Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
Last week, on Easter Sunday, our OT reading set before us a vision of what the victory of God would look like: this week the Red Sea narrative demonstrates one occasion on which it was demonstrated. We are clearly invited to reflect on the victory of Christ, which for John is not demonstrated by the resurrection but by the cross.
Many attempts have been made to explain the miracle of the Red Sea in ‘scientific’ terms (as we all know from our TV adverts, slap some scientific-sounding names on a shampoo and it’s bound to be OK) but that is to miss the point. The deliverance from their enemies and their freedom to begin a new life is presented as being down to God and God alone, although of course Moses has to co-operate by obediently holding out his staff. From the description in verse 29 Cecil B DeMille got it exactly right. In the same way on the cross Satan is defeated, a new way is opened up, and a new people come into being. It’s just a miracle.
But our reading, when read alongside the gospel from John 20, presents us with another theme, that of doubt. Thomas we know all about: like a true child of the Enlightenment he needs proof, not just tales from his friends, and so Jesus graciously provides a special appearance just for him. But the doubt of the fleeing Israelites is a far deeper thing: it goes beyond intellectual disbelief and becomes a matter of life and death as the Egyptian army gets ever closer. In their panic they turn on Moses (again!), but Holy Spirit encourages them to remain steadfast, although one wonders to what extent he had any idea just how God was going to get them out of this one! Verse 15 suggests that privately he was in as much panic as the people, but the art of leadership is of course to keep calm, carry on, and never let it show.
The destruction of all those poor Egyptian soldiers is also a matter of concern for 21st century readers but simply not for the biblical writers. We think ‘individual’: we remember that each one of the soldiers probably had a wife and kids; we shuffle along for hours to look at 888,000 individual poppies in the Tower of London. The Bible always thinks corporate: Egypt as a nation had enslaved and ill-treated God’s people, had stubbornly refused to take any notice of ten plagues, and so was fair game for God’s retribution. I’m not saying that one is right or wrong, just that to expect the Bible to see things as we do and go all apologetic for God’s enemies getting their comeuppance is completely anachronistic.
The little coda from 15:20-21 lifts our thoughts away from such messy questions and sets our focus firmly back where it ought to remain throughout the Easter season: on celebration and rejoicing. As Common Worship puts it:
in his victory over the grave a new age has dawned,
the long reign of sin is ended,
a broken world is being renewed
and humanity is once again made whole.