Exodus and Theodicy

One of the great scenes in the OT occurs in the beginning of Exodus (3:11-14), where God confronts Moses by a burning bush.  After some discussion between the two figures, God refuses to provide Moses with a name for himself, saying merely “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh” when Moses inquires of God that he reveal his identity.

This enigmatic phrase has often been translated as ”I AM,” and it’s been seen as a motto of self-sufficiency, awesome power, and comfort (or at least a generally positive interpretation of God’s presence).  Consider the poster which seems to exalt “I AM” above all other names for God, or the now-defunct Reebok advertising campaign, featuring Allen Iverson, my favorite basketball player, as the other Great I AM.

The “I AM” phrase is one of the great moments of ambuguity in the Torah and one of the first times when a human being directly asks God to reveal his nature.  What are the different meanings implied by God’s response to Moses (“Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh”) in Exodus? 

How does this moment anticipate the nature of God’s relationship to Moses in the remainder of the Exodus narrative?  Does this statement give us a window into the quality and character of God in the Old Testament, and if so, what does the view from that window look like?Note:  If you’re thinking about the themes in this section of Exodus, you may want to listen to an interview with the literary critic Harold Bloom, who deals with this question in his book, Jesus and Yahweh:  The Names Divine.

There are other things to keep in mind as we read this week.  Every time I read Exodus, I’m interested in thinking about how this ur-text has been appropriated, applied, and imagined in so many different cultural contexts.  Exodus been a subtext and a source text that’s informed the abolitionist movement, the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, and even U.S. Cold War ideology.  Think of Cecil. B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. Or Leon Ubris’s Exodus, a novel about the founding of Israel that became an international bestseller in the 1960s.

I think there’s a lot to gain when we think about these varied cultural applications.  What elements of Exodus ring true to the human experience?  What aspects of the Exodus story make it so mutable and so applicable to a variety of socio-political contexts? Where else have we seen the Exodus story being applied in our culture? Feel free to send links or other ideas in the comments section here.

Finally, we’re going to take a look at Exodus through the lens of Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, our longest piece of literary criticism in the semester.  Note that I refer to Moses and Monotheism as literary criticism because I think it’s best to read Freud as a literary critic rather than a psychologist (which is how many people situate him).  Freud’s essay is famous because he argues, joining a long Moses-Egypt discourse, that Moses was not a Jew but rather an Egyptian.  If you’re interested in the background context of this discourse, you might want to consider reading Jan Assman’s Moses the Egyptian.

What is the significance of Freud’s claim that Moses was an Egyptian (and of the related claims in p. 1-65 of Moses and Monotheism)?

How does Freud interpret the biblical text, and where does he get the evidence to make his claims?

After having ascertained Freud’s claims, has your reading and interpretation of Exodus changed? If so, how, or if not, why not? Refer to examples from the text.

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About Andrew Battista

Andrew Battista is Librarian for Geospatial Information Systems at New York University
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