For many of us, our biblical knowledge is more often based on inherited traditions than on a close reading of the text—stuff like Sunday school lessons, sermons, movies, plays, music, maybe just stuff we’ve heard from others.
The classic example of this is the wise men in the Christmas story.
How many were there?
The Bible doesn’t specify.
According to the story in the Gospel of Matthew, there were three gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh), so nearly every Christmas play you’ve ever seen casts three wise “little kids”—one for each gift. And because of this, we have adopted a view of the biblical narrative based on an inherited tradition.
Another text that is rife with accompanying traditions is the story of the Red Sea crossing in Exodus 14.
It’s a massively important story of God redeeming his people from forced labor and oppression—a foundational and paradigmatic story, even, that Israel returns to throughout the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament).
Due to its significance, the Red Sea crossing is well-known. In fact, it is highly likely that we have some image of this event seared into our mind, though I’m guessing it’s not the same image that is cast by the biblical narrative.
More realistically, it is Charlton Heston with arms outstretched, a dark and ominous sky in the background, waves beginning to churn right before that beautiful display of special effects courtesy of 1950s Hollywood in the movie, The Ten Commandments.
For a younger audience, the recalled image may be that of a stoic and composed (and also very young), cartoon Moses, who calmly walks into the water unprompted by Yahweh in The Prince of Egypt. Once he wades out a few feet, Moses lifts his staff, remembers Yahweh saying, “With this staff, you shall do my wonders,” and then he dramatically strikes the water with it, which initiates the immediate splitting of the sea.
Both are different retellings that include different details. (And both, for what it’s worth, are really good scenes.)
Perhaps one of the two (or a conflation of both) serve to provide you with the dominant tradition of this integral biblical event.
In the Exodus account, however, Yahweh tells Moses “to lift his shepherd’s rod, stretch out his hand over the sea, and split it in two so that the Israelites can go into the sea on dry ground” (Exod 14:16). And then, as is often the case in the Hebrew Bible, the author/editor provides the outworking of this divine command a few verses later, “Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. Yahweh pushed the sea back by a strong east wind all night, turning the sea into dry land” (Exod 14:21).
Is the “east wind” throwing you?
Or the fact that it seems to have taken “all night” for dry land to appear or (in a different interpretation) for the Red Sea crossing to happen? That certainly doesn’t square with the hasty journey we’ve seen in the cinematic depictions of this event.
Maybe your knowledge of The Prince of Egypt is making what Moses does (or does not do) with his staff a bit odd? I mean, it’s not even mentioned in Exodus 14:21. He just stretches out his hand and the wind kicks up.
Whatever the case may be, I’m guessing that the biblical retelling confronts us with some new or forgotten details, and this is due, largely, to our inherited traditions of the story.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. It actually occurs throughout the history of interpretation.
For example, the bit about Moses’ staff.
As we have seen, in the Hebrew Bible’s version, Moses does not strike the sea with his staff.
In The Prince of Egypt, he does. And while I have no idea what ancient sources the writers used to compose the screenplay of this movie (google it), they are not alone in their interpretive decision.
For example, Josephus was an ancient Jewish historian in the first century CE, who set out to provide the Romans with a history of the Jewish people—one that made them look like worthy citizens. In this massive project known as Judean Antiquities, he retells (and really, “rewrites”) some of the Old Testament in order to give a full (and shining) picture of who the Israelites were. In his version of the Red Sea crossing, Moses lifts his staff and then he goes all Dreamworks on us.
This detail occurs in other writings in the Second Temple period as well.
To remind you, the Second Temple period is the time when the “second” Temple was standing in Jerusalem (from roughly 530 BCE to 70 CE). Within this period, there are some noticeable, shared interpretive practices and traditions (which are actually pretty important because they inform how the New Testament authors understood the Old Testament and how they wrote their texts—though we’ll save that for another day!). For now, we only need to note that there are other examples of writings from this period of time that recount Moses striking the sea. These include some stuff you probably haven’t heard of, like, The Exagoge of Ezekiel the Tragedian, Philo’s Life of Moses, and Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum (L.A.B. or in English, Book of Biblical Antiquities).
Apparently, when ancient interpreters told the story of Moses and the Red Sea, they often included this well-known, non-biblical tradition.
It’s odd, right? And it begs the question … why?
Some scholars argue that the origin of this reading may be rooted in a (perceived) biblical inconsistency, for lack of a better word, in Exodus itself.
Back up for a minute to the story of the first plague in Exodus 7—when the water of the Nile is turned into blood.
Yahweh tells Moses, “Tell Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt—over the streams and canals, over the ponds and all the reservoirs—and they will turn to blood.’ Blood will be everywhere in Egypt, even in vessels of wood and stone” (Exod 7:19).
So far, so good?
It’s another water event with similar instructions as we find in the Red Sea crossing: “Take you staff and stretch out your hand over the waters.” (Don’t worry about Aaron being the one who performs this sign. Moses has not emerged as the leader of Israel quite yet. Remember, he shirked God’s call to lead the people initially. His development is a process over the course of the plague narratives.)
You could see how people might link these episodes.
But when the instruction is acted out in Exodus 7, it adds an interesting detail.
“Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord had commanded. He raised his staff in the presence of Pharaoh and his officials and struck the water of the Nile, and all the water was changed into blood” (Exod 7:20).
You should know going in, ancient interpreters read the Bible closely. Like really closely.
So it seems as though the disparity between Exodus 7 (the command for Aaron to stretch out his hand/staff over the water and the added detail that he actually hits the water with his staff in the following verse) and Exodus 14 (the command for Moses to stretch out his hand/staff over the water and then him not hitting it) caused ancient interpreters to include the extra detail from Exodus 7 into their version of the story of Exodus 14.
Bada boom, bada bing.
The Prince of Egypt.
More to our point here … this is where we get the making of an inherited tradition (or as others would call it, an interpreted Bible).
Ok … that’s all really great. But who cares? (I ask this a lot…)
Well, in addition to pointing out the truly fascinating nature of ancient interpretive practices, I wanted to use this example to get you thinking about our own inherited traditions. We certainly have them. And they are sometimes more dominant for our understanding of the biblical text than we might like to admit (or than we might even realize).
I was talking to someone the other day about salvation (I think we were talking about atonement theories or something … you know, totally normal stuff), and I mentioned that Jesus never asks us to “invite him into our heart.” He looked at me with an astonished look. “Are you serious?” “Well, yeah.” “33 years. I never knew that. Huh.”
You could tell it was a little more loaded than, “Huh, that’s an interesting tidbit.” It was more like, “What else have I assumed?” or “What else have I heard my entire life?”
On the other side of the spectrum, inherited traditions can be helpful.
If you’ve ever visited TRP, you may have heard me rattle on about Jesus’ death and resurrection initiating new creation … and how we get to be a part of it. It’s a different tradition than most are used to, but I like to think it’s pretty biblical (it’s certainly not unique to me!). Many of us have grown up with something like, “Invite Jesus into your heart (see above), so that when you die, you can go to heaven.” That’s the goal. It may be effective in eliciting a response, but it’s a bit misinformed. For one thing, it limits the scope of what Jesus came to do. (It’s not just about you. It’s cosmic in scope.) And also, it posits our final hope as some sort of disembodied occupation of a celestial place somewhere out there. (There’s not much room for restoration in this view and not much of an emphasis on resurrection.)
We discuss this a lot. And then, a long-time attender started to get it.
She sent me a text a week or so ago that said, “Hey, I think I finally understand what you’ve been talking about. And it’s awesome.”
Let’s leave my ineffective preaching to the side for a moment, and consider the potential usefulness of our traditions. They aren’t all concerned with Bible trivia—how many wise men were there or did Moses strike the water with his staff. Neither do they all lead you astray. They can actually be quite formative.
So here’s my advice: let’s start to the biblical text closely like the ancients. Let’s ask good questions and follow them wherever they lead. Let’s not simply retreat to the things we’ve always heard, to what’s safe.
Instead, let’s allow the Bible to challenge us, to confront our closely held convictions, and, ultimately, lead us to a better understanding of who Jesus is and how we can follow him.
The Rev. Dr. Josh James is one of the pastors of The Restoration Project. For some reason, he found the tradition of Moses striking the sea interesting enough to write a paper on it in grad school. He’s tried to repurpose some of it here, hopefully to some benefit.