(Picture: The Tabernacle in the Wilderness; illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible. From Wikipedia)

There are certain assertions made by Catron and Sadongei that deserve examination. They say that all of the costly materials were available because the Hebrews looted the Egyptians, but in Exodus 12 the Israelites asked the Egyptians specifically for silver, gold, and clothing. Nowhere in the flight from Egypt are the other materials used to build the Temple mentioned. Catron and Sadongei say the materials for the Tabernacle didn’t really belong to the Hebrews. However, the goods received from the Egyptians can be seen as the wages denied by slavery. Were the people, as Catron and Sadongei say, foregoing an expected life of ease by donating to the Tabernacle? In the modern age, it’s easy to think of gold and silver objects as equivalent to money, but it’s unclear that the Israelites would have seen it the same way. It’s not unlikely that the silver and gold objects included idols, so the freewill offering of these items represented a turning away from idols, which would seem to be much more to the point.

The Israelites built the Tabernacle using the gold and silver they received from the Egyptians, as well as materials they are not recorded as having received, such as wood, oil, spices, and hides. It is difficult to believe they have been to the sea (that area being fortified militarily by Pharaoh) to get the colors necessary for purple and scarlet yarn, which perhaps they could have made on their own. So, these additional materials presumably have been obtained either through events not recorded in Exodus, or through generosity of the Egyptians exceeding the requests of the Israelites, or through an unrecorded miracle.

The most likely possibility is that these were obtained in the defeat of the Amalekites (Exodus 17) or as trade with or gifts from Jethro (Exodus 18). The Israelites might also have looted some material from the drowned Egyptian army. So, the gold, silver and clothing might represent back wages for their time of slavery, but everything else represents lagniappe—something extra not promised by the Lord.

Some interesting points about the Tabernacle and its furnishings:

The artifacts of the tabernacle include the Ark, the Table with the Bread of Presence, a seven-branched menorah and an Altar of Incense. The Ark was surrounded by curtains, and outside there was a courtyard with an altar for sacrifice.

The place where the priest was to meet with God was “above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the Ark” (Ex. 25:22). The cherubim have their wings extended to form an inner sanctum for this meeting.

The total weight of the metals involved were one ton of gold, 3 3/4 tons of silver in half ounce (donated from 603,550 men), and 2 1/2 tons of bronze. The gold was brought by both men and women, but the silver by the men alone. Why? Is the implication that women withheld silver, or that their donations were purer?

The basin for washing was made from the mirrors of the women who served at the entrance of the Tabernacle (Ex. 38:8). These are generally taken to be copper.

Two men, Bezalel of Judah, and Oholiab of Dan directed all the artisanry. Bezalel was filled with the Spirit of God and therefore had knowledge and skill, while Oholiab was a teacher (Ex. 35:30-34).

“Urim is derived from the Hebrew for ‘light’, or ‘to give light”, and Thummim from ‘completeness’, ‘perfection’, or ‘innocence’. In view of these derivations it is surmised by some scholars that the sacred lot may have had a twofold purpose in trial ordeals, viz. Urim served to bring to light the guilt of the accused person, and Thummim to establish his innocence.” (Catholic Encyclopedia)

There is a lot of symbolic meaning in the accoutrements of the priests and the Tabernacle, which Catron and Sadongei slide over. The menorah brings to mind the Burning Bush, and the seven lamps the seven days of the week or, in the imagery of Revelation, the seven spirits of God. The precise construction, with the lamps supported by almond flowers, presumably has meaning. Each almond flower has five petals, so the number of flowers would seem to be 22 and the number of petals 110 [See note]. Could these represent 10 commandments + 12 tribes? And could the branches of the menorah have been distributed around the central post to form a hexagon? Do the ten curtains surrounding the Ark correspond to the Ten Commandments?

While there is no certain answer to these questions, it is worth reflecting on the significance of numbers as used in Exodus. The Tabernacle is the closest physical representation we have of the Kingdom of Heaven. As Catron and Sadongei note, in the Christian understanding, the human heart is the Tabernacle in which Christ dwells. Therefore, for those with eyes to see, every object, every number, and even the origin of each object of the Tabernacle is imbued with important meaning about Heaven and about ourselves. Jesus will tell us this in Luke 17: 21. saying:

The Kingdom of God is within you/in your midst

Whereas God has previously manifested to the Israelites from a distance, the Tabernacle brings the Lord inside the encampment. The Israelites see the cloud, the Presence of the Lord, rising from the Ark on days that they are to travel, and the fire, also the Presence, kindled in the cloud at the night.

Deuteronomy 28-30 add urgency to the keeping of the Law. Deuteronomy 28 describes the blessings of fertility, prosperity, power, and security promised by God for following the Law, and the curses of barrenness, poverty, illness, powerlessness, and insecurity promised for breaking the Law. It contains a passage that Ezekiel (12:2), Jesus (Mark 8:18) and Paul (Romans 11:8) will echo:

But to this day the LORD has not given you a mind that understands or eyes that see or ears that hear. (Deut. 29:4)

Chapter 29 reaffirms the blessings and the curses and promises that “the whole land will be a burning waste of salt and sulfur” for generations after the Lord punishes those who break the Law. Chapter 30, however, offers the chance for repentance and renewal of the covenant. It promises that the Word of God is “in your mouth and in your heart.” In the Christian understanding, Jesus is that Word, and the Word is Love.
Note: An earlier version contained an error in which the count of petals was incorrectly stated to be 120. This would only be true if there were 24 flowers.

Dancing around the Golden Calf, by Fri Hell

By Brbbl (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Corruption. The elders of Israel, as well as Aaron and his sons as Nadab, and Abihu have seen God (Exodus 24:9). The rest of the people have trembled before God (Exodus 20:18-19) and promised to do everything commanded of them (Exodus 24:7-8). Moses has explained to them that the fear that they feel at God’s presence is to keep them from sinning (Ex. 20:20)—and, ironically, he also told them not to fear God.

It is only after the commandments have been given and the covenant established that Moses goes onto Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights. It is then that the people become restive. The stimulus for the making of the Golden Calf seems to be that the Hebrews were planning to leave Mt. Sinai without Moses, and so they wanted a leader. They say that they want gods (or a god) to “go before us.”(halak paniym) . So, the proximate cause of the sin was a desire for a leader and a place to go, not, as Catron and Sadongei say, a lack of trust. Is there a lesson for leaders, here, in understanding that they need to be with the people they are leading, not aloof?

Aaron’s role in the Golden Calf is complex. Catron and Sadongei suggest that Aaron felt intimidated when the Hebrews gathered around him, but this is beyond the text. Aaron made a calf, which he calls it elohiym. This term is one of the terms used for God, and the next day, Aaron says that there will be a festival to Jehovah. Where he has gone wrong is in suggesting to the people that Jehovah could be represented as a calf.

This is a subtle difference, but a difference to which we would do well to pay attention. We create courts and call them a system of justice. The human creation, however, is far from the divine one. Aaron could call the idol he made “Jehovah,” but that did not make the calf God. It is this process of confusing human constructs with reality that corrupts us. God is experienced directly, not through thinking about God.

Catron and Sadongei’s assertion that the gold taken from the Egyptians was “intended” for God’s sanctuary and was therefore somehow misappropriated is also questionable. In Exodus 3, the gold is to be placed on the sons and daughters and is therefore clearly adornment. In Exodus 25, any offerings to the Lord are to be made by those whose hearts prompt them to do so, so the fact that the gold was offered instead for making a calf is not a violation.

Moses’ sin and redemption and deeper sin. Just as the time apart from Moses was a test of the people’s faith in God, the disobedience of the people was a test of Moses’ transformation from his innate tendency toward violence. God offers to destroy the entire Hebrew people and raise up a nation from Moses (Ex. 32:9). Moses comes up with an argument to seduce God into not killing the people. Now, in reality, God is not deterred from exacting punishment. In Ex. 32:33-34, the Lord promises to punish the guilty by removing them from the divine book. God also delivers a plague, which may have been part of blotting the guilty out of that book, but this is not clear.

Moses, having pleaded with the Lord to spare the people, has redeemed himself in some degree from his inclination toward violence. Indeed, God has relented even though the people have not even stopped their idolatry. But then Moses sins even more deeply. He quite literally profanes the tablets containing the writing of the Lord by smashing these holy objects into rubble. This is not due to surprise or sudden pique, since he has been warned by the Lord what to expect. He acts, presumably, from rage. Then Moses forces the Israelites to drink the powder formed from “burning” the golden idol. And then he orders the slaying of three thousand Hebrews, a point that Catron and Sadongei inexplicably leave out. The Levites, the descendants of Levi, who was cursed by his father Jacob for Levi’s violence against the town of Schechem, do the killing. So, just as the Hebrews failed God’s test by creating an idol, Moses failed God’s test by resorting to violence.

And so one has to wonder about Catron and Sadongei’s characterization of God as “hurt and angered by the people’s betrayal.” God seems to be playing a much deeper game, steadily refining the Hebrews—and, separately, Moses—through various trials. True, the Lord threatens to allow the Divine anger to burn against the people, but then relents. It’s never really clear that God is angry. But Moses is.

As a technical note, gold can be oxidized, but not by fire: in fire, it becomes a liquid and then a gas without oxidizing. Gold embrittlement in, for example, solder joints involves alloying with another metal. It’s unclear what burning the calf accomplished.

A question not answered by the text is how Moses “forced” the Hebrews to drink the water. One might imagine this involved armed force, but the arming of the Levites is not mentioned until later.

Purification. When God said that the Hebrews had become “corrupt,” the word employed does not have to do with sin. The words used for sin carry the sense of going astray, violating an agreement, or becoming crooked. One would imagine that God would complain that the misconception of the Lord as a Being who could be captured in the form of a metal idol is an example of crookedness, of bending the meaning of worshiping Jehovah into worshiping something called Jehovah. But God uses another word, one that is often translated as “destroyed,” or “rotten.” So the purification could not involve repentance. Instead, the “rotten” part of the tribe was cut off with the sword.

And, although the translation says of the Levites that they have been “set apart (or consecrated or dedicated) to the Lord,” the word used, male’, can mean “to fill” or “to be armed” or “to be satisfied.” The images that these alternate translations bring are very different than images of holiness.




(The Egyptian god Typhon, from Florida Center for Instructional Technology at the University of Southern Florida)

Confrontation at Baal Zephon Sometimes one can draw insight about the deeper meaning of a passage from the meanings of the geographical place names. The route the Israelites take is from Goshen (“drawing near”) to Rameses (“child of the sun”) to Succoth (booths) to Etham to Pi Hahiroth (“place where the sedge grows”) “between Migdol and the [Red] sea (Yam Suph)…directly opposite Baal Zephon”

The word suph sounds like the word soph, which means destruction.Migdol means “tower,” perhaps evoking the sense that this was a border post. Baal Zephon means “lord of the north.” or “sacred to Typhon.” Gesenius’ Lexicon calls Typhon an evil demon of the Egyptians, and the University of South Florida ; about Typhon that:

Typhon was the wife of Anubis, God of Darkness. Typhon is also known as the Terrible One

Other sources have other explanations for the name Baal Zephon, so this should not be taken as definitive. But the connection to Typhon, the (male) Greek god of wind, remembered in English as “typhoon,” might make sense of the text’s statement that God overcame Yam Suph by the blowing of wind. In any case, this place names suggest that the Exodus from Egypt represents breaking free of the demons of Egypt.

Armed for Battle. Beginning in Exodus 10:3, the Hebrews are no longer called Hebrews or alternately Israelites, but only Israelites. So the plague of the locusts signals a transformation of the people. In Exodus 6:26 and 7:4, we have been told that the Lord is bringing the people out of Egypt “by their divisions (‘al tsaba’),” clearly martial language, an important point missed by Catron and Sadongei. In this chapter, the text states explicitly (Ex. 13:17-18) that the Israelites are “armed for battle,” and that God has arranged for them to take a route away from the coastal road to avoid conflict. So it pays to consider what God’s meaning was in telling the Israelites that they will leave “by their divisions.” Was the point to impose military discipline on what had been a rabble? Or was it because the battle was a spiritual one?

Stand still or move? Be silent or cry out? When the Egyptian army overtakes the Israelites, the Israelites become fearful. Moses tells them that all they have to do is remain silent (charash charash) and unafraid. Then comes the puzzling response of the Lord. God tellsMoses “Why are you crying out? Tell the Israelites to move on (naca naca.” But it is the Israelites, not Moses, who are crying out. It is Moses who urges them to be passive, while the Lord wants the Israelites to move. Perhaps the point is that we should not wait for God to fight for us, nor use prayer as a means to become passive. We should trust God and stay on our course, no matter what.

The establishment of a leader God is careful to work through Moses. True, supernatural forces (the angel of the Lord and the pillar of cloud) covered the Israelite rear, but it is Moses who stretches out his hands over the waters to part them and Moses who causes the waters to flow back together to drown the Egyptian army. The people first worshiped the Lord when they understood that God loved them. Now they come to fear and trust the Lord through the display of great power in parting the waters.

My strength and my song There are two kinds of song mentioned in Exodus 15. There is shiyr, an ode, which is what Moses and Miriam sing. But verse 15:2 is variously translated “The Lord is my strength and my defense” and “The Lord is my strength (‘oz) and my song (zimrah)” The reference could be to thrust as strength and parry as defense. Perhaps the song of Moses and of Miriam can be thought of as a kind of shield. The Lord is also credited with power (koach), which is specifically material power (it is derived from a word meaning “to be firm”), whereas ‘oz has more to do with certainty of success.

An aside A point not mentioned by Catron and Sadongei is that the Israelites are taking the bones of Joseph back to Canaan. According to the statement of Joseph quoted in 13:19, the situation in Egypt may have already changed for the worse in Joseph’s lifetime, because Joseph said that “the Lord will come to your aid.”

Posted by: itinerantpilgrim | February 23, 2014

An Abiding Hope, Lesson 3. Set Free by God. Exodus 4:18-13:16

Jacob Jordaens. Moses and his Nubian wife.

(Image by Jacob Jordaens from Artways)

What does it mean to be free? When God promises to free the Hebrews in chapter 6, the phrase used means “to bring out from under the burdens/forced labor.” Yet, as mentioned previously in the discussion of ‘ebed, Moses is, in turn, enslaved to God. Christian scripture discusses the paradox that what the world thinks of as freedom is a kind of slavery, while we become most free when we become slaves to God. For example, Mark 10:44 says, “whoever wants to be first must be slave of all,” and in Romans 6:18, 22 Paul says that “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness…. now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.”

So, freedom as understood in both the Old and New Testaments is not what we think of as freedom—and yet it is far better. We cease to be compelled by the frailties of the body or the whims of human society. We feel compelled instead by our vision of the Kingdom of Heaven. As the text of Exodus says, “And when they [the Hebrews] heard that the Lord was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.” It was not God’s power or majesty that caused the Hebrews to grant God authority over them: it was God’s love, that liberates us from the temporal and enslaves us to the eternal.

We think of the Exodus as simply the freeing of people from forced labor, but it was more than that. The Hebrews were being freed from fear and a sense of inferiority. They were being freed from the heartlessness that Moses experienced in Exodus 2:13, where two of the oppressed (Hebrews) were oppressing one another. They were being freed from the deep sense of loneliness and despair that comes from believing that we are alone in this world, with no one to see our sorrows and the injustices done to us, and no hope for the future.

It is in this context that we should view the actions of Puah and Shiphrah, of Zipporah and Jochebed, and of Pharaoh’s daughter. They all faced potential punishment for their deeds. Pharaoh might easily have executed Moses’ mother, the midwives or even his own daughter for insubordination. Zipporah knew she was intervening against the Lord in trying to save Moses from the Lord’s anger. These women acted according to their deepest beliefs and so they found the freedom that comes from trusting that righteousness, justice, and mercy come from God. We often talk about trusting in God. How often is that coupled to doing what is right in the face of probable punishment?

Overcoming hardness of heart. Pharaoh’s resistance to liberating the Hebrews is another puzzling aspect of the story of Exodus. God states in 3:18 that the king of Egypt (i.e., presumably Pharaoh) will not release the Hebrews unless he is forced to do so. In 5:2, Pharaoh makes it clear that he does not know Jehovah. The Hebrews beg to be allowed to sacrifice to God, but Pharaoh punishes them for stopping work. God does not protect them from suffering.

In Exodus 7:3, God promises to harden (chazaq; a word of many meanings, one of which is to make resolute) Pharaoh’s heart. Through Aaron’s miraculous staff, the magical arts of the wise men of Egypt are shown to be inferior to God’s power. Then God strikes Egypt—all of Egypt, presumably including Goshen where the Hebrews live—with three plagues. The Nile is turned into blood, frogs inundate Egypt, and the dust of Egypt turns into gnats. It is not until the fourth plague (Ex. 8:22) that God differentiates between the Hebrews and the Egyptians. It is understandable why the Hebrews might regard Moses and, by proxy, God to be more of a nuisance than a deliverance, since punishments and plagues come upon them even though they have worshiped God.

A partial answer to what God is doing appears in Ex. 9:16. God instructs Moses to tell Pharaoh that he has been spared “that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” In the plague of hail, the Egyptians begin to acknowledge God. Those who have begun to believe bring their animals and laborers in from the fields when Moses announces that heavy hail is coming. They are spared this plague. And Pharaoh acknowledges that he has sinned (chata’; to incur guilt or to go astray). The repentance, of course, is insincere, but God gives Pharaoh repeated opportunities to get it right. Indeed, at one point (Ex. 10:8), Pharaoh even tells Moses to send the Hebrews to worship God—and then withdraws permission when Moses makes it clear that no hostages would be left in Pharaoh’s hands. By the end of the plagues, Pharaoh not only demands that the Hebrews go to worship the Lord, he also asks for Moses’ blessing. The text does not tell us if Moses complied.

What we see in the interplay between God and Pharaoh is therefore not God forcing Pharaoh to sin, but God eliciting Pharaoh’s true nature by making him resolute in his heart—by giving him courage to do what he wants to do. God does not have an evil purpose in this though, of course, through Pharaoh’s actions many innocent people suffer and die. Instead, God begins the process of converting the entire Egyptian nation.

The means by which deliverance is achieved is judgment. In Exodus 12:12, God promises to bring judgment/punishment (shephet) on the gods/angels/exalted officials (‘elohiym) of Egypt. This echoes Ex. 6:6 and 7:4, in which God says that it will be through acts of judgment that the Hebrews will be brought out of Egypt.

How we read this depends on how we understand the word ‘elohiym. Certainly the topmost official of Egypt, Pharaoh,was punished again and again until he began to sense the hand of God in events. Since Pharaoh did not understand God, whose purpose was ultimately to bring the Egyptians also into relationship with God, he experienced God through fear. But had Pharaoh understood God, would he have feared the Lord?  Probably not. Moses, who understood the Lord as well as a human being could, did not seem to fear God. Rather, Moses understood that the Lord’s purposes are loving and benign.

Other commentators believe that God judged the gods of Egypt, gods such as Osiris and Isis. The text, however, does not mention any such gods, nor explain how they are guilty of anything, nor show how they were punished except in the sense of being shown to be impotent before the Lord. So this interpretation seems dubious.

The nature of sacrifice. In Exodus 13:1-2, God demands that every firstborn male be consecrated to the Lord, with the humans being redeemed by the sacrifice of an animal. This echoes the Abrahamic tradition, in which Isaac (though not Hagar’s son Ishmael) were redeemed from sacrifice by substituting an animal. The spiritual value of this practice is that no parent can refer to the firstborn male child as “my son.” Instead, the heir to the household is the Lord’s son, purchased by the household. The emotional impact of surrendering one’s heir to the Lord, while not as extreme as that which Abram suffered, must have been enormous.

Tests of loyalty. Is it possible that God was testing both the Egyptians and the Hebrews through the first plagues? Both see the power of the Lord. The Pharaoh denies God’s power. Do the Hebrews grumble about the effects of the plagues on them? The text is silent. But in any case, this would constitute a test. Perhaps the plagues ceased to affect the Hebrews because their faith protected them.

One effect of the final plague, in which the firstborn children die, is that only those who believe the Lord are spared. The text does not tell us whether any Hebrews failed to put blood on the door posts so that the angel of death would pass over, but had any failed to do so, the principal heir of the household would be dead and the household would have been discredited among their own people. So it is fair to say that the plagues served to purify the Hebrews from any doubters.

Posted by: itinerantpilgrim | January 21, 2014

An Abiding Hope, Lesson 2: God’s Call to Serve. Exodus 2:11-4:17

Moses Slays an Egyptian

Moses Slays an Egyptian

(Image by James Tissot from WikiPaintings)

Identity and relationship Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s palace, but by the time he was grown (the word, gädal’ can mean “become great”), he identified himself as a Hebrew. This suggests that his relationship with Moses’ mother, Jochebed, may have persisted after he was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. The fact that Moses’ identified with the slave class rather than with the rulers deserves some thought. Moses was adopted as a full son (Hebrew ben). The natural inclination might well be to identify with the wealthy and powerful family, but Moses did not do so. Instead, he regarded the Hebrew he defended as a kinsman (‘ach; the same word is used for the relationship between Abel and Cain).

Catron and Sadongei ask whether Moses regarded the kinsman he defended against the Egyptian as a member of his family or as a member of his own ethnic group. But if the word ‘apiru refers to a caste, then the text describes the emergence in Moses’ heart of empathy for those who suffer. The next day Moses discovered that his act of empathy did not awaken a similar emotion in another Hebrew, who was emulating the Egyptians by beating yet another Hebrew. Later on, Moses rescued his future wife and her sisters from shepherds who were pushing them (garash garash) around. In each case, Moses sided with the weaker against the stronger. At the end of the chapter, it was the Lord who becomes the rescuer, because he saw (ra’ah) the Israelites and “was concerned for” (yada’ yada’; perceived, knew) them. The implication is that there is physical perception and a perception of the heart, an empathy by which we know others to be our own.

Identity against relationship. What did it really mean for Moses to go to Midian? Although there are a number of other associations, noted below, the critical point is that the Midianites carried Joseph into slavery. So, Moses was surrounded by the very people who caused the suffering of the Israelites. But he landed with a family that was clearly different from the rest of the Midianites. Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro/Jether/Reuel came to believe that Jehovah is above other gods (Ex. 18:10-11), though it is not clear that he abandoned worship of other gods. Indeed, the name “Jethro” means “His abundance,” (Jether means simply “abundance”) while Reuel means “friend of God.” In Genesis 36, Reuel was a son of Esau. Although Exodus takes place many generations after Esau, the implication seems to be that Jethro is a descendant of Esau. From the episode in which Zipporah (the name means “bird”) circumcised one of her sons, it is clear that she knew the Abrahamic covenant and believed that the failure to follow it had set God against Moses. So, in Midian, Moses seems to have been among distant relatives, but he did not assimilate. He retained his Israelite identity despite relationship.

A comment on the Midianites. Midian was a son of Abraham through Keturah (“incense”), so these are the very distant relatives of the Israelites. The princes of Midian were, according to the book of Joshua, vassals of the Amorites. Moses later (Numbers 31) conducted a genocidal war against Midian. The Midianites then allied with the Israelites bitterest enemy, the Amalekites, and were defeated by Gideon (Judges 6; note the parallel between Gideon’s untrusting interaction with the Lord and Moses’).

Hearing and obeying Moses was sensitive to the presence of the Lord. As Catron and Sadongei remark, Moses saw that the bush burned and was not consumed, while others walked by. But although Moses heard God, he was not so good at obeying. God took Moses through a series of steps to help him to obey. First, God said I am God. Next, God offered to save the Hebrew people. That same desire was what led Moses to slay the Egyptian, so God would seem to be, to some degree, validating Moses’ act. Then, God offered Moses a sign to be delivered after the exodus. Then, God told Moses the divine Name. God offered justice against the Egyptians, a chance to extract the wages they have denied the Hebrews in the form of loot. God gave Moses the power to perform miracles. None of these things persuaded Moses to go to Egypt. Next, God assured Moses that he could become eloquent. But instead of asking God to repair his speech, Moses dug in his heels.

Catron and Sadongei do not emphasize the point that God became angry with Moses, but this is a key point. When God appeared to Moses, Moses heard, but he did not obey. Moses could easily have asked God to teach him to be eloquent. Instead, God ended up forcing Moses to go to Egypt. And then (to skip forward into verses 18-25), after having been ordered by God to head to Egypt, Moses again defied God by failing to circumcise his son (many commentators believe that the son he failed to circumcise was Gershom, but it makes more sense for it to be Eliezer, since Eliezer was the younger. If Moses had circumcised the younger, why not the older). The implication seems to be that Moses went on the journey but willfully refused to circumcise his son as an act of defiance against God. This interpretation makes God’s murderous rage a little more understandable. It might also explain why Zipporah and Moses’ sons are not mentioned in Egypt. God did not send the family to Egypt. So, Moses’ decision to bring them may have been an additional bit of defiance (as well, of course, as bad politics. Who brings an uncircumcised boy on a mission to persuade other people to follow the God of Abraham?).

When we obey God, we identify ourselves with the ‘apiru (those who suffer?), as children of God. We oppose ourselves to those who try to keep people in bondage, whether that bondage is debt, ignorance, or fear. We enter into a relationship with God, as servants to something larger than any human heart or mind can imagine. We live without certainty, wandering rather than housed, trusting in a force that we can only see afar.

Posted by: itinerantpilgrim | January 10, 2014

An Abiding Hope, Lesson 1: God at Work. Exodus 1-2

The Birth of John the Baptist by Murillo

(Image by Bartolomé-Esteban Murillo at Artways)

One of the great mysteries of the Christian faith is the nature of how God works. There is evil in the world. Good people suffer. The wicked prosper. Prayers for good go unanswered. God often seems absent from the world. The workings of God may even seem perverse. And, for that matter, how do we even know that it is God and not chance at work?

Exodus offers useful insight into these questions. The authors of An Abiding Hope see God’s plan in the acts of compassion of the midwives and of Pharaoh’s daughter, but the text seems to say something subtly different.

A trap of their own making The Hebrews were in Egypt because they failed to return to their ancestral lands after the famine had ended. Their ancestor Abram (Abraham) had similarly abandoned the land the Lord had given him to come down to Egypt to escape the famine (Gen. 12). Abram had to leave Egypt when his prevarication caused Pharaoh to be stricken with plagues. And Abram had been warned (Gen. 15) that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign country. The Hebrews further had a very good reason to leave Egypt after the famine: they had pledged to return Joseph’s bones to Canaan.

Since the Hebrews were culturally related to the Canaanite/Syrian invaders that had ruled Egypt in Joseph’s time, they were presumably regarded with resentment by native Egyptians. One may surmise (from the complaints that they made when they left in the Exodus) that they stayed in Egypt despite the abuse they received because life was easier than in Canaan:

We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.(Num 11:5)

So, the Hebrews had landed in Egypt despite God’s warning to Abram (and Abram’s untoward experience in Egypt), and they stayed in Egypt because they did not honor Joseph’s burial request (Gen 50). Their bellies were a snare to them, with their resultant enslavement.

This is not to say that God was absent or in opposition to these developments. On the contrary, in Gen. 46, God told Jacob in a vision to go down to Egypt, to follow his sons, and that there, in Egypt, God would make of the House of Jacob a great nation. But God did not tell Jacob to stay in Egypt, nor did Jacob question God about the wisdom of doing so. But what is clear is that God foresaw the enslavement and allowed it to happen.

The awakening of the Lord. God let many generations go by. The Hebrews were in violation of the agreement made by Abram to dwell in Canaan. The natural consequence, following the re-establishment of the native Egyptian hierarchy, was that they were reduced to slavery. The Lord was content to let that go on indefinitely. God did not even intervene when Pharaoh decided to commit genocide against the Hebrews. True, midwives (who were almost certainly Hebrew and not Egyptian) did frustrate Pharaoh’s command. But there is no evidence that the sparing of the children was an act of the Lord. Rather, it was a human deed inspired by reverence for God. Presumably the midwives were following the Noahide commandment against the shedding of human blood (Gen. 9).

This one good deed inspired compassion in the heart of Pharaoh’s daughter, and so a potential savior of the Hebrews was spared. And yet the Lord did not act. Moses grew up, killed an Egyptian, and fled to Midian. And yet the Lord did not act. The Lord was completely silent until the Hebrew people cried for help (Ex. 2:24). It is not clear that they cried out to God, only that they cried out. It was at this point that the Lord “remembered” the covenant.

The lesson seems to be that God responds specifically to distress. If human beings have not also been (metaphorically) plowing, planting, and watering the fields by following the Noahide covenant, or if what they desire is inconsistent with God’s plans, then nothing is likely to sprout. But it is the cry from the heart that God hears.

The nature of the Hebrews The biblical word translated as “Hebrew” is ’ibriy, meaning “one from beyond.” But Gerald A. LaRue says this:

Extensive research has led many scholars to the conclusion that the term “Hebrew” was first used as an appellative to describe foreigners who crossed into settled areas and referred not to a specific group but to a social caste. If the word “Hebrew” parallels habiru or ‘apiru, we know that these people on occasion were employed, at times created settlements of their own, and at other times attacked established communities. The suggestion that the terms ‘apiru, habiru and “Hebrew” relate to those who have renounced a relationship to an existing society, who have by a deliberate action withdrawn from some organization or rejected some authority, and who have become through this action freebooters, slaves, employees or mercenaries presents real possibilities.

If LaRue is right that the Hebrews are a caste of the dispossessed rather than simply a genetic subgroup of the descendants of Abraham, this explains why the Lord renews the Covenant when the Hebrews cry out: those who are Chosen are those who seek compassion.

How God works The full story of how God works is told in subsequent chapters of Exodus. But one point is made clear in these chapters: Moses is, by nature, a man of violence. Not only is Moses a descendant of Levi, who was cursed by his own father Jacob for the revenge-murder of the men of Schechem (Gen. 34:25 and 49:5-7), Moses commited his own murder (Exodus 2). He would seem to be badly-suited to lead a peaceful departure from Egypt. Yet once God decides that it is time for the Hebrews to leave Egypt, Moses is the one person to whom God turns.

The authors of An Abiding Hope suggest that God was working in the decision of Pharaoh’s daughter to bring Moses into the royal household, where he would learn the skills of diplomacy necessary to later get a hearing with the Pharaoh. This may be true, but the text does not actually say this. Where the text is silent, it is sometimes useful to silence our own minds and simply watch what the Lord does.

Posted by: itinerantpilgrim | January 7, 2014

An Abiding Hope: an overview of the context of Exodus and Deuteronomy

Boaz and Ruth by Karin Kraus

(Karin Kraus, Boaz and Ruth. From Artway; The Radiance of Pentecost; José Verheule)

This is to give context to the story of Exodus found in the study guide, An Abiding Hope. The Presence of God in Exodus and Deuteronomy by Martha Sadongei and Janice Catron.

The Hebrews. There is a question as to whether the word for the Hebrews, apiru, refers generally to a laboring class. If so, this casts an entirely new light on the concept of the Chosen People. In this view, God’s chosen are not simply the descendants of Abraham, but specifically those who suffer. The first three plagues apparently affected both the Hebrews and the Egyptians. This could suggest that the Hebrews underwent some kind of transformation, a cleansing, that separated them from the Egyptians and protected them from the later plagues.

What goes around comes around. In Genesis we learned that Joseph was carried in bondage to Egypt which, as the workbook notes, was ruled by the Hyksos. The Hyksos were Canaanite/Syrian conquerors, against whom later pharaohs constructed defensive fortifications (which is why the Exodus is generally believed to have followed a southern route, away from the militarized coastal road). So Joseph would have been viewed by native Egyptians as a collaborator. Although Joseph, by correctly interpreting a dream sent by the Lord to Pharaoh, saved Egypt from famine, he also reduced the Egyptian people to the status of serfs by buying their land and their livestock [and, according Gen. 47:23, the people themselves]. So, the enslavement of the Hebrews was in some degree a consequence of Joseph’s actions toward the Egyptians and those a consequence of the behavior of Jacob’s other sons toward their brother Joseph.

Genocide, not population control. Perhaps, when the Egyptian people threw off the occupation by the Hyksos, they expressed their resentment by keeping the Hebrews in bondage. Indeed, the resentment must have been extreme, since Pharaoh condemned the male Hebrew children to death. Had he really wanted to limit the number of children, he might have put the female children to death (or taken them to be raised by Egyptian families).By killing the male children, he was killing off his own future workforce. This suggests that the goal was genocide.

On servitude. The Hebrew word translated as slave or servant is ‘ebed. It is not necessarily a pejorative word. Moses, for example, was called the servant of God, and the word is in some places translated as “official.” However, it clearly implies subordination. Exodus is about domination and subjugation, and how the only real freedom is in subordination to God. Joseph was enslaved and then raised up to near-pharaonic status. He subjugated the Egyptians, who then subjugated the Hebrews. Moses raised up the Hebrews, but then became like a pharaoh to them. Only thanks to the advice of his father-in-law Jethro/Reuel did he create a less hierarchical state.

Midian . Midian is the name of one of Abraham’s daughters through his second wife, Keturah (Gen. 25:2). Midian means “strife.” It is a place associated with sorcery, conflict, and otherness. Joseph was carried into bondage by Midianites, the descendants of Abraham’s first-born son Ishmael (Gen. 37: 27-28). Midian is where Moses took refuge after slaying the Egyptian, and his wife Zipporah was Midianite.

Zipporah Moses’ wife Zipporah may (or may not) have been black. It is mentioned in Numbers 12:1 that Moses had a Cushite wife. Cush, a region of the upper Nile, is associated with Noah’s son Ham. Some Cushites were black. If Zipporah was black, it would be an example of the tradition of inclusion. However, some scholars think that “Cush” may have referred to the Kassites, from Lorestan, a region of Iran. In any case, Moses’ sister Miriam is punished for speaking against Moses’ Cushite wife.

Moses was not a good man, but rather a bad man who God redeemed. Moses and his kinspeople are descendants of Levi, cursed by Jacob because they are swift to violence. Moses murdered an Egyptian, failed to circumcise his son, was less than honest with his father-in-law (Ex. 4:18), and repeatedly tried to talk God out of using him. He may have suffered from pride, and so his redemption is to become the most humble of men (Num 12:3).

The story of Moses and the circumcision in Ex. 4 requires a lot of reflection (for the reason the Lord opposed Moses, see Genesis 17:10-14). According to Jamieson, the donkey was not an animal suitable for long journeys, so leaving Midian on a donkey may have been part of Moses’ deception of Jethro. Also, Moses may have sent his wife and sons back after his encounter with the Lord, because we do not hear of them in Egypt.

On Deuteronomy Ronald Troxel of the University of Wisconsin has produced an overview of Deuteronomy. He states that the book was composed in the 7th century BCE, 500 years after Moses’ death, and that the directives of Deuteronomy resemble those of two kings of that period, Josiah and Hezekiah, who centralized worship in Jerusalem, and elevated the Passover celebration and located it in Jerusalem.

Deuteronomy tells a story similar to Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, but from a very different standpoint. Exodus is told about Moses by a narrator. Deuteronomy opens by stating that “These are the words that Moses spoke…” The Lord is not quoted, but rather Moses recalls what God says. The format resembles a testamentary document directing the people how to behave. It claims to be the whole of the Law, and it specifies worship in a central location. Deuteronomy focuses on civil rather than religious law. In Exodus, the commandment to keep the Sabbath reflects back to the rest the Lord took after creating the Earth. In Deuteronomy, the commandment reflects back to the sojourn in Egypt, when there was no rest.

In Deuteronomy, Moses is an infallible ruler, not a flawed leader. God’s punishment of Moses by forbidding him entrance to the Promised Land is due to the misbehavior of the people, not of Moses. In Deuteronomy, Moses is the sole prophet, and the only one who heard God directly.

Posted by: itinerantpilgrim | September 10, 2012

Approaching communion with a clear conscience. CE Class for 9/23, part 1

Meditation. Jesus is present in every act of God’s kindness: in the good seed, sunshine, and rain that brings the harvest; in the doctor’s learning; in the engineer’s skill, in the pastor’s wisdom; in the bodily vigor that draws each breath and takes each step. His love exalted us from the mere dust we are to take human form, so that we might follow Him.
When we take communion, do we see baked wheat and fermented grapes, or do we see the loving kindness of a God who gives us the pain of hunger but also the joy of relieving it? God gives us the pain of solitary existence, but it is relieved in the joy of communing as one in God’s love. Beware of taking the elements without seeing God’s love in them and between one another. For the choice placed before you is to unite with God or with the corruption of the world.

The core of the class will be based on the following diagram, which is a first attempt to categorize sins according to whether they represent sins of fear or desire and sins of hating the other or loving oneself:

The Sins of Humanity

The Sins of Humanity: Traveling the Way between Fear and Desire

Posted by: itinerantpilgrim | September 10, 2012

Approaching communion with a clear conscience. CE Class for 9/23, part 2

(Image from http://telling-secrets.blogspot.com/2012_01_01_archive.html)

Consider the example of Judas, into whom Satan entered when Judas dipped the bread into the wine. “Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. One ought to examine oneself before eating of the bread and drinking of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.” (1 Cor. 11:27-9)

This passage teaches that communion both unites us with our brothers and sisters to form the body of Christ on earth, and separates us from the world and all its hypocrisy. Judas opened himself to evil by pretending to be a friend to Christ [fn1].

And yet, we often treat communion as no more than a ritual. If we genuinely believe this scripture, we prepare for communion so that we may recognize the body of the Lord, rather than expose ourselves to judgment.

Scripture contains only a few suggestions—many of them indirect—as to how to prepare.

Matt. 5:23-4 Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

Matt. 18:21-22 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

1 Cor. 5:8 Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.

1 Cor. 10: 16-17 Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.

1 Cor. 11:20-22 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!

1 Cor. 11:26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Heb. 7:1-2 This Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High. He met Abraham returning from the defeat of the kings and blessed him, and Abraham gave him a tenth of everything. First, his name means “king of righteousness”; then also, “king of Salem” means “king of peace.”

Gen 14: 18-20 Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.” Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

John 6:47-58, 63-4 I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.”… The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him.

Of these passages, 1 Corinthians provides the greatest insight. The Christian Passover, it suggests, must be approached with sincerity, truth, and unselfishness, creating unity in Christ. Truth and sincerity stand in opposition to the hypocrite. Unselfishness allows us to see our neighbor as ourselves. But what does it mean to become one in Christ? How do the exterior elements guide us? What can we do to properly prepare for the test of communion?

1. The Corinthians 11 passage, while it certainly seems to be aimed at Judas, does not mention him explicitly. Therefore, it is a matter of interpretation to say that Judas opened himself to evil by taking communion even as he was plotting against Jesus. Indeed, whether Judas did or did not participate in communion as we know it has been the subject of ferocious debate. See Anthony Kane, The Place of Judas Iscariot in Christology.

Here are the arguments in favor and against the interpretation that taking the bread and the wine in an unworthy manner opened Judas to Satan. Luke seems to place the moment of satanic possession a bit earlier, saying:

Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread, called the Passover, was approaching, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some way to get rid of Jesus, for they were afraid of the people. Then [or And] Satan entered [eiserchomai] Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve. And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus.(Luke 22:3-4)

However, the entire weight of interpreting the moment of satanic possession as prior to the Last Supper hinges on the word de, which can be translated in many ways, so this is hardly dispositive. In support of interpreting it in this manner, Luke does not indicate that satanic possession occurred following the sharing of bread and wine.

John tells the story differently, saying:

The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted [put into the heart of; [balloo eis kardia] Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus…. Jesus answered [Simon Peter on the question of who would betray Him], “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered [eiserchomai] into him. “What you are about to do, do quickly,” Jesus told him (John 13:2, 26-7)

So John’s telling suggests a two-stage corruption, first when Judas approaches the leaders to inquire about betraying Jesus, and next a full blown blooming of evil when he shares the cup and the loaf with Jesus.

John’s view is even more complicated than that. When Jesus mentions that He is the bread of life in John 6, He also calls Judas a devil [diabolos, slanderer] (John 6:70-1). The suggestion seems to be that Judas had begun to slander Jesus over the question of what it meant to partake of the body and the blood of Christ.

We know one other important fact about Judas’ character: that he claimed to care for the poor in order to be able to siphon off money from the collection. (John 12:4-6). While most readers focus on Judas’ avarice in this passage, a more telling point is Judas’ hypocrisy. It was hypocrisy which kept him as Jesus’ disciple even though he was no friend to Jesus. It was hypocrisy to eat bread and drink wine with Jesus as a friend, even while betraying Him. It was hypocrisy to greet Him with a kiss even as He was being handed over.

Therefore, in context, it makes sense that Judas’ hypocrisy should be his undoing. Whatever degree of evil he participated in prior to sharing the cup and the loaf with Jesus, he was only fully possessed when he accepted hospitality under false pretenses.

Posted by: itinerantpilgrim | September 10, 2012

Approaching communion with a clear conscience. CE Class for 9/23/12, part 3

(Image is Happy Jesus – One in Christ by Fan Pu, from Artway, which produces meditations)

Preparing for communion. In communion, we are preparing to become one with Christ, who was made perfect through suffering (Heb. 5). Only that part of us which is perfect may enter. Every defect in us cannot enter.

Worst of all are defects in truth and sincerity, particularly hypocrisy. These are sins that lead away from life, since if we are not truthful, we cannot repent. If we are hypocrites, playing a part rather than accepting responsibility for our actions, we imagine that we are not even the person who needs to repent. But malice and anger, avarice, gluttony, lust, sloth and pride–or even the lesser sins–are also excluded from communion with Christ. We can echo the disciples, who asked in astonishment, “Who then can be saved?” (Mat. 19:25) by asking whether even fragments of us can enter communion. Jesus answered His disciples, “With God, all things are possible.” (Mat. 19:26)

Clearly, preparing for communion means reforming ourselves. Between each communion, we should have a specific defect which we try to remedy. It could be something very minor, such as allowing ourselves a few bad words, or loafing on a day off. It might be something transformational, such as reconciling with someone with whom we are angry. It might be something difficult, like stopping smoking or another addiction. But by setting a specific goal, we put ourselves onto the path of becoming more like Christ. Let us sift ourselves as wheat (Luke 22:31) to remove all the tares (Matt. 13:30). Then Satan will have nothing left to do.

Thinking about sin This is where the diagram of the Way of the Cross may be helpful. It reminds us that it is fear and desire that lead us astray. It reminds us to accept the pains and pleasures of the body without becoming too attached to them. It reminds us that there are extremes on both sides of the narrow way. Just as ex-smokers can be harsh on those who haven’t yet quit, those who have lived as libertines may turn into scolds. Neither pleases God. Most important, the diagram reminds us to leave hatred and a sense of separateness behind, and to journey toward love and a sense of wholeness.

But the diagram is far from complete. Sin is everything that makes us less than our very best. If we devote ourselves to serving others so intensely that we neglect ourselves, that is a sin. If we are so intense in our devotions that we become depressed about ourselves, that is a sin. And, of course, choosing to see in ourselves only the sin of doing too much good is also be a sin.

Reforming ourselves There’s a temptation to set too specific a goal. For example, if our sin is overeating, and we set ourselves the goal of losing 10 pounds, then once the goal is achieved, there’s a tendency to backslide. It’s better to deal with overeating by fasting, even if that does not immediately lead to weight loss, since it confronts the underlying imperfection rather than the visible consequence. Perhaps that is some of the wisdom contained in Matt. 6:6:

But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

When our will to change is directed at our invisible inner defects, it creates more long-lasting change than simply changing what is visible.

Recognizing the body of the Lord. No transubstantiation required. In 1 Cor. 11, Paul is specific: “anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.” What does it mean to recognize the body of the Lord?

The word rendered as “recognizing” is diakrino. Other meanings are to judge, separate, or prefer. The King James version renders it “discern.” Are we to discern the body of Jesus in the physical bread and wine? The meditation that began this set of notes read in part,

“Jesus is present in every act of God’s kindness: in the good seed, sunshine, and rain that brings the harvest…When we take communion, do we see baked wheat and fermented grapes, or do we see the loving kindness of a God who gives us the pain of hunger but also the joy of relieving it? God gives us the pain of solitary existence, but it is relieved in the joy of communing as one in God’s love.”

Food and drink are the physical manifestation of God’s love for us. God recognizes our weakness and our need, and offers exactly that which will bring us joyful relief. Jesus really is in the bread, and in the wine, if only we hunger and thirst for Him.

But there is more to becoming one in Christ than seeing His lovingkindness in food. It is seeing His lovingkindness in one another, of lowering the walls that divide us into individuals and recognizing one another as an integral part of a larger community. When we see our neighbor as our self, we no longer hesitate to help him/her. What makes our neighbor weak or ill injures us as well.

Peace and joy be with each of you who has been diligent enough to consider these reflections.

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