Opinion: Truth Telling about the Bible

by George Stuart

[This is a long but very interesting paper but one that contributes an enormous amount to the field of critical progressive thinking. Treat it like a book and come back to it with coffee in hand! It lends itself to much debate! George has conducted probably his last service at Toronto Uniting Church, Hunter Valley NSW, because of what he describes as age (85) and frailty.

For a number of years, he has thought it important to give worship leaders alternatives to the lyrics which are in the official Australian hymnbook volumes – The Australian Hymnbook, first published in 1977, and Together in Song, first published in 1999.  Most of the tunes he uses can be found in many different hymnbooks throughout the world.   The tunes he uses are always identified by name. He writes lyrics from a ‘progressive’ theological perspective.

All his new lyrics are available free, for use in public worship.  They can be printed and copied; they can be projected through data projectors as Power Point Presentations; they can be electronically stored for future use.   Most of the musical scores can also be printed, as required; all from his Website. This is a huge resource and a great asset in the world of progressive christianity. ]

Truth-Telling and our sacred book.

In the pursuit of ‘Truth-Telling’, I believe the church has some difficult ‘Truth-Telling’ to do about our past particularly regarding our sacred book, the Bible.  Why the Bible?  Because it comes to us from our somewhat distant church past.  This ‘Truth-Telling’ is not absent but I believe it has to be far more obvious to the general public and also needs to be given more voice within the church to help our members confront the issues this ancient book raises.  By this, I believe the church may gain again some credibility in our world today.

With the call to excise from our present situation the ‘honoring’ of the names of historical figures who are now being exposed as slave-traders, violent leaders, racists, etc., along with the disfiguring and dismantling of statues of past prominent figures of history, some of it in the name of the ‘Truth-Telling’, maybe now could be an opportune time for some more hard thinking about what more needs to be said by the church about the our church’s past.

There are many issues raised by our sacred book but being specific, I believe it is very necessary for the church to ‘call out’ and repudiate the violent activity of the God which is depicted on so many of the Bible’s pages, particularly of the Old Testament but also to a lesser extent of the New.  I think this ‘Truth-Telling’ about our sacred book needs to be done especially when Christians and Christian leaders make critical comments about the way some people, particularly non-church people like President Trump, use the Bible. 

‘Truth Telling’ about the past, as we all know, can often be very difficult and painful because it can bring to the light those parts of history we wish to ignore or forget; parts that we do not wish to discuss with, or teach to those who may not know.  It often raises those parts of history about which many of us take a very different posture today, thank goodness, but it can also raise guilt feelings which we find very uncomfortable and to a degree, sometimes resist. 

Self-examination within the church can be unsettling particularly when it exposes our ‘dark’ past and thus can offend others who are members of our own ‘tribe’. 

When Jesus involved himself in some ‘Truth-Telling’ about his Jewish history in the Hebrew Scriptures, he got himself into strife.  Early in his ministry, we are told, he was in the synagogue at Nazareth, teaching.  The reaction of those listening was,

And all spoke well of him and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth ;…(Luke 4:22.)

However, the gospel writer tells us that Jesus continued his teaching with,

And he (Jesus) said, “Truly I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country.  But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon to a woman who was a widow.  (Referring to a story in 1 Kings 17:8-24.)  And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha; and none of them were cleansed but only Naaman the Syrian.  (Referring to a story in 2 Kings 5:1-14.)  (Luke 4:24-27.)

Jesus certainly knew his Jewish scriptures.  Very selective in his quoting, but the stories are there and were probably avoided by the current religious leaders and teachers.  Some confronting ‘Truth-telling’!  Was this exposing a side of their history his fellow Jews didn’t want to hear?  The stories he was referring to were suggesting that foreigners were respected and even cared for more than their own Jewish ancestors.  What was the result of this ‘Truth-Telling’?

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath, and they rose up and put him out of the city and they lead him to the brow of a hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong.  But passing through the midst of them he went away.  (Luke 4:28-30.)

It amazes me how quickly crowds can turn from praise to persecution.  I find it worrying that this can be the reaction to ‘Truth-Telling’.  The fear of persecution may even lead to the avoidance of ‘Truth-Telling’ particularly if it is thought that this persecution could be carried out by members of one’s own ‘tribe’.  It may also lead to unwanted division within the ‘tribe’.

So, I hope you find this paper useful.  It is my honest attempt to do some ‘Truth-Telling.’, as I see it.  I think we regular church-goers sometimes accept, without a great deal of scrutiny, what we are told in the church.    

Although extremely difficult for me, I feel I need to construct this paper using the concepts of God that are nearly universal in the church and certainly promoted right throughout the Bible.   These concepts include the anthropomorphic characterization of God and connected with this, that God is a being, a person, who ‘does things’.  This biblical God intervenes in human history to execute God’s will and purpose.   Being a panentheist I find all this unacceptable and I use quite different images when speaking of God.  I am somewhat reluctant to use the word God at all, because of the immense unwanted baggage which it carries and which seems extremely difficult to throw off.  My concept of God is that God is in everything and everything is in God, so for me, the life force, the inherent underlying foundation of all that is, is ‘involved’ but not intervening from ‘outside’. 

So in this paper I use biblical images and concepts to try to connect with regular church-goers because I think this is where many start.  But by using these images, I do not wish to convey the impression that I like using them or that they are the foundational images and concepts of God that I embrace.  Not so!

In this paper I refer to ‘Reader-Response interpretation’, quite a few times.  Because of the study I have done regarding the numerous Bible references I make throughout this paper, I recognise my interpretations can differ from other people’s interpretation.  I have found that very different interpretations are given by various biblical commentators when they deal with the same text. 

‘Reader-Response interpretation’ is reading into the text one’s own experience of one’s own day and culture, rather than reading the text itself; taking note of what the text actually states and then learning from it, always taking into serious consideration its 1st Century middle-eastern cultural context.

I think those who have preached, using the Bible as their prime resource, have indulged in this ‘Reader-Response interpretation’ a great deal, and in extreme cases, have created their own text and then proclaimed it as being what the Bible teaches.  I have been and still am certainly involved in this sort of interpretation, hopefully not to an extreme. 

Moises Silva expounds on this matter.

Insofar as every reader brings an interpretive framework to the text, to that extent every reader generates a new meaning, and thus creates a new text.  [1]

 Edgar McKnight, a respected proponent of Reader-Response theory, suggests that since we cannot completely break out of our self-validating system, ultimate meaning is unreachable. All we can hope for is to discover and express truth ‘in terms that make sense within a particular universe of meaning’.  We may, therefore, continue to discover or create meaning, ‘which is satisfying for the present location of the reader’.  [2]

With this in mind, in this paper I am claiming to do some ‘Truth-Telling’.  That may be seen by some as being arrogant.  Am I saying, “My interpretation of the Bible is one of ‘Truth-Telling’ whereas other approaches and interpretations are false and not concerned with ‘Truth-Telling’?”  I certainly hope not.  I don’t wish to give that impression but I suppose this is the predicament that one can get into when one expresses one’s views with passion and strong commitment.  Others who disagree with me are ignorant and wrong!!  I don’t wish to even suggest that.  I certainly have passion and strong commitment to what I put forward in this paper, however, I wish, in no way, to say or suggest that other people who have different approaches are not as concerned with the truth as much as myself. 

Their search for truth may be more productive than mine.  For you to decide.

Violence and the biblical God who uses it and commands its use.

For me, one of the very troublesome issues of ‘Truth-Telling’ in the church is violence in the Bible. 

Violence in itself, must have a place in telling about humanity’s past, the church’s past.  Not telling the violent aspect of the past can cause the cry for ‘Truth-Telling’.  However, when ‘Truth -Telling’ about the past in the Bible involves telling about a God being violent and commanding humans to be violent, I have a huge problem.  Not that it is there, but that it is often either just accepted, explained away, ignored or completely avoided.

For years I have been faithfully questioning many parts of the Bible as to whether they really teach me about the God of love that I perceive Jesus taught and reflected in his life.  I have no right to expect all the stories in the Old Testament to teach me about the God I learn from Jesus, however, being a follower of Jesus and a member of the church, I have the whole Bible, including the Old Testament with its stories and its teachings in front of me.  In every church service, at least one, and sometimes up to four Bible passages are read.  Thus, the Bible is presumed to be extremely important in the instruction of Christian beliefs and for guidance about how we should live.  I need to determine whether particular stories and teachings help my spiritual growth or hinder it.  I believe this dilemma is shared by many regular church-goers, but many who think about this issue of violence, put it out of sight because it is just too difficult.  Why is it difficult?   Because the Bible is revered as authoritative but it has stories in it that speak of a God demanding the slaughter of infants and children!

The other day I was sharing with a friend in my congregation, my concern about violence in the Old Testament.  She is one whom I regard as a faithful follower of Jesus.  She is a regular church-goer like myself. She said to me, “Well George, just don’t read it.”  Maybe sound advice.  However, the whole content of the Bible is still available for everyone, including church-goers, to read and study and so my concern remains.  When such issues are addressed by serious ‘Truth-Telling’, and when followed by essential, competent teaching, this helps us ordinary church-goers address these.  Otherwise we are encouraged to keep our heads in the sand!

So, to my endeavor.

At the outset, it is important to emphasize that in the Bible, the violence of God and God’s commands to be violent, are nearly always God’s response to idolatry, worshipping other Gods, and/or the practice of injustice and corruption by the Israelites and their national and religious leaders.  Regarding God’s violence, the ‘religious’ aspect of life, the human relationship with God, is nearly always bound to the ‘secular’ practice of justice and the appropriate use of power, the relationship that humans have with other humans. 

As an example, a few quotes from Jeremiah.

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow, or shed blood in this place, and if you do not go after other Gods to your own hurt, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers for ever.  (Jeremiah 7:5-7.)

Also,

Both prophet and priest are ungodly; even in my house I have found their wickedness, says the Lord.  Therefore their way shall be to them like slippery paths in the darkness into which they shall be driven and fall; for I will bring evil upon them in the year of their punishment, says the Lord.  (Jeremiah 23:11-12.)

This connection of the worship of other Gods and the practice of justice in society are linked continuously throughout the Bible as that which incurs God’s judgement and consequentially, particularly in the Old Testament, God’s violent punishment.  However, it must also be acknowledged that the violence of God is sometimes directed at the enemies of God’s chosen people and is often very excessive.  The Exodus story is at the beginning of this violence and it continues in the violent conquest of the Promise Land.  This particular partisan violence of the tribal God of Israel sickens me!

It takes the Bible only about 100 verses, not counting verses which are just lists of names in genealogies, for this biblical God to impose and carry out the death penalty on all humanity except one family and a few animals; Noah plus; see Genesis `6:7.  This God burns to death all the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah except one family; see Genesis 19:24-25.  And this God systematically inflicts death and destruction on the whole land of Egypt, including innocent men, women, young people and children; see Exodus chapters 7 to 14.  I deal with this story in great detail later.  I could go on and on and on.

These stories, being the product of a theology of about 3000 years ago, I take none of them literally but for me, the image of God presented in them is ultra-violently abhorrent.  I do not believe that my reaction to this image should be ‘awkward and embarrassing’, as one much respected commentator seems to suggest.  For me, that trivializes the matter.

This violent image of God continues throughout the early books of the Old Testament and then there are numerous references to this God of wrath and vengeance in the prophets, fighting against idolaters and God’s enemies. 

And the angel the Lord…slew 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians.  (Isaiah 37:36.)

The violence of God continues in the later books of the prophets, including Amos, Hosea and Micah.  These books have many statements about God waring against idolatry and injustice, those who don’t obey God’s commandments and even sometimes against enemies of God’s chosen people.  These prophetic books are also appropriately quoted about God’s love, mercy and forgiveness and about God demanding justice and mercy from human beings in the exercise of their personal relationships with each other.  An important example of this is in the Book of Micah in which there is the often quoted text of significant moral challenge.  Notice again how the exercise of justice is linked to the peoples’ relationship to God. 

He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.  (Micah 6:8.)

However, only nine verses before this injunction, God says that God will act very violently.

I will root out your Asherim from among you and destroy your cities. And in anger and wrath I will execute vengeance upon the nations that did not obey.  (Micah 5:14-15.)

Asherim refer to Gods who were worshipped, other than Yahweh, Israel’s’ God,

This violent image of God is not absent in the New Testament, as is clearly demonstrated in certain texts in the gospels and other parts of the New Testament, especially the Book of Revelation.

A major image of God in the Bible is that of a God who deals out rewards and punishments.  These rewards and punishments are very often excessive.  They are not absent in some parables of Jesus in the gospels. 

Along with most regular church-goers, I do not believe in a violent or punitive God.  I think this is because I do hear in church services, a lot of ‘Truth-Telling’ about the good content of the Bible.  The violent image of God is by no means the only image of God presented in the Bible and in particular, in the Old Testament.  Far from it; however, in my experience there has been a skewed instruction about our sacred book, which can be pinned down to a lack of ‘Truth-Telling’ about the ‘dark’ side of its content.  This violent image is on a vast number of its pages, so in calling for ‘Truth-Telling’ about it, I need to highlight some stories, as I remember them.

At this stage I need to say that I believe this violent image of God plays little to no part in the message of Jesus, as I understand it, and I find it significant that Jesus seems to avoid parts of this ‘dark’ side of his Jewish scripture.  I give examples of this a bit later

Probably the worst story.

It is the notorious story in 1 Samuel 15.  It deals with the first command the Lord gave, through the prophet Samuel, to King Saul after he had been anointed king.

Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will punish what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way, when they came up out of Egypt.  Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.’  (1 Samuel 15:3.)

Saul did not follow the commands of the Lord to the letter.  He took Agag, the king of the Amalekites, a live prisoner and did not kill the best of the animals.  This story concludes with how Samuel kills Agag by ‘hewing him in pieces before the Lord’; see. 1 Samuel 15:33.

According to the Hebrew word used for God, Yahweh, this story belongs to the ‘J’ tradition.  I deal with this important issues in some detail latter on. 

I believe this whole story is a disgraceful story regarding the image of God contained in it.  Not a story to be read in a church service, especially if it is concluded with, ‘In this is the Word of God. Thanks be to God.’  Also, not a story for Sunday School children.

The Exodus story.

The Exodus story is important to me because it is taught as part of my Christian heritage and it still features in some of our church liturgies.   Jews celebrate it very frequently and especially at their yearly Passover festival.  To an extent, it tells of the origins of the Hebrew nation.   This particular story is a pivotal story for the Children of Israel, told as biblical history of their great national liberation.  Marcus Borg writes,

For the people of ancient Israel, the story of the exodus from Egypt was their ‘primal narrative’. It was the most important story they knew.  [3]

Also,

…as Israel’s primal narrative, the exodus account is a paradigmatic story of God’s character and will.  [4]

Also, I pick on the Exodus story because it is considered by some as a paradigm story for the whole of the Old Testament.  Father Richer Rohr states,

One of the great themes in the Bible, which begins in the Hebrew Scriptures and is continued in Jesus and Paul, is called ‘the preferential option for the poor’; I call it ‘the bias toward the bottom’.  We see the beginnings of this theme about 1200 years before Christ with an enslaved people in Egypt.  Through their history God chooses to engage humanity in a social and long-standing conversation.  The Hebrew people’s exodus out of slavery, through twists and turns and dead ends, finally brings them to the Promised Land, eventually called Israel.  This is a standing archetype of the perennial spiritual journey from entrapment to liberation.  It is a universal journey.  [5]

My interpretation.

Reasonably recent translations of the Bible are what many regular church-goers have and I am trying to put this paper together as one of those, a regular church-goer.  So in my study of this Exodus story, I have concentrated very much on the biblical text in the Revised Standard Version.  Also in this paper I have commented on what some liberation theologians say, given a brief reaction to the film ‘The Ten Commandments’, stated what some modern biblical commentators teach and also have researched some material about the historical growth of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  Lastly, I have compared what some different translations have as the specific words of the story.  In this comparison I have used the New Revised Standard Version, NRSV and the Good News Bible, GNB, comparing them to the one I usually use in the paper, the Revised Standard Version, RSV.  This extra reading and study is probably significantly more than many other regular church-goers have done, so, there may be some new material for you in this paper. 

The Story.

I now comment in great detail, on the Exodus story as I understand it and interpret it, looking particularly at the image of God within it. 

Like some other stories in the Old Testament, the Exodus story for me, presents an image of God as a separate, supernatural, very powerful Being/Person, intervening in human history to execute God’s will and purpose.  I believe that, at the time of writing, ‘the Lord’ was understood as being the Hebrew tribal God.

In a nut-shell, this is the story I have been taught.  This is how I remember it.

The Hebrews, called the Children of Abraham, were a nation of oppressed slaves in Egypt and their cries of suffering were heard by God, so God came down to earth and sent Moses to announce God’s work of liberation.  God sent ten plagues to demonstrate God’s power in ‘signs and wonders’, and through them, punished Egypt because Pharaoh would not let the Hebrew slaves, God’s people, go.  The first nine plagues in the story are; water in the Nile River and all over Egypt turned into blood; frogs; lice and gnats; flies; cattle death; boils; thunder, hail and fire; locusts and darkness for three days. These plagues caused untold death and destruction in all the land of Egypt; the death of all animals and the total destruction of all vegetation, fruit, plants and trees.  The last and most devastating plague was that of the human death of the first-born of all Egyptian families and thus caused the death of countless humans, some infants, many older children and adults.

At midnight the Lord smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle.  (Exodus 12:29.)

After this, Pharaoh, wanting to rid himself and Egypt of these Hebrew slaves, submits to the Lord’s demand to let them go, but as they are escaping, Pharaoh turns on them again.  The Hebrews slaves get caught at the edge of the Red Sea, with the sea of water in front of them and Pharaoh and all his warriors behind them.  They are terrified.  But God, in a show of almighty power, ‘divides’ the waters, enabling the Hebrew slaves to go forward on ‘dry land’.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.  And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry land, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.  (Exodus 14:21-22.)

The Egyptians had their hearts ‘hardened’ by God so that they pursued the escaping slaves.  All the Egyptians in chariots and all Pharaoh’s horsemen get drowned when God ‘returned’ the water to its natural position.  Thus God demonstrated, yet again, God’s power in this final ‘sign and wonder’.

And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians, so that they shall go in after them and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots and his horsemen.  And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gotten glory over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen.  (Exodus 14:17-18.)

Also,

The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen and all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not so much as one of them remained.  (Exodus 14:28.)

As a consequence of this final and most powerful ‘sign and wonder’, the people of Israel are at last liberated from their bitter slavery and continue their journey as God’s chosen people, freed from the oppression of Pharaoh.  God’s power is greater than Pharaoh’s so the Hebrews’ great liberation is achieved.

The biblical background to the story.

This Exodus story and its biblical background is found in Exodus 1:1 to 15:21.  I found the background in chapters 1 and 2 very important.

At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, it states that all the brothers of Joseph, together with their families, numbering 70, went to Egypt with their father Jacob.  Joseph was already in Egypt, holding a very senior position in Pharaoh’s kingdom.  However, after Jacob,

Joseph, all his brothers and all that generation died’, there ‘arose a king in Egypt who did not know Joseph.  (Exodus 1:6,8.)

Then,

These Israelites are so numerous and strong that they are a threat to us.  (Exodus 1:9 GNB.)

So the Egyptians enslaved them,

The Egyptians came to fear the Israelites and made their lives miserable by forcing them into cruel slavery.  (Exodus 1:12-13 GNB.)

Although there is little hope of ever establishing correct dates for what was happening, if indeed anything did happen, it appears that this slavery continued for hundreds of years.  Some estimates suggest upwards of 700 years.  The Bible gives its comment when it states,

The time that the people of Israel dwelt in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years.  (Exodus 12:40.)

The situation of the Hebrew slaves was hopeless.  They were being treated extremely brutally at the hands of the Egyptians.  They had no freedom.  They were bitterly oppressed.  They were slaves.  Their slavery was accompanied by the systematic killing of every Hebrew male child, following the decree of the reigning Pharaoh.

Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.  (Exodus 1:22.)

And, according to the story, as already stated, this had continued for hundreds of years, so there were many generations of Hebrews who had known nothing in life except bitter, brutal slavery and the slaughter of their children.

There is a problem here.  If all the Hebrew male children are killed at birth, who is to sire Hebrew children for subsequent generations.  They would all be half Egyptian.  Yet, many years later, at the time of the Exodus, there is said to be literally hundreds of thousands of slaves, and they wouldn’t be all women.  My point is, I guess, that as with this, other statements in the story could be equally exaggerated or plainly false.  This and the whole story, simply cannot be taken literally.

Such is the biblical background to the story; an immensely wretched situation for all the Hebrew people.

I read the story again, for the First Time.

With the above biblical introduction to the story, I read the story again ‘for the first time’.  Thanks to Marcus Borg for that phrase.  Initially I was delighted that the Lord was on the side of the desperately suffering slaves.  At last they had someone who was concerned about their suffering and wanted to do something about it.  They could not do anything for themselves.  Their life had been so wretched for so long!  They needed help.  But, now, God being on their side, was going to do something.  That was all very positive. 

But alas, as the story continued, I became more and more disillusioned by the Lord who inflicted so much suffering and destruction on all the land of Egypt and its inhabitants, eventually killing thousands of Egyptian men, women and children, in order to free the slaves.

Five interwoven themes of the story.

So to my analysis of the story.  After a close reading of the Exodus story itself, in chapters 7 to 15, there seems to me to be five different but intimately connected themes running through the whole story.

  1. God’s self-promotion suggests to me that the Lord insists, ‘I am the Lord’, to be acknowledged universally.  This recognition was to be given throughout all the earth.  This Lord is determined to ‘gain glory’.
  2. The Lord intends to free God’s people from the cruel, oppressive rule of the Pharaoh of Egypt.
  3. God enlists human agents, Moses and/or Aaron, to communicate with Pharaoh and to cooperate with the Lord in performing the Lord’s ‘signs and wonders’.
  4. The Lord ‘hardens’ Pharaoh’s heart and the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will try to resist God’s power.
  5. Pharaoh is very brutal and is continually obstinate in refusing to obey the Lord’s commands and to recognize the Lord as Lord.

The text is saturated with all five.

I use both ‘God’ and ‘the Lord’ throughout this discussion because I believe there is no distinction between the two, in the minds of regular church-goers.  ‘The Lord’ is ‘God’ and vice-versa.

  1. I cannot ignore the self-promotion by the Lord.  The story is full of it.  In my interpretation, ‘I am the Lord’ is a short, emphatic proclamation that demands an immediate response.  This self-promotion as well as self-identification, occurs 15 times.  ‘I am the Lord.’ occurs in the text as spoken by the Lord or by Moses, quoting the Lord to Pharaoh or to others.  Seven times in the text it is stated that something will happen ‘so that they will know that I am the Lord.  God’s intention is for God’s glory/name to be known throughout the earth and be acknowledged as its Lord; see Ex. 9:14,16,29.  This emphasis on God ‘gaining glory’ is stated several times late in the story, notably as the reason for the last ‘sign and wonder’; see Ex. 14:4,17-18.

Brueggemann states in his commentary about this last ‘sign and wonder’ that,

The reason for Yahweh’s action is crucial for our interpretation.  The last confrontation will be staged so that “I will get glory over Pharaoh.”  Yahweh arranges the confrontation as an exhibition of enormous power, not for the sake of Israel.  The final decisive intention is not Israelite freedom, but Yahweh’s glory, which is decisive.  The outcome of the struggle (which Yahweh will win) is that Pharaoh in all his recalcitrance shall come at last to know “I am Yahweh.”  [6]

In other words, in the final ‘sign and wonder’ of God, this first theme, that of the Lord wanting to ‘gain glory’ and be recognized as Lord of all, totally overshadows the second theme, mentioned below, that of the emancipation of the Hebrew slaves.  Parting of the waters is the final act which secures the successful escape of the slaves, yet that is not mentioned as the reason for this last ‘sign and wonder’.  It all has to do with God ‘gaining glory.’

  • From the very beginning, God’s intention to free the Hebrew slaves is made abundantly clear; see Ex. 3:7-10.  The Lord is aware of God’s peoples’ situation of suffering; see Ex. 3:7-8, 6:5; and God demands the freedom of God’s people by commanding Pharaoh to “Let my people go.”  This demand occurs six times in the text; see Ex. 7:16, 8:1,20, 9:1,13, 10:3, however, every one of these is linked to the first emphasis above, because the full demand is “Let my people go that they may serve/worship me.”  For me, the purpose as stated in the text, is not specifically to give freedom to the slaves, which is vital and obviously intended, but that ‘they may serve/worship me’ thus giving the Lord more glory.  Was the Lord’s main intention the freedom of the slaves or the worship they would give the Lord after their liberation?  Obviously both were important.  Freeing the Hebrew slaves is certainly a major intention of the Lord.  God chose which side to be on, the side of the oppressed, and because they were God’s people.  God intends to make good, God’s promise in the covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; see Ex. 6:4-8. 
  • The Lord uses Moses and/or Aaron as God’s agents to communicate all God’s messages and demands to Pharaoh, sometimes at great risk to their own safety; see Ex. 10:28.  The Lord never speaks directly to Pharaoh.  God enlists Moses’ and Aaron’s cooperation by constantly being the Lord’s mouthpiece, and also by doing certain things like using Aaron’s rod; see Ex. 7:9,20, 8:5,17, 9:25, 10:13, 14:16, throwing ashes skyward; see Ex. 9:10, raising their hands to the sky; see Ex.9:22,33, 10:22, or stretching out their hands; see Ex. 14:21.  In the text, God constantly executes God’s ‘signs and wonders’ with the assistance of Moses and/or Aaron throughout the story.  Moses is told by the Lord to perform the miracles; see Ex. 4:21, and he and Aaron perform them; see Ex. 11:10.  At one point, Moses seems to have the power to perform miracles without the Lord’s involvement, in that, by stretching out his hands, he stops the thunder and the hail; see Ex. 9:29,33.  This may be the case, but it is God who gives Moses this power. 

I find it interesting that the Lord does not request any involvement of Moses or Aaron in the killing of the first born Egyptians.  God does it by ‘himself’; see Ex. 11:1,4, 12:12,13,29, 13:15.  God’s ‘destroyer’ is mentioned as God’s agent only once; see Ex. 12:23.  The story conveys to me that God alone is the deliberate killer.

Even though Moses and Aaron are important ‘agents’ of God, I still believe that accountability for all the ‘signs and wonders’ always and ultimately rests with the God of the story.  For the story, it could be no other way.  God is the initiating force behind what happens and without the Lord nothing would have happened.

  • Before the story of the actual Exodus story begins, the purpose of ‘hardening Pharaoh’s heart’ is made explicit; see Ex. 4:21,so that he will not let the people go.’  Then halfway through the story; see Ex. 10:1, ‘that I may show these signs among them.’, and near the end of the story, see Ex. 14:17, ‘so that they will go in after them.’  These purposes are confirmed many times through the story, in that the phrase, ‘harden Pharaoh’s heart’ is immediately followed in the text by Pharaoh deciding to ‘not let the people go.’  This suggests that a causal connection exists.  There are 19 times stated in the text when this ‘hardening’ occurs; ten of which state that it is the Lord who does the ‘hardening’; seven times when no attribution is made and twice where it is stated that Pharaoh ‘hardened’ his own heart.  These numbers strongly suggest to me that the ‘hardening’ in the story, is God exercising God’s unopposable influence on the decision making ability of Pharaoh.
  • However, near the beginning of the story and even before the Lord performs any ‘signs and wonders’, Pharaoh slaps a further severe dictate on Hebrews, in that they are to gather straw for themselves as well as continue to make the same quota of bricks: see Ex.5:10-13.  Previously the slaves had been given the straw.  Pharaoh is a merciless slave-driver, before we are told his heart is hardened.

Pharaoh is totally unwilling to bow to the Lord’s demands or to recognize the sovereignty of God.  Even after God has consistently shown that God has much superior power, Pharaoh refuses to accept he is the loser, and that in the end, all he will do is incur more determination by God and thus eventually leading to God inflicting death on all Egyptian families.  12 times it is stated in the text that Pharaoh would ‘not let the people go’, several times associated with ‘he would not listen to them (Moses and/or Aaron)’; see Ex 7:4,13, 8:15,19, 9:12.  Near the end of this saga, just prior to the warning about the last plague of the death of the first-born of all Egyptian families, Pharaoh threatens Moses that, if he comes back into Pharaoh’s presence, he will be killed; see Ex. 10:28.

Comment on 4 and 5.

For this story, I to try to sort out the puzzle raised by Nos 4 & 5 above, as to who is actually the real force behind Pharaoh making his decisions.  On the one hand there is the Lord’s ‘hardening Pharaoh’s heart’, which is dominant in the text, but on the other hand Pharaoh does ‘harden his own heart’, twice in the story.  Also the Lord knows what Pharaoh’s reaction will be to the Lord’s demands; see Ex. 7:22, 8:15,19, 9:12,35.  Probably this is quite predictable to anyone who knew the way Pharaoh exercised his authority so ruthlessly and without fear.  Several times in the story Pharaoh makes hostile decisions without any mention of God ‘hardening his heart’; see Ex.5:10-11, 10:10-11.

Even though the Lord’s influence on Pharaoh’s decisions is unmistakably evident and extremely compelling, maybe irresistible, I think Pharaoh would have welcomed such influence because it confirmed what he was going to decide anyway.  This, of course in no way excuses the way God uses God’s powers of influence.  For me the puzzle remains.

So what for me now?

Pursuing a line of questioning, causes me considerable unrest because I am questioning a fundamental story of the Bible and thus, the Jewish celebration of it.  I am a follower of Jesus but might I separate myself off from my heritage if I keep on questioning?  If, however, I am going to do this exercise of what I understand to be ‘Truth-Telling’, I must keep questioning.

With the above as my understanding of the content of the story, although difficult, I must be honest with myself and ask the questions, ‘What does the story actually say to me?’ and ‘What is the image of God that I perceive is being conveyed to me in the story?’ 

I know I can answer questions only from within my own prejudicial predisposition, whatever that prejudice is.  My prejudices and predispositions will become far more evident to you as you read, rather than to me as I write.  However, I have tried to avoid bias and let the text itself have dominance.

I am trying to look at meanings within the story.  I am not taking the story literally. 

I believe I have looked at the actual content of the text in close detail and have given it, I think, little expansive interpretation.  I have given what I think is a logically simple interpretation, while still regarding it all as story, albeit told at a particular time, in a particular situation, to a particular group of people in a particular culture, all very different to my own.

For example, if the words in the text say, ‘Let my people go, that they may serve/worship me’, I have given the interpretation that the reason for God wanting God’s people to be let go from the oppressive rule of Pharaoh, is ‘that they may serve/worship me’.  If this is repeated through the story in the text, then I have understood that the story-teller is trying to emphasize that this is the reason.  If the command elsewhere in the text, to ‘let my people go’ is not immediately followed by some other reason, then I understand this to mean that, ‘that they may serve/worship me’ is the only reason for slaves’ liberation.  There is no other.  I think this is logical, reasonable and may well be correct.

However, underlying the actions of the Lord in the story, is the intense and resolute intention to free the Hebrews slaves.  As I have already said, God has chosen sides because God’s purpose is to liberate the oppressed slaves, who are God’s people.  This is also determinative in God wanting to keep God’s promise made to Abraham; see Ex. 2:24, 3:7-8,17, 6:2-8.

I came away from the story feeling alienated from the Lord because of all the destruction, terror and suffering the Lord inflicts.  This feeling however, made me totally confused because the Lord had to do something major to free the slaves.  Violence seemed the only possible way to accomplish this.  Pharaoh was so obstinate and recalcitrant.  One might even say the Pharaoh ‘forced God’s hand’.  But the violence of the God involved was excessive and God was responsible for it all; no one else was.

I am in a bind because the more I look at this story and try to understand its teachings, the more I become confused.  The image of God it portrays, I think, is of a power-hungry, self-indulgent, violent individual who will use any strategy to extract total submission from an adversary.  If the Lord in the story was a human being, I think most people would agree but if this main character is God, then I have a huge problem.  Yet this same God is on the side of the oppressed slaves, determined to bring them to freedom.  This God is determined to put a stop to the terrible injustice dished out by Pharaoh.  The difficulty for me is the means by which this God achieves it.  God in the story is more violent than the brutal force of Pharaoh.  My problem increases.

Are there times when being confronted with the violent abuse of power, the only way to prevent it is by using stronger violence?  Is the teaching of Jesus about enemy love always adequate and appropriate?

God of the Exodus and Jesus.

Richard Rohr states;

I believe the Exodus story is the root of all liberation theology, which Jesus fully teaches and exemplifies, especially in the three synoptic gospels; see Luke 4:18-19.  Jesus is primarily a healer of the poor and powerless.  That we do not even notice this reveals our blindness to Jesus’ obvious bias.  [7]

While I accept Rohr’s comment as far as it goes, like most other commentators I have read, he does not address here, the profound difference between Jesus and the God of the Exodus, regarding how each achieve liberation.  Also, like most people who quote the incredibly significant and well known Luke passage, he fails to comment that Jesus, by cutting short that reading from Isaiah, separates himself off from the violence of God; ‘and the day of vengeance of our God.’; see. Isaiah 61:2b.  I deal with this later when commenting on how Jesus uses his Jewish scriptures. 

Carol J. Dempsey, Associate professor of Theology at the University of Oregon, USA Portland, states

Christians came to understand themselves as “the new people of God”; see, 1 Peter 2:9-10; Exodus 19:6, and thus heard the Exodus story of liberation in relation to their own lives and to the Christ event.  Release from the tyranny of sin became analogous to the freedom gained by the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage.  Within the gospel tradition all the stories that depict Jesus healing people of their infirmities; see Luke 10:1; forgiving their sins; see, Mark 2:1-12; and working for their benefit in the midst of rigid political, social, and religious institutions and mindsets; see Matt 12:1-14, embody the spirit and theology of liberation first heard in Exodus, where God is depicted not only as hearing the people’s groans but also as committed to doing something about their pain and suffering.  [8]

For me, linking the liberation of the Hebrew slaves to the liberation ‘from the tyranny of sin’, gives approval for God to deal violently with sin by the ‘killing of his son’, as in substitutionary atonement theory.  Both are totally unacceptable to me.

What was Jesus on about, regarding the meanings I see in this Exodus story?  I make four points.

  1. Unlike the God of the Exodus, Jesus was non-violent in his work of liberation.  He acted with acceptance and hospitality, and thus liberated the poor, the diseased the outcasts and oppressed; see the above quote from Carol Dempsey.  And he was ridiculed and criticized by the people, including the religious leaders of his day, for associating with the oppressed and the outcasts. 

…the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’  (Matthew 11:19.)

and,

Now the tax-collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him.  And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”  (Luke 15:1-2;)

and,

And when they saw it, they all murmured, “He has gone to be a guest of a man who is a sinner.” (Luke 19:7.)

  • Jesus was not interested in ‘gaining glory’ or having ‘his name known throughout the world’ or ‘showing his power’ through violent, destructive ‘signs and wonders’.

Jesus’ third temptation as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel.

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, “All these I will give you if you fall down and worship me.”  Then Jesus said to him, “Begone Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’  (Matthew 4:8-10.)

And, when people wished to make Jesus their king, thus giving him glory, he would have none of it.

Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the hills by himself.  (John 6:15.)

And again, about being known throughout the earth;

Then he (Jesus) strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.  (Matthew 16:20.)

And yet again, Jesus seems to turn his back on ‘signs and wonders’ when speaking to an official whose son was ill.  He seems to rebuke him.

“Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”  (John 4:48.)

Then there was the enquiry from John.  If Jesus was interested in ‘signs and wonders’ they were totally different to those used by the God of the Exodus.

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him (Jesus), “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.  (Matthew 11:2-5.)

  • On leadership and the exercise of authority, Jesus taught his disciples the opposite, to the way in which the God of the Exodus acted.  The God of the Exodus, as I perceive that Lord, fits perfectly into the mold of the Gentiles.

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”  (Matthew 20:25-28.)

And again,

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel.  Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded.  (John 13:3-4.)

  • All the killing and the violence displayed by the God of the Exodus, goes in the opposite direction to the teachings of Jesus.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’.  But I say to you, ‘Do not resist one who is evil.  But if one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.  Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.”  (Matthew 5:38-42.)

Also,

“You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”  (Matthew 5:43-44.)

I could go on and on but the Lord of the Exodus is on the side of the slaves, the same as Jesus is on the side of the oppressed.  This is extremely significant but there seems to be hardly anything else about the God of the Exodus that reminds me of Jesus.  It is nearly all the exact opposite.  When I look at the behavior and not the intention of the God of the Exodus, I think the opposite and then say, “Yes. That’s Jesus!”

I know these above New Testament texts are quoted hopelessly out of their context, but I still think they all point to the different way by which Jesus worked to achieve his goals.  For me, they are symptomatic of his whole message.

However, and it is a big HOWEVER! 

Jesus seems to act only on an individual basis.  There seems to be no activity on his part to initiate or organize on a group basis, any resistance to systemic oppression and abuse of power.  He speaks out repeatedly about the systemic oppression of the poor and the hypocritical abuse of power, particularly by the religious leaders of his day, but these are all individual disagreements he has with his adversaries.  He also does teach a great deal about what our individual response as disciples should be to violence against our own person, but for me, it all seems to concentrate on individual action.

But the Exodus story is about systemic oppression against a nation!  I ask the question, “What would Jesus have said to all the Hebrew slaves?”  I wonder.  I wonder what his attitude to Pharaoh would have been.  I wonder what he would have said to him.  I wonder how or if he could have persuaded Pharaoh to let the people go.  If Pharaoh still would not let the people go, I wonder what would have Jesus’ reaction been.  I wonder if he would have lead or at least encouraged some sort of revolt against Pharaoh. 

Jesus did warn his disciples to expect that both individual and systemic violence would be used against them when they went out to preach his message; see Matthew 10:16-23, 28-31.  BUT, he didn’t seem to have any strategy, non-violent or otherwise, for protesting against systemic oppression that might bring about regime change.  Some may suggest that he didn’t pay much attention to this way of protesting.  In the Matthew text referred to, there is no comment about how to correct, or even counter the unjust treatment that the disciples would most likely receive.  There is only an encouragement for the disciples not to be fearful, to endure and then in Heaven all will be made right.

So have no fear of them…..Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul…Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.  (Matthew 10:26,28,31.)

and,

… he who endures to the end will be saved.  (Matthew 10:22.)

and,

When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next…  (Matthew 10:23.) 

and,

So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven,…  (Matthew 10:32.)

All this is an individual response. 

There is no mention of organized resistance to systemic oppression.  Jesus advocates non-resistance to evil, but this is very different to non-violent resistance to evil. 

With Jesus, we do get a public action of protest against systemic power; the incident in the temple when he overturned the tables of the money changers and herded the cattle and the sellers of pigeons out of the temple; see Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46, John 2:13-17.  Different commentators mention different things that Jesus was actually protesting against and they also give different meanings to the Old Testament quotes that are used by the gospel writers in the passage.  However none question the protest itself.  Some commentators suggest this act of Jesus was violent and indeed, the ‘trigger’ that quickly precipitated his crucifixion. 

There is no mention of any of his disciples being actively involved and no organization of a group protest. 

This line of questioning leads me to ask, “Why did Jesus teach nothing about slavery.”  It was part of society’s system and had been so for millennia.  I have little doubt that the exercise of masters over slaves in Jesus’ day would have been, in some cases, similar to that of Pharaoh in the Exodus story.  Slavery, as always, would have been an example of systemic oppression in Jesus’ day but he says nothing about it.  Why?

The Exodus story teaches me that systemic violence must be dealt with by stronger violence.  It teaches me that, ‘Although violence loses, it also finally wins.’  About how to deal with evil, the story seems to me to give the opposite instruction to that which I am given by Jesus and most of the New Testament.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  (Romans 12:21.)

Back to the story.

Death at the center.

The Exodus story has death as the principle feature in most of its content.  It is saturated with the stench of death; see Ex.7:21, 8:14.  A death-dealing God is one of the main characters.  Fish in the Nile die; see Ex. 7:21.  All cattle of the Egyptians die; see Ex. 9:6.  All green plants, tress, fruit, man and beasts are all struck down; see Ex. 9:25.  The locusts complete the task; see Ex. 10:15.  Even frogs died; see Ex. 8:13, and locusts are driven into the Red Sea; see Ex. 10:19, both, after they have done their destructive work for God.  Flies seem to escape death because they are just ‘removed’; see Ex. 8:31.  All first-born humans of Egyptian families die; see Ex. 12:29.  All Pharaoh’s warriors die; see Ex. 14:28.  This is what the text says.  Right through the story, it is death that is result of the Lord’s ‘signs and wonders’.

On four occasions God makes a ‘distinction’ between Egypt and the Land of Goshen, where the Hebrews live, as well as between the Egyptians and the Hebrews, regarding what they owned; see Ex. 8:22, 9:4,26, 10:23.  Using this ‘distinction’, God inflicts death only on the Egyptians and what they own, but protects the Hebrew slaves and what they own.

In the story, we are not told that Pharaoh tried to retaliate by destroying the Land of Goshen, like the ruin brought on by the flies on the Land of Egypt; nor killing the Hebrew owned cattle; nor striking down all the Hebrew men, beasts, plants and trees, as inflicted on the Egyptians and Egypt life, by the hail.  In the story, destruction, death and killing is only initiated by the Lord.  In the story Pharaoh does not retaliate to the plagues with any increased harsh edicts on the slaves nor striking out at what the slaves owned or where they lived. 

I am not trying to say anything good or bad about Pharaoh.  I am just relaying what the story, the text, does and doesn’t tell us.  Make of it what you will.

Pharaoh does continue to not let the Hebrew slaves go.  There is also Pharaoh’s probable intention to kill the escaping Hebrews or at least recapture them to make them all slaves again, see Ex. 14:5-10, but the story tells us that this was unsuccessful because of God’s protection, see Ex. 14:19-20.

If this is ‘Truth-Telling’ about the story, I read little to none of this detail in what I have read in most modern commentaries and I hear nothing of this in what I am taught by the present church.  In the avoidance of all this violence, is there avoidance of ‘Truth-Telling’ here or am I on the wrong track?   

Theological context.

I have been told on numerous occasions, “You have to look at the story in its historical and theological context.  How did people back then think about God and humans?  What did story-tellers emphasize in the stories they told?  You have to realize that back then people had very different ideas about Gods and their activities, when compared with what most people think today.  All this must be taken into consideration.”  Yes.  I agree totally.

About 3000 years ago is when this story was most probably written down and it is most likely part of the ‘J’ tradition of the Pentateuch.  I deal with this in detail later.  As such, the theology of this tradition determines its theological meaning.  

In this tradition, I realize that humans looked on Gods as tribal Gods, with only limited tribal interests.  These interests were also geographically limited.  I realize that it was thought that these Gods improved their status among the Gods, sometimes by demonstrating their violent power and that of their tribe by winning armed conflicts against rival tribes.  I realize that these tribal Gods were thought to have supernatural powers, and sometimes gave these powers to particular leaders of their human subjects.  I realize that these Gods were jealous of other Gods.  I realize that these Gods could be totally dominant in the human sphere of existence; rewarding, punishing, demanding allegiance and setting rules for human behavior.  I realize that these Gods were thought of as living in a separate and different sphere of existence. 

This, I believe, is the theological context of the Exodus story and it helps me enormously in trying to understand it.  Many of the above features are abundantly evident in the story. 

  1. In the story ‘the Lord’ is referred to as a tribal God many times. ‘The God of the Hebrews’ is mentioned five times; see Ex. 5:3, 7:16, 9:1, 9:13, 10:3, ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ is mentioned once; see Ex. 4:5, and ‘the God of Israel’ once; see Ex.5:1. 
  2. The story presumes there are many gods. ‘The gods of the Egyptians’ are referred to; see Ex. 12:12, and in the Song of Moses, the text asks ‘Who is like thee, O Lord, among the gods?’; see Ex. 15:11. 
  3. The God in the story has a lot of status among the Gods, at least in the minds of the Hebrew slaves; ‘Who is like thee, O Lord, among the Gods? Who is like thee, majestic in holiness, terrible in glorious deeds doing wonders?’’; see Ex. 15:11. 
  4. The story tells of the conflict of the God of the Hebrews and the Egyptian Gods; ’and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgements’; see Ex. 12:12. 
  5. The story portrays the Lord as constantly violent and in pursuit of glory; see Ex. 9:14,16,29.  The people of Israel praise this violence; ‘In the greatness of thy majesty thou overthrowest thy adversaries; thou sendest forth thy fury, it consumes them like stubble’; see Ex. 15:7.  The emphasis on God ‘gaining glory’ is stated several times late in the story.  It is the reason for the last ‘sign and wonder’; see Ex. 14:4,17-18. 
  6. When violence occurs in the story and when ‘hardening Pharaoh’s heart’ is mentioned, the word for God, ‘Yahweh – the Lord’, is always used; see the ’J’ tradition explained later.

It’s all there in the text.

BUT, I believe that very few regular church-goers know or have ever been told about this theological context.  So I believe it is very dangerous to use this story or teach it to anybody, without identifying these totally out-of-date theologies which formed the theological context of the story.  I think teaching this story without explaining its theological context is irresponsible and can be very misleading. 

Not being appropriate to have any theological explanation in a liturgy, I think the story should not be used in such.

This, I believe, is a very important part of ‘Truth-Telling’ about this story.  I believe it is an example of an important principle when ‘Truth-Telling’ about the Bible as a whole.  The historical, theological context of the passage or story must be incorporated in the ‘Truth-Telling’.

Scientific credibility of the story.

I now turn to some historical/geographical research into the possible origins of parts of the story.

One suggestion made is that a volcano, maybe on Crete, erupted, sending clouds of ash drifting towards Egypt, causing the sky to darken.  Volcanic ash could have precipitated a sudden plague of lice.  The water when polluted, could have caused various sicknesses, like boils.  The pollution of the ash in the water may have even caused a plague of frogs, when they tried to escape the filthy water; etc.  Also the Nile has been known on occasion to turn red, maybe because of its banks of red sand. 

The number of Hebrew slaves with their families could reach 2&1/2 million if certain texts are taken together.  This number is unrealistically huge, particularly when considering the crossing the Red Sea, and striking a rock to give the thirsty millions a drink.  There are other texts which, when taken together, give far more realistic number of escaping slaves.

For the actual crossing of the Red Sea, it is suggested that this could have taken place at the Reed Sea, a marshy stretch of land near the mouth of the Nile.  If this were the case, the Hebrew slaves could have progressed, but the wheeled chariots of the Egyptians and their horses would have become bogged.  The soldiers in the chariots as well as the horsemen would then have presented no real danger to the escaping Hebrews, walking or running on foot.

This may be fascinating for those interested but I find it all quite irrelevant to the theological issues raised by the story-tellers, regarding the picture of their theistic God, how this God intervenes in human history and how evil, oppressive power structures are to be dealt with.  I think this historical/geographical distraction goes in the wrong direction, thus trying to answer, what are irrelevant questions for me.

Walter Brueggemann in his very instructive 50 page commentary on this Exodus story in the New Interpreters’ Bible, states in his overview,

It goes without saying then that the prospect for asking critical questions about what happened in the plagues, is irrelevant.  Greta Hort has provided the classic modern attempt to make the plagues scientifically credible.  While her analysis is careful, disciplined and discerning, in the end it does not touch the dramatic issues that are at the center of the narrative.  [9]

Being frank and far more brutal about this, I am as interested in these possible scientific explanations as I am in knowing the name of the Good Samaritan.  Totally unimportant and irrelevant!  The real question for me is, ‘What meanings are being communicated by the story?’  When looking for guidance from our scriptures, I think this is a question that must always be asked.

So what more for me now?

As I have already said, I have been taught in my past church experience that this story is all about freeing the Hebrew slaves from oppression.  I think that is what most regular church-goers think.  ‘Liberation is the word I have been given that is most closely associated with the story.  This being the case, I need to look at theologies built on this word to see if this Exodus story is used in any way, and if so, How?.

Liberation Theology

In the 1960’s and 70’s, a theology of liberation was developed.  Although initially having to do with the liberation of poor, black women, liberating them from both economic and political oppression, there were a number of different strains of Liberation Theology that emerged.  The exploitation of the poor by the rich, black people by whites, women by men, cultural traditions, sacred rites, religious rituals, etc., are but a few areas of human interaction in which many liberation theologians have been and are active. 

Regarding the story of the Exodus, it is nearly impossible to read any liberation theologian without being introduced to their use of it.  This story is seen by many as the defining story about oppression and liberation.  The Exodus became a central, ‘privileged text’ of Scripture for liberation theology.  Gustavo Gutierrez,a Peruvian philosopher, theologian, and Dominican priest, regarded as one of the founders of liberation theology, underlines its centrality when he points out, that “the heart of the Old Testament is the Exodus from the servitude of Egypt and the journey towards the promised land.” 

However, despite the centrality of the event that liberation theologians narrate, the biblical texts that record the Exodus are hardly given any extensive examination by Gutierrez or other liberation theologians in general.  Attention is given essentially to the theme, rather them to details of the texts that worthy of commentary and discussion. 

This process of liberation is the taking of power within society from the privileged minorities and giving it to the poor majorities.  Rohr, in his paper I have already quoted from, states,

Liberation theology focuses on freeing people from religious, political, social, and economic oppression (what Pope John Paul 11 called ‘structural sin’ and ‘institutional evil’).  It goes beyond just trying to free individuals from their own particular ‘naughty behaviors’ which is what sin now seems to mean to most people in our individualistic culture…..  Liberation theology, instead of legitimating the self-serving status quo, tries to read reality, history, and the Bible not from the side of the powerful, but from the side of the pain. [10] 

Gustavo Gutierrez states, when speaking about the Exodus in his book, A Theology of Liberation,

The God of Exodus is the God of history and of political liberation …[11]

and

In Egypt, work is alienated and, far from building a just society, contributes rather to increasing injustice and to widening the gap between exploiters and exploited.” [12]

and

The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible.  They are marginalized by our social and cultural world.  They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labour and despoiled of their humanity.  Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.  [13]

One of the fundamental elements of their theology is that it must start with, and be totally grounded in human experience.  If one is confronted by oppression, then one has to start by joining the oppressed and within that experience build one’s theology.  One’s understanding and interpretation of the Bible must be conditioned by one’s own present experience. 

This, of course, leads directly into ‘Reader-Response Interpretation’ of the Bible and its stories.  Start where you are and then read the Bible in that context.  If we don’t do this to some extent then the Bible can become an irrelevant historical account of the religion of a foreign nation.  I believe, however, that it can be dangerous to allow our personal experiences be the dominating, the over-riding factor in our reading and understanding.  ‘Reader Response Interpretation’ can take over to such an extent that the creation of a very different text is the outcome.  If we allow our own experiences to be the only dominating force in our interpretation, we may be in danger of making little sense to those who have not had similar experiences in life.  It can also, in extreme cases, allow a distortion in interpretation and even misguided teaching, regarding what the Bible really says.  This may not always be a bad thing however, I think it needs to be called out for what it is.  This is particularly important when dealing with a sacred book like the Bible, as it is given so much authority and reverence. 

Having said this, it is an essential ingredient in our Bible study that we must always ask, “What does this passage say to me, in my situation here and now?”  We need to bring our own present experience of life to our study. 

Nevertheless, for me, some liberation theologians seem to be so overwhelmed by their own experience of discrimination, disempowerment and oppression, or so passionate about liberation and what it can deliver to the oppressed, that they sometimes allow this to become the only basis of their interpretations of Bible stories and passages. 

It is a difficult thing to criticize a person’s skill in one area of their life when, at the same time, having deep admiration and respect for that same person’s values and the way they live their life.  When I question this emphasis in biblical interpretation, I am not questioning the authenticity of the commentator’s experience.  I would not dare do that!  When I do question their interpretation I am doing it from a position of looking closely at the text itself and not looking at the life of the interpreter. 

Such is the case for me when reading a Spanish liberation theologian, Jose Luis Caravias , in his book, Living in Fellowship, where he deals with the Exodus story.  [14]

I have great concern about the way the story is used by this author.  I have the utmost admiration and respect for his commitment to the poor of his community and his passion to do and say whatever he can about it, to bring about positive change for the oppressed. 

However, his use of the Exodus biblical story must be questioned.  He suggests that many things are based on the biblical text but they are not.  I think he has indulged in extreme ‘Reader-Response Interpretation’ and then used his interpretation as what the biblical story actually states.  I do not think this is a legitimate use of the Bible.  I use a number of quotations from his book in my questioning about his use of the Exodus story.  Quotes from his book below are in italics.

  1. Thus step by step, they start organizing themselves more closely and will go about achieving their new status.  [14, page16.]  Where is this ‘organizing’?  There is just a list of names and genealogies, in the text, identifying where Moses and Aaron fit in; see Ex. 6:26-27. 
  2. We have to take care that we don’t become confused by this lengthy series of public calamities.  [14, page 17.]  The story as told in the Bible breeds no confusion.  There are a number of plagues and each are explained quite clearly and concisely.  It is all quite clear to me.  I do not think regular church-goers would find it a confusing story or even lengthy.  The ‘public calamities’, are the direct result of God’s ‘signs and wonders.’
  3. We should not fix our attention too much on the material aspect of the plagues of Egypt?  [14, page 18.]  Why?  Because it all so violent and we would thus be confronted by the ultra-violent nature of the Lord’s activities?  I’m not quite sure what the author means by ‘material aspect’, but the outcomes of the plagues are important and the reason for God performing all the ‘sings and wonders’ is also important.  Is the author wanting to avoid the violence of God? 
  4. The first nine “plagues” of Egypt may be considered as a gauge of strength which is non-violent.  [14, page 18.]  In my reading of the text, the first nine “plagues” result in death and destruction of all the land of Egypt, the death of fish, frogs, all plants, all fruit, all trees, all animals of the Egyptians, all flies and all locusts.  As such most of these nine plagues are very violent and must ‘be considered as a gauge of strength’ of violence, not non-violence.  Is the author saying that if anything does not kill or injure humans, it is non-violent?  If so, I think he is wrong.
  5. The Israelites had attempted their liberation through every means.  [14, page 19.]  In my reading of the text the Israelites had cried out because of their suffering; see Ex. 2:23, have observed all the Moses had told them; see Ex. 12:28, 35, 50, had asked for jewelry from the Egyptians; see Ex.12:35-36, and at the Red Sea had complained to Moses about being brought out into the wilderness to die; see Ex. 14:10-12.  They are hardly mentioned as doing anything in chapters 7-14; certainly not attempting ‘their liberation through every means’.  I do not regard their actions described in the text, as ‘every means’ and I cannot see how it can be regarded as such.  Caravias is persuasive but he is not using the Bible story as it is in the text.

However, it is stated that ‘the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle; see Ex. 13:18.  This seems quite strange when compared with all the rest of the story.  It is not hinted anywhere else in the story that the Hebrew slaves were organized or intending to fight or were ‘equipped for battle’.  This statement in the text, comes before the complaint by the people of Israel to Moses mentioned above; see Ex. 14:10-12.  They are fearful and complaining; not getting ready for battle.  A bit confusing for the reader,

I find it interesting that this statement about being ‘equipped for battle’ is embedded in a small section of the text, see Ex. 13:17-19, where the word ‘God’, in Hebrew ‘Elohim’, not used in any other part of the story, is used four times.  ‘Yahweh’ is used in all the rest of the story but not used in this small section; only ‘Elohim’ is used.  This could point to a different theological tradition being incorporated in the story.  

  • That is why, as a last resource, they resort to violence.  [14, page 19.]  In the text, the slaves do not ‘resort to violence’.  They are the passive benefactors of the Lord’s violence.  Nowhere in the text are the Israelites stated as acting violently. I think this is a serious misrepresentation of the text.
  • We do not know clearly how it happened.  [14, page 19.]  Because it is myth and not to be taken literally, this is the wrong direction for making statements about the situation, as my previous quote from Brueggemann clearly explains.  Myths often state ‘how’ things happen, but do not try to explain this ‘clearly’.  They state that they have happened and often try to give a reason why.
  • The institutionalized violence of Pharaoh is responsible for the violence of the Israelites.  [14, page 19.]  Where in the story is the violence of the Israelites?  The Israelites are not mentioned in the text regarding any of the violence.  Violence by the Lord is apparently seen as necessary but the Lord was responsible and not Pharaoh.  Is not the Lord responsible for the Lord’s own actions?  Both presuppositions in this statement have no biblical basis. 
  • And God did not hide behind the scenes when he had to apply extreme measures like these ones.  [14, page 19.]  Although not stated by the author, I presume this last sentence is a comment about the plagues.  It seems to me that there has been somewhat of a reluctance by the author to involve God but in the end he has to.  But it nearly seems to be an after-thought.  My interpretation!

I find it significant that none of the quotes above from Caravias’s book have any biblical reference.  There can’t be because there are none, except maybe for the last quote, No. 9. 

I think this misuse of the Bible does little for the cause of the author.  I believe his book would have been far better without these pages.  At this point I don’t feel greatly assisted by his book in my effort at ‘Truth-Telling’.

However, from these same pages are the following quotations, so there is much here that, for me, aligns with the story as told in the Bible and how we should approach it. 

The Israelites were totally oppressed and dominated by fear.   Let us not take them (the plagues) literally….God wants his people to get out of the oppression in which they live…..The oppressive authorities are opposed to the plan of God…..God’s will is irresistible…..But one thing sure is that blood flowed.  A good number of young Egyptians died…..God is the liberating fore of the oppressed….[14, pages 10 to 21.]

I have made all my comments in reaction to a translation of Caravias’s book originally written in Spanish.  Kenneth Bailey in his intensive studies in his book on Jesus’ parables in the gospel of Luke, Poet and Peasant, warns us that translation always comes with interpretation.  No matter how objective a translation may be, I suppose that is inevitably true, to an extent.  So in reacting to something that has been translated, I hope I have reacted to the authentic ideas and emphases of Caravias. 

This example I have quoted is probably an extreme case of ‘Reader-Response Interpretation’, but it is there.  In biblical interpretation, passion can sometimes take over and that must be questioned.

In dealing with the issue of God’s violence in relation to the teaching of Jesus about enemy love, Gutierrez does address this.  John Frame, Professor of systematic theology and philosophy emeritus at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, in an essay on liberation theology states,

Gutierrez considers the objection that such militancy is inconsistent with the Bible’s teaching that we should love our enemies.  He replies that combat with one’s enemies does not necessarily involve hatred.  It may be for the enemy’s good.  In any case, one cannot love his enemies until he has identified them as enemies.  Cheap conciliation helps no one.  [15]

In this context, combat, for me, implies some kind of violence, even though hatred of a person may not be the motivating force behind the violence.  There is a difference between hatred of a person and hatred of a system. 

I can imagine that Bonhoeffer may not have hated Hitler.  I can also imagine that Bonhoeffer may have prayed for Hitler.  But because of what he was continuing to do and the system that he led, Bonhoeffer felt he had to join an assassination plot to kill Hitler.  I don’t think killing him, however, was for his own good, BUT It was certainly for the good of many millions of other human beings; particularly Jews.

Also, I’m not sure what is meant by ‘cheap conciliation’.  I’m not even sure that any sort of conciliation between enemies can be ‘cheap’.  If conciliation is ‘cheap and helps no-one’ then, for me, there is no conciliation worthy of the name.  In the Bible teaching about enemy love there is the teaching, ‘Pray for those who persecute you.’  Surely this points to non-violence.

Frame continues,

So Gutierrez insists that all theology must take its bearings from the “axis” of oppression and liberation.  In the Bible, such an emphasis will focus on the Exodus, God delivering his people from slavery, and on the laws and prophets that call Israel to have compassion for the poor.  Jesus’ redemption is a second Exodus in which God again brings down the proud and exalts the humble.[16]

And,

Gutierrez says that Marxism presents the best analysis of the oppression/liberation conflict in terms of class struggle.  So the liberation theologian must be committed to Marxism at least as an “analytical tool” at most to socialist revolution as such.  [17]

Karl Marx was not a pacifist and taking recourse to him led to severe criticism from the Vatican, especially from Cardinal Ratzinger. 

Some liberation theologians, as well as many political philosophers believe that transition of power cannot be envisioned as taking place naturally or peacefully because of the violent resistance of the minorities who have power.  Some of the theologians say that revolution is not only permitted, but it is obligatory for those Christians who see it as of fulfilling love to one’s neighbour.

The way the Exodus story is presented in the Bible, it would appear that the only effective way, for the Hebrew slaves to be liberated was by the violent intention of God.  Recognizing that the story is a myth, I need to ask the question, “Was this myth created only to reveal God all powerful and as always, being on the side of the oppressed or was it also created to legitimate the use of violence so that the oppressed could be liberated?”

Not having ever lived in a situation of such systemic violence and oppression, I can only but try to imagine the joy of the oppressed when they were liberated.  So, as Brueggemenn puts it,

In a situation of victimization, one is not so worried about violence in the power of one’s rescuer.  [18]

I have little understanding as to how to respond to the claims of liberation theologians when they challenge with such words as, ‘Revolution is not only permitted, but it is obligatory for those Christians who see it as of fulfilling love to one’s neighbour.’  Is my life as a disciple of Jesus somewhat worthless unless I am personally involved in revolution, non-violent or even violent?  This challenge is very significant because there are numerous situations in the world today where protest and even revolt is necessary.

My response to what I know of liberation theologians.

My overall response to what liberation theologians teach me, is that the Exodus story is a paradigm for a response to systemic oppression and as such violence is not only permitted but sometimes necessary.  The fact that many of them do not mention the violence of the God in the story, suggests to me that liberation is all important and the means by which it can be achieved is far less important; nearly irrelevant.  Their recourse to Karl Marx is very telling for me, because, maybe having looked to Jesus for some teaching on the matter and finding little if any that they think is helpful, they have looked at class struggle in society being the way to liberation and not individuals’ responses.  This all seems to me to be totally legitimate so am I missing something in the teaching of Jesus?  I don’t know.

My study of liberation theology has not been extensive however, the one possible exception to my overall response is that of Carol Dempsey already quoted.  She states in her paper,

The book of Exodus, then, speaks of liberation from oppression.  The way the liberation is accomplished, however, is prime material for ongoing critical theological reflection.  First, liberation for the Israelites happens in a manner that does harm not only to the perpetrators of injustice but also to the community, as well as to the rest of creation that plays no role in the oppression caused by humans in power who wield their power unjustly.  Second, the one causing such devastation is said to be Israel’s God, the creator of all, who had once established an everlasting covenant with all creation (cf. Gen 9:8-17).  Third, the image of God as warrior in the context of the Exodus event communicates to readers then and now that the divine work of liberation is accomplished through violence, which the text, if read and received uncritically, both sanctions and legitimates. 

Thus the story of Israel’s liberation as recorded in the book of Exodus creates tension within the communities that continue to hear the text today.  Biblical scholars have long recognized that the stories of the plagues reflect the grand imagination of the ancient biblical writers who wrote the stories from a certain perspective, for particular communities, and for particular theological purposes, namely, to assert that Israel’s God is sovereign and Lord over history and creation.  Much of the Exodus story reflects the culture and religious thinking of its day and that of its authors and later editors.  [19]

This quotation spells out for me the closest to what I would call ‘Truth-Telling’ about the story of the Exodus in what I have read from liberation theologians. 

Having said all this, it’s all very well for me to sit aloof from it all and trust in necessary but sometimes sublime moral principles.  But in the actual encountering of such oppression, I wonder if there is any alternative to taking drastic and even violent action against power crazy, evil leaders of nations and their subjects who are not willing to change their violent, oppressive ways.  I feel I cannot sit in judgement on those who decide that their last option is to be violent in their protest and opposition.

My continuing problem with the Exodus story is that the God who executes all the violence does so to unnecessary extremes, and does it, at least in part, as mentioned in the story, ‘to gain glory’.  This, of course, is inseparably linked to the ancient theological concepts of the tribal nature of the Gods.  I don’t find this ancient theological context mentioned by hardly any of the liberation theologians.  Pity!  I think it is irresponsible to pluck stories out of the context of totally out-of-date theologies and without reference to these, use them as appropriate examples for how we should act today.

Non-violent protest.

I take some refuge in the idea that liberation can be gained in ways other than violently.  For me, an extremely memorable event of the non-violent way of resistance to oppression was the ‘Salt March’ in India during the early part of 1930. 

Satyagraha, or holding onto truth, or truth force, is a particular form of nonviolent resistance or civil resistance.  The term Satyagraha was coined and developed by Mahatma Gandhi in India.

The Salt March was an act of Satyagraha, nonviolent civil disobedience in colonial India led by Gandhi.  This 24-day march lasted from 12 March to 6 April 1930 and was a direct action campaign of tax resistance and nonviolent protest against the British salt monopoly. Another reason for this march was that the Civil Disobedience Movement needed a strong inauguration that would inspire more people to follow Gandhi’s example.  Gandhi started this march with 78 of his trusted volunteers.   Walking ten miles a day for 24 days, the march spanned over 240 miles (384 km), from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi.  Growing numbers of Indians joined them along the way.  When Gandhi broke the salt laws at 6:30 am on 6 April 1930, by the simple act of rubbing sea water in his hands and then eating the salt, it sparked large scale acts of civil disobedience against the British Raj salt laws by millions of Indians.  Although over 60,000 Indians were jailed as a result of the Salt March, the British did not make immediate major concessions.  Independence was not gained until 1947, 17 years after the Salt March. 

Although complex, with many different forces at play and for many different currently impacting reasons, as is the case with most major shifts in world history, I believe, the gaining of India’s independence from colonial rule was significantly influenced by the non-violent revolution over many years, mainly lead by Gandhi. 

It has been asserted that this Salt March, and the subsequent beating and killing by British police of hundreds of nonviolent protesters, which received worldwide news coverage, demonstrated the effective use of civil disobedience as a technique for fighting social and political injustice

It was certainly not motivated or inspired by the Exodus story and the activities of the God therein. 

It has also been stated that the Satyagraha teachings of Gandhi and the Salt March had a significant influence on American activists Martin Luther King Jr., and others during the Civil Rights Movement for the rights for African Americans and other minority groups in the 1960s; not always peaceful but at least non-violent protests against oppression and injustice.

This non-violent approach to powerlessness, disposition, discrimination and injustice, I believe, is still evident in the ‘Me too’ movement and most recent marches across the world, announcing that ‘Black Lives Matter’. 

Again, not motivated or inspired by the activities of the God in the Exodus story; maybe by this God’s intentions but certainly not this God’s actions

What seems to be problems with non-violent protests to bring about regime change, is that it usually takes a huge number of ordinary people to be motivated and involved.  And even if successful, it takes a long time to come into effect; e.g. gaining independence of India from British rule, by Gandhi’s methods.  Yet, if enough violence is used, then regime change can often come about quite swiftly and with the involvement of possibly few people.  Whether or not regime change, brought about through the use violence, is ultimately beneficial, is a matter of debate. 

The intentions and the accompanying actions of the Exodus God, I believe, is very much the ‘modus operandi’ of the modern movie industry which has only about 2 to 3 hours, the length of the movie, to bring about drastic change in policy or even regime change; at least the defeat of the ‘badies’ and the victory of the ‘goodies’.  In this movie environment, violence by the ‘goodies’ is seen as not only effective but also totally appropriate in bringing about the desired end result.  I am manipulated into being very pleased that the villain is killed at the end of the film, thus often saving the world from disaster.

My response to the Exodus God.

I realize I am making a 21st Century response, but, in this story the Lord deliberately targets innocent men, women, young people and children for death.  Today, this God would be convicted as a terrorist, committing crimes against humanity, or even worse, and when found guilty in an International Court of Criminal Justice would be given multiple life sentences.  (I’m not quite sure what a ‘life sentence’ for God looks like.)

Maybe I am looking too much for things in the story I wish to reject.  I deny I am deliberately doing this even though I am highlighting the nasty parts.  I just keep looking at the text itself.  I am not inventing the negatives within it.  They are there for all of us to read.  I find it quite disturbing that such an image of God is presented in our Christian sacred book as a paradigm of how to bring about liberation and thus used as such by many liberation theologians.

What I am being taught today, about this story.

In my earlier church education, the Exodus story was never identified as probably the most violent story in the whole of the Bible.  In my reasonably recent past, I had this story described to me by a member of the clergy, from whom I learnt a great deal, as one of the most wonderful stories of liberation.  When I heard this comment of praise I had to voice my disquiet.  Some friends I have who are members of the clergy, do not wish to discuss the story.

The film – The Ten Commandments.

Not as a joke, but seriously, I go to the film, The Ten Commandments, when beginning my research for present-day instruction about this Exodus story.  I go there because I think the vast majority of church-goers as well as numerous members of the non-church public, maybe tens of millions, have seen this film; far more than will ever read commentaries or theological comments about the story, or even read it in the Bible.  I go there because I continue to try to speak from a regular church-goers position.  I think the film may play a significant role in people’s understanding of the story.

It is stated that this film, which was released in 1956, features one of the largest sets ever created for a film, and, at the time of its release, was the most expensive film ever made.  It is also one of the most financially successful films ever made, grossing approximately $122.7 million (equivalent to about $1.25 billion in 2020 terms), at the box office during its initial release.  According to Guinness World Records, in terms of theatrical exhibition, it is the 8th most successful film of all time.  Although released over 60 years ago, it is still screened today.  Network television has aired the film in prime time during Passover/Easter season, every year since 1973.  So a lot of people have seen it, maybe more than once.

The first 2 hours of it (It is a very long film, over 4 hours.) deal with the earlier life of Moses when he was brought up as a prince in Pharaoh’s palace.  In typical Hollywood style, interest is maintained by a love triangle involving Moses, Pharaoh’s son Rameses and Nefertari.  According to the film, Nefertari becomes Rameses’ wife, but she loves only Moses, who, while living at the royal court returns that love.  Interest is also maintained by the growing hostility between Rameses and Moses.  They are presumed to be related because Moses, as a baby, was plucked from the Nile River and secretly taken to be the previous Pharaoh’s daughter’s son.  Rameses in the film, is depicted as the ambitious, ruthless villain.

The second half of the film tells how Moses learns of his Hebrew roots and reluctantly becomes the ‘deliverer’ of the Hebrew slaves.  The film-makers employ a number of special effects to portray God’s call to Moses out of the burning bush, some of the plagues, the protection of the escaping slaves by God’s pillar of fire, the crossing of the Red Sea, and at the end of the film, the giving of the Ten Commandments.  Looking at this film, it appears that the film-makers take the story literally; that it all actually happened.  I found it almost convincing.  It would comfortably fit with a belief that God is an almighty Person who intervenes in human history in supernatural ways to enact God’s will.

My reaction to the film was mixed.  I found the spectacle created was amazing and enthralling.  The harsh servitude of the Hebrew slaves is graphically portrayed and no wonder they dreamt of freedom.  I think the film mirrors well, much of the biblical story.  Rameses, Egypt’s Pharaoh, was certainly brutally ruthless and would not bow to God’s demands.  God speaks directly to Moses but never to Pharaoh.  Moses often says to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord…”  The wrath of God is certainly taken seriously because at one point in the film, Moses cries out, “Turn from thy fierce wrath, O Lord.”  Some of the ‘signs and wonders’ pictured by special effects, pointed me to the Lord’s supernatural powers as depicted in the Bible.  Pharaoh’s capitulation is definitely portrayed with him admitting, “I cannot fight the power of (Moses’) God.”, and “His God is God.”  The praise of Israel’s God is evident many times and particularly after crossing the Red Sea, with the emancipated Hebrews shouting, “The Lord is one.”

However, my reaction is also such that I think there are important biblical emphases which do not feature in the film and vice-versa.

  1. The early life of Moses, growing up in Pharaoh’s place, is not in the Bible.
  • In the film, God is never portrayed as ’hardening‘ Pharaoh’s heart.  At least twice it is stated in the film that Pharaoh’s heart was/is ‘hardened’ but no initiator of this ‘hardening’ is identified.  God is never stated as ‘making sport’ or ‘making fools’ of the Egyptians, as in the Bible story.
  • In the film, the plight of the Hebrew slaves is given much graphic presentation but the death and destruction incurred by the plagues is not.  This is a major theme as told in the Bible.  For me, it is not in the film.
  • Moses, in the film, speaks continually about the evils of slavery and that all men should be free.  This strong emphasis from Moses is not found in the biblical story.
  • Most of the plagues are given just a two sentence mention in the film.  They are not depicted at all.  Frogs, flies, boils, lice, gnats, animal death and locusts are given no film footage.  In the film no devastating results of the hail and fire are given.  We are shown the hail falling with its accompanying fire, only on the porch of Pharaoh’s palace.  No destruction of all the plants and trees is shown in the film.  
  • The negotiations, mentioned on several occasions in the Bible, about the conditions by which the slaves could go and ‘serve/worship’ the Lord, and the requests of Moses to the Lord to relax or stop a plague, are not mentioned in the film.
  • God’s aim to ‘gain glory’ is not mentioned in the film.
  • In the film, only two deaths of the first-born Egyptians are pictured, thus lessening the devastating impact of this on the film viewers.  We do hear the cries of anguish in the background.  However, the ‘agent’ of God or God being personally involved in the killing, is avoided in the film.
  • Even the death by drowning of all Pharaoh’s warriors and horsemen is not very graphically presented in the film.  The viewer does see the water engulfing the chariots but it is just a fleeting view.  Viewers are not shown all the Egyptians dead on the shore.

Thus, my perception is that the film producers wanted to present God as not doing anything extremely terrible.  The film presented the Lord as doing what the Lord did do, for the only purpose of freeing the slaves.  The film did not want to portray the Lord as being ultra-violent.  Even after the death of Pharaoh’s son, the boy’s mother, Nefertari, shouts at Rameses, “You let Moses kill my son.”  No mention of God.

The film wanted to emphasize that liberation was the main message of the whole story.  The film also made capital out of the awesomeness of God’s supernatural power.  Good viewing!

All this would ensure the film’s general acceptance by the public.  It had to be successful.  I think this film’s emphases are what regular church-goers understand as the basic meanings of the biblical story.  Being viewed by millions of people both inside and outside the church, I believe the film has exercised significant influence on how the story is generally understood.  I know many people, who are not church-goers, regard the story, what they know of it, as a great tale of liberation.  I think this is how most, if not all regular church-goers view it.  I do not believe the film helps in portraying the story as it is told in the Bible.  I think it presents a better slant on the story and of the God involved, and in doing so, it is not all that biblical.

Modern commentators.

I now look to some modern commentators for instruction.  Some are helpful at times, but many, I think, do not seriously address my questions of the violence of God in the story.

Walter Brueggeman.

I commence with Walter Brueggemann, an eminent biblical scholar and theologian of world repute.  I have already quoted from his commentary on the story.  I will begin now with his general comments about violence in the Bible, from his book Old Testament Theology.  In this book, Brueggemann uses more than 1000 quotes from the Old Testament and about 50 from the New Testament, giving a detailed explanation of what the text of the Bible says and the theological emphases it is making.  He makes numerous comments on many contemporary implications of the teachings in the text.  I found his book very instructive and helpful. 

Having written more than 58 books, hundreds of articles, and several commentaries on books of the Bible, I feel ill-equipped to question him, let alone challenge him.  His incredibly extensive knowledge of the whole canon of the Bible completely dwarfs mine.

However, on the overall subject of violence, he makes some comments in his above mentioned book.    

There is no doubt that the imagery of divine warrior is problematic for biblical faith, as we have become increasingly aware that the Bible is permeated with violence in which YHWH (God) is deeply enmeshed. ….we are of course much more aware of the ways in which such imagery is a huge liability for it serves willy-nilly to authorize and legitimate all sorts of military adventurism in the name of God….

There are, of course, interpretative strategies that can lessen the toxin of these traditions.  Biblical theologians, however, must take care not to ‘explain away’ what is so definitional for the textual tradition.  The imaginary is something we must live with, albeit with awkwardness and embarrassment.  We might wish for another, better theological tradition.  This, however, is the one we have.  The presentation of this God is not marginal to the Bible nor can it be justified simply as human projection among the disinherited, nor can it be easily resolved by a ‘developmental hypothesis’ the preferred strategy of Old Testament scholarship.  It is there; self-critical reflection requires of course critique of the very God the Jews and Christians confess.  While we make our awkward self-aware confession, we cannot fail to notice, even among us, the ways in which this theological tradition continues to fund that which we rightly abhor. [20]

For me, Brueggemann has named the problem.  

The imagery is something we must live with… We might wish for another, better theological tradition.  This, however, is the one we have….. It is there.

I think he is correct.  I cannot alter this ‘imagery’ even though I wish to.  However, if it ‘funds that which we rightly abhor’ then my reaction to it is that I must faithfully reject it.  Having ‘to live with it’ because ‘it is there’, does not mean for me, that I have to give it any credence even if it is the Bible where it is found.  I can reject the imagery and never refer to it, or I can refute it every time I do encounter it, wherever and whenever.  If I give it authority or influence or even take any notice of it in my beliefs in or about God, then I believe I am leaving myself open to spiritual abuse.  Is it similar to saying to a woman whose partner is violent, “We know he is violent but he is the only one you have.  You are his partner so you have to live with him and make the best of it.”?  We know what this often leads to. 

Has the church been saying for centuries, the same sort of thing about the biblical violence of God to church-goers?

I realize the authors of many of the biblical stories depicting God as violent, were writing within their own theological framework but that does not make their teachings authoritative or even helpful for me today.  I may have things wrong regarding my opinions and my theological stance, but I believe the biblically violent image of God is wrong, horribly wrong.  My journey with Jesus is seriously jeopardized if I give any credence to this image of God.  I faithfully reject some Bible passages vehemently and I speak out against them

With this introduction to Brueggemann’s thoughts, I somewhat apprehensively turn to his commentary about the Exodus story under consideration.

In an effort to respond to his thoughts in a responsible way I make comments about his ‘Reflections’ on the Songs of Moses and Miriam at the end of his commentary of the story in the New Interpreters Bible. .

I do realize that responding in such detail is open to misunderstandings, even mistakes.  When Brueggemann or other commentators use specific words or phrases, they may have a meaning for them which is different, maybe sometimes in only a minor way, to the meaning they have for me.  Also, I may have misunderstood their ideas and concepts.  Given these dangers, I have found much of his commentary both helpful and instructive.

I proceed with his ‘Reflections’ on the Song of Moses in Exodus 15.

  1. God is portrayed here in embarrassingly anthropomorphic categories (I.e. God has qualities of emotion and body that may offend our ‘metaphysical propensities’.).  Our Western inclination to portray God as removed from the human drama of our experience, however, is a highly dubious gain.  Such anthropomorphic portrayals as we have in the text belong to the core of biblical faith and are not incidental footnotes.  Moreover, such earthiness brings the questions and resources of faith very close to how we experience and live reality.  Such speech in this poem opens up the most elemental struggles and hopes that are part of the human enterprise.  No other mode of theological speech so well touches the human concreteness of faith. [21]

I disagree with Brueggemann on two counts regarding anthropomorphic speech.  First, for me, he seems to imply that if we abandon the anthropomorphic mode of theological speech, then God becomes

..removed from the human drama of our experience.

I do not believe this to be so.  As a panentheist, I believe that God is in everything and everything is in God.  I do not believe in a Being called God who is separate and distinct, spoken of anthropomorphically.  Yet I find my experience of God is deeply rooted in my personal experience of life and reality, and to use his words,

..an earthiness which brings with it questions and resources of faith very close to how I experience and live reality.

This is my experience, but without any anthropomorphic image of God.

Secondly, I disagree that such a move brings with it ‘a highly dubious gain’.  The gain for me is tremendous.  For me, the gain is not questionable or ‘highly dubious’.  God, for me, is no longer too small.  God is no longer just a super human being.  God is no longer tethered to my Sunday School teaching’s, to irrelevant, out-of-date biblical concepts or to a 1st Century world view.

I also disagree with his statement;

No other mode of theological speech so well touches the human concreteness of faith.

No other ‘mode of theological speech’ is as familiar at present, but that may be because other ‘modes’ have not been given enough chance to make their impact.  They may have been stilted by so much reliance on outdated biblical ‘modes’ of speech and concepts.  I hear some theologians speak of God as ‘energy’.  That makes a lot of sense to me and in this modern day can be very concrete.

Also if ‘Such anthropomorphic portrayals as we have in the text belong to the core of biblical faith and are not incidental footnotes.’ as I believe it possibly is, then I do not have a biblical faith. 

From Brueggemann again.

  • More specifically, the military metaphors for God raise problems.  Yahweh is a ‘man of war’, a description that seems to evoke and authorize violence in the world.  Our primary way of dealing with this problem is to transpose the political-historical violence into ontological violence; i.e. God’s struggle with death.  No doubt there is something positive in such an interpretative move (made even in the Bible itself).  Such a maneuver, however, may on occasion be a bourgeois device.  It is evident that theological rhetoric about God’s use of force against the power of oppression is not experienced as violent by those who are, in fact, oppressed.  In a situation of victimization, one is not so worried about violence in the power of one’s rescuer.  Metaphors of violence are problematic, but we must take care not to escape them by ideological dismissal.  There is in the gospel a model of conflict and a deep struggle for power and authority.  To miss this element is to distort biblical faith into a benign innocent affair.  We are (as the Bible recognizes) caught in a deep battle for humanness, a battle far larger than we ourselves can manage.  This, finally, is what faith asserts in its claim, “God is for us.” [22]

Because this touches the core of my questioning, I deal with some of the comments separately.

More specifically the military metaphor for God raises problems.  Yahweh is ‘a man of war’, a description that seems to evoke and authorize violence in the world.

Brueggemann does acknowledge, as he has many times in his writings, that the ‘military metaphor’ is problematic, but, for me, he downplays it here, by the use of the word ‘seems’.  The continuing use of violence by God right throughout the Bible, does in factevoke and authorize violence in the world’, in numerous people’s minds, some very powerful people’s minds, and that’s a big problem.  I think he agrees because in a quote from him previously, he states, ‘It serves willy-nilly to authorize and legitimate all sorts of military adventurism in the name of God….’

Even regular church-goers may say, “If God does it, it must be OK. I’ll follow suit.”  That, I believe, is the attitude taken by some leaders of society, for thousands of years in human history.  I believe this Exodus story continues to be read as a definite authorization for violence.

It is evident that theological rhetoric about God’s use of force against the power of oppression is not experienced as violent by those who are, in fact, oppressed.  In a situation of victimization one is not so worried about violence in the power of one’s rescuer.

For sure. But that doesn’t make the use of violence acceptable.  Also, I think it may be possible that there can be ambivalence in the attitude of some victors and victims alike, regarding excessive use of violence by a rescuer.  I think many people could regard that the Atomic Bomb strikes against Japan as necessary to end the Second World War, but they are in fact, ‘worried about’ that sort of excessive violence.  If violence is excessive (and who decides what is excessive?), I think rescuers could regard that as a source of ‘worry’.  Such excessive force and violence is abundantly evident to me in the Exodus story.

Metaphors of violence are problematic, but we must take care not to escape them by ideological dismissal.  There is in the gospel a model of conflict and a deep struggle for power and authority.  To miss this is to distort biblical faith into a benign innocent affair.  We are (as the Bible recognizes) caught in a deep struggle for humanness, a battle larger then we ourselves can imagine.

Absolutely!  But in the gospel, ’the deep struggle for power and authority’ is dealt with by Jesus in the opposite way when compared with the way of the God of the Exodus.  Jesus struggles non-violently.  Most of the New Testament continues in this vein of teaching.  The ‘model of conflict’, in the gospels is very significant, not only because it is obviously there, but more importantly because of the way Jesus deals with it; with love, strength of integrity and forgiveness.  Jesus never mentions the Exodus story in his ministry and, I think, for very good reason.  One can reject the story of the Exodus utterly without missing this element of conflict and struggle in the gospels.  To miss this in the gospels is to ignore a major thrust of Jesus’ teachings, his life, and particularly his death.  It doesn’t need the Exodus story to prompt us to think about this issue.

For me, Brueggemann nearly seems to ignore Jesus’ non-violence, when mentioning the gospels in his Reflections.  He seems to avoid making any moral judgements about the violence of God in the story.  By making few, if any moral judgements on this matter, I think he nearly gives tacit approval for it.  Is it OK because God does it?  Should we never question such actions?  Is it OK because it is embedded in liturgy and liturgical presentation and language?

Brueggemann’s 4th Reflection contains,

The good news of the poem is that God’s power for life is arrayed against, and victorious over, every enemy of human well-being in every present power arrangement. [23]

The ‘good news of the poem’ is not good news for me.  God’s power, all through the story, is exercised in God’s power of death, and not ‘God’s power for life’.  In the story, one of the main aims of Yahweh is to free the Hebrew slaves.  Sure, but the Lord does this through the power of death.  Gods’ power of death is what is praised in the song, as a glorious triumph.  This is what the text says to me.

Living the Questions – DVD  Part 1.

In a Living the Questions DVD, Walter Brueggemann is featured in Countering Pharaoh’s Production-Consumption Society Today, a series of five lectures on the story of the Hebrew journey from Slavery in Egypt to Covenant at Mt. Sinai; from oppression to commitment.  This is an excellent series that can and should, I think, be used as a resource for small group study in your church.

This series is presented with power and great insight.  Brueggemann in the first session, The Way Out, deals with the tremendous, seductive power of Pharaoh to drag us back to the slavery of the Production-Consumption system.  He speaks of the core of biblical faith as being about ‘moving out of the box of conforming oppression that is made possible by the intervention of holy power’.  He speaks of the Exodus story as one of regime change.  Being saturated with the biblical context, he speaks of the situation of the Hebrew slaves under the oppression of Pharaoh and the intervention of God through God’s ‘signs and wonders’, and this being accomplished through ‘human agency’, namely, Moses and Aaron.

God is mentioned as one of the three ‘actors’ in the story; the first being Pharaoh, second, the oppressed Hebrew slaves and last, Yahweh.  Of Yahweh, Brueggemann says a number of things in the DVD.

  1. God is ‘a magnet’ to cries of ‘voiced human pain’.
  • God ‘enters the venue of rapacious economics’.  God breaks the system open with the ‘wonder of the plagues’ to destabilize the system.
  • God is the great ‘equalizer
  • God’s power is ‘irresistible’.

The violence of the ‘signs and wonders’, the plagues, is not mentioned.  It nearly seems irrelevant because regime change is all that is important.  I do not see how the violence of God can go un-mentioned.

  1. If ‘all cries go up to Yahweh’, and if God is ‘a magnet to voiced cries of human pain’, what about,

…and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where one was not dead. (Exodus 12:30.)

  • The system of Pharaoh was certainly ‘rapacious’, but God breaks it open by killing, destroying, killing!
  • I don’t believe God is an ‘equalizer‘ in this story.  God is on about ‘regime change’ and that change does not bring about equality for all the players.  In his commentary on the story, Brueggemann states,

The term makes clear that power has now fully shifted to Israel, and Israel may take whatever it wants. [24]

Also,

In this story, the Israelites are the powerless multitude, abruptly transformed into a community of power and significance, “on their way rejoicing”…. This encounter faithfully reflects how it is that this completely powerless people is filled with power to transform. [25]

No equality here.

  • God’s power is irresistible because God kills off all opposition, and more.

This activity of a tribal God, all fits perfectly into the context of the attitudes and theological thinking embraced by the story-tellers in their time, but if the story is to be used to make comment about present day issues and situations, then I believe it is necessary to address the violence in the actions of this God.  I do not believe it should be ignored or be thought to be of minor significance and thus no comment made.  If Pharaoh and the release of the slaves have relevance for today then surely the activity of how the Lord brings about this freedom, also has significance.  If this God is violent, is it OK for us today to be violent in bringing about regime change?  Jesus didn’t act this way or teach it.

The last point that Brueggemann makes in his overview of the story is that

The story ends well.

I beg your pardon!  I find that conclusion totally unacceptable.  How can a story, which has as part of its end result  

There was a great cry in Egypt for there was not one house where one was not dead.  (Exodus 12:30b.)

the killing of every first born, all done by the Lord; how can it be understood that such a story ‘ends well’?  I think Brueggemann follows the biblical attitude of the totally partisan Exodus God.

Brueggemann does confront the issue of God’s violence when he says in his commentary that the last plague was,

This final plague narrative, the most intensive and extreme action by Yahweh against Pharaoh, is brief. [26]

using

brutal power…, [27]

and that it led to a situation

…that the retention of Israel in its midst would only guarantee death’… [28]

So I don’t think, by any means, that he has ignored the violence of God’s action.  Even though he says these things in his commentaries, I think he falls short of condemning God’s behavior.

He courageously confronts the issue of the telling of this story to children in his Reflections, No 3, on the Song of Moses. He states,

The lesson taught the children in Ex.13:14-15, requires enormous interpretive agility. The child is told that God must kill all the first-born in order to bring about their freedom. Such a voicing of violence, especially by the hand of God, may be unsettling to a child. [29]

I certainly do not have such interpretive agility!  Is Brueggmann virtually saying here that we have to ‘explain away’ the facts of the story?  I think he is somewhat downplaying the difficulty, by his use of the words ‘may be unsettling to a child’.  I don’t think there is any ‘may’ about it.  I am very pleased that I do not have the responsibility of telling this story to any children.  I’m not sure how to tell it even to adults!  Brueggemann states that,

The child learns in this telling that the God who killed the first-born is also the God who has risked everything for the beloved first-born. [30] 

I think I have missed something important.  I’m not quite sure what ‘risks’ God took.  Anyway, this, I believe, is a very dangerous path to follow.  Even if this God did take risks, that, for me, in no way justifies God’s killing or the other violence God uses in the story. 

I know I am sometimes involved in this sort of thinking, trying to explain or even justify my violent response or even my impatience, but it demonstrates to me just how subtle and seductive the appeal of retaliating violence is when we are confronted with the opportunity to respond to violence against ourselves.

Brueggemann is helpful but he has not convinced me to retain the story as I journey with Jesus.  He does articulate the problems but, for me, he doesn’t really give me satisfactory answers to my main questions.

What does the rejection of this story do for the rest of the Bible and its possible guidance for me?  If I faithfully reject and clear out the violent image of God, I am rejecting a major theme of the Old Testament. Brueggemann says,

…that the Bible is permeated with violence in which Yahweh is deeply enmeshed,  [31]

So I am rejecting a major emphasis of the Bible.  I cannot do this lightly.  Regarding the way we approach the Bible, I find Derek Flood is both helpful and challenging with his suggestion to ‘faithfully embrace’ or ‘faithfully reject’ what we read.  This takes a lot of serious thinking and study.  I refer to this, in detail, a little later.

Terence Fretheim.

I now move to the commentary of Terence Fretheim, another eminent biblical scholar.

In his book on Exodus, in the series, Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and. Preaching, I found his commentary instructive, but I also found some of it difficult to accept.  Like Brueggemann, Fretheim gives a scholarly, detailed and extensive comment on the story, about 120 pages.  He does so, building his commentary on the thesis that the Lord’s conflict with Pharaoh is an allegory of the conflict between life and death, the conflict of the order of creation against anti-creation, order versus chaos.  For Fretheim, the story has cosmic ramifications.  Maybe Fretheim has uncovered the main intentional idea of the original story-tellers.  Who knows?

The most basic perspective within which the plagues is to be understood is a theology of creation. [32]

and

We have seen that God’s liberation of Israel is the primary but not the ultimate focus of the divine activity.  The deliverance of Israel is ultimately for the sake of the entire creation. [33]

In Fretheim’s setting of the Exodus story as an allegory of creation, life versus death, he states,

There is thus a symbolic relationship of ethical order and cosmic order.  Seen against this background, Pharaoh’s oppressive, anti-life measures against Israel are anti-creational…  Egypt is an embodiment of the forces of chaos, threatening a return of the entire cosmos to its precreation state.  The plagues may be viewed as the effect of Pharaoh’s anti-creational sins upon the cosmos writ large. [34]

For me, the Lord’s action in the Lord’s ‘signs and wonders’ are not pro-life or driven by the forces of creation and order.  For me, the execution of God’s ‘signs and wonders’ unleash chaos and anti-life results far beyond the results of Pharaoh’s oppressive rule and his anti-life behavior; far beyond ‘Pharaoh’s anti-creational sins’.  Fretheim states,

The considerable range of correspondence that exists between Pharaoh’s sins of oppression and the plagues shows that the latter are destined for Egypt according to an act-consequence schema. [35]

My question is, “Why is this ‘act-consequence schema’ not entertained regarding the acts of God in the plagues and then their consequences?”

  1. We are told nothing in the text that the blood of the Nile River was changed back to water; only that ‘the Nile became foul’, see Ex. 7:21, and the Egyptians had to ‘dig around the Nile for water’; see Ex. 7:24.  How long did the blood last?  How serious was the consequence?  We don’t know from the text.
  2. The frogs were ‘gathered together in heaps, and the land stank’; see Ex. 8:14.  What were the consequences?  Did the frogs just decay, probably taking weeks or maybe months?
  3. The ‘swarm of flies’ was just ‘removed’; see Ex. 8:31, so we don’t know what consequences occurred, if any.
  4. All the cattle of the Egyptians died.’; see Ex. 9:6.  The consequences could have lasted for decades.
  5. ‘The hail struck down every plant of the field and shattered every tree of the field.’; see Ex. 9:25, And after the locusts ‘not a green thing remained, neither tree nor plant of the field through all the land of Egypt.’; see Ex. 10:15.  The consequences of this could have lasted for more than decades.  How could any of the vegetation revive?
  6. At midnight the Lord smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt.’; see Ex. 12:29.  The consequences of this could have thrown the burial section of the community into absolute chaos with so many human bodies needing to be embalmed and buried.  Not to mention the grief and following mental state of all the Egyptians.
  7. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen and all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not so much as one of them remained.’; see Ex. 14:28.  Together with all the first-born of the Egyptians being dead, this would have pushed the community to the brink, with such universal grief and loss, as well as such a depleted number of males to father the next generation.

The consequences of all this death and destruction could have nearly destroyed the whole Egyptian civilization.  I suppose all these consequences are appropriate in, and consistent with Fretheim’s basic thesis; ‘Egypt is an embodiment of the forces of chaos, threatening a return of the entire cosmos to its precreation state. ’

The whole basis of Fretheim’s basic thesis, for me, is unsustainable.

For Fretheim, questions of the morality of God’s actions seem somewhat irrelevant.  For me, he doesn’t address those questions.

Fretheim’s commentary on the last plague.

As with Brueggemann, I wish to deal in detail, with some of Fretheim’s commentary, particularly his comments about the killing of all the first-born of the Egyptian families.  Many of you will not have his commentary so I place it before you.  It is rather long but I wish to give you the opportunity to make your own judgements about my disagreements with him.  He states in his commentary on Ex. 12:29-36,

As noted, the placement of this plague in the midst of ritual considerations takes it out of the normal flow of the story, out of ordinary time and space.  This gives it an impressionistic character in relation to actual events.  Its somewhat episodic flow may be due to the composite nature of the text, but it also enables the narrator quickly to view death and new life from different angles of vision.  The story is told in spare, straightforward language; there is no literary embellishments, no stopping to savor what happened to the Egyptians.  Even with the joy associated with newfound freedom, Israel, like its God, voices no pleasure in the deaths of these persons.  This gives the entire scene a certain solemnity.

Attention is here given to two major aspects of the narrative; it is a story of both death and new life.

It happened in the middle of the night, when all of that world was dark.  The darkness of the night matched the darkness of the deed.  No household was spared, not one.  Indeed no barnyard escaped.  It was a deed done when all were asleep; it was not a public execution, though the effects were public indeed.  As hard as it is to say, the victims were primarily children; both boys and girls – whoever happened to be the first-born in the family.  It helps little to say that there was no suffering; to use a modern image, it was sudden (infant) death syndrome throughout Egypt that night.  One can appreciate the great cry that went up, from parents in particular, including Pharaoh himself.  However much it is appropriate to speak of judgement, and Pharaoh’s genocidal decision to kill all Hebrew baby boys was made long ago, (see Ex. 1:16, 22.), no reader can rejoice at the deaths of children.  Their lives were snuffed out because of what adults had done.  It might be helpful to draw on historical parallels, not finally as a justification for killing, but as a reminder of other forms of history’s violence.  Perhaps carefully drawn analogies between Pharaoh and Hitler might be helpful, including the fact that American bombs killed many German children while asleep and wide awake, and in strange unpredictable patterns of location.

It is one thing to speak of American bombs, but it seems almost blasphemous that God is the one ‘who drops the bomb’.  The text does not back away from identifying the subject of the judgement: God smote all the first-born in Egypt from the least (this time prisoners are mentioned) to the greatest, both animals and human beings.  This does not mean that God killed each of the first-born directly, one by one (see Psalm 78:49).  The text uses various words in speaking of a non-divine agent: 11:1 speaks of nega (“plague”), a word often used for diseases; 12:13 speaks of negep (“plague”) a word commonly used for pestilence or blow; in 9:15 deber (“pestilence”) is used, as in 9:3 for the cattle epidemic; mashit (“destroyer” NRSV) occurs in 12:23, a word associated with destruction and pestilence (cf 11 Sam. 24:15-16; Isaiah 37:36).  It is best to think of a pestilence epidemic that kills quickly.  This killing of the first-born only ought not to be interpreted literally (its possible historical basis is that of no household remained untouched.).  As with the other plagues, the emphasis on “all” is intended to portray an aspect of creation gone berserk.  The moral order had “boomeranged” in such a way that the order of nature (which includes epidemics) has become something it ought not to be.

The language of 4:23 should be recalled.  There the killing of the Egyptian first-born is understood as a measure for measure, making the punishment fit the crime.  Pharaoh had sought to kill all male children of Israel (1:22), a genocidal measure that would in time have killed off the people of Israel.  So the first-born of Egypt suffer a fate comparable – it is not genocidal – to what Pharaoh had planned and begun to carry out.

This helps answer the question, Why not just any person from every Egyptian family?  It is because of the widely known understanding regarding the first-born.  This could be a public statement as to God’s claim over Egypt, God’s authority over the people rather than Pharaoh’s.  The first-born are dedicated to Yahweh rather than to Egypt’s Gods. (see 12:12)  Given Pharaoh’s attempt to claim Israel’s children, this constitutes God’s counterclaim at a comparable, if less severe, level.  Because it was directly responsive to the type of claim Pharaoh was making, it would perhaps have been a measure that would finally be convincing to him. [36]

My comments.

  1. I found it helpful that Fretheim identifies that the story is embedded in liturgy and vice-versa and thus it is, to an extent, taken ‘out of ordinary time and space’.  He also speaks of the ‘composite nature of the text’, which helps me cope with the apparent inconsistencies within the story as the Bible presents it.  It is not told as accurate actual history, and it probably has multiple sources.
  2. Fretheim states that the story has two major aspects – it is a story about death and new life. That’s for sure.  Lots of death and at the end, new life for the Hebrew slaves.
  3. He certainly does not shy away from the fact that it was a dark deed, but he also says ‘when all were asleep’.  For me, this is Fretheim’s effort to lessen the toxicity of the deed and the effect it had on those involved.  People were asleep so they died in their sleep.  Maybe not too bad and not painful.  I think ‘all were asleep’ cannot be assumed from the text.  Probably true for most but not necessarily everyone, ‘all’.
  4. Certainly not a public execution with all its shame and humiliation.  I think this is important.
  5. The victims were primarily boys and girls’.  Not so.  I have looked at my present family.  Seven of those presently alive would have been killed that night. My wife, Wendy, 83 years old; one of my sons-in-law, Alberto, aged 65; my eldest daughter, Cathy, aged 58; and four of my grandchildren, Rahni,19; Jasmine, 19; Harrison, 15, and Alannah, 2.  All would have been killed that night in Egypt.  Just because you are a father or mother does not preclude you from being the first-born in your family.  Just because you are over 80 does not change your position of being the first-born of your family.  I contend it would have been possible for seven people in one household in Egypt to have been killed that night; four grandparents, two parents and only one child.  Certainly improbable but not impossible.  They could all have been the first-born in their respective families.  Thus, I further contend that this slaughter by God could have been actually worse than the child slaughter done by Pharaoh, because a father, mother and a child could have been killed by God that night, grandparents as well.  Not that I like to make comparisons of such tragic events.  Such comparisons are to be avoided because each event is horrendous.  This is my second mistake at doing this!!  

In the film, The Ten Commandments, as a result of this last 10th plague, an adult man falls dead on the porch of Pharaoh’s palace.  One of Pharaoh’s older advisors states that he was his first-born son.  This suggested that such a death could be quite sudden and painless. 

However, the constant use of extravagant images, that the water in all Egypt turned to blood; that there was not one green thing was left after the locusts; that all cattle died; that all the first-born of Egyptian families were killed by God; that all Pharaoh’s warriors were drowned, so that not one remained, lends weight to my contention that it was not only children that were killed.  ALL the first-born were killed.  In fact, for the story, there may have been far more adults killed than children and most likely, very few infants.

  1. So why does Fretheim mention ‘sudden (infant) death syndrome’?  The first-born and not the last-born were targeted that night.  Many infants would have been the last-born and not the first-born. I believe that for the story, as told in the Bible, there may have been very few infants involved.  Yet he states that, ‘it was sudden (infant) death syndrome throughout Egypt that night.’  How can he say that?  There is no biblical basis for this.  None at all.  It is nowhere in the text.  Does he want to protect this brutal tribal God of the Israelites?
  2. It helps to say that there was no suffering.’  For sure, but I think this is another presumption to try to lessen the toxicity of the situation.  How can Fretheim suggest there was no suffering?  There was a great cry from the Egyptians but I don’t think we can presume that that was only the cry of those grieving.  It may well have been mixed with the cries of those suffering a painful death.  The text does not help much in deciding whether the death was painful or not, so I don’t think Fretheim has any right to presume.
  3. It was sudden.’  In the film; Yes, but in the Bible?  Who knows?  Where is the validation for this in the text?  Maybe yet another of Fretheim’s presuppositions coming to the fore, to try to lessen the toxicity of the situation.  This Exodus tribal God has shown no mercy so far in the story, so why should mercy be shown now?
  4. It is one thing to speak of American bombs, but it seems almost blasphemous that God is the one who drops the bomb.’  For me, it is not a case of ‘seems almost’.  It is a case of actually being obscenely blasphemous, at least from my Christian perspective.   In ancient times this was thought of as the way that tribal Gods behaved.  Had they had bombs, I have little doubt they would have enjoyed using as many as were available.  The strategies by which they ‘gained glory’ were irrelevantGaining glory was what was all important.  The tribal God of the Israelites was no different.
  5. ‘…that American bombs killed many children, while asleep and wide awake.’  So were the Americans worse than God?  By presuming that all the Egyptians were asleep, a quite subtle comparison is made, for which, I believe there is no biblical justification.
  6. It is good that Fretheim does not avoid the matter when the text does identify the one who is ‘the subject of this judgement’.  However, by using the word ‘judgement’, which is biblical, he again, for me, avoids the violence of the action of God, as, I believe, he mostly does throughout his commentary on the whole story.
  7. ‘This does not mean that God killed each one first-born directly, one by one (see Psalm 78:49)’. (This is not my favorite Psalm and I think the verse quoted gives an expansive interpretation; ‘a company of destroying angels.)  The Lord had to look at every house, ‘one by one’, to see if there was any blood on the lintels of the door posts.   From the text,  ‘

For the Lord will pass through to slay the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel of the two door posts, the Lord will pass over the door, and not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to slay you.’ (Exodus 12:23.)

This was all an individually, deliberate and considered operation.  Nothing must or will go wrong! I think it is a case of God killing each Egyptian ‘one by one’ and not killing each Hebrew ‘one by one’.  There would have been a large number of Hebrew dwellings with blood on the lintels of their doorposts so a ‘distinction’ was made in every single case.  ‘When he sees…’ is a specific individual identification.  If blood was seen by the Lord then no killing was undertaken.  When the Lord ‘did not see’, killing was appropriate.  This is ‘one by one’. I realize that the Hebrews lived in the land of Goshen and thus were separated from the Egyptians, but we are not told that every Hebrew lived there.  I suppose that could be inferred but the text still states that it was necessary for God ‘to see the blood’. This points me to an individual ‘seeing’ and thus a ‘one by one’ killing.

  1. Fretheim uses the phrase ‘non-divine agent’, and identifies four different Hebrew words used in the story.  This phrase conjures up in my mind an agent which was not God’s.  It nearly suggests to me, that the ‘agent’ was not working under God’s instructions.  Was Moses a ‘divine’ or ‘non-divine’ agent? In asking this question, I suppose my predisposition and prejudice is coming to the fore.  Am I knit-picking? I don’t think so because I am dealing with the individual details like Fretheim does.
  2. It is best to think of a pestilence epidemic that kills quickly.’  For sure, and, as mentioned before, the film certainly suggests that.  But again, is this not trying to lessen the toxicity of the action by God?  Who knows whether the death was quick or not?  Fretheim wants us to think so. Again I say, “The God of the Exodus has shown no mercy so far, so why should mercy be shown now?”
  3. ‘…all is intended to portray an aspect of creation gone berserk.’  Could I suggest that it is the Exodus tribal God who has gone berserk?  This is what this tribal God does to ‘gain glory’.
  4. The moral order has ‘boomeranged’ in such a way that the order of nature (which includes epidemics) has become something it ought not to be.’  It didn’t just happen.  In the story, the Lord makes it ‘boomerang’ with the Lord’s ‘signs and wonders’.  God uses anti-nature, anti-life, death and destruction to accomplish God’s purpose.  It is God who is doing something that God should not do.  God is ‘becoming something’ God ‘ought not to be’.  But that’s what tribal Gods do!
  5. When Fretheim rightly states that God will act in a tit-for-tat way; see Ex. 4:23, is he suggesting that God is in some way justified, even though God uses one of the lowest human motives for action; retaliation or revenge?  When he compares God’s killing of the first-born with Pharaoh’s killing of every male child, Fretheim, for me, is virtually saying that what God did was not as bad as that which Pharaoh intended to do to the Hebrew race and had, in fact, commenced.  What the Lord was doing was not genocidal.  I think Fretheim is asking for understanding that God’s claim is ‘less severe’, because God kills only the first-born and not all male childrenIs Fretheim saying, “We know God is bad but he is not nearly as bad as Pharaoh.”?  When one compares evil with something that is worse, it doesn’t look so evil.  I try to never make moral judgements that way.  
  6. ‘The first-born are dedicated to Yahweh rather than to Egypt’s Gods.’  In its historical context, I think Fretheim has given a helpful explanation as to why it was that the first-born was killed.  This was surely a way of indicating to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, that Israelites’ God was way above the status of all the Egyptian Gods.  But what a way to do it!

For this part of his commentary, I think Fretheim wants us to think that God gives a swift, painless death, occurring in sleep to all the first-born Egyptians.  At the age of 84, this is what I wish for.  However, I do not think that Fretheim can get this understanding from an objective look at the text in the Bible.  There is no biblical validation for a slow, drawn out, painful experienced death while awake, but I believe there is also no solid validation in the text, for a quick, sudden, painless death while asleep.  I believe Fretheim wishes to divorce God from doing things that are really nasty.  With the Exodus story I do not believe that is possible.  For me, Fretheim presents God as doing what is deemed necessary to demonstrate that God is Lord of all creation, no matter what it takes.  For me, he seems to try in some ways to nearly exonerate the Lord, regarding the extreme violence that the Lord employs.

I find his commentary, dealing with the last plague, quite unacceptable, even misleading.  I would not recommend it as a resource for preaching or teaching.

Personally, I find little help from Fretheim in my effort at ‘Truth-Telling’.

I know I have come to Fretheim’s commentary with the teachings of Jesus about ‘enemy love’ in my mind, but I think this is the way most regular church-goers would take.  That’s why the violence of God in the Bible is such a huge difficulty for most regular church-goers, that is, if they think about it.

Fretheim obviously has a great deal of knowledge of the Old Testament and a wide understanding of the Hebrew language, so I suppose I have little right to question such a scholarly presentation, regarding his conclusions.  But as with all of us, I believe Fretheim, imposes some of his predispositions on the text and as such, indulges in Reader Response interpretation to such an extent that he creates his own text and does not address many of the questions that ordinary church-goers like myself, ask about this Exodus story.  I believe they are not the wrong questions.

We may call the actions of the Exodus God ‘signs and wonders’, ‘judgements’, ‘consequences’, what God needed to do to achieve liberation, necessary actions to ‘gain glory’ and be known ‘throughout the whole earth’ as Lord of all creation, essential actions to make all peoples recognize that ‘I am the Lord’, but with any or all of this, I believe we cannot escape the fact that the actions of this God hurt all the land of Egypt, plants, trees, insects, animals and many human beings.  The actions ruined the whole land until there was no green thing left alive, killed all animals, killed all locusts so that not a single one was left and also killed numerous human beings some of whom were children. 

We must rid ourselves of this tribal God who acted precisely the way tribal Gods do.  We must reject this image of God because, I believe, with all our sophisticated theological understandings, we cannot hold this Exodus image of God and the Jesus image of God together at the same time.  I choose the Jesus image and utterly reject the Exodus image.  This means, I think, that I must reject the whole story.

Marcus Borg.

Now to Marcus Borg, an author of many books in the field of Progressive Christianity and an eminent biblical scholar and commentator, whose books I have enjoyed and from which I have learnt a tremendous amount.  In his book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, he has a very short statement, telling in his own words, the story of the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea.  He talks about

Then begins a dramatic episodes in which God sends plague after plague against the empire. [37]

He lists nine of the plagues and then states a bit later,

And so the most devastating plague strikes: the death of the first-born of all Egyptians, Including Pharaoh’s son. [38]

Although Borg makes his own observations, he does not reject (not that I can remember) the violent nature of God’s actions and the death effects of most of the plagues.  Of the Song of Moses, he states,

The deliverance of Israel at the sea is celebrated spiritually in a magnificent hymn of praise to God. [39]

I believe Borg is saying here that a song praising violence is ‘magnificent’.  If this is what he is doing, I cannot agree.  I am very pleased that Onwards Christian Soldiers has been deleted from our official Australian hymnbooks.  That happened back in 1977.  The fundamental struggle/conflict between good and evil, between God and the devil, if you will, is profound and a central theme of discipleship of Jesus, but military metaphors are all unacceptable for me. 

One of the features of Hebrew poetry is the universal use of couplets; two consecutive lines which communicate the same idea but in different words.  The Psalms are full of these couplets.  Borg mentions that the first couplet in the Song of Moses is,

Sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously;

Horse and rider God has thrown into the sea.

He thus equates the glorious triumph of God with violently drowning all Pharaoh’s warriors.  This poem in chapter 15, goes on to speak about the Lord, and the results of this God’s actions.

‘Man of War’, being ‘glorious in power’, who ’shatters the enemy’.  ‘The peoples have heard, they tremble; pangs have seized on the inhabitants of Philistia.  Now the chiefs of Edom are dismayed; the leaders of Moab, trembling seizes them; all the inhabitants of Canaan have melted away.  Terror and dread fall upon them; because of the greatness of thy arm, they are as still as stone’. (Exodus 15:6, 14-16.)   

These are parts of the song which I would not call ‘magnificentThis is not the action of a God I would praise.

In his most helpful book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, when commenting on the Exodus story, he states,

What is the story about?  Most basically, it is a story of bondage, liberation, a journey and a destination. [40]

I think his statement about the basics of the story is inadequate.  Because it is so short, I suppose Borg could be excused, but, for me, he does not adequately announce all the basics.  Why is there no word about the violence of God and God wanting to gain glory, both of which saturate the story?

In his short retelling of this story, Borg makes no mention of the violence in the actions of God.  Violence doesn’t come into his picture here.  Is this irrelevant?  It would seem so.  I think this is an unfortunate omission; and, again maybe interpretation taking over from what the text actually says.  In his nearly three pages on the Exodus Story, Borg finishes this section with,

Though we find ourselves in bondage to Pharaoh, it proclaims, there is a way out.  Through signs and wonders, through the great and mighty hand of God, God can liberate us, indeed wills our liberation and yearns for our liberation, from a life in bondage to culture, to life as a journeying with God. [41]

In the above quote Borg makes a more personal reflection about our liberation from Pharaoh.  I do not believe God liberates us through acts of violence.  Using the Exodus story in this context is, for me, very dangerous.  ‘Through signs and wonders, through the great and mighty hand of God.’  Yes!  But with violence?  Borg does not address my questions.  Maybe in some other of his writings he does, and if this is so, then I cannot remember it or I have not read it.  I’m sorry if this is the case.

Tom Wright.

I turn to Tom Wright, another modern eminent theologian, scholar and biblical commentator.  In his co-authored book with Marcus Borg, The Meaning of Jesus, he states,

But if you start with the God of the Exodus, of Isaiah, of creation and covenant, and of the Psalms, and ask what that God might look like were he to become human, you will find that he might look very much like Jesus of Nazareth, and perhaps never more so than when he dies on a Roman cross. [42]

I can never imagine the God of the Exodus choosing to die on a cross.  I can never imagine the God of the Exodus doing the things that Jesus did; loving and forgiving his enemies.  I can never imagine the God of the Exodus washing dirty feet.  I realize that Wright is probably referring to God’s intention in the Exodus story to liberate downtrodden slaves, which intention, I think Jesus would have absolutely endorsed, but again I say that the God of the Exodus and Jesus do things in totally opposite ways to bring about liberation.  These two ways are incompatible.  Why does Wright suggest that if the God of the Exodus were to become human, he might look like Jesus?  I do not understand.  As I have said previously, I find that the image of the God in the Exodus story is the antithesis of all that Jesus taught and lived as his image of God.  I believe other regular church-goers would think the same.

Wright is quoted as saying on Twitter on the 17th of May 2018,

Just as the Exodus was launched by the coming of Israel’s God in person to rescue his people, so the new Exodus has been launched by the long awaited return of this same God in and as Jesus himself. [43]

I would suggest that Israel’s God in the Exodus is notthe same God in and as Jesus himself’.  These Gods are opposites and nothing like ‘the same’.  Israel’s God in rescuing God’s people in the Exodus Old Testament story, is ultra-violent, killing and destroying everything to achieve this God’s goals, and to show how great and powerful God is.  The ‘God in and as Jesus himself’ acts in the opposite way, with compassion and forgivenessJesus’ God teaches and demonstrates ‘enemy love’.  This is completely absent in the behavior of the God of the Exodus.  I do not understand.

Derek Flood.

In desperation, I turn to Derek Flood, an author I have quoted before.  In his excellent book, Disarming Scripture, in which he deals with violence in the Bible, he states,

Jesus embraces the story of the Exodus, but applies it in a way that is different, unexpected and transforming. [44]

How can he say that ‘Jesus embraces the story of the Exodus’, when Jesus never mentions it in his teaching or preaching; not in any of his ministry?  Again, I don’t understand.

Is there a scotoma, a blind spot, existing here?  Are some commentators looking critically at the extent of the violence of the God in this story, or have they become as immune to violence and its catastrophic effects, just like the Israelite tribal God who inflicts it all?  Am I on the wrong track altogether?  I begin to think I am.  Maybe my questions need no answers.  Maybe they are just the wrong questions.

I am questioning, challenging Brueggemann, Fretheim, Wright, Borg and Flood!  I’m sorry, but I cannot stop.  The text in front of me forces me to continue.  So I continue, seeking to try to do some necessary but somewhat unpalatable ‘Truth-Telling’ about the story.

Karen Armstrong.

I continue my research.  Karen Armstrong in her book, The History of God, when commenting on the story of Abraham being directed by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, states,

Yet to modern ears, this is a horrible story.  It depicts god as a despotic and capricious sadist, and it is not surprising that many people today who have heard this tale as children, reject such a deity. [45]

Commenting on the Exodus story, she states,

The myth of the Exodus from Egypt, when God led Moses and the children of Israel to freedom, is equally offensive to modern sensibilities. ….  This is a brutal, partial, and murderous God, a god of war who would be known as Yahweh Sabaoth, the God of Armies.  He is passionately partisan, has little compassion for anyone but his own favorites, and is simply a tribal deity.  If Yahweh had remained such a savage god, the sooner he vanished, the better it would have been for everybody. [46]

I believe Karen Armstrong is correct.  Sadly though for me, the story with its gross image of God has not vanished, but is still used in some Christian liturgies and teachings today.  I believe this story is a source of great difficulty to most regular church-goers, if they think about it and its content.

John Shelby Spong.

Revived in my search, I turn to Spong to see if he has anything to say about the story.  He does not address this issue in his book, The Sins of Scripture, as I thought he might.  However, I looked further and in a lecture reported in the Chautauguan Daily on June 27th 2012, in answer to question as to whether God changes, he answered,

“Does God change? Can God change?”, retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong asked Tuesday at the start of his afternoon lecture in the Hall of Philosophy.

“In certain religions and passages from sacred texts, God is defined as the ultimate embodiment of perfection, so the idea of a changing and transforming God is possible.”, Spong said.  “However, an analysis of humankind’s historical perceptions of the divine, evidences not only have humanity’s ideas of God morphed through the millennia, but even within the pages of the Bible the nature of God has evolved.” 

“The fact is, the concept of God changes very dramatically even in the pages of Holy Scripture, which makes it really difficult for fundamentalists”, Spong said, “because if you literalize the Scriptures and find that even the concept of God changes, somehow you’ve got to change along with it.” 

In the second lecture of his weeklong series entitled ‘Re-claiming the Bible in a non-religious world’, Spong evidenced the changing Judeo-Christian concept of God through an examination of biblical text and the stories of the four minor prophets; Hosea, Amos, Jonah and Malachi.

“The Bible begins with a world marked by tribal religion.”, Spong said.

“There are two things that are always true about a tribal deity. First, the tribal deity always has a chosen people.  And secondly, the tribal deity always hates everybody that the chosen people hate.”, he said. 

“That early understanding of God as a tribal deity is evident in the Book of Exodus.” Spong said. “In Exodus, God hates the Egyptians because the Egyptians enslaved God’s chosen people, the Jews.” 

“This God decides to attack the Egyptians with vengeance and with power. We call that the story of the plagues.” he said.  “God hits the Egyptians up one side and down the other.” 

“This understanding of God as a vengeful, violent deity that would murder the first-born son of every family, and thoughtlessly drown Egyptians in the depths of the Red Sea, is not a friendly identification.” Spong said.

“The understanding of God as a tribal deity appears in Exodus, the Book of Joshua, and again in the Book of Samuel, when the prophet Samuel orders King Saul to commit genocide against the Amalekites.”, he said. 

“Tribal religion is part of human development, it’s part of our history, it’s part of the Bible, and yet if you read that entire book, you will discover that this God changes dramatically.”, Spong said.  “The same God who sends plagues on the Egyptians, and stops the sun in the sky to kill more Amorites, and calls for genocide of the Amalekites is also quoted as having said, ’You are to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ ” [47]

Sadly this tribal God is far from dead.  God is always on our side.  During the two world wars, listen to both the opposing armies singing in the trenches and praying to their tribal Gods for victory.  How sad!  Will it ever end?

John Dominic Crossan.

There is also John Dominic Crossan’s book, Jesus and the Violence of Scripture. In his long review on the book, Rev. Neil Richardson, at one point early in his review, askes,

Is it possible to excise from our picture of the biblical God the many instances where he is violent and encourages violence in others?….Could we manage to drop these bits out of the Bible altogether, and just keep the material about loving our neighbours and remembering the plight of the poor?  And were we to do this, would we be what Crossan defines as “still… a Christian”? [48]

He then comments,

Crossan’s answer is, Yes.  That is because his Bible is a supermarket where you have to read the labels of the wares on the shelves to avoid being hoodwinked into thinking you are getting the authentic stuff. [49]

This is not a comment I would make of Crossan’s book.  The author certainly does not back away from the fact that the Bible presents,

…on the one hand, a God of non-violent distributive justice and, on the other hand, a God of violent retributive justice. [50]

and a decision has to be made as to which biblical God is the God we can believe in and which was the God to whom Jesus gave his allegiance.

Crossan repeatedly says that the Bible has both, in the New Testament as well as the Old.  He does not deal with the Exodus story in the book but I personally see it as an example of; God’s ‘violent retributive justice’ in punishing Pharaoh and all Egypt for their treatment of the Hebrew slaves and not letting them go, and God’s ‘non-violent distributive justice’ intending to bring the slaves to freedom.

Crossan states twice in his book, quite graphically, no doubt for prominence and strong emphasis,

The norm and criterion of the Christian Bible is the biblical Christ
and
The norm and criterion of the biblical Christ is the historical Jesus.
[51]

This of course, raises the issue, ‘How do we discover and identify the ‘historical Jesus’?’, and when we identify him, ‘Is he violent or non-violent?’  Having answered this, according to Crossan, we can then apply that to the biblical Christ and thus to the Christian Bible.

It seems to me that one of the important reasons why Crossan believes the ‘historical Jesus’ was non-violent is,

Pilate judged Jesus to be a revolutionary, and therefore he required an official, legal, and public execution of Jesus.  But Jesus was nonviolent rather than violent, and therefore there was no need to round up any of his followers. Pilate got it exactly correct. [52]

Had Jesus been violent, Pilate would have rounded up all Jesus’ followers and would have had them all crucified.  That was the Roman strategy to keep ‘the peace’; kill all the rebels. 

Crossan states a little later,

What about divine violence? Jesus non-violent resistance, and that of his followers, was explicitly based on the character of God, and our call to be members of God’s Kingdom was seen as God’s family. 

‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends the rain…  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’  (Matthew 5:44-45, 48.)

For Jesus, seeing humans as God’s children derives from his fundamental vision of God as householder of the universal family in the world home….  For Jesus, therefore, non-violent resistance to evil is divine before it is human and should be human because it is divine. [53]

Crossan was a noted member of The Jesus Seminar, a group of about 50 critical biblical scholars and 100 laymen founded in 1985 by Robert Funk.  This seminar was very active through the 1980s and 1990s, and into the early 21st century, who, by consensus voting, separated out what they believed were the actual sayings and thus teachings of Jesus from those that were considered to be statements and beliefs within the tradition of the early church.  Thus they were involved in an intense and very scholarly search for the ‘historical Jesus’.  My perception is, that the Fellows of this Seminar, as a whole, regarded the ‘historical Jesus’ as decidedly non-violent and that sayings attributed to him which pointed towards him being violent, or God being violent, were constructions/beliefs of the early church, early traditions about Jesus, and then put into the mouth of Jesus by the gospel writers.

For Crossan, the ‘historical Jesus’ acted non-violently, because of his firm conviction that God was non-violent.

A point that Crossan makes is that violence escalates in chapter 4 of Genesis,

If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventyfold. (Genesis 4:24.)

Crossan states this escalation is applied by Jesus in the opposite way,

…for forgiveness rather than for vengeance. [54]

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?  As many as seven times?  Jesus said unto him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven“. (Matthew 18:21-22.)

This is another example of the way Jesus taught and lived non-violentlyBig problem!  The Jesus Seminar states that this direction by Jesus is not one of his own statements; see Robert Funk’s and The Seminar’s book, The Five Gospels, page 217.  Maybe this is one of the Seminar’s decisions with which Crossan disagrees.  (No wonder I get confused and don’t really know what to think sometimes, when studying the Bible in detail.  I suppose it is unrealistic to think that all teachers, all scholars, would agree on everything!)

Jesus’ own use of the Bible.

Because the violence of God in the Bible raises serious questions, I think Derek Flood gives good advice, because in his book, Disarming Scripture, from which I have quoted earlier, he deals with Jesus’ own use of the Bible and comes to the conclusion that,

Jesus expects his disciples – expects you and me – to be making these same calls of knowing what to embrace in the Bible and what to reject. [55]

This conclusion comes from Flood’s examination of the story of Elijah in combat with Moab.  Half way through that biblical story, Elijah calls fire down from heaven on his enemies.

And Elijah answered the captain, “If I am a man of God, may fire fall from Heaven and consume you and your company.”  And fire fell from Heaven and consumed the officer and his fifty men. (2 Kings 1:10.)

Flood states,

Hoping to follow Elijah’s example, James and John, ask Jesus in response to opposition they were experiencing, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to destroy them.” (Luke 9:54-54.) …  Luke tells us that the response of Jesus was not to affirm this narrative, but to sternly rebuke his disciples.  In that rebuke of Jesus is an implicit yet clear rejection of the way of Elijah as well.  Later manuscripts include the response of Jesus, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them (Luke 9:55-56.).* In other words, Jesus is essentially saying that the way of Elijah was not of God, but instead belongs to the spirit of the one who seeks to destroy, that is, of the devil. 

While Elijah claimed that his actions proved he was a ‘man of God’, this passage in Luke’s gospel makes the opposite claim; the true ‘man of God’ incarnate had not come to obliterate life, but to save, heal and restore it (Luke 19:10 & John 3:17). Jesus not only recognizes this himself as the Son of God, but rebukes James and John for not coming to this conclusion on their own.

In other words, Jesus expects his disciples – you and me – to be making the same calls of knowing what to embrace in the Bible and what to reject.

Flood has a footnote which states,

*Even if this verse is a later addition, representing a sort of biblical commentary by the early church, it certainly reflects the ethos of Jesus as well, who consistently rejected violent force as a vehicle of the Kingdom. [56]

Flood’s book has clearly shown me one of the most important reasons for, knowing what to reject in the Bible.  If it teaches violence, then I ‘reject it.

I would like to add some positives regarding criteria for ‘knowing what to embrace in the Bible.  If it teaches generosity, forgiveness, love, hospitality, inclusiveness, peace, respect, justice, equality and hope, and if it teaches me to challenge any power that practises the opposites, then I ‘embrace it.  For me, these all point to Jesus and likewise, Jesus points to all of these.  I deal with this in my book, Starting all over again? Yes or No?, in chapter 6, with many comments on the teachings ‘of’ Jesus.  (By the way, you can purchase my book directly from me, for $20.00 plus postage.  If you want a copy, just contact me.)

I have deliberately underlined above, what I believe is a very valid way to approach the Bible, certainly not encouraged by the church in my present and past experience.  I believe Flood has a point when he implicitly suggests that Jesus faithfully rejects the underlying teaching of the Elijah story. I believe this is an example of Jesus making a call of ‘knowing what to embrace in the Bible and what to reject.

Another example of Jesus’ use of the Old Testament, and making a call of ‘knowing what to embrace in the Bible and what to reject’, is a well-known passage, where it is said that Jesus read from the Old Testament, but he stopped short when, in the synagogue, reading from the Book of Isaiah.  Luke 4:16-17 states that Jesus went into the synagogue in Nazareth and was given a book with Isaiah in it.  The text states that he opened it and found the passage he wanted. Jesus said,

The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19, quoting from Isaiah 61:1-2a.)

But Jesus stops short.  He omits the last part of the last verse of that Isaiah reading, which is,

..and the day of vengeance of our God. (Isaiah 61:2b)

After he finished reading he closed the book and gave it back to the attendant.

Whether this is actually Jesus speaking in the synagogue, or the gospel writers telling a story about him, I believe this omission from Isaiah is not a slip, inconsequential nor a mere oversight either by Jesus or the gospel writers.  The part dealing with the vengeance of God was not read.  Jesus did not read it.  I can even imagine Jesus thinking that, when he came to that last statement about vengeance, he could have said to himself, “No!  This is not what the spirit of the Lord has anointed me to preach.  I won’t read it.”

Jesus omitted the Exodus story.

Is Jesus’ omission of the Exodus story from his teaching and preaching yet another example of him making a call of ‘knowing what to embrace in the Bible and what to reject?  Was his omission deliberate?  I think it probably was.  As stated previously, this Exodus story was the most revered and celebrated story of the Jews.  This story was the most important story in all of the Old Testament

In the Cross-reference Bible I have, there is no cross reference in any of the gospels to the Exodus story.  Even though there are well over 500 cross-references in the four gospels to the Old Testament, there is not one to the Exodus story.  It seems to me more than strange that this is the case.  The larger story of Moses is alluded to many times in the early chapters of Matthew; in the Jesus’ birth stories, his baptism and temptations, and the Sermon on the Mount.  Some commentators have said that Matthew portrays Jesus as the second and greater Moses. 

It has been commented that the Passover has been re-interpreted by Jesus and New Testament writers, presenting it as the basis for the Last Supper and the church’s sacrament of Holy Communion.  However, I believe that Jesus turns the Passover meal from being one which celebrates being saved from death at the hands of God, into being a remembrance of one who was willing to die with strength, integrity and love for what he believed.   

If his omission of this Exodus story was deliberate, his non-use might have come down to two significant reasons.  First, it could have been because ‘the Lord’ in that story is pictured as so partisan, so discriminatory against one race and nation and in favor of another.  This is certainly opposite to a major thrust of Jesus’ teachings.  A second reason could have been that the image of ‘the Lord’ is so violent that Jesus, of necessity, had to avoid using it in his message and preaching of non-violence. 

It is my contention that these are both good reasons why Jesus could have deliberately omitted using the story, but I believe it was probably the second.  ‘The Lord’ in that story was just too violent.

Exodus and the Cross/Resurrection of Jesus.

I have been told a number of times that I should liken the story of the Exodus to the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus; the death of slavery to the Cross and the new life found in freedom, to the Resurrection.  I personally find this dangerous but also stretching my imagination beyond the realms of sensibility.  For me, it totally ignores the contexts and details of the two separate events.

I suppose any situation which leads from desperation and suffering to a life of hope and better possibilities could be linked in some way to the Cross/Resurrection paradigm.  But I think what happened to Jesus and the growing understandings of the Cross/Resurrection paradigm, have much more to do with how it happened and what the actions were of the main ‘players’ involved in the stories.

Jesus’ death came about because he lived and loved the way he did.  Jesus chose to be on the side of the exploited, the outcast, the poor, the slaves; he chose to teach and live love and forgiveness, enemy love; he chose to rebel against the status quo, the unethical system of exploitation, but he did it in a non-violent way.  He knew this would lead him to his Cross.  The Hebrews did not choose slavery.  God in the Exodus story was certainly on the side of the slaves and did rebel against the unethical system of exploitation, but this God did it with violence. 

I believe Jesus’ Resurrection came about because of the power and ultimate worthiness of the human values of love and forgiveness, because of the power of what Jesus taught and lived, because of the power of what his God-saturated dream for the world was.  The new found life for the Hebrews was brought about by the violent ‘signs and wonders’ of their tribal God.  Jesus’ Resurrection came about in a non-violent way.

Slavery, exploitation, immoral systems win for a period but generosity, equality, hospitality, forgiveness and love are radically, sublimely and decisively victorious.  They ultimately always win the day; every day.  The struggle is continuous and profoundly dangerous, complex and herculean, but victory is assured through love, not violence.  This is the Christian truth as I understand it from Jesus.

The Exodus story has violence as the winner.  For me, there is no place for the ultra-violent God of the Exodus story in any comparison with the Cross/Resurrection story of Jesus.  That God doesn’t fit!

Anti-Semitic?

For me, all this reaction to the Exodus story does not make me anti-Semitic.  When I come across Jews, Muslims, anti-Christians, or anyone else with whom I disagree, or who is ‘different to me’, I always try to follow my non-violent, non-racist Mentor by respecting and accepting them.  I’m not anti-Semitic; I am just anti the Exodus story.

I know virtually nothing about the 3-4000 year histories of any continents of the world and the different nation-states which may have existed over time, so I cannot make any comparisons between any other nation-state and Israel. 

However, it is my understanding that no other European or Middle Eastern nation-state has had a history so saturated with exploitation, outside domination and discrimination against it, as Israel.  Very unfortunately, this disgraceful attitude is still alive and well in our present day.  It would thus be no surprise to me, and I would find it quite understandable, if sometimes, even currently, that Israel’s foreign policy was influenced to an extent by this Exodus story, particularly in the minds of ultra-conservative, orthodox Jews.  I will leave it there because I am not qualified to say any more.

Living the Questions – DVD  Part 2.

Walter Brueggemann, at the beginning of the series of lectures on a DVD, Countering Pharaoh’s Production-Consumption Society Today, on which I have commented previously, states,

The Bible is an act of imagination.  It is not a package of certitudes.  It is an act of imagination that invites our faithful imagination which makes it possible for us to live faithfully. [57]

For me, these are the most important things Brueggemann says in all five sessions in the DVD.  They are certainly not the only important things he says.

I understand him to be saying that the Bible does not say things that are all correct and unchangeable.  I think he is saying that the Bible is full of stories and statements about God, humans and reality that cannot be taken as actually true for all time.  They are molded by the imaginations of the authors and story-tellers.

We must make our own faithful imaginative response and thus changes in understanding the text may occur.  The Bible has statements and stories created by its authors working within the limitations of the information and knowledge they had.  What they said, was said within the framework of their limited, sometimes very limited, information and knowledge.  Their imaginations were linked inseparably to their own time.  It could be no other way.

To know something about the historical context of the biblical literature in which stories and statements are imbedded, we need to take on board some historical research done by biblical scholars.  The Exodus story is in the Pentateuch, so we need to look at the historical context in which the Pentateuch, often called The Torah, was told and written down.

The Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, has a long and complex history of evolution.  It is obvious from a study of the material contained, that there are inconsistencies, contradictions, different theological emphases, distinctly different styles of writing and most significantly, very different images of God developed.

A generally held theory, undisputed amongst all reputable Old Testament biblical scholars, is that the Torah took hundreds of years to evolve.  It began with laws and stories handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth from father to son; oral traditions. 

This theory states that there were originally at least four separate traditions commonly known now as ‘J’, ‘E’, ‘D’ and ‘P’.  These were gradually combined into what we now have in the Bible (See diagram later).  There are variations of this theory.  Some have slightly different writing sequences and different combinations of the various traditions, but there is wide consensus on the basics.

The ‘J’, ‘E’, ‘D’ and ‘P’ theory.

The ‘J’ tradition is considered to be older than the other three, written down about 950 BCE  (Before the Common Era) and now called ‘J’ because of the word it uses for God, ‘Jahweh’, an alternative spelling for ‘Yahweh’, translated as ‘Lord God’ or ‘Lord’.  This ‘J’ tradition includes the older, second story of creation in Genesis chapter 2, the Garden of Eden story, the Cain and Abel story, the older story of Noah and many stories about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Its content then stretches through the time of the invasion and conquering of the Promised Land under Joshua, and maybe even further to the time of King David. 

The ‘E’ tradition, considered to be older than the last two traditions, ‘D’ and ‘P’, was written down about 850 BCE and now called ‘E’ because it uses the Hebrew word ‘Elohim’ translated as ‘God’.  It has a shorter historical span than the ‘J’ tradition, from Abraham to Moses and not much more.  It has a priestly emphasis and goes well with the last tradition, ‘P’, when, in the evolution of the Torah, they were combined. 

The ‘D’ tradition derives its name from the book of Deuteronomy.  This ‘D’ document, written down at about 650 BCE, has little reference to stories about times prior to Moses.  The ‘D’ document was probably a single unit and not as much a collection like the ‘J’ and ‘E’ traditions.  For a few scholars, Deuteronomy is understood to be Moses’ farewell address to the Hebrew people.  It is intensely nationalistic.  ‘D’s’ theological emphases were quite influential throughout the writing of the Old Testament.  The ‘D’ tradition’s emphasis on justice and responsibility played a significant role in the development of the Israelite religion.

‘P’, the last tradition of the four, is so called because of its emphasis on a Priestly Code; priestly or religious laws.  Gathered together, edited and subsequently written down at about 500 – 450 BCE, it is very legalistic and systematic.  Its authors had about 500 years of theologically interpreted Hebrew history, ecclesiastical, sociological, cultural and religious thought and reflection, above and beyond that which the earliest stories and traditions had.  It has the first story of creation in Genesis chapter 1, the second story of Noah, embedded in the older story, stories about Abraham and Jacob. It also has most of the contents of the books of Leviticus and Numbers.   

The diagram.

This theory is built on the proposition that these four traditions were at some earlier time, written down but these original documents have been lost.  All we have now is the final combination of the four in the Torah/Pentateuch as it is in the Bible.  One suggested possibility, I have heard, is that the priest Ezra may have had a hand in the Torah’s final compilation and editing.

Most regular church-goers know nothing of these origins of the Torah.  They have never been told.  They may not be very interested either, but having such information can assists me in my approach to the Exodus story.

Tradition of the Story is ‘J’.

Realizing that one of the major ways of separating out the different traditions was by identifying where ‘Yahweh – the Lord’, and ‘Elohim – God’ were used, it becomes obvious that the Exodus story belongs to the oldest ‘J’ tradition.  In chapters 3 to 15 of Exodus, where the story is told, ‘Yahweh – the Lord’ is used well over 150 times, whereas ‘Elohim – God’ is used less than ten times.

This points to the story dating back to the earliest times in the Hebrew religion when, as I have stated previously.

If I am correct and the Exodus story is part of the ‘J’ tradition, dating back about 3000 years, it is no wonder we find it impossible to align this Exodus God with the God we see in Jesus, about a thousand years later.  The huge problem for regular church-goers is that they have never been told these things.

I did my own research regarding the book of Joshua.  That book uses the term ‘Yahweh Lord’ over 150 times, ’the God of Israel’ about 18 times, ‘the Lord your God’ about 38 times and ‘ElohimGod’, only seven times.  I think it is no wonder that this book is also thought of as being part of the ‘J’ narrative, not only because of how it addresses God/Lord but also because its tribal God is so violent. 

Doing a little more of my own research, the ‘worst story’ about King Saul, referred to a lot earlier, the word for God in 1 Samuel 15, Yahweh/Jahweh is translated as ‘the  Lord’ 26 times; translated as ‘the Lord of Hosts’ once, translated as ‘the Lord your God’ once and the Hebrew word Elohim is not used at all.  This would put this story into the most ancient ‘J’ tradition as well.

With this Exodus story being assigned to an ancient period of Hebrew religious history, I suppose then, I might be able to accept it for what I think it is, a story driven by a hopelessly out-of-date theology regarding its image of God.  But it is dangerous if we use this image of God to instruct us about how we should think about God today.  I can also accept it as a story pointing in the opposite direction to which Jesus points.

As an alternative, I can reject the story as being unhelpful for me, concerning my journey with Jesus.  I can also urge others to reject it as well.

I believe the church generally, has left ordinary church-goers in the situation like a doctor, who has medicine that can cure an ailment but does not administer it, or even prescribe its use.

Different translations.

I now turn to another significant difficulty; that of different translations and the different meanings of particular words and phrases.  Sometimes different meanings given to a particular word or whether a particular word is used or not, can make a world of difference to the main thrust and message of a text or story.

I have used mainly the text of the Revised Standard Version in my discussion of the Exodus story.  Other translations have different wordings and I think some are reasonably significant.  For some verses, I have compared the three translations; the Revised Standard Version (RSV), the New Revised standard Version (NRSV) and the Good News Bible (GNB).

Exodus 4:21-23.

RSV ‘And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.  And you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my first-born son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.”, if you refuse to let him go I will slay your first- born son.’

NRSV ‘And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.  Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is my first-born son. I said to you, “Let my son go that he may worship me.”  But you refused to let him go; now I will kill your first-born son.’

GNB ‘Again the Lord said to Moses, “Now that you are going back to Egypt, be sure to perform before the king all the miracles which I have given you the power to do.  But I will make the king stubborn, and he will not let the people go.  Then you must tell him that I, the Lord, say, “Israel is my first-born son.  I told you to let my son go, so that he might worship me, but you refused.  Now I am going to kill your first-born son.”

  1. The difference of the use of ’Now that you are going by the GNB instead of ‘When you go, in the other two, gives a definiteness to Moses’ going back.  Maybe an insignificant difference.
  2. The difference of ‘miracles’ used in both the RSV and the GNB instead of ‘wonders’, used in the RSV and throughout the story, gives a slightly different slant of the events, which could have been the original intent of the story-teller.
  3. The difference in the GNB in using I will make the king stubborn instead of ‘I will harden his heart in the other two translations is a minor difference but I think however,I will make the king stubborngives a modern flavor to the text.
  4. In verse 21, the tiny word ‘so’ is used in both the RSV and the NRSV; ‘so that he will not let the people go’This makes the result of God ‘hardening Pharaoh’s heart quite clear and it is that Pharaoh will not let the people go.  The GNB and only one other translation of the 40 odd I have researched, uses the word ‘and’ instead of ‘so’, thus giving no substantial link to, nor definitive result of the ‘hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.
  5. In verse 23, the RSV and the King James Translation are the only translations of the six I have that use the word ‘if’.  Both the NRSV and the GNB use ‘but you refused.  No ‘if’ is used.  Fretheim makes mention of this little word and he seems to think it is important.   I think he is incorrect in stating that the verse is ‘usually translated’ as in the RSV, using the word ‘if’.  Of over 50 translations I researched, only 15 use the word if, and none of the commonly used, I think, translations use the word, except the RSV and the King James translation.  Because of this word ‘if’, Fretheim states that there is a degree of uncertainty as to what the final outcome of God’s conflict with Pharaoh will be.  He states;

There is therefore in the final analysis an openness to the future in 4:21-23.’ [58]

The NRSV and the GNB, as well as other translations I have, state in their texts that Pharaoh ‘refused’ to let the people go whereas the RSV leaves the matter up in the air a little.  I believe the NRSV and the GNB and other translations make it clear that Pharaoh’s decision would be ‘hardened by the Lord to the extent that he would definitely not let the slaves go.  I think Fretheim wishes to give Pharaoh’s free will more weight in this matter and less responsibility to God’s ‘hardening of his heart, so that Pharaoh will decide in a certain way.  This, I believe, is consistent with the general tenor of his whole commentary.

These two last comments above (4 and 5) are examples of how important a single word can be in making a particular emphasis for a text.  I think the use or non-use of the words ‘so’ and ‘if’ make a world of difference.

Exodus 8:1.

RSV ‘Thus says the Lord, “Let my people go that they may serve me.” ‘

NRSVThus says the Lord, “Let my people go that they may worship me.” ‘

GNB ‘Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the king and tell him that the Lord says, ’Let my people go so that they can worship me.’ ‘

Maybe the NRSV and the GNB use of ‘worship’ captures the idea of God wanting to ‘gain glory, and having God to be recognized.  I think ‘worship’ conveys, at least for modern readers, a meaning closer than ‘serve’ used in the RSV, to what the God of the Exodus would want.  Reasonably important, I think.

Exodus 9:15-16.

RSV ‘For by now I could have put forth my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth; but for this purpose have I let you live; to show you my power, so that my name may be declared through the earth.’

NRSV ‘For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth; but for this purpose have I let you live; to show you my power, to make my name resound through all the earth.’

GNBIf I had raised my hand to strike you and your people with disease, you would have been completely destroyed. But to show my power I have let you live so that my fame might spread over the whole world.

  1.  I find it interesting that Fretheim refers to the text in this way.

The question here is not what God ‘could’ have done, as if God’s power were in doubt, but what God ‘should’ have been done had God not had a more comprehensive purpose that his life could serve. … If it were not for larger purposes that God could achieve, Pharaoh should have met his end. [59]

For me, the word ‘could’ does not infer, in any way, the doubting of God’s power.  It is about when that power will be used by God. God ‘could’ have done it whenever God wished to.

  1. my mane’ used in both RSV and NRSV would have meant more to the Hebrews but for modern readers I thinkmy fame’ used in GNB says it well.

Exodus 10:2.

RSV ‘and that you may tell it in the hearing of your son and your son’s son how I have made sport of the Egyptians.’

NRSV ‘and that you may tell your children and your grandchildren how I made fools of the Egyptians.’

GNB ’and in order that you may be able to tell your children and your grandchildren how I made fools of the Egyptians.’

For me, the different translations give a different feeling to this verse.  Makingsport’ used in RSV, is far worse, I think, than making fools of’, used in NRSV and GNB, I think, makingsportis more sadistic, which I think, probably fits better the behavior of this tribal God.  Maybe my prejudices at play again.

Exodus 14:17-18.

RSV ”And I will hardened the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots and his horsemen.  And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gotten glory over Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen.”

NRSV “Then I will hardened the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them, and I will gain glory over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots and his chariot drivers.  And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariots drivers.”

GNB “I will make the Egyptians so stubborn that they will go I after them, and I will gain honor by my victory over the king, his army, his chariots and his drivers.  When I defeat them, the Egyptians will now that I am the Lord.”

This last example shows how unlike, in detail, different translations can be.

  1. The GNB is much shorter than the other two, partly because it deletes some of the repetitions of the other two.
  2. The GNB changes ‘get glory of RSV and ‘gain glory’ NRSV into ‘gain honor’.  For me, the GNB, in making these changes, is changing the meaning of the text quite significantly.  I think it conveys a different message. ‘get glory’ or ‘gain glory’ seems to me to be more in line with the whole story than ‘gain honor’.  God is on about ’gaining glory’.  ‘Gaining glory’ is different to ‘gaining honor’.  Glory is more extreme and that is what God wants.
  3. gotten glory’ in RSV or gained glory’ in NRSV is quite different to ‘defeat’ in GNB.  The words ‘gain’ or ‘get glory speaks about what happens for God whereas ‘defeat’ speaks only of the outcome of the conflict.  God is interested in the former.

These above are but a small sample of the differences in translations and the difference they can make in the meanings and emphases within the story.  Individually they may not amount to much, but their cumulative impact can be quite significant, when taken together with numerous other different translations of other texts in this particular story.  This, of course, permits quite different interpretations by commentators as is obvious from all the above comments.  It is also a basis of confusion and uncertainty as to the meaning of the story for regular church-goers. 

The Bible is never an easy book to understand!

My conclusions.

I have tried to give a comprehensive set of arguments and reasons why I question the Exodus story as being, in any way, helpful for my journey with Jesus.  It points me in the wrong directions when compared with the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.  As such, I do not believe it should be given any voice in liturgies of the church, as presently is the case.  I believe it is best left unmentioned, as it is with Jesus.  For me, it does not belong within the pages of ‘Holy Scripture’.

This Exodus story, as do the stories of God’s violence in the conquest for the Promised Land, belongs to the age in which it was written; maybe about 3000 years ago.  Even though we should not criticize nor ridicule the authors/story-tellers, and even though we might lose some positive and important insights from the stories, I can do without them and I believe we all can.  Although not given total vindication for my stance, I think I have a very strong, significant precedent in Jesus and the gospels, regarding the Exodus story.

So my analysis gives me three strong reasons for rejecting the story. These three are different but inseparably entwined.

  1. I reject the story because the image of God in it is so violent and seeks to guide me in the opposite direction to the way Jesus lived and taught.
  2. I reject the story because the image of God in it comes from a totally outdated theology, from 3000 years ago when people actually believed there were many Gods and these Gods, being tribal deities, were often in conflict, to gain glory over each other.
  3. I reject the story because it is a story which Jesus omitted to use in his ministry and his teachings.  The gospel writers never mention it.  Jesus doesn’t mention it and for good reason.  I believe it is because of its ultra-violent image of God.  He achieves his goals of liberation by totally different means to those used by the God of the Exodus story.

My analysis of the Exodus story could be regarded as a very negative exercise and I suppose it is, in that I have highlighted its negatives, as I see them to be.  But in doing so, I think I have done something very positive, at least for me.  When one gets rid of something negative, one does something positive.  I have been told in Mathematics that two negatives can give rise to a positive.  Like “It’s not bad”.  That can mean it is good.  From two negatives comes a positive!

By rejecting the Exodus story I no longer have to accept it as being part of my journey with Jesus and that’s good.

I believe I have tried to do some ‘Truth-Telling’ about the Exodus story, and thus about one of the most significant stories in the whole Bible.  While not wanting to be too critical regarding what I have been taught in my past church education, I feel I have not been given a great deal of ‘Truth-Telling’ about it.

For you to decide.

[1] New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1, 118.

[2] Ibid 118.

[3] Marcus Borg  Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, 122.

[4] Marcus Borg  Reading the Bible for the First Time, 103.

[5] Richard Rohr  Internet  Theology Center for Action and Contemplation  Liberation Theology  20/3/16.

[6] New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1, 792.

[7] Richard Rohr  Internet  Theology Center for Action and Contemplation  Liberation Theology  20/3/16.

[8] Carol Dempsey  Internet  Cambridge Papers  The Exodus motif of Liberation  Its Grace and Controversy.

[9] New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1, 722.

[10] Richard Rohr  Internet  Theology Center for Action and Contemplation  Liberation Theology  20/3/16.

[11] Internet  Quotes from Gustavo Gutierrez.

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] Jose Caravias  Living in Fellowship, 10-21.

[15] John Frame  Internet  Liberation Theology in a History of Western Philosophy and Theology.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1, 803

[19] Carol Dempsey  Internet  Cambridge Papers  The Exodus motif of Liberation  Its Grace and Controversy.

[20] Walter Brueggemann  Old Testament Theology, 93-94.

[21] New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1, 803.

[22] Ibid, 803.

[23] Ibid, 804

[24] Ibid, 781.

[25] Ibid, 782.

[26] Ibid, 769.

[27] Ibid, 771.

[28] Ibid, 781.

[29].Ibid, 787.

[30] Ibid, 787.

[31] Walter Bruegemann  Old Testament Theology, 93.

[32] Terence Fretheim  Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Exodus, 106.

[33] Ibid, 108.

[34] Ibid, 106-107.

[35] Ibid, 101.

[36] Ibid, 140-141.

[37] Marcus Borg  Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, 96.

[38] Ibid, 97.

[39] Ibid, 98.

[40].Marcus Borg  Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, 123.

[41] Ibid, 125.

[42] Marcus Borg and Tom Wright  The Meaning of Jesus, 167.

[43] Tom Wright  Internet Twitter at N.T Wight says 17th May 2018.

[44] Derek Flood  Disarming Scripture, 42.

[45] Karen Armstrong  The History of God, 18.

[46] Ibid, 19.

[47] John Shelby Spong..Internet..Chaufauguan Daily 27th June 2012.

[48] Internet  Rev. Neil Richardson’s review of Crossman’s Book Jesus and the Violence of Scripture.

[49] Ibid.

[50] John Dominic Crossan  Jesus and the Violence in Scripture, 18.

[51] Ibid, 36 & 240.

[52] Ibid, 167.

[53] Ibid, 168.

[54] Ibid, 65.

[55] Derek Flood  Disarming Scripture, 43.

[56] Ibid, 42-43.

[57] Living the Questions  DVD Countering Pharaoh’s Production-Consumption Society Today, The Way Out.

[58] Terence Fretheim  Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Exodus, 77

[59] Ibid, 124.

A few Epilogues.

  1. The majority of modern biblical scholars state that the Exodus story as told in the Bible, has little historical worth; that the biblical story has little to no historical basis.  I have been instructed that the best way I can understand the Exodus narrative, is to look at it as a founding myth of the Jewish people, explaining their origins and providing ideas about their culture, festivals and institutions.  For me, not particularly helpful!

If regular church-goers were told all this, they could be horrified and might say, “If it didn’t happen, why do we talk about it as if it did?”   They might even become skeptical about the usefulness of other parts of the Bible.  How could they trust it?  They might say, “If it’s all made up, then why do we read from it every Sunday and say it comes from God?”  So it might be too dangerous to tell them, but if we don’t, I think the church will lose more and more thinking, 21st Century people. 

However uncomfortable this situation may be regarding this story, this is where we are at.  So we need to regard Bible stories as stories which may have something important to say to us.  Let us take them as stories which have a meaning to share, a meaning that just may help us in our journey with Jesus.  If they don’t help us in this journey, let us take Flood’s advice and ‘reject them’ and if they do help then ‘embrace them’.  We need to do more ‘Truth-Telling’ about the Bible.

  • I have a big problem with the Bible in the way it presents God.  I have a big problem with the different Gods in the Bible, or to say it in different words; I have a big problem with the different images of God that are presented to me in the Bible.  It’s not that there are different Gods but it is that we have many different images of God.  So when I say, “I don’t believe in a God who…”, I am really saying, “I don’t accept an image of God that…”.  My problem is that these different images of God are not always clearly indicated as such, in the Bible.

A prize example of different images of God being presented, is found in the first two chapters of Genesis.  The God, or the image of God, in Genesis chapter 1 is totally separated and distant from creation; authoritatively pronouncing that things will happen but making these commanding pronouncements from afar.  This God is totally transcendent, and seems to be not involved in God’s creation at all, but grandly apart and detached.  This God is absent; out there!  However, the God, or the image of God, in Genesis chapter 2 is totally involved with the creation, making, breathing, planting, putting, taking, bringing, etc., etc.  This God is at work in a garden which this God has planted.  This God talks to the man and the woman; all ‘in’ the creation.  This God is even concerned that the man is lonely!  This God is totally present, still a separate Being but present.  These are two totally different images of God, or as some people might say, “Two different Gods”.

If you read the first two chapters of the Bible, I think you will see what I mean.

In the Bible, we are all introduced to God in Genesis chapter 1 (‘P’).  It comes first in our sacred book.  But, in the religious history of the Hebrews, the image of God presented in Genesis chapter 2 (‘J’) is more ancient, because Genesis chapter 2 was written about 500 years before Genesis chapter 1.  So the image of God in chapter 2 comes from an older tradition than the image in chapter 1.  A bit confusing but it that makes all the difference.  The two chapters, although slap-bang together in our Bibles, come from very different ancient traditions, probably from different times, 500 years apart.   

The Genesis 1 God would never take advice from Moses, as did the God of the Exodus story.  That is unthinkable!  This God of Genesis 1 takes advice from no one.  This Genesis 1 God would never want or need to ‘gain glory’.  That too is unthinkable!  The God of Genesis 1 has total unquestionable glory.  This God is the Creator of the whole universe!  The Exodus image of God belongs to the more ancient ‘J’ tradition.

In many different translations, there is a helpful separation of these two stories of creation and thus the different images of God the stories portray.  However, this separation is not always there in other places.  Different images of God get mixed, within certain books and from book to book, throughout the Bible.

The biblical God (image of God) changes.  The biblical God, at different places in the Bible, has different attitudes about so many things, and does things in completely different ways.  About the Bible, I have said in my book,

This sacred book is so big and varied, it is difficult to know where to start.  With 66 individual books, the Bible really is a library.  Read through modern western-culture eyes, it has inspiring books of love and loyalty as well as books that would not pass an ‘MA’ rating if made into a film…. The images of the Bible’s theistic God range from the extremely ultra-violent to the unconditionally loving God, and everything in between.

Can you imagine Jesus believing in a God who commanded King Saul,

Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. (1 Samuel 15:3.)

or believe in a God who did this?

At midnight the Lord smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle. (Exodus 12:29.)

I can’t.

If we look in the Bible for the same, unambiguous and consistent image of God, the same all the way through it, we will come away sadly unsatisfied and disappointed.  There is none.

I embrace the image of God that I see in Jesus.  Full stop!

  • I have tried to keep my own theological views out of this exercise and concentrate only on the text.  However successful or unsuccessful that may have been, I now wish to say that the concept of God being an intervening God, is not where I sit.  I do not believe that God intervenes.  I do believe that because God is in everything and everything is in God, -Panentheism,- there is a divine influence/involvement in all that happens.  I wish to take the human involvement in what happens in our world so seriously, that I believe that what happens in our living, happens because of what humans initiate and do or don’t do.  God is the inherent force/influence in us when we do things that bring about good, wholesome outcomes.

About humanity, I wish to quote one of my friends, Ivan Hawke, who says,

As I move, year by year, into and begin to pass through the ‘old age’ phase of my life one of the insights I have gained from my senior years is that my physical presence before others often calls forth the inherent goodness in many other people I meet.

That ‘inherent goodness’ is very apparent to me when I encounter the cashier at the supermarket, the teller at the Building Society, a fellow pedestrian on the footpath, a driver who stops at a road crossing for me.  In each case the essential humanity of each person is revealed when the person (rightly or wrongly) assumes I am in need of help or assistance.

What is it that compels and seemingly impels these strangers to respond in such a manner?

In my mind, that motivating and energising force is a response to, and attributable to, “The Divine”; to be found most clearly and activated in each human being.  In some individuals it may be latent, dormant, ‘asleep at the wheel’, but it is lurking there, awaiting discernment and activation. 

Whenever we are beneficiaries (deserved or not) then we should recognise and acknowledge that motivating and impelling energetic humanising force for what it is;  “The Divine Essence” embedded within each individual (irrespective of race, religion and creed, as well as any other kind of classification that is cast upon others!) 

For me: Humanity transcends Religion!

“That Divine Energising Force” is how I prefer to image the concept of “God”. 

For me, that Divine Energising Force is a process residing in and throughout the entire Universe and operationally evident in all things before and after the “Big Bang”! 

As conscious, sentient beings we need to collaborate with that process; to choose not to do so, is at our own peril

I think he says well what I try to say in the words ‘God Beyond, God Within, God Between’, which I expound in my book.   However I think I might be getting to the stage of not using the word God at all.  I think it is too difficult to throw off all the baggage the word carries with it.  I find the Divine Energising Force very helpful and well worthy of use.  (D.E.F is easy to remember too!)

Grace and Peace.   And thanks for sticking with me.    George.

[Please post in Reply if you managed to read all of this paper/book!]

oOo

3 thoughts on “Opinion: Truth Telling about the Bible

  1. Paul Inglis Post author

    From Tim O’Dwyer

    Thanks for providing this fascinating and stimulating essay, Paul.

    Pity George could not have been a little more resolute than this as the end result of his efforts: “However I think I might be getting to the stage of not using the word God at all.”

  2. Paul Inglis Post author

    A great and absorbing journey through some key parts of the text. I liked the way George drew on some great writers to support his contentions. A very personal reflection shared with all of us. So much to think about!

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