January 31, 2007

Breadcrumb: By their own free will

In yesterday's essay, I talked about the expensive materials that were to go into the tabernacle. Where did these materials come from? In Ex. 25:2-7, God tells Moses to ask the people for an offering, that each person should "giveth it willingly with his heart." (KJV) Somehow, I suspect that in the desert, at the base of Mount Sinai, the willing offering might have been slightly less willing and slightly more forced. After all, when a vengeful god is staring down at you, in spitting distance from your camp, you should probably play nice.

January 30, 2007

Exodus 25-27: The Bible's first interior decorator

Today's reading is Exodus 25-27 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers detailed instructions for the construction of the tabernacle: the ark of the covenant, its lid ("mercy seat" in KJV), the table, the menorah (lampstand or candlestick), the tabernacle itself (including its curtains and framework), the altar, and the courtyard.

Get together an architect, an interior designer, and an engineer. Tell them to design God's dwelling place on Earth, in as much detail as possible. The result might read something like Ex. 25-27. Even a quick glance through these chapters will reveal its incredible level of detail. Everything about the tabernacle is covered in extensive, perhaps even tedious, description: the materials to be used, their dimensions, even the decoration scheme (almond buds and flowers for the menorah, cherubim for the curtains and mercy seat).

The first question that arises from this passage, therefore, is why? When so many stories from Genesis are less than a single chapter, why is so much space devoted to what amounts to an ancient IKEA instruction manual? The answer to that question lies, perhaps, in the word "instruction." Many of the stories earlier in the Bible were, indeed, used as a form of moral instruction. But these chapters are literal, physical instructions for the Israelites to follow. They need to be as complete as possible, so that the Hebrews can be sure they are following them correctly. In fact, several times in today's passage it appears God showed blueprints and plans to Moses while he was on Mount Sinai, just in case the written directions were not clear enough. (Ex. 25:9, 25:40, 26:30, 27:8)

But, in the manner of inquisitive toddlers everywhere, the question might still be asked, "why did they have to make it so perfect?" The answer is likely because of its sanctity. This was no ordinary temple: this was the literal dwelling-place of God, where God would descend to commune with the Hebrews. (Ex. 25:22) If you're inviting your god down to Earth, to live among his people, you had best ensure that his home is as perfect as you can make it. If God has a particular home in mind, you'd best be sure you build it exactly as he would like it. This is the reason the instructions were so detailed that even today it is possible to recreate with a high degree of accuracy what the tabernacle may have looked like.

So let us examine a few features of the tabernacle and its components.

One of the first things we notice in the description, after its level of detail, is the high quality of material to be used in the construction. All the materials used in the tabernacle were precious. There was an abundance of gold, silver, bronze, and brass. The menorah alone was beaten out of a single piece of gold weighing approximately 75 pounds. (Ex. 25:39) The table, ark, and carrying poles were all gilded with gold, and most of the utensils and instruments were made of it. The altar, a 7 1/2 foot square, 4 1/2 feet high, was gilded with brass. (Ex. 27:1-2) The interior of the tabernacle must have gleamed with all the precious metals.

The curtains were also of the highest quality: generally linen dyed in expensive colours (blue, purple, and scarlet). Most of the curtains and hangings were also embroidered, some with cherubim. (Ex. 26:1, 26:31, 26:36) There were also goat-hair curtains. And, if you don't think this sounds high-quality, remember that cashmere and mohair (angora) are both made from goat-hair.

Between the metals, fabric, and workmanship that went into the tabernacle, it would truly have been worthy of the supreme deity.

Another notable feature of the tabernacle is its portable nature. Far from being a permanent dwelling-place, the tabernacle was designed to be moved from place to place. Most of it was designed in sections: the framework and tapestries were all designed to be dismantled in pieces and reassembled elsewhere. The altar, table, and ark were all designed to be carried on poles set in rings on the sides of each. True, the chore of taking down and putting up the tabernacle would have been an undertaking (the curtains were tied with 50 clasps each, for example), but it was doable.

It should be apparent why the tabernacle was designed to be moved from place to place: the Hebrews were nomadic for forty years in the desert before settling in Canaan. They were constantly on the march, and a permanent temple would have been of little use to them. Especially if it were filled with all the precious materials listed above, a permanent temple would have been easy prey for thieves. As it is, the Israelites could travel with their god in the midst of their camp.

The value of portability goes deeper, however. The ark of the covenant, the most precious possession of the Israelites, was kept in a constant state of readiness: its poles were never to be removed from the rings set in its side. (Ex. 25:15) It could be picked up and carried away at a moment's notice. Later Jewish history is an exercise in expulsions and forced marches. Even the exodus from Egypt took place quickly, over the course of a single night. If the Israelites were forced to flee, they could at least take the ark with them: it was always ready.

We see, then, that God's blueprints served both a theological and a practical purpose. It was detailed and expensive, to suit its supernatural inhabitant. But it was also portable, so that the Israelites might take their god with them on their journeying. Spiritual and practical all in one package: perhaps some modern interior designers might want to take notes.

January 29, 2007

Breadcrumb: Don't be a sheep

Ex. 23:2, in discussing the prohibition against making false reports or accusations, reads as follows in the NIV: "Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd." In other words, the defence used by children everywhere, "but everyone's doing it," would not work in God's courts. We can almost imagine the judge replying, as so many mothers to their children, "But if everyone jumped off a bridge, would you do that too?"

The answer, of course, is "no." Unfortunately, most people can't resist going along with a crowd, then or now.

January 28, 2007

Breadcrumb: Bestiality

Ex. 22:19 reads as follows in the KJV: "Whosoever lieth with a beast shall surely be put to death." It is a general truth that in most law codes, the reason prohibition exists is because someone was doing something the rulers didn't like, and the rulers decided to legislate against it. Which leads us to the question, "how rampant was bestiality in ancient Israelite culture?" This is a question, alas, which I am woefully unprepared to answer. But it does make you think about this, and certain other, laws in the Old Testament in a new light.

January 27, 2007

Exodus 22-24: Why are we doing this again?

Today's reading is Exodus 22-24 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers various laws of the Hebrews, including those about property, social responsibility, justice and mercy, the sabbath, and the three annual festivals. It also covers the confirmation of the covenant and Moses' ascent to Mount Sinai.

First, I would like to apologize to my devoted readers for the delay in the release of this essay. Partly this was due to my life becoming somewhat more hectic than normal, and partly it was due to there being very little of interest in today's passage. I sat down a number of times to write this essay, only to be thwarted each time by sheer boredom. Hopefully I will be able to produce something of marginally more interest than the text itself.

People today sometimes think that modern societies have a monopoly on social justice. After all, we have orphanages, hospitals, and schools, all of which (at least in Canada) are nominally free to the users. Contrarily, we think back to the Middle Ages and remember the horrid ways old women were treated, and imagine that we are far more humane than previous societies.

It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that the ancient Israelites had fairly firm laws in place to protect the underprivileged: widows, orphans, the poor, and strangers.

The text commands the Israelites not to take advantage of widows or orphans. (Ex. 22:22-24 NIV; KJV: "afflict") Similarly, it commands them not to deny justice to poor people. (Ex. 23:6) To our modern sensibilities, these laws are good ones: they prevent stronger people from taking advantage of the weaker.

However, in addition to these groups, strangers are also singled out. Ex. 22:21 and 23:9 both tell the Israelites not to "vex" or "oppress" a stranger. (KJV; "mistreat" or "oppress" in NIV) Why are strangers a privileged group, alongside the truly misfortunate widows and orphans? In today's anonymous society, everyone is a stranger. However, in ancient societies, strangers were immediately suspect. People did not travel as much as they do today, and communities were closer-knit. A stranger had no one to vouch for him, no social network to support him, and no friends in his new community. People could deceive or cheat him at will. He was, therefore, in quite a vulnerable position.

Perhaps more important than the fact that the lower tier of society was protected is why they were protected. There are two distinct reasons, depending on which group we are discussing.

The first reason for obedience is in relation to widows and orphans. Ex. 22:22-24 in the NIV reads as follows: "(22) Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. (23) If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. (24) My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless." In essence, these verses use fear of force. "Do not do this," says God, "or I will kill you, and your family will be put in the same position."

Some people might argue that this is quintessential Old Testament reasoning. Mere chapters before, in Ex. 15, the Israelites praised God as a war god, crushing their enemies before them. No matter how benevolent God could be to people following his commandments, he could be extremely forceful against those who didn't. The Hebrews knew God's power, and so the sort of reasoning presented here would have been a powerful incentive to follow the commandments. On the other hand, as many rulers throughout history have learned, fear on its own is rarely effective as a long-term governing strategy.

The other reason to obey these rules applies to strangers. Ex. 22:21 reads as follows in the NIV: "Do not mistreat an alien ("stranger" in KJV) or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt." Ex. 23:9 reads: "Do not oppress an alien ("stranger" in KJV); you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt."

Here, unlike with widows and orphans, God appeals to the Hebrews' sense of empathy and compassion. "You were in the same situation," he says. "You know how it feels to be mistreated as strangers. Don't be like the people who oppressed you." The Israelites, mere months in the desert, could remember all too well the torment they faced under their Egyptian taskmasters. Most Hebrews never had the experience of being a widow or an orphan, but they did have the experience of being strangers (or "aliens") in a land where they were unwanted. Thus God was able to draw upon the more powerful force of compassion, as opposed to fear, to govern the Israelites' behaviour towards strangers.

Where, then, does this leave us? As of Moses' ascent on Mount Sinai, the Hebrews were commanded not to mistreat widows, orphans, the poor, and strangers. Later chapters will give us much more detailed instructions for how to treat them, but the framework is here that will be built upon later. When possible, God relies on compassion and shared experience to govern the Hebrews' behaviour. Where that is not possible, he relies on the age-old maxim of rulers everywhere, "do what I say or I'll kill you." I, for one, would find that reason compelling... at least until I found a bigger sword.

January 15, 2007

Breadcrumb: The nitty-gritty

The ten commandments have their place. They are the fundamental principles upon which the rest of the laws rest. However, no nation is ruled by only ten laws. Ex. 21 begins the long recitation of the Israelite laws, dealing with matters both large and petty. Ex. 21 discusses keeping servants (verses 2-11), murder (12-14), theft (16), assault (18-27), and injuries caused by oxen (28-36), as well as a few other scattered laws. In each case, the laws are specific and detailed. These laws are a far cry from the generalities of the ten commandments.

January 14, 2007

Breadcrumb: Two-way street

Though many people might think that God arbitrarily chose the Hebrews as his chosen people, there is in fact a reciprocal arrangement between them. In Ex. 19:3-8, God asks the Israelites whether they will obey him and keep his covenant. Should they agree, God will make them his chosen people, "a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation." Moses puts the question to the elders, the elders put the question to the people, and the people agree. It is this agreement that makes God's punishment for their later disobedience so harsh.

January 13, 2007

Exodus 19-21: The Ten Commandments

Today's reading is Exodus 19-21 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the Israelites' agreement to be God's chosen people; God's descent onto Mount Sinai; the Ten Commandments; and laws governing servants, murder, theft, and injuries.

Today's passage contains one of the best-known extended portions of Biblical text, namely the ten commandments. (Ex. 20:2-17) The law codes of many Christian nations stem from these commandments. And, though most Christian nations are no longer theocracies, there are still advocates in the United States who wish to put these commandments on public buildings. It thus behoves us to take a few moments to examine the text of these commandments and examine their implications.

The first thing that is apparent from the text is that some of the commandments, especially those in the first five, are much longer than a single sentence. The later commandments are mostly quite short: "Thou shalt not kill" (Ex. 20:13); "Thou shalt not commit adultery" (Ex. 20:14); "Thou shalt not steal" (Ex. 20:15); "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour." (Ex. 20:16) All of these commandments are straightforward and easily understood. Most adults understand the meaning of "steal," "kill," etc. They require little supplemental explanation. Even the last commandment, though slightly longer, is fairly straightforward: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, though shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's." (Ex. 20:17) This last commandment simply has the feel of closing any loopholes a clever Israelite might try to come up with to circumvent the law. "Not coveting" is, again, fairly straightforward.

The first commandments, however, are less intuitive, and thus longer and more detailed. Let us take them in order.

The first commandment, depending on the religious tradition you subscribe to, is alternately Ex. 20 verse 2 (Jewish), verses 2-3 (Protestant), or verses 2-6 (Catholic and Lutheran). For the sake of argument, let us use the Protestant divisions. According to the KJV, the first commandment reads, "(2) I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. (3) Thou shalt have no other gods before me."

This passage reminds us that the Israelites, though themselves monotheistic, were surrounded by polytheistic cultures. The Egyptians and most of the tribes of the area had many gods, collected into pantheons. So God first needs to establish which God he is: a god who is recognized by deeds, not by name. The Israelites at this point are only three months out of Egypt (Ex. 19:1), so they certainly remember the miracles they witnessed in the recent past. Moreover, once God has established who he is, he emphasizes that he is the chief god. It is interesting to read in verse three, "no other gods before me." God does not end the sentence with "no other gods," but goes on with the final two words. It is conceivable that the Israelites could worship other gods, so long as they remembered that God is the primary one. However, in later years, this commandment has been interpreted to mean that the Israelites must be monotheistic, with no other gods at all. This is partly explained by the second commandment.

The second commandment, according to Protestantism, is Ex. 20:4-6: "(4) Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (5) Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; (6) And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments." (KJV)

Let us leave aside the obvious conflict between punishing children for their father's sins while giving mercy to people who obey the commandments (what if the father hated God but the children loved him?). This commandment furthers the first, explaining the ways in which the Israelites must avoid worshipping other gods: no idol-worship for this people! Instead, they must not do as other, idol-worshiping people. To this day, Jews do not have any images in their synagogues.

The third commandment is shorter, expressed in Ex. 20:7: "Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain." Straightforward, isn't it? Don't use the name of God, whatever it is, lightly. If you're going to worship a single deity as your ultimate God, the least you could do is show him the proper respect. This commandment led to many of the Shakespearean insults, however, such as "'swounds" (God's wounds, forrunner of our modern "zounds!"), "'sblood" (God's blood), "'sliver" (God's liver), and so on. And, of course, many people today routinely take the name of God in vain, at least in western, modernized countries.

The fourth commandment is again quite long, Ex. 20:8-11: "(8) Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. (9) Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: (10) But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: (11) For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it."

I suspect that at the time God gave these commandments to the Hebrews, the idea of a day of rest was foreign to the Middle Eastern world. Who ever heard of a day when not only the head of the household, but also the servants rested? What manner of foolishness was this? Isn't the purpose of servants to have someone to work while you, their owner, rested? No, not according to the fourth commandment. This commandment is so long because it deliberately must explain to the Hebrews that no one in the household may work, not even the servants. It also gives a justification for itself: if God could create the world in six days and rest on the seventh, surely you can as well.

Finally, the fifth commandment, in Ex. 20:12, is: "Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee." Again, straightforward and short. There are further instructions in later chapters for how to treat parents; for example, Ex. 21:15 says that anyone who strikes their parent must be executed, and Ex. 21:17 explains that anyone who even curses their parents must be likewise executed. These laws might seem a little overboard. However, in this part of the ten commandments, the intention behind the law is easily understood.

Having examined all these commandments, there are certain people today who claim that we, as a modern society, could maintain a well-ordered community with only the latter five commandments (Ex. 20:13-17) which deal with man-to-man relationships, and ignore the first five (Ex. 20:2-12), which mostly deal with the relationship between man and God. Given that we are no longer living in a theocracy but a secular, multinational community, this argument makes a lot of sense. Personally, I would have no problem with the latter five commandments being placed on public buildings: they are admirable guidelines for human interactions. The first five, on the other hand, should be a matter of private religious observance.

Reference: the division of the commandments for various religious traditions was taken from a surprisingly informative wikipedia article.

January 11, 2007

Breadcrumb: The right to bear arms

In Ex. 17:8-16, the Israelites fight a battle against Amalek. Moses appoints Joshua as his war commander while he himself goes up on a hill and raises his arms. So long as Moses held his hands aloft, the battle went well. When he lowered them, the Israelites lost ground. Moses kept his hands up all day, and Aaron and Hur (another elder of Israel) held them up when he got tired. Meanwhile, down below, Joshua's army fought all day and conquered Amalek. In the end, guess who got the credit for the victory. (Hint: it's not Joshua.)

January 10, 2007

Breadcrumb: More than manna

Pop quiz: what did the Israelites eat while travelling in the desert for 40 years? If you said "manna," you're only half-correct. God did indeed send manna: small, round, white wafers tasting of honey. (Ex. 16:14, 31) But he also sent quails every day in the evening. (Ex. 16:13) Quails are small birds, and one quail is about the right size for a single serving for one adult; this is portion control in action! The only question remaining is: how did they cook them?

January 09, 2007

Exodus 16-18: No way to rule a country

Today's reading is Exodus 16-18 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the introduction of manna; another "water from a stone" incident; the battle against Amalek in which Moses keeps his hands raised to ensure victory; and a visit from Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, in which he establishes the system of judges.

In Ex. 18, Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, leaves Midian to pay a visit to the encamped Hebrews. With him, he brings the rest of Moses' family. The text has not mentioned Moses' wife Zipporah or his sons after the incident in Ex. 4:24-26, in which God nearly kills Moses before Zipporah circumcises their son. However, it is clear that at some point, Moses must have sent her back to her father, because now she and her two sons accompany Jethro to visit Moses. (Ex. 18:2-5)

Jethro's connection to Moses allows him the royal treatment in the Israelite camp. Moses greets him and gives Jethro a complete account of everything that has happened since he left Midian. (Ex. 18:7) Jethro is glad for the accomplishments of both Moses and his God. He sacrifices to God in the company of Aaron and the other elders of Israel, and dines with them. (Ex. 18:10-13) Obviously, this sort of reception is reserved for the most distinguished visitors. Not everyone who comes stumbling into the Israelite camp would be allowed to counsel its leader and eat with its chiefs. But Jethro is allowed to do so.

Furthermore, Jethro watches his son-in-law at work, judging the people. Jethro himself is a priest and presumably and leader of the community in Midian. (Ex. 3:1) Thus, he likely had some experience dealing with the sorts of things Moses was dealing with, albeit on a smaller scale.

The first thing Jethro realizes, when he sees Moses at work, is that his son-in-law will quickly burn out. (Ex. 18:18) Moses works all day, judging every case that the people bring before him. Remember that there are six hundred thousand men in the Israelite camp. Imagine attempting to single-handedly handle every dispute in the city of Boston, and you have some idea of the workload Moses was facing.

When Jethro asks Moses why he alone handles all this work, Moses replies, "Because the people come unto me to enquire of God: when they have a matter, they come unto me; and I judge between one and another, and I do make them know the statues of God, and his laws." (Ex. 18:15-16) In other words, Moses knows God's laws, and so he is the only man qualified to settle these disputes.

Jethro, hearing this answer, gives some very practical advice. He tells Moses to teach the people God's commands and then to appoint capable men to act as judges. The judges will preside over the small matters, and Moses will deal with the difficult ones. (Ex. 18:19-23)

Jethro advises Moses to set up these judges, or rulers, in levels: "rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens." (Ex. 18:21, KJV; "officials over..." in NIV) There are, therefore, several levels of administrative hierarchy, each dealing with more men and more complex cases. This is essentially the judicial system we have now in practically all western industrialized countries in the world. There are several levels of judges, each of whom deal with progressively more difficult cases, until the highest court which deals with the most controversial and most difficult ones. The system seems to work well for us, and it seems to have worked well for the ancient Israelites.

Let us examine for a moment what type of men Jethro recommends to be judges. Jethro says they must be "able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness." (Ex. 18:21, KJV; "capable men... who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain" in NIV) We have here four qualities that Jethro, and presumably Moses, consider essential in rulers of men. First, they must be capable or able. This seems to be self-evident: if the rulers were incompetent, they would never succeed at their tasks. Furthermore, the people would likely not trust them to handle important decisions for them, and the system would fall apart.

The third quality, trustworthiness or truthfulness, is also important. If you are establishing men to rule the people, they should be men the people trust and have reason to trust. Similarly with the fourth quality: you want your judges to be incorruptible. If people believed they could bribe the rulers to judge in their favour, then money, not truth or justice, would become the law of the land. Whether the judges actually were bribed or not is less important than whether they could be bribed under the right circumstances. Corruptible judges would undermine the entire system.

I have saved speaking about the second quality, fearing God, for last. The other three qualities should be self-evidently desirable to anyone reading the text. Obviously we want our judges to be truthful, honest, and capable. But God-fearing? In context, this characteristic makes a great deal of sense: God was a real, present force for the ancient Israelites. He brought down plagues on the Egyptians, parted the Red Sea, and rained manna from the sky. God was the ultimate judge, and any subservient judges would need to acknowledge this fact. Given the context, it is perfectly reasonable that judges be God-fearing.

But what about today? Should today's judges be God-fearing? I would argue that judges should follow some sort of moral guideline, whether this is the Judeo-Christian writings or the Kantian categorical imperative. A judge who has no outside moral compass is liable to be corrupted by the power he (or she) wields, undermining the system. We no longer live in a theocratic society, and there is no reason our judges need to follow the laws of a particular religion. They should, on the other hand, be moral, upright men who believe in something, whether this "something" is supernatural or mundane.

In the end, though, we need judges. A single ruler over a whole population is not only a potential dictator, but probably headed for burn-out.

January 08, 2007

Breadcrumb: The heart of the matter

Ex. 15:26 is an integral verse to the Old Testament, perhaps the key passage to understanding everything that comes later. In the KJV it reads, "If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, and wilt do that which is right in his sight, and wilt give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statues, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am the LORD that healeth thee."

Looking at the later history of the Jews, it is clear God keeps his word. When the Hebrews follow the commandments, they live well. As soon as they break them, God punishes them swiftly and severely. At least they can't say they weren't warned.

January 07, 2007

Breadcrumb: Taking what's his

After the passage about the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn, God commands the Hebrews that once they enter Canaan, they must consecrate every firstborn, both human and animal, to him. (Ex. 13:2, 13:11-16) While the details of what this means will be clarified later, God already makes provisions against abuse of this situation. He says that every human first-born must be redeemed by their parents. (Ex. 13:13) This is, I suppose, God's way of ensuring that the Hebrews couldn't leave their unwanted firstborn on the doorstep of the Temple.

January 06, 2007

Exodus 13-15: Going Old Testament

Today's reading is Exodus 13-15 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the sanctification of the firstborn; the Exodus from Egypt; the parting (and re-closing) of the Red Sea; a song of praise to the Lord by the Hebrews; and the first of their wanderings.

It has been remarked by better scholars than I that the God of the Old Testament often acts differently than the God of the New Testament. We have seen instances of God's anger before, even instances where God has killed thousands or millions of people. I point your attention, for example, to the great flood (Gen. 6-8), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19), and of course the 10 plagues on the Egyptians (Ex. 7-11). In today's readings we see another such instance: God kills all the Egyptians who pursued the Hebrews into the Red Sea.

We read that Pharaoh brought six hundred of his best chariots, all the other chariots in Egypt, and officers for all of them. (Ex. 14:7) Remember that he was trying to catch a host of six hundred thousand men, plus their women, children, and belongings. His pursuing army would undoubtedly have been quite large as well. Further, they would have been far better armed than the Hebrews, who until recently had been enslaved.

Sure enough, they do catch the Hebrews in good time. But they are not allowed to slaughter them. God, in the form of a pillar of cloud and fire, places himself between the Israelite camp and the Egyptian one, so that the Egyptians could not approach their target. (Ex. 14:19-20) Meanwhile, Moses raised his staff and God parted the sea, allowing the Israelites to cross on dry land. (Ex. 14:21-22)

The Egyptians, seeing what had happened, pursue them. But God was never one for half-measures. When the Egyptians are within the now-dry seabed, God casts their army into confusion, breaks the chariot wheels from their chariots, and routs the Egyptians. (Ex. 14:23-25) The Egyptians, fully seeing the power of God, attempt to flee. But at this very moment, God commands Moses to re-close the waters and drown them. The Egyptians cannot flee fast enough, given their broken chariots. Moses does as he is commanded, and every single Egyptian who pursued the Israelites dies. (Ex. 14:26-28)

This is clearly not the action of a God who says, "turn the other cheek." (Matt. 5; Lk. 6) This is a God who is full-set on vengeance, retribution, and war. Indeed, as the story progresses, the Hebrews must face and fight a number of nations who had settled in Canaan during the intervening 400 years. The God they follow is a war god, enabling them to conquer their enemies and emerge victorious.

The Hebrews are clearly aware of the nature of their God. In Ex. 15, they sing a song of praise to God for the feat he had just accomplished. (Ex. 15:1-18) This song contains phrases such as:
(3) The LORD is a warrior;
the LORD is his name.
(4) Pharaoh's chariots and his army
he has hurled into the sea.
The best of Pharaoh's officers
are drowned in the Red Sea.
(5) The deep waters have covered them;
they sank to the depths like a stone.
(6) Your right hand, O LORD,
was majestic in power.
Your right hand, O LORD,
shattered the enemy. (Ex. 15:3-6; NIV)

The Hebrews here are clearly exalting the God who slaughtered their enemies. Furthermore, they are confident that God will continue to slay their enemies:
(14) The nations will hear and tremble;
anguish will grip the people of Philistia. (KJV: Palestina)
(15) The chiefs of Edom will be terrified;
the leaders of Moab will be seized with trembling,
the people of Canaan will melt away;
(16) terror and dread will fall upon them.
By the power of your arm
they will be as still as a stone--
until your people pass by, O LORD,
until the people you bought pass by. (Ex. 15:14-16, NIV)

This is a reference to the future wars that are imminent. The Hebrews know that there are other nations living in the land of their forefathers. If they want to reclaim those lands, they will need to do so by force. They are confident that their God will lead them in victory against them, just as he did against the Egyptians.

We should note that it is not just the men who sing these war songs. The women, led by Miriam, Moses' sister, dance and sing accompanied by tambourines. (Ex. 15:20-21; "timbrels" in the KJV) The women, as well as the men, rejoice in the slaughter of the Egyptians.

All this behaviour seems a far cry from Jesus, who issued such lessons as "whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." (Matt. 5:39, KJV; Lk. 6:29) Jesus spoke of forgiveness, the Old Testament God about vengeance. The differences are blatant.

I do not mean, by this discussion, to claim that one portrayal of God is better than the other. I do not even mean to say that they are separate gods. If you believe in the Christian cosmology, God is the same in both the Old Testament and the New. I do say, however, that he is portrayed differently in the two narratives. This might have been deliberate: God may merely have revealed himself in a way appropriate to the time. When the Jews were underdogs in Egypt, God was a liberator. When they charged into battle to reclaim Canaan, he was a war god. When they settled in that land, he was a judge and a law-giver. When, much later, they were in a Roman culture favourable to mystery cults, he emerged in a persona appropriate to that. There is no inherent contradiction here. Being monotheistic, the Hebrew and Christian God needed to encompass the functions of many separate polytheistic gods in a pagan pantheon.

All I'm saying is that the differences in behaviour are explicit and striking.

January 05, 2007

Breadcrumb: Head count!

Ex. 12:37 informs us that there were 600,000 men in the Exodus, not counting women and children. To put that in perspective, that's larger than the population of Boston or Washington, D.C., in 2000. (source: demographia) For the Canadians in the audience, that's about the size of Quebec City or Winnipeg. (source: World Gazetteer) Imagine the entire population of one of those cities packing up and moving, all in the course of a single day. Imagine the planning that would be involved in such a venture -- and the ancient Israelites didn't own cell phones! And that's just the men, not even their families! Even assuming there is some exaggeration involved in the 600,000 statistic, the mind boggles.

January 04, 2007

Breadcrumb: Afraid of the dark?

As the ten plagues progress, they get increasingly severe. The initial plagues (blood and frogs) are nuisances, but not outright threats. However, the later plagues, such as those of cattle, locusts, and the slaying of the firstborn, are particularly severe. Why, then, is the ninth plague, the second-to-last and thus second-most severe, three days of darkness? (Ex. 10:21-27)

I say this: imagine trying to do any of your normal tasks in complete darkness, without even starlight or candlelight to guide you. Imagine trying to work the field with sharp objects, slaughter animals, or even care for children. It's theoretically possible, but the darkness must have been so intense that many Egyptians probably never moved from their homes for the full three days. The effects of such paralysis must have been truly severe.

January 03, 2007

Exodus 10-12: The Passover

Today's reading is Exodus 7-9 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the final three plagues (locusts, darkness, and the slaying of the firstborn) and God's commandments for the Passover.

Today's readings contain some of the first explicit commandments for today's Jews. Even though the Israelites are not, at the time of this passage, Jews, they nonetheless are given specific commandments for how to act in future generations. Specifically, God gives very precise commands for how the Israelites should prepare to ensure God does not slay their firstborn, and he also instructs them about how to remember the event annually in future years. This remembrance is known today as Passover.

It should come as no surprise that God wants the Exodus to be remembered. As I mentioned in the last essay, one of the reasons God brings about the plagues in the first place is to show his power and ensure he is remembered by the Israelites and the Egyptians. Today's passage repeats the theme: Ex. 10:1-2 reads as follows in the KJV, "(1) And the LORD said unto Moses, Go in unto Pharaoh: for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might shew these my signs before him: (2) And that thou mayest tell in the ears of thy son, and of thy son's son, what things I have wrought in Egypt, and my signs which I have done among them; that ye may know how that I am the LORD."

Given this focus on posterity, it is also unsurprising that God does not leave the remembrance to chance. Instead, he gives very specific instructions for how the Israelites should celebrate every year. The details are somewhat technical, taking up most of chapter 12, so I would like to focus on one or two commandments and show how they apply, even today.

First and most importantly, God commands, "And this day shall be unto you for a memorial; and ye shall keep it a feast to the LORD throughout your generations; ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever." (Ex. 12:14, KJV) This is absolutely clear: the Israelites must keep this celebration forever. It is nonetheless still remarkable that even three thousand years later, Jews are celebrating Passover. Though individual traditions vary by culture and household, the fundamentals remain strikingly similar to the original commands. Most importantly, Jews do not eat leavened food (bread, cakes, or anything else that rises) during the seven days of Passover. (Ex. 12:19)

Also notable about the Passover is who is invited to partake. The restrictions, found in Ex. 12:43-49, describe the original Passover (ie: the sacrificial animal whose blood would be put on the doors to avoid the plague) and not the subsequent annual celebrations, but they are worth describing regardless. God explicitly says that no foreigners are allowed to partake of it (Ex. 12:43) except for those whose whole family has been circumcised (Ex. 12:48). Bought, circumcised slaves may eat it (Ex. 12:44), but not hired workers or temporary residents (Ex. 12:45). In other words, those who are permanently part of the Israelite community may celebrate the Passover, but those who are only temporarily associated may not.

These two features of the Passover, taken together, form a powerful bond: a community. With the latter feature, God chooses who will be in the Israelite community. With the former, he ensures that they continue as a community down through the generations. God establishes his community and maintains it. It is important to note that all this happens before God cements his relationship with this community through the covenant on Mount Sinai. The Passover celebration is a necessary forerunner of the Sinai covenant. Here, God chooses who will be in his community. At Mount Sinai, he makes the connection formal.

Of course, in today's increasingly-assimilated climate, non-Jews do attend some seders (the Passover feast held each year). In part, this is merely a fact of life in a culture where about half of all Jews intermarry. If your spouse is a non-Jew, he or she will likely attend the seder anyway. Furthermore, there are many non-Jews curious about Jewish customs. Some Jews today hold "model seders" where non-Jews are invited and encouraged to attend. Many people have absolutely no problem with this, myself included.

Nonetheless, there are some issues about including non-Jews in the seder. The Mail.Jewish mailing list notes a few complications that can arise when religious, practising Jews invite non-Jews to the celebration. Beyond that, there can be an inherent clash when inviting non-Jews to what is, essentially, a celebration of Jewish community. The message of the seder is "we were enslaved in Egypt, and God rescued us from bondage." This message resonates strongly with many of my Jewish friends, and very little with my non-Jewish ones.

It would be remiss of me to neglect the most famous seder, or Passover celebration, of all time. I speak, of course, about the Last Supper. The Gospel of Matthew is explicit that the Last Supper was, in fact, a Passover meal. (Matt. 26:17-20) Jesus along with all his disciples were, of course, Jewish. However, Jesus transformed the celebration of a traditional Jewish feast when he established the Host of bread and wine. (Matt. 26:26-28) From that point forward, the unleavened bread used at the Passover feast was no longer a symbol of the unleavened bread eaten by the Israelites as they left Egypt. It was instead a symbol of the Christ, hence the etymology of Eucharist. Within a short period of time, historically speaking, Christians replaced the Passover tradition with that of the Eucharist, establishing a new community separate from the Jewish one.

All this talk of community ultimately stems from Ex. 12. Both Christian and Jewish communities are fundamentally shaped by this episode, whether modern practitioners acknowledge it or not. It is amazing that two- or three-thousand years after the fact, these communities continue to practice a ritual in much the same form as it existed when it was established.

January 02, 2007

Breadcrumb: Allies in the enemy camp

Pop quiz: did the Egyptians believe in the Israelite God? Apparently, at least some of them believed in his power. By the time of the seventh plague, hail, God gives the Egyptians one day's warning to take in their cattle from the field so they won't die. While some Egyptians scoff and leave their cattle outside, others feared God and brought their cattle in, where they could live. (Ex. 9:19-21) It seems that some people learned their lesson the first six times and decided to allow the Israelite God onto their list of deities not to mess with.

January 01, 2007

Breadcrumb: The age game

If you had to guess, how old would you say Moses was when he spoke to Pharaoh at the beginning of the plagues? Remember, he had a wife and child already. The text tells us that Moses was, in fact, eighty (80) years old, and his brother Aaron was 83. (Ex. 7:7) In fact, we learn in the previous chapter that Aaron had not only sons, but at least one grandson (Ex. 6:25). Remember: this is before the forty years of wandering in the desert. Talk about an active retirement!