The new book “Reimagining Exodus” by Ashland Rabbi David Zaslow examines why that Old Testament chapter, about the slavery and liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, has endured through the ages and become a symbol of liberation for many.
The tale shows God opposing slavery by the Pharoah, naming Israelites as his chosen people, parting the Red Sea, freeing them amidst much struggle and mishap, delivering them to a “promised land,” and supplying engraved tablets outlining how they should behave.
Written about 1,400 years ago, Exodus has been an inspiration for many groups and nations to shed oppression, and find hope and freedom, Zaslow says — including the Founding Fathers, slaves of the American south, Mormons oppressed in Ohio, blacks oppressed by Jim Crow in the 1950s and ‘60s Civil Rights movement and Pilgrims fleeing to America to escape the Church of England.
Christianity, he notes, has used the story as inspiration for liberation, not from an outside oppressor, but from sin. He explores how in Jewish tradition, Exodus is applied to “the individual life journey with its enslavements, challenges, liberations, and revelations. The book explores the tale as the foundational story of Judaism and Christianity and looks at ways we can free ourselves from the “Egypts” and “pharaohs” in our own lives.”
The legend, based in Bronze Age history, has its dark side and has been “terribly abused,” he says, to support slavery by the Founders and “mass murder” of Native Americans, using the idea of establishing their promised land.
It also twists the notion of “chosen people,” without realizing that all religions have an essential story in which they are chosen for freedom.
“It’s ironic. Pilgrims used it to come here, then used it to fight Native American tribes and justify mass murder and occupation of their territory. Washington and Jefferson used it for the American Revolution and, duplicitously, to allow slavery.
The Jews found solace in Exodus, he says, as they were oppressed later by Babylonians, Alexander the Great, Romans, then, after their Diaspora, many nations of Europe, especially the Germans. In America now, a new wave of racism has created a situation, he adds, where “anti-Semitism is as bad as I’ve ever seen it in my lifetime.”
Exodus can be a mirror, as pointed out by Martin Luther King is his Civil Rights struggles when he said, “No liberation of black America is possible until white America is liberated from oppressing blacks.” For this, he adds, the Jewish people are not any exclusively chosen people, but are the “model of liberation” and sparked “the most influential liberation story ever told.”
Published by Paraclete Press, which published his earlier “Jesus: First Century Rabbi,” the book is available at Bloomsbury Books. Zaslow will give talks on the work at 7:15 p.m. Wednesday, March 22; at First Congregational Church UCC at 7 p.m. Sunday, March 26; and at Bloomsbury at 7 p.m. Monday, March 27.
— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.