4. God promised to be with the Hebrew people in liberation from Egypt and desert wandering.
For years, I’ve been drawn to the wanderings and grumblings text in Exodus. I love it as a story all by itself. But read up against the story which immediately precedes it, It plays like absurdist drama.
Imagine growing up a slave. Your people, as far as you’ve known it, have always been slaves. Your parents and grandparents. The work is brutal, and Pharaoh is a tyrant.
Your people tell stories of a God who loves you and protects you, but you haven’t known it. Really, the idea seems an impossibility. What with Pharaoh and the gods of the Egyptians in control.
Then a Hebrew with an Egyptian name proclaims God will liberate you and your people. You laugh, of course. What an absurdity. Why would God do it now? Why would God let us be here in the first place? Pah!
But then the man warns of what will happen and it does. He warns a second time and it does. And then a third and a fourth and a fifth…
Then he’s warning you to get ready to go. To eat a special meal and be prepared to flee. So you do.
And it happens!
You’re fleeing captivity and you are away. God did what the man said God would do!
The fire and the cloud
As you gather in the wilderness, you are warned that the Egyptians won’t let you go — they’re coming!
Again, God will do this. Don’t raise your sword! Your hands must be clean.
The confusion in the dark, wondering where to go, this man and this god. How will we know?
God takes a visible form for the people to see and know presence. So you know God is with you. That God would be there howsoever God would be there: Fire at night and a cloud during the day.
So the man taps a rock and the waters part and the fire leads you across the sea. And when every last one of you is across, the waters come crashing back down and they swallow the Egyptians down into the deep.
The God revealed in a bush becomes a liberator and a savior. A god who comes without a real name but comes to ensure we know presence. That God is there and will be there.
After this amazing story of liberation, we get the inevitable backslide. The people singing and dancing at freedom quickly turn to the people grumbling about their freedom. It would be far more shocking if we didn’t know other people.
They’re thirsty, but the water they find is gross. So they threaten Moses and Moses pleads with God and God’s all that’s cool and gives them water.
They get hungry, but they have nothing to eat. So they threaten Moses and Moses pleads with God and God’s all that’s cool and gives them food.
They get thirsty again, but can’t find anything to drink. And this time they threaten to kill Moses. So Moses pleads with God and God’s all that’s cool and gives them water.
Of course, there are many more interesting elements to the story than this, but the structure is remarkable. Especially as a parent of young children.
These people have so soon forgotten their trust in God and the intense moment of liberation, that they have forgotten what it’s like to rely on God. What they did the night of the Passover. So they’re out in the desert, wandering and grumbling and complaining. In my mind, they’re complaining that the sand in this spot isn’t as good as the sand back there.
And they blame Moses and God for this. They blame them, not only for the wandering, but for their grumbling. Moses is making them be brats, throwing a tantrum. They play it off as Moses making the sand here worse than the sand back there.
So they push Moses to go to God for help. And Moses keeps going back to speak to God and each time, rather than tell the people to tough it or cry it out, God gives them what they need.
The people are grumbling about their horrible situation and God is providing for them. Their grumbles instigate and blind them: they provoke God and prevent them from seeing what God is doing.
Blind to Presence
It reminds me of the times I’ve been in church groups, only to have my presence ignored. Not that they couldn’t see me, but because they could only see their ideology placed on top of me. They were blind to my presence.
This doesn’t happen very often when I’m wearing my collar, of course. But this happened long before that.
In gatherings of Christians, I would often be the youngest one and the talk would turn to targeting young adults. I would try to contribute, but often I’d be told by people much older than myself what I’m supposed to want. But more often, It was a more blanket statement “Where are the young people?” when I was with them at the table.
Sometimes I’d raise my hand and say “I’m here.”
God is with us
The central character of faith is presence: being with. And the example of God’s being with us goes all the way back. It goes to God’s walking in the garden to be with the first humans. To find them and be in their presence.
The presence of God runs through the calling of Abraham and the promise kept to the family. It comes to Moses and Aaron, to Joshua and the judges, the kings and the leaders in Exile. And it comes to the people as they reclaim their home and approach the future.
And yet this presence keeps going. It runs through Jesus coming through a fragile birth and in a life of presence. Presence so runs through the life of Jesus, it runs through his death!
The presence comes in the eating at the table and in the Pentecost. And it keeps coming through writers and musicians and liturgists and scientists and inventors and painters and sculptors, and their works! The presence of God with them, with us, explodes out of our most creative parts of creation, when we are most like God: creating!
And God is with us as we face our future, with us together, like fire and a cloud. Only unseen because our blindness obscures it.
[This is Thesis #4 of my 31 Theses. To read them all, visit the 31 Theses introduction page.]