The Bard’s Song

Posted in Uncategorized on January 12, 2015 by ancienthopes

In the old world, no mighty military feat would be complete without a bard to compose a song or ballad that would immortalize the victory. And so we have it here with “The Song of the Sea” (Exodus 15). However, because of its rich theological content and its direct address to YHWH praising His attributes, we may also consider this an ancient hymn that opens up for us the heart of Hebrew worship. It is surely one of the oldest songs in the Bible (so Albright).

The hymn has two parts to it. The first is a highly poeticized description of the battle itself and how YHWH triumphed over Pharaoh’s chariots (15:1-10). It is interesting that although YHWH is likened to a “Man of War,” He is not at all like any human warrior. He is incomparable not only because He is incomparable God (15:11), but also in that He does not fight like any human warrior. Human warriors kill directly. On one hand, we can say that since all life is initiated and terminated by God, God does take life directly, as we clearly see in 12:29. However, on the other hand, the narrative depicts YHWH warring through nature, such as we have seen with the plagues and here the watery deep. In the Hebrew cosmology, God has so “rigged” nature that if humanity breaks moral and spiritual boundaries laid out at creation, then creation itself will war against the culprit. In other words, there is a symbiosis between natural and the moral/spiritual. We see this in the prose description in 14:21-29 as well as in this song where it is clear that what happened was supernaturally initiated by Moses’ stretching out his hand creating a wall for the Israelites to walk through on dry ground, but yet we see the God did this naturally through His wind. It is useless to argue over a supernatural explanation or a naturalistic explanation, for the two could not be separated in the Hebrew cosmology as it is in our modern thinking. Humans are punished through nature for their moral choices as Pharaoh was. This hymn does not celebrate a God that loves to kill as a warmonger, but a God who established boundaries, both physical and moral, by which we can happily live, and if we break them, nature itself rises up against us. God both judges and saves through nature.

The second half of the song reveals the purpose of this mighty deed of salvation. We have seen how the battle is depicted in terms of creation (See Unleashing Chaos on Chaos, January 6, 2015). YHWH’s strategy was to lure the Egyptian army to the watery deep where God separated the waters, creating dry land to save Israel, but unleashing them upon the Egyptians. This parallels the first six days of creation where God divided the waters from the dry ground and filling them with life, especially humanity, culminating with the seventh day of rest in God’s cosmic temple. Here the battle culminates in the establishment of a new humanity in Israel and the establishment of a new land, a new garden “planted” by God on a new mountain (v. 17), a restored rest. YHWH’s act of deliverance and establishing Israel on the land promised to Abraham is as important as creation itself; indeed, it is but a continuation of creation. It is a sanctuary not made, like Babel, with human hands, but is established by YHWH’s own hands (v. 17). Chaos will not win out, but “The Lord will reign forever and ever.”

The same pattern that we see in creation and in this battle is also the same pattern we see in the salvation of each individual. We are born into spiritual and moral chaos, and God’s saving acts in our lives are much like the separation of light from darkness, dividing the watery deep from fertile ground in the internal caverns of our soul, subduing its sea monsters lurking within. The goal is the same as creation and this battle at the sea, bringing our interior sanctuaries into the rest of the seventh day, worship in union with God. When this happens, we cannot help but sing hymns to God for our deliverance like Moses, Miriam, and the sons of Israel did. Yes, this old bard’s song, this most ancient and original of hymns, becomes ours.

Unleashing Chaos on Chaos

Posted in Uncategorized on January 6, 2015 by ancienthopes

YHWH dismantles his foe in three stages. Having toyed with Pharaoh in the first stage of the battle with the 3 sets of 3 plagues culminating with an unnatural darkness reminiscent of the pre-created state (See YHWH’s Strange and Terrible Weapons: The Plagues on Dec. 8, 2014), and winning the battle of the firstborns in the second stage of the battle (12:29-32), YHWH now leads forth His people as a great captain of war with a plan to destroy Egypt’s army, the best in the world (13:17-14:31). He does this by trickery and by engaging the powers of chaos against Egypt, the great symbol of moral and spiritual chaos.

We see that YHWH did not lead Israel in the most direct way to the Promised Land (13:17). The word “lead” (Heb. nāḥâ, but with the 3 mp suffix, nāḥām, “lead them”) in this context is military in nature, and is a pun on the verb pen-yinnāḥēm, “lest they change their minds,” when they face the Philistines in war (Heb. milḥāmâ – note the nḥam alliteration and assonance) at the border. YHWH’s low estimation of Israel’s warfare prowess is directly followed with the curious fact that this rabble of ex-slaves was armed (v. 18), which, of course, verges on the humorous in comparison with Pharaoh’s elite troops. It is YHWH’s intention to prepare a grand spectacle where Israel stands back, as if before a stage, to see YHWH destroy the mighty Egyptian army all by Himself (14:13-14).

YHWH sets this stage by leading them into the desert. The desert is not only the context of this battle (13:18, 14:3) but of the rest of the Pentateuch. As we have seen before, the desert motif is associated with the formless earth of the pre-created state, that which is inhospitable, the opposite of the Garden and its river of life. Immediately the question arises, “how shall this vast crowed survive even without an enemy at their heels?” The second primal element of chaos is the watery deep, here described as yam suf, the Red/Reed Sea. There are all sorts of speculation as to where or what body of water this refers to. For us, we assume with the narrative that this is a historical event that happened at a substantial body of water, wherever it may have been. However, we simply cannot miss the cosmic dimensions with which our text frames this battle. YHWH intentionally leads the people “toward the Red/Reed Sea” (13:18). The word “suf,” often translated “Reed,” sounds much like the word “sof” to the Hebrew ear, which means “end.” Following this clue, we see that YHWH is leading his people, as well as the Egyptians, to the very “end,” or “edge,” of the watery deep, which for Pharaoh’s army, means death. Finally, the third primal element of chaos, that of darkness, is instrumental in the fight as well, as we find in 14:20, right before the very end, where we see the angel of the Lord coming between Israel and Egypt with a “cloud and darkness.” YHWH therefore is engaging the three primal elements of chaos that we have seen at creation in his battle with Egypt, especially the watery deep (See Genesis 1:2, Primal Elements of Chaos and Primal Fears on April 30, 2013).

Pharaoh is tricked by the fact that Israel is now in a vulnerable situation, hemmed in by the desert and the sea (14:3). YHWH hardens his heart to go after them with his all of his chariots (14:6-9). The Israelites respond in fear (14:10ff.) in spite of the supernatural leading by the cloud by day, and the pillar of fire by night. These moved in between the Israelites and the Egyptians to separate them that night. Moses stretches his hands over the sea, and YHWH responds by driving the sea back with a strong east “wind,” “dividing” the waters for them to cross over on “dry ground” (cf. Ex. 14:22,29 with Gen. 1:2, 6, 9, 10). Egypt’s army perishes in the watery deep (14:28).

The language and imagery intentionally connects this event with creation. What happened at the sea was not merely a historical event, but a cosmic event parallel to creation itself. By delivering Israel out of Egypt, YHWH was effecting a new creation; the very inception of human salvation, for all humanity will trace its salvation to this event. It is noteworthy that the text explicitly states as an outcome that even the Egyptians shall “know that I am YHWH” (14:18). To “know YHWH” is to enter into truth and thus salvation itself. After all, YHWH was not fighting an ethic war as if He hated Egyptians, but what Egypt as a nation represented; the world in conflict with YHWH. YHWH unleashes chaos on chaos!

Life: A Drama of Inescapable Terror

Posted in Uncategorized on December 31, 2014 by ancienthopes

The scene before us in Exodus 12 and 13 is full of terror. The perfect year old-lamb from the flock lives with the family for four days before it is sacrificed on the Passover. It is very adorable and everyone is deeply aware of its presence. Its blood is smeared on the doorposts and lintel; it must be eaten completely by morning and whatever is left is to be burned. The historical context of this ritual is the divine act of killing enemy firstborns. But YHWH demands the life of every male firstborn of Israel, man and beast, the very best, as well! Everyone in the family passed through the bloody doorposts not only thinking of the lamb that recently became a part of their family, but keenly aware that the blood they see is in the place of their very own firstborn male (13:1, 2, 15). The law of the firstborn and the Passover are intertwined by their juxtaposition in the narrative.

This terrifying scenario can only make sense in the context of a world where YHWH was the ultimate reality that must be reckoned with, or, in the broader pagan society, the gods. Human sacrifice was thought to be a necessity, for human life is most precious, especially when the child sacrificed is most precious. Life before God or the gods could not be lived out with integrity without offering them the very best! Feeling deeply the reality of sin and failure, how could things be made right by offering something less than the best? The remarkable thing about Israel, surrounded by a sea of human blood sacrificed to the gods, was that YHWH forbade the sacrifice of their children, accepting the blood of perfect lambs instead. However, human sacrifice was never far from the psychology of their worship. The majestic act of Abraham, their father in blood and faith, ready with outstretched arm for the ultimate sacrifice of His son Isaac, was always before them. And then there was that lamb they lived with for four days every Passover, sacrificed in the place of the most important person among the children, their own first-born male.

There is a profound similarity between the pagan world and Israel in that both YHWH and the gods inspire terror. There are profound differences as well. The pagans were terrorized by the gods, and never quite knew if they were appeased by their sacrifices. They lived in a climate of terror and had no way to escape the fear it inspired. No doubt it seemed to them that the gods smiled at times upon them, but inevitably, angry clouds would set in. For Israel, who was called to live with a Holy God, terror was inescapable as well. In fact, the very idea of the “holy” cannot be separated from the mysterium tremendom, holy terror. Terror gives way to šālôm and the sheer joy of divine acceptance and mutual relationship established by covenant and its liturgical requirements performed with faithful hearts. For Israel, terror and joy were never far apart. In fact, the Crucifix brings together the paradox perfectly.

Today, we are far removed from old paganism and old Israelite ritual and sacrifice. The terror they experienced before the holy is incomprehensible. A God that is so absolute and real that He demands ultimate sacrifice is offensive to us. Such concepts are dismissed as old relics of a stage in human development out of which humanity is hopefully emerging. True, there is terrorism inspired by misguided religious fervor, but there is also the terror that springs forth from the secular world view. The human soul was made to engage with God and to experience the sheer terror and delight the mere force of His being inspires. Without this quest the soul shrivels up and the sheer boredom of aimlessness settles in, creating terrorists of our own making. Our world is far more full of terrors than the old world; terrorism is an imbedded part of our world culture, and there is no true joy. We run from the terror of God to our own manufactured terror. Terror is inescapable. It is a holy terror to run toward God, but to run away from God is terrible in the most awful way.

History, Memory, and Liturgy

Posted in Uncategorized on December 17, 2014 by ancienthopes

The way our biblical text is arranged in Exodus 11-12, that is, the form in which it is presented, is of as great importance as its content. We go from the three sets of three plagues (chapters 7-10), which we may call “history,” (although it is highly stylized for theological effect; very foreign to the way we do history in our age) to a divine oracle of instruction (chapter 11), to liturgical instruction (12:1-28), back to the historical narrative (12:28-42), and then back to liturgical instruction (12:43-49, along with 12:50-13:16). What does this tell us about the Scripture and the Hebrew mind in which it was conceived? It suggests to us that history, in and of itself, means nothing outside of a theological context. But what is more, redemptive history can only have its full meaning as liturgical history which is acted out in prayer and worship.

By “liturgy” we mean “work,” for the Hebrew word used to describe the action of sacred worship is `abôdâ (the word for both labor and worship; the LXX reads latreian from which we get our word “liturgy”) as we read in the command, “when you come to the land which YHWH will give you … you shall keep (Heb. šāmar) this service (`abôdâ) in 12:25. Here we have a direct link to creation, for Adam and Eve was to keep (Heb. šāmar) the work (`abôdâ) the Garden (Gen. 2:15). God is preparing Israel for the Promised Land, a return, as it were, to the Garden, and their main responsibility in it, as it was supposed to be for our first parents, was to “keep and work” it.

This day of the Passover in which the liturgy was to be performed, is a day of “remembrance” (12:14). To the Hebrew, “remembrance” (Heb. zikkārôn) is not a mere cognitive, subjective, act of recalling something to mind as it is to us in our culture. Rather, remembrance is an objective liturgical act where the worshipers were transported back in time to the original historical event in a way that made them as present to that event as the ones who first experienced it. We see this in 12:26-27 where the deliverance is as much the experience of the children in generations to come as the first generation. History is therefore preserved in the liturgical act, and is given continuous meaning as the generations pass by. There is no word for “history” in Hebrew. What we have is the word “remember” (Heb. zākar) which is essentially linked to liturgical action. History becomes a prayer acted out in liturgy, a sacred drama, a reenactment.

Now it is true that liturgy can become an empty form when done thoughtlessly or in ignorance. The prophets condemn this and it is an ever present danger (e.g. Is.1:10-17). But it is equally true that without the objective prayer acted out in the community, we are no longer essentially connected with the past, and we become lost in our own subjectivity. There is a direct relationship between our present disregard for history and our disdain for the ancient liturgy. Most Christians are aware, at least vaguely, that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Passover sacrifice described here in Ex. 12, but many do not experience it liturgically, and therefore do not experience it as a corporate, objective act of worship. That is, they are not, as the ancient Hebrews were with their Passover, transported back to the original sacrifice of Jesus at the cross, thus binding themselves to Jesus with all the ages of worshipers in one divine moment at Eucharist. This is because they are completely blinded to the ancient idea of history by our modern idea of history given to us by the Enlightenment. Worship is reduced for them to subjective feelings and has little to no objective reality in the here and now.

The Christian liturgy of the Eucharist is often called the “divine liturgy,” especially by the Eastern Orthodox. We see from the connection made above between the garden of our origins in Eden and the liturgy of the Passover to the Holy Eucharist that we enter into paradise through the prayers acted out together. Only then does history become real to us rather than some vague mental recollection of something that happened long ago.

YHWH’s Strange and Terrible Weapons: The Plagues

Posted in Uncategorized on December 8, 2014 by ancienthopes

The actual battle begins with a skirmish that at first might remind us of a magical contest. Aaron throws Moses’ staff before Pharaoh, and it became a serpent. Again, we imagine this serpent to be a Cobra representing Pharaoh’s power. (See Taking the Cobra by the Tail, Oct. 27, 2014, and the Uraeus in Pharaoh’s crown). The Egyptian magicians somehow could manage this as well, but Aaron’s rod swallowed them up. This is a bad omen, and Pharaoh should have picked up on this, but could not, for his heart was hardened. It is a prophetic sign that YHWH will swallow Egypt up, which in fact happens at the Red Sea.

There are three stages of three plagues, each stage intensifying, concluding with the worst of all, the Death Angel. In the first stage the Nile is turned to blood (7:20 24), the plague of frogs (8:1 7), and the gnats (8:16 19). Note that the magicians could imitate plagues one and two, as well as the serpents (7:11 13) with their sophisticated dark arts, but could not imitate the third plague (“This is the hand of God,” 8:19). In the second stage there are the plague of flies (8:20 24), the death of Egypt’s livestock (9:1 7), and the boils (9:8 12). Note the distinction made between Israel and Egypt at this stage (8:22). Also, after this stage the magicians could not even stand before Moses because of the boils (9:11). In the third stage there are the plagues of hail (9:22 26), locusts (10:12 20), concluding with the ninth plague of thick darkness (10:21 29). It is important to notice that the magicians are not even mentioned now. Also, in some way there was intensification, for God’s power was “unrestrained” at this stage (9:14).

What is happening with the magicians is significant. They could duplicate snakes (7:12) and plagues 1 (water to blood) and 2 (frogs), but could not produce gnats, so they declare, “This is the finger of God” (8:19). After the second stage, they could not even stand before Moses because of the boils. They are not even mentioned after 3rd stage. YHWH is not only warring against Pharaoh (parental battle), but is putting to shame pagan magic in the heart of Egypt, the land of the occult par excellence. It is not even portrayed as a magic contest, for YHWH and Moses transcend magic. It is a “no contest;” the battle is prolonged merely to show off God’s power over what in that day and age was considered ultimate power, Pharaoh and Egypt. In the Hebrew world view, all power is God’s power, and any power the magicians could tap into is ultimately “on loan,” so to speak.

The ninth and last plague of the three sets of three, deep darkness, is significant as well. One might think that one of the previous plagues, such as boils, would be worse. However, this darkness was unnatural; the Hebrew wording in 10:21, 22 implies an unnatural darkness, a return, so to speak, to the pre-created state where “darkness was over the face of the deep” (Gen. 1:2). It was felt that the natural order and bounds of creation, day and night, were altered, and therefore inspired terror. This is of special import to the Egyptians, for their sky is perpetually clear by day (clouds and storms extremely rare), for Re the sun god (symbolized by the beetle [scarab]), daily drove across it in triumph. Re was the highest god in the Egyptian pantheon, and Pharaoh was Re’s manifestation on earth.

The tenth plague is set apart from the three sets of three because the battle is portrayed fundamentally as a parental battle (4:21-22). YHWH is fighting for his firstborn, and Pharaoh, the god of Egypt, fighting for his dynasty (firstborn). The basic issue involved here is, who is God, YHWH or Pharaoh? The Magicians knew it after 3rd plague, the servants at the 8th plague and Pharaoh after 10th (12:31-32). Note the forced submission of this god-king after 4th, 7th, and 8th plagues; Pharaoh forced reduced to beg for intercession with, and bless me also (12:32).

YHWH turns the gods of Egypt against the Egyptians in His warfare: the Nile, frogs, livestock, the sun and Pharaoh himself. Therefore this is a judgment against the pagan world view that worships nature. YHWH proves His identity in that “all will know that He is YHWH” and that there is no god like Him (5:2, 6:7, 7:5, 17, 8:10, 22, and esp. 9:14, 29, 10:2).

“… Let us go a three days journey …” Really?

Posted in Uncategorized on December 1, 2014 by ancienthopes

As we have seen, YHWH shows a lot of “personality” for being utterly transcendent, beyond words, and even beyond “personality” as we know it (See, A Meditation on the “Personality” of YHWH on Nov. 3rd, 2014). He is not an impersonal “force” who is too transcendent for real relationship, oblivious to those who revere him or not. YHWH takes note of those He loves and with whom He relates, but also His enemies. In our previous post, we see that YHWH is an active agent in the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. We must not think that Pharaoh is a mere play thing to YHWH, an object of His disdain. On the contrary, YHWH is taking Pharaoh seriously, for he is deeply engaged with His will. YHWH respects the fact that Pharaoh is exerting his will, and deals with him accordingly. The spiritual reality is that the more our wills conform to YHWH’s, the freer we humans become. Conversely, the more we fight YHWH’s will, the more constricted our freedom becomes.

If the idea of “hardening” is difficult for us to fathom, the fact that YHWH lies to His enemies is even harder to comprehend. However, it is undeniable from the text. It is clear that YHWH’s intention for Israel is to deliver them from Egypt completely (3:8, 6:6), defeat Pharaoh in a spectacular way (3:19, 20, 6:1,) and slay his firstborn (4:23). It is also clear that YHWH wants Pharaoh to believe that all He wants is for Israel to go out for a three days journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to YHWH (3:18, 5:1-3). Really? What is more, there are other texts where YHWH, or His people, is involved in deceit. For instance, Rahab the harlot is praised for her action which was essentially a lie (Joshua 6), and David lies to the Philistines (I Sam. 27:8-12). What is of particular interest is the story of the prophet Micaiah at King Ahab’s court, where YHWH asks the hosts surrounding His throne who will seduce Ahab so as to bring him down. A spirit comes forward and says that he will do the job, and when asked how, he responds that he will be a “lying spirit” in the mouths of the king’s prophet. YHWH sanctions this plan and it is implemented (I Kings 22:13-23).

What are we to do with this, especially in light of the fact that YHWH is truth and cannot lie? Is not the false word that brings chaos (e.g. the serpent in the garden) the dark side to YHWH’s word by which creation comes to order? Again, as it is with the problem of the hardened heart, the divine lie can only properly be understood in the context of holy war. All the above instances have to do with God warring against His enemies. In fact, war by definition is the art of deception. There can be no war without deceit. That “YHWH is a man of war, YHWH is His name” (Ex. 15:3) means that YHWH out maneuvered His enemies and defeated them. One of His weapons is false intelligence as well as hardening, both of which induced Pharaoh to make foolish tactical decisions. This idea is carried also into the New Testament where God sends His enemies false delusions to make them believe what is false because they do not love the truth (II Thess. 2:11). God defeats Satan, the father of lies, by deceiving the deceiver, beating him at his own game.

All of this is so offensive and absurd to our western “enlightened” culture that long ago rejected the God of the Old Testament. These associations, which C.S. Lewis called “horrid red things,” referring to anthropomorphisms and “primitive” metaphors, cannot be avoided for some more “sophisticated” language without falling into meaningless vagary (Miracles, chap. 10). True, God is beyond all language and metaphor, but we can only make our way to Him through the language and ideas of our human context by means of analogy. We must embrace God as He is presented in these old stories, and if we refuse, we find that we will embrace some benign deity of our own making, or reject God completely. Yes, YHWH has “personality,” and we must take Him seriously, for He certainly takes us seriously.

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…”

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.