Each year our church seeks out 40 people from the congregation to write a brief meditation to help people follow a discipline of reflection during Lent—the forty weekdays leading to Holy Week and Easter. I was on this year’s list and was offered a passage from the middle of the book, Exodus 23:1-9. As I read through the entire book and reflected on its meaning for us, I came to the following reflection. Here’s the passage:
You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with the wicked to act as a malicious witness. You shall not follow a majority in wrongdoing; when you bear witness in a lawsuit, you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice; nor shall you be partial to the poor in a lawsuit.
When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back. When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free.
You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in their lawsuits. Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and those in the right, for I will not acquit the guilty. You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials, and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.
You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
We are used to seeing the book of Exodus as a story of liberation from slavery. It is about freedom from oppression—something that resonates with the American story of revolution and emancipation from slavery. However, beyond that I have come to see it as Israel’s answer to the question: How can we rightly worship the mysterious “I am” of our life? How can we live in single-minded devotion to the Source of our life?
When this mysterious YHWH tells Moses to go to Pharaoh on behalf of his people, this YHWH says “Let my son [Israel] go that he may worship me.” At each point in the deadly events leading up to Passover and the escape from Egypt Moses goes before the Pharaoh with the words “Let my people go so that they may worship me.” The issue at the core of Israel’s bondage in Egypt is rightful worship, not merely the physical suffering of the people.
To worship this YHWH rightly the people are led into a wilderness where they must strip away all their usual safeguards and supports. They subsist on daily manna and miraculous water from a rock. Only when they have entered this world of naked dependence can they then rightly worship YHWH. And what is this right worship? It is the reception of God’s divine law and covenant. It is devotion to the right ways of the “I Am” so that they can live out a fruitful life in a new land.
The middle section of the book contains the commandments, laws, and ordinances that shape the right way, including the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20). Some of them, like provisions for the sale of daughters into slavery, are revolting to our own consciences today. But in many places, as in chapter twenty-three, we come to the core of it all. It is clear that the Israelites were a quarrelsome lot. Moses has to set up a whole judiciary to deal with them. Thus, the list in this chapter begins with prohibitions of false witness, lying, perjury, bribes, and betrayal of conscience for the favor of the majority. But above all, they are admonished not to “oppress a resident alien, [for] you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” At the core of the way of life that rightly worships the source of all being—the great “I AM”—is identification with the alien, the outcaste, the poor and oppressed of the earth. It is this identification with the oppressed and marginalized that finally undergirds the Great Commandment to love others as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 12:37-40). It is a claim as foreign to many of us today as it was to the fearful refugees at Sinai.
It is only after the recitation of numerous commandments around this theme that the final chapters of Exodus proceed to the temple construction and priestly instructions for expressing this devotion to YHWH in symbolic ways. Above all, Exodus calls us to remember that our liberation consists not in having control over our lives so that we can do what we want but in stripping away all our powers in order to embrace the mysterious life of the “I Am” that underlies the life of all creatures on this earth. That is rightful worship. That is the way of exodus into abundant life.