Tag Archives: Plagues

Reading the Book of Exodus

After racing through Genesis, I was pretty excited about digging into Exodus. It is, after all, where we get to meet another larger than life man of God, Moses himself, and thus we begin the defining story of Jews (and almost every other oppressed people of the world) – the rescue from slavery and delivery to the promised land.

Exodus can be divided into three subsections: Moses and the Ten Plagues; a brief history of the Israelites in the Desert and; and general law and order, desert edition (with special emphasis on how to build the Tabernacle). A lot of what we learnt about Exodus in Sunday school holds true, but there are a few things they left out. Namely that:

  1. God tries to kill Moses:  In Chapter 4, God has finally managed to convince a very reluctant Moses to go to Egypt and let his people go. Things take a turn, however,as Moses and his wife, Zipporah are heading back to Egypt. As my Bible puts it, “At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it and and said,  ‘surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!’  So he let him alone. Then it was that she said, ‘You are a bridegroom of blood’, because of the circumcision”  After that that little hick up, Moses and Aaron finally get to Pharaoh’s court, where they demand that he let the Israelites go three days journey into the wilderness to pray and make sacrifice to the Lord.
  2. God meddles with Pharaoh’s free will: The story of the ten plagues is one of the most famous stories from Exodus. However, Pharaoh and his people never really had a chance, as the bible mentions several times that God hardened his heart in order to  to show his glory to his people. (But then again, it wouldn’t have been much of a story if Moses and Aaron had shown up, turned their staffs into snakes to the fear and awe of the Pharaoh, who would then promptly release the Israelites into the desert).
  3. Moses uses magic tricks against the Pharaoh: At the very beginning, before God brings out the big guns, he instructs Moses on how to turn his hand leprous and back again; how to turn water into blood and; how to turn his staff into a snake, with the intention of awing Pharaoh with his power. These are not miracles, because they were designed to undermine Egypt’s priests and therefore to compete against the gods of Egypt.  The Egyptian priests manage to hold their own until Moses and God bring boils upon Egypt, and only then do they concede.
  4. The story of the golden calf is suspect: This is probably the third most famous and significant story in the Book of Exodus. After their release from bondage, the Israelites are wandering in the desert of Sinai, and so far, God has taken very good care of them. But then Moses goes up into the mountain to receive the law on the stone tablets and they completely forget about him, and demand that Aaron build them a golden calf to worship. God tells Moses that his people are practicing idolatry, and gets very angry, vowing to destroy them. Moses negotiates God down before proceeding to melt the calf, grind it into powder and force the idolaters to drink the liquid. Then he tells the Levites to kill all the idol worshipers. For good measure he also brings down the plague on them. Aaron, despite the fact that he was the team leader of the golden calf building project and after-party organizer, goes totally unpunished. I just feel like if you just recently witnessed the parting of the red sea, been feasting on heaven sent manna and quail, and you have been walking with God before you as a cloud/ pillar of fire,  you would be able to wait more than 40 days before jumping ship like that.
  5. The ten commandments: Sunday school taught us that the commandments were presented with a bit of flair and were actually the only things written on the famous stone tablets that Moses later destroyed in anger. But there isn’t such a distinction in the text. What we now call the ten commandments are actually the beginning of an extensive set of laws that God dictated to Moses up on Mount Sinai, including:
    1. Laws on slave management: ‘when a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do’
    2. How to handle violent animals: ‘when an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be clear’
    3. When to charge interest rates: ‘if you lend money to any of my people who is poor, you shall not be to him as a creditor, and you shall not exact interest from him’
    4. Bribery: you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials, and subverts the cause of those who are in the right’
    5. How to make sacrifices properly: ‘you shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leavened bread, or let the fat of my feast remain until the morning’
    6. Cooking instructions: ‘you shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk’
    7. Dealing with errant children: whoever curses his mother or father shall be put to death
    8. Bonus chapters: exactly how to build the tabernacle according to god’s really, really,  detailed descriptions including type of wood (acacia), cubit measurements (2.5 * 2.5), color of fabric (purple) and the type of incense (only the best) permissible.
  6. The commandments version 2.0: The second time the commandments are recorded, there are some significant changes. God dictates that; the Israelites should not make covenants with foreign peoples; destroy alters to foreign gods;  not worship other gods; not make molten gods;  observe the feast of the unleavened bread; dedicate all first born animals to him (or else break their necks); keep the seventh day as a rest day; ensure that all males appear before him 3 times a year; not  offer any blood sacrifice with leaven and; give him their first harvests during something known as the feast of weeks . It is these commandments that the text actually distinguishes as the ten commandments. (Chapter 34)
  7. The Covenant is pretty xenophobic: God’s covenant with the Israelites is very simple. Keep his commandments in return for blessings and the prosperity of the Israelites, principally the lands of Caananites and other foreign peoples (who are all evil for various reasons, namely that they are not Israelite). And if not, then death and destruction will be upon them.  At least three times, God makes his covenant with his people, and  one version warns especially against fraternizing with foreign peoples,  or as my Bible puts it,  ‘for you shall worship no other  gods, for the Lord, whose name is jealous, is a jealous God, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and  when they play the harlot after their gods…and their daughters play the harlot after their gods and make your sons play the harlot after their gods’. Another part of Exodus records God saying,  ‘Little by little I will drive them out before you…for I will deliver the inhabitants of the land in your hand, and you shall drive them out before you. They shall not dwell in your land, lest they make you sin against me….’ (the reason the conquest will be gradual is so that animals don’t take over the abandoned lands)
  8. The tabernacle is really important: Whoever wrote Exodus was really focused on the Tabernacle. From Sunday school we remember that the Tabernacle was a pretty box where God rested. In Exodus, Chapters 26, 27, 28, 29 and 30 consist of God’s direct instructions on how to build the Tabernacle, including measurements and materials as well as priestly conduct. Then, to drive the point home, chapters 35 to 40 are almost exclusively dedicated to describing the actual construction, materials and rituals surrounding the Tabernacle. (Spoiler: there is a lot of repetition)
  9. The people kind of disappear: All through Genesis, and a part of Exodus, we are very much involved in people’s daily dramas with characters that are central to the story . Moses, in particular, has a tendency to argue and debate with God and often needs a good amount of cajoling before he commits to God’s plans. The last time he does this is in Chapter 33, where he once again seeks reassurance from God that he does indeed love the Israelites, and if that is the case then can God please show Moses his glory. God obliges but suddenly since no-one can see God’s face and live, God can only show him  his back. (Never mind that they were together on Mount Sinai) After this exchange, the rest of Exodus is almost exclusively God issuing instructions on the tabernacle, priestly rituals and laws. We don’t really hear anything again from the Israelites, Aaron or even Moses.
  10. There isn’t that much movement:  Since this is Exodus,  I expected lots of movement within the story – Genesis is very good at recording the names of towns, regions and even springs, and I always assumed that there was a lot of walking in Exodus. But really, once the Israelites got to Mount Sinai, they just took a long break to build the tabernacle and wait for Moses to record God’s laws.
  11. You can see God but you also can’t:  In Chapter 33, Moses pitches his tent outside the camp, where ‘everyone who sought the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting…When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the door of the tent, and the Lord would speak to Moses.’ Then  it emphasizes that ‘Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.’ Later in the same chapter, the glory incident occurs, and God asks Moses to go to a particular rock, where he will pass by and show him his ‘back’ because no man who sees God can live.
  12. God outsources some work to his new administration: For most of Genesis and parts of Exodus, God takes a very personal approach with his people. He appears to them in dreams, gives direct instructions and intervenes frequently on their behalf. But in Chapter 18, Moses’ father in law, Jethro, advises Moses first to establish courts that will deal with petty disputes so that he can have more time to deal with the bigger picture. Then in Chapter  28 God tells Moses to designate Aaron and his sons as his priests, complete with instructions on their dress, ordination and duties. Then he directs the building of his tabernacle, which he uses as a resting place when he visits the Israelites. (This totally makes sense. Even God recognizes that Laws and strong institutions are necessary when the population grows so large that personal connections are lost/ weakened.)
  13. The concept of God as holy becomes much stronger: so much so that now we are often told that those who see him will die. In this line, God no longer personally gives directions related to quotidian matters, opting instead to dictate laws, issue directives and ordain priests. Once this is done, Exodus closes by saying   ‘throughout their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would go onward; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not go onward till the day that it was taken up. For throughout their journeys the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel. ‘

Exodus was a bit harder to get through than Genesis. It was also less exciting and was really focused on establishing the beginnings of the Israelite codes of conduct. The laws are impressively extensive and I imagine they  reflect the living conditions and culture of the Israelites. If you really wanted to you could actually live like that, and you would certainly be a very responsible citizen (except for the minor issue of your slaves and the occasional stoning of your disrespectful children and/ or harlot daughters).

The story of the Exodus has inspired persecuted people from all around the world, including Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in America. However, the irony isn’t lost on me that God, having delivered the Israelites from oppression,  continues promising them that they can go lay waste on other innocent peoples, because, they, unlike the evil Egyptians, are special. They can oppress other people, but, it’s different because he said so.

We haven’t come far from the desert people who left Egypt, though. Because the villain/ hero in your story depends on which team you are playing for. The ANC, Mau Mau and countless other independence movements were terrorists to the colonizers and heroes to the oppressed.  Today, there are countless battles going on. Between the police and the African American community in the USA. Between ISIS and the rest of the world. Between Iran and Israel. Between Israel and Palestine.

Who is the terrorist and who is the terrorized? The answer depends entirely on who you ask.