Before the Law // Exodus

On the Bible., Uncategorized

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)

A Trace of Blood // Genesis

On the Bible., Uncategorized

You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and no expiation can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it.

            Numbers 35.33

The tale spoke clearly: whatever brotherhood human beings may be capable of has grown out of fratricide, whatever political organization men may have achieved has its origin in crime.

            Hannah Arendt, On Revolution

When we watch crime serials on television, we’re used to seeing the Keith Herring-esque chalk outline of an absent cadaver. These chalk outlines (if they are still in use) mark the place where a body once was, where the body was found dead and in what manner it was found. The outline orients the forensic specialists as they explore the scene for other material evidence of the crime, such as fingerprints, strands of hair, or spots of blood. When such traces are found, this can designate one of two things: the presence of the victim or the presence of the murderer. DNA testing in a lab confirms the identity of the figure who inhabited that space at the time the event occurred, and we find this information useful for the purposes of judgment and reckoning. The blood found at the scene casts some revelation on the bodies no longer present there.

In the Bible, as well as in much of culture for much of history, blood has a significant relation to notions of identity, of violence, and of life, three themes that are often crucially intertwined. Entire political histories have been determined by our taking blood to indicate some particular identity: a familial dynasty of power or a landed plot of property can only carry on down generations if we take the identity that ownership depends on to be transferrable by means of progenation (or some legally accepted symbolic equivalent, such as adoption). It’s a powerful statement to make of someone that they are “blood of my blood” or “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2.23)—blood runs thicker than water. Such a referral to blood designates the relationship between two people as something stronger than other sorts of relationships one might enter into with another: a relationship of family and of mutual familial identification. This is a kind of identification that we see as something stronger than a business partnership, a friendship, or even a sexual or erotic relationship. Something changes when another is or becomes family, and blood is what they share.

But blood also designates the life of a living thing. This is why the shedding of blood designates violence: an aggression against life by draining that life, in whole or in part, from the being to whom it belonged. The Bible several times explicitly locates the life of a creature in the creature’s blood (Gen. 9.4; Lev. 17.11; Deut. 12.23), and for this reason also establishes legal prohibitions on eating the blood of a creature, even if the creature is considered clean to eat. In fact, the entire history of the institution of law in the Bible, curiously enough, begins and ends with prohibitions on ingesting blood.

According to the story, on the twenty-seventh day of the second month of the six hundred first year of the earth’s existence, God told Noah to leave the ark he had built to weather the storm of God’s wrath and to step onto dry ground (Gen. 8.13-15). The first thing Noah does is to take one of every clean animal that he had rescued from the flood and to kill and to burn them as an offering to God (Gen. 8.20). And God—who consistently through the Old Testament finds the smell of a roasted animal on an altar delectable—responds to Noah with a new covenant. As is the case with all covenants made in the Bible, this one to Noah involved four things: a promise, a blessing, a law, and a sign. First, God promised to “never again curse the ground because of humankind,” and he added, “nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done” (Gen. 8.21) (Such mercy and justice, to only annihilate every living thing once.) God then blesses Noah and his family, saying that they will be fruitful and multiply on the earth and that all the animals will live in fear of them (Gen. 9.1-2), hence securing the dominion of humankind that was established in the creation of Adam. Following the blessing, God gives Noah and his family a new law:

Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. [In high school, I once used this as a retort to my sister’s veganism, but it turned out hers had more to do with unethical factory practices than divine commands.] Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings; each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life. Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind. (Gen. 9.4-6)

Here we have the first command against ingesting blood in the Bible and it comes, arguably, in the first institution of civil law. Noah and his family are the only ones left alive on the earth, and this is the first law that God establishes as a way of ordering the new society. Notice, again, that God locates the life of a creature in its blood, and while God does not command against humankind killing animals (he offers all animals to them as food), he does command against ingesting the locus of life in the animal, which is the blood. This prohibition continues all the way through the New Testament, when, at the Council of Jerusalem, the apostles are trying to decide what law Gentile converts should follow. James the brother of Jesus declares, after much debate—and this is simplifying the tale—that Gentile converts should “abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood” (Acts 15.20). Blood is a sacred thing in the Bible, meaning that it is both protected and potent. When blood spills somewhere, the ancient understanding was that the stain can never go away or be concealed. And we might say there is a modern tradition to this too—think of Lady Macbeth, failing to wash the phantasmal stain of blood from her hands.

When we try to disentangle the varied ways blood is made to mean in this ancient book of Genesis, it gets tricky. Take, for instance, that last aspect of God’s covenant to Noah, the sign, the infamous rainbow:

This is the sign of the covenant that I made between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring the clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. (Gen. 9.12-15)

Despite the hundreds of times I’ve read this verse, this is the first time I caught the symbol: this rainbow is no lovey-dovey symbol of peace, diversity, and togetherness as it is used to mean today, given its many colors and pleasing rounded shape. Instead, this rainbow is viewed how it might have been viewed by an ancient literary community, constantly in terror of their own precariousness at the force of the elements, which they see in divine and mythic terms, and the hands of warring tribes (and war, blood, and murder is all over this book): this was an archer’s bow. The sign of God’s covenant with Noah and with all of life on the earth is a cosmic weapon, this time turned away from the earth. Therefore, the sign of the covenant is an assurance of God’s violent strength but also his decision to no longer use it on such a grand scale. (He is willing, however, to use it on a somewhat smaller scale, given the utter desolation of all life in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah mere chapters later [Gen. 19.24-5].)

I guess one way of putting all of this more simply would be to say that Genesis, this book of beginnings and promises, is also fundamentally a book of violence. God sheds the first blood by making coats of animal skins to cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness, following their breaking of his first command (Gen. 3.21). Cain murders Abel, making the very first fratricide happen between the very first brothers, and Abel’s blood cries out from the ground, unrequited because blood cannot be cleansed from where it has spilled (Gen. 4.10-11). Cain’s descendent Lamech, father of Noah, tells his wives that he has killed a young man for wounding him, and that his recompense will be seventy times that of Cain’s (Gen. 4.23-5). The violence that began so locally is expanding, until only one generation later “the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6.11), initiating God’s annihilation of all flesh (notably, by means of flood—a bloodless way of committing mass slaughter, allowing civilization to begin again under the sign of God’s lethality).

And this is only the beginning of the bloodshed involved in these beginnings. There are accounts of warring tribes and conquest (Gen. 14). There is Abraham’s intended murder of his son according to God’s command (Gen. 22). There is the institution of circumcision, the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham fittingly embodied in a common wound. This wound is then later exploited by Abraham’s great-grandsons Simeon and Levi, who trick the men of Shechem into circumcising themselves and, while the men are healing, proceed to slaughter every last one of them as a reckoning for Shechem’s rape of their sister Dinah (Gen. 34).

Okay, I’ve made my point—there’s a lot of blood here. But there is one more instance of bloodshed I’d like to point out. When Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, has dreams that he will one day rule over his older brothers, the older brothers, in their jealousy, plot his murder. However, Reuben initially stops them, saying, “Let us not take his life. […] Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” (Gen. 37.21-22). So they do so, and as they eat their dinner atop the pit where they’ve stowed their brother, a caravan of Ishmaelites arrives (possibly significant, given the tumultuous backstory to the Ishmaelites). Judah then gets an idea: “Then Judah said to his brothers, ‘What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.’ And his brothers agreed.” (Gen. 37.26-7). The fact that Joseph is their brother, their own flesh, forbids them from shedding his blood, which would be impossible to conceal—meaning, in a divine juridical sense and in an occult sense, since there seems to be some karmic element in this people’s understanding of God’s justice: blood for blood. So instead they sell him into slavery.

However, to cover their tracks, they still end up shedding some blood. In order to convince their father that Joseph had been devoured by a wild animal, rather than sold into slavery, the brothers slaughter a goat and dip Joseph’s robe in its blood—the same robe that his father had made specially for Joseph (Gen. 37.31). The ruse is convincing, and Jacob believes that the blood is his sons. In this episode, blood is used as a conflation of identity—Joseph’s with the goat’s—as well as a sign of violence and loss of life.

This story of the goat’s blood, in one sense, works like all other atonement sacrifice narratives in the Bible: the blood of the goat stands as substitute for the life of the man, in order that the man may be counted dead without having actually died. Think of Abraham’s use of goat’s blood following his attempt at sacrificing his own son—God offers the goat’s life as a substitution for Isaac, allowing Isaac to go on living in the company of his father. In the case of Joseph, however, the blood is offered as substitute, not in order that Joseph may go on living in the company of the community—the requisite obedience to God having been satisfied—but rather in order to cast Joseph away from the community. This blood, though sacrificial, divides the community and conceals its guilt without cleansing.

But is this so different, after all, from the uses of blood in sacrifice for the redemption of communities? If the slaughtered creature stands in for the life of the community in order that the community may preserve itself in the world, what slaughter serves that community and what slaughter undermines it? Which community does slaughter serve? This question of sacrifice’s role in community is one I will certainly return to, but it is enough to note here that this great book of beginnings—of the beginning of the world, of humanity, of civil society, of law, and of God’s chosen nation—requires the shedding of blood to tell its tale. The suggestion is that beginning requires violence, but that there are also moments where slaughter creates its own excess: Cain’s violence both turns him into a wanderer and provokes a new generation of humanity; the violence of Joseph’s brothers brings about his own blessing and theirs. All good things require violence, but which violence is required—and why? That is a question that will constantly reemerge in this incredibly violent Bible.