I invite you on a journey into wisdom.
One book of the Bible more than any other draws me back over and over again. That book is the Book of Exodus.
As a narrative, I find it deeply engaging, comparable to J.R.R. Tokien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for me, an equally engaging story. The account of the contest between God and Pharaoh, recounted in chapters 5-14, matches any of the great duels between champions that we find in the Iliad, the Aeneid, or the Arthurian romances. Though God wins in the end, Pharaoh is a formidable fighter. His stature equals that of Satan in Milton’s epic Paradise Lost.
As philosophical theology, Exodus gives us that fundamental conception of God revealed at the burning bush on Sinai: I am who I am, or I will be who I will be (Exodus 3:14). There in a nutshell we are introduced to a God as a Presence, who remains an impenetrable mystery.
Exodus gives us that fundamental conception of God revealed at the burning bush on Sinai: I am who I am, or I will be who I will be.
In the end our best intellectual efforts to describe God become the blind men describing the elephant in the famous Indian parable. To know God is ultimately not to comprehend God, but to relate to God personally as the eternal Thou of our lives. Biblical religion finds its fullest maturity in mysticism.
As an account of the process of liberation and nation building, Exodus is true to the realities of political life. It has inspired reformers and revolutionaries in many generations. When the Puritan refugees migrated to New England in the 17th century, they brought with them visions of themselves as Israelites fleeing the oppression of England as Egypt, commissioned with the task of creating a new promised land where God’s people could flourish. Benjamin Franklin once proposed that the Great Seal of the United States should include an image of Moses leading the Israelites through the Red Sea.
It is no accident either that even in the writings of secularized socialists, like Karl Marx, we find references to the Exodus story. The story forms an important substratum below European and American thought.*
The impact of the Exodus story on African-Americans has been huge, both during the slavery era and after. You hear allusions to it all through Black preaching and rhetoric. A good example is the speech Dr. Martin Luther King gave in Memphis, Tennessee, the night before his assassination. It is popularly titled “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top,”
In it King talks about all the threats that have been made against his life, with new threats there in Memphis. He responds with words that draw their imagery from the account in Deuteronomy 34 of the death of Moses. Moses does not get to enter the Promised Land, but before his death, he is given a glimpse of it from the top of Mount Nebo.
Drawing upon that account, King says of himself:
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.
The Exodus story has also inspired many cherished spirituals, like the one that begins:
When Israel was in Egypt’s land
Let my people go
Oppress’d so hard they could not stand
Let my people go
Go down, Moses
Way down in Egypt’s land
Tell old Pharaoh
Let my people go
Finally when we search out a road map for the spiritual journey, to help us understand the typical movements of spiritual formation, we find teachers of spirituality turning over and over again to the narratives and images we encounter in the Exodus story. A good example is the early church father, Gregory of Nyssa, whose Life of Moses treats the Exodus story as an allegory delineating the stages of the mystic’s pilgrimage.
The Jewish Paradigm of Salvation
But more than anything else, I find the most compelling quality of the exodus story to be the fact that in the Biblical mindset, it is the essential paradigm for salvation, past, present, and future. What does salvation look like? What are the typical rhythms in the movement towards salvation? In the Biblical mindset, salvation is less a one-time event, and much more a journey, a journey of a people, even more than for individuals.
…in the Biblical mindset, [the Exodus] is the essential paradigm for salvation, past, present, and future.
When in the dual disasters of the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests of Israel and Judah, and the Hebrew prophets and the psalmists look with longing for God’s future redemption, they constantly turn to the language of the Exodus story. Hosea sees that for corrupt Israel to return to a thriving, loving relationship with its God, it will need to undergo another purification experience in the desert (Hosea 2). And the prophet behind Isaiah 40-55 presents glowing pictures of how God will redeem Israel out of Babylon through a second and glorious exodus through the desert.
A Christian Paradigm Too
This imagery has deeply shaped the mindset of Christianity as well. The life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are seen as the supreme exodus, only foreshadowed in the Mosaic exodus. Through his death and resurrection, Christ has set all humanity free from the oppressive autocracy of spiritual powers and dominions, of sin, and finally the mortality of death.
[In Christianity] the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are seen as the supreme Exodus, only foreshadowed in the Mosaic exodus.
Early Christians celebrated that great victory each year in its Easter festival, a festival to which they gave the name of Pascha (a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word for Passover). Easter is the Christian Passover. That victory is also celebrated every time Christians gather for the Eucharist, the feast where we remember and participate in the sacrifice of Christ our Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:6-8).
Given the centrality of the exodus story to the Biblical mindset, I want to spend time in a series of blog postings reflecting on the narrative, the imagery, and the concepts that we encounter in that narrative. I will be concentrating my attention on the Book of Exodus alone.
But the Book of Exodus** does not tell the full story. It only recounts basically the first year of what will become a 40-year-long journey (the story continues into the books of Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua). But what happens in that first year will be decisive to the character of the journey. It is in these decisive moments that the enduring wisdom of the exodus story primarily resides.
My postings will be my personal reflections and comments on the text. Scholars may challenge whether my exegesis is accurate or not. You should not, therefore, take my comments as the definitive interpretation of Exodus. Rather my postings will reflect how the book triggers thoughts, feelings, and insights within one engaged reader. I hope they will trigger something similar for you. If you disagree with my interpretations, I invite you to share your alternative viewpoint using the Comments feature of this blog.
So come, join me in a fascinating journey through a great work of insight and wisdom.
* For readers who wish to explore the many ways politicians, liberationists, and revolutionaries have drawn upon the story of the exodus, I recommend Michael Walzer’s book, Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books Inc., 1985). It’s a brilliant study of how the exodus story has influenced politicians and revolutionaries through the centuries, especially those who led the English Puritan revolution in the 17th century, the American revolution in the 18th century, revolutionary thinkers in the 19th century including utopian socialists, the various revolutionary movements in the 20th century, and liberationist theologians in Latin America today.
** Throughout my postings, I will capitalize Exodus when the word refers to the book of Exodus. I will lower-case it when I am referring to the historical event of the exodus.