Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Final Reflections on Exodus: Rise of the New Priesthood

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

Over the course of Genesis, as intra-family politics got more and more violent and the patrimonial system clearly collapsed, God withdrew from first-hand direct interactions with characters - as well as with the reader - to become a silent, mysterious figure pulling the strings from the shadows, leaving Joseph as his dubious and opportunistic spokesman. Essentially, God abandons the family of Israel to a trap of its own making - the newly authoritarian state of Egypt.

After abandoning his people to slavery while he cooks up plans for the future, God returns in Exodus to institute a new social order, this one based on what presumably is supposed to be a stabler and more effective hierarchy, one based upon the supremacy of a divinely appointed priesthood over the rest of society. The chief of the new order - Moses - functions as spiritual, political and military leader of Israel all rolled into one, though by the end of the book, God is clearly attempting to shift the locus of power from Moses as individual to his Levite family as a lasting institution. Rather than Moses himself, God selects Aaron to be the patriarch of the new priesthood. This seems to be a strange choice, but Moses, unlike the Genesis patriarchs, is notably weak on the subject of family himself: his (and Aaron's) father is notably anonymous, he is raised by an Egyptian woman, and his own sons are nearly absent from the narrative.

Even the priesthood seems to be fairly unreliable - given Aaron's foolish experiment with the golden calf - but next to the elders of Israel and particularly to Moses, the masses of unnamed Israelites are dangerously faithless. No miracle seems awesome enough to hold their attention for more than a few days. Even God is a dubious figure at times - he slaughters Egyptians in order to "glorify" his name, loses his temper and nearly annihilates the Israelites only a little while after he frees them, then picks Aaron's family as his high priests, apparently forever. Though God once again speaks directly to the reader in Exodus, as he didn't in the closing chapters of Genesis, it's significant that he really only speaks to Moses and Aaron, and spends a sizeable chunk of the book unwilling to reveal himself fully to the undependable Israelites.

Despite this, I think Exodus is supposed to be an optimistic story. God liberates his people from slavery and leads them to a promised land. He even does their fighting for them; we haven't yet descended into the gritty genocides of the following books. God and Moses kill thousands of people in punishment for the debacle at Mt. Sinai, but afterwards, all appears to be more or less forgiven: God's cloud returns to guide the Israelites, Moses institutes laws which provide at least a few protections for the disadvantaged, and a portable temple is prepared. Though they had wandered astray days before, the people seem glad to participate in building this temple, as it is built through a surplus of donated supplies and volunteer labour. God even gives the Israelites a magic light every night.