Breakin’ The Laws
So it was, as soon as he came near the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing. So Moses’ anger became hot, and he cast the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. Then he took the calf which they had made, burned it in the fire, and ground it to powder; and he scattered it on the water and made the children of Israel drink it. And Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?”
Keep On Trekkin’
The first phase was complete. We were safe from Ramses’ hordes. There was, however, the matter of water for three million people. Water, in other words, for Chicago. Plus the 1,000 or so new babies who had been born along the way. And the sheep needed water too. I heard they like to lie down in green pastures. None of that around.
If I’m Yaweh, I’m going to insert a river valley just over the next rise. After all, 200 years of slavery, a hard trek across the Sinai Peninsula, a lush river valley would seem to be in order. But we all know it didn’t work that way.
We set out in the morning toward the east, up one of the huge alluvial fans that led into dry mountain terrain. Carrying the tent I’d rented was out of the question, so I went back to Jacob and he gave me a one-deben refund, which was nice. But I was thirsty. And I began to hear the cries of the people for water. About ten kilometers into the mountains, I approached Moses, who was striding forward with unbounded energy, though you could see he was disgruntled.
“Moses, my friend and great leader of your people. It’s a lovely morning. How good to have left Ramses behind at last.”
“Yes, yes, Awshalim. But I have more challenges and difficulties. There is a mountain around here I’m looking for. And also the Lord is greatly wroth with me.”
“Why is that?”
“He had almost been ready to part the seas when Suhad pushed her way into our plans. I should not have let her work her will upon me.”
“Did the Lord explain who she is?”
“No. He said He didn’t want to talk about her. When I brought her up, he got really wroth.” I heard the cries of the people increasing behind us. “Moses, this mountain we’re heading for – do you, uh, think there will be water there?”
“Either way, the Lord will strengthen the hearts of his people and lift them up as on eagle’s wings.”
“But do you not hear the people’s cries? I fear they grow weak and their strength fails.”
“Why do you always doubt me, Awshalim? Yaweh has selected me as his instrument in this momentous time! Why is everyone pressuring me all the time? I can’t take it anymore!” He lifted his staff in a rage and smote a nearby boulder. Immediately, water gushed from the rock. A stream began to form and make its way down the hillside. As people realized what it was, they began to shout, “Water! Water! There is water!” Great throngs rushed forward to press their lips into the stream and drink. But of course, they were trampled as the next wave of pilgrims overwhelmed the first.
“Moses!” I cried. “You must stop it. Stop the flow before they all kill each other in their thirst!”
“But how, Awshalim? How can it be stopped now?”
“Try smiting the rock again! Maybe that will do it.”
He raised his staff once more and smote the boulder. The fountain diminished to a trickle and then stopped completely. In another minute the sun had dried the rock and there was no sign the geyser had ever occurred. But those who had seen it were in a frenzy.
While Moses and Aaron sought to calm them, I did some quick calculations. The three million were going to spread out again across about 160 kilometers, though it would take another 30 hours for them to do that. Eventually, there would be about 18,000 of them in any given one-kilometer distance. Far too many Jews for, say, one water-boulder every kilometer. I figured one boulder for every 3,000 people might work. That’s about 1,000 water-boulders, one every 160 meters or so. But the boulder-smiting had to start at the bottom of the route, not the top, to prevent another water riot. (People toward the front wouldn’t know about the water until the boulder-smiter reached them.) So the smiter would have to move forward from there, smiting boulders every 160 meters as he went along. I explained my plan to Moses. “And remember,” I added, “the people still have to walk another day before we can provide them water. Your messengers must move down the line quickly and tell them water is just one day away. They will take heart.”
Moses listened then said, “One question, Awshalim.”
“What is a kilometer?” Of course! They thought in cubits and rods.
“Hold on a second.” I thought quickly… “That’s one every 32 rods.”
“This is a good plan, Awshalim. Again, I thank you. You are very good with numbers.”
“I’m fitted with a measurement poly-calculator.”
“Never mind. Let’s make sure Aaron can work the staff.” We sent him up a side-gulley to experiment. He came back with a wet staff and licking his lips. “If you hit it softly, just a little water comes out.”
“That is good Aaron,” said Moses. “But tell me this. Are you ready to run 32,000 rods through the desert heat tomorrow, and smite 1,000 boulders?”
That’s when it struck me. No one could run a hundred miles up the alluvial fan through the desert! “Awshalim,” Moses said, “Aaron cannot perform this feat. You may be overthinking this, as we say in Midian. I shall instead smite fifty boulders nearby this place and let the waters flow. A river will form that will eventually reach all our people. Which he did. The waters formed a channel that flowed back to the sea. Score one for Moses. The Children of Israel responded with a combination of euphoria and admirable self-restraint, as the 2.8 million Jews still on the shore somehow formed long lines, sated themselves and filled their gourds with water. It took a few days for the three million to quench their thirst and stock up, but then, we were in no rush. When we set out again, spirits were high.
“Now if I can just find that mountain,” Moses said to Aaron. I could see he was going on instinct. Sometimes I’d hear him mumbling to himself. “Did you say a left or a right at the next ravine? Left? You’re sure? OK, left it is.” The nice thing was, over the next two weeks, he let everyone stop and sleep at night. I didn’t miss the tent. The stars were amazing. Days, I’d chat up the Israelites, ask them their plans. Most wanted to be shepherds, others were interested in fishing, a lot of them wanted to go into retail. But a surprising number wanted to go back into being slaves. These people complained the most about the heat and being lost in the desert. Some even wanted to go back to Egypt. “It’s not so bad – it depends on who your taskmaster is. It’s very stable employment. What the hell, it’s a living!”
But after another two weeks, water was getting low again, despite efforts at conservation. The Bible says at this point we reached Elim, an oasis with 12 wells and 70 palm trees. Well, we did reach a place like that, but it was 250,000 Jews per well, and could we fit 43,000 people under each palm tree? Maybe if they were the size of a Cybersonic stadium. They weren’t. Moses had to start smiting rocks again. He went in shifts with Aaron. I wondered why Yaweh couldn’t arrange a nice thunderstorm. One every couple of weeks would have made a big difference. Frankly, I was getting ready to check out, withdraw back to the 26th century. I was just 18 years from retirement. I didn’t need this. Believe me, I was this close to it when suddenly Moses shouted, “That’s it!”
“What’s it?” I asked.
“It is Mount Horeb, the Mountain of God!”
“How do you know.”
“Doth not the sparrow know where to return in the spring? And the sea turtle where to lay her eggs in the sand? Doth not the fig tree know when to blossom? These things lie deep in the heart. So doth I say unto you, afar doth stand the mountain of God!”
That was a lot of doths. Moses could doth you to death. But I knew I had to stay now and see what developed. I looked in the direction Moses was pointing. What he called the Mountain of God was an undistinguished peak that rose just slightly higher than its neighbors. The only difference was a reddish cloud hovering around its summit.
“Behold the spirit of the Lord in the cloud upon the mountain. Let us go unto Horeb and submit ourselves to His will.”
Who was going to argue? It was a rest stop. I asked Moses if boulder-smiting was permitted. He said he’d ask God, but only if the subject came up. I relented and followed him, along with the other three million. Two days later, everyone had arrived and arranged themselves in a semi-circle at the base of the mountain. It was impossible to see the limits of the crowd, but we’re talking a Woodstock with aisles 3.2 miles long and a circumference of 5.5 miles. Sound in the back was not good. On the other hand, rain showers and mud was definitely not an issue.
The next morning, Moses was getting ready to go up into the mountain to talk with God. “I don’t know if I can do this,” he told Aaron and me. “I’m nervous. Should I ask about the crocuses or the Kool-Aid? What about the parting of the waters? I’m still upset about that.”
“Just tell Him you loved the pillows of fire. Tell Him you couldn’t have gotten here without them.”
“When you get there,” Aaron said, “let Him do the talking. Don’t make trouble.”
“All right. I go now to be with the God of Israel and be in his keeping. I may be gone many days. See that the people remain calm and wait on the Lord.”
“Did you strike those boulders I asked for?” Aaron said.
“Yes, over there, where people shout and press together.”
“And you have your water pouch and bag of figs?”
“Yes, they are here, though I care not for figs. Farewell my friends. I go unto the Lord.”
“Good luck,” I said. Don’t stay there forever.”
And away he went, trudging up into the steep highlands of Mount Horeb. A few days passed, and as they did, I watched the multitude grow restless. Especially up in front, troublemakers and grumblers grew thick, peppering Aaron with their doubts and with difficult questions. A week passed, then three, then four. Aaron spent all his time wandering through the multitude, striking boulders. When he got off work, the complainers were waiting for him.
“Aaron, why does not your God show his face? Why does he hide himself in his mountain? We faint from thirst!”
Aaron did his best. “He wants you to have faith in Him.”
“The rain asks not for faith, neither the sun or the river. Even the fig tree shows itself and blesses us with its goodness. This Yaweh – what’s he hiding?”
“It was Yaweh who led you out of Egypt to safety.”
“Into this barren land? If he was so almighty, why didn’t he slay all the Egyptians and give us their land? It is rich and fertile and we slaved there for hundreds of years. We earned it.”
“Verily, the ways of the Lord are mysterious, but through suffering He tempereth our spirits.”
“Aaron, If I want mystery I can read the latest mystery scroll. My wife is already a mystery, as far as that goes.” Those around the complainer laughed heartily and shouted in agreement. “And where is Moses anyway? He lingers in the cool of the high mountain while we suffer down below.”
“Foolish man! Moses stands in the fiery presence of the Lord, listening to His mighty voice! You would be consumed were you there! Take care not to bring the wrath of Yaweh upon us all with your foolish talk.” The man was cowed for a time, but soon others spoke up.
“Aaron, this idea of an invisible God is difficult for me,” said a bedraggled old man “I need a statue like the Egyptians and Hittites have. An idol. Something I can touch.”
“But Yaweh exists on a higher level; you must see Him with your heart and mind. He’s more abstract.”
“But I haven’t developed the capacity for abstract thought. It makes my brain hurt.”
“Good! Just as your body grew strong pulling great blocks of stone for Pharaoh, so your mind will grow strong contemplating an invisible God and the universality of human suffering. Through such trials and suffering, we will become known as a very intelligent people.”
“Intelligence?” shouted another. “We need bread and water for ourselves and our animals. Would that we had never left Egypt! Surely we will all die here!”
“Yes,” shouted a wizened old woman. “Let us build an image of Ba’al, goddess of fertility, a more sympathetic deity rooted in the agricultural ethos of the Tigris River valley. She is not warlike and fierce, but rather expresses nurturing feminine energy. She will surely save us from this hell.” Everyone near her voiced their approval. “Gather gold and silver to be melted down into an idol! Ba’al can save us from this wilderness!”
Of course, I expected all this, it is the penultimate event of Exodus, preceding Moses’ descent from the mountain. It took three days to gather gold from the host, and their craftsmen set to work. Aaron himself was browbeaten into co-operating with the heretics. Of course, there were only about 3,000 people involved. The other 2,997,000 seemed calmer and more focused on getting food and water for themselves, managing their children, and dealing with sheep dung. They also couldn’t hear the ruckus up front.
But as the rebellion against Yaweh grew, the clouds atop Horeb grew darker. Flashes of lightning laced across the sky. Rain would have been nice, but Yaweh, seeing the dissension, was probably not in a let’s-wet-down-the-Jews mood. At the end of the fifth week, a great idol of gold, a calf studded with jewels and shining stones had been created in the midst of the dissenters. Hundreds came to touch it and cry out for mercy and redemption.
Crazed celebrants began repeating slogans and chants like, “We want Ba’al! We want Ba’al!” or “Yaweh? No way! Ba’al will take our blues away!” A rough translation of course.
Finally, on Friday afternoon came the inevitable. One of Aaron’s assistant priests, Moesha-ben-Judah, cried out to us,
“Behold Moses descending the mountain! He approaches!”
The front of the crowd was not the place to be at that point, for the people surged forward and we were nearly crushed. Thinking quickly, Aaron struck a few boulders near us, and the water gushing forth creating a distraction that redirected the frenzied mass. But here he came, the holy servant of Yaweh, looking down from a rocky perch at the people he had dragged across the great desert into this harsh freedom. Thunder began to roll down from the mountain. Gazing up at him, I grasped why, so many times during the arduous journey, at the end of a scorching day, I had seen him doing push-ups and squats and reverse forearm curls and bicep-tricep workouts on the sand outside his tent. For here he stood with the Ten Commandments, two huge slabs of granite he seemed to carry lightly in his massive arms. But now he had spotted the Golden Calf and seething with rage, shouted what I can only translate as “WHAT’S THIS MESS?”
Aaron caught his eye. “Why didn’t you stop this, Aaron? Can’t I even leave you alone for 40 days?”
“Alas, Moses, they were too strong in their rebelliousness.”
“Tell the truth, Aaron,” shouted a man with his arm resting on the Golden Idol, “you joined us, you accepted our ideas!”
“Is this true, Aaron?”
“Well in a sense,” Aaron said, his voice barely audible above the wails and cries of the multitude and the crashing thunder. “I did find the notion of a gentler deity attractive. It reminded me of the fertile Nile, its many blossoms, the nesting birds cooing in the trees, the cycle of the seasons…”
“Aaron! This world is fraught with danger and hatred. Our Lord God is a god of fire, full of anger, yet able to forgive. We need His mighty hand, not the weakness of women.”
“You’re absolutely right. I feel terrible about this.”
“As you should! A fearsome price must now be paid, for Yaweh is a jealous god now greatly wroth against His people.”
But now the wizened old woman who had first proposed a statue to Ba’al clambered atop the Calf’s neck and raised her voice. “Hear me Moses! Why are we in this terrible place? Think on our history. Our forefather Joseph was welcomed into Egypt as a prince and a ruler, and also his father and brothers. How did our people slip into slavery? By not blending with the Egyptians, their culture and religion. What’s wrong with a sun-god anyway? It’s a nice idea. Why instead a cruel, invisible divinity who demanded Abraham cut his son’s throat and now slaughters untold thousands of Egyptian first-sons?” A terrific flash of lightning blinded every eye, and the sudden peal of thunder was like the end of the world, but the woman continued. “And another thing. Egyptian religion postulates an after-life. Yaweh doesn’t speak of this. I think an afterlife would be very nice. Moses, suppose our forebears had adopted Egyptian ways. We’d be living peacefully among them today in the fertile fields of the Nile. Many of us would have intermarried and prospered and enriched Egyptian culture and art and agriculture. After all, we’re a creative people. Remember your cousin Ghaleph, who invented that desert game where you hit a little white ball from a circle of sand over some grass into a snake hole? Or was it the other way around? Whatever – he could have started a fine business, but he was a slave so he couldn’t get a loan. No, instead we clung to a fierce, egotistical deity who watched us sink into slavery for hundreds of years and never reached out a hand to help us.”
“Silence, woman,” Moses thundered. “I hold in my arms the first Ten Laws of God, His rules to guide us in life, the moral foundation the world has always needed.”
“Ideas of morality are inherent among all peoples, Moses. Do you think we’ve spent that last 500 years cheating and murdering each other? We can set up a commission to codify our ethics. Why do we need Yaweh?”
More thunder and lightning. “Woman, do you not hear the rage of Yaweh? He will soon cut you and all your brethren down like the grass of the field!”
The old hag didn’t blink. “Perhaps, but did you ever consider that what seems to be Yaweh is simply a manifestation of your inner self, and of male hostility in general?”
“What’s an inner self?”
“You’re hopeless, Moses.”
“Hopeless you say? Nay, woman. It is you who are without hope, for now will the Lord have vengeance upon you.” But the people around the Golden Calf were undaunted. They were chanting again. “We want Ba’al! We want Ba’al!” And so it was that Moses raised his eyes heavenward, let out a great cry, and flung the granite slabs down from the ledge where he stood. But they just bounced off the rocks and flopped over on their sides. It’s hard to break granite slabs.
“You do not deserve the Word delivered unto you, written by the very hand of God!” Moses shouted. “Help me, Aaron! Destroy the tablets – strike them with your staff!” Aaron did as directed, but it only caused streams of water to gush out of them, which infuriated Moses even more. People were rushing up to the Commandments, fighting to get at the water. You could see why this didn’t get reported in the Torah. But Aaron kept smacking the tablets and finally the water stopped gushing.
“Where are my brethren the Levites,” Moses suddenly cried. “Where are the sons of Levi?” Moses was just three generations removed from Levi, so there were only about 50 of them. But they heard Moses and began to filter up through the crowd. You could always tell a son of Levi, as they wore these dark-blue trousers with little folded-up cuffs. Earlier in the march, I had approached one of them and asked why the sons of Levi dressed so differently. “You must be so hot in those pants,” I told him.
“A little,” the Levite responded. “But look at this reinforced stitching and textured material!”
But I digress. Now came the part I was worried about. The Torah says when the Levites showed up it got pretty bloody. Moses now made a chilling announcement. “God hath told me to gather you together, oh Levites, and speak to you thus: all those who have worshiped the Golden Calf and turned from the Lord are to be slain without mercy. Three thousand shall die by the sword! So speaks the God of Israel!”
One Levite stepped forward. “Moses, I am your Uncle Hebron, son of Kohath. Nice to see you.”
“It’s always a pleasure, Uncle Hebron. Love your trousers. They’re a bit faded though.”
“In the desert, I fell down a lot.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“But whenever you smite the boulders and bring forth water, we wet them and scrub them on stones.”
“It’s a nice look.”
“Thank you, Moses. By the way, your aunt and I are very proud of all your wonderful accomplishments.”
“Thank you, Uncle Hebron.”
“But I have to ask you…we Levites are less than 50 men, yet you wish us to put to the sword 3,000 of these heretics. This will be a difficult project.”
“With Yaweh, Uncle, all things are possible.”
“But we have no swords, for instance. No one said to bring swords. We have wives and children and tents and sheep, but…”
Moses frowned and stroked his beard. “Well then, try beating the heretics on the head with your staffs.”
“If we do that, won’t water gush forth?”
“Perhaps not. It might kill them. Why don’t you try hitting a few.”
“Well, I left my staff at the tent. It’s quite a distance back. Couldn’t this wait a few hours?” Another great flash of lightning followed by a tremendous thunderclap. Things were not working out for Moses. He sat down on his ledge, raised his head heavenward and cried, “Truly, Lord, they are a stiff-necked people!”
It was then that the wizened old crone hopped off the golden idol, made her way forward and nimbly scrambled up to Moses on his perch. As if a veil had been lifted from my eyes, I recognized her! Suhad it was, in her aged form! From below, I could hear her words to Moses.
“How can you do this terrible thing, Moses?”
Moses seemed to recognize her as well. “Who are you, old witch, coming again to afflict me and thwart the Lord’s will?”
“Concern yourself not about me,” Old Suhad said. “But think of the example you will set for ages to come. Your kinsmen desire to worship another way, so your God kills them all. Yet look at the Commandments you have just thrown to the ground! What is the first of them? Thou shalt not kill! How can you do this?”
“One man must not kill another, but it is not my will that these faithless ones die. God hath demanded their lives. They have blasphemed against him. Verily, old woman, to build a nation, you have to peel a few potatoes.”
“You play with words. You make light of a hideous deed. There are fathers and mothers among these people, they are the protectors of their children.”
“This is not an issue. We will put them all to the sword, man, woman and child. Their seed will vanish from the earth.” Moses had come a long way from the gentle fig purchaser I’d met that first day. A long way.
Suhad was implacable. “No! I will not let you slaughter three thousand souls in my presence, Moses. Human kind cannot go on butchering each other.”
“Stand away woman! Who are you to speak to me thus? Go back to your infidels and to your death. At the foot of His mountain, Yaweh will not be denied.” Moses looked out at the churning masses and cried again,
“Death, I say, to those who have turned from the Lord!”
And it seemed to me that in a blur of human movement, a score of armed Levites began to materialize, then more, until an assemblage of nearly two hundred Levite fighters stood grim-faced before us. They carried swords, knives, bludgeons. As they turned toward the huge crowd gathered around the Golden Calf, those closest to them shrank back in fear, unarmed and incapable of standing against an onslaught. With a terrifying roar, the Levites surged toward the heretics, but in that instant, the unthinkable occurred.
To a man, their weapons fell to the ground. Then each one, frozen in his spot, began rotating his upper torso clockwise as his legs, inexplicably rotated in the other direction. A hundred warriors helplessly contorting themselves back and forth before the astonished multitude. Simultaneously, more terrifying thunderclaps and flashes of light rent the sky. A forgotten figure from the 20th century popped into my mind. Obese Backgammon? No, that wasn’t his name. Rotund Parcheesi? No, an American singer – of course! Chubby Checker! And now, filtering down from above as Moses stood there in paroxysms of rage, Suhad’s voice sweetly intoning,
Round and around and around and around we go again…!
Then her full voice rose into the air, aged but robust and eerily penetrating.
“Worshippers of Ba’al, you have chosen another path this day. You cannot continue here in safety. Leave now and be at peace.” And I saw a green mist spread out from the head of the Golden Calf, enveloping its worshippers. They stood paralyzed, while non-worshippers fled in terror before the fog. Those who remained were completely obscured from view, but when, mere moments later, the mist dissipated, they were gone, even the Golden Calf. Unable to restrain myself, I called out to Suhad. “What have you done? Where are they now?”
“I have sent them to a far corner of this world, Awshalim, where they will live peacefully amid lush forests filled with succulent fruit, surrounded by cerulean seas, where they can worship their goddess undisturbed. As they seek the mercy of Ba’al, the island shall be known as Ba’la.”
“How about ‘Bali?’”
“OK, that works for me.”
The Levites had stopped twisting and stood there confused. Uncle Hebron stepped forward again. “Moses! Nice to see you again. You look very…shiny. And what was it again that you wanted of us?”
“Nothing! Nothing at all. Go back to your tents.” The Levites dispersed with confused looks, hands tucked into their blue pants like so many Jewish James Deans. The weapons they had dropped at their feet moments earlier were nowhere to be seen. Instinctively, I turned my head back, looking for Suhad, and of course she was gone again. I gazed up at Moses, crouched over, holding his head in his hands. He’d been through the wringer. Forty days, one-on-one with Yaweh, then the Golden Calf, now this. He needed a week off. His hair was totally white and his face really was all shiny. You could have used his face for a headlight on your motorcycle. Except where would you put the rest of him? You’d have to stick handlebars in his ears and he’d have to extend his arms downwards to hold the front axle with his hands and you’d have to use his butt to sit on – the whole concept was impractical. I dropped the idea. I was more interested in this woman Suhad, who could kill, raise the dead, transform herself from a young woman into an old crone, even go up against Yaweh Himself and give better than she got.
Well, she was gone again. The thunder had begun to diminish, like the temper tantrum of some colossal toddler. Aaron and three Levite stragglers were trying to lug the Commandments back up to Moses on his ledge. I could see him rousing himself to pick up the pieces of his Exodus and move on. Now he drew himself up to his full height.
“See how the infidels have been vanquished!” he cried. Let none again stray from the Word of God. Yaweh shall protect us and fight our battles in this world where we are strangers and outcasts. He will lead us to a new homeland that shall be ours alone. But this land will not come without much fighting and strife. Many will come against us, but they shall not prevail in battle, nor turn us from our sacred way. We are the Chosen of the Lord. Let us serve Him in great joy and thanksgiving!
“Now, there are many other laws from Yaweh we must learn and observe unto the ending of time. Workshops and seminars will be held at times posted under the Ten Commandments. It may take time for all three million of you to learn them, but we’re in no rush. Let’s start with the first one:
“I am the Lord Thy God who hath brought you out of Egypt.
Thou shalt worship no other gods before me…”
Moses had his groove back. Suhad had simply removed the troublemakers for him. But the prophet and his multitudes had another forty years of wandering ahead of them, and I certainly wasn’t up for that. Aaron rushing around smiting boulders, I’d been there, done that. And once you’ve seen the Nile turn to Kool-Aid, seen an old woman move an island across the sea, and watched 3,000 people disappear into a green fog, mere manna falling out of the sky would be no great shakes.
I needed another break.