Friday, November 27th, 2020

Exodus and Emancipation: Measure for Measure in Biblical and African-American Slavery by Kenneth Chelst

March 26, 2010 by  
Filed under New Posts, Tanach

Perception often succeeds by way of contrast and analogy. Our brains interpret what we see by comparing and contrasting the visualization with information stored in our memory. The African-American slave experience provides a rich source of both personal narratives and historical analysis that can enhance our perception of Israelite bondage and redemption. Conversely, the Exodus narrative can be a powerful tool for engaging in a deeper understanding of the African-American experience from slavery to emancipation.  Our two slave histories are unique; they were the only slave societies in history that were self-propagating over hundreds of years.  The slave population at the time of African-American emancipation in the 1860’s was roughly double that of the Israelites at the time of the Exodus.

The analogy of Israelite and Black is not new. African-American spokesmen began to publicly identify with Israelite history towards the end of the eighteenth century. Abolitionists extended the comparison of Jews and blacks beyond the Biblical narrative. William E. Channing made the equation simply. “For ages Jews were thought to have forfeited the rights of men, as much as the African race at the South, and were insulted, spoiled and slain.” George William Curtis said that the bitter prejudice against the colored race is as inhuman and unmanly as the old hatred and contempt of Christendom for the Jews.” These parallel prejudices carried well into the 20th century as both Jew and Black were excluded from select communities.

Recreating the Exodus Experience:  The Five Psychological Needs of Victims of Oppression

Each Passover we are challenged to strive to envision ourselves as having experienced the Exodus that very evening. Can any of us imagine, “Freedom was in the air, and had been for months. The news and mutterings of great events were swiftly carried from one plantation to another. The night before the eventful day, word was sent to the slave quarters to the effect that something unusual was going to take place at the big house the next morning. There was little if any sleep that night. All was excitement and expectancy” (Booker T. Washington).

A major thesis of my book is that God designed the Exodus experience to address five psychological needs of all victims of oppression that would facilitate their transformation from slave to freeman. The book explores similar dynamics in the black community. The five core needs are:

  1. Sense of justice:  Oppressors should be punished preferably measure for measure.
  2. Personal loss: The victim should be made whole through some form of compensation.
  3. Damaged Self-image: Need to repair the victim’s self image preferably through their own actions.
  4. Class inferiority complex:  Actions should demonstrate that the oppressing class is not superior.
  5. Fear of future victimization: The victims need to know that their original oppressors will not be able to victimize them in the future and even others will be similarly constrained.

The book addresses all of these issues. Here we briefly explore punishment measure for measure and active participation in developing the slave’s self-image. The participants in both histories clearly saw God’s involvement. The Egyptian sorcerers were the first to declare they saw the finger of God. His full outstretched hand was visible to all at the shores of the Sea of Reeds. John Rock, a black physician, observed in 1862: “I think I see the finger of God in this. Yes, there is the handwriting on the wall; break every yoke, and let the oppressed go free. I have heard the groans of my people, and am come down to deliver them.”

God’s punishment measure for measure

The principle of punishment measure for measure is a critical aspect of the ten plagues. The most extreme act of Pharaoh was the drowning of the Israelite children. The plague of blood informed Pharaoh and his people that God had seen this dastardly decree. Now was time to pay for the shedding of Israelite blood. The plague of frogs penetrated the inner sanctum of the palace. This contrasted with the inability of the cries of the Israelite children and their parents to penetrate the palace walls and Pharaoh’s heart. Finally, justice measure for measure was delivered as the Egyptian military drowned in the Sea of Reeds.

President Abraham Lincoln spoke of God’s punishment measure for measure for both North and South in his second inaugural address five weeks before he was assassinated. “If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, …  Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”

A simple slave declared God’s justice when her mistress’ last son was killed in the Civil War. “Missis, we even now. You sold all my children. God took all yours. Not one to bury either of us. Now, I forgive you.”

How does the plague of darkness fit within this framework of measure for measure? Perhaps Frederick Douglass’ words describing his year-long experience with a professional slave breaker can shed some light.  “Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute.” For the slave the darkness was interminable; “No day dawns for the slave, nor is it looked for. It is all night – night forever.”


Victims of even a single brutal crime experience a loss of self-image resulting from their inability to have prevented the attack. They often feel ashamed that they did not fight back and could not protect themselves. This is even truer when victimization extends for generations. The Israelite sacrifice of the Paschal lamb was a giant first step in declaring their manhood and freedom. The whole dynamic of the Paschal lamb was the single greatest act of mass heroism and faith in God in all of Jewish history. By tying up the lambs in front of their homes for three days, the Israelites publicly declared their intention to sacrifice tens of thousands of gods of Egypt. They then proceeded to slaughter the animals in mid-day. They publicly roasted the animals whole for hours on end. And when they went indoors to eat their meal, they first smeared the animal’s blood on their doorposts. They then sat and ate the sacrifice called Passover that acknowledged their faith that God would pass over their homes later that evening.

            African-Americans did not offer any animal sacrifices to earn their freedom and self-respect. They offered instead human sacrifices. A total of 180,000 African-American soldiers fought in the Civil Was and 38,000 died. If captured alive, they were often massacred on the spot.  These troops were matched by hundreds of thousands of runaways who facilitated the Union Army’s march across the South.

            This military experience changed their self-image and their image among northerners. Observers noticed. “Put a United States uniform on his back and the chattel is a man. You can see it in his look.” “They had a look of satisfaction in their faces, as though they felt they had gained the right to be more respected.” And in their own words: “Now we sogers [soldiers] are men – men de first time in our lives.” “When Rebellion is crushed,” said Edgar Dinsmore, an educated free black man “who will be more proud than I to say, ‘I was one of the first of the despised race to leave the free North with rifle on my shoulder, and give lie to the old story that the black man will not fight.”

            This transformation is possibly the greatest miracle of all. In Egypt, God saw to it that the Israelites would go to their neighbors seeking gifts for the journey. As they approached their neighbors “they found favor in the eyes of the Egyptians.” In 1863, there were draft riots in New York City that became race riots. Tens of blacks were murdered; a number were lynched and hung from trees and lampposts on the streets of New York. Only one year later, a black regiment marched through New York’s Union Square to the cheers of surrounding crowds.

            May God’s justice reign forever.

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