Four Perspectives on Exodus

With the release last week of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: God and Kings generating interest and discussion around one of the Bible’s most epic dramas, I thought I’d invite some qualified and insightful guests to weigh in— not so much on the movie, but on the story behind the movie. What is the meaning and purpose of the Exodus? What can learn from this ancient story? What should viewers look for and question as they see it depicted on the big screen? Bringing insight to those questions are Nyasha Junior, Peter Enns, Rabbi Evan Moffic, and Kelley Nikondeha (who kindly responded to my eleventh-hour invitation to participate by writing a response last night). Hope you learn as much from the conversation as I did….

Nyasha Junior 
"Exodus Again"

The new Exodus: God and Kings film is coming to theaters soon, but I’m not going to see it. Since I am a biblical studies professor, you might think that I would see it and organize a class field trip to see it again, but I’m choosing not to support Hollywood whitewashing

I have fond memories of our family’s annual viewing of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), a classic retelling of the Exodus story. Long ago before DVRs and VCRs, we could only watch the film when it aired which was usually around Easter. The images from the film are forever imprinted on my mind, and I still think of Moses as Charlton Heston and Pharaoh as Yul Brynner. We didn’t call it whitewashing when I was a kid. It was just standard practice for Hollywood. The latest Exodus film continues that tradition. In almost 50 years, little has changed.

Still, all the talk of the film has caused me to reflect on the historic importance of the Exodus story for African-American Christians. We appropriated the story and wove it into our stories, songs, and sermons. Bricks without straw. Burning bush. Cloud by day, fire by night. Drowning Egyptians. Freedom! We have seen ourselves as the ancient Israelites and called our leaders “Moses.” God delivered the Israelites from slavery after hearing their cry and seeing how the Egyptians oppressed them, and we claimed this God of liberation as our own.

As a kid, the Exodus story was a feel-good story of liberation that provided the backdrop for a riveting dramatic film and for my pastor’s equally captivating sermons. As an adult, I now interpret it as a story of oppressed becoming oppressors. God hears the cry of the Israelites but not the Canaanites and other peoples in the what the Israelites regard as their “Promised Land.” As well, I no longer understand the Exodus as a story of liberation for African-Americans. Emancipation did not bring about an end to lynchings, segregation, and racial discrimination. For African Americans, there was no deliverance from their oppressors, and there was no Promised Land. Despite significant gains, for African Americans in the 21st century, in some ways, little has changed.

Nyasha Junior is an Assistant Professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible at Howard University School of Divinity. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter at @NyashaJunior.


Peter Enns
"Battle of the Gods" 

Those of us raised on Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments know all about the exodus story. A burning bush, “Let me people go,” Joshua has a girlfriend, Charlton Heston breaks up with Anne Baxter so he can marry Herman Munster’s wife (Yvonne De Carlo), slaves are delivered from Yul Brenner’s clutches, and Edward G. Robinson (“Where’s your Moses now?”) undermines the whole thing.

But when reading the biblical story of the exodus, it’s best to forget this classic. In fact, it might be best to forget VBS and a few sermons.

The story of the exodus is not about a bunch of random plagues to liberate slaves and then another random, but more awesome, trick about splitting the Red Sea. The story is about Israel’s God—the God who lives on a mountain down south somewhere, whose subject are an enslaved people—marching onto the home field of the superpower of the day and beating up their army and their gods.

Think of how the story begins. The Israelites increase in number, but Pharaoh enslaved them so they might serve him (1:13). Later Yahweh commands Moses to tell Pharaoh to “Let my people go so they might worship me” (7:16).

“Serve” and “worship” are the same word in Hebrew, `avad. THE question in exodus plays off of this double meaning: will Israel `avad (“serve”) Pharaoh and his gods as slaves or will Israel `avad (“worship”) Yahweh as his people on Mt. Sinai. 

Exodus is about who will earn the right to lay claim to the people of Israel: Yahweh or Pharaoh and his gods. What follows is a no-holds-barred battle of the gods. Who will win? Whom will Israel “serve?” 

Pharaoh responds to Moses’s first challenge: “I do not know Yahweh and I will not let my Israel go” (5:2). For the next few chapters, Yahweh will introduce himself to Pharaoh through plagues and the parting of the Red Sea, a cosmic battle where Yahweh takes to task the Egyptian pantheon one by one.

For example, the Nile—Egypt’s source of life and deified in the Nile god Hapi—is turned to blood. The plague of frogs is a slap in the face to Heqet, the goddess of fertility, who was depicted with the head of a frog. The plague of darkness is a kick in the midsection to the sun god Ra, who is also Pharaoh’s patron god. Exodus 12:12 sums it up nicely: “…on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am Yahweh.”

Then we have the parting of the Red Sea—hardly a random act, but a replay of Genesis 1 (Day 3): in both the waters of chaos are separated, revealing habitable dry ground beneath. Genesis 1 is itself an echo of older Mesopotamian and Canaanite creation stories, where chaos/water is tamed and split by the victor god.

The message of the exodus is: Yahweh and Yahweh alone lays claim to his people, and he alone is worthy of worship. He is the creator and the redeemer—and the defeated Egyptian army and Egypt’s subdued gods bear witness to it.

Peter Enns is a biblical scholar, author, and blogger who teaches Old and New Testament courses at Eastern University. You can read more about Exodus in his latest book, The Bible Tells Me So

Rabbi Evan Moffic 
"The Long Walk to Freedom"

The Exodus movie film premiers in mid-December, and with my new book What Every Christian Needs to know about Passover coming out shortly and describing how Jews and Christians can bring the Exodus story to life today, I have lucky timing.

Yet, the stories of the Bible are timeless, and Hollywood seems to recognize that people yearn to experience them. The Exodus story, in particular, has an extraordinary and often overlooked message.

Why We Usually Get the Story Wrong

Usually the story is told as a clash of wills and egos between God and Pharaoh. God, using Moses as His messenger, vanquishes Pharaoh and the Egyptian people. The Israelites go free. Everyone is happy.

Yet, if we read the Bible, we know it takes 40 years before the Israelites are truly free. They have to journey in the wilderness—confused, uncertain and angry—before they enter into the Promised Land.

Why? Simply looking at a map shows us the journey from the Egypt to Israel is not a long one. Scholars estimate it would take about 3 weeks or so to walk it. Why does it take the Jewish people 40 years?

The Real Lesson of the Exodus

Jewish folk wisdom gives us a memorable answer: “It took 4 days to take Israel out of Egypt. It took 40 years to take Egypt out of Israel.” The Israelites had been slaves for 400 years. They could not become a free people overnight.

History is littered with examples of people trying and failing to become free. Look at France after 1789 Revolution. After a few years of chaos, tyranny returned in the form of Napoleon. Look at Egypt after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarek. After some confusion and an election, the army reasserted control.

Freedom takes time. Before they had freedom, the Jewish people had to learn responsibility. They had to build community. They had to create new institutions. In other words, they had to undergo what Nelson Mandela would later call “The Long Walk to Freedom.”

Are We Free?

This lesson matters for each of us as well. True freedom is discovered not in the absence of responsibility. It is found when we embrace it. For Jews the symbol of embracing responsibility is accepting the Torah from God at Mount Sinai. That is the most important part of the Exodus: not the plagues, not the splitting of the red sea, not even Moses saying to Pharaoh “Let me people go.” Freedom begins in responsibility.

If this idea seems too abstract, consider a parent and a child. When a young child crosses a street, a parent needs to hold their hand. Over time, parents teach the child to look both ways, to follow the traffic signs, and to be careful. Once the child has internalized those rules--once it becomes part of their normal behavior—they do not need to hold a parent's hand. Through internalizing the rules—through having faith in them—they become able to do more on his own. They gain a measure of freedom.

Praying Our Way to Freedom

Freedom and responsibility truly go hand in hand in our spiritual lives. The greatest spiritual freedom as the capacity to grow and change. We are not stuck where we are. We can continue to grow closer to God throughout our lives. But it takes work. It takes responsibility.

For me the best indicator of this responsibility is prayer. When I am praying regularly—in the morning and the evening—I know I am nurturing my inner life. It does not always happen. Sometimes the day seems to fill with appointments and obligations. But if I go too long without regular prayer, my mind and soul wither. I seem to lack the freedom to grow.

The battle between God and Pharaoh was only the beginning. The challenge of the Exodus remains with each of us today. As individuals and as a community, we walk along the long road to freedom.

Where does freedom and responsibility meet for you? What practices for you ensure the Exodus remains relevant today?

Rabbi Evan is the spiritual leader of Congregation Solel in suburban Chicago. He blogs at www.Rabbi.me and the Huffington Post. Author of Wisdom for People of All Faiths, his next book What Every Christian Needs to Know about Passover, is available February 2015 from Abingdon Press.

Kelley Nikondeha
"Exodus Strong" 

Exodus is a liberation song that begins in the brickyards of Egypt where the Hebrews are enslaved to Pharaoh, cruel taskmasters and backbreaking quotas. But it’s a song sung by women and not only the man who seems central to the story.

The truth is that there would be no Moses, no crossing of the Red Sea and no grand tale of liberation if it weren’t for the women woven throughout Exodus. These women on both sides of the Nile River exhibited a subversive strength that pushed back against Pharaoh’s edict of death, saving one boy who went on to save an entire people.

The midwives were clever and courageous in the face of a tyrant. Jochabed, Moses’ mother, practiced wild hope as she placed her baby on a raft of reeds, sending him across the waters of the Nile. An adolescent Miriam showed bravery beyond her years, approaching an Egyptian elite on behalf of her brother. Bithiah, Pharaoh’s daughter, enacted a bit of restitution with the audacious adoption of a Hebrew boy she drew from the water. These women, separately and in solidarity with one another, made Moses possible. 

A mother who nursed him on lullabies and stories of old, the plaintive laments of bereft mothers, the songs yearning for freedom rising from the brickyards – they all shaped him. Moses followed in the wake of these women as he went toe-to-toe with Pharaoh. Their example and even their songs raised a revolutionary liberator.

Exodus women took risks, harnessed their intelligence and gathered their resources to enact justice in many small ways that overturned an empire. Moses, in the company of such women, liberated and led the Hebrews. Miriam became a prophet and partner to her brother for years to come. They are the unsung heroes, Exodus strong, singing freedom.

Kelley Nikondeha is a lover of God's justice & jubilee.  She is the co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi. She is a practical theologian at heart, weaving story and Scripture together to create fresh insight and cultivate faithful practice among communities who follow Jesus. Find her blog here.

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What would you add about the Exodus epic? Have you seen the movie? What did you think? 

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The Letter to Nympha’s Church (a creative interpretation of Colossians)

'Diya' photo (c) 2009, Brijesh Bhaskaran - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

This is the second post in a weeklong series entitled  “Submit One To Another: Christ and the Household Codes,” which will focus on those frequently-cited passages of Scripture that instruct wives to submit to their husbands, slaves to obey their masters, children to obey their parents, and Christians to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21-6:9, Colossians 3:12-4:6; 1 Peter 2:11-3:22). You are welcome to join in the conversation via the comment section or by contributing to the synchroblog. Use #onetoanother on Twitter. 

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“Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea."

– Colossians 4:15-16

The sun has set over a chilly Laodicea, but Nympha’s home is warm with lamplight and hums with the welcoming sound of stifled laughter whispered conversation. As soon as Drucilla and I slip through the door together, we can sense that something is stirring. There is news. 

My mother-in-law asks her friends, all of them also widows, what has happened. 

Tychicus had arrived from Colossae, they say, with a letter from Paul.*

I am happy because this means I will get to listen to Nympha read. It mesmerizes me every time—the way she enunciates every syllable carefully, gently, sometimes pausing to explain the meaning of the more difficult words or ideas or to laugh forgivingly when one of the children decides to throw a tantrum. We are mostly women, widows, slaves, and poor laborers, unable to read the letters from the apostles on our own, though among us are a few wealthy tradesman, the owners of sprawling households. It is strange to see us all sitting together at the sacred meal—master breaking bread with his slave, a Jew sharing a joke with a former pagan priest, a husband pouring wine for his wife, a zealot debating politics with a tax collector—but this is what makes us different; it’s what makes us Christians. 

Nympha and her husband are wealthy traders, both of them followers of Jesus, but he travels so much she usually manages our ekklesia—our gathering—on her own. We are known to Paul as the church that meets in Nympha’s home. 

Maybe I am a little jealous of Nympha. My husband is a laborer and poor and I think he resents the fact that a girl who came with such a small dowry would give him so much trouble over religion.  He has been harsh with Drucilla too recently, for the government has made it illegal for widows to remain unmarried, but she insists on serving alongside the other widows in the church. There are murmurs that this practice of caring for widows as a community is yet another part of our way of life that bothers the government officials. To them, tampering with the household order is akin to tampering with the created universe and yet another example of Christians challenging the authority of the Empire. You don’t have to be the most educated person in Laodicea to know that the Greek philosophers were rather insistent upon the importance of maintaining a household in which the man exercises unilateral authority over his wives, children, and slaves. 

And yet we have been taught that among us, there should be neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, for we are all one in Christ. And so the most common debate in Nympha’s house is about whether we can accommodate laws like these without compromising our identity. Many Christians have gone to jail, and some have even been killed. The question is: Do we risk our necks over differences with the government regarding household structure? Or do we let things like that go? No one can seem to agree.  Perhaps tonight’s letter will help. 

It is a beautiful letter, and tears run down my face as Paul, through Nympha, speaks of our reputation among the churches. Nympha smiles as her voice carries the words: “We have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people.” 

As she continues to read, we hear about Paul’s incarceration and persecution, about how Jesus is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation,” about watching out for all those false teachings that circulated through the trade routes, about how we ought to stop judging each other over differences of opinion regarding religious festivals and food (I blush a little at this point and resolved to make peace with some rather opinionated friends before the next sacred meal), about how we should clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, and love, about how we must forgive one another, about how the things that once separated Jew from Greek and slave from free are broken down at the foot of the cross, about how we should sing more hymns. Drucilla smiles wide at that last one. 

But then I find myself catching my breath as Nympha reads—out loud!—that we need not fear the government because Jesus has “disarmed the powers and authorities” and “made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” 

A nervous murmur fills the room. What if someone overheard? That quote could certainly be taken out of context by a passing Roman soldier! 

I catch Tychicus glance out the window. 

But then my surprise gives way to revelation. I’ve never thought about it that way: Christ’s death at the hands of the government represented a sort of subversive triumph over it. His obedience in humbling himself, in loving his enemies, caring for the poor, welcoming the marginalized, and turning away from violence made a mockery of this opulent, bloodthirsty, and oppressive Empire. He refused to play by their rules and yet he broke none of their laws. He did not fight them; he disarmed them.

I wonder if that’s what we’re supposed to do too. 

Then I hear Nympha say, “Wives submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting to the Lord.” 

Immediately I recognize this as something of a recitation of the Household Codes that more educated women like Nympha probably had memorized. Someone named Aristotle had composed the most famous of these, basing them on what he believed was the inherent inferiority of women, children, and slaves. 

But in Paul’s letter, Christ serves as the ultimate authority, not the government. Hmmm…

Then Nympha’s voice grows quieter and I see one of her eyebrows rise. 

“Husbands, love your wives…” 

She trails off and we sit in stunned silence. This is new.  I’ve only heard of very wealthy couples who married because they were in love. Most, like my husband and I, are joined together in a business transaction. (I was twelve-years-old at the time. ) No one expects husbands to love their wives. 

“Children obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.” 

Again, this is somewhat familiar. 

“Fathers, do not embitter your children…”

(I have a feeling Aristotle didn’t give instructions like these to fathers.)

Then things get really strange. 

“Slaves obey your earthly masters,” Nympha continues, a little hesitantly. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

“Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.” 

I feel sorry for the few wealthy men among us because suddenly, every eye is on them.  Is Paul suggesting that both slaves and owners share a Master? Is he directly challenging Aristotle by suggesting that the two are equals? 

It takes Nympha a moment to recover, but she reads on, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt…”

At the meal, everyone’s talking about the letter, but I am lost in thought.  Maybe I was on to something: Maybe, like Jesus, we can refuse to play by Rome’s rules without breaking any of Rome’s laws. Maybe we remain faithful to Jesus, not by overturning the household codes, but by transcending them, living in a way that highlights the foolishness of the hierarchies they contain.  

Christ is the Head of this Home—the Church—so here, we submit to one another out of reverence for him. 

One Master. 

One Head. 

One Father. 

Later, Nympha will read other letters, letters that speak of husbands loving their wives as much as Christ loved the church, willing to give their lives for them, and of Christians “submitting to one another” and living as “slaves to one another”! No Greek or Jewish philosopher or Roman legislator had spoken to women, children, and slaves directly like this. None had given us this much agency, this much dignity.  The point, Nympha says with a wry smile, is to imitate Jesus, not Rome. 

The night after the first letter, Drucilla and I creep quietly through the streets together, arm in arm on our way home, I wonder aloud if there will come a day when there will be no more household codes, if Drucilla and I will be treated with as much dignity as my husband and if slaves will no longer have earthly masters. 

“Well, Aelia” Druscilla whispers back, her breath against the cool air. “Hasn’t God promised to make all things new?” 

Then I have a dangerous thought: 

“Maybe this is how it starts.” 

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Tomorrow we’ll look more closely at how Peter and Paul’s household codes differ from those of Aristotle and other philosophers and what that means for us today. 

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* I am aware that Pauline authorship is disputed in some of these texts, but for simplicity, will refer to Paul as the author. (This is a conversation we can have later!)  

Sources: 

Discovering Biblical Equality: Complemenatrity Without Hierarchy, edited by Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis; Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire by Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat; The Womens’ Bible Commentary, Expanded Edition, edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe

See also:

Four Interpretive Pitfalls Around the New Testament Household Codes

Who's Who Among Biblical Women Leaders

Aristotle’s Politics 

On Treating Modern Women as Ancient Greco-Roman Wives by Roy E. Ciampa, Ph.D

Is Marriage Really an Illustration of Christ and the Church? by Kristen Rosser

The Dark Side of Submission by Lee Grady

Submission in Context: Christ and the Greco Roman Household Codes 

Gender & The Creation Narratives

Is Patriarchy Really God’s Dream for the World?

Is the Abolition of Slavery Biblical?

Mutuality Series

A Year of Biblical Womanhood 

 

 

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Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.