Telling the Exodus Story
The first major story of liberation in the Bible is the Exodus of Israelites from Egypt. In a series of posts I’ll delve in more deeply what kind of themes we can draw from the Exodus story with regards to Social Justice. In this post, though, I want to ask a simple question: when you hear the Exodus story, what themes are typically emphasized? What is the moral of the story? In this story and others, we can tell all the same details but send very different messages, so what are the messages that are usually emphasized in talking about the Exodus?
I can speak from my own experience here that I think is fairly common in contexts such as mine (primarily ones of power: white, Canadian, male, not rich by Canadian standards but not poor either). The story was primarily told to show how strong God is. There is plenty of that in the text, to be sure. Maybe there was even an element of fear involved in the telling I was used to – although I definitely do not think that was intentional – with this emphasis on God’s ability to wreak havoc on us if we are doing wrong.
The other way of telling the story emphasized how much God loved Israel in particular. This is clearly true in the Hebrew Scriptures context and even after the covenant is extended in the New Testament. Israel was God’s chosen people and God rescued them. That’s great for them, but the implication left was often that we didn’t really have anything to learn from that for today.
But there’s a valuable principle of typology in biblical interpretation: God acts in parallel throughout history because his character remains the same. Not necessarily the exact same ways, but in ways that are consistent in character. If we look at this story in terms of the types involved, we see something that is startlingly obvious if you’re just seeing it for the first time: God sides with a group of nobody slaves against one of the Ancient world’s greatest empires.
Liberation theologians speak of “God’s preferential option for the poor.” Maybe it could be tweaked to say “God’s preferential option for the oppressed” since oppression comes in many forms and not just economic. This viewpoint would help us look at the Exodus in a much more powerful way. It isn’t just that God is strong; it is that God uses that strength to rise up the lowly and sometimes to knock down the powerful. It isn’t just that God loves Israel; it is that God seeks dignity of all, which means coming to the aid of those in need. Millenia ago God chose a small and weak nation and came to their aid. Jesus’ teaching emphasizes many of the same themes. I believe the same is true today. It’s not saying that the poor/oppressed are considered more valuable to God – an easy way to misunderstand the phrase – but that God sides with them in seeking to end their oppression which does sometimes result in unhappy endings for the unrepentant oppressors.
This series of posts on the Exodus will hopefully demonstrate what it looks like to tell the story in a way that shows this “preference” of God. I will look at things like how Egypt came to own so many slaves in the first place, how Pharaoh’s stubbornness of power kept him from accepting what should be blatantly obvious, how God works through even the least qualified leader Moses of the least qualified nation to be his people.