The Exodus Story and Western Conceptions of Progress, Movement, Revolution

Posted on March 12, 2011 by


The Israelites Leaving Egypt,

The Israelites Leaving Egypt, David Roberts, 1828

Exodus: Movement of the People

Thinking still of Gastón Cordillo’s essays on resonance—“Resonance and the Egyptian Revolution” and “The Speed of Revolutionary Resonance,” and others writing about “The Phenomenology of the Resonance-Reverberation Doublet”—I remember writing to Gastón that the concept of resonance reminded me of “agitation,” which raised other associations of political terms that are grounded in bodily movement: resistance, attrition, and even terms such as passive and active, as in activism, where active is synonymous with being alive and animated, astir, bustling, exertive, flowing, functioning…and going, impelling, mobile, movable, moving, progressive, traveling, walking, etc. Thinking of how much of our Western political terminology is grounded in mobile acts of the body, I remembered a text I read as an undergraduate, on how the Jewish Exodus story is the foundation for many of our key conceptualizations of revolution. As it turns out, movement, which its political connotations, as well as progressive, are rooted in this Jewish story, which now forms an archetype for all sorts of other, secular, stories.

The key text here is Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1985), from which all of the following quotes are derived. (Footnote: relevant to current debates, Michael Walzer is also a “humanitarian interventionist” and a “just war” theorist—in no simplistic sense either, as he criticizes air campaigns and no fly zones.) All the emphases in the quotes that follow were added.

EXODUS“I have found the Exodus almost everywhere,” Walzer writes (p. 4), and indeed it is everywhere in the Western language of progress and liberation. (Footnote: It survives, even thrives, in contemporary popular culture: among the many other stories built into it, the beautiful movie Disrict 9, derives a great part of its emotive power from being in essence a Zionist Exodus story, culminating in the escape of aliens from a land of oppression where they suffered as unwanted “guests”.) As Walzer explains, “the escape from bondage, the wilderness journey, the Sinai covenant, the promised land: all these loom large in the literature of revolution. Indeed, revolution has often been imagined as an enactment of the Exodus and the Exodus has often been imagined as a program for revolution” (p. ix). The American revolutionary, Benjamin Franklin, designed the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States in 1776 (never used), which featured the exodus and the words, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” Walzer argues that the Exodus is “an idea of great presence and power in Western political thought, the idea of a deliverance from suffering and oppression: this-worldly redemption, liberation, revolution,” all of which originate “in the story of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt” (p. ix). Exodus has become “a paradigm of revolutionary politics,” though not a theory of revolution (p. 7).

“Exodus is a story, a big story, one that became part of the cultural consciousness of the West,” Walzer emphasizes while noting that “a range of political events (different events, but a particular range) have been located and understood within the narrative frame that it provides. This story made it possible to tell other stories” (p. 7). “The pattern,” in Exodus is one that “has been etched deeply into our political culture”—indeed, “it isn’t only the case that events fall, almost naturally, into an Exodus shape; we work actively to give them that shape” (p. 134). The pattern is significant in that “cultural patterns shape perception and analysis too” (p. 134).

The Exodus story is “a classic narrative, with a beginning, a middle, and an end: problem, struggle, resolution—Egypt, the wilderness, the promised land” (pps. 10-11). Given those features, the narrative is fundamentally historical one. As Walzer adds, Exodus is,

“A political history with a strong linearity, a strong forward movement, the Exodus gives permanent shape to Jewish conceptions of time; and it serves as a model, ultimately, for non-Jewish conceptions too. We can think of it as the crucial alternative to all mythic notions of eternal recurrence—and hence to those cyclical understandings of political change from which our word ‘revolution’ derives. The idea of eternal recurrence connects the social to the natural world and gives to political life the simple.” (p. 12)

From revolution as restoration, Exodus provides a break: revolution as arrival at a fundamentally new place. Immanuel Wallerstein’s theory of change combines both “cyclical rhythms” and “secular trends,” and in this sense Exodus, as revolution, as a linear forward movement falls more in line with the secular trends. “In Exodus,” Walzer writes, “events occur only once, and they take on their significance from a system of backward and forward-looking interconnections, not from the hierarchical correspondences of myth” (p. 13). This story of history is one reason why Exodus has had an appeal “to generations of radicals,” because in its linearity resides “the idea of a promised end…the purposiveness of the Israelite march” (p. 14). The linearity is progressive, and also resides at the root of our ideas of progressive politics.

The movement from beginning to end “is the key to the historical importance of the Exodus story”:

“The strength of the narrative is given by the end, though it is also crucial that the end be present at the beginning, as an aspiration, a hope, a promise. What is promised is radically different from what is: the end is nothing like the beginning. This is an obvious but critical point.” (p. 11)

Movement. How did we come to politicize the concept of “movement” in our Western lexicon to begin with? Walzer interprets this as a product of Exodus thinking, where “the movement across space is readily reconstructed as a movement from one political regime to another” (p. 14). Walzer tells us that “Change of position is a common metaphor for change of regime,” and that “much of the political language of the left has its origin in that metaphor” (p. 14). Not just in battle cries, or the famous Rasta-Zionist song by Bob Marley (below), we find the Exodus notion about change of position in space as liberation embedded in “articles and essays about progress, progressive parties, advanced ideas, vanguard politics, revolution (in its current sense), movement itself, as in ‘the labor movement’” (p. 15). “Exodus is a literal movement,” he adds, “an advance through space and time, the original form of (or formula for) progressive history” (p. 15).

Exodus thinking is present in socialist revolutionary constructs, and as Walzer says, it “seems to have survived the secularization of political theory”:

“Thus, when utopian socialists, most of them resolutely hostile to religion, argued about the problems of the ‘transitional period,’ they still cast their arguments in familiar terms: the forty years in the wilderness.” (p. 134)

The Israelites do not, as Walzer explains, simply “go wandering in the wilderness”: “the Exodus is a journey forwardnot only in time and space. It is a march toward a goal, a moral progress, a transformation. The men and women who reach Canaan are, literally and figuratively, not the same men and women who left Egypt” (p. 12).

As Walzer notes, Exodus thinking “plays a large part in the ‘liberation theology’ worked out by Catholic priests in Latin America. In the 1970s, the most serious and sustained work on the Exodus was probably being done in countries like Argentina, Peru, and Colombia. ‘If we take the Exodus as our theme,’ wrote the Argentine theologian Severino Croatto, ‘we do so because in it Latin American theology finds a focal point . . . and an inexhaustible light.’ (p. 4) [See J. Severino Croatto, Exodus: A Hermeneutics of Freedom, trans. Salvator Attanasio ( Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1981), p. iv.] Walzer quotes Croatto, who asks: “Have we paid sufficient attention to the fact that the first, exemplary liberation event, which ‘reveals’ the God of salvation, was political and social?” (p. 7).

Walzer makes a very plausible case that the Exodus reference is very common in the political history of the West (p. 5). He lists numerous examples, without even trying to provide an exhaustive or comprehensive history of the reference:

Benjamin Franklin's Great Seal of the U.S.

Benjamin Franklin's Great Seal of the United States, 1776

“It figures prominently in medieval debates over the legitimacy of crusading warfare. It is important to the political argument of the radical monk Savonarola, who preached twenty-two sermons on the Book of Exodus in the months just before his fall and execution. It is cited in the pamphlets of the German peasants’ revolt. John Calvin and John Knox justified their most extreme political positions by quoting from Exodus. The text underpins the radical contractualism of the Huguenot Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos and then of the Scottish Presbyterians. It is crucial, as I have already suggested, to the self-understanding of the English Puritans during the 1640s, and of the Americans, too, on their ‘errand into the wilderness’. It is an important source of both argument and symbolism during the American Revolution and the establishment on these shores of ‘God’s new Israel.’ In 1776, Benjamin Franklin proposed that the Great Seal of the United States should show Moses with his rod lifted and the Egyptian army drowning in the sea; while Jefferson urged a more pacific design: the column of Israelites marching through the wilderness led by God’s pillars of cloud and fire. The Exodus story is important in the writings of that early socialist, Moses Hess, and it figures, though only occasionally and marginally, in the political writings of Karl Marx. And, of course, the Exodus has always stood at the very center of Jewish religious thought and has played a part in each of the reiterated attempts at a Jewish politics, from the Maccabean revolt to the Zionist movement. Zionism has sometimes been conceived in messianic terms, which both derive from and stand in tension with Exodus thinking; but it is also a call for a literal exodus—an escape from oppression and a journey to the promised land—and the biblical narrative has provided much of its imagery. Other nationalisms, too, have found hope in a promise that seems to include, whatever else it includes, the idea of political independence. The Book of Exodus came alive in the hands of Boer nationalists fighting the British, and it is alive in the hands of black nationalists in South Africa today [mid-1980s].” (pps. 5-6)

As Walzer reiterates, “since late medieval or early modern times, there has existed in the West a characteristic way of thinking about political change, a pattern that we commonly impose upon events, a story that we repeat to one another” (p. 133). The story takes this form: “oppression, liberation, social contract, political struggle, new society (danger of restoration)” and “we call the whole process revolutionary,” with “a strong forward movement” (p. 133). This is not a universal story, it “isn’t a story told everywhere” and “it isn’t a universal pattern”–instead “it belongs to the West, more particularly to Jews and Christians in the West, and its source, its original version, is the Exodus of Israel from Egypt” (p. 133).

Exodus: Movement of Jah people! [select extracts from the lyrics]
…….
So we gonna walk – all right! – through the roads of creation:
We the generation (Tell me why!)
(Trod through great tribulation) trod through great tribulation.

Exodus: Movement of Jah people! Oh, yeah!

Uh! Open your eyes and look within:
Are you satisfied (with the life you’re living)? Uh!
We know where we’re going, uh!
We know where we’re from.
We’re leaving Babylon,
We’re going to our Father land.

Exodus: movement of Jah people!
Move! Move! Move! Move! Move! Move! Move!

Jah come to break downpression,
Rule equality,
Wipe away transgression,
Set the captives free.

Move! Move! Move! Move! Move! Move! Uh-uh-uh-uh!
Move(ment of Jah people)!