On being unable to hear the answer

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh: Indeed, by a mighty hand he will let them go; by a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land.” Exodus 6:1

Oh! Crazy! God isn’t listening passively after all! There is no sense here that God is angry with Moses; in fact, he goes on to say that he has remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and seen the oppression of the people. So God is about to spring immediately into action. “Tell the Israelites, ‘Thus says the LORD…'”

(A quick side note here for those who appreciate biblical criticism, ie. literary analysis of the Bible using various methods. God claims he hasn’t revealed the divine Name before, but in the canon as it stands, Y-H-W-H appears several times in the Book of Genesis. This is evidence that the people editing the Hebrew Scriptures used multiple literary sources in fashioning the canon. God, in this text, isn’t lying–human hands have crafted the Torah as we have it today.)

God launches into a description meant to buoy the spirits of the people. But watch what happens:

Moses told this to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.

10 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, 11 “Go and tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites go out of his land.” 12 But Moses spoke to the Lord, “The Israelites have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh listen to me, poor speaker that I am?”[c] 13 Thus the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, and gave them orders regarding the Israelites and Pharaoh king of Egypt, charging them to free the Israelites from the land of Egypt. Exodus 6:9-13, italics mine

I’ve never noticed this before: Moses raised a lament, God heard and responded with Good News!, and yet…the people unable to hear. They have a broken spirit as a community. They are unable, it seems, to think, to dream, in terms of God’s liberating justice. Why not? Because of their cruel slavery. This is not a subtle slavery like I often think I experience. No: the System has beat out of them what hope they had. When the community looks around, there is no way out of the mistreatment. They have expended so much effort, and seen nothing for it. God’s word is right there, in their ears, in the mouth of Moses! And they can’t hear, for internal and external reasons.

So the one who heard the word has the responsibility to carry it a while longer, even to execute it while the rest of the community cannot. But what leader doesn’t face the temptation to believe they’ve failed after they deliver a burning word and no one hears it? It can be crazy-making!

“Me, with uncircumsized lips? You expect Pharaoh to listen?” says Moses. “My own people can’t get a grip on this thing–I’ve failed you, I must have gotten it wrong, I-I-I…do you seriously expect Pharaoh to give a damn about what I say?!”

But even then, God isn’t angry. He co-commissions Aaron with the same word: Let my people go! So it is, I think, with us. Maybe we’re the ones broken and enslaved, unable to hear. Maybe we’re the leader carrying a burning word, and the people are unable to hear. Maybe we’re tempted to think the problem is us–we’re not pure or persuasive enough, unable to believe that God can use us. But look around–there’s probably an Aaron nearby who hears the same word. Be patient a little longer. God’s got this thing, and we are not crazy.


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