Because I have a love/hate relationship with religion — i. e. I’m fascinated by it as a cultural force, but tend to abhor the ways it can and has been used as a tool of hatred and oppression — I occasionally like to read and reread religious texts. Occasionally I discover something profoundly poetic and beautiful in the text. Other times I’m touched by the simultaneous fallibility and triumph of the human spirit as it struggles valiantly to transcend the realm of the mundane. Sometimes, though, I just get pissed off. Today, a slight diversion from my research.
I should disclose that my excursions into the realm of religion is often centered around the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam most notably), since those are the ones in which I was raised and with which I have the most experience. Most of the time the issues that piss me off are the obvious ones: Levitican admonitions against homosexuality, condemning women to an existence of subservience because someone somewhere once ate a piece of fruit, etc. Lately though, something a bit more troubling has been gnawing at my brain. Namely, the book of Exodus.
I say “troubling” because the story of Exodus is one of the cornerstones of Judaism, which happens to be my father’s faith. It’s also a significant part of my mother’s Christian faith. Our extended family typically has a seder every year to commemorate it. The thing is, as a child I remember reading the tale of the liberation of the Hebrew slaves and finding a nasty taste left in my mouth. When I was eighteen rereading Exodus was the impetus for my developing agnosticism. Rereading it about a week ago just plain made me angry. Why? Because, quite simply, it’s a nasty story.
I understand that religious traditions need to be looked at in their historical and cultural context; hell, as an anthropologist I’m inclined to see them as culturally specific filters for a connection with the divine. I also understand that there are bound to be blunders when translating from one language to another, let alone from an archaic language to a contemporary one. The thing is, the story of Exodus is frequently spun into something vastly different from what it was to begin with.
I’m assuming you’re familiar with the story. Hebrew slaves, Egypt, “let my people go,” plagues, Red Sea, Ten Commandments. If you’re not, Google it because I’m too lazy to synopsize here. Or watch Disney’s “Prince of Egypt” which does a (reasonably) good job of transmitting the basic story. Either way, the basic plot is usually framed as a battle of wills between scrappy Moses and the intransigent, dictatorial Pharaoh. Moses wants to liberate the Hebrews, the sinister Pharaoh says no, Moses (and by extension god) is forced to bring out the big guns.
Except that’s not exactly how it happens.
While Moses and god are having their tete-a-tete god mentions that in order to demonstrate how great and badass he is he will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that the Egyptian leader will not be moved to free the slaves. It’s right there in Exodus 10:1 (NIV): ““Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his officials, so that I may perform miraculous signs of mine among them.’” So basically Pharaoh is rendered incapable of freeing the slaves by god, who proceeds to rain down plague after plague.
This is where, arguably, the problem of translation comes in. It has been pointed out to me by a very brilliant, thoughtful and intuitive friend (hi RC) that it is likely not god but another theological force (most likely Satan in his Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament form of “the adversary”) who is hardening Pharaoh’s heart. It’s a worthy argument that does make god come out a little better, in my opinion, but still renders Pharaoh devoid of free will. Either way, the best case scenario is that god is engaging in disproportionate retribution. At worst, god is a sadistic puppet master.
To make matters even worse Moses is in on the joke and still goes along with it. If you’ll recall from the story, for most of his life up to this point Moses thought of himself as Egyptian. He was raised in the royal household. These people were his people. His Egyptian foster mother (who raised him from infancy, so basically his MOM) weeps before him to stop the madness of the plagues. I can imagine his childhood friends begging him for mercy. When the “death of the firstborn” plague rolls around one of the innocent children to die is Pharaoh’s son, who for all intents and purposes is Moses’ nephew. Evidently he’s okay with it, though, because a talking plant told him to be.
Meanwhile, the account of degraded Hebrew slaves forced to build the pyramids is simply not true. Slavery in Egypt — as well as other parts of the ancient world — was not as we think of it today. In actuality, the Hebrews were more of a skilled servant class/guild who had a rather high degree of freedom. Many of them were even loyal to their adopted homeland. Meanwhile, the pyramids were erected by tenant farmers.
My overall point? Well, if you must have one, it’s that anyone who suggests you take any part of the Bible at face value — even as strongly a cherished one as Exodus — is probably trying to sell you something. If you don’t believe me, remember the old Jewish story about the wife who cut the roast in half before cooking it (if you don’t know it and are curious, ask me). Does anyone else have any thoughts on this?