Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Zipporah at the Inn

Evangeline and I are working our way through the Hebrew Scriptures at night again. At the moment, we're reading the book of Exodus, that breathtaking account of how God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt and led them out to the land that he had promised four hundred years earlier to Abraham and his descendants.

It's a fantastic story, and not just because "The Prince of Egypt" gave it such a tremendous soundtrack. No, it's tremendous because it shows the reckless compassion that God has for his people, the disdain he has for the mighty and the powerful, and the high regard he holds the weak and helpless in. It ranks up there with the stories of Joseph and Esther as one of my favorite stories in the Tanakh.

Which is not to say the book is without sections that befuddle the heck out of me. Like Zipporah at the Inn. At the time, Moses and his wife are journeying to Egypt from the land of Midian, where he has been living since fleeing Egypt, when all of a sudden this weird stuff starts to happen:

At a lodging place on the way, the LORD met Moses and was about to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son's foreskin and touched Moses' feet with it.

"Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me," she said. So the LORD let him alone. (At that time she said "bridegroom of blood," referring to circumcision.)


I didn't even get to Zipporah's name before Evangeline had a question. "Why is God trying to kill Moses?" she asked. "That doesn't make any sense. He just told him to go to Egypt, and now he wants to kill him?"

I looked at her in amusement. She's growing older, and she's understanding this stuff more and more all the time. The last time we read this passage, I don't think she even blinked at it. Many adults probably don't even know this passage is here.

"I have no idea," I said. "It strikes me as weird too." And I started to read again.

"But why would God do that?" She is nothing if not persistent.

I put the Bible down, and we talked about it. The Bible, I explained, comes to us from another part of the world, from a different period in history, and from a different language. Most of it is fairly clear, although people will disagree on the significance of one passage or another, and how to interpret it. Then there are passages like this, where no is really certain what was going on.

"The people who first wrote the Bible probably had other stories that they told that helped them make sense of passages like this," I said. "Sometimes that extra information found its way into the Bible, sometimes it was written down somewhere else. and sometimes it was just lost, and no one knows what to make of what we have."

We returned to the Scripture and read the rest of the chapter. Evangeline returned to the bizarre story of God trying to kill Moses, and being appeased only when Zipporah circumcised her son. Turn it about as she could, she just couldn't get the story to make sense to her.

I hope she never does, to be honest. I've met many armchair apologists, and too often have been one myself, who have tamed the Bible. We make it safe to read by stripping out the passages we don't like, or creating perverse ways to reinterpret them so that the Bible teaches what we think it should say, rather than what it does.

I've heard Christians insist that when the Bible says the witch of Endor summoned Samuel's spirit, what it really means is that she summoned a demon pretending to be Samuel; I've heard the Golden Rule twisted and bent in an attempt to justify invading another country; and I've witnessed the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats turned into a happy story of being redeemed by grace rather than an unnerving story about the importance of a gospel that stresses social justice. Right now there's even a project under way to eradicate a supposed liberal bias in the Bible.

We all like to twist the Bible to something we feel comfortable with: whether it's more liberal, more conservative, more spiritual, more worldly, or even more irrelevant.

Zipporah at the Inn doesn't let us do that. It reminds us that the Bible isn't something we can put on a leash and walk about. Sometimes it just plain defies our understanding, no matter how hard we look at it -- and that in turn can move us to reconsider other parts that we think we know.

Copyright © 2010 by David Learn. Used with permission.

1 comment:

Brian Pendell said...

It raises a difficult question. It's quite clear that the earlier scriptures conflict with our current understanding.

Does this, however, necessarily mean the later re-interpretation is wrong? Consider the serpent in Genesis: Originally I suspect it was just a talking animal, but later thinkers decided the serpent was Satan.

Certainly Jesus seemed to have been more interested in the interpretations current in his time than those which existed when the Torah was first penned. He thought of 'Satan' as ruling a 'kingdom' -- yet the devil makes no appearance in the earlier scriptures.

This implies we cannot accept the entire Bible as literal , inerrant scripture, as an encyclopedia, but instead as a faith journey over time.

But how much of that journey is an improvement? And how much of it represents a false turning?

And did that journey end when Jesus went into Heaven, or are we still reinterpreting ideas in the light of new information? Do we, for example, still have to believe in a personal devil who is a monarch over all the evil spirits opposed to God? Do we still have to believe that eternal fire is the fate of most human beings, or dare we hope that God has a plan even for the lost? There was a time when we had no scriptural hope even of resurrection, yet we eventually got it. Might the Holy Spirit have other hopes to reveal to us as well?

And if we change our minds, does that represent a falling away or an improvement?

many good questions, I think .