Re-reading Exodus for 2023 and the Passover season ahead continues with a look at location and its relationship to identity for individuals and groups.
Location and Identity: Isn’t It Time, episode 2. Apologies for background noise
Sources referenced available in a Sefaria Sheet.
The Book of Exodus opens with a group of individuals showing up in a place that is new to them:
Now these are the names of the sons of Yisrael, who came into Mitzrayim with Jacob; every man came with his household (Ex 1:1).
וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הַבָּאִים מִצְרָיְמָה אֵת יַעֲקֹב אִישׁ וּבֵיתוֹ בָּאוּ— Exodus 1:1, JPS adapted
At this point in the narrative, without the Genesis prequel or other background, we know nothing about the people already living in Mitzrayim, and only that these sons of Yisrael moved to a new place and traveled with their households. So this is a moment to consider how our own backgrounds influence our assumptions about these, and any, groups of people.
- Were we taught to consider either Yisrael or Mitzrayim “our people”? If so, how do we relate to the other group?
- Do we identify with attachment to home and feelings about building community with newcomers?
- Do we identify with feelings about leaving home and hopes for a better future?
- How do we imagine these groups in the story, in terms of family structure, ethnic background, sexuality, wealth and other factors? Are they like or unlike us?
It is within my lifetime, and maybe in yours, that it became common to note that “these are the names” includes only men and to remark on how quickly the few women in Exodus disappear from the story. It is still far less common to recognize that some gender expressions and sexualities are not reflected at all in the Bible or in most Bible teaching.
“Mitzrayim” is the Hebrew word for biblical Egypt. But it is often read, literarily, as “the Narrow Place.” One way of rereading for new understanding is to notice the Narrowness in our own readings and seek out other perspectives.
Our Own Location
Looking at the early narrative of Exodus, can we explain, for ourselves and others, how our background influences our perspectives on what is happening in the opening verse of Exodus?
Some of us have more experience in considering the basics of our social location. Those of us with more privilege — due to a range of factors — might think these factors “don’t matter.” But, being able to articulate clearly what we bring into any encounter with others and with text is an important tool for this journey. Links to more useful resources are below, and here is one more…
The following passage is from a research piece, discussing an urban economic development project a few years prior to publication seven years ago:
Neighborhood residents — particularly homeowners and White residents — as well as the local community development corporations, city agencies, and elected officials saw the planning process as inclusive of neighborhood goals and needs…..
This chapter argues that the [city] government, neighborhood groups, housing advocates, and developers instituted some of the best practices in urban planning and housing policy, which sought to deconcentrate poverty and focus on dense, mixed-use, mixed-income, and multimodal transit-oriented development….However, these best practices exposed a tension between neighborhood planning and citywide goals, as well as the conflicting goals within the neighborhood. While the residents who remained retained power in the collective and private spacers of their homes and residential buildings, the dramatic changes in the concentration of poverty and race meant that African American and low-income residents’ ability to control public and social spaces in the community was challenged by the neighborhood’s changing form. More importantly, a narrative of dysfunction [about the area] from 1968 to 2002 continues to justify changes throughout the neighborhood.
Those are the words of Kathryn Howell, now Associate Professor, Virginia Commonwealth University. The piece is called “It’s Complicated: Long-Term Residents and Their Relationships to Gentrification in Washington, DC,” and found in the book, Capital Dilemma: Growth and Inequality in Washington DC.
I deliberately elided specific references to DC and its Columbia Heights neighborhood. The piece is both quite specific and much more widely applicable. I highly recommend the book: Detailed Publisher’s info here. DC Public Library has a few copies, check out other libraries.
Returning to the first verse of Exodus, we might notice that The Book of Exodus begins mid-thought: “Now these are the names of the sons of Yisrael,who came into Mitzrayim with Jacob; every man came with his household.” We’ll talk more about Starting Points for any storytelling in a future discussion. For now, though, note that, according to many teachers, the conjunction at the start of the first verse — usually translated as “Now,” sometimes “And” — serves to link the Exodus story to Genesis. In addition, the text uses an odd expression, ha-baim mitzraymah, which is usually translated with a past-tense verb, as in the (slightly adapted) Jewish Publication Society version just read — “who came into Mitzrayim.” But centuries of commentary points out that the Hebrew is indeterminate present tense,”ha-baim,” instead of the more usual past tense, asher ba-u, and so can be understood as “who were arriving.”
Some read this in relation to worsening conditions described as the Exodus narrative begins — maybe developing cruelty and servitude made the Yisraelites forget better years in Genesis; maybe the Yisraelites are only just arriving into Mitzrayim, as the Narrow Place of oppression, as conditions for them rapidly deteriorate in the narrative.
And things do go wrong quickly, as Exodus opens. After the introductory verse and a list of the brothers in verses 2 through 5, Joseph and his whole generation dies. The Yisraelites become an “Am,” a people without individual names, and grow numerous. By verse 10, the king is plotting against the Yisraelites. Affliction begins in verse 11, and the Yisraelites are being forced to serve under crushing labor by verse 13.
In this speedy narration, Mitzrayim, too, becomes an amorphous collective entity, “Amo-o,” his people, meaning the king’s. The leader himself is called by the generic terms, King and Pharaoh.
The first 14 verses of Exodus do seem to support the idea that, whatever life was like for them previously, the Yisraelites “were arriving” in a new reality. At the same time, the storytelling emphasizes connections with Genesis….and Rereading Exodus along the Anacostia focuses quite a bit on Joseph’s involvement with the government of Mitzrayim and economic changes he engineered in that prequel to Exodus…. So, in Exodus we find new conditions, that somehow seem unexpected, and the deep roots of those conditions in a past this is both distant and very present.
In this way Exodus simply reflects reality — that faced in the ancient world and today.
I am still trying to figure out how best to create channels for conversation, across local communities and beyond. Subscribe to the blog and share comments here. Or, for those who prefer podcast subscription, find Isn’t It Time on Spotify, Apple Podcast, PocketCast and other services.
This is Virginia Avniel Spatz saying: “Isn’t It Time to Reread Exodus?”
More on Social Location and bible study
See also Fortress Press Peoples’ Companion to the Bible
Rhonda Magee’s Color Insight paper
Cannot recommend highly enough — now in paper and at libraries: Rhonda Magee’s Inner Work of Racial Justice
See also White Space, Black Hood, referenced on Sefaria Source Sheet.