Week 4, Exodus 1—2–“Moses”: Pharaoh and Ethnic Cleansing


Monday, March 20

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them” (Exodus 1:8-14).

It is important for us to call this what it is. Pharaoh’s fears, and the Egyptians’ dread, were not in any way realistic. There was no indication that the Israelites had any intention to side with Egypt’s enemies in a conflict. The Israelites posed no threat: indeed, Joseph—an Israelite!—had recently been Egypt’s savior (see Genesis 41). But this Pharaoh has no memory: he “did not know Joseph.” His cruelty and oppression toward an ethnic minority in his kingdom responds to an imaginary crisis: this is racism, pure and simple.

As I write this devotional, Dylann Roof has just been found guilty of murder in the shooting deaths of nine people [pictured above] attending a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. In his statement taken following this horrific crime, Mr. Roof said that he had to do this, in retaliation for black-on-white crime: another imaginary crisis, based on fake news from the internet rather than actual crime statistics.  Sadly, the escalation of hate crimes following our recent election—the Southern Poverty Law Center counted 1,094 reports of harassment and intimidation between November 9 and December 12, “more than the group would usually see over a six-month period”—demonstrates that many others who “feel threatened” by African-Americans, by Latinos and Latinas, by Arabs and Muslims, now feel empowered to express these feelings openly by their words and actions. We must have the courage to call this too what it is: racism pure and simple. We must oppose it wherever we encounter it, and let ethnic and religious minorities know that the church is with them.

Prayer: O God, forgive us for the times when, for the sake of our own security or convenience, we let lies about our sisters and brothers stand without refutation. Give us the courage to bear witness to the truth—to your truth—in whatever place we find ourselves. This we pray in the name of Jesus, who told us that the truth would make us free (John 8:32), Amen.



Third Sunday of Lent

Sunday, March 19

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.  Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.  He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”  The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”  But he was speaking of the temple of his body.  After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken (John 2:13-22).


Week 3, Genesis 11:1-9 “The Tower of Babel”: Learning the Wrong Lesson—Diversity, not Apartheid

Saturday, March 18

“Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:7).

Jacqueline Lapsley recalls being with Theodore Hiebert at a conference of Reformed theologians and Bible scholars in South Africa. There, he advanced the reading of the tower of Babel story we have advocated in this week’s devotional readings: that this story demonstrates God’s love of cultural diversity. But when they heard this, South African scholars present were horrified! It seems that this very text, and a reading very like Hiebert’s, had been “one of the central biblical foundations for apartheid. On the pro-apartheid reading, Gen 11 teaches that God does not want different cultural and linguistic groups to live together” (Jacqueline Lapsley, “‘Am I Able to Say Just Anything?’: Learning Faithful Exegesis from Balaam,” Interpretation 60 [2006]: 23).

Does this invalidate Hiebert’s reading of this passage? I don’t believe it does—although it certainly points up a problem with how we do biblical interpretation (also called “exegesis,” from Greek words meaning “draw out”)! Lapsley warns against readings of Scripture that “serve our own selfish interests,” or that fail to consider “God’s larger story.” In the end, she proposes, “Exegesis requires certain learned skills—how to attend to the historical, social, and literary facets of the text—but it also requires a disciplined imagination and something even more important—faith that God’s word has power to speak to and for us, and especially faith that it speaks to and for those who are far removed from the prosperity we enjoy” (Lapsley, “Learning Faithful Exegesis,” 30). Reading Scripture prayerfully, guided by God’s Spirit, with disciplined imaginations, we can make wise choices about how to apply the Bible to our own contexts. When we do this, we can readily see that affirming the God-given goodness of our differences leads, not to apartheid, but to learning to live together in love.

Prayer: God, when our reading of the Bible prompts us to turn inward rather than outward; to close doors rather than to open them; to shut ourselves off from others rather than opening ourselves up to them; give us the courage to say “no” to that reading, and the wisdom to look again, carefully and prayerfully. Through Christ Jesus—“the Word made flesh” (John 1:14), Amen.


Week 3, Genesis 11:1-9 “The Tower of Babel”: The Lessons of Babel—Unity in Diversity

Friday, March 17

Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power’” (Acts 2:7-11).

Another text based on the tower of Babel story is the account of Pentecost in Acts 2. Jesus’ followers were waiting together in Jerusalem as he had commanded them, praying in an upper room, when “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2:4). Boiling out of that room and into the streets, they met Jewish pilgrims from all over the Roman world, who had come to Jerusalem for Pentecost. These visitors discovered, to their astonishment, that they could understand Jesus’ Galilean followers perfectly: “‘in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power’” (Acts 2:11). Please notice that this passage does not say that the people all started speaking the same language—that their cultural and ethnic distinctiveness was denied or undone. The Spirit does not return them to “one language and the same words” (Gen 11:1). Instead, each group hears God’s praise in its own language.

In Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” she relates her first encounter with her first college roommate, in America: “She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my ‘tribal music,’ and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. . . . My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.”

We should not be surprised that the members of the Pentecost crowd all hear the Gospel in their own languages. The entire Bible models for us how to escape the danger of the single story.  Scripture rarely gives us a single story about anything!  At the beginning of our Bible, we find two different accounts of the creation of the world (the account we pursued last week, in Genesis 1:1—2:4a, and another in Genesis 2:4b-25).   Our New Testament opens with four gospels, presenting four quite different accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Scripture itself calls for us to listen with open ears and open hearts for the truth told, not as a single story, but as a chorus of voices.  Sometimes those voices are in harmony, sometimes they are in dissonance, but always they are lifted in praise to the God who remembers all our stories, the comedies and tragedies alike, and catches them up together in love, forgiveness, and grace.

Prayer: O God, you are bigger than all our imaginings. Your glory explodes every box in which we try to confine it. May we never be satisfied with a single story, but be ever eager to see you through the eyes of others, and hear your praise in their stories. In Jesus’ name, Amen.


The Bible Guy wishes sásta Lá Fhéile Pádraig (that’s Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!) to all you foine Irish lads and lasses–whether actual or honorary!


Week 3, Genesis 11:1-9 “The Tower of Babel”: The Lessons of Babel—Saved Together

Thursday, March 16

“At that time I will change the speech of the peoples
to a pure speech,
that all of them may call on the name of the LORD
and serve him with one accord.
From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia
my suppliants, my scattered ones,
shall bring my offering.
(Zephaniah 3:9-10).

Today, we are reading a passage from the book of Zephaniah that is based on the tower of Babel story. The connection may not be clear at first—after all, Zephaniah never mentions Babel. But the connection between the texts is apparent in Hebrew—expressed, appropriately enough, through word play!

Although this prophetic word deals with the restoration of Judah after the Babylonian exile, God’s promised restoration begins with the nations, not with Judah: “Then I will change the speech of the peoples into pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the LORD and serve him with one accord (Zeph 3:9). While in Zephaniah, the nations are given “a pure speech” (saphah berurtah), in Genesis God confuses their speech (again, saphah; see Gen 11:7), so that humanity, which had been united by “one language and the same words” (Gen 11:1), became scattered. Just as, through the confusion (Hebrew balal; Gen 11:7) of their speech the nations had been scattered (Hebrew puts; Gen 11:8), so through the purification (Hebrew barar; Zeph 3:9) of the nations’ speech God returns the exiles—those God calls “my scattered ones” (Hebrew bath-putsay; Zeph 3:10)—to their home. Israel’s peace is gained, not through the conquest or destruction of the nations, but through their purification and union in service to God.

Sadly, ethnocentrism—the belief that people like me are better than other people—is alive and well in modern America.  Political scientists Marc Hetherington and Drew Engelhardt of Vanderbilt University asked whites how favorable to unfavorable they found blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, gays and lesbians, and transgender people, as compared to themselves.  Overall, 23% of all white respondents rated these groups favorably, while 57% rated them unfavorably. May this Lent be a time for our own confession of and repentance from the sin of ethnocentrism.  After all, if Zephaniah is right, our own healing can only come with the healing of the nations.

Prayer: O God, when we forget remind us that we need one another. In your will and wisdom, we are not saved separately, but together. Through Jesus our Christ, who said “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5), Amen.




Week 3—Genesis 11:1-9 “The Tower of Babel”: God Wills Diversity

Wednesday, March 15

So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:8-9).

The people of Babel wanted to stay all together, and all the same. But God willed differently. The Babel story itself gives no indication of whether or not the people realized that their desires ran counter to God’s. But the old priestly traditions in Genesis state this plainly. The priestly accounts of creation and flood alike declare that humanity was to “fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28; 9:1). As the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 concretely describes, this meant not only being geographically scattered, but ethnically and culturally diverse.

By staying together and squelching difference, the people of Babel—whether knowingly or not—were standing in the way of the diversity of expression that is God’s intent for human beings. So too our own attempts to impose homogeneity on our communities run counter to God’s will. Racial and cultural diversity is not a problem to be overcome. It is a gift of God, to be celebrated and embraced.

Prayer: Forgive us, O God, when in our longing for comfort and familiarity we stand in the way of your plan and purpose for us. Teach us to reach outside our safe enclaves and welcome all your children as our sisters and brothers. In the name of Jesus, whose reign embraces all, Amen.


Week 3, Genesis 11:1-9 “The Tower of Babel”: Our Own Kind

Tuesday, March 14 

“Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4).

In 1956, Rev. W. A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas—at that time the largest Baptist church in the world—was invited to address the General Assembly of the South Carolina legislature on the subject of racial segregation. In his cringingly self-revealing remarks, Criswell condemned “scantling good-for-nothing fellows who are trying to upset all the things that we love as good old Southern people and good old Southern Baptists. . . . Don’t force me by law, by statute, by Supreme Court decision. . . to cross over in those intimate things where I don’t want to go. . . Let me have my church. Let me have my school. Let me have my friends” (Cited in Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America [New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016], 167).

Rev. Criswell could just as well have spoken for the First Church of Babel. The denizens of that place built their city and their tower to ensure that they would stay together homogeneously: “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). We sometimes refer to the confusion of the world’s languages and the scattering of humanity as the “curse of Babel”—but being “scattered abroad” was exactly what God intended for humanity! The real curse of Babel is staying where we are comfortable and unchallenged, in “my church,” “my school,” with “my friends.” Babel itself, in its safe, comfortable, stultifying sameness, is the curse.

Prayer: O God who comforts the troubled, we pray that you might also trouble the comfortable. Push us out into our growing edges. Show us the blessing brought to our communities by those who are not like us. This we pray in the name of Jesus, who reminds us still, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold” (John 10:16), Amen.



Week 3, Genesis 11:1-9 “The Tower of Babel”: Unchecked Ambition?

Monday, March 13

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.  And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them’” (Genesis 11:5-6).

Traditional readings of the Tower of Babel story see it as a warning against unchecked ambition. The sin of Babel is the tower, with which they sought to reach the heavens on their own. It is to halt this prideful ambition that God curses them by confusing their languages, stopping the construction and forcing them to divide into language groups and scatter. But as Theodore Hiebert has observed, that traditional reading misses the reason the text itself gives for their building: not so as to reach the heavens, but because “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4; Theodore Hiebert, “The Tower of Babel and the Origin of the World’s Cultures,” Journal of Biblical Literature 126 [2007]: 29-58). Sure enough, when God decides to act, God says nothing about the tower, or pride—or indeed, about punishment. God acts because the people are about to succeed in their goal of remaining “one people” with “one language,” so that “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” Having circumvented God’s will in this, what else might they do?

This is neither a story condemning the sin of unchecked ambition, nor an account of divine punishment for that sin.   It is about God stepping in to ensure difference and diversity, just as humans are about to succeed in enforcing sameness. Why does God do this? Perhaps because, as Argentinian Methodist theologian José Míguez Bonino wrote, “God’s intention is a diverse humanity that can find its unity not in the domination of one city, one tower, or one language but in the ‘blessing for all the families of the earth’ (Genesis 12:3)” (José Míguez Bonino, “Genesis 11:1-9: A Latin American Perspective,” in Return to Babel: Global Perspectives on the Bible, ed. Priscilla Pope-Levison and John R. Levison [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1999], 15-16). As we saw in the account of creation in Genesis 1:1—2:4a, God loves diversity.

Prayer: God of rainbows, sometimes we talk about being “color-blind,” as though color itself was the problem. We talk about being “post-racial,” as though race itself was the problem. By your Spirit empower us to see as you see, and to love our world as you do, in all its hues and cultures and languages. This is our prayer, in Jesus’ name, Amen.





Second Sunday of Lent

Sunday, March 12:

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.  But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” (Matthew 17:1-9).


Week 2, Genesis 1:1—2:4a “Created in God’s Image”: In God’s Image—No “Kinds” of People

Saturday, March 11

No text is given for today’s devotional, because today we reflect, not on what Genesis 1:1—2:4a says, but on something that it doesn’t say! Until the creation of human being, all living things in this account come in “kinds.” On Day Three, when God invites the earth to “put forth vegetation” (Genesis 1:11), the earth produces “plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it” (Genesis 1:12).  Similarly, on Day Five, God creates “every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind” (Gen 1:21). On Day Six, God again invites the earth, “bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind” (Gen 1:24).

When we arrive at the creation of humanity at the end of Day Six, however, nothing is said of there being any “kinds” of people (see Phyllis A. Bird, “ ‘Male and Female He Created Them’: Gen 1:27b in the Context of the Priestly Account of Creation,” Harvard Theological Review 74 [1981]: 146). This is certainly not because the ancient Israelites were ignorant of other races and cultures: Palestine was a crossroads of ancient civilizations. The Israelites were fully aware of Africans and Asians, people of varying ethnicities, speaking a host of languages, coming from a variety of cultures.  Yet Israel does not distinguish among these races and nations, as though some are more human than others.  Certainly, this text does not identify the Israelites as human, and their neighbors as something less. Instead, as George Kelsey (African American theologian and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr.) understood, there is just ‘adam: one single human family (George D. Kelsey, Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man [New York: Scribner, 1965]).

This is a remarkable confession, rejecting every form of racism and jingoistic nationalism. Again, as Scripture sadly but faithfully bears witness, Israel was not always faithful to this insight. But as we will see throughout these Lenten reflections, it is an insight that recurs again and again—and one that the church in our day must reclaim.

Prayer: Holy God, Genesis identifies no “kinds” of people, but we have been swift to make up that lack, hastening to identify all sorts of folk as outsiders, strangers, aliens, who are not welcome in our communities. Help us to see and repent of this sin, Abba. Teach us to love whom you love, as you love, for this is our prayer in the name of your son Jesus, who “came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:11), Amen.

AFTERWORD: In his theology and ethics, George D. Kelsey “pointed to the Genesis creation narrative and its assertion of a singular and common ancestry of all humanity” (Torin Alexander, “World/Creation in African American Theology,” in The Oxford Handbook of African American Theology, ed. Katie G. Cannon and Anthony B. Pinn [New York: Oxford University, 2014], 186.)