by Berry Friesen
“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt;
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 and to bring them up out of that land
to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Contemporary pastors and priests preach mostly about the love of god. People in the pews long ago accepted this understanding of god; indeed, we take it for granted. Yet the preachers persist.
In contrast, preachers give little emphasis to the saving work of god, at least not in a First Testament sense.
As we think about Earth and its current prospects, which emphasis do we think is most needed: YHWH loves us or YHWH saves?
Recall that Exodus—the Bible’s second-most ancient text, written within a relatively short time after the Saul/David/Solomon trilogy of 1 & 2 Samuel—introduces readers to YHWH with the words quoted above. Its emphasis is not on YHWH’s love, but on YHWH’s promise to save the Hebrews from enslavement by the empire.
Other parts of Exodus speak of YHWH’s love (“showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments” Ex. 20:6; see also Ex. 34:6-7). So we should not pretend we must choose between YHWH who saves and YHWH who loves.
Still, living here in the USA, we hear little about the god who saves from suffering and brings us into a place that is good, broad and prosperous. Indeed, among Christians, “saving” and “salvation” are widely understood to be about life-after-death, not history.
How would Christian faith change if Exodus 3 became central to our theology?
For one thing, we would need to work through how Jesus of Nazareth embodied a god who delivers a historical salvation. I mean, how exactly did Jesus shift the direction of human history toward the shalom of YHWH? If we understood that, then we would better understand how YHWH still saves today.
A second conundrum created by the text from Exodus 3 is how to reconcile a saving god with the reality that each of us will die. Remember, we’ve already agreed that the god we meet in Exodus saves within history. So a solution to this conundrum must be more than assurances of life after death; instead, it must speak persuasively about salvation within this life, this time, this place. If death is our destiny, how can we claim YHWH saves us in an historical sense?
This second conundrum strikes me as the tougher of the two here in the individualistic West. Let’s push it out a bit.
What did YHWH’s deliverance mean to a Hebrew man or woman first hearing the words Exodus 3? They had no expectation of life after death; that was not part of the faith or worldview of the Jewish people until centuries later. So upon hearing the promise of Exodus, the first audience would have imagined the lives of generations to come unfolding outside imperial control, in a good, broad and prosperous land. And they would have contemplated how the peculiar shape of their own little lives might contribute to that beautiful future.
Next, with that communal benefit in mind, those first listeners to Exodus 3 would have decided whether or not to believe the promise—whether to put their faith in this god, YHWH. As we know, deciding was a long and winding road; the Hebrews didn’t really even start to embrace this saving god until hundreds of years later, after their captivity in Babylon and the experience of YHWH’s deliverance there.
For them, imagining an alternative to empire—believing YHWH is a god who saves—was extremely demanding and difficult.
In our contemporary church settings, we have it easier. Mostly, we are asked to believe YHWH loves us. Seldom are we called to repent of putting our faith in empire. Rarely are we taught YHWH in Christ changed the course of human history and provided a pathway to shalom here on Earth. Though often challenged to love as YHWH loves, we are not regularly challenged to translate that love into a way of life today that will bless “the thousandth generation” yet to come.
Should we be? As we contemplate Earth’s looming crisis, don’t we need a god who saves? Shouldn’t we be hearing as much about the god who saves as the god who loves?
Berry Friesen lives in Lancaster, PA and is part of the East Chestnut Street Mennonite congregation in that city. He blogs at www.bible-and-empire.net