This morning I read through Exodus, and I have to say, I forgot just how crazy this book is – particularly the God bits. From incombustible bushes to giant fiery smoke clouds, it seems to me that modern readers intending to use this text as Scripture are faced with a choice: either we take it at face value or we demythologize the thing to smithereens.
Let’s be honest. The book of Exodus narrates events which are like nothing we could possibly imagine happening today. Even the so-called “miracles” which some claim are commonplace in the non-Western world are small potatoes compared to the bizarre manifestations seen in Exodus. Finding a non-Westerner who converses with angels and/or had a limb grow back: not that difficult. Finding a non-Westerner whose prayers are capable of publicly plunging a large geographical locale into “darkness that can be felt” (Ex 10:21): not quite so easy. Put simply: the world that the book of Exodus talks about is obviously not our world. It is a world of divine confrontation on a massive scale, and I think it would do us all some good to just admit that it’s weird.
There are, of course, ways of making it not weird. How quickly we hurry to put these stories in their “redemptive historical” context. We foreground the liturgical-cultural role of the book as “text” – its power as the conveyer of a certain communal identity. We explain how reading the text “canonically” or “Christologically” creates a new context for these old tales, such that dwelling on the constituency of manna or the logistics of the Levites’ slaughter of the calf-worshippers would be to miss the point (even if, in the end, we think we can explain such things).
I’m not saying that these reading strategies are bad. It may indeed be that the deeper significance of the frog plague was to diss the “frog god” (or whatever) – but let’s not forget the strangeness of the event which was the occasion for this theological lesson: a crazy amount of frogs.
I can deal with challenging or counterintuitive religious proposals – turning the other cheek is hard, but not incomprehensible – but imagining that the God to whom I pray is also the God who literally took the lives of those first-born children who were misfortunate enough to have been born to Egyptian parents around the time when Moses showed up – that’s a bit different.
Of course, there are answers. But let’s hold off on those for a moment. Let’s feel the discontinuities. Outside my window, cars are driving up and down the road, students are milling about, and it’s slightly drizzling. It’s the twenty-first century, and this is a fairly well-to-do Western nation. In the text in front of me, a god called Yahweh is somehow inscribing words onto stone tablets and urging people to resist the urge to cook goats in their mothers’ milk.