Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Meghan Henning: Does Hell Exist?

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with professor Meghan Henning about hell and the afterlife as they explore the following questions:

  • Does hell exist?
  • Did ancient people wonder if hell existed?
  • How did popular ancient stories influence the ancient world and the Bible?
  • What is Sheol and why didn’t people want to go there?
  • What is the tradition of the “two-ways” in the Hebrew Bible?
  • What Greco-Roman discussion does the New Testament participate in?
  • What is Gehenna?
  • What do ancient school books tell us about hell?
  • What does it mean that the New Testament uses multiple words for “hell”?
  • When did the idea of hell as we think of it come to be?
  • Does the idea of an afterlife persuade people in the modern context?
  • Was Jesus the first one to talk about hell?


Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Meghan Henning you can share. 

  • “We might need to ask ourselves, ‘Is this a lesson about what the afterlife is actually like or is this lesson about how we could use the visual vocabulary and the rhetorical tools of our contemporary world in order to bring life and healing and education to people as well?’” @HenningMeghan
  • “If there is a hell, we’re all going.” @HenningMeghan
  • “The question, ‘Does hell exist?’ is really a modern question that we have for ancient texts that aren’t asking that same question.” @HenningMeghan
  • “Our scientific curiosity wants us to try to decide whether or not hell is really there or not, but the problem is that the text that we’re asking that question of, namely, the Bible…the earliest readers of those texts would not have had that question.” @HenningMeghan
  • “These texts are describing Sheol not as a place that you don’t want to go to because it signifies that you’ve done something wrong but rather to go to Sheol too soon would be to die prematurely.” @HenningMeghan
  • “Even the earliest readers of these texts understood on some level that the real point here is about how you treat others.” @HenningMeghan
  • “But if we think of this as rhetoric that Jesus is really quite serious about and trying to drive home, what we find is that the emphasis in these texts is really on care for the other and concern for the marginalized.” @HenningMeghan

Mentioned in This Episode

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Read the transcript



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

Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.

[Jaunty Intro Music]

Jared: Welcome everyone to this episode of The Bible for Normal People. Oh boy, do we have a treat for you today. We’re talking about does hell exist.

Pete: Mm hmm. Does it?

Jared: You’ll have to listen to find out.

Pete: You’ll find out.

Jared: I mean, you won’t, of course.

Pete: You know, you’re going to get the answer actually within the first, like, two minutes and it will shock you.

Jared: [Laughter]

Pete: As they say on the interwebs.

Jared: Just click here to find out more.

Pete: [Laughter]

That is sort of a hell isn’t it?

Jared: It’s true.

Pete: That’s what I think of all that stuff, so anyway. Yeah, our guest is Meghan Henning and she is a Professor of Christian Origins at the University of Dayton, so she deals with stuff like before the time of Jesus, during, and a little bit after, just the rise of Christianity. And she’s done a lot of thinking about hell.

Jared: And just the best of, I love –

Pete: You’d never guess it talking to her though, right?

Jared: I love having these, like, nerdy scholars on who really just – all they want to do is just dig into texts –

Pete: Yeah! Right.

Jared: And find, I just really appreciate that level of honest scholarship.

Pete: Amen. Bible for Normal People, that’s what we do. We talk about this stuff, have nerds on, and we keep going.

Jared: That’s right, excellent. All right, one more thing. It’s very important so listen up.

Pete: Very important, listen up.

Jared: Every once in a while, we like do to these courses online where Pete and I jump on, we tackle a topic and this time we’re going to be talking about how to read the Bible as adults.

Pete: But Jared! How much does it cost?!

Jared: It costs $5,000.

Pete: If you want to…

Jared: If you want to.

Pete: It’s a pay what you want course, folks.

Jared: So, it could cost you nothing.

Pete: Could cost you nothing.

Jared: You know –

Pete: If you’re not a capitalist, you just show up.

Jared: Normally, we have these courses for, you know, $49, $99, something like that – but no human is going to be turned away. We really want to just continue to have this dialogue and conversation about what the Bible is, what do we do with it. So, we’re going to be having this course March 26th, so write it down on your calendar like, right now – unless you’re driving – but otherwise write down March 26th, 8:30 Eastern Time. So, from 8:30-9:30 we’re going to be talking about how to read the Bible as an adult. We’re going to be talking about its ancientness, its diversity, its ambiguousness, how to be flexible with it, diving into wisdom and some other topics, so we hope you can join us. If you would be interested in registering for that, just go to https://www.eventbrite.com/e/how-to-read-the-bible-like-adults-with-pete-enns-and-jared-byas-tickets-94096682711. You can sign up there, pay what you want, we’ll see you March 26th at 8:30PM Eastern Time.

Pete: Eastern Time, don’t forget, Eastern Time.

Jared: Alright, we’ll lets have this conversation with Meghan Henning on hell.

[Music begins]

Meghan: If we think about the ethical commands that are tied to this, the conclusion that we draw is that if there is a hell, we’re all going. But, if we think about this as rhetoric, that Jesus is really quite serious about and trying to drive home, what we find is that the emphasis in these texts is really on care for the other, concern for the marginalized, and that theme is still carried forward. Even the earliest readers of these texts understood on some level that the real point here is how you treat others.

[Music ends]

Pete: Well Meghan, how are you? Thanks for being on the podcast.

Meghan: Thank you! Thank you so much for having me.

Pete: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of interesting stuff to talk about today. Before we get to that, let’s just hear a bit about your background. How you got into this, your spiritual background, and maybe why you even went and got a Ph.D., which probably sounded like a good idea at the time.

Meghan: [Laughter]

It’s everyone’s doing it.

Pete: Yes.

Meghan: I grew up in a Lutheran family and in the Midwest and when I was in high school, my family went through a lot of trauma and through that time, I noticed quite quickly that the people around me were doing their best to try to support my family with the use of Scripture. But, in some cases they were actually really helpful, and in other cases, not so helpful, and the thing that was really interesting to me at that point was how people could be reading the exact same text, but in one case interpret it in a way that maybe made my family feel bad about our situation, and in other cases really come alongside my family and support us. So that really got me interested from a young age in what it meant to interpret a biblical text, and what role the interpreter had and how Scripture could be either a positive force in someone’s life or something that was even scary. So, that led me on a somewhat winding path to get a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies in New Testament and then I developed an interest in the history of early Christianity as well.

Jared: Well, that’s really wonderful and I appreciate that background, but –

Pete: [Laughter]

Jared: Today, we really want to ask really just one question. Does hell exist?

Meghan: [Laughter]


Jared: I mean, we really brought you on because Pete and I have been wrestling this for years, we really want to know, so can you just give us the answer? This may be a really short podcast.

Pete: Yeah, yeah.

Meghan: Right, yeah. The answer is seven.

Pete: [Laughter]

Jared: [Laughter]

Meghan: No, um.


The question “does hell exist?” is really a modern question that we have for ancient texts that aren’t asking that same question, right? Our scientific curiosity wants us to try to decide whether or not hell is really there or not, but the problem is that the text that we’re asking that question of, namely, the Bible – the readers of those texts would not have had, or the earliest readers of those texts would not have had that question. When they came across the descriptions of the weeping and gnashing of teeth in the gospel of Matthew, or the story in Luke 16 with the rich man and Lazarus, the question for them would not have been – “oh…is that really a place?” The question for them would have been who’s there and why are they there, because that’s the way that the culture that they were a part of understood reality.

Jared: So, we’ll get back to this, because what we really are hoping you can do for us is kind of trace this idea of hell. But before we do that, is what you’re saying then the milieu or the environment of the New Testament wouldn’t, would they have already assumed the existence of something like a hell and so the question really isn’t does it exist? The idea of existence and is it really there, those are really modern questions and in a lot of ways there would have been a lot of assumptions in the ancient world about some of that, so they would have just asked the other questions like who’s there, why are they there, not so much does it exist. Are you saying that in the New Testament there wouldn’t have been an assumption this place called hell does exist?

Meghan: Whether or not they had an assumption that a place called hell existed, they would have already been familiar with ideas that sounded like the language that Jesus is using in the Gospels that was already used in their broader culture to instruct people. So, the idea really begins in the cultures that are surrounding the New Testament writers. So, we have in the Greco-Roman world we have the concepts of Hades and tours to the underworld, and we have in the Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid we have this idea of a going to Hades and on this journey to Hades, learning something that you bring back through this story about your journey to Hades to educate your audience. And even though the hearers of the New Testament might not have been literate or reading those stores, those stories were so widely shared and told. They were part of the Greek and Roman program of education called paideia that was consistent and used with remarkable consistency across the empire. If we look at, for example, some of the school hands, or educational texts that we have from antiquity, one of the things that’s really remarkable that I’ve found through my research is that the chapters of the Odyssey and the Aeneid, so Odyssey eleven and the Aeneid six, that described these tours to Hades are some of the most frequently used texts in those school hands. So, what that tells us is that among the population that was literate, that was receiving an education, this story would’ve been widely familiar and would have been shared. So, it was a part of the kind of understanding that you would tell these stories in order to educate audiences. And then, of course, Jewish apocalyptic literature, which was very popular during the lifetime of Jesus, has its own stories and journeys that are somewhat influenced by these Greco-Roman stories that I’m talking about, but also takes its own spin on this idea of touring other-worldly spaces and using graphic details about those other-worldly spaces to make a point and persuade audiences in the present.

Pete: Well let’s get to that, the point, what they’re trying to do with all this in a bit. What I hear you saying is that this idea of Hades, right, or we might say hell just for arguments sake. A lot of that, it’s, you know, Christianity is sort of dealing and engaging with the cultures around it, which is both Greek and Roman influence and it’s, I mean, it’s maybe an obvious point, but it’s a product of engaging a particular culture and Jews were doing this, but –

Meghan: They were.


Pete: These concepts were not part of their own Scripture. Am I –

Meghan: Right, that’s accurate.

Pete: I mean, in your opinion?

Meghan: Yeah, I did sort of jump over the Hebrew Bible, sorry.

Pete: Well that okay, we all do.

Meghan: I jumped straight to Jewish apocalypticism.

Pete: [Laughter]

No, that’s fine.

Jared: I mean, that’s a very common mistake for all of us.

Pete: I know.

Jared: I go from the Old Testament to Jewish apocalypticism every day.

Pete: Whatever, yeah.

Meghan: Exactly.


Pete: But I guess my question is, I guess my point is, just so you can comment on is that, this is a foreign concept completely in the Hebrew Scriptures, right?

Meghan: Yes, so the Hebrew Scriptures have the concept of Sheol, which is not really what we would call a lively afterlife in the sense that it’s described as dusty and dark. It’s certainly not pleasant, it’s not a place that you want to go, but everybody goes there when they die, so in the Hebrew Bible there’s this idea that, you know, when you die, you go to Sheol and it is described in ways that it’s sometimes confusing to people, because when they read the Hebrew Bible, it sounds like hell. And when this translation of the Hebrew Bible was made into the Septuagint, they actually used the word Hades to translate Sheol, and so then that creates confusion for a lot of people because then that starts to overlap those two concepts, but really in the Hebrew Bible, it’s a kind of a neutral place where everybody goes after death and the texts that describe it, or talk about it, do refer to it as a place that nobody wants to go, but that’s because in the Hebrew Bible there’s this tradition of the two ways. And this idea that one way leads to life and abundance, and the other way leads to death. And so, when these texts, Proverbs and Psalms are places where we see a lot of this language, or in Deuteronomy, the Deuteronomist has a lot of language like this, these texts are describing not Sheol as a place that you don’t want to go to because it signifies that you’ve done something wrong, but rather that, to go to Sheol too soon would be to die prematurely. And so, that is negatively valued and seen as a punishment from God, but it’s not the idea of hell that we think of that gets developed centuries later by early Christians.

Jared: Well, it seems like it’s more of this, it’s an extension of the idea that you don’t want to die young –  

Meghan: Exactly.  

Jared: And Sheol is just, yeah, well that’s what happens when you die and if you die young that’s not a good thing and so it’s –  

Meghan: And you want to make what, choices that lead to a fruitful life and a long life, not –  

Jared: Right, right.  

Meghan: Exactly.  

Pete: Yeah, that’s, I mean, that’s a really interesting point and I think an important point to make that this idea that I think a lot of Christians throughout history and today very much, you know, at least the people we talk to a lot – they just assume that this is a thoroughly biblical idea, this afterlife abode which is a place of punishment, even torture and for some traditions –  

Meghan: And bodily torture. That’s why I say that Sheol is not really a lively afterlife, because it’s not totally clear that people have bodies there.  



Pete: Right. I mean, you really can’t do anything in Sheol.  

Meghan: No.  

Pete: You can’t even praise God in Sheol, so don’t send me there, especially before my time. And wanting to avoid Sheol is not because I don’t want to go to hell, it’s because I have a lot more living to do – 

Meghan: Exactly.  

Pete: And I’d like you to allow me, don’t let me go down into the pit or something.  

Meghan: Right, exactly don’t let me go down into Sheol –  

Pete: Right, right.  

Meghan: Before my hairs are gray. So yeah, exactly. You want to live on earth as long as possible –  

Pete: Right.  

Meghan: And that’s a sign of God’s favor and abundance in your life.  

Pete: Right.  

Jared: So, when we get to this, let’s maybe move forward a little bit.  

Meghan: Mm hmm.  

Jared: So, when we get to the –  

Pete: What’s wrong with the Hebrew Bible Jared? We like talking about that.  

Meghan: [Laughter] 

Pete: Sheesh, man! I’ll tell ya. Okay, go ahead.  

Jared: We get to this time period, so the Hebrew Bible’s been written. We’re kind of going through history here, Jesus is born around this time, there’s what you call, you know, this Jewish apocalypticism, so there’s these ridings and they’re influenced by, maybe, some Greek culture and the Greek idea of Hades. What, you know, how does it change? Because we just went through Sheol, which doesn’t really give us a lot to go on, but by the time we get to Jewish apocalyptic literature, there is, like, what’s the meat to it? What does it start looking like, what does the afterlife look like that’s different than Sheol?  


Meghan: Well, in the Jewish apocalyptic literature, you have descriptions of other-worldly spaces, and so, in a text like 1 Enoch for example, you have someone being taken on a tour and you have spaces where there’s a distinction made between souls that live different kind of lives and they go to different, they’re kind of like pits or hollows that these different, four different types of souls dwell in. So, you have in 1 Enoch, and in other apocalyptic texts from this time, this idea of what we call the differentiation of fates, which is just a fancy way of talking about different kinds of souls going different places. And this can be seen as continuous, for the Jewish people, this is continuous with this idea of the tradition of the two ways, right? You live one kind of life and you live for a very long time; you live a different kind of life and you go down to Sheol too soon, right? But now, the difference is in these apocalyptic texts, right, that actually leads to different kinds of after death experiences whereas the concept of Sheol was everyone goes to – 

Pete: Which seems fair, right? I mean, I’m not being facetious, but that seems fair for that to happen because why would someone who leads a long, righteous life wind up in the same place?  

Meghan: Right. And so, what you have in the Hellenistic period is under the pressures of the empire, you have the apocalyptic texts developing ideas of the afterlife that are both influenced by Greek and Roman ideas, right? So, this idea of differentiation of fates looks different from, but also not totally distinct from what we see in Plato, for example, right? In the Republic, there’s this idea of, you know, the trans-migration of souls, and different souls that live different kinds of lives going to different spaces after death. And so, you end up in Jewish apocalyptic literature starting to see overlap with some of these Greco-Roman ideas, and you also get this in an apocalyptic text that may, in some cases, be influenced by the pressure of living under Roman rule. So, it’s during this time period that we end up seeing early Christian authors who are deeply influenced by this apocalyptic literature invoking language that shares a heritage with both the Greco-Roman culture that they’re a part of, the Hebrew Bible tradition of the two ways where you could, you know, make life choices that lead to different outcomes, and then these Jewish apocalyptic texts. And all of this really funnels into what we have represented in some of the New Testament texts that talk about these different other-worldly spaces.  

Jared: So, the New Testament you would say is participating in some way in this differentiation of fates way of thinking, meaning, you can make choices, and, I mean, you can make choices in this life that lead to different outcomes in the afterlife.  

Meghan: Yes, and I will say, I should say that it is, that is a distinctive Meghan Henning idea.  


Pete: Okay.  


Meghan: That a lot of twentieth century Bible scholarship, actually how I got interested in this topic is that I was reading some New Testament theology book by Rudolph Bultmann and he was writing it, you know, earlier in the twentieth century and he was really keen to try and say, well yeah, there’s these texts in the New Testament that talk about Hades or Gehenna, but you know, those are really, the Hades texts are all, those are all, it’s Greek and Roman ideas and that’s not really the true essential kernel of the New Testament, and I thought, well, wouldn’t it be convenient if that was true.  

Pete: Yeah.  

Jared: Mm hmm.  

Meghan: And that started me down this road of thinking and noticing that most of the scholarship of the twentieth century was a kind of a scholarly game of hot potato where their different scholars are trying to pin the blame of hell on different people groups basically.  

Pete: Yeah. 

Meghan: And so I’ve really taken a different approach in my own work and said, you know, if Jesus, if we know Jesus is using apocalyptic language in other places, it’s probably not fair to assume that somehow this apocalyptic language wasn’t really, he didn’t really mean it.  

Pete: Yeah, he…right, right, right.  

Meghan: And instead, it’s probably most fruitful to be honest about what’s there and say, yeah, there’s this terminology about Gehenna and about Hades, but what’s happening by the end of the first century when the Gospel authors are using this terminology is that they are really starting to develop an idea of a lively afterlife – 

Pete: Mm hmm.  

Meghan: In which there’s rewards and there’s punishments. And so, I do think that first century Christian texts that we call the New Testament do have the beginnings of an idea of hell. It’s certainly not the developed idea that we think of though when we think of hell today. Like people are always like, oh, do you study Satan, and I’m like, well, in the New Testament texts you really don’t get a lot of Satan, right? There’s not – 


Pete: Mmm.  

Meghan: We think of hell as this, really, when we think of hell in the contemporary world, it looks a lot more like what Dante described in his Inferno, and that work is really indebted to second through fourth century Christian ideas about hell that really take what’s in the New Testament and amp it up –  

Pete: Mm hmm, yeah.  

Meghan: Times ten.  


Pete: To say the least. Now Meghan, you mentioned Gehenna, so explain what that is and what it means and that should take you three seconds, right?  

Meghan: Yeah, no problem, no problem.  

Pete: So, but, ya know, that’s a concept that normally, not normally, but often translated as hell by English translations which is very unfortunate, but just, yeah. So, what is it? What is it and what do we do with it?  

Meghan: Yeah, so, Gehenna is itself a reference to, and that term actually also occurs in the Hebrew Bible. It’s in the Hebrew Bible, it mostly likely refers to an actual, it does refer to an actual valley, the Valley of Hinnom. It’s a valley that’s associated specifically with idolatrous acts of non-Israelite peoples that said to include child sacrifice, so it is, and it’s also thought to be a place, so this valley is in Isaiah 66 gets specifically associated with that imagery of people who are not following the God of Israel and who are reaping the consequences of that, right? And it becomes a kind of, so the Valley of Gehenna or Hinnom become this kind of monument to the idea of there being consequences for not following God, but that idea of it being a physical place by the time Christians start referring to it in the New Testament text, has already started in apocalyptic literature to refer more generally to the idea of there being a kind of fiery place of punishment or a fiery space that would be a place where people were isolated for the things that they had done in their life.  

Pete: Would that be an afterlife thing or not?  

Meghan: Yeah, so in the apocalyptic literature, it has already started to refer to, so that’s the thing, I have heard many, in my lifetime I have heard many sermons where people will say, “oh you know, Gehenna was this trash heap and it was this place of fire.” So, all that stuff about the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem, there’s no, there’s been some articles published, there’s no archaeological evidence for that –  

Pete: Right.  

Meghan: And it was not, it was really, by the point that the New Testament was written, it was already kind of well-known as a monument to infidelity and then an afterlife space.  

Jared: So, it had already become known as a way of talking about the afterlife?  

Meghan: Yeah. So that’s the thing that makes it, it’s important, I do think it’s important to recognize that the New Testament authors are not using one word for hell. They are using Gehenna, they’re using Hades, in one case, they’re using Tartarus. In Revelation they’re using a lake of fire, there’s all these different concepts that are in the New Testament texts because they still don’t have, they’re still working this out. We have a bunch of different concepts being used to gesture towards the idea of eternal punishment. And that’s part of an early developing notion of eternal punishment.  

Pete: So, okay, I like the way you put that. They’re working it out.  

Meghan: [Laughter] 


Pete: Which, because it’s a newish idea, and it’s probably a bit flexible  

Meghan: Mm hmm, exactly.  

Pete: And it’s used in different ways by different people. So, we have this New Testament which is supposed to be clear and tell us exactly what’s what.  

[Music begins] 

Pete: But it’s a little more complicated than that it sounds like.  

Meghan: Yeah, by just a bit. 

Pete: Juuuust a bit.  

Meghan: [Laughter] 

[Producer group endorsement] 

[Music ends] 


Jared: Well I’m trying to, I’m trying to, I’m going down a few different parallel tracks. Because on the one hand, we have this influence of Jewish apocalypticism, which by the New Testament’s definitely taking on this afterlife flavor, even if the concepts are still being thrown around. We’re not exactly sure what to do with it. But earlier you said something that maybe is worth bringing back up, which was this method, this paideia, and you’ve mentioned a few times that in a lot of these stories, there’s a journey to Hades – 

Meghan: Mm hmm.  

Jared: And there’s lessons learned, and it reminds me kind of this dominant kind of meta metaphor of life is a journey –  

Meghan: Mmm.  

Jared: And you’re going down that path and you’re learning lessons along the way. So, at first, I was excited about that, because I was thinking, oh! Well, I’ve never heard that, maybe that’s kind of what Jesus is doing here in the New Testament to bring these up and talk about kind of life is a journey, there’s a way of going on these things you’re going to learn, these lessons, but then, there’s definitely an influence of this apocalyptic afterlife as well. And I’m having a hard time putting those two thoughts together.  

Meghan: Perfect. So, the apocalyptic literature itself draws upon this idea of a journey or a tour. So, the idea that you are being taken on a tour by a guide is used in, for example, 1 Enoch, as an example of a Jewish apocalyptic text. So, it’s not just in the Greek and Roman tour literature, but also in the Jewish tours. And so, we get this idea that, so both the Gospel authors and the audience of the Gospel authors would have been aware of this idea of going on a tour of other-worldy spaces in order to learn something. Whether they were familiar with it through exposure to Jewish apocalyptic ideas or through the more, the broader Hellenistic curriculum of learning about the afterlife on tours of Hades. So –  

Jared: So maybe there’s not like a clear line that we can draw between this. You go on these tours and you learn these lessons in these narratives and an actual, historical – historical is not even the right word – uh, metaphysical –  

Meghan: Place.  

Jared: Reality of this afterlife, maybe that’s a distinction we’re trying to make that maybe wouldn’t have fit in the New Testament.  

Meghan: Exactly. I agree. So, I think that’s a distinction that we want the text to answer that question and I think that the text is actually trying to answer a different set of questions.  

Pete: Okay.  

Meghan: The set of questions that I think Jesus and the Gospel authors are trying to answer through these stories is, how should I live today?  

Pete: Okay, so that sort of raises a question that I’ve been pondering here for the last few seconds as you were talking, but Jesus. Let’s talk about Jesus.  

Jared: So, you weren’t listening to her; is that what you’re saying?  

Pete: I was listening and pondering.  

Jared: You were thinking what you were going to say.  

Meghan: Listening, pondering. Exactly.  

Pete: Yes, thank you. I multi-task, but. So, did, this is one of these stupid modern questions. I’m trying not to ask the wrong question. 

Meghan: [Laughter] 

Pete: Okay, so let’s talk about Jesus. Was Jesus thinking of, from what we can tell, right, from the world around him and what’s developing at this moment. When Jesus says Gehenna, is he thinking of an afterlife place of punishment or is Jesus using the rhetoric of his tradition to motivate change in the people that he’s talking to?  

Meghan: The times where he uses the language, whether it’s Gehenna or Hades, are context of ethical instruction. So, it’s possible that people hearing this would’ve also thought of a metaphysical space.  

Pete: Mm hmm.  

Meghan: But, what I know for sure, and that is like, since I don’t have a telekinetic connection with the historical Jesus or his audience, I can guess they might have thought that, but I don’t know.  

Pete: Right.  

Meghan: But what I can tell from looking at the texts today, is that they’re using this language to try and persuade audiences to behave in particular ways. So, for example, you know, Matthew 25, right?  

Pete: Oh yeah.  


Meghan: Is a place where we see this language, and it’s quite clear that the whole story about the sheep and the goats has some pretty specific things, right? And the question that gets asked, well wait, we didn’t know it was you, is followed with an answer of, like, very specific instructions about well, you should do this for the least of these. You should feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, and tend to the sick, right? That’s all very specific ethical instruction that then is also a callback to the Sermon on the Mount, which is another place where we get this language in Matthew’s gospel as well. And so, there are multiple places where it’s quite clear that the language of weeping and gnashing of teeth or the language of Hades or Gehenna is tied specifically to an ethical lesson. You get the same thing in Luke 16, right?  

Pete: Which is where people get the idea from of if you’re bad you go to hell and are tortured forever.  

Meghan: Where do they get that idea?  

Pete: No, they get it from that.  

Meghan: Yes, exactly.  

Pete: From a misreading, let’s say, of the intentionality of Gehenna or Hades.  

Meghan: Right.  

Pete: And so, again, we’re sort of back to, because I’m trying to wrap my head around this, because this is sort of important, I think, and I know really important for people listening to this too.  The rhetoric of Gehenna/Hades, it has a function. Okay, let’s put it this way, I really hope that if you call your brother an empty-headed idiot as in the Sermon on the Mount, or if you’re angry with your brother, if you hate him in your heart or something, you’re going to hell forever to burn. I hope that’s not true.  

Meghan: Mm hmm, right.  

Pete: I really hope Jesus isn’t saying that. He doesn’t seem to be saying that.  

Meghan: No.  

Jared: Well, I have an interesting thing I want to test with you, Meghan, and I just came up with it ten seconds ago, so it’s maybe not as brilliant as it seems right now. But the, I just can’t help but think back to Deuteronomy.  

Meghan: Mm hmm.  

Jared: And if we take it to that context and we have these you know [Deuteronomy] 28-32 or something where we have the blessings and cursings. When we have these ethical pronouncements of how now shall you live, there tends to be some level of accountability. Like in the ancient world, I would say even in the modern world, we think of consequences and accountability if you don’t behave in these ways.  

Meghan: Mm hmm.  

Jared: And back then, in the Deuteronomic texts, it would’ve been, there’s an oppressing army that will come and wipe you out as a people.  

Meghan: Mm hmm.  

Jared: And in the same way that we don’t think today, if I disobey God, that somehow, well there are some traditions that would still have this, but that somehow the enemy armies of an oppressing nation are going to come and wipe us out, like that’s not what we think of as the ethical conclusion of my misbehaving. I think it’s just as –  

Meghan: No, right. We don’t expect for, like, the earth to open up and for us to be smitten.  


Jared: Exactly. And in the same way, maybe, for me, that’s an analogy to repeat what you’re saying, which is, why then do we think no, no, no. But when Jesus says if you do wrong you’re going to hell forever, why do we take that then as like the literal thing that will happen when we kind of have this other context in the Old Testament where, no, it’s a cultural way of talking about consequences of ethical misbehaving and Jesus is doing the same thing in an apocalyptic way and we have our own way of doing that and so it does frame it for me. Is that an appropriate analogy?  

Meghan: Oh, absolutely. And one of the things, I mean, what you were saying too about, so, the Deuteronomist is a great example, right? That we read that, and we have a sense of how ancient audiences would read that. And so, to think about what’s going on in the New Testament text is equally appropriate.  To understand that Jesus is using rhetoric of his time in order to really bring home an ethical message for his audience and to get them to take it seriously. And one of the things I think that people misunderstand sometimes, so you’re saying it’s just rhetoric? And I’m saying, “no!” There’s no such thing as just rhetoric. Rhetoric is actually really important. Right?  

Jared: Mm hmm.  

Meghan: You use it when you really want to make a point and you want to make it clear and well.  It also means that, because it’s not rhetoric we use in the same way in the contemporary world, we have maximal opportunity to misunderstand it. I mean, one of the things, you know, if we think about, like you said, if we think about the ethical commands that are tied to this in the New Testament, then the conclusion that we draw is that if there is a hell, we’re all going. Because no one has upheld the entirety of that pronouncement. But if we think of this as rhetoric that Jesus is really quite serious about and trying to drive home, what we find is that the emphasis in these texts is really on care for the other and concern for the marginalized and that theme, even as the intensity of hell gets amped up in the early Christian period in the tours of hell that come later, that theme is still carried forward. So even the earliest readers of these texts understood on some level that the real point here is about how you treat others.  


Pete: Yeah, that’s helpful. I’m stuck on something here though.  

Meghan: Great.  

Pete: I’m such a modern person I don’t get it, but I’m trying to put myself in this space of ancient people and to be persuaded by rhetoric, there has to be – maybe there doesn’t, maybe I just don’t get it – but I would think there has to be some connection between what is said and here is the modern word, reality.  

Meghan: Yes.  

Pete: Otherwise, it’s just, listen, you’re just using a bunch of hyped-up hyperbolic language here about fire and torture and whatever, but we all know that’s not, another modern word, true. Right? So, help me through that.  

Meghan: Yeah, good. So, one of the things that ancient rhetoricians would’ve said about this is that rhetoric, visual rhetoric especially, only works if your audience can picture it in front of their own eyes, so you have to use language that’s familiar. You know, if I start talking about something and you’ve never seen it before, you can’t draw it up in your imagination no matter how hard you try, right? But it also has to have verisimilitude, or what I tell my students means truthiness, right?  


Pete: Mm hmm. Yes. 

Meghan: It has to resonate as true on some level. And so, even if audiences could call up the image, they also had to understand or believe that it was somehow had some truth to it. Now, whether that is a metaphysical truth or whether that is an acknowledgement or an assent that, yes, you know, the wicked have justice meted out to theme in some way ultimately, and yes, the righteous have justice meted out to them in some way ultimately, you know? It’s hard to know what the metaphysical commitment was –  

Pete: Right.  

Meghan: For the audience, but for sure on some level if this rhetoric did work, and it seems to have worked for some time, there had to be some level of truth to it among the people using it. They had to have some sense that it was, it had what I would call verisimilitude or truthiness to it. But, you also get someone like the ancient geographer Strabo, who said, well yeah, you know, the myths that we tell, because he was talking about education, and he said, yeah, the myths that we tell in education, it doesn’t really matter if they are true or not. The point is that the persuade our students, right? And they can still have value in them, even if we don’t think that everything that is in the myths, and he was talking about specifically about Homer. But even if everything in the myths isn’t true, it still has a pedagogical value. So, I think there were different levels of commitment to the rhetoric.  

Jared: But there’s a bit of a difference there between like, I resonate with Aesop’s Fables because I resonate with the wisdom of the point.  

Meghan: Yes.  

Jared: And I don’t need it to be historically accurate to get value out of it.  

Meghan: That’s true. Mm hmm.  

Jared: Which feels different than, here are these ethical frameworks and if you don’t do them, here is something really bad that will happen to you. Don’t worry, if the really bad thing happens, that hell will happen to you, will actually happen to you or not.  

Meghan: [Laughter] 


Jared: Like, that feels like a different, feels like we’re comparing apples and oranges. But I also did want to mention that I think there’s something to, I keep coming back to the idea that you said that this isn’t really settled, so it’s not a clear concept. 

Meghan: It’s not.  

Jared: In a lot of ways, that actually helps the persuasion of it, because I think of a concept like today, in today’s world, I think of the concept of karma.  

Meghan: Mm hmm.  

Jared: Where like, a lot of modern Americans, I just know people that will, like, use it. And if I were to actually drill down and say, like, what do, like, they really are afraid of karma. That is something that persuades them.  

Meghan: Mm hmm.  

Jared: That like, if I put good into the world, I’ll get good back. If I put bad into the world, I get bad back. It’s kind of like, Deuteronomic theology all over again. But, if I ask them to like, drill down, well like, tell me the mechanics of karma. Like, how does it actually, how does it actually happen? Especially if they don’t believe in a personal God or something who exacts this kind of justice.  

Meghan: Right.  

Jared: It’s sort of, it’s a fuzzy concept. And actually, the fuzziness is what’s more compelling about it. Because if you ask them, to like, break it down into the mechanics of, well exactly tell me how if I do this good for someone, a good thing’s gonna happen to me later.  

Meghan: Right.  

Jared: I don’t understand. And so, there’s some way in which the ambiguity, I guess, of the mechanics of hell and dying forever and burning, it plays to the advantage here, I think, of the rhetoric.  

Meghan: Yes. There’s no question that in the first century this concept is being developed. So, it is definitely at its beginnings and the more developed idea that we think of when we think of hell in the contemporary world is really an invention of late antiquity and medieval Christianity.  


Jared: So, in some ways it’s impossible for us to understand hell as they would have, because we already –  

Meghan: It’s really hard to unknow it.  


Pete: Mm hmm.  

Jared: Right. We already have all this stuff, we poured it into us.  

Meghan: That’s exactly right.  

Pete: All those vivid images and things like that, that’s part of our reality.  

Meghan: Exactly, that’s what I would call our visual vocabulary and what kind of –  

Pete: Oh yeah! That’s a great phrase. I’m stealing that.  

Meghan: Yeah, well, I should tell you I stole it from Quintilian.  

Pete: Okay.  

Meghan: [Laughter] 

Pete: Well nobody knows who that is, so, ya know. 

Meghan: Good.  


Pete: So, I guess, here’s, let me. Okay, here’s what I’m hearing. Ancient people probably truly believe there are consequences for actions, and if they forgot then they need to be reminded of it by people like Jesus or Paul or whoever. And the rhetoric of hell and Gehenna and Hades and all that, that’s a very vivid way of expressing that, let’s call it truth, or that reality, that there are consequences. What that’s actually going to look like, who the heck knows? But it’s a way of communicating to the people in ways they understand in these, their visual vocabulary they already have. And that, to me, that’s like a really important insight, because it’s just another example of, well, what Jared was just sort of implying that context is very important, right? And we can’t get into people’s heads and we read these texts and we right away bring them into our visual vocabulary which has been probably a distorted lens.  

Meghan: Yeah.  

Pete: Right, for 1500 years or so. And to get back into that investigation is, maybe, very healing for people who are just freaking out about, you know, my relative died and – 

Meghan: What is going to happen?  

Pete: They’re burning conscious. Well you know, that’s the thing too. What struck me early on as you started talking, Meghan, when we’re talking about, like, you know, where this notion of hell developed. Along with that is really, maybe, a different kind of interest in afterlife in general.  

Meghan: Mm hmm.  

Pete: And I think these things, it’s rather obvious that they go together, and, you know, that’s something that preoccupies religious people typically, at least Christians it does.  

Meghan: Absolutely.  

Pete: Jews, not as much. But Christians, I think it really does. Like, where do ya go?  


Meghan: It’s a big one.  


Pete: What do you do? Let’s see what the Bible says. Okay! Bang, bang. There ya have it, and the two ways, you know, and there’s just, I just think there’s a lot at stake here for our own paideia, our own education, our own training to think about this maybe with fresh eyes and to admit that maybe a lot of our theologies have been distorted.  

Meghan: Yeah. And to reassess if Jesus, if this is rhetoric, if this is Jesus and early Christians using the visual vocabulary of their own time in order to persuade and educate those around them to behave in particular ways. If we want to think about what we can learn from that for the contemporary world, then we might need to ask ourselves is this a lesson about what the afterlife is actually like, or is this a lesson about how we could use the visual vocabulary and the rhetorical tools of our contemporary world in order to bring life and healing and education to people as well.  

Pete: Uh huh. Right. I appreciate the way you put that. We follow Jesus best by employing our own visual vocabulary to try to affect something that it seems like Jesus was trying to affect. And not copy the vocabulary and then distorting it.  

Meghan: Exactly.  

Pete: Yeah. But what, okay, so what do we do? How do we tell people they’re going to hell?  

Meghan: [Laughter] 

Pete: [Laughter] 

How do we say that? Or have I missed the point entirely?  

Jared: [Laughter] 

Pete missed the boat. He missed the boat, yeah.  

Meghan: I think that’s a great title for my next book!  

Pete: You’re going to Disney World! You’re going to Disney World! Okay, that’s it.  

Meghan: How to tell people they’re going to hell. Okay.  

Pete: You’re going to a mall parking lot! Do you want to spend your eternity in a mall parking lot?  

Jared: If you don’t do what Jesus says, yeah, you’re going to the mall.  

[Continued laughter from all] 

Meghan: Right, right. I think we do have to be creative. I mean, one of the things that was really troubling for me as I was starting to do this work, and I do work with my students on apocalyptic rhetoric in a contemporary world with film and movies and tv is that given ability to depict kind of like, the most extreme violent situation we can possibly imagine on the screen, I think, actually, that the rhetoric of violence is done. I don’t think that that is productive in the contemporary world in the same way that it might have been in antiquity.  

Pete: Mm hmm.  

Meghan: And I also think that we’ve learned in thousands of years what the, also, what the kind of consequences for using that kind of rhetoric might be. In a way that, in the early period of the inception of this idea that wasn’t quite as clear.  

Pete: Right. 

Meghan: So, that’s actually what my next project is about in some sense, in terms of thinking about, okay, what are the other, what’s kind of the dark side of this rhetoric as it gets developed. 


But, in terms of your original question about, you know, what, how do we, how do we package this and think about this, I, first of all, I like to think about, okay, what are the ethical norms that are being communicated, so what are the things that are tied to this idea, and then how would I communicate those things persuasively in the contemporary world and does that even get tied to the afterlife, or does that get tied to other things that motivate people in the present world? Because certainly, afterlife is a big one, but probably, I think the last Pew survey maybe said sixty percent of the population believes in an afterlife? So, maybe there’s something else.  

Jared: Well, that’s what I was thinking is, you know, is even just thinking through sermons that I’ve heard over the years, and the dominant metaphors and ways of talking have shifted. And I think a lot of times now I hear the language, of say, like, health –  

Meghan: Hmm.  

Jared: You know, if we don’t do this, like, think of the health of our community, or the health of our marriage, or the health of our – 

Meghan: Mm hmm.  

Pete: So, go to health?  

Jared: Yeah, right.  

Meghan: From hell to health?  


Pete: [Laughter] 

Jared: Yeah, you go to health. Yeah. From hell to health, there ya go. There’s your title.  

Pete: There it is! 

[Continued laughter] 

Jared: There’s your title right there.  

Pete: You’re welcome. 

Jared: You’re welcome.  

Pete: You’re welcome Meghan.  

Meghan: Thanks guys.  

Jared: But I think that is, you know, it is something that I do think we intuitively, if we pay attention to the language we use, I think as communities of faith we intuitively do that. We pick it up and we drop off things that are no longer useful and we pick up things that resonate more and so, that’s just something I’ve observed is that language of health and natural consequences. Like you said, it’s not always the metaphysical, you know, if you don’t then this will happen to you when you die. It’s more, it feels to me, maybe it’s just part of faith communities that I’m a part of, but it feels more immediate, it feels more naturalistic, it feels more – 

Pete: Intuitive! 

Jared: Yeah, intuitive, like –  

Pete: Not a conscious deliberation of what to say. 

Jared: If we don’t take care of the earth, it’s not, you’re going to go to hell when you die. It’s if you don’t take care of the earth, we won’t have an earth.  

Meghan: Right. Our children will not be able to enjoy the things that we enjoy, yeah, yeah.  

Jared: Right.  

Meghan: Yeah, I think that’s really interesting.   

Jard: Well, unfortunately, we are coming to the end of our time. We’ve been stretching it, because it’s so fascinating. 

Meghan: Thanks.  

Jard: We’ve been trying to go longer here, but what, you mentioned a project that you’re currently working on. Maybe you can say a minute of that and where people can find you online if they want to continue to talk about hell with you or tell you that you’re wrong.  

Meghan: Excellent. Yes, so you can find me online on Twitter and Facebook and Meghan Henning. My next project is, I’m working on gender and disability and early Christian concepts of hell. The book is called Hell Heath No Fury and is about, specifically, how this violent language that gets developed in the later tours of hell in late antiquity and the early medieval period really runs with this first century Christian idea and then becomes what we know today from Dante as this torturous place, but it really ends up using gendered ideas of the body from antiquity to depict people as female and disabled and how, and has really serious consequences, I argue, for the way that we think about bodies in the contemporary world.  

Jared: That’s fascinating.  

Pete: Wow, yeah.  

Jared: Well, we may have to have you back on to just keep this conversation right trucking along into the medieval period at some point.  

Meghan: I would love that.  

Pete: Mm hmm, yeah.  

Jared: Awesome. Well, thanks so much Meghan, for coming on, really appreciate it.  

Meghan: Thank you! 

Pete: Thanks so much, see ya.  

Meghan: Great to talk to you, bye.  

[Music begins] 

Jared: Well thanks everyone for joining in for another exciting episode –  

Pete: Yup.  

Jared: Of the Bible for Normal People.  

Pete: Yeah, all about hell. Hey folks, don’t forget the pay what you want course. Pay what you want course! March 26, 8:30 PM, for one hour, Eastern Time, talking about how to read the Bible as an adult. We hope to see ya there.  

Jared: We’ll see ya next week for another episode of the Bible for Normal People, and we’ll see you March 26 at 8:30 PM.  

Pete: Absolutely, see ya.  

[Music ends] 



Pete: Before we get to that, just introduce yourself to our readers. Give us a little bit of your background… 

Jared: They’re listeners, not readers.  

Pete: Okay, we’re going to start that over again Dave, because I don’t know what medium we’re dealing with.  

Meghan: [Laughter] 

Pete: Okay. Can we start all over again?  

Jared: Yeah.  

Pete: Meghan? Okay, let’s start all over. 

Meghan: Yeah, of course.  

Pete: I’ve never made a mistake before Jared. How did this happen?  

Jared: I know! Yeah, sorry. He’s short circuiting over there.  

Pete: Okay, I’ll get it right and fix myself there. They’re listeners, you idiot. They’re listeners. Okay, alright. Start again. Ready Dave? Dave, stop. I know you’re laughing Dave. I know you’re laughing. So, okay.  


Meghan: Well, you know, it’s Lent, so it’s a good time to talk about hell.  

Pete: Good.  

Jared: Yeah, perfect! That’s right.  

Meghan: Seasonally appropriate.  


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Pete Ruins Exodus Part 4

Pete Ruins Exodus: Part 4

September 2, 2019

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

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

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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.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

27:42 BREAK


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

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

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

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

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

Just a few highlights:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much for food and water.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving toward the end here.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

55:57  MUSIC

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

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