16 April 2012

Exodus 14:21-31

"The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night." (v. 21)


This dramatic passage in Exodus is well known to us. However, perhaps our image of it is more influenced by Hollywood than the actual text.

There is a debate over the understanding of what is happening here. Modern liberal sensibilities baulk at the idea of God supernaturally intervening to drown the Egyptians. However the truth is that many who have been enslaved in history have found power and hope in this narrative as it tells the tale of the defeat of the oppressors and the liberation of the oppressed.

The Exodus story has been an inspiration to the Jewish people as they faced persecution down the centuries. It was also an inspiration to those who ran the underground railroad that helped slaves in the southern states of America escape to freedom in the North in the mid-19th century. Harriet Tubman who had escaped from slavery herself risked her life and freedom to rescue others and became known in the anti slavery movement as the Moses of her time.

But as we read this passage closely we can see that the supernatural explanation is not the only reading open to us. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has pointed out that this text can be read two ways, both seeing God at work in the liberating of the Israelites and in the drowning of the Egyptians: but one asserts the Hollywood-like supernatural understanding and the other sees God at work in the processes of nature in the changes of the tides. The Egyptians in this second more naturalistic reading contribute to their own demise by the fact that their armour and chariots, their militarism and their wealth, lead to them being stuck in the mud as the tides turn.

Maimonidies, a medieval Jewish Scholar, was at pains to point out that the people followed Moses not because of his supernatural deeds but because he brought the people the way of Torah - the Word of God. Some of the early rabbis saw the parting of the sea as stemming back to the creation: the setting of the tides by God at the beginning of time (Genesis 1:9-10) was God's action for the Israelites freedom.

To Ponder

Which interpretation of this passage do you prefer and why?

Have you ever felt God's presence in nature? What was your experience? And how did you feel God in it?

Bible notes author

Ray Gaston and Annie Heppenstall

Ray Gaston is inter faith tutor and enabler for The Queen's Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education and the Birmingham Methodist. Prior to that he was in parish ministry in inner city Leeds for 12 years.