12/16/2014 01:54 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2015

The Exodus: A Christian Egyptian Perspective

I was born and raised in Upper Egypt. The population of the village where I grew up was predominantly "Christian." My church had a daily program of Christian education for the children of the elementary and junior high school. Our Christian education teachers taught us the content of the Bible well. Central to the biblical narrative that we learned was the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. We were taught that Egypt, the anti-elect, oppressed the people of God, and as a result God plagued Egypt with ten plagues, culminating in the death of the firstborn of the Egyptians. Absent from this biblical curriculum was any sympathy for the people who suffered from the plagues, or the ones who drowned in the sea. We were reading the text from the perspective of the Israelites. The Egypt of the story stood in for something else. In the church or in front of the biblical texts (specially the ones that portray Egypt as a house of slavery or a monster) we did not associate with Egypt. Yet every morning at school we sang the national anthem and we were taught in the history curriculum that pharaonic Egypt is a proud and central part of our tradition, history, and identity.

Taking the text at face value or reading the exodus tradition allegorically was brought under scrutiny during my graduate studies at the seminary in Cairo and at Union seminary in NYC. Delving into historical critical scholarship that holds the view that the exodus event did not happen in the exaggerated manner narrated in the Bible and the realization that although Egypt extended its empire to the Levant during the new kingdom, most of the biblical texts concerning the exodus come from times in which Egypt was not the super-power of the ancient near east, made me reconsider the nature of the sacred texts and their role in forming its first readers and subsequent generations of readers. The Egypt of the biblical text has become a frozen image or a dead metaphor that represents any form of oppression be it political or economic. This is evident in the use of the exodus story as an essential metanarrative for liberation theologies, in which Egypt continues to be used as a symbol for oppression. Furthermore, for some rabbis the 6-day war of 1967 was seen as a reenactment of the liberation of the Israelites from oppression recounted in the book of Exodus (Walzer, Exodus and Revolution, 140). I also recall a comment that I heard from a pastor after I gave a presentation on Egypt as a monster in Ezekiel, he said "how will we talk about evil in a concrete way if you take Egypt away from the narrative?" Once I came across an article that raises the question "Before Hitler, Who Was the Stand-In for Pure Evil," the answer was given in the subtitle "The Egyptian Pharaoh, of Course." Thus the exodus tradition for communities of faith is not seen as an ancient one; rather it has come to play a significant role informing peoples' narratives in the Middle East and around the world.

As a Christian Egyptian I struggled with formulating my identity in light of the negative representation of Egypt in the Old Testament. For a period of time I, like most of Christian Egyptians, interpreted the exodus spiritually or allegorically. Identifying with Israel of the Hebrew Bible and not with Egypt, I read the exodus as a spiritual struggle against evil, which is represented in the Bible by Egypt. Although allegorical interpretation created a way of dealing with offensive parts of the Hebrew Bible for a Christian Egyptian reader of the exodus like myself, the problem with this approach is that it alienated me from my historical situatedness with its peculiar socio-political struggles, to say nothing of the historical context of the text itself. The underlying problem with this hermeneutical approach has to do with accepting the biblical portrayal of Egypt uncritically or explaining it away allegorically without reflecting on how this representation of Egypt shapes a people's self-image and self-understanding. After watching the Prince of Egypt with my 7 year old she asked me: "Daddy does God love Egyptians?"

With the growth of my political awareness of my identity as an Egyptian, I thought the only way to deal with the portrayal of Egypt in the exodus narrative is to discard the text and not to engage with it as scripture because it's offensive. I began to be aware of the tension between the religious facet of my identity that wants to hold onto the Hebrew Bible as scripture and the political facet of my identity that wants to hold onto being an Egyptian. The reviewed hermeneutical models fell short of providing a satisfactory engagement with the tension between the political and the religious facets of my identity. Allegorical approach dismisses the political facet of the identity of Christian Egyptians in order to redeem the religious facet, while dismissing the text seeks to emphasize the political aspect of their identity. Neither discarding the text nor allegorizing the text treats the text in its historical and cultural milieu, nor do these interpretive decisions deal with the history of consequences of the text in the lives of faith communities in the past and in the present.

Discarding the text and allegorizing the text hinges on the assumption that identity is pure and rigid, thus both approaches try to assimilate the political into the religious or vice versa. Homi Bhabha questions "the simple polarization of the world into self and other," thereby emphasizing the hybridity of identity. This concept refers to mixed and impure nature of identity. The liminal, the interstitial (the border, the threshold, the in-between), brings forth new forms of identities that complicate any rigid construction of self and other. Identity is neither stable nor coherent. Constructing an identity by means of binary opposition, one has to choose one or the other, or construct one over against the other; however, formulating a hybrid identity allows the embrace of both aspects of one's identity, the religious and the political. Experiencing the exodus for a "Christian" "Egyptian" means living with an identity that holds a tension, a paradox; one is simultaneously an "Egyptian" and an "Israelite." By embracing being both an Egyptian and an Israelite, one negotiates difference and sameness not with an other that is outside of one's self but rather with an other that is within.

The recognition of the complexity of one's or a community's identity is an exodus in which one is liberated from rigid conceptions of identity. On this journey of liberation one learns how to deal with the shame of being the oppressor and one learns how to yearn for a just and peaceful liberation when the oppressor becomes the oppressed. With this hybrid identity one might end up out of Egypt but not make into the promised land; like Moses, an Egyptian and an Israelite, one has to live in a liminal space. This liminal space is what enables me as a Christian Egyptian to reflect on the ways in which I am privileged and to be courageous to speak truth to those who abuse their power to oppress the poor. are in power and try to create an oppressive hegemony.

When one learns how to live with one's own inner-otherness and sees oneself as an other, one is at a better place for inter-religious dialogue urgently needed in the Middle East between Jews, Muslims, and Christians. The complexity of identity in relation to the exodus as a liberation from hegemony invites one to think about what we need to be liberated from and what we need to be liberated into. I believe we need to be liberated from religious and nationalistic idols that not only take the place of God but also harm our fellow humans whom we try to create into our own image. We are called to be liberated from assuming that the only options available are assimilation or demonization. We are called to be liberated into finding a third space in which not only we can exist together, but also enrich one another through our shared sameness as human beings and through religious and nationalistic diversities and differences. We need to be liberated out of the misconception that the other exists only as a folio over and against whom we construct our identity; we need to be liberated into the virtue of humility in which we recognize our need for the other and the virtue of hospitality in which we are willing to open ourselves to the other.