Watching The Mummy Returns on cable over Thanksgiving weekend led me to thoughts of Egypt: not the world's first great civilization, but the most romantic-unless you happened to live there. The classic City of Man (see Augustine) was modeled on power: displays of, logistics of, worship of; all the strategies and accoutrements of keeping people in order by keeping them down. It was the House of Bondage, presided over by half-breed gods blown up to gigantic scale, served by legions of murmuring priests and gilded pharaohs who casually disposed the fates of millions.
In Egypt God's people were hatched, and later enslaved. And to Egypt God went to fetch them out.
"Has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war . . . ?" (Deuteronomy 4:34). Enslavement is easy; liberation is hard. Generations of Israelites had laid their weary heads on threadbare mattresses with nothing to look forward to the next day but more rock-dragging. Yet none thought of rebellion, because they could not draw the outlines of what it would look like. After rebellion, then what? Freedom was literally inconceivable; not even a word. In Egypt the boundaries were harsh and narrow but nonetheless distinct. Better the devil you know than the one you don't; three squares and four walls is nothing to sneeze at; don't forget the leeks and melons and garlic.
Jehovah drew His battle lines against the deities of sky, sun, and fertility. What He gave, He could take away-even breath. Trials, signs, wonders, and war brought down the gods of Egypt with humiliating ease, and then the real work began: leading out a wonder-wracked people called like Abraham to go they knew not where. Their limits had dissolved, the four walls blown; the light blurred all boundaries and they would not deal with it very successfully.
The face of slavery hasn't changed much. We still come to the door of the hovel and scurry back to the depths if we can't understand the view. We turn off visions and dial up stale romances, sniff at manna and reach for leeks. Even in free societies, thousands volunteer for bondage to chemical substances or ancient grievances, abusive relationships or bad habits.
Chains can look like freedom. "What's liberating about Islam is that one is spared from having to think," claimed a recent convert to a Norwegian journalist. "There are rules for everything. . . . I just have to learn the rules, and then act. So I know that I'm doing the right thing."
Like anti-Houdinis, we build complex prisons and defy escape. But there's no prison He can't break into.
If the exodus was a dramatic showdown with the gods, the Incarnation was a match-up with the devil. But not just the devil. What keeps us enslaved, ultimately, is what Paul called the flesh: a jungle of conflicting desires and relentless self-aggrandizement. That's our Egypt, where the boundary lines are hard, but at least we can see them. That's the territory the Lord invades: "A body you have prepared for Me. . . . Then I said, 'Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God, as it is written of Me in the scroll of the book'" (Hebrews 10:5, 7). This is revolutionary: From the beginning, no one with a body had ever done His will. Now Somebody would, commandeering our very flesh and driving it deep within enemy territory, uncorrupted, undeterred, faithful to the last hand-to-hand combat, for "the last enemy to be destroyed is death."
We didn't seek Him; He sought us. We don't understand our problem; He does. We can't fix it; He can. The devil knows what we want; He knows what we need, and will move heaven and earth to provide it. Heaven trembles when God comes down. Earth, once He places His foot upon it, will never be the same.
If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.