Exodus 14:19-31 - link to the NRSV text
Fear is a reality that we all must deal with in some way. Personally, heights scare me out of my mind. Rationally, I knew when I stood on the top of the Empire State building in high school that there was practically no way I could fall off, but I still could not get myself to physically step through the door and outside onto the terrace area. I spent fifteen minutes trying to work myself up to go through those doors, but I literally could not make myself do it.
Some fears, like mine at the Empire State Building, are irrational. Others are very rational. Jews in Germany during the Nazi regime had legitimate reason to fear for their lives and the lives of their loved ones. People living in Iraq or Afghanistan or other war-torn areas of the world surely experience at least uncertainty if not fear at what could possibly happen at any moment with very little to no warning. Franklin Roosevelt once famously remarked that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, and while it’s a great sound bite most people know that there are things out in the world that do cause fear in the hearts of human beings.
In our reading from Exodus this morning, we have the famous story of Israel’s final deliverance from the hand of Pharaoh and the start of their journey into covenant relationship with God. The story functions as a bridge; in some ways, its themes echo themes found in the stories of the plagues, with Pharaoh’s heart being “hardened” or “stiffened” (Exo 14:8) and the idea of the LORD being made known to Pharaoh (7:17), the Egyptians (7:5, 14:4,18), or Israel (10:2).
More properly, however, the story is a part of the wilderness tradition, setting the stage for themes of the uncertainty of the Israelites and God’s deliverance and providence. Throughout the plague narratives, Israel takes on a mostly passive role, and Pharaoh and Moses (with his side-kick Aaron) are the main players. Pharaoh and Egypt however become passive in this story, almost secondary as the main drama plays out between God, with Moses as God’s representative, and Israel.
The usual pattern follows something along this line: 1) uncertainty or fear over a threat or crisis, 2) the people grumble at Moses, 3) God through Moses provides, and 4) the crisis is averted. This rough pattern appears (by my count) at least three more times before the giving of the covenant and the Ten Commandments in chapter 20: Exodus 15:22-27 (the bitter water), 16:1-15 (bread from heaven), and 17:1-6 (the water out of the rock). You can possibly also interpret 17:8-16 in this pattern with the threat of Amalek against the Israelites, and the Golden Calf story in 32:1-14 could be understood as an attempt by the people to replicate this pattern with Aaron when they feared for Moses’ fate on the top of Sinai.
In this case, the threat or crisis is the oncoming Egyptian army, and the Israelites are afraid as one could well imagine. In reaction, they turn on Moses (the grumbling) and ask, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?” (Exo 14:10 NJPS). Moses instead implore the Israelites to have faith in the God that has already brought them this far. “The LORD will battle for you,” he argues. “Hold your peace!” (14:14 NJPS).
And so the stage is set for God’s providence and action; the author of the story is working out of the theology of the divine warrior, understanding the LORD as the one who will fight on behalf of Israel against the one who threatens their existence, i.e. Pharaoh.
So God’s angel and the pillar of cloud cut off the Egyptians’ advance and darkness came upon the sky (14:19-20) and then comes the famous cinematic moment: the parting of the sea. The Israelites are able to cross the muddy ground, but the Egyptians chariots (the very thing that most likely gave them their overwhelming military advantage) are unable to follow and turn to flee but are swept up in the waters
And so the fear of the Israelites is relieved and replaced by the fear of the LORD. This fear, however, is not a fear where one trembles and cringes, but is an awe-struck, overwhelmed sense of wonder at what God has done. To fear the LORD in biblical language is less about fearing God’s wrath and more about having respect and acknowledgement for God’s power and authority.
There are troubling aspects to this story, just as there are in the plague narratives earlier in the book and in the “holy war” stories that follow. But in terms of this particular story, there is a point where evil must be defined as evil and must be dealt with. Within the context of Exodus, Pharaoh had dug his own grave. Time and again he was given the chance to end the conflict without it coming to this point, and instead pursued the Israelites blind to the LORD’s admonitions and warnings through the plagues.
I talked about this before when I blogged on the flood narrative, the tension between God’s love and mercy with God’s righteousness and justice. Evil must be judged and something must be done about it. Miroslav Volf puts it incredibly well in his book Exclusion and Embrace, which I have referred to on this blog before:
If Augustine was right that “the city of this world…aims at domination, which holds nations in enslavement” and “is itself dominated by that very lust for domination” (Augustine, The City of God, I, Preface), then God must be angry. A nonindignant God would be an accomplice in injustice, deception, and violence…God will judge, not because God gives people what they deserve, but because some people refuse to receive what no one deserve; if evildoers experience God’s terror, it will not be because they have done evil, but because they have resisted to the end the powerful lure of the open arms of the crucified Messiah (Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 297-98).
The crossing of the sea is a story that transitions a people from fear to awe, from doubt to faith, from cries of despair to shouts of joy and worship. It is because of the God who heard their cries of injustice and has delivered them that they now can sing and dance with joy, liberated for a new life and new purpose. It is the LORD who turns fear into joy, who delivers us from those dark places of enslavement and exile and brings us through the deep into a new dawn.
The Song of the Sea in chapter 15 sums it up well:
I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
The LORD is my strength and my might,
and he has become my salvation…
Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
awesome in splendor, doing wonders? (Exodus 15:1-2a, 11)
Who indeed? Amen.