The Bible and God
History and Metaphor
Borg Study Index
1. The Story Crystallized
[Y]ou shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering
Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an
alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and
When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard
labor on us,
we cried to the
LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our
affliction, our toil, and our oppression.
brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a
terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders;
and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with
milk and honey.”
the Passover, the youngest present asks “What makes this night different
from other nights?” This passage from Deuteronomy is rehearsed as the
“answer” for every generation.
How is the “primal narrative” central to the faith story of the Jew?
At the Last Supper, the youngest present would have asked Jesus the same
question. How is the “answer” central to our faith story?
2. The Exodus: Israel’s Primal Narrative
In this story
we encounter Israel’s “primal narrative.” The exodus story is primal in
three meanings of the word. First, “primal” means “of greatest importance.”
Throughout Israel’s history, the exodus story was the most important story
she knew. Second, “primal” means “originary” or “originating”: the events
narrated in this story gave birth to Israel; it is her story of origins par
excellence. Third, “primal” means “archetypal”: this story narrates the
perennial struggle between the world of empire and the liberating will of
God, between the lordship of Pharaoh and the lordship of God. (p. 93)
How do we understand the Exodus as Israel’s primal story?
Of greatest importance? Originating? Archetypal?
How might the Exodus be diminished by seeing it simply as an historical
3. Egypt and Bondage
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let
the people go.
Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is going out to the water; stand by at
the river bank to meet him, and take in your hand the staff that was turned
into a snake. 16
Say to him, 'The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, “Let
my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness.” But until now
you have not listened.’
Thus says the LORD, “By this you shall know that I am the LORD.” See, with
the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the
and it shall be turned to blood.
The fish in the river shall die, the river itself shall stink, and the
Egyptians shall be unable to drink water from the Nile.’”
The LORD said to Moses, "Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your
hand over the waters of Egypt-- over its rivers, its canals, and its ponds,
and all its pools of water-- so that they may become blood; and there shall
be blood throughout the whole land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and in
vessels of stone.’”
Moses and Aaron did just as the LORD commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and
of his officials he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the river,
and all the water in the river was turned into blood,
and the fish in the river died. The river stank so that the Egyptians could
not drink its water, and there was blood throughout the whole land of Egypt.
But the magicians of
Egypt did the
same by their secret arts;
so Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them;
as the LORD had said.
Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not take even this to
And all the Egyptians had to dig along the Nile for water to drink, for they
could not drink the water of the river.
Seven days passed after the LORD had struck the Nile-
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him,
says the LORD: Let my people go, so that they may worship me.
If you refuse to let them go, I will plague your whole country with
The river shall swarm with frogs; they shall come up into your palace, into
your bedchamber and your bed, and into the houses of your officials and of
your people, and into your ovens and your kneading bowls.
The frogs shall come up on you and on your people and on all your
And the LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your hand with your
staff over the rivers, the canals, and the pools, and make frogs come up on
the land of Egypt.’”
So Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt; and the frogs came
up and covered the land of Egypt.
But the magicians did the same by their secret arts, and brought
frogs up on the land of Egypt.
Then Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron, and said, “Pray to the LORD to take
away the frogs from me and my people, and I will let the people go to
sacrifice to the LORD.”
Moses said to Pharaoh, “Kindly tell me when I am to pray for you and for
your officials and for your people, that the frogs may be removed from you
and your houses and be left only in the Nile.”
And he said, “Tomorrow.” Moses said, “As you say! So that you may know that
there is no one like the LORD our God,
the frogs shall leave you and your houses and your officials and your
people; they shall be left only in the Nile.”
Then Moses and Aaron went out from Pharaoh; and Moses cried out to the LORD
concerning the frogs that he had brought upon Pharaoh.
And the LORD did as Moses requested: the frogs died in the houses, the
courtyards, and the fields.
And they gathered them together in heaps, and the land stank.
But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart, and
would not listen to them, just as the LORD had said.
the LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike
the dust of the earth, so that it may become gnats throughout the
whole land of Egypt.’”
And they did so; Aaron stretched out his hand with his staff and struck the
dust of the earth, and gnats came on humans and animals alike; all the dust
of the earth turned into gnats throughout the whole land of Egypt.
The magicians tried to produce gnats by their secret arts, but they could
not. There were gnats on both humans and animals.
And the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God!" But
Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, just as
the LORD had said.
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Rise early in the morning and present yourself
before Pharaoh, as he goes out to the water, and say to him,
says the LORD: Let my people go, so that they may worship me.
For if you will not let my people go, I will send swarms of flies
on you, your officials, and your people, and into your houses; and the
houses of the Egyptians shall be filled with swarms of flies; so also the
land where they live.
But on that day I will set apart the land of Goshen, where my people live,
so that no swarms of flies shall be there, that you may know that I the LORD
am in this land.
Thus I will make a distinction between my people and your people. This sign
shall appear tomorrow.’”
The LORD did so, and great swarms of flies came into the house of Pharaoh
and into his officials' houses; in all of Egypt the land was ruined because
of the flies.
Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron, and said, “Go, sacrifice to your
God within the land.”
But Moses said, “It would not be right to do so; for the sacrifices that we
offer to the LORD our God are offensive to the Egyptians. If we offer in the
sight of the Egyptians sacrifices that are offensive to them, will they not
We must go a three days’ journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to
the LORD our God as he commands us.”
So Pharaoh said, “I will let you go to sacrifice to the LORD your God in
the wilderness, provided you do not go very far away. Pray for me.”
Then Moses said, “As soon as I leave you, I will pray to the LORD that the
swarms of flies may depart tomorrow from Pharaoh, from his officials, and
from his people; only do not let Pharaoh again deal falsely by not letting
the people go to sacrifice to the LORD.”
So Moses went out from Pharaoh and prayed to the LORD.
And the LORD did as Moses asked: he removed the swarms of flies from
Pharaoh, from his officials, and from his people; not one remained.
But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and would not let the people
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh, and say to him,
says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews: Let my people go, so that they may
For if you refuse to let them go and still hold them,
the hand of the LORD will strike with a deadly pestilence your
livestock in the field: the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the herds, and
But the LORD will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and the
livestock of Egypt, so that nothing shall die of all that belongs to the
The LORD set a time, saying, “Tomorrow the LORD will do this thing in the
And on the next day the LORD did so; all the livestock of the Egyptians
died, but of the livestock of the Israelites not one died.
Pharaoh inquired and found that not one of the livestock of the Israelites
was dead. But the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he would not let the
the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Take handfuls of soot from the kiln,
and let Moses throw it in the air in the sight of Pharaoh.
It shall become fine dust all over the
land of Egypt,
and shall cause festering boils on humans and animals throughout the
whole land of Egypt.”
So they took soot from the kiln, and stood before Pharaoh, and Moses threw
it in the air, and it caused festering boils on humans and animals.
The magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the
boils afflicted the magicians as well as all the Egyptians.
But the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and he would not listen to
them, just as the LORD had spoken to Moses.
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Rise up early in the morning and present
yourself before Pharaoh, and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of the
Hebrews: Let my people go, so that they may worship me.
For this time I will send all my plagues upon you yourself, and upon your
officials, and upon your people, so that you may know that there is no one
like me in all the earth.
For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people
with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth.
But this is why I have let you live: to show you my power, and to make my
name resound through all the earth.
You are still exalting yourself against my people, and will not let them go.
Tomorrow at this time I will cause the heaviest hail to fall that
has ever fallen in Egypt from the day it was founded until now. 19 Send,
therefore, and have your livestock and everything that you have in the open
field brought to a secure place; every human or animal that is in the open
field and is not brought under shelter will die when the hail comes down
Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the LORD hurried their
slaves and livestock off to a secure place.
Those who did not regard the word of the LORD left their slaves and
livestock in the open field.
The LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven so that hail
may fall on the whole land of Egypt, on humans and animals and all the
plants of the field in the land of Egypt.”
Then Moses stretched out his staff toward heaven, and the LORD sent thunder
and hail, and fire came down on the earth. And the LORD rained hail on the
land of Egypt;
there was hail with fire flashing continually in the midst of it, such heavy
hail as had never fallen in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation.
The hail struck down everything that was in the open field throughout all
the land of Egypt, both human and animal; the hail also struck down all the
plants of the field, and shattered every tree in the field.
Only in the land of Goshen, where the Israelites were, there was no hail.
Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron, and said to them, “This time I
have sinned; the LORD is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong.
Pray to the LORD! Enough of God’s thunder and hail! I will let you go; you
need stay no longer.”
Moses said to him, “As soon as I have gone out of the city, I will stretch
out my hands to the LORD; the thunder will cease, and there will be no more
hail, so that you may know that the earth is the LORD’s.
But as for you and your officials, I know that you do not yet fear the LORD
(Now the flax and the barley were ruined, for the barley was in the ear and
the flax was in bud.
But the wheat and the spelt were not ruined, for they are late in coming
So Moses left Pharaoh, went out of the city, and stretched out his hands to
the LORD; then the thunder and the hail ceased, and the rain no longer
poured down on the earth.
But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had
ceased, he sinned once more and hardened his heart, he and his
So the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he would not let the Israelites
go, just as the LORD had spoken through Moses. 10:1
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart
and the heart of his officials, in order that I may show these signs of mine
and that you
may tell your children and grandchildren how I have made fools of the
Egyptians and what signs I have done among them-- so that you may know that
I am the LORD.”
So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh, and said to him, “Thus says the LORD,
the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before
me? Let my people go, so that they may worship me.
For if you refuse to let my people go, tomorrow I will bring locusts
into your country.
cover the surface of the land, so that no one will be able to see the land.
They shall devour the last remnant left you after the hail, and they shall
devour every tree of yours that grows in the field.
They shall fill your houses, and the houses of all your officials and of all
the Egyptians – something that neither your parents nor your grandparents
have seen, from the day they came on earth to this day.’” Then he turned and
went out from Pharaoh.
Pharaoh's officials said to him, “How long shall this fellow be a snare to
us? Let the people go, so that they may worship the LORD their God; do you
not yet understand that Egypt is ruined?”
So Moses and Aaron were brought back to Pharaoh, and he said to them,
“Go, worship the LORD your God! But which ones are to go?”
Moses said, “We will go with our young and our old; we will go with our sons
and daughters and with our flocks and herds, because we have the LORD’s
festival to celebrate.”
He said to them, “The LORD indeed will be with you, if ever I let your
little ones go with you! Plainly, you have some evil purpose in mind.
No, never! Your men may go and worship the LORD, for that is what you are
asking." And they were driven out from Pharaoh's presence.
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the land of Egypt,
so that the locusts may come upon it and eat every plant in the land, all
that the hail has left.”
So Moses stretched out his staff over the land of Egypt, and the LORD
brought an east wind upon the land all that day and all that night; when
morning came, the east wind had brought the locusts.
came upon all the land of Egypt and settled on the whole country of Egypt,
such a dense swarm of locusts as had never been before, nor ever shall be
covered the surface of the whole land, so that the land was black; and they
ate all the plants in the land and all the fruit of the trees that the hail
had left; nothing green was left, no tree, no plant in the field, in all the
land of Egypt.
Pharaoh hurriedly summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “I have sinned against
the LORD your God, and against you.
Do forgive my sin just this once, and pray to the LORD your God that at the
least he remove this deadly thing from me."
So he went out from Pharaoh and prayed to the LORD.
The LORD changed the wind into a very strong west wind, which lifted the
locusts and drove them into the Red Sea; not a single locust was left in all
the country of Egypt.
But the LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart, and he would not let the Israelites
the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven so that
there may be darkness over the
land of Egypt,
a darkness that can be felt.”
So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was dense darkness
in all the land of Egypt for three days.
People could not see one another, and for three days they could not move
from where they were; but all the Israelites had light where they lived.
Then Pharaoh summoned Moses, and said, “Go, worship the LORD. Only your
flocks and your herds shall remain behind. Even your children may go with
But Moses said, “You must also let us have sacrifices and burnt offerings to
sacrifice to the LORD our God.
also must go with us; not a hoof shall be left behind, for we must choose
some of them for the worship of the LORD our God, and we will not know what
to use to worship the LORD until we arrive there.”
But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he was unwilling to let them go.
Then Pharaoh said to him, “Get away from me! Take care that you do not see
my face again, for on the day you see my face you shall die.”
Moses said, “Just as you say! I will never see your face again.”
And in the
Psalter, the story liturgically recalled…
They did not keep in mind his power, or the day when he redeemed them from
when he displayed his signs in Egypt, and his miracles in the fields of Zoan.
He turned their rivers to blood, so that they could not drink of
He sent among them swarms of flies, which devoured them, and frogs,
which destroyed them.
He gave their crops to the caterpillar, and the fruit of their labor
to the locust.
He destroyed their vines with hail, and their sycamores with frost.
He gave over their cattle to the hail, and their flocks to thunderbolts.
He let loose on them his fierce anger, wrath, indignation, and
distress, a company of destroying angels.
He made a path for his anger; he did not spare them from death, but gave
their lives over to the plague.
He struck all the firstborn in
the first issue of their strength in the tents of Ham.
In the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (and still occasionally today), it
was common for historical scholars to seek to correlate the plagues with
natural phenomena known to occur in Egypt. But such correlations miss the
point. By seeking to save the historicity of the plague stories with natural
explanations, they eliminated the central claim made by the storytellers of
Israel: God did this. It was God who sent the plagues and
“brought us out of Egypt with a great and mighty hand.” (p. 97)
“As you amble on through life, brother/sister,
whatever be your goal;
keep your eye upon the donut –
and not upon the hole.”
What is the point of the plagues? Why is the story retold?
4. Sinai and Covenant
events begin in Exodus 19 with a stupendous theophany (manifestation of God)
or hierophany (manifestation of the sacred). Thunder and lightning erupt,
and the sound of an ear‑splitting trumpet can be heard as a thick cloud
covers the sacred mountain. As God descends upon the mountain in fire, it
quakes violently. Moses ascends the mountain and there, at the place where
heaven and earth meet, goes to meet God. Moses’ role as mediator of the
covenant and giver of divine law has begun.
What happens at
Sinai is that Israel becomes a people, a nation. Though the narrator of the
Pentateuch has frequently used the words “Israelites” and “Israel” earlier
in the story, it is here that Israel comes into existence. Here God offers
the people a covenant:
You have seen
what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought
you to myself Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant,
you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the
whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a
With the offer
and acceptance of the covenant with God, they become God’s “treasured
possession” and “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” (p. 99)
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own
people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who
called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Lord said to Moses: “Obey my
voice and keep my covenant… and you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a
What is the promise of the covenant with Israel?
How has the promise been fulfilled?
These laws also
include some of the most radical socioeconomic legislation in human history.
For example, no interest is to be charged on loans to fellow Israelites.
Especially striking are the regulations for the Sabbath year and jubilee
year. Every Sabbath (seventh) year, all debts owed by Israelites to other
Israelites are to be forgiven and all Hebrew slaves released. Every jubilee
(fiftieth) year, all agricultural land is to be returned at no cost to the
original family of ownership. These laws reflect Israel’s origin in Egypt
as a radically oppressed and marginalized people. Their purpose was to
prevent the emergence of a permanently impoverished class within Israel.
“These laws reflect Israel’s origin in Egypt as a radically oppressed and
marginalized people. Their purpose was to prevent the emergence of a
permanently impoverished class within Israel.”
Have we been true to the purpose of scripture by preventing the emergence of
a permanently impoverished class?
Do we see these scriptures as touching us?
5. Central Meaning of Israel’s Primal Narrative
story was Israel's decisive and constitutive “identity story.” In the words
of Walter Brueggemann, the best known Hebrew Bible scholar in North America
today, it is that most simple, elemental, and non‑negotiable story line
which lies at the heart of biblical faith.... It is an affirmation in story
form which asserts, “This is the most important story we know, and we have
come to believe it is decisively about us.” (p. 103)
“This is the most important story we know, and we have come to believe it is
decisively about us.” Reflect and discuss the truth of this statement.
such societies with three phrases, they were marked by economic
exploitation (just described), political oppression (ordinary
people had no voice in the structuring of society), and religious
legitimation (the religion of the elites affirmed that the structures of
society were ordained by God).
This is the
world of Egypt and the world of empire – the world that Moses knew. Israel’s
“primal narrative” is the story of radical protest against and liberation
from such a world, and it affirms that radical criticism of and liberation
from such societies is the will of God. Moreover, the radical economic
legislation of the Pentateuch was designed to prevent such a world from
reemerging. Indeed, early Israel (for roughly the first two hundred years
after gaining the promised land) was a remarkably egalitarian society, one
with universal land ownership and no monarchy. The message of the Pentateuch
was that God’s people were to leave the world of Egypt and empire behind.
“The message of the Pentateuch was that God’s people were to leave the world
of Egypt and empire behind.”
Have we left the world of Egypt and empire behind?
Are we still in a desert longing to return to Egypt?
How timeless is the story?
story is not about social justice without God; equally, it is not about God
without social justice. (p. 105)
What is the
exodus story about?
PDF file of this material
Reading the Prophets