Inspired by Exodus 6:28-7:7
If this scripture passage feels like Deja Vu, then pat yourself on the back because that means you have been paying attention. You also have an excellent memory.
We have been over this before; two chapters and one week ago if you want the specifics.
The progression from chapter four to chapter seven brings the discouragement of ending up in the same place we started from; God tells Moses to go. Moses tells God no. God tells Moses to go. Moses goes and does whatever insane thing God asked him to do.
This long, wordy scene would probably be the place where we push the fast-forward button in a Netflix series. Lessening the time it takes to get to the high energy, action part.
All week my frustration has been trying to understand why we ended up here again. To me, this part of the story was predictable and plain the first time. Not to mention it’s a formula for a storyline that plays out over and over again in the Bible. Why in the world would we need another go around?
This first go-around between Moses and God takes place in Chapter 4 and results in the Pharaoh punishing the Hebrews, the Hebrews rejecting Moses and Moses losing it on God. It’s a chronological progression that hooks the audience into sticking around to see what happens next because, admittedly, we are betting on it being something big.
We have anticipation and hope that soon, there will be a just conclusion. The good guys win. The bad guys lose. The series is over, and it’s time for bed. Except just when we are ready to be done, the story dumps us back into the same conversation where the whole charade began. Like some biblical Butterfly Effect that completely confuses the viewer. Is God asking Moses to go to the Pharaoh again? Or, is this just a flashback to the scene that happened before?
I’m thinking of Fiona’s research project on the Arab Spring in 5th grade. The most challenging part was that, unlike a history book that has a central source and a dominant narrative, the Arab Spring was so recent that it was told by many voices experiencing the same event from different perspectives.
The format of recording the event required an adjustment for researching it; instead of repeating the dominant narrative, she had to step into the uprising through the voices who had experienced it and then make sense out of the pile of true stories. The challenge was writing history in real-time when the truth was coming in from a million directions. The complexity resulted from a context of fluid facts. Things were still unfolding, which made it quite tricky for historical reporting dependent on maintaining an objective perspective.
I think, most likely, this is also the case with our Exodus passage. We have two writers telling the same story from different perspectives. The dialogues are the same, but the contexts are entirely different. It’s what happens in the middle that matters. Between the first telling and the second telling, there is a tsunami of pain and grief.
Moses had trusted God to ensure that the Pharaoh would liberate the people. Moses had promised the people God would free them. Moses had believed God’s promise himself. Moses’ encounter with the Pharaoh was supposed to be the beginning of a happy ending. What happens between Moses’ first “yes” to God and his second “yes” turns out to be neither happy nor an end.
In response to Moses’ first “yes,” the people are brutally oppressed and mercilessly punished. His family and friends reject him, and the faith in the mission is discredited. Almost a whole chapter is spent on Moses yelling at God for how bad God has messed this entire thing up. And, still, God asks Moses to have faith, to keep fighting for freedom. It is after Moses has failed, and his people have forsaken him that God asks Moses to do the same thing all over again.
Two conversations with the same question and the same answer in entirely different circumstances resulting in drastically different meanings. The difference is not in words. The difference is in the wounds. This time, the second time, the people receive the call, not with hope, but with a broken spirit. Exodus 6:9 reads; “Moses told this to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.”
The adjective broken translates here to a state of physical and emotional exhaustion. The people have lost their ability to think, believe, hope, or imagine outside the present tense. God speaks, and the people are so broken, so exhausted, that they cannot muster the vitality needed to accept the imagined alternative future that energized and inspired them to action just a few chapters ago. The people are completely broken, and yet here, God shows up and asks them to resist the dominant structures enslaving them all over again.
Two weeks ago, Fiona and I snuck away to Snow Mountain Ranch and spent two incredible nights hiking to waterfalls and sitting around a campfire. For two days, I felt normal; life felt comfortable and safe. I came back feeling inspired, dreaming about the future, feeling less bothered, holding less fear. I came home and wrote and preached two sermons I felt good about, and then I crashed. All over again. Into the reality of the pandemic, the raging fires, the divisive politics, the violence across the globe. The same place I was before I left was the same place I ended up after I returned.
The escape and the return were a repeat of my entire experience of the pandemic so far. A surreal but steady walk along a pathway filled with huge potholes that are only found when you end up sitting at the bottom. Dr. Ann Masten, a psychologist and professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, explains this experience to be a result of our reduced surge capacity. That collection of adaptive systems – mental and physical – that we draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations such as natural disasters. “But natural disasters occur over a short period, even if recovery is long. Pandemics are different – the disaster itself stretches out indefinitely. Surge capacity has limits. We need to renew it. “So, what happens,” Masten writes, “when the emergency phase has now become chronic?”
These repetitive encounters between God and Moses in Exodus answer this question; we break.
We start strong because we think we know what the ending will be and when the end will happen. Moses marches off to the Pharaoh, assuming this is how his people find freedom. And, Moses isn’t wrong in believing this will be the pathway upon which his people find freedom. Eventually, God will bring the people out of Egypt, just not anytime soon. By the second time, God approaches Moses, and everything has changed. The people are crying out for an escape that will provide relief. God is offering systemic wrestling, which promises resurrection.
Moses and the Hebrew people begin the work of liberation, seeing a straight line from rebelling against their oppressors to returning to their promised land. But for God, the Exodus is not an escape mapped out from Point A to Point B. For God, Exodus is a corporate collaboration with a vision of mutual liberation. God presents Exodus as a commitment that both Israel and the Pharaoh must engage in, whether they want to or not. Freedom, in the framework of Exodus, is a disruptive gift unwelcomed by both the perpetrators and the victims. The myth of reaching a timely destination becomes a spiral into the depths of the undoing of a system built upon slavery and violence.
The certainty of how and when this will end must be grieved and buried if Moses is to move forward with God.
Which brings us back to the beginning of the pandemic. The first time God sent us to embrace the pause to recognize our imprisonment to systems of our own making. The time we couldn’t imagine the virus taking 30,000 lives or the vaccine taking more than a few more months to make. It is hard to process how bad things are when we don’t know how bad things will get. And, things have already gotten worse than most of us thought.
Like Moses and the Hebrew people, we are not called to escape but to Exodus; to profound transformation on a societal level. To see and accept all the bad and to do good anyway.
We, like Moses and the Hebrew people, experience the same story from different perspectives and approach the same questions from new directions. There is an inconvenient comfort in the redundancy of God’s invitation to seek transformation and to await the resurrection.
We, like Moses and the Hebrew people, must go through the loss to prepare for new lives. Rejecting denial by escaping as many times as it takes to return to the truth that its the situation that is crazy, it is the situation that is pathological, never the person. We are sane in an insane world called to the spiritual practice of remembering who we are and what God is asking us to do; the work of Exodus unfolding in a story shared by many voices from a million perspectives welcoming us over and over to start again.