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The Offering of Firstborn Sons

I truly appreciated this post by Eve Levavi Feinstein that leads the reader through the many possible interpretations of the commandment in Exodus 22 for Israelites to offer their firstborn sons to God. As Dr. Feinstein notes, it is not at all obvious what this commandment originally meant for Israelites to do, and the Bible itself offers support for a number of different possibilities. She writes,

In the end, the biblical evidence does not point to a single conclusive interpretation of the law in Mishpatim. On one hand, it may express a requirement (albeit aspirational) that every Israelite family sacrifice its firstborn son. While it is difficult to accept that the Torah commands the ritual slaughter of children, we can at least see in the commandment’s development an attempt to modify a bad law (as Ezekiel put it) by requiring monetary redemption in place of actual sacrifice (Exodus 34:20).

If, on the other hand, what the law required was service at a sanctuary, it calls for an expansion of our understanding of sacrifice in biblical thought. Indeed, the very plausibility of this interpretation — and the fact of its apparent acceptance by P — argues for a view of sacrifice that is not centrally about slaughter but is equally, if not more, about the act of giving.

In either understanding, the law in Mishpatim expresses the idea that the first of all life properly belongs to God. Underlying its cryptic and challenging mandate we can detect a conviction that every birth, human or animal, is a gift from God, which is to be recognized through a partial, symbolic return of life to its Maker.


Happy Passover!

Here’s your Rube Goldberg retelling of the Exodus:

(H/T: io9.com)

Repost: The Wealth of Egypt

From Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses:

The loftier meaning [of the Israelite’s plundering the wealth of Egypt] is therefore more fitting than the obvious one. It commands those participating through virtue in the free life also to equip themselves with the wealth of pagan learning by which foreigners to the faith beautify themselves. Our guide in virtue commands someone who “borrows” from wealthy Egyptians to receive such things as moral and natural philosophy, geometry, astronomy, dialectic, and whatever else is sought by those outside the Church, since these things will be useful when in time the divine sanctuary of mystery must be beautified with the riches of reason.

Those who treasured up for themselves such wealth handed it over to Moses as he was working on the tent of mystery, each one making his personal contribution to the construction of the holy places. It is possible to see this happening even now, for many bring to the church of God their profane learning as a kind of gift. Such a man was the great Basil [of Caesarea], who acquired the Egyptian wealth in every respect during his youth and dedicated this wealth to God for the adornment of the Church, the true tabernacle.

In this classic of Christian mysticism, Gregory reads the entire story of Moses as an allegory of the spiritual life. Whenever the bare historical details of the text create moral or rational difficulties, he finds a “spiritual” meaning beneath the surface. This is what he did with the detail that the Israelites on their way out of Egypt plundered the wealth of their former oppressors. He equates the “Egyptian wealth” with the learning of pagan cultures–the Egyptians of Moses’ time and the Greeks and Romans of his own. He praised Basil the Great for his extensive learning in pagan arts and sciences.

One of my majors in college was geography, and as a Neutestamentler I have also had some training in the study of history. Both are “field-encompassing fields.” You can’t just learn history or geography; studies in those fields will eventually lead one to dabble in a handful of other disciplines. Sociology and linguistics are more or less obvious examples, but sometimes a historian must go even further afield. He or she may be called on to learn a little astronomy to interpret the timing of events such as comets and eclipses as an aid to establishing ancient chronology, agriculture and animal husbandry in order to understand farming practices and technology, medicine in order to interpret physical conditions described in texts written before the advent of modern medicine, and so on. The field-encompassing nature of these disciplines is probably one of the main reasons I am personally drawn to them, which may be a highly academic way of confessing that I have a very short attention span.

Hopefully, however, I’ve acquired a small bit of “Egyptian wealth” in this sense. A liberal arts education exposes one to a little bit of a lot of disciplines (science, economics, history, mathematics, etc.)—for some, enough to make them think they know something; for others, enough to convince them there is much more to learn. In the spirit of Gregory, I would like to think that my meager “wealth” is at God’s disposal, to bring beauty to his spiritual house.

Not every Christian would agree with Gregory about the value of this “Egyptian wealth,” however. Tertullian famously asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” By that he meant, What does profane learning have to do with the things of the spirit? There are plenty of Tertullianists around today who reject the idea that Christians can learn anything from unbelievers. There was a fairly recent outbreak of this attitude at Patrick Henry College when a couple of faculty members wrote a paper about “The Role of General Revelation in Education.”

Others—thankfully the majority over the course of Christian history—have seen the wisdom of learning whatever can be known, even if pagans teach it. Justin Martyr was an early proponent of this view, which is also found in Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and many others. These heroes of the faith would have agreed with the concluding paragraph of the paper cited above:

When we examine the writings of any author, professed Christian or otherwise, the proper question is not, “Was this man a Christian?” but “Is this true?” Nor should we spend much time looking for points of disagreement. Rather we should focus on taking what has been rightly said and submitting it to the service of Christ.

I hope my students figure this out early in their college careers. When they take their classes in economics, physics, or English literature, they are storing up treasure they can place at Christ’s disposal. It doesn’t matter where that knowledge came from. It only matters if it’s true.


Exodus: Web-enabled Version

Google Exodus (H/T: James McGrath)

Wise Women 3: Midwives

Medical Practitioners

At the end of my previous post I suggested that wise women (in the Ancient Near East generally and in Israel in particular) often performed their services on occasions marked by liminality, the betwixt-and-between of important life passages. In this post, I hope to raise awareness of the activity of some wise women at one particular liminal occasion: childbirth. In Mishnaic Hebrew, the word for “midwife” is in fact chokhmah, “wise woman” (Shabbat 18:3; Rosh Hashana 2:5). In many corners of the ancient world, there is a strong connection between midwifery and wise women. I don’t mean to imply that all Israelite wise women were midwives. Deborah or Abigail were not necessarily out delivering babies on the side! Nor am I saying that all midwives were “wise women.” But it is nevertheless fair to say that, based on ancient cultural patterns, there was a significant overlap between these two classes of people.

According to Babylonian mythology, for example, goddesses who act as midwives are called “wise,” which seems to indicate that midwives belong somewhere in the ancient category of “wise women” (Hennie J. Marsman, Women in Ugarit and Israel: Their Social and Religious Position in the Context of the Ancient Near East [Brill, 2003] 412).

Childbirth is a liminal experience for the baby, the mother, and the entire community. Everything changes when a new baby is born! Therefore, it is a time of potential spiritual danger as status and relationships get rearranged to accommodate the arrival of a new community member. In ancient cultures the liminal nature of childbirth calls for the involvement of women. John Gray explains,

It is perhaps natural that women should assist at birth, but there is a further reason, suggested by the fact, as among the modern Arab peasants, that the men including the father studiously avoid the very house where the birth is taking place. The fact is that in such a crisis the normal activity of the community is suspended and the men, who normally take the initiative, become for the moment nonentitites. In the Book of Ruth not only do the women assist at the birth but they hold the initiative right through until the time when they actually name the child and so integrate the new life with the community. (The Legacy of Canaan: The Ras Shamra Texts and Their Relevance to the Old Testament [Brill, 1957] 179)

The religious nuances of the midwife’s calling is underscored by the fact that, like the goddesses of Babylonia, God is also depicted performing the duties of a midwife (Ps 22:9; see also Isa 66:9).

Midwives are rather thin on the ground in the Bible, but they appear on a number of important occasions. The first story that may come to mind is that of Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives in the time Israelite slavery in Egypt (Exod 1). Like the wise woman of Abel, these women stand up to powerful men and intercede in such a way that their people are saved from destruction.

By the nature of their calling, midwives in traditional cultures were often the doctors, psychologists, and family therapists of their village. In that light it is instructive to read S. D. Goitein’s composite portrait of a traditional Yemeni wise woman:

This is a woman who keeps a watchful eye on her fellow villagers from the day of their coming forth into the light of the world until their death. It is she who helps during childbirth; she who knows the remedies and other treatments…required in case of illness; she who assists in matchmaking and, when necessary, who makes peace between husband and wife. Her advice is sought not just by her family but by her whole village. It is she who is most proficient at whatever craft is practiced in the district, and she, too, who is the poet who “declaims” before the women at weddings and other festive occasions and in mourning as well. (S. D. Goitein, “Women as Creators of Biblical Genres,” Pretexts 8 [1988] 10, cited by Cullen Murphy, The Word According to Eve: Women and the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own [Mariner, 1998] 102, n. 21)

This picture harmonizes nicely with the themes of motherhood, conflict resolution, and liminality that we have already explored.

Ritual Practitioners

Midwives also appear in two stories from the patriarchal period. In Genesis 35:17, a midwife is at Rachel’s side to comfort her as she is in hard labor with Benjamin. More interesting in terms of the wise-woman tradition is Genesis 38:28, where the midwife at the birth of the twins Perez and Zerah ties a scarlet thread around Perez to identify him as the firstborn. Though ostensibly to mark which baby came out first, the use of red thread as a protective amulet for both mother or child is attested in Mesopotamian and Hittite texts. (Carol Meyers, Households and Holiness: The Religious Culture of Israelite Women [Fortress, 2005] 39; Marten Stol and F. A. M. Wiggermann, Birth in Babylonia and the Bible: Its Mediterranean Setting [Styx, 2000] 49, 56–58). Such customs are likely to have influenced Israelite practices. Indeed, tying a scarlet thread around the wrist of a newborn baby girl is a longstanding Jewish Kabbalistic practice intended to ward off evil spirits—despite the fact that the custom has been condemned since Talmudic times as pagan supersition (Michele Klein, A Time to Be Born: Customs and Folklore of Jewish Birth [Jewish Publication Society, 1998] 125).

Perez’s scarlet threat reminds us that in the Ancient Near East midwives had two categories of tasks. First, obviously, she performed the physical tasks involved in childbirth: preparing the necessary equipment, comforting the mother, and delivering the child. Second, she effected magical or religious protection of the woman and especially the newborn. Citing G. M. Beckman, Marsman explains, “[T]he midwife recites incantations on behalf of the new-born, beseeching the gods to remove evil influences and to grant a desirable fate to the child” (412). Midwifery is thus a religious vocation in the ancient world, surely no less so among the ancient Israelites.

In addition to the scarlet thread, we find hints of later Israelite birth rituals in Ezekiel 16:4: “As for your birth, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in cloths.”

The implication of this verse is that certain ritual actions were performed upon a newborn. While some of these are obviously matters of simple practicality (e.g., cutting the umbilical cord), others seem to be ritualistic in nature. The word for “washed,” for example, is used only here in the Old Testament. Meyers suggests it may be related to an Aramaic cognate meaning “to smear,” and may reflect the application of protective ointment. The “washing with water” may then have had ritual and not merely practical significance. This is certainly the case for “rubbing with salt.” The prophet is thus painting a picture of a newborn baby for whom the expected rituals of childbirth were not performed, thus leaving the baby vulnerable to the forces of evil.

Even in modern times, a Jewish midwife might recite certain customary prayers on the way to attend to a woman in labor (Klein, 125). She tries to calm the cries of the laboring woman through words of encouragement, prayers, or simple incantations (Klein, 123). Alice Bailes, a modern Jewish midwife, relates the following testimony of her experience:

There are psalms that I sing to myself in Hebrew when I am attending a birth. If the baby’s head is a little big for the mother’s bones and it has to mold to fit through I sing “Min Ha Metzar, from the narrow place I call to God and God answers me in this great expanse of space.” I think that my singing these prayers helps the baby come.

In addition, midwives were often specialists in folk remedies and incantations. Klein notes that “The old midwife, the bubbeh (Yiddish for “granny”) who served Jews in the shtetl a century ago, kept her incantations a closely guarded secret, for fear of destroying their potency (Klein, 124–25).

Just as women are present in ancient Israel at the time of birth, they are also present at the time of death and bereavement. Therefore, the next installment in this series will thus focus on wise women’s roles as mourners.

Moses Talked Funny, but at Least He Might Have Been in His Right Mind

Claude Mariottini has written a couple of interesting posts, pondering whether Moses had a cleft lip and/or was left-handed. The verdict on both questions is “not enough evidence,” but the reasoning process, and especially the midrashic material in Claude’s second post, is very interesting.

All the King’s Horses: Conclusion?

Having examined the evidence—what little there is—for military tactics in the Old Testament and comparing it to Robert Drews’ thesis in The End of the Bronze Age (Princeton University Press, 1995) that the shift from the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age was marked in a radical transformation from chariotry to infantry as the basic offensive unit of ancient armies, we are ready to take stock of what we have found.

Remember, my point in this exercise has been to see whether the depictions of armed conflict in the Bible might serve either to verify or falsify certain revisionist theories about ancient chronology. According to the conventional chronology, the transition from Late Bronze to Iron Age tactics occurred circa 1200 BC, but there are several challenges to this chronology. Most famously, David Rohl has proposed a circa 300-year downdating which would place this transition some time shortly after 900 BC. Most recently, Pierce Furlong’s dissertation (“Aspects of Ancient Near Eastern Chronology [c. 1600-700 BC],” University of Melbourne, 2007) has argued for a downdating of nearly 200 years. Other theories gravitate between relatively modest adjustments to the standard chronology and sweeping revisions of the magnitude proposed by Rohl and Furlong.

So, where does the biblical evidence leave us? It seems clear that the campaigns against Judah launched by “Shishak” of Egypt (2 Chr 12:3-4) and “Zerah the Ethiopian” (2 Chr 14:10) take place in an Iron Age milieu. Since these expeditions are dated to the closing years of the 10th century BC (ca. 927 and 901 respectively by my estimation), Rohl’s 300-plus-year revision is ruled out as untenable. Ramesses III, representing the end of the era of Late Bronze Age chariotry, cannot have invaded Judah fifty or more years after the Iron Age transition!

Furthermore, the army the (frustratingly) unnamed Pharaoh sent against Israel during the Exodus (Exod 14–15) seems clearly to be a Late Bronze Age chariot force. Whether one prefers a thirteenth-century Exodus or a fifteenth-century one, this establishes a date after which the Iron Age transition occurred. A Late Bronze Exodus is to be expected in anyone’s chronology.

Between these two points, however, the evidence seems far more ambiguous than it should be on standard chronological assumptions.

Early in the period of the Judges, Deborah and Barak’s confrontation with Sisera’s chariot force in Judges 4–5 is described in ways that strongly suggest a Late Bronze Age milieu. When did this battle take place? Biblical chronology offers two possible answers, depending on whether one is calculating from an early Exodus (15th century) or a late one (13th century). On an early Exodus model, a date some time in the 1200’s BC is not out of the question, and once again is perfectly in line with conventional assumptions about the chronology of the ancient world, as this would still be prior to the Iron Age transition. On a late Exodus model, however, circa 1200 BC is probably the earliest possible date. “Twelfth century” is usually as accurate a claim as scholars are willing to make, although I’ve seen specific dates as low as 1120 BC for the judgeship of Deborah. Did those who passed on the oral tradition of this conflict preserve genuine memories of a Bronze-Age battle, or did they insert anachronistic details that would be alien to their own Iron-Age setting? On the theory of a thirteenth-century Exodus, the story of Deborah and Barak at least raises the possibility of downdating the end of the Bronze Age by perhaps 50-100 years.

Finally, the period of the United Monarchy seems to be a tangle of conflicting data. Both Saul and David operated militarily in a setting that seems at one point Iron Age and at another Bronze Age. At the dawn of this period, the prophet Samuel makes reference to (Late Bronze Age) chariot runners and implies that these are standard issue for the prosperous, “civilized” kingdoms Israel wishes to imitate. The presence of large infantry units and armored infantry, seeming hallmarks of the Iron Age, actually made their debut a century or so beforehand, leaving much of the evidence for Saul’s reign subject to varied interpretations. Likewise with David, a case can be made for either an Iron Age or a Late Bronze Age setting. Finally, Solomon—the last king of the United Monarchy period—seems to have a thoroughly Late Bronze chariot force!

The simplest explanation for this ambiguity is that the United Monarchy in fact overlaps with the time of the Iron Age transition in the Ancient Near East. If this transition took place in the decades around 1000 BC rather than 1200 BC, the descriptions of Saul and David’s battles would count as evidence of the contemporary state of flux in military tactics and technology. Samuel can envision his chariot runners, Ammonites can hire mercenary chariot soldiers from Mesopotamia, and Solomon can build his “chariot cities” at the same time the Philistines can field their armored infantry and mounted cavalry can appear on the battlefield for the first time in history.

By this hypothesis, Solomon’s (unused!) chariot force is at worst only slightly behind the geopolitical learning curve. Furthermore, the depiction of Sisera’s chariotry can fit comfortably even on a thirteenth-century Exodus model, since with a circa 200-year downdating of ancient chronology, the entire judges period is within the scope of the Late Bronze Age from beginning to end.

This conclusion enhances my estimation of the work of Jeremy Goldberg and Pierce Furlong, who have independently argued for chronological revisions of similar magnitude, and whose theories—insofar as they intersect with biblical history—I have summarized in the posts linked below.


All the King’s Horses: What a Bronze Age Military Expedition Might Look Like

We’re continuing to look at military tactics described in biblical texts as an indicator for the end of the Bronze Age and thus a test for or against various proposals to revise the chronology of the ancient world. There are two biblical passages that seem unquestionably to describe Late Bronze Age military expeditions as Robert Drews conceives them in The End of the Bronze Age. We’ll look briefly at each one.

The Exodus

Exodus 14-15 describe Pharaoh sending a chariot force against the Israelites after his change of heart regarding letting them leave Egypt:

So he had his chariot made ready, and took his army with him; he took six hundred picked chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt and he pursued the Israelites, who were going out boldly. The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, his chariot drivers and his army; they overtook them camped by the sea, by Pi-hahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon. (Exod 14:6-9)

The emphasis is clearly‚ if not exclusively‚ on Pharaoh’s chariotry. In fact, verses 6-7 seem to equate the army with the chariot force. At any rate, if any foot soldiers were involved in this expedition, they were an afterthought in the mind of the biblical writer. What really mattered was the 600 chariot teams Pharaoh put on the field; the “army” (if we are to understand these as the infantry) is not numbered and may well have comprised runners or skirmishers meant to follow after the chariots and finish off any Israelites who didn’t fall to the chariot-mounted archers’ arrows.

By the way, Kevin Edgecomb has proposed a (mostly) consistent way of emending the text with respect to many of the numbers one finds in the Old Testament. I think his suggestions are largely spot on and I intend to shamelessly make make use of them when I think they’re right and emend his emendations when it serves my purpose to do so. 🙂 He is probably correct that Pharaoh had sixty elite chariot teams rather than 600, and that 600 is a likely number for the total number of Pharaoh’s chariots.

At any rate, and regardless of the size of Pharaoh’s chariot forces, the Exodus occurred in the Bronze Age by virtually any chronological scheme, and the depiction of Pharoah’s expedition to the Sea of Reeds confirms this. The widespread scholarly consensus links the Exodus to the time of Ramesses II, the Egyptian pharaoh at the Battle of Kadesh (considered the pinnacle of Late Bronze Age chariot warfare). Some conservative Christians prefer a face-value reading of the chronological notices in 1 Kings 6:1 and Judges 11:26, which would set the Exodus some 200 years earlier during the reign (in the conventional chronology) of Thutmose III, who inaugurated his sole reign by facing a Canaanite uprising at the Battle of Megiddo‚ another key chariot battle.

Jabin and Sisera

The next battle described in the Bible involving chariots occurs during the judgeship of Deborah a few generations after the Israelite conquest/settlement of Canaan. At this time, Israel’s oppressor was Jabin, a Canaanite king whose capital was Hazor. The commander of Jabin’s army was Sisera, whose name has been interpreted to be either Hittite or Hurrian in origin‚ fitting for a man who lived in the “woodland of the gentiles” (Harosheth-ha-goyim).

Both Hittites and Hurrians were noted innovators in chariotry. The Hittites, in fact, seem to have been the first nation to capitalize on the military potential of chariot-mounted archers as early as the Middle Bronze Age (Robert Drews, The Coming of the Greeks [Princeton University Press, 1994] 105-106). The Hurrians were noted charioteers who, evidently led by an Indo-Aryan ruling class, had established the kingdom of Mitanni in northern Mesopotamia. Kikkuli, a Hurrian, wrote an important manual for training chariot horses.

It may be, then, that Sisera was a foreigner hired by Jabin for his expertise in chariot warfare. Such chariot warriors dominated many Ancient Near Eastern societies and were collectively known as maryan(n)u. Sisera is said to have commanded 900 chariot teams, although once again I think Edgecomb is correct to read ninety (and only 1,000 foot soldiers for the Israelites). Either way, once again the chariots are numbered and clearly described as being the principal threat an enemy brought to bear against Israel:

Then the Israelites cried out to the LORD for help; for [Sisera] had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years. (Jdg 4:3)

Unlike the exodus story, here we can actually read some of the details of how the battle unfolded:

When Sisera was told that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, Sisera called out all his chariots, nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the troops who were with him, from Harosheth-ha-goiim to the Wadi Kishon. Then Deobrah said to Barak, “Up! For this is the day on which the LORD has given Sisera into your hand. The LORD is indeed going out before you.” So Barak went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand warriors following him. And the LORD threw Sisera and all his chariots and all his army into a panic before Barak; Sisera got down from his chariot and fled away on foot, while Barak pursued the chariots and the army to Harosheth-ha-goiim. All the army of Sisera fell by the sword; no one was left. (Jdg 4:12-16)

The chariots proved ineffective against Israel’s infantry, but this was not because of Barak’s superior tactics. According to the poetic retelling of the story in chapter 5, an unexpected storm flooded the wadi:

LORD, when you went out from Seir,
when you marched from the region of Edom,
the earth trembled,
and the heavens poured,
the clouds indeed poured water….

The torrent Kishon swept them away,
the onrushing torrent, the torrent of Kishon.
March on, my soul, with might? (Jdg 5:4, 21)

The biblical writer clearly wants us to see the storm and resulting flash flood as providential. A sudden onrush of water stymied Sisera’s chariot force. Some of it was “swept away”; others would have been bogged down in the mud, forcing them to flee on foot, just as Judges 4 describes. Although Sisera commanded a group of foot soldiers (whose numbers are never provided‚ an indication of their relative unimportance), they seem to have been ineffective against the Israelites. Sisera and his men had expected his chariotry to take the central role in the battle, and when the weather made this impossible, they panicked and fled.

We still seem to be firmly planted in the Late Bronze Age in this episode, although in the mainstream scholarly chronology, we should have entered the Iron Age by now. With a conquest/settlement late in the reign of Ramesses II or perhaps in the reign of one of his successors, it is a tight squeeze to get to Deborah and Barak’s era before the “Sea Peoples” invasion in year 8 of Ramesses III, and a date several decades after would seem to be the norm. If, however, one opts for a mid-15th century exodus, there is still plenty of time to fit this battle in before the “catastrophe” at the end of the Bronze Age, even with a conventional understanding of Egyptian chronology.

In the next post I’ll look for clear evidence for the beginning of the Iron Age in the biblical narrative.

Leadership Secrets of Jethro the Midianite

I’m supposed to take part in a leadership training event at church this Sunday. They want me to talk on the biblical and theological basis for lay ministry, and they’ve given me all of eight minutes in which to do it! I thought I’d use my time to talk about a fairly obscure text from the book of Exodus that may open up some interesting conversations.

In Exodus 18, Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, comes to visit the Israelite camp. After observing how Moses sits all day long settling the peoples’ disputes, he states the obvious:

What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. (vv. 17-18)

Scholars debate whether the census figures in the Pentateuch should be taken at face value or whether some sort of textual corruption has crept in, which would mean adjusting downward the number of Israelites who left Egypt. Even by the most radical proposals, however, the estimated Israelite population at the time of the exodus is in the tens of thousands. That is an astonishing number of people to manage!

But how are they to be managed? Moses apparently only knew of one leadership model. Reared in Pharaoh’s household, he apparently looked to the vast, centralized Egyptian state as a blueprint for the people of Israel. He alone was the lawgiver with the inside track to God—a Hebraic knock-off of Pharaoh himself! He saw himself—and the people saw him—as the one indispensable person in a camp of thousands.

Moses’ exalted position was taking its toll, however. We shouldn‚Äôt be surprised that he had to deal with the people’s disputes “from morning until evening” (v. 14). His duties as an arbitrator must have worn him out. He was heading for burnout‚Äîand an early grave‚Äîif something didn‚Äôt change.

There are at least three problems with Moses’ leadership model. First, it was taking its toll on Moses (“you will surely wear yourself out”). Second, it was unhealthy for the people (“both you and these people with you”). It’s easy to imagine a lot of unhappy Israelites standing around wondering why the pastor Moses never has any time for them. Finally, the system was bound to be creating an unhealthy reliance on Moses.

It took someone who had never been to Egypt to show him a better way. Jethro advised Moses to establish his priorities and stick with them. In particular, he suggested that Moses concentrate on three things:

  1. Intercessory prayer (“represent the people before God,” v. 19)
  2. Teaching the word of God (v. 20)
  3. Recruiting and training additional leaders (v. 21)

When necessary, the people could bring their cases to the “able men” Moses had commissioned; Moses himself would only be responsible for the most difficult cases. This organizational model came naturally to the Bedouin patriarch, whose nomadic people could have never been ruled by an imposing, distant Pharaoh. Clans and tribes scattered across the desert had to be self-sufficient, so leadership had to come from the bottom up.

Rather than vesting all authority at the top, Jethro’s leadership model starts at the bottom. People are expected to govern themselves and resolve their own disputes as much as possible. When this isn’t possible, there is an ascending ladder of tribunals where cases can be decided. And, if all else fails, Moses at last can be invited to weigh in on the matter.

Moses had to decentralize his ministry. He had to share responsibility with others for the sake of the people, and for his own sake. Likewise, churches are healthy when they place as much responsibility as possible in the hands of every member. When a few individuals are expected to do most of the work, it is bad for the people—and the leaders.

technorati tags: jethro, leadership, moses

All in How You Look at It

How do you picture the Red Sea crossing from the book of Exodus? If you were making a movie about the Exodus, would the parting of the Red Sea (or “Sea of Reeds” if you prefer) look like something clearly miraculous, in the style of Cecil B. DeMille’s classic The Ten Commandments? Or would it look like something with a natural cause or causes; something that, if one were inclined, could be chalked up as an incredibly fortunate coincidence for the Israelites?

I’m not talking about whether God parted the sea. I accept that as a given. What I’m talking about is this: assuming that God was the ultimate cause of the sea parting, is it acceptable to propose that there may have been secondary causes involved? Before you answer, take a look at a couple of passages from the book of Exodus. First, from chapter 15:

At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up,
the floods stood up in a heap;
the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea. (Ex 15:8)

This may well be the earliest layer of Old Testament tradition about what happened when the Red Sea parted. It involved a “blast” of God’s “nostrils.” Is that figurative language for wind? It would seem so, since two verses later, describing the fate of Pharaoh’s army, we read, “You blew with your wind, the sea covered them…” (Ex 15:10).

Exodus 14 gives us the prose version:

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided. (Ex 14:21)

Once again, and here quite explicitly, God is depicted using a secondary cause‚Äînamely, a “strong east wind” blowing “all night”‚Äîto part the Red Sea. But what if we didn’t have these details from Exodus, but instead were left with Psalm 78?

He divided the sea and let them pass through it,
and made the waters stand like a heap. (Ps 78:13)

There’s nothing about a “strong east wind” in that verse. If that were all anyone had to go on, it would be natural to presume there was no secondary causation in the Red Sea parting: God did it “directly” in a strictly supernatural manner.

If the report in Psalm 78 were all we had, I can imagine some Christians getting very upset that anyone would even suggest that, just perhaps, something like a strong wind were involved in the parting of the sea. Wouldn’t such a theory diminish the sovereignty of God? Is it a devious way of denying that God performs miracles?

Well, some people might very well propose the “wind” theory of the Red Sea crossing with exactly those motives, but that doesn’t mean the theory is invalid. On the contrary, since we do have Exodus 14-15, we can categorically state that the “wind” theory is precisely how God did it!

It seems God usually keeps a low enough profile that, if we really want to, we can find alternative explanations for his mighty deeds. Isn’t that the story of Elijah? He finally heard the voice of God not in the wind or the earthquake but in the “sound of sheer silence” (1 Ki 19:12). We may wish for burning bushes, angelic visitors, or theophanic earthquakes, but they are few and far between.

Isn’t that the story of Jesus? The Bible says he cast out demons. The Pharisees argued it was only because he was in league with the devil himself (Mk 3:22)! Scripture seems fairly clear that, even if we see a miracle with our own two eyes, it’s still no guarantee that we will accept it as “proof” of anything. Here is some wisdom from one of my former teachers, Dr. Harold Songer:

To label an event as a miracle requires faith in God because a miracle is more than a mysterious unexplainable wonder. A miracle is God acting in history outside of what would be the expected outcome of events, and this event which is not understandable by natural explanation is perceived as God acting. A miracle is then a faith understanding and does not compel belief. The miracles of Jesus did not force all the observers to believe he was God’s son (Mark 3:22). The disputes about the credibility of miracles are not, therefore, confined to the modern or scientific age; and the Christian need not be surprised that what she or he attributes to God will be assigned by others to unknown or other causes. (“Miracles,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, 579 [emphasis added])

When it comes to miracles, it is often the case not that you have to see in order to believe, but that you have to believe in order to see.

Lord, open our eyes to notice when you pass by.

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