The Point of the Pain

It never fails to surprise me, I start studying some familiar passage in Scripture, and WHAM! I find something new. Part of that is because I begin by translation, but what that practice does is force me to slow down, and pay very close attention to the text. The real shocking stuff is not made up of the linguistic details, but the mundane stuff.

Here’s a great example, I found it in Exodus 9, buried in the middle of the “plagues” or, more accurately, the signs and wonders. Yahweh has turned staffs into a snake fight, turned the Nile to blood, inundated Egypt with frogs, sent lice or gnats, a swarm of something, a pestilence on livestock, and really nasty boils. Sometimes Pharaoh steels himself against Yahweh, and, at other times, Yahweh steels Pharaoh against Himself. It’s been weird, to say the least. Finally, after these signs and wonders, Yahweh gives Pharaoh an explanation of what’s going on. And, therefore, giving insight to us as well.

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Rise up early in the morning and stand before Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, “Let My people go, that they may serve Me. For this time I will send all My plagues on you and your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is no one like Me in all the earth. For if by now I had put forth My hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, you would then have been cut off from the earth. But, indeed, for this reason I have allowed you to remain, in order to show you My power and in order to proclaim My name through all the earth. Still you exalt yourself against My people by not letting them go. Behold, about this time tomorrow, I will send a very heavy hail, such as has not been seen in Egypt from the day it was founded until now. Now therefore send, bring your livestock and whatever you have in the field to safety. Every man and beast that is found in the field and is not brought home, when the hail comes down on them, will die.”‘”

Exodus 9:13-19 NASB

Read that passage slowly. Notice the main point of Yahweh: To show His power and proclaim His name in all the earth. All of these “plagues”, people and animals dying, the land ruined, the river polluted, were all to glorify Himself in a foreign land, among a people who deny His existence. Set aside for a moment your 21st-Century sensibilities that cause you to abhor all the death and destruction. Notice He gives than a choice to avoid danger. He explicitly says He doesn’t want to destroy them. What Yahweh wants is for the Egyptians to know Him. They worship everything and everyone EXCEPT Yahweh. Yet He wants them. Don’t let your modern world view let you miss that.

Think about the following:

  • Egyptians believed in a creator, but worshiped created things and gods
    • Our culture knows of a Creator and may even acknowledge His existence but have no time for, or interest in Him.
  • Egyptians sought to appease the spiritual aspects of the physical world: god of the Nile, goddess of fertility of soil and animals, god of the sun, and so on.
    • Our culture is inordinately focused on the physical, yet metaphysically explaining its existence, and our care for it, even to the point of “sacrificing” human life.
  • Yahweh sought to make Himself known to the Egyptians, leaving their society and economy in complete upheaval. He loved them enough to let nothing stop Him from reaching out to them.
    • Our culture, in total rebellion against our Creator, is desperately loved by Him. That means each person, regardless of their regard for Him.
    • What will He have to do to get their attention?

That person in line at the supermarket with you, you know the one. The one who has the wrong payment method, a thousand groceries, and a bad attitude. Yeah, that one, Jesus died for them. What about the jerk on the freeway with you who seems more familiar with his horn than his brake? Yep, him too. Crowded subways are full of these rebellious people loved by their Creator. We work with them, go to school with them, run in the park around them. They want nothing to do with their Savior, but He wants everything about them.

And here we are in Goshen, the faithful to Yahweh, the Lord Jesus Christ, watching them go their merry way. We know the truth, but live as if it’s not true. It’s me, and probably you. The excuses are many and varied, but pointless. Why wait for plagues and signs and wonders? Why not spare who we can by standing up, and being different, and being bold? Love them. Our Savior does. He went to a humiliating public torturous death for them. Where will we stop short? He rose from the grave, ascended to heaven, and sent His Spirit to empower us. What excuse will cause us to hold back from these rebels?

Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation

Signs and Wonders

Where is the sense of witnessing something impossibly amazing if you can’t make sense of it? That question doesn’t make any sense. If it’s an impossibly amazing something, then it would, by definition, evade rational sense. Yet, we attempt to grapple with the incomprehensible, wrestling it into a comprehensible form. I’m guilty of that all the time. I have to force myself to reverse the process, seeing what appears to be comprehensible for the amazing incomprehensible thing it actually is.

In Scripture, there are things that God describes as “signs and wonders”. They are supposed to demonstrate some of His qualities to which His human creatures will respond with worship. One of the most surprising elements of these signs and wonders is how often they fail to inspire worship. Eleven times, Yahweh demonstrates His power to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and eleven times, he rails against Yahweh. And, after all he has lost, there is still no acknowledgement of Yahweh in Egypt.

Of course, the sons of Israel, they get it, right? They understand and respond to Yahweh in worship. You would think, wouldn’t you? And yet they are complaining, whining, rebellious, and twisted followers of Yahweh. They witness all Yahweh does on their behalf to bring them out of Egypt, and they still rebel in the wilderness, even at the foot of the dramatic storm-topped mountain of God. Lightning, thunder, dark clouds, and fire top the mountain, under which they get Aaron to build an idol… So, they didn’t get the point of the signs and wonders either.

Scholars argue over whether there are natural explanations for the plagues. Some wonder if there are direct correlations to the gods of Egypt. Some, but not enough to explain all the signs and wonders. Yahweh claims He is executing judgements against the gods of Egypt (Exodus 12:12), and yet, the connections between these acts and the pantheon of the time make little sense.

To be fair, it’s not even clear what each sign/wonder actually is. For instance, the “lice” or “gnats” are a term only used in this plague, whether in Exodus or Psalm references. The swarm could be flies, but is really just a swarm. The darkness is really just that. What could they be? No one truly knows for sure. It’s frustrating to look back 3,000 years through such a blurry lens. Yet, it’s all we have, and we can be sure that Yahweh planned it that way. That should help us be okay with not knowing, but it doesn’t.

So, what do we do with plagues we can’t explain? What do we do with signs and wonders that are supposed to illuminate worshipful qualities of Yahweh if we can’t understand them? What’s the point again? The signs and wonders were supposed to do what, again? Illustrate the qualities of Yahweh to His human creatures. That includes us. So, what’s the problem? We know what they are for, and we know what our response is supposed to be. Read about the frogs, read about the gnats or lice, and read about the swarms of whatever. And, having read, worship the One causing such signs and wonders. Worship the One drawing people to Himself through such miracles.

If Yahweh judges the gods of Egypt, then we know He strikes blows in spiritual warfare against those elements of culture opposed to His sovereignty. That will happen to our elements opposed to Him. If Yahweh used natural catastrophes to demonstrate His power over His creation, we can expect Him do so again in our day. And, He probably has, a lot. Now, when we see these things, let us worship the One demonstrating His power among us, drawing us to acknowledge Him. It’s not rocket surgery.

Jesus was crucified, and the earth shook, the sun was darkened, and dead people rose from their graves and entered Jerusalem. It’s not just the stuff of the Hebrew Scriptures, it’s the same One in the Christian Scriptures, still reaching out to His human creatures. Let us respond in worship. The veil of the temple was torn, top to bottom. Let us worship Him.

He calls us, today, to come and worship. You see an amazing sunset, worship Him. And when the wind destroys a house, or wipes out entire neighborhoods, worship Him. When the storm waves rage and floods destroy, worship Him. Hail strikes, worship Him. Because He is calling to us, through the acts of power of His creation, to worship the One having created us. When the sun shines, and the land is green, worship Him. He calls us to worship our Creator, because our Creator is also our Savior.

What’s With All The Snakes?

I’m not a fan of snakes, of any type. It’s not a paralyzing phobia, I’m simply cautious because I know I don’t know the benign from the dangerous. But even the benign aren’t favorites things of mine. So, when I read that Yahweh changes Moses’ staff into a snake, it’s not my favorite method of God’s work.

The LORD said to him, “What is that in your hand?” And he said, “A staff.” Then He said, “Throw it on the ground.” So he threw it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from it. But the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand and grasp it by its tail “– so he stretched out his hand and caught it, and it became a staff in his hand–

Exodus 4:2-4 NASB

Yes, I wish Yahweh hadn’t chosen to use a snake. He does it again as the sons of Israel are traveling in the desert too.

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.”

Numbers 21:8 NASB

An additional piece of dubious historical irony, according to Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, Moses had used serpents to defeat the Ethiopians for the Egyptians while he was still among the court of Pharaoh (Antiquities of the Jews, II:10:2). So, why is he scared when the staff becomes a snake? Maybe because he didn’t have a bird to protect him this time?

Snakes factor into Egyptian mythology as well. Unfortunately their myths don’t produce a simple easy explanation for Yahweh’s use before Pharaoh. For instance, Pharaoh’s crown, the pschent (probably not their word), has a representation of a serpent on it, which refers to the goddess Wadjet, the protector of Lower Egypt.

But the great evil opponent of the sun-god, Ra, was Apophis, a serpent, sort of a “sea-serpent” living in the chaotic waters surrounding the world. Think, Leviathan, and you’re in the right area. So, serpents can be good or bad in Egyptian mythology. In fact, one of Ra’s protectors is a serpent named, Mehen. You can find a fairly decent article on Apophis here.

So, Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh, and Aaron throws down his staff. Dramatically, it becomes a serpent. What is a Pharaoh to do? He calls for his magicians, and they do the same, each man throws his staff, and they become serpents too. Yahweh’s serpent challenge is met, and He’s out numbered. But what does it mean? What should Pharaoh conclude from this, because serpents can be good or bad, so how does he know?

Aaron’s staff swallows the staffs of the magicians. So, in a sense, the protectors of the king, Wadjet, is defeated by another serpent, who must therefore be Apophis. All it probably took is for one of the magicians to speak that name, and now Moses and Aaron are of Apophis, the enemy of order and the gods of Egypt. And, that’s kind of true, from one perspective, just not the whole truth. Regardless, Pharaoh refuses to listen to them.

Judging this passage from a modern western thought mindset could be blinding us from the message of our Creator. We seem to think that, because his magicians could duplicate what Moses and Aaron did, Pharaoh wasn’t “impressed”. But think about that. If impressing Pharaoh were the point, then the consumption of his magicians staffs should have accomplished this, and Pharaoh’s response confuses us. There must be something we’re missing.

What if Yahweh is demonstrating something to Pharaoh, something that will take 11 miracles to fully communicate? Yahweh calls what He’s doing “judgements” (see Exodus 7:4). They are “signs and wonders” (see Exodus 7:3), but they are also “judgements”. Later on, when the angel of death takes the firstborn and passes over Israel, Yahweh says this:

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.

Exodus 12:12 NASB (emphasis mine)

These judgements are “against the gods of Egypt”. So, consider for a moment, all gods are real. Pharaoh’s gods are such that serpents can be either protectors or enemies. One comes in the name of a god you don’t know, and his staff becomes a serpent. What do you do? Is it a good or evil serpent, and how do you tell? You call your own powerful magicians, and they turn their staffs into serpents, protector serpents. What happens next tells you what you want to know. This one in the name of the unknown god has a serpent that devours your protector serpents. It must be the evil serpent, and righteously, you refuse their demands. Order prevails, and your gods are pleased with you for fighting with them against this serpent of chaos.

By itself, this act of power looks like Yahweh has aligned Himself with the evil of Egypt, and He has, because the gods of Egypt have aligned themselves against Him. And now, because He is the One True God, He executes judgements against them, and takes away their validity, revealing them for what they are, rebellious servants of Yahweh.

Okay, so that might make a decent movie or exciting fantasy book for nerds and comic book fans. But we’re modern scientific rationalists, what’s the message for us? Well, rationally speaking, this world is upside down. Right is now decried as wrong. Wrong is held up as the highest form of good, and the people holding to belief in our Savior are considered worse than evil, we’re stupid evil people. The beliefs and practices of Scripture are ridiculed, and legislated against. We are sojourners in an unholy land.

But all of this opposition is actually spiritual in nature, the product of these spiritual forces of darkness in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12). What we, as modern rational believers, need to know is that this spiritual war is between our Savior and those rebels opposed to Him. What we witness is a form of what Moses and Aaron stood up against, and we need to be, as they were, obediently opposing those forces.

It might look like we’re evil in our culture/society’s sight. They may call us evil, but remember the words of Paul in Galatians 5:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law

Galatians 5:22-23 NASB

Our response to this evil and perverse generation is one of love, not anger. Paul was followed about by a slave-girl possessed by a spirit of divination in Philippi. He wasn’t angry with her, and he didn’t fight her or abuse her. He was worn out after many days, and cast out the demon (Acts 16:16-18). In the same way, we need to address our attacks to the spiritual forces of darkness, and not at the people.

Notice the serpent of Aaron’s staff didn’t attack Pharaoh or his servants. It attacked and consumed the other staffs, the expressions of power of those in rebellious opposition to Yahweh. But Pharaoh doesn’t get it, not yet. And many of those who oppose us will not get it either. Even when we address our attacks against the spiritual forces rather than the people, we will still not get the appreciation or understanding of people.

We, like Moses and Aaron, like Paul and Silas, like Stephen, and like our Savior, Jesus, cannot allow the praise of others to direct our actions. I need this lesson as much as, if not more than, anyone. Because it’s easy to let the praise of others become our measure of success. It’s hard to be misunderstood, and not rail against it. And yet, there is no real victory, no lasting peace, unless we follow in the path of our Savior and His servants ahead of us. It is truly a narrow way.

A Basket Full of Leftovers

Writing is often fun, but it can also be difficult. One reason for this is that, while the story is exciting in the mind of the author, the reader remains the final judge. There is an inescapable pull on the author to write for the audience, to write to be accepted by others rather than write as inspired from within. On the other hand, such is life for everyone.

Ascribing the authorship of Exodus to Moses poses some problems. Some claim that it is improbable that writing would have been common enough in that period, but that’s nonsense. Moses, having been raised in Pharaoh’s court was educated. If anyone could have had the necessary skills, it would have been him. But the problems with the text itself are not so easily dismissed.

For instance, chapter 6 of Exodus is chaotic. This chapter simply looks like a jumbled mess of story snippets. Because of this, it’s not easy to see how a writer of a narrative would narrate such a choppy story. Read the chapter for yourself, and see if you can follow the story through.

If you took a second to read the chapter, hopefully you were able to spot the breaks. If not, look at one example below:

Now the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Go, tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the sons of Israel go out of his land.” But Moses spoke before the LORD, saying, “Behold, the sons of Israel have not listened to me; how then will Pharaoh listen to me, for I am unskilled in speech?” Then the LORD spoke to Moses and to Aaron, and gave them a charge to the sons of Israel and to Pharaoh king of Egypt, to bring the sons of Israel out of the land of Egypt.

Exodus 6:10-13 NASB

Do you see it? How does the last sentence fit with the previous ones? Keep in mind that “then” doesn’t occur in Hebrew, but is the translator’s choice for a coordinating conjunction (“and”). It makes more sense in English, but isn’t what is written. So, basically, Moses complains, again, claiming he has uncircumcised lips, and God ignores him, speaking to Moses and Aaron charging them to bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt.

The thing is, it’s such an abrupt disconnect, it looks like it belongs somewhere else, rather than in response to Moses’ complaint. If you don’t agree, read 6:30 and continue to 7:2. That makes more sense as a response. Ironically, Moses’ protest in 6:30 is exactly the same as in 6:12, he has uncircumcised lips. So, later on in the same chapter we have the same protest but with a different response by Yahweh.

Here’s another issue, even if you don’t agree that 13 is disconnected from 10-12. Those verses still repeat, in a summary fashion, the entirety of chapter 3, and the first part of 4. To a lessor degree, to the extent Yahweh sends Moses to Israel, verses 2 through 9 also repeat chapters 3 through the first part of 4. For the record, verses 6:28 through 7:7 also repeat the call of Moses and his complaint.

As if all this repetition weren’t disruptive enough to the narrative flow, then we have the abbreviated genealogy stuffed in there. That belongs at the beginning, chapter 2 for instance would be a perfect place for it. But, right in between two repeats of previous material, we have a portion of the genealogy of Israel’s sons, at least the first 3, mostly the third.

These are the heads of their fathers’ households. The sons of Reuben, Israel’s firstborn: Hanoch and Pallu, Hezron and Carmi; these are the families of Reuben. The sons of Simeon: Jemuel and Jamin and Ohad and Jachin and Zohar and Shaul the son of a Canaanite woman; these are the families of Simeon. These are the names of the sons of Levi according to their generations: Gershon and Kohath and Merari; and the length of Levi’s life was one hundred and thirty-seven years.

Exodus 6:14-16 NASB

This portion is fine, but the succeeding detail of Levi’s descendants deviates from the format here, and none of the other children of Israel are detailed in any fashion. It’s clear that this portion of the genealogy of Israel’s sons is to lead us to Moses and Aaron. It’s an introduction, but in the midst of their ongoing work for Yahweh, not at the beginning where we would expect. It’s weird. And it disrupts the flow of the narrative.

So, what’s going on? Why the breaks? Why the repetition? Why would an educated, intelligent writer write such a choppy, broken, confusingly repetitive story? No one knows why, at least no human alive now. A better question is, what’s the point of the condition it’s in now? Regardless of whether Moses sat down and wrote this in a single sitting, or whether he pieced together several versions of the story he told at different times, or whether someone later compiled the various accounts Moses left behind, what we have is inspired by the Spirit of our Creator. What we have is what our Savior wants us to know now.

So, what is Yahweh saying through what we have in this form we have it? What is the point of the repetition? What is the point of the genealogy in the middle rather than the beginning? What is the point contained in this jumbled mess of narrative bits and pieces?

To answer this question, you can take several different paths to analyze the chapter. The problem with any of them is that the chapter and verse breaks are in the wrong place to do this. Work through it some time, but ignore the chapter breaks, at least into chapter 7. When you do, hopefully you’ll be able to see a point emerge and clarify.

I found, after I sifted through the pieces, but kept their order, that Yahweh was working very patiently with both Moses and the sons of Israel. But I also saw that these people were normal people, with histories, families, weaknesses, and struggling under the confusion of the messages. Yahweh sends His message through some oddball and his brother, a message that this God who has ignored their plight for so long will now defeat the most powerful empire on earth. That’s not how it looked from the mud-brick work gangs. At the end of day, they had little or no energy to contemplate their deliverance or even the God who promised it.

And what about that oddball and his brother? How many times does he have to be given the same message? How often will Yahweh put up with the same complaint about his lips? A lot, it seems. How often will I fail, and be forgiven? How often will you fall on your face, and yet have your Savior lift you up? How long will our Savior allow us to “finally get it” before He wipes us out? It seems that He allows a lot. And yet He draws us to Himself. And He calls us to be a peculiar people, special to Him from among all the peoples of the world. And yet, we are still made up of those frustrating boneheaded people He called out of Egypt.

Consider the grace and mercies of God for a moment. This is the context of Paul’s point in Romans 9 through 11, this strange mercy of God that endures with such patience a rebellious people. And yet, in the midst of their rebellion, He also calls in those who were far off, you and I. He calls us and adopts us as well, all the while waiting patiently for His chosen ones to return to Him. We have been shown mercy apart from Israel, but that day will one day close, and the remnant of His own will return to Him.

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:1-2 NASB

This is our response as Gentiles, as outsiders grafted in while God works patiently with His wayward people. Because He works patiently with us as well. Even while we benefit from the rebelliousness of Israel, we also learn from God’s work with them how He works with us. The point of the strange basket of leftover narrative parts found in Exodus 6 is that our Savior is patient, He is gracious to rebellious and weak people. There’s hope for us, those to whom He must repeat lessons over and over. There’s room for us, those too tired to look up and pray, to raise our hands in praise, or kneel without falling asleep. We are all called to gather at the throne of Jesus.

So, calling all oddballs and their brothers. Calling all tired and weary ones, burdened with how far they are from their Creator. Calling all of those who fail to understand after the first 60 repeats of the same lesson. Our Savior calls, and who will answer? Let us be transformed. It is time.