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In Every Generation - Pharoah
By Stuart Grant in Sermons
"Now a new pharaoh arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph"Now a new pharaoh arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.
A few years ago, when talking about the dismal state of world affairs, I would sometimes quote a rather flippant phrase:
"It's not that the world is any worse; it's just that the news coverage is better than it used to be.
I don't use that phrase any more. Because it seems quite clear to me, and I'm sure to many of you, that the world is a very dangerous place.
My mind is pretty much exercised by all these things. And I keep asking myself, What has our Christian Faith, what has our Jewish Christian tradition to say about these things?
What can we do? How do we live in this beautiful but dangerous world?
People make various responses:
- It's beyond me;
- I don't want to know about it; cancel the newspaper;
- Leave it to the politicians;
- We're in New Zealand, and you can't get further away from the trouble spots of the world than that. Lucky us.
Sorry. We live in a global village. What happens in other parts of he world very definitely affects us.
As I've said, my mind is exercised by the dangerous dramas that are being enacted on the world stage. And over the last few days I have been wondering how I might find a way in to the subject so as to have something to share with you this morning.
I found a way in, - at the beginning of the Exodus story where we hear how "a new pharaoh arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.
The story goes on:
He said to his people, "Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.
Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labour. They built store cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But he more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labour. They were ruthless in all the tasks they imposed on them."
Losing all that slave labour would be a huge economic loss to the Egyptian government.
So the only response Pharaoh could think of was to make things really tough for the Israelites; to make their lives an absolute misery; cow them into submission and so keep control.
If you want to remind yourselves about how things turned out, keep on reading the Exodus story. Moses, the great leader, received his call from God to go to Pharaoh and plead for the release of the Israelite slaves. Ten times Pharaoh agreed, and ten times he went back on his word, with the result that the Egyptians were afflicted with ten plagues. Finally, the Israelites escaped.
Whatever we may make of the gruesome story of the plagues and the grim kind of God that is presented, the Exodus story is the most pivotal story of the Hebrew Scriptures. It shapes everything that follows.
We tend to focus our attention on Moses and the Israelite slave people, naturally enough.
But this morning I want to concentrate my attention on the other leading character, Pharaoh.
Some time ago I came across an article in "The Other Side, (a magazine sadly no longer in production), by Arthur Waskow, an American Jewish Rabbi. The article is entitled "In every generation, Pharaoh"
Once a year, Waskow relates, Jewish people celebrate the Passover, retelling the story and reinterpreting it. In the telling of the Passover story there are two passages that begin,"In every generation":
1. In every generation, one arises to destroy us.
2. In every generation, all human beings must see themselves as those who arise to go forth from slavery to freedom."
In other words, - In every generation, some new Pharaoh will appear, wanting to exercise tight control and deadly power over us; a powerful individual or elite; an institution.
And in every generation, there are oppressed groups who need to work for more community, more freedom, more justice.
The Pharaoh who did not know Joseph is really a symbolic figure.
You don't have to look far in history to find examples of Pharaoh.
Way back in the memory of Christians and Jews is the Roman Empire, - the only super power in the world 200 years ago.
The Romans used their arrogant power to crucify Jesus. They tortured 10 of the greatest Jewish rabbis to their deaths. Out of this misuse of power arose the new communities of the Christian Church and Rabbinical Judaism.
In modern times Pharaoh has taken various shapes: the British rulers in India trying to suppress Gandhi, who was trying to lead his people to independence in a non-violent way. Gandhi's way of non-violence has spread out through the world since his time.
In South Africa, Pharaoh was the Apartheid System.
In the U.S.A. similarly, in the time of the struggle to end racial segregation - Pharaoh took the form of fear driven control - lynch mobs, the Ku Klux Klan, church bombings.
Professor Geering sees the policies of the Israeli government towards the Palestinians in much the same way. He quotes prominent Israelis who have tried and are still trying to warn their government against their disastrous folly in trying to control the Palestinians. One of them predicts that the government's policies could eventually spell the end of the state of Israel and a catastrophe to the Jewish people.
I think we can distinguish a pattern in the various examples I've given. Just like Pharaoh in the Exodus story, those who exercise power and control in a brutal ways bring about destruction and misery, not only for those they oppress, but for themselves and their own peoples as well.
You know how we sometimes refer to the "Ifs"of history?
What if Napoleon had won the battle of Waterloo, instead of the duke of Wellington, for example?
Similarly, what if the Pharaoh "who did not know Josephhad behaved like the Pharaoh who HAD known Joseph. So I looked up the relevant passage in Chapter 47 of Genesis . . ..
"Pharaoh said to Joseph: your father and your brothers have come to you. Settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land. Let them live in the land of Goshen.
A generous act, a compassionate act, (no doubt out of gratitude for what Joseph had done for Egypt).
What if the later Pharaoh had followed in that tradition? What if, instead of seeing the Hebrews as a threat and a source of cheap labour, he had integrated them into the wider community? There would have been no need for Moses, or the Exodus; one of the "ifsof history.
But the later Pharaoh didn't act like the earlier one. He stands as a symbol for oppression. His fear of the Hebrews grew; he used ever more desperate measures to control them. There was no hint of a compromise. In the end he became addicted to control and power. This is how Arthur Waskow reads this Pharaoh. It wasn't that he was consciously, deliberately evil. Alone, at the top, he became convinced that his power was indispensable, and that he was right in all things.
Waskow goes on: "If we seek to identify a pharaoh in our generation, we should not be looking for deliberate evil. We should look instead for people or institutions that hold such great power that they become convinced they are indispensable. They are so isolated from critical comment and accountability that when they meet it, they respond chiefly with stubbornness and anger.
The Pharaoh whom Waskow identifies, the institution possessing the greatest power the world has ever seen, is his own country, the U.S.A., together with the multinational corporations that possess and use a similar kind of power.
Unless that power is used benevolently, generously, as Joseph's Pharaoh used his power, it could be very bad for the world.
9/11 brought the world into a completely new situation.
A group of Muslims had become so consumed with hatred for the US and the West that they dared to mount the attacks that proved that even the world's superpower was vulnerable.
It is wishful thinking in the extreme to wonder what might have happened if the US government had stopped to ask the crucial question, "Why do they hate us so much? What is the reason behind these attacks?"
That didn't happen. Instead the predictable happened. War was declared on terrorism, without asking the question, Why?
The vision that has been missed is that of shaping a world where the aim is to have such security, such dignity and fairness for all human beings, that terrorism has nothing to feed on. Now, the argument appears to be the awful, self-defeating one, "Violence is the only language they understand."
Let's return to the Exodus story. Remember how Moses went time after time to Pharaoh pleading with him to let the Israelites go; release them from captivity; give them their dignity.
Remember how each time Pharaoh agreed to give up his control, he changed his mind; there were ten plagues.
It makes very strange reading, and presents a view of God that many of us feel very uneasy about. I don't think we should take the plague stories literally, but there is some foundation in fact. What seems to be clear is that the disasters were the result of Pharaoh's oppressive actions against the Israelites.
Is it going too far to suggest a parallel between the Pharaoh who did not know Joseph, and the actions of today's great super power?
I'll leave that for you to make up your own minds about.
But I think we can be sure of one thing: trying to stop terrorism by overwhelming violence is not going to work."
To quote Professor Geering again: "The plan to stamp out terrorism by waging war is like trying to cure measles by attempting the wash the spots off by using the most powerful detergent available. The spots are simply the symptom of the disease. Terrorism is the symptom of a deep malaise, a malaise that lies behind the current responses to terrorism as much as behind terrorism itself."
What answers does our faith and our tradition have to all of this?
Arthur Waskow, you will remember, started off with the Passover Haggadah, the re-telling and re-interpreting of the Exodus story that Jewish people engage in every year, in the most important of their festivals.
His response to Pharaoh, whatever shape modern Pharaohs may take, is to say:
"It is not to simply name the Pharaoh of our times; as both the Bible and the Haggadah instruct us, we must seize the calling and challenge to move from slavery to freedom today. We must not be content to simply re-tell the story; we must, as part of this great tradition of struggle for justice and compassion, live the story.
As followers of Jesus Christ, we stand in the same tradition. In the Gospels, Matthew in particular sees Jesus as the new and greater Moses, the one who in turn leads his people from captivity to freedom.
I think we can see a Christian response as resting on a double foundation:
1. Our response to the Pharaohs of our time must be founded on Resurrection faith. The love that Jesus showed was so great that it could not be conquered, even by death. Sadly most of us Christians settle for much less. The distorted face of Christianity that many Muslims see has little to do with the heart of Christianity.
The call to us Christians is to live out our resurrection faith in compassion, in understanding, in self giving.
2. The second part of our response has to do with creating community.
The very first Christians were a community founded on resurrection faith. Their experience of the Holy Spirit led them to believe in the power of that same Spirit to make them one. They also saw, and so can we, that the Holy Spirit can spread community well beyond our local situation. We live in a global village and we need to learn to live together, in peace and harmony.
I'd like to close with a prayer that was used in the opening worship of the 6th assembly of the World Council of Churches:
You have called us to be one,
to live in unity and harmony,
and yet we are divided:
race from race,
faith from faith,
rich from poor,
old from young,
neighbour from neighbour . . .
O Lord, by whose cross all enmity is brought to an end,
break down the walls that separate us,
tear down the fences of indifference
free us from pride and self-seeking,
overcome our prejudices and fears,
give us courage to open ourselves to others;
by the power of your Spirit to make us one.
(Sermon by Stuart Grant at Mornington and Glenaven Methodist Churches,Dunedin,
Sunday, 19 March 2006)