So the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites. They made their lives miserable with hard labor, making mortar and bricks, doing field work, and by forcing them to do all kinds of other cruel work. The king of Egypt spoke to two Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah: “When you are helping the Hebrew women give birth and you see the baby being born, if it’s a boy, kill him…” (Exodus 1:13–16).
Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing
For some reason, someone thought it would be a good idea to ask a certain, famous megachurch pastor and seminary president what he thought about racism and the Black Lives Matter movement. His response:
“The object of life is no longer to fix past injustices, the object of life now is to proclaim Christ…once [people] come to Christ, all other issues fall away…and when the gospel changes your life, you go from social issues to spiritual issues.”
In those words, Mr. Famous-White-Megachurch-Pastor-and-Seminary-President expresses an idea that permeates so much of evangelical Christianity: that the gospel and Christ are somehow separate from issues of social injustice.
That idea made it difficult for me to find a church job after graduating from seminary, especially at one very large and influential megachurch. Interviews with their folks from their staff always got awkward when someone would inevitably ask me, “So what have you been up to lately?” At the time, I had been lugging a stone around Los Angeles to demonstrate how racial trauma weighs on the black psyche. My passion for racial justice made some nervous.
“We just want to keep the main thing the main thing,” I was told.
The main thing, in that worldview, is personal spiritual salvation through faith in Jesus Christ — a gift people receive in full post mortem by going to heaven. On that basis, black Christians are discouraged from speaking up about or fighting against (also pronounced “obsessing about” in evangelical terms) racial injustice — that’s a social issue, not a spiritual one.
In the Exodus story, however, God saves the Israelites from the land of Egypt — meaning God saves them from the entirety of their predicament there.
We won’t able to appreciate what this story is telling us about what it means “to be saved” until we fully consider that whatever spiritual aspects of oppression the Hebrews may have experienced, those factors were so bound to the social, political, psychological, and physical aspects of their predicament, that to deal with just the physical problem — that is, their location in Goshen’s ghetto — would address all of the others.
We need a broader understanding of salvation that begins with personal transformation but necessarily expands into relief from political suffering and an end to all forms of social evil. The Exodus story shows us that God has that kind of holistic understanding of salvation. We can gain such an understanding by paying very close attention to the entirety of the predicament from which the Hebrews were saved (which we are about to do).
Pharaoh was not joking when he said the plan to curb the Hebrew population would be “shrewd”. It would be calculated, methodical, and multi-faceted. Let’s review.
Phase 1: Attack the Nation’s Memory (Exodus 1:1–8)
Altering the history books so that the record of peaceful relations between Goshen’s ghetto and the rest of Egypt were forgotten — including the story of the Hebrews who saved and blessed the nation — made the people’s imagination a blank canvass for the government to decorate.
Phase 2: Misrepresent the Hebrews to Exploit Existing Social Divisions (Exodus 1:9–10)
Since the average Egyptian had few interactions with actual Hebrews because of a long-standing prejudice against the Hebrews as being inferior (Genesis 46:33), Pharaoh could upgrade that prejudice to outright contempt.
Pharaoh could now say that the Hebrews were more than low-class. He could say they were useless — that he’d pay the person who could name even one major contribution a Hebrew ever made to Egyptian society, knowing that he’d made it impossible to do so.
He could tell a revised version of history: where Egypt’s brilliant leaders defied the most devastating famine of all time, keeping enough grain in Egypt to feed the rest of the world. He could say that Egypt temporarily (and graciously) opened its borders to refugees in need, and that they have been feeding those lazy mooching Hebrews ever since!
If they didn’t act fast, the king could say, those lecherous Hebrews would rob the entire country of house and home. “Next thing you know,” he could say, “one of those derelicts may even rule Egypt!” (as though that hadn’t already happened.)
Phase 3: Enforce Social Divisions as a Social Etiquette (Exodus 1:11-12)
Formal oppression for the Hebrews seems to have happened in stages. First — the CEB (Common English Bible) translation reads — the Egyptians “harassed” the Hebrews with hard work. It reads as though the Egyptians just started telling Hebrews what to do. A few verses later, the text will read that the Egyptians “enslaved” the Hebrews with harsher work, so it seems like this initial stage of oppression had some differences from the latter.
Perhaps it looked something like the Jim Crow Era (appx. 1877–1965) in the southern U.S. I don’t mean the laws that required legal separation of black and white people. I mean the culture of white supremacy that forced black Americans to learn a type of racial etiquette, showing deference to white people and respect for America’s racial caste in everyday interactions.
In the Jim Crow South, Black people were expected to use formal titles when addressing white people, to make way for white people on sidewalks, and to always give white motorists the right of way, among other forms of deference. Many white Americans expected black Americans to abide by that racial etiquette, chiding or beating black Americans who failed to meet their standards of respect — or worse, killing those who defied the etiquette altogether. There were no laws that demanded that black people honor those cultural expectations, but the threat of being lynched for transgressing the etiquette was social pressure enough to make many black Americans comply.
In essence, black people were expected to do whatever white people commanded. The same seems to have become the case in Egypt. The Hebrews were put to work, not because such work was legally obligated or could be morally defended. They were expected to obey these Egyptians that suddenly appointed themselves as their masters, as a way of honoring the caste system.
Driven by ignorance, fear, and contempt, many Egyptians seem to have begun taking the caste system very personally, and committed themselves to defending it.
Phase 4: Institutionalize the Caste System (1:13–14)
Beating the Hebrews down was supposed to make them too exhausted to thrive, but harassment wasn’t working. As the Hebrew population continued to grow, so did the disgust and dread of the Egyptians. Slavery became a vehicle for the Egyptians to express that disgust and dread and to keep the Hebrews in their place — a government-sponsored program to oppress the Israelites in an orderly and effective manner — an institution.
We don’t know exactly what slavery looked like for the Israelites. The writer describes it in terms we would do well to take seriously, as people have the dangerous tendency to minimize or deny past atrocities in order to cool passion about present injustices. Let no one tell you that this predicament was probably not as bad as you might imagine (as some pastors like to do, because oppressed people must always be exaggerating about their suffering, even the writer of this text. #sarcasm).
Give the writer’s words the weight they deserve: It was an “affliction”, “cruel” and “rigorous.”
The revised history, a general prejudice, a fear of “the other” and of being dispossessed, all worked together to justify a social hierarchy with Hebrews at the bottom. But historical ignorance, prejudice, and social hierarchies are pretty abstract: they need vehicle(s) to communicate with the material world. General harrassment and the system of forced labor were alchemy that made the Hebrews experience the the king’s revised history, cultural prejudices, and an oppressive social hierarchy, in their bodies.
Phase 5: Directly Disrupt Their Community (1:15–16)
Genocide. Pharaoh would not send Egyptian soldiers marching into Goshen to snatch infants from their mothers’ arms. A smart politician, he wanted to be tactical, insidious, and covert.
He would make Hebrew women kill Hebrew babies. If the midwives were willing to do it, it would cause rifts in the community that may never heal. It may even discourage Hebrew couples from wanting to procreate at all, knowing that their child would either live their entire lives as a slave or not live at all. Perhaps Hebrews will start killing themselves from despair. If they don’t, they’ll still be providing free labor. It seemed that any outcome one could think of would spell a win for Pharaoh.
Put It All Together And Whadda’ You Got?
The Christian who says that “the gospel” or “salvation” does not apply to “social issues” has not fully considered that the Exodus is a divine response to the social pain of the children of the ghetto. The state had declared war on the Hebrews: using cultural prejudice, institutions, miseducation, political propaganda, and covert and overt forms of organized violence as its weapons.
Their predicament in Egypt in this story is a biblical example of a system of oppression. If we don’t appreciate that God was responding to the details of their entire social predicament, then our answers to “what does it mean to be saved?” will always be too narrow.
**This article has been edited to include more sassy parenthetical statements about the suspicion with which oppressed people are greeted when they testify about their suffering.
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For Further Exploration:
Hat tip to John Robert Tomkinson for helping me put this list together.
- The Video Interview with John MacArthur: “A Biblical Response to Racism and Black Lives Matter”
- On the History and System of Racial Injustice in the United States: Legal Expert Bryan Stevenson Traces the Evolution of Slavery to Mass Incarceration [VIDEO]
- On Terror Lynchings and the Racial Etiquette of the southern United States: Legal Expert Shares Stories of Racial Terror Lynchings [VIDEO]
- An In-Depth Analysis of Systemic Racial Injustice in the U.S.: Ava Duvernay’s Documentary 13th.
- On Racial Etiquette During Jim Crow: Jim Crow Etiquette.
- A Case Study on Racial Etiquette: The Murder of Emmett Till
- On the Government Disruption: Aid to President Nixon Admits How Racism Energized the War on Drugs.
- On the War on Drugs as a Government Tool for Social Control: How Racist Myths Fueled the War on Drugs
- On Racism and Mass Incarceration: A Statistical Analysis Showing How Race Determines Outcomes in the U.S. Criminal Justice System.