Corona Sabbath 26 Reflection Text

Greetings and welcome to Corona Sabbath.  This is one of the ways the church is endeavoring to offer spiritual support during these challenging days of COVID-19.    We appreciate your feedback and suggestions.

This post focuses on freedom.  We listen to the story well known from Sunday School about the Hebrews escaping slavery in Egypt by crossing the Red Sea. 

We listen to Exodus 14:19-31.

Earl Waters recording

Then the angel of God, who was leading the Israelites, moved to their rear – the pillar of cloud left the front of their number and took up position behind them, between the Israelites and the Egyptians.  All during the night the cloud provided light to one side and darkness to the other side, so that there was no contact between them.

Then Moses stretched his hand over the sea, and Yahweh swept the sea with a strong east wind throughout the night and so turned it into dry land.  When the water was thus divided, the Israelites marched into the midst of the sea on dry land, with the water walled up on their right and on their left. 

The Egyptians followed in pursuit; all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and charioteers went after them into the midst of the sea.  At dawn, Yahweh looked down upon the Egyptian forces from the column of fiery cloud, and threw the army into confusion and panic, clogging their chariot wheels so that they could hardly turn.  The Egyptians turned to flee from the Israelites, saying “Their God fights for them against us!”

Then Yahweh told Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, and let the water flow back upon the Egyptians, over their chariots and their charioteers.”  So at sunrise, Moses stretched out his hand over the sea and the waters rolled back in.  As the Egyptians fled, Yahweh hurled them into its midst.  As the water flowed back, covering the chariots and the charioteers – Pharaoh’s whole army, who had followed the Israelites into the sea – not one of them survived.  But the Israelites passed through, walking dry-shod in the sea, with the water like a wall, on their right and on their left.  Thus Yahweh saved Israel on that day from the power of Egypt.  When Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the seashore and beheld the great power that Yahweh had shown against them, the people held Yahweh in awe; and put their faith in Yahweh and in Moses, God’s trusted servant. 

Reflection from Rev. Kim Wells

This is one of the most famous scenes from the Bible:  Moses parting the Red Sea so that the Israelites can escape from slavery in Egypt.  After the river turning to blood, an infestation of frogs, the swarming of gnats, the cloud of flies, the death of the livestock, the devouring locusts, three days of total darkness, and finally the killing of every firstborn in the land of Egypt.  Finally, the Israelites escape across the desert and through the Red Sea. 

If you want to make a horror movie or tell a post apocalyptic dystopian tale, look no further than the Bible for inspiration! 

The Israelites escape the angel of death by putting lamb’s blood around the door frames of their homes.  While the Egyptians are mourning their dead, the Israelites make their exit into the wilderness.  Only to be pursued by the Egyptian army.  They get to the Red Sea and we hear of the parting of the waters that enables their escape. 

We know the image from pictures in Bibles, from Church School booklets, and of course, from the movie, ‘The Ten Commandments.’  The parting of the sea and the people crossing over on dry land is one of the most well-known images from the Bible. 

It tells of a god committed to freedom.  A god who stands up for those being abused and downtrodden.  It symbolizes the power of justice.  God is on the side of the oppressed.  God heard the cries of the Israelites being terrorized by their Egyptian task masters. 

But I don’t like this story.  Because in the story, God is responsible for seeing to it that the entire Egyptian army is killed.  We are told:  “. . . the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea.”  [Exodus 14:27]  And then the conclusion, “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.”  [Exodus 14:31]

Yes, I understand that the story was designed in a certain way to meet the spiritual needs of the people who wrote it centuries later.  In that time and place, the story was needed to fortify the Jewish people in a time of despair.  God had rescued them once, God would do it again.  It is also a projection of our very human desires for vengeance and retribution.  We create God in our image.   But, knowing all of this, I still don’t like this story.

In addition, as a Christian, this image of a vengeful God is not consistent with the teachings of Jesus.  We do not see Jesus promoting a god of vengeance.  I can’t imagine Jesus, remembered for forgiving his killers from the cross, touting a God of retribution and pay back.  Jesus seems to have taken the opposite approach – even those who do evil are beloved.

That said, Jesus is known for celebrating the Passover, the commemoration of the escape from Egypt, on the night before he was killed.  So he did not renounce his heritage.  He accepted this story and its important role in the history of the Jewish people. 

But we have no record of Jesus telling people to follow him to freedom with the expectation that God would take out the Romans.  Maybe after hundreds of years, it was time to see things in a different way.  And Jesus wanted to show us that way. 

While I do not like this story and the killing of the Egyptians, just like I don’t like the story of Noah and the killing of not only the humans but of the animals and plants, this story is important.  It helps us to see ourselves more clearly.  Our desire for vengeance and retribution.   It shows us the contrast with the way of Jesus which is about reconciliation and forgiveness not punishment.  It shows us our tendency to image God in a way that suits our purposes.  It shows how we prefer to hold God responsible, rather than taking responsibility ourselves.  God did this.  God did that.  Give God the glory.  Or the blame.  But this can be used to diminish human responsibility and accountability. 

There is also another consideration that is important in this story.  For something new to be born, something has to die.  To realize our ideals of justice and freedom, there are things that need to be laid to rest.  Drastic change means something new is accepted and former ways are released, or drowned, as the case may be. 

In these days we are addressing ourselves to creating an anti racist society.  This is a noble, divine goal.  But a lot has got to be washed away to achieve this valiant ideal.  To make this a free land, a lot of harmful attitudes and assumptions and lies need to be laid to rest.  There is a lot of truth to be uncovered and accepted.  And this is a painful healing process.  But it must be embraced. 

Think of a change you would like to see – in your life.  In the community.  In our country.  In the world.  Focus on that one change.  That moves your heart. Give it some thought.   Envision the reality you would like to see.  Imagine that world. 

To create that reality, to get there, something has to go down, something has to be given up.  Destroyed, even. 

In this autumn season, in a temperate climate, we think of the trees, giving up all of their leaves, so that they can survive the winter and come back to new life in the spring.  The process of death is incorporated into the process of growth.

So, this story of the parting of the Red Sea reminds us that we don’t get to the Promised Land on a tram from the parking lot to the theme park.  True transformation can be an arduous, painful, frightening, redeeming, worthwhile, life giving process.  Amen.

(Click HERE if you wish to see the post containing the video of this text.)

Author: Rev. Wells

Pastor of Lakewood United Church of Christ since 1991. Graduate of Wellesley College and Union Theological Seminary of New York.

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