Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, September 08, 2012

BIBLE: Exodus (Egypt)

Suppose someone pulled the book of Exodus off the shelf and asked: what kind of book is this?  One person may answer: literature, great literature.  Exodus is an adventure story along the lines of Lord of the Rings.  It has some great moral lessons too but it’s basically an adventure book.  Someone else may respond: no, you’re wrong.  This is a history book.  There may be some great adventure stories in there but those stories are true.  They really happened.  A third person may join in and say: you’re both wrong.  This book is a biography.  Just look at how it begins:  And Pharaoh's daughter said unto her, Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages. And the woman took the child, and nursed it.  And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh's daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses…  It’s the story about the great leader of the Hebrew people, Moses.   Exodus is clearly a biography of Moses.  It may be slightly exaggerated (like the story about Washington chopping down the cherry tree) but so what?  Read Plutarch’s Lives.  Great biographies present life models we should copy and Moses is one of the great role models of all time.  And yet a fourth response might be: Exodus is taken from the Bible, the word of God.  Exodus is a sacred text.  So how do we respond if someone asks what kind of book is Exodus?  Why is it so hard to classify this book with any degree of certainty?  Because it’s the kind of book that either brings people together or splits them apart.  For example, Exodus is full of miracles.  Here’s one: the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.  What is the reader to make of a burning bush that doesn’t burn up and even speaks to Moses?  Here’s another one: And the LORD said unto him, What is that in thine hand? And he said, A rod. And he said, Cast it on the ground. And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from before it.  Is this a stick or a snake?  What kind of trick is “the Lord” pulling on Moses?  Why a snake?  A third example: Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.  And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground: and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.  What is the reader supposed to make of all these “miracles?”  Just as people give different answers about the kind of book Exodus is supposed to be, they give different answers regarding miracles.  One answer is: it’s just a story; none of this stuff really happened; miracles have about as much reality as unicorns.  Or a second answer: there are no miracles, just badly-understood science; there probably were some actual events taking place but there’s a rational and natural explanation for each and every one of them; back in those days people weren’t very scientific.  Or a third answer: that’s ridiculous; these stories are true and God was behind it all; miracles from the Lord are a crucial part of the whole message of the book; either you believe it or you don’t.  Those examples show how people can be in strong agreement or severely divided when interpreting Exodus.   In the final analysis a basic question comes to mind: what kind of “Lord” is this?  One reader may say: a mean-spirited and unfair god.  Innocent Egyptians suffered for no good reason.  What kind of god would punish innocent people?  Another reader may answer: a loving and caring God.  He delivered the Hebrew people out of bondage into freedom.  Other questions: why would a “god” pick Moses, a murderer, to be his messenger?  Why did he pick the Hebrew people, who were stubborn and rebellious?  How is this God different from Egyptian or Greek gods?  In short, Exodus is the kind of book that seems easy to understand on first reading and then gets deeper each time we read it.  As we grow older we draw more mature lessons from it.   Exodus “grows” along with us.  Is it history?  Adventure?  Biography?  Literature?  Sacred text?  All of them; it’s a Great Book.


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