God Liberates (Exodus 5:1-9, 22–6:1)
Published in Mennonite Weekly Review (June 8, 2009)
We read the story of the exodus today as believers in Yahweh, the God who delivered these slaves from Egypt. We likely take it for granted that of course Yahweh could simply step in and save the day. The people within the story would have seen the situation differently.
Pharaoh denied that Yahweh had any status at all. And the Hebrews had severe doubts (Ex. 5:23). No one knew how the story would turn out. The Hebrews had to take steps of faith.
Pharaoh resists God’s authority
Egypt’s Pharaoh, himself worshiped as divine, dismissed Yahweh as a nobody god. Moses and Aaron asked Pharaoh to release the Hebrew slaves for time off for a pilgrimage to worship Yahweh. Pharaoh snorts: “Who is Yahweh that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh, and I will not let Israel go” (5:2).
Why was Pharaoh so rigid? We are told that God heightens Pharaoh’s stubbornness in order to bring the oppression to the surface — resulting in the final exodus. However, we can also see reasons why Pharaoh already would have been hostile toward Yahweh.
To admit that he “knows” Yahweh, Pharaoh would be acknowledging that Yahweh has power and status. Such an acknowledgment would have required Pharaoh then to acknowledge the humanity of Yahweh’s people.
Pharaoh also had reason to fear that the worship pilgrimage, even if the people returned to work, would have heightened their desire to resist their oppression. Think of the role worship played in strengthening the resolve to resist among African-Americans during the civil rights movement and among Polish Catholics in the last years of the Communist regime.
The identity of the Hebrews as full human beings worthy of freedom from oppression followed directly from their God. Yahweh is the God who values the vulnerable, has compassion for the suffering and brings liberation to the oppressed.
Pharaoh recognizes that his authority will be undercut should he acknowledge the people’s request for time to worship their god. So he refuses, adamantly. And he tightens the screws of oppression.
We see something similar today with the widespread use of torture. Empires seek to expand their domination — and when people resist, the dehumanizing exercise of brutal force becomes irresistible. People holding oppressive power tend to respond to challenges with more oppression.
God responds to the Hebrews’ cries
With Pharaoh’s harsh response, the Hebrews’ suffering increases. Understandably, the people cry out again. Their leader, Moses, challenges Yahweh. “Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people” (5:23). As before when the people cried out (2:23-24), Yahweh hears their cries and responds. Pharaoh will relent. “By a mighty hand he will let them go; by a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land” (6:1).
The story proceeds to tell how this “driving out of the land” results from Yahweh’s intervention. We do well to remember, though, that the liberation from oppression did indeed involve suffering, faithfulness, risk and cost. Think of the midwives who risked their lives to save Moses. Think of the “Israelite supervisors” (5:19) who stood against Pharaoh. Think of all the pain the people as a whole experienced as a consequence of Pharaoh’s violent resistance.
What lessons might we draw from this story? How do God’s intervention and God’s people’s faithful deeds work together to resist oppression, to build and sustain faith communities that practice compassion and restorative justice, and to witness to the entire world of the transforming love of God?
Ted Grimsrud teaches theology and peace studies at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.