Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

BIBLE: Exodus (Wilderness)

In the first half of Exodus we find the Hebrews living in bondage in Egypt; in the second half they wander around in the wilderness.  They’re free from bondage to the Egyptians but they’re far from being free from trouble.  In fact, their troubles are just beginning.  They find out that obligations and responsibilities come with freedom.  And they learn the hard way, through personal experience.  Is freedom worth it?  Many of them don’t think so.  They want to turn around and go back to Egypt.  At least they had food and security there.  In the wilderness they constantly worry about where their next meal is coming from.  They worry about finding water.  They worry about thieves and hostile tribes.  It seems like a hopeless struggle and yet somehow Moses holds them together as a people and leads them to the Promised Land.  Sort of.  Moses never actually makes it the whole way.  Neither do the vast majority of the Hebrews who originally left Egypt.  It was their sons and daughters who inherit the Promised Land.  So what lessons can the modern reader draw from this story?  One way is to draw from our experience of modern American life.  Viewed from this perspective readers may conclude that God wants us to move away from big cities and live in the suburbs.  God wants the Ten Commandments posted in public buildings.  God wants the U.S. to support Israel.  This would be a rather limited view of the text.  A better way to read Exodus might be to draw lessons from other Great Books and not from the limited experience of a modern American.  For example, in Notes from the Underground we find this passage: I’m not anyone’s slave: now I’m here but I shall be gone soon and you won’t see me again.  I can shake it all off and be a different man.  But you; why you’re a slave from the very start.  Yes, a slave!  You give away everything.  All your freedom.  And even if one day you should want to break your chains, you won’t be able to: you’ll only get yourself more and more entangled in them.  The chain of slavery that Dostoevsky is speaking about is prostitution and the prostitute’s name is Lisa.  Lisa has become a prostitute so she can live in relative comfort.  She has a warm place to stay (which is very important during Russia’s bitterly cold winters); she has plenty of food; she has security.  What she doesn’t have is her freedom.  How is that different from the Hebrews living in Egypt?  Or take this passage from Aristotle’s Politics: those who are in a position which places them above toil have stewards who attend to their households while they occupy themselves with philosophy or with politics… How can the Hebrews possibly “occupy themselves with philosophy” when they’re busy making bricks for Pharaoh?  Who has time for philosophy?  They’re too busy being slaves.  In another section Aristotle asks: …is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature? There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.  From this passage the Hebrews might conclude that they’ve been marked out for subjection from the hour of their birth.  The sooner they accept it, the better.  But the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has a different vision for the Hebrew people.  You’re not slaves, He says.  Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself.  Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.  A kingdom of priests.  An holy nation.  This is a very different vision than Pharaoh’s or Aristotle’s.  Many questions remain: Why Moses?  Why the Hebrews?  The Lord said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiffnecked people.  How is being stiffnecked different from having a hardened heart like Pharaoh?  God only knows; not Pharaoh or Aristotle. 


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