The Ten Commandments are delivered in thunder at Mount Sinai partway through the book of Exodus. As I wait to move my mother into assisted living (an example of obeying the fifth commandment), I have been writing about how these famous directives play out in the rest of the book.
This week’s reading is the last Torah portion in Exodus, Pekudei, which confirms that the Israelites are finally on the right track about the first two commandments.
The first two of the Ten Commandments in the Torah portion Yitro both warn the Israelites not to treat their God like other gods. By the end of the book of Exodus, they have succeeded—at least temporarily.
I am Y-H-V-H, your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You must have no other gods al panai. (Exodus 20:2-3)
al panai (עַל פָּּנָי) = over my face, above me, in front of me, in addition to me. (Panai is the first person singular possessive of panim, פָּּנִים = face, surface, self, presence.)
First God identifies “himself” in two ways:
- as the god of the four-letter name that riffs on the verb for being and becoming,1 and
- as the god who brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt with ten miraculous disasters.
Then God utters one of the following commands, depending on translation:
- You must have no other gods above me.
- You must have no other gods in addition to me.
It is not clear whether God wants to be considered the supreme god, or the only god.2 But the existence or non-existence of other gods is not the issue; the important point is that the God called Y-H-V-H is incomparable to any other god.3
One way that the God of the Israelites is not like any other god is Y-H-V-H’s objection to being worshiped through an idol.
You must not make yourself a carved idol or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below or what is in the waters below the earth. You must not bow down to them, and you must not serve them. Because I, Y-H-V-H, your God, am a jealous god … (Exodus 20:4-5)
Is God jealous of other gods? I think a better reading is that God is jealous of the privilege of manifesting only in sounds, earthquakes, and amorphous sights such as cloud and fire. Only other gods are willing to inhabit man-made idols.
A divine pillar of cloud by day and fire by night leads the Israelites from Egypt to Mount Sinai. Then in the Torah portion Ki Tisa the people panic about forty days after Moses has disappeared into the cloud or fire on top of the mountain. They tell Moses’ brother, Aaron:
“Get up! Make us a god that will go before us! Because this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him!” (Exodus 32:1)
So Aaron makes them an idol out of gold.4 The Israelites call the golden calf the god who brought them out of Egypt, and Aaron identifies it by God’s four-letter personal name, Y-H-V-H. They are not disobeying the first commandment and worshiping another god. Yet their God is furious.5
If the God of the Israelites were like other gods, Aaron’s only mistake would be making a golden calf instead of a golden bull. After all, a bull is more powerful than its juvenile offspring.
Bulls represented Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Canaanite gods. And 1 Kings 12:28-29 reports that golden “calves” were placed in the sanctuaries of Beit-El and Dan in the northern Kingdom of Israel. (They were probably bulls, which the southern kingdom of Judah belittled by calling them calves.)6
Most idols in the Ancient Near East were shaped like humans, animals, or fanciful hybrids. Archaeologists have found many small enough to hold in one hand. Neither Egyptians nor Mesopotamians nor Canaanites appear to have believed that the statues or figurines were gods. What they did believe was that gods could be enticed into temporarily inhabiting their idols. A god inhabiting a statue was easier to address with promises and bribes so it would act for your benefit.
The God of the Israelites, however, refuses to inhabit an idol. God cannot be represented by the shape of any physical object in the world because God has an entirely different, transcendent, kind of being.
In the first four portions of Exodus, God manifests as a voice coming from a burning bush, and as a moving pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.7 During the revelation at Mount Sinai, God manifests as thunder and shofar blasts, earthquake tremors, and lightning, fire, cloud, and smoke.8 The visible—but intangible and unbounded—manifestation of God as cloud and fire reappears in the portion Pekudei at the end of Exodus.
This gives the book of Exodus a happy ending. In the portion Ki Tisa, thousands of are punished with death for worshiping the golden calf. Then Moses tells the Israelites that God wants them to make a portable tent-sanctuary so God can dwell among them.9 The people eagerly donate materials and labor.
In this week’s portion, Pekudei, Moses assembles the tent and places the ark inside. Rising from the lid of the ark are two gold winged creatures called keruvim,10 but they are not considered idols, since God will speak from the empty space between the wings of the keruvim.
And Moses completed the work. Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the kavod of God filled the dwelling-place. And Moses was not able to come into the Tent of Meeting because the cloud dwelled in it, and the kavod of God filled the dwelling-place. (Exodus 40:33-35)
kavod (כָּבוֹד, כָּבֺד) = weight, impressiveness, magnificence, glory, honor.
The cloud covering the tent looks like the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night that led the Israelites from Egypt to Mount Sinai.10 The kavod of God inside is not described.11 Nevertheless, the people can see that God is with them again.
The book of Exodus concludes with a summary the movements of the divine manifestation for the next 38 years:
And when the cloud lifted from the dwelling-place, the Israelites pulled out on all their journeys. And if the cloud did not lift, then they did not pull out until the day it did lift. Because the cloud of God was above the dwelling-place by day, and it became fire by night, in the eyes of the whole house of Israel on all their journeys. (Exodus 40:36-38)
In other words, God’s pillar of cloud and fire returns to lead the Israelites from Mount Sinai to the land of Canaan. The people get what they need, a God who provides a visible sign to follow—without violating the second commandment.
May we all find ways to invite the divine spirit to be with us, without trying to contain and idolize that spirit through magical thinking.
- Also called the “tetragrammaton”. See my post Beshallach & Shemot: Knowing the Name.
- Jerome Segal, in his analysis of God’s psychology as presented in the Torah, wrote: “… it may be that God is happy to have the Israelites believe in multiple gods, as that makes it all the more significant that they worship only Yahweh.” (Jerome M. Segal, Joseph’s Bones, Riverhead Books/Penguin Group, New York, 2007, p. 223)
- 16th-century commentator Ovadiah Sforno imagined God explaining: “I cannot tolerate that someone who worships me worships also someone beside me. The reason is that there is absolutely no comparison between Me and any other phenomenon in the universe. I am therefore entitled to stand on My dignity by refusing to be compared.” (translation by http://www.sefaria.org)
- See my post Ki Tisa: Golden Calf, Stone Commandments.
- Exodus 32:4-5, 32:7-10.
- See Rami Arav, “The Golden Calf: Bull-El Worship”, https://www.thetorah.com/article/the-golden-calf-bull-el-worship.
- Exodus 32:4-5.
- Exodus 3:1-17, Exodus 13:20-22.
- Exodus 19:16-20. A shofar is a trumpet-like instrument made from the horn of a ram or goat.
- Exodus 35:4-38:20 (most of the Torah portion Vayakheil).
- See my post Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.
- See my post Pekudei: Cloud of Glory.