Undead Authors // Deuteronomy

On the Bible., On theory., Uncategorized

We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture.

            Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”

Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the LORD’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day.

            Deuteronomy 34.5-6

Evangelical Christians of the stock that I was raised among read the Bible as a kind of originary last word. Whatever the doctrinal or theological dispute, the correct response is to return to the Word of God and see what he has to say on the matter. For them, the scriptural text is authoritative and inerrant, the articulate statements of the Lord channeled through the forty-some-odd writers by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, third member of the triune Godhead. Any time this flavor of biblicism was raised in itself as an issue for dispute, custodians of the text would pronounce a line that was itself taken from the text, a sentiment iterated first in the book of Deuteronomy—the last of the five Books of Moses—and repeated suggestively in Revelation—the canonically final book of the unified Bible: “You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it…” (Deut. 4.2.; cf. also Deut. 12:32 and Rev. 22:18-19). The words accumulated in this grand text over millennia are to be taken as final, the signature of the Author and the seal of the work’s authenticity.

This way of reading the Bible effectively obstructed any serious engagement with it as complex text with a complex textual history and content. What came first was not actually an honest engagement with the Bible but instead with a prevailing idea about the Bible. We knew the nature of the textual object before we allowed the text to teach us what kind of object it was.

As I return to this last Book of Moses, I notice a number of obvious truths about it that my institutionally-sponsored reading methodology refused me as a kid. The first—something I became aware of as I experimented with heterodox readings years ago—is the obvious irony of that line from Deuteronomy 4.2 as an authorial statement. The line is spoken by Moses in one of his three speeches that frame the narrative of the book, as he retells the history of this Israelite people and their sojourn so far. Moses commands, as from the LORD, that these laws he has given them should not be adulterated because the word of the LORD is singular and final. Moses, serving as the LORD’s chosen mouthpiece, has recorded this singular and final word in these five Books of the Law. However, this inspired prophet records his own death, in the third-person, within the narrative of this fifth book.

The narration includes an odd remark about Moses’s unknown burial place, that the burial place has remained unknown “to this day.” This remark makes much more sense to be read as an editorial insertion by whomever actually recorded Moses’s death in these iconic historiographical documents. It sounds a lot like another insertion in the previous chapter, describing the massive iron bed of King Og of Bashan: “In fact his bed, an iron bed, can still be seen in Rabbah of the Ammonites” (Deut. 3.11). If this were any other text, a plain reading would suggest that this insertion is something like an anecdotal footnote for a reading public contemporary to the writing, implying that both the writing and the reading took place long after the events described.

While Evangelicals would perform critical gymnastics to obfuscate minor insertions like this, many scholars of biblical studies instead have opened up passages like this to show much more, to make much more sense of a much vaster historical context animating and making use of this text. A serious reading of the Bible does not foreclose the readings that the Bible itself offers to us but instead allows the Bible both to speak for itself and to be read within the political history of the people among whom it emerged.

A common scholarly consensus reads Deuteronomy as emerging from a much later history than the events recorded. Though it aggregates older legal texts and concepts, it was arguably constructed as a part of the nationalizing political project of the Kingdom of Judah under King Josiah in the seventh century BCE and functions as the core introduction to the “Deuteronomistic history” texts from Joshua to 2 Kings, which were also likely compiled in that period. Josiah reigned during the period when the tribes of Israel were divided into two nations, the Kingdom of Israel in the north and the Kingdom of Judah in the south, with its capitol in Jerusalem. The Kingdom of Judah was the less prosperous of the two with fewer large cities and less arable land, and up to about the reign of Josiah, Judah had existed as a vassal state of the Assyrian empire. However, while Josiah was King of Judah the Assyrians were fighting a losing series of battles against the Babylonians and the Persians, which resulted in a brief amount of time during which Judah had the political space to determine itself more than it had previously. (This moment would soon come to an end, however, with the imminently encroaching Babylonian exile as Babylon secured further victories over the Assyrians and their allies.)

As Josiah led the people in this project of self-determination, the account of his reign in 2 Kings has him ordering the renovation of the temple in Jerusalem under his high priest Hilkiah. During this renovation, Hilkiah is said to have “found the book of the law in the house of the LORD” (2 Kings 22.8), and Josiah made this text the central authoritative guide in instituting renewed juridical norms within the Kingdom. Many scholars take this “book of the law” to be Deuteronomy.

When I was taught the story of King Josiah within Evangelicalism, the summative moral was that Josiah was a good king because he made the people return to a righteous way of life that was obedient to God’s commands after a series of wicked generations. He was presented as a model of good government—the king who truly loves God and makes God’s commands the law of the land. Josiah’s youth at the time of his coronation also provided a great illustration for kids that they too can be models of righteousness to transform their country toward godliness. (Bear in mind that I would have been taught this concurrent with the period depicted in the film Jesus Camp. Many of the didactic themes of the camp sermons were common in Bush-era Evangelical children’s education.)

However, reading this story now in the context of its scholarly discourse, I am able to see both this history and the text of Deuteronomy as serving a nationalist political agenda. These are the texts of a people trying to make sense of their history—of what led them to this precarious position, trapped between imperial vassalage, civil rupture, and approaching imperial conquest. But the text is also a tool in their effort to circle the wagons and consolidate cultural practices to redetermine themselves as an autonomous people. But Deuteronomy is also a complicated text, containing within itself layers of history and contradiction—contradictions that become sensical when read as an overdetermined accumulative historical document.

The text offers a few signs of its historical layers. A key shift occurs in Deuteronomy’s shift, for instance, of the authorized site of sacrifices to one that is centralized, though sacrifices had been previously common at many places: “Take care that you do not offer your burnt offerings at any place you happen to see. But only at the place that the LORD will choose in one of your tribes…” (Deut. 12.13-14). This “place that the LORD will choose” seems clearly to expect the temple at Jerusalem in the Kingdom of Judah. Such a sanction makes a lot of sense, given that the issue of authorized sacrificial sites served to fortify much of the divide between the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah in the 10th century BCE, when Jeroboam of Israel established alternative temples in Bethel and Dan to prevent Israelites from going to Jerusalem in Judah. King Josiah later tries to centralized authority in the southern kingdom by writing its exclusive legitimacy as a site of sacrifice back, obliquely, into the founding Book of the Law.

With this centralization of religious sacrifice, exceptions had to be made for the slaughter of animals that took place outside of religious sacrifice, such as for food, as Bernard Levinson notes in his annotations in the New Oxford Annotated Bible. This then explains the new allowances (contrasted to earlier Books of the Law) for slaughter away from an official altar: “Yet whenever you desire you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your towns, according to the blessing that the LORD your God has given you; the unclean and the clean may eat of it, as they would of gazelle or deer” (Deut. 12.15).

There are more signs of these layers that I won’t go into in depth, such as the coincidence of polytheism and monotheism within the space of the single book, suggesting the palimpsestic presence of Canaanite theology and the centralized national theology more consistent with the Kingdom of Judah (cf. Deut. 3.24, 4.7, and 32.8 against Deut. 4.35 and 6.4; one could note also the use, at times, of the names El and El-Elyon to describe the Israelite god but which were originally the names of the Canaanite god who sat at the head of their pantheon). Then there’s the allowance for converting livestock into money for the sake of traveling, necessary in a centralized kingdom but less so in a nomadic tribal system. And then there’s the curious anachronism that takes the ostensible present to be the distant past: “the LORD your God will bring you into the land that your ancestors possessed, and you will possess it…” (Deut. 30.5). This line, along with the surrounding verses, make much more sense if written during or after exile from the land, rather than long before.


With all of this in mind, I’d like to conclude with a meditation on a single passage that gets at some of the heart of this complicated textual scenario. Here, we can think about the relationship between terror and mediation that comes through in the account of the people beseeching Moses to talk to YHWH so that they don’t have to hear his voice. I’ll quote the passage at length:

These words the LORD spoke with a loud voice to your whole assembly at the mountain, out of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, and he added no more. He wrote them on two stone tablets, and gave them to me. When you heard the voice out of the darkness, while the mountain was burning with fire, you approached me, all the heads of your tribes and your elders; and you said, “Look, the LORD our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard this voice out of the fire. Today we have seen that God may speak to someone and the person may still live. So now why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any longer, we shall die. For who is there of all flesh that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and remained alive? Go near, you yourself, and hear all that the LORD our God will say. Then tell us everything that the LORD our God tells you, and we will listen and do it.” (Deut. 5.22-27)

The people fear that if they continue to hear the direct voice of YHWH, it will kill them, so they beg Moses to serve as their mediator, their salvation. I find this passage extremely provocative for a few reasons. In one sense, it serves to buff the authority of this text as holy scripture by suggesting that it has come from such a raw and terrifying source of divine power. The true author behind these words burns like a ravaging fire. Only the elect champion can draw near and return un-consumed. Moses’s divine right as prophet and warlord is tested and proven authentic.

In this sense, we can think of the terror that necessitates mediation and the terror that mediation produces. From the text’s narrative, the terror of the people at such undiminished voice becomes the opportunity for the mediation of ideas and laws—the message of the voice that they need to hear, condensed from the grave and dangerous reality of the voice’s presence.

On the other hand, we can read this as establishing a kind of monarchic political theology. Moses’s performance as mediator, within the text, transforms the text into a graven record of divine command. Since Moses is presented as the elect mediator, anything he is taken to mediate is blessed with the authority of holy writ. From this perspective, Josiah was a genius despot, knowing that what the people needed was not a new prophecy but an old one, with all the authority of law and all the power of a god. Moses, as mediator, stands in as the first monarch of a holy kingdom, in which the law that is executed is a law that was instituted by the god at the asymptotic heart of the community, a god that moved since time immemorial in the same direction as the self-determination of the contingent community. A negation becomes a presence via its mediation through this great undead author Moses, who becomes the signature of the authoritarian terror exerted by theocratic monarchy.

It’s not uncommon to read the Bible looking for its god. The ritual of personal “quiet time” with the Word that my friends and I practiced in college was done with the hope that something of that terrifying source would leak through this printed text before us. We would ask God to “speak through” this Bible to us, and, sometimes, we would walk away with a sense of direction, maybe a warmth of presence—not terrifying, but comforting—as though the feeling has resolved that fundamental question: Where are you? He is there, in the text—you only need to swim through the depths of mediation.

In the worldview of such practices, paradoxically, nothing is more terrifying than the idea that God could be mediated, that the “authors” of scripture are necromanced for many purposes, some national in scope and some personal, some intimately closer to the one who reads. To raise the question of mediation is to lift a red flag before the casual synods, councils, and church boards of the institutions who require the curtain never to be drawn, the holy of holies to remain forever occulted. The medium is the holy message, with all the weight and presence of the holiness it points to but which you cannot see. And the mediated body of text mobilizes another people who find new ways to choreograph the strings that connect the limbs of their authors, who have something new to say that was said long, long ago.

A Land Without a People // Numbers

On the Bible., On theory., Uncategorized

Even if it is called the social nexus, link to the other in general, this fiduciary “link” would precede all determinate community, all positive religion, every onto-anthropo-theological horizon. It would link pure singularities prior to any social or political determination, prior to all intersubjectivity, prior even to the opposition between the sacred (or the holy) and the profane. This can therefore resemble a desertification, the risk of which remains undeniable, but it can—on the contrary—also render possible precisely what it appears to threaten.

            Jacques Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone”

…[T]he very violence of the foundation or positing of law must envelop the violence of the preservation of law and cannot break with it. It belongs to the structure of fundamental violence in that it calls for the repetition of itself and founds what ought to be preserved, preservable, promised to heritage and to tradition, to partaking. A foundation is a promise.

            Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’”  

But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you then those whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides; they shall trouble you in the land where you are settling. And I will do to you as I thought to do to them.

            Numbers 33.55-6

Two thematic threads weave their way through the disjointed narrative in the Book of Numbers, stitching its various episodes and genres into a somewhat unified story. Before naming these two threads, though, let’s take stock of where the first three books have brought us. Genesis introduced the family from which the protagonist people would descend. It introduced as well YHWH, the god to whom this people would be fundamentally related, according to the promises he made with their bloodlines. Exodus told of YHWH’s deliverance of this people from captivity by means of plague and genocide. It then marked YHWH’s institution of this people as a people, a nation (more than merely relatives of a particular family) by means of the violence of law. Leviticus detailed the people’s law and the relation of purity and blood that was their law’s organizing principle. So we are left, at this point, with a people in possession of a legal identity and a few promises, wandering through the wilderness awaiting the consummation of those promises in the land they will enter.

The Book of Numbers then, on the one hand, is a story of the struggle for leadership of this people. This struggle concerns the distribution and delegation of authority—especially the establishing of legitimacy of authority—among the people in response to several rebellions. The second concerns the struggle for the land promised to the people by their god, a bloody struggle between the people who wish to settle in the land and the people already living there. Both of these struggles revolve around the problematic of the promise: what force a promise has and for whom it has force. Both the struggle for leadership and the struggle for the Promised Land determine the soul of this people—how, within the account, they came to define themselves and how the account lends itself to inspiring a certain continuing identity and claim within changing historical contexts. I would like to explore these themes and this problematic in connection with Derrida’s discussions in “Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone.” It seems to me that in examining the notion of this people alongside that of this promise, we stumble into a terrain where our every step concerns matters of purity and violence.

// Power, the People //

I have to keep reminding myself the difficulty of looking back at a text like this. Everything that happens in this story has oblique resonances of concepts and structures that concern us in the present, but the difficulty here is that this was a time before, a leafing back through the pages of history to pages that could not have predicted what would be written later. We are trapped in the bind between reading the soul of the past and the many ways that our reading is informed by concepts that did not concern these subjects in the same way they concern us or with the same definition. I repeat to myself this problem, again and again, like a paranoid schizophrenic, knowing the dangers but never quite knowing the source, only these voices that both are and are not the voices of my own age.

I see in this book a story of sovereignty, of political formation, of nation, and of governance. These words frame my orientation to the text, but I’m looking into the black box of a pre-political age, an age that existed before politics as we know it was imagined. Sovereignty means something else here. Power means something else. Who can know it?

I can only begin from what I have before me, every step into prehistory a penetration into a dark desert: “Nocturnal light, therefore, more and more obscure,” as Derrida describes revelation and our will to penetrate it. It’s a playful phrase that appears suddenly in my mind every now and then.

So, power, however we may come to understand it here. There is a portioning of power at work in Numbers, YHWH designating who holds what role. This is how we have to approach power’s function in this book: every designation or legitimation of power has always to do with how this people understands their relation to their god. Power comes from YHWH, or rather, power means a specifically defined relation to YHWH. He designates power early on in the book when he apportions to the Levites the role of administering the sacred instruments and the tabernacle:

[Y]ou shall appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of the covenant, and over all its equipment, and over all that belongs to it; they are to carry the tabernacle and all its equipment, and they shall tend it, and shall camp around the tabernacle. When the tabernacle is to set out, the Levites shall take it down; and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up. And any outsider who comes near shall be put to death. The other Israelites shall camp in their respective regimental camps, by companies; but the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the covenant, that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the Israelites; and the Levites shall perform the guard duty of the tabernacle of the covenant. (Num. 1.50-3, emphasis added)

This designation of power involves a regimentation of space within the camp (the tabernacle at the center, the Levites concentrically located nearest). The tabernacle was the meeting place between YHWH and the people, and the Levites both saw to that place and resided at the central heart of the community, in nearest relation to their god. This designation was so strict that violation of such spacing and administration was a matter of life and death. The Levites were insiders, the most inside, bearing a sharp distinction from the other tribes whose access to their god would always be mediated by this ruling class. Order emanated from this center; chaos involved an erosion of the established channels between the center and the periphery.

However, when we think of power and privilege and ruling classes, we think often of license. Those with the most power get to do the most of what they desire. This is complicated here, since the Levites receive their designation of power essentially by being received as communal sacrifices. They take their place at the center as a form of dying—they are taken by YHWH as the required sacrifice of the firstborn that was enforced in their deliverance from Egypt:

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: I hereby accept the Levites from among the Israelites as substitutes for all the firstborn that open the womb among the Israelites. The Levites shall be mine, for all the firstborn are mine; when I killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both human and animal; they shall be mine. I am the LORD. (Num. 3.12-13)

Birth remains a constituent element of power. The firstborn receives the inheritance of the father and thereby the father’s authority in the clan upon the father’s death. So again, power descends along bloodlines. But notice the complexity here: this is an entire tribe designated as “firstborns,” thereby acting as scapegoats for YHWH’s wrath involved in their deliverance. Rather than require the physical death of the firstborn children and animals from the Israelites, YHWH accepts the eternal service of the Levites as substitution, making them a sacred class, already sacrificed but abiding as living sacrifices. The firstborn tribe, then, retains the power of being at the center of the community and presiding over their most sacred and significant affairs. Importantly, though, they are the firstborns both of the entire people Israel, of all the tribes, and of their divine father. Their power is not a substance that produces for them a kind of license. It is a position, articulated spatially, as they reside at the midpoint between the human community and the divine authority, and they reside there by constituting, in a sense, a kind of half-life, neither fully divine nor fully human. (N.B.: This will be crucial for reading the Jewish messianic interpretation of Jesus’s position as both fully divine and fully human. But we’ve got a long way to go before we get to Christ.)

The circle divides deeper; the Levite tribe is made up of several families. Each family is apportioned a role in presiding over certain of the sacred instruments and structures. The ancestral houses in the census of the Levites include the Gershonites, the Merarites, and the Kohathites. The Gershonites were placed in charge of the fabrics of the tabernacle and were positioned behind the tabernacle on its western side. The Merarites were in charge of the structures and pillars of the tabernacle and were positioned on its northern side. The ancestral house given the most significance—the most power—were the Kohathites, the house that included the clan of Moses and Aaron. “The service of the Kohathites relating to the tent of meeting concerns the most holy things” (Num. 4.4). They were in charge of the furnishings within the tabernacle and the Holy of Holies, its inner sanctum where YHWH resided at the very heart of the community. While the general house of the Kohathites were to reside on the southern side of the tabernacle, the family of the high priest—Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons—were to reside on the eastern side, “having charge of the rites within the sanctuary, whatever had to be done for the Israelites; and any outside who came near was to be put to death” (Num. 3.38). They were to position themselves between the entrance of the tent of meeting, where all communal judgment and decision-making occurred, and the rest of the entire community.

As shown in the passage above, Aaron’s family, as the preeminent family in the community, was given the power to put to death those who violate the laws of access to the tabernacle and, therefore, to the divine. It was this family that put to death those who worshiped the golden calf in Exodus. (Except for, interestingly enough, Aaron himself, who actually constructed the idol. Perhaps there is something to be said here regarding the sovereign exception as defined by Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt, that sovereign is he who decides on the exception.)

The first time leadership emerges as a problem or question is coincident with the first narrated episode of rebellion. In this first episode, the people complain about the pain and privations of their wilderness journey. First, the complaints are vague, but the response from YHWH is fierce when he hears them: “Then the fire of the LORD burned against them, and consumed some outlying parts of the camp. But the people cried out to Moses; and Moses prayed to the LORD, and the fire abated. So that place was called Taberah [Burning], because the fire of the LORD burned against them” (Num. 11.1-3). As will be the pattern for subsequent episodes, this first one establishes the legitimacy and strength of Moses’s power as supreme mediator between the community and YHWH, and this is established by Moses’s ability to ask YHWH for mercy and thereby to bring about a salvation for the people from YHWH’s wrath.

When the Israelites continue to complain, Moses asks YHWH to lighten his burden of governing this rebellious and numerous people. YHWH responds by taking “some of the spirit that was on him” and placing it on seventy of the elders of Israel, as a sort of delegation of authority (Num. 11.25). When the elders receive this portion of the spirit that was on Moses, they “prophesy,” including two (Eldad and Medad) who were still in the camp rather than at the tent of meeting. (It’s unclear what is meant by “prophesying” here. I have heard an interpretation that it involved glossolalia, speaking in tongues, but this may have been an effect of the Pentecostal will to strengthen later doctrines by contriving their origin in a pre-Pentecostal text.) Some, including Moses’s second-in-command Joshua, complain about this act of prophesying as it appears to be an attempt at breaching Moses’s authority. Moses makes a gesture toward something democratic-sounding in his response: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!” (Num. 11.29). However, these seventy elders only prophesy this one time, while Moses apparently carries the gift with continuity, a mark of the preeminence of his divinely apportioned authority. It’s difficult to determine the intent behind Moses’s line then. Maybe it’s somewhat disingenuous and meant only to keep the peace. As there are such clear divisions in place regarding who can have access to the divine (and lethal punishments for those who violate it), it’s unclear how we can take seriously this stated wish that YHWH’s people would have such direct access to his spirit.

Following this episode, Moses’s right as leader is directly questioned for the first time. This challenge comes from Miriam and Aaron, his sister and brother. This challenge has again to do with relations of access to YHWH, but this time the question of leadership includes the element of racial/national purity, the purity of blood: “While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had indeed married a Cushite woman); and they said, ‘Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?’ And the LORD heard it” (Num. 12.1-2). Scholars point out that “the Cushite woman” could refer either to an Ethiopian or to someone from Midian, which means that they could be referring to Moses’s wife Zipporah. But their claim has not only to do with the purity of the community’s blood—that all in the camp would be properly children of Israel. Their challenge here also predicates the legitimacy of leadership on a relation of access to YHWH. One can be a leader of this people only if one can channel the voice of their god. Again, power, according to this community, describes a quality of relation to the divine, to the vital but occulted heart of the community.

As the text goes, this challenge is resolved in Moses’s favor when God appears in a pillar of cloud and offers his own verdict:

And he said, “Hear my words:
When there are prophets among you,
I the LORD make myself known to them in visions;
I speak to them in dreams.
Not so with my servant Moses;
he is entrusted with all my house.
With him I speak face to face—clearly, not in riddles;
and he beholds the form of the LORD.
Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” And the anger of the LORD was kindled against them, and he departed. (Num. 12.6-9)

The legitimacy of Moses’s authority is established based on his unique access to YHWH. While others, such as Miriam and Aaron, are spoken to obliquely in visions and dreams, Moses is spoken to face-to-face, “and he beholds the form of the LORD.” For this reason, he is entrusted with the entire community. He has the greatest amount of power because he has the greatest access to YHWH. Because of Miriam’s insubordination (again, why is Aaron not punished?), she is struck with leprosy and thereby cast outside of the camp for seven days. Because she questioned Moses’s authority, she is made temporarily as one who does not belong to the community, as one belonging to the wilderness of the outside. The question of his intercourse with a non-Israelite woman is ignored, however. This is curious, because as we will see, the matter of sleeping with non-Israelite women becomes a fatal offense to YHWH, because his covenant is with Israelite blood. Anything else pollutes the channels between YHWH and his chosen people.

// Purity //

Okay, so far we’ve established the means by which power is attained in this community and what meaning power obtains for this community. The means and the meaning both have to do with a relationship of access to the voice of YHWH. Those nearest to the tent, those who can prophesy, and, most of all, those who can prophesy based, not only on dreams and visions, but on an actual encounter with the face of YHWH maintain the greatest amount of power here, the power to rule and the power to be indemnified against punishment. Power is given by YHWH to those who can hear it. Power is a promise from the mouth of YHWH given to those whom he chooses.

When we think in terms of promises and why they matter in this text, for this community, the element of blood purity at play in these power relations begins to make sense. All power and all promises between YHWH and the Israelite people have an originating force dependent on YHWH’s original covenant with the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Covenant and promise are somewhat interchangeable words in these Hebrew texts, but they mean something stronger and different than our modern senses of promise. (Though perhaps, arguably, these still provide the root of our modern sense of to promise and hence should shift the significance we give to the term.) A covenant denotes a relationship between two parties—a sort of pact or contract, but more existentially significant. As I mentioned in my post on Genesis, biblical covenants always seem to include four elements: a promise (in the modern sense, an assurance of future acts), a blessing, a law, and a sign. Each of these elements is constitutively bound in the others, such that a promise is never a promise in itself; it is a promise as a unique relationship between two parties who have agreed to act in particular ways (bringing in the element of law).

The Hebrew phrase denoting the forming of a covenant between two parties means, more literally, to cut a covenant. A covenant, in its etymological essence and therefore in the imagination of the culture that developed the practice, involves violence and blood. Keep in mind that the sign of the covenant with Noah was an archer’s bow in the sky, immediately following the annihilation of all humankind other than Noah’s family. Then, the sign of the original covenant made with Abraham was circumcision, a cutting of the flesh—and particularly a cutting of the flesh of the appendage associated with progenation. This covenant was reaffirmed for Moses in an episode from Exodus, when Moses was returning to Egypt from Midian with his wife Zipporah in order to inform Pharaoh ultimately of YHWH’s promise to kill Pharaoh’s firstborn son if he did not free YHWH’s firstborn son, Israel:

On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the LORD met him and tried to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Truly, you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” So he let him alone. It was then she said, “A bridegroom of blood by circumcision.” (Ex. 4.24-6)

The only prevention against YHWH killing Moses is for Moses to wound his child, thus reaffirming, via the spilling of blood, Moses’ place in YHWH’s covenantal family. (And to drive the point home, “feet” here was actually a common euphemism for penis.)

So, the shedding of blood—a common wounding of communal flesh—is a crucial sign of God’s covenant with Israel. His promise is, fundamentally, a promise with the bloodline of the Israelite people, and for this reason, it becomes crucial that Israel maintain the purity of this line in order to maintain the covenantal relationship in good standing, as all power and promise stems from this relationship. This is why it becomes a capital offense for the men of Israel to sleep with the women of other tribes in the following episode, quoted at length. (N.B.: See the sharp contradiction below between the way other men are treated for sleeping with Midianites and the way Moses benefitted from the sovereign exception for the exact same offense):

While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. Thus Israel yoked itself to the Baal of Peor, and the LORD’s anger was kindled against Israel. The LORD said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people, and impale them in the sun before the LORD, in order that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel.” And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you shall kill any of your people who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.”

Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman into his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the Israelites, while they were weeping at the entrance of the tent of meeting. When Phinehas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he got up and left the congregation. Taking a spear in his hand, he went after the Israelite man in the tent, and pierced the two of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. So the plague was stopped among the people of Israel. Nevertheless those that died by the plague were twenty-four thousand. (Num. 25.1-9)

This nation—this protagonist of these civilization-shaping books—was founded upon the address of God to figures belonging to a family, and their manner of responding to the address reaffirms their status as a family, and moreover as the chosen family. In a sense, the unique status of this bloodline begins as an address, a communication between one party and another. The origin is plural, bound within various events of encounter. This recognition allows us then to invert the idea that promises here are determined by blood, because blood, too, is determined by a promise. The act of promising, as Derrida argues, is the origin not only of the possibility of religion but also of social connection at all, and religion cannot be thought without an attention to the ways social connections form and function. If we think of religion as an institution or even as a practice, we think of it as the repetition of acts bound to a common significance, and this repetition of activity binds people together by relating them to the original event(s) that allowed for their coming-together. Here is Derrida:

Axiom: no to-come without heritage and the possibility of repeating. No to-come without some sort of iterability, at least in the form of a covenant with oneself and confirmation of the originary yes. No to-come without some sort of messianic memory and promise, of a messianicity older than all religion, more originary than all messianism. No discourse or address of the other without the possibility of an elementary promise. Perjury and broken promises require the same possibility. No promise, therefore, without the promise of a confirmation of the yes. This yes will have implied and will always imply the trustworthiness and fidelity of a faith. No faith, therefore, nor future without everything technical, automatic, machine-like supposed by iterability. In this sense, the technical is the possibility of faith, indeed its very chance. A chance that entails the greatest risk, even the menace of radical evil.

The concept of the promise is a complex one, because it functions in all verb tenses. To promise, in the present, describes the activity of encounter that hinges on a future to-come. A promise, in the present, is the object of a past encounter that directs one toward something or someone not-yet-arrived—it lays claim on something that does not exist, but in bringing that inexistent thing to present attention, sealing it, appropriating it in this way, marking it as belonging to the one addressed with the promise, it makes it exist without existing. Here and still to come. A promise draws one back into the past, the moment of encounter, the act that forged a relation between two parties. The promise is a heritage, an identity, and a destiny. When a promise is fulfilled, it repeats the act of encounter but—because history is flux—it repeats the encounter by making it different, new, other.

Faith is more than trust as a feeling or mental state or rejection of opposing feelings or mental states (namely, doubt). We can follow Kierkegaard, in part, by agreeing that faith is subjective: it can only be described as something having to do with relation, how one relates to another, how much fidelity that relation has. The truth of faith is in relationship, not in correspondence between mental states and facts of the world. But we have to go beyond Kierkegaard, because faith must concern more than one. It is not about how one feels or believes or loves or trusts. Faith is an activity binding one to another. In a sense then—and to be pretty Derridean about this—faith undoes the one, cuts the one, opens the one by making the other have a constitutive relation to the one. Faith is wounding, exposure, infection. Faith makes one different from oneself. Faith is the activity of cutting this difference, of binding and loosing in the space between, binding and loosing as one simultaneous activity.

Derrida argues that the possibility of the promise creates the possibility of faith, of relation, of future. To go further, the possibility of promise creates the possibility of the one, the self (auto), because the one can only determine oneself by establishing oneself as distinct, as different. Different from what? Different from another. And then can only remain different by repeating a sameness, an automaticity. Difference via repetition. It follows from this that the self, the one, is the accident, the contingency—the more-than-one, the one-as-other, the relation that cuts across the closure of the one is fundamental. Only the many is given. The one as same to oneself is enforced by acts of violence that confirm an identity that was, that is, and that is to come.

Through this strange framework, we have another key to interpreting all the ways violence happens in these books of faith. These books are books about covenant, about promise, about faith in a promise. We have established that covenant is about wounding, the binding one to another. But the “menace of radical evil” that Derrida suggests is always possible where faith is possible is here in these books too. A promise is about a wounding, but a promise produces wounding too—this is how a promise repeats and binds, how a people is kept the same, how a bloodline remains pure. Radical evil happens when faith is turned in on itself—when the self is not made other to itself, but when the other is made one with the self. Here is how Leonard Lawlor describes Derrida’s notion of radical evil:

The worst violence occurs when the other to which one is related is completely appropriated to or completely in one’s self, when an address reaches its proper destination, when it reaches only its proper destination. Reaching only its proper destination, the address will exclude more, many more, and that “many more,” at the limit, amounts to all. It is this complete exclusion or this extermination of the most – there is no limit to this violence – that makes this violence the worst violence. The worst is a relation that makes of more than one simply one, that makes, out of a division, an indivisible sovereignty.

The worst violence, the most violent evil, happens when one refuses the wound that defines the binding of oneself and another. It happens when the binding is repeated without acknowledging the significance of the wound, when the binding is made complete, such that there is no wound. The determining power of the address involved in promising is turned in upon itself so that the address does not determine but is determinate—an address to be repeated violently, with a finite origin and destination, an irreducible addressor and an addressee irreducibly appropriated in the address. Here’s a metaphor that plays out concretely in these texts: the worst violence happens when blood is made into something pure, rather than something inconsolably infected by another’s blood. The worst violence occurs when a bloodline is made privileged and distinct as one bloodline, necessitating the exclusion and cleansing of other blood, of the blood of another.

So here’s the hard proposition that this comes down to: The function of YHWH in these texts is to facilitate the working of the worst violence.

These texts have refused the fundamental ontological status of the address and have instead made a singular addressor, YHWH, the foundation of all address. They have defined power and blessing as having a pure and direct relation to this addressor. The powerful human is the one in a position to be addressed by the one being who is to have existed before all address. These texts say that a command created the universe—Let there be light—and in saying so, they have blinded us to the reality that something exists more fundamental than sovereignty. By making YHWH the first and the sovereign, every act of address here becomes one of appropriating or annihilating. No one may speak back to the Speaker.

In establishing a foundation of chosenness by the sovereign, the people that wrote these texts wrote themselves into oblivion. Their only presence here is presence as completely appropriated to the sovereign One. They do not exist—they only live, move, and have their being in the One. The One necessitated that existence be submission of one’s being and will to him, such that separation would mean exclusion, dispossession, annihilation. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deut. 30.19-20).

This total, complete submission to a god taken to be sovereign and first means that this national community can only continue by repeating and repeating the worst violence, identifying themselves with their god by denying themselves and all others. This is what they count as blessing: that they are nothing, but their god is all, and therefore that all others are nothing. When the mercenary prophet Balaam is hired by Balak the Moabite to curse Israel, YHWH stops him by having Balaam’s donkey speak back to him, refusing the mission. YHWH commands Balaam to bless, rather than curse, Israel three times. These blessings confirm YHWH’s will that Israel is special, distinct, set apart, and that Israel will dominate all others. Their blessing means a curse for everyone else:

How can I curse whom God has not cursed?
How can I denounce those whom the LORD has not denounced?
For from the top of the crags I see him, from the hills I behold him.
Here is a people living alone,
and not reckoning itself among the nations!
Look, a people rising up like a lioness, and rousing itself like a lion!
It does not lie down until it has eaten the prey
and drunk the blood of the slain. (Num. 23.8-9, 24)

As it is written, for the unchosen blood, the only choice is to be cleansed or to be consumed. There is a fatal cost that comes with the violence of a promise.

The first fulfillment of this promise, this blessing, and the violence that necessarily attends it occurs in the book of Numbers in the protagonist nation’s genocide of the Midianites who lived in the land they would enter and threatened the purity of their bloodline. The episode is worth quoting at length, though it is a difficult one to read:

They did battle against Midian, as the Lord had commanded Moses, and killed every male. They killed the kings of Midian: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian, in addition to others who were slain by them; and they also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. The Israelites took the women of Midian and their little ones captive; and they took all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods as booty. All their towns where they had settled, and all their encampments, they burned, but they took all the spoil and all the booty, both people and animals. Then they brought the captives and the booty and the spoil to Moses, to Eleazar the priest, and to the congregation of the Israelites, at the camp on the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.

Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the leaders of the congregation went to meet them outside the camp. Moses became angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. Moses said to them, “Have you allowed all the women to live? These women here, on Balaam’s advice, made the Israelites act treacherously against the Lord in the affair of Peor, so that the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him, keep alive for yourselves. Camp outside the camp seven days; whoever of you has killed any person or touched a corpse, purify yourselves and your captives on the third and on the seventh day. You shall purify every garment, every article of skin, everything made of goats’ hair, and every article of wood.” (Num. 31.13-24)

A number of themes come together in a harrowing way in this passage. Here we see that the promise associated with a privileged bloodline—the promise of a land that belonged to them, though it was already inhabited—effectually negated the lives of those who already lived in the land. The violence done in the taking of the land is not registered as indicative of moral failure or a sign of evil in YHWH or Moses, because the promise, dependent on purity, is supreme and definitive of this holy nation’s approach to the world. It is as though the others do not exist, and so they are made to cease existing—except for the young women who are made to exist in the social death of sexual slavery. Following the slaughter, the nation purifies itself of the dead—the dead who were always already dead to them and whose status was simply confirmed by the encounter. And so, the nation enters the land promised them by their god, colonizing a land now without a people, as was the chosen people’s birthright.

// Coda //

All around silence was falling, and very soon it would close upon that last circle. And when silence had closed in on everything and no man disturbed the stillness, which yearned noiselessly for what was beyond silence–then God would come forth and descend to roam the valley, and see whether all was according to the cry that had reached him.

S. Yizhar, Khirbet Khizeh (1949)


Image source: sdobie, Flickr (edited)

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)