Exodus 5:22 – 6:13
There is more than one way to become a slave, and all too many forms of oppression that crush spirits and drain the life right out of entire peoples.
Some 12 million Africans were forcibly removed from their homelands, transported across the sea, and bought and sold and traded in the Americas. Another 2 million or so died in the so-called Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean. Throughout history and all over the world, individuals and entire populations have been kidnapped or imprisoned and forced into slave labor—often by design and sometimes by the unplanned but all-too-common combination of unlucky circumstances and unrestrained greed.
That’s pretty much how it went down for the Israelites. At first, their arrival in Egypt was its own deliverance—from famine and starvation into the overflowing granaries of Pharaoh, which just so happened to be managed by a closeted Israelite who had been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. Decades later, when those very same brothers showed up on Joseph’s doorstep begging for relief, a lifetime of striving and always being on the outside began to make sense.
“What you intended for harm,” a weeping Joseph told his brothers, “God intended for good.”
And so it was that Joseph invited not only his family but pretty much all of Israel to come to Egypt and eat. And they did come. They ate and they had families unto many generations—but both Joseph and his benevolent Pharaoh died. Over time, as the Jewish population increased and the Egyptian ruling classes felt threatened, Pharaoh made slaves of the Israelites and ruled them with an iron fist. Pharaoh’s cruelty toward the Israelites seemed to know no bounds; and when the fugitive former prince Moses came back to town to plead for their freedom, Pharaoh just doubled down.
“You think you’ve got it rough?” Pharaoh told the Israelites. “Give me a break. Until now, I’ve provided the straw for your brick-making, but not any more. From now on you have to find your own straw—and you must produce just as many bricks as before.”
When the Israelite supervisors complained, Pharaoh called the entire people lazy.
And so it is that on this Labor Day weekend, our scriptures present us with one of the not-so-familiar chapters of the Exodus story. Thanks to Leon Uris, Charlton Heston, and the myth-making machinery of fiction and Hollywood, many of us know at least parts of one version of the story that is so central to Jewish identity. We may be short on the details, but most of us have at least heard of Moses and the burning bush, Pharaoh and the 10 plagues, the first Passover, and the crossing of the Red Sea.
But on this Labor Day weekend, when at least 14 million would-be American workers are unemployed and millions more do not earn enough to live on, I invite us to focus on another aspect of the story. At the beginning of yet another week when much of our national conversation centers around the ongoing struggle for racial justice, I invite us to consider some of the spiritual and psychological implications of racism and oppression. As our nation seems more divided than ever, and our president continues to fan the flames of racial hatred and political violence, perhaps we should consider an often-overlooked lesson of one of the greatest accounts of liberation and transformation.
And so I want to draw your attention back to the middle of our reading, the part where God is telling Moses what to tell the people.
“Tell them who I am,” God says. “Tell them that I am the same God who appeared to their ancestors Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and promised them prosperity and power in a land of their own. Tell them my word is still good, and that I intend to fulfill it. Tell them I have heard their cries. Tell them my mighty hand will free them from their suffering. Tell them I will make them by own special people, and I will be their only and mighty God. I will bring them into a fertile land, and I will make it their own. Tell, them, Moses!”
And so Moses told them.
Now, we in our privilege might imagine that the Israelites jumped up and down with joy when they heard this good news. We might think that they wasted no time in packing their bags for a quick trip to the Promised Land.
But . . . not so much.
Moses told the Israelites all God’s great promises, but because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery they would not listen to him.
Because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.
Let that sink in for a moment.
It’s not that God’s word wasn’t true. It wasn’t that they couldn’t trust Moses. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to believe. It was, instead, their broken spirits—spirits that had been crushed by generations of oppression, cruelty that continued to play out in a thousand daily injustices that told them their lives didn’t matter and left them without hope. That left them unable to receive some really good news. That hardened their hearts and filled their days with righteous anger.
Surely we need to consider our Black siblings in this light, and how truly miraculous it is that their spirits are not even more broken than they are by everything from 400 years of racist laws, systems, institutions and traditions, to the countless daily micro-aggressions that they and other people of color endure. Under these circumstances, anger is far more natural than hope.
Or what about our LGBTQ+ siblings—told forever by the church that something was wrong with them, that there was no place for them, that God didn’t love them? Why should they trust our welcome now?
And then there are the essential workers—workers who’ve always been essential, and who’ve often been at the bottom of the pay scale. Now that we’re more aware of our need for them, why should we expect them to be grateful when we say “thank you,” especially if our gratitude does not come with a raise or a change in status or conditions?
And what about us? What are the struggles, injustices, losses, and disappointments that make it hard for us to open our hearts to hope, to bet on love or justice, healing or happiness just one more time, to trust God’s promises?
The point is not to try harder. The lesson is not to criticize ourselves or others for anger or despair or loss of hope and trust.
The invitation is to understand why it is so. The call is to compassion and solidarity and tenderness. And the point is to stop blaming victims for what they, in their brokenness and suffering, cannot summon, and, instead, to demand justice and freedom and equality from the systems, institutions, and people who have crushed their spirits.
When the Israelites refused to hear Moses’ long list of God’s promises, God did not berate them for their disbelief. No, God sent Moses on to Pharaoh with the demand that he let God’s people go.
Friends, the reasons for despair are many. This past week we learned of the death of still another unarmed Black man, Daniel Prude, at the hands of police. And just days ago, with racial unrest roiling the nation, the president announced he was doing away with all anti-racism and diversity training for federal employees. As if to pour gasoline on the fire.
Pharaoh, too, became even more cruel in the face of divine intervention. He refused to give in.
But God hears the cries of the poor and oppressed, the weary and hopeless, the despised and rejected.
“I will take you as my people,” God says, “and I will be your God. And I will free you from your burdens.”
And when God’s people cannot believe the promise or live into a freedom and status they’ve never known, God calls us to go to the root of the problem. God calls us, like Moses, to speak truth to power on behalf of God’s people—following their lead, and for as long as it takes.
God calls us to say to racism, to poverty, to all manner of evil power and injustice, “Let God’s people go!”