Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

James Martin: The Gift of Imagination in Reading Scripture

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with James Martin about the Jesuit order, praying with the Bible, and the gift of imagination in biblical interpretation as they explore the following questions:

  • What sets Jesuits apart from other Catholic orders?
  • Is there a difference between how Jesuits view the Bible and how other Catholics view the Bible?
  • How did the Jesuits get started?
  • What are some ways one can pray with the Bible?
  • Why is imagination important to bring into reading the Bible?
  • What is Dei verbum?
  • How does James Martin use the Bible in thinking about the issues we face today?
  • What is Ignatian Contemplation?
  • How can the Bible be God’s word but not be read literally?
  • How does imagination help us develop empathy?
  • Why do some people struggle to bring their imagination to biblical interpretation?


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

“It’s the both/and. It’s scripture study, it’s listening to sermons, it’s being attentive to scripture scholars and its encountering [Scripture] on your own.” @JamesMartinSJ

“The more you know factually, I think the more it helps you imaginatively.” @JamesMartinSJ

“In fact, the beginning of the spiritual exercises is just that, it’s looking at your blessings, and then you’re overwhelmed by, you know, how much God loves you. And gradually, which I think is really beautiful, organically, you start to see your own shadow side.” @JamesMartinSJ

“Part of it is getting people in touch with God, not their conception of God, which are two different things.” @JamesMartinSJ

“There’s no real Jesuit way of interpreting the Bible, I think the distinctive Jesuit contribution is praying with the Bible.” @JamesMartinSJ

Mentioned in This Episode

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Read the transcript

Pete: 00:01 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]  
[Beginning of recorded material]  
Jared:   Welcome everyone to this first episode of the fourth season of the Bible for Normal People.  
[Audible group cheering]  
Pete:   Woot, woot.  
Jared:   Did you miss us? I hope so.  
Pete:   Are you talking to me?  
Jared:   We miss us.   [Laughter]  
Pete:   I didn’t miss me at all. I’m tired of me, actually. I need a break.  
Jared:   Well, today, we are going to talk about the gift of imagination in reading Scripture and we’re talking with Father Jim Martin.  
Pete:   Yeah, Jim Martin, AKA, James Martin.  
Jared:   You may know him as James Martin.  
Pete:   But he’s, he’s pretty cool, so. Anyway, but, Jim has, ya know. A lot of you probably know really, a lot about him. He’s been all over the place, but he’s written a bunch of books. Some of them I’ve read, he’s written quite a few, but, uh, The Jesuit Guide for Almost Everything, which was a really cool book, and then Between Heaven and Mirth, and it’s about joy and humor and laughter as sort of foundational to Christian life which is not something you hear all the time and it’s pretty funny.  
Jared:   His most recent book is Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity, so that just came out a few years ago.  
Pete:   Yeah, and he’s got another one coming out in a year or something like that.  
Jared:   Right, and he let us know that he met with the Pope —  
Pete:   Yes!!!  

— four months ago.  
Pete:   Yes, and he said we should have him on as a guest.  
Jared:   I could feel that. I could tell he did, cause I could still feel he had a little bit of that vibe —  
Pete:   That glow…
Jared:   The Pope Glow.
Pete:   The Pope glow, right?    [Chuckles]   He also said he doesn’t know English very well so it’s not gonna happen. We can’t have him here, sorry.  
Jared:   Mm hmm, sorry.  
Pete:   But yeah, anyway. So, he’s also an editor for the Jesuit magazine – the editor, right – for the Jesuit magazine, America, and ya know, he is, ya know buddies with Stephen Colbert. Not that we’re name dropping, but that’s pretty cool, ya know. He’s been in that sort of stratosphere —  
Jared   Yeah, he’s been able to bring, I think, a religious conversation to more public spaces and I think that’s a really important thing to do as we–  
Pete:   Mm hmm.  
Jared:   Ya know, we had Jonathan Merritt on to talk about the importance of kind of these religious words that are falling out of favor and we don’t know what to do with and he has a platform to do that, so.  
Pete:   Yeah, and his approach, ya know, we’ll let him speak for himself, but it’s, it was really, it’s familiar to me now, but only because of things that I’ve had to pass through over the past 15-20 years. Where, there was a time in my life where I would’ve been sort of like, pushing this off and saying that this isn’t right. But he says it in such a winsome, dare I say spiritually mature way. Ya know, I think it’s so interesting just this gift of imagination. It’s not a problem to get over, it’s actually a gift that we have for accessing Scripture and it was really a lot of fun to hear him tell Bible stories from that point of view.  
Jared:   Mm hmm. Alright, well, let’s get into this conversation with Jim Martin.  
[Upbeat transition music plays in background]  
Jim:   But you know, our imagination is a gift that God gives us. Even when Jesus is recounting a parable, he’s asking people to kind of imagine themselves in the story. We have to remind ourselves that these are written by four different people or four different editors who put their stories together four different times in four different communities That doesn’t mean they’re false, it just doesn’t mean that ya know, you can take these things literally.    
[End of transition music]  
Jared:   Well, welcome Jim to this episode of The Bible for Normal People.  
Jim:   My pleasure. Thanks for inviting me.  
Jared:   We have a whole host of things we are so eager to talk to you about today, but let’s start with just a little bit of your spiritual biography. We don’t often get a chance to sit and talk with someone who is part of the Jesuit order, so how does one come to that decision in their life?  
Jim:   Well, it’s a long and winding road to quote the Beatles, I guess. I grew up in a Catholic family, but not super religious. Didn’t go to Catholic schools, didn’t go to a Catholic high school or a Catholic college. Went to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, worked for General Electric for six years, this is back in the 80’s. And then I started to feel dissatisfied and sort of wanted something more, something else, and I stumbled upon the writings of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, and that just really opened up my eyes to just a new way of living and, uh, eventually someone put me in touch with the Jesuits. They’re a Catholic men’s religious order. We take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. We live in community. We do all sorts of different kinds of work. We’re probably most known in the States for our colleges and universities and high schools. You know, Georgetown, Boston College, Florida, Loyola, Chicago, and on and on and on. And yeah, I left the corporate world in 1988 and never looked back. So, it’s been a great, I don’t know, I hope it’s continuing. It’s been a great road.  
Pete:   Right. Well, you mentioned the Jesuits. Tell us a little bit more about what Jesuits are about. Maybe eventually focusing on how they approach the Bible and, this is a lot to ask, but also maybe comparing briefly with other orders, because, ya know, Catholicism is something that maybe some of our listeners just aren’t that familiar with.  
Jim: 05:04 Yeah, that’s kinda complicated. I mean, within the Catholic church, there are what are called religious orders or religious communities. And most people know them by name. They know the Jesuits or the Dominicans or the Benedictines or the Franciscans, and it’s basically groups of people who live together. Again, they profess those vows – poverty, chastity, and obedience. They’re still Catholic, obviously. There’s priests and brothers and sisters and they usually have a distinctive, what we call, charism or spirit. So, for the Franciscans, what are they known for? They’re known for their love of poverty, right? Dominicans are known for preaching and teaching, and not every Dominican preaches and teaches, but that’s kind of their foundation. The Jesuits are founded in, oh my gosh, it just slipped my mind, how terrible.   [Laughter]  
Pete:   [Laughter]  
Jim:   The Jesuits are founded in 1540, um, by Ignatius who was born in 1491. That’s where I got confused. He was a Spanish former knight and he had a conversion experience and his idea was, um, you know, basically to draw people together to help, as he said, help souls. So, it’s very general, open kind of spirituality. You know, we’re all over the world now. I think there’s, gosh, 15,000 of us at this point. And we do all sorts of things, our spirituality can be summed up I think in the words “finding God in all things”. And so, you can have Jesuit professors, Jesuit priests, a friend of mine is the Catholic chaplain at San Quentin prison in California. There are Jesuit writers, I worked with refugees in East Africa for a while. So, you know, we’re all over the place and as the saying goes, “If you’ve met one Jesuit, you’ve met one Jesuit.”  
Pete:    [Laughter]
Jared:   So, to take that a step further, in particular, like, within the Jesuit order – how would the Bible have been esteemed, how would it have been approached, are there ways of reading it and interpreting it that would be maybe universally Catholic in some senses but maybe unique to the Jesuit order in others?  
Jim:   Yeah, well, that’s a great question. It’s important to say that, you know, the Jesuit way of looking at the Bible is the Catholic way of looking at the Bible and it’s hard to sum up, but there’s a great document, which, I doubt people are gonna go and read now – it’s called Dei verbum from the second Vatican council in the 1960’s. You know, and basically, it’s, we’re not fundamentalists, we’re not literalists and so we read it with an intelligent eye. But, ya know, we see it as the inspired word of God, you know, as all Catholics do. But again, we’re not literalists. We’re not fundamentalists, and in fact, I don’t think you can be because, I mean, there are so many differences and, for example, in the Gospels, you know, just in terms of what Jesus said and what Jesus did. It’s the inspired word of God. It’s the way that God, one of the primary ways that God communicates with us. There’s no real Jesuit way of interpreting the Bible, I think the distinctive Jesuit contribution is praying with the Bible. Praying with Scripture. Praying with the gospel passages. That’s what Jesuits are most known for. I mean there are a lot of Jesuit Biblical scholars. I mean, some great, you know – Joseph Fitzmyer, and Cardinal Martini and Daniel Harrington – I mean, there’s tons of New Testament and Old Testament scholars, but we’re known less for that, um, in general, and more for our way of inviting people to pray with Scripture.  
Pete:   Yeah, and you mentioned Dei verbum? Explain what that is.
Jim:   Yeah, so in the 1960’s there was something called the Second Vatican Council, also called Vatican II, and it was a gathering of, uh, boy, uh, cardinals, archbishops, and bishops from, ya know, all around the world. Pretty much the entire church, convened by Pope John XXIII, who was Pope, who was elected in 1958. We’re talking about the early 60’s now. And basically, what he wanted to do was, you know, in his words, sort of update or open the windows a little bit to what had become kind of a stuffy way of looking at things. And one of the things we looked at, the church looked at, among other things, ya know, for example – our relationship to other religions and religious liberty, the church itself – was Scripture. And they wrote a beautiful document called Dei verbum, you know, the word of God – inviting Catholics to sort of rediscover the treasures of Scripture. I mean, I think, as you know, Protestants were much more associated with understanding the Bible. I’ll tell you, may I tell you a funny story quickly?  
Jared:   Mm hmm.  
Pete:   Yeah!  
Jim:   My new Testament professor, who I’ve already mentioned, Father Daniel Harrington, just this tremendous Scripture/New Testament professor, and, you know, just amazing and very influential on the Jesuits and a prolific writer. He told this story of growing up as a boy, in an Irish Catholic family in Boston, and a Bible salesman came to do the door, right? So, Dan is about seven years old and his Irish Catholic mother opens the door and says, you know, we’re selling Bibles and his mother says, “we’re Catholic, we don’t read the Bible” and shut the door in his face.   [Laughter]  
Pete: 10:07    [Laughter]
Jim:   This is Dan Harrington’s mother. So that’s basically the attitude that Dei verbum was sort of battling. There were a lot of documents before that, but, it was a real invitation for Catholics to, ya know, rediscover the Bible, right, as part of their heritage and, which sounds like a funny thing to say now, but, you know, there’s still a sort of lag, I think, among Catholics in terms of their understanding of the Bible.  
Jared:   So, in that document, I want to maybe kind of dig into some specifics. So, in the Dei verbum, there’s this language which I think, actually, could tie us Protestants and Catholics together. John Calvin maybe mentioned something similar in his institutes about God lisping to His children in the Bible. And there’s this section that talks about, you know, while the truth and holiness of God always remains intact, the marvelous condescension of eternal wisdom is clearly shown. And then it talks about that God has adapted His language with thoughtful concern for our weak human nature. And, so, I’m just curious, when it comes to like, modern day issues, you know, you talk about the Bible as God’s word but not literal. I think for a lot of our listeners and for me growing up, that would have been kind of a contradiction. Like, OK, how could it be God’s word if it’s not, if we don’t read it in this way? Because I was kind of taught that those go together. So, when it comes today as we think about the Bible as an ethical guide or a moral guide, I mean maybe that’s not even the right category to put the Bible in. But how do you see this idea that we find here in the Dei verbum about God sort of being kind enough to accommodate or adapt Himself to our weakness. How does that work in, you know, basically, how do you use the Bible today as you’re thinking about the issues that we face?  
Jim:   Well, those are all good questions, and what I meant by, you know, not taking it literally is not that it’s not true, or not that it doesn’t…lets focus on the Gospels for example. You know, the Gospels tell the story of the, you know, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, right, who is the center of my life. But they differ on, you know, specifics as we know. Right? I mean, there are attempts to harmonize the Gospels, but, you know, for example, the infancy narratives, which we’re thinking of around Christmas time, right? In Matthew and Luke, they don’t match up totally. They just don’t, right? They’re told in slightly different ways; they diverge a little bit. And then in Mark and in John there are no infancy narratives. Now, what does that mean? You know, it simply means that we have to remind ourselves that these are written by, you know, four different people or four different editors who put their stories together in four different times in four different communities. That doesn’t mean they’re false, it just doesn’t mean that, you know, you can take these things literally. You know, they are simply put, discrepancies among the Gospels, right? What did Jesus say in his Sermon on the Mount? Did He say, “blessed are the poor,” or “blessed are the poor in spirit,” right? So, so that’s the point. You have to sort of look at these things with a, with a sort of an intelligent eye. And, you know, He’s quoted differently in different Gospels, He says different things from the cross, and, so yeah, it’s not dismissing it, but it’s also looking carefully at what biblical scholars tell us about, for example, how these books were put together, right?  
Pete:   Mm hmm.
Jim:   One of my favorite examples, it’s a very small example, is, you know, when Jesus heals the man in Capernaum who is lowered through the roof, right? You remember that story?  
Pete:   Yeah.
Jim:   In Mark it said, they unroofed the roof, right? Mark’s the earliest gospel. In Luke, they said they took off the roof tiles. OK, now, which is it? You can’t read that literally. I mean, they either ripped off the thatch roof, or they took off the roof tiles. Well, if you know a little bit about Luke being written later, and him writing for a little bit more of a citified audience, you know, a little bit more of a sophisticated audience, he put that in. He put that detail in. That doesn’t mean the story never happened, but it does mean that, you know, there are discrepancies that we have to look at. So that’s what I mean about not taking it literally and not being upset when you see that, you know, I think it’s Mark and Luke, you know, do that a little differently. That’s the point.  
Pete:   Okay.
Jim:   You don’t get upset. You can still see it as a true story, and more importantly, you know, a story that conveys a much deeper meaning than what the roof looked like.   
Pete:   Right. Well, let me fold something in here talking about the Dei verbum and now we’re looking at the birth narratives and how they differ. To fold into that historical criticism of it, and maybe what the Dei verbum has said about historical criticism, but specifically, you know, with the birth narratives, because, you know, they are quite different. You have the slaughter of the innocence, but only in one, right? And you have the flight, you know, to and from Egypt in one, not the other. And you have the angels appearing in one, and not the other. And that raises the question as you know, well, what happened? Or did both of these, do we mesh them together, or is there room in, let’s say a Jesuit or Catholic spirituality of Scripture, if we can put it that way, well listen, some of these things may be constructed by the authors of these Gospels, and maybe need not be historical. And I ask that because, you know, Like Jared said before, a lot of Protestants coming from more conservative backgrounds, that’s something that they face all the time and they feel they need to maybe take a step away from the way they were raised to think about this text. What’s your opinion on all that I just said?   [Chuckles]  
Jim: 15:44 Yeah, that’s a very profound question and I don’t want to say something like, “well, it’s all a myth” or “it doesn’t really matter, what matters is that we believe in something.” No, I mean, I believe that those stories tell the truth about how Jesus was born, but, however, they differ because they are four different people telling the stories and they stress certain things and others don’t stress certain things, and in fact, as you know, John doesn’t have those infancy narratives, or Mark, at all. You know, I’ve been saying to people look, if I were telling this story about this podcast, okay, and I told my experience of this story – let’s say someone else told the experience of the story of the podcast story starting up. Another person had an experience of listening to the podcast, and then another, maybe your parents or something, wrote a book about how the podcast affected them. They are going to stress things and leave things out and highlight things and maybe even embellish things that another person won’t, right? That doesn’t mean that their stories are wrong, it just means that they’re telling it from a different point of view, right? Now, I do think that there are probably some elements of the infancy narratives that were probably added on, right? I mean, it’s very hard to tell which ones, right? I mean, did the wisemen actually bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh, or are those symbolic? It’s very hard to know. If I get up to heaven, I’ve always said this, if I get up to heaven and Jesus said to me, “you know what? It happened exactly like it was in the Gospels where there was gold, frankincense, and myrrh”. I’ll say “fine.” If Jesus says, “you know what, there were wisemen. It wasn’t quite like that. The gold, frankincense and myrrh were added later by the gospelers.” I’ll say, “fine.” All right? I mean, frankly, if Jesus says anything to me, I’ll say, “fine.”  
Jared:   [Laughter]
Pete:   [Laughter]   Right?  
Jim:   But that’s the point. I mean, not to get so bogged down in the specifics, right, but to take this story as a whole, right? I mean, I believe this story happened more or less as it was written, right, in the infancy narratives. But again, if one of those elements, ya know, falls out, and it’s found out to be a later addition, right? It doesn’t destroy my faith in, ya know, in the birth of Jesus.  
Jared:   Well, and maybe to go off of that a little bit with something you said earlier, you talked about the deeper meaning. Like, so maybe don’t worry so much about that particular question of what exactly happened, because there’s not necessarily a lot of practical import based on that, but looking for that deeper meaning. I wanted to tie that in with, maybe to what you said about praying with the Bible, and a particular Jesuit distinctive. So, what, can you say more about that, what does that mean, and what are kind of the practical implications of that practice?  
Jim:   Yeah, but let me respond a little bit to what you just said, because I think it’s an important point. I do think that there’s a danger, I know you’re not saying this, there’s a danger in saying, “well, the deeper meaning is that just Jesus was born.” Which, ya know, that’s an important meaning obviously, that’s the incarnation, that’s very important. I mean, I do think that those stories deserve real attention, and the story, ya know, for example, of Jesus being born to a poor family on the run, ya know, in occupied territory, who then have to take their child to Egypt, you know, is essentially a refugee. That is, the specifics of the story are important as well. So, ya know, the reader, at least in the Catholic tradition, should come to the Gospels and come to the Bible itself, you know, with a sense of wanting to meet God there, with a sense of kind of intelligence. But also, I think with a sense of trust and a sense of generosity, as one of my teachers used to say, you know, to the Gospels and to the story, so. But anyway, I’m sorry. Can you repeat that second question you had?  
Jared:   Yeah, it was just, you know, when you had mentioned praying with the Bible, if you could just say a little bit more. Because, I agree, I think the details, you know. I just think with our background with seminary and graduate school, and Pete and his professorship, I think we are emphasizing a lot that these things matter. The discrepancies matter, the details matter, it all matters, but there’s also this sense where we also wanna say, there’s this other element of spiritual practice. And so, can you talk about praying with the Bible, what do you mean by that and what’s the practical implications of it?  
Jim: 19:58 Sure, it’s a very, I would say, specific practice that the Jesuits are known for. We’re not the ones that invented it, we like to take credit for it, but we did not invent it. I would say that it was popularized by Saint Ignatius who was the founder of the Jesuits. It’s essentially, you can call it Ignatian Contemplation, or composition of place, or imaginative prayer, and it’s essentially imagining yourself in the Gospel scene in your prayer. Now, that sounds sort of simple and almost elementary, but it can be very profound. So, for example, let’s take the infancy narrative since we’re talking about that. If you take, for example, you know, the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke. So, let’s start with the annunciation, right? You would imagine yourself in that scene. You would close your eyes and say, all right, what do I see? Okay, now what does Mary look like in this scene, where is she, what kind of a house is she in? When the angel appears, what does the angel look like in your imagination? Is it a traditional angel with wings, is it a kind of beam of light, as you said, what is it? What do you hear? You know, what does your voice sound like? What does the angel sound like? What do you smell, right? In some passages, that’s not going to be very important, but you know, for example, if you’re at the wedding feast of Cana you’re going to smell a lot of food and wine and all that. What do you taste? You know, what do you feel? I mean, what are you wearing? If you’re in a miracle story, if you’re in the story of the man being healed in Capernaum, being lowered down the roof, you know, boy, what do you imagine? Just all the sights and the sounds and the visual. And then, you place yourself in this scene and you pray with it and you see what happens. And let me tell you, it can be extremely powerful for people, because it’s experiencing through your imagination, which is a gift from God, alright? It’s a gift through your imagination, this kind of entry into the Gospel passage, or more broadly into the Bible. And it is a favorite way for Jesuits to pray and to encourage others to pray, it can be really, and I have to say this, and this is not meant as any sort of critique. It can be really eye opening for a lot of Protestants who have not been invited into this way of praying.  
Pete:   Sounds like a critique to me and that’s fine.   [Laughter]  
Jim:   Oh no! It’s not meant to be.  
Pete:    [Laughter]
Jim:   You know, because, I think, you know, just as you might say that Catholics have not,   [Background music begins]   many Catholics have not had the experience of, you know, being invited to learn the Bible, even read the Bible. I found that in my experience, sometimes Protestants have not been invited to pray in this particular way, with the Scriptures.
Producer:    [Producers Group Endorsement]  
Jim:   So, it’s really profound, and, you know, some pretty amazing things can happen in terms of insights, emotions, desires, memories, feelings – I’m writing a book about this right now which is why it’s on the tip of my tongue.
Pete:   Mmm.
Jim:   So, for, can I give you an example?
Pete:   Yes, please.
Jared:   Sure.
Jim:   Well, let’s say you’re praying with the storm at sea, one of the many storms at sea and you imagine yourself in the Scripture reading, and you’re one of the disciples. And, as we know, you know, it’s dark outside and there’s a storm and the disciples are afraid, and they say to Jesus, you know, “why are you asleep? Don’t you care about us?” and He stands up and rebukes – I love that word rebukes – the storm and there’s a dead calm. And they say, “who is this then that even the wind and waves obey Him?” So very well-known story. Now, you know, it’s one thing to read it and to say, “okay, that’s Jesus’ power over nature, that’s a nature miracle.” It’s another thing to hear a sermon or a homily about it where someone tells you this is what this means, or this is an interpretation. It’s another thing to put yourself in there and see what happens. And often times, for example, let’s say you’re praying and you, you start to feel, well what is wrong with Jesus? Why isn’t he helping the disciples, right? And I feel Jesus is asleep in my life. And you start to feel a little sadness or disappointment over something that is happening in your life where Jesus feels asleep, right? And you might be moved in that prayer to talk to Jesus about it. What’s he going to say to you in your prayer? So, it can be really powerful for people. That’s a very popular passage on retreats for people. It can be very powerful for people to talk to Jesus and say, you know, “do you care about us, do you care about me?” And then also to listen to Jesus, if you’re able to do this in your prayer, what’s Jesus’ response to you? You know, so, it kind of makes this story your own in a way that simply reading it or, you know, having someone preach about it, or even reading about it does not. And, doesn’t happen all the time, but it can be really transformative. I mean, I’ve had experiences in prayer that have kind of changed my life in that particular way of praying. So that’s the, that’s Ignatian Contemplation, that’s our Jesuit way of praying, and I think that’s our great gift to the world. It’s not, you know, all these universities with great basketball teams, it’s this.  
Pete: 26:07 [Laughter]
Jared:   Well, it’s a very interesting way of approaching what would have often, at least, you know, in my background, been this importance on the relevancy of the Bible to our life. So we’re always kind of trying to apply the Bible to our life, and when it’s kind of sermon style or reading it on our own, we tend to kind of piecemeal it, and we have as the backdrop and the framework, our life, and then we’re just taking pieces of the Bible, or pieces of these stories to fit. And this kind of turns that it on its head where it’s this immersive and a wholistic experience of placing our self in that world and exploring it. So, it’s sort of, it’s still relevant. It’s more that we’re applying ourselves to the Bible, rather than the Bible applying to our life, and I really appreciate that.  
Jim:   That’s right! And it’s also allowing the Holy Spirit to work within you, and to let God guide you, and it’s, you know, for some people it can be very frightening, all right? Because they’re sort of untethered to, you know, someone on the outside telling them what should happen, right? Like, this is what you should feel. I mean, I’ll tell you an interesting story. I was on the radio show of Cardinal Dolan, who is the Archbishop of New York here a couple of years ago, and we were talking about this topic, and he had gone on a retreat with some Jesuits, and they invited him, funny enough, to pray about the nativity scene. And, you know, he imagined himself in the stable. It’s a very common prayer practice, and it’s a very common passage to use, and in his prayer, he imagined Mary giving him the baby, asking him to hold the baby, you know, the Christ-child. And, it was just a surprise to him, because he was expecting to simply look at what was happening, right? But in a lot of these imaginative prayers, what happens is you’re sort of drawn into it. And he basically held Jesus, you know, for the prayer. And I said to him, I sort of, you know, chanced some spiritual direction, and I said to him, “well I bet the next time that you read the infancy narrative, it wasn’t the same.” He said, “no, absolutely not, it was totally different for me.” Because now it was his story, all right?  
Pete:   Mm hmm.
Jim:   It was his experience of the story and it’s, I can’t describe it, it’s just different. It’s the difference between, it’s the difference between someone telling you what it’s like to swim in the ocean, and reading a book about it, and watching a video about it, and jumping in the ocean. That’s the difference.  
Pete:   Yeah, you know, I mean, what you’re saying – some pieces are coming together for me here and the question that I’m trying to articulate. But, just to contrast this with, again, the way I was trained, the way Jared was trained, the way I think many Protestants have been taught; I think what other evangelical or maybe mainline, I don’t know if it makes much of a difference, but, you know, the basis for scriptural reading is, what some call the grammatical historical method. You read the words and you understand the history, sort of in a detached sense, and on the basis of that, you understand the text and then you understand God. And you sort of, it, what you’re suggesting, there’s more of a spiritual immediacy in reading of Scripture, because in a way, and I mean this in a very positive way, you’re bypassing the critical mind, you’re maybe putting the left brain on pause for a minute, and intuitively and emotionally engaging the text.  
Jim: 29:39 Absolutely! I mean, what you’re talking about, which is part of, you know, our spiritual lives, is mainly insight, which is very important. And so, you can get it, even in this practice, in Ignatian Contemplation, you can get an insight. So, one of the common insights about, say, the storm at sea is, I’m not surprised that the disciples were afraid. You know, if you see Jesus in your mind’s eye as stilling the storm, you say, oh my gosh, that must’ve been really frightening, and you get an insight. Wow, I never thought of the disciples really being afraid of this guy that they were following as well as loving Him. So that’s great, but by the same token, to your point, you can experience other things. So, for example, deep emotion, right? You can experience sadness that Jesus isn’t, you know, more active in your life, or seemingly. You can experience anger, you can experience a desire to, say, in the infancy narrative to kind of care for people who are in childbirth. You can have memories that come up, right? You can even have words and images that come up, so it is, it’s much more immersive, and it’s not, you know, I would say you do bring a critical eye to it as much as you know, but you don’t have to be a Bible scholar to do this, right? I mean, you can take it at face value.  
Pete:   Right.  
Jim:   You know, for example, sometimes people will do a meditation like this and it will be in current day. So, I had a friend do a meditation on retreat, and when he did the storm at sea, he was in a boat that his Dad had.   [Laughter]  
 Pete:   [Laughter]
 Jim:   You know, with like, an outboard motor. And he said, “that’s just what came to me.” And that was fine. You know, that’s okay. You know, I mean, obviously Jesus and the disciples didn’t have outboard motors, but it’s okay. It’s sort of letting God work through your imagination. I want to say one more quick thing. One of the critiques is, “well, it’s all in my head.” Well, that’s bologna. “It’s all in my head.” But, you know, our imagination is a gift that God gives us, and, you know —  
Pete:   Yeah, and that has been very important to me the past, I don’t know, decade or so. You know, and people like Walter Brueggemann or Richard Rohr, or others where the imagination is not your enemy. Which is how, I mean, that’s why I’m really attracted to that word, and I know Jared is too, because we know how people in our background would react to this. It’s —  
Jared:   Well, the whole point of biblical studies was to bracket that out.
Pete:   Right, to get your imagination out of the way and just get to the facts, what really happened, and not this more, again, immediate access to, like you said before, the Holy Spirit. But, you know, people say, well this is just, it’s not just in your head, but it’s just subjective, and what you need is objectivity if you want to really access scripture.  
Jim:   Yeah to both/and. You can’t, I mean, to be blunt, you can’t be kind of an idiot when you come to Scripture.  
Pete:   Oh, you’d be surprised Jim, I don’t know…
Jim:   [Laughter]   No, but I mean, you know, you have to understand, you know, I mean, something simple. That there are four Gospels, they were written by four different people. Something, you know, as basic as that. There weren’t reporters there, right? They don’t, you know those kinds of sort of basic things. But, by the same token, you don’t have to be, you know, a biblical scholar and know Greek and Hebrew to kind of pray with this stuff. I’m glad you like the imagination. You know, one of the things I like to remind people, is that Jesus asked people to do this. I mean, when he says “a sower went out to sow” in the parables, he’s saying, “imagine a sower going out to sow,” right?  
Pete:   Mm hmm.
Jim:   Or, “imagine a man who had two sons.” As we understand, he’s creating these stories, he’s not reporting them. And that’s what He’s doing, He’s kind of an – and truly it’s kind of what we do whenever we read scripture. It’s impossible to hear the passion proclaimed or read the passion and not imagine it. It’s happening already. And so, this is just deepening–  
Pete:   Yeah, it’s not just for parables, it’s for anything that we access. New or Old Testament, really.  
Jim:   Absolutely. But, I guess what I’m saying is, even when you hear it, a sermon, on the passion narrative, you’re imagining it. You’re imagining in your mind’s eye already what Jesus looked like on the cross.  
Pete:   Mm hmm.
Jared:   Well, and even, and even to take that even further, I think one of the things that we could exercise more of in our spiritual lives is something like – cause when you said Jesus invites this as well – a lot of those parables are also inviting something like empathy. And I would say empathy by definition requires imagination. And so, building those muscles outside of just our brain power to get to the facts, to being more holistic about what it means to be human, which we are emotional beings as well, I think, is just a really, it’s a healthier way, I think, of looking at Scripture.  
Jim:   Yeah, as I said, it’s the both/and. I mean, it’s Scripture study, it’s listening to sermons, it’s being attentive to Scripture scholars, and it’s encountering it on your own.  
Jared:   Exactly.
Jim:   Because, again, the Holy Spirit is working through you, and you know, might as well pay attention to what the Holy Spirit is saying to you.  
Jared:   And I would say too, it’s a dialectic in the sense that, I feel like for me, the older I get, it’s a lifelong journey of letting those both inform each other. That, as I learn from biblical scholarship, that impacts how I read it, maybe from a more spiritual perspective or a more imaginative perspective. And yet, my imagination is always pushing on that scholarly side as well. And I think that’s an important tension that we don’t want to lose.  
Jim: 35:17 Yeah, and frankly, I love reading – I know this sounds crazy but maybe not to you guys – I love reading scripture commentaries and, you know, so the Sacra Pagina series and —  
Pete:   Mm hmm.
Jim   John Meier’s Marginal Jew and you know, all those things, I love it. And it helps you understand, I hate to stay it, but the mise en scène and, you know, Jesus’ experience and what it was like in, you know, for a century Galilee in Judea. It just helps your prayer more, right? I mean, I’ve been to the holy land now five or six times, and it just helps, I mean, to understand, you know, what Capernaum looked like and, you know, what Bethsaida looked like, and where they were. These are real places, and so, it’s ironic, I mean, the more you know factually, I think the more it helps you imaginatively.  
Pete:   Yeah, and that’s sort of gets to another question that’s in my mind, again, I’m thinking of the backgrounds we’ve had and what a lot of our listeners have had, that it’s hard to get to that place to allow for an imaginative engagement of Scripture when you’ve been told for your whole life that this is, you’re a worm. And there’s nothing good in you, and your imagination will simply lead you astray. But what I’m hearing you say, Jim, is that this is all just a part of being human, and you can’t escape it.  
Jim:   Yes, I mean, one Jesuit way, I mean, the Catholic way of looking at things is a little different. It’s a both/and. Saint Ignatius says, which I love, “we are loved sinners.” Right? I mean, we are loved by God and redeemed by God, and we are also sinful. I mean, all three of us are sinful people. But, you know, that doesn’t mean that we, you know, can’t use our imaginations. I mean, we’re also, we’re, I mean, you know, Saint Paul says it – we’re temples of the Holy Spirit, right? And so, the Holy Spirit dwells within us. You know, one of the great lines in the Second Vatican Council is, you know, in our conscience, in our spirit, you know, it’s where one hears the echoes of God’s voice.  
Pete:   Yeah.
Jim:   You know, and the other thing is that it’s God in charge, it’s not us in charge. It’s not me making something up anyway, it’s being led to the Gospels and, you know, to the Bible, and more broadly, by God who wants to show us something, and frankly, sometimes he shows us something about our sinfulness.  
Pete:   Mm hmm.
Jim:   I mean, if you’re praying about the infancy narratives and you see Mary and Joseph and you realize – oh my gosh, they’re refugees – how am I treating refugees? You know, so it’s not always comforting, it can be very challenging.  
Pete:   You’re hitting on something now too, Jim, that I think, that’s meant a lot to me and I think to others that I know as well. Sort of transitioning to different ways of thinking. This really isn’t ultimately about what you think of the Bible and how it should be read, I think really at the end of the day it comes down to what you think God is like and whether God is on your side leading you somewhere, or whether, and this is a bit of a caricature but I’ll stand by it, whether God is more, sort of off in a distance looking down as sort of a judge waiting to see if you’re going to get the Bible right or not. That’s a common malady that, I mean, I see that in students that I teach at the undergraduate level, when I taught seminary, and this is all wrapped up, you really can’t talk about, let’s say, an imaginative reding of the Bible without a God behind it who values the human experience, and that’s a foreign language for a lot of people.  
Jim:   Well that’s interesting, because I would say that’s kind of surprising that God would not value the human experience since God became human.  
Jared:   [Laughter]   You’d think!  
Pete:   You’d think!   [Laughter]   That’s just one time though. That’s one time, Jim, that’s all that is.   [Laughter continues]  
Jim:   Well, but, you know, I mean, He’s still, you know, Christ is risen, right? I mean, so, He’s, in a way, you know, He’s still human, He’s still experiencing that humanity. No, that is true, I do think that it does depend on an experience of God in one’s own life that is gracious and that is loving and, you know, for people that find that difficult, what we normally do in the Jesuits is to try to get them in touch with that.  
Pete:   Mmm.
Jim:   So often in the beginning of a retreat, we just say, “take a few days just to pray about the way that God has blessed you.” In fact, the beginning of the spiritual exercises is just that, it’s looking at your blessings, and then you’re overwhelmed by, you know, how much God loves you. And gradually, which I think is really beautiful, organically, you start to see your own shadow side. As a Jesuit friend of mine likes to say, I love this expression, “in the sunshine of God’s love we see our shadows.”  
Pete:   Mmm.
Jim:   And so, what happens? What happens is, in my experience, people end up seeing themselves as what we said again, loved sinners. So, it’s both/and. God loves you, you’re, you know, you’re imperfect, but God loves you, God’s blessed you in all these things. And so, that sort of sets the stage for this ability to relate to God and to trust in God. I mean, I, you know, I always go back to, if we’re going to talk about, you know, quoting scripture. I always go back to Jeremiah 29:11, you know, “I know the plans I have for you.” Plans for your welfare and for peace and, you know, God’s on your side. I’m also, look, how can we doubt that God’s on humanities side? I mean, Jesus comes down, He aligns himself with us, He dies for us on the cross. I mean, what more does God have to do to prove that?  
Pete: 40:34 Mm hmm, yeah.
Jared:   Yeah, and it seems like, again, it’s another one of those dialectics where we can’t lose either side. That we are loved, and that we are imperfect. And I think it’s more that we tend to have a hard time feeling capable of being loved, or belonging, when we’re imperfect. But that’s, I think, part of what the Gospel is saying. You know, kind of, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for you.” It’s while we are imperfect, we can still be loveable, and I think that’s a powerful thing.  
Jim:   Yeah, and one of the problems is that most people, as I said, I’m writing a book about this. You know, most people tend to think of God, as they think of, for example, their parents or some authority figure, you know, who may or may not have loved them unconditionally, right? And so, if we had parents who are very judgmental or church leaders that are very judgmental, we tend to see that as God. But, you know, as Christ shows us over and over again in the Gospels, you know, that’s not who God is, right? It’s just, that’s, I always say to people, you know, let’s say your name is, you know, Joe. I would say, “that’s Joe’s god.” Right? That’s your god that you’ve constructed, right?  That is not the God that we find in Jesus.” Right? I mean, He’s always forgiving, always loving. And so, part of it is getting people in touch with God, not their conception of God, which are two different things. Sometimes, I say to people, “that’s like an idol.” You know, you, everyone says, oh I don’t know the first commandment…oh, who would believe in idols, that’s crazy. But if you’ve created this kind of, false god, based on just your experience, you’ve kind of created an idol.  
Jared:   Good. Well, I think that’s a great way to wrap up our conversations. Unfortunately, we’re coming to the end of our time, but I like the idea of ending on the notion that God is loving and we see that in Jesus. What are other things, maybe projects, you’ve mentioned a few times this book you’re working on. Is it coming out any time soon, can you give us more info on it or point us in a direction to kind of learn more about you or your work?  
Jim:   Yeah, no time soon, it’s called Learning to Pray, probably in another year. But, if you want to learn more about me, Father James Martin, I have, I’m on Facebook under Father James Martin, on Twitter under @JamesMartinSJ, on Instagram. Probably the book that most listeners would, I hope, appreciate the most, is a book called Jesus: A Pilgrimage, which is a look at the life of Christ, as well as a visit to the holy land and some Scripture scholarship as well. I hope that listeners would enjoy that.  
Pete:   Well right, Jim, well thanks so much for being on the podcast. We had a great time, thanks for spending time with us.  
Jim:   Me too, great questions too.  
Pete:   All right, thanks so much, see you soon.
Jared:   See ya.
Jim:   God bless.
 [Outro music begins]  
Pete:   Hey normal people, thanks for listening and, welcome back to the podcast. We’re happy to be here too.  
Jared:   Yeah, absolutely. And, if you haven’t already checked out Patreon, we would  appreciate your support, but also, we had some special things that we put up there during the break for those of our Patreon supporters who couldn’t get enough of us. I mean —  
Pete:   [Laughter]
  Jared:     I know that’s probably —  
Pete:   So not our wives and our families, right?  
Jared: 43:30 [Laughter]   That’s right. So, if you want to check that out you can. Go to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople/posts, and it’s great to be able to say we’ll see you next week!  
 [Music continues]  
[End of recorded material]

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Pete Ruins Exodus Part 2

Pete Ruins Exodus (Part 2)

May 7, 2019

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

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

Jared:  And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty Intro Music]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope that sounds okay.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s for the Mountain of God.

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

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

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

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

It’s hard to identify who this character is. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



“So Moses, is that enough for you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What?  Exactly.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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