Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Episode 178: Pete Enns – Pete Ruins Isaiah

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, our topic is the book of Isaiah and Pete shares five fun facts that biblical scholars like to talk about that will ruin your life—probably not. We’ll see. Join Pete as he explores the following questions: 

  • How are the Major/Minor Prophets divided according to Christian tradition?
  • What impact did the Assyrian crisis have on Isaiah’s prophetic ministry?
  • Why is understanding the context of the prophets key to understanding what they are trying to say?
  • Are prophets in the future prediction business? 
  • Are there clear predictions of Jesus in the book of Isaiah?
  • Why does Matthew cite a verse in Isaiah when talking about the birth of Jesus?
  • How are throne names used in the Bible? 
  • Why is there a change in tone when you get to Isaiah 40? 
  • What are the servant songs in Isaiah? 
  • Do scholars agree on the necessity of a 3rd Isaiah? 
  • How did the sense of coherency and unity in the book of Isaiah come to be? 
  • How can you respect scripture by adding to it? 


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

  • “Because the prophets were crisis managers – you know, dealing with the moment, the problem in front of them – prophets were not in the future prediction business. They gave God’s interpretation, let’s say, of the present moment.” @peteenns
  • “How the New Testament writers and others apply the Old Testament, how they draw lines connecting the two, doesn’t tell us what the Old Testament writers were saying. It tells us how ancient words were appropriated by a later community of faith.” @peteenns
  • “I believe we can actually appreciate the radical Christ-centeredness of the NT writers even more if we first understand the original purpose of an Old Testament passage in its time and place, and then how the New Testament expanded that meaning to now include Jesus.” @peteenns
  • “When the editors brought together what we call 1st and 2nd and 3rd Isaiah, they weren’t ‘adding to sacred scripture.’ They were just continuing to tell their story of a people once united, now exiled, and looking to God to give them a future.” @peteenns
  • “Isaiah has a context and he is speaking out of it and into it. Getting this is foundational, not just for understanding Isaiah, but really for understanding the nature of biblical prophets as a whole.” @peteenns
  • “Much of the book of Isaiah is attributed to Isaiah himself, but much else comes to us from this later community who valued Isaiah’s words enough to add to them, to update and expand them, to hear what God is saying to them at a different time and place.” @peteenns
  • “Ancient Israelites and later Jews did not think of the sacred tradition as being protected under glass. It continued to grow because they believed God was still active in THEIR time, addressing THEIR concerns, even if the prophets weren’t around anymore.” @peteenns

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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: Hey folks, welcome to this episode of the podcast, and today’s topic is the Book of Isaiah and five fun facts that biblical scholars like to talk about that will ruin your life. Probably not. Yeah, we’ll see. We’ll see how this goes, okay?

So, to begin, let’s get right into this, shall we? Here is my typical disclaimer: There’s a lot more to this book, the Book of Isaiah, than what we’re going to talk about here. Isaiah is one of the core books of the Hebrew Bible. It’s a masterpiece, simply from a literary point of view and in places its theology, it just, it’s beautiful. It just soars. And it’s a big book with a lot of interlocking and moving parts, some of which we’ll look at, but by no means all. You know, we could do a series on Isaiah, and it would take, you know, 10 to 20 episodes and we’d still be skimming the surface. Of course, I’m going to try to cram in a lot in just one episode, but all I want to do is just touch on a few things that scholars talk about that may be of interest to you or help orient you to the book as a whole, to give the big picture and maybe dispel some assumptions, okay? That’s the deal.

So, first fun fact is this, ready? This will blow your mind. The Book of Isaiah is grouped among the Major Prophets of the Christian canon. Alright, that’s obvious, I know. It’s not ruining your life, but just give me a minute here. The other Major Prophets are Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, and they are so called, probably simply on the basis of their length compared to the 12 Minor Prophets, which are Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Now, just a quick side note here, this major/minor distinction is Christian and not Jewish. Judaism divides the canon differently, and the Major/Minor Prophets are all together under the title “Latter Prophets” except for Lamentations and Daniel, which are found in another section of the Jewish canon called “The Writings”.

Now, speaking of Lamentations, it’s a mere five chapters long, but it’s grouped in the Christian Bible with the Major Prophets. Well, why? Well, because it was thought to have been written by Jeremiah and maybe so, but who knows? It certainly sounds like him. Now, regarding Daniel, it is included in the Major Prophets, even though it’s only 12 chapters long. While Hosea, a Minor Prophet, is fourteen chapters long. And so, to quote Mike LaFontaine, “Hey, wha’ happened?” Bonus points if you get the movie reference, email us. Anyway, Daniel may have fewer chapters than Hosea, but at about 10,000 words it’s actually a bit more than, well, twice as many words as Hosea. See, you have to count the words, that’s my point, and count them in Hebrew, not English. Can’t count chapters because chapters are sort of arbitrary, right?

So, this brings us back to the Book of Isaiah. It’s the first of the Major Prophets and the longest prophetic book in terms of chapters (66), but the longest prophetic book is actually Jeremiah. Yes, only 52 chapters, but about 4,000 more words than Isaiah. Remember, chapter divisions are arbitrary, and Jeremiah has a lot more narrative portions than Isaiah, and narrative uses more words than poetry – you can see that in any Bible. Just take a minute, leaf through Isaiah and then Jeremiah, and you can see how much empty space poetic lines have. And just, why not? We’re on the topic. If you’re interested, my Bible software, Accordance, maybe you use it, it tells me that Psalms barely edges out Jeremiah for first place as the longest book of the Bible. Both those books are just over 40,000 words. Then comes Genesis (36,000) and Isaiah is fourth at 35,000. Now, I hope this little factoid, that chapters tell us nothing about length, hasn’t burst your bubble, because if it has, this might be a rough podcast for you.

Okay, second fun fact: In Christianity, Isaiah has been called the 5th Gospel. Why? Well, a couple reasons. It’s cited in the New Testament over 50 times and no other prophetic book comes close. And the only book that’s cited more often, and only slightly more often, is the book of Psalms. And those citations? Well, that doesn’t include allusions to Isaiah that appear in the New Testament.


And it’s not just that Isaiah is cited a lot or alluded to a lot. Some passages in Isaiah sound very Jesus-y – they seem to be direct predictions of Jesus, at least that’s how they’ve been taken for many in the history of the church. Now remember, I said that we’re just skimming the surface with Isaiah. Well, this one issue, how Isaiah is used by New Testament writers, is complicated and captivating. It would need, I don’t know, a few hundred podcasts to cover well. I’m exaggerating slightly. Now, we’re going to touch on this issue of Jesus and the Book of Isaiah in a few minutes, but bottom line, Isaiah was an important book for the New Testament writers. There’s no question. There’s something about it that helped them understand Jesus in their own world.

Okay. Third fun fact, you think we’re going quickly, but we’re not folks. The last couple are pretty long, okay? Third fun fact: Isaiah lived in a time of crisis. This is very important folks. Now specifically, the time is the late 8th and early 7th centuries BCE. By the way, I won’t keep saying BCE because all these dates are before the Common Era, before Christ, okay? So basically, again, the time here, the time that Isaiah lived, the time of crisis, is the late 8th and early 7th centuries. That’s the time, roughly, let’s say if you want years instead of centuries, 740ish to maybe 690ish, 680ish, that’s more or less when Isaiah was around. Now, what is the crisis that he’s dealing with? Well, it’s an Assyrian crisis, not serious crisis, an Assyrian crisis, right?

A little background here, the Kingdom of Israel started back before this time as a united kingdom with Saul, David, and Solomon ruling over all of Israel. After Solomon’s death, it divided into northern and southern kingdoms, and this was around the year 930. The northern kingdom had been dealing with Assyrians and potential problems with the Assyrians since the middle of the 9th century, around 850 (less than 100 years after was founded). This is when the Assyrians started emerging as a force to be reckoned with in that part of the world. And about 100 years later, now we’re in the middle of the 8th century, that’s the time when the Assyrians were seriously flexing their muscles and taking over what is called the Fertile Crescent. And you can probably find this in a map in your Bible on the back of your Bible or something, but the Fertile Crescent, that’s the area that stretches from Babylon in Mesopotamia arching up northwestward along those major rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers through Assyria, and then eventually dropping down along the coast through Israel on the way to Egypt in the south.

Now, neither the divided northern or southern kingdoms were major players. They were more caught in the middle of a power grab among the three great superpowers: Babylonia, Assyria, and Egypt. And on their way toward Egypt, the Assyrians, who are on the move now, remember? They would need to pass through these two little Israelite kingdoms and of course, the north was the first one to have to deal with them because they’re coming from a northerly direction.

Okay, this is just the backdrop for Isaiah’s prophetic activity: Assyria is king of the hill, and so you know, “what do we do about the Assyrians” comes up quite a bit in Isaiah. Isaiah began prophesying in the 740s and so he was around when the northern kingdom eventually fell to the Assyrians in 721, never to rise again. He was also there when the southern nation, called Judah and its capital is Jerusalem, when Judah and Jerusalem, they survived an Assyrian attack twenty years later in 701.

Isaiah was around for both of those moments; he lived in a time of crisis. And his prophetic ministry was about, let’s call it crisis management. I got that wonderful description from biblical scholar Victor Matthews in his book, The Hebrew Prophets and Their Social World. Isaiah’s role was addressing the crisis of the moment for Israel’s survival. See the tone of these prophets, and Isaiah especially, the tone was one of urgency.


If you read Isaiah, and if you keep this one fun fact in mind, that Isaiah is a crisis manager at a time of crisis, I think the Book of Isaiah will make more sense as you read it. Not complete sense always, I’m not suggesting that, but Isaiah’s oracles deal with the political, nationalistic, and religious fallout of the Assyrian war machine upsetting the Fertile Crescent. And so, here’s the vibe: If Israel is God’s people and the land of Israel is God’s land, well, a big active question in facing the Assyrian invasion is, you know, what will happen to us with this, you know, menacing army descending on us from the north. How will this play out? A fair amount of roughly the first two-thirds of the Book of Isaiah deal with this moment directly or indirectly.

In other words, alright folks, and I realize I may be beating a dead horse here, but Isaiah has a context and he is speaking out of it and into it. And I’m beating this dead horse because getting this is foundational, not just for understanding Isaiah, but really for understanding the nature of biblical prophets as a whole. You know, try this sometime. If you were to create a timeline of Israel’s history, and you can start, let’s say, with the time of David, which is around 1000. So, you have this timeline starting around 1000 and then map on to the timeline when the biblical prophets were active, and I mean the Major and Minor Prophets that have books named after them. If you mapped those biblical prophets onto a timeline, you would see a pattern. Biblical prophets don’t even appear on the scene until the middle of the 8th century during the Assyrian crisis. You have a group of prophets that are active then. Another group of prophets clusters around another crisis, this is the Babylonian exile, which happens 100 and some odd years later. Then there’s a third group that clusters around another crisis: Will our nation rebound after the Babylonian exile is over? Three clusters. See, the prophets, they were all crisis managers. It is very hard indeed to understand what they are saying and why they’re saying it if we don’t know when, under what circumstances they are saying what they say. That wasn’t a convoluted sentence at all. This is why you can replay, folks.

Okay, this leads directly to the fourth fun fact. And this is a long one, as is the fifth fun fact, so, just buckle in, okay? Got rid of three relatively quick ones; here’s a fourth one. Because the prophets were crisis managers – you know, dealing with the moment, the problem in front of them – because they were crisis managers, prophets were not in the future prediction business. They interpreted the present times from a God’s eye view. They gave God’s interpretation, let’s say, of the present moment.

Now, that’s going to strike many of you, I’m sure, as a little bit odd but let me explain, and I don’t want to get off on the wrong foot here. Prophets actually do make pronouncements about the future. They do it all the time. Things like, you know, if you do not repent, this bad thing will happen, right? Future. If you do repent, things will go well. They’re talking about the future, but here’s the point: it’s the relatively near future, not centuries from now.

Prophets read the times, they had a sense of where the political winds were blowing, and their predictions concerned the months and years ahead, maybe a decade or two. So, if it helps, let me put it this way, okay? Prophets predicted the future in the sense that economists predicted doom in say the next 5 – 10 years if interest rates are not adjusted, right? Those are still predictions and sometimes very wrong. But predictions that can be, let’s say, discerned from a wise insight into a volatile present situation. And their predictions are relevant not to people living a thousand years from now, but to that community either very soon or within a relatively short time.


There’s also a sense of urgency there, right? See, some political disaster is looming such as an enemy attack that threatens Israel’s existence and prophets tell the people why it’s looming and what God wants them to do about it. So, a prophet might say, “Yes, the Assyrians are attacking us. I know… but let me tell you why. This is not a random act on the world stage. God is causing it or, you know, maybe allowing it to happen something like that, but it’s because of your corruption and disobedience to God. This is why the Assyrians are heading South in your direction and if you don’t turn it around, you’re going to be humiliated by your enemies. In fact, you know what? It’s probably already too late. Your fate is sealed.”

Side issue: If you’re ever asked which Old Testament character you’d like to meet, don’t say a prophet. See, they deal with crises and that’s why they tend not to be the cheeriest chaps you’ll want to meet. You’d probably not want to invite them to your church as a guest speaker. They never show up just to check in and see how you’re doing or to tell people – “everything is great, just stay the course, fantastic, love you.” When a prophet comes walking toward your town, you’re about to get an unpleasant surprise.

Anyway, (still on the fourth fun fact), it’s not even on the prophetic radar screen to make predictions about the far distant future. If the crisis being managed is, as it is for Isaiah, the very present possibility of Assyria wiping Israel off the face of the Earth, you know, a prophet like Isaiah is not going to say, “Yeah, this is really pressing, it’s cataclysmic. Our whole story may come to an end very soon! But while I have you here, let me switch subjects entirely and tell you what’s going to happen centuries and centuries from now, a time for which you have absolutely no frame of reference, long after you’ve ceased to exist.”

Maybe this will help. When we hear the word prophet, which brings up the whole prediction idea, maybe just replace the word “prophet” with “anointed preacher.” Right? Speaking God’s word to the people here and now, with imminent future implications, it’s coming soon. And those implications will happen if this word of the prophet is not heeded. Again, don’t think of someone predicting the far-off future that has no bearing on the here and now. Actually, MLK Jr. is a good example of someone whose work mimics the style of biblical prophets. You know, what did he do? He denounced corruption and injustice that was happening here and now. In other words, his message was clearly for the moment. Yes, he voiced a future hope for racial equality that, you know, he knew he himself would probably not see, but maybe the people listening would see it. Or, you know, maybe a very different kind of modern analogy to the ancient prophet, just think of how some American Christians engage politics. And, by the way, I think this is true at either end of the political spectrum. Rhetoric like this, you know: If you don’t vote for this candidate or if you don’t vote to squash this bill, you are out of God’s will. And what will God do? God will bring his wrath down on our nation, maybe right away, maybe soon, maybe in a few years, but it will come. See, that rhetoric is similar to biblical prophets.

Anyway, all this that we’ve been saying is, I think, relevant for Christians and how many Christians read the prophets, sort of as future prediction kinds of people, right? And here’s the thing, you know, that that makes some sense, because there are a few very well-known passages in Isaiah that really sound like they simply have to be talking about a time far off in the future, right? And to get to the point, we read things in Isaiah that sound very much like literal predictions of Jesus.

Now, I want to mention just two of them because to do it right would take forever and two examples are going be fine. And I’m sure you’re familiar, at least many of you are familiar with these examples. I do want to bring up a third, but I want to leave that for later and, hopefully, you’ll see why I think it makes more sense talking about it with the fifth fun fact.


So, let’s look at these Jesus-y passages and let’s just put a different hat on and look at them as if they were written for Isaiah’s time and not for a time that would be hundreds of years off. Let’s just try it out. Let’s resist the reflex to read them as conscious predictions of Jesus, and instead see them as Isaiah speaking to his moment, to his crisis. And, you know, again, we’re not going to go into great detail because you can’t, because you know, exegeting these two passages line by line, though very interesting, would just take us too long. But here’s the gist, and that’s all we need to see at this point.

Okay so, one famous Jesus-y passage is Isaiah 7:14. Here Isaiah is speaking to King Ahaz, he is the king of the southern kingdom of Judah, his throne is in Jerusalem, and Ahaz is completely freaking out. Why? Guess why. There’s a crisis! The Assyrians are coming. And Ahaz, this gets a little complicated with some moving parts here, but Ahaz is freaking out because he’s getting pressure from the northern Kingdom, the ones they split off with, right, and Syria, further to the north, to join them in keeping the Assyrians away from them. So, Ahaz balks at the idea. I mean, he figures, do I really want to irritate the Assyrians? So, he balks at the idea and, as a result, this northern coalition, right of the northern kingdom of Israel and then Syria, they threaten to attack Jerusalem and replace Ahaz with a more compliant king.

And so, as I said, Ahaz is freaking out, but Isaiah calms him down. See, Isaiah is reading the times and he says to Ahaz, and this is Isaiah 7:14, very familiar, he says, Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Right? A sign that you’re going to be safe. He’ll give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel. That’s Isaiah 7:14. And as you may probably know, this very verse is cited by Matthew, right, one of the Gospel writers, as referring to the circumstances of Jesus’s birth. So, this sounds like a clear prediction of Jesus in the Book of Isaiah. Now, this is one of these issues when you start talking about anything you wind up talking about everything. We can’t do that and I don’t want to open up a can of worms, but just give me two seconds here. Even Matthew, when we put it that way, even Matthew doesn’t really mean this as a simple black and white prediction. In fact, what Matthew does generally with the Old Testament, is far more complicated than our English Bibles let on and there are sections in decent theological libraries that are dedicated to making sense of this sort of thing. Okay?

So, I know what Matthew saying, but let’s leave Matthew to the side for a moment and let’s just look carefully at what this passage does and doesn’t say. Right? The young woman is with child and shall bear son and shall name him Immanuel. First, the Hebrew says, “young woman,” not virgin. And if you can just find a decent study Bible, you’ll find that pretty quickly. It also says that she is with child not she will have a child, or she will be with child at some point in the future. Isaiah is simply saying to Ahaz, “Hey, hey pal, look at the young pregnant woman. She’s going drop a kid really soon.” See, she’s not a virgin. It’s a normal pregnancy and it’s not a prediction. It’s an observation. The young woman is with child and shall bear a son. Now, the sons name, of course, will be Immanuel. Im-anu-El in Hebrew, which means literally “with us, God”, “God with us.” Well, that must be a divine being. That absolutely doesn’t mean that Isaiah is saying the child is divine.

“But it says God with us!”

I know it says God with us. This is a big issue, but think of the biblical names that are sort of like mini-sentences that we find in the Bible that include this generic name for God in Hebrew, which is “El,” right? Immanuel, right? There are other names that have this “El” component. Ezekiel is an example. Ezekiel is like a mini-sentence. Ezekiel means “God will give strength”. Immanuel means “God is with us”. See, in neither case is the named person divine.

See, the boy is a sign that God is with us, and specifically, with Ahaz. And this is how the boy is a sign. And if you keep reading, you’ll see this. By the time the child is old enough to know right from wrong, which is a relatively short time, this political threat, Ahaz, will no longer exist. See, you’re safe.


See, that’s the relevance of Isaiah’s words at his moment. He is addressing Ahaz’s fears amid the Assyrian crisis. He is not predicting Jesus. Now, I believe in Jesus, I love the Bible, I love Matthew, I love the New Testament. All I’m saying is that in the book of Isaiah, Jesus is not being predicted. What Matthew does with this verse, and he’s the only one who touches this verse in the New Testament, by the way. But what Matthew does with it, as I said, a lot to go into, but briefly put, let me just put it this way: Matthew is really intent on connecting Jesus with Israel’s story. He’s probably writing to a largely Jewish audience. And what he’s doing is he’s finding patterns in the story of Israel that he connects to Jesus, because Matthew is all about how Jesus embodies Israel’s journey. He’s like, almost, he’s an embodiment of Israel itself. And, okay, if I say more we’ll be here for days, but if you’ve got the time and inclination, I do talk about this issue, how the New Testament writers use the Old Testament, in most of my books, frankly, because I think it is so central an issue. So, you can look at, like, The Bible Tells Me So, The Evolution of Adam, How the Bible Actually Works, and Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (I wrote that with two other people). And also, Inspiration and Incarnation, which you can find all this stuff on the website. You can also just go to our blogs and just search “New Testament use of Old Testament,” and you’re going to find a lot of fleshing out of some of these more complex issues.

But simply put, Isaiah’s words are directed to his time, not a time 750 years into the future, he’s managing a crisis.  Now, more briefly, the other famous passage I want to peek at with you is chapter 9 verse 6, it’s really well known. Isaiah speaking, For a child has been born to us, a son given to us; authority rests on his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

So, first of all, it’s sort of like what was saw in chapter 7. Here we have a child who has already been born. No birth is being predicted. It says, For a child has been born for us. Now, many think, this is up in the air, it makes sense to me, but many think the child is Hezekiah, right. Again, we’re not sure, but it makes sense to me and I mentioned him earlier. He is the king who ruled in Jerusalem in 701 when the Assyrians attacked but were repelled. And Hezekiah, he’s a good candidate for the identification of this child because he is a big deal in the OT, he’s one of only a very few kings of the 40-something kings of Israel who gets a good evaluation at his death. Now, by all accounts, he was a good king, and so he is praised by Isaiah: authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Here’s the thing though, and of course, you will notice this is a rather lofty description, isn’t it? Right?  And in fact, it is so lofty that I understand why Christians would see this is a prediction of really the only man who could possibly bear these titles: Jesus. No mere human can have these names, right? Well, maybe they can. See, kings can have these sort of lofty titles. These lofty descriptions are known in scholarship as throne names. They’re bestowed on kings at their, when they become king, at their time of coronation let’s say. Israel’s kings, they weren’t divine, but they ruled for God. And so, these rather lofty throne names, they describe the God who is actually in charge, not the kings themselves. In other words, contextually, it’s not correct to say that Isaiah 9:6 must be speaking of a divine king, and therefore that must be Jesus. These are throne names of a real human king and he is being described in ways that make sense in that ancient context. There’s actually nothing controversial about this.


So, okay, these are two examples of how Isaiah is addressing his own political realities, which are also religious realities. Don’t, you know, don’t be mistaken. There’s no religious and political dichotomy in the ancient world. Politics and religion – they’re all mixed together. So, he’s addressing his own political realities, but he’s not making predictions about what will happen 700 or so years later. Now oddly enough, I found this interesting, Isaiah 9:6, those throne names, that’s not cited explicitly in the New Testament. That’s always surprised me, you think it would be. I’d have thought Paul, let’s say, and others would be all over that, but you know, it is what it is. Verses 1-2, Isaiah 9, verses 1-2, they are cited in Matthew 4 but nothing else. And of course, Isaiah 7:14 is cited in Matthew, but again this tells us how that passage came to be understood by at least one Christian community, it doesn’t tell us what Isaiah meant when he said it. He was a crisis manager. 

OK, enough of that. We have one more fun fact to go, and it’s got some moving parts, it’s also been controversial in conservative circles, and I left it for last.

Okay, the fifth fun fact is that Isaiah is not a book written by one person. Folks, many of you know this, but if you say this in the wrong circles, you know, you could lose your job very quickly. This is a very controversial point. Of course, this doesn’t affect me, because my job is ruining things for you, so I probably won’t get a raise for saying this, but who knows? Okay, so here’s the thing: Scholars typically divide Isaiah into 2 or 3 distinct parts, AND each part was written by a different person, or maybe group of people, living at different times.

Now, many scholars favor a two part division, and they put the break at chapter 40. Chapters 1-39, right, they’re typically referred to in biblical scholarship as 1st Isaiah, or Isaiah of Jerusalem, and this section, Chapters 1-39, they’re dated to the time of Isaiah, right, the 8th and 7th centuries. Part two, which is cleverly called 2nd Isaiah, is the rest of the book, chapters 40-66, and they’re dated to the late exilic period. You know, the exile began in 586 and ended in 539. So, what’s typically said is shortly before 539, shortly before they came home. We’ll see why in a second.

Now, some scholars prefer a three part division, which just means they divide the second part, chapters 40-66, into two parts. So, they make the division at chapter 46. Right, so this is a lot of math folks, I’m sorry. But chapters 40-55 in this three part scheme, chapters 40-55 are now 2nd Isaiah, and 56-66 are 3rd Isaiah and that part dates to a few decades or more after the return from exile, so maybe around 500 or maybe into the 400s. And again, we’ll see why in a bit. Now, there is some scholarly debate about whether there really is a third part at all and I don’t lose sleep over it. The only thing I want to point out here is that scholars do see a major break at 40, and this is not arbitrary, but based on the words of the book itself.

All right, so, let’s just do a quick overview here. What’s in 1st Isaiah, chapters 1-39? Well, most of these chapters, I mentioned this before, they deal with the period of the Assyrian crisis. Not all of 1st Isaiah is about the Assyrians specifically, but most all of it, at least a very good portion of it concerns that time period. That’s at least true for the first 23 chapters. But chapters 24-27 are tricky, but they’re important for us to try to understand the big picture here. These chapters, 24-27, are written in a different style. They’re written in an apocalyptic style. And we might know that word best from the book of Revelation, which uses images of you know, like, earthly and cosmic destruction as symbols. You see, That’s the thing about apocalyptic literature, it’s highly symbolic. No, the earth isn’t going to blow up. That language is just used to talk about political upheavals that change the course of history, like a drastic regime change where the superpower bad guys have lost, and God is giving victory to his oppressed people. See, the world is turned upside down, as we would put it. As they would put it, the earth is “destroyed.”


So, okay, here’s the thing. Scholars routinely say, for a variety of reasons that this section really seems to be out of place in Isaiah’s time. This section was probably written in the 6th century, about 150-200 years after the Assyrian crisis. That’s when the mighty Babylonians who exiled Judah met their end at the hands of the Persians, who allowed the captives to go home. See, this was an apocalyptic moment, a real sea change, a real change in the weather, a real change of fortunes, a real change in the political climate.

OK, just rounding out 1st Isaiah, and this gets a little complicated so we’re just going to skim here. But, chapters 28-33, that’s the next part, well, that takes us back to the days of King Hezekiah and the Assyrian crisis. And then to give us whiplash, chapters 34-35, they take us forward in time again the end of the Babylonian exile. And then the last four chapters, forgive me folks, I didn’t write this stuff. The last four chapters, 36-39, take us back once again to the days of Hezekiah. See, there’s a lot of back and forth here. It really seems like 1st Isaiah, though largely taking place in the 8th c, it actually, it’s a weaving together of scenes from two different time periods 150-200 years apart.

And another thing, see, just to make things more complicated, this is stuff if I felt like it, we could go into a lot of details here, but that’s again, a lot of podcast. But just to make things more complicated, chapters 36-39, the ending of 1st Isaiah, that story of Hezekiah that 1st Isaiah ends with? Well, probably 1st Isaiah didn’t write that at all. That seems to be cut and pasted from 2 Kings 18-20, almost in its entirety, just a few verses are missing and some other small changes. Okay, well, who did the cut and paste, and when did they do it? These are good questions we can’t stop to try and answer, but all of that is to say that, see, one person living in the 8th or 7th century did not sit down and write this entire what we call 1st Isaiah, chapters 1-39. These were edited together. When? Good question. Don’t worry about it. But just knowing that may help the book make more sense to you without getting this whiplash. You’re sort of expecting the unevenness at the end, the back and forth between Isaiah’s context and then the Babylonian context.

Okay, so that’s 1st Isaiah. Let’s move now to 2nd Isaiah. See, here’s the thing. And I’ve actually known people, like normal people that this has happened to. They start reading the book of Isaiah because they love it, right? And they read from the beginning, but when they got to chapter 40, they noticed a change in tone. And as one person put it to me a few years ago, he said, you know, “I’m reading in Isaiah, I get to chapter 40, it’s like I’m reading a different book.” Right? Well, here’s the reason why you feel that way. You probably are reading something very different.

See, specifically, the topic in chapter 40 shifts to the Babylonian exile – that’s, again, in the 6th century. In fact, see, here’s the thing, this is what gives it such a different tone, this section, what we call 2nd Isaiah, whether it goes to chapter 55 or all the way to the end it doesn’t matter. 2nd Isaiah assumes the reality of the exile, it assumes that it’s already a thing. The exile isn’t in the future, it’s a present reality. Right? This writer, who is anonymous, we call him 2nd Isaiah, is dealing with the crisis of Babylonian captivity and announcing, he’s reading the times, he’s announcing that God is on the move to bring them all back home. God is about to do a wonderful and glorious thing for these captives. And see, that’s announced already at the very beginning of this section, this is why it seems so odd. Chapter 40:1-2, these are words that many of us will probably recognize, especially if we’re into Handel’s Messiah.


So, this is how it goes:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’S hand double for all her sins.

See, a word of comfort like this, telling Jerusalem, which really means the residents who are now captive in Babylon, but telling Jerusalem that her penalty has been paid, her time of punishment in Babylon is over—that is out of place in the 8th century. It would have no meaning. And note what comes right after this. This is in verses 3-5, and again, we know this too.

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Again, you probably recognize these verses that come from the Gospels too. This is where John the Baptist announces Jesus, you know, “prepare the way of the Lord.” He’s quoting Isaiah. And that’s wonderful, and actually, that’s a topic worthy of very serious and lengthy discussion, and I’m pretty sure I have a blog post on this someplace, but for here, it’s beside the point. These verses are basically doing this, they’re announcing the travel plans to bring back the captives. Judah’s return home will be like a parade for all the world to see, and a path will be cleared in the wilderness—the mountains and valleys will be leveled to create a flat highway, which is all very symbolic—and this act will be so great, so clearly a God-thing, that God’s glory will be revealed to all people. God is on the move. An abandoned people have hope. They’re coming home.

Now, the rest of 2nd Isaiah, at least through chapter 55, it maintains this vibe that the exile is a present reality and Judah’s rescue is coming soon. The Babylonians will meet their end at the hands of the Persians, that’s basically what’s going to happen. The political maneuverings of these two superpowers, they’re read by this prophet as God’s design. God is using the Persians to punish the Babylonians, and the people are coming home.

And speaking of Persians, another reason why scholars think 2nd Isaiah is 6th century or even later is the fact that the 6th century Persian king who defeated the Babylonians is mentioned by name in 2nd Isaiah: Cyrus. Now, I’m being descriptive here by the way, folks. So, I’m not being negative, I’m trying to get to the point here as quickly as I can. Conservatives have tended to dig their heels in here on this point, saying that God could have inspired 8th century Isaiah to mention Cyrus by name, and in fact, if you don’t believe that God can do that, you’re limiting God. And I say, sure, I guess in the abstract it’s possible that God could reveal someone’s name way ahead of time. But, again, what would a named 6th century Persian king mean to those living in the middle of an 8th century and early 7th century in the Assyrian crisis? Is it just to sort of throw in a bit of information and prove to future people that God can tell the future? See, this is just not an appealing hypothesis to me, nor to most anyone else. And also, that doesn’t even deal with the fact that the exile, this is the more foundational point, the exile is a present reality for this writer. See, the setting of the exile, assuming that the exile is a thing and the reference to Cyrus, they really seem to be big clues that this portion of Isaiah comes from no earlier than the 6th century. 

Now side note, because somebody is going to email me. Conservatives had tended to argue that, well, okay, yes, the exile is assumed from chapter 40 on, but it is still written in the 8th century and it’s still prophetic. Well, how can that be? Right, how can the 8th century prophet talk about the 6th century IN THE PAST TENSE? Right, you see that? The exile is already a thing, in fact, it already happened. They were carted off a long time ago.


How can the writer, living in the 8th century, talk about a future event in the past tense? Now folks, this is not the easiest thing, but this is the nature of the argument, it’s a bit convoluted. See, here’s the response. Here’s how an 8th century prophet can talk about a future even in the past tense. The 8th century prophet Isaiah, he spoke about a far-off future event in the past tense because it was so certain of happening that it could be referred to as already having happened. See folks, if you learn anything here, this is why you can’t listen to this podcast at 1.5 or 2x speed. It just, too much stuff is happening. Too many loose ends, like I just read. See, for me, this argument, it’s asking a lot, I think, of readers and I don’t think it’s an attempt to understand Isaiah, I think it seems to be more geared towards convincing those who need to retain the idea that Isaiah was long range predictive prophet, because if he’s not, then some key predictors of Jesus are lost, and that would be a hard pill to swallow. I understand what’s at stake here, I just don’t think that it is then an excuse to really say things that just aren’t very convincing about the text. It’s much easier to say, and easier isn’t always right, but in this case, I think it is—Occam’s razor and all that sort of thing—I think it’s easier to say that, listen, the clues for 6th century or even later authorship in 2nd Isaiah seem to be pretty clear and making up an explanation to make the pieces fit together in ways we’re used to seeing them is, to me, not an open minded position that takes into account what the text is actually doing. So, that’s my point of view.

Okay, one more thing I want to mention about 2nd Isaiah—again, I told you this fifth fun fact was long. We find in 2nd Isaiah one of the best-known passages in the Old Testament, and this is chapter 52:13-53:12. So basically, it’s 15 verses long, it’s the very end of chapter 52 and then all of chapter 53. This passage, which again, is one of these things that you’ve heard of, but this passage describes a “servant” of God and this servant suffers on behalf of others. And some of the more quoted, more famous lines of this section of 2nd Isaiah, are again, ones that I think many of you will be familiar with in some way. So, for example, talking about the servant, the prophet says:

He (the servant) was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; 

Or another part says:

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Much more we could read, but that’s, you know, this is a very moving – literarily, theologically, whatever – section. And so, the question is who can this servant be who suffers on behalf of others, who bears God’s punishment to make others whole, who was wounded for our transgressions, whose bruises heal us, on whom God has laid the iniquity of us all? Who is this person? It seems to be, well, it’s got be Jesus. Who else? 

Well, the identity of this servant this actually a really interesting and sort of a winding issue, believe it or not, and the answer to this question is not obvious. You have disagreements even apart from Christianity, within Judaism, who might this be?


And I only want to dip our toes into it to make a point, the same point I made with Isaiah 7 and Isaiah 9: that this passage can be read, and I’m going to suggest rather easily, as 2nd Isaiah addressing a moment in his time, not predicting something hundreds of years in the future. And if you want to see this fleshed out more, I really suggest that you look at a good study Bible or two, they’ll all sort of lay out some of the issues here. And preferably, and again, I say this gently because I have many conservative friends, believe it or not, they don’t all hate me. But preferable not one marketed to conservative Protestant Christians. So, for example, I would suggest the Jewish Study Bible, the New Interpreters Study Bible, the Harper Collins Study Bible, to name just three. Now, I’m not saying that to be antagonistic, it’s just my experience that conservative study Bibles will tend not to upset the cart on touchy issues, and this is a touchy issue for many people.

OK, so just briefly, right. This passage that talks about a servant is the fourth servant song. There are four total in 2nd Isaiah, so this is the fourth one. And these songs are called servant songs because they all refer to a servant through whom God is doing something. The other servant songs are all in 2nd Isaiah—so they all appear in that section of Isaiah that deals with the exile and the return from exile. And these other places are in chapters 49, actually the first one is in chapter 42, then 49, and then 50. And now, of course, we’re in chapter 53. The identity of the servant, see, 2nd Isaiah keeps us hanging here. The identity of the servant is not made explicit. It’s not really revealed to the readers—except in the second servant song, that’s in chapter 49. And I’m going to be careful, I don’t want to make too much of this, but I’m going to run with this just a little bit, right? There in verse 3, God’s servant is not a person, but it’s Israel, it’s a people. So, the people are thought of as a collective “he,” a collective one, a collective person, a servant. This sort of thing happens a lot in the Bible where the many are referred to as one for symbolic, literary, metaphorical, whatever reason. It’s just not that big of a deal in principle.

Now again, to be absolutely clear, there is no complete agreement about how to understand the identity of the servant in 2nd Isaiah, despite the fact that it is “Israel” in chapter 49. And you know, good, equipped, competent people throughout history have disagreed on all of these kinds of issues. But here is the snapshot of where I and others land. The servant who suffers in chapter 53 is not a person, but it represents a people. Okay, which people? Here’s the punchline folks, you ready? The servant who suffers in chapter 53 is those people, plural, who went into exile. Even though, I mean, wrap your head around this because it might seem strange, especially in this passage. But even though the servant is a “he” or a man, it says, and that’s the way he’s referred to throughout, the “he” represents a collection of people.

So, remember, right, the exile is God’s punishment on Judah and Jerusalem, chapter 40. They had to pay for their sins, so they were exiled. But here’s the thing—not everyone who sinned was exiled. Who was exiled? Really just a rather limited population in and around Jerusalem. But if the sin belongs to all the people, but only some were punished, well, it seems like the few were punished (that’s the servant) for the sake of the whole. As this passage says, the last thing I read when I quoted above,

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way,

Read that as all of Judah. The northern kingdom is gone, right, they went into exile in 721 never to return. This is the south, this is Judah. All Judahites, all of us like sheep have gone astray. We have all turned to our own way, and the Lord—what has he done? He has laid on him the iniquity of us all. The problem lies with the sin of all and the solution is to place the sin of all onto him, the servant, the exiled Judahites.


Now like I said, read it for yourself with a good study Bible or two next to you. I think seeing the servant as the exiled Judahites makes sense, and I am not making it up out of thin air. My point is that this passage, even this passage, even this sort of like, queen mother of Jesus-y passages in the prophet Isaiah, even this passage can be read as words of the prophet to his time and place. And you know, even if my take isn’t convincing to you (how dare you, by the way), but even if it’s not here’s my challenge: you’d still need to find a way of making sense of this fourth servant song for 2nd Isaiah’s time. I mean the other servant songs fit. I don’t think that, you know, in a long section of Isaiah that is clearly devoted to the end of Babylonian captivity, we can say there is one passage wholly disconnected from that theme and instead speaks to a time that the readers have no clue about whatsoever. I’m just not sure that’s a good reading of the Bible.

Now I’ll be the first to say that, well, yeah, we can see why early followers of Jesus would jump all over this passage and apply it to Jesus. But—if I may restate my point—how the New Testament writers and others apply the Old Testament, how they draw lines connecting the two, doesn’t tell us what the Old Testament writers were saying. It tells us how ancient words were, let’s say appropriated by a later community of faith, in this case, followers of Jesus. And the thing is, I believe we can actually appreciate the radical Christ-centeredness of the New Testament writers even more if we first understand the original purpose of an Old Testament passage in its time and place, and then how the New Testament, let’s say, expanded that meaning to now include Jesus. The New Testament writers, they weren’t prooftexting. They weren’t saying—oh here’s a verse that proves Jesus. They were actually finding patterns in the Old Testament helped them understand Jesus. Or they were reflecting on their own experience of Jesus, remember these were Jews writing this stuff, right? They were reflecting on their own experience of Jesus that reminded them of Old Testament moments or stories and so they wanted to connect them. They weren’t prooftexting. They were doing theology. That’s a beautiful thing to study, folks, that’s gonna take the words of the New Testament writers and what they meant to say seriously, and take the words of the Old Testament writers and what they were saying and take that seriously too. I don’t know, maybe what I just said is as clear as mud, but, as I mentioned, this whole topic of how the New Testament uses the Old Testament is complicated and if you want more, you can at least get started with the books I mentioned or searching our website. See, you want all the answers. It’s not happening here today folks. Okay?

All right. Moving on, and briefly, the reason some scholars have a 3rd Isaiah in chapters 56-66 is because, once again, there seems to be another change in tone at chapter 56. Rather than encouraging the soon to be released captives, this is what we have in 40-55, these chapters, they assume the return has already happened, but things are not as they should be. At least they seem to assume that. See, something is still wrong, another crisis has to be managed, and that crisis seems to be, now we read this in these sections—the corruption of the leaders, injustice, false worship to God, things like that. These things are keeping the people from fully realizing God’s deliverance and God’s salvation—it’s about more than simply getting out of Babylon, but it’s returning home and then acting like a people that has been redeemed by God. So, at least as compared to 2nd Isaiah, there is an angry tone woven throughout these chapters, but with also a ray of hope that God will soon set things right. Anyway, like I said, not all scholars see the necessity of a 3rd Isaiah, but those who do date it several decades after the return from Babylon which happened in 539.


In other words, again, I said this before, but we’re looking at like the 5th century sometime. And in case you’re wondering, yes, 3rd Isaiah, that does make sense to me, though again, it is not a hill to die on. A 2nd Isaiah, wherever you make the division, but a 2nd Isaiah, academically speaking, is a hill for me to die on because I think to miss it is to really fundamentally misread the book.

Okay, one last comment here to tie some of this together. It’s common in recent academic discussions to speak of the “unity” of Isaiah, meaning that despite that there are 2 or 3 parts, which there are, great care was given at some point to bring the parts together and to tell a big story of God and Israel. In other words, Isaiah as a book is coherent. I like that word—coherent. It hangs together; I agree with that. But the problem though is this, right, as soon as you introduce the idea of Isaiah as a unity, some conservatives have seized this idea as sort of justification for a conservative view. Because conservatives have always believed that Isaiah is a unity, but what conservatives mean is that all of Isaiah was written in the 8th or 7th c., with maybe a few minor places where it was updated later. See, recent scholars say, ah, look at the unity, and conservatives say, we’ve been telling you that all along. There is only one Isaiah, that’s the 8th century one. But what scholars mean when they say “unity” of Isaiah is that an editor unified the parts and made them flow. In other words, the “unity” of Isaiah doesn’t come from the 8th century, but from a 6th. In other words, Isaiah is not an authorial unity, it is an editorial unity.  

Now, knowing this may have some practical significance for us because when we read Isaiah, I think our task is not to do what we’ve been doing for most of this podcast, frankly. I think when we read Isaiah just as normal people, like we’re going to get something out of it, blah blah blah, our task is not to ferret out all the places where you get whiplash and changes in tone and leave the parts scattered. Because the parts aren’t scattered, even in 1st Isaiah with that whiplash, there’s probably a reason for the whiplash. There’s probably a reason for that arrangement. Our task, rather, is to read the book, and noticing these things when they happen, but then also asking why this edited book looks the way that it does and what this editor is trying to do—which, by the way, is not an easy question to answer about any biblical book, let alone Isaiah. But welcome to the fun world of biblical scholarship and biblical theology and theology and all that other kind of stuff. But to understand the theology of the book of Isaiah, I think we really need to embrace the fact that there are three parts that were written over a long period of time in different times of crisis. To embrace that AND along with it the fact that an editor(s) created a book out of all that, which then was intended to speak to the time of the editor, to ancient Jews living long after the time of the 8th century prophet Isaiah. 

To put it another way, the book of Isaiah grew over time so that Isaiah could keep speaking. The 6th century was a time of crisis for the southern kingdom that resulted in exile—just like the 8th century was for the north, a time of crisis that ended in exile. Same story, only the characters have changed. So, what will God do? What will he do? Will we, like our northern brothers, be lost forever, or will God rescue us and bring us home? Much of the book of Isaiah is attributed to Isaiah himself, but much else comes to us from this later community who valued Isaiah’s words enough to add to them, to update and expand them, to hear what God is saying to them at a different time and place, who didn’t just add a bunch of chapters at the end, but went back and arranged the first 39 chapters.

I know that may sound odd or even sacrilegious to some—you know, how can you respect Scripture by adding to it? But remember, again, this is so important, but you can’t talk about anything without talking about everything, right? Remember, there was no concept of “Scripture” as we know it or as Jews later came to know it back in the 8th century. The notion of a Bible—a closed set of authoritative books that you don’t change and you don’t touch—that didn’t happen until long after the Babylonian exile. See, the editors, when they brought together what we call 1st and 2nd and 3rd Isaiah, they weren’t “adding to sacred scripture.” They were just continuing to tell their story of a people once united, now exiled, and looking to God to give them a future.

Now this is opening a big can of worms at the end of a podcast, but I think it’s important to point out that ancient Israelites and later Jews did not think of the sacred tradition as being protected under glass. It continued to grow because they believed God was still active in THEIR time, addressing THEIR concerns, even if the prophets weren’t around anymore. And not just Isaiah, but you see, this gets into much bigger issues. The Old Testament as a whole betrays these, maybe betrays is the wrong word. It exhibits, the Old Testament as a whole exhibits these “layers over time” that were woven together at some point—we see it in the Pentateuch, we see it in the Historical Books, the Psalms, Proverbs, and in other prophetic books. What we see happening in Isaiah—a biblical book growing over time—is just a particularly clear snapshot of how the Bible as a whole came to be.

OK, so just, let’s recap our five fun facts because I’m sure you forgotten 4 ½ of them:

  1. Isaiah is a major prophet through not the longest prophet despite the 66 chapters.
  2. Isaiah has been called the 5th Gospel by Christians because of how often it was cited and how Jesus-y it sounds.
  3. Isaiah lived in a time of crisis, namely the Assyrian crisis of the 8th century. 
  4. Isaiah was not in the future prediction business, but he was an interpreter of his times. 
  5. The book of Isaiah was written in two or three parts that reflect different crises about 200 or so years apart. 

OK folks, know that was a long one. I hope that this was helpful and ruined Isaiah for you just enough to motivate you to read it with fresh eyes. All right, see you next time.

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In other words…

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More Episodes...
Pete Ruins Exodus (part 1)

Pete Ruins Exodus (Part 1)

March 11, 2019

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

Read the transcript


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

Jared:  And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty Intro Music]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Creation theme.  That’s a big thing. 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just love that.  God saw.  God knew. 

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

[Outro Music Begins]

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

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