Formations 03.23.2014: Slavery, Then and Now

Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21

A Nepalese mother searches for her teenage daughter who was trafficked into an Indian brothel. Photo by Kay Chernush for the U. S. State Department.

A Nepalese mother searches for her teenage daughter who was trafficked into an Indian brothel. Photo by Kay Chernush for the U. S. State Department.

Seventh-graders at Iowa City, Iowa’s South East Junior High School hosted a charity basketball tournament earlier this month to raise awareness about modern slavery. The fundraiser, called Hoops for Hopes, was dedicated to educating the public about the issue. The initiative grew out of a research and writing project assigned by English teacher Sara Jones.

Jones explains, “Not many people realize what a big problem slavery is today. People might go, ‘Whoa, we abolished slavery so many years ago.’ Well, it is illegal everywhere in the world, but there are more slaves today than ever before.”

Thirteen-year-old Virginia Muturi said she couldn’t believe slavery still exists in the world. “I heard of [slavery] when it was back in the day,” she said, with reference to the history of slavery in the United States. “But I didn’t think it was going on now. I was surprised.”

Jones says the assignment generated so much interest that she decided to turn it into a service project.

The event, which took place on March 11, included a basketball tournament, a raffle, games for young children, and an educational booth where people can learn more about human trafficking. More than fifteen area businesses donated prizes. All proceeds were donated to the United States Fund for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Jones said she wanted to give her students insight on issues that affect people in all parts of the world, and to encourage them to make a difference. “I want them to understand that no matter what problems they have in their lives, and we all have problems, that they can make a difference in something,” she said.

The exodus is a classic story of God’s grace and deliverance, best remembered for the miraculous sea-crossing that cemented the freedom of the formerly enslaved Israelites. It is one of the foundational events in Jewish history.

In Jewish thought, however, the story has always been about more than the bare historical facts of a long-ago liberation. Every year at Passover, Jews reflect on these events not least to remember that the struggle against tyranny and enslavement is an ongoing project. Liberation isn’t something that happens once and then we can forget about it. People still yearn for freedom—whether it be material, political, social, or spiritual.

Perhaps for this reason, people in later times have often used the exodus story as a metaphor for other kinds of release from bondage. In African-American preaching, for example, exodus imagery has long been used to express hope for social justice. In early Christianity, it became a symbol of freedom from slavery to sin.

What might this powerful story mean to believers today?

Chastity Dillard, “Students Bring Attention to Modern-Day Slavery,” Press-Citizen.com, 9 Mar 2014 http://www.press-citizen.com/article/20140310/NEWS01/303100024/Students-bring-attention-modern-day-slavery.

Discussion

• What do you know about human trafficking? How might your class or church become involved in confronting this modern-day evil?
• What does the exodus story reveal about God’s liberating work?
• To what are people enslaved today? How is God at work to set them free?

Reference Shelf

Forever Bound to God

Characteristically, Pharaoh changes his mind and sends an army to retrieve the Israelites who are caught between the Egyptian army and the Sea of Reeds. The Israelites lose all composure and faith, and, overcome with fear, begin to complain bitterly to Moses and to recall all their misgivings. After the people are quieted, Yahweh directs Moses to raise his staff and then sends a wind to divide the waters . The Israelites hurry across and the Egyptians pursue them. However, the waters rush back and destroy the army so that the Israelites are delivered and Yahweh is glorified. In a victory song (Exod 15:1-18), or, the Song of the Sea, which has been subsequently revised so that this battle and victory take on cosmic significance, Israel celebrates their deliverance and Yahweh’s power. Then, the people head to ward the mountain where Moses had met this awesome God and where they will bind themselves forever to this God.

Russell I. Gregory, “Exodus,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 279.

Israel Will be Saved

The Hebrews turned in despair to Moses and asked, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (Exod 14:11a). There was a note of bitter irony in their question, for everyone knew that Egypt was famous for its giant pyramid tombs. Moses responded by calling them to put their trust in God: “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still” (14:13-14a).

The Hebrews did not understand that a way is usually provided for God’s people through their difficulties, not around them. The same truth is meaningfully expressed in Isaiah 43:1-2:

Thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

The crossing of the sea highlights the relationship between the natural and the supernatural in the Hebrew Scriptures. For instance, Moses is told to stretch out his rod over the sea and cause the waters to divide (14:16). On the other hand, we are informed that a strong east wind blew all night and cleared a path through the sea (14:21). Childs speaks of this miracle as involving both the wonderful and the ordinary.

The waters were split by the rod of Moses, but a strong wind blew all night and laid bare the sea bed. The waters stood up as a mighty wall to the left and the right, and yet the Egyptians were drowned when the sea returned to its normal channels. Yahweh produced panic with his fiery glance, but it was the mud of the sea bottom which clogged the wheels of the heavy chariots. The elements of the wonderful and the ordinary are constitutive to the greatest of Old Testament events. There never was a time when the event was only understood as ordinary, nor was there a time when the supernatural absorbed the natural. But Israel saw the mighty hand of God at work in both the ordinary and the wonderful, and never sought to fragment the one great act of redemption into parts.

Whatever the method employed, it was God who brought about the downfall of the Egyptians and rescued Israel from destruction. Plaut sums up the matter in these words: “[God] may have used wind and water, cloud and darkness as [God’s] agents, but it was [God’s] will that Israel be saved, and saved it was.”

Page H. Kelley, Journey to the Land of Promise: Genesis–Deuteronomy, All the Bible (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1997) 71–2.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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