Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (14 September 2014)

Contents

Lectionary

  • Exodus 14:19-31 & Psalm 114 (or Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21) or [Genesis 50:15-21 & Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13]
  • Romans 14:1-12
  • Matthew 18:21-35

Exodus Paradigm of salvation (for some)

The first reading and (optional) canticle from the RCL propers celebrate the great story of redemption known as “the exodus.”

This story poses many challenges for the thoughtful reader:

  • its historicity is radically questioned by critical scholars
  • its humanitarian value is qualified by the “collateral damage” caused to the Egyptians
  • its spiritual influence is cast in a new light with findings from other traditions

My own personal encounter with these ambiguities came one morning in Egypt with a group of students on a course from St George’s College in Jerusalem. We had stayed overnight in a hotel by the Suez Canal and would soon take the bus under the water (courtesy of a tunnel not available to Moses and his friends) so that we could travel to Mt Sinai. As was our custom, we began the day with a celebration of Eucharist — this time in a corner of the hotel dining room. We were joined by a local Coptic Christian woman who worked as a waitress in the dining room. It may have been her presence (or it may have the presence of a great many more Egyptians around us as we worshipped), but suddenly I was struck by the incongruity of reading (as we were doing) the story of the victory at the Sea. Apart from the insensitivity of rehearsing the ancient tale of God slaying the Egyptians and their horses, the experience made me ask where an Egyptian Christian might find “good news” in such a text.

History and miracle

The divide between “faithful believer” and “critic/doubter” is always placed under pressure when biblical stories employ magic and miracle to convey their message. Naturalistic explanations were once the favored tool of the rationalist, but these days are often found pressed into service by fundamentalists and “maximalists” who wish to preserve the essential historicity of the biblical narrative even if they reduce the supernatural element to a scale unworthy of divine intervention.

So, for example, believers who cite historical reports of unusually low tides in the Suez region, such that a person might pick their way carefully through the mud, have hardly validated the biblical account in which the Israelites cross over on dry land with the waters piled up on either side! Similar explanations of the miraculous manna (as insect droppings or dried dew), or reports of the Jordan River being temporarily dammed by mud slides, hardly do God much of a favor. One is tempted to ask why God would need critics with friends such as that?

In his book, The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel (1999), Thomas L. Thompson has a chapter headed “Confusing stories with historical evidence.” That is a timely warning for us to appreciate the symbolic nature of the biblical narratives, and especially so when the details of the story are incompatible with known historical and natural realities.

Miracle is a great genre for communicating profound human meaning, including religious wisdom. It is never a good basis for historical reconstruction.

W.G. Plaut comments as follows:

But when all is said and done, no examination of presumed natural causes should overshadow the central fact (sic): Israel experienced the event as divinely determined, a miracle in the true sense. It was God who brought about the Egyptians’ downfall; He may have used wind and water, cloud and darkness as His agents, but it was His will that Israel be saved, and saved it was. According to Buber, a discussion of the possibility of miracles, which has so long divided the faithful believer from critic and doubter, is therefore beside the point when one comes to assess the manner in which the rescue affected Israel’s conception of God. “It is irrelevant whether ‘much’ or ‘little,’ unusual things or usual, tremendous or trifling events happened; what is vital is only that what happened was experienced, while it happened, as the act of God. The people saw in whatever it was they saw ‘the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded’ and ‘they had faith in the Lord.’ From the biblical viewpoint history always contains the element of wonder.'” [The Torah, 483]

Exodus and history

Plaut’s comments, including the excerpt from Martin Buber, still presume that something actually happened, even if they prefer to focus on what the story means for the person of faith. But it is precisely that historical assumption that is increasingly challenged by more radical critics.

Thompson notes that there are several variants to the exodus tradition even within the Hebrew Bible:

  • divine defeat of the Sea (Dragon) — Exodus 15
  • carried on eagles wings — Deut 32:10-18
  • carried by the angels to avoid even stumbling over a stone — Psalm 91:11-12
  • angel of Yahweh encamps around the faithful — Psalm 34:7

To these we could add the analogous stories from Bible and the wider culture where prose accounts of victories are elaborated with poetic freedom to express the perceived inner meaning of the tradition.

In chapter two of The Bible Unearthed (2001), Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman consider the Exodus traditions, as they pose the question: “Did the Exodus happen?” After a review of the archaeological data, they conclude:

… independent archaeological and historical sources tell of migrations of Semites from Canaan to Egypt, and of Egyptians forcibly expelling them. This basic outline of immigration and violent return to Canaan is parallel to the biblical account of Exodus. Two key questions remain: First, who were these Semitic immigrants? And second, how does the date of their sojourn in Egypt square with biblical chronology? (p. 56)

As is well known, the chronology of the Hyksos rulers in Egypt cannot be “squared” with the biblical narrative, even though it illustrates an historical pattern of penetration and expulsion that is more ancient and more common than the Bible suggests. In addition the mention of “Israel” in the Merneptah Stele (dated to around 1,200 BCE) attests to the existence of a group with that name in Canaan around that time, but tells us nothing about their character or their historical origins. Not a single text from either Canaan or Egypt mentions “Israel” until around 1200 BCE.

More importantly, the consolidation of native Egyptian power following the expulsion of the Hyksos led to a system of fortifications along the eastern border of the delta region to control precisely the kind of entry and exit portrayed in the Bible. We have written reports from border officials about the movement of Edomite nomads at this time, but not a single reference to Israelites. Further, despite extensive archaeological surveys in the Sinai peninsula that have produced clear data of pastoral activity in the third millennium BCE as well as during the Hellenistic and Byzantine eras, there is not a shred of evidence of Israel’s presence in this area:

The conclusion — that the Exodus did not happen at the time and in the manner described in the Bible — seems irrefutable when we examine the evidence at specific sites where the children of Israel were said to have camped for extended periods … repeated excavations and surveys throughout the entire area have not provided even the slightest evidence for activity in the Late Bronze Age, not even a single sherd left by a tiny fleeing band of frightened refugees. (Bible Unearthed, 63)

As it happens, Finkelstein and Silberman suggest that the Exodus story reflects its real composition in the very different circumstances of late seventh century Jerusalem:

… Egyptologist Donald Redford has suggested [the Bible reflects later conditions in the Iron Age]. The most evocative and consistent geographical details of the Exodus story come from the seventh century BCE, during the great era of prosperity of the kingdom of Judah — six centuries after the events of the Exodus were supposed to have taken place. Redford has shown just how many details in the Exodus narrative can be explained in this setting, which was also Egypt’s last period of imperial power … (p. 65f)

… Redford has argued that the echoes of the great events of the Hyksos occupation of Egypt and their violent expulsion from the delta resounded for centuries, to become a central, shared memory of the people of Canaan. These stories of the Canaanite colonists establishing in Egypt, reaching dominance in the delta and then being forced to return to their homeland, could have served as a focus of solidarity and resistance as the Egyptian control over Canaan grew tighter in the course of the Late Bronze Age. As we will see, with the eventual assimilation of many Canaanite communities into the crystallizing nation of Israel, that powerful image of freedom may have grown relevant for an ever-widening community.(p. 68f)

Finkelstein and Silberman offer this assessment of the theological meaning of this ancient but newly minted myth of origins:

New layers would be added to the Exodus story in subsequent centuries — during exile in Babylonia and beyond. But we can now see how the astonishing composition came together under the pressure of a conflict with Egypt in the seventh century BCE. The saga of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt is neither historical truth nor literary fiction. It is a powerful expression of memory and hope born in a world in the midst of change. The confrontation between Moses and pharaoh mirrored the momentous confrontation between the young King Josiah and the newly crowned Pharaoh Necho. To pin this biblical image down to a single date is to betray the story’s deepest meaning. Passover proves to be not a single event but a continuing experience of national resistance against the powers that be. (p. 70f)

Such an interpretation of the Exodus tradition relieves both God and Israel from accusations of crimes against humanity. More importantly, perhaps, it connects the development of the paradigmatic story with the lived experience of many people over several centuries. Believer and pagan have a stake in this story. It is our story. An Egyptian could discover good news in a story that celebrates resistance to the powers that be for the sake of the human desire for freedom. Even a Palestinian might celebrate Passover when the tradition is understood in this way. Exodus could be their story also.

Gospel: Love does not keep score

The Gospel passage for this week reflects a theme that we also find in that most popular of all reading for wedding services — the Hymn to Love in 1 Corinthians 13. The core section of that passage reads:

Love is patient, love is kind.
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It is not rude, it is not self-seeking,
it is not easily angered,
it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. (1Cor 13:4-8a NIV)

In particular, the statement in v 5b seems especially related to the concerns in this week’s Gospel: “(love) keeps no record of wrongs” (Greek: ou logizetai to kakon).

The Gospel falls naturally into two sections:

  • Vss 21-22: Peter’s question (seven times?) and Jesus’ reply (seventy-seven times!!!)
  • Vss 23-35: Parable of the Unforgiving Slave

Don’t do the math

The point of the memorable exchange between Peter and Jesus is simply that keeping score is not the way of love.

At the heart of the exchange we find the deliberate exaggeration of numbers. Peter’s question already provides an extreme case. Unlike the contemporary saying, “One bitten, twice shy”, Peter is suggesting that forgiving a fellow Christian seven times over is surely more than sufficient. Jesus’ reply extrapolates the numerical value, with the clear intention that the truly loving response to such unwelcome mistreatment can never include keeping tally of how often the other party has sinned – nor (conversely) keeping a tally of how generous our own forebearance has been!

In the Greek original Jesus reply is hebdomeœkontakis hepta — which mostly likely means “seventy-seven” (77) but can mean “seven thousand seven hundred and seventy-seven” (7,777). While the scale of the hyperbole is uncertain, the intention is clear: Don’t keep score!

The unmerciful slave

The parable that follows in vss 23-35 is unqiue to Matthew, and for that reason alone its authenticity can be questioned.

Robert Fortna (Scholars Bible, Matthew) comments:

[This parable is] no doubt placed here for its lesson of forgiveness. Possibly authentic to Jesus, in some form (as the exaggeration in vs 24—ten million dollars—suggests), but certainly not as an allegory of God’s forgiveness. And Jesus’ parables did not usually have an obvious ethical moral.

Fortna later comments on the relative sizes of the debts owed by and to the slave:

ten million dollars: Greek: 20,000 talents. No factor can realistically translate this amount into contemporary terms, but it was obviously vast; in fact unimaginably so. The exaggeration for effect, no doubt, to contrast outlandishly with the amount in vs 28. … a hundred dollars: In Greek, “100 denarii.” Whatever the precise modern equivalent, an infinitesimal fraction of the 10,000 talents he owed the master.

BADG provides the following information on the meaning of a talent in the Hellenistic world:

… a measure of weight varying in size fr. about 26 to 36 kg.; then a unit of coinage talent (lit., ins, pap, LXX, TestSol; TestJud 9:5; TestJos 18:3; EpArist; Jos., Bell. 5, 571, C. Ap. 2, 266), whose value differed considerably in various times and places, but was always comparatively high; it varied also with the metal involved, which might be gold, silver, or copper. In our lit. only in Mt 18:24; 25:15–28. In 18:24, at 6,000 drachmas or denarii to the Tyrian talent, a day laborer would need to work 60,000,000 days to pay off the debt. Even assuming an extraordinary payback rate of 10 talents per year, the staggering amount would ensure imprisonment for at least 1,000 years.

Jesus Database

  • 418 The Unmerciful Servant – (1) Matt 18:23-34(35). [Crossan does not include v. 35 in his database, while the Jesus Seminar counts it as a separate saying (#1159) forming part of the same item (46 Unmerciful Slave) and gave it a 100% Black assessment at the meeting held in Cincinnati in 1990.]

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre:

About gregoryjenks

Anglican priest and religion scholar. Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University. Formerly Dean at St George's College, Jerusalem. Currently serving as the locum priest at Byron Bay Anglican Parish.
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