Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Interview with Martha Himmelfarb: Second Temple Judaism & Apocalyptic Literature

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with professor Martha Himmelfarb about what the Bible means when it talks about the apocalypse as they explore the following questions:

  • What does apocalyptic mean?
  • Was Jesus an apocalyptic prophet?
  • What is meant by the “end of the world”?
  • Do we need to understand apocalypse to understand Jesus?
  • Where is apocalyptic literature found in the Bible?
  • What’s the difference between prophesy and apocalyptic literature?
  • Why did apocalyptic literature start becoming popular?
  • Are there other apocalyptic books that didn’t make it into the biblical canon?
  • What is the Book of the Watchers?
  • What are some key features of apocalyptic literature?
  • Where does apocalyptic thought show up throughout the New Testament? 
  • Is the afterlife a part of apocalyptic thinking?


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Martha Himmelfarb you can share. 

  • “One could easily use the word apocalyptic to understand the Christian narrative. It’s a story about God and Jesus taking actions that are ultimately going to lead to a new age. That’s certainly apocalyptic in some sense.”  — Martha Himmelfarb
  • “Conflicts between nations on earth is understood as the earthly counterpart of conflict that’s taking place in the heavens, and each nation has its prince, its angelic embodiment.” — Martha Himmelfarb
  • “All these angels are a way of saying, you know, the divine world is very accessible. There are a lot of angels around and you can have contact with them.” — Martha Himmelfarb
  • “Those glimpses of the other world must be very inspiring, you know, to have some sense, even a glimpse of what that heavenly reality looks like. I think that must be very appealing.” — Martha Himmelfarb
  • “What do apocalypses add? I think probably they add some kind of confidence that the end is near or even if it isn’t near, that it’s certainly coming. God has promised the end is going to come, and it’s going to be an end that will be good for us. It will be bad for our persecutors, bad for the, you know, the evil empires out there and good for us.” — Martha Himmelfarb

Mentioned in This Episode

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

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty intro music]

Jared: Welcome, everyone, to this episode of the podcast. Today, we’re going to ask the question what does the Bible mean by the apocalypse? And we’re talking with Martha Himmelfarb, professor of religion at Princeton University for over 40 years, she knows her stuff.

Pete: Yeah, and her area of study is Judaism, starting from the Second Temple Period to up to Islam and you know, Jared, we keep coming back to this Second Temple Period business, and we might sound like a broken record, but frankly, I don’t really care. Do you, Jared? I think it’s a good record to break –

Jared: Yup.

Pete: Because, you know, we could do an entire, like, we could do Second Temple Judaism for Normal People. This is what we could do. This whole thing –

Jared: Right.

Pete: Because it’s such an important period of time. And again, if you want the details, you can go back to the Paula Fredriksen episode where we talk a little bit more in the intro about what this period of time is, but basically it’s a time of the Second Temple Period, which is, that’s it. What else do you have to know?

Jared: It’s appropriately named, I mean.

Pete: 516 BCE to about 70 CE. That’s roughly, you know, a 600-year period almost, where the Second Temple was standing, and a lot of stuff happened in Judaism that really directly affected Christianity. So, it’s like a non-negotiable area of study if you want to understand Jesus and Paul and the rest of, just the early Christian movement.

Jared: Well, and to that point, if you really want to understand what the Bible means by the apocalypse, you have to understand Second Temple Judaism as well.

Pete: Right. Because it wasn’t invented in the book of Revelation. It’s actually already in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament or the First Testament, but in this world of Second Temple Judaism, it became more of the thing, let’s say, and there might be some reasons for that, believe it or not. So, yeah, that’s a big thing, and you know, she also mentions a term that I think has come up in other podcasts, Jared, but Hellenism, which is the influence of Greek culture on Judaism, which was a really, really big deal. Especially like, beginning in the 3rd century BCE and very much in the 2nd century and it caused a lot of tensions which led to something called the Maccabean revolt, and she mentions this as well. There is a period of time in the early 2nd century where the Greek ruler at the time, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, really, really wanted to make Judaism very Greek looking, and with the support of some Jews, oddly enough. Like, all Jews weren’t against this. Things like, you know, what you eat and worshipping in the temple a certain way, and you know, he sacrificed a pig to Zeus in the temple, which is like five layers of like desecrating the temple. But the Maccabees and the family called the Maccabees led by, you know, father and some sons after him, they fought for independence, and that’s where the holiday of Hannukah comes. So, but I know that Martha, she mentions the Maccabees somewhat in passing, but it’s like, one of these core moments and core periods in the development of Judaism that had a real direct impact on the New Testament. So, it’s just good stuff to keep remembering all these sort of terms and some of these dates are actually pretty important, I think.

Jared: All right.

Pete: All right, folks. Let’s listen to this episode with Martha Himmelfarb!

[Music begins]

Martha: One could easily use the word apocalyptic to understand the Christian narrative. It’s a story about God and Jesus taking actions that are ultimately going to lead to a new age. That’s certainly apocalyptic in some sense. The book of Revelation looks, from a literary point of view, very different from the Gospels, but the content of the Gospels certainly could be described as apocalyptic.

[Music ends]

Pete: So yeah, why don’t we start right there Martha. Why don’t you define for us this word that, like, we use a lot but that word apocalyptic, which, may not mean… it’s a word that might not mean what people think it means.

Martha: Right, well it probably does mean what they think it means, but it means other things as well. It’s, so, the Greek word, the Greek root apocalypto means to uncover something. So, it really means a revelation and I think that the book of Revelation in the New Testament is the first work to label itself, apokalypsis, a revelation, and that probably, you know, is very important for how the word has been received.


And when most people think about apocalypse or apocalyptic, they think about the end of the world, but in fact, most of the, well, most of my own work has been devoted to apocalypses that aren’t so interested in the end of the world, they’re more interested in other kinds of revelation about the secrets of the heavens, the secrets of the cosmos, God’s throne, the fate of souls after death. So, all these things –

Pete: Well, Martha, back up. What do you mean, like end of the world? That, when I think of that, I think when a lot of people think of that they just mean, like, the explosion of the planet earth and disintegrating into nothing. Is that what you mean by end of the world? Like, its physical destruction?

Martha: So, I think, you know, I’m trying to represent what, you know, ancient Jews and Christians think, and they certainly don’t think the world is going to end in that sense. They think history as we know it is going to come to an end because God is going to bring it to an end and, you know, they have different thoughts about how exactly that will come about, but they do imagine an era beginning that is, you know, totally different from the world that we’re living in now.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Jared: So, I’m just trying to wrap my mind around the differences between those two things. I think because of my tradition, those would have been conflated. I’m having a hard time pulling apart the end of the world from the destruction of the world and even some of the language you used, I kind of automatically just, I think put a bunch of baggage into that. So, when the ancients were talking about the end of the world, could you maybe just flesh out a little more of what that might’ve looked like for them?

Martha: I mean, I think, if you think of Daniel, so, you know, there were two apocalypses that made it into the Christian cannon, only one that made it into the Jewish cannon; Daniel in the Jewish cannon, and Daniel and Revelation in the Christian cannon. Daniel, you know, has that picture of the four empires that will succeed each other ruling the world, and at the very end there will be, you know, the kingdom of the holy ones of the most high. So, there will be a new world empire that will be God’s empire. So, I don’t think any kind of, you know, there are a lot of war had to take place, and presumably it brought some destruction with it, but the world didn’t have to be destroyed and recreated there. So, if you follow the book of Daniel, you imagine major political changes, but you don’t imagine that, you know, the world needs to be physically annihilated.

Pete: So, it’s like the end of the world as we know it, so to speak, the way it functions, the way it operates?

Martha: Yes, I guess you could say that, and you know, it’s not always entirely clear whether it’s simply a matter of who the ruling powers will be or whether nature will somehow be transformed. I mean, that seems to be, you know, going back as far as Isaiah, that seems to be an idea about what will happen in the last days, but many of the apocalypses aren’t really explicit about that. But, you know, I think you can imagine a somewhat more, less catastrophic apocalypse than maybe the popular view.

Jared: So, how does that function together? Because again, this is going to be an episode where I bring probably a lot of my baggage from my childhood in, but I, because one of the things that I think was pretty prominent was all of these apocalyptic pieces fit together to make one giant end times story, right? So, you have these pieces of Isaiah and we gotta put that together with these pieces of Daniel, and if you can kind of crack the code, so to speak, you can put together this mosaic of what the end times will look like and then we can sort of backfill and kind of figure it out from there so we can all see the signs of the end times and you know, Revelation is obviously a big part of, it’s a bigger puzzle piece. And, how would these have fit together in, like, you know, when the author or compiler of Revelation is putting this together, how would it have fit with Isaiah and Daniel and yeah, just curious how that would’ve happened.

Martha: That’s a really good, that’s a great way of sort of thinking about it. And I mean, I actually think Revelation is, you know, tremendously influential because it becomes part of the cannon, but it’s also quite distinctive and in some ways, really unusual. Apocalypses typically do draw on earlier traditions, but Revelation, I think, you know, just that the way it makes use of prophetic, the language of prophets of Ezekiel and Isaiah and its use of Daniel, I mean, I think they’re really more almost than any other apocalypse I can think of, the language is just so profoundly indebted to earlier prophets.


And I think actually, I mean, my own view is that John is, we think that when he calls his book Apokalypsis, you know, Revelation, he’s entering it in this new genre, but I think he really wants to represent himself as a prophet. You know, he sees himself standing in the same tradition as Isaiah and Ezekiel, and I think for him, Daniel was also a prophet.

Pete: Mmm.

Martha: So, I think he’s creating his picture of the end of days drawing on what, yes, what for him are authoritative works. And then, of course, as Revelation becomes an authoritative work, you’re right, it becomes yet another element of this schema that Christians particularly will draw.

Pete: Yeah, and you mention Isaiah a couple of times, and in the context of an apocalyptic, right? So, here you have a biblical prophet that’s a complex book, you know, it’s stages and over centuries, you know, was expanded upon and such and such. But we think of Isaiah as basically a prophet, but there are you know, there seem to be apocalyptic elements in the book of Isaiah. So, can you expand a little bit on like, what’s the difference between prophecy and apocalyptic, and why would you have two things like that in the same book and, you know?

Martha: Yeah. I think it’s a really, that’s a wonderful question and it’s a very complicated question, so I hope, you know, I’ll probably forget where I’m going, so just pull me back.

Pete: [Laughter]

Martha: So, I mean, one way of thinking about it is, you know, prophets have views of how the world is going to end; prophesy sort of, at least, the prophets who make it into the Hebrew Bible sort of peter out sometime, you know, not so long after the rebuilding of the Second Temple. It doesn’t mean there weren’t people running around giving prophesy, but then this other form of revelation seems to emerge sometime in the later part of the Second Temple Period. One difference, I think, you know, that people rightly point to when it comes to thinking about this, you know, this coming end of the world as we know it, is in general, I mean, Isaiah here again is a little bit of an exception, but if you look at Amos, go back to the very beginnings of prophesy, Amos tells you you really shouldn’t be hoping for the day of the Lord. It’s darkness and not light, bad things are going to happen, it’s going to be disastrous. And really, the message is repent and that won’t happen. Apocalyptic literature seems to look forward to the coming of the end, and you should repent, because that will mean you’re one of the righteous and you’ll get to enjoy the new world that’s going to emerge, but it’s not, it’s not telling you to repent so that the end will be close by.

Pete: Can I just interrupt just to have clarity, for I think, timelines here. You mentioned Amos, the beginning of prophesy. So, Amos is like 8th century?

Martha: That’s right.

Pete: Right? And the day of the Lord is not something you want to, like, just don’t go there. But then you mention the Second Temple Period, and you may have said the late Second Temple Period for, and not to put words in your mouth, the emergence of apocalyptic, a different way of thinking? Or…

Martha: Well, yeah… I mean, the question of when apocalyptic literature emerges is one question and the question of when an apocalyptic way of thinking emerges is a different question. Probably those, you know, the idea that history is all determined and that there’s going to be some kind of major break that we can’t do anything about, I think that probably emerges probably in the later part, yaybe in the Hellenistic period. You know, we have it in Daniel, so that puts us in the middle of the 2nd century BCE when exactly, you know, those ideas emerge, I think it’s hard to say.

Pete: But, can you take a stab at why they emerge?

Martha: So, I think one possibility is that the political circumstances are sufficiently different. That idea that, you know, repentant things will get better, which is meaningful in a period when the people of Israel enjoyed sovereignty and lived in their own land. Now, when they’ve been living under foreign imperial rule for a long time, that, you know, it seems as if history is heading in a particular direction and it’s not a good direction and all that can change things is for God to intervene in some way. They don’t have a king anymore, they don’t have an army, so they need God to, you know, bring history to an end. I think that’s probably a part of it.


Some recent scholarship has argued that it’s, that an important component of this is the Seleucid’s have a new way of thinking about time. That the Seleucid’s, the, so the Hellenistic dynasty that came to rule Palestine from the beginning of the 2nd century BCE, that this dynasty, Seleucus was one of Alexander’s generals, and when Alexander died, his empire got divided up among his generals. Seleucus, the dynasty Seleucus founded at the beginning of the 3rd century, at the end of the 4th, beginning of the 3rd century BCE, had a particular attitude toward time. It became counting time from Seleucus’ ascendency, and it just kept counting. It didn’t go rain by rain by rain. So, it represented itself as something new and that maybe apocalyptic literature is a kind of response to that. You know, you have your time, well, we have a different kind of time. I’m not sure I’m persuaded by that, but it’s what I think is useful about that is it reminds us, you know, that these ideas emerge both in the context of ancient Judaism and later ancient Christianity, but that there’s a larger world out there as well, which has an impact on it. Precisely what the impact is, I wish I could tell you.

Jared: Well, one thing I think that’s important is in that, you know, one implication of that is we’ve talked about Isaiah and Daniel and almost like, these proto-apocalyptic, they’re not fully developed in that way. And then we have Revelation, which seems to be very sophisticated, and then there’s this whole time period in between, the Second Temple Period, where there are books that didn’t make it into our cannon that look very similar to some of these other books. There were other apocalypses that were being written during this time. Would that be fair to say? What are some of those that maybe we wouldn’t have heard of?

Martha: Okay. Well, let me, I would want to make one adjustment to what you said. That is, critical scholars would tell you that Daniel was as composed, Daniel has probably earlier material in it, but that it takes a form in which we have it now probably right during the Maccabean revolt. So, that’s actually, we can date it, you know, if you’re skeptical about its ability to prophesy, if you think that it gets historical events right up to a certain point and then it doesn’t seem to get them right, you can date it pretty precisely to the middle of the Maccabean revolt. So, that would put it in the 160’s BCE.

Jared: So, it’s more squarely into that Second Temple Period, it just is one that got in the cannon.

Martha: That’s right. And it’s a very interesting question why it got in the cannon when it now, it looks like it may be the earliest work we would identify as an apocalypse that’s primarily concerned with the end of history, but it’s not the earliest work that people have, you know, usually talked about as an apocalypse. Let me talk about, you know, a great favorite of mine, which is not maybe not the earliest apocalypse, but it’s certainly the, it has some claim to be called that and extremely influential text, and that’s the Book of the Watchers. It survives, or it’s passed down as part of the Ethiopic book of 1 Enoch, but it’s also preserved, you know, quite fragmentary form in Aramaic among the Dead Sea Scrolls, but those Aramaic fragments allow us to be pretty confident that it’s a little bit earlier than Daniel, and we’ve got some Greek for it also. So, we’re not just dependent on a significantly later translation. And what’s really interesting to me about it is, you know, there’s some interesting points of contact with Daniel. You know, the famous throne vision in Daniel 7 where Daniel sees the Ancient of Days seated on his fiery throne. There’s a description of Enoch ascends to heaven and he sees God in the throne, the great glory he calls God, enthroned, and the description is very close. And I don’t think that Daniel was using the Book of the Watchers, but they appear to have a source in common there, a poetic source probably. But this is a book that involves in part, a retelling or a set of traditions about those sons of God who marry daughters of men and all sorts of bad things happen. In Genesis 6, and Genesis 6 just sort of gestures as them, but the Book of the Watchers tells their story in much more detail, and then it has Enoch ascend to heaven where he sees God enthroned and he gets to talk to God, pretty much face to face, and then he takes a tour of the cosmos and a tour of the world, of the earth really. He sees cosmological phenomena, but he’s on the earth. He goes to parts of the earth no human being has ever seen in the company of angels.


So, he’s obviously got some kind of angelic status, which, you know, might remind you of Isaiah back in Isaiah 6 when Isaiah sees God enthroned in the temple and God needs a messenger and Isaiah volunteers, you know, all those angels around him, but Isaiah gets to take the message.

Pete: So, there’s like an otherworldly dimension to apocalyptic too. You know, it’s the end of the, you know, it’s the end of the system of the age so to speak, and there’s a glimpse into a different kind of reality?

Martha: Yes, and the Book of the Watchers, I think, is much less concerned with the end of the age than it is with that different reality. I mean, one of the things that really, I find so fascinating about the book of Revelation is that for all, I mean, people tend to be focused on its interest in the end, but its full of that kind of other reality. I mean, John is watching what’s going on in the heavenly temple. He’s watching the liturgy of the heavenly temple, and even those events on earth are, have, you know, an impact on the heavenly temple. I mean, I think it’s, you know, there really are some very, it’s not a work that’s concerned only, I mean, for all its interest in the end, that’s not all its concerned with.

Jared: Well, I think that’s really important, and maybe you can correct me if I’m wrong, but I also think of, I remember reading Bruggemann’s commentary on Jeremiah, and that really stood out that, you know, within prophesy we often think of that as telling a future kind of time distant reality, but often it’s a, in their mind, kind of a spatial, spatially distant reality. It’s what’s happening right now, but it’s happening in the heavenly realm and is that kind of, one thing that ties prophesy and apocalyptic together is they’re both trying to wrestle with the spiritual reality of what’s happening physically right now.

Martha: Yes, I think that’s right, and I think you might say that, you know, apocalyptic literature kind of makes that more kind of material –

Pete: Mmm.

Martha: You think of Daniel 10 when Gabriel appears to Daniel and tells him, well, I was busy trying to fight off the Prince of Persia, the Prince of Greece, and, but I had to come talk to you, so I sent Michael to, Michael agreed to take over for me so I could come and talk to you. So, clearly, conflicts between nations on earth is understood as the earthly counterpart of conflict that’s taking place in the heavens, and each nation has its prince, its angelic embodiment –

Jared: Representative?

Martha: Representative, that’s right. So, I think the, you know, the difference between the way modern people look at the world and the way the apocalypses look at the world is the apocalypses think the really important action is taking place in heaven. You know, the armies on earth are only going to be as successful as the angels slugging it out in heaven, whereas, to go back to prophesy, I don’t think most prophets would put it in quite such concrete terms.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Martha: There’s, rightly said, there’s a kind of a spiritual reality and a physical reality on earth in some of the apocalypses, that spiritual reality has become very concrete.

Jared: Hmm.

Pete: Yeah.

Jared: Which is maybe something you would expect kind of at the end of the age, where these worlds begin to meld?

Martha: Yes, maybe. You know, I mean, I think, you know, this maybe raises the question of the role of angels. You know, angels certainly are present in the Hebrew Bible, and they do, I was talking a moment ago about the passage in Isaiah, they certainly play a role in prophesy, but I think they play even larger role in apocalyptic literature and you know, I mean, the old thing to say was, you know, the 19th, early 20th century thing was to say it’s because, you know, for ancient Jews, God had come to seem so distant and there was a sort of covert, not so covert view that, and that’s why we needed Christianity to fix this problem.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Martha: I, you know, I actually think you could argue the other way about all these angels. All these angels are a way of saying, you know, the divine world is very accessible. There are a lot of angels around and you can have contact with them, and in fact, the boundary is not for ordinary people so much, but for great figures, you know, heroes like Daniel and Enoch, they get to have conversations with angels. Enoch gets to go through the heavenly temple and stand before God where even the angels are scared to go. So, there’s something also very uplifting for human beings to feel that they’re able to have these, you know, these conversations with angels that the angel tells John in chapter 19, don’t call me Lord, I am your fellow servant. You know, so, human beings really can achieve the same, you know, status as angels.


So, I think you could actually flip it and say, you know, the multiplication of angels should be read as a kind of a sign of the nearness of the divine.

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Pete: So, okay, so we have in the New Testament, we have an apocalyptic book, so called, the book of Revelation, which is apocalyptic. But I guess what’s striking me is there are apocalyptic elements, maybe, not to overstate, maybe throughout the New Testament and maybe can we talk about that a little bit? Because there are things that might be, might make more sense to readers of the New Testament if they’re aware of the apocalyptic background to some of these things. So, do you, I mean, do you have anything that you want to comment on, anything come to mind immediately about that?

Martha: Well, I mean, I think the whole, you know, the whole, from, what one could easily use the word apocalyptic to understand the whole, you know, scenario of the Christian narrative, that is, you know, that’s a story about God and Jesus taking actions that are ultimately going to lead to a new age. I mean, that’s, that’s certainly apocalyptic in some sense. And, you know, this just goes to the different, you know, the scholarly interest in defining the genre of apocalyptic, you know, the book of Revelation looks from a literary point of view, very different from the Gospels, but the content of the Gospels certainly could be described as apocalyptic from, you know, from many points of view.

Pete: Yeah, and that’s a different model, I think, for people who are reading the New Testament, for many people, to think about how pervasive this idea of apocalyptic is. I mean, isn’t one of the ways of describing Jesus was to call him an apocalyptic prophet or something, an apocalyptic preacher? Or, that seems to be sort of central to what he was all about. Not, I guess, again, I don’t want to drive too sharp a wedge that’s not necessary between apocalyptic and prophesy, but if Jesus was sort of a prophet, he’s an apocalyptic kind of prophet.

Martha: Yes, absolutely. You think of John the Baptist, I mean, that’s, you know, certainly that kind of preaching, that repent because the kingdom of God is coming really soon, and you’re repenting not to make it not come and to have God change his mind, you’re repenting so that when he comes, you will be, you know, judged as one of the righteous.

Pete: Yeah.

Martha: Yes, I think –

Pete: And not to state the obvious, but let’s do it anyway. This is a really good, maybe, example for why understanding Jesus in the New Testament is more than just sort of poking our noses in portions of the Hebrew Bible. There’s also this development of the idea of an apocalypse, or apocalyptic genre that seems to be so foundational to a story that, you know, people read in church on every Sunday, and we just sort of read these words, but when you look at them historically there’s a background to some of this stuff that Jesus says, and I guess Paul too. I mean, where do you see an apocalyptic element in Paul or is that just all over the place too? Like in the Gospels.

Martha: Yeah, no, I think it’s all over the place.

Pete: Yeah.


Martha: I mean, I’m always, I mean, it seems to me, you know, my reading of Paul, you know, it seems to me that he’s really expecting the world to end any day now, very, very soon. He also, I mean, I think, you know, one of the things that I think is interesting and maybe this is more surprising to people coming at this material from the direction of ancient Judaism than for people raised in the Christian tradition, but, you know, I think there’s sometimes a feeling that, you know, the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels, the more human Jesus is more in keeping with Jewish expectations, but I actually think that’s not true at all. If you look at Daniel, is there a Messiah in Daniel? Not so clear that there’s a human Messiah. I mean, there’s, you know, Michael seems to be some kind of, that son of man figure, whoever that is.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Martha: So, I, you know, I think that’s, you know, Paul’s, if you can use this, Paul and his very high Christology and his view of a really exalted Christ, and Revelation as well. I mean, I, you know, it’s become, if I can, I don’t know if this is of interest to you, but you know, it was very popular when I was in graduate school to talk about Paul as, you know, one of the most important writers we have from Jewish writers of the 1st century. You know, how many Jewish writers that we know by name do we have from the 1st century? Very few, and Paul is one of them. I think that’s absolutely right, and Paul should inform what we think about 1st century Judaism, but I think that’s even more true of the book of Revelation. I mean, as I read the book of Revelation, John is someone who parts company with Paul. He thinks purity laws actually are important. I mean, I take it to be, you know, not just coming out of Jewish tradition, but to be, you know, not to be convinced that you should really get rid of all that stuff the way Paul seems to be. So, I think Revelation is very important for, to flip your question, I mean, yes, obviously to understand earliest Christianity, you need to understand ancient Jewish apocalyptic expectations. But I would flip it and say that, you know, early Christianity gives us some very good evidence for what ancient Jews thought.

Pete: Yeah, and I guess, that’s a really interesting observation about the difference between the book of Revelation and Paul and the question of purity and I’m sure other things as well, as a reminder that there are different kinds of Judaism in the 1st century that are shaping themselves around this Jesus person, this leader, their Messiah, but they still, they’re still picking up maybe on different strands of Jewish traditions which was diverse, and I guess, so, it shouldn’t surprise readers of the New Testament to see that kind of theological diversity embedded into the pages because they were not always looking at things the same way.

Martha: No, that seems exactly right, and of course, there are all kinds of other, you know, factors, influences, cultural, culture that has an impact on the New Testament, but I think that’s exactly right that even the Jewish materials are very varied.

Pete: Yeah. Can we, another thought is coming to my mind here, and that is the, I guess the role of the afterlife in all of this? Is it, first of all, is it accurate to say that a part of apocalyptic thinking involves afterlife thinking as well?

Martha: That’s a really, that’s a great question. On the book, I mean, if you try to ask the question where does a belief in reward and punishment after death emerge in ancient Judaism, you know, if you read, it seems to me if you read most of pre-Second Temple Hebrew Bible with an open mind, you know, it’s certainly not that they think people cease to exist at death, but it doesn’t sound like there’s reward and punishment. There’s Sheol, and it doesn’t sound like it’s a great place to be, and I guess if you’re lucky you get gathered to your ancestors and then maybe that’s a more pleasant form of Sheol. So, when does that idea emerge and I think it’s, you know, hard to say exactly when, but in the Book of the Watchers, so probably at the end of the 3rd, beginning of the 2nd century when Enoch is taking his tour to the ends of the earth, one of the things he sees are some hollows in which souls are stored waiting for the last judgment. So, there’s the souls are kind of on hold until the last judgment. But there’s one hollow has a fountain and light, and that’s presumably for the good souls.

Pete: Hmm.


Martha: So, that’s kind of a way of integrating these things. This is certainly something that later Jewish tradition struggles with, how to relate the world to come as they call it, life after death, to the days of the Messiah. So, the Book of the Watchers has a kind of solution. Daniel, a little later, has a very kind of limited sense of resurrection there. I mean, many of those who sleep in the dust will awake. Some to everlasting life and some to eternal reproach. So, some of, some people are going to get resurrected and some of those, and you might think only good people would, but it sounds like some good people will and some bad people will.

Pete: Uh huh.

Martha: And that’s really curious, and I guess one way of making sense of it is to say that, you know, the Maccabean revolt means martyrdom, it means people dying precisely for their loyalty to the Torah. So, that creates a situation in which you need to imagine that there’s some kind of reward for them. It’s not, I’m sure it was obvious to people from earliest days that, you know, bad things happen to good people and good people doesn’t always have good lives, but, you know, the experience of the Maccabean persecution made that particularly evident. So, it may be that the idea is if you’re a good person and you live to a ripe old age and have a good life, you don’t need to get resurrected and if you’re a bad person and you came to a bad end you don’t need to get resurrected, but the people who didn’t get their just desserts, I’m really not sure what to make of that and it’s kind of surprising to me that it’s not more developed there. But, you know, within the next century or so, the idea really takes off and you can certainly see that in the New Testament where I think, you know, I mean, it’s an idea that ancient Jews, I think, probably contributed to ancient Christians and shared with them.

Pete: So, again, I’m trying not to oversimplify, but what I’m hearing you say is that this whole idea of reward and punishment in the afterlife, it’s hard to pin like, a particular cause that might develop that, but persecution seems to be, you’re saying it seems to have a role in that. God has to have something better than this.

Martha: Yes. That may be.

Pete: Okay.

Martha: Another thing people have played with is, you know, when the Jews met the Greeks and at least some strands of Greek tradition, the platonic tradition and other strands think that the soul is immortal, that maybe that gave some kind of impetus. I mean, I don’t think it’s a borrowed idea, but there might be things that encourage the growth of the idea. And again, it’s not that I think that the earliest literature thinks that, you know, has a kind of naturalistic, you know, death is the end view, but I don’t think it’s, you know, it’s not reward and punishment. That is a later development and it may have to do with persecution, but I’m, it’s not, it’s, you know, you would like Daniel to be much more explicit about that if we’re going to that route.

Jared: So, I want to maybe go back a little bit big picture and can you say again, maybe more about the function of apocalyptic? So, I would assume as a piece of literature, something that’s being passed around and read and passed down, there’s some value here to a community that’s beyond the imagery and, you know, painting a historical picture of the end of the world or end of the age. So, what’s the real function for why this would’ve flourished at this particular time?

Martha: Yeah, well, I think it continues to flourish. So, you know, I, I mean, I’ve done a lot of work on a Jewish, I don’t want to call it an apocalypse because I don’t think it knows there is such a thing as apocalypse, but an apocalyptic text written in Hebrew in the early 7th century of this era, that’s all excited because the Persians have reconquered Jerusalem and it’s no longer in Christian hands, and they think that means, you know, the Messiah is coming or the two Messiahs are coming any day now and they prophesy all this in, you know, in the 620’s and they have no idea that, you know, pretty soon Jerusalem isn’t going to be in Persian or Christian hands, but in Muslim hands. So, it’s an ongoing thing is I think true among Christians as well that this literature doesn’t go away. So, I think, I mean, which all the more says it fills some kind of need.

Jared: Right.

Martha: And I think the need, look, the predicative part, if you’re a good enough interpreter you can make anything work, you know, in an ongoing way. I mean, the predictions, the times can all have passed, you know, there’s a great apocalypse called 4 Ezra from shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple, and he has a vision of the four beasts from the sea that picks up on Daniel’s vision, but the last beast is an eagle. And God says to Ezra, you know, I didn’t tell your brother Daniel about this, but the fourth beast is this eagle is actually the Romans.


So, I mean, it’s not quite, I didn’t quite give him the full story. So, you can do that, you know, indefinitely. So, I think it does fill some other kind of need as well and I, you know, I don’t think there are any communities that read only apocalypses, they read other things too. What do apocalypses add? I think probably they add some kind of confidence that the end is near or even if it isn’t near, that it’s certainly coming. God has promised the end is going to come, and it’s going to be an end that will be good for us. It will be bad for our persecutors, bad for the, you know, the evil empires out there and good for us, and I think also, those glimpses of, you know, the other world must be, you know, very inspiring, you know, to have some sense, you know, even a glimpse of what that heavenly reality looks like. I think that must be very appealing.

Pete: And, you know, not to get political, and I do mean that, but we can understand maybe the appeal of apocalyptic genre throughout history, really, for political situations. Maybe in part because of the context of political realities of the ancient world that might’ve given rise to it in the first place. But, the us versus them, the powers of light versus the powers of darkness kind of thing which, you know, is in the Dead Sea Scrolls as well. That’s language that, that’s around today in America, that hasn’t gone any place and it’s easy to sort of, people forget the Beatitudes really quickly, but we latch onto this either/or black and white dualistic thinking which seems to be, again, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to be part of the property, almost, of apocalyptic thinking. There are, there’s a divide here. Which side are you going to be on?

Martha: Yes, I think that’s right. I think some of this literature and, you know, again, this is, you know, this is interesting kind of tension between, you know, the way Judaism develops and late Christianity develops, some of this literature at least, doesn’t really give up on the people of Israel.

Pete: Mm hmm.

Martha: So, and, you know, in one way, so that’s particularist, and I think in the modern world we like universalism better than particularism, but it’s also kind of collective and it’s much less, you know, light and dark. So, and you can also, you can decide who the people of Israel are. For early Christians, it was obvious that they were the people of Israel. So, I think you’re right, that in the Dead Sea Scrolls at least, the most sectarian texts, they hold onto that language of Israel because that’s their ancestral language. But it really isn’t so meaningful to them anymore, for them, the meaningful distinction is between the righteous who constitute you know, .001 of the world –

Pete: [Laughter]


Martha: And everybody else, which means all Gentiles and the 99 point whatever of Jews. So, that’s a really kind of radical dualism. I think that language, you know, the more kind of communal language, I mean, I find it more congenial because I think, you know, it allows for, you don’t have to, it doesn’t imagine as radical a difference between in and out.

Jared: Well, and maybe a more charitable, I don’t, you can correct me here because I’m going to maybe go off on something, but a more charitable reading might actually interpret that as hope, you know, in some ways, it’s the us versus them, but in other ways it’s a hope that God will overcome or intervene on our behalf.

Martha: Yes, it’s certainly that. I mean, I think in the Dead Sea Scrolls, you know, at least some of it is a kind of predestinarian view of the world that God has given everybody his place. You know, you were either born to light or born to darkness. So, in a way, you know, sort of you can relax and just go down the road, but of course, I mean I’m sure this is true in the Christian tradition as well, despite committing to a predestinarian view, these theologies always insist that you have to work very hard to make it clear that you actually belong to the children of light and not the children of darkness –

Jared: Uh huh.

Martha: And they struggle with people who look like they were children of light and then they fall away and people who didn’t start out there and want to join. So, it’s always, the reality is always more complicated than that, but I think probably, you know, for me, maybe, that’s the part that I personally find the most troubling theologically.


I don’t usually worry about the theology, the personal implications of the theology of texts that I study. That’s generally not my interest in them, but I do find that troubling. That doesn’t, it all seems very unfair to me that you could be predestined to something and then blamed for it.

Pete: [Laughter]

Good point. Well, Martha, listen. I think we’ve done the impossible here today. We have exhausted this topic of apocalyptic. There’s nothing else to say.

Jared: [Laughter]

Pete: Wouldn’t you agree?  We’ve actually hit absolutely, no of course, I’m kidding. We’ve barely scratched the surface, but I think to do this fully this might end up being a ten-hour podcast.

Martha: Right.

Pete: Some of our listeners are gonna say please give us a ten-hour podcast on apocalyptic, but –

Jared: Mm hmm.

Pete: But I think we’ll have to do that another time. But are there, for our listeners, are there any like, projects you’re working on at the moment or if they want to, if they want to find out more about you, is there maybe a website at Princeton or someplace where they can find out more about you?

Martha: You can find me on the religion department website at Princeton. I have very little web presence I must confess, for better or for worse. I like to think of it as being a countercultural act on my part, but –

Pete: Now we’re gonna create a Facebook page for you and people are gonna be putting all sorts of stuff there.

Martha: [Laughter]

Pete: No, we wouldn’t do that to you, that’s cruel. Anyway.

Martha: But I’ve half written a book called The Apocalypse: A Brief History, and it was published by Wiley and I must say, I think it was published in 2009, it’s intended for a general audience. I no longer agree with everything I said there, but I mostly agree with it and if someone were looking for something to read, probably that’s, that would be a –

Pete: A good place to start.

Martha: Yeah.

Pete: Okay, all right. Well listen, Martha, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us. We had a great time and it’s just such an important topic, and thanks for helping to clarify that for us.

Martha: Well, thank you. It was really fun.

Jared: Thanks so much, see ya.

[Music begins]

Jared: Thanks for being with us, everyone, for another episode of the podcast.

Pete: And yeah, if you have a change to check out Martha’s book, The Apocalypse: A Brief History, it’s meant to be an introduction to normal people. So, that may be a great place to start to wrap our heads around this really, really important topic.

Jared: All right, see ya next time.

Pete: See ya.


Jared: Hey everyone, just a few things that you may not know about The Bible for Normal People.

One, did you know we have a YouTube channel where we post regular videos, sometimes we answer questions, sometimes we ask questions, sometimes we just look pretty in front of the camera. But we have videos up on all things Bible-y, scholarship-y, so check it out. You can go to https://www.youtube.com/thebiblefornormalpeople.

Also, another way to engage our community and the things that we do, if you’re a normal person who reads the Bible, chances are you have questions, and we often will reply to them. So, you can submit a question that we may answer in a podcast, blog post, video, on our site. We’ll do this whenever we feel like it or when God tells us to, so just head to the thebiblefornormalpeople.com and click the ask button in the top right-hand corner. You can also vote up questions that other people have asked.

Narrator: Thanks as always to our team: Executive Producer, Megan Cammack; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Marketing Wizard, Reed Lively; transcriber and Community Champion, Stephanie Speight; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. From Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team – thanks for listening.

[Music ends]

[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.