Moses, an Egyptian, and Injustice

Many of us have been sheltered from the harsh realities of suffering and oppression. When we are exposed to them, our first reaction might be to strike out at injustice, to do something (anything) to eliminate the problem.

That’s what Moses did. He grew up as a rich kid in Pharaoh’s house. He was sheltered from what his brothers were going through. But eventually his eyes were opened:

“One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people.” (Exodus 2:12)

Moses wanted to strike back at injustice and oppression. He looked left and right and, seeing that the coast was clear, struck down the Egyptian and buried him in the sand.

Interestingly, this approach didn’t win Moses any brownie points with the Hebrews. The next day (when Moses took another crack at using his conflict resolution skills) the Hebrews dismissed him: “Who made you a prince and judge over us?” To the Hebrews, Moses didn’t look any different than their Egyptian oppressors. He was just another person who exercised power through violence.

It is interesting to compare Moses’ reaction to Israel’s oppression with what God tells Moses from the burning bush. Remember that Moses saw the affliction of the people. But God says,

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land.” (Exodus 3:7-8)

Both Moses and God saw affliction. But unlike Moses, God also says “I have heard their cry” and “I know their suffering.”

In some mysterious way, God identified with Israel’s suffering in a way that Moses did not. That God heard the cries of the people and knew their suffering means that God was not spending his time in the halls of privilege and power (where Moses grew up) but in the camp with the Hebrew slaves. Wouldn’t Pharaoh’s palace be a more fitting place for the God of heaven than a slave camp? Wouldn’t a holy God draw back from cries, pain, and squalor?  But God said, “I have come down to deliver them.” He lowered himself to be with his people. God descended into the condition of the oppressed.

What was the difference between God and Moses? Moses struck out at injustice without identifying with the people he would deliver (which only created further injustice). But God entered into the suffering of his people. He was with them in suffering so that he could lead them out of it.

Here are two brief lessons I take from this:

1. Those who would be instruments of the Lord must enter into the sufferings of others. There is no real ministry without solidarity. God would eventually send Moses back to deliver the people, but only after Moses spent years as a refugee, slaving away as a shepherd in the wilderness. Moses learned to identify with his Hebrew brothers in Egypt.

2. Even more fundamentally, it is God’s character to descend into the condition of the oppressed. It is his nature to enter into the sufferings of his people. When God acts in justice and salvation, he does not exercise his power apart from identification and solidarity with those he saves. He acts in identification and solidarity. He is in the midst of the people he saves.

The author of Hebrews says, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death” (2:14). The God who delivers Israel is the same God we meet in the person of Jesus Christ — one who descends into the condition of those he would deliver.