Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Exodus 6:21-31) transports me to the death row of a Louisiana prison, where guards are escorting Lawrence Musgrove on his final walk, moving toward the death chamber where he will be hooded for the electric chair. Hank Grotowski is the head guard, and takes his job extremely seriously, with intense discipline and adherence to strict protocols on how this last walk is to occur. He has been training his son, Sonny, who is a new guard on the floor, and this is Sonny’s first walk. The young guard finds it too much to bear, and as Lawrence walks, Sonny breaks down, losing his dinner right there in front of the condemned man. When the execution is over, Hank finds Sonny in the restroom, washing his face, and begins spewing a tirade of curses at his son, followed by a humiliating beating in front of the other guards. The vile cursing and the harsh beating gets turned around as the two men are back at home, with Sonny holding a gun on his father. You hate me, don’t you? Sonny asks, and Hank answers, Yeah, I hate you. I always did. To which Sonny replies, Well I always loved you. I won’t give away what happens next, as these are the set-up scenes of the shocking and provocative movie Monster’s Ball, with Billy Bob Thornton as Hank, cursing and beating and humiliating his son, played by Heath Ledger, who loved his father in spite of it all. The movie deals with all sorts of monsters, not just those labeled so on death row. Monsters of grief and racism and hatred and violence all play their parts in what is ultimately a love story.
The Exodus story provides us with some material that would be better played by Billy Bob Thornton than Charleton Heston. Today’s passage is an example, giving us one of the most enigmatic and troubling passages in all of scripture. Moses has had his burning bush epiphany, and God has prepared him for the confrontation with Pharaoh. The core of liberation theology has been established, with God hearing the cries of the oppressed slaves and setting the wheels in motion for the great deliverance into freedom. In verses 21-23 God gives Moses a final pep talk, going over the plaguing plans one more time, preparing Moses one last time to escort the first-born of Pharaoh’s Egypt down death row. And then, wham, in the very next verse the scene dramatically changes, as the Lord meets Moses and his wife Zipporah and their baby at the encampment, and we read that the Lord met Moses and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at Moses’ feet, and said, “Surely you are a husband of blood to me!” So God let him go. What? God preps Moses for the execution order on the condemned slave-holder families, and then turns around and tries to kill the executioner? What’s going on? You can read a dozen scholarly commentaries, and find a dozen very different interpretations, ranging from the significance of circumcision to questions of whether the feet Zipporah cast the bloody foreskin on were literal feet or the euphemism for genitalia, to suppositions of domestic problems in Moses and Zipporah’s household. No one really answers the fundamental question, though, of what this story tells us of the character of God.
One of my favorite moments in Monster’s Ball came not in the movie itself, but in the special edition extras. In an out-take of the fight scene described above, Billy Bob enters the bathroom dressed in his guard uniform, but instead of Hank, he’s in the character of Karl Childers from Slingblade. He speaks similar lines, but the scene becomes a hilarious comedy instead of the disturbing tragedy in its original form. When I think of what Jesus did in entering our world as God incarnate, and how he played the part of God, it is as dramatic a transformation from the the monstrous divinity portrayed in Exodus 4 as is Billy Bob’s change from Hank Grotowski into Karl Childers. The overarching joyful comedy of the biblical narrative is that the salvation of the world came through stories like this, where a stern and severe father God tried to kill one of his chosen children in a fit of passion, only to have that man’s wife spew a curse, pick up a sharp rock and throw some bloody foreskin at him, somehow appeasing the God. Her bloody rant allows the story to continue, moving on through scene after scene, finally getting to what the disciples first thought was an out-take, the cross, a scene that didn’t belong in the story the way they had it scripted. But there he was, Jesus, passionate Son of God, giving up his own life for us, saying in effect: I have always loved you.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, etc.