We all know the Exodus story.
The story of the Israelites’ captivity as enslaved peoples in Egypt and their harsh treatment by the authorities at the time. We know of their miraculous escape led by Moses through the waters of the Red Sea and of their wanderings in the wilderness for 40 years.
Forty years of being on the move. Forty years of hoping for the Promised Land. Forty years of boring subsistence food and having to live alongside one another with all the tensions that entails.
But do we really know the Exodus story?
It is being re-enacted right here and right across Europe, on our doorstep and in our own communities.
Another mass exodus is taking place with people fleeing the violence and terror of war-torn countries, such as Syria, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. They have left everything – homes, livelihoods, gardens, cars, education – to flee in the hope of finding safety, finding refuge, a new place to live.
Like the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, many refugees have faced huge dangers, traveling first through Turkey and then across the Aegean Sea to reach Greece.
Many have lost family and loved ones along the way, either to the perils of the sea or in being separated from one another.
Many have survived and made it across en route to northern Europe and the hope of being reunited with family only to be left stranded in the wilderness, stranded in Greece as the borders have been closed with little hope that the borders will open and an administrative system that simply can’t cope.
But like the Israelites in the wilderness, life goes on. Some are living in makeshift camps. Many more have registered for relocation or reunification with family and now live in official government refugee camps behind fences and coils of razor wire.
Conditions are bad, beyond what most of us could imagine as bad and certainly wouldn’t want to experience.
But just as the Israelites must have encountered groups of people living in the wilderness, may even have had help from them, so too the Greek people are finding themselves playing host to a huge number of unexpected guests.
They are rising to the challenge in terms of volunteering with NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and churches, in donating food and clothing and money and in taking families into their homes.
What started out as helping people on their journey through Greece to elsewhere in Europe has become supporting people who are stranded longer term.
The promised land of reaching family elsewhere in Europe or seeking asylum in a new country seems far off as day-to-day life is hard to maintain.
Some want to go back. “In Syria we may die,” we were told, “but here we are dead.” Sound familiar?
We have been brought up to celebrate the Exodus story as God’s great work in liberating people and bringing them into a new life as God’s covenant community.
Maybe we need to celebrate and welcome this new Exodus story as God liberating people from war and terror and bringing them into a new life, to a new community. Only that community is ours.
Perhaps it is a little bit more complicated than that. I empathize with the Canaanites in the Exodus story whose land was occupied and taken over by the Israelites as their promised land.
It is quite a threat to your own identity and sense of community when new people arrive.
One or two can be accommodated but if the new people arrive in great numbers, it means our own community and sense of identity need to change and that can be hard.
Although we know that despite the Bible’s rhetoric about claiming the new land as theirs and destroying the Canaanites, the reality was a far more mixed picture – of different communities coexisting and needing to learn to live alongside one another with all the tensions that entails.
A both/and kind of response is required. A need to celebrate this new exodus as people being liberated or liberating themselves from violence and oppression.
As many of the Greek people told us, the refugees have been a blessing – distracting people from their own troubles of the failing Greek economy and enabling people and churches to come together to respond in both a humanitarian way and also in a human, person-to-person way.
But we also need to begin to change our own identity, our own understanding of who we are.
Europe is changing fast. And will continue to change as long as people flee violence and oppression and seek a promised land.
We need to become communities that welcome others, that can make space for different cultures and languages and faiths, and that is a huge challenge when we know our communities can have many of their own problems.
It means sharing out the resources; it means each of us having a bit less. But in doing so we might gain and receive a blessing of encountering another, a blessing from God.
Until we do, the Israelites are left wandering in the wilderness and tens of thousands of refugees are left trapped in Greece.
For only we, the public, can petition governments to change policy. And only we can make our communities places of welcome and hospitality.
I wonder what would have happened in the biblical story if the Israelites had never reached the promised land. If they were left still wandering in the wilderness.
Clare McBeath is co-principal of Northern Baptist College in Manchester, United Kingdom, and was one of the women who took part in a Churches Together in Britain and Ireland women’s delegation to visit Greece in May 2016. A longer version of this article first appeared in The Baptist Times – the online newspaper of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It is used with permission.