Friday, March 21, 2008

God Hides from the People: Exodus 19-20

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

After Moses's father-in-law left in Exodus 18, Moses and the people reached Mount Sinai. Moses climbs the mountain to talk to God. Why are so many encounters with the divine taking place on mountains, deserts, or caves? Is it just that people on long, isolated vision quests frequently hallucinate? Does God have trouble talking down to people at sea level and prefer them to be higher? God promises to make Israel a "holy nation" if they keep his commandments, and because the Israelites are in an agreeable mood that day rather than their usual rebellious one, they agree. After a few days of preparation, during which the Israelites wash tehir clothes, abstain from sex, and apparently turn the mountain into a sacred no-go area, God returns and apparently turns Mt. Sinai into a volcano. He "descends" to the summit and calls Moses up to meet with him again. The Bible does not record what vehicle God used to make this "descent," but upon landing, he probably looked something like this:

What follows is an intriguing development. God tells Moses to back down and double-check that no one is going to try to "force their way" up the mountain in order to "see the Lord" - because if they do, they will die. Moses gently reminds God that the Israelites have already been commanded not to come up, but God insists he go down and bring Aaron back. The idea that simply seeing God will kill you is a peculiar one. It can't be because all humans are irredeemably sinful - after all, Moses is okay, and apparently so is Aaron. It is only the low and little ones who cannot see God. The senior members of the religious priesthood may see him in his glory, and no one else. God is cloistered for your own protection. Why does he do this? In Genesis, we saw repeated attempts to construct a patrimonial family-based social order, which ultimately failed in one catastrophe after another. Now we have a different hierarchical social order being created, one based on the supremacy of a segregated and privileged priesthood.

It is not mentioned in the text whether God expects this social order to work any better than the previous one, but there's good reason to wonder why it would - essentially it's reproducing on a grand scale the same principle of specially-blessed father and silent but troublesome women-and-children-and-servants.

After giving Moses the Ten Commandments, which I'll mention in a separate post, God sends Moses back down the mountain. The people are said to "tremble with fear" at God's impressive volcanic performance. They beg Moses to be their intermediary with God: "speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die." The people thus accept the new rule of the priesthood: they have willingly surrendered, if in terror, whatever privilege they might have had to speak to God directly. Moses tells them to buck up, since God is going to "come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning." This is an interesting moment, too. Does God want the Israelites to obey out of fear? I must shove this verse under the carpet before some fiery evangelical preacher finds it.