Fires in California, flooding in Michigan, tornados in the Midwest, oceans rising, the virus pandemic, the rise of white nationalism: the plagues of Egypt keep coming to mind. A new illness is affecting children, as it was affecting the first-born of Egyptians. It is so tempting to take the Bible stories literally. I have no problem deciding who the Pharaoh is in our time, whose heart was hardened by God. I can decide which sins we are being punished for. Plugging Bible stories into my own personal world-view is very satisfying, and a popular pastime for many. I’m not sure that is how it is supposed to work.
In this time of Time, I’ve been doing some Bible study. So far I’m not actually reading the Bible, I’m reading books ABOUT the Bible to warm myself up. You can’t be too cautious. Raised Catholic, I was challenged to learn about God without the aid of our most basic book about God. It was the province of the clergy to hand out edited Bible stories piecemeal. My time at UCC Ashfield has convinced me it might be a good idea to go to the primary source.
Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evens was a great place to start. The Peacock’s Tail Feathers: Reading the Bible the Celtic Way by Kenneth McIntosh warmed me up.
Earlier I had come to understand the Bible as a memoir of a people and their relationship with their God. This made reading it much more interesting. Evans and McIntosh, (one Protestant, the other Catholic) broadens my view even more: as an ancient book of stories which are still alive.” Alive” is the important word, like the flattering and not-so-flattering stories I’ve heard about my parents, grandparents and their parents. Good or bad, they are a part of me.
Culturally, the Bible’s stories are alluded to in books, plays, Hallmark cards, everyday conversation. (Batting away black flies yesterday, I told a neighbor it was the seventh plague. She knew what I was talking about.) Our language embraced the Bible even if I had not.
So how can I read the Bible during this time when our society is tilting – like an earthquake that just keeps going?
Looking for insight, I wandered the Google wilderness for a bit. There it was, the article I’d hoped for: The 10 Plagues, Bible Fun for Kids. I said a silent prayer of thanks to those nuns who did not try to teach us children the Bible.
How is Exodus playing out right now? Now, the people who have travelled from a foreign land to work at slave wages are languishing in tent hovels below our southern border. The Bible is being written on the Mexican border right now. How many plagues will it take before God softens our hearts to these people? Oh dear, I’m sounding quite Biblical right now.
Exodus is a deliverance story, of yet another chance to get it right.
Exodus does not tell us how the Egyptians dealt with the effects of their plagues. That would have been helpful. Rather, the story is told by the Israelites who follow Moses into a new land, to get it right. They must have been planning how to grow crops, build homes, start over. Facing the unknown in 2020, I can see how difficult that is. The Israelites got distracted by golden calves, as have we. But we agreed to follow commandments regarding masks, self-quarantine, loving our neighbors via Zoom, and perhaps even garnering a better understanding of our God.
In the 16th century, Ignatius Loyola practiced reading the Bible by putting himself into the stories totally. I put myself into the Exodus story, into the wilderness with my family after our life has been overturned by Moses. Where the hell is this new land anyway? What will it look like? What will people be like? How will we live? Thank you for the manna, Moses, but one unemployment check just won’t do it. I am old, and some want to leave me behind so the others can walk faster toward prosperity. When we arrive, will we all arrive together? Who will be missing? Who am I now? No longer Egyptian, or middle class, I am now with people whose new home will be unfamiliar. What will become of us?
Rather than answers, or words of wisdom, I’m getting something more. The Exodus story is part of the life of Jews in diaspora, of African-Americans in slavery, of Central Americans seeking a new home. Now, in a very small way, I can enter the story. To put a Buddhist spin on it: I can sit and breathe with the other. What a gift this is.
In The Peacock’s Tail Feathers McIntosh says, “the Celts did not ponder the Bible as isolated individuals (the rare exceptions being occasional hermits) but in community.” Soon, very soon, we will come together to continue the good work, and accompany each other in exodus.