As the crisis in Egypt reached its climax this week, commentators struggled to find historical parallels, from the fall of the Berlin Wall, to Tiananmen Square, to the revolution in Iran. But one parallel that's been mostly overlooked is the remarkable similarities between current events and the story in the Book of Exodus about the confrontation between Israel and ancient Egypt.
Before we get too carried away: Drawing connections between the Bible and contemporary events can be a fool's errand, a trap or, worse, a dangerous ideological weapon. As I discovered while working on America's Prophet, my book on the influence of Moses in American history, both abolitionists and slave-holders in antebellum America tried to justify their slavery by quoting the Bible. And the slave-holders had the better case.
The Bible is not a history book, or a policy book.
But it is a remarkably insightful portrait of some enduring patterns of human behavior, including that of dictators, mobs of people abused for generations, and what happens when the two sides clash.
1. The people rarely succeed on the first try.
The Book of Exodus opens with the Israelites, having been enslaved for 430 years, straining under the yoke of the pharaoh. After being recruited by God through the burning bush, Moses -- the adoptive grandson of the pharaoh -- returns to free his people. He marches up to the pharaoh and demands, "Let my people go that they may celebrate a festival for me in the wilderness." Note that he does not demand total liberation, but a more modest request for religious freedom. He wants three days off to celebrate a festival. But the pharaoh scoffs at the request, thereby guaranteeing that when the people come back they will escalate their demands. The parallels to the current situation are unavoidable: With each passing week, the people grew more confident and slowly increased their demands.
2. The leader has henchmen.
Not only does the pharaoh reject the Israelites' demands, he takes retribution. He orders his taskmasters to withdraw the straw for making bricks, but does nothing to eliminate their quotas, "Let heavier work be laid upon the men," the pharaoh says. The result is an excuse for the pharaoh's henchman to lash out at the people. Predictably, the crisis in Egypt today also moved from early, mostly peaceful demonstrations, to an outbreak of violent repression as the regime sent security forces and machete-wielding mobs. At that point, confrontation was inevitable.
3. The people have powers, too.
Faced with resistance from their arrogant despot, Moses and the Israelites escalate their pressure by deploying a set of mass disruptions that bring the country -- and its economy -- to a halt. There are many ways of viewing the Ten Plagues -- as theological lesson, as natural disaster, as literary flourish -- but there is one undoubtable consequence: they wreak havoc on Egypt. They attack the foundation of its economy and bring the country to a standstill. The first plague, for instance, turns the Nile river to blood, attacking the core of the country's livelihood. The mass demonstrations in Tahrir square, led by soft-spoken leaders like Wael Ghonim, performed a similar action: a gradual escalation of economic pressure in a form that the regime would recognize.
4. The leader will harden his heart.
But still pharaoh resists. The Bible uses very precise language here. After the first plague: "Pharaoh's heart stiffened;" "He turned and went into the palace." After the second plague: "Pharaoh became stubborn this time also, and would not let the people go." Twenty times the Bible describes the pharaoh's heart as hardening. The message is clear: The tyrant of Egypt is callous, obdurate and fully responsible for the suffering of the people. Can anyone who watched President Mubarak's speech on Thursday -- especially after a day of news reports raising expectations of his departure -- not say that his heart appeared to have hardened?
5. The end is personal.
It's the 10th plague, in the end, that finally breaks the back of the pharaoh. "Toward midnight, I will go forth among the Egyptians, and every first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of the Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones." There was a loud cry from Egypt, the Bible says, and finally the pharaoh relents. "Go," he tells Moses. Mubarak, in his speech, also mentioned his son, promising that they would both die on Egyptian soil. That reference suggests that accepting the end of his family's dynasty may have been hardest thing at all for him to do. Once he realized he was all alone, the final outcome was unavoidable.
6. The road ahead is long.
With all these parallels, there is one more echo of the Bible that many prove to be the most lasting. In my book Walking the Bible, I described how the Exodus has profound similarities with the Creation story. In effect, the event is Israel's re-creation: the rupture from its confined womb in Egypt, the passage through the narrow canal of the Red Sea, the arrival as a new people in Sinai. All endings are beginnings, too. And in the case of the Exodus, at least, the rebooting of the country leads to a protracted wandering in the desert full of anxiety, regret, doubt, and rebellion. That lesson from the Bible may prove to be the most enduring: While victory is sweet, the road to the Promised Land of freedom has many detours ahead.
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