This week we continue with the Moses drama. He’s heard from God through a burning bush that he needs to return to Egypt (where there are likely plenty of people still mad at him for killing that Egyptian over-seer a few years earlier).
But God wants Moses in Egypt to free the Israelites … so they can go take back to Canaan … and enter into a big war with the people who have been occupying the land for the last 400 years. For this and other good reasons, Moses wants none of that. But God proves to Moses that this time he’s going to protect everyone (in comparison to the last time when they all got forced into slavery). God shows Moses several miracles, including turning a staff into a snake and water into blood. So there’s that. In theory, it would have been more efficient for God to appear to the Jews and to Pharaoh in a burning bush. But God is outsourcing.
And then things get weird. A few years (!!?) after the burning bush experience, Moses sets out with his family to return to Egypt. According to Exodus, things got weird one night in the tent when God tries to kill Moses. Zipporah (Moses’ wife and the answer to the question of the week), believes that God is angry that their son isn’t circumcised. So she grabs a flint knife and performs an emergency circumcision on the spot. Then she flings the bloody foreskin at Moses’ feet (we should point out that the term “feet” is likely a euphemism for genitals, which makes this whole story even more disturbing). Then she says: “Surely, a bridegroom of blood thou art to me.”
Really, she says that. To this day, no one is quite sure what Zipporah meant, but it did the trick (the second part of the answer to the Q of the W). She saved Moses, and he went on to lead the Hebrews out of slavery. However, despite her bravery and quick thinking, Moses doesn’t act particularly grateful. Moses sends her and the children away before the Exodus from Egypt. Later, they reunite, but by that time Moses has taken a second wife, a “Cushite” or Ethiopian woman.
Several mysteries in this tale leave experts baffled. Why did Zipporah, a woman, perform the circumcision? Which son was involved? Was God himself the attacker, or did he send one of his minions? Why did Zipporah and Moses separate?
Acknowledgement to the people over at TheFriendlyAtheist.com for providing help with this week’s observations on the usually-boring story in Exodus.
Two weeks ago we left Moses fleeing Egypt after killing an Egyptian slave overseer (but looking around first to see if anyone was watching). We also digressed into speculating about whether he was somehow the illegitimate grandson of Pharaoh.
In any case, Moses is in no hurry to return to Egypt. He’s met a nice girl near a well in the desert and has started a family. Meanwhile, back in Egypt, the Jewish people are still slaving away under Pharaoh. Remember, this is 400 years after Joseph and the family came over from Canaan during the famine.
Now the story gets interesting. God realizes something is amiss and speaks to Moses from a burning bush. In the ensuing dialogue, God informs Moses that his name is, “I Am.” The Chief Editor has heard several metaphysical explanations for this confusing phrase, none of which have been satisfying. But we ran across a theory this week in Quora that has some appeal.
The Jews may have been more like Egyptians. The Jews have been in Egypt for 400+ years. Despite their best efforts at keeping themselves separate, after 400 years they have probably adopted a lot of Egyptian religious beliefs in multiple gods and the accompanying rituals.
What’s God been doing? Meanwhile, the God who spoke from the burning bush was the same Jewish God that they worshipped 400 years earlier. He/She/It never really had a name other than God. So maybe God was miffed at Moses for even asking about the name thing.
New world view. But this mono-God idea is going to be a hard sell to the Jewish people back in Egypt. Moses is going to have to first convince them on the idea of a God who calls himself “I Am” before approaching Pharaoh with the combination of miracles that we know is coming.
Fun genealogy fact: In another interesting genealogy twist in the Bible, we find out that Moses’ father (Amram) married his own aunt. That’s pretty creepy, and not brought up often in Sunday School class. But we suppose those things could happen when you live to be 130+.
Question of the week: Who was Moses’ first wife (she actually has a name), and what role did she play in the keeping God from killing Moses on the way back to Egypt?
When we left Joseph at the end of Genesis, the dysfunctional family had all come to Egypt, Jacob finally died but not before cursing two of his sons, and the story ends. In Exodus, we pick up the story several years — around 1400 BCE vs 1600 BCE for Joseph.
There’s a new Pharaoh in town. This guy has never heard of Joseph, has no need for dream interpretation, and has not been told what a great family Joseph had. What the new Pharaoh knows is that after multiple generations, the Israelites have been … how should we say … fruitful. If you are Pharaoh, and you have a tribe of people who continue to propagate to the point of being a threat to your own livelihood, what do you do? You enslave them, of course. Maybe it was a karma thing — you remember … all that stuff about Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery.
Moses is born. Since the Israelites continued to proliferate, the next thing Pharaoh did was issue an order to kill all the male Jewish babies. Here’s where the story of Moses begins. And it is strange from the beginning:
Moses’ mother first hides him from the authorities for three months.
Then she puts him in a basket in the water. That is when Pharaoh’s daughter ‘finds’ him in the basket. This is where all the rumors originate that maybe Moses was really the illegitimate son of Pharaoh’s daughter.
Then Pharaoh’s daughter pays Moses’ mother to nurse him until Pharaoh’s daughter ‘kidnaps’ him back to be her son.
And suddenly Moses is an adult. All in a single chapter.
Moses kills a man. And just as soon as Moses becomes an adult, Exodus says he kills an Egyptian. The Bible is unclear on why. But it is clear that Moses did this only after he looked around first to see if anyone was watching. The commandment on killing evidently was still in the future. To add to the illegitimate son rumors, Moses (a Jewish slave killing an Egyptian) somehow escapes and eludes the authorities for several years before returning to lead his people out of Egypt.
And we have not even got into the cool stuff we all know is coming.
And a shout out to Hemant Mehta over at The Friendly Atheist YouTube channel for his insightful and amusing observations on the Old Testament.
This week we are going to switch it up a little and look at the Old Testament. In particular, Chapter 38 in Genesis. The chapter is about one of Jacob’s 12 sons — Judah. You remember those sons — the ones who sent Joseph off to Egypt. Let’s see if we can condense the first part of the story.
Judah has three sons. He hooks up Son #1 with a woman named Tamar. Son #1 dies. He hooks up Son #2 with Tamar. Son #2 dies (there’s an embedded story in there about coitus interruptus as birth control). There is still Son #3, but neither he nor Judah are feeling real good about the pattern going on here. So while Judah is thinking about it, he takes off on a buddy’s trip to “shear the sheep.” Really. That’s what they called it in Genesis. It was a thing. And while he goes off with the sheep, he tells Tamar to go live with her father … indefinitely.
But Tamar is having none of that. She sees where this is going. So here’s the plan: She dresses up like a prostitute with a veil, and positions herself along the road she knows Judah will take on his way back from “sheep shearing.” They negotiate a deal (this must not have been Judah’s first rodeo). where she comes away with his signet, cord, and staff. Tamar becomes pregnant. And Judah accuses her of being a prostitute (she must have kept the veil on). As Judah is about to burn her at the stake, she pulls out the signet, cord, and staff. Oooops.
What makes this more interesting. Tamar goes on to have two sons, and is listed in the direct genealogy line of Jesus in Matthew’s first chapter. The 3BT interns searched for possible Christian interpretations for this story. The best we got was this metaphysical interpretation: In the journey from sense to Spirit the soul passes through many phases, misdirects its faculties, and practices multitudinous forms of dissipation or waste.
Sure. That pretty much sums up a great story about patriarchy, misogyny, and human frailties. And we’re pretty sure that Mrs. Wilson, our 6th grade Sunday School teacher, would never have touched it.
We got inspired to tackle this story when we ran across a YouTube lecture on Genesis 38 over on the Patheos website. It was entertaining and thought-provoking; two concepts we embrace here at 3BT. Here’s the link if you want to hear about it first-hand (with even more sarcasm than here).
Let’s continue with Joseph and his tenure in Egypt. In earlier posts we talked about Joseph’s experience with an Egyptian Mrs. Robinson, and how he avoided a long prison sentence through some nifty dream interpretations.
One of these dream interpretations is done for the Pharaoh himself. It’s about having seven good harvest years followed by seven years of famine. And while he’s on a roll, Joseph plants the seed that he would be just the right guy to be put in charge of this food distribution. Because … y’know … he’s great at interpreting dreams.
The seven good years happen. Things are pretty easy. Joseph gets to ride around in Pharaoh’s chariot. He’s given a wife (nameless as usual, but the father’s name is suspiciously close to Potiphar). And pretty much does nothing else. Then the famine happens. Joseph gets a side hustle going selling the excess grain back to the Egyptian people. He makes a ton of money. And apparently has no conscience.
Let’s go metaphysical here. We can see the obvious parallels between Joseph’s comeback from being sold into slavery and Jesus’ resurrection. But 3BT Staff looked into some of the other metaphysical interpretations of the Joseph story. One article said that Joseph’s prediction of the famine is equivalent to Christ “taking pity on the hungers of the world by opening the granaries of divine mysteries that would nourish mankind.” OK, sure. But why leave out the symbolism of Joseph working the cash register selling grain back to the people who had produced the surplus in the first place?
This is a fun story to examine when we can step back from the sanitized summary we got back in Sunday School. There’s a lot more going on with Joseph than we might think. Next time we’ll bring in the brothers (including Judah — the one who went off with the sheep) and the others who sold Joseph into slavery.
We’ll take a break from the authors of the Old Testament this week because we ran across a fascinating essay by Bishop Shelby Spong on the book of Jonah that is worth three bullets.
A brief refresher, for those of us who have not cracked open an Old Testament text since fifth grade. God told Jonah to go preach to the people at Nineveh. Jonah gave God a head fake and took off in a different direction in a boat. A storm came up, Jonah was tossed overboard by the captain, swallowed by a fish (the author did not know about whales), then spit up on the shore of Nineveh three days later. Reluctantly, Jonah offers some emotionless commentary to the people about turning away from their bad behavior. Surprisingly, they loved the message anyway, begin to follow God’s direction, and hold potlucks on Sunday after service. With that summary, here’s your three bullets:
When was Jonah written? It was written after the Jewish people were allowed to return to Jerusalem a hundred or so years after the Babylonians had defeated them and carted most of them off to Babylonia. Let’s call it around 400 BCE.
Why is that important? Because although the majority of the Jewish people were taken away to Babylon, a few were left behind. And despite all good intentions, they inter-married with some of the local ‘unclean’ Gentiles. When the other Jews returned from Babylon, they decided to lay the blame on the defeat of Jerusalem directly on these Gentiles and their Jewish/Gentile offspring. Things were getting pretty ugly.
Sooo Nineveh is Jerusalem? Yep. Except the author of Jonah couldn’t step up to the podium on the Sabbath and directly criticize the Jewish leaders because … well … he’d probably be shown the gate along with the Jewish/Gentile offspring. So this unknown author wrote a tall tale that was entertaining on the surface, but contained a universal message of God’s acceptance of all peoples, even those irascible Gentiles and their offspring.
We’re pretty sure there’s also all kinds of metaphysical and symbolic stuff buried in Jonah. (e.g. three day symbolism). But we’re gonna stop here for now.
Did you know the first five books of the Old Testament likely had four different authors? They are all anonymous to us, and many (most?) of the original stories were oral traditions. But the collection we call the Bible is what we’ve got. We may spend a couple of Thursdays on this. it could be interesting. Or it could be dry. We just put it out there.
Here’s the rundown of ”J”. He was likely the first writer, penning much of Genesis and Exodus.
Why do they call the author “J”?. A couple of reasons. One, the name for God in early Judaism was Yahweh. The spelling in Hebrew is YHWH, with no consonants. By the time it got translated into Latin, the “Y” turned into a “J” to spell Jehovah. Plus, the first scholar to come up with the hypothesis of this author came from Germany, where Yahweh is spelled with a J. Yep, it’s that mysterious.
What are the characteristics of J? First, most of the stories written by “J” take place in the southern locales of Canaan. Second, and more interesting, “J” writes about Yahweh in anthropomorphic terms — God has several of the characteristics (good and bad) of humans. For example, the Garden of Eden and Flood stories were both likely written by “J.” And in both of those stories, God speaks directly to the characters as if in conversation. Also, God expresses anger in both of these stories.
When were the “J” stories written? Probably in the 10th century BCE, during the reign of Solomon.
Geeez, that used up three bullets pretty quickly. We will talk about at least one of the other authors next week.
Most of us have heard the text from Matthew that was supposed to be from Isaiah saying “Behold a virgin will conceive …” Was that what it really said? And what was the intention of Isaiah when he wrote it in the 700 BCE timeframe?
First, the virgin birth story was not part of the Christian tradition until the 90s CE. Paul (writing in the 50s) said nothing about it. Mark, the first gospel, was written in the 70s, and said nothing about it. Mark even portrays Jesus’ mother as thinking that her adult son might not have been so special at the time. Look at this from Mark 3:20-21.
20 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” (New International Version)
The original Hebrew in Isaiah 7 does not say, “Behold a virgin will conceive”. It says, “Behold a woman is with child”. These two statements have different connotations. The Christian Church has known of this mistake since the middle years of the 2 nd Century, when Trypho the Jew pointed it out to Justin Martyr (there’s that guy again) in a written dialogue whose contents are still available.
The second thing that is wrong with Matthew’s text is that the child who is anticipated by Isaiah was to be a sign to the current King Ahaz of Jerusalem, who was under siege by armies from the north and from Syria. The sign was for King Ahaz to not give up — Jerusalem would not fall. It had nothing to do with something to occur 700 years later.
These ruminations largely come from Bishop Shelby Spong’s essay on Isaiah.
Letter to the Editor re last week’s entry on Thomas the Twin. The following comprehensive observation came from one of our readers in eastern Ohio. Worth a read:
The twinning with different sires is most prevalent in my experience of the story of Leda and the Swan. Leda, raped (or seduced) gives birth to two sets of twins: Helen and Pollux as well as Castor and Clytemnestra. Helen and Pollux were by Zeus, yet Castor and Clytemnestra were of her husband. Somewhere in preparing for Mythology, I read some learned explanation that the Greeks believed children could be of combined male traits from multiple fathers. I recently ran across a better explanation… sheep, it seems, can ovulate multiple ova. It would have been observable to the ancients that the traits of different rams might be seen in twin or triplet lambs. A smart guy from a bronze age culture extrapolating sheep sex to higher primates would see observable, factual biology in twins by different parents. Our modern science may confuse us when it comes to the writings of the ancients…
Question of the week: Does Leviticus condemn Golden-doodles?
Short answer = yes. A couple of weeks ago we talked about how dry Leviticus was to read, and suggested that any future references to this part of the Old Testament would likely be left on the cutting room floor. It’s still really dry. But we ran across some interesting observations that we want to share this week.
Why so many rules? Leviticus is full of specific rules for behavior and activities. At the time, the Jewish nation was settled in the midst of the rabble-rousing Canaanites. The rules were designed to make sure that the Israelites remained ‘different’ from all their neighbors. That is the reason for dietary restrictions, not working on Sunday, and … circumcision.
But then there’s Leviticus 19:19. You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.
What’s this about? These mixing restrictions are a little more difficult to get your mind around. One explanation the 3BT research staff found was that the mixing of animals was an attempt by man to interfere with God’s plan. Fair enough. Doodles would not have been approved.
Regarding mixing of materials, one explanation we found was that wool was thetraditional fabric of the Jewish herder tribe, while linen was cloth favored by Egyptians. Not a good match.
Conundrum. But the research staff did not come across anything definitive at press time on these inter-mixing rules other than this was God’s law, and that was good enough. And … y’know, it is hard for the 21st century reader to go back into that time period, under those cultural conditions, and try to logically reconstruct it all. So we will leave it at that this week. Any help from the readership would be appreciated.
Next week: How (and when) did we get the 27 books of the New Testament?
Related question of the week: Did you ever read Leviticus…all…the…way…through? Sure you did.
Why all the sacrifices? Leviticus opens up with a lot of details about sacrificial offerings. A lot. But to really appreciate all those details, we have to understand that back in the day (and we’re talking 1,000 BCE or so), most people thought that gods in general would smite you if an offering was not done exactly right. We see that type of relationship in the early part of the Old Testament. Even though the Israelites were developing a new type of relationship to their God (Yahweh), they still incorporated sacrifices from the old world in their worship service.
But why all the repetition? Because in these early times of Jewish history, people did not write things down. As we have discussed in previous 3BT editions, the first written versions of the Old Testament were not initiated until sometime around 500 BCE. Repetition makes it easier to recite stories in an oral tradition.
Who reads it? Leviticus, as tedious as it is (and the Chief Editor is not planning on reading it in detail anytime soon), is a book that begins to bridge the gap between the old idea of a distant god and the Jewish concept of God as loving and connected. Even Paul in the New Testament referred to Leviticus as his tutor. From what we know about Paul, he probably did read it all…the…way…through.
Next week: What do some astronomers think about the Star of Bethlehem?