The Bible’s Three Stories, Story 1: Exodus (2/12/06)
Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
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Last week I introduced a sermon series entitled “The Bible’s Three Stories.” To refresh the memories of those of you who were here last week, and to bring up to date those who were not, I will begin this morning’s message by recapping the main points of last week’s sermon.
For the past couple of centuries, Bible scholarship has been based primarily on what is called historical-critical scholarship. This important and necessary form of Bible study attempts to examine the many books of the Bible by critically examining them in the most honest manner possible.
The historical-critical method carefully examines ancient manuscripts, and attempts to discern how the texts have been altered over the centuries. It looks for theological agendas which various translators may have inserted into the texts, usually with the best of intentions, but nevertheless coloring, and in some cases changing, the intended meaning of the original author.
And the historical-critical method asks three vital questions of every text: Who wrote it; what audience was it written for; and why was it written. This forms the core of Bible scholarship over the past few centuries, and it remains a vitally important tool in the study of the Bible.
In just the past twenty-five years, however, a new form of Bible study has emerged. This new method is called “story theology.” Story theology is based on the idea that the Bible is comprised primarily of stories. Some of these stories are based on historical facts. The stories about the kings of Israel are based on history. These were real, live, flesh-and-blood people who largely did the things which are attributed to them.
Other stories take the forms of myths and parables. These stories, while not grounded in historical facts, remain extraordinarily important, perhaps even more important than the historical stories. The fact that Jesus spoke in parables accentuates this fact. Jesus could relay truths about God through his stories which could be expressed in no other way. There wasn’t really a prodigal son, or ten bridesmaids, or a lost sheep. But the truth contained in these stories makes them even more important than the historically true stories found elsewhere in the Bible.
Over the history of the Church two things have happened to these stories. The Church has attempted to find the truth in these stories and mold it into doctrines—systems of belief. And contemporary scholars, using the historical-critical method, have sought the truth in these stories by entirely dismantling them.
The claim of story theology is this: the truth is in the story. If the truth Jesus was proclaiming could have been revealed in a systematic, logical way, he would have given us doctrines. He didn’t, because it can’t. So instead he gave us stories. Dismantle the stories, and the truth disappears.
The New Testament scholar Marcus Borg cites three features of the Bible as it relates to story theology. It can be viewed as one long story from Genesis to Revelation. It begins with the beginning, creation, and ends with the end of the world.
A second feature is to look at the hundreds of stories individually. They stand on their own, whether it be the story of the Tower of Babel or the story of the birth of Jesus.
A third feature is called the macro-stories of the Bible. These are the great themes which permeate the Bible and shape the identity and theology of both the Jewish and Christian people. There are three of these expansive stories—macro-stories. They are the Exodus story, the story of exile and return, and the priestly story. Today we will examine the Exodus story.
The first five books of the Bible, called the Pentateuch, or the Torah, are foundational for both Jews and Christians. The second of those books, Exodus, tells the story of how Moses led the Hebrew people out of their slavery in Egypt and to the promised land.
The fifth book of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy, summarizes the meaning and the importance of the Exodus to the Hebrew people with what scholars believe is a rephrasing of Israel’s most ancient confession of faith. This reading is from Deuteronomy 6:21-23:
You shall say to your children. “We were the Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The Lord displayed before our eyes great signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household. He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land that he promised on oath to our ancestors.
This story is the original and defining oral tradition of the Jewish people. The scripture clearly states, “When your children ask you, ‘Who are we,’ your response is to be, ‘We are the people the Lord brought out of Egypt into the promised land.” That is the very definition of a Jewish person.
What we have in the Exodus story is the story of one of the most remarkable journeys in the history of the world. That is what the word “exodus” means: a departure, a journey undertaken, or quite literally, “the way out.”
God is with the people on this journey, and they become aware of that fact early on. The Egyptians chase the escaped Hebrew slaves to the edge of the Red Sea. Exodus 14:21-22 reads,
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
The Israelites walk through the Red Sea, of course, and their pursuers are drowned. Some people will say that we must believe this story occurred exactly as written or we are betraying the power of scripture. Others will say there is simply no way this story could have happened as it is told, because the laws of physics held just as true 3500 years ago as they do today.
But story theology will tell both of those groups they are missing the whole point. Look at the story. The truth is in the story. Accept the story as a story, and don’t worry about whether or not it is historically accurate. It doesn’t really matter.
Before we really delve into that idea—the story as a story, with it’s merits anchored in a truth that lies beyond fact and fiction—we must remember one more aspect of the biblical Exodus story. The Israelites wandered lost in the wilderness for forty years before they eventually reached the promised land. And that time of wandering was one of the most significant times for the Hebrew people, as it was then that they developed much of their worship practice, and it was in the wilderness that on Mount Sinai, Moses received the Ten Commandments.
Marcus Borg points out that when we look back at the Exodus story as a whole, four themes emerge: bondage, liberation, journey, and destination. The people are in bondage to the Egyptians, they are liberated with the help of God through their own strength and determination, they journey into the wilderness where God is their constant companion, and they eventually arrive at their destination, which is the promised land of Israel.
Because story theology holds that this story is a macro-story, a basic theme underlying the meaning of the entire Bible, we must ask ourselves: What is this story telling us about ourselves and our relationship with God? What is it about this story that speaks directly to the human condition in the world today?
The story begins with bondage. What is it that holds us in bondage? Can those of us living in this great country in these modern times actually consider ourselves enslaved in any true sense of the word?
Absolutely! We are enslaved by a culture that tells us we are failures. We are bombarded with messages every hour of every day that insist we would be truly happy if only we had one more product. We would be truly happy if only we were more successful, more beautiful. The messages come at us from the radio, from television, from the movies, from billboards. I am not working hard enough. I am not having as much fun as I should have. My own family is only a pathetic pale reflection of the wonderful families that surely live all around me. My friends don’t laugh joyfully as we frolic on a hillside in our cotton dockers. I don’t drink beer at a friendly tavern while beautiful woman joyfully laugh at my remarkable wit. I don’t have a new car. I don’t have a big house. I don’t have a platinum MasterCard. I must be a miserable failure.
And what if we actually manage to acquire all of these things? Then we will really be happy, right? Wrong! That is the worst enslavement of all, because the very things our culture holds forth as the grand prizes of life, when finally achieved, prove to be meaningless. The fact is, it doesn’t matter whether you are driving a 2006 Rolls Royce or a 1978 Yugo: it is still you behind the wheel, and neither of those automobiles can make you happy or fulfilled in any meaningful way. (Although if you are driving a
1978 Yugo, you do have my sympathy.)
So we are in bondage, just as the Israelites were in bondage. The next theme of the Exodus story is liberation. The Hebrew people were liberated by God and by Moses. God sent a series of plagues upon the Egyptians, and Moses ultimately led the people out of their bondage.
How was it that the Israelites were liberated? Ultimately, they had to liberate themselves. The fact that God was ready to help, and the fact that Moses was there to point the way, would have been mute points if the people themselves had not been willing to follow the path of liberation. For the Israelites, this meant throwing off the chains of their captors, and walking away from the lordship of the Pharaoh.
This was a conscious decision on their part. And there would be times on their journey that they would question the decision they had made. After all, they were fed and housed when they were slaves. Their journey would lead them to a wilderness, where doubt and uncertainty would often make them long for the predictable life of enslavement they had left behind.
And so it is with us. For us to become liberated from the cultural forces which attempt to shape our lives, we must be willing to throw ourselves into the uncertainty of a life lived for purposes which don’t make sense to those who remain enslaved. And that takes a great deal of courage, and a great deal of faith. Because throwing off our chains is such a daunting task, we probably can’t do it by ourselves.
Walking away from the life of modern culture just doesn’t make much sense. It’s like standing at the edge of the Red Sea and waiting for it to part. People would look at us like we were crazy. People would say, there is nothing there. You have no choice. This is the only life that is available for you.
And when God parts the sea for you, and reveals a path into the future you had not seen before, you will have a choice to make. You may either trust God to hold the walls of water in place as you begin a new journey, or you may return to Egypt. The choice is yours.
But if we make it this far, cast our lots with God, and trust God to guide us through the parted sea, we finally reach…the wilderness. Not the promised land, but the wilderness.
And frankly, we are all in the wilderness, in one way or another. The Exodus story is so universally true, it applies even to those who never make the decision to cross through the Red Sea. There are two great characteristics of the wilderness: it is a place of freedom, and it is a place where God is present. And in my mind, the only difference between those who return to their bondage, and those who walk through the Red Sea, is that those in bondage refuse to acknowledge the presence of God, and those who escape their bondage joyfully thrive on the presence of God.
For me, the wilderness in the Exodus story is life itself. And just as it was for the Israelites who journeyed in the wilderness, it can be a place of fear and uncertainty. Here in the wilderness, we sometimes find ourselves building golden calves, even though we know in our hearts it is not God’s will. Here in the wilderness we sometimes live as if there were no God, as if we were not responsible for the lives we live, for the things we do, for the words we say, for the people we hurt.
But God’s law is here with us, even in the most remote regions of the wilderness, for just as the Exodus story has the Ten Commandments written on tablets of clay and miraculously delivered to Moses, our story has those laws written on our hearts, and miraculously woven into the very fabric of the universe. We cannot escape them.
And just as the Exodus story sees the Hebrew people wandering with God through the wilderness, on a journey that ultimately leads them to the promised land, so our journeys are made with God, and end in the place to which God leads us all.
And that is the most important theme of the Exodus story. It is a theme that defines the nature of life, the meaning of life, and the ultimate destination of life. Marcus Borg defines that theme with these simple words: Life is a journey toward God that is also with God.
That is what life is. From the moment we are born until the moment we die, we are on a journey, and the ultimate destination of that journey is God. And on that magnificent, mysterious, beautiful journey, God is with us every step of the way. And if we acknowledge that fact—the fact that God is not only the destination of our journey, but that God is also with us on this journey, we may discover the true joy of living. We may look at all the things in this world that place restraints on our lives; all the words, images, powers, and people which attempt to enslave us in some way; and we can ask God to liberate us from that bondage.
Sure of our destination, we can embrace the journey in a way that allows God’s love to guide our every step. Confident of God’s endless mercy, we can walk through the wilderness as God’s love fills us to overflowing with the strength, with the joy, with the character to make God’s will our own. Secure in the knowledge that God will never abandon us on our journey, we can make our hands God’s hands, and become the vessels through which the gracious love of God is poured upon creation.
I ended last week’s message by saying that when we examine the Exodus story, we might discover it is much more than the story of a nomadic people who wandered the Middle East three-thousand years ago; that, in fact, we might discover it is a story about all of humanity, and the relationship God maintains with humanity today. I will leave it for you to decide if we were successful.
Next week, we will examine the second great macro-story of scripture: the story of exile and return. This story is based on perhaps the most important single event in the history of the Jewish people: the Babylonian exile, which began in 587 B.C. and ended in 539 B.C.
We will discuss briefly why this event is so important. In fact, as we will discover, Christianity today probably would not have angels, a devil, nor hell, if it were not for the Babylonian exile. I hope you’re intrigued. But beyond that, we will look to see if this story, like the Exodus story, is really about much more than an historical event twenty-five centuries ago. See you next week.
02/05/06 12:00 AM,Gary Cox”