Walking with Moses
The Red Sea: Creating a Touchstone
September 17, 2017
Rev. Fritz Nelson – First Presbyterian, Columbiana
Text: Exodus 13:20 – 31
From Sunday school lessons to Hollywood blockbusters the story’s been etched into our imagination. The Israelites, now escaped slaves, are running from Egypt to freedom. The Egyptian army is hot on their tail. Suddenly they find themselves on the shore of the Red Sea. Trapped. Water on one side. Egyptian army closing in on the other. And then this happens:
But as preserved in scripture the escape is much more complex and nuanced. The Israelites live in Goshen, an area along the Northeastern side of the Nile River Delta. Its about the same distance from Goshen to Israel as it is from Columbiana to Columbus. Even in ancient times a good, well-traveled road connected the two. Yet God chooses not to send them by this route.
Instead God sends the Israelites south, along a route that cuts through the middle of the Sinai Peninsula and connects the modern port cities of Suez and Eilat. While longer, this route runs through fewer settled areas, reducing the potential for armed conflict. As the Israelites set out on this route, the Egyptian army remains at home. Inactive. Just letting the Israelites go along an established route that will easily take them north of the Red Sea, into the Negev dessert and then to the Jordan River Valley. No miracles required.
But then, when the Israelites get somewhere near Etham, a long lost region somewhere near the northern end of the Gulf of Suez, God orders the Israelites to turn back, to leave the main road, and head southwest along the western shore of the Gulf of Suez. Only then, when they turn back, does the Egyptian army mobilize. Exodus tells the story this way:
Then the Lord says to Moses: “Tell the Israelites to turn back and camp opposite Baal-zephon, by the sea. Pharaoh will say of the Israelites, “They are wandering aimlessly in the land; the wilderness has closed in on them.” I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, so that I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and al his army; and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.”
In short, the whole thing is a set up. God could have let the Israelites wander peacefully, uneventfully across the Sinai. But God doesn’t. God creates a trap for the Israelites, so that this can happen.
Friends who are recovered drug addicts have confessed to me their gratitude for their addiction. Without it, they say, I wouldn’t have experienced God’s radical salvation. Yet given the harm their addictions caused them and their families, I have trouble believing God orchestrated their addictions for the purpose of performing the miracle of restoration. That’s like saying God wills us to sin so he can redeem us.
For the same reason I’ve at times given thanks for my extensive period of depression, for that journey and my deliverance from the depression very much shapes who I am as a minister and follower of Christ today. Yet I’ve never thought God willed that journey on me. In fact, if I had followed God’s call in the first place, if I’d followed instead of run, then I probably could have avoided that entire period in my life and the pain it caused me and those close to me. God certainly used that time. But I have trouble believing God orchestrated my rebellion and my depression for the purpose of performing a miracle of restoration.
Yet through the entire Exodus story we see God time and time again going out of his way to gain glory over Pharaoh, to show divine strength. Every time Pharaoh begins to break, God intervenes, hardening Pharaoh’s heart, so that God can deliver another mighty act. Blood’s good. Frogs are better. Gnats take the cake. Flies are bigger than gnats, dead livestock more economically damaging and boils extremely painful. Hail kills the wheat, locusts kill the barley and darkness terrifies everyone. Even killing the firstborn isn’t enough. God seems to be seeking a touchstone miracle, a moment so powerful, so deeply seared into the Israelite psyche, that they will never forget who was God, that they will never doubt the source of their salvation.
As first the Israelites and then the Jews and Christians told and retold the story of God’s deliverance through the waters of the Red Sea, the story became a touchstone in the narrative of salvation. For the Psalmists, the Red Sea narrative illustrated God’s steadfast love – even toward a sometimes difficult people. For the early Christians, the Red Sea story illustrated God’s amazing faithfulness, a faithfulness cumulating in that other great miracle, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Like the Red Sea, Jesus’ resurrection provides a touchstone. If God could deliver the Israelites through the Red Sea, we say then God can deliver us from whatever situation we’re in. If God can resurrect Jesus Christ from the dead, then God can bring resurrection to our lives, our communities, our church, our world. If God could create that touchstone moment of salvation in our own lives, then God can bring salvation once again. In times of trouble we recall these touchstones and celebrate all that God has done for us, all that God can do for us and all that God will do for us.
Exodus tells us that the Israelites began their celebration immediately on the far shore of the Red Sea. Miriam, Moses’ sister, we’re told wrote a little song, took a tambourine in her hand, and led the women as they sang and danced:
Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and rider he has thrown into the sea