Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Episode 179: Paul Deal – Integrating Faith and Psychology

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Paul Deal joins Pete and Jared to discuss the intersection of mental health, psychology, and faith. Together they explore the following questions: 

  • Why does there seem to be a divide between faith and mental health?
  • In what way is the psycho-spiritual approach more apparent in the Gnostic gospels?
  • What is the idea of the shadow as coined by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung?
  • What is self-concept and why is it important?
  • How does the doctrine of total depravity impact one’s ability to integrate faith and mental health? 
  • What is the difference between being in a state of religious/spiritual conservation versus religious/spiritual transformation?
  • How do theological and psychological barriers make it difficult to look positively at spiritual transformation/deconstruction?
  • How can people move past the feeling that exploration of psychological insights are a betrayal to their faith?


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

  • “Jung offers us a more viable pathway forward because he’s saying integration is a possibility. Here is someone who is finding a pathway forward between religion, spirituality, and psychology that doesn’t sort of say, you know, never the twain should meet.” -Paul Deal
  • “In the case of spiritual or religious transformation – that’s that moment where the person gets to sort of step outside their theology back into the terror and wonder of being a human and start to construct something anew.” -Paul Deal
  • “I sense that most of us go kicking and screaming…back into counseling. It takes a point where the suffering of avoidance starts to outweigh the suffering of faking it.” -Paul Deal
  • “Be willing to give yourself permission to consider the possibility that the “hard stuff” or “bad stuff” is a teacher, that it may actually be one of the languages of grace.” -Paul Deal
  • “We know Christ went to the desert, Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and they were faced with all this really hard stuff. Power, temptation, greed – and that turning towards and being present to that stuff, seeing what’s there and say okay, this is part of the gig…this is part of being human.” -Paul Deal

Mentioned in This Episode

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Read the transcript


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

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty intro music]

Pete: Hello everybody, welcome to this episode. Our topic today is “Integrating Faith and Psychology,” and our guest is Paul Deal.

Jared: Yeah, and Paul is Assistant Professor of Counselor Education at State University of New York Plattsburgh, and also author of the recent book, with a few other folks, Bringing Spirituality and Religion into Counseling: A Model for Pluralist Practice, which is a bit of a mouthful, but if you find this conversation interesting, encourage you to pick up a copy of that if you want to do a bit of a nerd deep-dive. And I mention this in the podcast, but Paul and I go way back, we’ve been friends for a long time, had lots of conversations around this, so hopefully you find it interesting as well.

Pete: And the real important part of integrating these things and maybe the barriers to it, how it’s difficult but it’s also very important and just, I just, there are a ton of lights flashing in my mind as we were talking today, so I’m looking forward to the episode and hoping you are too.

Jared: Alright, without further ado.

[Music begins]

Paul: The idea is that we all have this thing called a self-concept, unconsciously we tell ourselves the story of who we are, and that story draws the limits around what is allowed and not allowed of the self. I think Jung offers us a more viable pathways forward because he’s saying integration is a possibility. Here is someone who is finding the pathway forward between religion, spirituality, and psychology that doesn’t sort of say never the twain should meet.

[Music ends]

Pete: Paul, welcome to the podcast!

Paul: Yeah, it’s good to be here.

Jared: Full disclosure – I think we do have to start with the fact that Paul, you and I, we go back, we go way back.

Paul: Indeed.

Jared: So, I’d like to say that upfront. I don’t know why-

Pete: You guys got into legal trouble at the same time too, right? Is that what happened?

Jared: [Laughter]

Let’s save that for after –

Paul: Is there a rating on this podcast? PG or R? I mean, what’s the boundary? I should have asked that before we started.

Pete: And then nobody knew where you guys were for like a year or two? It’s really, but…

Jared: That’s a different part of our journey.

Pete: Yeah.

Paul: We were in the monastery.

Pete: That’s a different podcast.

Jared: Yes.

Paul: We were doing spiritual work.

Jared: Okay, so I just wanted to say that in case that comes up later, just so it doesn’t feel off if I bring up something personal about you that I know.

Paul: Uh oh.

Jared: Or vice versa. Let’s start with this question though, what led you to want to spend your life studying the intersection of spirituality and psychology?

Paul: Yeah, geez. I mean this much of my life anyway. We’ll see what lies ahead. You know, I was thinking about that question a little bit and sort of really unsatisfying answer came into my mind at first, which was, I have no idea. Then I thought, okay, it must be karma, and that didn’t quite feel satisfying either. So, the next thing that popped into my head, really, was an experience that I had probably as like maybe a nine or ten-year-old. I remember we were driving home from the congregational church in New England. I think it was a Fall day, it felt like a Fall day in my memory anyway. And Pastor Creighton, who was an Anglican from the UK, his British accent helped me stay awake during the sermons, he said something along the lines of how God had no beginning or end and in my nine or ten-year-old brain, I think that was my earliest experiences of feeling baffled, kind of like in a stimulating, playful way. Like I just brushed up against the edge of some sort of mystery that I didn’t really know existed before that. And driving home, I was sort of, I was in the passenger seat, I remember looking out the window at the forest sort of awash in the, you know, still somewhat early morning sunlight and just feeling like this bafflement sort of growing and growing, and I don’t think I would’ve used this sort of language then, obviously, but you know, it’s like something either got into my bones in that moment or was awoken in me and that’s really been a sort of animating, I don’t know, feeling, question, drive ever since then. And I think the two ways I’ve opted to explore that feeling of bafflement and mystery and wonder have been through psychology on the one hand, which, you know, has a lot of strengths in terms of its descriptive abilities to describe and understand human phenomenon and then religion and spirituality, which, you know, I think is, I see it as sort of complementing that psychology in a way where it’s still very conversant with the wonder and the mystery, but it’s a little bit more prescriptive in terms of sort of saying what humans are for and, you know, what a full life might look like within community.


Paul:  And so, yeah, I think that’s really where I have to start was this experience where I was just sort of hooked by the wonder so to speak.

Jared: Well, you talk about those kind of going hand in hand – psychology and spirituality or religion – in sort of an integrative way for you, but I think historically, at least I would just say, not historically, because I don’t think that’s necessarily true, in my – say in the past thirty years within the tradition I grew up, mental health and faith were almost seen at odds.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: Like, they weren’t, they didn’t play nice together. It was sort of like you could choose one or the other. You could kind of go to counseling and think about mental health and think about emotional awareness and emotional health or you could have faith in Jesus and doing both of those things at the same time didn’t seem to jive.

Pete: And even, not to interrupt, but before you get to this Paul, but there are elements of Christian counseling that amount to religious catechizing, really. And if you get the theology, if you get the thinking right, the problems go away. So yeah, they’re sort of at odds, aren’t they?

Jared: Well, yeah or they have an uneasy relationship where one encroaches on the other or vice versa like what Pete was saying. So, how in your experience, you know, kind of starting with this seems like this journey where they were in harmony in your life and you kind of walked that road, how do you see that relationship?

Paul: Yeah, that’s such a good question and I’d love to hear more about what the two of you did experience in terms of that inner-relationship as well, but I think just to start where your question takes me is, you know, coming up within sort of a mixture of the, you know, like some Calvinist influence from my dad and then some Baptist influence from different college environments and then the Jesuits, you know, like this whole sort of hodge podge of influences, definitely not a very purist theologian in that sense.

Pete: It sounds like you need a therapist actually.

Paul: Yeah. You guys free after this?

Pete: No.


Pete: Yeah, I won’t help you, but sure. I’ll take your money.

Paul: Just offer your presence.

Pete: I can do that.

Paul: Keep your eyes open too, that helps.

Pete: [Laughter]

Paul: But I would say that, yeah, they did start off more integrated, but interestingly enough, I think as I grew up inside religion and spirituality, that sort of organic harmony started to fray a little bit. And I’m trying to think about what did that. You know, I think it might have been, and I’m not sure how much to blame religion or if this is just a human thing, but I think what started to happen there is that this sense of the wonderous, all-powerful sort of omniscient, omnipotent, you know the spiel, divinity, that was somewhat out there and above wasn’t fitting with what I sort of experienced on that drive home as a kid staring at the forest and staring at nature or sitting in nature. They started to sort of become splintered in a way. I guess you could say, if we’re going to put some clunky terms on this, right, like transcendence and imminence or the beyond and the here and now. Started to be unhinged from each other in a way that wasn’t particularly helpful and what happened along with that was this idea that happiness or wellness or well-being or, you know, the different sorts of terms that mental health counseling are trying to pursue, and I guess you could say I think about what religion is trying to pursue in some of its ultimate aims, in the Christian tradition we might call that salvation or something like that. The chasm between salvation and wellness in the here and now started to expand and, like I said, I’m not sure how much to blame religion or if that’s just a developmental thing, you know, where as a kid I’m learning about God and I’m still kind of black and white, you know, but it seemed like when there was a shift from this organic experiential presence I felt to the point where I had to start conceptualizing, that in the conceptualization, the dichotomy started to open up between, you know, God and nature or spirit and matter or, you know, spirit and flesh, however you want to sort of talk about it, God and man. And that sort of drove psychology and religion and spirituality further apart as well.


And then it’s been a sort of slow and intentional journey of putting those back together and really seeing how they complement each other.

Pete: If I could put this way, Paul, if this is what you’re saying that you just had experiences that made those theological, religious categories difficult to make any sense.

Paul: Yeah, like, they may be a little out of alignment or something like that.

Pete: Okay. So, they’re not aligning and so they start separating, but then you started thinking maybe synthetically about how they’re connected, is that where we’re going?

Paul: Yeah. You say you’re not a counselor, but those are two pretty good paraphrases.

Pete: [Light laughter]

Paul: You know, I think, I’m just thinking about off the top of my head, but you know, at some point along the way, there, because of the type of religious teaching that I experienced, the message was something along the lines of either implicitly or explicitly that compartmentalization is your best option.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Paul: So, in other words, this thing you want to call sin, or you know, whatever else that associates with, it’s best to suppress it or just let go and let God or, you know, give it over, right? A lot of those clichés start to come to mind here in terms of my experience and there wasn’t really a viable pathway where someone said, so all this human messiness stuff that comes with being thrown into a human incarnation and having a human life is actually the material of salvation, of awakening, of grace. And you know that that material is in fact your teacher and you can pay attention to it, you can learn from it, you can integrate it. It will be painful. It will break you open at times and reframe your sense of what God is or what reality is or what it means to be, you know, in relationship with others, but that, this is sort of a Richard Rohr thing, there’s no remainder is the sort of idea that doesn’t have to be a remainder. There’s room for everything in that integration process and psychology sometimes, we call this the shadow.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Paul: You know, and one of the things I like about the Gnostics in particular is because they seem to be a little more inclined to want to work with shadow, what I think of as a like a psycho-spiritual approach rather than traditional, like biblical hermeneutic and I’m out of my depths now, I’ve said hermeneutic. But, you know, there’s sort of this psychospiritual sense where I think in the Gnostic Gospels, maybe the Gospel of Thomas it was, Jesus said something like if you bring forth what is within you what you bring forth will save you, and if you don’t bring it forth, what you don’t bring forth will destroy you. And that’s really the bridge for me to see how psychology and spirituality and religion can really work together in so far as they can bring forth what is within us, does that make sense?

Jared: Yeah.

Pete: Oh yeah, it makes a lot of sense, yeah.

Jared: And it’s interesting because we see these impulses, I feel like in some ways the Gnostic Gospels, the Gospel of Thomas and others of these writings, we see these impulses maybe in the New Testament, but they’re not fully fleshed out and so you kind of, they’re ambiguous, and so you can take it one way or you can take it another way.

Paul: Mm hmm.

Jared: Like, there’s a way to read Paul, for instance, where it is Christ in you the hope of glory. There’s this sort of, you have the resources within you to contribute to the world and to be whole and to be well, and then you can read Paul to say there is nothing good in you and you need Jesus and that’s all the good that you have comes from Jesus. And it’s like, well, which is it?

Paul: Right.

Jared: And so, there’s these different traditions. Is that one way in which this split between mental health and faith happens is if we read Paul in a way that divorces those things, then we’re going to lead to thinking that when psychology, I remember growing up hearing this phrase a lot, psychobabble, right? That whenever psychology says that you have these resources within you, that is psychobabble, that is secularism, whatever the term you wanted to use.

Pete: Denying self.

Jared: But when you say, “I am not good at all and I can get better only when I accept that I am not good and that Jesus is all the good that will ever come into my life,” then that’s like the path to true healing. But there is, I just want to name, it may be very explicit in the Gospel of Thomas, but I think there is this sense in which it’s there in the New Testament as well, but it’s maybe harder to parse out, is that making sense?

Paul: Yeah. Totally


Pete: Can I add something to that, Paul?

Jared: You keep interrupting.

Pete: No, I, because we’re having a conversation here, Jared. Do you know what a conversation is?

Jared: [Laughter]

Pete: A conversation is when I talk whenever I want to. That’s what a conversation is. What do you think of that, Paul?

Paul: The spirit’s moving now.

Pete: There’s something you said before and then Jared responded and I’m putting a piece together and throwing it out there. You said something very helpful and that’s intuitively true, that the messiness is the teacher. I think, Jared is quoting something from Paul about Christ in us, I think that’s a little bit different, in my opinion, because that’s still Christ in you, but you’re saying something different. Your approach is very integrative, like all of us, every part of us, unless we’re pathological I’m assuming, but every part of us moves us towards healing, towards wholeness, which you know, there are other people who talk like that, it’s making more sense to me, you know, the older I get and think about these things, but who we are is fine and good and that the insights don’t need to come from “read the Psalm again,” which is something that I have heard in my life and others have heard too.

Paul: Yeah, same.

Pete: So, you know, maybe in one sort of intersection between that insight, the messiness is the teacher, is how, and I’m asking rhetorically at this point, we don’t have to get into this, but how does a view of the divine, how can we conceive of the divine that works with that, so to speak, that it’s not an either/or, it’s not two sides and you have to choose one. But maybe, you know, and more traditional might be a Christian language, but the presence of God in your messiness and working in and through it.

Paul: Yeah, I love that. I think that’s really the journey to say something sort of played out, but I mean, that’s the journey of a lifetime and as I was listening the distinction you drew, I think maybe there’s a bridge between that, in terms of how I think about it, but this idea that the messiness is the teacher on the one hand and Christ in us on the other hand, and this is more of a psychospiritual framing, but Christ in me is the space from which I can approach the messiness without shame, without self-condemnation. You know, if you’re a Buddhist, you might call it Buddha mind. If you’re a Hindu, you might call it atman right? There’s different terms. If you’re a Jungian, you might call it Self, but there’s these different terms that are both sort of, you know, you can set innate potentials that exist within us and outside of us as part of the communion of saints, so to speak, that we can tap into and access and learn from.

And, even to hear myself say this, I know this is a dangerous territory, because I can think back to some of the earlier conversations or things I heard about, well okay, you have to be careful there about becoming puffed up or too confident in your own abilities, and I think that fear that, you know, sometimes come out of certain types of religious or spiritual traditions about going inward, you know, it’s in some ways it’s fair. It’s well-founded. You know, there’s such a thing as a lot of navel-gazing psychotherapy that doesn’t successfully turn its gaze outward, and yet at the same time I think that fear goes back to being taught a theology that says there’s no, there’s nothing good in the shadow. Where, in the psychospiritual literature, it says there’s gold in the shadow. In fact, you need to find the courage, ask for the courage, develop a community that can help you sort of integrate that stuff from time to time because when it’s not, and I can tell you this from having worked as a psychotherapist at various religious and spiritual environments, when it’s not integrated, it erupts in an affair. It erupts in substance abuse. It erupts in all sorts of things. So, the alternative to integrate is difficult.


Jared: Can we get really practical with that language, Paul? Because I think that’s a really good point about being able to integrate the shadow and those are conceptual terms, but for practical people, like I really appreciate how you got real. Like, no, it can erupt in not abstract things. It can erupt in, you know, disruptions in relationship and substance abuse and these kinds of things. So, when we’re talking shadow, what are we talking?

Paul: So, you know this is sort of a, just a quick primer, Freud originally thought of the unconscious as this cauldron of seething instinctual, animal-like tendences and the cost of living in a society was learning how to sort of, in large part, you know, I don’t know about repress but sort of come to terms with the fact that you need to develop a super ego strong enough to sort of say no to those things and put them in perspective and sort of draw boundaries and learn when it’s okay to express an urge and not to.

Jung came along, and this is a big part, I’m speaking of Carl Jung here, the Swiss-Austrian psychoanalyst. He came along and said sort of, okay, I think Freud’s conception of the shadow is a bit too depraved. And he sort of said the shadow is actually just this place where all this underdeveloped, immature stuff lives. It’s not necessarily negative, it’s not inherently bad, what makes it “bad” is that it’s immature. You know? And it’s in the task, the journey of life is to learn how to mature it. And how do you mature it? You bring it into conscious awareness so you can learn how to work with it.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Paul: And so, Jung offers us a more viable pathway forward because he’s saying integration is a possibility and there’s a reason why a lot of the Jesuits I studied with in my degree were Jungians, because I think they were intuiting here is someone who is finding a pathway forward between religion, spirituality, and psychology that doesn’t sort of say, you know, never the twain should meet. They’re just different, you know, different schools of thought, we’re sort of stuck with that. So, I don’t know if that clarifies it –

Jared: Well, I just want to clarify when you say the shadow, it could be as simple as –

Paul: It could be anger.

Jared: I am extremely angry at my mom for this thing that I’ve sort of inherited as a pattern, but instead of being able to bring that to consciousness and name it and to work with it, I pretend it doesn’t exist because in my tradition, to be angry at my mom is like this mortal sin and so I can’t even acknowledge it because it means I’m a horrible human being and then shame comes in and all that. Is that an example?

Paul: It’s a great example, yeah. The idea is that we all have this thing called a self-concept, unconsciously we tell ourselves the story of who we are and that story draws the limits around what is allowed and not allowed of the Self and if anger, by your religious/spiritual tradition or just your family culture, whatever it is, is considered outside the self-concept, it would then have to be repressed and you would never develop skillfullness around it. But I think it’s important to note that there’s something called the golden shadow where we may also, because of our conditioning, family, culture or otherwise, repress and push away the golden, I guess, these really positive attributes or you might have, you might have some because of their early childhood have learned that it was never safe to let them be loved, to let their guard down, to experience vulnerability and intimacy. And so, later on in life they really push that stuff away to keep their guard up and the journey for them is similar, but it’s working with this golden shadow aspect of, okay, how do I learn how to let myself be loved in certain circumstances where that’s safe and I can take the risk for fuller life with this person or in this community. So, the shadow is really, it’s dynamic.

Pete: Yeah.

Paul: It’s not just the anger, it’s also these sort of bright qualities so to speak.

Pete: We’re complicated people, aren’t we?

Paul: We are.

Pete: You know, something you said before all that Jung and how he said that Freud’s idea of the shadow was too depraved, and you know, right away Christian language comes to mind, and you know, if I’m, and this just may help people get attached to it. This is maybe Jung reacting, as I recall, I know very little about Jung in terms of professionally, but I seem to recall that his father was a Calvinist minister and his uncles were and it was sort of in the family and he just found that to be all too depressing and not really helping to explain people, right?


So, I just think the word depraved, that may have been your word, but it may have been something that Jung was thinking as well, that this is a really dark, this is almost, Freud is too Calvinistic.

Paul: It’s ironic, isn’t it?

Pete: And I’m not picking on Calvinists here –

Paul: Yeah.

Pete: I’m really not because, you know, I’m really, really not. But, it’s that utter darkness and uselessness of our interiority or our interior world has proved not to be helpful for people and how they think about themselves and the people around them and their place on this earth. And, you know, maybe Jung is getting to some of those things. Again, that’s somebody that I don’t really understand. I wish I knew him better, but, and that’s language and I think, you know, in other words, maybe something like total depravity. Every aspect of you is depraved. Depraved is a very strong word. Um, from a psychological point-of-view, it’s hard to, it’s hard to have an integrative approach to faith and mental health when the theology says your inner world is just a dark place and needs to be pushed down, confessed, or just ignored, but not to see what lessons can be learned from the stuff that’s happening inside of you, you don’t want to talk to anybody about.

Paul: Mm hmm, yeah. That’s such a good point. And I’ve had clients that upon being invited to reframe that total depravity have really resisted it despite the depression, you know? That’s what I call depravity from a psychological perspective, maybe a deep depression where there’s just constant thoughts of worthlessness and I’m easy to reject and there’s no point in putting myself out there, the lethargy and lack of pleasurable experience that comes with that. So, when it gets deeply ingrained, and this is sort of I guess bleeding into this territory which is, I think, also really complex in the psychology field or pastoral counseling field, is how do we as pastoral counselors adjudicate what counts as healthy and unhealthy religion and spirituality? Given that, sometimes what a client comes in with is not just their own religion and spirituality, but that’s been a conditioned thing that their religious or spiritual subgroup teaches every week or a version of it, right? And so, you don’t work with the client by challenging or undermining the very teaching of their religious subculture, at least not right away. There’s a lot of work before that, but it’s hard. I think it’s a great point and when that really gets in someone’s bones it can be a hard thing to shed.

Pete: Well, one, I mean, one very quick anecdote, again, I only say this so maybe people can relate to it. One of my children years ago was in a therapeutic context in her teens and she was beating herself up for not being good enough and one of the therapists mentioned to her that, “You believe in God, don’t you?” And she said, “yeah.” He says, “Don’t you know that you’re of eternal worth?” And I still get emotional thinking about that because she had been in church her whole life and never once heard that.

Paul: Yeah.

Pete: And that has to do, again with, it’s not like the problem of religion and psychology, it’s the problem that some theologies might cause and integrating those two things and for those theologies to survive, you have to keep them separate, I think. I don’t know, Jared, if you agree with that, but you have to. They simply don’t play well together unless the psychology side of it is tamed and adjusted in such a way that it can serve the theology instead of maybe, dare I say, critiquing it, which is a no-no, Jared, right?

Jared: Right.

Pete: But that’s where we came from, you don’t do that.

Jared: Yeah, I mean, I think the, and what maybe to tie those two together kind of what you were saying a second ago is when is it the, when is it that the theology is elastic enough to contain some of these insights from psychology and things that we’re learning? We do this all the time with, say, science. When is the theology elastic enough to say, you know what? We kind of garnered enough evidence to say evolution is true and so we’ve got to kind of shift and resize this theology to fit it.


And when is it just not going to work and we actually just have to reject this thing? And I just think a lot of people are in that place of wondering – can my theology, my reading of the Bible, the reading of Jesus, this whole Christianity thing, can it be resized in a way that will accept what seems true to me living in our day and age about the human mind, what leads us to flourish or can it not? And it sounds like, you know, as pastoral counselors, you guys, you have to kind of figure that out on the fly almost in these settings of when are we critiquing the system or when are we able to maybe adjust kind of the expectations?

Paul: Well said. And there is some literature that helps guide that, you know, for example there’s some constructs that talk about assessing a person’s religion and spirituality and when it looks like they’re in a place of what is called religious or spiritual conservation versus religious or spiritual transformation. And so, in the former, it’s where the life issue has not sufficiently started to cause the foundations of the person’s theology and religious identity to break apart. In other words, the religion and spirituality are still mostly working, it’s able to help them, it’s called religious conservation in the sense that it’s still effective at helping them conserve a sense of meaning, and so the intervention in those cases is often to ask the client for example like, is there a scripture here that comes to mind that really feeds you and that may be helpful in this moment? And then still, we may need to assess, like, if they bring up a scripture that’s supposed to validate the fact that they’re beloved by the divine and they bring up something from Job or something, you still want to maybe do some sort of assessing there and find out, okay, I wonder why they chose that particular text in that moment.

And in the case of spiritual or religious transformation, that’s where there’s evidence that the religious meaning making systems is breaking down. It’s not working anymore. Sometimes we call that they’re entering into a psychospiritual crisis, and those moments are always really exciting for me, and I don’t mean that in a flippant way, but because that’s that moment where the person gets to sort of step outside their theology back into the terror and wonder of being a human and start to construct something anew. You know I committed the, I think it’s the final line in Tillich’s The Courage to Be because it resonates on this matter-

Pete: That’s Paul Tillich? Right? Paul Tillich? The theologian?

Paul: Yeah. Yeah. The Courage to Be is rooted in the God who appears after God has disappeared in the anxiety and doubt and there may be, you know, throughout our lifetime, the death of numerous God concepts over time, but it takes a really safe holding space for a client to enter into that, it’s a sacred space where, you know, in a collaborative way, something new is being born in the client, it’s often very painful and filled with a lot of anxiety and it’s –

Pete: Well, the anxiety is, I mean that’s, again not to be simplistic but you know, we have people in our lives and Jared and I understand this existentially as well that transformative place, that crisis place, I guess that stepping away from what you know and what you believe into this exciting world where you have no idea and you sort of reinvent yourself. The whole purpose of true religious faith is to make sure that never happens, right? So, I mean that’s the tension I think people feel with that even being in a space where you embrace this, I guess we’re talking about maybe disorientation or deconstruction, that’s language that people might know better, I don’t know if you’re comfortable using that language, but that is like you have to have a certain religious structure that allows that to happen. Maybe the only way to do it is just to be thrown into it, you know? And sort of sink or swim, I don’t know. My point is that there are, there are barriers for people that are theological but that are also psychological in that sense, both sides are affected, that makes it very difficult to look positively at this wonderful yet also frightening time of transformation.

Paul: Yeah. I think that’s really fair, you know, whether it’s from a psychological or theological framework, it’s just the experience of being alive to that edge of, you know, I’m thinking back to what you said, Jared, about support in the New Testament, you know the verse that comes to mind for me is, I think it’s John 10:10, “I come that they may have life and life to the fullest.”


And like you said, that can be interpreted in two different ways, right? But if we’re interpreting it in terms of life to the fullest in the here and now, I think of the sense of aliveness and it takes a lot of resources to be present to that aliveness and it’s a living thing and

35:15 – Sound issue that lasts 35:26

It’s a privilege that goes into being able to talk about it like this, right? None of us here are in survival mode. Our material needs are met. We’ve been blessed in a lot of ways, or are maybe lucky if you want to think about it that way. I think you know, there’s a lot of resistance to that, and it’s just, I think, a human thing. This is scary. This is hard. But if we have a framework that says, no, this is actually the journey, it gets a little easier. Right? It gets just a little bit easier to say – oh wait, other people have tried this path too. I’m in good company.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: I want to come back, Paul, to this idea that this elasticity idea of how can people who, you know, what are ways you’ve seen for people who want to continue down their faith tradition, they want to continue to be Christian and yet they need to make room for things like it’s okay to work on your shadow side. It’s okay not to think of yourself as innately evil. And, you know, that you can be good in our core as human beings and yet still have things to work on and enter into that messiness. What are some steps or processes or ways of thinking or concepts that you’ve seen that help people step into that without, what we’ve seen is that sometimes it feels like a betrayal, like they’re almost cheating on their Christianity by entertaining these –

Pete: Well, adultery. Spiritual adultery.

Jared: Psychological insights. How do people maybe move beyond that?

Paul: Yeah. I’m hearing myself sigh just processing that question. I mean, that’s such an important one and there’s a lot of different things I can say, but the thing that sort of comes to the forefront of my mind is actually that, in order for it to really take, to be something that doesn’t just park in the mind and actually translates into the heart and the body, I think it has to be experienced. It has to be felt. And, you know, for me that’s where something like a practice, you know, Christianity calls it prayer life or contemplative practices, other traditions call it meditation. And that I think those are perhaps spaces where a person by becoming still, you know, and there’s certain persons that, let’s say like with a real serious chronic depression, right? Maybe that would be contraindicated because there’s going to just be an onslaught of negative self-talk or, you know, if the tradition, I’d even call it, like demonic voices or something like that.

So, it’s not for everyone, but I do feel very strongly about the sense that it needs to be experienced and maybe what helps that happen is to first experience it with another, with another human being because there’s a lot of clients, and this goes back to a lot of theory around attachment, folks who are, they say you can be “insecurely attached”, so in other words, there’s not this sort of basic internalization of safety and coregulation in your being that a young infant learned. And more and more, we’re learning the privacy of early development is really key, everything gets built on that foundation, of what’s happening in your nervous system, in your neural pathways and if that space is charged with anxiety and tension and fear and betrayal and abandonment, it doesn’t matter what you learn intellectually about that God, what your God concept is, the God-image, the God that lives in your being is not a safe God, you know? And there’s a lot of theory that talks about how the mom and dad or whoever are caregivers are sort of the first “gods” of our lives and we internalize our ways of relating and perceiving the divine through that imprinting and through those attachment bonds.

But I think where the therapy relationship can be powerful, or you know, with a pastor or mentor, whoever it is, it comes back to this idea of presence and unconditional positive regard we call it in the psychology field, you know, Christianity might call it unconditional love, and I think those are sort of highfalutin terms.


And maybe an easier way to say it is, if someone gets to experience the gift of sitting with someone that needs absolutely nothing from them, doesn’t need anything if they’re smart or talented or good-looking or special, but just has this presence that they can offer for whatever depths or degrees of human messiness might show up and can get their own stuff out of the way enough, because there’s always stuff that’s going to come up as you’re sitting with someone, but to sort of see it when it comes up, sort of bracket it and say okay, well I know what that is, that’s my inner ego meeting this or that or the other. How do I come back to this presence with this person, I think it’s in that dyadic interpersonal relationship where that experience of love becomes internalized and that might be the birth of divine love that was missing.

Jared: I’ve been, I wanted to test this with you because lately I’ve been thinking of it as kind of the unconditional okayness. Like, what I want to offer people when I sit with them is just an okayness. Hey, so when they tell me their shocking shame-filled deep thoughts, I’m like, “okay.” When they tell me these sorts of things, it’s like, “okay!”  Like, just to offer a space where they, they’re what they expect from another human being to hear these things that they’ve built up in their heads and to have someone say, “yeah, you know, probably lots, I’ve had the same thoughts,” or, “yeah, this seems pretty normal to me” can just be a really powerful thing. Because, yeah, I think for me the okayness of it, because I also don’t like to over-aggrandize it, I guess, where it’s like, you have to think that like, I have to sit here and lie to you and say you’re the best human being in the world when you have trouble, you have shadow, because in some ways – I call it positive gaslighting – again, this is me, just making up psychological terms, but when it’s like, when it’s like you’re trying to overly inflate someone and they just, you’re kind of asking them to go against their own intuitions, which is kind of like you are a shitty person sometimes. Like, you do kind of bad things sometimes, right? Not, so being able to say like, I guess, for me, it’s not an over aggrandizing because I think that can also neglect the shadow side in the opposite way. And so, to kind of have a more neutral sense of, “you’re okay,” like, and maybe that’s what you mean by positive regard, maybe that’s kind of the psychological framework of it’s not that you’re great and perfect, it’s not that you’re horrible and outside of redemption. It’s that you’re like me, which means we’re okay.

Pete: You’re human.

Jared: You’re human.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: Yeah. Maybe that’s a long way of saying that.

Paul: I like that. I think it really, I think it fits and a little of the positive regard, it’s a way of being or relating to the other person. So, I’m going to regard you in a positive way, radical acceptance, radical compassion, unconditional okayness. These are all terms we could put on that. And if you don’t validate the shitty side as you said, it doesn’t work. Ironically.

Jared: Mm hmm.

Paul: A lot of people would be like, “Oh, you’re just brushing past that.” It’s got to be a both/and, right? To both sort of say like, wow, that’s some heavy intense stuff and welcome to the club.

Pete: Yeah, well we were talking about practical kinds of steps or outlooks to this and, you know, both of you are talking about sitting with somebody else, with other people, which I really agree with very strongly and uh, it’s sort of like you see God in other people, but when you’re conditioned to sort of just pray it away, so to speak, in isolation and sometimes talking to another human being is like the hardest thing you could possibly ever do, right? Because that’s actually, now you’re voicing the betrayal. When you keep it inside, there’s a hope that no one will find out, that you can keep it hidden from everyone, but I’m just saying this as an observation, that it’s, that that first step is very, very difficult for some people to make because that is exactly the evidence that they’re going off the deep end and they’re beyond hope. So, they keep it inside and have cognitive dissonance or, like you said Paul, it sort of erupts in different ways.

Paul: Yeah.

Jared: Well, the idea that it’s not real unless you say it.

Pete: Right. Yeah. So, I guess, I mean, the question is how do you get to a point where you feel comfortable actually talking to somebody else and I really am asking that rhetorically unless you feel like you want to answer. I think it’s a hard question, like, it’s almost like you have to be sick and tired of being sick and tired and you just, I just have to do something, it doesn’t matter what it is. So maybe a private thing with a therapist for example or a spiritual advisor where they don’t know you that may be one way to do it. And it’s professional and nobody has to –

Jared: Confidential.

Pete: Confidential, right. As opposed to talking to one of your buddies at church or something.

Paul: Yeah. I mean, I think what I’ve found myself saying to classes at times, and I think I actually believe this even just based on my own life experience, like it’s been, I sense that most of us go kicking and screaming, right? You know, it took four deaths in a matter of five years. You know, this is after getting a PhD in pastoral counseling, so you got me back into counseling where I was really willing to like look at some of the, all the stuff and I you know, some of which I had forgotten and so what I guess I’m trying to say I think it takes a point where the suffering of avoidance starts to outweigh the suffering of faking it.

Pete: That’s well put, yeah.

Paul: And, you know, that comes for us in all different forms. You know? Be it a panic attack, it could be losing a job, could be an explosion of various symptoms, relationship problems, again, these are the teachers if we can listen and have a framework that says this isn’t just sin or persecution or, you know, this is actually a part of the path.

Jared: And not to be the Sunday School teacher to kind of bring this back around for The Bible for Normal People, but I guess what I want to say, and Paul, I’d appreciate your insight on this, but the way we’ve been talking the last whatever, half hour or forty minutes, it’s like I can imagine the critics from my childhood of like, well they didn’t even talk about the Bible. They didn’t even talk about Jesus in this. So, how are we even talking about this being Christian in any significant way and I think for me it comes back to what we do here on this podcast, you know, what is the Bible and what do we do with it? The Bible was written in a context where this was not the language or insights that were used or had been discovered yet or we didn’t have this language, and so that doesn’t mean that the Bible is irrelevant to it, but it does mean that we might need to infuse the Bible with new ways of understanding and taking things, like I appreciate what you said about John 10:10. There is a way to infuse John 10:10 with a more contemporary robust understanding of psychological significance and so it’s, it takes work but every generation has to do that work anew, and so I just think it’s not, again, that impulse of thinking these are separate things doesn’t have to be the case. There is a way then to go, to take all these insights and to learn from them and to grow in them and then to go back to the Bible and say, you know what, there’s a way of reading this that actually gives me life now and sometimes we’re too close to it to see it that way. We either want to reject it, you know, because it represents a painful past or we just stay within the framework of it has to mean this one thing. So, I don’t know if you found that with clients or just in your experiences, as this isn’t apart from the Bible, there is a way to breathe new life into it I guess.

Paul: Yeah, I mean, I couldn’t agree more. But you do have to be really careful with that so the timing and dosage and can find ways in and I find it to be incredibly difficult for certain types of clients. There’s a lot of patience involved in the process and, you know, as I was listening, part of what came to mind and I don’t know if this is from, I was thinking about one of the books of yours Pete I read a while ago. I gave it to my Dad, so I don’t remember what it was called, but it had a yellow cover –

Pete: The Bible Tells Me So? Or I think, yeah, the yellow one, that’s how I refer to my books.

Paul: [Laughter]

Pete: The title is too long, so the yellow one.

Paul: I think part of what came to mind when I listen to you talk Jared, because I feel like one of the things important that I took away from that book that I hadn’t considered really before is that, and maybe you didn’t say this, Pete, maybe it’s just what I projected onto it or needed to hear. Anything to keep moving forward myself was that yes, the words of the biblical texts, sort of, are finished and entombed in that book we all carry around with us, but the Bible is still happening, right? In a way, or the Gospels still happening in a way, maybe, that the living word is that we are still the people of God living out this constantly unfolding sort of narrative and all that messiness and redemption.


And I think, you know, that’s a really heretical idea, I imagine, in certain circles and I don’t know a way around that other than hoping that maybe some part of a person has fertile soil where those seeds might take hold at some point.

Pete: I mean there are so many, I think, interesting and life-giving and dynamic ways of integrating, you know, our emotional lives and our religious theological lives provided you’re open to the idea of integrating those two in a meaningful way and maybe in a creative way and the struggle I think is that there are, I think there are some people who desperately want to do that, but they’re in a place where, again, the very integration is the problem and I think it’s hard to get around that and you know I can think of people and you know how’d you get to the point where you decided to sort of step from a conservation mode and sort of embrace this transformation mode and very often they don’t really have a good answer, they just woke up one morning and this didn’t make sense. You know? So, it might take people their own time and place to get to that place where that fertile soil starts blooming, but many don’t, you know? And you can’t force it I guess, but there are many who deep down probably feel stuck a bit and they don’t know which way to go and there’s no formula to make that work quickly if your religious life has shielded you from even paying attention to that sort of thing. The power of religion, you know, it really is, well, not just religion but I think any ideology. Any ideology can keep you from looking at the shadow, that’s one way of summarizing this stuff.

Paul: And that’s the religion that, to be fair, Freud was attacking.

Pete: Yes. Right, right.

Paul: He wasn’t attacking this other stuff we’re talking about. He was sort of close to it too because he had his own baggage he hadn’t sorted out, but that’s when he was attacking and Nietzsche was attacking, Marx was attacking. All those other folks.

Jared: So, for those who, kind of as we wrap up our time Paul, for those who have this tension within them, what might be just kind of a first step or a few kind of thoughts on how to dip their toes into a world where they don’t have to hold this tension anymore? Giving them a little bit of a leg up on a few things that might help?

Paul: Yeah. I mean maybe this is coming to mind just because of where our conversation has been today, but I think just to consider the possibility, like, to be willing to give oneself permission to consider the possibility that the “hard stuff” or “bad stuff” is a teacher, that it may actually be one of the languages of grace. That maybe gets really complicated real quick, but just more basically that the materials for transformation may be living right inside of us if we have the space, the courage, the support, definitely the support, the permission to sort of turn towards them and say okay, well, what do you have for me here? And maybe most importantly, like from within that framework that says this is part of the gig, like this is part of being human and maybe, right, like we know Christ went to the desert. We know Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and they were faced with all this really hard stuff, right? Power, temptation, lust, greed – whatever, right? And that turning towards and being present to that stuff, seeing what’s there, not drowning in it necessarily although that may happen at times, that’s where self-confession is important, but to be able to sort of turn towards it and say okay, this is part of the gig. And I think, you know, just as a basic psychology idea, when we turn towards and begin to, you know, like systematic desensitization is what’s used for certain phobias and stuff like that, when we turn towards and we recognize that wave of fear, panic, shame, or whatever else moves through us with a little bit of distance and this takes skills to do this or it takes the presence of someone else that has those skills to sort of be with us through it, that we can start to change our relationship to that stuff and get on that path because it doesn’t really ever end I don’t think. There’s always another curveball.

Pete: Oh yeah, oh yeah.

Paul: I don’t know if that answers your question. I sort of rambled there, but that’s sort of what comes to mind, Jared.

Jared: Excellent, well thank you so much, Paul, for coming on, and I think is really is a huge topic that I think is going to be more and more relevant to people as more people continue to go through these faith shifts and start to figure out sort of what it means for them and how they think of themselves and their, you know, that kind of psychological element.

Pete: And permission to do something about it, maybe too.

Jared: Excellent.

Paul: Yeah, thanks so much for having me.

Jared: Alright.

Pete: Thank you, Paul.

Jared: See ya!

[Music begins]

Stephanie: You just made it through another entire episode of The Bible for Normal People. Well done to you, and well done to everyone who supports us by rating the podcast, leaving us a review, or telling others about our show. We are especially grateful for our Producer’s Group who support us over on Patreon. They are the reason we are able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you would like to help support the podcast, head over to patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople where for as little as $3/month, you can receive bonus material, be a part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.

Dave: Our show is produced by Stephanie Speight; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Community Champion, Ashley Ward; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. 

© 2021, The Bible for Normal People. 

All rights reserved. 

In other words…

Producer’s offspring: No copying or you’re in big trouble! 

Dave: For Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team – thanks for listening.

[Music ends]


Pete: Can I add something to that, Paul, because I –

Jared: You keep interrupting.

Pete: Because we’re having a conversation here, Jared.

Jared: [Laughter]

Pete: You know what a conversation is?

Jared: [Continued laughter]

Pete: A conversation is when I talk whenever I want to.

[End of recorded material]

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Pete Ruins Exodus Part 2

Pete Ruins Exodus (Part 2)

May 7, 2019

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

Mentioned in this episode

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]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope that sounds okay.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s for the Mountain of God.

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

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

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

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

It’s hard to identify who this character is. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



“So Moses, is that enough for you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What?  Exactly.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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