The story of Pesach is of course a story of a transition from slavery to freedom. But what are we to make of this story? Surely slavery is bad and freedom is good. That message might have been revolutionary hundreds of years ago, but today it is a basic assumption of life in democratic countries. Is there any use in the story for us today? Certainly, there must be. As we dive into the Exodus story, we should focus on the themes of liberation in the story. What does it mean to liberate ourselves in body, mind, and spirit? What does it mean to liberate ourselves as a people? Is there such thing as full liberation?
The story of our exodus begins long before the time of Moses, with Joseph, one of the greatgrandsons of Sara and Abraham. Joseph goes down to Egypt land to avoid famine at home. He does exceedingly well there and invites all his brothers down to join him. They head south from Canaan and they too find success. Life’s so good that all the Israelites have heaps of babies. But then, the Egyptians start to realize that these Hebrews are growing bigger and more influential. We constitute a sort of demographic threat, you might say. A new pharaoh comes along with no memory of Joseph’s service to his forebears and, fearing that we might one day join with an enemy nation, decides to throw the Israelites in chains: So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labour, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with harsh labour in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labour the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly. (Exodus 1:11-14) Can our choices and actions liberate us even if we cannot break out of our oppressive reality? We were an inordinately fertile people, and even slavery wasn’t enough to stop the Israelites from procreating like rabbits. So Pharaoh – instructs the Hebrew midwives to start killing all Jewish babies born male. One day a Hebrew woman gives birth to a tenacious little stutterer named Moses. She’s scared of what will happen to him, so she sends him down stream in a basket. He gets spotted by Pharaoh’s daughter, who takes him in and raises him.
After growing up, Moses “went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labour.” He sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew and then, after making sure no one is around, kills the Egyptian. Moses, the only Hebrew to grow up in freedom, is appalled by the conditions under which his people work. While the other children of Israel have learned to accept their lot, Moses cannot, and responds with extreme violence to his first encounter with forced labour. Then, after trying to intervene in a fight between two Hebrews, Moses flees to Midian because he discovers that people know he had killed an Egyptian. He meets Jethro and marries his daughter Zipora. Moses names their son Gershom, saying, “I have become a foreigner in a foreign land.” Herein lies Moses’ human essence: he is the only person raised in an Egyptian household who understands the pains of slavery, who has experienced privilege but with an acute awareness of privilege’s human toll. He is the only Hebrew who understands freedom, whose eyes see the world untainted by a lifetime of oppression and degradation. In Midian he finds a mentor as well as a life, but he remains an outsider. He has a unique social consciousness but he is utterly alone; no one in his world can fully relate to his perception of reality, his experience of life. In Midian Moses is neither a slave nor a pseudo-Egyptian who reaps the benefits of slavery; he works for his family as a shepherd. After he has acquired all these different perspectives on life and on human labour, God talks to him through the burning bush. The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey… So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” Egypt, the land of slavery and suffering, is contrasted with Eretz Israel, a land which will reward those who work it. Moses asks God why he is the one to take on this project. God is typically evasive but promises Moses that he’s got his back. What is demanded of us when we accept responsibility to liberate ourselves and/or others?
Then the story we all know unfolds: Moses tells Pharaoh to let his people go; Pharaoh shows he’s not so inclined to lose thousands of free workers and then makes their work even harder; Pharaoh has a whose-magic-is-better battle against Moses and Aaron and dismissed them from his court. However, Moses and Aaron did not leave without heeding a warning of what would come if Pharaoh failed to set free the Hebrew slaves. After some frustrating back-and-forth between Moses and Pharoah, God brings plagues upon Egypt, and each time Pharaoh agrees to release the Hebrews but fails to follow through once each plague is withdrawn. God also hardens Pharaoh’s heart so he remains unconvinced and then, after nine failed attempts to release the Hebrews, God drops the doomsday plague: killing all of the Egyptian firstborns, including Pharaoh’s son. (Luckily, he ‘passed over’ ours)
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