Family, the language of redemption

Then you shall say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, ‘Let my son go that he may serve me.’” Exodus 4:22

The story of redemption unfolds in the language of family.

In the protracted struggle between God and Pharaoh that makes up the first half (roughly) of Exodus, it’s clear that God is taking this thing personally. It’s not just a matter of justice in some abstract sense. Egypt is unjust and wrong to enslave Israel, of course, but there were doubtless many such wrongs in the world of that day, and the Lord focuses just on this one. Nor is it a matter of God needing more people to serve/worship him (the Hebrew can be translated either way). What’s going on here is a father breaking in to rescue his family, snatching them out of the grip of an evil oppressor, and making him pay the price of his misdeeds, on a most personal level. “Let my son go that he may serve me. If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son” (Ex. 4:23). These aren’t the words of the Supreme Arbitrator of the Universe, but of our Father, who might be in heaven, but can tangle with the bad guys on earth.

Accordingly, when Moses and Aaron first come before Pharaoh, they convey this same message from Hashem: “Let my people go, so that they may worship me” (Ex. 5:1). They’re going to repeat this demand a total of six times without success, until they get to number seven, and Pharaoh finally blinks: “Go, worship the Lord your God! But which ones are to go?”

God says, “Let my people go,” and Pharaoh says, “Okay! Okay! Go already! . . .  But what exactly do you mean by ‘my people’?” We thought Pharaoh was finally broken, but he’s just negotiating. Moses, however, is in no mood to negotiate: “We will go with our young and our old; we will go with our sons and daughters, and with our flocks and herds . . .” (10:8–9). Just as Hashem’s motivation in Exodus isn’t abstract, but personal and familial, so God’s people in Exodus isn’t abstract, but a complex, young-old, male-female, critters-included, extended family—and so it is today.

To let you know where I personally fit within this young-old spectrum, I came of age when the mishpachahphrase “Generation Gap” was cutting-edge. I was on one side of it, looking across the divide, through the hazy din of pot smoke, acid rock, and anti-war rhetoric, at my parents, who’d emerged from the Great Depression and World War II hoping for a little peace, which my generation wasn’t about to give them. Since those far-off days, the Generation Gap has become Generation Grand Canyon, dominating our social landscape. Not only have intergenerational differences widened, but they’ve become institutionalized (at least according to Wikipedia):

Those in childhood phases are segregated within educational institutions or child-care centers, parents are isolated within work-based domains, while older generations may be relegated to retirement homes, nursing homes, or senior day care centers.

It seems to me that the religious world has followed suit. We’ve age-defined our churches and synagogues, programs, and websites. There’s a place for such specialization, of course, but if it starts to usurp the extended family of community, the complex, young-old, male-female “people” that Hashem claimed as his own, it starts looking too much like the dysfunctional dominant culture.

Since the story of redemption is told in the language of family, the story of our redemption from Egypt can help redeem us from today’s loss of family. Let’s consider a couple of its lessons.

We’ve already outlined one: God’s people is multi-generational by definition. It defies the compartmentalizing and isolation fostered by our culture. As we focus on transition in the Messianic Jewish community and promote our younger generations, we need to be just as diligent to promote intergenerational connectivity. If we see the congregation as an alternative to the dominant culture—and we should—we’ll see it as a place where generational isolation and alienation are to be overcome, not increased. Our God is One—whole, universal, non-fragmented—and our community is to reflect that wholeness. This is the community he calls “my people.”

Second, intergenerational connectivity thrives on lively interaction. Moses says that when we observe Passover year after year, our children will ask, “What do you mean by this observance?” (Ex. 12:26). Likewise, when they see us dedicating our firstborn in remembrance of the Exodus story, they’ll ask, “What does this mean?” (Ex. 13:14). And even without such questions, parents still get to explain about Passover: “I eat unleavened bread for seven days because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt” (Ex. 13:8). Instead of the isolation that’s so typical today, Exodus pictures the generations actually talking to each other.

When our firstborn son was little, we lived out in the country, and he used to follow me around all day asking questions. “Why are you rubbing that knife on a stone?” “To sharpen it,” I’d say. “Why does it need to be sharp?” . . . “Why are you watering the corn?” “To help it grow,” I’d respond, thinking that settled the matter. “Where does the water come from?” he’d ask, and off we’d go. Such questions built a body of knowledge that’s served him well in life and especially his landscape business, but he’d never have thought of them if we’d sent him off to the child-care center or his iPad.

Now, this story, like the examples from Exodus, is speaking of parents and children, and intergenerational connectivity is definitely not just a parent-child relationship. The principle applies, though. The generations need to break out of our 21st century isolation to interact, talk, and learn from each other.

This leads to a third point. The ones who’ve been around awhile need to not only have faith, but to practice the faith, to know why they do, and to be able to explain it well to those who are newer. The newer and younger in turn need to stick around, to be interested, to engage with the older. This kind of interaction requires that our practice has substance, that it stands out, and that it’s compelling. We in the Messianic Jewish world might ask: Have we created a religious practice worth sticking around for, one that stands out—in the right way—from the surrounding culture?

A recent blog entitled, “Dear Church, Here’s Why People Are Really Leaving You,” has something to say to us too.

You talk and talk and talk, but you do so using a dead language. . . . This spiritualized insider-language may give you some comfort in an outside world that is changing, but that stuff’s just lazy religious shorthand, and it keeps regular people at a distance. They need you to speak in a language that they can understand. People don’t need to be dazzled with big, churchy words about eschatological frameworks and theological systems. Talk to them plainly about love, and joy, and forgiveness, and death, and peace, and God, and they’ll be all ears. (John Pavlovitz, http://www.faithit.com/dear-church-heres-why-people-are-really-leaving-you/, accessed 01/11/15)

Much of what the blogger suggests here is family language, which goes beyond words alone. In Exodus, Moses instructs us to keep and remember our deliverance from Egypt in customs that show as well as tell. We still do that at Passover, but it’s not limited to Passover. Our entire faith expression is to be lived out within a complex, intergenerational family, in ways that keep the family moving together, and are capable of drawing outsiders into it.

When God makes it clear that “my people” means young and old, sons and daughters, he sets the stage for the work of Messiah Yeshua, who redeems young and old, male, and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free. Messiah prays for the extended family that will believe in him, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). Like any good parent (or really, as the source of all good parenting), the God of Exodus longs for the wholeness of his family. Messiah comes to accomplish that wholeness. Let’s cooperate by working on our own local alternative to the fragmented, generationally-gapped, and isolated culture that surrounds us.

My good friend Stuart Dauermann recently posted a similar perspective on this topic at www.interfaithfulness.org/2014/12/15

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