The Exodus is a primary historical and formative event of the Old Testament and thereby for the people to and with whom that collection of books was written. One could argue that the Exodus was the crucible through which the Hebrew people passed enroute to becoming the nation of Israel. It marked their passage from slaves in Egyptian bondage to becoming a free self-ruled people in the Promised Land. It was a formative period through which other future experiences would be seen, weighed and evaluated.
When reading the Exodus story one finds it was far from a linear experience. In fact the forty years of wandering, which God required of the Hebrew people, was much more of a meandering or looping trail than anything resembling a strait line between two points. This is true not only geographically but also spiritually. Much happened in those years of wilderness existence. They were formative years, meaning that they helped shape the people into a new identity. Many a preacher has commented that it was easier for God to get the Hebrews out of Egypt, than to get Egypt out of the Hebrews. The people frequently grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and through them to God. They expressed a preference to return to Egypt rather than suffer in the wilderness. The “go back to Egypt” committee was a standing committee in their camp.
Commenting on both this biblical story, and the metaphor it becomes in our own faith formation, author Brian McLaren writes: “Like them (the Hebrews), we must remember that going forward may be difficult, but going back is disastrous.” (McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation and Activation, Jericho Books, 2014, p.42).
McLaren is inviting his reader to contemplate the exodus experiences of life that have, are, or will contribute to our own spiritual formation. These are crucible wilderness-like events through which we do the work of honing identity once again. They are seldom pleasant experiences, and sometimes – as was the case with Israel – can seem generational in length and endurance. But they need not become final experiences. In other words, one does not have to stay in the wilderness. One can learn from, be shaped by, and emerge from the wilderness with new purpose, understanding and identity. This forward work, as McLaren suggests in the quote, can (likely will) be difficult. Yet it is important work.
The most common alternative to moving forward, aside from staying put and suffering, is the pull to go back. This was the impetus of the “go back to Egypt” group. They thought they would prefer the devil they knew to the trials they were facing. “Better to be well-fed slaves in Egypt than to starve in the wilderness”, so the grumbling went. Better to return to the known, than to push through to an unknown.
McLaren, rightly in my opinion, takes exception to this way of thinking, saying instead it would be “disastrous” to go back. The allure of a romanticized past pulls strongly on the heartstrings of those dissatisfied with the present. But there is no going back to capture that past, which has often been remembered with its hardships glossed over. To “go back” is to invite nostalgia and atrophy to become our gods of formation.
I find myself captured by this simple quote of McLaren’s as I emerge from my own recent exodus-like journey. It’s debatable what contributed to the sense of “wilderness” that overwhelmed my journey for a time. Some, maybe much, of it was self-imposed. I use the exodus metaphor because regardless of how it originated, the experience, not unlike former (though less intense) chapters, was difficult. But naming it “difficult” is not to say it wasn’t formative. Growth usually happens through struggle.
I was watching a movie last evening in which competitors in a rite of passage challenge had to go through an obstacle of thorns to prove their mettle. To do so was to endure the injuries caused by flesh being pierced and punctured by the thorns. To stop, mid-challenge, would be to stay stuck. To go back would be to revisit the same peril one had already once faced. Upon completion of the challenge these competitors were welcomed and celebrated as those who had overcome. They now had the scars to show for it.
Scars are evidence of things we’ve come through. They leave us changed, with a reminder of what brought that change about. We carry them with us as we move ahead. They are now part of our story. The Exodus will forever be part of the story of God’s people. It’s part of my story as a person of faith, just as it is yours. It can help us understand our own mini exodus-like journeys and chapters in life.
For Israel, the ritual of Passover was given as a remembrance of the Exodus chapter. As followers of Christ we have our own remembrance found in the Lord’s Supper or Communion. Just as these events call us to remember and give thanks, they also propel us forward. So too our exodus scars invite us to remember with the intent of moving forward.
In which direction is your life pointed?
*Note to the reader: This blog post is written as I reflect on a vocational decision that did not turn out as hoped, but continues to be formative as I look and move forward, because “going back”, in the many ways that might be construed, would be disastrous. Thanks for reading, and please know that “all will be well, and all will be well, and every manner of thing will be well”. – DMC
2 responses to “An Exodus Metaphor”
Thanks, Dan. Valuable insights.
Dan A very good metaphor we all can apply as we begin our Lenten journey. Bill
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