The Exodus Plagues and Hollywood

I like to show youtube clips in my Introduction to the Bible class to get students interested and show the relevance of the Bible to popular culture. Both of the following clips are set to the song from Prince of Egypt, but one is from the cartoon (The Prince of Egypt – The Plagues [with lyrics]) and the other is a bit more gory version from a live action movie (Exodus: Gods and Kings ‘The Plagues’).

The Exodus from Egypt

Introduction to the Book of Exodus

  • The title is from the Greek word exodos meaning “going out,” while the Hebrew title Ve’elle shemot means “these are the names” from the first verse.
  • Date: 1 Kings 6:1 puts the exodus 480 years before the 4th year of Solomon’s reign in 967 BCE (=1447 BCE), but the store-cities Pithom and Ramses (Exod 1:11) seem to put the story in the reigns of Seti I (1294-1279 BCE) and Ramses II (1279-1213 BCE). Some speculate a link between the Hyksos in Egypt or the Habiru in Canaan.
  • Archaeology: material evidence for a mass exodus of over 600,000 Israelite men (cf. Numbers 1:46; 26:51) has not yet been uncovered, but Pharaoh Merneptah’s Stele (1209 BCE) notes an “Israel” in Canaan. Perhaps a smaller group escaped Egypt to join indigenous Canaanites in rural settlements in the hill country by the Jordan.
  • Oral tradition: “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:21).
  • Outline: deliverance from Egypt (ch. 1-18); the covenant at Horeb/Sinai, and the construction of the portable tabernacle where the divine presence will dwell with his people (ch. 19-40)
  • Theology: Yahweh redeems Israel from slavery and establishes a covenant or binding agreement with them. The people ought to respond to unmerited divine election by obedience to the terms of the covenant in the Mosaic law.

Moses’ Birth (Exodus 2:1-10)

  •  Joseph is forgotten and the increasing numbers of Israelites are deemed a threat, so they were enslaved.
  • When the Israelite boys were thrown in the Nile, a mother hid her son in a basket floating among the reeds on the river’s brink. Pharaoh’s daughter found the Hebrew child and named him “Moses.” The biblical text relates the name to the Hebrew verb mashah or “draw out.”
  • Sargon of Agade (2371-2316 BCE): by 1900 CE archaeologists recovered three copies of “The Story of Sargon’s Birth.”

The Call of Moses (Exodus 3:1-4:17)

  • The bush that would not burn up.
  • Objections: who am I, who are you, and what if they do not believe me (cf. the signs of the staff, leprous hand, and water of the Nile to blood)? Moses protests that he is “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.”
  • What is meant by Ehyeh asher ehyeh (“I am who I am” or “I will be what I will be”): an evasion to not reveal the divine name, “I am the being” (LXX: ego eimi ho ōn), the one who causes everything to be, or a personal deity who is faithfully present?
  • Tetragrammaton: four consonants (yod-heh-vav-heh) and Jews substituted adonai (lord) rather than pronounce the divine name. The name “Jehovah” is a mistranslation based on taking the Hebrew consonants and the vowel markers for adonai (אֲדנָי). In the New Testament, Jesus receives the divine name (cf. Philippians 2:6-11).

The Plagues

  • 10 plagues: Nile to blood, frogs, gnats/mosquitoes/lice, flies, death of livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, death of firstborn.
  • Naturalistic explanations or theological polemic: “… on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD” (Exodus 12:12) (see Ziony Zevit “Three Ways to Look at the Ten Plagues“)

Pesach (Passover)

  • The Israelites put a lamb’s blood on their door-posts to be protected from the plague of death on the first-born son. After this, Pharaoh released them from slavery, but later pursued the Israelites and was drowned in the “Sea of Reeds.”
  • The head of the household presides over the retelling of the story on Seder (Passover meal). The youngest child asks four questions beginning with “why is this night different from all other nights?”
  • The feast of unleavened bread (matzah), since they fled Egypt in haste.

The Decalogue

  • Two forms of the Decalogue in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. The commands are numbered slightly differently in Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant traditions.
  • Does the golden calf violate the command about worshiping other deities or the command to not make an image of Yahweh (cf. Exodus 32:1-6; 1 Kings 12:25-32)?

The Failure of the First Generation

  • “Numbers” comes from the Greek Arithmoi and relates to the military censuses in chapters 1 and 26; the Hebrew Bemidbar derives from “in the wilderness.”
  • Moses sends twelve spies to scout out the land of Canaan for forty days, but ten report that the inhabitants are too strong and the people refuse to take the land (Numbers 13-14). The inhabitants are compared to the Nephilim (cf. Genesis 6:4).
  • They are punished to wander forty years in the desert, one year for every day the spies scouted the land until the wilderness generation dies off with the exception of Joshua and Caleb.
  • Complaints about the wilderness (11:1-3), starvation (11:4-6), meat (11:18-20), and thirst (20:2-5). Moses sins when dealing with this last complaint, with the result that he will not enter the Promised Land (20:7-12)
  • Miriam and Aaron complain about Moses’ marriage to a foreign woman and see their own status as equivalent to his (12:1-16). Dathan and Abiram complain against Moses and Korah leads a group of Levites to protest Aaron’s priesthood (16:1-17:12).



Abraham in “Year One”

The biblical-based comedy Year One is a mostly terrible movie. However, I thought Hank Azaria’s portrayal of Abraham stole the show. I have linked to a Youtube clip where Abraham is discussing circumcision, but skip it if irreverent humour offends you.

The Patriarchs and the Matriarchs

The Ancestral History: An Overview

  • Set in the Middle Bronze Age (2200-1500 BCE). In the larger ANE context, Egypt is the superpower and Canaan is under its control.
  • Genre: saga with narratives about the eponymic ancestors.
  • Central Characters: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Esau and Jacob, Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers.

Abraham and Sarah

  • Abram was raised in a typical polytheistic environment (Joshua 24:2-3) and this may be reflected in the names in his family (e.g. Terah = Yareah or “moon”, Sarai = Sharratu or the moon god Sin’s wife, Milcah = malkatu or Sin’s daughter).
  • The unconditional Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 12:1-3): posterity, land, blessing
  •  The covenant ratification ceremony (15:1-21) and the gift of new names along with the covenant of circumcision (17:1-27).
  • Threats: Pharaoh taking Sarai (12:10-20), Lot’s departure and capture (13:1-18; 14:1-24), Abimelech taking Sarah (20:1-18), Hagar and Ishmael (16:1-16, 21:8-21), the command to sacrifice Isaac (22:1-19).

Isaac and Rebekah

  • Isaac’s name means “laughter” since he was born when Abraham was 100 years old.
  • The Akedah or “binding” of Isaac: Jewish midrashic interpretations and Christian typological interpretations.
  • Isaac marries Rebekah (24:1-67) and there is a similar story about the threat to the marriage from the ruler Abimelech (26:6-11).

Jacob and Esau

  • The Toledot of Isaac (25:19-35:29).
  • Pre-birth oracle about the older serving the younger.
  • The name Esau was unknown in ancient times and the root is uncertain, but the text associates it with hairiness. The term for “hair” (se`ar) shares the same Hebrew consonants as “Seir” and the term for “reddish” (admoni) plays on Esau’s other name “Edom” in Hebrew.
  • Jacob may be a shortened version of a Hebrew name y’qb’l (“may El protect”), but the name is also related to the term for “heel” and the text explains it in reference to Jacob grasping his older brother’s heal at birth.
  • Stealing Esau’s birthright and deceiving his aged father to steal the blessing. Jacob flees from Esau’s murderous rage and Rebekah dies without a memorial.
  • The staircase to heaven at Bethel (“house of God”), the re-affirmation of the Abrahamic covenant (land, posterity, blessing), and the bargain Jacob makes with God.
  • Jacob is cheated by his uncle Laban, working for him seven years to marry Leah and another seven to marry Rachel.
  • At the river Yabbok, Jacob wrestles a “man” (i.e. Canaanite river god, angel, or Yahweh) and receives the name Israel (from El and the verb srh or “struggle”).
  • Jacob is reunited with Esau, bows to him seven times, and returns Esau’s blessing (27:36; 33:11).

Joseph and his Brothers

  • Jacob has six children with Leah (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun), two with Rachel’s servant Bilhah (Dan, Naphtali), two with Leah’s servant Zilpha (Gad, Asher), and two with Rachel (Joseph, Benjamin).
  • The Toledot of Jacob (37:2-50:26) could be compared to a novella.
  • It features indirect divine intervention through dreams and providence.
  • Jacob’s favouritism to Joseph who stays at home and wears a coat with long sleeves while his brothers are labourers.
  • There is divine providence despite how Joseph is thrown in a well, sold into slavery, and imprisoned after a false accusation. Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams, including the nightmares of Pharaoh, causes him to ascend to power in Egypt and rescue his family from a famine that Joseph accurately predicts.
  • The story continues the Abrahamic promise to bless the world, but the ancestral family has settled in Egypt where they will be enslaved.

The Watchers in the Noah Movie

I like to show the YouTube clip “The Nephilim’s Tale (The Watchers)” taken from the movie Noah. This clip combines a little from Genesis 6:1-4, more from Jewish traditions about the Watchers such as 1 Enoch, and mostly from the Hollywood imagination. When I watched it I was not sure if the movie confused the angelic Watchers with their gigantic offspring, but later learned that the rock monster appearance may be loosely based on the Watcher’s imprisonment in a deep pit or a rocky location in the wilderness.


The Primeval History (Genesis 3-11)

“… these stories describe what we might call the ‘ambivalence’ of human existence… the exchange of human closeness for a hierarchy within humanity (Gen 3:16); the experience of being elevated or demoted, independent of human accomplishment, which leads to deadly violence among brothers [and sisters] (Gen 4:1–16); and finally, the advancement of humankind (Gen 3:22) and humanity’s cultural progress (Gen 3:21;4:17,20–22) through discovering practical knowledge (Gen3:7), while at the same time alienating itself from God (Gen 3:24; 4:11, 14) and experiencing a rise in violence (Gen 4:8, 14–15, 23–24). The episode about the sons of God and human women (Gen 6:1–4) combines the topics already mentioned in the Eden narrative, i.e. humanity’s decrepitude and the (sexual) delineation of the human from the divine realm, a topic picked up again later in the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1–9). Finally, categorical statements about the predominance of violence as well as about human nature serve as a frame for the extensive narrative of the flood (Gen 6:5–9:17). The irreversible disposition of humankind towards evil and the excess of violence provoke God’s decision to undo his creation (Gen 6:5–7, 11–13) and—after the end of the flood—will evoke the weary statement of God regarding the post-diluvian world (Gen 8:21).” (Jan Christian Gertz, “The Formation of the Primeval History” in The Book of Genesis: Composition, Reception and Interpretation, p. 108)

“Toledot” (account, generation) formula

The formula structures Genesis and is used to introduce ten sections that focus on the named character’s descendants or impact on the subsequent narrative.

  • Toledot of the Heavens and Earth (2:4-4:26)
  • Toledot of Adam (5:1-6:8)
  • Toledot of Noah (6:9-9:29)
  • Toledot of Shem, Ham, and Japheth (10:1-11:9)
  • Toledot of Shem (11:10-26)
  • Toledot of Terah (11:27-25:11)
  • Toledot of Ishmael (25:12-18)
  • Toledot of Isaac (25:19-35:29)
  • Toledot of Esau (36:1-8)
  • Toledot of Esau (36:9-37:1)
  • Toledot of Jacob (37:2-50:26)

The signs of civilization

  • Clothing represents the process of civilization (3:21)
  • Abel is a shepherd and Cain tills the soil (4:2)
  • Cain builds a city (4:17)
  • Jabal oversaw livestock (agriculture) (4:20)
  • Jubal played the lyre and pipe (arts) (4:21)
  • Tubal-Cain made bronze and iron tools (technology) (4:22)

Decline Narratives

  • The first human couple eats the forbidden fruit and is driven out of the Garden (3:6-24).
  • Cain murders his brother and asks if he is his “brother’s keeper” (4:8-9)
  • Lamech is a murderer and polygamist (4:19, 23-24)
  • The blurring of divine-human boundaries (6:1-4), the inclination of human hearts to evil (6:5), and filling the earth with corruption and violence (6:11-13).
  • Making a name for oneself in the tower of Babel (11:1-9)

The “Sons of God”

  • While some interpreters believe the “sons of God” were Seth’s godly descendants of Seth intermarrying with Cain’s wicked line, it is more likely that these are lesser divine beings (cf. Deuteronomy 32:8; Job 1:6; 2:1; Daniel 3:25).
  • The offspring: Nephilim (Genesis 6:4; cf. Numbers 13:33; Deuteronomy 2:10-11)
  • 1 Enoch 1-36 (The Book of Watchers, ca. 225 BCE): based on Genesis 6:1-4, the fallen angels (Watchers) have sexual intercourse with women, producing a species of giants that consume everything in sight. The Watchers are imprisoned in Tartarus until the day of judgment, while the evil spirits that roam the earth are identified with the disembodied spirits of the giants (1 Enoch 15:8-12).
  • The Book of Jubilees (ca. 105 BCE): in its retelling of Genesis and the myth of the Watchers in 1 Enoch, Noah prays that the evil spirits of the giants may be bound in a pit with the Watchers (10:2). Yet the chief of the spirits, Mastema (“enmity”), is permitted to keep some of the spirits in order to test humankind (10:7).

The Flood Narrative

Note: a few flood stories may have been combined in the Genesis account and we will look at this in a later lesson on the Pentateuch sources.

  • In the Mesopotamian Atrahasis epic, the flood was sent so that humans would cease making noise and disturbing the god Enki’s sleep, but the flood was regretted when it was realized that it wiped out the humans who fed the gods by their sacrifices.
  • The biblical narrative describes the flood as a punishment for human wickedness, violence, and corruption.
  • The boundaries separating the waters in the creation narrative have been opened and chaos is unleashed on the land.
  • Noah as a new Adam: Noah and his descendants are divinely commissioned to multiply and fill the earth (9:1, 7), are permitted to eat living creatures (9:2-3), and are prohibited from taking innocent human life or disrespecting life by eating blood (9:4-6).
  • The unconditional promise to never wipe out creation with a flood (9:9-17). The rainbow is a weapon facing towards God as a sign of commitment to the covenant.
  • Noah’s drunkenness, Ham’s sexual transgression, and the curse of Canaan (9:20-27)

The Tower of Babel

  • “Babel” means “confusion” and is the name of Babylon; the story may be a parody of the hubris of the Babylonian Empire.
  • The tower may be modeled on an ancient ziggurats. The tower is small in the sight of Yahweh who has to come down to see it.
  • The desire to make a name for oneself and settle in one place thwarted by the confusion of languages so that they will scatter.


The Yahwist Creation Narrative and the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:4b-25, 3:1-24)

Comparing the Two Creation Narratives

Genesis 1:1-2:4a Genesis 2:4b-25
The transcendence of Elohim The immanence of Yahweh Elohim
Formless waters representing chaos A dry barren land
Forming and ordering creation with a word Shaping creation like a potter
land > animals > humans (male/female) land > man (?) > garden > animals > woman
Image of God Living being (nephesh)


  • The adam (ground-creature) from the adamah (ground)
  • Later the ishah (female) was created from the ish (male)
  • Was the first human androgynous before the division between male and female in Gen 2:21-23 (cf. Genesis Rabbah 8:1; Jubilees 2:14; Apocalypse of Adam 1:4-5)? However, adam continues to be used for the male after the gender differentiation.


  • Patriarchal reading: the priority of men in the creation order, the ishah created as a “helper”, the deception of Eve by the serpent, and the punishment of pain in childbearing and patriarchal rule (Genesis 2:18-23; 3:1-6, 16; cf. 1 Timothy 2:13-15).
  • Alternative reading: the argument from creation order can be reversed to suggest that the woman is the pinnacle of creation or gender differentiation may not have occurred until God split ha-adam (the ground-creature), God is Israel’s “helper” (Exodus 18:4; Deuteronomy 33:7, 26, 29; Psalms 33:20; 70:5; 115:9-11), equality in creation and united as one flesh,  the man was present with her and ate the forbidden fruit without putting up resistance (Gen 3:6), and patriarchy is a curse.
  • See Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978).

The Serpent

  • Not yet interpreted as the devil (but see Wisdom of Solomon 2:24; Romans 16:20; Revelation 12:9; 20:2). On the serpent’s identity, see John Day’s “The Serpent in the Garden of Eden and Its Background” (
  • There is a pun between  arōm or naked in 2:24 and arum or shrewd/crafty in 3:1 (cf. Proverbs 1:1-4).
  • Enmity between humans and wild creatures (Genesis 3:1) reinterpreted as the Protoevangelium announcing Jesus’ victory over Satan (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.23.7; 5.21.1)

Different Interpretations of Genesis 3

  • The tree of the knowledge of good and evil: an autonomous form of wisdom. Eating from it caused the breakdown of relationships with God, fellow humans, and nature.
  • Did the humans die after eating the forbidden fruit (Genesis 2:17; 3:1-5, 19)? Does the prohibition from eating from the tree of life suggest that the humans were not originally immortal (Gen 3:22-24)?
  • The traditional Christian interpretation is that this is the story of the “Fall” and “original sin” when read through the lens of the Apostle Paul (Romans 5:1-21) and especially the bishop Augustine.
  • An ambivalent story about the loss of childlike innocence in the birth of civilization.
  • Chiasm: A1 (God questions the man and he blames the woman), B1 (God questions the woman and she blames the serpent), C1 (the serpent is silent), C2 (the serpent is punished), B2 (the woman is punished), A2 (the man is punished)



The Priestly Creation Narrative in Genesis 1-2:4a

Different Christian Views of the Creation Narratives

Young Earth Creationism: God created the universe in six literal days (yom) and the universe is only about 10000 years old.

Old Earth Creationism: accepts that the universe has existed for billions of years by interpreting the six days as representing longer periods of time, yet still rejects evolution between species.

Gap Creationism (Gap Theory): agrees with young earth creationists on the six literal days, but argues that there was a gap between the first creation of Genesis 1:1 and a second creation in Genesis 1:2 to account for a much older universe.

Theistic Evolution/Evolutionary Creation: God created through the Big Bang and the processes of evolution.

Establishing Order Out of Chaos: The Sea Monster

Why do you think that the Sea symbolizes the forces of chaos?

The Babylonian/Akkadian myth Enuma Elish recounts how gods and goddesses sprung from the primordial Apsu and Tiamat (sweet-water and salt-water oceans respectively). When Apsu plots to kill the younger deities for making too much noise and is slain instead, Marduk arose to slay Tiamat and splits her in half to create the waters above and below. See the cylinder depicting the battle between Marduk and Tiamat online.

In the Ugaritic/Canaanite Baal Cycle, the cloud rider Baal has slain Yam (Sea) and annihilated Nahar (river) and muzzled the dragon (tannin) and slain the foul fanged seven headed Leviathan.

By his power he stilled the Sea; by his understanding he struck down Rahab. (Job 26:12)

You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. You cut openings for springs and torrents; you dried up ever-flowing streams. (Psalm 74:13-15)

On that day the Lord with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea. (Isaiah 27:1)

What is different about the Genesis account: “The earth was without form [tohu] and void [bohu], and darkness was upon the face of the deep [tehôm]; and the spirit [ruach; or “wind”] of God was moving over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2)

Ancient Conception of the Cosmos

For the picture, click on

The Pattern in the Days of Creation

Forming the Tohu (formlessness) Filling the Bohu (empty)
Day 1: Light Day 4: Greater and Lesser Lights
Day 2: Waters Above and Below Day 5: Birds and Water Creatures
Day 3: Land and vegetation Day 6: Animals and Humankind

Day 7: Sabbath

Ancient Anthropology

– Humans are created to do the hard labour for the deities and feed them through sacrifice.

– The king alone is created in the divine image, while the image of God is democratized in the Priestly Creation Narrative.

The Image of God (Imago Dei) in Genesis 1:26-27

“So God created humankind [ha‘adam] in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27 NRSV)

– A Uniquely Human Characteristic (reason, empathy, spirituality)?

– Original Righteousness (Protestant Reformers; cf. Rom 8:29-30; 2 Cor 3:18; Col 1:15)?

– Dominion over the created order?

  • “Just as powerful earthly kings, to indicate their claim to dominion, erect an image of themselves in the provinces of their empire where they do not personally appear, so man [and woman] is placed upon earth in God’s image as God’s sovereign emblem. He [and she] is really only God’s representative, summoned to maintain and enforce God’s claim to dominion over the earth.” (Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis, p. 58)

What does Dominion Mean

“…let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” (Gen 1:26)

radah (רָדָה): “rule” is also used in the context of master-servant (Leviticus 25:43), administrator-employee (1 Kings 5:16; 9:23), or international relations (Numbers 24:19; 1 Kings 4:24). Is this a call to harshly subjugate creation or be stewards of it?

Lyn White, Jr. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological CrisisScience 155 (1967): 1203-7.



The Lord’s Prayer and the Criteria of Authenticity

The “criteria of authenticity” were developed by New Testament scholars to establish a secure bedrock of information about the historical Jesus distinct from later Christian beliefs about him. The idea was that if a certain saying or deed attributed to Jesus could not be attributed to another Jewish or Christian source (double dissimilarity), was attested in different sources or traditional forms (multiple attestation), was translated from Aramaic, or ran counter to the theological agenda of the Christ followers who preserved the tradition (embarrassment), it likely derived from Jesus.

The validity of the criteria has been challenged. Lifting a bunch of sayings out of the literary contexts in which they were found, running each through a battery of tests to prove Jesus said it in isolation from the rest of the data, and recombining isolated sayings in new combinations to produce a novel reconstruction seems questionable as a historical method. I agree that the first step should be to ask how a certain reconstruction of Jesus could produce our diverse literary portraits of him in the Gospel texts as they stand. I am not ready to jettison the criteria entirely: I still think they are a useful tool for discerning older traditions incorporated into the Gospels (e.g. they show signs of translation or editorial activity or are attested in independent sources) and examining how they developed over time. I am aware, however, that the criteria are not purely objective measures that are not impacted by the subjective judgments of the interpreter who wields them.

An example can be found in the work of John Dominic Crossan. There is much I like in his The Historical Jesus – The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant: his thick description of the ancient social context, his attempt to be fair to non-canonical sources, his focus on the anti-Roman imperial dimensions of Jesus’ programme, and his transparent methodology. Crossan has a clear method in relying only on traditions he dates early, though this depends on some of Crossan’s problematic source-critical views and dating of texts, and that are multiply attested. Yet when the “Lord’s Prayer” passes the tests, Crossan writes “Still, despite the fact that the Lord’s prayer must be a very early summary of themes and emphases from Jesus own lifetime, I do not think that such a coordinated prayer was ever taught by him to his followers” (294). Could it be that the petition “your kingdom come” in the prayer suggests that Jesus anticipated the eschatological advent of the kingdom and runs counter to Crossan’s view that a Cynic-like sage was transformed into an apocalyptic prophet? Alternatively, the singly attested parable of the Good Samaritan is accepted into Crossan’s database.

Chris Skinner Reviews Brant Pitre’s “Jesus and the Last Supper”

On the topic of Jesus’ final Passover meal and the Christian Eucharist, Chris Skinner has started a multi-post blog review of Brant Pitre’s monograph Jesus and the Last Supper (cf. also his Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper). Brant Pitre responded to the first post at The Jesus Blog.


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