* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Exodus 15-18: Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

In the Exodus story (picking up in chapter 15), there is a celebration after the Israelites watch Pharaoh's forces get swept away by the waters of the Red Sea.  The Jews sing a song crediting God with their escape from Egypt with the plunder they stole from the Egyptians and their safe passage into the wilderness.  Until they have trouble finding potable water, that is.  Then, there are complaints until Moses works some magic with a water-purifying stick, and God is once more praised for watching out for the Israelites.  Until they have trouble finding enough food to fill their bellies, that is.  Then they tell Moses that he should have left them all in Egypt instead of taking them out into the desert to die.  So, Moses instructs them on how to gather food from the harsh environment so that the community has plenty, and everyone praises God for providing.

This trend continues: The Israelites have trouble finding water again.  They gripe at Moses for taking them into the wilderness to die.  Moses uses a magic stick.  God is praised.  The Israelites face hostile nomads.  Moses determines the outcome of the battle by raising or lowering his magic stick.  God is praised.  Then, Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, pays a visit.  He tells Moses that it isn't wise to be the only person to whom the entire Israelite community comes for advice and leadership.  Jethro suggests bureaucracy, a formula of delegation that will spread authority out a bit among the people.  Moses likes the idea and puts it into practice.

It's interesting that God isn't credited with the idea of bureaucracy, but Jethro's suggestion to "teach them the decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave" is essentially an admonition to encourage spiritual maturity in a people whose faith is threatened by every troublesome circumstance.  Not a bad suggestion.  Build up the faith of a people and they will be a little more able to take care of themselves.  It's a far cry from the practice of some twenty-first century spiritual leaders who think it's best to tell people what to think and feel with an overbearing volume and repetition that prevents people from thinking for themselves.

If a people believe that a higher power is watching out for their well-being, expressions of gratitude seem appropriate.  It is perhaps dubious for modern-day Christians to look back at the Song of Miriam and formulate a philosophy of international relations based on the assumption that God will smash their enemies, unleash his blazing fury, and consume them like straw.  Being grateful for the good things that happen in life is healthy, though, especially when you consider just having enough food and water to be a blessing.  Those with a more mature faith might even be able to express gratitude when survival is in question or when they experience some degree of unpleasantness in life.  That seems to be where Jethro's idea could ultimately lead, even if his goal at the time was just to spread out Moses' leadership and authority a bit.

The problem with Moses' identity among the wandering Israelites is that he has become the only man with the answers.  He is the only one who is entitled to say what God wants from the people.  He is the only one who can provide sustenance for them.  Moses is essentially their god, even though they aren't recorded as praising him directly.  He has set himself up with unassailable authority because he communicates with God and the people do not.  They need him in order to receive God's blessings.  They need him to survive.  Or so it would seem, at least.  Jethro saw clearly that nothing good can come of one person wielding that level of power over a community.

As the story continues, we'll see that there is still a great deal of "I know what God wants and you don't."  When the governing rules of the community are delivered, they still come with the threat of "do what God wants or die."  It would seem that spiritual maturity is a scary prospect for both sides.  It isn't as easy for a leader to compel people to do what he wants once those people start thinking for themselves a little more.  But there's also a great deal of vulnerability in developing personal responsibility for one's own beliefs.  In a way, the whole of the Bible (and perhaps every religious text) is about that struggle to accept the responsibility of spiritual maturity in order to reap the tremendous rewards.

Historically, there may never have been an Israelite exodus from Egypt.  Still, if there was, I believe that the Israelites would have been able to survive without Moses.  It may not have been pleasant, and they may have lost many of their number in the process, but perhaps they would have become a more tightly woven community as well.  People are capable of a great many things, whether it's purifying water to drink, surviving off the food that the land provides, or defending themselves against actual aggressors.  To give all the credit for such things to a single individual in a community is lazy and immature.  Consistently waiting for Moses or God or someone else to act on your behalf reflects not only a sense that you are too weak to take care of yourself, but also that you deserve to have your every need provided for you by someone else.  People are capable of more than that.  Be sincerely grateful and earnestly praise God if that makes sense for you.  But also recognize your own responsibility for your thoughts and actions.  Personal responsibility is at the very heart of spiritual maturity.

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