Saturday, January 28, 2006

God Helps the Oppressed Gain Freedom, But...

Exodus 5-14

What I’m appreciating so far about the Exodus story is that it is about an oppressed people seeking freedom. God is helping a group of people who are looked down upon and treated badly in the society in which they live. God helps this group to find its dignity, and to claim its freedom.

There is a lot that is interesting in this story. First of all, after Moses and Aaron make their initial request to Pharaoh (a bit deceptive, because they ask only for a few days to go and have a religious festival, but really they do seek permanent escape), Pharaoh is so upset that he commands that the Israelites be compelled to work even harder than before, so that they will not have time to pay heed to deceptive words (Ex 5:7-9). This strategy was very clever, because he even got the Israelites mad at Moses and Aaron, blaming them for the increase in work that they now suffered (Ex 5:20-21).

I must pause here to observe that we in the U.S. have been driven (by the Pharaoh named “Economic Growth”) to work harder and harder – so hard that we don’t have time to pause and look around and question our predicament. When we do have a chance to pause from our work, we are easily seduced into the trance of watching TV. In this trance, we are convinced that we are happy with our lives and have freely chosen this life of working hard so that we can buy all the things that TV programs us to buy. We are (mostly) protected from having to face the full consequences of our all of our frenetic activity: the exploitation of the poor and the destruction of our natural environment.

But, back to the Bible story: Because the Pharaoh did not respond well to the request of the Israelites, the request is repeated, and each time it is denied, a new plague comes down upon Egypt. Here are the 10 plagues:

1. The Nile turns to blood.
2. Swarms of frogs appear.
3. Dust turns into gnats.
4. Swarms of flies appear.
5. Egyptian animals are killed by a disease.
6. The air fills with soot and causes festering boils on people and animals.
7. Thunder, hail, and fire rain down from the sky.
8. Swarms of locusts appear.
9. A dense darkness covers that land.
10. The firstborn children and livestock of the Egyptians all die.

Until the last one, the Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened, though interestingly sometimes it is not that “Pharaoh hardened his heart” (e.g., Ex 8:32) but “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (e.g., Ex 9:12).

The 10th plague finally really upsets the Pharaoh, and he now wants the Israelites (who have consistently been spared the ill effects of these plagues) to be gone. So at last they leave, but then the Lord hardens Pharaoh’s heart again (“I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, so that I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord” (Ex 14:4).) Pharaoh and his army now pursue the Israelites, but the Red Sea parts to let the Israelites through, but then closes in upon Pharaoh and his army and they are all drowned (Ex 14:10-31).

I am greatly troubled by this part of the story because it portrays God as trying to show off His power, using fear to try to gain notice and respect. I am also troubled because this story reinforces the problematic attitude that God intervenes in really direct ways, such as by invoking natural disasters, suffering, and death, to punish the bad people. This in turn reinforces “blame the victim” kinds of attitudes: when bad things happen to someone, it must mean that the person somehow deserved it, and God is punishing him or her.

Admittedly, there are other more metaphorical ways to interpret this story, but, still, this well-known story, read literally, is an important source of really problematic attitudes that people do voice on a regular basis.

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