Posts Tagged ‘moses’

Subtle Contradictions in Scripture (How long did the Exodus plagues take?)

February 17, 2010

Do the plagues contradict each other?

Reference: Exodus 9

Question:

How long was the period of time of the different plagues? It seems that it must have been many years because in one plague God killed all the livestock and then later the livestock had boils.

Answer:

It is difficult to tell exactly how long the Exodus Plagues took.  Thankfully it’s not important at all.  Some students of the Bible might like to go through and count  days, weeks, tomorrows, etc. that are mentioned in Exodus 7 through 11 (e.g. Exodus 7:25).  This rough calculation ends up somewhere in the vicinity of 2 weeks to a month.  But this doesn’t account for larger (unmentioned) time spans that could have occurred between other plagues.  We cannot comment on things that scripture leaves unsaid.   The fact is that the author of Exodus does not tell us how long the process took.  Probably because it doesn’t matter.

But what do we do with the apparent contradiction in this chapter?

In chapter 9, it says that all the livestock of the Egyptians were killed (Exodus 9:6), but later in the same chapter we see that livestock of the Egyptians were subject to other plagues.  The following plague of the boils stuck the “animals” in the land.  It does not say “livestock”, in fact it is a completely different word in the original Hebrew.  Livestock refers to the animals raised for human use.  Animals is a broader term that encompasses all animals.  Thus, we don’t need to jump to the conclusion that livestock had repopulated Egypt in time to be struck with boils.  However, in the subsequent plague, the plague of hail, it alludes to the fact that the Egyptian livestock were subject to the horrible hail storm.  Also, in chapter 14 Pharaoh and his army chase after the Israelites on their horses, so clearly there were livestock still alive in Egypt.  How could there be livestock if they had all been killed in the fifth plague?  What explanation could there be for that?

Well, I could be a smart-alek and point out that God said back in verse 3 of chapter 9 that he would strike down the livestock ‘in the field’. Thus, those livestock that were not outside would not have been affected by the plague against the livestock.  That answer doesn’t sit well with me though.  We should never overlook words and details in scripture, but we should only give them the weight that their communicative intent warrants.   Proof-texting and word-for-word literalizing does the meaning of the text a disservice.  When interpreting scripture, we need to continually ask the question “what is this passage trying to communicate?”.   Exodus is not a historical document like we understand historical documents today.  Thus, even when we read in scripture what we would call contradictions, it does not diminish its truth or its weight for our lives.

This passage is not trying to communicate the subtleties of the plagues, it IS trying to communicate the power of God, the rescue of God, and the glory of God.  We also see the significance of what it means for the will of a man (Pharaoh) to contend with the will of God.  This is a significant theme throughout scripture, and here we see that although God gives us free will, ultimately God will not contend with our disobedience, and he will accomplish his perfect providential will.  In this case, part of that providential will was releasing his people from captivity.  The amount of time that the plagues took, or the appearance of what we might call a contradiction does not change what this passage was meant to say.

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Were Pharaoh’s magicians able to perform real magic?

February 17, 2010

The Plague of Blood: Did the magicians really do these things too?

Reference: Exodus 7:11, 22; 8:7

Question:

In Exodus 7:10+ how can that act of going ‘One On One’ with Moses’ miracles such as the staff turning into a serpent or the staff turning the water to blood, etc… be explained? This wasn’t just 3 Card Monte or slight of the hand tricks. These were huge events that took place.  Yet Pharaoh’s magicians were able to perform them as well.

2 Possible Answers:

Logically there are only two options concerning the magic.  Either these guys were the ancient Egyptian equivalent of David Blane or they had X-men powers.  Either way though, the message communicated stays the same.

Option 1. The magic was a trick:  It is perfectly reasonable to conclude that these men were simply performing amazing tricks.  They may have been students of nature who knew how to manipulate animal behavior for the sake of control or appearance.  Or perhaps they may have been very good at selling people on their tricks.  In the passages listed above it says that Moses performed the action first.  In the plague of blood, the entire Nile River turned to blood by the hand of God first.  So how could the magicians have turned the Nile to blood if it was already turned to blood.  It doesn’t say that they did, it only says that following the actions of Moses and Aaron the magicians turned some nondescript water into blood.  This certainly could have been a trick.  But turning the Nile into blood is nothing short of a horrific sign of God.  Likewise, Aaron and Moses first caused frogs to come up and cover the land.  How then could the magicians prove that they did anything if the land was already covered with frogs.   This again could have been a trick, or a manipulation of Pharaoh, who is the key antagonist in this contest.

Option 2. The magic was real: The only other option is that the Magic was indeed real.  We know from scripture that the world we live in is one in which there is a real spiritual battle going on all around us.  God is the great God of power, but his kingdom on earth was usurped by Satan back in Genesis 3.  That means there are spiritual forces, with unexplainable spiritual powers in this world.  Paul dealt with this in Acts, Jesus confronted it often in the Gospels.  Thus, it is also perfectly logical and within Biblical precedent to arrive at the conclusion that Pharaoh’s magicians, by some type of ancient divination had tapped into a source of power other than God (a practice explicitly forbidden by God Deuteronomy 18:10; Leviticus 19:26).  All this to say, some other spiritual power could have been allowing them to perform real magic.

One Possible Interpretation

Whichever option one ascribes to above, they must still arrive at the same conclusion, and the main point of these passages.  Namely, Pharaoh’s heart hardens and God wins the contest.  Whether this was real magic or well-disguised tricks, Pharaoh’s heart became hard because of them.  Or, as I conclude in a previous blog post, Pharaoh’s heart was already hard.  Thus, even if they were only tricks they still wouldn’t have had to be very impressive to make Pharaoh deny God’s request to “Let my people go!”  But the most important conclusion is that God wins.  Every time that the magicians of Pharaoh try to challenge the mighty hand of God they fall short until they themselves agree that this is “The finger of God” (Exodus 8:19).  But still Pharaoh would not believe until the most horrific plague of all, the death of the first-borns, in which Pharaoh lost his own son.  Awful as this was, it served as a potent sign of God’s power, and his mercy, for it was in this final plague that God would “passover” the Israelites and spare them from his wrath.  The Israelites shed the blood of lambs and marked their homes so that God would, pass them by.  This is one of the most powerful moments of mercy and of foreshadowing toward Jesus, who would be the Passover Lamb for all of us.  Again, we see a reminder of one of the most important truths of this passage and all of scripture, God wins!

Did God approve of slavery in the Old Testament?

February 5, 2010

Reference: Exodus 21:2-11

Question:

We simply can’t believe that God made the regulations for having slaves. Although we know that these regulations were a big deal at that time, it’s unbelievable for us that God literally said them. Wouldn’t God say that everybody belongs to him instead of to a person?

Could God really have condoned slavery?

Answer:

An entire volume could be dedicated toward the explanation of this topic, but this is a blog, so I will try to keep it brief.

For obvious reasons, it is very difficult for us to justify the issue of slavery as it is presented in several parts of scripture.  First of all, the idea of possessing or owning another person is detestable to us, as it should be.  The other reason that we find this so difficult is because the primary understanding that our westernized culture has of slavery comes from the history of African slaves and their experience in Europe and the Americas during the 16th through the 19th century.  Even today people of African decent still feel the effects of that racist system that was abolished a hundred and fifty years ago.  Perhaps the most intriguing issue with slavery in the book of Exodus is the fact that God just rescued his people from slavery in Egypt, so it seems that there is an inherent contradiction within the culture if there is any acceptance of slavery.

In an effort to answer the question above as it pertains specifically to God and slavery, I will approach the question with a mind toward faithful Biblical interpretation.  There are 3 angles from which we can better understand slavery in the Bible, cultural context, textual context, and theological context (the latter of which will give the most concise answer concerning God).  I will stay away from doing any in depth language or other exegetical work and I will keep this post focused on the Old Testament, as there will likely be future posts on slavery in the New Testament.

The Practice of Slavery in its Cultural Context

As with any difficult issue of interpretation in the bible we must not underestimate the importance of cultural context.  It is too complicated an issue to simply say “slavery was accepted in the ancient near east” and then brush it aside.  But it is important that we understand that the kind of slavery referred to in the Mosaic Law is a different kind of slavery than the African slavery in U.S. history or the sex slavery that is still so prevalent today.  Even when Exodus was written there were different kinds of slavery.  There was prisoner of war slavery, in which prisoners became the property of the nation or army that captured them in battle; there was the chattel slavery, in which slaves were captured, sold, and traded as the Israelites had experienced in Egypt (this can be likened to the capture and sale of Africans during the African diaspora).  Lastly, there was a kind of slavery called debt slavery, in which individuals or families would submit themselves to temporary or permanent slavery as a means of paying off a debt or taking care of their families.  It is the later kind of slavery, debt slavery, to which the laws in Exodus refer.

All forms of slavery are economic in nature.  Some though, are more socially balanced than others.  When the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt there there was no social balance to speak of.  In other words, they were captured and forcefully put to work so that Egypt would have free labor for which the slaves received nothing but cruelty from their masters.  Debt slavery however, works much differently.  Debt slavery was a part of a social structure that allowed for the poor to care for themselves.  Sadly, this was the lot of the poor and destitute in ancient society.  For the poor there were few options for them to pay off their debts or earn a wage that would allow them to survive.  In such cases they could (by their own free will) submit themselves to a slave/master relationship in which they would work for a certain amount of years (depending on the size of they’re debt) in return for their debt being released or paid for.  While this is not an ideal situation, and led to many abuses, there is a clear difference between this kind of slavery and chattel slavery which was explicitly forbidden by God (Exodus 21:16).

In ancient near eastern culture the practice of debt slavery would have been common.  What would not have been common were laws designed to protect the slaves, as we see in Exodus 21 and elsewhere.  Thus, God was providing a means of protection for people who otherwise would not have had rights at all.

The Practice of Slavery in Its Broader Biblical Context

It is not enough though to acknowledge that slavery was an accepted part of the ancient social structure and then move on.  These laws are still difficult to swallow, so we need to understand them in their broader textual context.  As we read through the Law of Moses in Exodus through Deuteronomy we need to remember that the Law works much differently then our laws today.  Unlike our laws, the laws of Israel did not stand alone, they complemented each other, leaned on each other, and relied on each other.  There are 613 different laws from Exodus through Deuteronomy and none of them stands in isolation, they support and sustain the whole (Bruckner).

In other words, if you are going to fully understand the laws on Slavery, you need to understand ALL of the laws together.  They cannot stand on their own.  For example, we cannot simply read the first few verses of Exodus and assume that all slavery was okay, because later in the same chapter we see that the kidnapping of people and selling of slaves is forbidden (Exodus 21:16).  Furthermore, we cannot fully understand the social structure of debt Slavery within the Jewish faith without fully embracing the idea of ‘debt release’ as prescribed in the Law’s teaching on the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25).  The year of Jubilee was an unprecedented time of renewal, redemption, and forgiveness that God prescribed in his law.  It took place every fiftieth year.  In the verses below you see what represents a radical protection of the poor who otherwise would have been subject to harsh treatment as slaves.

“If one of your fellow Israelites falls into poverty and is forced to sell himself to you, do not treat him as a slave. 40 Treat him instead as a hired worker or as a temporary resident who lives with you, and he will serve you only until the Year of Jubilee… 42 The people of Israel are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt, so they must never be sold as slaves. 43 Show your fear of God by not treating them harshly.” Leviticus 25:39-43

The astute observer would note that the next verses in Leviticus state that for the foreigner it is okay to purchase them as slaves and treat them as property (Leviticus 25:44-46).  These words seem hard, yes, but we must not forget the many laws that protect and advocate for the foreigner, as well as the foreign slave.  God reminds the Israelites often that they too, “were aliens in Egypt” (Exodus 22:21).

The Practice of Slavery in the Broader Theological Context

Ultimately, the question that we need to wrestle with here is ‘how could God allow for this within the community of his people?’  God is not advocating for slavery in these passages.  God abhors the inequality that exists in our world .  No human can belong to another because we all belong to God (Psalm 24:1).  But we must not forget that the laws that God provides in Exodus are for a broken society living in a broken world.  The system of slavery (be it debt slavery or chattel slavery) is a powerful reminder of that brokenness.  The Law does not bring redemption of that brokenness, only Jesus Christ can do that.  Thus, when God gave Law and regulations concerning slavery, that did not constitute an acceptance of that broken system, it was more like a bandage given to his people to help protect those who were marginalized in society.  At the end of the day though, salvation and redemption do not come through the Law, but through Christ (Galatians 2:16)

Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart?

February 3, 2010

Reference: Exodus (Various Verses)

Moses (the guy with the white beard) and his brother Aaron (the guy talking to Pharaoh) after the final plague (death of the firstborns). Note that even then Pharaoh is depicted as having a proud look and a hard heart.

In Exodus 4-14 there are 20 occurrences in which Pharaoh’s heart is hardened.  That wouldn’t seem like such a big deal except for the fact that in half of those occurrences it says that the LORD is the one who hardens Pharaoh’s heart.  Why would God do that?  Doesn’t that seem like the God is manipulating Pharaoh’s will?  Doesn’t it seem like he is forcing Pharaoh to do evil, when perhaps he otherwise would have done good?  And in the end does God hold Pharaoh responsible for the actions that God himself forced him to do?

First of all, we need to remember who the bad guy is here.  This Pharaoh and his forefathers had subjected the Israelites to cruel slavery for generations.  The Egyptians had become one of the richest and most powerful empires of the ancient world.  The economic benefit of free labor is not something that Pharaoh would have given up easily (just look at our own country’s history, the emancipation of the Slaves led to the bloodiest war in American History and it was all about economics).  So it is safe to say that Pharaoh’s heart is already about as hard as it can get.  Furthermore, half of the instances of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened occurred with no mention of God doing the hardening.  In other words, this is a guy who had it out for Israel and was determined to defy God at every turn.

Concerning the trouble with the fact that God prophesies that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21, 7:3, 14:4,17) we should keep in mind the nature of God’s prophesies, namely, that they are usually conditional.  In other words, God is saying, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart IF he does not do what I say” in which case the issue of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart is already a mutt point, because if Pharaoh doesn’t do what Moses asks him to do (i.e. “Let my people go”) then his heart is hardened, not by God’s doing but by Pharaoh’s own greed, pride, and selfishness (see 1 Samuel 6:6).

In 2 Chronicles 36 there is another similar situation where it seems like God is pulling the strings of a leader who holds the fate of Israel in his hands.  Only in this instance the heart is not hardened, the heart is “stirred”.  It says  in 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 that God “Stirred the heart of Cyrus” to let the people return to Israel after their 70-year exile.  This is a situation that we don’t usually call into question because it is much easier to swallow the idea that God would move a leader’s heart to do something good rather than the contrary.  So does that mean that in Pharaoh’s situation God pulled the evil string and in Cyrus’s situation God pulled the good string?   Not at all.  One of the tough things that we need to grapple with is that God is fully sovereign (in control) AND his people have complete free will.  If that seems like an impossible combination, then welcome to the bigness and complexity of our God.  Unfortunately there is no blog-ready answer for that conundrum.

Lastly, some people say that God made Pharaoh’s heart hard so that he would have more opportunity to show how great he is.  Exodus 9:16 makes it clear that God’s glory was definitely put on display because of the actions of Pharaoh.  But while it is true that God’s greatness had an opportunity to be put on display every time Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, that does not mean that God was pulling the strings to make the situation go that way.  Certainly God was glorified by his great rescue of his enslaved people from Egypt, but he would have been glorified as well if Pharaoh had let the people go right away, just as was the situation when the Exiled people of Israel returned to Jerusalem from Babylon several generations later.  This was a very similar situation, but God was still glorified in that situation just as he was glorified during the exodus from Egypt.  Pharaoh was making his own decisions, and even then God was glorified.

All this to say, Pharaoh had a free will and with that free will he made his heart very hard.  The only thing that God did to ‘harden’ Pharaoh’s heart was to say through Moses “Let my people go!”  An unwelcome command that made Pharaoh very grumpy.  Often times our hearts become hard when God asks us to do things that we don’t want to do, but that doesn’t mean that God is the one making our hearts heard.  That’s a bad decision that we make all by ourselves.

Why did God try to kill Moses?

February 2, 2010

God tries to kill Moses? Why wasn't this part in the movie?

Reference: Exodus 4:24-26

Question:

Why did God try to kill Moses?

Answer:

Holy Smoke!  This one is just too weird.  If for no other reason then the fact that it is so cryptically brief.  Out of the blue, God tries to kill Moses, his wife circumcises their son, she tells off her husband, and God spares Moses.  Wow!  There is little if any time to even figure out what is going on here.  But even if this was a whole chapter, it is hard to think of a good reason why God would want to kill the leader he had spent the past 40 years prepping to rescue his people.

From a literary perspective it is interesting to note that the preceding passages have a lot to do with firstborn sons.  God has told Moses to go and rescue God’s firstborn son Israel from Pharaoh.  To do so Moses will threaten Egypt with the death of Pharaoh’s first born son.  And here in these brief verses, Moses‘ son gets thrown into the mix.  I think that it is safe to say that the bizarre action of God in this passage has a lot to do with Moses’ son, more specifically the fact that Moses had not circumcised his son.  This may seem like a small thing to us, but consider that circumcision is the sign of the covenant between God and his people Israel.  Moses was about to take leadership of God’s people, and he had neglected to circumcise his own son, one of the most important acts of their faith.

Given the brevity of the passage it is hard to discern why Moses’ son had not been circumcised.  It is likely though that there was some internal family argument about the issue given the disdain with which his wife Zapporah responded saying “Now you are a bridegroom of blood to me.”  Zapporah was a Midianite and may have been turned off by the practice of circumcision, or Moses himself may have been lax on the issue.  Her anger may have been because Moses had never taken care of such an important task, or her anger may have been because she never wanted to do it in the first place.  Whatever the situation was, in the time of crisis when Moses was in danger, she knew exactly what the problem was and what to do, so she didn’t waste any time.  I’ve been married for 6 years and I think I can picture the expression on her face and hear the tone in her voice.

As to the means by which the Lord was going to kill Moses, little is said here.  What we can extract from the short verses is that Moses was not the one who remedied the situation, Zapporah was.  This may indicated that Moses was incapacitated with illness, which would be consistent with the way that God works in a situation like that.  Remember, God is about to go into Egypt and bring all kinds of plagues to the Egyptians.  God may likely have been working in the same way here.  It is unlikely though that God confronted Moses in the form of a man with a weapon (as we might imagine).

Why does the bible tell us two slightly different creation accounts?

January 5, 2010

There are a couple reasons for this, neither is exclusive of the other.

1) The two creation accounts tell us different information.   The first account is a larger over-arching account that covers all of creation, while the second account focuses more on the creation of humans, and specifically the man and the woman.

2) The other reason is that these two accounts may have come from  dual sources.  Authorship for Genesis is attributed most often to Moses, but obviously the contents of Genesis happened before he was alive.  Moses likely collected these accounts that had been handed down from his ancestors, some written perhaps some oral.  And it is possible that these two accounts originated from two different sources.  In other words, authors who had been inspired long before Moses, wrote or told different versions of the creation accounts.  Then, generations later, Moses played the roll of God’s editor, and he put in Genesis the accounts of creation that were true to communicating the truth.

Neither account contradicts the other.  They just give us deeper insight into who God is and who we are.

Who wrote the book of Genesis?

January 5, 2010

First of all, we hold that the Bible was divinely inspired, in other words, God wrote it through people.  So at the end of the day, whatever human hands wrote Genesis, it was inspired by God.  This is a critical part of our faith, see About the Bible.

Tradition holds that Moses wrote the book of Genesis and the other books of the Law, or Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy).  Yet clearly, Moses lived long after the creation accounts so he could not have written eyewitness accounts of creation.  Thus it is likely

Tradition holds that Moses is the author of Genesis and the other books of the Law.

that there were several generations of oral tradition.  Even this though is debatable, as written tradition may have existed earlier then Moses.  Whether it was written or oral Moses is traditionally the one credited with putting the Torah together for the first time.  It is important though that when we consider the idea of ‘oral tradition’ that we understand that it was a much more sophisticated tradition then we can comprehend.  Our spiritual ancestors used very unique memory devices to ensure the proper passing of history from generation to generation.  They sang songs, they wrote poems, and structured stories in a way that allowed them to remember.  You’ll see the depth of details in places like the genealogies in Genesis 5.

One of the toughest things to understand is how the creation account could have been recorded, remembered, or understood.  Rather then getting into the different areas of debate (between believers, and between believers and non believers) I would rather emphasize the fact that God was there, and he communicated with his people.  That is important for us, and while it may be difficult for some of us to understand or swallow, it is also a great comfort to me that God does speak to his people, and inspire his people.