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From Slavery to Revelation

The Book of Exodus

After the death of Joseph the children of Israel - literally, Jacob’s descendants - remain in Egypt, and we skip to a time years later when Egypt’s reception becomes much less friendly. We are told that a new Pharaoh arose, who felt these people - we call them Hebrews - were becoming a threat. And so he makes slaves of them, not only for material gain but in order to control them and ensure they cannot rebel.

Under the misery of this oppression the people nearly collapse in hopelessness. One very reluctant Moses hears a call to step up and lead his people to freedom. He tries to resist it, but knows in his heart he has been given a great responsibility. It is not only to liberate his people, but to carry forward Abraham’s legacy.

Moses confronts Pharoah, with mixed results. Pharaoh refuses to take Moses seriously, until a strange sequence of destructive events strikes him and his people. Seeing in these “plagues” the hand of a power greater than his own, Pharaoh relents, only to reverse himself at the last minute. Finally Pharaoh backs down long enough to give Moses and the children of Israel time to escape.

But soon the people wish they had never left. They wander for years in the dry desert, not knowing where they are headed, scarcely able to find adequate food and water, frequently on the verge of losing their faith. They complain to Moses often, wishing he had left them in Egypt where they forgot how miserable they were.

Then at an undistinguished mountain called Sinai they experience a spiritual rebirth. God speaks to them directly: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

This is the first of the “Ten Commandments,” although it is hardly a commandment at all. It is a statement of Abraham’s legacy: God exists, and is actively involved in human life.

At least at this high moment, even if they are to forget it many times over, the people rediscover their spiritual inheritance. It is a renewal of the Covenant, or the promise of God’s direct involvement in human life. This idea of the Covenant, which runs throughout both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, challenges us today when we are torn between a sophisticated, science-inspired atheism and a popular theology of a God who sympathizes with us but who refrains from any intervention in our lives.

The next scene portrays the fragility of faith. Moses spends more time on the mountaintop, continuing to receive revelations. In Moses’s absence the people start to panic. They cannot tolerate insecurity. They need a leader they can see, and in the leader’s absence they need a god they can see. They prevail upon Moses’s brother Aaron to help them make such a god, a calf-form that emerges when they melt down their golden jewelry. When Moses returns he sees the people worshiping this object, as though they never heard the words God had spoken to them, and in a rage he smashes the stone tablets upon which God's words are engraved.

And so it goes throughout these forty years in the desert. Time after time Moses must confront his people’s fears, their inability to hold onto their faith. This is a generation conditioned by slavery, too afraid of change. This generation is not ready for the challenge of settling in a new land. Time has to pass for the next generation to emerge.

But one man from the older generation does survive to become their leader, once they no longer have Moses to guide them.

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