Before the Law // Exodus

The violence that [Walter] Benjamin defines as divine is instead situated in a zone in which it is no longer possible to distinguish between exception and rule. […] Divine violence shows the connection between the two violences [i.e. law-making and law-preserving]—and, even more, between violence and law—to be the single real content of law.

            Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life

When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” But he said,

“It is not the sound made by victors,
or the sound made by losers;
it is the sound of revelers that I hear.” 

            Exodus 32.17-18

It is a difficult task to isolate biblical texts from the way they get used culturally today, but many of these uses reduce the texts to the point of being something other than they are in the plain meaning of their content. The Book of Exodus is a clear case in point. Many will think of this book in relation to its theme of deliverance and justice for the oppressed: the God who had promised to redeem a nation ensnared under the cruel boot of slavery makes good on his promise, leading that nation out from bondage on to freedom and bounty. This is the story that has also been firmly established in religious practice—most clearly in the Passover Seder ritual performed yearly in Judaism. It’s a powerful narrative that lends itself to all sorts of historical and political operationalization, as long as “Egypt” is made into an empty signifier attachable to any new enemy.

But this is not the whole story of the Exodus. Even in a simple sketch, the Exodus is not only about deliverance, but it is about the constitution of a people. A people was delivered, but this people only really existed in bloodlines before the Exodus. After the Exodus, they exist as a people unified under a law, with a unique ritualistic identity, a hierarchy of representative organization, and a unique devotion to a unique god. This people is made as a consummation of the process of their deliverance. And just as soon as they are constituted in this way, they also suddenly become a danger to themselves as a people. More on this in a minute.

The process of deliverance is not all tambourines and celebration, the great march through the parted sea on to a land flowing with milk and honey. As much as I love (read: love) the animated musical The Prince of Egypt, this deliverance cannot be adequately thematized in the joyous pronouncement, “There can be miracles when you believe.” As with so many moments of YHWH keeping his promise in the Bible, so it seems, this deliverance enters in the wake of a great and cruel genocide. The constitution of a people is perhaps a necessarily violent act, and despite all the tremendously horrific violence performed in the constitution of this people in the Book of Exodus, this text continues to be used as the mythic justification of such people-making endeavors. Or perhaps we should not say despite the violence, because in the case of the contemporary Zionist movement, this founding myth serves to justify the ongoing violence of a people against those seen as inimical to the people (as constituted by bloodlines and religious identity). A strange sort of reversal has occurred, where identification with the mythic oppressed has allowed oppressors to perceive their hands as clean.

As YHWH is imagined in this text, he too seems to insist that the violence is necessary for the spectacular deliverance he wishes to perform—hence the many times he “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” so that Pharaoh would refuse to let the Israelite people go: “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go’” (Ex. 4.21). (See also, for example, Ex. 7.3; 9.12; and 11.9.) Because YHWH deems it necessary that all of his macabre wonders be performed, he makes it impossible for Pharaoh to acquiesce to Moses’s demands prematurely, and for this reason, the Egyptian people are condemned to poverty, famine, starvation, thirst, skin diseases, vermin infestations, destructive hail, fire from the sky, the blacking out of the sun, and the divine slaughter of all the firstborns, both of the livestock and of the people of every class, from the royalty to the most precarious peasant and laborer. It would not at all be a stretch to say that God demonstrates total war, terrorism, and biological warfare as effective tactics for preserving the nation that sufficiently fears him. It would, then, also not be a stretch to say that a people who worships this God could use this text at any point in history to justify such tactics in their own pursuit of self-preservation.

When a people is made, they are often identified against an enemy or an outside, and they are often defined in terms of the legal relation they hold to one another. A people makes a law in order to make a people, but the law such a people makes in their self-constitution sets them apart from other peoples, thereby making that law inapplicable to those who do not belong to that people. I find it interesting to read Egypt in this text not only as the enemy of the protagonist nation—the justifying reason for the violence that ensues—but also as the people who reside outside of the divinely constitutive law of that nation. Egypt represents the limit-case or the boundary of Israel’s Law, which might give us some insight into the role of identity in this legal apparatus—as well as the violence that identity (necessarily?) emerges from.

But the question of how a people’s law functions in the Bible is not only crucially important but also very tricky to navigate. The first five books of the Bible—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—are referred to as the Torah in Judaism, and “Torah” is often translated as “Law.” So these first five books are regarded as the Books of the Law that contain the 613 commandments or mitzvot in the written Law. When you look at the narrative content of these texts, however, the Law as a set of commandments from God do not emerge until the latter part of Exodus. Genesis gives us the creation story and the founding legend of the family from whom would arise the nation of Israel, and we also get in that book a part of the covenant that God made with that family. In Exodus the Law is established—famously through the inscription of the Decalogue or Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai—and it’s really in Leviticus when the Law is more fully enumerated, down to the prohibitions on eating scallops or wearing polyester blends.

In Exodus, then, we get a clear picture into how Ancient Hebrew civilization imagines the institution of Law: what it relies on, what it prescribes, in what manner it is enforced, and what animates it. In critical theory—notably in the work of Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, and Giorgio Agamben—there has been an interesting discussion of “the force of law,” and this discussion, focused on the driving motor of law in modern history, identifies a mystical core to the whole apparatus. Modern law does not, apparently, rely on the sovereign prince’s violent power over life and death in the same way that medieval law did, so theorists have worked to understand the way that a law without a prince could be understood to have a “force.” When we bring this frame of questioning to bear on a pre-modern and pre-monarchic civilization’s narrative about the institution of law, we might gain some curious insights. For instance, this people also lacks a human sovereign, but their law nonetheless relies on a spectacular sovereign force in this incredibly powerful god. And their law, though it ultimately becomes a written law, originates as the speech-acts of this god. In fact, “Torah” is perhaps better translated as “instruction” or “teaching,” rather than “law,” which illustrates the violent and binding nature of communal pedagogy, just as much as it highlights the pedagogical nature of communal law. A certain type of human is to be developed, one who would belong to this community.

When we think about religious laws, it seems more likely that we would think of those laws as primitive in some sense, primordial, by which I mean that they, in their nature, preexist any act of human will. There’s no constitutional convention for religious laws. (Though in the way religious laws are institutionally established, enumerated, and enforced, there certainly are. You only have to look at the history of religious councils or the way religious laws get enumerated in concert with the emergence of new religious movements, such as the Christian fundamentalists of the early 20th century or the resurgence of fundamentalist evangelicals in Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority of the 80s and 90s.) But despite the primordial dressings of religious laws, they nonetheless are often sourced in some sort of mythic narrative. Perhaps in critically approaching such mythic narratives we can identify the ways in which such stories undermine themselves or produce their own leakage. We can also notice the ways those stories also include, in themselves, their own reactionary counter-resistive techniques.

This mythic narrative presents us with an occult god at the heart of the Law who exerts violent effects on those who do not fear him. I say “occult” here because he hides himself, revealing himself only to those ambassadors who would represent him to the people. When the people hear what this god speaks to them, they actually only hear it through Moses’s mouth. Moses is the only one granted access to YHWH directly, though a chain of hierarchical representation is established as well: “Then he said to Moses, ‘Come up to the Lord, you Lord Lord and Aaron, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship at a distance. Moses alone shall come near, and the people shall not come up with him’” (Ex. 24. 1-2). Moses is consecrated as the mouth of God, as a prophet, and as a sort of judge, arbiting the complaints of the people with the judgment of the Lord. This gets difficult with so many people, so Moses’s father-in-law Jethro (who is also a priest, though of the Midianites who are described as possibly worshiping the same god as the Israelites) suggests that Moses organize a civil chain of organization, relying on a delegation of representative constituency:

You should represent the people before God, and you should bring their cases before God; teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do. You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves. (Ex. 18.19-22)

Moses will represent God to the officers, who will then represent Moses to the people, and so on goes the chain of access to the giver of the Law. In order to maintain the sovereign force at the core of this legal apparatus, several fear-mongering warnings are issued against the people’s approaching this god: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down and warn the people not to break through to the Lord to look; otherwise many of them will perish. Even the priests who approach the Lord must consecrate themselves or the Lord will break out against them’”(Ex. 19.21-22). I can’t help but think here of the Wizard of Oz—pay no attention to what goes on at the top of the mountain—but in this case, the curtain is never lifted, and the mouthpiece of YHWH maintains his role as representing this god to the people who shudder in terror before him:

When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.’ Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.’ Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. (Ex. 20.18-21)

The occult nature of the force of the law secures the sovereign’s control over the people subject to the law. In this case, we can be generous and say that it allows YHWH to secure his control over this newly constituted community, or, to read this more cynically, we can say that the occulted god at the heart of this legal order allows those who run the organization—Moses & Co.—to maintain order and control, because they alone have access to that which issues forth the law in the first place and that which animates its power. I would say that this mechanism also allows this text to be read in the modern era as cementing the power of a religious moral and ritualistic order against its detractors, because it has never been democratically instituted: there was, from the start, an occult despotic core against which no one may say anything because it is impossible even to approach it.

However, the text’s leakage and reactionary self-preservation occurs when the people choose to create an image of this god rather than to wait for Moses to come down from the mountain and present to them YHWH’s commands. They turn to Aaron, Moses’s brother who would become first in a priestly line, and ask him to make gods for them (Ex. 32.1). They give him their gold rings in order to do so: “He took the gold from them, formed it into a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” (Ex. 32.4). The Israelite people make gods for themselves to be the image of their deliverer, in the place of the occulted god on the mountain. Though they still attribute their deliverance to being distinct from themselves, at least this being is one whose image they had control in constructing—a god of the people, by the people, and for the people. As the story goes, YHWH, of course becomes enraged at their idolatry and tells Moses that he wishes to murder them all and start over with Moses to make a new nation, not unlike how he dealt with Noah’s generation or with Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses changes YHWH’s mind about this, reminding him of his promise to this people, and sets off on an inquiry as to the guilty parties. (Which leads to one of the funniest passages in the Bible, as Moses asks Aaron about what transpired. Aaron responds by saying that the people had asked him to make gods for them. “So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!’” [Ex. 32.24]. It just popped out like this! I was just as surprised as you were!)

But when Moses approaches the people initially, he and his assistant Joshua hear a sound coming from the camps that sounds almost like war cries, but it is not. The shrieks and singing and dancing are not the sounds of conquerors or the violently subjected, but rather it was “the sound of revelers” (Ex. 32.18). By making an image of the god who delivered them, the people succeed neither in revolting against that god nor do they succumb to his esoteric control, but instead they play with his form, allowing themselves to authenticate their experience according to their own imagination. Though this is not a perfect comparison, seeing as we’re dealing with an ancient people and a primitive law, this scene of dancing and creativity makes me think of Giorgio Agamben’s writings on “playing with the law” as the only sufficient way to resist its intensified control in the modern era of biopolitics and the state of exception:

What opens a passage toward justice is not the erasure of law, but its deactivation and inactivity—that is, another use of the law. […] One day humanity will play with law just as children play with disused objects, not in order to restore them to their canonical use but to free them from it for good. What is found after the law is not a more proper and original use value that precedes the law, but a new use that is born only after it. And use, which has been contaminated by law, must also be freed from its own value. This liberation is the task of study, or of play. (State of Exception, 64)

If the Israelites had been successful in their idolatry (but, alas, YHWH had all of the revelers involved in the apostasy massacred by the devout Levites) perhaps they would have been able to use their activity of playing with the form of their god towards their own liberation. Nevertheless, this might suggest a pathway for those of us who wish to resist religiously orthodox mechanisms of control and belief. Rather than merely claiming these biblical texts and narratives as either “true” or “false,” we might play with them, mold them into new forms, and use them as a site of revelry. In this way, we might secure a sort of democratic textual criticism that would allow us not only to approach the occulted center of this grand and violent machine, but also to speak back to it.


Image source: Thomas Cole, Moses on the Mountain, Wikimedia Commons (edited)

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