A Feature Review of
Delivered out of Empire: Pivotal Moments in the Book of Exodus. Part One
Reviewed by Lynn Domina
Delivered out of Empire: Pivotal Moments in the Book of Exodus by Walter Brueggemann is the first in a new series designed for adult Bible study, for formation groups, or for individual enrichment. Beginning with Exodus is appropriate, not only because such a respected scholar as Brueggemann has contributed to the text, but also because the exodus event is so foundational to the story of Jewish, and eventually Christian, identity. The book is organized into ten short chapters, each one focused primarily on only a verse or two but also considering surrounding chapters and verses from other Biblical books. Each chapter concludes with detailed discussion questions that will enhance group conversation.
Delivered out of Empire explores the first fifteen chapters of Exodus, beginning with the moment God recalls his people’s suffering in Egypt and concluding with the songs of celebration Moses and Miriam sing as they begin to understand their liberation from Pharaoh. Brueggemann has selected the specific verses he focuses on because they describe “pivotal moments” in the narrative, when more than one choice is available to the characters—whether the heroes or the antagonists—or when God’s nature as a being invested in liberation becomes increasingly apparent.
Exodus begins several centuries after the conclusion of Genesis, by which time relationships between the Israelites and Egyptians have disintegrated. As Exodus opens, we’re told that pharaohs have forgotten their debt to Joseph, have begun to fear the increasing Hebrew population, and so have viciously enslaved them. Brueggemann begins here, as God hears the enslaved people’s cries, and he links this cry to other Biblical cries, in Exodus and 2 Kings, in the Psalms, and in the Gospels. Each time, God hears these cries, and each time, the cries are effective. Brueggemann’s explanation of the Israelites’ success at the beginning of Exodus summarizes his foundational interpretive belief: “The exodus narrative nevertheless attests the claim made in our faith that the cry cannot be defeated. It is not defeated simply because Pharaoh cannot resist. It cannot be finally defeated because it evokes YHWH” (6).
By the time Moses reaches Pharaoh’s court (in chapter 5 of Exodus and chapter 3 of Delivered out of Empire), the success of their liberatory mission is guaranteed. Yahweh has commanded, “Let my people go,” and just as there was light after God uttered that first creative statement in Genesis, Yahweh’s people will be let go. It’s just that Pharaoh doesn’t understand that yet. In his discussion of the plagues that follow, Brueggemann emphasizes that the exodus event doesn’t simply mark a shift in power from an Egyptian empire to a potentially Hebrew one, but that the entire relationship between people and power shifts. The hierarchical scheme with Pharaoh—the symbol and embodiment of power—at the top and the enslaved at the bottom will be toppled. Ultimate power rests with Yahweh, and Yahweh favors the enslaved, the poor, the people. Moses will be their leader, but power will not be centered in him, and Yahweh’s people will be instructed to care for the aliens among them, remembering always that they were enslaved aliens in Egypt.
Indeed, Brueggemann suggests that this teaching is so important that the plague events function as a “curriculum” (33), a teaching narrative to remind the Israelites and their descendants that Yahweh is faithful. Memory of this story must be communal, for the Passover event establishes a coherence among them; it is precisely through this shared experience that they become one people. When Pharaoh finally relents and the people make haste to leave Egypt, they don’t have time to bake bread, plan their route, or discuss whether some of them should be included while others will be excluded and left behind. Yahweh’s command is that they shall all be free, even if they don’t yet understand themselves as a coherent group. Brueggemann emphasizes that at this point, the Bible describes them as a “mixed crowd” or “mixed multitude” (61). He states that “The nicety of identity could not prevail amid the haste of such a rush to freedom. The phrase that is translated ‘mixed multitude’ conjures a disordered or confused array of folk without ethnic or linguistic identity” (62). The democratic unity that develops through their necessary dependence on one another won’t last, of course. As soon as they become settled and develop economic security, a security founded on surplus, distinctions emerge:
“Israel took on all the trappings of an identifiable people with a heritage, a land claim, a genealogy, and a pedigree. Former slaves became owners, possessors, and administrators—and such social functions mandate credentials. Those credentials in Israel took the form of holiness rules and purity guidelines, so that religious merit went easily along with economic clout” (63).
Brueggemann concludes this book with an examination of how the message of freedom in Exodus continues to be received among 21st century Christians and how it is translated into modern practices. His final chapter, which explores the songs of Miriam and Moses, also reinforces the lessons we’ve discovered in earlier verses—lessons about Yahweh’s reign and a people’s identity. His challenge here is for readers to question their own commitments and the commitments of their churches. To what extent do we and our churches subvert unjust authority and to what extent do we, instead, surrender to temptations to become that kind of authority?
Delivered out of Empire is brief enough that many people will find it congenial as a guide through the first half of Exodus. It is a guide, though, not a replacement for the scripture itself, and most will want to read Exodus along with this book. The discussion questions are complex enough that they are likely to elicit thoughtful conversation, especially because they frequently link the details of Exodus with contemporary culture, often in unexpected ways. Brueggemann’s writing is generally accessible—the only technical vocabulary occurs when he discusses certain translation choices, but those occasions are minimal and not crucial to his overall interpretation. The approach of this series, examining “pivotal moments” rather than looking intently at all of a book’s details, interesting as those details might be, will be beneficial as well as convenient for contemporary readers.