In 1955, early in his struggle for civil rights, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. likened the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision to the destruction of the Egyptian army in the biblical book of Exodus:
“The Red Sea opened, and freedom and justice marched through to the other side. As we look back we see segregation and discrimination caught in the mighty rushing waters of historical fate.”
Three decades later, the Exodus story — God leading the Israelites from slavery and oppression in Egypt through many years of wandering in the desert to the Promised Land — was a foundation stone of an entirely new reading of the Bible, called liberation theology.
The Latin American theologians and activists who developed this then-radical Catholic approach argued that Exodus shows a God who is always on the side of the poor and who wants everyone to live free from all kinds of slavery. In this context, sin is whatever people do to keep themselves or others enslaved.
Although the Vatican initially condemned this thinking, which implicitly put the church hierarchy with the “Egyptians,” liberation theology has come to permeate much Catholic thinking, particularly that of Pope Francis.
The American civil rights effort and Latin America’s liberation theology, though, are only the latest in a long line of movements throughout history which have adopted the Exodus story to tell their own, as Yale Biblical scholar Joel S. Baden recounts in The Book of ‘Exodus’: A Biography (Princeton University Press, 237 pages, $26.95.”
Baden’s book is the latest installment in the addictively readable and erudite Lives of Great Religious Books series from Princeton University Press. Each of the 19 books in the series so far tells the biography — the life story, i.e., the creation and impact on world culture — of a work of great religious significance or renown.
The range is wide, indeed. Among the subjects already covered have been The Book of Common Prayer, Augustine’s Confessions, the Koran in English, the Talmud and C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. And, as with the biographies of people, these books display a multiplicity of approaches. Each is written by an expert who not only brings a depth of knowledge but also a sprightliness of language designed to draw in any general reader interested in the evolution of human civilization.
Baden packs a lot into the 215 pages of his text, recognizing, for instance, that the Exodus story existed long before it was stitched together in the Hebrew Bible from four sources, none of which tells the whole story.
The laws, including the Ten Commandments, that God gave the Israelites on Mount Sinai were central to Jewish thought and practice. Christians, however, saw those laws as being brought to fulfillment in Jesus, and influential leaders castigated Judaism for failing to accept the Messiah, using words and theories that fed anti-Semitism.
Over the centuries, the Exodus story has been embedded into Western culture as the key image in scores of social, political and religious campaigns in which one group seeks to get out from under another. For instance, during the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther equated the Pope with the Pharaoh of Exodus, and John Calvin saw himself as Moses, even in his failings.
Another reformer who was called Moses was King Henry VIII. However, a few years later, one of Henry’s successors Charles I was labeled Pharaoh by the Puritans, for whom Oliver Cromwell was Moses. In 1776, it was King George III, who was called Pharaoh by the American colonists, and Benjamin Franklin wanted the seal of the newly minted United States to depict the Israelites crossing the Red Sea.
In the years up to and during the American Civil War, the Exodus story was on the minds of many, and the result, often, was clashing imagery.
For instance, the free black poet Phillis Wheatley identified the United States as Egypt and argued that “it was the enslaved African Americans who were oppressed and crying for deliverance as the Israelites had once had.” Even so, once the Civil War began, the Confederacy saw itself as the oppressed, with one minister asserting that “eleven tribes sought to go forth in peace from the house of political bondage, but the heart of our modern Pharaoh is hardened, that he will not let Israel go.”
Poor Lincoln! Not only was he called Pharaoh by the South, but also, during the early years of the war, by the abolitionists, for his failure to act quickly to emancipate the slaves.
All of this is a testament to the power of the story of Exodus. However, in his final pages, Baden takes up one aspect of the narrative that is often overlooked — the fate of the Canaanites, the people who were killed or driven away from the place that the Israelites determined was their Promised Land. Writes Robert Allen Warrior, an Osage scholar:
“The obvious characters in the story for Native Americans to identify with are the Canaanites.”
And Baden notes:
“The God who liberates Israel is the same God who calls for the destruction of the Canaanites. Even the Exodus story, a narrative of redemption from evil, has its victims.”
This has moral implications for anyone working to end oppression today. As Baden writes:
“We may identify with Israel, but we cannot replicate the sins of the past; we must live beside the Canaanites rather than forcibly dispossess or assimilate them.”
Patrick T. Reardon