Exodus 11-13, Psalm 21, Matthew 21
Troubling texts for a troubled world
Exodus 11 – 13
The Bible can be a very troubling book. It has some of the most beautiful passages ever constructed by humans and inspired by God. The Holy Spirit can work through every story, teaching and phrase in the Bible to reveal God’s truth and light, but there are portions of the Bible that are deeply troubling and shocking. If we do not find ourselves concerned by them, we probably are not reading carefully.
There is a temptation for all of us to do what America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, did, namely create our own Bible by cutting out portions that we find displeasing, unbearable or inconsistent with how we view the world.
Jefferson produced his The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth or what is more commonly known as the Jefferson Bible in 1820 when he was 77. He cut excerpts out of the New Testament gospels from the King James New Testament and edited and arranged them in a chronological order to tell the story of Jesus’s life and moral teachings.
In many ways, Jefferson was ahead of his times. In the centuries that followed, scholars figuratively created their own Bibles suggesting that various parts of the Bible did not belong in the original text, were latter additions or could never have been said by Jesus or other figures of the Bible. Some, like Jefferson, omitted any miracles and boiled the Bible down to a series of aphorisms or stories that were more readily believable and omitting anything that defied logic, reason and the laws of science.
Jefferson’s Bible omits most mentions of the supernatural, stories of the Resurrection and most all of Jesus’s miracles as well as passages that refers to Jesus being divine. In an 1803 letter, Jefferson states that he conceived the idea of writing his view of the “Christian System” after conversing with Dr. Benjamin Rush, a prominent Philadelphia physician who served as Surgeon General in the Continental Army and founded Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Jefferson wrote in a letter to his predecessor as President, John Adams:
In extracting the pure principles which [Jesus] taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves…There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.
Despite the stated intent of the 1804 version being “for the Use of the Indians,” there is no record of this or the work which Jefferson composed after it being used for that purpose. Indeed, Jefferson did not make his biblical and ethics works public. Instead, he mentioned it to a few friends and read it before retiring at night, as he found this project intensely personal and private.
So it is that America’s third president produced his own Bible so to speak, that was limited to the portions that he found edifying to his own life and acceptable to his own belief system. In some ways, each individual does something similar. It is a challenge for each of us to wrestle with the more troubling and challenging texts of the Bible.
The Church has come to rely upon the Lectionary as its Bible within the Bible in order to omit many of the most unpleasant and shocking stories and teachings found in the Bible. The use of the Lectionary has become so prominent that some clergy and most mainline Christians have never read the entire Bible.
In today’s readings, chapter 11 of Exodus is perhaps the shortest chapter in the Bible. Yahweh is about to break Pharaoh’s back with one final plague that will force Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. There is an unsettling pattern here, where God creates plagues and hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Many innocent Egyptians are hurt. We must keep telling ourselves, “It is only a story,” just as a person in a scary movie must note, “It is only a movie.”
While the story of the Exodus is probably true, it has been greatly embellished. Therefore, we must carefully select what parts to believe and look to for inspiration. In chapter 12, God instructs the Israelites should celebrate the first Passover. It is a meal that has traveled down through the centuries among Jews, who find much of their identity in celebrating it. The Passover Supper has enormous implications for Christians, who see Jesus as the Pascal or Passover lamb, sacrificed for us to take away our sins and spare the punishment that we deserve for the multitude of sins that each of us has committed.
God then instructs the Jews to eat no unleavened bread, “…for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day shall be cut off from Israel.” (Ex. 12:15) Here we see how petty and ridiculous religions can be. If we eat the wrong kind of bread, we are expelled from our religion. There is pettiness in every religion, and some zealots in every faith who make it their vocation to serve as spiritual police. This is not what true religion is all about.
And when your children ask you, “What do you mean by this observance?” You shall say, “It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.” (Ex. 12:26)
Jews are particularly good about sharing their faith in the context of the home and family. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we shall encounter similar passages, when God prepares parents how to share their faith with children. It is a touching lesson for all Christians to learn. Faith is always just one generation away from extinction. Unless we share it with our children and instill in them vital beliefs, values and knowledge, the hope and love of God shall cease to inspire that best that humans are capable of being.
If I had to take Jefferson’s razor and omit a portion of the Bible, I would likely remove Exodus 12:29, where we read, “At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on this throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the livestock.”
Is God really capable of mass murder or genocide? I do not believe so. One of the dangers of religion is using a faith tradition to create a narrative that benefits one people while diminishing other groups. This passage is a dangerous text that must be read carefully in order to avoid believing that God enacts or sanctions violence, murder and war, which God abhors.
According to the narrative, God then instructs the Hebrew people to ask their Egyptian neighbors for gold, silver and clothing. “And so they plundered the Egyptians.” (Ex. 12:36) Then they set out on perhaps the most famous journey in history. Former Israeli President Golda Meir once said, “Leave it to the Jews to spend 40 years walking through the desert in order to find the only place in the Middle East where there is no oil.” It was a great line! Instead, God promised them “a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Ex. 13:5). Perhaps oil would have been better.
We are told that 600,000 men set out on foot, accompanied by an unnamed amount of women and children. There may have been as many as 1,800,000 persons following Moses. We are told that the Hebrews spent 430 years in Egypt, after Joseph was brought as a captive to Egypt and had his entire family join him. Whether these numbers are accurate does not matter. What is important is that God heard their cry and delivered them from oppression.
We read, “When the Lord has brought you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your ancestors, and has given it to you…” we need to remember that other people now lived in this land. The is like the creation of the state of Israel in 1947, when indigenous people were cleared from villages that they had called home in some cases for 2,000 years in order to create a homeland for Jews displaced and oppressed throughout Europe and beyond.
While the cause was noble, someone always seems to pay a great price. Human engineering of countries and borders has often sown the seeds for future bloodshed. This story is no fairy tale, but rather a narrative that has been replayed often throughout history, as one people displaced another. In many ways, it is the story of the conquest of the Americas. Like the ancient Jews, our forebears believed that God was sanctioning their conquests.
Chapter 13 closes by setting the stage for one of the greatest miracles of the Bible. We shall see in our next reading that it may or may not have been a miracle at all. Nonetheless, God went before the Hebrews in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to lead them. They transported the bones of Joseph, as was promised by their ancestors so that their forefather might be buried in the land of his ancestors. God led them on a circuitous way to avoid a battle with the Philistines. God was watching over them, just as God watches over each of us.
Psalm 21 is a prayer of thanksgiving for a king. I have recently returned from a sabbatical in Spain, which still has a monarchy. The king is only somewhat popular and has a reputation for chasing ladies. His daughter and son-in-law allegedly misappropriated government funds and are living in Switzerland, to be out of the public eye while legal proceedings take place. Monarchies are not what they used to be.
Still, there are lines and verses in these prayers designed to honor kings that might inspire our lives today. Sometimes, we find a word or phrase that strikes us such as “He asked of you for life; you gave it to him – length of days forever and ever” (verse 4) or “His glory is great” (verse 5) or “You bestow on him blessings forever; you make him glad with the joy of your presence” (verse 6) and mull them over in our mind.
We often find in the psalms words and thoughts that are ripe for lectio divina or sacred reading. When you find a verse, phrase or word that captures your attention or speaks deeply to you, mull it over in your heart and mind. Chew upon it spiritually like a cow chewing her cud.
Then offer a prayer to God based on what you feel and sense. Sit quietly for a few moments so that God might respond to what you have offered in prayer. Often God will put something on your heart or inspire you with the thought, action or deed that will enrich your life. This process is called lectio divina. It is an ancient way of engaging Scriptures practiced for centuries by monks and saints. It is an extremely fruitful way to engage the Bible. It consists of four stages: lectio (reading), meditatio (meditation), oratio (prayer) and contemplatio (contemplation). You can google it or visit our website at: www.thecenterforbiblicalstudies.org to learn more.
With eight chapters left to read in Matthew’s Gospel, we begin to focus on the end of Jesus’s life. “Go to the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me,” says Jesus. (Matt. 21:2) Clearly, Jesus had inklings of what was going to happen to him. God had a plan, and Jesus was going to carry it out.
I believe that God has a plan for each of us as well, but we so often veer off course from what God has intended for us. God therefore must rescript our lives again and again and create a new plan to help us be as fruitful as possible and serve him and others with our gifts and talents. Matthew notes that Jesus instructed his disciples in order to fulfill the prophetic words of Isaiah and Zechariah.
It is helpful in places like this to read from an annotated Bible, such as the New Oxford Annotated Bible, which has careful footnotes or annotations at the bottom of each page, which note in a case such as this that Jesus is quoting words from the prophet Isaiah (Is. 62:11) and Zechariah (Zech. 9:9). God’s ultimate plan as described in the Old Testament is being carried out by God’s obedient son.
A donkey was a king’s animal. It was believed that the Messiah would enter Jerusalem mounted on a donkey and riding down the Psalm Sunday path, which pilgrims can walk to this day. It is a steep, windy road that weaves its way down from the Mount of Olives into the Kidron Valley and up towards the Beautiful Gate in Jerusalem, which Roman leaders walled closed after learning that the Messiah would enter Jerusalem through it. The road looks ideal for skateboarding, but as a pilgrim walks down it and surveys the hillside of white, sun-bleached tombs on the left and the Garden of Gethsemane on the right, we know that this is holy ground. We are walking in Jesus’s footsteps.
A large crowd spread their cloaks and threw down palm branches, greeting Jesus as their king and shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matt. 21:9)
This is the story that the Church retells each year as we commemorate Palm Sunday. There is pageantry and power as hope fills the air. Within a matter of days, everything will be transformed into sorrow and anguish, before transcending into resurrection joy. It is the narrative of our lives in miniature.
According to Matthew, Jesus spent the night in Bethany, where his friends, Martha, Mary and Lazarus lived. The following day, he reminded his followers, “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” (Matt. 21:22) He words are put into practice in every country of the world each day. True believers pray with a special power and something indeed happens.
Jesus then announces that that tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God before the chief priests and elders who have been questioning his authority. To underscore his message, he tells the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, which is a recap of salvation history. Jesus explains how God sent prophet after prophet to guide humans in the right direction, and each prophet was treated poorly. Finally, God sent his son in the hope they he could make a difference, but they tortured and killed him.
When his listeners realized that he was speaking about them, their anger was strong, but because of fear of the crowds they held off from arresting him on trumped up charges. It is only a matter of time before evil will eclipse goodness in the darkness day that humankind has known.
Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive. (Matt. 21:22)
If you have a partner to meet with and discuss the texts that you are reading, you will learn from each other and can become one another’s encouragers in reading the Word.
What stories or teachings in the Bible would you be tempted to remove? Do texts of violence make it difficult for you to read the Holy Scripture? What happens when the Church stops reading these texts and forgets that they exist?
Gracious and Forgiving God, your will is for all people to respect the dignity of one another. Help us never to feel that we are superior to any people or persons or individual on earth. We are all cut from the same cloth. Help us to see the Christ in each person we meet. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania