Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Books of Moses
Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: The Books of Moses
Rev. Anthony David
Dec. 4, 2011
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor,” writes the author of the Biblical book of Deuteronomy. “He went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us by imposing hard labor upon us we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors. The LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and the LORD brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
This is one of the greatest stories every told.
Now, I didn’t grow up in church, so the first time this story dawned on my consciousness was not in a pew and not in a Sunday school class. It was in the basement of my Baba’s house, close to Christmastime, back when I was something like eight years old. I was in my jammies, and Baba had put on her pink polyester nightgown, and I sat down in her lap, and her face was shiny with Oil of Olay, and I could smell that sweet smell as I nestled into her softness. Lawrence Welk was just finishing up in an explosion of tiny bubbles, and at that point Dido got up to go to bed—he was an early to sleep, early to rise kind of guy—but we stayed put in the TV room because Baba wanted to watch something called The Ten Commandments. Something about Charlton Heston (and whenever she talked about Charlton Heston there was a strange sound in her voice my eight year old mind could never decode, but I got it now, she loooved Charlton Heston…) OK, so The Ten Commandments is on, it’s unfolding before me scene by scene—the baby Moses found in a basket on the Nile river by Pharoah’s daughter; the adult Moses as a Prince of Egypt; the time he kills a guard abusing one of the Israelite slaves; when he discovers who he really is; when he’s brought before his Pharoah father in chains; when he’s banished to the wilderness by Rameses (played by the awesome Yul Brynner); when he encounters God in the burning bush and is called to liberate his people … on and on and on … all these scenes unfolding before the eyes of this eight year old … and let’s not forget the soundtrack: duh duh duh duh, duh DAH DAH DAH DAH!! Heady stuff! And then that scene, after the ten plagues, after the flight from Egypt, when the Israelites find themselves at the shore of the Red Sea, jammed right up against the edge, and the Egyptian army is hot on their heels, and they are between a rock and a hard place, but Moses holds out his arms and lifts up his staff (duh duh duh duh, duh DAH DAH DAH DAH!!) and the waters part and the Hebrews surge forward and the day is saved and I thought to myself O MY GOD what IS this? This is COOL! THIS is a story.
One of the greatest stories ever told.
And not just in my eight-year-old self’s opinion, or that of Judaism and Jews worldwide. It’s religion writer Bruce Feiler’s argument too in his book America’s Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America. A fascinating read, tracing the history of the impact of the biblical narrative of the Israelites on twenty generations of Americans and their leaders. The Pilgrims who left England in 1620 bound for the freedom of America, describing themselves as the chosen people fleeing their pharaoh, King James. “On the Atlantic, they proclaimed their journey to be as vital as ‘Moses and the Israelites when they went out of Egypt.’ And when they got to Cape Cod, they thanked God for letting them pass through their fiery Red Sea” (Bruce Feiler). The Biblical narrative gave the Pilgrims not only language for what they were doing, but logic, justification. “The only reason they could have done that,” says historian Tim Safford—one of many of Bruce Feiler’s interviewees—“The only reason they could have done that is because they had a narrative larger than their own lives. A narrative of God delivers me through the Red Sea. A narrative that if you’re lost in exile, you can still remain holy. A narrative of life is stronger than death, love is more powerful than hate. If you do not have a narrative larger than the world gives you, you’re just going to get sucked up by the world.” That’s Tim Safford. The Pilgrims were just not going to allow themselves to get sucked up by the world. The Founding Fathers of this nation weren’t going to allow that either. Or Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Or leaders of the civil rights movement like Martin Luther King Jr. They had a narrative larger than their own lives, given to them by the Bible, and though the story was thousands of years old, about people long dead and gone, it was nevertheless absolutely new, exactly what they were going through in their own day, it spoke straight to their lives. Oppression in Egypt; liberation from all that through Exodus; the newly freed slaves, despite all the murmuring and complaining, becoming a united people and a new nation at the foot of Mt. Sinai; the new nation entering into the Promised Land. All of it—America’s story too.
“The universe,” says poet Murial Rukeyser, “is made of stories, not atoms.” The universe, nations, and people like you and me. Made of stories.
In our remaining time together, I want to go deeper into this greatest story ever told. Apply the three Bible reading principles that scholar Marcus Borg talks about in his Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, the companion book to this year-long sermon series.
Principle #1: It’s never “God says”; it’s always “humans say.” You just can’t open your Bible and go, “Let’s see what God says about that.” No. The Bible is a record of humans in quest for meaning and truth in life, humans striving for love and justice yet always creatures of their day, always limited by this. We take what the Bible says very seriously but not slavishly—don’t want to make it yet another Pharaoh in our lives!
Second principle: Look to the past. As Bible readers we will miss so much of the meaning if we are not aware of historical context. As Marcus Borg likes to say: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Gotta know the history to truly understand.
Finally the third principle: Don’t allow the Bible to stay stuck in the past. And don’t dismiss a passage if scholarship or science tells you that it can’t be literally true. Don’t cut it out. Instead, go deeper. Read it as poetry, read it as metaphor, read it as myth that conveys psychological and spiritual truth. The voice of the Bible can comfort you, can challenge you, can speak to your spirit right here and right now. It will read you more than you read it, if you let it.
These are the principles: and now let’s get to work.
We begin with what history and scholarship and science have to say. Frankly it’s not pretty.
Something happened in the thirteenth century BCE. The book of Exodus tells us that six hundred thousand Israelite men plus women and children left Egypt—presumably a total of two to three million people. That’s not a small thing. Leaves a HUGE footprint. Yet to this date, no archaeological evidence has ever been found. No contemporaneous writings from the ancient Near East—nothing outside the Bible—makes even a passing mention of it. Definitely nothing from Egypt, which is really strange. As Jonathan Kirsch in his book Moses: A Life puts it, quite ironically, “The ancient Egyptians, who were compulsive chroniclers of their own rich history, somehow failed to notice the presence or the absence of a couple of million Israelite slaves, the afflictions of the Ten Plagues, the plague that took the life of every firstborn child on a single night, of the miraculous events of the Red Sea.” That is just strange. It is no wonder that even the most pious scholar who chooses to honestly grapple with this fact can come away with a most unpleasant feeling of uncertainty. What really happened three thousand plus years ago?
And then there are the miracles. Did those really happen? Just think of the list of plagues Moses unleashed upon Egypt: the Nile water turns to blood, frogs fill the land, gnat attack, fly attack, all Egyptian livestock die, everyone gets boils, the mother of all hail storms wreaks havoc, locust attack, thick darkness covers the land for three days, and then all the firstborn die. Now I know and we know that there are earnest people who have a scientific explanation for every one of these things. The Nile water, for example, did not really turn to blood; it was just a profusion of some microorganism that made the water intensely red. But this misses the point. So much of the Israelite story is premised on God acting in a way that upsets the natural order of things. God’s mighty hand acting supernaturally. And here is where the problem lies. Not just in terms of science, but also in terms of theology. The problem is one of consistency. Lack of consistency says something bad about God and bad about the Exodus story as a whole. Take God first. If God used to act in the world like the Bible tells us, but no longer, despite situations of intense suffering in the centuries ever since (including the Holocaust), then God clearly plays favorites, God is abusive in God’s absence, God is a jerk. As for the story itself: if the liberation of the Israelites was possible only because of genuine bend-the-laws-of-nature miracles, then how can this possibly speak to us today, when we don’t have the luxury of some Moses wielding God-power as he strides through the halls of Congress and demands that the nonsense end, that our rich-getting-richer and poor-getting-poorer system cease. Back then, it was all duh duh duh duh, duh DAH DAH DAH DAH!! But it’s not like that anymore. All of this is good reason for doubting that the miracles ever happened. Again, not just because science doesn’t like supernatural stuff. But also because the theological conclusions about God we end up with are truly ugly. And this greatest story ever told—Egypt, Exodus, Sinai, Promised Land—falls flat.
So we’re not dealing with a story that is to be taken as literally true. Two to three million Israelites were not a part of the picture; Egypt was not devastated as part of the Israelite withdrawal; there were no miracles. This is the judgment of history and science and scholarship. It’s just not “God says,” it’s “people say.”
So why did the people say it? Why did the ancient Israelites tell the story as they did?
Maybe we can’t take the story literally in all its details, but you know, something must really have happened three thousand plus years ago to those Israelites. “Why,” asks religion writer Jonathan Kirsch, “would the chroniclers of ancient Israel make up something as ignoble as four hundred years of servitude in a foreign land unless it was a fact of their history?” And not just the fact of four hundred years of servitude. Also all the murmuring of the Israelites, there in the desert. Time and again, they are saved from death, and still they complain. They KVETCH. Or they create a Golden Calf that spits in the eye of the one saving them. These are not moments to be proud of. Yet they make their way into the narrative, and that says something. A classic rule of Biblical interpretation puts it this way: where there’s honest disclosure of something embarrassing, you’re probably in touch with the truth.
Something must have happened. Surely, when you consider the spiritual and political vision of the ancient Israelites. The moment God hears his people moaning under slavery, the entire moral focus of the story becomes protesting exploitation of any and all kinds and building a society that nurtures everyone. Thirty-six times, in the Exodus narrative, the Israelites are urged to befriend the stranger, for they were themselves strangers in Egypt. The vision of social justice is paramount. The laws that Moses is purported to hand down from on high: some of them represent the most radical socioeconomic legislation of all time. For example: every forty-nine years, during what is called the Jubilee year, “all debts are to be forgiven, all debtors freed, all workers are to return to their ancestral lands, and all families split by economic hardship reunited. The messages is that the land belongs to God, not humans, and nobody should benefit too greatly or suffer too greatly for their work with God’s bounty.” (Bruce Feiler) Can you imagine a law like that here in America? What would happen if we observed it here and now? No need for the Occupy movement for sure….
Something must have happened—something transformative—to those ancient Israelites. If not duh duh duh duh, duh DAH DAH DAH DAH!! of the supernatural kind, then of a kind more natural but still amazing. Still life-changing.
And that’s what we’re looking for—the potentials for life-change—as we practice the Bible-reading principle that says, Don’t allow the Bible to stay stuck in the past. And don’t dismiss a passage if scholarship or science tells you that it can’t be literally true. Don’t cut it out. Go deeper instead. Read it as poetry, read it as metaphor, read it as myth that conveys psychological and spiritual truth. Let the Bible speak straight to your heart. like it did to that eight-year-old boy curled up in his Baba’s lap, smelling her smell of Oil of Olay, watching the scenes of The Ten Commandments unfold and getting it, getting the amazing message that belongs to no one time in history and to no one nation—the message that whatever form of slavery we are oppressed by, it can still be otherwise, there can still be change, there can still be a Promised Land.
Let the Bible speak. There will always be times we find ourselves at the shore of some Red Sea in life. Know what I mean? You were a slave, and somehow you fought your way out. You got away. But the Egyptian army is hot on your heels—your escape is not gonna be automatic or easy. So you are standing at the shoreline, and you are in a desperate, impossible place, and it’s just like poet Audre Lorde says: you are
seeking a now that can breed?futures
like bread in our children’s mouths…
That’s what you are seeking in the face of fear and pain and chaos
a now that can breed?futures
like bread in our children’s mouths.
So what are you going to do NOW?
Maybe there is no Charlton Heston Moses spreading his handsome arms out wide….
No supernatural guarantees to what you are doing
You don’t know what the end of this story is gonna look like
You know how the story of the Pilgrims ended,
or that of our Founding Fathers
or of the Civil War
or of the Civil Rights movement
You know those stories
all those desperate impossible times
when there were people who, against all odds,
stepped right into the Red Sea,
went right in up to their chests
up to their noses
up to their eyeballs
and THAT’S when the waters parted…
You know how their stories ended
just not your own…
What you DO know is you have to do this
you have to find a new life
you have to find your Promised Land
So step in
live a story in your life
larger than the one the world gives you.
Don’t allow yourself to be sucked up by the world….