(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
Of course God is angry about the golden calf. “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below.” (Exodus/Shemot 20:4) It’s right there in the Ten Commandments. Why can’t these Israelites follow simple directions?
Moses is about to walk back down Mt. Sinai with the two stone tablets in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, when God warns him that the Israelites below have cast a golden calf and are worshiping it. (See my blog post Ki Tissa: Heard and Not Seen.)
And God said to Moses: “I have observed this people, and hey, it is a stiff-necked people! So now let Me be, and My anger will blaze over them and I will consume them, and I will make you into a great nation.” (Exodus 32:9-10)
Moses talks God out of this idea. Then he walks down the mountain, smashes the two stone tablets, and gets the Levites to kill the 3,000 worst offenders.
The next day he climbs back up Mt. Sinai to ask God to forgive the surviving Israelites.
“And now, if you will only lift their guilt! But if not, please mecheini from your book that you have written.” But God said to Moses: “Whoever sinned against Me, emechenu from My book. Now go lead the people to [the place] that I have spoken of to you.” (Exodus 32:32-33)
mecheini (מְחֵנִי) = wipe me away, erase me. (A form of the verb machah, מָחָה = wiped out, wiped off, destroyed, blotted out.1)
emechenu (אֶמְחֶנּוּ) = I will wipe them off, I will erase them. (Another form of the verb machah.)
In other words, Moses insists that his personal fate must not be separated from that of the Israelites. If God erases them from the book, God must erase him, too. God replies that guilty individuals will erased, but the people of Israel as a whole will continue their journey under Moses’s leadership.
When the story is retold in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, God says to Moses:
“Hey! This is a stiff-necked people. Leave me alone, and I will exterminate them, and emecheh their name from under the heavens, and I will make you a nation greater than they.” (Deuteronomy 9:13-14)
emecheh (אֶמְחֶה) = I will wipe it out, I will erase it. (Another form of the verb machah.)
The Hebrew word for “name”, sheim (שֵׁם), means not only an appellation, but also someone’s reputation, standing, or renown (as in the English “making a name for herself”).
God’s book appears to be a list of names recorded at birth. Female names are not mentioned (the Bible reflects the male-centered, patriarchal society of its time), so we do not know if the list is comprehensive.
What happens when someone’s name is machah from the divine list?
One clue appears later in Deuteronomy. Lineage is important in the Bible; for a man to die without any male heirs is a terrible fate. So if a married man died without issue, his brother was obligated to impregnate the widow. If she bore a son, he would become the dead man’s heir.
And the firstborn that she bears shall be established on the name of his dead brother, and his name will not yimacheh from Israel. (Deuteronomy 25:6)
yimacheh (יִמָּחֶה) = be wiped out, be erased. (Another form of the verb machah.)
Two of the psalms include pleas for God to punish enemies by erasing their names from the divine book. Psalm 109 opens with a complaint that certain people are lying about the psalmist, accusing him without cause. Verses 6-19 ask God to punish a personal enemy. These verses include separate requests for the man to be convicted of a crime, lose his job, and become impoverished while alive; for him to die before his time; for his children and his parents to suffer; and for his lineage to be exterminated.
May no one extend kindness to him;
And may no one be gracious to his orphans.
May his posterity be cut off;
In the next generation, may their names yimach. (Psalm 109:12-13)
yimach (יִמַּח) = be blotted out, erased. (Another form of the verb machah.)
In Psalm 69, the speaker feels as though he is drowning, and asks God to rescue him from being shamed and abused. Then he asks God to punish all his enemies. This middle section concludes with:
Place guilt upon their guilt,
and do not let them come into Your righteous deliverance.
Yismachu from the book of life,
And among the righteous do not record them. (Psalm 69:28-29)
yimachu (יִמַּחְוּ) = May they be blotted out, erased. (Another form of the verb machah.)
This passage alludes to two divine lists: a “book of life” or “book of the living” (seifer chayim, סֵפֶר חַיִּים), and a record of the righteous, which may or may not be the same scroll. When the psalmist asks for the names of his tormentors to be erased from the book of life, he may be asking God to deprive them of heirs, or he may be asking God to make them die soon.
The Hebrew Bible refers to God’s list of names as a “book of life” only in Psalm 69, which was written around 500 B.C.E. Almost a thousand years later, the Babylonian Talmud (tractate Rosh Hashanah 16b) cited Psalm 69:29 as support for the idea that God keeps three books of names. According to this tractate, on the first day of each new year, Rosh Hashanah, God writes down the names of the righteous in one book and the names of the wicked in another. People whose deeds are partly good and partly bad are listed in the third book until Yom Kippur, nine days later, when God decides which of these intermediate people to record in the book of the righteous and which in the book of the wicked.
What happens to the people listed in these books? The Talmud says that according to school of Shammai, those in the book of the righteous are rewarded with everlasting life, while those in the book of the wicked go to Gehinnom after death.2
But by the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, codified in the 9th century C.E., says simply that God writes down who will live and who will die that year; any possibility of life after death is omitted.3 Neither does the liturgy mention wiping out any names that were written earlier.
The image of God erasing names from a book expresses a biblical hope that people will be punished for bad deeds, either by untimely death or by the end of their lineage—equally bad fates from an ancient Israelite point of view.
Few people today believe God punishes miscreants in this way. Some folks still cling to the idea of reward or punishment after death. I prefer the idea that virtue is its own reward, and I believe that people who enjoy being mean never get to experience the best things in life, such as true friendship and love.
Today the image of God keeping a book, or books, of names is still used in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services as a metaphor for the idea that God only knows when a person will die. The liturgy pleading to be written into this year’s “book of life” provides emotional reinforcement for the knowledge that the time of our death is unknown—and therefore it behooves us to use our present lives well.
May all human beings, whatever their past deeds and attitudes have been, wake up with new insight into the shortness of life and the value of goodness. And may we all realize, like Moses in this week’s Torah portion, that there is no point in having our own names written in the book of life unless our fellow human beings are also listed there.
1 The Bible uses various forms of the verb machah not only for wiping away or erasing names, but also for wiping away tears, wiping a dish clean, or wiping out (killing) an entire population. God tells the Israelites to wipe out the memory of an enemy tribe called Amaleik; several Israelite leaders beg God not to wipe out, i.e. forget, someone’s good or bad deeds. When a husband accused his wife of adultery, a priest wrote a curse on a scroll, then machah it in water and made the woman drink it; the results determined her guilt or innocence (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:23-24).
2 Talmud Bavli, Rosh Hashanah 16b. There is also a Christian tradition about a “book of life” that is a divine record of who will “go to heaven” after death.
3 Prayers for God to “inscribe us in the book of life” were added to the Amidah sections of Rosh Hashanah liturgy by the Babylonian Geonim in the 9th century C.E. The “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer, an earlier addition to the liturgy, states that every year God decrees who will die, and by what means, during the coming year.
Ramban (13th century Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, known as Nachmanides) explained that the book of the righteous is the book of life, and the book of the wicked is the book of death. Everyone whose name is written in the book of life merits life until the following Rosh Hashanah, and everyone whose name is written in the book of death will die that year.