Le Cénacle, Geneva, 7-10 May 1997
Bible study on Exodus 5:1 led by John Fotopoulos
Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, "Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness".
I would like to express my gratitude for the invitation to lead the Bible studies for this conference on Lay Participation and Inclusive Community. I do not presume to teach anything new to such a distinguished group which has been gathered here in Geneva for these meetings. Rather, I hope to merely share some thoughts on the daily Bible readings that we will be hearing and from these meager thoughts you might reflect and bring a seed to fruition. My thoughts on the texts invariably reflect my own background as an Orthodox Christian who has grown up in Chicago and has never previously attended a WCC conference.
In today’s reading we heard how Moses boldly stood up before Pharaoh and conveyed God’s command that Pharaoh "Let my people go." But before the Book of Exodus has taken us to the point in the narrative where Moses faces Pharaoh, there are many details of great interest, some of which I would like to also touch on today.
You will recall that the Book of Exodus begins with a short introduction describing how the situation has changed in Egypt since the days of Joseph and his brothers. Life has changed for the Israelites because there is a new pharaoh in power "who did not know Joseph" (Ex. 1:8). This new Pharaoh is extremely concerned about the rapid population growth of the Israelites in Egypt. The increasing number of Israelites causes Pharaoh to fear that the Israelites will join with Egypt’s enemies, make war, and escape from the land. After developing these fears, Pharaoh devises a plan to keep Israel right where it is in Egypt. Pharaoh is certainly concerned that the departure of so great a segment of the labor force from the country would have a negative impact on the economy. Pharaoh plans, however, not only to keep the Israelites in Egypt, but to place them in the service of the state. This confinement of the Israelites is achieved by oppressing them with harsh, forced labor.
However, before the narrative has even taken the reader/listener up to place of Israel’s forced labor, there is a very important detail in the first verse of the book which is quite easy to just pass over without much reflection. Exodus 1:1 begins, "These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household." The salient point in this verse is that the Israelites "came to Egypt." The Israelites had come to Egypt, but they didn’t belong there . Egypt was not the true home of the people of Israel, but they had emigrated there in prior generations. Israel was merely supposed to be a guest in Egypt. The Israelites, however, had become comfortable there and had made Egypt their home. After being in Egypt for such a long time the Israelites would have surely had homes there, gotten married and had children, and would have begun to assimilate. Nevertheless, the Israelites should not have identified with the land of Egypt, the land of Egypt was not their home. Egypt was a land for other people with which to identify. From Genesis 12 on, promises had been made by God to the people of Israel that they would be made a great nation and given a land of their own. God had promised that they would be led to a promised land, a land flowing with milk honey. Egypt, however, was to be no more than a stop along the way of God’s pre-planned route to the promised land (Gen. 15:13ff).
One point that I believe has relevance for our discussions at this conference is the Israelites identification with the Egyptians and Egypt; or in our case, the care which needs to be exercised so as not to identify the members of the people of God with the whole people of God (all humankind which are God’s children, but not members of the body of Christ). The identification of the people of God with the whole people of God can lead the laos into enslavement. An identification of the laos with the whole people of God can foster a false sense of comfort and security for the people of God which can inhibit the promises that God has in store for the people.
Because the Israelites were comfortable and secure for a time in Egypt, they were not prepared to relinquish the life in Egypt for the promised land. Egypt was not merely oppressive in the eyes of the Israelites, it was also somehow attractive before they were enslaved in forced labor. Even after their liberation from forced labor the Israelites complained in the wilderness because of their hunger and longed for Egypt remembering that there they had at least sat by the fleshpots and eaten their fill of bread. Yes, indeed, there must be an association of the people of God with the whole people of God, but the two must not be identified in our minds, even if terminology is used to distinguish between the two in our speech. In the one-third world this is a point that I believe needs to be especially considered on account of the great comforts available. It is quite easy to feel so at home and comfortable in everyday life that we are able to easily overlook the enslavement into which we are being led by the world.
I certainly do not mean to downplay the significance of the people of God’s role in this world and their relationship with the whole people of God. A close relationship with the whole people of God is, indeed, essential. Paul affirms this very association of the laos with the whole people of God in 1 Corinthians 5. Paul writes that he certainly does not mean for the Corinthian Christians not to associate with non-Christians, since otherwise they "would need to go out of the world."
An identification of the laos with the whole people of God, however, reduces the significance of the special role the people of God are called to play for the sake of the whole people of God. The people of God are called to play a role in referring the whole people of God and the entire cosmos to Christ for its sanctification and glorification. An association of the laos with whole people of God is essential, but an identification of the two does not serve either of the people or the gospel. Egypt is not our home; here we have no lasting city; "our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ" (Phil. 3:20).
The days of comfort for the people of God in Egypt did not last long. The Israelites comfortable place among the whole people of God in Egypt led to enslavement. Pharaoh was not blind to the rapid population growth of the people of Israel. He feared that the Israelites would become too numerous and too strong and escape from the land of Egypt, so Pharaoh attempted to thwart this possible exodus by imposing harsh labor on the people of God.
In this dramatic scene stands the harsh and premeditated plan of Pharaoh to impede the planned liberation of the people of God. The opposing plan of Pharaoh is brought into direct confrontation with the plan of God. Wittingly or unwittingly, Pharaoh had resisted the fulfillment of the promises God had made to the people regarding the land they were to receive (1:9ff.) Pharaoh had also attempted to impede God’s plan for the people to become a great nation. Although Pharaoh’s concerns about the Israelites possible departure one day may have been strictly economic or strategic, his plans had serious theological implications. By enslaving the people and depriving them of their freedom, Pharaoh has made an attempt to curtail the growth of the Israelites and frustrate God’s promise that they would become a great nation, more numerous than the sands of the sea (Gen. 12).
The liberation of the people of God is also impeded today by many pharaohs. As in the case of the Israelites in Egypt, opportunities to live like free human beings, to grow, and to develop are taken from the people in the hope that their vitality will shrivel. It has certainly been well established by the members of the WCC that the churches are called to work for justice and peace wherever people are confronted by oppressive forces. Although the means for establishing justice and peace may be a matter that is debated by theologians and churches, the necessity of working for justice and peace are not. But for the sake of our discussions, it may also be prudent to ask ourselves how we as churches, as clergy, and as theologians act as pharaohs to the people of God. It is not enough to merely identify oppressive forces outside ourselves or the Church as pharaohs. We must, rather, carefully examine ourselves and our churches in order to discover how we, the Church, as well as the Church leadership, play the part of pharaoh. This kind of self-examination calls for courage and humility. It also calls for love and faithfulness to the gospel and to the people for whose sake the gospel is preached. Some questions that could be asked of ourselves and our churches in our own contexts might be: In what ways do we impede opportunities for the people of God’s growth? How do we ourselves sap the vitality of the people and cause them to shrivel? Are we plagued by an excessive clericalism which may be responded to by the people with further clericalism? In what concrete ways are we equipping the laos for positions of leadership? How are we helping the people of God to discover their spiritual gifts and use them for the building up of the body and for the life of the world?
When the ruthless labor in mortar and brick that Pharaoh has imposed fails to prevent the people from spreading and multiplying, and hence, failing to prevent the people from ultimately receiving God’s promises, Pharaoh instructs two midwives to kill all the males born from Hebrew women. Pharaoh’s thirst to thwart God’s plans for the people in his own self-interest did not stop even at the murder of innocent newborns. This blood thirsty scheme, however, did not succeed due to the intercession of two midwives. These two midwives disobeyed Pharaoh’s orders and refused to kill the newborn males.
There is some scholarly debate as to whether the two midwives mentioned in the text are to be understood as being of Hebrew or Egyptian origin. The text could mean that they are "Hebrew midwives" or "midwives of the Hebrews" who are Egyptians. In either case, whether the two women are part of the people of God or the whole people of God, these two woman have a special role to play in the fulfillment of God’s promises for the people. It is so easy to overlook these two bold women’s role in the Exodus story and just to remember the courage of Moses before Pharaoh. But these two women should stand out for us a examples of boldness and intelligence. Their depiction in the narrative as women and people refusing to allow injustice to be inflicted on the people of God in the face of Pharaoh clearly demonstrates their courage. Their keen intellect is also demonstrated by their formidable wit which is easily able to outsmart Pharaoh when explaining why the Israelite children have not been killed.
The courage and intelligence of the women is something brought out in the Resurrection accounts in the New Testament as well. It was the women who went to the tomb early in the morning in order to anoint Jesus’ body, although it was still dark. Fear of the Roman soldiers, who certainly did not have a reputation for chivalry in the Greco-Roman world, did not keep the women from approaching the tomb of Jesus while the male apostles were hiding behind closed doors in fear.
I believe the theme of courageous and intelligent women should have a place in our discussions about the people of God and the whole people of God. In many cases, it is members of the Church itself who have not allowed women to exercise their gifts for the sake of the people of God. The women must be given the opportunity to use their talents, and certainly in two-thirds world countries, they must be provided with opportunities for education as well as with fundamental human rights. We might reflect on ways that the Churches have prevented the women who are members of the people of God and the whole people of God from approaching the tomb of Jesus, encountering Jesus, and spreading the message of the Resurrection to all humankind.
In Egypt the people of God were severely oppressed with forced labor. The intensity of this labor caused the Israelites great misery and they cried out in their pain. It is interesting to note that the Biblical text does not say that the Israelites cried out to God, which we might take for granted when reading the story, but the text simply states that the Israelites cried out. In other words, the Israelites did not cry out to God, but simply cried out in their misery. It is conceivable that the Israelites had been in Egypt for so long and had become so comfortable there that they had forgotten about the promises made to their ancestors by the Lord. It is conceivable that some of Israelites had even forgotten Yahweh completely and had devoted themselves to other foreign gods. Nevertheless, even though the Israelites may have forgotten God, God had not forgotten the Israelites or the promises God had made. God heard the cries of the people.
The point that I would like to reflect on is that although the Churches may not be attuned to the cries of the people, God hears their cries. This thought brings me comfort, especially when I feel pessimistic about the status quo and don’t see any immediate hope in sight. God is mindful of the people and does not forget them, even if we or they forget God. It is God who is mindful of the people’s cries and, as Psalm 56 says, keeps their tears in his bottle. Isn’t that a comforting thought? God even keeps track of our every tear. Regardless of what the WCC does or decides pertaining to the people of God and the whole people of God, God hears the people’s cries and remembers them. This is not an excuse for inaction on our part, but a reminder to us that God remembers, hears, and acts despite what the Church leadership or people do. It is God who has made the promises and it is only through God’s power that we are able to help God’s promises be actualized.
The last point that I would like to address in today’s Bible study is Moses’ actual encounter with Pharaoh where Moses relays God’s command to "Let my people go". In Exodus 5:1 when Moses stood before Pharaoh he said, "Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness’". It is interesting that Moses did just not just give Pharaoh the order to release the people of Israel but also provided the reason for their release: "so that may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness". Some scholars have surmised that the request simply meant for Pharaoh to permit the Israelites to go to the wilderness for three days and then to return to Egypt. In other words, Moses’ request was a ruse so that the Israelites could act as though they were just going into the wilderness for a few days to celebrate their festival but then depart Egypt for good. I’m not convinced that we are to understand this to be the context of the request, but rather to understand it as a bold command of the liberating God in the face of the tyrant Pharaoh. Nevertheless, the context of the request for liberation from Egypt is for the purpose of celebrating a festival to God in the wilderness. The liberation of the people is not for the sake of economic or political freedom, but as God says in Exodus 4:23, so that Israel may go and "worship me". Liberation for the people is not liberation in a strictly human sense, for in the eyes of God the people are to go from service in mortar and bricks in Egypt in order to serve the Lord. Paul expresses the very thought that I am trying to convey in 1 Corinthians 5 regarding Christian liberation and service when he writes, "For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters" (1 Cor. 5:22-23). The paradox of liberation in Christ is slavery in Christ. So this is also true today for the people of God. Without this slavery to Christ for the people the possibility for liberation from sin does not exist.
In today’s Bible study I have expressed thoughts trying to relate the story of Israel’s relationship to Egypt with the relationship of the people of God to the whole people of God. There is to be an association of the people of God and the whole people of God, but not an identification between them. In other words, the Church is not the world and there is a hazard in finding this temporary residence too comfortable. An over identification with the whole people of God reduces the significance of the role the people of God are called to play for the life of the world.
As we reflect on ways that the people of God and the whole people of God are oppressed by the Pharaoh’s of the world, we should also reflect on ways that we ourselves and the Churches act as Pharaohs. To consider this takes courage, humility, and love.
Reflecting on the most important role the midwives played in the eventual liberation of the Israelites, we would do well to think about the meaningful membership and participation of the women in the people of God and the whole people of God.
Lastly, as we consider the liberation of the people of Israel from the land of Egypt, we might keep in mind that liberation for the people is purposeful liberation: that they might go celebrate a festival to God in the wilderness. May we also celebrate life, glorifying the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit now and forever. Amen.