The Making of a Reader Part IX

Exodus 19

by David Hawkinson

In the last article of this series, I began to explore the critical dimension of repetition in the making of the biblical text. The presence of deliberate or patterned repetition can be seen everywhere. Martin Buber has been the most helpful in lifting up this literary element, restoring it in his translation of the Hebrew Bible into German. For this reason, I eagerly await each new English translation that emerges from the hand of Everett Fox, who works with both the Buber/Rosenzweig German Bible and the Hebrew text. Fox takes these literary structures to heart as he renders one language into another. The result is often startling and strange to our ears, which are acclimated to a different rhythm and a more lyrical English line. If we watch for these repeated words and phrases, however, there are treasures just beneath the surface.

For example, I encourage you to read the entire 19th chapter of Exodus. This is the scene that comes just before the giving of the Ten Commandments. In chapter 19, there are eight uses of the root "go up" and seven uses of the root "go down." Most English translations will also use the English equivalents, ascend and descend, when the translator thinks it more appropriate, either for meaning or to ease the effect of repetition on the ear. The problem for us as readers is that we miss the intent of the Hebrew writer, who has deliberately used these two words to structure his narrative. Here is Fox's version, late in chapter 19, at the place where this repetition quickens into an almost frantic pace. I will highlight the use of the root word.

19.20. And YHWH came down upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. YHWH called Moshe to the top of the mountain, and Moshe went up. 21. YHWH said to Moshe: Go down, warn the people lest they break through to YHWH to see, and many of them fall; 22. even the priests who approach YHWH must make themselves holy, lest YHWH burst out against them. 23. But Moshe said to YHWH: the people are not able to go up to Mount Sinai, For you yourself warned us, saying: Fix boundaries for the mountain and make it holy! 24. YHWH said to him: Go, get down, and then come up, you and Aaron with you, But the priests and the people must not break through to go up to YHWH, Lest he burst out against them. 25. Moshe went down to the people and said to them. 20.1. God spoke all these words, saying….

The Ten Commandments follow.

It is clear that chapters 19 and 20 flow into one another. We need to read them as a single piece. (Remember: chapter and verse divisions are later editorial additions meant simply to get us to a particular place. They should never affect our reading. We should read as if they were not present, as if we were unrolling a scroll.)

We must now ask the question: What does all this going up and coming down mean? What might the deliberate repetition of "go up" and "go down" lead us to discover?

A line is drawn at the base of the mountain. The people must remain on one side; God on the other. The holiness that they are to practice—for holiness is a practice and not an attitude—is to recognize and hold that boundary that separates them. God will "come down" as close as possible. The people, including the priests are not to break through and come closer than allowed.

Moses goes up and down, reporting the words of YHWH to the people and the words of the people to YHWH. YHWH comes down, smoke goes up! Up and down, again and again, our eyes following all these ascents and descents between the two parties. It appears as if Moses is engaged in a kind of shuttle diplomacy, each trip weaving a new strand into the tapestry of the covenant relationship that is being formed with the people at the base of the mountain. This is not the relationship of edict, supreme power issuing commands which require only the nod of the head from the people. Moses reports both the words of YHWH and the words of the people. A dialogue is being initiated, a dialogue the people are drawn into through Moses, the mediator between the two parties. All this activity of up and down embodies the very quality of the relationship that is being formed between God and the people. When we set the commandments in the context of all the up and down activity of Moses in chapter 19, we can read chapter 20 as the summary of what they have been talking about or negotiating during the dialogue. In addition, the kind of relationship that is being established provides the basis for the future generations who must struggle to understand what all these commandments and precepts mean to their own lives, in contexts unimagined by the first generation. This lively and genuine relationship makes possible the whole tradition of legal interpretation which keeps the law a vibrant part of a faithful people. This relationship, by encouraging dialogue, also makes ample space for the theological freedom that supports the rich diversity of religious tradition that is the treasure of the Judeo-Christian heritage.

This covenantal relationship between God and the people mirrors the kind of relationship Moses has had with YHWH from the very beginning. Moses contends and converses with God from the first moments of meeting at the burning bush, where he urges God to choose someone else for liberator. The text delights in their vigorous give and take, the personal relationship between the two and suggests that Moses, by example, is teaching the people how to develop, live, and trust in such relationship. At the base of the mountain, at this moment in the narrative, Moses does this for them. The time will come when he will no longer be able to do that. The students must carry on when the teacher is gone. At the end of his life he addresses this particular anxiety, just before he dies:

For the commandment that I command you this day: It is not too extraordinary for you, it is not too far away! It is not in the heavens, (for you) to say: Who will go up for us to the heavens and get it for us and have us hear it, that We may observe it? And it is not across the sea, (for you) to say: Who will cross for us, Across the sea, and get it for us and have us hear it, that we may observe it? Rather, near to you is the word, exceedingly, in your mouth and in your heart, To observe it! (Deut. 30. 11-14)

I take this to mean that they do not need a mediator any longer. They have what they need inside them to carry on. It is for them to "…return to the YHWH your God, with all your heart and with all your being" ( Deut. 30.10). Moses is calling the people to "go up" themselves. To "go up" is to ascend their own hearts, to the place where the word resides. To "go up" is to enter a living relationship with that word, which includes back and forth, up and down, study and dialogue, struggle and practice. A blind, or unquestioning obedience is not the goal of this covenant. It is relationship! Obedience is a part, but only in the context of a genuine relationship.

The repetition of "go up" and "go down" establishes a structure, a framework, within which something unspoken takes place, something within the people, something that is between the people and God. The narrator does not tell us directly. It happens as a result of all the up and down activity that is described. It is similar to what happens during the hours of listening and conversation with our children, deeper than the content of the hour. A way of relating occurs. This "way of relating" supports and nurtures the covenant relationship that is being formed before our eyes.

From this vantage point, we are now better able to reflect back onto the startling metaphor in the opening speech of God, a single image abundant with meaning:

You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, How I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to me. So now, if you will hearken to my voice, yes, hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be to me a special treasure from among all peoples. Indeed, the earth is mine, but you, shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. ( vs. 4-6)

The first time, Moses "went up" to God he was told to relay these words to the people: Moses speaks these words to the people, who then respond: "All that YHWH has spoken, we will do." (vs. 8) Before a command is given, the people agree to the relationship. What are they hearing and responding to?

Their acceptance of a relationship is more than a grateful response to what YHWH had done for them. Rather, it lay in the particulars of the metaphor of "eagles wings." Martin Buber writes in his Moses:

Those who consider such an image as this to be no more than a happy metaphor miss the intent of the whole passage. The basis of comparison here is not the speed of the eagles or their strength, which would be an introduction scarcely suited to a first divine manifesto to the assembled people; at that moment something fundamentally important regarding the historical relationship between YHWH and Israel has to find its expression through the figure of speech used. This is achieved in an image which is admittedly too meager to be fully comprehended by us; but the early listener or reader certainly grasped the sense. (p. 102)

Can we get close to this sense? Not without help. It is provided by Moses, once again in the final words to the people before he leaves them. "He found him in a wilderness land, in a waste, a howling desert. He surrounded him, he paid-him-regard, he guarded him like the pupil of his eye; like an eagle protecting its nest, over its young-birds hovering, he spread out his wings, he took him, bearing him on his pinions" (Deut. 32.10-11).

Martin Buber suggests that Moses must have felt it necessary to elucidate the image of the eagle to the children of the generation that had been rescued from Egypt. The immediacy of the metaphor had worn off—within a generation! A commentary was needed. How much more for us! Buber draws the image of the eagle to yet another level:

The great eagle spreads out its wing over the nestlings; he takes up one of them, a shy or weary one, and bears it upon his pinions; until it can at length dare the flight itself and follows the father in his mounting gyrations. Here we have election, deliverance, and education; all in one. (Moses, 102)

This is the relationship that the people are agreeing to. They hear it in the metaphor.

They can feel the pinions wrapped around their fragile lives. God is teaching them to live! To Fly! To let go of the chains of bondage that still hold their minds. They are at the most tender moment of trust, afraid and exhilarated at the same time. After all, they are leaving one form of bondage and entering into another. Where they once served their Egyptian master, they will now serve YHWH. But such a difference this service is! It will take time to learn to breathe as free men and women. It will take time to feel this new relationship as part of the beating of the heart. For the moment, Moses will take them up and bring God down. Moses will be the pinions that will carry the people high enough so that they may learn to fly themselves, one day.