The First Days of Jesus by Andreas Köstenberger and Alexander Stewart, Free for CAPC Members
Readers are able to experience the supposedly familiar early chapters of Matthew, Luke, and John with new eyes.
My soundtrack this summer has been the music for the Prince of Egypt.
More than 20 years old, this animated film from Dreamworks is the story of the Hebrew people’s longing for deliverance from systemic oppression and death. The story has sudden, painful relevance in the face of the pandemic that continues to rage and the ongoing anti-Black racial injustice.
In particular, I return again and again to the song “Deliver Us,” which articulates a desire shared by so many of us who are suddenly suffering, with little end in sight:
Elohim, Adonai, can you hear your people cry?
Help us now
This dark hour, deliver us
Hear our call, deliver us
Lord of all remember us, here in this burning sand
Deliver us, there’s a land you promised us
Deliver us to the promised land
As of this writing, in the United States more than 170,000 people have died from COVID-19, many of them the most vulnerable in our communities. More than 5 million people have been diagnosed with it. More than 22 million jobs have been lost in our community, and though some of these jobs have regained, unemployment remains at 10%, the highest since the Great Depression, and people continue to lose their jobs every day. And as we look at the months ahead, it is difficult to see when we will return to normalcy, to being able to go about our work and our worship in ordinary ways, without risking our own health or the health of our community. We too need deliverance.If Exodus voices our collective hunger for deliverance, it also calls us to work for deliverance, toward liberatory action.
Indeed, even those of us who continue to work (like me) feel the oppressive burden of the pandemic. This too resonates with the Hebrews’ call for deliverance. At the start of the song, they list out all the extra work that the Egyptians have loaded on their shoulders, in retribution for Moses’ attempt to free his people. “Mud,” they sing. “Sand, water, straw.”
“Faster!” an Egyptian hollers in the background. “Faster!”
Stuck in the pandemic, many of us are also forced to work more, work harder, work faster. Teachers sanitize their rooms after each class. Parents, especially moms, juggle unexpected and difficult childcare with work responsibilities. Healthcare workers take on long, difficult shifts. We take on emotional work too: the challenge of masking up to protect people in our communities and hearing each other through the mask; the challenge of bearing one another’s griefs over lost jobs, lost lives, lost dreams. Like the Hebrews, we find increasing burdens laid upon us and no idea when or how these burdens will be lifted.
In fact, this experience is a notable difference between the film and the original biblical story.
Moses asks Pharaoh to release the Hebrew people, and Pharaoh increases their workload. In the film, Moses faces sharp criticism from his fellow Hebrews for this. Knocking him to the ground with a handful of mud, a Hebrew (who turns out to be Aaron) mocks Moses’ claim that he is doing God’s will: “God?” he asks. “When did God start caring about any of us?”
Then he goes further, to question Moses’s own motivation: “In fact, when did you start caring about slaves? Was it when you found out you were one of us?”
Moses apologizes, but Miriam steps in. Rebuking Aaron for his criticism, she urges Moses to trust in God’s enduring care: “I have been a slave all my life,” she says, “and God has never answered my prayers until now. God saved you from the river, he saved you from all your wanderings, and even now, he saves you from the wrath of Pharaoh. God will not abandon you, so don’t you abandon us.”
Hope restored, Moses gets to his feet, thrusts his staff on the ground with decision, and literally walks off into the sunset –– presumably, to confront Pharaoh again. This is a deeply moving scene, both for Moses’ sincerely meant apology for too long ignoring the oppression of his people and Miriam’s ready forgiveness and hope in God.
But what I’m struck with is that the scene glosses over the way Aaron blames not only Moses but also God. Especially after Miriam’s critique (“You shame yourself,” she tells him), Aaron’s complaint that God doesn’t care about any of them does not ring true in the context of the film; to these characters, God is someone who “will not abandon” them.
This is not true in the actual biblical text, when it is not Aaron but Moses himself who doubts God. When the Hebrews, their workload doubled, do not meet the quotas, Pharaoh blames their laziness; the Hebrews blame Moses; and Moses blames God:
So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Lord, why have You brought trouble on this people? Why is it You have sent me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done evil to this people; neither have You delivered Your people at all.”
You have not delivered your people at all. This is a complaint that rings true to those of us struggling beneath the burdens of the pandemic. As the loss of jobs, income, opportunities, and families stretches on (and on, and on), it feels as though God is silent. God is not acting to save his people. Importantly, the Exodus story legitimizes Moses’ complaint; though God comes down to assure Moses that yes, He really will deliver his people, that God answers Moses’ question implies that it is a valid question. The human hero (such as he is) of the Exodus story doubts God, and Scripture does not write that doubt off.
In this way, the story validates the fear that we have, in the midst of our own suffering, right now, that God may be silent. True, God has promised to be with us and protect us. That promise does not change the fact that like Moses and the Hebrew people, we are currently in a very dark moment. We find it difficult to see how God is working. Yet in hearing Moses out, in answering his question, God acknowledges his feelings of abandonment. And he does the same for us. God does not rush to close off our confusion and grief of this moment. Rather, making space for us to grieve, God waits for us to receive the same promises given to Moses: that He abides with us even in this dark hour, that He is our God, and that (even when we cannot see it) He is delivering us from our burdens.
Yet the story of Exodus does not only resonate because of the suffering imposed by the pandemic; it also resonates with the ongoing anti-Black racism in this country. Black activists and theologians have written themselves into the story of Exodus, identifying closely with the Hebrews and, similarly, looking for liberation. In a November 2019 episode of the Liturgists, Andre Henry ticks off comparisons between the Hebrews and Black people in America. Egyptians, he notes, worked to ensure that the “Hebrew population does not flourish,” the Egyptians “erase their history,” they “impos[e] forced labor,” they commit “genocide.” Read through this lens, the story of Exodus becomes for Black Christians a story of longing from systemic oppression and from, as Henry notes, the oppression of white Christianity.
Then Henry asks a question which has troubled me in fruitful ways since I’ve heard it. “What does it mean to be an innocent person in a society where there’s a system of injustice that harms the marginalized every single day?”
Henry points out that although only two Egyptians, two Pharaohs, explicitly call for oppressing the Hebrew people, “every Egyptian has to sit in darkness” when that plague comes. There are no innocent people, Henry implies. In the current United States, as in ancient Egypt, (non-Black) people are either complicit with systemic injustice, or they are (to use a term Austin Channing Brown advocates for) accomplices in ending injustice. There is no in-between.
Reading the Exodus story in this light complicates the way that we resonate with the Hebrews’ calls for deliverance. What does it mean to cry out for our own deliverance in a society where deep racial injustices persist?
What I’ve realized in listening to this song on repeat this summer is that if Exodus voices our collective hunger for deliverance, it also calls us to work for deliverance, toward liberatory action. No Egyptian in Moses’ story does this work, yet Scripture calls us to it all the same. In Matthew, Jesus tells the parable of a man who, released from the oppression of an enormous debt, immediately goes out and oppresses somebody else, demanding repayment of a different debt. Jesus rebukes the man. Don’t be like him, we are told. Praying for deliverance is legitimate, but we cannot pray for our deliverance and then participate in the oppression of our Black brothers and sisters. We cannot pray for deliverance without working for liberation.
Esau McCaulley, writing in Relevant, insists “God’s first answer to Black suffering (and the wider human suffering and the rage that comes alongside it) is to enter that suffering alongside us as a friend and a redeemer.” Because God “knows what it means to be at the mercy of a corrupt state that knows little of human rights,” because God has been subject to the same precarities and illnesses and loss of life as we have, we can hope for –– and, crucially, work for –– deliverance.
Right now, we hunger to be freed from the hardships of the pandemic, especially in the United States where systemic failures and a lack of empathy among leadership at every level has turned the COVID-19 from something manageable, as in Vietnam and New Zealand, to COVID-19 to something oppressive and monstrous. As we wait on God, returning to the story of Moses puts words to our hunger and assures us that God will listen to our lament.
At the same time, experiencing limits on our freedoms, loss of work opportunities, an uncertain and bleak future pushes us to seek deeper understanding of what it is like to live truly oppressed, as the Hebrews did and as Black Americans have and still do. And as we pray for deliverance, we also commit ourselves to working for it alongside our Black brothers and sisters. Trusting God, who as McCaulley reminds us, dwelt alongside us in all our human troubles, we can take practical actions to advocate against oppression, from wearing masks and postponing large-group meetings to supporting Black leadership in our community and educating ourselves on how we can make our own spheres of influence –– our workplaces, schools, homes, and churches –– anti-racist.
The specific steps we take will be different, depending on the work that God calls us to and the places where we dwell. Yet regardless of the action we take, this moment of great suffering –– difficult as it legitimately is –– is an opportunity not only to pray for our own deliverance but to lend our aid to the deliverance of others.
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