Monday, March 24, 2008

The Covenant of Removal: Exodus 23:20 - 24

The following post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

At the beginning of Exodus 24, Moses and the elders of Israel affirm the covenant. Once again, God clearly specifies that only Moses may "approach the Lord; the others must not come near." Moses does this, then comes back and relates the laws that wer given, and the people agree "with one voice" that they will follow the commandments. It's probably a very touching and powerful moment for this assemblage of freed slaves. The next day, they celebrate with a number of sacrifices, a repetition of the laws and thier affirmation to obey God. (It's easy to think of the Israelites as though they were pretty much culturally the same as us, so it's worth noting the gory nature of this ritual: the prophet scoops up the blood of the slaughtered bulls and flings it over his people, splashing them with blood in the name of God.) Once the sacrifice has been performed, the elders of Israel have become more righteous in God's eyes: he permits them to come up with Moses to meet him, and appears to them standing upon "a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself." Then Moses heads up the mountain for another set of commandments, taking Joshua with him and leaving the elders in charge. Joshua hasn't done much yet, though he gets his own book later; here in Exodus, he's simply described as an "aide" to Moses.

This covenant involves some text at the close of ch. 23 which I left out of the last post because it isn't about the law. God provides some specific promises about how the Israelites will go about claiming territory. He will give the Israelites "an angel" to guard and protect them, and to give them instructions. God describes him like sort of magic spokesman: "if you listen carefully to what he says and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you."

It's interesting that in this first covenant, we don't see any specific references to the homicidal or even genocidal approach the Israelites are later commanded to take, and which in my clearly flawed memory I was expecting to read here. God appears to intend to conduct any killing that is necessary by himself: as the Israelites advance, "my angel will go ahead" and will "send terror" and "confusion" to each nation in Israel's path. They will be scared, and they will "turn thier backs and run." God describes himself not as a massacring warrior but as a harassing and irritating force: his angel will play the role of a "hornet." And it will do so gradually, because if all the nations were wiped out at once, the land would go barren and the Israelites would have to spend too much time dealing with "wild animals."

Indeed, the only explicit war the Israelites are commanded to partake in will be the annihilation of other gods, not other people. As they advance, God explains, he will "wipe out" the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites. The Israelites will follow behind and "demolish" the gods, and "break their sacred stones to pieces." The new country, God promises, will stretch from the Red Sea to the "Philistine sea," and "from the desert to the River." (My Bible specifies in footnotes that this means the Mediterranean and the Euphrates; this is speculation but seems plausible.) This would pretty much mean that Israel is claiming all of its present-day territory, parts of the Sinai peninsula, and parts of what is now Syria, Lebanon, western Iraq, and northern Saudi Arabia.

Nevertheless, at this point the focus seems to be on the removal of indigenous groups, not their extermination. God is going to give the Israelites a new land after their exodus by chasing out some other tribes, thus causing other exoduses (exodi?). These people, he specifies, will be "drive[n] out before" the Israelites. They must not be permitted to remain in the land, because they will "cause you to sin against me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you."The fact that a covenant of removal seems like a relief is probably relative only to the covenants of genocide which eventually follow, as it becomes clear that the indigenous peoples will not be "drive[n] out" but in fact will be slaughtered.

Another point which bares some reflection is the curious claim that the indigenous gods will "ensnare" the Israelites. By "gods" we may or may not mean actual entities here - earlier God speaks of the gods as idols which may be smashed rather than other gods like himself - but, particularly if that's true, what's going to make these other gods so tempting? God has demonstrated to the Israelites some pretty fucking incredible powers - so much so, indeed, that even the Egyptian magicians were convinced of his divine authority. What are these local gods going to do that's going to so impress the Israelites that they forget about the exodus? Is God planning on taking an extended vacation during which he expects the fickle Israelites to begin doubting his existence?