Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

5 Principles for Biblical Interpretation with Jared Byas

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Jared shares some key concepts in biblical interpretation and gives us some tools on how we can derive meaning from biblical passages as he explores the following questions:

  • What are some key concepts in interpretation of the Bible?
  • What are hermeneutics?
  • What are some hinderances in understanding what the biblical authors were trying to communicate?
  • How can the Bible help interpret itself?
  • Why is it important to understand what the biblical authors were trying to communicate?
  • How can we know what the biblical authors’ intentions were without tasking them?
  • How has archeology helped us interpret the Bible?
  • How can the way we interpret art teach us about interpreting the Bible?
  • Why does the reader’s context matter when interpreting the Bible?
  • How is language its own context?
  • What is the danger of being objective when doing biblical interpretation?
  • Why does Jared Byas think hearing diverse interpretations of the Bible is important?


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Jared Byas you can share. 

  • “The root of biblical interpretation is author intention.” @jbyas
  • “The fruit of biblical interpretation is reader reception.” @jbyas
  • “Meaning is in the relationship between the person who’s communicating to someone, and the person who’s receiving that communication.”@jbyas
  • “Meaning is found between intent and impact: the intention of the author and the significance it has for the reader.” @jbyas
  • “We should be humble about what we think we know… we all might experience the same thing but from a different angle with a different perspective.” @jbyas
  • “As one human being in a particular place and time it’s hard to know the whole story.” @jbyas
  • “The best way to get the God’s eye view is to accept and honor the diversity of all the readings that we find in our world.” @jbyas
  • “Don’t discount your own reading and your own example and your own life and own context.” @jbyas

Mentioned in This Episode

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Read the transcript


Pete: You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. Serious talk about the sacred book. I’m Pete Enns.

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty Intro Music]

Jared: Welcome, everyone, to this episode of the Bible for Normal People. Today, we’re going to dive into one of the two things we say we talk about quite a bit on the podcast. We talk about “what is the Bible” and “what do we do with it?” With that “what do we do with it,” we’ve talked about concepts like inspiration, revelation, authority and hopefully, we’ll get back into some of those, because I doubt we’ve plumbed the depths of those concepts.

As I was reflecting, one of the things we haven’t talked about is are some of the key concepts in interpretation of the Bible. What do we mean when we ask, “what does the Bible mean?” I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit as I finish my book that I’m working on. I have just a few weeks left here to get that in.

It just got the wheels turning here about what we mean when we talk about what the Bible means and just the basics of Biblical interpretations. There’s, of course, been many, many books written on—the scholarly term for this is “hermeneutics,” which is how we interpret the Bible. What are the key principles or concepts behind that?

I have five points I want to make about this Biblical interpretation. Again, we’re just going to be scratching the surface, so there’s lots I won’t say. We just provide these disclaimers for those of you who want to write us and say, “Yeah, but you forgot about this and how would you say it that way? And that’s oversimplifying.”

We know that. Thank you very much. If you’d rather just not send us those emails, that’d be okay, because we understand that. But if you feel compelled, feel free to keep sending those.

The first thing I want to talk about—and these are cascading points—they tie together—the first is the root of Biblical interpretation is author intention. Let’s take a minute and look at what that means.

The root of Biblical interpretation is author intention. By author intention, we mean, “what was the original intention of the people who put pen to paper, or whatever they had at the time to paper. The editors—what was the intention. What were they trying to communicate?

That’s a really important principle when we’re trying to interpret the Bible. It’s the root of what we’re asking. Any relationship or conversation with someone, you want to understand what that people who’s talking to you is trying to communicate. The Bible means more than what the author intended to say, but it doesn’t mean less.

The beginning of Biblical interpretation is doing this hard work of understanding what the author was trying to say. This is important because it keeps us from the great fear of more conservative Biblical interpreters is that we’re going to make the text, make the Bible mean whatever we want it to mean, that we’re going to unmoor it, or pull up the anchor of the author’s intention and now it’s just a free-for-all where we get to make the Bible mean whatever we want it to mean.

Folks like John MacArthur, and others in the past, at least in my tradition, would have been, “That’s how we end up compromising with the culture and diving into the ethics of our day instead of a Biblical ethic,” whatever that means. We’re not going to respect whatever the author intends.

That is a really important—when we’re talking about conversation with the Bible and interpreting it and what it means.

However, the challenge of getting to the author’s intention is that none of the authors are alive. That’s going to be a problem, not to mention the fact that we don’t actually know who wrote a good chunk of the books of the Bible. They’re anonymous. They’re not attributed to anyone. We don’t know who wrote them.

To add on to that, we have this challenge, this fact that the books were also edited together and redacted together by editors or redactors. We have to take that into account when we’re talking about Biblical interpretation. We don’t have access to the authors. We don’t know who wrote a lot of them and we have these editors.

That doesn’t give us an excuse. We can’t give up. The text itself is still trying to communicate something.

Scholars have developed these tools and ways to get at what the author intended by looking at the text and looking outside the text.

When we talk about the root of Biblical interpretation is author intention. I think that’s just the first thing to remember.

When we’re reading our Bible, it is a helpful question to ask, “What are they trying to communicate here to the audience?”

That’s important to keep in mind so that we’re not making the Bible mean whatever we want it to mean.


The second point I want to make is if the root of Biblical interpretation is author intention, then the author’s context matters.

We mean that in two different ways, again these tools that scholars use. Looking the literary context, which means what do these words and phrases and paragraphs mean in the context of the book itself and the historical context, meaning how does this book fit next to other books at the same time period or other artifacts, other things that we’ve discovered about that time. How does this square or fit within that?

The author’s context matters, literarily and historically, if we want to understand what the author meant. This is pretty simple. We would assume this in our day and age, that if I’m talking to someone that you would want to know what the context is in which I’m saying it and you have to already have a lot of context historically for what I’m trying to say as well.

Let’s look at a little bit of this.

The first is looking at a particular book. Remember, in the Bible, there are 66 individual books. I don’t know where I stand on this exactly, but my tradition would say that if you want to know what Paul means in the book of Galatians, you could look at the same theme and the same words and you could find those in the book of Joshua and that Joshua can help you understand what Galatians means.

The reason we could do this was because we believed that the Bible is ultimately authored by God, so it’s not really 66 books, it really is one book and God is the ultimate author of that book.

In that, we’re assuming this unanimous voice of the Bible, that what the book says—there’s no diversity in the Bible. There really is one message that’s threaded throughout all 66 books.

Of course, if that’s true and God is the singular author, so-to-speak, at the biggest level, then yeah, the context of Galatians is Joshua. We can look at the Old Testament and it can help us interpret the New. And vice versa. There’s really no disconnect between those two.

I’m certainly not in that camp. I don’t think that’s true. I think you end up violating a lot of rules and respecting what the author was trying to say, like Paul, in Galatians. If you’re reading into it these themes in Joshua that maybe Paul had no intention of thinking about or connecting the dots to. I wouldn’t go that far.

However, I wouldn’t also go all the way to say that certain books aren’t in the water or influencing other authors, especially in the New Testament. There is some—if it warrants it, if it seems very explicit or clear, there are oftentimes, say, in the book of Matthew where Matthew makes it clear, like in Chapter 2, Jesus has this episode down to Egypt and then Jesus comes back up out of Egypt, and Matthew explicitly says, “This is what to fulfill what the prophet Hosea says in Hosea, Chapter 11, “Out of Egypt, I have called my son.” Well then, obviously Hosea is part of the context for what Matthew is reading as this narrative is being written. It would be an important piece of that context to understand what Matthew means. Again, that is what we’re after. What does Matthew mean?

All that to say, the literary context is important. We want to look at the particular book. Look right before that book—I’m sorry, look before whatever passage we’re reading. Look after. What words they’re using. What metaphors are being used. What’s the argument that the author’s trying to make? That will help us figure out what the author is intending to say. We want to look at that particular book.

Then, I think, it’s legitimate to look at other books in the Bible that perhaps would have influenced that author. That would be really important.

Those are the literary context of what we want to look at. Just some tools for you as you’re reading the Bible. Make sure you’re look at the author’s intention. How do you know that? We can’t go ask the author. The author’s not with us anymore. But we can look at the context clues. Look at that passage in relationship to other passages that are in the same book. Look at the line of thinking. Look at the argument that they’re trying to make. Trying to piece that together.

A huge part of Biblical interpretation isn’t just the literary context. We have to look outside that book and look at the historical context and look at the time period and what else do we know about that time period. What archeological discoveries have we found? What other books, sacred writings, law codes—what other things, letters do we have access that help to shape what that looks like.


Here are just examples of why context matters. First, literarily. One of the examples I like to use is Philippians, Chapter 4, Verse 13, just because we’ve all seen it on a Nike sneaker for an athlete. Philippians 4:13. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Usually, in our context, what that means is, “God’s gonna help me win this sporting event or help me do my best or whatever it is.” That’s kind of how it means in Christian “pop” culture, I think.

But if we look at Philippians 4 and the context that Paul is writing, he’s basically, in Chapter 4, talking about the concern that the people in Philippi have for Paul and he saying, “Thank you so much for your concern about me. You’ve been concerned, but you haven’t had an opportunity to show it. I really appreciate it. However,” he says, “I’m not saying this I’m in need. I’m not saying this out of neediness, because I’ve learned to be content in whatever circumstances I found myself in. I know what it’s like to be in need. I know what’s it’s like to have plenty of food. I’ve learned the secret of contentment in all my situations, whether well-fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

That’s the context. That’s really important for what Paul’s really trying to say. It’s interesting that we’ve taken it to mean Paul is saying, “We can accomplish all these things through Christ, because Christ gives us strength to accomplish a lot of things,” when the context here is about contentment. It’s clear that Paul is saying he’s learned to be content in every situation, whether he wins or loses, whether he’s well-fed or hungry, whether he’s living in plenty of in want. He says, “I can do this.” It’s interesting. The NIV now translates this—I’m pretty sure it didn’t used to translate it this way—but older versions would have said, “I can do all things.”

That’s the ambiguity. That’s how we opened up the idea that it can mean something different because it says, “I can do all things.” We just pull that right out of context and just on its own—sure, that means baseball games. It means whatever you want it to mean. What are all things? Well, all is all things.

But now the translation is, “I can do all this,” instead of “all things.” It’s “this” and it points us back to this idea of contentment. What does “this” mean? Oh, we just look there and it points us there.

Again, it’s really important when we’re trying to understand what the Bible means is context. This is a good example where the Biblical translators have changed it so that we understand how important that context is in Philippians Chapter 4.

Another example of where we don’t really know the author’s intention—we have a lot of this in the Old Testament. There’s this really strange story in Exodus, Chapter 4, where it says, “at a lodging place on the way, God meets Moses and sought to put him to death.”

It comes—this is a really out of left field part of Exodus, Chapter 4. God’s talking to Moses. He says, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do all these miracles that I’ve put in your power, because I want to harden Pharaoh’s heart and he’s not going to let you go. You’re going to take out the first-born son. Let my first-born son go and if you don’t, I’m going to kill your first-born son, Pharaoh.” That ends that.

Then it says, “at a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and sought to put him to death.” So out of left field. Then it gets weirder. “Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin”—and if you want context for foreskin, you can just Google that for yourself—and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me. So, God left him alone.”

It was then that Zipporah said, “a bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision. Then we just move on in the narrative. It’s very strange and I would say this is one place where it would be wonderful if we had access to the authors and we could just ask them, “What were you trying to say here?”


We have many theories and there are lots of these things where scholars have theories, but we can’t be definitive on what exactly is going on here. What does it mean? What’s the point? Why is it here?

That’s one place where you look at the context, we don’t have other stories, necessarily, outside of the Bible where people are cutting off foreskins and touching feet with them. We don’t have a lot of context and we have to leave it ambiguous there of what this means and how it fits.

Again, there’s theories and thoughts about why. But in this case, we don’t actually have anything explicit and we don’t have a lot to go on.

On the flip side, another example where we have gained more context over the years and it has really made a difference in how we understand the author’s intention is in Genesis and the creation story at the very beginning of Genesis.

Again, without a lot of context, scholars would have simply seen this as an account of how the world was created and tried to put it into their context. A lot of times when we don’t know what the author intended and we don’t have a lot to gone on in terms of the context in the ancient world, we just assume our own context and try to fit it there.

It didn’t work really well in that case. And then, we discovered these texts like Enuma Elish and the Epic of Gilgamesh, that had very similar themes and components in those creation stories, and so Genesis wasn’t unique, which sounded probably—fear—when I learned that Genesis wasn’t unique, I was afraid. “What do you mean, it’s not unique?”

What it does do is give us a wealth of information about how ancient people thought about creation and the beginning of the world and put a lot of information onto Genesis that we can then use to say, “Oh, we’re pretty sure this now is what the authors were intending when they used these phrases.”

For instance, in the very beginning of Genesis, when the waters are separated, “the waters above from the waters below,” we have this thing called the “raqia” that separates it. That’s what separates it. For a long time—you can see this if you look at the history of translations within “what is that thing that separates the waters from the waters”—it’s interesting because you have many different attempts at translating this.

The NRSV translates is a “dome.” NIV, a “vault.” KJV, a “firmament.” ESV is an “expanse.” The NLT is a “space.” The ISV is a “canopy.” Let there be a vault. Let there be a firmament. Let there be an expanse. There be a canopy. The Message just says—Eugene Peterson, “God spoke sky.” He’s thinking it’s sky.

I appreciate the ICB—I think that’s a children’s Bible—that just said, “Then God said, ‘Let there be something to divide the water in two.’” The ICB’s just being honest. We don’t know. “Let there be something.”

For a long time, we don’t know what this is. We don’t have the context of information. But then, as we gather information about how the ancient world thought of creation in UNINTELLIGIBLE, Epic of Gilgamesh and these other texts and understandings, we start to realize that they thought about the universe in a very different way and they thought of this “dome,” this solid structure that separated the “waters above from the waters below,” and that’s how they thought of how the world was made.

That shed all this light on our understanding of our Genesis 1 and other texts like Job and Ecclesiastes that utilizes—and a lot of the Psalms—that utilizes this creation language.

Those are examples from the Bible as to why the literary and the historical context really matters [BACKGROUND MUSIC STARTS] when we’re trying to interpret the Bible. The author’s context matters.

Point One: the root of Biblical interpretation is author intention.



Jared: When you’re reading the Bible, it’s important to start with that question. What did the author intend here? If you’re doing that, then point number two flows naturally, that the author’s context matters. The author’s context matters.

Now the third point here is that we don’t stop there. This is going to be important, because in my upbringing, we were taught that the only thing that really matters when you’re interpreting the Bible is the author intention and who the author was.

My third point is the fruit of Biblical interpretation is reader reception. So, the root is author intention, but the fruit is reader reception, how we read the Bible.

We, as readers, are important for meaning, for what the Bible means. When we say, “What does the Bible mean?” we don’t just mean what did it mean then. Not what the Bible meant. We mean that in the present tense. What does the Bible mean?

We, as readers, are very important when we’re going to ask the question of what the Bible means. Again, for a long time, we used to just think that when we’re talking about meaning, the only thing that mattered in that equation was the author’s intention.

Then, we had writers and scholars, literary theorists like Stanley Fish and others who came along and started saying, “No. The reader’s just as important because meaning is in the relationship between the person who’s communicating to someone and the person who’s receiving that communication.” It’s a relationship. If we start seeing the Bible as a relationship and our reading of the Bible as a relationship between the author and the readers, then we see that both sides of the street are important.

We see this—this is a pretty obvious thing that we see in artistic endeavors all the time. When we talk about songs, or pieces of literature, or movies, we don’t say that the only thing that matters when we’re talking about what it means is what the author intended.

Ed Sheeran had this particular story from his childhood in mind when he’s writing this song. It’s wrong and inappropriate for you to relate to that in your own way and have it be very meaningful and connected to your own memories and your own life and how it’s helping you navigate your life in a different way.

We wouldn’t ever say that. Yet, this is how we do it with the Bible all the time. Just allowing that to be a context too. Yes, I’m saying the Bible is kind of like that. The Bible is literature. It’s important to recognize that it’s literature.

When you’re reading Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, these others, and you’re relating to it and making new meaning and connecting it to your own life, that’s a valuable part of what it means. That’s not disconnected from the roots of what the author intended. We get to make it mean whatever we want it to mean, but it’s also not—it only can ever mean what the author intended it to mean. That’s not just how literature and pieces of art, writing and communication work. Communication is a two-way street.

There’s a level of transparency where readers see their story in that story and relate to it. That’s actually valuable. We don’t want to get rid of that. We don’t want to dismiss it.

In my tradition, we tried to get rid of it and I’ll talk in a minute about the dangers of that.

Meaning is found between intent and impact, the intention of the author and the significance it has for the reader.

When we say, “What does Jonah mean? What does the book of Jonah mean?,” our experiences and personality and tradition will impact inevitably what it means for us. When we have an interpreter, meaning a pastor, someone at the front of the congregation, interpreting it for us, their personality, their experiences, their tradition will impact the parts that they highlight or don’t highlight, emphasize or don’t emphasize, the pieces that they’ll draw from, the context that they’ll give it. What context are they looking at? That will all inform what they say Jonah means.

That brings to the fourth point, which is author intent is the root and that means the author’s context matters, and the fruit is reader reception, that means the reader’s context matters.

That’s really important when we’re interpreting things. We have to understand our position. We have to understand our context, where we’re coming from.


That’s the danger, I would say, of more conservative Biblical scholarship or Biblical theology, is it doesn’t recognize it has a context. That’s what usually people mean by objective. We have to be objective.

What they usually mean, we have to try to not be human and try not to have a context.

You can’t do that. We have to really recognize that we bring a lot of baggage and lot of biases, a lot of context to the text when we’re reading it. Even something so basic as language, and I think we’ve talked about this on numerous occasions on the podcast, language itself is a context. There are certain ways we think in the English language, based solely on the fact that we speak English.

One of the examples of this with the emphasis being on the individual’s relationship with Jesus. It was about the individual. Because I inherited that tradition, when I went to the Bible and I read Paul, saying things like, “Your body is the temple. You—“, a lot of “you” language, I took that “you” as “me” individually.

Why would I do that? Because you, in English, is singular and plural. When I talk about you as a group, I use the same word. There’s an inherent ambiguity in the English for when I read my Bible.

But in Greek, that’s not true. We can tell the difference when Paul is talking singularly to an individual and plurally to a community. Most often, Paul is talking plurally to a community of faith. He’s writing to the church at Philippi. He’s writing to the Corinthians. He’s writing to a group of people and talking communally to them.

But English is a context I have that blurs that line. Already, my context is making it more challenging to understand the author’s intent, what Paul is trying to say.

If I were to not be speaking in English, but maybe growing up speaking Greek, what the New Testament was written in, it would have challenged, perhaps, my notion that it’s just about me and Jesus, Lone Ranger, Christian understanding of the faith. It would have challenged that. But my context didn’t allow for that.

It’s really important to recognize all of the baggage that we bring to a text. If we don’t, that’s really dangerous, because the baggage is playing into our interpretation. We just aren’t recognizing it.

That can be oppressive for people. We need the roots as a beginning place, but we need the fruits, our context, to keep the text alive.

I talked about the dangers of this. We’re always looking at it from our perspective. That can be a really good thing, when we’re talking about the fruits of Biblical interpretation. When I’m reading The Lord of the Rings, I am just full-force throwing my context and my baggage into that book. I am relating to it and I am connecting to it. I don’t really care what the author was trying to communicate.

I don’t really care that Tolkien was thinking of this when he wrote that about the orcs and the battle between good and evil. What I care about is how I’m connecting to it.

As a Biblical scholar, scholars have a different emphasis. They are interested in the roots. That’s their job, to put aside their baggage and their biases and come to the text as objectively as they can.

Either way, we have to recognize our baggage. If we’re trying to be objective and just bracket out what the author was intending—what was Paul trying to communicate—if that’s my only goal, I still need to know my baggage, so that I can bracket it off and say, “Oh. I think I’m just bringing it in because I’m an English speaker or because I’m white or because I’m a man.”

We have to make sure we’re aware of our baggage, regardless of what our intentions are and what we’re trying to do, whether we’re in the classroom, doing research, writing a book on a scholarly approach to the Bible, or that we’re sitting in the pew on Sunday morning.

We’ll get into that in a minute.

That leads me, then, to my fifth point. Because meaning is a relationship between the author’s intention and the reader, there is no fixed meaning. There’s no fixed meaning in the Bible.

If someone ever tells you, “I know exactly what the Bible means,” you can call them a liar.

That comes to the fact that if we extrapolate that out, not to get too abstract, what we’re saying there’s no absolute—there’s no way we can access absolute truth. There’s no absolute truth when it comes to interpreting the Bible. Why?


Because we always and already and all the time, come from a different position. We’re bringing our baggage to how we experience the world. We can’t really do anything about that. I will always look at the world through my particular lens.

There’s this ancient story about these three blind men who were on a journey together. Each happens on an object at the same time. One of the blind men bumps up against something that feels broad and round like a tree trunk and announces it to everyone else. “Hey, it’s a tree trunk, everyone.”

A second blind man comes and takes another step and is smacked in the face with something skinny that has a small tuft at the end, and this blind man says, “It’s not a tree trunk. It’s a rope.”

The third blind man, wanting to settle things once-and-for-all, of course, puts his hands out, feels something very hard, and broad, and tall and flat, says, “What are you guys talking about? You need to get your hands checked by the doctor back at the village. It’s not a rope. It’s not a tree trunk. It’s a wall.”

There’re some good things about this story, including the overall point, that we should be humble about what we think we know. We’re all a little blind after all. We might all experience the same thing, but from a different angle, with a different perspective. As one human being in a particular place and time, it’s hard to know the whole story. That’s going to be important.

However, there’s a problem I have with this story. The punchline of the story that the person telling the story—me, I just told you the story—and that we the reader knows that it’s an elephant. The whole point is to put ourselves in the position of one of the blind men to say, “Oh yeah, we need to be humble.”

But at the end, the thrust of the point hinges on us nodding and all saying, “Ah. I see. That was his leg. That was his tail. That was the side of his body. They were limited, but we can see the whole thing.”

The whole story depends on me being God in that story, that I can see the whole elephant and everyone else—these blind men are blind.

But if we were the blind men, we wouldn’t ever actually know, necessarily, that it’s an elephant, because we were only ever able to experience that one part of the whole. What if, in real life, none of us knows for sure—we don’t know that we know that we know with absolute certainty, that it’s an elephant

All that to say, we’re always looking at things from our own perspective and when we interpret the Bible, that’s no different. In fact, if we carry that story out a little bit, the best way to get the God’s-eye-view is to accept and honor the diversity of all the readings that we find in our world.

It’s the plurality of meaning that helps us understand the fuller meaning. It’s the collective meaning. I want to understand how an African context or an African man or an African woman reads this text of the Bible differently than I do. How does the Asian person and the person in Hawaii and the person in Texas and the woman, the child, the older person, as much diversity as we can understand in this world, that’s giving us more and more perspectives?

We’re adding more and more pieces to the puzzle, getting that fuller meaning of what the Bible means, because it means something different to the gay woman in sub-Saharan Africa as it does to the white, straight man in Europe. They’re going to mean different things. It’s not that one’s more legitimate than the other, or maybe it’s not more correct or more right or more wrong. Maybe there are better readings than others and not as good readings.

If we mean that if we respect what the author intends, maybe we’re getting further away from what the author intends. Maybe we’re getting closer to what the author intends. That’s not to negate the validity of the reading.

When we’re talking about Biblical interpretation, we’re not saying readers are irrelevant. But we’re not also saying that they’re the only thing that matter. We don’t need to get rid of our context, because if we get rid of our context, we get rid of the human element, which is what meaning is all about. If we get rid of the humanity, we’re just robots.

We have to put that human element, our context, in its proper place and understand when we’re putting it into the text and assuming that’s what Paul meant. We have to let Paul be Paul and us be us. We have to respect that relationship. We can’t enmesh ourselves in Paul and start assuming that we are Paul.

Just a few examples of how this happened in the wider world of Biblical scholarship is a recent—probably in the last 30, 40 years—groundswell or emphasis on the Jewishness of Jesus. That context was really important, because scholars were putting a little too much of their own context, post-Luther context, into this understanding of Jesus.


There’s this back-and-forth, mutual sharpening in the relationship between the author’s intention and our reception. It’s a relationship and that’s where meaning is found, in the relationship.

To review, when we’re reading our Bible, just very practically, we want to be able to think about, in our minds, have a relationship with the author. What is Paul trying to get at? What’s the literary context? What can I look around in other parts of this book and try to figure out what Paul means? What’s the historical context? There’s a lot of good books. You don’t have to do that work. There’s a lot of good books that talk about the background and context of the New Testament world or Second Temple Judaism or the Ancient Near East.

You can read some of these contexts that help inform what the author’s trying to get at. But don’t discount your own reading and your own example and your own life and your own context. Because if the root of Biblical interpretation is author intention, the fruit is reader reception. The reader’s context matters just as the author’s context matters.

Finally, recognize this is a relationship. There’s no fixed meaning in the Bible. The author’s intention can be fixed. The author intended something or didn’t intend something. That is something we can keep going at, although we’re limited because we can’t go ask the author. That’s always a moving target. We’re always tweaking it. We’re always getting closer and closer, but we could never know, because we could never go ask the author.

We have that, but we also have the relational part which is us, the reader, in community, individually. We constantly going back-and-forth, letting these sharpen each other. The author’s intention and what I’m learning about the context should shape how I read the Bible. It should influence it, just like a conversation with someone will influence how I think.

Vice versa. What I’m learning may influence what I agree with or don’t agree with when I read Paul and it may shape how I read the text.

[Jaunty Exit Music]

Jared: Thank you, guys, for bearing with me as we talk about some of these things that can feel a little abstract, but really are the basic building blocks that scholars now have used and created complicated theories on top of, as they read the Bible and produce these wonderful books for us, and then come on podcasts like The Bible For Normal People to teach us.

We really appreciate you engaging with us and learning. One of those places is on Patreon. We have a group of people on Slack, several hundred people who are constantly talking about the Bible. That’s also this conversation and relationship about what the Bible means. Part of our context is other people. Having them in that dialogue is great.

We hope to see you online. We hope to see you back here listening to the podcast next week.

Thanks so much.

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Pete Ruins Exodus Part 4

Pete Ruins Exodus: Part 4

September 2, 2019

In this episode, Pete continues his deep dive into the book of Exodus covering chapters 14-19 and the following topics:

  • The Red Sea
  • Mount Sinai
  • Manna and the Sabbath
  • Genesis (who knew the books of the Bible were connected!?)

Mentioned in this episode:

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Read the transcript


Pete:  You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the internet.  Serious talk about the sacred book.  I’m Pete Enns.

Jared:  And I’m Jared Byas.



Hey everybody.  Welcome to Part 4 of the Pete Ruins Exodus series.  Before we begin, a couple of very quick announcements because I’m afraid I’m going to forget.  First of all, October 4 and 5, I’m going to be at Evolving Faith which is in Denver, CO this year.  That should be fun.  Also, on September 23, we’re offering a one-time only, one evening, one-hour class on Genesis.  Here’s the good news.  You pay what you want.  Just have to reserve your seat.  You can get information about that on the website, like exactly when and where.  Hope you can make it to that.  It should be fun.  It’s a one-hour only class.  I’m just talking about what I think are highlights of the book of Genesis and why I think is really important and what I think is really cool about the book that doesn’t always get picked up in casual readings of the book itself. 

Commercial’s over.  Let’s get into Part 4 of Pete Ruins Exodus.

This is going to take us from the departure from Egypt over the Red Sea through Chapter 19, and that is specifically beginning in Chapter 13, verse 17.  The middle of Chapter 13 through to the end of Chapter 19.  That’s the departure from Egypt and the journey to Sinai.

Just to review where we’ve been up to this point in this series as a whole.  We started with Moses and he gets this call from God to be the agent through which the Israelites will be delivered.  He has early struggles.  He really doesn’t want to do it.  But he finally gives in and goes ahead and he confronts Pharaoh.  Pharaoh doesn’t care what Moses says or what their no-name God says.  He never heard of Him. 

Of course, that results in the plagues which wind up convincing Pharaoh that, “Yeah, I’m no match for Israel’s god.”  Especially the plague of death, which is the tit-for-tat, payback for what Pharaoh did drowning the male infants in the Nile way back in Chapter 1.  Now they’re dead as well.  The firstborn of Egypt are dead.  That’s how the story goes. 

So now they depart.  All that’s over.  Now, they’re leaving Egypt never to go back again.  Remember, Mount Sinai, also called Horeb—we talked about that in several places in Exodus—Sinai is the goal of the rescue.  Aaron and Moses say, “Let my people go so that they might worship Me in the wilderness.”  The wilderness is where Sinai is. 

They have no clue at this point about where they are going afterward, namely into the land of Israel to take over for the Canaanites and to eradicate them and exterminate them and take their land.  They don’t know where that’s going.  All they know is that they’re going to Mount Sinai.  Even though the land and entrance to the land, and I’m going to say, just frankly, the monarchy, is really the true end goal of Israel in the Hebrew scriptures. 

I’ve written about this elsewhere, but the Pentateuch as a whole is really an entrance ramp onto that central, important period of time when the Israelites are in the land.  That’s where I think all this is going. 

We’ve got six plus chapters.  They can be divided into two parts.  The one is the actual departure from Egypt itself.  That starts in 13:17. It goes to the end of Chapter 15, 15:21.  Then the journey to Sinai, which picks up at 15:22 and goes to the end of Chapter 19.

These six chapters have some pretty well-known stories in them.

First, let’s look at some highlights from part one, the departure from Egypt across the Red Sea.  One thing to note is that we have two versions of the same event.  We have a prose version, which is 13:17 through Chapter 14.   Then the poetic version, which is in 15:1-21.

This is similar, if you’re familiar with the book of Judges, in Chapters 4 and 5, we also have a prose version and a poetic version of the exploits of the judge Deborah.  The poetry, the poetic version, is, according to biblical scholars who study Hebrew, it is certainly older.  At least, the core of it is older, if not the whole thing.  There are reasons for saying that.  That becomes important in a minute when we get into Chapter 15 because of the kinds of things that it says.

This is just a reminder to us that we have, here again, as we have so often in the Bible, evidence of different traditions that are probably written or originated orally in different times and places, and here we have editors at a later time putting them together, just back-to-back.

It’s like Genesis 1 and 2.  You have two creation stories and they are back-to-back, edited together and left there, even they don’t say exactly the same thing.

Let’s look at that prose, the narrative version first.  That’s the first one that pops up in 13 and 14.  They depart from Egypt and Yahweh makes them look lost in order to pick a fight with Pharaoh.  The people freak out (Israelites) and God drives back the Red Sea to open an escape route.  The Israelites pass through safely, but the Egyptians drown and they wash up on the shore.  That’s how the story goes.  Very famous story.

One thing to note is that Pharaoh was all ready to let them go.  He had been convinced after the last plague.  He said finally, “Just go.  I don’t want to see you again.  Just get out of here.”  He was ready to let them go, and he did.  But God wants Pharaoh to follow the Israelites.  God hardens Pharaoh’s heart.  You see it in Chapter 14, verse 8 and 17, and especially 17 is explicit that the purpose of the hardening is so that the Egyptians will follow the Israelites.  It’s hard to pass over the fact that God wants them dead.

As harsh as that is, and I think it is harsh, we can offer a contextual, theological explanation.  By contextual, I mean the groove of the story itself up to this point.  We can read this drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea as tit-for-tat, payback for another Pharaoh drowning the Israelite male infants in the Nile way back in Chapter 1.  Also, “You’ve been treating my people harshly,” says Yahweh, “so I’m going to treat your people harshly.”  Although, I still wonder if this is necessary to drown them.  How about just letting the sea close up so they can’t cross.  But they drowned.  That’s how the story goes.

This is an example of violence in the Bible and it raises some eyebrows, not just for today, but this is a story that has made people think for quite a while.  It’s caused a lot of consternation for one of my own children.  When she was very young, she came home from Sunday School and this was the story and she came home just very, very upset, asking, “What kind of a god is this?  Aren’t these God’s children too?  Why does God do stuff like this?” 

This is not the Bible’s best moment, in my opinion.  But this is how the might and power of God is expressed in an ancient tribal context.  Your god is great because your enemies are destroyed before you.

Some of you know how I handle this sort of divine violence, not as a depiction of what really happened, or not as a depiction of what God is really like, but as a depiction of ancient people of faith, true ancient people of faith, albeit in a tribalistic, Iron Age society—the Iron Age started in 1200 BCE and goes well into the first millennium BCE.  That’s the basic time of Israel’s existence as a people is during the Iron Age.  This is how people in the Iron Age expressed their faith, expressed their understanding of the gods or of God.  This is what gods did.  They go to battle.

Remember, way back in the first episode, along with most biblical scholars, I said that I don’t think Exodus is a historical account, even if it preserves an ancient, historical memory, as biblical scholars like to call it.  I don’t think we would see this if someone had been videotaping, so to speak.  This reflects an ancient understanding of ancient Israelites about what their god is like.  That’s my opinion.  That’s how I “get out of it.”  But I’m not trying to get out of anything.  I’m trying to understand it.

If you’re interested, you can see some blog posts that I’ve written on violence.  You can just type, “violence” in the search bar or in an earlier chapter in The Bible Tells Me So, I deal with biblical violence as I understand it.  It’s the number one question I get from young people today.  That and human sexuality.  Those are the things that they really want to talk about.


Another thing about this prose narrative section.  The Israelites see the Egyptians coming and they grumble and they complain.  Basically, “we could have died just as easily in Egypt, Moses.  Why bring us all the way out here to just trap us at the sea?” 

Then Moses says something interesting that I think is often misunderstood, which is why I want to bring it up.  He basically says, “Don’t be afraid.  After today, you’ll never see these Egyptians again.”  I’m quoting verse 14 of Chapter 14.  “The Lord will fight for you.  You only have to keep still.”  That’s not a soothing word.  It’s typically interpreted, “There, there.  Just calm your hearts.  God will take care of everything.  Just be still and know that I am God,” as we read in the Psalms.  “The Lord will fight for you, but just chill.”

I don’t think that’s at all what Moses is saying in this story.  This is a rebuke.  “The Lord will fight for you.  You need to keep your mouth shut.  You need to stop complaining.”  This is the first of many rebukes of Moses that we’re going to see toward the Israelites in Moses’ lifetime.  This is the real beginning of this grumbling theme that we’re going to see a lot of. 

He’s not making them feel calmed about this.  He’s just saying, “Just shut up.  You’ve seen plagues, the Red Sea open, for heaven’s sake, and you’re still complaining.  Come on.” 

Another thing.  This concerns the actual parting of the Red Sea.  This is in verse 21.  The Red Sea is really the Sea of Reeds.  That’s what it says in Hebrew.  Where the Sea of Reeds is a topic of a lot of discussion among people who look for these sorts of things.  Is it a lake?  Is it a marsh or something like that?  But the reason why we say Red Sea in our English translations is that this has to do with influence of Greek translators of the Bible before the time of Jesus.

There was a little bit of confusion about what body of water was actually represented by this term “red sea.”  If you look at a map today of the modern Middle East and where it says “Red Sea,” it’s this massive body of water, that’s not what anybody meant.  It’s hard to know exactly what they meant, when they said “Red Sea” back in this Greek period.

In the biblical text, the Hebrew text, it says, “Sea of Reeds,” but again, we don’t know where that is either.  All that to the side.  The parting of the Red Sea echoes the creation story.  This is the theological point I want to make.  Moses stretched out his hand with the staff, and an East wind divided the waters of the Red Sea and they parted.

Now wind—the Hebrew word is “ruach,” which means “spirit” or “wind” and that’s the same “ruach” of Genesis 1 that is hovering over the “deep.”  What’s the “deep?”  The deep is the primordial sea at the dawn of creation that God has to tame, that God has to put in its place to allow for life to appear.  The wind drives back water giving life.  That’s the same in both the Genesis creation story of Genesis Chapter 1 and this parting of the sea here in Exodus. 

The wind, “it turned the sea to dry land”—I’m quoting here.  “And the waters were divided.”  It’s better to think of the waters as not maybe divided, although that’s fine, but as pushed back, pushed out of the way, revealing the dry land beneath, which is also the language in Genesis Chapter 1.  The third day of creation, it’s the same thing.  The waters were divided, revealing the dry land beneath.

In both stories, waters are separated, pushed aside, revealing what was there all the time: dry land.  In other words—this is getting into Genesis 1 a little bit more than you’re paying for here—in Genesis 1, this is why it’s not creation out of nothing.  What you have is a “deep,” a massive chaotic water that God divides and splits, revealing the dry land, i.e., the earth beneath it.  Those things were already there in Genesis Chapter 1.

Actually, Genesis Chapter 1 makes no sense unless we understand the ideology of the ancient Israelites here and how they thought about what a creator god does.  It’s not out of nothing.  That comes later.  It’s in the Bible.  It’s just not here.

Think of taking a leaf blower to a big puddle on a sidewalk after a heavy rain.  The water is pushed aside by the wind, by the force of the leaf blower, and the sidewalk is revealed, that’s always been there underneath.  That’s what’s happening in Genesis 1 and in Exodus 14 in the parting of the sea. 

Now the point—we touched about this is a couple of earlier episodes—the point is that God’s act of redemption, here crossing the Red Sea, is a replay of God’s act of creation, which is to say, redemption (saving, delivering, redeeming) is an act of re-creation.  Hang with me.

As with the plagues, parting the sea is getting creation involved in saving God’s people and destroying the enemies of God’s people.  In the flood, you have the waters of the upper atmosphere above the vault, above that dome, those waters are let go and they come crashing down to defeat the bad guys, which is basically everybody but Noah and his family.

That’s what’s happening too, here in the Exodus story in Chapter 14.  These waters are again separated and just like the flood story, they come crashing back down again.  But Israel, or Noah, are not affected negatively.  They’re actually delivered through that.  To save is to create again.  We here echoes of that in the New Testament.  I know I’ve mentioned this, but just very briefly I want to mention it again, because I think it’s so important theologically, in the New Testament we see echoes of this.  For example, where Paul says, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” 

To be saved means to start anew and to use the language of John’s gospel, that you’re “born again.”  You’re starting over.  You have a new start.  Which is certainly what is happening here at the Red Sea.  Israel is being transformed, re-created from a group of slaves and now beginning to be formed into what it’s going to become, namely a nation.

Having said all that, it’s still a really violent story.  Let’s not cover over that.  But there are theological things happening there as well.  Speaking of violence, let’s turn to Chapter 15 here, the poetic version of the Red Sea crossing.

For one thing—I alluded to this before—this may be one of the oldest pieces of Israelite literature we have, because of the Hebrew style.  Scholars can tell where we are in stages of the evolution of biblical Hebrew.


Biblical scholars—this is routine.  This is very early.  This is not written during the monarchy, but probably going back to before the time of David.  It could be that old, which is very old.  Here’s the thing:  this very, very old piece of ancient Hebrew literature depicts God as a fierce warrior.  It’s not uncommon to hear scholars muse that Israel’s view of God began as one of being a warrior, understandably due to the cultural influences and then the view of God grew to include other metaphors like gardener, planter, potter, law-giver, things like that.

Warrior might become less prominent, less harsh, perhaps.  God’s depiction might become less harsh.  I don’t want to paint that in too simplistic a way, like there’s an evolution where God starts off as a warrior and ends as a tree-hugger.  But we do have the earliest reflections of Israelite religion in these poetic sections.  There, God is a fierce, no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners warrior.

You come later to the book of Jonah, where God says, “I actually have compassion on Israel’s enemies.  I don’t want to kill them.”

Something is going on in this trajectory within the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament itself. 

So this song praises Yahweh for destroying his enemies by drowning them in the sea.  For that reason, Yahweh is praised as a god who has no equal, as we read in verse 11.  “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?” 

Catch that there.  “Among the gods.”  We have here one of many examples, and you’ve heard this before, in the Old Testament of Israel’s belief that their god, Yahweh, was not the only god, but was the best god, the one truly worthy of worship. 

In fact, as I said before, that might be the point of the whole Pentateuch, to make the case that Yahweh alone is worthy of Israel’s worship.  Israel does not practice—I have a whole blog post series probably and a podcast from way back in Season 1 talking about this—but Israel did not practice monotheism, at least through most of its history that we see in the Old Testament, but monolatry. 

The difference is this:  monotheism means there’s only one god.  Monolatry means you only worship one, but you acknowledge the existence of others. 

We saw this is the plague story.  God is passing judgment on all the gods of Egypt.  Exodus 12:12. What does that mean?  Passing judgment on all the gods of Egypt?  It means—there’s an assumption there that there are other gods that Yahweh is passing judgment on.  If we miss this dynamic that Yahweh is better or the best by far of all the other gods or if we try to step around it because the theology bothers us a bit, we’re gonna miss the theology of the book. 

Making the Israelites into monotheists here is premature.  That happens later on in Israel’s history.  I would say certainly by the time you get to Jesus and well before that, we can call the Israelites monotheists.  Only one god exists.

The heavens might be active places, but they’re not gods.  But here, that’s not the case.  Making these Israelites here of Exodus into monotheists just creates confusion in the story.   You can’t make sense of things like Exodus 12:12, where Yahweh says he’s passing judgment on all the gods of Egypt.  I’ve beaten that dead horse enough.


Next point.  This song that’s sung at the sea mentions something.  It’s subtle.  It mentions something that doesn’t happen until much later in the biblical story.  Namely, I’m talking about verses 17 and 18.

Here’s how it begins: “You (Yahweh) brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your possession, the place, O Lord, that you made your abode.”  What is this mountain of your possession?  What is this about?  Maybe, it’s talking about Mount Sinai, because that’s where they’re going.  They’re not there yet, but nearly so.  Give it a couple chapters.  They’ll be there.  Still in the past tense, though. 

This raises another question.  Could it be referring to another mountain and another abode all together?  Hang in there.  Keep reading.  “The sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands have established.”  The sanctuary.  The holy place.  What is that sanctuary?  Could it be Sinai?  Perhaps.  It could be Mount Sinai.  Or perhaps another sanctuary entirely.

Keep reading.  Verse 18 says this: “The Lord will reign forever and ever.”  From where?  From the mountain?  From the abode?  From Mount Sinai?  Probably not, since Yahweh will leave forever Sinai when he goes with the Israelites into the Promised Land.  He doesn’t go back.  Yahweh doesn’t show up on Mount Sinai again and say, “I live here really.”  He’s going to live with Israel.  Where is he going to live with Israel?  In the temple. 

In Old Testament theology, the language we see here fits very nicely with the ideology of the temple in Jerusalem as the sanctuary, the abode, the mountain.  Mount Zion.  The temple is on a mountain.  Theology, Mount Zion takes the place of Mount Sinai in Israelite theology.  It’s from there that Yahweh will rule.  Through the kings, but forever and ever. 

We see this language in various places in the Old Testament, including the Psalms and II Samuel 7.  So what?  Well, for one thing, this illusion to the temple suggests that this ancient poem, as in pre-David, may have been added to as time went on to reflect Israel’s growing theology.  It’s developing theology.  In other words, this ancient poem, Chapter 15, may have gotten its final shape after the Israelites were settled in the land with their own king and temple. 

Note that (and I hope that your English translations get this because some don’t) the entire poem, all the stuff that talks about the Exodus and all the stuff that seems to be talking about the conquest of the land and entering it and building a temple where Yahweh’s going to be worshipped, all that stuff is in the past tense.

For this writer, both the Exodus and the establishment of the monarchy and the religious life of the people, those things are past events.  I think that’s interesting because it suggests something, once again, of the dating or at least the general time frame of when this stuff was written or when this poem, when this song got its final form.  Probably well into the monarchy, if not later.

Again, it’s interesting.  Some translations put the second half of this poem that talks about the land and the temple as future to avoid this kind of conclusion, but I think that they’re wrong.  I think the Hebrew really lends itself very naturally to just keep reading everything in the past tense.  There is no indication that you should switch to future in Hebrew when you get to this part.

Another so what.   Why am I dragging this out?  I’m not dragging it out.  I think it’s really interesting.  Another so what.

This is a huge issue because scholars routinely, and I think correctly, see the temple on Mount Zion as a replacement for Mount Sinai.  The temple mount replaces Mount Sinai.  Or perhaps, as is more commonly thought among biblical scholars, maybe it’s the other way around.  Maybe Sinai is the later Israelite temple brought back into ancient mythic time.  How is that for a mouthful?

Which came first?  The depiction of Mount Sinai as a sanctuary, as an abode, as a holy mountain and then the temple is modeled after that?  Or is the temple there first and then the stories of Sinai are written in such a way to reflect that later glory of the temple?  Which came first? 

That’s a lot to wrap our arms around.  That’s actually a few podcast episodes all by itself.  I only bring it up here because it might help to explain the ambiguity of verses 17 and 18.  You’re reading it, and what are we talking about?  Sinai?  Or Zion?  That’s a good question.  Maybe that ambiguity is intentional.  Maybe they are both the same.

If you’re really motivated, I highly recommend a book by one of my professors, John Levinson, called Sinai and Zion.  The book is those two mountains, comparing them and how they’re analogous to each other.  It’s a fascinating book.

I should plug my own books, not somebody else’s.  What’s wrong with me?


Okay, a lot more to this.  Let’s move on to the second part, the journey to Sinai itself that begins at the end of 15 and goes through 19. 

Here’s the big picture.  After Moses’ song that we just went through, his sister Miriam and the women, they sing what looks like the same song and then they all head out to the dessert where they are immediately thirsty and wonder why no one thought ahead that this might be a problem.  They are in the wilderness, for heaven’s sake. 

They take a couple of drinks in a couple of special places.  Then they receive the manna from heaven, the bread from heaven.  Manna is the Hebrew word, “manna,” which means “what is it?”  Because that’s what the Israelites said.  I might say, “What the heck is this?” but I don’t think there is a Hebrew word for that.  “What is this stuff that lands like dew on the ground?  We’re supposed to eat it?  Come again.  What is this stuff?”

27:42 BREAK


Next, after that, they get a miraculous supply of water from a rock just in time to ward off an attack from the Amalekites.  Where did they come from?  This is the first battle.  Things are moving rather quickly here in this story.

Next, they keep moving.  They’re going toward Mount Sinai.  Next, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, shows up and he advises Moses to get help “herding the cats,” so to speak, judging the people, adjudicating differences, things like that. 

You might be asking what Jethro’s doing there.  Remember, he is where?  He is from Midian.  On the way to Sinai, we are close to Midian, it seems.  That is—I touched on this in the first episode—Mount Sinai, in the logic of the story, seems to be in Midian, not in the Sinai Peninsula way south at Saint Catherine’s Monastery.  Look on a study Bible map.  It seems to be some place in Midian.  That’s the logic of the story.

Finally, after three months, they reach Sinai and the people are consecrated by going through a cleansing ritual, because they’re going to need this powerful god who defeated the Egyptian pantheon and the army by all these signs and wonders.

That’s the gist of what’s happening in the end of 15 through 19. 

Just a few highlights:

First, water and food are going to be a problem because we are in the wilderness.  We actually see two miraculous supplies of water.  The first is turning the bitter waters in Mara into sweet water.  It happens to be that “Mara” in Hebrew means “bitterness.”  This story is often seen by scholars as a story written to explain some phenomenon, in this case, why this location is called “bitterness,” of all the things to call a town.  Why call it “bitterness?” 

The story is written to explain that.  We know of stories like this too.  Where do things like sickness, death and evil come from?  Pandora opened the box.  Adam and Eve ate a piece of fruit.  These are stories that are called etiological stories that seem to be written to explain why things are the way they are.

Why is the Grand Canyon so deep?  Because Paul Bunyan and his ox had a wrestling match.  It’s a story written, told to explain a phenomenon.  That might be what’s happening with this site, “Mara,” calling it “bitterness.”  This story of making the bitter water sweet by throwing a branch in there.

The second miraculous supply of water happens at a place called Rephidim.  This is in chapter 17.  The people grumble again, which makes sense, because they had gotten a drink at Mara and at another place called Elim, which is an oasis.  But now, they left those places and they still need water.  So they complain.  Again, “Moses, what are you trying to do?  Kill us?” 

Moses is told by God to strike the rock to let water flow out of it which he does.  Moses promptly gives the place two names:  Massa and Meribah, which mean “test”—they’re testing God—and “quarrel.”  Again, possibly stories to explain how locations got their names.  Possibly.

Here’s the thing:  water, for the Israelites, presented more of problem for them than food because in between these two water stories, the waters of Mara and the waters of Rephidim, in between these two stories, God gives them bread from heaven, the manna to eat.  That manna is promised by God to come every morning dew, except on the Sabbath, so gather twice as much the day before. 

Side issue:  gathering bread on the Sabbath would be work and you don’t do work on the Sabbath even though there’s no Sabbath command given until Chapter 20.  I just wonder, in the logic of the story, were the people thinking, “What’s a—what do you mean Sabbath?  Where did that come from?”  Or are we seeing, again, the story written from a later point of view where Sabbath-keeping was already a thing.

Questions that are really hard to answer definitively, but I’m intrigued enough to ask them because they let us in a little bit on the nature of this literature.

The manna is a daily gift from God for the entire 40 years they wandered in the wilderness.  It doesn’t cease until they come to the borders of Canaan.  We read that in 16:35. It’s also stated in Joshua Chapter 5.  In other words, it ceases after they’ve entered the land.  They have bread to eat for 40 years.  Great!


No such permanent supply of water is given in this story.  They’re left to wander, maybe stress out about all that.  Not to get off the track, but again, this is so intriguing again to me.  This is the kind of stuff that reading Exodus jumps out at me as I read it. 

We see a close version of this very same story of getting water from a rock in Numbers Chapter 20.  That’s toward the end of Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness.  There, too, water comes from a rock.  Ancient Jewish interpreters—this is before the time of the New Testament—perhaps also wondering why there was no daily provision of water, came up with a rather ingenious solution.  The rock of Exodus 17 that gave water and the rock of Numbers 20 that gave water, though they’re separated by 40 years and located in completely different places, were one in the same rock, which had apparently rolled around the wilderness for 40 years supplying water, like a portable water fountain.

One reason I find that so fascinating is because Paul, our very own Paul, in I Corinthians, seems to be aware of this rather creative explanation and even drops it into Chapter 10, verse 4 of I Corinthians.  He recalls this episode of the Israelites in the wilderness and he talks about how the rock back in Moses’ day was Christ.  Paul is trying to say that Christ’s presence was with them too.  A very Paul thing to say.  A very New Testament thing to say.

Note that Paul doesn’t just say the rock was Christ making a Christological connection.  He says “the rock that followed them,” followed the Israelites was Christ.  Followed.  He got that idea from somewhere.  He got it from his Jewish tradition.

I know we’re just biting off a big chunk off to the side here.  If you’re interested, I talk more about this in the Bible Tells Me So.  Sorry for the deviation, but I just love looking at how Jewish the New Testament writers were when they used their Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament.  It’s actually this story, specifically, that started me down a different path over 30 years ago, about thinking about how the Bible actually works and what it is and how we read it.

One more comment on the manna.  Let’s pause there for one more second.  We’re told that they’re to gather an omer of manna per day, two omers on the day before the Sabbath so you can eat for two days. 

An omer is a unit of measurement.  It’s about one to two liters.  Frankly, that’s no help to me because I’m American and my phone app says that a cubic liter is about a half dry gallon.  My point is that Exodus 16:36 seems like it needs to explain what an omer is.  Because this is what Exodus 16:36 says.  It says, “An omer is a tenth of an ephah.”  An ephah is about 23 liters or somewhere between five to six gallons. 

Could I pick a more boring verse to mention?  I don’t think so.  Not for me anyway.  An omer is a measurement known to us only from this story.  The ephah is the more common measurement in the Old Testament used over 30 times.  We’re seeing here, again, a clue about when this story was written.  It seems the story of omers of manna being gathered preserves something of the past, maybe the deep past from the point of view of the later biblical writer. 

He needed to explain what that was to his readers, who lived at a time when ephah was the measurement used.  In other words, we’re seeing here in this little editorial comment a hint of how these biblical stories have a history.  Maybe they’ve developed and they’ve evolved and things needed to be added as things were handed down.  It’s like us reading in the New Testament—maybe you’ve come across this—we have footnotes that explain a denarius, a unit of coinage.  A denarius is about a day’s wage.  That’s what my study Bible says.

Today, a day’s wage—I actually Googled this—an average laborer’s day’s wage today is $14.57 an hour which is $116.56 cents a day.  It actually helps to know that a little bit.  A denarius is about a day’s wage.  What was a day’s wage?  What would it be for us?  It helps us to put it into context.  Because simply to say denarius—what do I care?  I don’t even know what that means.  Oh, it’s about what a worker makes in a day.  $15 an hour.  $120.  Okay.  I get it.

So much for food and water.


Another point.  This Israelites right away find themselves in a battle against the Amalekites.  This is in Chapter 17, verses 8 to 16.  For one thing, it’s worth asking whence the Israelites got their weapons.  Exodus does say earlier in the story that they left Egypt with plunder, likes clothes and valuables.  It’s really unlikely that the Egyptians would have decked them out in military gear.  I don’t think I’m crazy for suggesting that.

One explanation for where they got their armor and their swords and their shields from—one explanation that ancient Jewish interpreters came up with is that the Israelites stripped the armor and the weapons off of the Egyptian soldiers whose dead bodies washed up on the shore of the Sea of Reeds.

That actually makes some sense if you think about it.  It’s worth noting that the story itself doesn’t seem at all concerned about with filling in this logical gap.  I don’t think the writer actually cared very much.

I also think that a story about an Amalekite battle here might be for the purpose of giving the later reader something to chew on seeing that the Amalekites were enemies during the times of David and Saul, in their attempts to unify Israel around a monarchy.

I’m willing to think more about that, to entertain that possibility.  I have a feeling that this may be more complicated than what we’ve seen before, reading Israel’s later history back into an earlier time.  The Amalekites have been around for a long time.  I don’t think this is a made-up thing.  But there may be something more to it than what I’m seeing.  Again, we do see this sort of thing elsewhere, where a writer places something of his present back in the past.  In other words, I don’t know, but it is curious that the first thing that happens when they come into the land is that they have a battle with the Amalekites.  It’s not just that they have a battle, however we explain that, the story also serves a purpose of a couple things:  1) introducing Joshua as Moses’ general and he plays a huge role later on in the conquest of Canaan.  I see this as a bridge between the Egypt experience and then the later experience in Canaan.  We have here Joshua teaming up with Moses, so-to-speak, bringing an end to an enemy.  Joshua is going to be that bridge for the people between the Egypt experience and then later, the conquest of Canaan.

Let me elaborate on that a little bit more.  Again, I think it’s important.  We have to look at how they win the battle at all, this whole deal of how they win the battle.  Moses climbs a hill and he stands there with his arms raised.  You know this story.  I’ve heard many sermons on this.  As long as his arms are up, the Israelites are winning.  When they drop down, they begin to lose.  So brother Aaron and some guy named Hur, who will appear later in this story, they see what’s happening.  They rush over to help Moses.  They have him sit down on a rock and they prop up his arms with rocks.  By sunset, the Amalekites were defeated.

Frankly, folks, that’s a little bit weird.  Some commentaries say that this seems somewhat magical almost.  One way of looking at this is that Moses was holding his staff in his raised arms.  It’s not mentioned, so I want to be very cautious about that.  When we’re thinking about that, he’s holding his staff in his raised arms.  That’s why his arms are raised.  He has a staff.

In other words, this is another Egypt-like miracle which makes some sense since the Amalekites are playing an Egypt-like role in trying to squash the Israelites, even when their god was with them and had other plans. 

The power that delivered them from Pharaoh will also now deliver them from the Amalekites, who would also be the god who delivers them from the Canaanites.  Joshua and Moses are in this Amalekite episode.  It’s just Moses in Egypt.  It’s just Joshua in Canaan.  But here, the two are together.  It’s like a continuation of the promise that the warrior god will continue being with them in fighting battles. 

“Moses isn’t here.  That’s okay.  Joshua is.  He was with Moses before.  They’re tight.  So it will be good.”

It’s still weird.  This whole battle depends on Moses not getting tired.  The best explanation that I come up with is what I just said.  I think this is an extended Egypt-like experience where the staff comes into play and as a result, the sign and the wonder is done.  It’s a better explanation.  It’s the one that I go with.  It’s better, in any case, than some more common explanations like Moses’ arms were raised in prayer to God.  There’s nothing in the context that hints at that at all.  Or a popular Christian explanation is that Moses’ arms were raised like Jesus’ arms were raised on the cross.

On one level, I think that’s fine.  It’s well-attested in church history.  It’s fine for Christians to bring these stories and Jesus together like this.  But that doesn’t really help me what the writer here is trying to communicate.  I don’t think he’s saying, “Let’s slip something in here about Jesus.”  It means something to them.  Again, as I said, perhaps this is an extension or continuation of Exodus power at this moment.


But it’s still one of the weirder episodes in Exodus, along with God almost killing Moses right after he had told him to go to Egypt and deliver the Israelites, back in Chapter 4.  These are just weird things that happen in Exodus.

Another point here in this second big section on the way to Sinai, just a quick comment on Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law.  Moses and the Israelites are close to Sinai in Midian.  Jethro comes out to meet them with Moses’ wife and two sons.  This is in 18:6. They had been staying apparently with Joseph (I THINK YOU MEAN JETHRO) while Moses was busy at work. 

Early in Chapter 4, we hear of just one son, Gershom.  Now, we see he has a second son, Eliezer.  Fine.  Not a big deal.  Just didn’t mention Eliezer.  Who cares?  But there is actually a bigger problem here.

According to Exodus 4:20 in that story where God almost kills Moses, we read there that Moses’ wife, Zipporah, and their one son were with Moses on his way to Egypt.  That’s when the angel of the Lord almost attacks them and kills Moses.  They weren’t with Jethro in Midian.  They were with Moses on the way to Egypt.

It seems here in this boring little detail that we’re seeing evidence of multiple traditions of the Exodus story that were respected enough to be woven together in the making of this book we have before us today.  As is usually the case, the fact that the traditions don’t line up with each other doesn’t seem to bother the editor at all.  I want to suggest it shouldn’t bother us.  It should be a window to helping us understand the nature of this literature. 

Here’s Moses.  He tells Jethro all that had happened in Egypt, which is a nice development in their relationship.  You remember when he left Jethro, Moses couldn’t quite bring himself to tell Jethro the truth of why he was leaving, which is to say, “God told me to leave to deliver the Israelites.” 

Moses just mumbled something about needing to see how his kindred were doing.  “I’ve got to check in on my family” (4:18).  Now Moses puts it out there.  He’s just got this feeling of confidence.  He puts it out there like a son-in-law who earned his stripes and now, his father-in-law can be proud of him.  By the way, I have a son-in-law and was a son-in-law myself.  I get this.  Anybody who’s lived this can understand.

It’s like they’ve reached a new stage in their relationship where shy and unconfident Moses feels like, “Sure.  I stared down Pharaoh.  I stood there and watched the sea split in half.  I think I can handle Jethro.”  “Hey Jethro.  Let me tell you what’s been going on.” 

How does Jethro react?  He’s blown away enough to confess Yahweh as greater than all the gods.  Again, another monolatry thing.

Not so fast Moses.  Right after that, Moses, we read, is burned out from judging disputes between the Israelites who apparently form a line outside his door from morning to night.  Jethro sees what’s going on.  Maybe this is actually too much for Moses.  He tells him, “Well, looks like you could use some help there, Pal?  You should get some able men to help you divide the tasks and leave you to handle only the most important ones.  Not feeling so big now, are you Moses?” 

I’m not sure if that family dynamic is central to this episode.  I know some friends of mine who think this story is a prooftext for how God ordained Presbyterian church government.  You have a head pastor surrounded by his male elders.  Maybe. 

Maybe the biggest point of this story is that this bureaucracy of Israel is the brainchild of a non-Israelite, a priest of Midian, Jethro.  Israel seems to owe a lot to Midian.  After all, that’s where God’s mountain is.  There’s something about Midian that’s important for the origin of the Israelites religion.

Scholars have long wondered whether the origin of Israel’s religion, which historically is a very complicated thing and very mysterious thing, might owe something to Midian in the deep south, with respect to where Israel is, alongside of other stories that the Israelites preserved.  Liked our ancestor Jacob was a wondering Aramean.  This is more in the north.  You can see this in Deuteronomy 26:6. Or if they were from the far east in the land of Babylon.  That’s where Abraham is from.  Or as we read here in this story, some connection historically, some rootage in the land of Egypt.

This story of Israel in the Old Testament seems to suggest that Israelites have various points of ancestry and that were later united under Yahweh’s banner.  Maybe.  I think that’s true.  To me, that explanation makes the most sense. 

In this story, the only point is that Midian is very prominent in this ancient telling of the story of the departure from Egypt.

Moving toward the end here.

They all reach Sinai three months to the day after they left Egypt.  Two things strike me.  First, even those God rules all the earth, as we read, Israel is God’s special possession and their role will be to be a—this is in verse 6 of Chapter 19—their role will be to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.  I think this is huge.

This means that Israel’s purpose, already here in the story, is to be priestly, to mediate between God and who?  The nations.  Feel free to think back to the story of Abraham in Chapter 12 where Abraham is called.  Abraham will have an influence on the nations themselves. 

Here you have it.  You’re to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.  That’s why you’re here.  That was the plan anyway.  They were rescued from Egypt, not to go free, but to become holy, which means “set apart for special purposes.”  It’s not about moral perfection.  To act as priests mediating God to the nations around them.  A priestly kingdom and a holy nation.  Those aren’t two separate things.  They’re actually two parts of one role.

That’s why it’s so tragic in Israel’s story as we read on in the Old Testament.  Rather than mediating God to the nations, Israel, through its kings, winds up becoming a problem that God needs to solve somehow.  In some cases, He doesn’t solve it at all.  The northern tribes, the northern kingdom go to Assyria and never come back.  The southern tribe of Judah goes into exile in Babylon and comes back and has to rebuild, but never really does.

This plan to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation doesn’t work out very well.   But that was the plan.


Another point here.  It seems that no one is to touch the mountain itself.  “Keep your distance.”  In fact, they’re to wash their clothes and to abstain from sex to prepare to meet God.  At a distance.

Now Moses, of course, may go up the mountain.  He can go to the top, but only he.  The holiness of the mountain must be protected.  I only mention this here because a little later in the story, in fact, I mention it in the next episode of this podcast series, we will see more clearly how the holy mountain is marked off in segments, three to be specific, which reminds us of the Tabernacle, which is also the model for the temple later on during the time of the monarchy.

Hanging around the outside of the sanctuary at a distance is fine.  Say the temple.  Only priests can enter the next stage, the holy place.  But into the holy of holies, the third stage, only one may enter: the high priest. 

Moses here on Mount Sinai is like a high priest entering God’s most sacred presence.  You may remember that Chapter 6 which is sort of a boring chapter because there is a genealogy in it, but it makes a big deal of letting you know that Moses and Aaron are from the tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe.  Here, we’re beginning to see why.

We also see here what is glimpsed earlier in the song of Moses in Chapter 15, that the temple and Sinai are closely connected.  To speak of one is to speak virtually of the other.  Both are marked off in segments of approachability. 

In Chapter 19, Moses is spending some time hearing from God on the top of Mount Sinai.  He is about to come down and tell the people what he heard and what God wants from them and what God is going to do for them.  But that is the topic of the next episode, where we look at the section of law in the book of Exodus.

55:57  MUSIC

All right folks, thanks again for listening to another episode here of the Exodus series.  I appreciate you listening and pressing download and all that stuff again.  Just a quick reminder, the “pay what you want class” discussing Genesis is September 23.  Also, I’ll be at Evolving Faith October 4 and 5 in Denver, CO.  Tickets are still available.  I hope you can make it. 

All right folks, thanks so much for listening.  See you next time.