We continue the Exodus journey with Israel leaving Egypt. As I’ve said, their journey is an analogy of ours. Our own New Exodus journey can be seen as we probe the theological and psychological realities of that first journey. In this post, we see how quickly a beautiful story can turn tragic…
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The Exodus story, as I’ve said, gives us a window into how we grow and mature as human beings. It represents the best and worst of the human story. It represents the beauty and brokenness of life on this side of the New Canaan. And that dual reality is perhaps no more clear then when this ancient people, so much like us today, accepts the bold challenge of God to take a new road in life, but finds it more difficult than they imagined.
To get this, we’ve got to do a little background biblical work which will be fleshed out more concretely and practically in future posts. So be patient…this post is a bit longer and more theologically/biblically loaded, but it’s worth getting this to understand our own lives.
Think back to an earlier post – The Womb becomes a Tomb – when I wrote that the Exodus miracle was much like the birth of a baby. Israel had outgrown its temporary womb, and through the waters it was birthed into new longing, new life, new identity, and new opportunity. Interestingly, much later in Israel’s history the prophet Ezekiel reflected back on the Exodus story in the same way, writing
4 On the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to make you clean, nor were you rubbed with salt or wrapped in cloths. 5 No one looked on you with pity or had compassion enough to do any of these things for you. Rather, you were thrown out into the open field, for on the day you were born you were despised. 6 ” ‘Then I passed by and saw you kicking about in your blood, and as you lay there in your blood I said to you, “Live!” 7 I made you grow like a plant of the field. You grew up and developed and became the most beautiful of jewels. Your breasts were formed and your hair grew, you who were naked and bare. (from Ezek. 16)
This is a story that would make some people blush. God portrays His people as a newborn growing into her body, and growing into her identity. The young infant Israel had found a home in God, and in God they knew security, safety, sustenance, and provision. The images in this chapter of Ezekiel are vivid. God begins to speak of the beauty of His growing child. He sees her growing and developing into the woman she was made to be. And as she grows into her God-given beauty, it becomes time for her to be taken as a wife to her Bride-Groom – God Himself. Ezekiel writes
8 ” ‘Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign LORD, and you became mine.
This ancient picture is that of a marital covenant. It is God’s invitation to His once-oppressed and despised bride to enter into a sacred relationship of trust, a covenant, a bond initiated by the Bride-Groom Yahweh, the Divine Pursuer and Lover, the Great Rescuer (see Ex. 19-24). Sounds great, doesn’t it? But the rest of the story reveals how our hurting hearts resist Love, and how our broken hearts resist the invitation to Beauty.
Like a newborn, Israel emerged from the womb with bitter tears at Marah (Ex. 15-16). The great rescue had become, for them, not so much a continual celebration of God’s goodness but a cosmic bait and switch game that left them unsure if the decision to leave Egypt was the right one after all. The great joy had turned to profound dissatisfaction. God had ignited their longing and intensified their hunger, but rescue did not bring the satisfaction and delight they longed for. Their joy in being rescued was tempered by the prospect of journeying through a dry and weary land, and many scoffed at the prospect. Some even reminisced about life back in Egypt.
I think about the woman I saw for counseling some time ago who was initially so enthusiastic about the new hope she had. Ravaged by physical abuse and demeaning comments from her Dad as a child, she was just beginning to grasp her own beauty again. But then a boyfriend rejected her. And she began doubting what she was learning in counseling. She was in a fragile, early stage of therapy, and her sense of worth was still unsteady. Late one night, she drank too much at a bar, and slept with a stranger. So distraught and hopeless, she called me and said, “I may as well quit counseling. It’s too hard to believe that I’m worth more. It’s probably best to go back to what I’m good at – getting drunk and getting laid.”
The analogy comes right from Israel’s story. When she emerged from Egypt, she was just a child. Her longings were not yet mature. Like a patient Father God provided for her needs, and reminded her of her beauty, and asked her to hang in there with Him. He gave her food to eat when she began to grumble. He provided for her in terms that are described as motherly.
Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! (Isaiah 49:15)
As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem. (Isaiah 66:13)
As Ezekiel says, God raises His children in a way that brings forth the beauty which was buried in their oppressive Egyptian womb. But God is also sensitive to the developmental needs of His children. As they emerge from Egypt and begin to grow into their new identity, God brings them to the place where His covenant of love will be confirmed, and the marital vows will be taken. He brings His Bride to Sinai – a moment that can only be described as the best of times and the worst of times.
Ezekiel’s imagery, once again, is vivid.
8 ” ‘Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign LORD, and you became mine. 9 ” ‘I bathed you with water and washed the blood from you and put ointments on you. 10 I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put leather sandals on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. 11 I adorned you with jewelry: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, 12 and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. 13 So you were adorned with gold and silver; your clothes were of fine linen and costly fabric and embroidered cloth. Your food was fine flour, honey and olive oil. You became very beautiful and rose to be a queen. 14 And your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty, because the splendor I had given you made your beauty perfect, declares the Sovereign LORD.
This picture encapsulates the covenant confirmed in Exodus, and elaborated on in Deuteronomy. It compels the reader to consider this as a defining moment of new identity and new life for Israel, God’s bride. She has emerged through the birth-waters of the Red Sea, and is now ready for the rights and responsibilities of a marriage covenant. She has been given a second chance at Eden. The imagery is ripe with Edenic beauty. And she has been given a task once given in Eden – to be the visible glory of the one God for the sake of the world. Her beauty will tell the world who God really is.
If this was the end of a movie, we’d leave the theaters with a tear in our eye and a feeling of relief. But Sinai represents more than a joyous wedding and a happily-ever-after. Dempster (2001) says rightly that “Sinai, not Egypt, is Israel’s largest roadblock to Canaan” (p. 101). How is this so? How can this marriage covenant be anything but gloriously freeing? In fact, Sinai reveals to us not only a heart that deeply desires intimacy and union with God, but a heart that simultaneously resists that union and rebels against the One who initiated it. Sinai’s commands to give glory to God alone, embodied in a host of commands and instructions we read throughout the Pentateuch reveal God’s desire to be in a committed, monogamous relationship. But as we read the instructions at Sinai, we cannot help but think, “Isn’t this a bit too restrictive? Can’t we play the field a bit?” Again, Ezekiel tells the story well.
15 ” ‘But you trusted in your beauty and used your fame to become a prostitute. You lavished your favors on anyone who passed by and your beauty became his. 16 You took some of your garments to make gaudy high places, where you carried on your prostitution. Such things should not happen, nor should they ever occur. 17 You also took the fine jewelry I gave you, the jewelry made of my gold and silver, and you made for yourself male idols and engaged in prostitution with them. 18 And you took your embroidered clothes to put on them, and you offered my oil and incense before them. 19 Also the food I provided for you—the fine flour, olive oil and honey I gave you to eat—you offered as fragrant incense before them. That is what happened, declares the Sovereign LORD.
Sinai is a glorious time, a wedding of God and Israel. But it also reveals the fickle heart of a people unwilling to enjoy God’s Edenic union. It reveals the heart of a people whose memories fail them and whose longings betray them. We see this vividly as Moses ascends the mountain, and returns to find that impatient Israel could not wait for him – they had formed for themselves another god, another lover, a cheap substitute, a golden calf (Ex. 34). Ezekiel writes, “In all your detestable practices and your prostitution you did not remember the days of your youth, when you were naked and bare, kicking about in your blood” (16:20). In other words, God’s people failed to remember the Great Rescue, becoming enamored with substitutes that simply do not compare to Yahweh.
Sinai, in other words, reveals not only the depth of our desire for intimacy, but the deep desire for self-sufficiency which emerged out of the original sin of Adam and Eve. A C.S. Lewis once said, “We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved, we are…rebels who must lay down our arms.” Dempster (2001) is right to say that Sinai, not Egypt, is our biggest obstacle to reaching the Promised Land. If we thought slavery in Egypt was bad, slavery to our own sin is even worse. How quickly Beauty can disintegrate into brokenness…
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Can you relate to the woman I mentioned in this post? Have you felt God’s love but experienced your brokenness as so deep that it was hard to hang on?
This post focused a bit more on the biblical story, but hopefully you can begin to see echoes in your own ‘New Exodus’ journey. What are some of these echoes?
While we’ll flesh out what it means that “Sinai, not Egypt, is Israel’s greatest roadblock,” can you begin to see already how our own self-sabotage can play out? Can you feel and do you experience the anxiety and insecurity of life in your own wilderness? Can you see how easy it is to turn to other forms of security, and forget the Great Rescue of God?
How is your own life a picture of this tension between beauty and brokenness?