I know that I promised the second half of my take on Elsa Tamez's interpretation of James - dealing with James' empowering and calling out the laity (though it is important to note that in the church at the time of James there was not yet a clergy/laity distinction). But, I'm sorry, something else came up.
DagoodS of Debunking Christianity has posted a well reasoned and relatively thorough refutation of a literal reading of the Exodus story of the ten plagues. In the comments section of that post I argue for a less literal reading of the Exodus story, saying that it represents a mythologized history whose value is not in the literal-historical truth value of the details of the story, but rather in what that story communicates to us, particularly about how ancient Israel saw their history in relationship with God.
But, of course, the inevitable question is, if the story is not "true" in the sense that we usually mean (literal-historical), then how can it communicate anything of value? I can push that question back a few steps, making arguments for a "truth" independent of a literal-historical truth, but at some point it is incumbent upon me to argue for some valuable meaning that these stories can communicate to us. I can't just say, "If you don't take it literally then it is still true and valuable." I must say something more, something constructive which recaptures what is lost in a literal reading. If I don't, then I'm not really adding anything to the discussion; I'm just saying that we shouldn't be so damned literal, and people weren't always like this.
So, what does the Exodus story communicate to us, apart from a literal-historical reading?
Before I answer that I do want to say that while the Exodus story is not entirely historical, most scholars think that it touches on history. That is, while stories like that of the ten plagues may not have happened, the broader story points to a real people who were enslaved in Egypt, and somehow broke free of slavery, left Egypt, and eventually formed what we call ancient Israel. As such, the Exodus story is not historically bankrupt, even if it is mythologized.
But it is mythologized, and the modern paradigm has been built on de-mythologizing history and religion. Modernity sees myth as at best primitive, and at worst false. If it communicates a truth, it communicates a lower-level truth, the superstitions of primitive minds which can't come up with a literal or scientific explanation for events, so the weave elaborate stories and posit a supernatural explanation.
But we are starting to recapture an appreciation for myth. This is because myth does not communicate falsehood or a lower-level truth, but rather a deeper truth which goes beyond a literal description of events and gets at their meaning. That meaning is a way in which we can become connected to the story, seeing it as something more valuable than just a true description of something which happened at a point in history. It becomes connected to our experience of life. But none of this theoretical framework answers the question of what the Exodus story, re-mythologized, means.
We can see Exodus as one of three Macro Stories within the Judeo-Christian tradition. These stories are found on both the Jewish and Christian scriptures, and help us to see how we relate to God. They help us to interpret our experiences, and our deeper experience of life [note: by "deeper experience of life" I mean a broader experience which transcends our individual experiences; the framework within which we interpret our individual experiences and make them part of our life narrative] and to provide those experiences with meaning. These stories are both the stories of our tradition - our collective past - and our own personal experiences. That is why they still speak to us, and are part of an enduring religious tradition.
The three Macro Stories of the Judeo-Christian scriptures are:
1. The Priestly Story (or the Temple Story)
2. The Story of Exile and Return, and
3. The Exodus Story.
To understand the concept of a Macro Story, I will briefly describe the first two stories, before I give a slightly more detailed treatment of the Exodus Story, particularly as it relates to the story of the ten plagues. My understanding of these Macro Stories comes in part from Marcus Borg, whose work introduced me to "Story Theology."
The Priestly or Temple Story is the most familiar Macro Story within the Christian tradition. It is the way in the role of Jesus as the Christ is most often seen, though I must confess that this story does not speak to me nearly as much as the other two. It is the story of our need for atonement.
Something has gone horribly wrong within us. We understand good and bad, we know right from wrong, and yet we so often chose wrong over right. We are corrupted. We do bad things. This creates a problem with guilt. There is a need for atonement, to make things right.
So God provides for us what we could not provide for ourselves, a sacrifice that balances the scales, that atones for our sins. In the Jewish tradition Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the ritual completion of this story; their way of connecting themselves to the story. In the Christian tradition, the death of Jesus completes and connects.
At the very least the Christian take on this story turns a very bad thing (the crufixion of Jesus) into something constructive. It redeems a senseless death. But can this be taken literally? Can we say, as a matter of literal-historical truth, that Jesus died for our sins?
Certainly many Christians say just that, though they do not have in mind the distinction between mythological truth and literal-historical truth. The statement that Jesus as the Christ died for our sins, as the completion of the Priestly or Temple Story, is a tremendous part of the Christian tradition. It has spoken to Christians for nearly 2,000 years. But as a matter of historical fact, it is simply not true.
Jesus of Nazareth, the historical figure, was killed by Roman authorities because he was seen as part of a growing Jewish threat. There had been many Messianic figures in and around first century Palestine, mobilizing Jews to revolt against the Roman authorities. Such figures were crucified, a public warning to other would be revolutionaries about what happens when you mess with Rome.
But Jesus was seen very early on as a completion to this Macro Story. Jesus was seen as both a priestly mediator between God and humanity (even to the point of being seen as the way in which God is made incarnate to us), and as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. This was a way to connect Jesus to one of the important Macro Stories of ancient Israel. Its value is found in its enduring ability to speak to Christians, rather than in the literal-historical truth value concerning the primary reason for the senseless death of a spiritual leader.
But I will not here get into exactly how it communicates to Christians for a few reasons. Firstly, because it does not speak as much to me. The Priestly/Temple Story provides us with a solution for our existential guilt. At this point I don't experience that kind of guilt. That simply isn't my problem. But that it isn't my problem doesn't mean that it isn't a very real problem for many, many people. As such it has value, even if it doesn't speak to me, keeping me from being able to say exactly how it speaks.
Also, this Macro Story is not my primary concern here, but is instead offered as an example of a kind of Macro Story, building to the primary Macro Story we are considering, the Exodus Story.
The Second Macro Story is the story of Exile and Return. While this story is principally the concern of Diasporic Jews, it permeates the Jewish and Christian scripture. The story of Adam and Eve, particularly in third chapter of Genesis, can be seen as part of this story. They have been, because of their disobedience, exiled from their home. They live their life "East of Eden," outside not only "paradise," but also the only home they had ever known.
The story of Exile is a story of being far from home. It is the story of being existentially alone, wandering aimlessly with no security and no real meaning. It describes what is too often our human experience. But like all of the Macro Story, it describes both a problem and a solution. For while we are in Exile God comes to us. God is with us, in our Exile, making wherever we are a temporary home, while preparing us for our eventual return.
In the Christian tradition this story is perhaps seen best in Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son. The son leaves home only to find himself in a self-imposed existential exile. Yet while he is away from home, he remembers his home, and he remembers his father. He turns toward home, only to find that his father has seen him coming and set out to meet him. While still away from home he meets his father who takes him home. Exile to Return.
Part of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation sees Jesus as the Christ as the way in which God meets us in our Exile. While we are, existentially speaking, "strangers in a strange land," God through the Christ is with us, helping us to make a temporary home while awaiting return. In this way we know not only that our Exile is temporary (there will be a Return), but that we can find a home even in the midst of Exile. It is not the lonely, aimless wandering that it at first seems to be. It is instead a way in which God is made present to us.
But the Macro Story confronting us today is the Exodus story. The Exodus story says that while we were enslaved in Egypt, in bondage and oppressed, God listened to us and heard our cry, and has sent us a deliverer. This story is a recurring theme in the Hebrew scriptures, but it is also a way in Christians see Jesus as the Christ.
Jesus is the new Moses, sent by God to deliverer us from our slavery and oppression. This can be seen both in terms of spiritual slavery (that is, slavery to our sinful natures, trapped in a destructive pattern of behavior) or in more literal socio-political or economic terms. In fact, it should probably be seen in both ways, since both a very real problems.
This is easy enough to see, even if you don't believe in any sort of a God to hear our cry and answer our prayer, delivering us from our slavery and our oppression. But how does the story of the ten plagues, which presents us with a very ugly a wrathful God who kills the innocent with the guilty, fit into this re-mythologized story?
That is a question with which I have often wrestled, because I simply don't see God the way that God is often depicted in the Hebrew Bible. I can't worship a God who, external to our reality, comes down from time to time to smash those who do wrong, or even those who have the misfortune of living in a place where wrong is often done. As such, it is not immediately obvious how the story of the ten plagues on ancient Egypt could speak to me. Has it lost its voice for those of us who do not serve a bloodthirsty God?
No. It can still speak, and it can still speak to me. First of all, it tells me that the natural order rejects slavery and oppression. In the face of slavery and oppression, water turns to blood (Exodus 7:14-24); that which sustains lives becomes full of spilt life.
In the face of slavery and oppression frogs act unnaturally, leaving their river homes to swarm human dwellings (Exodus 7:25-8:11). The natural order of things has been overturned in response to the unnatural imposition on human freedom and dignity.
In the face of slavery and oppression the natural order, in fact, lashes out at the unnatural infringement on basic rights. Lice, or vermin, pests, are uncontrolled, feeding on the suffering (Exodus 8:12-15). Insects swarm and attack, (Exodus 9:1-7) and even the skin of the oppressor quite literally rises up against them, in the form of boils, as severe skin affliction (Exodus 9:8-12). Hail pounds down on the oppressors, as even the sky strikes out against them (Exodus 9:13-35), and in verse 25 we see that for the first time a human life is taken by the plagues. As the heart of the oppressor hardens, the consequences of the oppression worsen.
Finally locusts eat all of the crops, the basis for the economy which was built on the slavery and oppression (Exodus 10:1-10), and darkness descends (Exodus 10:21-29), mirroring the spiritual condition which is the necessary consequence of such hard heartedness in the face of the human suffering caused by their exploitation of foreign workers.
Finally the tenth plague, the death of the first-born sons, the inheritors of this exploitive economic legacy (Exodus 12:29-42). Ultimately an economy built on slavery, a society built on the backs of the exploited and oppressed, ends in death.
Economic exploitation and oppression is often justified in the name of immediate self interest. We say, sure this is a bad situation, but if we take any radical steps to correct it our whole economy will come tumbling down. One of the ways in which the plague stories from Exodus speak to us is that they tell us that when we say those sorts of things, when we engage in that kind of justification, we fundamentally misidentify our own self interests. Because God hears the cry of the slaves, the exploited, the oppress; and because God's nature violently rebells against such exploitations and oppression.
The value of the story, then, rests not on its literal-historical truth value, as though it were merely a report of something that happened once. Rather the value of it rests on its ability to communicate to us the message that God hears the cry of the oppressed.
There is one other contemporary point I want to bring out, before I get very briefly into a more historical point. That is this: in the story, there are no innocents. We may say that some people (Pharoah) bear more responsibility than others for the oppression and slavery of those who eventually became ancient Israel. But, in those who participated in exploitation come to the same end as those who orchestrate it. I'm not comfortable with the end they all come to. I don't worship a bloodthirsty God. But this story says that participating in exploitation and oppression makes one an oppressive exploiter; tolerating a slave-based economy makes one an enslaver.
And when one oppresses, exploits and enslaves, one is opposed to God; and in opposing God one is opposed to the natural order of things. And for that there are consequences, whether I like that image of God or not. I'm not trying to call down hellfire here. I don't even believe in hellfire. But I am saying that if we listen to the voice of this story, it calls us to not participate in economic injustice or socio-political oppression.
But, of course, we don't need the Bible to tell us that. This message, while part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, is not unique to that tradition. (And it has not always been heard by that tradition, though that is another story.) We can know that we ought not exploit, oppress or enslave others without reading about how ancient Israel interpreted the role of God in breaking their ancestors out of slavery in Egypt. But that failure to be unique does not make the message here less valuable.
This story is not just a moral or a message to us in our historical and cultural setting. Historically speaking, it is also the story of the origin of a people. It is a declaration that ancient Israel saw itself in relation with a God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt. It speaks to their identity. As such it has historical value. It is not reducible to that historical value, but that value is there nonetheless. It gives us insight into how these ancient people viewed their own history, the myth of their origins. As such it is a cultural treasure, whether or not it relates a literal-historical truth.
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