The Murmurings: Human Beings and Our Instinctual Fear of Change and Progress

Change and progress are, inherently, opposed by human nature. Humans do not like change, even if it is change for the better. An ancient text relates what a group of Israelites felt once they were freed from slavery. The story of the Exodus is not just a story of liberation from slavery; it is also the story of how shitty human beings are in response to beneficial change. Michael Walzer, commenting on the Exodus narrative, writes that one response to liberation is that of “murmuring.” That is, murmurings proceed from “not someone who is adjusted to his slavery but someone who complains endlessly about his liberation.”[1] As David Pacini notes, “[T]he greater price of freedom, haunted by evil, is that we live in the permanent possibility of falling apart.”[2] The price of freedom is: “murmurings” and “falling apart.” Or, as Søren Kierkegaard put it, “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”

A slave who had been a slave all his life could not be saved overnight from his “slave mentality.” To invoke a popular quip (modified for our purposes): “you can take a man out of slavery, but you cannot take the slavery out of the man.” As the Israelites marched onwards towards the Promised Land, they were out of their comfort zones, marching into a future holding the unknown. Back “home” in Egypt, they had shelter, food, and the comfort of familiarity; up ahead, in the desert regions of Sinai, they faced the “permanent possibility of falling apart.” And so, in the strangest of fashions—or maybe it wasn’t so strange after all?—the Israelites complained. “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (Ex. 14:11, NIV). Instead of freedom, the Israelites—upon tasting its bittersweet waters—demanded, quite adamantly, a return to their previous state: a state of slavery.

In light of such reflections, it is certainly possible that, as some claim, change must occur slowly. You boil the water too fast, and the frog jumps out; you heat it up slowly, and you boil it to death. Humans are like that frog: you pressure us into changing overnight—even if the change is in our favor—and we’ll bite your head off. Instead, what is needed sometimes is the slow and steady change of progress towards the ideal. In light of recent events, events which are affecting our country in numerous ways, it’d be wise for both legislature and people to recognize how instinctually frightened the human species is to change.


Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev



[1] Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 50.

[2] David S. Pacini, Through Narcissus’ Glass Darkly: The Modern Religion of Conscience (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 35.

One thought on “The Murmurings: Human Beings and Our Instinctual Fear of Change and Progress

  1. We often forget Freud’s take on the Exodus, how the slaves not only turned on Moses but killed him. This, according to Freud, was what lay behind the constant sacrifices and rituals of repentance to appease an angry god, which became so much a part of Jewish faith and tradition. Then, characteristically, Freud takes it further and relates how the terrible deed, buried in history, was reenacted (the return of the repressed), when the Son of God was killed for bringing another form of liberation, again too frightening to be handled by humankind. Interesting–and, unfortunately, perceptive–post.

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