She didn’t dare look back, for some reason the old story of Lot’s wife had come to mind, and she was scared of what might happen to herself if she did. Being turned into a pillar of salt seemed ridiculous; but then a year ago she would have said that all the events of the last few months were ridiculous – the River turning to blood, all those insects, frogs, diseases one after the other, the Great Darkness – it was as if the whole world had gone mad! Yes, she was afraid, but this was no time to huddle down and indulge her fears. The orders had come, it was time to go!
And only now was she realising what that actually meant. Leaving slavery sounded wonderful, she hated being a slave. She hated knowing that there was nothing they owned that could not be taken away from them. She hated having her husband taken away for months at a time to work on the latest building project, and coming home every time with new scars and bruises from the overseers’ whips. She hated fearing for her little boys when they were babies, in case pharaoh decided to have another of his periodic slaughters of Hebrew infants. She hated feeling defeated all the time, always being afraid, always anxious not to displease those haughty Egyptians, in case they chose to punish her. Most of all, she hated bringing her children into the world, and watching them grow, knowing that there was nothing she could do to give them a better life. And now, that was exactly what they were being promised, but at what price?
She had never really understood that leaving slavery would have to mean leaving Egypt as well. Of course they had prayed for deliverance, prayers choked with despairing tears, addressed to the strange, barely known God of their forefathers, the invisible God without images, priests or temples (and some, no doubt, had prayed to gods of Egypt as well), but had they really thought about what redemption would look like? Now she realised that the vague idea she’d had in mind was that someone (Pharaoh?) would just declare them free, and they’d go right on living right where they were in Egypt, only in freedom and prosperity. It was disconcerting to have your prayers answered and discover that your whole existence got turned upside down in the process. Apparently the only way to be free of slavery was to be free of Egypt as well. That was confusing. She hated slavery, but Egypt was home, the only home she had ever known. There were stories, of course, of another place, the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the land that flowed with milk and honey. But that was a children’s story, surely, and besides, if it did exist, how far away was it? Did this strange God, who did such strange and terrible things, really expect them to walk all the way, with their pregnant women and little children?
And yet, the world was so full of wonder and terror these days, maybe even that might be possible? Who would have thought the Nile itself could be overcome and turned to blood? Who would have thought that a terrifying hailstorm, the sort of weather that didn’t happen in this country, could batter and destroy so much of Egypt and leave her own people untouched? And, if the rumours flying around so fiercely were true, how could the death of the eldest child have visited every Egyptian house in the land, even Pharaoh’s, in a single night, while her own children lived and breathed and played? The only difference was that strange meal, and the even stranger ritual of painting blood on the doorways of their houses, the same houses they were leaving now, never to return. What did it all mean? How was she to make sense of this?
And now she must go. She could hear the people gathering outside, adjusting the bundles they would carry, counting the heads of their children. Where would they sleep tonight? And the night after? And the night after that? What would they eat when these small supplies of food were gone and there were so many hungry mouths? How would they know where to go? And, the question behind all the questions, who was this God who called them from familiar slavery into the unknown desert? What did He demand of them?
Giving up Egypt, that was the first step. Stepping into the desert, saying goodbye to everything known and familiar. Leaving her whole life behind, everything comfortable and familiar, in order to walk into the unknown. And, a further question to ponder as she moved with the crowd,: if she wasn’t to be a slave any more, who was she?