Friday, November 13, 2009

Relevance of Exodus to a Christian

One of the questions in the Old Testament semester 1 exam is this (paraphrase): How would you tell a regular church member who came to ask you about the relevance of the book of Exodus in Christianity and today's world?

This is my answer:

I shall start by informing the inquirer about Jesus' own Judaic tradition and the stories that he had identified in his own career as the anointed one who is destined to deliver Israel from her faulty ways on one hand, while fulfilling the promises God made to Abraham, to established his "seed" as the one inclusive of all nations into God's covenant, on the other.

Then I will give examples of how Jesus' life has in a way exemplifies the story in Exodus (in typology). One is the the calling of Israelites out from Egypt to go through the Sea of Reed and into the wilderness for forty years. In the life of Jesus, he was baptized with water and then was sent into the wilderness for forty days. Jesus was re-enacting the story of the Exodus through his life. Therefore through the story of Exodus, we can have a better picture of the significance of Christian baptism.

Our lives, as described in the New Testament, are re-oriented in the baptism. We died and made anew through it. As Exodus tells us, the separation of the Sea of Reed was a divine mighty work. It was a divine enabling that granted the Israelites to cross over to the other side. Otherwise they will be killed by the pharaoh and his pursuing armies. Due to this divine act, the oppressive past of the Israelites, as embodied by pharaoh, was cut off from their lives signifying the dawn of a new phase for their community. When we are baptized, our oppressive and torturous past is cut off. We came out from the 'Sea of Reed' as a new person entering into a new phase in life that God has prepared for us, just as he has prepared for the Israelites. All these are possible only through the divine enabling.

The subsequent episodes of the Exodus portray to us the often fluctuating livelihood after our baptism. As Jesus was sent into the wilderness like the ancient Israelites, we have to face our own wilderness as well. In the story of Exodus, we find many and unexpected businesses encountered the people of God. Their journey was not smooth as rulers of other nations did not allow them to travel through, deprivation of food and water, heightened dissatisfaction with their condition, reception of negative reports on their endeavors, and the death of someone they followed and trusted. How remarkable these experiences reflect or will reflect our own at each point of our lives. Like the Israelites, we face unfavorable circumstances and often we also end up like them, filled with complaints and grudges. However, when we read the Exodus, we cannot help but again and again notice the, often time invisible, reality of the providence and protection of God to the Israelites. Even when they were disobedient and troubled, we see the grace and divine compromises afforded to them by God.

As Paul Ricoeur emphasizes, any literature that narrates does not merely show us the actual but also the possible. When we lay the story of Exodus, the story of Jesus and the story of our lives in front of us, and read them side by side, we enter into a Hegelian dialectic. The Israelites in the Exodus as the thesis, Jesus in the gospels as the anti-thesis, and our daily unfolding lives as the synthesis among the former two. In Exodus, we see the fluctuating responses of the Israelites serving as not only a precedence but also a possibility for us. We can turn into the likes of the Israelites. In Jesus' experience in the wilderness, we see an overflowing obedience towards God that also not only a precedence but also a possibility for us. Our lives that is still unfolding day by day resemble a synthesis of both. On one hand, we see ourselves in the story of the Exodus, and on the other hand, we see Jesus in the wilderness as the anti-thetical force that invites us to observe the differences between the two and to choose (synthetically) wisely.

I get 4/10 with that answer (one point for each latter paragraph, I guess). The lecturer commented that I didn't write about the name of God, the free-will of man, the tabernacle worship, the law and the chosen people, and the God of creation. She also encouraged me to think more comprehensively instead of only some themes that I'm interested in.

But the question is not a question that asks me to list out all the theological themes in the book of Exodus. I read the question as a theological question, asking for constructive ways to theologize over the relevance of the Exodus, and not by proof-texting some issues which we derived from the inherited doctrinal interpretive lenses with all its intricate problems and dilemmas (for eg. the question on free-will vs God's sovereignty). In fact I would argue that those religious themes in the Exodus which my lecturer listed are not theological themes but religious languages used for their socio-political pursuit.

I appreciate the lecturer's insights, demands, and her own scholarship. I really do. Of course the 'comprehensiveness' is her comprehensiveness and not mine. I am also grateful that I get a C+ for this subject. I thought I would fail.

By the way, have you read or hear about Kim Fabricius' the parable of thinking out of the box? If not, here it is:

One day Scot Ernest (Lord) Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics, received a phone call. It was from a colleague who was about to fail a student in an exam but for the fact that the student himself claimed a perfect paper. The colleague and the student agreed to ask if Rutherford would be the deciding examiner.

The exam question was: “Show how it is possible to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer.” The student had answered: “Attach a long rope to it, lower it to the street, and then pull it up, measuring the length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building.” And the answer works. However it wasn’t the expected answer, the conventional answer: namely, that you use the barometer to measure the atmospheric pressure at the bottom and the top of the building; the pressure is less at the top, and factoring in the weight of the air, you calculate the height of the building.

So the student was offered another try. He was given six minutes to provide an answer that demonstrated some knowledge of physics. After five minutes, the student’s paper was still blank. Asked if he wished to give up, he said, “No, I’ve got several answers, I’m just thinking of the best one.”

In the next minute he dashed off the answer: “Take the barometer to the top of the building and lean over the edge. Drop the barometer, timing its fall with a stopwatch. Then, using the formula for the rate of the fall of a body, calculate the height of the building.” The student was given almost full credit.

As he was leaving the room, the examiners called him back. They were curious: what were the other answers he had to the problem? “Well,” the student said, “there are many ways to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer. For example, you could take the barometer out on a sunny day and measure the length of the building’s shadow, and the height of the barometer itself and the length of its shadow, and then by using simple proportion, you calculate the height of the building.

“Or,” he said, “there is a more direct method. Take the barometer and walk up the stairs of the building. As you climb the stairs, mark off the length of the barometer along the wall. You then count the number of marks, and this will give you the height of the building in barometer-units.

“Or,” he said, “you could take the barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower it to just above the street, then swing it like a pendulum. You then calculate the height of the building by the period of the swing.

“There are still other ways of solving the problem,” the student continued. “But probably the best way is to take the barometer to the basement of the building and knock on the superintendent’s door. When he answers, say, ‘My dear Mr. Superintendent, I have here an excellent barometer. If you tell me the height of your building, I will give you the barometer as a gift.’”

Well, the examiners were gobsmacked. When they recovered their composure, they asked the student if he knew the standard answer to the question. “Of course,” he replied. “But I am fed up with high school and university teachers trying to tell me how to think.”


M SIBAT said...

:) The parable of thinking outside the box is a good one. Though, as for your marks ... I'm really sorry it turned out that way - it was a really good explanation on how Exodus is relevant to the Christian. I understand it fully. :)

Sze Zeng said...

Hi M Sibat,

I like Kim's parable too. Glad you appreciate that.

No worries about my mark. I'm fine with that. Overall, I get a C+ for the OT subject (A- for essay, and D- for final exam. So combined, it's C+).

I'm glad that you understand my attempt to explain how Exodus is relevant to Christian! It's comforting to know that I was not writing or theologizing to confuse people.

reasonable said...

“But I am fed up with high school and university teachers trying to tell me how to think.”

There is something worse than the above: telling students WHAT to think.