Jared Witt l January 25, 2018
Read Exodus 2:23-25.
After a long time, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God gazed upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.
Now read it again, closely.
Is it what you expected?
This is, more or less, the origin story of the western and near-eastern world’s great monotheistic religions—a fact which should strike you as ironic, if you paid attention to how little it has to do with religion.
If you've listened to a lot of TV preachers, you might have expected the one great story to begin something like: “In the beginning, there were 5 or 10 religions—one that was true and officially endorsed by God and then a bunch of decoys. And it was the responsibility of every individual on Earth to choose the correct one and so go to heaven after they die.”
But that isn’t the story at all.
Instead the story begins with a group of slaves. And as slaves often do, these slaves
At no point is there any mention of their moral credentials. At no point does it say that they had passed the right doctrinal exams or completed the correct rituals. At no point does it say that they believed in the right god. In fact, it doesn’t even say that they were crying out to any god in particular. It just says that they cried out, as you would expect hurting people to do.
A quick digression on the word for “crying out.”
The type of crying out that the Israelites do here comes from the word shavah, which is sometimes translated as “shrieking” or “shrilling.” To shavah does not mean "to offer a pious and church appropriate prayer for salvation." No one among the Israelites is wearing a sanctimonious robe with hands neatly folded, praying, “We beseech thee, Oh God, Wilt thou delivereth us?…” nor is there anyone standing up front at the microphone, wearing acid washed, skinny jeans, saying, “Hey God, it's us again. We just ask that you just build just a hedge of protection around us…”
No. You don’t shavah in church.
West African people would shavah as they lay shackled head to foot, stacked as human cargo, on ships headed for the "new world."
Syrian men shavah when their city is being carpet bombed and they can’t find their wives.
Mothers in Chicago shavah when they hear gun shots outside and something inside them just knows they’ll never hear their child speak again.
And the Israelites shavah out of their slavery.
It’s important to note here that most of us, in this day and age, hopefully presume that whatever god we pray to actually gives a crap. Some people mock and protest that we’re all just praying to the ceiling, but the fact that they would have to say it in a mocking and protesting way proves the rule that “God,” in our modern idiom, is usually assumed to refer to someone who is somehow benevolent toward us.
This was not the case back in ancient times. The skies were filled with dozens, if not hundreds of gods. No one really questioned whether or not the gods were actually there, but also, no one would’ve ever presumed that any of them ever gave a crap about us humans and our little human problems. Occasionally, you could hope to curry their favor if you burned the right incense or slaughtered the right quadruped. But by and large, gods went about their day concerned with god things. And if a few humans downstairs were shavah-ing about some silly human thing, it’s whatevskies—not their problem.
But outside of this extensive pantheon of callous and self-obsessed gods, there is one very unusual god.
I purposely leave “god” in lower case here. Remember, “God” is not a proper noun. And nobody here is choosing, from a menu of world religions, which “God” is the right one for them.
In fact, this isn’t a story about religion at all.
This is a story about
some people who are suffering and the people who are making them suffer,
some victims and some victimizers,
some little people and some important people.
And it’s a story of a very unusual god, who notices their suffering, not because they burned the right incense, or because they happen to be particularly good people, or because they had read the Bible, or because they had welcomed Jesus into their hearts, or because they were born Presbyterian, or were baptized Pentecostal, or were buried Catholic.
The story simply isn't concerned with their religious status. It is concerned with one very atypical god who simply decided to save and to deliver for the simple fact that this god
and this god
and this god
and this god
Something different is going on here, because unlike every god known to every religion on the menu at the time, this god actually cares.
And it’s not at all clear that these Israelites even know that this god exists, despite a brief encounter with their ancestor Abraham hundreds of years ago, which could hardly have seemed relevant when one’s back is breaking under the weight of slavery. The thing that makes YHWH matter to the Israelites has nothing to do with being powerful, or fearsome, or holy.
All the gods are powerful. Just look at what the Egyptian gods can do, matching YHWH magic trick for magic trick in the chapters that follow.
All gods are fearsome. The vast majority of the world’s wealth, at the time, is devoted to temples and sacrifices and monuments, because of how afraid everyone is of the gods. In fact, the whole reason the Israelites are being forced to work so hard in the first place has to do with Pharaoh and the Eqyptians trying to earn the favor of their scary gods.
And it may be true that YHWH is holy, but people don't really care about that right at the moment when they are shavah-ing.
Abused and suffering people are in no position to choose the right religion or the right god. But this is a god who chooses the abused and the suffering.
This isn’t a god who saves you when you jump through the right hoops with the one officially endorsed denomination. This is a god who saves people who need saving—people who cry out. Unlike any other god, this one can’t stand it when people cry.
And so this god makes a decision to become their God, unbeknownst to them at the time. And on their story of salvation, God builds the world's story of salvation.
Did you know that that was the story?
Cheers and Peace,
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