Exodus: The Parting of the Red Sea (9/1/02)
Rev. Gary Cox
University Congregational Church—Wichita, Kansas
The Book of Exodus is the story of the Hebrew people’s escape from their slavery in Egypt, their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, and their eventual arrival in the Promised Land. The parting of the Red Sea begins their exodus from Egypt, and you heard the setup in this morning’s scripture reading. The Hebrew people are fleeing for their lives from an angry Pharaoh, and they arrive at the edge of the Red Sea.
We’ve all heard the saying, “trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea.” In this case, according to the story, the Hebrews were trapped between the Egyptian army, consisting of, quote, six-hundred picked chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers all over them, and the deep Red Sea. I’ll pick up the story from there.
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into a panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.”
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers. So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh who had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.
Wow. What do we do with a story like that? Think of all the possible approaches we could take. I mean, this story generates a lot more questions than answers. For example:
Did the Lord love the Egyptians?
What happened to all the orphaned children of those Egyptians? Did they matter to the Lord?
Did this miracle really happen? Did God defy the laws of the natural world to deliver the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt?
Is this story simply a myth, written by the Hebrews several hundred years after it supposedly happened, at a time when the greatest enemy of Israel was the nation of Egypt?
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Considering that right before they attempt the escape from Egypt, the Hebrew God has “passed over” Egypt and killed all of that nation’s firstborn sons, didn’t the Egyptians have a pretty good reason for chasing after the Israelites?
Weren’t the Israelites a bit ungrateful to both the Lord and Moses, considering that almost immediately after the parting of the sea they get angry with Moses, and say, quote: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill the whole assembly with hunger.” I’ve always thought that little episode would make a great comedy skit. Here are all these enslaved people, who have just been delivered from slavery and in the process witnessed a miracle beyond the scope of the human imagination; and they almost instantly turn to Moses and say, “We’re hungry. Thanks a bunch, Moses! We weren’t hungry in Egypt.”
Well, this passage generates lots of questions, and there is probably a sermon or two in each and every one of those questions! But today, let’s take a different angle. I suspect you’ve heard sermons on this passage before. I don’t know that I could bring any new and fresh insight to this story that would make you walk out of here this morning thinking, “Oh yes, now I get it. Now this story makes perfect sense to me.”
The angle I want to take this morning is this: Why did this story survive through the ages? Think about it. This story comes, literally, from pre-history. This story was being told long before the people who told it had figured out how to take the sounds they made with their voice boxes and convert those sounds to some system of symbols that one could make visual, look at, and understand.
To me, this is intriguing. Over some outrageously long period of time our minds evolved to the point that our grunts turned into language, and we were able to communicate with one another. And that is surely when everything started to change. Once our ancestors were able to take the things they were thinking and convey them sensibly to others, well, it was then that our brains starting getting bigger generation to generation. Heidegger may or may not have been correct when he said that language is the house of being; but language is surely one of things that makes human being different from other forms of being.
I wonder what the first story ever told was like? It was probably true, and probably involved the family. Perhaps it was some ancient mother telling her young child about the way his grandfather used to hunt, or laugh, or fight. And that story would have been passed along generation to generation, long before we developed the ability to chronicle history with the written word.
There must have been millions of stories, some true, some made up, that were told and re-told, re-told and eventually forgotten. But each culture has stories that were not forgotten. What is it about those stories that survived through the ages? There are certain stories that contain such power, they seem to be almost an inherent part of the human imagination. Creation stories, various myths about the first man and woman, flood stories—culture to culture these stories originated and survived with amazing similarities.
Today’s story—the story of the parting of the Red Sea—is not as ancient as those. But it is still a story that managed to be told from generation to generation, for hundreds and hundreds of years, until at last the distant progeny of those who originally told the story found a way of putting it in print. And now, well over three thousand years after the story is said to have taken place on the other side of the world, you would be hard pressed to find a single person in the city of Wichita, in the year 2002, who is not familiar with this story.
There’s something about a good story, and this one is obviously a dandy. And we can say it’s because it is in the Bible that we know it so well, but there are countless stories that made it into the Bible that have not rooted themselves as firmly in the human imagination as the story of the parting of the Red Sea. Why this story?
I wonder if it is because this story, like all good stories, speaks a truth to us that resonates deep within. Before we even realize it is happening, this story is making certain synapses in our brain crackle with energy. Even as the sound of this story is vibrating in our eardrums there are certain vibrations happening at the depths of our soul, harmonies that just beneath the level of consciousness keep whispering, “There’s something special here…there’s something true here.”
I don’t know how else to explain why certain stories stand the test of time—even survive through countless generations before they can even be put in print—and most stories simply vanish from the human imagination. So what is the truth this story speaks to us?
We are all free to answer that question as we see fit, or, if you find what I’m trying to say this morning has gone off on an errant tangent, not to answer it at all. But it seems to me that for a story to be a real survivor, it must speak some truth directly to the human predicament. There has to be something about the story that resonates with almost everybody. There has to be something about the story that is meaningful to a person born a thousand years ago in an igloo north of the arctic circle, and that is equally meaningful to a person born in Botswana twenty years ago.
What is the truth that we hear in this story? First, I suspect it must have something to do with hopelessness. Hopelessness is something with which every human being can identify. In this Bible passage, the Israelites are in a completely hopeless situation. They have been pushed to the edge of the sea, and they have only two choices: die by drowning, or die at the hands of the Egyptian army.
It’s hopeless. There is no way they can swim across the Red Sea, and the Egyptians, who have them pinned against the sea, are intent on slaughtering them because the Egyptians hold the Israelites responsible for the death of all their firstborn sons—not to mention the rash of plagues that has stricken Egypt of late. There is no way out. They will all soon be dead, and there is, pure and simple, no way around that fact.
I remember when I was taking Algebra in high school, and I was getting behind. Now, I never inherited the math gene from my parents to start with, so I had to really work at it to make any sort of sense of math once we got passed adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing. I still break out in a sweat every time I see a quadratic equation. And I remember one morning walking into Mr. Wann’s Algebra 4 class completely unprepared for the test. As I sat there looking down at that paper, I might as well have been a chimpanzee staring at a page full of Greek and Latin.
I can still remember that feeling. I was trapped. I wanted to run but there was no place to go. I wanted to hide but was in plane sight of one and all. It was too late. That boat had left the shore and sailed off into the sunset without me on it. Checkmate. Game, set, match.
I think that part of being a human being is understanding that feeling I just described. We all face it. Sometimes it’s something relatively insignificant, like when we look at the clock running down at some sporting event, and realize our team does not have the time to make a comeback. Sometimes it’s a little more important, like when we face our own mortality. That’s what happened to those Israelites. When they saw the Red Sea on one side and the Egyptians on the other, each one of them could have envisioned a bright light flashing across the sky, saying “game over.”
I think that must be why this story has such staying power. We know that “game over” feeling all too well. But then the story takes an unexpected turn. Moses says to the Israelites, Do not be afraid. Stand firm. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still. So this story is about more than just hopelessness. It is also about faith. Because even as that game over sign is flashing across the Hebrew imagination, they are told to remain faithful.
Set the scene, putting yourself in the shoes of those Israelites. There is no way out. God will get you out. There is nothing but death any way we turn. God will preserve you. The situation is absolutely impossible. With God all things are possible.
I don’t think this story would have survived if the Egyptians had slain all the Hebrews that morning at the Red Sea. Because stories about hopelessness may resonate with us, but they aren’t things we want to carry around with us throughout our lives, and pass on from generation to generation. But stories about faith—now that’s a different matter. Everybody needs faith. Everybody wants to have faith. And as a part of the human condition, we often wonder if our faith is in vain. I mean, we pray and pray with all the faith we can muster and things still don’t go like we want them to. Our loved ones still pass beyond our reach. All too often, in spite of our faith, bad people still seem to keep coming out on top in this world, while loving and caring people keep getting stepped on.
What’s going on here? How can we be expected to maintain our faith when it so often seems misguided and misplaced? There is a third element to this story that makes it whole, a third element that completes the picture. It’s not just a story about hopelessness, and it’s not just a story about faith. It is also a story about deliverance. Deliverance. And that is why the story survived. Not because it provides a fairy tale happy ending to a hopeless story, but because it speaks a truth that we know in our heart of hearts is real and undeniable: There is no obstacle that we cannot overcome with the help of God.
No matter how hopeless, no matter how dreadful, no matter how painful the situation, in the end, good conquers evil. In the end, God has the last word. In the end, for every insurmountable wall we reach in life, for every Red Sea that life puts in our path, for every Egyptian army that threatens us with destruction, we will overcome those obstacles, no matter how impossible the situation seems, no matter how devastating the odds.
This little story is a microcosm of human life. Life is strange, it is often difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys, we often find ourselves in hopeless situations, but we always find a way out with the help of God. I survived that math test way back in high school. Oh, I flunked that particular test, but it taught me a few lessons, and it even gave me a story that would lighten up an otherwise somewhat heavy sermon over thirty years later. Things just have a way of working out.
And there has been more than one time in my life since that day in high school when I found myself in situations that made that math test seem pretty insignificant. I have a pretty good sense of what those Israelites were feeling that morning in Egypt, as I imagine most of you do. My only advice is this. If you ever find yourself with the Red Sea on one side and the Egyptian army on the other, please don’t lose your faith. Because as impossible as it seems, that Red Sea can part, and you can walk right through the middle of it.