Watershed Formation Studies

Chapter 4 - Community (Part One): Exodus

In chapter 3, we heard the story of the covenant God established with the people, beginning with Abraham. Abram had to leave every security he knew, and though the odds seemed slim that anything good could happen, God was faithful at every turn.

In chapter 4, the old man tells the next chapter in the story of the covenant. Four centuries later, Abraham’s descendants still hadn’t seen the promised land. Would they ever live in the land flowing with milk and honey? True, Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph brought the family into Egypt, where they settled in peace and multiplied greatly. But now, under a new and hostile dynasty of pharaohs, the Israelites (the new name God had given the people) were forced to become slaves.

Once again, God did not remain distant. God heard the people’s desperate cries and remembered the covenant made so long ago. A new leader, Moses, was sent to lead the people out of bondage in Egypt. The Israelites were finally freed after the night of Passover, a story the present group of listeners had heard all their lives.

To those gathered around the fire, it was all too obvious that an exodus was needed once again, not just for those in exile in Babylon, but for all people, for all time. “An exodus that not only frees the oppressed from being oppressed, but that also frees the oppressors from being oppressors.”

God’s intention remains to liberate us from all the things that keep us in bondage, distant from God and each other.

Questions for Discussion

1) What is the significant of the Exodus story?
2) What does ritual sacrifice mean today?
3) How could this story be lived faithfully?
4) Do you recognize this story in your life?


What is the fundamental significance of the Exodus story? For them and us?

Paul Patterson: Stories never cease to amaze me as grids through which we see life, though not all stories necessarily function that way. We read some stories for entertainment, education or just to enter other people’s experiences on a more intimate level.

The stories we live by are another matter altogether. These stories do not necessarily come from the outside in but from the inside out. When we are inwardly touched by a story coming from outside, we recognize it almost like déjà vu, something we have experienced before but never really heard or seen in this appearance before. What is astounding is that sometimes we don’t know if the significance of the story is something emerging from the tale or from our lives.

Higher critical historical studies have influenced our understanding of the exodus as historical, so it is helpful to see that the liberation of a people from bondage can touch, inspire and compel a people to live a certain way for perpetuity. There is something deep in the soul of Israel that is magnetized by this story. No matter what the facts on the ground were in around 1250–1200 BCE, it has lived within their collective and individual consciousness. The story we read of the Exodus probably comes from an exilic retelling as in Gladding’s depiction.

All the features in the tale speak to deep needs and yearnings and those yearnings and needs are answered in very specific ways in the text. They become ways to behave and act in any situation of perceived or real enslavement and they provide hope and solace. The Story of the Exodus reassures an oppressed people that God has heard them, will deliver them, and will oppose those who oppress them, establishing justice and vindicating the peoples’ trust in God.

The story of Exodus also homed the people of Israel physically, and spiritually connected them to admired religious pilgrims of the past, the patriarchs. Moving forward they were required to look back from where they came. They retrieve a lost identity. Their new identity flows around their new apprehension of who God is as the One who guides all that is. God is sovereign and inexplicable; known only through his acts of deliverance and his covenantal laws of justice. The people have learned that they are not called to be warriors but rather are in partnership with one who is for them … and defends and provides for them.

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Linda Tiessen-Wiebe: God is a compassionate liberator, not a distant creator, a God who sets the people of God free, so that they can be the light through which humanity is set free. The defining story for Israel was that they were set free and brought out to be a light to the nations.  This story shapes us today in the sense that our identity comes from God. We are set free from slavery to false identities and false gods, and we are set free for a purpose, to let God's freedom shine through us to the world.

Cal Wiebe: I think the fundamental significance of this story is that God hears the cries of God's people and comes down to deliver them from all that enslaves them.  I remember reading about the liberation theologians in my college days and they all took great solace and inspiration from the exodus story. No matter what empire or structure was oppressing you, God could be counted to provide a way out. Liberation was always considered a process, though, because you could find yourself in the new land but still be carrying the same attitudes and stories you had with you in slavery.

So it seems God 's wisdom ensures that we are freed as "a people," i.e. together with others, and that there needs to be a radical re-storying that goes on so that we really do begin to see ourselves as freed people and no longer as slaves. I think God does this by bringing the people through the desert and by giving them both words to live by (torah) but also the experience of their daily bread (manna). It is through the repeated telling of the story and the repeated experiencing of the liberation that people begin to trust the God who saves them. 

The New Testament scripture that comes to mind with the exodus story is this one: For freedom Christ has set you free. I think God is always in the process of saving us from the things that block us from being open to God and God's kingdom. Our liberation is not easy or accomplished without suffering but it is a sign of God's love and care for us.

Personally, I think that I am in some sort of process of liberation in terms of my job situation. If I make out Dennis my boss as the evil pharaoh who is oppressing me, I might think liberation means simply working for someone else. But that is to miss all the subtle ways of thinking I have adopted that made me a "slave" in the first place. For God to bring me out of Egypt would be for God to re-educate me about the meaning of work, about its possibilities for discipleship and accompanying others, and the opportunities I will have to trust that God will provide what I and we need as we go forward in this new venture. If I do not accept this liberating work God desires for me, I risk the possibility of becoming a "Dennis" myself in my new setting, running a business out of fear instead of trusting that God has something different in mind.

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Ritual Sacrifice

As modern people, we are quite removed from this ritual of animal sacrifice.  What did it mean for them and how do we hear the significance for us today?

Paul Patterson: I was surprised when Arthur told us at Passover that the lamb was not as front and centre in the contemporary celebrations of Passover as other symbolic foods. This may be as a response to the Christian penchant to take over this symbolism for their purposes. But I do think it is something to ponder that Israel’s protection was in the form of a substitutionary animal, provided by God for the protection of the families. It is not unlike the animal substitute we heard about in the story of Abraham’s offering of Isaac.

Both stories declare loudly that God provided protection not human arms or skillfulness, or even in Abraham’s case commitment. The sacrifice suggests to me that God has taken care of the situation, and covered over his people with protection. This realization drives out fear and concern and leads to praise and worship coupled with deep gratitude.

While establishing justice in Egypt, God skips over the homes of the Israelites because they trust in him not in false gods such as the pharaoh’s son or the Nile or the various zoomorphic deities of the Egyptians. Theirs was a not a religion based on superstitious appeasement of gods but trust in One God who is worthy of their confidence. It wasn’t the means of the blood or the lamb itself but rather the faithfulness of the one who made this covenant with them.

Linda Tiessen-Wiebe: I remember our community talking about this once, either after one of the Genesis videos or on a Sunday morning, how the significance of animal sacrifice wasn't that the animal "paid" for the sin, but that the purity of the animal was somehow made available to the person sacrificing. I wonder if there is a connection between this and the verses of "putting on Christ"? Because of Christ's death and resurrection, we have access to the spirit of Christ to help us follow him in life today. Jesus enacted his trust and relationship to God all the way through to trusting God in the midst of experiencing abandonment and pain. He enables us to live by a deeper story, so that we can move through self-denial towards a greater life, instead of living the kingdom of the self.

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What would it look like to understand and live this story faithfully?

Paul Patterson: For Israel and for those of us grafted onto her faith, I feel the obligation of trust in and dependence wholly on God for our very existence; to believe that if we cry out to God, God will empathize and hear us and deliver us through his own means (in spite of all appearance to the contrary). Put simply it is to have faith that God actually does exist. To walk in the way of the Exodus is to share with others the possibility of trusting God as well to join us and turn from shallow promises of empire, self-reliance and oppression as a way forward. I believe it is to go with the Egyptians who are later also called God’s people to the mountain to pray, teach torah and worship. To live the Exodus is to remember that as former slaves we ought to be cautious to ensure the dignity and justice of other people and not to become little pharaohs or Babylonians toward them. To lead other nations out of slavery out of gratitude for our own freedom. Our role in the partnership is to show what it means to partner with God and to share the blessings that flow toward all through that partnership. Like Abraham, our father — we are to be a blessing to all nations. The exodus is thus extended to all.

Linda Tiessen-Wiebe: "To remember" would be having the story close by, ready at hand. To remember how enclosed, freighted and heavy it was to be enslaved.  To remember we were once slaves would be to remember we couldn't free ourselves, that our bonds seemed hopeless.  That we "were once" slaves would be to remember also that we are slaves no longer, that we are freed, incredibly, and this leads to a deep gratitude. "In Egypt" reminds us of the empire we live in the midst of, representing all the alternatives to a life of following God: self-sufficiency, mastery, progress, success, status. Things that in themselves can lead us back to slavery big-time.  Egypt is always around us in one form or another. To remember the whole story in the context of now as well, not just a past event.  This year, this month, this day, I have been a slave and have been freed. Maybe remembering this story helps root us deeply in God's good purposes.

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Do you recognize this story of liberation in your own life, Watershed, or elsewhere?

Paul Patterson: I think we, like Israel, are called to be a people in partnership. The covenant promises are entirely in the hands of God, we are partners, willing to accept the covenant not as a set of demands, especially not arbitrary ones, but rather as a way of life that leads to liberation.

This way of life is shown in the rest of God’s story through the Torah, the prophets and the wisdom teachers, but for those of us who see in Jesus the fulfillment of this tradition in Jesus the Christ, we are called to follow him, be like him, to imitate him and to take his teaching seriously.

For me the love-truth balance is what makes for living the story in my life at Watershed. If I compromise authenticity I am not loving, and if I compromise love I am not living in truth. Only the gift of God’s discerning Spirit can enable you and I to maintain the balance. Sometimes when I fear that I may not appear loving, I fudge the truth to the hilt and end up utterly coasting and being inauthentic. I give up my convictions in the name of love and give up love in the name of my convictions. These are two dynamics that keep me in bondage and I can see that they have had their effects on all of us. Perhaps the only way through is to reestablish God as the provider, protecter and liberator. Then we can move past our enslavement to one another’s opinions of us. Maybe like the Israelites we can appropriate his protecting power and be spared the effects of living under false ideologies, psychological patterns and empires.

Linda Tiessen-Wiebe: For myself, I have experienced both exile and liberation within my family. Exile took the form of being bonded to manipulation and living out of guilt in a family system that didn't want its members to be themselves. Liberation first came in the form of being loved as I am not for what I do. This was largely through my relationship with Christ in community at Watershed. 

More recently liberation is taking the form of being forgiven for carrying the family patterns, and more than less, having those patterns healed.  In Watershed our exile was first in being part of the conference but not feeling ourselves there, and then leaving the conference in hostile circumstances. Over the years, as we've experiences God with us in our studies and interactions with others, we have been freed, again more than less, from the exile of shame, to be ourselves. To call each other towards a community of discipleship and to extend the love we experience in community outward to all who we meet day to day.  Like the people of Israel, liberation isn't always a straight line. In some ways we have had our "40 years in the wilderness" in the last years as we've struggled to discern whether we are covenanted together or not, and how to call each other to discipleship but in freedom and love.

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