Monday, January 19, 2015

Liberation, Sanctification, Mission: Reflections on the Meaning of the Exodus

In his song “Jokerman” from the album Infidels, Bob Dylan sings in part in the first verse, “Freedom just around the corner for you, but with truth so far off what good will it do?”  This is a poignant reminder that freedom is not something inherently good and desirable.  Dylan suggests that freedom apart from truth may not be the good that some make it out to be.    

In a popular reading of the book of Exodus, it is fashionable to emphasize Exodus as a story of liberation to freedom. Cinematic renditions of the Exodus tend to reinforce this understanding.  The animated file The Prince of Egypt ends with the crossing of the Red Sea.  Cecile B. DeMile’s epic The Ten Commandments does include the reception of the Ten Commandments at Sinai but its dominant focus is on the liberation of Israel as is the recent Exodus: Gods and Kings. Yet, when approaching the book of Exodus, the reader may be surprised that the story of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt encompasses only the first 15 chapters of its 40.  The dominant feature of Exodus in terms of space is not the story of liberation but God's encounter with God's people at Sinai in which the newly delivered nation of Israel learns what it means to live together as a holy community as the people of God for the sake of God's mission to the nations.

In other words, the book of Exodus is not a story of liberation, if one means by liberation a narrative of deliverance to autonomous freedom. Israel is not free at any point in the book of Exodus. In fact, there is no word for freedom in the Old Testament. The book of Exodus then is actually a book about mission and sanctification. God delivers his covenant people from an illegitimate ruler, Pharaoh, who sought to prevent Israel from fulfilling the purposes for which God had called Israel’s ancestors (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) to accomplish – namely serving as a missional community for the rest of creation by being the agents through whom God would bless the world. God does liberate Israel from bondage, but it is a purposeful deliverance in which Israel is not granted autonomous freedom (or even democracy) but is unleashed into the world in order to fulfill God’s creation wide salvific purposes. The narrative of Exodus then is about unleashing God’s people from bondage and shaping them into a holy community, which will embody the redemption that God seeks to work. The climax of the book of Exodus is God’s glory coming to dwell in the midst of his people. Israel becomes a nation that mediates the grace and holiness of God as it embodies its Sinai calling of living as a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6).

The focus of Exodus then is on shaping an ethos in which the liberated do not become the oppressors. Salvation for God's people is thus not merely about the elimination of sin or deliverance from some form of oppression. Rather Exodus is truly about a conversion to a mission – namely a participation in God’s salvific purposes for Creation. God’s people serve as a missional community that reflects God’s character to/for/in the nations.

This model of liberation for mission is the Biblical model of salvation and needs to inform our practice as followers of Jesus today.

© 2015 Brian D. Russell

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