Hero’s Journey or Exodus? Part 2

The exodus model differs from the journey’s quest in two –for me–compelling ways.

Moses leading the Israelites across the Reed Sea, a fresco in a Jewish synagogue in Dura Europos, 3rd century C.E.

In my last posting, Part 1 of this extended discussion on two models of the spiritual journey, I looked at the popular model of the hero’s journey. I call it popular because Joseph Campbell gave it such appealing presentations. Now, I turn to the second model, the story of the exodus.

Fundamentally the exodus story is the story of liberation, the liberation of a people. Through Moses, God frees the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, freeing them through a series of mighty works he performs on their behalf. 

Fundamentally the exodus story is the story of liberation, the liberation of a people.

The struggle for freedom climaxes in the miraculous passing of the Israelites through the Reed Sea on dry land; the Egyptian army is drowned when it tries to follow. Then something interesting happens. If Israel had taken the normal coastal road along the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, they would have arrived in the land of Canaan in a matter of weeks. But God directs them to pursue their journey through the middle of the Sinai desert. That journey ends up taking 40 years.

Learning to Exercise Responsible Freedom

Why would God direct Israel into such a long, slow, and circuitous route to Canaan? The answer I believe is that this disorganized band of freed slaves is not yet a people, a nation that can hold its own when it arrives in Canaan. What is needed is a time for nation-building. Nation-building, however, is not a quick and instant task. It can take a long time to forge a group of individuals into a unified society. That is the task of those 40 years in the Sinai wilderness.

In particular, Israel must learn how to live with the freedom God has given it, without falling back into the patterns of tyranny from which they emerged in Egypt. For the great illusion of many revolutions is that freedom means license for every person to do exactly what he or she wants to do. 

If you operate with that understanding of freedom, then society becomes a power struggle among all the competing interests and persons. That power struggle comes to an end only when one group or individual gathers all power into their or his hands. When that happens, a new tyranny replaces the old one that the revolution overthrew. We have seen this pattern repeated over and over again in history. 

For the freedom that God has given the Israelite slaves to survive, they must come to recognize that they must exercise a responsible freedom. Responsible freedom means that I enjoy the freedom to be myself, but in a society where everyone else is accorded the same freedom. Responsible freedom, therefore, means we accept limits on our autonomy.

Israel must learn how to live with the freedom God has given it, without falling back into the patterns of tyranny from which they emerged in Egypt.

What is happening in Sinai during those 40 years is that God is establishing a covenant with Israel and giving Israel a code of law that will enable Israel not only to survive as a nation, but also to flourish by a practice of responsible freedom. 

After 40 years of wandering, the Israelites cross the Jordan River to take possession of the land God has promised to them, the land of Canaan. What we find in the rest of the Old Testament story is how seductive will be the temptation for Israel to return to the life of Egypt.

Over and over again, Israel will compromise its monotheism, reintroducing the worship of other gods. It will backtrack from its principles of social justice, repeating the patterns of exploitation and tyranny practiced in Egypt. As a result, Israel will lose its land and freedom, going into exile.

Four Distinctive Features of the Exodus Model

Let me highlight four distinctive features of the Exodus story.

First, the Exodus story is a story about liberation. What Israel is given in the exodus from Egypt is the gift of freedom. Israel does not free itself from slavery. No, God frees them—and thus we are given the original meaning of salvation.

The gift of the Torah or Law is a gift that God gives so Israel can retain its freedom through the practice of responsible freedom. What Israel must learn in the wilderness is how to love God with all their being and love their neighbor as themselves. That is what a saved life looks like–a life of health, harmony, justice, wholeness, and peace.

Second, the exodus is not a story of the liberation of individuals as individuals, but the liberation or salvation of a people. What is primary in the story is the creation of a people, the people of Israel.

Yes, there are heroes in that story, especially Moses. In the story of Moses, there are many places where the life of Moses follows the classic pattern of the hero’s journey. But the exodus story is not primarily the story of the heroic life of Moses. It is the story of the liberation and forming of a people. Salvation has a fundamental social character rather than an individual character.

Three, note how the exodus story ends. Israel does not return to Egypt to resume its life in Egypt as a transformed people. The journey ends in the Promised Land, a new destination and a new home. 

The old home is left behind. It is the land of oppression. Instead God leads them to a new home, a different place from where they began their journey. The Promised Land is a place where Israel can flourish in freedom, if Israel is willing to practice the principles of responsible freedom.

Finally, Israel remembers and celebrates this story of liberation each year through the Passover festival. Passover is the supreme religious festival of Judaism. It remembers the gift of Israel’s liberation. It continues to be seen as the paradigm for how God relates to Israel all through its history and into its future. 

Scholars speculate that in the ancient past, Passover may have had its origins in a spring festival celebrated by the Canaanites. But what is striking is that the Israelites historicize the festival, making it not a celebration of nature’s cycles, but of a historical event, the Israelite’s liberation from slavery. It is a celebration of liberation, of a people being set free for a life of liberty under covenant with God.

The Jewish Concept of Historical Time

This Jewish concept of Passover involves a dramatically different concept of historical time than did those pagan fertility cults that I discussed in my last posting. Historical time is seen as linear, not cyclical. History has a beginning and it has an end. History time moves from one to the other.

In the historical event of the exodus, God frees Israel from Egypt and sets Israel on a journey. When the journey ends, it does not bring Israel back home to Egypt, but to a new destination, the Promised Land. Egypt and the Promised Land are not one and the same. 

Therefore, the divine movement in the world is not seen primarily as moving through the cycles of nature, but through divine interventions into human life, interventions that make a decisive difference. The divine character of God is revealed in God’s interventions in unique historical events, events that are meant to free human beings into a wholesome society. 

Scholars have noted that this Hebrew understanding of time means that Judaism has built into it a momentum for change. Religion is to lead people to a new and better experience of life, a life of liberation. 

The divine character of God is revealed in God’s interventions in unique historical events, events that are meant to free human beings into a wholesome society. 

Time moves forward from an initial starting point toward a fully developed end point in the future. What the future end point will be is not fully clear, but it will not be a return to the initial state of the world at the time of creation. 

The ancient pagan mindset tended to see the Golden Age of mankind as lying in the past, at the time of creation. This was re-emphasized each year in the pagan celebrations of the New Year Festival.

Hebrew thought, on the other hand, sees the Golden Age lying at the end, not at the beginning of history, but at the end of history when the Kingdom of God will be ushered in in all its fullness. History is a linear journey with mankind moving ahead to a Golden Age that has not yet dawned. 

If we remain true to this mindset, then the Hebrew concept of time works not to re-establish the status quo but to give incentive to change, change that leads to a better future ahead. 

Christian Adaptations of the Exodus Model

With its origins in Judaism, Christianity adopts this same Hebrew mindset of linear historical time. With one big difference: Christianity sees the decisive intervention of God into human life as being not the exodus from Egypt, but the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.

The death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are seen as the ultimate events of liberation, except in this case, not from the political and economic and social oppression of Egyptian slavery, but from our spiritual slavery to sin, death, and evil. The events of Holy Week, Easter, and Ascension then become another Passover, the Christian Passover. They celebrate our salvation from a kind of spiritual enslavement.

Still, exodus becomes the basic model for the classic Christian understanding of the spiritual journey. Let me mention a few examples.

When monasticism arose in the church in the late 3rd and 4th centuries, it arose in the deserts of Egypt and Syria. That is not accidental, for by this time, the desert had come to be associated with the location for spiritual transformation and formation. This was one of the legacies of the exodus story in Jewish and Christian imaginations.

One of the first and great expositions of the Christian understanding of the spiritual journey is a book titled The Life of Moses, by the early church father Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory was a renowned Christian theologian of the 4th century. He and his brother Basil of Caesarea were great apologists for what became the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. He lived and worked in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey.

…exodus becomes the basic model for the classic Christian understanding of the spiritual journey.

In his book The Life of Moses, he interprets the story of Moses and the exodus as an allegory. The allegory describes the spiritual journey of the soul as it journeys to God and to God’s realm. In that journey (a mystical journey as Gregory understands it), he sees the soul going through three stages, symbolized by God’s revelation of himself to Moses, first in light, then in cloud, then in darkness.

Gregory is especially notable for his teaching that the Christian soul never fully reaches the end of his journey, even in eternity. Perfection is seen to be a never-ending journey. He writes: This truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in the desire to see him.

Another great Christian exposition of the exodus model of the spiritual journey is Dante’s Divine Comedy. This epic poem tells the story of Dante’s own spiritual journey.

He begins in a dark wood of human confusion and despair. He journeys first through the realm of human sin, Hell. Then he begins his ascent to Paradise, passing through the stages of Purgatory as sins are cleansed. He ends his journey in the celestial Paradise where he reaches the end of his journey with a beatific vision of God.

In fact, his poem ends not with Dante returning to a transformed life in this world, but caught up in the ecstasy of divine love at the center of time and space. The end of the journey is a far different and far more glorious place than the dark wood where he began. His exodus is the journey through spiritual purification.

Finally I want to mention a great Protestant classic of the spiritual journey: John Bunyan’s classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress. This book is the classic Protestant adaptation of the exodus model of the spiritual journey. 

It has a hero, the figure of Christian, who travels on his way to the celestial city through a series of tests, temptations, and adventures. The land he leaves behind is a kind of Puritan version of Egypt. When he reaches the celestial city, he crosses through the river of death, never to return home. He comes to his new home, the celestial land of heaven.

Why I Find the Exodus Model So Compelling

We have then two models for the spiritual journey: the hero’s journey and the exodus. We often see writers on spirituality blending aspects of the two models together. Even in the exodus story, as I mentioned, we find Moses as an individual exhibiting some features of the hero’s journey.

I personally resonate with the hero’s journey model because my own spiritual journey mirrors some of its components. I have traveled Campbell’s circle, and returned home again, but as a stronger and spiritually healthier person. But I find the exodus model more compelling for two important reasons. 

First, as I have mentioned several times, the hero’s journey generally has an individualistic cast. The transformed hero may have a beneficial impact on society once he returns home, but the hero’s journey is not primarily about a people’s journey as a people.

Maybe that is one reason why Joseph Campbell’s presentations so resonate with Americans. Our culture is one that values individualism, and a spiritual journey that concentrates on the transformation of an individual appeals to us. Even those classic Christian statements that I cited–the works of Gregory of Nyssa, Dante, and John Bunyan–also adapt the exodus story along an individualistic line. They describe the spiritual journey of individuals.

…we can never escape the fact that the exodus model of the spiritual journey is always a story of a spiritual journey of a people, not just of individuals.

But I think that we can never escape the fact that the exodus model of the spiritual journey is always a story of a spiritual journey of a people, not just of individuals. For this reason, Judaism and Christianity remain corporate in their religious visions. The people of Israel as a people, the Church as the Body of Christ, remain central to both religions.

I think that is important. The hero’s journey can breed a sense of elitism. It is after all a story of a hero. What happens then if we do not feel we are heroes? Is the spiritual journey then something we cannot hope to experience?

What about all of us average Christians who do not have burning bush mystical experiences or Damascus Road transformations? Can we participate in any spiritual journey?

I answer a decisive Yes. We participate in the spiritual journey through our participation in the life, worship, and ministry of our home church. Life in a normal parish church may not always feel all that transformative, what with its petty disputes and meanness. 

But it can be very transformative, as we share in its life, in its the study of the Word, its celebration of the sacraments, and its ministry to those in need. That participation lived out through a lifetime of devotion can bring about transformations just as real as Moses’ or St. Paul’s. The transformation may be slow, quiet, and hidden. Nonetheless, whether transformation is gradual or immediate, it is still transformation.

Here is where I resonate strongly with the exodus model. When I look back on the spiritual journey I’ve traversed in my life, I have to say that I have had no sudden or dramatic revelations or enlightenments or mystical experiences that revolutionized my life and consciousness as did the enlightenment that the Buddha had under the Bodhi tree.

My experience of transformation has been much more an experience of living out in the wilderness for a long time. There in the wilderness I have undergone many transformations, but in slow, quiet, and hidden ways. My formation as a Christian, however, has been deeply shaped and influenced by my participation in a number of local Christian congregations. It has not been an exclusively individual journey.

I believe that for most Christians, that will be the way we experience the spiritual journey. If we take our involvement in a local church seriously and we take the call to Christian discipleship seriously, we will be transformed more often than not in these slow, quiet, and hidden ways. This means I have a high regard for life in a congregation. Life in a local church may have its many problems, but it is still the place where the Spirit works to transform us spiritually.

The Best is Yet Ahead

Second, I find myself most drawn to the exodus model because of its sense of the end point of the journey and its sense of time. Again, as I’ve mentioned several times, the end of the Exodus journey is not the return to Egypt, but the arrival in the Promised Land. 

The exodus story nurtures an openness to change. As a result, life takes on vitality, because we are spiritually always on our tiptoes waiting with incredible anticipation to see what amazing things God is doing and will do.

What I find fascinating in the trajectory of the Biblical story is that the Bible begins with a garden, the garden of Eden, and in the Christian Bible ends with a city, the city of the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven, described in the last two chapters of Revelation.

God is a true conservative, preserving what is good and best in the past, but God is also a true liberal, in the sense of his liberating all creation for a glorious liberty that exceeds description.

Yet in the heart of that city lies the garden. The garden has not been abolished and abandoned, but it has been caught up into something much greater and more glorious, a city where God dwells with his people forever. The garden is preserved and glorified in the city. God is a true conservative, preserving what is good and best in the past, but God is also a true liberal, in the sense of his liberating all creation for a glorious liberty that exceeds description.

What all this says to me is that God is at work not just to save our lives so that we can return to our lives as they are, there to be more happy, effective, and productive.

No, God is at work to bring us and the whole world to something far more glorious than we can ever imagine, a fulfillment that exceeds whatever we can dream. This is a vision of incredible hope. In the exodus story, the best does not lie behind us in the past. It lies ahead.

Final Comment

This posting completes my reflections upon the Book of Exodus, reflections that have occupied my last 34 blog postings. I hope they inspire you to go back and re-read the Book of Exodus and then do so again and again. Let it words sink deep into your souls, for it is, I believe, the paradigm of salvation. This is what the journey to salvation looks like, whether we are an individual or a people. 

3 thoughts on “Hero’s Journey or Exodus? Part 2

  1. Judy Brown

    Gordon, this is an inspired posting!  You cover a lot – and give courage to what we face today in our world.  In our own congregations, we can keep looking for ways to practice  our faith. This is no time to give up on our world.  Thanks, Judy

    Like

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