Showing posts with label Literary Structure. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Literary Structure. Show all posts

Friday, April 6, 2018

Matthew 23-25: The Olivet Discourse (part 2 of 5)

Continuing where I left of in part one of this brief series on Matthew 23-25, we arrive at the central pivot point of the Olivet Discourse, sections C and C'. 

C) Jesus asks his disciples a question about the temple, and then promises its desolation (24:1—2) 
Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”  

C’) The disciples ask Jesus three questions about the temple and its desolation (24:3) 
As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?”

Notice that section "C" is extremely obvious about what is meant. Herod's temple in Jerusalem, which Jesus and his disciples had just walked out of, is pointed out by Jesus' disciples. Jesus then points back at the temple stones and declares that it will all be "thrown down", i.e. left desolate.

However, immediately thereafter--literally the very next verse composed within this discourse--we are told that as Jesus sat down on the Mount of Olives, across from and in plain sight of the temple they had just left, his disciples came to him privately, asking three questions. These three questions are asked within the close context of leaving Herod's temple, pointing to Herod's temple, discussing Herod's temple along with every one of its stones "thrown down", and sitting on a hill while viewing that same temple. The literary layout of those three questions in that scene is actually quite simple:

The disciples then ask,
 “Tell us… 
1) …when will these things be
2) and what will be the sign of your coming 
3) and [what will be the sign] of the end of the age?”

Here is where things get interesting. Throughout Church history, almost all of the Catholic and Orthodox "Fathers" who said anything about these three questions and Jesus' response to them interpreted these questions as being answered sequentially and linearly (in the following verses thereafter)

Accordingly, they interpreted Jesus' first answer as a response to the first question, teaching clearly that it pertained to the Jewish wars of 66-70 A.D. and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Next, they interpreted the second question as pertaining to the miraculous sign of Christ returning to earth visibly prior to the end of the physical, fallen world. (There actually was a small handful of Fathers who connected Christ’s “coming” here, in the second question, with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., but for the purposes of this post, it isn't necessary to get sidetracked by that minority opinion.) Lastly, the Fathers interpreted Jesus' third series of answers as a response to the third question, arguing vividly that such pertained to the end of the fallen, but yet material world we live in.  As a result, all of the Fathers connected the second and third questions, and Jesus' responses to those questions, with their (and our) future. (This pattern is very important to memorize for now. You will understand its importance by the end of this post.)

Do you understand the significance of this pattern? I will say it one more time so it sticks...

Three questions are asked within the close context of leaving Herod's temple, pointing to Herod's temple, discussing Herod's temple along with every one of its stones being "thrown down", and sitting on a hill while viewing that same temple. Yet the overwhelming majority of Church Fathers interpreted question number one as being answered first by Jesus, followed by question number two being answered second in the sequence offered by Jesus (as laid out by Matthew), and question number three being answered last. 

And not only that, the majority of Church Fathers recognized that the first question that Jesus answered was addressing the Jewish wars of 66-70 A.D. and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.!

Let that sink in....

Not only did the Church Fathers believe Jesus answered all three questions sequentially and linearly (e.g. Question 1 is followed by Question 2, then Question 3, followed by an Answer to #1, then an Answer to #2, and finally the answer to #3), but the majority of them over many centuries also interpreted the second and third questions (and Jesus' answers), as referring to something entirely different than the first question and Jesus' answer to it. They transition from a discussion about Jerusalem and its temple in the first question to the end of the physical, fallen cosmos in the second and third questions.

This isn't much different from what we hear (or believe) in churches around the world today, right?

Here is what I have to say to that: There are at least three significant problems with that interpretation, and the final (third) reason I will list below strikes a death blow to it. 

The first significant problem is that every other reference within Matthew’s Gospel corresponding to the “sign” of Christ’s “coming” in judgment or the “end of the age” are explicitly stated in terms of events occurring within the first century.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? (Matthew 3:7, the prophet John speaking to the Scribes and Pharisees) 
When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. (Matthew 10:23, Jesus speaking to his disciples)
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the end of this age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13:47, Jesus speaking to his disciples; c.f. Galatians 1:4, which shares the same construction of "this age" in Greek)
For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. (Matt 16:27, Jesus speaking to his disciples)

Everything within the broad context of Matthew's Gospel suggests one cataclysmic event culminating within the first century, upon that generation, at the end of that old covenant age in which Israel's temple was central. In the close context of the Olivet discourse, Jesus clearly has one cataclysmic event in mind as well (i.e. “there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down”). Therefore it is presumptuous to insist that this would prompt the apostles to ask three questions, but with only one of the three questions being related to the events that Jesus and his disciples have both clearly illustratedMoreover, if Jesus (or Matthew) is suddenly introducing the same terminology as utilized elsewhere in this Gospel, but with entirely different time references and meanings as everywhere else in the same letter, I think it's safe to say that this would make both the second and third questions and Jesus’ answers to them inexplicable, inconsistent, and confusing within the context of Matthew’s letter. 

Think about this: If Jesus (or Matthew, the composer of this Discourse) has not yet—even once—mentioned the promised end of this sinful world thousands (or tens of thousands) of years later, or even the final “coming” of Jesus to end this sinful world thousands (or tens of thousands) of years later, then there is no apparent reason to start introducing that topic within a series of three questions that seem--at least within the close context--to be concerned with the desolation of Israel's temple. The disciples ask "when will these things be", and there are no internal indicators that the two questions following immediately thereafter are about something other than those very same things.

The second significant problem is that the disciples ask about the end of the "age," not the end of the "globe" or the "earth" or the "world" or "physical cosmos." There are distinctive greek words for those concepts, and Matthew does not record Jesus using them. The greek word that Matthew records is aion. The essence of aion indicates time, not space or matter. That is why the cognate Latin terms are aeuum or aevum, which both mean “age”, and are present in such words as “longevity” (meaning “long-age”) and “mediaeval” (meaning “middle-age”). From Greek to English, the phrase “unto aions of aions” is translated as “for eternity” because the essence of aion denotes time. There are no internal indicators within the discourse that conjure up an idea about the end of the globe, the earth, the world, or the physical cosmos. That is because the Greek word used denotes age. Matthew records Jesus teaching about the end of the old covenant age in which they lived, in that generation of the temple's desolation.

The third significant problem (and death blow to it all) is that Jesus does not answer question number one first. Jesus answers question number three first, and question number one last.

Take a few extra moments to let that sink in....

I just dragged you (the reader) through an extensive display of what the overwhelming majority of Church Fathers taught. They taught that Jesus was answering the first question firstThey taught that Jesus was answering the second question second, and the third question third as well. They taught that Jesus answered all three questions sequentially and linearly. (Hopefully you now recall my suggestion above to memorize that!) It turns out, in fact, that such presumptions on their part were patently falseJesus answers the third question first, and the first question third. Let's see how this is so. Remember, the sequence of questions was this:

The disciples then ask,
 “Tell us… 
1) …when will these things be
2) and what will be the sign of your coming 
3) and [what will be the sign] of the end of the age?”

Now, if we glance back at the last post in this series we can see that in section B' Jesus answers all three questions in eight distinctive subsections (thus mirroring section B, which also is composed of eight distinctive subsections). The exact sequence in which Jesus answers those three questions is the inverse of what the Church Fathers presumed, and is illustrated below, beginning with Jesus answering the third question and working back to answering the first question last:

Answer to Question #3, part one:  the signs preceding "the end" of the age (24:4—14) 
Answer to Question #3, part two:  the sign of "the end" of the age (24:15—22)

Answer to Question #2, part one:  the signs preceding Christ’s coming (24:23—29)
Answer to Question #2, part two:  the sign of Christ’s coming (24:30—35) 

Answer to Question #1, part one:  when these things will be--> "Watch therefore" / "No one knows the Day or Hour" (24:36—44) 
   Answer to Question #1, part two:  when these things will be--> "Master" & "Servant" / "Wailing & Gnashing of Teeth" (24:45–51)

Answer to Question #1, part one (prime):  when these things will be--> "Watch therefore" / "No one knows the Day or Hour" (25:1—13)
   Answer to Question #1, part two (prime):  when these things will be--> "Master" & "Servant" / "Wailing & Gnashing of Teeth" (25:14—30)

Go ahead and study those verses yourself. Study the language recorded by Matthew. Notice the parallels. If you can study the Greek text, even better. It is glaringly obvious that such is exactly the sequence in which Jesus responded to the three questions of his disciples. Jesus answered the third question first, and the first question third. But why does this matter, you (the reader) might ask? It matters because it is overwhelmingly demonstrable that the majority of Church Fathers who referred to the Olivet Discourse were crystal clear about interpreting Jesus' initial response in 24:4--22 as referring to the Jewish wars and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

But they assumed that Jesus was answering the first question first. Jesus was actually answering the third question first---the question, "what will be the sign of the end of the age?"---which they all mistakenly assumed was a question about the end of the physical world as we experience it today!

Let that sink in....

In the next post I will show verse by verse, section by section, how crystal clear the language and structure of Jesus' answers really are.  

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Matthew 23-25: The Olivet Discourse (Part 1 of 5)

In many posts written over the past five years I have consistently shown how the broad, "macro" literary structure of Matthew's Gospel (here, here, and here) illumines and weaves together the seemingly disjointed narrative composition of individual pericopes within the book. And as can be seen elsewhere in numerous places of this blog, I have walked readers through over half of the Gospel's "micro" structures as well. In the following series of posts I am going to work through one of the two most controversial micro structures of the whole Gospel: the so-called "Olivet Discourse."

There are a few hundred differing theories among Christians and non-Christians alike about how to interpret the Olivet Discourse. So then, right from the outset I'm going to simply say that my conclusions will not be unique among them all, but my literary approach to the discourse will be a minority position among them all. I also promise that understanding the Olivet Discourse is very, very simple; so simple in fact that apart from tribalistic preconceptions which leave us feeling uncomfortable as "outsiders" when veering into unfamiliar territory labeled as "off limits" by other members in our tribe, what I'm going to present should convince you. I don't pretend that the evidence for understanding the Olivet discourse is ambiguous at all. I think it's message is consistent and crystal clear. Only the "off limits" warnings posted by surrounding tribalists can (and do) scare interested students of the Scriptures into cognitive dissonance. If you care about Matthew's Gospel as literature with any literary or historical integrity (as myself and most Christians do), you should find this series interesting and challenging. If you have dabbled in studies about "eschatology," or even the absurdities surrounding so-called "end times prophecy" for today (which I consider to be complete lunacy, by the way), you should find this series interesting and challenging. But if you're an armchair theologian or confessional calvinist who spends his (or her) free time trolling social media to find the next heretic to post signs around, please don't bother reading further.

For those still interested, let's begin. 

The Olivet Discourse is entirely about the Jewish wars leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem, and the actual destruction of Jerusalem, followed by the "great" or so-called "last judgment" thereafter. The literary structure of this discourse is as follows:

A)  Those seated in Moses’ seat: not doing what they do 

     B)  Jesus denounces those seated in Moses’ seat / 8 sections 
           (23:13, *14, 15–39)                                                                                         
            C) Jesus asks his disciples a question about the temple, and then promises its 
               desolation (24:1—2)

             C’) The disciples ask Jesus three questions about the temple and its desolation 
      B’) Jesus answers all three questions about the temple and its desolation / 8 sections   

A’)  The Son of Man seated on his own throne: doing what they did not do 

There are a few things worth noting and discussing at this point before we dive into the really controversial (and incontrovertible) passages. First of all, notice that sections "A" and "A' " are relatively short, covering less than 16 verses for each section. Compositionally, then, each matching structure is of comparable size. As I will be arguing in a later post (in this series), there is also an explicit theme between them, the theme of "sitting" on a throne in God's temple. The enthroned Jesus sitting within the heavenly temple of section A-prime is closely connected with Jesus' opening warnings about the Scribes and Pharisees who "sit on Moses' seat" within Herod's temple. 

Secondarily, notice that sections "B" and "B' " each contain eight subsections, and that I have inserted an asterisk ("*") next to verse 14. That asterisk is there to catch your attention. I insert it there because many modern translations of the Bible remove verse 14 on the alleged grounds that (1) it is an interpolation derived from Mark 12:40 or Luke 20:47, (2) a handful of very old (and poorly preserved!) manuscripts omit the verse altogether, and (3) a pathetic minority of manuscripts include verse 14 but insert it before and after verse 13, thereby leaving its authenticity in doubt because of its so-called spurious placement within the narrative. 

I don't buy that. I think the verse is genuine. I can easily defend the textual credibility of the verse in question, as I have done with other, much more controversial and complicated verses. But now is not the time for sorting through textual criticism. It is sufficient to notice that I include the verse as legitimate on textual and literarily critical grounds. As such, I believe section "B" (23:13-39) completes a rhythm of eight "woes" total, which can be divided into two halves, with the first three "woes" of each half followed immediately by a much longer and detailed fourth "woe" that explicitly links the Scribes and Pharisees with those who mock the God who sits enthroned in His temple and those who persecute and murder God's servants. The breakdown of these eight subsections are as follows:
1)  But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.

2) *[Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour the houses of widows and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you shall receive the greater damnation.]*

3)  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

4)  Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it. 

5)  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! 

6)  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

7)  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

8)  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the land, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. O Jerusalem! Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate! For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'

Most importantly, however, is the way the eighth woe ends (in verses 36-38): "Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. O Jerusalem! Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate!"

Virtually every scholar in history has readily acknowledged that the phrase "this generation" of verse 36 meant that particular generation in which Jesus and his disciples were living, which was the generation that lived to see or hear about the Jewish wars and the destruction of Jerusalem with Israel's Temple in it (i.e. their "house" left desolate). In fact, I'm not aware of any commentator of the Olivet Discourse (and I have personally read over two hundred commentaries and/or scholarly essays on the Olivet Discourse) who said the phrase "this generation" in verse 36 meant anything other than that generation in which the Jewish wars and the destruction of Jerusalem ensued. This is very important to note down and remember because the next time that same phrase appears within this discourse it appears in it's corresponding section, section B'. In chapter 24, verse 34 (of section B') we see Jesus repeating himself: 
"Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until these things take place."

The placement of that particular phrase in 23:36 and 24:34 was not an accident or coincidence. It was intentional on Matthew's part for the compositional strategy of this discourse. The repeated phrase connects the eight "woes" against the Scribes and Pharisees with the eight subsections that comprise Jesus' answers to his disciples questions in section B' (24:4-25:30). When Jesus is recorded saying "this generation" in 23:36, that clearly meant that generation living to see or hear about the Jewish wars and the destruction of Jerusalem with Israel's Temple in it (i.e. their "house" left desolate). Likewise, when Jesus is recorded saying "this generation" in 24:34, that also clearly meant that generation living to see or hear about the Jewish wars and the destruction of Jerusalem with Israel's Temple in it (i.e. their "house" left desolate). 

I realize there are myriads of clever ways to interpret 24:34 as meaning something other than an explicit first century Jewish context. But they're all pathetic and silly. Yes, I said pathetic and silly. All such attempts to dodge or deflect attention away from this crystal clear meaning is miserably inadequate in it's ability to uphold the literary and historical integrity of Matthew's Gospel.

Enough invectives. Time to move on.

Next we approach sections C and C', which will be covered in the following series of posts. In future posts I will also walk us through all eight controversial subsections of B' (24:4-25:30), along with what many Church fathers have said about those sections (a sample of which can be found here), which will act as a guide to understanding the simplicity of the Olivet Discourse, but in a way that I suspect will be alarming and challenging to many Christian tribes. 

And finally, at the very end of this series I will walk us through sections A and A' in more detail, because at that point it should be very clear how they form an inclusio around the discourse, which unifies the entire discourse, not veering off topic in the slightest. 

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Killing Pharaoh's Firstborn Son

   During a recent atheist podcast on which I was a guest, a question was asked about whether I believed the Passover story of Exodus 12 was true or not, whether the Hebrew people smeared blood all over their doors while an angel of the Lord passed over all of Egypt killing every Egyptian firstborn child. In that episode I affirmed that there is definitely historical truth to the narrative, yet I denied how the atheist host portrayed it, and I also denied knowing exactly how or in what precise ways that historical Exodus "really happened." After years of study I now find it difficult to accept mainstream interpretations of popular Biblical narratives, especially the ones taught in Sunday school. I much rather prefer to interpret each letter within the Bible as it's own piece of literature within a wide stream of living tradition. Where there is clear scribal redaction, I take it seriously. Where there is a theoretically oral form behind divergent texts, I take that into consideration too. I now think there are many ways to interpret a textual tradition, and I certainly have my own preferences. In this post I'm going to comment on the methods and details which I have found persuasive for interpreting the Passover narrative.
At the time of the podcast episode I pointed out that what seems (at least to me) to be the most obvious point of the narrative is, specifically, the death of the Pharaoh’s “firstborn” son (4:22-23; c.f. 11:5;12:29) in contrast with YHWH's "firstborn," Israel (4:22-23).  I do believe that the Pharaoh's firstborn died. I don't claim to understand exactly how, or by what means exactly, but I do believe that the death of Pharaoh's firstborn son is true, and that it spurred the legendary exodus of Israel from their settlement in Egypt.
   I am emphasizing the death of Pharaoh’s “firstborn” son right away in order to highlight what I believe the most important detail of the exodus narrative. For not only is Pharaoh's "firstborn son" explicitly described as the one to whom the initial purpose statement by YHWH was directed (c.f. 4:22-23; thereby confirming at the outset the most basic goal of the stated judgment within the Exodus narrative1), but that same "firstborn" is later described (in Exodus 11 and 12) as the one who sits on Pharaoh’s throne. 
After perusing various critical methodologies and scribal practices again,2 I am convinced that literary motifs about Israel as YHWH's "firstborn" and the death of Pharaoh's "firstborn" are so clearly front-loaded with meaning and literary intentionality that overlooking or dismissing such facts (as David Smalley, the podcast host seemed to) illustrates how different American evangelicals, fundamentalists, and even atheists are from the majority of old testament scholars. Fundamentalists and atheists even seem to be more informed by debates between each other, and not through humble attempts to discern and evaluate critical scholarship. Regarding the Exodus story, at worst they sometimes seem to be formed more by Cecil  B. Demille’s visionary masterpiece, The Ten Commandments, than by any scholarly interaction with the text of the Exodus narrative itself. 
   To expound upon that last criticism of mine, I would like to point out that at some point in my discussion with the atheist host of the podcast he insisted that I must be saying that the text of Exodus 12 does not actually “mean what it says.” It allegedly means that all the firstborn were killed. It allegedly means God passed over all the Israelites and slaughtered every other firstborn child throughout the entire nondescript empire of "Egypt." At least, that’s what I’ve been told it must mean because that's what the podcast audience has stated in response to our episode.
   In this post I would like to walk through a number of reasons why the “meaning” of Exodus 12 isn’t as obvious as David Smalley (apparently) thinks it is, and why even most Christians and atheists who agree with David would be wise to pause and reflect upon how little they actually know in comparison with actual facts. Allow me now to propose three areas of the Passover narrative which conflict with a fundamentalist approach to the meaning of the Passover in Exodus 12.
  1. The first is that the literary structures of the Passover narrative reflect a scribal tradition about justice from YHWH (“the LORD”) upon the Pharaoh’s house and the gods/deities protecting his dynasty. The Passover narrative is definitely not depicted as an arbitrary and indiscriminate slaughter of firstborn innocents, nor is it depicted as a slaughter of little children. Such portrayals of injustice are actually how the Pharaoh's actions upon Israelite males are depicted in the beginning of the narrative.
  2. The sociological & topographical indicators of the Exodus narrative do not comport with the surface-level meaning that David seemed to rest aspects of his argument upon. For example, when the text says something like "throughout the land of Egypt" that does not necessarily mean every square inch of Egyptian land at that time, or even at the time in which Hebrew scribes redacted the narrative into its final form, just as "the Pharaoh of Egypt" did not mean "the only Pharaoh at that time," because multiple Pharaoh's ruled at the same time.3 Kings and their sons often had co-regenecy as well, and during periods of political division the land of Egypt had multiple territories and monarchs.
  3. The Passover narrative in discussion is primarily (and obviously) liturgical and temple-centered in character, being redacted and filtered through a lens which already has the Torah established and understood among Israelite readers, and can thereby utilize the Exodus narrative as justification for later Israelite liturgical practices. One must seriously wonder why an atheist would hang his (or her) entire argument of a story's meaning (and consequently it's portrayal of absolute morality) on anachronistic conceptions.4 
   Although these points do not resolve all atheistic questions and challenges about YHWH’s morality in killing anybody (or allowing anyone to be killed), they certainly do show how superficial such challenges can be.5 This, I suggest, indicates a kind of truncated understanding with regard to the literature being simultaneously utilized by fundamentalists and criticized by atheists.
   In this post I would like to focus mainly upon the literary structures of the Passover narrative and how they inform us. Because time and space limit detailed discussions about the second and third points, I will only touch upon them briefly in this post as such attempts appear to be helpful. Anything I think I have missed will be posted in the footnotes below.  

Now it's time to dig in to the text. 

   As virtually every Exodus scholar has pointed out (at least the many dozens I have consulted over the last 15 years), the meaning of the Passover narrative depends largely on recognizing it’s larger (macro) and smaller (micro) literary context. It doesn’t help the english reader to focus merely on “proof-texting” (as David did), as though the english translations of very specific verses are perfectly perspicuous on their own and are in no need of being informed by ancient literary methods. Such presumptions are absolutely mistaken. In the ancient way of understanding the narrative before us, what actually helps is seeing the whole narrative in its composition, and not just a verse or two within it, and also listening to that same text by paying attention to the "musicality" of its details, particularly as is found in the original language (which was not english). 
   As can be seen from the literary structures below,6 the Passover section of narrative was compiled within a much larger and considerately organized scribal framework in mind, which also seems intended to balance each pericope by a number of corresponding literary sections. The much larger chiastic framework of chapters 1 through 13 can be seen below:

a enslavement and attempted decimation of Israelites in Egypt (1:1–22)
pharaoh’s plan to murder Israelite males to control the Hebrew threat to his dynasty (1:8-10)
a new king arose (wayyāqom). The Pharaoh does not want the Hebrews to escape the land.
total number of Israelites entering the land: seventy representatives
b Moses, an Israelite male child, escapes death from pharaoh (2:1–10)
Moses “grows up” (gdl) as a son in pharaoh’s house
c Egyptian strikes an Israelite; Moses strikes down (nākâ) Egyptian (2:11–22)
d call of Moses: standing on holy ground (3:1–4:17)
distinction between holy and common: ground (ʾădāmâ) Moses stands on (ʿāmad ʿal) is holy
topics: sign (ʾôt) (3:12), Israel’s three-day journey (3:18)
e Moses returns to Egypt (4:18–31)
“bridegroom of blood
f brief encounter with pharaoh (5:1–5)
Moses and Aaron spurned
g CENTER: commissioning of Moses and Aaron (5:6–6:13)
promise to deliver Israel from Egypt with mighty hand (yād) and mighty acts of judgment
people doubt Moses
g′ CENTER: commissioning of Moses and Aaron (6:14–7:7)
promise to deliver Israel from Egypt by his hand (yād) and mighty acts of judgment
Moses’ self-doubts
f′ brief encounter with pharaoh (7:8–13)
Moses and Aaron spurned
e′ first cycle of plagues (7:14–8:19 [7:14–8:15])
Nile turned to blood
d′ second cycle of plagues (8:20–9:12 [8:16–9:12])
YHWH distinguishes between his holy people and Egyptians; afflicts one, not other!
begins: YHWH will distinguish between Egyptians and Israelites (cf. flies, plague on livestock), not afflicting land on which you stand (ʿāmad ʿal), only land (ʾădāmâ) of the Egyptians (8:21–23 [8:17–19])
topics: sign (ʾȏt) (8:23 [8:19]), Israel’s three-day journey
c′ third cycle of plagues: Egyptians are struck down! (9:13–10:29)
begins: YHWH warns that he has not yet struck (nākâ) Egyptians themselves, but now he will strike (nākâ) them (9:14–15); hail strikes down (nākâ) Egyptians, flocks, crops (9:25–33)
b′ YHWH will destroy Egypt’s firstborn males (11:1–10)
Moses is regarded as “great” (gdl) by Pharaoh’s officials, and he announces the death of Egypt’s firstborn, from Pharaoh’s firstborn “who sits on his throne” (v. 5) to Pharoah’s “slave girl who is behind the millstones,” and even “the firstborn of the livestock.”
a′ freedom of Israelites from Egyptian slavery and increased population (12:1–13:16)
YHWH authorizes a “Destroyer” to pass over Israel and destroy the firstborn of Pharaoh’s dynasty
Pharaoh arises (wayyāqom) to mourn the loss of Egyptian life. Israelites finally escape the land with the Pharaoh’s permission
total number of Israelites escaping the land: 600 squads of soldiers plus many more noncombatants

   Notice that in the opening section of the Exodus narrative (section a: 1:1-22) we find an explicit historical stage set up for the reader, upon which the Hebrew male population is viewed from the perspective of the Pharaoh as a political threat to the Pharaonic dynasty. In it’s corresponding narrative section (a’: 12:1-13:6) we find another stage set up, only this time the outcome is exactly what Pharaoh did not want to happen, namely, the escape of the Hebrews from his land. That whole process of entrapment and escape, which began with the slaughter of true innocents by the Pharaoh and continued with Moses growing up to be “great” in Pharaoh’s house (section b), ends with Moses the “great” climactically entering upon stage  again to pronounce the impending death of those in Pharaoh’s house (section b’).  
   In section b’ we find a variety of phrases used, beginning with “the firstborn of the Pharaoh who sits on his throne.” I agree, along with various scholars, that this initial phrase indicates the focal point of the coming devastation, as portrayed by the scribes who composed the final redaction of this Exodus narrative. The focus of the first section (a) is upon a clear threat to Pharaoh’s dynasty, and the focus of the last section (a') is also upon the heir of Pharaoh’s dynasty who currently sits as co-regent of his throne. 
   Then we find two more illustrations—all, by the way, within the same sentence— following the coattails of the threat pronounced upon Pharaoh’s dynasty. The destruction will extend “even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the millstone, and all the firstborn of the livestock.” This could be interpreted hyperbolically as destroying every single firstborn human being and animal among every single Egyptian "firstborn" across the entire Egyptian empire of that time. However, such reasoning isn’t easily reconciled with the topography of Exodus narrative as a whole (which I will explain more about in future posts7), and especially not with where the Hebrews are said to be located within Egypt, or even where the previous nine plagues were allegedly contained. 
   It seems far more likely to interpret such passing references as an extension of Pharaoh’s dynasty—that is, the “firstborn” of the slave girl and the firstborn of the livestock of Pharaoh’s house. And by “house” I do not mean a single physical building-structure (like modern houses), but “house” in the sense of the cultic or political center of this particular Pharaoh’s domain. A final indicator of the narrative's focus being more particular than what a cursory glance offers is, fascinatingly, contained in 12:29, which not only repeats and re-emphasizes the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, and the firstborn of his livestock, but also changes the reference to the “firstborn” of the slave-girl in Pharaoh’s house to the firstborn of the captive who is in Pharaoh’s “dungeon” (which, in Hebrew can be rendered literally as his “house of the cistern”)! Such topographical limitations would considerably reduce the size of the actual destruction which fundamentalists  and atheists both imagine. 
   A smaller framework is also contained within both halves of the larger section (above), the second half of which (6:14–13:16) informs the meaning of the death of the firstborn, as can be seen below in its own micro-chiastic scribal arrangement:
a YHWH promises to rescue his people from Egypt (6:14–7:7)
YHWH will bring them out (hôṣîʾ) from Egypt by their hosts (ʿal-ṣibʾōtām); to bring out (hôṣîʾ) from Egypt his hosts (ṣěbāʾôt), the Israelites
“Moses and Aaron did so; as YHWH had commanded them, so they did”
chronological note: ages of Moses and Aaron
b YHWH’s power to create life (7:8–13)
initial sign (môpēt) to pharaoh: Aaron’s rod becomes a snake
c opening cycle of three plagues (7:14–8:19 [7:14–8:15])
each introduced by YHWH’s instructing Moses/Aaron to stretch forth his hand with rod, followed by statement that Moses/Aaron does so, initiating plague
d CENTRAL CYCLE of three plagues: YHWH begins plagues without hand and rod of Moses/Aaron (8:20–9:12 [8:16–9:12])
c closing cycle of three plagues (9:13–10:29)
each introduced by YHWH’s instructing Moses/Aaron to stretch forth his hand with rod, followed by statement that Moses/Aaron does so, initiating plague
b YHWH’s power to terminate life (11:1–10)
final sign (môpēt) declared: death of firstborn
a YHWH rescues his people from Egypt (12:1–13:16)
YHWH brings them out (hôṣîʾ) from Egypt by their hosts (ʿal-ṣibʾōtām); “the hosts (ṣěbāʾôt) of YHWH went out (yāṣāʾ) from the land of Egypt”
“the people did so; as YHWH had commanded Moses and Aaron so they did”
chronological note: length of years of sojourn in Egypt
   Various scholars recognize that the plagues form three cycles of three plagues each, plus the tenth plague, which stands alone. Each cycle follows the same pattern. The first plague within each cycle is introduced by YHWH’s instructions to Moses to go and “stand before” (hityaṣṣēb and niṣṣab) pharaoh “in the morning” (babbōqer; 7:14–15; 8:20 [8:16]; 9:13). The second plague within each cycle is introduced simply by “YHWH said to Moses, ‘Go in to pharaoh’ (bôʾ ʾel-parʿōh”)” (8:1 [7:26]; 9:1; 10:1). The third plague within each cycle has no instructions by YHWH to go and warn pharaoh; rather, Moses is instructed to begin the plague by a symbolic action (8:16 [8:12]; 9:8; 10:21). Furthermore, various scholars recognize that the literary aim of each plague cycle is directed at particular Egyptian gods who protected the Pharaoh’s dynasty and empire (e.g. Nile/Hapy; Frogs/Heket; Mosquitos/Khepri-Atum; Flies/Khepri-Atum; Livestock/Apis-Ptah-Hathor; Ulcers/Sekhmet-Amen-Re; Hail/Nut-She-Tefnut-Seth; Locusts/Senehem; Darkness/Amen-Re). Indeed, even the repeated emphasis upon Pharaoh’s “livestock” is significant because during the latter end of the 13th dynasty (in which I, along with various Egyptologists, believe the “Exodus” event took place) the firstborn cattle of Pharaohs were considered objects of veneration. 
   It is also very important to note that a literary pause follows the ninth plague. The tenth plague is not recounted immediately after the ninth, as it is with all the previous plagues. Instead, tension is built through a lengthy introduction to the tenth, climactic plague against Pharaoh’s “firstborn.” This structuring strategy serves not only to heighten the suspense within the overall narrative framework, but to highlight this final plague in particular as the goal or aim of the previous nine plagues. This literary pause also offers an echo of the episode about Aaron’s rod, which immediately preceded the first nine plagues. In both sections, and nowhere else in the intervening narrative, the signs that are offered are called “wonders” (môpēt; 7:9; cf. 7:3; 11:9, 10), indicating clear literary continuity. The sign of Aaron’s rod becoming a snake demonstrated a challenge to the gods protecting Pharaoh’s dynasty. This final plague will demonstrate his power to destroy Pharaoh’s dynasty by destroying Pharaoh’s firstborn “who sits on his throne,” and even the firstborn of his livestock and slave-girl.
This entire section is also framed by matching introductory and concluding units. The opening unit features the genealogy of Moses and Aaron (heightening the anticipation that these two men are going to play a key role in the upcoming events). YHWH recommissions them for the task of leading Israel from Egypt. They are to “bring out” (hôṣîʾ) the Israelites from Egypt “by their hosts” (ʿal-ṣibʾōtām). YHWH promises, “I will lay my hand upon Egypt and bring forth (hôṣîʾ) my hosts (ṣĕbāʾôt) … from the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment”. The term ṣěbāʾôt (“hosts” or “armies”), which occurs in both of these units, occurs nowhere else in the Book of Exodus. So these remarks are clearly intentional literary devices to grab our attention. These “hosts” (ṣĕbāʾôt) of the YHWH’s—who are now deemed to be Israelites—are also conceptually parallel with the “hosts” (ṣĕbāʾôt) of YHWH who are heavenly beings or “gods” allotted to the nations, as referenced throughout the Torah (Deut 4:19; 32:8; et. al) and elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, thereby setting up a clear theme of conflict and warfare between Israel’s God and His enemies, the gods protecting Pharaoh’s dynasty. This introductory language is then echoed in the concluding section, which recounts the fulfillment of all that was promised in the introduction.

   Finally, the concluding micro-section (12:1—13:16) then recounts the tenth plague and the exodus from Egypt and contains numerous correspondences with the introduction:
a instructions for preparing for plague on firstborn (12:1–13)
lamb sacrificed (so YHWH will not slay firstborn sons of Israel as he will firstborn sons of pharaoh's dynasty)
b memorial of eating of unleavened bread (12:14–20)
c Passover meal instructions (12:21–28)
Moses gives instructions to the people regarding the Passover meal (pesah)
ends: “the Israelites did as YHWH commanded Moses and Aaron; thus they did (kēn ʿaśû)”
d CENTER: the exodus and tenth plague (12:29–42)
c additional Passover meal instructions (12:43–50)
YHWH gives further instructions regarding the Passover meal (pesah)
ends: “all the Israelites did as YHWH commanded Moses and Aaron; thus they did (kēn ʿaśȗ)”
b memorial of eating of unleavened bread (13:3–10)
a instructions for memorial of redeeming of firstborn (13:11–16)*
redemption of firstborn by lamb to commemorate slaying of firstborn Egyptian sons and sparing of firstborn Israelite sons

Incidentally, Exodus 12:1–13:16 is a surprisingly lengthy and composite section of material to function as a single unit. It also sandwiches the tenth plague between very clear rituals pertaining to Israel’s liturgical practice in the “promised land” during Passover. For this reason most scholars believe its composition is best explained as containing clear editorial work of later Israelite scribes and not a single seamless narration of historical facts understood at the time of the Passover. 
This concluding section represents the climax of the narrative that began in chapter one. As often occurs in climaxes, the speed of action slows significantly to help convey the importance of the event. The coherence of 12:1–13:16 is reinforced by its symmetric arrangement. At the center of the symmetry stands the climactic event itself—the exodus and the tenth plague. The additional material of the unit forms concentric circles around this center, which accounts for what otherwise might appear to be careless organization and repetition of liturgical data. As the liturgical rituals of Israel’s Passover circle around the section about destroying the Pharaoh’s "firstborn" along with all firstborn associated with his house, the reader is reminded that this destruction was ultimately about saving YHWH’s firstborn son from Pharaoh’s oppressive dynasty, which was explicitly stated at the beginning of Exodus when Moses became “great” and rose up to tell Pharaoh to let YHWH’s people go. 
“Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the YHWH, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, Let my son go that he may serve me. If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’”(4:22-23). 
It’s rather astonishing to consider that the word “firstborn” appears in Exodus in a variety of places, most of which are contained in chapters 11-13; but prior to chapters 11-13 the only places we find the word “firstborn” mentioned are in 4:22, 23, and 6:14, which all refer to Israel as the Lord’s “firstborn” in contrast with Pharaoh’s “firstborn.”  

1.  The "sonship" of Israel and the "fatherhood" of YHWH also happens to be one of the most pervasive typological symbols of Israel's writings, thereby confirming the immense value of this "firstborn son" motif in the minds of whatever scribal redactors there were prior to and at the time of the text's final form.
2.  Gunkel, Mowinckel, Noth, von Rad, Coats, et. al.
3.  One example of this is found in the Turin Kings List, which lists nine Egyptian kings between Sobekhotep IV and Dudimose, covering a period of approximately forty years and multiple potential monarchs who reigned within the late 13th dynasty. Some scholars speculate that each reign was successive, whereas others speculate about simple co-regency, and others multiple rival kings at the same time. There is no definitive way to know at this point in history, but there is a lot of internal evidence which necessitates a reformation of traditional Egyptian chronology to make the records we have discovered match up with other contemporary documents.
4.  That would be like a modern pre-school teacher discussing the meaning of the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme, as though it's obvious meaning and moral purpose was to illustrate the foolishness of a round egg sitting on top of a brick ledge. Hardly anyone today is aware of the authentic meaning and moral purpose behind that nursery rhyme, even though considerable scholarly evidence points to it as a clever aphorism about a foolish drunkard who is unable to piece his life back together because of his addiction.
5.   I am aware that even the death of Pharaoh's "firstborn" (whether an adult or child) raises an important set of moral questions. This narrative of Exodus, along with many other narratives in the Hebrew scriptures, clearly reveal that civil monarchs (among whom Pharaoh is but one) do not have the right to take innocent human life, though YHWH, the God of Israel, Lord and Creator of all life, does have a transcendent "right" to do so. I am also aware that atheists do not accept such distinctive justifications about God's right to "kill" human life any more readily than judeo-christian theists accept atheistic justifications about killing some human beings. (As one example, David Smalley admitted on air that one of his exceptions to killing a human being was to stop a terrorist-shooter from killing a bunch of people by killing the terrorist first. Other exceptions, such as abortion, are sometimes offered along with some "scientific" or psychological or biological justification for breaking the general principle that killing people is "bad.") 
   Such actions by YHWH do not appear reasonable to modern sensibilities, especially as they pertain to illustrating Divine justice, goodness, or innocence. Even the manner in which we are supposed to understand the role that death plays in this world is not obvious at a surface-level of the Exodus/Passover narrative. With this in mind, I would like to make one brief series of remarks that are intended to explain a basic commitment of my own--one that I'm personally persuaded by, and one that I don't pretend ought to persuade everyone else. 
   That commitment of mine is the belief that all human beings habitually project onto "God" either images of unjust severity or presumptive liberality that are alien to actual "Divinity," and that people everywhere constantly reflect habits of deformed character among every human creature they interact with rather than God himself. Consequently, I consider it to be perfectly reasonable to be concerned about the accuracy or truth of certain portraits of God that have arisen in human history. Human idolatry lurks under the surface of a lot of what people say and believe about God. Christians and Israelites are no exception to this, either. 
   I am also well aware that the Hebrew scriptures contain certain ways of denoting the mystery of Divine justice that many modern people consider to be alarming. I still consider such denotations to be inspired by God somehow (and exactly how, I'm unwilling to describe at length right now). I also believe they are instructive as saving truth, even though all portraits within the ancient Hebrew scriptures have been portrayed through idioms of an ancient culture that was archaic and often politically ruthless. It is precisely because I am willing to interpret these ancient texts as ancient texts--and not anachronistically through modern superficial and tribalistic sensibilities alone--that I have no interest in rejecting anything which has been traditionally (and academically) understood as inspired by God somehow. Indeed, I believe such inspired teaching can be more poignant and profound today, even moreso than previous generations, precisely because I believe it was recorded, redacted, and preserved in an idiom of vigorous severity and even divinely appointed "primitiveness."
6.  The chiastic literary structures of Exodus are referenced in many academic monographs and commentaries. The structures in this post are extracted and modified from Dorsey, D. A. (2004). The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis–Malachi (p. 66-67). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 
7.  For a detailed analysis of Egyptian topography during all periods of the Exodus alleged by various Egyptologists, see Rohl, David (2015). Exodus: Myth or History? (pp. 88-166). St Louis Park, MN: Thinking Man Media.