Bondage and transformation

Psalm 118 (Morning)

Psalm 145 (Evening)

Exodus 3:16-4:12

Romans 12:1-21

John 8:46-59

Our reading in Exodus today is great movie imagery stuff–Moses’ staff turning into a snake and returning to the form of a staff; his hand transformed into a leprous hand and back again, and water turned into blood. At the level of cinematic gloss, it’s great spectacle. Yet at the level of understanding how God works in our lives in this day and age, perhaps it’s a little more muddy and confusing. Basically, they seem to merely be magic tricks, and most of us don’t really need a God who does magic tricks. So what are we to get from this?

Some of this, I believe, involves remembering the Scriptures are bursting at the seams with allegory. It’s easy to remember that when we’re reading Genesis, particularly the creation stories. We can dovetail what we know about science and accept the allegorical nature of a creation story. We tend to forget about allegory in Exodus, I believe, because it reads like a movie script or a short story. We get caught up in the story and tend to forget the possibility of some of the story’s details being allegorical. In this section, I wonder if the back story within the story is to be reminded of the nature of authority, healing, and transformation in the times we feel “in bondage” and prior to our own Exoduses away from that bondage.

Moses is preparing to confront the authority of Egyptian rule and the domination of his people. Well, snakes matter to the Egyptians. All of us have seen the busts displayed of Egyptian rulers with their fancy headdresses. What’s the first thing we notice about that get-up? We notice that there’s a snake poking its head out from the brow of the headdress. That’s not just any old snake, either–that’s the Uraeus, the symbolic rearing cobra that represents Wadjet, one of the earliest Egyptian goddesses. The Uraeus is to the ancient Egyptians what the bald eagle is to Americans–the symbol of ruling authority.

As for the other signs in this story, we already know that the leprous skin diseases struck terror in the heart of the ancients (hence all the rules about how to diagnose them and the consequences of loss of community if one had certain forms of them.) The healing of one would be quite the attention-getter to people of that day. Finally, turning water to blood can simultaneously represent death (as in the spillage of blood) and life (via the life-giving powers in blood.)

Now, I have no idea if that’s what the authors of Exodus had in mind, but what this little exercise in thinking about the story allegorically does, is remind us that this was not a story written “for us.” It was written for the Hebrew people of a different era, and it became a seminal rallying point for Jewish identity at the times they could not define identity with property and land boundaries. The Exodus is regaled over and over in the Psalms, as well as in other parts of the Bible. Moses and the Exodus are fundamental talking points in the verbal engagements between Jesus and the Pharisees. What we discover through this lens is that all people, in their community histories, have seminal moments that suspend chronological time and last for generations beyond.

Indeed, perhaps one of the most fundamental themes of the New Testament, right behind the Jesus story, is that God calls each of us to be an apostle of some sort (it didn’t stop with Moses; as far as I can tell, it still hasn’t stopped)–that in this relationship with God, we should be on the lookout for signs of it–and that the signs are not necessarily all rainbows and My Little Ponies prancing through the heavens. They might be as scary as snakes, or as disgusting as leprosy, or as paradoxical as the nature of blood, symbolizing both life and death.

It’s okay if we don’t get those signs right on first encounter, either. Even Moses ran from that snake in our reading today, but he also trusted God enough to grab it by the tail and have it transformed back into the tool that represents walking through life under God’s authority.

When you think back of your own escapes from the world’s various forms of bondage, can you remember a time God showed you a sign you could trust? How did that sign become a source of comfort and a force for transformation?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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