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Leviticus 18-26

Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death.  Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life.  If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. – Leviticus 24:17-20

I think there are two main things I want in my reading material: one is that I want things to be happening, and the other is that I want those happenings to be well-written.  Leviticus falls short in both of those regards, and that is most of the reason that it is my least favorite book so far.

One of the only small rays of light and pleasantness in the whole 26-chapter book comes in Leviticus 19, which includes the phrase “. . .you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).  I can’t say I’ve ever seen a bumper sticker or a tattoo directing readers to that particular chapter and verse, despite its positive message and concise wording.  Perhaps people feel, with justification, that it’s better to steer clear of Leviticus entirely.

For the most part there is no narrative here, and little effort at eloquence.  We are subjected to God’s continuing litany of rules and instructions which he imparts to Moses on Mount Sinai.  The passage of time is difficult to detect, although I get the sense that Moses is going back and forth from the mountain to the nascent desert community of Hebrews and that many months elapse before all of the laws are communicated.  The list of rules covers subjects such as animal offerings, whom one may not lie with (somewhere in here is the rule about men not lying with men as with women, but of course there’s nothing specific about women lying with women as with men; I’m not going to get into this right now, it’s a whole other rant and there will probably be another opportunity), how certain crimes and sins should be punished (with death, quite often), and what kinds of people can do what things.  Priests and lay people, the slaves or priests and the slaves of lay people, and the in-laws of priests and of lay people, for example, all have different rights and responsibilities.

All this amounts to a fairly detailed description of how an ancient, very religious society felt it ought to operate.  That sounds interesting enough in theory, but as a reader it would be preferable to observe these rules in action, through examples and stories.  When do we get parables?  When will we return to character-based storytelling?  When will people be doing things?

There are two or three fleeting moments in Leviticus when narrative reasserts itself, and when it does the results are fairly disturbing.  But I suppose it may be preferable to be disturbed than to be bored, so I’ll end my discussion of this dull book by recounting one of these events.  A man living among the Hebrews was the son of a Hebrew mother and Egyptian father.  He got in a fight with an Israelite and “blasphemed the Name” of God.  So they brought him before Moses and “put him in custody, till the will of the LORD should be clear to them.”

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him. . . The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.” – Leviticus 24:10-13

It was a vicious, uncompromising, bloody code of laws that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai.  There are moments of compassion and instructions to “love your neighbor as yourself,” but more common and perhaps more memorable are the warnings that transgressions will bring “fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth” upon perpetrators.

That’s nothing I didn’t already know, which is a big reason Leviticus was such a bad read.  I am in this to expand my limited knowledge of the Bible, find things in it to enjoy and appreciate, and share my reactions from the perspective of a confirmed atheist.  I emerge from Leviticus fairly empty handed, so I am glad to be moving on to the fourth book, Numbers.

Leviticus 1-17

And if the disease is in the walls of the house with greenish or reddish spots, and if it appears to be deeper than the surface, then the priest shall go out of the house to the door of the house and shut up the house seven days. . . If the disease breaks out again in the house, after he has taken out the stones and scraped the house and plastered it, then the priest shall go and look.  And if the disease has spread in the house, it is a persistent leprous disease in the house; it is unclean.  And he shall break down the house, its stones and timber and all the plaster of the house, and he shall carry them out of the city to an unclean place. – Leviticus 14:37-45

But if the priest comes and looks, and if the disease has not spread in the house. . . then the priest shall pronounce the house clean, for the disease is healed.  And for the cleansing of the house he shall take two small birds, with cedarwood and scarlet yarn and hyssop, and shall kill one of the birds in an earthenware vessel over fresh water and shall take the cedarwood and the hyssop and the scarlet yarn, along with the live bird, and dip them in the blood of the bird that was killed and in the fresh water and sprinkle the house seven times. . . So he shall make atonement for the house, and it shall be clean. – Leviticus 14:48-53

Carl Sagan used the phrase “a candle in the dark” to describe science’s ability to dispel the darkness of superstition and replace it with the light of reason.  I greatly admire Carl Sagan and fully subscribe to this view of science.  If the second half of Exodus is all about managing human behavior in a legalistic, mostly rational fashion, the first half of Leviticus would seem to be about managing the natural world through superstitious and even barbaric rituals.  I have found it a distasteful and sometimes disturbing read, and I look forward to its conclusion after just a few more chapters.

Some would call me a bleeding heart, and I am undeniably sensitive to the suffering of other creatures, but I also think I rank fairly high on the jaded scale and enjoy intellectualizing and depersonalizing things.  Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel somewhat sickened by the senseless murder of animals that Leviticus prescribes as a solution to so many human concerns.  I should admit that I am a lacto-ovo vegetarian, and a relatively strict one, but I don’t think you need to eschew meat to feel sorry for animals that die in religious ceremonies.

It seems so senseless to kill an animal in order to atone for a perceived failing or to thank God for an apparent bit of assistance, but that is what Leviticus repeatedly and graphically commands the Hebrews to do.  God gives Moses the run-down: a bird for this, a lamb for that, an ox for another thing.  Here is what you do with its blood, this is what you do with its organs, and don’t forget to do this with its hide, its bones, and its empty carcass.  The instructions are detailed and go on for chapters.  Animal sacrifice is not unique to the Bible, of course; plenty, perhaps all, ancient cultures practiced it.  But after the surprisingly modern, practical legal code laid down in Exodus, the shift to the utter superstition of Leviticus is depressing.

Yet even in these dark pages I find a silver lining.  A glimmer of early scientific thinking shines through in Leviticus 14, in the discussion of how to handle a leprous house.  What is being described in the excerpt at the top of this post sounds very much like moldy spots on the inside of a building.  The solution is reasonable: clean it out, board it up for a bit, and wait.  If the spots spread or come back, tear the thing down and scatter its pieces away from human residences.  In this scenario it is humans who must take proactive steps to protect the health of the community by isolating and fighting diseases through non-magical means.  This basically scientific approach to rotten houses probably saved some lives in ancient Israel.

Still, just a few verses later it’s back to killing birds and doing voodoo with their blood.  Experimentation with various flora and fauna probably led to some medicinal discoveries, but such an outcome is not foreseen or implied in Leviticus.  The spirit of this book is that the sacrifice of animals is pleasing to God.  There’s not much I can say to that except no.  Just no.

On a somewhat lighter note, in my opinion, Leviticus contains a couple of fun, fantasy-like reference to a mysterious demon named Azazel.  Here are the passages:

And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other for Azazel.  And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the LORD and use it as a sin offering, but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the LORD to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel. – Leviticus 16:8-10

And he who lets the goat go to Azazel shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. – Leviticus 16:26

The footnote for Azazel says “The meaning of Azazel is uncertain; possibly the name of a place or a demon, traditionally a scapegoat.”  I’d like to think that Azazel was some kind of pre-Judaic demon or god whose existence was still acknowledged by early Hebrews and who still commanded some degree of respect, fear, and accommodation during Moses’s time.

Unless we’re going to hear more about demons from the mists of time, though, it’s time to be done with Leviticus ASAP.

Movie review: “The Ten Commandments” (1956)

Film: The Ten Commandments
Director: Cecile B. DeMille
Starring: Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Vincent Price, and a cast of thousands

I don’t think I’ve had occasion to mention it, but I’m a big classic movie buff.  Watching movies is probably my favorite hobby and I almost always watch two or three each week.  After each film I rush to Netflix, Rotten Tomatoes, Flickchart, and my own personal database to add, rate, or rerate what I’ve just watched.  Older movies, from the dawn of cinema through the 1970s, tend to be my favorites.  I have a particularly fondness for epics and period pieces.

Cecile B. DeMille’s 1956 version of “The Ten Commandments” is, therefore, right in my wheelhouse in many ways, yet I had never seen it until just the other night.  Other than its director and stars, the only thing I knew about it was that it was about Moses.

The nearly 4-hour film opens with Cecile B. DeMille standing in front of a curtain speaking directly to the unseen audience.  He gives a rather stern introduction to the film in which he cites his sources.  The Bible, he notes, omits Moses’s early life between his birth and his flight from Egypt, so DeMille says he has filled the gap using information found in the writing of certain ancient historians.  This preliminary bibliography notwithstanding, it wasn’t long into the movie before I got the distinct impression that the imaginations of DeMille and the four credited screenwriters had more influence over the story than any two-thousand-year-old texts.

The first two hours are a creative take on what Moses’s life may have been like.  When we meet the adult Moses (Charlton Heston) he is a well-respected Egyptian prince and warrior, having been groomed by Pharaoh as a possible successor.  Only two people in the court are aware of Moses’s true identity as a son of Hebrew slaves: his adoptive Egyptian mother and her disapproving handmaiden.  Moses is romantically involved with Nefretiri (Anne Baxter, who was the title character in “All About Eve”), who is destined to marry the next Pharaoh.  Nefretiri clearly wants to marry Moses, and the feeling is mutual.  The only trouble, apart from the well-guarded secret of Moses’s birth, is that Pharaoh’s biological son Rameses II (Yul Brynner) also hopes to win the throne and Nefretiri.  Moses is the ideal ruler: loyal to his adoptive father, but also kind  and generous to the Hebrew slaves whom he has to oversee on a major construction project.  Rameses, meanwhile, stalks the corridors of the palace, glowers at Nefretiri, and sneers at the mention of the beloved Moses.

Almost none of this is Biblical.  Some of it, like the name Rameses II, may be historical.  Most of it is clearly a Hollywood fabrication.  But that’s fine, because the story is interesting and the acting is good.  Brynner lights up the screen and fills it with his presence.  This was one of two films he appeared in that was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1956, the other being the screen adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The King and I” in which he plays the irascible but broad-minded King of Siam.  Brynner is an ideal antagonist because he has the natural ability to be imposing but alluring, implacable yet sympathetic, wrongheaded but mostly well-intentioned.  Stray too far in any of these directions and the character would falter, becoming either too sinister or too comedic, but Brynner walks the line effortlessly and with style.  In a documentary included on the DVD, Charlton Heston calls Moses “the role of the year,” but Moses clearly isn’t even the best role of this movie.

There is some fairly heavy-handed moralizing regarding the treatment of Hebrew slaves, which even legendary actors of the caliber of Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price cannot entirely compensate for.  These innately likable actors, who are usually known for playing sleazy, creepy villians (although to me Robinson will always be the upright insurance claims adjuster from “Double Indemnity”), turn in decent performances as lascivious Egyptian taskmasters.  Their characters are two-dimensional, though, and exist mainly to provide foils for the plucky Hebrew slave Joshua (John Derek, who is perhaps most notable for having been married to Ursula Andress and Bo Derek).  Moses does his best to look after the Hebrews, and eventually kills Vincent Price’s character to rescue Joshua and his girlfriend Lilia (Debra Paget).

Nefretiri finds out Moses’s true identity and goes to murderous lengths to keep the information from him, but reveals the truth to him when questioned.  Moses flees to be with his people and live as a slave, but is soon captured and disowned by Pharaoh.  He is finally released by Rameses, who becomes Pharaoh and marries Nefretiri.  Moses leaves Egypt and starts a new life in the shadow of Mount Sinai, where he meets and marries Sephora (Yvonne De Carlo, probably best known as Lily Munster from TV’s “The Munsters”).

So it’s well over two hours before anything supernatural happens, namely Moses’s encounter with God (voiced by Heston) in the burning bush.  From this point on the film doesn’t quite live up to the first two hours, though the scenes in which Moses performs miracles for Rameses II, now Pharaoh, are pretty good.  Brynner and Baxter get a surprisingly touching scene when Rameses and Nefretiri’s only son is struck down as part of the death of the Egyptian firstborns.  Moses himself, though is never really very likable; he comes across more or less the way he does in the Bible, which is as a zealous, distant, uncompromising old man.  There isn’t much humanity in him, unlike in Rameses, whose frustrations and sorrows we feel almost every time Brynner is on camera.  That’s partly the fault of the script, which seems to give Moses nothing but glib one-liners, whereas Rameses, Nefretiri, and some of the minor characters each seem to get a few good, substantive rants in.

DeMille’s directing when the Hebrews leave Egypt is phenomenal, with several cameras capturing a march of literally thousands of people of all ages along with camels and donkeys.  The sets are pretty good, too, and richly decorated.  The special effects, while obviously not up to twenty-first century standards, are fun and neat, especially the parting of the Red Sea.  That’s probably the real climax of the film, even though the issuance of the titular Ten Commandments doesn’t come until almost the very end.

All in all, I enjoyed it and am glad to have watched it.  I’d probably watch it again.  It wasn’t the best film of 1956 (“Around the World in 80 Days” won that honor at the year’s Academy Awards ceremony, whereas my personal pick would be “The Searchers”), and it’s nowhere near the best epic ever made, but it might be the best Biblical movie I’ve seen.  Wait, scratch that, I’m a big fan of the film version of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”  Well, we’ll have to wait a while before getting to that review.

4 out of 5 stars.

Exodus 14-40

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 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…

Exodus 8-13

They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. – Exodus 11:8

Seven days they you shall eat unleavened bread.  On the first day you shall remove leaven out of yours houses, for if anyone eats what is leavened, from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. – Exodus 11:15

And you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt. Therefore you shall observe this day, throughout your generations, as a statute forever. In the first month, from the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the twenty-first day of the month at evening. For seven days no leaven is to be found in your houses. If anyone eats what is leavened, that person will be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a sojourner or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your dwelling places you shall eat unleavened bread. – Exodus 11:17-20

The Egyptians were urgent with the people to send them out of the land in haste. For they said, “We shall all be dead.” So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls being bound up in their cloaks on their shoulders. – Exodus 11:33-34

And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, because they were thrust out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves. – Exodus 11:39

Then Moses said to the people, “Remember this day in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of slavery, for by a strong hand the LORD brought you out of this place.  No leavened bread shall be eaten…” -Exodus 12:3

Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a feast to the LORD.  Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen with you, and no leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory.  You shall tell your son on that day, “It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.” And it shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the LORD may be in your mouth. For with a strong hand the LORD has brought you out of Egypt.  You shall therefore keep this statute at its appointed time from year to year. – Exodus 12:6-9

There, I think I got them all.

At first glance, this fixation on unleavened bread seems to be a perfect example of a nonsensical Old Testament law, the kind many of us have read about and shaken our heads over.  That was how I felt the first time I went through this portion of Exodus a few nights ago.  I couldn’t help but think of that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail with the Book of Armaments: “And the LORD spake, saying, ‘First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin, then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who being naughty in My sight, shall snuff it.'”  A simple but seemingly-arbitrary rule is reiterated in different ways until it begins to sound rather ridiculous.

On my second read-through, though, the unleavened bread ban doesn’t seem quite so nonsensical.  The rational for it is stated rather explicitly: it’s a way of remembering that the Israelites left Egypt hurriedly, without having even leavened their bread.

At this point I feel I should look up what leavening actually is.  One moment… ah, here we are, thank you Wikipedia:

leavening agent (also leavening or leavenplay/ˈlɛvənɪŋ/ or /ˈlɛvən/) is any one of a number of substances used in doughs and batters that cause a foaming action which lightens and softens the finished product.

Leavening is the process of adding gas to a dough before or during baking to produce a lighter, more easily chewed bread. Most bread consumed in the West is leavened. Unleavened breads have symbolic importance in Judaism and Christianity. Jews consume unleavened bread called matzo during Passover. Roman Catholic and some Protestant Christians consume unleavened bread during the Christian liturgy when they celebrate the Eucharist, a rite derived from the narrative of the Last Supper when Jesus broke bread with his disciples, perhaps during a Passover Seder. In contrast, Orthodox Christians always use leavened bread during their liturgy.

I’m sure I’ve eaten unleavened bread before, but I’d have to have the two kinds side by side to register an opinion about their relative merits in taste and texture.  I wonder if eating unleavened bread is considered a material sacrifice because it’s more difficult to chew or tastes worse; I suspect there are a lot of people who prefer it according to personal taste, so perhaps not.

I consider myself an admirer of Jewish culture.  More so than Christian or Muslim culture (sorry Christian and Muslim readers, if you’re out there), the oldest of the Abrahamic religions seems cloaked in an aura of noble antiquity.  Its strict dietary rules, for example, hearken back unapologetically to a distant past almost beyond recorded history.  That such rules would still be followed is, to my mind, not absurdly anachronistic, but powerfully affirmative of the culture’s unique identity.  The story of the Hebrews’ exit from Egypt and their subsequent observation of an unleavened bread ritual is a memorable and, I daresay, sensible explanation for a longstanding tradition that is still in effect.  It’s encouraging to me to think that this colorful, harmless (except perhaps to those who fail to observe it) food custom is still followed, and that fact makes this segment of the Bible seem strangely relevant and alive rather than inexplicably arbitrary as some Old Testament rules are sometimes portrayed.

This has been my favorite portion of the Bible so far.  To gain new and useful information and to learn to appreciate the Bible as a historical and cultural artifact are two of my main goals in this project, and the unleavened bread passages have been a fulfillment of those hopes.

Exodus 1-7

So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the LORD commanded.  Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent.  Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts. – Exodus 7:10-11

Moses and Aaron did as the LORD commanded.  In the sight of Pharaoh and in the sight of his servants he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the Nile, and all the water in the Nile turned into blood.  And the fish in the Nile died, and the Nile stank, so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile.  There was blood throughout all the land of Egypt.  But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts. . . – Exodus 7:20-22

The magicians of Egypt have some pretty neat tricks up their sleeves.

Exodus is off to a roaring start.  The book gets underway with Moses’ birth, the circumstances of which are fairly well-known even to me.  By this time Egypt has become a racially-divided society and Hebrew male children are supposed to be put to death, so Moses’ mother puts him in a caulked basket which is then placed in the river and discovered by an Egyptian woman.  Moses is an Egyptian name, I think, because it is his Egyptian discoverer who eventually names him.

What happened next, though, was totally unexpected, at least to me.  Essentially the first thing Moses does is to kill someone and hide the body.  He sees an Egyptian man harassing Hebrew slaves, walks up to him, smites him down, and buries the body in the sand.  He then flees to another land where he weds and eventually has his famed encounter with the burning bush.  I was taken aback by the murder, as it didn’t fit my image of Moses.  I somehow imagined a peace-loving man who humbly requests the release of his people from slavery, leads them through trials, and becomes a sage lawgiver.  I thought of him as the Dumbledore/Gandalf/Picard of the Old Testament.  Those characters aren’t incapable of inflicting deadly violence, but it’s usually not their first resort.

The Moses I’ve been reading about so far is a little more complicated than I expected.  For starters there’s this instance of violence.  He lashes out in defense of his fellow Hebrews, so perhaps this counts as self-defense rather than outright murder.  God hasn’t questioned him about it, and I doubt it will be brought up again, but it’s an episode that seems to call for moral analysis, especially in light of the no-killing commandment that Moses will later transmit.

When Moses eventually encounters God, he expresses a surprising amount of reluctance to fulfill his destiny.  I don’t remember any other lead characters, like Noah or Abraham, being so obviously hesitant to do what God asks of them.  When God tells Moses to tell the Hebrews that he is to lead them out of Egypt, Moses protests that they will not believe him.  They will, God says, after you perform certain miracles in order to prove the veracity of the message.  But, Moses replies, I am not cut out for delivering God’s message to the children of Israel.  Don’t worry, God says, “I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.”  But, Moses begs, “please send someone else.”  This is the last straw, and “the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses” (Exodus 4:10-14).  God has been angry with people before, but apart from Adam and Eve I don’t remember him ever registering anger with a main protagonist.  He may have, but I don’t remember it.  Perhaps Moses is merely being modest, but he seems genuinely unhappy about the whole thing.  He didn’t shrink from conflict earlier in life, though, so I wonder what’s different now.

Moses goes on to win over the Hebrews fairly easily with the help of his brother Aaron, but he continues to doubt his ability to carry out God’s plan.  His concern is more justified this time.  When God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand the release of the Hebrews from Egypt, God warns Moses that this effort will be unsuccessful.  I’ve heard the phrase “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” and indeed it is used three or four times to explain why Pharaoh doesn’t respond to the miracles Moses and Aaron perform.  But there’s an element of the story that adds another layer of rationale to Pharaoh’s intransigence.  It seems that Pharaoh’s court magicians have “secret arts” by which they can emulate Moses’s miracles.  I’d like to know more about these arts, because they’re pretty convincing.  The magicians can turn their staves into snakes and water into blood, just like Moses (though Moses’s snake eats theirs).  If their power stemmed directly from God I would expect a statement to that effect, just as it is explicitly stated that Moses’s power to perform miracles stems from God and that Pharaoh’s heart is divinely-hardened.  Instead, the magicians’ power is attributed to “secret arts.”  Are these arts native to Egypt?  Are they from the devil?  I guess their origin will remain a secret, but it’s fun to speculate.

I wonder what other fun surprises Exodus has in store.

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