Stand and Watch

And so God rescues His people from Egypt and, as we've pointed out before, the story stops right at the height of the drama and gives instructions on how to eat the meal.  The Passover meal is central to remembering the story of the Exodus; God thought it was important enough that is was worth pointing out the specifics of the meal in the midst of the Exodus narrative.  One cannot see the Exodus story without having to look through God's institution of the Passover.

The meal is constructed around the movement of four cups.  The cups remind the participant of the four promises that God made in Exodus 6:6–7.

Therefore, say to the Israelites: "I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians."

To many Westerners, this sounds like one big long promise of deliverance.  But the rabbis noted that these promises are distinct and the four cups of the Passover reflect this and have for thousands of years (although there is great debate about when the use of four distinct cups began).  The four cups of the ancient Passover are as follows (I emphasize “ancient” because everybody wants to impose the modern cups on the ancient Passover; the meal has definitely changed at different points in history to reflect the context of the Jewish people):

Cup of Sanctification — “I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians…”
Cup of Deliverance — “I will free you from being slaves to them…”
Cup of Redemption — “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and mighty acts of judgment…”
Cup of Protection — “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God…”

These cups, and the distinction of the promises, were explained to me (by Ray Vander Laan) in the following way: Imagine these promises in the life of an addict.  The first promise (the Cup of Sanctification) is as if God has told the addict, “Tomorrow, I will free you from your addiction!”  The addict might respond, “Praise God!  Thank you!  But God, tomorrow, when I wake up, I'm going to want to drink.”  But God would respond with the second promise (the Cup of Deliverance), “Oh, no you won't!  I will even take away the desire to drink; I'm going to remove your addictive nature.”  The addict may respond, "Oh, bless God!  That is fantastic!  But God, I don't know how to live sober.”  And God would respond with the third promise (the Cup of Redemption), “But I will redeem you and teach you how to live!”  For the ancient Eastern person, redemption is the process of being brought into a new household; you would adopt the identity and lifestyle of your new mishpuchah (again, for a fantastic treatment of this, read The Epic of Eden by Sandra Richter).  Finally, the addict says, “O God, thank you for rescuing me and freeing me and teaching me how to live!  But God — what if I fail?”  And God would respond (the Cup of Protection), “Don't talk to me about failure.  I will protect you!”  God said that He will take them to be His people; that was easily recognized in the ancient world as wedding language. It's what a groom would say to his bride on the wedding day.  “Today, I take you to me my treasured possession!”  God is saying that failure won't get in the way of Him loving and protecting His people as a groom protects and loves his bride.

This was the promise and story of God in the Exodus.  God came through on His promises and He gave the Hebrews a meal to remember always their fundamental identity as a rescued people, loved by God.  After the meal, on that first Passover night, God told the Hebrews to stay up and keep watch (Exodus 12:42), because the LORD kept watch over them.  To this day, Jewish people will often observe what is called leyl shimurim (“night of watching”), where the firstborn male will stay up all night keeping watch and remember how the LORD, who never slumbers nor sleeps, kept watch over His people.  In fact, this is what Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to go and do outside the Gethsemane on the night of his betrayal.  You may remember Jesus telling them, “Keep watch with me…”

This idea will be echoed even as they leave Egypt behind.  Cornered by a Pharaoh (and an Egyptian army) who has changed his mind (yet again), the Hebrews find their back against the Red Sea, crying out for salvation.  Moses tells them to “stand and watch” the salvation of the LORD.  God instructs Moses to stretch his stick over the waters and He parts the Red Sea, saving the Hebrews from the Egyptians for the last time (in the Exodus at least). 

One can't help but hear the refrain of the Exodus, “Stand and watch!” as God makes promises and delivers His people with mighty acts and an outstretched arm.  Thankfully, there are defining moments in our lives that God harkens us back to — moments that aren't just empty callings to trust blindly a theoretical story.  There are moments where He just says, “Stand and watch!”  And we see the finger of God move.  Hopefully, we mark these moments with meals or monuments or standing stones of remembrance.  These will be the stories that define us.  These will be the times that help us to trust the story.  It's because we've painted our doors with the blood of a Lamb and seen the deliverance of God.  We drink from the cups of promise and remember our own stories of rescue from our own Egypts.  We've stood on the bank of our own Red Seas and seen the finger of God move.

And while those Red Sea moments aren't the standard experience that we have day in and day out, they are the moments in which God invites us to keep watch.

Because the sons and daughters of Israel have a desert on the other side of the Red Sea.  And they have some tests that God wants to put them through.   And they're going to have to remember that night on the bank of the Red Sea if they're going to be able to trust the story.

And the same will probably be true of us.


A Strengthened Heart

As we look at the story of the plagues, I will eagerly say that my understanding of the plagues in the Exodus has undoubtedly been shaped by a specific teaching by Rabbi David Fohrman.  Rather than try to adapt all the material, I will simply link the teaching here (you can watch the entire playlist at that link; prepare for it to take a few hours and to be immersed in a modern rabbinical teaching method that drives most Westerners mad). With one noted exception in this post, all of my points will be a crude attempt to summarize that teaching.

It should be noted that Fohrman twisted together so much additional material in typical rabbinic fashion that won't be dealt with here.  You may remember me linking this same teaching as we touched on the story of Jacob, Joseph, and the Passover (“B'hor in a Box”, parts one and two).  Any rabbi training in the methods of rabbinic teaching/learning will lead the student through a process of discovery.  Fohrman poses a number of seemingly unrelated questions in the first handful of videos.  The questions appear to be so unrelated that the viewer begins to wonder if he's got the video playlist in the correct order.  Even as the teaching comes together, more questions continue to form.  This is an Eastern way of learning.  The questions actually pull you along on the path of discovery.  As we've discussed before, the world of the Bible is not propositional in nature as we often learn in the West.

A few of Fohrman's questions will remind you of some of those we asked in the last post.  Why does God take so long to free the Hebrews?  Is it really necessary to draw the process out through ten plagues?  Isn't there an easier way to go about freeing His people than having to wade through the destruction, confusion, and bloodshed of the nation of Egypt?  Even if judgment on the Egyptians is necessary, why can't this be done in only five plagues?  Or three?  Or even just one mighty act? Wouldn't that be more efficient?

One of the initial observations made by Fohrman is Pharaoh's overwhelming concern with control.  An example of this (emphasized as well in the midrash surrounding the teaching) is the plague of frogs. When Pharaoh asks Moses to plead to the Lord to do away with the frogs, Moses agrees and asks Pharaoh when he would like the frogs to be gone.  It's an interesting question to ask Pharaoh, don't you think?  If your land is covered in frogs and you get asked when you'd like them to leave, what is the obvious answer?  Now!  Yesterday!  ASAP!

But Pharaoh's choice?  Tomorrow.

When the livestock of the Egyptians are plagued, Pharaoh sends out his servants to check and see not how his livestock are doing, but that of the Hebrew people.

Why is this?  Because Pharaoh's biggest concern is about control.  In Egyptian belief, Pharaoh was considered to be the great high priest to the Egyptian gods. Because Pharaoh does his work, the gods are appeased and give us what we need to survive.  Pharaoh helps us maintain order.  I believe that to some extent, even Pharaoh believed this about his job as ruler.  But Pharaoh has his limitations.  He understands that he only has so much control over those elements that he influences.  Yet here is a God who claims to have absolute authority and control.  This intrigues Pharaoh.

And the door begins to creep open to understanding the story behind the story of the plagues.

Eventually, Fohrman begins a word study surrounding the Hebrew language in the story of the plagues.  He points out this conversation that we have about Pharaoh's hard heart.  It really is quite a conundrum. Sometimes God hardens Pharoah's heart. Sometimes Pharaoh hardens his own heart. And sometimes we're told nothing more than Pharaoh's heart is hardened.  This has baffled readers in many different faith traditions for thousands of years.

One fun conversation (as a side note) is what an Egyptian reader would hear throughout this conversation.  According to Egyptian mythology, whenever a person dies (particularly people of high rank and nobility), their soul is brought by the gods on the Nile to the afterlife.  This afterlife scene is always depicted at the Nile River, because the crocodile god, Sobek, is the god of the afterlife.  The gods present the heart of the deceased to Sobek who is always pictured holding a set of scales.  On one side of the scale is the “weight of goodness;” on the other side of the scale Sobek will place the heart of the deceased.  If the heart is “light” he is invited to the paradise of the afterlife where the gods reside.  If the heart is “heavy” then the deceased was evil and is taken into the underworld with Sobek.  The Hebrew word for “harden” is also the word for “heavy.”  So an Egyptian reader would hear the story say that Pharaoh's heart is getting heavier and heavier as he denies the Hebrews freedom.  (This is not adapted from Fohrman's teaching, but from that of Ray VanderLaan).

Sobek weighing a heart

The startling fact is that there are two different Hebrew words for “harden” at work in the story of the plagues.  One of the words used in the story is kavad.  This word means to harden, to heavy, to make dense, to make insensible.  Essentially, I always hear this word to mean “to stupid.”  It's as if a veil is being pulled over the heart so that it cannot see what is really taking place.  Sometimes, Pharaoh kavads his heart.  And sometimes God kavads his heart.  Sometimes Pharaoh doesn't want to see what's really going on.  Sometimes God doesn't want Pharaoh to see what's really going on.

The other Hebrew word that is used in the story is the word chazak.  It means “to strengthen;” Joshua is told by God “chazak va'amatz” — “be strong and courageous.” Some translations actually catch the word change, some translations do not.  After the plague of the livestock, Pharaoh's heart changed.  Up to this point in the story, Pharaoh's heart was kavad.  He could not see it.  But after the livestock, Pharaoh strengthens his heart and the story changes. Now, Pharaoh can see what's going on and now he's choosing not to yield to God's story.

You see, this isn't a story about God ruthlessly taking out His vengeance on Pharaoh.  In fact, to the contrary, this is a story about God relentlessly pursuing Pharaoh's heart.  All throughout the plagues, we see a God who isn't willing to give up on Pharaoh!  He begins to dismantle Pharaoh's worldview.  He takes the polytheistic world of the Egyptians and He begins to do battle against the Egyptian gods — not Pharaoh (and that's in the Text; it's what God tells Moses [see Exodus 12]).  When Pharaoh finally sees the control that God has, he then has to make a decision.  Does he bow his knee?  Does he trust the story and give up the power of empire?

Pharaoh strengthens his heart.

But God gives him one more chance.  Two plagues later, God sends hail (literally translated from the Hebrew) that has flames of fire in it.  Now this is REALLY something for the Egyptians, because the fire god and the ice god would NEVER work together, but this Hebrew God has control over even that reality.  We see the struggle for Pharaoh in that he actually repents and admits his sin after the plague of hail (see Exodus 9:27–28)!  But then, after sleeping on it, Pharaoh repents of his repentance and chazaks his heart again.

At this point, the story changes for Pharaoh. The next few verses will have God saying, “I have hardened [kavad] Pharaoh's heart.” Essentially, God says at the beginning of chapter ten that Pharaoh has had his chance and now the plagues will now run their course and the Hebrews will leave.

But can you believe this story?  We began by asking the question of why God would waste so much time and be so brutal about rescuing His people.  The answer is because it wasn't only about His people!  It never has been!  God has always been interested in restoring a good world.  Didn't God tell Moses that he was to go and be “as God to Pharaoh”?  You see, this whole story isn't about God's wrath on Egypt — it's about His love for every person.  Even a ruler who claims to be god himself.

But God will not force Himself on anyone. And so when we have our own empires in our hearts and God comes and tries to show us our folly.  There are times that we struggle to see it; there are plenty of days when our hearts are kavad.  And quite frankly, there are days when God makes our hearts kavad because there's a desert we need to go through. 

But sometimes, we do see what's truly going on.  And there are dark, dark days where we look at the goodness of God and we survey all that we will be called to give up — and we chazak our hearts.  And God will not force Himself on us.  When we choose empire, He will weep and mourn and give us all the empire that our hearts desire.

But eventually, our empires fall.  They always do.  A day will always come when we find our armies and chariots lying at the bottom of the Red Sea.  But it's my belief that God never stops seeking our redemption.  He keeps insisting on a better way to live and keeps offering us citizenship in the Kingdom of Shalom.

This is God's invitation to trust the story.


A Problem with God

So, now that we've set the stage for the narrative of God's story as a whole — not to mention the dominant theme of the Exodus story itself — we're ready to see how this “Tale of Two Kingdoms” plays out in time and space.

Up to this point, we've been painting a pretty rosy picture of who God is.  We've said that God is for us.  We've talked about how God loves, values, and accepts us.  We've tried to show again and again that God isn't angry and isn't set against us.  He is incredibly patient.  In fact, it's at this point in the story that I like to rock some theological boats for our students.  Think back over the story of Genesis.  When have we seen God's anger and wrath?  I can think of two stories in Genesis.  The first is the flood, which we tried to wrestle with earlier.  I really don't believe the flood story is a story about God's wrath; I feel like it's a juxtaposition to be held against the Epic of Gilgamesh.  This changes God's “wrath” into a subversive, artistic agenda of love, redemption, and partnership.  The other story would be Sodom and Gomorrah.

So while we're at it, we should probably mention the Sodom and Gomorrah story.  What's interesting to see is what it is that rouses God's anger.  Contrary to what many Christians have been led to associate with the S&G story, the sexual immorality of the people of Sodom is, in fact, not what raises God's ire.  Instead, when we read the Text, we find that God has showed up on the scene because “outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah” has reached His ears and He's come to see if the cause of the cry is as bad as it seems (see Genesis 18:20–21).

God shows up not to punish sin.  God shows up to rescue the oppressed.

God has heard the cry.

One of the things that I just don't buy in the typical evangelical theological conversation is that you have to hold a balance between God's love and justice.  Nowhere does the Bible teach this and no matter where one falls on the issue, their argument will rely on which Bible passages and proof texts they choose to highlight.  One of the most striking holes in this theology is that the term “justice” is not a reference to a biblical concept but a western one.  Biblical, Eastern justice (even if it's used as a legal term) is not retributive — it's distributive.  Justice is a household term, referring to the fact that there is enough for everyone (to understand this patriarchal culture in context, I highly recommend Sandra Richter's The Epic of Eden).  Biblical justice is about restoring things to their proper place, not giving somebody what they deserve.

But maybe more importantly, I don't buy this line of thinking because I don't find it in God's narrative.  Nowhere does the story of Genesis talk about the depraved state of man and the ramifications of his legal standing before God.  Most of our theology has been crafted by an inaccurate reading of Pauline literature outside of context and then projected on the rest of the Bible (in the words of Brian McLaren, evangelicals have made Jesus their Savior, but Paul their Lord; more on this much later).  Genesis has not shown us an angry God.

Think about it.  God has had plenty of opportunity to pour out wrath, but instead He has patiently and slowly partnered with mankind to teach him profound lessons.  With the exception of the two aforementioned stories, we have not ran into a single implication of a hopeless humanity or an angry deity.  As the Bible introduces us to God, it (or more appropriately, HE) has not found it necessary to display this “balance” that evangelicals are so certain exists.

But I have been introduced to a God who keeps insisting that I have value and invites me to trust His declaration that creation is good.  I have been introduced to a God that is patient and willing to meet me where I'm at, as I learn who He is, as I walk down the path. I have found a God in the story that is bigger than my wildest imagination, but gentler than I could ever hope for.  He is deep and mysterious and profound and challenging, but a loving and compassionate Shepherd.

And I find a God that rises up at the cry of the oppressed, not the ugliness of sin.  I find a God that shows up at Sodom — not to punish the gays, but to rescue those who are being abused.  (This, by the way, is backed up by Ezekiel, who tells us exactly what Sodom's sin was — see Ezekiel 16:49; and for those who want to quote the book of Jude, they may want to think on the context of the quotation, which references two other stories of failed hospitality.)  I believe that as I read the story of God, I'm shown a God that has endless patience with me as I struggle to lean into His better story.  But when I become the “anti-story,” when I start working against His story and I start hurting other people, that's when God shows up to do something.

Because God always hears the cry.  And He loves and values the person I'm hurting just as much as He loves me.  And eventually (God is not impulsive), God is drawn to action.

God's has plenty of patience for a struggling Sodom.  But when the struggle of Sodom starts increasing the injustice for the marginalized, God acts. 

God has plenty of patience for a group of Hebrews who like their farmland and 401(k)s and homeland security and comfort.  But when those idols come at the expense of the weak, God acts.

The reason I bring this up is because the next story we need to talk about is the story of the plagues and God's battle with Pharaoh.  This is the first time in the story that I struggled to square it with what I had learned about God.  If the above reading were true, then God should have endless patience with Pharaoh.  And when Pharaoh won't stop throwing newborns in the Nile, doing away with the elderly, and crushing the weak, God will act.

And act He does, in a dramatic fashion.  And it all works consistently for me, until all the Egyptian families lose their firstborn son.

And it all seems to be a bit much.  It seems like God could have rescued the Hebrews without all the pyrotechnics and without the dramatic magical show.  It seems like God has got something to prove; and I thought He was better than that.  It seems like, for the first time in the story, I'm being confronted with a wrath worth fearing.

Could there be more to this story of plagues?


A Tale of Two Kingdoms: Empire v. Shalom

And so the story continues and the cry of the Israelite people rises to God and He hears their cry.  They're done with their Egyptian gods.  They don't want any part of the empire's false story and promises of that which it cannot deliver.  They've lost their wealth, their luxury, their comfort, and their security.  The mask has been ripped off and they see things for what they truly are, which is what God had told them from the very beginning.

They're ready to trust the story again.

And so the stage is set for deliverance.  We're ready to see what God will do to deal with the plot of the Israelites.  And we're introduced to Moses.

The beginning of Moses' life is covered with a relatively short passage of biblical text: the story of his birth and escape from death.  In a world where Pharaoh is killing all the male babies and throwing them in the Nile, Moses' mother saves him by placing him in a homemade ark and sending him on his way.  In an ironic twist, he is picked up and adopted by the very family seeking to have his life.

It's worth noting (in a world that seems to deny women a role in the story) that Moses isn't just saved by his mother.  He's saved by an entire group of tenacious women who refuse to give up on God's story.  In the Text, the Egyptian midwives report that the Hebrew mothers are so tough and determined that they are giving birth before the midwives arrive.   Whether that story is true to detail or whether there are groups of Egyptian midwives who have a conscience (or maybe both), we have a story of groups of women that change the course of history by faith, chutzpah, and obedience.

This part of the story is important, as this will happen again and again and again throughout the biblical narrative.  As much as our patriarchal hierarchies have tried to snuff out the role of women in the redemptive work of God, God's story will continue to insist that they have consistently propelled us forward into a better tomorrow.  The story of the Exodus, especially (and the midrash surrounding it), will bring this to light repeatedly.

So Moses is saved and is raised in Pharaoh's household.  He ages and one day is out among the work of the Israelite slaves.  When Moses sees the injustice of an Egyptian slavedriver beating a Hebrew, Moses responds in a rage, beating the Egyptian to death and hiding him in the sand.  When Moses learns that he wasn't able to bury the news of the incident as easily as he did the body, he flees to the deserts of Midian.  On the run, he again encounters injustice.  This time at the hands of some male shepherds who are harassing the female shepherds of Jethro.  After chasing off the male shepherds, Moses is befriended by Jethro's family and finds a role tending a flock of Jethro's sheep.

It is here that Moses will have his famous encounter with God in the burning bush.

So God calls Moses.  But the events of Moses' life are important.  Just as we did with Abram, we ask ourselves why God is choosing Moses.  Some may answer that Moses is overly qualified for the job, having been raised in Egypt and the recipient of untold training and numerous relationship opportunities.  But it's interesting that God never speaks of these things at all.  In fact, when Moses persists in arguing that he is the wrong man for the job, God never brings up Moses' impressive pedigree.  Not once.

I'd like to suggest that God chose Moses for a different reason.  And it's a reason that we've encountered before.

God was looking for partners.  And Moses is a man who has some “God qualities.”

God will tell Moses that his job will be to go and be “as God to Pharaoh”.  God is looking for a partner that won't just go and give Pharaoh a message — but someone who will go and BE the message to Pharaoh (to borrow a phrase from Ray Vander Laan).  We mentioned that God is a God who always hears the cries of the oppressed.  Well, in the course of a couple pages, Moses has shown us that he has a heart that hears the cries of the oppressed, as well.  He's not about to let a brutal slavedriver beat a Hebrew or watch as some female shepherds get abused.

Moses hears the cry.  Now, he probably needs to do some work on HOW he responds to the cry; it seems to be a little impulsive, violent, and built on unmanaged anger.  And so God leads Moses to the desert for forty years and lets him lead sheep.  This is important because shepherding involves the ability to lead with your voice.  A shepherd never leads through the power of his stick or physical force.  No matter how many western American pastors teach that the shepherd uses his staff to poke and prod and steer and whack sheep, no matter how many times a Sunday school teacher tells the moving story of how a shepherd breaks the leg of a sheep to make it dependent on the shepherd, it just isn't true.

Any Middle Eastern shepherd (and that is important: we're not talking about American sheep that graze in pastures of alfalfa; we're talking about the biblical world of sheep and shepherds) will tell you — and usually demonstrate — how a shepherd leads with his (or her — shepherds are usually young girls) voice.  The sheep have been trained to know their shepherd's voice and commands (ringing any bells?  “My sheep know my voice…”) and they follow it to a fault.  Just within the last few years, a story hit the Palestinian news about how a shepherd was trying to call his sheep to him from across a ravine and the entire flock followed his voice and walked off the cliff to their death.

God wants to teach Moses how to lead.  You lead with your voice, not your stick.  (More on this later.)

This is important, because God sets Moses up for a battle of sticks.  When Moses protests that he needs some help to accomplish, what does God do?  He tells him to throw down his stick.  When Moses is at the Red Sea, what will he be told to raise over the water?  His stick.  In Exodus 17, what will he strike the mountain of God with to make water flow?  His stick.  And what will he raise into the sky over the battle with the Amalekites?  “The rod of God.”

This showdown is going to be about sticks.

When Moses goes to confront Pharaoh, the Text will tell us that Moses and Aaron throw down the staff and it becomes a snake (actually, in the Hebrew, it becomes a crocodile).  The magicians of Pharaoh manage to do the same thing to their two sticks.  Then what happens?

Every Bible student says, “Moses' snake eats the other two snakes.”

But that's not what the Text says.

The Hebrew very clearly says that Moses' stick eats the other sticks.

This story isn't about magic spells and miracles.  It's about sticks.  The sticks are representations of power.  This story is about the power of Pharaoh and his stick.  It's about what his authority can do.  And this story is about the power of God.

Pharaoh's stick is a representation of fear and force and coercion.  It's about the strong being on top and the weak powering progress.  Everywhere you go in Egypt (even today) you see Pharaoh holding his stick.  You see Pharaoh beating the slaves and beating the enemy and beating those who stand against him.   Pharaoh's stick sends the message, “Stand against me at your own peril!”

Pharaoh's stick is the embodiment of empire.

Moses' stick is a representation of God's word: the Great Shepherd and His voice.  God's power lies in love and mercy and compassion and justice.  God's stick is the instrument of shalom

This will be the heart of the body of God's narrative.  The story of the Scripture is what I call “The Tale of Two Kingdoms: Empire v. Shalom,” and it begins in the Exodus with a battle of sticks.  Which is true power?  Which carries true authority?  Which stick leads people to true freedom?

Moses' stick ate the Egyptians' stick.

There is a message here about what true power looks like.  There's an invitation to hear the story that God is telling with His voice.  There's a compelling challenge to issue to our hearts about what impresses us and drives us and attracts us.  There's a message about the seduction of empire and the allure of driving people into submission like Pharaoh.  There's a stark reality for leaders everywhere to have to wrestle with what true leadership looks like.

The invitation to lead with your voice.  To tell a story so compelling that others will follow it to the green pastures of the Shepherd.  God leads Moses into the desert for forty years to teach him how to lead with his voice.  Forty years.  Some of us will need similar deserts in order to be prepared to lead God's sheep as hired hands.  Some of us will have to be convinced that it's better to lead by pointing the rod of God towards the heavens than it is to beat our subjects into submission.  Some of us will have to learn that sometimes the stick of Pharaoh is used in the name of theology and efficiency and ‘church discipline’.  And perhaps some of us will have some repentance to work through, because we've spent our lives and ministries burying bodies in the sand.

I know I've had to.  And I know we'll be talking more about this later because of it.

But if we're willing to follow the voice of the Shepherd, we'll find that we are still being invited to trust the story.


The Empire Strikes First

Exodus begins like the beginning of any great narrative.  In a matter of a few paragraphs, the author manages to connect the main narrative to the preface/introduction and set the stage for the crisis and plot that will introduce the main setting of God's great story.

These are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali; Gad and Asher. The descendants of Jacob numbered seventy in all; Joseph was already in Egypt.

Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, but the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them.

Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”

Those few paragraphs sum up quite a bit of history and information quite nicely.  We left the story with Joseph down in Egypt.  He had just managed to bring his family through the famine and acquire a place to live in Egypt.  Not only was Joseph managing to bring a sense of peace and economic stability to the most powerful empire in the world during a time of great recession, but he had also managed to take care of his family by providing them with pretty sweet digs.

This is one part of the Exodus story that is rarely addressed.  The Israelites are given the land of Goshen.  Bible teachers frequently nod to that part of the story and nobody ever seems to want to talk about what kind of land the land of Goshen was.  To this day, the land of Goshen is the most fertile piece of farmland on planet Earth.  Each year, for thousands of years, the Nile River floods creating soil that is unlike anything to be found on the planet.  A few years back, National Geographic ran a cover article documenting the best soils in the world.  The Nile Delta (the land of Goshen) still has over 100 feet of incredibly rich top soil.  In case that doesn't mean anything to you (like it didn't to me) the next best soil in the world is the rich soil of central United States (i.e. Iowa, Nebraska, etc.).  They have an average of 4-6 feet of top soil.  Compare that to the 100 feet of soil in Goshen and you're starting to get an understanding of what we're working with in the Exodus story.

But the Egyptians had a problem.  They liked to build houses and lives in which you could settle down.  You can't build a house in a region that floods for 2 months every year.  So, when this wandering group of nomadic shepherds who live in tents show up, the arrangement works out well for both sides.  Egypt acquires a new demographic that will farm their land, nomads that see it as no big deal to pack up and leave for two months each year.  And the Israelites get to live on the richest piece of fertile land the planet has to offer.  In fact, we've even found evidence that Pharaoh would employ these people (the 'ibiru' people: most scholars identify this people as the Hebrews, and you may notice the phonetic similarity) during the rainy season to help his many building projects around the empire.  We've found records of the rations for his workers.  They were offered a five-day, forty-hour work week, housing, benefits, and an upper-middle-class pay scale.

It's safe to say that the Hebrews were living the good life in the land of Goshen.

You see, nobody ever told me that growing up.  Now, to be fair, those details don't reside in the biblical text, but a simple study in the context of Exodus will reveal the nature of the land of Goshen.  I had always pictured the land of Goshen as the land of miserable desert, horribly stunning heat, and Egyptian pyramids.  And that's just not accurate.

But something changed.  The author tells us that a king arises that sees the world differently.  And he (or she for that matter — some of the Egyptian rulers were women) doesn't value this partnership with the Israelites.  In fact, this ruler sees the Israelites as a threat, and now the entire scene in Goshen shifts.

The Text does not tell us exactly when this shift takes place.  We are told that the Israelites are down in Egypt for 430 years.  How many of those years were easy years of abundance and blessing?  Thirty?  Two hundred?  Four hundred?  At some point, things change dramatically and the Bible leaves this period ambiguous — perhaps on purpose.  Do we hear echoes of Genesis 15 in the Exodus story?  Could the author of Exodus be dropping us hints that no matter how ‘blessed’ with abundance the Israelites were in Goshen, they were still living in slavery?  Could it be that the change of a ruler wasn't really the tipping point of the real problem with the Israelites in Egypt?  Could it be that in spite of their years of blessing and abundance, the Israelites were really in slavery for 430 years?

I remember suggesting that God was telling Abram that because of his trip to Egypt, he had brought Egypt back with him.  And because of this truth, God was going to have to get Egypt out of him and his descendants.

If you haven't gathered yet, this post is full of speculation and I want to be clear on that.  I believe there are hints in the Text that lead us to some conclusions, but I want to be clear about what the Text does and does not say.  At the end of the day, the Bible just doesn't fill in all the blanks for us.  But, having said that, let me take a blog post to propose some ideas that may be at work here in the story of the Exodus.

When they lived in the land of Goshen, the Israelites were farmers (and shepherds) in the most successful agricultural society of their day.  This was true not only because of the richness of the soil, but also because of the Egyptian advances in technology.  The Egyptians had helped advance the Iron Age by discovering how to make a stronger iron:  by adding oxygen to the fire of their smelting furnaces, they had created a mightier iron.  This iron was everything to the world of the Egyptians.  Iron was used to make two major things: tools and weapons.  Whoever possessed the superior technology would have the edge in war and in economic production. 

As farmers, the Israelites were benefiting from Egypt's technological advancements.

But there is always a price to pay for progress.  And if you aren't paying the price, somebody else is.

It turns out that Egypt was powering its furnaces through slave labor.  Slaves would be made to jump on the leather billows that would add oxygen to the smelting furnaces.  The extreme heat of the furnace would inevitably cause the death of the slaves that powered them.  No matter.  Just gather more slaves. 

Remains of ancient furnace at Timnah Mines, just outside of Eilat

And the cry of these slaves rose to heaven.  And YHVH is a God who always hears the cry.

I wonder if God cared about the fact that his people were using tools made from slave labor?  I wonder if the Israelites cared?  And I wonder if the correlation between these two things is important.

You see, the seduction of empire is powerful.  We long for comfort, ease, and security.  We want things to work better and faster and stronger.  We want to be provided with a better product.  And, quite frankly, we don't care how it gets to us.  Where is your t-shirt made?  Do you know?  Do you care?  Does it matter if it was made by a 6-year-old girl working for 6 cents an hour under forced labor?  Or are you just glad that you got it for a good buy?

How are you able to get a tomato in January?  Have you ever considered that?  Do you realize that we are seduced by the power of empire every day?  In the name of comfort and ease and luxury and convenience, we are seduced into a world that provides us with products that come at a price.  And if you're not paying that price, somebody else is.

In a thought-provoking exercise, I invite you to visit http://slaveryfootprint.org/ and take their survey to see how many slaves work for you.

You see, I think the story of the Exodus is about God having to get Egypt out of our hearts.  We're shocked to read throughout the Bible that the Israelites were actually worshipping Egyptian gods while they lived in Goshen.

Joshua would say: “Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped in Egypt…”

Because the kind of life that empire promises is seductive.  And I think that it matters.  I think it matters where your shirt is made and where your tomatoes come from.

I think that God cares.  I think that he hears the cry of those who suffer from injustice.

And eventually, I think God says, “Listen, if you won't help Me hear the cry of the oppressed — if you won't stop taking advantage of the marginalized — then I will make you the oppressed.  Because I have to get those Egyptian gods out of you.”

And eventually, a king arises who knows not of Joseph.

** This post (and the next one) has been shaped by the teaching of Ray VanderLaan.  Much of this teaching can be found by watching the first three lessons of "God Heard Their Cry".  (Volume 8 of That the World May Know series; Focus on the Family)