May 14, 2017
Cover Photo: Angela Yarber, Holy Women Icons
After Joseph, his brothers, and everyone else in that generation had died, the people of Israel became so numerous that the whole region of Goshen was full of them. Many years later a new king came to power. He did not know what Joseph had done for Egypt, and he told the Egyptians:
“There are too many of those Israelites in our country, and they are becoming more powerful than we are. If we don’t outsmart them, their families will keep growing larger. And if our country goes to war, they could easily fight on the side of our enemies and escape from Egypt.”
The Egyptians put slave bosses in charge of the people of Israel and tried to wear them down with hard work. Those bosses forced them to build the cities of Pithom and Rameses, where the king could store his supplies. But even though the Israelites were mistreated, their families grew larger, and they took over more land. Because of this, the Egyptians hated them worse than before and made them work so hard that their lives were miserable. The Egyptians were cruel to the people of Israel and forced them to make bricks and to mix mortar and to work in the fields.
Finally, the king called in Shiphrah and Puah, the two women who helped the Hebrew mothers when they gave birth. He told them, “If a Hebrew woman gives birth to a girl, let the child live. If the baby is a boy, kill him!”
But the two women were faithful to God and did not kill the boys, even though the king had told them to. The king called them in again and asked, “Why are you letting those baby boys live?”
They answered, “Hebrew women have their babies much quicker than Egyptian women. By the time we arrive, their babies are already born.” God was good to the two women because they truly respected him, and he blessed them with children of their own.
Is Love Maya Angelou
Midwives and winding sheets
know birthing is hard
and dying is mean
and living’s a trial in between.
Why do we journey, muttering
like rumors among the stars?
Is a dimension lost?
Is it love?
Miriam the sister of Aaron was a prophet. So she took her tambourine and led the other women out to play their tambourines and to dance. Then she sang to them:
“Sing praises to Yahweh
for [the] great victory!
Yahweh has thrown the horses
and their riders into the sea.”
Miriam: The Red Sea Muriel Rukeyser
High above shores and times,
I on the shore forever and ever.
Moses my brother has crossed over
to milk, honey, that holy land.
I sing forever on the seashore.
I do remember horseman and horses,
waves of passage poured into war,
all poured into journey.
My unseen brothers have gone over;
chariots deep seas under.
I alone stand here ankle-deep
and I sing, I sing,
until the lands sing to each other
“My mother was a high priestess, my father I knew not. The brothers of my father loved the hills. My city is Azupiranu, which is situated on the banks of the Euphrates. My high priestess mother conceived me, in secret she bore me. She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen she sealed my lid. She cast me into the river which rose over me. The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the drawer of water. Akki, the drawer of water, took me as his son and reared me. Akki, the drawer of water, appointed me as his gardener. While I was a gardener, Ishtar granted me her love, and for four and … years I exercised kingship.”
That is the legend of the birth of Sargon the Great, the Assyrian king. This legend was found in the Library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh, Assyria, near Mosul in Iraq along with thousands of clay tablets from the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. The epic of Gilgamesh is also housed in this collection. The library was discovered in 1849. Most of the collection was taken to England and placed in the British Museum.
The birth of baby Moses, who is also born in secret, placed in a basket of rushes sealed by bitumen, set afloat in the river, discovered and raised in Pharoah’s house, has enchanting parallels with the birth of Sargon. Even the detail of the names, Moses and Akki both mean “drawing out of the water.”
These storytellers who drafted the stories of the Bible had a rich store of legends and myths to draw upon as they created the saga of the Hebrew people. We find many parallels in the Bible with the myths and legends of the Ancient Near East: The Eneuma Elish and the creation account of Genesis chapter one, the Epic of Gilgamesh and Noah’s flood, the Sumerian story of the shepherd and the farmer and Cain and Abel, and the birth stories of Sargon and Moses.
One story builds upon another. Baby Moses is also the precursor for baby Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. In the Jesus story, Herod is the new Pharaoh who wants all the babies boys killed, but Divine Providence thwarts Herod’s and Pharoah’s evil plans and heroes, Moses and Jesus, are born to save the people.
Knowing the parallels helps us not fall into a trap of thinking the biblical stories were actual events on one hand, that they are narrative creations. Even more interesting, is how the biblical storytellers took these various myths and legends and shaped them into their own founding myths. I think that is a task for all of us today. We aren’t imprisoned by the myths of old but they are resources from which to draw and create our own.
The understanding of the Bible has changed 180 degrees from say 200 years ago. It used to be understood that the Bible was the story of creation, human origins, and history and was accurate unless proven wrong. Now it is seen by scholarship as having little or no connection to actual events. There is no outside affirmation of biblical events or characters through archaeology or other texts until we get to Solomon. Even that is sparse.
That doesn’t mean that it is all fiction, that none of it happened. It is just that the burden of proof has shifted. That means churches and synagogues have the task of reflection on how these stories are to be approached, valued, and used. The Bible is not authoritative because it is historically accurate or objectively true. If it is to have authority, that authority must come from somewhere else. That “somewhere else” is us. It is up to us to make that decision as to how or why the Bible will have value for us or not.
I personally have found this liberating. The Bible is what it is. It many ways, it is barbaric. The god it depicts, Yahweh, can be a nightmare. I am happy Yahweh didn’t choose me to make a deal. Yet at the same time, there is a resonance between its longings and its frustrations and ours.
Liberation is today’s theme.
We last left our tribe in Egypt with Jacob, his daughter, Dinah, twelve sons and 70 grandchildren. And they were doing fine until they took literally the command given by Yahweh to Adam and Eve, “to be fruitful and multiply.” They became so fruitful that they were considered a “demographic threat” to the Egyptians. The Egyptians feared that the Hebrews would become so numerous that they would shift the balance of power and ally with Egypt’s enemies.
Pharaoh did what all paranoid leaders of regimes do, he initiated a first strike and enslaved and oppressed the Hebrews. They were forced to make bricks and build the great Egyptian cities. Surprisingly, the harder they were oppressed the more children they had.
So Pharaoh called the midwives, Shiprah and Puah, and told them to kill the male babies. That didn’t sit well with Shiprah and Puah, so they engaged in civil disobedience. They did the shuck and jive, they didn’t do what Pharaoh required and then lied to him.
“The Hebrew women have babies too darn fast. They pop them out before we get there!”
Yahweh liked the midwives and opened their wombs so they had many children of their own. Blessed be the fruit.
Pharoah initiates plan B. Send out the riot cops, go house to house and drown all the male babies in the Nile. The Hebrews have to hide their babies if they are going to survive. One couple hides her baby in a basket covered with pitch and floats him in the Nile. His older sister watches.
Pharoah’s daughter finds him. His quick thinking sister says,
“Hey I know of a nurse maid. She is exactly what you need!”
So his sister gets his mother and she comes to Pharoah’s house to nurse her own son on behalf of Pharoah’s daughter. Pharoah’s daughter gives him an Egyptian name, Moses, which means “draw out.”
Moses grows up in Pharoah’s house and sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. Moses kills the Egyptian and realizes he has to run away. He settles in Midan and finds a bride.
Enter Yahweh. Yahweh hears the cries of the enslaved Hebrews. He confronts Moses in a bush that is on fire but not consumed. Yahweh tells Moses that he will liberate the Hebrew people and Moses is going to make it happen.
Well, Moses does go back to Egypt with his brother Aaron and they confront Pharaoh:
“Let my people go!”
But Yahweh hardens Pharaoh’s heart. This is a troubling notion for modern readers. Yahweh causes Pharaoh to say, “No” so that Yahweh can send all kinds of plagues, bloody rivers, frogs, gnats, dead animals, darkness, lice, boils, and finally the death of the first born son of not only all humans but the first born male of animals, too.
Why? Because Yahweh wants the world to know that Yahweh is boss. Everyone will remember Yahweh’s name.
Pharaoh does say “No” every time until the last plague, the death of his son. The Hebrew people were saved from Pharoah’s fate because they put blood on their doorposts. So they escape with a lot of booty and make it to the Red Sea or Yam Suf.
Yahweh to make things interesting, again hardens Pharoah’s heart, so Pharaoh sends out the troops. At the last second,Yahweh makes a miraculous crossing of the sea for the Hebrew people. Pharoah’s army is drowned. Payback for Pharoah’s drowning the Hebrew babies, it seems.
Moses’s sister, Miriam, leads the women with their tambourines to dance:
Sing praises to Yahweh,
for Yahweh’s great victory!
Yahweh has thrown the horses
and their riders into the sea.
This is the central text of the Torah. The dance of liberation. Yahweh takes sides. This story has provided the spiritual energy for the survival of the oppressed and for many liberation movements throughout history, including the surviving the terror of American slavery.
This liberation saga is the meaning of Passover or Festival of the Thin Bread that is celebrated by Jews today. It is the most important commemoration for Jews. It is also the basis for the Jesus saga. The death and resurrection mythology of Jesus, the story set at Passover, can be seen as an expansion of this story of liberation. Both stories are the promises of bondage to freedom, death to life, despair to hope, and the victory of the people over the tyranny of empire.
While these stories are told in the style of miracle and legend, they are nonetheless, in my viewpoint, true in that they tell the truth about the reality of oppression and promise of liberation, a promise that must be not only trusted but enacted.
Shiprah and Puah represent courageous and cagey civil disobedience. Some laws need to be disobeyed. The hardening of Pharoah’s heart, regardless of Yahweh’s role in it, tells the truth that the oppressors never, ever, give up power voluntarily. You cannot simply request liberation. It must be taken. Resistance must be persistent. You have to have the stomach for it.
As the plagues increased on Pharaoh, so did his oppression of Hebrews. They had to make the same number of bricks without straw. The violence increased. The Hebrews complained to Moses that he should just leave them alone, don’t rock the boat.
Liberation is costly. We must ask ourselves always, are we willing to pay the cost or will we simply say it is too much work, or it doesn’t matter that much, or oppression really isn’t that bad?
Even after liberation, the Hebrew people complain to Moses that at least they had food in Egypt. They will starve in the desert, they fear. Liberation is only part of the story. The hard part at times is learning how to live with a new freedom, new agency, new choices that are ours to make and not made for us.
Those are just a couple of lessons I picked up by reading this story.
The rest of Exodus is about another covenant, the Mosaic Covenant.
The Hebrews are led by Yahweh to Mount Sinai or Mount Horeb depending upon the author. While at the mountain Yahweh delivers the rules to the people in person. Yahweh booms it out from the mountain.
Then over the course of several chapters, Yahweh writes them on two flat stone tablets for Moses to bring to the people. The major commandment is no other deity but Yahweh. Yahweh definitely does not share. Yahweh always wants credit.
There is the story of the golden calf. Neither Yahweh or Moses is pleased about that. A lot of killing, and disease and death results from that. Again, the lesson, don’t be messing with Yahweh by flirting with other gods or their symbols.
The covenant that is made with the people through Moses is both particular and conditional. The Ten Commandments and the other rules were for a particular people, the Hebrew people not everyone, and it is conditioned on the people’s obedience. The promise is that Yahweh will protect the people, give them land, and defeat their enemies for them, if they obey. If not, then Yahweh will let their enemies destroy them. There is a lot to obey. The primary commandment is “no other gods.”
There are other rules: Keeping the Sabbath. Keeping three festivals: Passover, Pentecost, and Harvest. Justice issues regarding murder and property, as well as ironically, how to treat slaves. There will be more to come when we get to Leviticus. But these laws in Exodus were inscribed on the tablets.
Here is a question. Where do we put the tablets?
Yahweh has a plan. You build this box for the tablets. You carry the box with poles. You make some other impressive stuff, too, like a 75 pound golden menorah. Add a bronze bowl and a table for sacrifices. You make a big fancy tent with pricey materials. You make cool robes for Aaron the priest that has dangling pomegranates and bells so Yahweh can hear him coming when he enters the tent. In the end a nice, yet expensive, portable tiny house for Yahweh.
It is fun reading these stories of Yahweh. At once, the creator of the universe, who knows everything and the other hand, a jealous old man who likes to smell cooked meat and be surrounded by nice things.
Finally, they get it done. And they do a good job. The people contribute more than what was needed for the task, definitely learning their lesson from the golden calf incident. Yahweh is happy. Because if Yahweh ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.
The Book of Exodus ends with Yahweh entering the tent. You know that because his presence is signified by a cloud. Moses hangs out in there with him and Yahweh gives him more rules to deliver to the people. When it is time to move, the cloud leaves the tent and everyone packs up and follows the cloud.
The Book of Exodus ends as Genesis begins. Yahweh is finally intimate and close with Yahweh’s people. Once Yahweh walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day in the garden. Now Yahweh lives among them in his tent and personally leads them to the land of promise.
When we read the story of the Torah and the rest the the Bible, we have been taught that Yahweh is always right and that the people were wrong to disobey. Since I grew up in church, that was how the story was presented. No matter what Yahweh or God does, Yahweh or God is always right.
Do we read the story that way still? I like the story of liberation. I like the story of how after liberation the people have to figure out who they are and how they will live together.
Do I like Yahweh? Not so much.
Is the story really about Yahweh or is Yahweh an extra, perhaps a necessary extra at the time, but now, not so much?
If Yahweh fades like the smile of the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, what replaces Yahweh as we create our own saga of who we are and where we are going?
I will leave that there until next week.
Meanwhile I will dance with Miriam.