“The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.” (Exodus 14:19)
As I read this text right now, I wish the LORD had left it at that. I wish that putting a pillar of cloud between the Egyptians and Israelites was enough, so that the violence and loss of life were not necessary. As I read this text, it hear it telling a story that keeps happening in the world—one where conflict and death are an inevitable part of how we interact with each other.
The Parting of the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds as it is usually translated now) is one of the major events in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The LORD frees the Israelites from slavery, miraculously parting the waters to lead them safely from the danger of Pharaoh’s army. Depending on how you hear it, the events can come alive, or drone on as ancient history.
It isn’t always easy to for people to connect the events in the Bible with our modern lives. Several high school students over the years have told me that while they are believers in Jesus Christ, they don’t have much interest in the Bible—it just doesn’t seem relevant to them. “We know more about how the world works now,” one of them said. “We know about science, and medicine, and the Big Bang. And so much of the Bible talks about agriculture—but we aren’t farmers!”
I understand. To teens in the midst of learning about the world, the Parting of the Sea may seem unscientific or irrelevant. To me it is all-too-relevant, but I am struggling to find the good news in it. I have to agree with an avid reader of the Bible who protested the destruction of the Egyptian army whenever the topic came up. “Why did God destroy all of the soldiers? They were probably draftees who couldn’t avoid serving Pharaoh! And the horses! What did they ever do?
It turns out that, over the centuries, the Rabbis have had trouble rejoicing over the miracle that freed the Israelites but left Egyptian bodies washed up on the shore. If we read further in the Book of Exodus, we reach the triumphal song the Israelites sang to praise the LORD for their salvation, which begins:
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. (Exodus 15:1)
There is a midrash from the Rabbis about this–a midrash is an imaginative commentary, like a sermon–the midrash says the angels in heaven were watching, and rejoicing that the Israelites had escaped. When the people began to sing, the angels joined in the song, but the LORD silenced them. “How dare you sing for joy when my children are drowning!” God did not rejoice that the Egyptian warriors had to be destroyed to save the Israelites. And so the angels were silent. But God didn’t command the Israelites to be silent—because people need to celebrate their own survival.
Freedom from slavery in Egypt is the great story of salvation in the Torah. In the order of the narrative, it is the second of three great themes. The first is Creation: In the beginning, when God created the heaven and the earth—which doesn’t mention the Big Bang, but doesn’t exclude it either. The third major theme is Revelation: the event of Sinai: Moses on the mountain with God, receiving an understanding of what the LORD wants for the people. Creation, Salvation and Revelation. As Biblical/Historical paradigms, I can understand why teenagers might find these themes hard to grasp and irrelevant. But these themes connect to our lives right now in so many ways: let’s talk about how these themes connect to us as individuals.
Creation: At a personal level creation is happening all the time. We grow, we learn, we change. Even at the cellular level creation is an ongoing process; cells die and are born. We are not the same self forever. Our lives are an ongoing process of creation.
Salvation: We go through one saving experience after another. We are injured, we fail, we miss opportunities, a relationship is broken…then we are healed, things get better, we get another job, find a friend.
Revelation: There is God’s way, and there are other ways. We constantly have to choose: are we going to go into the world doing things God’s way? Or a lesser way?
The narrative of God’s rescue of the people at the shore of the sea is also a message of hope for each of us individually. You are stuck in Egypt. We have all been there. Egypt is an existential situation—a tight spot, a place of burden, a source of bitterness. You are saved from one Egypt after another. It is an ongoing process, and there is hope. You hear in this text that God will divide the sea to give you a path through– even where there was no path before. That is God’s ongoing message of hope. Yes, there is hope for each of us. God loves you. God loves the particular, individual, imperfect person you are right now. And God saves you over and over, because God needs you.
God needs you, and your energy, for God’s ongoing project of transforming the world. You can count on God’s salvation, and you can participate in it—which is also a message of hope. God needs you to help create the world. Your ministry as a baptized Christian is to find the work you are called to, and do it. The work of the church is to go outside our doors and see what the world needs us to do–outside is where we are led by Jesus Christ. We might get our feet wet, as we step into the sea, but it is exciting. And outreach and helping work is what teens find relevant and hopeful about our faith—and we don’t even have to be farmers. That is a message of hope. That is good news.