Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, February 13, 2017


A book that I have returned to often over the years is Gabriel Josipovici's The Book of God. Josipovici is an English (though born in France) novelist and critic who, at some point in the 1980s, learned Hebrew and Greek in order to read the Bible, and The Book of God is an account of what he discovered when he worked his way through that strange text.

The Book of God is a readerly book, a book about the experience of encountering Scripture by someone who did not grow up thinking of the Bible as "the book of God," and Josipovici is especially interested in exploring those moments when the Bible seems to want to thwart readers, or at least the kind of reader that most people today tend to be. Consider, for instance, the mind-numbing detail of the account of building the Tabernacle (and associated objects) that the book of Exodus provides — twice. First the Lord tells Moses about all the parts of the Tabernacle and what they should be made of, along with similar instructions for the garments of the priests and other related matters. Then — after Moses brings this information down from the mountain only to discover that Aaron has built a golden calf for the people to worship, and after that little disaster has been dealt with — we have described for us the process by which the workmen of Israel did, quite precisely and obediently, just what the Lord instructed them to do.

It's almost impossible, Josipovici says, to read all this; it cuts against the grain of everything we think reading is. And there's something else odd about it: several commentators have noticed that, as long and detailed as the instructions recounted in Exodus are, you couldn't actually build a Tabernacle from them — too much is omitted, so later attempts at reconstruction have necessarily involved a great deal of guesswork. So the whole episode, or set of episodes, is rather odd.

Josipovici therefore wonders if there isn't some other way to make sense of it, and he decides to approach the interpretative problem in a different way. He notes that in the Tabernacle episode we have detailed accounts of the building or fabricating of complex objects. Where else in the Hebrew Bible do we see the building or fabrication of complex objects?

The answer is: in at least six other places.

  • The building of the Golden Calf itself (Exodus 32), a kind of interpolated scene in the midst of the account of building the Tabernacle;
  • The construction of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11);
  • The construction of the Ark by Noah (Genesis 6);
  • The building of the great Temple in Jerusalem by Solomon (1 Kings 6);
  • Solomon's building of his own palace (1 Kings 7);
  • The creation of the cosmos and the world by the Lord (Genesis 1-2).

As I read this section of Josipovici’s illuminating book, it occurs to me that one way to subdivide these descriptions is:

  • what the Lord himself builds,
  • what the Lord specifically instructs humans to build,
  • what the Lord does not instruct but permits humans to build, and
  • what humans build in defiance of and rivalry with the Lord.

To see these acts of making in this light is to see that each act of making is an act of glorification: something or someone is glorified, celebrated and raised up, through the making.

Those of you who have read my stuff for a while know that I am interested in thinking theologically about technology, or, to put the task in another way, incorporating reflections on technology into theological accounts of human thought and action. I might describe the recent Pynchon read-through as a subset of my larger inquiry into the technological history of modernity, which is itself a subset of a theology of technology, which is in turn a subset of a general theological anthropology. I keep thinking about these matters, and reading everything I can find that seems related to them, in the hopes that at some point I will figure out the level at which I can make an appropriate contribution. A book just on Pynchon might be a little too narrow; a theological anthropology is almost certainly too broad a project for me and beyond my scholarly competence (I am not, after all, a theologian).

But as I’m feeling my way blindly around this elephant, it occurs to me that pausing to reflect on the implications of these descriptions of building in the Hebrew Bible might be a useful way to isolate some coordinates for a theology of technology. So more on that in subsequent posts.


  • We might also collapse your categories a bit: all the "human" categories are attempts at imitating "what the Lord himself builds," as a part of the cultural mandate ("multiply, fill, rule, subdue, till, keep") that is woven into what it means to be "imago Dei".

  • My notes on Exodus 20:22:
    "For example, the Mishnah accounts moralistically for the biblical prohibition against building an altar with iron hewn stones since it is not appropriate to use “that which shortens life for that which prolongs it” [M. Middot 3:4]. Referring to his own understanding of midrash as “poetical conceit,” Maimonides evaluates this rationale as “excellent in the manner of the Midrashim, as we have mentioned.” However, once subjected to a historical/critical/theological method, the “real” sense of it is to avoid adopting what was idolatrous custom for the purpose of monotheistic worship ([ Guide to the Perplexed ], III:45, p. 578).*
    *This example is particularly interesting in that the context of the prohibition may very well indicate the validity of the rabbinic interpretation in its plain sense: “Do not build it of hewn stones for by wielding your sword on them you have profaned them ” (Exod. 20:22). See, for example, Nahmanides’ philological analysis of the term “sword,” which is etymologically linked to the same term for “destroy” (hrb ) in Commentary , I:409. He thus provides a sound critical footing for the rabbinic rationale Maimonides classifies as midrash. See, however, his “midrashic” resolution of contradictory verses (Exod. 20:21, mandating an “altar of earth” vs. 20:22, allowing for stones) for halakhic purposes regarding the construction of the altar in MT, National Sanctuary I;13. This is also an example of contradictory halakhic positions between the Guide , which allows for an earthen altar, and the MT, which prohibits it altogether. See Jacob Levinger, Maimonides as Philosopher and Codifier (Heb.) (Jerusalem: Bialik, 1989), 179, who lists this, among others, as an illustration of halakhic incongruity between the two works."

    (Diamond, James A. Maimonides and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon. Cambridge UP. 2014. p. 22)

  • "So the whole episode, or set of episodes, is rather odd." Not the main point of your post, but . . . .

    I agree that the account of the plans for and the performance of the construction of the Tabernacle are inadequate to the task of actually building it (when I taught Exodus I said that further details were covered in the Exodus Lab class), but conclude that the purpose of all of that detail (in a different order, but the same phrases, the second time) is to make the point that YHWH requires that worship to be done precisely to his plan.

    We read the instructions, then after the lamentable incident of the golden calf, YHWH says (33:3) "I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way." After Moses pleads with YHWH, YHWH relents (33:14): "The LORD replied, "My Presence [my Face] will go with you, and I will give you rest." Then, after the people obediently build precisely the Tabernacle YHWH designed, his glory fills it.

    The twice tedious recitation makes the point, even if it causes the reader (or teacher) a certain amount of pain and falls short of modern narrative conventions.

  • Belatedly, thanks to you all for these helpful comments.

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