"laestadian, apostolic, gay, lgbtq, ex-oalc, ex-llc, llc, oalc, bunner" LEARNING TO LIVE FREE: Exploring Biblical Truth and the Exodus

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Exploring Biblical Truth and the Exodus

"Both read the Bible day and night, but thou read black where I read white." William Blake

First, I want to encourage any of you interested in the future of our society to read "The Spirit of Disobedience" by Curtis White in this months' Harper's Magazine. He draws on the tradition of Thoreau in calling us to "live Christ." I found it a powerful and disturbing essay, and am challenged to rethink my life.

Second, under Tipping Points there rose an interesting thread regarding the credibility of the Exodus/Passover, in which God is described as killing firsborn Eygyptian sons. "M" disagrees with my skepticism. I'm no Bible expert, but I'd like to explore the topic further and invite you all to join in.

The story was written down nearly 300 years after the events were supposed to have happened. That means it was shared in oral tradition for 12-14 generations before being written down. Remember the "telephone game"? One person whispers a phrase to another who whispers it to another and so on. Even getting the same words through five people is difficult. So what really happened and what was recorded, after 300 years of deletions and embellishments, are certainly different (unless you believe, a priori, that God predetermined all that, but there is no point in talking after such a premise, as ANYthing can happen and be attributed to God.)
There is no physical evidence that the Exodus happened and much to suggest that it couldn't have, at least as told (the Red Sea would not have been en route, for example). But the very fact that this minority sect survived its many trials is remarkable. Huston Smith suggests that the Jews told this story out of just the kind of gratitude and humility that "M" expresses in her post. That they had survived seemed miraculous, and only Divine intervention could account for it. The story then served as a "founding myth," subject to the same kind of exaggeration and symbolizing we find in the founding myths of our own nation. Like all good stories, it has great characters, tension, and resolution.

In exploring the details of the story, Shelby Spong finds the killing of not only the firstborns sons but also the firstborn of the flocks "strange behavior for an evil human being . . . how much more evil would that be for God to do it?" The blood of the Paschal Lamb on the doorposts (I seem to remember Laestadius being quite vivid in his exegesis, perhaps because it resonated with Lappish rituals!) now seems, in context of the day, cultish magic.

But to the prescientific mind, magic gave logic to mysteries: plagues, floods, locusts, tempests, earthquakes, etc. were sent by God as rewards or punishments. Other than a few holdouts (i.e., Pat Robertson on Katrina), we no longer view weather or disease that way.

Aside from Biblical scholarship and others' points of view, I have to ask myself, what does this story mean to me today, a postmodern person in the 21st century? My mind cannot accept it as literally true. My experiences do not accord with the vision of God as violent and vindictive. Yet in its arc I find human suffering and yearning, deep gratitude and humility before the Great Mystery. This I recognize. This resonates. Here I find its truth.


  1. from oven mitt
    (I couldn't figure out the inteface.)

    For me, holy writ is like the rest of life: although in principle it is all a manifestation of glory, most of it goes by like the daily commute--one hardly notices it. This is perhaps partly because, even in the modern translations, it's a strange narrative, and because of my background I am always turning my wheels trying to get my mind around it, more or less to this effect: "I WANT to understand this in some meaningful way, but I can't swallow all of it, so what should I suppose this MEANS?"
    [MY BACKGROUND: It is my wife who is the former Laestadian and who introduced me to this site; I was raised by ardent secularist parents and influenced by family friends who practiced Zen.]
    So, when reading the bible, I go through pages wondering "What is this getting at?" or thinking "Here is another of those passages that offer me a deal: I believe in this and I get 'eternal life'; I don't believe and I get thrown into a supernatural Abu Graib." (Does it ever strike any of you as a little selfish or egocentric to focus on a pleasant afterlife for oneself? It seems like a craven appeal to fear and selfserving. I can't see it as what Christ had in mind.)
    But there are places in scripture--or moments in our reading or listening--when something grabs us. After the moment (say, we want to share the moment with someone else), we may find something to say about the passage to explain our experience; in this manner, intellectualization inevitably enters, and no harm done. But the actual moment we were grabbed, and the actual effect on us--not our explanation--is what matters. Another way to say this is that it is the power of story that matters. In holy scripture someone (say, God, say the Hebrews, Christ, or the early Christians) is trying to tell us something through story or poetry.
    As for Exodus, I agree with Spong that the plagues seem ignoble, but I don't think anyone will be surprised if I say the Red Sea parting is rather grand. I like it. Why? (This is where the intellectualism comes in.) I like it because it seems to show that in the face of horrible difficulties, even inevitable disaster, there is divine support or succor. You have to do something subject to certain or almost certain failure? (Like crossing the Red Sea without a boat?) Trust in God. There will be an opening. You will succeed. Will the sea divide so you can walk on the dry bottom? No. But that's what happens in the story. But that's a story, meant to illustrate a spiritual truth. So, in what will my success consist, if I can't walk across and the sea consumes me? I can't tell you; maybe simply a calm and brave death, which would be some consolation if you are walking into the sea for the benefit of another, as soldiers, firefighters, and mothers sometimes do. In such a case, virtue would be its own reward. You want more? Then listen to these words of the Sufi poet Jalalludin Rumi:
    If you want what visible reality can give, you’re an employee.
    If you want the unseen world, you’re not living your truth.
    Both wishes are foolish, but you’ll be forgiven for forgetting that
    what you really want is love’s confusing joy.

  2. Many Trails Home3/23/2006 04:27:00 PM

    RE: Exodus. What "God" would also kill the firstborn of the poor slave women? What "sin" did they commit?
    And here is a different look at Joseph, from the standpoint of the independent Egyptian farmers: Joseph became counselor to Pharoah and predicted famines, recommending that Pharoah buy up all the surplus and stash it away in big storehouses, which we are told he did. When the famines hit, Pharoah used his "wealth" in grain to force the destitute farmers to sell him their land, livestock, and everything they had, and they all became in effect serfs or slaves. So Joseph was in great favor with Pharoah because he increased his wealth and power enormously. How do you like THAT version of the story! Closer to the truth, I suspect, and not good news to the average Egyptian. MTH

  3. There is archaelogical evidence of a Pharaoh about the time of the Exodus whose firstborn son died an early death. This could be the origin of the legend if the loss of the PHaroah's heir became a tribal mourning event for all Egyptians.

  4. Thank you, Oven Mitt. I never thought about the Red Sea parting quite that way. We covered it in Sunday School last fall. The kids loved this story, and loved pretending to be Moses, parting a see of blue streamers I'd hung from the doorway.

    What you said about the "deals" offered in Scripture brought to mind Adler's description of the psyche's need for "significance and belonging."

    The OT emphasizes deals -- rewards and punishments (and a vivid vision of the Scary Parent / Lawgiver). But with Christ "the kingdom of Heaven is within you." He offered, through his message of transcendant love, a present and eternal heaven of significance and belonging.

  5. I have started reading "What Jesus Meant" by Garry Wills. He also wrote "Why I Am a Catholic", so you have some idea now what direction his discussion will take. It will be interesting to see what direction OURS takes.

  6. "He offered through his message
    of transcendant love..........
    ...and belonging"

    My God, Free2b, you are going
    scare off language clodhoppers
    like me these kinds of
    expressions !

    Is what you are saying similar
    to my claim that it is a
    religous experience with a text-
    ure and amplitude the scope of
    which can never be proven to
    another ?

  7. Correction : (with) these kind of

  8. Dear friends,

    it is no wonder the scientific study of the bible (or even theology) is not really encouraged in the sect. If you are interested in how the various stories in the Old Testament came to be, I can recommend you the book "101 Myths of the Bible" by Gary Greenberg. See here: http://ggreenberg.tripod.com/101myths-book.htm

    Greetings from Finland!

  9. Free2b;

    Ok, I admit my tease was a lot
    tougher than yours also with
    the irrelevant question.

    My "caughtya" didn't work!

    I shall now have have to be
    extra vigilant for reprisal.

  10. From LLLreader-Yo Troll,your posts are articulate and clever--so the "clodhopper" stuff just didn't fly. However, on that note, I was talking to a friend the other day who said he would like to post, but doesn't have the writing skills of the regulars on this site. I don't have the spelling skills of the average 10 year old--but, I give it a shot anyway. I told him to just write what he feels--some of the folks on this site have wonderful educations--but that's not what we are about. So, if you are feeling like my friend, just pull up your socks and give a shout out to your fellow travelers.

  11. I would hope that folks wouldn't be intimidated and fail to post good thoughts because they think they can't write well! We're discussing religion and related subjects after all, not grammar! On the other hand I suppose we could all eschew obfuscation...!

    Back to the main topic, I think Oven Mitt and MTH have hit the nail squarely on the head. Discussions about Bible stories have certainly torn a lot of people apart, haven't they? On the one hand we have the fundamentalists that believe every single word of the Bible literally. Those are the folks who believe dinosaurs were a myth perpetuated on the world by the devil, and the passages that confound scientific explanation prove that science is something that should not be studied, thereby making oneself happy! Perhaps that's the twist on Descartes' thinking -- if we think something is not, then it isn't?

    I view the Bible as an inspired document, with the writing and revelation of the content guided by a very wise God. In the Gospels, we find a record that Jesus often spoke in parable, and his meaning was not clear for a good long time. Why should the Old Testament not be the same? We believe that Jesus is, was, and always will be part of the Trinity of God, so why would that selfsame God not have spoken in parable to the earlier generations as well?

    The world continues to develop and evolve as more things are discovered and understood. Along with this, I believe that an all knowing God has buried meanings in the Bible -- and perhaps other texts -- that become apparent when the situation warrants -- when God decides (has decided?) mankind will need and that understanding. Perhaps the vivid example given in stories such as the parting of the Red Sea needed to be couched in those words because that generation of people needed that kind of an example -- whether they understood it to be parable or fact. The bottom line is that they understood the message. Today we are able to look at data that seems to indicate that it probably didn't happen exactly that way, but the meaning of the example is still understandable.

    From my observation, it seems that over history, mankind has been inspired and led by scripture in different ways, and that often our thinking changes as time passes. I don't think that is an indication that anyone is drifting away from the "truth", but rather that we are now allowed to see and achieve a more enlightened and deeper understanding. Did the ark actually sail for 40 days and nights over a word covered in water? Did Moses really strike a rock with his staff and find water? Did Adam and Eve actually live in a Garden of Eden, talk to snakes, and eat an apple? I dunno! Data seems to indicate otherwise, but that doesn't really matter, what matters is that we see an illustration of God's power in battling evil, providing for his people in a time of need, and that mankind is allowed free will to choose to follow God or not follow God.

    As a process improvement geek, I sort of like that kind of thinking -- that God leads the evolution of understanding so that we receive what we need, when we need it, and where we need it! Now I'm proud to be carrying on in his footsteps! OK, that was sort of facetious, but we gotta have some fun, don't we? (If the Lord doesn't have a sense of humor, I'm in deep trouble!)

    I don't think it behooves us decide what is literally true or not true in the Bible. What we do need to try to figure out is what God meant by that story.

  12. Troll, if you want to see a real clodhopper, ask me to nail two boards together. I could no more design a bridge than balance my checkbook, so if I get carried away with language, it's because it's one tool I can usually keep from dropping on my big toe. I often wonder why I got saddled with a big vocabulary and no practical skills, but that is my lot.

    Now if anyone is hesitant to post because we are being too high-toned around here, please be brave and dive in. We don't care about grammar. We want to know what you think. The only rule is: no personal attacks.

    Take advantage of this unique forum to cut loose. Here, you are not only anonymous but you are among pretty fair-minded, tolerant company. Except for Troll, but we keep him around for laughs.

  13. Some good thoughts on this topic from Henry Neufeld:

    "The Bible is not a substitute for the human mind reading it, or the Spirit of Truth guiding that mind. The Bible can provide light. It doesn’t make moral decisions. Pretending it does will only bring trouble."

    One of the biggest problems with the literalists is that they often are not reading the literal _meaning_ of the Bible. They are reading the Bible through their own culture-centric filters, and the message that gets through is often something that the original author would never recognize. The ability of some fundamentalists to accept certain unjust and non-sensical dogmas as the Will of God frightens me.

  14. Has anyone else out there started reading "What Jesus Meant"? Help me out here. I'm finding the author just a little bit irritating and I'm wondering why. I can usually read others' viewpoints and accept that it is just their perspective. But there is something about Wills, maybe because he seems so sure he speaks for Jesus, that grates on me. Anyone else have the same reaction?

  15. Many Trails Home3/27/2006 12:32:00 PM

    Hi Sisu; I had the same reaction you did and gave my book away; couldn't get past the first couple of pages. I guess I think he's smug and self-righteous. But I did absolutely LOVE his "PAPAL SIN." Maybe because it is full of human-level "smut" at the highest levels; I love seeing the clay feet under all that pomp and circumstance. Simplicity and humility uber alles. MTH

  16. I'm now reading Jimmy Carter's book, "Our Endangered Values". Now HERE'S a book we should discuss. He is one of my heroes and has such a gift for writing.

  17. Sisu and MTH, thanks for the warning on "What Jesus Meant," which I ordered from the library but haven't received. Glad I didn't buy it.

    I will pick up a copy of Jimmy Carter's book. He's one of my heroes too.

    Right now I'm reading M. Scott Peck (in the rare stolen moment) and finding a lot to chew on. Thanks for recommending it.

  18. I wanted to take a moment to thank all of you for the wonderful discussions on this site. Myself, like many of you, did not fit in the Apostolic church I was raised in...I guess I thought about things too much, couldn't just be naive and follow some peoples ideas that were often not bible based. The hardest part about letting go? The fellowship. When I go back to my hometown, I see the people from the church, looking at me the way I used to look at the "worldlies". Or, maybe they dont view me that way and I'm just imagining that I'm being judged...
    Thanks for helping me fill the void I was missing, the fellowship. We are not together in person, but I think a lot of us are together in spirit. I always knew their were ex & current laestadians & apostolics that felt the same way I did and I'm so glad we can share our stories.

    May god bless you as you continue on your journey...

  19. Free2b;
    Re;Harpers Article

    I tried 3 places for Harpers
    with no luck. Will try again
    today . Is it only available
    by subscription?

    I am intrigued by the power of
    one magazine article to re-think
    ones life.Can you get into more

    I sense a circling of the wagons
    over one little tease .
    Come on!
    A tease by the way that will
    help others overcome reticence
    about posting.

  20. cvow, Ilmarinen and anonymous above, thanks for your thoughtful posts. Troll, where oh where on earth do you live that there are no Harper's for sale?! (No need to answer that). You can go here to subscribe. One of the things the author asks us to consider is Thoreau's rejection of work (that sacred cow no one -- least of all us Finns -- dare question) as the central purpose of our lives. There's a lot more to the essay than that, though . . . maybe I'll post some of it when I get time.

    Religion is everywhere in the news today, mostly as the last resort of scoundrels. What would happen if we could throw it all out and start from scratch? How would we think about God, love, justice, without history?

  21. I have a book recommendation along this topic: What Rough Beast: Images of God in the Hebrew Bible, by David Penchansky.

    With provocatively titled chapters such as "YHWH the Monster (Genesis 3)", "The Bloody Bridegroom: The Malevolent God (Exodus 4:24-26)" and "The Mad Prophet and the Abusive God (2 Kings 2:23-25) Penchansky's startling thesis is that these texts were written by people of faith bearing witness to their experience of God as "rough, violent, unpredictable, liable to break out against even his most faithful believers without warning." (pp. 1-2)

    This was one of the most upsetting and disturbing books I've ever read, but I think the author is on to something. He presents a dark view of God very different than the God of sweetness and light espoused by many liberals, yet he is not willing to call evil its opposite when the act is attributed to God, as many fundamentalists will do.

    Even if much of Genesis and Exodus is not historical (and I think there is a good case to be made for that view) we're still left with the troubling images of God portrayed in the stories. Penchansky challenges us to "look into the very face of the abyss" with intellectual honesty, courage, and wit.