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.

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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.

Watch for My Relaunch

Having completed my sabbatical, I will be in business again soon.

Those of you who have followed my blog in past years will know I’ve been taking a much needed sabbatical for the past ten months. I plan, however, to re-launch my active blogging again next week. I invite you to watch for it. 

My site also has a redesigned look. I hope it helps make reading my posts a greater pleasure.  

Time for a Sabbatical

Thank you for being an engaged reader.

I’ve been writing this blog for eight years. It’s been a joyful experience sharing with you my insights into the Bible. I also delight in the wonderful feedback you have sent me.

In recent months, however, I have begun to sense my creative well running dry. I feel that my recent writing does not bring fresh insight into the Bible’s message. Writing has become something of a burden.

I’ve decided to take a sabbatical for several months. After that I will assess if the break has recharged my batteries. If it has, I will return, I hope, with new enthusiasm and new creativity. I plan to keep my site active so you can access the archive of past postings if you choose to do so.

Thank you for being a steady and engaged reader. I hope the past eight years have broadened your knowledge and understanding of the Bible. I urge you to continue to read it on your own. Let the Word do its work.

 

The Miracle of Emmaus

The gift of grace is the gift of seeing.

1602-3_Caravaggio,Supper_at_Emmaus_National_Gallery,_London
The supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio, ca. 1601. Note how Caravaggio sets the scene as a full supper in a 17th century Italian home. The historical becomes contemporary.

Of all the resurrection stories in the gospels, my favorite has always been the story that Luke tells of two disciples encountering Jesus as they walk to the village of Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). It has such a feeling of reality about it.

Distraught over the crucifixion of Jesus and now stories that he might have arisen, the two disciples are trying to make sense of the last three days in their lives. They try to sort things out as they walk from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus.

As they walk and talk, a stranger joins them. He asks them what they are discussing. As they share their tumbled thoughts, he proceeds to help them understand what has happened. Turning to the Old Testament, he explains how a close reading of the Torah and prophets should have led them to expect that the Messiah would suffer before entering into his glory.

They are so caught up in the conversation that when they arrive at their destination, they invite the stranger to stay with them for the night. Let us hear more. But first there is the evening meal. As the meal begins, the stranger takes up the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and hands it to them. (These are the essential and hallowed actions of the Eucharist.) At just that moment, they recognize the stranger. It is Jesus. But he vanishes.

What captivates me about this story is its theme of blindness and sight that weaves through the narrative. As the disciples walk their road, they do not recognize that the stranger joining them is Jesus, even though they must have spent a lot of time with Jesus over the years of his ministry.

They do not recognize the distinctive sound of his voice. Nor do they recognize his style of teaching even though they must have heard it many times before. Yet their hearts burn within them as they listen. Might that not have triggered memories?

It is only when the stranger picks up bread, blesses it, breaks it, and hands it to them, that they gain the gift of sight. They recognize their Master with an outburst of joy. Something about the actions of the Eucharist wipes away the obscurity that clouds their eyes and minds.

The Ring of Realism

What makes this story so realistic to me is that the description seems to be spot on right in describing my own spiritual experiences. Most of the time I live my life with no awareness of the presence of Jesus in the people and circumstances of my daily living. The man I meet in the grocery store is Sam the butcher. The woman in the doctor’s office is Jessie the nurse. I don’t expect to see Jesus in them. Nor do I expect to meet Jesus in my commute on the subway, or ordering a hamburger in McDonald’s.

Yet maybe I am or was. The Emmaus story makes that provocative suggestion.

To see Jesus in my daily life takes a special gift of sight, a miraculous gift of sight. It is not something that I can command. I have to receive it as a gift conferred in the gracious timing of the Giver.

In John 3:3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be born from above in order to see the kingdom of God. It is the same point the Emmaus story makes, but in different words. We can only see the movements of God in our world and in our own lives as we are given the gift of spiritual sight. Physical eyes do not see them, nor do intellectual powers.

As the parallel verse of John 3:5 suggests, the same thing can be said of spiritual experience. One can only enter, experience, the kingdom of God as one is born from above. Spiritual insight and spiritual experience are both gifts, not achievements.

Thomas Merton, for example, says this about contemplative prayer:

The only way to get rid of misconceptions about contemplation is to experience it…For contemplation cannot be taught. It cannot even be clearly explained. It can only be hinted at, suggested, pointed to, symbolized. The more objectively and scientifically one tries to analyze it, the more he empties it of its real content, for this experience is beyond the reach of verbalization and of rationalization.*

Waking Up to Reality

Yet daily life and our encounters with other people, I believe, are infused with the spiritual. Our dilemma is that we see that only when our eyes are spiritually rinsed and our powers of perception are cracked open to let the spiritual light beams stream in. Or in other words as Merton might put it, we need to wake up.

So for all of us, we are in the position of Bartimaeus the beggar. When Jesus meets him on the road leading out of Jericho, he cries out to Jesus. When Jesus stops and ask him, What do you want me to do for you?, the beggar answers, My teacher, let me see again.(Mark 10:46-52)

All of us who would see Jesus in our daily lives must pray the same request. And wait for the precious gift to be given.

The Emmaus story, however, suggests that there is one place where that miracle is most likely to happen. It is in the experience of the Eucharist. When we participate in that service of thanksgiving, when the bread is blessed and broken, the wine blessed and poured, we have our best chance to see into the kingdom of God.

For there is nothing more basically daily and natural than the eating of bread, nothing more material and bodily in our lives, and yet here is where we stand our best chance of having our eyes opened to see in this material act the action of the Lord lovingly feeding us. Daily, material life is fulfilled as it is lifted into and fused with the realm of the spirit.

It is where I have and still do most experience God as a loving father and extravagant host. It has been and is a transformative moment for me. As I participate in this ritual over and over again, maybe, just maybe, my eyes will be opened to see that what is true of the bread and wine in the Eucharist is also true of all my daily living. That is at least my prayer.

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* Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation. New Directions Books, 1961. Page 6.

Arrogant Knowledge, Humble Love

How do we nurture healthy individuals within healthy communities?

DSC_1330
The intricate network that composes the ceiling of the church La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain.

I think it is a widely under-appreciated principle that the apostle Paul expresses in 1 Corinthians 8:1: Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

It is widely under-appreciated because the more advanced one’s education, the greater the temptation to become conceited about that education and the elite status it seems to confer. We can cite many examples:

  • The academics who expect deference be shown to them because of their stature in their academic discipline.
  • The political pundits and the newspaper columnists who expect a respectful hearing because of their ability to analyze current affairs.
  • The bureaucrats who wield authority because of their insider knowledge.
  • The scientists who assume they should have a dominant voice in public policy because of the insights they bring from their particular scientific fields.
  • The partisans who assume their allegiance to a particular ideological viewpoint uniquely qualifies them to discern truth from fake news.

Elites alone, however, are not the only ones susceptible to this temptation. It can afflict members of one’s own family in family dinners. We’ve all have sat around tables where a know-it-all brother or aunt tells us that they know exactly what we should do. And local churches can fall into the temptation when proponents of various theological or cultural viewpoints contest for the controlling voice in congregational life.

That seems to have been the case in the church in Corinth that Paul is addressing in his first letter to the Corinthians. The congregation was split among several factions. Each appealed to a different spiritual authority. Some members of the church were also looking down with condescension on other members of the church whom they considered less advanced in their views than they were.

This contemptuous spirit had come to a head in one particularly divisive issue. Was it appropriate for Christians to eat meat which had been sacrificed in pagan temples and was then sold in butcher shops or served at civic dinners? Those who saw no problem in so doing took their stance on the basis of their advanced theological knowledge. Others were less sure of the issue and therefore scandalized when their fellow Christians ate such meat.

Here was a situation where opinion was pitted against opinion, with various appeals to knowledge as authoritative. The impact, however, was to split the congregation into contentious parties. Resentment and furtive back-biting must have been rife.

Unity as the Mission of the Church

That is exactly what alarmed Paul. The arguments were damaging the unity of the church. And that unity was his chief concern.

Unity was not just essential for the survival of the church. It represented the redemptive purpose of the church. As Paul will express in his Letter to the Ephesians, he sees Christ as the force of a reconciling peace that works to unite the divisions of humanity into one. It begins with reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles. As he writes:

He [Christ] has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups [Jews and Gentiles] to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Ephesians 2:15-16)

The church is to be the advance leaven of this unity that is ultimately to leaven the whole loaf of humanity. When the church falls into contentious factions, it neutralizes its spiritual mission.

The Power that Nurtures Unity

What nurtures that unity? For Paul it is love, not knowledge. Knowledge puffs up individuals, breeding a spirit of arrogance and complacent self-reference. But that is not the spirit that builds communal unity. Rather what breeds unity is a spirit of respect for all individuals in the community, care and concern for their welfare, sensitivity to the needs of all, forbearance, and forgiveness for wrongs done.

This is not love understood as affection. Rather it is love understood as actions and attitudes that seek the well-being of another. Paul provides a clear indication of the behavior that he considers loving in his famous chapter on love (1 Corinthians 13). There he summarizes the actions of love:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

These are the kinds of action that build up community, not ideological debate nor an attitude that the winner takes all. Nor an educational system that sees education as simply skill acquisition with no element of character development.

Paul is not a believer in the attitude that an ignorant faith is a superior faith. He highly prizes wisdom as does the whole Scriptural tradition. Knowledge has its important place in the life of faith. But a purely intellectual approach is not fully up to the task of producing a healthy community.

The Church as a Spiritual Network

We get further insight into his viewpoint when we read later in 1 Corinthians 12 his application of the analogy of the human body to the church. The church is like a body which has a diversity of organs and limbs. But all are meant to work in coordination for the welfare of the whole body.

This is not, however, a communitarian view where the welfare of the community always takes priority over the welfare of the individual. Rather the community and its individuals live in interdependence. Individuals enjoy healthy well-being when the community in which they live is healthy. Likewise communities enjoy a healthy well-being when the individuals who compose it are healthy.

This is the concept of a network in which each individual element of the network is interconnected and interdependent on all the other elements. This comes through clearly when Paul tells the Corinthians:

If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. (1 Corinthians 12:26)

The Contemporary Relevance of Paul’s Principle

 It seems to me that one of the reasons why so many Americans today distrust experts and expertise is because all too often experts have delivered their pronouncements with little regard for the impact on the community as a whole.

This has been especially true for the advocates of globalism. They have often been blind to the needs of those who have lost out in the drive to a global economy. Their blindness has triggered the backlash of populism. Globalism would have been much more palatable to the whole community if globalists had had a more acute sensitivity–and empathy–to the needs of those who were being disadvantaged by it. Because they did not, the global world they so deeply prize is being jeopardized.

The church, as Paul envisions it, would be a counter-agent to this style of doing business. But in spite of what we might regard as our advanced theological knowledge (or our insights into Scripture), we are enmeshed in the same divisiveness as the culture around us.

 

In a Time of Pandemic

A modern-day lament psalm

Dürer_Apocalypse_4
Albrecht Durer’s Vision of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Woodcut, 1498

In this time when we are all living in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, I find my thoughts returning to the tradition of lament psalms in the Old Testament. They expressed the fears and terrors of a people under severe threat.

What might a lament psalm look like in our current time of pandemic? I asked myself and then sat down to try my hand at drafting such a poem for our time. I would like to share it with you. Maybe it will speak to you.

The woman that I refer to in the poem is Lady Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century English mystic who wrote down her visions during a time when the Black Plague was ravaging England. It killed one-third of England’s population.

Her visions speak a powerful message of reassurance.*

Who can measure the strength of a virus?

            Who can assess its inner power?

No eye can detect its invisible colors;

            no skin can feel its crawl.

It lies hidden like a viper in its hole;

            it leaps and sinks its fangs without warning.

We shake hands with our neighbor,

            and it jumps from finger to finger.

We cough and it scatters on the vibrations of air;

            we sneeze and it rains upon the unsuspecting.

We turn the door knob and it attaches itself;

            we grab the steering wheel and it adheres.

Where comes the deadliness of such minuteness?

            We stagger in the face of its assaults.

The newscaster mounts the statistics

            on the television screens of our minds.

They feed our terror before a hidden enemy

            as if a guerilla band has attacked our village

            and gunned down indiscriminately.

How shall we defend ourselves?

            Where can we hide in safety?

Our only refuge is solitary isolation;

            we shed the bonds of neighborhood.

We confine ourselves to a world behind locked doors

            waving greetings through glass windows.

Yet in this retreat, without street noise, alone,

            without the distractions of daily commerce,

we may begin to hear the voice of mistress Julian,

            chanting her Jesus-word to a plague-drenched England:

“All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

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* If you find Lady Julian’s words too Pollyanneish, then I suggest you read her full visions to catch the context of acute illness and suffering from which they arise. She says they were the words Jesus spoke to her in her near-death experience.