Korach: Face Down

June 21, 2017 at 11:29 am | Posted in Chukkat, Korach, Shelach-Lekha | Leave a comment
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Moses falls on his face three times in this week’s Torah portion, Korach—and each time, he does it on purpose.

The Torah portion begins with a Levite named Korach challenging his cousins Moses and Aaron. Standing with him are three rebels from the tribe of Reuben and 250 prestigious men (described first as chieftains, then as Levites for the rest of the story).

And they assembled against Moses and against Aaron, and they said to them: “You have too much! Because all the congregation, all of them, are holy, and God is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves over the assembly of God?” Moses listened. Vayipol on his face. (Numbers/Bemidbar 16:3-4)

Vayipol (ו־יּפֺּל) = Then he fell (by accident or on purpose), then he threw himself down.

Why does Moses suddenly drop to the ground, face down?

*

Bowing to Hamaan

The Hebrew Bible refers to prostration in two ways: nofeil al panav (נֺפֵל עַל פָּנָיו, falling on one’s face) and mishtachaveh (מִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה, bowing low). Mishtachaveh could be to anything from a deep standing bow, to kneeling and putting one’s forehead to the floor, to stretching out full length. It is a formal and deliberate act in the Torah, signifying deference, obeisance, or worship. Extrabiblical sources confirm that mishtachaveh was required before kings and other persons of authority in ancient Egyptian and Persian courts. In the Bible, Joseph’s brothers bow down to Joseph when he is an Egyptian viceroy,1 and when Hamaan is the Persian viceroy all the king’s employees except Mordecai bow down to him.2

Falling on one’s face, or throwing oneself down onto one’s face, is a more dramatic prostration. People fall on their faces 27 times in Hebrew Bible3:

—7 times before another person, as an expression of submission4,

—11 times before a manifestation of God, from being overcome with awe5, and

—9 times in order to initiate communication with God.6

Only Abraham, Joshua, Ezekiel (twice), and Moses (once by himself and four times with Aaron) are brave enough to initiate communication with God. They want God to speak to them directly and answer their question and/or tell them what to do next. To grab God’s attention, they have to do something more dramatic than a formal prostration.

Moses first falls on his face in last week’s portion, Shelach-Lekha. The Israelites have been weeping all night in despair of taking over Canaan, and they decide to choose a new leader and go back to Egypt. In the morning,

Vayipol, Moses and Aaron, on their faces in front of the whole assembly of the community of Israelites. (Numbers 14:5)

Stoning, from a sketch by Piola Domenico, 17th century

Some commentators7 propose that Moses and Aaron are prostrating themselves to the Israelites as a silent gesture pleading for them to change their minds. I cannot agree. Moses may be humble, but nowhere else in the bible does someone in authority bow down or fall on his face to someone under his own supervision. It is Joshua and Caleb who use a silent gesture to plead with the Israelites, tearing their clothes as mourners do. Then Joshua and Caleb try verbal persuasion, while Moses and Aaron remain silent. I believe Moses and Aaron fling themselves down and wait for God to respond. God finally manifests just in time to stop the Israelites from stoning Joshua and Caleb.

*

Moses gets a faster response when he throws himself on his face at the opening of this week’s Torah portion. Although God’s words are not recorded, God apparently tells Moses what to do about Korach’s challenge, because Moses then tells Korach and his men there will be a divine test.

“Do this: Take for yourselves fire-pans, Korach and all his company. And you shall place embers in them, and put incense on them, in front of God tomorrow. And the man who, God chooses, he is the holy one.” (Numbers 16:6-7)

The next morning, when Korach and his 250 Levites arrive at the Tent of Meeting with their fire-pans and incense, God tells Moses and Aaron to stand at a safe distance while God annihilates the challengers. This time Moses and Aaron fall on their faces in order to get God to listen to them.

Vayiplu [Moses and Aaron] on their faces, and they said: “God, God of the spirits of all flesh, one man is guilty, and you rage against the whole community? (Numbers 16:22)

Vayiplu (וַיִּפְּלוּ) = and they fell, and they threw themselves down. (Another form of the verb nafal, נָפַל.)

The action suddenly shifts to where three ringleaders—the Ruevenites Datan and Aviram, and the Levite Korach—are standing defiantly at the entrances of their own tents. God instructs Moses to tell everyone to stand back from the three tents. Then God makes the earth swallow the tents, the three ringleaders, and their families.

In a thoroughly edited story8, the reader might now expect God to respond to Moses and Aaron’s plea by pardoning the 250 Levites who had stood with Korach. Instead, the action hops back to the story of the Levite rebellion:

And fire went out from God and it consumed the 250 men offering the incense. (Numbers 16:35)

The next day all the Israelites protest against Moses and Aaron, blaming them for the death of 253 people.

And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Get up away from the midst of this community, and I will consume them in an instant.”  Vayiplu on their faces.  Then Moses said to Aaron: “Take the incense pan and place fire on it from the altar, and put in incense, and go quickly to the community and atone for them, because the rage has gone out from before God.  The affliction has begun.”  (Numbers 17:9-11)

Instead of following God’s order and running away, Moses and Aaron throw themselves down on their faces. This time they catch God in the middle of slaughtering the Israelites with a fast-acting disease. But Moses finds out how to stop the epidemic, and Aaron’s incense does the trick. If they had not fallen on their faces, perhaps God would have wiped out everyone.

Moses and Aaron fall on their faces one more time, in next week’s Torah portion, Chukkat. The Israelites are complaining that there is no water to drink.

And Moses and Aaron moved from facing the assembly to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, vayiplu on their faces, and the glory of God appeared. (Numbers 20:6)

They get God’s attention, and God gives Moses instructions for getting water from a rock.

*

Thus Moses throws himself down on his face both to ask God for instructions, and to persuade God to do something different.  Falling on his face gets God’s attention and indicates humility before God. But it also means dropping his own pride and external identity—losing face, in a way. This helps Moses to reopen communication with God.

Today worshipers in many religions use gestures of humility in prayer such as bowing or kneeling, and some even perform prostrations.  But these gestures fall short of the passionate abandon of flinging oneself face-down.

Would falling on our faces help us to get answers from God?

(An earlier version of this essay was published in June 2010.)

1  Genesis 42:6, 43:26, 43:28.

2  Esther 3:2.

3  There are also two occasions when an idol of the Philistine god Dagon falls on its face. The Philisties of Ashdod capture the ark of the God of Israel and put it in their temple of Dagon. For two mornings in a row, when they enter the temple, they discover: Hey! Dagon nofeil (נֺפֵל = is fallen) to his face to the ground before the ark of God! (1 Samuel 5:3, 5:4).

4  People fall on their faces to express submission to David in 1 Samuel 17:49 and 25:23; and 2 Samuel 9:6, 14:22, and 14:33.  The lesser prophet Ovadiah falls on his face before Elijah in surprise and obeisance in 1 Kings 18:7.  Ruth falls on her face before her benefactor Boaz in Ruth 2:10.

5  People fall on their faces before a manifestation of God as a vision (Ezekiel 1:28, 3:23, 43:3, and 44:4; Daniel 8:17; and 1 Chronicles 21:16), a supernatural fire (Leviticus 9:24, I Kings 18:39), or a man who turns out to be an angel (Joshua 5:14, Judges 13:20). In 2 Chronicles 20:18, the people throw themselves on their faces before God after someone utters an unexpected prophecy.

6  Abraham only falls on his face before God once; the result is that God speaks again and gives him further information (Genesis 17:3). Joshua and the elders of Israel fall face down in front of the ark in order to get God to speak to them (Joshua 7:10). Twice, in his visions, Ezekiel throws himself on his face before speaking to God (Ezekiel 9:8, 11:13).

7  E.g. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 750, and Ramban (the acronym for 13th-century rabbi Moses ben Nachman, a.k.a. Nachmanides).

8  The text provides two different responses from God because this Torah portion combines two original stories: one about a rebellion by two or three leaders in the tribe of Reuben, and one about a challenge from Korach on behalf of all Levites, who take care of the Tent of Meeting but are excluded from serving as priests.

 

Beha-alotkha: Father-in-Law

June 7, 2017 at 12:58 pm | Posted in Beha-alotkha, Shemot, Yitro | Leave a comment
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When the Israelites strike camp at the end of almost a year at Mount Sinai1, we discover that a Midianite named Chovav has been camping with them. This week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“When you bring up”), says:

And Moses said to Chovav, the son of Reueil the Midianite, the father-in-law of Moses:  “We are journeying to the place of which God said:  I will give it to you.  Go with us, and we will do good for you, because God has spoken of [doing] good for Israel.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 10:29)

Mount Sinai, Elijah Walton,
19th century

Chovav (חֺבָב) = One who loves.  (From the verb choveiv (חֺבֵב) = loving.)

Reu-eil (רְעוּאֵל) = Friend of God. Rei-eh (רֵעֶה) = friend + Eil (אֵל) = God.

The syntax is ambiguous in the original Hebrew, as it is in the English translation.  Is Moses’ father-in-law Chovav or Reu-eil?

The name “Chovav” appears only in one other place in the Hebrew Bible:

And Chever the Kenite had separated from the Kenites, from the descendants of Chovav, the father-in-law of Moses, and he pitched his tent as far as the great tree in Tzaananim… (Judges 4:11)

This verse clearly identifies Chovav as Moses’ father-in-law.  Yet when Moses gets married in the book of Exodus/Shemot, his father-in-law seems to be Reu-eil.

The Midiante priest,
Bible Moralisee, 13th century

A priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came [to the well] and drew and filled the watering-troughs to water their father’s flock. Then the shepherds came and drove them away. And Moses stood up and saved them and watered their flock. And they came back to Reueil, their father … (Exodus/Shemot 2:16-18)

Medieval commentators and modern scholars have generated many explanations for this discrepancy.2 I believe the difference between “Reu-eil” in Exodus and “son of Reu-eil” in Numbers is a scribal error.

Both early commentators and modern scholars identify Chovav as another name for Yitro, who is called Moses’ father-in-law ten times in the book of Exodus. But if Chovav is Moses’ father-in-law, what motivates Moses to invite him to journey with the Israelites to Canaan?

Moses meets his future father-in-law when he is a young man fleeing Egypt. He stops to rest by a well in Midian territory, and comes to the aid of the seven daughters of the priest of Midian called Reu-eil. The young women tell their father what happened, and he invites Moses to dinner.

And Moses agreed to stay with the man, and he gave his daughter Tzipporah to Moses. (Exodus/
Shemot 2:21)

The purpose of the marriage seems to be to tie Moses to the family as the priest’s son-in-law. Moses shepherds for him, and gives him two grandsons. The Midianite priest apparently has no sons of his own, since they do not help with the flock.

In the next story in the book of Exodus, Moses’ father-in-law is named Yitro.

And Moses was tending the flock of Yitro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he guided the flock behind the wilderness and came to the mountain of God… (Exodus 3:1)

Yitro (יִתְרוֹ) = his yeter (יֶתֶר) = remainder, surplus. (Yitro is usually translated in English as Jethro.)

Moses has a long conversation with God at the burning bush, then asks his father-in-law for permission to go back to Egypt to see how his relatives are doing there. Yitro wisely tells him to “go in peace”.3 Moses takes his wife and children, then sends them back to Yitro before he reaches Egypt. (See my post Yitro: Degrees of Separation.)

After the exodus from Egypt, as soon as Moses and the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai, Yitro stages a family reunion.

And Yitro, the father-in-law of Moses …said to Moses: “I, your father-in-law Yitro, am coming to you, and your wife and her two sons with her.” And Moses went to meet his father-in-law, and he bowed down and he kissed him, and each man asked about his fellow’s well-being, and they entered the tent. (18:5-7)

Yitro Advises Moses,
Figures de la Bible,1728

Moses completely ignores his wife and children, but he welcomes his father-in-law. Yitro says the God of Israel is the greatest of all gods, and burns an animal offering for God.4 The next morning, Yitro tells Moses how to delegate his workload and set up a judicial system for the Israelites.

Then Moses sent off his father-in-law, and he went away to his [own] land. (Exodus 18:27)

Moses and Yitro part on good terms, but Moses does not press his father-in-law to stay. Yitro leaves Moses’s wife and sons behind.

Over the next eleven months at Mount Sinai, Moses receives the Ten Commandments (twice) as well as many more laws. He has people killed for worshiping the Golden Calf, and he supervises the creation of the portable tent-sanctuary and the holy items in it. Finally, in this week’s Torah portion, everything is organized for the journey to the border of Canaan. Then Moses suddenly asks Chovav to come with them. Apparently his father-in-law returned to Mount Sinai for another visit; it was not a long journey from his home.

He [Chovav] said to him:  “I will not go, because I would go to my land, to my kindred.”(Numbers 10:30)

Then he [Moses] said:  “Please do not forsake us, because you know how we camp in the wilderness, and you can be eyes for us.  And if you go with us, then by that goodness with which God does for us, we will be good to you.” (Numbers 10:31-32)

Moses gives Chovav two reasons to travel with the Israelites: to help them navigate the wilderness, and to receive a share of the land that God promised to give them in Canaan.

Transporting the ark

What kind of help do the Israelites need? “You can be eyes for us” might be a request for Chovav to scout ahead for the best routes and camping places. But then the Torah says the ark itself is their scout.

And they set out from the mountain of God on a journey of three days, and the ark of the covenant of God set out in front of them on a journey of three days to scout out a resting place for them. And the cloud of God was over them by day, when they set out from the camp. (Numbers 10:33-34)

Earlier in this week’s Torah portion, we get a preview of the Israelites’ departure.

the cloud was taken up from over the Dwelling Place of the testimony, so the Israelites set out for their journeys away from the wilderness of Sinai. And the cloud stopped in the wilderness of Paran. (Numbers 10:11-12)

This cloud hovers over the Tent of Meeting when the ark is in residence.5 Now we learn that when the Israelites travel, the cloud travels with them. It may even lead them, as God’s pillar of cloud and fire did when they traveled from Egypt to Mount Sinai.

Whether the cloud or the ark is doing the scouting, the Israelites do not seem to need Chovav as a guide. Rashi6 proposed an alternate meaning of you know how we camp in the wilderness, and you can be eyes for us: if anything occurs that Moses and the elders do not understand, Chovav could enlighten them. In that case, perhaps Moses begs his father-in-law to go with him because he remembers how the man enlightened him about delegating judicial authority. Since then, the incident of the Golden Calf might have made Moses even less confident that he could handle everything himself.

There is no transition between Moses’ second plea to Chovav (Numbers 10:31-32) and the announcement that the Israelites set out with guidance from the ark and the cloud (Numbers 10:33-34). The Torah does not tell us whether Chovav changes his mind and accompanies his son-in-law and the Israelites after all. I imagine he is torn between his duties as a father and a priest of Midian, and his deep affection for his son-in-law.

Yitro adopts Moses into his family when he is homeless. When Moses arrives at Mount Sinai with thousands of Israelites, his father-in-law comes, embraces him, and gives him good advice. When Moses leaves for Canaan, he begs his father-in-law to come with him.

Perhaps it is Moses who gives Yitro the name Chovav, “one who loves”. He has cherished his father-in-law’s love, and wants it to continue.

1  The Israelites and their fellow-travelers arrive at Mount Sinai in the third month after leaving Egypt (Exodus 19:1-2) and leave Mount Sinai for Canaan on the twentieth day of the second month of the second year after leaving Egypt (Numbers 10:11-12).

2  Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki), Ibn Ezra (12th-century rabbi Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra), and Ramban (13th-century rabbi Moses ben Nachman, a.k.a. Nachmanides), explained that Moses’ father-in-law was called Yitro until he decided to worship only the God of Israel4, and then his name was changed to Chovav—according to Ramban3, because he “loved” God’s teaching. Reueil was actually Yitro’s father, but Tzipporah and her sisters also called their grandfather “Father”.

A common modern theory is that the story of Moses’ marriage in Exodus 2:16-21 was written by the “J” source, someone from the southern kingdom of Judah, who thought of Moses’ father-in-law as Reueil.  The other three stories in Exodus that include Moses’ father-in-law were written by the “E” source, someone from the northern kingdom of Israel, who thought of the man as Yitro. The redactor who compiled the book of Exodus from these two sources left in both names. (See Richard Elliott Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed, HarperCollins, San Francisco, 2003.)

3  Exodus 4:18.

4  The classic commentators cite Exodus 18:11-12 as proof of Yitro’s “conversion”. I suspect that the Midianite priest was already familiar with the God of Israel, and may have pointed out Mount Sinai to Moses, since it was in Yitro’s territory.

5  Exodus 40:36-37.

6  Rashi is the acronym for 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.

Haftarat Pekudei—1 Kings: More, Bigger, Better

March 6, 2016 at 6:41 am | Posted in Kings 1, Pekudei | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Pekudei (Exodus 35:1-40:38). The haftarah in the Sefardi tradition is 1 Kings 7:40-50; the haftarah in the Ashkenazi tradition is 1 Kings 7:51-8:21.

More, bigger, better.

Moses assembles the first roofed structure for the God of Israel at the end of the book of Exodus, in this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei.  It is a small tent: 10 by 30 cubits (about 15 by 45 feet or 4½ by 13½ meters).

temple comparisons 3Both options for this week’s haftarah are about the temple King Solomon builds in Jerusalem.  A tall building of stone and cedar, its footprint is 20 by 60 cubits (about 30 by 90 feet or 9 by 27 meters). Solomon’s temple is four times as big as Moses’ tent sanctuary—and it needs to be. As the main temple in the capital of a nation-state, it must accommodate many priests.  The tent sanctuary has to be disassembled and reassembled whenever the Israelites move to a new camp in the wilderness, and only Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons go inside.

Like most religions in the ancient Near East, the religion outlined in the Hebrew Bible makes a distinction between public worship and the rituals conducted by priests. The public place of worship is the open courtyard in front of the sanctuary, where animals and grain products are offered at the altar. Only priests are allowed to go inside the tent or temple.

When priests move from serving at the altar to serving inside the building, they stop to wash their hands and feet. So when Moses is setting up the portable sanctuary for the first time,

…he put the basin between the Ohel Mo-eid and the altar, and he place there water for washing. And from it Moses and Aaron and his sons washed their hands and their feet. When they came into the Ohel Mo-eid and when they approached the altar they washed, as God had commanded Moses. (Exodus/Shemot 40:30-32)

Ohel Mo-eid (אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד) = Tent of Meeting.  From ohel (אֹהֶל) = tent and mo-eid (מוֹעֵד) = meeting, meeting place, appointed time or place.

Basin on wheeled stand, Solomon's Temple

One of ten basins
in Solomon’s Temple

The courtyard in front of Solomon’s much bigger temple has a huge bronze “sea” resting on twelve bronze oxen. (See last week’s post, Haftarah for Vayakheil: Symbolic Impressions.) In addition to this much more impressive basin, Solomon’s master artisan makes ten smaller bronze basins on elaborate wheeled stands covered with engraved spirals, cherubim/keruvim, lions, and palm trees.

And he placed five stands at the entrance of the bayit on right and five at the entrance of the bayit on the left… (1 Kings 7:39)

bayit (בָּיִת) = house, important building, household.

Why settle for one small basin when you could have a giant “sea” and ten basins?

Both Moses’ sanctuary and Solomon’s temple are divided into two rooms: a main hall and a smaller chamber in back for the holy of holies. King Solomon adds a front porch with two gigantic bronze columns.

The main room of Moses’ sanctuary contains only three sacred ritual objects: a gold incense altar, a gold-plated table for display bread, and a solid gold lampstand with seven oil lamps.

The main hall of Solomon’s temple has the same three items, also gold—but the lampstands and perhaps the tables have multiplied.

Menorah

Menorah

When Moses assembles everything in this week’s Torah portion,

…he put the lampstand in the Ohel Mo-eid opposite the table, on the south side of the sanctuary. And he lit up the lamps before God, as God had commanded Moses. (Exodus 40:24-25)

Instead of placing one lampstand on the right side of the main hall, King Solomon’s crew positions five lampstands on each side.

And Solomon made all the vessels that were in the House of God, the gold altar and the gold table on which was the display bread and the pure gold lampstands, five on the right side and five on the left side in front of the inner chamber, and the gold blossom [decorations] and lamps and wick cutters …(1 Kings 7:48-49)

In the first book of Kings, Solomon’s temple contains only one bread table.

And Solomon made all the equipment that was in the bayit of God: the gold altar and the gold table that had the display bread upon it… (1 Kings 7:48)

But by the fourth century B.C.E., when the two books of Chronicles were written, the bread table had multiplied.

And he made ten tables and he set them in the main hall, five on the right side and five on the left side; and he made a hundred gold sprinkling-basins. (2 Chronicles 4:8)

After all, if one table is good, ten tables must be better.

The inner chamber in both the tent and the temple contains only the ark of the covenant and two golden cherubs/keruvim, hybrid beasts with wings. (See my post Terumah: Cherubs are Not for Valentine’s Day.)

Ark with Keruvim, one possibility

Ark with Keruvim

In the Tent of Meeting, the keruvim are part of the lid of the ark, one hammered out of the solid gold at each end. Their wings tilt toward each other, enclosing an empty space above the lid, a space from which God sometimes speaks. (See my post Pekudei & 1 Kings: A Throne for the Divine.)

Since the ark is only about four feet long, a keruv wing cannot be more than two feet long. But in Solomon’s temple, each keruv is about fifteen feet tall and has a fifteen-foot wingspan. An earlier passage in the first book of Kings describes how they are carved out of olive wood and overlaid with gold, then set up in the back chamber so that each one touches a wall with one wingtip and the tip of the other keruv’s wing with the other. Since the ark is smaller than these statues, it fits underneath them.

The priests brought in the ark of the covenant of God to its place, to the inner chamber of the bayit, to the holy of holies, to underneath the wings of the keruvim. (1 Kings 8:6)

It is not clear whether the inner chamber of the temple now contains four keruvim—the small pair on the ark and the large pair standing on the floor—or just the two large ones. But either way, the principle of “more, bigger, better” applies even inside the holy of holies.

At the end of this week’s haftarah, when the temple is complete with all its furnishings, King Solomon proudly declares:

I certainly built an exalted bayit for You, an abode for you to rest in forever! (1 Kings 8:13)

When it comes to religious ritual objects, is more or bigger really better?

Anything made of precious metals would have provided a locus for worship that met the expectations of the Israelites Moses led through the wilderness. In Exodus, thanks to the tent sanctuary and its ritual objects, they no longer feel the need for a golden calf. And if the ritual objects were too large or too many, they would be too hard to transport through the wilderness.

Artist's Rendition of Solomon's Temple

Artist’s Rendition
of Solomon’s Temple

The capital of a new nation-state, however, needs not only a large and permanent temple, but also a large and glittering display to impress both foreign visitors and the nation’s citizens with the power of its religion. So in front of King Solomon’s temple are gigantic bronze columns, the oversized bronze “sea” on twelve bronze oxen, ten bronze lavers on elaborate stands, and a host of priests walking in and out of the building.  Inside, there are enough lampstands and tables to accommodate those priests as they perform the rituals, which would help reconcile them to a centralized religion.

In my own life, I have responded to religious cues on both scales, small and large. I know the calm, centering effect of lighting two candles for Shabbat, and the hushed tenderness of reading from a Torah scroll in an otherwise unremarkable room.  I also know the awe I feel when I stand at the ocean, in a forest of tall trees, or in a medieval cathedral (even though as a Jew, I am a foreign visitor there).

I do not want to lose either the personal connection of rituals with small sacred things, or the impersonal awe of encounters with vastness.  Both a tent and a temple are exalted places where God might rest.

Haftarat Vayekheil—1 Kings: Symbolic Impressions

March 3, 2016 at 2:44 pm | Posted in Kings 1, Vayakheil | 2 Comments
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Vayakheil (Exodus 35:1-40:38). The haftarah in the Sefardi tradition is 1 Kings 7:13-26. (The haftarah in the Ashkenazi tradition is 1 Kings 7:40-50.)

Both Moses’ tent sanctuary and Solomon’s temple have a place for priests to wash their hands and feet before they enter the holy building. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil, the master craftsman Betzaleil makes a simple but symbolic wash-basin. (See my blog post Pekudei: Basin of Mirrors.)

Kiyor on stand, stone, Megiddo

Kiyor on stone stand, Megiddo

And he made the kiyor of bronze and its stand of bronze from the mirrors of the army of women who mobilized at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (Exodus 38:8)

kiyor (כִּיִוֹר) = basin, laver.

Solomon’s temple has ten such basins, cast out of regular molten bronze rather than mirrors, perched on elaborate wheeled stands. But King Solomon also has his master bronze artisan cast a water container so huge it is called a sea.

Then he made the yam of cast metal, ten cubits from its [lower] rim up to its circular rim, five cubits high, and a measuring-line of thirty cubits around its circumference. (1 Kings 7:23)

yam (יָם) = sea; in Canaanite religion, the name of the god of the sea.

This tub of water would be more than 14 feet (4 meters) across and more than 7 feet (2 meters) high. Since it would be impossible to climb into for bathing, commentators have concluded it had an outlet like a spigot at the bottom, to pour water into a shallower container for washing.

Bronze "Sea", artist's rendering from Encyclopedia Judaica

Bronze “Sea”, artist’s rendering from Encyclopedia Judaica

And gourd ornaments were below its rim all around the circle, ten per cubit, encompassing the yam all around; two rows of the gourd ornaments, cast in one piece with it. It was standing on twelve oxen: three facing north and three facing west and three facing south and three facing east. And the yam was on top of them, and all of their hind parts were inward. (I Kings 7:24-25)

The most striking difference between the yam in front of Solomon’s temple and the kiyor in front of Moses’ tent sanctuary is that the yam rests on twelve bronze cows—probably life-size—instead of on an ordinary framework.

Moses discourages the molding of any real animals (as opposed to the keruvim, the composite fantasy animals whose wings are spread over the ark). He smashes and grinds up the golden calf that Aaron makes in the book of Exodus. In a passage after this week’s hafatarah, the first book of Kings criticizes King Jereboam of Israel for putting golden calves in temples at Dan and Bethel.

Hathor

Hathor

This may have been a reaction to cow-worship in other religions. The religion of the Hittites to the north included a pair of bulls who carried the weather god Teshub on their backs. To the south, Egyptians worshipped the bull as Apis, the avatar of the gods Ptah and Osiris, and the cow as the goddess Hathor.

Yet throughout the bible, the twelve bronze oxen supporting the yam in front of Solomon’s temple are treated as perfectly acceptable.

Is the huge tub of water in front of Solomon’s temple called the yam simply because it is so large, or does it evoke the Canaanite god named Yam? Are the twelve oxen simply decorative, or do they inspire awareness of bull and cow worship?

Throughout history, people have viewed symbols of the divine in two ways.  Some people consider a symbolic object or building as a way to evoke the ineffable. Its beauty and impressiveness are like an arrow pointing to the divine, and its specific details (such as fruit, water, architecture that reaches toward the sky) allude to ideas about the divine.

Other people see symbolic things in a more concrete way.  A god visits a building or enters a statue. Carrying out rituals in sacred buildings with sacred objects is essential for pleasing the god.

Either way, symbols are important—and often enduring. Even today, Mormons conduct baptisms and sealings in copies of the yam perched on twelve oxen.

One question remains, for King Solomon and for us today:  Which symbols from other cultures and from the history of our own culture or religion can enhance our lives, and which symbols should be discarded?

Anyone want a bronze ox?

Haftarat Ki Tissa—1 Kings: Ecstatic versus Rational Prophets

February 24, 2016 at 10:21 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa, Kings 1 | 1 Comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11-34:31), and the haftarah is 1 Kings 18:1-39.

And Elijah said to the people: I am the only navi left for God, and the neviyim of the Baal are 450 men. (1 Kings 18:22)

navi (נָבִיא) = prophet. (From the root verb niba (נבּא) = raved; conveyed the word of God.)

neviyim (נְבִיאִִים) = plural of navi.

The Hebrew Bible uses the word navi for two kinds of people: those who go into an altered state in order to experience God, and those who hear God whether they want to or not.

Moses by Ivan Kramskoy, 1861

Moses by Ivan Kramskoy, 1861

In the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses is the prophet who hears God directly, whenever God wants to speak to him. When God first speaks to him at the burning bush, Moses tries to turn down God’s mission, but later he gets used to passing on God’s words to Pharaoh and the Israelites. God also uses Moses to signal miracles, both by words and by raising his staff or his hand.  He is a full-service prophet, but he never goes into a prophetic ecstasy.

The book of Numbers/Bemidbar gives us an example of a non-Israelite prophet who does not rave in ecstasy, but hears and must obey God’s commands. First Bilam hears God’s words in dreams, but by the end of his story God is channeling poetic prophecies to him directly. (See my post Balak: Three Places to Be Blessed.)

There are also bands of Israelite prophets who go into an altered state and speak in ecstasy, but do not hear or convey God’s commands. In one episode in the first book of Samuel, King Saul sends messengers to seize David, whom the prophet Samuel has anointed behind Saul’s back.

And they saw a group of the neviyim nibim, and Samuel standing stationed over them. And the spirit of God came over the messengers of Saul, vayitnabu, even they. And they told Saul, and he sent other messengers, vayitnabu, even they. Then Saul sent a third group of messengers, vayitnabu, even they. (1 Samuel 19:20-21)

nibim (נִבְּאִים) = speaking in ecstasy; raving.

vayitnabu (וַיִּתְנַבְּאוּ) = and they spoke in prophetic ecstasy; and they raved as if insane.

Next Saul goes himself in search of David.

And he walked there, to Nayot in Ramah, and the spirit of God came over him, even him, and he continued walking, vayitnabei until he entered Nayot in Ramah. Then he stripped off his clothes, even he, vayitnabei, even he, in front of Samuel, and he fell naked… (1 Samuel 19:23-24)

vayitnabei (וַיִּתְנַבֵּא) = and he spoke in prophetic ecstasy; and he raved.

The two kinds of neviyim could be easily distinguished; one kind quietly listens to God’s words and then speaks and acts like a rational person, while the other kind is overcome by God’s spirit and speaks and acts like a madman.

*

In this week’s haftarah Elijah is a navi in the tradition of Moses: he hears God while he is in his normal consciousness, he tells God’s words to other people, and he serves as a conduit for God’s miracles. He also thinks up a plan to achieve God’s ends.

The 450 prophets of Baal, on the other hand, are neviyim who induce an altered state of prophetic ecstasy in themselves.

Bronze figure of Baal holding thunder and lightning

Bronze figure of Baal holding thunder and lightning

 

At this time, the northern kingdom of Israel is ruled by King Ahab, who welcomes the worship of the Canaanite gods Asherah (a mother goddess) and Baal (a god of weather, especially lightning and rain). Ahab’s wife Jezebel, daughter of the king of Sidon, supports hundreds of prophets who serve these two gods, but wants to exterminate all the prophets of the God of Israel.

Since Israel under King Ahab views Baal as the god in charge of weather, Elijah warns Ahab that it will not rain again until he, the servant of God, says so. Then Elijah flees and hides east of the Jordan while Israel suffers three years of drought.

This week’s haftarah begins:

And it was much later, and the word of God happened to Elijah in the third year, saying: Go, appear to Ahab; then I will send rain over the face of the earth. (1 Kings 18:1)

When Elijah confronts King Ahab again, he requests a contest.

Now send, gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the 450 neviyim of the Baal and the 400 neviyim of the Asherah who eat at the table of Jezebel. (1 Kings 18:19)

Instead of killing Elijah on the spot, the king arranges a contest between God and Baal. (The neviyim of the goddess Asherah drop out of the story at this point.) Ahab probably expects Elijah and the God of Israel to lose. After all, God will have only one prophet, Elijah; Baal will have 450. On Mount Carmel God’s altar is in ruins; Baal’s altar is in good repair. The winning side will be the one whose god who answers with fire; lightning is one of Baal’s specialties.

Once everyone has gathered at Mount Carmel, Elijah says:

How long will you keep hopping back and forth between two crutches? If God is the god, follow Him; but if it is the Baal, follow him!  And the people did not answer a word. (1 Kings 18:21)fire

So the contest begins.  Each side gets its altar, a bull to butcher, and a stack of wood. When each sacrifice is prepared, the prophets will call on their gods.  The Israelites agree that the god who answers by setting the wood on fire will be their god henceforth.

Elijah lets the neviyim of Baal go first.

…and they called in the name of the Baal, saying: Answer us! But there was no voice and there was no answer. Then they hopped around on the altar that was prepared. And at noon Elijah mocked them, and said:  Call in a louder voice! After all, he is a god. Maybe he is chatting, or maybe he is preoccupied, or maybe he is on the road. Maybe he is sleeping, and he will wake up.

And they called in a louder voice, and they cut themselves with daggers and with lances, as is their custom, and blood poured out over them. And noon passed, vayitnabu, until the time of the afternoon offering, but no one answered and no one paid attention. (1 Kings 18:26-29)

The neviyim of Baal did everything they could to work themselves into a prophetic ecstasy, but their speech sounded like insane raving—especially in light of Elijah’s mockery and the lack of response from Baal.

Then Elijah repaired the altar for the God of Israel, laid out his bull offering on the wood, and had twelve jugs of water poured over it, so everyone would see that no ordinary fire could burn there. Then he said:

Elijah and Ahab at Mt. Carmel, Zurich Bible

Elijah and Ahab at Mt. Carmel, Zurich Bible

God, god of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, today may it be known that You are elohim in Israel and I am Your servant, and at Your word I did all these things. Answer me, God, answer me, and this people will know that You, God, are the god… And the fire of God fell, and it ate up the rising-offering and the wood and the stones and the dirt, and it licked up the water in the trench. And all the people saw, and they fell on their faces and said: God, He is the elohim! God, He is the elohim! (1 Kings 18:36-39)

Later that day, it finally rains.

And the winner is … not only the God of Israel, but also his rational navi.

Does this mean the bible prefers non-ecstatic prophets?  Not quite. The bands of raving Israelite neviyim are not criticized in either the book of Numbers or the first book of Samuel. There is nothing wrong with entering an altered state in order to experience God’s presence.

But experiencing God’s presence is different from hearing God’s words. A navi like Moses or Elijah hears God whether he wants to or not, and must keep his head in order to act on God’s words, whether he is passing on divine information, signaling a miracle, or, in this week’s haftarah, elaborating on a hint from God (Go, appear to Ahab; then I will send rain over the face of the earth) in order to make the right things happen.

May all of us who engage in religion remember that experiencing God in an altered state, or even in an especially good worship service, is not the same as serving God. To truly serve God, we must listen for the divine word or inspiration during our everyday lives, and think carefully before we act.

Devarim: Enough Already

July 24, 2015 at 12:37 am | Posted in Devarim, Va-etchannan | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

When Moses begins his book-length speech, God sounds different.  I notice it every year when I read the first Torah portion in Deuteronomy/Devarim (“Words”).

Cloud over the portable sanctuary

Cloud over the portable sanctuary

For example, when the Israelites finish all their preparations and leave Mount Sinai in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, God does not need to say anything; the Israelites simply follow the divine cloud:

And it was in the second year, in the second month, on the 20th of the month, the cloud was lifted from over the sanctuary of the testimony, and the Children of Israel pulled out from the wilderness of Sinai for their journey.  And the cloud rested in the wilderness of Paran. (Numbers 10:11-12)

Here is how Moses describes the departure in Deuteronomy:

God, our god, spoke to us at Choreiv [Sinai], saying:  Rav-lakhem sitting still at this mountain!  Face about, pull out, and come to the highlands of the Emori and…the land of the Canaanite… (Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:6-7)

rav (רַב) = abundant, plenty, huge, many, much, too much.

lakhem (לָכֶם) = for you, to you, belonging to you.  (“You” is plural in lakhem.  The singular is lakh.)

Rav-lakhem (רַב־לָכֶם) = Too much for you!  You have too much!  (Or in Yiddish-inflected English, “Enough already!”)

Not only is God giving verbal orders, instead of merely using the pre-arranged signal of the lifting cloud; God also sounds impatient and a little crabby.  God protests that the people have spent “too much” time “sitting still at this mountain”.

I can see why the Israelites might want to linger at the foot of Mount Sinai.  When they first arrive in the book of Exodus/Shemot, they make the Golden Calf instead of trusting that Moses will return from the mountaintop with God’s instructions.  Thousands are killed as a result, first by Moses’ Levite tribe and then by a plague from God.  Moses talks God into giving the people another chance, and they spend a year at Sinai living on manna and fabricating all the components of the portable sanctuary for God. The food is sufficient, the work is pleasant, and no one bothers them, neither human nor divine. Naturally they are reluctant to change their comfortable way of life.

And naturally God, whose grand plan requires the conquest of Canaan, gets impatient with them and says, “Rav lakhem!  Too long for you!”

God snaps Rav lakhem! again later in Moses’s story, when the Israelites set out from Kadeish-Barnea to make their second attempt to enter the “promised land”. (The first one fails when fear paralyzes the people and they refuse to cross the southern border of Canaan in the desert.  God makes them wait in the wilderness for 38 years, until most of the old generation has died, and then lets them try again by a different route.)

Detour of Israelites

Detour of Israelites

In both Numbers and Deuteronomy, the second time that the Israelites head toward Canaan they go east first, hoping to pass through the kingdom of Edom and then continue north along the shore of the Dead Sea opposite Canaan, finally crossing over at the Jordan River.  But the king of Edom refused to let the people go through his country.

According to Numbers, Moses simply leads the Israelites south, so they can circle around Edom. Two things happen on the way:  At Mount Hor, Aaron dies and the people pause to mourn him for the traditional 30 days; and at a sea of reeds (different from the one between Egypt and Mount Sinai) they complain about the manna, so God lets poisonous snakes bite them. (See my post Chukkat: Facing the Snake). As soon as they reach the wilderness east of Edom, they head north.

The story sounds different when Moses tells it in Deuteronomy.  In this version, the people head toward the sea of reeds south of Edom, but they wander around the skirts of Mount Seir in Edom until God scolds them.

And we turned and we pulled out toward the wilderness on the way to the sea of reeds, as God had spoken to me, and we circled around the mountain of Seir many days.  Then God said to me, saying:  Rav-lakhem, circling around this mountain!  Face about, tzafonah!  (Deuteronomy 2:1-3)

tzafonah (צָפֹנָה) = northward. (From the root verb tzafan, צָפַן = hid; stored treasure.)

Once again God gets impatient with the Israelites for delaying.  But there is nothing safe or pleasant about the snake-infested wilderness around hostile kingdom of Edom.  The people are not lingering because they are comfortable where they are.  The only possible reason for delay is so that they can complain (and then recover from snake-bite).

Perhaps this time, God’s Rav-lakhem means “Too much complaining from you, as you circle around this mountain!”  Instead of grumbling and insulting God’s manna, they should turn and face the tzafan, the treasure God has stored up for them in the part of Canaan to their north.

In next week’s Torah portion, Va-Etchannan, God uses the phrase with a singular “you” to snap at Moses.

But God was cross with me because of you, and would not listen to me.  And God said to me:  Rav-lakh!  Do not speak to Me again about this matter!  (Deuteronomy 3:26)

In the book of Numbers, God declares the Moses will not enter Canaan because he says the wrong thing to the people at the Waters of Merivah; and Moses does not protest God’s ruling.

But in Deuteronomy, Moses blames the people for God’s anger at him, and says he begged God to let him cross over the Jordan after all.  God said Rav-lakh! because Moses tried to reopen a subject that should have been settled. Both God and Moses seem irascible in the passage from Deuteronomy. I think God’s exclamation could be translated: “You’ve said too much already!”

Why is God more impatient in Deuteronomy than in Numbers?

Modern scholars point out a number of differences between the language of the two books, and conclude that they were written in different centuries.  (For example, Richard Elliott Friedman dates much of Numbers to the P source in the 6th century B.C.E., after the fall of the first temple.  He dates Deuteronomy to the reign of King Josiah a century earlier, circa 640-610.  According to this dating, God snaps Rav lakhem! and Rav lakh! in the earlier account.  In the later account, God is silent.)

Traditional commentary generally ignores the differences in language between Deuteronomy and Numbers.  It addresses the small but telling differences in content by explaining that in Deuteronomy Moses selected the key events the new generation needed to know before they entered Canaan, and related them the way the people needed to hear them.

Sometimes we do need a god who reacts like an exasperated human being, a god like the one in the first two portions of Deuteronomy.  When we feel safe and comfortable where we are, the way Moses portrays the Israelites at Mount Sinai, we are likely to ignore a signal like a rising cloud.  We need to hear a divine voice saying Rav lakhem! to get us unstuck, so we will take on the next challenge.

When we get so caught up in our complaints that we forget the goal we are heading toward, like the Israelites in snake country south of Edom, we need to hear a divine voice saying Rav lakhem! to jolt our awareness back to the hidden treasure we need to find.

And when we keep trying to change what cannot be changed, the way Moses begs God to reconsider and let him go to Canaan, we need to hear a divine voice saying Rav lakh! to shut us up, so we can concentrate on making the most of the life that we do have.

The impatient God in the beginning of Deuteronomy can still serve a purpose!

Balak, Pinchas & Mattot:  How Moabites Became Midianites

July 8, 2015 at 8:16 pm | Posted in Balak, Mattot, Pinchas | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Moabites and Midianites are two distinct peoples in most of the Bible.  Yet they appear to be interchangeable in a story about sex and revenge that runs through three Torah portions in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar: the portions Balak (last week), Pinchas (this week), and  Mattot (next week).

The conflation between Moabites and Midianites begins after the Israelites have marched through the wilderness east of Moab and conquered the Amorite kingdom to its north. The Israelites camp on the east bank of the Jordan River, in their newly captured territory.

Balak, the king of Moab, is afraid they will go south and attack his country next.

And [the king of] Mo-av said to the elders of Midyan: Now the congregation will nibble away all our surroundings, as an ox nibbles away the grass of the field. (Numbers/Bemidbar 22:4)

1. Midian in Genesis, Exodus, and 1 Kings. 2. Midian in Numbers and Judges.

1. Midian in Genesis, Exodus, and 1 Kings.
2. Midian in Numbers and Judges.

Mo-av (מוֹאָב), Moab in English = a kingdom east of the Dead Sea; the people of this kingdom. (The actual etymology is unknown. Genesis/Bereishit  19:36-37 claims the Moabites are descended from incest between Lot and one of his daughters, and implies that the daughter named her son Mo-av to mean “from father”.  The actual Hebrew for “from father” would be mei-av מֵאָב.) The Moabite language was a Hebrew dialect, and appears on a circa 840 B.C.E. stele about a war between Israel and a Moabite king named Mesha.

Midyan (מִדְיָן), Midian in English = a territory occupied by the people of Midian, whose geographic location differs in various parts of the Bible. (Possibly from the Hebrew dayan (דַּיָּן) = judge. Midyan might mean “from a judge”, “from judgement”, or “from a legal case”.) References to a people called Madyan or Madiam appear in later Greek and Arabic writings, and Ptolemy wrote of a region of Arabia called Modiana (see #1 on map), but archeology has not yet proven the existence of a country of Midian.  The Midianites may have been a nomadic people without a fixed territory.

When King Balak sends a delegation to the prophet Bilam to ask him to curse the Israelites, it consists of the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian. (Numbers 22:7).

When Bilam arrives at the mountaintop overlooking the Israelite camp, King Balak is there with “all the nobles of Moab (Numbers 23:6, 23:17) but apparently no Midianites.

After Bilam fails to curse the Israelites and goes home, a brief story in the portion Balak describes how some young women invite the Israelites to participate in ritual feasts to their gods, and many Israelites end up bowing down to the local god, Baal Peor. (See my post  Balak: False Friends?) At first, these women are identified as Moabites.

And Israel settled among the acacias, and the people began to be unfaithful with the daughters of Moab. (Numbers 25:1)

Pinchas Impales Zimri and Cozbi, by J.C. Weigel

Pinchas Impales Zimri and Kozbi,
by J.C. Weigel

Next, an Israelite man brings a foreign woman into the Tent of Meeting itself for sex. Aaron’s grandson Pinchas saves the day by quickly spearing the two of them. The woman is identified as a Midianite, and in the next Torah portion, Pinchas, we find out she is a woman of rank.

And the name of the  Midianite woman who was struck down was Kozbi, daughter of Tzur, the head of the people of a paternal household from Midian. And God spoke to Moses, saying: Be hostile toward the Midianites, and strike them down. Because they were hostile to you through their deceit, when they deceived you about the matter of Peor… (Numbers 25:15-18)

Suddenly the Moabite women who invited the Israelites to feasts for their gods are being called Midianites!

In the next Torah portion, Mattot (“Tribes”), God reminds Moses to attack the Midianites, but does not mention the Moabites.

And they arrayed against Midian, as God had commanded Moses, and they killed every male. And the kings of Midian they killed …five kings of Midian, and Bilam son of Beor, they killed by the sword. But the children of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their little ones… (Numbers 31:7-9)

This story ends with the slaughter of the captive Midianite women. (See my post Mattot: Killing the Innocent.)

And Moses said to them: You let every female live! Hey, they were the ones who, by the word of Bilam, led the Israelites to apostasy against God in the matter of Peor, so there was a plague in the assembly of God. So now, kill every male among the little ones and every woman who has known a man by lying with a male, kill! (Numbers 31:15-17)

Here Moses declares that it was Midianite women who seduced Israelites into worshiping Baal Peor. The Moabite women are no longer mentioned.

When we look at the storyline over three Torah portions, the enemies of the Israelites seem to change from a coalition of Moabite and Midianite leaders, to Moabite men, to Moabite women, to Midianite women, to Midianites in general.  How can we explain the shift from Moabites to Midianites?

As usual when it comes to inconsistencies in the scripture, the commentary falls into three camps: the apologists, the scientists, and the psychologists. (A fourth camp of commentary is the mystics, who focus on individual phrases and words, and ignore inconsistencies in storylines.)booksThe Apologists

The apologists take the Torah as literal history, and find clever ways to explain apparent inconsistencies.

The Talmud considers Midian and Moab two separate nations that became allies against the Israelites. Thus men from both nations hire Bilam to curse the Israelites, and make their daughters seduce the Israelite men (in order to cause the God of Israel to abandon the Israelites and leave them vulnerable).

In one Talmud story, God tells Moses to spare Moab and attack only Midian because God wants to preserve the land of Moab for the birth of Ruth, the virtuous ancestor of King David. (Talmud Bavli, Bava Kama 38a-b.) Another tractate of the Talmud (Sotah 43a) says that the attack on Midian is actually vengeance for the episode in the book of Genesis when a band of Midianites buys Joseph from his brothers and sells him into slavery in Egypt.

Rashi (11th century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) wrote that the king of Moab consults the Midianites because he knows Moses spent a period of his life in Midian, and he wants to learn more about the leader of the Israelites. The elders of Midian choose to not only advise the king of Moab, but join forces with him in the campaign to seduce the Israelite men. According to Rashi, God orders Moses to attack only the Midianites because the Moab acted solely out of fear for their own nation, “but the Midianites became enraged over a quarrel which was not their own”.

Some 20th century commentary explains the conflation between Moabites and Midianites by concluding that Midian was not a separate kingdom, but a confederation of nomadic tribes. (This explains why the first Midianites Moses meets lived near Mount Sinai, while the Midianites in the book of Numbers live in or near Moab, several hundred miles away.)  According to this theory, King Balak recruits local Midianite elders in order to involve all the people living in Moab, and the two ethnic groups work together to weaken the Israelites.

This theory explains God’s order to kill the Midianites, but does not explain why God fails to order the death of Moabites who are not Midiainites.booksThe Scientists

The commentators I call “the scientists” use linguistic and archeological evidence to assign various parts of the biblical text to authors from different periods and with different agendas. Inconsistencies in a Torah story occur when two different sources are awkwardly combined by a redactor.

The “documentary hypothesis” about when various pieces of the Bible were written has been revised a number of times since it first became popular in the 19th century, but linguistic scholars have agreed that passages in the first five books of the Bible come from at least four original documents (and probably additional fragments), and were stitched together and edited by at least one redactor.

Richard Elliott Friedman’s The Bible with Sources Revealed (2003) proposes that the stories in the Torah portions Balak, Pinchas, and Mattot came from three different sources which were compiled and edited by a final redactor (perhaps the priest called Ezra the Scribe).Midian 2 charts

The two references to Midian (…to the elders of Midianin Numbers 22:4; … and the elders of Midian … in Numbers 22:7) were inserted into the Bilam story by the final redactor who compiled and edited the five books of the Torah in the 5th century B.C.E. This redactor (possibly Ezra) inserted the elders of Midian into the Bilam story in order to harmonize it with the later story of seduction by Midianite women.

According to Friedman, the bulk of the Torah portion Balak was written by the “E” source in the northern kingdom of Israel. The northern kingdom was often in conflict with Moab across the Jordan River, and at one point conquered the whole country, only to be defeated by a new king of Moab named Mesha. The “E” source considered Moab an enemy.

Friedman credits the redactor of J/E with writing the story of the Moabite women seducing the Israelites into worshiping Baal Peor. The J/E redactor combined the “E” scripture from the northern kingdom of Israel with the “J” scripture from the southern kingdom of Judah, and added a few other stories—including the story of the Moabite women, according to Friedman.

The “P” source, which Friedman assigns to the Aaronide priests at the time of King Hezekiah of Judah, wrote the next story, in which a man from the tribe of Shimon and the daughter of a Midianite king go into the Tent of Meeting to copulate, and are speared in the act by Aaron’s grandson Pinchas. God then makes a covenant with Pinchas, and tells Moses to attack the Midianites.

Friedman notes that the “P” source was responding to a conflict at the time between priests who claimed descent from Aaron, and a clan of Levites called “Mushi” who may have been descendants of the two sons of Moses and his Midianite wife, Tzipporah. The first book of Chronicles, written between 500 and 350 B.C.E., says their descendants were the Levites in charge of the treasury. This story by “P” praises Aaron’s grandson, while denigrating Midianites.

In the next Torah portion, Mattot, the “P” source records the story of the Israelite’s war on the five kings of Midian, and has Moses blame the Midianite women for causing Israelite men to worship Baal Peor.

The approach used by Friedman and other scientific commentators certainly explains why this part of the book of Numbers keeps adding or replacing Moabites with Midianites. But it does not address the psychological insights of the stories when they are read as if they are episodes in a novel or mythic epic.booksThe Psychologists

The commentators I call “the psychologists” read the Bible as it stands, viewing it as a collection of mythic tales rolled into one grand epic, and mine it for insights about human nature.

One of the first psychological commentaries appears in a 5th century C.E. story in the Midrash Rabbah for Numbers. Referring to the Torah story about an Israelite man bringing a Midianite princess into the Tent of Meeting for sex, the Midrash says: “He seized her by her plait and brought her to Moses. He said to him: ‘O son of Amram! Is this woman permitted or forbidden?’ He answered him: ‘She is forbidden to you.’ Said Zimri to him: ‘Yet the woman whom you married was a Midianitess!’ Thereupon Moses felt powerless and the law slipped from his mind. All Israel wailed aloud; for it says, they were weeping (25:6). What were they weeping for? Because they became powerless at that moment.”

Yitro and Moses

Yitro and Moses

As a psychological commentator myself, I would point out that until the Israelites reach the Jordan north of Moab, all their contacts with Midianites have been positive.  Moses himself is sheltered by a Midianite priest, Yitro, when he is fleeing a murder charge in Egypt.  Yitro becomes his beloved mentor and father-in-law.  The Torah does not say Moses loves his wife, Yitro’s daughter Tzipporah, but she is the mother of his two sons, and she does rescue him from death on the way back to Egypt.

When Moses is leading the Israelites from Egypt toward Mount Sinai, his Midianite family arrives at the camp, and Moses greets his father-in-law with joy and honor. Yitro calls the god of Israel the greatest of all gods, makes an animal offering to God, and gives Moses good advice about the administration of the camp. (Exodus 18:5-27)

Moses and the Israelites do not encounter Midianites again until 40 years later, about 500 miles to the northeast, and in the book of Numbers. These Midianites are hostile instead of benevolent, determined to ruin the Israelites by alienating them from their god.

Does Moses feel betrayed by the people he married into?  Does he feel powerless, as the Midrash Rabbah claims, when his own affiliation with Midian seems to contradict his orders to destroy Midian?

Does it break his heart to see Midianite women, kin to his own wife, seducing Israelite men away from God?  Does it break his heart to transmit God’s orders to kill all the Midianites near Moab, including the captive women?

Does he turn against his own Midianite wife and sons then?

Or does he reassure himself, and perhaps others, that the Midianite tribes in Moab are different from the Midianite tribes near Mount Sinai; that there are good Midianites and bad Midianites, and it is right to marry the good ones, and kill the bad ones?

If Moses distinguishes between good Midianite tribes and bad Midianite tribes, does it occur to him that within a tribe there might be good and bad individuals?  That wholesale slaughter, although the usual procedure in war, is actually unjust because a number of innocent people die with the guilty?

Judging by Moses’ long speech to the Israelites in the book of Deuteronomy (which scientific commentators attribute to sources written after 640 B.C.E.), Moses and the Torah continue to condemn tribes and nations wholesale, without regard for individual members.

Just as Moses judges all Midianites in the five northern tribes as evil because of the actions of a few of their members, human beings throughout history have made judgements about undifferentiated groups.  It is so much easier than discriminating among individuals. From Biblical times to the present day, some people have judged all Jews as bad.

Today, I catch myself ranting against Republicans, as if every person who voted Republican in the last election were responsible for the particular propaganda efforts and political actions that I deplore. A psychological look at the story of Moses and the Midianites near Moab reminds me that I need to be careful not to slander the innocent with the guilty.

 

Note: This blog completes the book of Numbers  for this year (2015 in the modern calendar, 5775 in the Hebrew calendar). My next blog post will be in two weeks, when we open the book of Deuteronomy.

 

 

Korach: Buried Alive

June 18, 2015 at 3:18 pm | Posted in Korach | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

tent pegThen Moses got up and went to Datan and Aviram, and the elders of Israel went after him. And he spoke to the assembly, saying: Please move away from the tents of these wicked men, and do not touch anything that is theirs, lest you are swept away with their offense! (Numbers/Bemidbar 16:25-26)

Datan and Aviram, two men from the tribe of Reuben, have been arguing that Moses should no longer lead the Israelites. They pointed out that under Moses’ leadership, the people did not get into a land flowing with milk and honey, but instead are stuck dying in the wilderness.

They did not mention that God decreed 40 years in the wilderness because all the men of Israel except Moses, Aaron, Caleb, and Joshua refused to cross the border into Canaan.  (See last week’s post, Shelach-Lekha: Mutual Distrust.)

At that time, most of the Israelites wanted to choose a new leader to take them back to Egypt. But after Moses reported that they would die in the wilderness when they reached the age of 60, but the next generation, those under age 20, would enter the “promised land,” the people accepted God’s decree.

So they went up away from around the dwelling-place of Korach, Datan, and Aviram. But Datan and Aviram went out and were standing at the entrance of their tents, and their wives and their children and their little ones. (Numbers/Bemidbar 16:27)

Datan and Aviram can hear Moses’ warning, so they have an opportunity to send their own families out of harm’s way, but they do not. And in the patriarchal society of the ancient Israelites, it is rare for women or children to act on their own.

Do the two rebels believe that God will not “sweep them away” for their offense? After more than two years of miracles demonstrating cooperation between God and Moses, do they think God will let them—and their families—live?

If so, Moses is determined to prove once and for all that he is only serving God, not grabbing power on his own initiative.

The Death of Korach, Datan, and Abiram, by Gustave Dore

The Death of Korach, Datan, and Abiram, by Gustave Dore

And Moses said: Through this you will know that God sent me to do all these deeds, that they did not [come] from my own mind. If these die like every human dies, and if the fate of every human is their fate, God did not send me. But if Hashem creates a new creation, and the ground opens up her mouth and swallows them and all that is theirs, and they go down alive to Sheol, then you will know that these men spurned God. (Numbers 16:28-30)

Sheol (שְׁאוֹל) = the underworld of the dead; a lightless, silent place where the  spirits of the dead lie in graves—as their bodies lie in graves closer to the surface of the earth. (The etymology of Sheol is uncertain, but the word may come from the root verb sha-al, שׁאל = inquired, asked for, asked about.)

In the Hebrew Bible, all the dead “go down” to Sheolafter they die.  The “new creation” Moses promises is that Datan, Aviram, and “all that is theirs” will go down to Sheol while they are still alive.

And it happened, as he finished speaking all these words: the ground that was underneath them broke open. And the earth opened her mouth, and she swallowed them and their households … And they went down, they and all that was theirs, alive to Sheol, and the earth covered over them, and they were carried off from the midst of the congregation.  And all Israel that was around them fled at their noise, for they said: Lest the earth swallow us! (Numbers 16:31-34)

It sounds as if the families of Datan and Aviram go down screaming.

What happens to them after the earth swallows them? The Torah is silent. But the other 61 references to Sheol in the Bible make it clear that no one lives there.  It is the abode of all the dead, and only the dead. When the two families in this week’s Torah portion are buried alive, they suffocate and die.  Their corpses remain deep underground, and the spirits that had animated their bodies “sleep” forever in Sheol.

The Bible has no concept of an immortal soul that reunites with God after death.  Later Jewish writings use the Hebrew word neshamah  for such a soul, but in the Bible neshamah means only “breath” or “breathing person”. What goes to Sheol in the Bible, particularly in the Psalms, is the nefesh.

What man alive will never see death,

            will save his nefesh from the grip of Sheol? (Psalm 89:49)

 

nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = the “soul” that animates the body; throat, appetite, personality, individual, an individual’s life.

Ka-Egyptian hieroglyphA nefesh in Sheol retains the identity of the formerly living person, but it does not speak, experience feelings, or do anything except perhaps sleep. Unlike the Egyptian ka, which can eat, drink, and be waited on in the tomb after death, the Israelite nefesh simply lies or sleeps in Sheol. The best a man can hope for in Biblical eschatology is to die peacefully, so he can lie among his ancestors.

Jews did not develop any theory of an afterlife until the second century B.C.E.  The book of Daniel, written around 165 B.C.E., never mentions Sheol, but it does predict the bodily resurrection of the dead at the end of the world as we know it. The idea that an individual’s soul survives the death of the body and has its own experiences crept into Jewish writings in the first century C.E.  In the Talmud this independent, conscious soul might be punished for misdeeds after death in a hellish place called Gehenna.

But neither hell nor conscious souls exist in the book of Numbers. Datan and Aviram know they are risking immediate death without a conscious afterlife. And they know they are risking the same oblivion for their wives, children, and infants, who will receive no heavenly reward after death.

The last thing that they experience is the terror of being swallowed by the earth.  They go down alive to Sheol, and then their corpses, as well as their personalities, lie there inert, forever.

Datan and Aviram are stupid to dispute Moses’ leadership and his status as God’s favorite servant. But I think their real crime is ignoring the next generation, including their own children. By modern standards, these two men are so self-absorbed they view their wives and children as mere possessions, part of “all that is theirs”—as if these human beings who depend on them are already inanimate, silent, dead.

How many of us today are so caught up in the drama of our own lives that we ignore everyone else? That we find no comfort in the thought that our children, our students, the next generation, might lead good lives after we have died?

May we all learn to live as if there is no afterlife, as if our deeds in this world really matter, and as if the life of every other human being really matters.

Beha-alotkha and Shemot: Moses as Wet Nurse

June 1, 2015 at 8:05 pm | Posted in Beha-alotkha, Shemot | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Moses never wanted the job.

When God spoke out of the burning bush and assigned him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses tried to get out of it.  He objected:

Moses at the Burning Bush by Rembrandt van Rijn

Moses at the Burning Bush
by Rembrandt van Rijn

Hey! Lo ya-aminu me, and they will not listen to my voice, for they will say: Your god, God, did not appear. (Exodus 4:1)

Lo ya-aminu = They will not believe, they will not trust.  Lo (לֹא) = not.  Ya-aminu (יַאֲמִינוּ) = They will believe, be convinced by, put trust in, have faith in.  (From the root aman, אמן, which is also the root of amen (אָמֵן) = a solemn statement of confirmation or acceptance.  See last week’s post, Naso: Ordeal of Trust for the first use of “Amen” in the Torah.)

God gave Moses three miraculous signs to convince the Israelites that he really did speak for God.  But Moses still tried to turn down the job. Finally God compromised by giving Moses a partner: his older brother Aaron, who had stayed in Egypt when Moses fled to Midian many decades before.

The arrangement was that God would speak to Moses, Moses would speak to Aaron, and Aaron would deal directly with the people.  Moses accepted this arrangement—maybe because he had run out of excuses.

Moses and Aaron are still together in this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“when you bring up”), in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar.  But their roles have changed.  The big change came while the Israelites were camped at Mount Sinai, halfway between Egypt and the “promised land’ of Canaan.  When they first arrived at Mount Sinai, the people trusted God.  Sure, they had panicked a few times when there was a shortage of water or food, but each time Moses talked to God and God fixed the problem. So when they reached Mount Sinai, the people said:

Everything that God speaks we will do!  And God said to Moses: Hey! I myself will come to you in the thickness of the cloud, in order that the people will listen when I speak with you, and also ya-aminu in you forever. (Exodus 19:9)

Alas, while Moses is secluded inside God’s cloud on top of Mount Sinai for 40 days, the people feel abandoned and lose faith that Moses will return to them.  They ask Aaron to make a god to lead them, now that Moses has disappeared.

Gold calf, Temple of Baalat in Byblos

Gold calf, Temple of Baalat in Byblos

If Aaron were trustworthy as Moses’ co-leader, he would have reminded them that God explicitly forbade them to make gold or silver idols.  He might have redirected them toward making an acceptable offering to God.  Instead, Aaron made the Golden Calf, and the Israelites had a wild party.

When Moses returned and questioned him about it, Aaron lied about his own role—

So I said to them: Who has gold? They took it off themselves and they gave it to me, and I threw it away into the fire, and out came this calf (Exodus 32:24)

—and slandered the Israelites—

You yourself know the people, that they are bad. (Exodus 32:22)

The Midrash Rabbah on the Song of Songs, a collection of commentary from the 8th century C.E., said that the two breasts of the woman in the song symbolize Moses and Aaron, who were full of the milk of Torah. But Aaron fails as a wet-nurse when he fails to set appropriate limits for the “children” of Israel, and instead gives them their golden calf—and then denies his own responsibility for their downfall.

God and Moses between them kill thousands of the guilty, but they let Aaron live. Later they make him the high priest: the chief technician in charge of conducting rituals, looking impressive, handling holy objects, and diagnosing skin diseases.  But Moses is left as the people’s sole boss and spiritual leader.

He does his best to keep them encouraged and in line, but in this week’s Torah portion Moses finally cracks.

The people appear to be in good shape at the beginning of the book of Numbers.  They are marching from Mount Sinai to the border of Canaan in battle formation, with their portable sanctuary and all its holy objects in the middle, so they know God is with them. They have water to drink and manna to eat.

Then suddenly they are overcome with craving.

They weep and say:

Who will feed us basar? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic. But now nafsheinu are drying up; there is nothing except the manna before our eyes. (Numbers/Bemidbar 11:4-6)

basar (בָּשָׂר) = human flesh (skin and/or muscle); animal meat.

nafsheinu (נַפְשֵׁנוּ) = our souls, our lives, our throats, our appetites.

They are not actually hungry.  They are disgusted with God’s manna and, according to many commentators who point out the double meaning of basar, with God’s laws restricting sex partners. Perhaps they are fed up with the whole religion.  Or perhaps they have had their fill of spiritual experiences, long lists of rules, and the goal of taking over Canaan.  They get cranky. They want a break for immediate physical pleasure.

Moses heard the people weeping in their family groups, each one at the entrance of its tent, and God’s anger flared very hot; and in the eyes of Moses it was bad. And Moses said to God: Why do You do bad to your servant, and why have I not found favor in your eyes, that you put the burden of all this people on me?  Did I myself become pregnant with all this people, or did I myself give birth to them, that you say to me: Carry them in your bosom, like the omein carries the one who suckles, to the land that You swore to their forefathers? (Numbers 11:10-12)

omein (אֹמֵן) = guardian, substitute parent. (Literally, the reliable one, the dependable one; from the same root as ya-aminu and amen.)

Elsewhere in the Bible, an omein is a man in charge of bringing up a child; each of King Ahab’s underage children has an omein in the second book of Kings, and Mordecai is Esther’s omein in the book of Esther. The female form of this word, omenet, means wet-nurse or nanny.  Moses imagines himself not just as a parent to the Israelites, but as their wet-nurse, too.

Moses continues:

I am not able to carry all this people by myself alone, because they are too heavy for me! If thus You must do to me, please kill me altogether, if I have found favor in Your eyes, and don’t let me see my badness! (Numbers 11:14-15)

Moses has a hard enough time serving as the people’s sole spiritual leader and teaching them God’s directives. Being a nanny for thousands of ex-slaves is too much for him. e HeIf only they acted like mature adults, restraining their impulses and deferring immediate pleasure for the sake of higher goals!  Instead, the people are like small children—as immature as if they are still nursing. (Children in ancient Israel nursed until they were about four years old.)

Moses cannot bear to be a single mother.  He tells God he would rather die than continue to be their omein.

God tries to solve the problem by giving 70 elders some of Moses’ spirit of prophecy, so they can all help him. But in the rest of the book of Numbers, the elders prove insufficient to control the childish impulses of the Israelites. Either the elders are not mentioned, or in the case of Korach’s rebellion, they are part of the group that revolts and complains to Moses.

 

Child in a Tantrum, by Rembrandt van Rijn

Child in a Tantrum, by Rembrandt van Rijn

Have you ever been responsible for a small child who loses control and throws a tantrum?  Rational explanations go right over their heads; all they can think about is the physical gratification they want right now, the comfort that their parent or babysitting is denying them. Back when that child was my son, I had to fight hard to stay calm until I could calm him down.

Small children are totally dependent on their caregivers.  If they are to grow up into independent adults, rather than slaves, their omein or omenet must be totally dependable—emunah.

Yet all humans are imperfect, unable to rise successfully to every single challenge. I was not a perfect mother, but I did not give up, and now I am proud of my adult son.

Moses does not give up either, even though he did not give birth to the Israelites, nor ask for the job of being their nanny. When God lashes out at the people, Moses talks God out of God’s temper tantrum, and keeps everyone on the road to the future.

May everyone who is given responsibility for others find the fortitude to carry on.  May we all be more like Moses than Aaron.

 

In next week’s Torah portion, the Israelite spies return from Canaan and ten out of twelve report that the land is full of fearsome giants. Look for my next blog post about how the people weep and refuse to go—because this time they do not ya-aminu God.

Mishpatim & Ki Tissa: A Covenant in Writing

February 9, 2015 at 6:43 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa, Mishpatim | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

A covenant can be a comfort.  It’s reassuring to have a signed contract stating what you are required to do, and what the other party will do for you.  When we feel insecure about an arrangement, we say, “Can I have that in writing?”

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws”) includes the first covenant in the Torah that is backed up in writing.  Yet it is broken sooner than any of the unwritten covenants in the book of Genesis/Bereishit—because one of the covenantal parties is God.

A classic covenant between two human beings is the compact between Jacob and his father-in-law, Lavan. Jacob heads back to Canaan with the family and livestock he acquired by serving Lavan for 20 years. Lavan, who does not want to lose his best employee, catches up with him on the heights of Gilead. They argue over who owns what, and then Lavan says:

So now, let us go and cut a brit, I and you… (Genesis/Bereishit 31:44)

brit (בְּרִית) = covenant, pact, treaty.

Standing stone at Gezer, Israel

Standing stone
at Gezer, Israel

The two men set up a standing-stone and a mound of stones to serve as a boundary marker, a “witness”, and a sign of their brit.  Lavan announces the terms: neither man will pass that boundary with hostile intent; and in addition, Jacob will neither mistreat Lavan’s daughters nor take any additional wives.

Then each man swears by a different name of the same God. Finally, Jacob slaughters animals, and the two chieftains and their men feast on the mountain.

Both leaders carry out the terms of their brit. Each party gives up something that might be in his self-interest (invading the other’s territory) in order to gain something that is definitely in his self-interest (safety from invasion by the other). The terms are reasonable, and the men do not want to violate a treaty made with an accepted ritual in front of three kinds of witnesses: boundary stones, other human beings, and God.

A brit with God is not so straightforward.

The first two times God declares a brit with human beings, it is really a unilateral promise, with no obligation stipulated for the humans. In the Covenant of the Rainbow, God promises not to destroy the earth with a flood again. In the Covenant of the Pieces, God promises to give Canaan to Abraham’s descendants.

God’s third brit repeats that God will give Abraham’s descendants, and adds that God will “be a god” to them and make them “nations” and “kings”. Then God says:

This is my brit, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Let every male be circumcised. You shall all be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it will be a sign of the brit between Me and you. (Genesis 17:10-11)

Circumcision is the stipulated action for humans, the ritual, and the sign of the covenant, all in one. Jews have performed their part of the brit milah (Covenant of Circumcision) for thousands of years, with or without possession of the land of Canaan, because it is an act of dedication to God—and each infant boy or adult male convert only has to go through it once.

In the book of Exodus, when the Israelites reach Mount Sinai, God proposes a new brit, one that the commentary calls the Covenant of Blood. God gives the Israelites and their fellow-travelers the Ten Commandments, followed by a list of other laws, beginning with a second injunction against making “gods” of silver or gold, and ending (in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim) with: “you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”. (Exodus/Shemot 23:19)

In return for obeying all these laws, God promises the people that they will never get sick, their women will be fertile and never miscarry, none of their lives will be cut short, their enemies will run away from them, and they will gradually take over not only Canaan, but all the land from the Mediterranean to the eastern wilderness and from the Euphrates in the north to the Reed Sea in the south.

This is the third time God promises to give the Israelites possession of the Promised Land.  But it is the first and only time God promises to exempt the people from natural law by making them super-human, with bodies that are invulnerable to illness, infertility, miscarriage, and even accidental death. Such a deal!

Moses makes sure this new brit is ratified with elaborate ritual, symbolic reminders, and even a written copy.

Then Moses wrote down all the words of God, and he got up early in the morning, and he built an altar at the bottom of the mountain, and twelve standing-stones for the twelve tribes of Israel.   … and they slaughtered animal-offerings of wholeness  for God … And half of the blood he sprinkled over the altar. And he took the Book of the Brit and he read it in the ears of the people, and they said: Everything that God has spoken, we will do and we will listen! Then Moses took the blood and he sprinkled it over the people, and he said: Here is the blood of the brit that God has cut with you concerning all these words! (Genesis 24:4-8)

The blood from the animal offerings is sprinkled both on the symbol of God (the altar), and on the people (or at least the elders in front). The people ratify the brit by shouting “we will do and we will listen”, indicating their willingness to obey not only these laws, but also any future laws God chooses to give them.

According to 20th-century commentator Nahum Sarna, the ritual is completed when God gives Moses an even more impressive symbolic reminder: a pair of stone tablets on which God writes the teachings and commandments.

The people violate their part of the brit only 40 days later, in the Torah portion Ki Tissa. While Moses is receiving the stone tablets on top of Mount Sinai receiving, the Israelites below lose hope that he will ever return, and revert to their old ideas of God. When Moses comes down, the people are carousing in front of the Golden Calf, in clear violation of the rule against making a god of silver or gold. So the whole elaborate brit becomes null and void, and Moses smashes the tablets.

God never makes the Israelites super-human. But Moses does persuade God to forgive them. And God declares a second, modified brit in which God commits only to driving out the peoples living in Canaan. On their side, the Israelites must obey a list of rules that begins with refraining from cutting a brit with any of the peoples they are supposed to be displacing, and ends with “do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk”. (Exodus 34:10-26)

And God said to Moses: Write down for yourself these words, because according to these words I have cut a brit with you and with Israel. (Exodus 34:27)

Moses on south frieze of Supreme Court building, by Adolph Weinman

Moses on south frieze of Supreme Court building,
by Adolph Weinman

The Ten Commandments are not explicitly mentioned, but most commentators assume they are included in the words Moses carves on a second pair of stone tablets.  Later the Israelites make a golden ark, following God’s instructions, and Moses places the tablets inside.

The Israelites continue to backslide on obeying God’s rules (though there is no record that they ever cook a kid in its mother’s milk).  In the book of Joshua, God does not drive their enemies away, so the Israelites conquer most of Canaan by conventional warfare. Thus the second brit between God and the Israelites is also a failure.

Yet the Torah continues to call the ark containing the stone tablets aron ha-brit, “Ark of the Covenant”, and it remains the Israelites’ most revered object until it disappears during the fall of the first temple in Jerusalem.

A contract between two humans, or a treaty between two nations, is a practical affair. The obligations of both parties are feasible and spelled out clearly. The proper ritual and witnesses help to enforce the brit.

A brit between humans and God is more like a modern marriage covenant. Both parties make lifelong promises without any practical limitations.  The ritual, witnesses, symbols, and written documents have emotional importance, but they do not prevent either party from falling short. At some point, a spouse is psychologically unable to be as loving and supportive as he or she intended. At some point, a religious human being is psychologically unable to obey every rule she or he has taken on. And God, at best, appears to operate on a non-human timeline.

Sometimes a marriage ends in divorce, and sometimes a brit with God ends in apostasy. But often, spouses pull themselves together and rededicate themselves to their marriage. And often, people seeking God rededicate themselves to the search for morality and meaning.

Each story of a brit with God remains a reminder of God’s presence. Even today, the two sets of stone tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai loom in our subconscious minds, reminding us that even if full compliance is impossible in a covenant with God, it is still worth dedicating ourselves to the call.

 

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