Thursday, January 26, 2006

Spiritual Struggles in the Middle of the Night

Exodus 1-4 (and Genesis 32:34-30)

The Israelites then continued to live in Egypt for a long time, and after several generations, a new king arose who was worried that the Israelites had become so numerous, and so he enslaved them. The king also tried to reduce the numbers of Israelites by asking the midwives to kill any boys who were born to the Israelites.

One mother who bore a son hid him for three months and then, when she could no longer hide him and was supposed to throw him in the Nile, made a little boat and put him in it on the Nile to give him a chance to be rescued and live. He was rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh, in fact, and was thus raised in the Pharaoh’s own house. This child was Moses (Ex 1-2:10).

When Moses grew up, he went among his people and was surprised and horrified to see them living hard lives of forced labor (Ex 2:11). He did not (yet) live among them, but settled in a nearby land called Midian, where he married, had a son, and tended the flock of his father-in-law. The Lord appeared to him one day in a burning bush (Ex 3:2) and told him that he must free his people. Moses was filled with doubts about whether he could accomplish something like this (Ex 4). The Lord told him that his brother Aaron would help him. So Moses headed back to Egypt with his wife and sons, but along the way, “at a place where they spent the night, the Lord met him and tried to kill him” (Ex 4:24)! This is a most surprising passage! His wife, Zipporah, saved the day.

There was an earlier passage, back in Genesis, about Jacob fighting with an angel of the Lord (Gen 32:34-30). Here, even though the angel put Jacob’s hip out of joint, Jacob didn’t give up, and finally the angel asked Jacob to let him go, but Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me” (Gen 32:26). The angel blessed Jacob, and re-named him “Israel,” (Gen 32:28) or “one who strives with God.”

I suspect that both of these passages are passages about spiritual struggles in the middle of the night. In both cases, these struggles happen the night before an important moment in these men’s lives. For Jacob, it happened the night before he was to meet and try to make peace with his brother Esau. Jacob was very worried, because his brother had good reason to be very upset with him. Jacob was not at all sure that he would emerge from this reunion alive! (He did.) In the case of Moses, his struggle was also the evening before meeting his brother Aaron, but in this case their reunion was symbolic of the beginning of their joint effort to free Israel from being enslaved by Egypt.

Many who work for peace and justice go through spiritual struggles in the middle of the night. These struggles become defining moments along the journey towards embracing one's calling.

Other observations about Exodus, so far:

1. It is interesting that the person who emerges to free his people from being held slaves was himself raised in Pharaoh’s house. It is often the case that the people who have the vision to see clearly that something is wrong have something unusual in their background or experience that enables them to see and question something that everyone else takes for granted (even if unhappily).

2. When Moses received the calling to free his people, at first he was filled with many doubts as to whether he was capable of doing this. God promises to help him at every step of the way.

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