Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Exodus

The Exodus narrative was a common motif in Martin Luther King's speeches and writings. He saw himself in the role of Moses, fighting for his people against the Pharaoh of his day, the Jim Crow laws of the South.

In Dr. King's 1968 "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, he encouraged the African-American community to stay united during their struggle with the following words:

From "I've Been to the Mountaintop" April 3, 1968, Memphis, Tennessee

"We've got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh's court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that's the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity."

  • How is the story below an example of what Dr. King was describing?
  • Do you think that this is the story that he is referring to?
  • Are there other examples of slaves fighting amongst themselves?
  • Can you think of an example of a time when the slaves worked together in unity?
וַֽיִּפְגְּעוּ֙ אֶת־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאֶֽת־אַהֲרֹ֔ן נִצָּבִ֖ים לִקְרָאתָ֑ם בְּצֵאתָ֖ם מֵאֵ֥ת פַּרְעֹֽה׃ וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם יֵ֧רֶא יְהוָ֛ה עֲלֵיכֶ֖ם וְיִשְׁפֹּ֑ט אֲשֶׁ֧ר הִבְאַשְׁתֶּ֣ם אֶת־רֵיחֵ֗נוּ בְּעֵינֵ֤י פַרְעֹה֙ וּבְעֵינֵ֣י עֲבָדָ֔יו לָֽתֶת־חֶ֥רֶב בְּיָדָ֖ם לְהָרְגֵֽנוּ׃
As they left Pharaoh’s presence, they came upon Moses and Aaron standing in their path, and they said to them, “May the LORD look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers—putting a sword in their hands to slay us.”

A midrash in Shemot Rabbah asks the question of why God spoke to Moses from the burning bush and provides several answers. The answers give us many ways of looking at the struggle for civil rights and all fights against injustice. Which of the explanations resonate with what you know about Dr. King's life and the Civil Rights Movement in general?

God is Your Partner

... וְאוֹמֵר (ישעיה סג, ט): בְּכָל צָרָתָם לוֹ צָר, אָמַר לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְמשֶׁה, אִי אַתָּה מַרְגִּישׁ שֶׁאֲנִי שָׁרוּי בְּצַעַר כְּשֵׁם שֶׁיִּשְׂרָאֵל שְׁרוּיִם בְּצַעַר, הֱוֵי יוֹדֵעַ מִמָּקוֹם שֶׁאֲנִי מְדַבֵּר עִמְּךָ מִתּוֹךְ הַקּוֹצִים כִּבְיָכוֹל אֲנִי שֻׁתָּף בְּצַעֲרָן

...And it says: "In all their sorrows He [too] was in sorrow" (Isaiah 63:9). The Holy One, Blessed be He said to Moses, You do not sense that I too dwell in sorrow just as Israel dwells in sorrow. But you should know: from the place I speak to you from within the thorn-bush, [that is a sign] as it were that I too am a partner in their sorrow...

From the Heart

בְּלַבַּת אֵשׁ, מִשְּׁנֵי חֲלָקָיו שֶׁל סְנֶה וּלְמַעְלָה, כְּשֵׁם שֶׁהַלֵּב נָתוּן מִשְּׁנֵי חֲלָקָיו שֶׁל אָדָם וּלְמַעְלָה.

"In a flame [labat] of fire" - from the upper half of the bush, just as the heart ([leb] is in the upper half of a man.

God is With Everyone

מָה רָאָה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְדַבֵּר עִם משֶׁה מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה. ... לְלַמֶּדְךָ שֶׁאֵין מָקוֹם פָּנוּי בְּלֹא שְׁכִינָה אֲפִלּוּ סְנֶה.

Why did the Holy One, Blessed be He, see fit to speak to Moses from within a thorn-bush? ... To teach you that there is no empty place devoid of the Shechinah, not even a [lowly] thorn-bush.

You Won't Come Out Unscathed

...רַבִּי יוֹסֵי אוֹמֵר, כְּשֵׁם שֶׁהַסְּנֶה קָשֶׁה מִכָּל הָאִילָנוֹת, וְכָל עוֹף שֶׁנִּכְנַס לְתוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה אֵין יוֹצֵא בְּשָׁלוֹם, כָּךְ הָיָה שִׁעְבּוּד מִצְרַיִם קָשֶׁה לִפְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם מִכָּל הַשִּׁעְבּוּדִים שֶׁבָּעוֹלָם...

...Rabbi Yossi said: Just as the thorn-bush is the hardest of all the trees, and any bird that enters into it does not come out unharmed, so too the servitude in Egypt was harsher to God more than any other servitude in the world...

You Will Not be Destroyed

וְלָמָּה הֶרְאָה לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְמשֶׁה בָּעִנְיָן הַזֶּה, לְפִי שֶׁהָיָה מְחַשֵּׁב בְּלִבּוֹ וְאוֹמֵר, שֶׁמָּא יִהְיוּ הַמִּצְרִיִּים מְכַלִּין אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְפִיכָךְ הֶרְאָהוּ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֵשׁ בּוֹעֶרֶת וְאֵינֶנּוּ אֻכָּל, אָמַר לוֹ כְּשֵׁם שֶׁהַסְּנֶה בּוֹעֵר בָּאֵשׁ וְאֵינֶנּוּ אֻכָּל, כָּךְ הַמִּצְרִיִּים אֵינָן יְכוֹלִין לְכַלּוֹת אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל.

And why did the Holy One, Blessed be He reveal Himself to Moses in this way? Because he [Moses] thought in his heart, saying, Maybe the Egyptians will destroy Israel. Therefore the Holy One, Blessed be He revealed Himself in a thorn-bush that was burning but not consumed. He said to him, just as the thorn-bush is burning but is not consumed, so too the Egyptians will not be able to destroy Israel.

  • Why might Dr. King have seen Moses and the Exodus story as an apt metaphor for himself and the civil rights movement?
  • What aspects of the story are similar?
  • What other examples of the use of the Bible in the civil rights movement can you think of?