The Old Testament readings in the semi-continuous option for the RCL in September 2023 are from the Book of Exodus. Carmen Imes invites us to pose the question as to whose version of reality we are going to trust.

Photo of traditional gas light in a dark street
Photo by Renè Müller on Unsplash

A 1938 stage play that became the 1944 movie Gaslight demonstrated a type of psychological manipulation that resulted in a perfectly sane woman thinking she was crazy. Her husband kept sneaking to the attic to search for treasure among her inheritance. When he turned on the attic lights, the other gas lights in the house flickered or dimmed. When she spoke of it, perplexed, he covered his behavior by insisting she was going mad. She could plainly see it flicker, but based on his insistent testimony she doubted her own ability to assess reality. His goal was to drive her crazy, and it worked.

I had never heard the term until sometime after 2016, when it entered common parlance in the United States with ferocity. Conspiracy theories and claims of “fake news” became the testing ground for a type of public and communal gaslighting. Whose version of reality would we trust?

The metaphor is relatively recent, but the concept is as old as the hills. Now that I know what to look for, I see it clearly in Exodus, and in the ways that Exodus is read and remembered. Think about what we know of Pharaoh. He’s a despotic and oppressive ruler who exploits the Hebrews’ labor for his own self-serving projects. The “store cities” of Exodus 1 are likely warehouses to hold supplies for worshipping Pharaoh after he dies. In addition to implementing forced labor by empowering a whole class of ruthless overseers, Pharaoh is homicidal, ordering the murder of Israelite baby boys (Exod. 1).

The Pharaoh of Exodus 5 is not the same man. By then the Pharaoh of Moses’ infancy had died and a new Pharaoh arose, but he evidently absorbed the management style of his predecessor. This Pharaoh refused to give the Hebrews a short holiday for religious observance (Exod. 5:1-2). Instead, he piled more work on them, accusing Moses and Aaron of reducing productivity (Exod. 5:4-7). His assessment of the nation was classic gaslighting: “They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God’” (Exod. 5:8; cf. v. 17). Victim shaming is his modus operandi.

Under the heavy pressure of Pharaoh’s slave drivers, the Israelite overseers snapped, blaming Moses and Aaron for the violent oppression they experienced: “May the LORD look on you and judge you! You have made us obnoxious to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us” (Exod. 5:21). Really?! Now the whole situation in Egypt is the fault of those seeking to rescue the Israelites?

Photo of Pyramid and Sphinx in Egypt
Photo by Spencer Davis on Unsplash

To call attention to injustice upsets the apple cart. The situation often gets worse before it gets better. That’s not the fault of those on mission to do what is right. We need to watch ourselves that we don’t pin blame to the wrong profile.

Modern readers of Exodus have taken a page from this playbook by blaming God for the violence in the book. Why so much destruction? Why so much death? Boils and hail and locusts, death of the firstborn and death of the army—by the end of these narratives a great deal has been lost! But whose fault is it? Who is causing all this harm?

If we carefully read the narratives about the signs and wonders in Egypt (traditionally called the ten plagues), we find consistently that Pharaoh is the problem. Pharaoh’s exploitation was the reason for Yahweh’s confrontation (Exod. 2:23-25; 3:7-10). Pharaoh himself demanded a miracle from Yahweh to prove his authority to make such a request (Exod. 7:8-9). Pharaoh refused to listen to Yahweh or respond to the signs God gave, even though God graciously and gradually increased the intensity so that the early signs would make a statement without loss of life. Pharaoh not only refused to do what God asked, he didn’t even keep his own word (Exod. 8:8, 28; 9:27-28). Eventually, Pharaoh paid the ultimate cost, not because Yahweh is violent, but because Pharaoh missed every opportunity for a smoother resolution to the conflict.

True, Pharaoh’s obstinacy resulted in the death of a great many others who may not have been directly responsible for enslaving the Hebrews—children, even. But why has it come to this? Who instigated this conflict? How could it have been avoided?

Pharaoh would have us protect the status quo, not upsetting the apple cart, leaving the Hebrews in service of a foreign empire. This, he would tell us, is far better than the loss of innocent life.

Yahweh would instead say that he has heard the cries of the oppressed and has seen their misery and has come to rescue them.

Whose version of reality will we trust?

Dr. Carmen Joy Imes is associate professor of Old Testament at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, in Southern California. She is the author of Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters and Being God’s Image: Why Creation Still Matters. Carmen has a YouTube channel where she releases weekly Torah Tuesday videos and you can find her writing on various websites, including Christianity Today, The Well, and The Politics of Theology blog. Carmen is passionate about equipping the church to engage the Old Testament well and to see its relevance for the Christian life.

This post was slightly revised by the author on September 2 2022 to more accurately summarize the Gaslight movie. As with all our guest posts, views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CSBV.

Gaslighting God?
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