For three years now American media have been awash with news about border crossings. It is a rare day when the activities of migrants are not monitored and cast into some twisted twitter-speak. So, when I introduced my freshmen class to the burning bush passage of Exodus 3, I wondered what would come out of this trek into the past. One of my best students confessed later that she was instantly turned off by the entire piece. It seemed to be nothing but a “godism,” by which she meant the hackneyed language of the Bible. I offered the term “gobbledygook,” and she quite happily accepted this further emendation of nonsense.
But I refused to leave that ancient scene. I asked my class to be patient and reread it together. They noted not only that there was the curious phenomenon of a bush burning that was not consumed, but also that there was an equally odd request by the divine voice for Moses to take off his sandals. I suggested that this story had existed for centuries with these features. Moreover, while modern readers scratch their heads over such things, scholars have actually made some headway with the passage. Almost ninety years ago, Rudolf Otto noticed that the puzzle of the burning bush conveys a double-headed signal. Moses “turns aside” to see this “wonder.” It is fascinating. Then when he comes near, he is commanded to remove his sandals. He does so, registering some fear. Otto contended that this double effect of fascination and fear was a typical way of expressing an encounter with “the holy.” Indeed, in a survey of any variety of holy stories or images, this double aspect of the holy would be perceived.
But there is something else to be taken into account if we are to come to terms with what the ancients were communicating. Moses is told to take off his sandals, since he is approaching holy ground. In effect, the ancient sense of boundary comes to the fore. The ancients had a profound respect for boundaries, those which separated the profane from the sacred. One could only cross such boundaries in a proper way. Otherwise, one would “sin,” that is, inappropriately cross a sacred line. No ancient listener to this story would have been puzzled over such matters. They would have been quite comfortable with this fearful and fascinating language. Nor would they stumble over the removal of sandals.
Yet each of these elements originally was originally lost on my class. I reminded them that that each of us begins with a fundamental boundary line: our skin. They admitted that they too drew boundary lines around their possessions. They realized that they would even feel “violated” if someone entered their room and used their sound system without their permission. Even if nothing had been damaged, they felt this to be an invasion. Slowly they became aware of what the ancient storyteller was attempting to convey.
Then we came to the strangest portion of the story. We heard the words of a God who remembered slaves. This is where the passage of Exodus 3 leaves behind other ancient epiphanies of divine beings. Certainly the pyrotechnics draw the listener in. But the words of Exod 3: 7 (“I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry against their taskmasters”) in the ancient world would be nothing less than marvelous and mad. When ancient peoples were conquered by others, they became “lost.” Many were simply wiped out in battle; others dissolved away as slaves. Some lucky few intermarried with the winners. But in all these cases, the fate of a captive people was extinction and erasure. Indeed, as the ancients would see it: our god has beaten your god. There was nothing more to say.
And yet, this is where the story proceeds. This story is remarkable because the God of the enslaved refuses to remain silent; because this God continues to remember. The entire narrative of the Exodus in all its many layers over the centuries comes out of this subversive declaration. Moreover, this memory of a God who remembers slaves continued to be etched out in the oracles of Amos and the other prophets of Israel who would not forget that the mindful God of Exodus could not forget the widow and the orphan in the days of later opulence and power.
As the class continued to reread this passage, they grew silent. I asked them to consider how they experienced border crossings. Did they detect any surprising notes, anything that went against their expectations? How did they respond? Did they become intrigued? What did they miss? I concluded the class with a photograph a friend from Greece shared with me. It is of a little girl asleep on the chalk outline of what appears to be her mother. She is curled in a fetal position and her shoes have been removed and lie outside of the chalk outline (see the link to the flickr site). Some people have turned this photo taken by the girl’s aunt into a dramatic statement of a refugee orphan from Syria or Iraq. But that is simply not the case (see the link to the snopes fact check site). Such fantasy does not interest me. Rather, it is the image itself: having removed her shoes, she has crossed the boundary and lies totally and trustingly at rest on this chalk bosom. This note of innocence echoes back and forth, ricocheting against that ancient story and sends tremors multiplying through but quite something. In that “quite something” there is an amazing coherence of meaning and purpose. Gordon Raynal Inman, South Carolina space and time. I shudder to think now of all those countless innocents asleep along our borders or in holding cells. Do I dare imagine more than trumped up fear? Is there a glimpse of a God who won’t leave?
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Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.
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