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The Exodus

The Hebrews at Mount Sinai

In our fourth session we looked at the Exodus story from the second book of the bible (although the story has its roots in that of Joseph at the end of the book of Genesis). The narrative of the Hebrews’ escape from oppression in Egypt and subsequent covenant with God is probably the most influential story in the Old Testament. It culminates in God promising to look after the Hebrews so long as they put God first in their lives by following his law. As before, we looked at how the story speaks to us spiritually rather than worrying about whether it really happened.

  • Moses’ encounter with the Burning bush continues the theme of God revealing himself to important people- prophets.
  • The most obvious way in which the story is important spiritually is that it expands upon God’s promise to Abraham by detailing the beginning of God’s plan for our salvation.
  • We noted that this concept of liberation speaks to oppressed individuals as well as groups.
  • The story brings up the most significant concerns about the morality of God’s actions in the bible so far. The 10 Plagues inflicted on the Egyptian people seem disproportionately punitive (particularly the tenth, the death of their first born sons). As does the drowning of the Pharaoh and his army after the Hebrews have escaped- especially because the text says that God hardened their hearts to them, which implies that they weren’t entirely responsible for their actions.

> Perhaps this high cost of human life in the story is symbolic of the high cost of relationships, of which one’s relationship with God is no exception.

> We suggested that this ‘hardening of hearts’ was the use of myth as propaganda by the author, to emphasise how evil the Egyptians were. This is supported by the lack of realism exemplified in not thinking through its implications on free will and morality.

> But the story isn’t one-sided propaganda because there is cost to the Jews too with their wandering in the desert for 40 years. This is God’s punishment for their idolatry and lack of courage.

  • There is elegant symbolism in Moses dying before he entered the land promised to the people by God, such that he remains a tragic figure rather than just a one-dimensional righteous hero. Like the expulsion from paradise, this last story from the book of Deuteronomy expresses how humankind is always grasping at perfection that is unobtainable in this life.
  • The story defines the identity of the Jewish people as a culture and ethnicity.

> Since the liberation applies explicitly to them, we suggested that perhaps it is the latter part of the book (the covenant and the Ten Commandments etc.) which is more relevant Christians? I think that it certainly does have a lot more meaning to Jews than it does to Christians, but the earlier part is still very relevant.

> However Jews interpret the liberation narrative socio-politically (e.g. Zionism), it remains a spiritual archetype and paradigm for all people.  For Muslims it is a reocurring theme in the Koran, and Christians have interpreted many of it’s events and motifs as foreshadowings of the final revelation of God in Christ. There are five important speeches of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew as there are five books of Moses (the Torah/Pentateuch), the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments in the Ark of the Covenant is a shadow of God’s Word made flesh in Mary’s womb, the liberation from the Egyptians through the Red Sea is a shadow of liberation from sin through Christ’s blood, and the sacramental meal of the Passover is a shadow of that of the Eucharist- hence Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God’. (Indeed, I was interested to learn that the Roman Catholic view that the event of Christ’s sacrifice -in addition to Himself- is made present at each Mass was not a novel philosophical development of the Church, but simply continuity with what Jews always believed about the Passover and the convenant made with God at that time.)

  • Finally we touched on the concept of Progressive Revelation- that the bible is primarily a work of theology which, although always inspired by God, gradually came to be more sophisticated and accurate as it developed over history. Many Christians believe that this revelation continues to progress to this day through the Church’s interpretation of doctrine from the bible.


View the Next Part of Bible for Bluffers.


Comments on: "The Exodus" (2)

  1. Put very briefly, the story is as follows. The Hebrews have been living in Egypt since the time of Joseph but have now been enslaved because the Egyptians are threatened by this minority group becoming too large and powerful. In spite of efforts to kill young Hebrew children to curtail their population, Moses survives protected by his mother and the daughter of the Pharaoh (the Egyptian god-King).

    Despite being brought up in the higher echelons of Egyptian society Moses feels sympathy for his oppressed people, and in trying to defend a slave from being mistreated he kills an Egyptian man. He then flees into the desert where God speaks to him from a bush that is on fire but miraculously is not consumed by the flames.

    God asks Moses to lead his people to freedom and promises them a land (Canaan) where they can live in peace. Moses returns and pleads to the Pharaoh who keeps changing his mind as to whether they can leave. God sends ten plagues upon the Egyptians culminating in the Passover. Here the Hebrews are ordered by God to have a special meal and smear the blood of a sacrificed lamb over their doors so that the Angel of Death doesn’t harm their children. They escape crossing the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds) and Pharaoh and his army are destroyed.

    Moses goes up to Mount Sinai and receives the 10 Commandments directly from God. But the Hebrews end up wandering the desert for 40 years (until the whole generation has passed away) before reaching Canaan- even though the journey should have only taken 1 year.

  2. In the medieval church, the popular interpretation of the plagues sent against the Egyptians was as allegorical representations of the idolatries they had leading to their downfall. For instance, the killing of the first born sons symbolises how the righteous do not idolise their of eldest sons, which is particularly directed the children of the Pharaoh who were seen as demi-gods. Similarly, the permission given later on in the Bible to destroy the seven tribes inhabiting Canaan if they didn’t leave was interpreted as an allegory about waging war on the Seven Deadly Sins.

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