Exodus

“This is Your Life”

The day was hot and dusty.  The sun beat down mercilessly on the hills, the rocks, the long-parched dirt.  The people were standing in the sun, sweating.  There were a lot of people!  Maybe half a million, maybe a million, perhaps more, unimaginably many people.

And they were on the move.  They had been walking for years with their tents and their families, their goats and their sheep.  More than years, it had been decades.  Most of them were not old enough to remember when they started; they had only heard the stories, terrifying stories what life was like before- before…  They didn’t even have a word to call the crazy events that had set them moving all those years ago, which only the oldest few among them now remembered.  But they knew the heat and the dust, the tents and the rocks, the animals and the sacrifices.

Their old leader, the last of his generation, the oldest one among them still alive, remembered those days, and he knew where they were going.  He said they were getting close, that in just a few more weeks now, they would get to their new home.  But he did not expect to live that long himself.  He looked healthy for one so unimaginably old, still sharp-eyed and walking around.  But he had already named his successor, another one of the oldest among the people (he was over eighty years old!), who remembered when it all started.  Their oldest leader warned them that he himself would not arrive with them to where they were going.

And so, on this hot, dusty day, they stood outside in the heat and the sun, in their sweat and their thirst, to listen to their old leader for what might be the last time.  He had a lot that he wanted to tell them!  He had been talking to them for days, preparing them for the future, but also reminding them of what happened in the past, before most of them were born.  They needed to know where they came from, and where they were going, and most importantly, why.  And they listened, because they knew he was speaking the words of their God to them.  Their old leader was the spokesman for the God who had rescued them back then and who walked with them now, the God whose tent was among them, who had come with them all these years and decades, the God who was with them here in this hot dry place, and who was soon going to bring them to their destination.

Their old leader struggled up a slope, helped by some of the younger men, so that his voice could carry above their heads.  When he finally reached a spot where most people could see him, he turned around slowly, and everyone hushed except for some of the babies scattered among the crowds.  The people waited in silence for his words.

But unlike previous times, when he had told them of their God’s care for them, had warned them to avoid evil, and instructed them how to live good lives with their God, this time he… sang.  He sang!  His voice, surprisingly strong in one so old, echoed off the rocky slopes above him, and the beautiful, mysterious words echoed in their hearts.  It was a song about their God and about his people – about them!  It was a confusing song about worship and rebellion, about their God and other gods, about how awe-inspiring their God was, in both his kindness and his unique perfection.  The oldest among them listened most intently, and tried to save the words in their hearts; they knew they would need to think about this more later.  And after the old leader sang, his appointed successor repeated it after him, just to make sure that it was remembered, that it would not be lost.

Moses finished speaking all these words to all Israel.  He said to them, “Pay attention to all the words which I am warning you today, which you will command your children to keep doing all the words of this Law.  For it is not a meaningless message to you, but it is your life, and by this message you will prolong days upon the ground which you are crossing the Jordan to possess.” (Deut. 32:45-47)

Over three millennia ago on a hot dusty slope overlooking the Jordan River, Moses, the servant of God, taught a prophetic song to the Lord’s people and encouraged them to remain faithful to God and to pay attention to his message.  God’s message to his people is not just good advice, not just beautiful poetry, not just rules to live by.  God’s message to us is our life.  “For this reason, we must pay attention all the more to what we have heard” (Heb. 2:1).

Israel and the Church

Last month’s decision by the US president to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel brought out the full range of responses, as usual.  Such responses always dismay me as to how poorly both sides understand what the Bible says about Israel, land, and the Church today.  Here are some notes for a discussion I led on the subject, specifically for Christians; the notes have been somewhat edited since the original version. (more…)

The Old Testament and the Ancient Near East: A Christian Historian’s View

As a historian, I am struck by how much of the Old Testament consists of historical narrative, over a third of the total (and it’s a big volume!).  On the other hand, I am also surprised at the lack of historical method (as distinct from the methods of textual scholarship or archaeology) applied to these biblical narratives.  It seems that most Old Testament scholars have concluded that there is nothing historical in the text to which historical methods might be applied.  Yet I wonder whether the experts have not too quickly pre-judged the matter (always a dangerous conclusion for a non-expert such as myself to come to).  Indeed, I find myself in the rather unenviable position of distrusting the experts, and this post is an attempt to explain one portion of why I think that is, and to suggest an alternate approach to the issue. (more…)

“You’re Doing Nothing, God”

Sometimes, you’re reading the Bible and skimming along in a familiar story, and then STOP.  SOMETHING has caught your attention, which you’ve never noticed before.  This was one of those moments.

The story of the exodus is familiar enough to me and to most: Moses is sent by God (after some initial reluctance) to Egypt to lead the Israelites out of Egypt to Canaan.  The elders really like the idea – being slaves of the Egyptians kinda sucks, even after they repealed the infanticide law – but the Pharaoh takes a dim view of the enterprise.  In response, the Pharaoh makes it so that being slaves of the Egyptians really sucks, and the Israelites take a short-sighted view of the case and complain about Moses stirring up trouble.  But God stirs up a whole lot more trouble for the Pharaoh, a lot of people die, and eventually the Israelites leave Egypt not only with the Pharaoh’s permission but with his, uh, you might say, encouragement.  But then he changes his mind and drowns in the Red Sea chasing after the Israelites to re-enslave them.  Moses, throughout, was the unflappable spokesman for God.  Or was he? (more…)

Who Were the “Hebrews”?

Biblical scholars like something to argue about, because they are academics, and academics make their living by making arguments.  (I know; I am one.)  And since what is at stake in biblical scholars’ arguments is almost always the question whether the Bible can be trusted, for skeptics who wish not to believe as much as for believers who wish to do so, biblical scholars’ arguments often degenerate into battle lines.  Often, I feel, a little more careful attention to the text may shed some useful light on the subject.

One debate which has intrigued me in the past is the question of the (non-)relation between the Hebrew word “Hebrew” (ʿibri) and the word “Habiru” and its variants in Akkadian and Egyptian.  It seems that some conservatives have argued that Habiru = Hebrews = Israelites, and thus the Ancient Near Eastern texts which mention the Habiru corroborate the biblical accounts of the Israelites.  Against this, some skeptics have argued that the term Habiru is used in contexts where the biblical Hebrews cannot possibly be intended, and sometimes carry non-Semitic names, which these scholars take to indicate that the Habiru were a mixture of Semitic and non-Semitic.

Now, I am not an expert in the Ancient Near East, nor do I read Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian hieroglyphics, or any of the other languages, so I can only approach this question from the Hebrew side.  But it seems to me that what the Bible says about Hebrews is not what most people have presumed, and may open the door to a different solution to the relationship between the Hebrews and the Habiru. (more…)