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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Episode 139 – You Have Questions, Pete Has Answers

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete answers listener questions submitted via our Ask Pete and Jared page as well as the following questions:

  • What should we do when our ideas about the Bible are changing and we are receiving backlash from our community?
  • How can we apply “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away” to our lives today?
  • What can we conclude about the nature of God from the book of Job?
  • Was the Pentateuch written all at one time?
  • How has Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis developed overtime?
  • When Pete says “most scholars agree,” who are those agreeing scholars?
  • What are the Amarna letters and what are their relevance to the Bible?
  • Is the timeline of the conquest of Canaan we read in the Bible archeologically supported?
  • Are there instances of monotheism in the ancient world?
  • Should we be afraid of changing our beliefs in a life of faith?
  • What makes Christianity distinct from other religions?
  • Can history be separated from story in the Bible?

Tweetables

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

  • “Rejecting an academic, scholarly conclusion for dogmatic or ecclesiastical reasons is a… serious form of bias and closed-mindedness.” @peteenns
  • “Seeing the old faith differently is normally a very painful process.” @peteenns
  • “Once this owner’s manual view of the Bible is removed, we can begin to see the Bible as a source of wisdom, not a source of prooftexts.” @peteenns
  • “The Bible models this quest for wisdom by being chock of full diverse real-life scenarios of people of faith who respond by faith to their particular situations in different ways.” @peteenns
  • “I wish we could all… hold our theologies more gently rather than weaponizing the Bible to give the appearance that God is on our side.” @peteenns
  • “Faith does in fact change over time.” @peteenns
  • “I see faith as more of a process, a journey, where certain walls do indeed weaken over time and need to come down when they become obstacles to our growth.” @peteenns
  • “Whether or not we are comfortable with it, history mixed with story is exactly what we see in the Bible.” @peteenns

Mentioned in This Episode

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Read the transcript

[Introduction]

0:00

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 begins]

Pete: Hello normal people, and welcome to this brand new episode of the podcast. Now, you may know that on our website we have an “Ask Pete” page where you can submit your questions—and that seemed like a really good idea at the time. The thing is, there are a lot of questions, and I can’t keep up, and I’m sort of overwhelmed. So, what we do is periodically post some answers to our YouTube channel and for our patrons over at Patreon—where you too can watch those videos for as little as $1/month. And 0ther times, like this time, we try to hit a few at once on the podcast.

So, here’s what I did. I went through the list of like 200 questions and took of few of them that have a common theme—these are questions related directly to things I’ve said on other podcasts or in writing somewhere—like on blogs and some books and that’s the theme that unites these questions. So, I’ll keep my responses, you know, relatively brief, because I want to get through seven questions, if I can. We’ll see how things go.

Okay. So, here’s the first question:

The character, Job says, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away.” I understand him to be saying that whatever happens, whether we perceive it as good or bad, happens because God caused it. But the story of Job says Satan caused Job’s suffering; God merely permitted it. People frequently quote Job’s statement in the context of the death of a loved one. What do you believe about this?

This question relates to my last solo podcast on Job. The question picks up on a real tension in Job. And the passage referred to is Job 1:21, which concludes with another famous line: “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD.”

Now, it really is true that Job here is saying that whatever happens, good or bad, is God’s doing and we need to accept both as God’s will. And yet, readers of Job know that the issue is a bit more complicated. God didn’t really do anything, but allowed satan to do what he saw fit—and actually I’m going to say sa-TAN instead of Satan.

And if you’ll allow me, just a quick side note. Some of you may remember from my podcast that the Hebrew word sa-tan isn’t the name of the king of the underworld. In fact, the Hebrew is not a name at all, but a title meaning something like the accuser or the adversary. And in Job, this adversary is not an angel but a divine being who, and that’s weird, I know. But a divine being, who along with other divine beings has a seat at a, sort of like a heavenly board meeting with Israel’s God as CEO. That’s the scene we have here in Job. And this kind of a meeting is usually referred to as a heavenly council or a divine council. Okay, side note over.

So, as the story goes, God is bragging to sa-tan about how pious Job is. And sa-tan accuses God, right, the accuser. He accuses God of protecting Job and making his life flush so God can get the praise. Sa-tan says, in effect, you know, put a little pressure on him and Job will fold faster than Superman on laundry day.

[Drum sound plays: ba dum tss]

Now, what’s at stake in all this is God’s own reputation: if Job fails the test, God will look bad for bragging about Job. So right there, this bet complicates the whole “all things good and evil come from God so praise him regardless” idea.

Also, as we keep reading in Job, we see that the pious answer Job gives at first in 1:21 eventually gives way to a sustained complaint that he is suffering for some unknown reason, and God needs to let him in on why he’s suffering when he didn’t do anything to deserve it.

So, here is another wrinkle. That verse, Job 1:21—accept both good and evil as God’s will—that verse is itself in tension with how the book proceeds. Job doesn’t maintain his 1:21 outlook. In fact, he already abandons it in chapter 3. And I think respecting that tension between what he says in one place and what he says in another place, that is a very important for grasping the theology of the book of Job.

Now, I admit that Job 1:21 is a very tempting passage to cite when we face suffering, either our own or someone else’s. It seems like a neat and clear, one-size-fits-all answer to any bad thing that happens. “This is God’s mysterious will; God gives, God takes away. Deal with it.” And this use of Job 1:21 is certainly part of the Christian tradition.

5:00

It’s a way of submitting to the mystery of God. And truly, I get that, and I want to respect that mystery. But, if I may be so bold, I think that this way of looking at 1:21 is a misunderstanding of this passage and how it works in the overall picture of Job.

This is not a standalone verse that says something absolute about what God is like. It’s the confession of a biblical character, Job, in chapter 1, who is being tested for only the first time in his flush life. And his statement of faith is born out of an untested piety. In other words, he gives the “right” answer, like we sometimes do in church. The deeper and more authentic, more honest struggles of the suffering Job, well, that’s going to occupy the rest of the book. And, if my understanding of the end of the book is right (and that’s another podcast plug, by the way), but if my understanding of the end of the book is right, Job never gives in. He maintains his innocence and holds his ground to the end, and in the last chapter God vindicates Job.

Well anyway, it’s a great question, and to answer it well really forces us to dig into the big picture of Job, which is not a quick fix. It’s always harder to see the big picture than it is to find a verse and use it.

Gee, I wish there were a podcast on this, preferably under an hour that was released not too long ago.

All right, enough plugging. Onto the next question:

I’m curious why Pete thinks it is appropriate to use a biological concept (evolution) for literary analysis of the Pentateuch. Where else in literary studies has “evolution” played such a role? Interestingly, the scholars who’ve followed Wellhausen’s theory regarding the Pentateuch have splintered in many directions. This fact seems to indicate the theory is based on mere speculation rooted in personal bias.

This question concerns my next to last podcast, which was on the literary analysis of the Pentateuch. And all kidding aside, it might not be a bad idea to listen to that episode if this question and if my answer interests you.

So, to sum up the issue from that podcast, the question scholars have been asking for about 300 years is why the Pentateuch looks so uneven and contradictory in places. And in the 18th century, German scholars came up with an idea that eventually came to be called the Documentary Hypothesis, which many people have heard of even if you haven’t, you know, gone to seminary or something. And anyway, this was popularized by the German scholar Julius Wellhausen in the 19th century—which is the person mentioned in the question.

Now, Wellhausen’s basic point, once we clear away some of the clutter, and which is still the overwhelmingly dominant view today, is that the Pentateuch was not written at one time by one person (e.g., Moses in the mid-second millennium BCE). Rather, the Pentateuch grew over time. Written traditions began to emerge once the monarchy was established, so like 10th century BCE. More texts were written by Israelites, and then collected, edited together, and added to, over several centuries until sometime after the 5th century roughly. And that process eventually came to an end with the Pentateuch more or less as we know it today.

Now, here’s the point. I refer to this process, this development, as an evolution, and the questioner is wondering why I would use a biological concept to describe a literary phenomenon. But—this is not a big deal, really. You know, to say that the Pentateuch “evolved” is simply an analogy, and I think a good one. The process of editing over time really is something like a series of adaptations to changing times and situations. As time passed these traditions grew to fit changing circumstances. And again, forgive me, but the podcast might help flesh that out because it’s sort of an intricate issue. It gets a little bit tricky and I spent a little bit more time there working through the issue with a little more patience.

The fact that evolution is a biological concept – which, side issue, isn’t actually quite true, it’s also a cosmological and geological concept, but I know what the questioner is after – but the fact that evolution is from another field, let’s say, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be used when describing the Bible. In fact, that’s how analogies work—you use a concept from a different thing to describe something else: you know, the movement of the planets is like a finely tuned watch.

9:58

I wonder, though, if the questioner isn’t really bothered by my simply using an analogy. Had I said something like the “flowering” of the Pentateuch, I don’t know if the question would have been submitted at all. I sense the issue here is that the questioner does not like evolution specifically to be tied to the Bible. And I understand that—I vehemently disagree—but I understand. But perhaps it would have been better had she said, “I think evolution is untrue and I don’t like tying it to the Bible.” See, I could accept that, but claiming that evolution can’t be used as an analogy because it is from the field of biology, well, it seems to miss what analogies do, which again is to describe something less familiar by something more familiar.

Not to dig too deep into this, but in addition to the discomfort with evolution, the questioner also makes the rather common mistake of thinking that scholarly movement beyond Wellhausen is an indictment on his theory. As the questioner puts it, the theory has “splintered in many directions” . . . and is therefore “mere speculation rooted in personal bias.” But the theory hasn’t gone into self-destruct mode. The original 19th century theory has—forgive me—evolved, mutated, into various sub-theories. And this is not evidence that the whole theory is “mere speculation rooted in personal bias.” It just means scholarship is happening.

Scholarship on the Pentateuch has definitely changed since Wellhausen’s day, just as science has changed since Darwin’s day in the 19th century. The parallel is really interesting to me: see, both Wellhausen and Darwin, at roughly the same time, proposed a theory of “origins”—the origin for the Pentateuch and the origin of humanity. And in both cases, scholarship has moved on while also acknowledging the debt to the 19th century. You see, no scholar today is a devoted follower of Wellhausen—just as no evolutionary biologist today is a devoted follower of Darwin. Scholarship changes over time, but that doesn’t mean the theories have “splintered” or are “mired in personal bias.” It’s just how scholarship works.

All right, next question:

Pete frequently says something like: “most scholars agree”. Who are these “agreeing” scholars? I don’t find them in the seminary professors that I have talked to about Pete’s view of the ancient, ambiguous, diverse Bible.

All right, well, I want to be honest here. See, I hesitated a bit whether to include this question, for fear that it might be misunderstood as dismissive. But this question has come up in some form with respect to podcasts and my writing, so I think there is value in addressing it. Now it would help me to have an example or two of where I am claiming broad academic agreement on an issue where there isn’t any that we don’t have, so let me try to answer generally, and I hope that’s going to be helpful.  

Remember, this is The Bible for Normal People, where we are trying to bring the best of biblical scholarship to non-specialists—sometimes nuances and subtleties do get lost in that exchange. But when I say things like “most scholars agree” or something like that, you know, I mean it. I’m not pulling things out of thin air. The topics we address on this podcast and that I write about in my books, they don’t raise an eyebrow, really, among biblical scholars. In fact, they’re more or less right down the middle, and that is true even if there are scholarly disagreements about some things.

Now, this is where I am hesitating, and I hope this will be accepted in the best possible light. It’s possible—and I suspect this is the case—that the questioner may not be familiar with how widely or generally held the views I express are—which is absolutely fine. I’m a little more curious that his seminary professors seem unfamiliar as well. This suggests to me that this question is arising out of a . . . conservative space, where the kinds of conversations we are trying to have here may not be the kinds of conversations valued elsewhere. That too is fine, but those values do not constitute not a legitimate criticism of what scholars do elsewhere. I hope that makes some sense.

When I say things like “most” or “a good many” or a “strong consensus of scholars agree on x, y, or z,” I am actually signally for people in the know that, yes, virtually every issue in biblical studies has a flurry of debate surrounding it.

14:54

In other words, I can’t see myself ever saying “every single biblical scholar alive today,” or something like that, because sooner or later someone will push and prod a majority view—which is what scholarship is supposed to do. But, in this context of connecting people with biblical scholarship, if there is a view that is so widespread as to not be seriously debated, I have no hesitation saying something like “with extremely rare exception, this is the majority view.” One example of this is from the previous question: the Pentateuch is a 1st millennium product of a long process, and not a 2nd millennium creation by one author writing at one time.

Now this is important, but also another place where I am hesitating. If the scholars who doubt that consensus are primarily those with deeply conservative dogmatic ecclesiastical commitments—like some form of literalism or inerrancy, for example—and I am being honest, I don’t feel the need to include them in my sample size. In fact, if I did and said, “some scholars think the Pentateuch is a 1st millennium product,” I would actually be misleading people into thinking that the debate over this particular issue is widespread.

Views that oppose a strong academic consensus and are fueled by an apologetic stance to defend a particular doctrine are not part of the scholarly conversation, as far as I’m concerned. And I am aware that some will accuse me of bias or closed-mindedness, and that’s fine too. I would simply respond that rejecting an academic, scholarly conclusion for dogmatic or ecclesiastical reasons is a much more serious form of bias and closed-mindedness.

OK, Pete. Any happy questions in there? Okay, well, not really happy, but some of these are really interesting, and here’s another one of them.

Is there any evidence that the events recorded in Exodus line up chronologically with the Amarna period in Egypt? Among other things, I am thinking about the monotheism of Akhenaten.

OK, so first of all, what is the Amarna period? Actually, what is Amarna? Well, it’s a town in Egypt, and in 1887 some clay tablets were discovered there. And these tablets date to the time of Pharaoh Akhenaten, who reigned in the middle of the 14th century BCE.  Keep that date in your head, 14th century, 1300’s.

These clay tablets were actually letters written by Canaanites, the residents of the land of Canaan up there, and they were written by Canaanites to Akhenaten in the Akkadian language—which is the language of international diplomacy at the time. These letters were a very big deal because they give us a glimpse of life in Canaan, I’ll say it again, in the 14th century—in this case, it’s a record of Canaanites rebelling against Egyptian rule of that region. Let me say that again: Egyptian rule of Canaan in the 14th century.

Okay. Who cares? Well, the questioner does, but I want you to care too. See, the 14th century is the time (a little math coming here folks) but that’s the time when the Israelites would have been settled in Canaan according to the literal timeline given in the Bible. What is that timeline? Well, Solomon’s temple was built, according to the book of Kings, “in the 480th year after the Israelites came out of Egypt.”

Solomon’s temple dates to the middle of the 10th century BCE, and 480 years back from that brings is to the 15th century, specifically the date most often landed on for a number of reasons is 1446 BCE as the date for the exodus. So, middle of the 15th century, the date of the exodus. All right, let’s get on with this. See, the problem is that this date of 1446 runs into some serious chronological problems, because it would place Israel’s existence in Canaan in the 15th century, or at least in the early 14th century. That means, this is one of the punchlines folks, that means that Israelites would, presumably, have been a fixture in Canaan by the time of the Amarna letters about 100 years later.

The problem is that the Canaan that the Amarna letters depict don’t include Israelites. Now, there is a later Egyptian monument from around 1207 BCE—very late 13th century—that does mention “Israel” by name, which is very cool. But no Israelites in Canaan in the 14th century.

19:57

According to the Amarna letters, Canaan is inhabited by Canaanites living in city-states like Shechem, Gezer, Ashkelon, and Jerusalem, each with their own king. And also, just think about this, the book of Judges, which would be taking place during this Amarna period according to that literal timeline, but the book of Judges doesn’t mention Egyptian presence in the land. Their problem in Judges is largely the Philistines, not the Egyptians.

Add to that, the archaeological support for the destruction of some of the towns and cities mentioned in the conquest stories of the Old Testament, like the book of Joshua, well, that archeological evidence is coming from the 12th century and later; which is also the time when we see strong evidence, archeological evidence, for an influx of settlements in the hill country of Israel, which is also the picture that the Bible presents.

Now just apart from the Amarna letters entirely, the little evidence we have for the conquest and the exodus, that evidence strongly suggests that the 15th century is just way too early for the exodus and way too early for the beginning of the conquest of the land of Canaan. The Amarna letters seem to indicate that there is no Israelite presence in Canaan in the 14th century. The biblical timeline doesn’t work, and a later period has to be sought for the exodus and the conquest of Canaan, which is what some of the evidence I’ve just mentioned talks about, like, the influx of hill country settlements and some destruction of some towns. That’s a big issue, it’s a lot to chew on, and you can see what it’s not easy to discuss the history of the exodus and conquest during fellowship hour after the service.

Now as for the pharaoh Akhenaten (gotta get to him), he is often referred to as the first monotheist for declaring that the god Aten (which is where he gets his name from), Akhenaten. But he declared that this god Aten, the Sun Disk, was the only god. Now, what drove this pharaoh to make such a unique claim is debated, but it probably isn’t some deep spiritual insight that there is in fact only one god even though everyone else believed in many gods. There were probably economic and political factors involved, and other things as well. And, you know, don’t forget, the idea of only one God? That died with him, that didn’t catch on.

Akhenaten’s monotheism is definitively an interesting topic worth exploring. My caution is in using this one-off, debated example in Egyptian religion, to support the idea that monotheism was an accepted option in the day generally, and therefore—here is the punchline—and therefore there is no reason to think that the Israelites weren’t monotheists from the beginning of their existence.

Now that’s a mouthful, so let me flesh that out a bit. Akhenaten’s monotheism has been jumped on by conservatives. For various reasons there is a strong scholarly consensus that Israelite religion was not monotheistic early on, but monolatrous. Monolatry means that the Israelites believed in the existence of many gods, even though they worshipped only one, their God, Yahweh. The Bible itself, not to get into all this, but the Bible itself has many passages that only work if we assume monolatry, one being Psalm 95. Just read the first few verses, where Yahweh is referred to as the great king above all gods. Yeah, it ranks them. Exodus 12:12 where during the 10th plague we read that God’s judgment is coming “on all the gods of Egypt”.

Now at some point, which is hard to pin down but probably after the exile (with some pre-exilic rumblings, to be sure), but sometime after the exile, at some point the Israelites became more clearly monotheistic, and they certainly were monotheists long before we get to the time of Jesus. But you see, this is the point here: Akhenaten’s unusual sort of religious move can’t be used to push that monotheism back to the period of the exodus—which is what conservatives hope Akhenaten can do for them.Now, if you’re interested in more, you can search for monolatry on my website, and I think I’ve done, if I remember right, a Patreon video or two on this as well. I can’t remember. Don’t hold me to it, but check it out.

OK. Next question.

24:51

For those of us already anxious about deconstructing, how can we be encouraged to continue our journey away from our roots in light of 2 Timothy 4:3?

Here is what this passage says, and I want to include verse 4 as well. “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.”

Now, this passage seems like a warning not ever to change one’s views, and not to listen to anyone who tells you something different than what you believe. And worse, it’s often used to shut down the journey of faith that many people find themselves on—people who listen to this podcast for example, who aren’t looking for ways to be radical or unfaithful or rebellious, but who have had experiences that have led them to question what they have been taught. Seeing the old faith differently is normally a very painful process and clearly this questioner is going through a process like that and is, in my opinion, repeating a “warning from Scripture” that he has as heard from others—like friends or pastors, perhaps.

One problem here is the use of this passage this way treats the Bible as an owner’s manual for faith, where every passage is meant somehow to give us the answer here and now—and where we tend to see ourselves in the right and others in the wrong. And exposing the problems with this way of approaching the Bible is a big theme in two of my books, The Bible Tells Me So and How the Bible Actually Works. And once this owner’s manual view of the Bible is removed, we can begin to see the Bible as a source of wisdom, not a source of prooftexts. The Bible, I feel, is much better understood as modeling the quest for wisdom in this life and not handing us Tweet length answers.

And the Bible models this quest for wisdom by being chock of full diverse real-life scenarios of people of faith who respond by faith to their particular situations in different ways. So, the question I would have about 2 Timothy 4 is “well, what is the situation of the letter?” Of course, that’s not easy to discern, and I admit it is much easier, again, to take this as a one-size-fits all command from God. But . . . I don’t think it is wise to take phrases from this passage and simply infuse themwith meaning as we see fit. You know, what does it mean for this author to “abandon sound doctrine and have itching ears”? Anything we don’t like can fill that void today, from watching a PG movie to worshiping Satan. And how these phrases are filled with meaning will probably be determined by those who are in power—those who gets to make the call. The leaders of the church, the school, or the denomination.

Absolutely anyone can appeal to 2 Timothy 4, fill the words with meaning, and come out looking squeaky clean and others really evil. You know, Paul himself was a victim of such thinking—he was considered a false teacher, tickling itching ears, moving unsuspecting people away from sound doctrine and from truth to follow myths . . .  like when he said that circumcision and dietary restrictions are not required for gentiles to be full-fledged members of the family of Abraham.

See, a passage like this is just waiting to be weaponized. But the problem isn’t the passage, but what is expected from it—a clear word from God to us in our moment, rather than a passage that requires tremendous wisdom and maturity to understand how or IF this present situation calls for this passage. You know, to make the absurd point, I wouldn’t say that changing from a traditional to contemporary worship style is abandoning sound doctrine, even if I would strongly prefer one over the other. When you are having questions about biblical inerrancy, or the historicity of parts of the Bible, or contradictions in the Gospels, is that evidence of you are simply surrounding yourself by false teachers to satisfy your own desires, and 2 Timothy 4 is God’s way of condemning you? Or are you really struggling with something and have good reason for it?

Like I said, too often we read passages like this and see ourselves immediately on the right side of the question and others who think differently on the other side. Rarely do we turn this inward to see whether the power structures we support and simply assume to be right might actually be at odds with sound doctrine or tickling itching ears with false teaching.

30:00

I want to suggest that the questioner is already in this process of critiquing the “system” from within. He is not a rebel, but observing from the inside where the pieces are no longer fitting together for him. A while back, in one of our monthly book groups for our patrons over at Patreon, we read John Caputo’s little book What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, and one of the powerful points he makes is that the kind of deconstruction that our questioner is experiencing is not an attack on the faith from the outside. Rather, it rises up internally, caused by the inherent instability of any theological or ecclesiastical system, especially one that claims to be sitting on top of the mountain looking down at everyone else. Now, I wish we could all take that to heart and hold our theologies more gently rather than weaponizing the Bible to give the appearance that God is on our side.

Now, and briefly, another issue I have with using this passage as a prooftext to keep people in line is that it denies the inevitable reality that faith does in fact change over time. You know, I truly believe that the, let’s call it the intellectual scaffolding we all create in our minds to hold our faith, I think that’s all fine, and it’s normal, and it’s needed. But it is not permanent, that’s the hard part. To switch metaphors, true faith is often presented as a wall that must be kept high and stable, and if it begins to crumble it’s our job to patch it right away lest our faith weaken—and passages like 2 Timothy 4 are enlisted to support that point. But I see faith as more of a process, a journey, where certain walls do indeed weaken over time and need to come down when they become obstacles to our growth. We all have walls, but we need to be willing, I think, to take them down. I think that’s the life of faith, and I believe that life of faith can only continue toward maturity as we risk taking that journey and not conspiring to keep that from happening. One of the points I make in the Sin of Certainty is that the Bible models this very journey into mystery rather than building walls of protection.

OK, let’s move to the next question.

So, to my understanding it seems that you understand Scripture as historically rooted, mythologically told in order to convey theology. So, if Scripture is nothing more mythical story with some historicity, how is Christianity distinct?

I think about this question a lot, enough to know that I am not able to give a 3-point, unassailable answer to it. This question really gets at the heart of the modern dilemma for the Christian faith. Knowing what we know about other ancient religions, what makes Christianity distinct? Good question, central question.

Now, here’s my take on it. In a way, all religions are distinct—so the fact that Christianity shares characteristics with other ancient religions doesn’t make it less distinct. It just means that the distinction of the Christian faith isn’t found in necessarily how well it keeps its distance from those other religions.

Still, I do think that there is something distinct about the Christian faith—distinct in the sense that I don’t see it elsewhere (though I am definitely willing to be corrected here). It has to do, at least as far as I can see, it has to do with the cross, and namely two things. First: Jesus’s crucifixion is presented in the New Testament as something God initiates on behalf of humanity. And this is an odd idea in a world where sacrifice is something humans have been doing since forever to appease gods, humans initiated. As others have noted, it seems like God is turning the whole idea of sacrifice on its head and putting an end to it. We hear verses like, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son….” and yawn because it’s so familiar, but that idea of God giving a son on behalf of the world as an idea that strikes me as a distinct twist.

Now, let me add that I am among those who does not think that God offered his son as a sacrifice in order to have his own wrath satisfied—that is a common view, even with some biblical support, but I think it breaks down for a variety of reasons we can’t get into here, but I’m hardly the only person to think this way. And by the way, I say this well aware of passages like Romans 3:21-26, so no emails please. I think the issue at stake is too subtle than can be handled by quoting a passage or two.

35:02

The cross, I believe, is God putting an end to the notion that human’s sacrificing animals or other humans is a bridge to divinity. At any rate, I think the cross is distinct in that it is presented as a sacrifice from God on behalf of humans. And the second distinct thing about the cross: The God we meet in the in the NT is not one who keeps his distance from the humiliation of Roman crucifixion. See, this is the paradox of the NT, that God’s power is seen though the humiliation of this particular Roman style of crucifixion, which is a very humiliating one. And that idea sometimes just stops me dead in my tracks. And I have to say, when I ask myself what is distinct about Christianity and why bother with it, this is where my mind goes. You know, It’s been said that if you wanted to start a new religion in the Greco-Roman world, your story would not center on the crucifixion of its founder, nor would it tolerate the Creator’s willing participation in that humiliation. See, Gods aren’t shamed, but the Christian faith is grounded by this very counterintuitive and paradoxical claim.

Now, to be clear, these distinctives don’t amount to proof that Christianity is true. I’m just offering some observations on what makes it distinct, in my opinion. Believing these things are true is a matter of faith—and I don’t say that cheaply. Many of us are used to thinking there are all sorts of reasons for Christianity being distinct, and there may very well be more that just don’t strike me at the moment. But the question of what makes Christianity distinct will never go away, especially given our increasing understanding of the ancient world and of other religions. We could spend hours on this, but at least that’s a start.

Now, one more point I’d like to address about all this. The questioner is concerned about the Bible being “nothing more than mythical story with some historicity.” I think she is using the word myth and story somewhat interchangeably, which is fine for the point I want to make, though they are not the same thing technically speaking. No need to go into all that, though I do understand the concern about losing history in the Bible, and just let me say one or two things about that.

Whether or not we are comfortable with it, history mixed with story is exactly what we see in the Bible. Actually, there is no telling of history anywhere that isn’t at the same time woven together with “unhistorical” elements—call that story. There is no such thing as history writing that is kept “pure” –devoid of non-historical elements introduced by the writer, either intentionally or unintentionally. The past has to be told, and as soon as it is, we have introduced the influence of the storyteller. The interesting thing to see here, as far as I’m concerned, is not whether this happens in the Bible, but what are the implications of this happening in what we call Scripture.

Okay, one last question, and here it is.

As I lean AWAY from an inerrant view of the Bible, I’m getting backlash from my evangelical friends! (That’s almost everyone). It scares the s*** out of me to be honest! Is there hope in keeping my loving community!? I’m in a scared stage right now.

I really resonate with this question. I get it a lot and I lived it too.

The thing is, it’s very hard to keep engaged in an evangelical community if one’s views are shifting from those of the community. Remember that evangelicalism is a separatist movement that is defined by its members holding to certainly essentially non-negotiable ideas. No longer believing in biblical inerrancy is one of several conversation stoppers.

In my opinion, and in my experience, it’s hard to maintain intimacy with a group when that group’s core ideals are felt to be challenged. A social, personal distance is created because of theological differences, that’s why the distance is created, and it is hard to maintain those associations despite the differences when those beliefs are central to evangelical identity.

39:47

For the record I think this is not simply an evangelical or fundamentalist problem, but I think that the tipping point is easier to get to the more conservative the church is—there are just more issues to collide over. Also, I don’t think that this “social distancing” (if I can use that phrase) is necessarily intentional on the part of the group. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it’s just the unconscious power of groupthink and the unspoken rules of the community that we aren’t always conscious about.

When your beliefs challenge the evangelical theology of your church or organization, I think you have two choices: to not talk about these things, because you value the group; or leave the group to find another community. A bad move, which I’ll tell you a secret. I’ve made this move, don’t tell anybody. But a bad move is to try to change the church, or change the organization, whatever, to change it to your way of thinking. That’s very stressful, and even unfair to expect others to get on board with a journey that might have taken you months or years to get to. And it never works. At best it simply divides people along political lines. Even if you win you lose.

Now, there is an intermediate approach: find discretely those in your group who are on a similar journey and then meet informally to discuss all those things you feel you can’t discuss openly. That maybe a way of keeping the best of both worlds, but, in my opinion, it will only delay the second option: you will grow used to the freedom and relief of such a group and begin asking yourselves why you are living a double life, and gee, wouldn’t it be nice to just be in a church where we don’t have to meet on the side.

How to handle this situation will be different for everyone. I know individuals and couples who have made the decision to value the group over their expanding theological boundaries, and it works. This is often the case when children are involved, if they have like a strong network of friends or a decent youth group. Though—and maybe you’re already anticipating what I’m about to say, the polar opposite scenario is true too—for some it is exactly what their children are hearing in church that scares the parents and motivates them to find another church home that doesn’t base its teachings on ideas that the parents will have to balance or contradict at home.

But you know, regardless, leaving a community is hard. And I’ve done that and felt a lot of relief when I did. But over the years, I could see the unintended, unanticipated consequences of the loss of a community—you know, children growing up and our not being a part of their milestones; not having people in your life who have known you consistently for 10, 20, 30 years and who will be there to help in times of trouble. I take loss of community very seriously, but for me, the freedom to be curious, to explore, to follow my instincts, to listen to my experiences and to that inner voice, well those things, they all trump the benefits of the community. You know, but I have had mourning periods. I still do. It’s just that the mourning for me would have been greater had I stayed in a place that would have crushed my soul and my mind—which by the way isn’t a judgment. That situation would have crushed ME. That’s all I’m saying. For others, the same situation may be like a safe haven.

And I guess that’s the main point of this: each situation is different, and knowing what to do is a very personal act—it takes some courage to accept the responsibility to be very deliberate and then follow that decision where it leads. Part of the emotional struggle, which we never talk about but that’s so important, part of the emotional struggle can be soothed a bit by trying to remember to tell yourself, to remind yourself that, you know, God may be out ahead of you inviting you on this very, even difficult journey, rather than believing that your church is the only place where God can be found.

It was sobering to me to try to explain my former church situation to non-evangelical Christian friends of mine, and they simply couldn’t relate. This is such an internal kind of thing. And the issues that pre-occupy evangelicalism are not even on the radar of those other Christians. And I guess, you know, in retrospect, even though that might have been a little bit unsettling for me at one point, it encouraged me, it has encouraged me over the years to know that evangelicalism is not the norm, as simple as that, and that there are other vibrant communities of Christian faith out there.

[Music begins]

44:39

Pete: Okay folks, before we go, two quick things. Jared’s book Love Maters More is out. Listen, it’s thoughtful, challenging, timely, and generally just amazing. Cancel all plans. Grab a copy and spread the word. Also, coming up we are offering a new course, “Everyday Life in Ancient Israel,” and it will be taught by archaeologist and college professor Dr. Cynthia Shafer-Elliot. This course is awesome. I’ve seen the content. We could be more excited. The course runs for 4 consecutive Tuesdays beginning October 6th. For more information including registration head on over to https://peteenns.com/course/. See ya folks.

[Outro]

Narrator: Thanks, as always, to our team: executive producer, Megan Cammack; audio engineer, Dave Gerhart; creative director, Tessa Stultz; marketing wizard, Reed Lively; transcriber and community champion, Stephanie Speight; and web developer Nick Striegel. From Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team, thanks for listening.

[Music ends]

[Outtakes]

[Beep]

Pete: Now, one other angle that might help clear things up, when I say things like, oh gosh. Like, I’m not even, it’s not even noon and I’m falling asleep. All right.

[Beep]

Pete: The problem is that…the… okay, sorry. That didn’t make any sense, I’ll try it again.

[Beep]

Pete: The course runs for four consecutive Tuesdays beginning October 6th, and runs for four consecutive weeks. That’s redundant.

[Beep]

Pete: The course runs for four consecutive Tuesdays, beginning October 6th, oh gosh, I can’t speak. Okay. Two more sentences Pete, you can do this.

[Beep]

Pete: You’re a good man, Dave. Always make me sound good.

[End of recorded material]

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Pete Ruins Exodus (part 1)

Pete Ruins Exodus (Part 1)

March 11, 2019

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

Read the transcript

00:00

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

Jared:  And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty Intro Music]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

05:24

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10:09

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15:24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20:15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Creation theme.  That’s a big thing. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just love that.  God saw.  God knew. 

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

[Outro Music Begins]

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

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