Thursday, September 15, 2011

In the Meantime: "Let My People Go!"

Our lectionary passages this week are Exodus 14:10-29 (I altered the lectionary inclusions a little bit), Romans 14:7-12, and Matthew 18:21-35--check them out here.

A LOT happens between the call of Moses (last week's story) and the passage of the children of Israel through the watery walls of the Sea (this week's story). Living into his call from God was no easy task for Moses--I think Moses knew this, explaining why he went to such great lengths to argue with God about God's choice of a leader. Yet once Moses turned aside to look at the bush, he was in for the long haul; and a long haul indeed it would be.

Moses leaves the glow of the bush and enters the throes of despair. His worst fears come true: no one is listening to him. He goes to Pharaoh to ask Pharaoh to let the Israelites go for three days--just three days!--to the wilderness to worship this God who has appeared to them. Pharaoh's reply is constant: “Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD and I will not let Israel go.”

Then, Moses goes to tell the people what God has promised--liberty from their hard labor that is becoming increasingly harsh, life as God's protected people in a new land that can be theirs. But even Moses' own people "did not listen to him because of their discouragement and harsh labor" (Exodus 6:9). Pharaoh's grip of power is so tight that it seems no one and no thing can loose it--the Israelites are as confident of this as Pharaoh himself appears to be, scoffing in the face of this God.

At this point, however, God becomes determined that all of these doubters--Egyptians and Hebrews alike--have an opportunity to see a different power at work; and so a story unfolds that could cue music for Irving Berlin's great song "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better" from the musical Annie Get Your Gun-- a spirited duet in which two singers attempt to outdo each other in increasingly complex tasks. This is perhaps an inappropriately light way to look at the very intense drama that unfolds in Exodus 7-12. The plagues have always troubled me--I mean, who would not be troubled by the suffering and death that unfolds in this struggle? But it seems that, in the context of this narrative, their point is clear: to make obvious that God's power is greater than any human power, even the seemingly unshakable power of Pharaoh, the only power the people have ever known. Anything Pharaoh can do, God can overrule--God can do all things better, not just in theory but in visible action. I love how Walter Brueggeman describes the purpose of the plagues narrative:

"The plague cycle makes the point that the processes of human power are not as cut, dried, and foreclosed as the powerful imagine. Another power is loose in the world that finally precludes any system of power that overrides the fragility of human persons and human community. This inscrutable power will not finally tolerate such abuse. At the center of public history is “wonder,” which no ruthless pharaoh can resist or squelch. It is that wonder wrought by God that in the end creates human possibilities for freedom and justice, for well-being and covenant." (The New Interpreters Bible)

This background, I think, is needed to put the crossing of the Red Sea in perspective--another horrible narrative that ends in life for some and death for others. Why carry out the Exodus in this way? Is God just showing off? This story is central to Israelite history...why are we called to wrestle with it again and again? I confess that my moral self still doesn't know what to do with the violence, and I may still not know at the end of Sunday--in fact, I probably won't. It grates on what I feel is right, on the love of God that I believe extends to all people. But maybe, from time to time, we need to be reminded that the great power of God extends to all people as well. Sometimes, if we are going to walk through the sea, we need more than the embrace of love--we need to know a power bigger than we can comprehend is backing us up. Sometimes we need to know God not just intimately, but powerfully; sometimes we need to be reminded how different from us God truly is.

But I am definitely still working on this. What do you think?

1 comment:

Jeremy said...

As usual, I'm looking forward to hearing what God leads you to share with us on Sunday, Abby.

At Bible study and at the first "Manna and Mercy" discussion group, these were questions I had as well. How do we rectify our God who comes when people cry out with our God who crushes our enemies (who, doubtless, cried out as well)? Yes, one could point out (based on our "Love Wins" discussion) that even mortal death of the Israelites' Egyptian oppressors wasn't the last word/judgement on them. Perhaps this matches with my point about the perspective difference between us as humans vs. God's, and maybe that leads to what Abby ended with here:

"Sometimes we need to know God not just intimately, but powerfully; sometimes we need to be reminded how different from us God truly is."

Another point I'd make is something Susan said recently (and that Eloise echoed a bit during "Manna and Mercy"). Do we approach the scriptures as something that happened exactly as it is described, generally as it is described, and/or a mythologized event for a certain people, time, and place (i.e. context)? For me, I'd say that the variances in approach could greatly affect my close reading of such things as the Exodus story. Then again, I'm not sure how much MY understanding matters in the long run, as much as I'd like to selfishly assert otherwise. Would I feel that much better, really? Be more at ease?

Probably not. God is God, and what do I know about the big picture? Not a heck of a lot.