Exodus 1:1–14; 3:1–15
I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.
Indeed, I know their sufferings . . .
Galatians 5:1, 13–15
Slavery was a sad and common reality in the ancient world. There were at least four ways that people became slaves. First, when people suffered a terrible misfortune like sickness, accident, flood, debt, theft or famine, they could quickly find themselves in danger of death by starvation or homelessness. In that desperate situation, they might be forced to sell themselves into slavery, under the simple reasoning that being a live slave was better than being a dead non-slave. Second, when nations won a war, they often killed off all their vanquished enemies. But some nations decided to keep their defeated foes alive as slaves instead of killing them. Third, refugees or other vulnerable minorities might be enslaved by the dominant majority. Finally, babies born to slaves were destined to be slaves.
That was what happened to the descendants of Abraham between the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus in the Bible. As Genesis ended, Joseph had welcomed his brothers into Egypt as refugees to escape a famine in their land to the north. Finding refuge solved the famine problem, but refugee and minority status made them vulnerable to enslavement.
As Exodus begins, the Hebrews, as Abraham’s descendants were then called, have been enslaved. And they have also grown in numbers, so much so that the Egyptians have begun to fear that they might rebel. In response, the Egyptian ruler, the Pharaoh, calls for a gradual genocide by decreeing that all the male babies born to the Israelite slaves be thrown into the River Nile to drown. You can see how this strategy would leave the next generation of Hebrew women either barren or vulnerable to sexual enslavement by Egyptian men. After one generation, no more ‘pure’ Hebrews would be born.
'...God gets involved by challenging us to get involved.'
Often in the Bible, when there is a big problem God prepares a person or people to act as God’s partners or agents in solving it. In other words, God gets involved by challenging us to get involved. In this case, God prepared a man named Moses. Moses was one of the babies whom the Pharaoh required to be drowned in the Nile.
His mother came up with a creative way to save his life. She placed him in the Nile as required, but first she put baby Moses in a little raft of reeds. His raft floated downstream, where it was found by one of Pharaoh’s daughters. She felt sorry for the little baby and decided to raise him as her own. So this vulnerable slave boy was adopted into the privileged household of Pharaoh – and to top it off, Moses’ own mother was hired to be the wet nurse. Quite a turn of events! Now Moses could live happily ever after, right?
Not quite. The good news was that Moses survived. The bad news? Moses grew up with an identity crisis. He was an Israelite by birth but an Egyptian by culture. So a huge question was hanging over him as he matured: on whose side would he stand when he came of age? As a young man, his moment of decision came when he saw an Egyptian beating up an Israelite. He stood up for the Israelite and killed the Egyptian oppressor. Now he had made his choice. But to his surprise, his kinfolk didn’t welcome him as a hero. Instead, when he tried to intervene in a quarrel between two Israelites, they distrusted him. So he went from belonging to both sides to being considered an outsider by both sides.
In disgrace, he ran away from Egypt and came to an oasis in the desert. There, he saw a group of male shepherds drive away some girls from a well. Now, sensitised to the victims of oppression, he stood up for the girls. Their father was so grateful that he welcomed Moses into his family, and Moses married one of the daughters he had helped protect. Finally Moses had a place to belong, right? Now he could settle down and be happy, right? They lived happily ever after, right? Not quite.
Imagine the scene: Moses is out tending sheep one day and something strange catches his attention: a bush is on fire, but it’s not burning up. When Moses comes closer to check it out, he hears a voice calling his name. It’s God – and God is telling him to go back to Egypt, confront Pharaoh about his exploitation of the Israelites, and lead them on a long road to freedom.
Moses feels he has already failed at helping the Israelites, so it takes some persuasion for him to agree to accept this mission. But finally he goes, supported by his older brother, Aaron. They confront Pharaoh with the message: ‘God says, “Let my people go!”’ Predictably, Pharaoh refuses. So God sends plagues as pressure on Pharaoh, as if to say, ‘Oppressing others may seem like the easy road to riches, power and comfort, but there are high costs to following that road.’ After that cost is dramatised ten times through ten plagues, Pharaoh relents and tells the people they can leave. Now everything will be fine, right? Happily ever after, right?
Not quite. Soon after saying ‘yes’ to Moses, Pharaoh has second thoughts and sends his army to pursue the Israelites and bring them back into slavery.
So Moses and the Israelites find themselves trapped between the Egyptian army and a huge body of water. At the last minute, God opens up a path through the water and the Israelites escape. When Pharaoh’s army follows, the path closes and they all drown. The fate they had planned for the Israelite babies now becomes their own fate. Surely now there will be a happy ending for the former slaves, right? Not quite.
If you’re looking for a thirty-minute story with a happy ending every time, it’s hard to find in the Bible – just as it is in real life. Instead, we discover the presence of God with us in our troubles, helping us deal with them, helping us discover solutions to them, helping us deal with the new problems inevitably created by those solutions, and so on. Through it all, we discover God’s faithful desire to help the downtrodden, the oppressed, the exploited and the forgotten.
'We’re all like Moses in a lot of ways. We all have choices to make...'
We’re all like Moses in a lot of ways. We all have choices to make – who we will become, whose side we’ll stand on, whether we’ll give up after our failures and frustrations, whether we’ll have the faith to get up and keep moving forward when we sense God’s call. Life may not be easy – but it can certainly be an exciting path to walk, if we go through life with God!
The story of Moses and the escape, or exodus, from Egypt glows at the core of the whole biblical story. It makes one of history’s most audacious and unprecedented claims: God is on the side of slaves, not slave owners! God doesn’t uphold an unjust status quo, but works to undermine it so that a better future can come. That revolutionary message is still unknown or rejected in much of the world today. If you believe it, you will live one way. If you don’t, you’ll live another way. Jesus, as one of the descendants of those slaves, was formed in this story of liberation.
Every year he gathered around a table to remember these events and to situate his life in the ongoing march from slavery and into freedom. All who ate that Passover meal, as it was called, were demonstrating that they were not part of the slave-owning economy, but were among those seeking freedom from it. They wanted God’s judgement to pass over them – which is the source of the meal’s name, Passover – so they could pass over from slavery to freedom. As part of this community, united in this meal, Jesus learned a profound way of seeing God and others. Where others used their gods to defend an unjust status quo, Jesus believed in the God of justice and liberation. Where others saw a worthless slave, an exploitable asset, a damnable sinner, a disgusting outsider, Jesus saw someone to set free.
The night before his crucifixion, Jesus and his disciples were celebrating the Passover meal. He urged his disciples to keep doing so – not just annually, but frequently, and not just in memory of Moses in ancient Egypt, but also in memory of his own life and message. That’s why followers of Jesus continue to gather around a simple meal of bread and wine today. By participating in that meal, we are making the same choice Moses made – and the same choice Jesus made: to join God in the ongoing struggle to be free and to set others free.
That’s what it means to be alive in God’s story of creation and non-violent liberation. It’s a road into the wild, a road we make by walking
Meditate and Contemplate
1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about a time you took the side of a vulnerable person, or the time you were the vulnerable person and others took your side . . . or didn’t.
3. Name the Hebrew slaves of today’s world. Who today is being exploited and crying out for help? Who does back-breaking work for which others reap the rewards? How can we join in solidarity with them, seeking liberation?
4. For children: What’s your favourite meal and what do you like most about it? What special meaning does that meal have for you?
5. Activate: This week, seek to have ‘Moses eyes’ – looking for people who are being oppressed or mistreated. Be open to ways God may call you to intervene.
6. Meditate: Hold this question open before God: ‘Loving Creator, help my small heart to join your great heart in having compassion for those most in need.’