The Moral Undoing of Slavery

On the surface of the text this week, the Bible appears to tolerate slavery. What’s the story?

The portion from Exodus and its usual companion in Prophets help us get to a deeper understanding of what – ethically – is really going on. And, if we look further at the wisdom they help generate over time, we get a powerful explanation.

Let’s understand a basic truth at the start. At the times of the Bible’s revelation and compilation, slavery was virtually a universal practice. Indeed its diminishment throughout the world since then has been a slow and uneven process.

My thesis is that while the ancient text does not set out immediately to abolish this powerful and ubiquitous institution, it establishes a historic trajectory that aims effectively at destroying it and ultimately contributes mightily to doing so.

Let’s take a look.

The verses in Torah begin with this: “Should you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work for six years, and in the seventh, he shall go out to freedom without charge.” First, slavery is neither blessed nor encouraged, which, in and of itself, marks a dramatic change from the cruel custom of life-long bondage in the ancient world. Second, limits are imposed, restricting the conditions in which slaves could be held – the term, the treatment, etc.

These limits begin to ameliorate the practice by requiring humane treatment. Even greater limits in Deuteronomy, also grounded in the interest of humane treatment, add increasingly to the burden of those who keep slaves and bondsmen. They do so in ways that begin to create strong disincentives to engaging in the practice in the first place.

For example, the return of runaway slaves who escaped to Israel is forbidden. Such former slaves are to be treated equally with resident aliens.

As time passes, the different treatment of Hebrew slaves and non-Hebrew slaves appears to begin to disappear. The Talmud and later sages and rabbis go further. Slaves are to be given similar food, drink, and lodging to that the master would grant himself or his family. Severe punishment is provided for those who abuse or kill slaves.

But what interests me especially about the verses in Jeremiah is that they give us a vivid picture of the religious foundation upon which the campaign against slavery is constructed.

Here we learn that King Zedekiah had entered into a covenant with the people that bound them to release all their Hebrew bondsmen and bondswomen. Yet, presumably out of the selfishness and power that drives the slaveholder, the people reneged and brought the bondsmen and bondswomen back into servitude.

God is furious that the very people He freed from bondage and who count on His holding true to their covenant are now breaking the covenant they made to free their fellows from bondage.

It is notable that the first two verses of Chapter 33 are added to the reading. This addition makes clear that it is not just the redemption from Egypt that is on the Divine Mind; it is the whole of the covenant. “If not for My covenant day and night; had I not set up the laws of heaven and earth….” In other words, together, the commandments press us ever more expansively to live true in all of our life’s activity to the cardinal virtues of justice and righteousness, mercy and loving-kindness.

These covenant expectations are constantly at war with, and ultimately make intolerable, the practices of slavery. So, what all people found customary in the beginning and could not be changed quickly or easily by a small people’s sacred text becomes subject to perpetual attack by the profound values that that text promotes. And the trajectory of those values as they play out in history leads ineluctably to the destruction of all bases for slavery.

It’s a long road from the social ways of pre-Biblical times to the ideal end. But, one day, as Micah teaches us, all will go up to the mountain of the Lord, all will sit under their own vine and their own fig tree, and none will make them afraid.

From Meetings with God

This week the portion in Exodus and its companion in Isaiah are incomparably beautiful both in what they share and what they teach.

As we have studied, God rescues us from the “narrow places” in Egypt in order to bring us into the expansive and lovely ways of the promised life.

On the surface of the tale in Torah, the people leave the Sea and arrive at Sinai. Moses is called by God to be given direction and then recites the Divine Instruction to guide the people’s way.

In Isaiah, the prophet also is called by God to take on the mission of guiding the people.

Though the two different meetings are centuries apart, I believe they fundamentally go together. Even more, they both teach us about how, in our own time, we can best live in covenant with God and serve Divine purposes.

First, let’s look at the plot more deeply.

God tells Moses at Sinai: “If you obey Me and keep my covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure…And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.”

Three days later, Moses approaches God again, with the people, clean, within boundaries, and ready for next steps. Moses, then, instructed by God, offers the people the beginning of the great revelation in right living, the Ten Commandments.

The account of Isaiah’s meeting is also consequential but full of fantastic details. Isaiah sees God sitting upon a high throne, along with angels in the heavenly Temple, and witnesses the most remarkable interaction there.

Isaiah feels impure to be in such a setting, much as the Israelites surely feared they might be at Sinai. Once cleansed, he hears God’s words, in which the Divine seeks a messenger to speak to the people.

God knows that the people can hear and see, but they’d shown, from all the bad they had done, that they did not comprehend their obligations. Isaiah is told to inform them that until they see, hear, and understand in order to “repent and be healed,” their cities “will become desolate,” and “abandonment will be great amid the land.” Yet, importantly, there will be a remnant in which “the holy seed will be the vitality of the land.”

What does this teach us?

First, I believe there’s a Moses in each of us, as well as an Isaiah. We, too, are called to go to God, and we do so in our prayers, our mediation, our study, and our service. We, too, strive to be pure in our going. And God tells us when we draw near that our task is to comprehend the path forward through our eyes, ears, mouths and hearts.

Yet, it’s different after Sinai. We have the words. We’ve inherited them as perhaps our richest legacy from our faithful predecessors. As Moses teaches in his last oration: “It is not in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’…No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.”

So, having been blessed with God’s words, we are expected to use our God-given capacities of sight, hearing, speech, and wisdom to keep to them.

Our way should never be one of desolation or abandonment. We can be the remnant that repents of straying and return, healed. Then, when we follow God’s direction, we become His treasure. When we become priests and a holy nation, we live to serve others and become bestowers of peace in the world.

Songs For Your Playlist

Our portion in Exodus this week bears a close resemblance to its companion text in Judges in that both contain songs that are musts for your playlist.

First, we experience the Song of the Sea. This song, celebrating deliverance from the Egyptian army across the Sea of Reeds, is begun by Moses and the Israelites and concluded by Miriam and other women.

Then, we encounter the Song of Deborah, a victory hymn which she and Barak sing in the wake of the defeat of their Canaanite adversaries.

Okay, so they’re not your typical popular songs. But why does the Bible give us song? What do these two songs share? And what do they teach?

Much has been written throughout history about the purpose of song, yet we only have time here to try briefly to understand how song might enhance meaning in our texts. I will suggest a few ideas and invite yours.

Song generally can bring emotion to the fore better than mere prose. It tends more deeply to express aspects of powerful experiences. We may taste victory and joy or loss and sadness. We may celebrate achievement, acknowledge important turns in our lives, or mourn defeat or death. The stuff of song can be love, bonding, hope, despair, etc. And the goal of song may be mostly expressive or intended to move others, by inspiring, cheering, soothing, wooing, and the like.

Let’s look at our two songs to discern how they might fit these or other patterns and explore how they affect and instruct us.

But, before we do, let’s acknowledge one wonderful and important aspect of these songs. They are sung in significant part by and about women. There is a strong feminine feeling here that spans from pain and exile to endurance and victory. It is, also, the singing of two strong women – prophetesses, one a judge and warrior and the other a preserver of life and hope. The end of Deborah’s song pays tribute, too, to the remarkable courage and decisive action of another woman, Jael.

First, these songs express powerful emotions about the experience of rescue. And, important to people of faith then and now, they acclaim enthusiastically that it is God Who is the Rescuer.

The songs are intended not just for the celebrating community; they are to be music for the whole world, where the theme of God’s saving power will one day be recognized and sung ubiquitously.

It is not only a physical redemption that God effects for us. It is also our turning to ethical, Divine ways of being. In Exodus, “with your loving-kindness, you led the people you redeemed.” In Judges, “Instead of the noise of adversaries, between the places of drawing water, there they will tell the righteous acts of the Lord.”

Second, these songs acknowledge the importance both of the individual and the group, those who lead and those who follow, in the constitution of a good community. This was so in the achievement of past victories, as it will be in successfully handling future challenges. So, the songs are sung individually and collectively, as a means of both personal and shared expression.

The songs make us appreciate leaders who assist in Divine work. Whether it’s Deborah and Barak, Moses and Miriam, the tribes who have contributed, or the “lawgivers” and “the riders of white donkeys” – they’re all distinguished.

Third, there’s a strong sense of prayer in the songs – with a special joy, a deep gratitude, and hope for the future. It is especially important that we know always that there’s a path back to God when we stray. Singing makes our gratitude for this and indeed all these extraordinary blessings more poignant.

Exodus 15:1-21 and Judges 5:1-31 – these are the lyrics of the two songs. Read them as songs in your mind, heart, and soul, and see if all this is indeed so.

Defeating the “Egypt” Within Us

This week the portion from Exodus and the text from Prophets share one clear theme: Egypt is to be defeated, and its defeat must continue across generations.

On one level, this downfall involves the nation of Egypt at the time of Moses as well as the nation of Egypt as prophesied by Jeremiah in the declining years of the First Temple.

On a deeper level, and the one I would like for us to consider, there’s a way of life that is associated with the Egypt experience that is to be defeated. In other words, we must constantly be aware of an improper way of being that must be defeated, and we call that way of life, Egypt.

What is this Egypt?

Tomes have been written on this topic, and we could (and should) spend considerably more time than this short essay permits on its possibilities. Here, let’s use our time simply to look at the language in the text regarding Egypt to see what it teaches about human behaviors that ought to be defeated.

Let’s start by noting that the word for Egypt in Hebrew is mitzrayim, a word related to meitzar, which means narrow place. For reasons we well understand, narrowness is not a desirable attribute.

In Jeremiah, we begin by reading: “Pharaoh, the blustery king of Egypt, has let the appointed time go by.”

Didn’t we learn last week that God prizes one who is humble and contrite of spirit and reverential of God’s word? Blustery seems the exact opposite of all that.

Letting the appointed time go by – this has the feel of being unmindful of the appointed times in the season when we are called to draw near to God. This may be especially concerning when we miss the time to turn back to God and our fellows after we have strayed and done wrong by them.

Egypt, we read further, is “a beautiful calf,” prey for slaughtering. My mind goes to the golden calf. Does yours? A place where the material is elevated over the spiritual is a place that concerns God, and should concern us, too.

“Egypt’s voice will travel like a snake’s….” One can hardly keep from thinking of the snake in the garden, whose voice appeals seductively to act against God’s direction. It allures, but it leads to destruction.

In Exodus, we read of two plagues that afflict Egypt that also hint clearly of the condition of “being Egypt.”

The first is locusts. Is it the plague or the condition that draws the plague that is so claustrophobic? In the midst of such a plague, one is unable to know how or where to move, creating a sense of hopelessness and even further loss. This incapacity ultimately is horrifying and leads to death.

The second is a darkness that can be touched. People can’t see each other. There’s isolation from care, nearness, and any way out or forward. However physical it may be, it’s certainly, also, a spiritual or psychological darkness. Some sages tie this impoverishment of spirit back to the concern in Jeremiah: when there’s an undue emphasis on the material, especially when it leads to inordinate wealth built largely on the backs of others, there’s a darkness that can be touched. It’s become “too much Egypt,” and it must be overcome.

The text in Torah and Jeremiah both end with the promise of God’s saving hand. We’re redeemed from bondage to tyranny and worship of the material. From those narrow places, we are free to journey to Sinai and the land of promise, where living true to God’s expectations will bring us great expansiveness and blessing.

Who Doesn’t Love a Treasure Hunt?

People have enjoyed treasure hunts through the ages. We’ve seen this interest manifested in letterboxing in the 1850s, party and television games in the 1950s, and, in a fashion, Pokemon Go in our own day.

This week’s texts from the Bible also take us on a treasure hunt. But this hunt is not one in which we find clues that lead us to material or virtual rewards. Rather it’s one that travels along the path of God’s words, in which we look for clues about direction in life, with the promise of a different, but perhaps richer sort of reward at the end of the hunt.

The journey begins in Exodus. We learn that God hears the cries of the people enslaved in Egypt, holds steadfast to the covenant, and acts purposefully to redeem them. God says to Moses, “I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be a God to you.” Further, the Divine directs Moses to tell Pharaoh to “let My people go, so they may serve Me.”

These words will drive Moses on his own long search. What does it mean to be God’s people? What does it mean that God will be God to us? And what does it mean to serve God? We’ll catch back up with Moses in future weeks.

For now, we’ll explore these questions on our own quick treasure hunt through the two passages from Prophets that accompany study this week.

In Isaiah, we see our first clue. God says something very important that responds directly to our questions: “But to this one will I look: to one who is humble and contrite of spirit and reverential of God’s word.”

So, who are such people, and who are not?

It is not people, we learn, who hypocritically go through the motions of religious ritual but mostly follow their own selfish ways and delight in doing things that are contemptible.

In Ezekiel, we find a similar message. God’s people are not those whose “heart is proud” and who think “I am a god.” Those whose “heart becomes haughty with wealth” often turn their spirit to commerce in ways in which they commit “wrongdoing” and become “filled with violence.” Their heart tends to “become haughty” because of a misplaced sense of “beauty,” and their wisdom is destroyed with misdirected “brightness.”

Happily, the hunt through these prophetic verses also gives us alternate, positive images, which direct us to the true treasure.

We find that those who serve God are those who answer God’s call. As we have learned elsewhere, they show their humility and contrition of spirit by loving others as they love themselves. They love God with all their heart, soul, and might. In so loving, they bring the cardinal virtues of righteousness, justice, loving-kindness, and compassion into the action of their lives and, thus, show themselves reverential of God’s word.

For them, the end of the hunt is in the land of spirit, in the soul, where God is present to us, where those who serve Divine purposes find birth, satiety, delight, consolation, peace, and rejoicing. In this treasured land, “they shall dwell upon it securely, and they shall build houses and plant vineyards and dwell securely.”

Finding Hope While in Pain

What this week’s portion from Exodus shares most with its companion text in Isaiah is that they both show us that the greatest hope, often to our surprise, can be found in the midst of the greatest pain.

Both protagonists in these stories are living through very different episodes of their people’s pain, yet they (and we) can only marvel at how signs of hope appear to them and play out so fully.

In Moses’ case, the people had just begun to suffer the worst burdens of enslavement in Egypt. Having exposed himself to certain danger, Moses is forced to flee to the mountains. There, seemingly alone, he experiences a miracle. A bush burns with fire but is not consumed.

God appears to Moses from within the bush. The Divine Force had heard the cry of the people and was ready, with Moses’ leadership, to rescue the people and bring them to the Land of Promise.

Though initially insecure and uncertain, as we surely would be, Moses begins to see and hold on to an extraordinary dream, and then sets out on a path to its fulfillment.

Amazing.

In pain and alone, Moses sees from God the way out of servitude in the narrow straits to a place of profound direction and love, and on to redemptive fulfillment.

Are there signs in our lives, too, that could lead us from pain and exile? Would we see them if they were there? Recall Moses had to decide to look, or else he may not have seen. “So Moses said, “Let me turn now and see this great spectacle why does the thorn bush not burn up?” “The Lord saw that he turned to see,” and THEN called to him.

Is there such a response to my cry, your cry? Like Moses, let us turn and see.

Isaiah lived in a different time. The people had made it to the Land of Promise centuries earlier. But now they had become terribly wayward, living contrary to the very direction and love that had been the basis for their rescue from Egypt.

Isaiah’s heaviest burden was that he could foresee the great pain of the people that was yet to come, in the exile that was yet to be.

Our text is full of his most frightening descriptions of what was in store for the people. Yet, interspersed in these awful accounts of the next days’ storms are visions of a hopeful, exceptionally beautiful day that lies beyond.

“Days are coming when Jacob will take root; Israel will bud and flourish and fill the face of the earth with fruit.”

“It shall be on that day…that…God, Master of Legions, will be the crown of delight and a diadem of glory for the remnant…,and a spirit of judgment for he who sits in judgment, and a source of strength for those who return from war to the gate.”

Moses and Isaiah feel poignant pain in the verses we read. There’s no denying it, no whitewash of it, just as there is no glossing over ours.

Yet, their testimony tells us that beyond the pain, there is hope. There are signs of pathways, however we come to see them. There is the One who always hears our cry and responds with hope, though at times we do not always understand. And there is the greatest hope ahead – a day of nearness and love, and a day of peace and ultimate redemption.

Messages for Our Children

Sometimes I get the feeling that many of my contemporaries don’t study the Bible because they think it’s ancient and doesn’t apply to them. Some got the idea along the way, maybe in childhood, that it’s stale or, worse, wrong or even cruel. And, now, these views often get cemented when the text they encounter in synagogue seems dead to them.

A great sadness of mine is that many folks don’t bring their adult minds to a serious study of the Bible in the here and now. If they did, they could see how powerfully responsive such study can be to meeting their own greatest needs through lessons in loving-kindness, righteousness, and justice.

This week’s texts from Genesis and I Kings are perfect examples of stories that I would like all parents to study.

Why?

In Genesis, we see Jacob, as he approaches death, telling his sons the words he thinks they should hear from him before he dies.

In I Kings, we see David, as he approaches death, telling Solomon the words he thinks his son should hear from him before he dies.

As a father who is always anxious about the messages I send to my own children, I’m thrilled to learn how our great leaders, even in their imperfect ways, handled such duties in their lives. I bet most parents would, too, if they could just jump into the narrative and find the fabulous lessons that are waiting there.

So, let’s jump in!

David takes one approach. He’s learned a hard but extremely rewarding truth: a life lived in service of God is a good life and one that will be rewarded. With the exception of his waywardness with Bathsheba and Uriah, David lives as close to God, in service of the Divine, as any of our forebears. In fact, it might be argued that the lifelong consequences he bears as a result of that sin bring him even closer to God in profound ways, along with great blessing.

David, therefore, emphasizes from his deathbed that his son should “be strong and become a man.” He tells Solomon to “safeguard the charge of…God…to walk in His ways, to observe His…Torah…so that you will succeed…and that God will uphold His word…”

Further, David praises Solomon’s greatest strength, his wisdom, and asks him to act on it. Then, before dying, he does what one king would feel duty-bound to do with his successor. He gives his son important advice about a few urgent matters Solomon will soon face in his reign.

Jacob takes a different approach. He gathers his sons to tell what lies ahead for each of them.

For some of the sons, it is the richest sort of blessing that plays out in their lives and those of their descendants.

For most, it is metaphorical language about the direction of their lives, words upon which these sons can understand and build their futures.

For a few, it is harsh truths that are merited but also likely dispiriting. Some have no good future. (I wonder how I would handle such a predicament with my own children, should such be the situation.)

Yet, in the case of one, Levi, who is chastised, the son and later his tribe turn a negative prophesy in such a constructive direction it becomes – in the end – a most amazing blessing. They become our people’s priests and holy attendants!

As for me, for now, I love having all these ideas swirling in my head. Yes, I would want my children to know God and follow God’s direction. I believe much good comes from that. I would want my children to be strong and mature. I would want to emphasize their strengths and give them some crucial advice about serious problems they will face.

I hope my sense of their direction would be helpful in how they actually structure their lives. I hope I can bring truth to what I say, even if there is concern in my thoughts and voice. And I hope they will find a constructive path forward, even in the face of criticism.

God willing, though, I hope I have a little more time to think about what I’ll finally say. In the meantime, I’m just very grateful I have these invaluable lessons from the Bible to help me write my “first draft.”