How Jesus (mis)used Exodus 3December 8, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
Now that the pressure of other demands has finally let up, I wanted to go back and have a look at cl’s reply, posted on his own blog, to my post on the topic of Jesus’ use of Exodus 3:6. I had pointed out that Jesus, in his attempt to find the resurrection mentioned in the Law of Moses, resorted to a text that, in fact, says nothing at all about any future resurrection of the dead. In no less than 3 separate posts, cl attempts to refute that point, and his approach is somewhat intriguing.
He begins, rather inauspiciously, with a very peculiar argument.
I believe that DD’s overlooked some fundamental points here. I’ll grant him a technicality: Exodus 3:6 does not literally contain the word “resurrection,” but then again, the fossil record doesn’t literally contain the words “evolution by natural selection,” either. So I opine that in both cases, we must rely on inferences from facts.
Did you catch that? Because we do not find literally “words” written in the fossil record, therefore it doesn’t matter that Exodus 3:6 fails to contain the words needed to express the idea that Jesus attributed to the passage. No, seriously!
It’s hard to tell why cl thought this would be some kind of valid reasoning. It’s not exactly an analogy (let alone a properly parallel analogy) because if we were looking for something in the fossil record that was analogous to the words in the written record, it would be the fossils. But cl doesn’t make an analogy based on what conclusions we would draw if certain fossils were missing from the fossil record, he seems to be arguing that there is some kind of applicable significance to the fact that certain words are “missing” from something that’s not even literature!
A better parallel would be for me to claim that the fossil record proved the existence of unicorns. The absence of unicorns from the fossil record, in that case, would be directly parallel to Exodus 3’s lack of any of the terms needed to refer to a future resurrection of the dead. Such a parallel, however, would only be more accurate, and would not do anything to advance cl’s case. We should not shrink from drawing inferences based on fact, of course, but the first step in drawing valid inferences is to correctly identify the relevant facts, and the words of a text are the relevant facts regarding its meaning.
The most cogent fact on which we ought to base our inferences about Jesus’ use of Exodus 3, therefore, is the absence of the terms needed to express the idea that Jesus said it expressed. And cl seems to agree that these terms are missing, though he fails to follow through with the obvious inference. If the text does not contain any of the terms needed to express the idea, then the idea is not being expressed by the text, and is necessarily being added by the mind of the reader (hence perhaps the desire to supply “inferences” in place of the missing text?).
Let’s move on to the core of cl’s rebuttal, which he lists in the form of a syllogism.
For some background context, at the time of Exodus 3:6, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had already met their physical deaths. Let’s state the undeniable premises and conclusion we end up with if we take the account at face value:
P1 God is not the God of the dead, but of the living;
P2 God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob;
P3 Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are dead;
C If God is to be their God, then Abraham, Isaac and Jacob must live again.
Curiously, he calls these “undeniable premises” even though, as given, each pair of the three premises denies the third. If God is not the God of the dead but of the living (P1) and God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (P2), then Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are living, which denies P3. If God is not the God of the dead (P1) and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are dead (P3), then God is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which contradicts P2. And of course, if God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (P2), and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are dead (P3), then that contradicts the claim in P1 that God is not the God of the dead.
What’s particularly fascinating about this argument is the fact that cl sincerely believes that you can reach a valid and even compelling conclusion by starting from these three mutually-contradictory premises. It never even occurs to him that Jesus is capable of presenting us with flawed logic—and therefore it’s not flawed! It must be correct, by definition, and therefore the question is not whether Jesus’ logic leads to a valid conclusion, but only what conclusion seems to make the most sense.
Unfortunately, not only are the premises mutually refuting, but cl’s preferred conclusion also fails, even when he tries to reinforce it.
Honestly, taking it at face value, I don’t see how the logic could be any more straightforward; I even broke it down to syllogism form in my first responses. Here’s a version amended for absolute clarity:
P1 God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; (I’ll grant that ‘is‘ as used in Exodus 3:6 may or may not denote a present relationship)
P2 God is not the God of the dead, but of the living; (Jesus’ emendation removes any possibility that ‘is‘ referred to a past relationship)
P3 Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are dead; (undeniable premise that was true at the time both Exodus 3:6 and Jesus’ emendation were spoken)
The problem is twofold: first, if we’re going to focus on the fact that the text uses the present tense “is” instead of the past tense “was” or the future tense “will be,” then cl’s argument becomes an argument against the possibility of a future resurrection. Exodus 3 does not say “I will be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” it says “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Nor does Jesus say “God will be the God of the living and not the dead,” he says “God is (etc.)”. To the extent that the present tense “is” eliminates the possibility of a past relationship, it eliminates the prospect of a future association as well. Even if we assume that Abraham & Co. will someday stop being dead, that does not change the fact that they are dead now, no matter what Jesus said about God not being the God of the dead in the present tense.
This is a moot point, though, because the intransitive verb “is” refers to the nature of the identity of God, not to any past, present, or future relationship between God and anyone else. The statement in Exodus 3 is “I am the God.” The same is true of Jesus’ declaration, “God is the God.” Which God? The text identifies which God by specifying a relationship with known personalities of the past, but the word which links God to those personalities is the word “of,” not the word “is.” Which God? “The God of Abraham, and of Isaac and of Jacob.” “The God, not of the dead but of the living.”
This is why the text Jesus used to “prove” the resurrection is actually no such thing. He claimed to be citing a passage about a future resurrection, but what he quoted was merely a story of a God identifying His present-tense identity (“yep, that’s who I am all right”) relative to a trio of personalities whose known association with Him was in the past, even though the language used contains absolutely nothing, linguistically, grammatically, or historically, to tie that relationship to any particular point in the past, present or future.
I think cl is trying to make the case that his conclusion must be true because if it’s not true, then the argument becomes absurd. Unfortunately, Christians are doomed to reach absurd conclusions no matter what they conclude here, since they’re starting from premises that already contradict one another. And there’s no way to remove the contradiction unless we agree that the Bible itself, if not Jesus as well, is wrong. Since that’s not an option for believers, they have no way out.
It’s a textbook case study in how faith can interfere with someone’s thinking. Jesus’ argument is clearly irretrievably flawed, not only because the premises contradict themselves, but because trying to fix it only makes it worse. If you try and solve the dilemma by insisting that Abraham & Co. are not dead, for instance, then you’ve only dug yourself in deeper, because you can’t be resurrected if you’re not dead, and that blows Jesus’ whole point. Yet believers cannot acknowledge, even to themselves, that their Lord and Savior could have goofed so badly, and so their only alternative is to hobble their own minds to the point that they believe in contradictory premises leading to valid and even undeniable conclusions.
Terrible waste of a perfectly good intellect if you ask me.