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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Bible Reading

Today in class I reviewed the first few chapters of Exodus. I reminded the class that when we approach the scripture it is literature--ancient literature--which means it is communication. Understanding the author's intent and marveling at the author's skill is part of reading. Listening for God's voice is fundamental.

Exodus is literature about the saving events of Israel in Egypt. However, it is written long after that fact and there are many layers of meaning in the text as composed. The literature is "revelation", God pulling back the veil so we see His face. At one layer, there is the narration of the slaves rescued from Egypt. This is the definitive foundation of Israel's understanding of God.

However, as Paul makes clear ("the veil is lifted in Christ") the Bible finds its deepest meaning in the person of Jesus. Hence, we say that Jesus fulfills (Greek word means 'to fill up') Scripture because in His life we come to truly understand what the Jewish Bible is telling us. Exodus is about more than the escape from Egyptian oppression. In Jesus we find out how much more.

Lastly, and in a sense the more pressing approach, is contemporary application. This is where you and I encounter the text not as communication about or to another, but as a direct address to us from God. We encounter ourselves in the text as well.

The land of Egypt becomes a paradigm for any place where freedom is trampled and oppression and violence hold sway. It is a place of slavery--physical, emotional or spiritual. We can look at the Hebrew slaves and recognize not a person in dire straights, but an entire people. The dire circumstances are all the worse because it encompasses the whole group. No one has a reason for hope. It is into that situation that God enters, declaring "I have seen, I have heard, I know, and now I remember my promise and commitment (covenant) and act to rescue you!" This is a word of God to us in our time. It reveals the character and nature of God; we know Who He is and how He acts. It is a source of hope. This is not idle gossip about the good fortune of another or the details of a disconnected history lesson---it is also our encounter with The One Who rescues His people! One of the Hebrew words for this, jeshua, YHWH rescues, is also the name of Jesus. It is the deeper meaning of the text.

Moses is an example of sin in this first encounter with God. In the face of his calling Moses offers doubts and reasons why it cannot work. He focuses on the problems and the obstacles, clearly ignoring the key component of the entire process: YHWH God is with us. "I am with you" means Moses is not alone. Moses serves to illustrate our own inner vacillation and failure to believe. He illustrates the face of sin; not murder or rape or theft--nothing dramatically criminal. Instead Moses illustrates the most nefarious of sins: to not believe God. From unbelief springs up every other malady. In seeing Moses here we see ourselves--our reasonable, rational, calmly calculating selves, as we embrace the sin of doubt and unbelief. Moses is me. And you. Moses is the metaphor for the "flesh" (fallen and sinful--self centered). This "reading" of Exodus 4 runs counter to the general image of Moses, and well it should. We are looking at the text and applying it to our contemporary setting, which means, in this instance, it serves as a parable, a story to give insight into the Kingdom. In a real sense, when one approaches the chapter in the third way, the historical aspects are irrelevant. Moses serves only as a literary model when we apply the reading to our contemporary situation to hear revelation.

Yet if Moses serves a the model of sin, so also he is the model of faith. Moses does, finally, do as God commands. He encounters Pharaoh. Pharaoh, the representative of Egypt's gods and a man whose own status totters on the brink of divinity, is the type of the other two dimensions of the "unholy trinity": the world and the devil. As representative of the gods of Egypt (which Paul says do not exist, although the gods 'do exist' in that they are demons), the oppressive power of Pharaoh is the world in all its horror. Standing against God (antichrist) and threatening the faithful. Pharaoh does not know God, he will not obey God and he makes things worse for God's people. That is part of the curse of creation. Human dominion is twisted at cross purposes with God's plan. His rule is subverted by the powers of the kingdom of darkness. He is "forced" to intervene with rescue (salvation, redemption) from heaven through His emissary (Moses in this case). The powers that do not know God work against us in our journey of faith. And when things get worse, and they got much worse, the faithful ones are at risk of losing faith. As the Hebrew slaves suffer under more intense demands (gather the straw to make bricks but continue production at previous levels) they turn against Moses and Aaron. Moses then utters a most honest prayer, but not an ideal one. "Why?" he asks God. Why are things worse? Why did you send me? Why aren't you doing anything?

This, to me, is why the contemporary reading is an important addition to the reading of the text in terms of ancient Israel and as prophecy about Jesus. One can know the former but reduce the narrative to empty gossip about other people in other times. Look at how Moses fails. Look at those faithless Jews! Or one can enjoy clever exegesis and make all sorts of beautiful connections to the story of Jesus, which has great value theologically, but can remain head knowledge and ideal. To see myself (in Moses) as the servant of God who is easily discouraged and blames the Lord is existential. I feel the sense of worry or fear. I understand the impatience, the expectation of a magical God who will flatten every hill and raise every valley and make the rugged way easy. Easy. That is the temptation of believers (running contrary to Jesus who makes no such promise, carrying His own bloody cross ahead of us). If Moses expected the prophetic task to be quick and successful, he was disappointed. As he blames God for the failure, we see and hear our inner self. Impatience is a function of unbelief. Anger at God is a sign of loveless and untrusting spirits. Yes, we understand the human emotions and reactions in the face of unexpected hardships and challenges, but we must also be clear. Our struggles are a function of thinking God cannot be trusted, that He is not true, that present circumstances are in fact an indication of His ineffectiveness. Moses accuses God (much as Adam did in the first sin-- "the woman YOU gave me did it"). We must be aware of our own expectations about things. We who serve God must hesitate to believe the happy-clappy stories which would have us think that if we are on God's team it will be smooth sailing. Exodus shows us that initially, God on our side made things much worse for our side.

But there are more chapters, things tend to change...
another lesson from Scripture; "better days are coming!"
And Scripture, while it is primarily about God and Israel and about Jesus, is also about us, today. God's revelation.

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