In most Journey classes this week, students are reading from the book of Exodus. This story, central to the Jewish and Christian faiths, tells of the redemption of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. It is a story of miracles – the ten plagues God sends to get Pharaoh to "let my people go," and – after he finally does – we read of the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, when the Egyptian army follows the Israelites, once Pharaoh again hardens his heart and changes his mind, ordering his troops to go after them and bring the Israelites back to their servile condition. God protects his people by opening the sea for them, but allowing the waters to fall back on the armies of their enslavers.
In many Jewish homes, the feast of Passover is celebrated with references to current situations. In one Passover celebration I attended, mention was made of human trafficking, a contemporary version of slavery. The story also relates to the issue of how strangers should be treated, an important contemporary concern about which I wrote recently in "Inside the Core." Joseph, sold by his brothers into slavery (told in the book of Genesis, read in Core II), was raised to power in Egypt through his miraculous and prophetic gifts; his brothers, who came to him in Egypt, were essentially refugees, sojourning to another land due to famine in the land of Canaan. Joseph, recognizing his brothers but not yet recognized by them, first tests them but then welcomes and forgives them, offering them the best of the land, Goshen, to reside in.
However, after many years, the book of Exodus tells us, a new Pharaoh arose, who did not remember Joseph. This Pharaoh began to look at the Israelites, the alien people living among the Egyptians, with fear and suspicion. He ordered them to serve as slaves, eventually decreeing that all male Israelite babies were to be killed by throwing them into the Nile. The story is familiar, but it can still stir the heart, from the profound forgiveness offered by Joseph to his brothers to the horrific evil of the Pharaoh’s attempt to remove the "threat" of this alien people by subjecting their children to death.
One of these children, Moses, was spared, and his story of being called by God to lead his people to liberation, is a powerful "journey of transformation." Raised as an Egyptian prince after he was rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh, Moses grew up in a privileged atmosphere, but as a man, he learned to identify with his own people of Israel and to speak up on their behalf, in the name of the God who revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush. God's concern for his people is moving in its depth: I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—…. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt. (Exodus 3:7-10)
What does this story say to us today? Is it simply a sacred, untouchable relic of the past? I would argue definitely not. Students might consider how the story relates to the way strangers and sojourners should be treated when they come to a land for help, as the Israelites originally came to Egypt during the famine. It shows how God is angered by injustice, cruelty and inhumanity toward others, in this case toward those different from themselves, as he defends his people against the oppression of the Egyptians. God is revealed as someone who is "concerned about their suffering" (i.e. the suffering of his people), those suffering from injustice and cruelty.
The story also speaks to the concept of race. In a passage not typically read (and not included in the Exodus story itself), we learn that Miriam and Aaron became angry at Moses for having married a Cushite woman. The term "Cushite" refers to someone from Ethiopia. God responds by calling the three siblings to himself and rebuking Miriam and Aaron. In fact, Miriam is punished by a temporary experience of leprosy, though she is healed soon after it. God defends his servant Moses, as being someone to whom he speaks, and he says that the brother and sister should not have spoken against him. No film version of the story of Moses with which I am familiar has ever included this incident.
The Bible is an amazing book, always relevant to the time in which we are living. As students study this text in both Journey and Core II, they can and should ask themselves how it applies to their own lives and their own times. As Saint Ignatius of Loyola encouraged his followers in his Spiritual Exercises, we can visually imagine ourselves in the stories and enter into them more deeply. By doing so, we can learn about compassion, justice, life, and faith.