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Updated: Sep 12, 2020

Mural painting in tomb of Ramose, Necropolis of Thebes, Egypt.

I am reading Robert Alter's translation of Exodus and see some powerful lessons about tyranny and hearts hardened against suffering. This is striking me hard right now as I have seen so many memes and editorials this year argue that conservatives have trouble empathizing with others' suffering until they are stricken with the problem themselves. I say conservatives, because this is pretty much their brand, but really this is true of anyone whose wealth and privilege has insulated them from the problems people face when they lack wealth and privilege.

In Exodus, Pharaoh will not give up his slaves. They are, to him, his by right. The character God must make things so bad that Pharaoh won't just let the Jews go; he will drop them like a hot rock; expel them from the nation. So much of the episode seems to be about responding to recalcitrance and privilege. I don't think that one needs be a king to be a tyrant, and Pharaoh's words bring to mind many arguments and threats I've heard in my life from people no more powerful than my parents or teachers. Pharaoh believes that his Jewish slaves complain because he has been too easy on them. If that attitude doesn't pervade a generation of (mostly) Republican Party arguments against food stamps and subsidies, I don't know what does. You also hear it when (mostly Republican) politicians argue that people in prison have it too easy. Curiously there is a direct link in our country between people in poverty and people in prison. Like politicians and talk radio hosts who want poor people to be grateful and prisoners to really suffer, Pharaoh's instinctual response to Moses wanting the Jews to have time off to worship is to make the lives of the slaves even more arduous: "they are idlers. Therefore do they cry out, saying, 'Let us go sacrifice to our god.' Let the work be heavy on the men and let them do it and not look to lying words!" (Alter, Exod. 5:8-10). In other words, they won't be able to petition for time off if they have to work all day making bricks and all night looking for straw. Again, this is an argument I've seen and heard most of my life, that poverty's roots are in laziness, instead of recognizing the reality of the lives of people living in poverty.

I see Pharaoh's entitlement in America today and in our history. Obviously I see it in the slave trade that so benefited the building of wealth of this country. I see it in the southern Confederacy's war to keep their slaves. I see it in the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow South. And if I can connect those dots, it's hard for me not to connect it to black Americans being arrested and imprisoned at disproportionately higher rates than white Americans. It's hard for me not to connect it to white Americans denying that there is inequity to a system that sees black Americans more statistically likely to be shot by police, or arguing that there isn't a systemic problem when we see repeated cases of black men slowly suffocated to death by a white officer surrounded other white officers who do nothing to stop it. When white people can kill black people with legal impunity, I would say that the system of slavery, carried through the Jim Crow South is still very much with us.

Pharaoh's heart is hardened by entitlement, the belief that the slaves are owed to him, and almost nothing will convince him to give them up. Neither Pharaoh nor the Confederacy could be reasoned with to give up the slaves. They needed to be crushed. The Jim Crow South was not crushed and it is in some ways still with us. If we take our cue from Exodus, the human instinct for tyranny will defeat many other instincts. Losing a child (for Pharaoh) seems to overcome it, at least temporarily, but finally it is an ocean sweeping away an army, the physical destruction of Pharaoh's power that frees Moses's people. Pharaoh will let his kingdom be terrorized by ten plagues before he learns his lesson, until it hurts him directly, personally and irrevocably.

Connections between American slavery and Biblical slavery are not new. See the 1862 spiritual-cum-anthem, "Go Down Moses" (sung by Paul Robeson, if you want a treat). See Mark Twain's black character Jim seeking freedom in Cairo, Illinois. But modern white privilege, much like historic Jim Crow law, has democratized tyranny, put it into the hands of anyone capable of ignoring statistics and the nightly news. Today, we can all be Pharaoh, thanks to generations of slaves who built so much wealth in the United States, and thanks to so many of their descendants who are more likely to live in poverty, to be arrested, to be imprisoned, or to get COVID-19 than someone like me. For those of us with this privilege, what will it take for us to unharden our hearts?

It is the first time in my reading of the Old Testament (having just finished Robert Alter's Genesis) that I've encountered a character that is as human as Pharaoh. You can read humanity into many of the characters in the Bible, but Pharaoh, in these times, jumps off the page. I think there is a lesson in that.

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  • Writer's pictureBen Hellman

Updated: Aug 9, 2020

Given the attention at the Lincoln Memorial this summer, with Black Lives Matter protesters protesting it and anonymous riot gear-bearing centurions guarding it, I decided to think about the memorial and its meaning to the American story. It is interesting to me that Americans chose to memorialize one of the country’s greatest presidents by posing him in a temple as an Olympian god. The Lincoln Memorial is essentially a makeover of a temple to Zeus with Lincoln in the role of the sky king of the Greek pantheon. The religious ramifications don’t seem to trouble anyone. What if someone decided to use the memorial as a temple? I wonder whether park rangers ever have to stop well-intentioned pilgrims from leaving burnt offerings or other votives to Lincoln?

Jokes aside, the real purpose of borrowing this ancient imagery is to create an American mythos, but is it possible to have a temple like memorial and monumental representation of a person without worship entering into it? How does this iconography affect our impression of Lincoln, our feelings toward him? Many people assume he had a booming voice (contemporary accounts say it was higher pitched and reedy) and I wonder if that assumption comes from his godlike status in this memorial. Washington is the “father” of the country, but I surely have warmer feelings toward Lincoln. Perhaps it is his distinctly imperfect appearance in this monument: his hair is uncooperative; his limbs ungainly; his face famously homely. Lincoln’s notably ungodlike appearance likely provides the visual tension that makes the memorial so effective.

I'm interested in myth in general, and in the making of an American mythology, which seems born of our folk traditions, and of these large (I think "State-sponsored" is a correct description) monuments contribute to that. The designers of the memorial took steps in the design to make the South feel included (proximity to Robert E. Lee's house and stone quarried from both sides of the Mason Dixon, and all state names engraved on it rather than the country's name). I wonder though if the shared heritage of the Classical world was also part of the decision. I can't help but think of Southern Plantations with their white, neoclassical columns. It arguably mirrors the massive columns of Lee’s Arlington House.

I don't want to do the Lincoln Memorial any dirt, because it has been embraced by so many people, but it is also a visual representation of the founding mythology of the Greco-Roman world, one of the earliest western white-male hierarchies. That Southerners would feel comfortable with it is not surprising. That white men in power in the North would also agree on it seems natural as well. Again, I think we have draped the Lincoln Memorial with enough positive national memories that it stands for those shared moments and the best values we've all been able to agree upon, but we shouldn't be unaware of what else is happening in this monument. That is part of trying to be a good reader of symbols and visual messages.

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