Archive for September, 2014

The Young Moses

Posted in Uncategorized on September 29, 2014 by ancienthopes

Seven times Moses is referred to as a “child” (Hebrew yeled) in the narrative of 2:1-10. The number seven is no accident, and it most certainly emphasizes the seemingly vulnerable state the child was in. The question arises as to what will the child be, an Egyptian or a Hebrew? Nursed by a Hebrew slave, his natural mother, and raised by an Egyptian princess, it would seem obvious that he would embrace his great destiny as an Egyptian. But a Hebrew reader would clearly see something what others, even the Egyptians themselves, could not see. The princess most probably gave him the Egyptian name Mōse, meaning “son,” but the narrative has it as “Mōšeh” the Hebrew active participle “he draws out.” It seems a stretch to believe that the princess knew Hebrew well enough to make this pun. It is likely that the Hebrew narrator is giving him the Hebrew name in the mouth of the princess, along with the explanation “because I drew him out” in a prophetically ironic way. Though named and raised by the Egyptian princess, she ultimately had no authority over Moses, for though she “drew him out” of the Nile, Moses will ultimately draw his people out of the Egypt and the Red Sea.

The verb “to grow” (Heb. yigdal) is a key word transitioning the infancy and childhood narrative (2:1-10) with his youthful act of killing the Egyptian (2:11-15). In verse 10 we see that Moses “grew up” and took his placed in the Egyptian court, but in verse 11 we see that Moses “grew up,” or entered into early manhood, as a Hebrew. The text explicitly identifies him with the abused Hebrew as “one of his people.” We must conclude that Moses acted out of solidarity with the Hebrew and not so much out of justice, for it is clear that the Egyptian only “beat” the Hebrew while Moses killed the Egyptian (contra Lex Talionis, an eye for an eye, Ex. 21:24). Moses is therefore a criminal in the eyes of Egypt, but also by the Law God will give him. Moreover, his own brethren saw him as a killer and did not want to be identified with him.

In our last post we suggested that Moses is symbolic of the deepest part of the soul, which the eastern theologians call the “intellect.” Because for us westerners “intellect” is most usually associated with our reasoning and analytic powers, I will identify Moses with the “spirit” of a person. The “spirit” is that by which we ultimately will and act, the mysterious core of our being. It is that which is behind all the powers of the soul such as reason, imagination, memory, emotions, and especially our wills. Moses here represents a nascent spirit just awakening. He is full of zeal, but knows next to nothing. He identifies himself correctly as a Hebrew, but has no clue what this means. Just coming into manhood, feeling his physical strength, he instinctively resorts to force. He is living from the outside in, and not from the inside out, which means that his spirit has not mastered the powers of his soul, and even more externally his body, through which he commits a crime, though he intended to do what was right.

Moses, like the young Joseph before him, has a lot to learn. He must flee from his roots, both Hebrew and Egyptian, and find himself somewhere else. He is a young man (Hebrew “gibbôr” rather than a zaqēn, a wise elder), the stuff soldiers are made of. It is only appropriate to do what he is wired to do, play the hero, defend the girls, marry one, and procreate. Nothing more can be expected of him at this point. In time we see that he is content to dwell with his wife and father-in-law (2:21). This contentment is the beginning of wisdom.

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Moses as Cosmic Man

Posted in Uncategorized on September 23, 2014 by ancienthopes

The persona of Moses dominates the whole of the Old Testament. True, Abraham is the father of the Hebrews, but God through Moses forged the Hebrew people into a nation in the most unlikely of situations. He is the soul of the nation; we might even say that he is the part that represents the whole. As God created by separating light from darkness, so Moses was the divine instrument to form Israel from chaos, to order, to rest. The man ascended the Mountain of God, disappeared into the cloud of unknowing, beheld what no other mortal has ever seen, gazing into the secrets of the heavenly temple (Ex. 24:15-18, 25:9). From this, Moses directed the building of the Tabernacle, upon which the glory of God settled so as to dwell once again amongst humanity. Moses is a man of cosmic dimensions.

There are two subtle indicators in the text of Moses’ destiny and greatness to come. His mother saw that “he was good” (2:2). The Hebrew kî-ṭôb is the very same phrase used at creation when God looked upon his work and pronounced it good, thus linking creation itself with Moses. God raised up Moses to perform acts that were parallel to the creative energies of God at creation. He was to separate a whole new people out of the chaos of Egypt, and thus transforming the world forever. As God set boundaries at creation that govern the cosmos, so God through Moses set moral boundaries, law to govern the human race. All creation was made to be a cosmic temple, and Moses is the one tasked to make the tabernacle, a microcosm of the whole. All of this is packed into kî-ṭôb.

The second indicator is in the little boat that his mother made, translated here in the old English word “ark” (2:3). The Hebrew here is the exact same as we have in Genesis 6:14 (tēbat) linking Moses with Noah’s ark, a word used only in these two places. Previously we have seen that Noah’s ark was in fact a Garden of Eden, a microcosm of creation and a temple bobbing on the face of chaos, the watery deep (See October 28, 2013). As Noah was a “first man” like Adam in the ark, Moses is also a “first man” in that it is through him that God established salvation for humanity. All this was set in motion by a slave woman making a reed basket, placing her baby in it, and sending it adrift into the wild Nile to see what God would do with it. All of this is packed into this tiny basket.

Moses functions on a deep psychological level in the Book of Exodus. We might say that he represents what the Orthodox theologians call “the intellect” in the human psyche. By intellect they mean that deepest part of our interiors that orders our more exterior parts like our reason, imagination, emotions, will, and outward to our bodies. The ‘intellect” is the most spiritual and mysterious place in the core of our being where God communes (See the Philokalia). All the other characters in the book are arranged around Moses like these other aspects of the person are arranged around the “intellect.” Egypt is the world which surrounds us, and Pharaoh is the “old man” within, always nasty, and never repents. Aaron his brother, the High Priest, is the will that is so hard to keep in line and the Hebrew nation the emotions and perhaps even the body and senses that craves to be satisfied by the things of this world. In the end Moses achieves for Israel what each one of us is to achieve in our own beings; to subdue our pharaohs and cravings of our flesh and create a sanctuary in our hearts where God can dwell. Indeed, Moses is a man of cosmic dimensions.

Egypt as Symbol of the World: Can We Escape It?

Posted in Uncategorized on September 16, 2014 by ancienthopes

Egypt was already old by the time the sons of Jacob settled there. Indeed, their ancestor Abraham could very well have seen the great pyramids of Gizeh when he went down to Egypt (Gen. 12:10ff.), which in his time were already 500 years old. Its proud and cultured civilization lived along the narrow banks of the Nile, or in its fertile delta, for all else in Egypt is barren desert. The Nile has two tributaries, the “Blue Nile,” which runs out of Ethiopia, and the “White Nile” which flows from the Sudan. They merge at modern day Khartoum, and from there the Nile winds its way north through the vast Nubian Desert, occasionally tumbling over falls (or cataracts; there are six of them) in its descent. Because the Nile runs south to north, the Egyptians considered the river valley south of the Delta as “upper” Egypt while the delta region in the north was considered “lower” Egypt, just opposite to how we northern-oriented European types see things. Traces of Egyptian culture first sprang in the Delta region at the end of the fifth millennium B.C. Their astronomers discovered the solar calendar consisting of 365 days a year in 4241 B.C., no small feat considering the fact that the rest of the world stuck to inaccurate lunar calendars until the time of Julius Caesar. During the fourth millennium a Kingdom developed in upper Egypt, and when the two kingdoms merged at the end of the millennium, time was calculated by dynasties. The kings, or “Pharaohs” (i.e., “Great House,” the title of his government was given to the king himself) governed from Memphis located at the point where the Delta began so that they could control both Upper and Lower Egypt.

It is not in our interest to rehearse the history of the kingdoms and dynasties. What is important for us here is that we find Jacob’s descendents in Egypt during the last great age, that of the New Kingdom. This was the age of empire. The Egyptians possessed a well-organized army and were learned in war by virtue of their battles with the Hyksos, an invading group of Asiatics, among whom the Israelites prospered (mid 18th to mid 17th centuries). Now they set their sights on the African lands to the south and the lands north along the Mediterranean Sea. There were two great dynasties, the 18th and 19th. The 18th dynasty reached its height during the middle of the 15th century, and if we take I Kings 6:1 at face value, Thutmosis III (1490 1436), the 18th dynasty’s most famous ruler, may very well have been the Pharaoh of the Exodus. Many scholars, however, reject this 15th century date and place the Exodus in the second great dynasty of the New Kingdom, the 19th. Seti I (1305 1290) would then have been the Pharaoh of the oppression and his famous son Raamses II (1290 1224) the Pharaoh of the Exodus.

Whichever Pharaoh, we must not lose sight of the vast and ancient culture that threatened to suck the life out of Israel at her very infancy. The Israelites were simple, poor, homeless Asiatic nomads without a history, wandering about a land famed from the beginning of time for its temples and palaces with great columned halls, armies and ships rich with the spoils of war and trade. Egypt was already 18 or 19 dynasties into her history when she faced her little foe. On the dark side, it was a land steeped in magic, by which means the dead were expected to escape all manner of hardship in the life beyond. That the magicians could duplicate the powers of God to such a degree in this eerie spiritual climate was no surprise to the Hebrews. God placed Israel into the very heart of earthly power and spiritual darkness, a place that enslaves and devours. Egypt symbolizes the world, and everyone is born into it, but can we escape it? On the tombstone of Grigori Savvich Skovorada, an 18th Century ancestor of the Russian mystic and philosopher Vladimir Soloviev, the epitaph is written,

The world tried to capture me,
But it did not succeed.

Theology through Story: Conclusion to Genesis

Posted in Uncategorized on September 8, 2014 by ancienthopes

From the beginning of the Bible to the end, theology is presented to us through story. This is the biblical way of imparting truth; it is incarnate in the lives of those whose drama God chose to enshrine in Holy Scripture for all time. When we look at these stories, even the rather prolonged Patriarchal Narrative that we just worked through, we stand in amazement at the concise nature of the stories, the economy of style where nothing is superfluous, every detail is relevant. Never does the narrator moralize and expand or extrapolate points to take to heart. A respect for the integrity of the reader is always maintained; readers must engage in the story and draw his or her conclusions themselves. For the most part, we cannot be told─we have to come to truth via an encounter with God through the stories.

We westerners love stories like the rest of humanity, both ancient and contemporary. But by and large, the ordinary westerner tends to look at them differently. By instinct we paddle along upon the surface of a story, following its story line to its conclusion, and take in whatever impressions that might present themselves. For serious and in-depth thinking on any subject, we look to systematic presentations of materials arranged in categories and expressed in logical progression, like textbooks. (The closest thing we find like this in Scripture is in the very small genre of epistles in the New Testament, but even a letter like Romans must not be mistaken for a systematic theology.) Systematic presentation of theology has its place in our culture in that truth can and must be contextualized to appeal to the western mind. However, the danger is that we will mistake the story as entertainment, and not grasp the fact that story is a medium of the most profound theological reflection, and that it takes certain skills and attitudes to unlock its contents.

It is truly amazing how deep and rich theology by story is. In our study of Genesis, we have pondered many of the great questions of human existence through its stories. There is nothing like it in all of human literature. Story has a way of presenting truth in all its paradoxes and complexities in a most simple way. For instance, volumes have been written in systematic theologies on divine sovereignty and human freedom, whether creation is a closed system (everything is determined) or open (the system can be influenced by wills and choices of created beings). In the Joseph story, every character is portrayed as a free agent and is self determining. This cannot be denied. At the same time God is sovereign over everything, even the free choices of the brothers who acted autonomously with evil intent, bringing the whole story to conform to His will. The famous line “…you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good…” (Gen. 50:20 cf. 45:5-8), is the closest thing we have in the story like a teaching, but it is not abstract; it is a part of the fabric of the narrative where Joseph comforts his brothers by drawing their attention to the reality of God underlying their lives.

As we connect with these ancient stories, they become ours in a highly personal way. They meld in with our own story, creating an overarching “meta-narrative” that links our story with the origins of the world and continues on till the end. Our little journey through life becomes a critical link in the cosmic drama. Doing theology is therefore a meditation on stories. It is not incidental that Luke recounts St. Paul’s story of conversion 3 times in Acts (9:1-18, 22:4-16, 26:9-18). Ideas can be argued, but no one can argue the story. One must confront the story and make a decision. Every one of our stories is deeply theological. We become aware of their depths as we ponder them in light of the biblical narratives and the great meta-narrative that builds upon it. It is shocking how many people are ignorant of these biblical stories, their own stories, and seem totally uninterested in other people’s stories. This is theological poverty.

“… He Remembers We Are Dust.” Psa. 103:14

Posted in Uncategorized on September 2, 2014 by ancienthopes

It is good to take to heart the strange fact that the twelve gates of paradise are named after Jacob’s twelve sons. There are only a very few Josephs among us. As for the rest of us, not much will be all that noteworthy, at least from outward human observation. There are many in God’s family who simply do not grow very much in this life. Most of us labor, and will continue to labor, under the heavy hand of our darkness. For some reason known only to God, some of us will struggle horribly throughout our lives with the kind of vile attitudes and dark memories that Reuben, Simeon, and Levi knew; we will be glad, perhaps surprised, when one day we make it to the end. We do well to meditate deeply on divine pity and mercy.

What is of supreme importance is that we are headed in the right direction. Israel and his sons had the Land of Promise in their hearts; Canaan was home, not Egypt. Perhaps the most significant thing Israel did for his family was to demand that he be buried not in Egypt but in Canaan with his fathers. When the great man finally died, not only did his children make the trip back to the family plot at Machpelah, near Mamre, in the land of Canaan, but many of Pharaoh’s high officials did as well (Gen. 50:1-14). The Canaanites were deeply impressed, especially at the fact that the Egyptians themselves were mourning so intensely over this Hebrew. This mummy brought proud Egypt out of itself to the Promised Land, and the Canaanites within gathered around. During a brief moment in this ancient time, Israel, Egypt, and the Canaanites, a small segment of the world, experienced a little bit of heaven around Jacob’s mummy as it was placed next to his grandfather Abraham’s bones. Israel never forgot this; their destiny, and the destiny of the nations, lies in their land.

As for Joseph, we find that in spite of all his Egyptian ways, he was a Hebrew at heart. Sure, he had his father and himself mummified according to custom, but he requested that the Israelites bring his bones along with them when God came to bring them out of Egypt (Gen. 50:24-26). A man of his rank would most surely have had opportunity to acquire an expensive tomb, perhaps near his Pharaoh whom he served so faithfully in life, according to all the procedures in Egyptian religious practice necessary to secure for himself eternal life. The fact that he ultimately chose to be buried in Canaan reveals his own personal belief that there was no ultimate hope in Egypt, that great symbol of the world. His hope was in the land promised to his fathers by God Almighty. He would indeed return to Eden, but not in a box!

We now conclude our discussion of this most famous yet most common family. Though it is, as we have said earlier, a magnificent literary masterpiece, it profoundly differs from epics of other nations. There we are bound to find stories that glamorize national heroes, often warriors, and that glorify the fatherland. In our story, humanity is not exulted but seen for what it is, for Israel’s first family represents every man and every woman as they are in real life. It is true that they and we are not much to look at, for we are but mortal dust. However, it is the God of Jacob that catches our eye and inspires our souls to aspire to heights beyond anything we mortals could imagine on our own.