Sabbath and Survival

We spend a significant amount of time devising strategies to help ourselves survive the wilderness. Perhaps that is what Exodus has in mind when we are introduced to Sabbath. A day we do not work and yet still receive. Exodus is asking “Do you think you are surviving out here on your own?” Exodus gives us Sabbath and then adds “Go ahead, take a day to rest and when you are still provided for you will know this was not by your own doing.”

Sabbath becomes increasingly important as Pharaoh increases his efforts to control us. Pharaoh and his scheduling issues offer no rest. God gives something different – Sabbath. It is counter to Pharaoh. It is a rebellious move. Sabbath is admission that we are not in control and neither is Pharaoh. Even as we rest, God continues to take care of us. This goes against any worldview that we control our own destiny.

Like Hebrews looking for manna on the seventh day, we challenge God for control. We convince ourselves for six days that we are surviving on our own. In contrast, Sabbath is a gift to remind us we cannot deliver ourselves; not from hunger, thirst, or slavery.

From Bitterness to Refreshment

After the singing of Exodus 15 we discover a problem. A lack of water (interesting in light of the fact we literally just walked through walls of water). Short version of the story, Moses throws a stick into bitter water and it becomes sweet. While we are curious about that stick and wonder if we could replicate that feat, the text is content with “If God can part the sea and rescue slaves from the Egyptian army of course He can make bitter water sweet.” Then, while we are still dazzled by the taste of sweet water, the Lord speaks.

It is of interest that the Lord refers to Himself as “your healer.” Not only is the Lord a healer, but “your healer.” It is as though healing a company of slaves has become the primary mission of the Lord. The text unleashes on the world not only One who can sweeten bitter water, but One who can counter the diseases of the empire.

Exodus takes us from a place called bitterness to a resort in Elim where there are twelve springs of water and seventy date palms. From grumbling to a place of rest. From testing and quarreling to a place of refreshment. And we did not find these on our own.

We are Not on Our Own

In Participant: Field Notes from Here and Now, I have this to say about the wilderness. “We recognize our dependence and recognize that we are not enough on our own.” I stand by that statement after spending significant time in the Exodus narrative. I am convinced that Exodus wants us to be aware of where we are. Early on, it takes us to Egyptian slave camp. Then it takes us straight through the Red Sea. By the time we get to chapter 16, we are dropped off in the wilderness where we are quickly reminded that “we are not enough on our own.”

Wilderness may not imply the same thing each time we find it in the bible, but it does not likely keep showing up by accident. In contrast, we seem to spend much time convincing ourselves we can avoid the wilderness. Still, Exodus insists on taking us there and making us aware that “we are not enough on our own.” Our best attempts at survival fall short and we must depend on something other than ourselves.

In the wilderness our situation is bleak. Think about it, us against the wilderness, us against hunger, us against thirst, us against an opposing army, us against the elements. The odds are not in our favor. Exodus is clear; we cannot survive on our own. Yet, there is more to the story, we are not on our own.

Exodus: a Response to the Movie

The movie begins with a ceremony where a priestess reads a prophecy from the entrails of a goose.  Moses doesn’t seem to be convinced, in fact doesn’t appear interested in religion at all.  At one point he even says, “Is it bad to grow up believing in yourself?”  Moses doesn’t want anything to do with gods – that is, until the Hebrew God wants something to do with Moses.

A significant part of the plot revolves around the relationship between Moses and Ramses, but there is still plenty of emphasis on the relationship between Moses and God.  Both of these relationships stir emotion.  The relationship with God is best described by the definition given an Israelite “One who wrestles with God.”  Moses grapples with God from his initial reluctance until the movie’s end at which point it is noted that though they often disagree they are still talking.

Like others, I was surprised to find the messenger (or was it the Lord Himself) continually appeared as a young boy.  Perhaps the greatest surprise was that the young lad had an attitude that seemed something other than divine.  Maybe surprise is what the movie wanted to evoke.  For that matter how should one present the Creator of the universe on the big screen?  Is there a best way to portray God in a movie?  Nevertheless, my favorite of these appearances comes at the end of the movie as He is walking among the people of Israel.

This movie attempts to make sense of things, tries to leave room for natural causes for things like the plagues.  But it also presents Pharaoh’s scientific advisor as fumbling through an explanation for the plagues.  At this point it becomes clear that God is in control of things like weather, the sea, wildlife, even human life.

This Moses is a warrior.  This works in the movie because that is what God claims to be looking for.  So Moses, still trusting himself, develops a warrior’s strategy.  Eventually however, he watches as the plan of God becomes visible.  I don’t mind a warrior-like Moses, but I miss the shepherd’s staff.  I kept waiting for Moses to exchange his sword for a staff, but it never happened.

I was also surprised that a Moses “slow of speech” in Exodus couldn’t seem to stop talking in the movie.  Yet the words I wanted to hear from him, a bold proclamation to Pharaoh “Let my people go” never happened.

There is no lack of action in the movie, yet I found myself wanting more.  The movie seemed to go more for artistry than accuracy.  As we have come to expect, there are many additions to the story to fill in the gaps.  Still, with all the action in the Exodus narrative, even more wow could have been added.  Instead of a priestess reading from goose entrails, did anyone else miss clever midwives to start the story?  Or a scene where baby Moses dangerously floats in the Nile while the Egyptian princess walks to the riverbank?  Or how about a showdown where the staff of Moses swallows the Egyptian staffs?  Whether you liked the additions to them or not, at least the plagues and crossing of the sea are portrayed with some of the severity they undoubtedly brought with them.  Yet, when honest, we will never be satisfied with Hollywood as tellers of our stories.

As the movie Noah did for Genesis, I am grateful that this movie has helped Exodus to become a larger part of public discussion.  And for all who have watched these movies – we are again reminded that the biblical storyline sets us on an adventure.

Sabbath and Sovereignty

The loudest voices are trying to convince us that we need something else, something more, something we do not yet have.  This is exhausting, all this chasing after things that have no real value.  We are running with a herd that wants more, uses more, eats and drinks more.  Sabbath speaks to those of us caught in this, invites us to break the cycle, and be reminded that we are not in control.  Of that, we are not even capable.  Sabbath is counter cultural – An act of rebellion.

The command to remember the Sabbath comes to us as part of the Ten Commandments in both Exodus and Deuteronomy.  In Exodus it comes in response to creation where God rested.  Sabbath is woven into the fabric of creation since the very beginning.  In Deuteronomy it comes to us in response to Passover.  A time when we did not rescue ourselves, we were not delivered by our own hand.  We are reminded in both instances that we are not in control here and do not need to be.  There is a danger of believing in the lie of self-sovereignty.

Sabbath speaks into the disorder of our lives.  We think restlessness is normal.  It is not – even God rests.  Rest is initiated by God, indeed He participates in it.  Walter Brueggemann says that “God’s sovereignty is so sure that even God can ease off daily management of creation and the world will not fall apart.”

Exodus 16 offers us a narrative commentary on Sabbath.  The people have convinced themselves that serving as slaves in Egypt is better than what God has done for them.  But God rains bread from heaven and tells them to gather the bread each morning.  On the seventh morning there is no need to gather bread.  So what do we find?  “It came about on the seventh day that some of the people went out to gather…”  The people thought they would die if they did not gather on the Sabbath.  Or they thought that their efforts would get them ahead.  Or any number of lies they were telling themselves.  But God had provided enough.

We may not be singing that we want to go back to Egypt or about lack of food in the wilderness, but we do grumble about not being satisfied with what we have.  We grumble about wanting something more, or at least something different from what we already have.  Sabbath suggests that our restlessness, our desire for more, our insecurity, and our lack of faith in the claims of God are ridiculous.  Why do we continue to think that God’s gifts will come to an end?

Sabbath is evidence of God’s reliability.  We are given a Sabbath because for six days we convince ourselves that we are the brains behind the operation.  We convince ourselves that we are surviving by our own efforts.  We are given a Sabbath because for six days we convince ourselves that we are capable of delivering ourselves from the things that enslave us.

Sovereignty is a daily battle.  When we rely on ourselves, like the Hebrews looking for manna on the seventh day, we challenge the sovereignty of God.  Sabbath gives opportunity to re-assign the energy we use to control situations.  Sabbath invites us instead to delight in God and to serve others.

Exodus: A Paradigm for Rescue

I have been reading The Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire.  Freire has an impressive resume.  Brazilian educator and theorist.  Influential in teaching adults to read.  That is until literacy was considered threatening to the current regime.  He was then jailed and exiled.  While in exile he became a Harvard professor.  He later served the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

In Pedagogy, he makes a case (I think correctly) that the marks of dehumanization are left on those whose humanization has been stolen as well as on those who have stolen it.  He goes on to say that the oppressed must not seek to regain humanity by becoming oppressors of the oppressors.  Instead they should seek to restore the humanity of both groups.  “Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both.”

Freire shares fascinating theory.  He was a fascinating man.  Yet, his theory relies on the ability of people to arise above the struggle on their own.  As long as the struggle involves two parties, in this case oppressed and oppressors, it is a struggle dependent on enlightened humans.  One dependent on the “power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed.”  I propose that a better starting place for conversation about the oppressed and oppressors is the Old Testament book of Exodus.  Admittedly, even there, as long as the struggle involves two parties it is a hopeless situation.

Exodus shares its own story of oppression.  Israel is oppressed in Egypt by Pharaoh.  But Exodus wants us to be aware that this story of oppression is not only about Pharaoh and Israel.  Exodus introduces Yahweh into the struggle.  In fact, the real action is between Pharaoh and Yahweh.

The sin of Pharaoh is that he obeys no law but his own.  In spite of the fact that Moses has reported again and again the words of Yahweh, Pharaoh is convinced that the political drama in Egypt would be determined only by himself and Israel.  As if Yahweh is not a character to be dealt with.

In Exodus, we receive God’s special name.  We are also introduced to the people of Israel and the Law.  And we get a strong theology of presence.  John I Durham suggests that two themes naturally extend from this fact.  In fact, Durham goes on to suggest that a broad summary of the structure in Exodus looks like this; part one – rescue, and part two – response.

In part one of Exodus we encounter this story where Israel looks like easy prey for Pharaoh and his army.  After chapters of Yahweh’s intervention, Pharaoh still does not see that a third-party has been a part of this drama.  But the sea that looked like a trap, a barrier that prevented any hope of escape, opened up and became the route of rescue.  Exodus wants us to know that God is full of surprise.  Like Pharaoh we may make calculations of how things will work out, like Israel we may think that some things may never be worked out.  But then, something unexpected happens.

A look at the role of each of these players in the narrative is telling.  Pharaoh chased after the sons of Israel seemingly forgetting why he allowed them to go free, “What is this that we have done, that we have let Israel go?” Israel became frightened, even asking “is it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?”  After reading Exodus we should be prompted to ask if there is a little Pharaoh in all of us.  We might also ask if there is a little Israel in all of us.  Like both Pharaoh and Israel we tend to forget that there is another player in this drama.

But it is the action of the Lord that becomes the dominant part of the story “the Lord saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians.”