Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 17, 2017
Exodus 14:19-31 Commentary
Its narrator so packs Exodus 14 with pyrotechnics that it almost begs for an update to Cecil B. DeMille’s classic, The Ten Commandments. Yet it’s easy to focus so much on all of its light, sound and fury that even its preachers and teachers may lose sight of its ultimate author.
The text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday is another example of brevity that demands a context. So the Lectionary’s preachers and teachers will want to look for ways to bring hearers from last Sunday’s Passover table to this Sunday’s “the angel of the Lord who had been travelling in front of Israel’s army withdrew and went behind them” (19). If, after all, we just start with the verse with which the Lectionary starts, we’re not even sure how a ragtag bunch of slaves turned into an army or where that army is even located.
That “army” forms when Egypt’s Pharaoh responds to God’s final plague on his country by chasing the Israelites out of Egypt. That army stands on the banks of the Red Sea as Exodus 14 opens. There the Pharaoh and his forces have hounded the Israelite army to the edge of annihilation.
This, understandably, terrifies Israel’s former slaves. They bitterly complain to Moses (for the first, but certainly not the last time) about leading them out of Egypt. While Moses responds by telling the Israelites to “stand firm” (13), God tells Moses to, instead, tell the Israelites to “move on” (15).
But, of course, to “move on” is to die – unless a way is made through the Red Sea’s death-dealing waters. As it turns out, it’s God who promises to make such a way. God calls Moses to raise his staff and stretch it out over the Red Sea “so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground” (16).
Once the Lectionary text’s preachers and teachers have somehow established that context, we can move forward with the Israelites. Yet not, apparently, before “the angel of God” and “the pillar of cloud” (19) that has been leading Israel’s army away from Egypt move behind her. What has guided those freed slaves now screens her.
What protects the Israelites somehow blocks the Pharaoh and his army. After all, while the cloud brings light to God’s beleaguered people of Israel, it brings darkness to their pursuers. It’s darkness that echoes both pre-creation chaos and one of the Egyptian plagues that now stretches over even Egypt’s pursuit of her former slaves.
It serves as a reminder that God never abandons God’s people, even as they walk in dark valleys that frighten them. God graciously both guides and protects God’s people. Yet God also sometimes impedes God’s children’s enemies, even through natural phenomena like clouds and darkness. On the Red Sea’s banks, God shows how God is even able to move seamlessly and immediately from one role to the other.
Such gracious guidance and protection, however, doesn’t always shield God’s adopted sons and daughters from trouble. Trouble, in fact, remains both behind and in front of God’s Israelite people. They are caught, as the old cliché goes, between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Thankfully, then, God is not done doing amazing things for and to Israel. Yet as Terrence Fretheim points out, God doesn’t act alone. God, in fact, uses a startling combination of human actions and natural phenomena to make a way forward for Israel where there seems to be none.
When, after all, Moses stretches out his hand, a huge gale arises out of the east to turn the Red Sea’s muddy river bottom into dry land. It is, as almost countless scholars note, an act of creation that mimics Genesis 1:9-10’s account of the creation of the first dry land. Mud turns into trail as God’s people cross.
There is much creative imagery here. It’s not just that God re-divides the water from the land. It’s also that God creates both light and darkness (20; cf. Genesis 1:3). What’s more, God creates a kind of new humanity (cf. Genesis 1:26-27), graciously forming a people out of a ragtag bunch of former slaves.
But, of course, divine creative and sustaining action always demands human response. God’s new Israelite people must respond to God’s work by passing through what scholars like Scott Hoezee call “the baptismal waters” of the Red Sea before they can receive God’s gracious gift of the land of promise.
Exodus 14’s preachers and teachers might take a moment at this point to explore with hearers what that hike may have been like. Frankly, I’m amazed that the Israelites even dare take a step forward. Sure, there’s a mighty wind. There’s also a dry path to safety and freedom. On top of all that, the Red Sea’s waters have piled up in high walls.
But who but Moses (and God) is to say how long all that will last? What guarantees do the Israelites have that the eastern gale will continue to howl? Who’s to say their trail won’t turn into muddy swamp? What guarantee do they have that those towering walls of water won’t collapse and come crashing down on them?
Just hours earlier the Israelites had bitterly accused Moses of leading them out of Egypt and into a vast cemetery. Now, however, they step into the dried-up Red Sea. Perhaps it’s a sign of their sheer desperation. Or perhaps this act is one of bold faith, one that will, admittedly, be contradicted almost countless times before they finally cross another river, the Jordan, to enter the land of promise.
When, however, the powerful Egyptians chase their former slaves into the sea, things turn out horribly differently for them. In fact, their tools of tyranny and violence prove to be part of their undoing. God first throws the mighty Egyptian army into “confusion” (24). God next loosens their wheels’ lugnuts so that those wheels fall off.
Then, when the mighty Egyptians have second thoughts about continuing their pursuit of their former slaves, God turns the Israelite’s highway through the sea into the Egyptians’ cemetery. When Moses stretches out his formerly life-giving hand a second time, it becomes an instrument of death.
The Red Sea returns to its former place, greedily swallowing up both those headed toward it and those in it. The new creation with all of its possibilities of life returns to the old creation, with all of its death. Once again, Egyptian parents will grieve, not, this time, over the death of their oldest sons, as at the Passover, but now over the death of their sons whom the Pharaoh had conscripted into his army.
It’s very hard for God’s sensitive adopted sons and daughters to celebrate all of this death. We lament the horrific cost countless Egyptian moms and dads paid for their Pharaoh’s intransigent disobedience. Egypt’s god, her Pharaoh, has dealt only death, while Israel’s God, Yahweh, has dealt both death as punishment, and life as a gift.
The Egyptian soldiers come to learn that the only living God, “the Lord is fighting for [the Israelites]” (25). They learn that Yahweh, not their Pharaoh, is the Lord of all the earth. However, that knowledge comes, in a real sense, too late for them. None of them survive their pursuit of the Israelites.
The freed and safe Israelites experience a similar epiphany. They see the Egyptian soldiers’ corpses littering the Red Sea’s banks. The freed Israelite slaves see “the great power the Lord displayed against the Egyptians” (31).
Unlike the Egyptians, however, they live to tell about and respond to it. Exodus 15’s response to what the Israelites have seen God do is largely one of praise. First, Moses offers a lengthy psalm to the Lord. Then Aaron’s sister Miriam and other women chime in, dancing before and exalting the Lord for hurling Egypt’s horses and riders into the Red Sea.
Those hymns, however, quickly die out. Before they’ve hardly even dried off from their trip through the Red Sea, the Israelites again begin to grumble against God and Moses. Desert trauma doesn’t even just make them grumpy. It also bends and distorts their memories of Egyptian suffering.
While as I note above, Exodus 14 reminds us that God is able to work through human and natural means, it remains tempting for God’s adopted sons and daughters to act as though it’s all up to us.
In the July-September, 2002 edition of Pulpit Resource, Carole Noren relates the story Linda Hutton of Disciples of Christ in Community tells about a milkmaid and a holy man. The holy man lived in such a remote place that he relied on her to bring him his daily food and milk. The milkmaid, however, often arrived later than the holy man wanted.
One day after he chewed her out for this, she explained why she was perpetually tardy. The milkmaid explained that she had to walk a long way along a river’s bank before she could reach a bridge that would carry her to the river’s other side.
So the holy man suggested that she, instead of crossing the bridge, walk across the water. That would save the milkmaid time and perhaps keep her from being late every day.
From then on the milkmaid was never late. That, however, piqued the holy man’s curiosity. So he asked her how she now consistently managed to arrive so early. “Why, sir,” she answered, “I did as you told me. I walk across the waters of the river.” At this the holy man said, “This I must see. Let me go with you, child, as you return to the village. I believe I can surely walk on water, if someone like you can.”
When they reached the river, the milkmaid boldly stepped into the water and walked to it other side. When she turned to watch the holy man, he hiked up his robe and stepped into the river.
However, after the man took a few hesitant steps he began to sink. So the milkmaid ran back across the waters to help him to shore. “What happened?” the shaken holy man asked her. “Well, sir,” she answered, “you said you believed you could walk across the waters, but you gathered up your robes so as not to get the hem wet.”
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