We’re covering a lot of material this week including the last half of Genesis and the first half of Exodus. After God makes a Covenant with Abraham in Genesis chapter 12, we read about Abraham and Sarah’s descendants including their son Isaac who had twin boys with Rebekah: Jacob and Esau.
Jacob and Esau were quarreling brothers, each with poor character flaws. Esau was the firstborn so he would have been the family’s patriarch when Isaac died, but Jacob tricked his brother and father into making him the heir to the family estate (See Genesis chapter 25 & 27). Jacob’s name means “heel” or “trickster”. He wasn’t a great guy.
But we read an interesting story in Genesis 32:22-32 about Jacob. In the middle of the night Jacob meets a stranger and they wrestle and fight. Its not explicit who this man first, but later it seems that this person is an angel or a messenger from God or perhaps, God himself. At the end of the wrestling match the man changes Jacobs name. He says you’ll no longer be called “Trickster”, instead your name will be “Israel” which means, “Wrestles with God”. This is the name that the descendants of Abraham will take for their national name, Israel. Their name will be very appropriate. Over the course of the Old Testament, these people will struggle with God in myriad ways.
After Jacob has 12 sons, a famine strikes the land and the 12 sons of Jacob settle in Egypt (Genesis 47:27-28). The descendants of Abraham live in Egypt for generations and grow into a large people, but as foreigners in the land, they eventually become enslaved by the Egyptians and brutally oppressed (Exodus 1:8-14).
The Egyptians were cruel to the Hebrews. And eventually their cruelty turned to murder. Out of fear that the Hebrew people might grow too big and overthrow the Egyptians, Pharaoh ordered any newborn male babies to be killed. Exodus chapter 1 tells a heroic story of two women Schiphora and Puah who lied to Pharaoh to save the lives of many Hebrew babies. While the Bible prohibits us from lying and encourages us to tell the truth, these midwives are held up as heroes for deceiving Pharaoh for the purpose of saving lives.
For thousands of years, the Jews have remembered the story of the Exodus through the traditions of the holiday of Passover. The “seder” meal eaten at the feast of passover is full of symbolism to tell the story of the Exodus.
At the center of a celebration of Passover is a question the eldest child asks the father of the family, “Why is this night different than any other?” The father replies, “Because once we were slaves, but now we are free.”
Its this question that defines the life of the Jewish people in the Old Testament. God has proved his love and care to the people by helping the slaves escape their oppression. The Exodus demonstrates God’s faithfulness to his covenant, his promise.
But the Exodus is also a reminder to the people that they should care about other people who are vulnerable like they were when they lived in Egypt. Look at how many times in the books of Law that God reminds the people that they were once slaves, so they should treat people from outside their tribes with kindness.
Exodus 22:21 Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.
Leviticus 19:33 When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them.
Deuteronomy 23:7 Do not despise an Edomite, for the Edomites are related to you. Do not despise an Egyptian, because you resided as foreigners in their country.
Deuteronomy 24:17 Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge.
Deuteronomy 27:19 “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”
The Exodus shows us God cares about justice. God cares about the freedom of people. God cares about “the little guy” and hates it when people bully.
But the Exodus story isn’t just a story of meaning for the Jewish people. For Christians the Exodus reminds us of oppression and freedom that was overcome by Jesus Christ. Think about communion, our own reenactment of Jesus “Last Supper” with his disciples. Do you remember why Jesus was eating supper with is friends that night? They were celebrating Passover. On a night they were remembering God saved their ancestors from slavery in Egypt, Jesus was preparing to save his people from even greater oppression. Jesus liberates us from the slavery of sin, death, and the powers of evil. How? Through his death on the cross. We often call Jesus, “the Lamb of God” because just like in the story of the Exodus, a lamb was killed and the lamb’s blood was a sign to protect the Hebrews from the death (Exodus 12:21-23), so Jesus was killed so that we might find eternal life in him. This is the significance of what we remember at communion.
There is sadly a lot of confusion about what the Bible says about slavery. In the early days of the European conquest of America, many Christians defended the institution of enslaving black Africans for labor in America. And they often used the Bible to try and justify the cruel treatment of black Africans. Even though the Exodus shows that God hates the oppression of slavery and that God is for human freedom, for a time God did tolerate certain kinds of slavery among the Hebrews but only with the promise of kind treatment. Most slaves were not to be kept for more than seven years. Slavery was very common also in the Roman world of the New Testament, and many of the first Christians were slaves. But the institution of slavery in the Roman world was much different than the very cruel practice of American Slavery.
Whenever we read the Bible for guidance, it is important to remember the repeating themes of the Bible, not to just grab individual Bible verses to justify your own behavior. For American slave holders and European slave traders, they would read certain verses in the Bible that tolerated slavery and used it for justification of slavery. But the overall theme of the Bible is that God opposes exploiting people, and God is for freedom and equality for people (Galatians 3:26-29). God liberates the captives and sets people free. Sometimes from literal slavery, but sometimes from other things that make us feel enslaved (addiction, trouble, anxiety). This week spend some time thinking about how God can set you free from the things that weigh you down.
Journaling Questions this Week:
- How have you “wrestled with God” in your life?
- During the American Civil War, many Christians in the South supported the practice of slavery. Why do you think so many Christians believed slavery was acceptable despite knowing the story of Moses and the Exodus?
- There are still many places in the world where slavery exists, but besides forced labor, what other ways are people captive/enslaved/oppressed?
- What are the things you are a slave to?