Sunday, 22 November 2015

Letter to Miriam (Exodus 15)

Dear Miriam,

I am taking it you were with Moses and the Israelites when they sang a song exalting the Lord for what he had done to the Egyptians.

It is obviously a song of praise mixed with a telling of your people’s story. I find it a hard song of praise to connect with.

You are praising God for his anger against another group of people and for taking the lives of others. Yes, they were oppressors and they were your supposed enemies but they were still people made in the image of God.

In verse seven it talks about God unleashing his burning anger and that is something I can sort of get. I have no doubt God looks at the world at the moment seeing all the pain and senseless killing in it and is both angry and sad. Yet, as I say you are also celebrating violence and the destruction of others.

I could dwell on this but will not. I have recently read the Christmas Sermon on Peace which Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in 1967 and I think that says far more about where my concerns lie than I could.

What I want to enquire about is you and your status. Verse 20 describes you as a prophetess. What exactly did that mean in your context? You are also described as Aaron’s sister but we also know you to be Moses’. Is it the fact you grew up around Aaron which made you identified in that way?

You appear to have the role of leading the women. Was this because yours was a segregated society? Did you, as an Israelite, have a role Moses’ wife ,who was partly foreign, could not?

How did the men relate to you? Were you married and did you have a position of leadership higher than your husband or were you single?

Again you are a figure who seems significant but we seem to know relatively little about.

Then there is the wandering without water. Were you scared? Did people turn on you as well as Moses?

I know a lot of questions but you raise them in my mind and as so often the text can’t answer them.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Letter to a Chariot Driver (Exodus 14)

Dear Chariot Driver,

You are representative of the ordinary service personnel who suffer and die when rulers order you into an action which may be futile. Yet you also represent how ordinary people may be motivated into the actions they are because of fear and the desire to exact revenge too.

I am assuming you had a child or children or brothers or sisters. You had suffered loss and pain over a sustained period of time due to the acts of Pharaoh and God hardening his heart. You would have been in a state of anger and fear I suspect and so we can understand why you may have wished to exact revenge on those who you believed had caused you so much suffering.

I suspect that there would have been a sense of relief you were rid of the Israelites and the suffering which had been caused as Pharaoh would not let them go. Yet, I also imagine that you may have had feelings of hate against them which I cannot imagine or understand which came out of the suffering you had endured.

As I say you were also being ordered into action by the Pharaoh and other senior officials. It would have been almost impossible for you not to comply to these orders.

When the cloud came down as you were in the water what was it like? I imagine the horror must have been unimaginable, with the horses panicking and the noise which would have been generated as people sought not to avoid one another but couldn’t as the wheels got clogged and the screams as people died, even before the waters came over.

You wanted to escape but you were not given the chance. You died in the water in what must have been a horrific event, seeing the events of your life come before you.

I cannot understand your situation or the actions your people took with regard to keeping and abusing slaves, just as I cannot understand much of the horror in the world today.

As I read this living in a situation where people around the world are still dying in violence which is so often rooted in revenge and fear and the acts of those who are seeking to exploit those feelings in others I have to pause.

I have been taught to see the Egyptians who were keeping the Israelites in fear as “the baddies” and the Israelites being led by Moses into freedom as “the goodies”. The truth is in this situation there were too many ordinary people, who are innocent, suffering as victims on sides all. The narrative of the Old Testament is not as I have been taught to read it.

It is complicated, just as the current situation in the Middle East is. The Palestinians are suffering and need their freedom, but at the same time many ordinary Israelis are too.

This part of Exodus has taught me very much to question see things more widely and to identify how far too many people are dying or living with pain, bereavement and injury – leading to fear and a desire for revenge. To reduce things to “the oppressed” and “the oppressor” is too simplistic, just as I think my engagement with the bible (on a non-academic level) has been. 

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Letter to Moses (Exodus 10 - 13)

Dear Moses,

I am writing this short letter asking simply how did you cope with the horror which was going on around you?

I am angry God kept hardening Pharaoh’s heart and that more people had to die. I really don’t know if it was the only way that freedom was possible. If so I struggle to understand that.

I hope in some ways this is a narrative put together to explain history, but don’t know if it was. I struggle with this passage deeply.

I could go through the different plagues and festivals but I feel that is not appropriate. I want to know how God’s will could be the slaughter of innocent children.

People tend to try and explain it away saying it was cultural, or it was necessary. I don’t believe the slaughter of the innocents could have been necessary and I don’t believe a God of love would choose to do this.

I am writing to you struggling with what kind of God I worship. If this is true that God did kill in this manner does it mean that mean he still justifies violence which takes place in his name? If he does I cannot worship this God, yet he is not the God I know and so I have to question this account.

The only thing I can take from this is that I come from a nation who has to take responsibility in our past for acts of barbarity and violence too. Perhaps this is another group seeking to explain the worst parts of their history too, where in the complexity of trying to obtain freedom they had to undertake acts of atrocity. 

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Letter to Official (Who Took His Cattle & Slaves Inside) (Exodus 9)

Dear Official Who Took Their Cattle & Slaves Inside,

I write to you with intrigue and a mixture of feelings. You were a slave owner, somebody who kept a system of oppression in place and benefitted from the extreme suffering of others. Yet at the same time you were a human being who had the same choices as many to make in terms of whether you lived within the status quo and the norms and values of your context or not.  

You were an official of Pharaoh and by that I take it you were some kind of advisor to him during this crisis. In terms of how God hardened his heart I am wondering if it was done through some hard line advisors who kept pushing for the most extreme action. It seems from this chapter that a split was emerging between you officials in terms of how you felt about it all. People such as yourself seem to be on one side, perhaps urging the more passive approach whilst others seem to be much more hard-line.

What happened once the Israelite livestock survived and the Egyptian livestock had died? Whilst it is not stated I would imagine in that situation, where the Israelites were slaves that their livestock would have been taken from them. If it wasn’t was it through fear, or did somebody try that and then the livestock died?

What did you think when Moses and Aaron took the soot from the kiln? Were they viewed as magicians and sorcerers themselves? I get the feeling they were which is why Pharaoh seems to have produced his own. I cannot imagine the scene of horror which the boils were creating. How did it feel for you? Was the screaming induced almost as bad as the physical pain? Was this the point you started fearing the Lord, or had it occurred earlier?

I find it interesting in this situation that my holy book says “the boils afflicted the magicians as well as the Egyptians”. What ethnic group did the magicians come from? Were they Israelites or from some other nation? This is something I had not picked up before, that they were not your own people. Did they initially come to serve the court as entertainers but were viewed as having other powers too?

When you heard the Lord tell you that he had let you live what did you think? Did it confuse you? I am confused by the Lord throughout this whole thing because it seems just as those of you advising Pharaoh to let the Egyptians go the Lord hardens his heart. As I say earlier I am not sure if this was done via a set of hard-line advisors. That’s the thing which makes sense to me, that there was somebody coming up with some really nasty stuff about the consequences of letting them go which changed his mind. Yet, the Lord was behind that and the messes with my head.

The hardening of hearts caused untold suffering to people on both sides of this, slavery continued for longer as well as the Egyptians going through more suffering. Why? I cannot think of rational explanations.

With the hail thing I find it interesting that God seems to be exploiting the divisions between you officials by giving you the warning and seeing who would listen and who would not. Did he do this to measure the overall feeling in court and see how many people, such as yourself, would listen and how many were still hard-liners? If so I can see the logic.
Yet it is something else which makes me angry and makes me question how a loving God could do this when it caused human and animal death, including the death of slaves.

You and your family were safe, because you had listened and taken everybody inside and sought to save as much as you could. I wonder through this experience did you seek to treat your slaves at home differently? Did you start to ask them about their God and their traditions? Were you scared of them and what they might do to you and your family? I also wonder if you sent as many as possible back to Goshen. Was that like the townships were in South Africa? Was it a short distance away, like a suburb, and the slaves came in from there each day to you? Yet, Egypt is a vast land and it could not have been like that everywhere unless Goshen was a term for ghetto and each town had one. I wonder if that was the case. It would make sense to me.

You must have felt some kind of relief for taking the right action. It must also have strengthened your resolve to argue the case to Pharaoh for letting the slaves go. I wonder if that is why Pharaoh then says he will let the people go.

I wonder why Moses, who appears to be speaking and doing the work in this narrative, which is clearly different to the one where Aaron is the main orator says you do not really believe. Is it because yours seemed to be a belief of convenience based on fear created by the confusion and pain of the events rather than a real fear based on a conscious choice to believe? I find that interesting. That God demands that our belief and awe/ fear of him to be out of a freely made choice rather than a knee jerk reaction to our experience. Was there some custom linked to the Wheat harvest that you were planning for which indicated that you were not ready to follow Israelite customs and so still following your own gods rather than fearing God? I ask because the mention of what crops had and hadn’t been destroyed, in brackets seems rather random.

I notice that after the hail stops the hearts of Pharaoh and the officials, such as yourself, hardens but on this occasion it is not the Lord who appears to be hardening the heart. Does this mean that once the crisis was over the hardliners who remained amongst the officials gave a strong case which seemed convincing to most of you? What was it that made your own heart harden? Was it the economic case or what? Too often the hardening of hearts comes from fear and I wonder what was said to make you scared again?

This letter to you has been longer than most I write, I guess it is unconsciously allowing me to speak to those leaders in my own world whose decisions I cannot understand. It is also because yours is another story which seems vital to understanding the bigger picture yet which is not fully recorded. The image included is one I found on a wall in the city I live in and photographed. It seems to describe part of what is going on in your context and so I am not going to explain it, rather I leave it to speak for itself.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Letter to Aaron (Exodus 8)

Dear Aaron,

I am getting more interested in you and your story as Exodus continues. I had always thought it was Moses staff being used and you were just the voice who Moses spoke through, but I am realising I was wrong.

You are described in an earlier chapter as a “prophet”, somebody in your own right who is speaking and acting against power to give the message of God. We too often condemn you to being “Moses brother”. This identifying people by their relationship to another rather than in their own right is a common mistake in our society. You remind us there is so much more to the other and their story is vitally important too.

As I read about you I am intrigued about how you were able to do some of the things you did. For example how did you gain access to Pharaoh in the first place? How come you were not put under arrest, or more probably killed for your actions? Then there is the question of how you were able to get to the different rivers and canals to put your staff over them? Did you have to travel all over the country in disguise?

I ask these questions being aware that two versions of this story are interwoven and that there are questions over your existence. Personally I think that you were real and that you acted against the state in order to free your people. I think that the stories of the plagues do describe events which happened at the same time as you were involved in your freedom fighting.

I think it is particularly interesting that your story highlights the overlap between freedom fighting and terrorism. If we look at it in a modern context you would have been viewed as a terrorist. God through you was causing massive disruption in the land. These actions were of a sort which today would be described as environmental terrorist acts. I wonder if that was why Pharaoh’s heart hardened, did he get to the stage where he realised that things needed to change but then think if they did he would be giving in to you? Or was it he realised the implications on the economy and his great civilisation he let you go? I am not sure, but I think the hardening of the heart may be able to be looked at in these terms.

Your story actually reminds me a lot of what I know about South Africa and the ANC actions there. That gives a different question, did the response of the authorities always harden against your people too? We know initially that was what happened but did it happen after each plague too?

How did you cope with the disappointment of thinking on several occasions, this was it you had gained freedom, but then having Pharaoh change his mind? I cannot imagine what that was like for you. How much did you let Elisheba know about what was happening? Did she and the boys have to go into hiding? I am imagining that Goshen was tightly controlled by the Egyptians.

What were your feelings towards Moses? He seems to have your total trust, how was that gained? As you can tell I have lots of questions for you because you intrigue me the more I read about you.

In terms of what you teach me I guess a large part of it is that of having courage to speak out against injustice. I am not in your situation and so am not called to engage in acts against the state. I am not called to speak truth to power like you were either, but I do know there are still injustices in my society which God does call me as a Christian to speak out on. Whilst he does raise up prophets such as yourself many more of us are called to follow the example of the prophet in resisting unjust authorities and speaking up for the marginalised and speaking out against injustice. 

Letter to Elisheba (Exodus 6 & 7)

Dear Elisheba,

You were Aaron’s wife, a woman who would face disruption in your life to as your husband took the role of prophet and Moses’s spokesman.

I wonder how you felt about everything going on. I am taking it that you would have been suffering like everybody else in your community. Were you ostracised by those who blamed your wider family for bringing suffering upon them or did they try and use you to speak reason to the brothers?

How was Moses viewed by you? Did you worry about the influence he appeared to have over Aaron? Did you and your husband have to accept that Moses was acting on God’s word and not completely mad? Were you and your husband amongst those who refused to believe Moses originally? These are questions the text raises for me but which it does not have answers to.

I wonder if heritage and genealogy was the thing which was used to persuade you that you had little choice or that Moses wasn’t crazy. I guess the family stories passed down and you knew them well, especially as the boy’s mother was also their great aunt and so she would have had a link to that previous generation too.

Was Jochebed still alive when all this was going on? If she was did she use the story of Moses’ survival as a baby during that slaughter of the innocents as evidence that God was really with him?

You obviously had four sons to think about too. Did you both decide to follow Moses because of a fear of what would happen to them and a desperation that something had to change so they had hope of a better future?

Did Moses tell Aaron that he was going to harden Pharaoh’s heart? It seems to me that your husband got a lot of the raw deal on what was going on. He was the one who was charged on speaking truth to power but was only the intermediary, having to trust Moses completely.

The dynamic is something I find really interesting and is something I will explore further in a letter to your husband I am sure.

How did you feel about Moses speech defect? Was stammering or whatever faltering would be most fully translated as in our day and age common or was it judged as a sign of weakness? Was it something used to mock by yourselves? I can imagine the children doing impressions of Uncle Moses which you probably had to tell them off for or were they too well behaved for that?

What was going on in your head on that day when Aaron headed off with Moses to see Pharaoh? Did you know what was going on or was it hidden from you to some extent?

What was it like when Aaron got home and told you about the staff turning into a snake and the others having their staff’s turn into snakes too but his eating them up. Did it scare you even more? I think it would have me as this was clearly getting into the world of the supernatural and in your pre-modern society there would have been even more myths around such actions than we have today.

Then there was the blood in the Nile, that would have been really scary and I guess your people would have suffered doubly too. Did it mean that you did not have water and had to dig the wells for the Egyptians?

As you can tell I have lots of questions for you. They relate in part to the fact the narrative focuses on the main events but do not look at the impact of you as women. Yours is in many ways a hidden history. Yet, I think it is an important history because we have so much to learn about how to relate to and support the families of those who lead in whatever capacity. Having the stories of women such as yourself would help us as it would having the stories of men who supported women who lead and having the stories of children and so on.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Letter to an Overseer (Exodus 5)

Dear Overseer,

Pharaoh put you in a terrible position where you ended up suffering most. I am guessing you were not popular with your own people, possibly being seen as collaborators of some kind by having the overseer positions. Certainly I am guessing many resented the way in which you sought to pass on the orders of the slave drivers. At the same time you got beaten most severely for not managing the impossible.

As I read, and whilst I know there can be no real comparison my mind strayed to thinking about those employed in benefit offices and so on. Where you had the straw taken away and people were punished for not managing they are forced to sanction people who find it increasingly difficult as the safety net is taken away from their clients in the name of austerity. At the same time their own working conditions are being subject to cuts and they cannot spend the time they used to supporting clients.  

Both you and they were the in between people, the people most in touch with the suffering whilst being the same people forced to implement the new regime.  

I am interested in what the meeting with Pharaoh was like and how it was secured. In many ways it seems to have been like a deputation from a modern day trade union. How did you secure this meeting? Was it that there were slave drivers who weren’t so tyrannical that you managed to build up relationship with, did you have a sympathetic ear in the palace or was it that the slave drivers were being punished to and so wanted you to go in and explain?

Today in our culture when the trade unions go in they too are not being listened to. Indeed they are being punished through a range of ways some ways talked about are legislative and some are based on the government putting unreasonable conditions on starting talks with them whilst seeking to portray them as the baddies who won’t come to the table. As I say I know it is different in many ways but it is what your story brings to my mind and I think part of the role of the bible is to make us sensitive to what is going on around us today by jogging our minds and helping us to make these loose connections about who the modern day people in similar positions would be.

When you went to see Moses and complained he was making it worse for you I wonder what that was like. Were some of your number talking about attacking him physically or was it just a plea being made to him to go away and stop getting involved?

Your story suggests that you were people of good intellect and able to put your case forward well, even if you were not able to win. I am guessing that brains rather than brawn is how you were chosen for the role of overseers. I also wonder now whether rather than collaborators you were somehow seen as community leaders of some kind. You were able to get the ear of people who perhaps ordinary members of your community could not.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Letter to Zipporah (Exodus 3 & 4)

Dear Zipporah,

I guess that people would expect me to write to Moses regarding these two chapters but I want to think about it from your point of view as the wife of somebody who has been called.

I want to start with the end of chapter four where the Lord comes to Moses and tries to kill him and so you cut off your son’s foreskin and touch Moses feet with it.

My view of this incident has always been wtf….why? But having read through Genesis first I can understand this a little bit more. In doing this you were making it clear that both you and Moses son were going to be living by Israelite rather than Midianite customs. You move from the tribe of Midian where your father was a priest into the tribe of Levi which Moses was part of through this action. Quite why you had to touch Moses with the foreskin I don’t get, but you obvious thought this was important. I am not sure if it would have been a cultural action too.

In order to stop the Lord killing Moses you had to intervene and show your loyalty. I think this may have been a test for you, the Lord may have been checking whether you were going to be able to handle what Moses was being called into.

I say this as the wife of a trainee Methodist presbyter who has not been called in the dramatic way Moses has and is not likely to have to do the sort of things Moses did, but still has been called into a life which involves turning everything upside down. The following of that call depends not just on the one who is called but also their partner. Whilst I do not intend to be a “clergy spouse” of the type many think of I have had to change my life as a result of my husband’s calling, just as you were.

In terms of that call and encounter with God it is clear that you got it and understood. What was it like when Moses came home and described it all to you? I can imagine him stammering it out with lots of hesitations and asking you if you thought he was mad. You knew him and knew his strengths and weaknesses were. I guess that when God got a bit mad with him for using the speech issue it would have hit very deep with Moses. I get the feeling that it would have been something he knew was a weaknesses and he was just trying to be reasonable with God. Your role would have been to reassure him.

When my own husband was called I found the calling of your husband and indirectly yourself useful. You see when God called Moses we know he was calling somebody who didn’t have a perfect past and may not have been the one who people might have initially thought of. You were somebody who supported him knowing him faults and all and knowing that you were potentially somebody who wouldn’t fit in, as a Midianite.

My husband is a bit different too. He is a trans man amongst other things & I am certainly not your typical potential ministers wife, (not that I really think the typical exists beyond stereotypes). We are the type of people who might genuinely ask God if he has made a mistake or is he sure he doesn't want somebody who fits in with the Christian ideal that many people have a little more.

Whilst not called to go out and do what Moses did or anything near it we do feel we are on this journey because God has called him to give up his own comfort to work alongside others, particularly the marginalised. At the same time there may be situations where he is called to speak the truth to power in order to improve the situation of the marginalised. This is scary, but God is opening up ways for him to be trained in this, which might surprise people.

I know I said yesterday some stories need to be left and read as just that. However, others can be connected with on a personal level. These chapters connect with me in a way which is specific and clear. I am called to support my husband just as you were called to support yours because God has called them to turn our lives upside down for his glory and work and to help others.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Letter to Pharaoh's Daughter (Exodus 2)

Dear Pharaoh’s Daughter,

I wonder how old you were when you went down to the river. I am assuming you were not old enough to be married and perhaps had the naivety of youth about you.

You knew that your attendants had to obey you, even if it might bring them into conflict with your father.

What did you think of your father’s orders to kill the Hebrew babies? It seems you took the opportunity to save Moses although it would have involved some risk on your part. I am guessing when Moses sister arrived on the scene and offered to find a nurse for you that you probably worked out what the score was. Yet, you went along with this happily. Did it make you feel good that you were doing the right thing?

At what age did you take Joseph in? Were you married by that point or did you have to explain it all to your father? Did he accept Moses into your family because you were his daughter or because there came a point where he realised he did wrong?

When you heard Moses had committed murder and run away did that bring out xenophobic feelings in your father? Did you have to deal with a lot of “I told you so”?

Were there people who kept you informed or not though? Did you know when he got married to Zipporah?

How did you personally feel about the slavery of the Egyptians? Did you understand it and condone it?

As I read it and wonder what my response should be there is an obvious moral lesson about looking after people in danger. However, I wonder if sometimes rather than looking for the moral meaning or echo in everything whether it is sometimes better to read parts of the bible and let them be. To just hear the story and not automatically be seeking to draw out the application.

I think the bible should teach us and application is important but sometimes we should just absorb the story and let it be as that, an interesting narrative.