EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION DAY AND JUNETEENTH
Sunday, January 1, 2012
Lisa M. Bowens, Guest Lectionary Commentator
Ph.D. Student in New Testament, Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ
Lection – Exodus 6:1-9 (New Revised Standard Version)
(v. 1) Then the Lord said to Moses, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh: Indeed, by a mighty hand he will let them go; by a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land.” (v. 2) God also spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am the Lord. (v. 3) I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘The Lord’ I did not make myself known to them. (v. 4) I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they resided as aliens. (v. 5) I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. (v. 6) Say therefore to the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. (v. 7) I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians. (v. 8) I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.’” (v. 9) Moses told this to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.
I. Description of the Liturgical Moment
With the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery. The decree’s effective date was January 1, 1863, but it could not be fully carried out until the war ceased and the Union army prevailed. General Robert E. Lee’s April 1865 surrender ended the Civil War, but it was not until two months later—June 19, 1865—when the last 250,000 slaves in Texas learned that they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. In Galveston on June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger read General Order No. 3: “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves . . .” Thus, June 19th became known as Juneteenth and is the oldest known commemoration of the end of American slavery.
Services honoring Juneteenth involve remembering the tragedy of slavery and the many who died, as well as God’s faithfulness in bringing about freedom. Moreover, these services summon participation in God’s work of overturning oppression, denouncing dehumanization, and bringing healing and reconciliation to every aspect of God’s creation.1
II. Biblical Interpretation for Preaching and Worship: Exodus 6:1-9
Part One: The Contemporary Contexts of the Interpreter
Slavery is still a reality in our world. It is estimated that there are 27 million slaves worldwide and that thousands are brought to the United States through human trafficking, the name given to the modern-day slave trade. Thus, the struggle for freedom persists and the cry for freedom by those enslaved continues to resound to the ears of the Almighty.
The history of American slavery which shapes and touches the life of every African American impacts how many hear and understand Exodus 6. Countless hear their ancestors’ cries in Israel’s groans. God’s acknowledgment of the cruelty of slavery and the divine decision to rescue Israel foreshadows God’s involvement in the abolition of African slavery in the U.S. At the same time, as we reflect upon the horrendous reality of slavery today, this Scripture reminds us not only of God’s past actions of freeing ancient Israel and African Americans in 1865 but also reminds us of the urgency of God’s continued deliverance today. African Americans’ painful history creates solidarity with those who suffer under modern-day slavery and compels a reading of this Scripture which celebrates fulfillment on one hand, yet groans for future fulfillment on the other, when every human being experiences freedom and emancipation.2
Part Two: Biblical Commentary
Although no archaeological evidence exists for the exodus, a number of scholars believe it occurred in the late 13th century BCE during the reign of Rameses II.3 This historical event becomes a defining moment in Israel’s existence by illustrating God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel’s ancestors, forefronting God’s saving activity on behalf of the oppressed, and providing the background for the inauguration of the Sinai covenant. The exodus, throughout Israel’s Scripture, appears as a past reference point for God’s future saving actions.
Actions of seeing, hearing, and speaking appear throughout this text. The pericope begins with God telling Moses that he will see what will be done to Pharaoh. The focus at this point is on events that will take place in the immediate future. But in 6:3-4 God informs Moses that this future vision of Pharaoh’s demise is grounded in a past vision in which God appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Thus, what Moses will see connects to what has been seen in the past. God’s willingness to reveal God’s self to the patriarchs is inextricably linked to the covenant and God’s promise to fulfill it.
The theme of hearing that appears in 6:5 actually begins in the second chapter of Exodus. In 2:23-24 Israel groans and cries out to God for help and God hears them. The same word for groan,
(ne’âqâh), appears in both 2:24 and 6:5, denoting extreme distress. In 3:7-9 the Lord tells Moses that he has heard Israel’s cry and will deliver them. After what seems like a failed attempt to persuade Pharaoh, Moses charges God with abandonment in 5:22-23. Hence, 6:5 serves as God’s reassurance to Moses that Israel has indeed been heard and will not have to fight for themselves. Ironically, when Moses returns to Israel and announces what the Lord has revealed, they do not
(shâma’) him. The same word for hear is used in both 6:5 and 6:9, juxtaposing God’s hearing and Israel’s inability to hear. While their cries resound in God’s ears, God’s word cannot penetrate their own ears because slavery has broken their spirits, disabling their capacity to grasp divine speech.
In addition, the theme of speaking occurs in these verses as well. The text moves from God speaking to Moses to commissioning Moses to speak to Israel to Moses actually speaking to Israel. Moreover, the author juxtaposes the act of speaking with Israel’s inability to speak. The text emphasizes that God speaks and Moses speaks but highlights Israel’s form of communication as groaning. Slavery has crushed them to the point where they can no longer form words but can only groan and cry out for deliverance.
The text resounds with divine action: God will act against Pharaoh, God will free Israel, God will rescue and redeem, God will lead them into Canaan, and God will give them the land as a possession. Divine action on behalf of Israel forms an antithesis to Israel’s inability to free themselves; God’s power does what Israel cannot do. Moreover, God adopts Israel, taking her as “my people,” promising to be her God. Hence, we see a progression from slavery to adoption to possessors. God’s speech to Moses chronicles Israel’s change of status from slaves to adopted children to inheritors of land. Thus, they move from being property to owning property.
Although the text resounds with divine action, it also highlights the necessity of human action as well for the mission of liberation. God partners with Moses, commissioning him as spokesperson and prophet. Thus, the pericope emphasizes the divine/human venture as integral to emancipation.
African slaves resonated with the Exodus narrative and God’s delivering power. They saw their story in Israel’s story and trusted that the God who rescued Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, would also rescue them. In Israel’s cry for freedom, African Americans heard their own cries and sometimes put their yearning for this freedom in songs which came to be known as the Negro spiritual. The slave sermons many of the slaves heard announced that the God of the Patriarchs has brought liberation to all through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. As Hall Johnson writes,
This new religion of the slaves was no Sunday religion. They needed it every day and night. The gospel of Jesus, the Son of God, who had lived and died for men, even the lowliest, took hold of their imagination in a strange personal way, difficult to understand for the average Christian of the formal church. For them, He was not only King Jesus but also “Massa Jesus” and even “my Jesus.” The American Negro slaves literally “embraced” Christianity and, with this powerful spiritual support, life took on new meaning, a new dimension. For now they knew with absolute, unshakeable faith, that somewhere, sometime---they would be FREE! And then the slaves began to sing—as they had never sung before.4
We celebrate God’s redemptive and liberating activity in the world. We also celebrate our ancestors who endured unthinkable hardships and yet maintained faith in a delivering God. Israel’s groans, the groans of our own ancestors, and God’s response to these cries of pain and agony urge us to see the often complex nature of suffering and justice and that they often go hand-in-hand. This text allows us to remember that while cries for justice may go unheeded for a time, God does not forget nor remain silent forever.
The descriptive details of the passage include:
Sounds: The groans and moans (cf. 2:23-24; 3:7-9) of the Israelite slaves as they labor under the harsh treatment of their Egyptian taskmasters (cf. 1:11; 2:11; 5:4; 6:6); the sounds of whips upon the slaves’ backs (2:11); Moses’ proclamation of freedom (v. 9);
Sights: Millions of Israelites being cast out by Pharaoh (v. 1) and entering the land of Canaan led by the hand of God (v. 8); faces of the Israelites’ who have broken spirits (v. 9); and
Smells: Sweaty bodies laboring in oppressive heat.
III. Other Sermonic Comments/Suggestions
In speaking about the African American slaves, Cheryl Sanders writes,
In their clandestine prayer meetings, held late at night in the slave quarters and hush harbors, the slaves participated in the transforming power of the age for which they hoped by petitioning God for deliverance from bondage. They believed that the same God who transformed the sinful status of their souls in the conversion experience would transform the sinful structures of the society. The God who had freed their souls from sin could certainly free their bodies from slavery.5
The slaves knew better than to take seriously the white preachers who sought to use religion and biblical hermeneutics to justify and support the institution of slavery... [The slaves’] ethic of justice rested squarely on the theological presupposition that God would act to free the slaves based on the precedent set in the Scriptures when God freed Israel from bondage in Egypt. Moreover, this ethic was also closely connected with the slaves’ affirmation of their own God-given humanity.6
The following slave narrative is quoted by Albert J. Raboteau:
“The old meeting house caught on fire. The Spirit was there. Every heart was beating in unison as we turned our minds to God to tell him of our sorrows here below. God saw our need and came to us. I used to wonder what made people shout, but now I don’t. There is joy on the inside, and it wells up so strong that we can’t keep still. It is fire in the bones. Any time that fire touches a man, he will jump.”
These are the words of a former slave, describing the religious services of his people just after Emancipation. I was first arrested by these words twenty-five years ago, when I began to research and write about the religious history of African-Americans. The paradoxical conjunction of “sorrows here below” and “joy welling up on the inside” puzzled me. Over the years, the image of “fire in the bones” stuck in my memory and eventually became for me a metaphor of the distinctive character of African-American Christianity, a mood of joyful sorrow, sorrowful joy, or more accurately, sorrow merging into joy. The paradox resonated within me, stirring memories of forgotten ancestors whose stories I needed to learn, stories with important lessons not only for me, but for others as well.7
Beyond barriers of race, nationality, and religion, we must identify ourselves with the poor, the oppressed, the wretched of the earth. It is our calling to become the voice of the voiceless, the face of the faceless, to an unheeding and uncaring society.8
1. See the following sites for additional information:
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Juneteenth-Our-Other-Independence-Day.html; http://www.infoplease.com/spot/juneteenth1.html; http://dundalk.patch.com/articles/juneteenth-a-brief-history-of-emancipation-day; and http://www.nationaljuneteenth.com/Juneteenth_Movement.html
2. See the following sites for additional information: http://www.callandresponse.com and http://www.freetheslaves.net
3. Gordon, Robert P. “Exodus.” New International Bible Commentary. Ed. F.F. Bruce. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979. pp. 149–187.
4. Hall, Johnson. “Notes on the Negro Spiritual (1965),” as quoted in Abbington, James, “Biblical Themes in the R. Nathaniel Dett Collection: Religious Folk-Songs of the Negro.” African Americans and the Bible. Ed. Vincent Wimbush. New York: Continuum, 2000. pp. 281–293.
5. Sanders, Cheryl J. “African-Americans, the Bible, and Spiritual Formation.” African Americans and the Bible. Ed. Vincent Wimbush. New York: Continuum, 2000. p. 590.
6. Ibid., p. 591.
7. Raboteau, Albert J. A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. pp. 183–184.
8. Ibid., p. 181.