Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Emerson Powery- The Bible as a Source of Liberation

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Emerson Powery about biblical interpretation in the Antebellum narratives of the enslaved as they explore the following questions:

  • Why did enslaved people adopt the religion of their enslavers?
  • What is intertextuality?
  • What was the significance of Paul for enslaved people? 
  • What books or passages were emphasized in slave spirituals?
  • Why is resurrection not emphasized in slave narratives?
  • What was the significance of the curse of Ham in the Antebellum period?
  • What is proof-texting?
  • Is the Bible a book of liberation?
  • How is biblical interpretation a living tradition?
  • How has Emerson’s study of history influenced his experience in his faith community?
  • What is the power of imagination in biblical interpretation?
  • How did enslaved people understand Jesus?


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Emerson Powery you can share. 

  • “Love God, love neighbor seems to be a fundamental starting point.” @EmersonBPowery
  • “If my reading of the Bible dehumanizes someone, there’s probably something wrong with my reading of the Bible.” @EmersonBPowery
  • “I think the Bible cannot speak for itself, I think the Bible always has interpreters.” @EmersonBPowery
  • “Communities read Scripture best when they are committed to one another and committed to others.” @EmersonBPowery
  • “How does one use the Bible in relation to the other?”@EmersonBPowery

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. 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 have with us Emerson Powery, who is a Biblical Studies Professor at Messiah College and it was a very interesting conversation. We brought him in because, Pete, you had heard him before.

Pete: Yeah, he came to Eastern University a couple of years ago. He gave a talk on this topic, which we’re going to talk about in a second. And it was just very impressive and really awakening in just, ya know, listen, you hear people talk about things they know something about and you don’t know much about it at all, and it was just very impressive and I felt like I was missing out on so much. I just knew I wanted to keep talking to Emerson about this topic.

Jared: We want to be clear about the topic, so we’re putting it off because we want to talk about it a little bit – it’s biblical interpretation in the antebellum narrative of the enslaved.

Pete: Right.

Jared: And that comes from the subtitle of his book and so, let’s just talk a little bit about what that means. We’re talking about biblical interpretation, how the Bible was interpreted in the antebellum narratives of the enslaved. What’s the antebellum narratives of the enslaved?

Pete: Before the civil war.

Jared: Right. So, while they’re enslaved, there’s these narratives that historians like Emerson have been able to recover and read and see how the Bible’s being used in these letters, and he calls them narratives. I think there’s letters and other parts of texts –

Pete: Right. Well, they’re telling their story –

Jared: Right.

Pete: And from the point of view of those who were formerly enslaved. So, these stories are really being documented, let’s say, after the end of the civil war. But, it’s just a wonderful window into, really the nature of Biblical interpretation, that we’re all doing things like appropriating texts in ways that are meaningful to us, and, you know, I just thought it was a fascinating discussion when I heard him first a couple of years, and when we have this interview with him. And, the title of the book is The Genesis of Liberation, that’s the main title. And that’s what we’re going to talk about today, and we had a really enlightening time talking with Emerson about a topic he’s thought an awful lot about.

Jared: Alright, well, let’s get to it!

[Music begins]

Emerson: I think the Bible cannot speak for itself. I think the Bible always has interpreters.

Pete: Well, if there’s no one concrete way of understanding these texts, if we’re all sort of reading these things in light of our experience, how do you ever know which side is right? And the answer might be, well, how are you treating people?

Emerson: No, I think that’s right. You know, love God, love neighbor seems to be kind of a fundamental starting point. So how does one treat one’s neighbor? How does one use the Bible in relationship to the other?

[Music ends]

Jared: Welcome, welcome Emerson, to this episode of the podcast. It’s great to have you on!

Emerson: Great, thanks to be with you guys.

Jared: Yeah, I’m real excited about our topic for today. Before we get there thought, can you just give us a little, one or two minute spiritual biography, both your spiritual journey, but also how did you become interested in this topic, the Bible as a source of liberation, and how the Bible was received in the antebellum period, and all the things that you do now. How did you get into that? So maybe start there.

Emerson: Okay. I grew up in a Christian home. My father is a minister, retired minister, and my parents actually came to the U.S. They came from the Caribbean and they came to the U.S. as missionaries. So, I grew up, in many ways, a missionary kid. I was born in New York. My two other brothers were born on the islands, but I was born in New York. So, I grew up in a home in which there was lots of scripture reading, lots of engagement with the Bible. My parents also worked for the American Bible Society, so they were also very ecumenical and that also shaped my own kind of engagement with the Bible as an early, in my early years. Even though my father was the Pentecostal, was the black Pentecostal representative at the American Bible Society, they had a white Pentecostal and a black Pentecostal representative at the American Bible Society, that’s probably a conversation for another day, but that meant that the way we read scripture was very much about our experience and our, how it can inform our spiritual lives daily. And I grew up in that environment and that, I’m sure had a lot to do with my own kind of, trajectory, in terms of thinking about Biblical studies as a future. I didn’t begin there. I have an associate’s degree in aviation administration, so I began off in a very different route. My two older brothers, one went into accounting and the other one went into computer science, and I was kind of headed in that direction too, but somewhere in the middle of my college years, I felt a call to go into something more directly into ministry. Although, it didn’t feel like pastoral ministry.


So, it didn’t feel like the traditional pastorate, but I went and got an undergraduate degree in biblical and religious studies and then I went to seminary and continued on this journey, wrote a master’s thesis on Moses and the fourth gospel, but was really engaged in trying to figure out how lots of different people were utilizing the Bible. So, my own journey from those early years was starting to kind of inform larger theological questions for me. And so, I continue to pursue them and went on to do a Ph.D. study in what was called at the time Christian origins, early Christian origins, and wrote a dissertation on how Jesus used scripture. I was still very much interested in the function of scripture, how scripture was functioning for different communities, and all of that led me into investigation of how early African Americans in this country engaged the text, engaged the Biblical text. There was recent discussion when I was in grad school, Cain Felder’s edited volumes Stony the Road We Trod came out, and a number of my peers and I were kind of reading that on the side while we were doing our other, more formal work. And although at the time I didn’t quite see how intertextuality and black life was going together in direct, kind of, formal/theoretical ways, when I looked back at my dissertation, I had footnotes in there about Sojourner Truth and how she says I don’t just read small things like letters, I read texts and nations, right?

Pete: Mm hmm.

Emerson: So that was kind of informing behind the scenes, that was kind of doing some work on me.

Pete: Now, Emerson, before we go on, you mentioned a word intertextuality?

Emerson: Yeah.

Pete: Can you explain that?

Emerson: Yeah, so, I think about it simply as the way later texts interact with earlier texts. So, and that could happen in a variety of ways. So, I mean, early Christians reading from their sacred scripture, and how they might reread it in a specific kind of way. I’m just thinking, I was actually looking at a passage today in a class, we were looking at Deuteronomy 24 and then how Jesus reads it in Mark 10.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Emerson: In Deuteronomy 24, it’s talking about a male, right, giving a bill of divorcement to his wife. And it’s in a women in the Bible class, so in Mark 10 it was not just that the male could be allowed to give the bill of divorcement, but a female could be allowed to give a bill of divorcement, without going into Jesus’ own intention over divorce. You know, it’s just kind of an interesting engagement of one text inside of another text, and how that text functions there, but also how later readers engage with an older text. So, intertextuality, I know can be defined in more sophisticated, theoretical ways, but for me it’s as simple as one text getting new life in another text.

Pete: Yeah, and both of those texts are part of, let’s say, Christian scripture, right?

Emerson: Yeah, that’s right. 

Pete: Because it’s within our Bible we see this relationship between texts, that’s intertextuality.

Emerson: Yeah, that’s right. That’s the way intertextuality is generally used in biblical studies, yeah.

Pete: Yeah. So okay, I mean, that brings us then, I think, to our topic, because we’re looking at the, and something you’ve written about recently, fairly recently, the way in which the Bible was used, can we say appropriated?

Emerson: Yeah.

Pete: Or maybe reimaged or something like that –

Emerson: Yeah.

Pete: On the part of enslaved African Americans before the Civil War. And that’s an exploration on your part on just, on hermeneutics, on interpretation, right? And on how people have used texts and why they’ve used texts the way they have, right?

Emerson: Yeah, that’s right.

Jared: Well, that bring us to something we were talking about earlier before we hit record that we thought was really interesting, which is, you know, at the very beginning when we’re talking about enslaved peoples, it’s interesting that African Americans adopted the religion and the religious texts of those who enslaved them. And just curious if you have theories or thoughts on, or studies on why that is, like what was going on that led to that? Because it seems a little counterintuitive.


Emerson: No, I think that’s right. I think that’s, I would not say that that was the original question behind our work, but I would say that we were surprised by it as well, right? I mean, it’s one thing to, and it’s complicated. So, some formerly enslaved folks, and I’ll kind of use that, because most of the work that I was working on was working with traditionally called slave narratives. I like to refer to them as freedom narratives, because these are all written by formerly enslaved individuals who were then reflecting back on their time during human bondage. So, but some folks, when they heard “slaves obey your masters,” one particular writer by the name of Charles Ball, he talks about his grandfather. My grandfather finally heard “slaves obey your masters” enough, and finally walked away from the Christian religion altogether, and decided to return to the faith of our African gods. So, it’s complicated. Some people heard that message, “slave obey your masters,” and they decided to try to find another way to read Paul, right? So, and found, in Paul, a person, a fellow sufferer, a co-sufferer.

Pete: Uh huh.

Emerson: One that we could use, he now stands with us, right? And so, the Paul of Acts who says, God hath made, they’re all reading the King James version, right? God hath made of all nations one, made one of all nations, right? This idea from Acts 17, that’s the Paul they wanted to engage with. So, that was a way of putting in conversation with, hang on – the “slaves obey your masters” can’t be the final word. Must be something more.

Pete: So, they were capitalizing, is it fair to say they were capitalizing on the complex portrait of Paul in the New Testament itself, because Paul can sometimes sound like he’s not questioning the institution of slavery, and elsewhere he’s suffering at the hands of oppressors.

Emerson: Yeah, no –

Pete: So, you take, you sort of run with, and who hasn’t done this, right? You run with those parts that speak to you more directly.

Emerson: Yeah, the themes that you find, right, that kind of support your view.

Pete: Well, one question, just backing up from that a little bit.

Emerson: Sure.

Pete: I don’t know if this is even answerable, but, all, what we’re saying now assumes something that is still hard for, I think, some of us to understand, which is why that would’ve been an important argument for some enslaved peoples to make, which gets back to I guess Jared’s original question, like, why even have an interest in the religious system of people who were oppressing you? Is it, I mean, do you have an answer to that? To me, that’s a curious thing. I mean, we could just say cause they discovered that God loved them, and, you know, they went with that. But this is a foreign concept you would have to think.

Emerson: Yeah, I mean, I think that many of them were religious people, right? So, I’m not thinking here now of kind of first-generation folks who came over from Africa. They certainly came with some religious perspective. Al Raboteau and his Slave Religion book shows this. But those who were second, third, fourth generation here, and still in human bondage, the Frederick Douglass period, the Harriet Jacobs period, these folks grew up in circles, not just within the families that they serve, the white families that they serve, but they also knew other folks who were having religious ceremonies, right, in the brush harbor meeting. So, they were religious folks, and there are certainly lots of struggles. You can hear some of that in the spirituals, although we don’t wrestle with the spirituals in biblical interpretation. You could, but in the spirituals how those songs played out, right? So, there’s lot of spiritual songs about, a couple people have written on this, where there’s lots of suffering in the spirituals, and even crucifixion, Jesus, right, Jesus dying. But there’s not a lot of spirituals about resurrection, right? So, it’s kind of, so they’re religious and trying to understand what God is doing in the world, but at the same time it’s very complicated.


So, it’s an attempt to, I mean, what does one do if you’re having to develop your own theological construction, right? If the one that has been given to you doesn’t work, because it doesn’t, it’s not that it doesn’t feel right, it’s hard to begin with a God who doesn’t like me –

Pete: Right.

Emerson: That’s tough, so there’s lots of engagement, I think, through those songs, and we know they are, Frederick Douglass tells a story, not in the first narrative that he writes, or even in the second narrative he writes, but one that he writes towards the end of his life in which he found several pages the Bible that were soiled. They were just in the street. He says he just, he got ahold of them and he just cherished them, because he thought, here he got some access to the text that, yeah, his mistress had taught him to read, and by the way she taught him when he was nine years old, or seven years old, I can’t remember now which year, but it was very young. From the book of Job, that’s what he’s learning for the first time! I mean, can you imagine? The book of Job as a child, right?

Pete: Oh gosh, yeah.

Jared: Wow.

Emerson: So, he found these pages and he thought, I can read now. I get access on my own, I can kind of start to develop my own thinking. This is now, this is the Douglass, the later Douglass reflecting back on that. So, trying to wrestle out a theological system or a faith in God that feels and looks different than what you might be hearing on a regular basis, right? It doesn’t begin with God wants me in human bondage, he wants me enslaved; it begins with God loves me and this is, something’s wrong here. And so, Allen Callahan who wrote a book a number of years ago, different, very different, because he was looking at lots of African American sources, but he talks about the Bible as giving the early enslaved an opportunity to ask questions. So, it wasn’t just answering questions, it was giving them an opportunity to ask questions. And I find that to be very useful in my own, kind of, reading of the slave narratives. There’s lots of wrestling with scripture, so, that seemed to be just kind of part of the faith practice, part of what it meant to be a follower, part of what it meant to go out to the brush harbor, to sing these difficult songs in the middle of difficult times.

Jared: Well, when you’re talking about the spirituals, it made me think, you know, you said there’s a lot of emphasis on death and not as much on resurrection. It made me think, you know, we talk some on this podcast about how we all pick and choose from the Bible because it’s so diverse. And we can pick different starting places, like what you were saying, so do you find that in some of these freedom narratives, or in these freedom narratives, you find themes of a different starting place or what books or passages would’ve been emphasized over others and what does that kind of tell us about the faith of these folks?

Emerson: Yeah, one of the things we were actually, we never did it, but we had wanted to put kind of an index in the back of this book because we were really pleasantly surprised to see how many books of the Bible, how numerous passages that are just kind of referenced or highlighted. We went after some specific themes in our own work, but there were lots of books of the Bible that were being read and engaged. Harriet Jacobs, her critical biographer, Jean Fagan Yellin, who says that during her time, during Harriet Jacobs time when she was stuck in the garret, an attic of her grandmother’s house. For seven years she was up there. She actually ended up developing some significant leg cramps the rest of her life from this, but during that time she had no one to communicate with, but she had her Bible. Her grandmother had given her her Bible, and she just poured over those pages, and there’s lots of evidence of that in her narrative. She just has Job and Isaiah and the gospels. I’m actually working on something right now where I’m looking at Harriet Jacobs’ engagement with the Good Samaritan. I mean, just, lots of different texts that show up in her narrative. Some more subtle, some just seeming like just kind of an illusion. Other places where she’s really engaging the text more fully, and you can see it kind of play out in the narrative. So, there are lots and lots and lots of, for our work, we were trying to do a couple of things. On the one hand, I mean, it’s hard not to tell this story without thinking about how masters used Pauline language.


So, we were trying to then think about how the formerly enslaved, not only retold those stories in those settings in order to get some sense of reactions to those sermons, but also how they might’ve re-appropriated Paul and I mentioned earlier about the fellow sufferer of Paul, the Acts Paul, the Paul who sometimes we have a number of stories in the narratives where Harriet Jacobs actually tells one, but she’s not alone. Solomon Bayley tells one where they would hear a “slaves obey your masters” type sermon and the enslaved would simply hear the sermon and walk away and never come back. So just kind of a silent critique and then sometimes the narrators would tell you how the white minister would respond. There would be some reaction to it. So, there are lots of ways for engaging with Paul, but we also found that they wanted to think also about race and racial construction. So, the Genesis 9, curse of Ham myth that’s probably the dominant myth, Biblical myth, of this moment, antebellum period, there was some direction reactions to that.

Pete: Can you explain the curse of Ham for those who might not be familiar with it?

Emerson: Yeah! So, Noah and his sons and his entire family, right, they survived the flood in Genesis 9. And now Noah has had a little too much wine, and he is in, he’s drunk in the Genesis 9 narrative, and Ham, one of the children, sees his father’s nakedness. He comes out and he tells the other two brothers, Shem and Japheth, and they march in backwards with a cloth, with a garment to cover their father. They cover their father, Noah comes to, and he curses Canaan, the son of Ham. So, he doesn’t curse Ham directly, he curses Canaan and he says, well, one of the things he says is you will be, servant of servant shall you be. You will serve your brothers and their families and so, of course, there is right, in Biblical scholarship there are ways to think about that in relationship to Israel’s relationship to Canaan. For the nineteenth century context, that curse of Ham, or curse of Canaan became really crucial for thinking about, at least one rationale for why African people could be enslaved, right?

Pete: It was a proof text, right?

Emerson: Yeah, that’s right.

Pete: For pro-slavery people and let’s say, a very creative appropriation of that text.

Emerson: Yeah, that’s right.

Pete: Because it really has absolutely nothing to do with this, but again, it’s a way to hook an existing belief into a sacred text.

Emerson: Right, and in the nineteenth century context, it would fit in well. I mean, not just in terms of the pro-slavery argument, but the idea that lots of people, even those not thinking about slavery directly, although it’s hard to imagine people who weren’t. But in the nineteenth century, lots of identification conversations were going on, right? As people groups and migration and the movement of ethnic groups was happening, lots of folks were reading the Bible or listening to the Bible and they were finding potential proofs for these identification markers, right? So, and they were using, yeah, there were lots of proof texts in this way. So, it would have fit quite naturally in that sense. Ah! That might explain it, right? Because lots of people are digging up stuff in the nineteenth century to think about identifying markers like that.

[Music begins]

[Producers group endorsement]

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Pete: Yeah, and this, I mean, I don’t want to introduce more terminology than we need to –

Emerson: Yeah.

Pete: But what we are talking about here is how communities receive this Biblical text and what they do with it.

Emerson: Yup.

Pete: Right? And that’s just a fascinating thing because I think we all do that on some level. We engage the text based on what we already believe and what we know to be “true,”-

Emerson: Right.

Pete: And we find hooks. I mean, maybe, I don’t know how you feel about this Emerson, but maybe a contemporary example of that is finding immigration reform in the Bible.

Emerson: Yeah, no, I think that’s a good one. I think there are several that one can find and when folks think about the present political moment and then they go to the Bible with that question, right, that’s all of a sudden, it’s interesting. It’s really interesting kind of interpretations that happen. Exegesis just –

Pete: To say the least.

Emerson: Right!

Pete: I guess, of course, in the period of time we’re talking about now, there is dehumanization happening.

Emerson: Right, that’s right.

Pete: Systemic dehumanization. So that might be, ya know, well, cause the question. You get this, I get this all the time. Well if there’s no one concrete way of understanding these texts, if we’re all sort of, like, reading these things in light of our experience, how do you ever know which side is right?

Emerson: Right.

Pete: And the answer might be, well, how are you treating people?

Emerson: Yeah.

Pete: That’s sort of the first thing to go to.

Emerson: No, I think that’s right. You know, love God, love neighbor seems to be kind of a fundamental starting point, so how does one treat ones neighbor? How does one, how does one use the Bible in relationship to the other, right? And so, if my reading of the Bible dehumanizes someone, it’s probably something wrong with my reading of the Bible.

Pete: Right.

Emerson: So, yeah.

Pete: Okay, well let me throw something at you then, and just to see how you would respond to a statement like this. The Bible is not really a book of liberation, but it can be read that way. Or would you disagree with that? The Bible is a book of liberation.

Emerson: No, yeah. I know lots of good people, people I would consider friends who would disagree with that. I don’t disagree with that. I think the Bible cannot speak for itself. I think the Bible always has interpreters. That is what complicates this, for lack of a better term, the American Bible, or any Bible in any particular culture, but this is where we are and this is, so the Bible comes to us through a variety of traditions, but it has to, we want it to now say something or at least those of us who are committed to having the Bible as a resource, as a theological resource, are committed to finding ways to allow it to speak in our contemporary moment. But part of what that means is I have to interpret it. So, it just can’t speak directly on its own.

Pete: It’s never just there.

Emerson: Right, yeah. So, I would agree with the way you put that.

Jared: Well, but, you know, just to add onto that, I think it doesn’t, you said it complicates it. I think it does complicate it, but it’s also, as you’re saying, it’s also that particular element of a text is also the opportunity for us to have it be relevant, have it be connected to our lived experience. So, it’s sort of two sides to the same coin. We can’t necessarily have it be relevant and connect to our lived experience without that, the risk of that interpretive element that it’s never just there. It’s never uninterpreted, but that’s the very act of making it alive today.

Emerson: I think that’s what makes it a living tradition. Yeah, that’s right, is the ongoing attempt, our ongoing attempt to interpret. And to interpret in community, to engage one another and not just to do it on our own. That’s what helps keep us all, I think, somehow, I mean those of us who are committed to reading the Bible within community, it helps keep us all in check. So that way we can call out one another if there is a dehumanizing, because I do think that draws the line. Someone within my community has to say to me, Emerson, something’s not right about that.


Jared: Good, well maybe you can carry on that line of thinking, because that’s exactly what I was going to ask is what are the values of, I would have grown up in a tradition more in line with sort of, it’s me and Jesus and this is a personal, devotional book. And there would have been a sense of community, but it wouldn’t have been the emphasis of reading this book in community and the value that it brings, so maybe, could you say a word or two more about the value of reading in community and maybe even what does it look like to read in community? What are the actual, like, just very simplistically, what does it mean to do that?

Emerson: Yeah. I mean, and first of all, I would say, you know, I’m not opposed to people reading the Bible devotionally. I think that’s a necessary practice, but I think that’s one practice, right?

Jared: Mm hmm.

Emerson: And people need multiple practices with scripture. And a practice that I find very useful is to read it along with others. To read it with others with whom I may, I’m committed to but I may not necessarily agree with. I may not agree with them in terms of their own theological systems that they’re speaking from. I may not agree with them in terms of even their political agendas, but to read scripture in communion, in that way, puts lots of, I think, really hard questions, both to the text and maybe we can hear the text differently. We can hear the Biblical text differently in that way. And I think to make this even, maybe more simple, I think as communities read scripture best when they’re committed to one another, and committed to others, right? Committed outside of themselves, so they’re looking at others around them, and I think reading scripture in the middle of that setting will raise the kinds of issues and questions and force us into actions, so, I don’t think that should be separate from, right? So, Harriet Jacobs, she was engaged in not just reading scripture, but she was running anti-slavery reading room. She was raising money, right, at the end of the Civil War for schools in D.C. and down in South Carolina and Alexandria, Virginia, and then down in South Carolina. I’m convinced, even though she doesn’t say this explicitly in her narratives, I’ve read all of her letters. The University of North Carolina published her letters and she’s the only African American female formerly enslaved for whom we have letters, and extraordinary, extraordinary documents. We can kind of trace her history and her faith is really crucial for the things that she’s doing. Her reading of scriptural texts and her engagement with others kind of go hand in hand, so, I think if we’re reading scripture on behalf of others, for their well-being, I think that’s a good starting point.

Pete: Mmm. Well, let me, let me ask, Emerson, I want to get back into the Old Testament a little bit here. I’m thinking about what you explained earlier, the formerly enslaved people writing freedom narratives. And, you know, clearly, the Exodus story is an obvious source of, let’s say, their spiritual imagination for how they relate to their creator and how they can have hope for, you know, eventual liberation. But how, I mean, how did they handle, I mean, if we know this, something like this, but how did they handle those places in the Old Testament even in the book of Exodus where it seems like enslaved people were not really thought of as fully human.

Emerson: Yeah, well, I mean, James Pennington, who publishes his narrative in 1849, he is a prominent minister, Shiloh Presbyterian Church, pretty fairly large church in New York City at the time. He sat outside the classrooms at Yale Divinity School, they wouldn’t let him inside the classroom, and he kind of secured some theological education that way. Eventually, at the end of the 1840’s, right around the time when he’s writing, publishing his narrative, he also receives a honorary doctorate from the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

Pete: Wow.

Emerson: James Pennington is actually the one, who when Frederick Douglass escaped, he was, along with Anna Murray, he married Anna Murray. And Anna Murray was a free black woman, but she lived in Maryland with him and came north with him. James Pennington married them. James Pennington is well connected, he had one of the most popular narratives in that day in terms of just sales. He puts it this way about these passages – if we could find some Canaanites, maybe we could enslave them.

Pete: [Laughter]

Emerson: I mean, he really found this, kind of right this way of saying, what’s happening? All of a sudden, on the one hand, people do these literal readings of biblical texts, and then they stop doing it, right? And that was, that’s one way to respond to that.


Pete: Okay, if I were speaking to him –

Emerson: Yup.

Pete: I would say, okay, I get it, but also, it’s the assumption, at least in Exodus and Deuteronomy, that you can have Hebrew slaves.

Emerson: Yeah. No, I don’t think Pennington would have any problem with, not having them now, but this was something that ancient Israel did. And it wasn’t, right, by the time of Jesus, there’s still slavery going on.

Pete: Yeah, yeah.

Emerson: So, he actually writes, he gets the honorary doctorate from Heidelberg because he wrote a volume called The History of Colored People. Sometimes it shows up as The History of Negro People, but I think The History of Colored People was the original title. But, very much aware of, he starts with ancient Egypt, right? So he’s very much aware of ancient populations, ancient slavery, ancient practices; he just doesn’t think that those practices should have continued. Now, I don’t know, at least I haven’t found in Pennington’s work where he thinks it stopped, right? I don’t find, but he just thinks what happened back then in biblical days needs to remain back then, with regards to slavery anyway. God has no, this is his, I’m summarizing him, but he uses this language of the immaculate God. The immaculate God has absolutely nothing to do with human bondage, with slavery.

Pete: Mm hmm. It’s inconsistent with like, the nature of God or something, yeah.

Emerson: Completely inconsistent.

Pete: I mean, that argument was made, by origin for example, talking about violence, divine violence.

Emerson: Hmm, yeah.

Pete: There’s no way.

Emerson: Right, right.

Pete: There’s no way the creator would do this, so we’ve got to do something with this story. Again, it’s starting with spiritual experience in this sense, and saying, these things are just incompatible, and you wind up picking and choosing. And I know people say that’s like, a bad thing, but I don’t know anybody who doesn’t do that.

Emerson: That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. Who’s continuing to cast lots, right? I mean, there are some Mennonites who continue to cast lots, but they’re few and far between. I mean, right, but nothing said stop casting lots, so I think, right. I think, in some ways, if we had different language besides picking and choosing or selecting, it might work better, right?

Pete: Exactly. It sounds very negative to put it that way, but it’s, yeah.

Emerson: Right.

Jared: What are some of the, you know, you’ve done a lot of historical work. What has been the impact of that on how you currently engage scripture in your faith community?

Emerson: For me, one of the things it does is to recognize the significant value of, we all read from a certain vantage point, and so, when I’m in my community, we have different positions. Sometimes, I’m male, so I have certain power as a male, right? There are certain powers statuses I have, and there are other times I might not, and to help people to kind of think about when they’re reading and engaging scripture out of their perspective of power. That’s one thing it’s done for me. That’s, I think that’s one of those starting points, to helping us to do as much as we can to read on behalf of the other. To read on behalf of the one who, I mean, if we can all, right, I mean obviously – if we could all be like Jesus that would be great. But I mean, but even Jesus imagining the Samaritan, right, just to imagine the other as the hero of his story, what a great, what a great hermeneutical principle! Imagine that my reading of scripture, whatever passage I’m dealing with, would be best if I placed the one who is less like me or one I cannot even conceive of as significant at the center. If I can imagine like that, then perhaps that might be a better way to conceive of God’s work in the world.

Pete: Hmm.

Emerson: Working for these years with the documents of the enslaved, and trying to, kind of, hear them, trying to hear them well, has made me think about my own, you know, I have a Ph.D, right? And I operate from a position of authority in my classrooms, right? Even in my church setting, right? When we –

Pete: You have authority in your classrooms? How do you pull that off?

Emerson: [Laughter]

Pete: I’m still trying to find it.

Emerson: I have to keep reminding them.


Pete: I’m going to retire.

Emerson: [Continued laughter]

Yeah. Oh.


Jared: With that, I mean, what I’m hearing you say, maybe I can reframe it using language that is more common for me, but is, it reminds me of what Jesus says in Matthew 7 about good trees bearing good fruit and bad trees bearing bad fruit. And basically, our reading strategy, what I hear you saying is we need to actually first adopt a Jesus ethic of, we have to have a priority or a prioritization of those without power, those who are oppressed, those in our society who are looked down upon, and our reading strategy, we have to begin with that ethical framework and assumption in order to read the Bible well, and when we don’t do that, when we read it from a place of privilege and we don’t recognize it as privilege and we use it to defend our places of privilege, we are inevitably going to find ways to do that. So the Bible doesn’t necessarily correct the ethical framework, it’s this adage that Jesus says that, you know, the bad tree, if you start with the bad tree, if you start with the bad hermeneutic or bad ethic, you can get bad fruit, but it’s bad.

Emerson: Right.

Jared: And if you start with a good foundation, a good root system, a good tree, and you read the Bible through that framework, you’re going to end up with good fruit. And so, the Bible, in some ways, can be a neutral source of what we come to it with. And that just is a, it’s an interesting thing because in my tradition, it would have been, no, you start with the Bible, and if you read it as it should be written, or read, then you come out with a good ethic, and in some ways it sounds like it’s flipped that we begin from this place of, the Jesus way of seeing the world, and that includes then, how we read the Bible. Would that be a fair way of saying that?

Emerson: Yeah, I think so. We almost, with the Genesis of Liberation book, we almost published the book without writing an excursus on Jesus. And the excursus on Jesus we wrote was because the editor said you can’t write this book – if people in the Black church get this book, they want to know about Jesus. And I thought, no, that’s right. That’s right. That’s the starting point. And that’s the starting point for the enslaved. So, in our excursus on Jesus, because we were really dealing with scriptural passages, right? Biblical passages, scriptural texts, and we thought well, I mean, I know Jesus is a kind of text, but Jesus is not really a text, but Jesus is a text! And for the enslaved, it’s, we actually called the, we titled the excursus “Jesus Christ was Sold to the Highest Bidder.” That actually comes directly out of Peter Randolph’s narrative, because for them, the starting point was yeah, you’re about to sell us and break off our families, but Jesus is on the auction block with us. He’s not with you, selling us. That’s impossible for us to conceive of Jesus that way! Right, so, it begins with Jesus. Jesus is the text. And then you go to the text next, and I think that’s right. I think the way you put that, Jared, I think that’s right.

Jared: Mmm.

Pete: Well, listen, wonderful. Emerson, we’re really getting to the end of this time now we have together, sorry about that.

Emerson: Oh no, wow.

Pete: Pretty powerful stuff, but anything you want to leave us with, like if you’re working on anything at the moment? I know you published this book not too long ago, and you’re probably grading things too. Or just where people can find you if they want to connect with you at all online.

Emerson: Yeah. I mean, I have a Twitter account, that’s my activity in the social media, @EmersonBPowery. And I’m actually working on a project on the Good Samaritan, thinking about the Good Samaritan through both in terms of Luke’s context in Luke 10. Luke’s the only gospel that has it, but also in later voices. So, Augustine and trying to dig deep in Augustine’s world, his conflict with the Donatists and his telling of the Good Samaritan there, and then Howard Thurman. I’m putting Howard Thurman in conversation with Augustine. Howard Thurman’s little volume Jesus and the Disinherited was carried around by Martin Luther King and his, along with his Bible, he carried Thurman’s little book. And then I’m putting a conversation with Harriet Jacobs and her reading of the Good Samaritan in conversation with a Nicaraguan community from the 1970’s, the Solentiname community that was led by Ernesto Cardenal. And they have these great, popular Bible studies and a number of engagements with the Good Samaritan, so I’m putting those in conversation as a way of then going back and thinking about Luke’s context, right? And just, how Jesus himself imagined the other as the hero of the story, so.

Pete: Yeah. Well, these ongoing conversations between the horizons of the ancient and different contemporary moments. That’s powerful stuff Emerson, we appreciate it. Thanks so much for being with us, we really had a great time, glad you had a chance to stop by virtually.

Emerson: Great. Thanks for having me on!

Jared: Absolutely, thanks so much.

Pete: See ya.

Emerson: Bye bye.

[Music begins]

Pete: Well folks, thanks for listening to another episode of The Bible for Normal People. We hope you have a chance to check out Emerson’s book and find him on Twitter and engage him further on, to understate the matter, a very important topic.

Jared: Yeah, and while you’re online, we did just want to remind everyone that we appreciate all the support that we get on Patreon. So if you can, we would appreciate you heading there to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople. There are ways to engage in the conversation we just had as well as many others there for different levels of support, so we really appreciate everyone that makes this podcast possible, and we’ll see ya next time.

Pete: See ya!

[Music ends]

[End of recorded material]

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Pete Ruins Exodus (part 1)

Pete Ruins Exodus (Part 1)

March 11, 2019

There’s a lot more going on in the book of Exodus than what you’ve seen on the big screen or heard in church. More than a story of deliverance, Exodus is a subtle literary creation that contains many surprises when we read it closely. Join Pete here for Part 1 of this series where he looks at some big picture issues (like “did it happen?”) before walking us through the themes of chapters 1 and 2.

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]

Hey everybody, welcome to another episode of the Bible For Normal People.  Today’s episode is a solo episode.  Not only that, but it’s the beginning of a series on the book of Exodus that I’m calling “Pete Ruins Exodus,” just because I like being that kind of guy.  This is not about ruining anything.  It’s more about digging deeper into something that is familiar to a lot of people.

The story of Exodus has this universal appeal.  But I’d like to take a look at this book from other angles, not ones we might have gotten from Veggie Tales or the Ten Commandments or the Prince of Egypt or something like that.  Because there’s a lot going on.  This is a deeply theological book.  I think it’s just a fun thing to look at.  That’s all.  I just like the Bible and I want to talk about it.  So here we go.

Also, I said a series.  This is a series.  Do not hold me to how many episodes.  I have no idea.  It just depends on how things go.  We’ll see.  It could be three.  It could be 30.  Not 30.  But, it’s going to be something more than just a couple, because there’s a lot going on.  Especially, with the first three/four chapters, those are such thick and rich chapters.  So much information is just baked into these chapters, that I think that it’s well-worth our time to maybe slow down a little bit at the beginning and take larger chunks as we go on.  That’s sort of what I’m planning.

My plan, then, is to, as you’ll see in a second, divide the book of Exodus into sections.  And for each section, drop down into the book and focus on things that, I think, are interesting or important or the kinds of things a lot of people talk about, all for the purpose of helping us understand the theology of this book more clearly, because it is a book of theology.  There’s no question about that.

Now as we get started, there are a couple of background issues that all have to do with history that keep coming up, and I want to introduce them here.  We’ll come back to them occasionally during the course of these podcasts.  But the first has to do with authorship of the book, namely who wrote it, and when.  The bottom line is nobody knows.  Nobody really knows who wrote the book of Exodus.  In fact, most scholars think that is was compiled more than written from various traditions over several centuries and then brought together at a later time in Israel’s history.  That is pretty much my point of view as well.  But it’s not the most important thing we’ll talk about here, because we are going to try to deal on the level of where theology and history sort of come together, and not focus entirely on things like where did the book come from, who wrote it.  Those things are relevant.  We’ll see that in a second.  But it’s not the focus.  But the bottom line is nobody really knows who wrote the book.  To say that Moses wrote it is really a guess because the book’s anonymous, just like Genesis.  They’re all anonymous.  We don’t know who wrote any of these books.

Tradition has Moses, but a lot of work, not just in the modern period, but even going back to Medieval Judaism and even before that, people have picked up that it’s hard to look at a book like Exodus and say, one person wrote this in one sitting at the time of Moses’ life, which might have been right around the 13th Century or something like that.  It’s unlikely that that’s the case.  But this podcast series is not about that.  I’m just throwing it out there because it will come up. 

The other issue is just, the basic(est) issue of historicity, fancy way of saying, “Did any of this happen?”  What I’ll do is, as we go through the podcast, is say things like, “In the logic of the narrative,” because I don’t necessarily want to commit myself to whether things happened or didn’t happen.  I do think things happened.  We’ll get to that in a second too.

Again, defending the book historically is not my point.  I don’t want to defend anything and I don’t want to presume anything one way or the other.  I want to just let the book have its way and talk the way it wants to talk.

Did any of this happen?  That’s a question that’s of some importance, especially for some modern readers, not for everyone.  I think of it this way.  The reason why digging into history is actually more than just interesting, but it’s important, is that, while these texts were written by people at some point in time in the past, and knowing something of context, knowing something of when might help us understand something of why these texts were written. 

I mean, think about this.  Pick a figure like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and say, “Yeah.  I want to talk about Martin Luther King Jr.  I want to talk about Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”  Somebody might say, “Okay.  Well, for Martin Luther King, Jr., we have to talk about also just the setting of the 1960s’ Civil Rights Movement.”  You say, “No way.  I don’t—I’m not interested in that.  I just want to talk about Martin Luther King Jr. or FDR.” “Yeah.  He helped America get out of the Depression and he was the president during the Second World War.”  And somebody says, “Hold on a second here.  Who cares? I just want to talk about Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”  You can see how nonsensical that is.  Right?  You have to talk about context because human beings are contextual beings and social beings.  No one’s an island.  Knowing something about the past setting might help us understand the theology of the text, which is really the goal for me.


Not only that, but you have sort of a triangle here.  You’ve got history, theology and then other aspect is the Bible as literature.  And it is.  We’ll see that too, here in the book of Exodus. 

Think of it this way.  You have a writer living in history who is trying to communicate something of a theological nature through writing.  How he writes the literature, when he writes the history affect how we read the theology.  Those things all hang together.  To just read Exodus without a view towards literature or history, it can really wind up obscuring the message and not helping it very much.

A few more words about history.  Because again, this is something that comes up a lot and so much of this book is an object of apologetic defense.  Did the Exodus happen as the Bible says it did?  Just introduce it here.  I don’t want to get into it too much.  We’ll see things along the way.  But it’s worth noting, first of all, that there is no direct evidence whatsoever for an Israelite presence in the land of Egypt at any point in time.  In other words, there’s just nothing there.  There’s nothing Egyptian, and the only source we have is an Israelite source, the Bible.  We don’t have any musings from other nations.  We don’t have any material, evidence, in other words, archeological evidence.  There’s nothing there. 

There’s evidence for a lot of things that are in the Bible.  But for this big event, we just don’t see much.  That’s at least worth stating.  That doesn’t prove nothing happened.  But it’s at least a fact.  It is a fact that we don’t have evidence.

Now some say, not to get into this too much, but some say, “Why would we expect the Egyptians to talk about this humiliating defeat on the part of a slave population that left Egypt?  They would want to bury that and not talk about it.”  That’s just not true.

What ancients did was, when something bad happened, they didn’t try to ignore it.  They spun it.  I would expect something.  We see this, actually, elsewhere in the Old Testament, vis a vis, other nations and how they talk about things.  We would expect the Egyptians to have spun and said, “Listen, our gods were mad at us.  Therefore, we lost our slaves.  It’s not that we’re weak.  It’s that we were disobedient.”  That’s a common ancient way of handling embarrassing moments.

Plus, you can’t really keep this quiet.  It’s not like no one would have heard of it.  It was pre-internet, but still, the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Edomites, the Babylonians, somebody would have heard of this mass escape of slaves and the economic and ecological destruction of Egypt.

It’s hard to imagine that the silence of Egyptian sources is actually an argument for historicity, which is how some people try to defend.  But I think it just doesn’t work.  Having said that, I think there is suggestive evidence for the fact that something happened, which is sort of my position.  Something happened.

For example, one of the oldest pieces of Hebrew literature that we have comes from the book of Exodus, Chapter 15.  The oldest manuscripts we have of Exodus are a couple of hundred years before Christ.  Nothing really before that.  That’s the Dead Sea Scrolls. That’s the oldest textual evidence we have of anything in the Bible, with a couple of exceptions, but not really relevant for this discussion.

But, Chapter 15, called the Song of Moses or the Song of the Sea—this is considered, by linguists, to be evidence of very old writing on the part of the Hebrews.  It could go as far back as about 1200 BCE, which would make it very old and would make it not long after these kinds of events would have transpired.  Just think about that.  Exodus 15 is a song praising Yahweh for killing the Egyptians in the sea.  That’s really what it is.  “You’re so great.  You’re awesome.  Blah.  Blah.  Blah.” 

Probably Exodus 15 was changed and adapted and added to later in Israel’s tradition.  Probably the Exodus 15 that we have was not all old from the 12th Century, but there are elements of it that linguists say make sense in that time period.

Think of it this way: if someone were to find a manuscript that has a lost Shakespearean play or something like that, we would know instinctively where to put that historically.  We wouldn’t put it in the 19th Century.  We wouldn’t put it in the 12th Century.  We wouldn’t put it in the 21st Century.  We’d put it where it belongs, right in the middle there somewhere.


We know enough about the development of the English language to know pretty much where things should belong.  That’s what linguists do of Semitic languages like Hebrew and others.  They’re able to see evolutionary developments in languages because all languages evolve.  All languages develop.  You can see signs of that in Exodus 15, along with passages like Judges Chapter 5.  This is the story of Deborah.  That’s another one.  Very often, scholars will look at Genesis 49, Jacob’s last words to his sons before he dies.

It’s interesting.  This is suggestive that the earliest memory we have of the Israelites is something that has to do with departing from Egypt.  It’s interesting.  That’s like the earliest record we have. 

It’s also the earliest record we have of. Yahweh as a warrior, which doesn’t stay that way throughout the whole Bible.  But early depictions of Yahweh as a warrior who rescues his people and beats up the Egyptians.  That suggests that this is a very old memory on the part of the Israelites and it’s not made up after the Exile or something like that.

Another echo of history here is several of the names, one of which is Moses’ name itself.  We’ll get back to that soon enough.  But Moses is almost—it just sounds like an Egyptian name.  You have that element.  Moses, that’s at the end of other names, like King Tut, King Tut Moses.  That’s the full name, which means something like “born of a god, born of the god Tut or Toth,” spelled, pronounced differently, depending on who you ask.

That Moses element seems to be part of an originally longer Egyptian name.  That doesn’t prove anything.  It doesn’t prove the historicity of Moses.  Doesn’t prove the historicity of the Exodus.  What is does indicate, though, is that there an Egyptian memory.  There’s something about Egypt that seems to be real and strong in Israel’s memory that would inspire the writing down of stories like this.

It doesn’t seem like this is simply made up of out of whole cloth. Who would make up, frankly, a story of national origins that goes, “Yeah, we were slaves for a long time and then we escaped.”  It doesn’t seem like the kind of story that you’re going to make up out of whole cloth.  There’s seems to be a real authentic memory of something that has made its way through Israel’s tradition and is now written down.

What some scholars say, and even Evangelical scholars (I shouldn’t say “even”), but just to indicate how relatively broad this way of thinking about it is, a way of looking at this book of Exodus is what some call mythicized history.  If you’re interested, I think I wrote a blog post about this a year or so ago.  You can find it on the website.

But mythicized history.  In other words, it’s history that mythicized.  Something happened, but then the way they tell the story gets overlaid with mythic elements.  I use that word without embarrassment or shame or hesitation, because that’s what they are.  We’ll get into this.  They’re mythic elements that are used to communicate the full force of the impact of the story.

There are ways of telling stories of origins in the ancient world and implying mythic themes is one of them.  We see that in the book of Exodus.  But here’s the point.  The root of it is some historical experience, but that gets told in any mythicized way, as opposed to the opposite, not historicized myth, but mythicized history is what I’m saying.

Others would say (this is really not a view that’s that common anymore that it would be, not mythicized history, but historicized myth.  In other words, it’s something that’s foundationally mythic, and then you just put some names and places attached to it to make it look historical.  That doesn’t seem to be the case.  You’re on pretty safe grounds saying something like, “There’s a historical base, but it’s mythicized.  That’s just the way they told stories back then.”

Again, those are just two preliminary issues:  authorship and historicity.  We’ll get back into all this stuff, no doubt, as we continue this series.

But here, let’s start this way.  The big picture.

Exodus, second book of the Bible.  Got it.  Good.

Forty chapters long and I like looking at books of the Bible from a thirty-thousand-foot view.  When I do that, I see these 40 chapters and I divide the book into two parts.  The first 15 chapters are all about departing from Egypt and then the rest of the book are all about the Sinai experience.  So 1-15 and then basically 16-40.  Most of Exodus happens on Mount Sinai.

By the way, Mount Sinai is really the location of, not just most of Exodus, but all of Leviticus and the first ten chapters of Numbers.  Basically, the center chunk, the heart of the Pentateuch, takes place on Mount Sinai.  About a year transpires in the logic of the narrative.  About a year transpires on Mount Sinai, which means, you’re really slowing down the clock here and spending a lot of time at what happens on this mount, which is an indication to us that this is important.  Exodus is really about getting to Mount Sinai.  That’s really what the story’s about.


Let’s break this down a little bit further, because this is where we’re going to go with this series.  Chapters 1 to 15.  This is all about the departure from Egypt.  I would say the first four chapters are all about preparation.  It’s about the preparation for the actual departure.  The problem is introduced.  Moses is introduced.  We can sort of see where this is going. 

Then, starting in Chapter Five and going to Chapter 13.  Now we have Moses engaged with Pharaoh and they’re battling and it’s the plague narrative.

Chapters 14 and 15 are the story of the departure from Egypt itself, the Red Sea Crossing or the Sea of Reeds.  We’ll get to that too.  It’s probably Sea of Reeds.  It’s not Red Sea.

Chapter 14 is the narrative version of the departure from Egypt.  Chapter 15 is the poetic section.  That’s one of the older sections of Hebrew literature, as I mentioned before.  You have the preparation, the plagues, then the departure.  That’s the first 15 chapters.

The rest of the book is all about, first of all, getting to Mount Sinai.  That’s Chapters 16 to 18.  They arrive in Chapter 19.  They won’t depart from there until Numbers Chapter 10.  They’re going to be there for a long time. 

Then, the laws—that’s Chapters 20 through 24—20 is the Ten Commandments.  The rest are something called the Book of the Covenant (which we’ll look at some of those laws later on in this series).

Then comes this Tabernacle section.  That begins in Chapter 25.  The last—more than a third of the book is taken with something to do with the Tabernacle.  It’s a bit tedious.  We’re not going to spend 15 weeks on the Tabernacle, but we’re going to spend a little bit of time, because there’s stuff happening there that’s really, really interesting theologically. 

This is the stuff you skip.  If you’re reading through Exodus and you make it past the laws, you didn’t give up and you’re at the Tabernacle section because “who cares,” right?  But the instructions for building the Tabernacle are Chapters 25-31.  The actual building of the Tabernacle are Chapters 35-40.

Sandwiched in-between is the famous episode of the Golden Calf, Chapters 32 to 34.  And we’ll take each of those in turn, obviously, when we get there.

That’s the basic gist of it and, I thought, today, we’ve got a little bit of time.  We can just start off her with Section One and see where we go, because I have no idea where we’re going.  We’ll see where we go.  Who knows where we’ll end up.  Anyway.  Okay.

Section One.  This is about Chapters 1 to 4.  This is about the preparation, as I said.  We’re going to take a little more time here because these are thick chapters.  There’s a lot going on.  It’s not just preliminary stuff to get out of the way.  It’s sets up what’s going to follow.  I think it’s worth paying some attention to.

The big view here (these first four chapters) is that there’s a problem, a big problem.  From the Egyptian point of view, here’s the problem.  The problem is that there are too many Israelites and they might rebel.  The solution is, eventually—well, there are actually three that are attempted.  One is enslavement.  That sort of works, but it doesn’t work.  We’ll look at that in a second.  Another is, you have—the midwives are told (if you’re familiar with this story)—the midwives, these two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, are told to kill the mail children when they’re born.  That doesn’t work.  Eventually, the third solution is to throw the male Hebrew children into the Nile.

Israel is under threat.  They’re not just enslaved.  They’re actually under threat.  That poses a problem.  Israel’s under threat.  Now another solution is offered.  This solution is, of course, Moses—Moses is called to deliver the Israelites.  We’re introduced to Moses here in this part of the story.

In Chapter One—these are just some things that I think that are worth noticing.  Throughout, I’ll be looking at the New Revised Standard Version if you want to follow along.  That would be fine too.  In fact, I hope you do, as long as you’re not driving.

Chapter One.  Here are some things that I think are worth noticing in the chapter that aren’t always drawn out.  Actually, three in the first chapter.  The first is the introduction of a theme that will become very, very important in the course of this book, and that is the theme of creation.  You can see this already.  It’s hidden a little bit, but not too much.  In Chapter One, look at Verse 7.  It talks about how the Israelites were fruitful and prolific and they multiplied. 

This is echoing Genesis One language because the Israelites are actually doing what they’re supposed to be doing.  They’re in accordance with God’s will by increasing in number, which is exactly the thing that has this Pharaoh freaked out, this unnamed Pharaoh freaked out.  And so he wants to do something about it.  He says, “There are too many.  They might actually rebel against us and join with our enemies and fight against us.  We can’t have this.  We have to keep them under wraps.”  Which is why he enslaves them.  That’s the first attempt.


But you see, we should not lose sight here of how Pharaoh and Egypt are being posited here by the writer as sort of an anti-god force.  Not just ???? enslavement, but the problem they have is that there are too many Israelites, which is exactly what God wants.  By trying to keep the population down, they’re going against the creation mandate.

As I said, is something that will come up again and again and again in, especially, the first fifteen chapters—actually, no, the whole book.  What am I talking about?  The whole book has this creation theme happening and it’s introduced to you already.  Actually, when they’re enslaved, as an attempt to curtail the population, we read in verse 12, the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread.  It actually backfires.  That attempt to reduce the population actually results in them increasing all the more.  This is an indication of God’s favor.  This is actually an indication of where this whole book’s going.

Egypt’s attempt to hold the Israelites at bay and to squash the Israelites and to squash their god are going to backfire.  They’re not going to work.  This is already hinted at here at the very beginning.

Actually, speaking of Genesis here, this is a connection back to Genesis One.  But there’s another interesting connection here to Genesis, which again, shows us something of the literary style and intentionality of this writer.  Because in verse 10, this is the people saying, “Look.  The Israelites—they’re more numerous, more powerful than we.  Come let us deal shrewdly with them.”  That same cadence, that same language is used in the Tower of Babel story.  “Come let us make bricks.  Come let us build the tower up to heaven.”

Of course, that effort (if you know that story) is squashed by God, because God later says, “Come let us go down and see.”  The divine response also begins, “Come let us.”  As you’re reading this, you see here an echo of the Tower of Babel story.  Again, this is an indication that at some point in the Exodus story, God is also going to have a “come let us” moment.  And that’s called the Plagues and the Red Sea.

It’s not terribly subtle.  It actually jumps out at you when you’re reading this story.  If we’re looking for and even expecting these writers to make these connections to other parts of their story, especially the book of Genesis, oh boy, is Genesis just a wonderful place for this writer to go to draw connections with the story of the Exodus.  If we’re expecting that, we’re going to see it and I think we should just keep our eyes open to all that stuff.


Creation theme.  That’s a big thing. 

A second thing is women in Exodus are being introduced here.  We have a few of them, especially in Chapter Two.  We’ll get to that.  They’re sort of heroes by undermining the work of this Pharaoh.  You have these two women, Shiphrah and Puah (by the way, who are named and Pharaoh isn’t).  I think one reason why Pharaoh isn’t named, because this may be very distant past memories and it doesn’t even matter who the Pharaoh is, but maybe they don’t remember his name.  But the point is that they do remember these midwives’ names, because they do something pretty good.  They outwit the king and they do so by lying.


The king says to—the Pharaoh rather—he says to “kill the male children when they’re born” and they’re not doing it.  He says, “What’s going on?”  They say, “You don’t understand, by the time we get there, these Hebrew women are so vigorous, by the time we get there, they’ve already given birth.  These are amazing women.  They just drop kids all over the place.  We can’t get there in time.”

That’s not true.  That’s a lie.  What a lot of my students wind up asking about this story (maybe you’ve asked it too), is why do they lie and why is it okay with God to lie like that.  I tell them, with complete respect, “that’s a very white question to ask.  That’s a very privileged question.”  Because when you’re living in a time where you don’t have power, where you’re disenfranchised, where you’re marginalized, you have no power.  There’s no court to go to.  There’s no lawyer.  There’s no legal system.  If you want to get away with stuff that you know is right, that you know that you have to do, in the face of absolute power, which is the king of Egypt, the Pharaoh, you have to be crafty and you have to lie.  This is not the only time we see this sort of thing in the Bible.  You have to tell stories to people in power to outwit them.  This is really not lying.  This is outwitting.  This is using your wiles and your abilities to think on your feet to allow God’s purposes to go forward.

It’s not a moral issue.  “Oh no.  They’re lying and it’s bad to lie.”  It’s not bad to lie.  Not here.  There’s actually something that scholars study.  It’s called the trickster theme.  This is the theme that appears in many places in the Old Testament, where, just like it suggests, you are tricking other because you’re disenfranchised and you’re out of power and this is what you have to do.

Again, we’re going to meet other women, especially in Chapter Two with Moses’ sister and Pharaoh’s daughter.  You have this group of women in Chapters One and Two who outwit the almighty Pharaoh, which makes him look rather ridiculous, that he’s being so easily outwitted by these women.  I think that’s, in my opinion, the intention of the writer.  It’s not simply—it’s not to elevate women in the abstract, although we can read it that way.  I don’t that’s the intention of the writer.  My opinion—I don’t think it’s to elevate women, as much as it is to make Pharaoh look ridiculous that you have his sister, Moses’ sister, and Pharaoh’s own daughter and these two lowly Hebrew midwives who are slaves, they’re able to outwit this Pharaoh so he doesn’t know what’s going on.  As a result, Moses is drawn into the household of Pharaoh and he grows up there, which will have rather significant implications as the story goes on.

Third thing.  We have the creation theme.  The introduction of women in Exodus.  Also, this idea of drowning the male children in the Nile.  That’s the third of the three attempts on the part of Pharaoh to reduce the population of the Israelites.  It’s only the male children, of course, as is with the midwives.  Here is it with the Nile.  It’s only the males because they’re the ones who go to war.  They’re also the ones through whom the lineage is traced and so if you want to further disenfranchise a people that have, let’s say, a nationalistic or an ethnic identity, the way to do that is to get rid of the men.  The women will become the property of other men, namely Egyptians.  So you get rid of them.  This makes some sense historically.

But the men here are thrown into the Nile.  Male infants are thrown into the Nile for drowning.  We have to think here of how this story will end.  The Red Sea.  Especially the Tenth Plague too.  The Tenth Plague and the Red Sea.  The way many interpreters, especially Jewish interpreters throughout history have read this, is that the Tenth Plague, which is the death of the firstborn, and also the Red Sea, which is the drowning of the Egyptians, that’s sort of tit for tat.  It’s eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth.  “If you do this to my children at the beginning,” Yahweh says, “Justice means it will happen to you at the end.”  That’s the Tenth Plague and the Crossing of the Red Sea.

The plagues as a whole are really, in my opinion, just an onramp to get to the Red Sea episode.  There are Ten Plagues.  They’re rather drawn out.  We’ll get into all that stuff.  It could have been one plague.  It could have been none.  It could have just been “go out.”  Just leave, just part, go through the Red Sea.  But you have this Ten Plagues and it goes on for a bit.  It’s all about building up the tension for that final moment where God finally does what, again, in the logic of the narrative, God finally does what God has been wanting to do, namely, vengeance on the Egyptians.  “You will die because of how you treated my children.”

It’s interesting.  When we get to Chapter Four, we’ll see how when God tells Moses to confront Pharaoh, he says, “Is this what you say?  Israel is my son, my first-born.”   Israel is like God’s child.  “If you do this to my children, then your children are going to get it too.”  It makes sense.  The theology makes sense is what I’m saying.  It may be a little bit gruesome, the violence here, but again, you’re reading the Bible, folks.  We got to get used to the violence.  It’s all over the place.


Ok, so those are three things that happen in the first chapter and some of these things we’ll come back to, namely the Nile and the Creation theme.  Those things hang together.

In the second chapter, this is where Moses is born.  We’re introduced to Moses.  We’re told that he’s a Levite.  When the Bible gives details like that, it’s probably important, because we’re not given much information about the book of characters, and when we are, there’s probably a reason for it.  But here, we’re told that he’s a Levite.  Of course, his brother Aaron will be the first high priest.  He’s of the tribe of Levi as well.  That’s an important detail for this author because Tabernacle, sacrifice, priesthood, all this stuff gets introduced in the book of Exodus.  The main guy here, Moses, is of that same tribe and nd his brother, Aaron, who will be the high priest.  That’s just laid out there right here at the beginning.

A second thing here in terms of Moses’ birth in Chapter Two, is, as you know, the famous story, he’s put into a reed basket or a papyrus basket as the New Revised Standard Version has it.  And it’s lined with bitumen and pitch to keep it from sinking.  The Hebrew word here for this basket is a rare word in the Old Testament.  It’s only used here and then way back in the flood story to describe the ark.  The Hebrew word is “tevah.”  That’s not irrelevant.  That’s pretty important because what you have is Moses—this is like another Noah, and he’s in an ark and he will be delivered from this watery threat.  As a result, there will be a new beginning for God’s people, just like the Noah story.  He and his family are saved through a threat of water and as a result, they’ll start something new.

We’re seeing the Noah story revisited here, but not just a “what a nice little literary connection.”  The point is more theological that God is doing something new and you know he’s doing something new when he’s saving people through water.  Guess where else in this story God is going to save people through water?  Exactly.  Chapter 14 and 15.  The departure from Egypt.  The crossing of the Sea of Reeds.  You’ve got this water deliverance in this story that actually echoes back to Genesis Chapter One as well.  I’m going to leave that for later, because it’s really clear when you get to Chapter 14 that it’s not just Noah, but we’re going back to Genesis Chapter One in this story.  There are echoes of the creation story itself later on, very prominently when we actually depart Egypt.

You have a reed basket.  Also, as I mentioned before, you have the sister here who puts him afloat and follows the basket and sees where it goes and Pharaoh’s daughter picks it up.  The two of them conspire to keep this infant safe from Pharaoh’s hands.  “I happen to know this guy’s mother.  You want me to bring him back and have her breastfeed him until he’s ready?”  “Yeah.  That’d be great.  Go ahead and do that.”

Three months or so and then he comes back.  Actually, it’s more than that.  It’s not three months.  Actually, we don’t know how long it is.  When he’s ready, he comes back and then he grows up in the house of Pharaoh.  We have these thoughtful women outwitting Pharaoh and finding a way to keep this infant safe, because they’re looking at this infant and for whatever reason, this is a kid worth saving.  At least, that’s Pharaoh’s daughter’s point of view.  Moses’ sister would not have that kind of an issue, but she looks at him and says, “Wow.  This is fantastic.” 

We have these women outwitting Pharaoh again.  Also, the name Moses—I mentioned before it probably has an Egyptian echo to it.  But in the story itself, the writer gives Moses a very different meaning, a Hebrew meaning from a verb, a rare verb in the Old Testament that means “to draw out,” meaning “because I drew Moses out of the water, I’m going to call him Moses.”

A problem with this is that who’s giving Moses this name.  It’s Pharaoh’s daughter, which raises a couple of questions.  Number one:  did she know Hebrew?  The chances for knowing Hebrew, maybe, maybe not.  I think it’s unlikely.  Most people think it’s unlikely.  Why would she bother learning the tongue of the slaves?  They have to learn their tongue, not the other way around. 


But more importantly, why would she give him a Hebrew name to begin with if the whole point is to keep him safe.  At the dinner table with Pharaoh: “Hi.  This is Moishe.”  You’re not going to do that.  You’re going to do something else.  It’s unlikely that she gave him this name, but here’s what’s happening.  This is the pretty standard answer in Biblical scholarship, if it’s of interest to you.  I hope it is.   This is what is called a folk etymology.  It’s not a scientific, linguistic etymology.  But it’s a folk etymology.  It’s how the Israelites later explain the name of Moses from their point of view.  It’s possible the author may not have understood Moses’ name, maybe few people did.  Who knows?  But at least, the writer intentionally gives this name a Hebrew significance that has something to do with the story itself.  So it’s unlikely that Pharaoh’s daughter named him this, because it would have been rather nonsensical for her to do that.  The name has some historical residences with Egypt.  But from the Hebrew point of view, “who cares?”  That’s not furthering our story.  We’re going to look at this differently and give him a Hebrew etymology, which means “to draw out of water.”

One more thing about Moses being drawn out of water.  Everybody talks about this.  This parallels a much, much, much older story, going back to late third millennium BCE, of a king, Sargon, of a place called Akkad (there’s where we get the word Akkadian from, if that helps).  We have a similar kind of rags to riches story.  He’s threatened and he’s saved by the court and his life is threatened.  But then he grows up in this court and winds up becoming a great king.

The Moses story follows that pattern very nicely, so much so, that scholars typically think, not so much in terms of the Moses story is borrowed from this story of Sargon from a long time ago, but it’s more like a standard way of talking about the origins of a great person, sort of like a rags-to-riches story.  That seems to be what’s happening here, and again, these are the kinds of things have to be discussed when you’re talking about the historicity, like we said earlier, when you’re talking about the historicity of this episode.  These are the kinds of things that you have to really take into account somehow and try to explain.  Again, it may not mean that Moses never lived.  But it may mean that Moses’ actual history, the way we think of it, may not be exactly how the Bible here is portraying it, like where he got his name from.  This is a Hebrew overlaying.  This is not really mythical.  We’ll get to mythical overlays later.  But this is still a legendary or a theologically meaningful way of telling this story that really speaks to the people who are recounting their past and setting a vision for their present and a vision for their future.

If we’re expecting this to be totally distant from history and have no connection with the Sargon story, I think that’s a tough hill to climb.  Using literary motifs from other nations is not unheard of in the history of humanity.  You sort of do that.  You learn how to tell stories from the environment that you’re in.  That seems to be what’s happening here as well.  Moses is already being styled as, clearly, this guy’s going to be a great leader.  Look at how history is beginning.  This is how you tell the story of a great leader in that time.

Then he flees (little Moses) to Midian and he flees there because he was found out.  He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave and he intervened and he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.  Way to go Moses!  Way to not be impulsive!  But you see what’s happening here is that we’re seeing Moses as a grown man.  We know nothing of his infancy except for that little story.  But here is a grown man and he’s doing now what he’s going to be later on.  He’s protecting his people from the threat, from the Egyptian threat.

Actually, this whole Chapter Two that talks about Moses’ flight to Midian is a preview of coming attractions.  We’re seeing Moses do things that he’s going to be doing later on his life throughout Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  He saves a slave from the Egyptians, he protects his own people.  But then the next day, he sees two Hebrews arguing and he gets in the way of them and they say, “What are you going to do?  You going to kill one of us too?”

There’s this whole grumbling and rebellion against Moses’ authority on the part of his own people that pops up a lot.  If you know where this story goes, it pops up a lot in the story of Moses throughout the next few books of the Bible.  We have another example of something is that is a preview of coming attractions. 


The biggest one is that he flees and where does he flee to?  He flees to Midian, which anticipates the same path that the Israelites will take later on.  He goes to Midian (we’re jumping ahead here).  He meets Yahweh on Mount Sinai and Yahweh says, “Go get the people and bring them back here to worship.”  It’s almost like a trial run, escaping Egypt to go to Midian.  He’ll come back and then he’ll take the people. 

More subtlety, however, this story of going to Midian has another echo of something in Genesis, namely the Joseph story.  Joseph is cast into a well by his brothers, but then sold to the Midianites, who then give them over to the Egyptians.  There’s a Midian connection that brings Joseph to Egypt and there’s a Midian connection here to with Moses that will bring him back to Egypt.  Midian is also, if I remember this right, he’s also one of Abraham’s sons through Keturah named Midian.  There’s something about the ancestors in Genesis that is evoked by the word Midian. 

Another point about this flight to Midian is this is where he’s going to meet his wife by a well.  Zipporah.  She’s the daughter of Jethro, the priest of Midian.  This, again, connects him to these ancestral stories in the book of Genesis, namely Isaac and Jacob.  They both meet their wives by a well.  What is it about a well?  It’s like a bar.  I don’t know what it is.  It’s just where you meet girls or something.  Probably not.  It’s a motif.  It’s the dessert.  You’ve got to drink and you meet people by a well.  But he’s doing it too.  This is a continuation of this theme from Genesis. 

One last point and then we’ll stop for today.  We see here at the end of Chapter Two, I think, a very, very important moment in the story that is worth remembering.  It’s the last three verses of Chapter Two.  I just want to read them.

“After a long time, the king of Egypt died.”

This Pharaoh that had impressed them and enslaved them, he dies.

“This Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out.  Out of the slavery, their cry for help rose up to God.  God heard their groaning and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  God looked upon the Israelites and God took notice of them.”

The reason I want to draw this out just a little bit is because this is giving us the reason for the Exodus.  Why does God deliver His children from Egyptian slavery?  It’s basically to keep a promise to the Patriarchs, meaning Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  This is who God speaks to in the Old Testament in the book of Genesis, especially, in Chapter 15, where he’s engaging Abraham and he says, “Listen, your descendants are going to be slaves in Egypt for 400 years, but I’ll get them out and I’ll bring them into this land and everything will be fine.” 

This is a promise that God made.  It’s not simply God hates slavery.  Forgive me.  God clearly doesn’t hate slavery because there are salves all over the place.  There are even laws in Exodus about what to do with slaves and how to keep them and how to treat them.  Slavery is not a bad thing.  Not for this god.  Not for here. 

It’s not just “I don’t want slaves and I hear you crying out.  I hear you groaning and I don’t like slavery.”  It’s more “I made a promise to Abraham and I’m going to keep it.”  That is the reason why they’re delivered from Egyptian slavery.

The last verse—I love the last verse here because if I could throw a little Hebrew on you here—in English, it’s rather cumbersome.

“God looked upon the Israelites and God took notice of them.”

But in Hebrew, it’s just a few words.  “God saw the Israelites.  God knew.”

I just love that.  God saw.  God knew. 

This is not taking God by surprise.  God is going to do something.  From here on out, what we’re really going to see is what God is going to do to deliver the Israelites.  Not so much Moses.  But God sees and God knows.  And now something absolutely is going to happen.

[Outro Music Begins]

Alright folks, well we’re going to stop there. That’s not bad, we did half of this preparatory section 1-4, we’ll finish it next time, whenever that’ll be. I have no idea, I’m not planning this out folks, it’s just going to happen by Divine direction I think; it’s just going to happen. But until then, and as always, thank you for listening. Folks, when you press download and then push to listen, we’re very thankful that you’re letting us into your lives. We don’t take that for granted at all, and one last thing, this is important, it’ll change your life. So 3 simple words: Grab. Some. Swag. You can go to our store at thebiblefornormalpeople.com and you can find t-shirts of various colors, even youth sizes, with all sorts of fun little sayings on them and polo shirts, which I have, and fleece hoodies, hats, beanies, all different colors and sizes. We have a lot of mugs, tote bags, and we even have onesies for your babies. We’re actually working on an adult onesie but we’re trying to figure out whether that’s actually legal in the state of Pennsylvania. But if it is, oh boy, you’re going to see adult onesies here on this website. Because, why not? That’s why. Because that’s how we roll, man, and that’s what we do. Ok folks, anyway, thanks again for listening and we’ll be with each other next time. See ya.

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