October 28, 2018
Exodus 5:1-9, 15-23
Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.’” But Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and I will not let Israel go.” Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us; let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our God, or he will fall upon us with pestilence or sword.” But the king of Egypt said to them, “Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work? Get to your labors!” Pharaoh continued, “Now they are more numerous than the people of the land and yet you want them to stop working!” That same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people, as well as their supervisors, “You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously; do not diminish it, for they are lazy; that is why they cry, ‘Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.’ Let heavier work be laid on them; then they will labor at it and pay no attention to deceptive words.”
Then the Israelite supervisors came to Pharaoh and cried, “Why do you treat your servants like this? No straw is given to your servants, yet they say to us, ‘Make bricks!’ Look how your servants are beaten! You are unjust to your own people.” He said, “You are lazy, lazy; that is why you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ Go now, and work; for no straw shall be given you, but you shall still deliver the same number of bricks.” The Israelite supervisors saw that they were in trouble when they were told, “You shall not lessen your daily number of bricks.” As they left Pharaoh, they came upon Moses and Aaron who were waiting to meet them. They said to them, “The Lord look upon you and judge! You have brought us into bad odor with Pharaoh and his officials, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.”
Then Moses turned again to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.”
Introduction to the Text:
The second reading we’ll turn to in a few minutes. But before we hear it together, I want to give you a framework for understanding its power and importance. This is the salvation story at the heart of Hebrew scripture, at the core of Jewish faith, and the story that reveals the essence of this God we worship:
Our God is a God of salvation.
Imagine your family has been living as slaves – and it had always been this way. For hundreds of years, this is just how it is. You live in a totalitarian society that dominates the world. It is ruled by a dictator whom everyone blindly worships.
Imagine that “[t]he splendor surrounding the dictator-god [makes] it believable: breathtaking architecture, dazzling art, everything magnificent in gold.” But your experience is “abuse, cruelty, superstition, degradation. [You are] right there in the middle of it but obviously and hopelessly on the losing side…”
Under these conditions, it is difficult to apprehend what God is doing in history, or even if [God] is doing anything at all.[i]
And yet, God’s promise is to set you free. Do you believe it? Can you believe it?
God calls Moses to confront Pharaoh. Moses goes to Pharaoh and demands that he free the slaves. This dictator-god understandably finds Moses’ request absurd. Pharaoh doubles down, making the slaves’ lives even harder. But God speaks to Moses again, reassuring him of his promise of salvation.
“Say to the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. I am the Lord!”
Would you believe it?
The way scripture tells it, there is a showdown – a contest between Pharaoh, representative of the Egyptian God Ra, and Moses, who stands for the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the one whose name is “I am who I am.” On one side, a nobody-son-of-slaves, with only a staff in his hand, going up against the autocratic leader of an empire, with vast armies at his disposal. Again and again, Moses confronts Pharaoh, saying, “The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, “Let my people go.” Ten times Moses goes, and each time Pharaoh refuses. And each time the Lord sends a plague upon the land to show his power.
The first encounter takes place by the river Nile, the very river where Moses’ life was saved when he was an infant, when his mother put him in a basket and set him floating in the water among the reeds. Pharaoh’s daughter found the child, and took him from the water to raise him as her own – even though her father had commanded all the Hebrew infant boys be killed.
Moses picks that very spot for his first showdown with Pharaoh, right by the waters where his life had been saved. He demands Pharaoh free the slaves, and when Pharaoh refuses, Moses does as God commands. He holds up his staff and turns the river into blood. But the Egyptian magicians have their own secret arts, and undo the plague by their magic. And Pharaoh’s heart is hardened against the Hebrews.
And so it goes, plague after plague… like a boxing match, round after round. The first two rounds end in a draw, but after that, Moses wins each round. Blood, then frogs, the mosquitos, then flies… On and on it goes. And everyone in the kingdom is watching, Egyptians and Hebrews alike. [ii]
Why such a long ordeal? What does God have to prove? Why not simply redeem the people, once and for all?
Eugene Peterson has an interesting theory about this. He thinks the long, drawn-out fight is necessary not to convince Pharaoh but to change the Hebrew’s hearts.
The Hebrew people had lived under the yoke of Pharaoh for so long, it was the only life they had ever known. Had they simply escaped, they would have been free physically but not emotionally, not spiritually. They would have simply carried with them the same dynamic of power and powerlessness, cruelty and abuse, recreating the evils of Pharaoh, only with them holding the power.
Peterson says God had to unmask Egypt for what it really was, dismantle “the veneer of power and majesty and beauty and success and expose it as evil - so … when [Moses] led his people out of Egypt they would not carry their Egyptian experience with them for the rest of their lives,… and simply reproduce it.”
If their imaginations were not thoroughly cleansed from the evil they were immersed in, they would end up doing the same thing as soon as they were in power themselves, oppressing the weak and trampling on the helpless, bullying those under them with might and size in the name of whatever gods there were. [iii]
If the people are to be free, they need to be free not only of Pharaoh’s claim on their lives, but on their hearts, their minds, and their souls. The people must belong to God; they must know that God’s way is different from Pharaoh’s. That’s what the ten plagues accomplish. Slowly, step by step, bit by bit, Pharaoh is exposed as a fraud.
At the end, Pharaoh’s heart is so hardened, there is only one thing that will change his mind, and it is grim. The Lord instructs the people to prepare to flee. They are to sacrifice a lamb, and take the blood, and smear it on the doorposts of their houses, then cook the lamb and make unleavened bread. There is no time to let the bread rise; they must prepare to flee. Then the Lord passes through one last time, striking down the firstborn of all the Egyptians, but passing over the houses of those marked by the blood of the lamb. And Pharaoh rises up, and calls Moses and Aaron, and tells them to go, to leave Egypt. He lets God’s people go.
Then, in a fit of rage, Pharaoh changes his mind once more. He goes after the people with his army, cornering them at the sea. There is no way to escape.
Which brings us to the reading of our scripture, the story of God’s saving power.
Exodus 14:21-28, 15:20-21
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord pushed the sea back with a strong east wind, turning the sea into dry land. The waters were split into two. The Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right hand and on their left.
The Egyptians pursued them and all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and cavalry went into the sea after them. As morning approached, the Lord looked down on the Egyptian army from the pillar of fire and cloud and threw them into a panic. The Lord clogged their chariot wheels so that they wouldn’t turn. The Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The Lord is fighting for them against Egypt!”
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the water comes back and covers the Egyptians, their chariots, and their cavalry.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. At daybreak, the sea returned to its normal depth. The Egyptians were driving toward it, and the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters flowed back and covered the chariots and the cavalry, Pharaoh’s entire army that had followed them into the sea. Not one of them survived.
Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her playing tambourines and dancing. And Miriam sang to them:
Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously!
Both horse and rider he threw into the sea!
Why is this story so important? What difference does it make to us, this ancient story about a people so far removed from us?
A Rabbi named Shai Held has asked that same question. And today of all days, his answer is important to me. His answer speaks to my heart. Held writes,
The Exodus story… offers us a powerful counter-testimony to the cynicism and despair that threaten to engulf and demoralize us. Imagine a people, enslaved and dehumanized for generation after generation, all hope of freedom and dignity beaten out of them. After hundreds of years, it seems manifestly clear that nothing will ever change.
But then everything changes…
Egypts come in all sizes. We are, each of us, familiar with enslavements and oppressions of various kinds. And we are tempted, more often than many of us would care to admit, to abandon all hope of change, to dismiss all talk of transformation of self and world as so much Pollyana nonsense.
To combat our despair, we tell a simple story – the story of a people who seemed destined for eternal degradation and yet emerged into freedom and a shared dream with God. a people who were slaves now suddenly forged a covenant with God to help build a world in which human dignity is real and the presence of God is manifest.
Who is God? The One who ‘lowers the haughty and raises the downtrodden.’ Who must we be? Compassionate souls who love and care for those who are driven low.
There is no room for despair. After all, no one knew despair like that ancient tribe. And they soon tasted freedom. So, I hope, will we. [iv]
[i] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: a conversation in spiritual theology, [Grand Rapids, MI: William Eerdmans Publishing, 2005], 161.
[ii] Peterson, 163.
[iii] Peterson, 162.
[iv] Rabbi Shai Held, “The Deepest Truth about God; How the Exodus teaches us about ethical passion.” https://www.beliefnet.com/faiths/2000/01/the-deepest-truth-about-god.aspxiefnet.com, 2001.