Apr  2017 11
Understanding Holy Week as Exodus

The Bible is anti-imperial, from start to finish. And the problems to which the biblical writers point, from the author of the Exodus story through the crucifixion of Jesus, are injustice and idolatry.

In this week where Passover and Holy Week coincide, it is well to review the anti-imperial, anti-idolatry narrative that welds the two events together.

Whether opining about Egypt, Israel’s choice to have a king, the Assyrians and the Babylonians, or the Seleucids and the Romans, biblical authors have nothing good to say about empires and their pretentions to rule by divine mandates. If we miss this point, we miss the this-worldly power of the Passover and Passion narratives and, really, of the entire trajectory of the Bible.

The authors of Genesis write that, through a series of nasty human actions redeemed by God for good (Genesis 50:20), Jacob’s youngest son, Joseph, enjoyed privileged status in Egypt when there was famine in his homeland.

Egypt’s rulers welcomed Hebrew refugees from that famine until a “Pharaoh who did not know Joseph” arose, looked with fear at the baby boom of the refugees, and enslaved them. In that part of the ancient world, gods and kings aligned in a divinely ordained hierarchy. Gods undergirded kings and vice versa.

A God who takes up the cause of the enslaved, who hears their pain, and who acts to free them is an astounding disruption to the dominant narrative. Gods ordain and sanctify empires; they don’t undermine them—except for this strange Hebrew God.

The liberation by God of the Hebrew people from the jaws of an empire is a repeated theme throughout scripture.

Besides the first narration of the exodus theme in the book of Exodus, the theme is used by the Isaiahs (scholars think there were three of them) to interpret the people’s release from Babylonian captivity, it appears numerous times in the Psalms, and one cannot understand the New Testament gospels apart from the exodus theme.

Matthew’s story of “the slaughter of the innocents” echoed Pharaoh’s rampage against Hebrew boys from which Moses was spared.

In Matthew, Jesus delivered “Moses on Sinai”-type instruction from mountain tops.

John modeled his Jesus story on Moses’ lifting the serpent in the wilderness to heal the people (read the two verses right before the oft-memorized John 3:16) and coincided Jesus’ execution with the slaughter of the Passover lambs (Jesus is the Passover lamb).

The gospels echo, repeat, and invoke the Exodus event.

Remember that Good Friday ends with the Roman imperial authority executing Jesus as an insurrectionist. Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion were surely connected to his “cleansing the temple” action, which some historians think the Romans and the temple authorities interpreted as a terrorist-level action that significantly damaged the city’s economy that year.

Claiming that Jesus—who prayed for the overthrow of Rome (“Your empire come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” cannot mean anything else), whom the Romans crucified for the sake good order—was raised from the dead by the Jewish God is surely an anti-imperial claim, in the context of the day.

The Romans would not have spiritualized the claim as some modern Christians do, who turn everything that challenges today’s “law and order” into matters exclusively individual and “of the heart.” The exodus Jesus offered was disruptive, and it still can be.

In Christianity’s Holy Week narrative, the God of the Exodus, who hears the cries of the oppressed and who sides with the oppressed for the cause of justice and freedom, lives.

Injustice as evidenced by how a society treats its most vulnerable members cannot stand forever, because God hears the cries of the oppressed.

While any administration is likely to baptize their way of thinking and doing as “godly,” biblical stories from the Exodus through Holy Week offer a cautionary tale, at least, and sometimes at outright “No!” because there is something else, there is someone else who deserves the “Yes!” we sing about on Easter Sunday.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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