their putative homeland, they'll get attacked, chicken out, and go running back to the Egyptians.

But before they get to their famous crossing, God lays down a few laws. For instance, several diverse policies about Passover are lain down: no foreigner can take Passover (oops! I had no idea!), although a slave is all right if you have had him circumcised; all Israelites have to take part; it has to take place indoors; and you can't break bones. There is also a law that every first-born male animal must be "redeemed" and every first-born male human must be "consecrated." There is no guidance at all to what this means, however, which leaves me somewhat at a loss for how to redeem with a lamb every firstborn donkey. (13:13) We're finally getting clear directives, but they're like those machine-translated instructions that come with discount electronic goods.

The Red Sea

In the last entry, I talked about God's disturbing habit of "hardening Pharaoh's heart," then unleashing scorching devastation on the Egyptian people to punish them for Pharaoh having such a hard heart. He is not done with this trick. Behold!

Then the Lord said to Moses.... "I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and he will pursue [the Israelites]. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord." (14:1-4)
Which means that the well-known destruction of the Egyptian army that follows, from which not a single Egyptian soldier survives, is another punishment given out by God not because Egyptians were being willfully evil in this instance, but just because God wanted to do some punishing. Because punishing sends a message of power. Is God good? It is really hard to view this whole episode as to his credit.

Biagio de Antonio -- The Crossing of the Red SeaThe mechanics of the Red Sea crossing gives pause for thought. It is accomplished in a single night. And remember, this is more than one million people on foot, plus their flocks and herds; animals aside, that means that they are crossing at a rate of 100,000 people per hour, or more than 1500 a minute. It begs the question of which is more impressive, the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea, or the miracle of the immaculate logistics. (The Bible doesn't make a big deal out of the fact that they are crossing over a body of water that averages 280 kilometers in width, so neither will I.)

Pharaoh's poor army. God toys with them for a while, first breaking off their chariot wheels and throwing them into panicked retreat back towards Egypt, away from the Israelites, before drowning them. You just can't say "Uncle" to this guy, if you're an Egyptian. And this isn't a couple hundred soldiers, either; this was a force that was deemed adequate to capture and return a fleeing population in excess of 1,000,000 people. Their destruction is a slaughter of, well, Biblical proportions. Afterwards, the Isralites sing a long and rather gloating song of celebration about the event, which takes up more text than the event itself did.

Grumble, Grumble, Grumble

There is a lot of grumbling that goes on as the Israelites head off into the desert. It quickly falls into a repeating pattern:
  1. Israelites grumble at their terrible situation, asking Moses why they ever let him lead them into this mess.

  2. God provides a miracle to save the Israelites' skin, and to prove his might.

  3. Israelites rejoice at the mightiness of their God, then find something new to grumble about.
The pattern is regular enough that I wonder if it might be some kind of Bronze Age comedy bit. Here is a synopsis of the action:

Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament by Dirk BoutsThe Complaint: We're doomed! The Egyptian army is coming! The Miracle: The Red Sea parts, then contracts.

The Complaint: The water is too bitter! The Miracle: God gives Moses a piece of wood which, when thrown into the water, makes it drinkable.

The Complaint: "If only we had died by the Lord's hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death." (16:3) The Miracle: Manna (and, often overlooked, quail) from heaven.

The Complaint: We're thirsty! Are we there yet? The Miracle: Water from a rock, when Moses smacks it with his staff.

The Amalekites v. the Israelites

We're not sure why, but a group called the Amalekites show up and offer battle to the Israelites. One Joshua leads the troops, while Moses, Aaron, and somebody named "Hur" climb up on a neighboring hill, and the battle gets fought like so: Nicolas Poussin. The Battle of Joshua with Amalekites. c. 1625
11 As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. 12 When Moses' hands grew
tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. 13 So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.
I can imagine Joshua's grunts, down there dealing and suffering lethal broadsword wounds in the blistering Sinai heat, might object to this version of the battle, in which Moses so heroically keeps his arms lifted. One wonders if it might work for the Ducks?

Delegation is the Key to Good Management

The final event before the Israelites make it to Mount Sinai is a visit from Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, who is something of a clear thinker and immediately notices in Moses a tendancy to micromanage. He watches as, the day after his arrival, Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening. (18:13) And remember: more than 1,000,000! Anybody with a gripe, Moses was handling it. "That's nuts," says Jethro -- "you need some assistants." So together, they set up a hierarchy of civil offices, with Moses no longer sweating the small stuff. He retains the positions of Commander-in-Chief, High Priest, and one-man Supreme Court.

Did Someone Say "Supreme Court"?

We are often told that the Ten Commandments are the "foundation of Western and American law." Are they? Let's take a look this Sunday night, May 13, in a very special Mother's Day episode of Michael Reads the Bible.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Or thereabouts....

OK, Michael has read the Bible today, but he unfortunately fell asleep with his cheek pressed against Exodus 17, and ran out of blogging time. This wasn't the Bible's fault; Michael had ridden his bicycle about 35 hilly miles earlier in the day.

I'll get back to you Monday or Tuesday night. Hope y'all had a spectacular Cinco de Mayo.