I was six when I found out my sister and I didn’t have the same father. I was six when I realized that someone could be married more than once. I was six when I started asking questions about how families are made and how they fall apart.
I stood at the edge of our narrow kitchen, hours after I’d gone to bed. We’d been woken by earthquakes often since moving there, but this time only familiar voices were shaking.
All I heard clearly was my sister, Cathy, saying, “I’m going to move back to the States to live with my dad.”
To this day, I struggle to remember the weeks after that night. I don’t know what I said to my sister or what my sister or my parents explained to me the next morning. I remember what Cathy wore at the airport when she left: a black and white herringbone coat that went to her ankles.
I watched her leave, and with barely an ounce of understanding about what was happening or why, I believed it was all my fault.
When we returned home, I went straight to Cathy’s teenage room. In the past, she hadn’t allowed me inside. But that day, in the aftermath of losing her, I sat there for hours looking for clues. I read through her school notebooks and studied her handwriting, gripping everything in my lap as if someone or something might come at any moment to snatch it all away.
After that, much of my childhood was spent alone, playing with dolls in the basement playroom.
Weather permitting, my mom sometimes let me wander around the neighborhood on foot or by bicycle. For such a big city, Tokyo is safe. I wandered on busy sidewalks and empty streets, always alone, always on the outside looking in. I grew familiar with the view from the other side of the glass.
Those four years of living overseas as a kid, and especially the time after my sister left, provided training in silent observation, teaching me to become someone who notices things.
I think Moses was also someone who noticed things.
Moses was forty when he began to publicly connect with his ethnic identity. In the book of Exodus, we get a glimpse into his story, starting when his life was spared by being adopted into an Egyptian royal family. We don’t get much detail about what it would have been like for Moses, an Israelite, to be raised by Egyptian royalty, but I imagine he must have had a wide range of emotions bound up within his embodied, dual-cultured life. When he saw an Egyptian man mistreating a Hebrew slave, he reacted in anger and took the Egyptian man’s life.
It would be another forty years in the wilderness—in a completely different culture—before we hear about Moses wrestling with his own identity.
As a new father, Moses named his firstborn son Gershom, meaning “foreigner,” because Moses had been a “foreigner in a foreign land” (Exod. 18:3). I can imagine how heavily the weight of foreignness must have fallen on Moses’ shoulders—heavily enough to wrap his son’s identity in that significant part of his own. Hello, my name is Sojourner and Stranger.
He named his next son Eliezer, saying, “The God of my ancestors was my helper; he rescued me from the sword of Pharaoh” (Exod. 18:4). One son carried the weight of Moses’ foreignness. Another son carried the remembrance of God’s rescue as Moses ran away from home.
Moses’ story is full of familial fracture, loss, loneliness, wandering, brokenness, and dual-cultured struggles, but also about a God who pursued him—not after all these colliding details were resolved, but right in the middle of them. His ancestors, his cultural identity, his faith, and his own relationship with God are woven together with the making of his own family and the generations to come.
When I see Moses’ fear and rage, and the way he ran away, I see myself. When I read about his encounter with a God he didn’t yet know and his hesitation and insecurity over following God’s lead, I remember my own hesitation and hiding.
When I consider his worry that no one from his birth culture would listen to him or believe him, despite his being well spoken and successful in the Egyptian culture he was adopted into (Acts 7:22), I can relate. When I imagine his feelings of being in between worlds and cultures, I feel a little closer to whole.
I wonder about when Moses was forced to leave his sister because of the brokenness and sin of others. I think about how Pharaoh’s hard heart and narcissistic leadership must have traveled into Moses’ story. Did Pharaoh mock him for the ways he resembled the Hebrews instead of the Egyptians?
No matter how assimilated he was, his birth culture would have spoken through his skin color, his hair texture, and the shape of his eyes. I am sure he would have been lonely. His privilege and his assimilation into Egyptian culture separated him from his birth culture; his origin and his irrevocable Hebrew ties separated him from his adoptive culture.
It’s liberating for me to realize Moses wasn’t asked to deny his ethnic and cultural identity to know God and lead others. In fact, it was the opposite. His ability to understand both Hebrews and Egyptians meant he was uniquely qualified to lead a diverse group of people into the future. He was able to carry tensions and consider angles that others might not naturally think about.
When God first introduced himself to Moses through a burning bush, he announced that he was the God of Moses’ father, meaning his Hebrew father (Exod. 3:6). God connected the dots of Moses’ life, starting with his birth culture, and named himself from that reference point. Moses was forced to leave his family of origin because the systems of the world he lived in would not support him or a family like his.
He was a target, yet God made a way for him to flourish in a culture that initially wanted to crush him. Throughout Moses’ journey, he lived in a liminal, in-between space. There was nowhere he could go, no identity he could choose for himself—every space contained loss and grief. No matter how far he fled, every place led him back to his two worlds: the one he was born into and the one he was raised in.
We carry the stories of our families alongside God’s intentional redemption of those stories. Moses named his first son “foreigner,” and Gershom would indeed become a stranger and sojourner. But the redemption reflected in his second son’s name would also lead all of us strangers and sojourners into the knowledge that we’re not alone.
God uses our family names and stories, even the shameful parts, to guide us to shalom.
Tasha Jun is a biracial Korean American who writes about faith, cultural and ethnic identity, and living with a shalomsick ache. Tasha lives in the Midwest with her husband and three kids.
Adapted from Tell Me the Dream Again: Reflections on Family, Ethnicity, and the Sacred Work of Belonging by Tasha Jun. Copyright © 2023. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries. All rights reserved.
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