Misdirection

In late 1996 I met the woman of my dreams.  I was 19 years old and hopelessly in love.  On our second date I told her “you’re everything I’ve ever wanted in a wife.”  Six months later she left me to attend school in England for a year.  Honestly, it was one of the worst years of my life.  But I learned an invaluable lesson, “if you love someone, set them free.”  Looking back, I realize I wasn’t ready for love, not even close.  It took a year apart from her to prepare me for a lifetime with her by my side.  I’m grateful for that year.  It helped shape me into the rad husband I am today.  At least, that’s what my wife says!

Life’s journeys are full of misdirection.  You think you’ve found the girl of your dreams, but the minute you find her, you have to let her go.  The career opportunity of a lifetime falls into your lap, but right at the last minute, another applicant is chosen ahead of you.  You make the grades, test well, turn your applications in on time, but receive no offers for college; it’s community college for you.  In the moment, it’s hard not to treat these disappointments as setbacks.  What we want is right there in front of us, but for whatever reason, it remains elusive.

For four hundred years the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt hoping for God to deliver them and lead them into the Promised Land.  Finally, their prayers are answered.  God shows up by sending Moses to punish Egypt for their cruelty and deliver the slaves out of Egypt.  At long last, they make their escape from slavery in Egypt.  But notice what happens next…

Exodus 13
17 When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” 18 So God led the people around by the desert road toward the Red Sea.

It may not sound like much at first glance, but notice what God does.  He deliberately leads his people off course.  It’s worse than that; he takes them in the opposite direction.  Canaan was an 11 day journey from Egypt, but the Israelites would wander 40 years in the wilderness before ever stepping foot in the Promised Land.  Why would God take them on this route?  Wouldn’t it have been better to take them on the more direct route?  His intentions are outlined for us in the verses above.  If the Israelites face adversity, God reasoned, they are likely to lose heart and return to slavery in Egypt.  The Israelites are skittish.  They have been beaten, kicked around, treated as less than for so long they are incapable of trust.  In short, they are not ready.  It would only take a slight thirst, or hunger pangs for them to desire a return to Egypt, how would they respond when facing the threat of battle with the Philistines?  God decides to test, try, and refine them in the wilderness until they are fully prepared to step into their destiny.

This is a classic misdirection story.  Sometimes moving forward requires two steps back, or to go up you must first move down.  Jesus said give if you want to receive; lose your life if you want to find it.  It flies in the face of the immediate gratification culture that rules the day, but wisdom and experience show these principles to be true.

Let’s be honest, sometimes a setback is just a setback.  However, we must always be prepared for another explanation.  Your journey to the Promised Land might take you through the wilderness.  And when you find yourself there, embrace it; it may be the only pathway to get from here to there.

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Monotheism in Egypt

“How should we read the Exodus story?”  I’ve been getting this question a lot lately.  Should we treat it as history?  Should we see it as a metaphorical story?  Perhaps it’s just a tale of Moses that has been embellished over the years.  There are no shortage of opinions when it comes to answering such questions.

While many Biblical scholars would defend the legitimacy of the Biblical stories in Exodus, let’s hear from a few naysayers.  “The period of the patriarchs, exodus, conquest, or judges as devised by the writers of Scriptures … never existed,” says Robert Coote of San Francisco Theological Seminary.  “The actual evidence concerning the Exodus resembles the evidence for the unicorn,” writes Baruch Halpern of Pennsylvania State University.  Critics of the historicity of the Exodus often point to a lack of archaeological evidence placing the Hebrew slaves in Egypt.  There’s virtually nothing in the way of hard evidence to show the presence of such a large Hebrew population in Egypt around the time frame most Biblical scholars suggest for the events in Exodus to have taken place (1300-1500 BCE).

It would be great to have archaeological evidence of the Hebrew slaves living in Egypt, but there are a few reasons explaining why we don’t.  First off, the Egyptians were notorious for being mum about their defeats.  Pyramids, grand statues, and temples filled the Egyptian landscape testifying to the greatness of Pharaohs, the gods they worshiped, and their mighty deeds, but one would be hard pressed to find any hieroglyphics describing embarrassing defeats.  Considering the devastating impact the Hebrew insurrection had upon Egyptian society, it would be hard to imagine they would want this humbling defeat to go down in the annals of history.  Secondly, the Hebrews were slaves.  They were an invisible class of people.  They lived simply with minimal possessions and lived quiet lives not wishing to draw attention to themselves.  No one questions the presence of a large slave force in Egypt, the pyramids, sphinx and other amazing structures are a testament to that, the only question is as to the identity of these slaves.  The Bible satisfies both this question and the question as to Israelite origins in Canaan.

There’s an important detail often overlooked in discussions like these.  It certainly doesn’t fall in the category of hard archaeological evidence, but it is compelling.

An interesting event happened around the year 1350 BC that changed Egyptian society for a very short period of time.  The pharaoh at this time, Akhenaten, decided that Egypt should become monotheistic. Instead of having many gods including Amun-Ra, Isis, Osiris, and others, he ordered that everyone should worship the “Aten” (the sun), which was only depicted as a disk when drawn, rather than having human form.  The “Aten” was said to be the font of all being and could not be restricted to form.  Akhenaten banned the worship of all other gods and insisted the “Aten” was the one true god.  For thousands of years before Akhenaten and continuing for thousands of years after Akhenaten Egypt would be notably polytheistic.  Why the shift during this brief 14 year period?  What could have caused Akhenaten to make such a drastic change?  Where did he even get the idea?

It’s highly probable Akhenaten was influenced by something, or someone.  Could it have been Joseph who rose to power in the land of Egypt and no doubt had great influence upon the Pharaohs before and after his lifetime?  Could it have been the influence of the Hebrews, or the radical defeat Egypt suffered as a result of rebuffing the demands of the one true God Moses came to represent?  I am inclined to believe one of these explanations satisfies the riddle.  Akhenaten didn’t stumble upon the greatest theological shift in world history.  He had help.

Killing of the Firstborn

The question is a familiar one; how can a God of love be responsible for the mass genocide we read about in the Old Testament?  Our journey through the book of Exodus now brings us to one such occasion.  God brings a final plague against Egypt so devastating in nature it leaves us wondering, “how does anyone deserve this?”  Every time I read through this story I get the feeling that God is kicking Egypt while they are already down.  And yet, I recognize after 9 destructive plagues, Pharaoh has not submitted to God.  Because of this, every firstborn child in Egypt must die.  The Lord passes through Egypt and the giver of life becomes the one who takes it away.

Giver of Life
To even begin to understand the killing of the firstborn in Egypt, we must confess that our questioning of God is silly.  Comprehending what is just and good on a cosmic scale is an impossible task.  If anything, we must be humble enough to consider that when our definition of what is right doesn’t line up with what or who God reveals himself to be, then we are more than likely wrong, or we just don’t have all of the facts.  In Romans 9, Paul says, “But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’”  He’s writing in direct context to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart during the plagues in Egypt.  His point is made clear; not only are we not in control of what happens in the universe, we don’t even get to vote on the matter.  This leaves us with only one option – trust.  We have to trust God is good and he has reasons for his actions.  We should never give up, however, on seeking to understand what God’s reasons are.  When we ask questions, we are demonstrating a desire to know God more.  We want to know his ways, so we can know his heart and participate with him in the work he is doing.  Besides, in asking questions of God we are in good company.  We join Abraham, Elijah, David, Jonah, even Jesus himself who cried, “my God my God why have you forsaken me?”  Questions are good.  Talking back is not so good.

Eye for an Eye
Gandhi is famously quoted as saying, “an eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”  He has a very good point.  Jesus said it better a few thousand years earlier in response to an angry crowd who wanted to stone an adulterous woman to death, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”  Jesus speaks for God.  So, how is it he seems to be contradicting the law of just punishment God laid out for the Israelites in Exodus 21.  Which is it, eye for an eye, or forgive and forget?

First off, let’s state the obvious here.  God is without sin, so he is perfectly capable of casting the first stone.  But let’s unpack “an eye for an eye”.  When God gave Israel the Levitical law, he was establishing a baseline for morality.  He had to take them from A to B before he could get them to C.  Before the law, there was no standard for righteousness.  Paul talks about this a great deal in Galatians.  People did what was right in their own eyes.  In other words, “might was right”.  This rule of thumb continues to hold sway in our world today where the rich and the powerful tend to get away with a lot more than the general population.  The only thing standing in the way of “might is right” is “God will judge”.  If we truly believe that God will judge the world and repay each person on planet earth according to their actions, we can begin to let go of our need to see those who have wronged us pay for their crimes.  This makes forgiveness possible.  When we let go of our need for vengeance, the broken and damaged areas of our lives can begin the healing process.  Until God’s righteous judgments can be handed out, we are governed by “an eye for an eye.”  However, as Jesus pointed out, we are incapable of living up to this standard.  It is temporary and fragile at best.

Let’s return to Egypt.  It’s pretty clear why God strikes down the firstborn in Egypt.  The Pharaoh had enacted a genocide of young Hebrew boys for what appears to be forty years (since the birth of Moses).  Considering God is a few short weeks away from unveiling the law “an eye for an eye”, it’s safe to say he is demonstrating what this looks like by sending the angel of death to return upon Pharaoh and Egypt what they had been doing to the Hebrews for years.  The message is very clear; all human life is sacred.  The rich and the powerful are not excused from discarding baby slaves into the Nile.  Egypt’s sins will be revisited upon them.  God’s goal was to bring his creation from A to B on the morality scale.  He gives the law “an eye for an eye” to establish the value of a human being.  Human beings are not possessions, animals, or play things.  They are God’s special creation in whom he has placed his image.

Human Decision
Amazingly, God does not bring his judgments on Egypt without first giving them a chance to repent.  Even after all they had done, God shows them this mercy.  It’s debatable whether or not Pharaoh had a choice in the matter, but certainly the option was made available for him to free the slaves, submit to God, and not suffer the consequences.  Unfortunately, his heart is hardened, he rejects God’s many requests, and the nation pays the ultimate price.  In this way, the responsibility for the killing of the firstborn in Egypt is placed solely on the shoulders of the man who sinned against God by killing the Hebrew children, then hardened his heart and let the entire nation of Egypt suffer the consequence of his sin.

The Plagues

The Pharaoh was known as the divine ruler over all of Egypt.  Imagine being told from the time you were born, “you are a god”.  This wasn’t just the opinion of your very proud parents, but was echoed by an entire nation of people looking to you as their supreme leader.  We all know someone who thinks they are god’s gift to… fill in the blank, but I think we can agree for the Pharaoh this was more than just an inflated ego.  He was absolutely convinced it was true.  Consequently, when Moses shows up with a message from the Hebrew God to free the slaves, Pharaoh isn’t simply disagreeable to the idea, he is downright insulted (Exodus 5:2).  He asks Moses, “who is the LORD?”  God answers his question by systematically dismantling every deity known to Egypt.

It is well established that God was confronting Pharaoh and the other gods of Egypt by sending the plagues.  If all he wanted was freedom for the Israelite slaves, he could’ve sent a devastating flood, or fire to consume the Egyptians; AKA Sodom and Gomorrah, or the days of Noah, but he didn’t.  He systematically confronted the gods of Egypt by meddling with their various spheres of influence.  For instance, the Egyptian god “Hapi” was believed to be the spirit of the Nile and its dynamic essence.  What kind of a message is God sending by turning the Nile’s waters to blood?  Consider also the plague of frogs.  The goddess “Heqet” was a frog.  She was a symbol of fertility and resurrection and also assisted with childbirth.  How must Pharaoh have reacted when frogs invaded his palace and jumped onto his bed?  “Amon-Ra”, the sun god, was the chief deity in Egypt.  When God sends a plague of darkness covering the land for three days, the most powerful god in Egypt is reduced to a light switch in Yahweh’s fingers.

There is a point to all of this carnage.  God desperately needed to send a message to a world drifting further and further away from him.  The message is clear; “I am the one true God, you shall have no other gods before me.”  God brought the ten plagues to demonstrate his preeminence over all the gods of the most powerful nation in the world.  For the tenth and final plague God says, “on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment” (Exodus 12:12).  His intentions are made even more clear in Numbers 33:4.  This powerful display of his sovereignty would be played out on the world stage as he dealt the Pharaoh a devastating blow and freed his people Israel from bondage.

The Egyptians, however, were not the only ones who needed to be reminded to flee idolatry.  The Israelites would receive many warnings throughout their history as a nation of the futility of worshiping false gods.  The truth is, we all worship something, even if that something is an inflated view of self.  We establish gods in our hearts and stubbornly hold on to them.  These gods promise to give us: provision, peace, pleasure, happiness, and all sorts of other things.  From time to time God sends a plague to dismantle these gods and expose them for what they are – frauds.  From financial crisis to world wars to career shake-ups, God is constantly reminding us we will never find our life outside of him.  This is not cruel and unusual punishment.  God is the source of all life.  Apart from him there is only death.  His love for us is so great, he refuses to stand by idly while we die a slow death clinging to false gods and false hopes.  If it takes a plague to accomplish his purpose, he sends a plague.  Charles Spurgeon says it better than I ever could, “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the rock of ages.”

Jeremiah