Choosing Sides in the Exodus

November 29, 2014 — 1 Comment

What can an obscure verse in the exodus story tell white Christians about how to respond to recent events in Ferguson, MO? Why has it functioned as a metaphor to inspire hope to countless generations of oppressed people, Jew and non-Jew alike? What hope does it offer white Christians at this important moment in history?

The story of Israel’s exodus stands as the defining narrative for generations of Israelites. Passover, their most sacred festival, serves as an annual dramatic retelling of God’s liberation of an oppressed people, His people, from cruel enslavement. When, centuries later, the Israelites were exiled under Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian captivity, they retold the exodus narrative with a sense of fervent longing and anticipation that the God who’d once delivered them would be faithful and deliver them again.

Under Greek and Roman rule, the people of Israel again turned to their prophetic tradition for signs that the promised deliverer, one called the “messiah,” was coming to liberate them from foreign dominance. They imagined a bold leader would emerge to overthrow imperial rule, much like Moses had confronted Pharaoh. When the messiah did show up in the person of Jesus, he failed to meet the expectations of the masses. They did not have “eyes to see” or “ears to hear.”

From the earliest days of Christianity, followers of Jesus saw in him a continuance of the work of deliverance God began in the exodus. The exodus story earned a special place among African slaves and their descendants in America. The cry of the Hebrews became their cry. The hope of the Hebrews became their hope.

During the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, the story of the exodus again emerged as a guiding metaphor for black people seeking liberation from an overt system of oppression in the form of segregation laws. Again, the cry of the Hebrews became their cry and the hope of the Hebrews became their hope.

Now, in 2014, America stands at another crossroads of race. The equalities granted under the various acts and laws that emerged from the civil rights movement have proven incomplete. People of color in America in general, and black people specifically, face ongoing oppression from a network of political, legal, social, and cultural systems created long ago by white people to protect the power and privilege of white people. By inheriting this power and privilege, white people today are just as complicit in oppressing people of color as their more overtly racist ancestors were in creating those systems. Racism has become institutionalized, moving beyond the individual’s personal sentiments or religious piety. 

In returning to the exodus narrative, white people are forced to see themselves as the Egyptians in the story. We are not the enslaved, oppressed Hebrews crying out to God for deliverance. That story is not our story, though we may find it inspiring on an individual, pietistic level. If we are honest with ourselves, we are part of the Egyptian hegemony[1], those who benefit from the subjugation of Hebrew laborers. So what are white American Christians to do? Are we damned to play the villain in the story? Thankfully, no.

Nestled right in the middle of the powerful story of God’s liberation of Israel from under the Egyptians is an overlooked but astonishing statement about the composition of the people fleeing Egypt under Moses’ leadership. Along with the descendants of Jacob there were non-Israelites that left Egypt with Moses:

35Now the sons of Israel had done according to the word of Moses, for they had requested from the Egyptians articles of silver and articles of gold, and clothing; 36and the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have their request. Thus they plundered the Egyptians.

37Now the sons of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from children. 38A mixed multitude also went up with them, along with flocks and herds, a very large number of livestock.

(Exodus 12:35-48, NASB)

The text above simply says that a “mixed multitude” went with the Israelites out of Egypt, indicating that whoever these people were, they were decidedly not Hebrews. Many biblical commentaries overlook this verse altogether. The few that do give it some sort of treatment usually concluded that this group was probably other non-Hebrew slaves or even bands of foreign mercenaries.[2] However, the earliest Jewish and Greek interpretations of this verse indicate that this “mixed multitude” was largely, perhaps totally, made up of Egyptians.[3]

These early traditions lean toward an interpretation of the “mixed multitude” as containing a large number of Egyptians who, having seen God’s display of power on the side of the oppressed Israelites, make the decision to leave their place in the dominant culture and join with the Israelites. They leave the side of the oppressor and join the oppressed. In doing so, they too are liberated from the system of oppression of which they were previously a part.

The quiet example of the “mixed multitude” offers an important imperative for white Christians in America, especially in the moment immediately following the Ferguson, MO non-indictment decision. When those in the dominant culture recognize whose side God is on, the only faithful move can be to join[4] that side, regardless of the personal cost.

The cost for the “mixed multitude” was undoubtedly great. They left their homeland to join a people that were foreign[5] to them. They took on all the hardship that goes with that. They left a system designed to privilege them and went into literal exile because they were convinced it was the right thing to do.

Notice also what those in the multitude did not do. They did not try to lead or control where the people were going. That job was given to Moses. Joining the Israelites in solidarity meant fully emptying themselves of any vestiges of power they’d held as Egyptians in Egypt. Neither did they try to explain to the Israelites what was happening or how the Israelites ought to conduct themselves as they struggled to break the bonds of their oppressors. Instead, it appears that this “mixed multitude” was a rather silent bunch, humbled by the power of God exercised on the side of the oppressed. They postured themselves as followers, led by Moses and the Hebrew people, even as God’s twin pillars of cloud and fire led them.

In this moment, white Christians must recognize once and for all that there exists in America a pervasive white hegemony that works to insidiously subjugate people of color.[6] It will not go away unless and until white people recognize that God is on the side of the oppressed, always. White American Christians who claim to be followers of God must find their way to God’s side and then work, with all the fervor of any other evangelistic activity, to dismantle and destroy systems that oppress others.

Like the Egyptians of the “mixed multitude,” this means becoming traitors to a system built to privilege and preference us. It means entering into the community of the oppressed, lockstep.

[1] “Hegemony” refers to systems of military, political, and economic dominance that are used to justify the status quo and continue to exert the power of one group of people over another. It’s a big word, but an important one for this conversation.

[2] For the former, see as an example Brevard S. Childs’ commentary on Exodus. For the latter, reference the 2008 Hebrew Studies article by Shaul Bar, entitled “Who Were the Mixed Multitude?”

[3] The rabbinic Midrash Rabba states:

So God made a day of rejoicing for Israel when He redeemed them and He proclaimed: All who love my sons may come and rejoice with them. The virtuous among the Egyptians came, celebrated the Passover with Israel, and went up with them, for it says: And a mixed multitude went up also with them, but those who did not desire the redemption of the Israelites died with the firstborn, as it says: And He smote all the firstborn in Egypt.

First-century Jewish historian Philo of Alexandria, in his biography of Moses, Vita Moises, writes:

there also went forth with them a mixed multitude of promiscuous persons collected from all quarters, and servants, like an illegitimate crowd with a body of genuine citizens. Among these were those who had been born to Hebrew fathers by Egyptian women, and who were enrolled as members of their father’s race. And, also, all those who had admired the decent piety of the men, and therefore joined them; and some, also, who had come over to them, having learnt the right way, by reason of the magnitude and multitude of the incessant punishments which had been inflicted on their own countrymen.

[4] Even choosing to join a side is a reflection of one’s power. The Hebrews didn’t get to choose sides, but the Egyptians did. Today, people of color don’t get to choose which side of the hegemonic system they’re on, but white people can.

[5] The word “Hebrew” comes from the Egyptian word, habiru or apiru commonly used to refer to foreign people living in Egypt – though the Israelites had been in Egypt for over 400 years!

[6] To be more specific, we have in America a white male hegemony, but that doesn’t completely free white women from their responsibility to speak out against a system that affords them some manner of privilege due to the color of their skin, even while simultaneously denying them other privileges because of their gender.

Anderson Campbell