Archive for February, 2015

Jethro of the Desert

Posted in Uncategorized on February 26, 2015 by ancienthopes

The desert is a strange and complex place, full of surprises. One would think that all of its inhabitants would be “desert demons,” as Amalek most likely seemed to the Israelites, taking on the harsh character of their bleak environment. This is not so. Our text (chapter 18) juxtaposes Jethro the Midianite with Amalek of the last chapter, not to associate them, but to contrast. It is through this contrast that the Book of Exodus transitions out of its first part, Israel’s redemption out of Egypt (1-17), to the great second part, of Israel before Sinai (19-24).

Jethro, Moses’ Father-in-law, is a complex character. He is said here in Exodus to be a priest of Midian, a tribe of desert people who like Amalek, roamed the wilderness. As a priest he stood as a mediator between the tribal gods and his people, a man of obvious importance. It is of interest to us that later historical material associates Jethro with the Kenites (Judges 1:16, 4:11), a tribe named after Cain their notorious ancestor, condemned to be wilderness wonderers in this world. We can never know what is behind this seeming confusion of tribes, but it is clear that Jethro is a pagan priest of the wilderness, and that, contrary to the old legends of the Jews (L. Ginsburg), never converted to YHWH, but nevertheless was intimate with Moses as both a helpful councilor and family relation.

Jethro is not at all like Amalek. He provides a wife and a home for Moses at the beginning of the first section before the great conflict with Pharaoh in an idyllic familial scene (2:15-22), and now we find them eating bread together in another peaceful scene (18:12) which forms “bookends” around the fast action of the Exodus, slowing the narrative to transition into the great covenant episode (Childs). Amalek “came and fought Israel” (17:8) while Jethro “came” and sought Moses’ welfare ( šālôm, 18:5, 7). Moses commands Joshua to “choose” men for war against Amalek (17:9), but Jethro commands Moses to “choose” able men for judging Israel (18:21). Moses’ hands grew “heavy” holding his hands up (17:12) and Jethro observed that Moses’ task of judging all the people was too “heavy” (18;18, see Cassuto for other parallels). Jethro rejoices when Moses tells him all that YHWH did in Egypt (18:9), “blesses YHWH” (18:10), and acknowledges YHWH to be greater than all gods (18:11). He even worships with Moses in sacrificing to God (18:12).

But Jethro never converts. Though he sacrifices to “God,” the word used is the generic ʹEl ôhîm, not YHWH of the covenant, and though he recognizes YHWH as supreme over all deities, this does not mean that this pagan priest embraced the faith for himself. Indeed, the narrative ends with him parting ways with Moses and Israel, never joining the covenant community (18:27). His lot was the desert from which he came, not the Promised Land. Jethro was not at all like Amalek, but he was not a convert to YHWH either. We are not compelled to believe that Moses divorced Zipporah, but re-united with her and his two sons after separating for his task in Egypt. Jethro remained his Father-in-law in parting, bonded relationally.

Jethro symbolizes, in the best way possible, the wisdom of this world and how close the covenant community draws from this wisdom and is even related to this wisdom. At this crucial moment in Israel’s life, he was able to see what Moses, who talked with God, was not able to see. He introduces an organizational principle in Israel, that of decentralization and empowering others. Humble and wise Christians know how to gather nectar from all sorts of flowers. Yes, in the desert there are all sorts of rare and wonderful flowers; it is a strange and complex place, full of surprises.

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The Desert: A Haunt of Demons

Posted in Uncategorized on February 17, 2015 by ancienthopes

The desert was never far from the thin little strip of land which we call Palestine. Indeed, the vast Arabian Desert would certainly have swallowed her up long ago if she did not safely sit upon two mountain ranges running parallel to the Mediterranean coast. These mountains shut out the desert on the East and capture the rains and mists of the Great Sea on the West which feed the rivers and streams that tumble down into its valleys. Still, the Israelites never forgot the fact that the ever encroaching sands of the wastelands were at their back door, for every once in a while the desert would blow its hot, ominous breath that “neither fans nor cleanses” (Jer. 4:11, the Sirocco,” or east wind that comes off from the desert) to remind them of its presence. Those who ventured out into it could not help but experience the horror of formlessness and void (Gen. 1:2, tōhû wābōhû) and shutter in dread before the low wailing of the wind as it passes through the barren rocks (cf. Deut. 32:10, ûbtōhû yelēl yešimōn). Lilith the night hag was feared to haunt these lifeless places along with other unsavory creatures who let out lonely cries as they preyed upon one another for food (Isa. 34:13 14). Those banished to the desert, such as Ishmael (Gen. 21) and Esau (Gen. 27:39ff.), were not looked upon with envy. It was the land that felt the curse of the fall the greatest, and theologically represented the extreme opposite of the paradise for which humanity was made.

In our narrative, the Amalelites, a nomadic people of the desert fringes, attacked Israel (Ex. 17:8-16). They were the descendents of Esau, and took on the nature of their harsh environment. Highly mobile, they made seasonal forages in Palestine as elsewhere to raid. Every encounter Israel has with Amalek is hostile in the Old Testament. As dwellers of chaos they represent on a spiritual level demons that attack with intent of sucking the life out of God’s covenant people in their vulnerable state of testing. This is the harsh reality of the desert. This is the harsh reality of our lives in this life that can be compared to a desert journey on our way to the Promised Land. We will be attacked by demonic powers.

Moses represents our deep interior spirit out of which we live our spiritual life, our core “self.” Aaron represents our will. Moses, Aaron, and Hur go up to a high hill. This is understood as an act of prayer which places us on a high vantage point. Demons are invisible and can be perceived only in prayer. The foe is powerful and stubborn, vicious and even desperate. Israel, representing our bodies and emotions that are so closely tied to our physical nature, succumbs to the enemy when Moses wearies in holding up his hand in prayer. We prevail when we engage our wills in the act of prayer, for the spirit succeeds only when the will supports it. Everyone would pray if it felt good and was easy all the time. Prayer is many things, but is fundamentally an act of war in which we must engage our wills. It is no coincidence that the two places where we have a clear window into Jesus’ prayer life are in his desert temptation at the very beginning of His ministry and in the garden at the end of His ministry. Both times He was fighting demons with all the might of his will!

Pushing it with God

Posted in Uncategorized on February 9, 2015 by ancienthopes

One cannot help but get the feeling that with this next test in the desert, that of no water, the people’s fear, anger, and impatience are escalating. In the first two episodes, the people murmur against Moses; now they are contentious with Moses to the point that he felt that his life was threatened (v.4). Moses is at his wit’s end. God, as before, shows no reaction other than responding to the issue at hand. He commands Moses to take some of the elders on ahead of the people, and strike “the rock at Horeb” so that water will miraculously spring forth (v. 6). The definite article with the word “rock” suggests that this rock was acknowledged to be unique. The mention of Horeb (i.e. Mount Sinai) before the congregation reaches this sacred destination is difficult to understand sequentially. The association, however, draws our attention to the whole idea of the sacred mountain as we have already seen in Exodus 3 (See Gazing into Divine Fire, Oct. 8, 2014). The imagery of “the rock” in connection with the “mountain” is a spiritually loaded biblical motif combination (cf. Dan. 2:34-35, Matt. 21:42-44). We clearly see that God creates in the wilderness a river of life, a virtual Eden in the wilderness.

There is another similarity here with lost origins. The people accused Moses of taking them out into the desert for the express purpose of killing them (v. 3, cf. 16:3). This accusation against Moses is here interpreted by Moses as “putting the Lord to the test” (v. 2). The fact of the situation is that God was testing them to pull to the surface of their consciousness what lies deep inside. What was inside was a heart of disbelief in YHWH. They were committing the same primal sin in the desert that Eve committed in the Garden. She came to disbelieve that God had her best in mind, that He had good intentions for her (See Snaky Words, Sept. 3, 2013). Unlike Abraham their father, who trusted God in the face of the inexplicable (See The Sublime Climax: Gen. 22, Jan. 7, 2014), they were reverting to the primal sin of disbelief. In this darkened spiritual state, the soul deflects the test God applies for spiritual healing, and strikes out against God. This is what it means to put God to the test. Testing God is the reversal of His testing of us. He tests us to ultimately bring healing; we test Him when we push back, accusing Him of bad intentions. We cannot grow and be healed when we are fighting God, and we run the risk of “pushing it too far.” Israel is well on the way of doing this very thing when she asks, “Is the lord among us or not?” in the face of God’s constant provision (v. 7).

Picking up on our allegory, Moses represents the spirit of the person who desires to be reunited with God. The people represent the body with its senses (See The Young Moses, Sept. 29, 2014). This narrative visualizes the strife between the interior spirit driven by God and the exterior driven by the appetite and senses. The exterior appetite is so strong that it would want to kill off the spirit, and would but for the intervention of God. Moses, representing the spirit, is committed to the body but strives to put it under the subjection of God. This is the great battle of everyman, every woman. We all have fight! To fight the good fight is to subject our senses and appetites to our spirit before God. To fight against God is to put him to the test. When we do this, God is extremely patient over a long period of time, but there is a point where we can push it too far. Israel in fact reaches this point a couple of times on their desert journey. The question remains, what about us?