Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Blessed are the barren (Exod 12)

There are a lot of issues brought up in chapter 12, but since I think I've covered a great number of them in previous posts, I may be able to get through a great deal of this if not all. Also, for those of you keeping score at home, read carefully because I'm going to admit that I think there is something legitimately wrong with this chapter; how important the problem is up to the individual reader to decide.

The first few issues of this chapter are ones that I either covered in the last post or in the comments attached thereto. What is the point of all this blood being smeared on doorposts? Well, I think the central place to find this answer is in verse 13, where God claims He will spare the houses that have the blood on them. This is part of the ongoing theme of God overlooking the sins of those who cover their sin with a sacrifice. In this case, it's a national sin of Egypt, both that they held the Israelites as slaves, but more importantly that they killed all the Israelite baby boys several years back. I'm guessing the fact that this is a national sin is the reason why this plague, unlike many of the previous ones, is a potential threat to everyone in Egypt, even the Israelites. It may be that all the Israelites put the blood on their doors, and none of the Egyptians did, but I tend to think that there may have been exceptions on both sides, the results being dead Israelites and living Egyptians, since God says His criteria will be the blood mark.

Now sticking to this issue and jumping down further in the chapter, to verses 29 and 30, this is where I have an issue. I will admit that Christians actually are surely the most guilty of overassuming this sort of thing, but I think that sometimes when the Bible says "all", it's not being as precise as it ought to be, and this is illustrated twice in these two verses. Firstly, the cattle are killed. The SAB points out that the cattle were already "all" killed twice in chapter 9. I addressed it a bit there, but it's evident that only cattle left outside were harmed in the first two plagues that killed cattle. I would think that it's safe to assume (if one accepts the assumptions that I have already made about firstborn humans) that any cattle inside a house with blood on its doorposts would survive the night.

And so the verse that I have issue with here is verse 30, which claims "...there was not a house where there was not one dead." This is clearly not true in the broadest sense, as of course there were numerous Israelite houses with nobody dying. On top of that, there are some important issues demographically. Skeptics often read this verse and say, "There goes God killing a bunch of defenseless babies..." In fact, while surely many babies were killed on this night, I believe among those killed, a minority were infants. Ah, I'm mingling two issues here, but they are interrelated. Let's give some hypotheticals. Imagine an Egyptian house in which there is a man and a woman with no children, and the husband is not the firstborn of his family; result: no deaths. Imagine a house in which there are many children, but what with infant mortality being a reality, the firstborn son has already died years ago; result: no deaths. What if they have only daughters? No deaths. What if the firstborn has grown up and already moved out? No deaths. That adult child may die in his own house, or it may be that only children were affected, I don't think we know for sure, but if only children are effected, it may be that any children over a certain age (perhaps 13?) were spared. Lastly, in response to the claim of killing babies, I would venture that a very small portion of the houses with a dying child lost an infant. After all, if you have more than one child, the firstborn is probably at least a year old. Not that killing toddlers is so much better, but I figure you might as well be clear. In summary, blood or no blood, I think many houses were spared, and among those not spared, most lost an older child.

So, back up to verse 13, the SAB asks "How many gods are there?" While I addressed some of the issues raised on that page previously, I didn't address them all, as that page is actually quoting numerous passages that have multiple ways to understand them. The majority of them fall under the same classification as this verse, that is, verses that explicitly refer to other gods. The answer is, of course, that there is only one God. So why all the stuff in the other column? There are at least three approaches, and any or all of them can be suitable.

First, the literary approach, for lack of a better name. What do Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, Jessica Fletcher, and Batman have in common? They're all detectives. Does the fact that they are also all fictional characters make them any less so? Zeus, Odin, Osiris, Quetzalcoatl, Vishnu and Buluku? They're all gods, whether or not there is an actual existing entity behind each name.

Secondly, the sociological approach. Some say that a "god" is anything you give reverence to, whether it is a supposedly intelligent supernatural entity or an abstract concept. If the most important thing in your life is being rich, then money is your "god". If the most important thing is getting laid, then sex is your "god". If you want to serve Ganesh, then Ganesh is your god, whether or not Ganesh actually exists.

Thirdly, there is the spiritual approach. Suppose you decide that the world was not created by the God of the Bible, but by a superpowerful being named "Asdfgh". Maybe you made up Asdfgh, or maybe someone told you about Asdfgh and you believed. You're going to devote your life to worshipping Asdfgh out of great reverence for him/her and his/her creative and sustaining power. Who's to say that Asdfgh is not a real being, despite the fact that what you believe about Asdfgh is completely false? Generally, this goes somewhat hand-in-hand with the second approach, but with the added fact that the thing worshipped is real, albeit deceptively so. Perhaps Asdfgh was a fallen angel who told some humans he/she deserved worship. Maybe somebody dreamed Asdfgh up, and a being, wanting to lay claim to the worship Asdfgh was receiving, stepped in to claim it. Spiritually, anything could conceivably be possible. The implications of this are huge, though, and somebody may bring up some of them in comments, who knows?

In verse 14, an important question is raised, which I am going to give as short an answer as I can, since my last one was probably way too long. "Must Christians obey Old Testament laws?" Once again, the answer is "Yes and no." In all of those passages quoted, I would say that the "you" referred to is the nation of Israel. Despite the fact that Jesus came and fulfilled the law (as they say, that's an odd claim for numerous reasons), there is much of it that remains in effect for Jews. Gentiles are not required to become Jews to follow Jesus. However, there are some rules that God wants everyone to follow, and admittedly, it's not always 100% clear to me where the dividing line is.

How many days is unleavened bread to be eaten during Passover? That's an easy one. Seven days. The passage in Dt.16:8 says "Six days thou shalt eat unleavened bread: and on the seventh day shall be a solemn assembly to the LORD thy God: thou shalt do no work therein." I see no reason to assume this passage is saying that the seventh day is a day to eat leavened bread, especially since it follows so close on the heels of verse 3. I may have mentioned it before, but if two passages seem to contradict each other and are right next to each other in the Bible, you're probably misreading them. (Here's one of the best examples.)

I have already addressed the issues of stealing, population explosions, length of the captivity, and slavery, so all that remains is the objection on verse 43 and following. I don't understand it, though. Okay, so a foreigner (et al) cannot eat of the Passover, so what? It's a Jewish religious observance, and I would assume that if a person really wanted to partake of it, then they would convert to Judaism, get circumcised, and then there would be no problem, would there?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The plague shall not be upon you to destroy you (Exod 11)

Before the final and most brutal of the plagues, we take a side trip into some instruction God gives to prepare for it. In many ways, the nine plagues that came before were just preparation for this one, which has great significance in the Bible as a whole, some of which is revealed in the next few chapters, and some of which is revealed in the New Testament (if you believe in the N.T., of course; most Jews would certainly not.)

Brief mention is made here of the plundering of the Egyptians, but I won't address it here since the SAB does not. Suffice it to say I will revisit it in the next chapter, and I already touched on the subject back in chapter 3.

So, to the main objection that the SAB brings up for this chapter: "These verses [11:4-6] clearly show that the mass murder of innocent children by God (see 12:29-30) was premeditated." This is an odd statement for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it's largely right on the mark. Pulling it apart from back to front, I first want to note that it would be theologically sound to say that everything God does is "premeditated". Since God is supposedly all-knowing, everything that He has done or ever will do was already planned before time itself even existed (as much as that's a meaningful thing to say, but you get the idea I'm sure). As far as "innocent children", that's a difficult issue to address, although I tried to in part in an earlier post. Aside from the issues talked about there, it might be noted that it may not necessarily be only children, whether that be a plus or minus. Then there is the most important issue, the key question of whether this truly qualifies as either "mass" or "murder".

A pastor friend of mine wrote a very good essay on this subject that I read years ago, and it's a shame it's not online, at least as far as I know, since he goes much more in to detail on this matter than I ever could. Although we do indeed see a lot of large groups of people being killed in various moments throughout the Bible, there are a few things we can note about these occurrences. First of all, God gives a warning. In this case, we have a series of nine incredible plagues that occur over the course of several months. The plagues are always predicted by Moses, explained to be the work of God, and do not have an effect on the Israelites. As a result of this, many of the people of Egypt are sitting up and taking notice of what's going on. While Pharaoh continues in a state of denial about God's will and God's power, many others aren't so stupid. As I said in my last post, it seems quite likely that people started doing what they could to avoid the plagues and save their crops and livestock, if possible.

This leads to the second point, which is that God always gives a way out. In this case, the way out is announced in the next chapter: put blood on your doorposts and God will spare your house. If you read these chapters carefully, you will see that God is not saying He's going to kill all of the Egyptians and spare all of the Israelites; He says He's going to kill those who refuse to follow His simple instructions and spare those who do follow them. To a Christian, this is a clear foreshadowing of the message of the Gospel: a person here was saved from the wrath on Egypt by the blood of a lamb's sacrifice, while in life, a person is saved from the wrath on sin by the blood of the "Lamb of God". To a Bible believer of any religious bent, however, this instruction has significance because it shows God is merciful enough to make an escape clause for His wrath. In every case throughout the Old Testament where large groups of people were destroyed either by plagues or an army due to the will of God, there was always a warning, and always a way far an individual to escape the fate of the group as a whole.

That being said, all the people of Egypt had to do to save themselves and their children was sprinkle some blood on their doors. I have little doubt that there were many people who did so. Imagine this allegory: You meet up with a man who claims to have a message from God to you. He says, "Get out of your house, or you will die." You'd be right to be skeptical. But suppose he said, "Tomorrow it will rain on your house, but not the house of your neighbors," and the next day a little cloud blew in and rained only on your house. The next day, the same thing happened with snow, then hail, then it was struck by lightning, then it was overrun with ants, then your power went out for no discernable reason, etc. Each time, the man said it would happen the next day, and it did, nine times. Then the man said, "Tomorrow, your house will be hit by a meteorite, and nothing will be left but a smoking crater. I suggest you get out." Would you get out? Would you get your family out? Your possessions? I sure would.

One might complain though that I am wrong, and it's illustrated by the phrase that the SAB points out for different reasons: "...the LORD doth put a difference between the Egyptians and Israel." Surely this is saying that God wants to arbitrarily hurt the Egyptians and spare the Israelites, right? I don't think so. As I read the Bible, there is often a distinction made, and an important one, between a country and its people. God deals with them in different ways, and is much more forgiving towards individuals than a country in general. The "difference between the Egyptians and Israel" is not about individual people, but about differences in cultures, societies, and religious beliefs. Call it intolerant if you want, and I won't deny it, but God is saying that He will show favor on those that believe in Him, and not on those who do not. In the original Hebrew, there is no difference between the word used for "Egypt" and "the Egyptians" in this passage, and verse seven probably would have been translated differently if I'd been in charge of the KJV. But I'm not of course.

So last point the SAB makes is a very good one to take note of, as it's central to this idea. God actually wanted Pharaoh to say no to Moses?! What the heck? you might ask. The book of Exodus is about the beginning of the nation of Israel, and it's this nation that God has chosen to be his representatives on earth in a special way. Egypt and Israel lie at the joining point between three continents, perhaps the only continents that were settled by (relatively) modern civilizations. God is getting ready to set up Israel in its appointed place, and to start them off, He is using Egypt as an example for the other nations. Everyone in the Middle East will come to know of these plagues and what happened when a kingdom dared to try and stand in the way of God and His chosen people. The first nine plagues were Egypt's warning, but the tenth plague is a warning to the nations that would come into contact with the Israelites over the next forty-plus years as they moved out of Egypt and into Canaan.

God gave Egypt a warning, and a way out. The only thing Pharaoh had to give up was his pride.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The LORD plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues (Exod 7:14-10:29)

Okay, let me give an overview of the plagues before I hit on specific points. There are a number of different ways to look at the plagues, and it may be that all of them are right, actually. On face value, they are miracles that God enacted on the land of Egypt through Moses to show his power and punish Pharaoh and his people. Symbolically, it's been said that each of the plagues corresponds in some way to one of the pagan gods of Egypt, and is used by the God of Israel to mock the ancient Egyptian religion. Scientifically, it is possible to see the plagues as all being a series of events that logically follow from one another as unusual, but fully natural events. It's important to note that not all miracles need be something supernatural, simply highly unusual.

The other thing that is interesting about the first nine plagues is the thematic way in which they are presented. In many ways, they occur in three groups of three. The first, fourth and seventh plagues are announced to Pharaoh by Moses "in the morning" while the third, sixth, and ninth have no warning at all given to Pharaoh, and in the absence of that warning, also omit the phrase "Let my people go, that they may serve me..." which appears with all the others.

As far as being natural phenomena, what may be occurring is some extreme weather that is causing some strange occurrences. The fact that Moses knows ahead of time that these odd things are going to happen is what is key about it. The Nile floods, bringing an abundance of red silt, which makes the water appear to be blood-like. Seven days later, these polluted waters lead to the frogs of the Nile being driven out onto the land. After the frogs die, their piled up dead bodies bring lice (or perhaps "gnats"?). By this time, the flood waters would have receded, and pools of stagnant water near the river would breed flies. All of these flies may have carried the anthrax bacteria, which caused sickness of livestock, and later, boils on the skin of the Egyptians. By this time, several months would have passed, and it would be the season in which hail would fall, destroying some of the crops. The remaining crops would be eaten by locusts blown in from the east, and later the winds would shift, driving away the locusts, but bringing in sand storms which would plunge large areas of the country into darkness. Now some people would rather see these plagues as entirely supernatural, and indeed, they may have been, but this is one possible understanding of them.

So, let's look at specifics. The SAB essentially asks how the magicians are able to turn the Nile into blood when it's already turned. Well, I would assume, as most people seem to, that the magicians found some water elsewhere and turned that water into blood. Later, we see that the magicians can likewise create frogs. I have no idea as to how they were able to differentiate their frogs from Moses' frogs. Perhaps they pulled them out of hats like rabbits? That might explain why they were unable to replicate the gnats (lice?), as I imagine it's a hard trick to pull gnats out of a hat. At this point, as the SAB notes, the magicians give up trying.

In the midst of the plague of flies, we have one of a handful of exchanges between Moses and Pharaoh. Moses explains that the Israelites are commanded to go out into the wilderness to make some sacrifices, and at this point, Pharaoh says okay, but we find out that he's lying. (Later, during a similar exchange, Moses tells Pharaoh that he knows Pharaoh is lying, but will make the plague go away anyway.) The SAB poses the question, "Did God command the Israelites to make burnt offerings?" I think this is an odd question for two reasons. One, it seems to be hardly different from "Does God desire animal sacrifices?" which is posed elsewhere. Two, in the verse where it is first asked in the SAB, there is no mention of "burnt" offerings. The possibility of contradiction is probably well worth mentioning, as it's an important point for believers to note, in my opinion, but I think these are not two separate points. Anyway, I stand on my response to the other question here.

Now this is not the first time I've seen it pointed out that in the fifth plague, all the cattle die, then they die again later twice. Well, you've got to read carefully. Here, and more explicitly in verse 19, there is a warning given that any cattle left outside will die. Although it's certainly not made clear, one might safely assume that some people brought their cattle indoors to spare them. The phrase use here that "all the cattle of Egypt died" is intended not so much to be a statement of totality, but a contrast to "but of the cattle of the children of Israel died not one." Oh, and if the SAB will keep this note, it might be considered to add the "Contradiction" icon, as I'm assuming that's the point.

The last note that seems to be worth responding to (I think I've addressed all the other major ones already) is the Absurdity icon labeling verse 10:5. I'd just like to point out that I recall as a kid reading "On the Banks of Plum Creek" (I think it was) by Laura Ingalls Wilder (you know, "Little House on the Prairie"?), in which Laura describes an event much like this that happened in her childhood right here in the Midwest. Severe plagues of locusts really do cover the ground almost completely. Here's a picture I found on Google from 2004.

At the end of the ninth plague, Pharaoh tells Moses to go away, never come before him again on pain of death. Moses points out truthfully that indeed, Pharaoh will never see him again.

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The LORD thy God, which have brought thee out (Exod 7:1-13)

Sheesh, I've gone so long without posting here, I thought I was still on chapter 6. I was reading Exodus 6 yesterday, and I looked in the study notes of the Bible I was reading, and it had a possible explanation for the "Did Abraham know God's name?" issue. I don't know if I mentioned this fact yet, but often in the Bible, the word "name" is used to mean not so much the proper noun by which one would refer to a person, but rather to mean "reputation". This sort of thing is still in use these days from time to time, actually, such as the time that Paula Jones said that she wanted to "clear her name". At that time, I remember hearing a comedian say, "What, you mean the name that nobody had ever heard of until you brought charges against the President?" Funny, but hopefully people knew what she meant.

But back to the present, er, well, about 4,000 years ago rather. I've decided that I need to power through this chapter even if I can't quite do it justice, just for the sake of moving on and getting back on track before my other blog distracts me full-time again in July, where I'm planning a series on the Founding Fathers, politics, civil rights, and the separation of church and state. We'll see.

So, first issue here. Actually, a number of related issues that all intertwine throughout this chapter, starting in verse 3. Who hardened Pharaoh's heart? Was it God, or Pharaoh? My answer? Both. This is not only the answer that I touched on back in chapter 4, but the reason I added the "Exodus interlude" before attacking this chapter way back when. This is one of God's most important works in the Bible. He keeps referring back to this event time and time again, and it's that name/reputation thing I said above that it's all about. For the nation of Israel, God makes a short description of this event virtually a part of His name as it is a part of His character. How many times in the Old Testament does God refer to Himself not just as "God" or "the LORD" but "the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt", or some variant thereof? In the New Testament, the resurrection may be the most important thing, but this is #1 in the Old without a doubt. Hopefully the two previous posts I have linked to here answer any questions about these larger issues of the book as a whole (whether you agree with my answers or not.)

Now the SAB moves on to label many of the miracles from the next few chapters, be they showy tricks or larger plagues, as absurdities. Okay, sure, these are weird events, odd stuff. But I think as I have implied since the beginning of the blog, these are not at all absurd in context. If God's on Moses' side and God is all-powerful, then turning staffs into snakes is an easy thing, as is turning water into blood. (There's probably some possible New Testament symbolism there, as the first plague is turning water into blood, while Jesus' first miracle was turning water into wine, which he later used as a symbol for blood. It's interesting to me once again that turning water into wine is not marked as absurd in that chapter. I'm not sure what the difference is.) In fact, not only can Aaron and Moses do this trick, but Pharaoh's men can do it, too. Aaron's serpent eats the others, which is no doubt symbolic of God's power being stronger than theirs despite their ability to do this trick.

Now Pharaoh's heart is hardened, and the plagues begin. I'm going to close this post, because I think the first nine plagues deserve a post all their own.