I’m sure we’ve all been in this kind of situation. You’re in a public place, when you overhear a conversation between two people. Some part of what one of them is saying catches your attention, and whether you really meant to or not, you end up listening just a little bit longer. I think it’s safe to say we’ve all eavesdropped at some point, and maybe for some of us, it’s really interesting when we do. When you only hear partway through the conversation, it becomes a challenge almost to figure out what this conversation is about and why it’s even going on.
Well, that is today’s reading from Exodus. We have been dropped into the middle of a conversation between Moses and God, no context, no background, no real clues about what this conversation is about. Sometimes our lectionary—the way we organize readings each week—is annoying like that. So what, exactly, is the context of this strange conversation?
This morning’s story from Exodus has a weird number of parallels with teen movies from the eighties, for some reason. Do y’all recognize this basic plot structure? Parents are going to go away for an overnight trip or something, leaving the less-than-popular but responsible kid in charge. Somehow word gets out about it to the kid’s peers, and before you know it there’s a party. Responsible kid decides to join in because, hey, it’ll make him look cool. Then the parents get home early, find the party happening, and it hits the fan.
Now, I get the feeling that directors of those films weren’t looking to Exodus for an outline for their stories, but the parallels are there. But of course, this is Exodus, so there are a few more things going on than a plot to party while mom and dad are away. See, last week we got the first part of this story, and then we skipped the dozen chapters in between to get to this week’s reading. So what happened in between?
There’s this old movie that you may have seen called The History of the World: Part One by Mel Brooks, and I’ve always gotten a pretty good laugh out of it any time I watched it. But one of the best parts was right toward the beginning, in the scene where Brooks is playing Moses, coming down the mountain with the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Only, he’s got three tablets instead of two, and it is very clear he is struggling to hold them all. And in the course of the scene, he’s shouting to the people of Israel down the mountain:
“The Lord! The Lord Jehovah has given you these fifteen—” and then he slips and drops a tablet, and it just shatters on the ground. Moses stares at it for a moment in shock, says “Oy,” and then looks up, holds up the two remaining tablets and says “Ten! Ten Commandments for all to obey!” Ah, it gets me every time.
But thinking about that scene this week, I got caught on that word Brooks uses: “obey.” I think, when we read the Ten Commandments, we do read them that way. This is a list of the ten most important, biggest rules in the world, and we should obey them. When we learned them in confirmation, most of us probably remember Luther’s repeated way of introducing each commandment. “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that…” It was taught to us as a list of rules to follow. And I’m not saying that’s necessarily wrong—but maybe it’s not all they are.
If this story from our Exodus reading feels like déjà vu, it’s because there are a lot of things similar to last week. Remember, last week we heard about the Israelites complaining about how hungry they were, how there was nothing to eat in the desert, and how it would have been better for them to have stayed in Egypt where there was plenty of bread and fleshpots for food. This time, however, the people are thirsty.
They are thirsty and the conversation seems to go the same way. There is murmuring. Then they call out Moses, insisting that he brought them out to die in the desert, and that it would’ve been better if they had stayed in Egypt. But this complaining has a bit more urgency to it. See, with the food, we know that the human body can survive about three weeks without food. But water—without water you are done for in three days. If there isn’t any water in the camp, it’s not just a matter of low blood sugar. It’s a matter of life and death.
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.