Editors's Note: This is the first of a three-part series. See also Rabbi Bradley Artson's response to this article (The Exodus Invites Us All) and Bob Mesle's response to Rabbi Artson (The Story of Exodus).
Does God have the Right
to Kill Innocent People?
A Process-Relational Response to Exodus
C. Robert (Bob) Mesle
EXODUS: GODS and KINGS, & U.S. FOREIGN POLICY
In EXODUS: GODS and KINGS Moses never says, “Let my people go.” That’s like a movie about Martin Luther King, Jr., in which he never says “We shall overcome,” or “I have a dream.” What’s the point? But Exodus: Gods and Kings is another occasion to think again about one of the central stories of the Bible.
Warning: All my quotations from the movie are from memory.
The biblical story of the Exodus is both wonderful and terrible. It is wonderful because it proclaims that a God of love and justice is on the side of the poor and the oppressed. So people of love and justice must be, too. It is terrible because the God of the Exodus doesn’t mind slaughtering innocent children, even poor and oppressed children, in the process.
With that dilemma in mind, there were some important lines in the movie Exodus: Gods and Kings. You remember that God sent ten plagues to punish Pharaoh; but the plagues affect everyone. With the plagues causing indiscriminant misery and death, Moses says to God, “This is hurting everyone. Who are you trying to punish?” Fair question.
As the 10th plague God kills all the Egyptian firstborn. Firstborn aren’t just babies. Your grandmother might have been the oldest child in her family. Even firstborn livestock die. God is thorough. But the focus is on the children. Keep in mind here that this includes Egyptian peasants who are practically slaves themselves and have absolutely no idea what is going on. They certainly share no moral responsibility for Pharaoh’s actions. So I have a lot of sympathy when the Pharaoh, Ramesses, caries his dead son to Moses and says with anger, “A God who slaughters children. What kind of fanatic would worship such a God?” That, I think, is a totally fair question, even coming from Pharaoh.
Before the slaughter of the innocents, God, who is played in this movie by a very childish young boy, practically throws a tantrum about how badly he wants to punish those Pharaohs who enslaved his people for 400 years. I get the impression I AM is more hurt by them ignoring him than by the slavery itself. But where was God for those 400 years? The Bible tells us God did nothing to help the enslaved people for those 400 years. This petulant child god tends to drive that point home. Descendants of American slaves might wonder about the same thing.
As a movie, this one was poorly written with no clear vision or goal that I could see. But it did highlight some of the “terrible” aspects of the biblical story without very effectively lifting up the wonderful side. If I’d made the movie, I would have had us fall in love with a suffering Hebrew family so we felt their longing for freedom. But I would also have us fall in love with a suffering Egyptian peasant family, perhaps the family of a soldier in the army who is about to be deployed and drowned, to make us feel the wonderful/terrible dilemma of the Exodus.
Now think back to post-9/11 America with Bush and Cheney beating the drums of war, allegedly in defense of American national security and freedoms. They sold the invasion of Iraq as an act of liberation, evoking images of the French people in WWII welcoming American troops by throwing flowers and dancing in the streets.
It wasn’t like that in Iraq. We began with a long campaign of bombing and shelling to evoke “Shock and Awe,” more or less like Yahweh in Egypt. Any thoughtful person knows that when the U.S. invades a country with “shock and awe,” we are going to end up killing a lot of innocent people, including children. The streets ran with blood. A decade later we are leaving Iraq with crops destroyed, water fouled, and family-life disrupted. This will be true no matter how hard we worked to build schools and clinics, despite the good intentions of so many well-intentioned soldiers. So, the Exodus raises powerful questions about justice and love in U.S. foreign policy. Who has the right to kill innocent children for what reasons?
What about the Victims?
In my movie review on the left, I said that the story of the Exodus is both wonderful and terrible. It is wonderful because it proclaims that God is on the side of liberation, on the side of the poor and oppressed. It is terrible because it seems that God cares about one group of oppressed people but not another.
You don’t have to be a process thinker to be troubled by the terrible side of the biblical story of the Exodus. But the process relational vision of reality does beckon us to remember the worth of all persons (and the intrinsic worth of all creatures). In the process vision of God, God shares the suffering of every person and every creature. So while Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and others have plenty of resources to call forth compassion, process thinkers certainly contribute resources which call us all to embrace an inclusive worldview and ethic.
What happens if we bring a more inclusive vision to bear on the biblical story of the Exodus, the Bible’s great story of liberation? When I ask myself how my friend Rabbi Bradley Artson would deal with this, I imagine (I didn’t ask him) that he might say that the story of the Exodus cries out for an opposing voice, a voice speaking for those oppressed by God in the story. Only then can we hear this powerful story proclaim liberation for all.
One approach I find helpful here, and elsewhere, is to imagine a mother whose family is being hurt by God’s actions in the story, and ask ourselves how the story looks to her.
So, imagine Jihan, a poor Egyptian woman in the time of Moses. Imagine Yahweh’s great act of liberation from her point of view. Like other peasants, she lives in a small village, away from the cities, scraping a meager living out of the sandy soil. Life is hard for her, but she is lucky to have three surviving children, a goat, and a cow. Fruit trees are common, and with other peasant friends she works a small piece of land where the barley crop is close to harvest. She also has a husband who has been forcibly drafted into Pharaoh’s army along with other men from her village.
One hot day all of the water in their village turns foul and bloody, killing all the fish. There is nothing with which to water the crops or livestock, and they have only a little wine in storage to drink. In two days they are burning with thirst. After that, they drink blood that stinks of dead fish. Her youngest boy becomes sick and dies. Then come frogs covering everything--in their tents and beds, under their feet, dying and rotting in the hot sun. Not surprisingly, this brings gnats as they have never seen before. The air is thick with them. Gnats get in their eyes, their noses, their mouths.
Then, when madness is almost upon them, flies come and settle on all their food. They can’t eat a bite without brushing flies off. The livestock go berserk. Perhaps the flies bring it, but a plague kills all the cattle in the village, leaving the villagers afraid to salvage the meat for fear of becoming sick themselves. Yet, sickness strikes them, too. Everyone from infant to elderly is covered with painful boils, leaving them in misery whether they stand, sit, or lie down.
Well, you get the point. With a child and cow dead, she endures hail which kills the goat, leaving them with no milk. The hail also crushes the barley. What remains of the grain and fruit is consumed by locusts. They endure the terror of darkness in midday having no idea what is causing it. And finally, every firstborn person, of every age, and even of the remaining animals, dies in the middle of the night. While their grief and bewilderment are still squeezing their hearts and throats and tears, the army is drowned in the Red Sea. Jihan, now a widow in a land with no grain, no fruit, and no livestock, must surely sit and watch her remaining child starve.
I simply cannot think of the story of the Exodus, of Yahweh’s great act of liberation of the poor and oppressed, without thinking of Jihan. How do we preach this tradition of liberation for the poor once Jihan has taken hold of our imaginations and our hearts? How do we turn to the Bible for a theology of peace when the song of Deborah and Miriam at the sea is ringing in our mind, “Yahweh is a warrior;” “Horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Ex. 15: 3, 1 NJB)
We are not the first to ask these old and difficult questions. We are not the first to imagine God weeping and grieving that terrible things are done, and terrible stories are told, in God’s name. Gandhi, for example, struggled with similar problems in the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. But he was still able to find inspiration in its greater vision.
Asking the right questions, of course, is the vital first step. I admire the Rabbis who selected the books of the Bible because they did not cut out the hard parts. If we will look with open eyes, those Rabbis force us to see the human perspectives of the biblical writers.
Sometimes we are told that “we cannot take the Bible literally.” Certainly, as Rabbi Artson has reminded me, we must not get stuck in a shallow literalism. (See Why the Bible is a Horrible Book and Worth Reading on a Regular Basis) Every good preacher knows the importance of working a text from many angles. But when people say we can’t take the Bible literally, they often mean that we must find a way to make it say something we can believe. That disturbs me. I think it is absolutely crucial that we be able to disagree with the people who wrote the Bible, or Qur’an, or Bhagavad Gita. If we can’t disagree with them we are likely to try to force them to say something we are comfortable with. In doing so we deprive them of their own voice, their own ethics, their own worldview.
What I like about the story of the Exodus is that the story itself cries out that it is incomplete, that we are leaving people out, that liberation cannot just be for “our side.” A God who is on the side of the poor and oppressed but be on the side of ALL poor and oppressed people.
In process theology God has infinite relational power, but cannot be coercively omnipotent. Process theologians insist that divine revelation is universal. God’s self-revelation is essential to the becoming of each momentary event in the infinite history of the cosmos. But God’s self-revelation is always experienced from a finite perspective in a complex context. How, then, do we poor humans ever sort out all the voices and find the divine one? For us humans, as William James said, there is no bell that rings to tell us even if we do get it right.
So, we should expect that the authors of our sacred texts faced the same problems, whether they knew it or not. We should not be surprised that they often mistook their own inner voices of anger, desire, fear, love, and hope, for a divine voice.
Yet, process relational theologians affirm that the voice of love is always there, always at work, always calling us to listen and respond. By studying the great wisdom texts of the human race, and being willing to argue with them and grapple with their limitations, we can perhaps more clearly see our own limitations of insight, and occasionally catch a vision of deeper compassion, justice, and peace.
The story of the Exodus is a great story partly because it demands that we challenge the suggestion that liberating justice and love are for some oppressed people but not for others. It is a great story because it pushes us beyond the insights of its authors.
It constantly amazes me that American Christian slave owners taught the story of the Exodus to their slaves. Or, maybe they didn’t. Maybe it just snuck out of the Bible when the white folks thought the slaves weren’t listening. For all of its problems, the Exodus is a dangerous story to tell people who hunger for freedom and justice, because it makes all oppressed people think that liberation ought to be coming for them, too. May it always be so.