Feminism, Social Issues

liberation theology, Moses, and us

prince of egypt

So, in preparation of launching my YouTube channel, I created a Tumblr. I had never gotten into Tumblr before, and I regret not finding out about how awesome it is sooner. Like Twitter, it’s the social media that you make of it, but once you’ve found a few good people, it sort of balloons into a parade of wonderfulness. I saw an amazing gifset from The Prince of Egypt featuring Tzipporah, so one night when I was up with insomnia I watched it– and liked it. A lot. It was nice finally seeing a biblical story without any white people in it (Noah, I’m looking at you).

Watching The Prince of Egypt was the first time I’d really thought about Moses and The Exodus since I’ve started looking into Liberation Theology, and one of the things that stood out to me this time was what Moses had to overcome in order to become the man that could lead the Jews.

He had to overcome his classism.

This is something the book of Exodus actually seems to emphasize as part of Moses’ story, although I have never heard a message taught from this perspective. Moses was a child of mind-boggling privilege– fantastically wealthy, raised as the grandson of a god, and educated in one of the most advanced civilizations of the time. Exodus 2 doesn’t say how or when Moses discovered that he was not actually an Egyptian– only that Pharaoh’s daughter raised him as her own son, but sometime before the events of verse 11 it seems that he knows.

What the story does illustrate in two different ways is how Moses overcame his privilege. He probably could have remained in the palace indefinitely, embracing a system that justified brutality against those deemed lesser, but he didn’t. He committed an act of violence in defense of a victim. He does the same thing, again, when he sees his future wife being driven away from the well by a group of shepherds.

He could have ignored the oppression happening right in front of his face when he saw a supervisor beating a slave. He could have thought this is the way things are supposed to be, or if I get involved, I could lose everything, but he didn’t.

He could have thought it was right for the shepherds to take what they wanted, to use their strength and status to drive women and girls away from water. He could have thought I am only one man, what can I do? But he didn’t.

I don’t want to read too much into Moses– the text does not speculate as to his state of mind, or to his motivations. But, it is entirely human to go along with the power systems that benefit you without questioning them. The status quo is maintained not because there’s a group of conspirators actively making sure classism, racism, and sexism remain systemic and institutionalized, but through sheer force of numbers the people who accept “the way things are” keep these kyriarchal power structures in place. It would have benefited Moses to play along. He could have remained in luxury and privilege, but he didn’t. He chose to recognize suffering of those the culture he was raised in had collectively decided “deserved” to be slaves, and do something about it.

That’s also what the Bible says God responds to.

The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.

I’m not sure why it took God so long to do something. He didn’t act when Pharaoh ordered all of the firstborn Jewish boys slaughtered. He didn’t act for however long they were enslaved until he sends Moses to liberate them, and that … bothers me. I wish there was some explanation for why then, why not before, what changed, but the Bible doesn’t give us any.

But it makes me wonder– Americans enslaved Africans for centuries before we decided to go to war over it. Segregation and Jim Crow went on until a woman sat on a bus and four boys sat at a lunch counter and a black preacher said “I have a Dream.” It took a woman sitting down and writing Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (The Book of the City of Ladies) to point out the inequality between the sexes, and another six centuries before women could vote, own property, and legally divorce abusive husbands (this is an oversimplification for brevity).

It seems that people like Moses, and Mary Wollstonecraft, and Rosa Parks, are necessary, that it takes regular, every day, run-of-the-mill humans to stand up and say “No More.” I’m not sure what it says about God, but I like what it says about people, about you and me.

I just finished reading Robert Reich’s Beyond Outrage (which became the documentary Inequality for All), and he makes an interesting observation in the book– that the class of political activists he calls “regressives” (conservative Republicans) are advocating for economic Darwinism– a political and economic justification of classism, essentially. Rich people are rich because they worked hard and therefore deserve to be rich; poor people are poor because they are lazy or inept and therefore deserve no help from society or government. It’s a  “meritocracy” and “boot-strapping” and “rags to riches” that, frankly, doesn’t exist (in the case of meritocracy) and isn’t possible for most people.

And it’s going to take us– all of us– standing together and saying “No More.” What’s wonderful about the story of Moses is that it shows us what it takes, and what we have to lose, and that we’ll need patience and perseverance– but it also shows us everything we have to gain if we “go out to where our own people are.”


(update on Elsa: she seems to be doing ok at the moment. She ate and drank regularly yesterday, and she hasn’t vomited — at least, not yet. I played with her for a while today and she was her enthusiastic self, but when I picked her up she meowed like it hurt her, and she’s currently curled up in the corner behind a chair. That’s not all that unusual, but one of the possible symptoms is “hiding” for long periods of time. She’s yet to have a bowel movement since she ate the string, but I’m trying to remain hopeful. Thank you for all your encouragement yesterday– this is starting to exacerbate my pretty constant low-level anxiety, and hearing from you helped.)

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  • Ahhh, Tumblr… I get linked pictures from there all the time by a friend of mine. I really should look into some of these social connection options, but it’s difficult to break this isolation when it takes me forever to learn something new. Good to know that Elsa’s okay so far. I’ll be praying for both of you.

    I think the reason it seems to take God so long to do anything about the fundamental injustices in the world is rather ironically because He doesn’t want to further the injustice. Think about it. A big kid is bullying a little kid. A bigger kid comes in and beats the hell outta the big kid. The little kid is still bullied but now has even more reason NOT to do anything about it and he’s liable to go running to the bigger kid at the slightest sign of trouble.

    Now, how much better for all involved if, instead of intervening directly, the bigger kid helps the little kid learn how to defend himself and then stands WITH him as a show of solidarity as the little kid beats the bully off himself?

    So it’s not so much God not acting out of callousness, but Him waiting for *us* to be ready to stand up for what is right and then Him standing WITH us when we do. Does that help?

    • Gary Eddy

      I like your sentiments

    • Timothy

      Isn’t this the story with the killing of the first born?

      • Timothy

        While the arguments can be made for the new testament god, the old testament god is a bit trigger happy.

  • One of my theology professors suggested that the Jews would have inferred that Moses would have known who he was because as a Jewish male older than eight days (as is implied in the text) he would have been circumcised, and so known that he was part of the Hebrews.

    The more I have become comfortable with evolution, the more the billions of years have actually encouraged me to step back look at God as infitinitely creative and patient – sure, he could always interfere and change things, but maybe he is more interested in unleashing the creativity of people allowing key people to be catalysts throughout the millenia. Why? No idea – but maybe our theology should be reevaluated as one that accounts for the long road instead of needing to see results immediately.

    Little changes over long periods of time to the point of catalyst seems to be how God works. What if we reevaluate from short-instantaneous views of Christianity to a long unfolding story? It has changed how I think of God for sure.

    • Egyptians circumcise too, though.

      • I’m getting this from Wiki, so grain of salt:

        Sixth Dynasty (2345–2181 BC) tomb artwork in Egypt has been thought to be the oldest documentary evidence of circumcision, the most ancient depiction being a bas-relief from the necropolis at Saqqara (c. 2400 BC) with the inscriptions reading: “The ointment is to make it acceptable.” and “Hold him so that he does not fall”. In the oldest written account, by an Egyptian named Uha, in the 23rd century BC, he describes a mass circumcision and boasts of his ability to stoically endure the pain: “When I was circumcised, together with one hundred and twenty men…there was none thereof who hit out, there was none thereof who was hit, and there was none thereof who scratched and there was none thereof who was scratched.”

        Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BC, wrote that the Egyptians “practise circumcision for the sake of cleanliness, considering it better to be cleanly than comely.”Gollaher (2000) considered circumcision in ancient Egypt to be a mark of passage from childhood to adulthood. He mentions that the alteration of the body and ritual of circumcision were supposed to give access to ancient mysteries reserved solely for the initiated. (See also Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 1.15) The content of those mysteries are unclear but are likely to be myths, prayers, and incantations central to Egyptian religion. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, for example, tells of the sun god Ra cutting himself, the blood creating two minor guardian deities. The Egyptologist Emmanuel vicomte de Rougé interpreted this as an act of circumcision. Circumcisions were performed by priests in a public ceremony, using a stone blade. It is thought to have been more popular among the upper echelons of the society, although it was not universal and those lower down the social order are known to have had the procedure done.The Egyptian hieroglyph for “penis” depicts either a circumcised or an erect organ.

        Also, there is some scholarly debate with whether or not the Jews practiced circumcision as a nation until after they were given the Law by Moses– some even argue it was an idea they inherited from the Egyptians.

        • Gram Pol

          In the Old Testament, it’s Zipporah who circumcises her son (and it’s implied that circumcision becomes “the thing” after that.)

        • There is archaeological evidence for circumcision in Egypt going back into the Predynastic period (ca. 4000 to 3100 BCE) in the form of preserved soft tissue from burials at the cemetery at Naga-ed-Dêr. See Lythgoe, Albert M. and Dows Dunham (1965). The Predynastic Cemetery, N 7000. Naga-ed-Dêr, Part IV. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles. The cemetery was excavated in 1904-05 by George Reisner for the Hearst Expedition to Egypt, and G.E. Smith, the MD who examined the bodies, had a bit of a fetish about collecting the naughty bits (male and female).

  • Good post, Sam! I rewatched Prince of Egypt the other night, and it was still as good as I remember. Thinking about doing a post on it sometime in the near future myself. I’ll remember to keep your thoughts in mind while I’m writing.

  • They probably got it from the Egyptians. Interesting how having all the information on the Internet now makes pet theories disappear. 🙂 I think I remember him saying that was a theory at the time. The Internet was just starting when I went to school……in the nineties.

    • Seriously though, as I think about it, the Internet has really changed a lot – we really couldn’t sit there and fact-check a bible school professor at the time. It was too much info – a lot got taken for granted.

  • aww Prince of Egypt was my CHILDHOOD! 🙂 I’d never considered the classism Moses would have to overcome, only the racism (which is linked, I suppose!). Great thoughts as usual, Samantha. Glad Elsa seems to be doing OK.

  • I loved Prince of Egypt. I have a well-loved DVD of that movie. There’s some beautiful storytelling in there–and the animation is just incredible. I’m glad you discovered it. I’m under no illusions whatsoever that anything in that myth really occurred, but it’s still very beautiful storytelling and I can definitely appreciate it on those terms. And Zipporah is… wow. WOW. The way the movie portrays her is cool. I like what you got out of the movie–and yes, I think it’s very true that we’re not going to progress without more normal folks standing up and saying that this “rags to riches” and “bootstrapping” nonsense is just that–nonsense, and classist, racist, victim-blaming nonsense at that. Americans have been laboring under this revisionist myth for the last twenty years or so, maybe longer, that teaches this anti-intellectualism and this bizarrely gauzy, anti-education, anti-intellectual, anti-science vision of an America where everybody always depended only on themselves and their immediate neighborhoods, everybody knew their place, and everybody was jusssssst fine without welfare or gubmint handouts. That America did not exist and never did, but you’d never know it to listen to any Tea Party rally going on in America right now. I’m thankful that Americans are slowly realizing what this revisionism is doing to our society.

    I’m so sorry to hear about your kitty, too. I’ve been there before, many times… you just can’t totally catproof a house. I hope Elsa comes out okay without needing surgery. I wish I could help, I truly do. All I can do is sympathize and cross my fingers that she is all right. <3 and kitty nose rubbies for her.

  • Gary Eddy

    I have learned through the lessons of history that no way of governance is the answer. I think what liberation doctrine is really about is another form of control of the people. Just a thought

  • I had never thought of the links between Biblical liberation (Moses) through to today’s moments in time and liberation, there certainly are parallels. I am going to have give this more thought. Thank you for this one, wonderfully drawn.

  • Great movie, for all the reasons you said. Good thoughts here. Nice job pointing out human agency and the need to stand.

  • Reblogged this on toddrisser.com and commented:
    Here’s a post by a writer named Samantha who writes about overcoming the fundamentalist indoctrination she grew up with. her blog is very interesting. I like her thoughts on Moses here. I’m not necessarily endorsing her last two paragraphs, concerning economics; maybe yes, maybe no; but I find her thoughts on Moses and classism worthwhile.

  • Anna

    Great post! I often asked God to make my former boyfriend stop harassing me. I wondered why God took so long to answer my prayers. I prayed and prayed…why didn’t God intervene…at least not for a while?

    In the years since, I have realized that domestic violence affects many women around the world. My eyes have been opened to the reality of how many people are in abusive relationships.

    One of the verses that really helped me during the harassment was Psalm 55:16-18.

    But I call to God,
    and the Lord saves me.
    Evening, morning and noon
    I cry out in distress,
    and he hears my voice.
    He ransoms me unharmed
    from the battle waged against me,
    even though many oppose me.

  • One of the many puzzles in the Pentatuch…Abraham held Egyptian slaves. In that system, I think it wasn’t so much about a class or race of people who had been “deemed lesser” but rather which group of people was in power at the moment. Israelite success or failure (exodus versus Babylonian captivity, for example) is determined by her status with God at the time. Israel is depicted as in a marriage-like covenant with God, and she strays occasionally and falls out of favor. Israel’s enemies then are only an instrument of God’s justice…not driven by specific racist ideologies.

  • Aibird

    Your poor cat! I really hope she recovers soon. It’s so hard to help a kitty when they’re in pain.

    Also, Prince of Egypt was awesome. I love that movie to death. That and Mulan (also a great movie, but by a different company.)

  • I wonder about the Holocaust. Why did it take so long to free the Jews who were lucky enough to still be alive at the end of WW II? Why did millions perish before help arrived? My other “whys” are Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and, now, the government of Uganda. I often wonder where God is.