In 1963, at The National Conference on Religion and Race held in Chicago, a rabbi by the name of Abraham Heschel stood up to speak,
Friends, at the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. And Moses’ words were, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let my people go.” While Pharaoh retorted, “Who’s the Lord that I should heed his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord. I will not let Israel go.” The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The Exodus began but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.
Heschel made a new friend this day, by the name of Martin Luther King. In 1965, Heschel marched with King in the Selma to Montgomery March. He recalled later that he felt as though his “legs were praying” as he walked.
The Exodus story has long been an essential part of African American worship. To the slaves in America, this story reminded them that God cares for the oppressed. It was a story that gave them hope, and their songs, prayers and sermons were filled with allusions to this story. The story was real to them, because they, too, felt the weight of oppression.
This story of deliverance from Egypt tells us that God is on the side of the oppressed and opposed to the oppressors. One of the first things we learn about the God of the Bible is that he is a creator. And the next thing we learn is that he is a deliverer. He creates life from chaos and delivers his people from oppression.
Chapter 4 of The Story begins by telling us that Joseph and all his generation had died, but the Israelites were fruitful and filled the land. When the new king saw how numerous they had become, he viewed them as a threat. In order to maintain power, he chose to enslave them. Slave masters were put over the Jewish people, oppressing them with forced labor and working them ruthlessly.
The Israelites felt forgotten. They were were God’s chosen people, chosen for greatness and blessing, but now they were a controlled people performing back-breaking work for a godless Pharoah.
But God saw their misery. He heard them crying out, and he determined to deliver them from their oppression. He sought out Moses and called him to fight for his people. Another man chosen from imperfect circumstances (he was a murderer) and given a command to be a blessing.
Moses presented himself to Pharaoh on many occasions, but no matter what signs he did or how eloquently his brother Aaron spoke, Pharaoh refused to let the people go. So God lifted his hand, and a destroyer moved through the land, killing all firstborn males, just has Pharaoh had done to the Hebrew children. Pharaoh’s sin was tumbling back upon him. The terror with which he ruled was being exerted upon his own family.
The Israelites were saved from the destroyer by slaughtering a lamb and placing its blood on their doors at night. The destroyer would see the blood and pass over their door. It was a promise to the Israelites that God would fight for them and protect them from evil. He would overcome their oppressors and free them from unjust empires.
And It was a symbol of what was to come, when God would come to us in flesh and become our Passover lamb, saving us from our oppressors and destroyers.
This last act of judgment caused Pharoah to let them go. But once they left, he changed his mind and sent his chariot and army after them. So the Lord fought for his people again by parting the Red Sea.
In ancient cultures, water was a symbol of chaos. So God, in parting this sea, was showing himself once again to be the one who both creates order from chaos and delivers his people from oppression.
The Israelites were set free. And this story would carry them through the wilderness and through future times of oppression. Much later, when the people were enslaved to another empire, Babylon, they would recite this story and remember the God that delivered them and would deliver them again.
Today, we also celebrate and remember this God who frees us from our oppressors and calls us to set others free. And we know this God in a deeper, more personal way, ever since he donned flesh and walked among us, beginning his ministry with these words to his people:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4: 18-19)
May we all walk in the way of Jesus, proclaiming good news to the poor and freedom for the prisoners. In all our ways, may we seek to embody this God who sets the oppressed free.
Rebecca Rich is married to the Discipleship Pastor, Tom Rich. She adores her two cocker spaniels and can often be found reading a book or asking questions. She blogs about life and faith at Buried Hopes.