Jo Ann Gardner
This article has been adapted from Jo Ann's book, Seeds of Transcendence: Understanding the Hebrew Bible Through Plants. She can be reached through her website: www.joanngardnerbooks.com
The biblical Book of Exodus can be summed up in one word: freedom! The narrative describing the physical release of the Israelite slaves from bondage is a blockbuster, far beyond anything Hollywood could dream up: a large jostling crowd rushes onward, 600,000 men, in addition to women, children, livestock (Moses, done bargaining with the waffling Pharaoh, declares that "not a hoof shall be left behind!"), and even tag-along riff-raff take advantage of the general chaos. Behind them, gaining ground, driving forward, are the well-armed forces of the Egyptian army. In a thrilling moment, Moses holds out his arm with his raised rod (invested with divine powers), splits the reed-filled sea, and the Israelites cross over onto dry land. Then God, observing events, locks the wheels of the pursuing Egyptians' chariots so they cannot follow, the sea fills in (Moses, as instructed, has reversed the water) the entire army drowns, and euphoria follows with the Song of the Sea to the Lord who has delivered Israel. Curtain.
Not yet by a long shot. For although its physical redemption is complete, Israel's spiritual redemption lies ahead.
There are signs this will not be easy, for even before they have been freed, the slaves appear weak, constitutionally incapable of contemplating independence from their masters:
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" (Exodus 14:12).
But there is to be no turning back on this journey, only forward up to their Promised Land, despite whatever difficulties the people encounter. On the eve of their departure from Egypt, they committed themselves to follow a momentous course, one that defines them as a people, a nation, entirely independent from the alien culture in which they have sojourned for over 400 years. They have been instructed in the rituals of observing the first Passover and from that day onward (to this day) they were to remember that God had delivered them from bondage. It was to be a clean break with everything new, even a different calendar, one that is now linked to the slaves' future as freed people living in their own land with its own agricultural realities rather than on the flooding of the Nile as it was in Egypt.
God knows their weaknesses. To toughen them up, He has deliberately chosen the long, arduous trek around by the Sea of Reeds and thence out to the desert wilderness, instead of the much shorter route along the Mediterranean Coast, a journey of about two weeks rather than forty years! An endless vista of rock-strewn ground and rising, jagged stone mountains: the desert provides a dramatic setting where God will have time to teach His children the rudiments of a new spiritual order so that they will be fit, in every sense, to enter the Land. A landscape that challenges at every turn - in striking contrast to the relatively smooth course along the coast - will force them to draw on inner strength to survive. They are, however, far from there. Now the lack of water, edible plants, and grazing ground for their sheep and goats, taken for granted in Egypt, utterly destroys their sense of triumph at the Reed Sea.
Every stop in their travels exposes their inadequacies. The conditions of surviving in the desert, entirely outside their experience in the lush land of Egypt where their needs were provided for by others (slaves' provisions, to be sure, but at least dependable) are difficult, but the people's lack of will, their undeveloped spiritual state, is even worse. Mentally and emotionally they are still slaves, showing extreme anxiety at every turn of events. Their refrain, when faced with hardships, is not to try to overcome them, but to complain, always hitting the same theme: you should have left us in Egypt where we knew what to expect rather than bringing us to die in the wilderness.
At Marah (meaning "bitter"), only three days into the desert, they complain about finding bitter water. God responds with compassion and instructs Moses to sweeten it with a stick (a shepherd trick based on certain salt-precipitating woods that he would have known about), but in return He expects something from them, their first lesson. His straightforward "fixed rule" is to do what is upright in His sight, give ear to His Commandments, obey His Laws and He will protect them (Exodus 15:26). Since they have been instructed so far only to remember the Passover, God is not yet demanding very much from them, although this first lesson will be hard to learn. He knows they are still unformed, still children, far from adulthood, and in need of His protection. From the very beginning He has protected them in their journey by displaying His presence in a marvelous pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night.
In the Wilderness of Sin, a month after the Exodus, when they complained bitterly of hunger, the people had learned another important lesson: to gather God's heavenly provision of manna for six days, but just enough for each day, trusting that God would provide them with a double portion on the sixth day to eat on the seventh day - no reason given. The hungry Israelites pay no attention to this direction about only harvesting a day's worth of bread and not leaving any leftovers to rot, with the result that these became infested with maggots and stank by the following morning. It is clear that the people do not yet trust in God; perhaps they think there will be no more manna from heaven so they'd better store some for the future. Even after they have seemingly repented and followed Moses' instructions, and even when they have been told that the meaning of the double portion on the sixth day is because the seventh day will be a day of rest, a "holy Sabbath of the Lord" - a cessation of activity modeled on God's own rest from His labors of creation - and that leftover grain on this occasion will not decompose as it does on other days, still, they do not trust in God to provide for them. Learning from experience that God fulfills His promises if they fulfill their obligations, the Israelites finally obey Him, and in this way Sabbath observance was instituted.
Three months into their journey, the Israelites have reached the foot of Mount Sinai. This is where their leader Moses, then a simple shepherd, had received his mission from God to rescue his people from their travail in Egypt. We expect that something momentous will occur at this holy place in the wilderness where, stripped of all distractions, heaven and earth seem to meet. We are not disappointed.
Through a series of miraculous events, the entire people, men and women together, actually hear the voice of God speaking to Moses and they are transformed. All their complaints are forgotten in the grandeur of the experience, in the awe-inspiring surroundings at the mountain of God. They have heard the divine voice, and accepted the covenant to forge a wholly new way of life. From mainly passive recipients of His compassion, they are given the chance to become active participants in a divinely ordained order, one far more complex and demanding than anything they have ever known.
From a casual reading, the rest of Exodus is a disappointment, seemingly obsessed with relentless details for building a moveable sanctuary where the people can worship God during their desert travels. The directions come directly from God to Moses, are repeated by Moses to the people, and are then carried out. These details include not only a listing of the building material ordered by God for the people to offer as gifts, but how they are put together, where the articles are placed, and who will make them. As someone remarked, "Now we go to the hardware store."
But is this so?
When we understand that the Architect's design is inspired by the idea of erecting a structure where His presence will be felt, then we begin to appreciate the supreme importance of this undertaking. Distinctions between what we consider spiritual and holy and what we regard as earthly and common disappear:
Make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you [Moses] - the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings - so shall you make it. (Exodus 25:8-9)
Viewed in this way details count because they are invested with a meaning that transforms their physical being. The undertaking's importance gains impact as its details are meticulously repeated. Extreme care and planning has gone into this project, as it would with any attempt to create a sense of sacred space.
This great divinely inspired plan and its execution, the introduction of the artisans who do the actual work (we witness the memorable Bezalel, hammering a seven-branched menorah from beaten gold), and Moses' apparent satisfaction in a job so splendidly carried out (he blesses the workers), is a moving testimonial to the Israelites' growing spiritual awareness. All that energy devoted to an undertaking beyond their material needs (no grumbling) and of such magnitude, has profound implications.
Descended from semi-nomadic shepherds of rude culture who, nevertheless, succeeded in passing on God's blessing and promise to them, enslaved for hundreds of years in a strictly pagan culture which must have rubbed off on them, then emerging from this experience still slavish in their mentality, they have begun to learn that they must earn God's protection by their own exertion and by His rules. The successful construction of the sanctuary and Tabernacle, when understood within this context, is a thrilling accomplishment. The Exodus is the beginning, not the end, of their journey to freedom. *