On Passover we praise God for bringing us out of slavery. We remember the burdens and bitterness of exploitation and repression, the terror and suspense of struggle and escape, and the joy of finally being brought out by God. As the Torah demands of us, we teach all of this to our children. At our seders we teach it as the founding experience of our people: our preparation to receive God’s law and God’s instruction on how to organize and orient our society. And through our celebration, that experience comes and takes its place at the center of our life as a people today. We see the burdens, the over-work, and the violence directed against the poor and the stranger in our own society, and know that God demands an end to this bondage, too: and we remember that this can only be won in struggle against Pharaoh, and if we have the courage to step out into the sea.
We see the burdens, the over-work, and the violence directed against the poor and the stranger in our own society, and know that God demands an end to this bondage.
Passover is not a celebration of freedom, at least not in the ways we usually think about freedom. Not freedom in the sense of individual liberty. When Moses brings God’s message to Pharaoh he doesn’t just say “Let my people go.” He says, again and again: “Let my people go so they may serve me.” This word, “serve” (from the Hebrew root word nbd — to work or to serve), is actually the same word used to describe the Israelites’ toil in Egypt! In fact, just before the story’s climactic confrontation at the sea, Pharaoh says to his advisors: “What is this we have done, releasing Israel from our service?” (Exodus 14:6). But what does it mean to serve God instead of Pharaoh?
There’s a similar kind of wordplay later on in the story, which begins to answer this question. At the beginning of the first covenant ceremony between the people of Israel and our God, as soon as the Israelites arrive at the holy mountain, Moses goes up for the first time and God says to him: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:3-6).
As Bible Scholar Norman Gottwald points out in his book Tribes of Yahweh, the words used here to describe the Israelites — “kingdom” (mamlakah) and “nation” (goy) — stand out as highly unusual and even ironic. At this point, Israel is certainly not a kingdom. In fact, God takes Israel’s later demand to set a king over them as a rejection, saying to the prophet Samuel: “For it is not you that they have rejected; it is me they have rejected as their king. Like everything else they have done ever since I brought them out of Egypt to this day — forsaking Me and serving [again from abd] other gods — so they are doing to you.” (I Samuel 7:6-8). Similarly, goy is a term very rarely applied to the Israelites, especially during and after the Exodus. It’s almost exclusively used to describe the “nations” seeking to oppress and destroy Israel, and as examples Israel must not follow if they are to remain secure in the promised land. Numbers 23:9 puts the distinction in stark terms: “There is a people that dwells apart / Not reckoning itself among the nations.”
This leaves us with the conclusion that if Israel obeys God and keeps God’s covenant, we shall be a kingdom that isn’t a kingdom and a nation that isn’t a nation; and that God brought us out of Egypt, not to free us from servitude, but to claim us as God’s own servants! This reversal of language isn’t just for dramatic effect — it highlights a religious and political reality at the heart of the Exodus tradition. Israel’s liberation from bondage in Egypt is, at the same time, our binding to God. And not just for its own sake but to demonstrate God’s power and God’s will for “all the Earth.” This will is not that kings and pharaohs will live off of the exploitation of others, or that they’ll defend their wealth with violence. God’s will is for a different kind of “nation” and “kingdom” which is nothing like what’s been known by those names in the past, replacing wealth and violence in the service of Pharaoh with solidarity, mutual support, and collective vigilance in the service of God.
God's will is not that kings and pharaohs will live off of the exploitation of others, or that they'll defend their wealth with violence. God's will is for a different kind of “nation” and “kingdom”.
This is a revolutionary tradition and it has its roots in a revolutionary experience, along with our own roots as a people. The historical ancient Israel, as far as we can tell, most likely emerged in Canaan over 3,000 years ago, in a time of great conflict and distress for kingdoms and nations. Gottwald, in his Socio-Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Bible summarizes this hypothesis:
Israel burst into history as an ethnically and socioeconomically mixed coalition composed of a majority of tribally organized peasants, along with lesser numbers of pastoral nomads, mercenaries and freebooters, assorted craftsmen, and renegade priests. These sectors of the indigenous populace joined in a combined sociopolitical and religious revolution against the imperial and hierarchic tribute-imposing structures of Egyptian-dominated Canaan.
Today it seems likely that this revolution played out over the course of centuries (from around 1,400–1,000 BCE), unevenly and disjointedly, with advances and setbacks. It was a time of conflict among the city-state power centers of Canaan, and the structures of rule were breaking down. Egypt, which used Canaan as a source of tribute and as a buffer against its rival empires in Mesopotamia, intervened to try and shore up the ruling classes. The Pharaoh Merneptah, discussing revolts in Canaan and Libya around 1,200 BCE, names Israel among the rebels and claims to have defeated them decisively. This period saw a “collapse” of most of the empires throughout the entire region, most likely caused by a combination of ecological crisis and technological change (the spread of iron working) colliding with the highly centralized, brutal but brittle, top-heavy way these societies were organized.
The ancient Israelites, in their process of formation, pushed this process of disintegration forward and also took advantage of the growing weakness of the Canaanite city-states and of their Egyptian overlord. Against kings and pharaohs they took up defensive positions in the highlands. They struggled against harsh natural conditions, a lack of technical know-how and education, and constant armed assaults to establish a society based not on domination and tribute but on mutual support and solidarity. Ancient Israel was a kind of project of survival: diverse families and communities who were being oppressed, exploited, and cast adrift by a society in crisis, banding together out of necessity and finding new ways to live and to survive, and fighting pitched battles to defend each other against those determined to cling to power and control.
The earliest Judaism, the religion of the earliest Israelites, came about as an expression of this struggle, and also a powerful tool for forging this new people, cementing its different elements, and ensuring its survival. The emergence of this religion was the emergence of self-awareness among this objectively revolutionary movement. It came slowly, step-by-step, and there’s strong evidence that they never achieved complete unity or a totally stable existence. But they did create a new consciousness, reflected in our Torah and the rest of the Tanakh, and a new way of organizing society.
This new ethic is captured for the first time as law in the “Covenant Code” of Exodus 20–23, which calls for freeing slaves, treating immigrants with respect, protecting widows and orphans, lending money without expecting to be paid back, sharing society’s wealth and devoting the land’s bounty to caring for the poor, and giving workers rest; and forbids dispossessing your neighbor for their debts, taking bribes to rule against the poor, and worshipping gold and silver. These laws open: “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods besides Me.”
The story of the Exodus might be based on the real experience of a small group of runaway slaves, arriving in Canaan and joining and leading the struggle that was underway. Whether that’s the case or not, the story of the Exodus was also the shared experience of the diverse groups who would form the new people Israel: the burdens, the crying out, the crisis and the disasters in society, the struggle against the armies of kings, and the experience of God in all of this as a force smashing old powers and revealing new possibilities for how to live together and care for each other. All of this is what we remember on Passover; what we remember when Miriam sings to us:
I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously;…
Pharaoh’s chariots and his army
He has cast into the sea…
Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power,
Your right hand, O Lord, shatters the foe!…
In Your love You lead the people You redeemed;
In Your strength You guide them to Your holy abode. (Exodus 15)
On Passover we remember what God did for us in bringing us out of Egypt. We remember that God broke the power of pharaohs and kings, and cast their armies into the sea. And we remember that God gave us an even greater gift by revealing to us another “kingdom” and charging us with making it real. This is what it means to serve God, and why serving God while serving Pharaoh is impossible. Serving God means building a “kingdom of priests” and a “holy nation”: defending a society that has nothing in common with the powers, privileges, and corruption of kings or the poverty, debt and destitution of bondage.
Ancient Israel emerged at the margins: in a marginal land among marginal people who nobody cared about, struggling to organize society in a new way. This is what it means to be chosen by God: chosen because we were poor and in a struggle for our lives and we were forced to confront kings and pharaohs and find a new way to live together and that is where God dwells. Where else would God choose for home? Among what other family? In what other struggle?
Passover is not just for celebrating an end to our labors in Egypt. Passover is for teaching our children how God brought us out of Egypt and why we were brought out. Throughout the rest of the rest of the Tanakh, this remembrance and this teaching is an act of recommitment to struggle for the society God brought us out to build. We remember not just what God did for us in Egypt, but what God charged us with and what we are still charged with today. We remember how God continues to move in history, hearing the cries of the burdened and intervening with a mighty hand.
The prophet Amos, over 2,700 years ago, faced an Israel (now indeed a kingdom — two kingdoms in fact!) that had gone astray. The ruling class there had maintained the trappings, the external appearance and the ritual of the old religion, but had discarded the values of solidarity and mutual aid in favor of a return to tax, tribute, and debt. He pronounced God’s judgement in these terms:
Thus said the Lord:
For three transgressions of Israel,
For four, I will not revoke it [i.e., My punishment]:
Because they have sold for silver
Those whose cause was just,
And the needy for a pair of sandals.
Ah, you who trample the heads of the poor
Into the dust of the ground,
And make the humble walk a twisted course!
Father and son go to the same girl,
And thereby profane My holy name
They recline by every altar
On garments taken in pledge,
And drink in the House of their God
Wine bought with fines they imposed.
Destroyed the Amorite before them,
Whose stature was like the cedar’s
And who was stout as the oak,
Destroying his boughs above
And his trunk below!
And I brought you up from the land of Egypt
And led you through the wilderness forty years
To possess the land of the Amorite! (Amos 2:6-10)
Hear this word, O people of Israel,
That the Lord has spoken concerning you,
Concerning the whole family that I brought up from the land of Egypt:
You alone have I singled out
Of all the families of the earth—
That is why I will call you to account
For all your iniquities. (Amos 3:1-2)
While it’s unlikely that the Passover rituals of reclining while we eat and drinking the four cups of wine had developed by Amos’ time, the references to reclining, drinking, and God choosing us and bringing us out of Egypt (and striking down the Amorite/Canaanite city-states) still stand out. Through Amos, God says: “This is not why I brought you out of Egypt and gave you this land! I did not deliver you just so that you could break my laws by taking bribes, oppressing the poor, and abusing young women! How can you pretend to be worshipping and serving me, when you’re using the wealth you got from profiting off of the desperation of your neighbors and from taxing the poor!?”
In Amos’ day, Israel had become like Egypt, and the power structure had to be broken to have a chance at genuine renewal of our covenant and special relationship with God. Today the whole world is Egypt — and certainly the US state and its violence, at home and abroad, fits the bill of “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army.” The rulers of the modern state of Israel, too, trample the heads of the poor: they have found their place in Pharaoh’s ranks. And they have the cynicism to do so in the name of the freedom of the Jewish people when, as always, our only real future is in serving God and not Pharaoh. As in Egypt, as in ancient Canaan, kingdoms and nations are in crisis today. Ecological devastation, profound technological change, a society being torn apart by its own contradictions of inequality and oppression, a political and social system unable to cope with the situation it has created for itself; all of these factors are unsettling existing structures and hardening the hearts of those who would keep the world in bondage. But these conditions are also giving rise to new movements and a new conviction that we can and must reconstruct society at its foundations.
Today the whole world is Egypt...these conditions are also giving rise to new movements and a new conviction that we can and must reconstruct society at its foundations.
On Passover we remember that God freed us once and God can free us again if we have the courage to cry out, to confront Pharaoh and to make a break for freedom: that God demands nothing less from us. We teach our children that on the very verge of freedom everything looked lost. The Israelites were trapped between the sea on one hand and Pharaoh’s army on the other. They turned to Moses and they said “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’?” And Moses replies, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today…The Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace.” And God breaks in, chastising Moses: “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward” (Exodus 14:10-15). Freedom isn’t free: God’s hand, moving in history, doesn’t “free” us from the obligation to struggle.
The Exodus can only begin when the Israelites “cry out” to God in their bondage (Exodus 2:23-25). But it can only be realized, the last step can only be taken, when we go forward together with God out of that bondage — through chaos and the tides of history that swallow up the desperate armies of the powerful — and build a new home where God can truly dwell among us.