The Sapphire Tablets

When Moses was on top of Mount Sinai, God spoke to him saying, “I am going to give you ten commandments etched on two tablets but you must first bring to me the two tablets.” Then God showed Moses the two sapphire stones the law would be written on and commanded Moses to bring them into his presence. Moses tried to lift the two stones and found that they were much too heavy for a single man to lift. After struggling with the stones, Moses finally gave up and said, “I am sorry. These tablets are much too heavy for one man to lift.”

God answered, “I wanted you to see this for yourself so that you would know the miracle I am about to perform. The words I am about to etch into these tablets have such power that they will lift the tablets for you.”

So God approached the tablets, his glory obscured by the cloud, and he began to etch in the sapphire tablets the words, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me…” And each Hebrew word, as it was written by God’s own hand, blazed with holy fire, then glowed deep red. And each letter etched into the stone tablet took on a life of its own and sang a psalm of thanksgiving to the Creator.When God finished writing the commandments on the stone tablets. Moses picked them up and they were light as pillows. It was then that he realized the power that the words had given to the heavy stone.

As Moses came down the mountain with the two tablets in his arms, he heard the sound of laughter and drunken singing. As he came closer to the camp he could see the Hebrews had fashioned for themselves a giant golden calf and that they were worshipping it and engaging in all manner of perversion. When the glowing red letters on the tablets saw the revelry and apostasy, they were truly disgusted and they fled the stone tablets and flew to the top of Mount Sinai back to their divine source.

Suddenly, in the sight of all the people, the tablets once again became too heavy for Moses to carry and he dropped them on the ground where they smashed into a thousand pieces.

This midrashic tale was written in part to explain why Moses smashed the stone tablets when he came down from Mount Sinai and saw the Hebrews worshiping a molten image. The original story in Exodus 32 sure makes it seem like Moses smashes the tablets in anger but the ancient rabbis couldn’t fathom that a great man like Moses would behave in such a reckless way. They came up with many explanations but this creative story is far and away my favorite. More important than getting Moses off the hook, this midrash teaches us something profound. God’s word has power! It can lift even the heaviest burden but it cannot abide sin. God’s Word, even when etched in stone is living and dynamic. Those who walk in the way of Jesus are reminded by this parable of the Word who put on flesh and dwelt among us and lightens the burden of the law for us in bright red letters. Why would we bow to something manmade when we could follow the living Word back to the divine source of all things?

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Babble


Once, before the dawn of recorded history, the whole earth was a single tribe that spoke a single language. Humankind migrated from the east and settled in a plain in the land of Shinar. Through their singleminded cooperation, they quickly mastered the art of baking bricks and mixing mortar and began to set their sites on building a large beautiful city. With one voice they said, “Let us build a city large enough for all of us. In its center let us place a ziggurat so large that its top will be in the heavens. Then we will make a name for ourselves. Otherwise, we may be scattered across the whole earth.”

When God came down upon the earth to see the city and tower that humankind was building, he was distressed. “Look at this,” he said, “The whole earth is a single tribe with a single language. This is only the beginning of what they will do. Nothing they come up with will be impossible for them now!” 

So God confused their languages so that they could no longer understand one another. Then He scattered the people all over the face of the earth and the city was left abandoned. So the city, which still stands unfinished, is called “Babble” because the people there could not understand one another’s babble.

The story of the tower of “Babble” (the pun works the same in Hebrew as it does in English), from the Hebrew Bible, exists not only to explain the presence of languages and abandoned cities, but also as a warning against the ways of empire. The original hearers of the story would have known exactly who the people of Babble represented: the Babylonian Empire. Their presence loomed large over the ancient world. They were feared for their superior armies and revered for their marvelous cities with Zigurats that indeed appeared to reach the heavens. They were the dominant super power of their day and no one could imagine a future in which they wouldn’t be. The Babylonian empire, like the Assyrians before them, practiced a policy of conquering by assimilation. They would conquer cities and then disperse their inhabitants, forcing them to marry Babylonians, practice Babylonian religion, and speak the language of the Babylonians. Then, within a generation or two, the conquered peoples would forget that they were ever anything but Babylonians. Babylonian culture was not only spread by force though. Their way of life was quite attractive to their neighbors. Other peoples willingly adopted their culture and customs, along with their pantheon of  gods. This story would have been understood as a cautionary tale against adopting the ways of the Babylonians. The ideology of Empire was a threat to everything that made the Hebrews distinct: their traditions, their language, and their special relationship with an unseen God. But this radical story makes clear that God’s plan is not that the people’s of the earth should be gobbled up by an oppressive empire, but that they should remain distinct. Diversity, not conformity is God’s will for humankind. This story also makes clear that the fate of Babylon will be just like Babble before it. God will scatter the people and leave their empire in ruins. An audacious unthinkable claim. Yet, that is precisely what happened. The Jewish people remain distinct to this day with their own tradition, language, and relationship with an unseen God. And the Babylonians? You can read about them in history books and visit the ruins of their once great cities. Empires rise and fall but the Word of The LORD is forever!

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

A Sack of Feathers


Once a man approached Rabbi Hillel and asked him a question about the commandments:

“I understand why the Torah prohibits idolatry, murder, and stealing but why is there a commandment against slander? Surely this is not as grave a sin as the rest…”

Rabbi Hillel responded, “I will answer your question but first I must ask you to do something for me.”

“Of course,” said the man, “what is it?”

Rabbi Hillel handed the man a sack of feathers. “This evening place a feather on the front porch of every house in your neighborhood, then come back in the morning and I will answer your question.”

The man was perplexed by the request but he really wanted an answer to the question so he agreed to the terms. The next morning he returned and Rabbi Hillel greeted him with a smile.

“Did you do as I asked?”

“Yes,” the man replied, “Yesterday evening I placed a feather on the front porch of every house in my neighborhood, just as you asked. Now please answer my question about the commandments.”

“Patience,” said the Rabbi, “First do me this one last favor: go back and collect all those feathers you laid on those doorsteps and bring them back to me.”

The man laughed incredulously. “What you ask is impossible! Surely the wind has blown away every single one of those feathers by now. There’s simply no way I could retrieve them all for you!”

Rabbi Hillel’s eyes beamed and he said with a smile, “Ah… and so it is with slander. The lies we tell about our neighbors can never be retrieved. They are like feathers scattered to the wind.”

I love the Jewish tradition of Rabbi stories. Especially those where the Rabbis are given a difficult question and respond with a parable (a trait which readers of the Gospels find all too familiar). Rabbi Hillel stories are my favorite. Living in the century before the Common Era, Rabbi Hillel’s interpretations always emphasized God’s compassion over rigid adherence to law (that might be familiar too). This parable beautifully demonstrates the hurt we can cause with our words. Such damage is all too often irreversible. Who among us doesn’t have words they desperately wish that they could take back? But once a thing is said, no matter how many times you say you didn’t mean it and apologize, the words still linger and cause pain. A rumor similarly continues to spread like a wildfire. In this era of fake news and social media slander, we’d do well to remember that we are commanded to choose our words wisely. We are commanded not to invoke God’s name for our own purposes and to not bear false witness against our neighbors. What we say matters. Pray before you speak. A feather in the wind can never be retrieved.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…