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Posts Tagged ‘Exodus’

The Hebrew Bible’s first verb rumbles with creative energy.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…

Genesis 1:1 (NRSV)

By virtue of its privilege of place and of the fact that what goes down here can never happen again—Israelite monotheism will allow only one all-creating deity—the verb ברא quickly acquires a particular resonance. In fact, the Hebrew Bible displays a deep reticence to deploying ברא with anyone other than YHWH as its subject and with anything other than a creation out of nothing as its effect. Strictly speaking, the subject of ברא in Genesis 1.1 is אלהים, but in context ‘God’ can be no other than YHWH.

Scholars debate whether this kind of creation discourse first takes shape in the earliest chapters of Genesis, in the second part of Isaiah, or elsewhere. For now, it is enough to observe the manner in which the verb ברא is all but reserved for spectacular and unanticipated acts of creation by YHWH himself.

In this light, it is not short of remarkable that ברא flourishes unreservedly in Isaiah 43, where a kind of creation ex nihilo is presaged. Here, YHWH is emphatically its subject. He is a Creator lifted above the capacity of all other deities, if it can even be imagined that these might exist. The object or effect of YHWH’s creative artistry is the rebirth of Israel out of the inert nothingness of Exile.

But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

Isaiah 43:1 (NRSV)

For nearly the length of this chapter, its author weaves ברא into a rich tapestry of which the other components of creative production are יצר (commonly, to shape or mold) and עשׂה (to make). That this is not technically creation ex nihilo but rather ‘creativity with a history’ is betrayed in the verbal threads that bring in גאל (to redeem) and קרא (to call, name, or even re-name). The notion of redemption (גאל) in particular assumes a preexisting deficient state from which one is rescued.

This is redemption cum creation. The vocabulary places Israel’s rescue at YHWH’s hands in the category of creation in a stunning metaphorical dance that is sustained for verse after lyrical verse without a hint of tedium. The first tranche of this composition is delivered up with a resounding conclusion at verse 7.

I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth—everyone who is called by my name (כל הנקרא בשׁמי), whom I created for my glory (ולכבודי בראתיו), whom I formed (יצרתיו) and made (אף עשִֹיתיו).

Isaiah 43:6-7 (NRSV)

The whole enterprise is reinforced in the chapter’s nineteenth verse by the divine declaration of a new thing, albeit now having built allusions to a New Exodus upon the foundation of a New Creation:

I am about to do a new thing (הנה עשׂה חדשׁח); now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

Isaiah 43:19 (NRSV)

After this, no careful student of the book called Isaiah can conceive of redemption across the trajectory of the entire biblical canon without viewing it against the backdrop of YHWH’s spectacular and unanticipated creative artistry. Yet his sovereign creative mastery somehow honors the unpromising clay which he now chooses to shape, remold, and name after himself.

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Few biblical passages depict the severity and gentleness of YHWH more poignantly than the Exodus narrative of Israel’s escape from Egypt.

The day of their flight, after all, follows upon the night when YHWH’s avenging angel stole the life from every first-born of Egypt, from the palace to the dungeon. In a carefully calibrated escalation of sternness that leaves no protagonist untouched and unmoved, YHWH meticulously prepares the moment when Israel will escape extermination and find both future and liberty in one noisy dash.

At the end of 430 years, on that very day, all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt. It was a night of watching by the Lord, to bring them out of the land of Egypt; so this same night is a night of watching kept to the Lord by all the people of Israel throughout their generations. (Exodus 12:41–42 ESV)

Ah, these nights of watching.

These times of trouble when we may die or we may live, and no one knows the outcome.

Will our dreams become reality, or will they simply perish in a silent, unnoticed disappearing act? Is this the end, or is this a beginning?

Nothing for us to do, then, in nights like this but watch.

It is comforting to know that at least this once, back in Egypt’s imperium, YHWH too stayed up all night watching. Nothing was going to escape his grip, no malevolence would derail his purpose. No hideous strength would touch the apple of his eye this night. His Israelites would have their new day, no matter the impeding powers.

People still celebrate YHWH’s night of watching with their own. We call it Passover, with its bitter herbs and its swallow of wine and its evening-gathered families and its memory of a night that will not be forgotten. ‘This night’, a child intones to his convened, listening, remembering family, ‘is like no other’.

Yet we may hope, at least, that YHWH has other nights of watching, when our lives and our hopes and our future will not be swallowed up in the dark by calamity as we wait, powerlessly, for morning.

Watch, YHWH. We need you to watch. Please stay up late with us—for us—as this new night falls.

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With something like the explanatory potency of Genesis’ account of human origins, the story of the Hebrew slaves fleeing their ‘house of servitude’ in the book of Exodus strikes the hearer with stunning immediacy. We recognize our own terror in theirs, hemmed in by the sea ahead, besieged by the tromping of Egyptian boots, driven near to madness by the neighing of Egyptian horses behind them.

The Egyptians—all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, horsemen and troops—pursued the Israelites and overtook them as they camped by the sea near Pi Hahiroth, opposite Baal Zephon. As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the LORD.

It is too familiar, this trapped-ness, these dashed hopes of freedom, these adrenaline regrets. (more…)

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When the conversation become difficult, we agree to bow together before the idol named Balance.

‘Well, it’s really a matter of balance,’ we intone, only half suspecting that we are confessing a lie.

A slightly more sophisticated half-truth, half-lie stakes its seductive claim thus: ‘Well, these things must always be held in tension.’

We speak carelessly of love and truth as though they were fruits of the same size placed into our refrigerating care. We discourse with all the shallow persuasiveness of truism about ‘Grace’ and ‘Law’ and their needful equilibrium.

So does good intention come to smell of distortion, divine disclosure of human fabrication. (more…)

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The biblical book of Exodus tosses off some odd and enigmatic scenes in the life of Moses, Israel’s liberator and law-giver. Curiously, his erstwhile Midianite wife Zipporah plays a role in more than one of them.

The narrator allows us to stumble upon details that we feel we should have known but do not. For example, the fact that Moses had ‘sent away’ not only Zipporah but the two sons whom she had borne to him. (more…)

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As they fled their Egyptian taskmasters under the half-truth of worshipping YHWH in the trackless Sinai, the Hebrew slaves displayed a capacity for extraordinary myopia. ‘Were there no graves in Egypt?’, they taunted Moses. ‘Is that why you brought us out here to die?’

Yet bearing along the palpable promise of Joseph’s bones—caught between negotiated servitude and audacious freedom—the complaining ‘sons of Israel’ deserve a bit of empathy. Slavery, a known quantity, is at the least survivable. Freedom is potentially lethal. (more…)

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Teresa de Ávila, fue una gran monja española, que se caracterizo por su vida de oración, y servicio en el siglo XVI. Se cuenta que cierto día viajando por una carreta tirada por bueyes, se cayó en un arroyo lodoso. Esa mujer devota y gentil, y fundadora de la orden de las carmelitas descalzas, ¡toda una institución!; se levantó del suelo mientras amenazó a Dios con el puño y a la vez exclamaba: “Si así tratas a tus amigos, con razón no tienes muchos”.

¿Nos escandaliza la libertad que se atribuye esta moja? En dado caso también debería chocarnos las palabras desafiantes de Moises en Éxodo 33:15. O ¿más bien nos recuerda las luchas que hemos tenido con Dios en algún determinado momento?

Lo cierto es que no son las amenazas insensatas de una persona atea; es la oración sincera y transparente de alguien que ha llegado a conocer a Dios a través de una relación personal y se atreve a llamarle: amigo.

La oración nos debe conducir a ésta misma afirmación, tal como lo declara Peterson (2006), cuando agrega:

No sólo podemos oír y entender a Dios al hablarnos, podemos hablarle, responder, conversar, discutir, cuestionar. Podemos orar, todo porque la oración es una ofrenda de nosotros mismos, tal como somos (p.105).

Si la oración es una ofrenda y un llamado a descubrir el corazón de Dios; comprenderemos que en ocasiones tendremos que quitarnos todos aquellos bagajes religiosos e ideas preconcebidas, y malos paradigmas, que en vez de ayudarnos a acercarnos a él, nos imposibilitan el acceso para conocerle tal como es él.

No le digas al Señor: ¿Por qué?, tienes que preguntarle: ¿Para que? Dichas afirmaciones muy presentes por lo general en nuestros contextos evangélicos, son un típico ejemplo de estas limitaciones que tienden a apuntarnos la libertad que Dios nos ofrece para acercarnos a él. Por momentos nos volvemos demasiados solemnes, respetuosos, hasta religiosos y terminamos más preocupados por el empleo adecuado de la gramática, la sintaxis, las palabras que, por desarrollar nuestra relación con el Señor. Recordemos nuevamente las palabras de Peterson: “Dios al hablarnos podemos hablar, responder, conversar, discutir, cuestionar”. Claro ejemplo de ello lo encontramos en los Salmos que son las oraciones, las quejas, las discusiones, los llantos, las acciones de gracia y las alabanzas de hombres en su relación con Dios. Entonces tanto el: “por qué”, como el: “para qué”, son importantes y necesarios en esta construcción personal con nuestro Creador.

Debo agregar que esta mujer siguió viviendo su vida recta y consagrada a Dios y murió a los 67 años. ¡No fulminada por un rayo! Como algunos hubiésemos esperado.

Bibliografía:

Peterson, Eugene, Eat This Book: a conversation in the art of spiritual reading (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 2006.

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A reader accustomed to the conventional distinction between the priestly and the political or the sacred and the secular struggles to find the proper calibration for a text like this:

The LORD spoke to Moses: ‘See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: and I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft. Moreover, I have appointed with him Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have given skill to all the skillful, so that they may make all that I have commanded you.’

The vocabulary of ‘religious’ endowment both anchors and saturates the text. A craftsman named Bezalel is called by means of divine speech directed to Moses. A divine spirit fills him. One expects here a prophet, a priest, a denizen of temple, tabernacle, or festal tent. Instead one finds a craftsman, a hands-on shaper of the most earthy materials.

The liturgical climax of Exodus, as liberated Hebrew slaves are briefed on the doxological gravity of their vocation, would not occur without Bezalel’s talented hands in the mix.

Modern religious language traffics in the by now well-smoothed clauses of ‘filling with the spirit’, ‘calling’, and the like. Bezalel, bent over a stone that needs to be cut at a 16-degree gradation to perfect nature’s blunt work, merits every syllable of such expressions and much more.

The Divine Artist has found in the son of Uri a kindred spirit, a coworker, an agent. An instinct for beauty not unlike God’s own.

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Caution and precaution are not the central virtue. Yet they are necessary. Without them the life-giving properties of community drain away before time. In their absence, chaos thrives on a rich diet of naiveté, credulity, and unbridled risk.

Several of the example-casting treatises called ‘case law’ that we find in the book of Exodus illustrate the moral shape of caution. The intent of Israel’s legislators is not to lay down a comprehensive code of conduct but rather to employ hypothetical situations that might be found in real life to build a nation’s soul around preferences that are both joyful and responsible. (more…)

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YHWH is almost by definition a liberating God. His name, revealed in the context of the Hebrew slaves’ impending exit from the ‘house of their servitude’, can reasonably be paraphrased to mean ‘the one who is powerfully present’. Where YHWH is, one might say at the danger of lurching towards bumper-sticker ideology, things happen. Freedom things. Escape-from-slavery things. Bonds break, slaves march, songs belt forth the turning of tables that moments ago seemed too heavy for budging.

Yet we resist our freedom, for it is nearly always both free and immensely costly. YHWH is an initiative-taking deity and therefore tends not to ask for payment up front. He is in the business of re-covenanting: he frees those upon whom his favor falls from their odious obligations and sets them in what at least one of his prophets called a ‘wide place’. Yet those fortunate enough to fall under his liberating intentions nearly always find that it costs them dearly. Oddly, we develop a pronounced taste for our disparate slaveries. We relish them as the safe thing that we know. We grow to snuffle around the dankness of it all as though there were life-giving properties in its mold. We get to arrange the furniture in our own cell. (more…)

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