Thursday, March 05, 2009


This blog is primarily about reading and interpreting the Torah. The posts will roughly follow the order of scripture portions studied at home and read in the synagogue each week. The Torah is the heritage (collective memory) of Israel, and study of the Torah has always been central to Judaism. Psalm 119:18 says, "Open my eyes, that I may see wonders from your Torah."

Enter with me into the living waters of rabbinical Judaism.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Props of Mercy

Lev. 14:1-7
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, This shall be the Torah of the leper in the day of his cleansing. He shall be brought to the priest, and the priest shall go out of the camp, and the priest shall look, and if the disease of leprosy has been healed in the leper, then the priest shall command to take for him who is to be cleansed two live clean birds, and cedar wood, and red yarn, and hyssop.
The priest shall command that one of the birds be slaughtered in a clay bowl over running water (lit., living waters). As for the live bird, he shall take it, and the cedar wood, and the red yarn, and the hyssop, and shall dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the running water.
Then he shall sprinkle upon him who is to be cleansed from the leprosy seven times, and shall pronounce him clean, and shall release the live bird into the open field.

Two rituals from Leviticus have fascinated me for a long time, at least since the 1980’s when, as a Christian, I first studied them in any detail. The first ritual is the cleansing of the leper with props that appear to work some sort of magic, except that: (a) the disease is not really leprosy, (b) the person has already been healed of the disease before the priest performs the ritual, so (c) no magic actually occurs. The cleansing is merely a formal recognition by the priest that the person is healed and ready to return to the community. The props—a cedar stick, red yarn, hyssop, a clay bowl, “living” water, and two clean birds—may have once boasted magical power to heal disease. However, here their symbolic meaning is largely lost. And rather than props of magic, here they are simply props of mercy. Beyond this, nothing can be said for certain about their significance. Interpretations abound, but often our interpretations only reflect what we want the ritual and its symbols to mean. I note in passing that the live bird released into the open surely carries as much significance as the bird that is slaughtered for its blood.

The second ritual is found in Leviticus chapter 16. On the Day of Atonement, two goats are brought to the priest. One is slaughtered as a purification offering* to purge the sanctuary which has been defiled by the sins of the community. The other goat carries all the sins, transgressions and iniquities of the community into the wilderness, where it is released.

There is an obvious similarity between the two birds and the two goats in their respective rituals. In each ritual the final step is release of a live animal: the bird signifies cleansing of disease, the goat signifies forgiveness of sins. Together they represent the unmatched mercy of the God of Israel.

Sin and impurity

The relationship between sin and impurity is not reciprocal. Impurity does not necessarily imply sin, but sin causes impurity. Sin causes impurity both to the sanctuary of our outward forms of worship and to the sanctuary of our soul. In figurative language, there is the stain of sin and the stench of sin. To atone for sin is to purify the person who sinned (Lev. 16:30). The writer of Psalm 51 draws on the ritual imagery of cleansing physical impurity when he asks for forgiveness of his sin:

Psalm 51:4, 9 MT
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin…. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

He writes in the context of the ritual detailed in Lev. 14. He does not seek another way of atonement, but exemplifies the teaching of Lev. 16: “humble your souls” and “you shall be clean from all your sins before the Lord.” (vv. 29, 30)

Psalm 51:19 MT
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and crushed heart, O God, you will not despise.

A broken spirit, a crushed heart: these too are props of mercy.

*Purification offering: Usually translated sin offering, but this is misleading, especially since the offering is brought in situations where no sin is involved. For the technical argument, see Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, The Anchor Bible.

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Kosher Grasshopper

Lev. 11:44a, 47
For I am the Lord your God; you shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and you shall be holy, for I am holy…. [This is the Torah] to distinguish between the unclean and the clean, and between the edible creature and the creature which may not be eaten.

A concise version of Leviticus chapter 11: Pig is out, grasshopper in. I can see I've been missing out on some fine selections for the dinner menu!

On a more serious note, compare Lev. 10:10 with 11:47. Every culture makes judgments about what may appear on the menu, and these "eating rules" are fairly rigid even in our free country. Horse? No way (for most of us). Ditto dog, cat and grasshopper. Whatever conclusion one comes to about observing kashrut, the system of kashrut serves to promote the value of holiness and the importance of discernment even in practical matters, such as food.

We also forget that kashrut in its historical origin was a matter of law for a nation governed by laws, just as we have statutes which make distinctions about what is clean (acceptable) and unclean (prohibited). I believe spotted owls are unclean today, due to a different cultural value: for the preservation of every species except one.

To keep or not to keep kosher…

Reform Judaism began, in the mid-1800s, as an attempt to make Judaism relevant to modern society, and to focus on the central message of Judaism which was said to be “ethical monotheism”: the belief in one God who revealed moral precepts to mankind. As a consequence, Reform Judaism’s view of the Torah made a distinction between the moral laws which continued to be relevant, and the ceremonial and social laws which served a purpose in the history of Israel as a nation but which no longer made sense to follow. Among these in the latter group were dietary laws known as kashrut, i.e., keeping kosher.

Kashrut is considered binding in both Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, although these two branches of Judaism vary somewhat in their interpretation of the laws of kashrut. In general terms, pork and shellfish are prohibited, other meat must be slaughtered and prepared according to certain standards, meat and milk are not consumed together, etc. The purpose of kashrut, as well as other observances, is sanctification, not salvation. By following the dietary laws, a Jew recognizes the presence and significance of God even in the food eaten, and so sanctifies the act of eating as if doing so before God. What does God care whether or not one eats pork? Perhaps God doesn’t, but in the tradition of Israel and the teaching of the Torah (both of which are ascribed to God), it is prohibited. And in both Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, kashrut represents the commandment of God given through Moses at Sinai.

Reform Judaism in its “classical” form dispensed with all of this, except that pork was generally not consumed out of deference to the broader community of Judaism.

In the past several decades Reform Judaism has moved toward more traditional observance of ceremonial and social laws, especially in such areas as prayer services, celebration of the Sabbath and festivals, and to a somewhat lesser degree kashrut. The move has been made partly in response to the existence of the state of Israel, and partly in response to the impact of the Holocaust: nothing like a catastrophe to remind one of one’s roots, ethnic and spiritual. Even so, “personal autonomy” remains a central idea in Reform Judaism, so that observance is not based on arguments from “authority.” As another movement in Judaism puts it, tradition gets a vote but not a veto.

… and what do I think about it

My own view is a bit different. I don’t find a large place for “personal autonomy” in the Torah, rather “personal autonomy” is more a practical adjustment to modern free society than an ideal to be pursued. The ideal is community governed by a covenant with God. So while I may not personally see the sense of the specific dietary laws that make up kashrut, the purpose of kashrut — sanctifying daily life before God — does make sense. Beyond that, the covenant is not between me as an individual and God, but between Israel and God. So as one who aspires to association with Israel as the covenant community of God, kashrut is important.

My interpretation of kashrut is not as restrictive as tradition has made it. The culture-bound nature of the dietary laws can be easily understood by comparison with the strange tastes (and distastes) of other cultures, also ascribed to God. So while I do not find the distinction between the moral laws and the social/ceremonial laws all that helpful (e.g., the Sabbath falls in the latter category, but what would Israel be without it?), I do consider the historical and cultural context of the laws important in any attempt to apply them to modern life.

All that said, my standard remains: when in doubt, observe. Observe for the sake of community, observe out of a humble attitude toward my own personal opinions, observe for the purpose of sanctification. In short, as A.J. Heschel said, “God is everywhere save in arrogance.” I do not arrogantly stand in judgment of the Torah, rather I allow the Torah to judge me and so teach me.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Aaron's beard, Zion's dew

Leviticus 8:10, 12
And Moses took the anointing oil, and anointed the tabernacle and all that was in it, and sanctified them…. And he poured some of the anointing oil upon Aaron’s head, and anointed him, to sanctify him.

Psalm 133:1-2
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that runs down upon the beard, Aaron’s beard, that runs down to the hem of his garments.

The Talmud makes the connection between these two passages (cf. Horayot 12a, Keritot 5b). Psalm 133 is heaven’s response to the actions of Moses and Aaron as they fulfilled their roles as servants of God. Moses and Aaron were brothers who stood together as one before God, especially as Moses anointed his brother Aaron for the service of the tabernacle, and together they blessed the people (cf. Lev. 9:23).

Peace and unity between brothers is not a given. The stories of brothers in Genesis do not assume that they “dwell together in unity.” Nevertheless, reconciliation between brothers is clearly a value emphasized by these same stories: Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father, Esau greets Jacob in peace, and Joseph forgives his brothers. We miss the point of all the conflict if we do not see the resolution.

Moses and Aaron are something of an exception to the usual painful process leading to peace. In spite of their long separation as children and young adults, they come together through God’s purpose to build the community of Israel even as they build the tabernacle. They walk together “in the light of the Lord.”

Moses anointed the tabernacle and all of its contents by sprinkling the oil on them (Lev. 8:11). But when he came to Aaron his brother a sprinkle of oil was not prescribed (cf. Exod. 29:7). Instead he poured the anointing oil on Aaron’s head, as if to demonstrate the abundance of God’s light and peace and mercy which the tabernacle service would bring to Israel. Psalm 133 responds in poetic language to say that so much oil was poured on Aaron’s head that it ran down his beard and over his garments!

Lev. 9:22a
And Aaron lifted his hands toward the people, and blessed them.

Psalm 133:3
Like the dew of Hermon descending upon the mountains of Zion; for there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life for evermore.

Jacob Milgrom* says of the phrase, “Aaron lifted his hands,” that this is a posture of prayer, and that in fact Aaron lifted his hands toward heaven, to the Lord, as in Exod. 9:33. But the verse here does not say anything of the sort, and the priestly blessing is not a prayer to heaven. Instead, “Aaron lifts his hands toward the people,” because the blessing flows from heaven through the priest to the people. Some blessings are prayers: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God….” But the priestly blessing is commanded by God for the benefit of Zion, that they might enjoy the favor of God and dwell together in unity forever.

*Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, The Anchor Bible, pp. 586-587.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

From Pauper to Prince

Psalm 113:5-8 MT
Who is like the Lord our God, who sits enthroned on high,
yet deigns to look on heaven and on the earth!
He raises up the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heaps, to set them with princes, with the princes of his people.

Lev. 5:11-13
But if he is not able to bring (lit., his hand does not reach) two turtledoves or two young pigeons, then he shall bring as his offering for what he has sinned the tenth part of an ephah of semolina for a purification offering; he shall not put oil on it, nor shall he place frankincense on it; for it is a purification offering.
Then shall he bring it to the priest, and the priest shall take his handful of it as a token portion, and burn it on the altar, with the offerings made by fire (or, food gifts) to the Lord; it is a purification offering.
And the priest shall make atonement for him for the sin he committed…, and it shall be forgiven him; and [the rest] shall belong to the priest, as the cereal offering.

The Torah makes provision for the poor and needy in various ways, some explicitly stated in commandments such as leaving the corners of your field for the needy and the stranger (Lev. 19:9-10), others implicitly understood such as extending the Sabbath rest to the servant in your household and the stranger within your gates (Exod. 20:10). On the Sabbath even the pauper is a prince!

The voluntary and mandatory offerings also reflect this consideration. As in the passage from Leviticus quoted above, the benefits of participation in bringing offerings to the Lord were not limited to those who could afford a bull or a sheep. Here in Leviticus chapter 5 this is made explicit: those who could not afford a lamb could bring two domesticated birds, and if this was still too much then a cereal offering would be acceptable. But that is not all.

Jacob Milgrom’s excellent commentary* on Leviticus identifies several aspects of the offerings that have as their purpose to encourage the poor and needy:
(1) The very manner in which the bird is placed on the fire of the altar, by tearing and therefore spreading its wings (1:17), would “increase its size and give the appearance of a more substantial gift.” (p. 172)
(2) The cereal offering (Leviticus chapter 2) is essentially “the offering of the poor” (p.179) in place of the more expensive burnt offering.
(3) Even among the different forms of the cereal offering there is a gradation which allows the poor more access. The cooked cereal offerings are presented without frankincense. “The omission of the frankincense requirement may be regarded as a deliberate concession to the poor. That is, if they cannot afford it… they have the option of bringing a cooked cereal offering….” (p. 183)

What is God that he should show regard for paltry offerings, for our pitiful attempts to honor him? Yet, the God who reigns over heaven and earth deigns to look on our forms of worship and accept them, and shows special attention to the poor and needy. Even the pauper is a prince in the courtyard of the tabernacle, when he brings his heart and his offering before the Lord.

Mishnah Menachot 13:11 (adapted from Soncino edition)
It is said of the burnt offerings of cattle, an offering made by fire of a sweet savor (Lev. 1:9), and of the burnt offerings of birds, an offering made by fire of a sweet savor (Lev. 1:17), and of the cereal offering, an offering made by fire of a sweet savor (Lev. 2:2), to teach you that it is the same whether a man offers much or little, so long as he directs his heart to heaven.

*Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, The Anchor Bible, 1991.

Monday, April 03, 2006

As the Lord commanded

Pure and Holy

Exodus 39:30
And they made the plate of the holy rim of pure gold, and wrote on it a writing, like the engravings of a signet, Holy to the Lord.

In this verse two descriptive words appear that are closely related though not synonymous: pure (tahor) and holy (qodesh).

There are 24 references to pure gold (zahav tahor) in the chapters of Exodus describing the design and construction of the tabernacle. The other 3 references in the Hebrew Bible have to do with the temple.

Compare the words of the psalmist about the ordinances of the Lord:

Psalm 19:10b-12 MT (cf. Psalm 119:127)
The ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
They are more to be desired than gold, even very fine gold;
sweeter also than honey and [the drippings of] the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them your servant is warned, and in keeping them there is great reward.

The ordinances of the Lord, which include the instructions for the tabernacle service, are seen as pure as the gold worn on the priest’s forehead.

The second word, holy, can be defined negatively and positively.

Negatively it can mean “unapproachable” or “withdrawn from common use” (Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, vol.3, The Anchor Bible, 1991, pp. 730-731). The unapproachable aspect of holy may also carry a sense of terror and a threat of death. Things that are withdrawn from common use or their former use are called holy.

Positively it can mean set apart to the service of the Lord, as in “holy to the Lord.” In this sense the Sabbath is holy (Exod. 16:23, 31:15), the people of Israel are called to be holy (Deut, 26:19), and the service of the priests is holy (Ezra 8:28).

Together the words pure (tahor) and holy (qodesh) summarize the service of the priests in the tabernacle, and point forward to a major theme of the book of Leviticus:

Leviticus 10:10 (cf. 11:47, 20:25)
Distinguish between the holy (qodesh) and the common (chol) and the impure (tamei) and the pure (tahor).

Ezekiel’s complaint about the corruption of the priests is worded in these same categories:

Ezekiel 22:26
Her priests violate my law and profane my holy things. They do not distinguish between holy and common, and they do not teach [the difference] between the impure and the pure. And they shut their eyes to my Sabbaths so I am profaned among them.

Not a slob like you

The God who designed the tabernacle service and saw it through to completion paid attention to detail, meticulous detail. Not only does he plan the construction and furnishing of the tabernacle, but then the entire process is described again as it is done, with the refrain “as the Lord commanded Moses” after each part is finished. This God is not a slob like you. His personality type revealed in this section of Exodus is that of a Felix Unger, not an Oscar Madison. Attention to every detail: that’s the God of Israel.

I say the God who designed the tabernacle service in a loose way, because I do not actually see the tabernacle as literally designed by God in every detail, but by the community of Israel in their attempt to approach God in appropriate forms of worship. In that light we do not have to defend each detail of the tabernacle service and the sacrifices, but we can still appreciate how these particular forms reflect their understanding of God and what was thought appropriate to worship him in purity and holiness.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Sabbath, the Tabernacle, and Creation

Exodus 31:12-17 (abridged)
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to the people of Israel, saying, Surely you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you.
You shall keep the Sabbath, for it is holy to you; the one who defiles it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off….
Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord….
Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath… throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant.
It is a sign between me and the people of Israel forever, for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day he ceased and rested.

Here, at the completion of the plans for building and furnishing the tabernacle, a reminder of the Sabbath commandment has been inserted. Likewise, at the beginning of the section which describes the actual construction of the tabernacle, another reference to the Sabbath commandment occurs:

Exodus 35:1-3
And Moses gathered all the congregation of the people of Israel together, and said to them, These are the things that the Lord has commanded, that you should do them.
Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a holy day, a Sabbath of rest to the Lord; whoever does work on it shall be put to death.
You shall not kindle a fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day.

The creative aspect of work

Is the juxtaposition of these passages coincidental, or did the author intend for a connection to be made between the work (m’lachah, Exod. 36:7) performed in the construction of the tabernacle and the command not to perform any work (m’lachah, Exod. 31:14, 35:2) on the Sabbath? The term work, which means more precisely craftsmanship, occurs most often in these two contexts, the tabernacle and the Sabbaths (including certain festival days). It is the creative aspect of work which finds expression in this term: not only the creativity of a skilled craftsman, but the way that all work alters the available materials to make them more useful and therefore more valuable, from the manual labor of the “woodcutter and waterdrawer” (Deut. 29:9) to the specialized artistry of the “engraver and designer and embroiderer.” (Exod. 35:35)

Add to this another connection: the same hand that wrote about the construction and furnishing of the tabernacle also wrote the opening section of Genesis concerning the creation and furnishing of the world (1:1-2:3), which just happens to conclude with an allusion to the Sabbath. Other parallels between these passages have also been noted, such as the term Spirit of God (Gen. 1:2, Exod. 31:3, 35:31), the name Betsalel (in the image of God) and various words related to work and creation.

Since the Torah prohibited work on the Sabbath, how was that term to be defined and delimited? If a community is to observe any set of rules, the terminology must be made concrete. The Sabbath is not observed in the abstract, but in practical life. The rabbis' solution of using the work on the construction of the tabernacle as their model was reasonably based on Exodus 35-36 where that term is repeated many times in the process of describing how the tabernacle was built. The tabernacle model allowed them to i) avoid ad hoc decisions on the matter and ii) appeal to the Torah as their constitutional authority.

The result? Thirty-nine categories of work prohibited on the Sabbath, as enumerated in the Mishnah:

Sowing, Plowing, Reaping
Binding sheaves, Threshing, Winnowing
Selecting, Grinding, Sifting
Kneading, Baking
Shearing wool, Washing wool, Beating wool, Dyeing wool
Spinning, Weaving
Making two loops, Weaving two threads, Separating two threads
Tying, Untying, Sewing two stitches, Tearing
Trapping, Slaughtering, Flaying, Salting meat
Curing hide, Scraping hide, Cutting hide up
Writing two letters, Erasing two letters
Building, Tearing a building down
Extinguishing a fire, Kindling a fire
Hitting with a hammer
Taking an object from the private domain to the public, or transporting an object in the public domain.
(Mishnah Shabbat, 7:2)

The Sabbath and Doing Good

These activities are not prohibited on the Sabbath because they are bad things to do; they are good things to do. Those men and women (35:25) who participated in preparing the Tabernacle for the service of God were doing good and very skillful work, and their contribution was highly valued and highly praised. But on the Sabbath even that good work has to cease.

In the Christian’s New Testament there is an account of Jesus choosing to heal a man on the Sabbath, and the justification for his act is given: “Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:12b) What curious terminology for a son of Israel to use regarding the Sabbath–even more curious when compared with the LXX of the creation account in Genesis. The key words are do (poien) and good (kalos).

On six days God performed the work of creation, on the seventh day God rested. Comparing Greek with Greek, we find that:

a. On the first day, after creating light, Gen. 1:4a, “And God saw that the light was good (LXX, kalon).”

b. On the third day, after forming the land and the seas, Gen. 1:10b, “And God saw that it was good.”

c. Again on the third day, after bringing forth plants and trees from the land, Gen. 1:12b, “And God saw that it was good.”

d. On the fourth day, after placing lights in the sky to mark hours and days and seasons, Gen. 1:18b, “And God saw that it was good.”

e. On the fifth day, after making creatures to fill the sea and sky, Gen. 1:21b, “And God saw that it was good.”

f. On the sixth day, after making creatures to move on land, Gen. 1:25b, “And God saw that it was good.”

g. Again on the sixth day, after making man, Gen. 1:31a, “And God saw all that he made, and, behold it was very good.”

From these verses we can see that God was engaged in doing good on the six days of creation–specifically he was doing the kind of creative work which is forbidden Israel on the Sabbath. As the text continues:

Genesis 2:2, based on LXX: And God completed on the sixth day his work* which he had been doing (epoiesen), and he ceased on the seventh day from all his work* which he had been doing (epoiesen).

Genesis 2:3, based on LXX: And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it because on it he ceased from all his work* of creating which God had done (poiesai).

So when the account has Jesus argue that doing good is lawful on the Sabbath, I must argue to the contrary: It is precisely doing good that is forbidden. Even ‘doing the work of the Lord’ must cease!

*his work, Heb., m'lach'to (same term as found in Exodus in the contexts of the Sabbath and the tabernacle)


A. The Laws of the Sabbath in the Torah (aside from “keep” and “remember”)

1. Rest (Exod. 23:12; cf. 34:21)
2. Sanctify (Exod. 20:8; cf. Deut. 5:12), by implication at its onset and termination

1. Not to work (Exod. 20:10; cf. Deut. 5:14)
2. Not to go (travel) beyond permitted limits (Exod. 16:29)
3. Not to kindle a fire (Exod. 35:3)

B. The Torah as the source (authority) for additional Sabbath legislation:

Gen. 2:1-3 Not to pursue any "creative" activity (e.g., writing)
Exod. 16:22-30 Food for the Sabbath to be prepared on Friday
Lev. 23:3 Assemble for worship (miqra-qodesh=sacred assembly?)
Exod. 35:1 Assemble for instruction
Num. 28:9-10 Sabbath offerings
Exod. 35:4ff The categories of work defined by analogy to construction of the tabernacle

C. The Laws of the Sabbath honored elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible

Isa. 56: 2, 6 The Sabbath proclaimed as one of the essential practices that define Israel
Isa. 58:13-14 The Sabbath to be honored by not pursuing our business affairs, etc. (cf. Amos 8:5)
Jer. 17:21-24 Not to carry a load or bring it through the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath
Neh. 13:15-22 Various prohibited activities listed; gates of Jerusalem to be shut on the Sabbath

Actually the two passages from Isaiah, along with Exod. 31:12-17 (which, among other things, declares the Sabbath to be an everlasting covenant), are what make the Sabbath indispensable in my opinion.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Sacred Vestments

Sacred Vestments

You shall make sacred vestments for Aaron your brother, for glory and splendor…. These are the vestments that they shall make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a woven tunic, a turban, and a sash. They shall make sacred vestments for Aaron your brother and his sons so that they will serve as priests to Me. (Exod. 28:2, 4)

Add to this list a linen undergarment (Exod. 28:42) and a headplate (Exod. 28:36).

What significance do the sacred vestments carry for the service of Aaron and his sons as priests? Both the ephod and the breastpiece bear the names of the twelve tribes who together constitute Israel, so obviously their significance has something to do with representation of the nation before God. But for the other garments there appears to be little importance apart from their ornamental purpose to give those who wear them "glory and splendor." (Exod. 28:3, 40) “Blessed is he who crowns Israel with splendor.” (Berakhot 60b)

Not so fast. In Talmud tractate Zevachim, a rabbi by the name of Inyani bar Sason asks why the topics of vestments and offerings are set side by side in Leviticus chapters 7-8? The answer: just as the offerings atone, so do the vestments! The explanation that follows is fascinating, albeit something of a stretch. Each of the vestments has a particular sin that they atone for, especially as they apply to the priest’s service before God. We may also learn from the text what sins were considered among the most grevious by the sages of the Talmud.

Zevachim 88a (cf. Arachin 16a)
The tunic atones for the shedding of blood, as it says, And they slaughtered a male goat, and dipped the tunic in the blood. (Gen. 37:31)

Joseph's special tunic becomes the model for the tunic worn by Aaron and his sons. Just as Joseph's brothers used the goat's blood to represent (though falsely) that Joseph had become the victim of bloodshed, so the tunic of a later age would atone for bloodshed.

The undergarment atones for sexual immorality [lit., exposing nakedness], as it says, And you shall make for them linen undergarments to cover their naked flesh. (Exod. 28:42)

Sexual immorality defiles us and corrupts a priest’s service to God. Leviticus chapter 18 defines this sin in more detail.

The turban atones for an arrogant spirit. How? R. Hanina said: Let an article which is high come and atone for haughtiness.

“God is everywhere save in arrogance.” (A.J. Heschel) A priest who is arrogant will find God absent from his worship. “Whoever has haughty eyes and a proud heart, him I will not endure.” (Psalm 101:5b) Perhaps arrogance was behind the “strange fire” for which Nadab and Abihu were put to death. As another passage from the Talmud teaches: “R. Joseph said: Man should always learn from the character of his Creator, because the Holy One, blessed be he, left behind all the mountains and heights and caused his Presence to abide on Mt. Sinai, and he left behind all the beautiful trees and caused his Presence to abide in a bush.” (Sotah 5a)

The sash atones for the thoughts of the heart, because of where it is worn.

The sash was worn over the heart (cf. Josephus, Antiquities III, 7:2). Some sins are done in public, some in private, and some only in the thoughts of our heart. The thoughts of our heart only God knows: “You search all the secret chambers of man’s inner being and examine his feelings and his heart. No matter is hidden from you and nothing is concealed from your sight.” (Afternoon service, Erev Yom Kippur)

The breastpiece atones for ordinances [or, legal decisions], as it is written, And you shall make a breastpiece of decision. (Exod. 28:15)

Even laws require atonement, perhaps because they are interpreted and administered by fallible judges, or simply because they address fallible people and institutions.

The ephod atones for idolatry, as it says, And without ephod or teraphim. (Hosea 3:4, interpreted as, Without ephod there are teraphim, i.e., idols).

This sin is particularly relevant to the priest’s service: what forms and symbols of worship are acceptable to God. Idolatry has a deceptive way of replacing the One who alone is worthy of worship. We replace the infinite, invisible God with a finite image, whether a god of stone or a god of flesh or a god of our imagination (i.e., a mental image). Or we replace the majestic Name with names that are invoked as magic formulas.

The robe atones for slander [lashon hara, evil speech]. How? R. Hanina said: Let an article of sound (cf. Exod. 28:33) come and atone for evil sound.

“Whoever slanders his neighbor in secret, him I will silence…” (Psalm 101:5a) Judging from the wording of the commandment against slander found in Lev. 19:16, this sin was considered almost equivalent to bloodshed: “You shall not go about spreading slander among your people; you shall not stand over the blood of your neighbor, for I am the Lord.”

The headplate atones for a brazen face, for of the headplate it is written, And it shall be on Aaron's forehead (Exod. 28:38), while of a brazen face it is written, Yet you have a harlot's forehead! (Jer. 3:3)

A brazen face describes insolent behavior: doing what is wrong openly and without shame, as Jer. 3:3 continues, “you refused to be ashamed.” Likewise Isa. 3:9, “The look on their faces testifies against them; they parade their sin like Sodom; they do not hide it.” The headplate was made of pure gold, engraved with the words “Holy to the Lord” and attached to the turban so that it rested on the forehead. What an awesome sign of purity and sanctity to offer in atonement for insolence.

Interesting to note: In Arachin 16a this discussion is preceded by a list of seven sins for which "leprosy" is incurred, and among these seven are slander, bloodshed, sexual immorality, and arrogance. The afternoon service on the eve of Yom Kippur also makes mention of several of these same sins: sexual immorality, thoughts of the heart, slander, haughty eyes, and a brazen face.

So the sacred vestments contribute to atonement alongside the offerings. But that is not all. The passage continues:

R. Joshua b. Levi said: For two things we find no atonement through offerings, but find atonement for them through something else, namely bloodshed and slander: bloodshed by the heifer whose neck is broken (Deut. 21:1-9), and slander by incense. R. Hanina said: How do we know that incense atones? Because it is written, And he presented the incense, and atoned for the people. (Num. 17:12 MT) And the school of R. Ishmael taught: For what does incense atone? For slander: let that which is done in secret (the offering of incense on the altar) come and atone for that which is done in secret (how slander begins).

What then follows is an attempt to reconcile the apparent conflict between the sacred vestments (in making atonement for bloodshed and slander) and these other avenues of atonement. But the main point is that atonement is made in these specific instances without sacrificial offerings of any kind.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The tabernacle and the beauty of holiness

Text: Exodus 25-27

The description of the tabernacle's materials and furnishings--from the fine detail of the lampstand to the brightly colored curtains to the tremendous expense of gold--brings to mind the expression found several places in the Writings, "Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness." (Psalm 29:2, 96:9; I Chron. 16:29; cf. II Chron. 20:21) The word translated beauty (had'rat, from hadar) carries the meaning of decorous and ornate splendor. The combination of beauty and holiness found in the tabernacle was an appropriate form for worship of the Lord, as the writer of Psalm 27 put it: "One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all my days, to gaze upon the beauty (no'am) of the Lord and to seek him in his temple." (v. 4; cf. the use of tabernacle in vv. 5 and 6) The physical structure became both a tabernacle/mishkan for God's presence and a sanctuary/mikdash to exhibit God's holiness, a place to seek him with both joy and awe.

Read Exod. 25:8, "And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell (cf. tabernacle) among them," with Psalm 96:6, "Grandeur and splendor (hadar) are before him, strength and beauty (tiferet) are in his sanctuary."

So far we have seen three words translated beauty: hadar (splendor, decoration), no'am (delight, favor), and tiferet (ornament), all of them descriptive of the tabernacle and of the One whose gift of his presence made the tabernacle a sanctuary.

God's furniture

Doesn’t this formal beauty constitute idolatry?

First, the use of forms in worship does not equal idolatry unless the forms themselves become objects of veneration in place of God.

Second, Solomon prays, "But will God really dwell on the earth? Behold! The heavens and the heavens of the heavens cannot contain you, how much less indeed this House that I have built." (I Kings 8:27) Nevertheless, Solomon builds a temple far more extravagant than the tabernacle described in Exodus, even redundant cherubim where, other scriptures tell us, God "sits enthroned."

Third, Ezekiel decries idolatry more often than any other prophet, with at least 39 references to idols, even idols in the temple (8:10), yet he promotes restoration of the temple service with all its intricate forms.

Today we enter worship through prayers and blessings intentionally patterned after the sacrificial service of the tabernacle and the temple. The purpose now is the same as the purpose then: to draw near to God and stand in awe of his presence, to see his beauty in the recited words and formal rites of the community of Israel.

Psalm 61:5 MT
Let me dwell in your tent forever; let me take refuge in the shelter of your wings.

Psalm 141:2
May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.

Beyond the Ten Commandments

Exod. 21:1
Now these are the ordinances which you shall set before them….

Psalm 119:7
I will give thanks to you with an upright heart when I study your righteous ordinances.

The Ten Commandments hold a rightful place of honor in the religious traditions of both Jews and Christians. They are recorded almost verbatim twice, in Exodus chapter 20 and Deuteronomy chapter 5, and are usually assumed to be the content of the stone tablets Moses brought from his stay atop Sinai (cf. Exod. 34:28; Deut. 4:13, 10:4). I have often heard people suggest that the Ten Commandments are the basis of true religion and government. Of course, most of these people have no idea what they are talking about: they do not observe the Sabbath and they seldom understand what it means to take the name of God in vain. (See discussion below.) It is also worth noting, from a source-critical perspective, that the Ten Commandments in their present form are later than some other sets of commandments, such as those beginning in Exodus chapter 21.

In Exodus 21:1-23:13 numerous “ordinances” (mishpatim) are listed which range from the proper treatment of slaves to various laws concerning the humble ox. In this section alone we will find well over forty commandments: according to Maimonides, at least 23 positive and 24 negative commandments.

The commandments of the Torah, often called the Law, are sometimes supposed to consist of a severe form of justice, an eye for an eye. In fact, the Torah has as much to do with mercy as with justice. The Torah is a covenant between God and Israel, which binds them together in several aspects: righteousness (tsedeq), justice (mishpat), kindness (chesed), compassion (rachamim), and faithfulness (emunah).

Hosea 2:21-22 MT
And I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and justice and kindness and compassion. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and you will know the Lord.

1. Righteousness: Exod. 22:15-16 MT If a man has sexual relations with a virgin who is not engaged to someone else, he must pay a dowry for her to be his wife, whether or not the father gives his consent for them to marry. Paying the dowry is a matter of doing the right thing by the person he has wronged, not retribution. He is certainly not striking a bargain with the father, who may still refuse to give her to him. Incidentally, Deut. 22:29 adds an additional requirement: he may never divorce her!

An aside: Not only does this ordinance force the man to do the right thing after the fact, it may also serve as an effective deterrent against male promiscuity. That is likely the real issue of social concern, not so much to prevent premarital sex as to discourage casual sex and sexual promiscuity.

2. Justice: Exod. 23:1-3, 6-8 Juridicial rules are given to safeguard against mere vengeance and to ensure a just verdict.a. Do not accept a false (or illegal) report (v. 1). This may apply to hearsay testimony as well as to an accusation made without the accused present.
b. Do not agree with a wicked person to corrupt your testimony (v. 1), and so cause harm to any side in a dispute. Neither commit perjury nor suborn perjury.
c. Do not allow others to influence your testimony or verdict by the force of their numbers (v. 2), as opposed to the force of their arguments. Majority rule may be sanctioned by this ordinance but a warning is issued against its abuse.
d. Do not show favoritism to any side in a dispute (vv. 3, 6).
e. Do not convict a person based on inadequate (possibly circumstantial) evidence (v. 7). It is better to let the guilty go free than to wrong the innocent.
f. Do not accept bribes (v. 8).

3. Kindness: Exod. 23:4-5 We have social obligations that extend even to our worst enemy. We may not refuse to help an enemy in distress, e.g., to unload his fallen donkey. See the Addendum below.

4. Compassion: Exod. 22:24-26 MT Lend to the poor without interest, and if they are unable to pay do not demand payment. If they need what was pledged for the loan, return it to them without delay. In other words, be gracious to the poor, for God is gracious (chanun).

5. Faithfulness: Exod. 23:13 The commandments require faithfulness toward people (cf. Exod. 21:10-11) as well as faithfulness toward God. In this verse the latter responsibility is made clear: faithfully keep all my instructions, and do not invoke the name of any other god, rather swear by my name, bless in my name, and speak in my name, my name alone. “I am the Lord; that is my name; and I will not give my glory to another, or my praise to idols.” (Isa. 42:8)

Even so, the Lord’s name is not to be used as the names of other gods, as a magic formula to obtain desired ends. Nor are we to take the Lord’s name in vain (Exod. 20:7). This does not refer to the use of profanity, though such careless speech should be avoided simply because it dishonors the God we claim to love. A more literal translation of the commandment may help: "Do not lift up the name of the Lord your God to the vain...” That is to say, do not use the Lord’s name in the worship of an idol (as in Jer. 18:15, "my people burn incense to the vain"). Psalm 24:4 makes an obvious allusion to this commandment, only obscured by inconsistent translation of the two passages. Together they refer to either: (a) as above, worship of worthless idols; or (b) taking (swearing) an oath "in vain." I prefer the former, but the latter is supported in traditional Jewish commentaries, and both the JPS and NJPS translations.

Through observance of the commandments Israel will come to “know the Lord.” This assertion is even supported by Jeremiah’s utopian vision of a new covenant (Jer. 31:33-34), for it is the Torah which will be written on their heart, and though it will no longer need to be taught, the result will be the same: through the Torah they will “know the Lord.”

“Law gives principles concrete application and reality.” (Elliot Dorff, Knowing God)

Addendum: Your Enemy’s Ox

Exodus 23:4-5 (cf. Deut. 22:1-4)
When you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey straying, you shall surely return it to him.
When you see the donkey of someone who hates you lying under its load, and would refrain from restoring* it to him, you shall surely restore* it with him [i.e., to help him raise it up, or, to help him unload it].

The phrase “you shall surely…” reflects the Hebrew form of an infinitive absolute followed by an imperfect of the same root, which if translated literally would be “to return you shall return” and “to restore you shall restore.” The Talmud interprets the use of this form here to mean “in all circumstances.” (Baba Metsia 31a) In other words, don’t look too hard for excuses to disregard the commandment.

On the other hand, even the clearest commandment may be impractical to obey without some interpretation. For example, does the word “enemy” intend only a person within Israel or only among the nations or both? Are we only obligated to help unload the animal or does the commandment expect us to help reload the animal as well? Do we have to provide our assistance without compensation? Are we to understand the commandment to apply solely to the specific animals mentioned or are the animals representative of a broader categories?

In order for the commandments to be applied in practice to real life situations, not just admired as wise and compassionate but abstract principles, they require further interpretation and elaboration. Critics may call this legalism; those who take the commandments seriously call this observance. The following passage illustrates the role of rabbinical writings (Oral Torah) in clarifying and delimiting obligations imposed by the commandments:

Baba Metsia 32a:
[Mishnah] If one unloads and loads, unloads and loads, even four or five times, he is still obligated, as it says, You shall surely restore. (Exod. 23:5) If [the owner] went, sat down and said, “since the commandment rests on you, if you desire to unload, unload:” he is exempt, as it says, with him; but if [the owner] was old or sick, he is still obligated. There is a commandment from the Torah to unload, but not to load. R. Simeon said: Also to load. R. Jose the Galilean said: If [the animal] bore more than its proper load, he has no obligation to [its owner], as it says, under its load, which means, a load under which it can stand.

The majority of the rabbis held that unloading should be without pay, but loading for pay. Again R. Simeon dissented: Both without payment. (Baba Metsia 32a)

They also debated a rationale for the commandment: is it to relieve the suffering of the animal?

Baba Metsia 32b:
Now, should you think that [relieving] the suffering of animals is a Scriptural ordinance, what difference does it make whether the owner joins him or not? Certainly [relieving] the suffering of animals is a Scriptural ordinance, for do you think that exempt means entirely exempt? Perhaps he is exempt without payment, but he is obligated with payment, according to this rule: When the owner joins him, he must serve him for no pay; when the owner does not join him, he must serve him for payment; yet after all [relieving] the suffering of animals is a Scriptural ordinance.

So the rationale is not necessarily to love your enemy. Such love may be a fine aspiration, but it is not commanded. To love your fellow-man, even to love the stranger, these are commanded. No, the enemy is not the issue here, the unfortunate animal is. The enemy is mentioned only to broaden the scope of the commandment, so that whether the animal belongs to friend or foe, you must help, for the sake of the animal.

An additional reason is offered for helping the enemy as well as the brother: to allay his enmity toward you. (Baba Metsia 32b)

Finally, to define the minimum and maximum obligation of a commandment is important.

Baba Metsia 33a:
Our Rabbis taught: When you see. One might think: even from a distance. So it is taught: When you meet… One might think: meet is to be taken literally. So it is taught: When you see…. A Tanna: And he must go with him as far as a parsang* [in case the animal should fall again]. Rabbah b. Bar Hana said: But he receives payment.


All quotations from the Talmud are adapted from the Soncino edition.

Restore: An unusual sense of a Hebrew word which generally means to leave or forsake, and sometimes to release, but here appears in a context which suggests help provided to either upright or unload an animal; cf. Neh. 3:8, restore or repair. Also see the parallel Deut. 22:4, “you shall surely raise it with him.”

Parsang: As a rough approximation, a few miles.

According to Maimonides, Exod. 23:4-5 can be broken down into three commandments: help unload, help load, and, conversely, do not refuse to help.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Father-in-law, father-in-law

Exod. 18:1
Now Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel his people, how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.

A man of too many names

Moses’ father-in-law is something of a curiosity in the Bible. He is called by more than one name, which makes him even more curious and mysterious. He is first introduced as the priest of Midian (Exod. 2:16), then named Reuel (Exod. 2:18), then several verses later, and without explanation, he is called Jethro, the priest of Midian (Exod. 3:1). He next appears with a variant spelling, as Jether (Exod. 4:18), then later in the same verse as Jethro again. But wait, we aren’t finished: after appearing with the name Jethro throughout Exodus chapter 18, in Num. 10:29 a certain “Hobab the son of Reuel the Midianite, the father-in-law of Moses” enters the picture, only to re-appear in Judges 4:11 as himself the father-in-law of Moses! For the sake of clarity, I will stick with the name Jethro.

Another curiosity are the Kenites, who are mentioned several times in the Bible and have odd relationships to Israel and other peoples. And what do you know, they, Moses’ father-in-law and the Kenites, are related! (cf. Judges 1:16, 4:11)

Idolater or proselyte?

The rabbis of the Talmud aren’t sure what to do with Jethro; they offer different opinions about him, some positive but others not. They as much as call him an idolater, for he “fattened calves for idol worship.” (Sotah 43a; Baba Batra 109b) They say he was motivated by self-interest, for “he drew near to Moses for his own honor.” (Berakhot 63b) On the other hand, he was worthy enough that his descendants the Kenites would come to sit as scribes in the Temple, in the meeting-place of the Sanhedrin! (Sotah 11a; Sanhedrin 106a; cf. I Chron. 2:55)

What status does Jethro have with respect to Israel? A possible answer is suggested by the rabbis in the following passage:

Zevachim 116a (adapted from Soncino edition)
This is a controversy of Tannaim: Now Jethro, the priest of Midian, heard (Exod. 18:1): what news did he hear that he came and turned a proselyte? R. Joshua said: He heard of the battle with the Amalekites, since this is immediately preceded by, And Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword (Exod. 17:13). R. Eleazar of Modim said: He heard of the giving of the Torah and came.… R. Eleazar said: He heard about the dividing of the Red Sea, and came…

Two things stand out: (1) Jethro was considered a proselyte, a convert to the religion of Israel, and (2) He may have come to Israel because he heard about the defeat of Amalek, i.e., his tribe may have had some connection to the Amalekites.

Both of these conjectures are supported in the Bible references to the Kenites, who are said to be descendants of Jethro (aka Hobab aka Reuel):

(1) A proselyte?

Judges 1:16
And the descendants of the Kenite, Moses’ father-in-law, went up from the city of palm trees with the sons of Judah, to the wilderness of Judah, which lies in the south of Arad; and they went and lived among the people.

In other words, the Kenites lived among the people of Israel? More likely, they lived among the unnamed people of the area described. The text is not clear, and it has been argued that the word translated people (am) may be corrupted from the original Amalekite. So this verse by itself does not prove that either Jethro or his descendants joined the community of Israel.

Nevertheless, the Kenites remained in close connection to Israel. The heroic story of “Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite” (Judges 4:17ff, 5:24ff) points to a high regard for the Kenites. Some of the Kenites were later included among the scribes of Israel (I Chron. 2:55) and one of them, Jehonadab the son of Rechab, professed his “zeal for the Lord.” (II Kings 10:15-16)

But what about Jethro himself? Are the rabbis correct when they say he became a proselyte? No, I really don’t think so. For at the end of Exodus chapter 18, after his last known encounter with Moses and Israel, he returned to his own land, which implies that he returned to his own people and for all we know his own religion. He no doubt took some knowledge of the God of Israel with him (cf. Exod. 18:11), but he chose to continue in his own way, apart from Israel. Similarly, when Hobab the son of Reuel declined to go with Israel to the land of promise, he said, “I will not go [with you], rather I will go to my land and to my people.” (Num. 10:29-30) It is true that Moses asked him again to continue on as their guide and share in their success, but we are not told whether Hobab agreed to this or not. (Num. 10:31-32)

So perhaps Jethro occupies that middle space, neither idolater (at least not any longer) nor proselyte, i.e., in the full sense of attaching himself to Israel in his worship of God. He may be compared to Melchizedek, priest of the Most High God (Gen. 14:18f). Both of these men are presented in a favorable light; in fact nothing bad is said about them in the Bible. But they do not become part of Israel.

(2) An Amalek connection?

I Samuel 15:6
And Saul said to the Kenites, Go, depart, go down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with them; for you showed kindness to all the people of Israel when they came up from Egypt. So the Kenites departed from among the Amalekites.

In other words, the Kenites had a close connection to the Amalekites in the time of Saul, so R. Joshua wasn’t engaging in baseless speculation when he related Jethro’s decision to come to Moses with news of the defeat of Amalek. The juxtaposition of the two accounts (Exod. 17:8-16 and 18:1-27) may be intentional, as Martin Buber writes: “[The redactor] wishes to show here, immediately after the battle with the Amalekites, how clear a distinction has to be drawn historically between the Amalekites and the Kenites, in view of the fact that this tribe or part of it afterwards united temporarily with the former.” (Moses, p. 94) Buber’s point is a bit different than the teaching of the Talmud given above. R. Joshua suggested a historical-causal relation between the events of the two accounts. Buber is saying that in the time of Jethro the Kenites did not have any alliance with the Amalekites, but since they did at a later time the compiler of the Torah put these passages side-by-side to clear their name. For if the Kenites had been allied or united with the Amalekites then, the cordial reunion in Exodus chapter 18 wouldn’t have happened. The two accounts have a thematic relation, but the one did not necessarily follow the other in chronology or causality.

True Wisdom

In Jethro we have the third father-in-law to play a significant role in Biblical narrative. Before him Laban traded tricks with Jacob (Gen. 29-31), and Judah paid for treating Tamar unfairly (Gen. 38). Neither Laban nor Judah demonstrated that quality known as wisdom.

But Jethro proved to be different. He offered sound advice to Moses for leading, teaching and judging Israel, and Moses “listened to the voice of his father-in-law, and did all that he said.” (Exod. 18:24) This speaks well of Moses who at the age of 80 was still willing to learn from his father-in-law. As for Jethro, his wise counsel was of sufficient importance to be reiterated later as Moses’ own instruction! (cf. Deut. 1:9-17)

The advice Jethro gave included a set of high standards for the persons Moses would choose as leaders: “Men of valor who fear God, men of truth who hate dishonest gain.” (Exod. 18:21) These stated qualifications reflect back on Jethro, if not his own integrity, then at least the values and aspirations he held. Wisdom surely consists of more than intellect: one may be an intellectual genius but a moral idiot. Jethro was a wise man in both practical imagination and moral judgment.

Regarding those names

No satisfactory explanation has, to my knowledge, been offered for the different names attached to this person I have called Jethro. It would seem obvious that the different names come from different sources, just as the names of God are thought to vary according to the sources. For those of us who accept some form of the documentary hypothesis, the J source is thought responsible for the references to Reuel and to Hobab the son of Reuel, while the E source uses Jethro and the (probably accidental) variant Jether. That leaves Judges 4:11 which does not fit with either of these sources.

Commentators are often driven to harmonize such contradictory materials, as if the truth of their religious beliefs depended on it. My view of sound Biblical criticism may be summed up as follows: Harmonize where there appears to be harmony; suspend judgment when the evidence is lacking for a reasonable conclusion; admit the possibility of error when the weight of the evidence suggests error; above all, give up the overriding principle of inerrancy.

I have never understood the need for inerrancy in Scripture. What ultimately matters is the truth of our understanding of God’s ways, not even whether we have all the truth, but simply whether we are looking in the right direction. For Scripture to serve this purpose trivial matters such as the name of Moses’ father-in-law cannot possibly be important enough to confirm or deny our faith.

Baruch Spinoza wrote in 1670:
The commentators who attempt to harmonize these evident contradictions draw on their imagination, each to the best of his ability; and while professing adoration for each letter and word of Scripture, only succeed in holding up the sacred writers to ridicule, as though they knew not how to write or relate a plain narrative. Such persons effect nothing but to render the clearness of Scripture obscure. (A Theological-Political Treatise, translated by R.H.M. Elwes, ch. 10, p. 153)

Friday, February 10, 2006

Another took his place

Exod. 14:31
When Israel saw the great power that the Lord used against Egypt, the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in Moses his servant.

In regard to Moses, this verse answers the question he asked God in Exod. 4:1, "What if they don't believe in me and won't listen to my voice, but say, 'The Lord didn't appear to you.'" At least at this point, the people accept Moses as the Lord's chosen servant and so "believe" in him.

Moses is called the servant of the Lord, a title given to him more often than any other person in the Hebrew Bible, at least 18 times in the book of Joshua alone. Excluding its use as an expression of courtesy when a person refers to himself as "your servant," the title appears only once previously, Gen. 26:24, when the Lord refers to Abraham as his servant. Many other instances could be noted, but the most common are with David (almost as often as with Moses, if my count is correct, 32 versus 33) and with Jacob/Israel (especially in the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, but also see Psalm 136:22 and I Chron. 16:13). Finally, when God says "my servant" the meaning appears to be the same as "my chosen" (see, for example, Isaiah 41:8-9 and Psalm 89:4 MT).

As important as Moses, David, and other heroes of the Hebrew Bible may be in the history of Israel, they are not cult figures in the same sense or to the same degree as one finds in other religions, notably Muhammad in Islam and Jesus in Christianity. If Moses was viewed like Muhammad, the Shema might include an extra clause "and Moses is his servant (or prophet)," and much of the oral Torah might consist of additional remembered sayings (hadith) and observed conduct (sainunnah) of the servant of the Lord. If Moses was viewed like Jesus, Judaism's message might be, "Believe in Moses and you will be saved," his name might be exalted and adored theoretically on the same level but for all practical purposes on a higher level than God's name, the miracles ascribed to Moses might be claimed as proof of his divinity, and WWMD (What would Moses do?) might be a popular acronym!

The Bible singles Moses out as the preeminent prophet in the history of Israel (Num. 12:6-8, Deut. 34:10-12); to Moses the Lord “made known his ways.” (Psa. 103:7) The Torah is often identified with his name (e.g., Deut. 33:4, Malachi 3:22, Ezra 7:6). However, for all his greatness and goodness, he was yet mortal, he sinned like any mortal, and after his death another took his place. He was neither the founder nor the final prophet of Israel, i.e., of what became Judaism. And while he was God’s instrument of deliverance on the occasion of the exodus from Egypt, it is God and not Moses who remains the only Savior and Redeemer of Israel (Isa. 49:26).