10 November 2014

Exodus 14:5-31

“But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground.” (v. 16)


Thanks to 20th-century films we hardly need to ask about the context of this passage. There is a problem in this, however, that of familiarity. We need to step back into our time to get things in perspective. Britain of the Victorian era had dominated the globe as an imperial power, but two world wars served to underline the fragility of that and other empires. Then in more recent years the vulnerability of the United States has been underlined by events which continue to have a global significance.

Returning to the passage, the dominant nation was Egypt. Here was a centre of power and wealth, of culture and society that we can only imagine. It is rare, if not unheard of, for imperial power to be maintained by benevolence. The Egyptians relied on slaves to enable their society to function. But sooner or later such systems are challenged. People are knocked back into place or they become a threat. Moses was leading such a people. Of course, when you are oppressed you can begin to regard it as the norm - freedom can feel threatening. And so, on leaving Egypt, the people quarrelled. Then they saw that they were being chased. And we are in the midst of the passage.

Then the miraculous happens - "lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground", says God to Moses. And the people pass through the sea safe and the pursuing army is drowned.

I want to see this as an historical story of escape. What bothers me is the fate of the pursuing Egyptians and the attribution of the whole event to God's action. History has to be told after the event and interpretation has to take place. How near the narrative is to the event we do not know. What is clear is that the Exodus story has been, perhaps, the most significant in Jewish history and has been adopted by oppressed people ever since. It has had immense power for all ages, far outliving the original event.

To Ponder

  • How does it affect your faith if an event is not true historically, but conveys a truth that helps us to live better lives, or gives us hope where we had none?
  • What might nations today learn by pondering this story? 

Bible notes author

The Revd Andrew Pratt

Andrew is a Methodist supernumerary presbyter, Honorary Research Fellow at Luther King House, Manchester, and author. He has written over 1,300 hymns.