The Exodus Didn’t Happen, and Why That Doesn’t Matter

Bible_UnearthedA lot of times, it seems progressive Christians get caught between two sides each screaming pronouncements at each other.

On the one hand, there are the conservatives, with their line drawing and their hard-and-fast pronouncements: The Bible is inerrant! Evolution is a lie! You’re probably going to hell!

On the other, there are the liberals, no less enamored with their own lines and declarations: The resurrection didn’t happen! Jesus wasn’t really divine!

Progressives share a lot in common with liberals – certainly more than conservatives – but are a little leery with the hollowing out of the faith that seems to occur over there, just as progressives are leery with the view of God that seems to govern the inflexible fundamentalism of the conservative camp.

So we sit in the middle, and when someone asks us a question, we tend to step aside.

“Well, that’s not the right question …” or, “It depends how you look at it,” or, “Each of us is going to have a different answer based on our own biases and experiences.”

I find myself doing this quite a bit. A friend asked me a couple of weeks ago whether I thought Israel’s exodus from Egypt – not an unimportant part of the Bible, as you may know – actually happened. And my answer began with something like, “Well, you never know for sure,” or something like that. After all, anything can happen, right? Progressives may not be sure about miracles, but we’re not really comfortable ruling them out definitively. Maybe the exodus did happen. Maybe hundreds of thousands of men, women and children spent 40 years in the fairly small space of the Sinai Peninsula and didn’t leave a single archaeological trace of their presence. Who knows, right?

Here’s the problem, though: The exodus didn’t happen.

If any other purported event – i.e., one that wasn’t recorded in the Bible – was supported by exactly zero evidence, and in fact contradicted by whatever evidence did exist, we would say it didn’t happen. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being sensitive to the faith and feelings of those who might not be ready to handle the significant lack of historical accuracy in much, if not all, of the Old Testament, but if you’re here reading this, you’re probably OK with handling some hard things, so let’s talk about why the exodus didn’t happen – and why that’s not really a problem.

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Why Your Great-Grandchildren Are (Probably) Safe from God’s Wrath

“The Lord! The Lord!   a God who is compassionate and merciful,
very patient,
full of great loyalty and faithfulness,
showing great loyalty to a thousand generations,
forgiving every kind of sin and rebellion,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
punishing for their parents’ sins
their children and their grandchildren,
as well as the third and the fourth generation.

— Exodus 34:6-7

golden_calf

Walter Brueggemann contends this is an ancient credo, the earliest formulation of a particular attempt by Israel to outline the properties of Yahweh. It occurs within a perilous context, right after the story of the golden calf, when Moses argues with Yahweh, trying to convince him not to destroy Israel for its idolatry at the base of Mount Sinai. This passage in particular comes during the sequence in which Moses asks Yahweh to reveal himself to him, and Moses must hide in a rock while Yahweh passes by and shows him his back.

There’s an uncomfortable tension in this passage, isn’t there? On the one hand, Yahweh is “slow to anger” – Brueggemann says this phrase literally is entertainingly translated “has long nostrils” that apparently allow plenty of time for the anger to subside before it comes snorting out – and full of forgiveness. On the other, he is somewhat vengeful, “visiting the iniquity of the parents” on as many as four generations of innocent children.

We had some lengthy conversations about this in class yesterday, and it’s striking how much we westerners want to reconcile this apparent contradiction. My classmates wanted to water down the meaning of “vengeance” or argue that what appear to be contradictions are actually the result of changing contexts or argue that love requires, not precludes, discipline. Certainly these last two points are true; I don’t know anyone who argues otherwise. But I don’t see them as applicable here. The context is the same, as these are two halves of the same credo, and lovingly disciplining a person for an offense is different than disciplining his great-grandchildren for it.

Now these two halves are not placed in equal balance against each other. Yahweh’s love endures 1,000 generations, his vengeance only four. That’s important to understand. Even so, it’s difficult if not impossible to reconcile “merciful and gracious” with “visiting the iniquity upon the children.”

I’d argue Israel recognized this, too. Which is why the second half of this phrase is almost immediately jettisoned from the rest of the nation’s testimony about Yahweh as presented in the Old Testament.

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Our Postmodern God

This post is a response to Tony Jones’ call for progressive theological bloggers to write a post about God. So here goes …

That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.

– The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

It’s struck me lately that the best way to think of God is to compare him to an elephant.

Specifically, I think of God like the elephant in the old South Asian tale of the blind men who each grab hold of a piece of him and describe the animal they think they have. One has the trunk and thinks he’s holding a snake; another has an ear and thinks he’s holding a fan, etc. Each of them is attempting to accurately describe what they know, and some do a better job than others, but none of them is exactly right – indeed, being exactly right would have been impossible if they had never seen or felt a whole elephant before.

Which is why I call God postmodern and why it would serve the church well to stop running in fear from the notion of postmodernism. Perhaps no era in the history of the world better suits the God we worship than the one that openly and completely questions the ability for anyone to fully grasp and explain truth.

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These Books Will Change Your Life! (Or, More Important, Your Faith)

Apologies once again for the light posting last week. The family was out of town, which meant late nights for me and the consequent late mornings, as well.

But last week also featured the semiannual – or a little more often – tradition for us grad schoolers: The Ordering of the Textbooks. I’m not sure if anyone else gets as excited as I do about ordering textbooks, but let’s just say it’s definitely a highlight in my year. “You mean I have to order these books about a subject in which I am intensely interested? Well, if you insist …”

I’ve now been in graduate school for a year. A lot has changed in those 12 months, and a lot of it has been because of the books assigned by my professors. Some of the best, most challenging, most worldview-changing have been: Continue reading

Why Don’t Christians Support Polygamy?

The question might seem to have an obvious answer, but I’m not so sure.

I was having a little Facebook discussion about homosexuality and, typically for me, pushing back against some folks’ notion of a completely inerrant, universally applicable Bible that unequivocally condemns homosexuality as we know it today. If by now you haven’t figured out I don’t think the Bible is inerrant as evangelicals use the term, nor do I think all parts of it are universally applicable (and neither does anyone else, even if they say they do), nor do I think we can so easily draw a straight line from “homosexuality” as used in the Bible and the kind practiced and debated today.

Nevertheless, over the course of the discussion, someone threw out the template argument. I would call it the third leg of the stool used to support Christian opposition to same-sex intimacy (I try to avoid using the “h-word” in this context because some Christians, after all, have moderated on scientific grounds to allow for people being gay and celibate, which means they are not opposed to homosexuality as an orientation, just acting on those same-sex attractions).

These are the three legs:

  1. Leviticus – Yes, this is still used as an argument despite its obvious weaknesses.
  2. Romans – A much stronger argument, though in my opinion the passage is heavily culturally conditioned, evidenced by Paul’s Stoic-influenced appeal to the “natural” and “unnatural” and the fact that homosexual behavior is not the sin he’s condemning but rather the consequence of the true sin of idolatry.
  3. The Template – This is the argument that the creation story of Genesis 2:4b-3 serves as a template for God’s ideal relationship. Its arguers then use Jesus’ citation of it in a completely different context to counter the notion that he never said anything about same-sex relationships.

You could add the vice lists to these arguments, but they seem to fall in the same area as No. 2, only with less detail or certainty as to what Paul is actually discussing.

Here’s the thing, though. As weak as they are regard, none of these arguments even applies to polygamy. Continue reading

Are Children Evil?

It occurred to me while reading back over yesterday’s post that my former self would have responded much differently to that set of Puritan descriptions for how we should raise our children. As you might recall, Tamar Moag described the Puritans’ use of language as a clue to why they felt corporal punishment was necessary:

the recurrent use of words such as ‘stubborn’ and ‘rebellious’ to describe children’s nature, and words such as ‘conquer’, ‘subdue’, ‘obedience’, and ‘repress’ to describe the parental role. A 1732 letter by Susanna Wesley to her son John offers an instance of this type of writing: ‘When a child is corrected it must be conquered, and this will be no hard matter to do’.

Why do those words strike me so differently today than they would have 10-15 years ago? Some of it is having children. I really enjoy my kids. They’re not perfect, by any means, and, yes, they can certainly be stubborn and rebellious – our older daughter just went to time out as I’m typing this – but I don’t think they need to be conquered, subdued or repressed.

Words like that strike me as a natural outgrowth of original sin theology. If we are born with a “sin nature” genetically inherited from Adam and Eve, then that kind of phrasing is understandable. We have to admit it’s technically accurate, even if uncomfortable to see expressed.

But I think we need a new theology because that one doesn’t make sense. The text of Genesis 1-3 doesn’t support it.

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Beginning the Academic Journey

A little more blog housekeeping today. You’ll notice at the top of the page, next to “Home” and “About the Blog,” is a new page called “Smartypants Stuff.” That page has links to papers I’ve written for grad school. I try only to write about the things I’m interested in, so I hope that makes them interesting enough to read.

I might talk more about these subjects in depth later, but if you have spare time and nothing better to do (like dental work or a few hours of accounting), you can check them out. They are:

  • It’s All About Sex” – This is the paper about which I posted yesterday, comparing the parallels between the Epic of Gilgamesh and Genesis 2–3 and what that means for how we interpret the Garden of Eden narrative.
  • Bloody Bridegrooms and Angry Deities” – Another short paper (we were only allowed to do 2-3 pages for these first two), this one about the crazy story in Exodus 4, in which God – after calling Moses to help free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt – then tries to kill him! Specifically, we were supposed to take two forms of critical scholarship and compare/contrast how their respective methods would treat the text.
  • Tattoos, Sexuality and Holiness” – The big semester-end Old Testament exegesis paper. I chose Leviticus 18, particularly because of my interest in what the Bible does and doesn’t say about homosexuality, especially homosexuality as it’s practiced today (i.e., monogamous and consensual). The paper essentially argues that the Holiness Code of this chapter and its companion, chapter 20, is so screwy that it was never intended to be followed literally, and that we need to look deeper for how its use was intended.

Another smartypants thing that I’ve already posted is the text of the midterm paper we wrote. The prompt was essentially to argue why we should study the Old Testament, with paragraphs devoted to specific elements of what we’d covered in class to that point.

If you note these papers all seem to be tied in some way to sexuality, you’re very perceptive. I’m interested in how the Bible treats the subject of sex, in large part because I think Christians have gotten it badly wrong over the years, and that the better we can figure out how to discuss it, the healthier we all will be – especially our children.

I’m posting this because on the one hand I think maybe someone will enjoy it or find it useful in their own faith journey, and on the other because I started this blog so my friends could follow my trip through grad school, and I know at least one or two of them are just as nerdy as I am and will actually enjoy reading these for the content they contain. Whatever category you fall into, I hope you find them constructive and edifying.