What does it mean for you to be free? With July 4th coming up, my mind is on freedom. I realize that the way I understand freedom has changed through the years, particularly as I've spent time with the story of the Exodus from Egypt. At its heart, it is the ultimate story of freedom. Under the leadership of Moses, a motley group of fugitives who lacked virtue and courage is transformed into a free people. And through their story of bondage and redemption, we can learn a lot about what it means to be free for ourselves.
Moses didn’t merely break the chains of God’s people; he organized them into a nation and he gave them laws. Their freedom was not a freedom from rules. It was a freedom from being forced to follow the rules to entering into a covenant where they promised to serve God. This meant a complete upheaval of their world view, so, of course, it was a painfully difficult transition for them to make.
Moving from slavery to freedom is never easy. As appealing as a life of freedom may be, it means coming to terms with a paradox. The paradox of the Exodus, and of all struggles for freedom, is the way that people, at the same time, are both willing and unwilling to put Egypt behind them. They yearn to be free and then once they are, they yearn to escape their new freedom.
For as long as God’s people wandered in the wilderness, they whined and complained about their new life. An entire generation had to pass away because, in their hearts and minds, they were still living in Egypt. Rather than embrace the new way of life God had given them, they continued to react to the old life they knew in Egypt. In effect, they remained in bondage to their past.
The Hebrews thought that freedom meant being released from the rules of their oppressors, rules they had always resented, so they could now do whatever they darn well pleased. But the freedom God offered them didn’t mean that they were going to live without rules. For that’s not freedom at all, but another kind of bondage -- a life without discipline, without order, without love for God or others or themselves.
There’s something in the Exodus story to be said to us as God’s people about the freedom God offers us. We aren’t forced to follow the rules. God’s not going to zap us if we step out of line. But God gives us the law as a gift. And when we embrace that law, we can live in freedom.
It’s like this… Some people liken the law to a twenty foot high electric chain link fence with barbed wire on top. You have no choice but to live within the limits of the law. Not a whole lot of freedom in that. But that’s not how it is for us as God’s people. God’s gift of the law is like a simple railing that guides our way. We can step over that railing or slip underneath it if we choose. But if we want to live the good life God intends for us, we’ll stay inside the railing, because that’s where the good life is. That’s the kind of freedom God wants for us.
When the Israelites were living in Egypt they wanted to be free. For them, being free meant being relieved of the rules that oppressed them. It took escaping that slavery for them to realize that true freedom comes with rules. But not rules they were forced to follow. Rules they recognized as a gift. And in their freedom they were no longer slaves of the Egyptians; instead, they became servants of God.