1.3.2 Exodus: liberation from slavery

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Unit 1 Contents

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We find throughout the Bible that God works in the world through people.  He chooses or ‘elects’ certain people or groups through which to make himself known and to accomplish his purpose of bringing deliverance or salvation.  Although Christian faith affirms that God is infinitely great and powerful, God’s main way of acting in human societies is through weak and frail people.

There is a frequent paradox in Scripture: when God does act with special, ‘supernatural’ power, this is often in combination with a human person who is aware of their weakness and ordinariness, and of their need to trust in God.

The great narrative by which God brings salvation begins in this way in Genesis 12-18.  Abram and Sarai are elderly people with no children, to whom God makes an astonishing promise – that Sarai will bear a son, through whom Abram will be the father of a great nation and all the peoples of the earth will be blessed.  (See Gen. 12.1-3 and chapter 17.)  As a sign of this promise, God renames them Abraham and Sarah.

But if we read the rest of Genesis, we find that, thanks to a terrible famine, Abraham and Sarah’s descendents end up as slaves in Egypt, suffering severe oppression under Pharoah.  According to Exodus 2 and 3, God hears their cries and calls Moses to lead them to freedom:

‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ 11But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt? 12He said, ‘I will be with you’.  (Exodus 3.7-12, NRSV; cf. Exodus 2.23-25)

The whole of the book of Exodus is the astonishing story of God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt under Moses’ leadership, and his leading of them to the Promised Land.  It is not an easy story to digest in its entirety, partly because God’s judgment on the Egyptians for their oppression of the Israelites is heavy.  It is far from light reading.

The extracts in the following reading include many of the main events in the story of the Exodus.  As you read, try to enter into the narrative from the point of view of a people suffering real and long-term oppression.  Depending on your own context and experience, this will be more or less easy.

How might someone like a night-worker cleaning offices for the minimum wage in the shining towers of the City of London react as they read this story?  How would a black South African living under the former Apartheid regime read it?  How would people read it who are earning subsistence wages in Sierra Leone for harvesting cocoa beans to be taken to another country and made into ‘chocolate’ – something they have not eaten themselves?

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Reading (11pp)

Exodus, chapters 1 – 3, 5:1 – 6:13, 11:1 – 15:21

It might be easier to do readings from Scripture in a printed Bible than online.  If you don’t have one to hand, the links given will take you to the start of the first chapter in each reading, in the NAB translation.

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You might well be aware of ‘Liberation Theology’, a highly influential, if controversial, movement in the Catholic Church which burst on to the scene in the late 1960s in Latin America.  It was reflection on the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt which, more than anything else in Scripture, was the great inspiration for Liberation Theology.  This movement was very much in line with the prophetic strand in Scripture: it was a dissenting movement which criticised abuses of power and called for radical change – indeed some of its adherents favoured revolution.

In the last section of the module (1.2.4), you read some of Pope Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi issued in 1975.  Later in this statement he addressed the theme of liberation.  You might want to do the ‘optional reading’ from this below.  We can interpret what Paul VI says there in this way: he was incorporating an appreciative understanding of ‘liberation’ within the broader context of the Church’s ‘official’ teaching.

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Optional reading (3pp)

Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, ##31-38 (you will need to scroll down to #31)

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The next reading from Exodus picks up from the point at which the last reading stopped.  It takes the narrative beyond the liberation from Egypt to the experience of the people in the wilderness during 40 years before they enter the Promised Land.  Exodus chapter 16 is significant as the story of God’s provision for the people in the desert.  God gives sufficient for their need and to satisfy them, but not more.  They therefore have to rely on God’s provision rather than accumulate for themselves.  This is a pivotal passage in the overall story – it is as though God is wishing to teach the people about their need to depend on God, rather than on themselves, before they enter the land with its promised abundance.

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Reading (3pp)

Exodus 15:22 – end of ch. 16

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The characteristic concerns of Scripture’s prophetic strand are then evident in some of the laws which God gives his people for their life together in the land.

All three of the following law texts refer to special ‘jubilee’ provisions, according to which debts are to be cancelled periodically to prevent excessive inequality among the people.  If you are older than about 30, you might remember the huge Jubilee 2000 campaign to cancel the international debts of the world’s poorest countries in the millennium year.  This was inspired by these passages.

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Reading (4pp)

Exodus 22:21 – 23:13

The link takes you to 22:1, so scroll to v. 21.

Deuteronomy 15:1-18

Leviticus 25 (all)

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Reflection

Look back over the passages set as readings on this page.

What themes or emphases do they have in common?

What concerns, qualities or attributes does God have, as God is portrayed in these passages?

What does God expect from his people?

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End of 1.3.2

Go to 1.3.3 Prophetic critique of political and economic power in Israel

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