There was this series of commercials a while ago—they might still be playing—put out for Snickers, the candy bar. Y’all remember these? It had some character being ornery and angry, complaining about everything, and then one of the other characters in the commercial would hand them a Snickers. They’d take a bite, and suddenly transform back into a regular person. Now, the fact that they’re pushing a candy bar as a legitimate cure for low blood sugar aside, the commercials really get at something true.
We get angry when we’re hungry. We get snippy, and short-sighted, and short-tempered with each other when we’re hungry. Y’all know the word, “hangry.” Well, in today’s Exodus reading we hear about just that kind of thing happening. The Israelites, wandering in the desert, running out of food, are hangry. And they take out their frustration on Moses.
After wave and wave again of plagues—river turned to blood, frogs everywhere, fire from the sky, darkness at noon, and even the death of the firstborn—Pharaoh had finally relented and let Moses take the Israelites out of Egypt. There must have been a feeling of wonder among the Israelites, realizing for the first time in hundreds of years they were finally free people. The cruelty of slavery was done for and they were on their way to the Promised Land! Moses must have seemed like quite a hero to them as they walked together, belongings in tow, down the coast road toward Canaan.
Then for some reason they veered off the road. The pillar of fire and cloud that had been leading them on the way suddenly led them down into the wilderness, where they camped by the shore of the sea. And then, dust appeared on the horizon. A cloud rising that could only be from the hoofs of horses, the whirling spokes of chariots, and the stamping feet of soldiers. Pharaoh, ever the dithering, indecisive tyrant, had gone back on his word to free them and decided not to let them go. And he’d sent an army to retrieve them.
When I was first learning how to drive, I thought it would be a good idea to learn how to drive stick shift. See, my parents had this old Nissan pickup that my mom absolutely loved, and one of the reasons she loved it was because it was a stick shift. Something about shifting gears made her feel like a racecar driver. But anyway, I thought it would be a good idea to learn how to drive it, in case I was ever in a situation where the only option was a stick shift vehicle. I know, it seems very unlikely now, but this was fifteen years ago.
So I enlisted the help of my parents to learn how to do it. The first thing they did was taught me about how gear shifting works—how you had to equally push down the clutch and release the gas just right in order to not stall. And they taught me that I would need to memorize where the gears were, because I couldn’t be looking down at the gearshift while driving. That part went well. I understood it all. It made sense, in a theoretical way.
Every time I read this story, it’s hard for me not to picture that old movie classic The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston. This scene gets depicted in it, too, where Moses sees this burning bush, and feels compelled to go and investigate it. Now, in the movie, I am really puzzled as to how Moses managed to see the bush to begin with, since the scene where he finds it looks like the bush is in some kind of cave, and even then he only gets to it after trekking across a montage of rocky desert landscapes.
But this conversation, no matter how we may picture it in our heads, is one of the most world-altering encounters in the Bible. Moses encounters God—not an angel or some emanation of God, but God’s very presence. God is enveloped in the burning bush, speaking out of it to get Moses’ attention, and then telling him something that reveals God’s own heart to us.
“I have heard my people’s cry.”
The story of the Exodus starts with a new king in Egypt. This king, it’s said, didn’t know Joseph—which either meant somehow the savior of Egypt’s legacy had been forgotten with time, or this new king knew exactly the legacy Joseph had, and he wanted nothing more than to make his subjects forget it. Either way, the line that introduces him is a chilling one because when we forget our history, bad things happen.
And boy were they bad. This king, it seems, felt this overwhelming urge to rally his country against the Hebrews, to eradicate any foreign influence, and to gather power to himself by forcing his subjects to fall into an “us versus them” pattern with these people. So he stoked fear: “these Hebrews will soon outnumber us, and they will side with an enemy should war come!” And then he followed the steps toward greater and greater evil.
Joseph is quite the character in the Bible. His story takes up thirteen chapters in Genesis—a fifth of the book! But last we left him, he was not in a good place. Joseph, after thoroughly annoying his brothers and becoming the unfortunate target of their misplaced anger at their father, was sold to slave traders on their way to Egypt. It wasn’t a good look for the sons of Jacob.
Well, in the intervening chapters (from last week’s reading where he was sold to this week’s reading where everything has changed), a lot has happened. Joseph was sold to an Egyptian as a house slave; he was imprisoned after his master’s wife made a false accusation against him; he languished for a while there until his ability to read dreams landed him in front of the king; and now he had been promoted to the Grand Vizier of Egypt—second only to the king himself. Now he was successfully managing Egypt through a seven-year famine.
Some time ago, Annie was doing this conversation series with her congregation called “Burgers and Big Questions.” And in one of them, the topic was about family dysfunction--kind of a dive into how we will sometimes look to the Bible for advice on having a harmonious and happy family, but looking to see if the Bible had any good examples of functional, happy families. I still laugh about it, because the most supportive, loving, non-dysfunctional family in the Bible is that of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel! Yes, they’re terrible people, but they 100% have each other’s backs in all things.
This is not the case with the family of the promise, Jacob and his twelve sons.
Jacob is quite the character. From the moment he was born, he used his wits to get ahead, tricking whoever he needed to in order to get what he wanted. There’s the time he tricked his brother Esau into selling him his birthright for a bowl of soup—y’all remember that story? And then the time he put on a sheepskin coat and tricked his own father into giving him the blessing intended for his older brother. Then, after all that started unravelling the family and he fled to his mother’s uncle’s place to stay safe, he ended up tricking his uncle, getting rich off his ability to twist words to his favor.
And it made sense. Jacob wasn’t a big, strong guy. He couldn’t just use brute strength to get what he wanted. But he was smart. Really smart, actually. And he used those smarts to outwit people regularly. Until, that is, he got to this point in his life. See, the reading today comes from the time in Jacob’s life that was just after he’d left his uncle (the one he’d swindled) and before he met up with his brother (whom he’d tricked). He’s sent his herds, his slaves, his wives, and his children on ahead of him in such a way that the ones most important to him would be safe in case Esau did anything dangerous.
And now he was alone.
I always felt for Leah in this Genesis text. It might be that I’ve always had a soft spot for people who are often the butt of a joke, or don’t get the kindness of others that they should, but it pains me every time I read this story to think of her.
See, Jacob loved Rachel. He was wild about her. And he worked a solid seven years to earn her. And on his wedding night, he goes to bed with who he assumes is Rachel, only to be awoken to find Leah there instead. Now, the Hebrew writers and storytellers make this a humorous situation. Jacob, trickster that he is, had the wool pulled over his eyes. He was getting what he dished out. Plenty of sermons focus on just that lesson to be taken from this story. And I can just imagine, before this was written down, men sitting around telling stories of their forefathers, and everyone pauses at the moment when the storyteller takes the turn from the night to the morning to deliver the punchline—“and it was Leah!”
Big laughs all around!
But it wasn’t very funny to Leah, the “get one” of a “buy one get one” deal.
There was a movie some time ago called “Liar, Liar,” starring Jim Carrey. If you’ve never seen it, or need a reminder, the movie involves a high-powered lawyer, Jim Carrey, who makes his living by lying. It’s not even close to how the legal system actually works, but that’s beside the point. Jim Carrey has a son, and he is constantly disappointing his son by making a promise about being there for this or that thing, and then some big case would come up, and the promise would be broken. So his son makes a birthday wish that his dad would be unable to lie for one day. And, naturally, shenanigans ensue.
Carrey’s character, unable to lie, botches his strategy in the courtroom. His inability not to be honest causes all kinds of chaos when he says things people just don’t say. And for his son, the most important thing is that he can’t make a promise that he won’t keep.
But that’s an important thing, isn’t it? When someone makes a promise, we expect them to keep it. And the more someone breaks their promises, the less we are willing to believe them when they make a promise in the future. It’s why someone who keeps their promises is considered so trustworthy. If someone does what they say they’ll do, we can trust that a promise made will be a promise kept.