The Israelites are overcome with anxiety the first time Moses spends 40 days on Mount Sinai. In last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa:
The people saw that Moses was long delayed in coming down from the mountain, and they assembled against Aaron, and they said to him: “Get up, make for us a god who will go in front of us, since this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him!” (Exodus/Shemot 32:1)
Aaron asks them to donate their gold earrings to melt down. They do, but Aaron does the work of making the golden calf. Even though he says the new idol represents the God of Israel, not another god, it turns out to be a bad solution to the people’s anxiety. Between them, Moses and God destroy thousands of Israelites and chasten the survivors. After a while God forgives them. (See last week’s post, Ki Tissa: Stiff-Necked People.)
Then Moses tells the Israelites what God does want them to make: a portable tent-sanctuary, where God will speak from the empty space above the ark inside the inner chamber. In in this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil (“And he assembled”), they gladly pitch in.
Every man and woman whose heart prompted them to bring anything for the work that God had commanded to do through Moses, the Israelites brought as a nedavah for God. (Exodus 35:29)
nedavah (נְדָבָה) = spontaneous voluntary offering.
Then Moses called on Betzaleil and on Ohaliav and on everyone with a skilled mind, to whom God had given a skilled mind; everyone whose heart lifted at approaching the work to do it. (Exodus 36:2)
Moses appoints the most skilled craftsman, Betzaleil, to make the most holy objects. But everyone with skill in weaving, sewing, metal-smithing, and woodworking gets to make some part of the new Tent of Meeting and its courtyard enclosure. And the people with materials keep on donating them, until Moses has to tell them to stop because the artisans have more than enough.1
For the rest of the book of Exodus (five chapters), nobody complains and nobody worries. The people are content, fulfilled by using their gifts to make something important, secure in their knowledge that God will be with them.
Yet in the book of Numbers, three days after they set out from Mount Sinai, the Israelites start complaining again—this time about the food.2 Even though both the ark and a divine cloud are leading them, even though the Levites are carrying all the pieces of the portable sanctuary, the people are discontented. Perhaps the problem is that they no longer have anything to do but march to the border of Canaan.
The Israelite ex-slaves in the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy are like children, who enjoy doing things on their own but depend on an adult to straighten out anything that goes wrong. When they are hungry or afraid, they complain and wait for God to relieve their suffering.
The book of Psalms includes pleas by suffering individuals as well as pleas for all the Israelites. Psalm 44 is the first of a series of psalms complaining that God is neglecting and hiding from the Israelites as a whole, letting them be defeated in battle and subjugated by enemies. Individuals feel abandoned and ask how long God will make them wait for rescue from diseases or personal enemies in Psalms 6, 10, 13, 22, and 35. Only Psalm 13 hints at a solution to God’s abandonment.
How long, God, will you endlessly forget me?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I make schemes inside myself,
My heart in torment all day?
How long will my enemy loom over me?
Look! Answer me, God, my God!
Light up my eyes, lest I sleep death!
Lest my enemy say he has prevailed over me,
My adversaries rejoice when I am made to stumble. (Psalm 13:2-5)
The speaker has two problems:
1) God is hiding God’s face; i.e. the speaker is no longer aware of God’s presence, and so feels abandoned.
2) The enemy seems to be winning, despite the schemes the speaker devises. In this life-and-death struggle, only God’s intervention can turn the tables. But the speaker has already been waiting an unbearably long time for God to manifest and act. Where is the responsible adult in charge?3
Unlike the Israelites who wait 40 days for Moses to return, only to give up and demand an idol, the speaker in Psalm 13 finds a better response.
Yet I will trust in your loyal-kindness.
My heart will rejoice in your rescue.
I will sing to God,
Because [God] gamal me. (Psalm 13:6)
gamal (גָמַל) = ripened, weaned, rewarded, made mature.
Even if God seems to have abandoned the speaker, the speaker decides not to abandon God. A more mature approach is to sing to God while waiting for God to act.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil, God makes a request, and the Israelites create beautiful items for God’s sanctuary. As long as they are doing that work, they are content to wait for God to rejoin them.
In Psalm 13, God neither makes a request nor acts to rescue the speaker. After waiting a long time, the speaker takes initiative and creates a song for God. They are still waiting for God to rescue them, but at least they are mature enough to sing, which leads to a hopeful frame of mind.
I think there is a third possibility, not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. If you are miserable and God does not tell you what to do, then act on your own initiative. Even when you cannot figure out a scheme for improving your situation, you can make something beautiful for God. Sing, write, paint. Smile and speak humbly to a fellow human being. Whenever you do something beautiful, God is inside you.
- Exodus 36:4-7.
- Numbers 10:33, 11:1-6.
- Breuggemann’s interpretation goes farther: “The speaker does not for a moment entertain the thought that the trouble comes from guilt or failure. It is because of Yahweh’s irresponsible absence, which is regarded as not only unfortunate, but unfaithful to covenant.” (Walter Breuggemann, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Publishing House, 1984, p. 59)
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