This morning I was watching television before getting ready to head out for Good Friday services at my parish. I was channel surfing and flipping back and forth between “Bible Battles” on the History Channel and “Beauty and the Beast” on Chiller. The battle that caught my attention was the battle between Moses and Pharaoh in the Exodus (though for some reason I’d never really thought of it as a battle before). Now it so happens that I have the audio of Tim Gray’s excellent study, Adventures in Exodus on my MP3 player and I’ve listened to it many times. So my little ears perked right up when a military historian on that show began speaking about Pharaoh making the Hebrew people into slaves and loading them down with hard labor. And my ears really perked up when he said, to paraphrase,
There’s only one problem; historically speaking, it’s entirely false.
He bases this claim on the fact that “avodim” just means “worker” in Hebrew, so the notion that the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt is false. They were just workers, not slaves.
Now I’m no military historian and I’m no Bible scholar, but I don’t make a practice of confusing the two either. (Nor do I speak or write Hebrew, so bear with my attempts at transliteration.) When I want to know about the history of warfare in the Bible or elsewhere, I’ll turn to the historian. When I want to understand the Bible beyond the history, I turn to those who have that knowledge. So I went back to my Adventures in Exodus audio files and found the spot where Tim speaks about this very subject about five minutes into Talk #3, “Let my people…Worship,” Exodus, Chapter Five. According to Tim “avodah” does indeed mean “work.” But it also means “service.” And the difference between the two is like the difference between night and day. Or between slavery and freedom.
“Avodah” has both of these meanings. How can you tell which meaning is intended in the text? By looking at the object of the sentence, of the action. If God is the object, then “service” is meant. And the service to be rendered unto God is the service of prayer and liturgical worship. God has told Moses to tell Pharaoh to let His people go a three day’s journey into the desert that they may hold a feast to Him in the wilderness, a feast during the course of which they will sacrifice animals to God, the very animals that the Egyptians worship as gods.
But Pharaoh doesn’t want to let the people leave their work. And this is the other meaning of “avodah.” Work. Labor. As in, toil and hard labor. The work of slaves. God wants His people to be free to do the work necessary for their survival and care of their families and flocks, but He also wants them to have the freedom to take time off from physical labor. To rest. And to worship. Pharaoh wants his slaves to labor with little or no rest, and certainly with no time to worship. And when he does give them time to “worship,” he wants them to worship the false gods embodied by the creatures around them, creatures who were created by the Creator Whom Pharaoh chooses to ignore and insult. Big mistake, one of many Pharaoh chooses to make. And God lets him. Poor Pharaoh. He has freedom, but he chooses to misuse it. And in so doing, the ruler of the kingdom of Egypt becomes the biggest slave of them all.
And this is the whole point of the Exodus. It’s arguably the whole point of the Bible. Slavery or freedom, labor or service. Two ways of being, of living. And the choice has always been up to us. What a difference a word can make. Misunderstand one little word and you can misunderstand the sense of an entire book.
And where does Beauty and the Beast come into all of this? I haven’t forgotten. In fact, it’s the subject of the very next post, which I am writing right now. Thank you for reading and I hope to see you here again soon.