Departure, but Not Yet Arrival: Performance in Exodus 15:22-26

Walter Brueggemann
Columbia Theological Seminary

Scriptural Reasoning, as proposed and practiced by Peter Ochs, is a daring initiative and a shocking challenge to those inured in conventional critical exegesis. Without being able to penetrate all of the subtleties of Peircian pragmatism, this exegete can discern enough to understand that texts can and must be read, informed by modern critical tradition, but finally away from such thinness and back toward a communal practice that intends the hard work of reparations. From the essays offered in appreciation for and in response to Ochs’s work, I place the accent on the specificity of the text, the communal context of reading that moves between ancient memory and contemporary appropriation, that summons to reparations, sustained liturgical performance, and resultant habits of practice that push beyond the Abrahamic to the Adamic. An exegete must very soon move to a specific text in order to have much to say. Thus I turn to Exodus 15:22-26 in order to consider a rereading, in what I hope is a mode of “Scriptural Reasoning.

I have selected this text because it is a text that is “on the way,” as Scriptural Reasoning must always be. There has been a departure from the lethal system of Pharaoh (14:1-15:18). But of course there is no arrival yet in the land of milk and honey. Indeed, there will not be an arrival for a very long time; and even when there finally is an arrival, it will be a contested, disputatious, even violent arrival that waits for peaceableness…even waiting still.

We are, in this text, well between a remembered departure and an awaited arrival, in the Wilderness of Shur. The presenting problem, shortly after the walls of water that drowned Pharaoh, is that there is “no water” (15:22). There is a cry to YHWH (v. 25). There is an immediate response from YHWH, divine action before the divine speech. YHWH exhibits a piece of wood, and throws the wood into the bitter water. It is made sweet! We do not know how it is made sweet. We are not told, and the text displays no curiosity about the transformation of the water. The God who can emancipate is fully able to transform water. The sweet water is an act of rescue and preservation, and a sign that this community is on the way from the bitter life of bondage to the sweet life of shalom.

The departure and the awaited arrival concern the materiality of life…labor and bondage and food and oppression…circumstance that produces a cry of pain and distress. It is not known yet, but the erstwhile slaves are on their way to a new obedience, even in the desert. They will need to react to the demands of Pharaoh no longer, for Pharaoh is now only at the back edge of the narrative, a remembered source of alienation and oppression that made life sterile and absent of joy. Israel must remember back through the dancing of Miriam to recall Pharaoh, but the pain remains present enough in their bodies that they can recall very well.

When we read that transformative moment of “cry-answer” contemporarily, especially when we read it as privileged people who have not felt the bodily scars of the brick yard, we readily transpose that ordered, hollow regime of Pharaoh to the ordered, hallow regime of vacuous reason. The God of the Exodus has come to the slave camp and has gathered nameless sufferers into a community ordered around miracle that has no explanation, but that has futures of sweetness. If we ask about the departure from Pharaoh’s land, surely Scriptural Reasoning intends departure from a system of reason that can bring order and even security, but that cannot bring life. Scriptural Reasoning, with texts like this one, is itself a practice of departure.

Having taken that first step of departure, dazzled by the first sip of sweet water, the Lord of bitter water and sweet water now speaks in the text. YHWH has waited to speak until there has been “showing” and “throwing” and eager drinking. Perhaps that first sip of sweet water generates a moment of readiness for listening. The speech of the one who meets Israel in sweet water is framed in anticipation of Sinai. First there is narrative report:

There the Lord made for them a statute and an ordinance and there he put them to the test. (15:25b)

The “test” follows the water. The “statute and ordinance” are Sinai read back, for the one who saves is the one who will command. And now the same one speaks. The first word is “if” that anticipates the first utterance at Sinai in 19:5. [1] It is a condition, that is, the truth of YHWH’s offer depends upon the practice of Israel. Truth comes in and with and under practice. The requirement is to “listen carefully,” an absolute infinitive that anticipates the same in 19:5. Listening is a price of the rule of YHWH. There had been no listening in Pharaoh’s Egypt, because there has been no compelling voice and no frame of relationship. Pharaoh had in mind only senseless productivity, and did not care about the possibility of hearing. But departure from Pharaoh’s rule makes dialogic engagement possible…for the first time. Israel, in this summons, is empowered to make a difference by its practice. The words tumble out to make the accent clear: “Listen carefully…do what is right…give heed…keep.” The conversation is about commandments, the ones to be given at Sinai that will supersede the commands of death in the regime of Pharaoh. The slaves who mindlessly produced have, through the sweet, saving water, become a community of responsive engagement that has a chance to shape a different future by their obedience.

From that chance it follows: “I will not bring” (v. 26). There is no grammatical connection, no explicit linking of the command (with the urgent absolute infinitive) to the promise. Except that it follows, because YHWH is willing to respond to Israel’s obedience. The promise arises from command in a way unlike that of Pharaoh’s Egypt wherein there was no promise that followed the commands of Pharaoh:

I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians. (v. 26)

The diseases are not identified. Scholars, moreover, have used too much energy pretending medical competence. But the intent is self-evident in the utterance itself. The diseases that smite Egypt are alienation, oppression, death to human possibility, nullification of communal opportunity, and finally despair. Nicholas Adams can write of the image of the medical:

The leading metaphor that runs throughout the model of reparative reason is that of medicine, although there are others; I will simplify it somewhat. The reader is invited to consider how a physician treats a patient who offers an account of her suffering. [2]

The divine speech alludes to the lethal pathologies of Egypt. We know, moreover, about the modes of pathology produced by a Cartesian anxiety that of itself precludes community. The promise that follows obedience is an alternative to Egypt. The “logic of repair” is that obedience to the alternative commands of Sinai makes new life possible. Failure to obey Sinai portends the killing fields of Pharaoh every time. And then, as though to seal the deal, the maker of sweet water offers self-identification. “I am YHWH!” What follows is stunning self-acknowledgement. “I am YHWH who heals you.” It is a crucial that the sentence ends in “you.” …”heals you.” More than that, this participle readily converts into a noun: “I am YHWH, your doctor,” not “the doctor.” The one for you!…doctor for you, as though the healing of this company of slaves is the single agenda of the Lord, now the Lord with the supply of sweet water. But not “a doctor.” Not “the doctor.” “Your doctor,” the one fully committed to repair…to repair the torn bodies scarred by Pharaoh, to repair the wounded community staggered by Pharaoh’s anti-community requirements, to enact a logic of repair of the kind Ezra will do later enact on the text. There is unleashed in the world of the text a healing agent, one who is able to counter “the diseases of Egypt.” [3]

There is no doubt that this text is the pivot of the tradition, anticipating the alternative existence given at Sinai. It is an odd text that disrupts narrative continuity in order to permit the Lord of Sinai to speak in anticipation and to summon to an obedience the shape of which is not yet disclosed.

My reading of this text resonates with what I take to be the accents of Scriptural Reasoning:

  1. There is text specificity. Finally we must move beyond philosophical speculation to see how scripture itself opens reality. It is a text of only five verses, but it creates an enormous caesura in the traffic from Pharaoh to Sinai. It is a self-announcement that alters the world.
  2. The text is situated in a quite specific context. In the final form of the text, the context is the wilderness where a miracle is required whereby the waters are transformed and made life-giving. In contemporary context, the text meets us with questions about morality and the way in which the logic of repair can carry us beyond Cartesian diseases. More than that, I write this the day after Obama’s inauguration. I do not think the new president has messianic proportion. But I do think this is a new text for the moment, for all parts of the world. Folk are watching and hoping for a new possibility beyond ancient decisions that have precluded healing hope. We read this text, anciently as best we can; inescapably we read it with contemporary alertness and ponder the command and the promise.
  3. The text is clearly an act of reparation. There is an utterance here that aims to repair the defeat of Israel’s hope by Pharaoh’s brick quota. The reason Miriam and the women could sing and dance is because they knew, through their poetry, that they were not fated to bondage, that healing juices were renovating history and making new life possible. The great repair is surfaced in the ancient declaration that YHWH will “reign forever” (Exodus 15:18).
  4. The narrative and the divine declaration are available for us in many liturgical performances as is required in many circumstances. There is no doubt that Pharaoh’s enlightened productivity is enormously seductive. By chapter 16, verse 3, the slaves wanted to go back to slavery. This people, like every people, is always again pulled back into the regime of despair with its ready offer of sustenance and order and security. And as often as seduced back, so often is liturgical reperformance of emancipation and repair necessary. Thus the Passover, together with all the narrative accompaniment, must be done again and again, as rehearsal for real departure and real resolve in obedience. The sons and daughters must be told again why this night of passage is different. The daughters and the sons must be schooled in the logic of repair with the enacted news that Pharaoh is not a defining agent or force any longer; the new administration from Sinai is already in effect here. Thus we may imagine that these five brief verses were (and are) the script for reperformance, always again from bitter to sweet, always again from disease to healing, always again from coercion to dialogical obedience…always again.
  5. And because it is “always again,” we may anticipate that the performance will issue in new habits for the freshly healed community. If, as seems likely, the rhetoric of verse 26 is of Deuteronomy, then we the new habits are lined out in Deuteronomy, habits concerning widows and orphans and immigrants and the poor (Deut 14:29; 16:14; 24:17-22). The new habits are not sectarian ritual disciplines (though those may be required), but rather they constitute a passion whereby the God-given resources of creation are deployed for the sake of all, just like the “sky bread” of Exodus 16 will be when “they gathered as much as each of them needed” (16:18). The tradition of Deuteronomy knows well that obedience does not “produce” healing. But it also knows, in a recovered dialogical wisdom, that without obedience there is no healing. And so this community, from the lips of Miriam, resolved to the new habits that will form the world afresh:

Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do (Ex. 19:8).

All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient (Ex. 24:7).

The narrative is of course very Jewish. It is Israel who thirsts and who is addressed. This is an Abrahamic enterprise, albeit featuring Moses and not Abraham. It is the God of Abraham who hears Israel (Ex 2:24) and who addresses Moses (Ex 3:6). But Scriptural Reasoning summons us through and beyond the Jewish read to ask how the text may be read amid other children of Abraham, and beyond to the community of Adam. How let such a particular text perform a larger healing? And of course the answer is with the same components of practice. These components are a gift of Jews, but a gift well given to all the Adamic kinfolk. For what is exclusively Jewish about the transactions of this text is in any case overheard elsewhere by those who know they may be addressed:

  • The text in its specificity can be reread by many text-heeding peoples. The text is insistent in its particular way, but not insistent upon an exclusionary readership. -The context is quite specific concerning this people being on a trek without water. But the context is at the edge of slavery and the boundary of the desert with the mountain in purview. That sequence of “slavery-wilderness-mountain” is not geographically situated. It is a geography of interpretation and imagination. All the children of Adam know about departures and not arriving, about being addressed with command and with promise, and every child of Adam hopes for an initiative of repair, all of these in a common community of hope. The context is human geography, a map-quest whereby all may move on from their oases of sweetness.
  • The repair is on offer. It is a gift of God. It is a gift given through the Jews and their text. It is not administered even by those who preserve the narrative, it being a holy offer of healing. -The text is open to many reperformances wherein a community of ex-slaves may sense holy possibility. With this utterance of promise, this text becomes a hearable script. And that wonder of redress is everywhere urgent among us.
  • The text is everywhere visible and embraced and reperformed, so that here and there new habits of care appear. As Rachkover judges, there is care for those who suffer, and no particular community has a monopoly on such a possibility. [4] The text is to be read particularly…of course. We may imagine, nonetheless, that gathered around the text in overhearing are many other brothers and sisters, not members of the particular community of reading and hearing. They also are eager for repair, capable of performance, prepared for alternative habits. This eagerness, capability, and preparedness are not fruits of Pharonic reason. They are not on the horizon in our many Pharonic venues. No; rather they are evoked and valorized precisely by the text, the particular text that reasons subversively. And where the text is uttered and read, Pharaoh is yet again place in acute jeopardy. Steven Kepnes exquisitely concludes:

Here, Ochs suggests that the best representation of God is the plural voices of the children of God—of Jews, of Christians, of Muslims—joined in a kind of liturgical practice of studying his word, the words of his scriptures, the Torah, The Bible, the Qur’an. The best representation of God today, then, is the sitting of Jews and Christians and Muslims together as brothers and sisters arguing, laughing, and thinking about God, about each other and about the world and how to heal it, to redeem it, and to save it. [5]

The people given us in this text, erstwhile slaves, did just that sort of thing:

  • They argued. They disputed with Pharaoh. And then they disputed with Moses and Aaron, and with God. They are first-class disputers. (See 15:24).
  • They laughed. They laughed with Miriam and her sisters, laughed bodily and boldly at the freedom they never thought they would live to see.
  • They thought about God, and told stories of oracles and miracles, and bushes, thought about God and wondered: Is the Lord among us or not? (Ex. 17:7).
  • They considered God in God’s enigmatic self-disclosure (Ex 3:14), but always with the remarkable residue of YHWH’s powerful “preferential option for the poor”:

God looked down on them and took notice of them (Ex. 2:25).

I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings (Ex. 3:7).

  • They thought about each other, about being on the way together, about trusting and rebelling, and hoping and doubting. The constituted, from early on, a “culture of interpretation” that moved been boldly between old texts of promise and present circumstances of risk.
  • They thought about the world, that Pharaoh’s enterprise was a fake and that YHWH would reign forever.
  • They waited and factored out healing; they experimented with redeeming, negotiating about triage with what they valued most (Ex. 13:15).
  • They stood still (Ex. 14:14); they hosted the text generation after generation, and they marveled at well-being given them.

I am not sure I get all that is implied in Scriptural Reasoning, as I am sure I do not get most of Pierce. Nonetheless Peter’s wise introduction matters, because I read the text in ways available only through his work. In my own particular community of memory and hope, imagination is being converted by this remarkable movement of interpretation. Clearly Pharaoh will not finally stop it!


[1] On the qualifying “if,” see Walter Brueggemann, Solomon: Israel’s Ironic Icon of Human Achievement (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005) 136-159.
[2] Nicholas Adams, “Reparative Reasoning,” 452-453.
[3] It is not unimportant that the two other uses of the phrasing occur in the tradition of Deuteronomy, in Deuteronomy 7:15 and 28:60. In the first of these, the special people of YHWH are protected from such diseases. In the second, the culminating curse for violating covenant is return to Egypt (v.68), with the new affliction of these very diseases. Clearly the exploitative system of Pharaoh has become, in the imagination of covenantal Israel, the antithesis of covenantal well-being.
[4] Randi Rashkover, “Introducing the Work of Peter Ochs,” 444.
[5] Steven P. Kepnes, “Peter Ochs: Philosophy in the Service of God and World,” 502-503.