And Yahweh was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So Yahweh said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth.”
And so, in Genesis 7, God sent the flood. But Noah had found favor in the eyes of Yahweh, and through Noah the original human lineage perpetuated itself into future generations. Yahweh could just as easily have destroyed everyone, including Noah, and started over from scratch. Or he could simply have decommissioned man the idea, stripping all men of their value like coins minted in a currency suddenly declared obsolete. The idea of man is different from the physical being called man; the reality of man does not depend on the physical existence of men. Men are material things, but in themselves they have no meaning. Even “real” men, men as things imbued with meaning, are replaceable. As long as the idea of man persists, the generations of men can continue.
This is an idea about creating realities, about the relationship between raw matter and an idea that makes sense of the raw matter. Cups are cups because intelligent beings created a category called “cup” and stuck all the cups inside it. Men are men because God created a category called “man” and stuck all the men inside it. Matter wedded to idea is reality. If God pulled all the men back out of the category, the category “man” would persist in the mind of God, and the creature formerly called “man” would persist in nature. But the category would be empty, and the creature would be nameless.
Later in Genesis and continuing into Exodus we see God creating a people of his own: the Jews. But he doesn’t create them materially, by fashioning a new version of humankind from scratch out of raw materials. Instead, he sets apart some of the already-existing humans. This apart-setting wasn’t a geophysical act, since even in Egypt, even in Sinai before they crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land, the Jews were already God’s people. And again after they were scattered in the Exile, his people they remained. Circumcision doesn’t set the male children apart individually; it marks them as having already been set apart. Even the Law of Moses, which is itself a work of creation, doesn’t set the people of God apart collectively; it’s a code of behavioral ethics assigned to the already-set-apart community. God created a chosen people by assigning a specific meaning to a specific subset of raw humanity.
In a fit of rage Moses dashed to the ground the two tablets containing God’s Law, shattering them. Yahweh had already warned Moses on the mountaintop:
“Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation.”
God offered an arrangement to Moses not unlike the one he had once made with Noah. But Moses didn’t just follow instructions; instead, he pleaded with Yahweh his God, reminding him of the promises he had made to Abraham and Isaac and Israel. And Yahweh repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people. Satisfied, Moses came down from the mountain carrying the two tablets, engraved on both sides of the stone by God himself. As he approached the camp Moses witnessed with his own eyes what had provoked Yahweh’s wrath: his people were dancing before the golden calf, worshipping it as a god. It was then that Moses performed his theatrical act of destruction. Later, after the sons of Levi avenged God’s honor by slaughtering some three thousand men, after Yahweh sent a plague upon the stiff-necked people, after the people mourned and humbled themselves, after the people again found favor in the sight of Yahweh, then did Moses cut two tablets of stone, like unto the ones he broke, and again did Yahweh write the law on the tablets. For to shatter the tablets is not to destroy the law, and the God who had made the Jews into a people would not abandon them to their raw humanity.