Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, August 24, 2009

BIBLE: Exodus

In Fiddler on the Roof the following conversation takes place between Tevye and Mendel:
TEVYE: As Abraham said, “I am a stranger in a strange land.”
MENDEL: Moses said that.
TEVYE: Ah. Well, as King David said, “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”
MENDEL: That was also Moses.
TEVYE: For a man who was slow of tongue, he talked a lot.

Who was this Moses? The book of Exodus is his biography but it’s also much more than that. Arguably Exodus might be the most influential book in history. Picking it up for the first time with no introduction a reader would probably ask: what kind of book is this anyway? Is it history? Literature? Philosophy? But who in the western world can pick up Exodus and not already have some idea of what to expect? Every westerner knows about the Ten Commandments. Virtually every westerner has heard the story of the plagues in Egypt and the parting of the sea. So it’s almost impossible to read this book and not have some pre-conceived notion about what’s going on.

And there’s a lot going on here; strange things as well as ordinary things. Babies are found floating in baskets in the river. There’s infanticide and murder. A young man runs away to avoid being prosecuted for a crime. People get married and have children. Burning bushes talk. National leaders debate immigration policy. There’s a discussion of construction techniques and the best way to make bricks. Sticks turn into snakes. Water turns into blood. Frogs come up out of the river and get into people’s houses and beds. There’s a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. The sea opens up to let people walk across on dry land. What’s going on here? What kind of world is this? What kind of book is this anyway?

It’s the kind of book you can pick up and understand it the very first time you read it. It’s also the kind of book you can read over and over again and still not fully understand it. In short, it’s a great book. It’s accessible to beginners and yet over the head of serious life-long readers. For example, take the story of pharaoh who has a hardened heart and won’t let the Israelites go. A beginner might say: Fine, pharaoh’s a stubborn man. I get it. A more seasoned reader would go further and ask more probing questions. Pharaoh must have his own political reasons for not letting the Israelites go. If they leave, how will that affect the unemployment rate in Egypt? What effect will that have on our economy? And what if they don’t go very far? Do I really want to risk having bands of raiders and thugs hanging around the borders? Even worse, what if they ally themselves with our enemies, or hire themselves out as mercenaries? And who’s to say that they wouldn’t perish by the thousands while wandering around in the desert? Would I really want that on my conscience? No, the best course is to keep them here in Egypt.

Another way to consider pharaoh’s hardened heart is to think of ordinary, everyday examples. During all the plagues pharaoh will finally relent and tell them they can go, only to change his mind and tell them they have to stay. But who hasn’t experienced this change of heart in real life? As Mark Twain used to say, “It’s not hard to quit smoking. I’ve quit dozens of times.” Anyone who’s ever had an addiction of any kind can relate to that. That’s what makes the book of Exodus a book for the ages: it appeals to us on a human level and speaks to us where we are. It’s the story of a people changing their bondage for freedom. All Americans can relate to that.


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