Saturday, March 16, 2013

Daily Old Testament and Early Christian Writings: Exodus 1-2 and Ignatius' Epistle to Polycarp 1-2

Introduction: We turn here from the origins of the earth’s peoples—nations, races and clans—to the origins of the Jewish people religiously and politically.  While we have no “outside”—extra-biblical—sources to weigh historical information against, the [historically/culturally] experiential impact of the exodus memory/story is impossible to set aside. 

The memory/story, which is recounted here, is not only reality-orienting for the Jewish people, it is the basis of all they were to become—their corporate sense of commitment, their sense of themselves as a people—their culture, outlook and direction.  Schocken editors point out a number of words and ideas that find their origins here: Service to God, God’s glory and power, seeing God in the events of history, God’s great knowledge and concern for our suffering and needs, setting oneself apart for God’s service, consequences of rebellion against God, covenants, the different modes of God’s presence – in fire, cloud, manna and law, the desert experience of the faithful, purification, the journey from slavery to freedom and the idea of an ordered, law-oriented freedom. All of these concepts are critical in the development of our religious “culture” and even our secular culture.  

Moses’ childhood experiences foreshadow those of his entire people.

Exodus 1 – The family of Jacob is recounted, the number coming into Egypt at the time of the famine in Canaan is said to have been 70, a number that expressed perfection for them. Over time, however, “their descendants, the Israelites, had many children and grandchildren. In fact, they multiplied so greatly that they become extremely powerful and filled the land” (1:7).

They are located, to the east of the Nile, in an area that must have caused concern to the Egyptians. Egypt was a nation protected from invasion pretty much on all sides: the Mediterranean Sea to their north and deserts and mountains to their west, east and south. It seems to make sense that the Pharaoh would have some concern that an unfriendly “foreign” people to his east might be lured into alliance with some invading force.

“Eventually, a new king came to power in Egypt who knew nothing about Joseph or what he had done” (1:8). The Egyptians came to fear the Israelites and made their lives miserable by forcing them into cruel slavery. They made them work on their building projects and in their fields, and they had no pity on them” (1:13-16).

Pharaoh tries to enlist the aid of midwives who worked among the Hebrews to kill off some of their young – the boys. But the midwives are “God-fearing” (attracted by the religion of the Hebrews), and refuse to obey this order. Finally the Pharaoh sends out an order to “all his people,” saying, “Take every newborn Hebrew boy and throw him into the Nile, but let all the girls live” (1:22).

Exodus 2 – “About this time, a man and woman from the tribe of Levi got married. The woman became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She saw that he was a special baby and kept him hidden for three months” (2:2), but when she could hide him no longer, she put him in a “little ark of papyrus” - the ark as symbol of salvation is here introduced - and put the ark in the reeds, stationing Moses’ sister near enough to observe what happens. 

One of Pharaoh’s daughters finds the baby and takes pity on him; she sends her maid to find a nurse—Miriam steps out and suggests her own mother. Brilliant strategy! He is taken home to his mother and is nursed for probably more than a year. When he is weaned he is returned to Pharaoh’s daughter and grows up with her in Pharaoh’s court.

So this Hebrew boy is raised in the court of Egypt’s Pharaoh; he does not suffer the debilitating life of slavery and oppression, but he knows he is a Hebrew. He feels a sense of identity with them and perhaps guilt that he does not suffer what they suffer. I remember teaching this story to middle-school-age kids and realizing it as I taught it how logical Moses’ development was from a modern psychological perspective.

When he was grown, “he went out to visit his own people . . . and he saw how hard they were forced to work. . . . [H]e saw an Egyptian beating one of his fellow Hebrews. After looking in all directions to make sure no one was watching, Moses killed the Egyptian and hid the body in the sand” (2:11-12).

The next day, he again goes out and this time he comes across two Hebrew men fighting with each other. He tries to break up a fight between two Hebrew men and learns that they know what he did the day before. One of the men says to him, “’Who has appointed you ruler and judge over us? Are you going to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’” (2:14).  There seems to be so much irony in this response to Moses. He is clearly NOT seen by them as one of theirs. They just see him as someone trying to interfere with what is happening among them.

So Moses has to flee.  He goes to Midian, and like his ancestors before him, meets his wife-to-be by a well.  She is the daughter of a priest of Midian, Jethro/Reuel (depends on the account, the source). Moses sojourn among the Midianites has given rise to theories that maybe Moses learned aspects of the religion practiced by him while he was here. His wife’s father was, after all, a priest. The Midianites are said in Genesis 25:2 to be descended from Abraham. So one theory is that the Midianites might have re-introduced Moses to the Abrahamic traditions of the Hebrew people.  Reuel’s daughter’s name is Zipporah.  They have a son, Gershom.

“Years passed, and the king of Egypt died. But the Israelites continued to groan under their burden of slavery. They cried out for help, and their cry rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and he remembered his covenant promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He looked down on the people of Israel and knew it was time to act” (2:23-25).

Ignatius to Polycarp
Introduction: Ignatius wrote this personal letter to the bishop of Smyrna in addition to the one he wrote to the community there. Ignatius was much older than Polycarp.

1 – Ignatius praises the “godly qualities of [Polycarp’s] mind” (109) and urges his to  “press on even more strenuously in your course . . . and to call all your people to salvation” (109).

“Give thought especially to unity, for there is nothing more important than this” (109).

He urges him also to be “watchful and unsleeping in spirit” and to address himself “to people personally, as is the way of God Himself, and carry the infirmities of them all on your own shoulders, as a good champion of Christ ought to do. The heavier the labor, the richer the reward”(109). Can’t help but think of the new Pope, re-reading these words. Francis seems to have some of these qualities – simple, dedicated to the lowly in a very personal way.

2 – “There is no credit in spending all your affection on the cream of your pupils. Try rather to bring the more troublesome ones to order, by using gentleness” (109). As a long-time high school teacher I love the first line of this section.

You must pray for insight into the “invisible” (spiritual) world so you need to pray for insight into this world. The editor acknowledges that the text here is not very clear and different translators have used different words. Ignatius mentions that “critical times” require “helmsmen” and havens to go to; he seems to be comparing the church with a ship at sea.

[B]e strict with yourself, like a good athlete of God. The prize, as well you know, is immortality and eternal life. I am offering myself, and these chains you cherished so affectionately, as a humble sacrifice on your behalf” (109).

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