Exodus is a story of us vs. them. I can’t help but see the “otherization” of anyone not named the Israelites in this book.
We start with the Israelites in slavery, and God telling Moses he will lead them out of Egypt and to freedom. The Israelites lived in a terrible situation (see: slavery), but the story of how they got out has a clear “victors write the history” feel to it.
First take the plagues cast down by God on Egypt. These plagues decimate the population in increasing severity until every first-born living thing dies. Water to blood, frogs, lice, flies, diseased livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and death. Together these plagues are catastrophic to the Egyptian people. And while Pharaoh plays a large role in these plagues taking place, it also is written repeatedly that God hardened his heart. It begs the question: what would have happened if God hadn’t? Only two plagues? Three?
Another interesting tidbit from the Israelites leaving Egypt is that they took gold and silver from the Egyptians before leaving. The day after every first-born dies, the Israelites are allowed to leave and as they do so they ask the Egyptians for gold and silver. The Egyptians agree because “the Lord made them favorably disposed” to the Israelites. The Egyptians became favorably disposed after the God of the Israelites obliterated their way of life?
So the Israelites leave unscathed, with the plunder the Egyptians gave them, and get to the Red Sea. Pharaoh sends an army that pursues them to the shore. Moses leads the Israelites through the parted waters of the sea and when the army chases after them the waters rush in and drown the entire army. Then Moses offers up a prayer which includes the following:
The nations will hear and tremble;
anguish will grip the people of Philistia.
15 The chiefs of Edom will be terrified,
the leaders of Moab will be seized with trembling,
the people of Canaan will melt away;
16 terror and dread will fall on them.
By the power of your arm
they will be as still as a stone—
until your people pass by, Lord,
until the people you bought pass by.
Every nation will be terrified of our God. And with good reason.
So the Egyptians are decimated, all other nations trembling in fear… how do fellow Israelites not in Egypt react? Moses’ father-in-law Jethro meets them in the desert, and after Moses tells him the story of their escape Jethro is “delighted to hear about all the good things the Lord had done for Israel” (Ex 18:9). Delighted.
Which brings me back to “otherization,” defined as making a person, group, etc. alien. It’s the ideology that causes Donald Trump to say all Mexicans are rapists and criminals. It’s what convinces ISIS to kill indiscriminately, because they are the truest believers and everyone else, even the Muslims who are the majority of victims in terror attacks, deserves to die. It’s what allows Americans to shrug off the fact that U.S.-led airstrikes have killed nearly 200 Syrian civilians in the last two months.
So when I read that God hardened the heart of Pharaoh, brought plagues on the nation of Egypt culminating in the killing of every first-born because of Pharaoh’s hardened heart, the Israelites plundered the Egyptians as they left and finally an army of people drowned in the Red Sea I have to pause at the word delight. I find myself more in the camp of the terrified. I see the dismissal of tragedy because those affected were less than those unaffected. The Egyptians were on the wrong side of God, the un-chosen, and because of that alone their suffering is reason for delight. I want nothing to do with that mentality.
Exodus may be known most for the Ten Commandments, but in the chapters following those Ten God issues laws and societal rules on a wide variety of subjects. We learn God is jealous, compassionate and angry at varying points. More interesting to me though, the laws provide a tool to keep the Israelite people and culture alive. There are strict laws (anyone who strikes their mother or father is to be put to death comes to mind) but overall they show a people of the time attempting a justice system. And strictness kept the people together, especially a nomadic people. There is little room for gray area when you wander the desert 4o years. But, going back to the fear instilled in God’s enemies, that same fear will keep you from sinning. Multiple times it’s stated a breaking of the laws will result in God killing or cursing you.
The Tabernacle serves as the house of God, and its dimensions are laid out here. Much more interesting to me is the ordaining of the first priests (Aaron and his sons). I encourage the curious to read it in Exodus 29, but in short it involves slaughtering a bull and two rams, a lot of blood, many specific pieces of one ram and wave offerings. Check it out.
An eye-raising moment came with Exodus 30: 15, a passage regarding atonement money paid every year to avoid God sending a plague on you. It reads, “The rich are not to give more than a half shekel and the poor are not to give less when you make the offering to the Lord to atone for your lives.” The amount is a half shekel, which when I researched it doesn’t seem like a large amount, but still the precedent set there caused the aforementioned eye raise.
Moses talks with God for 40 days, and in that time the Israelites make a golden calf and begin to worship it. It seems insane that so soon after God led them from Egypt, took the form of a pillar of fire and a great cloud, parted a sea, drowned an army, made bread and quail appear in the desert and then spoke to 70 elders in person that they would abandon God. But, to play devil’s advocate, perhaps this shows why the laws needed to be so strict, and God saw fit to make the first four of the Ten Commandments about not having any other gods before him. Maybe that’s why the punishment for breaking laws is death … otherwise the Israelites wouldn’t learn.
That’s how God seems to see it anyway. He actually tells Moses “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them” (Ex 32:10). Moses has to remind God he promised multiple times to make Israel a great nation and God relents. The number of times God needs to be persuaded to no kill a large swath of people is surprisingly high. Then Moses leaves the mountain and this happens:
25 Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. 26 So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him.
27 Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” 28 The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died.29 Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.”
30 The next day Moses said to the people, “You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.”
Seriously, read that again. Moses calls people who are “for the Lord” to kill their brothers, friends and neighbors. Then they are blessed. Then Moses says everyone has sinned and there needs to be atonement. This is after he convinced God not to kill them all. Then, in verse 35, God strikes the people with a plague. I honestly don’t know how to respond to this other than “what the” followed by a swear word.
Lessons of faith in a god greater than yourself to achieve things you didn’t think possible exist in Exodus, mainly in the form of Moses. But so to do lessons of violence against your enemies (and sometimes brothers, friends and neighbors), also exemplified by Moses. Interestingly, evidence exists that the plagues really happened, but that’s mostly ammunition for whichever side you believe anyway. For the sake of this blog I’m assuming God caused the plagues, which then poses the dilemma of belief in a God who would decimate the Egyptians and then shortly after bless the Levites for slaughtering 3000 of those he rescued, only to bring a plague on them after.
Poor them. If only they were us. Not something other.
Thank you for reading,