What do you mean God speaks?

S4E1: Who were they before they were "Israel"?

January 12, 2024 Paul Seungoh Chung Season 4 Episode 1
What do you mean God speaks?
S4E1: Who were they before they were "Israel"?
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

The fourth Season opens to explore the question of the people of Israel described in Exodus. Who were they? What is the significance of their story, regarding their oppression and slavery? What remnants or echoes, if any, remain of their story in the records and memory of ancient history, and what are their significance?

And where are we headed from here?

 2:21     Biblical stories as "Myth that has become History"             
 14:43    Opening of Exodus and the oppression of Israel               
 19:45     Egypt and the Hyksos, the Shasu, and Israel               
 27:46     Who were the Hebrews, 'Apiru, and why this matters               
 35:03     The Slave Bible and Exodus story as timeless truth              


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[ pendulum ] 

The past two seasons of this series has explored how the book of Genesis describes humanity’s relation to God—to all of reality that speaks to us. The account of Adam and Eve is about how every human being relates to reality as a whole—thus to God; the accounts of their fall, then Cain’s murder of Abel, and then the Great Flood, are about how humanity can and do fail in this relationship in an increasingly catastrophic way. But, the life-story of Abraham and Sarah describes how God may yet personally speak with human individuals, and be the guiding voice of their lives; the life-stories of their descendants, Isaac, then Jacob, then Joseph, then describes how their family, through multiple generations, can journey further in that relationship from that initial meeting. And that journey is characterized by the name, Israel—those who wrestle with God.

But, human beings are social beings; we live in relation to each other, within a particular society and culture—we are not only persons, but a people. So, how does a people, come to relate to God that speaks with them personally? What does their journey look like, and how do they, together, wrestle with God? What sorts of things happen? What kind of persons will lead them? What kind of relationship will they form, and what kind of society and culture will emerge from it all? These are the questions we’ll explore this Season through the story of Moses and the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt.  

[ music / ]

So, welcome to the fourth season of…

"What do you mean, God speaks?" where we explore important ideas, insights, and stories in Christianity, for the skeptics who want to understand religion, to the Christians who have questions about their own beliefs. And everyone in between.

I am Paul Seungoh Chung, and this is our first episode of the fourth season, “Who were they before they became Israel”? 

[ / music ]

C.S. Lewis, arguably the most significant Christian apologists in the last hundred years, called the Gospel story of Jesus, the “myth that became fact.”[1] 

Now, to understand what he means, we need to first return way back to Season Two, to its seventh episode, titled, “Is Genesis mythical?” We explored then how scholars used the term, “myth,” to describe the genre of the book of Genesis, especially its first eleven chapters that recount the Creation of the world, the Garden of Eden, Cain’s murder of Abel, the Great Flood, and the Tower of Babel. However, the word, “myth,” here does not mean that these are some sort of superstitious, false belief; what these scholars mean rather is that these are foundational “stories” that express some core beliefs about ourselves and the world—truths regarding reality, the structures of this world, humanity, and the like. Furthermore, a “myth” in this sense, is not just any story that expresses these truths in some form, but a kind of crystallization of every story that does so—an ultimate summary, so to speak. So, the Genesis account of how “Adam” and his wife ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden is not just a story of what the first human beings did, but a story of every human being, becoming alienated from God, from reality, and from each other. The story of Cain and Abel is not just about one man, Cain, murdering his brother, but about every murder. Likewise, the Genesis account of Creation is the sum of every story that we have and will tell about the cosmos—any kind of cosmos—and how it comes into existence, whether this story is being told in the camp fires of the Stone Ages, or by science professors in a lecture hall today, or even by extraterrestrials in their spaceships. A “myth” is the sum of stories that tell truth.

And it is this genre of myth that profoundly influenced C.S. Lewis, and his eventual conversion from atheism to Christianity. According to Lewis, even as an atheist, he was fascinated by ancient myths of many different cultures, by their compelling imagination and imagery, and by an almost inexpressible sense of wonder they seem to rouse in him. But, he didn’t think these stories were true. Then, his friends like Hugo Dyson and JRR Tolkien—yes, Tolkien, as in the author of The Lord of the Rings; he was a fellow Oxford professor, and a devout Christian, a Catholic—convinced him otherwise. They suggested that Lewis was drawn to these myths, because they express something profound and true to humanity’s deepest experiences and longings.

Now, one particular kind of myths had especially gripped Lewis, even when he was an atheist: the story of the dying and rising god. These myths, such as that of the Egyptian god, Osiris, or the Norse god, Balder, features a god who represents goodness, light, and life, who is then killed—often by deception and betrayal—by some evil power, and this plummets the world into a catastrophe. But, after a period of darkness and strife, the dead god returns to life, bringing back peace to the world. Now, I’d say that these stories express a deep, timeless truth, an overall pattern of our history, so to speak, which is: although what is good and just and true, is far too often rejected, betrayed, or even killed, making our world that much worse, in the end, this goodness wins out—or, rather, that is what we hope. Our ancestors long ago may even have felt this hope and experienced this truth, symbolically, in the coming of winter and its months of long, dark nights, then the return of light and life in the spring, every year. 

But then, Lewis was told that this truth, or this hope, became factually true in the story of Jesus Christ, killed on the Cross then rising to Life—at least, he did, according to Christianity. Myths, such as that of Osiris or Balder, are stories that are set in some primordial, imaginary time and place, a kind of timeless everywhere and everywhen. The story of Jesus, in contrast, is set in a particular historical time and place, 2000 years ago, in the land of Judea, ruled by a Roman governor named Pontius Pilate. Every historian today, other than a thoroughly discredited fringe group, says that there really was a historical person, Jesus, who lived and taught in that time and place, and was called by the title of “Christ”. Of course, skeptics can readily reject the content of what Christians have believed about this man, such as him being the Son of God—or God speaking all of reality that became a single human being—or that he rose back to life on the third day after his crucifixion; but they cannot so easily deny that these beliefs are about a real, historical person—at least, if they follow the evidence.

According to scholarly analysis, the Gospels in the Christian Bible, which describe the life, teachings, death, and the resurrection of this man, were written fairly soon after the events they describe, with the Gospel of Mark written around 40 years afterward, and John, supposedly the latest, by the end of the 1st century. And even those are only the final versions we’re reading today, as it is clear that these Gospels were put together from older, already well-established accounts. Then, there are the letters of the apostle Paul, dated to have been written within 20 to 30 years after the time of Jesus, and a couple of these letters go as far as naming the actual eye-witnesses to the death and the resurrection of Jesus—and the early dating and Paul’s authorship of these particular letters are undisputed among historians. 

Moreover, there are also historical accounts written by non-Christians, around the end of the 1st century, such as one by a Roman historian, Tacitus, and another by a Jewish historian, Josephus. [2] Both accounts, separately report that there was a man who was called the Messiah—or “Christ”—who lived and taught in Judea, and won over many people. They report that he was executed by crucifixion under the governorship of Pontius Pilate, but, his followers who continued to believe in him, called Christians, spread far and wide afterward. Tacitus’s account is especially interesting because he was actually disparaging of Christians, saying that they were just superstitious lowlifes. Josephus, on the other hand, remains more neutral, even as he provides more details like Jesus being known for doing “startling deeds”—or rather, his account would be neutral, if we were to subtract the parts that scholars now suspect were edited in by later Christian scribes, such as where he flat out says that Jesus is the Messiah, rather than his typical neutral stance that this is what his disciples believe. ( By the way, if you hear someone dismiss any historical account of Jesus outside the Bible as Christian forgery, this is what they are likely talking about. Though if they do that, check if they mention Tacitus, or how most historians conclude that Josephus’ account of Jesus still has an authentic core, with Christian additions. If they don’t, well, that should tell you much about their credibility.)   

Anyway, this is why for C.S. Lewis, the Gospel of Jesus, is thus “a myth that became fact.” It is the mythical story of the dying and rising god, everything it means and more, presenting an eternal, timeless truth about ourselves and reality; but, it still unfolded in a particular time and place in human history. If we were to put it in the terms of how this series has explored these ideas, it would be the following: the person who speaks truth, and does what is good, is the closest analogue to God that speaks all of reality—they are the voice of God for their generation. Yet, we have often rejected, and even killed that voice. Yet, the voice of God cannot be silenced; no matter how great the power of evil, of lies, of hatred and violence, the power of peace and life, of truth, of goodness, will return and save the world; and so, God still speaks. That truth, that pattern, is what was imagined and told through the myth of the dying and rising god. But, for Christians, that myth became actual, literal fact in the historical person of Jesus Christ. 

But, maybe you’ve been asking all this while, wait, isn’t this episode about Moses and the Exodus? Yes. My point is that not just the story of Jesus, but much of the entire Christian Bible, and the life-stories of people there, are to differing degrees, myths that are also history. I say differing degrees because on the one end is the Gospel of Jesus, a story of cosmic, mythical scope that is nevertheless factual history—or, so Christians believe, and it is at least based on an extensively confirmed historical person. The other end seems to be the Genesis accounts of primeval history, regarding Creation, the Fall, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel. And somewhere in the middle are the life-stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and now, Moses. Their stories, are “mythical” in the sense that they describe some larger pattern—some core truths about how human individuals and family, and then a people, at all times, everywhere, are to relate personally to reality as a whole, that is, God that speaks with them, and recounts what then happens in their lives. But, they are also presented as people who lived in a particular time and place. However, the account of their lives lack the extent of historical confirmation that scholars today have regarding the person of Jesus. 

To use the wording of C.S. Lewis, the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and now Moses, are “myth” that may be fact. They may be, because there are tantalizing bits in history we’ve discovered so far that may correspond to what the Bible reports about Moses and the ancient Israelites’ exodus out of Egypt. But, there is nothing that quite fits—at least, enough to convince most historians today. One of the most significant difficulties we have is that the book of Exodus in the Bible in its present written form, which details their journey were put together, around 2500 years ago, at least as far as scholars can tell today. This is again, around eight hundred or more years after the events it describes. Remember again how the Gospels, the accounts about Jesus, in contrast, were put together in its current form within just 40 to 70 years afterwards. 

But, we’ll have to leave the issue of historicity for now, and return to it near the end of this Season, after we explore the Exodus account itself that describes the journey that the ancient Israelites undertook out of their slavery in Egypt. That’s because we first want to learn what the story actually is, what it has to say about how an entire people come to relate to God that speaks with them, what happens in their lives, and what kind of things they come to wrestle with. We want to understand the insights and ideas this account presents us. For until we do so, we simply cannot know what it is exactly we’re trying to connect with actual history, or even what that would even mean

[ pendulum

Our third Season ended with Jacob, who God had named “Israel”—meaning the “one who wrestles with God”—taking his entire extended family, composed of his grown children and grandchildren, and their retinue, down to Egypt. There, they were met by his son, Joseph, who by the guidance of God was leading that nation through a severe famine. Israel died there and his body was taken back to the land of Canaan, to be buried in his family tomb with his first wife, Leah, his parents, Isaac and Rebecca, and his grandparents, Abraham and Sarah. But, his descendants, who would be called by his name, Israel, remained in Egypt.

The book of Exodus reports that several generations later, a new king—probably from a new dynasty—came to rule Egypt. The new king did not know nor care what Joseph did, and was hostile to foreigners living in his land. So, his royal court turned their attention to a particular foreign, ethnic group in their nation, the descendants of Jacob, called the “Israelites.” Jacob’s group had numbered seventy in all when they arrived in Egypt, but several generations later—the generation of Jacob’s great-grandchildren, according to Exodus—their number had grown to such an extent that they posed a security risk for his nation. “At this rate, there will be too many of them,” his Court concluded. “And in the event of war, they may join our enemies, or escape our rule.”

So, the new king of Egypt instituted two policies. First, these foreigners were to be put into strict servitude to the state; they were to be employed in the nation’s many building projects, making bricks and raising up cities. Second, the state would impose a form of “population control.” Simply put, they would periodically kill a number of male infants born to these people, to ensure that their numbers wouldn’t grow beyond control—male infants because it would primarily be the men who’ll take up arms or incite violence in case of insurrection or war. 

Now, if I may say so, these policies seem to be a kind of time-honored practice of humanity. We’ve already repeated this story of mass slavery and population control many times over even in the last few centuries right here in North America, such as what happened with the first nations, or the mass African slavery. In fact, it is going on today with new methods, according to the UN report of the ongoing Uyghur genocide by the Chinese communist government. Since 2014, Turkic Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang province in China, mostly Uyghurs, but also Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and others, have been detained en masse, supposedly for “re-education purposes.” The official reason given by the Chinese government for this policy is again the imminent threat of violent insurrection and terrorism in that province by these ethnic groups. But, the reports submitted to the UN detail forced labor, suppression of religious practices, brainwashing, and—this is where the “genocide” comes in—forced sterilization, and forced abortion. So, it seems that neither our advanced technology and science, nor our modern, purportedly enlightened, secular governments have changed our societies much from the time of Exodus. 

Anyway, what was different back then was that there was no readily available method of mass sterilization or abortion. Instead, the Egyptian ruler commanded two Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah: “When you are called in to help the Hebrew women give birth, only let the female babies live, and kill every male baby at birth.”

But, Exodus reports that these women were devout believers of God. Now, remember the first episode of Season Three. For the ancients, to say that one believed in God, meant the same thing as firmly believing that there was a kind of higher moral order, a greater truth and reality than even the highest human power—which in this case, was the King of Egypt. And so, the two Hebrew midwives became one of the earliest known examples of civil disobedience, and they let the boys live. Then, they reported to the Egyptians that Hebrew women were giving birth without their help. ( According to Exodus, God then granted these midwives family lines of their own because of what they did. )

So, the Egyptian government resorted to a more brute-force measure. Everyone in Egypt was now commanded to throw every Hebrew male newborn they find into the River Nile. And it was at this time—during this periodic enforced population control— that a male Hebrew baby who would later be known as Moses was born. 

[Pendulum ] 

I am now going to go against what I said earlier, and consider some historical findings that may possibly connect with this Exodus account. But, this is only to give a cultural and historical context of what is going on.

The earliest extra-biblical appearance of the name, “Israel,” we’ve found so far is in an inscription carved into a stone stele in Egypt around 1208 BC, which lists the names of the peoples and nations that a Pharaoh named Merneptah boasts of defeating in his military campaigns; “Israel” is among those names, as a people group inhabiting the land of Canaan, or the Levant, which tells us that by this time, Egypt considered “Israel” as a significant enough force to engage in a military campaign, and boast about it. It is also around this time, according to recent archaeological findings, that a large number of towns and villages appeared on the highlands of southern Levant. Archaeologists believe these were ancient Israelite settlements because the inhabitants there seemed to have shunned eating pork, and did not decorate their pottery with graven images, both of which are very distinct and different from the other people groups that lived around them. As for the reason why these two traits are important—that’s for later episodes of this Season. The catch is: so far, archaeologists have found no sign of invasion or mass foreign migration around these settlements during this particular time period. So, majority of historians today have concluded that these people—who they believe were ancient Israelites—had always been living there before; that they were mostly Canaanites, and not a new group of people who arrived from Egypt. 

Of course, then the obvious problem is that before this time period, people living in this land did eat pork and decorated their pottery and household items with images—not to mention that there were significantly fewer villages in these particular highland regions before their appearance. So, what historians propose is that around this time, there was some kind of radical cultural transformation, and local movements of population into the highlands. But if so, what caused that? Then, there is the problem that, according again to historical findings, it seems that at least by the time these Israelites formed their own kingdoms, nearly 3000 years ago, they themselves were saying that their ancestors were brought out of slavery from Egypt. But, how did that belief arise? And this is why majority of historians also think that at least some of the ancient inhabitants of these highland settlements were the people described in the book of Exodus. Then, who were those people? Were they the true Israelites? We can only speculate

One time period that has traditionally caught the attention of historians in the past is what is called the Hyksos expulsion from ancient Egypt. The Hyksos were Asiatics, or Semitic people from the Levant who had moved into the northern region of Egypt, around the Nile Delta, and eventually established a dynasty there. They ruled a large portion of Egypt for about a hundred years, from about 1650BC to 1550 BC, before being driven out by a Pharaoh named Ahmose, who would then go on to form a new united Egyptian dynasty. It seems that before this period, the Hyksos rulers co-existed with the Egyptians to the south, but after being driven out, the Egyptians increasingly depicted them as savage, violent, and oppressive foreigners. Some historians have speculated that this expulsion of foreign rulers, the Hyksos, were the basis of the story of Exodus. But, again, it does not quite fit. After all, Exodus is a story of slaves escaping from Egypt, not rulers with armies, being driven out of it. What we can say though is that the cultural mindset of Egyptians during this period does resemble what the book of Exodus describes; deep distrust and hostility to foreigners, and specifically, the Semitic people from the Levant—that is exactly what the Israelites would’ve been to Egypt. 

The Hyksos period only presents a possible historical or cultural context to how Egypt behaved in the story. But, are there something more? Again, we’re interested in who Israelites may have been before they became, well, the Israelites as historians and archaeologists today describe them. Or, perhaps, whoever or whatever it was that brought about this “transformation of culture” in the highlands of the Levant. There is one tantalizing group that contemporary archaeology has discovered: the ancient Egyptians called them the “Shasu of Yhw”. 

The Shasu were Semitic-speaking pastoral nomads—tent-dwelling people, organized into tribes, who herded animals like sheep, goats, or cows, for living in Southern Levant during the 2nd millennium BC. You may have noticed how that description fits quite well with how Genesis portrays Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. According to Egyptian records from that time period, the Shasu often were formidable enemies, and there was even an extended period in which these tribes, along with various forces of “Habiru”—we’ll get to them in a few minutes—wrested control over the Levant away from the Egypt, greatly endangering the Canaanite city-states there. Among these Shasu were the Shasu of Yhw (“Yahu”), a name found in Egyptian records, one dating from 14th century BC, and the other from 13th century BC—a hundred or so years before the appearance of the name, “Israel,” in their Merneptah stele. 

This has caught the attention, and I suppose the imagination, of a number of historians, because the word, “Yahu,” indicates a name, and the Egyptian hieroglyphics precisely match the letters of one very special name in Hebrew, “Yhw,” or “YHW.” Those are the letters, by the way, of the Hebrew name of God, “Yahweh.” You know this name in English as “Jehovah,” or “LORD”; it is the name which God speaks to Moses later in the Exodus account, which we’ll explore in a few episodes. But, for now, the significance of these Egyptian records is obvious; they describe some tribes of pastoral nomads, living in a way very similar to the biblical ancestors of the people of Israel, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who seems to be called by the very name of God that Moses learns in the biblical account. I say, it “seems,” because it’s not conclusive; what we have so far is just a name that is spelt the same way. Furthermore, there is not much beyond this that connects this “Shasu of Yhw” to the Israelites, especially because Egyptians describe the Shasu as a diverse tribes nomads, while later, in the Merneptah Stele, they depict Israelites as a single, settled people group in the hill lands of Canaan, wearing different things, even. But then again, what if this only means that Israelites were a particular tribal group among the Shasu— the Shasu of Yhw—who had settled down in that region? And that is why the Egyptians depicted them that way? Yet again, we don’t know; we can only speculate. 

We’ve been saying, “Israelites,” but have you noticed that throughout this series, we have been switching back and forth between the terms, “Hebrews,” and “Israelites,” and “Jews,” as if they mean the same thing? And that’s because they do to a large extent. “Hebrew” is the language of the Israelites, and so, the Christian Old Testament, or the Jewish Tanakh, is also called the “Hebrew Bible,” because it’s, well, written in Hebrew. Among historians though, the word, “Hebrew” is also the name of an ethnic people —mostly the ancient Israelites during their nomadic era, before they established their own kingdom. In the book of Exodus, when Egyptians speak about Israelites, or when Israelites refer to themselves to other people, they frequently used the word, “Hebrew.” But, in the book of Genesis, Abraham is also called a Hebrew, and Egyptians refer to Joseph as a Hebrew. So, at least according to the biblical accounts, before there was “Israel,” there was a larger category of people called, the “Hebrews,” to which not only people of “Israel,” but theirs ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, belonged.

But, what or who are the Hebrews? What does the word even mean? Well, we are not certain, but to our best knowledge, the name seems to come from the Hebrew word, “Ivri,” which means, “to traverse,” or “across,” and seems to describe a people who are migrants from “across” the river—either the Jordan, or the Euphrates. A similar word is found in other languages in the Near-East, in Akkadian, and Aramaic. So, there seems to be some nomadic or migrant origin to the Israelites, as well as a very general location, of being “across the river.” But, there is yet another, very similar sounding word that was used throughout the 2nd millennium BC—so, from 2000 to 1000BC—in both the ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt: the Akkadian word, “Habiru,” which is pronounced “’Apiru” in Egyptian. Remember that word? We mentioned how there were forces of “Habiru,” who along with the Shasu, were endangering the Canaanite city-states in the Levant. The word, “Habiru,” denoted a particular social class of people, who were basically landless outsiders—vagabonds who were employed as mercenaries, or as laborers or even slaves, or were shunned as outlaws, brigands, and rebels. 

The problem is, this “Habiru” denoted not an ethnic group, like the Israelites, but a social class or status. And recent findings indicate that this meaning of “Habiru” has a different etymological root from the Hebrew word for “Hebrew,” which seems to denote a particular ethnic group. However, the ancient world did not distinguish ethnic groups from social class sharply as we do in our time; certain people group were also almost unfailingly of certain social class—though this is perhaps not so ancient, if we consider what the Africans experienced in North America. Furthermore, in the book of Exodus, the word, “Hebrews,” which is used to refer to Israelites, often seem to describe not an ethnic group, but a social status very much like the “’Apiru”: vagabonds and foreigners, who are enslaved, because they are believed to be outlaws and rebels. 

Also, though an outsider to the field, let me raise this caution against discounting too readily the “Habiru” or “Shasu” connection to ancient Israel just because they refer to larger and seemingly different and often diverse groups of people other than the Israelites proper. Here’s an example. Up until less than fifty years ago, we used to call every indigenous people group of North and South America as simply Indians—a word that refers to the diverse people groups that live in the Indian-subcontinent in Asia, on literally the opposite side of the planet. Worse, European explorers and scholars knew they weren’t actually Indians within a decade of first encountering them, and yet the Europeans called them Indians for five hundred more years. So, how likely would an ancient superpower like Egypt call a rather insignificant group of people, among its subjects and slaves—a group who are yet even a distinct people, let alone a nation—other than just lumping them with other similar semi-nomadic peoples, or even a socioeconomic group, often branded as slaves, and outcasts? But, on the other hand, remember that not ruling out the possibility is very different from concluding that there really is a connection.

All we can say is that the enslaved people described in the book of Exodus, matches the description of a number of different groups in ancient Egyptian records; the Semitic- speaking foreigners they came to detest; the Shasu nomads, called by the mysterious name, Yhw; or or even the “’Apiru,” the landless vagabonds, sometimes employed as laborers or mercenaries, sometimes treated as outlaws, and sometimes subjugated and enslaved. But, there just isn’t enough to convince the historians whether any of them are the people described in Exodus; there may be a connection, but it may turn out that there isn’t any; it may even be that all of them are connected somehow.  

After all, the enslaved Israelites described in the book of Exodus were, as a social class, very much like the “’Apiru,” while their ancestors were very much like the Shasu, and they would have been, at least to the Egyptians, closely related to the hated Hyksos. What is significant for the story, and for our understanding of it, is that whoever they were, they were marginalized, ethnic minority, considered as undesirable foreigners, under the rule of the most powerful empire of the time, which had both the means and the motivations to keep them under an oppressive thumb. Not unlike how minorities have been treated in many countries, even today. And what the Egyptian records about the Hyksos, Shasu, the ‘Apiru tell us is that, even if they are not the Israelites we seek, the story of peoples, oppressed, hated, and marginalized, is indeed timeless.

And it is to these people, that God spoke the words and promise of freedom.

[ Pendulum  ] 

Have you ever heard of the “Slave Bible?” You can only find a few copies in existence nowadays, but it used to be the Bible that was given to the enslaved African-Americans by British Christian missionaries. The catch? About 90 % of the Old Testament and half of the New Testament are removed from this Bible—of 1189 chapters in the Protestant Christian Bible, only 232 chapters remain. Rather tellingly, the first 19 chapters from the book of Exodus are missing. The reason should be obvious: they removed every part in the Christian Bible that could, to quote a newspaper article about this Bible a few years ago, “instill in slaves a dangerous hope for freedom and dreams of equality.”

Why would Christian missionaries go so far as literally tear apart and desecrate their own Bible, and remove—among nearly 1000 chapters out of around 1200—the entire first half of the book of Exodus? 

It’s because the story of Exodus is in an important way “mythical,” in the sense that C.S. Lewis took it. Exodus and its account of Israelites as slaves in Egypt, is not merely an account of some past event and a particular ethnic people; it is a crystallization and summary of every story of every people in every time period, excluded from society as foreigners, denigrated as inferior, and treated as undesirables, whose only value is as expendable labor—as slaves; it is a declaration of judgment not simply to Egypt, one particular nation or a society, sometime in a distant past, but to every such society, every time it abuses its power over others. It is Egypt in the Exodus story, but it then pointed to Babylon, then to Greece, then Rome—and even to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, when their prophets from God pronounced judgment against them for their own injustices and mistreatment of the poor, the marginalized, and foreigners. 

And it was also the story of Africans, kidnapped and enslaved by European powers, or the American nations they set up, which is why it had to be removed from the Slave Bible. The sheer irony of Christians desecrating their own Bible to hide what it said—to silence what God is speaking to them—is, of course, staggering. But, their effort also proved to be entirely in vain. Because that is precisely what the Christian Bible testifies; you cannot silence God. So, the enslaved Africans quickly realized that what they were being taught by these missionaries were lies, and soon found the missing chapters. “Spirituals,” or “Christian hymns” distinct to their community began to spring up, songs of hope and the promise of deliverance and freedom, spoken forth by God, from the time of Exodus thousands of years ago to their own time. And generations later, the greatest civil rights movement leaders among them, such as Martin Luther King Jr. were Christian ministers; some of King’s greatest speeches, such as “I’ve been to the mountaintop”—which was also his last speech before he was assassinated—was a church sermon, and in fact, drew on the very story of Moses in his last days.   

And so it was in the Exodus account, for the descendants of Jacob, named by God as Israel, “those who wrestle with God.” Oppressed, denigrated, and seemingly forgotten by God of their ancestors, they lived and endured. But, God was speaking forth a new era, a time of their deliverance, to fulfill what God spoke to their ancestors personally in a promise. And so, a baby was born to a Hebrew couple. A baby, during the very time the Egyptian government had commanded that every male Hebrew baby were to be thrown into the river and killed.  

Reality is like a speech, and unfolds like a story. And a new story was now being spoken forth. 

But, this story would be about something far more than just that of freedom and deliverance from slavery. That is just the beginning, for it will turn out that there is far more to freedom and even to slavery than what we believe, and what God speaks and beckons to such a people is to a journey that will take them far beyond what they know about the world, and about themselves. For the story that was now being spoken forth would require shedding away everything they hold on to regarding their world, and coming face to face with what is laid bare beneath them all.

[ Music ] 

So join me next episode, as we join this baby as he grows up to embark on the journey in the story God will speak forth around him. 

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[1] From C.S. Lewis’ God in the dock, “Myth became fact” 

“Now as myth transcends thought, incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the dying god, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.”

“God is more than a god, not less; Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘pagan Christs’: they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic—and is not the sky itself a myth—shall we refuse to be mythopathic? For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: perfect myth and perfect fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.”

[2] Tacitus, Annals (15.44); Flavius Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews (Bk 18, Ch. 3, 3;  Bk 20, Ch. 9)

Biblical stories as "Myth that has become History"
Opening of Exodus and the oppression of Israel
Egypt and the Hyksos, the Shasu, and Israel
Who were the Hebrews, 'Apiru, and why this matters
The Slave Bible and Exodus story as timeless truth