Opening The Old Testament
Resurrection By Another Name: Reflections on Exodus 14-15
This is a story of resurrection, for Israelites and later Jews the story of resurrection, and the focus is squarely on YHWH. When the grumbling and then terrified Israelites find themselves trapped between the forces of pharaoh and the angry waves of the sea (Ex. 14:9), they scream at Moses that their freedom has turned to imminent death. Plenty of graves in Egypt, Moses, they shout; why bring us out into this place where death is even more certain and even more horrendous? Moses' response makes the central point of this resurrection tale. "Do not be afraid! Stand still and see the salvation that YHWH will work for you today. The Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. YHWH will fight for you, and you must only stand still" (Ex. 14:13-14).
And with that grand oration echoing in Israelite ears, Moses stretches out his hand over the sea and two separate and distinct events occur. We of course are most familiar with the "walls of water on their right and on their left" (Ex. 14:22), made indelible in our minds by the Cecil B. DeMille epic of six decades ago (done incidentally using Jello, resulting in the only Oscar the film won). But that is only one of the stories told in this complex account. There is another: "YHWH drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land" (Ex. 14:21). Here we witness some sort of long tidal event, rather than the instantaneous piling up of divided water walls. An event as magical and grand as this can hardly be confined to one telling! There are two accounts of creation, and most famously today, four very different tellings of the resurrection of Jesus.
Again, we are not asked to choose the "right" story; is the tidal account more "believable," hence more possibly "historical," than the walls of water story? This is again not the point. Both stories have YHWH at the center; both stories announce that YHWH is the God of life, ever active against the forces of death. This ancient resurrection story mirrors and echoes all other stories of dying and rising gods from the ancient near east. It is not more or less historical than they; its power is not found in its historical plausibility. It has power because it is my story; it is the story that I choose, the story that has lured me into its potent orbit, the story that affirms my conviction that God is always seeking and creating life in a world too often overcome with death.
Thus, I find it always valuable, indeed necessary, on this Easter Sunday to read again the Israelite resurrection story, that story that has sustained Judaism now for three millennia through horrific persecutions and hatred and rejection throughout the centuries and in nearly all lands of the world. The history of the thing is beside the point. It is the story itself that counts. And so for us Christians, we are not helped by demands to suspend the laws of physics in order to accept the unacceptable, to believe the unbelievable.
I am reminded again of one of my favorite rabbinic stories. I will paraphrase it as it has been told and retold for many centuries. A famous rabbi told his best student: you must keep the tradition alive, my son, by going to a certain place in the forest, lighting a special candle, singing the correct psalm, and telling the story. The old rabbi died, and his student became himself a famous rabbi. Unfortunately, he could no longer remember the exact forest spot he was to go to, so he told his student to light the candle, sing the psalm, and tell the story wherever he thought right. After that rabbi's death, his student had forgotten about the candle when he told his student about keeping the tradition alive, but urged him to sing the psalm and then tell the story. That rabbi died, and his student knew nothing of the forest spot, or the candle, and forgot about the psalm. He trained his student to tell the story. And it was enough.
It is enough. The story of the Sea of Reeds and the story of the resurrection of Jesus are more than enough to change the way we think about God and the way we think about the living of our days. Happy Easter to all!
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.