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

1 comment:

chuckdaddy2000 said...

I got a little behind there Michael, and just got all caught up. And it was as enjoyable and insightful as ever. Can't wait for Leviticus (I think).