by Daniel Harrell
As far as biblical water stories go, Moses’ parting the Red Sea ranks second only to Noah’s Ark. Of course technically, it was God who parted the water and not Moses. However, there remains a need on the part of some to minimize the Lord’s direct involvement. Oceanographer Naum Volzinger and colleagues from the St. Petersburg Institute of Oceanography recently analyzed conditions that could have made the parting of the Red Sea possible. They calculated that a wind blowing at the sustained speed of 67 miles per hour overnight could have exposed a reef existing close below the sea’s surface. The Israelites could have then fled over the pathway before the wind died down and waters rose again, blocking the way for pursuing Egyptian soldiers in their wheeled chariots. Unfortunately Dr. Volsinger does not account for the difficulty in having an entire population of men, women, children and livestock trudge across a wet sandy ridge in an unrelenting 67-mile-per-hour wind.
While I am one who would assert that a natural explanation does not negate divine involvement—seeing that I believe God to be the author of nature—I do think that in this instance, God’s purposes stretch beyond the coincidental. It’s hard to imagine that getting the Israelites across the Red Sea was merely a matter of being in the right place at the right time. The sort of natural windy occurrence the oceanographers imagined, while plausible, was only a computer simulation. The wind of Exodus 14 was one of those once-for-all occurrences deliberately instigated by God. Moses stretched out his hand and on cue the LORD blew back the sea all night, dividing the waters and turning the sea into dry land. Three weeks into this sermon series on water, the language should be familiar. At creation the Lord blew back the dark waters of Genesis 1, dividing them into sea and sky and brought forth dry land as earth. With Noah, the Lord blew back the dark waters of divine judgment, having separated goodness from evil, and brought forth dry ground for a new start. In ancient cultures, deep water represented total chaos. God brought order to the chaos at creation. He turned chaos in on itself with the flood. And here in Exodus, God unleashed chaos on his enemies in order to save his people.
The Exodus serves as a template for the resurrection of Jesus—often described as the Second Exodus. On the cross, God unleashed chaos again for the sake of salvation; he defangs Satan and drowns human sin. If you’re unfamiliar with the background to the original story (or have never seen the movie), basically the ancient Israelites—descended from Abraham as the chosen people of God—were brutally enslaved to a tyrannical Egyptian dynasty set on exploitation. The Lord, cognizant of his people’s suffering, calls on Moses, a man with a million excuses, to be the hero and come to the rescue. Armed with only his shepherd’s crook, God gives Moses the power of plagues and commands him to confront Pharaoh and demand he let the people go. And just in case Pharaoh might muster a little compassion, God hardens his heart so that he would always say no. Like a wrecking ball, Moses lets loose his full arsenal on Egypt: blood, frogs, gnats, flies, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and finally death to all first born people and animals whose doorposts failed to display lamb’s blood as sign for the angel of death to pass over. Pharaoh finally relents, only to have his heart hardened by God again. At the same time, the Lord has his people wander around aimlessly in plain sight to bait Egypt into coming after them again.
The whole thing was a set-up. The Egyptians take the bait and throw their entire army toward the Red Sea. God throws up a pillar of dark cloud to hold them back while he paves a dry path through the water. The Israelites cross over and the Egyptians, concluding perhaps that the parting sea was some freak act of nature, give chase, only to have God drop the water bomb on them. He annihilates the Egyptian army and washes their bodies ashore. The Egyptians never had a chance
Tender consciences are troubled by God flexing his muscles so unfairly. How could the Lord be so harsh? Where’s the love? Where was the mercy? On the other hand, since Israel’s brutal enslavement had gone on for 400 years, a better question might be what took God so long? The reason provided for God suckering the Egyptians into their watery grave is his intent to “gain glory for himself.” Skeptics cite this as a prime example of God being a Celestial Narcissist, so insecure in his divinity and so needy of worship that he has to bend every circumstance to his advantage for the sake of his own self-affirmation. Surely any person needing praise so badly is automatically worthy of suspicion. Likewise, if your view of God is not a particularly high one; that is, if your tendency is to see him as “the big guy in the sky” rather than the awesome, almighty Most Holy Author of the Universe who dwells in unapproachable light, then God’s demanding glory could come off sounding narcissistic.
However if God is truly God, then for him to demand glory is not about his being narcissistic. It’s about him saving your life. As the Psalmist declares, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish. Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.
What went for trusting mortals went more for trusting idols, a huge problem in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians sported close to a hundred funky deities which vied for Israel’s affection. God’s people were constantly tempted to trust these other gods and follow them instead of the Lord. Pharaoh himself was considered descended from divinity, which fascinated some of the Israelites enough that they were willing to put up with their oppression. Being regarded as divine had to go to your head. God made sure that it went to Pharaoh’s heart too. For God to harden Pharaoh’s heart was to embolden him in his own self-delusion. Those with the audacity to assert their divinity don’t always have the courage to follow through. God made sure Pharaoh had the courage. The Egyptians knew full well that chariots and water don’t mix, but when you think you’re god, you go for it anyway—with predictable results. In humiliating Pharaoh and his army, God exposed the nonsense of their idolatry and proved himself to be Lord of All.
Ancient Egypt’s idolatry was a complex, polytheistic system of deities believed to be present in, and in control of, the forces and elements of nature. The God of the Sea, named Yam, exhibited his dramatic power in the sea’s raging waters. Given that the surface of the earth is primarily water, the power is formidable. But here’s this week’s interesting fact about the water: According to journalist Charles Fishman, if Earth were the size of a Honda Odyssey minivan, the amount of water on the planet—oceans, ice caps and atmosphere—would fit into a single, half-liter bottle of Poland Spring in one of the van’s thirteen cup holders. Put another way, if the oceans on Earth were as deep, in relative terms, as the skin on a typical apple is thick, all the land on Earth would be inundated except the planet’s tallest mountains. Pausing to appreciate how slender this film of water enveloping Earth is only makes its immense power and impact all the more dramatic.
The dramatic sea-deity Yam ruled over water and all the havoc it wreaked. However Yam was capricious deity and power-hungry. He eventually gets overthrown by Baal, the god of fertility and harvest, representing human civilization’s own gradual overtaking of nature for its own uses. Baal was a chief deity in Egyptian and Canaanite culture, and a constant temptation to Israel throughout the Old Testament, which was why the Lord kept having to send prophets to yell at them and set them straight. Thankfully, by the time they get to the New Testament, Israel had largely kicked its idolatry habit. However once Christianity emerged, Jewish Christians found themselves back in it as pagan Gentile converts imported their polytheism into church. When you’re used to hundreds of deities governing your life, how do you believe in just one?
In our own day, is hard to understand the lure of idolatry. We read all the strange mythologies and wonder what was the attraction? God no longer needs to prove his supremacy over competing deities to us since we don’t really think of there being hundreds of gods hanging around anymore.
Instead, statistician George Barna insists there are closer to 310 million deities in America, each one tailor-made to fit every individual’s needs and personality. On Facebook this week I shared a post by Congregationalist minister Lillian Daniel, who let loose a pastoral rant on the way ancient idolatry plays out in contemporary culture. She narrated a typical conversation with a fellow, who upon discovering she was a minister, described himself as “spiritual but not religious,” as if he was sharing some unique and daring revelation, a rebellion against the religious status quo. The “next thing you know,” she writes, “he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet? Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition. Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find time-honored religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating.”
Statistician George Barna actually blames the pastors for this development. Everyone hears, “Jesus is the answer. Embrace him. Say this little Sinner’s Prayer and keep coming back. It doesn’t work. People end up bored by sermons, burned out by programs and disillusioned by church politics. Waking up tired on Sundays from demanding jobs all week, the prospect of worship provides no compelling reason to get out of their pajamas. They look at church and wonder, ‘Jesus died for this?’”
The Israelites were no doubt wondering the same thing—only applied to themselves. Exhausted, and now caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, the Israelites suffered some serious disillusionment. Why did they bother getting out of their pajamas? Where was the God they trusted? And now with the Egyptians charging at their rear, they were going to die for this? “Was it because there weren’t enough graves for us in Egypt that you had to take us out here in the wilderness to die? Didn’t we tell you, ‘Leave us alone here in Egypt—we’re better off as slaves in Egypt than as corpses in the wilderness.’” It’s a recurring theme throughout Scripture and human life. Better to be a slave to what you know than risk freedom to what you don’t. But God is setting the Israelites up too. Nothing gets your attention like pending disaster. Do-it-yourself religion is fine until your airplane hits heavy turbulence. When that happens you’d probably rather pray to a God who can actually do something.
Moses tells the people not to fear, to hang tight—God is going to do something awesome alright, right now; “Behold the salvation that the LORD will accomplish for you today; the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again! The Lord will fight for you! You need only keep still and wait upon him!” Apparently Moses, like any preacher, was starting to get a little carried away. God interrupts his potential long sermon and says—don’t tell the people to keep still! Get going! There’s an army behind you!” The Lord then moved himself in between Israel and the Egyptians—the angel of the Lord, the pillar of cloud (basically the same thing) took up the rear guard. Some wonder whether the angel of the Lord was Jesus pre-incarnated. God commanded Moses to raise his staff and bring in the Spirit (Spirit and wind are the same Hebrew word). The wind blew the sea open, and the people, to their utter amazement, saw their way through. Only God could do that.
As the Egyptians gave chase into the sea themselves, we read that the Lord “looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw them into panic.” Trapped between the walls of the sea, the Egyptians could have attributed their fate to their own deity, the sea-god Yam. But instead they fearfully realized that Yam was no Yahweh—only the God of Israel could do this. They tried to run away, but to no avail. Justice rolled down like a river. The Israelites witnessed the Egyptians washed ashore, and they fearfully realized Yahweh to be truly God too. We read, “The people feared the Lord and believed.” You’ll often hear that the verb “to fear” in Hebrew means to “to stand in awe” or “be reverent.” You’ll hear this because you’re not supposed to be afraid of God. But not here in Exodus. Here the Israelites realized the Lord to be the one true God, and it scared the crap out of them. Sometimes that’s what it takes.
To be a Christian and to belong to a church means you don’t get to invent your own God. As Rev. Daniels writes, “We come to the humbling realization that there are some things we simply cannot do for ourselves, communities of human beings have worked together and feuded together and just goofed up together. They come together because Jesus came to live with these same types of people.” You’re stuck instead with a community of believers, religious people, that great cloud of witnesses who over thousands of years have staked their souls to the one who was nailed to a stake for them. In Christ, by the cross, God did what only God could do. He unleashed chaos for the sake of salvation; he defanged Satan and drowned human sin. He took down by evil by taking it onto himself. Justice gets done, and so does love. In what amounts to a second exodus, the Lord leads us through the waters of judgment on the dry paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. He restores our souls, such that now, even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we do not fear, for Thou art with us. And as for the resurrection, good luck doing that for yourself.