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Founding God’s Nation:
Reading Exodus

by leon r. kass
yale, 752 pages, $40

Leon Kass, best known for his work in the field of bioethics, including his service on President Bush’s Council, has established himself also as a formidable interpreter of the Bible. In 2003, he published his commentary on the Book of Genesis, a volume that gathered accolades from many reviewers. His current book, a commentary on the Book of Exodus, underwent a long period of gestation in which Kass pored over the text line-by-line and shared his work in a variety of pedagogical settings. He has plumbed the depths of what this text has to offer.

Though I enjoyed having Kass as my guide for this most important of biblical books, I must confess a certain disappointment. As in his volume on Genesis, Kass remains committed to reading the Bible as one of Western Civilization’s “Great Books.” This means that the Jewish tradition can play no decisive role in determining what the text teaches. This is not to say that Kass has ignored the tradition. There are many references to premodern and modern interpreters, but they play no essential role in Kass’s discernment of the enduring value of the text. “The meaning and teachings of the book,” Kass declares, “should be approachable without ­intermediaries.” Needless to say, Catholic readers beholden to Dei Verbum or Jewish readers devoted to the entirety of the Torah (oral and written) will have a different attitude. Even so, reading this book recalls the wise adage of the biblical scholar Brevard Childs: If you want to become a better exegete, become a better person. In Leon Kass, we see what Scripture looks like in the hands of a reverent and moral man.

One of the most theologically rich parts of Exodus is the story of the golden calf. It plays a central role in the liturgy of the high holidays, and here Kass’s exegetical talent—­evident throughout the book—shines, especially in his discussion of God’s surprising (and sometimes alarming!) anthropomorphic characteristics.

Almost as soon as the covenant between God and Israel has been ratified, Israel violates one of its most sacred precepts by worshipping the golden calf. But the story is not simply a record of disobedience. The making of the calf is reported in just a few verses, and the bulk of the three chapters concerns the intercessory efforts of Moses and his astonishing ability to compel God to abandon his plans for punishment in favor of forgiveness. In his introduction, Kass summarizes his theological creed: Though the tradition has long held that God is omniscient and omnipotent, the biblical narrator portrays a God hemmed in by limitations that appear more proper to a mortal being. Though a theologian would not share Kass’s assumptions about who God is ad intra, for the purposes of describing his actions in biblical narrative ad extra Kass certainly has a point. His methodology is well-suited to understanding the biblical narrative.

The confrontation with God begins at the top of Mount Sinai, when God tells Moses what his people have done. God commands Moses to stand aside so that he can destroy the nation and build up a new one from Moses’s loins. Moses rejects the notion that the nation of Israel belongs solely to him. God redeemed them from Egypt—he must take ownership. More importantly, Moses argues, God should remember the promise he made to the patriarchs in the Book of Genesis. He is bound to the nation of Israel, not to her exemplary prophet. God accedes to Moses’s argument and stays his hand.

But all is not well; the forgiveness of sins proves to be a task with many stages. Though God has repealed the threat of annihilation, Kass ­enumerates five more phases in which Moses must mollify him. To begin with, God announces that he no longer plans to accompany the people to the ­Promised Land. Should this “­stiff-necked ­people” draw too close to the land, God will have to “­consume them in the way.” Moses is able to overturn this edict.

But as his argument progresses, Moses turns from the specific details of Israel’s immediate predicament to more enduring theological questions about the relationship of justice to mercy. Here the conversation between God and Moses transcends the story of the golden calf to address the issue of how God will deal with human sin in general. In order to proceed with his office, Kass argues, Moses “needs to know whether God is a god of mercy and forgiveness or whether He insists on strict justice and punishment.” This is no small issue, for as Kass observes, when God finally does reveal his attributes to Moses, they become part of Israel’s annual penitential appeal to God, during the days leading up to Yom Kippur.

Though Moses has extraordinary success in persuading God to persevere with the people of Israel, even he has limits. When God declares early on, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Exod. 33:19), he reveals that showing mercy is part of his sovereign freedom. “By this teaching,” Kass concludes, “God corrects Moses’s assumption that knowledge of God may be used to influence His conduct.” No human being can have the grace of God at his command.

At the conclusion of this dialogue, when God finally discloses his attributes, it is clear that mercy has the upper hand:

The Lord, the Lord (Y-H-V-H, Y-H-V-H), god merciful and gracious (‘el rachum vechannun), slow to anger [literally, “long of anger”; ‘erech ‘appayim], and abundant in loving-kindness (chesed) and truth (‘emeth); keeping loving-kindness unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity (‘avon) and transgression (pesha’) and sin (chatta’ah).

But that mercy is always tempered by justice. He “will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation” (Exod. 34:6–7). Many readers blanch at this qualification. Certain Christian readers are inclined to attribute this punitive demeanor to the “Old Testament God.” But Kass rightly observes that the Bible is cognizant of the enduring effects of serious sin.

Perhaps this is most apparent in respect of David’s dalliance with ­Bathsheba, which results in the murder of her husband Uriah. Though ­David is quick to confess his wrongdoing to the prophet Nathan, his contrition does not undo the punishments that have been decreed. It is important to note that those punishments are not ordered to some abstract principle of a karma-like justice. Rather, they ­reorient David to a proper understanding of his royal office. The Catechism of the Catholic Church captures the atonement process well when it declares that although “absolution takes away sin,” it cannot “remedy all the disorders sin has caused.” It is the discipline of ­penance—which, for David, entailed the humble acceptance of the consequences of his horrific act—which completes the process of forgiveness.

In his opening pages, Kass establishes that one of his principles for reading will be to approach the text “as naively as possible.” This means not allowing what comes later to exert undue influence on what comes before. For the seasoned reader of the Bible, this can be a difficult charge, if in the end a rewarding one. Yet there are moments when the biblical author breaks character and presumes that his readers will be aware of the background of a motif as it unfolds. No doubt this is the case when Moses is told about the attributes of God’s character in ­Exodus 34. Though these attributes have a unique and special function in this chapter, they are also referenced time and again in the Hebrew scriptures. It is hard to presume that the earliest readers did not recognize this.

Kass captures beautifully the profound theological questions that are addressed in this text. Can the God of Israel pardon his people, or is he “a strict and exacting God who cares only for justice?” The answer to this question is of existential importance to both the children of Israel and us, the readers:

To put it starkly: Is the world the kind of place in which we human beings can readily accept an invitation to aim for the highest, despite knowing that we are likely to fail, because there can be mercy and forgiveness if we repent our failures and renew our efforts to succeed? Only in such a world can a person or a people eagerly aim for moral and spiritual perfection.

In the revelation of God’s character to Moses, the reader receives a new and deeper image of God. Just as importantly, this good news has come solely through “Moses’s persistent and insistent pleading on behalf of the people.” As Yochanan Muffs once noted, Moses’s courageous act of intercession becomes the touchstone for how the prophets of Israel are to act on behalf of that beloved nation. And later Christian interpreters would find in Moses’s willingness to die with (or perhaps for) his people a figure of Christ’s atoning work.

As Kass notes, by the end of the calf episode, we know considerably more about the power of divine mercy than we did when we began. “Stretching the point to the nearly unbelievable,” Kass concludes, “we may even wonder whether God’s new self-revelation . . . was an indispensable part of His overall plan.” As I read these lines, I thought of the ­Exsultet, a liturgical poem sung at the Easter Vigil, which labels Adam’s fall a “necessary sin” and a “happy fault” (felix culpa) because it merited for us such a “glorious redeemer.” These words are, of course, a theological truth only from the (limited) perspective of how we humans see the world. No self-respecting theologian would claim that sin was a necessary part of God’s providential plan. But when we are speaking of God in anthropomorphic terms, in an idiom that tries to do justice to the temporal frame of our experience of salvation, such an affirmation is perfectly reasonable. And for this sort of speech about God, Kass is a trustworthy guide to what the Bible teaches.

Much as I benefited from following Kass through Exodus, my worries about reading the Bible “without intermediaries” remain. In addition to losing the ability to ground this sacred text in the tradition that shaped and transmitted it, Kass proposes, on occasion, somewhat curious readings. One thinks of his assertion that the sacrifices of Abel and Noah run contrary to the will of God, or his insupportable claim that Moses “overdoes it” when he sacrifices animals to seal the covenant in Exodus 24. To his credit, Kass acknowledges his audacity regarding Moses—“perhaps I am misreading this”—but such unfortunate moments show the limits of reading the Bible as a Great Book. Attention and deference to readers across the millennia would have prevented some regrettable lapses in this admirable commentary. 

Gary A. Anderson is the Hesburgh Professor of Catholic Theology at the University of Notre Dame.