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Prologue at Sinai PROLOGUE AT SINAI by Bernard Horn Bernard Horn teaches American literature, mythology, and technical writing at Framingham State College in Massachusetts . This essay and one which is appearing in the Spring 1993 Essays in Literature are part of his ongoing study of Numbers, entitled In Wilderness. He has completed a manuscript, Facing the Fires: Conversations with A. B. Yehoshua, and new poems are appearing in The Mississippi Review and in a forthcoming Tel Aviv Review. 81 Just before the golden calf episode in Exodus, God, Yahweh, speaks to Moses: And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israd, saying: Surely, you must keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations that you may know that I Yahweh have made you holy.1 (31:13) A few verses later, as his first reaction to the golden calf episode, Yahweh speaks again: Yahweh spoke to Moses: Go, descend, for your people whom you have brought up from the land of Egypt have become corrupt. (32:7) "Yahweh spoke to Moses." "Yahweh spoke to Moses." I want to pay attention to these words which occur so·frequently we tend to slide over them as we read on and pay attention only to the words that follow. I am not interested for now in the specific content ofYahweh's words but only in their general characteristics and the,general readerly reaction to them. 1All the translations from the Hebrew are mine (influenced by the JPS version more than the others). When necessary, I sacrifice idiom and grace for literal accuracy. 82 SHOFAR Winter 1993 Vol. 11, No. 2 I am interested in how readers, both naive and professional, take in each set of Yahweh's words and how that general reaction affects how they respond to the "Yahweh spoke to Moses" clause that introduces the divine words. Most readers, it is safe to say, respond entirely differently to the two verses I quoted. We tend to read the second divine utterance as part of the narrative, with all the complicated emotions and thoughts readers bring to stories. We tend to read the first divine utterance, in contrast, with less emotional engagement, with the disinterest and passivity appropriate to the reading of a body of laws; any interest would be an intellectual or religious interest in the laws themselves, their meaning then or now. We take the second utterance as Yahweh's response to something that happened ; we take the second words out ofcontext. In any case, the introductory clause itself, "And Yahweh spoke," does not give us a clue as to how to think of Yahweh. We must first read the content of the speech. Only then can we decide to think of Yahweh as the source of the laws or as a character embedded in the narrative. I believe that all readers make some distinction between such narrative passages and the legal passages. What sets naive readers offfrom professional readers is what each does with the distinction. On coming across a legal passage that seems to interrupt the flow of the narrative, I would expect some naive readers to roll their eyes, skim the legal passages, and start paying attention again when the story resumes, treating the legal passage as a commercial interruption, a message from the sponsor-of course, for other naive readers this message from the sponsor is· of profound religious importance. Professional readers, literary critics or source critics, for example, would bring their special expertise to bear on the disjunction between the two sorts of passages. In this example, source critics ascribe the first utterance (31: 13), the one out of context, to P or R, the Priestly Writer or the Redactor, and the second utterance (32:7), the one embedded in the narrative, to J, the Yahwist writer or E, the Elohist. In both cases, readers assume a qualitative difference between the two communications. This distinction between the God of the narrative passages and the god of the legal passages is most relevant to the Book ofNumbers, because nowhere else do we find such regular alternation between legal passages Prologue at Sinai 83 and narrative passages...


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