Scripture: Exodus 14:1-31
When you think of Exodus, or Moses, the way you learned about them in Sunday School, chances are this is the scene that comes to mind first. Some of the details may vary. For example, the text says that Moses stretched his hand out over the sea and the waters were driven back by a strong wind. In my mind, though, Moses plunges his staff into the water and there’s this explosion of water to either side as they split in the middle. I think I may have gotten this from Prince of Egypt. Nevertheless, the image has stuck.
Exodus is a story of liberation, and this scene at the Red Sea is arguably the most Exodus-y part of Exodus.
It’s also still the beginning of the story.
But let’s back up. We left off with Moses last week at the burning bush, where God has unexpectedly shown up to have a word while Moses is going about his day tending sheep. God has given Moses a job to do: go back to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. And Moses, extremely reluctantly, has agreed. So we begin, today, with Moses poised to return to the land he fled.
He heads out with instructions in hand. He’ll get the elders of the Israelites together, tell them the plan. They will go together to Pharaoh. They will say, “Our God has appeared to us, and wants us to go into the desert to offer sacrifices. Please let us go – for just three days.”
This is the plan. They also know: Pharaoh won’t say yes.
Along the way, Moses meets up with Aaron, who God has appointed as Moses’ number 2, the spokesperson of the operation, and they go together to the people. Moses has been afraid this whole time that the Israelites won’t believe him when he just shows back up out of the blue and says God talked to him. He’s been afraid they’ll say not only who is he, but who is this God. But they don’t. They believe him. I imagine they must be ready to accept whatever good news comes their way.
So Moses, Aaron and the elders go to Pharaoh and they say, let us go on this three-day journey to worship our God in the desert. And Pharaoh says ha, ha. Because obviously when you let your slaves go on a journey into the wilderness, they’re going to come back, right? Actually, it’s worse: Pharaoh doubles down. These people are lazy, he says, that’s why they want a vacation! Moses here is just trying to incite them to strike! For that, I command you to make double the bricks! What do you think of that?
The people get mad at Moses. Moses gets mad at God. Things are not off to a great start.
Or maybe they are.
Don’t worry, says God, when I’m done here, he’ll be begging to let you go.
If you graduated Sunday School you should have an idea of what this looks like. God unleashes a series of ten plagues on Egypt, designed to show God’s strength against the power of Pharaoh. Do you remember what they are? Call them out: Water to blood. Frogs. Gnats. Flies. Diseased livestock. Boils. Hail. Locusts. Darkness.
Between each plague, Moses tell Pharaoh to let his people go – on a three day journey to worship God in the desert, of course. But Pharaoh’s heart is hardened – sometimes by God, sometimes by Pharaoh himself. And at times, as the plagues get worse, Pharaoh relents. And un-relents. He will not let the people go.
Finally, it is time for the last plague.
God instructs the Israelites to prepare. They should slaughter a lamb, smear the blood on their doorposts. In this way, God will make a distinction: God’s people, separate from the rest. We could say this is symbolic of the whole story of Exodus: God making a distinction between this one chosen people and the rest.
As the clock strikes midnight (let’s pretend, I don’t think the ancient Egyptians had clocks that struck midnight), God strikes down all the firstborn children of the Egyptians – everyone, the story goes, from the oldest child of Pharaoh to the oldest child of the prisoner in jail.
And finally Pharaoh says Go.
The Israelites waste no time. Pharaoh has changed his mind before. They grab their things. They don’t let the bread rise. Hearts in their throats, they march. “The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt,” we read, “ready for battle.” And in front of them, the God who will lead them to freedom: present in a pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night.
And sure enough, Pharaoh changes his mind.
He summons the troops. They prepare the chariots, ready the horses. They catch up to the Israelites where they are camped for the night, on the shore of the Red Sea. Israel looks back and sees the army approaching, the sound of horses in the distance. They had gone out ready for battle. They didn’t want to actually fight.
Stand your ground, says Moses. Watch what God’s about to do.
He stretches his hand over the sea – and the waters split in two. The Israelites march. The Egyptians gain ground. But God makes the wheels of their chariots stick. When the last Israelite is safely on the far shore, Moses stretches his hand out one more time and the waters roar back into place, taking the Egyptian army with them. In the morning, bodies litter the shore.
I think we are right, from a modern perspective, to ask some questions about who God is in light of all these events. If God is God, we might wonder, why couldn’t it all have been a little bit easier? Why couldn’t God have just made Pharaoh say yes? Why did God seem to want Pharaoh to say no? Just to make a stronger point? Is that the kind of God we worship, punishing people for things they had no choice in?
And what about those firstborn Egyptians? God heard the cry of the Israelites in slavery. Did God likewise hear the wail that went up when their families found each firstborn member dead? Why couldn’t God have ushered the Israelites safely across the sea before the Egyptians got there? What about bodies on the shore screams “Our God is an awesome God”?
Is that the kind of God we worship?
I think we’re right to ask these questions and I don’t think they have any easy answers. The answers all get into how literally we read the Bible and how much we are willing to chalk up to human understanding which is limited in any given place and time. God, in my own modern understanding, doesn’t smite people to make a point. Even in early Jewish commentary, it was said that though the Israelites sang a song of victory when they saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore, God stopped the angels in heaven from singing. “How dare you sing for joy,” God said, “when my creatures are dying.” I don’t think there’s any way to get around contending with the fact that the people who first lived and told these stories might have told them a little differently than we would now.
But in this story we also learn something else about God, something that holds true throughout time, something that continues to be revealed in new ways throughout the ongoing story of Scripture, and that is that the God we worship is a God of liberation. God wants God’s people to be free.
ASK: What does it mean to be free? The obvious answer is not to be enslaved or imprisoned. But I’d say it means more than that. To be free means to be able to live the abundant life that God created all of us for.
This is specifically true for this one group of people in the story who God chooses for a particular relationship. But as the story of Scripture continues to unfold, it becomes clear that it is also true for God’s whole creation.
It is true for starving children in Yemen, for Rohingya Muslims in Burma, for civilians running from shells in Syria. It is true for girls sold into sex trafficking in Thailand, child laborers in Bangladesh, Appalachian communities in the grips of the opioid epidemic, children in camps and cages on the US-Mexico border.
The Exodus story tells us that God is willing to confront the Pharaohs of this world, the forces and powers that keep God’s children bound. God doesn’t watch from heaven as an impartial witness, the unmoved mover. God chooses sides. And the side God chooses is the side of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, and the suffering. And God intends to make it right. Maybe it will seem like God has forgotten, but as we read last week, God will remember. God wants God’s people to be free.
It is true for young black men caught up in the school-to-prison pipeline, for homeless people who long to get off the streets right here in Rosslyn, for people with mental illness left in limbo by our healthcare system, for gay people who have been rejected by their families or kicked out of church.
And, it is true for all of us imprisoned by fear, by greed, by anger, by hopelessness, by the power of sin that weaves its way into our own hearts and our own lives.
Because when we meet this God again much later in the story, when we meet the God who becomes flesh in Jesus, we are reminded that sometimes the things that enslave and imprison us aren’t outside systemic forces, but inside, personal ones. Jesus comes to confront both the forces of individual sin and brokenness and the systemic sin of the Roman Empire, which as it turns out aren’t so far apart. And while confronting the powers of Egypt may look like hail and locusts and bodies cast on the shore, confronting the powers of sin looks like dying on a cross.
The story of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea gives rise to many questions, but maybe another question we could ask is who we identify with in this story.
Last week we talked about the call of Moses to use his unique history and passion to be part of God’s redeeming and liberating work, and how we are called to do the same. And so if we are to identify with Moses, the question is, who around us needs to be set free? And how are we called to take part in that work that God is doing?
But maybe it isn’t Moses we’re supposed to identify with here. Maybe it’s the Israelites. They are God’s people, just like we understand ourselves to be. And if that’s the case, what is it we need to be freed from? What outside or inside forces hold us captive? And what would freedom from those things look like? How might God be trying to lead us there?
But there is a third possibility, and that is that we might identify with the Egyptians in this story.
I don’t necessarily mean Pharaoh; I’m sure most of us don’t have that kind of power to decide people’s fates, for good or for evil. I mean the ordinary Egyptians (by the way, this has nothing to do with modern Egyptians, just the ones in this story) – the ones for whom the sight of Israelites making bricks is just a normal, daily occurrence; the ones who are ready to carry out Pharaoh’s commands; the ones who see injustice and oppression around them and don’t ask questions, or the ones who deny it exists altogether. The ones who eat the food and wear the clothes made by slave labor, who deny the racial inequality in our country, the ones who just don’t think we should press too hard for change. The ones who don’t realize that this is a form of bondage in itself, because as the saying goes, none of us are free until all of us are free.
They are also God’s creation.
We are also God’s creation.
And I think the answer is we can and should identify with all of them, at different times and in different ways and perhaps to greater or lesser extents depending on our social location, but all of them: that we are the ones who participate in the forces of oppression; that we are the ones called to be part of God’s liberating work in this world on behalf of others; that we are the ones who need to be freed. It’s all of them, sometimes all mixed together so we can’t even tell them apart.
And God’s liberating work continues: in us and around us and despite us.
And the good news is, God knows what we are up against. And the good news is, God calls us to be part of something new. And the good news is, by God’s grace, when everything seems hopeless, the seas will part, and we will be free.
And freedom is still the beginning of the story.