Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, February 24, 2005

BIBLE: Exodus


Blogger SMJ said...

Exodus is a history of the Jewish people's departure from Egypt, and their unique personal relationship with their God. Like Homer, the authors of Exodus are anonymous Hebrew scholars, their names lost to history. So it is a history written from a certain perspective, the perspective of Jews who form a covenant with God, and are promised an inheritance of a land called Canaan. This promised land is inhabited by other people, who will be driven out by God to make way for the children of Israel.

The first thing to observe is how the characters in this story are depicted. The main characters being Moses, Aaron, Pharaoh and God. In the beginning, Moses is an abandoned Hebrew infant who is raised by the daughter of Pharaoh. He grows up and slays an Egyptian for beating a Hebrew slave, then flees Egypt. Not until Moses arrives in Midian, marries and has a child, does God enter into the story. At this point, God hears the lamentations of the Hebrews and decides to relieve their suffering. He speaks to Moses and gives him the mission of rescuing the people of Israel.

Since Joseph was first brought into Egypt as a captive, the children of Israel, meaning the descendents of Abraham, have lived in Egypt for approximately four hundred years. During much of this time, they have suffered under the lash of Pharaoh. But now, God hears their cries and decides to act. Why has God waited so long to relieve the sufferings of Israel? This question cannot be answered from the text. All that can be said is that God's ways are mysterious and unfathomable to man.

One thing known for certain, however, is that the Hebrew God is a jealous God and does not allow his children to worship just anyone. The covenant he formed with Israel is binding for all time, and unbreakable. Whenever the children of Israel wander off the path of righteousness, they are severely punished. God is quick to anger if provoked. But He also shows generosity when worshipped faithfully. The original covenant between man and God was made with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. But at the time of Moses, the covenant has long been dormant, if not forgotten. The primary effect of God's action in Exodus is to reestablish the covenant with his chosen people.

One might ask if the children of Israel are totally sold on the covenant. After all, they have been left in bondage to Pharaoh for 400 hears, so it is not surprising that some might question God's good intentions. In fact, when Moses arrives on the scene, his meeting with Pharaoh only results in worse treatment for the Hebrews. Even more discouraging, Moses repeats the same ritual with Pharaoh, time after time, meeting with him, asking for the people's liberation, being turned down, bringing the wrath of God upon Egypt. Until finally, after ten plagues have devastated his land, Pharaoh relents and allows the children of Israel to depart.

Even then, however, God "hardens Pharaoh's heart" so that he pursues the Israelites with chariots to the very shores of the Red Sea, where he is destroyed by God's divine omnipotence. But even when liberated from Pharaoh, the sufferings of the Israelites do not end. They wander through the wilderness of Sinai for many days, complaining of hunger and thirst, questioning the ways of God. Each time they lose hope, their faith is restored with a timely miracle. Yet throughout their history, this pattern is firmly established. First, God tests the faith of His people through trials of human suffering; then the people's faith weakens and they question God's ways; finally, God relieves their suffering and the people rededicate themselves to his worship.

Although Exodus is a history of the Jewish people, its story has broader implications. In a larger sense, the bible is a compendium of man's relations with his Creator. It tells how God is perceived, and what man believes God wants from man. In this manner, Exodus is a history of the intersection between divine power and mortal frailty. But who is being instructed here? The Egyptians or the Israelites? Pharaoh's refusal to submit to the Hebrew god is not just an example of human pride. He does not know the name Jehovah, and does not acknowledge His authority—"Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice...I know not the Lord, neither will I let Israel go." This complaint echoes the problem that all mankind has with God—i.e., who is He and why should I obey Him?

The struggle between Moses and Pharaoh for the fate of Israel is a microcosm of the larger struggle for the conscience of all humanity. In other words, why be good? Of what use is righteousness? Which also bears upon the question of what audience is intended for this story? In one sense, it is a story for future generations of the children of Israel. It describes the liberation of the Hebrews and their long journey to possess a land promised to them. (Unfortunately, the promise to inherit Canaan requires the eviction of all the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites who are presumably living there. What kind of plan does God have for them?)

But the drama of the Bible speaks to a larger audience. Its stories encode a moral view of human life that is ambiguous, yet ultimately consoling. It says that our actions do have meaning even if that meaning is not always revealed to us. The lesson, perhaps, is that life and suffering go hand in hand, and that human frailty means living with fear and uncertainty.

It seems odd that God is presented to us as a being endowed with many of the same qualities as ordinary people ...jealousy, vengefulness, cruelty. He definitely has some anger management issues here. But at this early stage of human history, maybe this is the kind of God that we require.

God also exhibits compassion and generosity when He is moved to do so. He disappears for great intervals of time, only to pop up again when we least expect it. He gives us law to order our lives, so that we know what is expected of us. The terms of the covenant identify the arrangement that God has made with His creatures. Is it a voluntary and fair agreement? Well, it is no more and no less voluntary than the laws of nature which have been given to us. God has created the world and put us in it. If we object to the law of gravity, we are free to ignore it, even though we are bound by the physics of our world. As Dostoevsky said, man is the creature that curses. We are free to complain, but we are not free to change creation.

It can be said that man spends his life questioning God, while God spends eternity waiting for man to be quiet. The question of fairness cannot be philosophically addressed. No equitable arrangement exists between a creature and his maker. The conditions of human life cannot be described in terms of justice. It is what it is and that's all that can be said of it. We either like existence or do not like it, but we cannot speak of it as unjust. Our freedom can only be expressed in our ingratitude (or, in brief moments, our joy).

Moses describes his people as "stiff-necked," full of iniquity and sin, which reminds us of the underground man's definition of humanity as "the creature who walks on two legs and is ungrateful." Exodus, and perhaps the entire Bible, may be understood as the story of humanity's movement from pride to thankfulness, a journey that is not yet completed.

2/24/2005 1:59 PM  

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