Hero’s Journey or Exodus? Part 2

The exodus model differs from the journey’s quest in two –for me–compelling ways.

Moses leading the Israelites across the Reed Sea, a fresco in a Jewish synagogue in Dura Europos, 3rd century C.E.

In my last posting, Part 1 of this extended discussion on two models of the spiritual journey, I looked at the popular model of the hero’s journey. I call it popular because Joseph Campbell gave it such appealing presentations. Now, I turn to the second model, the story of the exodus.

Fundamentally the exodus story is the story of liberation, the liberation of a people. Through Moses, God frees the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, freeing them through a series of mighty works he performs on their behalf. 

Fundamentally the exodus story is the story of liberation, the liberation of a people.

The struggle for freedom climaxes in the miraculous passing of the Israelites through the Reed Sea on dry land; the Egyptian army is drowned when it tries to follow. Then something interesting happens. If Israel had taken the normal coastal road along the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, they would have arrived in the land of Canaan in a matter of weeks. But God directs them to pursue their journey through the middle of the Sinai desert. That journey ends up taking 40 years.

Learning to Exercise Responsible Freedom

Why would God direct Israel into such a long, slow, and circuitous route to Canaan? The answer I believe is that this disorganized band of freed slaves is not yet a people, a nation that can hold its own when it arrives in Canaan. What is needed is a time for nation-building. Nation-building, however, is not a quick and instant task. It can take a long time to forge a group of individuals into a unified society. That is the task of those 40 years in the Sinai wilderness.

In particular, Israel must learn how to live with the freedom God has given it, without falling back into the patterns of tyranny from which they emerged in Egypt. For the great illusion of many revolutions is that freedom means license for every person to do exactly what he or she wants to do. 

If you operate with that understanding of freedom, then society becomes a power struggle among all the competing interests and persons. That power struggle comes to an end only when one group or individual gathers all power into their or his hands. When that happens, a new tyranny replaces the old one that the revolution overthrew. We have seen this pattern repeated over and over again in history. 

For the freedom that God has given the Israelite slaves to survive, they must come to recognize that they must exercise a responsible freedom. Responsible freedom means that I enjoy the freedom to be myself, but in a society where everyone else is accorded the same freedom. Responsible freedom, therefore, means we accept limits on our autonomy.

Israel must learn how to live with the freedom God has given it, without falling back into the patterns of tyranny from which they emerged in Egypt.

What is happening in Sinai during those 40 years is that God is establishing a covenant with Israel and giving Israel a code of law that will enable Israel not only to survive as a nation, but also to flourish by a practice of responsible freedom. 

After 40 years of wandering, the Israelites cross the Jordan River to take possession of the land God has promised to them, the land of Canaan. What we find in the rest of the Old Testament story is how seductive will be the temptation for Israel to return to the life of Egypt.

Over and over again, Israel will compromise its monotheism, reintroducing the worship of other gods. It will backtrack from its principles of social justice, repeating the patterns of exploitation and tyranny practiced in Egypt. As a result, Israel will lose its land and freedom, going into exile.

Four Distinctive Features of the Exodus Model

Let me highlight four distinctive features of the Exodus story.

First, the Exodus story is a story about liberation. What Israel is given in the exodus from Egypt is the gift of freedom. Israel does not free itself from slavery. No, God frees them—and thus we are given the original meaning of salvation.

The gift of the Torah or Law is a gift that God gives so Israel can retain its freedom through the practice of responsible freedom. What Israel must learn in the wilderness is how to love God with all their being and love their neighbor as themselves. That is what a saved life looks like–a life of health, harmony, justice, wholeness, and peace.

Second, the exodus is not a story of the liberation of individuals as individuals, but the liberation or salvation of a people. What is primary in the story is the creation of a people, the people of Israel.

Yes, there are heroes in that story, especially Moses. In the story of Moses, there are many places where the life of Moses follows the classic pattern of the hero’s journey. But the exodus story is not primarily the story of the heroic life of Moses. It is the story of the liberation and forming of a people. Salvation has a fundamental social character rather than an individual character.

Three, note how the exodus story ends. Israel does not return to Egypt to resume its life in Egypt as a transformed people. The journey ends in the Promised Land, a new destination and a new home. 

The old home is left behind. It is the land of oppression. Instead God leads them to a new home, a different place from where they began their journey. The Promised Land is a place where Israel can flourish in freedom, if Israel is willing to practice the principles of responsible freedom.

Finally, Israel remembers and celebrates this story of liberation each year through the Passover festival. Passover is the supreme religious festival of Judaism. It remembers the gift of Israel’s liberation. It continues to be seen as the paradigm for how God relates to Israel all through its history and into its future. 

Scholars speculate that in the ancient past, Passover may have had its origins in a spring festival celebrated by the Canaanites. But what is striking is that the Israelites historicize the festival, making it not a celebration of nature’s cycles, but of a historical event, the Israelite’s liberation from slavery. It is a celebration of liberation, of a people being set free for a life of liberty under covenant with God.

The Jewish Concept of Historical Time

This Jewish concept of Passover involves a dramatically different concept of historical time than did those pagan fertility cults that I discussed in my last posting. Historical time is seen as linear, not cyclical. History has a beginning and it has an end. History time moves from one to the other.

In the historical event of the exodus, God frees Israel from Egypt and sets Israel on a journey. When the journey ends, it does not bring Israel back home to Egypt, but to a new destination, the Promised Land. Egypt and the Promised Land are not one and the same. 

Therefore, the divine movement in the world is not seen primarily as moving through the cycles of nature, but through divine interventions into human life, interventions that make a decisive difference. The divine character of God is revealed in God’s interventions in unique historical events, events that are meant to free human beings into a wholesome society. 

Scholars have noted that this Hebrew understanding of time means that Judaism has built into it a momentum for change. Religion is to lead people to a new and better experience of life, a life of liberation. 

The divine character of God is revealed in God’s interventions in unique historical events, events that are meant to free human beings into a wholesome society. 

Time moves forward from an initial starting point toward a fully developed end point in the future. What the future end point will be is not fully clear, but it will not be a return to the initial state of the world at the time of creation. 

The ancient pagan mindset tended to see the Golden Age of mankind as lying in the past, at the time of creation. This was re-emphasized each year in the pagan celebrations of the New Year Festival.

Hebrew thought, on the other hand, sees the Golden Age lying at the end, not at the beginning of history, but at the end of history when the Kingdom of God will be ushered in in all its fullness. History is a linear journey with mankind moving ahead to a Golden Age that has not yet dawned. 

If we remain true to this mindset, then the Hebrew concept of time works not to re-establish the status quo but to give incentive to change, change that leads to a better future ahead. 

Christian Adaptations of the Exodus Model

With its origins in Judaism, Christianity adopts this same Hebrew mindset of linear historical time. With one big difference: Christianity sees the decisive intervention of God into human life as being not the exodus from Egypt, but the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.

The death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are seen as the ultimate events of liberation, except in this case, not from the political and economic and social oppression of Egyptian slavery, but from our spiritual slavery to sin, death, and evil. The events of Holy Week, Easter, and Ascension then become another Passover, the Christian Passover. They celebrate our salvation from a kind of spiritual enslavement.

Still, exodus becomes the basic model for the classic Christian understanding of the spiritual journey. Let me mention a few examples.

When monasticism arose in the church in the late 3rd and 4th centuries, it arose in the deserts of Egypt and Syria. That is not accidental, for by this time, the desert had come to be associated with the location for spiritual transformation and formation. This was one of the legacies of the exodus story in Jewish and Christian imaginations.

One of the first and great expositions of the Christian understanding of the spiritual journey is a book titled The Life of Moses, by the early church father Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory was a renowned Christian theologian of the 4th century. He and his brother Basil of Caesarea were great apologists for what became the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. He lived and worked in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey.

…exodus becomes the basic model for the classic Christian understanding of the spiritual journey.

In his book The Life of Moses, he interprets the story of Moses and the exodus as an allegory. The allegory describes the spiritual journey of the soul as it journeys to God and to God’s realm. In that journey (a mystical journey as Gregory understands it), he sees the soul going through three stages, symbolized by God’s revelation of himself to Moses, first in light, then in cloud, then in darkness.

Gregory is especially notable for his teaching that the Christian soul never fully reaches the end of his journey, even in eternity. Perfection is seen to be a never-ending journey. He writes: This truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in the desire to see him.

Another great Christian exposition of the exodus model of the spiritual journey is Dante’s Divine Comedy. This epic poem tells the story of Dante’s own spiritual journey.

He begins in a dark wood of human confusion and despair. He journeys first through the realm of human sin, Hell. Then he begins his ascent to Paradise, passing through the stages of Purgatory as sins are cleansed. He ends his journey in the celestial Paradise where he reaches the end of his journey with a beatific vision of God.

In fact, his poem ends not with Dante returning to a transformed life in this world, but caught up in the ecstasy of divine love at the center of time and space. The end of the journey is a far different and far more glorious place than the dark wood where he began. His exodus is the journey through spiritual purification.

Finally I want to mention a great Protestant classic of the spiritual journey: John Bunyan’s classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress. This book is the classic Protestant adaptation of the exodus model of the spiritual journey. 

It has a hero, the figure of Christian, who travels on his way to the celestial city through a series of tests, temptations, and adventures. The land he leaves behind is a kind of Puritan version of Egypt. When he reaches the celestial city, he crosses through the river of death, never to return home. He comes to his new home, the celestial land of heaven.

Why I Find the Exodus Model So Compelling

We have then two models for the spiritual journey: the hero’s journey and the exodus. We often see writers on spirituality blending aspects of the two models together. Even in the exodus story, as I mentioned, we find Moses as an individual exhibiting some features of the hero’s journey.

I personally resonate with the hero’s journey model because my own spiritual journey mirrors some of its components. I have traveled Campbell’s circle, and returned home again, but as a stronger and spiritually healthier person. But I find the exodus model more compelling for two important reasons. 

First, as I have mentioned several times, the hero’s journey generally has an individualistic cast. The transformed hero may have a beneficial impact on society once he returns home, but the hero’s journey is not primarily about a people’s journey as a people.

Maybe that is one reason why Joseph Campbell’s presentations so resonate with Americans. Our culture is one that values individualism, and a spiritual journey that concentrates on the transformation of an individual appeals to us. Even those classic Christian statements that I cited–the works of Gregory of Nyssa, Dante, and John Bunyan–also adapt the exodus story along an individualistic line. They describe the spiritual journey of individuals.

…we can never escape the fact that the exodus model of the spiritual journey is always a story of a spiritual journey of a people, not just of individuals.

But I think that we can never escape the fact that the exodus model of the spiritual journey is always a story of a spiritual journey of a people, not just of individuals. For this reason, Judaism and Christianity remain corporate in their religious visions. The people of Israel as a people, the Church as the Body of Christ, remain central to both religions.

I think that is important. The hero’s journey can breed a sense of elitism. It is after all a story of a hero. What happens then if we do not feel we are heroes? Is the spiritual journey then something we cannot hope to experience?

What about all of us average Christians who do not have burning bush mystical experiences or Damascus Road transformations? Can we participate in any spiritual journey?

I answer a decisive Yes. We participate in the spiritual journey through our participation in the life, worship, and ministry of our home church. Life in a normal parish church may not always feel all that transformative, what with its petty disputes and meanness. 

But it can be very transformative, as we share in its life, in its the study of the Word, its celebration of the sacraments, and its ministry to those in need. That participation lived out through a lifetime of devotion can bring about transformations just as real as Moses’ or St. Paul’s. The transformation may be slow, quiet, and hidden. Nonetheless, whether transformation is gradual or immediate, it is still transformation.

Here is where I resonate strongly with the exodus model. When I look back on the spiritual journey I’ve traversed in my life, I have to say that I have had no sudden or dramatic revelations or enlightenments or mystical experiences that revolutionized my life and consciousness as did the enlightenment that the Buddha had under the Bodhi tree.

My experience of transformation has been much more an experience of living out in the wilderness for a long time. There in the wilderness I have undergone many transformations, but in slow, quiet, and hidden ways. My formation as a Christian, however, has been deeply shaped and influenced by my participation in a number of local Christian congregations. It has not been an exclusively individual journey.

I believe that for most Christians, that will be the way we experience the spiritual journey. If we take our involvement in a local church seriously and we take the call to Christian discipleship seriously, we will be transformed more often than not in these slow, quiet, and hidden ways. This means I have a high regard for life in a congregation. Life in a local church may have its many problems, but it is still the place where the Spirit works to transform us spiritually.

The Best is Yet Ahead

Second, I find myself most drawn to the exodus model because of its sense of the end point of the journey and its sense of time. Again, as I’ve mentioned several times, the end of the Exodus journey is not the return to Egypt, but the arrival in the Promised Land. 

The exodus story nurtures an openness to change. As a result, life takes on vitality, because we are spiritually always on our tiptoes waiting with incredible anticipation to see what amazing things God is doing and will do.

What I find fascinating in the trajectory of the Biblical story is that the Bible begins with a garden, the garden of Eden, and in the Christian Bible ends with a city, the city of the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven, described in the last two chapters of Revelation.

God is a true conservative, preserving what is good and best in the past, but God is also a true liberal, in the sense of his liberating all creation for a glorious liberty that exceeds description.

Yet in the heart of that city lies the garden. The garden has not been abolished and abandoned, but it has been caught up into something much greater and more glorious, a city where God dwells with his people forever. The garden is preserved and glorified in the city. God is a true conservative, preserving what is good and best in the past, but God is also a true liberal, in the sense of his liberating all creation for a glorious liberty that exceeds description.

What all this says to me is that God is at work not just to save our lives so that we can return to our lives as they are, there to be more happy, effective, and productive.

No, God is at work to bring us and the whole world to something far more glorious than we can ever imagine, a fulfillment that exceeds whatever we can dream. This is a vision of incredible hope. In the exodus story, the best does not lie behind us in the past. It lies ahead.

Final Comment

This posting completes my reflections upon the Book of Exodus, reflections that have occupied my last 34 blog postings. I hope they inspire you to go back and re-read the Book of Exodus and then do so again and again. Let it words sink deep into your souls, for it is, I believe, the paradigm of salvation. This is what the journey to salvation looks like, whether we are an individual or a people. 

Exodus and Easter

Christian celebrations of Easter are closely bound to the exodus story.

Fresco of the Resurrection in the Byzantine Church of the Chora, Istanbul, Turkey. 14th century.

Many people have been struck by the many uncanny parallels between the Easter story and the widespread pagan myths about a dying and rising god. It raises the question: Is there a connection between the two? More especially, did the pagan myths give rise to the Christian belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus? Many today believe that is the case.

But when we turn to those first centuries of Christianity when the distinctive Christian understanding of Easter takes shape, we find a surprising phenomenon. We would expect to find allusions to those ancient fertility cults in the earliest accounts of Easter in the church. However, we find no allusions to the fertility cults at all in our earliest accounts. That is strange if Christians were drawing their Easter beliefs from the fertility cults or shaping their Easter traditions along the lines of the common fertility cults to appeal to pagans. 

…the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus comes clothed to us in the imagery, symbolism, and language of the Jewish Passover.

What we find instead is that Christians associate their Easter celebrations not with the pagan fertility cults, but with the Jewish festival of Passover. In those early years, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus comes clothed to us in the imagery and symbolism and language of the Jewish Passover.

In fact, the name these early Christians give to their Easter festival is the Greek word paschaPascha is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Pesach, which is the Hebrew name for Passover. The Latin church picks up this usage and calls Easter in Latin as pascha as well. And from that Latin origin, modern European romance languages get their name for Easter:

    • French: Paques
    • Spanish: Pascua
    • Italian: Pasqua

New Testament Antecedents

We see this linkage between Passover and Easter already in the New Testament. Probably the earliest reference of all is a verse in the apostle Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. 

In Corinth Paul is dealing with a church undergoing intense conflict. He seeks to guide this church into living harmoniously with one another, by counseling them to give up their fights and petty bickering, and the intellectual or spiritual pride that lie behind them.

As a part of his advice, he strangely says this:

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthians 5:6-8)

Unleavened bread forms a part of the Jewish Passover meal, and Paul is alluding to this in what he says. But what is most interesting is his describing the crucifixion of Jesus as a Passover sacrifice, with Christ forming the sacrificial lamb. Here the link between the crucifixion and Passover is already assumed. Paul does not introduce it as a new concept, but one that the Corinthian Christians are well aware of. Keep in mind that this passage was probably written no more than 25 years after the death of Jesus.

We find other New Testament passages making this same link between the Jewish Passover and the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the Gospel of John, Jesus dies on the cross on the day of 14 Nisan. This is the day each year when the lambs served at the Passover dinner are sacrificed in the Jewish temple. According to John, Jesus dies at the same hour as the Passover lambs. 

In John the Last Supper is not a Passover dinner, but in Matthew, Mark, and Luke it clearly is. There when Jesus breaks the bread and shares the cup of wine with his disciples, it is important to note the words he uses with the cup of wine. 

In all three accounts, Jesus links the wine to his death, describing it as the blood of the covenant or of the new covenant. This wording links what is happening in this last supper and the upcoming crucifixion with the spilling of blood that sealed God’s covenant with Israel, as described in Exodus 24. We are not only remembering the exodus, but also re-experiencing it. 

The Linkage of Passover and Easter in the Patristic Church

In the years following the New Testament, this linkage between Easter and the Jewish Passover becomes well-established. The first Easter sermon to survive from the early church is a sermon given by a bishop named Melito of Sardis about the year 170 A.D. It’s a longish sermon. Strikingly it is almost completely a long meditation on the Jewish Exodus events which are interpreted as symbolic of the reality that has now occurred in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. 

What we find in Melito is that the Jewish Passover is seen as a type of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. This is a technical way of talking about the linkage. A type is a symbol of its antitype, which is the reality to which the type points. The type foreshadows the reality to come.

The type serves as a kind of symbolic prophecy of the antitype, which is the reality to which the type points and its fulfillment. In this way of thinking, the Jewish Passover lamb is the type or the foreshadowed symbol for the crucified Jesus. There is a hint that this understanding of the Passover as a type for the death of Jesus was already operative when the evangelist John describes Jesus dying on the cross at the very hour when the Passover lambs were being sacrificed. 

Likewise the crossing of the Red Sea in the Jewish Exodus is a symbolic foreshadowing of the Christian sacrament of baptism.

The Pascal Vigil: the Chief Easter Celebration

By about the 4th century, this understanding of Easter as the Christian Passover is so well established that it is the core of what became the primary liturgical celebration of Easter in the early church. This was the service known as the Paschal Vigil. This service was celebrated on the night before Easter Sunday. 

It began with the lighting of the new Easter fire about midnight. From this fire a priest lit the Paschal candle which represented the risen Jesus in the service. And from this one candle all the worshippers present lit their personal candles or torches until the church was filled with light.

Following that the deacon led the congregation in the singing of the distinctive Easter hymn/acclamation, known to us by its Latin name Exultet.* After that came a series of readings from the Bible, with many of them drawn from the Old Testament dealing with the Jewish Exodus story. After the readings and sermon came the baptism of new converts to Christianity. After their baptism they were dressed in white robes and led into the church for their first Eucharist. 

The service could last for several hours into the night, and was the Easter service of the early church. It has been largely preserved in the Eastern Orthodox churches. It has been revived as a strong liturgical tradition in the Roman Catholic and many Protestant churches in the last 50 years.

We should note a number of things about this service. One, it was called the Paschal Vigil, or the Christian Passover Vigil.

The language of the service is heavily soaked in the language of the Jewish Passover. This is very clear in the wording of the distinctive Easter hymn, the Exultet. The Old Testament readings chosen for the service dwell upon the Jewish exodus experience. 

Baptism is seen as a Christian form of passing through the Red Sea. Baptism leads the new convert out of spiritual Egypt and introduces him or her into the Promised Land, which is the church. One sign of this is that at some vigils, new converts were served not only bread and wine at their first Eucharist, but also milk and honey. 

In this early period, you had the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus celebrated all in one festival service rather than in three separate festivals as today. The Christian Passover was not just Easter morning alone but included Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Ascension Day as well. Together they formed the Christian Passover.

Easter Hymnody

Another example of this linkage between Easter and the Jewish Passover is an example of an early Easter hymn from the 7th century. It is a hymn composed by the Eastern Orthodox church father John of Damascus. Most Protestants will know it best from the English translation made by the 19th century Anglican translator John Mason Neale.

The first two stanzas read:

Come, you faithful, raise the strain of triumphant gladness!

God has brought forth Israel into joy from sadness,

Loosed from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke Jacob’s sons and daughters;

Led them with unmoistened foot through the Red Sea waters.


‘Tis the spring of souls today: Christ has burst his prison,

And from three days’ sleep in death as a sun has risen.

All the winter of our sins, long and dark, is flying

From the Light, to whom we give laud and praise undying.**

Someone uninformed about early church liturgics might be puzzled by John’s bringing a reference to the Exodus into an Easter hymn. What’s going on here, they might ask. But if we have some knowledge of how early Christians thought of Easter as the Christian Passover, it all makes sense. Like Melito, John sees the exodus as a type of Jesus’ death and resurrection. 

When Christians describe the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus as another Passover, they are also signaling how they regard those events. The death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are seen as events of liberation, in this case, not from Egyptian slavery but from slavery to sin, the devil and death. Easter then becomes another Passover festival celebrating God’s salvation, salvation seen as God liberating humanity from a kind of spiritual enslavement. The Christian Pascha is a celebration of an event and of an experience of liberation. 

Additional Note:

I lead this posting with a reproduction of the Eastern Orthodox image for the resurrection, a mural on the walls of the Byzantine Church of the Chora in Istanbul, Turkey. Orthodoxy does not picture Jesus rising from his tomb as does most Western art. Instead it focuses on the theological significance of the resurrection as that moment when Christ shatters the gate of Hell and releases imprisoned humanity. The symbol of Christ leading humanity into freedom is the image of Christ lifting Adam and Eve by the hand out of the abyss. The shattered gate of Hell lies in ruins beneath him. It is an image–and understanding–of Christ’s resurrection as a liberation event. It owes much to the early church’s linkage of Easter to the exodus event. 


* The Exultet contains a striking understanding of the original sin of Adam and Eve. The hymn calls it a  “truly necessary sin” and a “happy fault (felix culpa)”. It suggests that in a paradoxical way the sin of Adam has turned into an occasion of great happiness and rejoicing for humanity, because it was the prelude to the great redemption that is Christ’s resurrection. 

** In the second stanza of the hymn we find John bearing witness to the Christian linking of Easter to the seasonal return of spring. Through this linkage some elements of the old pagan fertility cults seeped into Easter celebrations, like eggs and bunnies. But this linkage is a later development in Christianity. It is not a feature of the earliest celebrations, as we see in the Easter Vigil. There the link is entirely to the exodus story.

Exodus: Ratified in Blood

The covenant making at Sinai ends in a ritual ceremony.

Mosaic of the sacrifices of Abel and Melchizedek in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. 6th century.

Beginning with chapter 19, the Book of Exodus recounts the making of the covenant between God and the people of Israel. That account extends over the next five chapters. It includes the giving of the Ten Commandments and the laws that scholars now call the Book of the Covenant (chapters 21-23). 

The account comes to its conclusion in chapter 24, which recounts the formal ratification of this agreement between God and Israel. That ratification ceremony contains details that will resonate into the New Testament. 

That ratification begins with Moses reviewing with the assembled people the words God has spoken (the Ten Commandments) and the ordinances he has given Moses (the Book of the Covenant, chapters 21-23). These are the specific provisions of what we might call the contract between God and Israel. Will the people of Israel accept them?

The ratification ceremony contains details that will resonate into the New Testament. 

The people respond unanimously: All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do (Exodus 24:3).* By these words, the people have announced their consent to the covenant God offers. Negotiations (if I might call them that) have come to an end. All that is left is the official ratification. By analogy to procedures we would follow today, the contract has been laid out on the table. Now all the participants must sign and seal it.

“Signing” the Covenant

That “signing” (again if I may call it that by analogy) occurs through a ritual ceremony. Israel builds an altar and sacrifices on it oxen as a burnt offering. Moses takes some of the blood of the slaughtered animals in basins and dashes it against the altar. This seems to represent God’s ratification of the covenant. 

Then he takes more basins of the blood and dashes it on the people, saying: See the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words (Exodus 24:8). This splattering of blood seems to represent the people’s ratification of the covenant. Now we might say the covenant has been signed by both parties–in blood. 

Israel is now–by their own consent–committed to being God’s people and to the mission of being a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, as God proclaimed that mission in chapter 19. This mission will have significance for the whole world. What it will mean, however, for Israel will only become clear as Israelite, and then Jewish, history unfolds. 

This ratification in a bloody sacrifice may strike many readers today as distasteful and primitive. It seems to have been expected in the ancient world, as we read of accounts of other covenant “cutting” (as it was called) in other ancient nations. It was followed in the ratification of the covenant between God and Abraham recounted in Genesis 15. There Abraham cuts a heifer, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon into halves and lays out the halves in parallel lines. In a mysterious event during the night God passes between the two lines, signifying his ratification of the covenant he has made with Abraham. 

We should also keep in mind the significance blood can have in many cultures. In American mythology when we talk about two friends becoming blood brothers, they signify that by each friend puncturing a vein in his wrist and then mingling his blood with the other’s. They are now committed to the welfare of each other for life.

Once this ratification ceremony is complete, God summons Moses, Aaron, two of Aaron’s sons, and 70 elders of the people to ascend Mount Sinai. There they are given a ineffable vision of God. We are not told just what they saw. The text says they saw beneath God’s feet a transparent pavement of sapphire.** The wording may suggest that all they saw of God was his feet, but we cannot be sure. What is amazing about the vision is that all of them live, for it was the rule that no one could see God and live. They have been granted an experience of enormously condescending grace. 

After that they all enjoy a celebratory feast on the mountain. One thinks of the kind of feast that concludes a wedding ceremony. 

Resonances in the New Testament

As I said earlier, this account has resonances in the New Testament. At the Last Supper, Jesus takes bread and wine and serves them to his disciples giving these elements new meaning. We need to note especially the words Jesus uses as he hands the cup to his disciples. They vary slightly depending upon which gospel account we are reading. But here they are:

Matthew 26:27-28

Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 

Mark 14:23-24

Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.

Luke 22:20

And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

1 Corinthians 11:25-26

In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

In all these four accounts Jesus associates the cup of wine with his death. And he gives significance to his death by linking his death to the blood that was used in the Exodus account to seal and ratify the covenant between Israel and God. He says that his death will usher in a new covenant. 

We who are Christian have heard these words so many, many times in celebrations of the communion service that we can lose touch with what Jesus is saying. By his death, Jesus is ratifying a new covenant. But just what is this new covenant? 

Proclaiming the New Covenant through the Eucharist

It is a new development in the old covenant God entered into with Israel at Mount Sinai. In this new covenant God opens up the exclusive covenant he established with Israel to embrace the Gentiles as well. The exclusive covenant with Israel becomes a covenant universal in scope. We Christians are wrong to say the new covenant replaces the covenant God has with Israel. Rather the new covenant preserves that covenant, but now enables Gentiles to share in its benefits and responsibilities.

The one who seems to have first grasped the full significance of this development is the apostle Paul. He expounds upon it throughout his letters, but most especially in his Letter to the Galatians and his Letter to the Ephesians. And in this development God was fulfilling his promise to Abraham that in him (Abraham) that all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Genesis 12:3).

The Eucharist proclaims the message of Christianity. We call it Gospel…

It is this new development in God’s covenant with Israel that we Christians commemorate in our repeated celebrations of the communion service, which Christian tradition calls the Eucharist. The word Eucharist comes from the Greek word eucharisto, which means to give thanks. In the Eucharist, we give thanks to God for the astounding blessing that God has conferred upon humanity in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. 

The Eucharist proclaims the message of Christianity. We call it Gospel (god spell in old English or good news in modern English). In Jesus God was at work to open up the exclusive covenant he made with Israel at Sinai (the old covenant) to embrace all of humanity (the new covenant).*** Now all of humanity can share in the privileges of the covenant and also in its responsibilities of being a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. 

The death of Jesus becomes the sacrificial blood that signs and seals that new covenant. As a Christian, I can only respond: Thanks be to God!


* The people had previously said these words in chapter 19:8 when Moses first reveals to the Israelites God’s intention of establishing a covenant with Israel. But they speak in ignorance. They do not yet know any of the specific provisions of the covenant. After chapters 20-23, with the Ten Commandments and the Book of the Covenant, they now know something of the specifics of what they are agreeing to. When they speak in chapter 24, they speak, therefore, from a more informed basis. This gives much more heft to their promise.

** There is an allusion to this transparent pavement in the vision the elder John has of God’s throne room in heaven as recounted in Revelation 4. There John sees the pavement in front of God’s throne as something like a sea of glass, like crystal (Revelation 4:6).

*** The Latin word used to translate the Hebrew word for covenant (berith) is the word testamentum. It is the origin of the English names we give to the two parts of the Christian Bible: the Old Testament and the New Testament. 

Exodus: Scared to Death of God

Israel has one direct encounter with God and does not want to repeat it.

Chapters 19-24 of Exodus recount the process of establishing the covenant* between God and Israel. That process begins with a direct encounter between God and the people centered upon Mount Sinai. It is recounted in 19:16-25. 

The encounter is preceded by preparations. The people are to wash their clothes. They are to refrain from sex. And Moses gives them strict instructions on respecting boundaries. No one is to climb the mountain or even touch it. These preparations suggest the solemnity of what is about to happen. 

On the third day, God descends upon the mountain. No one actually sees God, but dramatic natural phenomena indicate his presence. Thunder and lightning occur. Fire and smoke enwrap the mountain. And a loud, blaring trumpet sound pierces the air. 

It is not possible to scientifically identify just what natural phenomenon are happening on the mountain. The language uses powerful forces of nature to suggest something of the awesomeness of God’s direct presence upon the mountain. The people are meant to be impressed that they are in the presence of the divine. 

Why is this so important? What’s at stake in this experience? 

I think the answer is that God wants to make unmistakably clear that this covenant is a true pact between God and the people. The covenant is not a pious fraud. It has not been foisted upon them out of the fertile imagination of Moses or of his drive for power. Nor is it the product of some mass hysterical delusion that sweeps through the people. The covenant is a true initiative of the true God with this people Israel.

It also does two other things. First, we notice that in the appearance of God on the mountain, God speaks. But he speaks not directly to the people but to Moses. The text suggests that the people overhear the voices, but the voice of God is not addressed to them.

The words God speaks are the Ten Commandments. This theophany (a technical theological word meaning a visible appearance of God) is meant to give great authority to those words. They are the direct words of God. Instead of seeing the face of God, the people receive the words of God. 

Moses as Mediator

And second, the theophany underscores the role of Moses as leader of the people and as the mediator or go-between between God and the people. The laws of the Torah will be communicated to Moses and Moses will them communicate them to the people. Likewise Moses will be the vehicle for communicating the people’s concerns and requests to God.

Important as this role is, it will not make Moses’ life comfortable and placid. When God is angry at the people, he will vent his anger on Moses. Moses then will have to communicate that divine displeasure to the people or try to persuade God to change his course. Likewise when the people grumble and complain about their experiences, they will voice their complaints about God to Moses. He will have to either deflect them or carry them to God. 

One has to sympathize with Moses. Like the CEOs of many companies, he will become the target for complaints from many directions.

One has to sympathize with Moses. Like the CEOs of many companies, he will become the target for complaints from many directions. He will have to come to practice the virtues of patience and forbearance. No wonder Torah will come to laud Moses as the humblest of all men (Numbers 12:3).

God may be intending the theophany to underscore the true reality of the covenant and Moses’ role in it, but it has an unintended consequence. The theophany scares the people of Israel to death. In verse 20:18, the text tells us:

When all the people witnessed the thunder and the lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.’

The people do not seem to be able to tolerate such a direct encounter with God. They need a protective shield, and ask Moses to become that shield. Moses’ role as mediator is one laid upon him not only by God, but by the people, too.

Behind the people’s reaction lies the old Hebrew conviction that no one can see God directly and live. We see it expressed in Exodus 33:20, where Moses asks to see the face of God, and God responds: …you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.

People sometimes express the wish that they could see or perceive God directly in a way that would banish all doubt. But maybe it is a blessing that we cannot.

People sometimes express the wish that they could see or perceive God directly in a way that would banish all doubt. But maybe it is a blessing that we cannot. For one thing, it would so overwhelm us that we would be coerced into believing. That would destroy any relationship between God and human beings from being a free relationship based on love.

The other is, I think, that if we were to experience an undiluted perception of God’s presence—what we mean when we say we want to see—we would experience it as a light so intense that it would feel like fire. I often wonder if that is not the experience of judgment after death. We come face to face with God in his full purity and so see ourselves too in that experience in the fullness of our reality, both good and evil. That will be the final purifying experience before entering the kingdom of God. That we do not have that experience in this life may be an act of compassion on God’s part.**

Jesus as Compassionate Mediator

Because of the compromised lives we live as human beings, we need the mediator that can serve as the go-between between God and us. In the Israelite covenant, that role is given to Moses. In the Christian tradition, that role is given to Jesus. He is the mediator of the new covenant, which he fulfills through his incarnation. 

As son of God, he comes to us from the realms of heaven, uniquely authorized to speak the word of God to us. But because of his human nature, he is a mediator who has experienced the challenges of life as a human being and therefore can be the compassionate intercessor before God on behalf of suffering humanity.

This is a theme deeply embedded in the New Testament (especially in the gospel stories of Jesus’ healing and exorcisms). There we encounter a Jesus who is deeply touched by the sufferings of human beings, touched because he too is human. He knows our trials and tribulations and our sufferings because he has experienced them, too. This makes him a deeply compassionate man, one who reaches out to heal and release suffering people from their bonds.

Unfortunately I think the Christian church lost touch with this Jesus as it came over time to see Jesus more as the all-righteous judge at the Last Judgment. Jesus became the stern one who divides the saved from the damned. He becomes a more fearful figure, one whom we need to stay on his good side. 

This understanding of Jesus was visually presented to each Christian who entered a medieval cathedral above whose main door would be sculptured an image of the Last Judgment. (A good example is the tympanum sculpture above the west door of the Autun Cathedral.) On the right of Jesus would be the saints entering heaven; on his left the sinners driven into hell.

The tympanum of the west door of Autun Cathedral.

That must have been a deeply disturbing image of Jesus to many a worshipper. If they could not find compassion and benevolence in Jesus, where would they find it? In his mother. And so in medieval religion, Mary became the locus of compassion and loving care. Under her cloak sinners could find the protection and reassurance they craved. 

To me one of the most hopeful developments in contemporary Christianity is the recovery of Jesus as the compassionate and loving shepherd. This is a correction that has been long needed if we are to be true to the New Testament.


* A covenant is the word that the Bible uses to describe the solemn and formal agreement that God and Israel establish at Sinai. It is a form of pact or treaty that governs the two sides of their relationship. 

** I want to assert that this paragraph is pure speculation on my part. It is not stated explicitly in the Bible, apart from some suggestive words the apostle Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. There the apostle warns the Corinthian believers about their behavior in treating one another, saying that the quality of behavior towards one another will one day be tested by fire, with eternal consequences.

Exodus: Israel’s Unique Identity

Israel’s identity as a chosen people is linked to its mission.

Jabal Musa in the Sinai wilderness, traditional site of Mount Sinai.

With chapter 19, the Book of Exodus marks a momentous moment in the story of Israel’s liberation. The people have arrived at Mount Sinai.* There Israel will accept its new identity, which will also be its new mission in the world at large.

Once at the mountain, Moses ascends it to meet with God. God shares with Moses the proposition that God will present to the people of Israel. God has selected Israel out of all the nations of the earth to be his treasured possession (Exodus 19:5). 

What does that honor mean? It means Israel will be given a special mission among the nations of the world. The text delineates that mission in two phrases (Exodus 19:6):

  • Israel is to be a priestly kingdom (as translated by the NRSV). Another translation could be a kingdom of priests.
  • Israel is to be a holy nation.

These two phrases are not singling out a select group within Israel for these two missions. They are conferred upon the whole people. 

Israel will go on to set apart a particular group of men to preside and serve at the people’s worship and sacrifices and to instruct the people in God’s law. That select group will come to define the functions of priesthood. But in Exodus 19:6 the particular mission of priests is extended to include the whole people, and not just the designated priests alone. Israel as a people will function as priests on behalf of all the peoples of the earth. 

In the life envisioned for Israel, the sacred and the secular will never be fully divided. The binary life will be transformed into a unitary life.

Also Israel is to be a holy nation or people. Their way of living is to reflect the holiness of the God who has chosen them. In the way they live their lives and conduct their affairs in the world, they are to reflect God’s ways. And how are we to understand God’s holy ways? That will become clearer in the chapters ahead (and in the rest of the Pentateuch) as Moses spells out the laws that are to govern Israel’s life.

Note that holiness, however, will not be limited to just cultic actions in the context of worship. It will embrace the wholeness of life–in all its family, political, economic, social, and cultural dimensions. In the life envisioned for Israel, the sacred and the secular will never be fully divided. The binary life will be transformed into a unitary life.

Bringing God’s Blessing to the World

God is giving Israel this unique mission not so Israel can stand as superiorly privileged in contrast to all the other nations of the world. They are not given the role of ruling the world. (That is the role Rome will later claim, as is clear from a reading of The Aeneid, Rome’s great national epic.). 

Instead, the creation of Israel serves a far larger purpose of God. Through Israel God intends to bring God’s blessing to all the world. This is emphasized by the phrase indeed, the whole earth is mine (Exodus 19:5). The Biblical scholar Terence Fretheim suggests that the import of the word indeed is because. He goes on to say: Israel is commissioned to be God’s people on behalf of the earth which is God’s.**

This gives a special cast to the concept of chosenness. Israel is given a special honor indeed. Israel is to be a kingdom of priests. But that honor is not understood as a privilege of superiority, but as an honor of service. So as priests preside in cultic events throughout the world (in all religions) on behalf of the people they serve, so Israel is to provide a kind of priestly service on behalf of the nations of the world. And their service is tied up with the holiness of their way of living. They are to manifest to the world the way of life that mirrors God’s ways in the world. 

If they fulfill this mission well, they will experience their life as a nation in which all Israelites experience the blessings of shalom—the blessings of personal and national well-being and of an inner, social, and spiritual harmony with God and neighbor. This life will become so alluring to other peoples that they will want to learn how the Israelites do it.*** Thus the blessings of God’s shalom will be shared throughout the world.

That seems to be the understanding of the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 2:3:

	Many peoples shall come and say,
	“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
		to the house of the God of Jacob;
	that he may teach us his ways
		and that we may walk in his paths.”
	For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
		and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

Unfortunately for the prophets like Isaiah, historic Israel has botched its mission by a way of life that is manifestly not consistent with the way of God, as outlined in the Torah. So he places the fulfillment of the mission in the future, in days to come.

What I think we need to notice in this conception of the role of Israel in the world is that the emphasis moves strongly to the side of responsibility over privilege. Indeed one might say: Is not the responsibility in fact a burden? The great Jewish rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is not afraid to use that word in describing the mission of the Jewish people. He writes:

The sages tell us that when we become a holy people and a nation of priests, we accepted ‘the burden of the kingdom of heaven.’ This expression shows that accepting the sovereignty of heaven is not a matter of uttering a watchword or expressing enthusiasm. On the contrary, even an agreement in principle means the acceptance of a burden that is not at all easy or comfortable.  

God’s Proposal to Israel

Two other things need to be noted about the account that Exodus 19 gives. First, this mission is offered to Israel as a consequence of its liberation from Egypt. Israel is not offered it as a prerequisite of liberation. Rather God has liberated Israel first, and now God offers this unique mission as a further development of the relationship that was established first with Abraham and now with all the people through their liberation from Egyptian bondage. 

That liberation was an expression of love. That comes through in God’s words: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself (Exodus 19:4). We find by reference to a passage in Deuteronomy 32:10-13, that the import of the imagery of the eagle is to focus our attention on the motherhood of God. Throughout its wanderings in the wilderness, God has been hovering over the people as a mother eagle hovers over her young and feeds and protects them. It is a loving God who invites Israel into this mission, not a rapacious deity. God’s loving grace precedes God’s call to a holy life.

Second, God does not impose this mission on Israel without Israel’s consent. The text uses the language of condition. The text reads God saying: Now therefore, IF you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. (Exodus 19:5). Israel has the choice of accepting this role in the world.††

In verse 8, we find Israel accepting God’s proposition. Moses sets before the people the offer God has made. And the text says: The people all answered as one: ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.

What is striking about Israel’s acceptance is that Israel accepts even before the people know the specifics of what it means to obey the voice of God and to keep the covenant…Israel will have to trust that what God comes to ask them to do will be an expression of his motherly love.

One might envision this as a proposal of marriage. God has proposed to Israel. Israel has accepted. They are now betrothed. The marriage will be sealed in chapter 24, with the sealing of the covenant. 

This pact between God and Israel will be known in the Bible as the covenant. It carries both rights and responsibilities. And it will become the organizing principle of Israel’s religious and national life. Violations of this pact will become consequential chapters in the life of Israel, bringing national disaster.

Extension of Israel’s Mission to the Christian Church

I cannot leave this text, however, without acknowledging its influence not only on Jewish thought, but also on Christian thought. The most striking example comes in the First Letter of Peter in the New Testament. The apostle writes to scattered Christian communities in Asia Minor. He writes to encourage them, but also to remind them of their responsibilities. 

In verses 2:9-10, we find himself saying to these communities of Christians:

…you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. You once were not a people, but now you are God’s people. You were shown no mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Here the language of Exodus 19 is applied to the Christian community. How can he do that? I think the only legitimate way he can do so is if he understands these Christians as adopted and extended members of the people of God. And as members of God’s people they share in the mission of historic Israel.

In sharing that mission, Christians share with Jews in the burden. For anytime our life as individuals or as church communities fall short of the holy standards we express, we bring discredit not only on ourselves, but also on the loving power and powerful love of God. Hypocrisy is the constant sin that haunts a religious vocation. 


* There is no scholarly agreement on the location of Mount Sinai. Long standing tradition identifies it with Jabal Musain the middle of the Sinai. Interestingly, the Israelites never established any commemorative shrine at the site of the mountain, nor was it ever a goal of pilgrimage. That awaited Christian action, with the establishment of the monastery of St. Catherine in the 6th century A.D.

** Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation Commentary Series. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991. Page 212.

*** We see a similar dynamic at work in many business self-help books on the market. The authors focus on a particular company or companies, try to analyze their secrets for success, and then hold up those success strategies for others to emulate and copy.

**** Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, We Jews: Who Are We and What Should We Do? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005. Page 150.

† I have specially highlighted the word if to make this point clear.

†† What is striking about Israel’s acceptance is that Israel accepts even before the people know the specifics of what it means to obey the voice of God and to keep the covenant. The Ten Commandments as well as the rest of the Torah law have not yet been given to Israel. Israel will have to trust that what God comes to ask them to do will be an expression of his motherly love. Is this not the experience of Christians as well when they accept baptism and incorporation into the people of God which constitutes the church? We accept God’s grace without knowing the full consequences that acceptance will have for our lives. 

The Warning Light Is Glaring Bright

American Christianity is following in the footsteps of ancient Israel.

I am taking this post to depart momentarily from my series on the book of Exodus. I do so to call attention to a recent article published in Atlantic magazine by the author Peter Wehner. It is titled: The Evangelical Church Is Breaking Apart: Christians must reclaim Jesus from his church.

I do so to recommend your reading it. There is a serious crisis going on in America’s evangelical churches. They are being torn apart by politics and cultural issues taking priority over Jesus and the gospel. You may not agree with Wehner, but I think he is right on target in analyzing what’s happening in the evangelical world, and to some degree in American Christianity as a whole. Mainline Protestantism and Catholicism are not immune to these kinds of factional forces.

When I read an analysis like this, my mind goes back to the Hebrew prophets like Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. They picture an ancient Israel that placed Israelite nationalism, spiritual complacency, prosperity, and the worship of false gods/values above the values of justice, righteousness, and a compassionate commonwealth. The prophets called for a radical change of mindset and of public spirit. 

The Israelites ignored their prophets. In fact, partisans within both kingdoms fought strongly to silence the prophets. The result? Both the kingdoms of Israel and Judah had no strength to resist invading foreign powers. They were wiped off the political map of the Middle East. 

We encounter a similar story in the Judean/Galilean commonwealth of the mid-1st century. Political and religious factionalism tore that commonwealth apart, leading to the launch of a disastrous revolt against Rome. It resulted in the fall and destruction of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 CE and the destruction of the Temple.

Factionalism played an important role in that downfall. We get the sense in ancient accounts of the siege of Jerusalem* that terrorizing factions within the city may have done as much to ensure the city’s fall as did the besieging Romans. 

I fear something similar awaits American Christianity as a whole if it continues in the ways that we see today. Today’s Christians will so discredit the name of Christianity that future generations will eschew anything containing the Christian label. We will have produced a spiritual antibody in the public spirit that will ensure future stalwart resistance to anything Christian.** 

The more I read the Hebrew Bible, the more I come to believe that it is essential reading for interpreting our own spiritual condition accurately. 


* The most extensive account of the revolt and the fall of Jerusalem is the account given by Josephus in his The Jewish War.

** Something like this happened in the European Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries. Enlightenment values like rationalism, promotion of science, and rejection of supernaturalism were in part spiritual reactions to the violence and religious wars of the Reformation.

Exodus: Meal of Memory

The Passover meal makes the exodus story always contemporary.

A Passover Seder Plate.

An odd feature of the Exodus narrative is that it brackets its account of the final plague–the death of the firstborn (Exodus 12:29-32)–with extensive directions on how future generations are to celebrate the Passover meal (see Exodus 12:1-20and Exodus 12:43-13:16). Someone who approaches the book as nothing more than a narrative story is going to be puzzled by this feature. Why does the “author” do this?

Well, it is important to remember that the Book of Exodus forms a part of the Torah. Although it is common to translate the Hebrew word torah as law, its fundamental meaning is instruction. The Torah (the five books of Moses together) have a very practical goal. They are to instruct the Israelites in their distinctive origins, mission, and ways of living in a covenant with their God. The Torah instructs them in how they are to be a people set apart.

Torah therefore has a good amount of history, but its chief concern is not with the past. Its chief concern is how the Israelites are to live in the present. So the historical narrative gets interlaced with a lot of legislation. The past is never quite past. There is a sense in which the past is always contemporary. Past and present form one united time. 

Making History Contemporary for Future Generations

We see this attitude exemplified in a passage in Deuteronomy 6:20-25. In this passage the text, set in the exodus era, looks into the future. It envisions a time when a young generation that did not live through the exodus questions the meaning of all the regulations that the Torah has laid down. Significantly the youngster asks What is the meaning of the decrees and statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you? (Deuteronomy 6:20). 

I want to note the prominent use of the word you at the end. It is as if the youngster sees the regulations as applying to his parents but not to himself. And what the text advises the parents to say is: …then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand (Deuteronomy 6:21). 

Notice the emphatic use of the word we as the father begins his response. The son sees the exodus story has simply history. The father sees it as always contemporary. All future generations of Israelites lived through it as well as the original generation. It is a shared experience, an experience that binds the generations into one. 

The Passover meal reinforces this perspective. It is a way the Israelites will continually relive the events of the exodus each year. Today’s generation will pass through the night of liberation just as the original generation did. And so the immediacy of the liberation experience and the bonds that tie the generations together will be renewed year after year. 

The “author” seeks to ensure that result by bracketing the account of the final night in Egypt with these extensive regulations on how Israel is to celebrate the Passover meal each year. I suspect that this is one powerful reason why Jews have managed to preserve their distinctive identity as a people through the centuries.

The Binding Power of Family Meals

And what a wise decision to anchor this constant remembrance of the past in a family meal. I have vivid memories from my own childhood of attending many family reunions with my extended family of grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. 

A common feature of these reunions was a family picnic. As people finished eating but were still gathered around the table, the telling of family stories would begin. My cousins and I would sit there enthralled by the stories–many funny, but some sad–that would tumble out of our family’s history. The result was the forging of stronger emotional bonds within the family. The bonds within my extended paternal family are especially strong. 

Recognizing this should give us renewed appreciation of what’s going on when we celebrate the Christian Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. There are many things going on when we engage in that rite. One important function is giving thanks to God for what God has accomplished for our salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We recognize that function when we call the rite Eucharist. It is a thanksgiving meal.

But another important purpose is remembrance, as the apostle Paul makes explicit in his instructions on the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11:23-32. When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, Paul quotes Jesus as saying about the breaking of the bread: This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me. Likewise when Jesus pours the cup, Paul says he says: This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.

Paul highlights the significance of the Eucharist as a rite to constantly remind us of the great events of our own liberation, that second exodus that the Christian church has always seen in the events of Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension. 

But like the Passover meal, the Eucharist is more than just a technique to jog the memory. It is the way we Christians actually participate in the Last Supper along with the original disciples. We might think of the Eucharist as the way that that table in the upper room gets extended broad and wide through the centuries so all believers have the opportunity to sit at table with Jesus and share in the blessing he confers. 

Like the Passover for Jews, the Eucharist is a way of making history contemporary for each generation of Christians.

Arrogant Knowledge, Humble Love

How do we nurture healthy individuals within healthy communities?

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.


The Foolish Wisdom of God

We misperceive the gospel if we miss its paradoxical character.

The crucifixion of Jesus as depicted by Matthias Grünewald in the Isenheim altarpiece, 15th century

For one brought up from childhood in the church, like myself, it is easy for the fundamental points of the Christian proclamation to become common-place truisms. When that happens, we lose all sense of how extraordinary they really are.

That is especially true for all talk about the crucifixion of Jesus. We talk and sing about the power of the cross and the glory of the cross. We wear the cross around our necks. We hang gilded crosses from the ceilings of our churches. And yet how easy it is to lose consciousness of how extraordinary a thing it is that Christians make an object of gruesome execution the central image of their piety.

I count myself among them. That is, until I was recently reading the opening words of the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Christians in the church in Corinth. That church is undergoing a serious congregational crisis. Theological factions have broken out in its assembly, factions that seem to be out-shouting each other in their claims to hold the wiser and more eloquent understanding of the principles of their religion.

Paul is scandalized by the situation. In reality, he says, the factions are spiritually immature, not advanced. The proof of this is that they are engaging in such bitter rivalry with each other. The fruit of their rivalries is to counteract the momentum of the gospel.

In 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, he presents his own analysis of what’s happening. He zeroes in on the centrality of the crucifixion to the Christian gospel. He makes the extraordinary statement that the crucified Jesus is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). He then reinforces what he has just said by adding:

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:25)

Now these are standard motifs in Christian preaching. But as I was reading them again, I was struck anew about how extraordinary it is for Paul to say this. For we, too, live in an age when facility in persuasive speech and effectiveness in action are highly prized.

We see this especially in the world of politics and corporate business. We want our leaders to inspire us by their speeches. We want them to prove their competency by accomplishing exalted goals. One business manual has expressed these two values in the summary label “big hairy audacious goals.”* And if we cannot deliver on them, we will be consigned to the category of followers, not leaders.

The Lesson of the Crucified Christ

But this is not the lesson Paul draws from the Christian proclamation of a crucified Christ. Instead it is through the pathway of self-effacing service, rejection, defeat, and even death, that God is at work to transform the world.** In this respect the Christian gospel proclaims God’s way as being 180 degrees opposite to our normal expectations of how transformation works.

In another passage (Philippians 2:5-11) Paul will describe the way of Jesus as the way of emptying (Greek: kenosis) himself. It is such an emptying that releases the power of transformation. It also leads paradoxically to his exaltation.

For me, as I reflect on Paul’s statements, I find myself asking: Just how does this way of the cross, this way of emptying ourselves, release the power of transformation? And how does it differ from a pathological self-humiliation?

That is one of the central mysteries that I think that Christian theology is called upon to explore and elucidate, especially in its systems of spirituality. For in the end the gospel, as Paul sees it, is not about abstract intellectual brilliance and sophistication (although certainly some theologies have that), but about pragmatic power, a power to transform both minds and behavior. And if our gospel proclamation does not transform, then either the gospel is a fantasy that needs to be discarded or we misperceive how it works.


* James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Harper Business, 1994.

** Transform is the import that the word save carries in this passage of Paul as elsewhere in his writings. He is less concerned about the eternal fate of individuals than he is with the fulfillment of God’s purposes and plans for the world.

Just What Was Jesus Preaching?

The Gospel of Mark provides a handy nutshell summary.

Jesus peaching, a drypoint etching by Rembrandt, 1652.

The Gospel of Mark tells us that after Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, he launched his preaching ministry in Galilee. Mark also gives a thumbnail summary of that preaching. He summarizes it this way:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1-14-15)

In his ministry, Jesus will say and teach many things. But for Mark the core of Jesus’ preaching is this proclamation. And it should, I believe, remain at the foundation of the Christian proclamation even today.

But just what is Jesus saying? It is easy to misunderstand, especially if we bring our own presuppositions to the words. To better grasp what Jesus is saying, I find it important to return to the original Greek words. Let me try to unpack them.

  • The time is fulfilled

Greek has two words for time. One is chronos. Chronos refers to time as a period of time. The emphasis is on duration or flow. So if we were to talk about the succession of days, months, and years, we would use the word chronos. It is the source word for the English word chronology.

That is not the word Mark uses. He uses instead the other Greek word for time. That word is kairos.  What Mark says is that the kairos is fulfilled.

The focus of kairos is not on a period of time. Rather it designates a point in time. In English, when we say we have an appointment with a doctor, we would talk in Greek about our kairos time with the doctor.

When Jesus is saying that the kairos is fulfilled, he is referring to a specified time, a date that has been fixed in advance. We might take it as the appointment date when something is to happen.

The question is: What is to happen on that appointment date that Jesus has in mind?

A hint to the answer is the word translated fulfilled. The Greek word is the verb plēroō, used in this sentence in the perfect passive tense. In Greek this verb conveys the meaning of something that becomes full. From that we get the extended meaning of bringing a completion or finish to something. Also it could have the association of something that has become fully mature.

Plēroō is the word New Testament writers use to refer to the fulfillment of God’s promises given in the Old Testament, especially through the prophets. When Jesus says the kairos is fulfilled, then he is looking back to the Old Testament promises and saying that the appointed time for their fulfillment has come.

  • …the kingdom of God has come near.

What specific Old Testament promises does Jesus seem to have in mind? That is suggested by the next sentence, when Jesus says the kingdom of God has come near. The promises Jesus has in mind are those in the Old Testament that look forward to a time when God is fully established as king over the earth.

Notice I place the emphasis on God’s kingship. That’s because the word we translate kingdom is the Greek word basileia. The prime focus of basileia is not the land over which a king rules. That tends to be the primary focus of the English word kingdom. Rather basileia focuses more on the king being king, exercising his powers as king. We would be more accurate to translate it by the English word kingship or royal rule.

What Jesus is saying is that the kairos when God becomes the unchallenged king over all the earth has come very near. And if we look at how the Old Testament describes kingship, we understand that that means the time is coming when God completely establishes God’s order over the earth, when God sets all things right that have become disordered, corrupt, and broken. God will establish the condition of shalom (Hebrew for peace) in the earth.

An important part of that task of setting things right is God championing the rights and dignities of the poor, the oppressed in society, the marginalized. That will involve establishing equity in society. The privileges of the rich and powerful will be abolished. All will share equally in the participation in and in the rewards of society.

We see this understanding of the duties of kings expressed in Psalm 72, a psalm that pictures the ideal king. Foremost among the king’s concerns must be his championing of the rights of the poor and marginalized. He is to establish justice in the land.

So what has drawn so close, according to Jesus? It is that appointed time, that time that the faithful have been longing for and praying for for a very long time. It is the time when God sets things completely right in the world.

For Jesus that time has come near. These two English words translate the Greek word engizo.  This Greek verb refers to the action of approaching or come near. So Jesus is saying that that time when God will set things completely right, that time so longed for in the Old Testament promises, has come very close. You might say it is right on the doorstep, just before the knock on the door is made.

This message–that the kairos has been fulfilled, the time when the kingship of God will be fully established on earth has drawn near–is the news Jesus is proclaiming. For anyone who has longed for a better world, a more just order for society and life, this will come as good news.

  • Repent

How should people react to this good news? Jesus offers two responses.

The first response: He calls on his audience to repent.

Now here is where it is very easy to misunderstand Jesus’ call. The reason is that the English word repent has the primary meaning of feeling sorry about something one has done in the past and resolving to do better. The emphasis is on the emotional feeling of contrition or regret about something one has done. Here the English word carries a wealth of associations that come from medieval Catholic practices of penitence.

But the Greek word that the translators translate as repent has a different meaning. The Greek word is metanoia. And metanoia does not refer primarily to an emotional feeling. Rather it means more precisely a change of mind.

Jesus is calling his audience to change the way they think. His concern is not the floating ideas that pass continuously through our mind as the day goes on. His concern is with the fundamental beliefs or convictions that determine the way we look at the world, at other people, at ourselves, and at God. A more accurate word might be the word mindset.

Our mindset governs how we behave and operate as we live our lives. It often has its roots in our childhood experiences. Its ideas are often firmly settled in our consciousness and not easily dislodged.

Our mindset determines:

  • whether we look upon the world as a dangerous place or a place of great opportunities,
  • whether our first reaction with strangers is a stance of hospitable welcome or a stance of suspicion,
  • whether we approach life with great self-confidence or with great self-doubt,
  • whether we regard God as a capricious tyrant or as a gracious lover.

Jesus calls us to change the operating system in our minds on which we approach our life. He calls us to change it in the light of this good news that he brings that the long-awaited time has come and the kingship of God is about to be established. The whole world will be soon changing radically.

  • …and believe in the good news.

What we are to change in our mindset is our fundamental operating belief. We are now to operate our lives on the conviction that the good news Jesus is announcing is true. This is the focus of the word believe, which translates the Greek verb pisteuo. It is the second response Jesus calls from his audience.

Here is a sense of intellectual conviction, but much more. It implies a confidence and trust in the truth proclaimed so that that conviction starts to govern the way we live.

The message we are to believe is a message Jesus calls good news. The English words translate the Greek euangelion. This is the Greek word from which we derive the English words evangelism and evangelical. That good news message is the one declared in the previous two sentences: The time is fulfilled. The kingship of God has come near.

If this message proclaimed by Jesus is true, then a fundamental change in our attitudes, in our mindset, in our way of living is called for. Everything is about to change dramatically in the world. We need to get ready.

How are we to change? We need to read the rest of the gospel and listen to Jesus as he teaches to get a sense of what kind of different behavior he is inviting us into. Maybe that is why the Gospel of Matthew follows his nutshell presentation of Jesus’ preaching with the much more extended Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon is drawing out the behavior implications of that nutshell declaration.

Jesus’ message today

How are we to take this proclamation of Jesus today?  One stance is to say that Jesus was wrong. The kingship of God was not established in a very short time back there in the first century. The disordered, corrupt, and oppressive order of the world has continued on for the past 2,000 years. I can respect the attitude of those who take this stance. For in many ways the Christian gospel can seem unbelievable in its claims.

Yet countless Christians have found Jesus’s proclamation believable and compelling, believable and compelling enough that they have been motivated to respond to it by becoming Jesus’ disciples.

Their experience suggests that that there is a perennial quality to Jesus’ proclamation. The kingship of God is always drawing near and is knocking on our doors. And when we live by that conviction authentically, it can indeed cause us to live our lives dramatically different. Their testimony is that it leads them into a deep experience of a kind of shalom, a well-being that nothing else can deliver.

Like Jesus’ first audiences, we, too, when we read Mark’s summary of Jesus’ preaching must decide if we find it believable and compelling or not. Whatever we decide will, however, have an impact on how we choose to live. We will change our fundamental mindset or we will not.