Mibble Monday: Short Attention-Span Nation (Exodus 30:11–33:25)

Still trying to get back on schedule. Wednesday I teach, but I also have no evening obligations, so I should really be able to do this.

We return to the interesting narrative territory with פָּרָשַׁת כי תשא (“When You Take” portion), so this one’s going to be exciting and fun.

The quick snarky summary: God finally finishes telling Moses a bunch of holiness rules, and meanwhile the people have gotten bored and decided to make idolatrous statuary, apparently having completely forgotten that whole dramatic delivery of the law in thunder and lightning a month ago, which said rather pointed things about idolatry. So the people didn’t get the point at all, but fortunately Moses has a lot of extra points and scatters them liberally in necks and bellies and suchlike. In the fracas the tablets with the Ten Commandments on them get broken, so Moses goes and gets some new ones (and we learn what the Ten Commandments actually are).

So this chapter opens with a few ritual rules, like how to take a census properly, This is a theme which recurs during the monarchical period: the only proper way to take a census of Israelites is apparently to tax them with a head tax and count the proceeds. A later rationalization of this is the concept that Abraham was promised his descendants would be uncountable; thus, it is wrong to count them directly. The census is also described as “expiation money”, suggesting that it atones for some sort of sin. However,t he census isn’t set to be taken at regular intervals, so, rather peculiarly,t he Israelites’ expiation of sins seems to be done at irregular intervals.

Next up we get some details of the temple service. A washbasin in the courtyard of the Tabernacle is mentioned (and probably should’ve been itemized back with all the other Taberanacle and courtyard furniture), in the context of its necessity to the holy service; likewise the oil for anointing the priests and the incense for the altar are described in detail, both of them with spices which presumably were quite rare and costly in ancient Mesopotamia, like cinnamon, myrrh, galbanum, and frankincense. So in details, as in generalities, the service in the Temple is supposed to be pretty luxurious and ostentatious.

In Chapter 31 we finally see light at the end of the tunnel: God reiterates the list of all the furnishings of the Tabernacle, with an injunction to charge Hur’s grandson with the craftsmanship. We saw Hur a few times before: he attended Moses with Joshua at the battle with the Amalekites, and was left with Aaron to govern the people when Moses went up the mountain. This is the last time he’s mentioned, which is particularly surprising in light of what’s going on when Moses descends the mountain. Exegesis claims Hur was killed by the idolatrous rebels, which is as good as any explanation, since he never shows up again except in reference to his grandson. Anyways, after another injunction to keep the Sabbath and carving the covenant on two stone tablets, God gives Moses a little kick and sends him back down the mountain.

But the big narrative payoff is in Chapter 32, a nice juicy story. We were told way back in Chapter 24 that Moses was on the mountain for 40 days. Meanwhile, the Israelites do what they do best and whine, mostly about how long Moses is up there and what if something happened and then they’d be without a leader and oh no they can’t have that! Seriously, it’s like they completely forgot that God Almighty promised to take care of them a few weeks ago. So rather than holding elections, or appointing a new leader, or otherwise filling the power vacuum, the people do the one thing, pretty much the only thing, which could’ve really fucked things up horribly: they demand an ido for a physical God.

Oddly, Aaron comes off as being just as crazily smitten with brainsoftness as the rest of the community. He doesn’t even mention the whole God-not-being-at-all-cool-with-that issue, but tells them exactly what he needs to build an idol, and then, when they deliver the gold, goes ahead and makes a Golden Calf, builds it an altar, and announches a festival day. I point all this out because God’s wrath is conspicuously not going to smite Aaron for his fairly active role in this rebellion.

God notices all of this, what with being omniscient and all, and bitches about the Israelites to Moses. Now, I’ve been pretty hard on God in these write-ups so far, but in this particular case I have to say I kind of agree with him. He had just finished telling the Israelites not to make idols when they go out and make idols, which is a sign of either active insubordination or extraordinary dull-wittedness. And this isn’t even like the kind of insubordination and rebellion we see againt religious laws routinely: sure, religion and its strictures can seem kind of silly, but most of us aren’t fortunate enough to have a full-blown theophany like the people of Israel did. So I can’t exactly hold it against God for wanting to chuck it all in and try again with some other, less stupid, nation.

It’s a good thing the Israelites have such a good advocate in Moses (although why he’s on their side is a bit perplexing. If there’s one dude who would agree with God that the children of Israel are exasperatingly intractable, it’d be the poor bastard who’s had to lead them). Moses makes two really effective arguments against smiting the Israelites: first, that it’d be a violation of the covenants with the forefathers, and, second, that it would be absolutely terrible PR to scourge the Egyptians over the whole Israelite affari and then end up vindicating their position. So God’s promised mot to destroy the nation, but Moses still has a serious crisis to handle, so he scurries down the mountain. Oddly, we’re told at this time some details of the tablets of the covenant, that they’re inscribed on both sides and that God personally wrote them. This will be significant later, because these tablets end up destroyed, and the new ones are written by Moses, not God.

So Moses comes down in the midst of a bonafide festival of idolatry, and gets unterstadably a bit miffed (“I leave you guys alone for a month, and…”). His rage manifests in breaking the tablets (which were there to hand so show rage with), and then destroying the idol grinding it to powder, mixing it with water, and making the Israelites drink it, which seems a bit odd, although it parallels a punishment for adultery described in Numbers 5, which is probably being alluded to here.

Exodus 32:21–24 includes Aaron’s weird self-justification, which really doesn’t explain anything at all and if I were Moses I’d smack Aaron silly for such a weak self-defense. He basically comes out as completely spineless, and he denies agency even for the simple act of even making the idol. It perplexes me that Aaron comes out of this incident unscathed; by all rights he should get some serious smackdown for his part in this affari.

Immediately after seeing his brother’s waffling, Moses decides to show some real leadership, and nothing says “decisive, strong leader” like a massacre, so he summons the Levites, who form the loyal priest class, and sends them out to slaughter indiscriminately. No, really. Verses 27 and 28 suggest that the Levites are killing three thousand completely randomly chosen idolaters as an example to the others. Notably, Moses praises them for their willingness to raise swords against kin, which seems a little backwards from the prevalent ancient traditions in which fratricide was a particularly heinous crime.

The end of Exodus 33 contains what appears to be an editorial error: Moses goes to plead for the life of Israel and successfully gains God’s parole, but surely he already did that, back in 33:10–14? And even with both of these pleas for clemency and a little bit of homegrown mob justice, God’s wrath isn’t fully abated and a plague strikes the nation.

Exodus 34 describes certain key changes in the Israelites’ favored status as a result of this whole idolatry incident. God’s presence, which used to dwell among them, is lifted, and an angel leads instead; likewise Moses doesn’t dwell in their midst. It wasn’t clear if Moses dwelt in the camp before, but it’s emphasized at this point that Moses has pitched his tent outside the camp, and the presence of God descended upon it only for Moses. So, while a lot of the community of Israel evaded God’s direct wrath, they’re still getting a pretty ostentatious cold shoulder.

Moses bargains God into leading again, mostly by refusing to go on unless they’re led by God himself. Moses seems to still be able to bargain with God, while the people Israel should count themselves lucky not to have been pulverized. But then, Moses has mostly not disagreed with or disobeyed God; he was a bit uncooperative at first about the whole delivery-from-Egypt plan, but once he got into the spirit he was definitely doing what God asked, so it’s not surprising that his supplication’s somewhat effectual. He tries to bargain for a bit more than God’s willing to give, and asks to behold God’s face, which he refuses, but lets Moses see his back. These lines are a bit odd because they’re strongly suggestive that God is somehow corporeal, which is a bit at odds with the depiction of God elsewhere in this book (unlike in Genesis, where God seems incarnated in a human form regularly).

Finally, we close up this chapter with Moses inscriping the Law on two new tablets. This inscription is specifically referred to in the text (namely, Exodus 34:28) as the Ten Commandments, so these are the Real Ten Commandments, in Exodus 28:10–26. You thought you knew the Ten Commandments, but these are the real thing. So, they are (paraphrasing slightly):

  1. Don’t make treaties with the inhabitants of Canaan, but smash their idols instead.
  2. Don’t make idols, damnit.
  3. Observe Passover.
  4. Pay a redemption to the temple for firstborn animals.
  5. Observe the Sabbath.
  6. Observe the agricultural festivals.
  7. Go to the temple thrice a year.
  8. Don’t sacrifice leavened bread or leave sacrifices lying around until morning.
  9. Donate first fruits of your harvest to the temple.
  10. Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

Seriously, if the Christian right wanted us to inscribe these in courthouses, that would be delightfully hilarious.

Anyways, Moses brings the tablets to the people, and they’re freaked out because his face shines with residual radiation from God’s presence. Moses realizes this peculiar effect is useful, and thereafter when he’s relaying God’s word, the Israelites know it’s the real deal because his face is all glowy.

So that’s the last bit of really useful narrative in Exodus. Next up, a recapitulation of the temple-building blueprints, this time from the human perspective!

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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