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Exodus: Gods, Kings and Politics

Exodus: Gods, Kings and Politics

There is a nervousness bordering on terror among some people today concerning the use of the Bible in politics but from your book, Exodus and Liberation, that seems to be a modern and anomalous phenomenon. The Bible – in particular the story of the Exodus – has done some heavy political lifting over the last 500 years. Tell me how it started. Why wasn’t Exodus seen as a political text before the Reformation and how did it become one in the 16th century?

Christian readers have usually spiritualized the Old Testament – including the Exodus story. It was read as a foreshadowing of Christ and the Christian life. The Children of Israel were a type of the Church, Egypt represented bondage to sin, Pharaoh stood for Satan, and the Passover symbolised the Lamb of God slain for our sins. According to this reading, the Crossing of the Red Sea was a picture of salvation, Wilderness Wanderings taught the Christian what to expect in this earthly pilgrimage, and crossing the River Jordan into the Land of Canaan typified passing from this life to heavenly rest.We can see the broad outlines of this interpretation in the New Testament and it was powerfully articulated by early exegetes like Origen. Throughout Christian history, it has been embedded in liturgy and hymnology.

Exodus was occasionally used as a political text before the 16th century – in the fourth century, Eusebius of Ceasarea pioneered the political reading of the Old Testament among Christians, depicting the Emperor Constantine as a new Moses who had delivered the new Israel from persecution under the Emperor Diocletian – but it was the Reformation that undoubtedly intensified its politicisation. The Reformers saw themselves as liberating the Church from ‘popish bondage’. Calvinists, in particular, often found themselves as a persecuted minority in France, the Netherlands, Hungary, and Britain, and they came to identify very closely with the oppressed children of Israel.

Exodus (and the Old Testament more generally) played a part in the formation of Protestant national identities. Calvinist nations depicted themselves as ‘new Israels’. In 1560, the title page of the Geneva Bible bore a picture of the Israelites at the Red Sea with the Egyptian army in hot pursuit. That is how Protestants had seen themselves during the reign of Mary I. The Elizabethan (and Scottish) Reformation were experienced as an Exodus, a deliverance.

Why is the Exodus narrative particularly powerful, do you think? There are lots of other scriptural moments – creation, the story of the kings of Israel, Jesus’ ministry – that could have equal political potential, but Exodus appears to have been a perennial favourite.

Exodus is the most spectacular of biblical epics and the foundational narrative of the Jewish people and although it has often been spiritualised, the politics are hard to avoid. 

It concerns a massive power struggle between Yahweh and the Egyptian gods over the fate of an oppressed minority, one subjected to forced labour and escalating state violence. Wherever the biblical text is read in the context of oppression (or perceived oppression), Christians and Jews turn to Exodus. They invoke the power of God against new Pharaohs.

The fact that it’s an unfolding story is also vital. Readers have been able to insert themselves into the biblical narrative at different points, identifying with the Hebrews in bondage, crossing the Red Sea, wandering in the Wilderness, or entering the Promised Land. The story speaks to different moments in spiritual and political experience, and provides a narrative frame through which to interpret contemporary events.

It’s also among the most familiar of biblical narratives. A preacher like Martin Luther King Jr. could conjure it up in an instant and know that his audience was transported with him as he imagined himself at the Red Sea or on Mount Pisgah overlooking the Promised Land.

It would be wrong to imagine that there was unanimity regarding how to interpret the Exodus narrative, wouldn’t it? How have people read it differently and what impact has that had on their politics?

One of the things I emphasise in the book is that Exodus has been hotly contested, certainly since the Reformation. Protestants deployed it more intensively than Catholics, but not exclusively. Parliamentarians relied on it more than royalists, but in 1660 Charles II was depicted as Moses returning to deliver his people from Cromwellian taskmasters.

In recent American politics, it has been drawn on by both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. That suggests that different sides have co–opted Exodus for their own purposes, but I argue that it also carried one of the big ideas in Anglo–American political culture – the idea of deliverance (or liberation).

Initially this meant deliverance from ecclesiastical or political bondage, but in time it came to mean liberation from physical slavery. David Brion Davis, the preeminent, historian of slavery and emancipation observes that Exodus “has conveyed the astounding message that in the past God actually heard the cries of the oppressed and was willing to free slaves from their masters.”

There’s a darker side to the narrative that we should acknowledge. After the Exodus and the desert and the crossing the Jordan, there’re the grim commands effectively to commit genocide. Has the story been used to enslave as well as liberate?

The conquest texts were cited in both Spanish and British America to justify colonialism and the subjugation of native peoples. One Native American theologian has noted that Yahweh the Liberator became Yahweh the Conqueror.

It’s important for Christians to acknowledge that biblical texts can become ‘texts of terror’ (to use Phyllis Trible’s famous phrase). Recognising this forces us to be self–critical about the ways in which we wield scripture against others. The violence of the Joshua story troubled early Christian commentators like Origen, who resolved the problem by reading Joshua as a book about spiritual warfare.

Since 9/11, Old Testament religious violence and the conquest narratives have become a hot topic, and numerous authors have been addressing the issues in more or less helpful ways. It’s important to remember that in the biblical narrative the Israelites are a vulnerable migrant people overawed by the giants and fortresses of the Canaanites. The God of Exodus and Joshua sides with the weak against the mighty, so it’s not surprising that both books have had a potent appeal to the oppressed. African Americans dreamt and sang about the conquest of Canaan – ‘Joshua fought the battle of Jericho’ – and it was invoked in slave revolts in both the British Caribbean, in Demerara, and in Virginia, in Nat Turner’s rising. 

One of the things that most struck me about your analysis is the way in which you show that the Exodus narrative gained its own life. “By deploying the language of deliverance, mainstream Puritan preachers had unleashed a vocabulary they could not longer control.” Can you explain what you mean by this?

In the English Revolution of the 1640s, Puritan preachers described the Civil War years as an Exodus from political and ecclesiastical bondage. That idea captured the imagination of Parliamentarians, but it had all sorts of unforeseen consequences. The Puritan clergy sought religious uniformity and the preservation of monarchy, but the idea of ‘deliverance’ from slavery was used to justify religious liberty and republicanism, alongside other radical ideas.

In later centuries, missionaries like John Smith of Demerara would read Exodus to enslaved congregations, only to find that some of their hearers found in the text inspiration for revolt. The key turning point in my narrative is the American Revolution in the 1770s. When the revolutionaries used the biblical and classical rhetoric of slavery and liberation to justify their rebellion against British rule, they unintentionally threw the spotlight on American slaveholding. From that point on, Exodus increasingly became the property of African Americans.

I was amused by the fact that some characters – Cromwell and Lincoln for example – were interpreted by some contemporaries as being the Moses of their time, and by some as being the Pharaoh. Are there rules or restrictions for how people used (and use!) Exodus politically? There’s a danger, isn’t there, of the narrative and characters being used simply as weapons against whomever they dislike at that moment.

At times it does look as if Exodus was simply being twisted like a nose of wax to suit pre–existing agendas. Many African Americans hailed Lincoln as Moses because of his Emancipation Proclamation; Southern Confederates denounced him as Pharaoh because he would not let the southern states go free!

In the book’s conclusion, however, I argue that we need to acknowledge both the power of readers and the power of texts. Readers (including pious ones) often manipulate texts for their own advantage, but texts also shape readers. It’s interesting to speculate on whether our ideas about slavery, for example, would be different if the Bible contained no Exodus story, or no Jubilee command to ‘break every yoke’ and ‘proclaim liberty throughout the land’. These were very important texts for antislavery activists in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and without them, the cause would have been weakened. Of course, the Bible was also used to defend slavery, but the point is that the actual contents of the biblical text made a difference to what readers could do.

Your story has a number of high points, the most recent of which was Martin Luther King. Do you think we have seen the end of deliverance politics?

The seventeenth century has been called ‘the biblical century’, but what’s intriguing is the resurgence of Exodus politics in the wake of the Enlightenment, at least in Britain and America, where Exodus helped to inspire nineteenth–century abolitionists and African Americans. Wilberforce and his fellow activists fused an Enlightenment belief in human betterment with the biblical conviction that God hears the cries of the oppressed.

The 1960s saw another major surge of Exodus politics, through the Civil Rights Movement in North America and liberation theology in South America. As recently as 2007, Barack Obama pictured himself and ‘the Joshua Generation’ as heirs to ‘the Moses generation’ of the 1960s. So in biblically literate cultures, the text still resonates.

In post–Christian societies, it’s a different matter. It’s significant that Exodus: Gods and Kings is being released by a director who is avowedly secular, while the leading actor has described Moses as ‘barbaric’ and ‘schizophrenic’. In Christian cultures, readers were far more reverential and deferential towards the scriptural text, and it carried great weight as God’s Word. In parts of the global south, that’s still true on a large scale, so it’s very unlikely that we’ll see the end of deliverance politics. Even in the West, Christians inspired by biblical narrative are often at the forefront of campaigns against people trafficking.

What do you think Christians today engaged in politics have to learn from the way those in the past have done it? Should they ‘do God’ – as the cliché has it – and if so, how?

As an historian, I provide an account of the political reading of Exodus since the Reformation, and leave readers to draw their own conclusions. As a Christian, I can’t dodge the normative questions so easily. Elsewhere, I have argued that Christians need to develop a holistic biblical theology of liberation. 

I’m convinced that learning how Scripture was read by previous generations can make us better readers of Scripture today. ‘Reading the Bible with the dead’ (as John Thompson puts it) is sobering, illuminating, and provocative. We can see how the dead commandeered Scripture to serve their own interests, how they wrestled with the same issues as we do, and how they learned from the Bible that God is the God of the Oppressed. Whether we like it or not, Christians in politics are going to ‘do God’. The question is, how will they do so, and will they act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God?

John Coffey’s book Exodus and Liberation: Deliverance Politics from Calvin to Martin Luther King Jr is published by OUP

The film Exodus: Gods and Kings is relased on December 26th 

Image from wikimediaavailable in the public domain.


Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Posted 1 December 2014


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