Aaron threw down his shepherd’s rod in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it turned into a cobra. Then Pharaoh called together his wise men and wizards, and Egypt’s religious experts did the same thing by using their secret knowledge. Each one threw down his rod, and they turned into cobras. But then Aaron’s rod swallowed up each of their rods (Exodus 7:10–12).
Just about everyone who reads the Exodus story wants to play the part of “Israel”. The pilgrims who fled England in search of religious freedom in the “New World” framed their story using the Exodus. King James was their Pharaoh. The Atlantic Ocean was their Red Sea. What would become “America” was their Promised Land. Their Thanksgiving feast was their Passover.
In the popular narrative of the U.S. as told by the U.S., America is a holy nation. For some, that makes Americans God’s chosen people. That makes its patriots into saints. That makes its wars holy. The only official story of America is the story of its greatness.
It hasn’t even occurred to many that the very same people who claimed to flee from the “Pharaoh” of their time would build a new “Egypt” in the so-called New World, but that is exactly what happened.
Each year, on our Thanksgiving Day, indigenous people gather at Plymouth Rock for a solemn assembly. They remember that around that time — May 26, 1637 to be exact — that up to 700 Pequot men, women, and children were massacred by the freshly emancipated European pilgrims whom we honor with turkey. Our day of feasting is their day of mourning. Such stories, however, are forbidden.
Many Americans love to tell the stories where Americans used whatever means necessary to throw off the chains that once bound them: the stories of riots, revolutions, and wars against “tyrannical” regimes. Many of those same Americans are offended by the idea that America has been a tyrannical regime to some people groups. They do not want those stories to be told.
Because America insists on telling a single story — the story where it always gets to play holy “Israel” — any notion that there are oppressed people here is a heresy. Any lack of patriotism is condemned as apostasy. Any criticism is suppressed as blasphemy.
We see this when athletes receive death threats for not standing for the national anthem. We see this when the FBI labels and targets black activists as terrorists. We see this when journalists lose their jobs for naming racial injustice when she sees it.
If America insists on playing “Israel” then it must also continue to make traitors, threats, and heretics of those who talk about it as “Egypt.”
This Means War
The snake fight in this passage from Exodus foreshadows the war that is about to unfold between the God of the Ghetto and the gods of Egypt. Snakes themselves were symbols of divinity in ancient Egypt. That symbolic fight between those reptile surrogates of the divine, however, was just the beginning.
In the chapters that follow this passage, YHWH would go on to make two things clear: that He considered what was happening to the Hebrews an act of war (Exodus 4:22–23), and that He was greater than the gods of Egypt. In fact, He would show that those who were worshipped in Egypt were not gods at all.
The Egyptians worshipped the Nile. YHWH turned the Nile to blood. The Egyptian goddess Heqet had the appearance of a frog-headed humanoid. YHWH sent swarms of frogs all over the entire kingdom — so on, so forth. Each plague showing that YHWH was supreme over what the Egyptians called “gods.”
In the book of Exodus, the only official story in Egypt, as far as Pharaoh was concerned, was the story of Egypt’s greatness. Any alternative stories were forbidden — no stories of social evil or of Hebrew empowerment (Exodus 5:5–17).
God, however, saw the whole story in Egypt. The famous ten plagues were God’s judgement on Egypt for 400 years of orchestrated injustice (Genesis 15:13–14). What looked like — and indeed was — glorious liberation to the Hebrews looked like an attack on everything held sacred to the Egyptians.
We Are ‘Egypt’
There is no comfortable way to play the Egyptians in this story. To play “Egypt” means that God comes in announcing our nation’s sins. That means that God disrupts our sense of order. That means God exposes our gods as idols. No one wants to be on that side of the conflict.
Nevertheless, everyone that reads this story can’t actually be in the position of the Israelites. Somebody is at least occasionally playing “Egypt.”
America can insist that the only story to tell is the one of its own greatness. It can keep suppressing the voices that nuance that story from the margins: keep firing newscasters who name its sins, keep shunning athletes who don’t stand for the national anthem, keep hunting down activists who push for change. God will still know the whole story.
This place is “Egypt” — many Americans may refuse to know it, but those in the margins can see. We see the ways that we are policed more violently. We see the ways our neighborhoods are more heavily surveilled. We see the ways that we are sentenced more harshly for the same crimes that our neighbors commit. We see the ways that we are misrepresented in the media. We see the ways that we are discriminated against when it comes to housing, employment and healthcare.
We see this place. It is no “holy” land to us. Things do not have to be this way, but as long as things remain the way they are, this can never be our “promise land.”
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- On the other-side of the ‘Thanksgiving’ story
- On “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche