Bartlett on the Exodus

Excerpt from Anthony Bartlett’s Seven Stories: How to Teach the Nonviolent Bible (Hopetime Press, 2017), pages 57-60.

The Exodus experience is the starting point of Bible study. It is the place where God first publicly intervenes in human history. (The creation narratives and stories of the patriarchs are written as reflections on the origins of the world and humanity, drawing on traditional ancestral and wisdom stories. They reflect important meanings but are not public historical events like the birth of a nation and its law.) The first five books of the Bible (the Torah) were knit together/edited into a final whole much later than the events described. The beginning of Exodus is a clear editorial suture and segue from the preceding Joseph story. Read Ex 1.1-8.

The Exodus as a Semiotic Shift

In each of the Seven Stories we are focusing on a semiotic shift — a step forward in the way humans understand themselves and God. Semiotics is the study of signs and their meaning. A shift is brought about by means of a set of words and a story which change the way humans think. The first semiotic shift occurs when God hears the cry of the oppressed. To focus on the change of signs and meaning recognizes that human transformation is not primarily conceptual or moral, but depends on the stories we tell and the relative value of the signs that get fixed in our minds.

There is a misconception today that we live in a rational universe in which human rights, democratic ideals, etc. are naturally inherent and have been discovered by rational human beings over the course of time (the Enlightenment). That belief finds its basis in Greek thought — the existence of the logical ideal in each mind. However, Greek thought is not the basis of human rights as we understand them today. Greek thought does not reject the idea of slavery, for example. Aristotle, a pupil of Plato, taught that some were destined to be slaves. Also Greek democracy was only for the citizens of the city state, not the peasantry, or other nations. The original “divine” principles of Greek thought are indifferent to humanity, e.g. the “First Mover.” Greek thought is more concerned with bringing order rather than justice. There have been kind, compassionate people throughout history but structurally things did not change. The understanding of the role of the gods before the Exodus — and the power of which they were signs —remained impersonal and violent. Exodus is the first major semiotic shift. Pharaoh did not hear the poor; rather the Hebrews were disgusting to the Egyptians (Gen 43.32). In Exodus the poor and oppressed (instead of the rich and powerful) are identified as the chosen people of the God proclaimed by Moses. For this God to be seen as on the side of the downtrodden there has to be new human meaning, because it is so foreign to the way humans think. It is a radical change in perception which can only be brought about by some kind of dramatic intervention and by the story and language which carries it in people’s minds.

God moves in history and his interest is personal on behalf of the oppressed. The text makes this very clear: Read Ex 1.8-14. The Israelites are oppressed.

Read Ex 2.23-25. “God heard their groaning . . . remembered his covenant . . . looked upon the Israelites . . . took notice. . . .”

Read Ex 3.7-9. “. . . observed the misery . . . heard their cry . . . know their sufferings . . . cry has come to me . . . seen how the Egyptians oppress. . . .”

This is a new/transformational language that is personal, relational. No God before has expressed solidarity with human suffering in this way.

Giving of the Law

Exodus is also the first time a change in the way God is understood is written down and codified as law.

Read Ex 23.1-9. “. . . You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” The character of the Law is based on the lived experience of the Hebrews — because they were oppressed and set free by God, they should not oppress others.

The Law was given to an oppressed people without roots or powerful group coherence — to give them an identity, a belief system, a way of understanding themselves in relation to their God. They are given a personal relationship with a God of justice. The Law gives identity and worth to all those who have not had these things. The poor and the oppressed are never again to be forgotten.

Nevertheless the Revelation is Incomplete

The Exodus transformation in our understanding of God’s work in the world remains incomplete. The Hebrews were still living in a world constructed on generative violence. This means that mimetic violence and events of foundational violence still controlled human culture. If one is totally immersed in that world it is very difficult to see things differently, to break free of the paradigm. Achieving a sense of justice was the first step, something completely new — but only half the change. Foundational violence is still evident in the text.

Read Ex 12.1-13 then 12.29-32 (the killing of the firstborn followed by sending away of the Israelites).
Read Ex 14.26-29 (the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea).
Read Ex 15.1-10 (the Song of Moses. “. . . Yahweh is a warrior . . . Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he has cast into the sea. . . .”).

Looking at these texts, how did the Hebrews perceive their God? How is the God who liberates them described? How does he bring about liberation?

These texts assert that Israel’s God is supreme, but acts through violence.

This picture is also contained in the Psalms where God is on the side of the victim, and avenger of the righteous. Read Pss 11, 52, 64, 94.

The cry for vindication can easily become the cry for revenge. Read Nah 3.1-9 (against Nineveh) & Ob 10-16 (against Edom).

The Law’s justice also includes reciprocal violence. For example, Ex. 21.29-30 (if an ox kills someone then the ox and owner must be killed). This acts as a deterrent to breaking the law — a fear of retributive violence. It also attempts to be commensurate, not excessive. Nevertheless, it remains the effect of generative violence.

A Nonviolent Read of the Ten Plagues

This reciprocity is at work in the death of the first born, the ultimate violent act of God to free the Hebrews. How can we reconcile the story with a nonviolent God? The answer lies in how the Exodus Hebrews produced an interpretation of real events. The Bible reveals as much about us as it does about God. If we explain the narrative of the ten plagues as a cultural lens by which those who told the story saw God then it becomes simply a layer of text which points beyond itself. The ten plagues can be explained from a factual point of view: natural events which are then constructed as divine violence.

For example, the Ten Plagues theory of Dr John Marr (epidemiologist) and Curtis Malloy (medical researcher) understands the plagues as a series of closely linked natural events.


The Ten Plagues

  1. Rivers of blood: dinoflagellate microorganisms are capable of turning rivers blood-red — then releasing toxins which attack fish leaving them bleeding and helpless.
  2. Plague of frogs: lack of oxygen forces frogs to escape from the water, but then out of the water they die.
  3. Plague of lice: midge-like creatures breed in the dust, cause louse-like irritation and transmit viruses that can kill livestock in hours.
  4. Swarm of flies: resulting from dead fish/frogs/animals.
  5. Sickness of livestock: possibly the result of stable fly which carries bacterial infection which also causes . . .
  6. Boils on man and beast.
  7. Hail: not uncommon in Middle East.
  8. Plague of locusts: still occurs in Middle East.
  9. Three days of darkness on the land: possibly a sandstorm or outbreak of Rift Valley Fever known to cause temporary blindness.
  10. Death of the First Born: resulting from attempt of the Egyptians to deal with previous plagues. A meager harvest of grain after locusts and hail is stored damp in silos, becoming a source for molds/ mycotoxins. The eldest child would receive double rations leading to increased death rates among the first born. With no visible external cause these deaths would be perceived as an act of God.

The basic point is there is a plausible natural explanation for disasters which then, in the tradition, are read as a direct effect of divine action. But it is the root change in human perspective that counts and which is the work of revelation — God is on the side of the oppressed and is creating a new people based in this relationship.

The Egyptian Perspective

From a Girardian-anthropological point of view, the Egyptians could also see the plagues as caused by a cursed people who actually had to be expelled (cf. Ex.11.1). Egyptian historians from the 3rd century BCE in fact report this viewpoint — the Exodus Hebrews were diseased and expelled. (See The Bible, Violence and the Sacred, by James G. Williams.)

The Hebrews fleeing Egypt perceive that God is on their side in terms of generative violence, while the Egyptians see the same events based on the same generative violence, but in terms of a cursed group. Both parties interpret the events according to the default human frame of meaning. Nevertheless, in the overall Biblical narrative something amazing is happening: a God of human transformation is being revealed. From the anthropological perspective the Exodus picture of divine violence is an interpretation of natural events, but the underlying truth is God’s intervention on behalf of a group of oppressed people, laying the foundation of a transformative divine and human journey. This is the true work of the Biblical God, changing our human perspective progressively and continually, including our perception of God as violent. In the following cycle we will see how the book of Genesis prefaces the book of Exodus with a profound critique of human violence. So, a deeper change of meaning (semiotic shift) is already set up in the Bible text before we even get to read Exodus! In our next lesson we will see how Jesus reinterprets the Law, reading its radical intent, and teaches us the full revelation of a God of nonviolence.

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