Archive for November, 2014

Pharaoh’s Hard Heart

Posted in Uncategorized on November 24, 2014 by ancienthopes

In YHWH’s very first conversation with Moses we are given a window into the Pharaoh’s frame of mind; he will not let the Israelites go “unless compelled by a mighty hand” (3:19). This sets the stage for understanding the hardening of his heart. It is evident from the text that YHWH hardened Pharaoh’s heart. The Hebrew word most often used is the word ḥāzaq (the verbal stem called “Hiphil” which is a causative, i.e. “I will cause to harden;” see 4:21, 9:12, 10:20, 27, 11:10, 14:4, 8, but we have qāšâ in 7:3 and kābēd in 10:1, 14:4). However, things are not so simple because four times the text merely states that “his heart was hardened” (7:13, 22, 8:19 and 9:35). What is more, Pharaoh himself is said to harden his own heart after the second plague (8:15 v. 11), fourth plague (8:32), and after the seventh plague (9:34), where it is stated that Pharaoh sinned by doing this.

It is clear that Pharaoh’s hardened heart is the result both of his own will and by YHWH’s design. In the context of the narrative, we see that YHWH’s role in hardening Pharaoh’s heart is holy war. God rewards Pharaoh’s hardening by hardening it more for the express purpose that Pharaoh will make foolish tactical battle decisions. This will show off YHWH’s “outstretched hand” displaying His mighty deeds in war. In other words, hardening the heart of His enemies is a divine war strategy, a ‘weapon” in God’s arsenal, so to speak, and this motif spans from here in Scripture to the very end. One who has a hard heart is one who is fighting God and losing.

Hardening of heart is often evident in the context of signs and wonders as well. One would expect that signs and wonders would naturally convert the heart to God. However, miracles often bring on the opposite effect. This is the case with Pharaoh and a host of others in subsequent biblical history. This tells us that rebellion is a matter of the will and not a lack of evidence. Wills can be temporarily subdued when in fact they are resistant to the core (e.g. Pharaoh in 8:28-29). Signs and miracles can also have a good effect as well. We might conclude that if the heart is evil, signs and wonders will spiral it downwards in unbelief; if the will is inclined towards God, they will spiral it upwards in faith. It is rarely a good thing, however, to long for miracles, since we do not always know our hearts. This certainly was a problem with the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. It is said that Jesus could do no miracle in Nazareth, not because he was unable, but because it would present opportunity for the people to blaspheme (Mark 6:5-6).

Since Pharaoh represents something in us all, that “seed of the serpent,” none of us are ever really far from a hardened heart. In fact, it makes for a profound meditation to compare Moses’ uncircumcised lips with Pharaoh’s hard heart, which interestingly enough is referred to as an “uncircumcised heart” elsewhere (Deut. 10:16). Those things about us that we resent and make us feel bitter and insecure can easily lead to a hard heart, a heart that chooses to strike out at God in defiance and anger. It is the hard work of faith to submit our weaknesses to the Lord. Moreover, we must be vigilant against a hard heart every day. It is not by accident that Psalm 95 is prayer every morning in the Liturgy of the Hours, “O that today you would listen to his voice! Harden not your hearts as at Meribah…”

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Moses’ Uncircumcised Lips

Posted in Uncategorized on November 19, 2014 by ancienthopes

Up to this point Moses has been a failure, at least with regard to accomplishing great things. His first attempt as a young man to defend his brothers by killing the Egyptian resulted in his fleeing into the desert. Here as an old man of 80, under divine coercion, he goes back to Egypt to deliver his brethren only to make matters worse for them. The drama builds up to the genealogy of Aaron and Moses (Ex. 6:14-25). One might wonder why a genealogy would be stuck into the narrative so as to disrupt the drama. This is, in fact, worth wondering about.

The genealogy is integral to the narrative in that it is bracketed by Moses’ strange and grotesque expression about being a man of uncircumcised lips (6:12 and 6:30). It is hard for the mind to follow this metaphor; it is obscene. It is one thing to follow the expression spiritually with regard to an “uncircumcised heart” (Deut. 10:16), but applied to the lips it is foul. Commentators, by and large, do not even touch upon it. We detect in this expression a shame and anger in Moses concerning his impediment. We have no idea how he dealt with it growing up in a very sophisticated environment where eloquence was no doubt admired in the educated class. It must have been very painful. He may even have been relieved to disappear in the wilderness where only the herds heard his voice. This is critical for us to ponder here, for it is through the very instrument of Moses shame and embarrassment, the very thing that pains him most in the depths of his soul, that becomes most important to God.

The text sets aside this personal frustration to establish Moses linage in the genealogy. Much can be said of this, but here we will simply say that it establishes Moses’ and Aaron’s legitimacy. Reuben’s and Simeon’s lines are truncated and are only mentioned because they are the first two sons of Jacob, and sets Levi in context as third son. What follows is three generations of Levi, who lives 137 years, taking us to Aaron and Moses through Kohath, who lives 133 years, and Amram, who lives 137 years. These years are made up of 3s, 7s and 100s, “perfect” numbers in combinations and multiples. We add these together with the 83 years of Aaron’s life which totals 490 years, and if we subtract the estimated time Levi dwelt in Canaan before he went down to Egypt with his family, we come to the number 430 years, the number we have in Ex. 12:40 for Israel in Egypt (Cassuto). This way of reckoning has more to do with the symbolic power of the numbers than exact calculation of years. The point is that God is the God of time and generations who fills out the details of all history, and acts at just the right moment, even though it seems to us that He sleeps through generations. As for Moses, he and his brother find themselves at the very point of God’s great act of salvation as His agents. This greatness is contrasted with Moses’ self shame about his speech impediment. The narrative concludes this section almost mocking him for complaining “Behold, I am a man of uncircumcised lips…” (6:30).

God reverses Moses’ shame into the highest of honors. It creates a relationship between him and Aaron that parallels the relationship between God and His prophets. Prophets are God’s mouthpieces. It is critical to see that Moses is not without the power of speech for he does speak to Pharaoh all that YHWH commands (7:2). The point is that Moses becomes like God to Pharaoh in that he has a prophet before him that does all his miraculous bidding. From this moment on, and for the first time in his 80 years of life, Moses’ uncircumcised lips no longer are an issue for him.

Practically every one of us has an issue that brings deep personal shame to us, something that torments our souls, and which we would like to hide. Even St. Paul himself struggle with such an impediment (II Cor. 12:7-10). However, when we see that this impediment is intentionally given to us for the very purpose of perfecting God’s work through us, then these old wounds and hurts become a non-issue. In fact, we stand back in amazement and see that the very thing that has brought us shame YHWH turns to our honor.

The Battle Begins: An Allegory

Posted in Uncategorized on November 11, 2014 by ancienthopes

After YHWH convinced Moses to go to Egypt, we proceed to a narrative of various encounters (Ex. 4:27-6:13). The narrative works on two levels, the story as in unfolds on the surface, and the timeless spiritual dynamic underneath the narrative. As we have established earlier, Moses represents the spirit in humanity, and Aaron the will. It is God who brings them together, and their kiss of greeting suggests the union of spirit and will to carry out the divine purpose, which is freedom. Moses, through Aaron the “will,” convinces the people, who represent the body with its senses, to get on board through the signs and the delivery of God’s words (4:29-30). Enthused and encouraged with the idea of freedom, the whole of Israel, the spirit, the soul represented here by the will, and the body, are unified (4:31). So far so good, for the spirit must rule the will, and the will the flesh. Adam and Eve reversed this, where the flesh ruled the soul with its reason and will which in turn dominated the spirit. We were made to live from the inside out, not the outside in, for the spirit deep within our interiors is most like God.

However, we have Pharaoh to reckon with. Pharaoh represents the seed of the dragon planted in humanity’s heart at the moment Adam and Eve fell under its spell. This seed grows as we grow; it is self destructive and irrationally longs to make contact with the dragon who desires to devour. Pharaoh therefore is complex, representing this “thing” inside us which St. Paul much later refers to as the “old man” as well as its parent, the serpent. Pharaoh never gives in without a fight, assailing the flesh sorely with the purpose of controlling the soul and spirit. Pharaoh’s “creature” within always is aligned with the flesh and the senses against the spirit. Adding to the fight are the Egyptian taskmasters, the demons which torment. The people are forced to work even harder now that they have rebelled (5:6-9). Pharaoh mocks by accusing his Hebrew slaves of being idle under his “benevolence,” dreaming of worshipping YHWH (5:17). We would not be too far off if we associate the Hebrew foremen as the senses themselves, cowed and beaten by Pharaoh’s taskmasters (5:14-19). They come to Moses and Aaron; the spirit and will are disheartened at the dismal situation (5:20-21).

Moses turns to YHWH with the complaint, “Why have you sent me” (5:23)? YHWH responds with a speech with much the same information that He revealed earlier (cf. 6:2-8 with 3:6-22) but with one important addition. His purpose is that He will take Israel for His own people, and they will take him as their God (6:7). This is the great “covenant formula” that encapsulates the relationship covenant creates. It is so simple and sublime, stating in two reciprocal phrases the divine longing for “togetherness.” It cannot be improved; the Bible essentially ends with it by the divine declaration from the throne when the old heavens and earth give way to the new (Rev. 21:3).

But the people are too broken to receive it (6:9). This teaches us that without divine help, the spirit and will cannot defeat the Pharaoh without and within. Nevertheless, YHWH commands Moses to sally forth again to Pharaoh with the command to release His people. Moses counters with the logical argument that if his own people will not listen to him, then Pharaoh certainly won’t, emphatically concluding with a short little jab highlighting his lingering sense of inadequacy, “I of uncircumcised lips” (6:12). How strange and grotesque a metaphor for a speech impediment! Behind this we feel the spirit’s anger and frustration with God as well with itself, but it and the will is driven by a divine charge to carry out God’s plan (6:13). Salvation is something that God must bring about in spite of ourselves.

This allegory is true because it is true to the human experience. It does no violence to the historical sense of the text, yet lifts the story to a level where it transcends the historical moment. There our hearts affirm that this is not only a story about Israel in Egypt, but it is our story as well. Indeed, even if we do not consciously see this allegory in our reading, we feel it subliminally in our souls.

A Meditation on the “Personality” of YHWH

Posted in Uncategorized on November 3, 2014 by ancienthopes

The Hebrew conception of YHWH is, by and large, one of magnificent transcendence. When we look at how YHWH interacted with Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or anyone other than Moses in the Old Testament, with the possible exception of Abraham the “friend of God” (James 2:23), there seems to be a formal distance. YHWH is so engaging with Moses, there is a give and take, a back and forth in conversation that would almost suggest parity. In Moses, the transcendent Creator-God, and his creature made in His own image, are intimate.

We might say that Moses is simply unique and there will never be another like him. However, in 4:21-23 YHWH reveals to Moses His intentions in the message He has for Pharaoh. In a nutshell, the coming battle is a parental one where YHWH the true God and Pharaoh the false god will wage war over their “firstborns,” Israel the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15) and Pharaoh’s heir to the throne and the future of Egypt’s proud dynasty. Since YHWH is true God and Pharaoh mere mortal, it cannot even be described as a real contest, so YHWH will prolong it by hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that the whole world will see His glory. What arrests our attention here is that YHWH considers Israel His “firstborn,” which is a metaphor for “preeminent,” or that which evokes emotion and pride, that which is best. (See Ps. 89:27 where the messianic king is declared “firstborn,” which means, the “highest of the kings of the earth.”) We must conclude that the intimate relationship YHWH has with Moses is the relationship He wants with His people at large.

Such intimacy, however, can never be presumed upon. In the very next pericope (4:24-26), one of the great enigmas of Hebrew texts, we see that YHWH is absolutely terrifying. We take the antecedent of the pronoun “him” in v. 24 to mean not Moses himself, but his own uncircumcised firstborn, for the overall context of this narrative is that of firstborns. Zipporah saves the boy’s life by performing the operation herself, and in anger touches the foreskin to Moses’ “feet” (probably a euphemism for his own circumcised phallus), calling him a “bloody bridegroom” for his own neglect. The same YHWH who has shown himself so intimate and engaging is at another moment ready to kill a child that is not circumcised, even the son of Moses himself, and therefore not an obedient son of the covenant. It is not easy living with a Holy God! He is both engaging and terrifying.

We see this same reaction to Jesus Christ by His disciples. Nothing is clearer than that they are drawn to Jesus by His love for the Father and love for them. He is so engaging, seeking authentic intimacy and friendship as He did with Moses. On the other hand, it is clear that a common reaction to Jesus is sheer terror. Take the Gospel of Mark, for instance, where demons shriek (1:26, 3:11, 5:7, 9:26), and the people and disciples are often in a state fear (Gk. phobeo, in terror of the numinous, 1:27, 2:12, 4:41, 5:15, 33, 6:50, 51, 10:32, 16:8). Especially of note is 4:41 where Jesus “rebukes” the storm at sea and the disciples are horrified to find themselves in the same boat as Deity (only YHWH in the OT rebukes the watery deep, symbol of death and chaos, cf. Ps. 18:16, 104:7, 106: 8, 107:26f., Job 26:11-13), and 6:50 and 51 where Jesus walks on the sea (again, only YHWH can tread upon the watery deep, cf. Job 9:8), and the disciples are frozen with unearthly fright (Gr. lian [very] ek perissou [excessively], en eautois [within themselves] existanto [beside oneself with astonishment]). In the middle of this moment Jesus tells them “not to fear,” because “it is I” (Gk. ego eimi “I am” i.e. YHWH).

Nowhere in the whole of the Old Testament is the paradox of YHWH’s numinous “personality,” inspiring both love/intimacy and terror, clearly presented as here with Moses, and finds its parallel with Jesus in the New Testament. Both are necessary if YHWH, who is revealed as Jesus in the earliest kerygma of the Gospel (see I Cor. 12:3), is both transcendent God and intimate friend.