Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Congratulations, Mr. Plotz!

I noticed tonight that Mr. David Plotz, who has been blogging the Hebrew Bible for Slate Magazine, is finished. Done. Mission accomplished, and all that. He sums things up in a final post, here.

Oddly, this makes me feel a little.... well.... lonely. As I've said before, I thought there would be a gazillion people poking around in the Bible and writing about it, but Plotz's blog is the only other one I've found doing the start-to-finish naive reading thing. Never mind that he had thousands and thousands of readers, and I have about 15. I felt a certain distant kinship.

In his final entry, Plotz says he is "searching for a wry Christian writer who can blog the New Testament for Slate. (Nominations accepted at" What do you think, gentle readers? Am I wry enough? I said, AM I WRY ENOUGH?

OK, so maybe I'm not wry enough. Still, I'd probably nominate myself, except I've got to pack for a trip to Colorado. But you can nominate me if you want.

See you on the 8th!

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Leviticus 1-7: Sacrifice, Sacrifice, Sacrifice

There's no break in the action as we transition from Exodus to Leviticus. We're still at the base of Mt. Sinai, and God is still quite literally laying down The Law with Moses, as they sit together in the Tent of Meeting.

The subject of the first seven chapters is sacrifice -- not the metaphorical kind of sacrifice that you and I are familiar with, but literal sacrifice, where critters or grain is burned at an alter to produce "an aroma pleasing to God." And really, it's hard to think of an element of religious practice that is less comfortable to a modern American. No matter how much cash you are dropping in the collection plate at your church, mosque, or synagogue, it doesn't have the same visceral drama to it as cutting your goat's kidneys out and throwing them onto the sacred flames. Or so I would assume.

The Bible is often treated as though it were an instruction manual or handbook for living, and here in Leviticus, it really is. These chapters tell you exactly how to sacrifice cattle, flock animals, birds, and grain. Different occasions for sacrifice are laid out -- the burnt offering, the fellowship offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering -- and we are given fairly precise specs for which parts of the beast go where, and when, and how. Separate instructions are given for where to drip the blood, how to burn the fat, what to do with certain organs, and so on. There are also specific rules about the participation of people who have been in contact with ritually impure things -- basically, they can't be part of a sacrifice, and if they break this law they are to be exiled. Other specific laws govern what portions of the animal and grain sacrifices are given over to support the priests.

The problem, of course, is that these are instructions that virtually no one -- not even the most rabid of the extreme religious conservatives -- would have any intention of following. Anyone who followed scripture on this point would be considered the most bizarre kind of barbarian, and would likely be locked up unless he or she lived in a very isolated rural area. So that's interesting.

From the historical perspective, it's also kind of interesting the volume of sacrifice that God is demanding here. In nomadic pastoralism, do herd and flock populations balloon out of control if left unchecked? I don't know if this is true, but unless there was a reliable natural excess of animals, it seems like the proscribed sacrifices being demanded by God would reduce the people to starvation in a hurry.

Interestingly, though, there is a sliding scale for certain sacrifices. The preferred sin offering is a lamb, but if you can't afford that you can sacrifice a dove or a pigeon, or, if you can't even afford that, you can sacrifice a modest quantity of grain.

Final note: I think it's interesting that I can't find any decent art, illustrations, or cartoons on the topic of Biblical animal sacrifice. Even the fearless Brick Testament conspicuously skips over Leviticus 1 - 7. It's almost like it's part of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition that nobody wants to think about, or something.

Next Time: Michael Reads the Bible will be taking a break on Sunday, July 1. I'll be back on July 8 with more rules! and more regulations! as we continue our way through Leviticus.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Exodus 35-40: Exiting Exodus

The end of Exodus feels a little like a reprise. The business with the golden calf having been worked out, and Moses having secured a second copy of God's laws, the community turns to building the Tabernacle according to the plans laid out in Exodus 25-31. Many of the material specifications and measurements that were laid out just a few chapters back get repeated here. This is an example of the kind of thing that makes many readers find the Bible repetitious, but in this case there is clearly a point to the repetition: that the Israelites built the Tabernacle exactly to code, down to the last cubit.

A few details stand out. The point is made several times that all of the materials for the Tabernacle were freely given. This all-volunteer system produces more than enough metals, fibers, gems, incense, oil, and so on; in fact, Moses eventually has to tell everyone to stop donating already, there's already enough stuff for the Tabernacle. (36:6-7)

The total volume of gold, silver, and bronze used in the project (1, 3 3/4, and 2 1/2 tons respectively) is carefully accounted for in Exodus 38:21-31. There is no general discussion of who gave what, but in a wonderfully random and seemingly out-of-place detail, we learn that They made the bronze basin and its bronze stand from the mirrors of the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. (38:8)

In the last few verses of the book, after Moses has inspected the newly-erected Tabernacle, the "glory of the Lord" -- the presence of God -- inhabits the central Tent of Meeting, where the Ark of the Covenant is kept. This presence is marked by the same thick cloud, which at night is seen to be filled with fire, that appeared when God conversed with Moses on Mt. Sinai. This cloud, we are told, then accompanies the Israelites throughout the rest of their travels.

The Book of Exodus
Frontispiece of the Book of Exodus. Duke of Sussex German Pentateuch, copied in southern Germany around 1300.
It took me half a year to get through Genesis, but only two months to read Exodus. I am clearly picking up the pace. A lot of the difference, of course, is that I have got my act together and set aside a regular weekly time for the project. But too, the structure of Exodus is a lot easier to deal with. Where much of Genesis is episodic, Exodus is a straight-through narrative; and where Genesis is full of seemingly parenthetical digressions into genealogy or real estate transactions, Exodus is relatively single-minded in telling its story.

That story, in outline, goes something like this: Moses is appointed by God to lead the captive Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt. Because of the Pharaoh's reluctance to lose his labor force, as well as God's determination to make a spectacular display of his power, Egypt must be subjected to wave after wave of horrific ecological disasters, as well as a crippling military debacle, before the Israelites make it to the desert. In the desert, they are kept alive by a series of miracles until they reach Mt. Sinai, where God reveals a set of laws to Moses. These laws encompass morality, civic conduct, and religious practice. After getting off to a bad start, when the Israelites build a false idol in direct contradiction of the new laws, they face a series of punishments. Moses then is issued a replacement copy of the laws, and the Tabernacle is built in elaborate and exact obedience to the laws governing religious practice.

So, what does this story tell us in regards to the four official Michael Reads the Bible questions? Let's take a look:

1. Is God a Republican? In thinking about this question, I am especially interested in the specific laws that God lays down for his people. All in all, I have to say that the civil law in Exodus struck me as surprisingly even-handed. God certainly comes of as a Republican, a Texas Republican even, in his unabashed support for the death penalty. The death sentence is mandated not just for sociopathic crimes like murder, kidnapping, or attacking your parents [which reminds me -- Happy Father's Day, Dad!!], but also for working on the Sabbath, or getting a little too affectionate on those lonely nights spent tending the flock. On the other hand, the Party of Lincoln might have trouble with the practice of slavery allowed by the laws of Exodus.

2. Is God Good? In Genesis, God was dangerous and highly unpredictable. In Exodus, God is still pretty dangerous, but with the law in place divine action begins to seem a little more consistent. The Israelites pay a truly hair-raising penalty for the golden calf incident, but it's a penalty for breaking an unambiguous and straightforward command. Other than that, God is certainly good from the perspective of the Israelites, intervening repeatedly to save their rear ends during the flight out of Egypt.

The most troubling aspect of Exodus for me is God's insistence on using the most powerful possible shock-and-awe tactics against the Egyptians, even once they have basically capitulated. Long after Pharaoh's magicians have given up trying to keep pace with Moses, long after Pharaoh seems willing to say "uncle," God keeps "hardening his heart" in order that he can keep the plagues coming. If it is a non-sequitor to judge the actions of God, it is still fair to say that amongst humans this kind of behavior would be considered more than a little unsporting.

3. Is there an afterlife? Exodus does not mention an afterlife. Indeed, the first two books of the Bible have been almost completely silent on several topics that a naive reader like myself would expect to be tripping over right and left. Heaven and angels were mentioned very obliquely in Genesis, but with no implied connection to a life after death. Hell, Satan, devils? Not a word.

4. What are God's Family Values? After the familial shenegans of Genesis, things have calmed down considerably in Exodus. Moses himself seems to have a stable marriage, and is blessed with a good relationship with his in-laws. The laws of Exodus certainly endorse a strong family structure, with one of the first of the laws -- the traditional Fifth Commandment -- mandating the respect and honor of one's parents.

This Biblical emphasis on respect of parents is opposite in some ways from the "Conservative family values" that we hear so much of in the current day. These modern family values share with Fifth Commandment thinking an emphasis on the importance of family structure, but place emphasis on the respect and honor of one's children, rather than one's parents.

Next week, Michael Reads the Bible starts on Leviticus, the book in which.... well, I don't really know what happens in Leviticus. I guess that's the point. So, I'll see you Sunday night at

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Exodus 32 - 34: Faces of God

The thing you want more than anything else from the Bible might well be to get a read on the nature of God. Who is God? What is God like? But perhaps it's reasonable to expect that God would be very complex, very hard to pin down.

Walt Whitman sang of himself, "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)" And Walt was a mere human, speaking on behalf of mere humans. If we contradict ourselves, you might conjecture that an entity in whose imagine we were created would contradict itself on an even grander scale. God sends mixed signals, to put it lightly; tonight's reading is rife with them. Reading these contradictions, it is hard not to find them... what? Disappointing, maybe. Shabby or silly, even, or evidence against the veracity of the text.

They are not really that, though. To suppose a creater-of-all is not to say that this creator would have to act in a consistent or (to us) coherent way. And yet, the idea of an all-powerful being that didn't act consistently or predictably is fairly terrifying. We want God to act recognizably human, so we know what to expect, but we don't want God to mimic the frightening or disturbing aspects of human behavior that are so familiar to us. It's a contradiction.

The Golden Calf

You will of course remember that, while Moses is up on the mountain for his long conversation with God, the Israelites down below give up on him and talk Aaron into making an idol, a golden calf, out of their spare jewelry. You will also doubtless remember that when Moses comes down and sees what's up, he throws down the tablets on which the covenant has been written, breaking them to pieces. But do you remember what else happens?

Pop Quiz: How are the Israelites punished for building the Golden calf? (Hint -- there are three stages to the punishment. )

Raphael, Adoring the Golden Calf (1518-19), Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican

Answer: The punishments are as follows:

  • First, Moses burns the calf to powder, mixes it with water, and makes the people drink it.

  • Second: 27 Then he said to them, "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: 'Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.' " 28 The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. 29 Then Moses said, "You have been set apart to the LORD today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day."

  • Third, the Israelites are struck by a plague.

A younger version of myself read this chapter at some point, and made notes in the margin to the effect that these are horrific, excessive punishments. And I really can't say that my current self disagrees. There is a seriously draconian element in God here, punishing with blood and disease this infraction of the law.

But that's not the whole story, because God's original intent upon seeing the golden calf is to destroy the Israelites outright. He changes his mind only because Moses argues with him, using logic and arranging a sort of plea bargain. So at the same time that we have a stern and unyielding God, we also have a God who can be talked to, change his mind, be wheedled. It is, as we used to say in grad school, an interesting duality.

(By the by, the Brick Testament version of the Golden Calf Story is characteristically brilliant.)

God's Friend

In Chapter 33, Moses talks God into changing his mind again. God initially says that, in light of the Golden Calf incident, he will send an angel with the Israelites for the rest of the trip, but won't be making the trip himself. He is afraid that he will get pissed off again, and destroy everyone out of hand. (Which is, interestingly, pretty much a direct admission from God that he has a temper problem. Does he regret some of those Genesis smitings? Maybe, but he's not saying.) Moses talks him out of it:

15 Then Moses said to him, "If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. 16 How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?"
17 And the LORD said to Moses, "I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name."

This business of "presence" opens up another interesting point. God seems to have a discrete physical location throughout Exodus. He comes down to specific points -- the top of Mt. Sinai, or a meeting tent outside of the main camp -- for his chats with Moses, where The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend. (33:11) To outside onlookers, the presence of God is marked by visible phenomena, such as pillers of cloud or localized storms. All of this, as well as the very notion that God could sit out the trip to the promised land, paints a very different picture of the one taught me as a child, that God is everywhere and in everything.

Finally, the notion that God and Moses would speak "face to face" is contradicted at the end of Exodus 33, when Moses suddenly demands to see God. God responds by saying:

"I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 20 But," he said, "you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live."

21 Then the LORD said, "There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. 22 When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen."

So, God is impassive yet approachable, infinite but localized, perceptable but unseeable, familiar yet unapproachable. Does he contradict itself? Very well then, he contradicts himself.

The Ten Commandments

God commands Moses to create a copy, from dictation, of the tablets that were smashed in the Golden Calf incident. Moses climbs the mountain yet again, but before the dictation begins again, God presents himself to Moses as promised. As he does, he offers what is essentially a summary statement of his own contradictions:

"The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation."

Then, after a quick reprise -- the 11th? -- of the basic covenant, God reprises ten of the many laws that he had handed down to Moses several weeks earlier. They are as follows:

  1. Don't make treaties or intermarry with non-Hebrews (I think this is a new one, actually)

  2. Don't make idols

  3. Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread

  4. The first offspring of every womb belongs to God

  5. No one is to appear before God empty handed (this is a new one, too)

  6. No work on the Sabbath

  7. Celebrate the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Ingathering

  8. Don't mix blood and yeast in a sacrifice, or leave Passover sacrifices overnight

  9. Sacrifice the first fruits from your crops to ripen

  10. Don't cook a goat in its mother's milk

Eugene Pluchart -- God Appears to Moses in Burning Bush (1848)

After this recitation, in Exodus 34:28, Moses wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Command- ments. And this is very interesting, because this is the first time that this phrase -- "The Ten Commandments" is mentioned, implying that the Ten Commandments are the ten items just mentioned.

And, since it's come up, what we usually think of as "The Ten Commandments" are neither ten in number -- there are 15 to 20 injunctions that can be fairly arbitrarily split into ten Commandments in a number of different ways -- nor are they set off substantially from the rest of the body of law that follows. So, based on what I have read so far -- and remember, there's a whole lot of Bible left -- I would have to suggest that we have the Ten Commandments all wrong. The actual Ten Commandments would seem to be the above list, unless I'm missing something.

Feel free to help me out here, gentle readers, because it's a very different list indeed and it seems kind of unlikely that I would be the first to notice the mistake......

Next Week: Finishing up with Exodus

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Exodus 23:20 - 31:18: Getting Religion

I've been surprised over the course of this project by how un-boring the Bible has been. Which is not to say it is the gripping potboiler that many pastors disingenuously imply it is when they try to lure teens in with promises of sex and violence. But, patiently read, and excepting the occasional limning of a family tree, it has been consistently interesting and provided much food for thought.

Until tonight. Tonight, your humble explorer found himself repeatedly asleep on the couch, the Bible having fallen open on his chest.

This is not entirely the fault of the text. For one thing, I rode my bike out to Troutdale this morning -- long story -- and the house is still baking after four days of unseasonal heat, so I may not be in prime Bible study mode. Then too, much of today's reading is basically blueprints in written form. And when you read through blueprints in written form, you really understand why most modern architects and engineers prefer to use some form of diagram for their more complex plans.

But First, a Covenant

I wish I had realized how often God was going to make his covenant with the Israelites -- you-know, the now-familiar covenant in which they are promised much of the Eastern Mediterranian. I have unfortunately lost count. I believe the version that begins today's reading is more or less the tenth itteration.

This time, God promises that an angel will join the Israelites as a kind of advance guard against the people who are, inconveniently, already settled on the land in question. My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out. (23:23) My inner cultural ecologist finds it very interesting that this is planned as a gradual process, since the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you (23:29) if everyone was wiped out at once. No, other groups can continue to work the land until the Israelite population grows large enough for it. THEN they'll be wiped out.

Moses returns to the people and explains the body of law that God has revealed to him (see the entries for the last three weeks). The people agree to obey. A ceremony is held to commemorate the covenant, with bulls slaughtered and everyone sprinkled with the blood. Then, Moses goes back up the mountain to talk with God again, this time for a marathon 40 days and 40 nights.

It's a New Religion

God's instructions to Moses this time around, as recounted in Exodus 25 through 31, are essentially the blueprint for a new religion. And I mean blueprint in the very most literal sense. The Israelites are instructed to pool their resources, wealth, and skills, and to create the physical infrastructure for a form of worship.

Exodus 25, for instance, lays out the measurements and materials for the famed Ark of the Covenant, as well as the less well-known Table of the Covenant and Lampstand of the Covenant. Exodus 26 lays out exact specifications for the Tabernacle, dwelling so much on the particulars of yarn color, goat-hair curtains, and framework positioning that it took me quite some time to answer the main question I had: What on Earth is a Tabernacle? Turns out it's a large, elaborate portable shrine. A travelling temple, so to speak.

Exodus 27 goes into more particulars about furnishings -- the alter for offerings, the courtyard, protocols for keeping the lampstand burning -- before Exodus 28 addresses the specifics of priestly garments. Exodus 29 talks about how to consecrate a new priest, a process involving the slaughter and specialized disassembly of an alarming number of young bulls. Exodus 30 covers an alter for incense, atonement offerings, a washing basin (plus stand), and recipes for annointing oil and incense.

Finally, Exodus 30 specifies two foremen for the whole project -- Bezalel and Oholiab (underused Biblical names, for any of y'all who are thinking about what to name the next baby) -- and reaffirms the importance of the Sabbath. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death, says God, twice. (14 & 15) Note: blogging is fun! Not like work at all!

But isn't filigree expensive?

Now, the main thing that jumps out as you read through this stuff is the sheer wealth involved. Constructing the Tabernacle and its furnishings is a massive project! The specs for much of the furniture call out highly expensive materials, including gold plating not just for the Tabernacle and Table but even for the poles that will be used to carry them. This passage, describing a priest's breastplate, gives you an idea of both the extravagence and the specificity of the instructions:

15 "Fashion a breastpiece for making decisions—the work of a skilled craftsman. Make it like the ephod: of gold, and of blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and of finely twisted linen. 16 It is to be square—a span long and a span wide—and folded double. 17 Then mount four rows of precious stones on it. In the first row there shall be a ruby, a topaz and a beryl; 18 in the second row a turquoise, a sapphire and an emerald; 19 in the third row a jacinth, an agate and an amethyst; 20 in the fourth row a chrysolite, an onyx and a jasper. Mount them in gold filigree settings.
The obvious question here is, how could they possibly afford all of this stuff (not to mention the routine sacrifice of two sheep daily, a part of Exodus 29 I neglected to mention)? Didn't they just flee from slavery? To which there are at least two reasonable rejoinders.

First, we have a tendancy to think of the Israelites as numbering about as many people as could be mustered as extras for a Hollywood Old Testament blockbuster. But, as alert readers will remember from an earlier discussion, the Israelites are described as numbering at least a million, and perhaps twice that. So, there would be a little more wealth and labor in the camp than you might at first think.

Secondly, what was the last thing the Israelites did in Egypt before they hit the road? Remember? I'll remind you: they "borrowed" all of their Egyptian neighbors' belongings, and skeedaddled with them! So, it's reasonable to assume that much of the Tabernacle is going to be built with loot purloined on the way out of the Greater Cairo metro area.

Ooh, Foreshadowing!

Exodus 30 ends with a teaser:

18 When the LORD finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the Testimony, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.
I'm curious to find out what's on those tablets, aren't you? Perhaps we'll find out next week, here at Michael Reads the Bible.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Branding the Bible Blog

Every weblog -- even one as serious, sober, and earnest as this one -- needs its own official seal.

Don't you think?

You can generate an official seal of your own here. Why? That's YOUR business.
Blog branding concept borrowed from The [Cherry] Ride after several bottles of Wyders Pear Cider.