Sunday, March 16, 2014

Exodus and Return

Two things happen to these tribes of Israel founded by Jacob. Both are emblematic of the relationship with God that the biblical tradition has in mind for them—and for everyone. The first is the departure from “home”; the second is the difficult way back.

In what the Bible recounts as a “boys will be boys” kind of prank, Jacob’s older sons, born of Leah, gang up on the penultimate brother, Joseph, who is “cooler” than they are. He is, incidentally, also the first born of Jacob’s second wife, Rachel. Joseph is sold into slavery.

Do note that slavery in ancient times, and in the Bible, was considerably more benign than the utterly dehumanizing “peculiar institution” of the antebellum U.S. South.

For the most part, ancient slavery was a temporary indenture that functioned as a form of debt payment: the slave had to make up through labor the value of the debt plus some profit. Another avenue into slavery was war: slaves were the human booty of conquest and served the victors. Many famous figures of antiquity were at one time slaves; for example, Aesop the fable writer, Spartacus the rebel and even St. Patrick of Ireland, who was captured and enslaved for a time.

But on with the story.

A famine comes and Jacob’s family flees to the renown granaries of Egypt, where an important aide to the Pharaoh gets them into trouble. Turns out this important man is Joseph, who has worked himself out of slavery and is now playing a revenge prank on his kin. After getting his fun, Joseph recognizes his kin as kin and helps them establish themselves in Egypt.

Eventually, over many years, the kin reproduce and settle in and there are too many Hebrews in Egypt. Many are enslaved and mistreated. One of them, Moses, grows up to lead their departure from the place where once they were received with hospitality. Moses is guided by God in the first theocratic (or divinely ordained) revolution.

The story in the book of Exodus also leads to a long wandering in the desert. During that period God's law (which is much, much lengthier than the Ten Commandments given at Sinai) is given. Eventually, they return to the land of Canaan, which had been bestowed to Abraham and his descendants.

We don't know for certain that Moses was a historical figure or that the exodus event actually happened, at least not exactly as the Bible tells it—let alone as portrayed in film by Charlton Heston. Modern archaeologists can find traces of a “Hapiru” (Hebrew?) tribe that left
Egypt over the course of a century around 1200 BCE.

Historically true or not, the exodus out of the Promised Land is an archetype of the human experience. We leave the home of our parent for often frivolous and wrongheaded reasons, unintended consequences follow and thereafter we seek to return, if only by forming a family of our own in a new home. We think we know better and cast faith aside, only to discover that there was some wisdom there and we return, changed and perhaps taking a new measure of faith, to the home of our beliefs.

This is where the Hebrew people find themselves as Moses dies, leaving Joshua to lead them back into Canaan.

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