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.

On Egypt: Yes, We Can Too. (Genesis)

Luke and I are in training. We hope to become a Therapy Dog team so that we can visit folks in Nursing Homes, Hospices and other facilities. We have at least 6 more months of training before we are even eligible to take the test Therapy Dog teams need to pass before they can begin to work, and we will need all six months. There is a lot to learn for both of us. Luke needs to learn things like “sit,” “down,” and “stay” and I need to learn how to teach him these things! I sometimes feel that he is learning his new lessons more quickly than I am learning mine. My lessons are about how to be a good teacher. It looks easy to teach when the experts do it. In fact, it’s not easy.

We have been taking classes at the Monadnock Humane Society. They have very good teachers. One of the ways the MHS trainers help us humans learn is to have us try to teach our dogs “parlor tricks.” A Therapy Dog doesn’t really need to know how to “spin” or “roll over” or “sit pretty,” but teaching Luke those tricks will help me learn how to be a better teacher. Sometime last week, I taught Luke how to “shake hands” or offer his paw. He learned that very quickly. I think I “clicked” the clicker once and he knew exactly what was expected. And he learned that if he did the trick, he would get a treat.

To my dismay, he now offers the behavior constantly. It was what I taught him I wanted him to do, and sometimes it feels like I can’t turn it off.

I finished the last half of Genesis last week, reading the stories of Isaac, Jacob and Joseph.

Isaac was a bit of a non-event. He was the passive near-victim of Abraham’s obedience in Gen. 22, he goes where he is told to find a wife in Gen. 24, (and seems to have only one wife), he repeats his father’s unpleasant strategy of passing his wife off as his sister (Gen. 26), he farms and manages livestock well (Gen. 26) and in his old age, he is tricked by his wife into depriving his favorite son, Esau, of his birthright (Gen. 27.)

Jacob (Gen. 27-36) is much more clever and assertive, and he is far more fruitful. Isaac had only one wife and two sons: but Jacob had four wives, 12 sons and one daughter.

Jacob’ wives and children


Zilpah(Leah’s maid) Leah(Rachel’s older sister) Rachel(the best loved) Bilhah(Rachel’s maid)
7. Gad 1. Reuben 11. Joseph 5. Dan
8. Asher 2. Simeon 12. Benjamin 6. Naphtali
3. Levi
4. Judah
9. Issachar
10. Zebulun
Dinah (daughter)

But the best story is Joseph’s. Compared to the earlier Genesis stories, Joseph reads like modern fiction. It is the first story about a teenager: we first meet Joseph when he is 17 years old. (Gen. 37.) He “tells” on his older brothers, and he flaunts his status as “favorite son”  vis a vis his older brothers, oblivious or uncaring as to how that will make them feel.  The teenage Joseph is obnoxious.

But then life takes a turn. The favored, pampered son meets hardship. The older brothers throw him in a pit and sell him to passing traders who in turn sell him to a master in Egypt. In Egypt, Joseph’s first attempt at work comes to no good:  his master’s wife falsely accuses him of making advances and has him thrown into prison. So much for the rewards of hard work. No doubt this was a disappointment, but Joseph did not appear to respond cynically. Instead, he develops a new personality: he has become saavy about people and who knows how to gain their trust. Despite his further loss of status, (going from favored son to captive to servant to prisoner), Joseph perseveres. He takes the household he is given (a jail) and conducts himself there as a good manager.

Through his saavy and his ability to interpret dreams, Joseph regained status and power, becoming the most powerful man in Egypt second only to Pharaoh. When the famine he predicted came to pass, bringing his older brothers to Egypt looking for food, he began a complex interaction with them, full of lies and manipulation. In this part of the story, I found his character quite offensive. He seemed to be tormenting his older brothers. Then I read the Oxford Commentary notes and saw that there was a larger purpose for Joseph.  Basically, he was checking to see if the brothers had changed.  Given a chance, would they betray a  brother again? Given enough motivation, would they betray a brother and put their father through the loss of another son?  Surprisingly, the older brothers prove themselves to be changed men. They passed Joseph’s test.  We don’t know how or when they gained insight into their past behavior, but clearly something had moved them to repentance, and they were resolved not to act the same way again.

In the end, brother forgives brothers, (Gen. 45 & 50) – as Esau forgave Jacob – and the family is reunited and safe in Egypt.

Unfortunately, Joseph’s story does not end there. He continues as the second in command in Egypt through five more years of famine. All those who come to him for food, must pay for what they need either with the land or livestock so that by the end of the famine, Joseph has secured all the land in Egypt for Pharoah. All Egyptians are basically Pharaoh’s tenant farmers – thanks to Joseph.  One is left to wonder if Joseph had grown morally as his brothers had.  Or had he simply resolved never to be a victim again?

Egypt is not “the evil empire.”

To be reading these stories right now is a meditation on the role that “Egypt” plays in Christian theology. Christians have used “Egypt” as a synonym for the place or experience of slavery, the experience of victimization or injustice, the place or experience from which we are told God will save us.

In terms of the Biblical account, that’s pretty unfair. Neither Pharaoh nor Egyptians reached out to enslave Joseph or his family. In fact, had it not been for Pharaoh and Egypt, Joseph and his family would probably have died in the famine. Pharaoh did not plan the execute the nationalization of property in Egypt: Joseph did. And when the famine was over, no one forced the sons of Jacob to remain in Egypt. If they stayed, perhaps it was because of their memory of God’s word to Jacob/Israel: “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt. I will make of you a great nation there.” (Gen. 46.)

Beyond that, whatever happened between Joseph, his father, his brothers and Pharoah happened over 3,000 years ago. Modern day Egypt has nothing to do with it. And yet the language of Christian theology does nothing to distinguish between biblical and modern Egypt. Christians use the “Egypt” to denote an evil empire, and “Pharaoh” to denote a tyrant.  This is a disservice not only to our brothers and sisters of modern, nonbiblical Egypt, it impedes our ability as Christians to understand the stories.

In Church, when Christians speak of  “the Egyptians,” do they mean the men and women in the streets of Cairo who are demanding human and civil rights?  Probably not. When we regret Pharaoh’s oppression, are we repenting of the 30 years during which America sustained Mubarak’s regime and police state? Probably not. When we consider brother betraying brother, do we consider how betrayed the people in the streets of Cairo must feel hearing no encouraging word from the United States, even though we claim founding documents which speak of inalienable rights, the need to be free of tyrants and the moral imperative of democracy? Probably not. We should.

Tonight I saw a photo from the streets of Cairo. In the crowd, several people were holding aloft a large banner, written only in English. Clearly, it was for American’s to see as they watched TV coverage. It said: “Yes We Can Too.”

It is hard for us to keep our founding principles alive. It is hard for us not to let them be nothing more than ancient history. For us to acknowledge and affirm the revolution being undertaken by the people of Cairo would probably be more than a little inconvenient for us. From our religious tradition, we need help, encouragement and insight to stand by our founding principles. We are not helped by religious language which impedes our ability to understand the world and the roles we have played in its unfolding. If we have been an evil empire, we need to be helped to see that, not shielded from insight by stories in which someone else is always the bad guy.

In a world in which so much violence is undertaken in the name of religious rhetoric, religious people have an obligation to use their language carefully and conscientiously, and in ways calculated to encourage repentance and reconciliation – not name-calling and enmity.

When Luke sits in the middle of the room and offers a paw, he is doing exactly what I have asked him to do. I may be annoyed when he does it, because now that he knows this behavior, I am a little less in control of him. He offers when it suits him to obtain what he wants. In a better world,  I would be less annoyed and more eager to offer such a learner glad affirmation.

Lectionary Notes

How much of Isaac’s, Jacob’s or Joseph’s story do we hear in the Lectionary?

Of Isaac

Only his passive role as Abraham’s intended sacrificial offering, and his paternity of Jacob & Esau.

Of Jacob

Year A

Pr. 10A            Gen. 25:19-34 – Birth of Jacob & Esau and Jacob buys Esau’s birth right for lentil stew.

Pr. 11A            Gen. 28:10-19a – Jacob stops at Bethel (on his way to Haran to find a wife), and dreams of a ladder to heaven with angels going up and down. God promises him land, descendants and protection.

Pr. 12A            Gen. 29:15-28 – Laban tricks Jacob into working 14 years to wed Rachel. (7 years for Leah, 7 more for Rachel.)

Pr. 13A            Gen.32:22-31 – Returning from Laban’s country after 20 years, on the night before he enters Esau’s territory,  Jacob wrestles with an angel and is renamed “Israel” – for he has “striven with God and with humans.”

Of Joseph

Year A

Pr. 14A            Gen. 37:1-4, 12-28 – Joseph the obnoxious teenager: favored son wearing special coat, set upon by his brothers and sold to traders on the their way to Egypt. (Note that Gen. 37:5-11 – about Joseph’s first two dreams–  is left out.)

Pr. 15A            Gen. 45:1-15 – Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and explains they should not blame themselves for having sold him into slavery. “It was not you who sent me here, but God…”

Pr. 19A            Gen. 50:15-21 – The brothers beg Joseph’s forgiveness. “You intended me harm, but God intended it for good.”

Year C

Epipany 7         Gen. 45:3-11, 15 – A shorter version of Pr. 15A. “It was not you who sent me here, but God.”

So, there are no stories about Isaac, Jacob or Joseph in Year B and only a tiniest snippet of something about Joseph in Year C.

In Year A, we do not hear the story about Rebekah and Jacob conspiring to trick Isaac into not blessing Esau, the eldest. It would give more depth to the “wrestling with the angel” account on Pr. 13A if the story were included.

It is a shame that more of Joseph’s story is not included given its drama and its exploration into themes of guilt, conversion, temptation and forgiveness.  Note that there is a 7 week Jacob-Joseph story cycle in Year A. This cycle is only optional, and it is interrupted by a pause between  Pr. 15A and Pr. 19A. Why the interruption?

Pr. 16A – Ex. 1:8 – 2:10  An oppressive Pharaoh (who knew not Joseph) comes to power and calls for the death of Hebrew male newborns. Moses is born and saved.

Pr. 17A – Ex. 3:1-15         Moses and the burning bush.

Pr. 18A – Ex. 12:1-14      The instructions for the Passover meal.

(Pr. 20A – Exodus 16:2-15 – Manna in the wilderness.)

Inserting 19A – the last snippet from the Joseph story — presumably to teach that God sends us into trouble and/or slavery for some mysterious good purpose which will accrue to the benefit of others, is questionable for two reasons.

(1) It takes up space – three whole Sundays — that could be used to tell more of the Joseph story, and

(2) Really? Do we believe that? Is that what we say to people who are suffering? That we believe that their suffering is intended by God to benefit someone else? Hopefully not.

Let’s ditch all three uses of Gen. 45:8 and/or Gen. 50:20 and read longer portions of the Joseph story.