Image: The Rylands Haggadah, detail, 14th century
by Mike Kreutzer
Churches have to deal, at least at times, with shortages: shortages of money, of time, of volunteers. But one shortage that they never seem to have is a shortage of people who want to give their opinion on what “somebody” in the church should be doing – not themselves of course, but somebody else, or maybe just the generic “they.”
There is, of course, good biblical precedent for that approach. A prime example is the account of God’s self-revelation to Moses in chapters 3 and 4 of Exodus.
When the story begins, Moses is taking care of his father-in-law’s sheep. At Horeb, he encounters the burning bush, from which God speaks to him. After Moses’ initial shock and fear, he would have been thrilled with God’s message (3:7-8). God has observed, heard, known, and come down to deliver the people. “Great! You go for it, God. These people have suffered for far too long. It’s time for them to be set free.” I think we can picture Moses receiving God’s announcement with great enthusiasm.
But that enthusiasm quickly disappears when God continued, “So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” “Whoa! Wait a minute! Time out, God! I thought you said that you were going to deliver the people.” “I am, but I’m going to do it through you.” “No. Unh, unh. No way. You’ve got the wrong person! Sure, maybe somebody should do it, but not I.”
For the rest of chapters 3 and 4, we have a fascinating exchange. God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh to present God’s demands; but Moses counters that he is not able to do the job. God comes back, promising to be with him, but Moses protests that the people will want to know the name of the God who sent him; so God reveals the sacred name.
Then God presents a Plan B: “Alright then, if you’re not willing to do it alone, take the elders with you.” Moses comes back again, insisting that the people still won’t believe him; so God gives him signs to perform.
Moses then protests that he is a terrible speaker, and so it would be a huge mistake to have him address Pharaoh, even if the elders are with him. God again counters: “OK. Then how about if we scrap Plans A and B and go to Plan C? Forget about you speaking to the Pharaoh. And forget about taking the elders along. What if you were to take your brother Aaron with you and let him do the talking?”
And so it goes, back and forth. The plan to set the slaves free is not God’s invention alone. It is a shared divine-human creation. God and Moses work out the plan and its details together.
Terence Fretheim (Exodus, pp. 52-3) observes: “This dialogue is theologically significant. The recognition of holiness (3:6) does not lead to passivity in the presence of God… It is Moses’ persistence that occasions a greater fullness in the divine revelation. Human questions find an openness in God and lead to fuller knowledge. God thus reveals himself, not simply at the divine initiative, but in interaction with a questioning human party. Simple deference or passivity in the presence of God would close down the revelatory possibilities.”
Among the many insights into God, ourselves, our fellow human beings, and the web of relationships that bind all of them together that Exodus presents to us is the insistence that we are somebody. When we are convinced that “Somebody ought to do this or that,” that “somebody” might just be us.
A second vital message is that God doesn’t simply present us with pre-packaged programs, ready for us simply to follow the instructions. Our role is to engage with God in an ongoing dialogue, listening attentively, but also remembering that God is listening to us. The work of God is still a divine-human endeavor.
A third reminder emerges as the story proceeds and as more and more people are brought into leadership roles in accomplishing the great work of deliverance. We are all in this together, and we need one another in our sometimes difficult journey from here to there.
As Michael Walzer (Exodus and Revolution, p. 149) observed: “What the Exodus taught: first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt. Second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land. And third, that the way to the land is through the wilderness. There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.”