“And these are the names of the children of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family… Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, and the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, and increased in numbers” Those opening verses set into place the themes of the Book of Names (the Hebrew name of Exodus) as a whole. We have moved from the primordial, archetypal Genesis, that deals with the creation of the individual identity, of the self. Now we must find a name for the nameless masses, the meaning of the self within the context of the many.
The book of Genesis deals with the “chronicles of Man as he was being created.” It revolves around the interrelationship of the individual with the world. Its central metaphor is hands: how do we handle and manipulate our environment. The key repeating phrase is “ve-yishlach yado—to send forth the hand”: “And now, lest he send forth his hand and eat from the tree of life” introduced the exile from Eden; “Do not send forth your hand against the boy” closes the demand for the sacrifice of Isaac; “I told you not to send forth your hand against the youth” Reuben cries after the sale of Joseph. Letting go versus holding on; learning how to relate to Other. The book revolves around ever-intensifying painful relations between sibling and sibling, and man and woman: the two main patterns of Otherness. It closes with Joseph’s acceptance of the wrong his brothers have done him; balanced by Judah’s acceptance of the fact that Rachel—and only Rachel—holds Jacob's heart. The self has learned to accept the independence of other.
Exodus is the next stage. Having moved beyond the placement of self within family (Genesis), we now begin to deal with the birth of a nation. And it is a unique story of nationhood that begins in being stripped of all elements of identity. This is the faceless generation that has no land and has no name, birthing “like animals.” It is a story of nationhood that begins in powerlessness.
Yet the painful acceptance of otherness that introduces this story opens the possibility of a different mode of identity. Not the certainty of power and choice, but relationship to absolute Other—God. The key images of this book are “eyes” and “ears”; to “see” “hear” “smell”: from a focus on the hands, we move to a focus on the face. This is the book of learning to communicate “face to face.” Moses, the liminal figure who is “drawn from the waters” remaining always “on the banks” between heaven and earth ,God and man, is central for this connection.
For it is not a simple process. Rather, it requires transformations on both sides. “What shall I say Your name is?” Moses asks, and God changes names within communication—from the impersonal “powers” (Elohim) to the “Almighty power” (el shaddai) to the God of history who will “be what He will be”, and who bears a personal Name. Israel also is transformed, in a protracted year-long process. The Exodus is dominated by birth-imagery: from the preternatural fecundity of the opening chapter, to the bloody doorways that birth the nation, to the passage through the waters that spits the despairing slaves out on the other side as a free people. “My firstborn child, Israel” “opens the womb,” and all that “open the womb”, whether human or animal, are consecrated. Birthing a child begins a process. The opening of the womb of the Sea of Reeds is followed by the “testing” of the terrible twos: tantrums about food and attention, doubts about love.
The parent-child imagery becomes entwined with metaphors of infatuation and young love (maybe they are not so far apart as we think…) Not for nothing did the prophets describe the Exodus as “the grace of your youth, the love of your bridal days. You followed Me through the wilderness, in an untamed land.” The passage through the wilderness is a dance of approach and retreat, closeness and distance. The lead-up to Sinai is accompanied by a demand for greater and greater closeness, coupled with existential uncertainty: “Is God amongst us or nothingness?” Again and again, God imposes boundaries, which Israel “test”: “and they gazed upon God and ate and drank.” Yet consummation (both meanings) breeds not certainty, but the need for distance and escape. The relationship is too overbearing, a complete crushing of the self. “Speak you to us, but let not God speak to us lest we die.” In the aftermath of Sinai, we begin the translation of God to humanity, bringing God down to earth.
The creation of the Dwelling is a myse-en-abyme for the book as a whole, a point-counterpoint of self and other, closeness and distance, the accommodation (in both senses!) of God an humanity. We begin with God’s “pattern,” his “command” to Moses. This is vision dominated by the unified keruvim, locked together, but forever apart, each on a separate side. This must pass through the prism of Bezalel, who will translate it into physicality. Yet the translation of revelation into material brings a counter movement from Israel, who rush in to create the Golden Calf—an attempt at complete closeness, without the burden and threat of Other.
Moses once again steps into the breach.He brings God to acknowlege that “no man can see My face and live.” The relationship to humanity must be slant, to the back, rather than direct revelation. Thus, He accedes to Moses' request for forgiveness “You must walk within us.” God will indeed “be what He will be,” revealed in the walking, in the process, rather than directly.
This opens a space for human action, and in the next chapter, the people begin to build the Dwelling, transforming God’s vision with their own desires and “hearts.” Moses stands at the center, uniting their disparate parts back to the initial ideal that “he had seen on the mountain.”
The book closes when the pieces come together, and the Dwelling suddenly ignites, “a pillar of fire by night.” There is a synergy in the growth of a nation. In the end, the whole is greater than the sum of separate parts, greater than the individuals who dominated the Book of Genesis. Moses cannot even enter the Dwelling that he created. This allows a new unity of God and humanity. Not the painful separated unity of the keruvim, who are of “a single mass,” gazing at each other, but divided by the breath of their wings. Rather, it is a unity that comes of “walking together”: “when the cloud rose, the people would rise and travel.” In the year that followed the birthing of the nation in the womb of Egypt, a new relationship has been built. "For the cloud of God dwelt above the Dwelling by day, and fire was over it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys." God and humanity journey together, within "sight" of each other, essentially unknown and Other, but fully present.