Second Wednesday of Lent
“Now there arose in Egypt a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph,” (Exodus 1:8) and that was when the trouble began for the Hebrews. You will remember that the Israelites had come to Egypt because of a great famine in their land. In Egypt they had initially found favor with Pharaoh because they were the family of Joseph whom Pharaoh had set in charge of all his possessions (read the whole story in Genesis 42-50).
Even after Joseph’s death, “the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7).
But after many years, there arose a Pharaoh to whom Joseph meant nothing, and this one was afraid of the Hebrews, for they were becoming more populous; so he enslaved them.
The Israelites were forced to make bricks and work in the fields, says Scripture. “And in this the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly” (Exodus 1:11-14).
It would be 400 years before God called Moses to lead God’s people out of bondage and into the Promised Land.
And it is this event, say many biblical scholars, that rightly begins the history of the Hebrew people, for their story is a story of salvation. “They saw their beginnings as a people in being saved from slavery and oppression,” says Barbara Bowe in Biblical Foundations of Spirituality “and their understanding of their God originates in that event.”
So important is the release from oppression that the writer of Deuteronomy sets it as the primary reason for the establishment of Sabbath.
Whereas in Exodus (20:8-11) the fourth commandment calls the people to set aside the Sabbath to celebrate creation, the Deuteronomy version stresses redemption. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day” (5:15).
Here the purpose of Sabbath is to remember the old, old story and to live as those released from bondage – bondage to sin, to exploitation, to oppression, to want.
It is always helpful to remember our stories. For Christians, the Hebrew story is a rehearsal, a foreshadowing of the Christ story. In Easter, we claim our ultimate redemption – the chains of hell are loosed and we, with Christ, are offered a new and glorious life.
And what of our own stories? Where, in our lives, do we see the hand of God saving us from death (literal or figurative) and utter despair? What oppression have we had the courage to throw off because we knew God to be with us? What exploitation have we recognized in our lives or the lives we encounter? Where, at one time believing ourselves to be separated from God, do we now see that God was at work all along?
Remembering the past, we take courage for the future. The Exodus event taught the Israelites to trust that God would provide enough manna for each day’s food and not a drop more (well, OK, they were slow to learn; so are we sometimes).
Redemption received teaches us of redemption yet to come. Nothing in our lives is beyond redemption. It may take a while, in human reckoning. That was a long 400 years for the Israelites. Then we say, with Paul, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
We say our prayers and appeal to the Holy Spirit, for the Spirit is always interceding on our behalf (8:26). We hang our faith and lives on the belief that it is all working together for good, and even if we do not see that now, we will some day (8:28).
And we remember. We read the old, old story once again, how once upon a time we didn’t know God and now we do. We remember our own stories, and we give thanks for our own Sabbath event.
Discipline for the second week of Lent: Tell someone your story. Recall a time when God redeemed a difficult situation, and celebrate that.