The Image Of The Finger Of God
Tue, 02/15/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
Erica Brown
Erica Brown

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 5:16 p.m.
Torah: Exodus 30:11-34:35
Haftarah: I Kings 18:20-39
Havdalah: 6:16 p.m.

Exodus 31, a chapter in this week’s Torah reading, Ki Tissa, utilizes a beautiful combination of the sacredness of space and time by first discussing the set up of the Mishkan, or Tabernacle, followed by a reiteration of the need for Sabbath rest. Classical commentators relate the two seemingly disparate parts of this chapter to the setting of priorities. As important as the building of the Mishkan was it was not to supersede the observance of the Sabbath. Lest someone mistakenly think that one can continue building after sunset on a Friday, the Talmud’s very definition of prohibited work on the Sabbath are those actions involved in the creation and maintenance of the Mishkan.

Issues of sacred time and space are so redolent that the concluding verse of the chapter seems to get lost. There, in Exodus 31:18, “on Mount Sinai, [God] gave Moses is the two Tablets of Testimony, stone tablets inscribed by the finger of God,” which frame our initial covenantal commitments to God and our fellow man. This is no small act, especially given what follows. The children of Israel impatiently await Moses’ return from the top of Mount Sinai, resign themselves to life without his leadership and build a Golden Calf. This tail verse is the beginning of one of the Bible’s most dramatic hours.

The mention of the finger of God set many medieval commentators on a witch-hunt against anthropomorphism. Sa’adiah Gaon is quick to point out that this refers to God’s capabilities and not to His physical likeness. Abraham Ibn Ezra jumps into the discussion to make the same point, suggesting that man needs to speak this way about the Divine because we are limited by language and human understanding. These points seem so obvious that they may not, to the modern reader, require elucidation. Few would think that the finger of God referred to God’s literal hand.

However, there was an important polemical dimension to these medieval writers. The Karaites, a Jewish sect that emerged roughly in the eighth century and eventually broke off from rabbinic Judaism, read the Bible literally, both its narrative and legal portions. Many traditional exegetes fought against the Karaites with their commentaries. Sa’adiah Gaon was one of the main opponents of the Karaites and even wrote a book opposing their leader, Anan ben-David. What might seem of obvious symbolic quality to us was not so obvious to everyone throughout the history of Bible interpretation.

Assuming its symbolic value, how are we to unpack the image of “the finger of God”? Ibn Ezra understood that the finger image was chosen because it is the human vehicle of writing, and God handed Moses what He had written. However, the image of “the finger” takes us to several other textual and visual places. Some of us make a mental journey to the Haggada where God is described “with a strong arm,” based on verses from Exodus. Our Sages counted each of God’s fingers as a plethora of miracles. Exodus 8:15 specifically mentions this image. Ironically, it was uttered by Pharaoh’s magicians at the plague of lice. Since they could not replicate this plague, they cried out to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God!” But Pharaoh paid them no attention. Here the finger has another use; it is a pointer of blame and a symbol of punishment. This explains why it was depicted this way by our enemies.

The most prominent visual image for some of us comes from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. There, Michelangelo renders the separation of God and Adam with two outstretched arms that almost touch at the fingers. The image is a powerful one of God and man’s need for each other but also communicates the impossible distance between the two, even less than a finger’s breadth away. Michelangelo’s finger of God is not the first to depict this image lovingly. We encounter the finger of God in one of the most poetic of lines in Psalms: “When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that You set in place, what is man that You have been mindful of him, that You made him little less than Divine, and adorned him with glory and majesty” [Ps. 8:4-5].

This is the finger of creativity and control; God lovingly setting into place the heavens in so vast a universe that man appears insignificant but for the fact that God endowed him with glory and majesty. The writing finger, the accusatory finger, or the finger of creativity and control, can each be read into our verse. God handed over His written text to Moses. He might have done so with a warning that the commandments be heeded, and, in doing so, showed humanity his control and creativity.

The finger of God should also be understood within the changing religious context in which the image appears. With the creation of the Mishkan, and the Tablets and the Golden Calf soon to appear, we find the Children of Israel more in need of physical imagery that symbolizes God’s presence.

In the midst of these chapters where God “reveals” Himself in different physical symbols, we welcome yet another image, the finger of God.

Erica Brown’s most recent book is “Confronting Scandal” (Jewish Lights). She can be reached at www.leadingwithmeaning.com.

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