Wool dipped techelet. The dye comes from hexaplex trunculus, a snail.
Saturday, February 2, 2008

Purple Stuffs and the Covenant

The picture above shows some wool dipped in techelet solution turning blue as it dries in the sun at P’til Techelet in Israel. This comes from Hexaplex trunculus, a rather pretty snail that may have been the source of the colorings discribed in Exodus. (See Wikipedia entries for Hexaplex trunculus and Tyrian Purple, which comes from the Murex Brandaris, (aka Haustellum Brandaris or Bolinus Brandaris)).

We’ll pause here for a moment of obligatory self-deprecation. I’m not an expert on shells, I’m consulting Wikipedia as I go. Wikipedia may contain errors, but it is reasonably good on some things.

We left off at Chapter 13, and we’re picking up at 14. Pharaoh falls into the trap that Yahweh sets, and loses his chariots in what is either the Red Sea or the Sea of Reeds. The Jerusalem Bible has it as the Sea of Reeds.

15 is the song of Moses as he exults in victory over the Egyptians.

In 16 the children of Israel start kvetching again, and Yahweh provides them with manna and quail.

In 17 we have Moses striking the rock, and getting water, and the battle with the Amalekites. Moses watches the battle, and as long as he holds up his hands the battle goes for Israel. When he gets weary Aaron and Hur hold up his hands. This is sometimes used as a proof text for the power of intercessory prayer.

In 18 Moses and his father-in-law Jethro meet up, and Jethro suggests that Moses appoint judges, and even suggests a TO (1000s, 100s, and 10s).

In 19 the Israelites get to Sinai, and God gives Moses the ten commandments in Chapter 20. Deuteronomy 5 has a slightly different version.

Beginning at 20:22 we have a number of laws laid out. These include the treatment of slaves (21:1), homicide (21:12), assaults (21:18), theft (21:37-22:14), rape (22:15-17), moral and religious laws, and various other topics (22:17-23:33).

In 24 the Covenant is ratified, and from 25 through 31 we have a set of instructions on the sanctuary and the priests. What is interesting is that unless I’m reading this wrong, and I might be, it seems to imply a more settled arrangement than I’ve usually thought of the Israelites having at this time. (Actually I think they stayed in some spots for months or years at a time, rather than packing up camp and wandering in a drunkard’s walk for 40 years. (Note: drunkard’s walk is not meant disrespectfully, it is a description of random motion. I think I’ve seen it used in discussions of Brownian motion.) Some indication of settled agriculture may be found in the occasional references to oil (olive oil), and wheat, which imply settled long term agriculture rather than nomadic sheep herding. On the other hand they could imply trade with neighboring tribes.

What is interesting at this point is the repeated reference to purple. I clicked on this because of the Romans and their purple togae. The purple die is actually produced from a mucus secretion by the snails, i.e., the snail slime. It takes an enormous number of the snails to produce a pound of the dye, so it was fabulously expensive. I don’t know whether the snails are edible. They’re not kosher so they’d be off limits to the Israelites anyhow, but I wonder if they were prohibited from handling them to extract the dye.

When all of this finished, God gives the tablets of the law to Moses.

At 32 we have the golden calf. It’s interesting to note, however, that the calf is not an Egyptian or pagan god, it is an image of Yahweh. At 32:5 Aaron says “Tomorrow will be a feast in honor of Yahweh.” In other words the Israelites aren’t breaking the command against false gods; they’re breaking the command against images of the true God. Now why should there be a command against images? If you accept the idea that I mentioned earlier that the revelation of God’s name as Yahweh is in some sense a revelation of His nature as being itself, then it follows that it is not possible to form an image of being itself, and any symbolic language that you can devise will fail because it can only reveal, to the extent that it is capable of revealing it, only an aspect of God. The prohibition is because the image, which is only partial, substitutes for the whole reality of God. (Note: Stephen Hawking says something in A Brief History of Time, about a Theory of Everything illuminating the mind of God. See my discussion of this here.

Moses pleads with Yahweh not to destroy the Israelites, and Yahweh grants this.

In 33 the Israelites are ordered to depart, and the covenant is renewed in 34. The remainder of Exodus is taken up with a description of vestments and the sanctuary.

At 40:34 Yahweh takes up residence in the sanctuary, and they begin their journey again in 40:38.

Next up is Numbers, Chapter 20.