Reading the Bible as Literature
Week Four: Exodus 13 – Exodus 32
As we wrap-up our first month of reading the Christian bible as literature, we come to the end of the second book, Exodus. We do have a few chapters left, but those will be included in the first week’s discussion for February. This part of Exodus deals with the infamous “parting of the Red Sea,” as well as the whiny (yes, they are!) ex-slaves and God’s perpetual care for his traveling Israelites. Hey, at least the almighty fulfills his promise (until he kills half of them for worshiping a golden calf, anyway!) The latter part of the chapter gives us a preview for some of the upcoming books. Lots of rules, including the supreme 10 Commandments but also those for founding and designing a church, clothing for priests, and even how to ask god’s opinion on important matters.
God’s Grace(?): God had promised to lead the Israelites out of Egypt someday, and the day arrives. After “hardening” the pharaoh’s heart so that he could continue to punish the Egyptians and prove his own power, God finally allows pharaoh to consent to the Israelis’ exodus. Moses guides them out and, for forty years, they’re on the move. During all this time, God leads them by cloud during the day and by fire at night. When the Israelites are thirsty, they whine about to Moses, and Moses calls on god, and god comes up with a plan. When the Israelites are hungry, they whine about it to Moses, and Moses calls on god, and god comes up with a plan (hence the “manna from heaven” story). The pattern is repeated over and over, and at a certain point you wonder how long god can remain patient with them. Of course, it’s important to remember that these were slaves who had relied completely on a certain system. They were told exactly what to do every day and, in return for doing it, they were housed and fed. They never needed to worry about finding or making their own food, so perhaps it is understandable that many of them might wonder if they never should have left at all. When Moses goes up the mountain and sits there with god for forty days, writing down the commandments and other laws, the people grow restless. The Israelites convince Aaron to create an idol, a golden calf, that they can worship. Aaron thinks he is helping keep the peace while Moses is preoccupied, but since one of god’s supreme laws is, essentially, “forget about them other gods, already,” this doesn’t go over well. God has Moses ask who is a true follower (to which the tribe Levi steps forward), and then Moses has the Levites go forth and murder their brothers, neighbors, and friends. 3,000 people are slaughtered for worshipping that golden calf. So, for 40 years, god guides them through the desert, and then he encourages a mass murder over a little golden bull. Yikes!
God of War: Exodus 15:3 tells us that “The Lord is a man of war.” This couldn’t be more obvious than in the early part of Exodus, when god continues to force pharaoh to deny him. It’s almost like a game, with god playing both sides in order to up the ante. He does it again in this latter part of the book, when he “hardens pharaoh’s heart” (again!) so that pharaoh will raise up an army to go after the Israelites. Ostensibly, this is because he regrets letting his slaves go; and sure, building an empire on the backs of slaves only to find that, one day, all of that labor is gone, would be a problem. Yet, as the story goes, pharaoh is never responsible for these vindictive actions. God himself causes pharaoh to come after the Israelites so that he (god) can prove once and for all that he is the supreme power, the almighty, and either convince the Egyptians of this or wipe them out (as he does in the story of the Red Sea). Man of war, indeed.
Laws: Exodus lays the foundation for some interesting laws. One of the most relevant, contemporarily speaking, might be the treatment of “strangers.” In Exodus 22:16-28, god relays to Moses the laws regarding sex, witches (Eek!), bestiality, religious worship, treatment of the poor, and antipathy for lenders/usurers. Most importantly, in my opinion, is the fact that god commands all Israelites to treat strangers well, because the Israelites were strangers in Egypt, once, and yet god cared for them. The law is repeated again in Exodus 23:9, as if to emphasize this matter above the others that are listed only once (lying, the Sabbath, etc.) In our current political climate, I find this attitude about how we should treat strangers in our midst quite refreshing. Do not abuse them, do not condemn them.
OTHER INTERESTING BITS:
Joshua: The book of Exodus is our introduction to an important character, Joshua. He is the first military leader for the Israelites and ultimately succeeds Moses as leader. This highlights the pre-eminence of the tribe of Ephraim, of which Joshua is descended. It’s also interesting to note that Joshua (Jehoshua) is twice translated as Jesus in the KJV (as in Acts 7:45).
Red Sea: There has been some debate about where the Red Sea really is, but perhaps the most compelling argument is that it is actually the “Reed Sea.” The original term, yam suph, translates from the Hebrew as The Sea of Reeds, and probably refers to an area near the Gulf of Suez (a much smaller body of water, similar to the Red Sea, but only 30-miles wide rather than 150).
Cherubim: Where do depictions of cherubs as chubby, childlike angels come from? The bible actually has no description for these creatures, save that their wings are described multiple times. The idea that they would be cute little cupids is probably ridiculous, considering how important their role as guardians seems to be. For example, it is the cherubim who protect the Garden of Eden, the Ark of the Covenant, and later, Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 6:23-24). So, I bet they were pretty darn fierce.
Roll the Dice: In the lengthy (and boring) list of rules for priests and churches laid out in this part of Exodus, two words appear without explanation: Urim (“lights”) and Thummim (“perfections”). Unlike some of the other items, which are clearly described as types of furniture, clothes, incense, or whatever, these are simply mentioned. It seems they might be tools of divination. The two items, perhaps a type of stone, are used to interpret god’s opinion on important topics. Sort of like rolling dice, or shaking a Magic 8 ball, the Urim and Thummim act as “yes” or “no” answers in questions only god can answer. Saul uses this approach in 1 Samuel 14:41 and 28:6, for example, when trying to reach his important decisions. The NSV translation of 14:41 is the clearest description.