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


Karin said...

Arrgh! That's it? The suspense is killing me!

michael5000 said...

@Karin -- You flatter me with your impatience. And I like it.

I've been burned by interuptions in the internet connection before, so I usually publish it in two or three stages. Sorry you got to it before I was finished.

Karin said...

Ah. Patience is a virtue; I've been told.

It seems that God as described in the Old Testament (so far) is less like God as I think of God and more like The Great and Powerful Oz, which is to say, just a little man, with anger management and self-esteem issues, behind a curtain.