After the invasion of the Hyksos and an early attempt at “monotheism” in Egypt, the Book of Exodus picks up with the saga of Mosheh (or Moses), the future liberator of the Hebrews, whose story often mirrors legends of King Sargon and of the Egyptian court official Sinuhe. Uniquely, though, in a larger literary collection that often steals the light from daughters and other women, Exodus spotlights the actions of heroines: the defiant midwives Shifra & Pua, the resourceful Jochebed, the compassionate daughter of Pharaoh who overcame racial prejudice and injustice, the “priestess” Tzippora, and later the great leader, Miryam. In this episode, Father Jayme casts light on ancient Egypt, the nocturnal nomadic festival that gave rise to Passover, and apotropaic attempts to pacify destroyer gods and angels. Noting Jack Miles’ “equation” for the fusion that resulted in the monos theos, the single character who is the God of monotheism, he shares Miles’ conclusion regarding patriarchal scriptural texts: “God is a warrior, and the Bible is about victory.” In this context, even the compassionate, proactive women of Exodus who refuse to cooperate with oppression are subsumed into the colonizing patterns of men. This episode concludes with the wisdom of J. Cheryl Exum: “Exodus begins with a focus on women. Their actions determine the outcome. From its highly positive portrayals of women to its testimony that the courage of women is the beginning of liberation, Exodus 1:8—2:10 presents the interpreter with powerful themes to draw on: women as defiers of oppression, women as givers of life, women as wise and resourceful in situations where a discerning mind and keen practical judgment are essential for a propitious outcome.” Thank God for inclusive expressions of Catholicism that appreciate and welcome the gifts of all people—including those who throughout history have been marginalized and denied their rightful place in the church and its scriptures!
Have you seen the latest issue of Extraordinary Catholics magazine?
[Becky & Terry Ann 0:03]
Welcome to “Extraordinary Catholics,” a podcast for—you guessed it—extraordinary Catholics! In a world with over a billion ordinary Catholics, the Good Samaritans of Vatican-free Catholicism are truly extraordinary, seeking to model Jesus’ inclusive spirit and his discipleship of equals. Like Roman Catholicism, Inclusive Catholicism possesses valid lines of apostolic succession and shares valid sacraments. One in every ten adult Americans self-identifies as a former Roman Catholic. If we were to band together, we would form the second-largest religion in America. In Mexico, over 1,000 Roman Catholics leave the church every single day. To learn more about Inclusive Catholicism, please visit www.ExtraordinaryCatholics.faith, and join our extraordinary Catholics Facebook group. And now, meet the host of Extraordinary Catholics, the pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church, the only inclusive Catholic community in Austin, Texas: Father Jayme Mathias!
[Father Jayme Mathias 1:20]
Welcome, extraordinary Catholics! I am Father Jayme Mathias, pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church in Austin, Texas.
We thank the special saints who helped make this episode possible:
* Corey Hurt Montiel of Holy Family Catholic Church in Austin, Texas;
* Bishop Jerry Brohl of the Independent Roman Catholic Church in Wyandotte, Michigan;
* Bishop Theodore Feldman of the Sanctuary of Divine Providence in Birmingham, Alabama; and
* Bobby Duhon of Holy Family Catholic Church in Austin, Texas;
Looking to earn your wings? Visit dwy.io/podcast to join the list of saints who are stepping up to sponsor future episodes.
Can I ask you a favor? Will you prayerfully consider sharing a quick rating and or review of this podcast? You are a saint!
And now, let’s continue our exploration of the theological foundations of Inclusive Catholicism!
The Hyksos in Ancient Egypt
Human beings thirst to know who they are and where they come from, and, if we were liberated from slavery in Egypt, the story of Yōsef, the last patriarchal figure in the Book of Genesis, provided the etiological explanation for our arrival in Egypt. These events somewhat fit with what we know from history
Beginning around the 18th century B.C., people flowed into Egypt from Asia Minor, likely overwhelming weak Egyptian defenses, and the Hyksos—literally the “foreign chiefs”—were a force in Egypt until their expulsion from Egypt nearly 200 years later. Side note: We have the Hyksos to thank for introducing a new military method in Egypt: the horse and chariot! After their arrival, we start to see paintings and carvings of chariots used for travel, battle and hunting—and we also see the first instances of chariots in the Hebrew scriptures, in Genesis 41:42-43.
After that expulsion, Pharaoh Hatshepsut—the second confirmed female Pharaoh of ancient Egypt—wrote of that dark time. James Pritchard shares a translation of her words in his work, Ancient Near Eastern Texts relating to the Old Testament: “I have not slept forgetfully, [but] I have restored that which had been ruined. I have raised up that which had gone to pieces formerly, since the Asiatics were in the midst of [the capital]…and vagabonds were in the midst of them, overthrowing that which had been made. They ruled without Re [the sun god], and he did not act by divine command down to [the reign of] my [own] majesty” (p. 231).
Ancient Egyptian “Monotheism”
In his book, Reading the Old Testament, Father Lawrence Boadt wonders whether an early attempt at Egyptian “monotheism” influenced the monotheism of the later Israelites. He writes of Pharaoh Amenhotep IV’s decision to simplify Egyptian religion, which consisted of many gods organized under Amon, the god of the ruling city of Thebes, who replaced the former chief god, the sun god, Re.
Amenhotep suggested the worship of the Aton, the sun disc, alone, and that the people were to worship him. He even changed his own name to Akhenaton, “the Glory of Aton”—but "culture eats strategy for lunch every day," and, after his short reign, the rulers and the priests of the temple of Amon succeeding in destroying all traces of the heretical religion that so threatened their religion. An interesting tie might be made here to Inclusive Catholicism and the threat it poses to Roman Catholic hierarchs in some places, as they seek to stamp out all traces of Catholicism outside their own churches.
Fun fact: Psalm 104:19-28 seems an arrangement of Akhenaton’s “Hymn to the Sun Disc.”
Amenhotep IV (or Akhenaton) ruled from roughly 1350 to 1335 B.C., and Father Lawrence Boadt writes of him: “Akhenaton lived too early for Moses to have seen his faith in action, but it is possible that the heretic king’s ideas continued to permeate people’s thoughts, and in some small way helped even the Semitic settlers in the Delta to develop more deeply their own understanding of Yahweh as a God who stood alone against the claims of so many hundreds of competing divine beings” (p. 131).
The First Non-biblical Reference to Israel
A century later, in 1208 B.C., the only ancient Egyptian reference to Israel was carved into the Merneptah Victory Stele, where, in the words of Pritchard’s translation, Pharaoh Merneptah bragged that “Israel is laid waste” (p. 378).
Father Boadt notes that “Since Israel is marked with the sign for a tribe or clan, and not for a city or land, scholars argue that this means the Israelites had not yet settled down fully by 1225 or 1220 B.C.”
In his book, The Gift of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, Thomas Cahill writes that, after the story of Yōsef, “The Bible now falls silent….By the time it picks up the narrative—in Exodus, the second book—centuries have elapsed” (p. 98).
But, before we continue the story with Exodus, we do well to note another silence in Genesis. In her essay, “Daughters and Fathers in Genesis…Or, What is Wrong with this Picture?”, Ilona Rashkow writes: “While it is not surprising that biblical narratives depict a definable family structure, what is surprising is that conspicuously absent is a figure lurking beneath the text, a figure repeatedly subjected to erasure, exclusion, and transformation. Genesis lacks daughters. Narrative after narrative describe the desire for male children, the lengths to which women would go to have sons, the great joy surrounding the birth of a boy, and father-son relationships. The birth of a daughter, on the other hand, by no means creates such attention….Inscribed within Genesis is something more than a general disregard of women: the daughter is specifically absent” (pp. 22-23). Rashkow continues: Daughters subtract from family wealth, they don’t extend patronymic lines.
Dealing with the Multiplying Hebrews
According to the story, the Pharaoh in Egypt “knew not Joseph” (Ex. 1:8) and thought “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us….We must deal shrewdly with them, or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us, and leave the country” (Ex. 1:9-10).
Side note: The Second Letter to Timothy, written by a pseudonymous author in Paul’s name and spirit, gave names to two of Pharaoh’s advisors in this matter: Jannes and Jambres (2Tim. 3:8). These names are repeated in other sources, including the Gospel of Nicodemus (5:1) and Pliny the Elder (Naturalis historiae, 30.2.11).
According to Exodus, this Pharaoh and his advisors had a brilliant idea to “put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh” (Ex. 1:11).
Let’s pause for a moment to consider what the Hebrews were doing: They were mixing Nile water with Delta mud to create bricks! And they were doing so at an inhuman pace: One scroll from the reign of Ramses II, who ruled from roughly 1280 to 1215 B.C., speaks of 40 men who each had a quota of making 2,000 bricks each day! So, we can imagine the beatings of those who didn’t meet their quotas (Ex. 2:11). And one Egyptian tomb inscription tells us that this was not a prized occupation: “[The brickmaker] is dirtier than vines or pigs from treading under his mud…He is simply wretched through and through.”
The Yavne-Yam ostracon, a piece of pottery found at Meṣad Hashabyahu and dated to the 17th-century B.C., contains the appeal to a ruler by an agricultural worker whose garment was seized by an overseer who accused him of not fulfilling his quota. Such artifacts bring to mind this story in Exodus 2:11.
Refusing to Cooperate with Oppression: Shifra & Pua
And so we come to two midwives who are named in Exodus—Shifra and Pua—who received these orders directly from Pharaoh: “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live” (Ex. 1:16).
In her essay, “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation,” Dr. Phyllis Trible notes that had Pharaoh anticipated the effectiveness of women in thwarting his decree, he likely would have commanded that all female infants be killed instead!
In their work, Feminist Interpretation: The Bible in Women’s Perspective, Luise Schottroff, Silvia Schroer and Marie-Theres Wacker note how Shifra and Pua were “women for peace,” countering the violence caused by men and demonstrating a certain non-violent resistance (p. 157).
For an exploration of this biblical story of these midwives, I recommend J. Cheryl Exum’s essay, “You Shall Let Every Daughter Live.” She skillfully explores Pharaoh’s three “solutions” to the challenge of Hebrew growth and various patterns that might otherwise be unnoticed in this biblical text. She concludes, “All the women knowingly take positions against the king of Egypt; all make choices for life, and not death…the midwives’ fear of God, the princess’ compassion, the resourcefulness of Moses’ mother, and the quick-thinking of his sister, all work together to overcome the evil designs of the king of Egypt. In the refusal of women to cooperate with oppression, the liberation of Israel from Egyptian bondage has its beginnings” (p. 81).
Noting that the midwives did not do Pharaoh’s bidding (Ex. 1:17-19), Thomas Cahill writes, “In their exquisite moral discernment…they are people of stature—real individuals who are worthy of names, unlike the little god-king….The oppressed subvert the overlord with seeming guilelessness. The exasperated god-king takes a further step into irrationality and orders that henceforth all newborn Hebrew males be thrown into the Nile. Thus it is that we are introduced to a Hebrew mother” (pp. 101-102).
Boys Thrown into the Nile
Before we get to that Hebrew mother, let’s address Pharaoh’s second "brilliant" idea. Foiled by the midwives, Pharaoh now says: “Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live” (Ex. 1:22). The Hebrew boys were to be drowned in the Nile River. Death by water. It’s a theme that we’ll see echoed in God’s drowning of Pharaoh’s army (Ex. 14:27-28), as well as in other texts, like Wisdom 18:5 and Jubilees 48:14.
The Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael is more explicit: “By the same measure by which [the Egyptians] measured out, so was it measured out to them. They said, ‘Cast every newborn boy into the Nile’ (Ex. 1:22), so You measured out to them by that same measure, as it says, ‘Pharaoh’s chariotry and army [God] cast into the sea’ (Ex. 15:4)” (Shirta 4).
Addressing the drowning of all Hebrew boys, Thomas Cahill writes, “This scene could not possibly be historical: If you want to kill off a people, you must assassinate their women, their baby factories, not their men. What Pharaoh urges is irrational on two levels: he is trying to destroy his own labor force—and he is going about it inefficiently. Nor could two midwives do the whole job if Israel had become so numerous” (p. 100).
The Resourceful Jochebed
And so we come to that Cushite (or Ethiopian) woman (Num. 12:1). Known as Jochebed (Ex. 6:20, Num. 26:59), she gave birth to a son, whom she did put into the river—in an ark (or basket) sealed with bitumen, and she floated it down the river, followed at a distance by her young daughter, Miryam, and, as luck would have it, Pharaoh’s daughter did the opposite of what her father commanded, rescuing the child and raising him in the royal household!
In her essay, “‘Mother in Israel’: A Familiar Figure Reconsidered,” J. Cheryl Exum notes, “The only other ark in the Bible is Noah’s, and the connection between Noah and Moses as saviors who are saved from drowning is inescapable. Whereas Noah build the ark that saves humanity from destruction, Moses’ mother builds the ark that, by saving its future leader, enables the delivery of Israel from bondage. Much activity is attributed to her in Exodus 2:2-3: She does not simply wait for some miracle to save her son; rather, one might say, she sets the stage for something miraculous to happen. All, apparently, without counsel or assistance from her husband” (pp. 80-81).
Remembering that “the Bible is not a book of history,” we’re alert to the elements of folklore in this story. Centuries earlier, a similar legend was told of Sargon of Akkad, who purportedly lived around 2,300 B.C. In his work, Understanding the Old Testament, Bernhard Anderson writes: “In an inscription, Sargon says that his mother gave birth to him in secret, placed him in a basket of rushes sealed with bitumen, and cast the basket adrift on the river. Akki, the drawer of water, lifted him out of the water and reared him as his son. So from humble beginnings Sargon rose to be the mighty king of the city of Akkad, from which the Akkadians took their name” (p. 55).
Hebrew & Egyptian Meanings of Mosheh/Mose
The storyteller’s logic breaks down, as the story suggests that Pharaoh’s daughter knew enough Hebrew to name the child Mosheh, from the Hebrew verb mashah, meaning “to draw out” (Ex. 2:10).
Anderson points out that the Egyptian verb mose means “is born.” It’s a theophorous name, for those who bore or carried gods, like Ramses (or Ra-meses), meaning “Ra is born,” or Tuthmose, meaning “Thoth is born.”
The Compassionate Daughter of Pharaoh
Exum continues: “Her compassion transcends ethnic distinctions….Pharaoh’s daughter is moved by compassion, an emotion that extends to a people despised by her father and dreaded by her people. She recognizes the child as Hebrew (Ex. 2:6) and, in violation of her father’s edict, saves him from the Nile….She not only determines to keep the infant but even hires a Hebrew woman to nurse him. There is a wonderful irony in the fact that Moses’ mother is paid to nurse her own child….[Pharaoh’s daughter] claims the child as her own, offering protection in the house of the oppressor to the future liberator of his people (another delicious irony)” (p. 81).
As an Inclusive Catholic, I’m personally fond of Michelle Clark Jenkins, who, in her work, She Speaks: Wisdom From the Women of the Bible to the Modern Black Woman, characterizes Pharaoh’s daughter as a model for overcoming racial prejudice and injustice (p. 55). Writing as though an Inclusive Catholic herself, Clark Jenkins says, “God can use each of us to carry out [God’s] plan whether we belong to [God] or not” (p. 56).
Stories of Mosheh’s Childhood
We know little of Mosheh’s childhood. The Acts of the Apostles tells us: “Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son, and Moses was educated in all the wisdom of Egypt, and he was powerful in his words and actions” (Acts 7:21-22). Jubilees (47:9) states that Mosheh’s Israelite father, Amram, taught him writing.
In his Life of Moses, Philo goes even further, imagining: “Arithmetic, geometry, the lore of meter, rhythm, and harmony, and the whole subject of music…were imparted to him by learned Egyptians. These further instructed him in the philosophy conveyed in symbols….He had Greeks to teach him the rest of the regular school course, and the inhabitants of the neighboring countries for Assyrian literature and the Chaldean science of the heavenly bodies” (1:23).
Because of Mosheh’s prominence in the Jewish religion, all sorts of stories are told about him. You might check out the apocryphal stories about him in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities (2:232-236) and in the Exodus Rabbah (1:26).
“Without These Women, There Would Be No Moses!”
Exum brings the focus back to Mosheh’s two mothers—his Hebrew mother and his Egyptian adoptive mother—saying: “The similarities between Moses’ mothers and the matriarchs are readily apparent. The action of mothers determines the future for Israel, but it is a future lived out primarily by sons….Our paradox remains: Without Moses there would be no exodus, but without these women there would be no Moses!” (p. 81).
Cahill writes, “In the next scene, Mosheh, the grown man, does exactly what we would expect of him: ‘He went out to his brothers and saw their burdens.’ The lovingly-nurtured prince identifies with the underdog; and seeing an Egyptian repeatedly strike one of his brothers, he kills the Egyptian and buries him in the sand” (p. 104).
As a result of his crime, Mosheh flees into the desert, taking refuge in Midian, where he was sheltered by a shepherd named Jethro—an etiological explanation for the friendly relationship between the Midianites and the later Israelites who worshiped at the same mountain, Horeb or Sinai, the “mountain of Yahweh” (Num. 10:33) or the “mountain of God” where Mosheh would now encounter God in a burning bush. This occurred in a land that was described by a temple list during the reign of Pharaoh Amenhotep III in the 14th century B.C. as “the land of the shasu [nomad tribes] of Yahweh.”
But, before we get to the story of the burning bush, we need to note that this story is not original: The 19th-century B.C. Egyptian Story of Sinuhe spoke of an Egyptian who fled the Egyptian court, found refuge with Asiatic nomadic tribes across the border, entered into covenant with them, and married the daughter of his patron, Ammunenshi—an obvious parallel copied in the Hebrew scriptures as Mosheh’s marriage to Jethro’s daughter.
The Burning Bush
Again, because Mosheh was such a popular figure, all sorts of apocryphal stories exist of the burning bush event in the land of the nomadic Midianites, including Josephus’ description of the tree as green, blooming and fruit-laden (Jewish Antiquities, 2:226), the Exodus Rabbah’s suggestion that “just as this bush is burning in the fire but is not consumed, so the Egyptians will be unable to destroy Israel” (2:5), and Philo’s note that “the bush was a symbol of those who suffer the flames of injustice, just as the fire symbolized those responsible for it; but that which burned did not burn up, and those who suffered injustices were not to be destroyed by their oppressors” (Life of Moses, 1:65-67).
According to the story, God heard the plight of the “Hebrews,” the oft-used term for the “dusty” ‘Apiru or Habiru slaves in Egypt before the Exodus event (Gen. 39:17, 40:15, 41:12, Ex. 1:16, 2:7, 2:13, 5:3, 7:16). Anderson shares: “In contrast to the God of the philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, the God of Moses is not aloof from the human scene and apathetic about human suffering; rather, the ‘God of pathos,’ as Abraham Heschel observes, is sensitive to the human condition and participates in human history with saving power” (p. 59).
Cahill writes, “Mosheh, the clean-shaven ward of Pharaoh with the style and bearing of an Egyptian, will hardly seem a credible messenger of God in the eyes of the dusty slaves (the hapiru or Hebrews), and they will quiz him mercilessly till they call his bluff. God’s reply is probably the greatest mystery of the Bible. [God] tells Mosheh [God’s] name, all right: ‘YHWH’” (p. 108).
The Personal Divine Name
We note how the personal divine name, Yahweh, was written with only consonants until the Common Era, when Hebrew was no longer spoken.
We still find remnants of this word, abbreviated, in such words as Halleluyah (which literally means “praise Yah”) and also in such names as Yəhōšūaʿ/Joshua and Yēšūa/Jesus (which mean “Yah saves”).
Anderson refers to divine name narrative as “one of the most cryptic passages in the Old Testament” (p. 61). I recommend the creative, if highly speculative, exposition of Jack Miles, who suggests that “the burning bush vision probably included a folk etymology of the name yahweh” (p. 100), noting how similar the Hebrew phrase ‘hyh ‘šr ‘hyh (‘ehyeh ‘ăšer ‘ehyeh) is to ‘hyh ‘šr ‘hwh (‘ehyeh ‘ăšer ‘ahweh).
Cahill attempts to shed light on the divine name, almost summarizing Anderson’s extended exposition, saying, “We can take comfort in the certain knowledge that God is a verb, not a noun or adjective. [God’s] self-description is not static but active, appropriate to the God of Journeys. YHWH is an archaic form of the verb to be….There remain but three outstanding possibilities of interpretation, none of them mutually exclusive.
"First, I am who am: This is the interpretation of the Septuagint….It was this translation that Thomas Aquinas used in the thirteenth century to build his theology of God as the only being whose essence is Existence, all other beings being contingent on God, who is Being (or Is-ness) itself. [Side note: These words, ‘I am who am’ were also spoken by the life-giving Egyptian sun god Ra in the 4th-century B.C. “Story of Ra and the Serpent.”] A more precise translation of this idea could be: ‘I am [the One] who causes (things) to be’—that is, ‘I am the Creator.’
"Second, I am who I am—in other words, ‘None of your business’ or ‘You cannot control me by invoking my name (and therefore my essence) as if I were one of your household gods.’
"Third, I will be-there with you: This is [Matthew] Fox’s translation, following Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, which emphasizes God’s continuing presence in [God’s] creation, [God’s] being-there with us” (p. 109).
Cahill says that this God—"Yahweh,” as many English speakers say it, or “Lord,” if we were to respect the tetragrammaton—“is more awesome than in any of [God’s] previous manifestations—not only because of the fireworks, but because of the symbolic nature of this epiphany, which suggests that this God, as dangerous, tempering, and purifying as fire, can burn in us without consuming us” (p. 110).
Correspondent Circumcision on the Road to Egypt
Long story made short, God showed Mosheh some rather incredible magic tricks—turning Mosheh’s staff into a snake (Ex. 4:1-5)—a remnant of Egyptian and Palestinian folklore—and making his hand leprous then clean (Ex. 4:6-7), and still Mosheh continued to drag his feet until “the Lord’s anger flared up against Mosheh” (Ex. 4:14). “So Mosheh took his wife and sons, put them on a donkey, and started back for Egypt” (Ex. 4:20).
And now the story gets good—and we have another story of a heroine, a woman who saves the day! At a lodging place along the way, “the Lord met Moshe and was about to kill him” (Ex. 4:24). Say, what? Why did God want to kill Mosheh? The Septuagint couldn’t let this stand: It translated the Hebrew text this way: “An angel of the Lord met him and sought to kill him” (Ex. 4:24). The Book of Jubilees even gave this angel a name: Mastema (48:2-4)
Regardless, Mosheh’s wife, Tzippora, intuits what is wrong: Mosheh was an uncircumcised Egyptian prince, and not a covenanted child of Israel. Tzippora leaps into action, circumcises her son, and touches the foreskin to Mosheh’s feet or legs, a likely euphemism for his groin.
Miles concludes that Tzippora “circumcises Moses symbolically and saves him from death by the hand of God….The bleeding foreskin of the boy Gershom, touched to Moses’ genitals, is the sign not just of promised life but of death averted by submission; namely, by the surrender of generative autonomy” (p. 101).
Cahill paints a lively picture: “What a scene this must have been—little Gershom the Sojourner screaming in one corner; blood dripping from Gershom, running down Tzippora’s forearms, smeared on Mosheh’s foreskin; Tzippora’s unhinged, triumphant exclamation; the abrupt withdrawal of God’s wrath. This is but another story by which all, even those who had taken on mores of alien societies, could come to understand: the covenant in blood is serious business. And in this ancient religious milieu, still harking back to old ideas of correspondence and the power of blood, to have one’s foreskin washed in the blood of one’s son’s foreskin was to have been circumcised” (pp. 111-112).
Noting this ritual of circumcision, Frank Moore Cross, in his essay in Canannite Myth & Hebrew Epic, states that Tzippora, the daughter of a Midianite priest (Ex. 3:1 & 18:1) was “apparently a priestess in her own right.”
All sorts of commentary exist on this story, with lessons like: Thou shalt not neglect to circumcise thy son (Exodus Rabbah 5:8). The moral of this story: Part of our religion is apotropaic—finding ways to avert divine wrath! Guys, you can avert divine wrath by being circumcised! Hebrews, you can avert divine wrath by smearing the blood of the lamb on the entrance to your tent (Ex. 12:13)! Christians, think of the Lenten messages for averting divine wrath: “Repent and believe the good news" (Mk. 1:15)! Engage in prayer, fasting and almsgiving! Even missing Sunday mass, when that was considered a mortal sin, was enough to earn you divine wrath! Apocalyptic literature was especially important in warning us of the divine wrath that awaits the unrepentant.
Confronting the Visible Manifestation of Ra
According to the Priestly writer, Mosheh enlists the help of his brother, Aharon, as his spokesperson, and they approach the dreaded Pharaoh. Pharaoh was believed to be god-on-earth, the visible manifestation of Ra, the chief Egyptian god. Pharaoh was responsible for the functioning of the Nile and the fertility of the land.
Cahill likes to imagine that this Pharaoh was Rameses II, who shifted his political center to the Delta area, in order to better position Egypt for control of its Asiatic empire. In this way, Ramses (Ra-Mosheh), whose name comes from the same root as Mosheh, serves as the evil foil to Mosheh!
The Origin of Passover
The narrative builds to the Hebrew reinterpretation of the annual nocturnal, nomadic festival on the full moon before setting out for summer pastures, when families sacrificed a newborn lamb or goat to secure fertility for their flocks, and when they smeared the blood of the animal on the entrance of their tents to ward off the evil Destroyer spirit that attacked people and animals.
Anderson writes, “This primitive meaning, however, was superseded by a new understanding of the rite. As the story was retold in the light of the Exodus, the custom of shepherds leaving for summer pastures was reinterpreted to refer to the Hebrews departing for a new land. Yahweh became the “Destroyer” who spared the blood-marked Hebrew dwellings when ‘passing over’ them, so that no scourge would destroy them.”
The Crescendo: Ten Plagues
Taking a cue from Psalm 78:42-51, the epic Yahwist built up to this event with a series of seven plagues, to which the Priestly writer appended another two plagues—gnats, to concur with Psalm 105:31, and boils—to create a total of ten plagues that characterized the cosmic tug-of-war between Pharaoh and Yahweh.
Cahill writes: “The simple audience of semi-nomadic herdsmen to whom this story was first told understood that they were wiser than Pharaoh: they, certainly, unlike the great Ra-Moses, now with frogs jumping all over him, now covered in horseflies, would not have required the cumulative impact of ten plagues to change course! And this audience would also have appreciated the paradox that they were also more powerful than Pharaoh, because God is on the side of the little people, the people who have no worldly power. This is a lesson that will be repeated again and again in the story of Israel….When a human being abrogates to himself the role of God, he must fail miserably” (pp. 116-117).
A New People with a New Israelite Identity
And this sets the stage for the story of deliverance that served as the central event of the Hebrew scriptures, the exodus from Egypt, where a powerful God would work marvels, and those who followed Mosheh into the Sea of Reeds would no longer self-identify so much as the children of Avraham and Sarah, Yitzhak and Rivkah, Yaakov, Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah. They were now the people of this God!
In his work, Understanding the Old Testament, Bernhard Anderson summarizes: “A dispirited band of slaves, bound together only by their common plight, would never have become a people—a covenant community with a sense of historical vocation—had God not acted on their behalf when they were helpless and hopeless” (p. 53).
Cahill summarizes, “This was their God, the God of Surprises, and they were [God’s] People….Everything that happens subsequently will be referred back to this moment of astonished triumph….In this moment, Avraham’s descendants, this raggle-taggle collection of Dusty Ones, received an identity that they have maintained to this day” (pp. 121-122).
How Large (or Small) Was the Exodus?
Storytellers would lead us to believe that there were 600,000 Israelite men of military age (Ex. 12:37). Anderson writes: “If we count in addition women, children, teenagers, and old men, this would bring the total to over two million people! One historian has estimated that a column of this size, marching in single file, would have extended at least all the way from Egypt to Sinai and back. This picture…does not square with the information in Exodus 1:15-20 that two midwives were sufficient to serve the whole Hebrew colony. Clearly, the Delta area could not have accommodated so many Hebrews and their animals, and the wilderness of southern Canaan could not have supported them. Undoubtedly, the band of slaves was comparatively small….They were a motley group: not only the family of Jacob, but a ‘mixed multitude’ (Ex. 12:38) representing ‘Apiru of other origins. Indeed, it is historically inaccurate to speak of these people as ‘Israelites’ at this stage, although the narrative does so repeatedly. Only later, as they shared the experiences of the desert and remembered a common history, were they forged into a community, the people of Israel” (pp. 76).
Miles similarly concludes: “Cecil B. De Mille’s ‘The Ten Commandments,’ with its mighty throng crossing the sea, may be truer to the intended literary effect of the Book of Exodus than scholarship’s reconstruction of a band of minor tribes slipping through the marsh” (p. 104).
The Divine Warrior
But this story isn’t about Mosheh. It’s about Mosheh’s God, the “Divine Warrior” whose strong hand and outstretched arm won victory for Mosheh’s people!
How far we’ve come from Avraham, who went to war without God and who didn’t thank God after emerging victorious (Gen. 14:14-17)! In fact, in his work, God: A Biography, Jack Miles goes so far as to say: “If we were forced to say in one word who God is and in another what the Bible is about, the answer would have to be: God is a warrior, and the Bible is about victory” (p. 106).
God as a warrior? Miles explains that only two options existed when “Egypt’s ruler gives an order that directly contravenes God’s wishes: ‘Every boy that is born [to the Hebrews] you shall throw into the Nile’ (Ex. 1:22): Either we can take the route of polytheism and suggest that this was merely the god ‘of’ Avraham and Sarah, and that the superiority of any god could be proven on the battlefield, or we can “turn the one God into a divine warrior…which leads to God’s taking part in the war….It is as a consequence of Israel’s fertility in Egypt that yahweh, the Lord, the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is drawn into battle for the first time in [God’s] career. As [God] wages war, [God] is changed by what [God] does. War transforms [God], and [God] becomes, permanently, a divine warrior. For the decisive and effectively the last time in the Tanakh, [God] adds to [God’s] character another entire divine personality, this time that of the ferocious Canaanite war god, Baal” (p. 92).
The GOD “Equation”
Thus, Jack Miles is able to share the equation: The creator (yahweh/’elohim), plus the cosmic destroyer (Tiamat), plus the personal god (“the god of…”), plus the warrior god of mountain, storm and flame (Baal) equals “GOD, the composite protagonist of the Tanakh” (p. 93). This fusion of gods, says Jack Miles, resulted in the monos theos, the single character who is the one God of monotheism.
Father Lawrence Boadt similarly summarizes, “Israel narrates the story of the exodus to glorify God who saves….In a world where the weak had little protection and fewer rights, a God who can fight for [the] people and defend them is the God who receives worship. The Israelite story frankly praises God as a warrior, as the warrior. [God’s] military prowess is miraculous; [God] leads, [God] defeats enemies, [God] even marches triumphantly to [God’s] holy mountain and receives [God’s] people’s obedience and praise there. It is summed up in the victory hymn of Miryam” (p. 136), a woman so important that many daughters throughout the centuries would be named for her (including Yeshua’s mother, Miryam or Mary), a woman so important that we’ll dedicate the next episode of this podcast to Miryam.
Complicity in Colonization?
Divine warriors? Military conquest? Triumphant hymns of victory?
In her work, Introducing the Women’s Hebrew Bible, Susanne Scholz concludes: “The exodus story is dominated by patriarchal ideology in which men, such as Moses, feature centrally while female characters are portrayed as being complicit in the narrative’s colonizing patterns. This, too, is typical for colonizing narratives. In them, women are not innocent bystanders but support the promise for land and the quest for national power. This dynamic appears, for instance, in the stories of the midwives (Ex. 1:15-21), the mother and sister of Moses (Ex. 2:1-10), Pharaoh’s daughter (Ex. 2:5-10), and the wife of Moses (Ex. 2:15-22 & 4:24-26). There, too, women help men in reaching power and control….In colonizing narratives, they, too, support the goals of the male colonizers” (p. 124).
To return to the thought of J. Cheryl Exum, the refusal of women to cooperate with oppression, rather than leading to liberation, seems to result in...more oppression.
“The Courage of Women is the Beginning of Liberation”
Let’s conclude on a positive note. Exum says it far more eloquently than I: “What are we to make of the considerable role given to women in the prelude to the exodus? To say that the story shows that God uses the weak and lowly to overcome the strong is to give only a partial answer. The question is not why does a story of daughters form the prelude to the exodus, but rather: what effect do these stories about women have on the way we read the exodus story as a whole? Exodus begins with a focus on women. Their actions determine the outcome. From its highly positive portrayals of women to its testimony that the courage of women is the beginning of liberation, Exodus 1:8—2:10 presents the interpreter with powerful themes to draw on: women as defiers of oppression, women as givers of life, women as wise and resourceful in situations where a discerning mind and keen practical judgment are essential for a propitious outcome….Miriam, in particular, deserves careful attention for her role as leader along with Moses and Aaron. At least once more in the story a foreign woman, the resourceful Zipporah, intervenes to save Moses’ life. As the exodus account continues, Moses, as well as the deity, takes on female attributes, providing for the people on their journey from Egypt to Canaan. Reassessment of our traditional assumptions about women’s roles in the biblical story is in order” (p. 82).
Thank God for Inclusive Catholicism and its appreciation for the gifts of all people—including the gifts of all our sisters who have been historically marginalized and denied their rightful place in other churches, who have been oppressed, and who have not been allowed to be the wise, discerning, resourceful contributors to the Body of Christ that they are.
Ordinary Catholics might continue such oppression.
Ordinary Catholics might choose power and politics over prayer and discernment.
Ordinary Catholics might overlook the contributions of all God’s people or the feminine attributes of the savior figures and their gods in our long and fascinating history as a people.
Let’s not be Ordinary Catholics.
Let’s be...Extraordinary Catholics!
[Becky & Terry Ann]
Thank you for joining us for Extraordinary Catholics podcast with Father Jayme Mathias! Check out our directory of over 2,000 Inclusive Catholic clergy at www.ExtraordinaryCatholics.faith. Have an extraordinary day!