A picture recently posted on Facebook was a proverbial thousand word illustration that only included three words – twice the word true was used and once the word truth. It was a picture of a cylinder suspended between two bright lights both of which produced shadows on screens opposite the lights. One screen clearly displays a round image while the other displays a rectangular image. Both are true. The truth is the item creating the shadow.
Though the Documentary Hypothesis has run out of favor with contemporary Old Testament scholars, it is helpful as an illustration. In studying the first five books of the Bible the theory suggests that instead of Moses being the author of those books, four strands of material are seen as being weaved together to build the early history of Israel. One voice is identified as the Yahwehist or J. This author was thought to have lived about 900–850 BC in the Southern Kingdom of Judah during the divided Kingdom. It is a collection of myths and legends of the Ancient Near East such as the Creation, Flood and Babel stories. It is the basis for most of Genesis. It is characterized by it’s attention to humankind and earth and with God as YHWH who directly interacts with humanity.
Then there is Elohist or E. He was thought to have done his work about 750–700 BC in Israel’s Northern Kingdom. He wrote some of Genesis and most of Exodus and Numbers. This source is characterized by God as Elohim, and is most interested in the affairs of Northern Israel and speaks of Horeb instead of Sinai. This is a more transcendent, more remote, understanding of God.
Source D is the Deuteronomist. He wrote most of Deuteronomy around 650-625 BC. It is speculated that his was the book found by King Josiah in the Temple in Jerusalem in 621 BC (2 Kings 22:8). This source is characterized by God as Elohim (until Exodus 3), but unlike E is more concerned about the affairs of Judah and holds to a cultic approach to God and through genealogies and lists sets up a rather exclusive view of who is ‘in’ and who isn’t.
It is thought that the material identified as P was written by a priest who lived during the Babylonian Exile. This source provides chronology, genealogy, the book of Leviticus, and the code for the priesthood and worship. This source is characterized by an emphasis on the Temple and obedience to the law.
In Exodus 6, we see elements of three of the voices: ” And Elohim said to Moses, “I (am*) Yhwh.” “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as El Shadday, but by my name Yhwh I did not make myself known to them.” This text is presumed to be from a Priestly source. As the Priestly voice does, we need not to argue over which is true. Both are true, neither are all the truth. Coming from different times and places and under different circumstances each speak as best they can, with all the integrity they can muster. Why would we want to take a razor and expunge the parts that seem to contradict our own belief or experience? All the intertwined pieces are valuable. None can be tossed out on a whim. Holding all their perspectives together gives us a much clearer picture of Israel’s history and by extension what God expects from creation and us.
The reality is that all of us, at times, can fall victim to not wanting to accept as valid what others through their own processes of discernment have concluded. And we all can make errors in judgment and need to redo our homework. It takes a great deal of courage to see that we’ve missed the mark, even when we have felt justified in our action.
In Exodus 31: we learn of Moses being given two stone tablets engraved by the finger of God. In the middle of the next chapter we read: Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, written on the front and on the back. The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets. The narrative shifts to how when Moses was detained on the mountain the people got anxious and melted down their ill gotten gold and made an idol and began dancing. But it angered Moses. Here’s how the text reads: As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.
The narrative is broken again telling how the Israelites, if obedient, could to be successful in the promised land. Chapter 33 concludes with Moses making intercession for the people. So Chapter 34 begins this way: The Lord said to Moses, “Cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke. (O.K. Here’s the question: Who was the first to break the ten commandments? Moses.) Sorry, the text continues: Be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai and present yourself there to me, on the top of the mountain. No one shall come up with you, and do not let anyone be seen throughout all the mountain; and do not let flocks or herds graze in front of that mountain.” So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the former ones; and he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tablets of stone.
Later in the Chapter we read: He was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.
The good news in all this is that God gave Moses and the children of Israel a second chance. A do over. They could repent of their actions done spontaneously and in fear. That was true for both the idol builders and the tablet tosser. God exudes grace. Over and over again. Grace sometimes has a difficult time overcoming human pride and human celebration.
Moses got a do over. But he had to go stand before God a second time. But it suggests that maybe actions taken by people in leadership positions that are motivated by anxiety and expediency need not to be the final word. I wonder what it was that motivated Moses to acknowledge that what had occurred needed correction. Were there those who understood the gravity of the broken stone tablets thrown down in anger, those who recognized the intemperate behavior of the people and urged Moses, on their behalf , to ask for a second chance to do the right thing?
It takes a bit of back tracking but if we go into the narrative where God tells Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it… The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
Moses demonstrates real integrity here. He is promised to be made a great nation instead of the tribes on the plain below. But Moses implored the Lord … Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
The Lord changed his mind. What an interesting notion. Why is it so hard for us? Again we learn that one characteristic of God is grace. Abundant grace that makes do overs possible.