Discover more from Outspoken with Dr Naomi Wolf
Do We "Resemble" God?
And Did Thousands of Human Beings See God When He Gave Moses the Law?
Yesterday evening the Jewish holiday of Shavuot began. This is one of the many Jewish holidays to which I, as a secularized Jew, have, for most of my life, paid almost no attention.
The festival commemorates the gifting of the Ten Commandments (and, by inference, the Torah) to the Children of Israel. This is supposed to have happened at Mt Sinai, more than three thousand years ago.https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/111377/jewish/Shavuot.htm. This was at a time when the Children of Israel had fled their enslavement in Egypt, had miraculously crossed the Red Sea, and had wandered in the wilderness with Moses as their leader; they were often despairing, often doubting, certainly broken with trauma, usually trying Moses’ (and the Lord’s) patience, and longing at times for the “fleshpots of Egypt” where, at least, though they had been slaves, they had had food enough to eat. (Exodus 16:3: https://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/9877/jewish/Chapter-16.htm)
According to observant Jews, the festival is meant to celebrate, like a wedding, the gifting of the Law by YHWH to the Children of Israel; as this covenant is seen by observant Jews as being a kind of marriage.
A friend recently told me that this event had been unique in history: a mass revelation had taken place. That is, it was a moment when thousands of people had actually seen the glory of God, all at the same time.
My first reaction was skepticism. What do you mean? I countered. In my (conservative, not orthodox) Hebrew School memory of the story — it was Moses alone who had witnessed YHWH face to face, alone who had received the Tablets of the Law, and alone had given them to the people. The people had had no role in this at all. God was abstract, in that version, and as so often, depicted as capricious and irrational and punitive, and the people were far away from Him and faceless.
The model moment of God giving and humans receiving the rules of their relationship, was, in the cultural retelling, one in which only the intermediary, Moses, featured prominently.
So — what do you mean, I wondered, a “mass revelation”? The Children of Israel, I was quite sure, had not witnessed for themselves YHWH bestowing his presence upon the people.
But my certainty nagged at me, the way certainty will when you are not really certain.
What did the primary sources say? I turned to the original Hebrew.
My friend was exactly right. It had been a mass revelation. The original Hebrew was nothing like what I had learned in school, or from the culture in general around me.
In this original story — as in so many other examples I am finding, as I go through the 1560 Geneva Bible (the Founders’ Bible, the Pilgrims’ bible, that accurate early translation) and compare it with the Hebrew text — God as a character is far more present to ordinary people; so often wanting to hang out with, to encounter, to help, to comfort, to counsel, to connect with, ordinary people; than later religions and later translations ever allow us to comprehend or even to glimpse. He is represented in the original texts as far more deeply emotionally longing for connection with his human children; as far quirkier, more likable, more vulnerable, and more sympathetic a character than is the icy, judgmental cipher who is described as “God” in later iterations of many Jewish and Christian sects.
In the original Hebrew and in the Geneva Bible, the emotional tenor between God and his people is so much more like a long, arduous, passionate love story than it is like a religious practice or a set of ritual prescriptions.
When things go wrong, the narrative is so much more like a lovers’ quarrel — with hurt feelings on both sides, anguished estrangements, joyful reunions, and promises of growth and greater commitment in the relationship in the future — than it is like the metronome of abstract sin and punishment that organized religion, in many Jewish and Christian versions, presents to us.
The Hebrew Bible, in contrast, is more about love and less about rules. The rules are the guardrails for the love. And God is always seeking out ordinary people — while clothed in his own Person.
In Exodus 19, according to the literal translation of the Hebrew on Chabad.org:
“And the Lord said to Moses, "Behold, I am coming to you in the thickness of the cloud, in order that the people hear when I speak to you, and they will also believe in you forever."
In other words, God intended for the people to hear His actual voice and witness Him enveloped in a cloud.
“[…]And the Lord said to Moses, "Go to the people and prepare them today and tomorrow, and they shall wash their garments. And they shall be prepared for the third day, for on the third day, the Lord will descend before the eyes of all the people upon Mount Sinai.”
In other words, the Lord intended for “the eyes of all the people” to see Him.
‘“And you shall set boundaries for the people around, saying, Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge; whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.' No hand shall touch it, for he shall be stoned or cast down; whether man or beast, he shall not live. When the ram's horn sounds a long, drawn out blast, they may ascend the mountain."So Moses descended from the mountain to the people, and he prepared the people, and they washed their garments. He said to the people, "Be ready for three days; do not go near a woman."
It came to pass on the third day when it was morning, that there were thunder claps and lightning flashes, and a thick cloud was upon the mountain, and a very powerful blast of a shofar, and the entire nation that was in the camp shuddered.”
In other words, the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, and heard the blast of a shofar (ram’s horn).
“Moses brought the people out toward God from the camp, and they stood at the bottom of the mountain. And the entire Mount Sinai smoked because the Lord had descended upon it in fire, and its smoke ascended like the smoke of the kiln, and the entire mountain quaked violently. The sound of the shofar grew increasingly stronger; Moses would speak and God would answer him with a voice.”
As this is written, Moses has not yet ascended the mountain; so God is speaking and Moses is replying, with the people as audience.
“The Lord descended upon Mount Sinai, to the peak of the mountain, and the Lord summoned Moses to the peak of the mountain, and Moses ascended.”
The people had asked Moses to be their intermediary with direct communication with God, as they feared dying from the experience. But that was their request for an intermediary — not God’s. As the story is written, God had originally sought to be present directly with the entire community.
Moses had agreed to their request, and ascended the mountain. Then this happens: God speaks, and explains what he is requesting of humans on Earth:
14You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or whatever belongs to your neighbor."
And all the people saw the voices and the torches, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain, and the people saw and trembled; so they stood from afar. טווְכָל־הָעָם֩ רֹאִ֨ים אֶת־הַקּוֹלֹ֜ת וְאֶת־הַלַּפִּידִ֗ם וְאֵת֙ ק֣וֹל הַשֹּׁפָ֔ר וְאֶת־הָהָ֖ר עָשֵׁ֑ן וַיַּ֤רְא הָעָם֙ וַיָּנֻ֔עוּ וַיַּֽעַמְד֖וּ מֵֽרָחֹֽק:16
They said to Moses, "You speak with us, and we will hear, but let God not speak with us lest we die." טזוַיֹּֽאמְרוּ֙ אֶל־משֶׁ֔ה דַּבֶּר־אַתָּ֥ה עִמָּ֖נוּ וְנִשְׁמָ֑עָה וְאַל־יְדַבֵּ֥ר עִמָּ֛נוּ אֱלֹהִ֖ים פֶּן־נָמֽוּת:17
But Moses said to the people, "Fear not, for God has come in order to exalt you, and in order that His awe shall be upon your faces, so that you shall not sin." יזוַיֹּ֨אמֶר משֶׁ֣ה אֶל־הָעָם֘ אַל־תִּירָ֒אוּ֒ כִּ֗י לְבַֽעֲבוּר֙ נַסּ֣וֹת אֶתְכֶ֔ם בָּ֖א הָֽאֱלֹהִ֑ים וּבַֽעֲב֗וּר תִּֽהְיֶ֧ה יִרְאָת֛וֹ עַל־פְּנֵיכֶ֖ם לְבִלְתִּ֥י תֶֽחֱטָֽאוּ:18
The people remained far off, but Moses drew near to the opaque darkness, where God was.
יחוַיַּֽעֲמֹ֥ד הָעָ֖ם מֵֽרָחֹ֑ק וּמשֶׁה֙ נִגַּ֣שׁ אֶל־הָֽעֲרָפֶ֔ל אֲשֶׁר־שָׁ֖ם הָֽאֱלֹהִֽים”
Note that in line 5, YHWH describes Himself as ‘El kanah’, here in Chabad.org translated as a ‘I (…) am a zealous God’.
You will likely remember this famous phrase from your own Bible reading as having been translated ‘I (…) am a jealous God’.
Indeed in the King James Version, which was created by the British Crown to replace the influence of the Geneva Bible, the same passage reads:
‘Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God.’ (https://m.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Exodus-20-5/)
This change in translation is profound; who wants that kind of relationship?
But ‘kinah’ can mean ardor and zeal, strong emotion, as well as ‘jealousy’; these alternative meanings again are aligned with a God who is passionately seeking intimacy with us — who explains in this verse that he has ardor to keep us close to Him; this alternative translation is quite different from the presentation of a hostile, rage-filled, controlling, punitive deity that this passage in other conventional later and modern translations, describes.
In Exodus 24:15, per chabad.org, Moses goes again back up the mountain, as God has promised him tablets of stone on which the Law will be written:
“15And Moses went up to the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain.
And the glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days, and He called to Moses on the seventh day from within the cloud.
And the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire atop the mountain, before the eyes of the children of Israel. [Italics mine]
So once again, the children of Israel — the entire nation — witnessed, en masse, “the appearance of the glory of the Lord […]like a consuming fire.”
Nonetheless, after this astonishing encounter, the people managed still to fall short. Moses was with God on the mountain for forty days, and the people gave up on him; seeking comfort, they melted the gold jewelry of the women and created an idol of a golden calf, which they worshipped.
Moses, witnessing this, was enraged, and destroyed the tablets of stone on which the Law had been engraved; but he repented of his harshness and re-ascended, and YHWH granted him tablets of stone to bring to the people at last.
And that, if the story has truth in it, is how a moral code first came to the West.
Why do I retell this story today?
I cannot know what happened on Mount Sinai more than 3000 years ago. But I agree that an ancient account of a massive miracle that is alleged to have included thousands of eyewitnesses, is intriguing.
I feel about this the way I feel after reading the New Testament. I may not know exactly what happened; but no matter how rational and secular one may be, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something, outside of nature, had taken place.
The details of Moses’ rage, of the phrasing of God’s disappointment, both have that novelistic — meaning lifelike — ring to them:
Exodus 32:7: “7And the Lord said to Moses: "Go, descend, for your people that you have brought up from the land of Egypt have acted corruptly.
They have quickly turned away from the path that I have commanded them; they have made themselves a molten calf! And they have prostrated themselves before it, slaughtered sacrifices to it, and said: 'These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up from the land of Egypt.'
" חסָ֣רוּ מַהֵ֗ר מִן־הַדֶּ֨רֶךְ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר צִוִּיתִ֔ם עָשׂ֣וּ לָהֶ֔ם עֵ֖גֶל מַסֵּכָ֑ה וַיִּשְׁתַּֽחֲווּ־לוֹ֙ וַיִּזְבְּחוּ־ל֔וֹ וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ אֵ֤לֶּה אֱלֹהֶ֨יךָ֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֶֽעֱל֖וּךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם:9
And the Lord said to Moses: "I have seen this people and behold! they are a stiff necked people.
טוַיֹּ֥אמֶר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־משֶׁ֑ה רָאִ֨יתִי֙ אֶת־הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה וְהִנֵּ֥ה עַם־קְשֵׁה־עֹ֖רֶף הֽוּא:
Now leave Me alone, and My anger will be kindled against them so that I will annihilate them, and I will make you into a great nation."
Moses pleaded before the Lord, his God, and said: "Why, O Lord, should Your anger be kindled against Your people whom You have brought up from the land of Egypt with great power and with a strong hand?
Why should the Egyptians say: 'He brought them out with evil [intent] to kill them in the mountains and to annihilate them from upon the face of the earth'? Retreat from the heat of Your anger and reconsider the evil [intended] for Your people.”
יבלָ֩מָּה֩ יֹֽאמְר֨וּ מִצְרַ֜יִם לֵאמֹ֗ר בְּרָעָ֤ה הֽוֹצִיאָם֙ לַֽהֲרֹ֤ג אֹתָם֙ בֶּֽהָרִ֔ים וּלְכַ֨לֹּתָ֔ם מֵעַ֖ל פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֑ה שׁ֚וּב מֵֽחֲר֣וֹן אַפֶּ֔ךָ וְהִנָּחֵ֥ם עַל־הָֽרָעָ֖ה לְעַמֶּֽךָ:.”’
This exchange, as any English lit. student can tell you, reads like the climactic act in a scene of a play written by a playwright who has really been in a passionate love relationship and who has really been betrayed and broken-hearted.
That rebuff — ‘Now leave me alone” — is such a human, relatable rebuff to a friend, from someone in a state of grief and disappointment. The intimacy between God and Moses, and Moses’ sense of security in the relationship with God as he pesters YHWH not to wipe out those feckless people down below — are also manifested in the language.
“Why should the Egyptians say: 'He brought them out with evil [intent] to kill them in the mountains and to annihilate them from upon the face of the earth'?” Moses is badgering God the way you would badger your best friend. (“Why give those judgmental gossips the satisfaction of being able to say that they were right all along?”)
Exchanges such as these are why I keep writing — as I read with astonishment example after example of how different the original Hebrew (and the Geneva Bible) are from versions of the Judaism and of the Christianity built up later allegedly upon these same texts — that we are misinterpreting, or had misinterpreted to us, what it means for us to be made “in God’s image.”
Gen 1:26: “And God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”. Even in the usually excellent Chabad translation, the English cannot convey the full meaning of the text.
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ
Na’aseh — let us make (fashion). "Adam” — man, Adam. “Betsalmenu” — derives from the root “tselem”; Matslemah, for instance, in modern Hebrew, is a camera. So this is indeed well translated as “image.” “Kidmutenu” — “in our likeness.”
But “Dmut” is also from the root “domeh” which also has the meaning of “to resemble”. When a baby is born, friends say that the baby “domeh” (masculine) or “domah” (feminine) to the parents. So this says more, in my reading, than that humans look like God. It says that they resemble God. They are like God. There is a family resemblance and it is more than physical.
I do not mean this in the Yuval Harari sense of “Homo Deus,” the blasphemous notion that in the future humans will in essence replace God. I mean rather the opposite — that we have been promised at the very beginning of the story that starts at least our culture’s path to civilization and morality — a family closeness to God; the right to partake in aspects of God, of which we are not now perhaps fully aware.
I mean that things we think of as being human — the need for love and connection, the ability to be intimate, the need to express and to create, the love of beauty and order, the drive to form families and friendships, to sustain an harmonic, morally coherent civilization — perhaps are qualities that do not separate us as humans from what has been presented as a cold, un-needing, abstract God; perhaps, rather, these are qualities that we get from God, the way a child gets blue or brown eyes, or a downturned smile, or certain way of waiting a beat at the end of a joke — from his or her parents.
Perhaps we get these needs, drives and qualities not as human flaws or as failings or irrelevant urges, but rather as parts of a proud inheritance, from a God who is literally a parent who is like us, who made us — perhaps emotionally, creatively, expressively, relatedly, as well as physically — to resemble (domeh) Him.
If we understand this, I do think we see ourselves with more compassion.
I think we see God Himself with more trust and intimacy and confidence, and with less fear, perhaps, and with less incomprehension.
I think if we see how we resemble God — as members of His intimate, immediate family — we can’t despair — and ultimately, it would seem, we cannot fail.