It is not uncommon to see so many people in our time sleep-walking through life. It is not uncommon to see many downtrodden people incapable of waking up to the moment. It is so tragic today to see subordinated peoples, deprived of their humanity, develop the mentality of slaves; it is sad to see dominated peoples reduced to being concerned only with the condescending favours of their enslavers, and distrustful of efforts in the restoration of their rights: “The writers of Exodus stress that if oppressed people are to obtain liberation, they must – with God’s aid – confront the Pharaohs of the world: in order for the Hebrews to participate in the struggle for their human rights, they had first to realise that it was Pharaoh who had infringed upon their rights and that their struggle had to begin with a direct confrontation with Pharaoh. Thus, the third chapter of Exodus says that Moses was ordered to confront Pharaoh in order to help the Hebrews escape from slavery” (Moon, p.230).
Why do people living in the foxholes of despair, depression, addiction, etc find it difficult to role away the stone and claim their freedom? Why do people persist in Goshen, when they should rather be on the way to their promised lands? Why does the Promised Land resemble such an Impossible Land especially to the very people that need it most? This is what the story of Israel’s Exodus reveals about those who must struggle for their liberation today: such people are always in need of a humanity that is ready to stand up on their behalf as co-liberators, ready to partner with God and empower them to risk an escape; such oppressed and downtrodden people, lacking the capacity to do so themselves, need God-empowered persons to confront the pharaohs of the world and insist on their liberation: “In any breach with situations of servitude, a first step will be to promote a mentality of active solidarity … There must be individuals to take up the questions and traumas of a group and awaken the group to injustices from within and injustices from without. Certain individuals must decide to speak, in the conviction that many in the group are aware of their suffering” (Ela, p.252).
It fell on Moses to do this work, to awaken the people to God’s alternative way of living that transcended the fear of Pharaoh and his threat of genocide. The ten plagues that descended on the land of Egypt are to be understood not only as God’s attempt to force the hands of Pharaoh to let the people go, but also his divine effort to awaken the people from the sleep of perpetual acquiescence to eternal enslavement.
For the Israelites in Goshen, as also for many enslaved and downtrodden people today, God remains a waymaker, even where there seems to be no way. This is an important message at a time when more and more people are inclined to fatalism and seem to be held down by resignation. Isaiah 35:1 – 10 envisions the revival of Israel from Babylonian enslavement in the mould of such a difficult journey from desolation to full bloom, from slavery to redemption, from failure to glory and splendour. Verse 8 calls this transformational pathway the “desert way”: “And through it will run a road for them and a highway which will be called The Sacred Way”. Similar sentiments are articulated by Isaiah 40:3 – 5, inviting the Exiles in Babylon to prepare to return to the desert once again for a new journey of liberation: “A voice cries, ‘Prepare in the desert a way for Yahweh. Make a straight highway for our God across the wastelands. Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be levelled, every cliff become a plateau, every escarpment a plain; then the glory of Yahweh will be revealed and all humanity will see it together.”
God and the pilgrim people
God’s glory always appears whenever we overcome harrowing challenges that tie us down, and that tempt us not to make for the open way. Long before the disciples of Jesus were called by the name ‘Christians’ in Antioch (Acts 11:26; 26:28), they were probably first known by the name ‘People of the Way’ (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 24:4). That name could probably have arisen from the self-description of Jesus in John 14:6: “I am the Way, I am Truth and Life.” Followers of Christ today must thus be able to see themselves as part of a movement of liberation from every sort of captivity: “The spirit of the Lord is on me, for he has anointed me to bring the good news to the afflicted. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord” (Luke 4:18 – 19).
God is always revealed in every adventure of liberation. God makes known his redeeming power wherever captive peoples are empowered to awaken to their hour of freedom, to attempt the first steps on their way to liberation. The post-resurrection Jesus was always on the move, on the lookout for his disciples. On the road to Emmaus he revealed himself to the two disciples as a pilgrim, accompanying them, listening to their questions, opening the scriptures for them, and making their eyes glow with the revelation of himself to them on the road. He equally appeared to the disciples who were hiding in the upper room (John 20). His breath on them quickened their hearts, calmed their fears, and galvanized them to the life of missionaries. The risen Jesus stopped his disciples from closing themselves up in their fears. Even the disciples on the way to Emmaus returned on the same night to Jerusalem. Every step of the journey of faith has the potential to open the wayfarer to the presence of God on the way. Every step of the way has the potential to break the yoke of the status quo and reveal the dawning of a new reality: “The God of the Old Testament, the God of the Promise, continually shows human beings a future of hope, which enables them to criticize the existing situation. God summons up from within the hoping consciousness of the human being a nonconformity with reality. In short, God carries human beings forward, toward a future characterized by a new reality” (Ela, A Black African Perspective. P.245 – 246).
The Jewish thinker, Abraham Heschel, has spoken in a very forthright way about the life of faith: “Faith is both certainty and trial: certainty in spite of perplexities, a trial demanding sacrifice, strain, wrestling. For certainty without trial becomes complacency, lethargy, while trial without certainty is chaos, presumption, as if God had never reached us” (Heschel, 1968:108).
Heschel’s words warn us against the dangers of a ‘convenient faith’. At a time when the Christian milieu is awash with prosperity preachers, and the Christian message is being diluted by an extreme focus on the material benefits of faith – of a faith that must be accompanied each time by signs and wonders, the core message of the book of Exodus invites us to a reawakening of the nature of the faith-journey: the Promised Land is accessible only when we agree to depart from Egypt and undertake a journey through a hazardous route that winds its way through the desert. Today many spiritual leaders are offering ‘shortcuts to Canaan’ to many God-seekers, ultimately misleading them from the path to freedom ordained for them by God (Exod.13:17 – 20). Others are scaring them away from making the journey that will be defining for their relationship with God, just the same way the scouts sent to reconnoitre the land of Canaan tried to discourage the Israelites of old (Numbers 13:25 – 14:4). Both extremes are to be avoided.