And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.’ So he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments. – Exodus 34:27-28
I regret to report that Exodus, after a powerful opening quarter, ended with a very protracted, very frustrating, very inconclusive whimper.
The climax, as I expected, is the issuance of laws atop Mount Sinai. This comes rather early, in Exodus 20. I was pleased and intrigued to learn that God gives Moses far more than the famous (or infamous) Ten Commandments, but before I get into that I should probably say a few words about those.
Firstly, a couple of the commandments were longer and more detailed than I had thought. I used to think that all ten of them–eight or nine of which I could probably have described with a fair degree of accuracy–were direct and simple, like “You shall not murder,” which is the way my copy of the ESV translates that particular one. (Incidentally, the commandments aren’t clearly enumerated, so I just now went to Wikipedia to try to find which number the murder one is. The Wikipedia page has a chart with various colors and columns with different possible enumerations, and it scared me off. I’m going to talk around it and avoid numbers from now on.) Of course, the brevity of the no-murdering commandment belies its obvious complexity. It’s not uncommon for critics of wars and the death penalty (I’m certainly an opponent of the death penalty, and while not a perfect pacifist am not usually hawkishly-inclined) to call out religious folks for using lethal force in supposed violation of this law. But in context, it’s very clear that this particular commandment doesn’t place a total ban on killing. In fact, God gives the go-ahead for killing all sorts of people, such as when he says “Whoever curses his father or mother shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:17). It must have been dangerous to be a Hebrew teenager (har har har; I hope there isn’t a death penalty for makers of obvious jokes.) Seriously though, I don’t view the existence of a no-murder commandment alongside sanctioned killings as a contradiction or even as an opportunity for criticism. It’s incumbent upon we would-be critics of violence and/or Biblical dogmatism to understand what the Biblical rules actually are before we try to use them against believers. And in this case, there is clearly no commandment against all killing, so it’s disingenuous to suggest that there is. Understanding this issue should make your arguments sharper and more effective, should you be interested in arguing with religious, pro-killing types.
But I pretty much already knew all of this, and most of my fellow atheists probably do as well. What I didn’t know about the commandments was that a couple of them are relatively long. The one about not making a carved image, for example, digresses to say that God will visit “the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation” but show “steadfast love to thousands” (footnote: or to the thousandth generation) of those who keep the commandments (Exodus 20:5-6). That begs the question: can you change which category you are in? This is the kind of ambiguity that probably helped to fuel passionate, centuries-long disagreements between advocates of predestination and believers in free will. If your great-grandfather disobeyed God, will you forever be the visitee of iniquity, or could you receive steadfast love for yourself and thousands of your descendants by doing right? It’s not as clear as it could be, but I do think the latter meaning is the intended one here. That’s just the sense I get. There are good arguments using the internal logic of a universe with an all-knowing deity for why predestination makes more sense than free will, but it’s somewhat difficult to explain the issuance of detailed laws with that line of reasoning. I predict I will write more about this topic later in the blog.
Enough about the Ten Commandments, because they’re really just the beginning. God goes on to give Moses an entire legal system. There’s even property liability law! There are rules for all kinds of eventualities, such as who owes who what if a man digs a pit and another man’s ox falls into it and gets hurt (Exodus 21:33-34). This portion made for really good reading, actually, and I was impressed by how thorough it all was. Unfortunately, there are some very uncomfortable moments, such as the law which allows people to beat their slaves as long as there is no permanent bodily damage (Exodus 21:21; but if a slave loses so much as a tooth in the beating, he or she goes free, as per Exodus 21:27). On the whole, though, I found that most of the rules, with some notable exceptions, seem to have the interests of victims of crimes and negligence uppermost in mind. That was encouraging.
Exodus finally loses steam and never recovers when God starts reading Moses a set of instruction manuals. Literally. He tells Moses exactly how to make the ark of the testimony (or the ark of the covenant, the famous one that will contain the tablets), the tent that goes over it, the offering table in front of it, the lampstands around it, the clothes of the priests who guard it, and so on and so on. This goes on for chapters and chapters, and it is boring. It is so detailed that someone today could actually make a faithful copy of it all, and I would be surprised if someone had not done so. But reading through it all is about as interesting as reading a EULA. There should have been pictures instead, like in LEGO sets. The only real action that happens in the last ten or fifteen chapters of Exodus is when Moses breaks the original tablets and orders the execution of a lot of people when he sees that the Hebrews have begun worshipping a golden idol in his absence. He later gets new tablets, and the book ends with the ark and its accouterments being constructed in accordance with God’s directions.
I guess we’re going to hear more about Moses and the Hebrews’ wilderness travels in the next book, Leviticus. I wonder why Exodus ends in the middle of a story. Genesis wrapped up neatly with Joseph’s death, so I thought all the books would be pretty self-contained, but I guess not. Before we get to Leviticus, though, I’ve got a special entry in the works. Stay tuned…