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.


Anna Tan said...

"But then how would his wife, who is not even Hebrew, know to circumcise her son?"
I am conjecturing that the Midianites, being descendants of Abraham, might have retained the practice of circumcision though whether they still followed God is an unknown factor.
Additionally, Jethro was a "priest of Midian" so his daughter might be in a position to be sensitive towards spiritual stuff.


Daniel S. said...

Without having more details it seems implausible to me that the Midianites are descendants of Abraham, because there were already bands of wandering Midianite traders in Genesis 37. Therefore, it is unlikely that the priest of Midian comes from Abraham's religious tradition. I don't think we can know for sure, though.