Moses and the Commandments
The fall story, Cain's murder of Abel, Abraham's discovery that the God who had beckoned him to a strange land was not to be worshiped in blood -- these are the legends that serve as an overture to the grand and grating symphony of the Hebrew Scriptures. The rest of the book of Genesis recounts the lives of Israel's ancestral figures. It is with the figure of the biblical Moses, however, that the story of Israel's historical journey really begins. The Bible not only assumes that such a man existed; it tells much about him. I don't know if he existed, but there can be little doubt that the stories of him in the Hebrew Bible are rooted in historical experience and that that historical experience has unparalleled anthropological and religious significance. If by quibbling over the exact historicity of these texts, we devalue the incomparable anthropological chronicle they represent, our historical scrupulosity will have backfired, and our determination to discover the human past will have served only to bury it again, this time under exegetical details. In an effort to remain loyal to the paramount anthropological task, I will in general accept the biblical texts -- even those that are obviously legendary -- as historically reliable.
The Exodus story is both rich in detail and pregnant with implications for our own time. And yet there is an internal tension within the story, a tension between Israel's determined effort to emancipate itself from the stifling world of the primitive sacred and its inability to sustain its own cultural cohesion without some vestiges of the sacral system. Just as the story of the "fall" and the murder of Cain in the book of Genesis highlights the essential anthropological issues of mimesis and sacrifice and hints at their interrelationship, so the dramatic story in the book of Exodus of the founding events that brought biblical Israel into existence encapsulates the historical and religious struggle the Bible documents.
Just as Abraham glanced up to see a ram caught in a thicket, Moses glanced up and saw Egyptian society caught in a violent sacrificial crisis. Many people were dying. The specter of death was palpable. Moses seized the interpretive possibilities this situation provided as deftly as Abraham seized the ram on Mount Moriah. If the "Passover" meal inaugurates Israelite culture under Moses, then Israel's founding event was not an act of sacrificial violence, but an act of Mosaic interpretation. just as the biblical God created the world, not violently, but by speaking, the Bible's first political leader created culture, not by sacralizing his own community's mob violence, but by interpreting violence unleashed by others. Whatever the nature of the violence from which the Hebrews in Egypt cowered in dwellings whose doors were marked in blood to ward it off, and whatever might have kept that violence from taking its anticipated toll of Hebrew lives, the violence that accompanied Israel's initial act of cultural self-consciousness was not committed by those who discovered their religious identity under its pall. The fact that Moses interpreted the violence as the work of Yahweh is a "myth" in one sense, but it is not mythological in the way in which I am using that term. It was not an attempt to camouflage Hebrew founding violence. Rather, it was a way of giving Yahweh the credit for the fact that some of the Hebrews managed to escape from the violence of their oppressors.
When Moses and the former Egyptian slaves reached Sinai, they had only the most rudimentary sense of common purpose. With nothing but a reinterpreted harvest festival for a ritual and with little more than campfire stories for a common heritage, Moses first tried to give social coherence to the refugees whose leader he had become by fashioning a code of ethical behavior, the ten commandments. These commandments, listed in Exodus 20, are lofty, original, and morally demanding. They are strikingly lacking in ritual prescriptions. In terms of mimetic desire, this set of commands is remarkably sophisticated. (1) So sophisticated is it, in fact, that in its final injunction it forbids not only rivalrous and violent behavior but the covetousness that gives rise to the rivalry and violence. The last commandment is this:
You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his servant, man or woman, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is his. (Exod. 20:17)H. L. Ellison wrote of this injunction against covetousness that "it is not wanting more that is condemned, but wanting it at the expense of others." (2) In a perceptive comment about covetousness, C. K. Barrett shows that while the last commandment explicitly prohibits only the forms of mimetic desire most likely to lead to violence, it is easy enough to recognize beneath these specified transgressions the larger and looming problem of mimetic desire itself. Barrett says:
It is of course wrong to desire one's neighbor's wife; but behind this guilty desire, shown to be guilty by its object, lies a desire which is guilty in itself, independently of its object, and sinful though quite possibly respectable. (3)Rabbinical interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures frequently give special attention to the first and last items in a sequence of texts or a list of proscriptions. When this interpretive procedure is applied to the ten commandments, the two commandments highlighted are the injunction to have only God as a god -- "I am Yahweh your God . . . you shall have no other gods" -- and to forswear conflictual or rivalistic mimesis -- "Thou shalt not covet." For the most part, the intervening commandments address the social and religious repercussions of failing to obey the first and last commandments. Were the commandments insisting on true transcendence and condemning mimetic rivalry to be universally obeyed, the social order would be relieved of those aggravated passions that lead to social deterioration, to a demand for victims, and, eventually, to sacrificial religion. The New Testament summation of the commandments -- to love God and to love one's neighbor as oneself -- expands, in effect, the first and last commandment in Exodus 20 in such a way that the intervening commandments are subsumed in them. We are mimetic creatures, of course, and so eliminating mimesis is impossible. Without it, humanity would not exist. But the humanity that does exist has soaked the earth with blood, and the prohibition against the most destructive forms of mimetic desire is a worthy attempt to reduce the violence. But we haven't a prayer of eliminating the worst of the mimetic passions unless we find a truly transcendent focus for our deepest imitative urges, our deepest "desires." I suppose one could say: without prayer, we haven't a prayer. That's why the first commandment must be taken into consideration in trying to come to grips with the last one. It is also why it is the first one. It is an insistence that we "desire" and have as our ultimate model the One in whose image and likeness we are made, to use the biblical idiom for expressing something almost too profound for expression.
The Demand for Ritual
The Moses we first meet in the biblical accounts is a man morally incensed by the plight of the slave laborers with whom he feels an affinity. After many years of compelled and demeaning drudgery in an alien culture, whatever common religious and cultural traditions these dispirited Semites might have once shared have been almost completely lost. For his part, Moses initially seems little interested in religious matters. It is moral concerns he has. The first act in what would later become his role as liberator was to kill a cruel Egyptian slave driver. It was a clumsy and futile attempt to counter violence with violence, and it was clearly motivated, not by religious concerns, but by social justice ones. According to the biblical account, then, it was only when Moses fled from Egypt to Midian and married a woman whose father was a Midianite priest that he was first exposed to the semi-nomadic religiosity of the kind that he was later to fashion into the Yahwist tradition of biblical Israel. I think it is not without significance for our understanding of Moses, therefore, to note that his empathy for victims and his passion for liberation existed prior to his exposure to and interest in cult religion.
Furthermore, the cultic aspects of Midianite religiosity seem to have made little impact on Moses. He encountered the divine, not at Jethro's Midian shrine, but as a voice calling to him in the wilderness from a burning bush. It was in solitude, far from the shrine and rituals of Jethro, that Moses experienced the God he spent his life trying to place at the center of Israel's cultural enterprise. Asked to reveal his identity, the divine voice said simply: "I am who am." It was not the god of mountains or thunder or rain or fertility that Moses met, nor was it the local god of the Midianites. The God whom Moses came to know in the wilderness was a God whose name is an emphatic form of the verb "to be." This was a God heedless of worldly power, who chose as agents in history the social underclass. The greatness and the tragedy of Moses consist, I feel, in the fact that he strove to put the elusive God who empathized with losers at the center of a culture that would have to win in order to survive. He gave the Hebrew people a God with an empathy for the lowly and downtrodden, a God whose most defining feature was a refusal to be defined, a God openly hostile to the kind of cult idolatry that was synonymous with the conventional religious life of the age. Moses' God was a God wary of religion.
Be that as it may, however, when Moses had distilled his burning bush experience and his Mount Sinai experience into the religious and moral code and proposed that code to his followers, he had enough respect for the power of sacrificial religion to commemorate their ratification of it sacrificially. The sacrificial ritual he performed, however, was little more than a method for insuring obedience to the commandments by endowing them with religious solemnity. Clearly, the moral code Moses proposed did not emerge from the ritual; rather the ritual was the afterthought with which the code was clumsily ratified. It was a crude ritual in which copious amounts of blood from the sacrificed animals were splashed on the altar and the people.
Moses made the same mistake that Cain made, but he didn't make it in exactly the same way. Whereas Cain had discarded blood sacrifice, Moses seems originally to have simply performed careless and unconvincing versions of it. Moses' sacrificial rite amounted to very much what Cain's amounted to. Its cathartic effect was only temporary. When Moses withdrew to the mountain to consult Yahweh, the demand for cult rituals quickly surfaced, and Moses' brother Aaron accommodated the demand. Before the effigy of the Canaanite fertility god the people bowed down and then ate and drank and "amused themselves," a euphemism for the sort of sexual orgy that typically accompanied rituals dedicated to fertility gods. Descending the mountain, Moses heard the chants of pagan religion. Cain had tried to renounce blood sacrifices too prematurely. In his own way, by taking blood sacrifice for granted, by resorting to it casually, Moses had underestimated the power and meaning of sacrificial religion as much as Cain had. Cain became a murderer, and Moses had made Cain's basic mistake.
When Moses saw the people so out of hand -- for Aaron had allowed them to lapse into idolatry with enemies all round them -- he stood at the gate of the camp and shouted, "Who is for Yahweh? To me!" And all the sons of Levi rallied to him. And he said to them, "This is the message of Yahweh, the God of Israel, 'Gird on your sword, every man of you, and quarter the camp from gate to gate, killing one his brother, another his friend, another his neighbor.'" The sons of Levi carried out the command of Moses, and of the people about three thousand men perished that day. "Today" Moses said "you have won yourselves investiture as priests of Yahweh at the cost, one of his son, another of his brother; and so he grants you a blessing today." (Exod. 32:25-29)Three thousand people killed in a violent mêlée. This is an example of the astonishing candor of scriptural literature. The candor of the text is candor about the failure of Moses, and to read it otherwise is to reinforce the feeble myth of sacred violence that the Bible undermines in spite of itself. Just as Aaron had accommodated the people's demand for an idol by insisting that the idol be called Yahweh, Moses took control of the sacrificial frenzy of the golden calf episode, channeled its violence, deputized the executioners, and proclaimed the violence that brought the riot to an end to be Yahweh's violence. It is extremely important to notice that the violence accompanying the golden calf episode ended with the inauguration of an Israelite priesthood, whose task thereafter would be the maintenance of the cult of animal sacrifice, but whose priestly initiation consisted of slaughtering "one his son, another his brother." To kill one's brother is to repeat Cain's crime, and to kill one's son is to rescind Abraham's religious innovation.
Moses had tried to launch a cultural enterprise by enunciating a lofty religious ideal -- a God so wary of idolatry that his first prohibition was against "graven images" -- and by issuing a demanding set of moral admonitions. By way of what seems more or less a cultic afterthought, the ritual he used to ratify the covenant with Yahweh and the new moral code was one that combined an ancient Semitic ritual with a few clumsy and gratuitous sacrificial gestures. Moses' God was the God of the burning bush, a God wary of religion. The moral code Moses espoused was one that might dampen the mimetic passions of its adherents to the point where they might able to recognize this God. But the cultic vacuum he left was filled in due course with a Canaanite fertility ritual. Moses' violent reaction against revival of pagan idolatry was accompanied by the informal institution of an Israelite cult, and the priests who were given control over the cult rituals were the Levites who had played the key role in the violence that ended the Canaanite revival.
When Moses had first realized that the Israelites had lapsed into pagan idolatry, he threw down the tablets of the original covenant and smashed them. The casual assumption is that the breaking of the original code was impetuous and inadvertent, but that is not what the text says. Especially in light of later developments, Moses' act seems to have represented a decision, a very practical one. The breaking of the tablets on which the original commandments were written leads to the creation of a second covenantal code, which is delineated in Exodus 34. (4) The second set of commandments is introduced this way:
Yahweh said to Moses, "Cut two tablets of stone like the first ones and come up to me on the mountain, and I will inscribe on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke." (Exod. 34:1)The original code is now to be replaced, and there is every indication that the replacement will be a facsimile of the original. By asserting the identity between the two codes, the authors and redactors of the text have made it all but impossible for the reader to miss the obvious fact that they are utterly different. The new set of commandments is completely preoccupied with the maintenance of rituals and cultic procedures.
All that first issues from the womb is mine . . . You must not offer the blood of the victim sacrificed to me at the same time as you offer unleavened bread, nor is the victim offered at the feast of Passover to be put aside for the following day . . . You must not boil a kid in its mother's milk. (Exod. 34:18, 19, 25, 26)"All that first issues from the womb is mine," is a sweeping demand that the first-born be sacrificed. It is a demand that sometimes occurs, ominously, without qualification, but in this text the all-important exception is duly noted: "You must redeem all the first-born of your sons." This redemption involved a double substitution. First, the sacrificial priest took the place of the first-born, and then the sacrificial animal he offered on the altar took his place. Not only was the priest the divine executioner, but he was also the designated victim in whose place the actual victim died as his substitute. Should the sacrificial ritual break down, however, the substitution might be abrogated and the priest himself die. The priest was, therefore, Abel as well as Cain, Isaac as well as Abraham. That the system of sacrificial substitutions was a delicate one is clear from the intense scrupulosity with which the ritual procedures were followed. Any little mistake might lead to a collapse of the intricate system of replacement and result in a human death or in a ritual meltdown, giving way to social crisis. For a textbook on how to take liturgical care under such precarious circumstances, the book of Leviticus is available.
The Institution of the Scapegoat
The journey from the careless ritual afterthought with which Moses tried to ratify the first covenant to the mind-boggling sacrificial apparatus that gradually became Israel's religious preoccupation is not exactly edifying. It is of tremendous anthropological significance, however, because it helps document the slow and painstaking process by which the sacrificial system must be repudiated. The elaborate proscriptions and prescriptions that grew up around Israel's sacrificial cult played a role in the life of ancient Israel comparable in many ways to the role of legislative and political reform in the history of Western culture. That is to say, Israel's religious system was as unstable as the West's social and political system has been, and for the same reason: neither ever found a sacrificial formula that was both morally tolerable and riveting enough to have sustainable social benefits. The unstable nature of Israel's cult of animal sacrifice made it even more imperative that the ritual prescriptions be carried out with meticulous care, lest the priest lose control of the ritual violence. The danger the priests faced is easily deduced from the texts that describe the precautions Aaron and his sons had to take before approaching the altar. Note, for instance, the fastidious care required of Aaron and the priests as they vested themselves prior to a sacrificial ritual.
And you shall make the robe of the ephod all of blue... On its skirts . . . bells of gold. . . . And it shall be upon Aaron when he ministers, and its sound shall be heard when he goes into the holy place before the Lord, and when he comes out, lest he die.Surely such precautions would not have been taken had experience not dictated the need for them. If the Hebrew priests vested themselves for the sacrificial liturgy like members of a bomb squad preparing to defuse a ticking bomb, it was for good reason. It was the priests who would "bring guilt upon themselves and die" should the ritual get out of control. Nor were precautions taken against such a dire outcome always successful. There are a number of Old Testament texts that suggest that ritual meltdowns led to violence. Perhaps the most dramatic of these texts is the story of the death of Aaron's two sons, both of whom died in the course of their priestly duties. The passage describing the event is as brief as it is pregnant with innuendo:
And you shall make a plate of pure gold, and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet, "Holy to the Lord." And you shall fasten it on the turban by a lace of blue; it shall be upon Aaron's forehead, and Aaron shall take upon himself any guilt incurred in the holy offering which the people of Israel hallow as their holy gifts; it shall always be upon his forehead, that they may be accepted before the Lord.
And for Aaron's sons you shall make coats and girdles and caps; you shall make them for glory and beauty. And you shall put them upon Aaron your brother, and upon his sons with him, and shall anoint them and ordain them and consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests. And you shall make for them linen breeches to cover their naked flesh; from the loins to the thighs they shall reach; and they shall be upon Aaron, and upon his sons, when they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister in the holy place; lest they bring guilt upon themselves and die. (Exod. 28:31, 33, 35-38, 40-43 rsv; emphasis added)
Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Moses then said to Aaron, "This is what the Lord spoke of when he said:Says one earnest biblical scholar, referring to the liturgical indiscretion of Aaron's sons, "It is difficult to determine the exact nature of their sin." (5) Indeed it is. Even when it tries to mythologize its violence, the Hebrew Bible is inadvertently frank about the arbitrariness of the violence and remarkably clumsy at establishing the victim's guilt. The only hint of the priests' culpability that the text offers is a vague suggestion that they lit their censers from the wrong source. There has been a historical tendency to read such enigmatic passages allegorically. As well-intentioned as it might be, however, an allegorical reading of texts such as this is a betrayal of their true biblical significance.Among those who approach meAaron remained silent.(Lev. 10:1-3, N.V.)
I will show myself holy;
in the sight of all the people
I will be honored.'"
"Aaron remained silent," the text tells us. The haunting encounter between Moses and Aaron is a study in the tension between biblical revelation and mythological mystification, but symbolically and structurally it represents an immensely important moment in the anthropological experiment Moses had launched. Aaron's silence -- whether an act of deference for the sacred or an act of social realism -- made it possible to preserve the sacrificial system, early Israel's only bulwark against chaos and violence. But by remaining silent, Aaron in effect abrogated the religious revolution inaugurated by Abraham's substitution of an animal for his son. At this ritual, in place of the animal victim -- or in addition to it -- the priest's sons have been slain, and no word was spoken in rebuttal. The voice that Abraham heard on Mount Moriah was silenced. The voice that would have spoken on behalf of victims was squelched. The hush of myth hovers for a moment over the biblical world.
After this episode, and as a telling example of its likely effects on the religious cult, the text abandons its narrative structure in favor of a catalogue of cultic recipes and prescriptions for discerning the clean from the unclean. At the conclusion of this section of Leviticus (chapters 11-16) the institution of the "scapegoat" ritual occurs. In this rite, two goats are chosen, lots are cast to determine which of them will be dedicated to Yahweh -- sacrificed in atonement for sin -- and which will be sent into the desert, the haunt of the demon Azazel. In the Latin translation of the Bible, "the goat sent out" became caper emmissarius, in the vernacular languages, "the scapegoat." The significance of this ritual can be fully comprehended only when we take note of the first verse of the passage that describes it:
After the death of the two sons of Aaron who died through offering unlawful fire before Yahweh, Yahweh spoke to Moses. (Lev. 16:1-2a)We do not need this verse to tell us that the death of the sons of Aaron has happened prior to this; the textual sequence is all we need on that score. This verse alerts the reader to a cause-and-effect relationship between the death of the two priests and the scapegoat atonement ritual. The scapegoat ritual is a liturgical innovation specifically designed to avoid the kind of sacrificial frenzy that led to the death of the two priests. The ritual in which they died was itself an atonement ritual in which copious animal sacrifices were offered in what seems to have been a desperate effort to appease Yahweh and avoid divine punishments that would otherwise come due. Any ritual innovation aimed at preventing a recurrence of such a crisis would have to relieve the community of part of its sense of impurity and the load of guilt associated with it. This is precisely what the scapegoat ritual does. A ritual innovation is required because, beyond a certain point, religious scrupulosity becomes a counter-productive response to anxiety and guilt. The greater Israel's scrupulosity, the greater the number of prohibitions. The greater the number of prohibitions, the greater the chances of violating them inadvertently, and therefore the greater the anxiety and the more determined the scrupulosity. It is a vicious cycle in which sacrificial religious systems are forever being caught. St. Paul's linking of the Law with death in his New Testament letters is an amazing untangling of precisely this vicious cycle.
1. For a discussion of the individual commandments and for a much more thorough examination of many of the related issues, see Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred.
2. H. L. Ellison, Exodus, The Daily Study Bible Series, ed. John C. L. Gibson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982), 115; emphasis added.
3. C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), 141.
4. This second code is widely regarded as older than the code in Exodus 20 (with Martin Buber dissenting from that view). I don't necessarily dispute this, but the comparative dates of the respective literary fragments should not completely eclipse the fact that the present arrangement of the two texts better accords with what seems to me at least to have been Moses' initial lack of interest in cultic matters.
5. Roland J. Faley, Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., and Roland E. Murphy, O.Carm. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall, 1990), 67.