In a recent post titled, “Do the Teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg take Precedence over the Bible?” I wrote:
If any truth were to come to us direct from God, we wouldn’t be able to understand it. Pure truth as it exists in the mind of God is far beyond the capacity of our limited human minds to grasp.
For many people this might be a surprising thought. In fact, it might sound like it’s just some fancy philosophical mumbo jumbo.
But the fact is, if God were to speak to us the way God actually thinks, we humans would not even be able to understand the words, let alone the ideas behind them. We would be like a kindergarten class attending a lecture by a nuclear physicist.
Here’s how the Bible poetically expresses the great gap between how we think and how God thinks:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Let’s take a practical look at the question of how God speaks to us, using a famous story from the Bible.
The book of Exodus tells how God gave the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel. First, God spoke the Ten Commandments to the people in a loud voice from the mountain, which was enveloped in smoke and fire, and shaking like an active volcano. Then Moses spent forty days up on the mountain getting the written version from God on tablets of stone, along with many other laws for the people of Israel.
The crowd of people down below waited . . . and waited . . . and waited . . . until they got tired of waiting. Finally, they decided this would be a fine time to make a golden calf, worship it, and have an orgy—thus breaking at least half the commandments God’s booming voice had decreed only a month earlier.
One of the most fascinating details in the whole story has to do with the stone tablets that the Ten Commandments were written on. As it turns out . . .
Wait! No more spoilers!
Let’s look at the story as found in Exodus 19–20 and 32–34, with some help along the way from the parallel account in Deuteronomy 5 and 9:7–10:5. As you will see, both in its plain meaning and in its deeper symbolism, it illustrates the fact that God has to dumb down divine truth for us. God has to veil it in low-level human language so that we stubborn, boneheaded human beings can have some hope of comprehending it.
The scene at Mount Sinai
The story is too long to quote here in full. You can read it at the links above. For now, we’ll quote and discuss some of the key events.
It all happened in the desert, soon after God had rescued the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt—in spectacular fashion. First the ten plagues on the Egyptians (Exodus 7–12). Then the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:20–22). Then the parting of the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptian army (Exodus 14–15:21). Now, not long after all these miraculous events, the people traveled toward Mount Sinai:
On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.” (Exodus 19:1–6)
Understandably, the people were quite impressed with the power of this God character, whose name was Yahweh (traditionally “Jehovah,” and usually translated simply as “the Lord”). The flattery of his calling them a special nation also didn’t hurt. They quickly decided it would be a good idea to listen to the Lord:
So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. The people all answered as one: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord. Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.” . . .
On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak, and God would answer him in thunder. . . .
Then God spoke all these words: (Exodus 19:7–9; 16–19; 20:1)
What follows is the Ten Commandments.
In case it isn’t clear enough that God spoke the Ten Commandments directly to the people from the mountain, so that they heard them in God’s own voice, the account in Deuteronomy makes it crystal clear. After recording its version of the Ten Commandments, it says:
These words the Lord spoke with a loud voice to your whole assembly at the mountain, out of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, and he added no more. (Deuteronomy 5:22)
In both accounts, the people were terrified. They begged Moses not to let God speak to them directly anymore. Instead, they implored Moses to go to God himself, listen what God said, and relay it to them. Otherwise, if God kept speaking to them directly, they were certain that they would die.
Moses heeded their entreaties, and went up to meet with God on the mountain.
The overwhelming power of God’s presence
Most people would naturally think that having a conversation with God would be a pleasant experience. God is so wonderful, powerful, loving, and wise! These days popular movies often depict God as a cheerful, chummy character. Who wouldn’t want to have a nice chat with God?
However, this account of God speaking directly to the people tells an entirely different story. It was accompanied by violent earthquakes, smoke, fire, and darkness. The sight and sound of it was overpowering and terrifying. The people trembled in fear, and kept their distance.
All this, and God wasn’t even right next to them! God was way up on a mountain, and the people were well back, behind a boundary that Moses had established to keep them off the mountain.
This is both a literal and a symbolic illustration of what it would be like for us to attempt to know the mind of God directly. It would be an overpowering, terrifying experience.
As I said in the earlier post, it would be like learning about the sun by flying into it. Yes, we could get fairly close in a heavily shielded spaceship. But if we tried to actually fly into the sun we would quickly be ripped apart and vaporized, spaceship and all.
Moses and a few others were able to go up onto the mountain and get much closer to God. But even they were experiencing only a small portion of God’s total power and presence projected into that particular time on that particular mountain.
To use another example from modern cosmology, they were able to fly closer to the “sun” that is God than the rest of the people because God gave them spiritual protection—like a shielded spaceship—sufficient to withstand a higher level of God’s presence. But if they were to take that same level of protection and approach just as close to the supermassive black hole that astrophysicists believe is at the center of our galaxy, they would quickly be shredded into a long, thin strand of subatomic particles and sucked into the black hole by the sheer force of its gravity.
To us here on earth, the sun commonly looks bright and beautiful. It feels warm and pleasant. But that’s only because there is a vast distance of ninety-three million miles between us and the sun, and a thick atmosphere surrounding the earth. These weaken and filter the full force of the sun’s atomic fury down to a tiny fraction of its original power before it ever reaches us.
The level of pure energy at the core of God’s being is more than the power of all the stars and all the black holes in the universe combined. If God created the entire universe and everything in it, how could it be otherwise?
The reality is that none of us could survive a direct encounter with a being of such incredibly massive energy and power.
Every experience we humans have of God involves a radically toned down and filtered fraction of the pure divine being of God.
The people break the commandments
Remember what the people said to Moses just before God spoke the Ten Commandments to them from Mount Sinai?
Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do. (Exodus 19:8)
Okay, Moses was up on the mountain forty days straight. That’s kind of a long time.
But really, Israelites?
A golden calf?
Here’s the story:
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf.
Then they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel. (Exodus 32:1–6)
Okay, so here’s the deal. The first two commandments God spoke to them were:
- You shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:3)
- You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them. (Exodus 20:4–5)
They also broke the third commandment (Exodus 20:7), prohibiting wrongful use of the Lord’s name, by connecting the name of the Lord to an idol.
Given what we know about the type of revelry people of that day and age commonly engaged in as part of their ritual practices, they probably also broke the tenth commandment (Exodus 20:17), which forbids coveting a neighbor’s wife, and then broke the seventh commandment (Exodus 20:14), which prohibits adultery. To put it bluntly, what the people were doing when they “danced around the golden calf” (see Exodus 32:17–19) was probably something like a religious orgy.
So far that’s at least half of the Ten Commandments that the people have broken—and it’s only about a month since God gave ’em!
These people were far from being a “holy nation,” as God had promised they would be if they obeyed his voice and kept his covenant (Exodus 19:5–6). They almost immediately broke the sacred commandments of God, quickly reverting back to the common pagan ways of the nations all around them.
Could people like this really listen to and understand any pure message from God?
And are we much different today? How often do we do exactly what we know we shouldn’t, immediately after the voice of our conscience—which is God’s voice in our head—shouts, “Don’t do it!!!”?
Considering how far away we are spiritually and morally from the infinite love, purity, and power of God, could any of us really listen to and understand any pure message from God?
As Isaiah said, just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are God’s thoughts higher than our thoughts. In our low, stubborn, and boneheaded state, the pure truth as it exists in the mind of God is far beyond our ability to grasp. In fact, much of the time we turn our backs on it and plug our ears against it because it tells us not to do so many things we intensely crave to do.
Moses breaks the commandments
Umm . . . that doesn’t sound quite right.
What Moses really did was break the tablets on which the commandments were written.
But it’s an obvious symbol of how the people almost immediately broke the Ten Commandments.
Here’s the story:
The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely. They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them. They have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” (Exodus 32:7–10)
At this point, Moses said, in effect, “Whoa, God! Are you sure you want to do that?!?”
Then Moses exercised with God some of the oratorical skills he had used to such great effect earlier in Egypt. Playing on God’s vanity, Moses was able to get God to change his mind, and not incinerate all the people. (Remember, that’s what happens to us if God gets too close.)
Here’s what happened instead:
Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, written on the front and on the back. The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets.
When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.”
But he said,
It is not the sound made by victors,
or the sound made by losers;
it is the sound of revelers that I hear.
As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it. (Exodus 32:15–20)
There is more meaning and symbolism in these events than we can possibly cover in this article. For now, notice two things about the tablets that Moses brought down from this encounter with God on the mountain:
- The tablets were the work of God (meaning they were made by God).
- The writing was the writing of God (meaning God did the writing).
Deuteronomy gets even more specific. It says that the two stone tablets were “inscribed by the finger of God” (Deuteronomy 7:10).
These are the tablets that Moses broke.
Aaron makes excuses
Next comes one of the greatest excuses of all time:
Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?”
And Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. They said to me, ‘Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” (Exodus 32:21–24)
Umm . . . that’s not quite how it happened. Yeah, the first part of Aaron’s story checks out. But here, again, is the part about making the calf:
Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf. (Exodus 32:2–4)
That’s how it really happened. Aaron crafted the calf with his own hands.
But as he tells the story to his brother Moses, it comes out something like this:
Moses: Yo, Aaron, what’s with the golden calf? Are you really that stupid?!? Didn’t God just tell you not to do that, you bonehead? Did the people threaten you or something? Did they hold a knife to your throat? Were they gonna string you up by your toes?
Aaron: Bro Moses, you hothead! Cool your jets! It’s not my fault! You know what schmucks these shmoes are. What took you so long, anyway? They all thought you was dead! They says to me, they says, “Make us some gods!” I didn’t want to do it. Honest, I didn’t! But I had to do something to cool ’em off, you know? So I says to ’em, I says, “Gimme all your jewelry!” And the idiots actually did it! Now, that put me in a tough spot. I says to myself, “What am I gonna do with all this bling?” So I takes it, you know, and I just sorta tosses it into the fire, all casual, like. And whaddaya know! This amazing golden calf comes zooming right out! How crazy is that?!? You gotta admit, Bro, it is a pretty cool calf. So what was I spozed to do, huh?
You see what God’s dealing with? Aaron was slated to become the High Priest, for crying out loud!
And are we really all that different today?
Sure, we don’t literally make golden calves and worship them anymore. But we have our own idols that we get all excited about. Money, power, sex, drugs, cars, boats, sports, celebrities . . . . There’s no shortage of things we modern, “enlightened” human beings set up instead of God as the focus of our lives.
Moses makes a new set of tablets
To get the full aftermath of the people’s spectacular disobedience to God, you’ll have to read the Bible story for yourself. For now, let’s skip right to the last chapter.
God had a little problem to solve. After all that hard work making those tablets and writing the Ten Commandments on them, Moses had broken them when he saw that the people were breaking the laws written on them. But God really liked those commandments. So here’s what God did:
The Lord said to Moses, “Cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke. Be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai and present yourself there to me, on the top of the mountain.” . . . So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the former ones; and he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tablets of stone. . . . He was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 34:1–2, 4–5, 28)
The “he” that wrote on the second set of tablets was not Moses, but the Lord. That’s a little clearer in the version in Deuteronomy, told in the voice of Moses speaking to the people:
At that time the Lord said to me, “Carve out two tablets of stone like the former ones, and come up to me on the mountain, and make an ark of wood. I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you smashed, and you shall put them in the ark.” So I made an ark of acacia wood, cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and went up the mountain with the two tablets in my hand. Then he wrote on the tablets the same words as before, the Ten Commandments that the Lord had spoken to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of the assembly; and the Lord gave them to me. So I turned and came down from the mountain, and put the tablets in the ark that I had made; and there they are, as the Lord commanded me. (Deuteronomy 10:1–5)
Did you notice the difference between the first set of tablets and the second?
For the first set,
- God made the tablets.
- God wrote the words on the tablets.
For the second set:
- Moses made the tablets.
- God wrote the same words on those tablets.
This may seem like a small detail. But it contains great meaning. And it gets at the crux of the matter of how God speaks to us stiff-necked, stubborn boneheads.
Divine tablets vs. human tablets
Here is the significance of the tablets and the writing on the tablets as distilled from Secrets of Heaven (traditionally known by its Latin title, Arcana Coelestia) #10453, by Emanuel Swedenborg:
- The tablets represent the outward form of the Bible. In other words, they represent its literal meaning, with all of the history, poetry, and prophecy it offers.
- The writing on the tablets represents the inward form of the Bible, which is the divine truth it contains. In other words, it represents the Bible’s deeper, spiritual meaning.
(For more on these two levels of meaning in the Bible, see the article, “Can We Really Believe the Bible?”)
After making these points, Swedenborg goes on to offer a fascinating interpretation of the difference between the first set tablets, which were made by God, and the second set of tablets, which were made by Moses but had the same words written on them by God:
There is a secret that has been unknown up to now in the fact that Moses broke the tablets that were the work of God when he saw the calf and the dancing, and in the fact that Moses, as commanded by Jehovah, carved out another set of tablets, on which the same words were then inscribed, so that the tablets were no longer made by God but by Moses, though the writing was still God’s writing. The secret is that the literal meaning of the Bible would have been different if the Bible had been written among a different culture, or if the particular culture in which it was written had been different than it actually was. The literal meaning of the Bible is all about that culture because that is the culture in which it was written. This is clear from the stories and prophecies in the Bible. (Secrets of Heaven #10453:3)
Imagine for a moment what the Bible might have been like if instead of being written in ancient Hebrew culture, it had been written in ancient Chinese culture. How different would it have been?
For one thing, dragons wouldn’t have gotten such a bad rap! In Chinese culture, dragons are a symbol of strength, power, and good luck. If the Bible had been written in China, there’s no way Eve would have been tempted by a serpent—which is later identified as a dragon, and as the devil or Satan (Revelation 12:9; 20:2).
If the Bible had been written in China, instead of being all about ancient Hebrew culture, its stories, prophecies, and poetry would be all about ancient Chinese culture—which has its own unique character.
And yet, being the Word of God, the deeper meaning within those very different outward stories would still be the same.
This is the symbolism of the tablets being carved out by Moses, but the words being written on them by God.
In his encounters with God, Moses represented the whole Israelite nation. He was a Hebrew, and he was the leader of the Hebrew people. Symbolically, when Moses carved out a new set of tablets, this means that the specific outward form of the Bible would be shaped and determined by the particular, unique character of the Hebrew people.
When we read the Bible, that is precisely what we find: stories, prophecies, and poetry that are indelibly stamped with the history and culture of the Jewish people.
In the New Testament we find stories and prophecies indelibly stamped with both Hebrew and Greek culture, salted with a dash of Rome.
But . . . if the Bible is the story of a particular human culture, how can it be the Word of God?
That’s where the words written on the tablets by the finger of God come in.
The treasure chest and its treasures
You see, the literal meaning of the Bible—the stories, the prophecy, the poetry—is not the divine truth itself. It is a container for divine truth. It is like a treasure chest containing diamonds, rubies, and gold.
The chest could have been made in any culture. Each culture would have made it differently. From the outside it might look as if it had nothing in common with what we know as the Bible. And yet, if we opened it up to see the deeper meanings within, we would find the same precious diamonds, rubies, and gold of eternal divine truth hidden inside that very different container.
Another way of thinking of it is that the literal meaning of the Bible is like a matrix, and the spiritual meaning is like a gem in the matrix. The matrix itself is a coarse mixture of low-quality minerals. But within that rough matrix lies a beautiful gem worthy of a royal crown. Though the matrix isn’t much to look at, it plays an essential role both in the formation of the gem and in preserving and delivering it intact to its eventual proud owner.
The stories and prophecies in the Bible may be a rough mix depicting a culture that was crude and primitive by today’s standards. But that rough exterior serves to contain and deliver divine truth to us in a form that we can understand and appreciate.
Divine truth in human clothing
That outward form is drawn from our own human minds and our own human culture.
You see, as I said earlier, if God were to speak to us the way God actually thinks, we humans wouldn’t be able to understand a word of it. So how does God speak to us boneheads?
God speaks to us in our language, not God’s language.
This means more than simply using the words of human language. The words and sentences of human language are designed to express the things we humans see, feel, think about, and experience. And though there are some universal experiences, such as joy and sorrow, much of what we experience is unique to our particular time, location, and culture.
- Someone who grows up in the slums has a very different experience than someone who grows up in an upper class suburban neighborhood.
- Someone who grows up in American culture has a very different experience than someone who grows up in Arab culture.
- Dare I say it? Someone who grows up female has quite a different experience than someone who grows up male.
Each culture, each community, and each individual has a unique experience. Some of those experiences are shared only within our family, or only within our community, or only within our culture. Others transcend culture and community, and are universal human experiences.
How does God talk to that welter of widely different people, communities, and cultures? How does God speak to any of us in a way that we can understand?
In bringing about the book that would be accepted as the Word of God by a vast number of people in the Judeo-Christian tradition, God had to use a particular culture that was well-placed and suitable to tell the story of God’s relationship with humankind. It could have been a different culture. But it happened to be the ancient Hebrew culture—and later the Hebrew culture as affected by Greek and Roman culture, among others.
God drew on the experiences of those people and that culture to compose a story that became our Bible. God spoke through the particular character and experience of that culture to express deeper spiritual and divine truth in human clothing that we could read and understand.
If we take the literal meaning of the Bible as divine truth itself, we are mistaking the chest for the treasure it contains. We are mistaking the matrix for the gem.
There is much in the literal meaning of the Bible that is rough, crude, and unattractive. Yet isn’t that still true of human culture? Even today our world is wracked by war, conflict, greed, and oppression. The ugly roughness of much of human culture is simply a fact of life among us stubborn, boneheaded humans.
The voice of God shining through
It’s not very surprising that such crude things are found in the Bible. What’s truly amazing is that the voice of God shines through all of that rough-hewn human literature.
That divine voice in the Bible is symbolized by the words God wrote on the tablets Moses made. The finger of God has engraved a deeper, spiritual message on the human narrative of the Bible. Without the cultural narrative carved out by human hands, we would not be able to receive or understand the voice of God speaking to us through it.
When reading the Bible, it’s easy to focus on the rough-hewn, human-manufactured surface. It’s easy to push the Bible aside as a worthless, outdated relic of cultural history.
But that would be like analyzing the form and construction of the tablets, and completely ignoring the words of the Ten Commandments inscribed on them.
You see, God took the cultural history that we humans carved out, and wrote a divine message on it. The finger of God has inscribed deeper, spiritual and divine meanings into the stories, prophecy, and poetry of our Bible.
Precisely because the Bible is not pure, divine truth, but is instead written on the tablets of human culture and history, we boneheaded humans have some hope of reading and understanding it.
And yet, if we look deeper, and see what God’s finger has inscribed into the Bible narrative, we can see more and more clearly the message of love, wisdom, and compassion for our fellow human beings that God is continually offering to us within those sacred pages.
God’s eternal divine truth shines through the pages of the Bible in a form that we can see, understand, and take to heart. And that divine truth has the power to transform our lives.
This article is a written version of a talk originally given in Washington, D.C., on December 1, 2009, under the title: “The Bible Unmasked: Sacred Cows in the Holy Book.”
This is one in a series of articles on the theme “The Bible Re-Viewed.” Each article takes a new look at a particular selection or story in the Bible, and explores how it relates to our lives today. For more on this spiritual way of interpreting the Bible, see “Can We Really Believe the Bible? Some Thoughts for Those who Wish they Could.”
For more on the literal and spiritual meanings of the Bible: