Bum bum buuuuuummmmm….
This is where the story gets exciting.
God has been engaged in a chess game of sorts with Pharaoh, and each move involves higher stakes than the last. There’s a checkmate moment at the tenth plague where we think God has won, but somehow then Pharaoh changes the game entirely. What happens next is not life-or-death for a percentage of the population. It is life-or-death for everyone.
Will the Hebrews manage to outmaneuver the advancing Egyptians?
Will the Egyptians catch up and slaughter them all?
Will this end in liberation and life, or slavery and death?
Tune in next week for the startling conclusion to this week’s broadcast.
Just kidding. But I can’t help think that this is the point of your TV show or radio program where you’re biting your nails or hiding behind the couch in anticipation of what comes next—only to have “what comes next” delayed by a week.
The fact is that here we are the climax of this story. Here, things have reached their highest intensity, and we (the readers and hearers) can’t help but sit on the edge of our seats—whether this is the first time we have heard the story, or whether know it as well as our own name.
And while we experience palpitations when we encounter this story from the safety of our own couches and pews, the Hebrews in the story have no such security. This is real. Impending danger advances from behind, while the water before them hems them in, making them claustrophobic with worry and fear.
And it is precisely at this time—when their anxiety is the highest—that the visible manifestation of God that they have been following seems to leave them. For days (at least), this strange cloud and fire has led them. But it is in front of them no longer.
God withdraws……and goes to protect their back (“God’s got their back,” literally). But I wonder if they realized what was happening at the time. Sometimes, when we are in these hemmed-in places, it feels like God has withdrawn from us—abandoned us even—yet like the Hebrews, we discover in time that God was covering us in ways we couldn’t perceive as readily.
But looking at this story from another perspective, I also suspect there are other times—times where we feel beset by enemies, times when we are fighting for what we think is right, times when we need God but God can’t be found—times when we identify with the Israelites here……when in fact we are actually the Egyptians.
Stay with me here.
The Egyptians didn’t ask for this. All the violence and subjugation into slavery——that happened years ago—before their time. Most of the Egyptians probably had nothing to do with those Hebrews that lived on the wrong side of the Nile. The Egyptians were busy with their own, quiet lives. They practiced their faith. They paid their taxes. And now “these people” have upset the apple cart.
While the biblical text isn’t explicit about specifics, the average Egyptian has been saturated for generations by political propaganda from their leaders. In Exodus 1:9, this “New Pharaoh” begins scapegoating the Hebrews:
He argues that this minority in their midst is a threat to their security, saying: “lest…if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us.”
He insists that systems need built that keep them down, claiming: “let us deal shrewdly with them”).
And he asserts that they need to be aggressively controlled, implementing a policy “to afflict them with heavy burdens” and limit their access to safe reproductive care, “lest they multiply.”
This doesn’t just happen once, or for the span of a presidency. This toxic spin cycle lasts decades—perhaps even a century or more. After all, there seems to be a span of several years or even a decade between the ascension of this leader and the birth of Moses. And if we are to be literal about Moses’ age in this story, another 80 years has now passed (since Exod 7:7 says Moses was 80 when he spoke to Pharaoh).
We’re talking about a span of years longer than the average folk in our nation and world have owned automobiles, or had electricity in their homes (or even running water!). Explicitly or implicitly (and probably both), for nearly (or beyond) a hundred years, the Egyptians had been taught that these Hebrews were dumb, lazy, violent leeches who were responsible for their economic, criminal, and political problems.
And now these uppity-up, unpatriotic foreigners want to sabotage everything the average person has worked for generations to achieve.
We could easily overlook the fact that it is not Pharaoh who first feels regret about freeing the slaves—rather, he responds to a grassroots initiative to re-enslave the Hebrews. With the Hebrews gone, who’s going to do the dirty work of baking bricks? Who’s going to perform the menial labor that is needed? Who’s going to scrub toilets or pick strawberries or work the slaughterhouses or whatever other hard and disgusting jobs were imposed on this lowest and unregulated rung of the work force?
And maybe more to the point—if you take them away, the middle class of society becomes the bottom. Who are we going to look down on? Who are we going to be able to tell ourselves we’re better than?
This may seem harsh, but these are all perspectives that are documented in the last century of our nation as individuals and organziations spoke out against various immigrant populations (such as the Irish or Chinese), or in favor of Jim Crow and segregation.
This emotional and social distance between the Egyptians and Hebrews shows strong parallels to the slavery in our own country’s history—and to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s—and even to the ongoing struggle for equality today. All parallels that are simply too strong to ignore.
Dr. Martin King
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” is one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most iconic writings. It may well be his most famous composition aside from the immortal “I Have a Dream” speech that took place during the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in 1963.
Like the “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King casts a vision in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that inspires us to do better for our fellow human beings. But it also continues to roast us with the scathing heat of truth, setting aflame the edifices of religion and culture that we have built out of the chaff of fear and difference. In one such passage, Dr. King offers this insight, saying:
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advised the Negro to wait until ‘a more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will” (in Essential Writings, p.295).
While not a part of this particular quote, the Exodus imagery was used powerfully by faith leaders in the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil War was just then 100 years past. Many were descendants of slaves. The unjust laws of Jim Crow had for decades sought to undermine the result of the Civil War, reinstating the supremacy of the white against the black. In many areas, particularly among the states that formerly made up the Confederacy, there was an effort to whitewash the Civil War, erecting monuments that told a false tale and so vandalizing and dishonoring the sacrifice the nearly-million soldiers who suffered and died in that War.
In this world of separate-and-unequal—a world where the color of your skin meant your kids could not try on clothes at the store or the white folk wouldn’t buy them—this story of liberation was powerful. It testified to a loving God who sees them, who hears their cries for justice, and who will come down and deliver them.
In the framework of the Exodus story, however, it was easy to tell who was a Hebrew and who was an Egyptian. It wasn’t a matter of the color of one’s skin, though. It had to do with which thing you valued more: order or justice. In the Dr. King quote I offered earlier, the most frustrating and dangerous of the “Egyptians” was the so-called “white moderate.” From the surrounding context in the letter, King defines “white moderate” as the ordinary, non-radicalized people (of faith) in society at large. People like you and me, for instance. People who are not white supremacists. People who are not burning crosses in people’s yards. People who shun hate speech. People who “know” folks with different skin colors.
But is our allegiance to order or to justice?
The thing about people like you and me though is that the whole system is built around us. We’re “normal.” In schools, teachers aim at the middle of the class in teaching. Our church programming aims at the average church member. The average world caters to the average.
That doesn’t mean it’s all easy with rainbows and endless sunshine for us. But it does mean we have a tremendous advantage in society over those who are not “average” or “normal.” It also means we are usually completely ignorant of this privilege we experience. And it means we tend more than any others in society to protect systems and order by preventing change.
In ways we don’t even know, we sometimes work to preserve “order” instead of practice “justice.”
In ways we don’t even know, we end up counted among the Egyptians instead of the Hebrews.
In ways we don’t even know, we find ourselves working against God.
I’m going out on a limb here, but I want to suggest that we are most often deceived into working against God when our status quo is challenged—when our “normal” is being threatened.
Working against God
There’s a lot going on our our nation and our world right now. Whatever comes to pass, it is clear that the world most of us have inhabited for our entire lives is changing. The rules of life, of consideration, of business, of success, of relationship, and even of faith—they are all changing……
Actually, that is incorrect: they have already changed, we just don’t know what the new world will be. No matter who we are or what we have experienced, the status quo (as we knew it) is no more.
A lot of us—in the face of such monumental change—fight it tooth and nail. We cling tightly to whatever we once possessed, be it power or privilege, money or piety. In doing so, we close our eyes to a world in need of redemption in order to live in a faulty illusion of the past. We close our lives and doors to the people Jesus wants to save so we can live in a fantasy world of our own comfort. We become Egyptians, working against God.
When we do this, we forget that the God we serve—Yahweh; the Creator of the heavens and earth; the God who journeyed with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God who brought the Hebrews out of Egypt with a mighty hand; the God who entered the world incarnate as Jesus the Christ, who loved enough to sacrifice himself; the very God who raised Jesus from the dead and will raise us to new life as well—we forget that this God is a transforming God.
Our God is a God who wants and requires change. From the initial moments of creation, God was bringing about change. The bible is pretty clear about what God intends for creation and for us, and that looks very different from the way we look now. God’s got a lot of transforming work to accomplish to bring this vision to fruition. That means a lot of status quo’s have to be challenged. That means a lot of chaff in our lives and our religion has to be burned away. That means we—as the ongoing presence of the Body of Christ in the world—we need to be flexible and adaptive and plugged into the Spirit, so we can move with God……so we can change with God and be transformed by God.
As Christians, we are not anarchists, but nor is our allegiance to nation and law—instead, we follow Christ our King.
As Christians, our task is not to preserve order and the status quo for ourselves, but to challenge it as we practice compassion and justice for those who need it the most.
As Christians, we need to be found among the Hebrews in this story……not among the Egyptians.
We need to remember these things, because this story offers another caution: If you are working against God, you are going to get bogged down. You are going to get hemmed in. And you are going to lose.