The God Who Is Bent on Good

I’ve been revisiting the story of Moses bringing this people out of Egypt again. You know—burning bush, wth? Pharaoh, plagues, lambs, all that MGM stuff. 

After God gives Moses a woodshed moment at the bush, Moses makes his way back to Egypt to free his people. A little reluctant and frightened, at first he is met with excitement. Finally, a savior has come to free them! 

Then Pharaoh digs in the talons deeper and makes life even more unbearable than it already was, which was pretty stinkin’ unbearable. He forces the people to increase their work while decreasing their supplies. Thus, the next time, Moses finds a less than enthusiastic crowd.

Ex 6.6-9 “Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the Lord.’

Moses reported this to the Israelites, but they did not listen to him because of their discouragement and harsh labor.”

Did you catch that last part? They did not listen to Moses because of their discouragement. Other versions translate it their “broken spirit and how hard they were made to work,” and “they had become too discouraged by the brutality of their slavery.”

This last line struck me when I read it this time. I could not get away from it. I don’t think I’d ever noticed it before, or at least, I’d never paid attention. They believed—but they got too discouraged, too broken, because of the cruelty with which they were treated.

Make no mistake, that was Pharaoh’s intent. He planned that. When he authorized the increase in brick making with no materials to do it, he knew the result. The people would be too worn down by one more setback to dare to dream or try. 

It’s the same story as when Moses was born.

Evil is predictable. It bets on the fact that oppression and dehumanization will discourage others to the point of quitting.

Sometimes, it wins.

Other times, it doesn’t.

Photo by Mike Castro Demaria on Unsplash

We’ve heard this story hundreds of times, and all of those times I recall, we’ve heard how the Israelites behaved horribly. They were unfaithful, reckless, foolish folks who didn’t believe and didn’t obey. I’ve never once heard this verse spoken of.

They did not listen to Moses because of their discouragement.

These are a people filled with trauma. They’ve suffered terrible degradation, dehumanization, oppression, and marginalization. For generations, they have no experience of freedom and no ability to govern or lead themselves. 

The normal human response from and to trauma is exactly what we see—fear, confusion, comfort with the devil they know, inability to see that things are going to get better after they get worse, and anger at the person responsible for that worse part. 

The gut-wrenching beauty here is that God knows this. He understands that they feel too broken to believe. So he continues to free them, bringing them out, showing them his power, and fulfilling his promises, regardless of how they feel or act.

He does this because that is who he is.

God is bent on good for his people—and he will not be stopped. He loves them through their trauma and brings them to the other side of the Red Sea, and beyond.

The story reminds me of another stretch in Scripture that’s rather notorious for its imagery. It’s a Psalm sung during the exile of Israel, much later.

By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down and wept,
When we remembered Zion.

Upon the willows in the midst of it

We hung our harps.

For there our captors demanded of us songs,

And our tormentors mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”

How can we sing the Lord’s song
In a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
May my right hand forget her skill.

May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
If I do not remember you,
If I do not exalt Jerusalem
Above my chief joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom
The day of Jerusalem,
Who said, “Raze it, raze it
To its very foundation.”

O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one,
How blessed will be the one who repays you
With the recompense with which you have repaid us.

How blessed will be the one 

who seizes and dashes your little ones
Against the rock. (Psalm 137)

It’s one of my favorite songs in Godspell, beautiful and haunting. But the songwriter doesn’t use those last lines—the horrific ones about murdering babies. They’re not exactly lyrical.

The Babylonian exile was not a nice “pack up your things and get going” on a vacay. It was not Sound of Music. It was everything you know that modern tribal warfare is, and these people are not merely homesick. They are demoralized, exhausted, mourning loved ones, hopeless, dehumanized, humiliated. They’ve been beaten, raped, killed, and brutally taken from their homes.

This song speaks their emotion, and these are their honest, anguished words. It’s strikingly similar to how the Israelites felt in Egypt. 

It is not surprising there was intense anger. 

It is surprising that made it into the scriptures.

And I think this tells us something about God.

It tells us that he hears, sees, and knows his peoples’ pain, and he does not turn away from their expression of it. 

Yes, it’s wrong. Yes, it’s terrible imagery. 

Yes, forgiveness and refusal to take revenge is God’s way for us. 

Yes, it would have been wrong for an Israelite to actually dash a baby against a rock, and there would be no excuse.

But somewhere in here, we get the realization that God knows we grieve and hurt and fear, and He lets us do that.

That’s what going on in Egypt as well.

They’re grieving. Exhausted. Hopeless. They wanted to believe but it was just too much. In the middle of that, God sees and hears and remembers and loves. 

He guides them out when they cannot see a way out.

God hears us in our grief and does not demand a right response.

And I think that’s what going on for some people right now, as we enter 2021.

We’re OK. But we’re fortunate.

Many with mental health issues or addictions are still hopeless.

Many who are alone are still scared.

Those who have lost people are mourning.

And God sees and hears and knows. 

Sometimes we as humans want others to hurry up with their hurt, grief, etc. We want to rush forward into 2021 and erase all that was this year. Many people will try for a do over, a forgetting, an obliterating of all that pain so that we can put it in the past.

But God doesn’t do that.

He sits with us.

He waits. 

He holds us up until we can walk on our own.

He weeps with us at our discouragement and hears our hurt.

We need to be willing to sit with pain, too. Ours or that of others. To sit with people or our own souls and hear them and give them permission to hurt. It could be the first best thing we do in 2021.

God hears us in our grief and does not demand a right response.

Why? Because 

  • He knows fear—My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.”
  • He knows uncertainty—“Will you leave me, too?”
  • He knows loss—he’s been betrayed so many times 
  • He knows grief—“My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me.”
  • He knows loneliness—“My God why have you forsaken me?” 

Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried.

God hears us in our grief and does not demand a right response.

God does bring the Israelites out. He relieves their despondency, discouragement, brokenness.

As he does for us.

Because the parting of the Red Sea is just ahead. 

And so is the empty tomb.

Be the Innovative Ones

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Photo by Yousef Espanioly on Unsplash

So many headlines have the ability lately to make us all curl up in our fetal positions and sob until Jesus comes back. It doesn’t take much anymore, even. We’re tired. We’re done. This one did it for me the last couple weeks, though.

“ICE guards ‘systematically’ sexually assault detainees in an El Paso detention center.”

You know by now I have a heart for immigrants and refugees. You also know, probably, that I am a childhood sexual abuse survivor. I’m seeing red that we can allow this to happen within our borders. This is’t the only facility for which compelling evidence is available, either.

I’m also seeing a tale as old as time.

Exodus and ICE

We’ve been walking through the Bible, slowly. We’ve already dived into Exodus a bit, but now, we’re going to back up. I know, I’m going about all this a bit haphazardly.

Pandemic.

This is the excuse for everything for the foreseeable future. Every single thing that doesn’t line up as it should have is because pandemic. We get a free pass. It’s just truth.

So, Exodus out of order. There is something here we must see.

We ended Genesis with Joseph triumphant, but we open Exodus with an entirely different history. Joseph is dead. Nobody cares. There’s a new ruler in town, and history is not his strong suit.

Eventually, a new king came to power in Egypt who knew nothing about Joseph or what he had done. He said to his people, “Look, the people of Israel now outnumber us and are stronger than we are. We must make a plan to keep them from growing even more. If we don’t, and if war breaks out, they will join our enemies and fight against us. Then they will escape from the country.” 

So the Egyptians made the Israelites their slaves. They appointed brutal slave drivers over them, hoping to wear them down with crushing labor. (Exodus 1.8-11)

Pharaoh is an insecure human and ruler. He looks around one day and sees the number and strength of the foreigners in “his” land. It frightens him. Rather than see the advantages they bring to his country, he gives unfettered reign to unfounded fear. Remember what we learned in Genesis? Israel was created to bless others, but too often, they allowed fear to drive rather than blessing.

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The Israelites have done nothing to cause fear. They’ve lived peacefully in the land. Their numbers have added to the tax roles, however those existed in Egypt (I’m not exactly an expert there). They’ve undoubtedly added heft to the Egyptian economy. One hopes their faith values have given them extra care toward their neighbors. (It appears they persuaded the midwives to become believers at any rate.)

Fear Is a Bad Driver

Yet Pharaoh sees only their presence and his fear that one day, they might shift the balance of power away from people like him.

So Pharaoh’s solution is to dehumanize them. He tries to crush their spirits, their hope, and even their bodies. He forces on them the work no one else wants for slave wages. He calls them names like lazy and worthless. He attempts to assimilate them into his people by murdering their boys so that the girls will eventually intermarry, or worse, and dilute any Hebrew blood or loyalties.

Tyrants and insecure kings do this. It’s common throughout history. His playbook is not new or original, and it’s been borrowed over the millennia.

Ex1-17

What Pharaoh does to the “other” in his land is nothing that hadn’t been done and isn’t being done in human history. Fear drives humans to evil things. There is always someone to put down.

Are you catching on that I think this might have some relevance to the present?

Earlier this year, I heard Jennifer Guerra Aldana speak these powerful words about this very story that I’ve found so invaluable over the lat year:

“Evil is so predictable. Love is always innovative.”

We know what evil will do. It doesn’t change.

It will always try to destroy and dehumanize. It will always seek to instill fear where love should be. Evil will consistently demonize others in order to feel more secure itself. History is littered with the strategies of evil, and they are always the same.

Make someone else the scapegoat for created fears, and whip up those fears so that people will do whatever it takes to relieve them.

Evil doesn’t have One Creative Idea. It’s so very, sadly, predictable. I loved hearing Jennifer point this truth out so clearly.

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Love Is Innovative

Love will always find a way around that. Love is creative. It’s smart. It’s determined and persevering. Love is one of the three things Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 will last forever. He also says it’s is the greatest of those three.

And God is always on the side of love.

He proves it in the most ingenious ways possible. When Pharaoh seeks to destroy the Hebrew baby boys, God saves Moses out of that mess. Pharaoh’s own daughter finds him and brings him home as her son. So what is the inevitable result of that? Moses gets raised in the courts of power. He is educated with the best of the best and taught to be a leader. He knows all the ins and outs of the royal world. And eventually, he will use that knowledge and education to bring about the next Pharaoh’s destruction.

It’s an Inside Job

God uses the tyrant’s own strategies to bring him down. Without his murder of the boys, Moses would have grown up to be just another Hebrew slave. But he didn’t. Talk about just desserts.

Evil is so predictable. Love is always innovative.

Quite a lot of evidence exists to prove that thoughts like Pharaoh’s are wrong. Check out the charts below if you want to know some of the advantages immigrants bring to a culture.

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Yet it was that shifting of the balance of power that really got him riled up. I believe that’s still true because, remember, evil is predictable. We know statistics tell us that in a couple decades, whites will be the minority in this country. That makes some feel insecure, just like Pharaoh did. It makes some worried. In fact, a large percentage of people who call themselves believers are on record as saying this is a bad thing.

According to 2018 polls,

“Fifty-four percent (of white evangelicals) say the U.S. becoming a majority-non-white nation will be mostly negative and 44 percent say it will be mostly positive.

White evangelicals are the only major religious group to express such worry over the demographic realignment.

Those concerns among white evangelicals also extend to immigrants, refugees, and other international visitors to the U.S.

More than half of white evangelicals (57 percent) say immigrants threaten traditional American custom and values, while 43 percent say immigrants strengthen our society.

Again, white evangelicals are the only religious group in which a majority feel this way.” 

Why? We fear the shift. Like Pharaoh, we don’t have facts to back up this fear. But facts matter little when we can stoke fears until no one really knows where they originated and on what they were based. The feeling takes over. The backdrop was lost long ago.

This, by the way, is what makes it easy to repost those negative stories about black or latino men. It helps us to believe our own fear.

We are still living the lies of Pharaoh. And we haven’t remembered things did not end well for him. God was not on his side.

God moved on the side of the immigrant baby, Moses. God moved on the side of the lower-class midwives, Shiprah and Puah. God moved on the side of a princess who dared to defy a xenophobic decree. God moved on the side of an entire nation that was delivered through the deadly water of the Red Sea by the same immigrant baby, all grown up and ready to do as God called.

Evil is so predictable. Love is always innovative.

We have the history in front of us in the book of Exodus. Let’s learn from it and be the innovative ones.