Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of three articles. The first article, written by Bob Mesle, is Exodus: Does God have the Right to Kill Innocent People?. The second, written Rabbi Bradley Artson, is The Exodus Invites Us All.
The Story of Exodus
Retelling Stories for the sake of Justice and Love
by C. Robert (Bob) Mesle
I am grateful to Rabbi Artson for his reply to my reflections on the Exodus. My reflections are in Exodus: Does have the Right to Kill Innocent People? His response is in The Exodus Invites Us All. This is my response to his response.
I agree with Rabbi Artson that the story of the Exodus is a metaphor, and not literal history, so I agree that no actual people were harmed or killed in the making of this story. Does that mean that no actual people were liberated in the making of this story? Well, of course we know that millions of people have found liberation as a result of this story, but that is a different matter. It is not impossible that once there were some slaves in Egypt who found their way out and started new lives in Palestine. But that is different from affirming the literal historical truth of the story of the Exodus. Rabbi Artson wisely teaches us not to ruin perfectly good metaphors by insisting that we take them literally. I would presume that most Jews (and Christians) have taken the Exodus literally, but Rabbi Artson is working to draw them to a higher mountain from which to view the promised land of love and justice.
Two obvious parallels for Christians come to mind: the crucifixion and the resurrection. Many Christians are able to affirm that the resurrection is a metaphor and that no actual person was resurrected in the making of the story. It can still stand with other great metaphors of rebirth—like the metaphor of reincarnation. While it does seem clear that Jesus was a historical person who literally was crucified, I am among those who insist that no actual God was unable or unwilling to fully love us unless that crucifixion happened. In that sense, the story of the Passion of the atonement on the cross is a metaphor, not literal history.
Perhaps some Jews think that denying the literal truth of the Exodus destroys Judaism, just as many Christians insist that denying the literal atonement destroys Christianity. Rabbi Artson and I do not.
Having said all that, I’m not fully comforted by the Rabbi’s approach. It is precisely the metaphor, the story, of the Exodus which troubles me. Metaphors like these provide ethical role models. Within the story of the Exodus God does kill the innocent. Likewise, within the Christian story of the atonement on the cross God is said to be unwilling to fully love or forgive us unless the innocent Jesus suffers and dies horribly.
On these matters I learn from my father, who taught me to do theology by asking: Is that what a truly loving God would be like? Is that what a truly loving God would be doing in the world? These questions are equally important whether they are about a literal God who exists and loves us, or are about a metaphor regarding the nature of human love even in the absence of such a loving God.
With my father’s questions in mind, I want to stand up and loudly affirm that a truly loving God would not kill, or demand the deaths of, innocent people in order get glory for “Himself.” Neither should we. On these matters I’m confident that the Rabbi and I stand together.
Nevertheless, Rabbi Artson and I have slightly different approaches to scripture and tradition. I confess myself to be not very poetic. I’m more literal. So I tend to have a conversation something like this. It's a conversation with the story of Exodus, and a character in the story - God - who kills innocent people.
Story: God killed a lot of innocent children.
Bob: That’s terrible. A loving God would not do such a terrible thing. You have some nice features, story, but on this central matter I stand forth and disagree with you.
Story: Why are you so literal, Bob? Can’t you work with a metaphor? What is my big message?
Bob: Well, your main message seems to be that a God of love and justice (or people of love and justice) must be on the side of the poor and oppressed.
Story: Very good. So, why do you think I’m so stupid I would just contradict my own main message? Why not think more deeply? Give it a try.
Bob: Well, maybe you are assuming that I’m smart enough to play around with you. You are provoking me to imagine how an Egyptian woman like Jihan might feel, or slip her and others into the “mixed multitude” that left Egypt in Exodus 12:38 as the Rabbi does.
Story: Good. Now you are showing a little imagination. Practice that. Work with me.
Bob: Well, maybe we could add a chapter where Jihan speaks to Yahweh. She might say something like: “Yahweh, I AM. I’m hearing stories about you, that you are going to kill all the first born in Egypt. Our village has lots of very nice, decent, oldest children. They’re a pain in the butt sometimes with how they boss you around and stuff, but they don’t deserve to die just because Pharaoh is an idiot. I stand here and ask you what kind of God you are. Are you on the side of the poor and oppressed or not? Because I promise you I’m as poor and oppressed as they come. Speak up. I can’t hear you.” After she says this, God might say: "It’s not my fault. Moses thinks I’m doing all this stuff, but I’m not. Moses thinks I’m hardening Pharaoh’s heart so the suffering can go on. But I’m not. I’m on everyone’s side. I’m urging Pharaoh to be compassionate and open-hearted and to let ALL the slaves go free. It’s not my fault if Moses thinks I’m only on his side. I keep trying to tell him, but he just can’t seem to hear that part of my message.”
Story: Good. Now you are making progress.
Bob: Okay. But still, you are the story you are, and I don’t like a lot of what you say, whoever wrote you. I’ll keep working on this, but here is another big concern. People interpret you to be saying that God is all powerful, that God can just do all this big magic. And that is a big part of the problem.
Story: Well, then, tell a new story about power. Don’t blame me if the people who told me were stuck thinking of God as being a giant King in the sky. Tell a better story, and I’ll support you.
Bob: Ok. Now, life is complicated. The story of the Exodus, whatever it’s problems, has inspired some great events of liberation. This is where the nature of power becomes urgent. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., both intentionally put innocent people at risk, knowing it was very likely that innocent people, even children, would suffer and die as a result of their leadership choices. But neither Gandhi nor King was an omnipotent God who could have achieved liberation without actually walking through the valley of suffering. For them, in their situations, the only path to liberation led through suffering because they lacked any other power that would do the job. But they were not powerless. They were full of relational power.
So, once again, I return to the central process relational theme that people have traditionally misconceived the nature of power—both divine and human. It is the doctrine of divine unilateral omnipotence which creates the ethical problems in these stories. If we remove that terribly distorted vision of divine (or human) power as unilateral and controlling, and replace it with a vision of power as relational and persuasive, these metaphors take on new lives, with completely different ethical messages. Do you think, story, that you might retell yourself in this way?
Story: I can't change myself. They've inscribed me in texts. But you and others can do so. That's the good news. We call it midrash. It's expanding upon the text by reading between the lines and adding new lines. You process people can do it!
And we are. Jesus, Jazz and Buddhism has many essays, sermons, and stories exploring and celebrating the concept of relational power. I invite you to read Rabbi Artson’s essay, God Almighty? No Way! Coming to Know the God We Already Love, Patricia Farmer’s delightful essay, Fat Soul Theology, my essay, Relational Power, and the many other essays in JJB which address the concept of relational power, and see how that changes all of these discussions.
For now, don’t force metaphors into a literal box, and always read them through the eyes of love, even if that means being willing to challenge them, or retell them.