According to Pew Research, 72% of Americans (of any and of no faith profession—that means Jew, Muslim, Christian, atheist, agnostic) were able to identify Moses as the character who led the Israelites out of Egypt. Thank you Cecil B. DeMille and Charleston Heston. Of the questions surveyed about the Bible, that was the question that earned the highest number of right answers.
The story of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt is as Walter Brueggemann states, “the defining event in biblical faith”1 and even some say the defining event of human history.2
What’s so important about the Exodus story? It is a single story that tells us who God is, who we are, and what our purpose is. It is the narrative that permits Israel to begin its vulnerable historical existence. That is pretty “defining.”
Although research indicates that 72% of you are familiar with Moses, let’s give a quick review. Moses is tending sheep one day. He sees a bush burning that is not consumed. His curiosity draws him to investigate. He approaches it. The burning bush begins to talk. The bush speaks the word of God telling Moses to return to Egypt, confront the Pharaoh (most powerful man in known “world”), and lead the people out. Moses doesn’t want to confront the most powerful man in the world. He argues with the voice of God from the burning bush. Moses suggested someone else for the job. Moses volunteers his brother. “Send him. He’s better at this sort of thing.” God insists that Moses is the man for the job, but agrees that Moses can take his brother with him. Finally, Moses complies. He goes to Pharaoh, but things only get worse for the Hebrews. Moses complains to God, “This plan isn’t working!” God reassures Moses. Moses returns to Pharaoh demanding “Let the people go, or else.” Then the story turns to plagues, frogs, gnats, flies, disease, boils, hail, locusts, eventually darkness, and death. The story fills the screen with the flight of the Israelites through the parting of the Red Sea, and their wandering in the wilderness.
It does make for a good movie; but how is this the “defining event of biblical faith and human history?”
When we read a little more slowly, and drill a little deeper, notice the details our condensed version missed, we see and hear what Israelite remembrance tells about God.
What was the catalyst for the Exodus story? Let me share a few verses again:
Therefore, the Egyptians set taskmasters over the [Israelites] to oppress them with forced labor. 13The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. The Egyptians were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on the Israelites. The text goes on to tell about beatings and oppression. Laborers forced to produce product without being given the supplies needed, and the story remembers God’s words to Moses: “I have observed the misery of my people; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings. I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. I have come to deliver them.”
This story that is hailed as the defining event of biblical faith and human history begins with the cry of oppression, a narrative of inhumanity in the workplace, a story of immigrants enslaved in a foreign land, and God who hears people’s suffering and notices their pain—and God who responds. It is a story of God who wills the redemption of the oppressed. It is a story of God as a liberating God of justice and mercy. It is a story of God who is creator, redeemer, deliverer, and savior. It is a story of God who is involved in the reality of social, economic, and political power of Empires. It is a story of God who turns the cry of oppression into a song of emancipation. It is a story of God whose call for salvation isn’t personal, private, or an after death experience. It is a story of God who enacts salvation, deliverance, liberation, and freedom by working through humans—like you and me.
This story of the Exodus is the story that is retold throughout the biblical narrative. When the prophet Amos speaks hundreds of years after Moses, he asserts that this same God who liberated the Hebrews is the same God who enacts exoduses for other oppressed people. Yes, the God of labor justice and freedom moves to free Israel’s enemies—the Philistines and the Syrians—much to the Israelites dismay. The Liberating God of one people is the Liberating God of all people.
Exodus morality meant giving justice to the weak and the poor. Honest weights and measures; interest-free loans to the poor; leaving part of the crops in the field for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow; treating the alien stranger as a native citizen—these are all applications of the Exodus principle to living in this world.
The Exodus story was one told each year around the Passover table. Jesus heard it every year as a child. The Exodus story is one remembered each morning in Jewish prayers. Jesus said it every day.
These words that we use about Jesus and God—words like salvation, deliverance, and redeemer. These words reflect the Exodus story enacted throughout the biblical narrative from Moses to Jesus and today through us.
Since 1894, the first Monday in September has been a federal holiday, Labor Day. It came into being during a difficult time of violent strikes and worker slayings. It reflected a culture when industrialization was expanding rapidly, and doing so at laborers’ expense. Like the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt, the taskmasters were harsh, punishment was liberal, and ruthless. Children worked long hours in dangerous conditions, women were enslaved in sweatshops for meager pay; men were expendable as a steady stream of immigrants provided desperate laborers. The labor conditions were a political problem; they were a civic problem, but the church also recognized that they were a spiritual problem. In 1908, The Methodist Church adopted our first Social Creed. It is printed in your bulletins. The Social Creed was all about labor relations, safety in the work place, fair pay, and honest wages. The church is concerned about these things because our faith tradition teaches us that God is concerned about these things.
Thus, by the magic of shared values and shared narratives, the Exodus is not some ancient event. It is the ever-recurring redemption. It is the event from ancient times that is occurring in every act of liberation and compassion. It is the past and future redemption of humanity’s care for one another. The Exodus is the most influential historical event of all time because it did not happen once, but recurs whenever people open up and enter into the salvation of humanity.
It recurs when we recoil at an image of a toddler washed ashore because political lines have superseded human compassion. It recurs when homelands are no longer safe, and thousands jeopardize their lives in migration across Europe. It recurs when we address minimum wage in our country that allows CEOs to make in one day what the average worker earns in an entire year. It recurs when we no longer ignore the cries of the oppressed. It occurs when all people have access to health care regardless of employment status. It occurs when we realize—that all our lives are bound to one another. When we remember that none of us made it to work this week without the assistance of another. Someone built our car. Someone else paved a road. Someone installed traffic lights and office lights. Someone produced our clothing. Someone grew our food. Someone delivered supplies. Someone built a building. All of those someone’s are God’s beloved. We are participants in God’s story of liberation for all of the someone’s when we are creators of justice and joy, compassion, and peace. May it be so.
1 Walter Brueggemann. “Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes.”
2 Rabbi Irving Greenberg. “The Exodus Effect.” MyJewishLearning.com