Thursday, January 6, 2011

The one who draws out

Although I was not able to get through the book of Exodus in one sitting, I did it in four, and I highly recommend reading it in as few sittings as possible for full comprehension. There are many ways, I'm sure, to approach the interpretation of this cornerstone in biblical theology. The approach I want to take is to briefly recall the story of Genesis, and then look at what Exodus says in response. To briefly summarize Genesis, God created the world and gave humans dominion over it, but humans became estranged from God, sinking deeper into depravity. The question then becomes, how does an estranged God bring his presence back into the world as it was in the beginning? In Genesis, this question receives a partial answer in Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. It is through these men that God intends to make his presence known.

Exodus gives a fuller answer to the problem of God's estrangement of the world. The story of the Exodus is the story of God's kingdom being established on earth. We can break down the book first into two parts: Exodus 1-19 and Exodus 20-40, with Exodus 20 being at the center of the whole narrative. In the first part, God liberates his people from Egypt and brings his people through the wilderness to meet him at Mount Sinai. In the second part, God establishes his kingship over his people in recognition of the work he has just accomplished.

I always remember being bored by the second half of Exodus. The first twenty chapters tell this cool story of coming out of Egypt, and then the last twenty chapters describe various ordinances God has for his people, and a seemingly inordinate focus on all the details for constructing the tabernacle, the ark of the covenant, and the vestments for priests. But all of these ordinances and building details are essential to the plot. Once the king has triumphed, he needs an inauguration, with all the pomp and circumstance that goes with it: that is what the construction of the ark, the tabernacle, and the vestments are all about. The ark and the tabernacle are God's throne and his house. The construction of these is a celebration--the people freely give more than they need to in order to see the project completed.

Personally I find it natural to feel suspicious of such narratives as Exodus. Such legendary or mythical narratives are easily used by those in power to justify an unjust regime. But on the other hand, modern people, for all of our skepticism of the supernatural, often resort merely to mythical stories about our own human abilities; thus, for example, the "Founding Fathers" become legendary heroes, forging a nation of freedom through their own courage and intellect. The story of the Exodus, by contrast, is in some sense an inauguration of the incomprehensible: it was not human effort that led to the liberation of Israel, but God's. It is true enough that the Israelites trusted Moses and Aaron, for the most part, in order to know what God was saying to them. But there are worse alternatives: Moses did not rule over the Israelites by his own decree, but was (at least theoretically) subject to an authority beyond himself. Even a myth which justifies some objective standard is to be preferred to a human exerting his own arbitrary will on other people. Perhaps we had better admit that, in the quest for objective justice, there are always some insurmountable obstacles to our knowing what is true.

Each of the two parts of Exodus divides further into a couple more parts. Here is my outline of Exodus:
  1. The oppression of Israel, the birth and calling of Moses (1-3)
  2. The liberation of Israel from Egypt (4-15)
  3. The struggle through the wilderness (16-19)
  4. The voice from Mount Sinai: the Ten Commandments (20)
  5. The giving of the law and the plan for the tabernacle (21-31)
  6. The Golden Calf, the renewal of the covenant (32-34)
  7. The construction and sanctification of the tabernacle (35-40)
Below are some comments I have on each part.

Exodus 1-3
An interesting study note in the HarperCollins Study Bible points out that "Moses in Hebrew means 'the one who draws out,' not, as the punning princess [Pharaoh's daughter] implies, the one she has drawn out." The name could have multiple meanings. It refers, of course, to how Moses was saved as an infant from being killed by the Egyptians. It also foretells how Moses himself will lead his people out of Egypt. But probably most of all it signals what God is doing. First God draws Moses out of Egypt and calls him to lead Israel. Then God draws Israel out of Egypt (and indeed out of the water, just as Moses himself was drawn out of the water). Moses' name, like that of Joshua his assistant, i s an ever present reminder of what God does.

The name of God is often translated "I am who I am," but it could also be, "I will be who I will be." Thus the name hints at utter transcendence, but it also hints at God's forward movement. God in the Bible is an active God, always working to create something new. His utter incomprehensibility is balanced by the fact that one can see the results of his work. "I will be who I will be" signals that God's future plans are always cloaked in mystery, even though what he has done in the past can be known.

Exodus 4-15
The Exodus marks the beginning of Israel's history, as Moses says in 12:2: "This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you." This is the month of the Passover, when God finally broke Pharaoh and won his people's freedom. For Christians, Easter is also known as "Pascha," referring also to Passover. If Christ is the new Passover, then Easter is the first day of the Church's history.

There is once again in Exodus, as in Genesis, a theme of God using what is evil to accomplish his purposes. Here he uses the hardness of Pharaoh's heart. The story is profoundly ambiguous on this point: does God harden Pharaoh's heart or does Pharaoh harden his own? It says both of these things, multiple times. The narrative shows no signs of attempting to resolve this ambiguity. As far as I can tell, this issue is never resolved throughout all of scripture. For my part, I think it's foolish to try resolving it ourselves.

Exodus 16-19
The story of Exodus is one in which God comes to reconcile himself to estranged humanity through his people Israel. The only problem with this strategy is that Israel is a "stiff-necked people," who grumble and complain at the sight of any setback. This becomes a theme throughout scripture. It may be through Israel that God intends to reconcile himself to the world, but it's not because they're any different from anyone else. Israel is indeed the one who wrestles with God, just as their name indicates.

Exodus 20
All of the Israelites get to hear God speak to them, and what they hear is the Ten Commandments. God begins with, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me." This is the key to all of Exodus. Because God has liberated Israel, he now has rightful claim over them as their king, to give them the law.

Exodus 21-23
Some of these laws seem pretty despicable to me, most especially laws permitting slavery. From a modern perspective, it feels like a pretty small comfort that certain laws are designed to limit brutal treatment of slaves, and to guarantee a certain sphere of individual rights to slaves. Also, the death penalty appears to apply in an awful lot of situations. It's hard to see how this would ever have been necessary or desirable. Also, depending on how you translate Exodus 21:22, it would appear that causing a woman to miscarry would not have been a serious offense; at least one scholar has remarked that the fetus was not considered to be human. I suppose I wouldn't be shocked by this, given the general lack of scientific understanding of fetal development that has existed even before the past century or so. This is one of those reasons I simply can't understand going to the Bible to defend the pro-life position (except for its general support of fighting injustice, which hardly seems unique to the Bible). Even if you do translate Exodus 21:22 differently so that it supports a pro-life position on abortion, it hardly seems helpful in this endeavor to go digging through a text which also permits slavery and prescribes the death penalty for children who curse their parents.

Let me insert here a reminder that as I blog through the Bible, I don't wish to deal with issues of biblical authority, inerrancy, infallibility, etc. With regard to these laws which are so disturbing from a modern point of view, all I can say is that even those Christians who claim they hold some notion of "inerrancy" mostly feel the way I do about these laws. I don't see any Christians stoning their children if and when they curse their parents. Christians have come up with plenty of very different solutions to these moral problems in the Bible, some fairly convincing, some not so much. For my part, I wish neither to stand in judgment over the Bible nor to feel weighed down by its details. I simply want to talk about what it says.

Exodus 24-31
As important as the directions for the tabernacle are to this story, I confess I still have a hard time really absorbing the significance of all the details. What does impress itself upon me is that the ark of the covenant, with the mercy seat on top of it, is essentially a throne for God, one which contains in it the written covenant itself. This God binds himself to something external to himself. God may be utterly transcendent, but he is also free to bind himself to the concrete.

Exodus 32-34
The story of the Golden Calf has an extremely important place in Exodus. This is no mere groaning against God. The Israelites have utterly rejected the covenant they just assented to. Their rebellion leads to violent battle, with 3000 of their number being killed at the hands of the Levites, who side with Moses against the rebellion.

Moses is the real hero in this story. Abraham before him had reasoned with God that he would not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if he found ten righteous people, but God ended up destroying those cities anyway. Moses, on the other hand, actually changes God's mind. At first God is prepared to wipe out all the Israelites and start over with just Moses, but Moses, similar to Abraham, argues that a just God would not lead his people out into the wilderness with malicious intent. He appeals to his mercy and wins. Later Moses actually offers to make atonement for his people with his own life--a clear type of Christ to come, if one may say so. God turns down his offer, however, and we are left with an ominous warning that each of the Israelites must pay for his own sins.

Exodus 35-40
This part is mostly just a restatement of the laws given earlier, followed by the construction of the tabernacle more or less in accord with the plan just given to Moses.

There is so much else to say about Exodus--the pillar of cloud and fire, the significance of the Sabbath, the significance of blood, and probably other things that I am now forgetting. But I think this will have to do for now.

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