Exodus 34: The Ten Commandments, redux

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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.

Exodus 33: Check out the back on that deity!

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In this chapter, God tells Moses to stop lollygagging around and start legging it towards the land of milk and honey so that God can start driving out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. Not my idea of fun, but hey, to each their own.

However, from now on, the Hebrews are going to have to be led by an angel rather than God himself because he’s still peeved about the whole calf thing and might just lose control and “consume” the Hebrews if he spends too much time around them (Exod. 33:3).

Everyone was so upset when they heard that God was struggling not to eat them that none of the men put on ornaments (a sign of mourning). God, apparently not seeing this, tells Moses to tell the Hebrews to take their ornaments off.

A Tale of Two Tents

Exodus33_Moses seeing GodSo Moses apparently has his own tent that he also calls the “tent of meeting.” This one is pitched “far from the camp” (Exod. 33:7), as opposed to the centrally-located tent we just finished building. Another difference is that Joshua, son of Nun, is the caretaker of this one, while the other is cared for by the priests.

Once again, I think we’re seeing evidence of two different traditions being cobbled together – one in which Aaron is a Big Man Hero, and another in which Joshua is Big Man Hero. In both traditions, the Big Man Hero is given legitimacy through his closeness to and association with Moses and, then, the tent.

Anyways, this is where Moses and God like to chill.

So Moses is in his tent chatting with God and trying to make sure that they’re still besties despite the whole calf thing, and God reassures him. As a token of his ongoing friendship, God repeats his name to Moses, and I assume that they hug, though the text suspiciously neglects to mention this.

Can you look on the face of God?

While Moses and God are chatting, we are told that they are speaking “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exod. 33:11). But just a few versus later, God tells us that Moses “cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live” (Exod. 33:20). This leads to a hilarious exchange in which God shields Moses with his hands as he passes by him, and then moves his hand away so that Moses “shall see my back” (Exod. 33:23), which sounds an awful lot like God just mooned Moses.

But back to the bit about seeing God, what’s going on there? Well, first of all, we get a very anthropomorphized God in this chapter. He has a face, he has a “back,” he has a hand. From this, we can understand that there is an actual discrete God-object that can be seen. So is seeing it deadly or not?

  • Genesis 12:7 – We’re told twice that God appeared to Abram.
  • Genesis 17:1 – God appears to Abram.
  • Genesis 18:1 – God appears to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre.
  • Genesis 26:2 – God appears to Isaac to tell him not to go to Egypt.
  • Genesis 26:24 – God appears to Isaac at Beersheba.
  • Genesis 35:9 – God appears to Jacob at Paddanaram.
  • Exodus 24:9-11 – Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and 70 elders climb up Mt. Sinai, where they “saw” and “beheld” God.

But, okay, in all  of these examples, it just says that God “appeared” to someone. It doesn’t say, necessarily, that he let them see his face. That’s why we turn to these verses:

  • Genesis 32:30 – Jacob names Peniel, saying “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
  • Exodus 33:11 – Moses and God speak “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.”

I suspect that we’ll be coming back to this subject a few times in our reading. In the meantime, Jared Calaway of Antiquitopia has a nifty little meditation on the subject.

Exodus 23: Breaking their pillars in pieces

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Unfortunately, our adventure into the ordinances continues. I’m really hoping we get back into stories soon, although I have to admit that these posts are quite a bit easier to write.

  • No bearing false witness. Nor shall you ally yourself with a “wicked man, to be a malicious witness” (Exod. 23:1).
  • “You shall not follow a multitude to do evil” (Exod. 23:2). How awful that a prohibition against creating art merits highlighting in the ten commandments, but this, this absolutely essential lesson, is buried in the third chapter of ordinances.
  • If you happen to encounter an enemy’s cattle going astray, you must return it to them. Another excellent lesson.
  • Do not make a false charge in the justice system, and don’t kill the innocent and righteous.
  • Don’t accept bribes.
  • The prohibition against mistreating foreigners is repeated.

The Cultic Calendar

  • Fields should be sowed for six years, then laid fallow for the seventh year.

exodus-23While I can understand the necessity of giving fields a rest, laying a field fallow every seven years seems very impractical. Rather, it seems that it would make more sense to rotate the types of crops so that the field is continually in use without ever depleting it. This system was in widespread use in Medieval Europe. Shouldn’t God be able to figure it out?

It seems that the field is laid fallow “that the poor of your people may eat” (Exod. 23:11). It seems that stuff is left out in the fields for the poor to come and collect? What the poor leave, the wild beasts may eat. I really don’t understand this rule, although it’s apparently a Sabbath writ large.

  • Keep the Sabbath by not working on every seventh day. It emphasises once again that the entire household must be given a rest, including the slaves and cattle.
  • Don’t mention the names of other gods, “nor let such be heard out of your mouth” (Exod. 23:13).
  • Special feasts are held three times a year, and all Hebrew males must make a pilgrimage to a central altar: 1) The feast of the unleavened bread. None should come without a sacrifice. 2) The harvest feast, held when the wheat is harvested in June. 3) The feast of ingathering, held at the end of the Hebrew year, in autumn, when other crops are harvested.
  • When sacrificing an animal, the blood from the sacrifice should not be served with leavened bread, and the fat should be finished before morning. As we found out in Exodus 12, leavening is a fermentation process. So both of these rules have to do with preventing any kind of corruption from mingling with the holy sacrifice.
  • Much like the sacrifice of first-born children and cattle, Hebrews must also offer their first crops.
  • “You shall not oil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exod. 23:19). According to my study bible, this is “a protest against a Canaanite method of preparing a sacrifice.”

Behold, I send an angel before you

We’re finally done with the ordinances!

So God sends an angel who is also himself down to guard the Hebrews on their way. If they show proper submission to this angel, then God “will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries” (Exod. 23:22). We had a couple really good ordinances there, but it looks like we’re back in violent mode now.

God warns the Hebrews that this angel will lead them through the territories of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites, and the Jebusites, and God “will blot them out” (Exod. 23:23). The Hebrews will “utterly overthrow them and break their pillars in pieces” (Exod. 23:24).

Further, God “will send my terror before you, and will throw into confusion all the people against who you shall come” (Exod. 23:27). And so forth goes the language of warmongering, violence, and hate.

But at least God won’t kill these people all at once. No, this would leave the land too empty so that it becomes desolate and populated by wild beasts. Instead, he’ll drive them out little by little until the Hebrews have a chance to breed enough to fill the land.

Just in case it wasn’t quite hateful enough already, God also forbids making any covenants with non-Hebrews (Exod. 23:32).

According to David Plotz, this kind of hatred enshrined in scripture has far-reaching consequences: “There are too many reasons to count why Arabs and Jews distrust each other, some good, some bad. I am beginning to see some of the biblical roots for the Jewish suspicion.”

Exodus 3: The Hero’s Call

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According to Joseph Campbell, the hero’s journey begins with a call:

This first stage of the mythological journey – which we have designated the “call to adventure” – signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown. The Hero With A Thousand Faces, p.58.

It would be unseemly for our current hero to accept his task too readily. The hero’s task is very great and only a narcissist would feel equal to it. This is why a common component of the call is the refusal. It’s a token act of modesty that makes the hero worthy, in the eyes of the reader, of the task.

On the mountain of God

Moses and the Burning Bush by Sebastien Bourdon, 1642-1645

Moses and the Burning Bush by Sebastien Bourdon, 1642-1645

In this chapter, Moses is taking care of his father-in-law’s flock (who is now named Jethro instead of Reuel) when he accidentally stumbles on Horeb (sometimes called Sinai), the “mountain of God” (Exod. 3:1). The location of Horeb/Sinai is unknown, but my study bible says that “tradition places it in the eastern part of the Sinaitic Peninsula” and theorizes that it “was probably a Midianite sacred place.”

God appears to Moses “in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush” and though “the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed” (Exod. 3:2). Back to Joseph Campbell, he writes in Hero With A Thousand Faces that: “there is an atmosphere of irresistible fascination about the figure that appears suddenly as guide, marking a new period, a new stage, in the biography” (p.55).

Moses is all like “Wuh?!” and takes a good look at this burning-yet-not-burned shrubbery, at which point God calls out to him.

God tells Moses not to approach, but to remove his shoes “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exod. 3:5).This raises the question of what makes a site holy. Is it because God is there? In which case, are all the places he ‘touches down’ holy? This is certainly possible since the patriarchs like Abraham built shrines wherever they talked to God (no mention of any shoe removal, though). Alternatively, did God choose to appear at this site because it was already holy? If this is the case, do the Midianites also worship the God of the Hebrews, or is God respecting another deity’s special turf? Or, to use the Euthyphro phrasing, is the site holy because God is there, or is God there because it is holy?

In any case, Moses hides his face because he’s afraid to look at God.

The Quest

God announces to Moses that he’s “come down to deliver [my people] out of the hand of the Egyptians.” He intends to lead them to “a land flowing with milk and honey” – to the place that currently belongs to “the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites” (Exod. 3:8). But that doesn’t seem so nice, moving the Hebs out of one land belonging to others and into another land belonging to others. Unless…

Oh no…

Leaving this ominous little verse aside for a moment, God gets down to business: “I will send you to Pharaoh, that you may bring forth my people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt” (Exod. 3:10).

The Refusal

Moses: Who am I to tell Pharaoh what to do?

God: I’ll be with you, so you’ll have my cred.

Moses: But if I tell the Hebs that God has sent me, they’ll ask me which god I’m talking about! [A statement that seems to “assume a polytheistic environment; thus he must know the identity of the God who is dealing with him,” according to my study bible.]

God: I am who I am. [Or, YHWH, which may also translate to the third person, or “He causes to be.] Now stop yer winging and go tell the Hebs what I’ve told you. They’ll listen.

God gives further instructions: The elders of the Hebrews should go to Pharaoh and ask for three days off so that they can go into the wilderness and sacrifice to their god. This is after making his intention to lead the Israelites out of Egypt quite clear. In other words, God is telling the Hebrews to lie.

That’s morally iffy enough, but in this case God knows it won’t work anyway: “I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand” (Exod. 3:19). So basically, God just feels like making people lie. Just cause…

Not content to end there, God doesn’t want his peeps to start off empty handed. “Each woman shall ask of her neighbor, and of her who sojourns in her house, jewelry of silver and of gold, and clothing, and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters; thus you shall despoil the Egyptians” (Exod. 3:22). If you’re lying anyway, you may as well steal too.

Genesis 34: On the use of circumcision as an instrument of war

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This is the story of what happens to Jacob and family during their stay in Shechem, which is both a city in the land of Canaan and the name of a prince of that area.

Strange Love

Dinah avenged by Gérard Jollain 1670

Dinah avenged by Gérard Jollain 1670

Dinah, the daughter of Leah and Jacob’s only female child, goes out to visit with some Canaanite women. While she’s out, Shechem sees her and “he seized her, and lay with her and humbled her” (Gen. 34:2). But, we’re told, he totally loves her and “spoke tenderly to her” (Gen. 34:3), which is just ridiculously creepy.

But not unheard of. Matthews writes that “a schoolboy’s exercise tablet, written inexpertly in Sumerian and dating to the period of the eighteenth century B.C., provides a parallel to this case. According to this set of legal statements, an unbetrothed virgin could be obtained as a wife through forcible sexual relations” (Manners & Customs, p.31).

So he and his father, Hamor the Hivite, go to Jacob and beg to be able to keep Dinah as a wife. Now, I didn’t realize this when I first read the chapter, but she’s still a prisoner. In other words, Shechem is trying to do this legitly, while at the same time keeping her chained up in the basement, so to speak. Sooo creepy…

Now, I will say this for Genesis 34, it does come down on the right side of a moral question for once. We’re told, plainly, that “lying with Jacob’s daughter” is a thing that “ought not to be done” (Gen. 34:7). Now, if we want to get picky, we might say that lying with anyone’s daughter against her will ought not to be done, and kidnapping isn’t so great either, but I’ll take what I can get.

Not content with just one daughter, Hamor & Sons want a full exchange of daughters, a sort of “I’ll marry yours if you’ll marry mine” kind of deal. This, according to my study bible, would make them “a kindred-group in which the Shechemites would have the leadership.”

To sweeten the deal, Hamor & Sons offer to give Jacob anything he asks for as a “marriage present” (which the King James perhaps more accurately calls a “dowry”) (Gen. 34:12).

Ouch!

Jacob’s sons answer “deceitfully” (Gen. 34:13) that they agree to the marriage and, for a bride price, that all the Shechemites must circumcise themselves – because they cannot “give our sister to one who is uncircumcised, for that would be a disgrace to us” (Gen. 34:14). Shechem is overjoyed because he gets to marry Dinah (a woman he loves enough to rape…), and he circumcises himself right away.

All goes according to plan when Shechem and his father go back to the city and convince all the other men to get themselves circumcised. It’s a small price to pay, they say, to form a kindred-group which will allow the Shechemites to own “their cattle, their property and all their beasts” (Gen. 34:23).

Now that all the Shechemite men’s crotches are sore, Levi and Simeon (Jacob’s sons by Leah) pull a surprise attack on the helpless men and slaughter all the males. I’m assuming that either Levi and Simeon had some help or the Shechemite were really penis-sore, because it’s hard to imagine two men being able to kill a whole city fully of men, “unawares” (Gen. 34:25) as they may be. Heck, even with a sore penis, you’d think that after the first couple are killed, the rest would tough it out long enough to fight back…

Plunder!

With all the Shechemites dead, Levi and Simeon rescue Dinah and, just to make the whole adventure worthwhile, plunder the city. They do this “because their sister had been defiled” (Gen. 34:27), and not because, say, they want the stuff.

In any case, they make off with the flocks, the herds, the asses, and “whatever was in the city and in the field” (Gen. 34:28).

In addition to Levi’s daisies, they also took all the Shechemite women and children, who I am sure were most happy that their fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons had all just been slaughtered and that they were now going to be forced to live with the killers.

Jacob is angry with his sons. In typical Biblical fashion, he isn’t angry because slaughtering an entire city of men after causing them to mutilate their own penises is a bad thing to do, but because now the Canaanites (and the Perizzites, whoever they are) might not be too happy with them.

A different reading?

Before moving on, I just want to bring up a possibility brought to my attention by the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible. We never actually hear from Dinah. All we’re told is that she left home, there was some kind of sexual act between her and Shechem, and that Shechem loved her so much that he was willing to cut off a piece of his penis, without hesitation, so that he could marry her.

Is it possible that he and Dinah were actually in love? Is it possible that they eloped, but that Shechem decided to do the “honourable thing” and petition her family?

There doesn’t seem to be anything in the story that contradicts this reading. And since the authors didn’t feel that giving Dinah’s perspective was a worthy use of time, we may never know. But re-reading the story as a sort of Romeo & Juliet tale of star-crossed lovers makes Levi and Simeon’s actions so very sad. Especially since now, Dinah can never get her life back together. She can never marry, and has been condemned to be a dependant in her father’s household for the rest of her life.

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