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?

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Genesis

Welcome to this new blog, which is designed to help us see the huge picture of the Bible, by encouraging us to read one book per week. As promised it certainly won’t be the last word in scholarship, but I hope it will help people to read their Bibles more and with greater understanding.

 

So … Genesis. The word means ‘beginnings’, and the Hebrew words with which it begins simply mean ‘In the beginning …’ It helpful to think of the book in three ways: as an overture, as a book of ‘Just So’ stories, and as a scene-setter. It contains the well-known stories of Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, Abraham and the Patriarchs, and Joseph with his amazing coat. Just like an overture for an opera of musical, the book introduces briefly some of the themes we’re going to hear played out more fully as the story unfolds. So we see God as creator, but also destroyer, we see the idea of covenant relationships, of calling, of journey and pilgrimage, of sacrifice and mercy, and of a purposeful working out of God’s plans for redemption. In the story of Abraham we see both the calling of the ‘chosen people’, but also the idea that the only reason God chose a nation was to be the purveyors of good things to the whole earth. Their calling was to be blessed but also to bless, a theme which I have explored before. Maybe you could trace some of these themes through the rest of the Bible and see how they are developed, just as a composer develops his original musical hints into full numbers.

File:The Creation - Bible Historiale (c.1411), vol.1, f.3 - BL Royal MS 19 D III.jpg

But the other purpose of Genesis is to answer some questions which will later arise. The technical term for this is ‘aetiology’ – a ‘just-so’ story which you can imagine parents telling their children to explain something which they observe as they go through life. Another technical term here is ‘myth’, which doesn’t strictly mean ‘not actually true’, but rather that it explains something. So the stories of creation are there to explain how we all got here, and to argue whether Adam and Eve were literal historical characters is to miss the point entirely, and is about as useful as arguing about whether Pandora’s box was made of wood or metal. ‘Why is that pretty coloured thing up in the sky?’ is another question we can imagine children asking, and the story of Noah and the flood answer that question. Similarly questions such as ‘Why are we living where we’re living?’ can be answered by the story of the call of Abraham to go to ‘a land which I will give you’.

 

Thirdly, though, the book acts as a scene-setter for the drama to come. THE pivotal event in Israel’s history is the Exodus from Egypt, which we will come to next week, but before God can get his people out of Egypt he has to get them in there, so the long story of Joseph is there to explain how it came to be that those who had been promised God’s favour and a land of their own are working as slaves far from home under cruel foreign domination. To be continued …

Caravaggio. The Sacrifice of Isaac.

To think about:

 

  • Why are there two different stories of creation? What is each meant to teach us?
  • What can the story of Abraham’s call (Gen 12) say to the church today?
  • What can you learn about the ministry of Jesus from reading Genesis?

 

OT Lectionary 27th April Easter 2 Ex 14:10-31, 15:20-21

‘Sing to the Lord,
for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.’

Let’s be honest: it does go against the grain a bit to celebrate death. We’re all jolly glad that the poor enslaved Israelites have managed to escape from that nasty Pharaoh, but was it really necessary to end the business with a mass drowning? In the past victories in battle were celebrated with great jubilation. But nowadays we’ve reached perhaps more enlightened times when we understand that warfare actually has no victors: the whole business is destructive too all concerned, and the slaughter of those whom we perceive to be our enemies, along no doubt with some ‘collateral damage’ to innocent bystanders, is hardly something to make a song and dance about. So what are we to make of today’s OT, where we see the death of the Egyptians as a necessary concomitant of the liberation of Israel, and an outbreak of jubilant praise by Miriam and the girls.

 

File:Figures Pharaoh and His Host Drowned in the Red Sea (parted right).jpg

Indeed this is a problem for other parts of the OT. In 40 years’ time the Israelites are going to arrive finally at the Land promised to them by God, and they are going to be instructed to wipe out all the inhabitants unmercifully. The fact that they fail to do so, and are therefore nicer than God is, is going to get them into all kinds of trouble, according to the OT storytellers. So how do we cope with the destruction of enemies in the Scriptures, and what might it all mean for us today?

I think there are two approaches we might make to this problem, the individual and the spiritual. First of all it seems to be a natural law that whenever there are winners there are also losers. Egypt had so frequently and so deliberately hardened its corporate heart against God, who had given them so many opportunities to obey him, that they had forced themselves into a position where the only way for Israel to win her liberation was through their defeat. Pharaoh could at any point have compromised or even just given in, but he refused to do so, and the nation bore the consequences. (Of course the fate of individual soldiers who were ‘just obeying orders’ is of no interest to the OT writers who were untainted by enlightenment individualism and always thought ‘corporate’.) I think there’s something here about both the power of national leadership to affect the well-being (or otherwise) of the whole nation, and the responsibility of people to make sure they’re on the right side. Actions have consequences, and to align ourselves with evil means that we pay the piper sooner or later. Egypt paid that price, and after giving them so many chances to change their position of fixed opposition to him, God can hardly be blamed for punishing them. Indeed he reaches the point where we’re told he ‘hardens Pharaoh’s heart’, realising this is going nowhere so let’s just get it over with. The same is true of the genocide at the time of the conquest: the Bible’s take on this is that it wasn’t that Israel was holy, but that the Canaanite nations were so offensive to God and richly deserved their come-uppance (Deut 9:5). Where we place ourselves, the way we live, to whom we are aligned, matters. No excuses.

But secondly the choice of this reading during Easter suggests the link with cross and resurrection. Again there can be no victory without someone else’s defeat, and John’s gospel particularly makes the point that Christ’s death on the cross was also the crowning of a victorious king, with the powers of darkness defeated, until that final day when they will be destroyed. Evil isn’t just human: behind it are the spiritual forces of darkness in the spiritual realms, and on them God will have no mercy. So to celebrate our salvation through the cross is at the same time to celebrate the defeat of all that is evil, and of those who have given their lives to perpetuating it. So maybe we should get those tambourines out after all, as long as we remember to pray for those unwittingly caught up in the pursuit of evil: ‘Father forgive them, because they don’t understand what they’re doing’.