Exodus: From Latin American Liberation Theologies to Jewish Narrative

Originally posted by Pursue: Action for a Just World.

I felt more God in me during my exodus than I ever did in mass.” A couple of months ago, I heard a wonderful, radical nun speak about her conception of the divine. She was a badass organizer and a powerhouse grassroots theologian from Nueva Esperanza, a base ecclesiastical community in El Salvador. As she spoke about the history of the community, its ties to Exodus became obvious. Members of the cooperative had been refugees during the El Salvadoran civil war, fleeing to Nicaragua and returning a decade later, determined to take their country back from the military dictatorship and rebuild their agricultural collective. In their community Bible studies, the Passover story was the liberatory paradigm that they cast their struggle onto, over and over again. In the tradition of Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, and so many others, they claimed Exodus as their narrative. And in the same campesino communities, this pattern continues today as poor peoples paint scriptures in terms of their current political and economic realities: In biblical scholar Jorge Pixley’s terms, they “readily identify their oppressor as Neoliberalism or globalization. Those are today’s names for Pharaoh as the peasants read Exodus in the context of their cultural situation.” (Global Bible Commentary, p. 186)

So, inspired by these moving uses of Torah, I read the actual story. It felt really funny, looking up the translation in an online Tanakh; I don’t think I had ever read it in full before, just chanted related songs from the Haggadah and listened to carefully selected passages in sermons. Although the theme of liberation is certainly prevalent, what surprised me the most is how the Israelites were liberated, specifically when God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart” (Exodus 7:3). What kind of a God is this? One of conquest, violence, and yes, ultimately deliverance. A glorified male king with a hegemonic conception of power-over. The main character in the story isn’t the Israelites, or even Moses. It’s God – God who violently rescues His chosen people through murder of infants, plagues on the guilty andthe innocent, vengeance – certainly not justice through love in solidarity. But what really shook me was realizing what happens when they make it to the Promised Land.

“You must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them,” the text reads (Deut. 7:1-2). Native American theologian Robert Allen Warrior has an interesting analysis of this aspect of the story in his article “Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians: Deliverance, Conquest, and Liberation Theology Today”: “It is the Canaanite side of the story that has been overlooked by those seeking to articulate theologies of liberation. Especially ignored are those parts of the story that describe Yahweh’s command to mercilessly annihilate the indigenous populations.” Even though this particular critique is aimed at Christians, the Puritans of New England in particular, it complicates the story in a way I actually really like. All of a sudden, this story is not just a simple message of liberation, it’s a rich, ambiguous narrative to be wrestled with and critiqued and made meaning of over and over again. Which is the whole point anyway, right?

So what do we do with this divinely-justified oppression? This God of war and hate and empire, and yes, liberation for a few? A people rescued from oppression who go on to become oppressors? Well, first of all, we have to read the whole story, not just the part that inspires and justifies us. When we use the text as a bulwark for our own values, no matter how pure they are, when we see it as a work with only one legitimate meaning, or when we read it literally and proclaim it as the only source of religious truth, we rob ourselves of the pluralism, richness, and wisdom its ambiguity provides. We have to struggle and argue and look inside ourselves: Who are our pharaohs, as individuals and as a collective? How are we Pharaohs ourselves? How are we liberated Israelites, abusing our new power in the Promised Land? And is a people truly liberated if they use that power to subjugate others? What kind of power do we want to use to liberate ourselves, alongside God, and to aid others in their struggles for liberation?

The radical nuns of Nueva Esperanza and those in base Christian communes throughout El Salvador continue to use the Exodus narrative to inspire their communities to action, and to proclaim that their God remains a God of the poor, the oppressed, and of liberation. But more than that, they use it to question the ways in which their struggle to be free continues, and the ways in which their liberation is tied up with everyone else’s. For me, complicating and problematizing the narrative, questioning it, opening the possibility for other interpretations, and applying its multifaceted meaning to our current search for justice is the most inspiring use of Torah.

Chloe Zelkha is a student at Carleton College and was an AJWS intern this summer with the Pursue team. She spent the fall 2011 semester studying abroad in El Salvador.