Exodus in Hebrew Bible: Political Liberation or Spiritual Liberation?


Clearly, the event of Exodus was an incredible event of political liberation whereby God emancipated the enslaved Jews from the strongest powers of Egypt and created a sense of Israelite nationalism in them. It is interesting to note that this political liberation cannot be attributed to any intrinsic motivation for freedom or victory within the Jews themselves (which can be seen in their murmurings against Moses first when he asks Pharaoh for their freedom and later when they are led by him through the wilderness – Ex 16) but to Yahweh’s intervention, which in turn can be attributed to Yahweh’s overwhelming concern for the Jews, owing to His covenant with Abraham, and the hardships imposed on them by Pharoah: “And God saw the children of Israel, and God took cognizance of them” (Ex 2:25). Nationalism generally entails patriotic sentiments for one’s own people, but it can also constitute a strongly exclusive feeling of superiority over other peoples. Clearly Yahweh’s choosing Jews over Egyptians naturally engendered this latter strain of Jewish nationalism: “And the Lord gave the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians” (Ex 11:3), “and ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation” (Ex 16:6).

However, can the Jews’ successful attainment of political freedom from Pharaoh be seen as an absolute freedom for them from all restraints? Can we identify an element of spiritual liberation in the event of Exodus? Clearly, Exodus had to be followed by a strong sense of gratitude and worship towards another stronger power: “When they heard that the Lord had remembered the children of Israel, and that He had seen their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshipped” (Ex 4:31).  It is telling that Moses was instructed by God to repeat the following refrain to Pharaoh: “Let My people go, that they may serve Me” (Ex 9 – emphasis added). This suggests that, in Exodus’s direct corollary, the Jews were essentially going from serving Pharaoh to serving another power, the Yahweh. Arguably, this was not an absolute freedom rather a different type of servitude. Yahweh’s power, goodness, help, and miraculous intervention was not unconditional rather it placed strict expectations and laws, the Ten Commandments, from the Jews in return. Also, God reminded the Jews to always remember this day of Exodus and that their freedom from bondage was due to the power of His hand so He expects all Israelites to sanctify everything unto Him, and every human and animal born in Israel belongs to Him, and that they will have no leavened bread (13:1-3).

In the first glimpse, it appears that the event of Exodus proved quite costly to the Jews in terms of them ending up being subject to an extensive set of restrictions in their new-found ‘freedom’. However, when God commanded “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me” (Ex 20:3), it signifies that Jews were emancipated from all earthly powers only to submit themselves to one higher Divine Power. This submission to Yahweh was not going to be a humiliating experience as the enslavement by Pharaoh was, rather this surrender to the Divine was going to exalt Jews above all the peoples and distinguish them from the rest. In this sense, submitting to God can be seen as an instance of spiritual liberation, because it entails following the Divine law, instead of human subjugation, and finding strength in it. “The Lord is my strength and song, / And He is become my salvation” (Ex 15:2). The dietary restrictions as well as prohibitions from adultery, murder, theft, lying, and envy can be considered by some as commandments militating against absolute human freedom. However, if we view them as intending to emancipate human beings or Jews in particular, from enslavement to the primal instincts of their base self and the state of nature, they can be unequivocally considered by the Jews as leading to a spiritual freedom. This is a spiritual freedom which regulates morality through law and is illustrated by the famous formulation: “the wise restraints that make men free.”

To conclude, if we define spiritual liberation as a freedom from earthly control in favor of a Divine power, or as a freedom from chaotic human instincts in favor of a Divinely-ordained order, then we can see this spiritual freedom as a corollary of Exodus. However, if we define spiritual freedom as freedom to seek out God on one’s own terms, then we fail to find this kind of freedom in Exodus because the laws ordained to please God are very precise and very exacting.