Friday, 26 September 2008

The Mother of All Biblical Metaphors!

The Exodus with its elements of slavery, passover and redemption, and following this, the narrative of desert, covenant, rebellion and promised land, is one of the dominant interpretive lenses of the Bible. An immense amount of Scripture is refracted through this narrative. Not only this, it is the pivot on which the whole of the biblical story moves. Prior to it we have Genesis 1-11, outlining to us the universal predicament of human kind. God's response to this predicament is to bring redemption, and this begins with the call of Abraham and Sarah, leading (eventually) to the slavery of the people of Israel in Egypt. And then, after the Exodus and entry into the promised land, we have the settlement leading to the Exile and the Return, with the latter seen as a new Exodus in Isaiah 40-55. And let's not forget the theme of rebellion and pedagogy in the desert (Hos 11:1-4), or the flight of Elijah to the mount of God. (1Kings 19). And then there is Jesus. Think of the links between their stories: the Holy Innocents (Matt 2:16-18), his call out of Egypt (Matt 2:15), his temptations in the desert (Matt 4:1-11), the transfiguration (Lk 9:28-36), the death of Jesus at Passover (Jn 19:14) and his identity as 'the lamb of God" (Jn 1:36). And then there is the beautiful litany over the water in A Prayer Book for Australia, including,

"We give you thanks that through the waters of the Red Sea you led your people out of slavery into freedom, and brought them through the river Jordan to new life in the land of promise."

And I could think of all this without trying - just shows how much there is. And consider the influence of the Exodus on Western culture generally, with our proclivity toward freedom from slavery, and all the liberation movements sprung from the basic metaphor of the movement from slavery to liberation and life in the promised land. Not to mention the Jewish/Christian insight that the voice of the victim is the voice of God, pre-eminently shown in the crucifixion, but also in the Exodus.

As the basic metaphor of the Christian life, the story of the Exodus should be taken seriously.
For example, everyone wants to go to the promised land, but rarely do we think that we should go there via the desert. And even when we do go via the desert, we seem to think we have left there before we really have. Life in Christ does not allow us to avoid the basic structure of the movement from liberation to the promised land. This is one of the basic insights from the desert tradition of the church with its discipline and asceticism. (Literally, for many of them, in the desert. See inset, St Catherine's Monastery at the foot of one possible site for Sinai.) The desert is where we learn to rely on God, and where our desires for the 'fleshpots of Egypt' can be purged. Here we will hear the voice of God, live into the convenant and hear the call of God wooing us and preparing us for entry into the promised land.

Isn't this so much our experience now? While we have whiffs of the promised land, our life now is to be thought more a preparation for the promised land, a land we have not yet reached. (Rowan Williams spends some time on this idea of the church as preparatory for heaven in Tokens of Trust, Chapter 6, focussing on the idea of becoming familiar with the truth so that, on the day of judgment, our experience is not quite so terrifying! On the theme of not yet reaching the promised land, see Heb 11:39-40) It is important to realise this, as it can prevent misunderstanding our experience, as though because we are not continually experiencing complete and unhindered intimacy with God we are somehow losing our faith, or worse, think that there isn't really a God! Or because we question and complain at times we are somehow alien to the Christian experience. None of this is true. The desert can be hard, we can hanker after Egypt, wonder where God is, yet in the midst of this have a deep sense of God's care for us and guidance toward the promised land. And even, at some point, realise the way in which God provided for us through the desert.

[Pentecost 20(A), September 28, 2008]


  1. This is good. I remember when I first read Bernhard Anderson's Living World of the Old Testament (probably in 1975)that he begins his very in depth survey of the literature with the Exodus. This then puts the Torah into perspective.
    Much better than trying to make sense by beginning at Genesis and workign your way through to the end.

  2. But this morning I was also reading the end of Ezekiel with the return of God's glory in ch 47 on, and was struck by the pertinence of the metaphor of that book too.
    Of course I guess we should expect them to be consonant with each other (as per your previous post )