Christianity and the Problem of Human ViolenceChristianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 21: Exodus
from Guide to Kingdom Living

True Christian living requires us to live according to Kingdom standards which bring Heaven to earth.

Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 21: Exodus

By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.

At first glance, the story of the exodus from Egypt seems to demonstrate God’s violence. Many have been troubled by the suffering of the Egyptian citizens and soldiers, victims of the ten plagues, particularly the killing of the first-born son. Why should Egyptian citizens suffer so much on account of their hard-hearted Pharaoh? And, Pharaoh himself could be regarded as an victim, in that the text attributes his hardened heart to God.

James G. Williams (The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred) argues that a non-sacrificial reading of the Bible is compatible with the Exodus account. First, the account focuses on the innocent victims—in this case the Hebrews. Williams notes that this story is distinctive not because the Hebrews were once oppressed—nearly all peoples have been oppressed at some point in their history. Rather, the Hebrews’ sacred story relates their oppression and abuse in detail. Most people have origin stories in which they arise and conquer according to the wishes of their gods. The Hebrews’ acknowledgement of their disreputable origins makes God’s justice, mercy, and compassion more clear.

Second, there is a series of substitutions that reduce violence, particularly violence against the innocent. For example, the killing of the first-born is less violent than the previous Egyptian edict to kill all of the Hebrews’ male infants. Similarly, the sacrifice of lambs constitutes a substitution that promises, ultimately, to reduce sacred violence. Of course, the later prophets (who we will discuss next week) and Jesus go much farther in their opposition to sacrifice, but such ancient people could not imagine a God who does not want some kind of blood sacrifice.

A remarkable point about the Exodus story is that the Hebrews did not aim to retaliate against the Egyptians, only to leave. Traditionally, people sought revenge as much as their freedom, but the Exodus story suggests a different approach to injustice.

Interestingly, there are Greek accounts of the Exodus that derive from now-lost Egyptian sources. According to those accounts, the Egyptians faced a major crisis related to a group of people suffering from various diseases, and the Egyptians decided to expel this group from the country. One remarkable way by which the Egyptian account differs from that of the Bible is that the Egyptian story blames the Hebrews for the diseases (or whatever crises they experienced) and then, like the scapegoat sent into the wilderness, banned the accused troublemakers.

Next week, we’ll look at the later prophets, who offer a radical departure from the tradition of scapegoating, sacred violence. We will begin with the song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, a story that presages the coming of Christ.

Go on to: Part 22: The Suffering Servant as Scapegoat
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