Simplicity: Maybe More Complex Than It Seems

The following reflection was originally published in The Luminary: The Earlham School of Religion Newsletter on February 25, 2019.

“Each must determine in the light that is given what promotes and what hinders our compelling search for the Commonwealth of God. The call to each is to abandon those things that clutter life and to press toward the goal unhampered. This is true simplicity.”
— Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting, 1977

I first began giving the idea of simplicity some serious thought several years ago while taking a class about the Amish. For the Amish, simplicity is lived out daily through things like the clothes they wear and their rejection of modern technology. The reflections I had about simplicity and the Amish stuck with me and were clearly on my mind when I began to discover the Quaker movement.

Like the Amish, Quakers traditionally practiced their own form of plain dress and plain speech, which not only served to distinguish them from those outside of their religious circles, but also to assist them in living simpler lives. As Quakers evolved during the 20th century, the emphasis on peculiar manners of speech and attire have significantly faded out of the Quaker mainstream — though they are certainly not extinct — and have given way to a myriad of new and old ways of embracing the testimony of simplicity.

Simplicity can mean keeping our possessions to a minimum to prevent them from controlling our lives or mistaking our identity with the things we possess. Simplicity can mean living within financial constraints, often living without some luxuries those around us take for granted. Simplicity can mean reducing our work and thereby our income to be able to spend more of our time with God — something which the early Quaker John Woolman famously does when he turns away work as a successful tailor to be able to follow spiritual pursuits. Simplicity can mean being more intentional about how we spend our time, after all, it was George Fox that once wrote, “Ye have no time but this present time, therefore prize your time for your soul’s sake.” Simplicity can mean all of this and so much more.

I also believe that simplicity, like each of the Quaker testimonies, is deeply interconnected with each of the others. Simplicity can be a way of living into the peace testimony in many ways, one of which would be by not having a reliance on material wealth. As Saint Francis warned his early followers, owning things can lead to taking up arms in order to defend those things. Another example of simplicity contributing to the peace testimony would be by choosing to live simply and below the taxable income level in order to abstain from paying for warfare as much as possible.

Simplicity is also deeply connected with the testimony of integrity, as will be explored in a future column. Community is another Quaker testimony, and again it is another great way to practice simplicity. In community we are able to hold things in common to reduce the need for more material possessions than necessary, and in community we can find ways to each play a needed role so ideally no person is left having to do more than necessary. We see this beautiful ideal in the early Church when the first Christians sold all they had and shared everything in common, taking from each as was available and giving to each as was needed (cf. Acts 2:44-45).

Equality, too, is a Quaker ideal which simplicity can help to implement, especially when one considers issues of economic equality and inequality. As Mohandas Gandhi said, “there is enough on Earth for everybody’s need, but not enough for everybody’s greed.”

Finally, stewardship, which itself has its own complexities and varieties of understanding, can be inextricably connected with many forms of simplicity, some of which will be explored in the final column in this series.

My personal ways of living out the testimony of simplicity are unique to me and are ever-evolving. I try to keep my possessions to a minimum (except for books, which are undoubtedly my biggest weakness). I avoid fancy dress and I choose not to own or wear a tie because of the unnecessary flash which it conveys to me. I live simply on the income of a single part-time job and I make a point to try to balance my calendars and my to-do list with not only work and school-related tasks, but also time for prayer and spiritual practice. I try to remind myself that nothing I own is mine, but rather it belongs to God, who has bestowed it upon me for a time so that I may use it to help others. None of what I do to live a life of simplicity is perfect, and like everything else, it is something which I am constantly working to modify and improve. One reminder that I like to use as a guide on this journey is the quote sometimes attributed to Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton: “Live simply so that others may simply live.”

Ultimately, I think each of us is responsible for defining simplicity in our own way through honest reflection, experimentation, and by listening to that Light within each of us. As Rufus Jones once said, “There is no fixed standard of simplicity. What is very simple for one person often seems very complex and extravagant for another person. There is no known calculus of simplicity.”

In what ways do you find the testimony of simplicity calling to you? What are you currently doing to embrace this important Quaker testimony? In what ways could you commit yourself to making large or small changes in your life to better embrace simplicity?

Jesus Identifies with Those on the Margins

This morning there was a worship service for prospective students at the Earlham School of Religion where I am currently a seminary student. The service was titled “What Did Jesus Do?” and I was honored to be invited to participate with a short reading and reflection called “Jesus Identifies with Those on the Margins.” My reading was from Matthew 25:31-46:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

The text of my reflection on this pericope from Matthew’s gospel was as follows:

In this reading from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is very clear that those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, in need of clothing, sick, and in prison are, in a sense, proxies for God—for Jesus himself. Jesus tells us that those that gave the hungry something to eat, those that gave the thirsty something to drink, those that invited the stranger into their homes, those that gave clothing to those lacking clothes, those that took care of the sick, and those that visited those in prison were doing these things to and for him.

Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me,” and “…just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” We find ourselves today in a time when collectively, as a people, we are doing a terrible job of looking after what Jesus calls “the least of these.” To be fair, though, we have been doing a pretty bad job at that for all of human history but that does not absolve us of our responsibilities today, tomorrow, and forever.

In this reading, I don’t think Jesus is giving us a set list of specific circumstances in which we are to serve, but rather he is giving a short non-exhaustive list of some of the struggles experienced by those living on the margins and simple ways people can help alleviate the suffering these struggles cause. Yes, we need to do the things, because hungry people still need to eat, the thirsty still need water, immigrants certainly are in dire need of a sense of hospitality, there are still those in need of clean and functional clothing, the sick still need medical care, and prisoners still need visitation, but the list does not end there. All of these things are simply ways of giving life and dignity to those living on the margins of society.

When the LGBTQ people living in our communities—and recently especially our trans siblings—are having their very existence threatened, we are called to stand with them and let them know they are loved while rallying by their side to preserve their right to exist. When our Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh friends and neighbors are being violently attacked because of their faith, we are called to defend their right to love God in their ways. When our sisters who identify as female become prey to our rape culture, we are called to listen to them when they speak out, and to join with them in dismantling the system that allows men to continue to abuse without repercussions. When our siblings of color are being regularly executed in the streets by the police and sucked into a system of prison enslavement and poverty, we are called to do everything we can to bring an end to such a despicable state of being.

Jesus not only lived on the margins of society, he identifies himself with all of those living on the margins. Will we stand with God in the myriad of ways that God manifests in our world, doing what we can to alleviate suffering and injustice, or will we find ourselves, like the followers in the parable, saying “but Lord, when were you part of the LGBTQ community? When were you a Jew or a Muslim or a Sikh? When were you a woman victimized by abuse? When were shot down in the streets?”

In this passage, I believe Jesus is asking us to put aside our world’s emphasis on letting each person deal with their own issues on their own, to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, an emphasis all too present in the individualist society we find ourselves in today. He is instead, giving us the option to give life and dignity to those on the margins, to do what we can to make their hardships a little more tolerable. And when we do so, we’re doing it to help out another human being that is, like us, a child of God, but we are also doing it to that same God at the same time. For just as we choose to do or not to do for the least of these, we are choosing to do or not to do to Christ himself.

Psalm 137: A Personal Interpretation

  1. Sitting on the banks of the mighty river Euphrates, we wept as we remembered the Holy Mountains of Peace.
  2. We laid our instruments down by the poplar trees.
  3. For our captors tortured us and ordered us to be joyful and to play them our songs from the City of Peace.
  4. But how could we sing the songs of the God of Peace in the land of our oppressors?
  5. If I forget the City of Peace, may I never play my harp again.
  6. Take my voice and keep me from singing a song again if I should forget you. If I should set any thoughts above the thoughts of Just Peace.
  7. Remember, O God, the day our city was captured. How our oppressors mocked us, saying, “destroy this holy city of peace!”
  8. Our oppression shall come to an end. Blessed are those who return us to justice.
  9. Blessed are those who turn the children of the oppressors against their wicked ways and toward your Liberation.

Psalm 55: A Personal Interpretation

  1. Hear my prayers, O God of Peace; do not hide yourself from my petitions.
  2. Listen to me, and answer me; for I am overwhelmed with troubles
  3. brought on by my oppressive thoughts. My inner voice can be so cruel and vicious, leading me into a place of darkness.
  4. My heart is heavy and visions of death have become my companion.
  5. I am lost in fear and trembling; overwhelmed with horror and dread.
  6. I cry out to you for help! If only I had the wings of a dove, I could fly away to a place where I could find inner peace.
  7. I would fly far from this place of chaos and seek refuge in Your places of solitude.
  8. I would find a shelter to keep me safe from this storm of despair.
  9. Take away these thoughts, for I fear they will lead me to the ways of violence and strife.
  10. Day and night I am overcome by the ways of this world.
  11. But the ways of this world is the path to ruin. The markets are filled with merchants peddling oppression and fraud.
  12. It is not those who speak evil and untruths about me—I can deal with them; it is not my enemy that tries to bring me to ruin.
  13. No! It is that very light within myself which has dimmed.
  14. That which brought me close to you, O God, who taught me to know you and to walk with you.
  15. Take these thoughts away. Let them dwell alone in the place of darkness they love.
  16. I call upon the God of Peace to save me.
  17. Any time of day, God will hear my petitions; my liberator will always hear my voice.
  18. God will save me from the tyranny of these thoughts.
  19. The God of Peace is my ruler, he will free me from bondage and lead me back to the ways of peace.
  20. My darkness enveloped me, turning me away from Your ways.
  21. It convinced me of lies and tried to get me to do violence against God’s creation.
  22. Put your faith in the God of Peace, who will sustain you and lead you down the path of love.
  23. You, O God of Peace, have the power to dispel the darkness, to cast out the despotism of wicked thoughts, leading me back to the road to peace. It is in the God of Peace that I put my trust for all my days.

A Blessing and Commentary

A couple of weeks ago I had to write a blessing accompanied by a short commentary for a class I’m taking in seminary. This is the result of that process:

Blessed are you, God of Peace,

who commands us to work for Justice

and to be Your hands in repairing Creation.

Blessed are you, God of Peace

The first part of this blessing nods to the formula used in blessings in the Jewish tradition and is directly offered to that aspect of God that is the God of Peace. The phrase “God of Peace” is one that is used several times throughout the Pauline epistles (see Romans 15:33, Romans 16:20, 1 Corinthians 14:33, 2 Corinthians 13:11, Philippians 4:9, Hebrews 13:20, and 1 Thessalonians 5:23), but the idea that peace comes from God and that God desires peace is an ancient idea which transcends any single religion. In Judaism, שלום (Shalom), meaning Peace, which is used as a common greeting, is considered a name for God, so much so that the Talmud discusses not greeting another in the bathroom as not to desecrate the name:

It is forbidden for a person to greet [shalom] his friend in the bathhouse because Shalom is one of the names of God, as it is stated: “And Gideon built there an altar for God and he called Him Lord Shalom” (Judges 6:24). Therefore, it is prohibited to utter the word shalom in a dishonorable place…. the name of God Himself is called Shalom, as it is written: “And he called Him Lord Shalom.” It is not an adjective, but a holy name in and of itself.(n.d.)

Likewise, Islamic tradition holds that there are 99 names for God which can be found in the Qur’an, and one of those names is السلام (Al-Salaam), Peace, and is also, like in Judaism, commonly used in greeting others.

Who Commands Us to Work for Justice
There are innumerable passages in the sacred texts of the world’s religions commanding people of faith to work for justice. For me, personally, these are all priceless treasures, but they do not stand alone. The scripture written on my heart and the instructions made clear to me when I listen to that still small voice of the Light within, command me to work for justice. I cannot understand how someone could read the Bible seriously and not take away from it God’s call for the people of Israel, and later for all of humanity, to work for justice. The apocryphal book of Susanna even speaks of neglecting their duties to work for justice, when two elders begin lusting after Susanna and “suppressed their consciences and turned away their eyes from looking to Heaven or remembering their duty to administer justice.” (Susanna 1:9).

This commandment to work for justice is, in my view, the core of the message of the Hebrew prophets, who were crying out for the establishment of a just society centered on the love of God; of Jesus, of the early Church, and of countless saints and prophets from times of old up through our current day.

And to Be Your Hands in Repairing Creation

To act as the hands of God is a concept that has deep meaning to me personally. It reminds me of the poem by Teresa of Avila which states, “Christ has no body but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours…. Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.” Indeed, if we are to work for justice as our traditions hold we should, we must recognize that we are the ones that must act to create that just world in the shell of the old.

No tradition that I am aware of explains the need to repair creation better than Judaism. Rabbi Julie Schwartz, speaking one Yom Kippur morning, stated clearly:

…[O]ur Jewish tradition doesn’t give us the option of deciding that we should end this world because it is just too messed up. Our Jewish tradition simply, incessantly, commands us to better it. As so many of you know, that call to better the world has an official theological term, Tikkun olam — repair of the world.

 The late Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, the founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement writes in his magnum opus, Likutei Moharan:

Since each man must say, “The whole world was only created for me.” (Sanhedrin 37) — hence, insofar as the world was created for me, I must at all times see and look into tikkun olam/rectifying the world and to fill the lackings of the world and pray for them. (5:1)

I believe that this commandment to repair creation is, although best articulated in the concept of tikkun olam, a universal one, and one which is more important now than at any other time in human history. As our climate changes, our forests disappear, our oceans rise, and as our unprecedented technological advancements have been used to inflict unimaginable pain and suffering upon all levels of creation, it is imperative that we each do whatever we can to repair the world, to bring love and compassion to all sentient beings, to find ways to use technology for the betterment of creation instead of using it to inflict torture and death upon the inhabitant of this earth.

In a time when it often seems more likely that a nuclear war will break out than nations beating their swords into plowshares; when our fellow humans mock and belittle those working for social justice or to decrease suffering; when politicians and wealthy elites convince their followers that the destruction of the earth is a positive thing, it is clear that things are very, very broken. At the same time, things have been broken for a long time. In the biblical narrative, since Adam and Eve were given their eviction notice and thrown out of the Garden of Eden. In Lurianic Kabballah — where the idea of tikkun olam reached it’s apex, the brokenness goes back to creation itself. But the prophets, sages, mystics, and saints have never accepted that brokenness but have worked to do their part to repair creation, as we are called to do our part.


n.d. “B. Shabbat 10b:2-3.”

If You Want Peace…

There is an old Roman proverb that states si vis pacem, para bellum — if you want peace, prepare for war. This was the mindset of empire, and it has been the mindset which has continued to this day, bringing endless wars and never bringing the false promise of peace. When we invest our time, energy, and resources into preparing for war, it seems to be no surprise that the result is a continuation of warfare. Truly we shall reap that which we sow. Thousands of years of human history have shown us time and time again that using violence or preparing to use violence is a terrible strategy for preventing violence, and while this seems tragically obvious, it is a lesson we as a society have not yet seemed to learn.

In his message for World Peace Day in 1972, Pope Paul VI wrote a profound statement wherein he declared, “If you want peace, work for justice.” This became a popular bumper sticker (one which I admit to having on my own vehicle at this time), but it is much more than that. It is a complete reversal of the message of empire; a truth which Jesus taught two millennia ago, but which as still yet to be taken seriously by the world, including those who identify as Christians; it is a truth which is valid for all regardless of faith tradition (or lack thereof). We simply cannot continue on this path of investing in and waging warfare for the supposed goal of peace.

If we want peace, we must work for peace, but we cannot settle for a “peace” which is simply the lack of conflict, for a peace built on a foundation of injustice is no true peace. True peace can only be achieved when built on the foundation of justice for all. We all want peace, so maybe we should lay down our swords, beat them into plowshares, and put those tools to use planting the seeds of justice, which will grow into the mighty trees of peace.

Answering the Call: A Brief Tale About How I Found Myself In Seminary

“Change makes you find your calling, your legacy, and God’s divine plan for your life. Don’t run from it.”

About a month ago, I packed everything I owned into the back of my mother’s Prius and, along with my mom and my 9-year-old niece, set out to Richmond, Indiana from my lifetime home of Portland, Oregon. The reason? To begin seminary at the Earlham School of Religion, where I am working on my M.Div. with a focus on peace and justice. Several months ago, if you had told me that I would be starting seminary in August, I would have thought you were mad, and yet here I am. But as unexpected as the change was to me at the time, looking back, it’s really not all that surprising at all.

A few months ago I wrote about how I had been planning to pursue a future in multiple sclerosis research, and in fact, I had been eyeing a Ph.D. program at Penn State on the neuropsychology of MS which I was fairly convinced I should be a natural candidate for. As I mentioned in my MS blog post, I had been doing a lot of work in neuroscience and neuropsychology, in the areas of study, research, and educating (as both a teaching assistant and doing outreach to K-12 schools). But then, everything changed.

While catching up with an old friend over some tea one day, I was telling her about my plans, when suddenly I found myself saying, “but there’s still that part of me that can’t stop thinking about getting my M.Div and going on to do chaplaincy.” This had been something I had thought about for several years, dating to my time as a religious studies student at Marylhurst University until they dissolved that undergraduate program and I left feeling a sense of defeat. But now, suddenly, this was no longer a silent thought, but something that had been given vocal power, and it put me in a situation where I couldn’t escape the thought, which was coming up nearly constantly at this point. I finally asked myself the question: If I chose one path vs. the other path, what would each path feed? My answer to this question was that to pursue a Ph.D. in neuropsychology would do a really good job at feeding my ego, but pursuing my M.Div. would feed my soul. At that point, the matter was no longer an open question.

At this point, I began exploring schools. It was important to me that I found a school where I could pursue my M.Div. that would align with my deeply held values and convictions. It very quickly discovered the Earlham School of Religion, which is a Quaker seminary in Richmond, Indiana. To my surprise, not only did they meet all of the requirements that I needed to be met to feel comfortable studying there, they even offer an M.Div. with an emphasis on peace & justice, and with that, I felt very strongly that this was where I should be, so I gave it some time to pray about, but the sense that I needed to be there only grew stronger. I applied and I was accepted, and I couldn’t be happier.

Little Lambs, Vicious Wolves: A Poem

Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” (Luke 10:3 NRSV)

You are being sent out, little lambs from the flock;
danger will follow you around the clock.
You will be hunted wherever you roam,
but the reward will be a heavenly home.

The wolves will surround you both day and night;
with perils to be found to the left and the right.
They will be vicious and they will be cruel,
and know that they side with the rich that rule.

The wolves have a system of oppression to defend;
a system of violence which the lambs must transcend.
The wolves will crush you, or stone you, or eat you alive;
so stay close to the Shepherd so you can survive.

The wolves count as allies those with power and gold,
the kings, priests, and landlords are in their fold.
The lambs must be different, so to speak,
embracing the poor, the powerless, and the meek.

The wolf is a creature who lives by what it knows,
so beware of hungry wolves dressed in sheep’s clothes (cf. Mt. 7:15).
A wolf may be honest, or he may be a liar,
But the wolf is devoted to the wicked empire.

Keep an eye on the dens of these hungry beasts,
beware of the Temple, of the scribes and the priests.
“Its officials within it are like wolves tearing the prey,
shedding blood, destroying lives to get dishonest gain” (Ez. 22:27).

Little lamb—so vulnerable, so innocent, and so pure,
the troubles of this world will bring much to endure.
So follow the teachings of your Shepherd—the LORD,
for one day the order of peace will be restored.

The Grail King: A Spiritual Quest in a Material World

The following was a short essay I wrote about the spiritual quest present in the Grail King stories within the Arthurian mythos several years ago while taking an Arthurian Legends course at Mt. Hood Community College.

What is it that makes one worthy of being the Grail king? In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s medieval tale, Parzival, Gawain is a caring knight, always looking to avoid conflicts when possible, and living up to a very high standard of honor; Parzival, on the other hand, bumbles through life, usually with little concern for others, and often engaging in battle – even to the extent that he fights several knights at one point without even realizing it. And yet it is Parzival, not Gawain, who is destined to become the Grail king. Why?

Parzival may be confused, and far from perfect, but he has, I believe, the seed of spirituality within him. He was not, like many, raised with a religious doctrine, but was instead completely ignorant of God as a child. When he asks his mother what God is, she gives him an oversimplified answer, telling him that God is, “He who took on a shape in the likeness of Man is brighter than the sun”[1]. Without much more information than that to go on, Parzival sees some knights in their shining armor and assumes they must be God. This, to me, symbolized the importance of when Parzival is setting out on his great spiritual quest, he knows nothing of spirituality or religion at all. As Parzival stumbles through life, he comes to learn to hate God; here we see Parzival having a crisis of faith of sorts, before he has any faith at all.

With time, Parzival becomes more and more aware of the world around him. With the help of his uncle – the hermit Trevrizent – Parzival is able to germinate that spiritual seed within – a seed uncorrupted by dogma – and flower to become a truly spiritual and compassionate person who is ultimately successful in healing the Fisher King and becoming the new Grail king himself.

Gawain on the other hand, as has already been stated, is an overall good man, caring and wise to the ways of the world, but yet he is lacking that seed of spirituality that is within Parzival. As the great scholar, Joseph Campbell once put it:

Gawain is a lady’s knight; he is the counterweight to Parzival. Parzival is young, this is an older and sophisticated man, a very gracious man who is a man of the world and Gawain’s adventure… is in balance and counter-play to Parzival’s. Parzival’s is that of the ideal of life, the youth who for Heaven’s sake meets just the right girl in just the right moment that way, Gawain never did, so Gawain is the rest of us you might say.[2]

Gawain is, in many ways, that which the majority of us would aspire to be; His quest is a noble one when concerning material things, and he is rewarded with the kingship of the castle of Marvels in return. Parzival, on the other hand, is not the greatest at worldly things but comes to embrace that which is reserved for very few: true spiritual attainment. It is this spiritual attainment, encompassed in his growth from ignorant fool to one with a true sense of compassion, that makes him suitable for the role of the Grail king.

1. ^ Eschenbach, Wolfram Von (1980). Parzival. Trans. A. T. Hatto. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin. ISBN: 0140443614. Buy now.

2. ^ Campbell, Joseph. “The Joseph Campbell Audio Collection Vol 6: Western Quest.” Lecture. ISBN: 1565117352. Buy now.

Movement of Jah People: An Exegesis on Exodus 12:37-42 (with Retreat)

The following exegetical essay was written in 2014 for a class I took on the Torah while studying at Marylhurst University. 

1. Introduction

The story of the Israelite slaves and their exodus from Egypt is one of the most well-known biblical stories, and it has served as an inspiration for other downtrodden groups looking for hope of escape from the bondage of oppression. It is from this iconic story of liberation that our investigation begins, and it tells us that when the Israelites departed Egypt on their legendary journey, they had others with them. On the cusp of their departure from Egypt, we are told in Exodus 12:37-42:

The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children. A mixed crowd also went up with them, and livestock in great numbers, both flocks and herds. They baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt; it was not leavened, because they were driven out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves.

The time that the Israelites had lived in Egypt was four hundred thirty years. At the end of four hundred thirty years, on that very day, all the companies of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt. That was for the Lord a night of vigil, to bring them out of the land of Egypt. That same night is a vigil to be kept for the Lord by all the Israelites throughout their generations.[1]

How can we better understand this text? How it has been understood throughout the ages by both Jews and Christians, and what, if anything, can we glean from looking for Ancient Near Eastern similarities? To begin, we must take a closer look at the text.

2. Close Reading of the Text

Reading the text closely, I came up with a list of questions, some of which I will attempt to answer below and others which are beyond the scope of this study. Some of these questions were: Where is Rameses? Where is Succoth? What is the distance between the two places? If we know how many men there were, how many women and children may there have been? Who were the mixed crowds that went up with the Israelites? Why did they go with them? What happened to them? What kinds of animals may have been in the flocks and herds? If the Israelites lived in Egypt for 430 years, how long were they slaves there? Why do the Israelites have the command to remember the event but the mixed crowd that went with them does not? Is it possible to extrapolate from the fact that there was a mixed crowd that went up out of Egypt with the Israelites the idea that all people—specifically all oppressed people—are God’s people?

3. Grammatical Criticism (Verb Analysis)

Below you will find a list of each of the English verbs found in our passage, accompanied by the subject, mood, tense, and voice, along with whether or not the verb is being used in a question (which it never does in this passage).

4. Word Study

We will now take a look at each Hebrew word in our passage and, when an entry exists in the lexicon, use that information to extrapolate the meaning of the word in our passage:

5. Historical and Literary Criticism / Analysis of Social World

Understanding the historical and literary construct of our passage requires us to attempt to find the original source of our text. Verses 37-39, according to Brevard S. Childs, is probably from the J source[2]. Verses 40-42, according to Childs, is easily distinguished as having a priestly (P) source. This passage has long served as part of the foundation for the annual Jewish Pesach (Passover) festival.

It is important to note that the events in our passage happen in Egypt, before the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, but just as the multitudes are fleeing their Egyptian masters to ultimately seek refuge in the wilderness. The participants have just been witness to the ten plagues, we can assume they have just managed to hold onto the lives of their first born children by obeying Moses’ command to put the blood of a lamb above their doors, and now they are fleeing Egypt to participate in a slave revolt of truly biblical proportions.

The text tells us that “The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth” (Exod 12:37a). The commentary in Etz Hayim suggests a possible location for Rameses:

Raamses can be none other than the famous delta residence built by and named after Pharaoh Ramses II; its beauty and glory are extolled in poems still extant. The city was situated in “the region of Goshen,” a phrase that is synonymous with “the region of Rameses,” where the Israelites lived.[3].

Later in the commentary, Etz Hayim says that Rameses “served as the assembly point for the departing Israelites” (388). Rabbinic tradition has it that “Rameses itself encompassed a large area, some eight leagues (24 miles) in diameter” (Culi 103). To find the possible location of Succoth, we again turn to Etz Hayim:

[Succoth] is apparently Egyptian Tjeku, mentioned on several monuments and in a hieroglyphic papyrus. It is said to have been a day’s journey from the royal palace at Rameses. Tjeku was the capital of the eight nome of Lower Egypt in the eastern part of the Delta. The region is known to have served as pastureland for Semitic tribes and was the usual Egyptian gateway to and from Asia.[3]

The next area of interest in our passage is that concerning the עֵ֥רֶב רַ֖ב—these erev ravare the mixed crowds, also commonly translated as mixed multitudes, that left with the Israelites. As the text tells us, “A mixed crowd also went up with them…” (Exod. 12:38a). According to one Rabbinic source, these were converts:

Besides the native-born Israelites, a huge number of proselytes left Egypt with them. These were Egyptians and other gentiles, who had seen Israel’s glory in Egypt, and had converted to the Hebrew faith. There were 2,400,000 such converts among those who left Egypt.[4]

According to this same tradition, “[a]t first Pharaoh did not want to allow the proselytes to leave. However, the Egyptians saw that the Israelites would not leave without them, and if there were any delay, the plague might kill them all” (Culi 105). One tradition even has it that these erev rav were “the great occultists of Egypt… who had initially laughed at Moses’ ‘magic tricks,’ but had become convinced of his greatness when they saw him do wonders that they could not duplicate. Seeing these wonders, they wanted to convert to the Hebrew religion”[4]. By turning once again to Etz Hayim, we learn a bit more about the possible nature of these erev rav:

[A] varied group of forced laborers seem to have taken advantage of the confused situation and fled the country with the Israelites. Note that the Hebrew word translated as “mixed multitude” (eirev) is from the same root as the plague in 8:17, suggesting the rabbinic tradition that these people were a major source of troubles in the desert.[3]

Ibn Ezra seems to agree with that sentiment, as he “identified them with the people referred to as ‘riffraff’ in Numbers 11:4”[5].

Our passage concludes with several verses discussing how the Israelites made unleavened bread, and concludes with the establishment of the Passover festival.

6. Conclusion

In digging more into this passage, one quickly cannot help but realize that each verse could easily consume tens of pages of analysis and commentary, and rich concepts like the understanding of the erev rav could easily fill an entire volume on its own. With that said, it is perhaps this group described in this passage which was found to be the most interesting, and which taught me the most about being careful with jumping to one’s own conclusions in interpreting a text.

As I mentioned in Section 2 above, I had initially been drawn to the idea that these erev rav were positive figures bringing diversity and tolerance into the exodus story. And while there is the idea within the Rabbinic tradition which has them as converts embracing the Hebrew faith, the idea that they were “riffraff”, sorcerers, or worse bringing trouble upon the Israelites in the desert is not a reassuring image.

7. Application: Movement of Jah People: A 7-Day Retreat on Exodus 12:37-42

Day 1: Oppression

Ultimately the story of the exodus from Egypt is a story of liberation from bondage and oppression. In what ways have you witnessed or experienced oppression in your life? What are some major things that you have felt chained to in the past? What are some major things you feel chained to right now?

Day 2: Binding your liberation up with that of others.

“The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children” (Exod 12:37).

The Israelites did not escape Egypt through individuals attempting to thumb their noses at Pharaoh and his rule, but by joining together en masse. We are told there were 600,000 men, not including women and children were part of this journey, putting some estimates of the total number in the 3 million range. Regardless of the actual number, what can this teach us about the role that others have in our own liberation? How can you join with others so that God can liberate us all together? The journey from Rameses to Succoth was not short, so when joining with others, are you prepared to stay the course with them?

Day 3: Bringing the outsider in with you

“A mixed crowd also went up with them, and livestock in great numbers, both flocks and herds” (Exod 12:38).

In addition to the enormous crowd of Israelites traveling out of Egypt, there were many others that left with them. Commentators are mixed as to who these “mixed crowds” were, but we can be sure that it was part of God’s plan that they left with them. It is perhaps fitting that some commentators see them more positively, as fellow slaves in the land of Egypt, or as converts to the Hebrew religion; others see them as “rifraff” or even sorcerers bringing all kinds of trouble upon the Israelites. But whether they had a good influence, a bad influence, or some combination on the circumstances, their liberation from Egypt was also tied up with the liberation of the Israelites.

Can you think of people in your life that help bring you closer to God? Closer to freedom? What about people that seem to push you further away from God? And freedom? How can these people, in spite of their good or bad qualities, help you in your journey toward liberation? How can you help them in theirs?

Day 4: Making do with what you have

“They baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt; it was not leavened, because they were driven out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves” (Exod 12:39).

The Israelites were used to making and eating soft leavened bread made with the luxury of time. As the frantic time of escape came, they did not have the time to bake the bread the way they normally did. Instead, they baked cakes of unleavened bread that could be quickly prepared to meet the needs of the people, even though they didn’t have the time to let the bread rise.

In what ways have you had to make do with what you have available to make ends meet? What comforts might you need to leave behind to move on to the next stage in your life? The Israelites could have stayed in Egypt and waited for their bread to rise; in a similar way, is holding on to your comforts getting in the way of your liberation?

Day 5: Perseverance

“The time that the Israelites had lived in Egypt was four hundred thirty years. At the end of four hundred thirty years, on that very day, all the companies of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt” (Exod 12:40-41).

The Israelites lived in Egypt for 430 years. When they got there things weren’t so bad for them, but as time went on, things got worse and worse. When things started going bad, however, it was not the right time to leave for whatever reason. After 430 years in the land of Egypt, God intervened and set the Israelite captives free from Egyptian rule.

What things in your life seem overwhelming—like they have always been and will always be this way? How can we spot God calling us to tell us that the moment when our perseverance pays off and the time for our liberation has come? When the time is right, will you be willing to drop everything to follow God into the wilderness?

Day 6: Gratitude

“That was for the Lord a night of vigil, to bring them out of the land of Egypt. That same night is a vigil to be kept for the Lord by all the Israelites throughout their generations” (Exod. 12:42).

To this day, every year Jews around the world celebrate their liberation from the Egyptians by the hand of God. When God acts in our lives, do we give thanks? Do we celebrate and tell and retell the stories of God’s actions in our lives? If not, why?

What are some things that God has done in your life that you are grateful for? What might you do to commemorate God’s actions in your life?

Day 7: Liberation

Let us return now to some of the questions that were asked on the first day. What were some major things that you have felt chained to in the past? What were some major things you feel chained to now? How did God act in your life to liberate you from those things you felt chained to in the past? What actions did you need to take in partnership with God to make this happen? How is God acting in your life now to liberate you from the things holding you back? What actions can you take to work with God to make that happen?

As you leave, take a moment to reflect on the journey that you have been on the last few days. Now take a moment to reflect on the journey that the Israelites took. Where do you find commonality? Differences? What parts of their journey can you take with you on your own journey to bring you closer to God and to the liberation God is calling us all toward?


1. ^ The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha: An Ecumenical Study Bible (2010). Oxford: Oxford UP. ISBN: 978-0195289596. Buy now.

2. ^ Childs, Brevard S. (1974). The Book of Exodus; A Critical, Theological Commentary.Philadelphia: Westminster. ISBN: 0664229689. Buy now.

3. ^ Lieber, David L., and Jules Harlow (2001). Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary.Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society. ISBN: 0827607121. Buy now.

4. ^ Culi, Jacob, Isaac Ben Moses. Magriso, Aryeh Kaplan, Zvi Faier, Shmuel Yerushalmi, and Eliyahu Touger (1977). The Torah Anthology = MeAm Loʻez. Vol. 5. New York: Maznaim. ISBN: 094011805X. Buy now.

5. ^ Sarna, Nahum M. (1991). Exodus: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society. ISBN: 0827603274. Buy now.

6. Hayes, John H., and Carl R. Holladay (2007). Biblical Exegesis: A Beginner’s Handbook. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox. ISBN: 0664227759.Buy now.

7. Sparks, Kenton L. (2005). Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible: A Guide to the Background Literature. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson. ISBN: 0801047730. Buy now.

8. Stuart, Douglas K. (2009). Old Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox. ISBN: 0664233449. Buy now.

9. Vine, W.E., Merrill F. Unger, and William White, Jr. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Hebrew Words. Ed. Merrill F. Unger and Wiliam White, Jr. N.p.: n.p., n.d. PDF.