Monday, March 24, 2008

Who is Less Reliable -- the Priest, the Congregation, or God?: Exodus 31:12 - 33

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

In these two chapters, the Israelites rebel, make a "golden calf" idol for no apparent reason other than that they're bored, and the priesthood (except for Moses) basically goes along with it, which is a pretty cynical indictment of the Jewish clergy if you ask me. The conservative authors of Exodus managed to regain control at the next editorial meeting, however, and the general theme is not the faithlessness of Aaron (though this is apparent) but the power of Moses. Moses plays a sort of divine lion tamer. God is wild, angry, vengeful. It is Moses who goes up to meet God, he who challenges God, he who defends the people from God and ultimately channels God's powers for Israel's benefit. Way to go, Moses!

The faithlessness of the Israelites, in many ways, beggars belief. Moses has been up on the mountain for quite some time now, and in the camp people are getting restless. They go to Aaron, whom - we must remember - is Moses's close kin and not just that but is high priest of God in his own right. He may not realize all the riches that are in his store for him and his sons, but he's been with Moses since the beginning of the Egyptian insurgency and he's seen the power of God on every occasion Moses has.

The mass of the Israelites, an apparently unanimous and indistinguishable multitude of spiritually weak and greedy morons, decides they want a new god, and go to Aaron to ask him for one. Aaron, good priest that he is, agrees to make a god - one out of all the women's gold jewelry. It's interesting that women's jewelery is the source of this new god; is this a criticism of jewelry, of women, or both? In any event the Israelites get all their gold together, gold which God intends to be used in his own Tent of Meeting, and Aaron makes "an idol cast in the shape of a calf." Then he proclaims that "these are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt." The next day, he proclaims a festival, at which the people "sit down to eat and drink and get up to indulge in revelry." I'm not sure which is more inexplicable - the people's decision to make a new god, or Aaron's ready acquiescence to this project. It's a strange moment in Exodus - on the one hand we again see the general contempt for the faithless masses that we saw before, but on the other hand, this is an extraordinarily brutal and subversive criticism of the priesthood, as well.

Later, when an irate Moses demands an explanation for the festivities from Aaron, the high priest is unable to offer anything even approaching a real justification. He simply blames "these people," who are "prone to evil." Aaron mystifies the origins of the golden calf idol he has made, telling Moses that he "threw" all the jewelry into a fire "and out came this calf!" Uh huh. Sure, Aaron.

In the meantime, God has seen the rebellion and apparently gets quite upset - indeed, were he human, we might say he has flown off the handle. He tells Moses to go back down to the people, who he calls "stiff-necked," and leave him alone. Then he says that he is so angry with the Israelites he's going to "destroy them." Once the carnage is complete, God promises, he will "make [Moses] into a great nation." That's an interesting promise; it's essentially one that he's given before, in Genesis, but now he's going to wipe the slate and start over again, sort of like he did in the flood.

Unlike Aaron, Moses plays the role of a proper priest and mediates for his people before God. If God slaughters them now, he points out astutely, the Egyptians will conclude that God wanted to punish the Israelites, not to liberate them. Theefore God should "turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people." He even implies that any murder by God here would be breaking God's promise to Abraham, Isaac and Israel. Strangely, the Bible says that "the Lord relented." A pity Noah didn't speak as eloquently or courageously as Moses does; we might have been saved a lot of trouble in Genesis. Is God joking when he declares his destructive intentions to Moses? Is he testing them? Is his will to destroy the Israelites really thwarted by a single human prophet? Is God so emotionally volatile that sometimes he needs to be talked down by his human children? It certainly gives some added credibility to the Jewish priesthood - "You must let us continue to mediate between you and God, because remember, we saved your lives from his righteous anger on previous occasions, and if we hadn't, you'd be dead now."

Whatever happened, God gives Moses two stone tablets with the Ten Commandments written on them. Moses climbs down to meet up with Joshua, who, being a soldier, thinks that the sounds coming up from the camp indicate there is fighting going on. It isn't, Moses assures him, but when they arrive at the scene of the revelry, now it is Moses's turn to "burn with" righteous anger. He throws the tablets at the people, and they smash to pieces. Then he takes the calf idol, grinds it into powder, scatters the powder into some water, and makes the people drink it. Water miracles have been quite important so far in the Exodus story, but usually the Israelites aren't suffering because of them - if anything it's the Egyptians who usually suffer. Aaron whines that the people asked him for a new god, so he gave them one; in Moses's eyes, according to my Bible, this proved that "Aaron had let them get out of control." So the people are a mob of rambunctious children, basically.

You'd think Moses had gained control of the people, if he'd managed to make them drink that tainted water and before that had even busted up their new god. But he clearly hasn't, because after all that has happened, he calls "whoever is for the Lord" to assemble with him at one end of the camp. Only the Levite tribe comes - all of them, apparently. Moses commands them to arm themselves with swords and then "go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor." The Levites kill three thousand people on Moses's command.

This is a very curious result. Moses has not prescribed any limits on the massacre which is to take place, yet clearly there are some. In the census records in Numbers 1, each tribe numbers approximately forty to sixty thousand men strong. (The Levites aren't counted in the census, but we may safely assume they are of comparable size.) Clearly the vast majority of the Levites did not kill their "brother and friend and neighbor." And if they did do so, this introduces more problems - wouldn't this mean Levites were killing other Levites? It is a very strange circumstance. Once the killing is done, Moses gets his tribe back together again (because he is a Levite himself, don't forget) and thanks them for their work: "You have been set apart for the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day." Jesus said relative to our love for God we ought to hate our kin. The Levites took it one step further and killed their kin, it would appear - though again this raises the question of how, if "all the Levites" rallied to Moses at the beginning of this raid, many Levites had to be killed for their faithlessness during the same raid.

The sin of the golden calf is evidently so severe that God is no longer willing to talk to the Israelites, according to chapter 33 - an odd conclusion given that he wasn't willing to appear to them before either, but still, it reaffirms the general theme of a priesthood-led society that has emerged in Exodus. Moses returns to God after his Levite killing spree and begs that God forgive their sin. Initially God agrees, but then he equivocates and suggests that "the time for me to punish" them has not yet come; and when it does, "I will punish them for their sin." In the meantime, the killing of the 3000 is a useful sacrifice for staving off God's righteous rage. Instead of killing them all, Moses bargains God down to "strik[ing] the people with a plague." Way to go, God!

Once the people are suitably disease-ridden, God speaks to Moses again. He intends to keep his promise to give the freed slaves a new "land flowing with milk and honey," but he isn't going to accompany them anymore, "beacuse you are a stiff-necked people." Their rebelliousness is so great, God implies, that he won't be able to control himself in their presence: "I might destroy you on the way... If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you." He sounds almost grumpy here, keeping his word because he's promised it to so many generations of Hebrews but no longer as happy about it as he was when he brought the Israelites out of Egypt via the Red Sea. The peace and tranquility of God's new utopia has been broken and he doesn't like it.

In contrast to the faithless Israelite children, Moses seems to grow considerably in his walk with God (I've been waiting to use that cliche). He erects a provisional "tent of meeting" outside the camp so that he can talk with God at a safe distance from the Israelites. God descends in the form of a "cloud pillar" to talk with Moses "as a man speaks with his friend." Only Joshua is permitted anywhere near these cloistered visits. By the middle of Exodus 33, he exercises considerable influence with God: he asks that God "teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you," which he justifies on the grounds that he leads the Israelites who are "your people," and God agrees to give him "My Presence." My Bible actually capitalizes the word Presence, which is stupid, because ancient Hebrew doesn't have capital letters, which means the editors of the NIV just thought there was some mystical importance to the word. No doubt someone somewhere thinks this is a codeword for the Holy Spirit.

Once God promises Moses his "Presence," Moses successfully bargains with God to return that Presence to the Israelite community generally. His reasoning is, once again, sound but quite manipulative: "How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unles you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?" God ponders that and agrees readily. Once again Moses has changed God's mind.

Then Moses goes what appears to be a step too far: "Now show me your glory." That this is phrased as a bald imperative is interesting. God agrees anyways, though, saying he will "cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion." But there are limits even to Moses's power: God will do this only if Moses does not look upon his face, "for no one may see me and live." This is kind of strange given that before the two of them were suppoesd to have been meeting face to face, "as a mean speaks with his friend." I guess God is two-faced, and it's the second one we're worried about here. At any rate, Moses stands on a bluff while God flies past him, and lets Moses only see his back. Basically God agrees to moon Moses.

Exodus 31-33 cements the new priesthood-led power structure of the Israelite tribe. The people have proven that they cannot be trusted - that, given the opportunity, they will promptly make new gods. Even some of the priests can't really be trusted, but the Levites redeem themselves by killing some of the rabble-rousers. Aaron gets to keep his status as high priest, and Moses, who along with Joshua was apparently the only leader to remain faithful throughout, becomes Israel's sole remaining link to God (at least until Aaron's priestly garments are ready for action). God has become a dangerously wrathful force and the priesthood's authority is justified not only on the grounds that they serve God for the people, but that they serve the people by protecting them from God's wrath.