The Hebrew people in Egypt are the archetype of this kind of servitude to the ruling powers – but their story, our story, has been endlessly repeated up until our own times: whether it is peasants in medieval Europe or serfs on vast Russian estates or pre-emancipation black slavery in the Americas or the victims of Stalin or Mao or Pol Pot or apartheid South Africa, or Assad’s starving victims today in Syria, ordinary human suffering has been the norm for the majority of humanity through the ages.
Much of this depth of pain is probably unimaginable to us, unless we choose to study history or read fictional representations of it in novels. Sometimes there’s a film that tries to evoke it – Twelve Years a Slave was a recent Hollywood effort. But most of these stories from the past have sunk into the vast abyss of silence that is time gone by. It is all lost: the pain, the humiliation, the meaninglessness of empty, abused lives, generation after generation, century after century, all of it swallowed up in the ruthless jaws of time. There are few written records of the inside history of human suffering through most of recorded time, and in truth little wish in many of us to know about the cruelty and callousness of the past. We have enough problems of our own to be getting on with – or so we feel.
So when we do read – as we are doing at the moment in the annual cycle of Torah readings - about the Israelite slavery in Egypt we both can and can’t relate to it. In one way it has the feel of fiction: it’s a legend of a people’s origins written generations later based partly on folk memory, and as we read it has the feel of an extended fable being constructed to conform to a specific ethno-religious worldview. It’s not ‘history’ as we now think of it.
We heard last week how the Egyptian god-king, the Pharaoh, responds to the request by Moses and Aaron that the people should be allowed to have three days off work to go and offer sacrifices to their god in the wilderness. The Torah text dramatises this with a direct ‘quotation’, as it were, from Pharaoh, speaking to Israel’s spokesmen: ‘Why are you distracting the people? Get them back to work!’ (Exodus 5:4). And he then instructs his minions to stop providing the Israelites with straw to make the bricks: ‘Let them gather the straw for themselves’, he orders, ‘but make sure they make the same quota of bricks as before...they’re shirkers/slackers nirphim’ (verses 7-8). Or as Iain Duncan Smith might translate it: ‘Work-shy scroungers’ – those who have to be made to work for free in compulsory work-placements in order to get any benefits. It’s the same mentality, across time. The same language. (But I digress).
We recognise that the random punitiveness of the powers-that-be in our Torah story is part of a literary saga; it’s not a verbatim account even though it’s told with dialogue in it. Yet it still has the ring of truthfulness because we can find exact parallels in history of such brutality: in Soviet Russia, in the Nazi labour camps, on the 19th century cotton plantations, in Maoist collective farms in the 1950s and 60s. This has happened to people over and over again, people like us. On the one hand it’s just a story, in an ancient religious text – and we don’t believe these texts are actual historical records – but as we listen to it we realise we are reading something that transcends its time and place, that points towards something that isn’t just foundational to Jewish collective experience but is also universal. The narratives of degradation of what man can do to man is a universal story. And the Jewish people tell it and retell it, because it is our particular story - but also because it is our collective human story.
I wanted to write this week about something else. I looked at the allocated Torah text (Exodus 6:2 onwards), which starts: I am Adonai – YHWH – but I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai; my name Adonai wasn’t known to them... And I thought: ‘I want to talk about the evolution of God, and how our thinking about God might be changing, is changing, in our own times’.
Don’t we see that process of evolution already at work in our text? The narrators have ‘God’ say, as it were: ‘In days gone by, those patriarchs you’ve heard about, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they knew about the divine in their own way, they called me El Shaddai – ‘God of Breasts’ – because they experienced me as nurturing them, like a mother, they felt me as intimately involved in their personal lives, their family lives, they felt me outside them yet closely enmeshed with their daily life...
They didn’t know me as Adonai, YHWH, the energy that animates all of being, they didn’t know me as the spirit of life itself, the power that generates life itself, all of life, including their life, moment by moment. They couldn’t think of me that way. They weren’t ready to think about me that way...
But now they are. This is what they need to understand now. And it’s a quantum leap forward, it’s a paradigm shift in consciousness that is required of them. To move from slavery to freedom, from drudgery where you just try and survive the day, to the liberation of having lives of hope and purpose, lives that you can shape and that have meaning beyond sheer survival, this Israelite people need to connect to me as Adonai, YHWH, the energy that animates the universe and all of being, and that offers a vision of how people should live, could live, a moral vision...
They need to take their noses off the grindstone, they need to be freed from the grindstone, and look up and out to what they could become as a people, they need to connect in a living way to that ancient promise that they are to become a blessing to others, a blessing to themselves. I, Adonai , am going to free them from their limited slave lives and mentalities and give them a real purpose, a task, a destiny - to be a holy people, a people attuned to the sacred nature of life, of all life.’
Anyway, I was going to talk about all this. And move on to describe the next quantum leap, and paradigm shift, that we are in the middle of. But what I found myself thinking about and writing about was not ‘God but suffering – about tyranny and hardship and how much of human history has been a tale of degradation and oppression and despair. And it still is. And in the light of that, to talk about ‘God’ and ‘the divine’ and ‘a sacred spirit that animates all of being’ seems just nonsense, a mockery of human experience, a kind of blasphemy against the felt realities of so much human life, in the past and in the present.
We know from our own lives the gap between our Jewish theology (for want of a better word) and the stuff of our own lives. When we are in pain, when we are facing death, or the death of someone we love, when we see tragedy in the world outside us, or face tragedy and loss close to home, then we wonder: what is this God-talk all about really? How can we believe in a loving, caring, nurturing God, a God who supports us, who has compassion as his middle name? Life can mock, cruelly, our wish to believe in this kind of a personal God, let alone a God who is a Creator, or a Revealer, or a Redeemer, a God who is part of the unfolding of history, as the story of Exodus suggests, a God who frees an oppressed people ‘with an outstretched arm and with mighty judgments’ (6: 6). Human suffering, individual and collective, is an ongoing rebuke to this kind of thinking about God. It is what turns many people off religion, and understandably so.
And yet what is remarkable when you look back through history, is the power this Exodus story has had specifically in the history of oppressed people. It has allowed millions and millions of people for a millennium and more to endure extreme hardship, individually and collectively - because it offers a story of hope: you might be living in darkness and desperation now, but God has saved a people from oppression in the past and can do so again; this is God’s nature – to be on the side of the weak against the strong, to be on the side of justice rather than siding with those who sustain systems of injustice.
This story in the Hebrew Bible has kept Jews going in dark times, of course, times of oppression and exile. But it’s also been inspirational for Christians: from Negro spirituals that defied the 19th century slave-masters to the civil rights campaigners in the 1960s to the South American liberation theologians who helped people resist dictatorships to the secret Christian gatherings in Communist China, this story, our story, has been a spiritual resource for oppressed people through the generations, and it still is.
Ironically, Arab Christians look to this story as speaking of the inevitability that justice will one day overcome injustice in Israel and Palestine. And those medieval peasants and Russian serfs might have been deeply anti-Semitic but they still looked to the God who freed the Israelite people from bondage as a direct and personal source of comfort and hope in the midst of their desperately impoverished lives. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a leader of the dissenting Confessing Church in Germany in the 1930s, part of the political opposition to Hitler, was hung in a concentration camp in 1945, but he never wavered in his teaching and preaching and belief that the Exodus story was a paradigm for the final triumph of goodness over the evil of Hitler’s oppressive regime.
All these examples are a testimony to the power of the story, the way it incarnates for all time the hope that tyranny and injustice do not last forever. And it is a story that lost its religious trappings but retained its spiritual core for all those hundreds of thousands of Jews who threw off the shackles, as they experienced it, of religious orthodoxy, but poured their inherited belief that there was a power in history that was on the side of the oppressed, and that oppressive systems could be overthrown - they poured that faith, transformed it, into Marxism and messianic socialism at the end of the 19th century.
The history of 20th century socialism is the history of Exodus theology metamorphosed into secular redemptive politics. And that so much of it turned sour is of course prefigured in the very Hebrew Bible those passionate Jewish rebels so eagerly rejected – the way in which in later Israelite history over and over again the people find themselves victims of new forms of oppression – from outsiders, or from their own kings or leaders. The failure to build the kingdom of God here on earth, stretches from the time of Solomon to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and on, and on.
And yet the Exodus story never stops spinning its web of hope over successive generations: its power comes from its insistence that there is, there has to be, a force in human history that helps us move from oppression to liberation, from tyrannies of suffering and lives of quiet desperation to societies of justice and individual well-being. There has to be some force, it says – and call it godly if you want, as the Bible does – that helps us move in that direction.
But whether that ‘God’ is outside us, or actually a part of ourselves, an energy in us, an inner force that gives us strength and helps form our vision and helps us transform the world around us - this is what we need to talk about in this paradigm shift that we are, in our generation, in the midst of. It’s where the conversation about God needs to go now (and the implications of this are huge) if we are going to make it through on this fragile planet we all cling to - cling on to ‘for dear life’, as we so fondly say.
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, January 9th, 2016]