the Womb becomes a Tomb
“I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of the land into a good and spacious land flowing with milk and honey.” Exod. 3:8
Our hearts are fickle. The good things we desire are often the very things that enslave us. So it was for the descendants of Jacob who settled in the Egyptian land of Goshen, desiring safety and security in the midst of famine and uncertainty. The Israelites certainly did not go to Egypt seeking slavery. Indeed, in the days of Joseph, Goshen must have been a sight for sore eyes and a promise of sustenance for hungry hearts. The road-weary Israelites had found a place to settle, and this place proved to be very desirable in many respects. Moses writes, “The Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that they land was filled with them” (Ex. 1:7, JSB). Indeed, these were the very blessings promised in Eden.
But alas, we know the rest of the biblical story. Indeed, we know our own stories. We know the times when we reached for one piece of chocolate only to eat the entire box, one glass of wine only to drink the bottle, one kiss on the first date only to find ourselves engrossed in passion, or one “yes” to a request only to realize that we’d gotten in way over our heads again.
What we know of the Exodus story is that the Garden-grown desire for security made God’s people ripe for security’s twisted step-child, slavery. What we know is that the Garden-grown desire to be fruitful and multiply became, for the Israelites, their greatest accomplishment and most frightening peril. This is the way life goes, it seems. When we think we’ve found that thing that will satisfy, it can so quickly enslave us. Can you think of an example in your own life?
The Israelites did find a land of blessing and did grow in number, but their numbers became a threat the new Egyptian Pharaoh who set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor (Ex. 1:11). Indeed, the Israelites knew from their stories and traditions that Goshen was never to be a permanent home, but they settled, literally and figuratively. And as they settled, security became slavery. Their numbers grew and became a threat to their former friends and hosts, prompting Pharaoh to gain control through captivity.
Among the many who have seen the Exodus narrative as a guiding story, Jewish mystics have long seen it as paradigmatic for the soul’s journey to freedom. In these writings, Egypt plays a central role both in its deceptive appearance as a space for growth, and its decisive role in enslaving the Israelites. The metaphor that embraces this dual reality is that of a womb. The womb, of course, is a place for a baby to grow and be nurtured, a place of security and sustenance. But a womb is not a permanent home. For a baby at full-term, it has become a constrictive place where growth is no longer possible. So it was for the Israelites in Egypt. Frankel (2003) notes that the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, suggests meitzarim or “narrow straights,” referring to a tight and constricted space. Just as the womb becomes an inhospitable place for a baby at full-term to grow and thrive, so the once-fertile land of Goshen in Egypt became an inhospitable place where the Israelites could no longer grow and prosper. The womb, in other words, has the potential to become a tomb.
How familiar this is for so many of us! Every time someone walks through my door for pastoral care or counseling, their unique story resonates with this larger story. “How did I get here?” they ask. “I was happy. Things were going well.” So often, people who come to see me for care tell a story that echoes the biblical story. Things that ought to be blessings have become curses. A marriage is dying. Food has become an obsession. Sex has become an addiction. In other words, what could have been good has become bad. It’s a story as old as Genesis 1-3, and yet unique to each person’s narrative.
Egypt is this once-good place gone bad. It’s a place where we have become cut off from our God-given identity in creation. It is not a place where we can thrive. It is not a place where we can grow. It is not a place where we can live, really live. Struggling people who have been there describe it as such. They report feeling stuck, trapped, enslaved, depressed, anxious, dying, hopeless, or abandoned. People in these places have been habituated to their Egyptian shackles over a long period of time, and it’s tough to get them un-shackled. The mystics used the word “attachment” to describe a soul’s enslavement to something. In Latin, “attachment” translates “nailed to.” Today, we use the word addiction, which derives from the Latin root for “dictator.” No matter how you slice it, our own personal Egypt’s are not places where we can grow and flourish.
Many who have found a spiritual home in Egypt came, like the Israelites, because it offered the promise of life. I counsel many women who have been abused in the past and now find themselves in difficult and abusive marriages. More often than not, these women found in their husbands a place of refuge. One woman said, “He rescued me. I was the hopeless little girl, and he was strong and confident.” But the husband’s strength and confidence can, in some cases, turn to control and domination. Another woman added, “My husband seemed like a good Christian man but became a monster behind closed doors. I thought he was safe, but found that he was anything but safe.”
It is interesting to note that Pharaoh’s agenda was so much like the agenda of many of these abusers – control, power, twisted authority. Further, Enns (2000) notes that Pharaoh’s agenda was creation-reversing. God’s creation-blessing of progeny was being crushed by a man who feared seeing Israel thrive. Pharaoh’s abuse was a creation-destroying work. In enslaving the Israelites, he was seeking to thwart not only their growth, but to destroy their identity. Just as Genesis 1 starts out with God creating and revealing human identity in image-bearing, so Exodus 1 starts with God blessing His chosen people. But things quickly change because of the creation-destroying work of a tyrant king who cannot stand God’s glory being revealed in humanity. The contrast between a benevolent Father-God and an abusive tyrant cannot be more clear.
If the first chapters of the Book of Exodus reveal anything to us about our spiritual geography, they reveal the heart of a God who seeks to find us in the midst of our enslavement, and rescue us in order to see us become what we were made to be – heirs and co-heirs, kings and queens, vice-regents of creation. Through a series of plagues and miracles which demonstrate God’s command over creation, Moses and the Israelites march out of the darkness of slavery into the marvelous hope of new creation. Likewise, it is imperative that we listen to those who come to us, like Moses, calling us out of our places of enslavement. Our very lives depend upon it. I see pastors and counselors and spiritual directors and even good friends as playing this very important role in people’s lives. Like Moses, we become desert guides to those experiencing oppression, inviting them as Moses did to dream of freedom. Exodus chapters 4-6 are a Counseling 101 course, a picture of one man painting a picture of re-creation, and inviting an oppressed people to long for a better life. What we learn from the spiritual geography of Egypt is that God meets us in the place of our pain, our struggle, and our oppression, and invites us to long for something new. He does not shame us. Rather, He whets our appetite for new life. Ignited by redemptive longing, we have the courage to leave behind our lives of slavery and enter into the journey God has for us.
This is the New Exodus: It’s a rescue from the constriction of a womb that is no longer viable for us, becoming instead a tomb. It’s a journey from slavery to freedom. It’s a story of a God whose heart beats not for ugly and life-destroying things, but for good and spacious things: “I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of the land into a good and spacious land flowing with milk and honey” (Exod. 3:8). The question for us is: Are we up for the adventure?
Think of something that you feel “nailed to” right now – a relationship, a self-image, a habit, a substance, an extreme emotion. What was its original allure? Take some time to reflect on how it has become so powerful and enslaving?
Frankel calls Egypt a tight and constricted place. How do you experience the constriction of your own attachments?
Name your enslavements/attachments/addictions? Now, for each one, step back and reflect on the good thing that you long for which has become twisted. (For example, a woman I know found herself so addicted to Facebook that she’d have a physiological reaction when she was away from it for several hours, worrying anxiously that she missed something. She later discovered a deep longing to be known, seen, and heard…)
Reflect on how you might step back for a time from the thing that enslaves your heart, and simply feel the longing beneath it. As you do this, journal about the emotions it brings up. (For example, the Facebook woman gave herself a week away from it, and when she felt the stab of longing simply let herself descend into a reflective time about her longing to be known. God filled that empty space, and she was able to re-enter Facebook from a new emotional place…)