Exodus 14:16-31

In which God is a bit of a jerk. Just a tiny bit of a mass-murdering jerk.

16 Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground. 17 I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them. And I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his army, through his chariots and his horsemen. 18 The Egyptians will know that I am the LORD when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen.”

19 Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, 20 coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long.

21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, 22 and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.

23 The Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. 24During the last watch of the night the LORD looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion. 25 He jammed the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.”

26 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.” 27 Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing toward[c] it, and the LORD swept them into the sea. 28 The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived.

29 But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. 30 That day the LORD saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore. 31 And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.

Was that really necessary? I don’t mean escaping from Egypt. I don’t mean manipulating the water. But couldn’t God have been a little less bloodthirsty here? When Moses stretched out his hand, couldn’t the waters have risen up between Israel and Egypt, forming an impenetrable barrier that stood until Egypt realized they had to turn around?

I’d like to give God a little credit here. After all, God did put a pillar of cloud between them the night before, with one side bright and shiny and the other side dark. I’m guessing the light side faced Egypt to deny them easy rest and deny them the cover of darkness. The Egyptians might have stopped there, gone back, and said “Sorry, Pharaoh, they made the waters part and they put up some huge cloud barrier and frankly we were creeped out.” But I bet Pharaoh wouldn’t have liked that. So they pressed on. And it was only when they entered that barrier (“the Lord looked down from the pillar at the Egyptian army”; sounds to me like they were directly underneath it) that God brought the water back.

And it wasn’t all at once. Remember, the Egyptian chariots’ wheels got stuck. That tipped them off. I’ve got a bad feeling about this… — so then, Lord, why didn’t you let them run the other way? Their chariots were useless. They couldn’t catch up with Israel in full charioteer armor. That was some heavy armor, as we’re about to find out, because as soon as Israel had reached dry land, Moses drowned those chariots and everyone in them. Nobody survived. Was this because nobody could even dog-paddle their way back? No, it’s because they couldn’t get out of their armor fast enough. Why not bring the water back gradually so that it became increasingly obvious that the way to survive was to abandon military action, drop the armor, and go home? But let’s try to blame the Egyptians. Maybe they did see the tide coming in. Maybe they stubbornly refused to see the water, refused to lay down their machines of war, and they have only themselves to blame. Maybe the moral of this story is “If you go to war, you’ve got only yourself to blame for the casualties.”

But I still can’t buy that. If Egypt had been in possession of their usual rational faculties, sure, but they weren’t:

16 Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground. 17 I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them.

See that? The Egyptian cavalry didn’t want to pursue Israel into the middle of what should have been the sea. They were already aware of God’s power and it freaked them out. But God hardened their hearts — caused them to be relentless. So they couldn’t have stopped there even though they wanted to. And they couldn’t take off their armor even if they wanted to. It was God’s doing, so God is the one I hold accountable for this. It’s a disturbing tale of hypnotizing an army into a charge that they know is suicide.

And what did God have against those poor Egyptian horses?

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I Call Bullshit on Genesis 22

What would you say about a parent who was willing to murder her own child because she thought God was telling her to do it? You’d say she was unfit to be a parent, let alone a leader. You might even call her a monster.

But in Genesis 22, we see God apparently endorsing exactly that behavior. Abraham takes his son Isaac on a trip to the mountains to present a burnt offering to God, only Abraham doesn’t tell Isaac that M. Night Shyamalan apparently wrote this screenplay because the twist is that Isaac IS the burnt offering. So they set off for the top of a mountain, and Isaac is carrying enough wood to immolate a sheep — surely a heavy load — while Abraham has packed light, carrying only a knife and a torch. Well, okay, Abraham is over 100 years old; Isaac is stronger. And Isaac knows something is up, because when you have to climb to the top of a mountain, you make damn sure you didn’t leave something essential back at ground level. And Isaac knows there’s something missing. “So, Dad, I see we’ve got the wood and the fire, but where’s the sacrifice?” Abraham plays it cool. “Oh, don’t worry, God will provide a sacrifice.” Keep climbing, schlimazl. I don’t want to have to drag you up this hill. Cue dramatic chords.

So they get up to the top of the mountain, and Abraham explains his plan to Isaac, who gulps and agrees to the plan. JUST KIDDING! They build the altar together, and when they’ve got all the heavy lifting done, THEN Abraham ties Isaac up and heaves him onto the altar. So at this point, if you’re Isaac (and we all ought to be seeing this from his perspective), you are utterly freaked out. And so exhausted from carrying all that wood up a mountain that you’ve got no chance of escaping. And finally an angel of the Lord appears to interrupt the fun and games. “Abraham!

No response.

ABRAHAM!

“Here I am,” he replies. That’s my name — don’t wear it out.

Do not lay a hand on the boy!

No response. Perhaps Abraham is now trying to aim the knife at a wriggling Isaac without using his other hand to hold him down.

Do not do ANYTHING to him!

Oh. Abraham finally understands. He looks up and sees a ram caught in the woody vegetation by its horns, and sacrifices that instead.

And what does God have to say about the fact that Isaac is now permanently fucked in the head? What does God have to say about the fact that Abraham has proven himself willing to lead his own son to his death, willing to be the one who cuts his own son’s throat wide open and watch him bleed out? Does God say “You are one seriously psychotic dude and I already told you human sacrifice was bad, mmmkay?” No way. God says “I will bless you and you’ll have the largest and most successful family on Earth because you did this.

That’s bullshit.

You wanna hear the punchline? Abraham used to be the kind of guy who would stand up to God and argue with God. Back in the day, God was planning to nuke an entire city, and Abraham was certain that there was at least one good person living there. (Genesis 18:22-25.) So Abraham pushed back. He said “Far be it from You to kill the righteous with the wicked! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” And God went along with Abraham’s plan.

Now, part of this story seems to have been retconned — edited later to make it a nice parallel to Jesus’ death. Note how the text carefully says “your son, your only son, whom you love” (so Ishmael is chopped liver?). Note how we’re told about the logistics of the trip — Abraham carrying the knife and the torch, leaving the sacrificial son to carry to the place of his death the very mass of wood upon which he was to be killed. Uh huh. Either this passage has been retconned by scholars between then and now, or the Lord God, Almighty and Omniscient, has no idea how to avoid overselling.

But the heart of the story remains. Abraham thinks that it’s so important to do what the voices are telling him to that he’s willing to murder his son. And this is not an occasion when the son understands what is asked of him and why, as Jesus does. This is the worst kind of child abuse. This leaves Isaac with more baggage than Joe “vs. the Volcano” Banks. And God, we’re told, admires this sort of batshit badassery.

That’s bullshit. And I’ll say it to God’s face.

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Here’s Your Sign

When I asked God to send me a sign, I didn’t mean one of the Engvall variety. If you’re not familiar with the oeuvre of William Engvall, he’s a social theorist who posits that stupid people ought to have to wear a sign warning others. He performs under the name “Bill Engvall” as a comedian because his ideas would be unpopular at a cocktail party.

And yet when I asked God to send me a sign about where we should move, I ended up feeling like I ought to wear a sign that said “Warning: this guy is stupid.”

See, my wife and I are leaving Atlanta, and we’ve been considering Pittsburgh and Pensacola. Pittsburgh offers a great house at a compassionate price from a friend who would dearly love to see us buy it within a few years and rent it in the meantime. She doesn’t need to check our credit history because she’s known my wife for decades. Pittsburgh also offers friends and family whom we love, and good public transit. Pensacola has great weather — I believe the meterological term for winter lows in the high 30s and summer heat moderated by breezes from the Gulf of Mexico is “chillax” — and it’s where her only surviving brother is moving this summer. We’ll get the chance to spend time with him more often than if we only saw him at Christmas.

So we had been considering three options. Option #1 was the house in Pittsburgh. Option #2 was a duplex a few miles away from her brother.  Option #3 was the same apartment complex where her brother is moving. I prayed for some sign that would help us decide among them.

We started to realize that the house in Pittsburgh (#1) would cost roughly $200/mo over the cost of the duplex before we considered water, sewer, trash, and winter heating costs — the last of which, thanks to deregulation, can skyrocket to $400-500/mo when it’s cold.  Not to say it wouldn’t be worth the price, just that it was quite a price overall.

The duplex (#2) was our favorite choice because it’s sunny, cheap, and has all tile floors, which means it’s easy to keep clean. But we were up against 7 other applicants, and we knew we had some dings on our credit history, so the landlord would pick whomever they preferred, and the odds weren’t good it would be us.

So as a backup, we headed to the apartment complex (#3), which had told us on our most recent visit that there were no 2BR/1BA units left, so we’d have to spend $100/mo extra to get a different unit with a second bathroom. This put it at the bottom of our list because the rent was nearly what we’d pay in Pittsburgh for a gorgeous house with gigabit Ethernet built in. (If you’re not a computer whiz, trust me, that’s good.)

Well, the office staff said that they did have a 2BR/1BA coming up, and my face lit up until they said “…on August 5th”. Too late for our plans. So they sent us packing while they did some research and found out that we could get it on July 9th, which was perfect. I thought to myself: This is the sign I prayed for! We happily filled out the paperwork and drove home to Atlanta to await the call.

The call came.

We’d been rejected.

A major but bogus item on my credit report had kept us out. Public records are already up-to-date, but the credit agencies will need a month to verify that dispute, and then we’d be out of time. We knew for a fact that the duplex landlord wouldn’t take us if the apartment complex — a student apartment complex a mile from campus! — thought our credit sucked too badly to take a chance on us. It dawned on us that the only remaining option was Pittsburgh. This time I said it out loud: “THIS is the sign I prayed for!” My wife kindly pointed out to me that God is bullshit.

So we prepared to drop the bombshell on our families that we were going to go off and become Yankees, and Yinzers at that. And we got another call.

We’d been approved… for the highly competitive duplex.

Had it been because I’ll be teleworking, and a midrange Atlanta IT salary commands a modicum of respect in a town where I’d be grossing 7 times the rent? (This sounds bizarre to me too, and I don’t say it to brag.) Had it been because we’d been super-sweet to everyone at the rental agency on several weekend visits? Had it been… an act of God? Was this, finally, the sign I prayed for?

I have no clue. But it was enough for us that it was genuinely good news, and we lost no time in overnighting our security deposit. They’ll get it tomorrow. I’ll keep my 8am-4pm schedule in Eastern time, which means my workday will be over by 3pm Pensacola time. (Yes, some parts of Florida are so far west they’re in the Central time zone.) And getting off work at 3pm gives us plenty of time to pack a picnic dinner, bathing-suit up, and head to the beach before rush hour starts. And if that’s not a sign from God… well, neither of us really cares. We’re happy.

Still, I’ve got to admit that God probably wasn’t sending us signs that we should move to Pittsburgh AND that we should rent the apartment a mile from the university. They both felt like real answers from God, and now I realize I may have a slightly out of whack God-dar. So here’s my sign: “Warning: this guy keeps believing in God even when it makes him feel foolish now and then.”

At least I didn’t try to predict the timing of the Judgement Day…

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Flannery O’Connor on art (fiction, music, etc.) and Christian values

St. Thomas Aquinas says that … a work of art is good in itself, and this is a truth that the modern world has largely forgotten. We are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply a good in and by itself. Now we want to make something that will have utilitarian value. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because [since God is good — Ben] it reflects God. The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art.

I wonder how many Contemporary Christian Music performers would be willing to embrace that challenge and write songs that are good songs, albums that are good albums, regardless of whether they’re about God.

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Who do you work for?

Then the word of God came to him: “So, Elijah, what are you doing here?”

1 Kings 19:9 (MSG)

This week’s episode of Elijah is interesting to me because we see God playing dumb, asking a question God knows the answer to: Nu, Elijah, vus machts du? (Yiddish, literally “So, Elijah, what are you doing?”, but figuratively, “Hey, Elijah, how’s it going?/what’s up?”).  And Elijah gives God a straight answer, and God says, rather obliquely, “Hey, watch this!” and puts on a big show, and then asks again, “So, Elijah, what are you doing?”.

And Elijah’s mind has not changed.  Elijah answers in the same words.  It reminds me of a Buffy episode called “Doppelgängland” where evil-Willow is torturing someone: “Who do you work for?”, she asks repeatedly, breaking fingers until she gets an answer she likes.

And then God says “Oh, you’re working alone? How’s that working out for you? Okay, I tell you what you should do. Recruit some mass-murderers and make sure they work as a team, and then go hire your own replacement, and then I’ll allow you to die.”

This week we’re seeing an Old Testament God who practices statecraft-by-killing.  But when we get to the New Testament portion, Galatians 3:23-29, things change.  This passage seems to say: the Old Testament law was like the childhood of humanity, like training wheels or a small classroom with individual attention.  I see it as God’s childhood, back when God thought that effective leadership means throwing a conniption, pitting one group of humans against another, and killing all but 7,000 hand-picked survivors.

Finally, at the end of the Galatians passage, God starts making sense to me, saying that we should talk to one another directly, and we don’t need to split people up into arbitrary categories like “male” and “female”.  Frankly, I appreciate a God who likes to SMASH GENDER BINARY into GENDERQUEER DEBRIS.  I’ve never understood why some Christian organizations make distinctions between men and women.  After all, at the very beginning of the Bible, we read: “God created people in God’s image: male and female God created them.”

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Bible-Based Marriage and Kelo v. City of New London

This Sunday, I’m going to respond to two different parts of the lectionary:

Bible-Based Marriage

I [God] gave you [King David] your master’s house and his wives and the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. And if that had not been enough, I would have given you much, much more.

2 Samuel 12:8 (NLT)

There are a lot of people who are willing to argue on Biblical grounds that marriage is the union of one man and one woman:

Marriage = Man + Woman

But according to the Bible, King David had six wives.  And, again according to the Bible, it was God who gave him six wives, and would have given him more.  This makes sense to me, since I’m not the type to equate jealousy with love, or equate one loving relationship with the disavowal of another.  What God was pissed off about, as far as I can tell, was King David abusing his power to get a hottie’s hubby killed so David could get with her, rather than being honest about it.  If you’re all honest with each other, two isn’t the only right number.  And I’m proud to wear this bumper sticker by Franklin Veaux on my car:

Marriage = (man) + (woman) + (man) + (woman) + (man) + (woman)

Kelo v. City of New London

“Are you the king of Israel or not?” Jezebel demanded. “Get up and eat something, and don’t worry about it. I’ll get you Naboth’s vineyard!”

1 Kings 21:7 (NLT)

In 1 Kings 21, we see Elijah the prophet at his best.  He’s speaking truth to power: after King Ahab had Naboth killed so he could steal Naboth’s fertile assets (are we seeing a parallel here?), Elijah comes in like a GPS-equipped tornado to condemn the king on the very farm he was stealing.  He doesn’t worry that the king will have him executed; he just speaks what’s on his mind.

The story of Elijah vs. Ahab reminds me of Kelo v. City of New London, a Supreme Court case in which the majority agreed that a city was allowed to seize private property for economic reasons.  And I wonder: where is Elijah now?  At every Passover seder, there’s a place set for the Prophet Elijah because the hosts and guests at the dinner fully expect him to show up.  I’d love to see him return and tell the justices they’re wrong.  But I doubt he’d make it past security.

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Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing

She said, “I swear, as surely as your God lives, I don’t have so much as a biscuit. I have a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a bottle; you found me scratching together just enough firewood to make a last meal for my son and me. After we eat it, we’ll die.”

Elijah said to her, “Don’t worry about a thing. Go ahead and do what you’ve said. But first make a small biscuit for me and bring it back here. Then go ahead and make a meal from what’s left for you and your son. This is the word of the God of Israel: ‘The jar of flour will not run out and the bottle of oil will not become empty before God sends rain on the land and ends this drought.'”

1 Kings 17:12-14 (The Message)

Or, as Stevie Wonder said, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing“.  Go ahead and listen to that song; it’s one of my favorites for musical reasons as well.

What I’m trying to figure out here is: if God already intends to keep the biscuit jar full, why is Elijah insisting that he eat before a woman and her son who are one meal away from dying of starvation?  It seems to me it would have been more generous—and downright humane—to say “Go ahead and eat your fill, and then if there’s anything left for me, I’ll accept it gratefully.”  I mean, Elijah has been eating whatever the ravens brought him (and I can’t imagine it was eggs benedict), but he’s been eating.

But I’ve been having a hard time recently believing that everything will be okay.  One of my favorite couples appears to be divorcing.  We’re all still grieving the loss of Devin on his 19th birthday.  It’s becoming increasingly apparent that Jodi’s first choice of profession simply doesn’t have many jobs available, and probably won’t for a long time. Our landlord nixed the idea of another couple moving in with us here to save on rent, and my credit is rather poor these days, so moving elsewhere could be challenging or unprofitable.  Further from home: there could be a decade’s worth of oil left to spill in the Gulf, humanitarian supply ships to Gaza are being attacked with deadly force, and there are still people dying young of diseases either preventable or yet to be cured.  One longs wistfully for the Cold War, when the threat of all-out nuclear warfare held out at least the prospect of an instant denouement.  Of course, I’d much rather see things improve, and it stands to reason that probably they will.  But I used to believe they will.

I can at least take comfort in the knowledge that we’ve got enough food to make it to payday — enough even to make biscuits for company, if we had any.

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