The Exodus story, remembered at Passover and Easter, recounts the liberation of the Israelites under Moses from slavery in Egypt. From the Pentateuch to the Prophets, in both the Psalms and the Christian scriptures, the Exodus is remembered as an act of God’s “steadfast” love (Exodus 15:13). Egypt, in turn, is depicted as a sweat shop, for brick-making (1:13-14) , where Hebrew slaves are degraded by beatings and hard labor.
Given the harrowing portrait of Egypt, it is natural to sympathize with the Israelites here—(or the Hebrews as they are more often called). Theologically, however, some are troubled by the war-like themes of this sacred story. It may seem that God (Yahweh) plays favorites, slaughtering the Egyptians while saving the Israelites—forsaking universal justice. This article offers brief post-colonial and feminist insights into the Exodus story, while addressing this theological scruple. I will discuss the following topics, in turn: “Post-Colonial Feminist Insights,” “Violence,” “Post-Colonial Criticism,” “Bi-Cultural Moses,” “Feminist Theory,” and “Women Saving Lives.” The “Conclusion” will offer a vantage point for appreciating the artistry of the Exodus story while side-stepping the theological conundrum described above.
Post-Colonial Feminist Insights: Wars, liberation struggles, and racial or cultural strife all presuppose the existence of clear identity-groups. Heroes fight against enemies, “we” against “them.” Post-colonial criticism makes use of “empire,” as an optic, noting that, within empires, identities are not unmixed or homogenous but rather mixed and hybrid. The identity of Moses is mixed. A Hebrew (son of a Levite, 2:1-2), adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter (2:5-10), he grew up amidst the Egyptian court, though nursed by his own Hebrew mother (2:7-9). Moses is Bi-cultural.
As I will suggest, the Exodus narrative does not favor the Hebrews, uniformly, over against the Egyptians. Instead, the “heroes”, whether they be Egyptian or Hebrew, are distinguished by their life-saving deeds. The Egyptian Pharaoh’s daughter is clearly a “hero,” for instance. She cooperates with the life-saving efforts of both the god-fearing Hebrew midwives (1:7) and the mother (2:2-3, 8) and sister of Moses (2:4, 7). Feminist analysis explicates the roles of women in the story, who cooperate across lines of national and socio-economic difference. These women include Miriam and her musical band (15:20-21), the mother of Moses (2:1-3), the god-fearing Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah (1:15-21), an unnamed sister of Moses (2:4,7), a Hebrew nurse who is actually Moses’ mother (2:7-8), and Pharaoh’s daughter (2:5-10).
Violence The God of the Exodus is portrayed, at times, like a warrior god. To make safe passage for his people, out of Egypt, the Lord dries up the Red Sea, drowning the Egyptian pursuers. Miriam, the prophet, celebrates: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously, horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’” (15:21) God’s saving deed of the Exodus is inextricably linked to the specter of “Egyptians dead on the seashore”(14:30) : “Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.” The liberator God enforces Right by Might.
Post-Colonial Criticism: According to post-colonial theory, empires often make use of “ruling elites,” among native of subjugated populations. In colonial Africa, empires (England, France, Germany, Holland) provided a European education to an elite among native Africans. Such education created a dual allegiance. Elites owed their privilege to their European imperial conquerors, while they remained loyal to their native cultures. Empires rule not only by military but also by psychological force. Some elites, under colonial empires, become alienated from their own native identity. Jews in European culture, who “passed” as Christians, sometimes felt the negative stigma of the maligned stereotypes projected onto them. Minorities in the USA struggle similarly. Post-colonial criticism examines, too, how culture (literature, art, speech-habits, dress, cuisine, architecture, etc.) is deployed, by subjugated peoples within empires, in a double-edged manner, as a means subtly to conciliate or to resist despotic regimes.
Bi-Cultural Moses: The opening of Exodus indicates that the Israelites have been in Egypt for generations. Joseph, the son of Jacob, had been sold into slavery in Egypt. (1:8): “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” Joseph, while a slave in Egypt, had negotiated with the imperial regime a peaceful settlement, having been made governor over lands. Joseph may be viewed, through a post-colonial lens as an imperial “elite,” recruited from a subjugated population (the Hebrews), in order to assist the Egyptian empire in its sovereignty. Pharaoh declares, “See I have set you over all the land of Egypt” (Gen 41: 41) and “only with regard to the throne will I be greater than you.” (41:40b). Indeed, Joseph himself, at one point, during a famine, enslaves the people in service to the Egyptian regime (47:21). An imperial regime rarely completely trusts the loyalties of a subjugated people. Once a new King arises, and Joseph has died, the political settlement, that Joseph has negotiated, becomes tenuous. The new King over Egypt worries (Exodus 1:9-10) that the Israelites will rebel, as traitors aiding and abetting the Pharaoh’s enemies. Against this background, the King decides to have firstborn Israelites killed. The Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, defy this order (1:15-21). The mother of Moses, in turn, hides the child Moses at the river (2: 1-3). The daughter of the Pharaoh, bathing at the river, adopts Moses. She depends on a Hebrew nurse (who is, actually, the mother of Moses 2:7-8) for help in rearing him.