Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Sunday Sermonette: Trust, but do not verify

We are now heading into an extensive bout of lawgiving. It won't start in this chapter, which is just the warmup. Let me take a brief aside to refer you to the Awkward  Moments Children's Bible. We obviously won't get to Samuel for a while so this will give you a taste of what's ahead once the Israelites have kings and all that.

As I often note here, the parts of the Bible they teach in Sunday school, and the parts that get preached about, are highly selective. In fact Tufts professor Daniel Dennett has written a whole book about ministers who lost their faith when they went to the theological seminary and actually read the damn thing. Since they had invested in their education and don't have any other marketable skills, many of them are still preaching and leading congregations even though they know it's all a fraud.

Anyway, let's get on with it. This is Exodus 19.

 On the first day of the third month after the Israelites left Egypt—on that very day—they came to the Desert of Sinai. After they set out from Rephidim, they entered the Desert of Sinai, and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain.
As I have mentioned before, the identification of this feature with what is today called Mount Sinai is a late attribution. Some scholars put them elsewhere but again, it really doesn't matter since this is all fiction anyway.

Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you[a] will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”
The theology is beginning to take shape. Going forward, there will be some variation and some backing and filling but the basic idea seems to be that there are other gods, but Yaweh is supreme, and he's chosen the Israelites to do the worshipping and perform the rituals that seem to keep him happy. This turns out to be at least as much a burden as it is a blessing, but at least it's coherent. On the other hand, we have no idea why he revels in all these sacrifices and making people follow a lot of silly rules and so on. But his whims reign supreme.
So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the Lord had commanded him to speak. The people all responded together, “We will do everything the Lord has said.” So Moses brought their answer back to the Lord.
The Lord said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you.” Then Moses told the Lord what the people had said.
10 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes 11 and be ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. 12 Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not approach the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain is to be put to death. 13 They are to be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on them. No person or animal shall be permitted to live.’ Only when the ram’s horn sounds a long blast may they approach the mountain.”
Of course, exactly where the foot of a mountain begins is not well defined. It's a fuzzy boundary, so Moses is instructed to "put limits,"  presumably by posting guards. Note once again, as with the battle with the Amelekites, that these recently escaped slaves are somehow well equipped with bows and arrows.
14 After Moses had gone down the mountain to the people, he consecrated them, and they washed their clothes. 15 Then he said to the people, “Prepare yourselves for the third day. Abstain from sexual relations.”
KJV has "come not at your wives," which I am guessing is a more literal translation since he's usually speaking to the men. The New International Version supports this, having "Be ready for the third day; don’t go near a woman."
16 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain[b] trembled violently. 19 As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.[c]
This obviously appears to be the description of volcanic activity, but Mount Sinai is not a volcano, nor are there any volcanoes in any place they might plausibly be. (There are volcanoes in Iran and western Saudi Arabia, although I don't believe there are any historic eruptions of the latter.) However, the authors of this (around 600 BC, remember) were no doubt familiar with descriptions of volcanic activity from Mediterranean seafarers. 
20 The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up 21 and the Lord said to him, “Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the Lord and many of them perish. 22 Even the priests, who approach the Lord, must consecrate themselves, or the Lord will break out against them.”
23 Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot come up Mount Sinai, because you yourself warned us, ‘Put limits around the mountain and set it apart as holy.’”
24 The Lord replied, “Go down and bring Aaron up with you. But the priests and the people must not force their way through to come up to the Lord, or he will break out against them.”
25 So Moses went down to the people and told them.
Okay, so Moses and Aaron get to go up and talk with God, but no witnesses are allowed. We're just going to have to take their word for it about what happens next. We apparently aren't expected to stop and ask why. God is capable of speaking to all of the people, but instead the plan is to confide in Moses and have him come down and give a report. We know it must be true because?


  1. Exodus 19:6 Or possession, for the whole earth is mine. You
  2. Exodus 19:18 Most Hebrew manuscripts; a few Hebrew manuscripts and Septuagint and all the people
  3. Exodus 19:19 Or and God answered him with thunder


Don Quixote said...

The story now seems to me enigmatic and labyrinthine.

Cervantes said...

You aren't supposed to think about it too much.

Don Quixote said...

Well, the Talmudists do!

Cervantes said...

This is true, and they come to some strange conclusions, to say the least. Their job is to justify it, not to think about it critically. That's why they have separate kitchens for meat and dairy; and why they make eruvs, among other very curious practices. We'll take a look at some of this as the law is promulgated.