Category Archives: Exodus

Born Against: The Way of Jesus as Protest

A.J. Swoboda recently wrote a very thoughtful piece on how the Christian faith relates to the occupy protest movement. I want to make sure at the outset that I acknowledge the article said many positive things about the movement including,

Protest isn’t new. The prophets protested endlessly against evil, injustice, and at times the institution in the Hebrew Scriptures…Jesus protested too. His entire existence was a protest against death, sin, and evil.

However, Swoboda also says, “We are not born against. We are born again. We are born for.” While this was written as a critique of protest movements, I think it fundamentally misunderstands this particular movement. In some ways it may also misunderstand something fundamental about the Christian narrative.

I previously wrote about why the Occupy movement’s position is not primarily (or only) against something (Occupy This Blog?!). Certainly there are some basic grievances that the movement has made clear. However, Douglas Rushkoff has said that the Occupy protests are a “beta test for a new way of living”, not just a way to be against something.

If we take seriously the idea that the Exodus narrative is at the very core of the biblical narrative, fundamental to the identity of the Israelites and paradigmatic for understanding the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus (the Last Supper was after all a Passover meal), then we must wrestle with the basic character of this narrative. The Exodus narrative does not begin with a vision for the future. It begins with a movement of protest.

First, comes the creative resistance of the Hebrew midwives rescuing the Hebrew babies that Pharaoh tried to kill. Moses is born and left to die, but his sister manipulates his rescue into the hands of the powerful. As a man torn between his position of power and Hebrew roots, he lashes out in violence at the injustice of oppression murdering an Egyptian. But this violent resistance will not be the way of YHWH. His own people condemn his actions and Pharaoh puts him on his watch list (there were no airplanes so he couldn’t yet be on the no-fly list). Then Moses disappears. As we know, he will be a reluctant leader. It is not his charisma that sparks this movement of liberation. It is the people crying out against.

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.” (Exodus 2: 23-25 ESV)

God acts on behalf of the Hebrews, not by giving them a vision of what they should be for, but because God is inherently against the injustice and oppression they suffer. The ensuing plagues ultimately demonstrate, not what God is for, but that God is fundamentally against, Pharaoh. Certainly the wilderness is a liminal space in which God begins to unfold God’s vision for an economy of gift, grace and abundance (think manna and quail). Yet, even then the people grumble about the circumstances and long for the “good life” they had under Pharaoh. Forgetting what they are against leads them to romanticize their own oppression, because after all liberation is hard work. A new way of living requires sacrifice and letting go of our previous life, even though there was some stability and certainty (even if false) in the old order of things.

So, perhaps the idea that the Edenic narratives in Genesis provide a blueprint for how God intended the world to be is less helpful than the very clear reality that God’s mission in the world begins fundamentally by being against certain things. This is true also in the patriarchal narratives, where God is against Cain and later the rest of humanity in the Noah story because of their propensity for violence (Genesis 6-9). There are certainly glimpses of what God is for, the Jubilee in Leviticus 25 is an idealistic vision that qualifies. The prophets sometimes hint at this other way of living, but more often than not they were first against the Pharaoh-like actions of Israel’s own rulers.

Clearly these are two sides of the same coin. Indeed, how can one be against something without some vision for the way the world should be? The prophets’ outcry against injustice was certainly motivated in some way by a vision for how God intended Israel to live. My point here is not to say that we should not discover what we are for and what God is for. The point is that God does not begin with the same starting point that Swoboda and others seem to require of ourselves. In many ways I think that we are uncomfortable being against things, because it is that prophetic stance that gets people killed and inspired the violence of Empires throughout history.

The way to be for a different order of life is to begin to live it out together, as Occupy Wall Street is attempting. What makes us squirm is the way that living out the way of Jesus inevitably forces us to be against some things and the actions of some people. As liberation theology points out, the God of justice is necessarily against the wealthy for their own liberation and salvation. God cannot be just without being against those causing the people to cry out for help. If we could be for the kingdom of God without having to be against the injustices ad systems of oppression, we could have liberation without any struggle or need to deal with the reality of the world we have created. It would be like the question Julie Clawson recently posed, “When does speaking of liberation actually enable oppression?” on her blog. Real liberation involves being against the order of this world and hopefully embodying what we are for in our churches and communities which inevitably makes the Powers (and often ourselves) nervous.

Coveting, Control and Captivity (Leviticus 25)

You can search this site for “jubilee”, “leviticus 25″ and “sabbath” to read more about the connections I make between Sabbath practices, ecology, economics, Jesus and Isaiah. To find something fresh to say about this central passage in the biblical narrative I turn to one of my favorite scholars.

The text of Leviticus 25 asserts both Yahweh’s radical intention and the radical social practice of entitlement that necessarily accompanies Yahweh’s intention. (103)

So, Walter Brueggeman sums up the well-known Jubilee chapter of Leviticus. Many people, particularly conservatives, hear the word entitlement primarily with negative connotations. However, the concept of predistribution which I mentioned before in relationship to Peter Barnes’ book Capitalism 3.0 is a more positive description of what Brueggeman means. Brueggeman also supports what I’ve often claimed for the importance of this chapter for understanding Israel, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament in his book Finally Comes the Poet,

Israel’s theological conviction about the land is asserted positively in the great social vision of Leviticus 25, the text on the Jubilee year. A number of scholars now argue that this text provides the cornerstone for Israel’s ethical practice. (102)

Brueggeman makes this claim in the context of his exegesis of the command not to covet (Ex 20:17) in which he says,

Marvin Cheney has argued, and I agree, that covet in the Decalogue refers in principle to land tenure systems and land management policies. To covet means to arrange loan credit, tax, and inheritance so that some may have land that others should rightfully possess. That is, it is the systemic economic practice of greed. (99)

It is helpful to put the redistribution scheme of Leviticus 25 in the context of prohibitions against covetousness and greed. In other words, the Jubilee is the positive vision of what the world could or should be in light of the negative reality highlighted by the prohibitions in the Decalogue. Greed, or covetousness, is both based on and results in inequalities of the distribution of wealth and power. For the biblical world this comes primarily in the form of access and ownership of land. Brueggeman goes on to explore this further,

There is an important line of scholarship that argues that early Israel (which gives us the seed of all biblical faith) is essentially a social revolution concerning land tenure systems. This charter for “egalitarianism” culminated in the commandment against coveting that prohibits the rapacious policies of the state that characteristically monopolize law, power, and wealth… The Bible has understood, long before Karl Marx, that the basic human issues concern land, power, and the means of production. (99-100)

I have argued before in these virtual pages that a biblical economy is based on the land, and I’m happy to find confirmation from such a highly respected biblical, particularly Old Testament, scholar. Some will dismiss everything at the mention of that dreaded name, “Marx”, but will have missed the point Brueggeman makes that, far from being “Marxist”, the Bible is fundamentally human. Where Marx gets things right he happens to agree with the biblical emphasis on justice, egalitarianism and land reform. Most Christians read the Ten Commandments (and the whole biblical narrative) primarily in individualistic terms. What they miss is the socio-political context of these commands which were understood in much more radical terms by the original hearers.

So, Jubilee is the antithesis to coveting, but Brueggeman unpacks this further in terms of control and captivity,

The theological issue related to the land is sharing— respecting the entitlement of others. The preacher’s theme for those who gather is greed. Greed touches every aspect of our lives: economic, political, sexual, psychological, and theological. Greed bespeaks a fundamental disorder in our lives, a disorder that reflects distortion in our relation with God.

Central to this issue is the addiction to control that permeates human history. In verse 6 the text poses the question most people probably have when reading about letting the land lie fallow for a year, “What then shall we eat?” I hope to explore this aspect of Jubilee further, but the response of the text is that God provides abundantly, such that the people will still be eating from the produce of the Sabbath year three years later. Loss of control is scary, but God clearly promises that letting go of control is actually better than when we hold tightly to the reins.

This addiction to control is a kind of captivity or slavery. When we hold our possessions and wealth tightly, we are possessed by them. We become slaves to the things we pretend to have control over. Their is a subtle reversal in the relationship to material goods that most people don’t recognize in their daily lives. The logic of greed and coveting and the systems that perpetuate these values traps us in a spiral from which we cannot extricate ourselves. This kind of captivity is picked up by the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2) when he proclaims “good news to the poor”, “liberty to the captives” and the “year of the Lord’s favor”. Many scholars argue that this is a reference to the Jubilee, which is then appropriated by Jesus when he quotes Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth and says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). This proclamation of liberation from captivity which is good news to the poor is a thread connecting the Torah, Prophets, Gospels and on through Paul and James. This Jubilee thread weaves a tapestry that paints a picture of the “kingdom of heaven” at the core of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

But Brueggeman also admonishes that the prohibition against coveting and the positive command of the Jubilee are not based on a revelatory “because God said so”, but instead on real world experience.

This claim about God and the distribution of land is not accepted simply on the basis of revelation, but can be established in terms of social experience. Excessive land grabbing leads to death, whether in the family, in the church, in the faculty, or in Latin America. (101)

Living among people that are desperate for access to land, I can attest to the timelessness of this assertion. North American and western cultures have isolated themselves from the death that the injustice and inequality of economic systems creates, causes and exacerbates, but it is very real. Those at the very bottom understand that their inability to access land is the basis of their poverty and exploitation. For middle class westerners so detached and abstracted from their land base, it seems strange that people are still fighting over access to land. We have been sold the lie that we can solve poverty and basic inequalities in the system without dealing with the most fundamental issue of access to land and exploitation of natural resources. It is so important to recognize that this is not an arbitrary commandment, but one based on the social and economic realities of human existence which continue to apply today.

I’d like to share a story that Brueggeman relates which, I think, helps connect this ancient text and practice to our current context,

A concrete embodiment of the Jubilee command- ment was evidenced in a rural church in Iowa during the “farm crisis.” The banker in the town held mortgages on many farms. The banker and the farmers belonged to the same church. The banker could have foreclosed. He did not because, he said, “These are my neighbors and I want to live here a long time.” He extended the loans and did not collect the interest that was rightly his. The pastor concluded, “He was practicing the law of the Jubilee year, and he did not even know it.” The pastor might also have noted that the reason the banker could take such action is that his bank was a rare exception. It was locally and independently owned, not controlled by a larger Chicago banking system. (104)

Finally, let me end with this challenge from Brueggeman,

What if the central claim of the Tenth Commandment is true: that coveting kills, that taking what belongs to another destroys, and that life-giving social practice requires giving things back to people! (106)

Sex and the Land (Leviticus 18 and 20)

Leviticus 18:24-28 Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sins, and the land vomited out its inhabitants… And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations before you.

These are the chapters of Leviticus (18 and 20) that caught my attention as a teenager, because, of course, they were all about sex. Both chapters contain approximately the same laws with some variances, but chapter 20 prescribes punishments for violations, either being put to death or cut off from the people. The first thing I will point out is that the vast majority of these injunctions were for men. In chapter 20 they are explicitly addressed to men, except for 20:16 which is the same as the previous verse except that it is addressed to women. In chapter 18 the ambiguous “you” is used, but it is clear that these injunctions are meant primarily for the men. My theory and assumption is that these prohibitions are primarily about asymmetrical power relationships in a highly patriarchal social structure.

The reason given for these laws is “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes” (Lev 18:3) So, the people are between the land of Egypt where they experienced the foundational event of their existence in the Exodus and the Promised Land of Canaan. Coming out of Egypt defined them as a people and during the time in the wilderness they had to overcome their desire to return to where they “sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full” (Ex 16:3). They were formed through that experience of liberation and wandering in the wilderness as a peculiar, pilgrim people. They were promised a land where they would be able to make a home as a people. “But I have said to you, ‘You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples” (Lev 20:24). The people will have to once again define themselves in terms of their relationship to their God and the people whose land they are going to be inhabiting.

Once again prohibitions are not given as hypotheticals lest God spark the sinful imagination of human beings. Rather these things were practiced and therefore needed a prohibition against them. The prohibitions have primarily the other nations in their sights, “for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean” (Lev 18:27), but it’s certainly feasible that the Israelites had already adopted some of these practices. Some would argue simply that Leviticus was probably written by the priestly class after the Babylonian Exile and has in view the practices that they adopted during that period. Regardless of when Leviticus was written, it seems that the purpose is clear: to distinguish the Israelites from non-Israelites by abstaining from sexual practices and child sacrifice in which the nations around them engaged. While a secondary reading of the prohibitions as unacceptable because of the biological and social problems associated with the sexual practices is certainly accurate, my reading of the text is that what is inappropriate about these relationships is primarily the abuse of power inherent in them particularly as they are almost exclusively addressed to men.

Caring for Creation is Sexy
What is then most fascinating for our purposes here is that an explicit connection is made between these sexual practices and their relationship to the land. These practices not only defiled the people and their relationships, but also the land itself. The land is not a neutral entity forced to accept whatever human beings happen to do to it. The land is depicted as a character with its own autonomy and the ability to vomit out the inhabitants. The Israelites are not immune to this connection to the land and the consequences of the practices that have been forbidden

Wendell Berry has pointed out this connection between sex and the land in numerous places. Somewhere he said that when you’re willing to exploit your fellow human beings’ sexuality you are more likely to be willing to exploit the earth and vice versa. They involve the same mentality that objectifies other people and nature. This way of thinking and acting disconnects from each other and nature by dehumanizing other people and pretending that we are separate from nature. In an article he wrote entitled “Feminism, the body, and the machine” Berry expounds further on this theme.

It is odd that simply because of its “sexual freedom” our time should be considered extraordinarily physical. In fact, our “sexual revolution” is mostly an industrial phenomenon, in which the body is used as an idea of pleasure or a pleasure machine with the aim of “freeing” natural pleasure from natural consequence. Like any other industrial enterprise, industrial sexuality seeks to conquer nature by exploiting it and ignoring the consequences, by denying any connection between nature and spirit or body and soul, and by evading social responsibility. The spiritual, physical, and economic costs of this “freedom” are immense, and are characteristically belittled or ignored. The diseases of sexual irresponsibility are regarded as a technological problem and an affront to liberty. Industrial sex, characteristically, establishes its freeness and goodness by an industrial accounting, dutifully toting up numbers of “sexual partners,” orgasms, and so on, with the inevitable industrial implication that the body is somehow a limit on the idea of sex, which will be a great deal more abundant as soon as it can be done by robots. (accessed at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2096/is_1_53/ai_102979436?tag=untagged)

So, according to Berry the basic problem is not the particular behaviors or acts prohibited here, but the way of relating to the earth and other human beings that they embody. As I said before, there is a basic problem of asymmetrical power relationships here in which the ability to dominate other human beings and the earth is taken as permission to do as we please. Privileges embedded in cultural norms and mores are sometimes hard to unmask. They are often subtle and assumed, and therefore go unnoticed for the most part, particularly by the dominant class that benefits from the privileges bestowed on them through the social order. Perhaps by pointing the finger at Egypt, Canaan and the other nations, this was a more subtle way of pointing the finger at Israel itself. By proclaiming loudly that Israel should not be like “those people”, the text clearly judges any resemblance that Israel had to those nations past, present or future.

This way of relating, dehumanizing, dominating and objectifying people and nature violates the basic principles embedded in ecology and I would argue in the biblical narrative and biblical assumptions about our relationship to the land and each other. This is what lies at the root of these chapters, not some sort of puritanical notions about sexuality or arbitrary rules solely intended to make Israel different, but a radical reminder about who we are as creatures and how we are to reflect the image of God embedded in us in our relationships.

P.S. I want to blog more about these connections just so the traffic on my blog will increase by using the word “sex” a lot. If I can somehow combine it with words like “hot” without sounding lewd, then the traffic might increase even more. Though I’m not sure those readers will stick around to read what I write.

A Theology of Work and Art (Exodus 25-40)

Exodus 31:1-6 Then the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts– to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship. Moreover I have appointed Oholiab, son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan, to help him. Also I have given skill to all the craftsmen to make everything I have commanded you.

Almost the entire last half of the book of Exodus is dedicated to the minute detail God gives to Moses for the construction of the Tabernacle, including the Ark of the Covenant, altars, tables, lampstands, courtyard, garments for the priests, basins, oil and incense. This description takes up six chapters on its own. Then there is an incident involving a little idol worship for a few chapters to which we shall return and then five final chapters describing again in detail the Tabernacle as it is constructed. For fans of John Grisham this reading is excruciating in its detail and repetition.

Ellen Davis has a wonderful section of her book Scripture, Culture and Agriculture discussing this portion of Exodus and its import for a theology of work and art. I do not have the book with me here, but recall that the choosing of Bezalel, his helper, Oholiab, and other craftsmen to the task of constructing the Tabernacle points out the importance and role of both work and art in the Israelite community, and therefore the Christian community. Both artists and the working class have marginal places within the modern North American church. On the one hand artistic expression seems superfluous and unnecessary (notice the contrast of megachurch buildings designed primarily for their function with the incredible architecture of gothic cathedrals). On the other hand, the working class fills pews as merely warm bodies there to be told what to believe by the authorities from the pulpit. If that last sentence sounds shocking, think about how often you have heard a plumber or construction worker exegeting Scripture for the congregation.

Sandwiched between exquisite descriptions of instructions and construction of the Tabernacle is the infamous Golden Calf incident. It’s important to remember that the people did not just pull the idea of worshiping a golden calf out of thin air. There were other nations that practiced some religion that worshiped a god in this form (I can’t recall if this was the baals of Canaanite religion or something else). Like many of the various religions of the time this had a lot to do with fertility. The gods represented forces that were beyond their control and that they could only hope to placate, if not manipulate, for their own survival. While Moses receives intricate details about constructing the dwelling place of God, the people become restless. They ask Aaron to make them “gods who will go before us” (32:1) and Moses’ right hand man obliges saying, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing and bring them to me” (32:2). This is a direct contrast to the previous instructions to Moses about the people’s offering for the construction of the Tabernacle,

The Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to bring me an offering. You are to receive the offering from each man whose heart prompts him to give. These are the offerings you are to receive from them: gold, silver, bronze; blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen; goat hair; ram skins dyed red and hides of sea cows; acacia wood; olive oil for the light; spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense; and onyx stones and other gems to be mounted on the ephod and breastpiece.” (25:1-8)

Two things stand out to me: 1) the offerings here are given freely as each’s “heart prompts him to give” and 2) there is more opportunity for people to contribute with the many different materials needed for construction. I’m not sure how many former Egyptian slaves would have had gold earrings (unless perhaps this was a symbol of their bondage). Aaron’s request is simple and direct and does not require the cooperation of the whole community, whereas the instructions Moses received seem to require an enormous amount of cooperation, particularly for people who are supposed to be wandering through the wilderness. So, it seems that this episode of the Golden Calf is meant to stand as a contrast to the instructions and construction of the Tabernacle. One requires the contributions, “skill, ability and knowledge” of the whole community, in particular craftsmen, artisans and manual laborers, while the other requires only one man taking the material wealth of the community and making “an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool” (32:4), a blunt description compared to the intricacy of the Tabernacle. In short, the idol is a short cut. It is an attempt to find the easy way out when patience runs out.

Industrial agriculture is our golden calf, not the Tabernacle. It has turned work that many have described as an art into an idol that we can manipulate through petroleum sacrifices and placate with burnt offerings of glyphosate and transgenic seeds. It is the easy way out. We must recover the kind of love of work and art that spends such detail on the construction of a Tabernacle and remember that it is for the presence of God. I am reminded of some lines from Wendell Berry’s poem The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer,

I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing and reaped as I knew by luck and heaven’s favor in spite of the best advice.

The truth is that a theology of work and art stands in intimate relationship with the subject of our labor and does not make of it an object. When industrial agriculture reduces our relationship with the earth to percentages of N-P-K, it objectifies the Creator that called it good. Work and art are more than functional acts that produce products to be consumed and thrown away. Rather they produce relationships with the Creator and all of God’s creatures, human and non-human, plant and animal, that produce life.

The Meal and the Gift (Exodus 18:12; 24:11;33:11)

Exodus 18:12 And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt-offering and sacrifices to God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God.

Exodus 24:11 But God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God, and they ate and drank.

I forget who said it and no longer have a university library at my disposal to find out, but supposedly encounters with the divine throughout cultures and religions across the world occur primarily through the vehicles of the meal and the gift. I would be interested to read more on this from a biblical and comparative religions perspective, if anyone knows a good book on the subject. I do remember two particular examples from my Old Testament class of shared divine meals both of which occur in Exodus.

In the first example the meal shared with God is a family event. Moses’ father-in-law Jethro has traveled to visit him, because Moses sent away his wife, Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter, and her two sons. Jethro’s curiosity about the God of Moses was piqued by their accounts of the escape from Egypt. Perhaps he was also concerned by his daughter and her sons being sent away. He travels with them to visit Moses and is told everything that God had done for them. Jethro proclaims that YHWH must be greater than all the other gods and then makes a burnt offering to YHWH. Aaron and all the the elders of Israel then join them to eat bread and possibly the meat from the offering in a feast. This little participial clause at the end of this story says that this took place “in the presence of God.”

In the next chapter there is an ambiguous exchange concerning Moses going up to Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. YHWH first speaks to Moses offering a covenant for the Israelites to be his people and that YHWH will “come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you” (19:9). Then YHWH gives some provisions for this encounter, “Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not go up the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death” (19:12) Then the people are to come out to meet YHWH and presumably hear him speak. YHWH descends and Moses goes up to meet him where YHWH tells Moses again to warn the people not to force their way through to see him and that “even the priests, who approach the Lord, must consecrate themselves, or the Lord will break out against them” (19:22). Moses seems a little taken aback when he replies that the people can’t approach because YHWH already told him not to let them. Then YHWH tells him to bring up Aaron up with him.

The next example occurs after four chapters of instructions concerning commandments governing all aspects of the community’s life including annual festivals, sabbath observance when the people confirm this covenant. The people respond that they will obey everything the Lord commands. After some offerings confirming this “Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel” (24:9-10). As if the reader should expect these men to be struck down, since they apparently went up unannounced the text says, “But God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel” and then adds, “also they beheld God, and they ate and drank” (24:11)

After a later incident involving a golden calf, Moses erects the Tent of Meeting where it says, “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend” (33:11). Later in the same chapter Moses asks YHWH to reveal his glory and although YHWH agrees he cautions, “But you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (33:20). So, which is it? Does YHWH allow people to freely eat meals in his presence and speak face to face as happened with Moses, Jethro, Aaron, the elders and others or does YHWH prohibit such close contact remaining set apart, transcendent and other from his followers?

There seems to be a tension between YHWH wanting to come near and be known and this restriction against full contact. IMany scholars think that there is more than one tradition being held in tension within the text. The priestly tradition which wrote the first creation account and viewed God as transcendent would want to be sure that a proper distance is maintained between God and the people. The Yahwist writer, who most often uses the term YHWH for God (the Hebrew text substitutes the word “Adonai” and is translated LORD with small caps in the biblical text), responsible for the second creation account typically pictures God in much more earthy and relational terms.

The Christian tradition chooses to hold the transcendence and immanence of God in continuing dynamic tension. What I find interesting is that we find this tension within the biblical narrative itself, even within a few verses. People often think of the God in the Old Testament as distant and angry, but here we have two examples of God sharing a divine meal. It’s not as if the rules about who gets to be in the presence of God are very clear. At times only Moses is allowed to go up the mountain and see God. Moses encounters God face to face in the Tent of Meeting, but is not allowed to see his face a few verses later. God commands Moses to bring Aaron up to the mountain to see him, but seems unperturbed later by a large unannounced group of elders who eat and drink in his presence.

The shared meal in itself is a gift, in the case of YHWH it is a gift of presence. Likewise, when we share meals with others it is also a gift of our presence and perhaps there is space made for the divine when we break bread. This is also perhaps why rules about table fellowship became so important. If sharing meals is a sacred act and the way that God sometimes reveal God’s self, then it is not something to be taken lightly and maybe not to be shared with just anyone, particularly sinners and unclean people. The God that joins Moses for a family get together with Jethro is the same God that motivated Jesus to eat with sinners and gluttons, opening up once again the meal to be a sacred space where we can encounter the divine and each other in a simple and necessary act.