THIS small book is the first in a new series examining pivotal moments in the Old Testament. There is no greater pivotal point in the Hebrew Scriptures than the narrative of the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 1-15), selected as the subject for the first volume in this series, nor a more appropriate author than Walter Brueggemann. No scholar has done more to enable the reader to appreciate the Hebrew Scriptures.
In the preface, Brueggemann points out that this work is not a commentary, but rather a reader’s guide book suitable for individuals or group study. Acknowledging the complexity that lies behind the completion of the material, he offers a canonical reading of the text, highlighting the pivotal moments in the narrative. His is a liberationist reading, witnessing to the God who both opposes and defeats “the powers of bondage”.
The author first examines the intolerable situation of the slaves. Having long suffered in silence, the workers suddenly voice their pain (2.23), which acts as a “wake-up call” to YHWH. What follows confirms that such a cry cannot in the end be defeated, as contemporary history has witnessed and is witnessing. So the command of Moses to Pharaoh to let my people go is “a command that lies behind every political revolution that has marked the modern world”. But the transfer of loyalty from Pharaoh to YHWH has economic consequences in the way in which society functions, as later legal material makes clear.
The decisive pivotal point is reached with the failure of Pharaoh’s magicians to mirror the plague of gnats (8.18), forcing the Egyptians, but not Pharaoh, to recognise “the finger of God”. Protracted negotiations with Pharaoh follow, in which Moses asserts that not “one hoof” will remain. For Brueggemann, this dialogue confirms the universalism of God’s love.
After the tenth plague, Pharaoh surrenders and astonishingly asks for Moses’s blessing (12.32), a request that goes unanswered; and, after the debacle of the Red Sea, Pharaoh is eliminated from the narrative.
It is not only the Hebrews but a “mixed crowd” (12.38) who depart with them which conjures up “a disordered and confused array of folks without ethnic or linguistic identity”, which explains the necessity for the comprehensive scope of YHWH’s law (12.49). Thereby, “economics is joined with theology.” Later tension between inclusiveness and exclusiveness will test the people of God. But no freedom movement — which is what Christianity at its best is — can debate who is eligible for emancipation.
Faced with the pursuing might of Pharaoh’s army, the people regret their escape. In Moses’s command, “Fear not,” another pivotal point is reached. It is a theme that runs through both Testaments. For Brueggemann, “the power of God is more than equal to the power that enslaves,” whatever form that enslavement takes. The gift of such grace can only result in praise: “The Lord will reign for ever and ever” (15.18).
Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.
Delivered out of Empire: Pivotal moments in the Book of Exodus, Part One
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