a reflection by Dan Spragg
The beginning of Moses’ story doesn’t really fit what we might expect of a story about a nation of slaves that become free. Perhaps we might normally expect one of the slaves themselves rising up and leading an overthrow against their oppressors. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King were African Americans who came from within and stood up for their own people. Moses, well Moses just isn’t that. Here’s what I mean: Moses was given away by his Hebrew mother, in hope, as a baby. He was adopted by an Egyptian Princess, returned to his mum for a time before being raised as an Egyptian Prince. He then begins to re-identify with his Hebrew people but gets into trouble and has to flee to another country altogether where he marries and has a child – and he seems to settle there for a while. He is a Hebrew born, Egyptian raised, fugitive on the run who married a Midianite woman before, as we know the story goes, becoming the person who would cry ‘let my people go’. The beginning of the story of the Hebrews’ rescue from Egypt seems to go the long way around almost before it even begins. Today, from Exodus 2, I’d like to pull two things out for us.
Firstly, Moses responds to injustice and conflict. There are three separate incidents within this short passage which show us something vital to understanding Moses. It seems that he can’t help but step in when there is injustice or conflict occurring. It is like he has got to a point where he can’t stand it anymore. He is identifying with his own people, perhaps coming to understand them more and more as his people, when a sense of injustice serves as a pivot point in his story. Moses notices the unjust circumstances and passionately acts against the oppressors. The first encounter we could say was an impulsive response, containing a sense in which he HAD to step in and he killed the Egyptian who had beaten the Hebrew slave. The second encounter is when he steps in to settle an argument between two Hebrews who were fighting amongst themselves, again here, Moses felt he had to respond to the situation of conflict. The third encounter was after he had fled Egypt because Pharaoh had caught wind of his crime and wanted to kill him when he came to the aid of the women at the well who were being harassed by Shepherds. Moses we could say has certain instincts around acting against injustice, settling conflicts and protecting and standing up for those who were more vulnerable. While perhaps we might want to add that Moses’ impulses need some maturing so that he doesn’t end up murdering anyone else, what we do see here is the raw essence of his sense that if there is something going on that is unjust or wrong, one must step in and do something about it. It is with this instinct in mind that we see at the end of the chapter that God hears, sees, and knows the situation of Israel and we are kind of left wondering, will God act now against injustice? Just as we have seen Moses doing?
St Ignatius of Loyola was a Spanish Priest in the 16th Century who founded what we know now as the Jesuit order. He was known as an inspired Spiritual Director and his work on Spiritual Exercises has seen quite a revival over the first years of the 21st Century. One principle he taught was on the states of consolation and desolation. An article on ignatiansprituality.com helps us understand what these are. “Are we moving toward more doubt, fear, and anger? Or are we moving toward greater faith, hope, and love?” In other words, when we experience things that we wouldn’t associate with the way of God, we might call this an experience of desolation. And when we experience things that we would associate with God, we might call this an experience of consolation. We often experience these as states of being, not feelings or thoughts that are sent to us by God because of what we have or have not done, but rather a deeper experience of the spirit of God in us as we face decisions or situations. Another author puts it this way, “Consolation is the interior movement of the heart that gives us a deep sense of life-giving connection with God, others and our authentic self… Desolation is the loss of a sense of God’s presence; indeed when we feel out of touch with God, with others and with our authentic self.” It can be a really useful teaching to understand and put into practice and can be very fruitful when trying to understand just why you might be feeling or responding in one way or another to certain situations or decisions or actions that you make or come across. Now, if we believe that God’s presence travels with us, as we do; that God’s presence is indeed within us; that part of our humanness contains some of the image and likeness of God, then we must be able to trust these inner states of consolation and desolation. As human beings there is divine presence within us which means that we can be in tune with the goodness and love of God at a deep kind of preconscious level. Sometimes we just know when something is good or when something is not quite right or outright evil. All of us have this capacity. Of course the trick is to take notice of it and to cultivate and grow our awareness of it. As we grow in the ability to recognise what is good and right and to know where we are on the line between consolation and desolation we grow in our effectiveness in doing what we need to do in response to what we are encountering.
Moses, I believe, was experiencing a sense of desolation as he witnessed the beating of the Hebrew slave, as he saw the Hebrews fighting amongst themselves and as he encountered the shepherds bullying the women at the well. In sensing this, even if he acted somewhat rashly the first time, he responded. What’s interesting when we consider the later provision and commands in Israel’s laws and practices that Moses instigated is how this sense of justice and longing for justice was embedded, at least in theory, into their community life.
The second thing I’d like to touch on today picks up Moses’ origins. It’s kind of funny that a Hebrew born, Egyptian raised, Midian dweller goes on to become such an influential leader of the Hebrew people. The Hebrews would have seen and heard Moses (with his Egyptian name) as an Egyptian who was presumptuously deciding he was in charge with claims to have God on his side. The Egyptians would have seen him as an Egyptian traitor and a Hebrew with ideas above his station. Moses, from whichever way you look at him, was an outsider who was also an insider. He had a foot in both (all) the camps leaving him to belong everywhere and nowhere at the same time. As we see he names his son ‘Gershom’ (sojourner), this acknowledges how Moses recognised his own identity – as a stranger, as a traveller, as one who doesn’t quite belong anywhere. But, we know the influence he was going to have and at the beginning of our journey with him can see that God was planting seeds and playing the long game.
A book I am reading on Moses at the moment picks up on this theme and relates it to faith communities of all kinds. The author, Maurice D. Harris, reflects on the role of the ‘outsider-insider’- the one who straddles, often uncomfortably, on the boundaries between being in the community of faith and not being, or not wanting to be, or not feeling like they are, on the ‘the inside.’ He reflects on his experience that if insiders always have all the input, control and direction over what happens within the church, then we end up with systems of religion that are narrow, limited, and biased – doing things one particular way and believing particular things become the mode of operation. However, if we can allow those who perhaps sit on the outer edges to realise that they too belong completely, that they too can shape and influence the way we do things then our church will continue to grow and evolve and adapt. Harris writes:
If the outsider-insiders all leave the various religious communities of society, then the religious ground will all be ceded to those who find existential security in dogma and rigidity. Religions will then lose their ability to welcome ambiguity and their capacity to build connections between peoples. Moses teaches us that religion finds its spark, and perhaps its ability to be a force for positive transformation in the world, when people with a foot in and a foot outside play an important part in the religious community.
Moses the outsider-insider was able to straddle the Egyptian / Hebrew divide. Through his experiences in Egypt as a Hebrew and his welcome into the life of a Midianite family Moses would have been exposed and open to different systems, rules, cultures, traditions. And again, we know the significance of his influence on the Hebrew people and in turn on our own Christian faith.
Isn’t it amazing how through these strange beginnings and events in the life of an unexpected hero we can see how God is in and works through both instincts and circumstances. Which isn’t surprising to us, but it is a good reminder. You, me, we all contain the presence of the image and likeness of God – our instincts are real – our ability to discern the good and true from the bad and false is real and present with us. And we all have a story in which we are writing. Our identities, the places we have come from, our families, all the things that shape us through our lives – these are all meaningful things. So be reminded today by Moses’ that God is in and works through your instincts. And, God is in and works through your circumstances. All for the ongoing progression of God’s way of goodness and love in our world.
 Ruth Haley Barton, Discerning God’s Will Together, p58.
 Maurice D. Harris, Moses: A Stranger Among Us, Kindle edition.