For those who want a change from the Gospel
Easter 2 2020 – Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21
Just as the resurrection is the central act in the drama of the NT, so the Exodus is the central point of the OT. And just as we have four separate accounts of the passion and resurrection stories, so we have three accounts of the exodus, one of them, perhaps like John’s Gospel, more poetic and two, like the Synoptics, more narrative. Ex 15 is in the form of a prophetic (that is inspired) psalm which sets a retelling of the events in the context of a song of praise, while Ex 14 interweaves two other accounts. Biblical scholars who have nothing better to do with themselves can easily unpick the two accounts, using the distinctive vocabulary of each source, and make two coherent but different stories.
In the first account, from around 1000 BC, Moses has to do nothing, merely stand still and see what God will do. Yahweh plants his pillar of cloud/fire firmly between the Israelites and the Egyptians, who panic and run into the sea to their deaths. But in the later account dating from after the Babylonian exile, maybe the mid 5th century BC, Moses, and the people, are far more active: Moses holds out his staff, the sea opens (think Cecil B. de Mille), and then closes again over the pursuing Egyptian army.
Fascinating though this is, there are some important theological truths which we can only find through refusing merely to harmonise these stories. For example, we might ask the question – How exactly are we saved? The first, or Jahwistic source, would say by standing still and letting God do everything. Jesus’ death on the cross was entirely God’s initiative, to which Jesus willingly agreed, and there is nothing required of us, like ‘trying his works to do’ or, worse, trying to earn or deserve God’s salvation. But the later Priestly source would put much more emphasis on our response: our salvation is a combination of God’s initiative, Moses’ obedience, and our walking through the gap to the other side. To open the sea took God’s power and Moses’ stick, and the rescue of the people required them to enter into the sea and walk to the other side. Merely to ‘stand still and see the salvation of God’ would simply not have cut it. Both these truths need to be held in tension, in paradox, and in particular we need to ponder what would have happened to people who, even though God had opened the sea, refused to follow on the journey. It is also worth asking when are the times when we are called, as it were, to hold up our staffs, to work with God so that God’s salvation might come to others.
But of course there is a huge elephant in the room, one which requires us to read this story in a fourth, more symbolic way. What about those poor Egyptians? The later, Priestly writers, had spent time in exile in Babylon, and were very familiar with the creation story according to Babylonian religion, where Marduk, the chief god (goodie), battles with a great sea-monster called Tiamat (baddie), and ends up cutting it in half and making the heavens and the earth from the two halves. This story is referenced a few times in the OT, with Tiamat going by the names of ‘The Deep’, Rahab and Leviathan, and God, of course, winning the fight. So the writers couldn’t resist seeing in the dividing of the Red Sea the cutting in half of something which formed the supreme symbol of all that is evil and destructive. Pharaoh, too, symbolises everything and everyone who stands against God, hardens his heart and refuses to submit to his will, and in so doing keeps people in slavery, and sends others to their deaths. Even at the bank of the Sea the army could have given in and admitted defeat, but no, they had to follow the Israelites in, and the very evil which God was defeating became their destruction, as evil always has been and always will be to those who sell their souls to it. And the poor soldiers who were simply obeying orders? They were collateral damage, as there always is in war and conflict. Tragically to set our hearts on evil, to choose to become a tyrant, means that it is not just us who gets hurt, but many innocent bystanders too. ‘Twas ever thus.
So this story, now that we have looked at it a bit more deeply, encourages us to give heartfelt praise to God for his initiative in saving us, to make sure that we follow him and help others to do so, and above all to get rid of anything and everything in our lives which plays into the hands of evil, harms others, and puts us in the way of our own destruction.