Are Not The Egyptians My Children Too?

Today’s First Reading from the Old Testament Book of Exodus is a familiar one to most of us. It’s the story of the Passover in which God frees the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, first by sending a series of plagues and pestilences on their Egyptian masters, and finally by slaying the first-born children of the Egyptians while “passing over” the homes of the Israelites which were marked with the blood of a lamb.
It’s a strange story even though it has become a classic one for so many. It’s a bedrock story for the Jews, marking their Exodus from Egypt which they celebrate each year at the feast of Passover. It’s become a favorite for many freedom and revolutionary movements because of its insistence that God is on the side of the oppressed and will fight for them against their oppressors. And, of course, we Christians read this story every Maundy Thursday as we remember the institution of the Eucharist at the last Passover meal Jesus shared with his friends on the night before he died.
Yet, as I say, it’s a strange story and a bit hard to square with what Christians actually believe and teach about God. No doubt there was an historical recollection about various plagues and pestilences which afflicted the Egyptians in those days. Such natural disasters were common in that part of the world and still are, with the regular flooding of the Nile and the havoc that can wreak – flies, frogs, and all the rest of it! But did God actually cause these disasters to punish the Egyptians? I wonder…
No doubt diseases as fierce as the Ebola scourge sweeping through Africa today killing men, women and children indiscriminately occurred in the 13 century BCE as well. But would God have wiped out those precious little ones just to make the point that he was on the side of the Jews in this Exodus event? I wonder…
Even the rabbis had a hard time getting their minds around such a concept of God. Commenting on the later story of the Exodus in which God drowns all the Egyptians in the Red Sea (or the “Sea of Reeds” as modern scholars believe that it was). A famous Midrash (or commentary) in the Jewish Talmud says this, “As the Egyptians started to drown in the Red Sea, the heavenly hosts began to sing praises, but God silenced the angels, saying, The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing praises?’!”
Now, there is no doubt historically that the Jews spent time in Egyptian slavery, that they were led out of that condition by a great military leader named Moses, and that they spent decades in the desert, as a nomadic people without a country, trying to figure out what God’s will for them was…and where they were to settle down. But the stories of that Exodus were written centuries after the event, by still primitive people who believed in a kind of tribal god who would take care of them and was quite capable of slaughtering anyone who opposed them – or whose land they wished to occupy!
As Christians though, we have to read these texts in the context of the whole sweep of Scripture. There is an unfolding of our knowledge of God throughout the Bible (even though it’s sometimes a somewhat “uneven” unfolding). The tribal god of the ancient Israelites gives way to the God of the prophets who stands with people in their suffering and whose ultimate aim is the salvation of the whole world! Isaiah puts it best, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)
And, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is remembered as a proponent of non-violence saying things like, “You have heard it said, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good…” (Matthew 5:43-45).
St. Paul and even Peter come to believe that God has opened the gates of eternal life to all people – to Gentiles as well as to Jews. And the New Testament ends with the great vision of St. John the Divine in Revelation: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7:9) Quite a different picture of God than the ancient one of a tribal Deity slaughtering the innocents to win freedom for the Chosen People!
The point is we have to read Scripture in its whole context and understand that the Bible is not just one book. It is a library of books. And in that library are books of history and law, of poetry and song, of myth and fiction. As Christians, we must read the Bible through the lens of Jesus and to weigh any depiction of God against the fuller picture of God we believe Jesus came to paint for us.
As modern people, we also have to understand something called “progressive revelation” and that means that, just as we get a clearer and clearer picture of the nature of God as the Scriptures unfold over time, so the Holy Spirit continues to lead us further and further “into all truth” as Jesus promised that the Spirit would.
So, if you’re going to read the Bible (and I devoutly hope that you do!) please do not do it without the help of a good, modern translation of the text, with footnotes and introductions of each book which can help you understand what kind of literature it is, how it came to be written, and just how it fits into the overall biblical record. In my opinion, the best translation we have of the Bible today is the New Revised Standard Version and it comes with such notes and explanations right there alongside the text. It will really help in understanding and sorting out some of the tough passages in the Bible…such as our First Reading today.
And, while Christians will no doubt continue to have debates about how literally to take certain passages of Scripture, there need not be such doubt about what they mean! And the point of the Exodus story is clear: God is always on the side of the oppressed and the marginalized. God’s people have been able to look back, time after time and through the centuries, to discover God’s saving hand at work in their lives. And we have been able to praise God for that in the words of the Psalmist: “Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, (God’s) praise in the assembly of the faithful!”
And, when all is said and done, what remains for us is to live lives of thanksgiving and gratitude to that one God. And to do so, guided by the wise counsel of St. Paul in today’s Epistle:
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law…The commandments…are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10 passim)
And it is by the law of love…that we shall all be judged.
Thanks be to God!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: