Blogging The Bible

How Exodus Is Like The Godfather

Reader Dan Gorin points out that my last entry missed the fascinating law that comes right before “eye for an eye” in Chapter 21. If a man pushes a pregnant woman and she miscarries, but is not otherwise hurt, then the offender pays only a fine to the victim’s husband. This has interesting implications for how we think about abortion—in particular about the claim that killing a 17-week-old fetus is the same as killing a 17-year-old. According to Exodus, it’s not. As Gorin writes: “The text seems to clearly state that the destruction of a fetus is not a capital offense. It is a property crime for which monetary compensation is paid.”

Chapter 24
Some of what’s most shocking about the Torah is not the miraculous happenings or the high drama—floods, plagues, incest—but moments of everyday ritual. Here’s one that jarred me. After writing down God’s laws and reading them to the Israelites, Moses decides to seal the covenant with a sacrifice. The Israelites kill some bulls, and then Moses takes the animals’ blood and flings it onto the people, declaring, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord now makes with you concerning all these commands.” Because the Bible is populated with characters who sometimes behave just as we behave now, it’s easy to forget that they inhabited a primitive, tribal, nomadic culture. This is about as old school as it gets—the prophet showering his flock with bull’s blood to guarantee God’s promise.

Blood sacrifices are all over this part of Exodus. Since I’m writing this just before dinner, it’s making me somewhat hungry, and curious. What happened to the meat in the burnt offerings? Did the Israelites get to eat it? Or was it all reserved for God or the priests? I presume it was shared, but the text is silent about it. And a more pressing question: How did it taste? (The Bible and barbecue—a Slate investigation.)

God invites Moses up Mount Sinai so that He can give him stone tablets with His “commandments and teachings.” That whole Charlton-Heston-Ten-Commandments-on-the-tablets: I think it’s a scam. Moses’ tablets appear to have tons of laws on them.

Moses ends up spending 40 days on Mount Sinai. Noah had 40 days of rain. Israelites wander 40 years in the desert. And doesn’t Jesus pass 40 days in the wilderness? Why 40? I understand seven as a magical number. Seven is a prime. Seven is small. Seven is indivisible Seven days to make the world and rest. Seven times around Jericho till the walls fell. Seven brides for seven brothers. But 40 has neither the mystical solidity of a prime number, nor the satisfactory roundness of a number like 100. Forty is just kind of … clumsy.

Chapter 25through Chapter 29

God gets down to the nitty-gritty with Moses, offering incredibly detailed instructions on how to build His Tabernacle—He instructs everything from the almond-blossom shaped cups on the gold lamp stand, to the silver sockets in each of the Tabernacle’s planks, to the exact posture of the cherubim on the Ark’s cover: “The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other …”  At one point God even brings out lamp samples for Moses to examine, telling his prophet: “Follow the patterns for them that are being shown you on the mountain.” The Lord is the first interior decorator. He’s also the first fashion designer: In the chapter devoted to the high priest’s costume, God pays as much attention to the stitching as any Project Runway contestant. Listen to how He describes the embroidery on a single hem: “A golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, all around the hem of the robe.”

As I slog through these chapters, I find myself asking: Why? The story of Cain and Abel gets just a few verses, so why does the description of the clasps on the Tabernacle’s cloth sides need to go on twice as long? I presume there are a couple of reasons. The first is that the author of Exodus, like any good scribbler, wrote what he knew. He presumably saw the tabernacle, or some descendant of it, and could write about it with exactitude. The second is that building and preserving the Tabernacle was the most important task in the world for the Israelites. The Tabernacle is where God literally comes to them. As God tells Moses: “For there I will meet with you, and there I will speak with you, and there I will meet with the Israelites, and it shall be sanctified by my presence. … I will abide among the Israelites, and I will be their God.”

I would be lying if I didn’t say that these chapters are coma-inducingly dull—like a very long, ill-written IKEA instruction manual. But these chapters have a practical consequence to the Israelites that Cain and Abel didn’t. There was no more important job for them than getting that Tabernacle right, making sure it was perfect so that God kept “abiding” among them. These chapters were how they stored the knowledge of the Tabernacle for their heirs—for us.

Chapter 30

World’s first census! Followed immediately by world’s first flat tax! God orders everyone counted and then requires each adult to pay a tax to fund the Tabernacle. The Lord is very insistent that rich and poor should pay exactly the same amount, half a shekel, but He doesn’t explain why. I think it has something to do with the IRS. Let’s ask Steve Forbes.

Chapter 31

An ambiguity here: God says that whoever works on the Sabbath “shall be cut off from among his kin.” But then, in the very next verse, He says that whoever works on the Sabbath “shall be put to death.” Question for Jewish scholars: In a case like this where the text disagrees with itself, how do rabbis and judges and scholars go about choosing which law trumps?

Chapter 32

Moses is still up on Mount Sinai, transcribing God’s architectural tips. Meanwhile, back at camp, the Israelites are getting restless. Tired of waiting for Moses, the Israelites demand that Aaron “make us a god.” Aaron, with all the willpower of feckless brothers everywhere, immediately agrees and sculpts a golden calf for them. The Israelites bow down to it and declare, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Aaron builds an altar to the calf and declares a festival for feasting and dancing. (The golden calf episode reminds me powerfully of the scene in TheGodfather when worthless brother Fredo Corleone lays on the champagne and hookers for Michael in Las Vegas. Michael, who’s in town to make a deal, sends the party away and rebukes his older brother. Aaron is the Fredo of Judea.) *

The golden calf does allow Moses to shine again, as he once more argues with God and wins. God announces that He’s going to destroy His “stiffnecked people.” Moses cannily plays on the Lord’s distaste for the Egyptians, telling God, “Let not the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that He delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.’ Turn from Your blazing anger, and renounce the plan to punish your people.” Then Moses reminds God of His promise to the patriarchs to make their descendants great. He persuades the Lord, who holds His fire.

Moses descends the mountain, sees the calf festivities, and explodes. He shatters the stone tablets. Then he burns the calf, grinds the ashes into powder, tosses them into water, and makes the Israelites drink the rank liquid. (This is a neat reversal of all Moses’ aquatic rescues earlier in Exodus, when he turned bitter water sweet.) But Moses barely punishes Aaron. He begins to chastise his brother, but Aaron, typically spineless, shrugs the blame off on the masses: “Let not my lord be enraged. You know that this people is bent on evil.” Moses, possibly realizing that any further discussion with such a worm is pointless, doesn’t press Aaron further. Instead he sets about suppressing the post-calf chaos that has erupted. The Levites, the only tribe that’s still on the Lord’s side, follow Moses’ orders to kill the idol-worshippers, “brother, neighbor, and kin.” After 3,000 are slain, Moses summons the Israelites: “You have been guilty of a great sin. Yet I will now go up to the Lord; perhaps I will win forgiveness for your sin.” God had already spared the Israelites, but now Moses begs Him to forgive them. He even offers himself to be punished in their place. God lets the Israelites off gently but does not quite forgive. He afflicts them with an unspecified plague and tells Moses that all of them would eventually be held to account for their sins.

It’s a triumph for Moses, and the Israelites are saved again by God’s mercy. But I can’t help thinking that the political lesson of the golden calf is deeply disturbing. The story suggests that without an authoritarian leader like Moses, the Israelites will easily abandon God. Without a prophet and a dictator, our faith will fail.

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Correction, June 20, 2006: This article originally said the scene when Fredo Corleone welcomes Michael to Las Vegas with a party occurred in Godfather II. That scene takes place in The Godfather. (Click here to return to the corrected sentence.)