Out of Egypt: Surrounded
Last week, we learned about the first Passover, as God instructed the Israelites how to prepare to leave Egypt, and not only that, instructed them in how to prepare to remember, every year, how God had rescued them. Today, in our text, we skip ahead a little bit, and find the Israelites preparing to cross the Red Sea, with the Egyptians chasing after them. The threat of being caught is imminent, and the Israelites are in a panic. As I mentioned last week, God knew the Israelites would need to be reminded of why they were leaving Egypt, and indeed, already, just before our text begins, they are complaining bitterly to Moses. They say, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” But Moses responds, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”
And then, they cross the Red Sea, Moses’s arms outstretched in a gesture of parting the waters, a path made clear for the people. It seems to take them all night to cross – this isn’t just a group of twenty or thirty fleeing Egypt, but a whole nation of people. But when the Egyptians pursue, Moses stretches out his arms again and the waters come crashing back together, and the Egyptian army is tossed into the sea. The Israelites are saved. Now, this text brings up many questions. How could Moses perform such a miracle? Did he really part the waters? Can we find some scientific phenomenon to explain what happened? And what about all those Egyptians? Was it fair for them to all be killed? Weren’t some of them just doing their job – part of an army? I’m a great fan of asking a lot of questions of the biblical texts we read. Seriously. There’s no question you can put to the Bible, no question you can ask God that is crossing some kind of line. God is strong enough to hear your questions. But sometimes, if what we’re doing is seeking understanding, it’s helpful if we know what are the best questions to ask, and which questions are distractions to figuring out how the text is important to us as people of faith.
Some people have speculated when talking about the crossing of the Red Sea that the Israelites happened to cross the Red Sea at a spot where, if the winds were right, dry ground would be exposed for a time, because the waters were shallow. You can see from the map that most think the Israelites crossed the sea in this narrow section up here. These folks speculate that miraculously favorable winds allowed the Israelites to pass by, and that the winds changed when the Egyptians followed them, causing the waters to rush back together and drown the Egyptians. In this way, a sort of quasi-scientific explanation for the crossing of the Red Sea is offered. Others, however, read this text and simply see a miracle. Moses raised his arms, and with the power of God, literally moved the water into columns so that dry land was created. Which point of view is right? Or is there another explanation? To this issue, I would respond that it doesn’t matter, because it isn’t the point of the text. It’s an interesting conversation. But figuring out an “answer,” if we ever could, to that question, isn’t really going to help us learn anything useful about this passage. It might sound strange to say, but actually, I don’t believe it matters how the Israelites made it safely across the Red Sea. It only matters that they did, and it matters why they were able to make it across. However it happened, they crossed the Red Sea because of God’s intervention, because of God’s presence with them. That’s the important part.
That other nagging question – what about all those Egyptians? Did God just kill a whole army of people? Those are the kinds of questions that follow us throughout the Old Testament, as I mentioned last week. And they’re important to ask, especially because we have a habit, even today, of claiming that God is on “our side” and not “their side” whenever we face a conflict – personally, in our communities, in our denomination, across the globe. Whose side is God on? In our Bible Study, we’ve been trying to remind ourselves to ask about points of view. Whose point of view is being shared in the biblical text? Even in a book meant to record history, the author has a point of view. If you read an account of the Revolutionary War written by an American, and then one written by a British person, I bet they’d sound quite different, even though they described the same event. The text we read today is written from the perspective of an Israelite, someone who saw God at work in their successful escape from Egypt. How does that point of view shape the story? We can’t know, of course, but we can wonder. I can tell you though, that throughout the scriptures, across the works of so many different authors of the books we read, when it comes to whose side God is on, there is a great deal of agreement. God always seems to be on the side of the most vulnerable. God is on the side of the poor, the oppressed, the persecuted, the abandoned, the pushed-to-the-sides. This is their story. We don’t stop asking hard questions. But if we want to know what this text means, we can’t forget to ask and focus on questions like these: Can God save the Israelites? Will God keep God’s promises to them? Is God strong enough to protect them from the threat of the Pharaoh and the Egyptians? I think answering these questions in a resounding affirmative – yes, yes, yes! – is why the author shares this story in just this way. Yes, God will save the Israelites. Yes, God will keep the promises made to them. Yes, God is strong enough, even to conquer those who had made them slaves. Let’s look at the text more closely.
I was struck reading our passage by all the directional language in the text – the mentioning of where exactly things were. The author here takes great pains to paint us a picture of this dramatic event. Listen: “The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them.” “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” “The Israelites when into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.” And again, “But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.” The picture created for us is one of the Israelites being surrounded, before and behind, left and right. But instead of being surrounded by the Egyptians, as one might have expected given that men, women, and children, young and old are being pursued by an army equipped with chariots and able-bodied soldiers, what surrounds the Israelites is God’s presence – present in pillar of cloud and fire, present in an angel of God guiding them, presence in the absence of water in their path, that instead has formed into safe walls on their sides.
As I was trying to picture this – a path being cleared, and yet protectively surrounded on all sides, I thought of seeing the President of the United States or some other important world leader. When someone that important walks through a room, a path is completely cleared for them. Yet, at the same time, they are entirely protected, and so, whether you can spot them all or not, the president would be completely surrounded by secret service agents. The president’s path is completely cleared and the president is completely surrounded by people ready to give their lives to keep him safe. It’s in this way that God leads the Israelites through the Red Sea – both clearing a path for them, and surrounding them on all sides. What do we learn from that?
A few weeks ago we talked about stumbling blocks – traps laid by an enemy to ensnare us, things that prevent us from following God. As I read this text, and think about God saving the Israelites, and God clearing this path through the sea, I think we learn that there is nothing, no obstacle, no stumbling block, no snare that can prevent God from rescuing those who need it. God creates a path to us in order to get to us. And God creates paths for us, clears the way so that we can leave behind those things to which we’ve been slaves. Last week I encouraged you to think about what it was you needed to leave behind in Egypt. This week, I encourage you to look for the ways God creates paths for you to leave. Sometimes we overlook the opportunities, the openings that God creates for us. Like the Israelites, we’re convinced for some reason that it was better back in that place of slavery. Don’t miss the path that God is clearing for you. Clearing to get to you. Clearing so you can leave Egypt behind.
And then, don’t forget that God surrounds you. If you think of that image of secret service agents again, think of how these men and women are willing to give their lives, willing to literally throw themselves in harm’s way to protect the president. Surely, they do this out of duty, and love of country, among other things. But most of the time, what might motivate an everyday person like you or me to do such a thing? Of course, only love! Remember when we talked about our desire to keep our children safe from all harm? Why do we seek their safety? Love, of course! We act to surround and protect when what we are protecting is important beyond all measure. The president gets an entourage because he’s the most important person, by many measures, in our society. We protect our loved ones because they are the most important things in our lives.
So what does this story of the Red Sea tell us about God and God’s people? Well – these people – these people who have been slaves, oppressed, mistreated – these people are important beyond measure to God. And why? We can find no explanation for their importance other than that God loves them. And so I read this text as God proving God’s self, God’s promises, God’s good intention, God’s love and faithfulness, proving it all to the people. What a strange thing – that God would want to prove God’s self to us! And yet, that’s what I find in this passage. The people doubt God’s intentions, suspect God means them harm, or at least, can’t really bring them to safety after all. And God shows them, proves to them, by clearing a path, and surrounding them on every side. This is nothing less than a demonstration of total commitment, love, and faithfulness, that God gives to us.
And so if the living God, who created us and everything that is, will clear a path for us, and surround us on the journey, what can prevent us from leaving Egypt behind? Not a thing. Not a thing. I want to leave you with the word of a section of the prayer of Saint Patrick, as you meditate on this gift from God: God who clears your way, God who surrounds you on every side, God who loves you beyond measure.
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
By Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.