There are many stories in the Bible that make for very uncomfortable reading. Nevertheless, they are recorded, and are there for our instruction—of the nature of gods and mortals, and the relationships between them. Exodus 32 (Morning Prayer, today) is one such passage.
The god Yahweh has rescued the descendants of Jacob (aka Israel) from slavery in Egypt. But they have quickly abandoned Yahweh, who decides to bring disaster upon them and start again, in hope of a people who will be faithful. Moses speaks up, arguing that to do so would bring Yahweh’s reputation into disrepute, and appealing to his promises to their ancestors—and Yahweh listens, and changes his mind.
However, when Moses returns to the people and sees them for himself, he changes his mind, and reverts to Yahweh’s first intention. Moses calls to himself those who consider themselves on the Lord’s side; the sons of Levi respond; and at Moses’ instruction, appealing to the authority of Yahweh, they go through the camp putting their brothers, friends, and neighbours to the sword—3,000 people. In this way, Moses declares, they have set themselves apart for the service of the Lord.
Sit with that awhile.
This is a deeply disturbing episode. It is an episode in the history of the people of Israel; and—key to understanding—an episode in the history of the tribe of Levi within the people of Israel.
At the very end of his life, Jacob had called his sons to him and spoken over them his last words (Genesis 49). Last words have lasting impact. These are his reflections on the character of his sons—on how that has shaped their lives to date and is likely to continue to do so. They are words of blessings and curses: blessing being releasing some aspect of life into fruitfulness, and cursing being to contain or set limits on that which is no life-giving. Such words relate not only to the individual son, but to the ‘family likeness’ of their descendants. They imply family strengths—that will overcome disaster—and flaws—that need to be overcome.
Over time, our habitual actions shape not only our character, but the shared culture of our families, our extended families, our community. To extend blessings and curses is to recognise the truth of this; yet to refuse to accept it as determinism; but, rather, to embrace disciplines to build up virtues and to see even our vices redeemed.
Of Levi, Jacob declares that he is a man of violence, that his use of the sword goes beyond proportionate defence, that he does not control his anger or his sadistic cruelty. Levi is not one to take council from, nor ought one take any part in his actions. Jacob curses—restrains—Levi’s anger, because it is fierce, and his wrath, because it is cruel. They go far beyond the appropriate, proportionate response of a settled determination to resist injustice. Jacob ‘divides’ Levi from his brothers, and ‘scatters’ him among his brothers—actions that make fullest sense applied to Levi as a tribe, not an individual. They are both separate from and dispersed throughout the descendants of Jacob, to contain their violence and, perhaps, to enable their anger to be appropriately harnessed.
Moses and Aaron, by whom Yahweh delivered the people from Egypt, are of the tribe of Levi—as was their sister, Miriam, who, with Moses, has a streak that delights in destruction (Exodus 15). (Moses himself was divided from the people, nonetheless took a man’s life, and so was scattered to the wilderness.)
And here in Exodus 32 when Moses calls people to his side, it is the sons of Levi (Moses’ own people) who respond. They are called out from the people as a whole—still divided from them, but no longer scattered from one another—and then go through the people—scattering—in fierce anger and cruel wrath.
In contrast, Yahweh’s anger and wrath might be seen to be considered, re-considered, deferred, and justified rather than indiscriminate. Anger and wrath (punishment, direct or indirect) are not in-and-of-themselves negative attributes.
That said, Yahweh is as committed to the flawed tribe of Levi as to the other (flawed, in their own ways) tribes. Even when such commitment is necessarily complex. And while the weight of that realisation lies heavy on our hearts, beyond the weight there is a greater weight lifted. For who among mortals is without flawed character?
May we be given the grace to know our familial character strengths and flaws. And may we, too, receive the blessing and the curse we need.