A Historian's Second Thoughts, Exodus 15, Matthew Studies Class, Jan. 29, 2012

Welcome to my discussion of "Second Thoughts" on Exodus 15:1-16, the text for January 29, 2012 in the Uniform Series outline used in mainstream church Bible classes.

Fay taught our weekly Matthew Studies Class. To understand her method, you need to know that the first eight week’s Winter Quarter lessons studied key stories from the book of Genesis about Abraham (founder of ancient Hebrew culture) and Joseph (one of Abraham’s many great-grandsons who collectively generated the twelve tribes of ancient Israel).

This week shifted suddenly over to Exodus 15:1-16, where Moses and his sister Miriam sing praises to the Lord (Hebrew YHWH) for deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt‘s army.

Fay, however, did not open the class discussing Moses and Miriam or Egypt‘s army, but rather by challenging each student with some unexpected questions: What did we study during the previous 8 weeks? How did those stories in Genesis lead to Moses and Miriam in the book of Exodus?! Why do Christians still study these ancient historical traditions of the Hebrews some 3,300 years later? More specifically, why should a modern American Baptist church study Abraham, Joseph, and Moses at all?

The class, quickly recovering from shock, actually did a good job summarizing the stories of Abraham and Joseph, and how that led in time to the Israelite bondage in Egypt from which Moses delivered them with the help of his siblings Aaron and Miriam.

Answers on the relevance of all this to a modern Baptist church, however, came not so readily, but Fay focused the discussion by reading the following summary she found in our Methodist study materials:

"For Christians, the biblical salvation story is the story of Jesus’ passion and resurrection. We understand Jesus’ arrest and beating and subsequent crucifixion as the event when God acted decisively on behalf of human beings to defeat evil. It is not, however, the only salvation story in the Bible.

"For Jews, the biblical salvation story is the story of the Exodus of the Hebrew people from Egypt. They [the Jews] understand the plagues, the flight from Egypt, and the destruction of Egypt’s army at the Red Sea as the events when God acted decisively on their behalf."

Source: Rev. Von W. Unruh of Monteagle, Tennessee, in The New International Lesson Annual, Sept. 2011 - Aug. 2012, ed. Nan Duerling (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2011), p. 202.

Following our custom when only one of us teaches, Fay told me all about the class later in the day. I often do not attend when she teaches to avoid disturbing the special, palpable intimacy her teaching methods develop among the students. I do other ministry work instead.

I started my “second thoughts” this week in response to the masterful summary citation. I wondered how one might translate these excellent theologically-oriented statements about theologically-oriented people (and the theological stories upon which they rest) into the naturalistically oriented statements about real people required of all modern professional historians of ideas and culture who seek a general, non-sectarian audience.

Historians seeking general audience must necessarily work outside the theological requirements of any particular faith community. Though each major denomination does indeed have good historians of general events, their work is known for what it is, history written to harmonize with a particular church’s belief system.

For myself as a general historian in search of a general audience (because my job is to respect and work with everyone regardless of their particular religious or political orientation), I see nothing wrong per se in dedicated people approaching and interpreting the world (the universe, or reality in general, if you will) in terms of a personal God with anthropomorphic characteristics. The rationalistic secular arguments of avowed atheists and agnostics have little or no influence on such people.

But general historians must avoid sectarian interpretations, not because they have no faith, but because finding generally provable evidence of God’s desires and wishes is notoriously difficult and well beyond even the most skilled historians. If every proposed factual statement of history must first pass theological muster, nothing would ever get decided for general use.

So assuming a framework of legitimacy in the summary statements, how might I as a general historian turn them into non-theological statements accessible to people outside the framework of theological faith?

We obviously must start not with God (since we have no consensus data), but with the men and women influenced by their ideas of God, (a) the people inside the stories, and (b) the unknown people who transmitted and finally wrote down the stories in preservable form. Something like this:

"Moses and Jesus were individuals who lived their lives decisively in God’s name, showing full respect for the old traditions they inherited, but pointing the way to something new, so as to succeed in starting new communities of theologically-oriented people whose preserved written memories of their founders became sacred scriptures."

Merely open your mouth on any topic in religion, of course, and you stir up incredibly diverse opinions, though most “nice people” avoid active discussion. Because I do not restrict myself to like-minded audiences, I usually get more responses of disagreement than agreement, and a good deal more along the lines of “who cares what you think?!“ But even that’s okay with me, and fully understandable.

How could anyone agree fully with me on any religious subject without my genetics, my parents, my religious background, my children, my education, my socio-economic location, my adult experience, my health, my longevity, my wife, my friends, in short, everything about me that helps make me the unique person that I am?

I look not for agreement but exposure to the widest possible range of real people, hopefully to stimulate thought, yes, but in any case, to present clearly and honestly the results of my lifetime of research and independent thinking for your consideration. Let me know what you think. I would very much like to hear response to my solution to this problem.

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Copyright © January 2012 by Matthew Studies Institute and The Max Havlick School, projects of New World Community Enterprises, Inc., Villa Park, IL 60181-1938 USA, all rights reserved. To study with us the humanities (religion, philosophy, history, literature, writing, etc.) or soft sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc.), write us at 60181-1938, or email us through Hubpages.

The Matthew Studies Class meets 9 a.m. Sunday mornings in Oak Park, Illinois at the First Baptist Church (American Baptist), 820 Ontario St. (since Feb. 2, 1999, 13 years). Our studies in February 2012 all devoted to St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians defending his “good-message (eu-anggelion) of Jesus Christ” in respect to the ancient Hebrew traditions of Abraham and Moses.

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