Sunday, March 31, 2013

Christ is Risen!


Easter blessings to you!

A Plea


All four Gospels agree that there was an inscription posted on the cross on which Jesus of Nazareth died. No two Gospels agree on the precise wording of that inscription.

According to Mark 15:26, the inscription was simply "The King of the Jews." Matthew 27:37 says the words were "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews." In Luke 23:38 the charge reads "This is the King of the Jews." And in John 19:19, the inscription, written "in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek," says, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews."

The differences in wording are pretty minor. They can be accounted for by remembering that none of the Gospels was written by an eyewitness to the crucifixion, and by the principle that later writers tend to expand on their sources. No big deal.

A few years ago I interacted with a guy who had a different solution to the problem of the wording of the inscription. He treated it as a kind of puzzle. In fact, he treated the whole of the Bible (at least the 66 books of the Protestant canon) as a kind of puzzle. He insisted that the Bible is factually true, therefore, the Gospels did not disagree with one another. The original wording of the inscription could be reconstructed by harmonizing the four accounts. What it actually said was "This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews."

Shades of Tatian!* 

Many years ago I knew a guy who, using a similar tactic, concluded that there were 7 people crucified on Golgotha the day Jesus died. Matthew and Mark agree that Jesus was crucified between 2 "bandits." Luke says that there were 2 "criminals." John tells us there were 2 "others." So, 2 bandits + 2 criminals + 2 others + Jesus = 7 crosses.

Easy. Peasy. One-Two-Fivesy.

And then there was the young biblicist who, when I pointed out that the cleansing of the Temple in John occurs two years before the crucifixion, while the other Gospels place that even just a week before Jesus' death, said, "Big deal. He probably did it every year."

I hope I don't have to point out in detail just how unlikely that would be.

My point is that the four Gospels were each written by unique authors, with unique perspectives, and different theological agendas. Mark did not write his Gospel intending for Matthew to come along later and fill in the gaps. None of those writers expected, or wanted, their writing to be completed by another writer. They told their stories the way they wanted them told. Shuffling one of the Gospels together with the others does violence to them all.

Here's the thing. On Good Friday I attended a community-wide tenebrae service. I'm not a fan of Protestant-style tenebrae services to begin with. I don't think that Good Friday  needs to be ginned up with cheap, amateur theatrics. I don't think that the words of Jesus need to be punctuated with rimshots cymbal crashes. So, I wasn't enamored of the service to begin with.**

The tenebrae portion of the service was based on the "7 Last Words" of Jesus, that is, the seven utterances, collated from the four Gospels, that Jesus spoke from the cross. The 7 Words were connected by an extra-biblical narrative, a little sentimental for my taste, but worse than that, it conflated the Passion accounts of the 4 Gospels into one more-or-less cohesive story.

Now, I regret the loss of each Evangelist's unique voice. There is a world of difference between Mark's cry of dereliction and John's shout of triumph. I would prefer to let each Gospel tell its own story. But more than this, I am concerned that a harmonized account like this gives the people in the pews a false impression of what the Bible is, how it works, and what it actually says and means. It's no wonder that some people think the inscription over the cross needs to be assembled like a puzzle. Or that there were 7 crosses on Calvary. Or that Jesus went up to Jerusalem and drove the money changers out of the Temple every year at Passover.

This, then, is my plea. Let's declare a moratorium on Good Friday services based on the "Seven Last Words." Let's let each of the Gospels speak for itself. Let's instruct people on the differences between them. Let's be honest about what the Bible actually is.

*I refer here to the second century Christian writer who compiled the four Gospels into a single narrative known as the Diastessaron. He did this by creating a new sequence for the narrative, harmonizing some discrepancies, and simply omitting others.

**I say this with all due respect to the good and earnest people who planned and executed the service. I appreciate the show of Christian unity in that service and the dedicated hard work put into it. I just don't like tenebrae.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Exodus 30:1-32:35


In the thirtieth chapter of Exodus, the Lord gives Moses directions for the construction of the incense altar. Incense is to be burned every morning and evening when Aaron tends to the Tabernacle lamps.

Then the Lord instructs that when a census is taken of the Israelites, every male among them, aged 20 years and up, will pay a half-shekel tax. This is to prevent a plague from breaking out. Censuses, as we shall see, are a problem. Why? I'm not sure.

Verses 17 ff. tells how a basin should be made in which the priests will wash their feet and hands before  entering the Tabernacle or approaching the altar. I think it is safe to assume that "feet" simply means "feet" here. Does this lend support to the notion that the priests went barefoot on the holy ground of the Tabernacle?

Verses 22 ff.  give recipes for the anointing oil and incense to be used in the Tabernacle. Anyone who concocts these compounds for other uses is to be "cut off" from their people, whatever that means.

Chapter 31 is a short one. It assigns a pair of talented artisans named Bezalel and Oholiab to make the furnishings and vestments previously described.

Verses 12 ff. repeat the Sabbath command and specify the penalty for those who break it. They are to be "cut off from among the people" (v. 14). They are to be "put to death" (v. 15). So, that's what cut off means.

The chapter ends with a brief notice that God, as previously promised, gives Moses two stone tablets, inscribed with the Law, written in YHWH's own handwriting.

Here's the stituation at the start of Chapter 32. It wasn't entirely clear before, probably due to the composite nature of the text, but Moses and Joshua have gone up on Mt. Sinai with 70 of Israel's elders. They all saw YHWH. They ate and drank in his presence. The elder must then have gone back down the mountain. Joshua remained on the mountain, but Moses alone went into the presence of God in the thick darkness of the cloud. Moses is gone, talking with YHWH for some 40 days. (Forty is a significant number in the Bible. We already encountered it in the story of Noah).

I had always thought that Moses was first given the 10 Commandments on the mountain. Apparently not. It seems that God spoke those commandments in the hearing of all the people while Moses was at the base of the mountain (Exodus 19:25). Moses has also written them down. This is significant because it means the Israelites knew better than to worship idols.

But while Moses is away, the people get restless. They want a god they can see, one they can carry with them, maybe even manipulate for their own purposes. They want...dunh! dunh! dunh! idol.

Aaron obligingly gathers up their gold earrings and fashions them into a calf. "These are your gods," he tells the Israelites. And those gods apparently include YHWH as Aaron declares a feast to the Lord to begin the next day. And what a feast! It features eating, drinking, and what can only be described as revelry (Wink. Nudge. Say no more).

Up on the mountaintop, YHWH catches wind of all this and is not happy. The Lord tells Moses to go down from the mountain and leave him alone to destroy the people. "YHWH offers the whole covenant to Moses. "I'll make you a nation." But Moses isn't buying it. He calms YHWH down with an appeal to his reputation. "What will the nations say if you brought these people out into the desert only to kill them?"

Moses and Joshua go down the mountain. When they hear the sound of the (ahem)  revelry Joshua thinks it is the sound of war. He would think that, being a man of war himself. Moses corrects him.

When Moses sees what's going on, he gets angry himself. He throws the stone tablets of the Law to the ground, smashing them, and ruining any chance we ever had of doing handwriting analysis on YHWH. He grinds the golden calf to powder, mixes it with water, and makes the people drink it. Yes, he's that angry.

 Moses confronts his brother Aaron who makes excuses ("The people wanted an idol") and dissembles ("It practically made itself").

Then Moses calls his tribe, the Levites, together. He sends them through the camp with swords and they kill 3000 of the Israelites. Yes, he's that angry.

The next day Moses goes back up the mountain to try to further placate God. God sends a plague anyway. Yes, he's that angry.

The take away from this action-packed and  violent episode is that, for the people who compiled Exodus at least, idolatry is a very bad thing. It will continue to be a problem in the narrative future.

What's so bad about idolatry? Is every artistic representation of God an idol? Or does it depend on how that representation is regarded?

It isn't every day I get to illustrate a blogpost with pictures from Chagall and Rembrandt!
Next: Exodus 33-35

Friday, March 29, 2013

Exodus 28:1-29:46


Priestly vestments have been in the news lately. Recently resigned Pope Benedict XVI used to deck himself out in the full papal regalia, from the zuchetto atop his head to the red shoes on his feet. Newly elected Pope Francis I has taken a different sartorial path and is perceived, by some, to be sending a message. Clothes, after all, make the man.

In my Evangelical Lutheran Church in America we have a tradition of clerical clothing. Pastors may wear clerical collars, but they are by no means required to do so. I personally put on a collar when it is important for me to be identified as a pastor.

Likewise, when presiding at worship, pastors may, depending on the occasion, wear robes, stoles, chasubles, etc. But again, vestments are not required of us. Some pastors have eschewed the practice because they think it is poorly understood in our culture and off-putting for those not raised in our church tradition.

Personally, I like vestments. They serve to identify the role of the worship leader. Even those who don't know what the various items signify ( e.g. the stole is worn by an ordained pastor; the chasuble is worn by the presiding minister at Communion) will recognize that the person wearing the vestments is filling a certain role, a certain function in the assembly.

Clerical vestments are also something of an equalizer. Under those robes the pastor may be wearing a tuxedo or overalls. You can't tell. And that's the point. The vestments take the focus off of the person wearing them, and puts it on the role that the person is filling.

Yes, in our democratic society, vestments might be taken as creating a distinction between pastor and congregation that we find unseemly. I suppose that some pastors want to be seen as one with their worshiping community. But as the worship leader, as the one standing and facing the rest of the community, there is already a distinction whether one wears the robes or not. Perhaps it is the responsibility of the one wearing the robes to make clear that the distinction is only one of function, not of status.

These are complicated issues. What's your opinion?

They were less complicated in ancient Israel where the priesthood was hereditary. It belonged to the sons of Aaron. They wore the priestly garments described in Exodus 28 when they functioned as priests, but they had the right to wear them because of their status as priests.

In Exodus 28, the Lord gives Moses instruction concerning the priestly vestments. Aaron, as high priest, is to wear a breastpiece, an ephod (a kind of vest to which the breastpiece was attached, a robe, a tunic, a turban and a sash. The breastpiece was adorned with precious stones, one for each of Israel's tribes, and another two called the Urim and Thummim which were used, somehow, to divine YHWH's will.

The priests are also required to wear underpants for the same reason we were told in chapter 20 that altars were to not to have steps. God really doesn't want to see that!

The one item of clothing not mentioned is footwear. I guess the priests of ancient Israel didn't wear kicky Pradas like Pope Benedict. Did they wear shoes at all? Or did they go barefoot on holy ground like Moses at the burning bush back in Exodus 3?

Chapter 28 contains instructions for the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests. There are multiple animal sacrifices for a variety of purposes and blood splashed, spread, and sprinkled around freely. I can't help but think of the mess it would make of those beautiful vestments.

Next Exodus 30-32.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Exodus 25:1-27:21


On Mount Sinai, the Lord instructs Moses to take a freewill offering among the Israelites for the construction of the Tabernacle and its furnishings. Once constructed, the Tabernacle, or Tent of Meeting, will be a kind of portable temple, a precursor to the Temple that Solomon will build in Jerusalem.

The Lord gives Moses detailed directions for the construction of the Ark of the Covenant. The word ark simply  means "box." This ark will be a large, elaborately decorated box to contain the tablets of the Law which God will give Moses. The lid of the box, with figurines of two cherubim, is called the "mercy seat" or "atonement cover" depending on the translation you read.

Cherubim is the plural of cherub. The cherubs are not the cute little Raphaelite angels that we associate with that word, however. Reconstructions of the ark usually depict the cherubim as winged adult humans. Other depictions show them as winged creatures with lions' bodies and human heads. Ezekiel describes a vision of cherubim as human-shaped creatures with four faces, calves feet, human hands, and two pairs of wings. Whatever they looked like, the cherubim were supposed to be creatures from the heavenly realm.

Next come directions for the construction of the table (on which bread is to be placed), its dishes, and the lampstand with its 6 branches and 7 lamps. Like the the ark, these items are all to be plated with gold.

 Chapter 26 details the construction of the Tabernacle. Chapter 27 describes the bronze-covered altar (with its furnishings), and the curtains for the Tabernacle courtyard. The chapter ends with instructions to collect olive oil for the 7 lamps which are to bit lit all night in perpetuity.

I found the illustration for the ark and the table here.

Next: Exodus 28-29. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Exodus 22:1-24:18


Laws are important. You can't have a society without them. In Exodus 22-23we have more laws for ancient Israel.

Though I may value the separation of Church and State in the U.S., no such separation existed, or was conceivable in ancient Israel. The laws we read here are a mix of the ceremonial and civic, though that distinction did not exist.

The penalty for theft or property damage is restitution. In cases of theft, restitution could be several times the value of the stolen item.

My father used to say a Detroit cop advised him that he could kill an intruder into his home. "Just make sure he falls inside the house." Among the Israelites, a home intruder could be beaten to death, provided it was between dusk and dawn. During daylight hours, if you killed that same intruder, you were held guilty for his death.

The laws in Exodus 22 seem to be grouped loosely. Sometimes there is no discernible reason for the order in which they are presented. For example, verses 16-17 specifies that a man who seduces a virgin shall pay her father the bride price for her. Whether he marries her or not is the father's choice. Verse 18 prescribes the death penalty for women who practice sorcery.Verse 19 prohibits bestiality.

Some of the laws seem motivated by sheer compassion. The Israelites were not to oppress resident aliens, widows or orphans. If one took a neighbor's cloak as collateral for a loan, they were to return it before nightfall so that the neighbor could sleep warmly in it.

I cannot comment on all of the laws in these chapters.

In chapter 23 the Israelites are told not to follow a majority in wrongdoing. Good advice.

Verse 2 says that they shouldn't favor the poor in a lawsuit and verse 6 says neither to deny them justice. The intervening verses enjoin the Israelites to take care of even their enemies' property.

Verse 10-11 command a sabbatical year. Every seventh year, fields should be rested. This sounds like good agricultural practice to me. It is also a way of showing care for the poor and the wild animals who can eat from the uncultivated field.

Some of these laws seem quaint or culturally remote. Others seem universally applicable and valid even today. What do you think? Which laws do you find appealing? Which appalling? Which eternal? Which culturally conditioned?

Verses 14 ff. command all Israelite men to attend the three annual festivals: the festival of unleavened bread (Passover), the harvest festival, and the ingathering festival. My Jewish Study Bible says that the third festival was when the processed grains and new wine were put in storehouses.

Verse 19 says that Israelites shouldn't boil a kid in its mother's milk. This may have been a pagan practice. Observant Jews today don't eat dairy products and meat at the same meal based on this precept.

In verses 29 ff. God promises that an angel will go ahead of Israel to help them conquer Canaan, the land promised to Abraham. The conquest will take place little by little, but the inhabitants of the land must be driven out because the temptation to worship their gods will be great. Whether this was prescient or written from the perspective of a later time, it certainly prove to be an ongoing problem once Israel is settled.

Chapter 24 begins with YHWH calling Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and 70 of Israel's elders to "come up to the Lord" and "worship from a distance." Then it  tells us that the people agreed to God's laws and Moses wrote them down. Then the covenant was ratified, first with sacrifices, then with the sacrificial blood being splashed on the altar and on the people. Then Moses et al. go to eat and drink in God's presence. They see God at least from a distance.

In verse 13 Moses takes Joshua up Mount Sinai with him, but in verse 15 it is Moses alone who goes into the fiery cloud of God's glory. Seven days later, God speaks to Moses. Forty days later, Moses will come back.

Next: Exodus 25-27.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Exodus 19:1-21:36


Chapter 19 of Exodus finds the Israelites encamped at the base of Mt. Sinai. In the course of this chapter Moses goes up and down the mountain three times, carrying message from God to the people. The people agree to keep God's covenant. In return, God will make them "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." The people are told to consecrate themselves, wash their clothes, and abstain from sex for three days in preparation for God's theophany on the mountain. They are to keep away from the mountain under penalty of death. God comes with the now familiar symbols of smoke and fire.

At the chapter's end, Moses is at the foot of the mountain. He has been told to bring Aaron up the mountain with him, which he apparently does not do.The narrative is not completely consistent.

God speaks at the beginning of chapter 20, though Moses is not on the mountain. His words are the famous 10 Commandments. There is another version of the 10 Commandments, with some slight variations of wording in Deuteronomy 5. Everyone agrees that there are 10 Commandments, though different traditions divide them differently. The first 3 (or 4) Commandments deal with the Israelites' relation to God. The remainder are about relations to the neighbor. The commandment to keep the Sabbath as a day of rest is related, here, to the Creation account in Genesis 1:1-2:4.

Attentive readers will note that the Commandments are addressed specifically to Israelite males. They begin "I am YHWH your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt...." YHWH is Israel's God. YHWH brought Israel out of Egypt. The fact that the commandments are addressed to males is established in v. 17, "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife...." It says nothing about your neighbors husband. There are other hints that the Commandments were meant for men. for instance, only men could hold property in Israel.

The United States of America, where I live, is a secular, pluralistic society. Citizens of this country are free to practice their religion as they see fit. Or not. By constitution, the U.S. government cannot establish a state religion. This has been interpreted to mean that Church and State are, and will remain, separate. 

Every now and again a group of citizens will promote the idea that the 10 Commandments should be posted in our schools, courthouses, or other civic buildings. They are wrong. It would be a clear violation of the separation of Church and State. Posting the 10 Commandments in government buildings would amount to promoting the worship of a single, specific God.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm in favor of the Commandments. I'm even in favor of having them posted publicly. They belong in churches and synagogues and private homes. They even belong on billboards by the side of the road. They just don't belong in government sanctioned displays.

At Exodus 20:18 ff. the Israelites are afraid of the signs of God's presence: smoke, lightning, thunder, and trumpet blasts. "Let God talk to you," they tell Moses, "and you talk to us." Moses tells them not to be afraid. Verse 20:20 seems curiously self-contradictory.
Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin."
Then Moses goes into the deep darkness where God is.

God gives Moses more laws for the people, repeating that they should not make and worship idols. Israelite altars should be made of earth or unhewn stones. There should be no steps leading up to the altar. You'll have to read why for yourself. I'm not saying. 

Chapter 21 includes rules for the treatments of Hebrew slaves. If a countryman sells himself into your possession, there are limits on how you can treat him. There are different regulations concerning female slaves. Buying a female slave was, it seems, equivalent to marrying her.

Without going into undue detail, there are laws concerning murder and manslaughter, the former being a capital offense. The death penalty is also invoked for kidnapping and cursing one's parents. That last one seems harsh.

Penalties are specified for causing injury to another person. This is the first time we encounter the principle of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." It goes on to say "hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise," though it is rarely quoted that fully.

Verse 22 deserves comment.  Here it is from the New Revised Standard Version:
 When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman's husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine.

And again from the New International Version:

If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. 

This law is so specific that it almost had to have arisen from a particular case. Was the woman was caused to "miscarry" or "give birth prematurely?" The Hebrew says something like "her child departs from her."  And what does it mean that "no further harm" or "no serious injury" follows? These are matters of interpretation.

I suspect that translators of this verse are motivated largely by ideology. Those who believe that a fetus has the full rights of a human being will translate "give birth prematurely" and assume that neither mother nor child is harmed beyond that. Those who do not accord full human rights to a fetus will translate "miscarry" and assume that it is the mother who is not further harmed.

What do you think?

Next: Exodus 22-24

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Exodus 16:1-18:27


In Exodus 16 the Israelites come into the Desert of Sin. The place name has a nice John Bunyanish quality. The Desert of Sin should be geographically adjacent to the Slough of Despond. Unfortunately, it is just a transliterated place name of uncertain derivation and has not relationship to the English word that means "iniquity" or "moral failing."

In that desert the Israelites begin to grumble and frankly I can't blame them. They're hungry. They miss what the KJV called the "flesh pots" of Egypt. Here's another provocative phrase. Flesh pots are just stew kettles, though.

Moses and Aaron insist that the people are not complaining against them, but against God. It's a question of trust. Having brought them out into the desert, will the Lord abandon them? Happily YHWH comes through providing the people with quail in the evening and, in the morning, a mysterious bread-like substance that sounds kind of tasty. The people call it "manna" a word that means something like "what is this?" The manna is provided daily. The quail, apparently, just this once because the people will be complaining about a lack of meat when we get to Numbers 11.

Manna requires the people to trust in God. They cannot gather more than a days ration at a time. Manna kept overnight gets wormy and stinks. Except on the Sabbath. Although the commandment to rest on the Sabbath has not yet been given*, the Israelites are prohibited from gathering manna on the sabbath. They gather a double portion on Friday and it does not go bad.

The day's ration is an omer per person. The text helpfully explains that an omer is one-tenth of an ephah. If that isn't really helpful, an omer is a measure of volume, about 3.5 dry liters.

Martin Luther is supposed to have said "God feeds the little birds but he does not drop it into their nests." God provides manna, but the people must gather it. God still provides food, though we must work for it. What's more, God provides enough food for all human beings. That some people go hungry is not a problem of supply. It's a question of distribution. In a world where the poor starve and the rich diet, what is our responsibility?

I want to just note that the Apostle Paul makes a strange use of Exodus 16:18 in 2 Corinthians 8:15. The New Testament frequently uses Old Testament allusions in strange ways, divorced from their original context and meaning.

In chapter 17, when there is a lack of water and the Israelites complain about being thirsty**, God tells Moses to strike a rock with his staff and water comes gushing out. It's not in Exodus, but a later, extrabiblical tradition says that the rock followed the Israelites. Paul, in another strange use of the Old Testament, equates this rock with Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4).

When the Amalekites attack the Israelites, Moses' staff once again comes into play. Moses stands on a hillside overlooking the battle. As long as he holds the staff aloft, the battle favors the Israelites. When Moses' arms get tired, Aaron and someone named Hur support him. This passage is also the first mention of Joshua, who will be a major player in events to come. He comes on the scene without introduction as the general of Israel's army.

The Amalekites are defeated and YHWH, angry that they attacked, vows that their remembrance will be blotted from the earth. Ironically, if they weren't mentioned in the Bible, their remembrance probably would have been blotted from the earth.

In chapter 18, we are informed that Moses had sent his wife Zipporah away at some point. The first we hear of it Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, is bringing her back along with her two sons. The sons are Gershom, whom we met back in Exodus 2, and Eliezer, whose name we have not read before though he may have been referred to back in Exodus 4.

Here's the curious thing: In 4:20 Moses was taking his sons to Egypt. Here in 18:4 the origin of Eliezer's name is related to the Exodus out of Egypt. You may do whatever mental gymnastics you wish to explain this curious fact. I am satisfied to say that the text of the Pentateuch*** is not completely consistent. That's what happens when books are complied and redacted from other sources.

Jethro sees that Moses is overwhelmed with the work of judging disputes among the Israelites. He gives his son-in-law some sound advice: Delegate.

Before he goes home, Jethro offers sacrifices to YHWH and everyone enjoys a feast. Animal sacrifices, depending on their purpose, were disposed of in either of two ways. They were either consumed as a feast or burned entirely. They were a meal for God's people, or a gift to God.

*As we've seen before, the text is not always consistent.

**I mean, really! These people want food and water. What a bunch of whiners.

***The word Pentateuch refers to the collection of the five "books of Moses." i.e. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

Next: Exodus 19-21.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Exodus 13:1-15:27


In the twelfth chapter of Exodus the Lord killed all of the firstborn males of the Egyptians, both human and animal. After this display of God's power 600,000 Israelite men, not counting women and children, left Egypt hastily. They did, however, take time to ask their Egyptian neighbors for gold and riches, thereby plundering Egypt.

Chapter 13 begins with an instruction that every firstborn among the Israelites is to be consecrated to YHWH.

There is an interruption to add some further instructions about the celebration of the Passover. That celebration is to be a perpetual reminder, a "sign on your hand and a reminder on your forehead," of what God did for his chosen people. That business of the hand and forehead will recur in Deuteronomy 6 and 11 where God's words are to be bound to "your hand and your forehead." This is the source of the practice among observant Jews of binding tefillin (a.k.a. phylacteries), leather boxes containing miniature scrolls of scripture to their foreheads and arms. In the Christian Bible, there is also a reference to marks on the hand and forehead in the Book of Revelation. There a monstrous beast (representing imperial Rome) requires people to bear its mark on their hand or forehead if they wish to do business--a clear mockery of God's mark upon his people. But we have a long time to go before we get there.

Returning to the instructions about the firstborn, we read that, as God claimed the firstborn males of Egypt, so the firstborn males, both human and animals, of Israel will belong to the Lord. The animals are to be sacrificed or "redeemed." The humans just redeemed.

The we read of how the Lord, leading Israel by a pillar of fire and cloud, which recall the symbols of the Abrahamic covenant back in Genesis 15. The Israelites are traveling as an army, prepared to fight. God, however leads them away from the Philistines so that they do not need to face battle. God worries that they will all scurry back to Egypt if they have to fight.

Chapter 14 tells how the Lord hardens Pharaoh's heart yet again. Pharaoh pursues his escaping slaves to the edge of the Red Sea. (Bible geography geeks will point out here that the Hebrew Bible refers not to the Red Sea but a sea of reeds. Whatevs.) YHWH fights for the Israelites. "Israel's army" (v. 19) doesn't have to lift a sword.

Chapter 14 has a number of inconsistencies and repetitions showing that it was compiled from a number of different accounts. The main lines of the story, however, are clear enough. The Lord comes between the Egyptians and the Israelites. The Lord parts the sea so that the Israelites can cross on dry land. When the Egyptians follow in their chariots, the wheels become mired. The sea closes in again and the Egyptians are drowned.

Every now and then I come across a naturalistic or scientifical-ish explanation for biblical episodes such as the parting of the sea:
The water was shallow; the Israelites waded across; the Egyptians couldn't follow in their chariots.
 There was a unique alignment of planets that caused the sea to split.
That sort of thing.

While looking for an illustration for my post about the plagues in Exodus 7-12, I came across a website claiming that the plagues were caused by an earthquake and a volcanic eruption. I didn't bookmark that site and I'm not going to look for it again. That should give you an idea of how I feel about naturalistic and scientifical-ish explanations of biblical events. They prove nothing and actually undermine the intent of the narrative.

These stories of miracles are intended to proclaim that God intervened on behalf of his people. How such things happened, even if they happened, are of no interest to me. I am much more interested in the meaning of the text than in some nonsensical defense of its facticity.

But I digress.

In chapter 15 the people celebrate God's victory on their behalf with a wonderful song. This is a good example of Hebrew poetry, full of parallelism. It is not a little hyperbolic. The song tells how the nations of Philistia, Edom, Moab, and Canaan will be terrified of God's people. How soon the Israelites will forget this!

The song ends with a reference to "the mountain of" YHWH's "inheritance, the place, Lord, you made for your dwelling." This looks far ahead in the story, to the construction of the temple on Mt. Zion in 1 Kings.

Miriam, who is called a "prophet," leads the women in a victory song that is either a doublet or a refrain of the previous song.

The chapter ends with an event at a place called Marah (which means "bitter"). The water is bad, but, at the Lord's instruction, Moses tosses a piece of wood into the water and makes it drinkable. This is the first of a series of hardships that serve to test God's people.
 The Lord tells them to keeps his commands and he will keep them healthy.

It is only by coincidence that I am reading these stories of the Exodus so close to the annual celebration of Passover. It provides me an excellent opportunity, however, to wish all my Jewish friends a Glad Pesach!

Next: Exodus 16-18

Friday, March 22, 2013

Exodus 10:1-12:50


After 430 years in Egypt, many of those years spent as slave laborers, the descendants of Israel are finally liberated. But first, there are two more plagues to afflict their Egyptian captors.

In Genesis 10, Moses warns the Egyptians that they will find themselves up to their oxters* in locusts. Pharaoh's advisers remind the king that Egypt, because of the 7 previous plagues is in ruins. Once again the Lord hardens the Pharaoh's heart. Pharaoh seems to suspect that Moses is dissembling. If Pharaoh allows the Israelites to go into the wilderness they will run off and he will lose his slave labor force. The locusts eat any crops, supposedly the wheat and spelt, that survived the hail.

The penultimate plague is a palpable darkness that falls over Egypt. Pharaoh again tries to compromise with Moses offering to let the Israelites go, provided they leave their livestock. At this point negotiations break down entirely. Pharaoh tells Moses, "If I ever see you again you will die." Moses accepts that he will never again appear before Pharaoh.

Chapter 11 is a short one. First God reminds Moses to tell the Israelites to ask their Egyptian neighbors for gold when they leave the land. Then it continues the conversation between Moses and Pharaoh begun above. Moses warns that the Lord will kill every first born male in Egypt, even the cattle. Again the Lord hardens Pharaoh's heart.

Any concerns that I may have for the Egyptians are admittedly beside the point. This is the dramatic story of God's saving acts on behalf of the Israelites.

Chapter 12 tells about the Passover, both the original event and its annual commemoration. The Israelites slaughter lambs for a hastily eaten supper. The lambs blood is painted on the doorposts of their houses so that, when God's destroyer comes through Egypt, he will pass them over. When the firstborn sons in every Egyptian household are killed, the Egyptians beg the Israelites to leave. As promised the Egyptians give them gold and riches if they will only leave.

The events in this chapter are not entirely consistent, a sign, I surmise, that the text has been compiled from multiple sources.

The Passover is the central act of God's redemption on behalf of his chosen people. It occupies for the Jews, much the same religious niche that Easter does for Christians. Passover is both an annual celebration and a constant theme in Jewish life. It is worth noting that the Christian Eucharist is an adaptation of the Jewish seder, the Passover meal.

I met a rabbi once, a kind and brilliant man, whose theology was forged by the Shoah, the Nazi holocaust. He said, tearfully, that "God acted to save his chosen people once."** He believes that faithfulness includes holding God accountable. In the end he proclaims a message of hope.

For Christians, too, there is a single act of redemption. As I write these words I am in the midst of preparation for the services of Holy Week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. This, for us, is a one time and unrepeated event. It is the basis for our relationship with God and  the basis of our hope. We, too, can say, "God acted to save us once."

*"Up to their oxters" is something my wee Scots granny used to say. Your oxters, if you're wondering, are your ears.

**Arguably the book of Esther tells of a second rescue. However God is never explicitly mentioned in that book. Beside that, I had no cause to argue with the rabbi.

Next: Exodus 13-15

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Exodus 7:1-9:35


There is more magic in Genesis and Exodus than I'd ever realized. There was that business of the mandrakes back in Genesis 30, the apotropaic foreskin in Exodus 4:24-26, and the signs that Moses is given to establish his credibility (also in Exodus 4). Moses' and Aaron's staff (or staves, I'm not sure) functions like a magic wand. Now in Exodus 7 there are Egyptian magicians who use their secret arts to recreate the signs performed by Moses and Aaron.

There is a difference between magic and miracle. Arguably, the signs done by Aaron and Moses qualify as miracles. A miracle is a divine intervention in worldly affairs. Magic is a human manipulation of the divine for human ends. The distinction I'm making is basically about who takes the initiative, who is in control. In magic, humans control God, the gods, the forces of nature, or what-have-you.

When Aaron and Moses go to the Pharaoh, Aaron turns his staff into a snake. Pharaoh's magicians are able to replicate the feat, but Aaron's snake eats their snakes. But Pharaoh is unimpressed. "His heart was hardened."

Aaron uses his staff to turn the water of the Nile to blood. Pharaoh's magicians are able to do the same thing. This is the first of a series of 10 plagues that will strike Egypt. Pharaoh's magicians are also able to turn water to blood. The Egyptians have no water to drink for 7 days. The text doesn't say that the blood was then turned back into water, but we can probably assume that it did.

As chapter 8 begins, Moses again specifically asks Pharaoh to let the Israelites go into the wilderness to worship. The second plague brought on Egypt is an overabundance of frogs in the land. Pharaoh's magicians can also produce frogs. Still, Pharaoh asks Moses to get rid of the frogs. When Moses prays, the frogs die off. They are gathered into huge stinking piles. But, relieved that the frogs are gone, Pharaoh hardens his heart and refuses to let the Israelites go.

The third plague, also brought about by Aaron's staff, is a cloud of gnats over the land. Pharaoh's magicians cannot reproduce this feat. They tell the Pharaoh, "This is the finger of God." Still, Pharaoh's heart is hard.

The fourth plague is flies. There are flies everywhere except in Goshen where the Hebrews live. At this, Pharaoh attempts a compromise. "Offer your sacrifices here," he says.

Moses declines claiming that the Egyptians would find their sacrifices to be abominations.

Pharaoh then agrees to let the Israelites leave Egypt, provided they don't go far. Moses accepts these terms and prays so that the flies leave. But once more Pharaoh hardens his heart.

The fifth plague comes in chapter 9. All of the livestock of the Egyptians die off. The Israelites' livestock are unaffected. Pharaoh's heart? Still hard.

Moses tosses soot into the air and produces the sixth plague. The Egyptians are covered with boils. Pharaoh's magicians, covered in festering sores, won't even appear before Moses. In verse 12 we read for the first time that "the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart." To this point Pharaoh has either hardened his own heart or it is simply sad to be hard.

YHWH's apparent motivation is stated in verses 14 ff.  God wants to demonstrate his power. I'm not quite comfortable with that. It seems show-offy and un-godlike. I mean, we all know where this is going. God is going to kill all the firstborn sons in Egypt. Just to show his power?

The most common description of God in the Hebrew Bible is something like "gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love." That may not apply to Egyptians.

Throughout the Hebrew Bible there are strains of exclusivism and inclusivism. In some books God is God for all people. Sometimes God smites Egyptians just to show that he can. Since the Bible (and I mean both testaments now) was written by  many people over a long period, I don't expect its various books to be in agreement with one another. Rather, they are in conversation with one another. Reading the Bible is a way of joining the conversation.

As a Christian,* the ultimate revalation of God's nature for me is Jesus Christ. He leans much more toward the "gracious, merciful, slow to anger" side of things.

This is not to dismiss what we read in Exodus. That God is powerful and that he is acting to rescue his chosen people are important statements. But God's revelation in Christ tempers any portrayal of God as capricious or cruel.

But back to the plagues...

The seventh plague is a storm of hail, rain, thunder, and fire (which I must suppose is lightning). It destroys the Egyptian harvests of early crops, flax and barley. The late crops, wheat and spelt, haven't come up yet and are unaffected. Is this a hint of mercy toward the Egyptians?

Moses warned the Egyptians to keep their slaves and livestock indoors lest they be killed by the hail. This forces a question: Where did the Egyptians get livestock? Weren't all their animals killed by the fifth plague?

Maybe it is best not to read these stories too literally.

*I always cringe when I hear someone begin a sentence with the words "As I Christian...." What follows is almost inevitably some horribly un-Christian sentiment.

Next: Exodus 10-12. There are more plagues to come!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Exodus 4:1-6:30


Meanwhile, back at the burning bush...

Once again we have a chapter that begins in the middle of a conversation, another reminder that the chapter and verse divisions in our modern Bibles were not original to the text. Chapter divisions were added later verse numbers later still. They are useful for navigating the Scriptures, but can be misleading. The divisions sometimes come at odd places, such as here at Exodus 4:1. Verse numbering creates the impression that verses are meaningful apart from context.

Chapter 4 starts with Moses' question: What if the Israelites don't believe me? God gives Moses three signs by which he can convince them:

 He can turn his staff into a snake.

He can make his hand leprous and clean by placing it inside his cloak.

He turn the water of the Nile into blood by pouring it on the ground.

As miracles go, these are barely magic tricks. At the end of the chapter, however, we learn that they are convincing. The detail of Moses running away from his staff when it becomes a snake makes me chuckle.

Even armed with these signs, Moses is reluctant to do as God asks. He complains that he is "slow of speech." God, the creator of mouths, promises to give Moses words. Finally Moses makes a bare request: Send someone else. God, understandably, gets angry. But God promises to send Moses' brother Aaron along as Moses' mouthpiece. In fact, Aaron is on his way.

This raises the question: Where did Moses get a brother? How did Aaron escape being drowned in the Nile?

I love the way that Moses argues with God. The relationship of these two is not static or one-sided.

At 4:18 Moses asks his father-in-law, and employer, for permission to return to Egypt. Jethro (last we knew he was named Reuel) grants permission. And, in case you were concerned, God tells Moses that those who were seeking his life in Egypt (for the murder of the Egyptian?) have all died.

With no obstacles in his way, Moses packs up his wife Zipporah and their sons and heads for Egypt. And yes, I said sons. Plural. Though we know only of Gershom, the text does say "sons."

Interestingly God refers to Israel (the nation) as "my firstborn." Israel (the individual) was not his father's firstborn, but received the blessing and inheritance reserved for the firstborn. Foreshadowing events to come, God says that he will kill the Pharaoh's firstborn.

Verse 24-26 contain one of the strangest episodes in the Bible. When Moses stops for the night, YHWH tries to kill him. Or maybe his son. The text is not clear. Zipporah circumcises her son (Gershom?) and either throws the foreskin at Moses' feet, or touches it to his genitals, or something. ("Feet" is a euphemism for genitals in biblical Hebrew. Remember that. We'll encounter it again.) Was God angry because Moses hadn't circumcised his son? Why didn't he say so before? Does circumcision have apotropaic power? That is, does it serve as a kind of magical protection? What does Zipporah mean by saying "bridegroom of blood?" Does she, a Midianite, object to the requirement of circumcision?

It just is not clear.

When I encounter unclear passages like this, I sometimes like to look at the same passage in the Septuagint (abbrieviated LXX), the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. Modern translators sometimes amend ambiguous passages of Hebrew in light of the LXX. The Septuagint may not provide a definitive interpretation, but it does can some idea of how an ancient translator dealt with difficult passages. In this case, the LXX is not at all helpful. It is every bit as weird as the Hebrew text. In the LXX, instead of "bridegroom of blood," Zipporah says, "The blood of my son's circumcision stands" or "is stopped" or, as the New English Translation of the Septuagint puts it, "is staunched."

Somewhere in my education, someone told me that this little incident comes from a very ancient source. Maybe the original was clearer. We can only hope.

Chapter 4 ends with Moses and Aaron meeting up and going down to Egypt where they assemble the elders of Israel.

In chapter 5, Moses tells Pharaoh to "Let my people go." He only asks permission for the Hebrews to take a 3 day excursion into the desert to worship YHWH. Is this a deceptive ploy?

Pharaoh's response is derisive. "Who is this YHWH?" He tells the Hebrew's taskmasters to make the Hebrews' lives more difficult by no longer providing them with straw to make bricks. They must now gather their own straw and still produce the same daily quota of bricks. Pharaoh's tactic reminds me of the old bit of office humor, a sign that read: "The floggings will continue until morale improves."

This turn of events makes the Israelites unhappy with Moses. Moses takes their complaint  to God and adds his own.

Chapter 6 is another arbitrary division in the text. It begins with YHWH's reply to Moses. The Lord repeats his promises of deliverance. When Moses takes these words to the Israelites, they don't listen. They are too heavily burdened and demoralized.

The Lord sends Moses to Pharaoh again, but Moses asks, reasonably, "If the Israelites won't listen, why would Pharaoh?"

The narrative is interrupted here by a genealogy of Moses and Aaron that emphasizes the fact that they are Levites. Curiously Aaron's sons are mentioned here, but Moses' half-Midianite offspring are not.

Chapter 6 ends with a doublet repeating God's command to Moses to present himself to Pharaoh, and Moses' balking, "Why would Pharaoh listen to me?"

Next Exodus 7-9.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Exodus 1:1-3:22


Exodus begins where Genesis ended. The twelve sons of Jacob live, and die, in Egypt. Their descendents increase in numbers. A new Pharaoh arises who sees the Israelites as a potential threat. He takes strict measures against them. First the Israelites are made slaves and put to hard labor. When they continue to flourish in numbers, Pharaoh orders the Hebrew midwives to put their male babies to death.

The  midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, are mentioned by name only once in all the Bible. There is some question as to whether they are Egyptian or Hebrew. It hardly seems important. Whatever their ethnicity, these women, by an act of civil disobedience and a bold lie, ensure their status as heroines in the biblical narrative.

Do we owe obedience to unjust rulers? Is it always wrong to lie? In this story it would seem that the answers are "no" and "no." Is this a biblical example of moral relativism?

In the light of the midwives failure to cooperate, Pharaoh issues a general order that Hebrew baby boys are to be drowned in the Nile.

In chapter 2 of Exodus, we meet an unnamed couple from the tribe of Levi. (The Levites will become Israel's priestly tribe). They have a baby boy. The mother, understandably reluctant to put her child to death, puts him in a reed basket and sets him to floating down the Nile.

Is this an act of desperation or faith? I think often the line between the two is thin.

The baby's older sister watches to see what will happen. She is not named at this point in the story, but from later events we can assume that this is Miriam.

Miriam sees her little brother rescued by the Pharaoh's own daughter. She offers to find a wet nurse for the baby, and the little one is put back into the arms of his mother. What's more, the mother gets paid to care for her own child.

When the boy is a little older, he is given to Pharaoh's daughter who raises him as her own (we might surmise royal) son. She names him Moses.

The text isn't clear as to whether Moses knows his Israelite heritage. It seems that he does. When  he is a grown man, he kills an Egyptian who was beating an Israelite.

Yes, Moses, Israel's greatest hero, is guilty of manslaughter if not murder. He tries to cover up the killing but, when it is clear that he was seen, Moses takes it on the lam. He runs off to Midian.

Remember the trope about the hero who goes searching for a wife and meets a woman at a well? One of them, as it goes, draws water and a marriage contract is made. Variations on this story tell us something about the hero.

Moses isn't looking for a wife. He's a fugitive. He does, however, meet some women at a well. He rescues them from bullies  and winds up marrying one of them, a woman named Zipporah. In the future we will find Moses once again a fugitive and a rescuer.

Zipporah has a son who Moses names Gershom because, Moses says, "I am a stranger (Ger in Hebrew) in a strange land." Besides giving Robert Heinlein a great title for a novel, this is another description of Moses life ahead.

As chapter 2 ends we can ask once more if God is forgetful, because he now rememebers the covenant he made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Chapter 3 tells the famous story of how God called Moses from a burning bush. That is, the bush was burning but the fire did not consume it. When Moses hears God call he answers, as you might expect, "Hineni. Here I am."

As best I recall, this business of taking off ones footwear while standing on holy ground doesn't occur anywhere else in the Bible.

Throughout Genesis God was called by many names and titles, and he will be again, but here in Genesis 3 God reveals his true name to Moses. He is YHWH* which means something like "I am who I am" or "I will be who I will be." It is a radical statement of God's sovereignty.

God commissions Moses to rescue the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt, promising that they will not only be set free, but they will plunder Egypt on their way out.

*I follow an old Jewish tradition of omitting the vowels from God's name. No one can be exactly sure how the name was meant to be pronounced, though we can be quite certain it was not Jehovah. In reading the Scriptures aloud, Jewish custom substituted the title Adonai (usually rendered Lord,written in small capital letters, in English Bibles) for the name YHWH.

Next: Exodus 4-6.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Genesis in Review

Before jumping into the Book of Exodus, I'd like to take a moment here to review what we found in Genesis.

It has been my observation that both testaments of the Christian Bible are front-loaded with good stories and become progressively weirder as they go along. In the Old Testament Genesis through 2 Kings really comprise a single sustained narrative.

The stories in Genesis are about origins. The book divides into three sections. Genealogies mark shifts in the narrative.

Chapters 1-11 are set in a mythic prehistory. Here we find Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah' Ark, and the tower of Babel. The scope of these stories is universal. They are about the origins of all things, the human race, sin, nations, and languages.

The focus in Chapters 12-36 is narrower. These stories are about the origins of the nation of Israel and its twelve tribes. Here we have the stories of the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And yes, their wives: Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel.  I am not overlooking the women but, let's face it, women don't fare well in these stories. The Bible was written in an androcentric culture. The closest thing we have to as self-actualized heroine is Tamar, and look at what she had to do to ensure her security!

Chapters 37-50 tell the story of Joseph. The narrative function of these chapters is to get the ancestors of Israel's tribes settled in Egypt.

It is clear that the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 are not factual accounts. Likewise the stories of Noah, and the tower of Babel. I don't know whether there is any actual history in the book of Genesis at all. It seems to me that the people who wrote, collected, and redacted these stories were not interested in providing scientific or historical accounts. Their interest was theological. Genesis is narrative theology.The stories in Genesis are stories of Israel's God.

Genesis proclaims that God is the creator of all that exists. This Creator God desires to live in relationship to his human creatures. Humans have a way of messing that up. We try to put ourselves in the place of God. We also offend God with our tendencies toward evil and violence.

The God we meet in Genesis is not the unmoved mover of Greek philosophy. Instead this God grows, changes, and tries new things. Some of those things don't work out so well.

I appreciate that the people God chooses to be his own, Abraham and his offspring, are not 2 dimensional models of virtue. They are not "flannelgraph saints." They are fallible. They sin. They lie, cheat, and steal. And yet God persists in relationship with them.

It isn't always easy for us to live in relationship with God. It isn't always easy for God to live in relationship to us.

There are disturbing stories in Genesis. the one that I personally find most disturbing is the Akedah, Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac in chapter 22. God, the text tells us, was testing Abraham. It occurred to me that Abraham may actually have failed that test--that God may have wanted Abraham to balk at the idea. Maybe God wanted a good old argument with Abraham like the one that they had over the fate of Sodom.

I'm not sure that the text actually supports this reading. It may be just wishful thinking on my part. After all, Abraham is rewarded for his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. Maybe this is another instance of God growing and changing. What do you think?

Abraham may not have argued with God about the sacrifice of Isaac, but I will. I'll take Jacob as my model here, not his deceit and trickery, but his wrestling with God, his hanging on for a blessing.

The thing I find most inspirational in Genesis is the theme of reconciliation. Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers, come to terms with one another. Old hurts are overcome. God is able to bring good from intended harm.

What did you see in Genesis that I may have overlooked?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Genesis 48:1-50:26


In Genesis 48 Joseph and his sons, Manasseh and Ephraim visit the dying Jacob.. The old man rouses himself to recall God's promise to him at Luz which we read of in chapter 35. He also mentions that he buried Joseph's mother at Ephrath, that is Bethlehem, a little town that will become important later in the biblical narrative.

Jacob makes Joseph's sons his own, giving them full status as ancestors of tribes in Israel. Jacob favors the younger brother, Ephraim, over the elder, Manasseh, continuing a theme we've encountered before.

Jacob gives Shechem to Joseph saying that he won it with his own sword and bow. Technically it was his sons who took Shechem. Sociologists talk about a "collectivist personality" in some cultures. Maybe that's what is in play here. My family's honors are my honors. Their shames are my shames.

Joseph receiving an extra portion (Hebrew shechem gives him an inheritance rightly belonging to Reuben, the firstborn. Joseph always was the favorite. More on this below.

In chapter 49 Jacob summons all of his sons to his deathbeds and blesses them. Some of these blessings sound more like curses. There are a lot of intertextualities in this chapter: allusions to events from earlier in the narrative and to events that will come later.

Reuben, Simeon, and Levi are out of favor: Reuben because he had sex his father's concubine--a pretty good way to forfeit one's birthright; Simeon and Levi for their violent destruction of Shechem. Wait. Didn't Jacob just take credit for that?

With the first three in birth order out of the picture, Judah, who has been a stand-up guy, gets the lion's share (see what I did there?) of the blessing. The tribe that bears his name will prevail in the narrative future. The "eternal" kingship of David's line will come from Judah. Why the scare quotes? Well, David's dynasty doesn't last forever, at least not until it gets a radical reinterpretation in the gospels.

The remaining brothers get scant notice except Joseph. Joseph's blessing alludes both to his troubles with his brothers and to events in the narrative future.

The last chapter of Genesis tells how Jacob was embalmed and buried with elaborate Egyptian dignities. True to his oath, Joseph buries his father in the tomb where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob's first wife, Leah (but not his beloved Rachel) were buried.

There is another scene of reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers reinforcing a major theme of the book. God brings good from intended harm.

Finally, Joseph, who has lived to the age of 110 and dandled his great-great-grandchildren on his knees, dies. He is embalmed but not buried. He has asked that his remains be taken to Canaan.

And so they shall.

Next: Exodus 1-3

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The False Shibboleth of Being "Biblical"

Judges 12 tells the story of a war between the tribe of Ephraim and the Gileadites. The Ephraimites had a dialetical oddity. They could not pronounce the sound "sh." In order to identify the Ephraimites, the Gileadites used the Hebrew word "shibboleth" as a password. Say "sibboleth" and you were put to the sword.

I've always imagined that the dialogue went something like this:

"Are you an Ephraimite?"


"Say 'shibboleth.'"


"Kill him!"

"Oh, sit!"

In some Christian circles the word "biblical" has become a shibboleth. I've written about this before. Calling a thing "biblical" makes it right; "unbiblical" condemns it. There are people who espouse "biblical marriage," "biblical manhood and womanhood," "biblical financial practices."

The problem is that it's a false shibboleth. The word "biblical" is almost always used to mean "the Bible, as I interpret it, supports the view that I am espousing."

Ed Cyzewski has an excellent post on this subject over at his blog today.

Do you want a biblical approach to money?
Sell everything you have and give it to the poor.
Then again, you’re supposed to tithe 10%, so I’m not sure how to manage that if you’ve just sold everything you own.
Do most Christians ever try to do either of these things? For some reason we don’t. We also don’t hear too many Christians having a crisis of faith because they worry about having too much money.

Read the rest of it here. Really. Do. 

(HT: Rachel Held Evans).

Genesis 46:1-47:31


If God calls you by name, whether you are awake or dreaming, the proper response is "Here I am" or, if you prefer the original Hebrew, "Hineni." It is also the correct response if another person calls you by name. It is how Abraham answered God (and also his own son, Isaac) in Genesis 22. It is how Jacob answered Isaac in chapter 27. It is how Jacob responded to an angel in a dream in chapter 31. And now, in chapter 46, Jacob responds to God in another dream saying, "Hineni. Here I am." Moses and Samuel will also respond to God in the same way.

In Jacob's dream, God promises to go with him to Egypt where he will be reunited with his son, Joseph. Jacob packs up the whole family (70 persons including those already in Egypt but excluding daughters-in-law) and goes. Reading that list of names makes me wonder why no one ever calls their children Huppim, Muppim, or Ard these days.

No, it doesn't really.

Jacob and his literally long-lost son Joseph are reunited in a tearful scene. The Jacob's descendents are settled in the land of Goshen, away from the majority of the Egyptians who find shepherds abhorrent.

In Genesis 47, Jacob is presented to the Pharaoh whom he blesses. Twice. Though he is 130 years old, Jacob says that his years have been "few." He will live another 17 years. He also says that his life has been "difficult" and who can argue?

As Pharaoh's administrator, Joseph parleys the famine, and the stores of grain he has laid up, to a huge advantage for the Pharaoh. This, I suppose, shows Joseph's wisdom. Without putting too fine a point on things, we could say that Joseph exploits the starving population.

As Jacob begins to look toward the end of his life, he has Joseph swear another one of those "thigh" oaths (see my comments on Genesis 24). "Don't bury me in Egypt," he says.

There isn't really a lot to say about these two chapters except that they advance the story and get all of Jacob's offspring in Egypt.

Am I overlooking anything?

Next: Genesis 48-50.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Genesis 43:1-45:28


Genesis 43 opens with Joseph's brothers back in Canaan with their father. The food they brought back from Egypt is running out. There is a tense exchange between Jacob and his sons. They must return to Egypt for food, and they must take their youngest brother Benjamin with them. The sons report dialogue they had with Joseph which we were not privy to before.

Judah was the brother who suggested selling Joseph into slavery rather than leaving him in a well, probably to die. It is Judah who now promises to take responsibility for Benjamin's safety.

Judah also gets my favorite line in this dialogue. Essentially he says, "Let's quit wasting time. We coulda been there and back two times by now."

Jacob's sons, this time with Benjamin in tow, set out for Egypt once again. They carry with them gifts (bribes?) and enough money to repay what was left in their feed sacks.

When Joseph sees his brothers, he welcomes them with a feast. The brothers, still not recognizing Joseph, are understandably nervous. Joseph, as he has throughout the story, attributes all good fortune to God including the fact that the brother's money was found in their sacks.

Is Joseph lying or does he believe that God was working through his own hands?

When Joseph meets Benjamin, his only full brother, he weeps for the second time. Benjamin gets special treatment at Joseph's table. The favoritism that so upset the other brothers is still in play.

In chapter 44, we find that Joseph is not quite done messing with his brothers. Apparently as a test, he has his own silver cup hidden in Benjamin's sack. When it is "discovered" there, Joseph threatens to enslave Benjamin. Brother Judah cowboys up again, offering to take Benjamin's place. In his conversation with Joseph, Judah repeats some of the dialogue that we had not heard before it was recounted to Jacob at the beginning of chapter 43. Since it is spoken in Joseph's presence, and since Joseph would have known what was said, we can assume that it is an accurate report.

In chapter 45, after witnessing Judah's willingness to take Benjamin's place, Joseph breaks into tears for a third time. He reveals his identity to his brothers and is reconciled to them. There are strong echoes of Jacob's reconciliation with Esau in this story.

A positive theological assertion from this story is that God can bring good from evil. What do you think? Is this true? Have you ever experienced it?

With promises of land and support through the remaining years of famine, Joseph sends his brothers to fetch their father and their families from Canaan. The brothers receive gifts from Pharaoh and, once again, Benjamin receives the most.

What do you make of this favoritism?

Do you believe that God plays favorites?

When Joseph sends his brothers off, he tells them not to quarrel on the way. It's an odd thing to say. What do you think the brothers might quarrel about? A traditional explanation is that Joseph wants them to be reconciled and not to blame one another for the way they treated him.

The chapter ends with the brothers in Canaan once more. They tell their father the incredible good news that Joseph lives. Jacob does not, at first, believe their report. They have to tell him everything that Joseph said.

I wonder if they told Jacob that they were the ones who had sold Joseph into slavery. I wonder if they told Jacob that they deceived him into thinking his beloved son was dead. Perhaps it would be kinder if they didn't.

Next: Genesis 46-47

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Genesis 41:1-42:38


In Genesis 41 we read of the third cycle of two dreams in Joseph's story. This time the dreams belong to the Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. Troubled by nightmares, Pharaoh asks his magicians, seers, and sages to interpret them. When they are unable, Pharaoh's cup-bearer remembers the prisoner who, two long years earlier, had correctly interpreted his dreams. Pharaoh sends for Joseph in prison.

Before he is presented to the king, Joseph stops to shave, and we must imagine that he shaves his entire head in the Egyptian style

According to Joseph, Pharaoh's dreams portend 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine. Impressed by this interpretation, the king elevates Joseph to the position of number 2 in all of Egypt. His authority is subject only to Pharaoh himself. Joseph is given charge of laying up a supply of grain during the 7 prosperous years to provide for coming famine.

Because he is faithful and favored by God, it seems that Joseph cannot help but get ahead. One day he is a slave in prison, the next day he is wealthy and powerful beyond imagining. On television today we have an array of preachers who promise their virtual flocks that God will reward their faithfulness with prosperity. Do you think this is true? Does it fly in the face of Jesus' preaching and experience? (As a Lutheran I'm pretty well committed to the theology of the cross, as opposed to the theology of glory.)

Joseph marries an Egyptian woman and has two son, Manasseh and Ephraim. These two will become the ancestors of two tribes of the nation Israel. If you have been counting, there are now 13 tribes of Israel: 11 of Jacob's own sons and two of Joseph's. We speak of the 12 tribes, however, because the tribe of Levi will not own land in Canaan.

Chapter 42 begins back in Canaan where the predicted famine has struck. I love Jacob's question to his sons. "Why are you sitting there looking at each other?" sounds like something my father would say.

Ten of Jacob's sons go down to Egypt to buy grain. Not coincidentally, these are the ten who sold Joseph into slavery. Benjamin, Joseph's full brother, and the youngest of Jacob's offspring, stays behind with his father.

When Joseph meets his brothers, they do not recognize him (probably because of that Egyptian shaving thing), or realize that he speaks their own language. He treats them harshly. Even straight-arrow Joseph can't help but mess with these guys, but when he overhears them talking ruefully about how they treated him, he weeps. Joseph is actually a pretty weepy guy. This is only the first time we hear about him shedding tears.

Joseph accuses his brothers of spying. He takes one of his brothers as a hostage, putting Simeon in prison and demanding that the others return with their youngest brother, Benjamin. Joseph sells grain to the rest but puts the money they paid into the sacks with the grain.

There is a prison in the town where I live. I know a few of the guards. One of the unusual features of this prison is that the prisoners are given a key to their cell. They can lock other prisoners, though not the guards, out. When prisoners are transferred in from other facilities, they often balk at taking their key. They think the guards are setting them up.
When the brothers find their money in the grain sacks, they think they are being set up.

When they get back to Canaan and report the situation to Jacob, he is reluctant to send Benjamin to Egypt with them. Who can blame him? He thinks that he has already lost two sons. His statement, "I am the one you have bereaved of children. Joseph is no more. Simeon is no more. Now you would take Benjamin away from me!" is layered with ironies. Jacob doesn't know that the sons before him are in fact responsible for Joseph being gone. Nor does he know that Joseph and Simeon are, in fact, just fine.

This is good storytelling.

Notice, too, that the eldest brother, Reuben, is the one who is ready to take responsibility. This completely in keeping with his character.

Next: Genesis 43-45.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Genesis 38:1-40:23


The three chapters in today's reading remind us that the Bible is not children's literature. Its content is sometimes frankly and explicitly sexual.

In Genesis 37 we saw the start of the story of Joseph. Now in chapter 38, there is an interlude. We leave Joseph for a short while to hear the sordid story of one of his older brothers, Judah and, perhaps more importantly, a woman named Tamar.

Judah has three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er marries Tamar. We don't know exactly what Er did to tick God off. We're just told that he is "wicked" and so God smites him.

We have already noted that in biblical times  women were dependent upon men and  vulnerable in ways that are hard to imagine. Women belonged to men all their lives: first their fathers, then their husbands, and, if widowed, they depended on their sons for support. Women could not own property. A woman on her own had few options.

There was a practice called "levirate marriage." Levirate comes  from the Latin word levir, meaning "brother-in-law." In levirate marriage a childless widow was married to her husband's brother. It was the brother-in-law's duty to have a son with the widow. The son was considered the offspring and heir of the woman's first husband. This had more to do with inheritance and propagation of the family line than anything else, but it provided some measure of social security for the widow. She would be supported by her brother-in-law, and, it was hoped, have a son to support her later.

When Er died, Tamar was married to his younger brother Onan. We know what Onan did to tick God off, but it might not be what you think.

Onan spilled his seed upon the ground.

Onanism is an old fashioned word for "masturbation." It comes from a misunderstanding of this passage. Onan was not masturbating. In fact, I don't know of a direct biblical prohibition against masturbation. If you do, please cite me chapter and verse so I can find what I've overlooked.

What Onan was doing was practicing coitus interruptus. To be blunt, he was withdrawing before ejaculation so as not to impregnate Tamar. I guess he didn't mind the sex, he just didn't want the consequences.

But, I don't think it was the use of a (highly ineffective) method of birth control that bothered God. Rather it was the fact that Onan was shirking his responsibility to his brother, refusing to have children on Er's behalf. What might motivate Onan to do this? Greed. Er's offspring would get a larger share of the inheritance. If Er had no offspring, it was money in Onan's pocket.

So, God smites Onan, too.

Do you think God works this way?

Now, Judah is not too keen on having his sons smitten. He suspects that being married to Tamar is not good for their health, and so he sends her back to her own father's household to "live as a widow" until, he says, Shelah grows up. We have good reason to suspect that Judah never intended for Shelah to marry Tamar. After all, Shelah reaches marriageable age, and Tamar is left sitting in her widow's weeds. No one ever sends for her.

In order to assure her future, Tamar takes matters into her own hands. What she does is bold and desperate, but she had, as we have noted, few options. Long story short, Tamar, in disguise, prostitutes herself to her father-in-law.

That Judah bought sex from a woman he believed to be a cultic prostitute, a functionary of the worship of a foreign god, goes without comment. Soliciting sex is apparently not a problem here. He is convicted, rather, of failing to keep his word to Tamar.

When Tamar is found to be pregnant, Judah is ready to burn her to death as, I suppose, an honor killing. When Tamar reveals that she is carrying Judah's own offspring, he is convicted of his unrighteousness.

Tamar has twin sons. They are remembered as the ancestors of two of the clans within the tribe of Judah.

There are Christians today who say that we ought to live according to biblical principles of male-female relations. Specifically they say that men ought to take leadership positions over women. I have to ask whether granting doctrinal authority to the Bible requires us to recreate its culture. Reading about the horrific treatment of Tamar, and the desperate steps she had to take, makes me glad that I don't live under a patriarchy like that.

In chapter 39, we return to the story of Joseph. No matter how bad things get for Joseph, he is always faithful. God is with Joseph and, in the worst of circumstances, he prospers.

As a slave, Joseph serves in the house of an Egyptian officer named Potiphar. Under Joseph's stewardship Potiphar's fortune increases. But Potiphar's wife takes a shine to Joseph and attempts to seduce him. Rebuffed, she takes revenge by framing Joseph. Joseph is tossed into prison. This is about the lowest point that Joseph can reach, but even in prison, he prospers. The warden basically puts Joseph in charge of the place, and everything goes smoothly for the warden.

In chapter 40 we meet two of Joseph's fellow prisoners. They are the Pharaoh's cup-bearer and baker. Both have displeased the Pharaoh. Both have dreams which Joseph is able to to interpret. The cup-bearer's dream bodes well; he will be restored. Joseph asks the cup-bearer to remember him. The baker's dream predicts bad fortune; he will be put to death. Of course, Joseph's interpretations prove true.

But the cup-bearer forgets Joseph.

Compared to his ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Joseph is a boy scout. Do you think that God favors Joseph because he is morally upright? Why do you think God chose scoundrels like Abraham and Jacob?

Do you think that God communicates through dreams?


Next: Genesis 41-42

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Genesis 35:1-37:36


Genesis 35 begins with Jacob's return to Bethel where he establishes an altar for the worship of God. Bethel will be an important site of worship later in the story of the nation of Israel.

Jacob also orders the members of his household to dispose of their "foreign gods." Presumably this includes the idols that Rachel purloined from her father. Why they also get rid of their earrings is a mystery to me. Perhaps earrings had something to do with the worship of other gods.

In verse 8 we learn that Rachel's nurse, Deborah, has died. Though we've never heard of this woman before, her demise provides us with the origin for another place name.

As long as we're naming things, there is a doublet here (from another source?) for Jacob's name being changed to Israel. After Abram and Sarai's names were changed, the text consistently referred to them as Abraham and Sarah. Israel is still sometimes referred to as Jacob even after this point in the story. Later the nation of Israel will sometimes poetically be called "Jacob."

Rachel has one more son but, sadly, dies in childbirth. Jacob's 12th son is named Ben-Oni (Son of My Sorrow) by his dying mother, but renamed Benjamin (Son of the South or Son of My Right Hand) by his father.

The chapter ends with a notice of Isaac's death. As Isaac and Ishmael cooperatively buried their father, Abraham, now Esau and Jacob reunite to bury Isaac.

Chapter 36 is concerned with the genealogy of Esau's descendants. Once again a genealogy marks a turn in the narrative. We are now wrapping up the story of Jacob. Beginning in chapter 37 our attention is focused on Joseph.

Joseph is associated with dreams from the start. We will see his dreams come true as his story progresses. For now, Joseph's dreams annoy his older brothers as, I suppose, does his father's obvious favoritism, represented by the gaudy coat Isaac gives him.

The brothers conspire to kill Joseph. Reuben, his eldest sibling, tries to save his life. Judah, another brother, convinces the rest not to kill Joseph, but to sell him as a slave to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites. Or are they Midianites? These take him to Egypt and sell him to an army officer named Potiphar.

In the meantime, Joseph's brothers take his fancy coat, smear it with goat's blood, and use it to convince Jacob that Joseph has been killed. Jacob is heartbroken.

These are our ancestors in the worship of the Lord.

Next: Genesis 38-40

Monday, March 11, 2013

Genesis 32:1-34:31


Chapters 1-11 of Genesis were set in a mythic prehistory.They described the origins of the universe, the earth, the human race, sin, languages. The focus of these stories was broad. The characters in these stories were said to live impossibly long lives, less than 1000 years, but not a lot less.

Chapters 12-36, from which we are currently reading, have a narrower focus. They tell the story of the origin of Israel and its neighbor nations. They explain the names of  places, tribes, and nations. Often these names are said to have come from an individual. These chapters tell the stories of the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Though their lives are long, they don't have the longevity of the mythic characters of the early chapters. They live to be less than 200 years old, but not a lot less.

Chapter 32 begins with a short, strange story in which Jacob, having just left his uncle Laban, encounters some "angels of the Lord." Jacob, saying that this place must be the Lord's camp, names the place "Mahanaim" which means "two camps." Odd.

Next Jacob sends his own angels (in both Greek and Hebrew the word translated "angel" simply means "messenger") to try to curry favor with Jacob's brother Esau. When we last met Esau (in chapter 28) he was still threatening to kill his conniving little brother. The messengers return with distressing news. Esau is coming to meet Jacob and he has an army of 400 men with him. Jacob divides his caravan into two halves, hoping that at least one half will survive should Esau attack. He then sends a series of lavish gifts to Esau, hoping to soothe his brother's temper. It isn't clear from what follows whether these gifts were effective, or whether Esau's temper had already cooled.

At night, Jacob camps alone at a ford of the river Jabbok. River crossings are traditionally dangerous places. This became clear to me when I read Larry McMurtry's novel Lonesome Dove. In that book bad things happen when the cowboys have to drive their cattle across rivers.

Jacob is attacked in his camp and wrestles all night with a man. This story is often called "Jacob wrestling with an angel." It becomes clear, however, that Jacob's opponent is neither man nor angel, but God himself, anthropomorphic once more. In the end, Jacob hangs on and receives a blessing. God gives him a new name, Israel, which means "strives with God." Jacob is also left with a hip injury that causes him to limp.

This is a story describing a national name. Jacob's descendants will collectively be called by the name Israel. Is it also an origin story for a nation's character? Is the nation of Israel a nation that contends, wrestles, and strives with God? Is Israel, the people, both blessed and wounded by its struggle with God?

In chapter 33, Jacob goes alone to meet Esau. His concubines, wives, and children follow him in groups that indicate their ranking in Jacob's favor. Jacob approaches his estranged brother with frightened obeisance. Esau does not attack Jacob, but runs to greet him with a brotherly kiss. There is hugging and weeping.

Today in church we read the Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15. I am struck by the similarity in the way the father greets his returning son in that story to the way that Esau greets Jacob here.There is also a parallel to the way that Joseph is reunited with his brothers in Genesis 45. There are distinct themes that run through the Bible. Family reconciliation is one of them.

Jacob urges Esau to accept the gifts he had sent ahead. Esau, at first demurs but, when Jacob insists, Esau acquiesces. I find myself wondering if the whole thing is a pretense, an example of the exaggerated kind of middle eastern politeness that we saw when Abraham invited the strangers to dinner, and again when he argued with God over the fate of Sodom.

I also wonder whether the gifts actually had their intended effect of placating Esau's anger.

Jacob and Esau part with Jacob saying that he will come to Esau's home in Seir. He doesn't follow through. Instead he goes first to Succoth (with another place name origin story) and then to Shechem.

Chapter 33 is ugly. Much of the narrative here is based in concepts of honor and shame that are foreign to my culture.

In Shechem a man named Shechem rapes Jacob's daughter, Dinah. He professes to love her and the narrator of the story seems to think that rape and love are not incompatible. In Bible times rape was actually a way that a man could acquire a wife (cf. Deuteronomy 22). The idea is repellent to me.

Jacob seems remarkably unconcerned about the violence done to his daughter. This may be another indication of women's lack of status in biblical times. Ditto the fact that Dinah's voice is never heard in this passage.

Somewhere in all of this, Dinah is taken or sent to live in Shechem's house. Shechem wants her for his wife.

Lying that they want to establish friendly relations with the people of Shechem, Dinah's brothers convince all the men of the city to be circumcised.While the men are recovering and still in pain, Dinah's brothers enter the city, kill all the men, plunder the place, and rescue their sister.

Like I said, it's ugly.

At the end of the chapter Jacob, still self-serving, expresses his fear that the other peoples of the region will attack and destroy him and his family.

While I love the story of Jacob wrestling with God (much the way I love the story of Abraham arguing with God), and while stories of family reconciliation seem right and godly to me, I find the whole of chapter 34 abhorrent. Is there anything good in it?

What do you say?

Next: Genesis 35-37.