“Today, I have unrolled from you, the disgrace of Egypt.”
I don’t know if any of you caught that line in the entirely of its meaning. When I probably first heard it many years ago, it likely meant nothing to me in any specific sense: “the disgrace of Egypt.”
The reference is to the time of enslavement of the Hebrews by Pharoah. For us as modern people, the idea that slavery is disgracing is odd. How can being a victim be a disgrace? Disgrace occurs when someone does something disgraceful; it’s not when something is done to them. It is rather those who enslave, exploit, degrade and debase others who are surely the disgraced?
But, you know, that’s a very contemporary perspective that grew out of our Christian heritage into a secular understanding that sees people as victims of circumstance first and foremost.
Historically speaking, and l think in the time before history, being enslaved was a disgrace; and in some contexts, it really is experienced as disgrace even today.
In the case of the famous prodigal, a young man enslaved to his passions and appetites, overthrowing all good sense, pursuing pleasure at the cost of his relationship with his family; in that, we see a man enslaved. But he is not a slave of another person, but a slave to pleasure. And that slavery does disgrace him because it is his failure; his defeat.
For most of us our notions of slavery derive from our knowledge of the history of the United States, its civil war in the middle of the 19th century that ended it in North America; and the legacy of it that Americans have had to bear.
That type of slavery involves making human beings into a commodity that is bought, sold and traded. Europeans in what we might call the modern, scientific era post the middle ages, accessed a market in that commodity that already exited in Africa and Asia. They went to the world market, so to speak, and found in addition to cotton, wheat, wool, wood, and silk, people were also available for sale. In rank disregard of their Christian inheritance, many nations spent hundreds of years participating in that market even as many members of the Church condemned trading in human beings.
Prior to that, slavery in the ancient world was more a byproduct of armed conflict between communities; it was part of the proceeds of military conquest.
A defeated city or kingdom was subject to enslavement. This was part of destruction of an enemy nation by having the people, women, children, tradesmen and scholars, necessary for a future taken away to serve the victors.
To be a slave was to be part of a defeated people.
Defeat and victory were, and this is clear from the biblical texts concerning ancient Israel, determined by one’s faithfulness to one’s God. And the Israelites were not alone in believing this.
The nation that fails to listen to its god through sacred scripture, the preaching of authentic prophets, the keeping of the law that in the ancient world was always understood to be a gift from heaven; all these things indicated a failure to trust in the divine as the true source of one’s strength at both the level of the individual and the nation.
It is the power of God that explains how the Hebrew slaves were able to escape the most powerful nation on earth, Egypt. It is the power of God that explains how Gideon with his 300 men defeated the invading Midianite army of 32,000. And so, it had little to do with how big your army was, now well-equipped, and a lot more to do with the relationship a king, a nation and each individual had with the divine.
Slaves then weren’t just losers in an ordinary sense of the word; they were spiritual losers as well. We might say, total losers. So, it was something approaching pity that had the victorious not end their miserable lives, but to give them some purpose: serving the winners. And generational slavery was justified on those grounds: you are a son or a daughter, a grandson or granddaughter of a loser, and so, you’re a loser too. The life of slavery is all you really deserve, it’s really all you are capable of.
Today we still talk about “losers.” There’s the guy who sits on the couch all day smoking pot and playing video games; the woman who goes from one bad relationship to another in search of validation – looking for love in all the wrong places. However, we can find losers in the upper echelons of our society. Some of these tech moguls who own the big social media companies, the big online retail sites, listening to them, learning a little about their lives simply because the media insists on telling you about them; well, a lot of them strike me as losers. Their enslavement isn’t to drugs or the pursuit of human love, but other things that clearly are connected with their egos, their sense of self worth, and they look to satisfy this with material possessions, the exercise of power, the indulgence in their baser appetites because they can buy whatever, and whomever they want. They’re losers; they are slaves to such things.
The story of the Bible, of course, is a story of escaping slavery; ceasing to be a loser and through God, participating in Christ’s victory over sin and death, and so becoming a winner.
But it’s far too easy to remain enslaved, to continue to be a loser. Live that life, and you find its minor comforts and consolations; but also, the disgrace you feel, as it deepens, the idea of being able to leave it and live in dignity and fellowship with a good God and his good and faithful people becomes increasingly improbable.
I’ve been reading stories of the Soviet gulag by Vodor Shalamov. Now his experience as a slave laborer changed him in his working twelve-hour days in mines, lumber camps, road-building crews, in often very harsh and cold weather. He writes of the insidious effects upon one’s character as a prisoner in that system. Beyond it being a living death; yet one that produced astoundingly few suicides given the millions put through it; the gulag taught you that being a slave won’t kill you; at least, not right away. And in your slavery you also learn that as vile as people are toward you without apparent consequences, so too can you be vile to others with little consequence; that you can do vile, despicable things and not be struck dead. And so, the most profound evil of slavery is that one comes to accept it, to accept what one has become, to accept the disgrace you’ve become. Yet even as detestable as you might become to your own self; it won’t kill you – again, at least not right away.
The prodigal son doesn’t consciously understand any of this, but finding himself fallen to a very low point, his resolve to return to his father is couched in a sense of personal defeat. He is resigned to a return home where he will be little better than a slave in his father’s house.
However, we see that it is in the return to the father, in re-establishing that relationship is the key to escaping slavery and its disgrace. The prodigal had no notion of being restored. He was simply about survival; but in that his instincts served him well.
We know that Roman society struggled with the idea of slavery, especially as they became Christian. They recognized that it was little more than the circumstances of birth, and not some great contest between competing nations, that made a person a slave. And while pagan beliefs could offer some explanation as to why that was alright – usually that our gods are greater than your gods, Christian theology couldn’t sustain an argument for slavery. Our god is greater than your god? There’s only one God. Circumstances of birth? Our saviour was born in a shed!
But prior to Christian civilization, we also need to recognize just how difficult life was for most of humanity. To be a slave was to be a loser in a dog-eat-dog competitive world in which harsh reality made it difficult for people to be generous. So, when we think about the community ethos of Israel that made it an integral part of the law that you had to be good to everyone; family, neighbor, stranger and slave, we need to appreciate what a departure that is. When we consider that in Israelite thinking, slavery is not considered a natural state, but as a consequence of moral and spriritual failure, we have raised for us the prospect that a return to faith can bring release from bondage.
To recover one’s freedom is at heart a struggle to let go of the idea of being a loser and to remember you are a child of God.
Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve some of what’s happened – you make your bed, you’re gonna have to lie in it; but like the dejected, depressed person who finds themselves spending their days on the couch, in their bed, oppressed by a sense of failure, feeling like a loser, so much of the struggle to escape is internal.
The escape has nothing to do with achieving worldly success. The victory and the freedom don’t necessarily translate into material wealth and earthly satisfactions; but rather in the rolling back of the disgrace.
Yes, the prodigal son is dressed in a fine robe, and a ring is put on his finger, but the winning is in coming home, the victory is in the father’s embrace. It’s had through the humility we see in the prodigal son, in the willingness to own the loss, recognize the defeat, and instead of doubling down on a losing lifestyle, to return to the winning ways of a life with God, and know what it means to say, “see, everything has become new!”