From time to time I feel it important for this blog to engage with the actual text of Holy Scripture. Those who have been following my blog for some time will know that I am concerned to share with my readers, not what the learned commentators say, but what is contained in the actual text. It is in close examination of the words of Scripture that we find sometimes it difficult not to challenge some of the cosy assumptions and cliché-ridden observations made by many conservative preachers. Among these assumptions is that the Bible is totally consistent in what it teaches and that it presents an accurate guide to the history of the Jewish people. Such claims and assumptions sometimes can be the cause of confusion and misunderstanding when set against the received wisdom of students and teachers of the Bible over the last two hundred years.
Recently I picked up a book at a remainder bookshop in Oxford on the Christian faith. This drew my attention to an interesting observation about the book of Exodus. The author observed how much variety there is in the understanding of the nature of God, commonly called Yahweh, in Exodus. When God is encountered by Moses in the burning bush in chapters 3 and 4, it is striking how little interest he has in individual human beings. He is a God who controls history and the fate of the people he has chosen. He is a God who will play the role of saviour and rescuer of a nation; he will free them from the Egyptians. Although he is going to work signs and wonders on behalf of this nation, there is no suggestion that he is concerned to relate individually to any of them. There is also no hint at this point in the story that any kind of moral response is required from his people, beyond recognising him as their Lord. When God is represented as showing anger at Moses, the anger is not for some moral failing. Rather it is because Moses has had the temerity to argue with God (4.13).
We meet a somewhat different understanding of God on the occasion of the giving of the Ten Commandments in chapter 20. Here in the Commandments we have a fairly full list of all the moral demands being made by God of his people so that they would keep their side of the covenant relationship with him. Of particular interest is the injunction in verse 5. The Israelites are told not to worship idols and the reason is given for this command is that God is jealous. Failure to observe this commandment will result in punishment. This is not just for the perpetrator but God will ‘punish the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generations …’ Clearly betrayal is regarded as the supremely unforgivable offence. It is also interesting to note that reference is made in verse 6 to the idea that keeping the commandments of God is a way of expressing love towards him. No reciprocal love from God to humans is mentioned. There is in fact nothing at all in this chapter to indicate God wants to show any form of love for his people. Rather we read in verse 20 that God intends to keep his people from sin by putting fear into them. In Moses’s words ‘God has come only to test you, so that the fear of him may remain with you and keep you from sin’.
A third encounter with God or Yahweh in the book of Exodus produces yet another set of emphases about his nature. This is found in chapter 34 .6-7. Moses goes up the mountain and God passes in front of him and makes the following statement about who he is. ‘Yahweh, a God compassionate and gracious, long-suffering, ever constant and true, maintaining constancy to thousands, forgiving iniquity, rebellion and sin, and not sweeping the guilty clean away; but one who punishes sons and grandsons to the third and fourth generation for the iniquity of their fathers.’ In this passage which continues the idea from the Ten Commandments passage about punishment being enacted on descendants for several generations, we clearly have a refreshingly new teaching about God. The passage introduces us to a series of adjectives never before used in the Book of Exodus and all of these imply an interest on the part of God in relating to humanity. In this passage we begin to see a presentation of the nature of God which is recognisably the same as presented to us by Jesus.
I have not consulted learned commentaries to discover what they say on this subject of these contrasting views of the nature of God in Exodus. For liberal scholars there are, in any case, no problems in noting these different, even contrasting, insights. It is to be expected that people of different times and places would have a different take on the nature of God. Exodus, it is widely recognised in mainstream scholarship, is a multi-source document rather than one composed by a single author. This common-place observation would however be challenged by many conservative scholars, particularly those from the States. They would want to continue in the claim that Exodus (and the entire Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible) was penned by the figure of Moses. In supporting that traditional viewpoint, such commentators have to struggle with the entirely futile task of explaining why Moses should have changed message so radically and comprehensively in such a short space of time. There are course a variety of other problems in claiming that the book of Exodus is given us by the divinely inspired authorship of Moses. The laws about slavery, for example, which are contained in chapter 21 immediately after the Ten Commandments, do not fit well into any moral code that is appropriate today. Can we ever imagine piercing a slave through the ear to the door post as is suggested in chapter 21.6 and that this is God’s will for all time? Are we ever going to pronounce the death sentence on the teenager who strikes one of his parents? These and other passages continue to haunt those of us who are familiar with the totality of Scripture. In practice most people deal with these passages by pretending that they do not exist. At the same time many are still heard to utter that the entire Bible represents the mind and words of God himself. Have those who make such claims really engaged themselves with the reality of every passage? I somehow doubt it.
Our short excursus into the book of Exodus has been to indicate that teaching about God can be seen to change radically in the course of one biblical document. The obvious explanation which fits the facts is that Exodus, as is also true for Genesis, is a multi-source document. Every clergyman knows about these theories of ‘source-hypothesis’ from their training but few, sadly, share the interesting fruits of this study with their congregations. Congregations are often left to think that the Bible is not ‘true’ because they are vaguely aware of the existence of ‘higher criticism’. They are seldom taught to handle it. In contrast conservative preachers continue, in spite of all the problems, to cling to doctrines of inerrancy which support the traditional authorship of Moses. They also have no apparent problem in presenting Exodus as entirely historical. It is unlikely that such conservative teachers will ever point out the problems caused by the texts that I have shared with my readers today. I leave my reader with this conundrum. Do we hold a conservative doctrine of biblical inspiration which creates massive problems of history, theology and moral coherence in the nature of God? Do we really want a doctrine of the Bible which has the effect of turning God sometimes into a bloodthirsty vengeful tyrant? Alternatively, do we accept that God reveals himself in a variety of different ways to different people at different times (including our own) without having to claim each and every revelation is always binding on us for all time?