Reflections on Torah-1 (Exodus 3)

Word of Blessing (Exodus 3:1-12)

Published in Mennonite Weekly Review (May 25, 2009)

What is the Bible about?  Is it possible to characterize the whole big thing in just a few words?  I agree with Chris Wright in The Mission of God in seeing Gen. 12:1-3 as key verses.  Genesis 1–11 introduces the mess humanity made of creation.  Gen. 11:30 gives us a metaphor for the human plight.  We have just met Abram and his wife Sarai.  “Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.”  The human project appears to be at a dead end.

With Genesis 12, though, we learn of something new.  God, in the face of this barrenness, promises a broad and expansive future.  Sarai will bear children.  Abram and Sarai’s children will become a great nation.  And this is key: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

With these two ancestors, God creates a people—for the purpose of blessing all the families of the earth.  This blessing is the core message of the Bible.

God remembers—and liberates

God’s people have a calling: not simply to survive, not simply to prosper, not simply to worship God in their own separate-from-the-fallen-world communities.  God’s people from the start are called to know God’s healing love and to share that love with others.

Joseph, Abram and Sarai’s great-grandson, models this vocation when he works within the household of the Egyptian king (Pharaoh) to save the empire from famine.  However, several generations later, Egypt was ruled by a Pharaoh “who did not know Joseph” (Ex. 1:8).  This Pharaoh enslaves the Israelite people, threatening to end the promise right then and there.

God seems absent—until the Israelites cry out in their pain.  Then, “God heard their groaning, and God remembered the covenant God had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Ex. 2:24).  This step of God “remembering” sets off a series of events.  God brings about liberation from this slavery.

God uses vulnerable people to bless the nations

Our passage from Exodus 3 tells us extraordinarily important things about the God of the story.  What do we learn about God here?  Most centrally, God stands on the side of slaves, people at the bottom of the social ladder, vulnerable people.  This God, unlike the gods of kings and Pharaohs, hears the cries of the oppressed and the suffering.  And God will act, powerfully and decisively, to bring them healing.  God has an agenda, and all the efforts of Pharaoh will not thwart that agenda.

However, this passage also tells us extraordinarily important things about the role of human beings in the healing work God has undertaken. This God chooses to use poor, weak, oppressed people as the channels of blessing that ultimately will transform the entire world.  Moses, the leader of this people, though chosen by God, is a flock-keeper with little to commend him. (We have read in chapter two of his violent anger that led to his fleeing for his life and hiding out in the wilderness.)

The key word here is God’s word to Moses: “So, come” (3:10).  God’s command to Moses actually stands as a command to all who would join themselves with Abram and Sarai’s descendants and embrace their calling to bless all the families of the earth.  “So, come,” and get to work. 

This work may involve confronting the Pharaohs of the world.  It certainly involves creating faithful communities that will witness to all the corners of the earth of the loving kindness of God.  The God who hears the voices of the oppressed and acts to bring them healing—in service of healing all creation.

Ted Grimsrud teaches theology and peace studies at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia.

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