SUNDAY SCHOOL FOR GROWN UPS: (4) MOSES AND THE RED SEA
My very first memories of attending Sunday School stretch back to the days when I was a young child in Wales. Sunday School as I experienced it then was a little different than it is now. It wasn’t held on Sunday morning, before or during the service. Instead it took place on Sunday afternoon. After the Sunday morning service was over, you went home for lunch, and then you came back at two in the afternoon for Sunday School. Incidentally, for those who were old enough to stay out late, there was another service on Sunday evening – so you could literally spend all day at church.
Of all the good things this experience of Sunday School did for me, one of the most important was the way it supplied me with a collection of stories that captivated my imagination and helped me learn about God. When I heard them as a child, these stories all seemed quite separate and distinct. They all seemed to be self-contained units, each having a beginning, middle and end. But what I learned many years later was that these stories were actually connected to each other. They were actually parts of a much bigger story – the story that is God’s story. We tend to look at each of these episodes in isolation, but in fact they are all linked. They are all part of the unfolding narrative of God’s relationship with the world he has created.
The story of Moses parting the Red Sea is one such story. The parting of the Red Sea is such a dramatic event, worthy of the full Hollywood blockbuster treatment, that we might be inclined to see this story as standing on its own. But there’s a larger picture that we need to keep in view – a larger picture that will help us better understand what this story is all about.
This story, it turns out, is the continuation of the story we looked at last week - the story of Joseph. Joseph, as you remember, had been sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers, but God ensured that Joseph rose to become chief official in the land, and in that position he was able to bring his whole family to Egypt to escape the famine they were facing. Joseph’s family settled in Egypt, and enjoyed a life of peace and plenty.
But as we move from the book of Genesis to the book of Exodus, the tone changes. Exodus says, “A new king, who did not know Joseph, came to power in Egypt.” This new king was not friendly towards Joseph’s rapidly multiplying descendants. In fact he looked at them with disdain and fear. First he made them slaves. Then he tried, unsuccessfully, to kill them off. Their lives became an ongoing ordeal of suffering and slavery. It was as if they were re-living what Joseph had gone through all those years before when his brothers had thrown him into a cistern.
In their misery, the Israelites cried out to God. And God heard their cries. God remembered the covenant he’d made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And God acted. He called Moses to be his servant. Moses would confront Pharaoh, and demand that Pharaoh free the Israelites from slavery. When Pharaoh refused, a series of plagues was brought down against him. Pharaoh eventually gave in, and let the Israelites go. But as they made their escape, Pharaoh changed his mind, and sent his army after them.
As the Israelites race to freedom, they see Pharaoh’s army gaining on them. Blocking their escape is the sea. With Pharaoh’s army behind them and the sea in front of them, their situation seems hopeless. But Moses tells them, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
What happens next is one of the great turning points in the Bible. Moses stretches out his hand over the sea, and God drives the sea back with a strong wind. The water parts, and the Israelites go through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on either side. The Egyptian army tries to follow them, but the water flows back, and they are all swept away.
The magnitude of this event is so great that it leads to all kinds of questions. How could it have actually happened? How could the sea be made to part? How could there be walls of water on either side? How could an entire army be swept away?
These are interesting questions, but we really don’t have any way to answer them. Besides, they’re not really the important questions. More important than the questions asking “how?” are the questions asking “why?” Why did God do all this?
Was this just an opportunity for God to display his miraculous power? Because if that’s what it was, you’d have to say the results were rather mixed. Surprisingly, this extraordinary display of divine power didn’t seem to leave much of an impression on the Israelites. In no time at all they seem to have forgotten all about it. It wasn’t long before they were complaining about the conditions they were having to endure on the other side of the Red Sea. They even got to the point where they told Moses it would have been better if they had never left Egypt!
The thing about miraculous events is that they are very much in the eye of the beholder. What one person sees as a miracle of God is often seen by someone else as something completely different.
There’s an old Jewish tradition that says when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, there were two men at the back of the crowd who didn’t see it quite the same way as everyone else. When the sea parted, the seabed was a little muddy, like a beach at low tide. One of the men said, “What is this muck?” The other man said, “There’s mud all over the place!” “This is just like the slime pits of Egypt!” his friend replied. The other man said, “What’s the difference? Mud here, mud there; it’s all the same.” And so they carried on, grumbling all the way across the bottom of the sea. For them the miracle never happened.
It seems, then, that God must have been up to something that was much more than just a dazzling display of his divine power. There must have been a deeper reason for doing what he did.
Perhaps this story is about God taking the side of the Israelites in their fight against the Egyptians. Is that what God is doing here? It certainly looks that way – although, if you think about it, that just raises other questions.
Safwat Marzouk is a Mennonite pastor and an Old Testament professor. He was born and raised in upper Egypt. He grew up in a Christian family, learning about the Egyptians of the Old Testament, who oppressed the people of God, and as a result suffered from ten plagues and then drowned in the sea. He says he had a hard time squaring this with his own identity as an Egyptian. Many years later he was taken aback by his seven-year-old daughter, who asked, after watching the movie The Prince of Egypt, “Daddy, does God love Egyptians?”
The Bible itself answers this question. In the book of Isaiah, the prophet describes God’s ultimate desire for the Egyptian people. He speaks of the day when the Egyptians themselves will cry out to God to save them, and he will respond to their pleas and heal them. Then God will say of Egypt, “Blessed be Egypt my people.”
We can’t then make simplistic statements about the Israelites being good and the Egyptians being bad. We can’t say God loves the Israelites and hates the Egyptians. That’s not what this story is all about. There’s definitely something else going on here.
The story of the Exodus is not really the story of the Israelites fighting the Egyptians. It’s actually the story of God fighting Pharaoh – and not just Pharaoh as an individual. Pharaoh is more than just a particularly bad guy. He represents everything that stands opposed to God.
The Pharaohs of Egypt were the most powerful kings the world had ever known. Sometimes, like in the days of Joseph, that power could be used for good. But such power was an intoxicating substance, and it was tempting for that power to be used for no other purpose than to hang on to it. The Pharaoh of Moses’ day was so bent on holding on to power that he went to truly frightening lengths. He made the choice to ally himself with dark forces - forces of destruction, forces of chaos, forces of death. These were the forces that made it possible for him to kill, to enslave, to oppress. But by taking sides with such demonic forces, Pharaoh had put himself on a collision course with the God of life – the God who had created order out of chaos, light out of darkness, goodness out of nothingness.
Pharaoh was treading a very dangerous path, but he didn’t realize it because he thought he was so powerful. He couldn’t imagine that the God of the Hebrew people was any threat to him whatsoever. And yet, he was putting himself on the very edge of oblivion, because he had joined up with the forces of chaos, and sooner or later he would find himself undone by the very chaos he had associated himself with. This chaos, which he tried to use for his own ends, would eventually swallow him up.
Pharaoh is not just the bad guy in the story. He’s Hitler; he’s Stalin; he’s ISIS. He’s the representative of all those powers and principalities that seek to rule this world of ours, that seek absolute domination over everything they see, and who refuse to recognize any other authority, even the Lord of creation himself.
That’s why the events on the shore of the Red Sea are so important to the Old Testament. These events are a turning point in a cosmic battle for control over creation. They demonstrate God’s decisive act to uphold his authority over those who would usurp it. They reveal that God’s purpose will prevail against even the strongest opposition standing against him.
This is why the Old Testament sings with joy about chariot riders being hurled into the sea. At a human level, we can have compassion for the suffering of other human beings, even those in the service of Pharaoh. But at a cosmic level we know that Pharaoh’s power must be broken, that he must be defeated – defeated by his own choice to ally himself with the forces of chaos and death.
According to Exodus, it was God’s intervention that parted the seas, allowing the Israelites to escape. But Pharaoh and his army did not believe in Israel’s God. Yet they still drove their chariots onto the seabed – into the very heart of the chaos. When the chaotic rush of water surged back to its usual place, Pharaoh’s soldiers must have been shocked, but they could hardly have been surprised. This was the way things were supposed to work in a world governed by Pharaoh’s rules. It was only in God’s kingdom that safe passage could be found through the watery chaos.
The parting of the Red Sea is a highly significant event in and of itself. There’s only one other event that surpasses it – an event that follows very much the same pattern. That event is the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus too came under attack from the forces of chaos and death. These forces thought they had him well and truly trapped. They thought they were going to defeat him once and for all. But instead God raised him up, leading him safely through to the other side. And as a result the power of death was broken. Death itself was swallowed up. As the Apostle Paul said, “’Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
The link between the different stories in the Bible is undeniable. That means we have to keep in mind that the saving of the Israelites at the Red Sea was not the end of the story. When Israel was saved from Pharaoh, they were saved for a purpose. They were saved so that they could be called into a special relationship with God. He would be their God, and they would be his people. This special relationship – known as the covenant – would be sealed at Mount Sinai, when God gave the Ten Commandments to Israel. These commandments defined the terms of God’s covenant with Israel, and laid out the ways in which Israel would demonstrate that they truly were God’s people.
Being God’s people is not a reward, it’s a calling. God saves Israel, not for their own benefit alone, but so that he can work through Israel to bring salvation to the whole world. Out of Israel will come the Messiah – Jesus – who will be the Saviour of the world, the one who will defeat the power of chaos and death once and for all.
What then is the link between the story of the Exodus and our own personal stories? How does it relate to our own lives? For one thing it points us to the saving power of God which extends right down to our individual lives. God’s plan of salvation is vast. It covers more than just us as individuals – but it doesn’t omit us, either. It reaches right into our individual situations, offering us a safe pathway through the chaos that threatens us. It tells us that we do not have to be afraid, because the Lord will fight for us.
God wants each of us to take hold of the liberating power of his love, so we can be set free from what enslaves us. He wants to break the chains that trap us in cycles of pain and misery, when instead we should be walking in joy in his presence. Each one of us, in our own way, needs the deliverance God promises.
And there’s something else this story tells us. It tells us that we are saved for a purpose. We are saved to be called into a special relationship with God. We are saved so that we can take our place among God’s people. And as God’s people we are the ones through whom the message of God’s salvation is to be taken to the rest of the world.
The story of the Exodus is a story of God’s promise of salvation. But it’s also a summons for us to play our part in God’s liberating work. May we open ourselves to hear God’s call, to be the agents through whom God can continue to defeat the forces of Pharaoh, and set his people free.