When Moses first left Egypt, he fled not as a prince but as a common criminal.
Or so the story goes.
Evangelicals make much of Moses’ story – that “even a murderer can find redemption and lead nations” because Gawd is the Gawd of ah Turn-ah-roooound-ah! or something. Which is true, but a limited view perhaps. I’ve supposed for a few years now that, in some sense, Moses is an extension of Joseph. The “next logical step” as it were. With Abram/Abraham, there is a question of finding God’s purpose for us and a sense of identity and “home.” Isaac, in response, settles down and “rests” in the provision/abundance that Abram had spent his life looking for. Where Abram struggles to find a place to call home, Isaac pitches his tent and doesn’t feel that same sense of restlessness. Where Abraham struggles to find meaning to his life, Isaac presents a more mature identity without much in the way of conflict. In fact, the story Isaac is most known for – his marriage to Rebekah – is itself a curious tale of passivity. He does not actively “seek” his own wife, but has his father and their family servant seek Rebekah and bring her back to the camp for the passive/lazy Isaac. Isaac is the anthesis of his father, Abram. And then we have Jacob, who is very much the antithesis of his father too. Where Isaac doesn’t actively seek a wife, and where Isaac’s life is not known as one of passion or romance, once Jacob sets his eyes on the girl Rachel, all other women pale in comparison. I have often wondered whether we misunderstand the quality of his marriage to Leah as having “dim eyes.” Were her eyes “dim” or was her light “dim” in comparison to the love Jacob held for Rachel? I feel Leah was probably “dim” in the sense that she paled in comparison to Rachel – but hey, I could be wrong. Alot of the ways that we read Scripture come from our own interests, passions, and experience. We “see” what is familiar to us, and I relate to Jacob’s inner nature in some ways.
But then again, on his deathbed, Jacob blesses his children and grandchildren freely – in counterpoise to the wrangling it took to cajole Isaac into blessing him. In numerous ways, Jacob was “the next step” in the story of God’s people. Instead of wandering, we stabilize. Instead of passivity, we wrestle for the things we desire. And then Joseph, with the irony of both blessing from the father, even God, and the struggles we find amidst our own families…. The story goes on, shifting and evolving in cycles that we can almost predict, they are so familiar, so very human. We understand where things are going with the story because we can see the movements and trends taking place, nuanced by ever-moving in a predictable trend.
Genesis has always appealed to me for these reasons. The characters are so very human, the families so very relational.
I “get it”.
I “see it.”
Whether the characters are mythical, archetypal, or historical in some sense does not matter to me as much as how very real these stories are. They’re rich and complex and heroic in the tragic frailty.
So, when we arrive in Exodus to find Moses, like Joseph, as part of a royal dynasty, we see another evolution in the story. We’re moving from “outsider, among the Egyptian royalty” to “insider, among the Egyptian royalty.” And, like Joseph, Moses’ personal dilemmas, his zeal, is the thing that undoes him. How many of us have been too passionate? Too vocal? Too zealous for our personal charge? Again, the characters are as present and real, so very human, that we cannot help but go, “Ah! Yes! Someone like me! I understand this person!” Moses is not the spoiled brat of aristocracy, he is instead a complex hero, or rather a sort of anti-hero. Part of the enemy’s family, part of the oppressive system, but when he tries to do the “right” thing, he’s a murderer. We love him, we fear him, and yet we “know” him because something like this resonates in our own lives. And in this, we still find a way to relate because he is not perfect, a pristine patriarch from the feltboards and Sunday School animatics of childhood. There is a rawness that appeals to us. A faulty humanity very much like our own.
So Moses runs away. Unlike Joseph who is exiled by force, Moses willing chooses to be forgotten. He leaves and tries to rebuild his life. He makes an attempt to reboot, to start over, to let the sands of time and distance do their work, to go from celebrity to obscurity. His journey is not that of Cheers, wanting to find a place where everybody knows his name, but the opposite – to be forgotten entirely.
Can he do this? Can we? Can any of us? Can we truly set aside what came before and forget ourselves, then build (not rebuild, but build, as though from nothing) our lives? Deep within each of us these questions linger. And given the chance, would we? Perhaps this is a more revealing question.
And yet, for all of this, I must refocus here and bring attention not to Moses, or even our lives as readers and religionists. These questions, while important, are not my point. Rather, my point is to look at one aspect of Moses’ reconstruction – economy.
For a man who was once prince of the most powerful empire of prehistory and ran away from it, we must stop to examine his second act. When Moses leads the Israelite refugees out of Egypt and into the wilderness, he quickly begins to set in motion the architecture of a new economy. This makes perfect sense, when we think about it. What would you expect from someone whose life was spent in the palace among the rulers, leaders, economists, and houses of trade? Apocryphal writings ascribe “Chief Architect” to Moses before he went into exile, so he was – as best we can understand this title – the “city planner” for Egypt-proper as well as the outer lying boroughs, and arguably the nation. However much power you ascribe to him, we tend to think of Moses in very restricted ways, as though his epiphany of the oppression of Israelites was a shock to his privileged life.
What if it wasn’t that simple?
What if Moses wasn’t just rejecting slavery as a social justice issue, as though “slavery” in and of itself was wrong, but what if he was rejecting the entire economy of Egypt.
Sit with that a moment.
What if Moses’ violence wasn’t just about the Israelites? What if he also rejected the workings of an economy built on the exploitation of another? We tend to see Moses waking up one morning, walking onto the porch of his palace, and -all of the the sudden – aware of his Israelite heritage.
And awakening to that.
And aligning with that.
And seeing himself in the oppressed peoples.
And getting angry.
One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?” The man said, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “What I did must have become known.” When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fledfrom Pharaoh and went to live in Midian, where he sat down by a well. – Ex. 2:11-15
But what if it was much broader than that? What if Moses, as an agent of an economy that knowingly used, exploited, commodified, and capitalized on forcing someone to work… simply wasn’t a way to run a country? And so he rejects slavery, yes. But he rejects slavery as one head of the hydra. Rather than slavery being the single issue, he acts violently because the entire system is flawed and he can’t bear it another moment?
By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. – Heb. 11:24
Curious, isn’t it, the way that Moses shifts his life from royal activity – whether as an architect, or diplomat, or a party hound to that of a farmer and cattleman? Exodus, ch. 2 closes with a marriage, ch. 3 opens with a new way of life.
Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness… – Ex. 3:1
I think – and I could be entirely wrong here – that part of Moses frustration was with a failing economy. In the same way that some contemporary politicians and economists are rejecting the capitalism and economic system which has failed yet continues to enslave millions of people every year, Moses wanted out. Badly. He didn’t want to contribute to a system that destroyed lives for generation after generation. It wasn’t about killing one person, or even a finger of that system with the guard. It was about overhauling the entire way of life, the entire Egyptian way of doing things.
It was about building a new economy.
Cont. in pt. III (coming soon)