Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Leaving Egypt: Redeemed (Part One)

There's something I need to get off my chest. I'm not particularly a fan of the way the exodus is written.

It's a beautiful and moving story, full of pageantry. You want high-stakes drama? Nothing less than the freedom and even survival of the Hebrew people is at stake. Irony? God appoints an adopted son of Egypt as his agent, to confront Egypt at the height of its power. This is an epic story, one for the ages, as God of the slaves fights their oppressors and takes them down. But as storytelling goes, it's got some flaws.

Let's break it down.

In literature classes, professors will teach you that every story has four distinct stages: the introduction, the conflict, the climax and the denouement, which leads to the establishment of a new normal when the conflict is fully resolved. This is true throughout Western literature, whether you're watching a full-adrenaline movie like “The Avengers” or reading a story like “Goodman Brown,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The first stage is the introduction, in which the narrator establishes what counts as normal. In the story of the exodus, “normal” is pretty brutal. The Israelites have grown so numerous that the Egyptians have pressed them into slave labor. In fact, it's even worse than that. Fearing that the Israelites may rebel or side with the enemies of Egypt, Pharaoh has decreed that newborn Israelite boys are to be thrown into the Nile.

Next comes the conflict, which upsets the status quo. The best conflicts begin small and gradually grow in scope. This is the case in the book of Exodus, where conflict comes as a Hebrew woman named Yochavad hides her newborn son among the bullrushes, rather than let him be killed. Pharaoh's daughter finds the baby and recognizes him as a Hebrew; but rather than having him killed, she decides to adopt the boy and raise him as her own.

The boy, Moses, grows up and discovers his true heritage, and the conflict within the story grows as he does. Eventually Moses kills an Egyptian. When word gets out, he runs for his life into the desert. Out there he meets Jethro, high priest of Midian, and marries his daughter. Away from the palace life, Moses begins to tend sheep.

The climax is the pivotal part of the story. This is when the conflict comes into focus, and the protagonist must decide how to resolve it. The protagonist can do this by fighting to restore the original status quo, or by fighting to overthrow it. If the protagonist succeeds, then our story has a happy ending. If the protagonist fails, it is a tragic ending.

In Exodus, the climax is actually where the protagonist first openly appears. At the burning bush, God appears to Moses and explains that he has heard the cries of the Israelites and intends to set them free. God appoints Moses and his brother, Aaron, to be his representatives and to carry a simple message to pharaoh: Let my people go.

Up to this point, Israel has been the underdog. The only power they have on their side is a single god who skeptics would claim wasn't even strong enough to keep them from being enslaved in the first place. On the other side stand all the many gods of Egypt, the most powerful empire in the world at the time. Here at the climax, God declares that he will fight for his people and take them to a land of their own.

Following this declaration comes the denouement, as God begins to unleash a series of devastating plagues. In our contemporary way of looking at stories, the struggle here is between Moses and Pharaoh, or between God and Pharaoh. In truth, every plague that God sets loose is a blow against a different deity in ancient Egypt. This isn't a fight between Israel and Egypt; it is a proxy war among their gods. Each plague targeted a different Egyptian god, and showed how that god ultimately was powerless against the God of Israel.

The first plague saw the Nile turn to blood. Hapi, the god of the Nile, was unable to stop it. In fact, the Bible notes that the Israelites continued to have safe drinking water, a distinction made throughout the plagues to the very end. The Egyptians would suffer from every plague that hit the land, while the Israelites would be unharmed. Even if an Egyptian wanted to claim that the plagues were being sent by their own gods, they would still have to account for the Israelites not being affected.

Heqet, the Egyptian goddess of fertility, resembled a frog. In the second plague, frogs swarmed out of the Nile and covered Egypt after the plague.

Seth, god of the earth, was next to fall, during the third plague on Egypt. According to the biblical account, Moses lifted a handful of earth and threw it into the air. The dust became a plague of gnats that bit and stung the Egyptians wherever they were. Once again the Israelites were left unharmed and untouched.

And on it goes. The book of Exodus recounts cattle dying in the fields, followed by painful boils that erupted on the skin of the Egyptian people. Hail and fire fell from the skies and destroyed the crops in the fields. After that, a swarm of locusts covered the land and devoured what crops remain. By this time, according to the Bible, many of the Egyptians had stopped trusting their own gods to protect them and had begun listening to what Moses said because it was clear that the God of Israel could be depended on to do what he said.

Finally the sun god Ra was defeated by an unnatural darkness that blanketed the land for three days; and when the firstborn in Egypt all died in a single night, it was finished. Even Anubis was powerless. All that was left was for the people of Israel to walk out of Egypt, as free as they were intended to be. As finales go, this is a big one.

Except if you're familiar with the story, you know that this isn't the end. After that dramatic conclusion, Pharaoh changed his mind and pursued the Israelites, and overtook them at the shore of the Red Sea. Caught between a hostile army and the impassable waters of the Red Sea, the Israelites understandably panicked. They forgot everything that had happened in the past month and complained that God had brought them out of Egypt only to let them die on the seashore.

What came next is one of the most iconic moments in the Bible and in American cinema. We all know the scene by heart: Moses stretches out his staff, and as he strikes it against the water, the Red Sea parts. Israel passes through, unharmed, but when the Egyptian army tries to follow, the waters of the sea rush in and the entire army drowns.

Psalmists and prophets invoked the language of this scene for the next thousand years. The story itself evokes the older story of the Genesis flood that destroyed the wicked while the righteous survived in an ark. To Christians, the parting of the Red Sea foreshadows baptism and the new birth that comes from a life of faith in Christ. No matter your religious beliefs, it's impossible to imagine the Haggadah without the parting of the Red Sea.

But iconic and inspiring as it is, the scene is also anticlimactic. Think about it for a minute. For the past 13 chapters, the book of Exodus has recounted a titanic conflict over whether the Israelites would go free or remain as slaves in Egypt. That issue was settled midway through Chapter 12. It is done. It is finished. Why on earth are we going through it again?

If the story of the exodus were being written for the first time today, what author wouldn't end it with the Israelites leaving the city of Rameses as free people? It's the perfect ending to a perfect tale. God has struck the Egyptians so powerful a blow that they were handing over fine clothing, gold and silver, just to get the Israelites to leave before God did something else. It's a perfect time for the camera to pan out to a wide shot and fade to black before the credits roll.

Instead, we have the miracle of crossing the Red Sea too. It's almost as if the author had two endings he loved, and decided to keep them both instead of getting rid of one.

Either the story is screwed up, or we're missing the point of it.

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Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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