Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Exodus: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, and then summarize it in my own words.  I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

The descendants of Israel lived and multiplied and prospered in Egypt.  After a while, the Israelites grew so numerous that the Pharaoh began to fear them.  He thought they might rise up and rebel.  So Pharoah’s solution to avoid potential rebellion was to enslave and oppress the Israelites, a strategy which, historically, tends to backfire.  But the Israelites continued living and fucking and multiplying.  Pharaoh finally decreed that all Israelite male babies born had to be killed.  For someone trying to avoid rebellion, Pharaoh was not doing a very good job.

Israelite slaves in Egypt.

In the midst of all this death and oppression, an Israelite boy was born whose mother refused to let him be killed.  Instead, she put him a floating basket in the Nile river.  The daughter of Pharaoh found him and took him as her son.  She named him Moses.

As Moses grew older and saw the oppression of his people, his conscience was stirred.  One day, he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite slave, and Moses got so mad that he killed the Egyptian.  Word of this reached Pharaoh, who ordered Moses’ death, but Moses fled to the land of Midian.

In Midian, Moses became a shepherd and married a woman named Zipporah, whose father Jethro was the priest of their tribe.  While watching his sheep one day, Moses came upon a burning bush and heard the voice of God.  The Lord of the Universe spoke from this bush, telling Moses that he had seen Israel’s suffering (by this time, Israel had been in bondage for over 400 years), and planned on liberating them.  Moses, God said, was to be the leader of this liberation.

"Moses and the Burning Bush" by Marc Chagall

Moses was skeptical at first, so God gave him some magic powers, to prove to the Egyptians that God was on his side.  One power was the ability to transform his walking stick into a snake.  Another one was the ability to make his hand look like it had leprosy, and then to “cure” it.  Moses was still afraid, because he was shy about public speaking.  God became a little angry at this point,  thinking the magic powers should have given him enough confidence.  But Moses was so shy and cowardly that God appointed his brother, Aaron, to do the public speaking bits.

So Moses, Aaron, and their families went to Egypt and Aaron told the Pharaoh that he needed to free all the Israelite slaves.  Moses silently did magic tricks as Aaron spoke.  Pharaoh was not willing to give up his free labor force, so he refused.  He was so angry that these two Israelite peasants even asked for freedom that Pharaoh actually increased the labor quotas.

Realizing that magic tricks were not enough to convince the most powerful man in the world to free a million slaves, God decided to bring out the “big guns” and “take the gloves off” so to speak.  God turned the Nile River, Egypt’s main water source, into blood.   Then God unleashed a series of devastating plagues upon Egypt, a “shock and awe” campaign meant to bring the nation to its knees.  He filled the land with frogs.  He covered the land with various insects: gnats and locusts, which ate up all the crops.  He killed all the livestock.  He gave everyone horrible boils.  He rained fiery hail on Egypt.  He covered the land with darkness for three days straight.  But still, Pharaoh would not let Israel go free.  So God sent one final plague.  He killed all the first born of Egypt, including Pharoah’s son.  That did the trick.  With his son dead, and his country devastated, Pharaoh finally agreed to let the Israelites go.

"Lamentations Over the Death of the Firstborn of Egypt" by Charles Sprague Pearce

After celebrating with the first Passover feast, Moses led a million formers slaves out of Egypt, along with lots of gold and silver, to boot.  By this point, all the Egyptians were so afraid of the Israelites, that they gave them a bunch of free shit, as long as they left.

Having been slaves for over 400 years, the Israelites didn’t have a good sense of geography, so God showed them where to go with a big moving cloud during the day, and a pillar of fire at night.  Shortly after the Exodus of the Israelites, Pharaoh changed his mind, and pursued them with lots of men and chariots, but Moses had another trick up his sleeve.  He raised his staff, and God parted the waters of the Red Sea, so the Israelites could pass through it, but the pursuing Egyptians were drowned.  This is a very dramatic scene in the Charlton Heston film The Ten Commandments.  With their pursuers drowned, the Israelites all sang a song, gloating about the power of their God over other gods, and about how other nations could fuck off.

Charlton Heston in "The Ten Commandments"

After wandering for a while in the wilderness, the Israelites became very thirsty and hungry and complained to Moses.  So God provided them with water from a rock, and with magical bread from heaven, and loads of dead quails (good eating).  The Israelites fought a battle with king Amalek, and won, because God was on their side.

Moses was feeling mighty burdened with the responsibility of leading a million people, so his father-in-law suggested that he appoint underlings to do some of the day-to-day administrative tasks, and this freed him up a bit.

At this point, the story of Exodus gets a little boring.  They arrive at a big mountain, and Moses goes up to the top and God gives him a really long list of rules and laws that the Israelites have to obey if they want his protection.  These rules and laws contain the famous “Ten Commandments” but they also contain lots of weird stuff.  For example, there are rules regarding how to treat slaves.  One wold think that, after having been enslaved for 400 years, the Israelites would not be interested in owning slaves, but apparently they were.  There are pages and pages of rules, some of which are very strange.  Lots of them have to do with animals—don’t steal animals, don’t fuck them, etc.

And then God gives Moses these elaborate blueprints for a tabernacle (a sort of portable shrine) and other things for worship purposes.  These blueprints go on for pages and pages, dictating everything from how to make the curtains to which kinds of metal to use for the curtain rings.  God is a VERY particular interior decorator.

After receiving all these rules and interior decorating commands, God inscribes everything on stone tablets, just to make sure Moses gets it right.  God forbid the tabernacle curtain rings should be silver, and not gold.  Moses descends the mountain to rejoin his people with these brand new tablets of the law, literally written by the finger of God.  He is excited, but probably also exhausted (and maybe a bit confused about God’s obsession with interior decorating.)

"Moses With the Ten Commandments" by Rembrandt Van Rijn

Anyway, Moses descends the mountain and finds all the people worshipping this golden calf!  WTF?!  Moses thought.  He got so angry that he shattered the stone tablets, ground up the golden calf, poured the gold dust into cups of water, and made the people drink it.  Moses was pissed.  And so was God.  God wanted to go ahead and genocide them.  But Moses argued with God, and God changed his mind about genocide.  Phew, thought Moses.  Oh, and Moses also ordered 3,000 Israelites killed.

After this debacle, the Israelites continued their journey toward their Promised Homeland.  God gave Moses new tablets, and the people followed God’s blueprints to build the elaborate tabernacle.  When the tabernacle was finished, God showed himself to Israel by descending upon it in a glorious cloud.  Then they knew that things were cool between them and God.  For now…

Stay tuned for the continuing adventures of Israel and God in “Leviticus: a Book Report”…

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