Ephod First You Don’t Succeed

One of many thoughts while reading Reza Aslan’s breezy but solidly-researched God: A Human History (2017):

I so feel for the editors of the Five Books of Moses, also known as the Torah or the Pentateuch. What an impossible task they faced! They worked either during the Babylonian Captivity (586–537 BC), when Nebuchadnezzar conquered greater Israel, destroyed the first temple, and exiled the editors to his capital, or after Cyrus, king of Persia, crushed the Babylonians and let the editors return to their devastated homeland. Perhaps they worked during both periods. Whenever, they had to create an epic that preserved Hebrew history, custom, and religious thought in the context of a lengthy diaspora.

What’s more, they had to weave together different strands of Hebrew tradition. The Kingdoms of Israel and Judea split around 925 BC and had grown so far apart they had different names for their common god. The priestly class (the Levites) had its own interpretation of everything. And a fourth perspective, influenced by nostalgia for the reign of the charismatic, reformist Judean king Josiah (648–609 BC), held sway among the learned elites.

A modern editor would worry about consistency and flow, but I hesitate to project those concerns on ancient editors, who may not have considered them at all. Even if they did consider such things, I suspect they worried more about (a) having all factions endorse the final draft, and (b) providing a blueprint for rebuilding their shattered homeland. Hence the multiple versions of stories and the mind-numbing attention to genealogies and other minutiae.

Still, I hope a few of them lost sleep knowing that, in Exodus for example, Moses’s father-in-law is first called Reuel, then Jethro. Or that they mention the Hebrew deity inexplicably trying to murder Moses, then abruptly drop the subject. (Loose end much?) Or that they might be tarnishing the deity’s mystique just a little bit by portraying him as mum on existential questions but impossible to shut up about how he must be worshipped; six of Exodus’s forty chapters are devoted to the deity’s instructions about, among other things, how he wants his chief priest to dress. This excerpt is from the New English Bible rather than the King James version so you have half a chance of understanding it:

Make for the breast-piece chains of pure gold worked into rope. Make two gold rings, and fix them on the two upper corners of the breast-piece. Fasten the two gold ropes to the two rings at those corners of the breast-piece, and the other ends of the ropes to the two rosettes, thus binding the breast-piece to the shoulder-pieces on the front of the ephod. Make two gold rings and put them at the two lower corners of the breast-piece on the inner side next to the ephod. Make two gold rings and fix them on the two shoulder-pieces of the ephod, low down in front, along its seam above the waist-band of the ephod. (Exodus 28:22–27)

It goes on . . . and on . . . and on like that — god as fussy fashion designer. (An ephod was a sacramental garment, though no one can say for certain what it looked like.)

Again, I get it: the Five Books of Moses are about restoring society after a calamity. Just as it’s anachronistic to think the editors fretted over continuity and flow, it’s anachronistic to think they dreamed of popular readership. The only readers they likely expected were the literate few responsible for reconstructing and perpetuating the Hebrew faith. I doubt they dreamed that 25 centuries later, their patchwork of literary expediencies would be read by untold millions — and, wilder still, that it would be taken by some as inerrant.

Willy Gordon (1918–2003), Flight with the Torah, Stockholm, Sweden.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.