A Pastoral Letter Concerning Racism and the Church’s Life

              I was 13 years old the first time I began to understand the realities of racism. When you live in a system that benefits you, it’s easy to ignore or be shielded from those realities. Our town did not have any black residents, something I later learned was by design. The town was very ethnically homogenous, although there was a small percentage of Hispanics that lived there as well. Looking back, it is not difficult to now perceive the racial inequality at work in our community. It was my 8th grade year and our teacher required us to memorize Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

            As I sat in my desk listening to Rev. Dr. King narrate the American dream and its “promissory note” of equality, I couldn’t help but be captivated by this call to “justice for all.” His words were like a fiery coal searing the heart. It was difficult to imagine thirty years after Dr. King that anyone would be disregarded, disqualified, or discarded because of their skin color. I thought the battle for Civil Rights had been won and was now an interesting historical fact.

            A few weeks later, my sister and I were riding in my grandparents’ Suburban. We were going to dinner with them and sat on the bench seat in the middle of the SUV. My grandparents asked us what we were studying in school. When my turn came, I proudly noted I was memorizing Dr. King’s speech. The vehicle exploded with racial slurs and words that I had never heard before. There was a brooding rage I thought would engulf my sister and me. There was no escape from the moving vehicle and I experienced a fear I had never experienced before. I met racism face-to-face that night and it left an indelible mark on me.

            Twenty-two years have passed since that night with my grandparents. I wish I could say those twenty-two years brought with them the necessary reforms to extinguish the white-hot inferno of racism. The reality is racism did not die after the Civil Rights movement. It just became more subtle in its work. That is how systemic evil often operates. When confronted, it hides itself behind a more respectable façade: chattel slavery shifted to Jim Crow laws, Jim Crow laws became mass incarceration, the penal system became a for-profit institution that profited from occupied beds. Each step along the way has dehumanized black and brown bodies by criminalizing and monetizing those same bodies. Four hundred years of fear, trauma, violence, and abuse can be summed up in three words uttered this week: “I can’t breathe.” It was a specific officer, Derek Chauvin, that bore his weight down on the neck of George Floyd, but it was a racist system that authorized and empowered him to do it.

            Four hundred years is a long time to wait patiently for equality and equity. Four hundred years of broken promises and frustrated dreams. Four hundred years of learning to do more while being afforded so much less. Four hundred years of complicity and silence from the Church.

            As a pastor, my calling is to serve the Church by speaking truthfully about the world and about the life of the Church. I am called to serve by pointing to Jesus and holding up a mirror for the Church to check its reflection to see if it resembles Jesus in its life. That sometimes means I am in the uncomfortable and difficult position of saying that our reflection looks like something other than Jesus. Having spent years seeking to understand racism and the systems that propagate it, I have to say that the Church has sometimes been the worst offender. That is not simply an indictment on the past. It is the harsh reality of our present moment.

            I am reminded, however, of a story in scripture concerning another group who experienced the terrors of oppression. They languished for four hundred years under harsh and unjust treatment from Pharaoh and his overseers decked out in Egyptian riot gear. God’s people cried out in their suffering. God saw, heard, and knew intimately their suffering as God’s own. And, God sent Moses to tell Pharaoh to let God’s people go. God brought them out of Egypt, out of bondage. And, like Moses, the Church must hear the cries of the oppressed and call out for freedom against the powers of domination that continue to enslave black and brown bodies. The Church cannot continue to sit in comfortable silence. Nor can it settle for speech that is devoid of action. God’s compassion for those who suffer invites us to speak out against the modern-day pharaohs of our world. We need only say, “Here am I.”

            Martin Luther King, Jr. prayed this prayer that may help orient us for the difficult but necessary road ahead: “Thou Eternal God, out of whose absolute power and infinite intelligence the whole universe has come into being, we humbly confess that we have not loved thee with our hearts, souls and minds, and we have not loved our neighbors as Christ loved us. We have all too often lived by our own selfish impulses rather than by the life of sacrificial love as revealed by Christ. We often give in order to receive. We love our friends and hate our enemies. We go the first mile but dare not travel the second. We forgive but dare not forget. And so, as we look within ourselves, we are confronted with the appalling fact that the history of our lives is the history of an eternal revolt against you. But thou, O God, have mercy upon us. Forgive us for what we could have been but failed to be. Give us the intelligence to know your will. Give us the courage to do your will. Give us the devotion to love your will. In the name and spirit of Jesus, we pray. Amen.”

Where is God in the Midst of Tragedy?

I have been thinking this morning about something Dr. Terrence Fretheim said last Fall.  He was talking about God’s activity in the world, saying this: “God always acts directly but always through agents.”  It reminds me of Exodus 2 where the Hebrews are groaning under the weight of their enslavement in Egypt.  Suffering is their lot in life, it seems.  And the question might very easily be, “Where is God?”  The text says that “God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob.  So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them” (Exodus 2:24-25). 

“Concerned” is too soft of a word.  God “knows” their suffering.  God suffers even as the Hebrews suffer!  God is present in the midst of suffering!  The next scene flashes to an old man sitting in the desert watching sheep.  He’s been doing this for forty years.  He used to be a prince of Egypt… now, he’s prince of sheep (not exactly a CV builder).  It is in the mundane routine that the shepherd, Moses, notices something out of place.  A bush on fire.  That’s not so out of place, but the fact that it is not consumed is surprising.  Moses watches the bush because… well, because what else do you watch in a desert?  After watching for some time, he notices that the bush isn’t being consumed.  So, he gets up to go and take a look to see why it isn’t being consumed. 

It is at this moment that Moses hears God calling him to go back to Egypt as God’s representative.  God will use Moses, flaws and all, to “draw out” God’s people from Egypt.  “God acts directly but always through agents.”  Moses’ seeing and moving toward the burning bush is the opportunity for God to use Moses, even as God has seen and knows the Hebrews’ suffering and is moving toward them and toward their redemption from slavery.  Moses will be the vessel by which God’s presence is manifested in a desperate situation.

The question of God’s presence in the midst of suffering is still one we ask today.  With the recent tragedy due to the great destruction by tornadoes, we may very well wonder where God is at.  Yet, I can’t help but remember this story and recognize that God suffers with us.  God sees, hears, and knows our suffering… and has not abandoned us.  Rather, like Moses, God calls waiting to see who will respond so that we might be sent as a tangible sign of God’s presence in the midst of suffering.  “God always acts directly but always through agents.”

“A Work of Heart: Understanding How God Shapes Spiritual Leaders” by Reggie McNeal

This book only has two sources that are cited.  And, one of those sources is Reggie citing himself.  By the author’s own admission, this book is not strictly academic or exegetical.  There are plenty of moments when I wish that McNeal used sources to firm up his argument and be more theologically concise.

The book starts by tracing the lives of four biblical leaders: Moses, David, Paul, and Jesus.  By outlining their story, McNeal attempts to highlight the factors of influence that God used to shape each leader spiritually.  He concludes that there are six elements that shape spiritual leaders: culture, call, community, communion, conflict, and the commonplace.

Culture is the environmental factors that have shaped a person: socio-economics, time in history, geography, language.  These inevitably shape the earliest and most fundamental parts of each person.  Culture can have both positive and negative elements.  Regardless, culture has a profound impact that shapes people.  In order to “transcend” one’s culture so that it does not become a hindrance, the leader must understand where they come from, where they stand, and where they are going while taking others along with them.

The call ignites within the person a sense that God has something special planned for them.  It is both a matter of being and doing.  According to McNeal, this goes beyond the general calling that is issued to every believer.  Rather, it is a life of service to God for the Body of Christ, which is the Church.  But, how this is played out can be multi-faceted, ever-changing, and unconventional.  Most importantly, our calling should always be directed back to God, not toward ourselves or others.

Community suggests that we are not created or matured in a vacuum.  We are created as communal creatures and we are shaped as communal creatures.  No pastor is an island unto themselves.  This recent generation has recognized its need of community, despite the fact that they are often over-extended and isolated.  There is a drive to work in teams and in community, which is actually healthier and theologically grounded.  Pastors more than ever need genuine community.

Communion deals with our relationship with God.  As one of my pastors used to tell me, without the Spirit’s presence we are dry, dusty bones.  There may seem to be life on the outside, but on the inside it’s a different story.  Eventually, that lack of communion with God becomes evident.  Not only is this true in the life of the leader but in the community that is being shepherded by the leader.  God initiates, guides, sustains, and accomplishes the work of ministry, we are simply called to respond to God’s leading.  To be a minister is to be called to be a vessel of God’s grace.  That is our primary responsibility.  Without the Spirit’s anointing, ministry quickly becomes joyless and a burden.  Ministry turns into program rather than progress.

Conflict attends every leader.  Sometimes it is the result of poor decisions and sometimes it is simply because we work in the midst of broken people.  Good leadership learns to weather these situations with God’s empowering.  McNeal suggests 8 strategies for dealing with conflict: get over it, choose your pain, examine your critics, look in the mirror, get good advice, be kind and honest, forgive, and make a decision.  Conflict can be used by God to shape us into the leaders He desires.  We are called simply to respond in faithful obedience.

Commonplace refers to the ordinary routines of life.  That is the crucible of life, not merely the extraordinary moments.  The daily decisions we make shape our character for those defining moments of trial and difficulty.  McNeal suggests four habits that help shape our character daily: look for God, keep learning, say yes to God, and stay grateful.  By doing each of these things in ordinary moments, we are trained to do them in extraordinary moments.

Overalll, I thought this book was insightful and helpful.  It made me wrestle again with my calling where I am at now.  Not being in too big of a hurry, but allowing God to shape me in the daily routine of life was a helpful reminder.  This book was not full of novel concepts, but highlighted things that we need to be constantly reminded of in our ministry.  In some ways, McNeal seemed to stretch the Biblical story in ways that it isn’t necessarily intended, overall he was faithful to the heart of Scripture and provided some good basis for his argument.  I would recommend this to other pastors to be reminded that leadership isn’t simply about learning the latest trends in ministry, but it really is a “work of heart.”

Sabbath and Silent Salvation

The silence is deafening.  No mighty wind, no earthquake, no fire… just silence.  Sabbath and silence.  “Be still, and know that I AM God.”  Why is it that I find the silence so difficult to dwell in?  It could be that the culture around me saturates itself with busyness and sound and activity.  But, I am coming more to realize that this is not even the issue.

The difficulty with Sabbath and silence is that I have to come to terms with myself.  I come face-to-face with myself, with my finitude, with my creature-ness.  My world is re-oriented… but not around me.  I find that I am lacking, insufficient, and inadequate.  In short, I’m not God.  I have come to the end of myself and have entered fully into the silence.  It is in this silence that I hear the still small voice.  “Be still, and know that I am God.”

In the fire of that silence, I am changed, purified, and humbled.  I am creature, fully human.  It is not because of what I do but because of who God is.  Like Moses, I find myself on holy ground in the middle of the mundane desert of life..  Like Isaiah, I find myself a sinful man in the midst of a sinful world needing God’s transformative work in my life.  And, all too often, I find myself like the disciples sleeping while I should be praying.

To be honest, silence is difficult to enter into fully because there is always the probability that God will reveal Himself and may change us.  We drown out the still small voice, hoping to muffle the call of the Holy One.  Change is rarely something we chase after and accept willingly.  We inundate ourselves with noise and activity because to enter in Sabbath silence means we might meet God and be called to a new life.

But, we are comfortable with the old way.  We want to be God.  We want to call the shots.  We want to be in control.  But, it is only when we recognize our created-ness and center our lives upon our Creator that we become fully human and fully present.  It is only in this that we become truly free.  Sabbath re-orients us, reminding us of who we are and Whose we are.  We leave the noisy productivity of Egypt and walk into a desert dependence upon God.

Deuteronomy 12:1-28

Historical Context

            The context of the story that we read in the pages of Deuteronomy is the prepping of Israel for entry into the Promise Land.  Moses is addressing the people and re-affirming the covenant that God had made with the people at Mt. Sinai.  This is primarily done by the giving of the Law and the expansion of that Law.  This is how Israel is to conduct themselves in the land.  The first few chapters remind Israel of their past infidelity and the consequences that ensued.  In order for them to maintain the land, they must live in it on God’s terms.

Not only is the Law re-instituted among the people but new leadership is promoted.  Caleb and Joshua will both be remembered due to their obedience, even when the wilderness generation faltered.  However, it is primarily Joshua that is replacing Moses as the leader of Israel.  Before Moses’ passing, he gives final instructions and development of the Law that had been given at Mt. Sinai.  The Law has far reaching implications for every aspect of life, which are only touched upon (although very detailed) in chapters 12-26.

Fast forward many centuries to the time of the Divided Kingdom.  Judah and Israel are now two separate entities.  Israel, who lives to the north of Judah, is captured in 722 BCE.  Danger is lurking on the doorstep of Judah.  It seems to be only a matter of time before they too are attacked.  The onslaught of Israel brings refugees to Judah, those fleeing the sword and destruction.

2 Kings 22 records the story of Hilkiah, the high priest during the reign of King Josiah, finding the Book of the Law, which had somehow become obscure and forgotten.  Chapter 23 dictates the revival that happened in the land at this time.  Idols and the high places of worship were destroyed.  Josiah then renewed the covenant, much as Moses had done in Midian, with the people.  The Book of the Law, namely Deuteronomy 12-26, that was discovered is often thought to have been the core bulk of Deuteronomy.

Martin Noth’s theory of the Deuteronomistic History has come under scrutiny, however.  K. L. Noll “argued that Deuteronomy 12 and related passages emerged in the Persian period,

when Persian imperial policy permitted Yahweh to choose but one place among all the

tribes of Israel. Political reality results in theological rationalization” (332).  If this checks out, a small portions of Deuteronomy, and related books, would have been constructed during Josiah’s reign.  The process of redaction would have been exercised for approximately 300 years, the bulk of which would have occurred during the Persian reign.

In fact, according to Noll, there is little or no archaeological evidence for either Josiah or Hezekiah having centralized worship.  To have centralized worship would have weakened the ability to collect taxes from the people.  There are also other concerns within the text that might point to a later dating.  For instance, the law code is very much Assyrian styling.  In other passages of the Deuteronomistic History, there are obvious Persian influences, such as language.

If this is the case, Deuteronomy through 2 Kings could not be considered the “Deuteronomistic History.”  Rather, it might be called the Deuteronomistic Debate, as K. L. Noll deems it.  In other words, although some similar Deuteronomistic theology is being dealt with, it is not always dealt with in a good light, nor is it always adhered to.  K. L. Noll notes:

Toward the end of this long process (ca. 200 or so, for most portions of the text), a few superficial attempts were made to link the four books into a single narrative framework, but these meager glosses could not stitch together massively differing blocks of material. It was, rather, the sheer will of later religiously minded readers, intent on viewing the whole as a sacred history, that created Noth’s Deuteronomistic History (344).

Perhaps the best way to view the bulk of this literature is to see it as a conversation among several traditions that are interacting with the ideology of Deuteronomy.  In that sense, it may be referred to as the Deuteronomistic History.

Literary Context

            The book of Deuteronomy finds itself as a hinge point between two traditions: Pentateuchal and Deuteronomistic History.  In one sense, this literature is an ending.  It concludes the story of Genesis through Numbers, detailing the beginning of the world and Israel’s deliverance from Egypt.  Deuteronomy ends just as Israel is about to take possession of the Promise Land.

However, Deuteronomy is also a beginning.  The book details how Israel is to live in the land that God is giving them.  Everything from Joshua to 2 Kings is rooted in the Deuteronomic tradition.  Deuteronomy, therefore, provides an interpretive lens for “the rest of the story.”  Essentially, it is the hinge point for a large narrative relaying the story of God’s people.

Patrick D. Miller notes:

Having set forth the primary commandment, the most important words, Moses now presents further instruction: specific cases and rules that spell out the basic guidelines set forth in the commandments and the summary word of the Shema (6:4-5)… one may see a move now to show what the guiding principles set forth in chapters 5 and 6 mean for specific matters that arise in the lives of people in community with one another and God (128-29).

As stated, Deuteronomy 12-26 gives an interpretive lens through which to view the commandments.  In fact, it is the expounding of the original commandment given at Mount Sinai, which signifies that the commandment’s implications are always being considered and exegeted.  In fact, several sections start with similar words: “These are the commandments.”  Each section, chapters 1-4, 6-11, and 12-28 all begin with this formula, introducing a new thought, expanding upon the previous section’s use of the commandments (Olson 62-65).

The Josianic reform is usually attributed the initial and concluding chapters of Deuteronomy.  It is also possible that these chapters were added by scribes during the Babylonian exile.  However, as discussed earlier, these passages might best shadow Persian concerns for centralization, which allowed them greater control over their provinces.

As it is, Deuteronomy 1-11 retells the narrative of exodus and the judgment of the wilderness generation.  Chapter 11 concludes with a choice before all of Israel: blessing or curse, land or landlessness, life or death.  This is symbolized by two mountains: Mount Gerizim (blessings) and Mount Ebal (curses).  Mount Gerizim is a beautiful mountain with lush vegetation, representing life.  Mount Ebal, on the other hand, is ugly and desolate, representing death.  This is to be the reminder of the choice continuously lying before Israel as they enter to take possession of the land.

Chapter 12 is the introduction to this expanded work on the commandments.  The passage is set up with command language, asserting what the people must do to be in compliance with the Law.  This particular passage is a working out of the first commandment: “Do not have any other gods before me.”  The passage is set up in a future tense, viewing God’s promise that they will enter the land and they will take possession of it.  The tone is more than hopeful, it is certain of what will be accomplished.

However, to say that these passages are Law Code seriously hinders the voice of the messenger.  There seems to be a clear pastoral concern, despite the historical circumstances, whatever they may be.  This pastor is concerned about setting apart true worship and true worshipers from the surrounding nations’ worship.  Furthermore, the centrality of the first commandment can be seen, not only in Deuteronomy 12, but throughout the corpus of Deuteronomy.  Which is to say, the pastor desires to set God above all others in the life of Israel.

Theological Context

The centralization of worship in Israel is the main concern of this passage.  In many ways, this passage parallels the commandment to have no other gods beside Yahweh.  The people are to destroy the high places, the idols, and the altars.  Worship is only appropriate in the place that the Lord chooses for His Name.

The Levites are a major winner in this scheme.  They are listed several times in chapter 12 as recipients of a portion of the sacrifice for food.  Moreover, the centralization of worship focuses power in one locale.  The monarchy and the ruling priesthood will now be able to construct and structure proper worship and employ their definition of holiness.  Essentially, they are able to shape who the insiders and the outsiders will be.  For the Deuteronomistic tradition, this will be those that are obedient to the Law.

However, stipulations are made for those who cannot travel to the central place of worship.  Sacrifices to Yahweh may be made in their towns, but only by the prescribed methods.  For those who do not comply, certain judgment will be meted out.  For example, in the story of 1 Kings 19, Elijah confronts 500 prophets of Baal at a high place.  Elijah wins the contest, destroys Baal’s altar, and has all of Baal’s prophets killed.

The centralization of worship also parallels the notion of One God, as proclaimed in the Shema (Deut. 6).  Again, the multiplicity of high places would only affirm a polytheistic viewpoint.  Those that viewed the spiritual realm being governed by many gods would be clear losers in this context.  If there is only one God, then He holds all the power.  And, if there is only one place to worship this God, power is shifted to that locale.  Thus, the Temple becomes more than just a symbol of God’s presence in the life of Israel.  Its destruction shadows the absence of God’s presence in the life of Israel.  The connection between God and the Temple is a visible reminder of God’s election, providence, mercy, and power.

The centralization of worship may not have been a novel idea to Deuteronomy alone.  The tabernacle that was built in the story of Exodus was also a centralizing act.  God’s presence among the people was represented by this place of worship.  This was to be the place where God would meet the people.  Of course, it is a precursor to the Temple.  However, chapter 12 announces that the tabernacle, a portable sanctuary, would not be the place of worship forever.  Instead, God would choose a place for His Name to be worshiped.  Perhaps a priestly concern had influenced the Dtr whereby one location for God’s Name became a major concern for proper worship.

There is a slight nationalistic bent to this passage.  Obedience requires the destruction of the gods of the other nations.  Essentially, it is about asserting the election of God’s people over the surrounding peoples.  It is the holiness of separation as seen in the Genesis 1 creation account.  God separates and declares creation “good.”  Again, in this context, God is re-structuring creation from chaos and pronouncing it “good.”  This is a call to come out and be separate from the surrounding nations and their false gods.

What sort of practices would need to be employed in order for this centralized worship to function?  Daniel I. Block notes several practices that Deuteronomy says are to be incorporated into the life of worship at this one place that God will choose.

At the place Yahweh chooses to establish His name His people may do the following. 1. ‘See the face of Yahweh” (31:11; cf. 16:16); 2. Hear the reading of the Torah (31:11); 3. Learn to fear Yahweh (14:23; 31:9-13); 4. Rejoice before Yahweh (12:18; 14:26; 16:11-12, 14; 26:11); 5. Eat before Yahweh (12:7, 18; 14:23, 26, 29; 15:20; 18:6-8); 6. Present their sacrifices, which would include ‘the holy things’ they owned, votive offerings, and burnt offerings (12:26-27), tithes of grain, new wine, oil, the firstborn of the herds and flocks (14:22-27), and the consecrated firstborn of herds or flocks (15:19-23); 7. Celebrate the three great annual pilgrimage festivals: the Passover (16:1-8), the Festival of Weeks (Pentecost, 16:9-12), and the Festival of Booths (16:13-17; 31:9-13); 8. Settle legal disputes before the Levitical priest or the judge (17:8-13); 9. Observe Levites serving in the name of Yahweh (18:6-8); 10. Present thanksgiving offerings and recall Yahweh’s saving and providential grace (26:1-11); 11. Demonstrate their covenant commitment to Yahweh by gifts of charity to needy people (26:12; cf. 10:12-22); 12. Demonstrate communal solidarity by celebrating with one’s children and servants, the Levites, and aliens (14:27-29; 16:11) (144).

However, within Deuteronomy 12 itself, there are five practices of note for the promotion of true worship in the life of Israel.

Moses’ instructions for worship in verses 5-7 include five verbs: “you shall make a pilgrimage to the place,” and “you shall come there” (v. 5), “you shall bring your offerings” (v. 6), “you shall eat” (v. 7), and “you shall rejoice in all activities” (v. 7).   These five expressions reflect the five dimensions of Moses’ paradigm for worship. Each has a profoundly positive sense and may be construed more as an invitation than as a command, yielding a picture of Old Testament worship that flies in the face of common perceptions (144).

Normally, Deuteronomy conjures feelings of stale, dry, boring worship.  However, these text show that worship of the living God is life giving!

Hermeneutical Synthesis

            As was evidenced in chapter 11, there are two choices that now lie before God’s people as they enter into the land of promise to take possession.  It is the choice of life or death, obedience or disobedience.  In order for Israel to continue to live under the provision and blessing of God (i.e. land), it is necessary for them to live in total obedience to the Law of God.  In other words, they are to observe the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.”  Yahweh alone is the object of worship!

The motivation for worship is not in the initiative of the people.  Rather, it is the people’s response to God’s “giving the land, blessing the people, giving rest, giving a grant, and providing security” (Block 135).  This is in direct competition with the other “gods.”  Yahweh provides for his people.  Idols must be provided for.  Yahweh is the living God, who alone is worthy of worship.

Furthermore, true worship belongs to everyone, from the greatest to the least.  Unlike the nations who are lumped together and remain nameless, individuals that worship in sincerity are identified specifically.  It involves masters and servants, children, men, women, and all in the household (136).  In other words, God is not Lord only of the powerful but also of the weakest and most insignificant in society.  The presence of Yahweh is open to all.

And, much as Pharaoh remains nameless in the Exodus account, seven nations are designated as insignificant players.  Their worship is abominable to God, which means that they are worse than outsiders, they are non-entities.  Though they may be stronger and greater than Israel, these nations will ultimately fall against the power of Yahweh.  Their idols in which they place their trust will idly stand by as these nations are destroyed.

Finally, we find that participating in true worship is a life-giving activity.  We are able to rejoice because of the past from which God has delivered us, as well as, the future that He has promised us.  And, unlike today’s spiritual milieu, worship is to be a constant expression and reality in our lives.  Worship is not “doing as we see fit.”  Rather, it is the gathered community, rejoicing for what God has done.  It is an invitation to relationship, not simply a command or duty imposed upon us.  Furthermore, it is the re-establishing of covenant with God to the community.

 

Works Cited

Birch, Bruce C., Walter Brueggemann, Terence E. Fretheim, and David L. Petersen. A Theological Introduction To The Old Testament. 2 ed. New York: Abingdon Press, 2005.

Block, Daniel I. 2005. “The joy of worship: the Mosaic invitation to the presence of God (Deut

12:1-14).” Bibliotheca sacra 162, no. 646: 131-149. ATLA Religion Database with

ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 13, 2010).

Miller, Patrick D.. Deuteronomy (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching). Louisville: J. Knox Press, 1991.

Noll, K. L. 2007. “Deuteronomistic History or Deuteronomic Debate? (A Thought Experiment).”

Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 31, no. 3: 311-345. Academic Search Premier,

EBSCOhost (accessed April 13, 2010).

Olson, Dennis T.. Deuteronomy and the Death of Moses: A Theological Reading. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2005.

 

Deuteronomy 11

Deuteronomy 10-11 serve as concluding chapters for all that has proceeded.  This is what the rest of all that has come before boils down to and means.

In this passage, two motivations are given for loving God and obeying him today.  First, God’s mercy in the past and his ongoing care and guidance in the wilderness (11:1-7).  In this, God incorporates both forces of history and forces of nature to enact his will for his people.  The second motivation looks to the future: the dramatic and saving act of God and the ongoing care and blessing of the people.

Two options are laid before the people: blessing or curse, land or landlessness, citizenship or alienation, life or death.  It is really the question of whom the people will serve.  Will they observe the first command?  Two mountains will be visible reminders of this choice that will continually stand before the people as they live in the land of God’s promise.  Mount Gerizim, the mountain of blessing, was green with life and vegetation.  Mount Ebal was a stark contrast of desolate landscape.  This choice before Israel is also echoed in the opening of Joshua… “choose this day whom you will serve.”

This same thought is repeated in chapter 27-28, forming an envelope around chapters 12-26.

Three gods are suggested as temptations to follow.  Each involves trusting ultimately in human powers and claims to superiority: political and military might (Deut. 7:1-26), self-sufficient economic power (Deut. 8:1-20), or self-righteous moral or ethical power (Deut. 9:1-10:11).  However, to choose these over the living God results in death and destruction for Israel.  That much can be seen evidenced in the wilderness generation, who continually turned to idolatry.

Verses 10-11 deal with the wilderness generation’s propensity to always look back on Egypt as a great place of plenty.  Moses facetiously acknowledges Egypt is a garden that has been watered by “foot.”  In contrast, the Promise Land is watered by the very heavens.  In other words, Egypt’s fertile land is watered by the urine and waste of the people.  Whereas, Canaan is a land of God’s providence.

Moses uses similar language of idols in Deut. 29:17, calling these lifeless idols “disgusting excrement pellets.”

 

 

 

 

1 Kings 18 and Deuteronomy

INTRODUCTION

The storyline of 1 Kings begins with the king by which all others would be measured, King David.  It is the end of his life and the kingdom is passed down to Solomon.  Under Solomon, Israel grows in wealth and stature.  However, this story is far from “happily ever after.”  Solomon was considered very wise, but ruled, according to the text, very foolishly.  He lived lavishly, had many foreign wives, and enforced an enslaving labor program for building the kingdom.

To say the least, this was everything that had been warned about in the book of Deuteronomy.  Solomon became the epitome of the very thing God desired least from the community of Israel.  Due to this politic, the kingdom of Israel becomes a split kingdom, Israel in the north and Judah to the south.  The narrative found in 1 and 2 Kings details the rule of the various monarchs that ruled over Israel and Judah.

As such, many people view these texts as historical accounts of the monarchs.  However, many times seemingly important details of a ruler’s reign are left out.  Economic welfare of the two nations does not seem to be the mark of a good leader.  Savvy foreign policy does not appear to be the framework for a good evaluation at all.  What might possibly be the lens through which these writers are judging the monarchy?

First, I believe it is important to note that this is not simply a historical account of leadership.  Rather, it is a theological interpretation that sits in judgment upon the respective leaders that Israel and Judah find themselves under.  As I hinted earlier, Deuteronomy plays a key role in evaluating leadership.  After all, Moses remained the paradigm for godly leadership for centuries after his tenure.  So, it is only natural to see that Moses would influence how the people should view their leadership.  1 Kings does indeed recount historical facts, but its underlying mission is to provide a theological narrative that begins to explain the results of exile.

Within this paper, I will first provide some historical background that will help us understand the motivation behind writing this wonderful text.  In this, I hope to sufficiently bring to light Deuteronomy’s connection to 1 and 2 Kings, although we will primarily dwell in 1 Kings 18.  Secondly, I will give a succinct synopsis of Ahab’s reign that prepares the reader for the Elijah confrontation found in 1 Kings 18.  Finally, I will provide a theological interpretation of 1 Kings 17 in light of a few key passages in Deuteronomy.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

            “These two books together make up the final part of the Deuteronomistic history.  Deuteronomistic historians utilized various sources such as ‘the book of the annals of Solomon’ (1 Kings 11:41), ‘the book of the annals of the kings of Israel’ (14:19), and ‘the book of the annals of the kings of Judah’ (v. 29) to compose their work.  It is also likely that they drew from other written or oral sources that had circulated long before these books received their final form” (Varughese 178).

Drawing from a wide range of sources, the Deuteronomistic historians redacted the records of kings’ reigns.  Their purpose was not to simply retell the story of God’s people, although this was likely significant.  It is likely that the motivation for this text finds root in the Babylonian exile.  Inevitably, the chosen people began to ask themselves why they were now finding themselves in a foreign land living in exile.  What could have possibly caused this turn of events and where was God when all of this happened?  Was it a failure on God’s part?

In its totality, 1 and 2 Kings communicates the story of God’s people from 960 B. C. to roughly 587 B. C.  This means that the text would not have been constructed until some point during the exile or post-exilic period.  The result is a text that reflects the concerns of a people finding themselves as foreigners in a strange land, rather than inhabitants of the Promise Land.  Unless God has bailed on His promises, which does not seem to be a likelihood, what predicated expulsion from the land?

How long had they recited the words of the Shema?  It is a warning to the people before entering the land: “Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you, because the Lord your God, who is present with you, is a jealous God.  The anger of the Lord your God would be kindled against you and he would destroy you from the face of the earth” (Deut. 6:14-15 NRSV).  The failure, it would seem, was placed squarely upon the community that had neglected to maintain covenant fidelity.

As a result, many of the rulers, with only a few exceptions, covered in 1 and 2 Kings are given a negative evaluation.  Generally speaking, the kings are condemned for doing “evil in the sight of the Lord.”  David, Hezekiah, and Josiah are only a small minority of exceptional leadership found in these pages, all of which ruled over Judah (David was before the divided kingdom).  The authors of 1 and 2 Kings find it little wonder that Israel is destroyed by Assyria in 722 B.C. and now Babylon presides over them.

1 KINGS 18 CONTEXT

            “Up until the time of Omri, the Northern Kingdom had been unable to establish a permanent succession of kings.  However, with Omri, relative political stability and economic prosperity was achieved for over three decades.  Although the Deuteronomistic writers give little information concerning Omri’s reign (16:24-28) and describe Omri as having sinned ‘more than all those before him.’  Omri had great successes both domestically and internationally” (Varughese 185).

It is in this time of affluence that Ahab is born, son of Omri.  As part of a political partnership with the king of Phoenicia, Omri had Ahab marry Jezebel, daughter to the pagan king.  This violated the prohibition given in Deuteronomy 7:3-6:

Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods.  Then the anger of the Lord would destroy you quickly.  But this is how you must deal with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire.  For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession (NRSV).

Marrying into these other cultures would drive God’s people away from Him.  Instead, they would turn to worthless idols, violating the first command and the Shema’s claim to one God, who alone is worthy to be served.

King Omri also establishes Samaria as the new capital over Israel.  This is in clear violation of the centralization of worship desired and constructed in Deuteronomy 12.  High places were to be destroyed, the multiplicity of gods and places of worship were to be done away with.  However, now Omri has established another site of worship in Samaria, one that gives credence to idolatry and doing as each person sees fit.  The Law informed Israel that there is only One God, but Omri seems to have blatantly ignored this fact.

Despite Omri’s political and economic success, he is crowned as the worst king up to that point.  But, if the reader believed that we are going to see a turning point, they are sadly mistaken.  Ahab comes into power, exercising similar economic and political prowess as the king of Israel.  However, the Deuteronomistic historians are hardly favorable to Ahab or Jezebel.  Instead, Ahab is said to be even worse than his father (1 Kgs 16:30)!

Baal worship was on prominent display in Ahab’s kingdom.  Ahab’s foreign wife, Jezebel, was continuing the legacy of leading all of Israel astray.  God, however, was now about to confront Israel through the prophet Elijah.  In chapter 17 of 1 Kings, Elijah brings Ahab a message from God: “’As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word’” (17:1).

For three years, Israel underwent an extreme drought.  This is the fulfillment of the Deuteronomistic curse for disobedience: “Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away, serving other gods and worshiping them, for then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain and the land will yield no fruit” (Deut. 11:16-17).  Furthermore, Moses warns the people in Deuteronomy 28 of the curses that will accompany disobedience: “The Lord will afflict you with consumption, fever, inflammation, with fiery heat and drought… The Lord will change the rain of your land into powder, and only dust shall come down upon you from the sky until you are destroyed” (v. 22, 24).

The curse of disobedience has fallen upon the land, for which the king is greatly responsible.  The King is not only a political leader, but the religious leader of the community.  This is best evidenced in Deuteronomy’s picture of a perfect king:

When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests.  It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel (17:18-20 NRSV).

Ahab hardly conformed to this mold.  He aided the killing of the prophets of the Lord.  He had Naboth killed so that he might take his vineyard (1 Kgs 21).  Not to mention, he worshiped Baal due to the influence of his pagan wife.  God was going to show who was truly God!

Elijah presents himself to Ahab, confronting him about the unfaithfulness that Ahab has shown to the Lord (18:18).  Elijah has hardly come to enjoy a warm conversation with the king.  Instead, Elijah calls all of Israel, along with the prophets of Baal and Asherah, to meet him at Mount Carmel.

In the tradition of Moses, Elijah confronts the people with two choices that lie before them in that moment.  It echoes “choose blessing or curse, life or death” that Moses had placed before the people before entering into Canaan.  “Choose this day whom you will serve.”  Now, Elijah is offering the same prospect: choose Yahweh or Baal!

So, we have the solitary figure of Elijah poised against the 850 prophets of idolatry.  It’s not as if God’s prophets are entirely extinct.  But, there is significance in the numbers.  It is primarily about the centralization of worship opposed to the worship of the high places, where people do as they see fit.  There is one God and one way to worship God.

Elijah, hardly being a gentleman, allows the prophets of false gods to go first.  An offering is placed on the altar… now, they simply have to call down fire to consume the sacrifice.  The prophets began calling upon Baal, the god of rain, to rain down fire upon the bull.  From morning until noon, the prophets called but to no avail.  Smirking, Elijah mocks their efforts, saying, “’Cry aloud!  Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened’” (18:27).  Provoked, the prophets cried louder and slashed themselves.  Yet, still there was no answer, no fire, no heavenly rain.

The form of worship exhibited by these prophets was blasphemous.  First, they worship the created rather than the Creator.  Baal was nothing and could not answer in response to the prayers of the prophets.  Secondly, the prophets lacerated themselves, causing themselves to bleed in order to placate the gods into action.  Still nothing.  Deuteronomy warned, “You are children of the Lord your God.  You must not lacerate yourselves or shave your forelocks for the dead” (14:1).  Israel’s form of worship must be separate in every way from the surrounding cultures.  However, as is evidenced by this story, that was hardly the case.

Now, Elijah has his turn.  Elijah reconstructed the altar of Yahweh, choosing 12 stones that represented the 12 tribes of Israel.  Next, he dug a trench around the altar and cut wood for the sacrifice, cutting the bull into pieces which were laid on top.  Finally, Elijah called for four large jars of water to be filled and poured upon the bull, wood, and altar.  He instructed them to do this three times, until 12 jars had been filled and poured out.  The instructions were carried out until water soaked the entire offering and filled the trench surrounding the altar.

Elijah then prayed that God would answer and show His people that Yahweh alone is God.  He prayed that the hearts of the onlookers would be turned from Baal to the Living God, from death to life.  “Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench” (1 Kgs 18:38).  Immediately, the people began to worship God!

In accordance with Deuteronomy 13:1-18, Elijah commands the people to seize the prophets of Baal and put them to the sword.  The people were now living in covenant faithfulness, led by Elijah.  God had proved the victor, obedience was the only natural response.  It is in the final piece of this story that we see the covenant faithfulness of God on full display.

Elijah prays that God will bring rain, ending the four year drought.  After sending a servant seven times to see if rain is coming, the servant affirms in the positive.  The echoes of Deuteronomy resound again, “If you will only heed his every commandment that I am giving you today – loving the Lord your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul – then he will give the rain for your land in its season” (11:13-14).

The story of Elijah reminds us, in the tradition of Deuteronomy, that we too have a choice to make.  Surrounded by the pluralistic cultures that inhabit the lands around us, we must choose whom we will serve.  We may serve the gods that promise wealth and provision, or turn to the One who alone is our Provider.  “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known” (11:26-28).

We must keep in mind the lesson we learn from Omri and Ahab: wealth and power are not good indicators of a life well lived.  Rather, it is how we live in obedience to the Word of the Lord that is a true measure of our success.  Drought may come, but we can trust in the Giver of Life and Blessing.

 

Works Cited

Branson, Robert, Jim Edlin, Timothy M. Green, and Alex Varughese. Discovering the Old Testament: Story and Faith. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2003.

The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version With the Apocrypha. New York: Abingdon Press, 2003.

 

Reading the Burning Bush: Voice, World and Holiness by Oliver Davies

Oliver Davies’ article, “Reading the Burning Bush: Voice, World and Holiness,” seeks to “read anew” the classic Biblical text of Exodus 3.  Davies claims that traditional readings, including Judaism, of this particular text have had a particular “metaphysical” bent (439).  This metaphysical approach has led to “abstract” thinking that has divorced itself from practical reality (439).  Furthermore, Davies holds that our reflective thinking over this passage cannot be separated from our experiences in real life.  In other words, experience shapes our understanding.  Thus, reflection that does not regard the “real” is empty.  This metaphysical viewpoint, in Davies’ viewpoint, must also be separated from our reading of the text so that we can approach the text “on its own terms” (440).  The author looks to explain the significance and process of this human and divine interaction that is captured in God and Moses’ interaction in Exodus 3.

For our author, this text is set in the realm of the senses (i.e. sight and hearing).  God hears the Israelites crying due to their enslavement.  God then looks upon the Israelites and heeds their cry (440).  Exodus 3, with its background found in Exodus 2:23-25, plays off these same senses that are used of God: sight and hearing.  Moses turns to see this bush that is burning but not consumed.  Moses has now focused on the bush just as God has focused on the Israelites suffering.  Moses then hears God’s voice call from the midst of the bush, again paralleling God listening to the Israelites cry.  This concern for “seeing” and “hearing” invites us as readers to experience the text in the “here and now” of our own lives.

This divine encounter, or theophany, is pre-empted by Moses’ curiosity “about something which is somehow out of the ordinary in the world” (441).  Through this encounter the idea of sacred space or, “holy ground,” “suggests divine presence but also the separateness which is consequent upon it” (441).

God is portrayed as being moved into action by compassion forIsrael’s oppression.  However, Moses will be the “instrument for this liberation” (442).  God, however, is not merely a bystander in this deliverance.  God gives Moses His name: Yahweh.  This indicates a new intimacy to which God is calling the Israelite community.

Davies then begins to explain that the nature of this text is not simply a portrayal of Moses’ encounter with God.  This text also serves as a “burning bush” experience for us as well.  Like Moses andIsrael, we are called into a “fuller intimacy” with Yahweh.  This is not simply a psychological exercise.  We can experience God in the “here and now” of everyday existence.  Davies does not believe that the historicity of the burning bush is of importance.  Rather, the implications are for practical experience overrides any such desire to uphold or oppose such miraculous possibilities.  Furthermore, we should be presently aware when reading the text for the possibility of “divine disclosure.”  God’s revelation does not occur apart from the sensible.

I believe Oliver Davies points out an important aspect to remember when reading the Bible: being present.  Or, more aptly, reading God’s Word is an invitation to encounter God in the “here and now.”  These are not merely stories designed to be informative but formative.  Likewise, God’s revelation speaks into the “sensible” world, like He did in the story of creation.  God interacts with His creation.  However, this does not only confine God to the sensible realm.  As Davies points out, God’s action in the world is often beyond our understanding but we can view the effects of God’s action.  There is a similar principle in seeing the effects of the wind’s movement through the tree tops.  Like Davies, I too believe that God’s revelation is always an “issuing out” for God’s people.  He draws us near in relationship to be a holy community.  Davies, for me, reminded me of the importance of being aware of God in the “everyday real.”

Moses and the Burning Bush: Exodus 3:1-12

Textual Analysis

1 Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.

2 The messenger of Jehovah became visible to Moses in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush.  Moses noticed and perceived that the bush was burning but not consumed.

3 So Moses thought, “I must turn to inspect this marvelous spectacle, the reason the bush is not destroyed.”

4 When Jehovah observed Moses turning aside to behold the bush, Elohim invited him from the midst of the bush, saying, “Moses, Moses!”  Moses replied, “Here I am.”

5 Then He commanded, “Do not draw near; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is land set apart.  It is holy ground.”

6 He also avowed, “I am Elohim of your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”  Then Moses hid his face for he feared and revered Elohim as the true God.

7 Jehovah said, “I have looked upon the misery of my people who are inEgypt.  I have granted hearing to their cry of distress against their taskmasters, for I know and have experienced their pain.”

8 “Thus, I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians, and to bring them up into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the region of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.”

9 “Now, look, the cry of the people of Israel is gathered before Me.  Furthermore, I have seen the pressure with which the Egyptians have squeezed them.”

10 “Come now, I will send you to Pharaoh, so that you may bring My people,Israel, out ofEgypt.”

11 But Moses responded to God, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should lead the people ofIsrael out ofEgypt?”

12 And He said, “Nevertheless, I will be with you and this will be a miraculous sign to you that it is I who let you loose: when you have delivered the people out ofEgypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”

Literary Context

            The book of Exodus falls within the parameters of the Pentateuch, a Greek word meaning “five scrolls.”  The Hebrew division for these five books is called Torah, meaning “instruction.”[1]  These five scrolls or books, Genesis through Deuteronomy, contain some of Israel’s most formative theology.

“The name ‘Exodus’ which is of Greek origin, comes from the LXX name for the second book of the Pentateuch.  ‘Exodus’ means ‘exit, departure,’ or ‘exodus [from Egypt]’… The Hebrew name for the book derives from the first words of the text: ‘And these are the names of’… or simply Shemoth.’”  The Hebrew name Shemoth, indicates, along with the conjunction “And” beginning Exodus 1:1, Exodus was meant to be continuous from Genesis.[2]  However, the book of Exodus is not simply an historical account of the Israelites.  This can be seen, for instance, through the author’s neglect to name the ruling pharaohs in these narratives.  Also, the events narrated in the book of Exodus are, at times, anachronistic in arrangement.  Bruce Birch suggests that Exodus is “kerygma… theological proclamation seeking to tell the community’s salvation story to subsequent generations so that they too will know and encounter the liberating God of the Exodus story.” [3]  Exodus is composed primarily as “narrative and law.”[4]  The book of Exodus also has a distinctly liturgical influence throughout its composition.[5]  Birch also suggests four “foci” that the “narrative flow of the book of Exodus” centers upon: “Bondage, Confrontation with Pharaoh, Liberation, and Wilderness.”[6]

Generally, scholarship agrees that Exodus is a compositional work shaped through centuries of writing and redaction, or editing.  Fundamentally, this theory is known as the Documentary Hypothesis.[7]  The Documentary Hypothesis holds that there are three, possibly four, editors that shaped the final text of Exodus.  “Scholars who maintain the documentary hypothesis trace the materials in this book to three literary sources (Yahwist, Elohist, and Priestly).”[8]

According to James Bowley, the text known as J and E fall between the years 928-722 BCE.  The P text follows somewhere between 700-600 BCE.  Bowley then continues by concluding that P and J were likely woven together by an author designated D for the Deutreronomist.  This, Bowley believes, was likely formed during King Josiah’s reign from 639-609 BCE.[9]  These text sources were then combined by various redactors until the text was finished circa the sixth or fifth centuries BCE.[10]

To go even more in depth as to the construction of the Pentateuch, Christoph Levin declares that six “narrative blocks” exist within the Pentateuch: “primeval history (Genesis 1-11); history of the patriarchs (Genesis 12-36); the story of
Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 37; 39-45); stories about Moses (Exodus 2-4); exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and their wanderings through the desert; and Balaam (Numbers 22-24).” [11]  These “narrative blocks” show the fragmented framework that has been weaved together through a long process that was finally fused together by an editor known as the Yahwist or J source.

The Yahwist is noted as one of the “two documents that provide the literary basis of what later became the Pentateuch.”[12]  Martin Noth claimed that the work of the Pentateuch was a “self-contained whole.”[13]  Six characteristics showed this unity.  First, the fragmented “choice of sources” throughout the Pentateuch showed a consistent editorial process had been used throughout the work.  Secondly, the Pentateuch had a “view of history” tracing Israel’s very beginnings until its preparation for entering the Promised Land.  Next, a “theological leitmotif” of “historical blessing” links the narratives together.  Fourth, ‘language and style” give evidence of a singular editor stitching various sources together.  The editor seemed to be very familiar with the language of the “king’s court.”[14]

Source criticism, however, has yielded little consensus as to the actual process leading to the canonical text we now have.  As such, it is most beneficial to read the text as we now have it.  “Details on the nature and dating of these sources or the process that brought them together are subject to vigorous debate… the development of literary and canonical approaches to the text have stressed the importance of the present, final shape of the text as the significant rendering of the story.”[15]

Historical Context

As stated before, the book of Exodus is not primarily concerned with reconstructing an historical account of the Exodus.  This makes dating the events of the Exodus difficult at best.  What we can assess of the historical context must be derived from the text.  Exodus 1 begins with an account of the “names” of Jacob’s sons that had come toEgyptduring the time of Joseph’s vizier-ship inEgypt.  Verse 5 tells us that there were seventy kin of Jacob that lived inEgyptat that time.  Exodus 1:6 then recounts the fertility of the Israelite people had caused them to multiply greatly.  This presents a major concern for the pharaoh ofEgypt.  This pharaoh appoints taskmasters over the Israelites, reducing them to slaves (v 11).

Although inconclusive, there are some Egyptian influences upon the text (i.e. Moses’ name).  “With great irony on several levels, it is in fact the princess who gives Moshe his name.  The name is Egyptian, a rather common name meaning ‘son,’ which you can see in other Egyptian names, such as Thutmose.  But our author relates the name to a Hebrew word, m-sh-h, meaning ‘to draw out,’ and has the Egyptian princess explain the Hebrew meaning.”[16]  This Egyptian influence could possibly indicate materials composed shortly after or during the actual exodus.

Walter C Kaiser maintains that there are two views for the dating of the exodus: “(1) pharaohs of the Eighteenth Dynasty (c. 1580-1321 BC) and (2) pharaohs of the Nineteenth Dynasty mainly in the thirteenth century (1321-1205 BC).”[17]  Kaiser indicates two “pillars” for dating the exodus during the thirteenth century: “(1) the two names for the store cities built by the Israelites in Egypt – Pithom and Rameses (1:11) – and (2) the archaeological discoveries at many Palestinian sites that have been interpreted to favor an Israelite conquest toward the end of the thirteenth century.”[18]  Kaiser contends that the thirteenth century dating of the exodus rest on “two misconceptions,” namely, “that the building of the cities (Pithom and Rameses) and the oppression of the Israelites commenced shortly before the exodus rather than in the Middle Kingdom of Egypt (i.e. prior to the Eighteenth Dynasty), and (2) the nature of the archaeology of Canaan and its problematic dating.[19]  However, Exodus cannot be read as simply a linear history.  Take, for example, the time span between Moses’ murder of the Egyptian and his encounter with God through the burning bush.  There are forty years that span this time frame.  Likewise, the archaeological discoveries are difficult to date and are not congruently agreed upon.

A clue often used for the dating of our text is found in Exodus 1:11 where the cities of “Pithom and Ramses” are said to have been built by the Hebrews.  The names of these cities, especially in reference to Ramses, led many scholars to date the Exodus during the reign of Ramses II which started in 1290 BC.  Scholars argued that a city could not be named after a Pharaoh that had not even been thought of during the time of its construction. They logically concluded that the Exodus would not have occurred before that time.  In addition, Ramses II reigned during a significant period of “military achievements and building project.”[20]

However, Robert L. Vasholz argues against such an easy interpretation.  He claims, “The description of the store city Ramses in Exodus is hardly adequate for what we know of the great royal capital Pi-Ramses.”[21]  Furthermore, Vasholz maintains that it would be unlikely, and even demeaning, to name such a mundane city for one of the great pharaohs.  However, Vasholz does allow the fact that Pi-Ramses also had “mud brick storages,” which makes it a “possible site for the store city of the exodus.”[22]

Vasholz also contends that cities were not named after pharaohs but rather after their gods.  If that is true, this would free up dating the exodus to this period alone.  Vasholz says this stance is confirmed in Genesis 47:11, where “landof Ramses” is mentioned.  This locale is mentioned as prior to the time of Moses by close to 400 years.  This might indicate an alternative dating of the exodus prior to the time of Ramses II.[23]

Kaiser also contends that there are two “pillars” for dating the exodus to the fifteenth century: “the summarizing statement that there were 480 years (1 Ki 6:1) from the exodus until the fourth year of Solomon (= 967 BC) and (2) the supporting data that three hundred years (Jdg 11:26) elapsed between Israel’s entrance into Palestine and the commencement of the judge Jephthah’s rule.  Both texts set the exodus at c. 1446 BC, making Thutmose II the pharaoh of Israelite oppression.”[24]  However, this is not conclusive evidence and is readily attested due to conflicting translations from the Greek and Hebrew.  Also, others suggest that these 480 years are symbolic for the generations that followed the exodus.  Kaiser maintains that a “general case [can be] made for the internal consistency of the biblical record for the early date of the exodus as c. 1446 BC.”[25]  However, again, this is not conclusive evidence for the dating of the Exodus.  Yet, this dating does give some interesting possibilities in the connection between the names Thutmose III and Moses.

The historical site for Sinai/Horeb is unknown.  In addition, it is not certain that these two place are even the same place, although they are generally asserted to be so.  These two names could be from two separate traditions that have been weaved together.  Bowley says that scholarship is divided on the issue.  Bowley also writes, “The traditional site of Mt.Sinai on the southern end of the Sinai peninsula, known as Jebual Musa (Arabic for “Mount of Moses”), goes back only to the third or fourth century CE.”[26]  Also, there are numerous other locations that have been nominated as possible locations of Mt. Sinai, including “near Palestine, some in modern Jordan or Saudi Arabia.”[27]

The book of Exodus, as is true for the rest of the Pentateuch, is anonymously authored.  Tradition surrounds this text as having come from the Mosaic tradition.  There are a few textual assertions of this belief (e.g. Ex. 17:14; 34:4, 27-29; 24:4).[28]  However, as has been stated earlier, multiple authors and/or editors are thought to have been involved in the shaping of the present text.  Most likely, the canonical text we now hold was likely finalized during “Israel’s Babylonian exile (587-539 BCE).”[29]  However, there is still debate about the actual dating for the finalization of the Pentateuch.[30]  Despite these uncertainties, a Babylonian exile seems a likely setting for the audience of Exodus in its canon form.

These texts would have answered important theological questions.  For example, a post-exile person might question where God had gone or if He might ever deliver them from oppression.  Was God confined to theTempleor one space?  Did God care and would He fulfill His promises?  These and other penetrating questions would have been addressed by these texts.  Thus, Exodus invites every generation to live out the exile and remember God’s wonderful deeds for His people.  It asserts hope during times of trial and tribulation.  These texts also emphasize worship and obedience as a faithful response to God’s actions in our behalf.  The book of Exodus also puts forth the standard for community through the giving of the Law and its comparison with life under pharaoh’s oppressive regime.  An exilic people would easily identify with the suffering of Exodus and looked hopefully for salvation from God.

Theological Content

            Creation Theology – “Pharaoh’s threat to the future of Israel… is a threat to the purposes of God the Creator.”[31]  Moses is invited, called to participate in God’s creative plan for His people.  Although God could act alone to preserve Israel and save them, He chooses to use human agency in this process.  In Fretheim’s work, Exodus, he states, “That is for God a risky venture, fraught with negative possibilities.”[32]  God’s call in this passage is typical: “(1) Theophany – Divine Appearance (vv.1-4a); (2) Introductory Word (vv. 4b-9); (3) Divine Commission (v. 10); (4) Objection (v. 11); (5) Reassurance (v. 12a); (6) Sign (v. 12b).”[33]

The burning bush plays a huge role in the narrative.  There is fire in the midst of this bush yet it is not consumed.  This catches Moses’ attention, thus he diverts his path to see this sight.  Moses’ curiosity becomes ground for divine revelation.  Terrence Fretheim commented, “A messenger of God… appears to him ‘in’ (not in the form of) a flame of fire from within the bush and that the messenger is in fact God.”[34]

Bernard Robinson claims that this burning bush passage is an important segment defining Israel’s connection with Yahweh.  Robinson states, “This theophany, in which God calls Moses from his shepherding, will emphasize the fact that Yahweh takes the initiative where his emissaries are concerned.”[35]  God is not unconcerned or inactive.  God is actively working for his people, even before they are responding to Him.  Robinson believes this passage serves several purposes, which is informed by liturgical uses.[36]  Kathy Beach-Verhey comments that the verb in Exodus 3:7b, “yada,” which we translate “know,” “denotes intimacy… of shared experience…  God is neither aloof nor separated from the suffering of God’s people.”[37]  This is an awesome picture of Yahweh.

First, this theophany is “foreshadow [to] the Sinai revelation later in the Book of Exodus.[38]  This, as Robinson writes, displays God’s “transcendence… while preserving his personality.”[39]  Robinson continues by outlining the use of fire throughout the Bible as a “symbol of the deity.”[40]  This is even seen in the Exodus account where God is cloaked in a pillar of fire as He leads His people.  Or, again, in the Sinai encounter with Israel, the earth shakes and the mountain is enshrouded by smoke and fire at its peak.  Robinson maintains that this may not be fire’s only importance in this passage.  Fire, throughout Scripture, can also be a “symbol of oppression.”[41]  In several passages, like Jeremiah 11:4, Egypt is represented as an “iron-smelter” dealing through oppressive injustice.[42]  Although this is not a likely early reading, it does serve as an important interpretation for us and likely for the communities that read this as a canon.[43]  It is important to distinguish the messenger as being “in” the flame.  Lastly, Robinson believes the burning bush passage is “natural for the readers to see in the bush an allusion to the Menorah or seven-branched Lampstand which the Pentateuch represents Moses as constructing at the divine command for the Tabernacle.”[44]  The Menorah would represent a “perpetual theophany.”[45]

J. Gerald Janzen adds that the bush can symbolize more than the natural realm.  The bush can also be seen to represent a people.[46]  We can find evidences of this use throughout the Old and New Testament (i.e. John 15).  God will not allow His people to be consumed.  In fact, God is in the midst of the persecution and will maintain life for His people and not allow them to be “consumed.”  In addition, Oliver Davies warns that we must not merely look for symbolism in the burning bush narrative.  Traditional readings of this passage have lead to “metaphysical” interpretation divorced from practical reality.[47]  The burning bush is an invitation to us to see suffering and to respond as God would respond.

Application/ Hermeneutics

            Like Moses, we are called to be aware.  God reveals injustices in the world to those He calls out.  Like Moses, we may feel inadequate.  However, God calls us for a purpose and reassures us that we will not act alone.  God will see His purposes come to fruition no matter the opposition.  God will establish His reign and sovereignty, especially in the face of oppression and injustice against the weak.  God calls us to respond to these injustices, to oppose them head on.  God sees, hears, and knows the mistreatment of His people.  He calls us to see the same thing He does.  God is not inactive.  He comes down, even participates in the suffering of people.  What kind of God is this?  Moses’ seeing, hearing, and knowing corresponds with God’s.  God’s mission becomes Moses’.  Likewise, God’s mission in the world must become our own, even at our own peril.

God’s purposes provide life in barrenness.  God does not allow His people to be consumed by the fires of oppression.  Rather, God brings freedom and deliverance.  He still works this way today.  What then should happen?  God calls those He has freed to by a holy community that participates in the divine re-creation.  God frees us so that we may respond in the same way to others.  Our deliverance leads us to be a community of worship.  We enter into a covenant relationship with God.  We decided who will be our Master.  We respond in obedience to this Creator and Sustainer of life.  We become messengers of this hope that we have found and received unmerited.

The Exodus is not merely a historical account of God’s divine action in the past.  It is an invitation to see God’s work and action of redemption today!  Moreover, it is an invitation to respond to God with trust and obedience.  We know that God cares and desires personal relationship because He enters into the very mess of our lives.  He is not merely a sideline observer, but a participant in the very world He created.  As such, we can be confident that God is with us, even in the absolute darkest situations.  More importantly, He cares and desires for us to experience His gift of freedom and redemption.

Works Cited

Beach-Verhey, Kathy. 2005. “Exodus 3:1-12.” Interpretation 59, no. 2: 180-182. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed August 12, 2009).

Birch, Bruce C., Walter Brueggemann, and Terence E. Fretheim. A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament.New York: Abingdon P, 2005.

Bowley, James E. Introduction to Hebrew Bible : A Guided Tour of Israel’s Sacred Library.UpperSaddleRiver: Prentice Hall, 2007.

Branson, Robert D., Jim Edlin, and Timothy M. Green. Discovering the Old Testament : Story and Faith.New York: Beacon Hill P ofKansas City, 2003.

Davies, Oliver. 2006. “Reading the Burning Bush: Voice, World, and Holiness.” Modern Theology 22, no. 3: 439-448. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed August 12, 2009).

Fretheim, Terence E. Exodus.New York:Geneva P, 2003.

Fretheim, Terence E. The Pentateuch. Ed. Gene M. Tucker and Charles Cousar.New York: Abingdon P, 1996.

Hamilton, Victor P. Handbook on the Pentateuch : Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

“Interlinear Study Bible.” Www.studylight.org. 19 Nov. 2008 http://www.studylight.org/isb/bible.cgi?query=exodus+3%3a1-12§ion=0&it=nas&ot=bhs&nt=na&enter=perform+search.

Janzen, J Gerald. 2003. “And the bush was not consumed.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 31, no. 4: 219-225. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed August 12, 2009).

Levin, Christoph. 2007. “The Yahwist: the earliest editor in the Pentateuch.” Journal of Biblical Literature 126, no. 2: 209-230. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed August 12, 2009).

Longman III, Tremper. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary.Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.

Robinson, Bernard P. 1997. “Moses at the Burning Bush.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament , no. 75: 107-122. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed August 11, 2009).

Tanakh, the Holy Scriptures : The New Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text.WashingtonD.C.: Jewish Publication Society, 1985.

Vasholz, Robert I. 2006. “On the dating of the Exodus.” Presbyterion 32, no. 2: 111-113. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed August 12, 2009).

Exodus 3:1-12

Literary Context

  • Exodus – “Exit, Departure”                     Shemoth – “The Names”
  • Documentary Hypothesis – Compilation of sources fused together by editors
  • Literary Form: Narrative and Law with definite Liturgical influences
  • Kerygma – Theological proclamation of the community’s salvation story

Historical Context

  • Pentateuchal Canon probably finalized by the Babylonian Exile (587 BCE)
  • Exodus time period cannot be established with certainty
      • Thutmose III (c. 1446 BC) or Ramses II (c. 1290)
  • Severe oppression and genocidal policies established against Israelites
  • Theophany occurred atMt.Horeb – Anticipates Mt. Sinai theophany

Theological Content

  • Burning Bush – Menorah Construction; Symbolizes People: God – Far/ Near
  • Fire – Divine Revelation or Trial and Tribulation?
  • “See, Hear, Know” – God experiences pain and suffering with His people
  • Worshiping Community –Deliverance to Doxology
  • Creation Theology – God’s purposes will not be thwarted
  • God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – God of Promise/ The One God

Hermeneutics/ Application

  • See, Hear, Know – God calls us to see injustice and to respond
  • Deliverance to Doxology – God’s Salvation Leads to Praise (v. 12)
  • Participate in God’s Creation/ Re-Creation: “Here I Am” (Ex. 19:5-6)

[1] James E. Bowley. Introduction to Hebrew Bible: A Guided Tour of Israel’s Sacred Library. (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2007), 107.

[2] Tremper Longman III. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 335.

[3] Ibid, 98.

[4] Terence E.Fretheim. The Pentateuch. Ed. Gene M. Tucker and Charles Cousar. (NewYork: Abingdon P, 1996), 102.

[5] Bruce C. Birch, Walter Brueggemann, and Terence E. Fretheim. A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament. (New York: Abingdon P, 2005), 99.

[6] Ibid, 99-101.

[7] Ibid, 32.

[8] Robert D. Branson, Jim Edlin, and Timothy M. Green. Discovering the Old Testament: Story and Faith. (New York: Beacon Hill P of Kansas City: 2003), 94.

[9] James E. Bowley. Introduction to Hebrew Bible: A Guided Tour of Israel’s Sacred Library. (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2007), 113.

[10] Ibid, 114.

[11] Christoph Levin. The Yahwist: The Eariest Editor in the Pentateuch. Journal of Biblical Literature. (2007): 213-217.

[12] Ibid, 228.

[13] Ibid, 217.

[14] Ibid, 217-228.

[15] Bruce C. Birch, Walter Brueggemann, and Terence E. Fretheim. A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament. (New York: Abingdon P, 2005), 97.

[16] James E. Bowley. Introduction to Hebrew Bible: A Guided Tour of Israel’s Sacred Library. (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2007), 140.

[17] Tremper Longman III. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 338.

[18] Ibid, 338.

[19] Ibid, 338.

[20] Robert I. Vasholz. On the Dating of the Exodus. Presbyterion 32 (2006), 111.

[21] Ibid, 111.

[22] Ibid, 111.

[23] Ibid, 113.

[24] Tremper Longman III. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 339.

[25] Ibid, 340.

[26] James E. Bowley. Introduction to Hebrew Bible: A Guided Tour of Israel’s Sacred Library. (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2007), 143.

[27] Ibid, 143.

[28] Tremper Longman III. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 336.

[29] Bruce C. Birch, Walter Brueggemann, and Terence E. Fretheim. A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament. (New York: Abingdon P, 2005), 98.

[30] Ibid, 97.

[31] Ibid, 102.

[32] Terence E. Fretheim. Exodus. New York: Geneva P, 2003, 53.

[33] Ibid, 54.

[34] Ibid, 54.

[35] Bernard P. Robinson. Moses at the Burning Bush. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 75 (1997), 111.

[36] Ibid, 109.

[37] Kathy Beach-Verhey. Exodus 3:1-12. Interpretation 59 (2005), 181.

[38] Bernard P. Robinson. Moses at the Burning Bush. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 75 (1997), 112.

[39] Ibid, 112.

[40] Ibid, 114.

[41] Ibid, 115.

[42] Ibid, 115.

[43] Ibid, 115.

[44] Ibid, 119.

[45] Ibid, 120.

[46] J. Berald Janzen. …and the Bush Was Not Consumed. Encounter 2nd ser. 63 (2002), 122-23.

[47] Oliver Davies. Reading the Burning Bush: Voice, World, and Holiness. Modern Theology 22 (2006), 439.