For the cloud of the Lord hovered over the Tabernacle
by day, and there was fire in the cloud by night, and the
Israelites could see it at every stage of their journey.
The Old Testament narrative paints a picture of God. He is never far away; is, you might say, the subtext of the stories. He is the creator-god, the avenging-god, the choosing god, the covenant god. The promise he makes to Abraham that launches the narrative is renewed and thus brought back to our attention at the introduction of each new hero in the line from Abraham to Jesus. Even when he is not participating as a character in the action of the story his presence is felt. From the beginning we have been told how the events of the story are under the control of this god, and at the conclusion of Exodus we find that his presence will be constantly, visually on the canvas – day and night – omnipresent. “And the Israelites could see it at every stage of their journey.” This cloud and the Tent of the Presence are constant reminders to the newly freed Israelites of the power and presence of their tribal god. Not only did he free them from slavery but he is also guiding them to their promised land. He reveals the way to his people and they are never lost in the desert.
Just as Yahweh reveals the way through the desert to the rich valleys of Canaan, so also does he reveal the way to religious and political riches. A priestly account of the origins of the sanctuary, its personnel and rituals follows in Leviticus. Time after time the formula “the Lord spoke to Moses and said,” announces a new set of rules concerning offerings, installation of priests, sacrifices, sexual conduct, purification and atonement, preparation of food offerings, and the approved slaughtering techniques. The Tent of the Presence is the center of the religious life of the tribes and from it come the laws that will bind the tribes together into a people. Negotiating meaning between the Presence and the People – that is, the approved readers of the subtext – are the priests, the members of the tribe of Levi.
The patriarchal religion was patterned after the patron deity of the clan – the “god of the fathers” – and its rules and patterns are developed in the stories in the post exodus books. Religion in the early Near East consisted not so much in certain beliefs as in common patterns of ritual enactment.1 The recurring prophetic metaphor shows a relationship of parent to child:
When Israel was a child, I loved him
and out of Egypt, I called my son. (Hosea 11.1)
where the desert sojourn is viewed as Israel’s childhood and where Yahweh taught his children the necessity for discipline and trust. In the stories of conquest we see the most basic form of the contract theory of political obligation: obey the laws of the divine ruler and the consequences will be good, disobey and chaos will follow. Contract theory as developed later by Hobbes and Rousseau is implicit in the Old Testament stories although never specifically offered as a political theory. Why does one have an obligation to Moses, Joshua and the Judges? Because they are divinely appointed and speak the words of Yahweh. The battles that go against the tribes are ones where the will of Yahweh has not been followed. Good consequences flow to those who obey and are righteous; when events turn out bad the reasons are to be found in the disobedience of the people who have broken the contract.
Throughout the forty year “childhood” the lack of food and water and the risk of attack by hostile tribes were constant threats. Time after time Yahweh provides for his people through miraculous delivery of manna and quail in the midst of a barren desert and through the equally miraculous ability to produce water from the dry and barren landscape. In one story (Num. 20) we are given the reason why Moses will not be able to enter the promised land and it revolves around water.
The Lord spoke to Moses and said, `Take a staff, and then with
Aaron your brother assemble all the community, and, in front of
them all, speak to the rock and it will yield its water. Thus you will
produce water for the community out of the rock, for them and
their beasts to drink.’
Moses makes a fatal, human error. Responding to the community with impatience (and who wouldn’t given the constant complaining of the community?) he does not speak to the rock as commanded, but strikes the rock twice with his staff, saying, `Listen to me, you rebels. Must we get water out of this rock for you?’ This one loss of patience, this human response to a toilsome situation, costs him dearly:
`You did not trust me so far as to uphold my holiness in the sight of
the Israelites; therefore you shall not lead this assembly into the
land which I promised to give them.’
No one, not even the faithful, long serving, reluctant hero, Moses, is immune from the commands of Yahweh. Moses disobeys and is denied access to the promised land.
Moses’ ability to inspire is dramatically shown in the story of the battle against the Amelekites. While Joshua led the attack, Moses stood on a hill in full view of his army holding his arms over his head and as long as his arms were outstretched the Hebrews were successful, ” and Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.” A constant theme throughout the story of the conquest of Canaan: it is the divine power of Yahweh that is responsible for success.
According to the Priestly account (Ex. 19.1; Num. 10.11) the Hebrews spent nearly a year at Mount Sinai before finally breaking camp and striking out toward the Wilderness of Paran. With them on the journey goes the portable ark and the tabernacle as evidence of Yahweh’s presence as they push on to the vicinity of Kadesh where the official forty years in the wilderness is spent. Throughout Yahweh faithfully produces water, manna, and quail.
The Balaam story (chs. 22-24) provides a delightful interlude in the Numbers narrative and is the one case in the Bible of a talking animal and a touch of humor – for here the dumb beast is more enlightened than the learned master. Talking animals are not unusual in the literature of the time (e.g., Achilles’ horse Xanathus in the Iliad) but the only other Old Testament example is the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The emphasis in these oracle stories is on the fact that an oracle is only as good as Yahweh allows him to be and foreshadows the later prophetic conception of the divine Word.
The words of Deuteronomy are the words of the ritualistic covenant agreement with an emphasis on the timeless and contemporary nature of the agreement. Each new generation stands before the God of Sinai to hear the words of the lawgiver and renew the covenant:
Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the ordinances which I speak in
your hearing this day, and you shall learn them and be careful to do
them. The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. Not
with our fathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who
are all of us here alive this day. (Deut. 5.1-3)
The story of the time in the wilderness emphasizes the ongoing power of Yahweh and his covenant promise to the chosen people. It also tells of victories and defeats as the tribes seek a way of entering Canaan to settle in the promised land. The laws that will bind the tribes together and the rituals that will be constant reminders of the power and glory of Yahweh are a part of the official line of these books, establishing as they do the many priestly observations that will be a part of the history and celebration of the covenant. The beginning story for one of the important Jewish holidays is described as follows:
Along with the annual feasts stipulated in the Covenant Code,
Levitical law added the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the
most solemn of all Hebrew fasts. Observed on the tenth day of
penitence at the beginning of the New Year, when forgiveness was
sought for the sins of the past year. Although it was not until the
post-Exilic period that it received a fixed place in the liturgical
calendar, its rituals appear to be quite old. Sin offerings were made
by the high priest for himself, his family, and “for all the assembly
of Israel,” after which the nation’s sins were symbolically laid upon
the scapegoat (goat for “Azazel”), which was driven into the
wilderness to die. The day of Atonement was the one day in the
year when the high priest entered into the Holy of Holies, the inner
shrine of the temple.2
The book of Joshua tells us the official story of the conquest of Canaan. Although all the extra-biblical evidence indicates a long and gradual encroachment by the Hebrew tribes here we are given three swift and decisive campaigns to bring the whole land into Israelite control. The battle of Jericho is a prime example of the point of these stories. On the way to the city the tribes must cross the Jordan River. As they approach the river the waters miraculously stop and allow their passage in a story reminiscent of the Red Sea episode on the way out of Egypt. After observing the Passover the assault on the city begins. With the priests in the front, carrying the Ark and blowing trumpets, they march around the city seven times and then miraculously a mighty shout is sufficient to bring down the walls of Jericho. The city is then totally destroyed as a sacrifice to Yahweh.
Narrative conquest of the promised land is portrayed as a sudden and complete victory but all of the evidence, even other biblical evidence, indicates a much less thoroughgoing victory as we see at the beginning of the book of Judges where the question raised after Joshua’s death is “Who shall go up against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” indicating that the victory is not complete, the lands not yet secured.
After the death of Moses the mantle of authority passes on to Joshua, the warrior hero, who will reign over the conquest. The climactic entry into the promised land, a land that Moses will see but never enter, is promised again in Yahweh’s charge to Joshua at the beginning of the book of Joshua:
`My servant Moses is dead; now it is for you to cross the
Jordan, you and this whole people of Israel, to this land which I am
giving them. Every place where you set foot is yours: I have given it
to you, as I promised Moses….Be strong, be resolute; it is you who
are to put this people in possession of the land which I swore to
give to their fathers….for the Lord your God is with you wherever
And indeed the story offers evidence that Yahweh is with Joshua, for he is not only able to capture and destroy Jericho and Ai, but he is also able to defeat the combined forces of all of the Amorite kings in the battle outside of Gilgal in Gibeon (Joshua 10). It is in that battle that the power of Yahweh is exhibited in a most dramatic way – the sun itself stands still “until a nation had taken vengeance on its enemies.”
Signs, miracles, victories, all signal the proclamation that the chosen people are the instrument of a powerful god, a god who is fulfilling a promise made to the patriarchs so many hundreds of years before. In the ongoing covenant story of the Pentateuch we see a simple ethic: follow the rules and good consequences will come; break the rules and bad consequences will come. But the Hebrew writers also knew that this simple explanation of good and evil was unable to explain all the real events in a community’s life. Sometimes the bad prosper. Sometimes the good suffer. This conflict between the official line and the story of a real life is wrestled with in the Wisdom literature. Proverbs, for example, tells us of a practical wisdom to employ in everyday life, while the books of Job and Ecclesiastes offer a counterpoint to the official position that God always rewards good and punishes evil.