The Complete Book of Exodus
First, a little bookkeeping. Several readers wrote to correct my assertion that God imposed a flat tax on the Hebrews. They explained that God's half-a-shekel tariff is actually a head tax. With a flat tax, everyone pays the same percentage of their income. With a head tax, everyone pays exactly the same amount. Steve Forbes, please accept my apology!
Back to Exodus, which is now rushing toward its conclusion. Or perhaps, slogging toward its conclusion—I confess I'm struggling through the endless passages about tabernacle carpentry and priestly robe embroidery.
Which is not to say there isn't high drama! God is still seething about the Golden Calf. He won't appear among the Israelites, because He knows He wouldn't be able to control His rage: "If I were to go in your midst for one moment, I would destroy you." To humble them more, God orders the Israelites to strip off their "finery." They remain dressed simply for the rest of their time in the desert, as a kind of penance. This reminds me of an interesting divide in religious practice. In some religions, you honor God by dressing as sumptuously as you can for him. (See: those rococo papal outfits or those florid church hats worn by African-American women.) In other religions, you honor God by dressing down. (See: those nearly-naked Hindu sadhus or the simple robes worn by ascetic monks.) Either gaudy or humble seems to work fine. What hasn't caught on with the godly class is business casual. Has a devout monk ever gone to mass in Dockers? Would you trust a rabbi in an Izod?
God may be incensed at His Chosen People, but He still loves His prophet. He and Moses rendezvous inside the Tent of Meeting, where "The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another." Again and again we're reminded how Moses alone can talk to God, stand up to God, intervene with God. But it's striking that Judaism never tries to elevate Moses above manhood. For Christians, Jesus Christ is human but also divine, the literal son of God. But Judaism never dabbles with this kind of ambiguous polytheism. For all that we revere Moses—the Torah is the "Five Books of Moses," after all—he remains fully, fallibly human.
A funny and sweet incident later in the chapter. Moses, as usual, is begging God to be merciful to the Israelites. God isn't interested. Instead, He changes the subject. Ignoring Moses' entreaties for the Israelites, God distracts the prophet by saying He wants to grant Moses' wish that he be allowed to see God. God says He can't let Moses see His face, because "man may not see Me and live." (Um, let's just ignore how this contradicts the description of them meeting "face to face" just a few verses ago.) God has Moses stand in a rock crevice. God then carefully arranges Himself so Moses can see only His back. (As one e-mail correspondent put it to me, this is the scene when God "moons" Moses.)
Moses climbs Sinai again to collect a replacement pair of stone tablets. While he's up there, God comes to him and proclaims of Himself: "The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness." Now, I don't want to quibble here, but does this sound like the God we've been reading about? God certainly doesn't have self-esteem issues, but I'm not sure He has perfect insight about Himself. Would you describe the God of Genesis and Exodus as gracious? As abounding in kindness and faithfulness? As slow to anger? After all, He flies off the handle before the Flood, is fairly merciless to Sodom and Gomorrah, and hardly abounding in kindness toward the Egyptians, leaves the Israelites in bondage for 430 years, and has to be restrained by Moses from wiping out His Chosen People after the Golden Calf. He's got lots of wonderful qualities—He's tough, clever, excitable, awesome, and forgiving—but not the ones He ascribes to Himself.
The first Biblical proscription against intermarriage. God warns the Israelites (again) about having any friendly contact with the Amorites and Canaanites they are about to conquer. If the Israelites let their boys marry these heathen girls, "their daughters will lust after their gods, and will cause your sons to lust after their gods." I don't fully understand the profound Jewish anxiety about intermarriage. It's expressed here in its baldest terms: If you marry a shiksa, you'll fall for her false god. This suggests a lack of confidence in our God and faith—a lack of confidence we shouldn't have. Now, I may be biased here, but it seems to me we've got the best God, the best laws, some great holidays, and even a few good songs (though not as many as Christians, I admit). So, why the fear that intermarriage would pull Israelites away from God? Given God's greatness, wouldn't intermarriage do the opposite and attract more people to Him?
Hold it! We've been duped! We've been fed a bogus Ten Commandments! On his new tablets, Moses writes down "the terms of the covenant, the Ten Commandments." The chapter lists these commandments, and they have nothing to do with the familiar "Thou Shalt Nots" in Chapter 20. These new Ten Commandments—which unlike the earlier laws are actually called the "Ten Commandments"—include only two of the Chapter 20 commandments (Keep Sabbath; no false idols). The other eight commandments are such things as: observing Passover (No. 3), bringing the first fruits of the harvest to the Tabernacle (No. 9), never appearing before God empty-handed (No. 5), not boiling a kid in its mother's milk (No. 10). These are technical or procedural commandments, the Judean equivalent of not wearing white shoes after Labor Day. They are much, much less gripping than the 10 "Thou Shalt Nots"—which is probably why these "Ten Commandments" were shunted aside and replaced with the much catchier Chapter 20 laws.
Chapter 35 through Chapter 39
When you need to build a tabernacle, whom do you call? Bezalel *, of course. Again and again, Moses talks up this guy, whom God endowed "with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft." Bezalel and his sidekick Oholiab get more mentions in Exodus than anyone but Moses and Aaron. They're only subcontractors, but God loves them. (Keep that in mind during your next renovation.) Moses speaks of Bezalel and Oholiab the way women gush about their beloved hair stylist—he can't say their names without flattering them to the sky.
And they deserve it. Bezalel practically builds the entire structure himself. He designs it. He builds it. He does the fine metalwork. He mixes up the anointing oil and prepares the incense. It's Extreme Makeover, Tabernacle Edition, and he's Ty Pennington—the architect, engineer, carpenter, perfumer, sculptor, blacksmith, jeweler, and goldsmith.
God names feckless Aaron as his high priest and declares that Aaron's descendants would be an "everlasting priesthood throughout the ages." Couldn't the Israelites do better than that? First of all, Aaron (Mr. Golden Calf himself!) is probably the most incompetent and faithless man among them. If He'd picked anyone at random—You, Uriah in the tribe of Asher, come over here and put on this sacral vestment—God would be more likely to find a suitable priest. And even if Aaron were the holiest man in the Sinai desert, the inherited priesthood would still be an iffy idea. Up until now, God has been big on competence: Smart Jacob steals the inheritance; wily Joseph talks his way to power; Moses, who's nobody's son, rises to prophet. So, it's disheartening that a God who clearly believes in opportunity over birth suddenly establishes a priestly caste.
The Tabernacle is finished in "the first month of the second year." (When did this calendar start? When they left Egypt? When they got the Commandments?) The Israelites set off on their journeys, guided by God. Sometimes He would settle like a cloud in the tabernacle, and then the Israelites would camp. When the cloud lifted, and the Lord left, the Israelites would embark again across the desert.
This brings us to the end of Exodus. The Israelites are out of Egypt. They're equipped with their basic framework of laws. They're armed with God's promise of land and conquest. And they're back in God's favor after a whole lot of heresy and complaint. What's left to accomplish?
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David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.