Monday, March 20, 2006

What profit is there of circumcision? (Exod 4:13-31)

After more than a bit of hemming and hawing, Moses finally agrees to his task, so long as God sends his brother Aaron to help him. After settling the matter, Moses returns to his father-in-law (whose naming inconsistencies I discussed a few posts back) and tells him he's going back to Egypt.

On his way to Egypt, God warns Moses that Pharaoh is going to be stubborn about the whole thing, and refuse to let the Israelites leave. This leads to one of the stranger issues of the Exodus story: Did God make Pharaoh's heart hard, and if so, why? The SAB points out both an apparent contradiction and an injustice here, but I think that it's the two put together that really explain what's going on. The thing is, it's actually a larger theme throughout the Bible that whatever a person wants to be, God will enable them to be that way. Pharaoh was the one who was stubborn, and since he was stubborn, God not only allowed him to stay stubborn, but gave further supernatural firmness to his resolve not to let the Israelites go. Was Pharaoh the one who hardened his heart, or did God do it? Both. Was this unfair? Maybe. It was what Pharaoh wanted anyway, so perhaps not unfair to him personally, but in the grander scheme of things, the question may still be up in the air.

Case in point, just a couple verses down we see that the end result is that Pharaoh's son will die. In fact later on, every firstborn male child of the Egyptians will die. Is this fair? Fair is a subjective thing in this world, and it makes it hard to answer the SAB's claims of injustice. (Somewhere back in the archives, I know there's a post where Steve Wells has many comments on the matter. Maybe I was thinking of this one?) A couple things come to mind in this case, however. First of all, Pharaoh is given plenty of warning that judgment is coming; probably more than any other individual in the Bible. "Hey Pharaoh, let us go or else your son will die. Just in case you think I'm kidding, here's nine plagues to help you mull it over." Second of all, remember that about eighty years back, the Egyptians had perpetrated acts of Genocide against the Israelites. Pharaoh killed all the sons of God's people, so God decides to kill a portion of their sons in retribution. Perhaps this is justice?

The last little story that needs to be addressed here is the story of verses 23-25. Frankly, it's a tough one to address. First and foremost, the SAB refers to it as absurd, and that's probably a good label for it. Moses has not circumcised his sons, for some reason this is a problem that gets him in trouble, and before you know it, foreskins are a-flyin'! What is going on here? Some scholars have suggested that Moses was unaware of the need for circumcising his kids until he met God on the mountain. After being made aware of the need for it, he didn't bother to take care of the matter, being worried that it would slow down his return to Egypt, perhaps making his sons unable to walk, or at least putting them at risk for infection. This would show a lack of faith on Moses' part, which would have to be dealt with. For some reason his wife takes care of it in the end, calling him a "bloody husband" because...?

Okay, for the most part I've been avoiding reading other people's commentaries on these matters before making my posts, but I'll admit that I read someone else's commentary on this very matter, and I liked what he said. Whatever the heck this passage means, it's pretty much incomprehensible to us today. There is something cultural going on here which was significant for Moses and Zipporah, but probably not so important to us. Maybe it meant something to the ancient Israelites as well. Probably. I'm letting this one go and moving on.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness (Exod 4:1-12)

Okay, here's the post I've been working on for quite some time (although not constantly by any means) I didn't really finish all I was going to say, but I made a couple decisions regarding it for the sake of moving forward when I've nearly taken a month and a half after my last post. First of all, I reminded myself that I don't have to do a whole chapter at once; most of these posts are a bit too long anyway. So I'm not going to answer all the issues from chapter 4 in this post, but break it into two. Secondly, the theological issue that I'm really having a hard time responding to is really in my opinion not so much a problem with the Bible text, which I've been trying to focus on in this blog, but rather a subject within a theological discussion. As such, the response to the issue the text itself raises directly can be answered much more simply than the way I answer it below and be "good enough" for my purposes here, but it can also be delved into much more deeply in a different context. I may make a post in my other blog for it, and if I do, I'll come back and add a link to the specific post.

The SAB has two pages on the subject of "magic", and I'm not sure why. That is to say, I'm not sure why two pages when both pages have the same information and verses (perhaps it has something to do with the structure of the website overall that I've missed up until now), and actually I'm not even sure why one page. To take the three passages quoted on those pages as pro-"magic" is, in my personal view, a bit of a stretch. While I can see where the idea comes from in a general sense, I'd say that in particular the American Heritage Dictionary's definition of "magic" as a noun in no way fits any of these three verses. (Oddly enough, I'd say either of the two definitions given for the adjective form might apply, but that's neither here nor there.)

Quibbling over definitions aside, the word "magic" doesn't actually appear anywhere in the KJV. Claiming these verses are about "magic" is imposing a categorization on these things that the Bible doesn't adhere to. Aside from the 2 Kings 18:3-4 verse, which is clearly not about magic in any sense if you read the whole of it (it's about idolatry), these verses break down into two very clear categories. The things in the left column are all "miracles", a term that's never very easy to define precisely in philosophy. The things in the right column are not. It might be worthwhile to study the Hebrew words behind the terms in the right column if I find the time to add it on to this post later, but the simple answer that a Christian gave me in high school (over a different issue, and before I was a Christian) is that supernatural power either comes from God, or it comes from somewhere evil. In real life, it may be difficult to be sure whether something is a "miracle" or "magic", but I think probably 95% of the time something supernatural happens in the Bible, it only takes a little common sense to see which the author intended it to be.

I've just responded to "Can God be seen?" in yesterday's post, so I get to skip down to verse 11, where the SAB brings up some excellent theological issues that books and books could be written on, and I'm sure have been. First of all, I'd like to note that in this particular verse, God is speaking with a bit of poetical/rhetorical device. He's not "bragging" or even setting up a theological point, only saying to Moses in a fancy manner, "Look buddy, don't talk to me about your tongue; I invented tongues, alright?" That point made, the greater question remains.

Is God responsible for deafness, blindness, and other handicaps? Well, there's not a simple yes or no answer to that for various reasons. On the grandest scale, there's a sense in which, since God created everything that exists, then He's responsible for everything. I think that perspective is a little too "big picture", though, as it means you can answer every question about pretty much anything with, "God did it," and while it may be technically true, it's not a useful explanation of much at all. In the Mark 9 passage quoted by the SAB, it should probably be noted that simply because a person says that someone has a handicap or illness due to "spirits" of some sort does not make it so; yet in this case it's true that Jesus not only does not correct the man, but essentially verifies his assumptions by His words in vv. 25 and 29. So, according to the Bible, there is at least one person who was made deaf and dumb due to an evil spirit's influence, that's granted; it does not mean that this one case proves that all deafness is caused by evil spirits, however. So if there is a contradiction to be found in these verses, it must be in the Exodus verse. If the Exodus verse said that all deafness, etc. is made by God and nobody else, then this would be a contradiction, but it does not. In fact, I'm not sure it says He makes it at all. It says that He makes "the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind". These are not states of being, but people who happen to exist in a state of being. The child in Mark 9 was not among "the deaf" when he was originally made by God, but a spirit changed him to be so, apparently.

So the point in the end is, when a person has a handicap, there are a number of possible reasons it may have occurred, and it really has little to do with what this passage is really saying.