Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Episode 125- Big Ideas that Shaped Biblical Scholarship: Julius Wellhausen and the Pentateuch

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete discusses the legacy of Julius Wellhausen in biblical scholarship as he explores the following questions:

  • Who is Julius Wellhausen and why was he so controversial?
  • When did Wellhausen date the Law of Moses?
  • What is the difference between the Law of Moses and the Pentateuch?
  • What evidence did Wellhausen use to support his dating? 
  • What did scholars notice that caused them to question the historicity of some of the Bible’s claims?
  • What is the documentary hypothesis? 
  • Who is Jean Astruc and why is he important?
  • What idea of Astruc’s is still influential to biblical studies today?
  • Why do our Bibles say LORD in stead of the divine name?
  • What is the significance of Israel’s worship location in the dating the Pentateuch?
  • Why did the priestly source write about the tabernacle?
  • What are some characteristics of the J, E, P, and D sources?


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

  • “It’s quite revealing to see how little a presence the detailed regulations of the Law of Moses has [in the prophets and book about Israel’s monarchy].” @peteenns
  • “Jeremiah says that God never said what the Law of Moses said He said, and that’s at least worth thinking about.” @peteenns
  • “Wellhausen and others read the Bible carefully and they saw inconsistencies.” @peteenns
  • “It just strains credulity that this divinely commanded system for worship would have no controlling function for Israel’s worship when they settled in the land.” @peteenns
  • “There probably was no Tabernacle, at least not one as elaborate, with a fully functioning and highly organized system as the one we read about in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.” @peteenns
  • “The way the priestly editors present the story in the Bible by putting their stuff at the beginning, actually obscures Israel’s actual history.” @peteenns

Mentioned in This Episode

Recommendations for Further Reading

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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]

Pete: Hello everyone, welcome to this episode of The Bible for Normal People. Well, you know there certainly are a lot of important things happening in our world at the moment and you know, things far more important than a podcast episode, but I want to thank you for listening. You know, we’re all carrying on as we’re isolating and that goes for me and everybody else, so, here we are. Right, well, let’s get started.  

As you know, we’re committed to bringing other people’s big ideas to you, and especially the best of biblical scholarship down to earth for normal people, which brings me to today’s podcast. Today’s topic is a little different from others, but it’s something that we’ve been thinking about for a while. Now, you may have noticed that all of our guests thus far, over four seasons, have something in common. They’re all present voices. Well, beginning today and wherever else I might, in the months and years to come, feel like it, I’d like to switch gears and talk about voices from the past. So, you know, biblical scholarship has had a rich history with towering figures with big ideas who have asked perceptive questions about the Bible and given answers that have, you know, influenced generations of scholars, even shaped and redirected the entire discipline. Figures that our academic guests are familiar with, but that many normal people have never really heard of, so let’s fix that shall we? Yes, let’s do that. 

Our first guest from the past is a good one to start with because he is, without question, the most influential, and probably controversial, and in some circles demonized Old Testament scholar of the modern period. His name is Julius Wellhausen and he was born in 1844 and he died in 1918, the year of the flu pandemic by the way, not to bring that up. He also lived in an era, the late 19th to early 20th centuries where other controversial, big ideas were challenging conventional thinking. You know this is the same era roughly as Charles Darwin who forced a conversation about human origins that’s still with us today or Sigmund Freud who said most of our actions are not under our rational control but directed by the subconscious. And no need to mention people like Albert Einstein and Karl Marx. Profound shifts in knowledge were happening all over the place and Wellhausen fit right into the spirit of the time. He also turned things upside down in the field of biblical studies and specifically what he did was he flipped the history of Israel on its head. What was thought to be first is actually last and fleshing that highly influential idea out is the topic of this podcast. 

So, what did he do? Well, in 1898, he wrote this long book Prolegomena to the History of Israel. It always starts with somebody writing a book. We’ll come back to the title later, because it’s revealing, but for now it’s enough to know that it’s six hundred pages long and really detailed, because he’s German, but thankfully, in literally the first two sentences he tells you exactly where all of this is going and I just want to paraphrase. See, his focus is on the law of Moses, the law that Moses received from God on Mount Sinai, right? That stuff that’s found in Exodus and Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy. So, here’s what he said, here’s how he flipped the history of Israel around. The law of Moses isn’t from Moses, rather it came from a much later time. Hundreds of years after Moses. Okay, that’s crazy. You know, what kind of a nutso theory is that? Has he never read the Bible? Well, he did, and his six-hundred-page book is the results of what he found. See, he argues – this is the thing – he argues that the biblical evidence itself drives him to his conclusion. Well, how can that be? We all know, don’t we, just from reading the Old Testament that Moses received the law from God on Mount Sinai early on in the story. Halfway through the second book, the second of thirty-nine Old Testament books in the Book of Exodus, and then continuing through the third book, Leviticus, most of the fourth book, Numbers, and then at the end of Moses life, in the fifth book, we have Deuteronomy where Moses just sort of reiterates what he received years earlier.


By the way, those four books plus the first one, Genesis, together are called the Pentateuch. Not everyone is familiar with that term, so that’s what it is, the Pentateuch, which means Five Scrolls or Five Books. In Judaism it’s called Torah, which means something like instruction or teaching, and sometimes those five books are simply called the Law even though there’s more than law in it, or the Law of Moses. I just bring that up in part because I use the word Pentateuch all the way through, but when Wellhausen says Law of Moses, what he means isn’t the whole Pentateuch, he means the laws, specifically the laws given at Mount Sinai, the actual laws found in the Pentateuch. Again, I just say that in case all these terms might get confusing. I’m using Law of Moses in Wellhausen sense, to mean those laws given on Mount Sinai which begins in the Book of Exodus. Alright? 

Any who, the Law of Moses is frontloaded in the Bible. We all notice that, you know, over four of the first five books. And it’s clearly a big deal because it’s, it’s the foundation of Israel’s entire story. I mean, what could be more obvious? But, ya know, Wellhausen, this is his thing, he saw it differently. He said, you know sure, on the surface, okay, that’s how the story goes, but if you paid close attention to the details, because he’s German, it’s pretty clear that the Law of Moses is late. How late? Well, pretty darn late. Specifically, from at least the time of the Babylonian exile, which lasted from 586 to 539 BCE, if not later. Now, the time of Moses, depending on whom you ask, was somewhere between the 15th and 13th centuries, so if you’re doing the math, that means the Law of Moses, according to Wellhausen, did not appear until at least 700 years after Moses. And so, we can see why Wellhausen’s idea might have caused some problems.   

Okay, to sum up the Law of Moses, it’s not chronologically first in Israel’s history, but basically last. It’s not the foundation for Israel’s history, but a later development, and not a very positive one for Wellhausen, we’ll come back to that a little bit later. But, you know, if Wellhausen is right, if the law is late, he just flipped the main storyline of the Bible front to back. It’s like saying the Declaration of Independence doesn’t stem from the 18th century but was written much later in the 20th century after the Vietnam War, that would take some getting used to. 

Okay, so that’s the gist. Now, it sounds weird, I know, and I said he’s the most influential Old Testament scholar of the modern period, because he is, but I didn’t say that everyone agreed with him. I didn’t say he was right about everything. But I am saying this big idea shifted the field of biblical scholarship, and no scholar since, including today, who deals with the Pentateuch has been able to simply ignore him, because his work has stood the test of time pretty well. Not all of it, there are some problems, but the main idea. You know, I’ve heard it said, I was in graduate school and the professor said that the modern study of the Old Testament since Wellhausen is basically, simply, footnoting Wellhausen. And that’s an exaggeration, but you know, think about it, you still have to be a pretty big deal to get an exaggeration like that. So, Wellhausen was something. 

Anyway, what exactly is the biblical evidence that the biblical storyline is wrong, which is Wellhausen’s point. And that’s exactly what the six hundred pages are for, but let me give you just two relatively brief concrete examples that I think will help us get a sense of why he thinks the Law of Moses was late. Okay?  

Well the first, is from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived right around the beginning of the Babylonian exile, around 600-ish BCE and he was not a popular figure. He found himself butting heads with the people and the leaders. The Babylonians were coming, and it was assumed the sacrifices that they made would appease God and keep the Babylonians off their backs. Spoiler alert – it didn’t. See, Jeremiah really leans into this idea that gee, sacrifices should just appease God.  


And in chapter 7, in verses 21 – 23, Jeremiah says something you can’t pass over, and he’s a little sarcastic too. This is what he says, he goes, “Thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices, eat the flesh,” it’s like ‘go ahead, knock yourselves out, it’s not going to make a hill of beans worth of difference.’ Then he continues, “for in the day that I,”… this is, you know, the prophet speaking for God, right, so he uses ‘I’, so this is technically God speaking, “for in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt,” right? That’s the time of Moses, right? “For in the day I brought your ancestors out of the Land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Hmm. “But this command I gave them, obey my voice and I will be your God and you shall be my people. And walk only in the way that I command you so that it may be well with you.” 

Hmm. You hear that? See, whatever those commands were that they were supposed to obey, they apparently didn’t include commands about sacrifices and offerings, which God says through Jeremiah, “I never commanded.” Which is hard to accept if you’ve read the story of Moses. And yet, incidentally, I mean, not to dwell on this, but if you have the Bible on your computer with a search engine and maybe a couple of hours on your hands, type in words like ‘law’ or ‘Moses’ or ‘Law of Moses’ and see where they occur in the books of the prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and all that kind of stuff and the books that cover Israel’s monarchy, mainly 1 and 2 Kings. They don’t occur nearly as often as you might think. See, even without this passage in Jeremiah, it’s quite revealing to see how little a presence the detailed regulations of the Law of Moses has in these books. There are implications to that, we’ll get to it in a minute. And even when we see a phrase like Law of Moses or something similar, it’s either in books written later or maybe around or after the exile or the phrase in context Law of Moses clearly doesn’t refer to the whole Law of Moses, but part of it. Namely Deuteronomy or maybe even just some early version of Deuteronomy. Now listen, I know that’s a lot and maybe that’s more detailed than necessary, so, just listen, the bottom line – Jeremiah says that God never said what the Law of Moses said He said, and that’s at least worth thinking about.  

Another example comes from the book of Exodus, chapter 20. Here God gives the Israelites instructions on how to build an altar for offering sacrifices. You know, they’re sort of being prepped to enter the Promised Land, so here is the blueprint. They are to build it out of earth or stone, and if stone, for some reason, they weren’t to use any tools. Okay, so what? Exodus 20:24 is the key. After telling them all this stuff about building an altar out of earth or stone, but not using tools if you’re going to build it out of stone, after all that, God says, “in every place where I cause my name to be remembered, I will come to you and bless you.” In every place, which means multiple places. Hence, multiple places for building altars for sacrificing. And wherever God’s name is remembered, basically means honored like this, God will show up and bless them.  

Alright, Pete, you’re boring me. What’s the big deal? Here’s the big deal, this command in Exodus 20, given by God through Moses, runs up against later commands likewise given by God through Moses where sacrifice is restricted to one central place, namely Jerusalem. And the classic passage in the Pentateuch to see this is Deuteronomy chapter 12 where Moses says to the Israelites, “you shall not worship the Lord your God in such ways,” meaning like Canaanite ways, where there are altars all over the place, “but you shall seek the place out of all your tribes as His habitation to put his name there.” In Deuteronomy that’s all code for Jerusalem. 


You shall go there, bringing there your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes, and your donations, your votive offerings, your free will offerings, the firstborn of your herds and flocks, etc., etc. And that’s Deuteronomy 12, that’s verses 4 to 6 if you’d want to look at it later.

Okay. So, why would God give two commands to Moses? One saying I will bless you wherever you sacrifice, and the other restricting sacrifice to a central location? That’s a good question, and my point here is just that Wellhausen noticed things like this, like inconsistencies, contradictions, the presence of different voices in the Bible, and he treated those moments not, maybe the way we might be tempted to. He didn’t treat them as problems, but as clues, clues to a mystery. They revealed something under the surface about how the Bible came to be.  

Now, I realize that this is a lot to take in, especially in a podcast where you might be driving or working out in your basement gym. So, to bring this down to earth, let me just give a hypothetical but entirely plausible example from my always exciting life as a college professor. Imagine a college student in a Bible class who hands in a twenty-page paper that he says he wrote. Okay? I’m always suspicious about that, but he says he wrote it. So, you read it carefully and you notice, in this paragraph he speaks in the first person, he says I, and then for a few lines he switches to the second person, you, and then back to first person. He does that later too. Okay, maybe he’s a lousy writer and doesn’t know how English works, but just something seems off. Did someone help him? Here’s my theory, maybe his smart friend did research for him and she kept writing you addressing him, and he’s a bit of a dolt, and just forgot to change the you’s to I’s, if you follow me. Anyway, you’re not sure, so you keep reading and you get to a part where he refers to David as the greatest king, but a paragraph or two later, he calls David an abysmal king, only to switch back a page later to David was the best. And then you notice, because you’re reading carefully, that the David is great parts, they line up really nicely with the first-person parts. And the David is abysmal parts, they line up with the second-person parts really nicely. Hmm. I’m sorry, something is going on.  

And then a few pages later, you’re greeted later with a sentence you just know that he didn’t write. I mean, up to this point, he seems semi-literate. “The temple was a big building, and it was beautiful. It was in Jerusalem. I think the temple is way important and I think everyone should know more about the temple.” Okay. But the next sentence goes like this. “It goes without saying, of course, that the socio-culture milieu of Israelite temple architecture, to which we have already referred, is hidden behind the dark veil of antiquity, and yet the influence of Phoenician and Canaanite exemplars cannot be ruled out.” Alright, listen, this isn’t Agatha Christie, it’s pretty obvious this student did something weird, some pointing and clicking and cutting and pasting. So, now you’re on the alert. See, no way, no how, was this paper the creation of one person. He clearly edited together, badly, information from multiple sources, let’s call them, at least two, his friend and the internet, and not including himself. And these sources are signaled to me the reader, or to you the reader, by these abrupt changes in style and contradictions and inconsistencies.  

Now, of course, that’s just an analogy. The Pentateuch is frankly a beautiful piece of literature. It’s much longer and more complicated and far better written than a half-hearted college paper, but the analogy still basically holds. See, Wellhausen and others read the bible carefully and they saw inconsistencies.  


Tensions that jumped out at them and they wanted to explain them and the explanation at the time, was that the Pentateuch, as we have it in front of us, must have come from earlier independent sources. Now that explanation is called the documentary hypothesis. The hypothesis, it’s not proven, but the hypothesis that the Pentateuch was made up of previously existing documents, four to be exact, and those four documents were different versions of the same stories that an editor stitched together. And when you stitch things together, it leaves traces, what scholars call seams. You know, the unevenness, inconsistencies, contradictions, and some awkward transitions.  

You know, I can’t help but think about the kitchen counter we had installed a few years ago. They had to do it in two pieces, and they did an amazing job of connecting the two, but the seam is there. All you have to do is run your fingers over the countertop and you know exactly where the seam is. Seams stand out. You can’t hide seams. So anyway, the student paper had seams, and so does the Pentateuch. Even though it’s incomparable to a student paper in terms of its value and its literary quality, it still has a lot of seams. And so, the documentary hypothesis is proposed by Wellhausen as an explanation for why the Pentateuch has these rough spots.  

Alright, I just mentioned four sources and I just sort of dumped that on you, but I need to explain that just a little bit. Wellhausen did not come up with this idea; it was actually about a hundred years old by the time Wellhausen got a hold of it. The first person who came up with the idea, that there were these sources that make up the Pentateuch, is a rather unlikely figure, he’s a Frenchman by the name of Jean Astruc who died in 1766. Now, Astruc, he was, listen to this guy, he was a French professor of medicine and a physician to Louis XV, and I think, ya know, a busy guy by most people’s standards. But he apparently had enough spare time to more or less invent modern Biblical scholarship without even knowing it. See, he wasn’t a biblical scholar, but he knew Hebrew, of course he did, it was the old days, who didn’t know Hebrew? And he noticed that Genesis chapter 1 and chapter 2, right, the seven days of creation, that’s chapter 1, and the creation of Adam, that’s chapter 2. He said these are two very different creation stories. For a lot of reasons, but one difference that really grabbed him was the different names they used for God. In Genesis 1, it’s simply God, Elohim in Hebrew, begins with the letter E. In the Adam story, God’s personal name is used, Yahweh. Which I’m sure many of you have heard that name Yahweh before, but just a little sidebar and you may thank me. Don’t go looking for that name, Yahweh, in the Bible. You won’t find it anywhere because it’s always written as Lord, specifically where the Lord, the ‘o-r-d’ are in small capital letters. Okay, so why do our Bibles say Lord instead of Yahweh? Well, this follows Jewish tradition for showing reverence for the divine name, so much so that you don’t utter it. And to be safe, just hide it, just say Lord. 

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So, if you want to know the details, Google is your friend, but if I may add a little comment here, you know, especially for people who are learning about the Bible, like college students for example. You know, I really respect the reverent reasons for doing this, for using Lord instead of Yahweh, but it’s sort of a shame that when the Bible uses God’s personal name, all we see is a title, Lord, and we lose something. I think God becomes a bit detached and distant. I feel a big difference between “the Lord is my shepherd” and “Yahweh is my shepherd.” Maybe that’s another podcast, but anyway, the Elohim/Yahweh thing in Genesis 1 and 2 isn’t exactly a cliffhanger, it’s right there and people have noticed. And, by the way, if you want to see that first appears in Genesis 2:4. But you see, here’s what Astruc did that kicked off modern Biblical studies, he didn’t just notice this stuff, he offered an explanation for why they are different. Why do we even have this situation? Sort of like questions we might ask of that student paper. Why does it look like this? Well, long story short, Astruc theorized, and with this, modern biblical scholarship is born, that these two very different stories that use different names for God, that are sitting right here in Genesis, two creation stories right next to each other. He said they were originally two separate documents written by different, anonymous people at some point or points in the past. Moses didn’t write either one, but he played the role of editor, tying them together and in doing so he left a seam, the change in God’s name from chapter one to chapter two. 

 Now, Astruc called the first hypothetical document, the one that uses Elohim, that’s in Genesis 1, he called that A. And the second in Genesis 2 that uses Yahweh, he called, wait for it, B. Not the most creative effort, but it is what it is. See that’s Astruc’s big idea. But yeah, he had some doubts about it. He wasn’t a biblical scholar. Not terribly confident he was right, so he didn’t really try to publish it, but he passed it around to some scholars, and lo and behold, guess what? They jumped all over it like he cracked the code, and the theory got expanded.  

Now, we had to do all this, we have to jump back to Wellhausen now. See, by his time, these two hypothetical documents had become four hypothetical documents or sources as they were called. And they were all referred to by a letter and not A and B. One of these came to be called P, hmmm, meaning the priestly document. Why? Well, remember the student paper again, because there seemed to be a distinct language and a distinct style that was shared by certain portions of the Bible that dealt with priestly things like, well priests, and sacrifice, and laws of all sorts like not to eat pork. Just think of the book of Leviticus, the third one, the one we never read, and you’re basically in P territory. And P, by the way was Astruc’s A, so Genesis 1 is P according to Wellhausen. Okay, Astruc’s B document, the one that uses the name Yahweh, came to be called, and please hang with me here folks, it came to be called J. Not Y, but J. Why J? Because Germans don’t make the “yuh” sound with the Y but with the J. Hence, the source that prefers Yahweh over Elohim is forever referred to as the J source and its hypothetical author as the Yahwist. The two other sources, just quickly here, they came to be called E and D. The E source is called E because this author liked referring to God as Elohim, just like P does but without all that priestly stuff that we see in P. E contains a lot of stories and narratives, and some laws too, but mainly stories and narratives. And then D, that’s basically the book of Deuteronomy. So, you have these four sources: P, J, E, and D. And Wellhausen, see, he was down with all this. He couldn’t agree more. But had Wellhausen just said, yeah, this is cool, we wouldn’t be talking about him. See, for him, talking about sources was just the first step, it led to a far bigger, sweeping, and somewhat mind-bending conclusion for Wellhausen, and that’s the big idea we looked at, at the very beginning. Namely, the law of Moses is not from Moses, but from a much later time. And to see this, I think it’s best to go to another example.


Straight from Wellhausen’s book, in fact, it’s the example that he opens with. Okay, so Wellhausen begins his book by making, you know, a casual observation. He says, like, you know, in the Pentateuch you can’t help but notice chapter after chapter of specific, binding, unyielding regulations about offering sacrifices to God and the worship of God. It’s all structured, controlled, centralized, not free-floating, there are definitely rules. But have you ever noticed that when you turn to the next books, especially like Judges and Samuel, what do you see? Well, you see unregulated sacrifices offered on altars, plural, all over the place without a moment’s hesitation like it’s just a thing. You know in places like Shechem, or Bethel, or Hebron, or Beersheba, or Gibeon, Gilgal, Shiloh – you’ve got all these sacred sites and altars, like it’s just normal.

So Wellhausen said, how interesting. It seems to me that the only way to make sense of this is to say that Judges and Samuel had never heard of all these regulations. Now, of course, at this point in time, we’re talking about the time of Judges and Samuel, before you have a monarchy and all that kind of stuff. Now of course at this point, the time of Judges and Samuel before the monarchy, at this point there’s no temple. That won’t be built until Solomon’s time, hundreds of years later. So, maybe we can forgive books like Judges and Samuel for not having a centralized worship location, and that’s a fair point, but, they did have the Tabernacle constructed under Moses, that portable sanctuary they had for forty years in the wilderness and Wellhausen raises this point and he asks, and frankly it’s a good one, he says, what happened to it? What happened to the Tabernacle? See, its presence isn’t felt in these books. It seems to have dropped out of the story, like, what happened? Is it in the attic? Did they just misplace it? Did they forget about it? What happened? I mean, surely, they could have set it up someplace and carried through with what they had been doing those forty years in the desert. It just seems odd that the commands of God which had supposedly been followed for forty years would get tabled, forgotten so completely, and so quickly. It just strains credulity that this divinely commanded system for worship would have like, no controlling function for Israel’s worship when they settled in the land. That’s Wellhausen’s observation, you know, and it’s a pretty good one. And he launches a book with it.  

So, you might be wondering, oh yeah, where is the Tabernacle? Never thought about it before. Well, Wellhausen argued, and this is a common academic view still, that there, hold on to your seats, there probably was no Tabernacle. At least not one as elaborate, with a fully functioning and highly organized system as the one we read about in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. A simple tent of some sort perhaps, okay. But a Tabernacle? And that’s not such a crazy idea, I mean, think about it, the Tabernacle, you have to admit, just read Exodus 25-31. The Tabernacle is a pretty elaborate structure. It’s made of twisted linen of various colors and embroidering along with all sorts of like high-end furnishings made of gold and silver. Hmm. Now I know, the Book of Exodus mentions that the Israelites left Egypt with gold and silver, sort of an act of plundering, but still. Smelting and weaving and all that stuff, it just seems like a huge task for a mass of humans moving from place to place in the wilderness for four decades.  

And Wellhausen brings up another issue about the Tabernacle, he says when Solomon built the temple, and that’s in 1 Kings, it’s a pretty quick episode first of all, but you’d think he would’ve built it according to the predetermined design, according to the blueprint of the sacred tabernacle, the heavenly pattern as it’s called in Exodus, a design given by God Himself, it seems important. But the Tabernacle isn’t mentioned, not a word about how the temple is the permanent continuation of that temporary sanctuary. And Solomon actually seems to be so out of his element in building a sanctuary like this that he needed to hire people from neighboring Tyre, a Phoenician city, to do the work. And even some of the furnishings that are built for the temple, like the bronze basin for washing, Wellhausen points out this was made from scratch by Solomon rather than just, sort of taking it from the Tabernacle.  


Wellhausen concluded, after all this, that the ancient elaborate Tabernacle didn’t exist, but was a, like a literary creation, more fitting a description for a temple than a portable shrine. In other words, the temple was written into the early parts of the story as a portable sanctuary. Now, that’s the theory, right? So, who’s responsible for this literary creation? Wellhausen said, well, it’s those priests who gave us the priestly source, the P source. And, this is really the crucial point, since Judges and Samuel and the temple building episode with Solomon clearly never heard of any of these regulations, Wellhausen concluded that the P source, did not yet exist. Right? The Law of Moses, the P source, did not yet exist, it was later. Which leads to a follow-up question: why did these priestly writers do this? Why did they create a tabernacle with an elaborate religious system around it on paper and then put it in Moses’s time?  

And now we’re getting to the really uncomfortable part. They did it, the priests did it to legitimate the religious system with its complex, centralized sanctuary under their tight control. See, what we do is legit because it goes way back to the time of Moses. Now, we’ve all seen this sort of thing in our day, this kind of an argument. And, think of certain Evangelical Christians, not all, but definitely some, who claim that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were basically Republican, Bible-believing, church-going, prayer-in-school Evangelicals and if that’s how our country started, by golly and dagnabbit, that’s how it should be today. Our beliefs go back to the beginning, and therefore, we have history on our side. And if you’re against us, you’re against our founders and you’re against our very nation.  

Now, I do think those Evangelicals who think that way are often times sincere. They just can’t imagine any other way. So, they read their way back into history, perhaps the ancient priests, by putting their beliefs into ancient times were likewise not deceptive, but simply unable to comprehend a time when there was any other way of worshipping God.  

Either way, whether they meant it or they couldn’t imagine some other way, regardless of how it happened, the result, as Wellhausen argued, is that history was obscured and that priestly take on Israel’s history, it stuck, that’s the one that stuck because, again, as Wellhausen argued, the learned priestly class was largely responsible for shaping the Pentateuch and really the entire Old Testament as we know it. They were the final editors, the editors-in-chief so to speak. That’s the heart of Wellhausen’s very challenging idea. You know, you pay close attention to the seams of the Pentateuch that just jump out at you and that are evidence of these four documents, these four voices, and furthermore, if you pay attention, you’ll also understand what order the four sources need to be in.  

So, for Wellhausen, the data, as he saw the data, P had to be last. So, you have these four sources and the order is very important: J, E, D, and P. In that order, P is last. Wellhausen even assigned dates to these four documents. J and E, basically and long-story short, nerds please do not email me, okay? You promise? Good. J and E stem from somewhere between, let’s say, the tenth and eighth centuries. They contain some laws, but they are mainly the stories we read about in Genesis and elsewhere. And then came the D source in the seventh century with laws and as we’ve seen, and very importantly, the first hint of centralized worship. Right? Not altars anywhere like J and E say. D is a move toward organization, toward institutionalized worship. Alright, remember Deuteronomy chapter 12.  

And then, finally, P with all those endless strict and detailed laws about sacrifice, clean and unclean foods, pure and impure activities, how priests should dress, etc., sort of bureaucracy gone amuck. Again, in putting it that way, I’m sort of channeling Wellhausen, but see, his real legacy comes in taking that idea, P is last, a step further by being very explicit about the implications of P being late. And that gets us back to the title of his book which says it all – Prolegomena to the History of Israel


Prolegomena, not a word you use every day, it’s a fancy word for a long and necessary introduction, something you need to grasp first before you move onto something else. And for Wellhausen, seeing four sources and putting P last, well, that was the prolegomena, that was the Prolegomena to the History of Israel. See, the Bible demands that you put P last, right, that’s his point, and when you do that, it’s clear that the way the Bible presents the story on the surface, where P is early, that that’s wrong. The complex system of sacrifice we see in Exodus through Numbers is presented as early, but it’s really late. But when we put P, the Law of Moses, last as it needs to be, we see that Israel’s worship evolved. Maybe not the best choice of words, but it’ll work. Evolved from simple, J and E, to more complex D, to highly regulated P. The way the priestly editors present the story in the Bible by putting their stuff at the beginning, actually obscures Israel’s actual history. The real history is seen only when you put the sources in their proper order, not giving the priestly source, the priestly editor, the final say.  

Now the example of the student paper that we used before, it’s got a flaw. It doesn’t account for the passage of time that we see in the four sources that span, you know, four to five hundred years. All those sources the student used were contemporary. A better analogy would include sources that are actually chronologically distinct, so here’s a better analogy: the history of baseball. And indulge me here people, please? The 2020 season might not happen, so this might be it for me. Alright, so a history of baseball written in 1940 before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier would likely not address at all the racism in baseball that’s been there since the beginning. Ken Burns’ monumental PBS series from 1994, which is also a big book by the way, it made racism one of its central themes. Okay? Two different perspectives written at two different times. Now imagine weaving these stories together, and because you’re entirely sympathetic to Burns’ narrative of racism, you open your book with a scene that communicates the cruelty of racism that was, you know, part of baseball life from the beginning and you pass judgement on it. It’s very clear what your opinion is. And then as you continue, you weave together as best as you can, scenes from both sources, resulting, now and then, perhaps in some awkward transitions. Later, not only could someone come along and read your book and pick out the different perspectives, the different voices, but they could also take a really good stab at which came first. A history of baseball that you wrote that you edited together that begins with the scene that is fully-aware of the problem of racism is probably written around the time, or after the time of Jackie Robinson, definitely not in the 1860’s. And actually, it could’ve been written much later than the time of Jackie Robinson, we don’t know simply from that comment that’s, you know, condemning of racism, you don’t know exactly when it was written, but it wasn’t before Jackie Robinson and it wasn’t in the 1860’s when baseball more or less began, that’s for sure. And the editor, that would be me or you or whoever, has also obscured history by placing that later perspective first. To find the actual history of baseball, one would need to take that first story and put it where it belongs. Now, an editor might have a very good reason for doing what she or he did, like the need to stress the ever-present problem of racism at the time, and that motive is great, but a true history hasn’t been produced. If you want to know what really happened, which by the way, was like a rallying cry in Wellhausen’s day. To know what really happened, you need to follow the clues.  

Alright, well this has been a lot to take in, I know that, though you might be interested in knowing that I’m leaving a lot of stuff out. But, if we had time, we could talk about something that a lot of people talk about with Wellhausen, which is his anti-Semitism.  


You know, he thought the law of Moses, you know, courtesy of P, was a distortion of Israel’s simple religion, and that needed correcting. See, in fact, for Wellhausen, the gospel was essentially a correction of the P theology with all its rules and likewise a celebration of J and E, you know, a simple religion of the heart. Well, I mean Jews would and have begged to differ, you know the Law of Moses is central to their faith tradition. And now, you know, especially after the Holocaust, Gentile biblical scholars have been very careful to be more self-aware and not to repeat some of this rhetoric, but Wellhausen’s anti-Semitism so engrained in German culture and had been for centuries, it certainly had an effect on his handling of the evidence and people have pointed that out, and they’re right.  

Also, if we had more time, we could talk about the various theories that spun out of Wellhausen’s scholarship, some that supported his view, others that nuanced it and maybe took it different directions, and some that rejected it. But you see, in a way that’s the point. When you’re taken seriously enough to engage a century after your death, I mean, that is a legacy. So, we began by seeing Wellhausen as part of his cultural moment as well as other movers and shakers like Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud, and just know that you know, no evolutionary biologist today is Darwinian, I actually hate that term, is Darwinian, a disciple of Darwin. But there are still evolutionary biologists who stand in a scientific trajectory, let’s say, that Darwin began. And psychoanalysis has also grown and adapted to new data, but there are still psychoanalysts. You know, Einstein was flat out wrong about quantum physics, but that doesn’t erase his being one of the most influential humans of the 20th century.

Likewise, the field of biblical scholarship has changed in some rather dramatic ways since Wellhausen. In some respects its changed in ways that only experts care about, and in other ways that have sort of exposed Wellhausen’s blind spots, but the idea that the Pentateuch grew in stages, with the priestly stage being relatively late, not early, but also probably not quite as late as Wellhausen insisted or as negative a move as he thought it was, well that idea is still, I would say with confidence, foundational to any serious academic study of the Pentateuch that’s interested in answering the question: why does it do this? Why does it look the way that it does? And if you’ve read the Pentateuch and you’ve noticed things, these tensions or inconsistencies or whatever and if that’s your question, why does it look like this? Why does it do this? Then you are entering the legacy of Julius Wellhausen.  

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Pete: Okay folks, well that’s it. Thanks for listening and please keep listening. Consider supporting us on Patreon, we would love to have you on board. We have a list of projects we want to get moving on and your support is just so huge for that. And as always, thanks to our team, Dave Gerhart, our audio-engineer; Reed Lively, our community champion; Megan Cammack, our podcast producer; Stephanie Speight, our podcast transcriber. See you next time, when we return with real, live guests. Thanks folks! 

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Pete Ruins Exodus Part 2

Pete Ruins Exodus (Part 2)

May 7, 2019

Pete continues his series in Exodus chapters 3 and 4. God reveals his plan to use Moses to deliver the Israelites from Egypt and Moses does everything he can think of to get out of it. He finally gets on board with the program, but not without a last-minute bizarre twist and a close call.

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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]

Pete:  Hey everybody.  Welcome to another episode of the Bible for Normal People.  And we’re back.  Pete Ruins Exodus Series.  This is Part 2.  We’re gonna hit Chapters 3 and 4.  Remember last time, we looked at Chapters 1 and 2 and I said it’s gonna take us a little bit more time to go through the first few chapters, because a lot of the theology of the book is set up in the first four chapters.  So we did Chapters 1 and 2 last time, where we met Moses and he ran away from Egypt.

And now, we get to the real meaty part of the introduction.  This sets up a lot of stuff that’s gonna come afterwards.  So, we’re gonna, again, take a little bit of time doing this.  The subsequent episodes are not going to be dealing with a couple chapters at a time, because we’d be here for a 20-part series, which ain’t gonna happen, folks, as much as I like it.  As much as I love talking about this book and thinking about it, it’s not going to happen. 

Listen, in these three chapters, what I do—I always do this when I think about presenting or teaching on topics—I try to break it down from a 30,000-foot view level and I’ve come up with three basic parts, three sections to these two chapters.

The first is that God reveals a plan to Moses.  This is the whole Mount Sinai and burning bush thing.  That’s the first few verses of Chapter 3.

Then the bulk of this is Moses having heard the plan, he tries everything he can to get out of it.  That takes us from the middle of Chapter 3 to the middle of Chapter 4.

The last part is Moses finally gets on board with the program, but he’s really still not super happy about it.  It doesn’t go off without a hitch.  There’s something very, very weird that happens in this part of the book.  It’s hard to explain actually.

But those are the three.  We’ll take each of those and, like last time, and like we’re gonna do for the rest of the series, I’ll break it down the way I see it, the big picture and then drop down in each of these sections and talk about a few things that I think are important or interesting or valuable for a number of reasons to talk about.

Hope that sounds okay.

So first—the first part is that Moses meets God and God reveals His plan to Moses.  The first thing we see there is the location.  They’re at this Mountain of God and that mountain, of course, is Mount (I bet you were going to say Sinai, huh?)—well, it’s not Mount Sinai.  It’s Mount Horeb.  It’s not called Mount Sinai until much later in the book, like Chapter 16.  Mount Sinai is the more common term, but it’s not here.  It’s called something else.  It’s called Horeb.

Also, if you notice, the very first verse, the name of Moses’ father-in-law is Jethro, but we met him already in Chapter 2.  There his name is Reuel.  So what the heck?  You got two names of the mountains.  You’ve got two names of his father-in-law.  Actually, there’s a third name for Moses’ father-in-law, that Hobab, that comes up in the book of Numbers, which obviously we won’t get to. 

But the question is why is this?  Some people might explain it as like, “Okay, listen.  Just alternate names for the same place.  It doesn’t really matter.  It’s not a big deal.”  In a way, they’re right.  It doesn’t really matter.  It’s not that big of a deal.  But it’s still curious that you’ve got these different names for the Mountain of God and the different names for Moses’ father-in-law.

The way this is typically explained in the world of biblical scholarship is that what we have here are two different traditions of the Exodus story, two different ancient versions, maybe oral, maybe written down.  Who knows?  The editor of the book of Exodus as we have it, which probably happened after the return from exile in Babylon, which happened after 539.  This editor brought these together and compiled them, because he is interested in preserving traditions, not eliminating them.  So he puts these traditions side-by-side.

There’s a lot more into this to really explain this, at least the way a lot of scholars look at it.  If you are interested, we have a podcast episode from Season 2, by a scholar from the University of Chicago, Jeffrey Stackert, who talked about the composition of the Pentateuch (the Pentateuch’s the first five books of the Bible, Exodus being the second one) and how the books might have come together and how you can see this sort of thing, these differences, maybe tensions in the text and this is one of them.  You have two names for Mount Sinai, two names for Moses’ father-in-law.  That’s just worth noticing.


The second thing that I find really interesting with this mountain is its location.  Now if you read the beginning of chapter 3, Moses is tending the sheep of his father-in-law, Jethro.

By the way, side issue here.  The rabbis have said that tending sheep is job-training for Moses, because he’s going to be tending sheep, meaning Israel, for a long time.  Even as Psalm 77, the very end verse 20, there Moses is described as the shepherd of Israel.  And David is a shepherd.  He’s a shepherd first.  He’s shepherds the people. God is a shepherd in the Old Testament.  There’s something about shepherding and leading people—that analogy is very nice for ancient people. 

Of course, the New Testament, Jesus is the Good Shepherd.

Here you have Moses tending the sheep.  Now remember where he is.  He is in Midian.  He takes them from Midian to find a place for them to graze, or whatever sheep do.  I’m from the suburbs.  I’ve got cats and dogs.  I have no idea.  They might sit down with a fork and knife, for all I know, but who knows?

He’s taken them out to take care of them.  He’s doing what shepherds do.  If you look at—Google it—or look in any good Bible that has maps in the back and locate where Midian is, it’s on the far-right side of the Sinai Peninsula.  It’s pretty much up there, pretty north up there on the other side of this little sea that—the Gulf of Akaba, it’s sometimes called.

Midian is way up there.  If you look at the location of Mount Sinai, the traditional location is in that Sinai Peninsula, but way south.  You can look at the scales that they give in study Bibles and it’s about 100 miles or so. 

The idea that Moses was shepherding the sheep of his father-in-law, Jethro, the Midianite, and he took them way down there is a really strange credulity.  Most people who read this say, “Listen, it’s—Mount Sinai’s not down there.”  That’s really a Christian legend.  It’s the site of St. Catherine’s Monastery and sort of a tourist trap, I guess.  Here’s Mount Sinai. 

Nobody really knows where that mountain is, but it doesn’t seem to be way down there.  It’s probably not that far south, which, again, is like 100 miles away.

Mount Sinai is probably up in the Midian area and that is in what Paul calls Arabia.  In Galatians 4:25, he refers to Mount Sinai as being in Arabia.  That’s much more consistent with it being in Midian than with it being way down south in the Sinai Peninsula.

That’s just a matter of—I think it’s—I’d even say it’s common sense a bit.  You’re not going to take the sheep way down into a dessert.  You want to keep them alive, not kill them.

So the location of the mountain is probably very different than what we’re used to.  Where it is makes sense, because there is actually a road, an ancient road, that runs from Egypt round the Nile Delta.  Again, if you have a map, look at it.  The Nile Delta, which is very northern part of Egypt where the Nile River pours into the Mediterranean Sea.  There is a road that you can take from there to way up north where Midian is, probably a trade route of some sort.

That might be the route that the Israelites take later.  That may be what’s understood there. 

All this makes sense.  But if you put Mount Sinai way the heck down there, it’s like, “What are we doing down here?”

That’s for the Mountain of God.

The burning bush itself is sort of a weird thing.  The burning bush is first of all—the angel of the Lord appears to him and later, it’s God speaking.  So this angel of the Lord and God are somewhat equated and, people spill a lot of ink trying to decide who is this figure?  Who is this angel of the Lord?  Some say, “Well, is it Jesus in the Old Testament?”

Probably not, because Jesus isn’t an angel.  That’s not really a logical conclusion to come to.

It is a figure that pops up an awful lot, as you may know, in the Old Testament.  Who this character is, is just—we don’t really know other than he is a messenger of Yahweh and so closely connected to Yahweh that the two are almost like equated.  To speak to the angel of the Lord is to speak to Yahweh Himself.

It’s hard to speak to Yahweh directly in the Old Testament.  That’s probably what it means.  When you see angel of the Lord, I think it’s oftentimes fine just to equate that with God or His divine name, Yahweh, which is going to happen really quickly in this story anyway.

It’s hard to identify who this character is. 

The question people have asked is “why a bush?”  Well, the Hebrew for bush is “sneh,” which is very, very similar to Sinai and it maybe that the name Sinai has influenced how this story has been told, if you follow me.  The location of Sinai came first and then because it’s a place in Sinai, a bush becomes part of this story.  That’s a possibility.  Of course, I’m just conjecturing.  We don’t know.

It could be the other way around.   There’s a bush, a wonderful bush, and people called it “bush,” “bushland,” “bushtown,” or something. 

More important, though, why fire?  Fire is common language in the Old Testament for the appearance of God.  The technical term is a “theophany,” when a god appears.  Fire is something that accompanies that.  You see that, for example, way back in Genesis 15, when God makes a covenant with Abraham and He’s depicted as this “fiery pot,” a “flaming pot.”

Later, you know the Exodus story, we’re gonna come to the Red Sea and there we have a pillar of fire and a pillar of cloud.  But again, a pillar of fire is a way in which God is represented in the Old Testament.  That makes some sense. 

What doesn’t make sense is why doesn’t it burn up.  Why isn’t it consumed?  That’s what Moses sees.  He sees this bush and he’s curious about it because it’s burning, but it’s not being consumed. 

Again, it’s interesting.  The text doesn’t actually explain a lot of these questions that we have.  But some have suggested that it already anticipates the plague stories, where natural properties are suspended.  So here we have natural properties are suspended.  Something is not being consumed.  Others have thought throughout history that it’s just a metaphor of some sort.  It’s symbolic, for example, of Israel not being consumed under the pressure being in Egyptian slavery.

Who knows?  I’m just throwing out options here, but there isn’t much to go on.

I think it’s more than simply, “Wow!  What a miracle!  What a random, wonderful thing to see!”  Whatever it is, it’s not random.  It has meaning.  It has theological meaning.  We just don’t know what it is.  At least, I don’t.  Maybe you do.  If you do, message me.  I’d love to hear it.


When Moses approaches this bush, he’s told, “Stay back.”  God says, “Stay where you are and remove your sandals.  You can’t just walk over here like this.”  There is a reverence to being in God’s presence.  Here’s the thing that I find so intriguing about this.  I’m not making any of this stuff up.  In Jewish theology, ancient Jewish theology, Mount Sinai is seen as the template for the temple itself later on.

What I mean by that is this.  Any Israelite can be at the foot of the mountain.  Part of the way up, it’s elders can go there.  All the way up, it’s only Moses, because that’s the most holy place.  That’s like the temple.  The outer court, pretty much anybody can be there.  You go the Holy Place.  You’re restricted.  Only some can go in there.  Then the Most Holy Place, the Holy of Holies, only the high priest can go.

What we’re seeing here is already, again, a preview of what’s going to be a rather significant thing later on in Exodus when the tabernacle is built, which is the movable version of the temple that’s built later under Solomon. 

You can’t just walk over here.  Take your shoes off.  Show some respect.  This isn’t a normal thing.  You’ve got to do something different.  Like taking your shoes off, which is still, as you know, a sign of respect in some cultures.  I even go into people’s houses.  Sometimes, I see them taking off their shoes, so I take mine off too, just to follow along with the custom.  That’s not exactly the same thing, but it’s still the idea of some sort of reverence or respect.

Moses in a different place.  His curiosity is already turning into some sort of fear.  He puts his head down.  He isn’t curious anymore.  Curiosity is beginning to turn into fear.  Especially when God relays the plan to Moses directly.

He begins—we’re all here in that first section here, around verse 8 or 9.  God says to Moses, “Listen, we already know each other, but you don’t know it.”  What do you mean by that?  He says, “I’m the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  I’m the God of your father,” which means—typically it’s “god of your fathers,” like the “god of your ancestors,” but in this case, it says, the “God of your father, Moses,” meaning “I know you were raised in Egypt in Pharaoh’s household, but you need to know that you’re dealing with the god of your parents, and the god maybe of your parents before that.  This is a family thing.  You’re actually deeply connected to me.  I know you.  And you’re gonna get to know Me.  We know each other.”

Second thing.  “Moses, you may be wondering why you’re up here talking to Me.  I’m coming to deliver my people from suffering and to bring them to a paradise-like land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

“That’s great.  Thanks for telling me. What’s in this for me?”  Moses doesn’t say that, but, “Great, why are you telling me this? Why are you telling me what you’re going to do?”  That is when God—the other shoe drops.  That’s the next verse.

This is verse 10, where Moses tries to get out of it, because God says to him, “I’m gonna send you to do it.”  This is Moses’ first try to get out of what God is telling him to do.  “I’m gonna send you to do it.  I’m gonna send you, Moses.”  That’s the thing that generates the discussion that goes in Section 2 of these chapters, where Moses does everything he can to try to get out of it.

We have here is the first of no fewer than five complaints on Moses’ part to get out of it.  “All right, Moses.  I’ve heard the cries of my people.  I’m gonna come deliver them, which of course, I mean, you’re going to do it.”  So the first complaint is “Excuse me, what?”

Moses doubts his ability to do this.  “Who am I?”  I want to encourage you not to think of it as a lack of faith or something.  Of course, he’s gonna say that.  Who wouldn’t say that?   “Who am I to do this?  I just ran away from Egypt and guess what, the Egyptians are mad at me, because I killed one of theirs.  Even my own people, the Israelites, don’t trust me very much because I tried to break up a fight between two of them and they got all testy with me.  Just leave me alone here.  I’m having a good time just being a shepherd.  I was just curious about this bush.  Now, all of a sudden, you’ve got me doing this thing.  Who am I to do this?”

God’s response is, “I will be with you.”  This is a theme that’s going to continue in this chapter.  The theme is this:  Moses says, “Who am I?  I can’t do this.  I can’t do this.”  God responds, “I will be with you.  I’m going to be your mouth.  I’m going to do this with you.  You’re not alone.”  It’s really a battle of the “I’s” here in this section of Exodus.

In Hebrew, it’s very pronounced.  There’s a word that really emphasizes this first-person pronoun, “I”, that you don’t normally see.  Who’s going to be in charge of this?  Is it Moses?  “I’m not just sending you off on your own, pal.  I’m going to be with you.  I’m going to help you.  In fact, to let you know that I’m with you, I’m going to give you a sign.”

The problem is here is the sign that God gives him.  “When you’ve brought your people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”  You see that.  That’s not much of a sign if you ask me. 

“Here’s the sign.  Here’s the sign that I’ve sent you and you’re going to be successful.  When you get back here, you’re gonna worship Me on the mountain.”  “That’s not a lot of help.  What I need is a sign right now that’s gonna give me—give me a sign.  That’s not a sign.  That’s nothing.  I want to know right now what’s gonna happen and whether this is gonna work or not.   A bolt of lightning.  A rainstorm.  An earthquake.  Something to let me know right now.  That’s the kind of sign I want.”

That’s not what Moses gets.  This happens elsewhere in the Bible too.  The sign is something like—“I need a sign now, not later”—but maybe that’s the sound of God laughing.  I don’t know.  Maybe just pushing Moses in the logic of the story—pushing Moses to—“you’ve got to trust Me.  I’m not just going to give you a sign.  Because if I give you that, you’ll want something else.  The sign is I’m with you and you’ll know it when it’s over.”

Moses responds the way any of us would.  He complains again because he’s not really getting the answer that he wants.


The next complaint is the longest one of this section.  Basically, he says, “They’re not going to believe me when I go back there and I tell the people that I’m the deliverer.  I’m going to bring them out of Egypt.  I sort of have a reputation back there that not everybody thinks the best of me.  Plus, after all this time has gone by.”

Let’s think about that for a second.  How much time has gone by?  It maybe that he’s about 80 years old right now.  Actually, he is about 80 in the logic of the story.  If you look at Exodus 7:7 when he confronts Pharaoh, it says that he’s 80 and Aaron is 83, his brother.

He’s 80 and he dies at 120.  They say that at the end of the book of Deuteronomy.  What tradition has said—Jewish tradition has held that he left Egypt at the age of 40.  He’s been in Midian now for 40 years.  He spent the first 40 years in Egypt.  He flees at the age of 40.  He’s in Midian for another 40 years.  At the age of 80, he leaves to deliver the Israelites.  He delivers them and 40 years later, at the end of the wilderness period, he’s 120 and he dies.

In fact, the book of Acts, the New Testament, the book of Acts Chapter 7 says that he’s 40 when he leaves Egypt.  Exodus doesn’t say that.  But Jewish tradition does.  The book of Acts reflects that older Jewish tradition.  They’re not just making that number up.  It’s not a Biblical number.  But it’s the number of Jewish tradition.  It seems like Moses’ life goes into three nice phases.  I think that’s pretty cool.

We don’t know that—but that’s what the text says.  Actually, that’s what tradition says.


Anyway, the point here is that Moses is not at all sure that this is going to work.  He says, “I need a name.  They’re going to ask me, ‘Moses, who sent you?  Tell us who it is.’”  Maybe it’s a little bit insulting for Moses to ask God, “I need a name here.  They’re going to ask me a name.”  It’s like asking a famous person that everyone else knows—you meet him at a dinner party and you say, “What is your name?  I need to tell people what’s going on here.  What’s your name?”

They go, “Paul McCartney” or “LeBron James” or “Beyonce.”  It’s a little bit insulting, “What’s your name?”  God’s answer to Moses—God’s famous answer to Moses is, “I am who I am.”  He says, “Just tell them I AM sent you.  They’ll know who that is.” 

This is the part of Chapter 3 that it seems that the gospel of John takes and uses to describe Jesus, when Jesus says, “I am the Vine” Or “I am the Good Shepherd” in John’s gospel.  There are seven “I am” sayings and most think that this is John connecting Jesus to this moment on Mount Sinai where God says, “I AM” and that’s all there is to it.

It’s interesting here whether—it’s not really an answer to a question because Moses doesn’t know the name.  I don’t know.  Would Moses not know who this is?  Maybe he doesn’t.  Well, why wouldn’t he know?  He’s Jewish.  Well, he was raised Egyptian, so he doesn’t know.

I don’t think it’s the people who don’t know the name.  I think it’s Moses who doesn’t know it, in the logic of the story.  We’re not talking about history necessarily here.  Just in the logic of the story.  It’s Moses who doesn’t know the name.  Right after that, the Lord says to him basically, “All right.  Just tell them the Lord sent you.”

That word, “Lord” in the Bible, when it’s spelled with a capital L and then the “ord” likewise in capital letters, but smaller letters, that word Lord is the way, in English Bibles, you represent the divine name, Yahweh.

It gets a little bit confusing, but that divine name is typically not printed out in any Bible that I know.  That goes back to Jewish tradition.  The reverence of the divine name, not wanting to the pronounce it, so the best way to pronounce it is not even to put it in the text.  You put another word there, “Lord.” 

That’s His name.  Yahweh.  He’s announcing to Moses what His divine name is.  Yahweh.  Here’s the thing:  the word, Yahweh, nobody knows where that really comes from.  But in this story, the word Yahweh is connected with the Hebrew verb, “to be.”  They’re spelled very, very similarly, which is why when Moses asks Him for His name, He says—He uses the verb “to be.”  “I am Who I am.  Tell them ‘I AM’ sent you.  Listen, Moses.   Just tell them it’s me, Yahweh.”

But this biblical writer, he’s connecting that name, Yahweh.  He’s explaining to us where the term Yahweh came from.  It came from this Hebrew word, the most common word in the Hebrew language, in any language, “to be.”

I’m just dwelling on that a bit, because this has been an important element in the history of biblical scholarship.  Maybe God’s name is being announced here for the first time.  I’m not so sure that’s the case.  I could be wrong about that.  I just think it’s Moses—it’s not being announced for the first time.  It’s just being announced to Moses, who doesn’t know it.


The historical background for this name for this name, Yahweh, like a lot of things, when you compare them to the Bible’s presentation, it might be a little bit more involved historically and complicated.  That’s a podcast on its own.  We’re not going to do that now.

Here you have God telling Moses, “Tell them Yahweh sent you.  I’m the God of your ancestors. Not just you Moses, but all the people.  The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  This is my ancient name.  This is my name forever.  They’ll know who it is.  Okay, Moses.  You’ve got the credentials.”

God continues.  He gives further direction to Moses.  This starts around verse 16.  He says, “First of all, you’re gonna reveal the plan to the elders.  You need to get the elders together.  Reveal the plan to them.  Then, you’re all gonna go to Pharaoh.”

Interesting enough, in the book of Exodus, the elders don’t go anywhere.  It’s really just Moses and Aaron.  Even after a while, Aaron drops out of the picture.  Moses takes over.  At least here, it says, “You guys go and tell Pharaoh this.  Tell him, ‘Hey Pharaoh, our God Yahweh told us that you have to let us go so we can take three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to Him.  We’re not going to do it here.  Our God—you can’t deny what our God wants.  Our God wants us to go into the wilderness on a three-day’s journey to sacrifice to Him.’”

Which raises a whole lot of questions.  A three-day journey.  Are they gonna just go out for three days far away from Egypt, sacrifice and then come back?  Is this the implication of what they’re saying?  In other words, is this like a little lie they’re telling to Pharaoh to let them go?

Which is not the first lie we’ve seen in Exodus.  Remember the midwives.  They tell Pharaoh, “Hey, the reason we’re not killing the kids is because when they’re born, the Hebrew women are too vigorous and by the time we get there, they’ve already given birth.  We can’t do anything.”

It could be another example here of—just tell them, “All we want to do is go away on a three days’ journey.  We’ll come back.  We just want to sacrifice.”  But Pharaoh won’t even want to do that.

Actually, what three days’ journey probably means (I’m like 85% on board with this)—but it probably doesn’t mean literally “we’re gonna go for three days.”  A three-day journey is just a way of saying, “We’re getting out of here.  We going to go on a long journey and we’re going to sacrifice to God in the wilderness.”

Still, there’s nothing here about, “We’re gonna be free of you and free of this place.”  When you think of ultimate purpose of the exodus to bring them freedom from Egyptian slavery, this is actually a pretty modest request to Pharaoh.  Alas, God continues.  He says, “It’s not going to work, unless I show him my power,” which is the plagues.  “He’s not going to let you go unless I stretch out my arm and I show him my mighty hand.”  That’s biblical rhetoric for God’s might.

Here it refers to the plagues.  I’m just throwing this in for free, because I love stuff like this.  In verse 19, God says, “God is going to stretch out His arm,” and the Hebrew word there is “shalach.”  He’s going to “stretch out His arm.”  As a result, Pharaoh’s going to send out the people.  The Hebrew word for send out is also “shalach.”  So God is going to “shalach,” “stretch out His arm,” and force Pharaoh to “shalach” the people. 

I love this stuff.  This is why I went to seminary.  Ignore that.  If it’s not fun for you, it’s fun for me.  And it’s my podcast.


Here’s the point.  “I’m gonna have to strong-arm Pharaoh,” God says, “with the plagues, and then he’ll give in.”  In other words, the purpose—I’m dwelling on this for a reason, folks—the reason why God is gonna send these 10 plagues is because Pharaoh’s gonna need to convincing in order to let the people go.  “And then He’ll give in.  And you’ll leave.”

“In fact, you gonna make out in the deal, folks.  You’re gonna plunder the Egyptians when you leave.  You’re gonna take their jewelry, silver, gold, clothing and in fact, the women are gonna be the ones plundering.  Not warriors.  Not the men.  But the women are gonna do it because Egypt will be so meek and so beaten down that the women are just gonna ask.  The people will be positively disposed toward them and they’re going to give them their stuff.”



“So Moses, is that enough for you?”

Nope.  Moses isn’t done yet.  He’s got three more complaints he’s gotta get through. 

So the third complaint—now we’re in Chapter 4—done with Chapter 3.

Moses isn’t done complaining because listen, “What if they still don’t believe me?  I’m gonna tell them all this stuff about your name and then I’m gonna tell them your plan, but there’s no guarantee that they’re gonna listen to me, so how are they gonna know that you appeared to me?”

You have to almost be looking at the text for this, but in Chapter 4, verse 1, Moses says, “Suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’?”  I think it’s important to remember that the “they” here is not Pharaoh or the Egyptians.  He’s not even talking about them yet.  The “they” here is the elders.  It’s not about convincing Egypt yet.  It’s first about convincing the elders because again, Moses didn’t leave on the best of terms even with his own people.

One of the themes that we hit in the Exodus story and throughout the life of Moses, throughout the rest of the books of the Pentateuch or of the Torah, is this theme of the people complaining or grumbling against Moses’ leadership.  Here we’re seeing this theme already anticipated.  Moses is anticipating it, saying, “Listen.  They’re not going to believe me.  I’m going to have a tough time convincing them.”

God says, “Fine.  How about some signs now? I’ll give you some signs.  You wanted signs before.  Here they are.  First of all, take your staff.  Throw it to the ground.  It becomes a snake.  Pick it up by the end, its tail, and then it turns into a staff again.”

That’s one sign.  It’s not just a random sign because the power symbol of the Egyptians (well, not the only one) is a cobra.  If you know some of the headdresses that the Pharaohs wear looks like a cobra’s little neck things opening up, fanning out like little wings.  That’s what the headdress looks like. 

The stick turning a snake then turning back into a staff again is symbolic of the control over the Egyptian power source, the Pharaoh.  That comes into play later when this is one of the signs that’s performed before the magicians of Pharaoh.  As you recall, Aaron throws the staff down.  It becomes a snake.  The magicians of Pharaoh throw down their staffs.  They become a snake.  But then what happens?  The staff of Moses swallows up the others, which is a sign of where this is going.  Egypt’s power will be swallowed.  It’s a symbolic sign.  It’s not just a random—hey, let’s do something weird—let’s turn this staff into a snake.  It means something theologically and in the logic of the story.

The next sign is turning Moses’ hand into—making it leprous.  Leprosy is some kind of skin disease.  It’s not like leprosy of today.  Every Bible says that.  Every footnote says that.  It’s very careful.  It’s not the kind of leprosy that we think of today.  It’s like any sort of a skin disease. 

The question is what does this mean?  What’s the symbolic value of this, turning it leprous and then Moses puts his hand back in his cloak and he takes it out and it’s going to be clean again?  Some have suggested this is another example of God’s control over the properties of nature, which you’re going to see in the plagues, which to me, is not that satisfying an answer.  It might also be something like this is symbolic of God purifying the nation for entering into the land of Canaan. 

That’s one of the problems with the Canaanites.  They’re not a pure people.  They’re a very unclean people.  They have to leave the land so the Israelites can come in, but they have to be purified themselves in order to enter it.  It could be something like that.  I’m not grasping for straws.  I’m just channeling what other people have said.  But there’s no explanation in the text, so people are bound to ask themselves, “What the heck’s going on here?”

Then he says, “Okay.  Listen, if those don’t work, here’s something else you can do.”  It’s not called a sign.  He says, “He can turn the Nile to blood.”  What’s weird about that is these signs—let’s call all three of them signs just for convenience’s sake—they’re clearly, I think, meant for the elders.  It’s the topic of discussion here.  Then you see at the end of Chapter 4 in verse 29, that’s what happens.  Moses performs all the signs God showed him before the elders to convince them.

Yet the staff is also a sign to Pharaoh and the turning the water of the Nile into blood is the first plague.  A couple of these hang over as something that are just given to Pharaoh and not just the elders.  It’s not really a problem.  I just find it interesting.  Two of these things are used in the plagues and two of them are signs for Israel, the elders, to convince them.  Don’t lose sleep over it.  I won’t.

It’s just these little irritating, odd details in these texts once you start reading them closely just makes you stop and think. 

We’re moving to the end, but he’s not done.  He’s got a fourth complaint.  This is in Chapter 4, verses 10-12.  It basically amounts to, “I’m not cut out for public speaking.”  The text says something like, “I’m heavy or dull or slow of mouth and of tongue.”  I’ve heard this explained that maybe Moses has a stuttering problem.  I don’t think that’s what’s happening here.  He might just be saying, “I get tongue-tied.  I’m not good at speaking.  I’m ineloquent.  I don’t really want to do this.” 

God answers him.  It’s again the battle of the “I’s” I mentioned before.  Moses says, “How can I do this?  I can’t talk.  I’m not eloquent.”  God responds, “I’m the one who gives speech to mortals.  I do it.  You don’t do it.  I’m going to be with you.  You don’t have to worry.  I.  I.  I.  I.”

Which “I” is doing this?  I don’t want to get too Sunday Schoolish here, but I think one of the issues that’s happening is that Moses hasn’t yet learned to trust God for this future endeavor.  I think he’s—I can’t blame the guy—who wouldn’t do this?  But he’s thinking, “You’ve asked me to do something.  I’m not equipped.”  The answer by God is pretty much, “I’m equipped and I am with you.” 

The fourth complaint ends like that.  Then you have the fifth complaint.  This is how this section ends.  It’s goes down to verse 17.  We have an honest moment finally from Moses.  He says, “Listen.  I just don’t want to do it.  Can you just send somebody else please?”  This is the first time God becomes angry with Moses.  His anger is kindled against Moses.  I’d frankly like to think God is exhibiting remarkable patience in this story for somebody who just—listen, the burning bush thing—“I’m talking to you and you’re arguing with me? What the heck’s going on with that?  Don’t do that.” 

God finally gives in.  He’s says, “Fine, Moses.  Fine.  Aaron will do the talking.  I’ll tell you what to say and then you tell Aaron what to say.  In other words, you don’t have to talk.  Aaron will be your mouth.  Aaron will do the talking for you.  You’re going to tell him what to say.”

In other words, Moses is playing—hear me out when I say this—Moses is playing a god-like role to Aaron.  He is the one who’s now going to speak on God’s behalf to Aaron.  Aaron becomes Moses, takes his role and Moses takes God’s role.  It even says this in this section.  It says that, “You will serve as God to Aaron.”

The only problem is that in Hebrew, it doesn’t say, “You will serve as God.  You’ll be like God.”  It says actually—it’s quite direct—he says, “You, Moses, will become God for Aaron.  You’ll become God.”

I don’t think Moses here is getting zapped with divinity or anything like that.  I don’t think he’s becoming God ontologically, in a theological sense or a philosophical sense.  I think this is just common of prophetic rhetoric the way prophets—when prophets talk, they rarely say, “God said this” and then “God said that” and then “God said that.”  They speak of God is the first person.  Thus saith the Lord, “I… blah blah blah.” 

The prophets are taking on the role of God, mediating God to the people.  I think that’s what’s happening here.  Moses is taking on this God-role for the people.  That happens again later on in Chapter 7, we’ll read that Moses likewise becomes God to Pharaoh.  He’s confronting Pharaoh like a god.  Not like a god.  I shouldn’t say that.  As God.

Remember when we talked in the first week how the two main characters of this book are not Moses and Pharaoh.  It’s Yahweh and Pharaoh.  Because Pharaoh is representative of the gods of Egypt. He’s the one who mediates the gods to the people.  Moses is mediating Yahweh to Aaron and to the people and to Pharaoh. 

The issue really here is the struggles between Yahweh and the gods of Egypt and their two representatives, which are Pharaoh and Moses.  Although Moses—hey pal, bad career-move here—you’re saying, “I don’t want this honor.  Can somebody else do the talking?”  God’s exasperated.  You want to do something nice for your kid and they just don’t realize it and they throw it back in your face.  “Fine!”  That’s how I’m reading this.  Moses is not doing something that should be something that he’d be very honored to do.

God says, “Fine.  I’ll give it to your brother, Aaron.  But I’m not giving up on you.  You’re going to be God to him.  Moses, I have something big planned for you.” 

This long back-and-forth between God and Moses, these five complaints, it’s finally over.  Now finally, Moses gets with the program.  This is the last section.  Section Three of these two chapters. 


It begins in verse 18 by approaching his father-in-law, Jethro, and it seems like he’s basically lying to him, because he wants to go.  He basically says, “Listen.  I want to see how my kindred are doing, how my brothers are doing.  I’d like to go back and check how everyone is.”  Why doesn’t he just say, “Jethro, you might want to be sitting down here, but I’ve met Yahweh and he told me to do something.  I’ve got to go do it.”

Instead, he says—he makes up a little story, another lie, in the book of Exodus, and we’re only in Chapter 4.  Is he afraid of what Jethro will say?  Does Moses have self-doubt?  Is this one of those awkward in-law moments?  “You married my daughter and you give me one or two grandchildren at this point and you’re leaving to do what?  To deliver the Israelites from Egyptian slavery.  Dude, you’re crazy?”

He basically just tells him a story.  Here’s the thing too.  The last time Moses went out to see his brothers was back in Chapter 2, verse 11 and couple of verses after that.  This is where Moses goes out to see—to be among his brothers—to see them.  That’s when he sees an Egyptian beating on one of his brothers.  What does he do to the Egyptian?  He kills him.  That’s what started this whole thing spiraling downward. 

But now, it’s this beautiful reversal.  “I’m gonna go back now.  I’m going to see what my brothers are doing, but this time, it’s not that mini-deliverance where I kill that one Egyptian, which is probably me going off half-cocked and being temperamental.  But now, I’m being sent by God Himself and I’m going to confront the Egyptians en masse, now a second time.  Now things are going to go down.”

Verse 19.  This is one of those weird parts of Exodus that makes people think, “We’ve got different traditions that are just being edited together by somebody, because he just got done telling Jethro, ‘I want to go back and see how my brothers are doing.’”  Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.” 

Then verse 19.  Then the Lord, Yahweh, said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all those seeking your life are dead.”  Moses took his wife and sons, put them on a donkey and went back to the land of Egypt.  Moses carried the staff of God in his hand.

We already know that Moses is going back to Egypt because that’s what the whole, long section was about.  But now, it seems to be as if—it’s a rather abrupt and choppy thing to throw in there.  This is what some scholars say.  In verse 19 and some of the stuff in this chapter comes from a different tradition that had a different way of telling the story, but this is a good way of bringing them all together, or at least bringing them both together.  There may only be two at this point.  Bringing these traditions together and honoring them and not forgetting them.

You basically have Moses told twice to go back to Egypt.  More interesting to me is the fact that the reason he’s allowed to go back is because “those who are seeking your life are dead.”  “What are you saying?  It’s okay to go back now? What about all these wonders and powers, these plagues?  I couldn’t go back until somebody died?”  It seems like a very un-godlike move, a different kind of way that God is presented than what we saw in the verses before.

“Here’s what you’re going to do.  You’re going to go.  You’re going to show all these powers and signs.  You’re gonna convince Pharaoh with my mighty hand and my outstretched arm and things are going to go down.  The Egyptians are going to be sorry about all this.”

But now it’s, “Hey.  Go back.  You know what?  Those guys who are trying to kill you?  They’re dead.”

It’s one of these things that requires an explanation and people have given their explanations.  They’ve tried.  Why not?

Maybe even more interesting than that is how this very verse, “all those who are seeking your life are dead”—that very verse is quoted virtually verbatim in the book of Matthew Chapter 2.  This is when the Holy Family is down in Egypt and Joseph is told by God in a dream, “It’s okay to go back home because all those who are seeking your life are dead.”  Of course, this is referring to Herod and the edict, “kill the male children” (actually just to kill the babies, the infants three years or younger, whatever it was). 

What Matthew seems to be doing here—it’s one of Matthew’s things to present Jesus in a way that reverberates these Old Testament stories, especially David and especially Moses.  Matthew says, “Jesus coming out of Egypt to go back home with his family, that’s like Moses going back to his home which happens to be Egypt, because the threat is over.”  Matthew is playing on this verse, this very odd verse in Exodus to say something about Jesus’ Jewishness and his Moses-like activities. 


I do think that’s very interesting.  I like when the Bible does that.  It’s very literarily connected. 

Another way of looking at this is that it’s not so much—I’m just throwing interpretation possibilities out there—it’s not so much, “It’s okay now.  It’s safe to go back.”   It’s more like, “Now’s the time to go back, because our oppressors are dying.  Our exodus has begun.  Now go back and finish it.” 

This is a previewing in a sense what’s going to happen.  “Your oppressors are going to meet with an untimely end.  They’re dying.  Now you’re going to go back and finish the job.”

I think that’s an interesting possibility for interpretation.  Again, I’m not going to bet the farm on that if I had a farm, but it’s at least—these stories—they talk like this and they don’t explain themselves.  This book doesn’t come with footnotes.  We just have to try to figure things out.

We’re coming to the end here, folks.  Two or three more points.

In verse 21—we’re in this last section here of these chapters—in verse 21, God reminds Moses, “Perform the wonders before Pharaoh,” which will be the plagues.  But then God says something that frankly seems to contradict something He just said before—He says, “Perform the wonders before Pharaoh, but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.”

In Chapter 3, verse 19, “the plagues will be necessary in order to convince Pharaoh.”  But now, it’s like, “perform the wonders, but here’s what I’m going to do.  I’m going to harden his heart so that he won’t let the people go.”

“Which is it?  Are the plagues going to work to convince him to let them go?  Then you’re just going to step in and harden his heart so he doesn’t let them go?  That doesn’t seem to be fair.”

This is played out in the plague story.  The plagues themselves both happen after Pharaoh gives in.  This is especially the last three plagues.  After Pharaoh gives in, God hardens his heart to send more plagues.  I compare this to a cat playing with a mouse to show whose boss, just toying with it.  You carry it around.  You bat it around with your paws.  Then you let it revive itself and you then you bat it again.  God is playing with Pharaoh here.  He’s hardening his heart.  “I’m not done yet.  I’ve convinced you by my mighty hand and outstretched arm that you need to let the people go.  I know you’re ready.  But I’m not.”

It sounds cruel and stuff, but it’s the story.  I’m not sure if I would make final determinations about the nature of God from this verse.  There you have it.  These two things contradict each other in a strict sense, but I think in the context of the book of Exodus as a whole, it’s simply saying, “The plagues are going to do the job, but only when I say so.  I want ten plagues, not six or five.  To keep things going, even after you’re ready to go, I have to harden your heart, Pharaoh, so that you’re not going to let the people go, even after you said you will.”

Because guess what?  Remember what we said before.  This all has to get to the tenth plague.  What’s the tenth plague?  That’s the death of the firstborn of Egypt by this destroyer, so-called angel of death.  That’s not a right translation of the Hebrew.  That’s the tenth plague.

This is what he gets into in verse 22.  Israel is called God’s first-born son.  Remember, God’s first-born son, Israel, is oppressed by the Egyptians and in fact, the sons, plural—the Israelite’s sons—thrown into the Nile by an edict by Pharaoh back in Chapter 1. 

There’s no true payback for how God treated his son, Israel, generally, and the boys specifically.  There’s no true payback until the tenth plague.  This is really the principle of an “eye-for-an-eye, and tooth-for-a-tooth.”  You do this and this is what will happen to you.  It’s retribution.  It’s justice by retribution.

Also, this first-born son—Israel being God’s first-born son—this is son of God language which in the Old Testament is more often than not the language of royalty.  Kings in the ancient world—not just in Israel—were thought of as the offspring of the gods.  The son of god.  Certainly, the Old Testament too.  If you look at Psalm 2.  The king is God’s son, for example. 

That’s when he becomes king, when he’s coronated, so-to-speak, at that point, he’s “begotten by God.”  He’s “born of God.”  It’s often a royal term, but here it seems to be more like familial and “this is my first-born son.  I’m the dad of Israel and this is my first-born son.”  They have pride of place.  I care for them.  They’re special to me.

That might put a spin even on the son of God language in the New Testament.  Because there, Jesus is God’s Son.  In one sense, that means that’s royal language.  David is a son of God for being king.  Jesus, as Messiah, is son of God.  But he also may be son of God in fulfilling not just royal destiny, but Israel’s destiny.  Jesus fulfills Israel’s role as a mediator of the covenant of God to the nations.  We’ll see that later in the book of Exodus.  Israel’s role as a kingdom of priests, it says.

Jesus as son of God—that’s language that you already see here in the book of Exodus, Chapter 4, where Israel is God’s Son and Jesus embodies Israel’s role, so-to-speak.

One more point.  This is a doozy.  This is how this chapter basically ends.  It’s just plain weird.  It’s verses 24-26. 

Here’s what’s happening.  God just told Moses, even though Moses was reluctant–he finally caved and God convinced him to go to Egypt to deliver the Israelites from slavery. 

All-of-a-sudden, without warning, in verse 24, “on the way at a place where they might spend the night, the Lord met him and tried to kill him.”  Apparently, the reason for that is that their son wasn’t circumcised.  Zipporah, his wife—this is one of the daughters of Midian that he marries—she steps in with a flint knife and circumcises her son and then with the foreskin, she touches Moses’ feet, which is almost certainly a euphemism for his genitals. 

She touches Moses’ feet with the foreskin.  She says, “Truly,” to Moses, “you are a bridegroom of blood to me.” 

What?  Exactly.

Don’t preach on this in church because I think it’s just too difficult.  This is a very ambiguous passage.  It’s grammatically ambiguous in Hebrew.  There are a lot of pronouns.  Like “He, He, Him” that are thrown around.  You’re not always sure if the “he” is Moses or if the “he” is the son.  It’s a tough one to understand, but regardless of all that, this is a pretty serious about-face.


You don’t expect to turn on anybody for any reason at this point.  After all they went through just with these speeches and the burning bush, why try to kill him?

The bottom line is that this is a big puzzle.  The best answer I have is one that I’ve heard.  I don’t make this up.  This episode is somehow connected to the Passover episode that comes later in the book.  Think of it this way.  The shedding of blood in the Passover and also here in the circumcision—it designated the insiders.  Who are the insiders?  Who are the people of God?  Who’s Israel? 

It protects the first-born.  Moses has two sons at this point, but there’s only one here.  Some have said, “How can he have one son when he had two?  Did one of them die?”   No. 

Probably, the only important son is the first-born son who isn’t circumcised.  That’s what I think it is.  I could be wrong.  That’s how I’ve put these pieces together.  Here is a son who is not circumcised.  Here, in order to protect him, and anybody from getting killed, is to circumcise him.

Here his son is circumcised just like later on in the Passover episode, what’s going to happen, but the first-born of Israel is not going to die by this plague of death, because of the blood of the lamb.  The lamb is slaughtered and the blood is painted on the doors. 

It’s still weird.  Granted.  It’s a really odd way of ending this chapter.  A lot of people have said, “It’s just seems to be stuck here.  It’s almost like a separate folk-loric element that meant something to people back then.”  What does it mean that you were a “bridegroom of blood to me”?

It’s really hard to know.  People have taken some good stabs and I don’t want to spend time doing that here.  It’s one of these explanations—to do it right would take 20 minutes.  I don’t want to do that. 

I think at the end of the day, we still wouldn’t know.  It’s sort of weird.

One thing that’s not as weird is here we have another woman hero in the book of Exodus.  It was Moses’ sister.  Then Pharaoh’s daughter bringing Moses to safety as a child.  It was the women who would help the Israelite women give birth to women.  Now, here we have another woman who comes to the rescue, who sees the problem and she takes the matter into her own hands, literally, and circumcises his son.

That’s a very valid observation.  Another valid observation—this may not be the whole point of the story, but there’s a parallel between another famous divine confrontation, this one involving Jacob wrestling with God back in Genesis. 

Important stuff is going down.  Jacob is renamed Israel and it’s the beginning of something new and fresh.  Here we have another divine confrontation with the human deliverer, this time Moses.

There are probably really good reasons why this is here.  It’s just hard to see them.  At the end of the day, couldn’t God have simply have told Moses all this earlier?  Like why wait?  “By the way, forgot to tell you.  Somebody’s not circumcised.  You’re going to die.”  You could have said that earlier and it would have avoided these problems.

Which means it’s so weird and so out of place.  There’s probably a reason for it we don’t see.

He connects with Aaron just as God had promised.  He connects with Aaron in the wilderness.  Did Aaron just walk out of Egypt?

It’s one of these moments in this story that just isn’t explained.  Aaron’s a slave, right?  He’s an Israelite.  He can’t just walk out.

They meet in the wilderness and they both re-enter Egypt like nobody’s watching.  I’m not going to try to explain it.  It’s just there.  When you read the text carefully, these things jump out at you.

Of course, he meets with the elders.  He performs the signs.  They believe and they worship.  Now, it’s all about to go down.  Now Moses is back.  He’s been accepted by the people as the deliver.  They’re not going to grumble against him too much.  One time in this book.  But after that, not for quite a while.  At least a few chapters. 

Poor Moses.  He’s grumbled against a lot.  At this point, everybody’s on board.


Okay, folks, that brings us to the end of Chapter 4 and the end of this podcast on Part 2 of Pete Ruins Exodus.  Hope you’ve enjoyed it.  I’ll be back in a few weeks with the next installment where we’re going to cover a bit more ground.  I plan to get through all the plagues.

Again, from 30,000 feet.  But there’s a lot happening there.  A lot of theological significance.

Again, as always, thanks for downloading and listening.  It means a lot to me.  It means a lot to Jared and the work we’re trying to do.  Thanks for being a part of this.  See you next time.