Bricks Without Straw: State Oppression and the Will of God in Exodus
by John Bailie
Exodus 1-15 is a story of liberation. But liberation from whom? From what? While the text uses the conflict between Pharaoh and YHWH as a narrative device, it is ultimately the rightness of the "state" itself that is challenged by God. Exodus 1-15 stands out as God’s first clear elucidation that state power exists inexorably in opposition to Divine power and will.
Definitions and Methods
Throughout this paper the word "state" will in most instances be used in place of "kingdom" or "monarchy" when referring to biblical Egypt. The latter are admittedly more historically accurate. The term "state" will be used here to broadly refer to the complex of governing structures that controls economic processes, manages civil affairs and has the power to use force and coercion upon those under its influence to compel behavior or suppress dissent. Biblical Egypt certainly fits that description. "State" is also a more flexible term. The message of Exodus is not confined to a limited period of ancient history. It speaks to the modern context of life under state authority. At the end of this paper this contextual understanding of Exodus’ message will be explored.
Similarly, the term "the oppressed" will be used in reference to the Hebrews under Egyptian rule. This term is both more accurate and carries less cultural baggage than "slaves." In this paper, "the oppressed" or "to be oppressed" will refer to a state in which a group of people are systematically coerced into serving the needs and desires of another group. This is typically accomplished through the use or threat of violence or enforced economic dependence on structures of the state. This term accurately describes the Hebrews of Exodus.
This paper rests on three assumptions. First, God acts upon history. God, however conceptualized, intervenes in and through human affairs to both reveal God’s will and aid in the human realization of that will on Earth. Second, the biblical text has inherent authority. This authority is derived from the assumption that it is a record of God’s intervention and relationship with humanity. Whether one considers that record to be inerrant and inspired or recorded to the best of faulty human ability is not central to this argument. The themes of Exodus are clear enough to withstand the literalism of the former and the doubting of the latter. Third, all states produce oppression. They are two sides of the same coin and one cannot exist without the other. This has been the case from antiquity until today. The first two assumptions are more or less orthodox Christian ideas and should not be too surprising. Most of history supports the third assumption. Major conflict is not usually incited until the discussion turns toward potential solutions to problems inherent to the state. This paper will focus on the examination of Exodus’ revelation that God’s will exists in opposition to state power. A detailed discussion of ultimate solutions to that problem for us today will have to wait for another discussion.
Pharaoh as the State
"Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph." (Ex. 1:8)
This scant biography is all that the reader is offered regarding Pharaoh. No name. No background or history is given for this new king. Current scholarship supports either a 15th or 13th century B.C.E. date for the Exodus narrative.
The case for a 15th century Pharaoh is supported the Amarna letters. Found near the once Egyptian capital of Amarna and dated to the 15th century, these state letters mention unrest in Palestine, which could describe the situation in Canaan when the Hebrews arrived. An inscription from the reign of Hatshepsut speaks of this Pharaoh tightening control over a group of Asiatics living in the kingdom and harassing their labor for state building projects. 
Those favoring a 13th century Exodus point to the biblical text itself. Archeological evidence supports the existence of large scale building projects during this period. This would mean a ruler from the XIXth Dynasty of Egypt. This Pharaoh might be Rameses I, his son Seti I or his son Rameses II. Seti I and his son moved the Egyptian capital north around this time to a city named Avaris, which they renamed "House of Rameses." The supply city "Rameses" in the biblical text is a shortened form of this name. Also, the Merneptah Stele from the reign of Pharaoh Merneptah (ca. 1207) contains an inscription that some have interpreted as referring to a people named "Israel," though 15th century advocates disagree with this translation.
The Hebrew bible is usually very much concerned about, if not downright obsessed with personal identity. It is interesting that here in one of the most formative stories of the Hebrew people that the principal antagonist is named only as Pharaoh. The text gives no information about Pharaoh as a person. What we do know is that the more cushy days under Joseph’s Pharaoh are over.
The only details offered about this ruler concern his or her function as head of the Egyptian state. We know from the text that this Pharaoh sees the growing numbers of Hebrews in the land as a threat:
"He said to his people, "Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land." (Ex. 1:9-10)
Given the godlike status of the Egyptian monarch it can be reasonably assumed that that "people" Pharaoh is addressing are the governing elite with whom such a figure would associate. Here Pharaoh is affirming his role as defender of the privileged class and the state that serves them.
Two potential threats to the state are listed here. First is the military threat in the fear that the Hebrews might join a foreign army against Egypt. Second, is the fear that they might "escape from the land." This fear is economic in nature. Pharaoh is concerned about the loss of a labor force, which would endanger state projects and commerce. Egyptian monumental architecture is a testament to brutal subjugation. Such projects could not have been realized without backs and blood of a massive oppressed labor force. Ironically, the Hebrews have become a threat because of their usefulness. They are a numerous labor force. Such a force is useful only the extent that it is compliant. The true fear of Pharaoh in this passage is that the Hebrews may be become conscious of their powerful position and then attempt to wield such power. In essence, the constant danger for the state is that the mode of production will produce conditions that lead to its downfall. Sensing a threat to state interests, Pharaoh sets out to "deal shrewdly with them."
Pharaoh the person is a blank slate upon which all of the fears, motivations and reactions of the state are written. This helps the story become paradigmatic as Pharaoh becomes representative of the state itself. As the state, Pharaoh is a slave to function and inevitably produces conditions hostile to itself. Pharaoh cannot help but regard the Hebrews with fear and seek to oppress them further. The state cannot suffer a power greater than itself. To do so would undermine the mode of its existence, which is based on hierarchy and control. Whether governed by godlike Pharaoh or by majority rule, the aim of the state is always subordination. Pharaoh must be Pharaoh.
Hebrew as Oppressed
The Hebrews were oppressed. The text is clear,
"… they were oppressed…" (Ex 1:12)
as is the rest of the Hebrew Bible.
"… the Egyptians oppressed us and our ancestors…" (Num 20:15)
"…the Egyptians oppressed them…" (Isa 12:8)
" The LORD works vindication
and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel." (Ps 103:6)
Not all oppressive situations are the same however. So what did the Hebrew oppression in Egypt look like? The term slavery is not entirely accurate. The Hebrews were afforded an amount of private property such as homes and personal belongings. They seemed generally permitted to meet and gather as a community. They apparently even had the right to petition Pharaoh directly (Ex 5:10). However, their existence depended on the good will of Pharaoh and the Egyptian ruling class. Hebrews worked land owned by the state and paid tribute in the form of produce. When needed, they could be compelled to provide labor for state projects. This was a class society in which a powerful few lived off the labor of the many. This is the situation when the text begins.
It is Pharaoh’s fear of underclass rebellion that sparks the acute oppression of the Hebrews. Pharaoh’s response is one "repeated time and again by repressive governments everywhere." In hopes to undermine their ability to rebel, the Hebrews are repressed further. Pharaoh institutes corvee or forced labor for the state. Under corvee we see the conditions traditionally associated with this story.
"The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them."
The story "captures our political imagination, not only merely for the forcefulness with which the book speaks to the condition of enslavement but also the clarity with which the text exposes intransigent political power." This sets in motion a spiral of ever increasing repression and resistance that begins with Egyptian ruthlessness and ends in Hebrew liberation.
YHWH as Change Agent
Conflict under such circumstances is inevitable. In fact, conflict defines both Pharaoh and the Hebrews. One is ruthless. The other is oppressed. Their very identities are defined by their roles in Egyptian class conflict. It is this natural dynamic tension that pushes Pharaoh to rely increasingly in the coercive power of the state and the Hebrews to trust in YHWH.
It should be noted that before YHWH enters the scene at the burning bush, the text relates the first act of Hebrew resistance. Hebrew midwives are the first to resist Pharaoh when they refuse to murder the male children they deliver. They resist by telling Pharaoh that Hebrew women give birth so easily that they deliver before the midwives have a chance to get there. This is lie that uses Egyptian prejudices against Pharaoh. Again, a weapon of oppression, prejudice, is turned against the state. This passive resistance from the Hebrew women, or non-compliance, is the "conventional weapon of the powerless." That Pharaoh is so easily fooled undermines the concept of Pharaoh’s supposed "divine wisdom." This deconstruction is necessary if the Hebrews are to later accept YHWH. 
Moses is born into this dangerous time. In his rescue from the Nile, one begins to sense the hand of YHWH at work. He enters into the very family of Pharaoh. He learns their ways, eats their food and participates in their customs. But he soon finds that he cannot help but identify with his people.
"One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand." (Ex 2:11-15)
Moses is keenly attuned to the injustice. His response is extreme and it casts the die for the rest of his life. One cannot both serve and destroy the state. Moses has crossed the line.
It is no mistake that YHWH chooses one so attuned to the suffering of his people. Yet Moses is also humble. After killing the Egyptian he does not attempt to start a revolt or even to become a martyr. A courageous fellow Hebrew asks him, "Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?" Moses does not respond. He recognizes that he can no longer identify with the Egyptian oppressor and has no authority as a Hebrew. He flees to Midian and comes to know the real life of his people; a life that was robbed from him so long ago. He leads the simple life of a shepherd. He defends the herds against marauders. He starts a Hebrew family. He becomes a part of his people. Only then does YHWH decide to make this Moses into a prophet.
God hears suffering. God knows oppression and God intervenes. This is the most stunning and timeless assertion of Exodus. YHWH says to Moses at the burning bush:
"I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians…"
YHWH chooses an act of liberation to reestablish the covenant with the Hebrews. The Exodus narrative begins a powerful cycle of revelation throughout the Hebrew Bible and into the New Testament. Worldly power is antithetical to Divine authority. The state is the ultimate expression of worldly power. It is no mistake that the Christian story ends in the book of Revelation with the total destruction of all worldly empires. Again and again in the Hebrew Bible, rulers come and go. Even those who believe they are blessed usually turn from God or are betrayed by others who have. Moses has been chosen to deliver a message. He is to tell the Hebrews that in God no one is a slave. More importantly, when a people truly trusts in God they will no longer be slaves. To Pharaoh, YHWH’s message is simple, "Let my people go."
As discussed earlier, Pharaoh will not change because he cannot change. The state cannot serve purposes other than what it was created to serve. One could even say that the problem is not Pharaoh the person. It could be imagined that the person of Pharaoh may have had all sorts of doubts and perhaps even a desire to show compassion for the Hebrews. It is Pharaoh the institution that dooms the ruler and the state. YHWH chooses this moment not because YHWH hopes Pharaoh will change, but because YHWH knows that Pharaoh will not. YHWH predicts the behavior Pharaoh throughout the text:
"I know, however, that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand." (Ex 3:19)
"…I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go." (Ex 4:21)
" When Pharaoh does not listen to you, I will lay my hand upon Egypt and bring my people the Israelites, company by company, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment." (Ex 7:4)
Pharaoh responds to this challenge by increasing Hebrew oppression. He orders that the Hebrews not be given straw to make bricks. They are instead to gather it on their own while still making the daily quota. The twisted logic of the state says that the solution to rebellion against oppression is more oppression. The state must be the state.
The goal of YHWH is not to make a better Egypt. It is to destroy the illusion of Egyptian invincibility in the mind of the Hebrews. Only then will they believe that another destiny is possible. This begins the long cycle of the plagues. The plague cycles are designed to finish the deconstruction of Egyptian authority that began with the midwives. Pharaoh is powerless to end the cycle of destruction without submitting to the demand for liberation. Pharaoh remains unmoved as wave upon wave of plague descends upon Egypt. The authority of the Egyptian magicians is also destroyed in this cycle. Up until the fourth plague of gnats the magicians had duplicated all of YHWH’s feats. Unable to duplicate this act they finally say to Pharaoh, "This is the finger of God!" (Ex 8:19) These are representatives of the state sponsored religion of Egypt. YWHW thus demonstrates not only the bankruptcy of state power, but also of false religion that exists to legitimate it. Both must be exposed as powerless to the eyes of the Hebrews.
One potential problem to the idea that a major thematic element of Exodus 1-15 is that the state inevitably exists to oppress is the fact that text clearly states that YHWH "hardens" Pharaoh’s heart so that he will not change. Isn’t that just a set up by YHWH? It could mean that the text actually says nothing about the intrinsic nature of the state. It could mean that Pharaoh would have allowed the Hebrews to go if YHWH hadn’t stopped him. In this scenario, the plague cycle is a dramatic set-up played out to gain the allegiance of the Hebrews thematically limited in scope to a one-time affair in history. The opposite is more plausibly true. What mortal would not have relented sooner under the assault of YHWH? The "hardening" of Pharaoh’s heart is more likely a clever narrative addition that explains to an incredulous reader why Pharaoh did not relent while allowing the larger theme of the deconstruction of state power to go forward in unabated fullness. This is the only context in which the "hardening" makes theological sense.
Before the final plague, YHWH institutes the first Passover. Here YHWH gives the first clear distinction between life under the Egyptian state and life under God. He instructs that when dividing the Passover lamb:
"…they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it." (Ex 12:3-4)
The first instruction concerning the new life of the Hebrew people is that they should share and share equitably. Later, YHWH says "there shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you." (Ex 12:49) This statement is made following instructions that aliens may join the Passover meal only if circumcised. Though at first this dictum may seem like a restriction, it is actually a radical inversion of the Egyptian class society. In effect, what YHWH is saying is that all who know God are equal in the sight of God and should be treated as such. Circumcision is only an outward sign of submission to this idea. YHWH is prefiguring themes of social justice and equality that will be elaborated on throughout the Bible.
The crescendo of the deconstruction of Egyptian power takes place at the Red Sea. The Egyptian army was the finest and most fierce of its time. It is the last power left to Pharaoh as violent force is the last power left to any state under siege. It does not make logical sense that Pharaoh would risk such an important asset against a power that has evidenced itself to be clearly superior. But again, the defeat of this power is essential to what YHWH is imparting to the Hebrews. It would have been impressive to say the least to see such an army swallowed in an instant by the waters of the sea.
Egypt is destroyed for the Hebrews. Now begins the much more difficult struggle. Liberation ends in freedom. With freedom comes uncertainty. Learning to live in the freedom of God occupies the center of all Hebrew and Christian theology from Exodus 15 on. YHWH ends this saga with a final lesson:
"If you will listen carefully to the voice of the LORD your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the LORD who heals you." (Ex 15:26)
The state never embodies the will of God. If the state inexorably produces oppression in any form and God is freedom in every form, then believers must struggle against the state. So what use is the story of Exodus 1-15 to us today? First, the Bible must be liberated. In many ways, Exodus has become a text of the oppressor. How one reads this text will be determined by one’s social location and can be used to mask or even legitimize oppression. The major state and corporate powers of today have cultures, or at least individuals, that claim this text as part of their religious tradition. Many cultures are undergoing the difficult task of unearthing liberating readings of these texts from under the rubble of colonialism. This process then becomes " a process of cultural and discursive emancipation from all dominant structures be they political linguistic or ideological." The dictum that the state produces the conditions of its own destruction applies here. The global political and religious elite has obscured the lessons of Exodus. The story however is everywhere. When peoples cease to listen to vested authority and begin to read the text from their own perspective, liberation is always possible. The struggle for African American rights in the United States is a case in point. The Bible, once used to justify their oppression, became the inspiration and tool for African American liberation.
Interpretation ideally seeks insights to solve the real problems of life. Today, the power and domination of the state and corporate establishment is everywhere. The Bible speaks to this condition and offers powerful critiques of the dominant economic system when read from the perspective of those under oppression. If, as Marx said, the point of history is to change it, what does Exodus 1-15 ask us to do? It asks us to trust God above all else. How many of us today pray to God, but look to the state for our security and protection? Isn’t that a terrible kind of hypocrisy? The state can only be said to produce either when one’s perspective does not include the perspective of the modern day Hebrew slave. Comfort and privilege offered by the state always comes at a price. To Latin America, the poor, minorities or the modern working class the experience of state power is not liberation. Exodus should be their text.
State power cannot live in harmony with the will of God. Exodus is the beginning of the world’s most powerful and prophetic story. We are still somewhere inside of it. Judaism and Christianity speak of the end of it. Both agree that the new age will be marked by justice, equality and the end of all forms of domination. Both say that freedom in God is complete. God has told us that time will come.
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