Oh, great. We’re not two verses into this chapter, and God–the same God whom we had established was speaking out loud about what not to do as his people and how to build altars–now starts talking about the proper keeping of slaves. Comedian Bo Burnham’s song from 2010 “Rant” immediately sprang to mind. Most of it is unfit to quote on this blog, as it’s Bo Burnham. But there’s a section where a hypothetical priest interprets the Old Testament passages about slavery as allegorical, referring to “slaves within our hearts,” and then Bo observes: “And then as God goes on to explain / The logistics of buying and selling slaves…” And worse, this isn’t the last time in the Torah that we’ll read a passage detailing the rights and obligations of the slave and slave-owner. To quote another song by Bo Burnham, I don’t think that I can’t handle this right now.
Welcome to the Ten Commandments, also referred to as the Decalogue. In Judaism, they’re known as the Aseret ha’Dibrot, which might be translated “the Ten Sayings,” “the Ten Statements,” or, as my dad is fond of putting it, “the Ten Words.” They’re not technically imperative sentences, but they do prescribe certain behavior, or more accurately, they proscribe certain behavior. And they certainly are sayings, as the chapter says right out the gate that God says them.
You may well know where the Sinai Peninsula is even if you don’t know that you know it. It’s the triangle of land between Israel and northern Egypt. It’s part of the Arabian Peninsula, which connects the African continent to the rest of the Middle East. Oddly enough, the Sinai Peninsula is roughly the same shape as the Arabian Peninsula, only smaller, like a tiny peninsular fractal. Mount Sinai is toward the southern end of the peninsula that bears its name, and here the Israelites arrive and encounter God in
today’s yesterday’s Friday’s chapter (oof).
The low-hanging fruit in this chapter is a lesson about delegation. Moses is running himself ragged adjudicating on behalf of every single Israelite with an issue, so his father-in-law Jethro advises him: get other folks to handle the little cases. There’s also a bit of “if you teach a man to fish,” as Jethro also has Moses start teaching God’s statutes and laws to the people in order to curb the case-overload problem. So: delegation is good, instilling independence is good, but far be it from us to take the low-hanging fruit, right? Let’s hit up some weird spots.
I suppose it’s time for me to start thinking of the passages surrounding Exodus 16 as Complaint Central. Previously, it hadn’t really clicked for me that the Israelites begin griping almost as soon as Moses and Miriam have finished leading the people in their triumphant Song of the Sea. Nor had it registered that manna, the magic sky bread, came as God’s response to more griping. Then, in today’s chapter, Israel continues griping. There’s something about writing about these passages, not just reading them or even merely reflecting on them, that draws one’s attention to these patterns. So: welcome to our last stop at Complaint Central, at least for the time being.
Happy Magic Bread Day! This is the chapter with the manna, and so many things about it seem foreign to me in so many different ways. I have no clue what it’s like to travel in the desert or to travel long distances on foot. I don’t know a whole lot about what’s normal for storing food without refrigeration or sealed packaging. And I don’t know that I’ve ever heard it said that someone “grumbled against” someone else outside of the Bible. But there’s one thing here that I’ve got half a clue on, and that’s people being people.
So, I was googling around for information on the song in Exodus 15, trying to think up an introduction for today’s post, when I happened to play the song “When You Believe” from The Prince of Egypt. I suddenly found myself crying over the song’s duet and its picture of faith. Twenty years ago, I loved the song, but considered its contrast between faith and rationality overwrought; now, I’ve kind of come around to it. Trust in God doesn’t always make sense to us, yet here I am, like Miriam and Zipporah, seeking faith and speaking words I never thought I’d say. And as I listened to the song and read the Hebrew lyrics of the bridge, taken from Exodus 15, I laughed out loud through my tears. Of course they didn’t include lines like “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army He has cast into the sea” (15:4) and “You send forth Your burning anger, and it consumes them as chaff!” (15:7) Can you imagine a DreamWorks movie with such a celebration of–to put it as tactfully as possible–retributive justice? Now that would be a real miracle.