Old Testament Lectionary April 12th Easter 2 Exodus 14:10-13, 15:20-21

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.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Exodus

Last week we looked at Genesis and said that we should read it as an overture, a set of Just-So stories, and a scene-setter for the rest of the story. This week the story begins with the exit, or exodus, of the Israelite nation from their slavery in Egypt, but once again the story, as it moves on, introduces some themes which are going to become increasingly important.

A brief list of names follows, and we are going to find quite a few of those lists over the next just-over-a-year, since the story is, after all, the story of real people, whose part in the drama matters. We’re told that two things happen: the Israelites, guests in Egypt, multiply considerably, and that a new Pharaoh, to whom Joseph meant nothing, takes the throne, and decided that these immigrants were not as welcome as his predecessor had thought they were. So they were pressed into slavery, and for 400 or so years God apparently watched in silence as they were subject to increased oppression. But then Moses appears on the stage, miraculously saved from perinatal death, brought up in the Egyptian court, and called by a burning bush. He is the one who, after many years preparation, is to confront the king, and with the help of God’s powerful plagues, to lead the people to the edge of the Red (or Reed) Sea. There the sea miraculously opens, Israel escapes and their oppressors are drowned. This is the central point of God’s purposes of salvation for Israel, and much is made of the symbolism of passing through water into a new way of living in the New Testament as it talks about baptism. Again and again God is described as the one ‘who brought you up out of Egypt’: this saving act becomes the centrepiece and milestone of God’s redemptive love.

The next stopping point is Mount Sinai, where Moses receives from God the Law, or ‘Ten Commandments’, which remain formative in the ethics and law of most civilised countries to this day. ‘Commandments’ is really a mistranslation: the Hebrew literally speaks of Ten ‘Words’, and they are best understood as ‘teachings’: if you want life and society to run well, then live like this. But whilst Moses is up the mountain receiving these ‘Words’, the people below are demonstrating the natural human bent for rebellion, and we see something which we are going to see again and again: false worship leading to dissolute behaviour. The journey continues towards the Promised Land, but we are not going to see them arrive until next week, and even then with tragic consequences.

 

The other major theme of Exodus is worship, and the good ordering of it. Chapter after boring chapter discuss precise details of the furniture, fittings and clothing to be used in the worship of the tabernacle, a portable ‘temple’ which could accompany them on their journey and provide a focus for their worship. Since we have already seen the relationship between idolatry and immorality it seems important that we get worship right, and very little here is left to chance. The book ends with the glory of God covering the tabernacle in a cloud, symbolising his presence among his people, another motif to which we shall return.

 

To think about:

How do you react to up to 400 years of slavery and oppression before God ‘remembered’ his people (2:24)? Why do you think he works so much more slowly than we would prefer?

Has all the formal and liturgical stuff about worship in Exodus, and the precise regulations for making robes etc been superseded in Jesus? Or can carefully ordered and symbolically rich worship speak to us about God as form us as Christians?

OT Lectionary 27th April Easter 2 Ex 14:10-31, 15:20-21

‘Sing to the Lord,
for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.’

Let’s be honest: it does go against the grain a bit to celebrate death. We’re all jolly glad that the poor enslaved Israelites have managed to escape from that nasty Pharaoh, but was it really necessary to end the business with a mass drowning? In the past victories in battle were celebrated with great jubilation. But nowadays we’ve reached perhaps more enlightened times when we understand that warfare actually has no victors: the whole business is destructive too all concerned, and the slaughter of those whom we perceive to be our enemies, along no doubt with some ‘collateral damage’ to innocent bystanders, is hardly something to make a song and dance about. So what are we to make of today’s OT, where we see the death of the Egyptians as a necessary concomitant of the liberation of Israel, and an outbreak of jubilant praise by Miriam and the girls.

 

File:Figures Pharaoh and His Host Drowned in the Red Sea (parted right).jpg

Indeed this is a problem for other parts of the OT. In 40 years’ time the Israelites are going to arrive finally at the Land promised to them by God, and they are going to be instructed to wipe out all the inhabitants unmercifully. The fact that they fail to do so, and are therefore nicer than God is, is going to get them into all kinds of trouble, according to the OT storytellers. So how do we cope with the destruction of enemies in the Scriptures, and what might it all mean for us today?

I think there are two approaches we might make to this problem, the individual and the spiritual. First of all it seems to be a natural law that whenever there are winners there are also losers. Egypt had so frequently and so deliberately hardened its corporate heart against God, who had given them so many opportunities to obey him, that they had forced themselves into a position where the only way for Israel to win her liberation was through their defeat. Pharaoh could at any point have compromised or even just given in, but he refused to do so, and the nation bore the consequences. (Of course the fate of individual soldiers who were ‘just obeying orders’ is of no interest to the OT writers who were untainted by enlightenment individualism and always thought ‘corporate’.) I think there’s something here about both the power of national leadership to affect the well-being (or otherwise) of the whole nation, and the responsibility of people to make sure they’re on the right side. Actions have consequences, and to align ourselves with evil means that we pay the piper sooner or later. Egypt paid that price, and after giving them so many chances to change their position of fixed opposition to him, God can hardly be blamed for punishing them. Indeed he reaches the point where we’re told he ‘hardens Pharaoh’s heart’, realising this is going nowhere so let’s just get it over with. The same is true of the genocide at the time of the conquest: the Bible’s take on this is that it wasn’t that Israel was holy, but that the Canaanite nations were so offensive to God and richly deserved their come-uppance (Deut 9:5). Where we place ourselves, the way we live, to whom we are aligned, matters. No excuses.

But secondly the choice of this reading during Easter suggests the link with cross and resurrection. Again there can be no victory without someone else’s defeat, and John’s gospel particularly makes the point that Christ’s death on the cross was also the crowning of a victorious king, with the powers of darkness defeated, until that final day when they will be destroyed. Evil isn’t just human: behind it are the spiritual forces of darkness in the spiritual realms, and on them God will have no mercy. So to celebrate our salvation through the cross is at the same time to celebrate the defeat of all that is evil, and of those who have given their lives to perpetuating it. So maybe we should get those tambourines out after all, as long as we remember to pray for those unwittingly caught up in the pursuit of evil: ‘Father forgive them, because they don’t understand what they’re doing’.

OT Lectionary April 20th Easter Sunday Exodus 14:10 – 31, 15:20-21

Just as the Passover has symbolised for Christians the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, so the crossing of the Red Sea has symbolised resurrection and deliverance. The links with water are important in Christian baptism, and as with Maundy Thursday and the Passover we have today a rich vein of symbolism as we celebrate today the mighty acts of God in raising Jesus from the grave.

The starting point of the story is the sheer hopelessness of the Israelites’ situation. With the sea in front of them and the Egyptian army behind, they quite literally have nowhere to go. There simply is no human solution to their problem: what is needed is nothing short of a miracle. But God is a God of miracles, and so just as it is needed, one is provided. The sea opens, and they are free. In fact they are a lot freer than they expect as those who would kill or recapture them are drowned in the very waters which have parted to allow them the road to freedom.

 

File:Mars bar bitten.jpg

One of my more memorable sermons, about Mars Bars and Lifebelts, asks the question ‘How do you understand your salvation?’ Many Christians see their relationship with God as a bit like if I were to give them a Mars Bar. Most of them would be really grateful to me (apart from once when I chose a member of the congregation who was allergic to chocolate, but that was just an unfortunate pick on my part). But if instead of my giving them a Mars I had given them a lifebelt just as they were drowning, they would be more than merely grateful: they would quite literally own me their life. Jesus doesn’t just come along to make our quite nice days even better with a little gift called ‘salvation’: he quite literally provides a miraculous rescue for those who without him would remain dead in their sins. What we need to save us is nothing short of a miracle: the rising of Jesus from death, when we had nothing in ourselves to save ourselves, is that miracle.

Exodus 14 also encourages us to hope for a miracle when all looks hopeless. The famous words in verse 13 ring down the ages to all who face impossible situations: ‘Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you’. Our instinct is so often to rush around trying to sort out our own problems: God is the God both of the 11th hour and of those who can hold onto their trust in him with quiet faith.

Another motif is the glorification of God through this mighty miracle. ‘The Egyptians will know that I am God’ says the Lord to Moses, although in the event they won’t know it for very long before the sea gets them. The resurrection of Jesus vindicates him, and his Father, before the world which has hounded and condemned him. It is in the nature of judgement that there will be those who realise the truth too late: Revelation 1:7 talks about the mourning of those who had pierced Jesus but them seen him gloriously vindicated as he comes in glory. The celebrations of this greatest day of the Christian year also have a bittersweet flavour as we are reminded of the urgency of the task of telling others about Christ’s victory.