Over the past few weeks, while we’ve been working through Paul’s vision of Christian life and community in Romans 12-13, the Sunday lectionary has simultaneously been working through another story of the confrontation between God’s people and Empire, that great paradigmatic story at the heart of both Judaism and Christianity: the Exodus.
The part of the story we read today recounts the dramatic crossing of the Hebrews through the Red Sea. The angel of God and pillar of cloud and fire that had led them to the shores of the sea suddenly move to their rear to protect them from the pursuing Egyptian army. Moses then raises his arms over the waters and they part, allowing the Hebrews to cross over into safety before they crash back over the Egyptians. This is the moment when the Exodus becomes real, when the terror of these escaped slaves begins to transition into something more like hope and excitement.
There’s no question this is a stirring story. The imagery could not be more powerful: God acting as vanguard and rearguard protecting God’s people; God making a way for them where there was no way; God’s activity releasing them from their traumatic past into their open future. These are some of the most beautiful themes of our tradition and it’s important for us to remember them and embody them.
In an uncertain and often scary world, we need to remember that God goes before us and behind us. As the ancient Christian prayer known as the Breastplate of St. Patrick reminds us:
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise […]
We are not alone. God’s got our back.
And in a world where it can often feel like the barriers which separate us from our biggest, best, most sanctified hopes, dreams, visions, and vocations are insurmountable, I couldn’t help but get a badly needed charge of hope from this story of our infinitely creative God creating pathways no one — not even Moses — could see.
These are good, true, and beautiful themes for us to remember.
And yet, we have to be careful.
With a story like the Exodus we have to be careful not to identify ourselves too quickly or easily with the Hebrews. The whole point of exploring the theme of Empire the past couple of months has been to challenge just that sort of easy reading of the Scriptures that ignores how the particularities of these stories speak to the particularities of our own time and place. Yes, there are beautiful universal truths here, but before the Exodus story can be generalized, it must first be particularized. And in particular, it is first and foremost the story of God’s solidarity with an oppressed and enslaved people, expressed in God’s mighty acts that freed them.
It’s interesting that often in the Scriptures, when the plight of God’s people seems particularly dire, they tend to be referred to not as Israelites but as Hebrews. It’s a word of uncertain origin, but both of the leading hypotheses emphasize that it isn’t a demonym — the name of a people (like, Canadian or Briton or Israelite) — but a description, and an unflattering one at that. It may mean something like “from afar,” or “from the other side.” This would emphasize that they don’t belong in Egypt: Even after generations in Egypt, they are foreigners, aliens, refugees, migrant workers, or immigrants who had been welcomed as settlers but later enslaved in violation of the promises made to them. The other leading hypothesis is that it could be a form of the label ‘Habiru’, which was a common descriptor (and probably racial slur) across the Ancient Near East for despised, stateless wandering peoples who lived as nomads, bandits, mercenaries, or — as in Egypt — slaves. Either way, we have a situation where the people of God no longer see themselves as the inheritors of God’s promise — as Israelites: descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob-Israel — but as nameless outsiders, misfits, and outcasts.
But when they cry out to God, God hears them and acts. In hearing them, God is identified as the “God of the Hebrews” — the God of the Foreigner, the God of the Outcast, the God of the Slave. In acting, this God condemns the Egyptians, who had created the system that enslaved them, and are now working against their freedom. And so, the Exodus is a story of freedom from oppression and simultaneously a condemnation of all the systems and structures of the world that oppress people such that they need to be freed, and of all those who would stand in the way of freedom.
If you’re reading this, you (like me) probably benefit from these structures in our world more than you are oppressed by them. And so we really need to challenge ourselves and our assumptions before we appropriate the wonderful themes of the Exodus for ourselves. Whose side are we on? Are we trying to break down the systems that keep the rich rich and the poor poor, and which seek to define who gets to be ‘in’ and who is ‘out’? Or, or are we clinging to those systems in self-interest? Are we working towards the change needed to make our society more just, or do we retreat behind our comfort and security?
Are we on the side of God’s freedom?
The point of this sort of reckoning isn’t to blame or shame. But it is simply to acknowledge that if we truly take the Exodus story to heart, it doesn’t have some bland, generic message of God protecting us no matter what we’re doing, or God making a way for us to accomplish our goals and selfish ambitions. Instead, it’s about God making a way for and protecting those seeking justice and liberation. And so, we can only rightly appropriate its themes inasmuch as we are on the side of those for whom God is acting.
I don’t need to tell you these are trying times. Much has been said, here and all over the media, about the chickens — philosophical, political, rhetorical, social, economic, and ecological — that are coming home to roost right now. There is so much uncertainty and so much fear, and much of it is legitimate. And it’s overwhelming. We’re being called up to make bold choices and to take bold stands for the sake of justice for all and freedom for all. We’re being called once again into the alternative way of being in the world that is God’s Kingdom. This may feel risky, but the Exodus story reminds us that, as we take these steps forward and push back the enemies of true freedom and justice, God has our backs, and that God will make a way, even when we can’t see one.
Thanks be to the God of the Hebrews, the God who frees. Always.