To renew their covenant after the Hebrews cheated on God with golden calf, God decides to re-write the ten commandments on a new set of tablets. But first, he wants to renew his vows.

Which translates to just talking about himself and how wonderful he is for a while.

During this little speech, God describes himself as “slow to anger” (Exod. 34:6). Seriously. Slow to anger. As David Plotz points out: “God certainly doesn’t have self-esteem issues, but I’m not sure He has perfect insight about Himself.”

On this passage, Collins writes in A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible:

It does not negate the “jealous” character of God, but it qualifies it. The biblical portrayal of God is not unique in the ancient world. A Babylonian prayer to Marduk addresses him as “warrior Marduk, whose anger is the deluge, whose relenting is that of a merciful father” (p.73).

But, says God, that doesn’t mean that he’s just going to be going around overlooking sins or anything! In fact, he’s so anti-sin that he will be “visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation” (Exod. 34:7). So yeah, God thinks it’s a-okay to punish someone for something his great-great-grandfather did. Even if God is slow to anger, he sure as heck isn’t quick to calm down afterwards!

A little of the old ultraviolence

Once again, God promises to drive out the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. Generally, I’d say this is a bad thing. However, I, too, try to get rid of Perizzites, particularly of the intestinal variety.

God writing upon the tables of the covenant by William Blake, c. 1805

God writing upon the tables of the covenant by William Blake, c. 1805

The next bit is a bit speech from God about how the Hebrews shouldn’t become friends with non-Hebrews. In particular, he warns against making any agreements – or covenants – with the people God claims that he will be driving out.

But that’s not enough. The Hebrews should also go around and “tear down their altars, and break their pillars, and cut down their Asherim” (Exod. 34:13). I don’t think I need to say how gross these kinds of passages are.

A note on Asherim: These are, according to my Study Bible, sacred poles that symbolized Asherah, “the mother goddess of Canaanite religion” (p.113). There’s also some interesting theories about her and her possible dalliance with God, but that’s a subject for another post.

To finish up, our “jealous god” (Exod. 34:14) forbids taking “of their daughters for your sons” (Exod. 34:16), lest they lead the sons towards the worship of their gods. As David Plotz points out: “This suggests a lack of confidence in our God and faith […] Given God’s greatness, wouldn’t intermarriage do the opposite and attract more people to him?”

Someone really should tell Joseph, since he had no trouble marrying the Egyptian Asenath (Gen. 46:20).

The new Ten Commandments

Despite telling us that he “will write upon the tables the words that were on the first tables” (Exod. 34:1), God decides to give us a totally different set of Ten Commandments, one that should surprise most of the Christian Right proponents of courthouse/schoolroom monuments. Check Exodus 20 for a quick refresher on what the first Ten Commandments looked like. Now here’s the new ones:

  1. Worship no other god.
  2. Make no molten gods (but feel free to decorate stuff with cherubim, ’cause those look neat-o).
  3. Keep the Passover, or feast of unleavened bread.
  4. “All that opens the womb is mine” (Exod. 34:19). Okay, so this one needs a little looksy. In Biblespeak, what “opens the womb” is the first born child. So God starts off by saying that the Hebrews should “redeem” all firstlings among the cattle. This rule also applies to human children: “All the first-born of your sons you shall redeem” (Exod. 34:20). This is, quite clearly, a call to human sacrifice. However, this is moderated by offering the possibility of making a substitution. “Underlying this commandment is the conviction that all life is from God, and that God’s right to the firstborn must be acknowledged in order to ensure future fertility” (Collins, Hebrew Bible, p.51).
  5. Keep the Sabbath.
  6. Keep the feast of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the year’s end. At each of these times during the year, all males must “appear before the Lord God” (Exod. 34:23).
  7. Do not offer blood sacrifice with leavened bread.
  8. Don’t keep leftovers after Passover.
  9. The first fruits of the ground should be given to God.
  10. Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

As you can see, there’s very few similarities between these commandments and the ones from Exodus 20. The old commandments touched on cultic stuff, but also had a few rules about behaviour (no killing, no stealing, that sort of thing). These ones – the actual, final ten commandments that will be carried around by the Hebrews for the next few thousand years until they are discovered by Indiana Jones – are entirely devoted to cultic issues.

There’s also some question about who actually does the writing onto the stone. Before getting started, God tells Moses that “I will write upon the tables” (Exod. 34:1). However, once he’s done dictating, he tells Moses to “write these words: (Exod. 34:27). In the end, it’s Moses who “wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments” (Exod. 34:28), which explains a little better why it took 40 days to do so.

Maybe it’s Maybelline

Of course, it wasn’t all about engraving stone. All that time spent in the presence of God also gave Moses some lovely glowing skin. When he descends from the mountain, everyone keeps commenting on how fantastic his skin looks. Of course, it may have something to do with the fact that Moses “neither ate bread nor drank water” (Exod. 34:28) the entire time he was up there.

On a more serious note, Joseph Campbell argues that the hero, Moses, having been “blessed by the father returns to represent the father among men […] Since he is now centered in the source, he makes visible the repose and harmony of the central place” (Hero With A Thousand Faces, p.347). If this is the case, we can interpret Moses’ facial sparkles as a visible manifestation of this transformation.

Finally, not one for all that attention, Moses takes to wearing a veil that he removes only to chat with God.