Monday, September 14, 2009

Exodus: a Companion for Bible Study Chapters 1-12

This past Sunday, we began our parish Bible study on the Book of Exodus. My hope is that we will be able to accomplish three things during the course of this study.

First and foremost is a leader's goal that we as Episcopalians enter into an intentional time of study and reflection on the Holy Scriptures. Too often, as children of the lectionary schedule of readings for Sundays and the Daily Office, we get only a "short dose" of scripture. Personally, it wasn't until I began discernment for ordained ministry that I actually sat down and began to read the Bible from the stance that each Book, each genre, each Testament had something to say to me...something relevant to the life I am struggling to live right now, today.

Second, that as Trinity, Matawan begins its work on the parish history portion of its interim tasks, that we as a body view "our story" not just as the tenure of this worshipping group as it has been here in Matawan-on both Main Street and on Ryers Lane-but that we also willingly see our story as a part and portion of THE story told by the people of God about their relationship with God.

Finally, I see the Book of Exodus as a crucial element of our story as Christians. More than just a plot line for a Cecil B. DeMille movie, or the narrative just for the people of Israel, Exodus is a story of humanity about how we not only come to be as a people through a shared experience of ordeal but also how we experience liberation and healing in an intimate relationship with God. This is a God who both hears and chooses us in the most intimate and public of ways.

So, let's to it....the first 12 chapters of the Book of Exodus. We will walk from the early moments of Israel's fall from recognition in the court of Pharaoh, through the early biography of Moses to his return to Egypt, the testing of the peoples by God's sendings of the plagues and finally the Pesach, the Passover of the Lord.

How do we "date" Exodus? The archaeological record is scarce. There are limited notes in the recorded histories of Egypt that identify "Israel," save for a stele created during the time of the Pharaoh Merneptah. Indications would favor that the Exodus occurred some time during the reigns of either his father, Rameses II or in the later years of his grandfather, Seti I. Suffice it to say, the basic assumption is that the Exodus, or something like it, happened during this age and is tied to Seti I and the 19th dynasty Pharaohs' efforts to consolidate and expand Egyptian influence in the region in the wake of the Hyksos invasions. Seti I was an ambitious ruler, and worked the people of the Nile and the subject aliens hard with forced labor. He built cities, necropoli, temples, public works, etc. by demanding of the people days, weeks and months of public service. It is no wonder that peoples of non-native descent would suffer more at the hands of "Egyptian task masters" during this time. Rameses II was equally intent on continuing these expansions. So, it is likely, according to scholars, that Moses' actions and Israel's departure from Egyptian precincts was accomplished during this era.

This is important on a number of levels. Egypt was THE power of the ancient world at the time, and in its ascendancy. There were inveterate conflicts between the Egyptian, Hittite/Syriac and Mesopotamian cultures that resulted in massive shifts of economic, political, cultural and theological balance. One nation's gods, and god-kings battled each other. There was a struggle for control, not just of land and people...but also of the heavens. Israel's "little" culture and unknown God are quiet, backwater players in a game of giants. Moses' birth and subsequent actions at the behest of God, YHWH, tip the balance in the ancient world from our perspective-to say the least.

Exodus changes the tone of narrative. In the closing chapters of Genesis, Joseph's favor and ability to shelter and care for his father and brothers indicates a "happily ever after" season for the people. With the death of one Pharaoh and the rise of another, that reality changes quickly. Not only are the people of Israel forced into labor, they become the target of intentional assimilation and even genocide. Moses is born to a people under attack. All newborn boys are ordered for death by a mandate of Pharaoh. It is only the shrewd dealing of his mother, sister and the participation of a daughter of Pharaoh that saves Moses' young life. The classic tale, told in many cultures, of the hero being given to a river by his birth mother (usually in a basket coated with pitch), results in Moses being adopted into the house and court of the god king himself.

The name Moses is not Hebraic...and most likely arose from an Egyptian root. Meaning "from/drawn from/of"-as in Thutmose (son of Thut), this name also carries connotations of being drawn from the river. Whatever we can expect from Moses, it is important to realize that his birth narrative places him in a liminal state, between cultures, and ultimately between God and humanity.

Moses encounters that liminal tension brutally and early on in his life: he sees an Egyptian and son of Israel in a struggle and kills the Egyptian. Instead of being seen as a hero, he is subsequently attacked by a fellow Hebrew when he challenges two of them arguing. Fearing his crime was observed, he flees the land. Entering the household of Jethro of Midian, a priest, he settles into marriage, fatherhood and the life of the son of an influential man. Tending his father-in-law's sheep, he encounters a bush burning and yet not consumed. (see the note on theophanies) From there he returns to Egypt and, by God's will, heralds both God's call for the liberation of God's people and the visitation of the plagues on Pharaoh and the peoples of his empire.

Aside from the sheer theatrical impact of the plagues, an interesting question arose yesterday around the number or them and the intensity of suffering they created for "innocent" people. My thought is this: As I said above, Egypt/Pharaoh was one of the great powers of the world at that time. Each nation had a god, or gods...and some like Egypt viewed their rulers as living gods themselves. For God, our God, to demand anything of Pharaoh was for the god king himself to be challenged by one with whom he is not familiar-and who he meets as a peer. When Pharaoh says, "I do not know your god," he is stating simply that he does not recognize God's authority over his own...God's power and right of influence here in this place and at this time, over his own. God is not only affecting Egypt/Pharaoh in order to obtain Israel's release and liberation. God is also making a point, albeit a bloody one, that God's will over Egypt-indeed creation itself-is without question. So, when we get to the Pesach, there can be no doubt at all that the One who creates heaven and earth, who says that God's name is, "I am," is the one in charge. God is the one who directs all things in all ways. Exodus is not only a shared and common experience for us as God's people being liberated from slavery. It is also God demonstrating God's own otherness from the mundane interplays of local deities-be they human or spirit.

We enter the night of liberation with both joy and an awareness that even freedom comes at a cost when human beings insist on subjugating each other while ignoring God. This story is both our coming to terms with the complexities of our common story and an experience of a divine Grace that instills humility and gratitude as out primary responses. "I was a slave, and you set me free from my oppression" is the beginning of our journey with God and alongside God's messengers to us.

A note on theophany:
We had a lively sidebar discussion on Sunday about theophanies, those moments when God reveals God's self to us "without filters." Moses turned aside to see a bush burning that was not consumed. This was a curiosity. It was when God spoke and noted that the Presence was near and that this was holy ground that Moses fell down in fear. Why? Why would anyone fear seeing God face to face? After all, we as Christians spend a great deal of our time, liturgy and lives seeking just that moment when we do see God face to face. Why would Moses and the other ancients fear that intimacy?

See it from their perspective-God is NOT human and IS divine. The Divine is both absolute truth and absolute power. The nearest dread I can come close to in illustrating that fear of the holy is "seeing" in a moment of nuclear holocaust the blast wave overtake a human, blowing us to bits and atoms. That much light, heat, intensity is something beyond the human body's capacity to absorb. Sure, why wouldn't we fear God in that way, when common knowledge of the moment indicated that to see God face to Face was to also expect to have your eyes pop into steam, your brain to bubble and poach in your skull and to feel your bones turn to dust while your innards melted into pudding? This is not a God who is near....like unto Jesus our friend...but instead it is a God who is far off and drawing near to us. We have a lot to learn, and learn over again, about the holy.

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