Leviticus 27: On votive offerings

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For all it’s faults, Leviticus 26 would have ended the book with a bang and really tied up the narrative – such as it was – nicely. But with the usual narrative flair of the Levites, they just couldn’t leave it at that, and we get Leviticus 27 tacked onto the end instead.

In this chapter, we have a discussion of votive offerings (both made and promised), and how they might be redeemed if the owner changes his (masculine pronoun is deliberate because, hey, who are kidding?) mind.

Devoting a person

The discussion starts out strong with the rules for when a man “makes a special vow of persons to the Lord” (v.2). My interpretation of this is that the man is dedicating them to servile “lay” work in the sanctuary. If he changes his mind, or if they decide to buy their own freedom, the price structure depends on their age and gender:

  • Age 1month to 5 years: Boys cost 5 shekels, girls cost 3 shekels.
  • Age 5 to 20 years: Boys cost 20 shekels, girls cost 10 shekels.
  • Age 20 to 60 years: Men cost 50 shekels, women cost 30 shekels.
  • Age 60+ years: Men cost 15 shekels, women cost 10 shekels.

The value of the shekel is specified as being “according to the shekel of the sanctuary” (v.3), which presupposes the existence of a different value system. Indeed, the earlier Phoenician or Hebrew measurement was, according to my Study Bible, “heavier than the Babylonian shekel used in post-exilic times” (p.107). As in Leviticus 26, we’re seeing evidence for a late composition (or at least  a late editing) date for Leviticus.

If the standard rate can’t be afforded, an appeal can be made to the priest who will look over the votive person in question and assign them a new value “according to the ability of him who vowed” (v.8).

Gleaners by James Tissot

Gleaners by James Tissot

Obviously, there’s a bunch of ethical issues to unpack here, but I think that most of them are too obvious to warrant an in-depth discussion. There’s the fact that a family’s patriarch has the right to dedicate other human beings to service without their input, and there’s the fact that women are consistently valued as low as half what men are valued… I mean, really, there’s nothing good or moral about this passage – except maybe the small concession that a man has a special opportunity to buy back anyone he’s dedicated even if he’s too poor to afford the prices listed on the menu. But holy crap, that’s really stretching quite far to find anything that hasn’t horrible.

But there are some things that this passage is not. A Skeptic’s Journey points out that babies under a month old have “no value” and that this is a “a blow to religious pro-lifers.” The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible touches on this as well, pointing out that babies are “worth nothing at all.”

I don’t agree that we can really take that from the text. The value assigned to the people is not their worth as people, but rather their worth as servants (in other words, their market value rather than their moral value – the sin here being that it assigns a market value to people in the first place). I’ve had a newborn baby and, let me tell you, he did not pull his weight around the house at all. Of course, a one month old isn’t much better, but given the context I think it might be more likely that the point is to allow the baby to remain with its mother for at least one month, rather than saying that a newborn is not worth anything.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty to destroy the “pro-life” argument in the Bible. We’ve already seen a bit of this in Exodus 21, and ***SPOILER ALERT*** we’ll be seeing some more examples when we get to Numbers. But this passage, alone, isn’t really explicit enough to form any kind of argument.

Devoting animals or land

This next part is written in legalese and I had to look at external sources to really get a passable idea of the details (and, frankly, I’m still not sure I’m really there).

Essentially, an animal, once dedicated, is considered holy and can never be re-purposed back to profane use. Once it’s accepted by the priests, that’s it. It has to die.

However,  if the priests determine that the animal is unclean (if it has blemishes, for example), it can be sold and the money kept by the sanctuary.

If the animal is a firstling (the first born to a particular mother animal), it can’t be dedicated because it already belongs to God (as we saw in Exodus 22).

If a man dedicates his house, the priest gets to assign it a value. If the man wants to get it back,  he has to pay for it and add a 5th of its value on top.

If he dedicates his land, the rules depend on whether he originally got it as part of an inheritance or if he bought it. If he inherited the land, the value is based on what can be planted on it and how long until the next Jubilee year. If he wants it back, he has to pay for it plus add a 5th of its value. If he doesn’t redeem it, it becomes the priest’s at the next Jubilee (good deal for the priests!). If he’d bought the field, it reverts back to the original owner (the one who had gotten the field as his inheritance) at the next Jubilee.

“To be utterly destroyed”

Though some offerings can be redeemed, some can’t. I’m not entirely sure how this works, but I think it’s the difference between a pledged offering and an offering that’s already been handed over.

So, as I covered above, an animal that’s been devoted is made holy by that devotion, and it cannot be taken back and returned to a profane context. Unfortunately, here’s the passage that says this:

“No one devoted, who is to be utterly destroyed from among men, shall be ransomed; he shall be put to death” (v.29).

So do we take this at face value as a reference to human sacrifice?

Over at BibleStudyTools, the author argues that this passage means only that a person, once devoted, cannot be redeemed. Therefore, they must continue to serve the sanctuary until they die. This is not, the author argues, meant to be interpreted as an instruction to actively kill the person.

Over at the La Vista Church of Christ website, the author argues that the passage refers not to people who have been dedicated by a person, but to a person who has been doomed by God to die. Much like the plot of Final Destination, Death has set his sights on that person and they cannot change that fact.

Both of these explanations require some pretty complex linguistic manoeuvring to pull off, and, having no access to the Hebrew text, I really can’t comment. If anyone can read the original and comment, it would be greatly appreciated.

But I will leave you with this: There are two explicit mentions of human sacrifice in Leviticus, and both come down strongly against it. However, both (Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20) only forbid sacrifice to Molech. It’s easy to see Leviticus as claiming that the bad thing is not sacrifice itself, but sacrifice to the wrong god.

Leviticus 26: Of the Carrot and the Stick

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We’ve been hearing a lot about the statutes and ordinances in Leviticus but, apart from a few enforced with either the death penalty or exile, there hasn’t been too much word of reward or punishment. That’s what Leviticus 26 is for.

But first,  it’s important that you know what the main rules are. After all, there’s no way that you could possibly just remember them, since we’ve only read them a few dozen times.

  1. No idols
  2. Keep the Sabbath

As David Plotz points out, we’ve already heard these two rules “at least 15 times. By contrast, ‘thou shalt not kill’ rates only half a dozen reminders.”

The Carrot

Of course, God promises some rewards for properly following these rules:

  • There will be rain in the right season and good harvests.
  • Israelites won’t be threatened by either “evil beasts” or invaders.
  • The enemies of Israel “shall fall before you by the sword” (v.7), and do so easily even when the Israelites are outnumbered.
  • The people will be fertile.
  • There will be such bumper harvests that the Israelites will still be eating their stored food when the new harvest comes.
  • God will hang out in Israel and not hate the Israelites.

The Stick

But, if the Israelites don’t follow the rules:

  • God will send terrible diseases to the Israelites.
  • The Israelites will have bad harvests (either because seeds will be eaten or simply because the yield will be poor).
  • Something about making the heavens like iron and the earth like brass.
  • God will send wild beasts among the Israelites, to kill their children and cattle.
  • God will send invading armies to conquer and rule over Israel. These invaders will “scatter you among the nations” (v.33).
  • If the Israelites try to hide from the invaders in walled cities, God will send diseases to get them anyway.
  • There will be starvation.
  • God will make the Israelites “eat the flesh of your sons, and […] eat the flesh of your daughters” (v.29).
  • God will destroy the Israelite places of worship. He will “cast your dead bodies upon the dead bodies of your idols” (v.30).
  • God will make the Israelite cities desolate and he “will not smell your pleasing odors” (v.31).
  • Any Israelites who survive all of this will be made paranoid, so that they run away from a driven leaf “as one flees from the sword” (v.37).

If, after all this, the Israelites become humble in their “uncircumcised heart” (v.41) (quick note: if you are circumcising the heart, you’re doing it wrong), God will “remember” his covenant with the patriarchs and he won’t “abhor them [the Israelites] so as to destroy them utterly” (v.44).

A few final notes on Leviticus 26

One thing that leapt out at me when reading this chapter is the mention of an invading army scattering the Israelites (v.33-39). This is, of course, what actually happened to the Israelites during the Exile period. Yet Leviticus was, supposedly, written many hundreds of years before that ever happened. Of course, the easy explanation for a believer is that this is prophecy (it is, after all, coming from the mouth of God as a future consequence for not following his ordinances). But that’s not a very interesting answer.

Moses Viewing the Promised Land by Frederic Edwin Church, 1846

Moses Viewing the Promised Land by Frederic Edwin Church, 1846

My Study Bible is very charitable, suggesting that these verses “indicate familiarity with the policy of deporting conquered peoples, a policy used effectively by the Assyrians (2 Kg. ch. 17)” (p.157).

Collins is a little more direct, saying that “the reference here to ‘the land of their enemies’ clearly presupposes the Babylonian exile” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.82). I think that if not added entirely during or after the Exile period, this chapter was certainly edited at that time as an attempt to explain the tragedy of the Exile (and solidify priestly power since, of course, there’s always the implied threat that it could happen again so you’d better listen to the priests this time!).

I also found it interesting to see that the punishments get more than double the number of verses than the rewards (11 verses for the rewards and 26 for the punishments). As a parent, this hits rather close to home. There’s a lot of debate in parenting circles over discipline and how it should be used. I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but what I’ve found is that punishing bad behaviour doesn’t achieve the effect I want. My son might stop doing the behaviour for the moment, but he’ll be upset with me and his take-away lesson is that “mom is unfair” and “therefore I can’t let her catch me.” Whereas when I praise him for good behaviour and explain to him my reasons for not wanting him to do certain things, even when he has the opportunity to do something I wouldn’t want him to do (like, say, run out into the road), he simply doesn’t do it.

What astounds me is how little the God we’ve seen so far seems to respect the Israelite people. Rather than talking to his Children and explaining to them why he’s making these rules – as I always try to do with my own son – he instead counts on his power to enforce rules. “You must obey me because I could crush you.” It smacks of the Pearl’s child-rearing handbook To Train Up A Child. Frankly, I find this reward/punishment system truly reprehensible, since it depends entirely on “might makes right.”

The last point I want to touch on comes from A Skeptic’s Journey, in which the author points out that the covenant God made with Abraham and the rest of the patriarchs depended only on them circumcising their children. If they did this, the Israelite portion of the covenant was considered fulfilled and God’s portion was to give them Israel.

But in Leviticus (and, to a certain extent, Exodus), God suddenly changes the rules. Suddenly, circumcision isn’t enough (and, in fact, is hardly even mentioned). Instead, he brings in all of these rules that affect every area of life and, in some cases, could very well lead to death (as we saw in our discussion of the Jubilee).

It seems an awful lot like God broke his covenant with Abraham, or at least shifted the goal posts. Worse than that, because Abraham agreed to the initial covenant he was given, the Israelites are now subject to horrific punishment for not abiding by the new “fine print.” It hardly seems fair.

Leviticus 25: Of jubilees and slavery


We’re back to statues and ordinances without a hint of narrative, I’m afraid, but at least this chapter is actually somewhat interesting.

To start with, we get a recap about the Sabbath year – or Shmita – that we saw in Exodus 23. The idea is that the same principle that applies to the week (six days of work followed by one day of rest) also applies to years (six years of normal farming followed by one year of laying all the fields fallow).

For those of you without green thumbs, the basic idea of fallowing is this: A plant draws its nutrition from the soil. Different plants have different needs, so only growing one particular type of plant in one particular plot of land leads to depletion of certain nutrients. This, in turn, leads to lower quality fruits and, in more extreme cases, the death of the plants. Nowadays, we can correct a lot of this by using fertilizers. But in the past (and many people still do this), a system called “crop rotation” was used.

The earliest form of this was called a “two-field rotation.” Farmers would divide their lands in two, and only plant in one half per year. By alternating, each portion of the field would “lie fallow” for a year, giving it a chance to replenish its nutrients. This later developed into a three-field system, and then a four-field system.

So the idea of fallowing has some pretty solid science behind it.

But the system being proposed here – in which nothing at all is planted for an entire year – is completely insane. They aren’t even allowed to gather fruit from perennial plants!

Even God seems to realize that it’s crazy to ask people not to plant anything. First, he moderates his claims a little by saying that “the sabbath of the land shall provide food for you” (v.6) – right after commanding that “what grows of itself in your harvest you shall not reap” (v.5), which seems a little contradictory.

Then he tries to reassure the Hebrews by saying that they totally won’t starve during the Shmita because he’ll give them such an incredible bumper harvest in the 6th year that they’ll be fine – but, you know, only if they obey the statutes and ordinances. That’s a hell of an escape clause! Not to mention that the whole thing smacks of “if you loved me, you would do this crazy suicidal thing…”

The Jubilee

If anyone were to ask God what his favourite number is, I think I could make a fair guess at the answer.

Every seven times the seven year Shmita cycle (that would be 49 years), there’s an extra Sabbath year, called the Jubilee. To start off the festivities, a special trumpet must be blown – which is where the term Jubilee comes from (yobhel – or “ram’s horn”). Incidentally, anyone else find it strange that the new year is counted in the seventh month? How does that make any sense at all?

The Year of Jubilee by Henry Le Jeune

The Year of Jubilee by Henry Le Jeune

Anyways, the Jubilee has some pretty big social consequences. During this year:

  • All property that has been bought or loaned is to be returned (so leasing contracts can only last a maximum of 50 years).
  • Everyone is supposed to return to their family. This isn’t clarified, but I suppose it goes with the first point as a way of essentially ‘setting back the clock’ so that every family is occupying their ‘proper place’ in perpetuity – no matter what goes on in reality.
  • If you buy or sell things during the Jubilee year, you shouldn’t “wrong one another” (v.14), which seems to imply that it’s okay the other 49 years.
  • The price of crops depends on how long is left before the next Jubilee. If the next Jubilee year is still far off, the price goes up, but it goes down the closer you get. This makes some sense, since Jubilee years would be periods of mass starvation (being the second year of no agricultural activity). So if someone has successfully stockpiled a great deal of food, they could really take advantage of the situation.

The Shmita is a terrible idea based on solid agricultural practice. Before the two-field crop rotation system was invented, the Shmita may have actually been cutting-edge science. The problem is that it was codified as a religious practice, so that farmers had to keep to an old and very inefficient system long after agriculture had found better (and better better!) solutions. Ain’t that just the way?

But the Jubilee year is pure theology, and would be disastrous for a nation that actually followed it. It seems that the farmers realized this, since, as Collins points out: “There is no evidence that the Jubilee Year was ever actually observed” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.81).

Ownership of land

The next part of Leviticus 25 deals with the ownership of land. According to this chapter, land cannot be sold, only leased. The reason given in the text is that “the land is mine” (v.23). Since it belongs to God, it is not for individuals to sell.

But I think that it has more to do with the idea of communal identity. We’ve already encountered the concept of communal guilt a few times. Here, I think it’s the idea that Patriarch Bob isn’t the true owner of his family’s land, since he shares ownership with both Patriarch Bob Sr. and Patriarch Bob Jr. Therefore, if he sells the land, he’s essentially stealing it from his sons, his sons’ sons, and on down the line.

If someone sells his property anyway, he or any member of his family must “come and redeem” (v.25) it soon as possible. If neither he nor anyone in his family pays to redeem it before the next Jubilee year, it reverts back to him automatically. Which is a pretty bum deal for whoever bought the land!

At some point, someone realized that while these rules might work out okay in a rural village setting, enforcing eternal ownership in an urban area would be extremely stifling. So a special clause is added for property located “in a walled city” (v.29), in which case the rights of redemption last only for a year and the Jubilee return does not apply.

Another exception is made for the Levites who, as you will remember, are the guys writing Leviticus. Their rights of redemption never expire, no matter where they live. That being said, “the fields of common land belonging to their [Levite] cities may not be sold; for that is their perpetual possession” (v.34). In other words, their land that is used by the whole community must remain in use for the whole community, which sounds a bit like Socialism to me.

I find the use of the word “possession” in this chapter rather interesting. This section of the chapter starts off with God talking about how he, and only he, owns all the land. But the rest is a discussion of who gets to own what land and the conditions under which they can (or not) sell it. I’d be curious to know if the original Hebrew made a distinction between true ownership and god-given stewardship.

Ownership of people

This next section begins with a discussion of what to do if a “brother” falls on hard times. In other parts of the text, the word “neighbour” is used when referring to a fellow Hebrew, so I initially assumed that “brother” either refers to a literal brother or, at least, to someone with a close kinship. But then there’s a line about how, after a certain period of time, “he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own family” (v.41), which suggests that the word is being used in the same way that “neighbour” is used elsewhere.

Anyways, that’s a bit of an aside. Onward with the content!

So if your  “brother” is destitute, you must take him in. You must help him without charging interest and without profiting from him (well, strictly speaking, you just can’t profit from feeding him).

If your “brother” is so poor that he “sells himself to you” (v.39), he must be considered a servant rather than a slave, and his term as a bond-servant can only last until the next Jubilee.

If an Israelite sells himself to a non-Hebrew, his family can redeem him (or he can redeem himself). As with land, if he is not redeemed by the Jubilee, he must then be set free. There’s no mention of this applying only if they live within Israel or even during a time when Hebrews are the ones getting to make the laws in Israel. Imposing such an ownership law on people who may not recognize your authority to do so seems rather silly.

So that’s all well and good. Debt-slavery isn’t exactly my preferred economic plan, but I suppose it’s better than starvation. Unfortunately, there’s a big but.

See, this only applies to fellow Hebrews.

As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession for ever; you may make slaves of them (v.44-46).

I checked the Enduring Word commentaries to see if they had any excuses to make for this passage, but all they were able to come up with is that “they had to be treated humanely.” Skeptic’s Annotated Bible Answered (a site devoted to explaining away SAB‘s criticisms) has a better go of it, arguing that this passage is merely the regulation of the slave trade, and that “regulation doesn’t mean approval, just as regulation of a vice doesn’t mean you approve of it.

Nice try, but there’s a fundamental issue with this – namely that this book is meant to function as a law code and, today, is used as a moral code, and the only argument it has to offer against the practice of owning actual human beings is that certain people shouldn’t be owned by other people because they already belong to God (v.55).

This is why I started gagging whenever I hear someone claim to derive their moral code from the Bible or, worse yet, ask me how I could possibly know right from wrong without it.

Exodus 21: The Ordinances

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The Ordinances provide supplemental information to the Decalogue (the ten commandments).

Regarding Hebrew Slaves

It’s specified that the following rules apply only to Hebrew slaves who have been bought.

  • They are to serve for six years. In the seventh year, they are to be set free.
  • If he was single when bought, he must leave single. If he was married when bought, his wife goes with him.
  • If his master provided him with a wife during his term as a slave, she and any children they’ve had together belong to the master even after the slave’s term is finished. If he wishes to stay with his wife and children, he must be made a slave for life (in a ceremony that involves boring a hole through his ear).

I think it goes without saying that this gives masters huge manipulative power.

  • When a Hebrew girl is sold by her family, she doesn’t get to be freed as male slaves do. Rather, she “must be married at a marriageable age to her master or his son, or released” (p. 106, A Woman’s Place).
  • A Hebrew female slave is protected against being sold to foreigners, even if she “does not please her master” (Exod. 21:8).
  • If the Hebrew female slave is intended for the master’s son, “he shall deal with her as with a daughter” (Exod. 21:9), presumably even before the wedding takes place.
  • If, after buying his wife, he decides to take another, he “shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights” (Exod. 21:10). If he fails in this, she is to be freed.

You read that correctly. The Bible just conflated being a wife and a slave. Take from that what you will.

Regarding Murder

  • Murder earns the death penalty.
  • However, if the murder was not in cold blood – “if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand” (Exod. 21:13) – the murderer is exiled instead.

Regarding Personal Injuries

  • Hitting your parents merits the death penalty.
  • Kidnapping merits the death penalty. It’s specified that this is the case regardless of whether the kidnapper is found with the victim or if he’s already sold his victim.

It’s often argued that slavery in the Bible wasn’t like the more modern forms, that it was merely a way for people to pay off debts and that slaves weren’t abused as they were in antebellum America. But this provides us a hint of just how silly that claim is. If slaves were merely debtors who willingly entered into slavery themselves, a kidnapper would not be able to sell his victim (as we saw in Genesis 37).

  • Cursing one’s parents merits the death penalty.

I think it’s important to point out that this doesn’t mean the kinds of cursing that we’re familiar with today, which would involve kids shouting profanities as they slam doors. At the time, a curse was believed to be capable of very real harm, and the act of cursing someone “released an inexorable power” (as my study bible puts it).

  • exodus-21If one person strikes another so that the stricken person must keep “to his bed” (Exod. 21:18) but is eventually healed, the striker must pay for the loss of time and have his victim healed.
  • If a slave dies when beaten by the master, the master shall be punished. If the slave survives a day or two before dying, there’s no punishment, “for the slave is his money” (Exod. 21:21).

The punishment for killing another human being in this case is not specified. Further, this passage has lead people like Philo to conclude “that one who kills his own slaves actually injures oneself more by being deprived of the slave’s service and property value” (p. 106, A Woman’s Place). Certainly, the argument is there that the loss of the slave’s value is punishment enough.

  • If two men are fighting and they hurt a pregnant woman causing a miscarriage but she is otherwise unharmed, the one who hurt her is to be fined.

I find this point really interesting in light of the abortion debate. Exodus 21:12 stipulated that the punishment for an unintentional or “heat of the moment” killing is exile. So the implication of this passage is that there is something qualitatively different between killing a person and killing a fetus. Further, the punishment given, a fine, is the same as we shall soon see given for property damage.

  • If the pregnant woman is harmed, the punishment is “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exod. 21:23-25).

While it may seem barbaric on the surface (and certainly is by modern standards), I think it bears mentioning that this is less a call for vengeance and more a limitation on what otherwise might be an unending cycle of vengeance. It works two ways: The first is that if someone pokes out your eye, you can only poke out his in return, not kill him, for example. Secondly, because it’s written down that the punishment for poking out your eye is a loss of his own, he can’t then demand vengeance for the harm you have done. So penance is paid and the incident doesn’t become a much larger feud.

  • If a master ruins a slave’s eye or knocks out a tooth, the slave is allowed to go free.

As Sam Harris points out, “the only real restraint God counsels on the subject of slavery is that we do not beat our slaves so severely that we injure their eyes or their teeth (Exodus 21). It should go without saying that this is not the kind of moral insight that put an end to slavery in the United States”  (p. 16, Letter to a Christian Nation).

(For more on the use of the Bible to both condemn and defend slavery, there’s a fantastic post over at Daylight Atheism.)

  • If an ox gores someone to death, it should be stoned at the flesh not eaten, but the owner is guiltless.
  • If an ox gores someone to death and has a history of goring but the owner neglected to keep it locked up, both the ox and the owner should either be killed, or the owner forced to pay a “ransom.”
  • If an ox gores a slave, the ox’s owner must pay a fine to the slave’s owner.
  • If a man leaves a pit uncovered and an ox or donkey fall in, he can keep the dead animal but must pay its owner.
  • If one man’s ox kills another man’s ox, both should be sold and the money split between the two men.

According to Collins, laws regarding damage done by livestock can also be found in the codes of Eshnunna and Hammurabi. The instructions in Exodus 21:35 for what to do if an ox kills another ox “corresponds exactly to the Code of Eshnunna” (The Hebrew Bible, p.71).

David Plotz says that these laws “are far more revealing” as a window into the daily lives of the ancient Israelites “than the more dramatic biblical stories. They depict the Israelites at the time of the Torah as obsessed with property rights and focused on the health of their livestock, on which their economic health depended.”

Exodus 19: Thunder on the mountain

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After three months of travelling, the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai and set up camp. Once there, Moses climbs the mountain to talk to God, who makes the Israelites a deal. “Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all people; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:5-6).

Now, the language of possession, essentially reducing the Israelites to things (albeit treasured), is rather creepy from a modern perspective. Sorta reinforces that view of God as the kid with the ant farm, doesn’t it?

The Israelites don’t seem to think so. When Moses relays the message, “all the people answered together and said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do’ ” (Exod. 19: 8). Much as it disturbs me to see a whole culture willingly subjecting themselves to being possessions, this is certainly a welcome break from hearing them whine.

Then, God institutes a rule about Mount Sinai: No one, be they human or beast, is to approach the mountain lest they “be put to death” (Exod. 19:12-13). This emphasises the mysterium tremendum of the sacred location.

Next, God tells Moses that in three days time he will appear to the Israelites personally. In the meantime, Moses should busy himself consecrating every individual and they should make sure that they was their clothes (probably a good idea after three months in the wilderness).

And for the feminists among my readers, please note that on the third day, God’s rule for all Israelites is: “Do not go near a woman” (Exod. 19:15). Just in case you were wondering who the Old Testament considers worthy of personhood, there’s your answer. When God addresses “the Israelites,” that’s only the ones with penises. The rest don’t count.

God’s appearance

The Ten Commandments by Isabella Colette

The Ten Commandments by Isabella Colette

“On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightenings” and “Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in a fire” (Exod. 19:16-18). If we subscribe to the theory that there’s a kernel of truth to the Exodus stories, and that they can be traced back to misunderstood naturalistic phenomena, this one’s pretty obvious. There’s a big storm, which the Israelites think is God talking to them.

We seem to get confirmation of this in the next verse, where we’re told that Moses speaks and “God answered him in thunder” (Exod. 19:19). This suggests that God isn’t speaking in a way that the Israelites can understand him, but rather that Moses is interpreting the thunder.

And when we were told in Exodus 19:12-13 that there’s a bound set around the mountain so that only Moses can approach, is this because Moses is just pretending to talk to God? Is he actually just reading the latest Harlequin novel for a bit before going down and telling the people whether God thinks lamb is best served with mint jelly or not?

In other words, does the emphasis on secrecy (or “sacredness,” if that’s the term you prefer) suggest that Moses is a conman rather than just a naif who is misinterpreting natural phenomena?

God forgets his rule

God tells Moses to bring up the priests to meet him, but Moses reminds him of the prohibition against letting anyone go near the mountain. That’s right, God issued a rule and, within three days, had already forgotten it. No matter, God asks Moses to bring up Aaron instead. Then he reminds Moses not to “let the priests and th epeople break through to come up to the Lord, lest he break out against them” (Exod. 19:24).

Points for talking about himself in the third person. But also, this really makes it look like Aaron is an accomplice, and Moses needed a story to tell the Israelites that would let him bring his brother up without all the priests and elders wanting to see God too.