Sunday, January 24, 2010

Exodus 6 - 40

Ever slowly, I'm progressing through the reading of the Bible, from Genesis through Revelations. Exodus has been some slow, depressing reading, but here are my thoughts on it:
  • Puppet Pharaoh: Repeatedly, Exodus explicitly says that God is responsible for the hardening of Pharaoh's heart (Exodus 7:3, 10:20, 10:27, 11:10). In Exodus 11:9, God says "Pharaoh will not listen to you, in order that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt."  God isn't just professing that Pharaoh is a jerk and will harden his own heart ... it's very clear that God is the cause of the hardening. This really paints God, not Pharaoh, as the bad guy in this tale. After every single plague, practically, it seems as if Pharaoh is about to relent ... and then his "heart hardens" or he "hardens his heart" ... but if God is really the reason why Pharaoh's heart hardens, then it's really God's fault that the Israelites aren't freed earlier, and it appears to be for the sake of showing off his "wonders." Furthermore, this brings up issues of free will ... rarely do you ever hear about God directly intervening in people's emotional states, but this seems to be a pretty clear cut case of this. Pharaoh is shown as little more than God's puppet in all of this. (This reminds me of the arguments that Judas' betrayal is necessary for the salvation in the New Testament, so Judas is, in an odd way, performing God's work.)
  • The mystery of the resurrected livestock: In Exodus 9, "all the livestock of the Egyptians died" (The Fifth Plague), but then in Exodus 11 (The Tenth Plague) the firstborn all die, including "all the firstborn of the livestock." But the livestock all died already, so how are the firstborn dying again? This brings up another point - one of timing. I can't tell from my read of this what sort of timeframe the plagues are taking place over. The impression is a fairly rapid-fire series of plagues, but I suppose it is feasible that these plagues are spread out over a period of years (although that's certainly less impressive than the more common depictions). Exodus 7:7 says that Moses is 80 and Aaron 83 when they first approach Pharaoh, but I'm not seeing a later age stated that would give us a timeframe. (If I'm just missing it, please let me know where it is.)
  • The firstborn belong to God: in Exodus 13:12, there is an intriguing command - "you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your livestock that are males shall be the Lord's. But every firstborn donkey you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. Every firstborn male among your children shall you redeem." In other words, you're supposed to sacrifice a sheep to redeem the firstborn male children. I wonder if anyone (Jewish or Christian) still follows this today.
  • The Red Sea or Sea of Reeds: the Bible account of the crossing of the Red Sea (or, as a footnote indicates, possibly the "Sea of Reeds") is always thrilling. I've heard the Sea of Reeds reference to try to tone down this passage, as if maybe God guided Moses through a marsh or something, but the account is pretty specific that this is dramatic. The water forms walls on the sides of the Israelites and collapses back upon the Egyptians, who are "tossed ... into the sea." There's not really any doubt that the passage is attempting to describe a spectacular miracle ... of course, it may be that this is an exaggeration of the actual events being described, and that the "Sea of Reeds" is the only remnant of the older version of the tale.
  • Jethro's managerial advice: I love Exodus 18, where Moses' father-in-law basically tells him that he's working too hard and needs to learn how to delegate before he burns himself out. Religious leaders should really devote a lot more time to making it clear that there's good, practical advice like this available in the Bible. 
  • The Real Ten Commandments: Well, the traditional Ten Commandments show up in Exodus 20, but they aren't actually called "The Ten Commandments." I did some investigation, and it looks like the name "the Ten Commandments" is actually mentioned in the Bible only later on (Exodus 34:10-28), where Moses makes new tablets after the Golden Calf incident, but that's a slightly different set of commandments. So every time some sanctimonious person wants to put the ten commandments on display in a public location, a smart-ass can try to make sure they're actually wanting to display the right ones. The actual ten commandments are the following, and are more worship-focused than the traditional Ten Commandment list, which are mostly moral laws:

    1. Have/worship no other gods.
    2. Don't make covenants with the people you encounter in the other lands (this is really a refinement of the "no other gods" one, because these other people will lead the Isrealites astray)
    3. Don't cast idols
    4. Keep the festival of unleavened bread (Passover)
    5. The first out of the womb belongs to God. Clean animals should be sacrificed, but unclean animals should be redeemed by the sacrifice of a clean animal. Human firstborn males should also be redeemed through the sacrifice of a clean animal.
    6. No one should appear before God empty-handed.
    7. Keep the sabbath, and observe three festivals per year: "the festival of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the festival of ingathering at the turn of the year. Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel."
    8. Do not offer the blood of sacrifices with leaven, and don't leave the Passover sacrifice out overnight.
    9. The best of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of the Lord
    10. You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk
  • Laws and more laws: Yikes, this is a tedious section of the book, and I have the feeling it's going to keep going for several books. How to build an altar, a temple, the ark of the covenant. Can't wait until I'm through "the books of the law." 
  • Hatin' on witches: Exodus 22:18 says "You shall not permit a female sorcerer to live." ... but male sorcerers are okay? Odd.
  • Two tablets: In Exodus 31: 18, Moses is given two tablets which include "the covenant" ... but the details of this covenant took over 10 pages to describe in the Bible. God must have some crazy economical shorthand system to fit all of this on the tablets.
  • The Golden Calf: I knew that Moses' brother Aaron was part of the Golden Calf story, but I didn't realize that it was actually his idea! I'd always assumed that some putzes in the crowd got this going, and Aaron just kind of got dragged along with it, but it turns out that he was the ringleader in gathering the gold and casting the idol. In fact, when Moses comes down to straighten things out, Aaron himself places the blame on everyone else. What a wanker!
  • The Wrath of God: God gets mad over the Golden Calf incident, but Moses is able to talk Him down. This is a common event with the Old Testament God, and God seems to respect those who can talk sense into Him when He gets out of control. (This is actually part of what I most love about my own wife, so I can relate to this, although I rarely declare that "my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them" ... although sometimes I am close." - Exodus 32:10) "And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people." (Exodus 32:14) Still, despite Moses apparently convincing Him not to just "consume them" and then ordering the execution of 3,000 of the Israelites, God still feels the need that "Whoever has sinned against me I will blog out of my book" (Exodus 32:33) and he sends a plague (Exodus 32:35). Guess he changed his mind again.
  • The Wrath of Moses: In Exodus 32:20, after breaking the tablets, Moses "took the [golden] calf they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Isrealites drink it." Then he begins berating Aaron and others, finally getting the Levites to kill 3,000 of the Isrealites, before he can get things under control. I'm assuming this isn't chronological, since I presume he'd want to get his people under control before he spends the day grinding the calf into powder and making people drink it (which, presumably, takes a fair amount of time).
  • Repetition again: We are re-introduced to Bezalel and Oholiab, who were introduced in Exodus 31 and then introduced again in Exodus 35. It's hard to see how anyone can read Exodus and believe that  it is not a collection of stories that got edited together. There's no way that a single person wrote this book, unless they had severe ADD and couldn't keep track of what they wrote the day before. Now, I suppose that in fairness, in Exodus 31 God is telling Moses about Bezalel and Oholiab, but in Exodus 35 Moses is telling the Israelites about them ... but it's basically the exact same passage, but told in first person and then in second person. (Bezalel & Oholiab are awesome designers/carpenters, who are placed in charge of building the Tabernacle that God earlier described. They got their crazy mad building skills from God himself, as we are told both times.) Then, after having the lengthy instructions for the Tabernacle from God, we're given the description of its actual building ... which, since they're following the exact steps outlined by God just a few chapters ago, is again repetition.
And that, my friends, is my reading of Exodus ... on to Leviticus.
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