Victory at Sea: Reflections on Exodus 14:19-31 in this "Season of Creation"

Lectionary Reflections
Exodus 14:19-31
September 14, 2014

Both Jews and Christians know this story above all the stories of the Hebrew Bible. For Jews it is the central claim of their faith: on the west bank of the Sea of Reeds (wherever that may be) the Israelites were the slaves of the pharaoh, while on the east bank of the sea, they are the people of YHWH. This unforgettable tale is nothing less than the Jewish resurrection story. Out of hopeless slavery and death appeared life and a future with God.

For Christians this story has a different impact. It has become one of the accounts of the power of God over the forces of nature, beginning with the creation itself and culminating with Jesus' calming of the wind and waves of the Sea of Galilee as a sign of his unique power as son of God. It could well be said that for both traditions, the great account of the Sea illustrates the control that God exerts over the natural forces and places that God has created. In this September of "The Season of Creation," a new season for many of us followers of the lectionary, let us explore that theme a bit.

I have regularly said in these weekly essays that we Christian and Jewish preachers need to turn our reflections on the Bible and our words to our congregations more consistently to the myriad themes of creation. This is so because of the emerging and quite frightening threat that we all face with regard to the natural world. The wrong things are rising (temperatures, carbon dioxide and methane additions to the atmosphere) and the wrong things are falling, primarily the serious engagement with the truth of those rising things. On the dark side of all this is the apparent reality that it is too late already to change the warming of the planet; my generation, my children's generation, and my grandchild's generation all face a world thoroughly unlike the one my parents faced in the early and middle parts of the last century. The effects of all this chemical and biological change are so numerous, and so thoroughly unpredictable in any sort of detail, that it is very difficult to get any kind of grasp on just what we may have in store.

I am fairly certain that few of you reading these words are scientists. Or if you are, you are not making your primary living by practicing and/or teaching science. Rather most of you are theologians of various stripes and spend much of your days thinking deeply about what God may have to do with all this climate stuff. That is surely where I am; I am no sort of scientist. When I walked by science buildings in my college days long ago, I tended to break out in hives for fear. I survived Biology because the professor happened to share with me a love of Shakespeare. While I butchered my already deceased fetal pig, he and I would discuss the finer points of Lear and Hamlet.

However, I can read; my college and graduate school experiences did train me to do that. So I can read, and at least partially comprehend, what my scientific colleagues are saying, and what they are saying should give us pause for certain. The planet is warming, ice is melting, the oceans are rising, plants and animals are moving from their long traditional habitats, and all this has happened in the last one hundred years or so. That is what scientists say.

However, what scientists say can only be for us grist for our theological mills, because we do what they cannot. Each week we mount our pulpits (or march willy-nilly around or in front of them) and we proclaim to ears eager and less eager the gospel of God, a God who tames the waves, we say, a God who saves the people with the power of the wind, illuminated by pillars and clouds of fire.

And therein lies great danger for us. For we may proclaim such a God in such a way as to imply that that God will one day act in that way for us, pulling our fat out of the fires of our warming earth. If we just trust enough, and pray enough, and worship enough, despite our oil-fueled skies, our God simply will not allow us to go down the CO2 tube. Is not the promise of this God, "Behold! I make all things new?" Did not my Lord deliver Daniel, so why not every man (and woman)?

Especially we progressive Christians need to avoid this trap like the snare that it is. God's biblical promise is not that God will forever save us from ourselves and our stupidity. The promise is rather that God will stand with us, urging us, luring us to move in the divine way of unity and wholeness and the oneness of creation. The God we worship is not about to intrude on our head-long rush to heat the world up, but the God we worship will forever raise the possibility, in numerous ways subtle and unsubtle, that we do not need to continue that heedless run to disaster.

For progressive Christians in 2014, that is finally the lesson of the event at the Sea of Reeds. It is not that we need to discover the exact location of this Sea in order to prove that the Bible is in fact historically true, as if that were somehow crucial information for us. It is not. Even if we could find the actual Sea, what difference would its precise location make for us as we reflect about God and God's desire for the world? Nor do we need to ferret out what exactly happened at the Sea. Any careful reader of Exodus 14:19-31 can easily see that there are two stories of the event now intertwined in the text we have received. One of the tales speaks of a tide moving back all night and in the morning returning to its usual flow (so, Ex. 14:21-22a, 27), while the other (the Cecil B. DeMille version) speaks of "walls of water" through which the Israelites pass and which collapse on the pursuing Egyptian armies, pharaoh, horsemen, chariots, and chariot drivers (Ex. 14:21b-22, 29). Now that we know that, what in fact do we know? We know, as our Jewish brothers and sisters proclaim, that God has saved the Israelites from certain defeat at the Sea of Reeds, and we know that despite not knowing either where or how it "happened," categories that are finally not helpful at all.

12/2/2022 9:10:38 PM
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  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.