Monday, March 24, 2008

God's Custom-Made Religion: Exodus 25-31:11

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

God spends a mind-numbing six chapters of Exodus describing in precise detail to Moses everything he will need to know to conduct religious rituals: the appropriate places, the appropriate props, and the appropriate participants. I see very little reason to go through it piece by piece. At one point, God tries his hand at being an interior decorator, showing Moses some samples of the lampstands he has in mind. Later he moves on to fashion design for the priests. Even the type of underwear they should wear during rituals is important to God - if they get the details wrong, they will "incur guilt and die." After giving his instructions, God even goes so far as to select specific craftsmen who will oversee each aspect of the construction phase. If you like long, lengthy instruction manuals, I highly recommend reading Exodus 25-31.

The God of Exodus is clearly very concerned about not just his own holy places but about the dignity and honour of his high priests. Great attention is given not just to God's props but to high priest Aaron's "sacred garments." First, he gets what's called an "ephod." We might as well translate this as "asdphi" - because neither word means anything! No one seems to know what an "ephod" is, so we just transliterate the word and leave it in place. It's clearly some sort of special garment the priest will wear, and that's all we get.

What's interesting about the priest's clothing is the strange symbolic power attached to them - something that my Protestant background has particular trouble with. The breastpiece, for example, is worn for "making decisions." Whenever Aaron wears the breastpiece, he must carry with it a device called "the Urim and the Thummim." Once again, no one knows what "the Urim and the Thummim" acutally were, but given the context, it seems apparent they're some sort of method of divination. Usually today Christians would denounce this as black witchcraft, but I guess the Old Testament laws do permit some forms of the study of omens after all.

The ordination of priesthoods is a wet and dirty affair. After their fancy clothing is prepared, God instructs bulls brought to the altar. Bulls and rams are burned for God, then sheep's blood is poured on the heads of Aaron and his priests. After the head, they get blood poured onto their hands, and then onto their feet (specifically, "the big toe"). Some of the meat is specifically spared from the burning; God orders it "waved" before him and then given to the priests for food. Then and only then do we get to the issue of anointing oil; unsurprisingly, perhaps, the anointing oil still carries some queer significance in certain Christian groups, including charismatic ones, even though the blood-splashing is universally rejected. Some modern-day money-changers are actually willing to "sell" you some of the Exodus anointing oil - here, for example - which is quite stupid because Exodus 30 clearly states that the oil is a "sacred formula" and if it is used by people who aren't Jewish priests, those people must be "cut off" from the congregation. Whoops.

It is interesting how much space and effort the writers of Exodus give to details of an area that most Israelites will never be permitted to see, and to clothing only a handful of people will ever wear. On the one hand, it's a sign of honour to God - the creation of a privileged and decorative meeting place for those occasions on which he descends to speak to the priest or the prophet. On the other hand, I can't help wondering why these deserve so much detail when we skirted through one brief story after another in Genesis and the first half of Exodus. I noted in a previous post that the new covenant was based on the supremacy of the priest caste. God appears to be cementing and legitimizing this supremacy further by privileging them with such a rich set of commandments. After all, right now the nation of Israel is essentially a group of nomadic refugees, according to the narrative. The rich cloth and precious metals needed for the new project are therefore, we may presume, a considerable expense for the Jewish people.

In order to offset the costs of the new "Tent of Meeting," God proposes the first census, and the first flat tax, based upon that census. Each Israelite male over twenty is to pay a "ransom" fee to the priests so that they may be free of sickness. God very specifically insists that rich and poor must pay the same fee: "the rich are not to give more... and the poor are not to give less." This appears to be a one-time tax which will be "a memorial for the Israelites before the Lord," as well as paying for "the service of the Tent of Meeting." God doesn't explain why everyone must pay the same fee, or what will happen to any among the Israelites who weren't able to take money with them from Egypt, or have blown it all on cheap trinkets and souvenirs in the meantime. I guess they're screwed. For those who can afford to pay, a bonding and rite-of-passage ritual is prescribed: everyone will line up on one side of a line, then walk up to pay the priests, and then "cross over" to those who have paid.

As I recall, the census is a weird instrument in the Bible. I think someone gets punished severely for one later on. I'll consider it in more detail if it's not a false memory of some sort and it eventually comes up again, but in the meantime it's worth noting that Exodus 30 appears to suggest that sickness could result from participating in the census without paying the fee. Is a census sinful? What kind of sickness does a census cause? Is this mere superstition? Why would the people need to pay to atone for participating in a ceremony which God has orderd them to participate in? Seems like a convenient method of legitimizing fund-raising by the priesthood, to me, but here God seems perfectly on side with the proceedings. He may even be the one contributing the sicknesses.

Women will be pleased to know that under the Exodus laws they don't need redemption. I'm reaching a bit on this one but the Bible doesn't bother to specify that women participate as well, and given the context it appears only to be men who are involved in the ceremony. Whether this is because women can't be redeemed anyways, they're not worth counting, or their lives just aren't worth half a shekel (the prescribed price for each man to pay), I'm not sure.