Friday, December 12, 1999
Location - FNCA 1995
The Exodus story comes to its climax at Sinai, with the giving of the Ten Commandments.
Too little attention is given, I think, to Israel's immediate response to that pivotal
event, and that is my focus this morning.
The specific verses are Exodus 20:18f., which read as follows:
And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet,
and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood at a great
distance. And they said to Moses, "You speak with us, and we will hear: but do not let God
speak to us, or we will die."
I will be looking at this from three perspectives. First, I want to highlight how it
functions in the overall story on the literal level. Then I will look specifically at what
Swedenborg has to say about it in Arcana Coelestia; and lastly I will try to set that
spiritual sense in a more contemporary context.
First of all, then, what happens here has immense implications for the story that is about
to unfold. This may be a little clearer if we look at the more extended version of the
same incident that we find in Deuteronomy. There we find Moses narrating what had
happened, and we read the following:
And when you heard the voice out of the middle of the darkness (for the mountain was
burning with fire), you approacher me, all the heads of yoru tribes and your elders, ans
said, "Behold, the Lord our God has showed us his gloryy and his greatness, and we have
heard his voice out of the middle of the fire: we have seen this day that God talks with
mortals, and they live. But not why should we die? Fir this great fire will consume us.
If we heare the voice of the Lord our God any more, then we shall die. For who is there of
all flesh who has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the middle of the
fire, as we have, and has lived?
You go near and hear all that the Lord our God will say. Then you tell us everthing the
Lord our God tells you, and we will hear it and do it."
The two major points I would stress are first, that this makes Moses's voice to all
intents and purposes the voice of God, and second, that this authority is not claimed by
Moses or granted him by God, but conferred by the people at their own initiative. In a
way, this is democracy in action, choosing authoritarianism.
Apparently it worked. In the twenty-third chapter of Matthew, we read,
Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to his disciples and said, "The scribes and the
Pharisees sit in Moses's seat, so whatever they order you to observe, observe it and do
it. But do not follow their example, for they say, but do not do."
Here, more than a thousand years after Moses, we find an immense authority attached not
only to his name but also to his office. Whatever the historian may say about what was
actually said at Sinai, there can be little doubt that we are looking at a the ideal of
theocracy, of a society ruled by divine commands mediated through acknowledged
As the story does unfold, though, things get more complicated. Joshua is not really a
second Moses. He does get messages from the Lord with some regularity, but they are simply
directions--go here or there, do this or that. He is a military leader with all the
authority that implies: he is nowhere portrayed as a lawgiver.
After Joshua we come into the period of the judges, when there is no central authority
whatever. The Lord raises up leaders now and again to deal with specific crises. Now,
however, the Lord does not seem to say very much at all. Judges are "raised up" in
response to the people's pleas for deliverance.
The judges by and large simply do what the Lord tells them to. They are definitely
"occasional" in the literary sense of that word--their authority relates to one specific
situation only, and when the challenge of that situation has been met, they vanish from
the scent. The one attempt to break this pattern is Abimelech's proclaiming himself king,
which has a disastrous beginning and comes to a disastrous end.
There is one incident which is a harbinger of things to come. In the sixth chapter of
Judges, after a description of the oppression by the Midianites, we find the following:
And when the Israelites cried out to the Lord because of the Midianites, the Lord sent a
prophet to the Israelites who said, "Thus says the Lord God of Israel: `I brought you up
from Egypt and brought you out of the house of bondage; and I delivered you out of the
nand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of all who oppressed you, and drove them out
before you and gave you their land. And I said to you, "I am the Lord your God. Do not
fear the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are dwelling--but you have not obeyed my
This is worth singling out because this unnamed prophet seems to be nothing but a prophet.
He is not presented as a judge, as one who assumes actual leadership. This is exactly the
situation we find once the monarchy is established. Political power is centered in the
king. The voice of God comes through the prophet. The functions that were united in Moses
have been separated.
In the case of David, the separation seems to be a healthy one. The prophet Nathan seems
to be a member of his court, one to whom the king turns voluntarily. Later, when we come
to the stories of Elijah, we find him to be coming at King Ahab from the outside, so to
speak. The relationship is adversarial to the point that Elijah fears for his life and
flees into the wilderness.
In New Testament times, the situation has changed again. Now there is no king. There are
no "judges." Political power is in the hands of the Romans and is backed up by their
occupation troops. In effect, therefore, there has come into being a separation between
religious and secular concerns, and in religious matters the "Jewish Establishment" rules
supreme. "The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses's seat, so do whatever they command."
The problem is that from a Gospel perspective the outward forms of religion are divorced
from their deeper roots. The letter of the law is enforced, but the spirit has been lost.
"You pay tithes of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of
the law--judgment, mercy and faith ."
The issue we are dealing with here is a perennial one, and can surface in any number of
forms. How do we know the Lord's will? How do we enforce the Lord's will? What is the
proper balance between human rights and human responsibilities? How centralized should
political authority be?
At a workshop at SSR last spring, Roy Oswald of the Alban Insitute presented a very useful
way of looking at questions of leadership. In effect, he was saying that different styles
are called for in different circumstances. If the building catches fire, you do not hold a
secret ballot to decide who should give orders. Authoritarianism is called for, and you
can only hope that it is accompanied by competence. But when in a church, say, a committee
is functioning well, to have a pastor or a church president step in and take over can only
make things worse. It can only come across as a grab for power. There are times when the
best leadership involves stepping out of the picture. In between, there are all kinds of
shadings, and Roy presented a kind of quiz which suggested our individual preferences, the
style with which each of us was most comfortable.
I mention this because "authoritarianism" is is particularly bad odor these days, with the
political left emphasizing civil liberties and the political right working against
government regulation. Whatever the religious allegiances or claims of the individuals
involved, there is little support for them in the letter of scripture as far as
governmental style is concerned. The Biblical models are without exception authoritarian,
and we cannot criticize them fairly unless we can demonstrate that this authoritarianism
was inappropriate to their circumstances.
To summarize this discussion of the literal narrative, then, the authoritarianism of New
Testament Judaism is traced back to Sinai. There we find the people themselves, of their
own free will, insisting that Moses have what is effectively divine authority.
Swedenborg's interpretation of this in his Arcana Coelestia is characteristically astute,
but quite general. Let me quote his first sketch of the meaning of two central phrases.
" You talk with us" means the acceptance of truth in an adapted form, in which form
they would obey it. ""Do not let God talk with us" means the truth in an unadapted
form. "Or we will die" means that in this case the life of heaven among them would
perish" (Arcana Coelestia ¶ 8913).
A little later, in expanding on the matter of adaptation or "accomodation," Swedenborg
speaks of the way the Word is understood in the different heavens. In the third heaven,
that understanding is wholly beyond the grasp even of people in the second heaven. It
consists, he says, of nothing but changes of state in regard to the affections of love
(constat e meris mutationibus status quoad affectiones quae amoris).
That should slow us down a little. It is axiomatic for Swedenborgians that our places in
the spiritual world are determined by what we love--not by what we do or what we think,
but by what we love. In our present states of consciousness, it is fairly easy to see what
we are doing. Thinking is certainly more elusive, harder to pin down. Feelings, which
according to our theology are ultimately in control of the whole process of living and
growing, are subtler and more elusive still.
At the very core of the being of each individual, in what Swedenborg refers to as "the
inmost," there is a kind of eternal constancy. In Marital Love 31511 we find the
extraordinary statement, "The soul is therefore the human form, from which nothing
whatever can be taken away, to which nothing whatever can be added. It is the inmost form
of the whole body." We find elsewhere that this inmost is essentially the Lord's most
perfect presence within us.
Obviously, though, we as we experience ourselves are constantly changing. There is a lot
of addition and subtraction going on. We are gaining and losing, doing and undoing,
learning and forgetting. Most importantly, our attitudes are changing. We are either
becoming more generous and thoughtful or more competitive and self-centered.
However, we should not be too quick to hang labels of "good" and evil" on these
alternatives. We are not designed to be doormats. Swedenborg can even state that there is
a sense in which the self is the neighbor. We need to take care of ourselves if we are to
be of any use to anyone else. "The end," he says (meaning our underlying purpose), "shows
how we should be our own neighbor, and provide for ourselves first" (The New Jerusalem and
Its Heavenly Doctrine, ¶ 99).
This means that in the course, say, of a given week, our feelings will be changing. When
Bob Kirven called to tell me he would not be able to come to Fryeburg this summer because
of his own health, he said, "I've gotten pretty good at taking care of Marian." He had
become aware that he could not go on doing this unless he took better care of Bob.
Let me generalize on this example. The struggle to maintain physical health is a losing
battle. The death rate holds very steady at one hundred percent. What the Lord has in mind
lies beyond death and is called "heaven" in English--coelum in Swedenborg's Latin--and has
to do, as we have said, with our attitudes. It has to do with how Bob feels not only about
Marian but about Bob.
He would be the first to tell us that he has a way to go in that regard, and that in the
process of getting there he has found and still finds himself in a lot of different
places. There is a very subtle attitudinal journey going on, a journey actually known
fully only by the Lord and overseen by a flawless providence. Underneath the day to day
shifts, underneath the larger cycles of good weeks and bad, good months and bad, good
years and bad, something quite coherent is happening. The closer we come to that
unchanging center, the closer we come to a coherence that makes sense out of the ups and
downs that don't seem to be getting anywhere or to make any particular sense.
Now let me pick up on the image of the journey. If I am in unfamiliar territory and need
directions, I need directions that pick up right where I am and tell me what to do next.
I do not want a treatise on geography or navigation. I would hope that the person who is
giving me directions really knows the area, can visualize where I am and relate it to
where I want to be. I trust that person to choose the most appropriate route from here to
there because I have discovered that in this instance I am not in possession of the
knowledge that would enable me to make that choice for myself. In short, I want directions
adapted to my actual circumstances--to where I am, where I want to be, and what I have to
Now suppose that you want to get to the same place I want to get to, but that you are
somewhere else. There is a level on which the direction is the same--"Go to St. Mark's
Episcopal church in Roanoke." But the specific directions that work for me simply won't
work for you.
Spiritually, there is no way we can see the overall design of the affectional path we are
following. People who have had near-death or other mystical experiences sometimes tell of
having seen such a design and being totally caught up in its beauty, but they also say
that once they return to normal levels of consciousness they cannot remember, let alone
describe, what it was that they experienced. They know there is such a design, they know
that it is surpassingly perfect, but they cannot grasp what it is in their normal,
"mundane" states of comprehension.
"Do not let God speak to us, or we will die." To be ourselves, we have to come down to
earth. To look again to the testimony of the mystics of all faiths, at the deepest or
highest level of consciousness there is a loss of any sense of identity. They remember
this, but they do not stay in this level of consciousness. They come back to their
circumstances, and then Christian mystics describe the experience in Christian terms,
Muslim mystics in Muslim terms, Hindu mystics in Hindu terms, and so on. In Arcana
Coelestia 104533 Swedenborg makes the striking statement that the Word itself "would have
been different if the Word had been written among a different people, of if this people
had not been such as they were."
In a way, we might say that ultimately all the Lord's laws are simply the law of love.
This law does not itself regulate either thought or behavior. Love does that. But since we
cannot control our love, the law is adapted, accomodated. It is expressed in terms of what
we can to some extent control--our thinking and our behavior. The Lord's laws say, "This
is what you would want to believe and do if you were true to your deepest love."
These adapted laws are our Moses, and it seems that this is because we want it that way.
Left only with the law of love, we are very much at sea when faced with the specifics of
day to day living. Because we are not in touch with that inmost, constant love, our
feelings lead us sometimes well and sometimes badly. If we simply "do what feels right" to
us, we become models of inconstancy. We need the law of love brought down to earth, to our
own individual earth.
Lastly, I want to set the story in the context of our individual regeneration as a
process, and for this, I need to back up a little. If we take the Biblical story as a
literal image of such a process, then clearly creation has to do with our birth, and the
descent of the Holy City with our perfection in heaven. In between, perhaps the first
obvious milestone that we can identify is the establishment of the nation under David,
which equates nicely with our own attainment of adulthood. This is when we first feel that
we are "self-governing." Looking ahead from this, the fall of Jerusalem, the exile, and
the searching messages of the prophets make a telling fit with the mid-life crisis, and
the Advent described in the Gospels emerges as the shift of our own attention from earthly
achievements, from the "kingdom of Israel," to the quality of our relationships, the
"kingdom of heaven."
This would locate the story of the Exodus somewhere between birth and young adulthood, and
there is what strikes me as a very persuasive identification, namely that of puberty.
This is when the home that we have experienced as supportive begins to be experienced as
restrictive. It is when we start wanting independence, wanting to move out into the larger
world. It is when we begin to discover that this larger world is hard and dangerous, that
we need a whole new level of discipline.
I don't want to go into detail on this. If that were all there were to it, then all we
would be talking about is early adolescence. In fact, the issues that we face in such
blatant form then are issues that we keep running into in ever subtler forms. They are
issues of control and freedom, of bondage and liberation. Whenever we feel ourselves
trapped, whether by circumstances or by our own natures, we are with the Israelites in
Egypt. Whenever we are struck with the immensity, the profound seriousness, of the Lord's
laws, we are with the Israelites at Sinai. Whenever we find ourselves saying, "Just tell
me what to do and I'll do it," we are virtually quoting Exodus twenty.
We are most inclined to enter this last mood when things around us are chaotic. That is
when we feel most strongly the need for something to hang onto. It does not have to be
perfect or comfortable as long as it is solid. For some time now, the churches that have
been growing most rapidly are those that insist on relatively clear and rigid external
I would digress for just a moment here--it will lead us right back to the topic. It has
gradually become clear that the people who are most insistent on the need for such
standards are likely to be the people who know from their own inner experience that the
human heart is full of irresponsible and destructive impulses. The people who feel the
least need for such external standards are likely to be the ones who know from their own
inner experience that the human heart has a profound longing for justice and mercy.
Now if we look at our own lives, we find ourselves inconstant in this regard. There are
times when our better intentions are very much in charge, so much so that we can pretty
much take them for granted and concentrate on figuring out the best ways to realize them.
But then there are those other times, when we are at our worst. Then the world does indeed
seem a hostile place and we feel very much a part of that hostility.
These latter times are times when we cannot be ruled by basic principles for the simple
reason that we have lost touch with them. We have to discipline ourselves to go by the
rules. In other years, I have called attention to the fact that the Ten Commandments are
normally read as prohibitions: "Thou shalt not kill!" We need that kind of prohibition
when we are in a murderous mood. But when we are overcome by a profound affection for
another human being, when the last thing we want to do is the least bit of harm, then the
same words can be translated and heard as a promise--"You won't kill."
What is happening here is a kind of "translation of affection." The usual reading, the
reading as prohibition, is "accomodated" to states of anger and destructiveness. That
reading is utterly irrelevant in the highest heaven, but the commandment is not irrelevant
at all. People at that level of closeness to the Lord have the most profound trust in the
Lord's protection. They are aware that it is divine power and not their own that keeps
them from their evils.
Swedenborg repeatedly tells us that angels of the third heaven are above all innocent, so
innocent that from a distance they look like infants. He goes on to say, "Innocence is to
acknowledge at heart that of ourselves we will nothing but evil and perceive nothing but
falsity; and that all the good of love and truth of faith are from the Lord alone" (Arcana
Coelestia 9262). If we express this in terms of the commandment against murder, it says
what I have just been saying. These are people who know their own inclinations to do harm
and who have learned the only way there is to be completely safe from those inclinations.
Have they, then, moved beyond any need for a "Moses," any need for "accomodation" or
adaptation of the laws? It would seem rather that their "Moses" is still with them, but on
a higher level than we may be able to imagine. Again, angels of the third heaven
understand the Word as a flow of affections. Perhaps their Moses is simply their
recognition that they need to feel as though their affections are their own. They know at
an extraordinary depth that their very life is not their own. But the more deeply that is
realized, the stronger is the sense of individual identity. This is stated unmistakably in
Divine Providence "The more nearly we are united to the Lord, the more clearly we seem to
belong to ourselves, and the more obvious it is to us that we belong to the Lord."
If it were not for this, then "conjunction" or union with the Lord would mean the loss of
identity--perhaps another level of meaning of "Do not let God speak to us, or we will
die." Divine truth in its fullness would utterly overwhelm our minds. Divine love in its
fullness would utterly engulf our loves.
But let's come back to earth for our conclusion. Clearly, the state portrayed by the
Exodus is a long way from the third heaven. Sinai is in the wilderness. The lessons that
have to be learned are harsh ones. They focus on self-discipline, on pressing forward
against obstacles. The kind of trust that is called for is trust in the goodness and
wisdom of the directions we are given, because a lot of what those directions call for is
not at all what we want. There is a kind of reluctant faith, if you will, that we have to
go through what we don't want in order to get what we do want. "No pain, no gain."
This is not always appropriate. If that is all there is to life, then everything that
feels good is bad for us. The stereotypical Puritan is one who says that pleasure is
intrinsically sinful. If it doesn't hurt, there must be something wrong with it. It can
lead to incredible callousness, supposedly in the service of true religion. "Those who
suffer now will be rewarded in heaven, so you don't need to trouble your consciousness
about suffering." "This is for your own good."
No, the times when the Sinai message is really appropriate for us are the times when we
become particularly conscious of our own lawlessness. Such times will recur periodically
if we are regenerating, because we will keep moving into new territory. I'm reminded of
the old joke: "Can you play the piano? I don't know, I've never tried." There are regions
of our own spirits that are still unconquered, that are still inhabited by the Canaanites.
Vague good intentions and lofty ideals are not enough. Comparison with the actual ideal is
not inspiring at all--it is utterly dispiriting to have a glimpse of how far we have to
go. So we are the ones who say, "Don't let God speak directly. Let the message come to me
in human terms, in my language. That much I think I can manage."