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The Book of Exodus: What is it?

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.



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10 comments on “The Book of Exodus: What is it?

  • I just read Exodus 10 last night, and I was definitely struck with how odd that series of plagues is. I’m sure there’s some significance for why those, but really blood, locusts, frogs, darkness, and then yes, that horror of the children’s murders (can we call them anything else?) Weird absolutely.

    I find myself wondering over and over again what Moses thought. Did he go home at night and look at God with a shake of his head? Really, frogs . . . really?

    • Andi – exactly. It makes no sense to us. And that, I think, puts us in a very different place vis-a-vis the text compared to its first readers. To jump right to ‘religious interpretation’ without letting the text confront us in all its strangeness is to miss something crucial, I think, in our efforts to call this, in some way, ‘our text.’

  • What’s far weirder are biblical books such as Job, Ecclesiastes, and Psalms. Have you ever read Psalms straight through? Half of those chapters are pro-God the other half question His very existence. How weird is that?

    But I think when taken in total, the Bible captures every aspect of the human condition including questioning belief in the very book itself. No other holy text does that. To me that’s what makes the Bible relevant – crazy plagues and all.

    I think that focusing on a handful of brush strokes is one way to appreciate a masterpiece, but is not necessarily the best way….it must be viewed in its totality.

    • Right-o, that’s very true. The Bible is a book best appreciated as a whole (which is the first step toward reading in faith, I imagine). But I do think that sometimes we can take the parts that are, say, easier to swallow (from a modern perspective) and use them to dilute others that are more difficult to digest. As a theologian, John 1 is great – I can do some cool stuff with that passage. But what do I do with Ehud stabbing fat old King Eglun (Judges 3)? Or women’s head coverings? Or angels fighting with the devil over Moses’ body (Jude)? Do I get at this passages by simply adopting the worldview in which they were more comprehensible? Do I distill some kind of principle or theological point out of them? Are they completely non-reducible – are they just plot points, etc. etc.

      I don’t know. But I have a hunch that the more we linger on these passages for what they are, the closer we might be able to get to what they might mean (same goes for those ‘angry Psalms’ that you mentioned, I think).

  • Sometimes I wonder how much the problem comes from reading the Bible as narrative instead of as, say, a long series of grouped poems, as the visceral utterances of groups of people working through, connecting, and trying to make sense of their experiences. If I read a poem about a series of plagues and find a plague of frogs, I don’t so much say “weird” as “cool” or “evocative,” as I did at that point in the film “Magnolia” when it begins to rain frogs. I didn’t care whether that had ever really happened and I didn’t care what it “meant.” I just experienced it as this moment of wonder. Is it too late to read the Bible that way?

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