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

work with.

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."

contact phil at for any problems or comments