AN ASTONISHING aspect of the miracle that was the Exodus is the recorded “600,000 men on foot, not counting their dependents” (Exodus 12:37). A whole people uprooted themselves and moved into the unknown. This was displacement on a massive scale. Their readiness to move from the security of slavery, from the only reality they had known for four-and-a half generations, was more awesome than the willingness of Pharaoh to let them leave.
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What organizer today would not grasp at the key to a process that would move enslaved people in the Egypts of today? ... But this is still the beginning. The 40 years of wandering in the wilderness may have been a punishment for their constant complaining.
But there were good reasons for it that may be more important. They are reasons our settled lives, our lives in isolation, prefer to forget. The wandering was the time in which the Israelites learned to be free and learned to be a people. Neither happened in the condition of slavery from which they came. Oppression can bring out the best in people; more often it brings out the worst as individuals seek to carve out corners of relative security for themselves.
Elizabeth McAlister, a member of Jonah House in Baltimore, was serving a three-year sentence for her role in the Griffiss Plowshares civil disobedience action when this article appeared.
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