Thoughts and questions here:
I can’t believe I didn’t notice in the last chapter that the Japanese word for “stubborn” also means “stiff” and “inflexible” – a perfect match for the “stiff-necked people” in the NRSV. Also, it’s been a long time since I’ve done aikido. Definitely need to go to the lesson on Tuesday night.
So how are the people “stiff-necked”? I’m assuming that means “stubborn,” in the sense of an animal that refuses to take a yoke. Given the context of this chapter and the last, it would seem that the yoke they didn’t accept was the command to stop making images of God. They weren’t read to adapt to their new religion.
But if they had obeyed – if they hadn’t been “stiff-necked” – would God then have been able to “go up among” them? Could his presence have fully manifested there without causing them any damage? Is God’s presence dangerous because of our shortcomings rather than his own power? Or is it just the gap between sacred and profane that makes it dangerous? If there was some way to bridge the distance between the mundane and the sacred…I promise myself I won’t read too much Christianity into an initially Jewish scripture, but I can see where early Christians may have seen the incarnation as an answer to issues in the Hebrew Bible.
The Israelites all believe Moses is meeting God face-to-face (v 11), but we learn later that Moses has never seen God’s face (v 20). So is the former meant to be taken figuratively, with the emphasis on “as one speaks to a friend”? Or are we to infer that Moses is letting them believe something that isn’t true? And if it’s the latter, why? Does he feel insecure about not having seen the face of the being on whose word he just took a bunch of people out into the desert?
The idea of wanting to see God’s face may be nonsensical to someone raised in a tradition that thinks of God as incorporeal and formless, but that’s not the way most religions throughout history have thought of God, and it’s not the way many still do. Most gods have an iconography; even if they are omnipresent and invisible most of the time, when they manifest to a worshiper, they do so in a specific way. Moses is asking for a theophany as his culture would understand it: he wants to know what God really looks like.
And God does not deny that idea. God really looks like something, but seeing it would kill you. Setting aside the Cthulhu vibe from that for a moment, I think what this points to is the limitations of our senses. God can be perceived visually, could be interpreted as having features, but not using the eyes and the brains we have now. We can only see God’s “back” – which is what the next chapter is about, so no spoling that.
(And yes, I’m aware this idea about God’s face is not original or anything. I may talk more about how it connect in with the aniconic trend in Shinto next time to try to add some dose of original thinking to this.)
The Japanese: tadachi ni “at once, immediately” (v 5), ukagai o tateru “to ask someone’s opinion, to consult an oracle” (v 7), kiritsu suru “to stand up” (v 8), juusha “follower, attendant” (v 11), hikiitenoboreru “to lead (someone) up” (v 12), doukou suru “to travel together” (v 14).