Monday, March 23, 2009

EXODUS: Chapters 19 & 20

Chapter 19
Summary:The Israelis arrived in the Sinai peninsula three months after the night of their departure from Egypt. Moses climbed the rugged mountain* to meet with God. God tells Moses to give the people of Israel a message, stating that if the people will obey him (God) that they will have the honor of being God's chosen flock amongst all the nations on the earth.

When Moses returned from the mountain, he called together the leaders of the people of Israel and told them what God had said. The leaders responded in unison that they would certainly do everything God asks of them. Moses in turn reported the words of the people to God*.

God then tells Moses that he will appear to him in the form of a dark cloud so that the people of Israel can hear him when he talks to Moses, so that the people will believe. He then tells Moses to go down from the mountain and see that the people are ready for God's visit. He further instructs Moses to "sanctify" the people by having them wash their clothes. God tells Moses that he will come down upon Mount Sinai for all the people to watch.

God instructs Moses to create boundary lines at the foot of the mountain that the people will not be allowed to cross. If any person or animal attempts to go up the mountain - or even if they touch the boundaries - they shall die, by means of either stoning, or shot to death with arrows, as God adds that no hands shall touch them. God adds that they are all to stay away from the mountain entirely until they hear a ram's horn sounding a single long blast, and then they are to all gather at the base of the mountain.

Moses climbs down from the mountain and sanctified the people, having them wash their clothing. Moses tells them to prepare for God's appearance in two days, and oddly tacks on that they are not to have sexual intercourse with their wives.

On the morning of the third day there was a tremendous thunderstorm and a huge cloud descended upon the mountain. When they heard the loud blast of the ram's horn, the people of Israel trembled, and Moses then led them to the foot of the mountain. All of Mount Sinai was covered with smoke as God had descended upon the mountain in the form of fire. The smoke billowed into the sky while the whole mountain shook with a violent earthquake. As the trumpet blast grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God thundered his reply and calling Moses to the top of the mountain.

God tells Moses to go back down and again warn the people not to cross the boundaries, stating that they must not come up to try and see God, or they will die. He furthers that even the priests amongst them must sanctify themselves, or they will be killed also. Moses protested that he'd already told the people not to come up the mountain as it was a command from God. God tells Moses to go back down from the mountain and bring Aaron up with him, but to not let the priests and the people down below break the boundaries, or God will kill them.

Moses descended the mountain to tell the people what God had said.
Notes:1.) Keeping in mind that Moses was 80 years old at the time, this appears to be quite an impressive feat.
2.) This seems contrary to God's typically described attributes of omnipresence and omniscience.
Thoughts:The first thing that strikes me as an oddity in this chapter is God making an 80 year old man continually climb and descend a rugged mountain just to speak to him and have him deliver messages to the people. Granted there are a few 80 year old people who are in fantastic shape and might possibly be capable of continually scaling mountains, it does seem a bit worrisome nonetheless. Some may also point out that this is a book in which people incredibly live to well over 800 and 900 years of age, but at this point in the bible's time line people's ages have returned to more normal figures, where even Moses only makes it to 120 years old himself.

God first commands Moses to go down the mountain and get a confirmation from the leaders of Israel that they promise to follow and obey God's every command. When Moses gets their solemn oaths to obey, he returns up the mountain again to tell God their responses. Here again, this strikes me as odd and unnecessary if God's alleged attributes include omniscience and omnipresence - couldn't he have just watched and heard the whole ordeal himself instead of having to wait for Moses to tell him what they said?

God now tells Moses that he's ready to appear to the people in the form of a thunder cloud, so that the people of Israel don't doubt that Moses is indeed speaking with God. He has Moses tell the people to prepare for God's visit by washing their clothes over the next two days and to not have sex with their wives. Once again, the bible hints at making sexual relations something "dirty" or "unclean", and an activity that God appears to imply makes people too unclean to appear in front of him after.

He tells Moses to make some boundary lines at the foot of the mountain that the people - or even wandering animals - are not to cross. If they do, God tells Moses that the people will have to kill that person or animals by means of either a stoning, or to shoot them to death with arrows - as they are not to touch the offender with their bare hands. Why God can't simply kill them himself is puzzling, as we can surmise that God has the power to do so, or at least spot somebody scaling a mountain and offing them as they climb.

He tells Moses to relay to the people that the sound of a ram's horn blaring will be the sign to gather everyone at the base of the mountain. At this point the normal suspicion we apply to mythology and legend should kick in. Tales within mythology and legend often begin with actual people, events, and things that in the process of retelling become grander, or are restructured to fit within certain cultural and/or political social structures.

An example of the first point is the childhood game of "Telephone" where one child will whisper a short statement into the ear of another child in a sequential order of children. One by one as the story gets told each child will tend to either hear or tell the statement with slight differences, where the final child to be told the statement can, and will often, hear something remarkably different from the original statement of the first child. There are a lot of stories that we continue to pass around in this day and age - in the form of "urban legends" - that while often not factual stories, are rooted in a kernel of truth or persistent rumor.

An example of the latter point is the legend of Santa Claus. Virtually every culture in the western world has their own region specific version of the same mythological character. Here in North America, we describe Santa as an old, jolly, fat man wearing a red suit, who delivers presents to every child in the world on Christmas Eve via the means of entering houses through chimneys. In the Netherlands however, Sinterklaas, carries a spear and captures naughty children in a cloth sack (as opposed to giving naughty children coal in North America) and is helped by an Ethiopian slave boy that he liberated (instead of elves) named "Black Peter".

With these two points in mind it raises suspicion towards the secrecy of crossing the boundaries to see God on top of the mountain. It seems reasonable to assume that perhaps the leader of our nomadic Hebrews, Moses, may have been hoaxing the people with the "man behind the curtain" approach and that his accurate predictions (three days later there being a big storm announcing God's presence, and the earthquake) may have been tacked on afterward, or simply embellished.

The problem is that we can't verify any evidence of this story either way with any means outside of biblical references and therefore we have to concede that the more probable non-supernatural hypothesis I have outlined above has to be a serious consideration. Belief that the bible is somehow an accurate account of human history must be looked at with skepticism when the stories are littered with supernatural events that science can find no evidence to support.
Chapter 20
Summary:The edicts that God sent with Moses were:
  • I am the God, your God, who liberated you from Egypt
  • You may worship no other God but me.
  • You shall not make any idols: images of anything in heaven, earth, or sea. You must never bow to such an image or worship in any way, for I am a jealous and possessive God and will not share your affection with any other god.
  • When I punish people for their sins, the punishment continues upon the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. However, I lavish love upon thousands of those who love and obey me.
  • You shall not use the name of Yahweh, your god, irreverently, or use it to swear falsehood. You will not escape punishment if you do.
  • You must observe the sabbath as a holy day; no work is to be done of any kind. This applies to your sons, daughters, and slaves as well as your cattle or your house guests.
  • Honor your mother and father.
  • You shall not murder.
  • You shall not commit adultery.
  • You shall not steal.
  • You shall not lie, or give false testimony.
  • You must not covet your neighbor's belongings, or want to sleep with his wife. This includes coveting his slaves, oxen, donkeys, or anything else he might own.
All of the people saw the lightning and smoke billowing from the mountain, while hearing the thunder and the trumpet blast. They stood at a distance trembling with fear.

The people said to Moses to tell them what God says, but to not let God speak directly to them, feeling that it would kill them(?). Moses told them not be afraid, but that God showed his awesome power so that they would be afraid to sin against him.

As the people stood in the distance, Moses entered into the deep darkness where God was. God tells Moses to be his spokesmen to the people of Israel and gives him instruction as to how he likes his sacrificial altars to be.

He tells Moses that the altars he builds should be simple and made out of earth, and to offer sacrifices of sheep and oxen upon them. He tells Moses further, to only build the altars where he tells him to. God tells Moses that making altars out of stone is permissible, but that he is only to use uncut stones and boulders, furthering that carved stones are unfit for his altar. God then adds that steps are also not to be made, because someone behind might look up the skirts of people in front and see their nakedness.
Thoughts:This chapter basically outlines and gives us a preview of the well-known "Ten Commandments" that Moses will eventually receive in Chapter 31. While I don't want to dwell on every edict listed here (as I plan to go into further detail when we reach the "Ten Commandments") I do think a few should be addressed that bring up some questions.

"When I punish people for their sins, the punishment continues upon the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. However, I lavish love upon thousands of those who love and obey me."
Here I find God's logic baffling, making children and grandchildren responsible for their parents' mistakes. Should a murder who's been sentenced to 400 years in prison have his children and grandchildren finish out his sentence after his own death? It's ridiculous logic.
"You shall not murder."
Although I agree that murder is never a permissible act, I find this one fascinating in the context of our story. Beside the fact that God has outright killed a lot of people so far (Thousands (if not millions) in the Noah's Ark flood story Genesis: Chapter 7; the entire city of Sodom and Lot's wife who was turned into a pillar of salt in Genesis: Chpater 19; and Judah's sons Er and Onan in Genesis: Chapter 38) Moses also murdered an Egyptian in Exodus: Chapter 2.

What makes this more disturbing is that this seems to contradict the theistic explanation from that tries to explain what the bizarre moment in Exodus: Chapter 4 is all about. theorizes that God threatening to kill Moses because he has not circumcised his son, that this is sin, and that God doesn't feel that Moses can represent the people Israel being guilty of this sin. However, wouldn't Moses' murder of the Egyptian man be a bit more severe of a sin than simply not having his son circumcised, and made worse by the fact that it was known in the land of Egypt?

Back to our story, the people of Israel are now afraid due to God's theatrics on Mount Sinai to which Moses gives this bothersome reply. Moses tells the people not to be afraid, but just that God wants them to be afraid to sin against him. Don't you think that's exactly what the people are afraid of? Being human, people are prone to making mistakes and doing things that while not necessarily honorable - like lying - are still commonplace. The tactic of telling people to not be afraid of an angry, vengeful, powerful being, as long as they just do exactly as they were told probably didn't relieve their fears too much.

We finally finish off with God explaining how he wants his animal sacrifice altars to be built. The slightly humorous addendum is that he disallows building stair to the altars as he doesn't want people coming up behind to look up the skirts of the person in front of them. Once again, this also seems to reinforce the bible's stance that nudity is something to be shameful of.

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