February 28, 2007

Breadcrumb: So much fat, so little time

Lev. 7:22-25 instructs the Israelites that they must not eat the fat of any cattle, sheep, or goat. Furthermore, if the animal was offered as a sacrifice and someone ate its fat, that person would be excommunicated. However, the text also states that the fat of an animal which died of natural causes or by other beasts could be used for "any other purpose" (NIV, "any other use" KJV). What other uses could there be? Soap, for one. Candles, for another. Between those two uses, the Israelites would be doing something nice for their homes while also maintaining a decent diet. Good for them.

February 27, 2007

Breadcrumb: Break that pot!

According to Lev. 6:28, if a sin offering was cooked in an earthenware pot, the pot needed to be broken after the sacrifice was made. Furthermore, if it was cooked in a bronze or bass pot, the pot needed to be scoured and rinsed with water. In this situation, at least, modern society is not the first to have a disposable-products culture. Why did the Israelites need to dispose (or at least thoroughly clean) the pots used to cook the sin offerings? Yet again, we may never know.

February 26, 2007

Leviticus 5-7: Free food!

Today's reading is Leviticus 5-7 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the continuation of the sin offering; the gulit offering; regulations for burnt offerings, grain offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings, and fellowship offerings; prohibitions against eating fat and blood; and regulations for which parts of the offerings belong to the priests.

While Lev. 1-4 dealt with many specifics in the procedure for sacrifices, much of Lev. 5-7 involves who gets to keep which part of the sacrificed animal or grain. At least as many verses are devoted to who retains the sacrificed property as are devoted to how to sacrifice it properly.

Let us have a brief survey of the requirements, then:

Grain Offerings (Lev. 6:14-18): Aaron and his sons eat everything but a handful, which is burnt as an offering. All the males of the children of Aaron eat it. Exception (Lev. 6:19-23): the grain offering provided by a priest when he is anointed must be burned entirely and not eaten.

Sin Offerings (Lev. 6:24-30): The offering priest eats it in the court of the tabernacle. Any male among the priests may also eat it. Exception (Lev. 6:30): sin offerings whose blood is brought to make atonement must be burnt entirely and not eaten.

Guilt Offerings (Lev. 7:1-10): Any male among the priests may eat it in a holy place. The offering priest also keeps the hide and any grain brought for a guilt offering.

Fellowship Offerings (Lev. 7:11-21): It belongs to the priest, but must be eaten within three days of the sacrifice. Lev. 7:28-38: The priest's share of fellowship offerings are the breast and the right shoulder (KJV) or thigh (NIV).

The first thing we notice from this list is that the priests eat very well. When you take into account the sheer number of people bringing sacrifices to the Temple -- there were 600,000 men in the Israelite camp, plus their families, if we believe the text -- there must have been sacrifices on an hourly basis. The priests received practically all the grains brought for sacrifice, as well as the sin offerings, guilt offerings, and portions of the fellowship offerings. Furthermore, the animals and grains offered as sacrifices were necessarily the best the Israelites could provide. God obviously would not want anything sub-par, while the farmer kept his best goods to himself. Instead, the best animals, the best fruits, and the best grains were offered as sacrifices, and consequently eaten by the priests. And they were able to have all this excellent food without the need for farming or animal husbandry.

Of course, the flip-side to this situation is that the priests couldn't farm or tend animals. Once the Israelites reached Canaan, the Levites were not given any land, because they were the priests of the people. The sacrifices were the only way the priests were able to eat. They couldn't simply go out into the farm and plant a few rows of wheat; they needed to rely on the sacrifices brought to them by the rest of the Israelites.

This situation is not as unusual as it might appear. Throughout the Middle Ages, Christian priests were paid out of the benefices and tithes offered by their congregation. This may even be true today. When the congregation gives offerings (in the form of money) to God, it is tacitly understood that they are also supporting the local man of God, the priest.

The priests did more than oversee the sacrifices, of course. They provided mediation, counselling, judgement, and other important functions for a large community. If they could be fed by activities pleasing to God, sacrifices, then so much the better.

One question that arises from these chapters, however, is what did the wives and female children of the priests eat? Unlike Catholic priests, Jewish priests were allowed to marry and have children. Otherwise, the text would not state "Aaron and his sons," referring to future generations of priests. In Catholicism, priests were ordained regardless of their parents. Contrarily, in Judaism, priesthood was and is hereditary. Today if you meet a person whose last name is "Cohen," it is likely that he descents from the line of priests.

If, however, priests married and had children, their wives would need to eat something. However, the text states regularly that only men of the priests' families could eat the sacrificial offerings. They Levites, as I mentioned, did not have land to farm or animals to tend. This would leave the women of the Levites in an unfortunate situation of having no food. I do not remember future chapters well enough to recall whether there are provisions for them later in the text or whether, like so many other issues relating to women, this is merely a point that is passed over in silence. If anything comes up, I shall be certain to note it. For the time being, however, we don't know.

In the end, therefore, we are left with a favourable situation for the priests, at least the male ones. They don't need to do the manual labour associated with the other tribes, and yet they are able to eat very well. And if they needed to clean the ashes out of the burnt offerings altar (Lev. 7:8-13) and wash their blood-splattered clothes (Lev. 6:27), then these were simply ancillary chores associated with getting free food. I can only imagine it was better than back-breaking labour all year.

February 25, 2007

Breadcrumb: Barbecue me a heifer!

In the case of many of the animal sacrifices, it was the one bringing the offering who killed it, after which the priest brought it to the altar and burnt it. (Lev. 1:5, 1:11, 3:2, 3:8, etc.) It seems clear why the latter should be the case: the altar was holy ground and off-limits to the common people. However, why should the common person kill the animal? Perhaps it was for cleanliness issues: the priest may not have wanted to get dirty. It might also be to ensure the donor didn't get cold feet and leave at the last minute. Or maybe it was just a way to get out aggression without negative consequences. We may never know.

February 24, 2007

Breadcrumb: Tasty!

When the Israelites made grain offerings, they were supposed to bring grains with salt, oil, and frankincense. (Lev. 2:1) Alternately, they could bring baked or fried unleavened cakes or wafers with oil. (Lev. 2:4-8) They also needed to be seasoned with salt. (Lev. 2:13) In other words, sacrifices of tasty pita, roti, or matza appeared to be on the menu for the Hebrew priests. I can almost smell it from here... yum!

February 23, 2007

Leviticus 1-4: Better it than me

Today's reading is Leviticus 1-4 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers procedures for burnt offerings, grain offerings, fellowship offerings, and sin offerings when either the priest, nation, ruler, or common man sins unintentionally.

Both today's readings and those for the next essay deal almost exclusively with types of sacrifice, especially animal sacrifice. I will discuss the specific procedure for the sacrifices in the next essay, but in this one I would like to discuss the concept of animal sacrifice more generally.

Animal sacrifice was a common feature of ancient religions that has fallen almost entirely out of favour in modern ones. Nearly every ancient European religion had some requirement to sacrifice animals for their god or gods. Sumerians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans all practised animal sacrifice. The Celts and Norse did as well.

On the other hand, almost no modern religion practises animal sacrifice. There are a few exceptions, such as the hybrid religion Santeria and a few re-creation groups attempting to revive the ancient ways. However, these are a distinct minority in the modern world. Even the Jews have not offered animal sacrifices for nearly two thousand years, since the destruction of the second Temple.

Before that, however, Judaism was a typical ancient religion in its attitudes towards animal sacrifice. Indeed, as early as Gen. 4, we have an example of animal sacrifice in the Cain and Abel story. Noah sacrifices animals after the abatement of the flood in Gen. 8, and nearly all his descendants, the progenitors of the Jewish and Christian lines, offer sacrifices to God at some point. By the time we reach Leviticus, the Israelites have a permanent place to offer their sacrifices, namely the burnt offerings altar set before the tabernacle. And, of course, Leviticus devotes its first seven chapters to the methods of sacrifice.

Why were sacrifices so important? There were sacrifices for every occasion, some of which are developed later in Exodus and others explained in today's passage. It might behove us, therefore, to look at one example, and see how it compares to today's usage. I am referring to the sin offering.

The sin offering must be made when "anyone sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD's commands." (Lev. 4:2, NIV) The text goes on to point out four specific categories of people who might sin: the anointed priest (Lev. 4:3-12), the congregation as a whole (Lev. 4:13-21), the ruler (Lev. 4:22-26), or a common person (Lev. 4:27-35). The text, it seems, covers all eventualities.

It is important to note that these are unintentional sins, or, as the KJV describes, "sin[s] through ignorance." (Lev. 4:2) The sin offering is not used when someone has ill will and deliberately decides to sin. It is not used, for example, if I decided to go rob someone and then did so. A closer analogy would be if I accidentally took someone else's bag instead of my own and afterwards couldn't find them to return it. Or, as a more common example, it might refer to accidentally swearing against God or accidentally eating something forbidden. The sin offering occurs when the sinner acknowledges that he or she has sinned and wishes to make amends.

Given the severity of the penalties listed in Exodus, it seems certain that providing an offering would be a more lenient penalty than the one normally prescribed for the equivalent sin. (Ex. 21-23) It would certainly be better to provide an offering than to be killed or excommunicated for a crime, penalties often assigned. This is especially true if the sinner was the anointed priest or the ruler of the people. The sin offering ensures that they remain under the common law and do not receive special treatment.

But why require sacrifices at all? Even if providing a sacrifice is more lenient than killing the unwitting criminal, it is still cruel to animals, isn't it? It still seems barbaric and futile, doesn't it?

The short answer is "no." In the ancient world, people were far more attuned to the natural world than modern people living in cities. Almost every ancient person would have been experienced with killing animals for food: if they wanted to eat meat, they needed to kill it themselves. So the idea of killing animals, in general, would not have seemed particularly cruel. Furthermore, the sacrificed animals provided a useful service: food for the priests. The burnt portions of the animals, often the blood, fat, and certain organs, were considered spiritually unclean for eating regardless. The rest of the animals would often be consumed by the priests.

Note the use of "often" in the previous sentence. This is because, in the case of sin offerings, the animal actually was not eaten by the priests. Instead, it was burned outside the camp. (Lev. 4:12, 4:21) This is because the sin offering provides one extra service not usually adopted by the normal burnt offerings: it takes the place of the sinner. Before it is burnt, the unintentional sinner places his hand upon the beast's head, symbolically having the beast accept the burden of sin instead of the man. When the beast is sacrificed, the man is absolved.

Whereas today we offer community service and other lightened penalties to criminals with mitigating circumstances, such as ignorance of the law, in the ancient world they offered sacrifices. The two, at least in this case, serve the same purpose. And while it might seem barbaric by modern standards, animal sacrifice was a fact of life among the ancient peoples of the near east. At least it's better than ancient Latin America, where human sacrifice appears to be common as well. Bring out the animals!

February 18, 2007

Final Reflections on Exodus

We have, at long last, come to the end of the second book of the Bible. Once more, I would like to thank my devoted readers for continuing with me along this journey. I especially like to receive comments about my essays and Breadcrumbs: it reminds me that people are still reading. (That was a subtle hint, by the way, in case you missed it.)

So, having come 1/12 of the way along our journey through the Bible, it is time once more to pause and see what sort of overall messages we can retrieve from the book of Exodus before proceeding onwards to Leviticus.

One of the most striking features about Exodus is its sense of pacing. I mentioned in my first essay on this book (here) that the initial chapters of Exodus flashed by at breakneck speed. Moses' entire childhood took place in a single book (Ex. 2). All the circumstances leading up to the plagues were through by Ex. 6. The plagues themselves, all ten of them, occurred in the span of a few chapters (Ex. 7-11). Even the Exodus itself, the namesake of this book, took place in a chapter and a half (Ex. 13-14).

However, at this point the narrative slows down to a crawl. Ex 16-19 talk about various instances that took place within the camp, such as a description of the manna and quail the Israelites ate and their system of judges. Ex. 20-23 are a long list of laws, including but not limited to the ten commandments. By Ex. 25, the narrative has nearly stopped, detailing in fifteen long chapters the instructions for and construction of the tabernacle and priestly garments. This long recitation is only interrupted a few times: most notably in Ex. 32 for the story of the golden calf and Ex. 34 for the "other" ten commandments.

The question we must ask at this point is, "so what?" Why does it matter that the action-adverture portion of the narrative takes place in less than half of the book, while the second half reads like a glorified IKEA manual? What does this tell us about the redactors of the text and their values?

For one thing, the rapid action suggests an oral tradition that accompanied the text. Like much of Genesis, there are many more stories related to the text than actually in the Bible. Many of these stories have been passed down by oral tradition and companion, commentary texts. Jewish tradition states that Moses received not only the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch) but also the Talmud, an oral tradition to accompany it. Many of the morals we draw from the Genesis and early Exodus stories come from these other works.

However, there is a profound difference between the stories in Genesis and early Exodus and the laws and instructions in the second half of the latter. The stories about the Israelite patriarchs and Moses are, in large part, written for moral edification. They are stories that tell us how we should act, think, and believe. The ten plagues on the Egyptians remind us of God's power and the importance of obeying him, for example. A Jew (or, theoretically, a Christian) coming away from reading these passages should learn not only part of his cultural mythology and history but also how the passage is relevant to his own life and actions.

The latter half of Exodus, however, is not filled with morality tales. Rather, it contains laws and instructions. For the most part, the instructions are specific rather than general (see, for example, Ex. 21-23). This is because, while general laws are well and good for orienting people's attitudes, there will always be disputes. Furthermore, there will always be infractions. If we are told not to steal, what happens if we do? What happens if it was unintentional? The laws in Exodus attempt to deal with these eventualities, perhaps stemming from actual precedents.

The fifteen long chapters detailing the tabernacle and priestly garments are likewise specific, and even further away from general moral teachings. Instead, these were intended as instruction manuals. As I have mentioned several times over the course of the Breadcrumbs for Exodus, the Israelites were a nomadic people, at least initially. It is possible that the tabernacle might have been destroyed, along with its implements. Should this happen, the Israelites would have a record of how to reconstruct them. The text is specific and repeats itself so that there can be no doubt about what God wanted. If part of the text were accidentally destroyed, there is a chance that another section with the same information would survive. So, while it is tedious to read for modern, 21st century readers, it makes a great deal of sense to include so much detail.

The text therefore contains two very different sets of pacing to accommodate two very different purposes. When the purpose is moral edification, short and engaging passages suffice. Storytellers can fill in the blanks with their own knowledge, so long as the core moral teaching remains intact. When the purpose is construction and reconstruction of actual objects, however, the text needs to be precise, detailed, and (unfortunately for modern readers) long.

And, also unfortunately, the action doesn't pick up for another book and a half. Tomorrow we begin our journey through Leviticus, known to crush the spirit of even the greatest Biblical scholars. Shall we overcome? Return tomorrow and find out.

February 16, 2007

Breadcrumb: How long?

In Ex. 40:17, we read that Moses set up the tabernacle in the first day of the first month of the second year. In other words, the Israelite had been out of Egypt exactly one year by the end of Exodus. As a reminder, Ex. 19:1 informs us that the Israelites entered the desert of Sinai on the third month after the Exodus. By quick calculation, this means that they had camped beneath Mount Sinai approximately nine months. Note that it is only in Num. 10 that the Israelites leave Sinai -- in the twentieth day of the second month of the second year (a month and a half later).

February 15, 2007

Breadcrumb: Help from my friends

I mentioned in a previous breadcrumb that most of the description of Bezaleel's construction of the tabernacle was in third-person singular ("he made..."). Most of the description of the priestly garments is the same, except for the breastplate. Here, the text uses the plural, "they made..." Why here, and nowhere else? Perhaps Bezaleel was only a mediocre gem-cutter and required help. Perhaps his arms were getting tired. Or perhaps everyone else was just getting tired of Bezaleel stealing all the credit.

February 14, 2007

Exodus 39-40: So, what now?

Today's reading is Exodus 39-40 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the construction of the priestly garments; Moses' blessing of everything that had been made; God's instructions for how to set up the tabernacle and consecrate Aaron and his sons; Moses' setting-up of the tabernacle; and the descent of God's glory over the tabernacle.

By the time he or she reaches the end of Ex. 39, I'm sure every reader is thoroughly sick of the tabernacle, its implements, and the priestly garments. We have had so much detail, so many times, that it is nearly possible to recite from memory what furniture was in the tabernacle, what it was made of, and where it should be placed.

So when we arrive at Ex. 40, the last chapter of Exodus, we are all eagerly awaiting something monumental: a miracle of epic proportions, perhaps, to get the narrative ball rolling again. Unfortunately, we do not think like the Biblical redactors.

The first thing we read in Ex. 40 (verses 1-16) is a lengthy series of instructions from God to Moses about how to set up the tabernacle and everything in it. He tells Moses in what order they should be set up, where in the tabernacle the various pieces of furniture should go, and so on. Though we have already heard extensively about the placement in previous chapters, that is apparently no barrier to repeating it again, one last time, to make sure we've got it right. We also hear how Moses should consecrate Aaron and his sons. We've heard this before as well, and in greater detail, in Ex. 29. Consider this a "Cliff's Notes" version of the consecration ceremony instructions.

And then, once this series of instructions is delivered, we read in verses 17-33 how Moses sets it all up. In other words, the text proceeds, in even greater detail, to repeat everything that was in the first half of the chapter. By this point, the whole discussion is beginning to get tedious.

It is only in the last five verses of the chapter that we have any sort of payoff: God, in the form of a cloud, descends over the tent of congregation (the tabernacle). In fact, that descent only takes one verse. The final four verses (Ex. 40:35-38) talk about how Moses can't enter the tabernacle due to God's glory being within in; how the Israelites only travelled when God rose up out of the tabernacle; and how God appeared as a cloud during the day and fire during the night.

In the end, therefore, we receive a one-verse culmination of fifteen chapters of instructions and work. Obviously the authors and redactors had no sense of narrative pacing, because this is the time to bring out the big literary bangs and wow the audience, who has been patiently waiting for something to happen for most of the book of Exodus. The last thing you want, at a time like this, is for your readers to look blankly at each other and ask, "is that it?"

Of course, God's descent into the tabernacle is important. It marks the true beginning of Israel as God's the chosen race. God is among them at last. He is better than an idol or a statuesque representation: he's the real thing, in the flesh (as it were). The importance of this single verse should not be underestimated. Likely the Israelites were feasting and celebrating to mark the occasion. If we have learned nothing else over the course of Exodus, we have learned that the only thing the Israelites liked more than complaining was feasting. But there's no indication of any festivals in the text.

Yet again, the text seems to be silent where we would like it to give description, and gives far too much description where we would all rather it were silent. It is, indeed, a shame that there were no skilled fiction writers among the Israelites, or at least that none of them stepped forward to write this particular section of Exodus. But, for better or for worse, the text is as it is. The best we can do is look at our neighbours, shake our heads, and say, "yup, that's it."

February 13, 2007

Breadcrumb: Which way's north?

The description of the tabernacle and courtyard use specific directions. Instead of saying that a wall was for the long or short side of the tabernacle, it notes that it was for the southern, northern, western, or eastern side. (Ex. 36:23-30; Ex. 38:9-15) Given that the tabernacle was meant to be transported with the Israelites as they travelled, it seems odd that sides should be designated by cardinal direction. On the other hand, we have established that God was a stickler for details, and this was probably just another instructions the Israelites needed to comply with.

February 12, 2007

Breadcrumb: Who did it?

In Ex. 36:1-2, we read that Bezaleel, Aholiab, and every skilled person came together to build the tabernacle and its furniture. However, in the description of the construction, the text uses the singular, "he made..." Furthermore, in Ex. 38:22-23, the text only mentions Bezaleel, assisted by Aholiab, as craftsmen, completely neglecting to mention anyone else. Though it seems far too much work for one or even two people, more impressive miracles had happened in the Israelite camp to discount the possibility that they were the sole craftsmen.

February 11, 2007

Exodus 36-38: Have we been here before?

Today's reading is Exodus 36-38 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the offerings given by the Israelites for the tabernacle; the building of the tabernacle, ark, table, lampstand, incense altar, burnt offerings altar, and courtyard; and the materials used in the aforementioned construction.

My more astute readers, in reviewing the previous list, may be wondering why it looks so familiar. I point them to Ex. 25-27, where God lays out the plans for all these constructions. Indeed, reading through today's chapters is almost like re-reading Ex. 25-27, except instead of God commanding "thou shalt make..." these verses read "he made..." It was, in fact, extremely difficult to come up with a topic for today's essay without rehashing a previous discussion.

So let us turn to the few new pieces of information in today's reading: Ex. 36:1-7, in which the Israelites bring their offerings for the tabernacle, and Ex. 38:21-31, which totals the amounts of material used in its construction.

In the readings for the previous essay (Ex. 35:4-29), we read that the Israelite community brought many gifts for the tabernacle: gold jewellery, dyed linen, goat hair, skins, silver, bronze, acacia wood, precious stones, olive oil, spices... everything that was needed to build the tabernacle, its furniture, and its various accessories. Today, in Ex. 36:1-7, we read that they brought so much that it was actually more than required for the construction.

Other statesmen, in a position when too many people were giving too many gifts, would be tempted to take advantage of the situation. There are innumerable examples in history of extra taxes being put to new uses unrelated to their original purpose. However, Moses does not do this. Instead, he issues a commandment to the people to stop bringing gifts, and the people obey. Perhaps God's instructions were so detailed, it would have made little difference whether there were extra materials: the workmen knew exactly how much they needed. Any surplus could only have been used for personal gain by Moses or the other elders, and Moses rightly wanted to distance himself from such an accusation, especially after the recent debacle with the golden calf.

What materials, then, did the people bring for the construction of the tabernacle. A list is given in Ex. 38:21-31. In brief, it is:

  • 29 talents, 730 shekels of gold (just over 1 metric ton)
  • 100 talents, 1775 shekels of silver (3.4 metric tons)
  • 70 talents, 2400 shekels of brass (2.4 metric tons)

No small amount! To put this in perspective, the lampstand alone was one talent of gold -- about 75 pounds (34 kg). Furthermore, the Israelites would need to carry the tabernacle with them, albeit in a broken-down form, when they travelled. In other words, they were carrying seven metric tons of equipment with them on their journeys. Assuming the average horse can carry approximately 90 kg (200 pounds) -- a number, I hasten to add, that I found by only cursory research -- the Israelites would need at least 75 horses to carry the equipment for the tabernacle.

On the other hand, while this is an impressive amount of gold, silver, and brass, it in fact works out to very little per person. Ex. 38:26 tells us that each man in the community, after the census had been taken, gave a half-shekel of silver, or 5.5 grams (1/5 oz). The text tells us that there were 603,550 men in the Israelite camp, so some quick multiplication actually yields the 3.4 metric tons of silver.

Five and a half grams of silver is, in fact, very little. According to my jewellery box and kitchen scale, it is about the weight of two thin bracelets or one pair of light hoop earrings. For a more standard measure, the American quarter is 5.670 g, or almost exactly the same weight given by each Hebrew man to the construction of the tabernacle. For the Canadians in the audience, a nickel (3.95 g if minted after 2000) and dime (1.75 g after 2000) combine to form approximately the same weight. So, while it may seem unfair that the Israelites were asked to contribute so much to the tabernacle -- 7 metric tons of precious metals -- it in fact worked out to very little per person.

The moral of this episode, I believe, is the power of numbers. The amount of material in the tabernacle was certainly impressive. However, it seems likely that no one was too inconvenienced by their portion of it. This is especially true given that most of the Israelites had taken jewellery and precious metals from their Egyptian neighbours before the exodus. (Ex. 12:35-36) I wonder how the Egyptians would have felt to know that their jewellery was being used to build a home for the Hebrew God. Perhaps they would have considered it a small price to pay to be rid of the plague-bearing Israelites.

February 10, 2007

Breadcrumb: Equality of gift-giving

In Ex. 35:21-29, we read that the Israelites brought many gifts for the tabernacle and all its furniture. The text is quick to point out, however, that both men and women brought gifts (Ex. 35:22) We read that every skilled woman, specifically, brought spun linen and goat's hair. (Ex. 35:25-26) The leaders of the community, furthermore, brought precious stones, spices, and oil. Though there are many ways in which the Jewish community segregates men and women, at least when it comes to giving to God, everyone is apparently equal in the sight of the Lord.

February 09, 2007

Breadcrumb: Did Moses wear a Burka?

In Ex. 34:29-35, we read that once Moses came down from Mount Sinai, his face shone. Because of this somewhat unnatural phenomenon, Moses would wear a veil over his face when he spoke with the Israelites, only taking it off when he entered the tabernacle to speak with God. Could Jews have invented the Burka? Probably not, but at least we learn that veils are neither exclusively Muslim, nor exclusively for females. In fact, according to this passage, Moses wore a veil because he was so holy no one could bear to look at his face. It might be an attitude worth thinking about.

February 08, 2007

Exodus 33-35: The other ten commandments

Today's reading is Exodus 33-35 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers several encounters between Moses and God, including Moses' viewing of God's back; the text of the second two tablets; and the offerings the Hebrews gave for the tabernacle.

So, you think you know the ten commandments? If you don't, feel free to review what I wrote already or even the text itself: Ex. 20 (link to NIV). Reacquainted with the text of the two tablets? That's too bad, because you're wrong.

Instead, the text of the second set of tablets is set out in Ex. 34:12-26. There are, in fact, ten commandments, but I'll bet that you've never heard this set. Here's the list, paraphrased into my own words:

  1. Do not make treaties with the people in the land you are going, lest you worship their gods. (Ex. 34:12-16)
  2. Do not make cast idols (Ex. 34:13)
  3. Keep the feast of unleavened bread (ie: Passover; Ex. 34:18)
  4. The first offspring of every womb belongs to God, both animals and men. Redeem all your sons. (Ex. 34:19-20)
  5. Do not work on the seventh day. (ie: the sabbath; Ex. 34:21)
  6. Celebrate the feast of weeks (ie: Shavouot; Ex. 34:22)
  7. Celebrate the feast of ingathering. (ie: Sukkot; Ex. 34:22) -- Between the feast of unleavened bread, the feast of weeks, and the feast of ingathering, all men must appear before the lord three times per year. (Ex. 34:23-24)
  8. Do not offer blood sacrifices with yeast, and do not let the Passover sacrifice remain until morning. (Ex. 34:25)
  9. Bring the first fruits of the land to the house of God. (Ex. 34:26)
  10. Do not cook a young goat in its mother's milk. (Ex. 34:26)

Ex. 34:27-28 informs us that these commandments, not the ones in Ex. 20, were inscribed on the two tablets. These, not the ones in Ex. 20, were the holy commandments for the Israelites. And, I'd wager, most fundamentalist Christians would strenuously object to these commandments on the walls of their courthouses and schools.

There are, of course, parallels between these commandments and the ones encountered previously in Exodus. Both argue against making idols, both command the observation of the Sabbath. It could even be argued that the first commandment of each list can be interpreted the same way: that the Hebrews should worship only God and no other gods.

But there the differences stop. This list contains commands the Israelites to worship the three main holidays, and Hannukah isn't among them. The three holidays at which the Hebrews are required to bring sacrifices to the house of God are Passover, Shavuout, and Sukkot. These were all harvest festivals, appropriately. At these times, the Hebrews would have a new batch of crops, and God required his share of them. However, my guess is that unless my readers have had a Jewish education or done study into the Jewish calendar, you probably have never heard of the latter two festivals, despite their importance.

This list of commandments is more highly focused on God's portion of the Hebrews' wealth. In addition to the sacrifices at the holidays listed above, it also notes that God receives the firstborn of every womb (though the human males must be redeemed and returned to their parents) and the first fruits of the land. It also gives instructions for how to administer the sacrifices: blood sacrifices must not be mixed with yeast ("leaven" in KJV). The final commandment is the beginning of Jewish dietary laws, and contains what many have interpreted as the proscription against eating meat and milk at the same meal.

I mentioned, in my analysis of the first ten commandments, that at least half of them (specifically, the latter half) were reasonable, universal laws that could be applied to almost any well-ordered society. The first five commandments, while not so universal, were still moderately so, and could be applied to many monotheistic societies. It is a list that, even if you are not Christian, you might be willing to accept (at least in part) on the wall of a courthouse.

This list has an entirely different feel. Gone are the universal laws not to murder, not to steal, not to covet the property of another. Gone are the proscriptions against bearing false witness. Instead, this set of commandments is much more tribal, much more cultural. These are laws specifically for the people who have made a covenant with God: their festivals, their dietary restrictions, the sacrificial requirements. The is not a general document; it is a highly specific one.

It is precisely these sorts of specific requirements, of which there are many more in Leviticus, that the early Christians turned away from. In fact, the earliest Christians were Jews, and likely obeyed all ten of these commandments in addition to the ones in Ex. 20. However, by the time of Saul of Tarsus, otherwise known as St. Paul, new Christians were no longer required to be Jews as well. Certainly by the turn of the first century after Christ's death, Christians could be gentiles. In many ways, the focus shifted to universal laws, such as the original ten commandments, away from the specific Jewish requirements, such as these. Many Christians today have no idea that such commandments even exist, let alone follow them.

Were the ten commandments universal laws that could be applied, in large part, to most societies, or were they specific, tribal rules for a specific ancient people? The answer, I suspect, lies largely in which set of commandments you choose to identify.

February 07, 2007

Breadcrumb: Now that's a recommendation!

In Ex. 31:1-11, God appoints Bezaleel to be the chief craftsman for all the work the Israelites are about to undertake, assisted by Aholiab. Their job will be to build the tabernacle, its furniture, the clothing for the priests, the oils and incense, and everything else needed for the most holy place in the Israelite camp. They need to be carpenters, metal-smiths, tailors, embroiderers, and gem-cutters, among other things. It's a huge load for two people, even if they delegated. But you'd better believe that once they were done building the tabernacle, they'd never be out of work.

February 06, 2007

Breadcrumb: What are the chances?

In discussing the anointing oil and incense, God give the Israelites very specific instructions for how they should be made. (Ex. 30:23-25, 30:34-36) However, he also tells them that no one may use these oils or incense for anything other than their appointed holy tasks, at the risk of being "cut off from his people." (Ex. 30:32-33, 30:37-38) Given the specific instructions, I'm surprised there aren't new age shops offering "authentic" supplies of holy anointing oil and holy incense. Or perhaps there are, and I'm unobservant. Let's just hope the new age mystics aren't Jewish.

February 05, 2007

Exodus 30-32: Going for gold

Today's reading is Exodus 30-32 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers instructions for the altar of incense and washing basin, formulas and instructions for anointing oil and incense, the Bible's first head tax, God's choice of Bezaleel and Aholiab to be the craftsmen, more laws for the Sabbath, and the incident of the golden calf.

The "golden calf" episode has been featured in a number of movies, most notably The Ten Commandments, but also satirically in the Kevin Smith movie Dogma. The message, most cursory believers will be quick to tell you, is not to worship false idols but instead to believe only in God.

But, as with so many Biblical stories, the lesson runs deeper when you start to interpret the complexities of the story. Let us, therefore, take a moment to summarize the events contained within Ex. 32:
The Hebrews, worried that Moses has not yet come down from Mount Sinai, ask Aaron to make them gods. Aaron, with nary a hint of argument, tells them to break off their earrings and give him the resulting gold, which he uses to fashion a golden calf. He builds an altar before it and declares the next day a feast to this new god. People wake up, give it offerings, and pray to it.

Meanwhile, God knows full well what the Israelites have done. He nearly destroys them all, except for a quick intervention by Moses, who tells God that if he destroys the Israelites now, the Egyptians will mock him (God). Instead, God gives Moses two tablets of laws and sends him down with Joshua to deal with the people.

Moses, when he sees what has happened, gets just as angry as God was, smashes the tablets, burns the calf, and makes the Israelites drink the resulting ashes with water. He also pulls aside Aaron and asks, essentially, "what the hell were you thinking?" Aaron deftly shifts the blame to the Hebrews, calling them "set on mischief." Curiously, he seems to imply that the calf simply created itself out of the fire, as opposed to being the product of Aaron's own handiwork. (Ex. 32:24)

Moses calls forth all those "on the LORD's side" -- the Levites -- who go forth and slaughter three thousand men who had worshipped the golden calf. Moses goes back up to the mountain to try to reason with God, while God curses the Israelites with a plague for what they had done.

So, what does this episode teach us, other than the glib, "don't worship idols"?

First, we need to ask ourselves about Aaron's role in all this. Aaron, it seems doesn't argue at all when the Israelites ask him to make them a new god. There is not a single verse between their request (Ex. 32:1) and Aaron's reply to give him their gold (Ex. 32:2). It is Aaron, not the Hebrews, who declare a feast day to the new god. At least from this perspective, it seems that Aaron was wholly taken up with the new worship.

Yet there are indications that Aaron may not have been so enthusiastic as he might appear. Ex. 32:25 tells us "Aaron had made [the people] naked unto their shame among their enemies." (KJV) In other words, Aaron deliberately made the worshippers vulnerable to anyone who might attack them. Furthermore, Aaron may have been telling the truth when he told Moses that the people pressured him into building the new god (Ex. 32:22-24). After all, God does not revoke Aaron's status as high priest, holiest of men among the Israelites. This may be an indication that there is more argument taking place "behind the text."

But let us move for a moment from Aaron to the rest of the people. If we believe Aaron when he says the people pressured him into making the calf, we need to ask ourselves, "why?" The Hebrews were sitting directly underneath the mountain of God. Mere chapters earlier, they had agreed to follow God's commandments and to keep his covenant (Ex. 24). Presumably, God was still raining down manna and quail, as we have no indication of the Israelites starving. So why, with all these outward signs that their god was a true, present, immediate force, did the Hebrews choose to build a new god?

One answer might lie in the surrounding religions of the ancient Mediterranean. Egypt was a polytheist society: it worshipped many gods. Furthermore, many of these gods had human or at least semi-human shape. The Mesopotamians also had an anthropomorphic religion, as did the Minoans on the island of Crete. With so many polytheistic religions nearby, it must have been surprisingly difficult for the Israelites to say, "our God can't be represented by painting or sculpture. He has no name and no mythic story. He did not come into being, but always existed." To the Hebrews, so recently immersed in Egyptian culture, this must have seemed the height of foolishness, no matter what the evidence at hand indicated.

Furthermore, the Israelites would have had no idea how to worship such a god. They understood how to worship statues and idols: pray before them, offer them food and sacrifices, clothe them in expensive clothes and jewellery, and so forth. It would have been far easier for them to return to their comfort zone of worship, as it were. If they could not offer God the proper worship, at least they could create a god for themselves and worship him properly.

Finally, God was temperamental. Certainly, he told the Hebrews that if they followed his laws, they would live long, prosperous lives. But they were difficult laws, and when the Hebrews didn't follow them, God was liable to murder them all, as he had the antediluvians, the people of Sodom and Gemorrah, or the Egyptian firstborn. Though it had seemed like a good idea at the time to agree to a covenant with this god, perhaps in retrospect the Hebrews realized it might not have been such a good idea after all. According to Jewish folklore, God asked all the other cultures of the region to be his chosen people, and each of them rejected him. It was only the Hebrews who finally agreed. Perhaps, in making the golden calf, the Hebrews realized that the other nations might have had a valid point in their rejections.

Unfortunately, the Hebrews had already committed themselves, and were forced to pay the price: slaughter and plague. In the end, therefore, what do we learn from this incident? If you're going to make a decision, stick to it. And if you're going to go back on your deal, make sure you have a convenient scapegoat.

February 04, 2007

Breadcrumb: Win-win situation

As part of the consecration ceremony, the Israelites must agree to sacrifice two lambs a day, one on the morning and one in the evening, every day. In addition to the lambs, they must also sacrifice flour, oil, and wine. (Ex. 29:38-42) This provided both a spiritual and a practical purpose. Spiritually, the Israelites were appeasing God and maintaining their connection to their deity. Practically, this was giving the priests something to eat, as only priests could eat of the offerings. The Israelites stay in God's good graces, and the priests don't die of starvation: everybody wins!

February 03, 2007

Breadcrumb: Urim and Thummim?

As part of the description of the breastplate, Ex. 28:30 reads as follows in the NIV: "Also put Urim and Thummim in the breastpiece, so that they may be over Aaron's heart whenever he enters the presence of the LORD. Thus Aaron will always bear the means of making decisions for the Israelites over his heart before the LORD." (In the KJV: "the Urim and the Thummim" -- my emphasis)

What are these things, Urim and Thummim? There is no further description of them in this chapter. In Number 27, Joshua inquires of the Urim before the Lord when making decisions. In 1 Sam. 28, Saul tries to receive an answer from God via dreams, prophets, or the Urim. They appear a few other times in scripture (listed in Biblegateway.com). But we actually know almost nothing about them. Given the emphasis on the other aspects of Aaron's clothing, this mystery is all the more baffling.

February 02, 2007

Exodus 28-29: Clothes make the man

Today's reading is Exodus 28-29 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers very specific instructions for the construction of priestly garments for Aaron and his sons (namely: the ephod, breastplate, robe, mitre, tunic, girdle, and breeches), and the ceremony involved in consecrating them as priests.

If you watch many movies, you may occasionally see an "armouring up" scene. This may be literally a scene where a warrior puts on his armour in preparation for battle, it may be James Bond putting on his suit for the final poker game in high-stakes espionage, or it may be the romantic female lead getting dressed up to seduce the romantic male lead. General, these scenes come just before the final conflict of the movie. They tend to show a series of close-ups in which the protagonist puts on each piece of clothing, especially if this involves small adjustments: buttoning buttons, tying up laces, straightening ties, etc. Often the scenes are shot in slow-motion. And, once each individual piece is in place, there is the final reveal of the character in full regalia (whatever that might be), ready to take on the world.

It is not a coincidence that so many movies contain scenes of this nature. Clothes have special significance, especially clothes used only for specific purposes. Uniforms, whether defined strictly or more loosely to include things like "a little black dress," give signals to both the wearer and the onlookers. They say, "I am prepared for something. I am ready. I am special." To the wearer, the special clothing signals a change in their state of mind. To the watchers, they demonstrate that the wearer is in a special class, designated for a special task not given to the general populace.

It is therefore interesting to see what types of clothing Aaron, as high priest of the Israelites, was instructed to wear. Like the description of the tabernacle, described in the last essay, the instructions for Aaraon's clothes are detailed and precise. They include materials, colours, decorative elements, and patterns. Nothing is left unsaid.

As a brief summary, Aaron's clothing as high priest include:

  1. Linen breeches (underwear). Ex. 28:42

  2. A woven linen tunic. Ex. 28:39

  3. A blue linen robe, with a woven collar, and decorated with blue, purple, and scarlet pomegranates around the hem alternated with gold bells. Ex. 28:31-35

  4. A linen ephod (an apronlike garment), in gold, blue, purple, and scarlet, fastened at the shoulders with two onyx stones, each bearing the name of 6 of the 12 sons of Jacob (ie: the 12 tribes). Ex. 28:6-14

  5. A square linen breastplate, also in gold, blue, purple, and scarlet, bearing 12 precious stones each engraved with the name of one of the sons of Jacob, and attached to the ephod by golden chains and blue cord running through six golden rings on its sides. Ex. 28:15-30

  6. An embroidered linen sash or girdle to tie the ephod. Ex. 28:39

  7. A linen turban (or "mitre"), with a golden plate reading "HOLY TO THE LORD" (NIV) attached to the front with blue cord. Ex. 28:36-38

At a glance, we see that the materials used in Aaron's garments are very expensive. The fourteen gemstones used in these garments, the dyes, the gold, and even the materials were all highly costly in the ancient Mediterranean. This is not surprising. As high priest, Aaron had arguably the most important position among the Hebrews after Moses. Costly materials would be expected for a man in his position.

More important is that his clothes symbolize his connection with the entire community of Israelites. Aaron wears the names of all the Israelite tribes not once, but twice: first, on the onyx stones on his shoulders, and second on the gemstones on his breastplate. In fact, Ex. 28:12 reads, in part: "...and Aaron shall bear their names before the LORD upon his two shoulders for a memorial." (KJV) By wearing the names of the Israelite tribes when he goes before God, Aaron is symbolically representing the entire people. Though only the high priest may stand before the ark of the covenant, he nonetheless represents all the Hebrews when he does so.

Another interesting feature of the clothing is the plate attached to the front of his turban (or "mitre"). The instructions say that Aaron must never remove it. Ex. 28:38 reads as follows in the NIV: "It will be on Aaron's forehead, and he will bear the guilt involved in the sacred gifts the Israelites consecrate, whatever their gifts may be. It will be on Aaron's forehead continually so that they will be acceptable to the LORD."

Let us pause for a moment to consider this passage. In a situation strikingly similar to the New Testament, Aaron bears all the guilt of the Hebrews' sacrificial offerings, so that these offerings may be accepted by God. Aaron, high priest of the Israelites and presumably the purest member of their community, must bear the guilt of their offerings before God. The parallels to Jesus -- equally pure and equally guilt-bearing -- are evident.

One more note about the clothing before passing on to more dramatic parts of the narrative (I hope): Ex. 29 is a description of the consecration ceremony for Aaron and his sons. The first part of the ceremony involves dressing them in the priestly garments, as we might expect. (Ex. 29:5-9) Later in the ceremony, they -- both men and clothing -- are consecrated by being sprinkled with blood. (Ex. 29:21) Given that these clothes are supposed to pass through the generations of priests (Ex. 29:29-30), we have to wonder about this first official wearing. As most people find out at one point or another, blood stains are notoriously difficult to remove from clothing. Are Aaron and his sons supposed to wear perpetually blood-stained clothing, or did the Hebrews' have miracle stain remover in the desert, along with all the other paraphernalia they brought out of Egypt? We may never know.

February 01, 2007

Breadcrumb: Almonds?

The menorah in the tabernacle was to be designed with decorations shaped like almonds, along with their buds and flowers. Why almonds? Two explanations are generally given: first, the almond was the first fruit to blossom in the springtime, which leads to a correspondence between the almond-decorated menorah and the spring (some would say the spring of knowledge or wisdom). Second, in Numbers 17:1-8, Aaron plants his staff in front of the tabernacle, and when he returns the next day, it has bloomed and produced almonds. This seems to be an after-the-fact justification, but it is a common one nonetheless.