It has been a while since I’ve read anything from Water Breuggemann, a celebrated scholar and theologian specializing in Old Testament texts. An interview awakened me to his new book Delivered Out of Empire: Pivotal Moments in the Book of Exodus and it is truly paradigm shifting inthe way it breaks open the Exodus story and offers fresh reflection and insight when it comes to how to read the story well from within our present context. As Christians it is often easy to forget just how central the Exodus story is to our understanding of the Gospel, and the Exodus narrative plays through all of scripture as a forming motif.
There are a few particularly memorable moments fromt the book that stood out for me, beginning with his sharp articulation of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. Here is an excerpt from one of the chapters discussing this relationship
Another point of perspecive that I found thought provoking and even potentially controversial is his insight on the peoples relationship to Yahweh within the story. As he suggests, it is the cries of the people that elicits a response from Yahweh whom up until this point has been absent from the story. He sees these cries as having actual agency to set the story in play, going so far as to suggest that Yahweh responds and is changed by these cries, moved towards compassion. As he writes,
“It is no wonder that such an assertion changes everything in the narrative. Pain brought to voice in public speech so that it is heard out loud promptly rearranges all power realities that are thought to be settled. The cry changes circumstance for the slaves, for the shut-down slaves have been displaced by voiced possibility. The cry changes matters for Pharaoh, because now the reductionisms of manageable technology and administrable labor have been altered by the fresh insistence that the slaves are not mere statistics but are named historical agents. But most of all, the cry changes YHWH. It is astonishing that for two full chapters at the beginning of the book of Exodus, chapters filled with abuse and violence, YHWH has not yet made a narrative appearance. The cry changes that. The cry is not addressed to YHWH—or to anyone else. It is a cry addressed to no one—and to anyone who would listen. But it “rose up to God.” The cry not addressed to YHWH arrived there anyway. It arrived there because YHWH, the God of the narrative, is like a magnet for the cries of the abused.
YHWH, for whatever reason, has not until now taken any initiative. The initiative, rather, has been taken by the Israelites who have found their voice. It is the cry that begins the narrative of rescue and salvation. We are free to imagine that if Pharaoh had been able to sustain his imposed silence, there would have been no exodus narrative. That imposed silence, however, cannot finally refuse or resist the insistence of human bodies that refuse to bear pain in silence. Such voiced pain will finally break the force of Pharaoh. The Bible that follows from this cry is, among other things, a collage of episodes in which the cry sounds and a response is evoked:”
He also goes on to describe this in relationship to the idea of blessings and curses.
“In all such uses blessing is a top-down act—from God or from God’s human agents—because those who occupy the top have resources for life to share. This top-down commonsense perspective transfers into ordinary life in which power people—political leaders, bankers, celebrities, sports stars—give the appearance of having more life force and a capacity to bestow that life force on those who have less of it. All of this was operative in Pharaoh’s Egypt. Pharaoh had all the power, all the wealth, all the food, all the prestige, all the effective apparatus of priests and “magicians.” Pharaoh had a monopoly on life force, enough to bless all those who lived in conformity with his enterprise. From Pharaoh, moreover, it is easy enough to generalize that the political-economic pyramid of social power in every society assumes a top-down flow of blessing that is shared by those “below” according to their conformity. Except, of course, that there is a countertheme of blessing moving up from below. Such a notion is profoundly counterintuitive, for it is easy enough to think that those below have no such capacity. That countertheme is repeatedly expressed in Psalms in the formula “bless the Lord”:
Perhaps not too much should be made of such a familiar formula. And yet the formula, for all of its familiarity, is astonishing. It suggests that adherents to YHWH, the ones who have received life from YHWH, can respond by the bestowal of life force upon YHWH. This is an articulation of a dialogical transaction with God that does not assume God’s all-sufficiency; rather, God can have added to God’s own life by the act of the psalmist or of Israel, or of “all flesh.” The phrase “bless the Lord” may mean nothing more than “praise.” But the rhetoric itself suggests more than that, even concerning God’s own life.”
Lastly, one deeply affecting point of perspective flows from his observations on Miriams song, a song that is then given context in Moses’ song.
“Slaves do not sing and dance much, except for an occasional respite allowed by coercive masters. For the most part they work and work, making bricks and meeting production schedules. But ex-slaves are a different matter. When they are emancipated from work, brick making, and production schedules, they may sing and dance…
“Miriam and the other women sing and dance (Exodus 15:20–21). They “went out” with tambourines. The verb is an exodus word. They “went out” from Egypt. They “went out” of bondage. They “went out” of silence. They found with their tambourines a voice of freedom. Miriam found words and summoned the other women to sing. They sang “to the LORD.” Now they use their boisterous voices to name the name of YHWH. They had been all this time getting to “know the LORD.” Now they know! They know that YHWH is allied with them. They know that YHWH comes with active, partisan verbs. They sing the most succinct victory song.”
I have long been fascinated with Miriam’s song for a few reasons. First, it is recognized as the oldest text within the Hebrew Bible. Second, it finds its recontextualizing in the song of Moses as a way of applying it directly to the story of Israel, which only emphasizes the powerful realization of the woman’s voice informing it’s original context. Not unlike women being the first witnesses to the Gospel story here they stand expressing the earliest witness to Yahweh in a culture where they would not have had a voice.
What caught my attention though with its reference here is how Brueggemann weaves this into a simple truth about how emancipation and restoration works. In outlining the Exodus story he locates important threads. One of those is the nature of the voice. It is the “cries” of the people which is initially heard and which compels response. As Yahweh emancipates the “mixed multitude”, who’s commonality emerges from their enslavement, the fear that the experience in leaving Egypt elicits leads to the call to “fear not” by being silent, allowing the liberation to speak for itself. What follows then with Miriam’s song is a breaking of the silence through the call to then “fear the Lord” and the ushering in of a new reality.
This underscores this basic truth about emancipation in the first quote above- a time for genuine singing and dancing comes with liberation. We cannot pretend that the cries would stop or the silence be commanded until the promise of liberation is observed and celebrated and declared.
A second thread Brueggemann explores Is how the Exodus story reads in line with the creation and the flood narrative. The symbolism is stark and clear, right up to the collapsing of the waters of chaos once separated to reflect right order. One important feature of these narratives is locating the imagery of the righteous one patterned in Noah, Abraham (who’s story functions as a replay of the Garden narrative in line with Noah) and Moses. The intention here is clear when set within the creation narrative- as the story replays it is bringing to light the question of hope in a world patterned after Empire (symbolized through Babylon imagery as it is with Egypt, as it is with a freed and eventually exiled Israel). This hope, expressed as it is through the language of the righteous one, is replayed through the story of Jesus as the full embodiment of this story of Israel, defined as it is by the mixed multiple and framed through the story of enslavement and promised emancipation. This stands in contrast to the language of Empire. This is where the true twist in the plotline comes, one which we can see was the point of the story all along- in Christ as the righteous one we all become the righteous one, not in moral terms- that is the great misconception of a term which has been co-opted by a moralizing Gospel- but in its functional sense. That is, a people called to make right what is wrong in this world as image bearers.
From this emerges a third thread, which is the partnering theme of Exodus and Exile. This becomes the framework through which we approach the difficult already-not yet paradigm of the Gospel story, something which has fueled so much of our modern theological discourse in response. How is it that we make sense of a context that is both liberated and yet is not. We spiritualize the exodus story, we individualize it in soteriological terms, we diminish it by catapulting it into the future as a future promise rather than a historical reality. In truth, it is through the pattern of participation in liberation theology that we arrive at the idea of the exodus story as a liturgical practice. As this story is shared with young and old through the generations it speaks the truth of the story by turning our ears to hear the cries of the enslaved and looking to recognize the sounds of the song as a sign that liberation has in fact arrived. Where we hear the cries we become compelled to act. Where we hear the song we become compelled to hope.
Sadly what often happens when we divorce our theologies from this story is we erase the commonality of the mixed multitude, we redefine it in terms of the individual (read: total depravity), and we get suspicious of the cries and the constant calls towards needed liberation imagining this to be disruptive and antithetical to the true Gospel. It cannot be about them because it must be about us, and the easiest way to uphold this is to spiritualize our enslavement so that there is no us and them. This misses entirely what was common to the mixed multitude, and what makes this even more ironic is that it creates exclusive theologies that are all about upholding an us and them mentality. We undermine the cries, we expect and demand silence where enslavement persists, and then we move to celebration even as things remain the same, neglecting the fact that those celebrations are our own voices, not the songs of the mixed multitude.
What the Exodus story calls us to is the expectation that we are each called to bear witness to possible liberation by working to see it actualized in the here and now. By hearing the cries we empower those cries to be exchanged for silence through the enabling of the enslaved and the oppressed to move through the parted waters and into a new reality. This is how we participate in the new creation together now. This is how we anticipate a vision of what is to come.
As Brueggemann puts it,
“This remarkable legacy of the kingship of YHWH—rule, reign, governance—is, to be sure, awkward because of the masculine, paternal tone of the rhetoric that is reflective of hierarchy. That problematic is not to be ignored, yet perhaps the greater affront is that the lyric speaks of genuine transformation of the power that pertains in the world. Such rhetoric is inherently subversive and often has proved to be too much for the church. We have two characteristic strategies for evading such dangerous utterance. On the one hand, we readily make the claim eschatological and so push it outside of and beyond social reality. Nobody committed to the status quo worries too much about end-time transformation, as long as we are left alone for now. On the other hand, we may reduce the historical claim to privatized spirituality, so that there is no public face to the claim. Both of these propensities are visible in the hymns of the church used at Christmas and Easter. Either way, the danger of Moses’ utterance is toned down.
But of course, the Song of Moses and the women with tambourines will have none of that. It is for us always a question of how we will reperform the text, whether with tambourines in solidarity or in safer ways that leave us mostly still in bondage with brick quotas. The song of Moses invites us to tell a different story of the world, one that begins in cries (Exodus 2:23–24) but that culminates in wondrous exultation, a wonder voiced in song but deeply felt in our bodies and in the body politic.”