Exodus – Makes me wanna howl


After reading the book of Exodus this week. I feel like howling.

I expected to feel uplifted. Exodus, after all, gives us the great story of “salvation” or “liberation.”  God leads Moses who leads the people out of their enslavement, walking “dryshod” through the Red Sea.  The Passover story (whether the passage through the sea or the passing-over of the angel of death the night before) has been an inspiration and/or means of celebrating the experience of millions seeking freedom of one kind or another for centuries. It is the essential story in any Christian Easter Vigil. I expected to feel uplifted after reading Exodus. I did not. I felt like I wanted to howl because its portrayal of God is so problematic. Irredeemable really.


Let’s divide the book into five sections:

Chapters 1-4                The birth of Moses

Chapters 5-12              The Plagues

Chapters 13-15            The Escape from Egypt

Chapters 16-34            Covenant (commandments & ordinances)

Chapters 35-40            Obedience through building

The birth of Moses features the charming story of his rescue as a baby from the basket floating in the reeds (perhaps an allusion to the story of Noah’s Ark.) Moses emerges as a complicated personality: the child of privilege (Pharaoh’s adopted son) and non-privilege (a Hebrew by birth). As a young adult he chooses to align himself with his non-privileged identity and after killing an Egyptian, goes into exile. It is in exile – away from home – that he hears the call to leadership and experiences the revelation of God’s other name. (Up until now, God was known to the Hebrews as “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Apparently, Moses doesn’t think that will worry Pharaoh much, and he wants to know what to say when Pharaoh asks WHO is trying to tell him what to do. God says, “Tell him ‘I am who am’ sent you.”)

The story of the plagues begins as soon as Moses returns to Egypt from his exile. You know the basic story. Pharaoh refuses to let the people go and God makes big trouble in Egypt. Ten plagues, each worse than the one before. In most of the plagues, the people of Egypt are the ones who suffer. Neither Pharaoh himself, nor Moses, not the Israelites suffer – just the people of Egypt. Collateral damage, I guess. It’s touching that God hears the cries of the Israelites in their suffering. Apparently the cries of ordinary Egyptians don’t mean as much – the beginning of that venerable theological tenet that God loves us more than God loves “them”, so “they” are expendable. AND the reason the plagues are visited upon Egypt in the first place, according to the story, is because God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart.”  This is not a pretty picture of God.

The Escape from Egypt – There is no indication that Pharaoh himself is killed in the Red Sea, but his army is. God couldn’t hold the sea back until the charioteers got their chariots unstuck from the mud?

Covenant (commands and ordinances) – During the first three months in the wilderness God tries to bring a little order to the group, issuing commandments and ordinances. If the people are obedient, they will find water, food, protection from enemies and diseases, and ultimately, delivery into the Promised Land. The Ten Commandments are found here, along with a number of less well-known “commandments.” I was interested to see that the first commandment was about how the Israelites were to treat slaves. Ex. 21:1. Apparently, God came not to abolish slavery, but to reform it. “Now that you are the slaveholders, be better slaveholders than yours were.” Cold comfort that.

The people don’t always obey well. You’ll remember the story about the Golden Calf. The portion of that story we hear in the lectionary omits the part about Moses instructing the Levites to kill all those who favored the Golden Calf – 3,000 friends, neighbors and brothers. Cold comfort that.

Obedience through building – God demands gifts of precious metals, stones, fabric, spices and etc for the construction and adornment of a tabernacle, altars, Tent of Meeting and etc. In this, the Israelites are able to obey completely. I could not help but think of the palaces that Sadam Hussein had built to honor his life and career, and the disdain with which we regarded that self-celebratory opulence. Again, not a pretty picture of God.

I saw two new things in this reading of Exodus: (1) Moses’ growth in his vocation as a leader, and (2) the significance of Sabbath-keeping.

Moses learns to share responsibility. In general, Moses is a much more interesting and agreeable personality than the God. He is passionate enough to avenge another. He is courageous enough to become an exile, and although he will work miracles, he also feels fear and self-doubt. He knows a lot about the trials of leadership: the complaining of those he is trying to help, the tendency for people to focus more on a leader’s failure than his or her successes, and the temptation to be over-responsible.

Moses grows as a leader, particularly in his ability to share and delegate responsibility. There are four key stories.

(1) When he is first called, (Ex. 4) he warns God that he is not eloquent. Although this objection makes God angry, God listens and enlists Aaron as a speaker. Leaders are well-served by enlisting people who have the skills and abilities that they do not.

(2)  In the battle with Amalek (Ex. 17:8-16), the Israelites prevail in battle only so long as Moses can hold his arms up. He needs help keeping his arms up. He does not “go it alone.”

(3) In the wilderness, he takes it upon himself to spend entire days acting as judge between persons in conflict. His father-in-law, Jethro watches this and tells him that he will wear himself out if he keeps it up, and that he should delegate responsibility. Other people can be appointed to settle legal disputes. Moses role is to teach God’s ordinances. (Ex.18:13-27). Moses learns to delegate.

(4) After the Golden Calf incident, God seems to be fed up. God decides to continue leading the people towards the Promised Land, but at a distance. “I cannot be among you. You make me too angry.” Moses puts his foot down and says all bets are off if that will be God’s stance, and God relents. (Ex. 33).  Sometimes, leaders need to argue with the boss.

Sabbath-keeping. We know that Sabbath-keeping is one of the commandments, but we probably don’t think of it as the most important commandment. After reading Exodus, I am not so sure.

It’s just a hunch, based on the following:

-Early in Exodus, Pharaoh calls the Israelites “lazy” even though they do the work they are assigned, and complain only when Pharaoh makes the work impossibly difficult by withholding straw for bricks. Is there a work-ethic issue here?

-Arguably one of the first commandments given in the wilderness is about Sabbath-keeping. When the people are hungry and God sends bread from heaven (Ex. 16) they are told that on the 6th day they should gather enough for two days, and not gather on the 7th day. (Of course, some do although they are not punished.) Even before the first appearance of “The Ten Commandments” (@ Ex.20) we read, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord.” (Ex. 16:23)

-Groups of commandments or ordinances appear in various places in Exodus. Sabbath-keeping is mentioned almost every time, and certainly more often than any other commandment. By my count, it appears five times (Ex. 16:26, 20:8, 23:10, 31:14 and 35:2.) It’s an important commandment. Violation is punishable by death. (Ex. 35:2)  You would think murder was more important: it is the subject of a commandment only once.

Lectionary Notes

Here are the readings we hear from Exodus:

Year A

A new king arose who knew not Joseph Ex. 1:8-10 Pr. 16A
God’s new name @ burning bush Ex. 3:1-15 Pr. 17A
Passover commemoration instructions Ex. 12:1-14 Pr. 18A, Holy Thursday
Passage through the Red SeaPassage through the Red Sea with song Ex. 14:10-31 or Ex. 14:10-31& 15:1b-11, 20-21 Pr.19A
Passage through the Red Sea with song Ex. 14:10-31 & 15:20-21 Easter Vigil A
Bread provided in the wilderness Ex. 16:2-15 Pr.20A
Water provided in the wilderness Ex. 17:1-7 Pr.21A
Invitation to covenant Ex. 19:2-8 Pr. 6A
Ten Commandments Ex. 20:1-20 Pr.22A
Moses goes up the mountain for the tablets Ex. 24:12-18 Last Epiphany A
Golden Calf & Moses intercedes Ex. 32:1-14 Pr.23A
Moses asks to see God’s glory Ex. 33:12-23 Pr.24A

Year B

Passover commemoration instructions Ex. 12:1-14 Holy Thurs B
Passage through the Red Sea with song Ex. 14:10-31 & 15:20-21 Easter Vigil B
Bread provided in the wilderness Ex. 16:2-15 Pr.13B(?)
Ten Commandments Ex. 20:1-20 Lent 3B

Year C

Passover commemoration instructions Ex. 12:1-14 Holy Thurs C
Passage through the Red Sea with song Ex. 14:10-31 & 15:20-21 Easter Vigil C
Golden Calf & Moses intercedes Ex. 32:7-14 Pr.19C
Moses’ face shines after Mt. Sinai Ex. 34:29-35 Last Epiphany C

We only hear the story about the burning bush once in three years (in Year A.) In Year B, except for the Holy Week/Easter Vigil readings we have a reading of the Ten Commandments and the  story about Bread in the Wilderness. The latter offers lovely Eucharistic language, but let’s not cherry-pick Exodus for the readings that can be taken out of context and made to seem proto-Christian. Let’s add better stories.

For example, let’s add a series that tracks the life and growth of Moses:

-Exodus 2                    His birth and rescue in a time of genocide

-Exodus 4:1-17            Moses’ protest when God calls: I am not eloquent. Find another.

-Exodus 17:8-13          Moses leads the battle against Amalek, with help

-Exodus 18:13-27        Moses learns to delegate. Leave the judging to someone else.

-Exodus 33:12-23        Moses argues with God.

And then let’s hear some of the stories in which who God is leaves us wanting to howl. The plagues, for instance. The way in which God sets up the Egyptians for destruction, maybe.  Or better, the punishments God deals out to those God claims as a treasured people. (As they say, with a friend like that, who needs an enemy?) We need to hear the stories about God that make us want to howl. The God of Exodus IS problematic. We need to let ourselves hear the stories and maybe start an argument of our own with this God.