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Moses and the Journey to Freedom

An Address by Fr John Slater

23 March 2003 00:00 | Fr John Slater

Moses is an appropriate focus for today’s liturgy as we welcome Friends of the Handel Festival and the London branch of the Prayer Book Society. According to Old Testament tradition, Moses was given a vision of the worship of heaven, which he was to copy in the earthly tabernacle. This worship certainly included musical instruments and singing, and there were detailed rules for its dignified celebration.

But the two issues for which Moses is chiefly important are first his role in the Exodus, the escape of Hebrew slaves from Egypt, and secondly his role in giving Israel what is now called ‘The Law of Moses’.

While modern scholarship and archaeology cannot prove the truth of the Exodus story, they do show that such a scenario is perfectly possible. For a century, northern Egypt was ruled by pharaohs of Palestinian origin, something perhaps reflected in the story of Joseph becoming a sort of Egyptian prime minister. When these pharaohs were overthrown by a native Egyptian dynasty, it is perfectly likely that at least some of the Palestinians were reduced to slavery while others escaped to freedom in the desert.

What matters here is the theological interpretation of such events by those who eventually composed the Book of Exodus many centuries later. There the hand of God is seen to be at work in human history. Under the leadership of Moses, and later of Joshua, the escaping slaves made a covenant with the God who had revealed himself to Moses. A covenant is an agreement, and in this covenant the escaped slaves agreed to live by God’s law in return for his protection and blessing. Eventually they came to occupy the land once promised to Abraham. So here are the roots of covenant theology, something important to Christians because we see ourselves as the people of the New Covenant with Jesus as the sacrificial lamb.

It is possible that the Ten Commandments go back to the time of the Exodus from Egypt. But even in the pages of the Old Testament we see hints of how they may have evolved from earlier law codes. But the Ten Commandments represent a real advance on earlier codes because they are largely ethical; they are not concerned with ritual like many earlier law codes, but with how men and women relate to each other. Over succeeding centuries a vast body of law was built up and called ‘The Law of Moses’. This law makes up much of the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, sometimes called the Books of Moses, though they could not possibly have been composed by such a figure in such a period.

Christians have inherited from the Moses tradition the sense that the quality of our relationship with God cannot be separated from the quality of our relationship with each other. Jesus quoted the great Rabbi Hillel when he summed up the entire Law of Moses in the two commandments, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength; and thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

But Christians also inherit the paradigm of the Exodus. We too were slaves, not to the Egyptians but to our own worst nature. We too have been delivered from bondage into freedom, and for us baptism is like the crossing of the Red Sea. We too have come to the Promised Land and to a new and intimate relationship with God. And we too have our Passover meal which celebrates the New Covenant. Each time we celebrate the Eucharist we recall the great story of our redemption, our deliverance from bondage into the glorious liberty of the children of God. And we receive this mystical food on our journey to union with God just as the children of Israel were fed by the manna in the wilderness. We come here Sunday by Sunday to receive the food which will sustain us through the struggles of our lives and bring us at last to the bliss of the perfect harmony and worship of heaven.

And on this first Sunday of the renewed war in the Middle East we pray that through this struggle an Exodus may be found also for the Iraqi people, a way from the bondage they suffer under the tyranny of Saddam Hussein to a true liberty and freedom, independence and self-determination.
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