Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Exodus

Last week we looked at Genesis and said that we should read it as an overture, a set of Just-So stories, and a scene-setter for the rest of the story. This week the story begins with the exit, or exodus, of the Israelite nation from their slavery in Egypt, but once again the story, as it moves on, introduces some themes which are going to become increasingly important.

A brief list of names follows, and we are going to find quite a few of those lists over the next just-over-a-year, since the story is, after all, the story of real people, whose part in the drama matters. We’re told that two things happen: the Israelites, guests in Egypt, multiply considerably, and that a new Pharaoh, to whom Joseph meant nothing, takes the throne, and decided that these immigrants were not as welcome as his predecessor had thought they were. So they were pressed into slavery, and for 400 or so years God apparently watched in silence as they were subject to increased oppression. But then Moses appears on the stage, miraculously saved from perinatal death, brought up in the Egyptian court, and called by a burning bush. He is the one who, after many years preparation, is to confront the king, and with the help of God’s powerful plagues, to lead the people to the edge of the Red (or Reed) Sea. There the sea miraculously opens, Israel escapes and their oppressors are drowned. This is the central point of God’s purposes of salvation for Israel, and much is made of the symbolism of passing through water into a new way of living in the New Testament as it talks about baptism. Again and again God is described as the one ‘who brought you up out of Egypt’: this saving act becomes the centrepiece and milestone of God’s redemptive love.

The next stopping point is Mount Sinai, where Moses receives from God the Law, or ‘Ten Commandments’, which remain formative in the ethics and law of most civilised countries to this day. ‘Commandments’ is really a mistranslation: the Hebrew literally speaks of Ten ‘Words’, and they are best understood as ‘teachings’: if you want life and society to run well, then live like this. But whilst Moses is up the mountain receiving these ‘Words’, the people below are demonstrating the natural human bent for rebellion, and we see something which we are going to see again and again: false worship leading to dissolute behaviour. The journey continues towards the Promised Land, but we are not going to see them arrive until next week, and even then with tragic consequences.

 

The other major theme of Exodus is worship, and the good ordering of it. Chapter after boring chapter discuss precise details of the furniture, fittings and clothing to be used in the worship of the tabernacle, a portable ‘temple’ which could accompany them on their journey and provide a focus for their worship. Since we have already seen the relationship between idolatry and immorality it seems important that we get worship right, and very little here is left to chance. The book ends with the glory of God covering the tabernacle in a cloud, symbolising his presence among his people, another motif to which we shall return.

 

To think about:

How do you react to up to 400 years of slavery and oppression before God ‘remembered’ his people (2:24)? Why do you think he works so much more slowly than we would prefer?

Has all the formal and liturgical stuff about worship in Exodus, and the precise regulations for making robes etc been superseded in Jesus? Or can carefully ordered and symbolically rich worship speak to us about God as form us as Christians?

OT Lectionary Jan 12th The Baptism of Christ Is 42:1-9

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OT Lectionary – a weekly series of devotional thoughts on the OT reading for next Sunday.

 

The Sunday after Epiphany is traditionally the time to remember Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John. Baptism is one of the most undervalued and misunderstood of the things Jesus left for us: as one brought up in the Baptist Church who only later became an Anglican I have had to do a complete rethink of my theology of baptism. So how can our passage from Isaiah speak to us today?

Chapter 42 is the first of four ‘Servant Songs’ which appear in this section of Isaiah, and just about every theological student has had to write an essay on who exactly the ‘Servant’ was or is. Indeed this was the very question raised by the Ethiopian official in Acts 8. The consensus is that the Servant is the idealised nation of Israel, not weak, beaten down and exiled as she was at the time but renewed, powerful and fulfilling her destiny given by God to be a light to the whole world. The previous chapter of Isaiah talks about this. So this first Servant Song has parallels with the baptism which launched Jesus into public ministry as the one who fulfilled par excellence the role of ‘Servant’.

The passage tells us about the Servant’s ministry, but also about the way that ministry will be carried out, and the basis from which it will be carried out. The first four verses explain the teaching ministry which is about justice and encouragement, and the passage goes on to explain that it will be an international ministry aimed at freedom and illumination for those in darkness.

So what is this freedom fighter’s style? To a nation used to the harsh cries of Babylonian taskmasters (which no doubt echoed in the collective memory with those of Egyptian taskmasters hundreds of years earlier) the prophet explains that the Servant’s ministry will be gentle in style, encouraging in nature and with a bias towards those unable to help themselves. This is not the style of a zealot or rabble-rouser, but rather a leader more interested in winning hearts than battles.

On what basis, then, is this ministry to be carried out? The answer is that it is a divine calling. God, through the prophet, labours his credentials: he is the creator, responsible single-handedly for the world and all its people: he is the God who alone is worthy of all honour, and who, just to prove the point, is the only ‘god’ able to predict the future. So you don’t argue with him, right? Springing from this God is the calling to the Servant, the one whom he has chosen, in whom he delights, and whom he will uphold, giving him his Spirit to empower him.

Jesus at his baptism clearly fulfils this passage, and no doubt had it in his mind. As the Father tears open heaven and declares audibly his love and favour for his Son, Jesus is launched into his public ministry of teaching and salvation for all. But the whole point of this story is that the fulfilment doesn’t end with Jesus: our calling as his church, the ‘Israel of God’, is to be Christ’s body here on earth now, continuing the Servant’s ministry. And just as our calling is the same, so is our style and its basis. Today challenges us to reconsider, and maybe to recommit ourselves to, our own baptism and the calling and ministry to which it signed us up.