Exodus: Battle of the Gods

The liberation of Israel hangs on a duel between two gods.

The Pharaoh Rameses II in battle.

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. 

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* 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.  

Exodus: Who Is God’s Son?

Exodus’ answer may surprise Christian readers.

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. 

Psalm 2:7:

I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, “You are my son;
    today I have begotten you.

Psalm 89:26-27:

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)

Again in the event of the Transfiguration, the voice of God proclaims:

“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)**

The father welcomes home his son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Painting by Pompeo Batoni, 18th century.

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. 

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* 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

Exodus: Bridegroom of Blood

Can we make sense of a seemingly senseless story?

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. 

Troubling Questions

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. 

The baptism of Jesus as pictured in the dome of the Arian Baptistry, Ravenna, Italy, 6th century.

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. 

Ineradicable Ambiguity

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.  

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* 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.

Exodus: Name of Faithful Mystery

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 beI 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.**

The Hebrew spelling for the name God reveals as God’s name–the Tetragrammaton.

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.

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* Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974. Page 76.

** 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.

Exodus: The Resisted Call

Moses does not want the call he receives from God. He tries to evade it.

Exodus, chapters 3 and 4, recount the experience when God calls Moses to leave his shepherding in Midian and return to Egypt to free the Israelites from Pharaoh’s bondage. What may surprise us as readers is how strenuously Moses resists that call. 

The account of Moses’ call parallels the experience of other Old Testament prophets. The classic example is the call of Jeremiah as recounted in Jeremiah 1:4-9. His call comes when he is a young man just beginning his adult life. He, too, tries to evade it by telling God how unqualified his youth makes him for the job. God does not accept his request for deferment.

Isaiah, when he is called by God, pleads his total unsuitability by claiming the impurity of his speech and the environment in which he lives (Isaiah 6:1-5).

God has a big, audacious plan. To accomplish it he does not need to have shrinking violets who are going to be afraid of every shadow. He needs persons of spirit and courage.

The most extreme example of a prophet resisting his call comes with Jonah. He tries to evade it by sailing to the farthest edge of the world as he knew it (Jonah 1). 

The prophets have good reasons for trying to escape their call. Time after time the prophets are called upon to deliver messages of judgment to the nation, especially to the nation’s leaders. This garners them scorn, social ostracism, reputation smearing, and sometimes physical abuse and imprisonment. All too often the nation’s populace regard them as mad. It is not a job anyone should crave.

The Call of Moses

The most extensive account of a prophet trying to argue his way out of God’s call is the account of Moses’ call. The account begins with God attracting Moses’ attention with a bush that is flaming, but not burning up. Curious, Moses steps aside from his shepherding to investigate this peculiarity. 

Moses at the burning bush, icon in St. Catherine’s monastery, Sinai, 12th century.

God speaks to Moses out the bush and tells him that he, God, has taken notice of the suffering of the Israelites in their Egyptian bondage and plans to set them free. The human agent he will use to accomplish this purpose is Moses.

Moses shows no enthusiasm for the role. He offers five successive arguments that God is making a mistake. 

The first argument is the shortest. Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt? (Exodus 3:11). As the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, he knows first-hand the power structure of Pharaoh and his administration. As a criminal who fled justice, Moses knows he has no power base to challenge the autocracy of Pharaoh. 

God dismisses this argument by telling Moses that he, God, will be with him. The sign of that will be the fact that after the liberation, Israel will worship God on this very mountain. The guarantee of God’s promise lies not in the present, but in the future. Moses will have to operate out of faith in God’s promise, not out of certainty in the present.

Next Moses raises the issue of God’s name. When he appears before the Israelites with his message of liberation, the Israelites are rightly going to want to know which god is sending him. All Moses has to offer them is the vague phrase the God of your ancestors.” Moses wants something more specific…and compelling.

His request leads God into revealing his name, the name YHWH (translated into English as the LORD). Israel’s liberation is going to lead the Israelites into an intimacy with God that they have not had before. That intimacy will be manifest in the privilege that they of all the nations of the world will know God’s proper name. (Note: There are so many dimensions to this particular monologue that I will devote my next posting to them.)

Despite the promises, God reiterates to Moses that God will exercise great power, to bring Israel out of Egypt and into its own land, Moses is obsessed that the Israelites will not believe him when he announces God’s intentions. He seeks something more persuasive when he speaks. 

God then gives him two miraculous signs to perform before both Pharaoh and the people. As we will learn later, they are hardly above the level of magical tricks. In the end, they accomplish nothing in impressing Pharaoh, despite Moses’ desperate need for some kind of sign to back up his words. 

The gift of these signs does not apparently satisfy Moses’ anxiety, so he raises another objection. He is not an eloquent speaker. He tells God, I am slow of speech and slow of tongue (Exodus 4:10). He seems to think this disqualifies him from the task for which God is calling him. A liberator must be a powerful orator. God reminds him that he is the one who gives speech to mortals, and he will empower Moses’ in his speech.

Even this is not enough to calm Moses’ anxieties. His last objection is the boldest of all. He asks God to select someone else for the job. He does not want it. This objection pushes God to the limit. He responds in anger, telling Moses he is sending his brother Aaron to assist him. Aaron will speak the words that God gives to Moses. He also gives Moses a rod, a sign of his authority.

Moses as God’s Man

Moses runs out of his objections and concedes to God’s call. We might speculate he does so reluctantly. But the battle is over. God will not let his plan be thwarted by Moses’ fears and anxieties. Moses must learn that his personal welfare and comfort are subordinate to God’s greater plan. It must have been a very humbling experience, one which reinforced the humility that he was later to exhibit, a humility that so impressed all who met him.

What I find so amazing about this story is not that God gets his way in the end, but that Moses conducts such an unflattering dialogue with God and that God responds patiently to each objection. I would have thought that God would have turned away in disgust. Quibbling Moses was clearly not the fearless leader God sought. But God does not. 

Moses does not come across as a craven slave before God. Rather he is a man of spirit and boldness, a boldness that dares to argue with God. One thinks of a similar character in the Bible: Job. 

God has a big, audacious plan. To accomplish it he does not need to have shrinking violets who are going to be afraid of every shadow. He needs persons of spirit and courage. In the boldness of Moses’ dialogue with God, we get a first glimpse that insofar as the exodus project is concerned, God has found in Moses just his man. 

Exodus: Moses’ Silent Years

A gap in the story does not mean nothing important was happening.

Moses defending the daughters of Jethro. Painting by Nicolaas Verkolje, 18th century.

Exodus, chapter 2, tells us that Moses was 40 years old when he murdered an Egyptian overseer. He fled to Midian to save his life. He lived there for another 40 years within the household of Jethro. He married Jethro’s daughter, fathered two sons, and shepherded Jethro’s flocks.

That is all we are told about those 40 years. They are the silent years of Moses’ life. 

Possible Influences of Midian Experiences on Moses’ Character

We would like to know what was happening to Moses during this time. What experiences shaped his life and attitudes? How did his life circumstances shape his developing character? How was he acquiring the skills of leadership that would be so evident later in his role as Israel’s leader? We are given no clue. Yet I can’t help but believe that things were happening in those years that would be decisive to his future. But I can only speculate.

For one, it is important to note that his employment was that of a shepherd. In the ancient world, the role of kings was often described as a kind of shepherding. Kings were shepherds of their people. Israelite kings were certainly seen in that light. When Nathan the prophet confronted King David over his abuse of power, he expressed his criticism through a parable about a rich man stealing a poor man’s sheep (2 Samuel 12). In Psalm 23 God himself is portrayed as the good shepherd.

… Moses’ years shepherding were possibly cultivating skills in leadership without his or anyone else’s noticing. 

So Moses’ years shepherding were possibly cultivating skills in leadership without his or anyone else’s noticing. 

Moses had fled to Midian as a prince of Egypt. In Midian he would have had to accommodate himself to a life of obscurity and non-privilege. Midian would then have become his training ground in humility. This was an essential quality he would need to be an effective leader of Israel in its wilderness. Numbers 12:3 tells us that Moses was regarded as the humblest of men, despite his exalted position. 

Where and how did he acquire that distinctive quality of character? One wonders if it was not during those years he lived in obscurity in the tents of Midian. He would have had to shed the trappings of privilege he brought from Egypt and accustom himself to a life that may have seemed to him a frustration of all the dreams and expectations he had acquired in the palace of Pharaoh’s daughter. 

In Midian, too, Moses as a husband and father was experiencing the joys and the anxieties of family life. When he came later to assume his role as leader of Israel, he did so not as a celibate priest but as one acquainted with the realities of family life. 

There may have been other important things happening in the shaping of Moses’ character in those silent years. We just do not know. But what I do notice is that there is this long gap of silence in Moses’ biography. 

A Parallel in the Life of Jesus

I take note of that because we find something parallel in the life of Jesus. The gospels tell us some stories about Jesus’ birth and one story about an incident in the temple when Jesus was 12 years old (Luke 2:41-51). They remain silent, however, about the rest of Jesus’ childhood, youth, and early adult years. 

Tradition says that Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his public ministry. What was happening in the 29 years before that? The gospels remain resolutely silent. And yet, as in the case of Moses, I cannot help but believe that the humble, obscure activities and interactions that Jesus was engaged in in those silent years were shaping his character and sharpening his skills and deepening his insights. He would draw upon them in his public ministry.

This is the dynamic of sainthood. It takes a process to grow a saint.

One evidence for that is the parables Jesus would tell. They are often told in the dress of ordinary life, especially the activities of farming. They show an acute observation of the peculiarities of people in ordinary living. Where did Jesus acquire that awareness? It had to be during those silent years when Jesus was working and walking around and engaging in commerce with the people of Nazareth and its neighborhoods?

Judging Our Lives from a False Platform

Both the life of Moses and the life of Jesus demonstrate an important truth about the spiritual life. Times of seemingly obscure ordinary life and times of patient silence play an essential role in our spiritual journeys. We may feel that nothing important is happening in our lives. We may feel a frustration over dreams that remain unfulfilled or over career goals that remain unrealized. We may come to feel a sense of resentment about the life we feel we have never lived.

But our platform of judgment may be far off base. Sometimes we are blind to the important ways our years of obscurity were or are preparing us for some important work we shall be called upon to do. They were important years of preparation. 

Emily Dickinson

In other cases we are blind to the extraordinary things we were doing in our ordinary life, things we never see as extraordinary at all. One of my favorite examples is the poet Emily Dickinson. She wrote several thousands of poems. 

In her lifetime, only a handful were published. Most she stuffed away in boxes and desk drawers. They were written on scraps of paper. She instructed her sister-in-law to burn them all after her death. Her sister-in-law disobeyed her instructions. 

When the poems were published, America discovered that in her withdrawn life as the spinster of Amherst, Emily Dickinson was developing into one of the most extraordinary poets of American literature. Her poetry significantly redirected the writing of poetry in the 20th century. 

In one of her most famous poems, she begins:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Dont tell! they’d advertise – you know!

Apparently Emily was not able to rightly judge the value of her own obscure life and worth.  

An Important Theme in the Contemplative Prayer Tradition

The importance of times of silence, not only daily but also over the course of years, is a very important theme in the contemplative prayer tradition. That tradition is all about the process of personal and spiritual transformation. 

What is demonstrated over and over again not only in the lives of publicized saints, but also in the lives of ordinary saints that each and every one of us knows is that their beauty of character is not a product of a spiritual flash in the pan. 

The cultivation of character is a process, a process which scriptural writers see as parallel to the process of growth in nature. The glorious oak tree is the product of the acorn. But the tree does not emerge from the seed as full-grown tree overnight. It emerges through a slow process of growth, first emerging as a tiny sapling, then steadily growing in height and girth until it towers over its landscape. During those early years of growth, the tree is not impressive. It looks like other young trees around it. Only in maturity is its full beauty apparent.

This is the dynamic of sainthood. It takes a process to grow a saint. As the spiritual writer Jonathan R. Bailey has put it: Christlike character is not something we get; we grow into it.*

Years of obscurity and patient waiting may play an essential role. It is in the daily rounds of ordinary life when we seek to faithfully fulfill our duties and responsibilities to family, work, and community that we are developing those exemplary traits of character that we associate with the saints. Sometimes they are training us for some important mission ahead. But in others they are polishing us to shine as creatures of beauty in God’s world.

__________________

* Jonathan R. Bailey, The Eternal Journey: Daily Meditations on the Stages of Transformation. Renovaré, 2020. Page 6.

Poem by Emily Dickinson: Used by Permission of Harvard University Press. THE POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1951, 1955 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.  Copyright © renewed 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © 1914, 1918, 1919, 1924, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1935, 1937, 1942, by Martha Dickinson Bianchi. Copyright © 1952, 1957, 1958, 1963, 1965, by Mary L. Hampson.

Exodus: Subversive Women

The agents of resistance to Pharaoh’s policy of genocide are women.

Universally autocrats seem to assume that when they issue decrees, the populace will obey them without question. They can be surprised when opposition surfaces in unexpected places.

This is the case when Pharaoh issues his decree that all newborn male Israelites are to be killed. He particularly summons the midwives who attend the birth of Israelite children and orders them to carry out his policy. But they ignore his orders because, the text says, that they feared God (Exodus 1:17).

Infuriated, Pharaoh summons them again to interrogate them on the reason for their non-compliance. The two women are shrewd. They give an explanation that offers a plausible explanation, but one that hides their true motives. Learning that he cannot depend upon the midwives to do his bidding, he issues a new decree that the boy babies are to be thrown into the Nile. Pharaoh, the autocrat, is thwarted by two women. 

We then pass to chapter 2 of Exodus, which recounts the birth of Moses. The child is in extreme danger, because he is a boy. His mother, however, manages to hide the child from any prying authorities for a full three months. Once again a woman has managed to skirt around the Pharaoh’s vigilant eye.

Pharaoh’s daughter deliberately and consciously works counter to her father’s policy. How did she get away with it?

When after three months, it is no longer feasible to keep the child hidden, Moses’ mother comes up with another daring strategy, one fraught with potential danger. She constructs a water-proof basket, places the child in the basket, and sets the basket afloat in the Nile River among shoreline reeds. She also sets her daughter Miriam to keep watch over its fate. In some ways, it is an act of desperation, but it is imbued with hope.

Opposition Within Pharaoh’s Family

Pharaoh’s daughter finds baby Moses. Image by Gustave Dore

By chance Pharaoh’s daughter passes by on her way to bathe in the Nile. She hears the child cry and asks a maid to fetch it. When she views the child in the basket, she recognizes that it is a Hebrew child. As a member of the royal family, we would expect her to turn the baby over to her father’s agents so it could be destroyed. Instead she takes pity on it and determines to bring it into her household and eventually to adopt it as her son. 

This is remarkable. Pharaoh’s daughter deliberately and consciously works counter to her father’s policy. How did she get away with it? We are not told. But opposition to Pharaoh and his policy of genocide has arisen within Pharaoh’s own household and family. And the source of that opposition is a woman.

Nowhere in these opening paragraphs of Exodus are we told of any opposition to Pharaoh arising from the men of his entourage or from the Israelite men. It is the women who work against the policy. In Egyptian as well as Israelite society women were expected to be passive elements of society. Action is reserved for men. But Exodus shows us the effectiveness of resistance that arises up from the most unexpected places.

The Book of Exodus will tell the story of a major upheaval in which the powerless will be empowered and the power of the powerful diminished. That theme begins at the very start with these accounts of subversive women. 

Author’s Note:

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

One who admired and identified with these women in the Exodus story was the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In 2015 she wrote a short Passover essay lauding the courage and subversive initiative of these women. She titled it “The Heroic and Visionary Women of the Passover.” She wrote of them: These women had a vision leading out of the darkness shrouding their world. They were women of action, prepared to defy authority to make their vision a reality bathed in the light of the day. Framed on the wall in her Supreme Court office was a quotation from Deuteronomy 16:20 which begins with the Hebrew words Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, which translate into Justice, justice you shall pursue. We see how an ancient story can continue to inspire into the present. 

Exodus: Neutralize the Alien

Paranoia about immigration fuels Pharaoh’s campaign against the Israelites.

Egyptian tomb painting of immigrants entering Egypt

The first chapter of Exodus sets the stage for the story of Israel’s liberation by describing the genocidal policy Pharaoh launches against the Israelites living in Egypt. The policy begins with the imposition of hard labor upon the Israelites. When that does not work, then Pharaoh decrees that all newly born Israelite boys are to be killed. 

Why this hostile policy? What fear drives it? What is it intended to achieve? The first chapter of Exodus answers those questions.

These opening verses remind us that Israel had entered Egypt as a single family of some 70 persons. Over the years (unspecified), the family grows to a considerable size, becoming a noticeable social entity of resident immigrants living in Egypt.

This raises an anxiety within Pharaoh (and presumably the native Egyptian populace). Pharaoh expresses this anxiety in Exodus 1:9-10:

He said to the people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape the land.”

Seeds of Pharaoh’s Fear

The fear is that the Israelites are becoming a potential fifth column within the land in the case of a war with invaders. They might throw their lot in with the invaders, adding to the invaders’ military strength. Or they might use an invasion to migrate out of Egypt, thereby presumably dealing a serious blow to the Egyptian economy. 

The Egyptian fear was not unwarranted. Most scholars believe that the historical setting for the Exodus story probably lies within the 19th dynasty in Egypt (1305-1224 B.C.). Egyptians of this era had not forgotten a time in their history when they had in fact been ruled by a foreign Semitic dynasty, called the Hyksos (1650-1550 B.C.), which had either invaded or migrated from western Asia. 

Egyptians remembered it as a period of national humiliation. It apparently left a serious scar on the psyche of ancient Egyptians. When the 18th dynasty restored native Egyptian rule, Egyptian policy determined never to let another such humiliation to occur. This drove the 18th dynasty’s imperial expansion into Canaan and Syria. By building garrisons in these areas as well as by bringing local city states into vassal relationships, the Egyptians hoped to block any potential invasion long before it reached Egyptian borders. 

So the fears of Pharaoh, as expressed in Exodus 1, ring true with what we know about ancient Egyptian history. The fears had roots in their history.

Neutralizing the Threat

Pharaoh seeks to neutralize the potential threat posed by the Israelites His first policy was to implement a policy placing the Israelites under oppressive forced labor. The Israelites were compelled to work on the construction of two Egyptian cities. 

Although it is common to label the oppression of the Israelites as a form of slavery, it is important to note that it was not chattel slavery, like the slavery endured by black slaves in America. The Israelites were not property owned by Egyptians. But they were placed in bondage nonetheless through being compelled to engage in involuntary labor. 

We are not told exactly why Pharaoh chose this particular policy. Possibly he hoped that Israelite men would be so exhausted from their daily labor that they would have no energy or time for sex. But the text says the policy did not work. The Israelite population continued to multiply, to Pharaoh’s alarm.

Pharaoh chose to intensify the oppression by decreeing a policy that can be described as genocidal in intent. He decreed that all new-born male Israelite babies should be killed. Once again one wonders about his thinking. Boys were the future labor force. Why stifle this source of labor? It was the Israelite women who bore the babies. It would have been more effective to decree the deaths of girl babies rather than boy babies. 

Though it is not stated explicitly, Egyptian fears might be capsulized in the fear that the Israelites might replace them, the native Egyptians. This is an age-old fear in societies that experience significant immigration from different ethnic groups. It is the fear that fuels much white nationalism in America today. 

Scripture’s Bias

How does an established society and culture deal with a major infusion of people who do not share the same characteristics as the dominant ethnic group? The dominant ethnic group can feel threatened and therefore adopt policies to stanch the feared influx. Policies can include restricted immigration, exclusionary policies in employment or residence, cultural vilification, segregation, and even genocide.

One can hope that a dominant ethnic group can come to be flexible enough to accommodate the stranger and to adapt cultural attitudes to recognize the cultural and economic fertility that can result from a blending of ethnic groups.* But that hope is not often realized in human history. Fear trumps tolerance. 

Over and over again in the Old Testament, in the Torah as well as the psalms and prophets, we find passages that advocate compassion towards the resident alien or immigrant. It is a distinct Old Testament bias.

Israelite law, however, throws it weight behind acceptance and accommodation. Over and over again in the Old Testament, in the Torah as well as the psalms and prophets, we find passages that advocate compassion towards the resident alien or immigrant. It is a distinct Old Testament bias. Here are a few examples:

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 22:21)

You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.(Exodus 23:9)

When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God[a] and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being.  For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.(Deuteronomy 10:12-13, 17-19)

Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3)

             The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
                        the Lord loves the righteous.
            The Lord watches over the sojourners;
                       he upholds the widow and the fatherless;
                       but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. (Psalm 146:8-9)

The New Testament’s Voice

This Old Testament bias continues into the New Testament, most notably into the parable of the last judgment told by Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46. What separates the sheep who enter God’s kingdom from the goats who are expelled is their treatment of the marginalized of society: the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the prisoner, and the stranger. 

It gets further attention in Paul’s writings as he expounds upon the equality of Jews and Gentiles within the household of faith. Both belong within that household; both have something to contribute. Exclusion and segregation become for Paul a denial of Christ. (The most explicit discussions of this theme come in the Letter to the Galatians and the Letter to the Ephesians.)

The sympathies of Israelite law, which mirrors the sympathies of God, rest with the oppressed in society, including the immigrant who comes across as an alien to the dominant ethnic group. The Biblical tradition expects the dominant status quo in society to adapt rather than exclude the alien. The Book of Exodus shows what happens when the powers of society do not. 

___________

* Jazz as a distinctive American musical genre is a good example. Its origins lie in the African-American community of New Orleans. It represents one of the richest contributions made by a minority ethnic group to American culture as a whole.

Exodus: Structuring the Story

The Book of Exodus shares parallel themes with other Western epics.

Reading the Bible in short snippets (as happens when churches follow a lectionary schedule) carries a danger. It focuses our attention on one small segment of a Biblical book. We lose sight of the flow of the whole book. 

It is important not to do this when we read the Book of Exodus. If we keep our attention on the flow of its narrative, we notice the book divides into two broad sections. 

The first tells the story of Israel’s liberation from Egyptian slavery (chapters 1-15). The heart of this section is the titanic battle between God and Pharaoh. In the ancient Egyptian mindset, Pharaoh was regarded as the incarnation of the god Horus. He was therefore a divine being. This then makes the battle between God and Pharaoh a battle between two gods. Who ultimately will exercise lordship over the people Israel?

The second section recounts the beginning of Israel’s journey to the Promised Land (chapters 16-40). That journey will end up taking 40 years. The Book of Exodus recounts only the first year. But that first year will include momentous events in creating Israel as a new nation.

For example, the establishment of the covenant between God and Israel ratified at Mount Sinai. Out of that covenant emerges the beginnings of Israelite law. The most condensed form of that law is given to us in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20). 

It is in the flow of this narrative that we find, in my opinion, the wisdom the Book of Exodus offers to any people who set out on the task of creating a new national identity.

The book ends with the construction of the Tabernacle as a center for worship. The Tabernacle provides a physical manifestation of God’s promise to be with Israel throughout its journey and into its future. It will be the Tent of Meeting, meaning the place where God and the people meet each other.

The journey includes numerous incidents of testing, when Israel is challenged to have faith in circumstances that breed doubt. These testing experiences trigger grumbling and anxiety within the people. They culminate in the outright rebellion expressed in the affair with the golden calf (Exodus 32-34). 

The journey, with all its up’s and down’s, plays a crucial role in transforming the Israelites from a chaotic mob of freed slaves into an organized nation with an established identity, constitution, and rituals of worship. In Exodus 4:22-23, God has called Israel “my firstborn son.” By the end of the book, we begin to see what that means in terms of the particulars of Israel’s relation to God, its laws and social life, and its worship. 

It is in the flow of this narrative that we find, in my opinion, the wisdom the Book of Exodus offers to any people who set out on the task of creating a new national identity. It is a handbook on the challenges of nation building. It offers wisdom, too, to individuals traveling on a spiritual journey into a deeper relationship with God.

Connections with Other Epic Narratives

As I was studying this thematic division in the Book of Exodus, I was struck with the fact that this dual structure is one the book shares with two other foundational epics in the history of Western civilization. Those two epics are the Homeric narratives recounted in the Iliad and the Odyssey and Virgil’s epic the Aeneid

Roman image of Homer

The Homeric epics were foundational to ancient Greek culture. They formed the primary texts in the education of young Greek boys. The Aeneid is the classic account of the origins of the Romans. It is the myth that validates Rome’s divine destiny to rule the world.

Actually the Iliad and the Odyssey are two separate epics, but they claim common Homeric authorship. And throughout Greek history they were held in close association. Taking these two works together (as I think we should), we notice they break into a stirring account of the war between the Greeks and Trojans (the Iliad) and then the account of the ten-year journey by Odysseus to return to his home island of Ithaca after the war’s end (the Odyssey). 

The over-arching structure of the two epics is that pattern of battle and journey, the same pattern we find in the Book of Exodus. 

The Aeneid, too, shares this same structure of battle and journey, except the order is reversed. The journey comes first; the battle second. The fall of Troy has exiled Aeneas and his crew from their homeland. They seek a new one in the western Mediterranean. The first half of the Aeneid recounts the journey; the second half their battle to secure their new homeland once they arrive in Italy. 

Aeneas in battle, by Luca Giordano, 17th century

I don’t want to make too much of these parallels. There are, certainly differences among them. Exodus is an account of a journey of a people; the Odyssey is the journey of an individual. Odysseus returns home; Israel does not return to Egypt, but journeys to a new homeland. 

Exodus shares this feature with the Aeneid, for Aeneas does not return to Troy but searches for a new homeland. The Exodus narrative (taking the long view) and the Aeneid share the feature of a battle to secure their new homelands: Aeneas in his duel with Turnus, and in the Exodus tradition the battles Joshua leads to secure the Promised Land once Israel crosses the Jordan.

Yet all three share that common feature of battle and journey. What are we to make of that? Is it an accidental parallelism? Or are the three drawing upon some common dynamism buried in the corporate unconsciousness of humanity? Are we looking at one of Carl Jung’s archetypes? 

I don’t have the scholarly background to answer those questions. I just want to call attention to this odd fact. 

Conditioning the Way Americans Tell Their Own Story?

I also can’t help but wonder if this pattern has not left an indelible influence on the shape of the Western mindset. Do we see it, for example, in the popular narratives we tell about the origins and destiny of America?  

The story, as we like to tell it, has its journey theme. Europeans journey across the Atlantic to a new homeland. They do so for various motivations. Some make the journey to escape economic deprivation in Europe. Others to escape social stratification or political oppression. Others to escape religious intolerance. Some craving new adventures or opportunities. Yet all make a journey, leaving behind old homelands for a new one.

Once in America, the colonists face the task of creating a new nation. That nation building culminates in the great battle of the Revolution, the fight for independence. The language of the Revolution often describes American dependence upon England as a form of slavery.

After independence the journey begins once again as Americans migrate ever westward, through what is often described as a wilderness, seeking always a newer and newer homeland. That migration is accompanied with many more battles with the native Americans living on the land. 

Am I being simplistic in detecting patterns that don’t exist? Or are we Americans telling our story in categories and language conditioned by those old enduring themes of battle and journey that lie at the inspirational sources of Western civilization? 

The Exodus: Paradigm of Salvation

I invite you on a journey into wisdom.

One book of the Bible more than any other draws me back over and over again. That book is the Book of Exodus. 

As a narrative, I find it deeply engaging, comparable to J.R.R. Tokien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for me, an equally engaging story. The account of the contest between God and Pharaoh, recounted in chapters 5-14, matches any of the great duels between champions that we find in the Iliad, the Aeneid, or the Arthurian romances. Though God wins in the end, Pharaoh is a formidable fighter. His stature equals that of Satan in Milton’s epic Paradise Lost.

As philosophical theology, Exodus gives us that fundamental conception of God revealed at the burning bush on Sinai: I am who I am, or I will be who I will be (Exodus 3:14). There in a nutshell we are introduced to a God as a Presence, who remains an impenetrable mystery. 

Exodus gives us that fundamental conception of God revealed at the burning bush on Sinai: I am who I am, or I will be who I will be.

In the end our best intellectual efforts to describe God become the blind men describing the elephant in the famous Indian parable. To know God is ultimately not to comprehend God, but to relate to God personally as the eternal Thou of our lives. Biblical religion finds its fullest maturity in mysticism.

As an account of the process of liberation and nation building, Exodus is true to the realities of political life. It has inspired reformers and revolutionaries in many generations. When the Puritan refugees migrated to New England in the 17th century, they brought with them visions of themselves as Israelites fleeing the oppression of England as Egypt, commissioned with the task of creating a new promised land where God’s people could flourish. Benjamin Franklin once proposed that the Great Seal of the United States should include an image of Moses leading the Israelites through the Red Sea.

It is no accident either that even in the writings of secularized socialists, like Karl Marx, we find references to the Exodus story. The story forms an important substratum below European and American thought.*

The impact of the Exodus story on African-Americans has been huge, both during the slavery era and after. You hear allusions to it all through Black preaching and rhetoric. A good example is the speech Dr. Martin Luther King gave in Memphis, Tennessee, the night before his assassination. It is popularly titled “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top,” 

In it King talks about all the threats that have been made against his life, with new threats there in Memphis. He responds with words that draw their imagery from the account in Deuteronomy 34 of the death of Moses. Moses does not get to enter the Promised Land, but before his death, he is given a glimpse of it from the top of Mount Nebo. 

Dr. Martin Luther King

Drawing upon that account, King says of himself:

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.

 The Exodus story has also inspired many cherished spirituals, like the one that begins:

When Israel was in Egypt’s land
Let my people go
Oppress’d so hard they could not stand
Let my people go

Go down, Moses
Way down in Egypt’s land
Tell old Pharaoh
Let my people go

St. Gregory of Nyssa

Finally when we search out a road map for the spiritual journey, to help us understand the typical movements of spiritual formation, we find teachers of spirituality turning over and over again to the narratives and images we encounter in the Exodus story. A good example is the early church father, Gregory of Nyssa, whose Life of Moses treats the Exodus story as an allegory delineating the stages of the mystic’s pilgrimage.

The Jewish Paradigm of Salvation

But more than anything else, I find the most compelling quality of the exodus story to be the fact that in the Biblical mindset, it is the essential paradigm for salvation, past, present, and future. What does salvation look like? What are the typical rhythms in the movement towards salvation? In the Biblical mindset, salvation is less a one-time event, and much more a journey, a journey of a people, even more than for individuals.

…in the Biblical mindset, [the Exodus] is the essential paradigm for salvation, past, present, and future.

When in the dual disasters of the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests of Israel and Judah, and the Hebrew prophets and the psalmists look with longing for God’s future redemption, they constantly turn to the language of the Exodus story. Hosea sees that for corrupt Israel to return to a thriving, loving relationship with its God, it will need to undergo another purification experience in the desert (Hosea 2). And the prophet behind Isaiah 40-55 presents glowing pictures of how God will redeem Israel out of Babylon through a second and glorious exodus through the desert. 

A Christian Paradigm Too

This imagery has deeply shaped the mindset of Christianity as well. The life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are seen as the supreme exodus, only foreshadowed in the Mosaic exodus. Through his death and resurrection, Christ has set all humanity free from the oppressive autocracy of spiritual powers and dominions, of sin, and finally the mortality of death. 

[In Christianity] the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are seen as the supreme Exodus, only foreshadowed in the Mosaic exodus.

Orthodox Icon of Jesus’ Resurrection

Early Christians celebrated that great victory each year in its Easter festival, a festival to which they gave the name of Pascha (a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word for Passover). Easter is the Christian Passover. That victory is also celebrated every time Christians gather for the Eucharist, the feast where we remember and participate in the sacrifice of Christ our Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:6-8).

Given the centrality of the exodus story to the Biblical mindset, I want to spend time in a series of blog postings reflecting on the narrative, the imagery, and the concepts that we encounter in that narrative. I will be concentrating my attention on the Book of Exodus alone. 

But the Book of Exodus** does not tell the full story. It only recounts basically the first year of what will become a 40-year-long journey (the story continues into the books of Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua). But what happens in that first year will be decisive to the character of the journey. It is in these decisive moments that the enduring wisdom of the exodus story primarily resides. 

My postings will be my personal reflections and comments on the text. Scholars may challenge whether my exegesis is accurate or not. You should not, therefore, take my comments as the definitive interpretation of Exodus. Rather my postings will reflect how the book triggers thoughts, feelings, and insights within one engaged reader. I hope they will trigger something similar for you. If you disagree with my interpretations, I invite you to share your alternative viewpoint using the Comments feature of this blog. 

So come, join me in a fascinating journey through a great work of insight and wisdom.   

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* For readers who wish to explore the many ways politicians, liberationists, and revolutionaries have drawn upon the story of the exodus, I recommend Michael Walzer’s book, Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books Inc., 1985). It’s a brilliant study of how the exodus story has influenced politicians and revolutionaries through the centuries, especially those who led the English Puritan revolution in the 17th century, the American revolution in the 18th century, revolutionary thinkers in the 19th century including utopian socialists, the various revolutionary movements in the 20th century, and liberationist theologians in Latin America today.

** Throughout my postings, I will capitalize Exodus when the word refers to the book of Exodus. I will lower-case it when I am referring to the historical event of the exodus.