The story of the burning bush is our call narrative. Yours and mine. It is our call to be part of the resistance. This might take a little explanation.
Moses was tending sheep. Not his sheep. His father-in-law’s sheep.
Moses was neither rich nor powerful. Adopted as an infant by Pharaoh’s daughter, he had once enjoyed status and wealth in Egypt. But now he was a fugitive hiding in the badlands.
Back in Egypt, Moses had killed a man for beating a Hebrew slave. Apparently, Moses still identified deeply with the people of his birth family. No matter the reason, he was caught red-handed and fled for the desert.
God chooses this questionable character to lead the resistance against the most powerful Empire on the planet. From the midst of a burning bush, God tells Moses, “I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:10)
At this point, you might understandably wonder why I’m talking about resistance. You may be thinking that this sounds like a liberation story. After all, you know that Moses led the people out of Egyptian bondage, through the desert, and to the very edge of the Promised Land.
Maybe you’re imagining yourself in Jerusalem hearing the story at Temple or at the Passover meal or on your grandmother’s knee. You hear that God freed you from Pharaoh’s oppression. You’re hearing as a person whose freedom has been divinely accomplished. Gratitude is the proper response.
That would be fine except for one thing. The biblical text that we call Exodus was compiled while the Israelites were in exile. A new pharaoh ― first a Babylonian one and then a Persian one ― was holding them in captivity.
In 598 B.C., the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem. The siege ended in 587 or 586 B.C. with the destruction of the city and the Temple. And this wasn’t the worst of it. The invaders enslaved many of Jerusalem’s inhabitants and force-marched them to Babylon.
The captive Israelites had heard the stories of the exodus for their whole lives. Those stories had existed in oral form and some had been recorded as epic tales. Their message underscored the Israelite identity as a covenant people.
Before the fall of Jerusalem, being a covenant people was bound up with being free from Pharaoh’s grasp. Once Jerusalem lay in ruins and the people lived in a faraway land that was not their own, the meaning of these stories shifted.
Pharaoh was no longer a bad guy from the past. He was sitting on the throne. His Babylonian and then Persian boot was on their neck.
So, a priestly class of editors realized that the stories of Israel had a transformed meaning and a renewed urgency. They compiled the old stories into a single written narrative with a bold message. The Empire is back. You are living under its reign. And your role as the covenant people of God is to resist.
Whether Pharaoh, a Persian King, a Roman Caesar, a Czar, a Führer, or a President occupies the seat of power, empires follow the same pattern. An elite accumulates, consumes, and hoards more and more of the available resources. A majority competes for the dwindling supply of goods and services left over for them.
Using their political influence, elites ensure that the state’s laws and enforcement mechanisms reinforce and protect their privilege. Resentments build among the majority, so empires use various means to prevent social disorder.
Entertainment distracts the population. Widely accepted stories about the nation’s greatness or its exceptional character or its destiny promote loyalty to the system as it is. Fear of destruction by outside forces drives some to seek the empire’s protections.
Resentment among the underclass is coopted by the promise that you too could become one of the elite if you play by the empire’s rules. If all else fails, the use and the threat of violence keeps people in line.
God opposes Pharaoh in all his forms. Being the covenant people of God involves more than escaping the borders of a tyrant. The people of God confront and seek to dismantle dehumanizing, oppressive forces wherever and whenever we find them. We resist.
As Christians, we speak in terms of displacing empire with the Kingdom of Heaven. In the Kingdom, the first will be last and the last will be first.
This does not mean that the have-nots will suddenly become the Haves and the the Haves will be living under bridges. Instead, we envision a world that respects and guards the infinite dignity of every human being.
No one lives in substandard housing, suffers malnutrition, or goes without proper medical care. Every vote counts, and everyone gets a vote. My well-being hinges on your freedom. Equality means just that. Everyone. Everyone is equal before the law precisely because each of us is the beloved child of God.
Moses prefigured the credentials for membership in the resistance. He recognized the humanity of everyone, especially those dehumanized by the powerful. And, crucially, he said yes to being God’s agent of liberation for all.
You don’t need a burning bush. Listen to the voices of those in need and of those on the margins. God is calling.
Check out my blog “Looking for God in Messy Places”