Monday, June 3, 2013

Exodus: Name Shame

We rejoin Moses as he’s tending his father-in-law Jethro’s flocks by the mountain of… wait… did I just say his father-in-law was named Jethro? Yep. But didn’t I say in the previous post that he’d married Reuel’s daughter? Yep. Hmmm… something doesn’t jibe here. Maybe I read the earlier passage wrong. So I went back and looked. Nope, it’s pretty clear that Moses’ father-in-law was Reuel. So what’s the deal?

Enter the internet. Turns out, Moses’ father-in-law is referred to in multiple places in the Bible, and by many different names. And nobody seems to agree on why. Some think the passages actually refer to different people, some think it’s the same guy with multiple names, some think that some references are names and others are titles, and some think it’s just the kind of errors that creep in when multiple oral tradition stories get cobbled together into written form by different authors.

I’m going with the error theory, myself. Because even if one of the other theories are correct, there’s no fucking way to tell from what I’ve read so far in the Bible. And that is an error in its own right.

Anyway, Moses is tending the father-in-law-of-many-names’ flocks on the mountain of Horeb. And “the angel of the LORD” appeared to him in the form of a flame burning in a bush without consuming it. So naturally Moses pauses to give this curious sight a gander. As he draws close, God announces himself to Moses and starts the conversation by telling him to take off his sandals because he’s on holy ground. Then he actually explains who he is, and Moses is scared.

God goes on to explain that he’s noticed how the Israelites are suffering in Egypt, and wants Moses to go lead them out of captivity into the lands he’d promised their ancestors. Moses immediately starts whining about who is he to do bring the children of Israel out of Egypt. When God assures him that he’ll be with him, Moses brings up his next complaint that when he talks to the Israelites, who should he tell them sent him? This results in the famous “I AM WHO I AM!” response. Followed by:

“Ex 3:15 God also said to Moses ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “The LORD of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.” This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.’”

Now, this struck me as pretty awkward. His name is “The LORD of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?” That’s a real mouthful. Not to mention kind of a stupid name. But then I remembered that the translation notes in the introduction said something about the meaning of seeing LORD in all caps like that. So I went back and reread it.

It turns out that the translators chose to substitute “the LORD” wherever the Hebrew text used God’s actual personal name YHWH (or as we might say it today ‘Yahweh’). Their excuse was basically that when ancient Hebrews read the text aloud they always substituted the Hebrew phrase “the lord” in place of the name because they believed Yahweh’s personal name was too holy to be spoken. This obfuscation takes place in a book that claims to be striving for the most literal possible translation of the text.

Yes, I said obfuscation. As in deceit. Sure, they explain in the Foreword that they’re making the substitution, but who reads or remembers Forewords? And really, even now that I’m fully conscious of it, there’s still a substantial difference in tone and impact between reading God declaring “I am the LORD,” instead of “I am Yahweh.” One is just a statement of identity, and the other is a claim to be the universal embodiment of authority. And there’s a lot of repetition of that phrase or something like it throughout the Exodus story. It’s a retelling of the text designed to hammer the reader over the head constantly with that declaration of authority – pure emotional manipulation. I think that throughout this section, when I quote the text I will reverse that substitution. So that passage above becomes

“Ex 3:15 God also said to Moses ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “Yahweh, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.” This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.’”

This translation also has the virtue of making sense. Incidentally, the true translation fits in with the theory that Yahweh was just one of many gods worshipped throughout the region at the time, and therefore a personal name was needed to differentiate him from the others. Just a thought.

So where was I? Oh yeah, God had just ordered Moses to tell the elders of Israel that Yahweh had sent him to lead them out of captivity. Moses complains that they won’t believe him, so God gives him some parlor tricks to persuade them. He gives him the trick of turning his staff into a snake, and another one where he can put his hand inside his cloak and when he pulls it out it will appear pale and sickly, then he puts it back in his cloak and it comes out looking normal again. Stuff that would get him laughed off a Vegas stage, but probably looked pretty impressive back then.

So now Moses has a couple miracles to work with, but he’s not done weaseling. He claims that he’s not a good speaker, and can’t persuade people. When Yahweh promises to give him the right words, that’s still not good enough and Moses asks him to send someone else. Yahweh gets pissed at the wrangling at this point, and tells Moses that he can use his brother Aaron to speak for him, but he still has to go and do the deeds.

At last, Moses agrees and goes to ask his father-in-law (still Jethro) for permission to go to Egypt and check on his relatives. Jethro readily agrees, and Moses sets off with his family. Now get this as Moses starts his journey:

“Ex 4:21 And Yahweh said to Moses ‘When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.’”

God then goes on to say that if Pharaoh will not let his people go (and remember, he’s just said that he will take away Pharaoh’s ability to choose to let them go), then God will kill his firstborn son. Free will? Fuck that noise! God has a point to make, and if that means he has to take away Pharaoh’s free will in order to justify raining down holy destruction and misery, then so be it!

Though I suppose it’s worth pointing out at this point that nowhere so far has the Bible said humans have free will at all. But it very clearly is saying here that God is quite willing to punish people harshly for shit that he himself makes them do!

OK, back to the story, because there’s more nonsense to come. So Moses has agreed to Yahweh’s demands, and has set out for Egypt with his family. The very next verse after God tell him he’ll kill Pharaoh’s firstborn, with absolutely no transition, explanation, or indication that God has any reason to be further upset with Moses, reads as follows:

“Ex 4:24 At a lodging place on the way Yahweh met him and sought to put him to death. 25 Then Zipporah [Moses’ wife] took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it and said ‘Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!’ 26 So he let him alone. It was then that she said ‘A bridegroom of blood,’ because of the circumcision.”

Yeah… it makes exactly that much sense. I suppose you could take it to mean God was pissed that Moses hadn’t circumcised his sons yet, but this would be about as nonsensical a way as you could come up with to go about explaining it. Divinely inspired brilliance in writing yet again.

The sheer density of nonsense in these few passages has made it difficult to make much progress in the story today. Hopefully the next entry will move it forward some more – at the very least we’ll get Moses met up with his brother Aaron and into Egypt to begin the divine terror campaign!

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