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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Crossing the Red Sea—Exodus 14:19-31 (Richard Davis)

The divine violence of the drowning of the Egyptians in the deliverance of the Israelites through the Red Sea raises challenging questions about the character of liberation and the foundation of nations.

19The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. 20It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

21Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. 22The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. 24At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. 25He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.”

26Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” 27So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. 29But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

30Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.

The parting of the Red Sea is a famous set piece in Exodus and the highlight of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as Rameses. The special effects used in the parting of the Red Sea depicted in the film remain highly regarded, even in this age of CGI effects. Watching the water flood over the pursuing Egyptians, it is easy to cheer on as God drowns them, ending their pursuit and finally making the Israelites fully free.

This unquestionably violent act raises important questions about the relationship between God’s violence and human violence. Does liberation from tyranny require human or divine violence? While this text is a favourite of liberation theologians, who rightly value its theme of escape from bondage, its reception and use has been mixed.

The twentieth century witnessed a tragic case of the state using this passage in order to dispossess people and bind them, rather than letting people live in freedom and self-determination. This cynical misuse of the passage was by the US military when seeking to clear part of the Marshall Islands in preparation for nuclear weapons testing.

Following World War II Americans wanted to perfect the atom bomb and to develop their nuclear arsenal. Needing somewhere remote to test their weapons of mass destruction, they looked to their Pacific territories in the Marshall Islands. The location chosen for the tests was Bikini Atoll. The indigenous residents were congregational Christians and their consent was won for the tests using biblical arguments and this text from Exodus in particular. The story is told in Jonathan Weisgall’s book Operation Crossroads.

Having already decided the fate of the atoll, the USA military sent Commodore Ben H. Wyatt to Bikini to sell the idea to the Bikinians. Delivering a short homily to the Bikinians who sat on the ground under their coconut trees, Wyatt “compared the Bikinians to the children of Israel whom the Lord saved from their enemy and led into the promised land” (Weisgall, 107). These words had a great effect on the Bikinians, who acquiesced and gave up their island to the Americans, who they both feared and admired. In reality, they were led out of their promised land without knowing where they would go, and not having a meaningful choice in the matter,

The Americans also moved people from islands relatively close to Bikini to other islands. Delivering both gratitude and propaganda to the islanders of Rongelap and Wotho who had been moved to Lae Atoll, Commodore Wyatt again used the imagery of Exodus to convince them that this was necessary venture for the benefit of humanity. He said that “God looks after His people,” explaining how in their exodus from Egypt the Israelites were guided and protected by God using a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. Now, Wyatt explained, the Americans were developing weapons for the protection of Christian civilization that would be “as effective as the pillar of smoke by day and the pillar of fire by night” (Weisgall, 176-177).

While Exodus is the paradigmatic story of liberation from bondage, here in Operation Crossroads (the name for the nuclear bomb tests programme) it was used in the dispossession of the islanders’ homelands. Furthermore, the Islanders have suffered for many years from cancers, birth defects, and ongoing health issues as a result of the testing. Harmless people were dispossessed of their islands. They are long overdue for liberation from ongoing injustices at the hands of the American government. Seventy years on, how can we read this passage as a political text that offers liberation and political wisdom in this age?

The Exodus story up to this point is well known, but bears repeating in brief. Pharaoh had finally released the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and they were journeying to the Promised Land. Pharaoh then changed his mind and sent his army in pursuit to recapture the Israelites and return them to bondage. Caught between the sea and Egyptian army, all seemed lost and some Israelites even rebelled against Moses (Exodus 14:10-12). But God reassured Moses that they would win their freedom after all, even if it looked hopeless. Through God’s intervention, the Israelites passed through the waters of the sea, which then drowned their pursuers.

Egypt allowed the Israelites to leave with their possessions after suffering numerous plagues and the loss of the firstborn males from each family. The Egyptians should have been pleased to see them go and allowed them safe and speedy passage. But as we know from earlier in the passage (Exodus 14:4, 8), the heart of the Egyptian king hardened (and his brain softened?) and he changed his mind, setting out to pursue them. It almost appears that he thought that he could fight God and win.

Full of rapaciousness and anger, he arrogantly thought he could thwart God’s plan for Israel. This proved to be political insanity; he would have been wiser to simply let them go quietly. But because he continued in sin and continued to fight the will of God, God punished him by taking away both his slave labour force and his charioteers, leaving the country economically broken and defenceless. The lesson here is a universal rule of political theology: in the end God destroys wicked rulers.

Today’s politicians may not make exactly the same mistake as Pharaoh, but they might make errors of judgement that prove to be their undoing. They might make one final corrupt deal, torture one more critic, oppress the poor just a little more, have one more extramarital affair, or seek to discredit their enemies one last time. In each case the ruler thinks they can cheat God. God’s patience for such rulers will not continue forever. Such unjust actions do not go unnoticed by God, whose justice will be done. Wise politicians, by contrast, know when enough is enough.

Passing through the Red Sea has been commonly read an allegory for baptism (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:1-2), as it was for Gregory of Nyssa in his The Life of Moses. This is not irrelevant to a political interpretation, for as Gregory writes that those who are baptised “must put to death in the water the whole phalanx of evil—such as covetousness, unbridled desire, rapacious thinking, the passion of conceit and arrogance, wild impulse, wrath, anger, malice, envy, and all such things.”

How many of these vices can we identify in or attribute to the Pharaoh in his treatment of the Israelites? How many can we see in our own leaders? The Christian life should lead us to be better than that, but we need to not only leave matters up to baptismal waters, we need to raise up leaders in our communities and churches to have the virtues of good leadership.

It is worth observing here a parallel with the Flood of Noah. In that case, the righteous survived due to God’s warning to Noah, while the rest of sinful humanity perished under the waters. The same thing happens here, with Moses and his people passing through the waters that in the end kill the sinful pursing army.

The punishment here, that the men of the Pharaoh’s army should be drowned in the sea, echoes Pharaoh’s earlier order that newborn Hebrew boys be drowned in the Nile at birth (Exodus 1:15-22). It is noteworthy here that it is Moses who survives childbirth by floating on the Nile (Exodus 2), and who many years later passes through the Red Sea unharmed, defeating Pharaoh both at the beginning and end of his time in Egypt.

Another notable aspect of this passage is that God, clearly on the side of the Israelites, fights for them. The Israelites do not have to lift a finger in their own defence. Only Moses stretches out his hand (Exodus 14:26), thereby cooperating, along with creation, with God’s violent act in drowning the Egyptians. Otherwise, the Israelites do not fight the Egyptians themselves, they leave things to God, who alone defeats the pursuing army.

Hence, there is no divine warrant for human violence here. There is no justification for interpersonal violence, nor any justification for human violence in the service of justice or liberation. Earlier in the chapter, Moses, trusting in God, instructs the Israelites to sit tight and do nothing in their defence (Exodus 14:14). When all hope is lost, God alone comes to the rescue.

Yet here this story is ambiguous. Violence appears necessary for the liberation of the enslaved Israelites. Without the violent intervention of God, the Egyptians would have probably recaptured or killed the Israelites. The violent defeat of the oppressive state is the only way to freedom and God shows the human freedom fighter what is required to win liberty, the killing of the Egyptians. What are we to make of this?

On the one hand, to those who have thought that human violence can bring liberation, it is sobering to read here that the final act of liberation is from God alone. Human violence, that of the Egyptians, is condemned, and no violence of the victorious Israelites is seen or justified. So this passage seems to be against human violence.

On the other hand, violent means are used by God; and if used by God, why not God’s people? The question remains: Can there be liberation without violence? Theologically we might say that in saving his people, God says to humanity that we cannot liberate or save ourselves. We need God to do that for us. This parallels the Christian teaching that we need Jesus Christ to save us and we cannot save ourselves though anything we might do. And in seeking political liberation we can and should cooperate with God, leaving violence up to God.

Finally, in a world where the origins of nations are often linked to the original violence that created the nation (wars of independence or liberation or revolution), this story says that the nation of Israel was not created by human violence. As with creation itself (Genesis 1-2), the nation of Israel was made solely by the action and word of God, who liberated the people and guided them to new places and sustained them on the way.

Yet as we have seen, God alone brings down the state which oppresses God’s people too much. God listens to the cries of the people (Exodus 2:23-25; 3:7,-9). Liberation will be won in the long run, but in the meantime we might need to wait on God, cooperating with God’s action in God’s time. It is, however, God alone who brings victory here and only absolute faith in God earned the Israelites their freedom. Without God they would have perished and been enslaved again. The message here is that absolute faith in God will, in the end, bring victory.

Dr. Richard A. Davis is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at the Pacific Theological College in Suva, Fiji Islands. He tweets on @rad_1968.

One thought on “The Politics of Crossing the Red Sea—Exodus 14:19-31 (Richard Davis)

  1. this is a good thought provoking article, and certainly I’ve never looked at the exodus in such a light. But there are a couple of issues that trouble me and have troubled me about the whole exodus story, in that in many of the instances when Moses goes to the Pharaoh, the account tells us that it’s the Lord who hardens his heart, rather than it being the will of Pharaohs heart to let the people go. Which in turn leads to the question if life is sacred, which it is, why are events allowed to get to the stage where so many Egyptians lives are lost as they chase the Israelites through the crossing of the sea. Does it therefore become a case that some lives are more sacred than others, which would definitely be a contradiction of the teachings of Jesus. On the other hand, I am encouraged by the view that in losing the Israelites the Pharaoh was going to be losing a great source of labour, which in turn would have been a hindrance for the advancement of his economy. A point that all should keep in mind post Brexit and post whatever Pres. Trump’s latest plans may be. On the upside, as is written, we never forget that there is hope, because as stated God was still there.
    However, it is the loss of life that is involved, and the way that God seems to play with the mind of the Pharaoh that keeps me from seeing this as a completely good news story, but as in everything in life I am looking for enlightenment!! 🙂

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