Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 13

In this chapter, Moses tells the people more about the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Israelites depart from Egypt, heading towards the Promised Land.

Before I get into the theological analysis, I should point out some textual notes.  This chapter is somewhat redundant with what we read in chapter 12, in particular with the discussion of the unleavened bread.  What happened in chapter 12 was God telling Moses the ordinances of eating unleavened bread, but Moses never told the people.  They ate unleavened bread because they were forced to flee Egypt.  In this chapter, Moses is now telling the people that they must celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread.  So the information is going through a couple stages which are each described once, but that means the information is repeated twice.  Oral traditions.

We also see Joseph's wishes (expressed in Genesis 50) are honored by the people, as they take his bones up with them.

With that out of the way, I want to discuss the redemption of the firstborn.  The principle here is simple enough: God killed all the firstborn of Egypt, but he spared the firstborn of Israel.  Since the firstborn of Israel were spared, they now belong to the LORD as a possession of sorts and must be either sacrificed to him or redeemed through the sacrifice of another.  Of course, the reason the Israelite firstborn now belong to the LORD is not just because he spared them, but because he paid for them.  This is another reason why I say that the Passover must be a memorial to some other event, because the lambs that were sacrificed were the Israelite's own property, so they were just trading one thing to die for another.  So in what way is the LORD owed anything by the Israelites, if the Hebrews performed this alternate sacrifice?  They could reasonably argue they paid their dues, albeit the cost of a lamb is less than the cost of a son.  In order for this to make sense (in my opinion), the LORD must have performed some other substitutionary sacrifice on behalf of the Israelites, and thus it is due to the LORD's sacrifice that he now has a right to the Israelite firstborn.  Of course, the text doesn't say this, but then the text doesn't exactly explain why the Israelites must sacrifice the firstborn of their animals and redeem the firstborn of their sons.  Ostensibly it is a memorial to when the LORD brought them out of Egypt: verse 16, "it shall serve as a sign on your hand and as phylacteries on your forehead, for with a powerful hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt."

However, what is left unexplained (in my opinion) is this segment of verse 12: "the males belong to the LORD."  This is much stronger than a simple memorial, this is a statement of the LORD's ownership of the firstborn.  This is not part of the Abrahamic Covenant as we saw it defined before, which simply stipulated the obedience and homage of Abraham and his seed in exchange for divine protection and provision.  So while the text doesn't exactly say it, in my opinion there is a subtle but important transition happening here, as the Israelites are no longer regarded merely as a vassal to their divine lord, but now they are regarded as a possession which was redeemed from a formerly certain destruction.  We will see the Pentateuch expand on this theme later, but I want to point out that it (partly) has its roots here in this chapter.

On a more practical note, there is a provision for redeeming donkeys because donkeys generally breed less than sheep and goats and grow slower, and are therefore much more expensive.  It would be a heavy cost to poorer Israelites to sacrifice their firstborn donkeys.  There is a similar (but mandatory) process for redeeming one's firstborn sons.  Also note that donkeys shall not be sacrificed, but rather have their necks broken if not redeemed.  This is because donkeys are ritually unclean, and therefore cannot be offered as a sacrifice.

Also remember that the firstborn son is a metaphor for strength and power, being the proof of the virility of the father and fertility of the mother, as well as the future heir of the father's wealth.  So the consecration of the firstborn unto the LORD is a metaphor for giving the LORD your very best and strongest as a sacrifice.  This is a persistent theme throughout the rest of the Pentateuch.

We have also seen three different passages that say something like, "you shall tell your son" or "when your son asks you what this rite means".  Obviously the emphasis is on passing down knowledge from generation to generation and teaching one's sons to follow the LORD, but also in these statements we see shadows of the oral traditions behind the Pentateuch.  The reason a father has to tell his son is because they don't have it written down for the son to read.  There have been three of these statements, which are directed about: the Passover (sacrifice of the lamb), the Festival of Unleavened Bread and removal of yeast from one's home (verse 8) and the redemption of the firstborn (verse 14).  While these statements are the result of different activities (the sacrifice, the festival, the redemption of the firstborn), all of them generate very similar "explanations", which is perhaps why they are so easy to confuse: all of them relate specifically to the Passover of the Israelites and their rescue from slavery in Egypt.

From my perspective, I can understand why they would celebrate the Passover and practice the redemption of the firstborn.  These seem like really critical elements to the story and what's going on spiritually as well.  It's strange to me that there is so much emphasis on the unleavened bread.  In context, the removal of yeast is simply due to the haste of the Israelites in their departure: their departure was unexpected and they were unprepared.  I know that, in general terms, yeast is considered a metaphor for sin, and thus unleavened bread is a reference to purity.  But the text here does not explain that at all, and refers primarily and repeatedly to the notion of haste and unpreparedness, always with reference to the Israelite's sudden departure from Egypt.  I can't think of any interesting or novel interpretation of how this relates to other parts of the bible, so.... yeah.  I'll come back and fill this part out more if I think of something later.  Of course, the reason I'm looking for something is that the Feast of Unleavened Bread is really important to the Hebrew traditions.  It's one of the three main feasts that they celebrate.  We will see it referred to again, so maybe we will discover more about it in time.

When the people depart Egypt, we see God take them towards the wilderness instead of along the more populated coastline of the Mediterranean, which would be the shortest path to Canaan (and also probably the easiest, with more water and food sources available).  Instead, they are taken towards the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula and towards the Arabian desert.

Verse 21 is also the first appearance of a new manifestation of the LORD: a pillar of smoke or clouds by day, and a pillar of fire by night.  As always, I urge my readers to dwell on the various manifestations of the LORD.  Whenever we see a new manifestation, often it is because the LORD is trying to convey some new dimension of his personality or characteristics.  In some ways, these manifestations are really the core of what the bible is about, which is conveying the nature of God to people in a way that we can understand.  The manifestation is a physical representation of that divine nature.

One way to understand the divine manifestations is to consider them as a reflection of what is happening to Israel (or in broader terms, the people of God); that is, God crafts his manifestation as an answer to their need.  This is not always true (for instance, the transcendentalism of Ezekiel 1 can hardly be considered an answer to some Israelite need), but it is definitely a major theme throughout much of the bible, including here.  Earlier in Exodus, we saw God appear as a burning fire in a bush, supernatural and everlasting, unleashing miracles to bring freedom to his people.  He was revealed in this case as both strong (defeating the mighty Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt like Ra) and the redeemer of the Israelites, protecting them from the plagues.

In the case that we are seeing now, his form is transitioning because the needs of the Israelites are also changing.  However, the Israelites are not yet out of Egypt so I will return to this topic in just a short while, because we will see the pillars of fire and cloud appear later as well.  Up next, we get to see one of the most famous miracles in the entire bible.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 12

In this chapter, the Passover is instituted and Israel is driven out of Egypt.

This is a fairly long chapter and it's also fairly important.  There are lots of minor details which I'm going to skip over, as I want to talk about a few major things.

The description of events in this chapter is a bit nonlinear.  By this what I mean is that the first passage, verses 1 through 20, is God telling Moses the regulations of the Passover for future generations.  Verses 21 through 28 is Moses telling the elders of Israel how to prepare for the Passover that they are about to experience, and then verses 29 through 41 is the events of the first Passover.  Verses 42 through 51 concludes with yet more rules about the Passover, for future generations.  If I were to write this chapter, I would put verses 21 through 41 first, and then follow the story of the Passover with the rules governing later Passovers.  This is why we read the command to eat unleavened bread before we see verse 34, which is the etiological explanation for why later Passovers must have unleavened bread.  This is kindof confusing, but when you figure out what's going on it should make sense.

I should also point out that the time frame for these speeches is somewhat indeterminate, which possibly contributes to the general confusion of this chapter.  The commands of v. 1-20 is not necessarily on the same day as the speech of v. 21-28.  Then the further comments of v. 43-49 could be in some other time as well.

On a general note, it's interesting how specific this chapter is, how it specifies a variety of characteristics of the lamb to be sacrificed, that it must be unblemished, must be a year old and male, must be picked on this day, killed on that day, roasted and not boiled, not raw, not left over until morning, and so on.  This is a sharp contrast to the vague generalities we have been dealing with so far.  I mean, how many times have I said that something or other was omitted from a given passage?  This is especially true in early Genesis like Genesis 4, but it's also true in later Genesis and also in early Exodus.  There are lots of things that are either implied or just not stated at all and we have to read between the lines to figure out what's going on.  Some of this stuff is cultural factors, but other things are actually relevant details to the story like where the mighty men of Genesis 6 come from (among many other things).  Now that we have passed into the realm of specific, almost excessive, detail, this indicates we have entered the legal section of the Pentateuch.  I bet you didn't see that coming.  There was no announcement that we were now reading a legal code, rather than a story.  The story flowed smoothly from Moses talking to Pharaoh to God telling Moses a variety of conditions about how the Israelites must celebrate the Passover in future generations.

This is highly characteristic of the Pentateuch's literary style, which melds together law, stories, poetry, genealogies in this one big bucket.  Each of these has its own characteristics and purpose, but they are interleaved with abandon.

In this case, the legal section (describing regulations about the Passover) clearly fits into the context, which is the death of the firstborn of Egypt and the first Passover of Israel, but its placement here is still awkward to my modern sensibilities.  We live in a time and place where people either write legal documents or they write stories, they don't mix them together.  It would be as if the American constitution also included stories about George Washington camping in Valley Forge or a history of the Mayflower, which concludes with a command that all Americans must visit Valley Forge once a year to commemorate the American Revolution.

The Pentateuch is clearly written for a different time, and it is written to both give the Israelite people their history and origins and give them a legal framework to govern their lives, a legal framework that we can see is inextricably connected with their national religion as well, because many of their laws are religious laws, as here with the Passover.  This passage also clearly shows that the Hebrew national identity (as sons of Jacob) is inextricably tied with their religious beliefs, as anyone who fails to keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread "shall be cut off from Israel", whether that means exile or death I'm not sure, but either way it meant removal from the community.

What's interesting is that they also include a provision for foreigners or non-Israelites to join the community in the deepest way, by sharing in the Passover.  If a foreigner and his sons get circumcised, they can partake in the Passover (verse 48).  In this case, becoming circumcised is an allusion to the Abrahamic Covenant, which is later subsumed into the Law of Moses.  There would have clearly been an expectation that the foreigner who had joined the community in such a way would follow all of the rules of the community, and not just be circumcised.  This shows that, while all the sons of Israel are required to follow the LORD, not all the followers of the LORD are sons of Israel.  This is somewhat encouraging to non-Israelites like myself, to whom the way to God is not closed off.  The other big implication of this is that Jews can proselytize.

In the OT, we hardly ever see Jewish converts.  There are no recorded incidents of intentional Jewish proselytism and only a tiny handful of converts to Judaism.  Probably the biggest example of this is the life of Ruth (as recorded in the eponymous book) and the second biggest might be the prostitute Rehab in Joshua 6:25, though in Rehab's case one could debate whether she converted or simply lived in Israel as a foreigner.  So in spite of this provision, Judaism remains almost universally the religion of the sons of Jacob until the NT.  Importantly, this provision did not mean that the LORD could become the god of "other nations."  What it meant was that the foreigner would join the nation of Israel and become part of their national and religious identity.  The language of the OT shows an attitude that each nation has its own patron god and there is both a contest between gods and a contest between nations, and these contests are essentially equivalent.  For instance, here in Exodus 12:12: "For I will go through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments—I am the LORD."  Executing judgment against the people of Egypt is the same as executing judgment against the gods of Egypt.  So under this framework the LORD is exclusive to the people of Israel, but foreigners are free to join that people.

On a side note, this practice has held to this day, with most major Jewish denominations accepting converts if those converts follow whatever rules they have set in place.  We also see references to Jewish conversion and proselytism in the NT.  However, just like we see documented in the OT, there is generally very little Jewish proselytism (some major denominations forbid it entirely) and statistically very few converts to Judaism.

We already saw Moses and Aaron take physical actions to symbolize the inception of a plague (such as striking the water with Aaron's staff or throwing soot into the air), and we saw Moses give the Egyptians a test whether they feared the LORD, to save their livestock or not.  Now we are seeing Moses give the Israelites a test of their faithfulness, through enacting a physical ceremony which will save them from "the destroyer" (verse 23).  This is why those who fail to keep the Passover are cut off from Israel, because it is a test of their obedience to the LORD.

The Passover is an extension of the Goshen Principle we have already seen, but it also introduces a new element which is the sacrifice of the lamb.  This was not part of how the Israelites were protected from earlier plagues, but from henceforth their protection from the wrath and judgments of God shall be affiliated with animal sacrifice.

We have seen animal sacrifice a number of times already.  The most notable (but not the only) are: the implied killing of one or two animals in Genesis 3:21, Abel's sacrifice in Genesis 4:4, Noah's sacrifice in Genesis 8:20 and Abraham's sacrifice in Genesis 22:13.

Abel and Noah's sacrifices were what I would call (in Leviticus parlance) fellowship offerings.  They were simply offering a sacrifice for the reason of worshiping God.  This is strange to most modern readers, but Genesis 8:21 shows that this was an act taken to please God: "The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma".  I will discuss fellowship offerings in more detail when we get to the book of Leviticus, which establishes it as an ordinance in Israel.

Genesis 3:21 is more relevant to the Passover, but at the same time it is slightly more occluded.  That is, Genesis 3 doesn't actually tell us that God or Adam sacrificed any animals, it just says that God covered them with skins, compared to the fig leaves they were using previously (Gen 3:7).  Some commentators say, "Genesis 3:21 shows that a sacrifice was necessary to cover up the sins of Adam and Eve."  I think this is pretty reasonable, even though we aren't showed a sacrifice directly, because Genesis 2 and 3 revolve around the issue of nakedness (we see nakedness also discussed in Genesis 9 with Noah and his sons), and the purpose of the sacrifice is to cover their nakedness.  Nakedness and shame are basically interchangeable in the bible, and both of them are allusions to sin.  So wearing an animal skin to cover one's nakedness is an allusion to animal sacrifice covering or atoning for human sin.

Abraham's sacrifice in Genesis 22 is even more relevant to the Passover, because in that chapter, Abraham is about to sacrifice his son Isaac, when God stops him and replaces Isaac with a ram: the ram acts as a replacement or atonement for Isaac.  In fact, much of the language between Genesis 22 and Exodus 12 is similar, because in both cases the emphasis is on the death of the firstborn, between Isaac and the firstborn of Egypt and Israel.  In the first case, God is replacing Isaac with the ram and in the second case, God is replacing the firstborn of Israel with the sacrificed lambs.  But this episode still only foreshadows animal sacrifice as a means of atonement.

The concept of animal sacrifice is relatively simple: you kill an animal in place of a human death.  In a sense, you are transferring the sins of the person onto the animal, so that the animal then suffers the penalty of sin, which is death.  I already explained in the last chapter how the plague of death is a reference to the curse of Adam in Genesis 3, but now we're seeing that the LORD is prescribing the ritual offering of a lamb to protect the Israelites from that death.  That is, the lamb is a substitutionary atonement for the sins of the Israelites, and therefore the death of the lamb protects the Israelites from the death of Genesis 3 manifested in "the destroyer".  But I wonder why this makes sense.  The lamb, by its very nature, has not committed any wrongs and is not responsible for sin.  I would question first, the mechanism whereby sin can be transferred from one being to another and second, the fairness and justification of selecting a lamb as the sacrifice.  And the truth is that I don't have answers for either of these questions.  Just like the Genesis 1:1 "God created...", we are not given a justification, a history or an explanation of what is going on or why things are like this.  In other words, I would call this another one of God's Ways, like I discussed in Exodus 4, and beyond that there is really not much I can say.

One can also wonder why it is necessary for the Hebrews to celebrate the Passover every year, rather than just during the Exodus.  Verses 26-27 answer this: it is a memorial, a remembrance of the original Passover.  It is also a memorial to the Passover in a spiritual sense, that the Hebrews are continually "passed over" from the death of Genesis 3 every year, and so every year they celebrate their deliverance.  But if this is true, then it is not actually the death of a lamb that saves them from death because as we have seen, the Goshen Principle was in action even during earlier plagues before the Passover.  That is, the Hebrews were protected even before a substitution had been made.  So if that is true, then what is the substitution that protected them from the earlier plagues??  What protected Lot and Isaac and Noah?  They were all "passed over" in different times and in different ways, and only Isaac was substituted in any analogous way.

This is a really important point.  If the original Passover, the slaying of lambs commanded here, is *after* some of the people of God have been protected from the Genesis 3 death (the best example is Noah), and the earlier plagues which symbolize that same curse, then it logically could not have been the Passover that protected these earlier people or the current Israelites from the earlier plagues.  What then was the substitution or the atonement that protected the patriarchs of Genesis before the coming of Moses (for if there was no earlier atonement, then why is one suddenly now required for all generations of Israelites forever?)  Perhaps the most consistent answer is that just as the plague of death here is symbolic of the greater death, the curse of Adam from Genesis 3, perhaps the Passover lamb sacrificed to protect the Israelites from this death is also symbolic of a greater sacrifice, a greater atonement that covers and protects the people of God just like the LORD covered Adam and Eve with animal skins.

Another way to put it is that if all of the future Passovers, for all the generations of Israel into eternity, are for remembrance and are reminders of a former Passover, then could it be that the first Passover celebrated in verse 28 is also a memorial and remembrance of an even greater Passover that we have not yet seen?  Now that's what I call progressive revelation.  But this revelation will not come into completion in the OT.  We will have to wait a long time before we can bring this truth into fullness.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 11

In this chapter, Moses warns Pharaoh about the last plague, the death of the firstborn.

The LORD gave the people favor with the Egyptians?  This is really peculiar.  I already discussed this somewhat back in Exodus 3.  I'm not sure why the Egyptians would be so happy to give wealth to the Israelites.  It says the Hebrews had "favor" with the Egyptians, but how and why?  Why give money to your former slaves?  It says the "The LORD made the Egyptians favorably disposed" to the people, but I can only imagine why given that just a few chapters ago I was emphasizing the religious and cultural animosity between the Egyptians and the Israelites.  That the Egyptians would then turn around and give away what little wealth they have left after the destruction of all their livestock (twice!), crops and water supply is unexpected to say the least.

The killing of the firstborn is the culmination of the plagues, and a parallel to Genesis 1 where it is the creation of man that culminates the events described.  In that sense, the plagues are like the inversion of creation: where before it is the creation and population of realms (earth, sky, water, the heavens), here the creation is driven askew by the sinfulness and persecution of the Israelites, and as a result the realms are being successively overthrown and destroyed.  It ends with the overthrow and destruction of man himself, with the death of the firstborn.  In that sense, these plagues are a metaphor for sin and the death of man that is foretold in Genesis 3 with the curse of Adam.  The curse of Adam was the warping of his rulership over the world: what should have been his rightful dominion was turned into a land of thorns and thistles, rebellious against his hand, and ending in his death when he should have lived forever.

What is truly novel, then, is not the destruction of Egypt in these cataclysms, because the destruction was foretold, but the redemption of Israel out of the midst of death.  To the best of my knowledge, Genesis 3 did not predict a redemption of mankind out of bondage.  Some people try to weasel it in, but I would have to disagree based on a plain reading of the text.  However, beginning with the disappearance of Enoch (who thusly avoided death) and even stronger with the rescue of Noah from the flood in Genesis 7, we begin to see the first hints of a redemptive process at work, that not all men are doomed to die in a hostile world.  This theme appears even more strongly in the redemption of Israel here.  In this case, what we are seeing is the outworking of the Abrahamic Covenant which delivers the entire nation of the sons of Jacob from destruction, not because of their righteousness (Noah was saved because he was deemed a righteous man and the same with Enoch), but for the sake of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the patriarchs of Israel and holders at one time of the Abrahamic Covenant (among other sources, see Exodus 3:6 and 3:16).  This is really important because the Israelites are being saved from destruction due to the righteousness of another which is protecting them, the righteousness of Abraham (Genesis 15:6): we are watching the genesis of the Christian ideology.  I will continue on this subject in the next chapter.

This is the tenth plague (blood, frogs, gnats, flies, death of livestock, boils, hail, locusts, death of firstborn), and as before, 10 is the number of completion or fullness, and thus this is the fullness of plagues and curses upon those who enslave the people of God.

Note that the plague didn't actually happen in this chapter, it was simply Moses telling Pharaoh what was about to happen.

Bible Commentary - Exodus 10

In this chapter, Moses releases the plagues of locusts and darkness.

This chapter is very similar to the last.  The plagues get worse, Pharaoh continues to buckle and the natural resources of Egypt continue to be destroyed.  The plague of locusts is severe, but fairly conventional (with respect to the prior plagues).  I find the plague of darkness more interesting, because it afflicts the realm of the heavens, which was populated by the sun.

This is also notable because one of the main Egyptian deities is Ra, the sun god, so the occlusion of the sun is the clearest strike against the Egyptian religious system we have seen yet.  This plague also does not strike the land of Goshen, which would suggest it were caused by thick clouds or something.  Of course, the text doesn't say what caused the darkness, which indicates that the author doesn't actually care what was the proximate cause.  What is more important is the ultimate cause, which is that the plague came as a result of the LORD's judgment of Egypt through the agency of Moses.

Anyway, that's all I have for this chapter.  It's basically the same themes as the last two.

Bible Commentary - Exodus 9

In this chapter, God unleashes three more plagues through Moses, the plagues of livestock death, boils and fierce storms.

Something I didn't mention before is that all of these chapters are characterized by the LORD speaking to Moses.  This form of manifestation runs parallel with the plagues, and continues afterwards as the LORD has quite a bit to say in this book.  This particular verbosity is strongly contrasted to the relatively mute appearance of the LORD in Genesis, where God would only say a very few (but important) things.  In Exodus, he appears to be interested in saying quite a bit, in almost every chapter.

This chapter begins with the LORD telling Moses to tell Pharaoh that another plague is about to strike, again hitting at the Egyptian economy by destroying all of their livestock.  As with the plague of flies, this one specifically states that the Hebrews, located in Goshen, would not be afflicted by the plague.  Already we can see the escalating force of the plagues.  This plague is striking against the domesticated animals, part of the Genesis 1 enumeration of creatures.

Next is a plague of boils, which signifies the complete defeat of the magicians who can no longer even stand before Moses because of the painful boils they are suffering.  This plague would not strike at the economy, but strikes at the physical well-being of the Egyptians, much like the prior plagues of gnats and flies, which did little to damage their wealth and much to harm their physical health.  This plague shows the LORD's dominion over the sky realm, when Moses throws soot into the air which "will become fine dust over all the land," a symbolic act in Pharaoh's sight that unleashes the fury of the plague.

This is not the first symbolic act: before this, Moses had Aaron strike the water of the Nile in the sight of Pharaoh to unleash the plague of blood.  The purpose, of course, is to warn Pharaoh that the plagues are not random accidents of nature but are specifically and directly related to the power of the Hebrew God, the LORD.

As if all this were not enough, the LORD continues to proclaim more plagues against the Egyptians.  After a while the list of plagues starts to get brutally repetitive, where it seems like the LORD is just listing off pestilences and curses to strike his enemies.  I suppose this is why the LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart, because otherwise I don't know how anyone could stand against this kind of power.  The next plague is a "very heavy hail" with an accompanying storm of lightning and rain.  There are a few things interesting about this plague.  For one, it strikes down trees and plants, showing dominion over yet another type of creation from Genesis 1.  For another, it also states that it did not strike in the land of Goshen "where the sons of Israel were."  And lastly, this time Moses gave a very specific warning to the Egyptians, that they must bring their livestock and servants in from the fields.  (On a related note, I have no idea where the livestock came from, since they were just wiped out two plagues ago.  There is possibly an unspecified gap of time between the plagues, because here it does not say that they occurred from one day to the next.  There could have been a more lengthy gap of time between plagues here, allowing the Egyptians to rebuild their flocks.)  This warning is interesting because it's the first time we've seen the possibility of the Egyptians taking direct action to avoid the consequences of a plague: before this, they would all be afflicted regardless of what they did or thought, but now the LORD is giving them an opportunity to demonstrate by action that they regarded his warning.

One wonders how any of Pharaoh's servants could have doubted the words of Moses by now, given that they've already suffered under 6 plagues.  This possibly makes the (hypothetical) gap in time between plagues more important, because maybe it has been some days or weeks or possibly even months since the last plague, and maybe they are starting to forget it and disdain the words of Moses again.  It would certainly be a consistent attitude with Pharaoh, who regards the word of Moses very highly during a plague and then promptly changes his mind once it is removed.

Pharaoh's response is even more humbled than what we see before, as here he not only agrees to let the Israelites go, but calls his own behavior "wicked."  So there is clearly some impact happening, but all the same, Pharaoh reneges again.

Verse 31 shows us that the destruction was not total.  The hail ruins all of the crops which had sprouted, but that was only two of the four major crops: flax and barley.  As the LORD explains in verses 15 and 16, the purpose of the plagues is not to destroy Egypt, it is to demonstrate the LORD's sovereignty over natural creation and his superiority over the false idols of Egypt.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 8

In this chapter, three more plagues are released over Egypt.

This chapter is a direct continuation of the prior chapter, as we see a steady escalation in the ferocity of the plagues, the decimation of Egypt and the stubborn resistance of Pharaoh, even though he appears to waver several times.

The LORD continues to express his divine sovereignty over the realms of creation by releasing frogs from the water realm and covers the land with gnats and flies.  It's interesting that no plague strikes the birds, probably because birds have fallen out of human dominion and are not part of Egyptian society/economy.

The magicians replicate the plague of frogs, but their power falls apart at the plague of gnats.  At that point, they proclaim that "this is the finger of God".  From then on, it no longer says that the magicians try to replicate any of the plagues.  The plagues continue to escalate in severity, and the magicians now know that they are facing a power greater than their own.  The contest between the magicians and Moses/Aaron is over, but the contest between Pharaoh and God continues.

Starting with the plague of frogs, Pharaoh begins a long pattern of waffling in his resistance.  He agrees to let the Hebrews go, and then changing his mind when Moses has the plague removed.  He does the same with the plague of flies, agreeing to let the Hebrews go, and then changing his mind when Moses prays the plague away.  From my perspective, this behavior is quite peculiar.  You would imagine, after seeing the previous plague, that Pharaoh would be convinced, "If they can cover the land with frogs, they can probably cover the land with much more horrible things if I continue to resist," and yet he continues to resist anyway.  I'm not sure whether this should be properly ascribed to avarice (the wealth gained through the Hebrews' labor) or pride, refusing to let the Hebrews go out of a sense of superiority, or whether from the emotionally hardening influence of the LORD.  While this behavior certainly paints Pharaoh in a negative light, we never really got to see what raised him up into this pattern, much like Abraham and Joseph before him.  In their cases, we saw them introduced into the story from a position of faith in God.  With Pharaoh, he is first introduced into the story from a position of hostility towards the Hebrews and ignorance and hostility towards God.  On the one hand, we know that Pharaoh is responsible for running the most powerful kingdom on earth, and as we saw, his predecessor initially enslaved the Israelites out of fear that they would betray the Egyptians in some war.  So it was a political calculus that brought the Israelites into slavery.  After that it says that the Hebrews built Pithom and Raamses, so there is a clear economic motivation here as well.  But on the other hand, allowing the Israelites to leave would clearly resolve the political risk because they wouldn't be present to undermine the Egyptian military position.  This leaves the possible economic motivation of holding 2 million slaves.  However, the economic motivation is clearly undermined by the massive devastation of the various plagues, which target the Egyptian economy and which Pharaoh is now witnessing.  In conclusion, unless Pharaoh has some reason for believing that the plagues will stop, his behavior is simply not rational.  The devastation they are suffering overshadows any possible gain.

In light of that, Pharaoh's true motivation is (in my opinion) fairly inscrutable.  We don't know his history and we can largely discount any rational economic or political motivation, which basically leaves irrational or emotional motivations, and Pharaoh's surprising resilience to letting the Hebrews go shows that he has such motivations in good measure.  My best guess is that his motive is pride, a sense of superiority over the Hebrews whom he holds in contempt, such as we saw in chapter 5.

We also see for the first time Pharaoh's suspicion that the Israelites will try to escape if they are allowed to go into the wilderness in verses 25 through 28.  First he insists they sacrifice "within the land", and then he says they can go out of the land, but "only you shall not go very far away."  So Pharaoh seems to doubt if the Israelites will return to their bondage if they are freely allowed to leave, and in this he is quite correct.  We have already seen that the LORD is only using this "festival" as an excuse or a deception for their departure from Egypt and return to the promised land, and I have already said I don't know why God felt that this deception was necessary.  From my perspective, the raw power of the plagues appears sufficient to make an arbitrary demand of Pharaoh and he should be willing to accede.  I also spent quite a bit of Genesis rebuking various characters for their deceptions (Jacob being the foremost deceiver), and yet now God commands Moses to perform this deception.  Perhaps someone wiser than myself has a good explanation for what's going on here.  Given Pharaoh's skepticism, maybe it was generally understood that the Israelites would not come back and therefore nobody is being deceived?  I don't know.

We also see some evidence of religious discord between the Israelites and the Egyptians.  Moses states, without explanation, that "we will sacrifice to the LORD our God what is an abomination to the Egyptians." In this matter, Pharaoh does not contradict Moses's assertion and concedes that Moses and the Israelites should go out of Egypt, but "only you shall not go very far away."  So some unstated characteristic of Hebrew worship or sacrifice is detestable to the Egyptians.  This certainly fits in with other things we have seen before (in Genesis, the Egyptians refused to eat with Hebrews, and we know that the agrarian Egyptians hated the pastoral Hebrews), but it shows that the divisions were also religious in nature, as well as cultural.  In light of this general acrimony, the prior enslavement of the Hebrews is perhaps not entirely surprising and their soon departure from Egypt is quite timely.

Some people try to construct a narrative out of the plagues, like that the plague of blood causes all of the frogs to leave the waters, and then the plague of frogs dying causes the plague of flies (i.e. that the plagues are an etiological myth for some drought or famine or something of that kind).  This makes some sense with the plagues we've seen so far, but in my opinion it falls apart later on, it's not clear to me how a famine can cause darkness in the sky.  But maybe it relates to a volcanic eruption, which poisons the water and darkens the sky, etc?  This explanation may present an interesting viewpoint, but it doesn't really have any theological or historical significance to me, so I don't think it's worth spending much time on.  Also, this sort of etiology is highly speculative, since there is no historical or textual basis for it.

In my opinion, the most important thing about this chapter is that it introduces what I call the Goshen Principle.  The Goshen Principle is simple to explain, but it has some subtle ramifications.  Verses 22 and 23 say, "But on that day I will set apart the land of Goshen, where My people are living, so that no swarms of flies will be there, in order that you may know that I, the LORD, am in the midst of the land.  I will put a division between My people and your people. Tomorrow this sign will occur."  So the Goshen Principle, at the simplest level, is that when God brings a judgment on some people, city or region, the people of God are spared and protected from it.

We have already seen the Goshen Principle in action, though I didn't call it by that name, when in Genesis 19 God sent the two angels to rescue Lot from the soon-to-be-destroyed city of Sodom.  Before that, in Genesis 18, Abraham was pleading on behalf of the righteous who live in Sodom, and God was even willing to spare the entire city (both wicked and righteous) if there were found 10 righteous men within it.  Since that did not happen, God still sent the two angels who rescued Lot and his family, even though the city was to be destroyed.  One presumes that there were no other righteous men in the city.

In this case, the region of Goshen is populated by the Hebrews and therefore the entire region is spared from the plagues that strike the rest of Egypt.  Several of the later plagues also note that Goshen was not harmed, and in the final plague, the Hebrews are "passed over" and spared from the deaths of their firstborn in a climactic manifestation of the Goshen Principle.  There are several plagues where it does not explicitly state that Goshen was passed over, but my opinion is that Goshen was protected in some fashion from these plagues also, because as we have seen many times, the omission of a statement does not necessarily indicate the contrary.  And in this case, the Goshen Principle is so widespread in both the OT and the NT that I don't think it's a stretch at all to consider it universally true even when it's not specifically stated.

The Goshen Principle has some important implications in a variety of areas, perhaps the most commonly discussed being eschatology and the so-called Tribulation.  But I don't think that's the most important application, as the Goshen Principle is relevant to many areas of the bible and to modern life.  The Goshen Principle, stated generally, means that those who follow God receive a sort of divine protection from harm, especially with respect to God's judgment of wickedness.  This doesn't mean that nothing bad ever happens to true followers of the LORD (the enslavement of the Israelites is enough proof of that), but it does mean that they are not recipients of judgment, for the simple reason that God does not hold them guilty of whatever crimes are being punished.  I also think that believers have a sort of protection even against the hostile actions of other people or natural conditions.  We saw that God threatening Laban when he was going to harm Jacob (Gen 31:24), God allowed Isaac to reap 100-fold in the face of a regional famine (Genesis 26:12) and God gave Joseph a divine providence so that he was able to rise in power multiple times during his life, ending as the vice-ruler of Egypt.  The Goshen Principle is an extension of all of these prior events and is simply another form of divine protection for God's chosen people as it pertains to divine judgment.

Lastly, note that Exodus never says that the prior plague, the plague of blood, ceased.  The plague that followed it, the plague of frogs, says "the Nile will swarm with frogs."  Since we previously saw the Nile filled with blood and all the fish dying, I'd say this strongly implies the Nile (and associated rivers, streams, ponds, etc) are now habitable, i.e. drinkable water.  While one could say that the frogs came out of the streams and the Nile because of the plague of blood, the text implies a gap of at least 7 days between the blood and the frogs, which makes this view somewhat less likely.  There are a few other plagues which are not specifically called off.  In this chapter, we see the plague of gnats is never explicitly ended.  I don't think it's unreasonable for some commentators to say that the plague simply didn't end, but I find it more likely that the plague (of blood, gnats) ended and the author of Exodus simply didn't think it was important to tell us.  This would be consistent with the many other things that we are not told, but are forced to presume at various times for various reasons.  So while it's reasonable to say that there's some overlap between the plagues, some of the plagues end without us being told.  For most of the plagues this isn't important however, because Moses prays for the majority of the plagues to end, just like he does here for the plagues of frogs and flies.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 7

In this chapter, Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh again and begin releasing the plagues on Egypt.

Verses 1 through 7 continue with the storyline recap that we saw in chapter 6.  Verse 1 here is almost the same as Exodus 4:16 and the rest is also similar to passages we have already read.

After the recap, we see Moses visit Pharaoh again and this time, instead of just speaking to Pharaoh, Moses and Aaron are commanded to begin using miracles.  The first one, throwing down Aaron's staff and having it turn into a snake, was one of the miracles given to Moses to show the elders of Israel.  To paraphrase, it says, "When Pharaoh asks you to perform a miracle" that they are to do these things.  So before Pharaoh was rejecting the identity of the LORD, but now he is challenging the power or authority of the LORD.

There are several patterns that we see through the next couple chapters as the plagues unfold.  I already said that the main dynamic here is a power struggle between God and Pharaoh.  What we will see is that there is an additional struggle between Moses/Aaron and Pharaoh's court magicians.  We see this as the court magicians attempt to reproduce the miracles of Moses sparking a game of one-upmanship, with Moses releasing more and more powerful miracles and the magicians attempting to reproduce these miracles.  Every time that the magicians can reproduce a miracle, it is a sign that their power matches the power of Moses, whom they treat as if he were a magician rival.

The first miracle, turning his staff into a snake, is in effect a non-violent warning.  It is a miracle, but one that has no repercussions for Pharaoh or the Egyptian people.

The second miracle, also in this chapter, is turning the waters of the Nile into blood.  A secondary effect is that all of the blood in Egypt's pots and pans and rivers and pools was also turned into blood.  At first glance, you would think this would cause widespread deaths due to dehydration (while it is possible to drink blood, the salt content would dehydrate you, having the same effect as sea water).  But then it appears that the people were able to dig around the banks of the Nile and get fresh water, so it appears that the sand and dirt was somehow filtering out the water to make it clean, or perhaps the groundwater was not turned into blood?  The text doesn't really say, but for whatever reason, this water was fresh and this prevents the plague from devastating Egypt.

This plague has a primary effect of serving as a warning to the Egyptians and Pharaoh and a secondary effect of damaging the Egyptian economy.  The blood is possibly a reference to the Israelite blood that was spilled by the Egyptians, and a warning of the future devastation of Egypt if they do not release the Israelites from slavery.

You can view this plague, and the ones to follow, as some sort of divine spectacle, whose primary aim is to impress and intimidate the Egyptians and Pharaoh into submission.  This is only part of the purpose by my reckoning, the other part is to economically destroy Egypt, but we will discover that it has a further role of "glorifying the LORD" in a few ways: it reveals his nature and increases his renown across the ancient world that the Israelites traversed.

Turning the Nile to blood attacks the Egyptian economy at its very heart.  The Nile is the source of wealth to Egypt by supporting Egyptian farming through both irrigation and enrichment (as the Nile floods, it covers the floodplains with a layer of silt which fertilizes the land for the next year's crop).  It also would have been an abundant source of fish, as the text notes.  So turning the Nile to blood would both kill the fish and hamper the Nile-based farming system.  However, verse 25 implies that the Nile was turned to blood for only 7 days, so the impact on farming would have been minimal.  The loss of fish would be moderately severe and forcing the people to dig for water would have been moderately inconvenient but non-fatal.  It makes the Egyptians' lives harder, but not tremendously so.

This plague, like all the others, is also designed to reveal the identity of the LORD.  To wit, verse 17 says "By this you shall know that I am the LORD".  Remember that "LORD" here is Hebrew YHWH, and not actually the Hebrew for Lord (which is adonai or in some places baal).  So this verse is not directly saying that Pharaoh would know that the Hebrew God is his lord, but it is definitely implying it, or in my terms, it is establishing the identity of the LORD (YHWH) as God of the world.  That is the purpose of the plagues, to establish the supremacy of the LORD over the physical creation.

In the same spirit, my readers should look at what *sphere of creation* the plagues strike at.  As we saw in Genesis 1, the bible views creation as being divided primarily into four different physical realms populated by (depending on how you count) 4 to 7 different types of beings.  The three realms are the heavens, the sky, the sea and the earth.  Respectively, the types of beings are the stars ("the lights"), birds, the fish and the: crawling things (bugs, etc), livestock and animals, "beasts of the earth" (whatever that means), vegetation, and mankind.  The plagues, then, successively target different spheres to demonstrate the completeness of the LORD's dominion over all creation.  The plague of blood strikes at the waters and fish of Egypt, both stripping Egypt of these natural resources and also demonstrating God's dominion over the same.  It harms the Egyptians but does not kill them and it leaves room for further escalation as the plagues continue, until Pharaoh releases the Israelites.

We see the magicians attempt to reproduce the plague of blood, and they succeed.  This emboldens Pharaoh to continue resisting and "harden his heart".

Bible Commentary - Exodus 6

In this chapter, God renews his promise to Moses and a genealogy of Moses is recorded.

After Moses's complaint in the last chapter, God responds by encouraging Moses that yes, he will indeed free the Hebrews in spite of their new difficulties.  The first thing he does is reaffirm that winning the freedom of the Hebrews is a power struggle, and will be a demonstration of his power: "Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for under compulsion he will let them go, and under compulsion he will drive them out of his land."

After that, the LORD says something very interesting.  He says that he did not "make himself known" to the patriarchs as the LORD, but rather as God Almighty (Hebrew, El Shaddai).

First, as a side note, verse 3 is somewhat perplexing, and leads some to claim that references to "LORD" (Hebrew YHWH or Yahweh) in Genesis are anachronistic, similar to what we saw in Exodus 3.  However, I don't think this is the correct rendering, because it focuses on the words Yahweh or El Shaddai rather than looking at the deeper meaning of these names.  The name of the LORD is more than just a word used to refer to him, the LORD's name in this context refers to his character and attributes.  For instance, later in Exodus we see the LORD say he  "will proclaim the name of the LORD before you." (Exodus 33:19)  If this were referring to his literal name, LORD (or YHWH), then this sentence would make no sense because he's already shared his name YHWH with Moses.  Furthermore, when God does proclaim his name, he says "The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations."  (Exodus 34:6) As one can see, the divine name is deliberately associated with the characteristics of the divine personality, specifically with respect to how he relates to people (grace, compassion, love and justice all deal with humanity).  In this verse (back to Exodus 5:3), God says that he "appeared... as God Almighty", meaning this is the aspect in which he revealed himself, but that now he was revealing himself as YHWH.  These two names denote certain characteristics which can be studied based on how they are used in the bible.  In general, you can look at the usage of divine names throughout the bible (there are many, at least 10 though I forget the exact number) and how those names relate to certain attributes or aspects of God; it's an interesting subject area.  In this case, El Shaddai would refer to impersonal strength, since El is a general name for God and Shaddai means almighty.  In broad terms, YHWH (henceforth, LORD) is associated as the name related to God's covenantal protection of the Israelites, and is therefore more of a personal name (personal-as-in-relational).  This is somewhat unexpected considering everything up until this point has actually been even more impersonal than what we saw in Genesis.  I mentioned that Abraham spoke with God in the form of a man, but in Exodus 3 God appears in a burning bush, which is less relatable.  I think probably the biggest thing to take from this is the aspect of God's covenantal protection of the Israelites.  While God did act on behalf of Abraham and Jacob on certain occasions, most of Genesis does not involve divine miracles on behalf of the covenant holders and what miracles we do see are usually subtle.  In Exodus God will reveal extremely powerful miracles that effectively destroy Egypt, on behalf of freeing the Israelites.  So when put in these terms, we see that God becomes less relatable in form (man -> burning bush), but that as he morphs into this new form he takes stronger and stronger actions on behalf of Israel (subtle miracles -> plagues of Egypt), which is personal in the sense that he is acting on behalf of the people of the covenant.  I think this is related to how the covenant holders of Genesis were single individuals (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in turn) and now are a whole nation (the 2MM+ Hebrew population).  When they were single individuals, God appearing as a man is fitting because he can meet with the covenant holder one-on-one.  Now that there are many covenant holders, this is no longer possible so God begins to express himself in a form to which the whole nation can relate: a giant series of plagues destroying their national enemies.

As another aside, JEDP theorists hypothesize that the sections of the Pentateuch which use El (or Elohim) come from one document and the sections that use LORD (Yahweh, or from German Jehovah) come from another, and that's how you get the name of the theory: Jehovist, Elohist, Deuteronomist (another document) and Priestly (the final editor).  End aside.

I have already discussed several times how Exodus differs greatly from Genesis, and that God is showing himself in a different way through the use of physical miracles in e.g. Exodus 3.  Just now I have discussed the changing form of how God is presenting himself to the covenantal people.  Verse 3 in this chapter also gives us a sense of progressive revelation, in keeping with what we have seen so far.  The principle of progressive revelation is foundational for having a proper understanding of the bible, and in my opinion this is a point that is commonly missed.  Progressive revelation means that as the bible unfolds (chronologically, not necessarily in book-order), God gives progressively more detailed or specific revelations about his nature and attributes.  In this verse, the LORD states that to the patriarchs, described in Genesis, he reveals himself as God Almighty, emphasizing strength and sovereignty.  We see this in many areas of Genesis, such as the God (El) of Genesis 1, creating the known universe through the raw power of his spoken command.  We see it in Genesis 12 and 15 where he establishes his covenant with Abraham, a covenant in which Abraham is the vassal and God is the lord.  We see it in Genesis 9 when God grants that he will no longer send floods on the earth, and we see it in Genesis 7 when he did send the flood.  And so forth.

Here, in Exodus, we will see God through his relationship to Israel, and hence the emphasis here on the covenantal name, LORD.

But this is a bigger deal than just Genesis and Exodus.  The notion of progressive revelation appears many more times, perhaps most significantly in the NT with the sudden revelation of the suffering servant Christ.  This was previously foreshadowed in Isaiah 53 and in various ways in other places, even in Exodus with the Feast of the Passover (we will get there soon).  But even the things which are foreshadowed are only predicted in general terms.  When the fulfillment comes, it is often unexpected or with some other twist.  Another example that I have previously mentioned is the combination of priest, prophet and king in the figure of Christ.  All three of these roles are separated in the OT, but combined in the NT.  So though they are present in both testaments, there is this unusual or unexpected twist in the NT which in some ways redefines the meaning even of the OT.

The idea of progressive revelation is more often a redefinition of earlier things than a bringing forth of something totally new (though that happens too).  That's why I can say that, e.g. Isaac is a type of Christ, in the sacrifice of the beloved son, because the death of Christ takes the prior revelation of Isaac's near-sacrifice and expands on it and redefines it.  In other words, the NT gives a progressively greater revelation on the themes of Genesis 22, by following the patterns of Genesis 22 but assigning to those patterns a new and greater meaning.

Now this is all pretty straightforward and most people get it, at least in theory.  Where many people misunderstand progressive revelation is when it has to do with two big things: 1) the physical nature of the OT and 2) the role and relevance of the Law of Moses.  I won't discuss these in depth here, because we will see them more going forward, so I will give brief summaries and discuss these points in more detail when it becomes convenient.

1) The OT is generally defined by the physical character of what happens.  This is a very broad point so I cannot fully discuss it, but I can share some examples.  The blessing of Abraham was a son (Isaac) and a land (Canaan).  These are physical.  The blessings of Jacob and Joseph were the dew of the heavens and the richness of the earth (Genesis 27:27-29 and Genesis 49:22-26).  These are all material blessings.  Elsewhere, the people of Israel are blessed with riches if they follow the LORD, and poverty and famine if they do not (among other places, Deuteronomy 28).  These are physical manifestations of spiritual principles.  The spiritual principles are explained and reinforced in the NT, but they are pioneered in the physical examples of the OT.  This is, in part, what results in a lot of the warfare between Israel and the nations around it in Canaan and elsewhere.  Many people question the bible when they see the LORD helping Israel in battle and commanding Israel to wipe out hostile nations.  They think, "this is a bloodthirsty God who commands so many innocent deaths."  Without discussing the cultural factors that go into all this (as I do so often), I will instead refer to the importance of progressive revelation and the physical nature of the OT.  The battles of Israel against hostile nations is symbolic of the spiritual battles in the NT (for instance, Ephesians 6:12).  It's progressive revelation because the way that God reveals himself to Israel, by guiding them into destroying hostile nations, is *not a full revelation of who God is*.  It is a specific revelation, that is trying to reveal specific characteristics.  In the case of the book of Joshua (the invasion of Canaan), the specific revelation is God as the commander of the armies of heaven, manifested by commanding the army of Israel.  So while this prior revelation is valid and does represent God, it does not represent God in fullness because he is only trying to reveal part of his character.  When we see later revelations, we will see that this criticism (bloodthirsty God) is incorrect.  I promise to talk about all of this again later and would like to restate that I'm only providing a summary, this is not meant to be a complete exposition of this issue.

2) the role and relevance of the Law of Moses.  The Law of Moses is a progressive revelation in the sense that it only applies during a certain portion of history and in certain situations such as temple sacrifices.  As that time has passed, and the temple has been destroyed, the Law of Moses is now superceded by the Law of the Spirit, as described in Romans 8:2 et al.  Hence it is replaced by the fuller revelations that came later, and yet many modern readers will refer to essentially obsolete passages of the Law of Moses in an attempt to discredit modern Christianity.  This approach is exegetically invalid, and yet that doesn't seem to slow anybody down from repeating it over and over.  Hopefully I can clear up this misconception even more when I get to the NT and discuss the Law of Grace in much more detail.

Returning to the subject of Exodus 6, we see God emphasizing his covenantal protection of the Israelites in verses 3-8, mentioning the patriarchs twice, the covenant twice and the promised land twice, summarized as "You will be my people and I will be your God."  God concludes by commanding Moses to speak to Pharaoh again, and Moses replies with another self-deprecating refusal.  This happens again in verses 28-30, although I believe from the structure of the text this is meant as a summary of the events, rather than a statement of some other time that it happened.  This is because verses 28-30 follows the genealogy, so it's structured in such a way that it completes or concludes the genealogy.

The genealogy in this chapter is mostly directed, but contains a partial broad section (see Genesis 10 for a brief summary of my two types of genealogies).  It begins with the families of Reuben and Simeon, which is in birth-order, listed oldest first.  This is probably a token of respect for the older brothers before moving on to the family that the author really cares about, the children of Levi.  The author then explores the Levite family tree until he reaches the family of Moses and Aaron, who we can see are three generations removed from Levi.  This is much fewer that I would expect for a 400 year period, so I'm not sure how these dates can be reconciled other than suggesting that they had children very late.  Unlike the earlier genealogies in e.g. Genesis 5, here it does not state how old the fathers are when they have their sons, so it's not possible to cross-reference and find a reconciliation.

The main purpose of the genealogy here, as I understand it, is to ground the events of Moses's and Aaron's lives with the prior stories of the patriarchs in Genesis.  By drawing a connection between the genealogy of verses 14-25 and the events of verses 26-30, we can again see that Exodus is merely continuing the story from Genesis in Israel's redemptive history.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 5

In this chapter, Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh and he responds by increasing their labors as punishment.

Moses and Aaron tell Pharaoh the people must leave to go celebrate a feast, and Pharaoh is pissed.  He decides that the best course of action is to give them more work, so that they forget the LORD and their desire to leave.

When it says the foremen were beaten, just note that the taskmasters here are Egyptian, and each taskmaster is over a group of foremen.  Each foreman is Hebrew and responsible for a group of Israelites.  So if the Israelites fail to deliver their load of bricks, the foreman is the person punished.  So the foremen are the people between the metaphorical "rock and a hard place" (Pharaoh pressuring them for more bricks on one hand, their assigned Hebrew slaves on the other).

In the end, the foremen complain to Pharaoh and that goes nowhere, so they complain to Moses and Aaron too for putting them into this difficult position.  Complains always flow to the top, so when the foremen complain to Moses, Moses goes ahead and complains to God.  :)  Apparently Moses expected everything to go smoothly and swiftly?  Of course, this is contrary to what God says when he said that Pharaoh would only release the Israelites under compulsion, and that God would "stretch out My hand and strike Egypt with all My miracles which I shall do in the midst of it; and after that he will let you go."  I suppose Moses wanted all the miracles right away, which is an understandable (though, apparently, unrealistic) expectation.

It's also amusing to me to see the Hebrew foremen go to Pharaoh and blame him for the problem ("There is no straw given to your servants, yet they keep saying to us, ‘Make bricks!’ And behold, your servants are being beaten; but it is the fault of your own people.").  You can tell the foremen are frustrated by being told to do the impossible and punished when they can't.  When it says that the people gathered stubble for straw, we can tell there is not much straw to be found, because stubble would make a poor substitute.  This is clearly a big problem for the Israelites, and this is another one of those human touches that I love about the bible.

Moses demonstrates much of the reticence and fear that we have seen in the prior two chapters.  Now that things are going adversely (in the short term), Moses immediately reacts negatively.  This is in line with his character that we have observed.

From Pharaoh's point of view, I think part of this is Pharaoh viewing their request as the Hebrews "getting uppity", and so he wants to punish them in retaliation, to establish his domination over them.  I do think another part is, as I've stated above, he wants to bury them in work so that they do not think of God or anything else.  Based on what I mentioned in the analysis of chapters 3 and 4, I think one of the primary views on this story is that of the revelation of God's power.  We saw God granting Moses the power of miracles and God expressing his dominion over natural creation ("Who has made man's mouth?").  Pharaoh, I think, also views this as a power struggle between himself and the Israelites, and thus it is Pharaoh who is the primary foil to God's strength.  That is, while Pharaoh is looking to express his dominance over the Hebrew slaves, the LORD is using this provocation to express his dominance over Pharaoh.  Therefore Pharaoh is symbolic of things much greater than himself.  In the OT, which expresses and interprets things physically, Pharaoh is generally symbolic of all human power and the power of the nations.  Later we will see this come into play when the nations "hear about what the LORD did to Egypt" and are fearful as a result.  In the NT, which interprets events spiritually, Pharaoh becomes symbolic of Satan, and Egypt is symbolic of the demonic world order that rules all those in sin and binds all sinful men in spiritual bondage.  All of this will be exposited in detail as the relevant passages come up.  For now, the passages speak for themselves: this story is a contest of strength between Pharaoh and God, with Pharaoh constantly challenging God's authority and God constantly demonstrating his strength through the forceful power of miracles to successively destroy Egypt.

Here, Pharaoh challenges the identity of the LORD: "Who is the LORD that I should obey his voice...?  I do not know the LORD..."  Interestingly, it was precisely the identity of the LORD that God was establishing with Moses in chapter 3, so while I called that chapter The Education of Moses, we can consider what happens after this to be The Education of Pharaoh (... and yet more Education of Moses too, because as we see, Moses still has a lot to learn in his own right).

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 4

In this chapter, Moses continues to object to his assignment and Aaron is assigned to speak on his behalf.

The many objections of Moses.  He started with his objections in chapter 3, when he said "who am I that you would send me?"  Now he objects that the people will not listen to him, and again the LORD provides him with an answer, miraculous powers.  Not only does God tell him what these three miracles are, but Moses actually performs two of them on the spot, as a demonstration.  Moses flees from the snake when he throws down his staff, which is again a reasonable response, yet it seems to belie a certain fearfulness from Moses like we previously saw.  Then he complains that he is not sufficiently eloquent (this is a return to the "who am I" objection, in more specific form, since he's essentially focusing on his own human weakness).  We have never heard or seen mention of Moses's speaking problem until now, but Moses is pretty insistent about it.  God answers him again, "I created the mouth: Go," and Moses continues to object.

Many Christian commentators emphasize Moses's reaction and try to contemporize it, which is perhaps reasonable, but I'm also interested in what God's responses explain about his character.  This is a continuation of the story of Exodus 3, and I believe that its essential message is the same: God is coming in the form of unrelatable, divine power.  Moses doesn't really have a firm conception of the Genesis 1 God because he didn't have any scripture like we do.  He barely even had an oral tradition, because while he seemed to know about the existence of God, he did not know God's proper name or the identity of "who has sent me" when he goes to speak to the elders of Israel.  In that sense, this whole account is very much "The Education of Moses" and I think that's probably a more interesting way to view it.  As such, let's review all of Moses's objections and how God responds.

First, from chapter 3, "Who am I that you should send me?"  God responds, "Certainly I will be with you", and the sign is that they would return to this mountain and worship there.  This is unusual as far as signs go, because most people think of signs from God as something that precedes an event or whatever it is a sign for.  In this case, God is declaring a sign, in the sense of what he vows will happen after Moses obeys.  In other words, Moses should do what God says because God is sovereign, and God is divinely promising the outcome of what he tells Moses to do.

Second, Moses complains "What if they do not listen to me?"  God responds, "What is that in your hand?"  And then later, "Now put your hand into your bosom."  And lastly, "Pour water from the Nile onto the ground."  In all three cases, God is using divine power to transform an ordinary and commonplace object (staff, hand, water) into something miraculous.  So now God is moving beyond a spoken divine promise and giving Moses physical signs derived from the normal objects of his everyday life, the staff having long been an implement of his work while shepherding.  This also serves to demonstrate God's power over the physical realm, and I believe these are the first physical miracles we have seen God perform in the bible so far.  There were more subtle miracles like the pregnancy of Sarah or Abraham's victory over the kings of Elam (Genesis 14) or the birth of certain kinds of sheep for Jacob, etc., etc., but these are the first truly astonishing, undeniable miracles.

Third, Moses complains "I have never been eloquent."  And this is probably my favorite response of them all.  "Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes him mute or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now then go, and I, even I, will be with your mouth, and teach you what you are to say."  That's awesome.  Beyond a divine promise, beyond minor miracles that are really nothing more than tricks, God asserts Genesis 1 all over: I created man, and not only did I have the power of creation then, but I hold power now to speak through you and to empower you on my behalf.

Moses continues to object, so Aaron is assigned as the speaker for Moses.  Aaron later becomes the high priest, but this is where he gets his start into ministry, as the spokesman for Moses.

There's a bigger thing happening here too.  God wanted to use Moses as his speaker, not just despite his speaking problem, but arguably because of his speaking problem.  This is another one of God's Ways which we will see in most of the rest of the bible, which is God's preference to use weak or flawed instruments in order to demonstrate his own power.  To wit, if Moses were a good speaker, then when he rallies the Israelites and routs the Egyptians, maybe it was just because of his prowess and charisma in speech?  You could argue it, and the power of human agency would obfuscate the power of God because God is acting through a human agent.  But if Moses were a poor speaker, then the evidence would be incontrovertible: The LORD is the one who rallied the Israelites and defeated the Egyptians.  We saw this to a lesser extent before when Abraham refused the wealth of the king of Sodom in Genesis 14 after he defeated the Elamites.  We will see it again many times, and in fact Israel itself becomes a symbol of weakness, used to demonstrate the LORD's power through how he exalts and glorifies them.  It is said many times that Jacob descended with just 70 men, but he returned as a multitude.  This is a metaphor for the power of the LORD acting on Israel's behalf, demonstrating that power to all nations.  The end goal is not to exalt Israel, but to glorify the LORD through them.  I encourage my readers to keep this in mind going forward, because as a theme it appears often.

But then another question arises, which is: Why does God even want to use human agents?  Why is he commissioning Moses if he could instead just go and declare to Pharaoh with thunder, "LET MY PEOPLE GO!"  This is another very important question, because many times modern skeptics will say, "If God is real, then he should make a chair fall from the sky or a giant billboard of fire saying so.  If God is real, he should not use human agents, because it is less clear and obvious."  At a first glance, this objection is very reasonable and I used to think the same way myself, but at the most basic level, the reason God does do this is because using human agency to accomplish his goals is one of God's Ways (there's that phrase again - get used to it).

This is a complicated issue, so I'm going to oversimplify it as follows: God uses human agents because it's part of his process of restoring unity between himself, God, and mankind at large.  Starting all the way back in Genesis 1 and 2, we saw that God was interested in creating mankind "in the image of God", we saw that God was interested in being with mankind (dwelling with man in the garden of Eden, cf. Genesis 3:8), and we saw that God did not abandon mankind after the fall of Genesis 3 (many verses on this, e.g. Genesis 6:18).  So we can already deduce that God is working to restore his broken relationship with mankind, that though even the Israelite people, his chosen people, do not know his name, he is going to try to teach mankind who he is and work to bring them back into a friendly relationship with himself.  But why human agents when God could use angels or trees or sheep or floating billboards?

Two big reasons... well two that I'm going to share, probably lots more I'm not mentioning.  First, because using human agents for God's purposes is a facet of how God operates even before the fall, starting in Genesis 1:28, 2:15, so it's just how he does things.  Admittedly this is a bit tautological, but when you're talking about an omnipotent God who can do everything, anything he does is an implied self-constraint: God himself chooses what he does not do and this choice is, from a human perspective, completely arbitrary.  This means that anything from God's perspective becomes rather tautological, as he does things a certain way just because that's who he is, because God is choosing one of an infinite number of possibilities, and that specific choice and infinite rejection is what defines his personality and characteristics.  Humans make decisions and behave in ways that are governed by their surroundings and the laws of the universe and physics; since God is the creator of those laws, he is not bound by them and is only bound by his own intrinsic character.

The second reason is that God uses human agents to transform the agents themselves.  It is by becoming a spokesman of God that Moses himself is transformed from this fearful and self-conscious shepherd into someone whose face literally glows after spending time with God in the Tent of Meeting, who speaks with God face to face, like a friend and like an equal, who asks God himself to reveal God's glory.  It was the power of God "who [had] made Man's mouth" that reshaped Moses into this deeply faithful man, and it was God's plan to spread that influence through Moses, as a conduit, into all of the rest of the people, and from the people Israel to the rest of the nations on the earth: that it is by being used as a tool of God that Moses and Israel are reshaped, and by using them that God reshapes all the rest of the peoples of the world.  It was this form of unity that God originally sought in the garden of Eden and this form of unity that he tries to restore in every interaction with mankind, ultimately triumphing in the resurrection of the dead of Revelation 20:11-15.

And this is the critical part: God partners with human agents not for the sole purpose of accomplishing his goals; God is not partnering with Moses because he wants or needs Moses to save the Israelites.  God partners with human agents because partnering with human agents was what he wanted to do in the first place.  This was the original divine vision, of the children of God operating in unity with God their father.  God working with Moses is just one small step on the path to restoring that vision, regardless of the outcome of Moses's actions with respect to Pharaoh or Israel or anybody else.

Of course, God could change humans by snapping his fingers or speaking a word.  There is no difference (from a divine perspective) between saying, "Let there be light" and saying, "Let humanity be altered so that they act in accordance with my wishes."  God doesn't need to partner with anybody to do anything, and this really just gets back to the first point, that a God who operates with infinite power forms a set of constraints for himself whenever he does anything, and while it seems tautological to a human observer, that's just how you learn who God is.  In the words of C.S. Lewis, who speaks of angels,
To those high creatures whose activity builds what we call Nature, nothing is "natural." From their station the essential arbitrariness (so to call it) of every actual creation is ceaselessly visible; for them there are no basic assumptions: all springs with the willful beauty of a jest or a tune from that miraculous moment of self-limitation wherein the Infinite, rejecting a myriad possibilities, throws out of Himself the positive and elected invention.
That was long, but important.

The next important issue that shows up here is the hardening of Pharaoh's heart as referred in verse 21 and this statement is repeated several more times in Exodus.  This is an issue that confounds many because it raises the issue of free will, and in particular, one wonders if this is an instance of God violating Pharaoh's free will.  Furthermore, if Pharaoh does not have free will, then God is unjust for punishing him.  Let me begin by stating that I do believe in the existence of human free will (without going into the complicated issue of defining what exact "free will" is, as this is also non-trivial), but not every Christian does.  The two main branches are called Calvinism (no free will) and Arminianism (yes free will).  Both of these philosophies are named after the individuals who strongly articulated them in the 16th century, John Calvin and Jacobus Arminius, and both are broad philosophical platforms that encompass much more than just the issue of free will, yet this is the language used to frame the debate today for whatever reason.

At the simplest level, the reason why I believe in human free will is that mankind was made in the image of God, in Genesis 1 and 2, and was filled with the spirit of God when God breathed life into him in Genesis 2. Since God has free will (and this is essentially uncontested), then mankind who are made in God's image should share this attribute.  Some might challenge this by saying, if this logic is correct, then we should also be omnipotent since God is that way.  My response is that human are the children of God; this means that we take the shape of God, but are lesser in degree (i.e. quantitatively different, not qualitatively different).  We have power in a limited amount and as a human grows up, especially one without sin (like the original creation or fully resurrected mankind), then one also grows quantitatively in power, until we approach more and more likeness to God.  This statement might also seem contentious to some, and I will return to it when we reach the relevant passages in the NT (such as 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 which concludes, "But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory").  Since free will is a qualitative difference, it stands to reason that mankind must already possess it now, like we possess all of God's other qualitative characteristics (such as limited power, limited knowledge, the capacity to love, the capacity for reason and justice, etc., etc.).

So returning to the issue of Pharaoh, I do believe in free will and I believe that Pharaoh has it.  I do not believe that God violates Pharaoh's free will here, because I simply don't think that's what God does to Pharaoh or anybody else.  I think there's lots of room for ambiguity in the text, based around the precise meaning of the expression "harden his heart", and I think to say this means altering Pharaoh's otherwise free will (or that free will at all does not exist) is inconsistent with the spirit and intent of the rest of the bible.  We have already seen lots of strange or archaic passages in Genesis and Exodus (even in this chapter, cf. verses 24-26 which I address below).  Because of that, I would hesitate to weigh a substantial philosophical position such as free will on the rendering of this phrase, since in the end it could prove to be a translation issue or cultural factor that we misinterpret as a theological position.  In Exodus 3, God says that he "knows that the king of Egypt will not permit you to go, except under compulsion," which to me strongly implies that this is mostly God operating in the *knowledge* of what Pharaoh wishes to do, rather than the *alteration* of what he wishes to do.  In addition, we really need to build a picture of what is the author's intent here.  I haven't really discussed free will before, because the notion of free will is very difficult to pin down in the passages we have read so far.  You can take nearly any example, like the life of Abraham for instance, and presuppose either free will or not and get roughly the same story and even the same interpretation of what the story means for our lives.  This doesn't mean the notion of free will has no meaning - far from it - but it does mean that it is very hard for me or anyone else to parse out what the author was intending to write about the issue of free will.  And without figuring out this intent, I don't think anyone can really say "this means there is no free will or God is violating free will."

One might ask, if this doesn't mean God is trampling on Pharaoh's free will, then what does it mean?  My opinion is that it could mean one of many different alternatives.  It could mean that God is strengthening Pharaoh's emotions to make the decision he already wishes to make, it could mean God is going to put people around him to encourage him in making this decision, and so forth.  Whether *these* interpretations *also* constitute a violation of free will gets back to what is the definition of free will.  And that is a subtle and complicated subject which I do not have time or space to address here, so I'm afraid I'll have to move on.  Anyone interested in this subject can just Google for terms like "Christianity and free will" and get interesting results.

Moving on, verses 24-26 are really strange.  I don't know if any modern reader has a proper explanation of this episode.  Some people debate whether the pronoun "he" in verse 24 is referring to Moses or Moses's son Gershom.  Ostensibly, it appears to refer to Moses, yet the command given to Abraham is that anyone not circumcised would be cut off from his people, which implies that Gerhsom would be the one to die.  It's further strange because to the best of my knowledge, this is the only time in the entire bible when God himself "seeks to put [someone] to death" because they were not circumcised.  One also ponders why Moses would not have circumcised his son?  Possibly because he was living in Midian, away from his people and their cultural traditions.  This is still early in Israel's history when things are somewhat fluid and illdefined.  But then how would his wife, who is not even Hebrew, know to circumcise her son?  How did they know that the LORD sought to kill "him" (Moses or Gershom)?  Why did she throw the foreskin at Moses's feet?  Is this something that ancient Israelite's did?  And then there is the peculiar expression, repeated twice, "a bridegroom of blood"?  This expression most likely refers to circumcision itself, possibly implying that being circumcised makes oneself a metaphorical bridegroom to... the LORD?  But then why is Zipporah the one saying it?  How is her son's circumcision affecting her relationship with Moses?  As you can see, I have far more questions than answers.  One can conjecture freely, but this is the last time in the entire bible that the expression "bridegroom of blood" appears, so the true meaning has been more or less lost to history.  My best guess is that this was intended as another vignette to explain why "something is done until this very day", yet the thing that is done (touching a father's feet with his son's foreskin?) is lost, and the language itself is rather archaic.

Anyway, Moses and Aaron go tell the elders that the LORD is concerned for them and he shows the signs, and it says that the people believed.  So things are starting out on a good foot.  Pay attention to the response of the people as we go along.  While they appear submissive and worshipful to the LORD now, soon they will rapidly descend into outright criticism of Moses and the LORD.  This will ultimately culmonate in some very negative events in the lives of the people.

And some concluding addenda:

Jethro is the same person as Reuel, just a different name.  No reason is given for why his name is different here, but from now on he will be called Jethro and not Reuel.  Possibly a nickname or something.

In Matthew 2:20 it says "go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child’s life are dead."  This is an interesting parallel to verse 19, "Go back to Egypt, for all the men who were seeking your life are dead."  I don't have anything profound to say about this, I just think it's ironic that the two verses describe people fleeing those who seek the murder them, but going in opposite directions.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 3

In this chapter, Moses encounters a burning bush and God commands him to bring his people up from Egypt to the land of Canaan.

This chapter continues the short, but dense, introduction to the life of Moses.  Because of the big gap in Moses's earlier life, it raises more questions about his background with the LORD, because just like the last chapter, where I pondered how Moses knew he was Hebrew or got such a personal conviction about justice, in this chapter I ponder Moses's relationship with the LORD.

In particular, how did Moses come to know the LORD?  Just like Abraham, we are not told.  It is simply presupposed that Moses has a strong enough faith that God will speak to him and charge him to lead his people to freedom.  Like Abraham, we are shown his faith, but not how he got it.  However unlike Abraham, we actually see Moses object to God's command, and we see a lot of Moses's insecurities.  Over time, these insecurities will fade away a bit, but it gives Moses a certain humanity that one would not otherwise find in his character.

Contrary to God's declaration of his action in verses 7-9, Moses focuses on his own limitations with the question, "Who am I that you would send me?".  This is perhaps understandable given the context of God's sudden appearance to him and perhaps stunning command about freeing his people.  To wit, we do not actually know the nature of Moses's relationship with God at this point.  This is the first recorded interaction between the LORD and Moses, and possibly the first interaction in Moses's whole life, so while many commentators tend to chastise Moses for his self-absorption, I think his response is reasonable considering the circumstances of his multi-year exile in the desert.  From a more humorous perspective, we can imagine Moses listening to this long soliloquy by God, "I will free the people, I will smite the Egyptians, I will bring them up to Canaan!  Now Moses, you go."  And Moses is replying, "I was with you until that very last part about me going and talking to Pharaoh (you know, the guy who can kill me if he wants to)."

Moses was afraid to look at God.  This is a common response in the OT, and in many respects is normal behavior, but it's not what we saw with the patriarchs in Genesis, who generally faced God in a direct way.  Abraham served food to the LORD in Genesis 18 and regularly heard from the LORD in visions.  Jacob wrestled with the angel of the LORD, even though he later wondered at how he saw the face of God yet lived (Genesis 32).  We see here a combination of reverence, yet ultimately relatability, that God would eat food like a normal man, which makes him approachable to the patriarchs, much like God was approachable in Genesis 2 when he walked (like a man, with two legs) in the garden of Eden and spoke with Adam face to face.  Now, in the life of Moses, we see a shift away from the relatability and into the unrelatable raw power of God, as evinced by the burning bush that was not consumed (hardly a picture of relatability, like the human-shaped angels of Genesis 18).  As we will see, this pattern is abruptly altered back in the direction of relatability later in Exodus, but for now God chooses to manifest himself in the form of sovereign and divine power, for the purpose of freeing his people Israel, culminating in the plagues of Egypt and the death of the firstborn.  This is, doubtless, a story that emphasizes over and over the sovereign power of God not for the purpose of bringing death to Egypt, but for bringing freedom and redemption to his people who are held in slavery there.

Furthermore, this is the first supernatural manifestation of the LORD we have seen.  I told my readers to look at how God appears to the patriarchs, and in those cases he would generally either "speak" to them, "appear" to them or something similar.  We saw the LORD come in the form of a man to both Abraham and Jacob.  Now God is appearing "within" a burning bush, which is not consumed, and speaking from there.  While human appearances reveal the LORD as relatable, the appearance of fire reveals the LORD as zealous or passionate, in the context of "the cry of the sons of Israel has come to Me; furthermore, I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians are oppressing them."  So the LORD is manifesting himself as the divine protector of his people, in accordance with the covenant he made with Abraham and renewed with Isaac and Jacob.  In addition, "the bush that is not burned" is a symbol of what we see later, which is the fire of God dwelling inside men, but without consuming or killing them.  We see Daniel's three companions (in Daniel 3:19-27) thrown into a blazing furnace, yet they are not consumed either.  So the fire is also a reference to the Holy Spirit (see, for instance, Acts 2:3-4).

The divine name is established in this chapter, with its root in Hebrew "Hayah", meaning "to be".  This emphasizes God's uncreated timelessness and immortality.  It is certainly peculiar to hear Moses struggle with the identity of the LORD, when we have been reading the divine name referenced dozens of times in Genesis alone.  Some would even wonder if these earlier references are anachronisms, an insertion of the divine name into a text that did not originally have it, or given to speakers (like Abraham) who would not have known it.  It certainly appears on the surface of things that God is sharing the divine name with Moses as if this were the first time it had ever been shared with the Israelite people, and that Moses goes to introduce this God to his brethren when he is sent to them.  This is a question that I will address in Exodus 6, because that chapter contains a passage highly relevant to this discussion.  So if you want to see more on this topic, skip ahead to there (and then come back ;) ).

Disregarding the question of anachronisms, this passage is still very interesting because it implies the Israelite people do not know the LORD, and Moses has to teach them his identity.  This is very significant and is a precursor to much of the body of Exodus (and later, Deuteronomy).  This teaching role is often associated with the prophetic ministry, because so much of what Moses says is prophetically inspired by his hearing directly from the LORD.  It implies the general ignorance of the Israelite people, who do not even know the name of their patron deity and must be taught almost everything about their nascent faith.  These teachings form the bulk of the Law of Moses.  Finally, this pattern implies the coming leadership role for Moses and his impact in prophetically guiding the Israelites to follow the LORD.

Once again, if you compare this pattern to that of the patriarchs, there is a vast difference, as the patriarchs learned about the LORD by directly speaking to him.  But now for the vast population of Israel, they only learn about the LORD by having Moses tell them about their God.  This level of mediation gives Moses power in a direct sense, but it also shows the restructuring of the Hebrew faith into a more hierarchical pattern and the increasing distance between the average Israelite and the LORD.  What's ironic about this new hierarchy is the hesitancy of its erstwhile leader, Moses, yet later in Exodus we will see Moses come around to a firm and zealous desire to know the LORD more deeply.  It is this passion for God that is perhaps Moses's greatest qualification for leader of the Israelite people and unfortunately, it is the Israelite people's apathy that often qualifies them for being so distant from their God.  We will see more of this later.

On another topic, why did the LORD choose to deceive pharaoh, when he commands Moses to say that they will only go out to celebrate a festival to the LORD, when in truth they plan on departing Egypt entirely?  I honestly don't know.  Maybe if I think about it a lot I'll come up with something, but it's never felt particularly important to me, so I haven't studied it much.  There are other big theological questions raised by Exodus, so I tend to focus on those instead.  If anyone has any interesting thoughts on this, feel free to leave comments.

I will conclude with some minor notes:

Compare the angel of the LORD in verse 2 with God in verse 4.  Does this imply that the angel of the LORD is God?  That would mean that the word angel has to sometimes be interpreted broadly as more than just a "classic angel" in the sense of a spiritual being serving God.  The angel can sometimes be God, because perhaps God brings his own message.  I'm not sure, many people debate this point.  In fact, there's even a Wikipedia article for Angel of the Lord.

The command to "remove your sandals" brings Moses into direct contact with the holiness of the ground.  Cf. the purpose of shoes, to protect and separate from harsh conditions.  But since the ground is holy, Moses is supposed to come into contact with the ground and commune with the holiness thereof.  Shoes are to be worn to separate oneself from the sinfulness of the world, just like the Israelite people are later supposed to separate themselves from the idolatrous peoples of Canaan.

This chapter has the first instance of the phrase, "land of milk and honey".  I could offer a long digression on the word honey, but the short version is that for a long time historians didn't think honey was cultivated in Israel and that the word "honey" here is actually something like "date nectar".  Just a few years ago archaeologists discovered an apiary dating to around 900 BCE, indicating that honey was commercially cultivated in ancient Israel.  So the word "honey" is now somewhat disputed, with some scholars insisting that it is a non-honey sweetener, and other scholars insisting it is honey.  This is not terribly important, but it is kind of interesting.

The list of Canaanite tribes changes in some places in the bible, but this list of six tribes in verse 8 is the most common listing.  Compared to the list of seven in (Deuteronomy 7:1, Joshua 3:10, Joshua 24:11, etc), the tribe that disappears is the Girgashites, who were also listed in Genesis 15:21, a listing of 10 tribes.  This possibly implies changes in the power structure of the promised land over time, but it might also be inspired by literary purposes (i.e. the listings of 10 tribes and 7 tribes are used to poetically signify the full force of Canaanite opposition, while the listing of 6 tribes is used for the more prosaic set of actually notable or powerful tribes).

The "sign of God" in verse 12 is fulfilled when the people return to Horeb later in Exodus.  This happens, well, after the exodus.

The plundering of the Egyptians.  I'm not sure how much I can say about this.  To the best of my knowledge, there aren't any NT parallels, though this episode is mentioned several more times in the OT.

I think maybe the best I can say is that it is also meant to be counterlogical or ironic, for two reasons.  One, the Israelites actually produced a tremendous amount of wealth in Egypt through their slave labor, and they did not receive any reward for it.  Now they "plunder the Egyptians" and regain the wealth of their labor.  Second, the last thing you would expect from a fleeing nation of slaves is that they would somehow acquire all of the wealth of their former captors and leave rich, and not poor.  This actually plays a moderate to large role in what happens next for Israel, which is the construction of many of their religious relics and the Tent of Meeting (this happens later in Exodus).  Without the wealth of Egypt, they would not have had the materiel required to build all of these things.  So the produce of their slavery, in some respects, becomes the instrument of their corporate relationship with the LORD going forward.