Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Episode 191: Pete & Jared – Creative Interpretation as Necessary

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast,  Pete and Jared discuss the inevitability of reading our own context into the Bible and how reading the Bible creatively can help connect it to our own universe. Together they explore the following questions: 

  • Is reading the Bible creatively really inevitable?
  • Is it problematic to try to get our viewpoint out of the way and only hear what the Bible says? 
  • What does it mean for the Bible to be encultured? 
  • Where can we see examples of enculturation in the Bible? 
  • Why are some examples of enculturation in the Bible readily accepted while others are contentious? 
  • What can we take away from the realization that creative interpretation exists in the Bible? 
  • What does 10 Things I Hate About You have to do with 1 & 2 Chronicles? 
  • What does it mean to draw a biblical text out of its historical particularity? 
  • When looking for meaning in the Bible, why do we tend to privilege singularity over multiplicity? 
  • What could be gained if we learned to value multiplicity in our theological approach? 
  • How does the inclusion of multivalent text demonstrate a need for personal investment in scripture? 


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

  • “You can’t ignore the fact that the people reading the Bible are not omniscient beings who can simply transport themselves back into time, but we are all encultured people and that makes a difference in how we read the Bible.” @peteenns 
  • “If we look at the Bible, there are some examples of enculturation. There’s some that would be not controversial, for instance, units of measurement. The problem for me is the Bible is enculturated, and it doesn’t tell us when it’s being enculturated.” @jbyas
  • “We live in a time that the biblical writers themselves were not writing to or about. So how do you bring that into your own existence? You have to engage in some rather creative interpretation of either the portions of the Bible that were written, or if they weren’t written, at least the traditions behind them.”  @peteenns 
  • “You need to sort of bring the Bible into your present, because you’re trying to actually engage real people. Because this is of spiritual value, which is the great irony with some of the more conservative approaches, which say ‘just stick to the texts’ and don’t really add much to it. That’s almost leaving the text in the past.” @peteenns 
  • “We have a modern bias that assumes historical accuracy is most important. I think that is something the ancient world would not have shared.” @jbyas

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: Hey, everybody, welcome to this episode of The Bible for Normal People and I’m here with Jared, as always, except for the solo episodes.

Jared: Right. No, we’re there. We actually stand over each other’s shoulder in the room, you just don’t hear…

Pete: Yeah, and judge.


Jared: I have cards of 1-10, and every time Pete makes a point, I hold up one. 4! 4.5! Come on!

I heckle.

Pete: And then I throw food at him.

Jared: [Laughter]

Pete: So, I don’t care. So yeah, so this is a joint episode, as you—maybe you’re new to the podcast, but we have guests on most of the time. But we have other times where it’s just Jared or me. And other times when it’s both of us doing a joint episode and this is one of those episodes.

Jared: Not only that, but it is also the last episode of Season 5.

[Audio clip of group saying, “Awwwww”]

Pete: Is it really?

Jared: Yeah, it is. I just –

Pete: Really?

Jared: Pete’s mind is blown. And now he’s going to go into depression.

Pete: We’ve had five seasons already?

Jared: Just so everyone knows, we take a break.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: So, there will be no new episodes in January. But you know what? We do that on purpose because I know you have not listened to every episode of this podcast.

Pete: Right. Or understood it, so just keep listening to it again and again and again.

Jared: You can go back. This is rerun season.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: And then we’ll be back in February for Season 6.

Pete: Yes, and a lot of fun guests.

Jared: But until we get there-

Pete: Till we get there-

[Music begins]

Jared: We have a modern bias that assumes historical accuracy is most important.

Pete: It’s almost inevitable that you will read your own context into the Bible.

Jared: That is something the ancient world would not have shared. They would have looked at historical accuracy and said, “Okay, that’s great, but you’re sacrificing relevancy.”

Pete: What is God saying to us now, not just back then?

Jared: We have a perfectionistic religion where it’s all or nothing. If we can’t have absolutes, it’s worth nothing, which I think is just not how the world works.

[Music ends]

Pete: So okay, here, the topic for today is something that, again, if you’ve listened for a long time, this is sort of a theme that is in a good number of our episodes, not all of them, but we keep sort of coming back to this and there’s a reason for it. And I guess we’d put it this way, right, it’s the inevitability of reading the Bible creatively.

Jared: Right.

Pete: Which sounds, if you’re not familiar with us that’s gonna be like, what are you talking about? But it’s the inevitability that the Bible, when somebody picks it up and reads it, you have to be creative to certain extent to connect it to your universe.

Jared: So, let’s contrast that to start out with the opposite understanding, which is what I would have grown up with, and probably you as well to some extent later on, which is to be faithful to the Bible is to empty ourselves and only hear what the Bible says.

Pete: Right.

Jared: What the Bible says, in its original context, is what we’re always after. So, when you go to church on Sunday, you’re trying to get your own viewpoint out of the way and hear only what the Bible is trying to say. So maybe, let’s talk about why that’s problematic.

Pete: Well, I mean, let’s two sides of that. First of all, it’s not entirely bad, right? It’s really, really good to try to understand it.

Jared: Right, which is what makes it complicated.

Pete: That’s just it, right? It’s not either/or, it’s the fact that we want to respect what biblical authors are saying in their moment in time as best as we can. The problem is, we’re so separated by time and language, so we can’t really get there completely. But we want to do the best we can to respect what authors are trying to say.

Jared: Right.

Pete: I mean, I want to be respected that way when I write something. I don’t want people reviewing books of mine and making stuff up. I didn’t say that, I didn’t mean that. Right? So, we want to do the best that we can. However, you can’t ignore the fact that the people reading the Bible are not omniscient beings who can simply transport themselves back into time, but we are all encultured people and that makes a difference in how we read the Bible. Which is to say, that’s when this idea of creativity comes in, we’re always trying to bridge the gap between the text, which was written at times that the authors of those texts could not possibly have envisioned people like us or people like in the medieval period or even the early centuries of the Christian faith. That’s a different time and place.

Jared: Well, sometimes people, though, will—the argument would be, “well, not humanly possible, but if God is superintending this writing, then God could have.” However, my argument to that is, but that’s not what happened. When we look at the Bible –

Pete: That could have. But it didn’t.

Jared: When we look at the Bible, it is in culture.

Pete: Right.


Jared: So, what do we mean? Maybe we can talk about what it means to be encultured, because I think that it’s kind of an abstract.

Pete: Yeah, I guess so. I mean the way I, you jump in here too, but the way I think about it is that to be encultured means humans can’t escape their human location or time and place and that there are so many factors involved in that. It’s simply- I mean, a big one is just when you were born, where you were born, your nationality, your background, maybe an education, but that’s not even that important. It’s just the air that you breathe by being a person. Like myself born in 1961 and not in 1861 and born, you know, in a let’s say, lower middle-class family in New Jersey, rather than in affluent aristocratic family in you know, southern Canada or something. You know? It just, it makes it truly does make a difference.

Jared: And there are some examples, if we look at the Bible, of examples of enculturation. There’s some that would be not controversial, not heated at all, for instance, units of measurement.

Pete: Right.

Jared: So, when it says a cubit, okay, but that’s a cultural thing, we’re not up in arms that it doesn’t say, miles or meters.

Pete: Right.

Jared: It says cubit. Okay, well, that’s fine. It’s an encultured, we know translation, we can know how to sort of translate that. But then when, you know, we may be a little more controversial of something like the assumption that women are property in the Old Testament laws.

Pete: In parts of it, yeah. It’s there.

Jared: That’s a culture, and that’s an assumption that’s sort of in the background because of the social location in which the text was written. And, you know, then we get to maybe much more controversial when we get to some of the New Testament things I’m thinking of, for instance, language around God being the Father. Is that somehow less cultural, right? So, sometimes people would say, “Okay, cubits, that’s cultural, and we have to sort of let go of that cultural baggage,” and we translate it to our modern times. So, even modern translations might not say cubit anymore, it might translate into meters or feet or something like that. But then when we get into things like God the Father, is that a product of culture? Or women should be silent in the church.

Pete: Right.

Jared: Is that a product of culture? Or is that something that is still— and the problem for me is, the Bible is enculturated, and it doesn’t tell us when it’s being enculturated.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: And that becomes a big problem.

Pete: And in a way it is thoroughly enculturated, but what does that mean? So, just to be clear, this podcast is not about solving that issue. Like what’s enculturated? What isn’t? And how do you know? What do you do? It’s only about the recognition that you can expect to see in reading the Bible, a highly-enculturated text. And in fact, it’s not just things like, again, maybe to get a little controversial, Genesis 1 reflects creation stories and many would say myths or maybe legends or something of creation. It seems pretty clear from a couple hundred years of unearthing ancient stories from Mesopotamia and from Egypt and from Canaan even, that you know, these stories are all breathing a similar kind of air. So, there’s an encultured nature to that. And I think most people I know at least have come to some peace with it. But it’s even, you know, within the Bible itself, that to me, is the fascinating thing. And that’s really where this story begins, of how within the Bible itself you see later writers looking back at earlier stories and giving them a different spin because of who they are and what the needs and concerns are of the people of their time.

Jared: What would be a few examples of that to help anchor this conversation? I think it is really important to see what the Bible itself does.

Pete: Right. I mean, a rather straightforward example, and I use this a lot, has to do with slavery laws in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. In Exodus chapter- what is it 20? Or 21, I forget. It’s one of those law chapters once you get to the 10 Commandments and you’re reading laws for about the next several weeks, pretty much.

Jared: Slow reader.

Pete: But yeah, it’s, you know, there are laws about Hebrew slaves and it allows for Hebrew slaves, but the males can go free after seven years if they choose to, but they can choose to stay and commit themselves to the slave owner. But these are Hebrew slaves, right? But the women can’t- they don’t have the right to do that. But you jump to Deuteronomy and all of a sudden it’s, the law is very emphatic that the male Hebrew slaves and the female Hebrew slaves have the right to go free should they choose after seven years.


There’s a huge difference there and people talk about, “well, it’s a different socio-religious political context and it is just happening at a different time.” And people have called Deuteronomy a little bit more humane, for example, than Exodus and Exodus is older than Deuteronomy. That’s the general argument.

And then in Leviticus, you also have a slave law where it says, “Yeah, we don’t have Hebrew slaves. We were slaves in Egypt, we don’t do that. You can enslave people from other places, that’s fine. But you can’t have Hebrew slaves at all.” So, the question is, you know, what does God think about Hebrew slaves? Well, you have three different answers and they represent different generations engaging this tradition in ways that are, they make more sense to them about what God is like, I would put it that way. And the Hebrew Bible is certainly full of examples of that. I mean, we can go on – and I mean, if you want to I wrote this book, How the Bible Actually Works. I give a lot of examples there of how the Bible seems to act this way.

Jared: And with those examples, let’s bring it back around to what’s your main takeaway from that in this context of creative interpretation?

Pete: That we see biblical writers engaging their tradition, which is oftentimes a written, it’s an inscripturated tradition, so to speak, engaging it in ways that say, “Listen, that doesn’t make sense to us, but this makes sense to us here today. And we’re going to connect with God this way, which is different.” You know?

I mean, another way is how, you know, in the Book of Ezekiel, for example, this is another example I love to talk about, how the people who are in exile are basically complaining to Ezekiel saying, “It’s not fair that we’re in exile, because we didn’t do anything personally. It was our parents who did it, why are we suffering for our parents’ sins?” And Ezekiel says, “You know,” if I can paraphrase, “I was talking to God about this, you’re right.” You know? The person who sins is the person should get punished, not the person who happens to have parents who did something wrong. And if your parents were awesome, that doesn’t mean you get a free ride, because you’re, everyone’s responsible for their own fate, so to speak.

Well, that’s in tension very much with what you find, for example, in the Book of Exodus, which says, you know, the commandment to not create idols. But if you do that thing, you will be punished for multi generations if you sin, but you’ll be blessed for multi generations if you don’t sin. So, there are multi-generational blessings and punishments in Exodus that are then sort of looked at in Ezekiel as saying that that’s that doesn’t seem right. So, there’s, you’re engaging the text, not just sort of doing what it says, but you’re trying to envelop that into your own moment in space and time, where, what is God saying to us now, not just back of that?

Jared: Yeah. And maybe, you can maybe correct this, But I think one of the clearest, maybe the most, one of the more stark examples of this, when we take it out of sort of this ethical realm, and just how does the Bible itself treat other scriptural passages, a classic example, as we head into Christmas here is how Matthew uses the Old Testament.

Pete: That’s a good one.

Jared: So, we have in Matthew 2, this phrase which he says, “So was fulfilled, what the Lord said to the Prophet out of Egypt, I’ve called my son.” Right? So, from when Matthew is writing that, it’s in the context of the birth story of Jesus, Jesus goes down to Egypt, and then goes back out. And Matthew says the reason Jesus, you know, the reason the Prophet said this, and Jesus does this, these go hand in hand. The Prophet said it, Jesus fulfills it – “Out of Egypt, I’ve called my son.”

Well, if we go back to what prophet he’s talking about –

Pete: Hosea.

Jared: Hosea 11:1, it starts with, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” It says it right there. It’s about Israel.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: It’s not about Jesus.

Pete: It’s not even predictive. It’s retrospective. It’s looking back at something. It’s like, this is where we got started, what a mess that was. You know?

Jared: Yeah, it’s looking at the history, and it’s looking at the history of Israel. It’s not looking forward and it’s not talking about Jesus.

Pete: And Israel’s disobedience, right? “After all I’ve done for you,” right? I brought you out of Egypt to here you go.

So, but again, Matthew treats this as a fulfillment. Right?

Jared: Right.

Pete: And the, we could talk for hours about what fulfillment means in Matthew, we don’t need to do that. But the point is that he engaged a text in a way that was, let’s call it creative.

Jared: Mm hmm.

Pete: You know, the Jewish word is midrashic. It’s Midrash. And that’s there’s precedent for this sort of thing in antiquity.


See, there comes a point, we talked about the inevitability of creative interpretation. When you have texts that were written for a point in time in history, let’s say during the time of David, or even a little bit before or during the later years of the monarchy or during the exile. And that text comes to be very important to a community of people. And they see it as a way of communing with God and understanding what God is about. Guess what? As generations come and go, they want to know, well, what’s in it for us now? Like, where does this fail? We don’t live back in the days of Isaiah, we don’t live back in the days of David or, you know, Solomon, Proverbs and all that. We don’t live back then, we live at a different time. We live in a time that the biblical writers themselves were not writing to or about. So how do you bring that into your own existence? You have to engage in some rather creative interpretation of either the portions of the Bible that were written, or if they weren’t written, at least the traditions behind them.

And one of those things is simply even the language that’s used because all languages evolve, right? The language, the way Hebrew was, let’s say, in the 10th century BCE, is not the way Hebrew was in, say, the 2nd century BCE. All languages evolve, words take on different meanings. And you need to engage this in a way that brings it into your moment. Reading about a battle from the Old Testament, Christians call the Old Testament, but reading about a battle about what happened back then it’s like, well, so what? What does this have to do with us here today? That is always a creative act, because you’re bridging horizons, you’re bridging over a length of time. And what happened back then is not important, at least it’s not of sole importance. It’s actually, in many respects, of minor importance to what is God still doing now? The trick is you’re using a text that wasn’t written to you.

Jared: Right.

Pete: Right? You’re not using a text that’s written to you, you’re using a text that’s written to other people. So how do you, imagine doing that with Shakespeare or something, how do you apply that to your life?

Jared: It’s funny you just said that, because I just thought of, we’re in sync here. I was immediately thinking of The Taming of the Shrew and then the 90’s version 10 Things I Hate About You.

Pete: Oh, that’s right.


Jared: Which is like an update of Shakespeare, which is different than say, Leonardo DiCaprio version of Romeo and Juliet.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: They’re both taking Shakespeare and bringing them into the modern framework.

Pete: Okay, so we have these two sort of like stories—one is The Taming of the Shrew, one is 10 things I what about you?

Jared: 10 Things I Hate About You.

Pete: Who’s in it? Is that Kate Hudson?

Jared: No, it was…

Pete: [Laughter]

Jared: Now you asked me that. But it was Heath Ledger.

Pete: Okay. Yeah, I think I saw it.

Jared: Yeah.

Pete: I don’t remember. Anyway. But, so what you’re saying is that the shaping is different, but also, it affects the message on some level doesn’t it?

Jared: Right. So again, Romeo and Juliet, we have the same plot, the same language, really all that changes is the clothes and the aesthetic. But for The Taming of the Shrew, I mean, it’s there in the title—shrew. Like, that is not a very woman empowerment kind of thing.

Pete: No. Right.

Jared: And it’s really about Petruchio, I don’t know how you say his name. Petruchio? I never say Shakespearean stuff.

Pete: Pinocchio?

Jared: No, totally different story.

Pete: We’re so cultured around here.

Jared: It’s this couple, and basically, he’s using all of these torture devices to be honest, to subdue the female protagonist into being obedient.

Pete: Mm hmm. Okay.

Jared: If you watched 10 Things I Hate About You, it’s about this headstrong woman who’s not gonna be tamed –

Pete: Yes, right.

Jared: And she becomes the protagonist.

Pete: Yes.

Jared: It’s a woman empowerment thing. So, the message completely flips, but it’s using the same structure of the story. It’s playing off of this plot.

Pete: And that’s, that’s analogous to, for example, the different slave laws, right? Or, you know, another example we’ve talked about on this podcast, because it’s so huge and so obvious is how 1 and 2 Chronicles significantly retells the history of David, of Solomon, and of all the kings afterwards. It’s, that in of itself is just a beautiful thing to study to see this. And, you know, in the New Testament, the Gospels, they do this too, it’s a little bit different, but not too different, because you’ve got these four gospels, and you have Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And they’re very similar, but they’re different. But why are they different? They’re different because they have different audiences they’re speaking to, but what’s fascinating is that it seems really, really clear to New Testament scholars that Matthew and Luke have Mark as a, “Yeah, he says this, I’m going to say it differently. I’m going to change it,” and the message is altered as a result of that.


And of course, John is sort of doing his own thing that is a very cosmic Christ-ish kind of telling. And you know, that’s the high Christology Gospel as people put it. I mean, the most divine –

Jared: A little more abstract.

Pete: Yeah, a little abstract and the most divine Jesus is there and not –

Jared: As opposed to maybe Mark’s.

Pete: Yeah, definitely Mark’s.

Jared: A pretty human Jesus.

Pete: Yeah, exactly. So, and it’s more complicated than that. But the gist is that you do have different portraits of Jesus even though they’re working from a similar base source, but they’re telling the story differently. Why? Not just, well, you know, I don’t want to get into copyright infringement. So, I’m going to tell us a little bit differently and call it a day. You know, my own story. It’s because of the settings that they’re writing to. That’s the key thing. Matthew and Luke would be irresponsible not to do what they do with the base Jesus story, which seems to be largely in Mark. They would be irresponsible, you need to—update is not the right word, but it’s not a wrong word either. You need to sort of bring this into your present, because you’re trying to actually engage real people. Because this is of spiritual value, which is the great irony with some of the more conservative approaches, which say “just stick to the texts” and don’t really add much to it. That’s almost leaving the text in the past.

Jared: But they say that, but they don’t actually do that.

Pete: Right.

Jared: Which for me is the dangerous part of that because they’re conflating… Because they place such a high value on just sticking to the text, they can’t admit that what you’re doing on a Sunday morning in almost any Evangelical Church is getting an updated version. But you’re pretending that that’s what the Bible was actually written for.

Pete: Right.

Jared: It really was written for you today this morning, which I think is a little dangerous, not to have that distance of saying –

Pete: Respect the distance.

Jared: We have to respect what God was doing in the past with these people as they tried to engage God  and now we have to use that as a template as a model for, now how do we do that on our own? If we don’t have that distance, I just think it gets dangerous.

Pete: It gets dangerous in the sense that we, it’s almost inevitable, another thing that is inevitable, that you will read your own context into the Bible –

Jared: And call it the context of the Bible.

Pete: Exactly, that’s right. Instead of saying we have different contexts, what can we do with this text or tradition to have it make more sense to us? Right?

Jared: Yeah, yeah.

Pete: I mean, I think a classic example in the last several hundred years of interpretation, at least in the West, this concerns the enslavement of African Americans reading the Exodus story as a story of liberation from slavery, essentially. And you can go back and read the Exodus story and say, it’s not, not really. It sort of is there, I mean, clearly, they’re liberated. But God clearly doesn’t have much of a problem with people being enslaved, because it happens in the laws of Exodus itself. It’s not just purely liberation. But from the point of view of later generations needing to see how does God connect with us here and now, you will read that story, without any embarrassment in terms of your own immediate context. I mean, I think we all do that. That’s sort of the point of this, you know, and the inevitability of reading texts creatively, which is, that’s what we mean, reading texts in ways that draw it out of its, let’s use a fancy term, draw it out of its historical particularity—its meaning and essence back then, and brings it forward into your own reality. This is you know, what Gadamer talked about (the philosopher/ linguist), the two horizons, that is the essence of Bible reading, it’s the essence of hermeneutics, it’s the essence of theology, really.

Jared: It’s the essence of meaning making.

Pete: It’s the essence of meaning making.

Jared: Because you have to take what’s out there, take what’s in me, and we have to merge these horizons. And that’s how you make things meaningful.

Pete: Right, and have a little conversation between the two, but it’s hard to do.

Jared: Right. Well, I want to go back not to get too abstract here. But there’s, maybe I’ll only talk about a few, but I have this, you know, I’m doing this solo series on “The Making of the Modern Mindset.”

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: And I think there’s a few assumptions that I’m going to get into in part three, which is we’ll be in Season 6. But there’s a few assumptions here that I think play into this. One, which we’ve talked about before. And you mentioned it, so I’m just going to highlight it here. We have a modern bias that assumes historical accuracy is most important. I think that is something the ancient world would not have shared. They would have looked at historical accuracy and said, “Okay, that’s great, but you’re sacrificing relevancy to us.” Okay, great, there’s a dead fact back there. Now, you know what actually happened, but what does that have to do with us?

Pete: Right.


Jared: So, you may gain one thing, but you’re actually taking a loss on this other thing, and I think the ancient world would have seen the, again, when I’m putting, even saying that I’m putting modern categories on it.

Pete: Which we can’t help.

Jared: Yeah. But I think there’s an assumption we’re privileging historical accuracy, by even asking these questions or having this be a dilemma, and I think it’s important to recognize. So, when we’re saying, when we’re uneasy about creative “interpretations,” one assumption is, is because that’s less than, it’s not as valuable as what really happened.

Pete: Right.

Jared: Which is itself an assumption. You’ve already entered into a paradigm, you’re already putting your context into it. By having that uneasy feeling of this, we need to get at what it actually was about.

Pete: I agree. In a way, though, one could say, and I think there’s some value to this is that, yeah, but that historicistic mindset is part of our context.

Jared: True.

Pete: So, the way in which we talk about this topic, the inevitability of creative interpretation, in light of this strong pull we all feel in the modern world, at least in the West towards historicity, and what was said and what wasn’t said. That’s the conversation to be had. Right? It’s not choosing one or the other. It’s the fact that, okay, it’s inevitable that we have to engage texts creatively because we’re living in a time that the writers couldn’t possibly have envisioned. So, how do we do that? And one way of doing it as a boil down the message real quick to like, God doesn’t want you to go to hell. So, everything wraps around that.

But if you get into the Bible more, it’s like other sorts of questions start being raised in our minds, and how do we have that conversation that honors the real historical impulse, which we also value? Right, we mentioned this before, it’s nice to know what Pharisees were about when you read the Gospels. It sort of helps you understand that. It’s nice knowing the context, maybe, of Genesis 1, and how that helps us understand it, but that almost highlights the distance between that and us. So, what do we now do today with those texts? To what extent does the history of it guide us or direct us? And to what extent doesn’t it? And that’s the question we’re not going to answer today. That’s called theology.

Jared: Right. That’s the whole thing is itself, again, I, okay. So that leads me into my second point. So let me just –

Pete: Okay, you have other points.

Jared: Let me just wrap the first one up, which is—I think you’re right, we have to accept it. It’s not an either/or, but I think it’s a matter of deprivileging it as though it is the right way to do it. It may be our way. It may be we have no choice, really, to be honest, as modern thinkers to privilege this historicity, but we can kind of work on seeing it for what it is, and maybe putting it in a different context.

Pete: Which is the postmodern turn, in a sense.

Jared: Exactly.

Pete: Should we talk about?

Jared: Well, no. That’s, that’s why I’m saying, I’m setting up part three of my –

Pete: I’m so… We’re on the same wavelength.

Jared: Yeah.

Pete: That’s twice in one day, I don’t even understand it.

Jared: So, the second would, again, this, these are kind of, these modern assumptions are going to be what lead to the postmodern turn, which I think a lot of us are starting to creep our way into, which is, we also privilege the singularity, the one right way over the multiplicity. Instead of saying, can, it’s great whenever we have liberationist theologians show us how we can read the Bible from a liberationist perspective. We still think that’s great and that’s good, but there still is the monolith, the right way to do it. And these are all subsidiary.

Pete: Yes.

Jared: It’s “all theology has an adjective.” So, it’s great that we have liberationist theology, but we always have to have this anchor point called theology,

Pete: Yeah, the constraint or something.

Jared: Yeah, we call that theology. But we don’t realize that when we say without an adjective, what we mean is white, European, male dominated theology. But if we put those adjectives there, now we get really scared because there’s just this multiplicity of which one’s the right one. It’s like asking which Gospel though, is the right Gospel?

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: Well, we have the multiplicity in there, how about we learn how to value multiplicity, instead of always trying to subsume it into this one right thing.

Pete: Well, that’s a whole mind trip right there. I mean, because it’s so different from what we’re used to doing. And I agree with that. It’s learning from the Bible what it means to engage this tradition in this text and the privileging of the historical way of reading. There has, value has come from that, you know, and I would never say there isn’t a lot of value.

Jared: For sure.

Pete: But again, is—this is why people get scared. Yeah, I mean, and understandably so because you don’t have the constraints, right? We want some sort of constraint. And I think it’s a matter of maybe learning a different set of constraints or something. And again, our purpose here is not to say here’s what the constraints are, you know, everything’s going on. It’s more like this discussion that we’re having here is an inevitable, hermeneutical, and theological discussion –

Jared: Exactly.


Jared: That, and I’m gonna riff on Tripp Fuller here a little bit. We’re, in discussing it, we’re doing theology.

Jared: That’s right.

Pete: It isn’t like, we have to solve it and then we can do theology, we’re doing it by talking like this. Now, not everybody has to talk like this, but we do. You know, and a lot of you listening have to talk like this too, because you’re living in the middle of it. So I find that fascinating, and how the biblical tradition is, we see that happening within the pages of the Bible. And it’s like, once you see it, it’s like, why wasn’t I taught this? It’s like, it’s all over the place. And then you throw Judaism sort of Second Temple Judaism in the middle of that, where Jews had to find ways to connect with an ancient tradition, which assumes you’re in the land, and you had a temple, right? Kings, you basically have a monarchy and a land that’s your own and here’s how you act, and here’s what you do. So, what do you do when you’re in exile and you don’t have a temple to sacrifice to? What do you do?

Well, there’s a whole way of interpreting sacrificial texts that were not engaging in sacrifice, but it was a different kind of sacrifice, like more of a personal sacrifice, you know, and, and you have different things like almsgiving and prayer which become, not that it wasn’t there before,

Jared: A spiritual sacrifice.

Pete: Exactly. Right. It becomes a way of communing with God taking the place of the temple. And that’s why the devastation of the temple was a devastation.

Jared: I think a lot of Christians would do that now.

Pete: Right.

Jared:  It’s a spiritualization of what in the Old Testament was very concrete practices.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: Like, actually sacrificing animals at the temple.

Pete: Yeah. And James Kugel has, I mean, he was on our podcast a couple times, just to give due credit, but he talks about the three omnis: God is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. Did I get them all right?

Jared: Yup.

Pete: Yeah, the three omnis he calls them. And those are terms that come to Judaism as a result of gauging the different context of Greco-Romanism.

Jared: Right, right.

Pete: So, the Bible doesn’t really, even omnipotent. It doesn’t talk the same way as you’d find later in Judaism, but these are adjustments and changes in the theology because the God of old has to have a connection to the people of the present. Maybe that’s sort of a way of summarizing this whole discussion. It is absolutely inevitable.

Jared: Yeah, and there’s developments within culture that then get read. Scripture passages get read in light of, for instance, I’m thinking of when you’re talking about Second Temple Judaism, in that time period, thoughts of the afterlife begin to develop more fully. This idea of a hell and a heaven that’s separated by your behavior—good people go here, bad people go there—that we don’t find in the Hebrew Bible really.

Pete: Right.

Jared: Now, we find it now, because we read back into it after these developments.

Pete: True.

Jared: But again, this idea that we can just not be influenced by the culture. And that’s often the weapon that gets lobbed against people who don’t read the Bible in particular: you’re just compromising with the culture. No, we just are encultured beings and there’s really no way around it. It’s a little scary that you don’t see that you’re doing the same thing.

Pete: Right. And it’s also scary that you don’t see how the biblical writers are doing the same thing.

Jared: Exactly.

Pete: You know, culture is not the enemy, culture is a fact.

Jared: Yes.

Pete: Right? And the question is, what do we do? Well, aren’t there places where the Bible challenges culture? Yeah, of course there are.

Jared: Sure.

Pete: See, that’s the conversation. It’s not either/or.

Jared: And every culture is not a monolith.

Pete: Right!

Jared: So, when you say doesn’t culture critique culture? Yeah, you’re not saying anything that important. That’s just what we mean by culture.

Pete: Yeah. [Laughter]

Jared: There are subcultures within that and you have these different voices all within a certain culture.

Pete: Like Second Temple Judaism is a diverse set of concerns.

Jared: Well, we’ve talked about the core testimony and the counter testimony of this theology that says, if you do good things, good things happen to you.

Pete: Yes.

Jared: If you do bad things, bad things happen to you. That’s not like saying everybody in the culture believe that. It’s saying that was a dominant theme, and sure there was minority voices that were critiquing it, and challenging it. Just like every culture.

Pete: Yeah. And that’s, again, part of the biblical witness, so to speak. So…

Jared: Right.

Pete: Yeah, I just, you know, I mean, part of me is like, why are we even doing this podcast? It seems pretty…

I’m kidding.

No, because it is, the thing is it is… if you want the Bible to have the say, that’s part of the characteristic of the Bible and we can, you know, put things, “Well, it’s inerrant.”

Okay, whatever that means, you got to account for the stuff that the diversity and the changes and how the context of the writers effect how they thought about before and after.


You know, you’re doing a series on Jonah, Jonah is one of those things. What does God think of the Assyrians? Well, not what he had thought before! Because you read Nahum and God doesn’t like Assyrians, but now he wants some safe, you know, or redeemed or whatever the word is, you know. So, I just find that interesting and fascinating. And the thing is that, I mean, Jared, you brought up before preaching today, sermons today or any Bible reader today. And it can, you know, there is a precedent for that in the church, it’s not just the New Testament, which gets really creative with things like the centrality of land in the Hebrew Bible, which is still there in Second Temple Judaism. But New Testaments like, “Yeah, whatever. It’s not that big of a deal.” You know, the temple is always important, but seeing Jesus as encapsulating what God’s presence means, and then Paul taking that to be it’s the church, actually, that’s the temple of God. These are, I’m gonna tell you, these are shifts in thinking, right, that are dependent on the context of these writers, which is, namely, their faith in Christ. It comes from that, right? And you can’t say, “Well, it was always there in the Bible.”  It wasn’t there in the Bible! It’s a change. It’s a shift.

Jared: Well, I think the two, and correct me. But I think the two biggest shifts that we see in the New Testament that causes them to interpret the Bible creatively, meaning the whole Old Testament and Hebrew Bible, is this internal work of faith in Christ. And then this external fact that they are now amongst their sort of cosmopolitan –

Pete: Yes.

Jared: They are amongst Gentiles regularly now. And so, we have to, these two things are coming together to really challenge the New Testament writers on what the heck do we do with both of these realities?

Pete: Right.

Jared: We are now confronted all the time with Gentile, we’re in a Gentile world, we don’t get to sort of separate ourselves out. And we have this Christ event that happened.  

Pete: Right.

Jared: And we have faith in that. And now, we have to make sense of all this other stuff.

Pete: And the Christ event is about becoming undead and that sort of is a universal theme. Right, so, it’s things like that, and how you can’t be parochial anymore.

Jared: What does that mean?

Pete: Parochial?

Jared: Yeah, I don’t think a lot of people are going to know that.

Pete: Catholic kids go to parochial school.

Jared: [Laughter] Exactly, that’s what people think.

Pete: You can’t be, you can’t live in a bubble.

Jared: Right, there ya go.

Pete: That’s what that means. And that is a different kind of concern, for example, than the ancient Israelites might have had that looked at the relationship with the nations that are out there someplace. But now they’re all mixed together and they have been for since before the time of Jesus 200-300 years before at least. They’ve been around and living and sort of happy and it actually started with the exile because not all Jews came back from the Babylonian exile in the 6th century, a lot of them stayed. That became sort of the nerve center of Judaism for 1000 years. That’s where the Talmud came from. So, it’s like, you have the slow internationalizing, so to speak, of this Israelite faith which is very much landlocked, and it starts exploding.

But again, it’s the different contexts that get people. It’s not just reading the Bible differently. It’s thinking about God differently, and within the Bible that’s already happening. And for the church, you know, we go back to, you know, the ancient creeds, for example, of the church in the 5th and 4th centuries, basically. And they’re more than that, but how they were not just giving the Bible straight. They weren’t just summarizing the Bible. It was in the context of somewhat political and also theological debates about basically, trinity and Christology, and what do we do with them.

Jared: Yeah. Mm hmm.

Pete: And to iron that stuff out… although… I’m not sure how much any of it was actually ironed out, but they use philosophical language of the time.

Jared: Yeah, God, a very god. Yeah, God, and not me.

Pete: Being one substance with the Father, which is, that word substance is a philosophically loaded term.

Jared: Right. Because, and just to be clear, the language that they were using the Greek had a whole history philosophically.

Pete: Yes, exactly. So, it was a very encultured, these are encultured statements. But aren’t they, like, the thing that sets the church going? I wouldn’t say it sets the church going, I think it summarizes debates at the time. And they have abiding value, but a lot of stuff also has abiding value. I’m not against creeds is what I’m saying, it’s just, they’re limited in scope and they may need to be brought into a different time and place as well.

Jared: Well, they tend to be crystallized and promoted at times of great shifts, or crisis. Like we think about how the Old Testament is written. It’s not like it’s this ongoing thing, it’s that these, I think in science, you call it punctuated equilibrium.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: It’s like these moments of crisis. Then we write everything down and we try to, what are the debates and we have arguments.


Then we move 500 years, and we have another one and we see this where, you know, within Christendom, Constantine is making, we’re spreading, it’s this explosion of Christianity, all these different perspectives. So, of course, we’re going to have this climactic moment of trying to like figure out what we’re talking about. And the reason I mentioned that is because we have the same thing happened in the Protestant Reformation.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: There’s a reason why when we look at church history, we’re like ancient creeds, a lot happens, the hundreds of years, blah blah blah, Protestant reformation. It’s like, this is where the plethora of all this stuff is coming out, because there’s these big shifts happening. And if you look at the debates, and the arguments that the Reformation the reformers have, look at Calvin, Luther, these guys, what they’re talking about, what seems to be super important to them is not the same thing that was super important in the 4th century. And when we read it today, we’re like, why are they like literally wanting to kill each other over what happens in the Lord’s Supper or what happens in baptism?

Pete: Right.

Jared: These were really important back then.

Pete: Long standing religious disagreements and wars and things like that. So, there’s a context for that.

Jared: But yeah, there’s a context. And I think the key too is sometimes those are, I want to say, like emergency contexts.

Pete: Well, they’re crisis moments.

Jared: Crisis moments.

Pete: They’re perceived crisis moments.

Jared: That itself is a context, we have to be aware that that’s when these things are happening.

Pete: Well, I mean, and to bring this to today, for example, I mean, my experience, and I’m sure yours as well is, I’ve known a lot of Christians in my life, who, for example, have been, let’s say, vanilla sort of evangelical, but then gravitated to the reformed tradition, right? Because it’s like, it gives an anchor and it becomes an absolute, but it’s, it’s highly contextual. Doesn’t mean you can’t learn from it and value it, but it’s, this is not the crowning achievement of the history of the church. Or some, I mean, how many people have we known sort of disaffected evangelicals and Calvinists who become Roman Catholic.

Jared: Yep.

Pete: And Orthodox.

Jared: Eastern Orthodox. Yep. Right.

Pete: Because that’s going back even further. And I hear a lot of rhetoric. I mean that in a neutral sense, not a negative sense. But a lot of rhetoric about just going back to the creeds.

Jared: Right.

Pete: As if that solves the problem. They’re also contextual. Yeah.

Pete/Jared in unplanned unison: Well, can’t we just go back to the Bible?


Pete: We did not rehearse that, folks.

Jared: Oh my gosh! [Laughter]

Pete: We did not rehearse that. Beautiful, we harmonized there very nicely.  

Jared: We harmonized. [Continued laughter]

Pete: Right?  So, go back to the Bible, and it’s like, okay. This doesn’t set the intellectual stage for us. It’s still, it’s not like there’s no work to be done because we have to navigate the Bible’s own inner dynamic, which at times is a fierce debate, and at times just different perspectives. And it’s like this, it might sound discouraging to people. For me, it’s like really helpful to know that I can’t just lock in on a proof text, I can’t lock in on a book of the Bible, I have to pay attention to –

Jared: Or a time period.

Pete: Or time period. Right, right. I have to respect the text enough to allow the inner dynamic which the people who canonized this stuff, or they collected these writings, Jews, you know, collected the Hebrew Bible, and early Christians collected the, what we call the New Testament. They understood the fact that Paul and James don’t seem to be getting along very well.

Jared: Right.

Pete: Just read Romans and then read James right afterward. If you’ve ever done it, it’s like, “Okay…I think they sort of know each other.” And then Paul alludes to that in Galatians, right? So, and they have different Gospels, different takes on Jesus, and you have a very violent book like the book of Revelation, and then you have, you know, the Sermon on the Mount and the gods, you know, the sun and the rain on the just and the unjust. That kind of thing. So, you’ve got a multivalent, as they call it, text, different voices, and we can never get back to that sort of Archimedean point there. That, okay, now we have at all. Right?

So, the Bible itself, the tradition itself, is demonstrating to us, our own, the need for personal investment, in that tradition, (another way of saying creative, I think), the need for the personal investment, to contemporize it, you know. The technical term is to actualize the text, you’re making it actual for yourself. That’s theology and that’s the entire history of the Christian and Jewish traditions, including the inscripturated tradition. Now, maybe it’d be nice if we had a pamphlet and here are the ten things you do. We don’t have that.

Jared: But I think you’ve made this point before, in some ways, I’m really glad that we don’t because even with the uncertainty of what we have, we have oppressed and created power structures with it.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: Imagine if we had the definitive thing. I just don’t think we would handle it well.


Pete: Right. Although, you know, with the fact that things can be interpreted in different ways. People in power do that, right?

Jared: Mm hmm.

Pete: So, that that raises the question, which we can’t get into here. We’re really toward the end of our time, right?

Jared: Mm hmm.

Pete: But like, how do you judge… This is a legitimate question, how do you judge what’s a good use and a bad use? And my answer is, that’s a very, very good question. People usually figure that out pretty quickly, right? We don’t champion interpretations that advocate killing other human beings. At least, I think we shouldn’t. Most Christians would probably agree. But what TV preachers do? Right? The way they interpret Psalms or Proverbs or certain things Jesus says, and it’s about making themselves very rich people, right? So, I think we have an instinct that says that’s wrong, but it’s hard to make up rules for how you –

Jared: Well, that’s what we, again, we as Christianity have come to realize we have a perfectionistic religion where it’s all or nothing. If we can’t have absolutes, it’s worth nothing. Which I think is just not how the world works.

Pete: I raised my kids that way.

Jared: We live in a way, we live in a world of probabilities and statistics, which is a world of wisdom.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: So, I think we could say, we could list what really bad interpretations are that probably most of us would agree on. And we could list what really good interpretations are that most people would agree on. The challenge is there’s about 80% in there that we got to figure out.

Pete: Yeah, right.

Jared: And we have to figure that out for ourselves, we have to figure that out in our communities, in the broader church, and we are doing that. We’re wrestling through that every day. That is podcasts and blogs and conversation around the coffee table and the dinner table, and that is the theologizing for our time. And what we’re trying to figure out when we’re having those conversations is, is my interpretation a good one or a bad one? Is yours a good one or a bad one? And not just good and bad. But this whole spectrum of in between.

Pete: Right, right. And that’s a hard lesson, I think, for a lot of us who were raised differently, including ourselves, to think through but that, see, what you just described to me, that’s the life of faith.

Jared: Yes.

Pete: It’s not what you have to do in order to have faith. That is the life of faith.

Jared: Right.

Pete: And, you know, maybe we should let the Bible and the tradition teach us that and listen and pay careful attention.

Jared: Excellent. All right, we are at the end of our time, so have a Merry Christmas. We’ll see you in February.

Pete: See ya!

[Usual music begins, sleigh bells added for festive flair]

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 a month you can receive bonus material, be part of an online community, get course discounts and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.

Dave: Our show was produced by Stephanie Speight; Audio Engineer, Dave Gearhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. For Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team—thanks for listening.

[Music ends]


Pete: Whatever. We’ll just yak for 45, more than 32 minutes.

Jared: Yeah. [Laughter]


Pete: I’m gonna eat lunch too. Take a nap.

Jared: Nice. Good for you.


Jared: Yeah, and just so you guys know. Uh, I shouldn’t say that. Let me back up. Dave…


Pete: You cannot, also, you can’t. Let me start over again, Dave.

[End of recorded material]

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Pete Ruins Exodus Part 4

Pete Ruins Exodus: Part 4

September 2, 2019

In this episode, Pete continues his deep dive into the book of Exodus covering chapters 14-19 and the following topics:

  • The Red Sea
  • Mount Sinai
  • Manna and the Sabbath
  • Genesis (who knew the books of the Bible were connected!?)

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.  Serious talk about the sacred book.  I’m Pete Enns.

Jared:  And I’m Jared Byas.



Hey everybody.  Welcome to Part 4 of the Pete Ruins Exodus series.  Before we begin, a couple of very quick announcements because I’m afraid I’m going to forget.  First of all, October 4 and 5, I’m going to be at Evolving Faith which is in Denver, CO this year.  That should be fun.  Also, on September 23, we’re offering a one-time only, one evening, one-hour class on Genesis.  Here’s the good news.  You pay what you want.  Just have to reserve your seat.  You can get information about that on the website, like exactly when and where.  Hope you can make it to that.  It should be fun.  It’s a one-hour only class.  I’m just talking about what I think are highlights of the book of Genesis and why I think is really important and what I think is really cool about the book that doesn’t always get picked up in casual readings of the book itself. 

Commercial’s over.  Let’s get into Part 4 of Pete Ruins Exodus.

This is going to take us from the departure from Egypt over the Red Sea through Chapter 19, and that is specifically beginning in Chapter 13, verse 17.  The middle of Chapter 13 through to the end of Chapter 19.  That’s the departure from Egypt and the journey to Sinai.

Just to review where we’ve been up to this point in this series as a whole.  We started with Moses and he gets this call from God to be the agent through which the Israelites will be delivered.  He has early struggles.  He really doesn’t want to do it.  But he finally gives in and goes ahead and he confronts Pharaoh.  Pharaoh doesn’t care what Moses says or what their no-name God says.  He never heard of Him. 

Of course, that results in the plagues which wind up convincing Pharaoh that, “Yeah, I’m no match for Israel’s god.”  Especially the plague of death, which is the tit-for-tat, payback for what Pharaoh did drowning the male infants in the Nile way back in Chapter 1.  Now they’re dead as well.  The firstborn of Egypt are dead.  That’s how the story goes. 

So now they depart.  All that’s over.  Now, they’re leaving Egypt never to go back again.  Remember, Mount Sinai, also called Horeb—we talked about that in several places in Exodus—Sinai is the goal of the rescue.  Aaron and Moses say, “Let my people go so that they might worship Me in the wilderness.”  The wilderness is where Sinai is. 

They have no clue at this point about where they are going afterward, namely into the land of Israel to take over for the Canaanites and to eradicate them and exterminate them and take their land.  They don’t know where that’s going.  All they know is that they’re going to Mount Sinai.  Even though the land and entrance to the land, and I’m going to say, just frankly, the monarchy, is really the true end goal of Israel in the Hebrew scriptures. 

I’ve written about this elsewhere, but the Pentateuch as a whole is really an entrance ramp onto that central, important period of time when the Israelites are in the land.  That’s where I think all this is going. 

We’ve got six plus chapters.  They can be divided into two parts.  The one is the actual departure from Egypt itself.  That starts in 13:17. It goes to the end of Chapter 15, 15:21.  Then the journey to Sinai, which picks up at 15:22 and goes to the end of Chapter 19.

These six chapters have some pretty well-known stories in them.

First, let’s look at some highlights from part one, the departure from Egypt across the Red Sea.  One thing to note is that we have two versions of the same event.  We have a prose version, which is 13:17 through Chapter 14.   Then the poetic version, which is in 15:1-21.

This is similar, if you’re familiar with the book of Judges, in Chapters 4 and 5, we also have a prose version and a poetic version of the exploits of the judge Deborah.  The poetry, the poetic version, is, according to biblical scholars who study Hebrew, it is certainly older.  At least, the core of it is older, if not the whole thing.  There are reasons for saying that.  That becomes important in a minute when we get into Chapter 15 because of the kinds of things that it says.

This is just a reminder to us that we have, here again, as we have so often in the Bible, evidence of different traditions that are probably written or originated orally in different times and places, and here we have editors at a later time putting them together, just back-to-back.

It’s like Genesis 1 and 2.  You have two creation stories and they are back-to-back, edited together and left there, even they don’t say exactly the same thing.

Let’s look at that prose, the narrative version first.  That’s the first one that pops up in 13 and 14.  They depart from Egypt and Yahweh makes them look lost in order to pick a fight with Pharaoh.  The people freak out (Israelites) and God drives back the Red Sea to open an escape route.  The Israelites pass through safely, but the Egyptians drown and they wash up on the shore.  That’s how the story goes.  Very famous story.

One thing to note is that Pharaoh was all ready to let them go.  He had been convinced after the last plague.  He said finally, “Just go.  I don’t want to see you again.  Just get out of here.”  He was ready to let them go, and he did.  But God wants Pharaoh to follow the Israelites.  God hardens Pharaoh’s heart.  You see it in Chapter 14, verse 8 and 17, and especially 17 is explicit that the purpose of the hardening is so that the Egyptians will follow the Israelites.  It’s hard to pass over the fact that God wants them dead.

As harsh as that is, and I think it is harsh, we can offer a contextual, theological explanation.  By contextual, I mean the groove of the story itself up to this point.  We can read this drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea as tit-for-tat, payback for another Pharaoh drowning the Israelite male infants in the Nile way back in Chapter 1.  Also, “You’ve been treating my people harshly,” says Yahweh, “so I’m going to treat your people harshly.”  Although, I still wonder if this is necessary to drown them.  How about just letting the sea close up so they can’t cross.  But they drowned.  That’s how the story goes.

This is an example of violence in the Bible and it raises some eyebrows, not just for today, but this is a story that has made people think for quite a while.  It’s caused a lot of consternation for one of my own children.  When she was very young, she came home from Sunday School and this was the story and she came home just very, very upset, asking, “What kind of a god is this?  Aren’t these God’s children too?  Why does God do stuff like this?” 

This is not the Bible’s best moment, in my opinion.  But this is how the might and power of God is expressed in an ancient tribal context.  Your god is great because your enemies are destroyed before you.

Some of you know how I handle this sort of divine violence, not as a depiction of what really happened, or not as a depiction of what God is really like, but as a depiction of ancient people of faith, true ancient people of faith, albeit in a tribalistic, Iron Age society—the Iron Age started in 1200 BCE and goes well into the first millennium BCE.  That’s the basic time of Israel’s existence as a people is during the Iron Age.  This is how people in the Iron Age expressed their faith, expressed their understanding of the gods or of God.  This is what gods did.  They go to battle.

Remember, way back in the first episode, along with most biblical scholars, I said that I don’t think Exodus is a historical account, even if it preserves an ancient, historical memory, as biblical scholars like to call it.  I don’t think we would see this if someone had been videotaping, so to speak.  This reflects an ancient understanding of ancient Israelites about what their god is like.  That’s my opinion.  That’s how I “get out of it.”  But I’m not trying to get out of anything.  I’m trying to understand it.

If you’re interested, you can see some blog posts that I’ve written on violence.  You can just type, “violence” in the search bar or in an earlier chapter in The Bible Tells Me So, I deal with biblical violence as I understand it.  It’s the number one question I get from young people today.  That and human sexuality.  Those are the things that they really want to talk about.


Another thing about this prose narrative section.  The Israelites see the Egyptians coming and they grumble and they complain.  Basically, “we could have died just as easily in Egypt, Moses.  Why bring us all the way out here to just trap us at the sea?” 

Then Moses says something interesting that I think is often misunderstood, which is why I want to bring it up.  He basically says, “Don’t be afraid.  After today, you’ll never see these Egyptians again.”  I’m quoting verse 14 of Chapter 14.  “The Lord will fight for you.  You only have to keep still.”  That’s not a soothing word.  It’s typically interpreted, “There, there.  Just calm your hearts.  God will take care of everything.  Just be still and know that I am God,” as we read in the Psalms.  “The Lord will fight for you, but just chill.”

I don’t think that’s at all what Moses is saying in this story.  This is a rebuke.  “The Lord will fight for you.  You need to keep your mouth shut.  You need to stop complaining.”  This is the first of many rebukes of Moses that we’re going to see toward the Israelites in Moses’ lifetime.  This is the real beginning of this grumbling theme that we’re going to see a lot of. 

He’s not making them feel calmed about this.  He’s just saying, “Just shut up.  You’ve seen plagues, the Red Sea open, for heaven’s sake, and you’re still complaining.  Come on.” 

Another thing.  This concerns the actual parting of the Red Sea.  This is in verse 21.  The Red Sea is really the Sea of Reeds.  That’s what it says in Hebrew.  Where the Sea of Reeds is a topic of a lot of discussion among people who look for these sorts of things.  Is it a lake?  Is it a marsh or something like that?  But the reason why we say Red Sea in our English translations is that this has to do with influence of Greek translators of the Bible before the time of Jesus.

There was a little bit of confusion about what body of water was actually represented by this term “red sea.”  If you look at a map today of the modern Middle East and where it says “Red Sea,” it’s this massive body of water, that’s not what anybody meant.  It’s hard to know exactly what they meant, when they said “Red Sea” back in this Greek period.

In the biblical text, the Hebrew text, it says, “Sea of Reeds,” but again, we don’t know where that is either.  All that to the side.  The parting of the Red Sea echoes the creation story.  This is the theological point I want to make.  Moses stretched out his hand with the staff, and an East wind divided the waters of the Red Sea and they parted.

Now wind—the Hebrew word is “ruach,” which means “spirit” or “wind” and that’s the same “ruach” of Genesis 1 that is hovering over the “deep.”  What’s the “deep?”  The deep is the primordial sea at the dawn of creation that God has to tame, that God has to put in its place to allow for life to appear.  The wind drives back water giving life.  That’s the same in both the Genesis creation story of Genesis Chapter 1 and this parting of the sea here in Exodus. 

The wind, “it turned the sea to dry land”—I’m quoting here.  “And the waters were divided.”  It’s better to think of the waters as not maybe divided, although that’s fine, but as pushed back, pushed out of the way, revealing the dry land beneath, which is also the language in Genesis Chapter 1.  The third day of creation, it’s the same thing.  The waters were divided, revealing the dry land beneath.

In both stories, waters are separated, pushed aside, revealing what was there all the time: dry land.  In other words—this is getting into Genesis 1 a little bit more than you’re paying for here—in Genesis 1, this is why it’s not creation out of nothing.  What you have is a “deep,” a massive chaotic water that God divides and splits, revealing the dry land, i.e., the earth beneath it.  Those things were already there in Genesis Chapter 1.

Actually, Genesis Chapter 1 makes no sense unless we understand the ideology of the ancient Israelites here and how they thought about what a creator god does.  It’s not out of nothing.  That comes later.  It’s in the Bible.  It’s just not here.

Think of taking a leaf blower to a big puddle on a sidewalk after a heavy rain.  The water is pushed aside by the wind, by the force of the leaf blower, and the sidewalk is revealed, that’s always been there underneath.  That’s what’s happening in Genesis 1 and in Exodus 14 in the parting of the sea. 

Now the point—we touched about this is a couple of earlier episodes—the point is that God’s act of redemption, here crossing the Red Sea, is a replay of God’s act of creation, which is to say, redemption (saving, delivering, redeeming) is an act of re-creation.  Hang with me.

As with the plagues, parting the sea is getting creation involved in saving God’s people and destroying the enemies of God’s people.  In the flood, you have the waters of the upper atmosphere above the vault, above that dome, those waters are let go and they come crashing down to defeat the bad guys, which is basically everybody but Noah and his family.

That’s what’s happening too, here in the Exodus story in Chapter 14.  These waters are again separated and just like the flood story, they come crashing back down again.  But Israel, or Noah, are not affected negatively.  They’re actually delivered through that.  To save is to create again.  We here echoes of that in the New Testament.  I know I’ve mentioned this, but just very briefly I want to mention it again, because I think it’s so important theologically, in the New Testament we see echoes of this.  For example, where Paul says, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” 

To be saved means to start anew and to use the language of John’s gospel, that you’re “born again.”  You’re starting over.  You have a new start.  Which is certainly what is happening here at the Red Sea.  Israel is being transformed, re-created from a group of slaves and now beginning to be formed into what it’s going to become, namely a nation.

Having said all that, it’s still a really violent story.  Let’s not cover over that.  But there are theological things happening there as well.  Speaking of violence, let’s turn to Chapter 15 here, the poetic version of the Red Sea crossing.

For one thing—I alluded to this before—this may be one of the oldest pieces of Israelite literature we have, because of the Hebrew style.  Scholars can tell where we are in stages of the evolution of biblical Hebrew.


Biblical scholars—this is routine.  This is very early.  This is not written during the monarchy, but probably going back to before the time of David.  It could be that old, which is very old.  Here’s the thing:  this very, very old piece of ancient Hebrew literature depicts God as a fierce warrior.  It’s not uncommon to hear scholars muse that Israel’s view of God began as one of being a warrior, understandably due to the cultural influences and then the view of God grew to include other metaphors like gardener, planter, potter, law-giver, things like that.

Warrior might become less prominent, less harsh, perhaps.  God’s depiction might become less harsh.  I don’t want to paint that in too simplistic a way, like there’s an evolution where God starts off as a warrior and ends as a tree-hugger.  But we do have the earliest reflections of Israelite religion in these poetic sections.  There, God is a fierce, no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners warrior.

You come later to the book of Jonah, where God says, “I actually have compassion on Israel’s enemies.  I don’t want to kill them.”

Something is going on in this trajectory within the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament itself. 

So this song praises Yahweh for destroying his enemies by drowning them in the sea.  For that reason, Yahweh is praised as a god who has no equal, as we read in verse 11.  “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?” 

Catch that there.  “Among the gods.”  We have here one of many examples, and you’ve heard this before, in the Old Testament of Israel’s belief that their god, Yahweh, was not the only god, but was the best god, the one truly worthy of worship. 

In fact, as I said before, that might be the point of the whole Pentateuch, to make the case that Yahweh alone is worthy of Israel’s worship.  Israel does not practice—I have a whole blog post series probably and a podcast from way back in Season 1 talking about this—but Israel did not practice monotheism, at least through most of its history that we see in the Old Testament, but monolatry. 

The difference is this:  monotheism means there’s only one god.  Monolatry means you only worship one, but you acknowledge the existence of others. 

We saw this is the plague story.  God is passing judgment on all the gods of Egypt.  Exodus 12:12. What does that mean?  Passing judgment on all the gods of Egypt?  It means—there’s an assumption there that there are other gods that Yahweh is passing judgment on.  If we miss this dynamic that Yahweh is better or the best by far of all the other gods or if we try to step around it because the theology bothers us a bit, we’re gonna miss the theology of the book. 

Making the Israelites into monotheists here is premature.  That happens later on in Israel’s history.  I would say certainly by the time you get to Jesus and well before that, we can call the Israelites monotheists.  Only one god exists.

The heavens might be active places, but they’re not gods.  But here, that’s not the case.  Making these Israelites here of Exodus into monotheists just creates confusion in the story.   You can’t make sense of things like Exodus 12:12, where Yahweh says he’s passing judgment on all the gods of Egypt.  I’ve beaten that dead horse enough.


Next point.  This song that’s sung at the sea mentions something.  It’s subtle.  It mentions something that doesn’t happen until much later in the biblical story.  Namely, I’m talking about verses 17 and 18.

Here’s how it begins: “You (Yahweh) brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your possession, the place, O Lord, that you made your abode.”  What is this mountain of your possession?  What is this about?  Maybe, it’s talking about Mount Sinai, because that’s where they’re going.  They’re not there yet, but nearly so.  Give it a couple chapters.  They’ll be there.  Still in the past tense, though. 

This raises another question.  Could it be referring to another mountain and another abode all together?  Hang in there.  Keep reading.  “The sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands have established.”  The sanctuary.  The holy place.  What is that sanctuary?  Could it be Sinai?  Perhaps.  It could be Mount Sinai.  Or perhaps another sanctuary entirely.

Keep reading.  Verse 18 says this: “The Lord will reign forever and ever.”  From where?  From the mountain?  From the abode?  From Mount Sinai?  Probably not, since Yahweh will leave forever Sinai when he goes with the Israelites into the Promised Land.  He doesn’t go back.  Yahweh doesn’t show up on Mount Sinai again and say, “I live here really.”  He’s going to live with Israel.  Where is he going to live with Israel?  In the temple. 

In Old Testament theology, the language we see here fits very nicely with the ideology of the temple in Jerusalem as the sanctuary, the abode, the mountain.  Mount Zion.  The temple is on a mountain.  Theology, Mount Zion takes the place of Mount Sinai in Israelite theology.  It’s from there that Yahweh will rule.  Through the kings, but forever and ever. 

We see this language in various places in the Old Testament, including the Psalms and II Samuel 7.  So what?  Well, for one thing, this illusion to the temple suggests that this ancient poem, as in pre-David, may have been added to as time went on to reflect Israel’s growing theology.  It’s developing theology.  In other words, this ancient poem, Chapter 15, may have gotten its final shape after the Israelites were settled in the land with their own king and temple. 

Note that (and I hope that your English translations get this because some don’t) the entire poem, all the stuff that talks about the Exodus and all the stuff that seems to be talking about the conquest of the land and entering it and building a temple where Yahweh’s going to be worshipped, all that stuff is in the past tense.

For this writer, both the Exodus and the establishment of the monarchy and the religious life of the people, those things are past events.  I think that’s interesting because it suggests something, once again, of the dating or at least the general time frame of when this stuff was written or when this poem, when this song got its final form.  Probably well into the monarchy, if not later.

Again, it’s interesting.  Some translations put the second half of this poem that talks about the land and the temple as future to avoid this kind of conclusion, but I think that they’re wrong.  I think the Hebrew really lends itself very naturally to just keep reading everything in the past tense.  There is no indication that you should switch to future in Hebrew when you get to this part.

Another so what.   Why am I dragging this out?  I’m not dragging it out.  I think it’s really interesting.  Another so what.

This is a huge issue because scholars routinely, and I think correctly, see the temple on Mount Zion as a replacement for Mount Sinai.  The temple mount replaces Mount Sinai.  Or perhaps, as is more commonly thought among biblical scholars, maybe it’s the other way around.  Maybe Sinai is the later Israelite temple brought back into ancient mythic time.  How is that for a mouthful?

Which came first?  The depiction of Mount Sinai as a sanctuary, as an abode, as a holy mountain and then the temple is modeled after that?  Or is the temple there first and then the stories of Sinai are written in such a way to reflect that later glory of the temple?  Which came first? 

That’s a lot to wrap our arms around.  That’s actually a few podcast episodes all by itself.  I only bring it up here because it might help to explain the ambiguity of verses 17 and 18.  You’re reading it, and what are we talking about?  Sinai?  Or Zion?  That’s a good question.  Maybe that ambiguity is intentional.  Maybe they are both the same.

If you’re really motivated, I highly recommend a book by one of my professors, John Levinson, called Sinai and Zion.  The book is those two mountains, comparing them and how they’re analogous to each other.  It’s a fascinating book.

I should plug my own books, not somebody else’s.  What’s wrong with me?


Okay, a lot more to this.  Let’s move on to the second part, the journey to Sinai itself that begins at the end of 15 and goes through 19. 

Here’s the big picture.  After Moses’ song that we just went through, his sister Miriam and the women, they sing what looks like the same song and then they all head out to the dessert where they are immediately thirsty and wonder why no one thought ahead that this might be a problem.  They are in the wilderness, for heaven’s sake. 

They take a couple of drinks in a couple of special places.  Then they receive the manna from heaven, the bread from heaven.  Manna is the Hebrew word, “manna,” which means “what is it?”  Because that’s what the Israelites said.  I might say, “What the heck is this?” but I don’t think there is a Hebrew word for that.  “What is this stuff that lands like dew on the ground?  We’re supposed to eat it?  Come again.  What is this stuff?”

27:42 BREAK


Next, after that, they get a miraculous supply of water from a rock just in time to ward off an attack from the Amalekites.  Where did they come from?  This is the first battle.  Things are moving rather quickly here in this story.

Next, they keep moving.  They’re going toward Mount Sinai.  Next, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, shows up and he advises Moses to get help “herding the cats,” so to speak, judging the people, adjudicating differences, things like that. 

You might be asking what Jethro’s doing there.  Remember, he is where?  He is from Midian.  On the way to Sinai, we are close to Midian, it seems.  That is—I touched on this in the first episode—Mount Sinai, in the logic of the story, seems to be in Midian, not in the Sinai Peninsula way south at Saint Catherine’s Monastery.  Look on a study Bible map.  It seems to be some place in Midian.  That’s the logic of the story.

Finally, after three months, they reach Sinai and the people are consecrated by going through a cleansing ritual, because they’re going to need this powerful god who defeated the Egyptian pantheon and the army by all these signs and wonders.

That’s the gist of what’s happening in the end of 15 through 19. 

Just a few highlights:

First, water and food are going to be a problem because we are in the wilderness.  We actually see two miraculous supplies of water.  The first is turning the bitter waters in Mara into sweet water.  It happens to be that “Mara” in Hebrew means “bitterness.”  This story is often seen by scholars as a story written to explain some phenomenon, in this case, why this location is called “bitterness,” of all the things to call a town.  Why call it “bitterness?” 

The story is written to explain that.  We know of stories like this too.  Where do things like sickness, death and evil come from?  Pandora opened the box.  Adam and Eve ate a piece of fruit.  These are stories that are called etiological stories that seem to be written to explain why things are the way they are.

Why is the Grand Canyon so deep?  Because Paul Bunyan and his ox had a wrestling match.  It’s a story written, told to explain a phenomenon.  That might be what’s happening with this site, “Mara,” calling it “bitterness.”  This story of making the bitter water sweet by throwing a branch in there.

The second miraculous supply of water happens at a place called Rephidim.  This is in chapter 17.  The people grumble again, which makes sense, because they had gotten a drink at Mara and at another place called Elim, which is an oasis.  But now, they left those places and they still need water.  So they complain.  Again, “Moses, what are you trying to do?  Kill us?” 

Moses is told by God to strike the rock to let water flow out of it which he does.  Moses promptly gives the place two names:  Massa and Meribah, which mean “test”—they’re testing God—and “quarrel.”  Again, possibly stories to explain how locations got their names.  Possibly.

Here’s the thing:  water, for the Israelites, presented more of problem for them than food because in between these two water stories, the waters of Mara and the waters of Rephidim, in between these two stories, God gives them bread from heaven, the manna to eat.  That manna is promised by God to come every morning dew, except on the Sabbath, so gather twice as much the day before. 

Side issue:  gathering bread on the Sabbath would be work and you don’t do work on the Sabbath even though there’s no Sabbath command given until Chapter 20.  I just wonder, in the logic of the story, were the people thinking, “What’s a—what do you mean Sabbath?  Where did that come from?”  Or are we seeing, again, the story written from a later point of view where Sabbath-keeping was already a thing.

Questions that are really hard to answer definitively, but I’m intrigued enough to ask them because they let us in a little bit on the nature of this literature.

The manna is a daily gift from God for the entire 40 years they wandered in the wilderness.  It doesn’t cease until they come to the borders of Canaan.  We read that in 16:35. It’s also stated in Joshua Chapter 5.  In other words, it ceases after they’ve entered the land.  They have bread to eat for 40 years.  Great!


No such permanent supply of water is given in this story.  They’re left to wander, maybe stress out about all that.  Not to get off the track, but again, this is so intriguing again to me.  This is the kind of stuff that reading Exodus jumps out at me as I read it. 

We see a close version of this very same story of getting water from a rock in Numbers Chapter 20.  That’s toward the end of Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness.  There, too, water comes from a rock.  Ancient Jewish interpreters—this is before the time of the New Testament—perhaps also wondering why there was no daily provision of water, came up with a rather ingenious solution.  The rock of Exodus 17 that gave water and the rock of Numbers 20 that gave water, though they’re separated by 40 years and located in completely different places, were one in the same rock, which had apparently rolled around the wilderness for 40 years supplying water, like a portable water fountain.

One reason I find that so fascinating is because Paul, our very own Paul, in I Corinthians, seems to be aware of this rather creative explanation and even drops it into Chapter 10, verse 4 of I Corinthians.  He recalls this episode of the Israelites in the wilderness and he talks about how the rock back in Moses’ day was Christ.  Paul is trying to say that Christ’s presence was with them too.  A very Paul thing to say.  A very New Testament thing to say.

Note that Paul doesn’t just say the rock was Christ making a Christological connection.  He says “the rock that followed them,” followed the Israelites was Christ.  Followed.  He got that idea from somewhere.  He got it from his Jewish tradition.

I know we’re just biting off a big chunk off to the side here.  If you’re interested, I talk more about this in the Bible Tells Me So.  Sorry for the deviation, but I just love looking at how Jewish the New Testament writers were when they used their Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament.  It’s actually this story, specifically, that started me down a different path over 30 years ago, about thinking about how the Bible actually works and what it is and how we read it.

One more comment on the manna.  Let’s pause there for one more second.  We’re told that they’re to gather an omer of manna per day, two omers on the day before the Sabbath so you can eat for two days. 

An omer is a unit of measurement.  It’s about one to two liters.  Frankly, that’s no help to me because I’m American and my phone app says that a cubic liter is about a half dry gallon.  My point is that Exodus 16:36 seems like it needs to explain what an omer is.  Because this is what Exodus 16:36 says.  It says, “An omer is a tenth of an ephah.”  An ephah is about 23 liters or somewhere between five to six gallons. 

Could I pick a more boring verse to mention?  I don’t think so.  Not for me anyway.  An omer is a measurement known to us only from this story.  The ephah is the more common measurement in the Old Testament used over 30 times.  We’re seeing here, again, a clue about when this story was written.  It seems the story of omers of manna being gathered preserves something of the past, maybe the deep past from the point of view of the later biblical writer. 

He needed to explain what that was to his readers, who lived at a time when ephah was the measurement used.  In other words, we’re seeing here in this little editorial comment a hint of how these biblical stories have a history.  Maybe they’ve developed and they’ve evolved and things needed to be added as things were handed down.  It’s like us reading in the New Testament—maybe you’ve come across this—we have footnotes that explain a denarius, a unit of coinage.  A denarius is about a day’s wage.  That’s what my study Bible says.

Today, a day’s wage—I actually Googled this—an average laborer’s day’s wage today is $14.57 an hour which is $116.56 cents a day.  It actually helps to know that a little bit.  A denarius is about a day’s wage.  What was a day’s wage?  What would it be for us?  It helps us to put it into context.  Because simply to say denarius—what do I care?  I don’t even know what that means.  Oh, it’s about what a worker makes in a day.  $15 an hour.  $120.  Okay.  I get it.

So much for food and water.


Another point.  This Israelites right away find themselves in a battle against the Amalekites.  This is in Chapter 17, verses 8 to 16.  For one thing, it’s worth asking whence the Israelites got their weapons.  Exodus does say earlier in the story that they left Egypt with plunder, likes clothes and valuables.  It’s really unlikely that the Egyptians would have decked them out in military gear.  I don’t think I’m crazy for suggesting that.

One explanation for where they got their armor and their swords and their shields from—one explanation that ancient Jewish interpreters came up with is that the Israelites stripped the armor and the weapons off of the Egyptian soldiers whose dead bodies washed up on the shore of the Sea of Reeds.

That actually makes some sense if you think about it.  It’s worth noting that the story itself doesn’t seem at all concerned about with filling in this logical gap.  I don’t think the writer actually cared very much.

I also think that a story about an Amalekite battle here might be for the purpose of giving the later reader something to chew on seeing that the Amalekites were enemies during the times of David and Saul, in their attempts to unify Israel around a monarchy.

I’m willing to think more about that, to entertain that possibility.  I have a feeling that this may be more complicated than what we’ve seen before, reading Israel’s later history back into an earlier time.  The Amalekites have been around for a long time.  I don’t think this is a made-up thing.  But there may be something more to it than what I’m seeing.  Again, we do see this sort of thing elsewhere, where a writer places something of his present back in the past.  In other words, I don’t know, but it is curious that the first thing that happens when they come into the land is that they have a battle with the Amalekites.  It’s not just that they have a battle, however we explain that, the story also serves a purpose of a couple things:  1) introducing Joshua as Moses’ general and he plays a huge role later on in the conquest of Canaan.  I see this as a bridge between the Egypt experience and then the later experience in Canaan.  We have here Joshua teaming up with Moses, so-to-speak, bringing an end to an enemy.  Joshua is going to be that bridge for the people between the Egypt experience and then later, the conquest of Canaan.

Let me elaborate on that a little bit more.  Again, I think it’s important.  We have to look at how they win the battle at all, this whole deal of how they win the battle.  Moses climbs a hill and he stands there with his arms raised.  You know this story.  I’ve heard many sermons on this.  As long as his arms are up, the Israelites are winning.  When they drop down, they begin to lose.  So brother Aaron and some guy named Hur, who will appear later in this story, they see what’s happening.  They rush over to help Moses.  They have him sit down on a rock and they prop up his arms with rocks.  By sunset, the Amalekites were defeated.

Frankly, folks, that’s a little bit weird.  Some commentaries say that this seems somewhat magical almost.  One way of looking at this is that Moses was holding his staff in his raised arms.  It’s not mentioned, so I want to be very cautious about that.  When we’re thinking about that, he’s holding his staff in his raised arms.  That’s why his arms are raised.  He has a staff.

In other words, this is another Egypt-like miracle which makes some sense since the Amalekites are playing an Egypt-like role in trying to squash the Israelites, even when their god was with them and had other plans. 

The power that delivered them from Pharaoh will also now deliver them from the Amalekites, who would also be the god who delivers them from the Canaanites.  Joshua and Moses are in this Amalekite episode.  It’s just Moses in Egypt.  It’s just Joshua in Canaan.  But here, the two are together.  It’s like a continuation of the promise that the warrior god will continue being with them in fighting battles. 

“Moses isn’t here.  That’s okay.  Joshua is.  He was with Moses before.  They’re tight.  So it will be good.”

It’s still weird.  This whole battle depends on Moses not getting tired.  The best explanation that I come up with is what I just said.  I think this is an extended Egypt-like experience where the staff comes into play and as a result, the sign and the wonder is done.  It’s a better explanation.  It’s the one that I go with.  It’s better, in any case, than some more common explanations like Moses’ arms were raised in prayer to God.  There’s nothing in the context that hints at that at all.  Or a popular Christian explanation is that Moses’ arms were raised like Jesus’ arms were raised on the cross.

On one level, I think that’s fine.  It’s well-attested in church history.  It’s fine for Christians to bring these stories and Jesus together like this.  But that doesn’t really help me what the writer here is trying to communicate.  I don’t think he’s saying, “Let’s slip something in here about Jesus.”  It means something to them.  Again, as I said, perhaps this is an extension or continuation of Exodus power at this moment.


But it’s still one of the weirder episodes in Exodus, along with God almost killing Moses right after he had told him to go to Egypt and deliver the Israelites, back in Chapter 4.  These are just weird things that happen in Exodus.

Another point here in this second big section on the way to Sinai, just a quick comment on Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law.  Moses and the Israelites are close to Sinai in Midian.  Jethro comes out to meet them with Moses’ wife and two sons.  This is in 18:6. They had been staying apparently with Joseph (I THINK YOU MEAN JETHRO) while Moses was busy at work. 

Early in Chapter 4, we hear of just one son, Gershom.  Now, we see he has a second son, Eliezer.  Fine.  Not a big deal.  Just didn’t mention Eliezer.  Who cares?  But there is actually a bigger problem here.

According to Exodus 4:20 in that story where God almost kills Moses, we read there that Moses’ wife, Zipporah, and their one son were with Moses on his way to Egypt.  That’s when the angel of the Lord almost attacks them and kills Moses.  They weren’t with Jethro in Midian.  They were with Moses on the way to Egypt.

It seems here in this boring little detail that we’re seeing evidence of multiple traditions of the Exodus story that were respected enough to be woven together in the making of this book we have before us today.  As is usually the case, the fact that the traditions don’t line up with each other doesn’t seem to bother the editor at all.  I want to suggest it shouldn’t bother us.  It should be a window to helping us understand the nature of this literature. 

Here’s Moses.  He tells Jethro all that had happened in Egypt, which is a nice development in their relationship.  You remember when he left Jethro, Moses couldn’t quite bring himself to tell Jethro the truth of why he was leaving, which is to say, “God told me to leave to deliver the Israelites.” 

Moses just mumbled something about needing to see how his kindred were doing.  “I’ve got to check in on my family” (4:18).  Now Moses puts it out there.  He’s just got this feeling of confidence.  He puts it out there like a son-in-law who earned his stripes and now, his father-in-law can be proud of him.  By the way, I have a son-in-law and was a son-in-law myself.  I get this.  Anybody who’s lived this can understand.

It’s like they’ve reached a new stage in their relationship where shy and unconfident Moses feels like, “Sure.  I stared down Pharaoh.  I stood there and watched the sea split in half.  I think I can handle Jethro.”  “Hey Jethro.  Let me tell you what’s been going on.” 

How does Jethro react?  He’s blown away enough to confess Yahweh as greater than all the gods.  Again, another monolatry thing.

Not so fast Moses.  Right after that, Moses, we read, is burned out from judging disputes between the Israelites who apparently form a line outside his door from morning to night.  Jethro sees what’s going on.  Maybe this is actually too much for Moses.  He tells him, “Well, looks like you could use some help there, Pal?  You should get some able men to help you divide the tasks and leave you to handle only the most important ones.  Not feeling so big now, are you Moses?” 

I’m not sure if that family dynamic is central to this episode.  I know some friends of mine who think this story is a prooftext for how God ordained Presbyterian church government.  You have a head pastor surrounded by his male elders.  Maybe. 

Maybe the biggest point of this story is that this bureaucracy of Israel is the brainchild of a non-Israelite, a priest of Midian, Jethro.  Israel seems to owe a lot to Midian.  After all, that’s where God’s mountain is.  There’s something about Midian that’s important for the origin of the Israelites religion.

Scholars have long wondered whether the origin of Israel’s religion, which historically is a very complicated thing and very mysterious thing, might owe something to Midian in the deep south, with respect to where Israel is, alongside of other stories that the Israelites preserved.  Liked our ancestor Jacob was a wondering Aramean.  This is more in the north.  You can see this in Deuteronomy 26:6. Or if they were from the far east in the land of Babylon.  That’s where Abraham is from.  Or as we read here in this story, some connection historically, some rootage in the land of Egypt.

This story of Israel in the Old Testament seems to suggest that Israelites have various points of ancestry and that were later united under Yahweh’s banner.  Maybe.  I think that’s true.  To me, that explanation makes the most sense. 

In this story, the only point is that Midian is very prominent in this ancient telling of the story of the departure from Egypt.

Moving toward the end here.

They all reach Sinai three months to the day after they left Egypt.  Two things strike me.  First, even those God rules all the earth, as we read, Israel is God’s special possession and their role will be to be a—this is in verse 6 of Chapter 19—their role will be to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.  I think this is huge.

This means that Israel’s purpose, already here in the story, is to be priestly, to mediate between God and who?  The nations.  Feel free to think back to the story of Abraham in Chapter 12 where Abraham is called.  Abraham will have an influence on the nations themselves. 

Here you have it.  You’re to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.  That’s why you’re here.  That was the plan anyway.  They were rescued from Egypt, not to go free, but to become holy, which means “set apart for special purposes.”  It’s not about moral perfection.  To act as priests mediating God to the nations around them.  A priestly kingdom and a holy nation.  Those aren’t two separate things.  They’re actually two parts of one role.

That’s why it’s so tragic in Israel’s story as we read on in the Old Testament.  Rather than mediating God to the nations, Israel, through its kings, winds up becoming a problem that God needs to solve somehow.  In some cases, He doesn’t solve it at all.  The northern tribes, the northern kingdom go to Assyria and never come back.  The southern tribe of Judah goes into exile in Babylon and comes back and has to rebuild, but never really does.

This plan to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation doesn’t work out very well.   But that was the plan.


Another point here.  It seems that no one is to touch the mountain itself.  “Keep your distance.”  In fact, they’re to wash their clothes and to abstain from sex to prepare to meet God.  At a distance.

Now Moses, of course, may go up the mountain.  He can go to the top, but only he.  The holiness of the mountain must be protected.  I only mention this here because a little later in the story, in fact, I mention it in the next episode of this podcast series, we will see more clearly how the holy mountain is marked off in segments, three to be specific, which reminds us of the Tabernacle, which is also the model for the temple later on during the time of the monarchy.

Hanging around the outside of the sanctuary at a distance is fine.  Say the temple.  Only priests can enter the next stage, the holy place.  But into the holy of holies, the third stage, only one may enter: the high priest. 

Moses here on Mount Sinai is like a high priest entering God’s most sacred presence.  You may remember that Chapter 6 which is sort of a boring chapter because there is a genealogy in it, but it makes a big deal of letting you know that Moses and Aaron are from the tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe.  Here, we’re beginning to see why.

We also see here what is glimpsed earlier in the song of Moses in Chapter 15, that the temple and Sinai are closely connected.  To speak of one is to speak virtually of the other.  Both are marked off in segments of approachability. 

In Chapter 19, Moses is spending some time hearing from God on the top of Mount Sinai.  He is about to come down and tell the people what he heard and what God wants from them and what God is going to do for them.  But that is the topic of the next episode, where we look at the section of law in the book of Exodus.

55:57  MUSIC

All right folks, thanks again for listening to another episode here of the Exodus series.  I appreciate you listening and pressing download and all that stuff again.  Just a quick reminder, the “pay what you want class” discussing Genesis is September 23.  Also, I’ll be at Evolving Faith October 4 and 5 in Denver, CO.  Tickets are still available.  I hope you can make it. 

All right folks, thanks so much for listening.  See you next time.