A Post-Colonial Feminist Look at the Exodus by Margot Stevenson
“Horse and Rider He has Thrown into the Sea” :
A Post-Colonial Feminist Look at the Exodus by Margot Stevenson
The Exodus story, which is at the center of the Passover Seder, recounts the liberation of the Israelites under Moses (their leader) from slavery in Egypt. The Israelites are led out of Egypt and, eventually, into the land of Canaan, which God has promised to them through their ancestors.
From the Pentateuch to the Prophets, in both the Psalms and the Christian scriptures, the Exodus is remembered as an exemplary act of God’s “steadfast” love (Exod 15:13).[i] Egypt, in turn, is symbolized as a kind of sweat shop, for making bricks, where Hebrew slaves are degraded by beatings and hard labor.
Given the harrowing portrait of Egypt and its despotic Pharaoh, we as the audience for the biblical story are invited by the narrative to sympathize with the Israelites, the “chosen people,” and to view the Egyptians as the despised overlords, whose cruelty is rightly punished by God (called Yahweh).
Yet theologically, many who know this sacred story, are troubled by certain bellicose moments of it, which seem to depict God (Yahweh) as if he plays favorites, slaughtering the Egyptians while saving the Israelites—forsaking universal justice.
In the discussion that follows, I will offer some post-colonial and feminist tools for reading the Exodus story, while addressing this theological scruple. I will review, too, liberationist and allegorical readings.
Exodus as Liberation
A common way that Jews and Christians get around this issue, upholding God’s justice, over against bellicose favoritism, is by viewing the Exodus story as a theological symbol (i.e. a paradigmatic event) or an allegory. Yes, a historical event– the Israelites were led out of slavery—is at the basis of the sacred story.
But, having been appropriated by religious tradition and given a central role in the Jewish and Christian liturgy, the historical event of the Exodus is not so important as its ongoing theological meaning.
A close reading of the Exodus reveals a contest between Yahweh and the Pharaoh concerning sovereignty, in the narrative of the plagues, and in the Exodus itself. [ii] Pharaoh’s “hardness of heart” indicates his unwillingness to yield sovereignty to Yahweh. [iii] The Israelites (5:1; 11:7) – or Hebrews (7:16; 9:1, 13; 10:3) as they are more often called –are to be led out of Egypt, so that they may worship Yahweh in the wilderness (Exod 5:1; 7:16; cf. 8:1, 20, 21; 9:1,2, 13; 10:3-4). The outcome of the Exodus is that Yahweh’s “glory” will be vindicated (Exod 14:4, 17-18) and he will be sovereign over the land.
If freedom to worship Yahweh is a chief objective of the Exodus, cultic obligations are not separate from politics and social realities. The wrestling match, between Pharaoh and Yahweh, concerns “letting go” (Exod 8:8, 28; 9:28; 10:17) God’s people, which entails their freedom from unjust socio-economic exploitation.
Yahweh is the “God of the Hebrews” (Exod 5:3; 7:16; 9:1,13; 10:3; and just once “God of the Israelites” Exod 5:1), a designation that may indicate a broad social conglomerate rather than a narrow ethnic group.[iv] (Incidentally, the gods of the Egyptians are mentioned just once in Exod 12:12).
As Walter Brueggemann points out, religious legitimation undergirds socio-economic and political freedom. By freely worshipping Yahweh, the people acknowledge Yahweh’s sovereignty and validate his authority as a God of who brings about freedom from slavery within history and in the here-and-now.
The Exodus event is paradigmatic, for political liberation movements, and demonstrates that God is a God of earthly freedom. James Cone views the emancipation of African Americans from U.S. slavery, for example, on the model of the Exodus event.[v]
The Exodus story, in antiquity, was often interpreted allegorically. The Jewish philosopher Philo of the 1st century portrayed Egypt as an allegory for bodily passions, while virtue allows us to ascend to the “promised land,” which is the soul’s destination in God. [vi] The despoliation of Egypt (found in Gen 15:14 and Exod 3:21-22; 11:2-3; 12:35-36) was controversial in antiquity.
Philo interprets this despoliation based on Gen 15:14: “But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions”. The phrase “great possessions,” in the Septuagint version of this verse, can also be translated “lots of luggage.” [vii]
Philo, who himself lived in Egypt (Alexandria), understood this “luggage” as pagan customs and education. He spoke to Jewish Alexandrian youth, who were being given a Greek education (paideia), exhorting them to make use of their education for the sake of virtue rather than in the service of social and political opportunism.
Egypt may have been a place of vice, for Philo, but it was also a center of civilization. The virtuous soul (of the Jews) can make use of the “luggage” of paganism (civilization and culture) in order to reach sanctity in God, while taking flight from the evils of civilization, which can enslave us, such as sin bred by bodily passions.
The Christian scriptures, in turn, make use of Exodus motifs to portray the freedom offered to believers through Christ, who is represented as the new Moses. [viii]Origen, the Christian father of the Church, popularized allegorical interpretations of the Exodus story.[ix]
Such readings do minimize the gritty realities of historical liberation struggles. Whether pious or inspirational, these interpretations still depend, however, on our giving credence to the basic polarity, in the Exodus story, between the heroes (Moses, God, the Israelites) and the foes (the Pharaoh, the wizards, the Egyptians). Inserting ourselves into the role of “heroes” and heirs to the “chosen people,” we become recipients of God’s saving deeds. This pious regard for the Exodus as an act of salvation, however, still obfuscates the depiction in the story of warlike retribution.
To make safe passage for his people, out of Egypt, the Lord dries up the Red Sea, while drowning the Egyptian pursuers, including “all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers.” (14:21b-23). What if you or I had been one of those chariot drivers, innocent victims, caught up in the Pharaoh’s service, simply in order to make a living and support our families?
Heroes vs. Foes
In this most repeated piece of sacred history, God’s saving and “great deed” is placed by synonymous parallelism alongside reference to “Egyptians dead on the seashore,” such that the “great deed” of the Lord is inextricably linked to the death of Egyptians (14:30) : “Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians.”
The Biblical poet declares about the Exodus, “In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed” (15:13b), in the same breath as Miriam, the sister of Aaron, who is called a prophet, underscores, once again, the symbiotic relationship between God’s triumph and the violent death by drowning of the Egyptians:
15:20-21: “Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourine and with dancing, and Miriam sang to them, ‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously, horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’”
The liberator God appears to be a warrior god. Right is enforced by might.
I will not claim to solve this theological and ethical dilemma. What I will do instead is to offer a couple of tools, drawn from feminism and post-colonialism, so that we may reframe the biblical story and discover new angles for appreciating its artistry and its message.
The liberation movements that we discussed, which draw upon the Exodus story as a model for emancipation, tend to accept as given a clear polarity between “oppressed” and “oppressor,” the enslaved and the slave-drivers. Liberation movements include Marxism and some kinds of Feminism. The “proletariat” (for the Marxist) must be emancipated from the “bourgeoisie”; women (for some feminists) must be liberated from patriarchal society ruled by men.
Post-colonial criticism introduces a different kind of analytical framework, for both social-political change and in literary criticism.[x] For social-political analysis, post-colonial criticism makes use of the analytical category of Empire and notes that, within empires, identities are not homogenous but rather hybrid.
Consider the history of Jews in Europe, where Jews “assimilated” to the Christian majority culture, often intermarrying. Jewish identity consisted in a “hybrid,” in some measure. Where ethnic or cultural groups are subjugated, under Empires, there is an asymmetry between the dominant culture (the imperial regime) and the subjugated culture. Various strategies are employed by subjugated cultures in order, at once, to “pass” or conform to the dominant culture and to maintain the integrity of their own religious and cultural allegiances.
Post-colonial criticism unveils the hybrid quality of political regimes and cultural practices. With respect to political regimes, empires often make use of “ruling elites,” among native, immigrant or subjugated populations.
In colonial Africa, for instance, the European empires (England, France, Germany, Holland) provided a European education to an elite among the native African peoples whom they intended to rule. Such education created a dual allegiance among the native elites, who owed their privilege to their European imperial conquerors, at the same time as they remained identified with the native cultures that reared them.
Empires, according to post-colonial criticism, rule not only by military force but also by psychological tactics. Some native ruling elites, under colonial empires, become alienated from their own native identity. Jews in European culture, who “passed” as Christians, sometimes developed hatred for being Jewish, feeling the stigma of the maligned stereotypes that were projected onto them.
Post-colonial criticism has both a socio-political and a literary-critical dimension. I have mentioned how socio-political analysis functions by indicating how empires make use of elites, from the subjugated population, as a strategy for conquering these subjugated peoples.
From a literary critical standpoint, post-colonial criticism is interested by how culture (literature, art, speech-habits, dress, cuisine, architecture, etc.) is deployed, by subjugated peoples within empires, in a hybrid or double-edged manner.
A main trope of Jewish literature, of the second temple period, depicts the Jewish people as giving homage to new Emperors. At the same time, through other literary tactics – including irony, humor, and double meanings—it becomes clear that these very conquerors are subtly mocked and or the regime undermined.
For instance, the Jewish historian Josephus, during the Jewish revolt, is taken captive by the General Vespasian in the first century of the Roman empire. Vespasian is to become emperor. Josephus employs double-entendre, at once legitimating and undercutting imperial authority. He delivers an oracle that legitimates and prophesies Vespasian’s authority:
“You are to be Caesar, O Vespasian, and Emperor, you, and this your son. Bind me now still more securely, and keep me for yourself, for thou, O Caesar, are not only lord over me, but over the land, and the sea, and all the human race;”
Such is a clear endorsement of empire by a Jewish subject. Yet at the end of this speech, subtly Josephus undermines this very imperial authority, by pronouncing his allegiance to God.
“and certainly I deserve to be punished by closer custody than now,” he says, “if I fabricate anything concerning God.” [xi]
In this way, Josephus renders “unto Caesar” the things that belong to Caesar, acknowledging that Vespasian is emperor over land, sea, and the human race, worldly empires. He renders to God, however, his true allegiance, promising to be faithful spokesman for all that concerns God.
At first Vespasian believes that Josephus might be manipulating him in order to save his own life. But in the end, he trusts Josephus.
This double-edged rhetoric creates a distinction between the “outsiders” to the story and the “insiders”. The “insiders,” especially other Jews who are living under an imperial regime, may detect Josephus’ clever tactics for subtly expressing that God’s rule overrides the imperial regime. An “outsider,” who is not quite initiated into the culture of the subjugated population, will hear, instead, as Vespasian does, that the Jew Josephus has deferentially capitulated to his Roman conqueror.
Exodus Story – and Post-Colonial Criticism
Let’s take a look then at the Exodus story in terms of post-colonial criticism.
The opening of the book of Exodus reminds us that the Israelites have been in Egypt for some generations. The historical action of the Exodus begins with a reference to Joseph, the son of Jacob who had been sold into slavery in Egypt.
Exodus 1:8 “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”
The latter part of this verse is telling. Joseph, while a slave in Egypt, had negotiated with the imperial regime a peaceful settlement.
In fact, he had been made governor over lands. From a post-colonial perspective, we can see Joseph as among the immigrant and subjugated populations, who are recruited or co-opted in order to assist the empire in its sovereignty. Joseph became one of the “immigrant elites” .
Pharaoh says to him, “See I have set you over all the land of Egypt” (Gen 41: 41) and “only with regard to the throne will I be greater than you.” (41:40b). Indeed, Joseph himself, at one point, during a famine, enslaves the people in service to the Egyptian regime (47:21).
An imperial regime can never completely trust the loyalties of a subjugated people and so, once a new King comes to the throne, and Joseph has died, the political settlement, that Joseph has negotiated in Egypt, becomes tenuous. The new King over Egypt worries in Exod 1:9-10 that the Israelites will become strong and populous and rebel against the Pharaoh by aiding and abetting Pharaoh’s enemies. He worries that the people will become political and military traitors.
It is against this background that the King decides to have the firstborn of the Israelites killed. But some women, of whom I’ll speak more later, defy this order.
The Hebrew midwives save the baby Moses and he is hidden near a river. Providentially, the daughter of the Pharaoh himself adopts Moses.
Just as Joseph had a hybrid identity – both among the subjugated population and as subjugator, Jew and Egyptian, ruled over and ruler—so Moses, although a Hebrew and Israelite, is raised as an Egyptian in the court of Pharaoh.
Indeed, when he travels to Midian, where he meets his wife Zipporah (the son of the Midian priest), he is characterized as an Egyptian man. He “passes” as an Egyptian (Exod 2:19), betraying his “hybrid” identity.
The psychology of such a hybrid identity sheds light on the disturbing episode in which Moses kills an Egyptian. Moses, although Israelite—or a Hebrew as the Exodus narrative calls the Jews—grew up among the privileged Egyptians and was protected from the hard labor to which his compatriots were subject. Upon witnessing the “forced labor” of his own people, and how an Egyptian is beating his compatriots into submission, Moses kills the Egyptian, hiding him in the sand. (Exod 2:11-12)
From a post-colonial perspective, one can sense the self-torment and self-division of Moses who, in virtue of his upbringing, is complicit (or so he might feel) with the very regime that enslaves his own people. Thus, his rage bursts out in a sudden act of murder. Enslaved people themselves sometimes accept their servitude more compliantly than does one with mixed or hybrid allegiances. The enslaved are sometimes unable to envision freedom sufficiently to hope or struggle for it.
Moses, who has been afforded an upbringing among the privileged, has experienced material and civilized comforts, as a standard against which to compare the degraded condition of the Hebrews. Thus, his anger may be regarded as motivated by the complex psychology of hybrid allegiances with admixtures of guilt.
Imperial regimes often operate by a “divide and conquer” strategy, whereby oppressed people fight among themselves by “horizontal violence” rather than against their slave-drivers. Accordingly, in the next scene, two Israelites are fighting among themselves. These Israelites resent Moses, when he tries to break up their fight. (Exod 2:13-14) “Who made you a ruler and judge over us?,” his fellow Israelite says.
This passage demonstrates again the complexity of Moses’ hybrid identity. In a sense, he does have perspective, lacking to the Hebrew slaves, since he has been sheltered from a life of hard labor. He may be in a position to notice and lament the “horizontal violence” to which the subjugated are prone, under imperial regimes. Yet, at the same time, he is resented by his own people, both as an outsider, and –after killing the Egyptian—as a rank criminal.
In brief, a post-colonial analysis troubles the boundaries between “enslaved” and “slave –driver,” the “oppressed” and “oppressor.” The hybrid identity of Moses situates him as a native or immigrant elite, who shares in the privileges of the court, while being antagonized or resented by the very enslaved compatriots whom he is called to serve and liberate.
Post-colonialism can be further nuanced, as we consider feminist theory.
The feminist political theorist Seyla Benhabib writes about inter-cultural disputes, between minority and majority cultures, in Europe and America in her book the Claims of Culture.[xii] She draws upon the work of Bhikhu Parekh who lists twelve practices that frequently lead to political clashes.
Of them, seven concern the status of women in distinct cultural communities, e.g. female circumcision, wearing of the hijab among Muslims and other kinds of head-scarfs or veils, polygamy, arranged marriages, marriages within prohibited degrees of kinship, refusal of coeducation or education for girls among Muslims, and other matters regarding the subordinate status of women.
Benhabib discusses the controversy over Muslim headscarves among girls in France, whereby the French government sought to ban the girls from wearing this Muslim garb. The girls’ own voices were left out and not consulted. The girls –and the controversy over their headscarves – became symbols, in a public spectacle of political theatre. The protagonists were French secular democrats and the antagonists were Muslim immigrants.[xiii]
In patriarchal societies, women are legally the property of males, whether husband, sons, or brothers. In times of war, they are treated as booty. Women become captives and are raped. They marry their conquerors.
Although women have no voice, their behavior is supervised and becomes a symbol of political and social stability or instability, as the case may be.
Today, the subordinate status of women—their marriage customs, dress, and educational rights—are a primary point of contention in disputes between minority and majority cultures.
In both the Bible and in the literature of classical antiquity, women are rarely “subjects,” given agency and autonomy of their own, but rather “objects” upon which are projected the fears and hopes of the male actors.
The disobedience of women is a sign of political and religious subversion. It is a theme in classical and biblical literature, that women subvert religion by committing idolatry, e.g. Jezebel (1 Kings 16:31; cf Rev 2:20). They accept foreign gods or consult witches and magicians rather than legitimate priests.
The spread of Christianity had partly to do, according to early Christian literature, with the curiosity of Roman and Jewish women, in their hospitality to new and foreign gods, i.e. Jesus.[xiv]
The “good” and “obedient” woman, in contrast, is a badge of social and political stability. In patriarchal societies, women neither create nor fight in wars. Yet, women are often depicted as spokespeople, espousing the ideology of war.
Feminist Theory and the Exodus Story
In this light, let us take a look at Miriam in the Exodus story. Miriam is of the same status as Aaron and Moses, as their sister. [xv] She is called a prophet (Exod 15:20). But, no prophetic book is devoted to Miriam. When she appears in the Exodus narrative, it is to sing a song of victory, celebrating the downfall of the Egyptians. (Exod 15:20-21)
Miriam plays here the part of the “obedient” and “good” woman who upholds and legitimates Israel’s victory.
The Hebrew midwives, who save the life of Moses, commit civil disobedience, subverting the imperial decree, which would have Hebrew babies slaughtered. (Exod 1:15-21) In turn, the daughter of Pharaoh adopts Moses (Exod 2:5-10), supported by an unnamed sister of Moses, who may be Miriam (Exod 2:7).
She cooperates with the Hebrew women, across lines of national difference, also undermining her own father’s decree. From the Egyptian and imperial perspective, these women are “disobedient,” for destabilizing the imperial order.
From the perspective of the biblical authors, the Hebrew midwives are God-fearing, indicating their own dissent from the Egyptian imperial regime.
The biblical narrative is double –edged (Exod 1:18-19). The “insiders” to the story will notice a protest of the imperial regime, in the explanation that the women give to the Pharaoh, as to why they have allowed the Hebrew boys to live. The Pharaoh himself is credulous, susceptible to being duped.
These post-colonial and feminist remarks, about the Exodus story, serve to overturn or trouble any facile dichotomy between the “oppressed” and “oppressors” as it pertains to the Exodus narrative.
To return to our opening question. The Exodus story may trouble our conscience. God redeems his “chosen” people, the Israelites, while slaughtering the Egyptians. It looks like God is playing favorites in partiality to one group of people, against others, on account of their ethnic, cultural, or religious standing. Certainly, the plot of the Exodus story does operate, in some ways, by means of a dramatic tension between heroes and foes.
Yet post-colonial and feminist analysis gives us a lens for regarding the Exodus from a number of different vantage points. Ethnic and religious identities are hybrid rather than homogenous. Gender intersects with religious and cultural identities in ways that are surprising and, sometimes, subversive of empire.
As we celebrate the Passover Liberation, the Exodus from Egypt, we shall not be seduced by the polarizing rhetoric of hero vs. foe or by bloodthirsty exultations, when the enemy is drowned by a mighty God.
Instead, let us remember individuals, each with a multifaceted individuality.
Pharaoh’s daughter, as a prototype for women in imperial regimes who use their privilege in the service of life rather than death. The unnamed sister of Moses (Exod 2:7), who aids this imperial woman, across lines of class and national difference.
Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, who commit civil disobedience by allowing Hebrew boys to live, while advocating for them before Pharaoh.
Miriam, whose prophecies were more voluminous, in historical fact, we suspect, than suggested by the few verses ascribed to her in the Exodus story.
And Moses himself, who was caught between dual allegiances, to the Egyptian court and his own subjugated people.
[i] Biblical citations in English are mostly from the NRSV version.
[ii] Walter Brueggemann, Pharaoh As Vassal: A Study of Political Metaphor, CBQ 57.1 (Jan 1995) 27-52. “The plague narrative presents an act of sovereignty by Yahweh over Pharaoh, the recalcitrant vassal,” 31.
[iii] Pharaoh as Vassal, 32.
[iv] Pharaoh as Vassal, 42.
[v] James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (New York: Orbis, 1970). See critique by Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (New York: Orbis, 1993).
[vi] Rene Bloch, “Leaving Home: Philo of Alexandria on the Exodus,” in Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective: Text, Archaeology, Culture, ed. by Thomas E. Levy, Thomas Schneider, William H.C. Propp (New York: Springer, 2013), 357-64.
[vii] Joel S. Allen, “The Despoliation of Egypt: Origen and Augustine- from Stolen Treasures to Saved Texts,” in Israel’s Exodus, 348.
[viii] For a quick summary, on this theme, see: “Jesus and Moses in the New Testament,” The Expository Times (Jan 1956) 67: 104-106.
[ix]See, e.g., Origen, Homilies on Genesis and Exodus, translated by R. Heine.
[x] I synthesize various theorists in my synopsis about post-colonial theory. For the Bible and post-colonialism, see R. S. Sugirtharajah, The Postcolonial Biblical Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006) among his other books.
[xi] Josephus, The Jewish War 3.8.9. Translated by G.A. Williamson.
[xii] Seyla Benhabib, The Claims of Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002). On 269-270, She draws on the research of Bhikhu Parekh.
[xiii] Benhabib, 272-275.
[xiv] See, e.g., Acts of Paul and Thecla 2.7, 9, 20, 21. Shelly Matthews, First Converts: Rich Pagan Women and the Rhetoric of Mission in Early Judaism and Christianity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002).
[xv] See the genealogies listing Moses, Aaron, and Miriam as the sole children of Amram Num 26:59; 1 Chr 6:3.
By: Margot Stevenson, April 11, 2015
Margot Stevenson is a scholar of the New Testament and early Christianity (Ph.D Harvard University). She works on issues at the center of Christian and Jewish relations.
Margot Stevenson is a scholar of the New Testament and early Christianity (Ph.D Harvard University). She works on issues at the center of Christian and Jewish relations.