Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Matthias Henze- The Bible & Second Temple Judaism

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Matthias Henze about ancient texts that didn’t make it into the Bible and how those texts help us better understand biblical context as they explore the following questions:

  • Why is Jesus’ practice of Judaism different from the practices we find in the Old Testament?
  • What sparked Matthias’ interest in Judaism?
  • What is Second Temple Judaism?
  • Are there messiahs in the Old Testament?
  • Why is the study of Second Temple Judaism important to the study of the New Testament?
  • How has anti-semitism affected the study of Second Temple Judaism?
  • How have the Dead Sea Scrolls impacted the study of Second Temple Judaism?
  • What is the apocrypha? 
  • Did Jesus read texts that didn’t make it into our Bibles?
  • Why is it important to study more Second Temple period texts?
  • What was the significance of “messiah” in Second Temple Judaism?
  • How does Daniel 7 help us understand what it means to be a messiah?


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Matthias Henze you can share. 

  • “The Bible only gives us a slim excerpt of the books that were in circulation in the time of Jesus.” -Matthias Henze
  • “To get a better understanding… of this Jewish world of Jesus, we need to read beyond the Bible. We need to turn to other Jewish texts of the time of the New Testament in order to get a fuller understanding of this world that the New Testament authors just take for granted.” -Matthias Henze
  • “Once we read the New Testament in the context of the Jewish literature of its time, it becomes even more impressive and more marvelous.” -Matthias Henze
  • “The writers of our gospels, the evangelists, they deliberately use [Son of Man], as well as other titles, because they know that their audiences will exactly know that they’re really talking about the Messiah.” -Matthias Henze
  • “There was not just one set of messianic expectations, there was not one clearly formed idea of who the Messiah would be and what would happen, but there were a great variety of different ways of thinking of the Messiah [in the Second Temple Period].” -Matthias Henze

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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 Bible for Normal People. You have a real treat coming your way today. We have Matthias Henze who is professor of Hebrew Bible and early Judaism at Rice University, and we’re here to talk about Messiah.

Pete: Yeah. And, you know, even the thing is titled Hebrew Bible and early Judaism. That’s, we’ll get to that, why that’s sort of an important way of thinking about all this time period that’s relevant for Jesus in the New Testament, but yeah. I’m particularly excited to have Matthias on because I’ve known him for, I guess, maybe twenty-five years now. We were classmates together in graduate school and he came a couple years after I did. He’s just such a breath of fresh air. You’ll see this, he’s such a nice guy and pretty darn smart too. He’s said an awful lot about Jesus in the context of the Judaism that he lived in, which is rather obvious thing to say now that it’s coming out of my mouth, like, why wouldn’t you do that, right? But again, we’re not always trained to do that, and bringing out the Jewishness of Jesus and we talked about a specific issue, we’ll get to that. It’s just very enlightening and it’s fun to hear and you see, my goodness gracious, this stuff is really deep.

Jared: Yeah, yeah.

Pete: Really deep.

Jared: Well, let’s get into this conversation then.

Pete: Yup.

[Music begins]

Matthias: So, my point is for us to get a better understanding of Jesus’ world, of this Jewish world of Jesus. We need to read beyond the Bible. We need to turn to other Jewish texts of the time of the New Testament in order to get a fuller understanding of this world that the New Testament authors just take for granted.

[Music ends]

Jared: Well, welcome Matthias, to this episode of The Bible for Normal People. It’s great to have you.

Matthias: Thank you for having me, I’m excited to be here.

Jared: Absolutely. Well, before we get started in some of the heavy hitting, we hope to cover on this episode, maybe you can give us a little bit of your background and maybe a little spiritual bio. How did you come to study what you study and why was it, why were you drawn to it?

Matthias: Sure, I’d be happy to. So, I spent the first half of my life in Germany. I was born there, grew up there, and my father, of blessed memory, was born in 1923 and was a soldier in World War II. He tried to avoid it, but everybody was drafted. Fortunately, he survived, and so I was born twenty years after the war and, but the war was always in our house growing up. It was always present and certainly when we traveled, we were always the Germans. So, even from a very young age on, I developed an interest in World War II, especially Germany’s role, and the history of the Jews in Germany. And so, contacted the synagogue, got in touch with them, and so I always had an interest in Judaism. Initially, Judaism in Germany, but then also beyond. And then I studied theology in Germany, wanted to become a Lutheran pastor. I liked the critical studies so much and liked the university so much that I decided to become an academic, and then came to the United States to do my Ph.D. here in the states. It was really at that time that I was introduced to what we call Second Temple Judaism, that is to say, Judaism puts the latter half of the historical period we associate with the Old Testament. And that helped me in a very meaningful way to combine my interests in Judaism and theology and Christian origins and how to bring all of that together.

Pete: So, were you raised Lutheran?

Matthias: Yes, I was. My parents were not religious, but I grew up in northern Germany where you are either Catholic or Lutheran. So, I was raised Lutheran and I still am a Lutheran. My wife is a Lutheran pastor.

Jared: Wow. So, can you, you mentioned a phrase that might be newer to some of our listeners, Second Temple Judaism. You mentioned a little bit, but can you say more about what it is and why is it significant in Christian faith, in Judaism, in the history of Israel? Can you say a little bit more?


Matthias: Sure. So, just in historical terms, what Christians call the Old Testament is a collection of books that was written over a very long period of time, roughly speaking, a thousand years or so. And we develop, we distinguish, we divide this period into two larger periods called the First Temple period, that is the temple that was built by King Solomon and then destroyed in the sixth century by the Babylonians that led to the Babylonian exile. And then after the Israelites returned from exile, the temple was rebuilt, and the Second Temple was erected in Jerusalem. So, the Second Temple period, historically speaking then, begins in the sixth century before the Common Era, and runs all the way into first century of the Common Era, when the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans. Now, for the longest time, Christian theologians have really neglected the Second Temple period, and have argued that the First Temple was much more important. That’s when the great prophets lived, they thought that much of the Torah, the five books of Moses, were written at that time. Whereas the Second Temple period was sort of the later period of the biblical period that didn’t really have much value in and of itself, and that perception sort of pejorative or negative view of the later centuries that we associate with the Old Testament changed dramatically in the twentieth century. There are several reasons for it, but perhaps the most important was the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. These are ancient Jewish fragments that were discovered in the Judean desert and that really open up a fabulous window into this period in the history of ancient Israel. The Dead Sea Scrolls attracted a lot of interest both among scholars and lay people. They brought a lot of new material to the table and all of a sudden, there was this energy around the Second Temple period, and people started to pay much more attention to these texts.

Pete: And you mentioned, Matthias, the looking down on the Second Temple period and being neglected. I even recall it being referred to as the post-biblical period, like, after the return from exile, nothing much is happening. People are just twiddling their thumbs waiting for Jesus to show up, and like, Judaism is sort of dying and on the way out, but the Dead Sea scrolls, among other things, right, have helped us gain a very, very different perspective on that period.

Matthias: It’s all true what you’re saying, it’s quite fascinating. If you look at the large textbooks, the history of ancient Israel textbooks that were written in the middle of the twentieth century, you will see that these authors, the modern authors, Christian authors, only spend a few pages on the Second Temple period. They think that this is a late form of ancient Israel, it’s increasingly deteriorating, and you can almost smell the anti-Judaism that plagued Christian theology for such a long time, right? This is forebearers of rabbinic Judaism, it’s a obsession with keeping the Torah, the free spirit of the prophets, sort of left Israel, and so we’re waiting until Jesus comes and then reignites religion, infuses it with a fresh spirit. This, of course, a caricature, this is not informed by any texts, but reflects the prejudices of the people who studied this period. And so the Dead Sea Scrolls, and really other texts from this period, not only the Dead Sea Scrolls, have helped us to study this period on its own grounds, to read these texts without a bias, without a Christian anti-Jewish prejudice, and to be much more realistic and better informed about the Judaism, really, of Jesus.

Pete: And calling it the Second Temple period is an example of making this more neutral and not biased against Judaism, as opposed to what I grew up saying, was the Intertestamental Period.

Matthias: Yes, yes.

Pete: The period between the testaments, but this gives this period its own integrity and of course, the New Testament was maybe not entirely, but largely written during the Second Temple period, so –

Matthias: Yes.

Pete: The New Testament is a Second Temple text, right?


Matthias: Terminology is revealing here, isn’t it? I agree with you that calling it Second Temple is helpful in that it is descriptive, but it’s also not helpful because not many people know what that means, so you have to explain it. So, some of my colleagues also like the term early Judaism. That’s a term that is, again, coined in response to a tendency among, again, Christian theologians, to speak of German theologians to speak of spätes Judentum or late Judaism, which was also a way to refer to this period, which is strongly pejorative. Late Judaism, meaning, Judaism is almost run its course, right?

Pete: It’s dying.

Matthias: It’s dying. Exactly.

Pete: It’s coming to an end.

Matthias: Exactly.

Pete: Christianity is here, and it’s done, right? So…

Matthias: So, speaking of early Judaism as a response to that.

Pete: Right. And it’s really, which is interesting, because it’s the birth of Judaism. I mean, that’s really what we’re talking about.

Matthias: Yes, yes.

Pete: We can’t speak of Judaism before the exile, that’s Israelite religion –

Matthias: Exactly right.

Pete: I mean, in various forms, but it’s afterwards that we have what comes to be called Judaism, so, yeah.

Matthias: Yes, yes.

Pete: It’s all connected historically, and that brings us to the New Testament then.

Matthias: Very much so.

Jared: I want to go back to what you said that the New Testament is a Second Temple period, so is, like, what’s the significance of this time period and I would it gives us a robust context now, whereby we might have interjected or put onto the New Testament for years and probably centuries, our own interpretations of these texts based on our own assumptions, but then this rediscovery of these texts situate the New Testament in a whole new light where there’s some, as you were studying, where there’s some insights that you were gaining about how your study of this text really brings to light the New Testament.

Matthias: Yes, there are many, and I like to talk about these examples when I give talks both in churches and synagogues. And often what I do is I start out like this, I say, in the New Testament we all know that Jesus goes into the synagogue regularly as Luke tells us, right? And then I say, in the Old Testament there are no synagogues where Jesus is called a rabbi by his followers. In the Old Testament, there are no rabbis. Jesus spends much of his time discussing legal issues with the pharisees. There are no pharisees in the Old Testament. According to the gospel of Mark, Jesus expels demons. There are really no demons, at least not of the kind we meet in the New Testament in the Old Testament.

Pete: No exorcisms.

Matthias: Right, exactly. Exorcisms, exactly.

Pete: Yeah.

Matthias: So, that raises all kinds of questions. If in the New Testament, the authors assume an entire Jewish world which we cannot find in the Old Testament, where is it coming from? And so typically, what I find in churches is that people read through the New Testament, and they see these Jewish elements, they don’t quite know what it means. What was a synagogue? What did people do? What was a rabbi? What was the responsibility of a rabbi? And then they look around, and they want to find other Jewish texts that help them understand the New Testament, and of course, many Christians will turn to the Old Testament. The assumption being that the Old Testament is the Jewish part of the Bible, western Bible, and the New Testament is the Christian part of the Bible, only to find that there really are no texts that help them understand the Jewish world of Jesus. And so, my point is for us to get a better understanding of Jesus’ world, of this Jewish world of Jesus, we need to read beyond the Bible. We need to turn to other Jewish texts of the time of the New Testament, perhaps slightly before, but not very much, in order to get a fuller understanding of this world that the New Testament authors just take for granted, right? They don’t stop. They never tell us. Oh, by the way, a rabbi is this and that responsibilities.

Pete: [Laughter]

Matthias: They don’t. They just assume that we know these things.

Jared: What would be some examples of those books from the Second Temple that were written, that people could turn to?


Matthias: So, there are the so-called Apocrypha. The Apocrypha are extra books included in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, but not in the Hebrew text. So, when you go to Barnes & Noble and you buy a Bible and you pay a little extra dollars, the cover of your Bible will read the Holy Scripture, Old Testament, New Testament, with the Apocrypha. So, there’s some extra books included. All of the Apocrypha were written in the late Second Temple period. So, these are books like Tobit or Judith or I and II Maccabees or Ben Sira. And then beyond the Apocrypha, there are other books that at the time of Jesus, were rather influential, but we have sort of forgotten about. For example, there’s a book called the Book of Jubilees of the second century, before the Common Era, which is a beautiful retelling or interpretation of the book of Genesis and the first half of the book of Exodus. Or another book that recently has gotten enormous attention from scholars is a book we know as 1 Enoch. It’s an apocalypse, not unlike the book of Revelation in the New Testament, only that this book is attributed to this character, called Enoch, who is briefly mentioned in the book of Genesis in chapter five, and it’s basically a story about the fallen angels, the watchers who came to earth and introduced all kind of knowledge that humans were not supposed to have.

Pete: And those characters came up in the Noah movie that came out several years ago –

Matthias: [Laughter]

Pete: Because that, no seriously, that –

Matthias: I know. Of course, yes.

Pete: They incorporated 1 Enoch into the telling of that story.

Matthias: Yes, yes, yes. Yes. So, sometimes I tell my students if we could time travel and have coffee with Jesus, or speak at the synagogue, say with Hillel, right, a rabbi a generation or so before Jesus, and you would ask Jesus, what did you read last night before you fell asleep? What is the book that you find most gripping? Or the scroll, or whatever. Chances are Jesus would give you a name of a book that we’ve never heard of before.

Pete: Hmm.

Matthias: Which is another way of saying the Bible only gives us a slim excerpt of the books that were in circulation at the time of Jesus. There were many, many other books that were read, and in some communities, at least, were quite influential, that didn’t make it into the Bible. And what that means, they didn’t make it into the Bible is that they were no longer copied and forgotten until they were rediscovered at a much later time.

Pete: Hmm.

Mattias: So what I’m trying to do and what my colleagues who work in this field are trying to do is to reintroduce these forgotten texts of the Second Temple library, of the early Jewish library, into our discourse in order to complement the biblical writings with these extra biblical books.

Pete: Mm hmm. And in doing so, help us understand Jesus and the New Testament, maybe more deeply in a more well-rounded fashion than maybe entertaining some false assumptions that we sometimes have when we engage these texts.

Matthias: Absolutely. Yes, I have no interest in taking away the cannon or relativizing the significance of the cannon or saying that the New Testament is really only derivative of other Jewish texts. Much to the contrary, I think. Once we read the New Testament in the context of the Jewish literature of its time, it becomes even more impressive and more marvelous.

Pete: Okay, well let’s focus on one issue concerning Jesus, and that is the notion of Jesus as Messiah.

Matthias: Mm hmm.

Pete: And I want to pick on that one, because again, I teach college students at a Christian college, and we talk about this a lot. Like, what that term even means, where it comes from, and a lot may have happened to the significance of that term between, let’s say, the First Temple and Second Temple period.

Matthias: Yeah, yeah.

Pete: So, let’s, can we like, take this idea apart a little bit, maybe even starting with some soundings within the Hebrew Bible itself, and then moving forward?

Matthias: Mm hmm. Let’s start with the word itself.

Pete: Yes.


Matthias: The English word Messiah derives from the Hebrew word mashiach, or in Aramaic, meshicha’, it’s the same word. And it simply means the anointed one, of the Hebrew root, mashach, meaning to anoint. And so, when we turn to the Old Testament, I guess the first question to ask is are there any anointed ones or messiahs in the Old Testament? And the answer is yes, there are plenty, but not the kind of messiah that we associate with Jesus, that is to say, there are people in the Old Testament who are anointed, but there are not end time agents of God who usher in a new world, but they’re rather of a different kind. Specifically, there are kings, there are priests, and there are prophets. Most important group here are the kings, so when King David, for example, becomes king in Samuel, in I Samuel 16, who anoints him into office, he becomes a king through the act of anointing. That’s our root mashach, he becomes the mashi’ahh, if you will, and spirit possessed when Samuel anoints him.

Pete: And Matthias, this is anointed by oil. Is that right?

Matthias: This is anointed by a special kind of oil, exactly, right, yeah.

Pete: Okay, okay.

Matthias: There are other people who are called messiahs as well, but again, it’s important to emphasize that these are not end time figures. These are not people who come to put an end to history as we know it. That idea only gradually evolved out of lots of different strands in the Old Testament, but I’ll come back to David and say other kings of the line of David who were anointed into office were described in increasingly fabulous, almost utopian fashion. So, I’m thinking of texts like Isaiah 11. Isaiah 11, at the very beginning, is this famous prophesy of a new king who is ascending the throne. He is said to be possessed by the spirit of the Lord, he will judge the world with righteousness, and then there are these very famous lines, “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid.” So, there is an almost utopian description of what this king will accomplish that is not, it’s not very difficult for me to understand how early readers of this text, which originally may simply have been a celebration of a new king on the throne, was soon read to be more than that. That early interpreters of this text couldn’t help but think that the person who was being described here is none other than a messianic figure.

Pete: Messianic in a different sense of the word.

Matthias: Exactly. Messianic in the sense of an end time figure.

Pete: Like, apocalyptic kind of figure. So, yeah.

Matthias: Yes, exactly.

Pete: So, originally, like, a past, like you just read Isaiah 11, made perfect sense within the context of the time, right?

Matthias: Yes, exactly.

Pete: But it was open to, maybe, creative interpretations as time went on.

Matthias: Yes, yes.

Pete: Because it’s such exaggerated language, which, you know, the writer there may simply be claiming for a king and exalted status and you use, I mean, is it fair to say there’s like, hyperbolic language, exaggerated language, right? Okay, all right.

Matthias: It just was meant to express the significance of the Davidic line, right, the significance of the inauguration of a king.

[Music begins]

[Producers group endorsement]

[Music ends]

Pete: Yes. Can we work in, maybe another passage here that I know that comes up a lot is Psalm 2?

Matthias: Yes. That’s a great one.

Pete: And how that adds to this sort of idea of maybe the exaggerated language of messiahship.


Matthias: Yes, yes. I think that’s a great text. So, Psalm 2 is really a good text to look at in order to understand these exaggerated hopes that were associated with the king in Jerusalem. So right at the beginning, the first three verses of Psalm 2, we learn that there were nations who conspire and attack against Jerusalem. They are forming together this coalition to attack Jerusalem. The king in Israel who speaks a little later in the Psalm is confident that they cannot do anything. And in his response, he remembers the time when he was consecrated. He remembers the time when he ascended the throne, and he speaks there of what he calls the decree of the Lord, and what it is that he was promised when he became king is that God adopted him, that God said to him, “you are my son, today I have begotten you.” So, there we have father and son language. The king in Israel is not exactly divine. Right, an Israelite author would not do what we find in ancient Egypt for example, Mesopotamia, namely declare the king divine. That’s not what’s going on here, but nonetheless, the king enjoys a certain proximity to God that normal people simply don’t have. What that means is that God adopted him, says you are my son, and has strengthened him. This king will be able to defeat all nations of the world who would ever attack Jerusalem. And so, the Psalm is significant because it tells us that the king was the son of God, in a certain way, and that he has this ability to defeat the nations. This is exactly a motif that will be picked up in later apocalyptic texts where the Messiah is said to come to Jerusalem, the holy mountain, or the holy hill as is it called in Psalm 2, to defend Israel and to defeat Israel’s enemies.

Pete: Okay. So, we have in the Hebrew scriptures themselves, and in other places too, I’m thinking like II Samuel 7 –

Matthias: Right, right.

Pete: Where the reign of David, his descendants will never cease being on the throne. It seems like a perpetual covenant that doesn’t come to an end. And of course, it does, but that’s another story with the exile, and that prompts some of the thinking that Jews and Christians have later on.

Matthias: Yes.

Pete: But the point is that there is a, in the exaggerated language of kingship in the Hebrew scriptures, we have the impetus for, let’s say, later development. Let’s get to that.

Matthias: Yes.

Pete: Let’s talk about how these things and maybe why they were taken the way they were during, at some point, during the Second Temple, maybe the late Second Temple period. Like, what’s happening? Walk us through that.

Matthias: Yeah, so I think what’s happening is that early first, early Jewish, and then later on early Christian interpreters read these texts and found it difficult to just read them as descriptions of ordinary human beings. But they said this promise is so magnificent, this new reality that’s being described for example, in Isaiah 11, or for example in Psalm 2, is so marvelous that it is inconceivable for us to think that this would be just another period in the history of ancient Israel. There must be a promise of something larger. There must be a promise here of something we’ve never seen before: Israel finally living in peace, being victorious over all of her enemies, and ushering in this new era of total peace.

Pete: Yeah. So, does Daniel fit into this at all? Because this is a late Second Temple text.

Matthias: Right! Yes. Daniel, right. So, Daniel 7 is another really important text to understand the origins of the belief in a Messiah. It is a text that was written in the second century before the Common Era, at a time when the temple in Jerusalem was desecrated by a Greek ruler by the name of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. And what Daniel 7 is all about, it’s an oracle, it’s a prophetic text that predicts the defeat of Antiochus who is here portrayed in the form of a little horn that speaks arrogantly. So, he is brought before a court in heaven, he is condemned and killed on the spot. And then, in Daniel 7:13-14, we read that the kingdom of Antiochus is now being replaced by someone who is called someone like a human being or a son of man.


Pete: Yeah, that’s the more common way that Christians understand it, “someone like a son of man.”

Matthias: Exactly. One like a son of man who comes on the clouds of heaven, he appears before God and is given dominion and rulership that was taken away from Antiochus and is now given to the son of man.

Pete: Just before you, I want to make sure we’re clear on something, that the translation you’re reading said “one like a human being,” and many Christians, I know, are used to “son of man.” The issue is that they mean the same thing.

Matthias:  They mean exactly the same thing.

Pete: Son of man is not a divine title; son of man means human.

Matthias: Well –

Pete: Right? Or does it mean more than that in Daniel?

Matthias: Yes, we don’t know, right?

Jared: Exactly.

Pete: [Laughter]

Matthias: We need to be honest here. We don’t know.

Pete: Yes.

Matthias: What we have is the text and the text says, the text was originally written in Aramaic, right, and it says so, in no uncertain terms that there is a person identified as the son of man coming on the clouds and this person is then given dominion and an everlasting kingdom. So, now the big question is who is this figure?

Pete: Yes.

Matthias: And the answer varies depending on who it is who asks, right? So, if you ask a scholar who works, a biblical scholar who works in the book of Daniel, the biblical scholar will probably tell you that this is an angelic figure, it’s an angel like Michael or Gabriel, both of whom are mentioned in the book of Daniel. So, this is simply a transferal of power from an earthly ruler to an angelic ruler. If you read the chapter all the way to the end, this is a vision that Daniel has, right? In the latter half of the chapter, there is in fact an angel who interprets this for Daniel. And the angel says this is not an individual at all, but it is in fact the people of Israel. It is to say the son of man is identified by this interpreting angel as the people of Israel, meaning, the story is really all about a turning of the table at the end of times. Right now, it is the Greeks that rule over the Israelites, but at the end of time, Israel will be victorious. If you ask an early Jewish or early Christian reader of the text, they will agree with neither of these interpretations. They will say, no, no, no, no, no. It’s not an angel. No, no, no, no, no. It’s not the people of Israel, but it is really the Messiah. That son of man is in fact a messianic title, it’s a title for the Messiah and the everlasting kingdom that is introduced here in verse fourteen is none other than the messianic kingdom, the kingdom of the Messiah.

Pete: Okay, yeah. So, unfortunately, it’s not clear.

Matthias: It’s not clear?

Pete: [Laughter]

Matthias: I don’t know whether, that’s unfortunate.

Pete: No, I agree with you. I’m being sarcastic.

Matthias: [Laughter]

Pete: You know, sometimes the clarity is imposed when it’s not really there.

Jared: Well, the only thing I wanted to clarify is because maybe we can now tie a lot of this Messiah talk into the New Testament, and maybe how it was influenced by things like Daniel 7, because Jesus self-designates as the son of man, and is that, again, a generic term, or is that a specific reference to this Daniel 7 son of man?

Matthias: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, I think the answer is that by the time we get to the New Testament, right, the late first century, right, this title or the designation son of man has become a messianic title. So, by this time, there is no doubt that when you talk about the son of man, you really are not talking about an ordinary human being. You really are talking about the Messiah. And so, the writers of our gospels, the evangelists, they deliberately use this title, as well as other titles, because they know that their audiences will exactly know that they’re really talking about the Messiah.

Pete: But clarify, just clarify, if we can clarify, it’s becoming messianic title, but what does messianic mean? Does it mean, for example, I mean, speaking as someone who has been around Christians and is one, I know what people think. They said, well, Messiah really means a god/man hybrid of some sort, right? The incarnation.

Matthias: Right, yes.

Pete: So, Messiah means, what it didn’t mean in Psalm 2, which is a divine human figure of some sort. Is that a common notion, is that what was meant, or is this more an end time ruler king, let’s say, who is especially endowed with the spirit of God and the presence of God to rule the people? Or is it something else? I mean, that’s part of the, I think, the stumbling that people have over the term, because it’s just so hard to define.


Matthias: Yes, yeah. And I think what makes it so hard to define is the fact that at this time, you have a great variety of different expectations of who the Messiah would be and what exactly would happen when the Messiah shows up. So, some groups emphasize the royal aspect, right, he would come victorious and rule over Israel. Others emphasize more the priestly aspect, he would be a high priest, so he sees us for example, in the epistle to the Hebrews. Others emphasize more the prophetic aspect. So, there was not just one set of messianic expectations, there was not one clearly formed idea of who the Messiah would be and what would happen, but there were a great variety of different ways of thinking of the Messiah. And I think these different titles that we talk about reflect that. Let me briefly throw out another marvelous text in the gospel of Luke, in the first chapter, the famous enunciation, right, where the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and greets her and announces to her that she will give birth to the Messiah. And in this very short passage there in Luke 1, the angel does in fact use several messianic titles. So, he says to her, he will be great and he will be called son of the most high. There you have another messianic title and he calls him son of God. And so, there already there is an understanding that Mary and the readers of the gospel of Luke will understand that these are titles that are meant to say, look, this Messiah for whom you are waiting and who you are giving many different names, that is really Jesus.

Pete: Yeah. And, I’m reading here too in Luke 1, I don’t have Luke 1 memorized, but “he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom, there will be no end.”

Matthias: Yeah.

Pete: So, is it safe, at least at this point, to think, well, their notions of Messiah, there was a royal dimension to it, at least here.

Matthias: Yes, absolutely.

Pete: You mentioned Hebrews, which is a great example of a priestly kind of notion of the Messiah.

Matthias: Very much so, yeah. So, in Luke, there is a strong emphasis on the royal part. So, what’s happening in the New Testament is that different New Testament authors were trying to make sense of the Jesus event, right? What just happened, why is this significant, how does it apply to us, to our community? And what they’re doing is they’re describing, they’re remembering Jesus in light of their own needs, but also trying to answer the different messianic expectations that were around at the time. So, they’re using, and Luke is the prime example, Matthew would be another example, they’re using familiar ways to describe Jesus, ways that were really shaped by different messianic expectations in Judaism at the time. Because if there were just to make up their own language, if they were to make up their own motifs, their own ways of talking about Jesus, they could never bring across the message that this really is the Messiah for whom Israel has waited.

Pete: So, they’re using familiar language, but are they infusing it with, let’s say, additional meaning, or a different meaning, or… because I mean, maybe I’m not in my own mind clear about this, but one thing that sort of has struck me is how the biblical writers, as you say, they’re working through.

Matthias: Yes, exactly.

Pete: They’re working out how to talk about this Jesus.

Matthias: Exactly.

Pete: And I’m thinking in light of the Messiah who was, who lost to the Romans, who was crucified, and whom they believe was raised from the dead. And it seems like they were trying to, the language at their disposal was the language of the tradition.

Matthias: Yes, yes.

Pete: But –

Jared: But it wasn’t a great fit.

Pete: Yeah, maybe it wasn’t’ a great fit. Yeah, I’m trying to –

Jared: It was what they had, but it didn’t all fit.

Pete: I guess what I’m trying to get at, and tell me if you think I’m wrong, but, and I’m perfectly happy to hear that. That the language comes from the tradition and the tradition itself is diverse –

Matthias: Mm hmm, yes. Very diverse.

Pete: Developed over time, right?

Matthias: That’s exactly right, yes.

Pete: And the New Testament writers are picking up on certain threads of those traditions.

Matthias: Yes, yes.


Pete: And maybe adopting them, and then applying it in their own way to their faith in a crucified and risen Messiah.

Matthias: Yeah. I think it actually was a pretty good fit. I think it worked really, really well, that the tradition was so diverse and so rich that it really provided them with language, with texts in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, to describe very well who Jesus was. Can I throw out another text for us to think about?

Pete: Absolutely, yes.

Matthias: So, this is in, it’s still in the gospel of Luke, in the fourth chapter, there’s this great story where Jesus is in Nazareth, and he goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath and Luke throws in that little phrase “as was his custom.” Right there in the synagogue, he is handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and so, he reads a few lines of that scroll and then hands the scroll back to the attendant, and then Luke throw in this marvelous phase there, “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him,” right?

Pete: Mm hmm.

Matthias: They were all, like, mesmerized by this passage. And then he began to say to them, “today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” I always joke that that’s the most popular sermon, because it’s the shortest sermon that any Christian or Jew has ever preached, right?

Pete: [Laughter]

Matthias: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” “All spoke well of him” is the next phrase. Of course! So, what’s really going on? If we read this text out of context, if we think that this is something that the story only as attested in the gospel of Luke, if we read these as a Lukan creation, then it seems rather arbitrary. Luke could have picked any passage in the Old Testament and Jesus would just have said, “today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” and everybody says yes, okay. But now we are in the very fortunate position that there is a Dead Sea Scroll known as the Messianic Apocalypse, which predates Luke by at least 100 years that is a description of what, according to this author who we don’t know, this is text we only know from the Dead Sea Scrolls, of what would happen when the Messiah comes. It’s a short description. Okay, the Messiah will come, everybody will obey him, and this is what happens. And that author is going back to the same text in the prophet Isaiah, namely from Isaiah 61. Now, all of a sudden, we know for a fact from the Dead Sea Scrolls that Isaiah 61 prior to the time of Jesus, and certainly at the time of Jesus, was read as a prediction of the Messiah. And so now all of a sudden, the story in Luke takes on a very different meaning. So, when Luke has Jesus read Isaiah 61, he is very deliberately reading the text that comes with Messianic expectations. Right, the people at the time just knew what this text was all about. And when Luke tells us the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him, what he’s really saying is they knew what this text was all about and they want to know Jesus, what do you have to say? And this is why, for Jesus, it is enough to say “today, the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” by which Luke has Jesus say, I am this person. I am the Messiah.

Pete: Yeah.

Matthias: My point here is, that if we were to read Luke only, it would be just any passage of the Old Testament. But once we read this story in the context of Second Temple literature, more specifically in the context of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we understand that there is a deeper meaning here, that Luke knows exactly what he’s doing, right? He’s picking a passage from the Old Testament that has a well-established history of interpretation. The audience of the time would’ve certainly appreciated and known why Jesus is reading this particular text.

Pete: And to me, that example crystallizes very nicely the entire issue. It’s not, it is inaccurate to say Luke’s portrayal of Jesus, or Jesus, whoever is doing this, is citing the Old Testament. Look how wonderful it is that he’s citing the Old Testament. He’s citing the Hebrew scriptures already within a known and shared understanding of what that passage meant for them.

Matthias: Exactly.

Pete: In other words, you can’t, here’s the thing, you can’t understand Luke 4 apart from understanding something of that development.

Matthias: Yes, yes.


Pete: So that you understand the gravitas of what is happening there in that moment in the synagogue. And that, to me, that illustrates the beautiful importance of, as you say in your book, minding the gap, right? The gap in between the testaments and all that literature and traditions that developed.

Matthias: And I think it makes Luke and his gospel so much richer, even, because we now understand that it’s not just a nice story, but it is a story that constantly alludes to certain expectations and he is bending over backwards to say in this Jesus, these expectations are fulfilled.

Pete: Yes.

Jared: Well, unfortunately we’re coming to the end of our time, but I think that’s a great place to wrap up the conversation. I do think that really put a pin on what we’ve been talking about in terms of these expectations and the importance of the Second Temple in understanding who Jesus was and what Jesus was about and what the New Testament is about. So, as we wrap up, is there anything, Matthias, that you would want to promote other than the book that Pete just mentioned, Mind the Gap, other projects that you’ve worked on that might help other listeners and readers catch up on some of the Second Temple stuff?

Matthias: Yes. I think I would just keep it with Mind the Gap at this point, where I’m trying to really underscore the significance of Jesus’ Judaism. I would like to add, perhaps, one comment. When I talk to my readers who’ve read Mind the Gap, often they tell me that they find it liberating to learn about the Judaism of Jesus and to move beyond this just being a phrase which, and it’s just a phrase, it’s sort of meaningless, but once we fill it with content, then all of a sudden, there emerges this entire world. I think they find it liberating because it helps them live a true life as Christians without any anti-Judaism, without this incessant appetite to pitch Jesus against the pharisees and the Jews at the time, but rather to be okay with reading the New Testament in its Jewish context, to read beyond the Bible, to appreciate that other early Jewish texts at the time can also be a vehicle of truth and theology and enriching. I think that’s a very important message for Christians in the 21st century.

Jared: Wonderful, well thank you so much for coming on with us Matthias, we really appreciated the conversation. I learned a lot.

Matthias: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Pete: Absolutely. Wonderful time Matthias, thanks so much.

Matthias: Thank you, Pete.

Jared: Bye bye.

Matthias: Bye.

[Music begins]

Pete: Hey, thanks for listening everyone, to this episode. We had so much fun talking with Matthias, and if you want to find out more about him, you can go to his website, http://www.matthiashenze.org/, and by all means, check out his book. This came out in 2017. I use it in my classes, it’s so readable and so full of information and just walks you through things in a beautiful way just like he did here in the episode, but the name of the book is Mind the Gap: How the Jewish Writings between the Old and New Testament Help Us Understand Jesus, and this is put out by the good people at Fortress Press.

Jared: And as always, we want to make sure and thank our team. Without them, we couldn’t do what we do. So, thanks to Shay, our creative director; Reed, our community champion: Dave, our audio engineer; and Megan, producer of this podcast.

Pete: Actually Jared, we could do it, it would just take us ten years to put out one episode.

Jared: Thank you, thank you.

Pete: Just to be clear.

Jared: Very factual, I appreciate that.

Pete: [Laughter]

Jared: All right, thanks everyone, we’ll see you next time.

Pete: See ya.

[End music]



Jared: Welcome everyone, to this episode of The Bible for Normal People!

Pete: Yeah? I’m sorry, you just woke me up. I was…


Jared: I gotta start over.

Pete: I’m sorry, I’m like, what’s happening?

Jared: I’ve got to start over. I got stuck, all right. All right.

Pete: That’s obvious. Can you handle this today, you all right? You want to talk about it?

Jared: I do like, fog out the last few days  –

Pete: [Sighs]

Jared: In the middle of sentences.


Jared: Oh, [beep], I was supposed to do all that. All right, let me try it one more time.

Pete: Oh geez, Jared.

Jared: It’s all right, let me do it one more time.

Pete: Okay fine, you want all the glory for yourself.

Jared: I also get really tired of saying really. I say really a lot.

Pete: That’s okay. That’s your thing.

Jared: Yeah.

[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.