Exodus and Labor

Is anyone else thoroughly sick of hearing 2 Thessalonians 10 (“if one among you does not work, neither shall he eat”) as if it’s the be-all end-all of Biblical takes on capitalism and labor?

Yeah. That.

‘Tis the time of year in my annual “read the Bible in a year” schedule where I read Exodus 4-6, the chapters in which Moses first petitions Pharaoh to “let my people go.”

Maybe I’m just in a mood today after producing several thousand words on labor relations last week. Maybe the phrasing in the Jerusalem Bible* made a couple sentences stand out to me in a way that other translations don’t. Maybe I’ve just eaten too much avocado toast. Anyway, here are two things I’ve never noticed before in Exodus 5 that I can’t stop thinking about.

We Have Never Been Good to “Essential Workers”

“The king of Egypt said to them, ‘Moses and Aaron, what do you mean by taking the people away from their work? Get back to your own labouring.’ And Pharaoh said, ‘Now that these common folk have grown to such numbers, do you want to stop them labouring?'”

Exodus 5:4-5

That first comment just feels like union-busting to me. Stop distracting your co-workers with talk of “collective bargaining” and “paid time off” and “respecting your Constitutional right to practice your religion!”

The second one hit me surprisingly hard – harder than the first. Instant flashbacks to the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In May and June of 2020, I was driving around on a water truck delivering water for swimming pools. Demand was astronomical, and my spouse and I could work as a team because we didn’t have to socially-distance from one another – we already lived together.

Nearly every house we visited had signs in its front windows, thanking delivery drivers and mail carriers and nurses. “Thank you, essential workers!” was everywhere.

Six months later? Protests from mostly middle-class, mostly white people because they still weren’t allowed to cough on an underpaid and overworked waitress in an Applebee’s. We don’t care about our “essential workers.” We never did.

“Now that these common folk have grown to such numbers, do you want to stop them from labouring?”

Maslow’s Hierarchy, Pyramids Edition

The foremen of the sons of Israel saw themselves in a very difficult position when told there was to be no reduction in the daily number of bricks. As they left Pharaoh’s presence they met Moses and Aaron, who were waiting for them.

‘May God see your work and punish you as you deserve!’ they said. ‘You have made us hated by Pharaoh and his court; you have put a sword in their hand to kill us.’

Exodus 5: 20-21

The trick to killing labor movements is to exhaust your workers to the point that they simply don’t have the time or energy for anything but bare survival. Supposedly. At least that’s been the playbook – after the 2009 recession, during the Gilded Age, and apparently in I’m-Not-Going-to-Start-a-Debate-by-Suggesting-a-Date BC.

But as we’re seeing, grinding down labor only works for so long. Combining it with a little individualist success rhetoric driven by billionaire worship helps. But eventually Gen Z comes along, builds a time machine, and quits last week. What now?

Tl;dr: The next time someone tries to sum up the Bible’s entire stance on labor with a sentence from 2 Thessalonians, remind them there are a LOT more pages in this book – and not all of them can be read so blithely pro-capitalist.

Then steal their avocado toast.**

* The Jerusalem Bible is this year’s “daily driver.” Last year it was my NASB. This one is, specifically, the family Bible my mother grew up with and that I’m pretty sure no one has actually opened since Vatican II. I chose it because nostalgia and I like the layout, but it is an Absolute Unit of a book – over 500 (regular, not onionskin) pages, which is more than the other book of timeless wisdom to which I return yearly, Moby-Dick. But I digress.

** Actually, don’t. The criminal justice system also sucks.

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