The Exodus as a Creation Story

The crossing of the Red Sea carries echoes of ancient creation stories.

Destruction_of_Leviathan

The destruction of Leviathan by the French artist Gustave Doré, 19th century.

 Ancient creation myths, whether Mesopotamian or Egyptian, often shared a common feature. They assumed that the structured order of the world as we know it arose out of an aboriginal watery chaos.

That chaos was formless and often depicted as malevolent. It needed to be tamed before the created world could emerge. That taming occurred through a titanic battle between divine forces.

A representative example is the ancient Babylonian creation myth known as Enuma Elish. In that myth, the watery chaos is personified in a female divine figure named Tiamat. Her opponent is the male head of the Babylonian pantheon, the sky god Marduk.

In a ferocious battle the two gods fight to the death. Marduk prevails. He kills Tiamat, carves up her body, and out of the pieces creates the world in which we live. Creation emerges out of an act of supreme violence. (Also don’t miss the misogynist tones to the story.)

Biblical imagery echoing ancient myths

Echoes of this widespread understanding of the creation of the world are to be found in the Bible. The ancient Israelites probably picked them up from the common cultural environment which they shared with other ancient societies.

Genesis does not duplicate the theme of battle as the prelude to creation. But we should not miss the detail that when God begins to create the world in Genesis 1, God begins not by creating out of nothing. Instead he speaks to a vast formless, watery and dark void. The taming of this void begins with the divine words, Let there be light (Genesis 1:3).1

Creation continues the next two days with the division of the waters into the sky dome and ocean. Then emerges the dry land out of the oceanic waters, with its proliferation of vegetation. The land becomes the platform for the advanced creative work of God as God calls into being animal life, and ultimately human beings.

We also find echoes of the ancient theme of the chaos monster in the Old Testament figure of the great sea monster Leviathan (also known as Rahab). A number of poetic passages in the Old Testament celebrate God’s victory of this monster.2

One example is Psalm 74:12-14:

Yet God my King is from of old,
working salvation in the earth.
You divided the sea by your might;
you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you gave him as foo
d for the creatures of the wilderness.

 Another example appears in Isaiah 27:1. Here the author uses the imagery of the chaos monster to symbolize the forces of chaos that God will subdue in the future. What lies ahead in the future is a new creative act that echoes the old story.

On that day the LORD with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.

 The Israelites were not sailors like the Phoenicians. For this reason they tended to regard the ocean as something fearful, if not terrifying, especially when the ocean rose up in ferocious storms. The imagery of the Leviathan resonated with them, and it came to be the symbol of all the forces of chaos that might threaten their lives, whether foreign invasions, natural disasters like earthquakes, or the breakdown of social order.

The Red Sea crossing as a new creative act

What I had not come to recognize until recently is how imagery from these old creation myths as well as from Genesis 1 echo through the account of Israel’s crossing the Red Sea (see Exodus 14-15).That crossing is the climax of the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery.

When the Israelites encamp on the shores of the Red Sea, it appears that the old forces of chaos are about to engulf them. At their rear waits Pharaoh’s armies, poised to attack. If Pharaoh cannot enslave them, he will at least slaughter them. Chaos will reign on the battle field.

Ahead of them lie the waters of the Red Sea. These waters block any escape. The Israelites’ fate, if they move forward, is to drown in the oceanic waters.

The threat of chaos lies behind them. The threat of chaos lies before them. They seemed to be doomed.

But they have not counted upon the creative power of God, the God who has tamed Leviathan in the past and will do so again in the future. Instructing Moses to stretch his rod out over the sea, God summons mighty east winds (note again the echo of the mighty wind/Spirit that blows over the watery void in Genesis 1:1) to divide the waters. Out of that division emerges dry land over which the Israelites cross into freedom. Land has emerged out of the waters, as in the creation story of Genesis 1.

When God ceases the winds blowing, the chaos waters return, drowning the Egyptian army. Chaos has engulfed its own, as the song of Moses in Exodus 15 celebrates.

The crossing of the Red Sea then can be seen as a new creative act of God, an act that creates the new people of Israel. Their new life as the people of God begins. There will be much more to do before Israel grows up into a mature nation. This echoes how the creation of the world progresses by more and more advanced stages in Genesis 1. But it all begins with a divine act of taming the waters of chaos.

Christian resonances

This imagery should resonate with Christians as we think about the sacrament of baptism. Baptism is the act when God chooses each one of us to become a part of his people, the people who form the church. That act of initiation begins with a ritual of water.

In an extended sense baptism is the Christian crossing of the Red Sea.We symbolically drown and then are raised up to new life.5 It is also an act of new creation, a rebirth. Out of the waters of chaos all of us are lifted up onto the dry land of the Kingdom of God.

______________________

  1. Genesis 1 may in fact be conducting a polemic against the Babylonian myth. God tames the chaos not by an act of violence, but by his sovereign word.
  2. Several examples: Job 26:12, Job 41:1-11, Psalm 74:12-14, Psalm 89:10, Isaiah 27.1, Isaiah 51:9.
  3. I want to acknowledge that I received this insight from an essay written by Dr. George Athas of Moore Theological College. The essay The Creation of Israel: The Cosmic Proportions of the Exodus Eventcan be accessed on Academia.edu.
  4. This connection between baptism and the exodus event is very explicit in some early Christian baptismal liturgies. The language of the liturgies is filled with allusions and imagery drawn from the Israelites’ exodus.
  5. This symbolism is most vivid when baptism is performed by immersion.

 

Who Is the Exodus Generation?

The Old Testament gives a surprising answer.

Dura_Europos_fresco_Jews_cross_Red_Sea

The Israelites crossing the Red Sea. A fresco found in the ruins of the Jewish synagogue of Dura Europos, 3rd century C.E.

The Book of Exodus reports that when the Israelites left Egypt, they numbered about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children (Exodus 12:37). This figure is repeated in Numbers 11:21 and Numbers 26:51. When you count in those uncounted women and children, scholars conservatively estimate that the total figure was somewhere in the range of 2 million.

This is an enormous figure. Exodus scholar Nahum Sarna says that a safe estimate of the population of ancient Egypt would come in at around four or five million.* So the Exodus migration would have represented a catastrophic loss of population for ancient Egypt.

This has led most Biblical scholars to discount the Biblical figure given. Clearly it is an exaggeration. If the authors have fabricated this figure, they argue, what other aspects of the Exodus story have they also fabricated? This argument figures in many scholars denying the Exodus ever happened.

So how do we account for this hyperbole in the Exodus account?

Sarna offers an intriguing answer to this puzzle. He says that the figure of 2 million represents the approximate population of the kingdom of Israel at the time of Kings David and Solomon. So the author/editor is counting the whole population of Israel at this time among those who escaped into freedom under Moses.

How could the author or editors of the Biblical text take such a viewpoint? Sarna suggests that they do because they do not see the Exodus era as ending with Israel’s crossing the Jordan River and occupying the land of Canaan under Joshua.

Instead they view the Exodus migration ending only when David captures the city of Jerusalem and Solomon builds a stationary temple to replace the portable tabernacle. The building of that temple is in fact the culmination of God’s act of redemption begun under Moses.**

Says Sarna, “It is as though all those living at the time of the building of the Temple themselves experienced the events of the Exodus.”***

I find that fascinating. It is saying that the Exodus generation is not just the immediate generation of those who left Egypt under Moses’ leadership. The Exodus generation includes all subsequent generations following the 40 years of wilderness wanderings, plus the nearly two centuries of Israelite settlement during the period of the judges and the early reigns of Saul and David.

The Biblical Mindset Takes an Unexpected Turn

This leads me to think that there may be an even more astonishing conception going on in the Biblical mindset. In Deuteronomy 6:20-25, we find guidance on how parents are to instruct their children in the Torah. The text begins, When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?…. This wording is clearly addressing the situation of generations beyond those who wandered in the wilderness under Moses.

And how does the text instruct parents to answer? …then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand….’ Note carefully the wording. The parents are not instructed to say, Our ancestors were Pharaoh’s slaves, but the Lord brought THEM out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Instead they are to say,WE were Pharaoh’s slaves, but the Lord brought US out of Egypt with a mighty hand.****

 The viewpoint here is that all Israelites for generations to come participated in the Exodus. They were all a part of the Lord’s mighty redemption. So in an amazing way all generations of Jews constitute a portion of the Exodus generation.

What this conception does is make the Passover feast more than just a historical commemoration. It makes the annual celebration of Passover an experience in which each new generation of Jews participate in the Exodus. The Exodus continues as more than a repeated event. It becomes an ever present experience for faithful Jews throughout their lives.

A Parallel in the Christian Tradition

Now how might this have significance for Christians? It is the historic Christian tradition that the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus enact a new Exodus-like redemption. Easter becomes the Christian Passover. This tradition is embedded in New Testament in the conception that Christ’s death is the sacrifice of our paschal lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). It is also embedded in the ancient name for Easter, Pascha, which is the Greek transliteration for the Hebrew word for Passover.

Christians likewise celebrate their redemption with a celebratory feast, the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper looks back to that final meal that Jesus had with his disciples on the night before his betrayal and death.

When Christians participate in the Eucharist, we are invited to do more than just remember the Last Supper. We are invited to join Jesus’ original disciples at that same table as Jesus the host distributes the bread and the wine. In a sense the table of the Lord expands from its original 12 guests to include all the millions of other invited guests that have joined in in the generations since.

All this excites me because it suggests that the great acts of God’s redemption on our part, whether in the Exodus or in the events of Holy Week, do not remain events in the past. They continue to be events in the present for faithful believers. Time past and time future merge into an eternal present.

Now that blows my mind. Does it yours?

 _____________

* Nahum Sarna, Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel. New York: Schocken Books, 1996. Page 97.

** That viewpoint seems in fact to be presaged in one of the oldest bits of poetry in the Old Testament, the Song of the Moses in Exodus 15:1-18. This song celebrates the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. In the narrative the song is sung at the beginning of Israel’s wilderness wanderings, yet it ends on a puzzling note. It looks into the future, when the Lord will plant his sanctuary on the mountain which God will choose. The editors who put the Torah together may also have seen the establishment of the Jerusalem temple as the fulfillment of this enigmatic hope.

*** Sarna, page 101.

**** We find this same use of the first person plural in the famous Israelite creed recorded in Deuteronomy 26:5-9. It, too, describes the Exodus event as something that WE experienced, not just our ancestors.

Compassion Turns into Defiance

Opposition to Pharaoh begins where he least expects it: in his own family.

untitled

When we begin reading the book of Exodus, we encounter an Egyptian king who is determined to eradicate the Israelites. His method: the killing of all newborn Israelite boys.

He orders the Hebrew midwives to carry out this policy. They undermine it by practicing subterfuge on Pharaoh. We are not surprised; they are after all Israelites themselves. We do not expect them to be party to the destruction of their own people.

What we don’t expect is opposition to Pharaoh arising within his own royal court. But that is what we find when we read on.

As chapter 2 begins, an Israelite couple gives birth to a son. (He will grow up to be Moses.) The mother hides him for three months. When she can no longer safely do so, she adopts a bold, risky tactic. She creates a waterproof basket, places her son in it, and sets the basket adrift among the reeds lining the Nile River. It’s risky because she seems to entrust her son’s life to chance. In the perspective of the author of Exodus, however, she is really unknowingly giving her son over to a divine plan.

The daughter of Pharaoh comes to the river to bathe. She sees the basket, hears the baby’s cries, and, the text says, “she took pity upon him,” even though she realizes it is a Hebrew child. That’s the remarkable thing about this princess. Despite her high station, she possesses a heart of compassion.

She adopts the baby as her own son and raises him in the palace. But in so doing, she must defy her own father. His policy is to destroy the Israelites; her compassion moves her to save one. Of course, she plants the dragon seed that will grow and mature into the formidable leader who will ultimately thwart her father and destroy his carefully nurtured plans.

It is easy to appreciate the courage of Moses’ mother. She risks all when she places her son in the basket and sets him afloat on the river. We seldom appreciate the equal courage of Pharaoh’s daughter.

The text does not tell us whether Pharaoh ever knew what his daughter was doing. Does she keep Moses’ origin a secret from her father? If so, she practices deceit on her father. Or does her father know, but make an exception for this child because of his special attachment to his daughter? If the latter, then we find Pharaoh, despite his fierce resolution, is at heart a double-minded man. And a house divided against itself cannot stand.

Whatever the case, in exercising compassion, Pharaoh’s daughter in effect defies her father just as much as the midwives and Moses’ mother.

We see in this story how the unfolding of God’s plan depends in part upon the courage of two women. Small acts of compassion can have major consequences. I find that a thought-provoking take on the Exodus’ story of liberation.

A Note:

This insight into the Pharaoh’s daughter is not original to me. I first encountered it in a Krista Tippett interview of Avivah Zornberg on Tippett’s PBS program On Being. Zornberg draws upon the understanding of Pharaoh’s daughter that we find in the Jewish midrashic tradition. The interview is well worth listening to.

Image by Gustave Doré.

How Do We Come to Know God’s Character?

Discerning the character of God requires donning special spectacles.

In my last posting (The Slippery Witness of Religious Experience), I wrote about the crucial role of religious experience in answering the question: How do I know God is real? Religious experiences are not infallible proofs for the existence of God. Nonetheless they have played an important role in grounding my own confidence that in such experiences I confront something/someone divine that is real, not a delusion.

Believing God exists, however, does not carry one very far into a full-fledged Christian belief. After we are convinced that God is real, a new question emerges: What is the character of this divine presence we have encountered in our religious or mystical experiences?

If we base our theological reflection on a study of nature alone, we end up with more questions than answers. Is God one or many? Polytheism seems just as compatible with the evidence of nature as any monotheism. In fact, polytheism has been the preferred answer for most people in human history.

Is God good or evil, or just plain uncaring? Again if you try to answer that question by an appeal to nature alone, you get more equivocal answers. Certainly the finely tuned order of the natural world suggests that its creator is not only powerful, but supremely wise.

Is that divine power, however, beneficent? All the natural disasters that have devastated human life would suggest otherwise. At the very least the divine power is unpredictable and possibly capricious.

So where do Christians and Jews get their idea that the divine power they perceive in their religious experiences is a God of justice, love, and forgiveness, committed to their ultimate welfare?

Historical events as revelations

Christians and Jews don’t get that understanding of God from any contemplation of nature. Instead they draw these conclusions from theological reflection upon events in history where they believe God intervened and acted. These events, these acts of God as we call them, reveal God’s character, will, and intentions.

For Old Testament theology, those events include the call of Abraham, the liberation of the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery and their subsequent journey through the wilderness, the establishment of Israelite life in the land of Canaan, the preaching of the Hebrew prophets, the exile of the Israelites from Canaan, and their restoration to the land under the Persians.

Within those events, the experience of the Exodus is especially revelatory of the character of God. In it, we encounter a God committed to liberation, to covenant living, and to compassion for the underprivileged. This Exodus experience reveals a God committed not to the status quo, but one who leads us out of that status quo into something new and more life giving.

Through theological reflection upon this Exodus experience, the Israelites came to one of their greatest insights into the character of God. God is a God of committed, loving grace.

The book of Deuteronomy expresses this insight explicitly in a passage in which Moses addresses the people of Israel just before they leave the desert to enter into Canaan. It reads:

For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:6-8)

This passage identifies the motive behind God’s actions on behalf of Israel as God’s gracious love and faithfulness. As the theology of the Old Testament and then of the New Testament unfolds, we find that God’s actions on behalf of Israel become the paradigm for how God relates to all humanity. God chooses all of us to be God’s people not because of our superiority, but because God dearly loves the good creation which God created.

For the New Testament, the decisive historical event that reveals and fulfills this character of God is the life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Here we find revealed the depths of the compassion of God. For in those events Christians assert they discover that the character of God is supremely the character of self-giving love, a love that expresses itself in service.

The events of Jesus Christ also confirm those insights into God that we find in the Old Testament. That’s why for Christians the capstone of Biblical theology is reached in the assertion of the Gospel of John: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)

The Bible offers our spectacles

And here’s where the Bible comes into the picture. The Bible is a collection of writings that report these historical events where the faith communities of Judaism and Christianity have seen God’s intervention into history. The Bible also gives us the theological reflections that those believing communities have used to interpret those events. Through that dialogue between the events and the theological reflections upon those events, our confident assertions about the character of God emerge.

It is for this reason that the Bible continues to play such a central role in the life of faith within both the Jewish and Christian communities. We return again and again to this written word to be reminded of those historical events and to be challenged by the theological interpretations that those written words give to those events.

John Calvin famously taught that the Bible is the spectacles through which we look to understand the God we perceive in both nature and human life. Whereas the God we perceive in nature remains somewhat blurry, through the Bible the character of that God comes into sharp focus. The Bible is also the spectacles through which we discern the character of the God we encounter in our religious experiences.

Those who are unconvinced by the Jewish or Christian faiths will be forever puzzled as to why we believers give such importance to these writings from the ancient world. For much of the modern world, science provides the interpretative spectacles through which we see and interpret the world. Writings that many today regard as outdated and mythical can provide no doorway into the truth.

But for people grounded in a biblical faith, it is the Bible that gives us that interpretative key. That is why we invest so much time and energy in reading, studying, and discussing this book. For in this book we discover the character of God that guides the way we worship, believe, and live.

 

A Biblical Refusal to Let Politics Co-opt Religion

Despite promises of great wealth and honors, the prophet Balaam denies a king’s demands

In the Torah’s account of the exodus journey of Israel, an odd story comes in Numbers 22-24. It recounts an incident as the people of Israel near the Jordan River in preparation for entering the Promised Land.

On its way, Israel must pass through the land of Moab. This causes great alarm among the Moabites. They are afraid that this flood of immigrants out of the desert will overwhelm their land. They say to themselves, “This horde will now lick up all that is around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field” (Numbers 22:4). (One is reminded of similar alarms in countries around the world today as our planet undergoes some dramatic population migrations.)

The king of Moab Balak enlists the Midianites in an attack he plans on Israel. To give his army an edge in the coming battle, he summons the prophetic seer Balaam, the son of Beor, to come and place a spiritual curse on the Israelites. This was a standard practice in ancient warfare. Archaeologists have dug up many such curses on enemies on pottery shards in the sands of Egypt.

Balaam is not an Israelite prophet. He comes from Mesopotamia. But the text implies he knows the Lord, the God of Israel. And he has a sensitivity to listening for the word of the Lord before he speaks. He turns to God, and the Lord commands him not to curse Israel. So he tells the envoys of Balak that he will not come as the king has requested.

Balak will not, however, give up easily. He sends another delegation with promises of even more gold, silver, and honors. Balaam refuses, but then God tells him to go but to say only what God will tell him to say.

When Balaam finally arrives in Balak’s presence, the king takes him to a hill and shows him the great assembly of Israelites camped in the plain below. He asks Balaam to put a curse on the people. But speaking only the words God gives to him, Balaam instead pronounces a blessing on the Israelites and a curse on Moab and its allies.

Balak is of course upset, probably infuriated. He tries to pressure Balaam to change his pronouncements, but Balaam refuses. He says to Balak, “Did I not tell your messengers whom you sent to me, ‘If Balak should give me his house full of silver and gold, I would not be able to go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of my own will; what the Lord says, that is what I shall say’?” (Numbers 24:12-13).

As a result, Balak and Balaam part their ways, each returning, the text says, to their own home (and we might say, to their own respective political and spiritual realms).

Missing the Point by Focusing on the Wrong Details

On his journey to Balak, Balaam rides a donkey. The text says that an angel of the Lord blocks the road. The donkey sees the angel and balks. Balaam does not see it. He therefore beats the donkey, trying to get the donkey to move on. After enough beatings the donkey talks back to Balaam.

Then the text says that Balaam’s eyes are opened and he too sees the angel. He now understands the donkey’s action and stops the beating. In fact, he bows down to the angel in reverence.

When Sunday school teachers teach this story, they usually focus their attention on this odd feature of the story. After all, many of us often wish our pets could talk. But I contend that if we zoom in on this feature, we miss the larger and more important point of the story.

What we have in this story is a primitive example of the political realm trying to co-opt the power of religion in support of political policies. Balak wants to harness the power of the spiritual realm behind his plans for attack.

Any reading of history as well as of contemporary affairs shows that this is a perennial demand that politics seeks to place on religion. Balak attempts to do so. So do Israelite king after Israelite king in the Old Testament record.

And so have many Christian leaders. The Roman emperor Constantine, for example, or many political leaders in America today. We see it too in the efforts of Islamism to tie its violent agenda to the religion of Islam.

We see many examples in cultures that do not follow the Abrahamic traditions of religion. Plutarch, for example, heaps praise on Rome’s second king, Numa Pompilius, for his initiatives in support of Roman religion. But it is important to note that Numa does so because he wants Roman religion to support the Roman state.

This then is what makes the story of Balaam so striking. He refuses the demand, even though it comes with all kinds of enticements. He refuses because most striking of all he retains a sensitivity to listening for the word of the Lord before he opens his mouth.

An Amazing Example of Spiritual Integrity

The text hints that Balaam might not have been much more than a typical soothsayer of the time. Yet he has spiritual integrity. He will not use his religious authority to manipulate others either for his own advantage or for the advantage of political authorities. I find that just remarkable in this story. It amazes me. Such spiritual maturity!

This is not to say that religion and politics/culture should never blend. There are many examples in the Old Testament when the text seems to legitimately unite religion in support of the state. The prophet Nathan’s oracle on King David in 2 Samuel 7 is a good example. In this oracle God establishes the Davidic dynasty as his chosen royal line. What royal dynasty would not crave such a divine endorsement!

But we need to remember that the same prophet Nathan is also the one who pronounces God’s judgment on David after his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah (see 2 Samuel 11-12). God cannot be harnessed in supporting the abuse of power.

What is needed on the part of religious authorities is an acute sensitivity to when the integrity of their office requires them to support the state and culture and when it requires them to stand in judgment on it. That gift of discernment cannot come unless religious authorities are constantly listening for the word of the Lord, as Balaam does, and then speaking that word and only that word.

I would like to suggest then that we elevate the prophet Balaam to a greater position of honor than we traditionally have.

 

Humble Moses

Moses by Michelangelo

Moses by Michelangelo

Moses did not let power or access go to his head.

I was reading in the Book of Numbers when I came upon this extraordinary sentence: Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth. (Numbers 12:3)

I call it extraordinary because it says something extraordinary about one of the world’s great leaders. It claims that Moses was humbler than anyone else on the face of the earth.

That’s not how I expect someone to praise a leader he or she admires. I expect the admirer to praise the leader’s charisma, his projection of power, his effectiveness in getting things done, his ability to inspire, his skill in defeating opponents, or his superior giftedness over others. But who expects to praise a leader for his humbleness?

I found myself stopping to ask: Why? Why this particular commendation of Moses? Because if anyone had reason to feel proud, Moses did.

He had defeated a powerful autocrat. Actually God had, if we read the story of Exodus carefully, but a lesser leader might have been tempted to think that he had done it by himself alone.

He had freed a vast multitude of slaves. Talk about revolution. Moses ought to be up there on the pedestal with the great liberators of the oppressed. In that respect, he changed his world.

He had been given privileged access unmatched by anyone else. He was given access to the very presence of God on Mount Sinai. There he had received revelation from God directly, not through any intermediary. According to Numbers 12:8, God himself says about Moses:

With him I speak face to face—

clearly, not in riddles;

and he beholds the form of the Lord.

This is the kind of divine access that humanity has long dreamed of.

And yet Moses does not let this divinely accorded power and access to go to his head. Says the Torah writer, “Now the man Moses was very humble….”

Exploring the extraordinary in context

Whenever I read something extraordinary in the Bible, I like to notice the context in which it is said. Often that context fleshes out the meaning. It does so, for example, in this very case.

Numbers Chapter 12 tells the story of a challenge to Moses’ leadership. It comes from his own brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam. They manifest jealousy of Moses’ position with God. They complain, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?”

But rather than express their jealousy openly, they hide it by criticizing Moses’ wife. How many pastors could testify to similar experiences? Unhappy members in a congregation are just as likely to disguise their hostility towards the pastor by making cutting criticism of his or her spouse and children.

The Lord vindicates Moses by a direct endorsement of Moses’ position and by inflicting a serious skin disease on Miriam. (This raises questions about why Aaron escapes this punishment. Does the writer—or God—show a gender bias?)

What fascinates me is Moses’ response. Moses does not gloat in this divine endorsement. Instead he immediately pleads with God to heal his sister. He takes his place on the side of the wronged and wounded, even the sinful.

A recurring pattern in Moses’ leadership

That led me to remember the other times in the Exodus journey when God threatens to destroy the whole people of Israel and form a new people out of the descendants of Moses. (See Exodus 32, Numbers 14, and Deuteronomy 9.)

In each case some blatant expression of faithlessness on the part of the people of Israel provokes God to make this threat. God has come to their rescue time after time, and yet they continue to grumble and doubt God’s power or love. Once again many a pastor could share stories about how expressions of faithful care to a congregation is rewarded by a congregation’s complaints that the pastor is not doing enough for them.

If Moses had let the extraordinary power and access that God has conferred on him to go to his head, he would gladly respond to these promises by God. He would be flattered that his descendants would displace the descendants of Abraham as the people of God’s special favor. What a historical honor!

But Moses does no such thing. Instead time after time, Moses pleads with God to forgive the people of Israel, to remain faithful to his promises to Israel, not to abort the process that God started when he freed the people from slavery and led them out of Egypt.

The most extraordinary example comes in Exodus 32. There Moses has been detained on Mount Sinai for 40 days. The people of Israel despair over his long absence, and so persuade Aaron to create a golden calf that they can worship as a god.

God responds in rage. He threatens to wipe out Israel. He even denies that he brought them out of Egypt. He spits out to Moses, “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.” But he honors Moses’ faithfulness by promising to make a great nation of him.

Moses, however, responds with one of the great prayers of intercession to be found in the Bible. It is fascinating how Moses expresses his arguments with God (something to analyze in another blog posting). And he prevails. The text says that God changed his mind. Israel is saved from destruction.

In all these cases, Moses puts the welfare of the nation, the wellbeing of the rebellious, above his self-advantage. Moses remains committed to the enterprise of the Exodus when even God seems sometimes to waver.

Now that’s what I think the Torah writer had in mind when he commends Moses’ humility. When Moses has the temptation to advance his own cause at the expense of his people, he chooses the cause of his people every time. He stands to the side and lets the people take their place of priority with the Lord. And that, I think, is extraordinary humility.

 

Spacious Salvation

Have you stuffed your idea of salvation into too narrow of a box?

Scripture text: Psalm 66:10-12

For you, O God, have tested us;

            you have tried us as silver is tried.

You brought us into the net;

            you laid burdens on our backs;

you let people ride over our heads;

            we went through fire and through water;

            yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.

Well-meaning Christians sometimes come up to me and ask, “Are you saved?” I find more often than not that they are asking from a narrow understanding of salvation. What they mean is: Where will you spend eternity? Will it be in heaven or in hell? Salvation is thought of primarily as a spiritual form of fire insurance.

This understanding of salvation stuffs salvation into a too restricted theological box. It ignores the richer and more expansive understanding of salvation that I get from reading the Bible.

Yes, the Bible encourages us to hope that when we as believers die, we will be “with Christ,” as the apostle Paul expresses it (Philippians 1:23). The promise of eternal life to each of us as individuals is a precious promise of the gospel. But that does not exhaust the meaning of salvation.

Reclaiming Old Testament Roots

It is helpful to remember that the concept of salvation has roots in the Old Testament, especially in the Exodus story. First and foremost salvation deals with rescue and liberation. When a person or a people are in deep danger or bondage, a savior is the one who comes and sets them free.

God becomes such a savior when God comes and liberates Israel from bondage in Egypt. God leads them out into a new life, a life of freedom. Israel is set free from the constraints that keep Israel from being the people God calls them to be.

Those constraints are political. Pharaoh’s claim on them must be broken. The constraints are social and economic. Israel must be delivered from the literal bondage of slavery. The constraints are psychological. Israel must acquire a new mind-set. They are to live as responsible free people, not as passive slaves.

And the constraints are spiritual. Israel enters into covenant with God, a covenant that calls them away from all forms of idolatry. The first commandment is that “they shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

In the Old Testament salvation has a clearly this-worldly and communal quality. It is fundamentally an experience of liberation.

Salvation Is Enriched in the New Testament

When we get to the New Testament, none of this Old Testament understanding is abandoned. Salvation continues to have its political, economic, social, and psychological dimensions. But the concept of salvation is enriched. For what has happened since the Exodus event is that spiritually sensitive minds have come to realize that the constraints that hold human beings in bondage are more than political, economic, social, and psychological, important as they are.

What ultimately holds human beings in bondage is spiritual. These bonds are sin, spiritual powers of evil, and ultimately death. Against these powers human beings prove helpless. We need someone to set us free, to save us. That is the mission of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, as the Samaritans acknowledge him in John 4:42.

Jesus does this by his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. This is the saving work of Jesus. The Nicene Creed acknowledges this when it begins its recital of Jesus’ saving work with the opening phrase “for us and for our salvation.”

There are many dimensions to salvation as we encounter it in the New Testament. For one, it is certainly spiritual. Sins are forgiven. We receive reconciliation with God. We are adopted as God’s children to enjoy an intimacy with God.

But it is also much more. When Jesus heals the woman with a hemorrhage in Mark 5:25-34, he tells her that her faith has made her well. The Greek word translated “made well” can also be translated “saved.” In her healing she is experiencing liberation from her ailment, and in that physical sense she is experiencing salvation.

When Zacchaeus responds to Jesus by saying that he will change his ways as a tax-collector, Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:1-10). Salvation embraces the dramatic change of mind-set and behavior that Zacchaeus has adopted.

Salvation = Shalom

I think the best synonym for salvation is the Hebrew word shalom, which we translate as peace. But the English word peace is an anemic translation. The English word usually means “a cessation of conflict or of war.” The Hebrew word is much more expansive in meaning. It embraces not only cessation of conflict, but also wholeness, prosperity, and social harmony. It is well-being in its many dimensions.

For the New Testament writers the greatest enemy of mankind is death. It is the one oppressor that no human being can break free from. So the ultimate gift of salvation is the gift of liberation from death. That is what the apostle Paul is celebrating in the glorious 15th chapter of First Corinthians:

When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

            “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

            “Where, O death, is your victory?

            Where, O death, is your sting?”

 The Cosmic Dimension of Salvation

But I want to suggest that this final liberation from death does not exhaust the dimensions of salvation that we find in the New Testament writings. Salvation exceeds even the ultimate destiny of human beings. There is a cosmic dimension to salvation.

Two passages in the apostle Paul’s writings weigh heavily with me here. The first is in Romans 8:19-23. There Paul talks about all of creation awaiting its own liberation, a freedom from the bondage of decay, a freedom mirroring that of the children of God.

Human beings are not the only ones held in bondage to death and decay. All of creation is as well (as evidenced by the scientific law of entropy). In the day of final salvation, the whole of creation will share in God’s liberation. Our salvation as human beings is part of a much bigger story, a story that embraces all of the universe.

The second passage that rivets my imagination is Ephesians 1:9-10:

With all wisdom and insight, he [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Here Paul envisions that in the day of final salvation, all of the cosmos will be brought into a profound unity with Christ at the center as the one who unites all things together in peace.

This is about as cosmic as it can get. The kingdom of God, the realm of salvation, embraces not only human beings, but all of the cosmos, including its billions upon billions of galaxies and its many infinitesimally small atomic particles. Now that is breathtaking to me.

I’m not sure any human being has expressed the vision more expansively than has Dante in his final canto of The Divine Comedy. There we experience a vision of the triune God as the center and unifying force of a great mystic and cosmic rose that choirs forth God’s praise.

Spacious Salvation

I love the phrasing of Psalm 66 that I quoted at the start of this posting. It sings of the troubles that Israel has been through in its pilgrimage with God. They have passed through fire and water. But says the psalmist, God has brought them out into “a spacious place.”

I love that word “spacious.” It captures for me the whole vision of the Bible. What God is up to is nothing less than a “spacious salvation.” Now that is worthy of the jubilation of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

The Spiritual Life as Unfinished Business

Bible texts: The First Five Books of the Bible  (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)

In Judaism, the Torah is the inner core of the Bible, the canon within the canon. Christians know the Torah as the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. It consists of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

These books contain a lot of legal material. But the Torah is much more than a legal code. It is essentially a narrative. It tells the story of Israel’s journey from slavery in Egypt, through 40 years of nomadic life in the Sinai, to its arrival at its destination, the land of Canaan, which is the land God had promised to Abraham and his descendants.

It is, in one sense, a national epic. It provides the foundation story for Israel. It details how Israel came to be and the essentials of its identity.

But there is a peculiar twist to this story. It recounts a journey. But when we come to the last chapters of Deuteronomy, Israel has not yet finished its journey.

Deuteronomy ends with Israel on the east side of the Jordan River. It is poised to cross over and take up residency in the Promised Land. Israel, however, has not yet done so.  Even Moses at the end of Deuteronomy gazes at the land from a distance. He dies outside the land.

One has to read on into the book of Joshua to read how Israel crosses the river and takes up occupation of the land that God had promised. If one reads further on into the historical books, one will finally reach the story of the capture of Jerusalem, the construction of the temple, and the Solomonic empire. Here one reaches what we might consider the apex of Israel’s history. The historical books form part of the Hebrew Bible, but they are not included in the Torah proper.

Now this is odd, if we compare the Torah with another epic of national origins and identity, the Roman story narrated in Virgil’s Aeneid. The Aeneid, too, is a story of a journey. Aeneas travels from fallen Troy to Latium in Italy, where his descendants build Rome.

 The epic ends on a similar unfinished note. Aeneas kills Turnus, but the city is not yet founded. Nonetheless the epic still celebrates the greatness and glory of Rome at its height. In Book Six, Aeneas visits Hades, where he is given a vision of the glorious future of Rome. That future culminates in the greatness of the empire of Augustus Caesar. In that sense the epic ends on a note of triumph.

The Torah, on the other hand, ends with an uncompleted journey. It, too, looks ahead to a conclusion of the journey, but the conclusion is not included in the Torah proper. This means the core text of Judaism is a story of unfinished business.

This raises an important question. Why did the scholars who created the Hebrew canon decide to exclude Joshua from the Torah?

I suspect the answer is that those scholars sensed, even if only in their guts, that the conclusion of Israel’s journey is not the historical possession of Canaan under Joshua and the later Solomonic empire. The fulfillment of the promise still lies in the future.

Whether Israel lives in it own land or lives in other peoples’ lands as a diaspora, its life is fundamentally a life of unfinished business. What governs that life is the narrative of the journey. The Torah’s stories, principles, and laws provide the divine wisdom for a people whose life is always a spiritual journey. That journey will remain uncompleted until that glorious day of the Lord when the kingdom of God comes finally and definitively.

The Christian Application

Now this understanding of the Torah holds great significance for Christians as well. When Christian writers on the spiritual life write about that life, they often resort to the metaphor of a journey. A few examples: Gregory of Nyssa’s allegorical Life of Moses, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. I believe all are drawing upon the paradigm of the Exodus as narrated in the Torah.

The Christian understanding of the journey begins with the crossing of the Christian Red Sea in baptism. It continues as a wandering through the wilderness of the world. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews will draw upon the language of strangers and exiles wandering on the earth (Hebrews 11:13), as will the apostle Peter (1 Peter 2:11). That journey brings both divine blessings and many false turns, both joy and sorrows. It ends with death, which Christians have traditionally celebrated as a crossing of the Jordan.

So for Christians, too, the spiritual life remains a journey of unfinished business. The journey does not reach its final destination until after death when we arrive in God’s perfect Sabbath rest, the heavenly Jerusalem, the kingdom of God. Hope, therefore, remains a fundamental virtue of the Christian life.

Now this has significance for the conduct of Christian evangelism. One popular way of preaching the good news is to set before unbelievers the great blessings they will gain by placing their trust in Christ. Traditionally those include love, joy, peace, healing, and sometimes very concrete material blessings such as prosperity and worldly success. If we base evangelism on these promises, what do we do when inevitably new believers encounter turmoil, serious illnesses and reverses, hostility, and even persecution or worse in their Christian lives?

Such forms of evangelism forget that we are inviting others into a life with Christ that will include both blessing and trials,  both happiness and sorrows, both fulfillment and unfulfillment. What we are inviting people into is a journey, a journey of discipleship. And that journey will not reach its destination in this life. We remain spiritual nomads all of our lives.

But that does not mean the journey is not worth taking. Rather our spiritual lives remain unfinished business until that day when we meet the Lord face to face and he invites us into the joy of our spiritual homeland at last. In the meantime the Torah as well as the rest of the Bible gives us guidance for making the journey with integrity.

Note: I do not want to give the impression that this understanding of the Jewish Torah is an original one with me. I first encountered it in James A. Sanders, Torah and Canon (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972). I recommend it if you wish to explore the thought deeper. 

Death Knell for the Pagan Gods, Part 2

Scripture text: Psalm 82

 

Note:  This blog entry continues a line of discussion which began in my the last blog entry, “Death Knell for the Pagan Gods, Part 1.”  You will better appreciate what I am saying in this blog entry if you read the previous one first.

Psalm 82 is a curious psalm in which the ancient gods of the Near Eastern civilizations are brought up to account in a trial in the heavenly council. The God of Israel, who is affirmed as the God of all nations, pronounces a death sentence against the other gods. This is a curious scenario indeed.

But what fascinates me even more in Psalm 82 is the basis on which the ancient gods are condemned to death. What is the great evil they have done that deserves a death sentence?

Hear the charge against them as it is expressed in Psalm 82:

 “How long will you judge unjustly

            and show partiality to the wicked?  

Give justice to the weak and the fatherless;

            maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.

Rescue the weak and the needy;

            deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

 The words of God, as spoken through the psalmist, charge these ancient gods with the crime of upholding injustice and showing partiality to the wicked. And their upholding injustice is particularly expressed in their showing partiality to the rich and powerful to the neglect of the lives and rights of the poor, the needy, the destitute, and the fatherless. Their great crime is upholding social and economic injustice.

Now the prophets of the Old Testament make very clear that the God of Israel is an upholder of justice. The God on whose behalf the prophets speak is especially partial to the needs and the suffering of the poor, the destitute, the afflicted, and the defenseless. The Old Testament summarizes this class of people with its stock phrase, “the widow, the orphan and the resident alien.”

Now how can the charge leveled against the pagan gods of the ancient civilizations stand? Here is where I am deeply indebted to Mircea Eliade and his book The Myth of the Eternal Return published in 1954.

In this book Eliade surveys the mindset of the ancient religious traditions of humanity, including those pagan religions of the ancient Near East in which Psalm 82 finds it context.

He perceives in almost all of them a cyclical view of history. This means that history—and life itself–is seen as a constantly repeated pattern.

In these pagan religions, what counted most was the moment of origin of the world. In the initial act of creation, the gods created the divine structure of the world and of human society. All remains harmonious in the world in so far as human beings respect and obey that divine order, created at the time of creation.

Each year at New Year’s these ancient societies sought to return to that first day of creation and re-affirm or re-establish that divine order. So New Year’s Day Festivals occupied a dominant position in the cultic year of these ancient societies.

At this festival the ancient people represented in mythical drama and other cultic acts a kind of spiritual return to the first day of creation so that the divine order might be reaffirmed and re-established in the world.

The annual reaffirmation of the divine order also included a reaffirmation of the divine social order of semi-divine king, priesthood, nobility, peasantry, and slaves. This was the stratified social order established by the gods at creation. It was to be re-established each year at the New Year’s Festival.

This divinely sanctioned social order meant therefore that ancient societies tended to be conservative. Originality and creativity were not highly valued. Instead these societies valued conformity to the divine pattern set at creation. Tradition, not change, was valued, for it maintained the stability of the divine sanctioned order.

As a result, ancient paganism tended to reinforce what we today would see as an unjust social structure. The ancient gods did indeed give religious sanction to a stratified social order in which the privileged were few and the unprivileged were many. Care for the weak and needy was not a primary concern.

Now ancient Israelite religion included many cyclical features like the ancient paganisms. For example, Old Testament Judaism had it annual round of festivals, like Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, and its own New Year’s festival.

Christianity maintains some of these cyclical features, too. We have our church year, with it annual cycle of feast days and fasts. And in both religions we have the weekly cycle of the Sabbath or Sunday celebrations.

But there was a factor in the ancient Israelite story that broke with this almost universal conception of life and history as cyclical. That was the experience of the Exodus and the story that emerged out of it.

The Israelites believed that God intervened (in one decisive and unrepeated moment) into their lives by setting them free from Egyptian bondage. That set them on a journey, a journey that lasted 40 years. It was not only a physical journey, but a spiritual journey as Israel learned what it meant to be the people of God. The story was fundamentally one of liberation.

Now here is where the Israelite concept of history was so different from the cyclical view of history found in the ancient paganisms. The pagan cyclical view saw the Age of Gold lying at the beginning of history. It was then that the gods established the eternal order of the world.

This was their spiritual home. And each year in the New Year’s festival, the people returned to their spiritual home to reaffirm that eternal order. This meant a revolutionary change of the social structure stood little chance of surviving.

When Israel leaves Egypt, it leaves its old home. But when the Exodus journey ends 40 years later, it has not brought the Israelites back to Egypt. They have not returned home, now however refreshed, strengthened, and integrated so they can thrive in the old society.

When the Exodus journey ends, it lands Israel not in Egypt, but in the Promised Land. Israel arrives at a new home. And if all the principles of the Torah given at Sinai are put into practice, the new society will be one in which all have a rightful place, a real chance to thrive. The needs of the poor and destitute, the needs of the widow, orphan, and resident alien, will not be ignored, but given due attention.

In a mindset shaped by the Exodus story, the Age of Gold does not lie at the beginning of history, but at the end, in the coming of the Kingdom of God. And that kingdom will be a far different reality than the spiritual Egypt from which God calls humanity.

History therefore is not a cyclical journey, in which history constantly cycles back to its beginning to reaffirm the divine order. Instead history is a linear journey. It will have a beginning. It will have an end. But the end will not be the same thing as the beginning.

For a religious mindset shaped by the Exodus story, the purpose of religion is not primarily the reaffirmation of the status quo of society. Instead religion is to lead people to a new and better experience of life, a life of liberation, or in the language of Christianity, a life of redemption.

This gives an incentive for change, change that will lead to a better life in the future. And in that better future, justice will reign. I am not sure that the Bible defines justice as equality, but it certainly sees justice as ensuring that everyone in society has access to the freedom and bounty that God bestows.

Ancient Israel was not able to live out this vision of a just society, anymore than has Christianity. In both religions, religion has been used to sanction and prop up an unjust status quo. But in both religions, the Exodus story plants seeds that upset any attempt to return to the role religion played in the ancient paganisms.

So in a very real sense, Psalm 82 sounds a death knell on any religious system that sees its role simply as the reaffirmation of the current status quo. To such religious systems—pagan, Jewish, or Christian—Psalm 82 speaks these words:

 I say, “You are gods,

            sons of the Most High, all of you;

nevertheless, you shall die like men,

            and fall like any prince.”

 

God’s Temptation

Bible text: Exodus 32:7-14

This morning I was reading the story of Israel’s creation of the golden calf at Mount Sinai. Moses has been on Mount Sinai 40 days in dialogue with God. Israel gets impatient with his absence. They want action now, and so they ask Aaron to create them a god. He creates a golden calf.

This creates an interesting turn in God’s dialogue with Moses. Hot with anger, God tells Moses to leave the mountain immediately. God says he is about to destroy the people of Israel for their apostasy. Instead he will create a new people from Moses’ line of descent.

What caught my attention is how God introduces this conversation. He says to Moses: “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely….” [I added the italics.] Suddenly the people of Israel are not God’s people. They are Moses’ people. And Moses is the one who brought them up out of Egypt. God lays no claim to them.

Moses, however, will not allow God to wipe his hands of the connection. He retorts: “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” [Again, I’ve added the italics.]

Moses does not allow God to cavalierly displace the connection between God and Israel. It is not Moses who brought Israel out of Egypt. It is God. And the Israelites are certainly Moses’ people because he belongs to them. But in terms of covenant ownership, they are God’s people because God called and created them.

Moses then reminds God of the stake he has in Israel’s fate. If God destroys Israel, it will reflect very badly on God’s reputation. The Egyptians will laugh in derision.

Furthermore, God has made a promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If he destroys the Israelites, God will show himself an unstable god like all the fickle, unstable gods of the other ancient Near Eastern polytheisms. God will show himself to be a God in whom no one would be advised to place any ultimate trust and loyalty.

The text says Moses wins the argument. God changes his mind.

I find this a fascinating dialogue for two reasons. One is the effrontery exhibited by Moses. Moses is neither bribed by God’s promise to make a great nation out of Moses. Nor is he meekly cowed by God’s presumption to pass the buck of responsibility onto Moses. Moses does not accept the role of scapegoat.

Instead Moses stands up to God. He presumes to argue with God. And Moses wins.

The other fascinating feature is the argument Moses makes. If God is going to be God, then God must be true to himself. God may need to be flexible in dealing with humanity. The story of the Bible gives many examples of this flexibility.

But God cannot be untrue to himself and remain God. God cannot betray his eternal purposes and character and remain a God in whom humanity is called to place ultimate trust. In times when God is thwarted and frustrated with the erring ways of humanity, he may be tempted to act in ways that are less than God. But if he does, he will cease to be God. He will become the Devil.

God faces a temptation. He has been betrayed, and he is tempted to respond in kind. But Moses reminds God that if he gives in to the temptation in the heat of passionate emotion, he will cease to be God.

So God must work with recalcitrant humanity is a way that God remains true to God’s own self. How he does that is the story of rest of the Bible.