Monday, August 22, 2011

Which Dream Will You Choose?

Just a few basic insights can crack the Bible open
and make it into a fascinating book.
Biblical scholar Walter Bruegemann’s
two-dream thesis may be
the most valuable of them all.
He sees the whole Bible as a struggle between
Pharaoh’s dream of scarcity and Moses’ dream of freedom.

Pharaoh, you will recall, had a dream of famine.
A later Pharaoh had fantasies of a different kind
of scarcity or weakness.
He was afraid of being invaded by Assyria, now known as Iraq.
It wasn’t very likely. They were a long way off and not that powerful.

But he was afraid.
It is a bit reminiscent of when our government
thought that Iraq was going to come after us
with their non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Well, Pharaoh couldn’t do much about the Assyrians.
They were too far off --
so he shifted his anxiety to the Jews
living inside his borders.

He was afraid that when the Assyrians invaded Egypt,
the Jews might rise up to support the Assyrians.
Not that there was any reason for that paranoid delusion,
but, as I said, he was afraid.
So Pharaoh did the ancient equivalent
of detaining the Jews at Guantanamo Bay.
He rounded them up in Goshen, pressed them into forced labor,
and eventually he took the next step.
He instituted a program of genocide
by killing the male babies.

All of this would be hard to believe if it didn’t keep happening.
Egypt was the most powerful empire on earth,
the most powerful empire the world had ever known.
Pharaoh was not a mere king.
He was a god. He held life and death in his hand.
His power was supreme and unlimited.
No one had ever been this powerful.

But all the power the world has to offer
cannot deliver us from fear.

Fear drives us to garner power for our own security,
but the more power we acquire,
the more afraid we become.
It may even make us bigger targets.

So the almighty Pharaohs always dreamed of famine,
lived in dead of invasion by weaker,
distant weaker neighbors.
Today’s lesson tells how, during a level orange terror alert,
they enslaved the ethnic minority of their own nation,
and finally resorted to genocide.

Such is the world into which Moses was born.
I trust you know the story of how he escaped death
through the stealth of his mother
and the subterfuge of midwives,
how he grew up as a Prince of Egypt,
discovered his roots, killed an Egyptian slave driver,
then fled to Midian where he became a shepherd.

There, while tending his father-in-law’s flock,
Moses had his dream – a vision of a burning bush --
from which the voice of God spoke to him,
saying “I have heard the cry of my people . . . .
Go therefore to Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go.”//

Moses’ vision is so simple, a vision of freedom,
as direct and straightforward
as Pharaoh’s fearful dream of scarcity.
That simple vision of freedom will grow into a richer vision
of equality, justice, and inclusion.
It will become the Law as we find it in Exodus and Deuteronomy.
This vision will command the Jews to shelter the homeless sojourners,
remembering that they were once sojourners in Egypt.
It will require those who have wealth
to share it with those who do not.
It will forbid the charging of interest on loans
and will protect debtors from foreclosure.

The law of Moses is designed– not like so many legal codes
which protect the wealth of the wealthy
and impose the power of the powerful
– but rather a law to share wealth and defend the powerless.
Such was the dream which gave birth to Israel.
Perhaps it sounds familiar.
I doubt that the deist Thomas Jefferson
would admit it, but his dream for America
was lifted right out of Moses’ vision
which became the Law of Israel.

Regrettably Israel was not exempt from the fear
that corrupted Egypt.
Having been oppressed once,
even having fought for freedom once,
is no guarantee of perpetual virtue.
A freedom fighter can turn into a tyrant,
and a nation like Zimbabwe can find
it has rid itself of Ian Smith
only to suffer at the hands of Robert Mugabe.

Moses himself was never corrupted.
He remained a defender of freedom and justice all his life.
But Israel began to remember how great Egypt had been.
They began to fear the Philistines.
And they thought, “Why can’t we be like the Egyptians?”
More wealth, power, land, and a standing army would protect us.

So hierarchy and a caste system arose.
New laws were added, to protect ethnic purity, social structures,
the privileges of a priestly caste, an aristocracy, and a royalty.
In Bruegemann’s book, Solomon, he demonstrates how
David’s son became the Jewish personification of Pharaoh,
complete with forced labor and wars of conquest.

Throughout the Bible, we hear two voices arguing.
One voice is that of Pharaoh, a voice of fearful, rigid rules.
It comes out of the mouths of priests as the book of Leviticus
and of the royal spin masters as the books of Chronicles.
Against that voice cries the voice of Moses,
out of the mouths of prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos.

If we did not have the voice of Pharaoh in our Scripture,
we would have no idea what Moses was talking about.
But when people quote Scripture,
we must always listen very closely
to see whose voice is speaking
– Pharaoh or Moses,
Ahab or Elijah,
Caiaphas or Jesus.

Ah yes, Jesus. It all leads to him.
You see this is what the fight
in the New Testament is about.
People wanted a messiah alright,
a messiah in the tradition
of Solomon, of David, and of Pharaoh.
But Jesus spoke with the voice of Moses,
the voice of freedom, justice, equality, and inclusion.
After Jesus, the Church carried on the conversation.
Peter spoke too often with the voice of Pharaoh.
He will speak with that voice in next week’s Gospel lesson.
Paul replied with the voice of Moses.
“For freedom Christ has set us free,” he said.

And the struggle continues in the world today.
Bruegemann calls the voice of Pharaoh “the Empire.”
It may manifest as one nation or another.
But it is always the Empire,
and against it stands the Gospel.

We read our religion and we read the world,
we read the Bible and we read the newspaper,
though the same set of bifocals.
We look reality either through the dream of Pharaoh
or the dream of Moses.
Moses’ way lives by a certain trust in life. We call it faith.
Pharaoh’s way lives by fear of death. We call is despair.
“I set before you life and death,” Moses said. “Choose life.”