April 14th, 2022
One copy of the Slave Bible, first published in 1807, sits today in the permanent collection of the Fisk University Library in Nashville. Originally intended for use in worship by enslaved people in the British West Indies, the biblical text was carefully redacted to exclude all references to the Exodus from Egypt. Imagine a Bible with no Moses, no burning bush, no Israelites fleeing slavery, no split sea and no revelation at Sinai.
This version of the text, gutted of that central narrative, was designed to fulfill a two-part objective: to introduce enslaved people to Christianity and to preserve the system of slavery. The problem was that the Exodus story — bearing the promise of freedom over slavery, dignity over degradation — is powerful and dangerous. The slaveholders were surely concerned that enslaved people would see themselves in the Israelite struggle for liberation, that they would find strength in God’s identification with the oppressed and be inspired by the triumph of faith over even one of the strongest regimes of the ancient world. They may have feared that this story would plant the seeds of possibility, if not the seeds of rebellion.
This week, Jews around the world will sit at Passover Seder tables and retell the very narrative stricken from that Slave Bible: the Exodus from Egypt. In Hebrew it is yetziat mitzrayim, literally “emerging or leaving from the narrow place.” This, our origin story, has animated and sustained the Jewish people for thousands of years. It’s read not as a remembrance of a one-time event but as an eternal promise, a frame of reference for all future struggles — including those we face in our time and our own country.
The Exodus is a tale of a tyrannical ruler who violently suppressed the Israelite minority living under his rule, who he feared might one day rise up against him. With ruthless taskmasters carrying out his plan, Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites, forcing them to endure hardship and humiliation. By the time of the Exodus, every living Israelite was the descendant of enslaved people; none alive remembered freedom. Their bodies were broken, their spirits nearly crushed. But at the moment of their deepest despair, after hundreds of years of suffering, God heard the people’s cries and redeemed them with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. It was then the newly liberated began their long journey to freedom.
This is an archetypal redemption story, a reminder that as much as the world has changed since ancient times, oppression, degradation and exploitation remain part of the human condition. As long as there is power, there will be abuses of power. But the Exodus is also a reminder that any moment could be the inflection point between oppression and liberation. And so the telling and retelling of this story are the closest we, as a people, come to the generational transmission of hope, which can itself be seen as an act of spiritual resistance.
The Exodus narrative demands of us full partnership in the grueling, unending work of building a just society, one that stands as countertestimony to the brutality the Israelites experienced in Egypt. This is why the treatment of the ger, the stranger, the vulnerable one, becomes the central obsession of the five books of Moses. The many biblical commandments regarding treatment of the stranger are all rooted in the same principle: “Do not oppress the stranger, since you know the soul of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). The message is clear: The work of leaving Egypt doesn’t end once the people cross the Red Sea, on the path to the Promised Land. As Emma Lazarus, the poet whose words grace the Statue of Liberty, wrote in 1883, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”
Freedom was hard won for the ancient Israelites, coming only after God unleashed 10 formidable plagues on Egypt. The plagues are commonly read as punishments levied against the Egyptian people for the terrible suffering they forced upon the Israelites, but there is another way to interpret God’s actions. One medieval rabbi, Sforno, argued that the plagues were actually brought to awaken the conscience of the oppressor, “to increase the chances that Pharaoh would finally see the light and become a genuine penitent.” In other words, what God desired was a true change of heart. God wanted Pharaoh and his people to take responsibility for the injustices they committed. Tell the truth. Make amends. Offer reparations. Chart a new course, together with the Israelites.
In this reading, the objective of the redemption story was the liberation of not only the Israelites but also the Egyptians. They needed to be liberated from the morally perverse mind-set that justified their cruelty in the first place. True redemption requires the transformation of the oppressed as well as the oppressors.
American Jews read this story year after year in a beautiful and broken country, one that strives toward its loftiest aspirations even as it balks at contending honestly with its own past transgressions. One that remains wedded to the same supremacist thinking that has fueled the most shameful chapters of our shared history.
The story of the Exodus leaves us with a moral imperative: Our perpetual challenge is to build a society in which every person is treated as an image of the Holy One, living in full dignity. Redemption is possible for us all.
The tragedy of the Exodus is that Pharaoh himself could have been a part of the redemption story. He could have moved from oppressor to liberator or even partner in building a just future. But that would have required him to embrace the redemption narrative, rather than be threatened by it. Instead, he rooted only more deeply in his fear- and greed-driven mission, until the chariots and horsemen of the Egyptian army drowned in the Red Sea.
America, too, needs a redemption narrative, a shared story for the America being born in our time. Perhaps the Exodus from Egypt, once deemed so dangerous that it had to be excised from some Bibles, will awaken our moral imagination as we strive to write a new story for this nation. I still believe that together we can build a redeemed society. A multiracial democracy, rooted in equal justice that defends the dignity of every person and strives to embody the great, age-old vision of collective liberation.