Saturday, July 26, 2008

Civilization Review: The Book of Exodus

All references and quotations are from the King James translation of the Bible, with chapter and verse numbers indicated.

God is a maddening figure in the Book of Genesis: capricious, perverse, with an inconsistent sense of justice and a consistent tendency towards favoritism, regardless of how deserving or undeserving the beneficiary might be. The God of the Book of Exodus redeems his predecessor; the negative attributes of the Genesis figure are largely transposed onto an Egyptian pharaoh, and the God of Exodus earns the Hebrews' allegiance by championing their cause against this tyrant. He reaffirms His commitment to the covenant with the Hebrews whereby he grants them dominion over the land of Canaan, "a good land and a large, [...] a land flowing with milk and honey" (3:8). He also establishes a codified set of laws, a rigorous means of defining justice and governing behavior divorced (somewhat) from the arbitrary whims of an all-powerful decision-maker.

In The Western Canon, Harold Bloom remarks that the J writer (a figure so named by Biblical scholars as the one who authored Genesis, Exodus, and a subsequent book, Numbers) was so scandalous in the portrayal of God "that the J Writer deserves to be called the most blasphemous of all authors ever." One might wish the portrayal was more blasphemous; after the depiction of God's arbitrariness and favoritism in Genesis, it would seem most fitting for codified laws be set up in response to a call for juster treatment by the Hebrews along the lines of Abraham's challenge to God before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18). But, as remarked above, the J writer shifts the exemplum of the arbitrary and unjust ruler from God to Pharaoh, and one infers that God still maintains the right to be arbitrary; the law is being established so man, rather than God, will have to administer it. He insultingly tells the Hebrews' leader Moses that they are too disagreeable a people for Him to tolerate on a regular basis: "I will not go up in the midst of thee; for thou art a stiff-necked [i.e. stubborn] people: lest I consume thee in the way" (Exodus 33:3).

The core of the laws is the Ten Commandments, or the Decalogue (20:1-20) (above). The first four assert the primacy of God's authority in all things, and they establish the terms of the Hebrew fealty to God. The latter six are of more general interest, as they govern proper behavior within the community.

The first four Commandments are the first principles for establishing the Hebrew people as "a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation" (19:6), as God describes it. The dedication to belief in the one God is an important aspect of establishing the Hebrews as an exclusive community. They lived in what was essentially the eastern Mediterranean region, and anyone even remotely aware of the dominant Greek, Egyptian, and, later, Roman cultures knows that pantheism and pantheistic influences flourished. The lapse of the Hebrews into worshipping the divinity icon of the golden calf (32:1-35) shows the danger these influences and traditions posed in terms of undermining the identity of the Hebrew nation. The declaration of the sanctity of the Sabbath--the day upon which man must rest in honor of God--is to some extent a synecdoche for the sanctity of cultural traditions (e.g. circumcision for males, the Passover feast) and guidelines for worship and the Hebrew priesthood, which are the exclusive focus of the final sixth of the book.

The community guidelines in the Commandments are expanded on as well, although not at as great a length. Degrees of heinousness are established for such crimes as homicide and assault, and crimes against property have their degrees of severity as well. The basic principle is that the punishment should fit the crime, or as it is decribed in Exodus, "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, [b]urning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe" (21:24-25), although one must make restitution for theft that is many times over what is originally stolen (22:1-14). One rule (and it is a property rule; Hebraism is, after all, a patriarchal culture) is that "if a man entice a maid that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely endow her to be his wife. If her father utterly refuse to give her unto him, he shall pay money according to the dowry of virgins" (22:16-17). This functions as an implicit rebuke to the insane retribution of Simeon and Levi for the deflowering of their sister Dinah (Genesis 34); murdering the offending party and his father, looting their belongings, and pressing the rest of the family into slavery is, perhaps, seen as a bit much.

Most of Jacob's mendacity is rebuked as well, although not as clearly as his sons' actions in response to their sister's seduction. "Honour thy father and mother" would seem to prohibit Jacob's defrauding Isaac's blessing from him, and the commandment "Thou shalt not covet" appears to prohibit Jacob's opportunism and swindling with regard to his brother Esau and his father-in-law Laban. It's been mentioned to me that Jacob's story is a microcosm of the dark side of the Hebrew experience, and that his conduct is deliberately rebuked in Exodus, both by the secular Commandments and the oppression of the Hebrews while in exile in Egypt. His actions and the actions of his children are what led the Hebrews away from the land promised them in God's covenant.

In closing, what Exodus shows is the evolution of the Hebrew people from a loose-knit tribe to a culture and civilization. For me, the most heartening section of the book is not the establishment of the law with the Commandments; rather, it is the establishment of a hierarchy of authority within the Hebrew people. After the escape from Egypt, Moses decides to subordinate his authority for arbitration to a select group of judges (18:13-27). The Hebrews are no longer a nation defined by their leader; they are a community with responsibilites and are authorities within the law over themselves. With his delegation of authority, Moses makes them a commons, an identity necessary for the establishment and maintenance of any nation. It makes on worry about the United States, which seems to be slipping further and further away from that notion, as the lionization of the individual over all is becoming more and more prevalent.

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The reading list for Civilization Saturday is here.

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