Sunday, March 4, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus 14

In this chapter, Moses and the Israelites flee from Pharaoh through a divided Red Sea and the pursuing Egyptians are drowned.

The conflict before the Red Sea is contrived, as the LORD deliberately puts the Israelites in a position of vulnerability.  Even without this, a group of hundreds of thousands of women, children and animals will move far slower than military units, as we saw previously when Jacob was trying to flee Laban.  Even with a three day head start, Laban tracked him down seemingly without any difficulties.

All of the festivals, the Feast, the Passover, all of them signify events that happen before the crossing of the Red Sea.  Strangely, there are not any memorials or traditions that derive from the crossing of the Red Sea.  This is interesting because from a modern viewpoint, the crossing of the Red Sea is comparatively much better known.

The boldness of the Israelites in their departure is quite striking.  I mean, given the plagues they had seen unleashed against the Egyptians, I can understand that they would be rather encouraged at this moment, a moment of freedom brought to them by the power of the LORD fighting on their behalf, and so Exodus 13:18 says they departed in "martial array", prepared for war.  Exodus 14:8 says the Israelites were "going out boldly".  In spite of this, the LORD appears to consider their boldness to be superficial, as he refuses to send them through the densely populated Mediterranean coastline, so that they would not "change their minds when they see war, and return to Egypt".  This is an interesting juxtaposition with the supposed "martial array".

I frequently pointed out that the plagues destroyed the economic might of Egypt.  This chapter details the destruction of the military power of Egypt.  Both of these leave the vast majority of the Egyptians alive, but as an international power, it is devastated.  The bible later describes Egypt's return to power, but this doesn't happen for a while.  Note that all this devastation is not a condemnation of slavery in general.  Israel itself enslaves certain peoples at different times and is not punished for it, and Israel is enslaved as punishment for rebelling against the LORD as well.  These plagues are much more specifically a punishment for Egypt mistreating and enslaving the Israelites, the people of the LORD.  I think probably the main purpose of all this is to show that the LORD is stronger than the mightiest nation.  So Egypt is both the land of slavery but also a power that seeks to contend with the LORD and is broken as a result.  This also establishes the LORD's reputation internationally.

Anyway, from a personal perspective my favorite part must be when the Israelites see the approaching Egyptians and they just freak out.  I love verse 11, paraphrased, "Was there some shortage of graves in Egypt that we had to come out here just to find room to bury everyone?"  It's so sarcastic, I just love it.  Another thing to note (this is something a pastor told me once) is that with roughly two million Israelites, not only is the group traveling exceedingly slowly, but most of them are nowhere near Moses.  So one could humorously observe that the Israelites in front get to see Moses and Aaron leading the people, for the Israelites in the back you see Pharaoh galloping after you, Pharaoh is ugly and mean, you don't want to be anywhere near that guy, and the dude walking in front of you is going way too slow, so maybe we could try to speed this up a bit?  I guess it's easy to have faith when you're at the front, near all the miracles, but when you're in the back you only see your pursuers.

On a more serious note, even though only a handful of the people could see Moses, I suspect all of the people could see the cloud of smoke and fire which guided them and protected them from the Egyptians.  And that's the point I was trying to make last chapter when I talked about the cloud, that it was a new manifestation the LORD takes so that he can be relevant in the lives of all the Israelites and not just the select leaders.

I don't believe the text indicates that Pharaoh himself went after the Israelites.  While verse 8 says that "[Pharaoh] chased after the sons of Israel", I believe in this case it is only talking about Pharaoh as personified by his army.  Verse 10 says "Pharaoh drew near" and I would say the same here.  Every reference after this refers to Pharaoh's army or Pharaoh's horses and does not describe Pharaoh personally.  The emphasis here and in chapter 15 is on the overthrow of "the horse and his rider", with horses and chariots as a personification of military strength and power.  Given the prior significance of Pharaoh himself, if he were the subject being overthrown, I think the text would focus on him in particular rather than his military in the fashion we see here.

While Pharaoh himself was used as the foil against which God demonstrated his power before, horses and chariots are the foil now.  I believe this is because chariots were like the tanks of ancient warfare.  Even a small number of chariots would be dramatically powerful.  Horses are similarly a symbol of strength because, well, horses have lots of muscle and are far stronger than any man.

It's definitely interesting to note the introduction of chariot warfare in this passage.  When we saw prior battles like Genesis 14 there is no description of any horses on either side.  The same is true when Laban pursues Jacob with his armed men: they are not riding horses.  Chariot warfare was originally introduced to Egypt by the migration of the Hyksos who eventually came to dominate the region for several centuries.  I wonder if we are seeing chariots now because of the geographic migration of the Israelites (i.e. there were horses in Egypt but not Canaan) or the temporal migration (i.e. there are horses now, but there were not horses during the period that Genesis describes).

There is no one date for the Hyksos migration because it was not a concentrated invasion. The accounts I've read online suggest the Hyksos migrated to Egypt sometime between 1800 and 1600ish BCE and they were not strongly resisted.  The Hyksos brought superior weaponry and eventually took over, dominating Egyptian politics for several centuries.

Contrary to the Hyksos, the Israelites are fleeing Egypt as a solitary unit.  I think this is interesting from a theological perspective, because contrary to the slow or fractious migrations of ancient times, the Israelite migration highlights the identity of the people, that they would travel together and be treated in the text as if they were a single group.  It also highlights the uniformity of how the LORD treats the Israelites because he interacts with the entire community in the same way: he brings them out of Egypt together and he will bring them into the promised land as a single people.  In the words of the NT, all of the Israelites are "baptized into Moses" when they cross the Red Sea as the entire community bears witness to the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea.  The entire community is both a witness to, and beneficiary of, the miracles of Exodus that bring them freedom from slavery.

What we will discover later is that the Israelites are hardly a unified people as they frequently quarrel along tribal lines (with the tribe defined by the sons of Jacob: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and so forth).  I think we can consider here, and later in the Pentateuch, to be evidence of how God views the Israelites as a unified people, while the fractious tribal politics are how the Israelites view themselves and each other.  This perhaps makes for an interesting commentary on modern Christian life, where I believe there is a similar dynamic of fractious inter-denominational clashes in spite of God's unified viewpoint of the church as a whole.  I'm not sure if that's supposed to be encouraging (that God sees us as a unity) or condemning (that we emphasize our divisions), but there it is.  Perhaps we can think of it as aspirational, that we as a people can strive to find the proper boundaries of unity amongst each other in accordance with this divine viewpoint.

From a literary perspective, I think the crossing of the Red Sea is quite peculiar, because of the erstwhile finality of the death of the firstborn which we saw in chapter 12.  I discussed at length how the death of the firstborn is symbolic of the Genesis 3 death and Exodus itself goes to great lengths to establish the festival that celebrates the Passover, it establishes the consecration of the firstborn as well.  Egypt is left devastated by the curses, of which the last is the greatest, and I would have expected that to be the end of the story: the Egyptians were defeated and the Israelites were freed, we institute a few festivals and the story moves on.  And in spite of this, here we are with one last clash between the Israelites and the Egyptians.  But if the Passover is symbolic of the Israelites being spared from the curse of Adam, how does the crossing of the Red Sea fit in to this bigger picture?

I'm not sure.  I do think it has some vague similarities to the Passover, in the sense that the Israelites are not killed and the Egyptians are.  However, what makes this less certain is that the Passover is what just happened.  I think it's very unlikely that the Passover and the crossing of the sea are meant to symbolize the same thing because they are literally one after the one in the same story arc.  Usually the way these things work is that the bible contains a variety of story arcs, and different arcs can possibly symbolize elements from the other and retell the same story in different ways, but with the same intrinsic meaning.  What you do not find, though, is the same story arc containing multiple elements that correspond to a single thing from a different story.

Also, the Passover contains the crucial theme of atonement, which is not present here.  In this case the big theme is..... I don't know.  Opening a way through the impossible?  The big theme emphasized in the text is the overthrow of horse and rider, or the destruction of military strength that challenges the LORD (implicitly).  I guess we'll see how this fits into the big picture as we go forward.

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