Exodus is another of my favorite books in the Bible. Many pastors and evangelicals tend to truncate the full meaning contained therein, and to me that does no justice to the rich themes which run throughout. To watch the video which inspired this article, click here.
Exodus takes place a few generations after the events in Genesis. Like Genesis, Exodus explores what it means for God to be God and for humans to be humans. The overriding topic in Exodus is, as we all know, the enslavement of the Hebrews in Egypt and their subsequent freedom therefrom. Their emancipation provides much theological as well as anthropological food for thought.
The Hebrews have become quite numerous in Egypt, so much so that the Pharaoh is afraid that they will attempt to topple him and take over. As a result, he forces them to engage in increasingly back-breaking labor, working them almost to death. The idea behind this is that the men, upon returning home, will be so tired that they won’t want to make love with their wives, thus acting as a sort of birth control, as it were. Unfortunately for Pharaoh, his plan backfires and the Hebrews become even more fruitful than before. The idea here is that God can give life and make His people bountiful even in these terrible conditions.
Pharaoh, angry that his plan didn’t work, comes up with another: kill the firstborn baby boys! He tells his army to throw the babies into the river and watch them drown. The great Hebrew hero and prophet, Moses, however, lives. Not only does he live, but he grows up in the house of the Pharaoh, witnessing the atrocities to which his fellow Hebrews are subjected. This culminates in his killing an Egyptian who is beating a Hebrew slave.
Moses runs away into the desert to get away from his responsibilities, and there he has a very strange experience indeed: he witnesses a burning bush which isn’t being consumed by the flames. Out of the flames comes the voice: “I am who I am.” It is the voice of God, and Moses is in the presence of the Holy. Indeed, God has a special task for Moses: the emancipation of His people, the Hebrews. Here we must note that God’s identity–the one who Is who He Is–is inextricably linked with hearing the cries of the victim.
Moses and his brother Aaron return to Egypt and have an audience with the Pharaoh. Moses asks him to release his people, but Pharaoh refuses. In fact, he refuses ten times: ten plagues for each time Pharaoh refused to free the Hebrews. These plagues culminate in God killing Egyptian boys. Innocent children are brought into the fray! Pharaoh’s son, who had nothing to do with the sins of his father, is killed. What does this say of God?
It’s fascinating that the Egyptians suffer the same fate as the Hebrews. The Hebrews had their children killed, and the same tragedy befalls the Egyptians. It’s easy to sympathize with the downtrodden Hebrews, but what about the Egyptians? It’s harder to sympathize with the plight of the oppressor. And that is the point the authors are making here. Can we empathize with and take pity on those who wrong us? Likewise, it poses the troubling question: is God so petty that he must partake in this mimetic rivalry with mortals?
The question deepens later on in Exodus when God lets the manna fall from the sky to feed the wandering Hebrews. He asks only that they share it among themselves, allowing everyone in the group to eat. Unfortunately, they end up hoarding the food, allowing it to spoil as a result. What else are they to do? All they know is the ways of Egypt: superfluity, greed, and violence. They may no longer physically be in Egypt, but that is where they remain spiritually. This frustrates God so much that he tells Moses he is going to annihilate them. Moses, however, protests because he knows that that is not who God really is. He is merciful, the hearer of the sighs of the oppressed. It is not within his being to destroy the Hebrews.
Giving God these human foibles in the book of Exodus is a literary way of exploring what it means to be God and how that is juxtaposed with human-ness. The subsequent books of the Bible develop these themes further, but Exodus wants us to stop and ask ourselves: how do we set the victim free without turning around and victimizing the oppressor? Where does the circle of violence end? In part, by being like God, the provider. While the Hebrews squabble among themselves, God simply provides. He is present. In that way, by simply providing our time, compassion or resources, we can begin to lead others out of this circle of scapegoating and violence.