To my loyal readers: I will be taking a break from writing for the next three months. My wife and I are in the midst of a move. I feel I must devote all my energies to preparing for the move and resettling after the move. I hope to resume my blog in November. Thank you for being a loyal reader. If you wish to read some of my previous postings, you can access them through my archives.
The exodus model differs from the journey’s quest in two –for me–compelling ways.
In my last posting, Part 1 of this extended discussion on two models of the spiritual journey, I looked at the popular model of the hero’s journey. I call it popular because Joseph Campbell gave it such appealing presentations. Now, I turn to the second model, the story of the exodus.
Fundamentally the exodus story is the story of liberation, the liberation of a people. Through Moses, God frees the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, freeing them through a series of mighty works he performs on their behalf.
Fundamentally the exodus story is the story of liberation, the liberation of a people.
The struggle for freedom climaxes in the miraculous passing of the Israelites through the Reed Sea on dry land; the Egyptian army is drowned when it tries to follow. Then something interesting happens. If Israel had taken the normal coastal road along the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, they would have arrived in the land of Canaan in a matter of weeks. But God directs them to pursue their journey through the middle of the Sinai desert. That journey ends up taking 40 years.
Learning to Exercise Responsible Freedom
Why would God direct Israel into such a long, slow, and circuitous route to Canaan? The answer I believe is that this disorganized band of freed slaves is not yet a people, a nation that can hold its own when it arrives in Canaan. What is needed is a time for nation-building. Nation-building, however, is not a quick and instant task. It can take a long time to forge a group of individuals into a unified society. That is the task of those 40 years in the Sinai wilderness.
In particular, Israel must learn how to live with the freedom God has given it, without falling back into the patterns of tyranny from which they emerged in Egypt. For the great illusion of many revolutions is that freedom means license for every person to do exactly what he or she wants to do.
If you operate with that understanding of freedom, then society becomes a power struggle among all the competing interests and persons. That power struggle comes to an end only when one group or individual gathers all power into their or his hands. When that happens, a new tyranny replaces the old one that the revolution overthrew. We have seen this pattern repeated over and over again in history.
For the freedom that God has given the Israelite slaves to survive, they must come to recognize that they must exercise a responsible freedom. Responsible freedom means that I enjoy the freedom to be myself, but in a society where everyone else is accorded the same freedom. Responsible freedom, therefore, means we accept limits on our autonomy.
Israel must learn how to live with the freedom God has given it, without falling back into the patterns of tyranny from which they emerged in Egypt.
What is happening in Sinai during those 40 years is that God is establishing a covenant with Israel and giving Israel a code of law that will enable Israel not only to survive as a nation, but also to flourish by a practice of responsible freedom.
After 40 years of wandering, the Israelites cross the Jordan River to take possession of the land God has promised to them, the land of Canaan. What we find in the rest of the Old Testament story is how seductive will be the temptation for Israel to return to the life of Egypt.
Over and over again, Israel will compromise its monotheism, reintroducing the worship of other gods. It will backtrack from its principles of social justice, repeating the patterns of exploitation and tyranny practiced in Egypt. As a result, Israel will lose its land and freedom, going into exile.
Four Distinctive Features of the Exodus Model
Let me highlight four distinctive features of the Exodus story.
First, the Exodus story is a story about liberation. What Israel is given in the exodus from Egypt is the gift of freedom. Israel does not free itself from slavery. No, God frees them—and thus we are given the original meaning of salvation.
The gift of the Torah or Law is a gift that God gives so Israel can retain its freedom through the practice of responsible freedom. What Israel must learn in the wilderness is how to love God with all their being and love their neighbor as themselves. That is what a saved life looks like–a life of health, harmony, justice, wholeness, and peace.
Second, the exodus is not a story of the liberation of individuals as individuals, but the liberation or salvation of a people. What is primary in the story is the creation of a people, the people of Israel.
Yes, there are heroes in that story, especially Moses. In the story of Moses, there are many places where the life of Moses follows the classic pattern of the hero’s journey. But the exodus story is not primarily the story of the heroic life of Moses. It is the story of the liberation and forming of a people. Salvation has a fundamental social character rather than an individual character.
Three, note how the exodus story ends. Israel does not return to Egypt to resume its life in Egypt as a transformed people. The journey ends in the Promised Land, a new destination and a new home.
The old home is left behind. It is the land of oppression. Instead God leads them to a new home, a different place from where they began their journey. The Promised Land is a place where Israel can flourish in freedom, if Israel is willing to practice the principles of responsible freedom.
Finally, Israel remembers and celebrates this story of liberation each year through the Passover festival. Passover is the supreme religious festival of Judaism. It remembers the gift of Israel’s liberation. It continues to be seen as the paradigm for how God relates to Israel all through its history and into its future.
Scholars speculate that in the ancient past, Passover may have had its origins in a spring festival celebrated by the Canaanites. But what is striking is that the Israelites historicize the festival, making it not a celebration of nature’s cycles, but of a historical event, the Israelite’s liberation from slavery. It is a celebration of liberation, of a people being set free for a life of liberty under covenant with God.
The Jewish Concept of Historical Time
This Jewish concept of Passover involves a dramatically different concept of historical time than did those pagan fertility cults that I discussed in my last posting. Historical time is seen as linear, not cyclical. History has a beginning and it has an end. History time moves from one to the other.
In the historical event of the exodus, God frees Israel from Egypt and sets Israel on a journey. When the journey ends, it does not bring Israel back home to Egypt, but to a new destination, the Promised Land. Egypt and the Promised Land are not one and the same.
Therefore, the divine movement in the world is not seen primarily as moving through the cycles of nature, but through divine interventions into human life, interventions that make a decisive difference. The divine character of God is revealed in God’s interventions in unique historical events, events that are meant to free human beings into a wholesome society.
Scholars have noted that this Hebrew understanding of time means that Judaism has built into it a momentum for change. Religion is to lead people to a new and better experience of life, a life of liberation.
The divine character of God is revealed in God’s interventions in unique historical events, events that are meant to free human beings into a wholesome society.
Time moves forward from an initial starting point toward a fully developed end point in the future. What the future end point will be is not fully clear, but it will not be a return to the initial state of the world at the time of creation.
The ancient pagan mindset tended to see the Golden Age of mankind as lying in the past, at the time of creation. This was re-emphasized each year in the pagan celebrations of the New Year Festival.
Hebrew thought, on the other hand, sees the Golden Age lying at the end, not at the beginning of history, but at the end of history when the Kingdom of God will be ushered in in all its fullness. History is a linear journey with mankind moving ahead to a Golden Age that has not yet dawned.
If we remain true to this mindset, then the Hebrew concept of time works not to re-establish the status quo but to give incentive to change, change that leads to a better future ahead.
Christian Adaptations of the Exodus Model
With its origins in Judaism, Christianity adopts this same Hebrew mindset of linear historical time. With one big difference: Christianity sees the decisive intervention of God into human life as being not the exodus from Egypt, but the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.
The death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are seen as the ultimate events of liberation, except in this case, not from the political and economic and social oppression of Egyptian slavery, but from our spiritual slavery to sin, death, and evil. The events of Holy Week, Easter, and Ascension then become another Passover, the Christian Passover. They celebrate our salvation from a kind of spiritual enslavement.
Still, exodus becomes the basic model for the classic Christian understanding of the spiritual journey. Let me mention a few examples.
When monasticism arose in the church in the late 3rd and 4th centuries, it arose in the deserts of Egypt and Syria. That is not accidental, for by this time, the desert had come to be associated with the location for spiritual transformation and formation. This was one of the legacies of the exodus story in Jewish and Christian imaginations.
One of the first and great expositions of the Christian understanding of the spiritual journey is a book titled The Life of Moses, by the early church father Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory was a renowned Christian theologian of the 4th century. He and his brother Basil of Caesarea were great apologists for what became the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. He lived and worked in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey.
…exodus becomes the basic model for the classic Christian understanding of the spiritual journey.
In his book The Life of Moses, he interprets the story of Moses and the exodus as an allegory. The allegory describes the spiritual journey of the soul as it journeys to God and to God’s realm. In that journey (a mystical journey as Gregory understands it), he sees the soul going through three stages, symbolized by God’s revelation of himself to Moses, first in light, then in cloud, then in darkness.
Gregory is especially notable for his teaching that the Christian soul never fully reaches the end of his journey, even in eternity. Perfection is seen to be a never-ending journey. He writes: This truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in the desire to see him.
Another great Christian exposition of the exodus model of the spiritual journey is Dante’s Divine Comedy. This epic poem tells the story of Dante’s own spiritual journey.
He begins in a dark wood of human confusion and despair. He journeys first through the realm of human sin, Hell. Then he begins his ascent to Paradise, passing through the stages of Purgatory as sins are cleansed. He ends his journey in the celestial Paradise where he reaches the end of his journey with a beatific vision of God.
In fact, his poem ends not with Dante returning to a transformed life in this world, but caught up in the ecstasy of divine love at the center of time and space. The end of the journey is a far different and far more glorious place than the dark wood where he began. His exodus is the journey through spiritual purification.
Finally I want to mention a great Protestant classic of the spiritual journey: John Bunyan’s classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress. This book is the classic Protestant adaptation of the exodus model of the spiritual journey.
It has a hero, the figure of Christian, who travels on his way to the celestial city through a series of tests, temptations, and adventures. The land he leaves behind is a kind of Puritan version of Egypt. When he reaches the celestial city, he crosses through the river of death, never to return home. He comes to his new home, the celestial land of heaven.
Why I Find the Exodus Model So Compelling
We have then two models for the spiritual journey: the hero’s journey and the exodus. We often see writers on spirituality blending aspects of the two models together. Even in the exodus story, as I mentioned, we find Moses as an individual exhibiting some features of the hero’s journey.
I personally resonate with the hero’s journey model because my own spiritual journey mirrors some of its components. I have traveled Campbell’s circle, and returned home again, but as a stronger and spiritually healthier person. But I find the exodus model more compelling for two important reasons.
First, as I have mentioned several times, the hero’s journey generally has an individualistic cast. The transformed hero may have a beneficial impact on society once he returns home, but the hero’s journey is not primarily about a people’s journey as a people.
Maybe that is one reason why Joseph Campbell’s presentations so resonate with Americans. Our culture is one that values individualism, and a spiritual journey that concentrates on the transformation of an individual appeals to us. Even those classic Christian statements that I cited–the works of Gregory of Nyssa, Dante, and John Bunyan–also adapt the exodus story along an individualistic line. They describe the spiritual journey of individuals.
…we can never escape the fact that the exodus model of the spiritual journey is always a story of a spiritual journey of a people, not just of individuals.
But I think that we can never escape the fact that the exodus model of the spiritual journey is always a story of a spiritual journey of a people, not just of individuals. For this reason, Judaism and Christianity remain corporate in their religious visions. The people of Israel as a people, the Church as the Body of Christ, remain central to both religions.
I think that is important. The hero’s journey can breed a sense of elitism. It is after all a story of a hero. What happens then if we do not feel we are heroes? Is the spiritual journey then something we cannot hope to experience?
What about all of us average Christians who do not have burning bush mystical experiences or Damascus Road transformations? Can we participate in any spiritual journey?
I answer a decisive Yes. We participate in the spiritual journey through our participation in the life, worship, and ministry of our home church. Life in a normal parish church may not always feel all that transformative, what with its petty disputes and meanness.
But it can be very transformative, as we share in its life, in its the study of the Word, its celebration of the sacraments, and its ministry to those in need. That participation lived out through a lifetime of devotion can bring about transformations just as real as Moses’ or St. Paul’s. The transformation may be slow, quiet, and hidden. Nonetheless, whether transformation is gradual or immediate, it is still transformation.
Here is where I resonate strongly with the exodus model. When I look back on the spiritual journey I’ve traversed in my life, I have to say that I have had no sudden or dramatic revelations or enlightenments or mystical experiences that revolutionized my life and consciousness as did the enlightenment that the Buddha had under the Bodhi tree.
My experience of transformation has been much more an experience of living out in the wilderness for a long time. There in the wilderness I have undergone many transformations, but in slow, quiet, and hidden ways. My formation as a Christian, however, has been deeply shaped and influenced by my participation in a number of local Christian congregations. It has not been an exclusively individual journey.
I believe that for most Christians, that will be the way we experience the spiritual journey. If we take our involvement in a local church seriously and we take the call to Christian discipleship seriously, we will be transformed more often than not in these slow, quiet, and hidden ways. This means I have a high regard for life in a congregation. Life in a local church may have its many problems, but it is still the place where the Spirit works to transform us spiritually.
The Best is Yet Ahead
Second, I find myself most drawn to the exodus model because of its sense of the end point of the journey and its sense of time. Again, as I’ve mentioned several times, the end of the Exodus journey is not the return to Egypt, but the arrival in the Promised Land.
The exodus story nurtures an openness to change. As a result, life takes on vitality, because we are spiritually always on our tiptoes waiting with incredible anticipation to see what amazing things God is doing and will do.
What I find fascinating in the trajectory of the Biblical story is that the Bible begins with a garden, the garden of Eden, and in the Christian Bible ends with a city, the city of the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven, described in the last two chapters of Revelation.
God is a true conservative, preserving what is good and best in the past, but God is also a true liberal, in the sense of his liberating all creation for a glorious liberty that exceeds description.
Yet in the heart of that city lies the garden. The garden has not been abolished and abandoned, but it has been caught up into something much greater and more glorious, a city where God dwells with his people forever. The garden is preserved and glorified in the city. God is a true conservative, preserving what is good and best in the past, but God is also a true liberal, in the sense of his liberating all creation for a glorious liberty that exceeds description.
What all this says to me is that God is at work not just to save our lives so that we can return to our lives as they are, there to be more happy, effective, and productive.
No, God is at work to bring us and the whole world to something far more glorious than we can ever imagine, a fulfillment that exceeds whatever we can dream. This is a vision of incredible hope. In the exodus story, the best does not lie behind us in the past. It lies ahead.
This posting completes my reflections upon the Book of Exodus, reflections that have occupied my last 34 blog postings. I hope they inspire you to go back and re-read the Book of Exodus and then do so again and again. Let it words sink deep into your souls, for it is, I believe, the paradigm of salvation. This is what the journey to salvation looks like, whether we are an individual or a people.
Joseph Campbell and the Book of Exodus offer contrasting models of the spiritual journey.
You may have noticed, as I have, that it has become popular in recent decades to talk about spiritual journeys.
I’m not sure my grandparents would have, nor my parents. They would have talked more about piety. Many today, however, have thrown out the language of piety. They talk about spiritual journeys.
One reason may be that ours is an era of religious ferment. People are exploring many religious options different from the one they were raised in.
Many more are holding up their religious convictions for reconsideration. They are on a spiritual quest. The words “spiritual journey” offer a feeling of openness, flexibility, and readiness to change–qualities today’s generations admire.
Today two different models for the spiritual journey compete for our attention: the hero’s journey and the biblical story of the exodus.
But what is a spiritual journey? What happens on it? Where does it lead? These are questions we may not always stop to ask.
Today two different models for the spiritual journey compete for our attention: the hero’s journey and the biblical story of the exodus. Though they share some features, they are not exactly the same thing. They understand a spiritual journey in different ways. They do not aim for the same destination.
In this posting, I will look at the model offered by the hero’s journey. In my next posting I will look at the contrasting model offered by the story of the exodus.
The Hero’s Journey as Spiritual Journey
The form of the spiritual journey as a hero’s quest has been popularized recently in the writings of the late Joseph Campbell (1904-1987). A scholar of world mythology, he presented his view in several books, most notably The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He also discussed it in his famous TV interviews with Bill Moyer, which were transcribed in the book The Power of Myth. (Another compelling presentation of the hero’s journey is found in Robert Bly’s book Iron John.)
Campbell identified this kind of spiritual journey in numerous myths from a variety of world cultures. He called it the monomyth, the most basic myth of mankind, because its structure and pattern were repeated in stories and myths from cultures around the world.
He summarized the myth in this way:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
He identified 17 steps that were customary in a hero’s quest story. I will not describe them in detail. If you wish to explore them, you can do so by clicking on the Wikipedia entry and diagram on the quest. I will just highlight a few important stages in the hero’s quest.
The quest begins with a man or boy (and usually it is a man or boy in the mythological stories, although women and girls can go on quests too) being called to go on an adventure.
That call is usually associated with the hero becoming aware of a major lack in his life. He may not yet have fully grown up and become mature. He faces life challenges, but does not have the power or knowledge to meet them. Or he lives in a society that is also immature. It may be torn apart by conflicts or disordered. His journey may in fact begin with an act of injustice that separates him from his family and home.
The man sets out on a quest for something he needs to either live more healthily in his world or master it. The quest takes him out of his known world into an unknown world. On his quest he encounters mentors and tempters. He faces various tests and challenges. Usually he experiences some kind of an abyss experience, which Campbell calls entering into the belly of the whale.
Ultimately he experiences a transformation, usually coming after an encounter with a person of incredible power. This person may be divine, but often brings an experience of unconditional love. The transformation involves a unification of divided aspects of his life, a unification of his bodily and the spiritual dimensions, a gift of wisdom, or a transformation of consciousness, in which compassion becomes prominent.
He has now achieved his goal. He begins a return home. The return trip may have its various dangers and temptations, but the hero has strength to make it.
He returns grown up, mature, healed, with gifts of wisdom and power. He is free to live without fear. He is master of two worlds. He also returns home with a boon for the society in which he grew up. With his new knowledge and powers, he is able to help heal or transform his society and restores justice. In most of these stories, it is important to note that the hero returns home, returns home that is if he has met the challenges of the quest successfully.
The Gilgamesh Epic
This model has deep roots in the ancient world. One of the earliest examples is the epic story of Gilgamesh. This is a poetic epic that comes from the Sumerian civilization that flourished in Mesopotamia around the start of the 3rdmillennium B.C.
Gilgamesh is king of the Sumerian city of Uruk. He is a lusty undisciplined king, delighting in warfare and sexual pleasure. His rule creates chaos in the city, and the citizens complain to the gods for relief.
The gods create a companion for Gilgamesh, a wild man named Enkidu, to distract him from his tyranny. The two men become fast friends, engaging in all kinds of shenanigans out in the wild fields. Enkidu, however, is killed, and Gilgamesh is confronted with the reality of death. He becomes obsessed with finding the secret of immortality.
He begins a long and complicated journey. It brings him ultimately to Utnapishtim, the one mortal and his wife who survived a great flood and were given the gift of immortality by the gods. Utnapishtim directs Gilgamesh to a garden where the plant of immortality grows.
Gilgamesh picks the plant but on his return home, it is eaten by a snake. Having lost the gift of immortality, Gilgamesh returns to Uruk with wisdom, understanding that immortality is not given to men. He becomes a model king for Uruk.
The Lion King
The hero’s quest is a theme we often encounter in modern movies. One excellent example is that beloved Disney masterpiece The Lion King.
In that movie, the lion cub Simba is driven out of his father’s kingdom by a wicked uncle after the uncle murders Simba’s father, the rightful king. In exile, Simba is befriended by a warthog and meerkat, with whom he lives into early adulthood.
He then encounters the lioness Nala whom his parents had originally intended to be his wife. She calls him to return to his father’s kingdom, which has become a wasteland under his uncle’s tyrannical rule.
After many refusals, Simba does, but he returns not as a weak lion cub, but as a full-grown lion warrior, with the gifts and powers to do the task for which he is called.
The Story of the Buddha
If you wish to look for a more historical and less fictional exemplar of the hero’s quest, the best example is the life of the Buddha, the course of whose life follows the hero’s quest quite closely.
The historic Siddhartha Gautama is an Indian prince born into a princely family near Nepal in the 6th century B.C. His father tries to protect his son from all contact with the evils and sorrows of the world.
But as a young man, during a chariot ride outside the palace, he encounters successively an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and an ascetic. These encounters pop his psychological and social bubble, and Gautama decides to abandon his royal life and family and become an ascetic, searching for the answer to human suffering.
He becomes an ascetic for many years, until he experiences an enlightenment while meditating under a tree. This enlightenment transforms him. He decides to use the gifts given to him in this enlightenment to return to the world to become a teacher and preacher. From his ministry arises the whole movement of Buddhism that has left an indelible impact especially on the east Asian world.
Let me make a few comments on this model of the spiritual journey.
Myths as Symbols of Human Experience
First, Campbell interprets the mythological story’s elements as symbols of what happens to a human being spiritually and psychologically as he or she moves towards spiritual wholeness. The myths talk about spiritual and psychological experiences any of us might have in our own lives.
For example, when the hero moves from the known world into the unknown world, that can represent a person’s moving out of his conscious mind into the unconscious realm of a human personality. Campbell builds upon some of the insights of Carl Jung, who interpreted myths in similar ways.
The myths talk about spiritual and psychological experiences any of us might have in our own lives.
The hero’s quest is an appealing story of individuals overcoming hardship and trial and achieving salvation. Salvation comes in the form of integration of their fractured life or personality. Salvation also brings with it powers and wisdom so the hero can be a master of his life and destiny.
The hero does not earn his salvation entirely by his own efforts. His wisdom and powers are often gifts given to him from a numinous source, sometimes a god or some other transcendent power. There is a strong element of grace at work in these myths.
Salvation as a Transforming Experience
The key to his salvation is a powerful transforming experience. For the Buddha it was that moment of enlightenment as he sat under the Bodhi tree. After this transforming experience, the hero is never the same.
One thinks of the irrevocable change that occurred for the apostle Paul after his Damascus Road vision of Christ.* One can also think of people who have had a powerful spiritual experience that they might describe as being born again in the language of the Protestant revival movement.
The focus of this model of the spiritual journey…is decidedly on the transformation of the individual rather than on the transformation of a people.
The transformed hero returns gifted with wisdom and powers that his disordered society desperately needs. He is able to bring order and justice and healing to the world. I think the Buddha is a superb example of the hero’s quest activated in a historical person’s life. After his enlightenment, the Buddha preached and practiced a message of compassion for other suffering human beings.
The focus of this model of the spiritual journey, however, is decidedly on the transformation of the individual rather than on the transformation of a people. Social reform begins with transformed individuals. Society may be transformed, but it will be primarily through the compassionate actions of transformed individuals. In this respect the trajectory of this model is more individualistic than social.
The Circular Character of the Hero’s Journey
Another feature about this model for the spiritual journey is the circular character of the quest. The hero leaves home in search of some kind of healing or transformation. When he does find it, he returns home an emotionally and spiritually mature human being, who now can use his powers and gifts to bring order and healing to his community.
In fact, Campbell has diagrammed the 17 steps of the journey into a circle.
The circle begins at the hero’s home. It ends with the hero’s return home.
I find this circularity fascinating because it mirrors the circular way in which the ancient world (in which this myth arose) tended to think of historical time.
Religious life in the ancient Mediterranean world, as well as in many other parts of the ancient world, such as the Maya in the Americas, was deeply rooted in the cycles of nature—the cycle of day and night, the cycle of the solar and lunar years, the cycle of the repeating seasons, and the cycle of life and death among both animals and humans.
These cycles were critical to the fertility of the land, on which ancient life depended. As a result many ancient religions were focused on ensuring these cycles should continue without interruption. Religion tended to be fertility cults.
We must remember this as we encounter the myths of a dying and rising god that we meet in the ancient Near East. Those myths gave theological justification to the cults themselves.
The Sumerian myth of Dumuzi offers a good example. This myth arose about the same time as the Gilgamesh epic. In it a minor god named Dumuzi is married to the great goddess Inanna, one of the principal gods of the Sumerians.
There are various versions of the myth. One says that Dumuzi was having terrible nightmares, and his sister Gestinanna interpreted them as attacks of demons. Dumuzi tries to hide from the demons as a gazelle among his sister’s sheep. But the demons find him and carry him off to the land of the dead in the underworld. Gestinanna eventually finds him there and persuades the gods of the underworld to let her brother return to earth for six months in each year, while she remains in the underworld until he returns.
Another version of the myth tells how his wife Inanna is angry with her husband because of his unfeeling behavior to her. She asks the demons to take him off to the underworld. There he remains six months out of the year, during the hot, sterile months of summer. He returns to earth around the autumnal equinox, bringing renewed fertility to vegetation, herds, and people.
The myth of Dumuzi and Inanna is clearly a fertility myth. Variations of it are found all through the ancient world, for example in the Babylonian myth of Tammuz and Ishtar, in the Greek myth of Adonis and Aphrodite, and in the Asia Minor myth of Attis and Cybele, which was so popular in the Roman world.
The Cyclical Character of Time
In these ancient myths we find expressed the ancient understanding of time as circular or cyclical.
What counts most in this ancient mindset is the moment of origin for the world. In that initial act of creation the gods created the divine structure of the world and the divine structure of human society. In that divine structure of society, the king becomes the intersection point between the world of the gods and the world of human beings.
The world remains harmonious and ordered in so far as human beings respect and obey that divine order, created at the time of creation. The king plays the important role in maintaining that divine order.
Home was where it all began, and returning home was the goal…historical time was seen as flowing in an endless cyclical course.
Each year at their New Year festivals, these ancient societies sought to return to that first day of creation and re-affirm or re-establish that divine order. In these annual festivals, people returned to their spiritual home in order to re-affirm it. Home was where it all began, and returning home was the goal. This meant that historical time was seen as flowing in an endless cyclical course.**
Now this mindset had a very practical impact on the society. It meant ancient societies tended to be deeply conservative. The annual reaffirmation of the divine order also included a reaffirmation of the divine social order of semi-divine king, nobility, and peasantry.
This was the order established by the gods at creation. It was to be reaffirmed each year at the New Year’s Festival. As a result, the way ancient societies were structured and operated seldom changed in any radical way.
Author’s Note: In my next posting, Part 2 of this discussion, I will explore the contrasting understanding of a spiritual journey offered by the story of the exodus.
* Described in Acts 9:1-18.
**Mircea Eliade, a Romanian scholar of the history of religions, gives an insightful analysis of this ancient mindset in his book The Myth of the Eternal Return, first published in English in 1954. I am deeply indebted to this book for my insights into the ancient mindset.
Christian celebrations of Easter are closely bound to the exodus story.
Many people have been struck by the many uncanny parallels between the Easter story and the widespread pagan myths about a dying and rising god. It raises the question: Is there a connection between the two? More especially, did the pagan myths give rise to the Christian belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus? Many today believe that is the case.
But when we turn to those first centuries of Christianity when the distinctive Christian understanding of Easter takes shape, we find a surprising phenomenon. We would expect to find allusions to those ancient fertility cults in the earliest accounts of Easter in the church. However, we find no allusions to the fertility cults at all in our earliest accounts. That is strange if Christians were drawing their Easter beliefs from the fertility cults or shaping their Easter traditions along the lines of the common fertility cults to appeal to pagans.
…the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus comes clothed to us in the imagery, symbolism, and language of the Jewish Passover.
What we find instead is that Christians associate their Easter celebrations not with the pagan fertility cults, but with the Jewish festival of Passover. In those early years, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus comes clothed to us in the imagery and symbolism and language of the Jewish Passover.
In fact, the name these early Christians give to their Easter festival is the Greek word pascha. Pascha is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Pesach, which is the Hebrew name for Passover. The Latin church picks up this usage and calls Easter in Latin as pascha as well. And from that Latin origin, modern European romance languages get their name for Easter:
- French: Paques
- Spanish: Pascua
- Italian: Pasqua
New Testament Antecedents
We see this linkage between Passover and Easter already in the New Testament. Probably the earliest reference of all is a verse in the apostle Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.
In Corinth Paul is dealing with a church undergoing intense conflict. He seeks to guide this church into living harmoniously with one another, by counseling them to give up their fights and petty bickering, and the intellectual or spiritual pride that lie behind them.
As a part of his advice, he strangely says this:
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthians 5:6-8)
Unleavened bread forms a part of the Jewish Passover meal, and Paul is alluding to this in what he says. But what is most interesting is his describing the crucifixion of Jesus as a Passover sacrifice, with Christ forming the sacrificial lamb. Here the link between the crucifixion and Passover is already assumed. Paul does not introduce it as a new concept, but one that the Corinthian Christians are well aware of. Keep in mind that this passage was probably written no more than 25 years after the death of Jesus.
We find other New Testament passages making this same link between the Jewish Passover and the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the Gospel of John, Jesus dies on the cross on the day of 14 Nisan. This is the day each year when the lambs served at the Passover dinner are sacrificed in the Jewish temple. According to John, Jesus dies at the same hour as the Passover lambs.
In John the Last Supper is not a Passover dinner, but in Matthew, Mark, and Luke it clearly is. There when Jesus breaks the bread and shares the cup of wine with his disciples, it is important to note the words he uses with the cup of wine.
In all three accounts, Jesus links the wine to his death, describing it as the blood of the covenant or of the new covenant. This wording links what is happening in this last supper and the upcoming crucifixion with the spilling of blood that sealed God’s covenant with Israel, as described in Exodus 24. We are not only remembering the exodus, but also re-experiencing it.
The Linkage of Passover and Easter in the Patristic Church
In the years following the New Testament, this linkage between Easter and the Jewish Passover becomes well-established. The first Easter sermon to survive from the early church is a sermon given by a bishop named Melito of Sardis about the year 170 A.D. It’s a longish sermon. Strikingly it is almost completely a long meditation on the Jewish Exodus events which are interpreted as symbolic of the reality that has now occurred in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.
What we find in Melito is that the Jewish Passover is seen as a type of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. This is a technical way of talking about the linkage. A type is a symbol of its antitype, which is the reality to which the type points. The type foreshadows the reality to come.
The type serves as a kind of symbolic prophecy of the antitype, which is the reality to which the type points and its fulfillment. In this way of thinking, the Jewish Passover lamb is the type or the foreshadowed symbol for the crucified Jesus. There is a hint that this understanding of the Passover as a type for the death of Jesus was already operative when the evangelist John describes Jesus dying on the cross at the very hour when the Passover lambs were being sacrificed.
Likewise the crossing of the Red Sea in the Jewish Exodus is a symbolic foreshadowing of the Christian sacrament of baptism.
The Pascal Vigil: the Chief Easter Celebration
By about the 4th century, this understanding of Easter as the Christian Passover is so well established that it is the core of what became the primary liturgical celebration of Easter in the early church. This was the service known as the Paschal Vigil. This service was celebrated on the night before Easter Sunday.
It began with the lighting of the new Easter fire about midnight. From this fire a priest lit the Paschal candle which represented the risen Jesus in the service. And from this one candle all the worshippers present lit their personal candles or torches until the church was filled with light.
Following that the deacon led the congregation in the singing of the distinctive Easter hymn/acclamation, known to us by its Latin name Exultet.* After that came a series of readings from the Bible, with many of them drawn from the Old Testament dealing with the Jewish Exodus story. After the readings and sermon came the baptism of new converts to Christianity. After their baptism they were dressed in white robes and led into the church for their first Eucharist.
The service could last for several hours into the night, and was the Easter service of the early church. It has been largely preserved in the Eastern Orthodox churches. It has been revived as a strong liturgical tradition in the Roman Catholic and many Protestant churches in the last 50 years.
We should note a number of things about this service. One, it was called the Paschal Vigil, or the Christian Passover Vigil.
The language of the service is heavily soaked in the language of the Jewish Passover. This is very clear in the wording of the distinctive Easter hymn, the Exultet. The Old Testament readings chosen for the service dwell upon the Jewish exodus experience.
Baptism is seen as a Christian form of passing through the Red Sea. Baptism leads the new convert out of spiritual Egypt and introduces him or her into the Promised Land, which is the church. One sign of this is that at some vigils, new converts were served not only bread and wine at their first Eucharist, but also milk and honey.
In this early period, you had the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus celebrated all in one festival service rather than in three separate festivals as today. The Christian Passover was not just Easter morning alone but included Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Ascension Day as well. Together they formed the Christian Passover.
Another example of this linkage between Easter and the Jewish Passover is an example of an early Easter hymn from the 7th century. It is a hymn composed by the Eastern Orthodox church father John of Damascus. Most Protestants will know it best from the English translation made by the 19th century Anglican translator John Mason Neale.
The first two stanzas read:
Come, you faithful, raise the strain of triumphant gladness!
God has brought forth Israel into joy from sadness,
Loosed from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke Jacob’s sons and daughters;
Led them with unmoistened foot through the Red Sea waters.
‘Tis the spring of souls today: Christ has burst his prison,
And from three days’ sleep in death as a sun has risen.
All the winter of our sins, long and dark, is flying
From the Light, to whom we give laud and praise undying.**
Someone uninformed about early church liturgics might be puzzled by John’s bringing a reference to the Exodus into an Easter hymn. What’s going on here, they might ask. But if we have some knowledge of how early Christians thought of Easter as the Christian Passover, it all makes sense. Like Melito, John sees the exodus as a type of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
When Christians describe the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus as another Passover, they are also signaling how they regard those events. The death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are seen as events of liberation, in this case, not from Egyptian slavery but from slavery to sin, the devil and death. Easter then becomes another Passover festival celebrating God’s salvation, salvation seen as God liberating humanity from a kind of spiritual enslavement. The Christian Pascha is a celebration of an event and of an experience of liberation.
I lead this posting with a reproduction of the Eastern Orthodox image for the resurrection, a mural on the walls of the Byzantine Church of the Chora in Istanbul, Turkey. Orthodoxy does not picture Jesus rising from his tomb as does most Western art. Instead it focuses on the theological significance of the resurrection as that moment when Christ shatters the gate of Hell and releases imprisoned humanity. The symbol of Christ leading humanity into freedom is the image of Christ lifting Adam and Eve by the hand out of the abyss. The shattered gate of Hell lies in ruins beneath him. It is an image–and understanding–of Christ’s resurrection as a liberation event. It owes much to the early church’s linkage of Easter to the exodus event.
* The Exultet contains a striking understanding of the original sin of Adam and Eve. The hymn calls it a “truly necessary sin” and a “happy fault (felix culpa)”. It suggests that in a paradoxical way the sin of Adam has turned into an occasion of great happiness and rejoicing for humanity, because it was the prelude to the great redemption that is Christ’s resurrection.
** In the second stanza of the hymn we find John bearing witness to the Christian linking of Easter to the seasonal return of spring. Through this linkage some elements of the old pagan fertility cults seeped into Easter celebrations, like eggs and bunnies. But this linkage is a later development in Christianity. It is not a feature of the earliest celebrations, as we see in the Easter Vigil. There the link is entirely to the exodus story.
The portable tabernacle bears witness to a God on the move.
The incident with the golden calf is a close call for Israel. God’s first instinct is to divorce Israel, to invalidate the covenant God has made with Israel, and to start all over creating a new chosen people for himself from the descendants of Moses. It looks as if the story of Israel will end in a tragedy. Because of its folly, Israel will be discarded in the midst of the arid Sinai desert, an image of death.
But no one, possibly even God, had counted on Moses. Moses steps in on behalf of Israel and argues with God–all in an effort to get God to forgive Israel and to continue to travel with Israel. At the end of his herculean negotiation with God, Moses says to God:
If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance. (Exodus 34:9)
Moses will accept from God nothing less than full forgiveness. And amazement upon amazement, Moses succeeds. God grants his request, saying:
I hereby make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform marvels, such as have not been performed in all the earth or in any nation; and all the people among whom you live shall see the work of the LORD; for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you. (Exodus 34:10)
This story astonishes me every time I read it. It offers a message of hope to everyone who seriously flubs the spiritual challenges of our own lives. That includes every one of us. As the apostle Paul says: …all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God… (Romans 3:23). Yet the apostle will go on to assert confidently:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
The apostle has absorbed deep into his spirit the hopeful message of Exodus. It forms the substratum of the New Testament.
Focal Point for Faith
Now that God’s forgiveness is firmly established, work can begin on constructing the tabernacle following the directions God has given Moses on the mountain top. The story of the construction follows in chapters 35-39. These chapters make a repeated point that Israel follows God’s instructions completely, down to the very letter. Because of that, these chapters strike many readers as a tedious repeat of chapters 25-31. Many commentators skip lightly over the construction process. I will do so also.
With chapter 40, we come to the assembling of the finished tabernacle, under Moses’ watchful eye. In no way will the omnipresent God be confined to the tabernacle. Israel will never domesticate God, as temples in the ancient world tried to do. But it will provide a focal point for Israel’s confidence.*
Once the tabernacle is completed and assembled, the text tells us a cloud, symbolizing the presence of the Lord, comes to settle upon the tabernacle. The glory of the Lord fills the sanctuary. And that cloud continues to proceed with the people throughout their journey. Whenever it picks up and moves out, the people move out. When it settles down, they settle down.
The event of the exodus does not come to an end with the ending of the Book of Exodus. The Book of Exodus only covers the first year of what will be a 40-year-long journey. That journey continues on through the books of Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua. But the ending of the Book of Exodus tells us something very important about this continuing journey.
A God on the Move
Moses has received what he had so ardently prayed for. The full presence of the Lord is with Israel in its continuing journey. And the presence of the Lord will remain with them forever.
This God, however, is not a settled God. He is a God on the move, and because of that his people will also be a people on the move. Biblical faith will affirm the goodness of creation and the goodness of daily life. But it will never settle simply for an affirmation of the status quo.
As God speaks through the prophet to Israel in another time of crisis:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:18-20)
So it will always be in the life of faith. Life with God will always be full of challenges and calls to change.
I want to end with one more jump to the New Testament. The image of the tabernacle as the locus of God’s continuing presence with his people comes up in the New Testament in one surprising, but important passage.
In the prologue of the Gospel of John, we find the famous statement that we hear read every Christmas eve at the climax of our service of lessons and carols. It goes in the traditional King James Version:
The word that the translators have translated as dwelt is literally in the Greek the word tabernacled. What this text says is that for Christians, Jesus is our tabernacle. In him we experience the presence of God fully dwelling with us and moving with us through the many vicissitudes of life. The story of exodus has become gospel.
* I want to note one interesting but easily over-looked detail about the construction of the tabernacle and all its furnishings. God through Moses places supervision over the construction in the hands of Bezalel the son of Uri and of Oholiab. Both men are said to be superb craftsmen and designers (Exodus 35:30-36:1). But of Bezalel, the text says (Exodus 35:31) that Bezalel will be filled with the Spirit of God as he pursues his work. In effect, Bezalel will be one more of the anointed ones in Israel, taking his place alongside the anointed priests, kings, and prophets. All are anointed with the Spirit as a sign of their being set apart for their specific mission. What this says to me is that we ought to recognize that artists–painters, sculptors, dancers, musicians, poets, weavers–may all receive a special empowerment from God for service to God’s people on a par with the service of priests, ordained ministers, and teachers.
The character of God is revealed to Moses in his mountain top experience.
When we come to chapter 34 of Exodus, we find Moses still on top of Mount Sinai. He has successfully negotiated with God, extracting from God the promise that God will go fully with the people of Israel on their journey to the promised land. The covenant has been preserved. Israel will continue to be God’s people, and God their God. One can almost imagine Moses crying out the liturgical response: Thanks be to God!
Then follows another remarkable scene. God is said to have descended onto the mountain in a cloud and to have stood with Moses there. God pronounces his sacred name–YHWH–the name he revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3). This is a sign of the intimate personal relationship that has been established between God and Moses.
God then goes on to say:
“The LORD, the LORD,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and the fourth generation.” [Exodus 34:6-7]
These words are momentous words in Scripture, for they are a declaration of the character of God. If Israel wants to know what kind of God is this God who has called them out of Egypt—what is his character—then they are to turn to these words given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai.
Truly and abundantly compassionate, yet also truly just. A vision of wholeness in perfect balance…This is the God Israel has come to know from its exodus experience.
Israel’s God is a God who is merciful, gracious, abounding in steadfast love, a love so expansive that it extends to thousands of generations. Israel lives, and moves, and has its being within an ocean of God’s love and mercy. That love and mercy is like a spring of overflowing water that never stops.
Yet this God is also a just God who does not shrink from a confrontation with evil. Evil and sin will have their consequences, consequences that can reverberate down through multiple generations.
Truly and abundantly compassionate, yet also truly just. A vision of wholeness in perfect balance. One therefore who is holy. This is the God Israel has come to know from its exodus experience.
Resonance through the Old Testament
These verses become so revealing of God that they come to serve as something close to a creed in the life of Israel. We shall find them quoted or alluded to in other parts of the Old Testament.
One citation, for example, comes in a prayer by the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 32:16-25). The prophet Jeremiah has just purchased a plot of land from his cousin even though the city of Jerusalem is soon to fall to the Babylonians. Through the purchase, Jeremiah expresses a word of hope for the future.
Immediately after the purchase Jeremiah launches into a prayer, whose opening words are:
Ah Lord GOD! It is you who made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you. You show steadfast love to the thousandth generation, but repay the guilt of parents into the laps of their children after them, O great and mighty God whose name is the LORD of hosts, great in counsel and mighty in deed; whose eyes are open to all the ways of mortals, rewarding all according to their ways and according to the fruit of their doings. (Jeremiah 32:17-19)
As sanction for his prayer, Jeremiah quotes the language of Exodus 34.
An example in the Psalms comes in Psalm 103. This psalm praises God for all his blessings in sustaining his people. As part of that song of praise, the psalmist quotes Exodus 34:
He made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel.
The LORD is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him…(Psalm 103:7-11)
In quoting Exodus, however, we notice a definite shift in the psalmist’s emphasis. In Exodus God’s compassion is balanced by God’s justice. In the psalm, the emphasis has decidedly shifted in focus on God’s compassion and merciful love. The possibility of God’s anger is still there, but the overwhelming reality for the psalmist is God’s mercy.
That shift of emphasis to the side of mercy and compassion is also noticeable in another passage quoting Exodus 34. This appears in the Book of Jonah. Jonah has reluctantly preached God’s judgment on the wicked city of Nineveh. The unexpected result is not the city’s destruction, but its profound repentance. God changes his mind.
Jonah is not pleased. He is in fact incensed at God, spitting back at God these words
“O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:2-3)
Why had Jonah fled from God in the first place? He knew from Exodus 34 that the character of God was to be compassionate and merciful. Jonah did not want to extend this mercy to the wicked Ninevites.
We see in all three of these examples how the revelation of God’s character given to Moses on Mount Sinai has sunk deep into the Israelite soul.
This revelation of the character of God describes too the character of the God of us Christians, because of our roots in the Israelite revelation. It underlies the preaching and ministry of Jesus and the apostles. For me, this statement on the character of God is the climax of the Book of Exodus.
Moses does not give up until he exacts a promise from God.
As I noted in my last blog posting, the infidelity of Israel in worshipping the golden calf poses an existential danger to Israel. God wants to destroy the nation and begin all over again. Moses challenges God not to do so, arguing that God must be true to God’s character. God changes his mind.
This sets Moses free to descend the mountain and deal with the crisis himself. There is a confrontation with Aaron, followed by a purging from the nation of those who constitute an unruly mob (said to be running wild). This work done, Moses again ascends the mountain, where God still seethes with anger over what Israel has done.
Moses shows unbelievable solidarity and loyalty to the people despite their sin.
Then the text (Exodus 32:30-33:23) carries us back to the dialogue between Moses and God. When they broke off their conversation on the mountain, God had determined not to destroy Israel. But will he forgive Israel? That is not yet certain. This sets the stage for Part 2 of Moses’ audacious challenge of God.
Moses asks God to forgive Israel. And if he will not, then Moses asks that God blot him Moses out of the book of life. Moses shows unbelievable solidarity and loyalty to the people despite their sin.
So when we come to chapter 33, we find God responding that Moses may lead the people to the land God has promised to them. God will honor at least that part of his promise. But ominously, God says he will not go with them. Israel is a stiff-necked people. They are not docile and obedient. As a result, God in his anger might just consume them if they sin again. So instead God will send an angel to take God’s place. This is an assurance of something less than God’s full presence.
This word of God devastates the people. It means that their future is precarious. They may survive for the moment, but they can have no confidence for the future. They will live with constant anxiety that they may just trigger God’s destructive anger once again.
I often think that describes well the spiritual situation of many Christians who live in constant fear that they will do something so heinous that it will trigger God’s anger. God will bring upon them something truly evil, like a serious illness, a tragic death, or some other terrible misfortune. It is not a way to live with a sense of spiritual peace, because we can never truly trust that when the pinch comes, God will truly be there for us.
Moses in the Breach
This leads to further negotiation between Moses and God. Moses is not willing to settle for an angel to lead them. It must be God himself. Will God’s own presence go with them or not? If not, then Moses says, Let’s call a halt to this project immediately. Will you go with us with your full presence, God, or not?
What this question does is ask the question: Will you, God, fully forgive your people, or will you hold back on forgiveness? If you are going to hold back, then there is no reason why this whole exodus event should go forward. Only full forgiveness will satisfy Moses and meet the needs of Israel. No half-way forgiveness will do the trick.
God continually shows favor and partiality to Moses, but Moses does not use that favor to his own aggrandizement. Instead he plays that partiality as the final card in his effort to get God to fully forgive the people.
Only full forgiveness will satisfy Moses and meet the needs of Israel. No half-way forgiveness will do the trick.
We come to the climax in verse 33:17. God promises to Moses to do what Moses asks. He will forgive the people and go with them with his full presence. He does so as a special favor to Moses who has stood by his people. Moses has won in his negotiation with God.
Then God grants Moses a special blessing. He permits Moses the special favor of a partial vision of God’s glory. Not a full vision. Moses is allowed only to glimpse the backside of God as he passes by in glory. But it is something no one else has been granted.
God will revive the covenant with Israel. As a sign of that restoration, God presents Moses with new stone tablets. Israel’s relationship with God is secure.
As I read through this extended session of negotiations between God and Moses, I feel utter astonishment at what I have called the audacity of Moses and Moses’ solid spiritual backbone. Moses could easily have been cowed into unquestioned submission to whatever God proposed to do. Afterall, God was the far superior power. But Moses does not cave. He stands up to God and stands up for his people.
…Moses holds God accountable. God is not allowed to be an arbitrary and irresponsible authority.
Moses also steers his way through what for most people would be irresistible temptations. God proposes to make Moses patriarch of his own nation. Moses turns downs that proposition.
Instead Moses holds God accountable. God is not allowed to be an arbitrary and irresponsible authority. God must honor God’s character and exercise his power in accordance with that character. Moses will settle for nothing less.*
In this part of the Book of Exodus, we see Moses rise to his true majesty. He remains humble in his ambitions. And we see the immense love that he has developed for his own people. Over and over again the people will try his patience and treat him with some disrespect. But Moses will never waver in his commitment to them and their welfare. He will become a living icon of God. No wonder he is the prophet without compare for the Jewish tradition.
* One is reminded of the famous aphorism of Lord Acton that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Moses will not allow God to fall for the potential temptation to corruption posed by God’s own absolute power.
After the incident of the golden calf, Moses stands up to God.
When we come to chapter 32 of Exodus, we find Moses is still on top of Mount Sinai. He is continuing in his kind of “classroom” experience as God instructs him on how to build the tabernacle and set up Israel’s institutions of worship.
Meanwhile on the plain below, the people have set up the golden calf and proclaimed it to be their god. Infidelity has invaded the sacred relationship between God and Israel. This leaves us with the question: What will be God’s response? Is divorce or destruction the next step? We are left with that hanging question as we read that on the morrow the people of Israel rise up early and join enthusiastically into sacrifices to the calf image and a reveling feast afterwards.
The text then turns back to the mountain top where God and Moses have been in dialogue. We get God’s angry response to what is happening on the plain below. God says to Moses:
“Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought 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 worshipped and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you 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)
Note carefully the wording. God begins the Ten Commandments with the statement, I am the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery….(Exodus 20:2).
But now God disavows any connection to Israel. It is Moses, he says, who brought the Israelites out of Egypt. (That’s why I boldfaced the your and you in the text above.) They are not God’s people. They are Moses’ people.
In the legal language of the covenant, these are words of divorce. God threatens to destroy the people and then start out a new course by creating a new nation out of the descendants of Moses. If God does this, he will be stepping back from his promises to Abraham.
His words pose a severe temptation for Moses. God holds out the option to Moses of becoming the patriarch who replaces Abraham. If he wishes, he can reach out and seize this special honor which will redound to his glory.
Moses Argues with God
We now come to a passage that I consider one of the most extraordinary in all of the Bible. It takes my breath away. Something totally unexpected happens. Moses turns down the temptation. Instead he engages in an audacious argument with God.
First, Moses throws God’s word back into God’s face. It is not Moses who brought the people out of Egypt. It is God. He says God cannot disavow that responsibility.
Second, he pulls out the public relations card. He says to God in effect, “Think of how this would affect your reputation in the world. The Egyptians whom you have just defeated would laugh uproariously, saying, “Look at this God, who freed the people from slavery only for the purpose of destroying them.” Does God want to acquire that reputation?
Third, he reminds God of the promises God had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Is God going to refuse to live by his own promises? Is God going to be untrue to himself? Who then in the future would ever believe in one of God’s promises?
I find this dialogue extraordinary because of Moses’ boldness in challenging God himself. This is the Moses who earlier in Exodus told God frankly at the bushing bush to find someone else to free the Israelites from Egypt. Now we have a Moses who boldly insists that God be true to himself. Isn’t that extraordinary in showing us the evolving character of Moses?
Also, we see Moses’s own humility. Offered to become the ancestor of another great people—something most kings and dictators dream of—Moses turns down the offer and instead remains committed to the people of Israel, a people whom God has described at still-necked.
Again we are given an insight into the developing character of Moses. As a matter of fact, when Moses dies, he is not succeeded by his son or grandson. His descendants vanish into history.
And maybe most astonishing of all to me, Moses’s audacity works with God. God steps back from the disaster of destroying Israel. Possibly that audacity is what God was looking for from Moses all along.
Faith as Bold Assertion
If that is true, then this passage turns our conventional ideas of what faithfulness looks like on its head. Rather than faith becoming synonymous with meek resignation and passivity, faith is pictured as strong assertion. Moses holds God accountable for being true to God’s character. God is not allowed to evade his own promises. And Moses is not shy about doing this.
Lest we think this passage is without parallel in Scripture, I call our attention to the fact that we encounter this same faith as bold assertion throughout the psalms. In psalm after psalm, the psalmist calls upon God to be true to his promises.
One notable example is Psalm 89. In this psalm, the psalmist celebrates the covenant that God establishes with David. God promises that he will show faithfulness and steadfast love to David and his descendants. Their kingship will last forever.
But the psalmist is writing after Babylonian imperialism has brought an end to the Davidic dynasty. Jerusalem with its royal palace and temple have been razed to the ground. The psalmist questions how this is consistent with God’s promises to David. He concludes his lament with these words:
Lord, where is your steadfast love of old,
which by your faithfulness you swore to David?
Remember, O Lord, how your servant is taunted
how I bear in my bosom the insults of the peoples,
with which your enemies taunt, O Lord,
with which they taunted the footsteps of your anointed.
Implicit in the psalmist’s complaint is the assertion that God be faithful to his promise to David. The psalmist has stepped into the shoes of Moses.
The psalmist as well as Moses give us warrant for being bold in holding God accountable. The life of faith never gives us grounds for manipulating God. We must accept that God’s ways and God’s will may not be our ways and our will. But we can always hold God accountable to his promises and his character.
Impatience drives the Israelites into breaking the covenant.
Impatience drives people to do many foolish things. We have a clear example in Exodus 32. This chapter tells the story of Israel’s apostasy. The Israelites construct and then worship a golden calf as their god.
As the chapter begins, Moses has been on top of Mount Sinai in conversation with God. God has been giving him the instructions for constructing the tabernacle and its furnishings and setting up the priesthood and the rituals of Israel’s worship. During this conversation, Moses has been absent from Israel’s base camp for 40 days–a long time.
This long absence seems to have triggered a growing anxiety among the Israelites. They complain, 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 (Exodus 32:1). Behind this anxiety may be the hidden fear that Moses has died and left them abandoned in the wilderness.
We as readers of Exodus are given a taste of how this anxiety may have arisen by the fact that six long chapters (Exodus 25-31) precede that comment. Those chapters give us the details of those instructions God is giving Moses on the mountain top.
Many readers find these descriptions tedious reading. We must wade through six chapters of boring description before we can land back into the narrative. Literarily these six chapters give us a taste of the tedium in the Israelite camp that set the stage for what was to come next. We long to skip over them and get on with the narrative.
The Israelites want to get on with their journey just as we want to get on with the story. Impatience becomes the root cause of the incident of the golden calf.
One other factor may be feeding this anxiety, too. The God of Israel has no visible form. No image can capture his appearance. What the Israelites must rely on for confidence that God is with them is God’s presence and actions in their midst.
But during the 40 days Moses has been on top of the mountain, God’s focus has been on Moses. The Israelites may be feeling they have been forgotten or abandoned by God. They feel a need for some visible token, some memorial or symbol, that God is with them. They demand a visible image to reassure their fears.
Violating the First Commandment
In response to these two factors, the Israelites pressure Aaron to construct for them the golden calf. Once it is erected, they gather around it to sacrifice. They acclaim it in the words: These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt (Exodus 32:4).
These words repudiate the opening words God speaks when he gives the Ten Commandments: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. 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 (Exodus 20:2-4).*
Just 40 days after the ritual celebrations of ratifying the covenant (described in chapter 24), Israel violates the foundational principle of that covenant. This despite the fact that in chapter 20 we read of how Israel experienced God’s presence on the mountain in the spectacular natural phenomena of the earthquake, smoke, fire, and trumpet blast. Israel at that time had experienced emotions of terror.
That can be a reminder that awesome religious experiences need not always be transformative. We would have thought that after their experience with God at the mountain, Israel would have settled into a profound trust. But the nation did not. Instead it slipped so quickly into apostasy.
The Corrosive Power of Impatience
When I read this Exodus narrative, I am reminded of the deadly, corrosive power of impatience, the demand for instant gratification that repeatedly afflicts mankind. To build anything lasting, anything of substance, in life–whether in personal character development, in relationships like a marriage, in academic achievement, in architecture, in business, in nation-building–takes time and persistence.
We have the best evidence of this truth in God’s creation of the world through the evolutionary process. The arrival of homo sapiens upon the earth is the end result of a long period of development of the planet earth. Our planet is some 4.5 billion years old. Life has arisen and grown in complexity over the course of some 3 billion years. That is an awesome but also sobering fact to ponder.
The story of the exodus bears witness to this reality by telling us that it took 40 years for Israel to make its trek from Egypt to Canaan. Important spiritual and national developments were happening in that 40-year period to prepare Israel to take up life as an independent nation in its own land. Likewise human beings must go through a long process of childhood and adolescence before they are prepared to take up the responsibilities of adulthood.
This is why the exodus story is such an important paradigm for us in our spiritual lives. Our spiritual lives are always spiritual journeys. We may begin our spiritual journey with a one-time act of faith, expressed in the sacrament of baptism, but we do not grow into mature saints instantaneously.
It is not accidental that Jesus turns to the agricultural world for parables about life in the kingdom of God. We grow into spiritual maturity through a process, a process which proves to be a lifetime process. And if the early church father Gregory of Nyssa is right, it is a process that does not end with death, but continues on into the next life.**
Impatience then can cause serious damage, if not thwart, those processes of development and growth.*** Patience, however, is not easy to endure. It can be painful. It causes us anxiety and a longing to speed up the process with easy shortcuts. Maybe that is why patience is one expression of the need to bear our cross that Jesus says describes the life of discipleship (see Mark 8:34).
* Note that God says I am the Lord your God… (singular). The Israelites, however, say in the presence of the calf, These are your gods…(plural). The Israelites have not only repudiated the command about idols, but have also denied its fundamental monotheism.
In his book he states his belief that the spiritual journey does not end with death. It continues on into the next life without end. About the beatific vision of God which traditional spirituality sees as the end goal of the spiritual journey, Gregory says: This truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in our desire to see him (The Life of Moses, Book II, Paragraph 239).
*** One of the three vows that Benedictine monks take is the vow to stability. This vow means they promise to remain with their particular monastic community for their whole lives. This vow mirrors the vow married couples take when they promise to remain faithful to each other “until death do us part.” The vow to stability is a vow to perseverance. Perseverance is the key virtue in the journey to professional, personal, and spiritual maturity.
The wilderness tabernacle creates a visible image of holiness.
If a people are to survive as a distinct social entity through the many vicissitudes of life, they must have traditions and institutions that sustain their identity through the generations. That was true of ancient Israel just as it is true of nations today.
One element in Israel’s survival is the story it tells over and over again of its liberation from bondage in Egypt and its journey, under God’s guidance, to a new homeland. That story is enshrined in the five books of Moses along with Joshua—and also in the annual festival of Passover.
A second element is the laws that govern its life with God and with one another. We encounter an initial deposit of those laws in Exodus 20-23, where we encounter the Ten Commandments and the so-called Book of the Covenant. As we work our way through the rest of the five books of Moses, we will find the deposit of law growing, as more and more regulations are laid down.
But we need to notice an important point in how the authors of those books present them. The laws of Israel are not seen as creations of human beings, but as gifts from God. God is the law maker. Law is one of his blessings upon the people. The laws are not meant to oppress life, but to enable life to flourish. We see this sense of the divine goodness expressed in the gift of the Torah celebrated most ecstatically in Psalm 119.
Sustained through Worship
A third element essential to Israel’s existence is its traditions and institutions of worship. The gift of them is presented to us in the next chapters in Exodus, chapters 25-31, and then after a break, again in chapters 35-40. (Regulations on worship continue in the following book, the book of Leviticus.) The fact that these 13 chapters constitute nearly a third of the text of the Book of Exodus gives us some idea of how important the authors/editors of Exodus regarded these institutions of worship.
They likewise, like the laws of Torah, are a gift of God. God gives detailed instructions on what the Israelites are to construct as a focus of their worship life and how they are to construct it. This is underlined in Exodus 25:9 by these words spoken by God:
In accordance with all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.
That Israel is faithful in following this revealed pattern is stated emphatically at the end of the process of construction, in Exodus 39:42-43:
The Israelites had done all of the work just as the Lord had commanded Moses. When Moses saw that they had done all the work just as the Lord had commanded, he blessed them.
Icon of Holiness
Throughout the texts on the construction of the tabernacle, we find two words repeated over and over again: the noun holiness and the adjective holy. The wilderness tabernacle and everything related to it becomes a locus of holiness. This becomes the rationale for why God commands Moses in Exodus 30 to anoint every item going into the tabernacle and the priests who serve there with a holy anointing oil. For God says: …you shall consecrate them, so that they may be most holy; whatever touches them will become holy (Exodus 30:29)
The very design of the tabernacle is, in fact, to present an image of holiness. One of the striking features of that design is how the layout of the tabernacle complex is carefully structured upon the repeated use of the square. This is shown in the following diagram:
The outer courtyard of the complex composes two squares side by side, each measuring 50 cubits on each side. The tabernacle proper is composed geometrically of three squares. Two squares side by side compose the outer chamber, the Holy Place. A third square forms the innermost sanctuary, the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies in fact composes a perfect cube. Its length, width, and height are all equal–ten cubits on each side.
This geometry of the complex becomes sacred geometry. It expresses the progressive sanctification that we encounter as we enter more deeply into the structure. That progression is reinforced by the value of the construction materials. The hardware for the fixtures used to hang the outermost curtains that define the courtyard are bronze. The fixtures used for construction of the Holy Place are silver. And the fixtures for the Holy of Holies are gold.
Let me call special attention to the fact that the Holy of Holies composes a perfect cube. Throughout many cultures, the square and the cube as well as the circle and the sphere become sacred symbols of perfection. It is not by chance, I believe, that the Holy of Holies is a cube.
The belief was that this inner chamber formed the dwelling place of God within Israel. It was God’s throne room. The ark of the covenant is either regarded as the throne of the invisible God or his footstool on which the invisible God rests his feet. This God is absolute holiness. This is expressed in the choice of the cube as the shape of his residential chamber.
The Symbolic Importance of the Cube
Why the cube? (Or for that matter, the sphere?) Why is either a good visible representation of perfection? Because both visibly represent perfect wholeness. All dimensions are in balance and form a unity. And maybe we can say that the essence of holiness is wholeness. Human beings lack that perfect wholeness both in their inner individual lives and in their outer communal lives. We live in the tension and conflicts of disparate forces seeking to come into unity, but we never fully achieve it. Such wholeness, such unity, however, lies at the essence of God. It constitutes God’s holiness. It is also why the psalms describe that holiness as beautiful.
A striking parallel to the Holy of Holies as a cube in found in the New Testament in the vision of the new Jerusalem that the elder John sees in Revelation 21. There he sees the new Jerusalem descending out of heaven at the end of days when God creates a new heaven and a new earth.
This new city composes a perfect cube, although a gigantic cube. It measures 1,500 miles in length, width, and height. We cannot imagine a city constructed this way literally, but then the vision is not of a literal, physical city. It is a symbol of the human community that will flourish in that new creation. That community will be a perfectly united community. It will be balanced. It will be whole. The visible expression of that unity is rightly a cube.
God’s Dwelling with Fences
The holiness of God, however, can be a danger to sinful humanity. In our unwholesomeness we can experience that holiness as judgment and threat.It becomes necessary for the welfare of imperfect Israel for the tabernacle to place progressive fences around the inner core of the sanctuary. And only the High Priest alone is permitted to enter the Holy of Holies and then only once a year at the great Day of Atonement.
Yet paradoxically the tabernacle complex composes the center of the Israelite encampment. The tribes of Israel erect their tents around it in another square, three tribes each making up one of the four sides of the encampment.
When the tabernacle is finally erected in chapter 40, God takes up residence, a residence symbolized by the pillar of fire/cloud that hangs over the tabernacle. God dwells at the intimate heart of the Israelite encampment and yet God does not dwell with them in a cozy complacency. God is not Israel’s best buddy. God is always Israel’s loving father, but also Israel’s majestic king.
Israel is assured that God goes with them. This is the significance that Israel’s sanctuary is a tent, not a stationery stone structure (like Solomon’s later temple). Yet Israel can never be perfectly relaxed with God’s presence with them. God is a principle of mystery. Israel is in awe of this God, but can never be complacent. Maybe that is why the Hebrew Bible aptly describes perfect piety by the phrase the fear of the Lord.
Note: I recognize that in this posting I am trying to express a delicate and perfectly attuned balance that the symbolism of the tabernacle is intended to express. It is easy to distort this balance by choosing inappropriate words. If I have fallen into distortion, please forgive me. It is not easy to express the amazing beauty of the conception of the human relationship to God that we see given concrete expression in the construction of the tabernacle.