When we left the story last week the tenth and final plague had been visited upon Egypt – the death of the firstborn. The Israelite homes had been protected by the blood of the lambs, and they had eaten the meal which has ever since been eaten as a reminder of the night the angel of death “passed over” the homes of the Hebrews. Pharaoh had called Moses and Aaron in and ordered them to leave and take all the people and their livestock with them. The Egyptian people had urged the Hebrew people to leave as quickly as possible so more Egyptians would not die. So the Hebrews fled in haste, with no time to even leaven the bread before going. Exodus says 600,000 plus children left. That number seems questionable, but the point is that it was a large multitude.
God led this band of refugees with a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night moving in front of them. God did not take them the shortest route, through the land of the Philistines, because he thought facing an enemy right off the bat would make them turn around and go back to Egypt. Instead, he led them to a place where they would have no options. He knew that Pharaoh’s heart would change and he would not be willing to lose all that slave labor. Pharaoh would come after them, and Yahweh would be ready for him. He brought the people to the edge of a sea and told them to make camp there.
And sure enough, the scene shifts back to the palace and Pharaoh and his officials are looking at each other and wondering how all those bricks are going to get made now and how could we have let those people leave, and in spite of the horrific night of death their greed overcame them. The war trumpet sounded, the chariots were all assembled, and the army went in frenzied haste to recapture what had been lost. They eventually saw the enormous camp of the Hebrews at the edge of the sea, and they knew they had them just where they wanted them.
Yahweh saw the Egyptians flying toward the Hebrews without caution and he knew he had them just where he wanted them.
The Hebrews could only see that they were between the devil and the deep blue sea and the adventure was getting ready to end very badly for them. They were both terrified and angry. They were angry with Moses and said, “Were there no graves in Egypt that you have brought us out here to die? We told you to leave us alone and let us serve the Egyptians.” Moses replied, “Don’t be afraid. Stand firm and see the deliverance that Yahweh has in store for you today. Yahweh will fight for you. All you have to do is relax. You will never see these Egyptians again.”
Yahweh told Moses to lift his staff up over the sea to divide it and tell the Israelites to move forward and through it. This is the point at which today’s reading began. The pillar of cloud now moved from in front of the people to be between them and the Egyptian army. Moses stretched out his hand over the sea and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and the waters were divided. The Israelites went through on dry land. The Egyptians pursued; their chariot wheels bogged down in the mud and the Lord brought panic and chaos upon them. The Egyptians realized that Yahweh was fighting for the Hebrews, and now they were the ones who were terrified. Yahweh told Moses to stretch his hand back out over the sea from the other side so that the waters would come back together. He did, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. The Egyptians tried to flee but were unable to. The entire army perished.
The night of chaos ended and day dawned with the Hebrews standing on dry ground looking back at the ruin of Egypt. God had made a way forward for them through the sea when none seemed possible. Now they have clearly left the challenges of life in slavery behind; the challenges of life in freedom lie before them. What comes next is naturally… singing! A song of praise, honor, gratitude and thanksgiving to Yahweh, who has accomplished this unbelievable act of deliverance on behalf of slaves.
Jim Newsome writes of this story, “The crossing of the sea is Israel’s rite of passage by which the people become a nation. Behind lay Egypt and bondage, ahead lay the wilderness and freedom. Israel entered the channel as a group of refugees, terrified and in panic. The people emerged on the other shore in awe and in an attitude of faith in Yahweh for this great miracle of salvation.” (Texts for Preaching, Year A, p. 479)
Terence Fretheim focuses on this being a new act of creation by Yahweh. In this act of creation he uses nature itself – clouds and darkness separate the Egyptians and Hebrews and brings chaos and fear to the Egyptians; wind blows all night to separate the waters. The mud of the seabed is what dooms the Egyptians. The darkness of night also brings panic and confusion to the Egyptians. Yahweh uses creation to accomplish his purposes.
Yahweh also uses humans to accomplish his purpose. Moses has a role, holding the staff over the sea to separate and then bring back together the waters. And the Hebrews had to go forward into that chasm when instructed to do so, knowing that the wind could stop at any time and some or all would not make it across. They had to trust that Yahweh was at work in it. And the Egyptians had to be reckless enough, greedy enough, desperate enough, to chase out through the channel after the Hebrews or they would have lived to fight another day.
Fretheim writes, “The effect is an act of creation. Dry land appears in the midst of chaos, just as in (the creation story) at the separation of waters (from dry land.) The divine creative act in the sphere of nature serves as the vehicle for the creation of a liberated people…. As the morning breaks for Israel, the night falls on the Egyptians. God cuts off the Egyptians’ participation in the new creation…. The Egyptians now know that Yahweh is God of all the earth.” (Interpretation, Exodus, pp. 159-160)
There are other times in the Bible when God makes a way when there seems to be no possibility of it. 600 years later the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon, again living as slaves. There appeared to be no way out, but the prophet Ezekiel told them of a vision he had in which God brought to life a valley of dry bones. He said the meaning was that God was going to recreate Israel and give them new life, and sure enough one day the Persians defeated the Babylonian and King Cyrus told the Israelites they could go home if they wanted to.
600 years later the disciples found themselves in a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee in a storm that was so bad they feared for their lives. Jesus spoke and the storm was calmed and they were astonished, saying, “Even the wind and waves obey him.
A few years later Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried. It looked for all the world as though the story was over. But God made a way out of that tomb, out of that dead end, and as a result we all stand on the distant shore looking back on the vanquished enemies of death and sin which no longer have power over us. God has brought us out, has delivered us once again. Deliverance does not always happen in this life, so it is good to trust that this ultimate deliverance is assured beyond this life.
I do believe it is important to raise an uncomfortable spectre with you this morning. When following Bible stories it is natural to always want to identify with the good guys. We want to see ourselves as the Good Samaritan, not the religious official who passes by on the other side of the road. We want to see ourselves as the prodigal son who gets forgiven and welcomed home, not the elder brother who is so angry and resentful and unforgiving. We want to see ourselves as the disciples, not the Pharisees who are always critical and judgmental and undermining of the teachings and ministry of Jesus.
I am not in charge of a country, and I am thankful for that, but most aspects of my life mirror Pharaoh’s life much more closely than a slave’s life. Oh, there are days when I might say that I am in the reverse position of being a slave who has 600 taskmasters, but in reality my life is a life of privilege and abundance compared with most of the people of the world. The temptations facing me and my kind are temptations to try to maintain the status quo so that my privileges and abundance remain intact, regardless of the effect that has on other people.
There are in reality Pharaohs and slaves all around in our lives – on school playgrounds, in workplaces, in churches, in families. Much in the news this week has been such an instance with an NFL player who was caught on tape knocking out his fiancée in an elevator. The fiancée might not be happy, but she also does not want a bunch of Moseses trying to tell her she will be better off if she leaves Egypt for freedom.
And you know very well that much of the world regards our country as the current Pharaoh, possessing the biggest military and the most sophisticated chariots and the determination to keep people we want out of power down. I’m not agreeing with that assessment. But I am saying that when you are in the position of power you need to be very careful how you use it. God who is above us all is watching, and if God decides slaves have been abused enough God can not only bring those slaves out to freedom but can reduce the mightiest empire on the earth to rubble. Egypt was not the first or last empire to find that out.
When God decides to make a way no ocean, no military, no tomb can stop him. That is for us both promise and warning.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
September 14, 2014
Central Presbyterian Church
Anderson, South Carolina