The more time I spend with Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses, the more I fall in love with the clarity of his translation and the poetry of his commentary. It’s a big book, meant for your ‘reference library’ and not for subway reading, but it is well worth the heft.
To that end, I want Alter to respond to Anna’s interesting observation about the shifting descriptions of God (and God’s relation to humans) from Genesis to Exodus.
Here is what Alter has to say:
“There is a certain correlation between the distancing of the central character [Moses] and the distancing of the figure of God in Exodus… God in Genesis, as one detects in a glimpse of Him in the Garden story and as one can see quite clearly in His encounter with Abraham in Genesis 18, walks about the earth looking very much like a man- indeed, being easily mistaken for a man until He chooses to reveal His identity- and at some points engaging a human being in what is clearly represented as face-to-face conversation. God in Exodus has become essentially unseeable, overpowering, and awesomely refulgent. Barriers to access accompany Him everywhere, just as they will be instituted architecturally in the tripartite structure of the sanctuary that He orders the Israelites to build.
“The first manifestation of God’s presence to Moses is in the anomaly of the fire burning in a bush without consuming it, and then the divine voice enjoins Moses, “Come no closer here,” and proceeds to speak to him without being in any way visible to him. Fire, which betokens potent energy and which is something one cannot touch without being hurt or destroyed, is the protective perimeter out of which God addresses Moses and the Israelites throughout the story: all of Mount Sinai will be smoking like a firebrand, with celestial fireworks of lightning and thunder crackling round its peak, when God reveals the Ten Commandments to Moses…
“God in Exodus has become more of an ungraspable mystery than He seems in Genesis; and as He moves here from the sphere of the clan that is the context of the Patriarchal Tales to the arena of history, His sheer power as supreme deity and His implacability against those who would thwart His purposes emerge as the most salient aspects of the divine character.”
Welcome to Exodus! (I say this, knowing that most of you are twenty chapters in already; I’m catching up!)