The Joseph narrative in Genesis describes the ascent of Joseph, an Israelite, from a dungeon to the highest political positions in Egypt. With almost absolute economic control of Egypt, Joseph led the kingdom through a severe crisis.
Through his leadership, Joseph also saved his father, Jacob, and his brothers. For a season during and after Joseph’s death, Israelites prospered in number and resources in Egypt.
But things changed. Exodus 1:8 tells us: “There arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” This lack of knowledge was more than personal acquaintance. It reflected the lapse of national memory about the role Joseph and the Israelites previously played in the nation.
Instead of policies based on memorial appreciation, fear was the force that shaped new policies. No doubt over time, the dehumanizing patterns of fear led to loss of dignity and position, then to shame, then to public outcry against a group that was different, and finally to the enslavement of the Israelites.
The Israelites were afflicted in Egypt for four hundred years (see Genesis 15:13). Exodus 12:40 tells us that the children of Israel sojourned in Egypt for 430 years. This four-hundred-year marker provides the parameters of Israelite population growth and influence in Egypt. It also frames how Joseph could be forgotten.
Over the past year, I have been in several meetings with African-American religious leaders who have talked about The Angela Project. The name reflects the arrival of the first blacks to the English colony of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619.
An article in the Washington Post gives the historical background to the twenty or so Africans who arrived in Jamestown that year. The name “Angela” reflects the name of a woman from Angola who was identified by that English name in the 1624 census and who arrived in 1619. (Further information can be found in this article.)
The landing of these first Africans in the English colony began a process that ultimately led to full slavery of millions of Africans in the colonies.
Listening to my African-American colleagues and friends, I found myself reflecting on two aspects of this. First, the racial divide in the United States has deep and wide roots. You should read Edward E. Baptist’s book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, to discern the terrible dehumanizing of Africans that occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries in the United States.
It’s a sad tale of the interconnection of greed, political power, sexual abuse, and dehumanizing of millions of people. I read that book two years ago and wrote about it here.
The second aspect occurred in an October 2018 meeting where interracial religious leaders discussed racial injustice. As the quadricentennial of the Jamestown landing loomed before us, I remembered that the children of Israel had been in Egypt four hundred years.
When the Lord spoke to Abraham in Genesis 15 concerning his descendant’s four-hundred-year oppression in Egypt, the Lord promised that He would “judge” Egypt and that the Israelites would come out of that oppression “with great possessions” (15:14). The word “judge” has the meaning of the Lord contending for and vindicating Israel and striving against Egypt.
I cannot help but think of the American Civil War from 1861 to1865 as an act of divine judgment upon our entire nation. As The Battle Hymn of the Republic phrased it, God “is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored, He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.” After the war, the nation chose the path of passive-aggressive oppression of former slaves through discrimination laws, Supreme Court-sanctioned Jim Crow laws (Plessy v Ferguson, 1896), voter restrictive laws, and violence without recourse. Eventually they found legal protection and justice.
So here we are, four hundred years and counting. I have learned how difficult it is for me, as a white American, to understand how slavery’s roots continue to impact African-Americans, and by extension, we who are of another color. I’m still learning how systemic policies and practices often work against blacks in ways I can hardly imagine.
I write this because (1) it is Black History Month in the United States, and (2) our core value of justice is heavy on my heart. There are not easy solutions, but I must believe that the power of Christ and His love is able to bring healing and hope to us all.
We know how the Exodus story concluded. The Hebrew slaves of Egypt were delivered and they journeyed to the Promised Land. We also know that for African-Americans, the Exodus story of the Biblical text has been a foundation of hope for generations.
In a sense, the Civil War was the “Red Sea” crossing for African-Americans, at least in my perspective. But just as Israel wandered in the wilderness, there are many who continue to wander in the modern wilderness of our history and society.
My prayer for the IPHC this year is that in our nation and around the globe we will experience grace-filled and hope-filled lives that enable us to walk hand in hand with anyone God places in our path—regardless of race. May we listen to one another, may we worship with one another, may we play and fellowship with one another.
And may all of us discover the joy of tasting Christ’s kingdom now. Four hundred years is upon us. Let’s work together to change the future.
This article was first published in Encourage magazine.