Sometimes we get enslaved to systems.
A number of years ago Karen decided to attempt to eliminate caffeine from our lives. (I hear you gasping. Hang on. It gets worse.) One morning Karen substituted our full strength blend with a half-blend less caffeine. (I know. I know. She should be locked away.) By mid-morning my head was pounding. By mid-afternoon I was unable to concentrate. (See here for more with this story)
I had work to do that was not getting done. So I did what any resolute real man would do. I borrowed some coins from a preschooler and bought a Mountain Dew. Within minutes the highly caffeinated carbonate calmed my caffeine deficient cranium.
Able to think again, I pondered the predicament of the past day. How was this system of demand and supply created? Until thirty I had never been a connoisseur of coffee. But until thirty I had never been double teamed.
You see, we had a new addition to our family. Our firstborn confused his days and nights. When most people were dreaming in bed he opted for bonding with his dad. He would wake up, bond and go back to bed, wake up, bond and go back to bed an average of four times a night.
I was a good dad at night but a grumpy husband in the morning. That’s when he tagged his mother who then stepped into the ring. With her most tempting voice she whispered: “Try some coffee. It will help you get going in the morning.” I was an unsuspecting victim, lured into the dark world of caffeine.
Soon after, God confronted me. “Did you drink of the coffee in the kitchen?”
I answered along with my ancestor Adam: “The woman you put here with me gave me some coffee to drink!”
Next thing I knew the system was in place. Wake up. Start the coffee. Drink the coffee. Sounds harmless. Until you try to change the system. A first attempt and I quickly realized that systems don’t go away easily. They fight back.
First a dull pain. Followed by foggy thinking. Full blown headache. Pounding. The culture I created was not going to go away without a fight. So I gave in and found another shot of caffeine.
Systems don’t go away easily. They fight back. What happens in our bodies happens in our world. Just attempt to change a system and you will find the system pushing back.
Moses understood. While in Babylonian captivity the Hebrew storytellers wrote down a huge piece of their history. It is a story about their people being enslaved in a system of a world power. Egypt. Here’s how it goes. (See this book for this adapted summary of the Exodus story.)
The people of God had gone to Egypt to survive a famine. A king had come to power that was afraid of the numbers of the Israelites. He made them work hard with forced labor. They were enslaved. Worse yet, the Pharaoh decided to have all the Hebrew boys born to be thrown into the Nile.
One of those babies was saved when his mother put him in a basket—a tevah or ark—and placed him along the banks of the Nile. His sister watched as Pharaoh’s daughter was bathing and found the baby. She took him in as her own son and had the baby’s mother nurse him. She named the baby Moses, which means “drawing out,” because she drew him out of the water.
God grew this baby Moses into a leader for his people. Moses had an incident where he saw an Egyptian beating one of his fellow Israelites and he killed him. Pharaoh heard about it and wanted to kill Moses, so Moses ran to the wilderness where he stayed for 40 years.
Then God sends him back to Egypt to deliver his people from their slavery. There are ten plagues that he sends on Pharaoh and Egypt. Each plague was like a cage match with a different Egyptian god including Pharaoh himself.
The first encounter involves Moses throwing his staff down before Pharaoh. Then the staff turns into a serpent. The cobra was a symbol of Pharaoh’s power. God is playing with these other gods. So Pharaoh’s advisers, who are also armed with some divine strength, throw their staffs down and duplicate the same feat. But then Moses’ serpent swallows the serpents of Pharaoh.
The plagues start coming after the snakes. The first turns the Nile and all of Egypt’s water supply into blood. The Nile was the source of Egypt’s existence and worshiped as a god. When it turned to blood it meant that Yahweh could turn their source of life into death.
The second plague multiplies frogs all over Egypt. The Egyptian goddess of fertility was Heqet, who was supposed to have control over all of the fertility, and was depicted with the head of a frog.
Every plague corresponds to an Egyptian god. Dust in the wind became gnats in the sky. People were swarmed by flies. Cattle began dropping like flies. Boils landscaped flesh and hail pounded landscape. Locust devoured the leftovers.
By the time we get to the ninth plague the god being attacked is the sun god Ra. He is the highest god of the Egyptians and the patron god of Pharaoh. Yahweh, with a snap of his fingers, darkens the sun and blots him out.
On the eve of their Exodus from Egypt God sends the tenth and final plague. This plague is the death of all the firstborns in all the land. He announces this plague by saying he will execute judgment “on all the gods of Egypt.” The Egyptian god of the dead is Osiris. By controlling what Osiris is supposed to be a god of, Yahweh is moving in for the final blow.
Ten rounds. Yahweh wins each round. It is clear who the winner is. The Israelites head out and make their way to the Red Sea.
Once they get there they see a cloud of dust behind them. Pharaoh has decided to chase them and take them down while they are trapped between the Egyptian army and the sea. Moses raises his rod and does as Yahweh tells him to: Be still and watch.
An easterly wind starts blowing. That means it is blowing from the other side of the Sea from where Moses and the Israelites are. It blew all night and parted the water so that dry land appeared. The Israelites make their way across the dry land and, once they are safe, as the Egyptian army has now followed them into the dry sea bed, the waters are let loose to come back down over them. They drown and the Israelites have found that God is their way out of their slavery.
The Exodus story contains many takeaways. Originally it is hard to miss that a group of enslaved people in Babylon needed some assurance that their God was greater than those of the Babylonians. They were caught in a system of power where those in power took advantage over those who had none.
And so the Exodus story, although from another time, reminds them that their God took on the gods of the great nation of Egypt and won.
He can do the same for you and me. When the systems of our day hold their power over us, the Exodus tells us we have a power working for us and fighting for us that is greater than any of the other powers in the universe.
But maybe you don’t think you are enslaved. It’s difficult for those of us living in the most powerful nation of the world to see ourselves as the Israelites in this story. We are in the position of the Egyptians. This story was not told often in churches less than two hundred years ago in our country to people in churches who owned slaves because remember, Pharaoh was the bad guy. It’s needy people who talk about the Exodus. It’s hard to talk about entering the kingdom of Jesus when we are content in the one we are already in. If we don’t talk about the Exodus it’s because we aren’t looking for one. We don’t think we need one.
But we do. The powers of this world enslave us. Advertisement tells you what to buy. What car to drive. Peer pressure tells you who to sit with at school. Status tells you how much to own.
It doesn’t take long to discover that although we live in the land of the free we are not as free as we think. Our cravings control us. Our eyes follow after things that please us. Our pride tells us what to have and do. Our schedules dictate the time we allow for others.
It’s the world system. Culture tells us to do what feels good and we get addicted to pleasures. Money tells us to buy on credit and we get enslaved to debt. The world says those with the most and live the largest are on top and we get shackled into filling our days with more work and more activities. All to appease the gods of this world.
When we can see our own enslavements we will look for an exodus, a way out. That’s what the Greek word ex-hodos means: way out. Remember how the Israelites were trapped between the oncoming Egyptians on one side and the Red Sea on the other? An easterly wind began to blow all night, parting the waters. That means that the waters began to part on the far side of the sea. Imagine that. You have to forget the Cecil B. DeMille film where the water opens from the Israelite side toward the other side. I think it’s the opposite. It opened from the other side towards the Israelites. They couldn’t see all that God was doing. The enemy was approaching. And then, just when they thought they had no escape, an escape route opened up in front of them.
We can’t always see what God is doing either. But he’s working for our rescue. He’s working to make us a new creation.
The parting of the water in the Exodus story echoes the creation story again. God splits the sea in two and reveals the dry ground below, just as he did on day two of creation. There he splits the deep in two, pushing it apart, and creates waters above and below. Then on day three he focuses on the water below. He divides it to reveal dry land beneath. The parting of the Red Sea is described in the same way.
The God who brought order to chaos in creation tamed Pharaoh and his gods to create the nation of Israel. The same God who provided a way out then provides a way out now for us.
That way is Jesus. There’s a story in Luke’s gospel where Jesus is on a mountain and Moses and Elijah show up. We’re told they were talking about his “departure.” The word is ex-hodos. Jesus’ exodus, or his death, burial and resurrection. He is our exodus.
The Israelites followed Moses and found their way home as a people with God.
Their story is our story. We follow Jesus through life as we experience battles against the powers of this world—struggling, fighting, sometimes falling—but we follow. And he will lead us home to a better place where we are no longer slaves.