The story of the exodus and the crossing of the Reed Sea is one of the salvation stories of the Old Testament. It follows hard on the heels of the day of the Passover and it continues the story of the plagues. This whole story is told as a contest between YHWH and Pharaoh, with the question of who has the right story about who controls life.
When YWHW first introduced himself to Moses, Moses wanted to know who he was and YHWH’s answer was, “I am or I will be”, and the way you will know who I am is when the slaves are freed. Pharaoh asked the same question when Moses went and told him to let the people go, but with a bit of a different twist. Pharaoh puts it this way, “Who is YHWH that I should let the people go?” The answer is the same both for Moses and Pharaoh. They will know who YHWH is when the slaves are brought to freedom and have fully left Egypt.
The story that I want us to look at here is what happened the day after the first Passover. On the night of the first Passover, Pharaoh and his people all lost their first born son because they refused to celebrate the Passover. If this seems harsh, we need to remember that at the very beginning of this story Pharaoh was the one who wanted to have all the Israelites male babies killed because he feared that some day they would leave and then who would do the work? Pharaoh’s wanting to kill the babies leads directly to his son being killed (eye for an eye).
On the Passover when the first born died, Pharaoh kicks the Israelite slaves out of Egypt. He wants them gone because they are too expensive to keep. So they leave and the goal is the promised land of Palestine to fulfill what was promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. However, God did not lead them in the shortest way. There is a route that runs along the north of Egypt and it does not take long even to walk it. However, YHWH leads them to the south and the whole journey takes 40 years instead of a week or two. There is lots to learn in the desert. Exodus 13:17 tells us that one reason was that if Israel faced a battle the people would all want to go back to Egypt. We know that Egypt was a major force at this time and had a number of forts along the northern route.
The story tells us that God led them by a cloud during the day and a pillar of fire during the night. Between Egypt and the desert where YHWH first spoke to Moses was a marshy area, known as the Reed Sea. I think most Bibles use the term Red Sea but then have a footnote that says Reed Sea. What I understand happened is that Israel is led by God around this marshy area and when Pharaoh hears of where they are going, he thinks they are trapped. When the slaves leave Egypt, its economy grinds to a stop and Pharaoh cannot imagine a new way of doing things. It is the same with us, when we come to a new situation we normally want to go back to what was instead of imagining something new. So who is Pharaoh and what is his world view?
We need to remember that one of the reasons given to Pharaoh to let the people go was that they needed to go into the desert and worship YHWH there. For Pharaoh this was a problem not only that the people would have to take off time from their work. That was a problem in itself because in Pharaoh’s view there were not enough goods to go around so he had slaves building cities to store his wealth. But there is another aspect that if we enter Pharaoh’s world will tell us a lot about him. In his world the common people do not go to the temple to worship. Worship and offerings were for the elite only in Pharaoh’s world. As someone has said:
Pharaoh can see no reason for everyone to be part of the worship of the Lord. As his ‘secular’ world is arranged–hierarchal, authoritarian, and totalitarian–so is his religious world. It is the religious leadership–in this instance the adult males–who must go and serve the Israelite God. The people should remain behind, enslaved, passive, and hope that the priests get the rituals right, and thereby insure the blessings of their God or Gods. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/equal-before-god/
Pharaoh saw himself at the top of the heap and therefore he saw no need to change anything. I think that is why when he thinks that his former slaves are now lost and in a place where he can catch them easily, he sets off to do so. Here is how I understand the scene: Israel has the marshy area to the east of them and on the other side is freedom, but how to get there is the problem. Pharaoh knows this and thinks here is my chance to get them back and then things will be just like they always were. So Pharaoh gets together his army of chariots and off he goes. In that time, chariots were the tanks of their day. It would be just like sending the tanks into Tiananmen Square. It would all be over in just a little while and those left would be more than happy to go back to being slaves. Both Pharaoh and the former slaves believe this. However, this story does not end that way.
God in the cloud moves between the Israelites and the Egyptian army and he tells Moses to stretch out his staff and all that night a wind blows and in the morning the Sea of Reeds is divided into two. The Israelites can now cross over on dry ground which they do. However, when Pharaoh tries to do this something goes wrong with his chariots and the water comes back and Pharaoh loses his army there. Have you ever stopped to think about why this story is here? It really is a very strange story, but it comes up in a number of different places in the Bible. It may be a bit different but we should be able to see it. Maybe the first one that you will think of is Jesus crossing the Sea of Galilee asleep in the boat. His disciples are filled with fear that the storm will drown them. They wake Jesus up and he says, “Peace be still” and the water is calm. Once they have crossed, they meet this demon-filled man and when Jesus is in the process of casting them out, he asks the demons what their names are and they answer Legion. Then they enter a bunch of pigs and run into the sea and are drowned. Legion is a military term. From there in both Mark and Luke we are told about Jesus feeding large groups of people in the desert and then going to a mountain and hearing God’s voice there. You can hear a number of more references to this story in the OT and the NT. But I think we need to talk about this story in light of what we know about Pharaoh and the meaning that it would have had to the people to whom it was written. I am indebted to Rikki Watts for starting my thinking along these lines.
So first, who is Pharaoh and what did he think about himself? What did he understand about his world and his place in it? This is just like us; we act out what we understand about who we are and what our place is in this world. If you think you have no value and the world is a meaningless place you become hopeless, but if you believe there is meaning and hope we work to make this a better place.
One problem we have is that we cannot ask Pharaoh what he thought but his story is told in the temples and pyramids. Temples tell the story of the how their builders understood the world. So we have some idea how things worked during their time. So what do we know about Pharaoh?
Let us look into his world.
This is a mask that was found in King Tu’s grave. It has both a Snake and vulture indicating that he ruled both lower and upper Egypt. So in the first scene when Moses throws down his staff and it becomes a snake, what do you think it symbolized?
In this image what you are seeing is how the Egyptians believed the world to function. The woman that you see stretch out across the picture is Nut. She serves the same purpose as the firmament in Genesis 1:6. Everyone understood that the world was flat, or better it was a disk, and Nut’s job was to keep out the water from which the world was made. If the water from above and below came together the world would turn into chaos again. Each figure on the above picture is a god of some kind and the chief of them is Ra the sun god. He rules in the sky and Pharaoh rules for him on the earth. In this picture you see the sun sailing across the sky in a boat during the day and then at night he travels through Nut to start the next day. Underneath is the writing that explains what the picture means.
Egypt had a number of different stories about how the world worked and the next picture shows a clear image of the water above Nut. In this one, we see Ra crossing over Nut in a boat but this time he is going through the water of chaos above Nut. I think that is how the sun got back to the east to start its journey back to the west. In others images we see the sun going back to the east under the world and there fights the snake. Pharaoh represented the sun god Ra on the earth. So as things went in heaven, so things went on the earth or the other way around. You can see the stars on the body of Nut as well. It is how they saw and understood their world. What other people groups thought that set them apart from the story of the Bible was that there was a god for each area of creation while the Bible has a God who creates everything outside of himself.
The next picture I want to look at is one of Ra travelling through the under world and fighting the snake each night. If Ra won the fight, then the sun would rise out of the Reed Sea in the morning but if the sun did not shine then that meant that the snake had won for the time being. The snake represented chaos and if he won that might mean that the waters above Nut and the waters from under the world would join forces and all of creation might be undone.
The problem of a flat world was always how the sun got back to the east. So my understanding is that during the time of Moses, Ra travelled under the world every night to rise in the east. Remember what was to the east? It was the Reed Sea.
Now if we look at an Egyptian temple of that time it fills us in with the last details of Pharaoh’s worldview. The temples are long and narrow just like the Nile River, but they generally face east to west, because the sun rises in the east. Someplace on the east side is a man made water pond. It was used by the priests to wash themselves but it also probably represented the Reed Sea from which the sun rose in the morning. When you enter the temple there is a ramp which shows that the Egyptians believe that the earth rose up out of the water like a pyramid. When you enter the temple proper you come to a bunch of pillars and on those are craved reeds, again showing the importance of the Reed Sea. As you go into the temple you will come to where the image of the god is placed.
Worship was for the priests and the rulers and not the common people. While Pharaoh might not spend much time in the temple everything was done with him in mind because he was seen as the sun god Ra’s image on earth. So Pharaoh was worshipped and thought to be a god while he was alive. While as Christians we believe that creation started at some point in past time, for the Egyptians creation happened everyday after Ra has travelled in his boat through the underworld, defeated the Serpent of chaos and then rose from the Reed Sea to start the new day. So in some way Pharaoh was seen as taking part in this, because he and Ra were so closely connected. So what does this have to do with our story of exodus?
In the morning when Pharaoh sees that the Reed sea is divided just as the sun is coming up, what do you think is going through his mind? This is his story, the one that he has told and heard and seen on the walls of his temples. What does he do? He sends his chariots into the divided sea to find out very quickly that he has the wrong story. It is YHWH who divides the waters and not Ra or Pharaoh.
So what is there for us in this story? Or maybe I should say who are we? First if we want to understand our Bible well, we need to know it’s cultural context and if we don’t, we will misread it to people’s harm. Our story is that we, all of us humans are made equally in God’s image and as such we are all equal, men, women, all of us, or as Paul says in Gal. 3:28 “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28 NRS). And in Eph 2:14 we read that ‘the wall that divides is broken down’, this is the wall in the temple that kept out women and non Jews.
However in the book of Exodus we read about slavery, so what gives? When we understand slavery the way it was described in Egypt and compare it to how the Israelites were to treat their slaves there is a huge difference. In the Bible if your slave is unhappy they could go free. We need to see the projection of where the story goes because by the time of the NT, your slave is your brother or sister and must be treated as a sister or brother and not as a slave. The story of the Bible moves to greater and greater freedom and we need to keep moving in the same direction because the story does not end.
I think that we, as the image of God, need to be in the same business as God. God is in the business of setting people free, not just from sin but from the things that enslave them. The story of the exodus is the one of the best examples that we have of this. I think we need to be about breaking down walls or parting the sea so people can be freed, no matter if they are on the US/Mexico border or between Israel and the Palestinians. In Canada we have our own issues that need to be dealt with. In order to do this, we need to listen to people’s stories, not to be able to give them advice because then we are not listening but to really understand. It is the way to enter into people’s lives, and that is what God does, he entered into this story. He heard their groaning and then he was there in all of the ins and outs, and lots of time the ins and outs were very ugly. God is for giving full freedom to those who do not have it, like the minorities, women, and other oppressed people. As Christians, too many times we lose our calling to set people free and turn to building walls, not just of steel and cement but economic structures, which fuel racism and war. The strong want to have the controlling story, but God calls us to live out a different story. For those of us who claim to follow God’s story, we need to enter into the parting the sea and breaking down walls by living out what Micah calls for 6:8
“O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (NLT)
The closer our world moves to war the more important it is that we break walls and part the waters of oppression.