When I read and reread Exodus, I feel like I’m cheating because I already know the ending.  It’s like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, and I know which choice leads me to a birthday party and which one leads me to fall off a cliff.  Why are the Hebrews so put out by the slavery?  Don’t they know it’s temporary?  Sure, there are trials, struggles, agonizing challenges, but, take heart, Hebrews!  The Reed Sea parts and you wobble right out of Egypt!  The temptation in reading the text is to skip over the weight of the difficulties just because of the significance of the deliverance.  But, the reality is, these people were in serious, soul-crushing bondage. As always, fear motivates oppression, and the multiplying Hebrews are a threat to Pharaoh’s kingdom so they must be dealt with.  Harshly.  Over and over the author of Exodus describes the affliction: hard labor, ruthless treatment, forced to work, bondage, laboring under back-breaking task masters.

This is the language of slavery.  It is the language of the oppressed.  It also aligns with the spiritual condition of sin.

The Israelites were building Egyptian storage cities.  They were investing in the empire.  They were using their energies, their talents and their resources to build up the enemy’s kingdom.  The very source of their oppression was getting the best they had to offer.

Yes, they were later rescued.  Yes, I love the deliverance story, a story that I am fully a part of.  But, part of my story is also that of death-gripping bondage.  Unfortunately, I try often to return to this bondage, convinced that the outcome will be different.  I reenter Egypt, certain that the effort I put forth to gain attention and approval is going to get me somewhere this time.

I return to the old task masters, asking them to take me back.  I ask to work again for people who use me and only value what I can produce.  I give in to insecurity, comparison, or rage, convinced that I will come out on top.  When I do this, I return to bondage.  When I give into judgment or hate, I’m investing in an alternate kingdom.  I’m using my resources, my energy, my words and actions to promote a different kingdom.  I’m building up an empire that stands in bold contrast to God’s.

But, it isn’t always so obvious.  Sometimes my bondage is dressed in church clothes.  Maybe I’m building up another empire when I communicate to my girls that looks matter.  Maybe it’s when I hold on to a sense of pride regarding my own spirituality.  Maybe I’m using my talents, resources and time to gain approval from a system designed to enslave me.  Is my energy being used to build up false security?  Are my talents being used to anchor the approval of my peers?  Is my time spent trying to earn weak and conditional affection?  If so, then I’m giving in to the bondage from which I’ve been freed.  I’m building up an alternate kingdom with which I have no part.  I’m investing in a system created to oppress me and keep me from being who I really am.

The reality is, sin is not my friend.  Sin bruises, cuts, and wounds us.  It calls us with false compassion and then kicks us while we’re down.  Understanding the weight of the bondage helps us receive the gracious freedom God extends.  It also helps us call sin what it is—the act of walking away from who we really are as God’s.  Just like Israel, we need to remember how hard and futile our labor is for an alternate god, whether its culture, self-centered spirituality or relational success.  We can take the grace extended to us and choose communion with a God who rescues and simply asks for trust and dependence.  And this choice puts any Choose-Your-Own-Adventure ending to shame.

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