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  • Way Out Lent (9) Exodus 19-20

    Contained in this pericope (to use posh langauge for 'chunk') is the familiar listing of the Decalgoue/Ten Commandments, familar material and more of the stuff I had to learn by rote for 'O' level RE back in the day. It's useful having a bit of context around it.

    I'll not bore readers with stuff around stylistic hints at melded sources, which I haven't bothered to check and which, by now, everyone is aware are plentiful.  I'll just pick out a few themes and comment on them.

    We are  now three new moons - or three months - into the adventure, and the people are now camping in Sinai.

    Sanctity of the Earth

    Early in chapter 19 we read these words attributed to God:

    "the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation"

    Nothing radically new here, we all know that the earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof, but it is striking that precisely at the moment Israel is emerging as, or discerning itself to be, something special, chosen to be lifted out of slavery and established in a plentiful land, this reminder is given.  The whole earth is God's, and therefore all creation is precious... in Genesis it was all declared 'good' now we begin to see that not only is it good, it is in some way holy, sanctified.

    At the end of chapter 20, in a rarely read paragraph, God says this:

    You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. You need make for me only an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt-offerings and your offerings of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. But if you make for me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones; for if you use a chisel upon it you profane it. You shall not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.

    Following straight after the decalogue, perhaps this is the weaving in of material from another tradition, since some of what it says has already been implied.  And yet it also offers something extra... well a few extra things actually.

    The command to have no silver or gold gods alongside the LORD suggests very clearly that the people were polytheistic... you could worship this YHWH God but it didn't mean you couldn't have other gods too, at least until now.  This is subtly different, I think, from the prohibition of idols, which I have always been led to believe referred to images meant to represent YHWH.

    Central to this command is the instructions about altars... sacrifices made by the people are to made on altars ideally of earth or otherwise of unhewn stone.  In other words, the altars are to be totally natural, part of the earth, which belongs to the LORD, and is good.  If altars are somehow sanctified, then by implication the earth or stone is inherently sacred.  This seems somehow to express a real rootedness in the natural order, and a respect for the earth that does not seek to plunder or exploit.  God doesn't need fancy altars with ornate decoration or carefully hewn stone, the earth IS the Lord's, and all of it is, in some measure, holy ground.

    If we believe this to be so, then it has to affect our thinking about envirommental and ecological matters not in a simplistic way, but in one that recognises both God's sovereignty and the intrinisic sanctity of the earth.


    Oh, and on a lighter note, is the prohibition of steps up to altars to avoid anyone discovering what is worn under the "kilt"  - as amusing as it is serious!!


    The Priestly Nation

    As Christians we are more used to hearing this idea in the words of the Apostle Paul than spoken directly from the mouth of God.  From very early on we are told that Israel is not given favoured-nation status in order to enjoy the privilege and bounty that offers, rather as a nation it is to be holy (set apart for God) and priestly (acting as a 'bridge' or go-between to God for others).

    I think it is fair to say that neither Israel nor the Church have ever grasped this.  Partly because it is probably counter-intuitive, and partly because it is so incredibly difficult to begin to live out.

    If Israel is to be a priestly nation than, based on how we understand priesthood, her role is to act on behalf of all nations, all peoples... which isn't how the story seems to unfold.  In the Temple cult, the priest made sacrifices on behalf of those who were ritually prohibited from doing so, they carried our rites of initiation, penitence, consecration and so forth.  Quite how this can be paralleled at a national level is not so clear.  But surely it must include some sense of praying for othe rnations, seeking their good and, yes, sharing the story of the God who is worshipped with them

    As Baptists we talk about the Priesthood of All Believers, and rightly so, recognising our interconectedness and interdependence, at least at a congregational level.  But what if we saw ouselves also as some kind of Priestly Entity, called to serve the whole world?  I expect we think we do, I'm just not so sure it's quite so easy to live it out in a really meaningful way.

    Details in the Decalogue

    The list of commandments includes some that are stark statements, such as 'thou shalt not kill', and others that are are quite detailed, such as the prohibition of idols or of covetousness.  Why some have been amplified and others not is maybe worth some thought, but it's a couple of details that struck me today.

    The NRSV which I have been using says "You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name". 

    This is helpful, I think, and moves us beyond the simplistic understanding that renders phrases such as 'OMG' blasphemy.  I have to say I really dislike the use of such phrases and expressions, and find them at best disrespectful to the faith tradition I follow.  Years ago I trained a colleague out of saying "Oh my God" by pointing out he wouldn't like it if I said "Oh my His-name" as a lightweight expletive.

    It is both helpful and challenging because it speaks to any context where something is enacted in the name of God, of Christ, of Allah, of any deity at all... it could be epxressed as 'do not go around claiming divine warrant for everything you do...' complete with the 'not being found blameless if you do so inappropriately' consequence.

    The second thing that struck me, again not new, but more notably, was that the sabbath rest is for everyone... the Israelites were not to exploit slaves or foreigners or even livestock on the sabbath.  This idea of rest for all is one we have long since lost, and one that seems nigh on impossible to achieve... many depend on buses to get to church, we nip into coffee shops or cafes, we buy papers or petrol... To achieve one perfect Sabbath, which according to some Jewish tradition will bring in the  Messianic Era, seems an impossible dream... but the intent of this command, to ensure that our leisure is not enjoyed by denying that of others, including animals, is worth pondering some more.


  • Way Out Lent (8) Exodus 16,17,18

    OK, so I like consistency and order, so today had to be either one chapter or three to get me back into my 'even number' contendedness!  (yes, I'm weird, I know).

    This largish chunk of text seems to fall fairly neatly into three very different parts, written in different styles and with plenty to challenge sceptic and literalist alike.  Oh, and there is an excellent example of how words can change their meanings over time too.

    Captain's Log Stardate Plinky Plonk... and Linguistic Changes

    I'm not a trekkie, but growing up in the 1970s Star Trek was hugely popular family entertainment, each episode beginning (as I recall anyway) 'Captain's log star date...'

    Parts of the Exodus narrative read very much in that style, suggesting that, albeit originally in an oral rather than written tradition, there was an equivalent phrase.  So this section opens by telling us that on the 15th day of the second month after leaving Egypt the people left Elim.  Whether this is six weeks from the Passover or six weeks from crossing the Red Sea, or even if it was literally six weeks isn't so significant.  What is significant is that so early in the and having already twice being recorded as complainign about how much better life was in Egypt, they are at it again.

    Back in Egypt, they say, we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.  To a twenty-first century reader, unfamiliar with the passage, this should create a shocked reaction - 'fleshpot' nowadays refers to places in which hedonism and sexual licentiousness abound.  Could it be that the Hebrews sat on the edge of such areas?  No.  A 'fleshpot' was, as it's name suggests, a pot in which meat was cooked.  It's easy enough to see how, over time, the word has changed its meaning - from inferring plenty and ease back in Egypt to luxury and thence hedomism and beyond.  A salutory reminder that the meaning of words are (generally) not fixed but evolve and change over time.

    Life in Egypt was good, very good it now seems - clean water, plenty to eat and a settled lifestyle... This wilderness wandering is unsettling and demanding... they don't like it and they want Moses to fix it.

    Only a few verses on, and now at Rephidim, short of water the people moan again... poor Moses!

    Manna and Quails... Human Nature

    Debates over the nature of the manna and its provision, of why it rotted if kept overnight any day except what we'd call Friday, and why the sample kept as a reminder seemingly survived intact only to disappear from any later 'history' are not helpful.  What we have in this highly detailed account is an intriguing insight into human behaviour.

    The quails arrive in the evening, and the manna in the morning.  The people are sent to gather as much as they need (an omer apiece, which may be around 2kg/4lb) and no more.  Overnight it perishes, there is no point keeping some back 'just in case.'  But people do.  Because that's human nature, the desire to keep something in reserve, 'just in case', the unspoken, unrecognised fear that tomorrow there may not be any bread.  In the New Testament is the parable of the man who built 'bigger barns' to store his grain, and then he died... Tomorrow is never guaranteed, sufficent unto the day and all that... but I still have a pension fund, and I still save what money I can 'just in case.'  Living totally by faith is really hard - and even having done it for four years when I was a student, I've still slipped back into a self-reliance that keeps some back 'just in case.'

    On Day 6 (Friday in our parlance) they are to collect double and this won't perish overnight, but on Day 7 (Sabbath, Saturday) there will be no provision: the provider rests and so should they.  That's quite a big ask of people who have already seen manna rot and stink overnight.  And even though there is nothing to suggest they failed to gather the required quantity, and presumably even though they lifted the lid of the jar and found it still intact, some of the people still went out to gather.  This is readily seen as disobedience to Moses and to God, but is it, again, human nature?  Even if we have enough do we still want more?  Do we want to risk the possibility that failing to gather today will leave us lacking tomorrow?

    Slipped into this section, and expressed in Divine ire, is the fact that the people were not to travel on the seventh day.  The temptation to keep on going, to think that a day waiting is a day wasted, is very real.  But right at the start the people begin to establish a rhythm and routine of rest.  No 'shopping', no 'cooking', no 'travelling'... a day to rest and be refreshed.  I know that I, of all people, constantly need to be reminded of that, and not to slip into making my one 'rest day' a week the day when I catch up on the chores I haven't done because I've been too busy doing other stuff.


    In two very different episodes, we reminded both of Moses' humanity and of the need for different kinds of teamwork.

    The battle against Amalek is probably one of the least bloody descriptions we will encounter, but what is striking, and is a story I have always loved, is how Moses, along with Aaaron and Hur, go up a hill where they can be seen.  Moses, an old man by all accounts, holds up his arms and the people are inspired... but as his arms tire and sag, so they lose heart.  On his own, he cannot inspire the people; on his own he will tire and be unable to stand.  So what happens?  First Aaron and Hur find him a seat - he doesn't need to be standing up - and then they each take one of his arms and support them when he grows tired.  It's a beautiful, albeit bizarre, image... human finitude and frailty being recongnised and others coming alongside to support and encourage without either undermining or over-ruling.

    The visit of Jethro along with Moses' wife and sons (who had at some point been sent away) is also beautiful and challenging.  Jethro watches Moses at work, and sees how exhausting and impossible is the task he has undertaken.  Everyone comes to Moses, and Moses tries to deal with everything himself.  No-one, it seems, within the Hebrew people sees fit to question this, but Jethro does.  You can't do it all yourself, he says, what you need is to identify suitable people (men in the text, but Biblical record suggests that there were some women, at least later on) who are able, God-fearing and trustworthy, and give them authority over defined groups of people.  Moses remains the leader and now he is able to focus his energies on the things only he can do because he isn't worn out with the things others can do.

    I often tell people I'm not like Moses, and I'm not, but the  temptation to try to do everything myself is very real.  Partly because of my personality.  Partly because, at least as I perceive it, the person/people who raise something expect me to do it.  And its crackers.  Not least because I really do believe in teamwork and like to think I'm a half decent team-player.  I have recently been reminding myself that my old boss used to say "don't bring me probelsm, bring me solutions"... I need to learn to response not by taking on more work, but by inviting others to bring to fruition that which they desire, and in so doing to discover and/or develop their own gifts and skills.

    I'm not sure this is about delegation - though I may need to recover my ability to do that - it's more about prioritising within my role, and identifying people who are gifted to pick up other roles... which is challenging, because people seem to fall into two categories, those who are brilliant at saying 'no' and those (like me) who find it nigh on impossible.

    Real People

    I wanted to undertake this read through of Exodus (and then Numbers) because it is a story of real people, with real faults and failings, real hopes and dreams, real frustrations and fears.  As I move further into the story, with this aim in mind, I am reminded of how very real these people are... Moses, the flawed and fallible leader, and the Hebrews, a motley crew of former slaves learning to fend for themselves and become a nation in their own right.

    I'm carefully avoiding drawing simplictic parallels, but whatever sphere of life we may wish to consider, the same is surely true... every leader is fallible and flawed; every church, every city, every nation, comprises people working out what life is meant to look like, quick to grumble and, if the Hebrews are anything to go by, slow to learn. 

    All of which is, perversely, quite reassuring for this flawed, frail and finite Baptist minister!

  • Way Out Lent (7) Exodus 13,14,15

    I found the map that I've added above online on this website.  I've included it because just reading lists of names of places isn't very meaningful in its own right.  If you are interested, you can check out more about the route, and assorted theories, if not, it serves as a reminder that what we read in a few sentences did not happen all that quickly.

    I opted for three chapters today partly because I recalled that when we looked at Exodus as part of a second year OT module at vicar school, the focus was Exodus 1 - 15, stopping just after the crossing of the Red Sea.  It seemed appropriate, therefore, to work with that break in my close reading.

    Back in the 1970s when I was first starting to engage seriously with Biblical reading, there was a popular and seemingly emergent theory, now discounted, that rather than the Red Sea, the Israelites crossed the Reed Sea... Again, you can find out more about this via Dr Google and Professor Wikipedia if you so wish.  I note this simply because as a result, I have 'always' known that there were questions over the location and historicity of the events described in this chapter.  Even if we have no questions about the nature of them, what they say to us about God that isn't exactly edifying.

    One thing that seems to me abundantly clear, is that the Hebrews got a good head start before Pharaoh changed his mind yet again and sent out his charioteers to pursue them.

    Close reading of these three chapters once again shows evidence of the combining of different sources, with variation in style and repetition of information.  Maybe I should stop boring my readers with this, as I'm sure you've all noticed it by now!!

    Another Ritual

    After a brief (re-)statement of the institution of the Passover, comes the requirement to sacrifice or redeem every firstborn male, human or livestock.  Sheep and cattle male firstborns are to be sacrificed but firstborn male donkeys and first born sons may be redeemed.  The purpose is a lasting reminder of what happened to the Egyptians.  This ritual is one of those performed by Mary and Joseph for Jesus within the encounter with Simeon and Anna.

    Mumbling and Grumbling

    Within this chunk of test, we have two records of the Hebrew people moaning and groaning.

    The first comes when they are are camped near the place where they will cross the Red Sea, and they become aware that they are being pursued.  Surely we'd have better off to stay put, they say, better to have died in Egypt than to have had our hopes raised only to have them dashed...

    The second comes after the crossing, as the people enter the Wilderness of Shur, and travel for three days without finding water; reaching Marah (which means bitter/bitterness) they find only bitter water and they complain again to Moses.  Presumably back in Egypt, plagues aside, there had always been an ample supply of clean water.

    These little insights are important, because they show us that these were ordinary, fallible, human beings with ordinary concerns.  Sometimes we embark on a new venture only to wonder whether this was in fact wise... at least we knew what to expect where we were... That old job was at least familiar...  The way we used to do things was easier...  The place we left because we dreamed of a brighter tomorrow now takes on a rose-tinted remembracen or at least a sense of "well it wasn't SO bad afterall..."

    It takes determination to keep moving forwards, even if metaphorical bridges have been burned and going back is impossible.  The lure of bitterness can be strong.  The resort to nostalgia overwhelming.  But there is no route back, only an uncharted route forward... and that can be really challenging.

    This grumbling is a recurrent theme to which we will find ourselves returning - and whilst it isn't the most edifying, it is at least reassuring to know that we aren't so different from the ancients who sometimes seemed a whole lot closer to God than we ever are.

    Victory Songs

    Both Moses and Miriam are recorded as singing.  The song attributed to Moses is not, I suspect, one that we would choose to use in its entirety on a Sunday morning!  And yet phrases and lines from this, and from some of the more troubling Psalms are to be found in old hymns and contemporary worship songs, neatly skipping past the troubling verses.

    Every now and then I find myself making up songs to God - spontaneous doggerel that arises in a moment and is as quickly forgotten.  Probably some of what I sing is not good theology, but it is authentically of the moment... trust me, though, you would not want to read or hear these songs!  I guess that just because something is bad poetry, dire music or even questionable theology it isn't automatically inauthentic. 

    The victory song sung by Moses, and quite possibly repeated by Miriam and the women, expresses their emotions and understandings in that moment.  What we have recorded is, I suspect, a later, edited version, that has become part of the accepted liturgy or psalter of its day.  And it's that aspect which gives me pause for thought... sometimes I feel that nowadays we are too ready to publish, record and share songs that, whilst authentic for those who create them, really add little or nothing to the music of the church.  Sometimes, too, it is when I learn the story behind a song that irritates or offends my sensibilties, that I discover its worth for those who created it. 

    Among my least-liked songs is one called 'Strength will rise" - or even "Strenf wiw rarz" as it's almost always sung in Estuary English.  The tune is dull and repetitive, the words, whilst innocuous seem a bit vacuous.  It was learning that this song was created by a young man suffering from depression singing hope when he had little or none that enabled me to discover its value and authenticity.  I still don't like it, but at least I understand it.

    Washed up on the Seashore

    The account of the events includes reference to the bodies of dead Egyptians being washed up on the seashore.  I cannot read these words and not think of the refugees who are drowning in the Mediterranean as they flee Syria in the hope of a new life.

    The simplistic "Hebrews good, Egyptians bad" distinction doesn't work.  Perhaps the equally simplistic "refugees good, extremists bad" distinction isn't entirely right either.

    The story interprets the drowing of the Egyptians as the work of a God who is on the side of the Hebrews.  In its context we accept it, even if it is uncomfortable.  It does beg questions about where God is perceived to be in the current refugee and migrant crisis, by those of us who name ourselves Christian and by those follow variant forms of islam.

    Stern Words

    This section ends with some stern words from God:

    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.’

    Lots of conditions here - if you listen, if you do what is right, if you heed God's commandments, if you keep all God's statutes, then...

    How often do we speak of the God who heals (and back to songs, quote the phrase 'I am the Lord who heals you') without noting this more than somewhat scary context.  Total obedience is required to avoid illness... which is surely impossible.

    Camping at Elim

    This stage of the story ends with the people camped at Elim, a fertile place characterised by having twelve springs and seventy palm trees.  The numbers are certainly significant/symbolic, but perhaps what we note is that for a while at least, the people are able to rest in a comfortable place.

    In parts of Britain, especially in Wales, Baptist churches are named after Biblical places, so Hebron, Ebenezer, Salem, Sion/Zion and so on.  Not so common is Elim, but I found one in Wales when I did a quick web search.

    A church as an oasis, where tired people can find rest and refreshment before continuing their journey... I reckon that's quite a good aim to have.


    Tomorrow we move on again, beyond the material I worked with in vicar school and back to searching my memory banks for the 'O' level RE stuff!  A week into our Lenten journey I hope that you haven't given up, and that just maybe something in what I write resonates or prompts thoughts of your own.

  • Of Interest, maybe...

    A couple of articles that popped up in my newsfeed on social media that I think are worth taking a look at.

    The titles are self-explanatory and both are US in origin, nonetheless they speak across cultures and cinditions.

    "Death, The Prosperity Gospel and Me" is written by someone who has carried out empirical research on aspects of the prosperity gospel, including supernatural healing, and now finds herself living with Stage 4 (controllable but incurable) cancer.

    "Lent in the Shadow of Cancer" is the thoughts of three women each having faced a diagnosis of breast cancer.  One is Stage 4, one is a NED and one is just completing treatment.

    I am glad to see such honest writing starting to emerge rather than the saccharine stuff that I came across back in 2010 when I began to write about my experiences.  If I have contributed in some small way to a more honest body of writing, then that's got to be a good thing.

    Here're a few extracts from what Anya, the young woman with Stage 4 breast cancer writes, that echoes my own sentiments, albeit I am older, contentedly single, and this far a healthy, happy NED...

    "I no longer deny myself anything during Lent. So much has been taken from me: my breast, my ovaries, the blessing of having another child, the possibility of living to be old, the false sense of security and safety in which I used to live. I’ve chosen to celebrate Lent, instead, by doing something additional, primarily by trying to be more aware of others’ needs and more selfless and attentive toward others."

    "To be completely honest, Easter is more difficult for me now than it used to be. The jump from the mourning of Good Friday to the happiness and abundance of Easter seems too quick for me. How can I be pastel and happy and hunting for eggs, when just a couple of days ago I was staring into the pit of death? What Easter means to me, since I still feel like I’m in the valley of the shadow of death, is that Christ is with me wherever I am; and that there exists a future after death when pain and suffering will disappear."

    "All of my advice is very clichéd—try to experience the joy and miraculousness of ordinary, everyday life. Soak in all the happiness and love that you can. Don’t ask yourself “why me?” Ask yourself “why not me?” You don’t know what will happen to you, but accept your life for what it is. Know that you are not alone and that God will never abandon you. Do what you love to do. Read. Fill your life with peace and beauty."

  • Concentration...

    On the basis that Monday is my 'day off' and recognising that this week is, relatively speaking quite busy, today I forewent (is there such a word?  Past tense of forego when foregone isn't the right word!) my walk and opted for a quiet day in - even though the glorious sunshine was incredibly hard to resist.

    So, basically, after I'd read and reflected on today's chunk of Exodus, I settled down to complete my latest jigsaw puzzle - a one thousand piece image - which kept me busy for somewhere between four and five hours!  This is in addition to the many pleasant already spent in previous days.

    It was good to be able to focus and concentrate for such an extended period, and it was almost good to get a bit bored with the last little bit when it was down to systematically working through pieces for the trees at the top!

    I am far more weary having completed this than I'd have imagined, but it is good weary.

    And the (relatively) restful day has been a good thing in readiness for a week of happy outings and visitors.