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Exodus (3) Thorn Bushes and Liberations

The Midwives of Egypt/3
Reflections by Luigino Bruni on the Book of Exodus.

Thorn Bushes and Liberations:
Moses is not perfect, but he knows how to listen to God and consider himself a brother.

03 moses

The decisive meeting in Moses’ life takes place during an ordinary workday: ‘Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.’ (3:1) Moses was a stranger in that land who worked for a living. Just like Jacob at Laban’s, like many men of his time and ours. And it is during this humble and dependent work that the event that will change his story – and ours – occurs.

Factories, offices, classrooms, fields and houses can be and are the site of the fundamental type of meetings in life, even of theophanies. The decisive events reach us in the places of our ordinary life, that is, while we are at work (work is also important because of this). We can participate in a thousand liturgies, pilgrimages, and do dozens of retreats and so have some wonderful experiences; but the events that truly change us happen in everyday life, when without looking for it or expecting it, a voice calls us by our name in humble places of living. While we are doing the dishes, correcting homework or driving a tram. Or as we are shepherding a flock, near the thorn bushes that are burning at the edge of the grasslands.

The entire first part of the life of Moses is a story of normality. Biblical vocations are not spectacular, neither related to the extraordinary character or the merits of those who receive the call (the lovers of “meritocracy” will not find allies in the Bible). Moses is not chosen because he is good or better than others. Like Noah, he is called to build an ark of salvation: ‘God called to him out of the bush, »Moses, Moses!«, And he said, »Here I am.« Then he said, »Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.« And he said, »I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.«’ (3:4-6)

Another cry, this time by God, which Moses knows how to listen to; a voice he believes in, recognizing it without knowing it. Moses, in fact, was not educated among his people. He grew up among the Egyptians (he even received his name from them), then he had lived among a foreign, idolatrous people. He did not get a chance to listen to the stories of the patriarchs during the long evenings under the tent. Perhaps the very names of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, were telling him little or even nothing. Whose was then the voice speaking to him from the bush? How to distinguish it from the voice of the many gods who lived in the land of Midian? Unlike the patriarchs, Moses converses directly with God, he argues with him, he asks for his name (YHWH), he wants signs from him, he is looking for excuses but in the end he sets out on a journey: ‘Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?…they will not believe me or listen to my voice’ (3:9-11; 4:1). And so God gives him signs (4:2-9), but Moses is still not convinced: ‘Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent’ (4:10). Now Moses doubts his own capability of carrying out the task given to him. He is not a good speaker, perhaps he is a stammerer (‘I am slow of speech and of tongue’) and so he is lacking the primary skill of a prophet. God convinces him by telling him that the primary and real instrument of a prophet is not his speech but his person: the voice will be granted to him by his brother Aaron:  ‘You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth’ (4:15). And so Moses set out on the journey (4:18).

In this dialogue an essential dimension of every authentic prophetic vocation is revealed to us (every vocation is prophetic, given that it is authentic). The contents and power of prophecy is not provided by verbal means or techniques. There are prophets who have saved and still save many people without being skilful speakers or writers – they have spoken and written words of life. A prophecy is always a free gift, too, and its first expression is the recognition that the vocation received is a gift altogether and not a personal achievement. It is an overflow and whoever is being called is not the master of the voice. The only necessary word for a prophet is Here I am.

Eloquent speech is often the attribute of false prophets, the sophists who make use of their talents and techniques to manipulate others and the promises. They are but clanging cymbals. Subjective (and at times even objective) perception of one’s own inadequacy to carry out the task for which one has been called is the very sign of the authenticity of a vocation. To doubt one’s own voice is essential in order to believe in the truthfulness of the Voice calling us. Therefore it is necessary to be suspecting about those who expect to be called to go out and save someone because that is what they have been made for, having taken up the “job of a prophet” and feeling ready to practice it.

Moses recognises that difficult voice as a good voice of salvation. In his entire dialogue with God he never questions the truthfulness of the voice calling him. To be able to recognise the good voice that talks to us in the decisive encounters of our life is a capacity we do have: it is part of the human repertoire. When it comes, this voice is unmistakable. We may choose not to respond or to reject it because it asks uncomfortable things from us. We may cover our ears and soul but we will always recognise it.

This dialogue tells us a lot about the God of the Bible, too: he is not a sovereign giving orders to his subjects. He is the God of the Covenant who enters into a dialogue, gets angry and argues with people. He is a logos. And he needs that ‘yes’ by Moses in order to take an active part in history; just like in the time of the flood: to save his people he needs the response of a man. He needs to become a friend and companion of man – without the great biblical vocations, and without the vocations that continue to fill the earth, God would be too far away.

The great vocation of Moses then tells us that to regain freedom it is not enough to find the strength and faith to cry out our pain from the deep of our slavery. And if that cry of pain is received in Heaven (‘I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters.’), it is still not enough: 3:7) To escape from deep and collective slavery someone has to answer ‘yes’ to a vocation for the liberation of others.

Moses is the greatest example of those who are called to free others from slavery, without himself being a slave. Moses is not subjected to forced labour in Egypt, but is a migrant worker and a wage earner in the land of Midian. However, he is part of the oppressed people, one of its sons, a brother. He is standing just on the rim of the “pit” where the others have fallen, and so he can deliver them. He is not a slave, but suffers from his ‘brothers’’ condition of slavery to the point of killing an Egyptian who hit one of them.

We won’t be able to liberate anyone unless we feel the pain in our flesh for their suffering. Gandhi, Madre Teresa, Don Oreste and thousands of other “liberators” have been able to respond ‘Here I am’ to a call that reached them one day and urged them to liberate others. They did so because before that call they had already suffered and felt pain over the situation of their enslaved “people”. They were outside of the pit but suffered for and with those who were at the bottom of it: they felt themselves to be part of the same people and actually went through the same pain.

Our liberators from forced labour are not the pharaohs. The liberation of the oppressed comes from the oppressed: from the people, by one of its sons, by a ‘brother’, whether by blood or by vocation – for it is possible to become brothers. Without experiencing indignation, pain, heartache and tribulation over the fate of our brothers oppressed by any form of “slavery”, without living in exile to escape from pharaohs, without risking to end up in court because of being reported by those in power (and often actually ending up there) you cannot save anyone – and at times you even realise that the “liberators” were actually on the payroll of the pharaohs. Those entrepreneurs and politicians who have really liberated and who really liberate the poor from the traps in which they have fallen are the ones that have gone through physical and spiritual pain themselves while meeting and embracing the inhabitants of the peripheries of the world.  They have felt sympathetic, at times they have become their brothers, and when they heard a loud voice they had the strength to become someone else, to respond and to set out on a journey. Without these pains, embraces, without this attention and brotherhood all you may be able to do is some philanthropic deed or the launching of a media campaign. But the real liberations are born from a cry, from being heard, from pain, and from a ‘Here I am’.

We don’t see enough liberations because we do not cry out enough or because we do not manage to cry out for those who do not have the strength to scream anymore. But the world is suffering mainly from the lack of the people able to suffer for their oppressed people, to listen to the good voice, let themselves be converted and then to respond. To suffer for the injustices that surround us is another form of the agape type of love, which is the precondition for every liberation.

There are many thorn bushes burning on the peripheries of our grasslands. They have been in flames for centuries and they do not burn up. It is from these that the calling voices originate, waiting for our ‘Here I am’.

by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 24/08/2014


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