Forging Covenant in the Wilderness: YHWH, Moses, and the Stiff-Necked People
God Delivers the Oppressed – Exodus 5-13 (selected verses)
June 30, 2019
God delivered the oppressed slaves of Egypt.
God still hears the cries of the oppressed and still works in the world
through individuals and nations to deliver those who are oppressed.
Our Exodus narrative for today concerns the deliverance of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt.
Four hundred years after the eleven brothers of Joseph, the one with the coat of many colors,
settled in Egypt during a famine in Palestine, the Hebrew tribes have become oppressed vassals
to the hard-hearted and iron-fisted Pharaoh, the king of Egypt.
Ancient Egypt was similar to many oppressive regimes –
the vast majority of the citizens were poor and oppressed;
only a small minority wielded wealth, influence, and power.
The timing of the Exodus event was likely during the period of the 19th dynasty of Egypt,
somewhere between 1350 and 1200 b.c.e.
During these heady days, powerful and ambitious Pharaohs were worshiped as gods,
and they reigned with absolute power.
Grand human structures like the pyramids of Egypt were built by oppressed workers,
those conscripted into forced labor under harsh and unjust conditions.
The story of the tribes of Hebrew slaves escaping from these oppressive conditions,
fleeing from clutches of the powerful Pharaoh and the brick-making slave pits,
is nowhere recounted in the annals of Egypt.
When the Egyptian historians wrote of this period,
they either did not deem the escape of the Hebrews as worthy of their annals,
or perhaps the event was an embarrassment to the Pharaoh and intentionally left out.
Whatever the case, Pharaoh’s scholars would have likely taken editorial issue
with many parts of the Exodus narrative.
There is always another side to any story, but the grand story of Exodus from Egypt
is a constant reminder that the one who tells the story controls the narrative,
and three thousand years later,
we are still recalling the narrative about the deliverance of this minority people.
This deliverance story, this story of liberation from oppression, has become a light to all nations.
Over the ages, the Exodus story has inspired countless souls,
not the least of which were African slaves under duress in the American south.
Picking cotton or gleaning rice on hot summer days, they sang old, familiar spirituals like:
Go down Moses, way down to Egypt land, tell ol’ Pharaoh, let my people go.
The oppressed dalits, the untouchables, of India were inspired by the Exodus story.
Mohatma Ghandi took on the tremendous power of the British Empire
and eventually gained unexpected freedoms for India in general and for the dalits in particular.
The tribes of South Africa, sweltering in the unjust conditions of the horrid townships,
were inspired by the Exodus story.
Bishop Desmond Tutu, an advisor to Nelson Mandela when the policies of apartheid
finally came to an end, still travels the world calling attention to injustice.
In an interview several years ago, Bishop Tutu responded to a question
about Christians relating their faith to power and injustice:
“Anywhere where the humanity of people is undermined, anywhere where people are left in the dust,
there we will find our cause. Sometimes you wish you could keep quiet.
It’s the kind of thing you heard the prophet Jeremiah complain of where he says,
“You know God, I didn’t want to be a prophet and you made me speak words of condemnation
against a people I love deeply. Your word is like a fire burning in my breast.”
God heard the groaning of the Hebrews and worked through Moses and his older brother, Aaron,
to wrangle freedom for an oppressed people.
Of course the powerful Pharaoh did not want to lose the economic engine of cheap labor.
He rejected Moses’ pleas, again and again. Again and again, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.
But, as the old Exodus-related saying goes, “God made a way where there was no way.”
Hear the Word of God from selected verses of Exodus 6.
Each Passover, the Jewish custom is to set a table in remembrance of the Exodus event.
Complete with unleavened bread, glasses of wine, and an empty seat at the table for Elijah,
the events of the Exodus are recalled, one by one.
The unleavened bread, because there was no time for the bread to rise before they fled from Egypt.
The bitter herbs to recall the bitterness of slavery.
The plundering of Egypt because the slaves fled with as much Egyptian gold and jewelry
as they could carry.
The consecration of the first born, a sacred offering made to God in the wilderness.
The divine guidance through the wilderness from the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night
And certainly the ten plagues, including the Passover of the firstborn Hebrews during the tenth plague,
when the firstborn Egyptians were slain.
Though children have been taught clever songs to remember the plagues,
we could certainly question whether their appropriateness for a children’s message.
The plagues involved horrible suffering and disease, leading up to the death of the innocents.
Professor Alan Corre offers the following poetic summary of the Ten Plagues
and of Pharaoh’s hard-heartedness. (Alan D. Corré, firstname.lastname@example.org)
On the Egyptians came a plague of blood, It confounded them, and nipped their hopes in the bud.
They worshiped the River Nile, But it turned into blood which was vile.
And all the wells too Turned to red sticky goo.
The Egyptians were smitten with drought, And their tongue clave to the roof of their mouth.
They brought water from a long way For their spittle had quite gone away.
The plague of frogs was hard indeed. The Egyptians deemed them a very strange breed!
The frogs coming on them were legion, Spreading over each place and each region.
In each closet and bed there’s a heap. They would not let them catch a wink of sleep!
In the troughs and the ovens they ran, Attacked flesh and the clothing of man.
The Egyptians their limbs scarce could bend, Shouting madly: “The world’s come to its end!”
- Lice or Gnats
A plague of lice now upon Egypt leaps. Our pardoning Lord piled them up in heaps.
Our sages say these lice were quite various, Big and small, not to say multifarious.
They caused great concern and adversity, Brought on them great pain and calamity.
They harried their days and their nights, Redoubled their fears and their frights.
“What is all this mess?” to Pharaoh they said, “These lice are as big as a gander well fed.
They fill us with terror and dread!
- Wild Beasts
By God’s hand Egypt with a fourth plague was vexed; It left them sad and perplexed.
Indeed God’s victory was great And to Egypt’s trouble there was no rebate.
How wild were these creatures, beast upon beast –The Egyptians’ terror greatly increased.
Lions, tigers, wolves, over Egypt they swarmed And to their doors the savage beasts stormed.
They shattered the trees and the palms, And damaged the homes and the farms.
They attacked the Egyptians greedily, Did unspeakable things to them speedily.
Pharaoh regretted what had occurred, And to weep with his friends he was stirred:
Rèbel, rèbel! Your obstinate opinions are sounding Egypt’s knell.
Pity the Egyptians for what they were sent; These calamities increased their torment.
After the blood and the frogs and the lice And the beasts which bit them all in a trice,
A very bad pestilence came. It ate up their profit on the sheep, cows, donkeys and all kinds of game.
The ram which they adore –Look, dead on the floor.
What hope is left? Of horses, camels too, they are bereft.
But Pharaoh stubbornly persisted –“It’s only witchcraft,” he insisted.
“I refuse to put Israel to flight. Their pains I’ll increase day and night.”
- Skin Disease
The sixth plague came at the command Of Him who Lord of pardon is, in every land.
A skin disease took firm root in their flesh; Their sicknesses were many, their wounds fresh.
Their rest was destroyed, their nerves took on a twitch –And their flesh like a fire ‘gan to itch.
(It afflicted the poor and the rich.) They longed for death, but death would not come.
They called for him, but he stayed mum. Pharaoh their god they rejected,
Rose up against him like men with madness infected.
Then they upbraided him screaming: “Where are the good old days of which we are dreaming?
Where is our glory which has passed away? Pity the Egyptian. He is in a bad way.”
Hail came next upon Pharaoh’s fief. Egypt was desolate. Great indeed their grief.
From it they saw neither pleasure nor relief.
Such a state in the fields that hail did achieve That the harm it caused, you could scarcely believe.
Hail and fire together, how can such things be? It’s a miracle from God the Subduer, don’t you see?
It killed off the sheep, Made their distress deep. Trees were smashed. Houses crashed.
It destroyed all the habitations that existed, Yet on contumacy firmly they insisted.
The king of Egypt stubbornly resisted. Of tyranny and rebellion his path consisted.
He ignored Moses and Aaron. “No,” said he, “An exodus from Egypt ne’er shall be.”
Pharaoh, Pharaoh! Fie, crazy man, how can you be so slow?
Unaware how deeply you rebel, You gain no advantage as well.
After punishment you revolt again, So now locusts are seen where’er you reign!
A sun that seems to set at noon one sees –The locusts eat what’s left of crops and trees.
The Egyptians’ mighty profit they destroy, Yet touch nothing of what the Jews enjoy.
The Egyptians wept and screamed and never ceased –Their days were turned to woe instead of feast.
They cursed their king — rebellious, oppressive beast! They looked, and all too clearly did they see
There’s no revolt against the mighty Lord’s decree.
In a meeting the Egyptians all protested, From the king the Jews’ expulsion they requested,
Saying: “In our future we’ve no more hope invested!”
When the plague of darkness came, Blindness was the name of the game.
What’s this? Darkness you can’t break. You can’t tell if you’re asleep or awake.
It was darkness beyond compare, In days of yore nothing was so rare.
Darkness that would amaze. Darkness that would faze.
Darkness you could touch days and days. While Egypt abode in that unhappy state,
The Jews throughout had light the self-same date.
Pharaoh, not knowing why he was smitten, Said: “What’s this strange bug with which we are bitten?
For Moses and Aaron he sent, and made moan: “Get out of Egypt. Leave me alone.
I wish you and your Jews would have flown!”
But, his former state restored, he began to refuse, And changed course about releasing the Jews,
Saying: “None other than Pharaoh, I do as I please. Of Egypt’s kingdom I alone hold the keys!”
- Slaying of the Firstborn
The tenth great plague over Egypt now passed. And it was the last.
Egypt’s destruction was complete. Smashed were their hopes, and total their defeat.
By command of the Lord most High, At midnight every firstborn must die.
Naught could be heard save wails and moans, Weeping, shouts and groans.
Each house was bewailing its dead. From every house quietude fled.
Upon them death had come down: They shrieked the shrieks of one about to drown…
Their weeping and moans did not cease; From far and from near there’s no peace —
Till Pharaoh arose from his bed, His sleep and his slumbering fled.
‘Neath the summons and judgment he’ll cower, He’ll know divine might and power —
He says: “I’ve decided this hour!”
Hatless, unshod, in his fright, He runs to Moses and Aaron at midnight.
He tells them: “What’s this? You’ve ruined my country. My glory is fallen completely!
Get out, get out, get out from the land of the Nile. Let no Israelite stay, even a little while.
Let these eyes see them not, I implore, I won’t mix with this folk any more.
Exodus now’s the only way. In this state of loss I can’t stay. All of you, leave right away…”
If you have not recently read the book of Exodus, I encourage you to do so.
While raising numerous theological and historical questions, the story is contemporary as ever.
We still read and consider these stories because there are still Pharaohs at work in our world.
There are still oppressed peoples. There are still minority groups suffering under unjust systems.
And, yes, God still hears their cries and is still at work in the world.
And yes, God acts through the lives of individuals and of nations, to bring about transformation.
Though the plagues of Egypt have been mostly explained by quite natural phenomena,
the Hebrew slaves very much viewed them as the work of God’s hand.
Even the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, over-dramatized through the ages
and certainly in 20th century movies,
could be attributed to a strong 30 knot wind blowing in the same direction all night.
But through the eyes of faith, these events were not simply freaks of nature.
They were the work of God’s hands.
How we answer such theological questions about how and where and when God works is important
and should be discussed, but what is more important to the Church today
is to consider who is still groaning under oppression.
Which groups of people are being persecuted? Who is facing daily injustice?
Whose cries for help are being heard on high?
We can certainly look far away to such places as Darfur or Aleppo or North Korea,
but we can also look nearby, close at hand,
to those still reaping the consequences of long term injustices.
Our neighboring pastor, David Lewicki, wrote a brave article about the critical need
to address affordable housing in Dekalb County.
Anyone who volunteers for DPC’s Threshold Ministry can attest to the critical need
for transitional and affordable housing.
In the article, David describes his adult realization that the comfortable childhood he enjoyed
was made possible in part due to unjust policies and code restrictions
that kept white and black people segregated.
In the towns where David was raised, public policies enabled white middle and upper classes
to build wealth through home ownership. Many lived in good neighborhoods with good schools,
while at the same time poor blacks, on the “other side of the tracks”, were disallowed
from gaining any foothold in terms of education or income or wealth generation.
David Lewicki wrote: “We know what these policies did to the United States in the 20th century.
Driven by low-interest mortgages and white flight,
our country split into wealthier white neighborhoods and poorer black and brown neighborhoods.
But skin color and economic status weren’t the only differences between those communities.
People in the white neighborhoods were healthier, did better in school, felt safer,
were policed less aggressively and grew even richer,
thanks largely to the appreciating value of the homes they now owned.
And nobody ever told me the truth: we designed it this way.
White rich people here; black poor people there. It’s time to stop.” David writes.
“It’s time to undo what our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents (did).
It’s time to figure out ways to re-create communities
where people of every income level and race can make our homes together…
No single policy alone works. It takes many small steps over a generation to alter the housing
But we must do this work now… Ultimately, it’s not about policy. It’s about home.
As Christians, we have a God-given vision of home as beloved community.
The racially engineered communities of my childhood…are not part of God’s vision for our life
In beloved community, all of God’s children live together on earth as in heaven, side by side,
as neighbors…” Thus, Lewicki claims:
“All Christians should be leaders in transforming local housing policy.”
(David Lewicki: Called to the ministry of affordable housing, FaithandLeadership.com)
As some might say, David has gone from preaching to meddling.
And many will say that they do not even want to start such conversations about unfair housing
But, as Bishop Tutu suggested, even though we would sometimes rather just keep quiet,
God’s Word can be like a fire burning in the breast.
Where is injustice today? Who is still living under oppression?
Who is still recovering from injustices of the past?
And what is our role, as individuals and as a congregation?
Here is something to ponder…
While our understanding of who God is and how God works has evolved tremendously,
God’s work over the centuries is consistent with biblical times.
God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
God has, God does, and God will work through ordinary means to accomplish extraordinary ends.
God will work through individuals, and through the movements of nations,
and even through the natural world in order to bring about unnatural change.
The question is: Whose side are we on?
Whose side will we be on when the changes come – the Pharaohs of the world or the Moses’?
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church