Here is one of the greatest stories ever told. The voice is ancient and comes to us from around 2700 to 2500 years ago. It is in fact the voice of a collective—a Hebrew religious caste known as the Levites—though tradition likes to imagine that the author is one single person and that person is none other than the historical Moses.
The voice says to us, down through the ages:
“A wandering Aramean was my [Hebrew] ancestor. He went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us by imposing hard labor upon us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors. The LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and the LORD brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
This is essentially the creation story of the Israelite people.
It is one of the greatest stories ever told.
Now, speaking personally, I didn’t grow up in church, so the first time this story dawned upon my consciousness was not in a pew and not in a Sunday school class. It was at my Baba’s house in Edmonton Alberta, close to Eastertime, in the 1970s, back when I was something like eight years old. Dinner was over, I had put on my jammies, Baba had put on her pink polyester nightgown, and we were down in the basement where the TV was–a huge piece of furniture in those days. We were on the couch. I sat down in her lap, and her face was shiny with Oil of Olay, and I could smell that sweet smell as I nestled into her softness. Lawrence Welk was just finishing up in an explosion of tiny bubbles, and at that point Dido got up to go to bed—he was an “early to sleep, early to rise” kind of guy—but Baba and I stayed put in the TV room because Baba wanted to watch something called The Ten Commandments with its star Charlton Heston. When she spoke of Charlton Heston, I caught something in her tone that was strange to my eight year old mind, but it’s not strange to me now, she loooved Charlton Heston….
OK, so The Ten Commandments is on, it’s unfolding before me scene by scene—the baby Moses found in a basket on the Nile river by Pharaoh’s daughter; the adult Moses as a Prince of Egypt; the time when, as a Prince, he kills a guard abusing one of the Israelite slaves; when he realizes that he is in fact an Israelite; when he’s dragged before his Pharoah father in chains; when he’s banished to the wilderness by his brother Ramses (played by the awesome Yul Brynner); when he encounters God in the burning bush and is called to liberate his people … on and on and on … all these scenes unfolding before the eyes of this eight year old … and let’s not forget the soundtrack: duh duh duh duh, duh DAH DAH DAH DAH!!
And then that scene, after the ten plagues, after the flight from Egypt, when the Israelites find themselves at the Red Sea, and the Egyptian army is hot on their heels, led by Ramses, and there is no apparent way for them to cross that vast expanse of water, so they are between a rock and a hard place, but Moses holds out his arms and lifts up his staff and the waters part (duh duh duh duh, duh DAH DAH DAH DAH!!) and the Hebrews surge forward and the day is saved and I thought to myself O MY GOD what IS this? This is COOL! THIS is a story.
One of the greatest stories ever told.
And not just in my eight-year-old self’s opinion, or that of Judaism and Jews worldwide. It’s religion writer Bruce Feiler’s argument too in his book entitled America’s Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America. A fascinating read, tracing the history of the impact of the biblical narrative of the Israelites on twenty generations of Americans and their leaders.
Starting with the Pilgrims who left England in 1620 bound for the freedom of America, describing themselves as the chosen people fleeing their version of pharaoh, King James. “On the Atlantic,” Bruce Feiler writes, “they proclaimed their journey to be as vital as ‘Moses and the Israelites when they went out of Egypt.’ And when they got to Cape Cod, they thanked God for letting them pass through their fiery Red Sea.” The Biblical narrative gave the Pilgrims not only language for what they were doing, but logic, justification. “The only reason they could have done that,” says historian Tim Safford—one of many of Bruce Feiler’s interviewees—“The only reason they could have done that is because they had a narrative larger than their own lives. A narrative of God delivers me through the Red Sea. A narrative that if you’re lost in exile, you can still remain holy. A narrative of life is stronger than death, love is more powerful than hate. If you do not have a narrative larger than the world gives you, you’re just going to get sucked up by the world.” That’s Tim Safford.
The Pilgrims were just not going to allow themselves to get sucked up by the world.
Neither were the Africans whose lives had been stolen from them, who had been forced into slavery, and their families’ lives were not their own. In the face of this absolute oppression and trauma, they indeed needed a narrative of life stronger than death and love more powerful than hate.
So here is the incredible Harriet Tubman—one of the code songs she would sing for the Underground Railroad, whose very last stop before slaves could find freedom in Canada was in our very own Lakewood, Ohio. Harriet Tubman, singing
When Israel was in Egypt’s land,
let my people go;
oppressed so hard they could not stand,
let my people go.
Go down, Moses,
way down in Egypt land,
tell old Pharaoh,
to let my people go.
This story, one of the greatest, has become a touchpoint for so many people and times in our nation’s history. For Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. For leaders of the civil rights movement like Martin Luther King Jr. They and so many others needed a narrative larger than their own lives, given to them by the Bible; and though the story was thousands of years old, about people long dead and gone, oppression itself is not long dead and gone, and neither is the thirst for liberation in every human heart. Today, we can find the Egypt that the Bible spoke about in our American system of racism and White Supremacy, in our system of radical economic inequality, in our system of exploiting the earth’s resources resulting in devastating climate change and the extinction of species after species. And on and on.
Ancient Egypt is very much around today.
Therefore we do need a narrative larger than the one the world gives. Exactly because it is the narrative of a life stronger than death and a love stronger than hate.
Maybe this explains something that poet Muriel Rukeyser once said, which is entirely unscientific but absolutely true: “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”
That is, the universe, nations and people like you and me can be made whole again—by the right story.
In our remaining time together, I want to go deeper into this greatest story ever told, and I will be sure to apply the three Bible interpretation principles that scholar Marcus Borg talks about in his Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, the companion book to this year-long sermon series.
Principle #1: It’s never “God says”; it’s always “humans say.” You just can’t open your Bible and go, “Let’s see what God says about that.” No. The Bible is a record of humans in quest for meaning and truth in life, humans striving for love and justice yet always creatures of their day, always limited by this. We take what the Bible says very seriously but not slavishly; we don’t want to make it yet another Pharaoh in our lives!
Second principle: Look to the past. As Bible readers we will miss so much of the meaning if we are not aware of historical context. As Marcus Borg likes to say: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Gotta know the history to truly understand.
Finally the third principle: Don’t allow the Bible to stay stuck in the past. And don’t indulge in a reverse fundamentalism that practices Biblical literalism but only with the intention to dismiss whatever scholarship or science says can’t be literally true. Instead, go deeper. Read it as poetry, read it as metaphor, read it as myth that conveys psychological and spiritual truth. Don’t cut it out. Do something different.
These are the interpretive principles: and now let’s get to work.
We begin with what history and scholarship and science have to say. Frankly it’s not pretty.
Something happened in the thirteenth century BCE. The book of Exodus tells us that six hundred thousand Israelite men plus women and children left Egypt—presumably a total of two to three million people. That’s not a small thing. Leaves a HUGE footprint. Yet to this date, no archaeological evidence has ever been found. No contemporaneous writings from the ancient Near East—nothing outside the Bible—makes even a passing mention of it.
Definitely nothing from Egypt, which is really strange. As Jonathan Kirsch in his book Moses: A Life puts it, quite ironically, “The ancient Egyptians, who were compulsive chroniclers of their own rich history, somehow failed to notice the presence or the absence of a couple of million Israelite slaves, the afflictions of the Ten Plagues, the plague that took the life of every firstborn child on a single night, of the miraculous events of the Red Sea.” That is just strange. It is no wonder that even the most pious scholar who chooses to honestly grapple with this fact can come away with a most unpleasant feeling of uncertainty.
What really happened three thousand plus years ago?
And then there are the miracles. Did those really happen? Just think of the list of plagues Moses unleashed upon Egypt: the Nile water turns to blood, frogs fill the land, gnats attack, flies attack, all Egyptian livestock die, everyone gets boils, the mother of all hailstorms wreaks havoc, locusts attack, thick darkness covers the land for three days, and then the worst: all the firstborn human children die. Now, I know and maybe you know that there are earnest people who think they have a scientific explanation for every one of these things. The Nile water, for example: some explain that it did not really turn to blood; it was just a profusion of some microorganism that made the water intensely red. But explanations like this miss the point. This Greatest Story Ever Told is premised squarely on God—God acting in a way that upsets the natural order of things. God’s mighty hand acting supernaturally.
And this is where the problem lies. Not just in terms of science, but also in terms of theology. The problem is one of consistency. Lack of consistency says something bad about God and bad about the Exodus story as a whole. Take God first. If God used to act in the world like the Bible tells us, but now no longer, despite situations of intense suffering in the centuries ever since (including the Holocaust), then God clearly plays favorites, God is abusive in God’s absence, God is a jerk.
As for the story itself: if the liberation of the Israelites was possible only because of genuine bend-the-laws-of-nature miracles, then how can this possibly speak to us today? Today, when we don’t have the luxury of some present-day Moses wielding God-power as he strides through the halls of Congress, for example, and demands that the nonsense end: that the people responsible for the Jan. 6 insurrection are held accountable, or that our elected representatives cease from petty politics and gerrymandering and do their proper job which is to truly serve the common good of this nation.
As the Bible tells the story,, it was all duh duh duh duh, duh DAH DAH DAH DAH!! But it’s not like that today. All of this is good reason for doubting that the miracles ever happened. Again, this is not just because it goes contrary to good science. It’s also because the theological implications are unacceptable.
So, this Greatest Story Ever Told is not to be taken as literally true. Two to three million Israelites didn’t exist. Egypt was not devastated as part of the Israelite withdrawal. And there were no genuine miracles. This is the judgment of history and science and scholarship.
God is not the one telling this story. It’s people telling this story.
So why did the people—the ancient Israelites—tell it the way they did?
Maybe we can’t take the story literally in all its details, but you know, something must really have happened three thousand plus years ago to those Israelites. “Why,” asks religion writer Jonathan Kirsch, “would the chroniclers of ancient Israel make up something as ignoble as four hundred years of servitude in a foreign land unless it was a fact of their history?” And not just the fact of four hundred years of servitude. Also, how the followers of the great Moses (who liberated them from Egypt!) turned on him pretty much instantly, once they started to feel discomfort in the desert. Time and again, Moses saves them, but with every new challenge they act like he’s an idiot. He can never do enough for them. They are always dissatisfied. They KVETCH. Or they create a Golden Calf that spits in not only Moses’ eye but God’s eye!
These are deeply unfaithful moments, and they are nothing to be proud of. Yet they make their way into the narrative, and that says something.
A classic rule of Biblical interpretation puts it this way: where there’s honest disclosure of something embarrassing, you’re probably in touch with the truth.
Something must have happened. Surely it did, when you consider the spiritual and political vision of the ancient Israelites. The moment God hears his people moaning under slavery, the entire moral focus of the story becomes protesting exploitation of any and all kinds and building a society that nurtures everyone. Thirty-six times, in the Exodus narrative, the Israelites are urged to befriend the stranger, for they were themselves strangers in Egypt. The vision of social justice is paramount. Some of the laws that Moses is purported to hand down from God represent the most radical socioeconomic legislation in all of human history. For example: every forty-nine years, during what is called the Jubilee year, “all debts are to be forgiven, all debtors freed, all workers are to return to their ancestral lands, and all families split by economic hardship reunited. The message is that the land belongs to God, not humans, and nobody should benefit too greatly or suffer too greatly for their work with God’s bounty.” (Bruce Feiler)
Can you imagine a law like that here in America? What would happen if we observed it here and now? Like a hot knife through butter, it would cut through the problem of radical economic inequality…. Most likely.
Something must have happened—something transformative—to those ancient Israelites. If not duh duh duh duh, duh DAH DAH DAH DAH!! of the supernatural kind, then of a kind more natural but still amazing. Still life-changing.
And that’s what we’re looking for—the potentials for life-change—as we practice the Bible-reading principle that says, Don’t allow the Bible to stay stuck in the past. And don’t dismiss a passage if scholarship or science tells you that it can’t be literally true. Don’t cut it out. Go deeper instead. Read it as poetry, read it as metaphor, read it as myth that conveys psychological and spiritual truth. Let the Bible speak straight to your heart, like it did to that eight-year-old boy curled up in his Baba’s lap, smelling her smell of Oil of Olay, watching the scenes of The Ten Commandments unfold on the TV screen and getting it, getting the amazing message that belongs to no one time in history and to no one nation—the message that whatever oppression we may be facing, it can still be otherwise, there can still be change, there can still be a Promised Land, there can still be an 8th Principle that Unitarian Universalists unite around and act upon, to the end of sweet liberation.
Let the Bible speak. There will always be times we find ourselves at the shore of some Red Sea in life. Know what I mean? Oppression or self-oppression was pressing the life out of you, and somehow you found your way to a better place, but forces that champion that oppression are hot on your heels—so your escape is not going to be automatic or easy.
So, you are standing at the shoreline, and you are in a desperate, seemingly impossible place, and it’s just like poet Audre Lorde says: you are
seeking a now that can breed futures
like bread in our children’s mouths…
That’s what you are seeking in the face of fear and pain and chaos
a now that can breed futures
like bread in our children’s mouths….
So what are you going to do NEXT?
Maybe there is no Charlton Heston Moses spreading his handsome arms out wide…. Maybe there are no supernatural guarantees to what you are doing
You don’t know what the end of this story—YOUR STORY–is going look like
But you know how the story of the Pilgrims ended,
You know that Harriet Tubman put slaves on a path to freedom and succeeded,
You know that Abraham Lincoln helped preserve the union
And that the slaves were set free
And when Egypt reared its ugly head through the sharecropping system, Black Codes, KKK-led terror, Jim Crow, red-lining, and on and on
You know there was Civil Rights movement with all its gains,
And yet there have been more losses too, more resistance,
it is still a complicated journey…
But present complications can never take away past accomplishments.
The past stories of victory are firm.
If people could survive and thrive then, we can do it now.
It will take faith.
That’s also a lesson of the past.
It is said that the waters of the Red Sea parted
only when the people feeling burdened by the seeming impossibility of their liberation
Went ahead and stepped right into the Red Sea,
And the Red Sea water went right up to their chests
That Red Sea water went right up to their noses
The Red Sea water went right in up to their eyeballs
And then and only then
THAT’S when the waters parted…
It will take the faith of us all today,
To make whatever waters of oppression and injustice that need to part, to part.
So step into that water of the Red Sea
live this Biblical story which is larger than the one the world gives you.
Don’t allow yourself to be sucked up by the world….