Friday, October 23, 2009

Testing God


Moses Striking the Rock in Horeb

by Gustave Doré, 1865

The first essay in this series is Birth of the Israelite Nation. The second is Torah: Instruction for Living. The third essay is Manna: Bread for Life. This is the fourth essay in a series of essays that cover the origin of the Israelite nation and conclude with a discussion of the Ten Commandments.

This essay concentrates on just on the first half of Chapter 17 of the Book of Exodus, just seven verses.

Remember the pattern I told you about that was developing during this time between God and the Israelites? Remembering that will help us understand the importance of this brief episode within the exodus from Egypt. So let's look at it quickly.

The pattern is that first the people experience a crisis; followed by distress. This leads to complaint, which God hears. God then speaks and solves the problem, resolving the crisis and relieving the distress. This, usually, but not consistently, is followed by joy, praise, and thanksgiving: in other words, God's grace results in the worship of him by his people.

In this episode most of the pattern is present, but it does not end in worship, which is not a good sign, and certainly will not endear the people to Moses, nor to God. Here is what happens.

The first thing we notice is positive. The people are finally beginning to learn the need to follow God's instructions. God has just provided for their nourishment with manna and quails while they were in the Wilderness of Sin, so they had ample evidence, once again, of his ability to take care of them.

And, apparently, they took some comfort in that fact, for the text tells us, 17:1 From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They are on the move again at God's command. They are following God's orders without complaint, leaving a place where they know that they will find food each day for an unknown future. That took no small amount of courage given what they had already endured.

They do not know what they will find where they are going; actually, except for the increasingly vague goal of finding the "Promised Land," they don't even know where they are going! But they go. They are learning to trust God. We should give them no small amount of credit for that. I am not so sure that we would be so bold or brave.

After a while they stopped at Rephidim, where we are told there was "no water for them to drink." Crisis. Distress. And a familiar grounds for complaint. Once again, God does not simply lead them to an oasis, but rather to a place where there appears to be no water. They, like us, do not always understand why God does what he does. It is likely that God is testing them, but the text doesn't say. Will they trust him to provide yet again having come this far in faith? Well, they don't!

So, what happens? Complaint, of course. They quarrel with Moses, telling him "Give us water to drink!" In what is becoming a typical fashion, Moses replies, "Why are you quarreling with me!?" But then he adds, "Why do you test the Lord!?"

Moses is clearly saying that confronting him, Moses, is the same thing as confronting God. Moses is on shaky ground here because Moses knows that he can do nothing without God. In a sense this is, as it was in Chapter 16, equating his authority with God's.

The text doesn't say what God thinks about that. But, needless to say, the people aren't persuaded that Moses is God and they accuse Moses of bringing them out of Egypt to kill them all, including their children and livestock.

This time Moses cries out to God, not that they need water, even though that is the whole point of their complaint! - but that he is afraid for his own life! So Moses cried out to the LORD, "What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me."

Now, while we know God cares very much about Moses' life, that is not what God thinks Moses should be worrying about right now. After all, Moses is God's chosen instrument, and God intends to use Moses for God's purposes. Moses has some things to learn too.

So God ignores Moses' fears and concentrates instead on the real problem, which, if solved, should alleviate Moses' fear as well. God is a lot like that now, isn't he? We take him one problem; he solves another that we don't bring up, and, surprise!, the original problem goes away!

So God says, "... Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink."

You'll notice a couple of things right away. First, God makes it clear that, regardless whether or not Moses thinks he may be killed by the people, Moses is still the leader. He is to "go ahead" of the people, and to take with him some elders, who, I presume, will be witnesses. He is also to take the staff God gave him, the same staff that God has used to work many prior miracles, both in Egypt and when escaping from it. The staff clearly is associated with God's power, and the people know that.

Here, at a rock at Horab [Also called Sinai. They are now camped near the foot of Mt. Sinai] we will see, once again, God's grace in action. God tells Moses that he, God, will be standing there on the rock. God will, again, be present with his people in their time of need.

The text tells us simply that "Moses did so." It says he struck the rock "in the sight of the elders of Israel." They, as well as Moses, witnessed the power of the Lord. We know what happened next. Water flowed from the rock and the problem was solved. The thirst of the people was quenched. And the people got off of Moses' back. Once more God's gift of grace prevailed over the chaos of the desert. That's what we know. But the text says nothing at all about that! That positive conclusion is assumed by the writer!

If you want to "prove" what happened from the Bible text you have to jump ahead all the way to Numbers, Chapter 20, which gives more detail of this episode. There it says, at verse 11, "Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank." But here, in Exodus, our writer assumes that we know that when the Lord says he will provide, He provides!

All our narrator tells us is that Moses gave this place two names, and they are not ones you might expect. He did not name it "God provides" or "God gave us to drink" or some such positive thing. Rather he named the place "Massah and Meribah," which means "Test and Quarrel." The episode ends telling us that Moses gave the place these names "because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, 'Is the Lord among us or not?'"

The problem is that we don't precisely know that. We know that they quarreled with Moses. And we know that Moses told them they were testing the Lord. But the text nowhere actually tells us that they "quarreled" with the Lord, or even that they thought that they were. They were angry with Moses. And nowhere does it say that they "tested" the Lord.

But Moses isn't wrong since they knew that Moses could do nothing, and had no power, without God. So while the text is distressingly vague and imprecise, once again, they did not trust that God would provide food and drink. Moses is right when he says at verse 7, that they were asking, without actually saying so, "Is the Lord with us or not?"

And, when we ask that question, we are, in fact, testing God because if we have faith we know that the question is rhetorical. The assumed answer from one who believes in God is, "Of course God is with us."

But what does "testing God" really imply? Using this example let's examine its implications more closely. Implied in the question "Is the Lord with us?" is that he may not be. The testing of God comes in seeking "proof" that he is with us. That is, we decide that we need for God to act or to show his hand in a particular way at a particular time to solve a particular "need" we feel we have.

In essence, while we never think of it that way, when we ask "Is the Lord with us?" we are trying to control God, to get him to be with us in this or that thing, when maybe God does not think that is the right thing for us to be doing at all, or that his intervention is the wrong thing for us.

The way the Israelites tried to do this was to demand that he prove his presence by providing them with water in the desert yet again. And if God does act to provide the water this yields two possible conclusions which are diametrically opposed to each other. The fact that he did provide water no doubt led some of the Israelites to believe that they could force God to act. They had yet to learn the other possible conclusion: that God did it out of his love for them; not because of their coercion.

We have a lot to learn in this area as well. We often test God, but, of course, we either don't realize we are doing it, or we deny that we are. here are some simple examples: if we don't take ordinary precautions in our lives; if we don't buy insurance; or have a doctor check out a potential problem, or act recklessly with the lives or well being of others, then we test God.

We say, "If God is with me, God will take care of me" even when we act rashly or foolishly. We say, "If its my time to go; well, its my time to go. God makes that decision, not me," even as we continue to do harmful things to our bodies, against all common sense, knowing that we are by our own destructive actions influencing when it is "our time to go." Yet we still want and expect God to be there for us when the results of our foolishness come home to roost.

Remember the story about the guy in the flood? He sat on the roof of his house as the flood waters continued to rise. A boat came by to get him; then a helicopter, then another boat. Each time he refused help saying, "God will take care of me!" He was swept away and drowned. At the pearly gates he asked St. Peter why God let him drown. And a voice came from a cloud saying, "I sent a boat and a helicopter and another boat to save you. What more did you expect me to do?"

When we test God we try to hold Him hostage. We try to determine how he should act if he is God. This places God in the role of a servant; expected to respond to our every beck and call. If he doesn't answer our prayers the way we want him to, then we say he doesn't care; or that He isn't there.

Such attitudes can even lead to cruel feelings about others. Some people will say, "If God does not heal you, or protect you from that problem, it is because you do not have enough faith!" Implicit in that stupid statement is the idea that, if a person has enough faith, they can command God to do whatever they want. It assumes that God's will always coincides with ours. And it assumes that we can make his will coincide with our wishes through our prayers.

Sorry, but God doesn't work that way. God is God. And we aren't. And unless we figure that out we are going to be pretty confused about what faith is and isn't; what prayer can and can't do, and probably be pretty disappointed in a God who intends to remain independent of his creatures' demands.

Faith is trust in God to provide even when he decides not to provide in the way we want! Faith is hard. If anyone told you it was easy, he or she lied. In this episode we confront an Israelite people who are stubborn, demanding, and arrogant. They demand that God perform in a particular way at a particular time. They want God to be their puppet, their slave, their provider - on their terms.

This time God provides. But not for the reasons that they think. The naming of the place Massah and Meribah tells us that Moses knew, and the later writer of this story knew, the shame of treating God this way. This place would forever be known not for the gift of water; but for the arrogance of the demand of the people.

And when we, as they did, decide that if we do not have what we want - money, health, power, well being - then God is not with us, then we, too, have reduced faith to some sort of prosperity sham. We are saying that unless everything happens for good to me, when and how I want it, then God is not with me.

There are more than enough preachers out there getting rich telling us that "if we just believe" then the prosperity, the health and the well being that we "deserve because of our faith" will roll right in. That sounds foolish when it is baldly exposed as I just did. And it is foolish. But the truth is that millions of well meaning believers are being fed that hogwash every day, and they are believing it. Feel good, narcissistic religion is all the rage. And what do you suppose God thinks of that?

The truth is that God is with us. The truth is that God cares for us. The truth is that God provides for us. But the truth is, as well, that God will be God and that we cannot control him. The Israelites will have to learn this the hard way. So did Job. And so must we.

Next: We will skip the rest of Chapter 17 and Chapter 18 which would be a detour in this series, and go directly to the heart of the Exodus experience at the base of Mr. Sinai, where the 10 Commandments will be given. We will also take an important look at how this part of the Bible was put together from many traditions, which greatly influence how the story is told.

God bless.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Manna: Bread for Life. But is it enough?

"Gathering of Manna" by Nicolas Poussin (The Louvre, Paris)

The first essay in this series is Birth of the Israelite Nation. The second is Torah: Instruction for Living. This is the third in a series of essays that cover the origin of the Israelite nation and conclude with a discussion of the Ten Commandments.

Today we will look at a small part of Chapter 16 of Exodus in some detail because it forms the foundation of the relationship which God will have with his people throughout the entire time of wandering in the Wilderness.

The issue is TRUST. Will the people trust God? Will God trust the people to believe that he can provide; and, therefore, will they keep his commandments? The object of the issue is FOOD; the necessary nourishment to sustain life.

After God made the bitter water sweet at Marah and led the Hebrews to the oasis at Elim where they rested a short while, they set out from Elim and came to the Wilderness known as Sin. (It does not mean "sin" as we know the word.)

This was about a month and a half after they left Egypt. There they complained again; this time because there was no food. They accused Moses and Aaron of leading them out to die; and they longed for the "flesh pots" and bread of Egypt. There, at least, they had meat and bread.

This time Moses did not "cry out to the Lord," but God heard the people's complaint. God said to Moses, "I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instructions or not."

Moses passed this word on to the people, telling them that, in this way, they shall know that it was God who brought them out of Egypt, and that they shall see God's glory.

He also cautioned them against complaining about him and Aaron, since, when they did that, they were actually complaining against God: "Your complaint is not against us, but against the Lord." Then Moses had them look toward the wilderness, not Egypt, where they saw God's glory in the cloud.

That evening a great cloud of quail covered the camp, so they had meat to eat. And the next morning all the surfaces of the wilderness were covered with a fine flaky substance which they could use like flour and eat. They did not know what it was, but Moses told them it was "the bread the Lord has given to you to eat." They called it "manna." man huh in Hebrew means "What is it?"

Then Moses gave them God's specific instructions to gather no more than each family needed. They did not follow the instructions, some gathering more, some less. But, miraculously, when they measured it all had enough, but no more.

They were told to use all of it and not try to store it. But they disobeyed, only to find it had bred worms by morning and was foul. It could not be hoarded. Moses was angry at them for continuing to disobey God's instructions.

Part of the gathering instructions included gathering twice as much the day before the Sabbath and none on that day of rest. They actually did what they were told, and the extra did not spoil. Even so, the people went to gather more of the manna on the Sabbath, but found none.

This time the Lord was angry, telling Moses, "How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions? See! The Lord has given you the Sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days; each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day." Apparently God's anger had some effect, for we are told "So the people rested on the seventh day."

The remainder of the chapter describes God's command to keep some of the manna in a jar to remind future generations that God took care of them in the wilderness. We are told that the Hebrews ate manna in the wilderness for 40 years. ("40 years" can mean in Hebrew either a literal 40 year period or simply "a long time.") Later, in Joshua, we learn that on the day the Hebrews ate the produce of the Promised Land the manna ceased.

I am not sure how important this sub-story within the Exodus story is when Jewish children are taught. But this indelible subplot about Manna is one that for centuries has been told to every Christian child and is one of the great stories from which Christianity has taken many lessons. For Christians like myself it forms the basis of some of the most fundamental understandings of how people relate to God, and how we relate to Christ.

Jesus said that "It is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven" (John 6:32) and, tellingly, a short while later, he added: "I am the bread that came down from heaven." (John 6:41) The stories of feeding the 4000 and the 5000 also make it clear to Christians that Christ is the one who provides for the daily necessities of life.

And the Lord's prayer incorporates the idea that we are to be satisfied with looking to God for our daily bread, or, translated literally, "our bread for each day." So too in the Christian celebration of the Eucharist, (Holy Communion) we break and distribute the bread to all, equally, sharing so that each has enough. The language and symbolism of bread from God is strong in many basic Christian rituals.

There are important lessons to be learned here. Foremost is the lesson that we often must travel from bondage through wilderness in order to get to the promised land. We wish it were not so, but the realities of life seldom allow us to go from slavery to delightful freedom. Most of our lives are full of wilderness experiences.

The issue is not whether we will have them, because we will. The issue is who we will turn to and trust during those times. The times of wilderness and crisis are the very times when we need to lean most heavily on God. And, ironically, they are usually the times when we turn from him, choosing to try to "tough it out" on our own. The crisis of faith often occurs in just this time between bondage and well being. The challenge we face is not really so different from the one faced by the Israelites.

Another of the things that happened to them also happens to us. When faced with crisis in the wilderness they looked back through rose-tinted glasses at the time of bondage. At least in Egypt the flesh pots were full of meat, and there was bread. Forgotten were all the evils they were subjected to in the old days. So too we, when challenged by the desert of the transition from bondage to new freedom, sometimes look back and see only the good of the past time of bondage; forgetting that it was mostly not so good.

After all, we tell ourselves, it can't be worse than the present uncertainty. Again, the issue is trust. Can we trust that the Lord will provide and get us through to the good future he promises? We have to trust the Lord to provide on a daily basis. Such trust is often in short supply.

The Lord's instructions not to hoard but to share are also difficult for the Israelites. Any who have been members of churches or synagogues know something about that problem. It is clear that we are to be generous, self-sacrificing, and open in our giving to others.

Yet it is very hard to give generously when we don't have a lot ourselves; even when we know full well that we have much, much more than the vast majority of the people on the entire planet.

It is hard not to hoard, to try to gather just a little more for ourselves, even when we know that it is taking from others. Sometimes we joke about the "starving children in Africa" when we throw away more food in a week than many of them eat in a month.

But there is truth in the saying: there ARE starving children in Africa, and right here in America, if we bother to look. Yet we tell ourselves we have to be sure that we have enough. We reason that we have gone without this or that long enough; that we are only being prudent, saving for a rainy day. Still, the children starve.

The temptation is to try to serve two masters: God and Pharaoh, or in this case: God and our selves. We want to put our trust in two bread supplies at once: in the bread of heaven and in the bread earned by the sweat of our brows.

But this story and many of the stories told in the Bible teach us that trying to have it both ways leads only to anxiety.

We may not want to hear it, and we may never do anything about it, but the gospel message is that only one master, only one bread supplier is needed. This story says, and the gospel message of Jesus says, that God knows what we need and faithfully supplies everything required for life for those who totally trust Him. Few, if any of us, are willing to put that truth to the test!

Thus it should not surprise us that, after the miracle of the multiplying of the loaves to feed the 5000 that Mark tells us the disciples did not understand its meaning. They did not understand, we are told, because "their hearts were hardened." Like the Israelites, and like the disciples, our "hard hearts" make us rely on our own capacities and to make our own bread, and to hoard it at the expense of others.

Nor should it surprise us that the Israelites tried to hoard the manna and to harvest it on a day for which God had already supplied enough. We too always try to have it both ways. Sometimes it works. But it is not the way God would have us live.

One final thing I think we need to get out of this story about the manna is the fact that, when God is in control, food abounds even in the wilderness. The wilderness, feared from the beginning of time by God's creatures as an area of death and desolation, is, after all, also part of God's creation.

Just so, if we are traveling with God, the wildernesses of our lives are also part of his creation and he is in control of them. Through trust in him we shall find in the worst wildernesses of our lives food and water to sustain us -- and a guide to take us by the hand and lead us out of the wilderness into the promised land.

If this story tells us nothing else it tells us that God is present in our daily lives, not just some abstract being remote from what is important to us. We always find that hard to believe. We even seem ashamed to ask for our daily bread.

The illusion of self reliance and total independence from others is a very strong thread woven into the fabric of this country, and we are a "pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps" kind of people. Which is well and good to a point. But the truth is that the gospel message is something quite different than American rugged individualism and pride.

It is a message of TRUST: trust in God to provide and sustain and lead. Not abstractly. But concretely. Every day. Day in. Day out. If we pray "Give us this day our daily bread" do we understand that? That daily bread is there for those who trust God to provide. That is Good News, if we are bold enough to believe it!

Next: Water from a Rock and Testing and Quarreling in the Desert

God bless.

Torah: Instruction for Living


The first essay in this series is Birth of the Israelite Nation. This is the second in a series of essays that cover the origin of the Israelite nation and conclude with a discussion of the Ten Commandments.

When I was a pastor I keep a little clipping taped to my computer monitor in my office. It said, "Put it up to a vote, and the people will always vote to go back to Egypt." That was no idle speculation for the Israelites. As problems mounted in the desert at one point the vast majority were ready to return to familiar bondage in Egypt.

We should ask ourselves if we too would vote to go back to the familiar bondage of the past. I think that when things get tough many of us would. The bondage of the past might be awful, but it is something we know and think we understand. The future God offers to us is unknown; and the unknown is frightening.

God saved the Israelites from the slavery and bondage of Egypt. God did it alone, using Moses as his instrument. Moses had absolutely no power to do anything for the people without God. And the people did nothing to save themselves from the Egyptians. Nothing at all.

Why did God do it? Why bother to save this unruly brood of complainers? There were many reasons, but two stand out. The obvious one in the text is that God wanted to show Pharaoh who was boss. He wanted to demonstrate that no evil could stand against his righteous power. Moses reminds God of this fact later in the story when he convinces God to change his mind about consuming his own people lest he look bad in the eyes of Egypt.

But, underlying that reason is a far more basic reason that is not so obvious. The world was out of whack. God's own creation was being corrupted yet again, particularly due to the evil power exerted by the Pharaohs of the world. God intended to restore His creation to its original intent.

Thus, if we simply look at the struggles in Exodus to free the chosen people from bondage in Egypt as of little consequence; and if the crossing of the Red Sea is nothing more than a curiosity - something to argue over whether or not it is even true - then we miss the whole point that the text is trying to tell us.

These struggles and this event are meant by the writers of Exodus to be seen as being cosmic in their scope. The God of Salvation who wins the freedom for the Israelites is also the God of Creation intent on restoring the good order of things which he created originally. And his chosen instrument for that restoration was to be the people who descended from Abraham, with whom he had established his covenant.

God chose these people as his own. They were to become a new nation, a new people, destined to set the example for the rest of the world; and destined to "be a blessing to all nations" according to the original covenant some 400 years before with Abraham. Nothing in God's intentions implied in any way that the chosen people were to "do their own thing." They were to do God's will. That is why he saved them.

Thus, their freedom was never viewed by God as the freedom to do as they pleased. The issue was never bondage versus "no boundaries;" but rather bondage to Pharaoh versus freedom to serve God. The whole purpose of the Exodus was to create a people with one goal: to be obedient to God.

The story of the wanderings in the wilderness is the story of a people growing up; learning to trust and to serve their God, making mistakes, stumbling, and yet learning all the while. The question for them is the question for us: "Whom will you serve?" That is always the question.

If the purpose of salvation for the Israelite nation was to be obedient to God, it is clear from the text that they struggle, right from the beginning, with doing that.

Yes, immediately after the crossing of the Red Sea they do get it right, until the next crisis. At the next crisis, which was no small thing, they were in the desert without drinkable water, they complained. Chances are that we would have too. We have to be very cautious about feeling smug about how we are when compared to how they were.

From the very beginning of the book of Exodus there was a pattern starting to form, a pattern that will continue throughout not only Exodus, but throughout the entire Pentateuch - the first five books of the Bible - and into Joshua and Judges.

Here is the pattern. First there is a crisis; followed by distress. This leads to complaint, which God hears. God then solves the problem, resolving the crisis and relieving the distress. This, usually, but certainly not always, is followed by joy, praise, and thanksgiving: in other words, God's grace results in worship by his people. At least that is how it is supposed to work.

At the end of Chapter 15 we saw the first crisis in the wilderness: bitter water that is unfit to drink. So the crisis leads to distress and the people go to Moses. But Moses has no power to do anything alone, so he complains to God.

And, what happens? God hears and solves the problem, showing Moses a particular piece of wood which, when thrown into the brackish water, sweetens it and makes it drinkable. Crisis solved. Interestingly, the people do not break out in thanksgiving or anything like it. I guess they felt that they were entitled to the water.

God does not get angry at their lack of thanksgiving this time. In fact, He leads them onward to a marvelous oasis at Elim, complete with twelve springs of water and 70 palm trees for shade. Nothing is said in the text about how they felt about that. But I imagine that they felt about like we do: the crisis is solved so we forget about who solved it and get on with our lives.

Another thing happened at Marah that is vitally important to understanding our story. God laid down some ground rules. Call them "Instructions for the Journey." Whatever you call them these rules begin to set the boundaries for what will be later known as the "Torah," the instructions for living that God sets before the Israelites.

We usually translate the word "Torah" as "law." And, at least in one sense, that is a true translation. But it is not enough to say "law" in English and capture the real meaning of "Torah" in Hebrew. "Torah" means more than "law" as we understand that term. "Torah" means "instruction," or "teaching." In other words, the "Torah" is God's own teaching, God's own instruction, to the Israelites on "How to Live the Good Life."

Regardless of how we define Torah, as law or instruction or teaching, let me just impress one thing on you: The law follows salvation. The law is the result of grace. We are mightily confused about that in Christianity. We are constantly talking about the law versus grace. But what Jesus in the New Testament was railing against was the corruption and narrow interpretation of Torah, not the reasonable application of Torah to everyday life.

In Chapter 15 God said, after he solved the problem with the bitter water, and after he delivered them through the Red Sea; in other words, after he saved them by his grace: "If you will listen carefully to the voice of your God, and do right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians." Now, listen carefully to the next line: "For I am the Lord who heals you!"

God is saying that he is the one who makes them whole, who restores them to abundant life. This is the God of Grace, the God who gives wholeness, completeness, integrity. This is the Creator God who restores, redeems and saves. The word in Hebrew for "heals" is the same word we also translate in English as "saves." God heals and saves.

And that is what the Israelites had to figure out. God offered them protection, salvation, healing and wholeness, but the price they had to pay for that was obedience. What will they do? Will they obey and follow the God who saved them, or will they pressure Moses to take them back to Egypt?

They will have to learn that there is no cheap grace. Just so, there is no cheap, easy healing. But there is real healing for those who trust God. God says that those who trust his decrees and make the break with Pharaoh will find themselves at the oasis with an abundance of sweet water. And from there they will just have to trust him to take care of them. That is the choice. Return to a known bondage or trust God to lead them to an unknown future. They must choose.

So it is with us. We can continue to allow ourselves to be seduced by the evil idols of indulgence, by our own society's "fleshpots of Egypt," or we can chose to follow "Torah," God's own instruction as to how to live. Which will it be for us?

Next: Manna from Heaven: But is it enough?

God bless.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Birth of the Israelite Nation

Fresco of Crossing the Red Sea, by Rosselli, Sistine Chapel

Introductions, while seldom thrilling, are necessary. This is the introduction to a series of essays that cover the origin of the Israelite nation and conclude with a discussion of the Ten Commandments.

The Ten Commandments are usually misunderstood and have often been abused by ignorant people. That problem largely stems from taking them out of context. We are not going to make that mistake. And we are not going to make anachronistic assumptions about their universal application in the present.

This series is not a review of history. There is a kind of "history" in it, of course. But much more than that, it is a story about God and faith. For Christians and Jews this is our story; the story of the formation of the nation of Israel, our ancestors in faith. More importantly, this is the story about God, seeking to redeem his creation and re-establish the covenant with the children of Abraham, his chosen people, not for their sake, but for the sake of the world.

The events we will discuss took place 3400 years ago. They are embellished in myth and shrouded in mystery, sifted and filtered through oral traditions and then written by many redactors. Some of the story is likely "true" in the literal sense, while much of it is clearly mythic saga. Regardless, for believers this story abounds in theological truth and is as relevant today as it was then.

Let me give you a very brief introduction to the Book of Exodus so that, when I plop us down at the beginning of Chapter 15, you won't be totally lost.

The Hebrew people who would come to be known as Israelites were in Egypt about 400 years. After the death of Joseph, they remained in Egypt and grew large in numbers. But they were slaves to Pharaoh, and were severely oppressed. Our story begins when Pharaoh decreed that all newborn Israelite boys must be drowned in the Nile.

After his birth, Moses, born to Levitical parents, was hidden by his mother for three months, and then placed into the Nile in a papyrus basket, where the daughter of Pharaoh found him. Rather than killing the baby, Pharaoh's daughter decided to keep him. Ironically, Moses' own mother was called to nurse and raise the child, returning him to Pharaoh's daughter when he was grown.

As a young man, after killing an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew, Moses fled Egypt for Midian. There he married Zipporah, daughter of the priest Reuel. Meanwhile, the oppression continued in Egypt. God heard the cries of the people, and remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

At Mt. Horab, God appeared to Moses in a burning bush, telling Moses that he intended to deliver his people from bondage in Egypt; and that he was sending Moses to bring them out of Egypt to a land flowing with milk and honey.

Moses, reluctant to go, finally agreed after God allowed his brother, Aaron, to go with him to be Moses' spokesman. Once in Egypt, through Moses God confronted Pharaoh with a series of devastating plagues, each based on God's demand that Pharaoh "let my people go." The tenth and final plague was that death would sweep through the land and kill every first-born child, mirroring what Pharaoh had decreed when Moses' mother had hidden Moses as a baby.

To protect the first-born of the Israelites, the Lord instructed them to slaughter a lamb and spread its blood on the doorposts and lintels of their houses, and that death would "pass over" the households where the blood was spread. This they did. This is the origin of Passover.

Pharaoh finally agreed to let them go, and to take their cattle with them. Pharaoh instructed the Egyptians to give them gold and jewelry and to be rid of them. They also took with them unleavened bread to eat, for they left in haste. This became ritualized into the Passover observance as the Feast of Unleavened bread.

God then led them out of Egypt, guided by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, so that they might travel swiftly. When they had gone as far as the Red Sea, Pharaoh changed his mind about letting them go, and led his army after them.

As the Egyptians closed in, the Israelites were scared witless, but Moses held firm in faith. At the last minute God gave Moses the power to use his staff to divide the sea. The entire Israelite nation then walked safely on dry ground through the sea; but, as they pursued them, the Egyptian chariots and soldiers bogged down in the mud of the sea bed.

Moses then commanded the sea to return to normal and the Egyptian army drowned. Chapter 14 ends: "Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses."

Chapter 15 begins with a long prayer of thanksgiving spoken by Moses, a song to God for the deliverance of the Israelites from Pharaoh. It begins, "I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. The LORD is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father's God, and I will exalt him."

The praise did not last. A few verses later the Bible reads "Then Moses ordered Israel to set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter. That is why it was called Marah. And the people complained against Moses, saying, "What shall we drink?"

So when the people complained to him, Moses complained to God. "He cried out to the LORD; and the LORD showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet."

And it was there and then that God began his training of this rag tag bunch which was to be God's own chosen people: "There the LORD made for them a statute and an ordinance and there he put them to the test. He said, 'If you will listen carefully to the voice of the LORD your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the LORD who heals you.'"

So here we see a developing relationship between the Israelites and God. God provides salvation which leads to thanksgiving and worship by the people. The Bible says the thanksgiving lasted only three days. But the number of days aren't what's important. What's important is that the thanksgiving lasted only until the next crisis.

To us the Israelites seem terribly insensitive to the grace from God that they have just received. They have been safely led out of Egypt and the oppression they endured. They have been saved from Pharaoh's army; and they have been given water to drink in the desert. God's grace abounds; but their thanksgiving is short lived.

What we need to acknowledge is that we are the same way. People, including us, always complain about the next thing. That has not changed.

For example, we may worry about a deadly disease we might have. And we pray and pray and make bargains with God. We make all sorts of commitments we have every intention of keeping: maybe including going to Church or Synagogue regularly, studying the Bible, treating people better, appreciating the simple things of life. We may not blatantly bargain with God, but that is often not far back in our minds, which God, of course, knows. Seldom do we say, "Thy will be done" and mean it.

Then we find out we don't have that disease; or, that we do, but that we can be healed. And, in a month,or maybe a year, we look up and notice that we are back to the same old routine. We have done some of the things we promised for a while; but then there were other priorities. There are lots of other examples I could cite. But I don't think we need more examples. You and I live them.

We forget the truth of the saying that "God cures every disease except the last one." We are too busy thinking that this one is the last one; and too busy worrying about how to get God to keep it from being so. True thanksgiving has nothing to do with bargaining with God. We'll discuss that a bit more as we go along in this series because it is at the heart of our relationship with God.

Next time we will look at key elements of what God expects from the people. Then, with that context, we will look at the next series of complaints. It is here, in the complaints and God's responses to them that we shall see a pattern which will develop in the relationship between God and his chosen people. It is out of the pattern of this relationship that the Ten Commandments will be born.

God bless.