The Book of Exodus operates with an unexpected understanding of holy war.
After the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, Moses and the Israelites break out into a song of rejoicing (Exodus 15:1-18). It celebrates God’s unexpected deliverance of the people in their time of greatest peril. Its opening verses read:
I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my might,
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
My father’s God, and I will exalt him.
The Lord is a warrior;
the Lord is his name. (Exodus 15:1-3)
The song is full of martial imagery, using the language of battle to describe the victory over the Egyptians in the sea. This is language that resonates with other ancient Near Eastern mythologies. One of the best known is the Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish. In the Babylonian myth, the sky god Marduk goes into battle with the sea goddess Tiamat, goddess of chaos. He defeats her after a ferocious duel and creates the world from her carcass. *
It should not surprise us then to find that Exodus explicitly calls God a warrior. This is the language of holy war. That may make us very uneasy, given our modern experience of hearing the language of holy war used to justify terrorism and indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations. It is easy then to lump the God of the Old Testament in with all those other blood-thirsty gods of history.
If we do so, however, we may miss a shift that has gone on in this song. As I said, God is described as a warrior. But God fights not for his own aggrandizement, but for the liberation of his people. He is a warrior on behalf of his people.
The usual way that we talk about holy war is of people fighting on behalf of God’s cause. We fight to glorify God, promote his worship, and advance his cause in the world.
That is the way the crusaders thought about their expeditions to regain and protect the Holy Land. It is likewise the way Muslim jihadists think about their attacks. They believe that piety requires them to fight on behalf of Allah’s cause. They go into action in fact with the cry “God is great!”
There is plenty of conflict in the Book of Exodus, but notice it is not the Israelites who go into battle with the Egyptians. Even as reclusive guerrillas, crying “God is great!”, they never attack the Egyptians. All the fighting is done by God, and done on behalf of the cause of Israel’s liberation. The battles in Exodus are a holy war not because the people are doing the fighting on behalf of God, but because God is doing the fighting.
God is motivated in his fight with Pharaoh and the Egyptian army not by hatred for the Egyptians, but by his intense love for the Israelites and his faithfulness to his promises to their ancestors. We hear that said explicitly in Exodus 15:13:
In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed;
you guided them by your strength to your holy abode.
The language of Exodus 15 then does not give God’s people warrant to pick up the sword, the gun, the bomb to advance God’s cause, to glorify God’s name, or to bring unbelievers under God’s reign. When we use the language of holy war, we need to remember that in the biblical context, it is language to describe God’s actions on our behalf–to liberate us from the forces of oppression, bondage, and death that keep humans from flourishing.
In what I have written about holy war, I do not want you to think that I am ignoring the fact that Exodus 17:8-13 describes a battle between the Israelites and Amalekites. This battle, however, is not initiated by the Israelites. They do not go into battle to advance God’s cause. They go into battle in self-defense after they are attacked by the Amalekites.
Nor am I ignoring the fact that God calls upon the Israelites to revenge themselves on the Midianites who deceive them in Numbers 25. And God calls upon the Israelites to eradicate the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15. In both cases, God’s motivation is said to be to exercise punishment on two tribes that have harmed and attacked the Israelites. We may feel many qualms about texts that imply God indulges in revenge. But both passages still maintain that understanding that God is the ultimate fighter fighting on behalf of his people.
The crossing of the Red Sea carries echoes of ancient creation stories.
Note: This blog post was originally published on September 27, 2018. I repost it here because of its relevance to our journey through the Book of Exodus.
Ancient creation myths, whether Mesopotamian or Egyptian, often shared a common feature. They assumed that the structured order of the world as we know it arose out of an aboriginal watery chaos.
That chaos was formless and often depicted as malevolent. It needed to be tamed before the created world could emerge. That taming occurred through a titanic battle between divine forces.
A representative example is the ancient Babylonian creation myth known as Enuma Elish. In that myth, the watery chaos is personified in a female divine figure named Tiamat. Her opponent is the male head of the Babylonian pantheon, the sky god Marduk.
In a ferocious battle the two gods fight to the death. Marduk prevails. He kills Tiamat, carves up her body, and out of the pieces creates the world in which we live. Creation emerges out of an act of supreme violence. (Also don’t miss the misogynist tones to the story.)
Biblical Imagery Echoing Ancient Myths
Echoes of this widespread understanding of the creation of the world are to be found in the Bible. The ancient Israelites probably picked them up from the common cultural environment which they shared with other ancient societies.
Genesis does not duplicate the theme of battle as the prelude to creation. But we should not miss the detail that when God begins to create the world in Genesis 1, God begins not by creating out of nothing. Instead he speaks to a vast formless, watery and dark void. The taming of this void begins with the divine words, Let there be light (Genesis 1:3).1
Creation continues the next two days with the division of the waters into the sky dome and ocean. Then emerges the dry land out of the oceanic waters, with its proliferation of vegetation. The land becomes the platform for the advanced creative work of God as God calls into being animal life, and ultimately human beings.
We also find echoes of the ancient theme of the chaos monster in the Old Testament figure of the great sea monster Leviathan (also known as Rahab). A number of poetic passages in the Old Testament celebrate God’s victory of this monster.2
One example is Psalm 74:12-14:
Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the earth. You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
Another example appears in Isaiah 27:1. Here the author uses the imagery of the chaos monster to symbolize the forces of chaos that God will subdue in the future. What lies ahead in the future is a new creative act that echoes the old story.
On that day the LORD with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.
The Israelites were not sailors like the Phoenicians. For this reason they tended to regard the ocean as something fearful, if not terrifying, especially when the ocean rose up in ferocious storms. The imagery of the Leviathan resonated with them, and it came to be the symbol of all the forces of chaos that might threaten their lives, whether foreign invasions, natural disasters like earthquakes, or the breakdown of social order
The Red Sea Crossing as a New Creative Act
What I had not come to recognize until recently is how imagery from these old creation myths as well as from Genesis 1 echo through the account of Israel’s crossing the Red Sea (see Exodus 14-15).3 That crossing is the climax of the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery.
When the Israelites encamp on the shores of the Red Sea, it appears that the old forces of chaos are about to engulf them. At their rear waits Pharaoh’s armies, poised to attack. If Pharaoh cannot enslave them, he will at least slaughter them. Chaos will reign on the battle field.
Ahead of them lie the waters of the Red Sea. These waters block any escape. The Israelites’ fate, if they move forward, is to drown in the oceanic waters.
The threat of chaos lies behind them. The threat of chaos lies before them. They seemed to be doomed.
But they have not counted upon the creative power of God, the God who has tamed Leviathan in the past and will do so again in the future. Instructing Moses to stretch his rod out over the sea, God summons mighty east winds (note again the echo of the mighty wind/Spirit that blows over the watery void in Genesis 1:1) to divide the waters. Out of that division emerges dry land over which the Israelites cross into freedom. Land has emerged out of the waters, as in the creation story of Genesis 1.
When God ceases the winds blowing, the chaos waters return, drowning the Egyptian army. Chaos has engulfed its own, as the song of Moses in Exodus 15 celebrates.
The crossing of the Red Sea then can be seen as a new creative act of God, an act that creates the new people of Israel. Their new life as the people of God begins. There will be much more to do before Israel grows up into a mature nation. This echoes how the creation of the world progresses by more and more advanced stages in Genesis 1. But it all begins with a divine act of taming the waters of chaos.
This imagery should resonate with Christians as we think about the sacrament of baptism. Baptism is the act when God chooses each one of us to become a part of his people, the people who form the church. That act of initiation begins with a ritual of water.
In an extended sense baptism is the Christian crossing of the Red Sea.4 We symbolically drown and then are raised up to new life.5 It is also an act of new creation, a rebirth. Out of the waters of chaos all of us are lifted up onto the dry land of the Kingdom of God.
1. Genesis 1 may in fact be conducting a polemic against the Babylonian myth. God tames the chaos not by an act of violence, but by his sovereign word.
4. This connection between baptism and the exodus event is very explicit in some early Christian baptismal liturgies. The language of the liturgies is filled with allusions and imagery drawn from the Israelites’ exodus.
5. This symbolism is most vivid when baptism is performed by immersion.
God blocks a short journey to the Promised Land for good reasons.
If you follow the coast of the Mediterranean, it is roughly 125 miles to travel from the Suez canal to Gaza, one of the ancient Philistine cities in Canaan. This is the shortest route between Egypt and Palestine.
An ancient road followed this route. Egyptian armies had traveled it many times in their expeditions into Canaan and Syria. If an army had kept to a steady pace of 10 miles a day, it could traverse the distance in only a couple of weeks.
This gives us a working number for how far the Israelites would have needed to travel once they were cut loose from the Egyptians after the Red Sea crossing. Exodus, however, tells us that God explicitly denied them this route.
When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, “If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. (Exodus 13:17-18)
Instead God leads the Israelites out into the Sinai desert and starts them on a journey that would last 40 years, not two weeks. This raises the question Why?
The Exodus text gives one answer. It attributes God’s rationale to the fact that the ancient road along the coast would have been guarded by Egyptian garrisons. In the skirmishes that would have inevitably resulted, God feared the Israelites would lose heart and give up their journey. The Israelites were too new in their freedom to stand up to armed clashes like those.
The Long Task of Nation-Building
But I think there is a deeper reason why Israel ends up taking 40 years to complete its journey from Egypt to Canaan. It has to do with the important task of forming a nation.
When the Israelites left Egypt, they left as a disorganized mass of newly freed slaves. They would have had almost no social or spiritual infrastructure to hold this unruly mass together. Conflicts would have inevitably arisen without any justice structure to resolve them. The conflicts would have set various family or partisan groups at each other. The violence would have turned the mass of newly freed slaves into a self-destructive mob.
For the Israelites to find their stability emotionally, socially, politically, and spiritually, they would need:
To shed their Egyptian slave mindsets,
To develop new structures for organizing their social and political life,
To evolve new understandings of what constitutes justice,
To experience in trial and error what works and what does not in their new life,
To create the traditions that would give them a unique identity,
And lastly to understand and live what a relationship with God, their liberator, meant in their new life of freedom.
All this–and much more–was needed if they were to flourish in the new life God had given them.
All of these tasks are tasks involved in building character, whether the character of an individual or the character of a people. And building character takes time. It does not arise instantaneously.
Israel faced the task of building its character as a people of God during those long years traveling in the wilderness. It should not surprise us to know that it took 40 years. Theirs was a daunting task to complete, if we can even say that they completed it. In one sense that challenge has remained a challenge through all the succeeding generations of Israelite and Jewish history.
This is one reason why the story of the exodus remains such an inspiration and guide to even peoples outside the Jewish faith. The story highlights the challenges any people face in creating a national identity and constitution (whether written or unwritten).
It is a very sad fact that many a revolution has only ended up substituting one oppressive regime by another. The French Revolution overthrew the Bourbon regime only ultimately to usher in the Napoleonic empire. The Russian Revolution overthrew the Romanov absolutism only to institute the Leninist-Stalinist one.
… building character takes time. It does not arise instantaneously.
Why does this happen? One good reason, I believe, is that newly freed peoples tend to expect that they will enter into the promised land of their dreams quickly. They have destroyed the structures of the old, but do not realize that they now have to rebuild new ones.
If those new ones are to fulfill their dreams, they must be constructed wisely to avoid the old oppressive habits of exercising power. People glory in their new rights, but forget that rights also carry responsibilities. They must create new and healthy bonds among themselves. None of that is done quickly. And so people get disillusioned and fall back into old and well-known mindsets of servitude.
The Long Task of Character Building
What I have just said applies not only to the building of new nations, but also to the development of character in individuals. Individual journeys to healthy, flourishing identities also take time.
It is an odd fact about human beings that human babies do not emerge from the womb able to walk, talk, and function as mini adults like calves born from cows and colts born from horses. It takes a good 20 to 25 years for human babies to reach physical maturity and much longer sometimes to reach emotional and social maturity.
A human character consists of mindsets, commitments, habits, attitudes, bonds with others, customary ways of behavior, and decisions made. All that takes time to develop. In fact, character development never ends. It continues throughout a person’s life. The best thing to say about character development is that it is a journey, a never-ending journey.
Christlike character is not something we get: we grow into it.
Jonathan R. Bailey
The Long Task of Growing into Spiritual Maturity
The same is true in the development of our spiritual life. One may make a decision to become a Christian (in Evangelical terminology, to be born again), but that decision point is not the end point of the Christian life. It is the beginning point. What lies ahead is a continuing journey into deeper levels of maturity and deeper levels of one’s relationship with God and with others.
I like the way the author Jonathan R. Bailey expresses this insight:
Shedding vice and securing virtue–becoming like Christ–is not something that automatically happens when we become Christians. Moving from stage to stage happens over a long, frustrating, rewarding, painful, and glorious period of time. Christlike character is not something we get: we grow into it.*
During the medieval period classic writers on this spiritual journey came to discuss this spiritual journey as passing through three stages:
• Purgation: the cleansing of all that hinders spiritual maturity, whether sins or ego-centrism, that keeps us from the practice of love,
• Illumination: the progressive growth in the understanding and virtues that support spiritual maturity and the practice of love,
• Union: the coming of unity with God in which our wills are fully aligned with God’s will, and we reach the full experience of God’s love.
Many of these writers on the spiritual life have seen in the exodus experience of the Israelites the paradigm for this understanding of the spiritual life as a spiritual journey. One good example is The Life of Moses by the 4th century church father Gregory of Nyssa.** Gregory takes the exodus story as an allegory for the experience of a spiritual seeker growing into deeper union with God.
I find it hard to believe then that when God blocked the Israelites from taking the short route to Canaan, God’s only concern was whether the Israelites would become demoralized in their skirmishes with Egyptian garrisons. Israel needed to experience its life with God as a journey, for in doing so they were setting the pattern for all in the future who would embark upon the same journey.
* Jonathan R. Bailey, The Eternal Journey: Daily Meditations on the Stages of Transformation. Renovaré, 2020. Page 6.
** Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson, translators. New York: Paulist Press, 1978.
Author’s Note: This blog posting was originally posted on April 27, 2018. I repost it here because of its relevance to our journey through the Book of Exodus. Because it was first posted three years ago, it repeats some of the same points I made in my previous posting
The Book of Exodus reports that when the Israelites left Egypt, they numbered about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children (Exodus 12:37). This figure is repeated in Numbers 11:21 and Numbers 26:51. When you count in those uncounted women and children, scholars conservatively estimate that the total figure was somewhere in the range of 2 million.
This is an enormous figure. Exodus scholar Nahum Sarna says that a safe estimate of the population of ancient Egypt would come in at around four or five million.* So the Exodus migration would have represented a catastrophic loss of population for ancient Egypt.
This has led most Biblical scholars to discount the Biblical figure. Clearly it is an exaggeration. If the authors have fabricated this figure, they argue, what other aspects of the Exodus story have they also fabricated? This argument figures in many scholars denying the Exodus ever happened.
So how do we account for this hyperbole in the Exodus account?
Sarna offers an intriguing answer to the puzzle. He says that the figure of 2 million represents the approximate population of the kingdom of Israel at the time of Kings David and Solomon. So the author/editor is counting the whole population of Israel at this time among those who escaped into freedom under Moses.
How could the author or editors of the Biblical text take such a viewpoint? Sarna suggests that they do because they do not see the Exodus era as ending with Israel’s crossing the Jordan River and occupying the land of Canaan under Joshua.
Instead they view the Exodus migration ending only when David captures the city of Jerusalem and Solomon builds a stationary temple to replace the portable tabernacle. The building of that temple is in fact the culmination of God’s act of redemption begun under Moses.**
…the great acts of God’s redemption on our part, whether in the Exodus or in the events of Holy Week, do not remain events in the past. They continue to be events in the present for faithful believers. Time past and time future merge into an eternal present.
Says Sarna, “It is as though all those living at the time of the building of the Temple themselves experienced the events of the Exodus.”***
I find that fascinating. It is saying that the Exodus generation is not just the immediate generation of those who left Egypt under Moses’ leadership. The Exodus generation includes all subsequent generations following the 40 years of wilderness wanderings, plus the nearly two centuries of Israelite settlement during the period of the judges and the early reigns of Saul and David.
The Biblical Mindset Takes an Unexpected Turn
This leads me to think that there may be an even more astonishing conception going on in the Biblical mindset. In Deuteronomy 6:20-25, we find guidance on how parents are to instruct their children in the Torah. The text begins, When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?…. This wording is clearly addressing the situation of generations beyond those who wandered in the wilderness under Moses.
And how does the text instruct parents to answer? …then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand….’ Note carefully the wording. The parents are not instructed to say, Our ancestors were Pharaoh’s slaves, but the Lord brought THEM out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Instead they are to say, WE were Pharaoh’s slaves, but the Lord brought US out of Egypt with a mighty hand.****
The viewpoint here is that all Israelites for generations to come participated in the Exodus. They were all a part of the Lord’s mighty redemption. So in an amazing way all generations of Jews constitute a portion of the Exodus generation.
What this conception does is make the Passover feast more than just a historical commemoration. It makes the annual celebration of Passover an experience in which each new generation of Jews participate in the Exodus. The Exodus continues as more than a repeated event. It becomes an ever-present experience for faithful Jews throughout their lives.
A Parallel in the Christian Tradition
Now how might this have significance for Christians? It is the historic Christian tradition that the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus enact a new Exodus-like redemption. Easter becomes the Christian Passover. This tradition is embedded in New Testament in the conception that Christ’s death is the sacrifice of our paschal lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). It is also embedded in the ancient name for Easter, Pascha, which is the Greek transliteration for the Hebrew word for Passover.
Christians likewise celebrate their redemption with a celebratory feast, the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper looks back to that final meal that Jesus had with his disciples on the night before his betrayal and death.
When Christians participate in the Eucharist, we are invited to do more than just remember the Last Supper. We are invited to join Jesus’ original disciples at that same table as Jesus the host distributes the bread and the wine. In a sense the table of the Lord expands from its original 12 guests to include all the millions of other invited guests that have joined in in the generations since.
All this excites me because it suggests that the great acts of God’s redemption on our part, whether in the Exodus or in the events of Holy Week, do not remain events in the past. They continue to be events in the present for faithful believers. Time past and time future merge into an eternal present.
** That viewpoint seems in fact to be presaged in one of the oldest bits of poetry in the Old Testament, the Song of the Moses in Exodus 15:1-18. This song celebrates the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. In the narrative the song is sung at the beginning of Israel’s wilderness wanderings, yet it ends on a puzzling note. It looks into the future, when the Lord will plant his sanctuary on the mountain which God will choose. The editors who put the Torah together may also have seen the establishment of the Jerusalem temple as the fulfillment of this enigmatic hope.
*** Sarna, page 101.
**** We find this same use of the first person plural in the famous Israelite creed recorded in Deuteronomy 26:5-9. It, too, describes the Exodus event as something that WE experienced, not just our ancestors.
The Passover meal makes the exodus story always contemporary.
An odd feature of the Exodus narrative is that it brackets its account of the final plague–the death of the firstborn (Exodus 12:29-32)–with extensive directions on how future generations are to celebrate the Passover meal (see Exodus 12:1-20and Exodus 12:43-13:16). Someone who approaches the book as nothing more than a narrative story is going to be puzzled by this feature. Why does the “author” do this?
Well, it is important to remember that the Book of Exodus forms a part of the Torah. Although it is common to translate the Hebrew word torah as law, its fundamental meaning is instruction. The Torah (the five books of Moses together) have a very practical goal. They are to instruct the Israelites in their distinctive origins, mission, and ways of living in a covenant with their God. The Torah instructs them in how they are to be a people set apart.
Torah therefore has a good amount of history, but its chief concern is not with the past. Its chief concern is how the Israelites are to live in the present. So the historical narrative gets interlaced with a lot of legislation. The past is never quite past. There is a sense in which the past is always contemporary. Past and present form one united time.
Making History Contemporary for Future Generations
We see this attitude exemplified in a passage in Deuteronomy 6:20-25. In this passage the text, set in the exodus era, looks into the future. It envisions a time when a young generation that did not live through the exodus questions the meaning of all the regulations that the Torah has laid down. Significantly the youngster asks What is the meaning of the decrees and statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you? (Deuteronomy 6:20).
I want to note the prominent use of the word you at the end. It is as if the youngster sees the regulations as applying to his parents but not to himself. And what the text advises the parents to say is: …then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand (Deuteronomy 6:21).
Notice the emphatic use of the word we as the father begins his response. The son sees the exodus story has simply history. The father sees it as always contemporary. All future generations of Israelites lived through it as well as the original generation. It is a shared experience, an experience that binds the generations into one.
The Passover meal reinforces this perspective. It is a way the Israelites will continually relive the events of the exodus each year. Today’s generation will pass through the night of liberation just as the original generation did. And so the immediacy of the liberation experience and the bonds that tie the generations together will be renewed year after year.
The “author” seeks to ensure that result by bracketing the account of the final night in Egypt with these extensive regulations on how Israel is to celebrate the Passover meal each year. I suspect that this is one powerful reason why Jews have managed to preserve their distinctive identity as a people through the centuries.
The Binding Power of Family Meals
And what a wise decision to anchor this constant remembrance of the past in a family meal. I have vivid memories from my own childhood of attending many family reunions with my extended family of grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins.
A common feature of these reunions was a family picnic. As people finished eating but were still gathered around the table, the telling of family stories would begin. My cousins and I would sit there enthralled by the stories–many funny, but some sad–that would tumble out of our family’s history. The result was the forging of stronger emotional bonds within the family. The bonds within my extended paternal family are especially strong.
Recognizing this should give us renewed appreciation of what’s going on when we celebrate the Christian Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. There are many things going on when we engage in that rite. One important function is giving thanks to God for what God has accomplished for our salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We recognize that function when we call the rite Eucharist. It is a thanksgiving meal.
But another important purpose is remembrance, as the apostle Paul makes explicit in his instructions on the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11:23-32. When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, Paul quotes Jesus as saying about the breaking of the bread: This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. Likewise when Jesus pours the cup, Paul says he says: This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.
Paul highlights the significance of the Eucharist as a rite to constantly remind us of the great events of our own liberation, that second exodus that the Christian church has always seen in the events of Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension.
But like the Passover meal, the Eucharist is more than just a technique to jog the memory. It is the way we Christians actually participate in the Last Supper along with the original disciples. We might think of the Eucharist as the way that that table in the upper room gets extended broad and wide through the centuries so all believers have the opportunity to sit at table with Jesus and share in the blessing he confers.
Like the Passover for Jews, the Eucharist is a way of making history contemporary for each generation of Christians.
Is Pharaoh responsible for his hardened heart, or is God?
As we read through the account of the negotiations between Pharaoh and Moses, we find a reoccurring motif in the story: the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. We are told that Pharaoh’s heart becomes progressively more and more obstinate against releasing the people of Israel from their bondage, even up to the final catastrophe of the drowning of his army in the Sea of Reeds.
A hint of this motif makes its first appearance in the discussion between God and Moses at the burning bush. There God says to Moses:
I know, however, that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all my wonders that I will perform in it; after that he will let you go. (Exodus 3:19-20)
The first explicit reference to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart appears in Exodus 4:21:
And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.
In this verse, however, the motif is given an unexpected twist. God says that he is the one who will harden Pharaoh’s heart. We expect that the initiative in the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart will come from Pharaoh. It is his choice. But here we are told God has a role in it, too.
In the early sequence of plagues [the rod turning into a serpent, the plague of frogs, the plague of flies, the plague of livestock disease), we are told that Pharaoh does indeed exercise the initiative. (See Exodus 7:13, 8:15, 8:32, 9:7) A good example is 8:15:
But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart, and would not listen to them, just as the Lord had said.
These references give the impression that Pharaoh’s opposition is one that he chooses. It is not imposed upon him.
This is re-emphasized in Exodus 9:34-35:
But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned once more and hardened his heart, he and his officials.So the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he would not let the Israelites go, just as the Lord had spoken through Moses.
In Exodus 9:12 (following the plague of boils), we encounter a different angle on the motif:
But the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD had spoken to Moses.
In most of the following references to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 10:1, 10:20, 11:10,14:4, 14:17), the initiative is taken by God. God is the one who is said to be hardening Pharaoh’s heart.
How Do We Resolve an Apparent Contradiction?
So we find in the Exodus account, two perspectives engaged in a kind of alternating dance through the narrative. On the one hand, we are told Pharaoh is the one hardening his own heart. On the other, the narrator tells us repeatedly that God is the one hardening Pharaoh’s heart.
We are troubled by what appears to be a strange contradiction that weaves through the narrative. Our logical minds tell us only one of the perspectives can be true. But which is it?
Various options might be suggested for resolving the apparent contradiction. For example, we might argue that the two perspectives come from different sources that the compiler of Exodus draws upon. Though scholars have tried to identify the different sources behind the canonical text, the motif seems to be mixed into all of them.
Following the lead of the apostle Paul in Romans 9, we might appeal to the doctrine of predestination. In his foreordained plan, God has predestined Pharaoh’s hardening. So he has no choice but to choose to harden his heart.
A third option is to argue that God has foreknowledge of how Pharaoh will harden his heart, so God can predict this inevitable development to Moses in advance. As Pharaoh deepens in his opposition, God responds with a hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as a consequence.
A Real Paradox
None of these, however, quite resolve the seeming contradiction for me. I see the motif expressing a paradox. I use the word paradox in its original meaning. A paradox is two statements, which placed beside each other seem to contradict each other, yet both are affirmed as true.
It seems to me that in the Exodus narrative we encounter a true paradox. Both perspectives are presented to us as accurate statements of the situation. Pharaoh hardens his own heart; God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. The text, however, gives us no help in resolving what we feel is a contradiction.
It seems to me that we encounter a similar paradox in the New Testament in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. In Philippians 2:12-13 the apostle Paul counsels his readers in this way:
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Here Paul counsels his fellow Christians to work out their own salvation to the fullest they can. Their labors are essential to the process. Yet, he goes on to say that it is God, however, who is at work within them to both will and work for God’s good pleasure.
My logical mind wants to say: Which is it? How can it be both at the same time? Is it my own labors that save me, or is it God? Paul seems to affirm both as true. There seems to be a strange dynamic at work in the experience of salvation that our logical mind cannot fully comprehend.
Paradoxes, however, are not found just in the Bible. We find them, too, in nature and scientific efforts to understand nature. One famous example is the question: What is the nature of light? Some experiments on the nature of light seem to point to light being a particle. Others point to light being a wave. Physicists will affirm both statements as true depending upon the experimental context in which they are working.
The Limits of Rationality
The fact that we can confront true paradoxes in life and nature leads me to believe that there are dimensions of life and nature that simply exceed the capability of human rationality to penetrate and comprehend. In some cases, further human research may discover a way of resolving a seeming paradox. That is the great hope that drives many scientists in their labors. And when they make a discovery that resolves an old paradox, I can be thankful.
But in other cases, human research and rationality may not be able to resolve the paradox. It remains and will remain a mystery. For I am quite willing to accept that there are dimensions to life and to the universe that are above the ability of human rationality to apprehend and comprehend. These dimensions are not irrational. They are instead suprarational, in that they exceed the capabilities of our rational tools of thinking.
This is why I believe that mystical experiences must be taken seriously. In the mystical experience we can apprehend and comprehend realities that simply are not accessible to us through human thinking. I recognize that hard-core rationalists will charge that this opens us to all kinds of delusions and misinterpretations of phenomena. We run the risk of charlatans peddling all kinds of pseudo-truths. And many will indeed be duped.
Despite these real dangers, I still believe that life and the universe, let alone God, are far more mysterious than human rationality can ever fully comprehend. We impoverish human life and experience if we accept rationality as the only valid avenue to the truth.
So coming back to the Exodus account, how do I come to terms with the two interweaving themes of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart? I don’t try to resolve the apparent contradiction. I affirm instead that both are expressing a dimension of the truth that exceeds my rational understanding.
The liberation of Israel hangs on a duel between two gods.
As we read Exodus’ account of the ten plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea, we need to keep in mind that we are reading an account of a titanic struggle between two gods. On the one hand, there is Pharaoh, king of Egypt. Egyptian royal ideology regarded Pharaoh as the incarnation of the god Horus. It was through Pharaoh that Horus governed the welfare of Egypt and its people.*
On the other hand, we have the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who has revealed himself as the I AM to Moses on Mount Sinai.
Each of these two gods claims exclusive possession of the people of Israel. In the narrative of the ten plagues and the Red Sea crossing (Exodus 5-15), the issue is whose claim will be sustained.
The God of Israel will win. But we should never think that that victory involved anything less than a titanic struggle. Pharaoh proves a formidable opponent. He employs trickery, delay tactics, deceit, brutality, sarcasm, and resolute obstinance in his refusal to let the people of Israel go free.
The text repeats over and over again that Pharaoh’s heart is hard, and it get harder and harder with each succeeding plague. In the end even the death of his first-born son only temporarily softens his resolution. It takes the catastrophic overthrow of his army in the Red Sea to finally bring the battle to a decisive conclusion.
As I think of another literary character that matches Pharaoh in his steely obstinance, I find myself turning to the figure of Satan in John Milton’s great epic poem, Paradise Lost. Satan is resolutely determined to assault heaven and challenge the lordship of God. He uses every tactic in his arsenal, ranging from deceitful rhetoric to outright armed violence, to do so. His attitude is expressed in the line: Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n. (Paradise Lost, Book I).
One can imagine Pharaoh saying something similar. And in the end, his opposition to the demands of Moses turn the land of Egypt into a kind of hell. Pharaoh maintains his supremacy by bringing havoc upon his people and ecological disaster upon the land.
A Basic Principle in Politics
What the Exodus account also demonstrates is a basic principle of politics. Entrenched power does not easily yield to demands to share or mitigate that power. Persuasive rhetoric and rational, humane pleas seldom move entrenched power. Only irresistible countervailing power will force concessions.
At the burning bush on Sinai, Moses had shown great anxiety that he did not have the eloquence and rhetorical power needed to move Pharaoh into some arena of negotiation. He was right to have that anxiety. It is not, after all, Moses’ strength of speech that turns the political situation around. His speeches strike a wall of granite. What finally exacts concessions from Pharaoh is the cumulative effect of the powerful plagues that threaten the health, wealth, and social stability of Egypt as well as Pharaoh’s own personal interests.
I think this is one of the lessons that the Exodus account has to teach to anyone who wants to launch a liberation movement. We see a good example in the development of the Indian independence movement in the first half of the 20thcentury, led by Mohandas Gandhi. Rhetoric was not what won that independence. It was all the tactics of power, even if non-violent power, like strikes, boycotts, protest marches, and civil disorder that finally wore down British resolve to hold onto its Indian empire.
We are seeing this truth demonstrated again in the current Black Lives Matter movement to challenge the deep-seated racism in American culture. The inspiring rhetoric of someone like Congressman John Lewis is needed to raise the spirits and hopes of all who desire a fundamental restructuring of American society and of American consciousness.
…in the end our exercise of power may involve us in the paradoxical power of suffering.
But I am convinced that it is not that rhetoric alone or moving statements of solidarity which will bring the fundamental change our country needs. It is the protest marches which in part will begin to motivate the needed shifts. So will strikes and boycotts. They wield a form of power in opposition to power.
But most important is the resolute and consistent application of our desire for change when American citizens step into their voting booths. If we seek lasting change, we must ensure that we elect candidates who will bring all the tools of power into our legislative assemblies, into our governing councils and bureaucratic offices, into our courts of justice and into the ranks of law enforcement. There is good reason why entrenched power does all it can to suppress voting rights. In the American system, power comes from the vote.
In the Exodus story, the battle between Pharaoh and God is not a civil negotiation. It is a raw battle of wills. In the end neither Pharaoh or God is nice to each other. The death of the first-born in the tenth plague is not a nice act. It is a brutal expression of power, provoked by the obstinate refusal of Pharaoh to entertain any concession to the demands of Moses and God. And we see that reflected in the rising vehemence of Moses’ own speeches to Pharaoh.
What decides the battle is which god exercises the greater power. And this should sober us if we think, as many Christians do today, that the essence of the Christian morality of love is being nice to everyone. The morality of love is far more robust. Its ultimate object is the welfare of all humanity and of all creation. And when that welfare is threatened, our response may call us to an exercise of power. But if we take the example of Jesus as definitive for Christian behavior, that exercise of power must always be non-violent and motivated and shaped by compassion. That may mean that in the end our exercise of power may involve us in the paradoxical power of suffering.
* The building of the pyramids seems to have been one expression of that ideology. The pyramid became a fortress tomb that ensured that Pharaoh, when he died, could enter into the world of the gods and continue to exercise his divine guardianship over the welfare of the land.
Ask most Christians, Who is the son of God?, and they likely will answer Jesus. That is the answer enshrined in our ancient creeds. So it may come as something of a shock when we read the answer given in Exodus 4:21-23.
In this passage God instructs Moses on what he is say to Pharaoh when he appears before the king. In verses 22-23, God gives this message to deliver to Pharaoh:
Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son. I said to you, “Let my son go that he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; now I will kill your firstborn son.’
In these verses, God calls the people Israel his firstborn son. Sonship becomes the metaphor for describing the close, family-like relationship that God is bringing the people of Israel into with himself. Behind that metaphor lie all the associations that ancient peoples tied into firstborn sonship. That status conveyed special privileges in inheritance (a double portion over than of any other brothers) and the assumption that the son would be closely aligned with his father’s interests.
God gives this special status of Israel as the rationale for how God will deal with Pharaoh. Moses is to ask Pharaoh to release the Israelites so they can go and worship God. God knows Pharaoh will not. So if Pharaoh will not release the Israelites, then Pharaoh will lose his own firstborn son as will, it turns out, all Egyptians as well.
The battle between God and Pharaoh then becomes a struggle over whose “offspring” will flourish. Will it be God’s people, the Israelites, or will it be the sons of Pharaoh and his fellow Egyptians? Both peoples could have flourished together, but as the story turns out, that is not to be because of the obstinacy of Pharaoh.
The Multi-layered Concept of Sonship in the Old Testament
As the Old Testament unfolds, the metaphor of sonship becomes a multi-layered one. In the prophets we have a continuation of describing Israel as God’s son. Let me cite two.
In Jeremiah 31 the prophet speaks of the days in the future when God will restore a remnant of the exiled Israelites to their land. In verse 9, the prophet quotes God as saying:
With weeping they shall come, and with consolations[a] I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.*
And in the prophet Hosea God expresses his displeasure with Israel’s unfaithfulness by reminding the nation of their liberation from Egyptian bondage. God expresses himself in these words:
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. (Hosea 11:1)
But in other places in the Old Testament we find the metaphor of sonship used to describe the status of the king. Let me cite three examples. All are addressed to or describing Israel’s kings.
2 Samuel 7:14:
I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.
I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.
He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation!’ I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.
Sonship in the New Testament
When we get to the New Testament, we find God calling Jesus his son in two critical moments in Jesus’ life. One is Jesus’ baptism. The gospels say that as Jesus emerges out of the water of the Jordan River, the heavens open and the voice of God proclaims:
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11, see also Matthew 3:17 and Luke 3:22)
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7, see also Matthew 17:5 and Luke 9:35)
When we read this New Testament language, we should note that the metaphor of sonship as applied to Jesus links Jesus to both the nation of Israel and to the kingship of Israel. In both cases sonship has been narrowed down to just one individual, but an individual who is intimately linked to a people and its governors.
In the resurrection the concept of sonship begins to once again expand beyond an individual back into a more corporate meaning. For as Christians are baptized into Christ, they are united with Christ by a spiritual adoption and come to share in that status which is uniquely his: sons of God. The apostle Paul is quite explicit about this when he is discussing baptism in his Letter to the Galatians.
But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:25-26)**
Jesus, too, shifits the meaning of sonship. In the Old Testament, sonship is associated with the privilege that comes with the relationship to the father. I noted earlier how the Old Testament talks of sonship within the context of inheritance. The son has the privilege of sharing in the inheritance. This gives the son his special status within the family.
With Jesus, however, the associations connected to sonship shift from the emphasis on privilege to the emphasis on responsibility, in particular the responsibility of service. Jesus lives out his sonship in his obedience to his father and in his service to his other brothers and sisters in the human community.
This, I think, helps us to see a dimension in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) that we don’t often notice. The errant son never loses his status as a son, even though he dishonors his father and squanders his inheritance. When he returns to his father, the father acknowledges that status immediately in welcoming his son home. What the son does by his return is ask to restore and repair the broken relationship.
When God declares to Pharaoh that Israel is his first-born son, we (and Israel) do not understand the full meaning of what God is saying. I would contend that it is only with the coming of Jesus that we come to understand fully the depth of the status that God is conferring when he declares Israel his son.
* The name Ephraim was another name for Israel.
** The cultural context of the New Testament writers was thoroughly patriarchal in its assumptions. So Paul along with other New Testament writers will use the standard practice of referring to believers as sons. But the verse that immediately follows makes clear that when Paul uses the words sons in verse 26, he is including women as well as men. Verse 28 reads: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. It is for this reason that modern translators of the New Testament prefer to translate sons by the more inclusive children of God.
Probably the strangest and most troubling story in the whole book of Exodus is the incident recounted in Exodus 4:24-26. It is a postage stamp of a story, very short, and yet it raises all kinds of questions.
The incident takes place as Moses and his family are journeying from Midian to Egypt. Moses, somewhat reluctantly, is responding to God’s call to return to Egypt to direct Israel’s liberation from Pharaoh’s bondage. The family has stopped for the night.
During the night God tries to kill Moses. Moses’ wife Zipporah comes to the rescue. She circumcises one of her sons and touches the excised foreskin to Moses’ feet (probably meant as a euphemism for Moses’ genitals).* This works. Moses survives. But Zipporah is shaken. She exclaims to Moses cryptically, Truly, you are a bridegroom of blood to me!
We are far from the first generation to scratch our heads over this story. How are we to make sense out of what appears a senseless story? Generations of Bible commentators have struggled with this story without any consensus of interpretation emerging.
The question that jumps up for all of us is: Why? Why does God, who has just commissioned Moses to his world-changing mission, try immediately to kill Moses? Why is Moses saved by the circumcision of his son? Why does in fact this story even appear in the book of Exodus? What significance did the book’s editors see in the story that they had to include it in their narrative?
The text gives almost no clues to interpretation. When we try to blow away the obscurity, it just resettles back in.
I will say right up front: there are no conclusive answers to these whys. The text gives almost no clues to interpretation. When we try to blow away the obscurity, it just resettles back in. All we can do is speculate, which I will do.
When I said there are almost no clues to interpretation, that almost reserves space for one possible clue. That is the story’s placement within the narrative of Exodus. It comes after Moses’ call at the burning bush, but before Moses’ arrival in Egypt. The journey Moses and his family are making marks an important transition.
Moses is leaving behind his 40-year life as a Midianite shepherd living within the family tents of Jethro. In Egypt Moses will embark on a fearful mission of political provocateur and freedom fighter, then later in the wilderness as spiritual and political leader of an emerging nation.
Cultural Associations with Circumcision
In the realm of world cultures, the rite of circumcision often serves as an identity marker. It establishes a man’s identity within a group. The rite is also associated with times of identity transition.
For example, in Judaism, a male child is circumcised eight days after birth. Circumcision seals that boy’s membership within the covenant circle of Israel. This comes through clearly in the account of the institution of the practice of circumcision recounted in Genesis 17:9-14. There it is said that any Israelite boy who remains uncircumcised shall be cut off from his people, for he has broken my covenant (Genesis 17:14).
In other cultures, especially some African tribal cultures, circumcision is a rite performed when a boy at puberty transitions from the status of child to a full-fledged member of the tribe’s adult males. It forms an important element of the initiation ceremonies that take place at that time.
My speculation is that we need to keep these cultural associations in mind as we read this particular story in Exodus.
Moses in Transition
As I said earlier, the journey marks an important transition in Moses’ life. He is also moving from one identity to another. Although born a Hebrew, Moses was raised in an Egyptian household, presumably acquiring many of the cultural attitudes and mindsets of Egyptians. Then he spent another 40 years living in the tribe of Midian, presumably adapting to the life style and cultural attitudes of that Bedouin tribe.
In his new role Moses will be living in and leading an Israelite people. He will need to identify and adapt to this new cultural setting. He will have to sever any lingering ties he may still have to his Egyptian upbringing and to his Midianite life. His identity must now be completely and fully with the Israelites.
In his new role…[Moses’] identity must now be completely and fully with the Israelites.
Exodus does not tell us if Moses was circumcised as a child or not, but if he was not, he will now have to be as a part of this psychological transition. Is it possible that this short incident is a disguised recognition by the editors that Moses had to undergo this identity marker himself?
The transition that Moses must undergo in his identity is one his family must undergo as well. They too will now have to identity fully with their new Israelite cousins and neighbors, severing any lingering psychological ties to the Midianite family and heritage.
If Moses’ son has not been circumcised, then there is a serious deficiency in Moses’ family as the family moves into the circle of the Israelite people. Moses’ mission as liberator is undermined by inconsistencies in his own family. The family must complete its transition into the new social circle. Zipporah is possibly recognizing this harsh fact when she blurbs out about Moses being a bridegroom of blood. The transitions Moses and his family are going through are painful and disruptive.
Baptism as a Christian Rite of Transition
In the Christian church, baptism replaces circumcision as the identity marker that identifies an individual as a member of the community of believers. In the early church baptism was regarded as a serious affair. It marked the decisive transition point when an individual passed from the community of pagans or Jews and one entered fully into the new family that constituted the Christian family.
Interestingly this rite of transition was regarded as an experience of spiritual death and resurrection (see the apostle Paul’s exposition of that belief in Romans 6:1-4). And in terms of the real social consequences many early Christians experienced by their decision to become a Christian (such as ostracism or persecution), Paul’s language takes on real psychological weight.**
On the basis of this analogy, one may argue that this incident in the desert is Moses’ spiritual baptism into his new role as God’s appointed man to assist in God’s creation of this new people of Israel.*** Certainly both of these rites–baptism and circumcision–carry these associations with transition.
I freely admit that what I have just expounded is pure speculation on my part. It is importing insights from non-biblical cultures into the interpreting of scripture. And some of my readers may regard that as inappropriate.
Nonetheless, the story remains an enigma. It possesses an ineradicable ambiguity. It reminds me of Japanese haiku poems like the one by the Japanese poet Basho.
The autumn full moon:
All night long
I paced round the lake.
The poem has an ineradicable ambiguity, too. What does it mean? It all depends upon what one associates with the poet’s night walk around the lake. Is it a pleasant night stroll or is it a fretful walk as the poet contends with some great agitation in his mind? The poet gives us almost no clues apart from the possible suggestion made by the word paced. We usually do not use the word pace to describe a relaxed, peaceful walk.
This story in Exodus functions somewhat in the same way. We ultimately cannot nail down its meaning definitively. And in that characteristic it may bear witness to an uncomfortable feature about divine activity in the world. Sometimes God’s ways can seem so absurdly senseless. We cannot detect the divine motive or purpose for things that happen in our lives, if there is even one. Yet the biblical witness is that God is at work in the world to accomplish his purposes, purposes which move towards healing and fulfillment. But we cannot always see that clearly. So we live our Christian lives by faith rather than by sight.
* The antecedents of the pronouns are ambiguous in the Hebrew. Does Zipporah apply the excised foreskin to Moses’ feet or her son’s feet? It is not clear. Many translations (like the NRSV) assume the ‘his’ means Moses’. Here we have a clear example of how translators sometimes make assumptions that go beyond the Hebrew text proper.
** The radical nature of Christian baptism got lost when Europe turned into Christendom. In that setting baptism became more a symbol of citizenship.
*** Here I am not trying to Christianize Moses’ experience. Rather I am trying to call attention to the similar effects that both Jewish circumcision and Christian baptism have on the respective spiritual status of their recipients.
How are we to understand the enigmatic name of God that God reveals to Moses?
At the burning bush on Mount Sinai, God calls Moses to become God’s agent in working the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. As I noted in my last post, Moses resists this call with all his might. He wants to convince God that God has chosen the wrong man.
Moses’ second objection and God’s response has been one of the most commented-upon passages in all of Scripture. Moses says to God that when he comes to the Israelites and tells them God has sent him, they will want to know the name of the god who sent him. All Moses knows at this point is that he is the God of our ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Apparently Moses thinks this will be too vague of a response. He wants a more proper name. After all, the Egyptian gods have proper names: Osiris, Isis, Horus, Seth, Bes, etc. So what is the proper name of Israel’s God?
Just what is going on in this objection is hard to say. Scholars disagree in their interpretation. Is Moses’ concern one of a prudent man, who is anticipating problems ahead? Is it an objection coming from doubt on Moses’ part?
Is it an effort by Moses to get some theological knowledge that really is superfluous to his mission? (When he gets to Egypt, no Israelite ever raises the question of God’s name.) Or does it involve a false assumption about the God that Moses is confronting? Moses may be thinking God is just another god on the same level as the other Egyptian gods, so God must have a proper name to take his place in the divine assembly.
Whatever the source of Moses’ objection, God does not put him down for raising it. Instead God responds by giving Moses what he asks. But the answer eludes full intellectual comprehension.
…we cannot fully understand God in the present; our full understanding of God is one that awaits his full revelation in the future, a revelation that will be disclosed in his future acts.
The Enigmatic Name of God
God responds to Moses by saying: I am who I am. At least that is how the New Revised Standard Version translates the enigmatic Hebrew phrase: ’ehyeh ’asher ’ehyeh. Other valid translations are: I will be what (who) I will be; I will cause to be what I will cause to be; or I will be who I am, or I am who I will be.
As we see, there are multiple meanings built into God’s response. But there is a distinct suggestion that we cannot fully understand God in the present; our full understanding of God is one that awaits his full revelation in the future, a revelation that will be disclosed in his future acts.
The renowned commentator on the Book of Exodus Brevard Childs says of God’s response: The formula is paradoxically both an answer and a refusal of an answer.* And for all of us who prize unambiguous clarity, God’s answer can be baffling and maddening.
God then condenses this strange phrase into two words: I AM. Moses is to tell the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you. Even in this shortened form, the enigmatic quality of God’s name remains.**
God then goes on to reveal his proper name which the Israelites are to use in all their worship. God’s name is YHWH (Exodus 3:15). When the Israelites speak of or to their proper God, they are to use this name. For this is the name of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of their ancestors.
This name, too, is an enigma. Ancient Hebrew texts wrote only in consonants. The scribes omitted the vowels, which a reader added to the text when he read it aloud. So we do not know the proper vowels that would be added to this name when spoken aloud. The name ultimately came to be regarded as so sacred that no one said it, except the high priest who pronounced it once a year during the Day of Atonement festival.
When the priesthood died out after the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., all certain knowledge of the pronunciation was lost. Scholars today speculate it was pronounced Yahweh. You find that usage common in many modern English translations. But that pronunciation is speculative.
What Jews have customarily done when they encounter the letters YHWH in the Hebrew text is they substitute in pronunciation the Hebrew word Adonai. When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek in the two centuries before Jesus, the translators translated Adonai as Kyrios (which means Lord). English translators have followed the same practice, always translating YHWH as LORD (usually spelled in capitals).
Reflections on the Name
Let me say a few things about this revelation of the name of God as it relates to our life as believers today.
First of all, the name of God is not one that humans give to God, as the Egyptians gave names to their gods. It is a name that comes from God himself. God reveals his name to us. Adam is given the right to give names to all the animals in paradise (Genesis 2:20). But Adam is not given the right to name God. God will name himself.
The giving of names usually implies some implicit hierarchy. Parents name their babies, not the other way around. Moses and the Israelites will never be in a position of superiority to compel God to act because they have given God his name. Manipulation will never be appropriate in Israel’s relationship to God. It is why magic is so incompatible with Biblical religion.
As I look at Biblical religion, I see an understanding of God as a presence that is always present in everything, but is not everything. This presence is never an impersonal It, but a presence who manifests personal qualities.
Yet at the same time, God’s revealing God’s name opens up the possibility of relationship. God invites relationship by giving the Israelites a name by which they can call upon him, address him, and lament to him. I like the way Thomas E. Fretheim, another commentator on Exodus, puts this. He says:
Naming makes true encounter and communication possible. Naming entails availability. By giving the name, God becomes accessible to people. God and people can now meet one another and there can be address on the part of both parties. Yet, because name is not person, there remains an otherness, even a mystery about the one who is named.***
A Name that Invites Relationship
Our relationship to God then is not with an indistinct, diaphanous being whom we are never quite sure is there or not, nor with a God who is so diffuse that God is in everything but never distinguishable (as in pantheism), but with a distinct presence whom we can address by name.
I use the word presence deliberately. As I look at Biblical religion, I see an understanding of God as a presence that is always present in everything, but is not everything. This presence is never an impersonal It, but a presence who manifests personal qualities. God is one who makes, who speaks, who calls, who questions, who rebukes, who promises, who intervenes, who heals, who rescues, who acts, who loves. Yet God is a presence who remains beyond our control and manipulation.
That is why I am always drawn so strongly to the thought of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber who describes our relationship to God not as an I-It relationship, but as an I-Thou one. We relate to God always as a You, not as an It.****
About ten years ago a group of friends and I spent an evening watching a new film that has been recently released. It was titled O My God.
In it filmmaker Peter Rodger travels to 23 different countries to interview a diversity of people. They include children, religious leaders, celebrities, a British princess, fanatics, and the average man on the street. He asks them all the same question, “What is God?”
His purpose, he says, is to explore whether it matters what we believe. “What is this entity that goes by the name of God,” he asks, “that seems to bring about so much friction, hurt, and pain?” So he decides to travel around the world and to ask people what they think.
Now if you are trying to understand the mysterious power that religion plays in people’s lives, I think that is the wrong question to ask. It implies that religion is primarily an intellectual exercise. It deals with the intellectual entity, as Rodger calls it, that we call God.
I submit, however, that this is the wrong question to ask if you are trying to understand the power of religious faith as it comes to us in the Bible. There we might more properly say the question we encounter is not “What is God?” but “Who is God?”
This is in the end the question, I suggest, that Moses is asking when he asks God’s name. The answer God gives is a name that invites relationship and a relationship that orients us into the future. Moses and Israel will come to know God ever more fully as they journey with God into their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. It is an invitation to faith.
Likewise for us, too, we will only fully know who God is, as we walk into the future in relationship with this God who will be fully revealed only when the Final Day arrives. On that day, as devout Jews believe, we will all be able finally to pronounce the proper name of God aloud.
** Following the lead of Albert Einstein, modern cosmologists consider time as well as space to be malleable parts of the universe. Neither is absolute. As creator of the universe (as Christians believe), God is then independent from both time and space. God lives in an eternal Now, with no past or future. That’s why I find it fascinating that the Exodus revelation reveals God as the I AM. Exodus and modern cosmology seem to be traveling down the same road.
*** Thomas E. Fretheim, Interpretation: Exodus. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991. Page 65.
**** Buber’s thought is presented in a classic theological/philosophical work that is titled in English translation as I and Thou. It was first published in German under the title Ich und Du. The word Du in German is the singular form of You, but it is usually reserved for use in relationships that have some sense of intimacy, such as the relationship between husband and wife or parent and child. In Elizabethan English the word Thou had the same association. It is not then pure archaism when the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer both use the word Thou in addressing God. The translators are trying to capture something of the subtle spirit of Biblical religion.