Scenes from Exodus Four: Part Two

In Exodus chapter four, God is preparing Moses for the eventual outcome of Pharaoh’s hard-hearted resistance to God’s commands: the death of the firstborn. I’ve always struggled with that particular plague, since it seems like an awful lot of death on account of one man’s stubbornness, but this time around I noticed a passage that changed my understanding:

“Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.'” (4:22-23, emphasis added)

Somehow I never noticed this line before, but it illuminates the Exodus story in a whole new way for me.

Israel is God’s chosen people, his heir, his family, his children. And Egypt (represented in and personified by Pharaoh) has been killing God’s heirs, working them to the bone during 400 years of slavery and sometimes even targeting them outright. In fact, the mass murder of Hebrew sons is what set the scene for Moses’ whole life story, and those “deaths of the firstborn” draw a clear parallel with this plague. Because Egypt has been killing God’s “sons”, in return, Pharaoh and all Egypt will lose their sons.

It’s still a lot of death — the “eye for an eye” mentality prevalent in the Old Testament is much heavier on justice than my little grace-saturated brain likes — but when I stop and think of how many Israelite men and boys (and women and girls) were killed over the space of four hundred years, and the intense suffering the Israelites endured, and the sorrow and despair into which I imagine the Israelites sank, it makes a little more sense that the Egyptians would be made to have some empathy and understanding for what they put God’s people through.

What parts of the Bible do you struggle with?

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6 thoughts on “Scenes from Exodus Four: Part Two

  1. “What parts of the Bible do you struggle with?”
     
    Hmmm… a lot of stuff, so let’s see.
     
    1)  Obviously, the Exodus story.  God hardens Pharoah’s heart.  So, God <i>forces</i> Pharoah not to let the people go.  That’s messed up.
     
    2)  This one is from my OT prof – Carissa will remember this one.  Hosea 2 pictures God as a wife beater.  Pretty awful stuff, especially for those of us familiar with paterns of domestic abuse, because God follows them to the letter.
     
    3)  The entire book of Joshua.  Pretty much outside of the “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” quotation, it’s pretty horrifying and awful.  I don’t like it, and actually have trouble thinking of it as canonical Scripture.
     
    4)  Huge swaths of the non-narrative New Testament.  Pretty much if it’s outside of the Gospels or Acts, there’s a good chance I have issues with all or part of it (although there are parts I LOVE, James and Philemon are pretty much the only books that I don’t have any problems with).
     
    There’s a whole bunch more, but I just can’t think of it all off the top of my head.  This is a good start, though.

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    1.  @davidlick “Pretty much if it’s outside of the Gospels of Acts, there’s a good chance I have issues with all or part of it.” Says the pastor! But actually, I think that’s totally cool, because wrestling is an important and prolific Biblical theme! Plus I think if God would have wanted Christianity/life to be easy to figure out, we would have just not had free will and been robots. Easy-peasy.
       
      So how do you deal with those “icky bits” that make your skin crawl in one way or another? Especially as a future church leader who, I’m sure, will be asked these same questions by some 10-year-old kid someday: “Pastor Dave? [insert big brown puppy-eyed look] How come if God’s so good there’s all this awful stuff in the Bible?”

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    2.  @davidlick Also, I will add to the list several other rather “unsavory” bits of scripture: the genocide of the Canaanites and the part where some teenagers make fun of Elisha’s baldness and they’re attacked by a rabid bear.
      Always good for Sunday school.

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      1.  @RebekahSchulzJackson Ah yes… however “baldy baldy” is at least funny.  I mean, it’s awful, but it’s funny.
         
        As to your first point, about wrestling, my favorite story in the entire Bible is probably Genesis 32:22-32 – the story of Jacob “wrestling with God.”  I take that to be a metaphor for what we’re asked to do.  Jacob doesn’t win, God doesn’t win.  It’s not like in Job in which God comes out to “win an argument;” rather, it shows that we’re often forced to wrestle with things, often “all night” (which I would take to be understood as, metaphorically, much LONGER than one night).  And, in the end, there’s STILL stuff that Jacob doesn’t know – what the heck is the name of the guy he was wrestling with, for example?  He doesn’t know.
         
        (Let me make an aside here to say that, understanding the Bible in a way other than literally is what allows for this kind of interpretation, which I personally find more useful for my everyday life.)
         
        Anyway, as to the reason that I struggle with things outside of the Gospels and Acts is probably BECAUSE I personally can derive a lot more meaning from story, in which interpretation plays a part.  In a letter that says, “don’t do this,” you have to ask yourself a lot of questions, like, “Is today’s cultural context different enough from the one described here that this rule no longer applies?  Or is this a ‘forever-rule?'”  But really, it’s more clear-cut.  Paul (and/or pseudo-Paul) contradicts himself (themselves) enough times that it’s also clear that one might get different interpretations from the same person, in the same time, just by virtue of being in different places!  So that’s tough.  And while it’s fun to wrestle with some of that stuff, ultimately, the reason that I struggle with much of the NT is that 1) there are lots of parts that degrade women, ‘slaves,’ and non-heterosexuals; and, probably most importantly, 2) Paul (and the other writers, like Peter and pseudo-Peter) DON’T ACTUALLY SPEND THAT MUCH TIME TALKING ABOUT JESUS!  I mean, Paul gives us a lot of rules for how to live a Christian life, which are helpful… but, as we can see from competing claims in different letters, are not UNIVERSAL, but rather culturally specific.  So it’s tough to see how some of them apply.  He tells us how to run a church, but we might have other ideas now, in a country that has religious freedom and acceptance, and who’s biggest enemy isn’t a pagan state, but a growing secular consciousness in the masses.  So yeah.  That gets really tough for me.  Now, that being said, Paul says A LOT of great stuff.  But more of it is tricky than people admit.  And let’s face it – part of the reason that I included that particular phrase is that Christians tend to think like this:  “OT bad, NT good.”  That’s thinking like a dinosaur.  Sure, there’s more “bad” stuff in the OT – it’s like 3 times longer, and took nearly 1000 years to write (modern-critical view), was written by dozens of authors, and covers like 4000 years of history.  The NT was written by a handful of authors on a smaller range of subjects in about 100 years, covering roughly 80 years of history.  HUGE difference.  But I don’t like it when people think that all the “yucky” stuff is in the OT, and the NT is this pristine document, because it’s not.
         
        I still want to tell you about what I’d say to the puppy-dog-eyed ten-year-old, but I’ve written WAY too much already, so I’ll come back later to do that.  🙂

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      2.  @davidlick That is definitely one of my favorite stories as well. =)
         
        You make a good point about the totally dissimilar time spans of writing and “coverage” of the OT and NT, which I think is a point that many people forget when voicing blanket condemnation of the “icky OT”. And I definitely agree with you that there is some tough stuff in the NT as well.
         
        Funny story about that, actually. There is a woman at our church in Liberal who is very strong and (though she might not use that term) is a total feminist. One day in Bible class she said, “I think when we get to heaven there’s going to be a special room where they send all the women, and once we’re all in there Paul is going to come in and apologize to all the women for what his words have done to us!” She’s quite a firecracker. We like her. =)
         
        Well, now I’m just treading water because I want to know what  you’re going to say to the puppy-dog-eyed ten-year-old! I await your response. No pressure. 😉

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      3.  @RebekahSchulzJackson 
         
        First of all, that woman in Liberal sounds AWESOME and hilarious.
         
        As for this ten-year-old, I would be honest with her/him.  I would say that my understanding of the Bible is that it’s a book in which people wrote about how they understood God to be working in the world.  That means that sometimes, they say things about God that we today wouldn’t necessarily associate with God.
         
        I would also explain how God is really complicated.  After all, God is much, much bigger and more complex than we are, and yet we still do our best to understand.  That means that sometimes, people tell stories about how powerful God is.  And in those stories, God is SO in-control and powerful that everything that happens is God’s doing, because that’s how people understood God to operate, because God is so powerful.  And that means that bad things get attributed to God sometimes, too.
         
        For other biblical authors, God’s love and mercy are the most important thing, and we get stories that show that.  Like when Jesus prays that God ‘takes the cup away’ . . . and God responds with silence!  While God seems power-less in that situation (that’s one interpretation, anyway), God shows limitless love and mercy through the resurrection and promise of new life (and, frankly, shows quite a bit of power, too).
         
        For some writers, God is concerned with human beings the way people are with hamsters, like in Job; in other stories, people are God’s beloved children, like with King David.  Sometimes, God talks to people through actual words, like Moses and the burning bush; sometimes, God talks through dreams or visions, like with Daniel and Isaiah; sometimes, God speaks without speaking at all, like when Samson is able to pull down the walls, even without his strength.
         
        The point is, we don’t know EXACTLY how God operates, so we tell each other stories about how we THINK God works in the world.  The Bible’s full of those kinds of stories, and they’re written by many different people in many different times.  That means that they have different opinions about the answer to this riddle.  But that doesn’t make the Bible weaker for having no clear vision; rather, it makes the Bible STRONGER for acknowledging that we can’t ever know, and that there could be lots of different ways God is involved.
         
        The most important way we know, though, is how we know God through Jesus.  And Jesus preached a message of love:  love of God, and love of neighbor.  And Jesus taught us that “neighbor” doesn’t just mean friend; it means enemy, too.  And if that’s what JESUS says God is like, well, I’m inclined to believe him, even if it conflicts with some of the other stories in the Bible.
         
        So that would probably be my answer, I guess.  Long, yes.  But that’s as quickly as I can do it, I think!

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