The Slave God


[5th in a series on abuses of the Bible in the service of power]

It started with the exodus, God’s entrance into the political history of earth. This strange God, YHWH or YHVH (representing the four Hebrew consonants of the name of Israel’s God, commonly pronounced as Yahweh or Yahveh when pronounced at all, perhaps with the accent on the second syllable although that is debated, and mispronounced as Jehovah) entered earth’s political theater as the god of slaves. As such, Yahweh rated no respect or even consideration from the pharaoh of Egypt, the ruler over a great civilization who was himself regarded as a son of the high gods. He, the pharaoh, represented the divine in human form, the presence of the gods on earth, the agent of divine will for the stability and prosperity of his realm. So, when Moses and Aaron appear before the pharaoh to present the demands of this slave god, Yahweh, the divine human ruler replies with scorn. After all, a god of slaves was, in his eyes, a slave god. So, Yahweh takes upon himself the shame of his lowly people.

Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “Thus says the Yahweh, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.'” But Pharaoh said, “Who is Yahweh, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh, and I will not let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:1-2 NRSV, with my emendation replacing the pious substitute name, the LORD in all capital letters, with the personal name Yahweh)

Egyptian history does not record the exodus of Hebrew slaves. The biblical view is that the Creator of the world (we today would say the universe) chose to become, in obscurity, identified as the God of slaves. From the outset of the work of redemption, this God to whom the Bible bears witness has self-committed to solidarity with the lowly and to turning the world upside down – that is, the world’s social, political, and economic structures and hierarchies — not by force and power, but by powerful compassion, life-changing justice, and faithful love.

Jesus of Nazareth contradicts humanity’s notions of leadership and greatness. He calls any and all who would follow him to take a very different way.

So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45 NRSV)

The upheaval that comes from God is not a power struggle, with one tyrant replacing another, but a self-emptying that seeks justice not dominion, healing not destruction, and true peace rather than enforced obedience and servitude. A Christianity that seeks to dominate a society is not of God and is not faithful to Jesus whom it calls, in lip service, the Christ.