Interview with Ariel Sabar – Telling the Truth About Jesus’ Wife

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with investigative journalist Ariel Sabar about his new book Veritas as they explore the following questions:

  • What does veritas mean?
  • Did Jesus have a wife?
  • What was the significance of Karen King’s discovery?
  • Is the historical accuracy of the Bible tied to truth?
  • What is coptic?
  • How was the Gospel of Jesus wife disproven?
  • Can we crowdsource truth?
  • What does the Gospel of Thomas contain?
  • How do scholars usually protect against forgery?
  • Should the pursuit of religious truth be separated from the pursuit of secular truth?
  • What is Ariel’s advice for normal people in seeking factual truth in the media?
  • How do different people go about truth-seeking?


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

  • “If someone comes to you with a sensational claim you have to vet it.” @arielsabar
  • “Anyone of us can fall victim to these scams.” @arielsabar
  • “I think what’s dangerous is when a theoretical way of encountering texts is also used for historical investigation.” @arielsabar
  • “Depending on which scholar you give [the papyrus fragment] to, you’re going to get a very different interpretation of what precisely is being said.” @arielsabar
  • “I believe that there are facts out there… there’s a process one can follow to arrive at the sort of verifiable facts.” @arielsabar

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]

Jared: Welcome, everyone, to this episode of The Bible for Normal People. Before you do anything, right now, if you’re not driving, I would encourage you to just hit pause, go to wherever you get –

Pete: Or pull over!

Jared: Yeah, sure.

Pete: Pull over!

Jared: Pull over right this minute.

Pete: Now!

Jared: And if you wouldn’t mind, pretty please, cherry on top, go and pre-order the book Love Matters More: How Fighting to Be Right Keeps Us from Loving Like Jesus. My goal, I’ll tell you straight up, my goal is to sell enough copies that they let me write another one. That’s it! That’s the goal I have, so help.

Pete: [Laughter]

Jared: Help me.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: Help me be able to write more books.

Pete: [Continued laughter]

Jared: But no, honestly, I think this book, for me, the message that love matters more couldn’t come at a better time, and as we get some feedback from people who have read the first chapter, which you can get free at https://www.jaredbyas.com/book/, the feedback we’re getting is that this is really helpful during this time of being able to talk about things that we fundamentally disagree with, with our friends and family, in a way that’s still loving and how love matters more than pretty much everything else. So, I would encourage you, if you can, do it now before the book comes out September 8th. It helps us. Go to https://www.jaredbyas.com/book/ or just go straight to wherever you buy books and order it.

Pete: Yeah!

Jared: All right, what are we talking about today Pete?

Pete: Our readers have done this before, they’ve ordered books.

Jared: That’s right.

Pete: They know how to do this. Okay, anyway, hey folks, very excited about today’s interview. The topic is telling the truth about Jesus’s wife. Yeah, you heard that right. Our, yeah, sort of sounds weird, but of course, the podcast will clarify that, but our guest today is Ariel Sabar. He is an award-winning investigative journalist, and I like that, investigative journalist. And he’s written stuff for like, Washington Post, New York Times, and The Atlantic, and he put out a book that just came out recently called Veritas. Veritas, by the way, is the model for Harvard, which is really sort of important here, there’s a double meaning. But, Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. So, it’s pretty cool, huh Jared?

Jared: Yeah, I like that he’s an investigative journalist because it felt like we were talking to like, a detective or something throughout the episode, which was really intriguing and cool. I felt like I was in a Dan Brown novel or something. But yeah, I think –

Pete: But what was he investigating?

Jared: So, it’s this interesting story and I asked my wife about it after we had recorded with Ariel, you know, do you remember this idea or this thing floating around that Jesus had a wife? And she said, yeah, I kind of remember that. It’s like, we kind of interviewed the guy who was at the heart of that story and she was really impressed, so. Yeah, it’s kind of figuring out, it’s all these clues, but it’s also bigger than that, which is why I think we were interested in interviewing Ariel –

Pete: Right.

Jared: Because it really has to do with truth finding. And for those of us who grew up thinking that historical accuracy of the Bible was kind of central, we get into that and we talk about, well, what does that mean and how do you find those truths and what happens when things kind of go sideways.

Pete: And it’s also about just the world of, in this case, biblical scholarship and I mean, in today’s world, Jared, there are, there’s a lot of distrust about experts.

Jared: Right.

Pete: You know, elite experts and they don’t know, you can’t trust them, can’t trust them. And what safeguards what experts do is usually some form of being accountable to other experts and when that process is followed, it helps to say, it’s never perfect, but it helps to safeguard the integrity of the scholarly pursuit. But the whole point is that in this case, it wasn’t followed.

Jared: Right.

Pete: Right. And that’s exactly what Ariel was investigating, and he tells a story at the beginning, so he explains it all. And then we get into some of the nuts and bolts of it, and it’s, you know, it relates to biblical studies directly, because biblical scholars are basically, see, trained biblical scholars are historians, that’s basically what they are.

Jared: Right.

Pete: They’re trying to talk about what happened, when did it happen, who wrote it, why did they write it, what’s the meaning of this text, not for me today in my life, but for back then. Yeah, it’s just a lot of interesting stuff and a lot of angles on this.

Jared: Yeah. Well, I’m getting excited all over again, so I think we should just jump into the conversation.

Pete: I know! It was really fun to do this interview and to have a journalist on, it was great!

Jared: All right, let’s get into it.

[Music begins]

Ariel: One person reading a Gospel text in the 6th century may read it in a completely different way than someone reading it today, and that’s okay. You can go to that same text and draw completely different meanings from it and on some level, each of those meanings, at least in my view, is valid. I think what’s dangerous is when a theoretical way of encountering texts is also used for historical investigation.


[Music ends]

Jared: Well, welcome to the episode Ariel. It’s good to have you.

Ariel: Thanks for having me.

Jared: So, we have an interesting story to hear about. Just a fascinating tale of biblical scholarship and intrigue and investigative journalism. Can you give us just the three to five minute synopsis so we can get a grasp on the characters of this interesting story?

Pete: Yeah, how journalists made a biblical scholar look bad.

Ariel: All right, well –

Pete: I have a sense that’s very, very… I don’t even know why we have you on. This is very threatening to me, personally, because you might find out something that I did wrong.

Ariel: And I would just, you know, I think the purpose of the book isn’t to make a biblical scholar look bad.

Pete: I know. Of course, yeah.

Ariel: It’s to tell, I think, a really interesting story and then the story begins back, the public version of the story begins back in September 2012 when a distinguished professor at the Harvard Divinity School, a woman named Dr. Karen King, goes to Rome for the 10th International Annual Congress for Coptic Studies. So, Coptic is through the language of Egypt’s earliest Christians. It is the language which some of the earliest surviving copies of the Gospels survive, and every four years, the top scholars of Coptic gather in some interesting place; sometimes it’s Egypt, sometimes it’s Rome. But this time it was Rome, actually at a fraternal order right across from the Vatican, and she makes a presentation that has a sort of kind of a bland title. It’s something like a New Coptic Gospel Fragment. And so, you know, everyone in the room was like, oh, this could be interesting, or it could be like a lot of the presentations we hear every four years where there are some small fragment of, you know, the Gospel of John. You know, one of the Gospels that, where there are a lot of, relatively large number of surviving copies. It’s always interesting, but, you know, they don’t expect the bombshell that’s about to drop because there’s no sort of forewarning. And the bombshell that drops, in Karen King’s paper that she gives at the conference, is about this very small scrap of papyrus. It’s about the size of a business card, and papyrus, for those who don’t know, it’s an ancient writing surface made of the dried and pressed leaves of a plant that used to grow alongside the Nile in Egypt. On which, again, many of the earliest surviving copies of the Gospel are written. So, she has a little piece, a little fragment that she’s discovered with eight lines of Coptic on the front. And sort of the bombshell line, the showstopper, is the very, very middle line in which Jesus is said to utter the words “my wife.” The line itself says, “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife’.” And this is, you know, this is important. Karen King does not make the claim that the fragment has any value as sort of biography. She’s not making the claim that this fragment tells us that the historical Jesus was married. But what she does claim is that sometime in the second century, you know, within 200 years of Jesus’s life, there was a group of Christians somewhere who believed that Jesus had a wife. And that would still be historic, because there are no surviving manuscripts from antiquity that present this version of a married Jesus. And in her interpretation, and the woman that Jesus is described as being married to in this fragment is Mary Magdalene. And so, we have this, we have the fourth line that Jesus said my wife; in the fifth line, she appears as though Jesus continues to speak about Mary Magdalene, he says she is able to be my disciple. Then Jesus appears to curse people who are effectively dissing his wife, sort of questioning her worthiness to be a disciple, and then he says in sort of the last surviving line that essentially that I live with her, that I dwell with her. So, if there’s sort of any doubt about whether this is, you know, a human wife or something more spiritual, the claim to sort of be dwelling with her suggests that this is a human Mary rather than say, you know, the church or something. And this is Karen King’s interpretation.

Pete: So, Ariel, this is across the street from the Vatican.

Ariel: Correct.

Pete: And she’s claiming to have this manuscript the size, a broken-up manuscript, sentences aren’t complete, that claims that Jesus had a wife and it was Mary and also a disciple.


Ariel: Right. That his wife was able to be, not only was Mary Magdalene, and this again, Karen King’s interpretation. She’s a very learned scholar, she’s at the top of her field, has I think, I believe she holds the oldest endowed professorship in all the United States, like, in any subject. So, a very distinguished scholar, very dazzling interpreter of sort of, non-canonical scripture, scripture that did not make the New Testament. And so, this would certainly fall into that category if it were authentic. And so, in her reading, what we have here is a dialogue between Jesus and the disciples. The disciples begin by sort of suggesting that there’s a controversy over Mary. There’s a controversy over Mary as worthy of discipleship and Jesus responds by telling them two things, he says, my wife, and then he says she is able to be my disciple. So, sort of in very quick succession this papyrus, sort of, I mean, read in a certain way demolishes two of the central pillars of sort of Catholic tradition. One is that Jesus was a lifelong celibate bachelor, number two is that he did not select women among his sort of closest followers, not among the twelve, certainly.

Jared: So then, we have this fragment, and I, one of the things that was intriguing to me when I was reading through your book was I remember this becoming kind of a shockwave through, at the time, as someone who was studied in religious schools and all these other things, this was definitely something that came across my news feed, so to speak. I don’t know if there were new feeds back eight years ago. I don’t know what was happening eight years ago, but, you know, this came across my desk, so to speak, and thought it was really interesting but what I think it kind of the twist of the story is it didn’t turn out to be what we all maybe thought it was. So, can you maybe finish the rest of that story, because I have some questions about the process of truth telling and how we figure out the authenticity of these kinds of things.

Ariel: Sure. I mean, the interesting thing is you know, I was on assignment for Smithsonian Magazine back in 2012. With Smithsonian, which is the magazine affiliated with Smithsonian Institution’s here in D.C., they have a famous magazine, they cover a lot of scholarship, sort of everything from science to history. And they have gotten sort of a heads up that this was coming, so they assigned me a feature story and they send me to see Dr. King in Harvard, sort of a few weeks before her big announcement, and they also sent me to Rome. And so, I was actually the only reporter in the room when she makes this announcement to colleagues, and I describe this sort of, just, really remarkable scene in the room when she presents her paper where, you know, really instantly in the Q & A after her twenty minute talk, twenty minute paper, the top scholars in Coptic and in the sort of non-canonical gospels who were in the room immediately have a lot of questions. Like, there’s almost instantaneous serious doubt about the fragment. And, you know, I think the first problems became evident the moment these scholars saw photos of the papyrus. Now, interestingly, Karen King said that her computer had broken down on the way to Rome, and so she wasn’t able to show photographs, which upset a lot of the scholars in the room, because when you’re looking at, when you’re judging the authenticity of a manuscript, you really have to physically see it, because it’s in –

Pete: You have to look at it, yeah.


Ariel: You have to look at the handwriting, you have to look at the application of the ink, you have to look at the condition of the papyrus itself. You know, King is a textual scholar, she’s interested in what things, what sort of the message is, what does the text say. But when you’re evaluating authenticity, you really have to look at the material aspects of a manuscript. And because we’re now sort of in the connected age, some of those scholars who had iPads and laptops were able to get online and notice that even before they were presented with images of the papyrus, the rest of the world were being shown those images via the media. Harvard had given images to, you know, not only Smithsonian Magazine, my story was up almost instantaneously, but also the New York Times and the Boston Globe. And so, they start going on their phones, their iPads, and even during her presentation are seeing images of the papyrus for the first time, and what they’re seeing is disconcerting. They’re seeing handwriting, Coptic handwriting that looks like no other ancient Coptic handwriting they’ve seen. The look of the ink is a little funny, they’re seeing, they’re noticing grammatical and spelling errors in the Coptic that don’t look like grammatical and spelling errors that a native speaker in antiquity would’ve made. And there’s also the shape of the fragment, it’s like, it’s almost perfectly rectangular, and if you know anything about the surviving pieces of papyrus that sort of, that are sort of, you know, that have managed to survive hundreds of years of history, they’re usually pretty ragged. I mean, I describe them in the book as looking like, you know, sort of a jagged coastline of a country. They don’t really, there’s not really any symmetry to them. And so, it’s sort of suspiciously rectangular and you’ve got that sort of showstopper phrase billboarded dead center in the papyrus. So, those are even within the first few hours, you have the top people in her field, her own colleagues who are asking some pretty sharp questions about the papyrus.


Pete: So, “my wife” was like, almost literally the centerpiece of this fragmentary text and again, if I’m hearing you right, Ariel, there was enough written there in this text to suggest things, but in and of itself, it’s really not clear what it’s saying.

Ariel: Right, and that’s part of the genius of it, in a way.

Pete: Yeah.

Ariel: And we’re gonna get into the issue of the forgery in a second, but it’s really like, I mean, I think I describe it in the book as kind of like a mad lib or a kind of Rorschach test where because the fragment is missing all of its margins, we don’t know if it were an authentic text. So, the presumption is, because it’s missing all of its margins, there’s, it’s essentially resected from the, or broken off, from the center of some much larger page which itself was part of some larger codex or ancient book. So, we don’t know what comes before it, we don’t know what comes after it, we don’t even know necessarily how each of the lines begins and ends. So, that leaves a lot of room for interpretation and it really, what was the genius of this is that, if we presume it’s a forgery, and again, I know we’re going to get to this more later on, but if we presume it’s a forgery, which is now, you know, sort of almost really unanimous among scholars. What the genius is, is that depending on which scholar you give it to, you’re going to get a very different interpretation of what precisely is being said.

Pete: Yes.

Jared: Right, right. Well, let’s get to that, the forgery part of the story, because I think that’s where questions about truth and process and I think connections to what we’re seeing in our day and age around media and what gets shared and what gets authenticated, I think there’s some clear parallels here.

Ariel: Sure, so, there’s, you know, there’s this initial wave of questions and I think, you know, what was interesting is having broken in kind of 2012, it was a period in which a lot of scholarship and scholarly discussion was moving online. So, in the past, you have this glacial process where, you know, a scholar would take many months to publish their article in a peer reviewed journal, then it would take another year for  scholars to respond and, you know, in sort of a civilized way to the arguments the first scholar was making. And now because of the blogosphere and the fact that a lot of young scholars are taking to the blogosphere, you have like, this very robust online debate where everyone was kind of, all these, you know, scholars from Young, Upstart, you know, grad students to more experienced scholars were weighing in in kind of real time, kind of crowdsourcing scholarship, trying to figure out what was really going on with this fragment. In the beginning, there was some debate and one of the first real breakthroughs in trying to figure out what might have happened here was there was this scholar in the UK named Francis Watson was looking at this and he was like, you know, a lot of these phrases look a lot like the Gospel of Thomas. And the Gospel of Thomas is a non-canonical text, 114, there are a list of 114 what are called sequence sayings of Jesus. Some scholars think it’s like, as early as the 1st century, others think it’s later than that, but it’s a very well known non-canonical text and it struck Dr. Watson that a lot of the phrases look a lot like the Gospel of Thomas, except they were out of order. And so, what he was able to do within about three or four days is by parsing the phrases on the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, he was more or less able to determine that every single, that you could basically compose the entirety of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife by cutting, sort of cherry picking phrases from the Gospel of Thomas and then putting them in a new order on the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife sort of to say something new that sounded like something old. And the only words that one could not extract from the Gospel of Thomas were the Coptic words “my wife.” And so, that was like a real breakthrough. It looked like this was sort of a cut and paste job. Someone who knew enough Coptic to be able to sort of reverse engineer a Coptic text possibly from an English translation of the Gospel of Thomas. So, that was sort of the first big breakthrough in the scholarly detective story.

Jared: That’s fascinating. So, okay, so then this, how does this breakthrough cut through the noise of, you said it’s kind of crowdsourcing. Is it that there’s this small group of people, you know, did Professor Watson send this to a small group of colleagues or how did that kind of start to spread?


Ariel: Yeah, I mean, that’s a good question. So, I think he initially, Dr. Watson initially posted it on his own website and then it got circulated by other scholars including Dr. Mark Goodacre, the New Testament scholar whose blog, N.T. blog served as kind of a forum for a lot of the debate over the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. So, it sort of made it out that way and then I think the next real breakthrough was so you have this initial thesis, that, you know, this is a cut and paste from the Gospel of Thomas. Well, people said, you know, that’s a little too easy because, you know, that presumes forgery and then works backward to prove it and that’s not good enough. And so, the next real breakthrough comes with an independent scholar, a guy working out of his basement in Portland, Oregon, has only a master’s degree from Oxford, really smart guy, never held a job as an academic, but has this really good nose for detail and has always been interested in sort of what’s going on in online biblical scholarship. And because he’s paying attention to the kinds of things that everybody is posting online about biblical scholarship and various idiosyncratic translations of, you know, non-canonical texts that are popping up all over the internet, he starts looking at this papyrus scrap. His name was Andrew Bernhardt, I didn’t mention that. He starts looking at the papyrus scrap, and he’s like, he’s noticing that there’s some of the Coptic, clearly the Coptic is coming from the Gospel of Thomas, but there’s a kind of like a typo, there’s a place where something isn’t perfectly transcribed from the Gospel of Thomas, like, a certain letter is missing. And it strikes him that there is this, there’s really only one sort of internet translation, or interlinear translation of the Gospel, of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas that exists online. And so, an interliner translation, some of your readers may be familiar with this, some people like to use it in Bible study. It’s a translation in which you have one line of scripture in its original text, whether it’s Greek or Coptic, and then immediately below it or above it, you’ll have the same line in translation. And sometimes, it’s like you’ll see word for word what Greek word or what Coptic word connects to what English word. So, Andrew Bernhardt is aware there’s exactly one Coptic version of, interlinear version of the Gospel of Thomas that exists online and he goes to that version of the Gospel of Thomas. It’s a PDF that a computer programmer, obvious biblical scholar, living in Michigan, posted online back in 2002. And he goes to it and he notices that this PDF that this guy puts out has the same typo as the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Ariel: So, this typo does not exist in the actual Gospel of Thomas. This computer programmer living in Michigan didn’t have a transcription error in his typescript, of Coptic typescript. And somehow, this transcription error recurs in the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. So, that’s really the first sort of smoking gun that –

Pete: And that’s not a common kind of error.

Ariel: It’s not a common kind of error.

Pete: It’s so unusual that it really is hard not to connect those two.

Ariel: It’s hard not to, precisely. It’s, I mean, it’s not –

Pete: Okay.

Ariel: I wouldn’t say it was the final nail in the coffin, but it was a very clean shot.

Pete: Oh, the hammer is up in the air and the nail is about to go in. We’re getting closer.

Ariel: We’re getting closer.

Pete: All right, yeah.

Ariel: It’s not, but that was the first real, it’s not only to say well, where did this come from but what source, what 21st century source material might a forger have consulted to produce the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife?

Jared: Mmm. So then, what was that nail in the coffin? Is there a third big piece that came out?

Ariel: Yeah, so the next big piece concerns another fragment of papyrus that was provided to Dr. Karen King by the same anonymous collector. And that was a fragment of the Gospel of John. Karen King had referred to it sort of obliquely in some of her talks, but she also never released a photograph of it. People just assumed, well, okay, the Gospel of John, but that’s got to be authentic. Clearly this guy, this collector, what he was probably trying to do was by sort of associating this one sensational papyrus, sort of a papyrus, with other sort of legitimate, authentic papyri. He was kind of creating kind of an aura of legitimacy –

Pete: Sure, yeah.


Ariel: Sure, yeah. I mean, the Gospel of John, yeah, it’s gotta be real. No problem. The thing is when the first images came out of the Gospel of John, and they weren’t from Dr. King, they were from some scientists who were conducting ink tests who just put out the images in a sort of an informal report, scholars took a look at the Gospel of John and within about an hour –

Pete: [Laughter]

Ariel: They notice that every single one of the seventeen line breaks in this papyrus fragment mirrored a line break in another online transcript of the Coptic Gospel of John. So, it was essentially the same M.O. with someone who had access to the internet, someone who knew where to look for online editions of Coptic, of authentic Coptic papyri, and then essentially mimicked them hoping that nobody would notice. And a scholar named Christian Askeland who has his Ph.D. from Cambridge, who at the time was associated with the Museum of the Bible run by the evangelical Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, he was part of their scholar’s initiative. He noticed this right away that this thing is a 100% rip off of this very easily accessible PDF, another PDF online of the Coptic of John. And like, instantaneously, like, every single scholar in the world was like, yeah, this Gospel of John, there’s zero question that it’s a forgery. And so, what scholars, you know, now have is that they have like, 100% forgery in the presence of a very dubious, likely forgery, and when you have like, more than one, when you have the same collector who is presenting you one like, outright forgery and one very dubious manuscript and that second manuscript basically has the same handwriting as the definite forgery, that presents a real problem.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Ariel: That was sort of the lay of the land at the point of which I come back into this story three years after Karen King’s announcement in Rome.

Jared: Mmm. So, can we, let’s stop there for a second.

Ariel: Sure.

Jared: ‘Cause I want to go back to say, where was the breakdown in Karen, so, there was this interesting story about a potential forgery, but you have this pretty eminent scholar –

Pete: Yeah, how did it happen? Right?

Jared: Who is presenting this at a conference well before this stuff happens. How did it, like, what would be the normal process to make sure that this thing doesn’t happen, and why wasn’t that followed in this case?

Ariel: I mean, that’s a really good question and something I break down in a lot of detail through my investigative reporting in the book. A lot of that process people are going to read about for the first time in the book and having to go over some of it here. You know, the way in academia, the way that this works is the process of peer review and peer review typically is double blind. That means that the author of the article, paper for a journal, doesn’t know who is going to be peer reviewing their article, and the peer reviewers don’t know who the author is, and that allows sort of the free exchange of information and free of fear of favor. And, you know, Dr. King had submitted her article to the Harvard Theological Review, it’s a preeminent journal in the field, peer reviewed journal, and the editors of the peer review are also Harvard Divinity School professors. Some might argue that that sort of in itself is a conflict of interest because you have colleagues at the same institution editing other colleagues work, but it’s not unprecedented. And the Harvard Theological Review editors send out Dr. King’s article to three peer reviewers and two out of the three peer reviewers come back with unfavorable reviews. Essentially saying, you would be very embarrassed to publish this and number one, number two, there are numerous tells of forgery. Everything ranging from the handwriting, to the grammar, to the copying from Gospel of Thomas, to very suspicious fact that the anonymous owner is not named anywhere. So, the peer reviewers, and at the time they were anonymous. I’m able to identify them, through my investigative reporting they spoke to me for the book. But you know, they, the Harvard Theological Review did the right thing in sending Dr. King’s article pre-publication and pre her announcement to the very top scholars in the world. These are secular scholars, you know, these aren’t like, people associated with the Vatican or people who sort of had an agenda one way or the other about canonical versus non-canonical gospels. These are the top scholars in secular universities who are sort of the all in one experts in Coptic in the so called gnostic gospels, or non-canonical gospels and in the manuscripts in which they are written. These aren’t sort of, you know, pacts. And so, two out of the three come back and say don’t, basically don’t do this. So, the immediate effect of that is that the Harvard Theological Review says, sorry Dr. King, we are not going to be able to publish this right away and we’re going to need a little more homework on this essentially. You’re going to need to do some scientific testing, and one of the things that Dr. King did not do before the public announcement was any scientific testing. That also raised a lot of questions, is why not do a little bit of scientific testing to see whether the papyrus was old enough to see whether the ink is authentic, those kinds of things. So, the Harvard theological review was spooked enough by these early reviews to say, you know, let’s hit the pause button here, let’s take a little bit more time. Although, having said that, Dr. King did not feel that she should sort of wait on the announcement. She thought that, I think she felt, in her words, that if she didn’t sort of make it public that it would leak out, and she’d rather just sort of put it out there.


Pete: Hmm.

Ariel: So, that’s sort of how it got into public domain even though you had two really big peer reviewers saying, don’t do it.

Pete: But she put it out there not as here’s a possible, you know, text that we might have to consider. Did she put it out there as more, at least a demonstrable proof that there was a community of Christians that assumed Jesus had a wife?

Ariel: Yeah. Well this was a question, you know, again, before any of this really hit, again, I went up to Harvard two or three weeks before her public presentation and I asked her just this question because I think that they actually have very interesting timing, bizarre coincidence. As a reporter, I was glad I was there to record how it sort of went down. But I met her for dinner, like, the night after she just got back one of these really tough peer reviews and she was clearly shaken. And you know, I said, look, what is it going to, are you going to sort of wait and do some more testing, like, what are the chances you’re going to go forward in Rome? Like, are you willing to go forward on like, 50/50 percent confidence that it’s accurate, like 70/30, like, what’s the threshold of confidence you need for authenticity? She’s like, oh, no, no, no. 50/50 wouldn’t cut it, 70/30 doesn’t cut it, it has to be a very, very, very high threshold of confidence. And so, I guess, you know, the question that one wonders now is like, how does she sort of reach that level of very, very high level of confidence in spite of these negative reviews. And I think what Dr. King would tell you is that well, you know, she consulted a linguist who told her that, you know, essentially that some of the critiques that one of the peer reviewers raised, they were legitimate but if she put a little bit more language sort of accounting for them in her article, she’d be okay. And I think she went to people whose views would, she had a sense, would support her position. And there weren’t many, but there were some, and she went to them and sort of addressed the peer reviews in her revision of the article. I think in her mind, she had addressed the criticism of the peer reviewers.

Jared: Yeah, so, you know, I can’t help but draw parallels to today where we crowdsource all kinds of truths politically and otherwise, and it just, it kind of spooks me to say here’s someone who was steeped in the process, who knew the value of it, who said I would need to be 80%, 90% confident before I spoke before a panel about this finding, and had this feeling, apparently, she had a feeling that she was, had a high degree of confidence, kind of skipped over a few steps in the process, and then it just like, what hope do we have for kind of having these gut feelings and being right when there is this clear process for truth finding? I would just be curious, what did you learn through this process as a journalist looking in at another field’s process of truth finding? What did you learn about truth and accuracy and that sort of thing?

Ariel: Look, I don’t know, I would never claim to have all the answers, it’s a big, big question. But I think one of the things that fascinated me as a larger theme was what do we mean by, what does truth mean in the context of religion? That was sort of a big question that I was sort of wrestling with just as a journalist, someone who is interested in how different groups of professionals and believers understand the nature of truth. And as a journalist, I really, I’m guess an empiricist in the sense that I believe that there are facts out there, I believe that picking up the phone, talking to people, looking at historical records, talking to people who are experts in their field, you know, knocking on doors, that there’s a process one can follow to arrive at sort of a set of verifiable facts. We may not always get their facts wrong, we may have to make some corrections along the way, but ultimately we’re moving in the direction of obtaining a set of sort of discernable factual reality.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Ariel: And you know, people of faith, certainly people of devout faith don’t always in their own lives, in their own spiritual lives certainly, don’t always need to have scientific proof for certain kinds of truth. That’s what faith is, right?

Jared: Mm hmm.


Ariel: You take things sort of sight unseen because you believe that there’s a higher power that’s kind of a guarantor of certain truths. And then there’s another category that I would put Dr. King in, and many other scholars in. In fact, I studied this myself in college, the kind of a postmodern approach to truth. And postmodernists don’t believe in the idea of an objective reality, that essentially that we all have our own truths and though I mean, it’s sort of simple, it’s a little bit simplified way of putting it, but that whatever group has sort of the power to tell and sell the best narrative, creates reality. That reality doesn’t exist independently of language so that when we speak, when we tell a story, that’s the reality. There’s nothing, sort of, independent of that. And it’s an important, sort of, I think as a means of interpreting literature, as a means of interpreting literary texts, there’s a value in it because it’s true that, you know, one person reading a Gospel text in, you know, the 6th century may read it in a completely different way than someone reading it today. And that’s okay. Like, you can go to that same text and draw completely different meanings from it, and on some level, each of those meanings, at least in my view, is valid. I think what’s dangerous is when a sort of theoretical way of encountering texts is also used for a historical investigation. So, yes. Are there many, many meanings one can draw from a Bible verse? Certainly. It means different things to different peoples and different contexts in different parts of the world. That’s great. Where I think folks get into trouble is when they use that same approach if we all have our own truths to whether a papyrus fragment is genuinely ancient or not. I think there’s only one answer.


Pete: Yeah.

Ariel: It’s either ancient, or it isn’t.

Jared: Right, yeah.

Ariel: It’s either this fragment is part of a larger page of an ancient codex or it wasn’t. And I think there’s a little bit of slippage, and I think that comes across towards the end of the book when I try to figure how out these different ways of knowing, the way journalists and many scholars approach history, the way people of faith think about the nature of truth, and then the way, you know, postmodern theorists conceptualize truth. And then what happens when these different ways of truth-seeking sort of collide in the same institution and then sometimes even in the same individual. And I think that one of the things that struck me was Harvard Divinity School as an institution. Harvard is the only, I believe it’s the only one of the elite sort of schools that, where, there is not a freestanding department of religious studies on campus.

Pete: Right.

Ariel: So, all you’ve got is the divinity school, and the divinity school, essentially, is where all the expertise in religious studies lies, but the divinity school also has a mission of training ministers. And there have many scholars, sort of new recruits to the divinity school who have been very uncomfortable with that mix, that the pursuit of theological truths needs to be separated from sort of the secular investigation of what people do when they talk about religion.

Jared: So, you know, one of the, we’ve kind of, we talk about different kinds of truth on this podcast, and we talk about, like, fact truths versus meaning truths –

Ariel: Mm hmm.

Jared: And that meaning truth is more relational, it usually has, you know, human beings and how we interpret things.

Ariel: Correct.

Jared: And then we have these fact truths that you were talking about as the object of historical or journalistic endeavors. Whenever you’re dealing with history though, this would be a question, not to maybe dive too far into this question of how we know, but it seems like historical and journalistic endeavors aren’t the same thing though as like, science, which is these repeatable, experiments that you can get the same phenomenon over and over again. It’s almost like there is a process, what we mean by truth, I’m just testing this, you can tell me what I think, what you think. But as a journalist, it’s almost like, and as these peer reviews with Karen King, it’s like, what counts as historical truth is the outcome of this pretty sophisticated process that we’ve developed over many, many years, in some cases, centuries. And what we mean by truth is the outcome that can keep changing as we put new things through this process, but the process is extremely crucial and almost inextricable from what we mean by truth.

Ariel: Right.

Jared: And so, it seems like Karen didn’t follow the process and so it makes dubious the outcome. You can be accidentally right, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true in this sort of process oriented way. Does that make sense?

Ariel: Yeah, it does. And I think that’s really, that’s where you want to place the focus is are the established, the process is established by your field. You know?

Jared: Right.

Ariel: Whether it’s as a journalist or a historian, which Dr. Karen King is. Do you follow, have the sort of, you know, time tested process of like, investigating sources, judging the credibility of evidence, using all the various tools at your disposal to investigate. Did you follow the process? And then if you follow the process and you get it wrong, it happens to all of us. Then you go back, and you try again. But where the process has been, I think what happened in this case, is that there were places where the process wasn’t adhered to and there was corner cutting and there was a little bit too much speed. And I mean, there was no reason, for instance, Dr. King couldn’t have waited, you know, another few months to announce this. She attends, and her colleagues attend many biblical studies conferences, but she really wanted to announce this at the Coptic conference, which in this year happened to be in Rome.

Pete: And you know, the question is why, though. I mean, I’m asking somewhat rhetorically because I’m not, I mean, from where I sit, and by the way, this goes beyond Dr. Karen King, this is like, an issue I think in the humanities and scholarship. I’m not sure, I mean, I could interpret what she did not on the basis of an ideology, a postmodern ideology, just territorialism. Like, if I don’t do this, somebody else is going to get wind of it and they’re going to publish it first.


Ariel: Yeah. I mean, I –

Pete: Does nothing new happens in this field.

Ariel: Mm hmm.

Pete: Nothing new happens! I’m a biblical scholar. Nothing happens. We just keep taking the same pieces and maneuvering them around a little bit, but if you have this, the only thing new is what you find in the ground, you know?

Ariel: Right.

Pete: Whether it’s a manuscript or a building or a statue or a piece of pottery or something. And, you know, you get carried away, you know, hopeful that you’ve got something actually new that could make a mark in the field, and maybe you’re sort of blinded to that. I mean, the process that Jared’s talking about. You’re blinded to that.

Ariel: Yeah. Certainly. I mean, journalists worry about this all the time, it’s called getting scooped and no one likes getting scooped.

Pete: Right.

Ariel: I don’t think in this case that Dr. King worried about getting scooped. I mean, she was the only one who had possession of it. It wasn’t so much that she worried that someone else would have it, I think that the collector who I imagine we’ll talk about in a little bit, the collector was very, very happy that Harvard was going to be sort of the launching pad, or you know, the rocket ship launching pad for this little fragment because there’s no university that’s going to get more media attention than Harvard. And so, there wasn’t an issue of him sort of like, snatching it back from her and saying, no, if you wait a few months I’m going to give it to Princeton or something or I’m going to give it to, you know, some little college that you’ve never heard of. I think he was very pleased and would have waited as long as necessary.

Pete: Mm hmm

Ariel: I think in this case, you know, I’m not really sure, I really like to leave it to readers to sort of parse the evidence in the book, and I’m careful not to, I think we can never really look, you know, into someone else’s heart or into their soul. We have to, we gather certain amount of evidence in what’s happening in their environment and about, you know, who they are as people, what their values are, and I think it’s really, I want readers to have that sense of discovery, just sort of make those judgments for themselves. Like, what might’ve motivated Dr. King to sort of move maybe a little too quickly on this, to override maybe even her better judgment when so much of her scholarship in the past it had not been the subject of this kind of scrutiny.

Jared: Yeah, so, and not to get too far afield, but have you, you know, I can just see it so many lessons here for, I think I’ve mentioned this already as we’ve been talking, but, you know, in our modern day and when we think about truth we think we can just kind of Google something or watch a YouTube video and come to the truth of it because it “makes sense to us.” And I just, reading through your book and flipping through it and kind of getting the pieces, I just kept thinking, like, there are these established processes for truth-finding and, you know, what would you say to everyday people? Like, do you know of like, tools or resources from a journalist’s perspective, like, if you want to think like a journalist and understand what it is to get truth in our field, what is something that everyday people could maybe learn? Because I think we could all get some of these tools.

Ariel: Well, I mean, I’ll be honest, I think it’s the sort of tools that a lot of us learn even in grade school which is you have to have evidence and you have to have corroboration. So, it’s not enough to simply have one person tell you something or to have, you know, to take the word of, in this case, the collector, who presented Karen King with the papyrus. He told her a story about where it came from which he never investigated. And I think that, you know, and you have to have, and this is true of good journalism and the best newspapers do this every day, which is why it sickens me when people use the term fake news because the best journalists, and I think most journalists, follow these sorts of protocols. Which is if someone comes to you with a sensational claim, you have to vet it, which means you have to find out whether you can corroborate it with other people, you can corroborate with other sources, you have to leave the office, you can’t just sort of Google it, you have to go to archives, you have to knock on doors, if you’re able to knock on doors, call people up, and make sure that there’s, like, multiple overlapping, confirming evidence from, if possible, from living people. So, it’s easy to tell, sort of to tell a lie and get people really excited about something that they’ve always wanted to be true. So, you have to almost resist that. Like, when someone comes to you with something, like, “oh, my gosh! This is perfect! This is exactly what I’ve been saying my whole life.” That’s precisely the moment where in the back of your head you should be going, “wait a second. I’m really excited about this. I need to just, take a breather here, sleep on it, and now I need to sort of go to back to the process.” And that process has to be confirmation, validation, documents, evidence, multiple overlapping pieces of evidence for the claim that one is going to, sort of, put into the world.


Jared: So, going back, you talked about the forger. In this case, we didn’t talk a lot about that character, but maybe say a little bit about that. But maybe, I’d be curious if you could end that with what were some of the things that maybe Karen could have done or even learned from a journalist to help her figure out earlier on that this was a forgery.

Pete: Yeah, to not do that.

Jared: To not even go down that road.

Ariel: And I won’t even, I think this goes really much, much beyond Dr. King.

Pete: Right.

Jared: Exactly, yeah.

Ariel: There is now sort of an awake, there’s an awakening in the field of biblical studies and in archeology. Archeology was probably way ahead of everybody else and papyrology, which is the study of papyri, that provenance matters. That if you don’t know where this manuscript or an object comes from, then you could be in trouble on multiple fronts. Number one, it could be looted, you know. It could be stolen from a place like Iraq or Egypt, and this is the trouble that the Green family got in trouble. The Green family, the Hobby Lobby family has gotten into plenty of trouble with the Museum of the Bible where they simply did not ask the kinds of hard questions about where these artifacts are coming from that we’re going to be putting in our museum. This is an evangelical family, you know, this is not sort of, these scammers don’t play favorites, they don’t care if you’re patriarchal, evangelical billionaire or a progressive Harvard scholar, they will seek out the thing that you always want to be true and they will seek to have you acquire it or make it famous. So, I just want to make that clear, like, this is not about liberal/conservative –

Pete: Right, right.

Jared: Yup.

Ariel: Evangelical/atheist. Any one of us could fall victim to these scams. So, the question is provenance, chain of ownership. You have to, what scholars are learning is that they have to be able to go back and spend time understanding how the document, how the new sculpture, how the inscription, how the ossuary that you’ve been given, where, who, trace that back to the moment it came out of the ground if you can. Who were the previous owners, when and how did it exchange hands? And it’s not enough to just say, oh, a collector gave me a letter from a previous owner and it says that he owned it. That’s not enough. You need to make phone calls, you need to go out into the world, you need to look for other forms of documentation. When all of your information about provenance comes from a single source, and that source is vested in having you believe that something is true, that’s not a good source. It’s not a sufficient source. So, I think the biggest takeaway, and that scholars were already thinking about this. But it’s now, I think post Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, it’s something that they’re thinking about in really serious ways and they’re way smarter people than me on this who are discussing this. But, how do we make sure that we know the origin of the manuscripts and the sensational objects that are coming our way in a field which, as you just said, is pretty picked over. There are a finite number of texts, people can pick them over and they do and they’re often, heck, I attended the Society for Biblical Literature, it’s the largest annual conference of biblical scholars in the world. It attracts 10,000 scholars every year, and they’re all picking over a relatively small number of texts. So, when a new one comes along it is extremely exciting. And you know, for instance, the Gospel of Judas came along a few years, that is an authentic, non-canonical text that generated a lot of excitement. That one happened to be authentic and it was a big deal for that reason. But to get back your point, I think the real takeaway is provenance matters.

Jared: It seems so obvious too, just if you think about it. I’m like, it’s like a more intense version of hey, I have this outfit from an Elton John concert in the 70’s. Like, you would want to trace it back and sort of figure out how would we know that that’s actually where it came from.

Ariel: Right.

Jared: So, it’s just more intense than that. It makes a lot of sense.

Pete: Well, yeah. Ariel, listen, thank you so much for joining us today. I mean, this is a fascinating book, and have we even talked about the title yet? What’s this book that you wrote?

Ariel: Oh, sure!


The book is called Veritas

Pete: Yeah! The people want to know! Yeah, Veritas.

Ariel: Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.

Pete: Right. And veritas is the, veritas is tied to Harvard.

Ariel: Correct. That’s the Harvard motto, it goes back to 1643, but it’s not just sort of a casual, sort of, gimmicky illusion to the Harvard name. It actually sort of undergirds the sort of the biggest, what I see as the biggest theme in the book which is how does one, how do different people go about truth seeking. And we haven’t talked about the mystery man who presented this fragment to Karen King, but a good deal of the book concerns my sort of shoe leather investigation into who this gentlemen is, his backstory, and I hope that readers really find that to be a kind of a gripping detective story because he’s an absolutely fascinating figure.


Jared: Yeah, we may, in the intro, we may add that little description you gave us just to tantalize people –

Pete: [Laughter]

Jared: Because we were disappointed, we don’t have time to get into it. It’s super interesting.

Ariel: Yeah, no. Well, we don’t need to, we don’t need to give away all the spoilers, right?

Jared: Exactly.

Pete: That’s right. Yeah, make ‘em buy it. Make ‘em buy it, no problem.

Jared: Excellent. Is there people, is there a way people can find you online if they want to connect more or keep following your writings as you have other things that come out?

Ariel: Yeah, sure. So, my website is http://www.arielsabar.com/. I’m on Twitter as well, @arielsabar, on Facebook, but the website is a really great way to keep up with what’s going on and with the book and with other magazine stories that I write from time to time.

Jared: Excellent. Well, thank you so much for coming on. It was just a topic that it took a different slant than our normal topics, but it’s so relevant to what we talk about every week on the podcast so, thank you so much.


Ariel: Thanks, it was a pleasure.

Pete: Thank you, Ariel. Appreciate it.

[Music begins]

Pete: All right normal people, thanks for listening to this episode of the podcast. If you have a change, again, pick up Ariel Sabar’s book Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. Good read.

Jared: And you know what? Before you go, we just wanted to remind you, and maybe we’re just coming to this on our own, we’re coming into our own here and recognizing at the end of the day, The Bible for Normal People is more than a podcast. We have at least 100, maybe 150 videos now up on Patreon that explores all kinds of questions related to the things that we talk about here on the podcast. So, Pete, myself, are putting up videos every week. So, that in itself is worth maybe a visit to Patreon, so to go https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople

where you can check out those videos. We also have a Slack group with several hundred people who are talking about the impact of these kinds of questions on their everyday life and what it means for church and belonging and community.

Pete: And we learn a lot from that Slack group.

Jared: Yeah.

Pete: I mean, we’ve got some really, really nice, smart people. You know? So, yeah.

Jared: Yeah, absolutely.

Pete: We also sell baked goods. You didn’t mention that.

Jared: We do not sell baked goods, that’s false advertising.

Pete: Oh, I thought we did.

Jared: No, no.

Pete: Okay, I read that wrong. I read the memo wrong.

Jared: We could maybe sell –

Pete: But well sell merchandise.

Jared: We could sell, yeah, we do sell merchandise, yeah.

Pete: Awesome t-shirts and onesies.

Jared: But just go to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople where you can find more about how to connect with the community here at The Bible for Normal People.

Pete: All right folks, see ya.


Narrator: Thanks, as always, to our team: producer, Megan Cammack; audio engineer, Dave Gerhart; creative director, Tessa Stultz; marketing and administration, Reed Lively; and transcriptionist, Stephanie Speight. From Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team, thanks for listening.

[Music ends]

[End of recorded material]

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

Pete Ruins Exodus (Part 1)

March 11, 2019

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

Read the transcript


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

Jared:  And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty Intro Music]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Creation theme.  That’s a big thing. 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just love that.  God saw.  God knew. 

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

[Outro Music Begins]

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

[Music fades]