Make me a grave where'er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill,
Make it among earth's humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.
-Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (Bury Me in a Free Land)
Over the course of 40 chapters, the Book of Exodus tells a story of the path from enslavement to freedom, from liberation to revelation. It is a song of hope that reverberates across the generations, the promise of freedom and of transformation whispered into the ears of those who live under the weight of oppression. In Parashat Sh'mot, we meet the God of Exodus: a God who champions life, brings about liberation, and infuses new hope and possibility into the world. As Theologian James Cone writes, "In the Exodus-Sinai tradition יהוה is disclosed as the God of history, whose revelation is identical with God's power to liberate the oppressed. There is no knowledge of יהוה except through God's political activity on behalf of the weak and helpless of the land" (God of the Oppressed). There is a greater force at work in the world than the decree of any Pharaoh, the Book of Exodus tells us, and God's message is clear: Those who are born into slavery need not die in slavery.
Parashat Sh'mot opens with an account of life under oppressive and violent rule. We learn that the Israelites were gradually stripped of their freedoms and forced to perform bone-crushing labor (BT Sotah 11b). We learn that Pharaoh wished to stamp out new life, and with it, the possibility of a future for the Israelites outside of Egypt. Jewish tradition imagines that Egyptian astrologers predicted for Pharaoh that the Israelites' deliverer was born on the day of Moses' birth. To prevent Israelite redemption, then, Pharaoh ordered the drowning of all male children (Exodus Rabbah 1:18, Sotah 12a).
In the very first chapter of Exodus, we learn that Egypt is a place of bondage and despair, a life without hope in the shadow of death. This is the backdrop against which God enters into the story.
God hears the Israelites crying out in pain and instructs Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand their freedom (Exodus 3:9-10). When Moses asks who he should say sent him to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, God reveals a new name: Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh (Exodus 3:14). Derived from the verb "to be," God's name translates into a statement of eternal being and self-determination: "I Am that I Am" or "I Will Be What I Will Be" (Nahum M Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary). Sixteenth-century Italian rabbi and philosopher Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno reads theological import into God's name: If God is named for life, then God must love life and, therefore, abhor anything or anyone which threatens life (Sforno on Exodus 3:14). The God of Life, of self-determination, has come to protect and save life. When Moses returns to Egypt and announces God's name to Pharaoh, Jewish tradition imagines Pharaoh racing to his archives, searching in vain for a record of Moses' God. The rabbis liken Pharaoh's search to that of someone going to a cemetery to find a person who is not yet dead. They ask, "Do you expect to find the living among the dead?" (Midrash Sh'mot Rabbah 5:18).
When Moses announces God's presence in Egypt, he speaks into being a new world order, one which threatens to upend the hierarchy on top of which Pharaoh sits. In Egypt, some lives are worth more than others. In Exodus, Dr. Cone points out, we learn: "Liberation is not a theoretical proposition to be debated in a philosophy or theology seminar. It is a historical reality, born in the struggle for freedom in which an oppressed people recognize that they were not created to be seized, bartered, deeded, or auctioned." Inherent in God's name, in God's world order, is a statement about human life, a theological anthropology rooted in the sacred dignity of every human being.
This ethic of liberation and of life is woven into the fabric of our tradition and texts, appearing and reappearing as a source of theological and ethical knowledge born of lived experience and historical memory. It is, in the words of theologian Howard Thurman, "the word [of religion] to those who stand with their backs against the wall" (Jesus and the Disinherited). For those who find themselves on the underside of power, God offers a vision and hope for a life beyond Egypt, one in which all people can thrive, flourish, and die free.