Pastor, Sit Lightly on the Wisdom of the World

Israel departs EgyptThe phrase, “Plunder the Egyptians” is commonly heard amongst church leaders today, especially at conferences on church leadership and growth strategy. Usually the phrase is used to validate secular wisdom. So if I am teaching at a conference about church growth and I make extensive (or exclusive) use of a trending book on corporate leadership, I need only remind my audience that God’s people plundered the Egyptians. Let me offer two important observations about this language with an eye on its original context, before we think about what God does say about worldly wisdom: (a) as Israel leave Egypt in Exodus 12 we read that God gave them favour in the sight of the people resulting in permission to plunder silver, gold jewellery and clothing; and (b) in Exodus 32 it is fairly safe to conclude that the plundered gold was used to form a physical idol. One might make a tenuous link between what was plundered and idolatry, but let us rather note that Israel plundered material things from Egypt and later those same things were worshipped instead of Yahweh. Plundering the Egyptians, at least in the book of Exodus, has nothing to do with secular principles and worldly wisdom.

A simple word search of the New Testament reveals that we should probably be far less enamoured with and influenced by the wisdom of the world, leadership gurus and corporate strategy than many regrettably are. The book of Colossians has a lot to say about wisdom and Christ but due to the limited space I have in this short post I want us to consider just a couple of themes briefly. God is often described as wise in the New Testament (Romans 11:33; Ephesians 3:10), which would explain why prayer regularly takes the shape of asking him for wisdom (James 1:5; Ephesians 1:17; Colossians 1:9-12). Following on from that observation, wisdom is linked with Christian living (1 Corinthians 6; Ephesians 5). The only time the word comes up in the pastoral epistles is in 2 Timothy 3:15, where Paul is urging Timothy to grasp tightly the inspired truth of Scripture which is able to make people wise for salvation and training them in godliness. I realise that that is far too brief a survey but I think that it would be hard to argue against this tentative conclusion: wisdom in the New Testament comes from God by prayer, can be found in Scripture and empowers Christians for faithful service. Most of that conclusion can be read in 2 Peter 3:15, where Paul’s writings (New Testament epistles) are described as wisdom that comes from God.

Moving on from the conclusion above, I would like to highlight how the New Testament often contrasts the wisdom of the world with God’s. The passage most likely to be familiar to most is 1 Corinthians 1-2, most noticeably: “I…did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom” (2:1). The most vivid and emphatic language used to make this contrast is undoubtedly in James 3-4, see particularly 3:13-18 for the apostle’s searing distinction between God’s wisdom and earthly acumen. Within James 3-4 these find their respective expressions in prayerful humility and presumptuous arrogance.

Finally, we come to 2 Corinthians 1 where Paul wrote, “Our boast is this…we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you” (1:12). In its historical context, Paul was addressing a church that were entranced by powerful men, “super apostles”. Because of the impressive figures they cut, these church leaders towered above everyone else. We can imagine that they were highly thought of even by non-Christians because of their powerful influence, wide learning and versatility. But that is conjecture. What we do know from 2 Corinthians is that it was necessary for Paul to devote much of his epistle to calling the church back from worldly power, leadership and wisdom. That, I am convinced, is something many of us need to be reminded of today. Though Paul threatens stern discipline upon his arrival he reminds the Christians at Corinth that he was a sincere, vulnerable and weak man fully dependant on God. It does not seem to me – from this quick look at the New Testament – that worldly wisdom, secular strategies, and corporate leadership principles are prized in God’s eyes nor do they result in humility or prayerfulness—in fact, the opposite seems to be true.

A few words from D. A. Carson in The Gagging of God suffice as a near perfect conclusion to this post. I say this because the attitude he cautions against concerning the social sciences (polling and surveys) is the same attitude I see many adopting towards secular wisdom. “More frightening is the impression that the social sciences hold the key for church renewal and growth. The assumption seems to be that we are basically okay theologically, spiritually, morally, in our prayers and passion and understanding, and that if we just add this component we are bound to see fruit. The solid core of this outlook is that we do need to understand the people to whom we minister. The falseness is that such understanding and the adaptive change that springs from it guarantees spiritual growth. It may be something God uses, and in that case God is to be thanked, for he is the Author of all good gifts, not least knowledge, including knowledge of demographic profiles. But he may withhold his blessings: he has certainly done so before. Blessings are not guaranteed by reading Gallup reports.” Likewise, blessings do not flow from the world’s wisdom but God himself, who is our wisdom and the one who generously offers wisdom to those who seek it.

If you enjoyed this post there are a few more in this series:

Exodus: The Journey of God

David Roberts - Israelites leaving EgyptIn his magnificent work on the Pentateuch, The Five Books of Moses, Robert Alter notes that the reader experiences a distancing from God in the book of Exodus. He argues there is a regression as we move from Genesis for, “God in Exodus has become essentially unseeable, overpowering, and awesomely refulgent” (p301). God has become an ungraspable mystery and the salient aspects of the divine character emerge as sheer power, supremacy and implacability against those who would thwart him (p302). When I wrote this paper at college my aim was to demonstrate that Alter, despite being one of the most outstanding narrative critics alive, is mistaken at this point. I will argue that the presence of God is in fact the central theme developed in Exodus. Terence Fretheim, in his Interpretation commentary, offers a contrary tale to Alter’s, which I am convinced is told in Exodus: “the journey of God.” Fretheim’s thesis can be summarised like this: Exodus advances from an oppressive situation in which God’s presence is hardly noted to Yahweh’s filling the scene at the completion of the tabernacle. Moving through the narrative, we see God moving towards his people, culminating with his glorious presence at the tabernacle.

The problem is Exodus’ complex genre, for while it possesses a narrative framework its latter half is dominated by voluminous laws, liturgical practises and vast architectural details. In order to make sense of these elements, which appear irrelevant to the modern reader, we must maintin a narrative framework. If Fretheim is right, we can understand these aspects as contributing to the overall destination of the book, rich communion between Yahweh and his chosen people. So with the hope of placing and interpreting all the events and elements of Exodus, we turn to the book and ask if Fretheim’s “journey of God” is really the key theme in Exodus.

Exodus 1-18: Liberation from slavery through salvation for service

Red Sea CrossingAs we set off in Exodus we meet Israel, who are experiencing staggering posterity despite their suffering and oppression in a foreign land; this is by God’s preservation and faithfulness to the patriarchal promises. Thus the promises made by God to Abraham must also be kept clearly in view, for they are interwoven into Exodus. But Israel’s situation in Egypt does not square with the promises and while they languish under oppression it seems as though God is absent or disinterested with his people. But as we move through the first half of Exodus we cannot deny the narrative’s momentum tends steadily toward Israel’s establishment as God’s nation at Sinai. Yahweh determines to free them from their enforced ‘service’ of Pharaoh for ‘service’ of Yahweh (the same Hebrew word is found in 1:13-14 and 3:12). Fretheim picks up on this arc, slavery to worship, stating it reveals the central theme of the narrative (p20). While Israel longs for political liberation, what Yahweh desires for his people is liberation for worship and service. Yahweh’s personal disclosure to Moses, which finds its terminus in revelation to the nation at Sinai, is paramount to his desire for genuine relationship.

Beyond hearing their cry and remembering his covenant with them (Exodus 2:23-24), Yahweh knew their suffering (2:25; 3:7), and came down (3:8). Yahweh reveals his name, history and purposes to Moses – before achieving their liberation – and this suggests that Yahweh is coming nearer. Obviously the presence of Yahweh is predominantly mediated by Moses. Once Yahweh has liberated Israel, defeated Pharaoh they leave Egypt being led by Yahweh (Exodus 13:18, 22). And this presence, which finally destroys Pharaoh at the Red Sea crossing, is celebrated in song (Exodus 15). Note that Moses’ song climaxes with the hope of establishment on Yahweh’s “own mountain”, not Canaan (Exodus 15:17-18). Israel celebrates Yahweh’s powerful presence with them to save; and the promise of an even greater presence, denoting rest in the future. Israel then set off on three months in the wildness. Here freedom from Egypt and their new obligations are realised and Moses’ leadership is further authenticated. Before moving on we should notice the often overlooked promise from Jethro in Exodus 18:20, 23. Following his own calling on Yahweh’s name he assures them that Yahweh will be with them. Moses is also released from seeing to smaller matters so that he can continue as Yahweh’s mediator, bringing Israel closer to the presence of God.

If the theme that drives Exodus is the forging of the relationship between Yahweh and his people, then Exodus 1-18 essentially traces the beginning of this relationship. He reveals himself personally to them, defeats their enemy, leads them through the wilderness while providing for them, and preserves Moses as their mediator.

Exodus 19: Narrative hinge

AWilliam Brassey - Sinai helpful way to get around placing Exodus 19 in the narrative structure is to deal with the chapter as a hinge. I suggest this because it presents both broad panels of Exodus: Yahweh delivered Israel from Egypt (19:4) and Yahweh gives Israel Torah enabling them to realise their unique vocation to the nations (19:5-6). Moses is authenticated (19:9) and acts as the mediator of the covenant between Yahweh and the newly liberated Israel. Previously Yahweh’s relationship with Israel was exclusive and at most demanding, from here on in we see it is regulated, mediated and sanctuary-centred (Moberly p104, The Old Testament of the Old Testament). Yahweh has liberated his people for relationship with him, but this relationship must be carried out exclusively on his terms.

While Exodus 1-19 is a compelling story that moves from enslavement to liberation and finally epiphany, the climax is a set of boring legal injuctions and by no means a page turner. It seems not only to fail the potential and momentum gained with the first half of the narrative but does not grip the reader in any exciting way. Alter emphasises that Sinai and the law is in no way anticlimactic, for it is there we meet the newly established nation of Israel, who are addressed in their entirety, as individuals, with the keenest sense of urgency (p303). So in our treatment of Exodus as a complete narrative we must ask why the author (and editors) located this voluminous, at times boring, set of instructions here. More importantly we must ask how they contribute to our theme of God’s increasing presence with Israel.

Exodus 20-24: Law and covenant, promises with strings attached

Fretheim believes all that happens at Sinai supports our central theme since theophany, law-giving and covenant-making all concern worship and indicate the presence of God (p21). It is hard to ignore the reiteration through repetition that Moses serves as a mediator between Yahweh and Israel at Sinai. Moses communicates Yahweh’s instructions to the people and their responses to him. But in contrast to his mediatorial role to Pharaoh, here a relational covenant is established between Yahweh and the people. The distance between Yahweh and Israel is not simply closed but the cutting of the covenant is a development of relationship, and Yahweh’s journey nearer to his people. We often speak of Israel as a nation set apart, and with the ratification of the covenant Israel is defined by its holiness and obedience to moral law, like no other nation.

Moses with tablets

Furthermore it is the covenant which qualifies Israel as those who can construct the tabernacle, the space to meet with and worship Yahweh. Law is thus integrated into Israel’s life and journey, seen in the arrangment of material shifting repeatedly between narrative and injunction. This is a start towards understanding both law and covenant in personal and relational terms. Yahweh provides instruction that will result in the best life for his people. It will contribute to their sanctification, being set apart from the nations, in order that the name of Yahweh is proclaimed. Obedience to the commandments is demanding but it will make Israel the upright people they were saved to be. The commandments were given to test Israel (20:20), cultivating fear of Yahweh and diminishing their sin. Prior to the ratification of the covenant Moses was the sole mediator, the only one who saw Yahweh, but now Israel’s representatives meet with Yahweh too (24:10). Again, I would suggest in conclusion that we are seeing new avenues for access to Yahweh and an increasing openness to the people of Israel, which will reach its climax in the tabernacle.

Exodus 25-40: The tabernacle, appropriate worship and the presence of Yahweh

We learn as we move into this last major section of narrative that the tabernacle’s purpose is to be a dwelling place for Yahweh (25:8), and that is realised when we come to the end of our story (40:34-38). At Sinai even though Yahweh was imminent (19:3) he was also transcendent (19:9, 11, 16, 18-19; 20:21). But this final movement of the narrative concludes with Yahweh’s presence amidst his people. The tabernacle represents the God who was far off setting up his presence at the heart of the people. Fretheim (1991:21) goes as far as calling the tabernacle Israel’s ‘community worship centre’ (p21). The tabernacle is a manmade sphere where Yahweh can meet with and dwell amongst his people. Though built by human hands, the tabernacle, and this last narrative section, strongly impresses on the reader that the Israelite faith is not manmade. In his essay, Heaven on Earth, in Exploring Exodus, Barry Webb argues that the tabernacle is the repository of the law (see 40:20) and therefore represents the revealed religion of Yahweh, and his initiative to meet with his people.

Tying this all together the author of Exodus placed the golden calf incident and its ramifications – Moses’ interceding for Israel and the reinstatement of the covenant – as the focal point of a massive chiasm. That serves as an example of inappropriate worship, in contrast to obedience to the law and worship at God’s prescribed tabernacle; to quote Fretheim, “Certain negative possibilities are rejected, while positive directions are encouraged and commanded” (p21). Fretheim, along with Waltke, go further and argue that the narrative also shows us that only the faithful will fellowship with Yahweh in the tabernacle. Inappropriate worship drives Yahweh away, and the reinstatement of the covenant does not only promise God’s presence with his people but reminds them that they meet him on his terms.


Seventh plague by John Martin

Tracing our path through the narrative we see the longed after liberation was given, the nation constituted under Yahweh, and God’s presence richly though not fully realised in Exodus. Much is (rightly) made of deliverance from slavery through salvation for service, in the narrative. Yahweh comes true to his promises and is faithful to them. But with the story leading us into the cul de sac of law, covenant and tabernacle we need to assess the book’s aim. It is not enough to make our basic point the shift from alien oppression into freedom and obedient service without asking why reams of regulations are given. And the answer is that Yahweh has come to his people. Our story is significantly advanced from this point in history, but for the Israelites at Sinai the narrative is emphatic that Yahweh’s journey has brought him into their midst. So much is made of how Israel should worship and behave, because the God who was seemingly absent has made himself present at the tabernacle. With this narrative arc of the entire book in mind we can make sense of the difficult and dull elements of Exodus: they are regulations for their relationship with Yahweh in their midst. His holiness demands that the people are themselves holy, for his presence is a consuming fire.

Allegory in Our Reading of Exodus 3

Exodus 3 - burning bushRudolf Otto famously wrote, ‘Mysterium tremendum et fascinans’, to explain the human experience of the divine, the Holy. Literally it means something like, ‘fearful and fascinating Mystery’. Otto’s idea of the Holy was that we are drawn toward its magnificence in wonder, yet repelled by its awesomeness. R.W.L. Moberly suggests that a fire that burns without consuming is perhaps the prime symbol for God because it attracts (by its vivid movement) and deters (by its heat). But is this the intention of Moses’ first theophany, in Exodus 3? How are we meant to understand this great sight, a bush that burns and is not consumed (3:2-3)?

I ask the question because I recently preached on Exodus 3 and engaged with the commentators and listened to a few sermons. Many interpretations – even if only in passing – sound like Rudolf Otto.  The fire that does not consume is interpreted as a picture of Yahweh’s presence amongst his people; despite his transcendent holiness he comes near to the Hebrews in the exodus event. Bruce Waltke says in his Old Testament theology: the image of fire inhabiting that fit for kindling is a foreshadowing of God amongst the Hebrews (p363). There is no doubt that fire is linked with God’s presence in Exodus; the Hebrews are lead by a pillar of fire and cloud (13:22), fire symbolises God’s presence at Sinai (19:18), and God’s glory descends as cloud and fire onto the completed tabernacle (40:34-38). But can we conclude from this that the unaffected burning bush depicts the holy Yahweh dwelling amongst a people his nature should consume?

God went before Israel

Alan Cole thinks the fire might signify the “purificatory, as well as destructive” properties of God’s presence. That would come closer to my understanding of God’s holiness; which is not mere otherness and transcendence but an outwardly flowing attribute that creates holiness, destroys evil. As Jonathan Edwards wrote, ‘It is fit, as there is an infinite fountain of holiness, moral excellence and beauty, so it should flow out in communicated holiness’ (quoted by John Webster in Holiness, p52). One might even go as far to suggest that we see this in the ground surrounding the burning bush becoming holy, with Yahweh’s condescension (3:5). However, the question remains unanswered: can we see the burning bush as a picture of God’s gracious nearness to sinful and unholy Hebrews?

Alec Motyer, in his BST commentary on Exodus, spills the most ink in making this link. He writes, “The juxtaposition of the transcendent God in all his holiness and vitality and the ordinary, earthly bush is a powerful metaphor for the indwelling, transforming presence of God with his people” (p56). I like that Motyer sees God’s holy presence as transformative. But I am unconvinced that is the purpose of this theophany. In p51-56 Motyer vividly unpacks the burning bush: fire affirms wrath, but outreaching mercy is supremely displayed; without abandoning his divine essence God is able to accommodate himself to the company of sinners; the fire is his holy presence and the smoke serves as a veil for that holiness. We want that to be the meaning, because that theological interpretation comes standard with application for preaching. But I wonder if our theological categories at this point are not overshadowing the literary context.

TetragrammatonMotyer offers a second way of understanding the burning bush which – in my opinion – does justice to what is going in at the narrative and what Yahweh is about to reveal about himself to Moses: “I AM WHO I AM” (3:14-15). Moses encounters a fire nourished by its own life, a truly living flame that needs nothing outside of itself to burn. Motyer writes, “The essence of this revelation is that Yahweh is the living God, a self-maintaining, self-sufficient reality that does not need to draw vitality from outside” (p56). This surely makes more sense given the context. So God is not as much revealing his holiness as he is demonstrating his glorious self-existence, independent eternality. When we begin to appropriate this truth we are not struck by God’s condescension; we are moved to awe and assurance by his underived and completely independent power over what he has made, his true divinity.