When an activist reads the biblical story of Exodus and then turns to how we remember the story and whether and how we can draw on the story to strengthen liberation movements today, there are some striking gaps.
As we prepare for Passover and its close cousin Christian Holy Week, we are in our own lives facing modern Pharaohs and pharaonic systems that are racist, sex-and-gender tyrannical, anti-democratic, Earth-destructive, plague-productive. – So we should be trying to understand the whole system of oppression and the whole body of liberation in the Exodus story. Gazing at the gaps is important, and translating them into our generation is urgent.
Present in the biblical story but calling for much more attention is the economics of oppression and liberation: Prosperity – and its ragged edges. There are at least three major interest groups delineated in the biblical story of Exodus: Pharaoh himself and his court entourage; the Israelite community, with a distinctive religion, language, and living-space (the region called Goshen); and the ordinary Egyptians, mostly farmers.
Let us start from the standpoint of Pharaoh himself. What are the implications of his own power in Egypt’s economy?
We begin with the Pharaoh of several centuries before the Exodus generation. With the help of an upstart foreign adviser, Joseph the Israelite, son of Jacob and Rivka, he has used the emergency of a great national famine to take ownership of all farmland except what was held by the priests, turning Egyptian yeoman farmers into share-croppers and centering great wealth in himself.
Though the Bible story does not tell us what is transpiring among ordinary Egyptians in the “white space “of Torah between the end of the book of Genesis and the start of Exodus, we are taught that we need to learn to read the “white fire” of such spaces as well as the ”black fire” of inky letters. It is easy to ”read” that there is widespread resentment of the disempowerment of millions of formerly yeoman farmers.
And we begin the Book of Exodus with the result in Pharaoh’s palace: The descendant pharaoh responds to the growing public anger at this usurpation to find a scapegoat to deflect the blame for it. He chooses as scapegoat the very people whose leader gave the oppressive advice, turning that long-ago counsel into the reason for centuries of oppression. Clumsy attempts at genocide follow.
An unexpected troublemaker — Moses – returned to Egypt from a long absence and a powerful God-experience. He incited the Israelites to organize what the modern A. J. Muste called “Brickmakers Union Local One.” But their demands for freedom were met with Pharaoh’s control of the whole economy. He ordered his courtiers and overseers to worsen the oppression. His cruelty toward the enslaved workers broke the will of popular resistance. His enormous wealth seemed impregnable.
But Moses, Aaron, and Miriam were not broken. They invoked the Truth behind the new Name of God: the Truth that all life is intertwined by THWH, the Breath of Life, so that cruel and tyrannical rule over humans brought rebellion from locusts and hailstorms. Plague after plague followed. But Pharaoh got more stubborn after every plague.
Are the plagues that ruin Egypt’s economy the result of Pharaoh’s own stubbornness and cruelty in trying to protect his own wealth and power, or of God’s own triumphalist decision to show how powerless Pharaoh really is in the face of the Breath of Life?
This question arises because the story says that In the early plagues – after each one is halted because Pharaoh pleads with Moses –- Pharaoh hardened his own heart. He refused to let the Israelites go even a short sojourn from Egypt even for a brief time to serve their God.
In the later plagues, the story says that YHWH hardened Pharaoh’s heart, perhaps to demonstrate through still harsher smitings how much more powerful YHWH is than all the godlets of Egypt.
This reading leaves some readers, even or especially Jewish readers, aghast. How could our God, merciful and empathic, not only reject but worse, prevent, Pharaoh from repenting of his tyranny?!
But if YHWH is not “Lord” or “King” but the interwoven Breath of Life, the progression from hardening one’s own heart to finding one’s own heart hardened willy-nilly is an accurate portrayal of rapacious rulership.
The story is describing an addictive process: Sniff your own oppressive power as a drug often enough, and you will find it has taken over and you cannot shrug it off. You cannot even breathe the Breath of Life without your brain detecting some of the PressThemDown drug.
The Breath works its intertwining even within you, and indeed that process is powerful beyond planning or pleading. Take into account that Pharaoh is not only a person but the apex of a political, economic, and religious system, and the toughened heart is even more made strong by all the lives that fit within it.
The famous “plagues” ruined the Egyptian economy, as Pharaoh’s own courtiers told him. But though the biblical story recites them at great length, we hear mostly the verbal battles between Moses and Pharaoh in the palace, until the last plague. Then the death of the firstborn in every Egyptian family brought forth a shriek and wail of grief from every household that “has never before been heard and will never be heard again.”
The Passover Haggadah continues that blank-out of the people’s suffering under Pharaoh’s cruelty. It expands on a midrashic contest about the number of plagues, but the nearest it gets to a sense of the people’s pain is reciting each plague while dripping with each one a drop of wine from everyone’s cup.
The drip-drip-drip of red wine looks and feels like the shedding of blood as locusts, mad cow disease, hailstorms bleed the Egyptian economy dry.
There are at least two ways to understand this practice. One is to see it as a celebration of the bloodshed in the plagues that ultimately forced Pharaoh to free the Israelites. The second – which is the official oral tradition — says that this dripping wine from the cup is to avoid drinking the wine to celebrate the plagues. Instead, by refusing to drink the wine in our cups, we would mourn the suffering of ordinary Egyptians at the hands of their cruel king.
Or maybe the ambiguity of the ritual is precisely to recognize ambivalence toward the event: plagues that were terrible for the peasants of Egypt, but liberatory for the Israelites. Perhaps Jews learned the more empathic pathway in post-biblical millennia, when they lived again bent down in servitude.
All these possibilities call us to notice that oppression of the Israelites and the oppression of the Egyptian farmers went hand in hand, and to lift that truth beyond our blurry memories as we struggle against the oppressions of today.
The theme of economic scarcity against both Israelites and Egyptians is reinforced by another less-explored aspect of the story – the transformation of God’s Name. The biblical story makes the point that for the earlier Israelites, the patriarchal ancestors, God was known as “El Shaddai,” God of Breasts — Nurture. The Flow of Prosperity. A Name of God is not a mere label but a way of understanding the Universe — more like “E=mc2,” teaching that energy and matter are interchangeable, than like “Izzy” or “Judy.“ This Nurture Name honors the experience of farmers and shepherds: If you sow the seed and nurture it with care, you will surely reap the harvest.
The Divine Voice announces that this “Nurture” Name is no longer the Truthful one. Instead, God is to be known as YHWH, a Name that can only be “pronounced” by simply breathing. This Name focuses on the connections among all living beings, which sometimes comes as life-giving and sometimes as dangerous — the Wind of Change, the Hurricane of Destruction/Transformation. If you treat your neighboring farmer with hatred or contempt, the soil and the seed themselves will become your enemies. If the world is to be transformed by plagues, then Nurture is an inadequate Name of God.
The new Name teaches that how Pharaoh treats human beings will affect how water, frogs, locusts, will behave – for through the Breath of Life all lives are interconnected. It is this newly urgent Truth that Pharaoh cannot learn. He wants, he needs, each plague to be an accident. “Stuff happens.”
Learning the “YHWH” Name, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam – and slowly, with difficulty, other Israelites and even a few Egyptians like Pharaoh’s Daughter — learn the Interconnectedness. (This new knowledge changes her own behavior and her own name. She joins the Exodus and becomes “BatYah,” not “Pharaoh’s Daughter” but “Daughter of the Breath of Life.” )
So the biblical story tells that the great shriek of pain that followed the death of every first-born Egyptian was accompanied by the final economic blow to what seems to be the ordinary Egyptians. On the very night when the Israelites left Egypt, they and the Egyptians accomplished an act of economic reparations for centuries of unpaid labor, as described in Exodus 12:35-36: “Now the Children of Israel had done according to Moses’ words: they had asked of the
Egyptians objects of silver and objects of gold, and clothing;
YHWH [Yahhhh/ Breath of Life] had given the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, and they let themselves be entreated. So did they strip Egypt [of its excess wealth.]”
We might ask how sharecroppers, further impoverished by the sting of plagues, still had treasures to be paid as reparations. The answer may be that a kind of middle class of Egyptians, priests and scribes and urban managers, neither part of Pharaoh’s court and the Egyptian Establishment nor impoverished sharecropper farmers subject to locusts and mad cow disease, were those who joined the Establishment to pay reparations.
To be conscious of the economic aspects of this ancient tale of oppression and of liberation can enrich our own understanding of liberating ourselves from modern Pharaohs. They too, as did their ancient forerunners, define parts of our interwoven society as subhuman pariahs because they differ in “race,” culture, language, religion, work, and income. They too turn their whole economic power to wrecking Earth’s ecosystem and bring on neighborhoods and regions the plagues of fire, flood, famine, and disease.
Can we find vulnerable spots in the economic underpinnings of the domineering systems? Can we turn each eruption of those destructive plagues into community resilience and resistance? Can we insist on reparations to those who were worst subjugated by the old system? Can we create from the renewable energy of sun and wind an inclusive democratic economy and an ecologically attuned planet, instead of obedience to top-down corporations?
Can Passover become a flagship festival for not only remembering a liberating transformation in the past, but actually creating a liberating transformation in the future?
And not only Passover. We have learned that Passover was only the first step toward liberation – the step of freedom from. At Sinai we learned freedom for. Judith Plaskow called us to transform Judaism by transforming the relationships between women and men. She named her call Standing Again at Sinai.
Is it time to stand anew at Sinai to hear and heal the outcry of a suffering Earth? In the last few centuries, Earth has been invaded and enslaved by human technology so as to endanger human and more-than-human life throughout Earth. Could Shavuot (the night of May 25) and its Christian descendant, Pentecost (this year May 28) become once more the beckoning to a new society?
We are honored to share the wisdom of Arthur Waskow with our community.