Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 17, 2023
Exodus 14:19-31 Commentary
Over and over again in the story, God refers to the people as His army or His battalion. But they couldn’t have been a very fearsome force. They’ve just spend the last 430 years in slavery. Maybe they got strong building bricks but they would have had a lot of disadvantages. Hard to think that they marched out of Egypt in formation for example.
Seems like they might have struggled carrying all their possessions and carrying off the Egyptians precious metals and cloaks. Even that — they didn’t force their neighbors with violence to give these things. They had to ask. But that was it. They more likely looked like refugees fleeing than officers in uniforms. The text calls them a “motley band” or “riff-raff” as they made their way into the wilderness. It wasn’t just the men, it was women and children and livestock.
Even when they obey God’s very precise instructions — to go the long way — their enemies end up thinking they’ve gotten lost, taken a wrong turn somewhere. Their actions look ignorant, not tactical. But God sends them the long way because — even though God calls them an army — God says, “If they face war, they may change their minds and retreat back to Israel.” And God’s not wrong because, when they end up with their backs against the Red Sea, their first move is to start whining.
Robert Alter comments on this: “Now we see them as fearful and as recalcitrant as they were at the beginning. This moment becomes the first in a whole series of ‘murmurings’ that will punctuate the Wilderness narrative.” It isn’t just the wilderness, though. It is the whole history of God’s people. Anytime God’s people have their backs against a wall (or, as in this case, the Red Sea) this is what tends to happen. Adam says, “The woman you put here…” And Eve says, “The snake said…” Abraham passes his wife off as his sister … twice. Jacob tricks his brother and flees for his life. When they get to the edge of the Promised Land after all this wandering the spies will report, “There are giants in the land.”
We aren’t immune from fear and recalcitrance either. In recent memory, for example, our backs against a global pandemic, not all of our coping strategies proved life-giving, generous, just or compassionate. I whined more than a bit. I wasted so much time doom-scrolling on social media. We saw injustice, gotten mad, gotten overwhelmed, gotten discouraged. Ain’t no one marched through this experience, uniforms crisp, boots spit-shined, maintaining formation. So we can be relieved that Israel’s retreat from Egypt had them looking like a hot mess because we can identify with that.
Now, with their backs against the Red Sea, they see Pharaoh’s army — like a legit fighting force — pursuing them with horses, chariots, armor and weaponry. The Israelites don’t have any of that. It hardly seems like a fair contest. Except that this text introduces a new element into the story of God’s people. While clearly God is never absent from the world God created and God spoke to Noah and came to Abraham in voices and angel visitors, the physical and permanent manifestation of God’s presence with the people is new.
All through their wilderness wandering, the pillar never left its place. It came to rest on the Tabernacle once that was built and, finally when the Temple was built for the people in the Promised Land, God’s glory came to reside there. God’s presence is a constant, visual, physical presence now among the people, leading them through tactical maneuvers. For example: God gives the people precise directions to do the least sensible thing: go the long way. Which leads Pharaoh to assume the people are silly and weak. Alter suggests that “God has set up what amounts in military terms to an ambush. Pharaoh, seeing that the Hebrews have not followed the short and obvious coastal route to get out of Egypt northward, concludes that they have lost their way and have inadvertently allowed themselves to be where the pursuing troops will easily surround & recapture the whole mass of runaway slaves.”
And then God’s presence plays the hero in this story by waiting until evening and standing guard between the people and the pursuing Army. The combination of cloud and fire would have been like trying to drive with brights on in a deep fog. It completely throws off the Egyptians. Also, by obscuring their view, the Egyptians go through the night assuming they’ve got their enemies pinned down, never imagining what kind of miracles is being performed on the other side, which means that the majority of the Red Sea crossing happened between 3am and 6am. Not just walking through water but walking through water in the dark. As dawn emerged, the pillar began moving again and the Egyptians followed it assuming they would find the people huddled against the sea but they kept going and going and going until they were in the middle of the Sea and there was no going back. Ambush complete.
The response of God’s people is first that they could trust Moses (something he doubted would ever happen) and they trusted and praised God. Because no one gets to the other side of the Red Sea and thinks: We did that. The Israelites had to take that first step onto ground they didn’t yet know would be dry.They had to walk past walls of water, jiggling like Jell-O and trust that they would hold. They had to participate, to follow their leader, to trust a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. But the overarching narrative, the major take-away has nothing to do with their military might or tactical brilliance. The thing couldn’t have been done except for God.
And perhaps that is still the goal for those of us who profess faith in God who parts the Red Sea. That we aren’t going to get to the other side of earth-shattering realities, like a global pandemic by our own genius, protocols, science or our skepticism of science. We have to make wise decisions. We have to feel the feels as we wait for test results, as we try to arrange classrooms for kids at home, as we miss another milestone, another family gathering, another hug. We do the next right thing and then the next right thing after that. We learn and we adapt. We find deeper reservoirs of faith than we knew we had when all this started.
However, the overarching narrative when all this is done, the major take-away for God’s people will not be that we saved ourselves. It will be that God did it. God leading us through one impossible decision after another. God upholding us as we lament failed leadership and grieve our losses. God protecting us and watching over us as we pick our steps on what appears to be — despite it all — dry ground. God goes with us.
There are any number of novels, movies, TV shows and comics that pit a scrappy, rag-tag band against a well-trained and funded army. It’s a trope for a good reason — who doesn’t love an underdog story. So it would be easy to tell this story in that way. However, I suggest another illustration, from a lesser known film from 1988 entitled The Bear, in which an abandoned cub befriends a male Grizzly, who is begrudgingly conscripted into mentoring the young cub for life in the forest. At one point a fierce predator has been tracking the cub and begins his attack. Afraid, the small bear does what he has been shown, up on his back paws and growling though the result hardly looks persuasively fierce and yet, you see the predators eyes widen, ears go back as he slinks away. When the camera moves back to the cub, it takes a wider angle and, in this shot, the audience can see what the cub could not, the grown Grizzly behind his as-yet tiny protege, ready to attack. I suggest this is the better parallel story for this lectionary text.
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