Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Jesus saith unto them, I am (Exod 3)

Having just addressed the issue of the proper name of Moses' father-in-law in my previous post, I can turn to the big issue here that the SAB overlooked in this chapter: How the heck can a bush be burning and yet not consumed? That goes against the known laws of physics and chemistry! Pardon me, this should be a short post, so I thought I might as well throw in some sarcasm to point out that I'm never quite clear how Bible skeptics pick and choose which miracles to accept and which to doubt. For instance, as a peek ahead, I see in chapter 14 that parting the Red Sea is left without comment, but having the wheels fall off the Egyptian chariots is considered absurd. Perhaps Steve Wells is commenting on the Lord's great love of slapstick comedy? Actually, the SAB does comment on the burning bush, but merely to remark that it's absurd that God would speak through it. I'm not sure why this would be, aside from the fact that sometimes I think it absurd that God would bother to speak with us at all.

While there aren't a lot of notes in the SAB to respond to for this chapter, there are a number of notable things in this dialogue between Moses and God. For one thing, Moses is clearly not happy to be sent back to Egypt, and keeps coming up with excuses not to do it, but God convinces him to do it. The other notable thing is the exchange in verses 13 and following, in which God identifies Himself as "I AM". It's of course fairly widely believed that God's name in the Old Testament, which is rendered in the Hebrew something like "YHVH", is derived from a form of the phrase "I am", which is similar in form.

On verse 16, the SAB poses the question, "Has anyone ever seen God?" I responded to this in a previous post, and while I admit that answer may not be highly satisfying for many, it's about all I've got. Maybe I'll expand on it sometime. (Or maybe I already did in another post, and forgot since then?)

The final verse has a very interesting foreshadowing--well, actually, it's more than foreshadowing, isn't it? The verse says that essentially, the Hebrews are going to steal a lot of stuff on their way out of Egypt. Is this a right thing to do?

First of all, I'd like to examine the words used here, both "borrow" and "spoil". "Borrow" is a word both in English and the original Hebrew that indicates that whatever they take is going to be asked for first. These women are not going to simply go over to their neighbors and take stuff, they're going to ask. However, the sense of "borrow" that implies it will eventually be given back certainly does not apply. Whatever they take when they go, they're certainly keeping.

As for the word "spoil", I think the true meaning of this word in Hebrew will illustrate the real point of God's will here. While there is definitely a sense intended of "spoil" in the more usual fashion of taking by force and leaving in ruin (and indeed, even the NIV translates this word as "plunder"), I think it interesting that this word in no other place in the Bible (besides the two passages quoted in Exodus) is translated "spoil". It is far more likely to be translated as "deliver" or "recover", the implication being, in just about every case, that someone is taking something away because in reality, they have it coming to them.

The Israelites served the nation of Egypt as slaves for about 400 years, and this is just their way of getting "back pay" if you will. It's like the concept of "reparations" that's been discussed from time to time here in America, which I think is a good idea in theory, but at this time in our history, difficult to put into practice. For all those people in our nation's history who used the Bible to justify their right to own slaves, it's a damned shame that none of them seemed to pay much attention to Deuteronomy 15:12-14, in which it is made clear that a slave was only to be owned for six years, at the end of which he was not only to be released, but paid liberally for the six years of service you received from him. Most people seem to miss this vital aspect of Biblical slavery, which makes it very different from our modern understanding of the practice.

(Note: On the SAB page on slavery, I notice that Deut. 15:9-10 is quoted, but that particular verse is not actually about slavery, but about loaning money. In that context, the "year of release" while yes, also being the year of release from slavery, is actually the year of release from debt, and God is saying, "Don't think you'll get out of having to take care of the poor just because you suspect they'll never pay you back.")

Monday, January 30, 2006

At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. (Exod 2)

Ack! I can't seem to ever get back to this, I've been so busy lately, and yet I feel like I've gotten very little done in my personal life. (And then Blogger.com was experiencing some difficulties for a while.) I can relate being busy in this way to the story, though. I gotta admit I've often wondered at the amount of busy-work God gave Moses. Most of what's accomplished in this book and the ones following seem like they could have been done much simpler and faster than they were, but no dice. I guess God has his reasons for it, though, and perhaps we'll get into some of them.

So, the background for our story having been set up, we now introduce the baby who will grow up to be our main character in the next few books: Moses. The SAB points out that the story of Moses' childhood bears a strong resemblance to that of Sargon the great, an old Babylonian king. As the link provided points out, however, such stories are actually very common, and not just in a literary sense, but perhaps in a very real sense. Note that Pharaoh's daughter, upon discovering the child, immediately realizes that he's a Hebrew baby; it may have been not so uncommon for Hebrew women to do this sort of thing in the days of Moses' childhood.

Actually, in a more general sense, I've heard many pastors make the claim about stories in other religions that are similar to the stories of the Bible that, "Satan is good at making counterfeits." The idea behind this belief is that when you hear about a pagan god who was born of a virgin, or a Babylonian king who was set float in a basket, or the Buddha who, having been born into a royal family, forfeited his earthly kingdom to begin a new religion, the similarities are actually deceptions to distract people from the truths of the Biblical accounts. If you believe in the supernatural, this explanation makes a lot of sense, actually, although it's not necessarily true. If you don't believe in the supernatural, then it hardly matters, but perhaps you can see the logic in it, or at the very least why it's an appealing explanation. In any case, it's not unheard of for two different important historical personages to have similarities in their life stories, is it? (For instance, the second and third U.S. Presidents both died of natural causes on July 4th, 1826, the 50th anniversary of American independence. Sounds mythical, but it's apparently true. Go figure.)

Anyway, Moses is raised among the Egyptian royalty, but it seems despite what the movie Prince of Egypt (I highly recommend it) would tell us, he did know where he came from. Thus, in his adulthood, he one day killed an Egyptian slavemaster, and hid the body. Yes, Moses was a murderer, and the fact that he was the chosen deliverer of Israel didn't make it less of a sin. Afraid once he realized that the murder wasn't a secret as he had hoped, Moses fled the country. Now the SAB calls this a contradiction with a later verse, but I think it's a matter of time scale. At this time in the story Moses feared Pharaoh, but later on, when he knew he was on a mission from God, that fear evaporated. Indeed later in his life, Moses is very bold in standing up to Pharaoh.

After fleeing into the wilderness, Moses meets up with the daughters of the priest of Midian, named here as being "Reuel". The SAB points out a contradiction here that is actually one I've heard a few times, that being that Moses' father in law keeps being called by many names. I have both the standard interpretation of what's going on here, and my own viewpoint that I came up with just the other day. The standard interpretation is that "Jethro" (which is certainly the correct name) also at times went by the name "Reuel", and that "Hobab" is actually Moses' brother-in-law. This latter point indicates that while Judges 4:11 is either an actual mistake or at the least, badly written, the problem with Numbers 10:29 is that the SAB only quotes the verse in part. The full clause that begins that verse reads, "And Moses said unto Hobab, the son of Raguel the Midianite, Moses' father in law,..." Now "Raguel" is actually "Reuel" in Hebrew, and I have no idea why the KJV spells it different in this verse, and unless there is someone out there reading this who knows Hebrew better than I do and knows why it must be otherwise, I think it's more than reasonable to assume "Moses' father in law" refers to "Raguel the Midianite," and not the preceding.

My own theories I put forth as possibilities are as follows. Note that "Reuel" means "friend of God". I believe that it is a possibility that Reuel is not just another name that Jethro occasionally used, but his priestly title. The other possibility goes back to the recurring theme in the Bible that the term "grandfather" is never used. It may be that at the time Moses comes to Midian at first, Reuel is the high priest, and these young women are actually Reuel's granddaughters. Years later, when Moses returns to Egypt, Reuel has died, and Jethro is now the high priest, having inherited the position from his father Reuel. I think any of these three explanations is sufficient to explain this issue, apart from Judges 4:11, which is a mystery to me.

The last issue brought up in this chapter is whether or not God "respects" anyone. Aside from my response to this issue in general in a previous post, I would like to say here that there may be another intended meaning of this word in the original Hebrew. If you look at what the word means, it seems that what's happening is that God is turning His full attention to their plight.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

And afterward shall they come out with great substance (Exod 1)

I hope everyone had a lovely holiday season, whatever holiday you may have been celebrating, or if you at least hopefully got some time off of work or school. I was really quite busy myself, although obviously not with this blog. So, it's a new year, and time to start a new book. In the absence of any feedback at this time, I guess I'll just go on to Exodus for now, and see how this goes.

The first few verses of Exodus are a very short recap of the end of Genesis, and the SAB draws our attention to the inconsistency in verse five that I addressed in a previous post. Then, as a segue into the present time (of the story), we are told that in the intervening time, the nation of Israel grew quite large. The SAB marks this as ridiculous, apparently because we're talking about a span of about 400 years and a growth from about 100 people (70 men plus some wives) to "several million" (603,505 men plus their wives and children). I'm not sure why this is ridiculous, but there is also the "Science and History" icon given next to this comment, which I suppose is to give us a clue as to what's involved. If the issue is that it ought to be scientifically possible, then I don't quite get it. If the Israelites are fairly healthy and fertile, then increasing their population to a few million in 400 years doesn't seem impossible at all. Maybe someone who thinks so might be able to explain their math to me.

If the issue is the lack of historic evidence of millions of Israelites, then that's a whole other issue, and one that I ought to address at this time. I may have said it before, but it's certainly worth repeating that in matters of history, I'm far from an expert. I'm not going to be able to address most issues relating to inconsistency between Biblical and extrabiblical history, and it's at this point in the Bible where that will hinder me more than a bit in dealing with the SAB, I'm sure. All the stuff in Genesis largely happened before there was much in the way of written history, so we might as well take the Bible's word on those matters. Now, we've come to a time when things are happening that we'd expect to be recorded outside of the Bible. One thing I have heard is that the events of the Exodus ought to have been recorded in Egypt's history, but there is little or no evidence for any of it. It may be that the Egyptians chose not to record it out of embarrassment. It may be that the records of the events were simply lost. It may be that they were recorded in a manner that is simply unrecognizable since both the Egyptians and the Israelites put their own personal spins on the events. Or of course, it may have simply not happened. (You can probably guess that I am particularly opposed to this view.)

On the one hand, lack of evidence for something does not imply evidence against it. On the other hand, with events of the sort of scale being described in this book, the lack of historical record is undoubtedly suspicious; I won't pretend that's not true. I suppose the only thing I can hope for is that readers of the Bible, whether believers or not, will keep an open and analytical mind on the matters presented therein.

(I remember some time ago there was some excitement that some chariot wheels were discovered at the bottom of the Red Sea. A number of people latched on to the story and cited it as proof positive that the events of the book of Exodus were true in their entirely. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to think up at least two ways chariot wheels could end up at the bottom of the sea without appealing to God's wrath, as well as figuring out why, even if those wheels are from the army that chased the Israelites, it proves nothing about this book whatsoever.)

Okay, rest of the chapter... I notice the SAB has no note on a matter that's always bothered me: verse 15. Although it doesn't explicitly say so, and as such we can't say for sure that it was the case, it sure sounds like the entire nation of at least one million people has only two midwives. If so, these two women must have been awfully busy! Among the things they were busy with was lying to Pharaoh. The SAB notes that God rewards the midwives for lying to Pharaoh, calling it a contradiction. I strongly disagree. I think most people would agree, and the Bible seems to support this as well, that while lying is indeed a sin, there are times when lying is a preferable sin to the alternative. Let's see, they could lie to Pharaoh, or they could kill babies; hmmm...? Really, I think it's a no-brainer. (The SAB has a whole page on lying, and mostly because of this reason, I think I only have a problem with one of the verses cited.)