This week, Jews the world over celebrate the holiday of Passover. There’s a curious detail in the Passover story, the story of the Exodus, that is largely overlooked though it is well noticed by the rabbinic commentators. Before Moses makes his famous demand of Pharaoh—“let my people go”—he requests that Pharaoh grant the Israelites a three-day sojourn in the wilderness to go worship God. This is a strange request; we, the readers, know that God intends to take His people out of Egypt for good, not just for three days. Is Moses lying? If so, Pharaoh is wise to his trick because Pharaoh suggests that the men go on the prayer retreat and leave the women and children behind, thus ensuring the men will return. And even if Pharaoh did let them all go, to where exactly would they escape? Pharaoh could simply send his army to round them up, as he attempted during the real Exodus. Only a great and completely unanticipated miracle prevented the runaway slaves from being trapped between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea. So why the request (what good could it do), and why the refusal (what harm could it do)?
In America, we sometimes refer to religious freedom as the “first freedom.” For one thing, religious freedom is the very first freedom in the Bill of Rights. But religious freedom is the first freedom in a deeper sense as well. The idea of religious freedom is where we first learn, conceptually and perhaps historically as well, the in-principle limits on the power of the state. The commands of a higher power mark out a realm of existence that is beyond the authority of the state. The state cannot rightly dictate how to act with respect to those obligations, nor can the state countermand them. Religious freedom teaches us that our lives never belong wholly to the state. Once we establish that fact, we open the door to consideration of the full panoply of human rights and of the limits of the state. For Pharaoh to acquiesce in Moses’s request for three days of worship in the wilderness would be to acknowledge that the Israelites were not ultimately subjects of the Egyptian god-king but of the transcendent God-King.
Though I am not an historian, I imagine that this is a significant feature of the enormous revolution that the Bible brought to the world. In the pagan world, a world in which the gods were the gods of the city, the state claimed everything for itself. To oppose the political order or the ruler was sacrilege. And then there came a time to render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s but also to render unto God what was God’s. We would do well in our own time to remember the centrality of religious freedom not just for its own sake but also for its role in undergirding all of our rights.