|Image from wikimedia commons|
First, a bit of back story: The family of Jacob came to Egypt to escape a famine which was happening in the land. Joseph, Jacob's son, was already in Egypt working as a high-ranking official who was managing the food stores during the famine. The famine ended, time passed, and the descendants of Jacob became numerous. The officials who had known Joseph and treated his family with kindness were now dead and the new rulers saw the many descendants of Jacob (Israel) as a threat, as outsiders who would surely take over the land. They began to treat the Israelites as second-class citizens and eventually forced them into slavery. This subjugation lasted over 400 years or 17 generations.
God then called Moses to deliver his people out of slavery, and through a dramatic process (10 plagues and an exodus through the Red Sea) the Israelites came out of Egypt and were once again free people. But after 400 years of living in bondage, freedom proved to be a difficult concept to grasp. This is why, three months after their exit from Egypt, we see God giving the people ten words or sayings to guide them in this new life. These ethical guidelines were in direct contrast to the life of slavery which had become second nature for them. We find these ten sayings in Exodus 20.
The first four have to do with differentiating YHWH Elohim (the Eternal God) from the pagan gods of Egypt and their harsh taskmasters. Exodus 20:2: "I am the Eternal your God. I led you out of Egypt and liberated you from lives of slavery and oppression. You are not to serve any other gods before Me." In essence, YHWH is stating that serving him is liberty, not slavery, and if they start serving other gods, they will be turning back to a life of bondage. The second "word" takes this further, indicating that the Israelites are not to make idols or images of gods in order to worship them. This directive was the first one to be disregarded when Aaron saw the people getting restless, anxious about not having their leader, Moses, in sight. Eager to calm the panicking people down, Aaron provided something for them to look at and serve, a golden calf made out of jewelry. In fact, Aaron told the people that "this was the god who brought them out of Egypt," suggesting that YHWH could be represented in an idol, a small statue, something they were familiar with instead of the frightening, awesome Being who spoke through thunder and lightning. He was wrong.
The directive not to use the name of YHWH for their own idle purposes suggests that YHWH Elohim takes his name very seriously, that his name(s) speak of a holy and unique relationship with his people. God's name is his word, his action, his faithfulness, and not to be taken lightly or used to gain leverage for oneself. Keeping a Sabbath day was something that would have been unfamiliar to slaves, and YHWH wanted to establish that the relationship between YHWH and his people was based in rest, not in back-breaking effort to please a God who was never satisfied. There was to be joy and enjoyment in the relationship.
The next set of guidelines relate to community life and illustrate what it looks like when people love and respect each other. They honour their parents, they do not kill each other, they do not betray intimate relationships, they do not take what is not theirs, they do not lie, they do not covet what belongs to someone else. It all seems rather basic to us today, but this would have been a drastic shift in values and mindset for the Israelites who were coming out of a brutal, violent context where survival displaced all other ethical values.
John B., an ex-member of a religious cult, writes with insight about the slave mentality which would have been part of the Israelites' mindset: "Those who were set free had been born into slavery, and had no point of reference for what freedom might mean. They knew that slavery was not fun, but it was at least understood. It was comfortable. They knew what to expect. They knew the rules and how to play the game. But freedom? That was like a big city driver who suddenly finds himself on a country road - where do you go when there are no cars to follow? What do you do when there is no one to give you orders?" The idea of wide open spaces and no one telling you what to do with every minute of your day would have been a very strange and uncomfortable place for them.
John B. goes on to offer a more modern example: "After the American Civil War, when the slaves had been set free by proclamation, many of them opted to remain where they were. Perhaps their masters had not been so cruel. They had housing, food, and work. They were willing to accept a little pay to stay put and not be thrust suddenly into the terrifying world outside. ... They simply did not have the energy or courage to forge a new life, with the attendant fears and unknowns, so they continued to work for their old masters."
So what does this oft-repeated phrase, "I am the LORD God who brought you out of Egypt," tell us about God?
1. This is a God who, out of love, calls people out of bondage (Hosea 11:1).
2. This is a God who does not want us to trade one slavery for another but live in freedom as his people.
3. This is a God who has the POWER to free us from bondage.
4. This is a God who addresses internal as well as external bondages. Here are a few internal bondages which I have identified as being linked to a slave mentality.
a) Fear of severe punishment if we get it wrong
b) Fear of being leaderless, paralyzed by options and responsibility
c) Fear of unpredictable circumstances and people, which translates into fear of losing control
d) Fear of intimacy, wanting to maintain a safe distance in order to avoid being hurt. This results in being very self-enclosed.
e) Finding refuge in cynicism, doubt and disbelief because hope and trust are too scary.
It doesn't take too much searching for me to find some evidence of slave mentality in my life. It is in those places where I would rather be closed in than find myself in a wide open space, those places where I cling tightly to the familiar (though uncomfortable) tight, small spaces in my soul because letting go is too frightening. Those places where I am so intent on protecting myself (survival mode) that I don't see the multitude of options available to me, or would rather not see them. Those places where courage and energy don't seem to exist and it is just easier to remain where I am. Those places where fear is my first response and cynicism is second nature.
These places let me know that I am not in relationship with the LORD God who brings people out of Egypt, but with a false god, a harsh taskmaster who is intent on keeping me small instead of inviting me to live large. But listen, freedom is calling. The door is open. We can take that first step and walk away from bondage. We can be free. Because we serve the LORD God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt.
I am the Eternal, Your True God. I liberated you from slavery, led you out from the land of Egypt. If you open your mouth wide, I will fill it. (Psalm 81:10, The Voice)
"Be strong, all you people of the land," declares the LORD, "and work. For I am with you," declares the LORD Almighty. "This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear." (Haggai 2:5, The Voice).