YEAR A: PENTECOST 19
September 11, 2011
With this week’s reading we reach the first of the great episodes in the Book of Exodus, the flight of the Israelites from Egypt through the ‘reed sea’ as it is referred to in the Hebrew (later identified by tradition with the Red Sea). The second great episode will be the giving of the law and covenant on Mt Sinai. In the case of the flight of the Israelites, the last of the plagues, the death of the first-born, which had been associated with Passover (see Pentecost 18), had finally convinced Pharaoh to let the Israelite slaves go (Exod 12:31-32). But the episode is not over. God has not finished with Pharaoh (14:1-4), who quickly changes his mind about his action in spite of his personal and national loss, nor does it seem that the people whom the Lord has delivered are entirely committed to the new situation (13:17-18).
By the time we reach Exod 14:19, the Israelites have arrived at the sea and Pharaoh’s army is in hot pursuit. Great fear has come upon the Israelites and, as is becoming the custom, they wish they were back in slavery in Egypt (vv. 10-14). But in vv. 19-31 God moves to resolve the situation. This account is probably the most familiar account of the crossing of the sea and has given rise to many well-known works of art not to mention popular films (cf. the poetic version in Exod 15:1-18). Yet it is full of difficult elements: several agents of God’s activity are present – the angel of the Lord (v. 19a), the pillar of cloud and fire (v. 19b etc.), or the Lord himself (v. 21b); why does Moses have to stretch out his hands (vv. 19a, 27a) if the Lord drives the sea back by a strong wind all night (v. 21b); how do the Egyptians die – swamped by water from both sides as they pursue the Israelites (v. 26), or do they panic and drown as they try to flee (v. 25), or do they get ‘tossed into the sea’(v. 27c)? We could add to the difficulties in timing and location. Scholars have often seen two stories combined in these verses.
Even if we see more than one ‘story’ here, the emphasis is always on the ‘miracle’ of the event, the action of God against all that opposes to deliver his people. But we ought not to get too carried away by the ‘miraculous’ aspect of the deliverance, for as soon as we try to analyse the story to see how it happened, we get caught in the difficulties and inconsistencies produced by the interweaving of more than one version. It is as if the story writer is saying to us that miracle and mystery go hand in hand in God’s saving action with his people. God’s saving grace is always ‘miraculous’ in that it overcomes all that seeks to control and confine its power. And yet it remains mystery in that it cannot be fully comprehended, controlled or used by another. The telling of the story embodies the reality it portrays. At the same time, it always points beyond itself to that mysterious, miraculous reality that is God’s saving grace. The so-called ‘miracles’ in the Bible, when the very fabric and forces of nature seem to be overcome in God’s great acts, are not just accounts of what ‘happened’ at a certain place and time, so that if we pray aright or read them carefully we might hope to see them repeated. They always point beyond what we regularly experience in life, so that, in the face of those forces which enslave God’s people, we might have confidence in the one who works his redeeming work among us. The ‘miracle’ stories are never to be cherished in their own right, but as symbolic narratives of the constant life-giving work of God that is itself mystery.
Another point we should not miss is the link in this Exodus narrative to the stories of creation and flood in Genesis 1-11. The sea, the symbol of chaos, is parted in the darkness of night by the mighty wind raised up by God. There are echoes of Gen 1:1-5, 9-10, but more so of the subsidence of the waters in Gen 8:1 after the flood. The Israelites go through the sea on dry ground (Exod 14:22) while the army of Pharaoh is overcome by the waters. These echoes of the creation and flood stories (the latter is essentially a story of ‘uncreation’ and ‘recreation’) bring the ideas of God as creator and redeemer together. Redemption and creation are two sides of the same coin. God’s redemption of his people is that final act wherein God is seen as creator, the one who is God over all. His act of creation finds its culmination in the redemption of his people. The latter act is a new creation. That is why the passage through the sea is seen as the culmination of Yahweh’s battle against Pharaoh in the plagues. One God struggles against another who is proclaimed as a god. But now even the Egyptians, and other powers of chaos which would enslave Yahweh’s people, know that Yahweh is indeed God – the one who creates and redeems.
This idea is found in the New Testament when redemption in Christ is seen in terms of a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). On the other hand, it is also the case that the redemption of God’s people, which God has worked in Christ, is itself also the redemption of all creation (Rom 8:19-23).
The possibilities for preaching from this text include a focus on the imagery of exodus from slavery as the paradigm for salvation, the gracious initiative of God in all acts of deliverance, the mystery and miracle of God’s redeeming work, and the close connection between creation and redemption and the implications of that for our lives in the larger world. The Gospel reading for this week (Matt 18:21-35) speaks about the kingdom of heaven and forgiveness. The association of forgiveness within the community (both church and wider community) with the themes of redemption and creation could also be highlighted.
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