The Meaning of the Christmas Myths

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 22 December 2004 0 Comments
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I have read some of your essays and your comments concerning the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This leads me to a question: Do you believe Exodus 14:21-23? Is it possible that God actually separated the Red Sea and that there was a wall of water on the left and the right as the Israelites were led out of Egypt?


In a word, the answer is no. No, the biblical story at the Red Sea is not history. But that answer would be too simple to open the story to its real meaning so let me amplify.

The first thing you need to be aware of is that the Book of Exodus, part of the Torah, was written over a period of time from about 950 to 450 B.C.E. Moses lived around 1250 B.C.E. So some 300 years passed at a minimum between the life of Moses and the biblical stories written about Moses. Even though the first five books of the Bible are called "The Books of Moses," there is no chance that he actually wrote them. There is an overwhelming probability that as the stories of Moses were retold over that 300-year period of time, they grew in their dramatic and miraculous details.

Second, the story depicts God as little more than a tribal deity who rescues the Chosen People and drowns the hated Egyptians. That is not a very pleasant view of God if you happen to be an Egyptian!

Third, this story presents God as a supernatural external miracle worker who invades history to accomplish the divine will and who does not act always in a moral manner. Drowning the Egyptians in the Red Sea after having afflicted this nation with plague after plague, including the killing of the first-born male in every Egyptian household, is hardly God-like behavior. If God is capable of acting in this way, then every time God does not intervene in history to rescue people in peril, God must be blamed for that peril. This would make God responsible for such things as the Holocaust and the AIDS epidemic in Africa. A God who has the power to stop evil and who does not do so cannot be called moral.

Fourth, we live in a post-Newtonian world that we understand to be ordered by precise laws governing nature. This story was written inside a worldview that was open ended, filled with magic and miracles.

Fifth, some scholars have suggested that the original kernel of truth behind this story was that the escaping slave people crossed the Sea of Reeds rather than the Red Sea. The Sea of Reeds was a swampy marsh land that escaping slaves might have been able to maneuver on foot but the heavily-armored Egyptians with their iron chariots would become hopelessly mired, thus allowing a successful escape for the slaves into the wilderness. As the story was told and retold, it became more and more miraculous.

Sixth, the Exodus was celebrated annually in the liturgy of the Jews called the Passover. Liturgy meets a very different set of needs from those of remembered history. This passage from Exodus reflects liturgical shaping.

Finally, if one reads the Bible as history and fact, one will never understand its message. Yes, there was an Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt but that is not what the Scriptures are describing. They are telling us the heightened story of that moment when they became free, their dependence on God, their celebration of their national life and their ongoing worship experience. The Bible is the sacred story of a people walking through history with their God, seeking to understand who they are and who God is. Literalize it and it dies.

Thank you for asking. I addressed this and hundreds of other similar issues in my book Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. You might find that book helpful if you want to pursue this further.

-- John Shelby Spong




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