Whenever we’re staying at a motel or hotel, I empty my pockets on the dresser, put my toiletries and medicines in the bathroom, and also make a little pile of the books that I’ve brought on the trip. Once in a while I bring some keepsake—like a small cross or a meaningful postcard or other photo—if I know this will be an emotional trip, for whatever reason. When we went overseas for three weeks this summer, I brought a small wooden cross from my hometown, to keep in my pocket. George Carlin had a wonderful shtik about “stuff”: the reason you like your own home is that is contains your stuff, but whenever you’re traveling, you lack most of your stuff, so you have to make sure the stuff you've brought is handy.
There is a fascinating, brief story in Exodus 12, just as the Egyptians have experienced the deaths of the first born. The Israelites must leave quickly, so they gather and pack their unleavened cakes of dough and their livestock, but the text also says: “The Israelites had done as Moses told them [alluding back to Ex. 3:19-22]; they had asked the Egyptians for jewelry of silver and gold, and for clothing, and the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. And so they plundered the Egyptians” (Ex. 12:35-36). The text goes on to give detailed instructions concerning the keeping of Passover.
So the Israelites embarked upon their flight from Egypt, carrying with them Egyptian “stuff.” It’s an interesting story of reparations, so to speak, for the sin of their slavery, of “severance pay” for 430 years of Egyptian injustice. Of course, the Israelites were not yet safe: they still had to get to the sea, and to deal with Pharaoh who changed his mind. I'll look at that scripture another time.
For now, the Israelites’ story invites all kinds of theological questions. God does provide for us, in ways we see and don’t see, but God’s timing is sometimes a source of confusion for us. Why didn’t God step in much sooner to help his people? His salvation of the Israelites was amazing but it seemed long delayed. In our own lives, why doesn’t God act more quickly in our own personal struggles, and in other world situations of oppression? These are questions over which we may linger, both in our Bible reading and our personal lives.
But there is also an implied theology of our possessions—our “stuff”—if we realize that this story makes an arc over to Exodus 32:1-4 and following. The Israelites didn’t simply appreciate their expected gain; they used the Egyptian gold to make a calf, the image of a fertility deity which they worshiped while Moses was on the mountain.
In our own time, an idol is something we put ahead of God or in place of God. That could be anything we have, or an attitude or disposition. Putting God first is a lifelong struggle, and things work more subtly than a statue. I don’t know about you, but I put things ahead of God all the time, every day, in the sense that I take peace (emotionally speaking) in belongings more than in God. Also, I worry about the future and about my family; bad things happen all the time to faithful people, after all. So I fear that these other things have power over God's grace, so to speak. Not only that, but I become busy and forget to pray and to read devotional materials. Not only that, but I’m involved in a consumer society that links well-being with acquisition, and honestly, I like living in such a society! I like my stuff.
But it is as easy to casually accept the everyday kinds of contemporary idolatry as easily as the Israelites demanded image-worship---and I don’t have their excuse of learning the faith of the Lord for the first time! The story of the beginning of the Israelites’ long journey to the Promised Land invites us to to thank the Lord for the things we’ve been given in life, including the “stuff” that gives us peace.