Thursday, September 5, 2013

Detail from Perugino
As a new semester begins, I am once again teaching Theo 101. I really enjoy this course, and I teach it with roughly equal parts study of the Bible and the history of Christianity.We begin the study of the Bible with Exodus rather than Genesis.  There are several reasons I do this, but some of the primary ones are that the students are less likely to have had previous exposure to Exodus and it avoids the inevitable creationism questions.  Because they do not really know the story of Moses, they are more open to critical analysis.

The strangeness of the text comes right to the fore in our first reading, Exodus 1-6.  There is a very interesting passage in chapter 4 that might escape notice if one is not reading carefully.  Our theology department, like many others, uses the Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha (NRSV).
24 On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the Lord met him and tried to kill him.  25 But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, ‘Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!’ 26 So he let him alone. It was then she said, ‘A bridegroom of blood by circumcision.’

Generally, at some point during the discussion of Exodus 1-6, a student will mention 4:24-26:  “Why is it that all of a sudden God is going to kill Moses? And what’s with the foreskin?  Eww....”

This passage is confusing because, on top of being gross, it does not fit the context of the larger story and it is in discontinuity with the preceding verses. After all, if God is commissioning Moses, why is he going to kill him before he gets to carry out the task? I use this ‘seam’ in the text to draw attention to the role of the ancient editor. 

The immediate context is made clear by looking at the preceding verses:
21 And the Lord said to Moses, ‘When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. 22 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son.  23 I said to you, ‘Let my son go that he may worship me.’ But you refused to let him go; now I will kill your firstborn son.” ’
Our ancient editor was, presumably, working with the text in which God determines to kill Pharaoh’s firstborn and decided it was a fitting place to squeeze in the story about Moses’ firstborn. 

I also point out that the modern editors have tried to clarify a few things. They rightly note that the euphemism ‘feet’ actually means ‘genitals,’ but a small superscript note tells us that they have changed the Hebrew pronoun, ‘his,’ (as in 'his feet') to ‘Moses’,’ thereby determining for the reader that the genitals, as well as the threat of death, belong to Moses.

When I ask a student to read the passage again, restoring ‘his’ in place of the intrusive proper noun, it becomes possible, given the context of God’s threat to the firstborn, that the one in danger might indeed be Moses’ son.  Regardless of one’s opinion of who is in danger, it is clear that the editor/translators have limited the reader’s power of interpretation.

This becomes a really good lesson for we see, in the span of three verses, the hands of two editors. By pointing out a textual seam where the ancient editor has unintentionally created ambiguity and by drawing attention to contemporary footnotes and translation decisions that both enlighten and constrain, the student is shown that a careful reader needs always to be on the watch for editorial fingerprints.  
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  1. I get that there was editing. But as an evangelical Catholic I would say, please don't start out a Theo 1 class with two editors in the space of a couple of verses. The kids should learn Dei Verbum first. This is the word of God, after all.

  2. Hi Tom. I appreciate the comment, and I get what you mean. Dei verbum is an important document but it is not my starting point; I teach the principles of DV (and more so the PBC doc Interpretation of the Bible in the Church) rather than the document itself. Since we spend 6 weeks reading the Bible, I think a good start is to recognize the complexity of the text, as well as the fact that we receive it in a package that bears the marks of a modern publisher.