Moses, religion, liberation and tyranny

By Simon Barrow
January 3, 2015

BBC Radio 4's 'Beyond Belief' series will look at the significance of the biblical story of Moses and Exodus for Jews, Christians and Muslims in a programme to be broadcast at 4.30pm on Monday 5 January 2015, featuring Ekklesia associate Keith Hebden among others.

Moses has always been good 'box office' even before Ridley Scott's blockbuster movie hit the cinema screens on Boxing Day 2014 – being banned at the same time in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

In the past there was Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments and the cartoon Prince of Egypt. Now Welsh National Opera has revived Moses in Egypt, Rossini’s bel canto operatic interpretation of the Exodus, in a new production which "harnesses music of huge scale and awesome beauty".

It's certainly a rollicking story. Ancient Egyptian pharaohs and pyramids, babies in baskets, plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and a thrilling chase. But the resonances go way beyond popular culture. The story of Moses is a vital one for Jews; without him they would never have become a people. He is important in different ways for Muslims and Christians, too. The narrative of a people being rescued from slavery and journeying to the Promised Land has been claimed by countless groups down through the ages.

There is also a significant dark side, too. Not just the ferocious violence involved in the story, but the fact that as Canon Giles Fraser points out (, most Palestinian Christians find no cry for freedom in the Exodus.

He writes: From a western perspective, the Exodus story is the primary text of the biblical cry of freedom. The African slaves who sang spirituals in the cotton fields of America would link their suffering to that of the Jews under Ramses II. Thus, for instance, they sang: “Go down, Moses, Way down in Egypt’s land, Tell ole Pharaoh To let my people go.”

But from a Palestinian perspective, one person’s liberation is another’s slavery. The very story African slaves told each other as the story of their anticipated liberation is, according to Palestinians, at the root of their current occupation. The slaves come out of Egypt and into a land promised them by God. And, for Palestinians, this promise [as it is popularly interpreted] is responsible for their military subjugation, for walls and settlements. How can a Palestinian Christian admire liberation theology in a world of “Guns ’n’ Moses” T-shirts?

There is much to reflect on in 'Beyond Belief', therefore. In the 5 January programme, regular presenter Ernie Rea is joined by Maureen Kendler, teaching fellow at the London School of Jewish studies, Shuruq Naguib, lecturer in Islamic Studies at Lancaster University, and the Rev Dr Keith Hebden, Anglican Priest in Nottingham and author of Seeking Justice: The Radical Compassion of Jesus.The programme will be available for listening after broadcast.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

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