Victory at Sea! - Reflections on Exodus 14:19-31

by Dr. John Holbert on Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Victory at Sea!

Exodus 14:19-31

The Peripatetic Hebrew Bible Preacher

          Today’s text forms the very heart of the Israelite belief system; it is their resurrection story. On the west bank of the sea, they were Egyptian slaves, and on the east bank, after the miraculous defeat of the pharaoh and his armies, they are the people of YHWH. “The Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again,” promises Moses (Ex.14:13), and the last we see of the Egyptians they are all dead, drowned in the sea. Every year, during the celebration of Passover, at the pesach meal, Jews revel in this tale, pointing to it as a sign that they are YHWH’s unique and chosen people. Of course, for them, as well as for us, this story raises a very painful problem: to put it bluntly, what are we to do with all those dead Egyptians? If YHWH is the creator of sky and earth, author of all life, then what role do Egyptians have in YHWH’s ongoing plan for the world? Merely to be a foil for Israel? Merely to die that Israel may find glory and success? However much the narrative emphasizes the power of YHWH over Egypt, however much it lauds the amazing victory of Israel at the sea, there remain all those dead Egyptians. This is definitely a problem, and if you cannot see it as a problem, you are not taking the tale with the seriousness it asks and deserves.

          Everyone knows the story. Moses is called by God to go to pharaoh and demand that Israel be released from bondage. Pharaoh refuses, as YHWH promises that he will, and “hardens his own heart,” or “has his heart hardened” or, more directly “YHWH hardens his heart.” Three different verbs are employed to describe this reality, suggesting that even the earliest authors are troubled by this famous appellation of “heart hardening.” After all, they say, if YHWH is in full control of the events that follow, then how can YHWH be said to “gain glory” if the pharaoh has no free choice in the matter? But if pharaoh may be said, at least in a few places, to “harden his own heart,” then there is a real contest at the base of the story. Let me say that even here in the midst of the telling itself, the writers are struggling with this thorny issue of dead Egyptians.

          Moses goes to the pharaoh, and after the terrible plagues, capped by the monstrous death of all Egyptian firstborn, pharaoh not only lets Israel go, but actually tosses them from the land, urging them never to show their faces to him again. However, after some time has passed, after Israel has left Egypt and headed into the wilderness of Sinai, the pharaoh apparently “changes his mind” (employing the same phrase used of YHWH later in Ex.32:14, “changing the mind” after the arguments of Moses on the mountain prove persuasive), and charges after the fleeing slaves, looking like he has awakened from a dream. He takes all his chariots, all six hundred of them, and pursues Israel into the wilderness. We all remember what happens, though the text is more complex than it looks at first. One part of the story suggests that YHWH acts to force the sea back “all night” in a kind of tidal event, while another suggests the more famous “walls of water.” Whichever one the tale emphasizes, and both now are somewhat awkwardly melded together, the miraculous reality is that Israel escapes on dry ground while the Egyptians all drown, fleeing directly into the returning waters. 

          On the east bank of the sea (literally “the sea of reeds”), Moses first and then Miriam later lead the triumphant Israelites in a great song of victory: “Sing to YHWH who has triumphed (or perhaps “surged”) in glory; horse and rider God has tossed into the sea” (Ex.15:1, 21). Hence all those dead Egyptians. I am very glad to say that not only are we moderns troubled by all this death and mayhem, the ancient Israelite writers were also. They well remembered the wonderful promise given to Abram by YHWH in Genesis 12:3: “Of you I will make a great nation; through you all nations of the world will be blessed.” Dead Egyptians are hardly any sort of blessing.

          The prophet Amos, as a follower of the ways of YHWH, obviously knew and loved the story of the Exodus, but he warned Israel against their obvious abuse of it. “Are you not like Ethiopians to me, people of Israel, says YHWH. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt (now there is our founding story, they all thought), and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir” (Amos 9:7). What?! Amos claims that God is forever doing Exodus for all manner of peoples, and Israel has no unique hold on YHWH’s exodus activity. In a stroke, Amos cuts the most basic faith conviction of Israel out from under them! He cruelly concludes: “The eyes of YHWH Elohim are on the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth” (Amos 9:8), hardly the expected conclusion once the Exodus story is told! 

          Amos has found in the Israelites of the 8th century BCE a people who have forgotten that central demand of YHWH’s choice of them, namely to be a blessing for the world. Dead Egyptians suggest that Israel is not a blessing, and an ancient rabbinic tale, perhaps from the 3rd century CE, makes the point. 

          Israel won their great victory over Egypt at the sea, and Moses and Miriam led the choirs of the people in a wonderful celebratory song. It was a slow day in heaven that day, and the multitude of the angels were bored. When they heard the song of Israel, they soon learned the tune and began to sing it, accompanied by frenzied and ecstatic dancing. They grew louder and louder and danced ever more furiously, until out of the clouds roared this familiar voice: “You dare to sing while my children are drowning!” The singing and dancing ceased, as all were forced to ponder all those dead Egyptians, all children of God, drowned in the sea. 

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