Walking between the waves

When a nation is founded on violence, and uses violence to ensure people’s ongoing submission and obedience, the forces of chaos will one day overwhelm and destroy it. (Listen.)

As we saw last week, our world is besieged by plagues and other signs and wonders. These are desperate times in which sin is a deep, ever-present, and continuing reality, which affects every person, and all life, on earth. Only a fool would claim that life is good right now.

No doubt the Hebrew slaves who made bricks under the hot Egyptian sun felt the same way. They lived under a violent Pharaoh, whose racist rhetoric had turned many Egyptians against them. He had placed harsh taskmasters over them; he had increased their daily workload to impossible levels; he had ordered that their babies be killed. After repeated warnings from God, and ten plagues of increasing severity, Pharaoh had finally allowed the Israelites to go free. But then he changed his mind, and sent his elite special forces to hunt them down. The Israelites find themselves trapped between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea.

Is it curtains for Israel? There is nowhere to go, and the forces of death are all around. Or has God planned something new?

The Israelites seem trapped, but God is in a pillar of cloud, which brings light to the darkness; then the spirit-breath-wind of God hovers over the waters of chaos and separates them from the dry land. If these images seem familiar, it’s because they echo Genesis: in other words, this is a new creation. A path emerges between the towering walls of the sea, and God’s people walk this path between the waves, together. So God’s new creation is a communal path through chaos, from slavery to freedom; from trust in Pharaoh to trust in God.

A new era is ushered in, and the old is no more. For when the Egyptian armoured vehicles follow, they become bogged. The waves come crashing back, and all the elite soldiers and all their armoured vehicles are destroyed. And when the Israelites see the bodies of the soldiers washed up on the shore, they celebrate. Moses and all the Israelites sing; and then the prophet Miriam, his sister, shakes her tambourine and leads the women, singing: ‘I will sing unto the Lord for God has triumphed gloriously: The horse and rider thrown into the sea!’

But all this celebration makes me wonder. God kept the Israelites and Egyptians apart; did Pharaoh’s army really need to drown? And did the Israelites really need to sing when they saw the Egyptian bodies on the shore?

As we think about these questions, the first thing to observe is that this story is symbolic. A few weeks ago, someone asked if this story was ‘real.’ Historically speaking, there is little to no external evidence that the events of exodus happened. Once upon a time, a small group of Hebrew slaves may have escaped slavery: but the Egyptians were obsessive record keepers, and there is no record of a mass departure of slaves, nor that the Egyptian army was obliterated. In fact, Egypt was an ongoing military threat.

But this doesn’t mean that the story isn’t true. In his very blunt way, Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan writes, ‘[It] is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.’ If we want to discover the truth of this ancient story, we will need to think symbolically.

When we do this, we will see in the original text that chariots are particularly and repeatedly named. This matters. Nations with many chariots were aggressive invaders. They were always seeking to extend their borders and increase their wealth, and brutally trampling, enslaving or killing local peoples. Chariots were like European ships blockading foreign ports; or German tanks trundling into Poland; or armed men on horseback invading the Eastern Maar nation. For Biblical people, chariots are a symbol of state sanctioned violence and its overwhelming power and terror.

So when we hear that chariots get bogged then destroyed, we see that, in God’s new creation, imperial power and military violence are no more.

How they are destroyed is also symbolic, and also important. Throughout the story, God keeps the Israelites and the Egyptians apart, coming between them in a pillar of cloud. Even now, no Israelites takes up a weapon; nobody fights. There is no bigger army or superior military force involved. Instead, destruction happens when the Egyptian army pursues the Israelites across the seabed in heavy armoured vehicles, only then, they become trapped. Only then did this violent army of a violent nation suffer violence: and it was the violence of the traditional symbol of chaos: that is, the sea.

Pharaoh presided over a nation built on slavery, exploitation, oppression, corporal punishment, even genocide. His army ensured people’s total submission and obedience, and it brutally punished anyone who strayed. So a story of a nation’s army being destroyed by the symbol of chaos reveals a deep truth:

When a nation is founded on violence, and uses violence to ensure people’s ongoing submission and obedience, the forces of chaos will one day overwhelm and destroy it.

This brings us to the second question: When the Egyptians died, why did the Israelites have to sing? Well, the Israelites’ entire lives have been brutally regulated and controlled by the Egyptians; if the Egyptians catch up to them now, they face re-enslavement or worse. For those of us who haven’t experienced exploitation and slavery, it is hard to imagine the terror they must have felt: but terror it is. And so when these violent forces are washed away, of course they celebrate! Their sense of relief is overwhelming, ecstatic; they must find release, and sing.

Even so, some of us are haunted by the bodies of the soldiers washed up on the shore.

Like armies today, these young men would have been drawn from the bottom of the pyramid. They were simply cogs in a violent machine; and they were still their mothers’ sons. And as someone observed last week, as members of the ten percent, and as descendants of white colonizers, we are more like the Egyptians than the Israelites. Those are our bodies, our boys.

So for people like most of our congregation, this story contains a symbolic warning: If you continue to participate in systems of violence, if your way of life relies on the exploitation of others, if you relentlessly pursue and oppress and destroy, then you, too, will be overwhelmed by the forces of chaos; you will be washed up on the shore.

Of course, this warning is very hard to hear. For the last month or so, we’ve been travelling through Exodus; and we’ve been shifting between identities. Sometimes, we’ve looked through the eyes of Israel; sometimes, Egypt; because wrestling with these symbolic identities is a powerful way to explore faith and to name truths about our place in the world. But these are uneasy identities to inhabit, particularly when the Egyptians experience disaster.

Know, then, that in Jewish tradition, even the Egyptians matter to God. There is a story from the Talmud which goes like this: The angels see the Egyptian army destroyed, and prepare to sing in celebration. But God says to the angels, ‘How dare you sing while my creatures are dying?’ –because, in God’s eyes, even Egyptian soldiers are people to be mourned. As God says through the prophet Ezekiel, ‘As I live I do not wish for the death of the wicked, but for the wicked to repent of their way so that they may live’ (Ezek. 33:11).

And this brings me back to the beginning. These are desperate times in which sin is a deep, ever-present, and continuing reality, which affects every person, and all life, on earth. Only a fool would claim that life is good.

But the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God: and God claims that life is good. And again and again and again, God calls us to repent, to live, to participate in a new creation: a creation in which imperial power and military violence are washed away; in which corporate greed and political corruption and patriarchal domination and white privilege are all undone, and the weak and foolish and lowly of this world walk into God’s future, together.

Throughout history, in the midst of great suffering, when change seems impossible and all hope is lost, dry paths emerge from chaos. The last century saw the collapse of colonialism in India, the emergence of the American Civil Rights movement, an end to apartheid in South Africa, the Wave Hill Walk-off and the return of land to the Gurindji people, and so much more: and each of these new creations occurred when people with limited rights and no power—people largely held in contempt by the powerful—gathered together and began walking towards freedom.

And so I wonder, What dry paths are emerging? What new creation is being birthed? And how are we walking with God’s humble hopeful people into freedom, and into joy? Ω

Sanctuary wrestled with Exodus 14:19-31 & 15:20-21 on 20 September 2020 (Year A Proper 19, one week late) © Sanctuary, 2020. Image credit: Reverend Albert Lee Wagner, detail: Flee From Egypt-Moses Parting The Red Sea. Found here.

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