Reflections on Exodus and a "Sacred Wasteland"

I’m finally taking a long-awaited Hebrew exegesis class on Exodus this quarter. For the last couple of years, I’ve found myself drawn to the pages of this book like a small creature drawn to the sweet scent of food.

As a daughter of Cuban immigrants, whose world view has been shaped by the reality of exile and displacement, I’ve found myself attracted to the theological implications of an “Exodus” and a God acquainted with those “exiting”—a people who, like my own familia, wandered, fleeing their Promised Land with the dream of one day being able to return. 

As I read the stories of the women in the first few chapters of this book, I can’t help but reflect on the women in my own life—the moms, abuelas and tias—who sacrificed and took life-altering chances to provide a better future for me and those who would come after me. The women in Exodus have energized and sustained me; women like Shiprah and Puah—the midwives who disobeyed Pharaoh’s command and did not kill the Israelite newborns. Or Jochebed, Moses’s mother, who also went against Pharaoh by placing her son in a basket on a river to save his life.

These mothers and midwives were subversive in their actions, changing the course of history. Their nonviolent acts of civil disobedience eventually leading to the liberation of an entire people—a common theme throughout Scripture.


Throughout my translation and study, I’ve wrestled with Hebrew nuances, like in Exodus 3:7 for example, the verb “to see” is doubled, a common action in Hebrew grammar. Because biblical Hebrew does not use punctuation, a double-verb is a sign that the word is intended to by emphasized. So, the author of Exodus 3 is trying to communicate that God really, surely saw the oppression of God’s people. It wasn’t a passing sort of “see”—it was active, one of empathy that led to action.

I’ve read from biblical scholars like Carol Meyers and Gale Yee who have challenged me to question how to deal with the oppression of the Egyptian people—why was it okay that they suffered without the same respite the Israelites received?

Throughout my reading of James Cone’s commentary, I’ve wrestled with Israel's election. Imagine if God had chosen the Egyptian slave masters as God’s chosen people instead of the Israelite slaves? An entirely different kind of God would’ve been revealed. Israel’s election (and no, I’m not reflecting on the when they were elected) is deeply connected to liberation of the oppressed from political and social bondage. If this is the case, then what does that mean for us today?

Some of the questions I’ve been asking are new—questions I hadn’t yet asked in my prior readings of Exodus, and I’ll admit that I have more questions now than I did before. But as my first Hebrew professor pointed out, coming away from a text with more questions than when you began is a good sign of engagement. And although it can be frustrating, it is wildly and beautifully liberating. 


I’ve also wrestled with the divine name and what role it plays in differing contexts. For example, when God’s name (traditionally translated as “I AM”) is revealed in Ex 3:14, it occurs within the context of Moses’ call to be God’s messenger of liberation to God’s enslaved people. The name itself is a verb translating to mean, “I Will Be What I Will Be,” or as Terence Fretheim translates it, “I Am Who I Will Be.” This self-given name implies that God self-identifies with faithful continuance; God is the God who was, is, and will be—through God’s ongoing active and powerful mediation within worldly affairs; and as Moses is shown, a God who is ever committed to the ongoing work of liberation—I Will Be the God Who Rescues You Now and For All Time to Come.


Out of all that I’ve learned so far, one seemingly insignificant detail caught my attention and I haven’t been able to move past it: a detail found in the word “Horeb.” In Exodus, Horeb is where God appears to Moses in the burning bush, where God delivers the Law and where the Israelites camp out. Horeb is called “The Mountain of God” and you know what the word “Horeb” means? It literally means “waste.” When I stumbled upon this in my translation, I felt a deep sense of awe.

Isn’t it just like God to appear in a “Wasteland”—a forgotten and neglected place; a place people have deemed desolate and worthless—and make it sacred?

This truth encompasses all that I’ve been reflecting on throughout my exegesis of this book thus far, as well as my reflections on what is happening in our country with those who have also fled their oppressive conditions. You see, when it comes to “exile,” God is where the hurting is. God appears in a place least expected, and rests God’s presence amidst an “unwanted” people. Where they are is where God is and where God is, is holy ground.