Sermon: Exodus, law and conquest

By Joanna Lawrence Shenk

This is the fourth sermon in a series called “The Story of the Bible: A Hot Mess and a Healing Journey.”

Scripture excerpts from Exodus – Joshua (see below)

We have a lot of ground to cover today so we’ll be reading excerpts from scripture throughout the sermon. The scope of the sermon is Exodus through Joshua… Suffice it to say this sermon wins the hot mess award for our series this fall.

Last week Sheri talked about the promise God made to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. “Being chosen doesn’t mean that you’re God’s pampered favorite child and you can throw tantrums and steals toys and treat everyone around you like crap. It means you’ve been chosen for a divine purpose and that God has blessed you for that purpose.”

So the people who have the responsibility of sharing divine blessing with the world, seek refuge in Egypt during a famine and over time swell in numbers. They become a threat to the Pharaoh who did not know Joseph who brought the Hebrew people in the first place. Pharaoh’s fear results in the exploitation and enslavement of the Hebrew people and YHWH hears the cries of the people who are suffering.

In this story YHWH is a god that acts on behalf of slaves. If we remember the Babylonian creation story, we realize that Yahweh would seem insane to Babylonians… their gods wanted the people as slaves. But the god of the Hebrew creation story is concerned about human enslavement and seeks to liberate them.

Reader for Exodus 7:1-6

Exodus is a story of liberation and exit from empire. It is a story of YHWH fighting for enslaved peoples and enacting judgement on the oppressors. Although we don’t have time to go into it, the plagues could be seen as natural consequences of the excesses of empire… of ecosystems out of balance.

After the people cross the Red Sea and see the Egyptian army drown, the Israelites respond with the following victory song:

Reader for Exodus 15:1-12

One thing to remember is that Yahweh is a new deity on the scene. Yahweh is the god of enslaved people and this god has just triumphed over the most powerful empire in the world. This is a really big deal. Yahweh does not align with the powerful but instead lifts up the lowly and oppressed. Later we’ll wrestle a bit more with the violence in the text.

But as the Hebrew people enter their wilderness period, the questions arise: Do they want to be free? Do they know how to be free? They remember Egypt fondly when it gets hard in the wilderness.

Reader for Exodus 16:2-8

YHWH wants them to trust that YHWH will provide and not pine for the “comforts” of empire. The wilderness is a decolonizing project for the people. They need instructions for how to stay free and that comes in the form of the law… the giving of Torah. It comes to them as a revelation from God about how they are supposed to be in right relationship with each other, God and all things.

Reader for Exodus 34:27-32

These commandments continue through the rest of Exodus and the entire book of Leviticus and the first ten chapter of Numbers. It instructions for the year of Jubilee which outlines a framework of economic justice for the community, a clear alternative to the economics of empire.

A community can’t stay liberated from empire without a rule of life, which is as true today as it was then. This new deity YHWH had high exceptions of the people and recognized fidelity to this new way of life would be very difficult. It is costly to be chosen. YHWH commits to keeping the promise to Abraham, and the people commit to upholding the law they have been given. It is a living relationship.

One important part of the promise to Abraham was to give the people a land. This is where we really get into the hot mess of the story.

Reader for Deuteronomy 7:1-11

There are so many questions to raise here. For example, the conquest does not seem like a way the chosen people are being a blessings to the world. What do we do with all this violence? One biblical scholar suggests that we can’t pick and choose the violence we condone. The violence of the defeat of the Egyptians is connected to the violence of the conquest. YHWH is praised for these victories. The writers of these stories are communicating that their god can go toe to toe with any other god or king and it’s a violent thing.

So let’s look at it from a few angles:

First, the victories continue to show that YHWH is on the side of the lowly and oppressed. The Hebrew people were not a mighty people. Some scholars point out that Canaan at the time could have been an outlying extension of the Egyptian empire, so the battles in Canaan were the bookend to the exodus. YHWH was continuing to do battle with corrupt kings and kingdoms, and in the midst of this had mercy on Canaanites such as Rahab, whose family was spared at Jericho and who is remembered as a person of great faith.

Second, based on historical evidence it’s highly doubtful that the conquest and parceling out of land thereafter happened at all. Furthermore in the biblical text there are different versions of the story. The first version of the story in Joshua is full of triumphalism stating that all the people in Canaan were obliterated and the Hebrew people were fully committed to the covenant. But the second version in Judges calls all that into question and wrestles more with how the Hebrew people were coexisting with the Canaanites.

Third, it is also possible that the Hebrew people were not outsiders coming into the land, but an underclass that was fighting for autonomy and release from servitude over an extended period of time. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann articulates it in the following words, “The internal struggle consists, on the one hand, of the urban elites who excessively taxed and exploited the peasants and, on the other hand, the peasants who under Joshua’s leadership in the name of YHWH mounted an assault up the exploitative power of the Canaanite city-state system and sought to establish a different socioeconomic order.”

Fourth, even in light of all this, what do we do with the fact that this text has been weaponized by imperial forces throughout history to colonize and violently oppress Indigenous people, the people of the land? Christians especially have used these texts in so many terrible and genocidal ways. How do we make sense of a supposedly loving God who protects some while doing violence to others? This is a hot mess and an abiding problem in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

In the documentary put together by the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition, Egyptian biblical scholar Safwat Marzouk, who teaches at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, had this to say:

“It’s very important to ask the questions about power. When we go back and read the biblical text in their historical context we start to recognize that these texts start to take their final form when the people of Israel were actually colonized or imperialized by the Babylonians.

When people bring in the narrative of the Hebrew bible without recognizing the power difference between a Christian interpreter who lives in Europe or North America and the power they possess, versus the ancient Israelites who were oppressed by these other powers around them… This is where the problem starts because people don’t recognize the historical context of the text and their own historical context in which they are the powerful. And they misuse and abuse the text of the powerless to justify the acts of the powerful.”

In addition to this enduring and perverse misuse of the text, I also realize I’m in no place to judge the violence of the god of the oppressed when I’m participating in the violence of an exploitative status quo everyday. If I attempt to read myself into this story, I am not a Hebrew person. I am someone living in Egypt or Canaan benefiting from their slave labor and perpetuating an ecosystem out of balance. This is unsettling. 

So as the plot of our story has thickened, we have learned a few more things. This Creator god of the Hebrews cares about slaves and liberates them from empire. YHWH provides for the people and gives them instructions so that they can live in right relationship and be faithful to YHWH. YHWH gives them a land which they take by violent force as oppressed people in order to have a place to live faithfully.

Reader for Joshua 24:14-18.

These are not easy texts. The violence is a deeply problematic part of our tradition. May we let the discomfort work on us. Amen.