Saturday, June 22, 2013

Exodus: What Are the Ten Commandments Again?

Welcome back to the supposedly inspiring story of the Israelites' migration from Egypt to Canaan. When last we checked in on God’s chosen people, they had gotten restless and made a golden calf to worship, so Moses had three thousand of them slaughtered. Now they are getting ready to leave Sinai.

The Bible takes a moment to discuss the tent of meeting, which is a tent that Moses would set up outside the encampment where people could go to seek God. And whenever Moses went out to the tent, people would go stand at their tent doors and watch him until he entered. I imagine they are trying to convey an air of reverence about this little ritual, but in light of recent events I suspect the feeling would be more of terror and dread anticipation. The people watching the fanatical leader who’d just had thousands of them butchered, much like they might watch a rabid dog to see if it was going to attack. I bet they all breathed a huge sigh of relief every time he entered the tent without ordering any exectuions.

Anyway, whenever Moses entered the tent, a pillar of cloud would descend to the tent door and God would speak with Moses. Meanwhile, all the people stood at their own doors worshipping (cowering?).

“Ex 33:11 Thus Yahweh used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend…”

Once again, we see someone described as seeing God face-to-face.

In one of these conversations, Moses manages to convince God to travel with the Israelites after all. Just as, you know, a personal favor. Moses also asks to see God’s glory, to which God responds that Moses cannot see his face because none can see it and live (I guess all that stuff about people seeing God in person was just poorly written description of events, or maybe just complete bullshit). But God does promise to arrange things so that Moses can watch him pass by and see his back. Whoop-de-doo!

So then God commands Moses to go back up the mountain for another forty days with a couple stone tablets, and God will write the words of the covenant on them to replace the ones Moses broke earlier. Nobody else is allowed to go up with him, nor is anyone allowed to graze their flocks opposite the mountain (probably so no one can see Moses himself doing the carving, since it seems kinda ridiculous that it should take a deity capable of fashioning a world in six days forty days to carve some words on some stone).

While Moses is on the mountain, he gets that promised glimpse of God.

“Ex 34:6 Yahweh passed before him and proclaimed ‘Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.’”

Hooowee! There’s something very godlike in that proclamation. Specifically, the godlike balls it takes to identify yourself as merciful and gracious and forgiving in the very same sentence where you brag about punishing people for stuff their ancestors did four generations back.

So after a little more begging from Moses that God will continue to travel among them, Yahweh proceeds with the renewed covenant to be written down on the new set of tablets. It’s worth reminding at this point that God had said he would put the same words on these tablets that had been on the first. Now… I’m going to jump ahead to the end of the section, because I have a point to make that might be easier if I do these next sets of quotes out of order.

“Ex 34:27 And yahweh said to Moses ‘Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.’ 28 So he was there with Yahweh forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.”

Now, the point I want to make is about the Ten Commandments. As you’ll recall, I quoted them in full a few posts back. And you may also recall that I’ve mentioned that the publishers of the translation I’m using have included handy bold-faced headings (not from the original text) to identify what’s going on in any given section. Well, the Ten Commandments I quoted earlier were identified by one of those bold-faced headings. There was nothing in the actual Bible text identifying them as such. In fact, that quote I just posted right above this paragraph is the only textual reference to the Ten Commandments I’ve seen so far. And from reading it, you might get the impression that the commands that immediately precede that verse are the Ten Commandments. So now… let’s take a look at those commands.

“Ex 34:12 Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst.

13 You shall break down their pillars and cut down their Asherim 14 (for you shall worship no other god, for Yahweh, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous god) 15 lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and you are invited, you eat of his sacrifice, 16 and you take of their daughters for your sons , and their daughters whore after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods.

17 You shall not make for yourself any gods of cast metal.

18 You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month Abib, for in the month Abib you came out from Egypt.

19 All that open the womb are mine, all your male livestock, the firstborn of cow and sheep. 20 the firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem. And none shall appear before me empty-handed.

21 Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest. In plowing and in harvest you shall rest.

22 You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, the firstfruit of the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the year’s end. 23 Three times in the year shall all your males appear before Yahweh, the God of Israel. 24 For I will cast out nations before you and enlarge your borders; no one shall covet your land, when you go up to appear before Yahweh your God three times in the year.

25 You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with anything leavened, or let the sacrifice of the Feast of Passover remain until the morning.

26 The best of the firstfruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of Yahweh your God.

You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.”

And I’ll point out that those commands there represent the entire Bible text between God’s declaration that he’s remaking the covenant and the end of Moses’ second forty-day tenure on top of Mount Sinai. There are no other commands in this portion of the story. As far as I can tell, a straightforward reading of the Bible says that those are the Ten Commandments, and if we didn’t live in a culture that taught us that other set practically from birth, nobody would think otherwise.

You know what I think? I think somewhere along the line somebody saw the line “the Ten Commandments” and thought “That’s a pretty catchy title. Too bad the actual commandments it refers to are pretty stupid, mostly apply only to the specific situation the Israelites were in at the time, and if we tried to generalize them could only result in a state of perpetual open warfare with the adherents of every other religion on the planet. Let’s apply the title to these other ones over here that are a bit more general.”

I’m also concerned with the phrasing that says all the firstborn belong to God, but sons should be redeemed with a lamb. Because things that are supposed to be given to God are supposed to be sacrificed on his altar, and not all firstborn children are sons. Now, I know that in some languages all nouns have gender, and that when a plural noun refers to a group of mixed gender the language defaults to using the male form. I don’t know if ancient Hebrew is one of those languages, but I really, really hope so (as in, the word for “sons” can be read as “children of either gender,”) because otherwise the implications are disturbing.

Anyway, once the very important divine commands about destroying other people’s religious icons and not boiling young goats in their mothers’ milk were done with, Moses went down to the people with his new tablets. This time, apparently, his face was glowing as a side effect of his talking directly with God. So after he finished passing on God’s infinite wisdom to the people, he put a veil over his face. And from then on whenever he went to talk to God he would take off the veil, when he came out and recited God’s words to the people he would reveal his glowing face, and when he was done talking he’d put the veil back on.

That must’ve been damn handy for doing some nighttime reading before hitting the sack.

Moses assembled all the people again to make good and sure that everyone understood that you’re not supposed to work on the Sabbath. And that anyone who did so should be put to death. He even specified that they weren’t to do so much as light a fire in their homes on the Sabbath. I suppose that last bit may seem a reasonable restriction when you live at the southeastern corner of the Mediterranean – it becomes somewhat problematic for, say, winters in fucking Poland.

Anyway, after that Moses asked for contributions of the materials to actually build the tabernacle. And the people gave so generously that he collected more than was needed and eventually had to tell them to stop giving him stuff. God had appointed some guys named Bezalel and Oholiab to oversee the construction, and filled them and all their craftsmen with the skill to do so (I guess they didn’t get it from the normal route of years of training and practice?).

Now, you know how I’d said before that God specified the construction of the tabernacle in exhaustive detail? Well, the next eighty-some verses are spent repeating those details in the construction phase. You could pretty much take the original description and replace every instance of “You shall build…” with “He built…” And while there may or may not be subtle variations between the two descriptions, I really couldn’t tell you because my eyes totally glazed over in reading this section. I’m just not going to compare them line-by-line. You can, if you have the mental stamina, but I don’t think it’s important. Suffice to say that the tabernacle got built, along with the ark, altars, tables, lampstands, etc., etc., and an account is given of the amount of material it took.

Then we get the same shit with the construction of the priestly robes.

And when it’s all built, God orders that the tabernacle be set up, and everything consecrated with the holy oil and incense and all. And when it was all done the glory of god filled the tabernacle, and holy cloud settled over the tent of meeting. And from that point on, whenever the cloud lifted from the tent the Israelites would travel, but if the cloud stayed on the tent they would stay encamped that day.

And this, finally, brings us to the end of the Book of Exodus. Two books down, and… only about sixty-five or so to go. 8% done, according to the app. Join us next time when we wade into Leviticus. In the meantime, be well!

No comments:

Post a Comment