Introductory Remarks on the Book of Exodus
[The following is the text of a lecture delivered, in part, in LBST 111 at Malaspina University-College (now Vancouver Island University) by Ian Johnston, in September 1999. This text is in the public domain, released September 1999]
For comments or questions, please contact Ian Johnston
In dealing with the narrative of Exodus, we are looking at a story which plays, for many people in North America, an important role in their attitudes to modern religious beliefs, and it is often difficult to disentangle those attitudes from what we might consider a strictly literary interpretation (that is, treating the story as a found narrative, without recourse to speculations about what various later ages have made of it or how religious systems endorsing this story in various ways have affected our own lives). Obviously, any reader who has had a deep and lasting experience of Judaism or Christianity (for better or worse) and who has had to deal with this story as a central part of his or her education will respond to it in a way very different from a student who is coming to the text for the first time.
Still, the story in Exodus is so important and interesting as a narrative that we need to undertake a shared exploration of it, particularly as a great epic tale holding up a very special vision of experience. As I have stressed in other lectures, we may very well want to evaluate this narrative in the light of our own personal beliefs (that is, to render judgment upon it), but first we need to look at it, to wrestle with what it is saying, and to see what it has to contribute to our understanding of things, keeping at bay initially our own sense of how this story has figured in our own lives (at least to the extent that we are able, since fully disassociating ourselves from our own past is impossible).
In this lecture, I wish to explore in very general terms what Exodus offers as a vision of experience. How does this narrative picture human life? How does it define the good life for human beings (i.e., that life which we should strive to live in order most fully to fulfill our humanity? How does it define our most important relationships (to the divine, to the earth, to our neighbours, to strangers, to ourselves)? In looking at these questions, I want as much as possible to avoid entering into a discussion of what later cultures have made out of this narrative (although I shall mention some points in passing).
It is not uncommon for modern students initially to react to this story (or to some details in it) with strongly negative criticism, puzzlement, incomprehension, or disgust. I would like us all to hold any such reactions in check until such time as we have a better sense, not just of what the people in this narrative do, but of why they do it. By way of making our journey to this goal easier, I shall begin by comparing some of the obvious features of Exodus to some of the most obvious features of other books we have read or will be reading, especially to Gilgamesh and the Odyssey.
Some Obvious Initial Comparative Observations
We donít have to read very far in Exodus in order to sense that we are dealing here, as in Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, with a thoroughly fatalistic vision of life. By that I mean (as Iíve mentioned in other lectures) that these people view the condition of the world and the possibilities for human life within it as in the hands of a higher omnipotent and immortal power. The conditions of life are set, and thereís little that human beings can do to change that fact. Where human beings are free in all these texts is in the attitudes they take towards the given conditions of life (not that these attitudes are the same, by any means). But that freedom does not include the ability to change anything significant about the nature of the world, which is controlled and supervised by divine power.
All three of these stories feature long journeys through some exotic places, adventures in which certain characters are tested and from which they learn important things about themselves and the life they ought to lead. Odysseus and Gilgamesh are not the same people at the end of their stories that they are at the beginning. They both have ventured away from home in order to return with a renewed sense of the importance of home and the relatively lower priority of individual heroic assertiveness away from home (in the wilderness or at war). Their journeys bring them into contact with divine powers (friendly and hostile) and from these encounters with the divine and with the wilderness (which in these two stories are often closely associated) they learn restraint. They learn to define the good life in terms of the civilized life of the human community in Uruk and Ithaka.
The journey in Exodus also involves a continual testing of the human spirit against the conditions of life, and, as in the other two stories, there is a strong emphasis on the need to learn to adjust oneís desires to fit the realities established by the divine. For the good life is not just any life at all, certainly not just any life that human beings may choose for themselves. It is a very specific form of conduct which (like any form of life) does not fully answer all the desires human beings may bring to experience. Nor is it self-evident or easy: it must be learned and chosen and maintained strenuously.
But this last point of comparison should immediately bring up a key difference between Exodus and the other two books, namely, that in Exodus the emphasis throughout is on the community of the Israelites. What matters here is their shared experience and what they learn together, as a community. This emphasis is quite unlike the stress placed in the Odyssey and Gilgamesh upon the experience of the single extraordinary hero, the highest role model, the man who manifests the most excellent form of human conduct. The Book of Exodus, if you like, is about a people; whereas the other epic stories are about only the greatest members of the human community. In fact, there is a strong sense in those two stories (Gilgamesh and the Odyssey) that the only thing that really matters is the transformation of the single heroic individual, the leader of the community. In Exodus what is at stake is the survival of the Israelite community as a result of what the members of the community themselves do or fail to do.
A second really important difference emerging from this cursory comparison is that Exodus is not about coming home again but about finding a new home, a place that doesnít exist until the Israelites succeed in creating it. Both Gilgamesh and Odysseus come to learn about the importance of existing communities, a given and traditional way of life. Both stories begin and end in the same place: the home at Ithaka or the walls of Uruk. But the Israelites are moving into a new future away from their immediate past; they are creating something that does not exist and has never existed. Their purpose is not to rediscover what is most valuable about their civilizationís ways; it is rather to discover and establish the values of a new nation. This, as we shall see, is a crucial difference (which has had enormously significant ramifications for future generations).
Iím going to come back to this last point in much more detail later on. But for the moment, Iíd like to set it aside momentarily, in order to consider what should be the most startling and obvious difference between Exodus and these other stories: the nature of the divine.
God in Exodus
The most extraordinary difference between Exodus and the other two epics I have been discussing concerns the nature of the God of the Israelites. To many readers unfamiliar with the specific details of Exodus, the introduction to this deity can come as a considerable shock (especially to those who too easily assume that the God of the Old Testament somehow merges easily with Jesus of the New Testament). Without seeking to make any sort of evaluation of God (which we should initially hold in check until we have got the facts of the text straight), let me list some of the more important characteristics of this deity as revealed in Exodus:
First (and most significantly), He is alone and male. He acknowledges no other Gods, has no partners or associates, and, as He says, is fiercely jealous of anyoneís belief in anyone but Himself. We know from Genesis that this God is all-powerful, omniscient, and responsible for all creation. Thus, we cannot (and this point is crucial) explain away conflict or evil in the natural world around us as the result of some divine quarrel between rival deities (the standard explanation in pagan Greek mythology for pain, suffering, or disaster). Whatever happens to us comes directly from one source: God Himself.
This God is also mysterious and irrational. He does not explain his deeper purposes to human beings. He acts for his own reasons and does not invite human beings to share any overall grand design (if there is one). Hence, God in Exodus is above human scrutiny. It is certainly quite inappropriate for human beings to seek to measure and evaluate God by their own human standards. God is clearly above and beyond all that. It is possible occasionally for a spiritually gifted individual to talk to God, even to argue with God. And that may have some effect; it may not. Human beings are not privy to what makes God act the way He does.
Thatís why readers who insist that they find God in Exodus irrational, unkind, mysterious, inefficient, cruel or whatever are rather missing the point. To impose such judgments on God is to bring to bear on Him a vision of belief which this story does not support. It may indeed be the case that, by our standards, all those judgments are true. But if we enter imaginatively into the heart of the vision here, we recognize that such judgments are merely human responses to something entirely beyond human understanding. We may not understand why God hardens Pharaohís heart so often, but it is not for us to understand God or to measure Him by our standards but to acknowledge His power and to worship Him. We may ultimately decide that we are not ready so easily to cast off human values, but in order to understand the vision here, we should not impose such judgments too quickly. We need to see clearly that for the Israelites God is beyond their understanding, he does not answer to modern human evaluative criteria (like reasonableness, fairness, kindness, tolerance, and so on).
If we can do that, then we might find reading this book raises some interesting questions for us. Suppose this vision of the divine were true? What would that do to our faith in the human values of reasonableness, tolerance, gender equality, and so on? How would we defend these against a very different vision? What basis do we have for claiming that any of these values are closer to a vision of the nature of the world than what Exodus offers? If we say that people who believe in a God like this are naively led into a corrupting vision, how do we respond to an Israelite who accuses us of the same thing? That doesnít mean that we have to be morally relativistic about this book and concede that if people believe it, it must be all right and above criticism. But it does mean that we have to be a good deal more intelligent and thoughtful about dealing with things in this vision which we find unacceptable. Trying to neutralize a vision of experience with a modern slogan (like human rights) may be consoling, but itís no adequate answer. After all, the value of an encounter with Exodus comes, not from quickly neutralizing its power by dismissing this vision of God, but by imaginatively entering into the vision and seeing what that does to our own understanding. Then, we can prepare to declare our judgment on it.
[Parenthetically, I observe that many first time readers of Exodus seem to have particular difficulty with Godís treatment of Pharaoh. I invite all students going thorough this difficulty to ponder the following question: Why is God hardening our hearts against the Natives in their quest for their own nationhood? Why cannot we do for them what we expect Pharaoh to do for the Israelites? I donít think this question can be fobbed off simply with the statement that the situations are entirely different because the Natives are not leaving the country, whereas the Israelites want to leave Egypt. What evidence do we have that we are not precisely in Pharaohís position?]
Second, this God has no form. His physicality is expressly denied. He refuses to give Moses any hints whatsoever (ďI am that I amĒ) and never manifests himself as a physical shape. The Israelites are forbidden to make any representation of Him. The sight of Godís presence is unendurable to human vision (and hence beyond human powers of description). This, in fact, is one of the most marked differences between the divine in Exodus and in Greek mythology (where the extraordinary physical anthropomorphic beauty of the gods and goddesses is stressed again and again). His outstanding attribute is his power and, in his interactions with human beings, his voice. And when God speaks, human beings had better listen, because Godís voice is almost invariably urgent, imperative, and direct. He does not speak in riddles (except about his identity), and He expects human beings to follow what he says. In fact, a great deal of Exodus is taken up with providing a written record of Godís words, the various rules he has (through Moses) established for human beings to live by. This, of course, is a major difference between Exodus and Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, where there is no emphasis on writing at all, and there are no written divine instructions about anything. And none of the gods ever bothers with anything so mundane as a book or a carved tablet.
Itís worth noting in this connection the remarkable lack in Exodus of external descriptions of objects or people, as if the prohibition against images of God also encourages a profound distrust of visual appearance. We do not find in Exodus, as we do occasionally in Gilgamesh and frequently in the Odyssey, passages celebrating the physical beauty of people, places, or objects. The most extensive descriptions in Exodus concerning objects are blueprints for making them, that is, instructions guiding a process which will bring the object into existence (i.e., on action to create rather than contemplation to enjoy). Here, in other words, the process of carrying out an action that leads to a product is much more important than any description of that product, so that what matters is adhering to the letter of the instructions rather than the beauty of what is finally produced (just as the way people act in response to Godís instructions is much more important than how they look). As we shall see (if there is time) this emphasis has led to profound effects in how this text encourages people to think about and look at the world.
Third, this God lives apart from human beings and from nature. God may have created both, but he does not exist in either place. Thus, there are no overlapping identities between the divine and the human or between the divine and nature. Nature here is not divine: God may manifest part of himself at times in nature (in a burning bush or on top of Mount Sinai), but that does not confer any holy status on nature. Those just happen to be the places where He has chosen to manifest himself. There is no divinity in nature, no divine presence like Humbaba or Circe or Polyphemos. Whereas in Gilgamesh and in the Odyssey nature is infused with divinity (often in an evocatively ambiguous way), in Exodus there is no doubt that divinity exists over and above nature and will not be encountered in natural phenomena. The Israelites obviously have some difficulty with this vision of God, because they tend to relapse into nature worship (which for most cultures is much more emotionally intelligible). And one of the chief tasks Moses faces is to prevent such a relapse. The severity of the punishment inflicted on the Israelites for dancing naked around the golden calf is a measure of the strength of the temptation to return to a worship of nature.
Similarly, in Exodus no human being has any sort of divine or semi-divine status. The gap between the divine and everything else is absolute (in Gilgamesh and the Odyssey the relationship is a great deal more ambiguous, since there is a hierarchy of divine personalities, which is not precisely defined for us, and since human beings and some divinities routinely interact in physical ways, from making love to fighting each other; some human beings trace their ancestry back to particular divinities).
Finally, and most curiously, this God has a special relationship with a particular people. The Israelites are his chosen people; He has selected them over and above all other nations (the origins of this attitude are given in Genesis). But this relationship is a great deal more particular than anything similar in the Gilgamesh or the Greek epics. In those stories, particular Gods can view specific cities or people favorably and assist them (although often such a favorable attitude can change inexplicably or can be challenged by some other divinity). In Gilgamesh some of the most important divinities can even live in Uruk.
But in Exodus, God has established a very clear contract, a covenant, only with the Israelites. He will assist them, if they maintain the faith. And this assistance is again very specific: he will take them to a promised land, where they will be physically safe and economically prosperous. It may take a long time, but the promise is there. If this generation of Israelites does not live to see it realized, then their descendants will.
Exodus, in other words, holds up a very specific political-historical vision as a gift from God. This vision promises a transformed political future, a reshaping of the existing political order, if necessary through violence. This is a difference of the very greatest significance. For Exodus is not, like Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, endorsing a traditional view of life in a traditional community and focusing on what the heroic individual has to learn in order to understand the importance of those traditions. Exodus is about building a new nation, based on a new belief with an entirely new way of life. It is a politically revolutionary book, because it offers something quite new, political freedom.
What that means also is that Exodus has a very different vision of time and history than do Gilgamesh or the Odyssey. In those poems, the present world is the traditional world and the future world. There is no sense that things are going to change much. If there is any sense of change, that is far more based on a recurrent pattern, like the cyclical repetition of the seasons or the stars. Thus, in both of these pictures of the world, there is a profound sense of stasis, and this condition is endorsed by the eternal gods who preside over the permanence of things.
Exodus is very different. It sees history as having a very linear direction. God is a force for historical change, driving events forward in a linear way towards a clear goal. Things do not remain the same. In fact, the best evidence of Godís presence in the world is the transformation of the Israelitesí historical situation (this point is made explicit in Mosesís last words to his people in Deuteronomy). The fact that they were in bondage, were released, taken into the wilderness, forged into a political community, and taken to the promised land, all these events are evidence that God is keeping His promise to his chosen people, that we are on track to our final destiny, in short, that we are progressing.
The metaphor of historical progress is fundamental to the vision of life in Exodus. It helps define the relationship of human beings to God (for He is guiding our progress), but it also imposes on human beings the religious duty of working for that progress. The religious life here is thus thoroughly united with a political vision which sees all activity as part of long historical process which is going to lead to an improved lot for the Israelites. Such a sense is totally foreign to Gilgamesh or Exodus (and might encourage in some student readers a few reflections on how much they have a belief in progress and where that might have come from).
The political-historical vision in this story is, of course, the great reward the Israelites have been promised from God. They have so sense of an afterlife, no heaven and hell, and there is no sense that individuals will necessarily be economically rewarded in this life for being faithful to God. Nor will they necessarily be happy in this life. No, what they have been promised is that eventually God will lead their people to a promised land, where their descendants will be safe and prosperous. The promise here is that the future of their community will be guaranteed in this world.
Freedom in Exodus
Godís promise in Exodus, as I mention above, is a thoroughly political vision, a fusion of religious belief and political action. One of the most obvious features of the story is that it tells of the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery into a condition where they can forge their own national identity and rule themselves by their own law code. Its central concern, then, is freedom.
Now, for twentieth century North American readers, products of two hundred years of political liberalism, applying the word freedom to the political vision in Exodus might sound rather odd. After all, Exodus (and the books which immediately follow) are catalogues of rules, hundreds of very specific and binding instructions about every possible aspect of life. This doesnít sound very much like our notion of freedom, which features prominently the idea that we should be free to make our own personal decisions to live as we please.
This idea, however, is relatively new. What Exodus holds out is a much older and, in some ways, stranger vision of freedom as the right of a community of people to govern itself under its own rules, whatever those rules may be. This vision of freedom endorses the idea of self-government as a promise from God, the highest reward of the good life, as the most valuable freedom of all, the freedom of a community to express itself through government free from oppression by others.
Now, this idea is neither obvious nor particularly common. Why should it matter that people have this freedom, that being subjected to a government which is not oneís own, which one has not chosen, is essentially a denial of what is most important in life? There is no reason given here, but it is overwhelmingly clear that Exodus sees such emancipation for the Israelites as one of the highest purposes of God. Many of us find this puzzling here, as do some of the Israelites, because this freedom demands that Israelites give up whatever benefits they still enjoyed living in Egypt. They do grumble about living in the wilderness, as if to complain that Egyptian slavery is preferable to this freedom, simply because in Egypt they were better off economically. Exodus insists that such suffering for the sake of building a nation of oneís own is a test of oneís religious faith.
We may have trouble fully sympathizing with this idea, but we are all totally familiar with the demands made by various separatist groups, both inside Canada and elsewhere. Often (especially in the case of Quebec) we try to counter such separatist feelings by appeals to economic self-interest. Oneís personal freedom to do as one likes will be seriously curtailed by the achievement of political freedom to govern oneself (for the economic costs will be high). We can be puzzled by how such appeals often fall on dear ears, when people state that their freedom to rule themselves is more important to them that their economic freedom to do as they wish. We are often similarly puzzled by the enthusiasm people often show for systems of government which in our eyes are manifestly unjust (e.g., charismatic military dictatorships)--but which are their own (i.e., not imposed from outside). At the same time, however, most of us acknowledge that freedom to govern oneself is an important value, even if such self-government is going to bring (as it does for the Israelites) a much stricter life (with considerably less personal freedom).
The Mosaic Code
This question of the vision of freedom in Exodus inevitably brings up the Mosaic code, that enormous list of rules governing all aspects of life. Clearly, the political freedom the Israelites are seeking is not going to involve a great deal of personal liberty to do as one wishes. Here again we are in a world very different from that of Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, where there are relatively few rules and they are not written down. The way one lives is determined by oneís traditional unwritten values, especially as these are manifested in the most excellent human beings in the community, the warrior leaders.
A fairly common response from new readers of Exodus is a certain puzzlement in the face of these rules, combined often with an indignation about some of them (especially the ones relating to women and slaves). I have no intention here of attempting to defend any and all the instructions established by this comprehensive code. But I would like to insist that, before attacking the particulars, one looks closely at the basic principles established in this approach to political and social conduct. For the revolutionary idea here is the very principle of governing a community by such a system.
In Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, the heroic leader has considerable freedom to act has he wishes, and there are no clearly written and divinely proclaimed rules covering all possibilities. We know that the citizens of Uruk do not approve of Gilgameshís playing around with other menís wives, and we are told in the Odyssey that the gods do endorse at least one clear moral principle: the person who upsets another personís home deserves to be punished (hence, the importance of the repeated references to the revenge of Orestes). But beyond that, the rules for conduct are established by the actions of the two heroes, who, in some sense, define how one should behave through what they do, not by consulting a rule book and then obeying what is written there, but by following their own sense of what is appropriate in any situation.
In Gilgamesh and the Odyssey there is no significant attention whatsoever paid to the conduct of any human being but the heroes. Itís clear that in these communities the rules for the good life derive, most crucially, from the example of the highest role models, the most excellent human beings in the community (who are also the most powerful and rich, since power and wealth are inextricably part of the definition of excellence). So, in a sense, whatever guidance people need is provided by such role models. If one cannot life up to their high standard (and very few can), then one serves them and, in effect, guides oneís life through such service (like the swineherd). In that sense, the value systems of these two books are extremely hierarchical and aristocratic. The best aspects of life are manifested in, maintained and defined only by the very few at the top.
In Exodus, the emphasis is entirely different. This community is radically egalitarian. For the rules, which come directly from God, apply to everyone equally. It is not the case that any one person has the freedom to defy the rules or to make up his own rules or to hold himself above the rules which are binding on all. Nor is there one set of rules for the leaders and another set for the followers. The focus here is totally on binding the community together in shared code of discipline, in such a manner that will curb any tendency to individualistic assertiveness which might jeopardize the groupís sense of solidarity. The Mosaic Code is a set of religious instructions, but its political purpose is evident: to encourage (if necessary by force) a group solidarity in the face of difficult circumstances and hostile encounters with neighbours.
Significant, also, is the detail. In this system worshipping God requires attention to every detail of oneís daily life. The emphasis here is always on practical ethical concerns, that is, on all the particular features of daily behaviour (food, dress, business transactions, clothing, family interactions, and so on). Oneís religious duties are thus not something one attends to periodically, at special festivals or in certain places, nor are they something one attends to in private prayer or contemplation. They are observed in every aspect of life. One worships God by living day by day in a very particular way, scrupulously observing all His instructions in oneís practical dealings with others. Thus, the idea of the good life becomes something very clear and shared: the good life is the life lived according to Godís rules. And this does not require any detailed study of why these rules exist or any debates about whether we need to observe them or not. The only significant debates are the interpretation of the rules in particular circumstances.
Of course, we are bound to find many of the particular rules odd, perhaps repellent. But we need to remember that underneath every rule is the principle that life must be governed by shared rules. If you find a particular rule unacceptable, you might ask yourself what might happen if this rule did not exist. The rules for the treatment of slaves are harsh, but they afford something better than a total absence of rules. People are thus not free to act on their immediate emotional attitudes to others with whatever conduct they please. They are expected to follow precisely the clear rule governing that case.
What we have then is a very specific, clear, enforced system of justice. People do not have to consult their consciences or reason their way to a particular decision. There may be some question about which rule governs a particular case, but any decision must be made in the light of an interpretation of the rules which apply. Hence, this society is held together, not by oral traditions or role models or the particular decisions of a leader, but by the codified law, which everyone in the community, from leaders to the lowest farmer, is expected to obey.
The central importance of this vision of life comes out most strongly in the emphasis on writing. The most sacred object here is the written code. It is fully portable (as it has to be, because the Israelites are on the move), but because it is always present, in the middle of communal life and worship, and because it is written down, codified, there is none of the ambiguity which often exists in cultures, like that in the Odyssey, which derive their sense of how to behave from oral traditions and role models.
In comparing the books I have been referring to, one cannot but be struck by the marked difference between the leaders. Odysseys and Gilgamesh have recognizable similarities, both in terms of their physical and mental attributes and their relationship with their fellow human beings. Moses, however, is a different matter altogether.
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of Moses in Exodus. He is clearly the political leader of the Israelites, the man responsible for forging them into a nation conscious of its identity and historical destiny. But if we ask how he has come to be leader, we can only point to one reason: God has chosen him. Moses has none of the typical heroic attributes of Gilgamesh or Odysseus. He is not physically impressive (so far as we know), he has no record of heroic achievement, no divine or quasi-divine family tree, no passionate desire to assert himself (he doesnít even want the job and is the first to point out how inadequate a leader he will be). None of those customary heroic qualities matters here (oratorical skill, legendary physical prowess, a proven track record of heroic achievement); the only qualification which counts is that God has chosen him to lead, has established a contact with Moses, and has decided that He will work His will for the Israelites through Moses.
Moses has one outstanding quality: his faith in God. That is what makes him special. His relationship with God enables him to find the energy and the commitment in the face of his ďstiff-neckedĒ people to persevere. Mosesís political tactics are not particularly subtle. He is prepared to use force, punitive force, against many of his countrymen in order to impose discipline on them. He is always badgering them, organizing them to carry out essential tasks, encouraging them (usually with reference to Godís promise to them and to the evidence that God is keeping his promise). But there is no illustration here of Mosesís deceptive tactics, his cleverness at manipulating people in various ways (like Odysseus, for example). His key qualities are his faith and the energy he puts into the service of that faith.
Moses is justly celebrated as one of historyís greatest political leaders, a nation builder. He derives his greatness from his faithful adherence to his God, to the promise that God has made, and from the life long energy he devotes to the task, in spite of his lack of any outstanding heroic physical attributes and the extraordinarily difficult circumstances he and his people face.
He becomes the leader because God has chosen him. We are given no reason for the choice (unless we see in the killing of an Egyptian a reason, but thereís no suggestion that we should do so). Like all of Godís actions the choice of Moses is apparently arbitrary. His heroic stature thus is not like that of Gilgamesh or Odysseus who, in a sense, are favored by the gods because they are already exceptional people (in appearance, ancestry, and personal abilities). This difference, too, is significant. The political value of a member of the community emerges from Godís selection of him or her, not from any particular achievement or power. Hence, this vision of life does not endorse any hierarchical notion of aristocratic excellence. All the Israelites are, in a sense, equal. Leaders are chosen by God, as required, to serve His commitment to the political future of His chosen people. They are not derived from a particular class in society. Their material condition is irrelevant. What matters is their relationship to God.
Exodus as a Belief System
Given the above remarks, we should now turn to the following question: What does such a vision of world provide? How does it satisfy certain basic human requirements? Is there something here of value which we might like to think about in comparison with our own beliefs (even if we are not ready to abandon those)? All of these questions can be summed up in the single question: Why would people ever believe such a vision of the world?
Well, think about some of the advantages this belief system confers. It identifies the political success of our community, our nation, with the will of God. It encourages us to see all suffering and hard times as tests of our faith, as necessary stages on the long road to political freedom. It encourages group solidarity and conformity in the face of all misfortunes. If we keep the faith, we shall prevail. God took us out of Egypt; He kept His promise. He will deliver us to the promised land.
Itís worth remembering at this point that the Jewish people, for whom this story is absolutely central to their vision of the world, have been systematically and randomly persecuted for over two thousand years. They have no only survived, but in a sense prevailed, and formed their own nation in 1947. Without a belief system like this, it is easy to see how they might not have made it.
This story also holds up the ideal of a human community of equals under the law. The laws may be strict, but they apply to all. There is no room in this ethos for the heroic individual assertiveness characteristic of the Greek vision of experience. All such desires must be subordinated to the survival of the community, just as individuals must be prepared to suffer and sacrifice themselves, not for their own glory, but for the political future of the Israelite people. As citizens in a country which encourages us all to be fiercely competitive in many aspects of life, we may find such an emphasis foreign; we may even claim that it is unworkable. Well, history suggests otherwise. The way of life held out for us in Exodus has always been alive as a communal ideal, a dream of community, something in marked contrast to the individualism fostered by Gilgamesh and the Odyssey.
This dream has found concrete realization most obviously in the Jewish communities all over the world throughout the history of that people. But it has also profoundly influenced many Christians who incorporated this story into their religion. So we have had communities of the monastic orders, agricultural religious communes (like the Hutterites and the Amish), and even secular communities based on a similar idea given a rational rather than a religious footing. In many respects, the best ideals of communism emerge clearly enough from the vision in the Book of Exodus.
This book also insists upon the importance of just dealings between people, that is, the importance of the law. It insists that the good life is the life which observes the shared rules. That sets a high ethical standard on everyone. The purpose of life is not to acquire things which will set one apart from oneís neighbour by whatever means are at hand. The purpose of life is to be honest, fair, open, and just in oneís dealings with others. Not surprisingly, those very Jewish communities which were persecuted for being different were often at the same time praised for their strong emphasis on ethical behaviour (something which the Romans, among others, always admired about the Jews).
If we want to be somewhat more speculative, we might want to explore the influence of the historical vision in this text, especially its influence on Western thinking generally about our historical destiny. If you have never wondered about what it is that has made the Western way of life (as developed in Europe and North America) so spectacularly successfully in extending itself throughout the world, you might want to think about the link between this text and our desire for aggressive expansion. For what has made the Western world the most successful imperialist power in history is not just that we developed the technology of weapons and trade. Other countries, like China, had done the same. What the West had, however, was a belief in historical destiny. In extending our power out into the wilderness, we are acting under a religious imperative, we are carrying out the will of God.
In the vision given in this book, we can also see some of the roots of another feature of our Western life, our aggressive willingness to shove other people out of the way, if they stand between us an what we perceive of our historical destiny. The extermination policies adopted towards the North American natives one hundred and fifty years ago justified themselves explicitly with the language and vision of Exodus. And one can see why. There is much violence in Exodus, and it is, in many cases, justified by the need to sustain the progressive march towards the promised land.
The same aggressive stance emerges in our attitudes to nature, manipulating it to suit our own purposes. Seeing nature as a hostile test of our faith, an enemy to be overcome, has played a key role in the history of Canada. Without that attitude, it is unlikely many of our ancestors would have had the heroic fortitude to make a life for themselves as homesteaders on the prairies. It takes a spiritual determination of the highest order to do that. At the same time, such an attitude to nature has no room for seeing in the forests, waters, trees, and plains divinities which might be beautiful in their own right, which might make demands on us, or might, like Humbaba, cry out for vengeance.
Most of us do not use an explicitly religious language any more to describe and justify our treatment of others and of nature (although our immediate ancestors who were pioneers certainly did). But that does not mean we are not still working on our inheritance from the Book of Exodus. For a faith in progress and a belief that we have a duty to carry our progress out into all reaches of the world and out into space so as to come closer to some final goal like World Peace or a New World Order has clear roots in the Book of Exodus, which establishes that promises of a linear direction to history: we are going somewhere and will reach a final utopia if we just keep the faith.
Another inheritance from this book that continues to have a profound influence on all of us is the insistence on writing. The life of the community must be based upon a written code of laws. This may make our communal rules a good deal more rigid than the flexible system derived from traditional role models and heroic assertiveness, but it provides for something that is very clear and, most important of all, something permanent. A written record can hold together the community if it should ever scatter, come into difficult times. With the central code of our culture expressed in words written in a book (of which there are many copies), we are not nearly so vulnerable to the loss of our culture as is a people whose connection with their past is only a strong as the memory of the older inhabitants. We in the West, under the influence of this story (among others) have derived enormous continuing strength through the permanency of our grasp of the past and present. We cannot say the same about many aboriginal cultures which lost their traditions when no one was around any longer to remember them.
How are we to judge all of this? I donít propose to do that. But I would invite each of you to think hard about the vision of life in this text, to come to some understanding of what such a belief system entails and why it has endured for so long. Then, and only then, I believe, one is in a position to think through some ways in which it might be deficient or might need serious qualification. That process I encourage you to undertake in the seminar discussions which follow.