After Moses came down from Mt. Sinai, he saw the Israelites worshiping a golden calf. Next came one of the most horrific events in the Bible. Moses exclaimed,
Who’s on the Lord’s side? Come to me … Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.”
Exodus 32 states that the tribe of Levi was “on the Lord’s side.” The Levites volunteered to kill their brothers, friends, and neighbors, so many of them that “three thousand of the people fell that day.” And because the Levites were faithful to the Lord’s command, Moses claimed that they “ordained” themselves “for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of a son or a brother, and so have brought a blessing on yourselves.”
Killing another brings a blessing?! Passages like this make me want to become an atheist.
But what if Moses got it wrong? What if Moses’ statement, “Thus says the Lord,” was just his way of appealing to divine authority in order to commit murder? What if Moses was projecting his own violent impulses onto God? What if God never actually said what comes after, “Thus says the Lord”?
Some might accuse me of playing fast and loose with the text, or imputing a modern desire for a nonviolent God into the story, but here’s the thing: the ancient rabbis questioned this text and others that attribute violence to God.
For example, Rabbi Ishmael was an influential 1st to 2nd century teacher who claimed that Moses occasionally appealed to the authority of God in order to make his own violent pronouncements. Ishmael was so influential that an Ishmaelian school of thought emerged. His students continued to explore passages where Moses spoke for God, but not necessarily with God.
One rabbi inspired by the Ishmaelian school was troubled by Moses statement “Thus says the Lord” in the context of killing those who worshipped the golden calf. He wrote a midrashic text titled, The Teachings of Eliyahu. He was confident that God in fact did not command Moses to kill those 3,000 people, saying, “I call heaven and earth to witness for me that the Holy and Blessed One did not tell Moses so.” Rather, Moses reasoned for himself what he thought God wanted. Moses also knew that the people would protest the murders if they thought the command came from him alone. “Therefore,” wrote this rabbi, Moses “appealed to the prestige of heaven.” Moses appealed to God because, well, who can argue with the prestige of heaven?
Rabbi Gordon Tucker writes from a modern day perspective about The Teachings of Eliyahu. He explains that according to the Teachings, “Moses had people killed extrajudicially after the golden calf without divine instruction and nevertheless took it upon himself to announce that it was a divine command.” Following Rabbi Tucker, the problem with the story is that God never actually tells Moses to go throughout the camp and “kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.” Those were Moses’s words, not God’s.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel explains another problem in the story. He asks in his book Heavenly Torah, “It is written, ‘The Levites did as Moses had bidden’ (Exodus 32:28). Why did it not say: ‘The Levites did as God had bidden,’ since Moses had said to them “Thus says the Lord’? … it appears that the killing of those who worshipped the calf was ordered by Moses on his own authority.”
Ancient and modern rabbis have challenged this text of terror, this passage of sacred violence. When the Bible says, “Thus says the Lord,” it is not always God who is speaking. But how can we tell when God is actually speaking through the text? The answer is clear: whenever the Bible claims that God demands violence, we can be sure those aren’t God’s words. They are human words of violence projected onto God.
This matters for Christians because Jesus is our rabbi. He distinguished between the words of God and the words of Moses in a similar way to Rabbi Ishmael and the Teachings of Eliyahu. In fact, the New Testament reveals that Moses’ statement, “Thus says the Lord…” was suspect among many 1st century Jews.
For example, scribes and Pharisees came to Jesus with a woman “caught in adultery.” They said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of adultery. Now, in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say.”
So, why did the scribes and Pharisees say that “Moses commanded us to stone such women,” when they could easily have said, “God spoke to us through Moses to stone such women”?
It’s because Jews have always debated Moses’ authority. Did Moses speak for God when it came to sacred violence, even when the text says “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying … “, or did Moses simply speak for himself?
Jesus answered the question posed by the scribes and Pharisees by stopping the violence. When it came to reading the Bible, Jesus’ interpretive principle was always mercy, not sacrificial violence. Moses thought that adultery was such a grievous sin and so unjust that there was divine justification to kill those caught in the act. Sure, Jesus warned against adultery. He didn’t recommend divorce, but permitted divorce when adultery occurred. But stoning people? Jesus refused to believe that God ordained such violence. Killing was ordained by Moses, not God.
What does this mean for Christians today? First, we can no longer use God as a justification for violence. God doesn’t ordain violence; that’s what we do. Sure, there may be times when we decide to use violence to defend ourselves from an enemy, but Christians can’t use violence in the name of God. Violence is completely secular. It belongs to us, not God. In fact, a God who ordains violence is no God at all. It’s an idol, a god made in our own violent image.
Second, it means that we need to take a close look at our justifications for guns. The murder of 3,000 people caused ancient rabbis to question if God actually ordained violence, or if Moses ordained it. They began to change their view of God as a result. The most egregious form of idolatry in that story wasn’t the Israelites worshipping the golden calf; it was Moses’ faith in a violent god. Similarly, the murder of 20 innocent children and six staff members at Sandy Hook should have forced the US Congress to make massive changes to U.S. gun policies. But the NRA and the Second Amendment are the violent gods of our culture. US Senators and many citizens worship at their sacrificial altars, hoping that they will provide us with safety and security. But we are realizing that the more we worship guns the more we doom ourselves to our own extinction.
And once again, after the murder of 49 innocent people in Orlando, the Senate refuses to act. But let’s look at the good news. The vast majority of Americans disagree with the Senate. Polling numbers state that 92% of Americans favor closing loopholes on background checks for anyone purchasing a gun, 87% favor preventing people with mental health problems and convicted felons from owning a gun, and 85% favor preventing anyone on the Terror Watch List from owning a gun. Yes, there is more work to be done, including in the area of mental health, but sensible gun legislation is a good place to start.
Those poll numbers lead me to more good news – the Senate is so far out of step with the American people that it will suffer the consequences of its inaction. My hope is that just as the ancient rabbis couldn’t stand the notion of worshiping Moses’s God who ordained violence, come November the American people will not stand for the Senators who worship guns and are led by the priests of death in charge of the NRA.
 Abraham Joshua Heschel has an extended reflection on why Jews can’t always take the biblical statement “Thus says the Lord” literally. Much of my argument and the subsequent quotes from The Teachings of Eliyahu and Rabbi Tucker are taken from Heschel’s book Heavenly Torah, pgs 407-421.
 It’s a BIG DEAL that the scribes and Pharisees only bring the woman caught in adultery and not the man. Their misogyny is on full display, but the point is that Jesus isn’t infected by their misogyny. He doesn’t condemn her, but frees her from her accusers.
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