God’s Way of Power (Exodus 4:10-16, 27-31)
Published in Mennonite Weekly Review (June 1, 2009)
The first five books of the Bible tell the story of salvation. In doing so, they contrast two kinds of human society. One society, the people gathered around Pharaoh, establishes itself on the backs of slaves and understands its god to serve the interests of the human king. The other society, the people gathered around Moses, emerges as an alternative to the ways of the empire. The story of Moses and Aaron points to several important elements of this alternative society that is coming into being.
God does not serve those in power
First, Moses is the servant of the Lord. The Lord is not servant of Moses. God’s freedom stands as one of the Old Testament’s core theological affirmations. When the people God has chosen to bring blessing to all the families of the Earth (Gen. 12:3) faithfully follow God’s intentions, the link between God and the people is strong. When the people, especially their leaders, depart from God’s intentions, God stands over against them in judgment.
These power arrangements stand as unique in the Ancient Near East — and, actually, in just about all of human history. We are used to seeing religion serve human beings in power rather than serve as a basis to critique power.
Second, the human leader is human, all too human. The story takes pains to reveal to us just how weak and flawed Moses is. He’s mastered by his temper earlier in the story and flees for his life (Ex. 2:11-15). In Exodus 4, Moses tries mightily to beg off from the Lord’s work. Nothing here challenges Moses’ self-evaluation as a person glaringly inadequate for the tasks the Lord gives him.
This work of liberation and of calling the Hebrew people to witness to God’s healing power to the rest of the world does not require a mighty warrior-king. In fact, such a human leader would contradict the basic message God means to convey: The path to wholeness is based on trust in God and God’s healing justice, not weapons of war and human dominating power.
Mutuality in human relationships
Third, at the top of the power dynamics of Israel we find brotherhood. Moses and Aaron model a cooperative and complementary working relationship. They symbolize the basic interhuman dynamics God means for this community to embody. We get a brief glimpse later (Ex. 15:20-21) that Aaron’s and Moses’ sister, the “prophet Miriam,” also played an important leadership role.
We are not seeing here the establishment of a family dynasty (that only comes later with kingship — clearly a move away from the kind of liberating community God meant to establish). Rather, we see the centrality of cooperative, shared leadership in service.
Fourth, for the work to move ahead, it must be based on the consent of the people (4:29-31). We don’t have a modern democracy here. But we do have a great deal of respect shown by God and Moses and Aaron for the importance of the Hebrew elders and the people as a whole buying in to this liberation project.
The ends (liberating the people from slavery and establishing them as a model community that will lead to the blessing of all the families of the Earth) and the means (trust in the Lord’s ways, decentralized power, brother and sisterhood at the heart of everything) unite in this story. God does this work in God’s way — a way that empowers the powerless and heals the broken.
Ted Grimsrud teaches theology and peace studies at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.