Today we’re in week seven of telling the epic stories of the Hebrew text. Chances are, over the course of these weeks, you have heard a story or two that is new to you . . . and chances are some of these stories sound vaguely, if not intimately, familiar.
I am betting that today’s story is one of the more familiar ones.
Today we’re telling the epic story of the Hebrew people, who have packed up everything they own, their whole lives, and followed Moses out of Egypt. Finally.
They couldn’t go across land toward Canaan because that would have involved passing through six Egyptian military outposts. And, let’s face it, even with all of Moses’ attempts to intimidate the Pharaoh, this little band of Hebrew slaves was no match for the military might of the Egyptian army.
And so, the Hebrews found themselves hauling whatever relics of their lives in Egypt toward, inexplicably, the Reed Sea. No one knows the route they took exactly—some think they went right through the Red Sea; some think they went through more northern tributaries of the Red Sea, which were filled with reeds—thus the confusion in the name. At any rate, what we do know is that the whole band of the Hebrews did not go over land toward Canaan. They went, instead, toward a large body of water.
Going the land route may have seemed impossible, but marching toward the sea was just as ludicrous, if not more. Yet, you know the story . . . on they marched, bravely following Moses, with the Egyptian army in hot pursuit and the lapping waves of the sea spreading out a deep, dark blue in front of them.
That’s the story we know, right? The story of how Moses stretched out his hand and the sea parted, how the entire band of the Hebrews marched triumphantly through the sea on dry land, and how Pharaoh’s army was thwarted once and for all? Yes, that’s the story we know, the story Hollywood has taught us.
But our task today is to tell the biblical story, the story recorded in the Hebrew text in Exodus, and I have to tell you, if you read that story carefully there is no word to better describe it than . . . terrifying.
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Starting in chapter 13 and continuing into chapter 14 we hear what happened after last week. Remember, the final plague that descended on Egypt resulted in the deaths of the firstborn of every living thing all over Egypt, and those Hebrews who followed God’s direction and painted their doorposts with the blood of a lamb were spared this final plague. It was enough to convince Pharaoh to finally let the people go, and he did. He told them to just go—get out of the land of Egypt and never come back. Pharaoh had had enough.
But, just as he saw the dust of the Hebrews’ carts disappearing into the Egyptian sun, he realized: what was he doing letting them go? The Hebrew slaves were the backbone of the Egyptian economy. What would they do without their labor? And so, as the vast power of the Egyptian economy wandered off toward the desert, Pharaoh was . . . concerned, to say the least.
Once he realized he’d made a mistake, Pharaoh gathered together the full force of his army—horses and chariots and soldiers—and set out in hot pursuit of the Hebrews. And there the people found themselves—their lives stacked on the backs of their donkeys, their children asking “are we there yet?,” plodding toward, well, they had no idea. The text explains the terror: the water of the sea out in front and the quickly-approaching army of the Egyptians closing in behind.
It was right then that the people began to complain. Look at verse 10: the people looked ahead of them and saw the seashore, and behind them and saw Pharaoh approaching, then started complaining to Moses. Why did you have to bring us all the way out here to die? What, the graves in Egypt weren’t good enough for you? We told you to leave us alone, but no . . . and here we are, about to be slaughtered by the Pharaoh’s army!
One favorite movie at our house is The Shawshank Redemption. If you haven’t seen it, you really should. Remember, the movie is about a group of inmates in the Shawshank Prison who learn that fear is the real jail warden in their lives.
Early in the movie we meet Brooks, a character who has been a longtime fixture at Shawshank. Once he serves his time, he leaves the prison and begins life on the outside. In a particularly heartbreaking scene in the movie, Brooks is reading a letter he’s writing to his friends back at Shawshank, telling them about how life on the outside is for him:
“Dear fellas, I can’t believe how fast things move on the outside. I saw an automobile once when I was a kid but now they’re everywhere. The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry. The parole board got me into this halfway house called ‘The Brewer’. And a job bagging groceries at the Foodway. It’s hard work and I try to keep up but my hands hurt most of the time. I don’t think the store manager likes me very much. Sometimes after work I go to the park and feed the birds. . . . I have trouble sleepin’ at night. I have bad dreams like I’m falling. I wake up scared. Sometimes it takes me a while to remember where I am. Maybe I should get me a gun, an, an rob the Foodway so they’d send me home. I could shoot the manager while I was at it, sort of like a bonus. I guess I’m too old for that sort of nonsense anymore. I don’t like it here. I’m tired of being afraid all the time. I’ve decided not to stay. I doubt they’ll kick up any fuss. Not for an old crook like me.”
The scene ends with Brooks committing suicide. The fear of his freedom was too much for him; strangely enough, the very thing he longed for for years—to be out of Shawshank—was the reality that was so fear-infused that he couldn’t bear it. On the outside he learned the lesson the guys on the inside were learning at the same time: that, no matter our circumstances, it’s really fear that keeps us shackled.
The same seemed to be true for the Hebrews. There they were, out in the middle of nowhere, stuck right in between the Pharaoh and his army and the big, blue sea. The thing that was keeping them from moving forward was fear—it was so big and intimidating that even after years and years of backbreaking work; misery; violence; oppression . . . they were actually suggesting a return to Egypt. Because the fear of what was ahead was so overwhelming, it seemed much easier to head back to what was familiar, even if that familiarity was slavery, of all things.
Moses was a good leader. There he was, leading the people out into the desert, and he didn’t know what was ahead either. All he knew was that God had led them this far and, as a leader, he didn’t have much choice except to stand his ground. It wasn’t that he was unfamiliar with the fear they were facing—remember, for weeks Moses has been making excuses to God about how and why he wouldn’t be able to lead the people. He didn’t know how they’d get out of the situation they were in, but he did know that they could never return to Egypt.
So, I imagine with knees knocking himself, Moses told the complaining people in verse 13: “Don’t be afraid. Stand firm and trust in God. The Lord will fight for you . . . just be still and trust!”
Here’s where the funny part of this text unfolds. Open your Bibles and look at Exodus 14:15 to see how God responds to the fear of the people.
Remember, Moses was trying to calm the peoples’ fears by telling them just to be still and wait for God to show up. It’s not an unreasonable admonition—God had been showing up in miraculous ways on behalf of the Hebrew people for some time.
But look at what God said to Moses: “Why are you crying out to me??!? Tell the Israelites to move on!”
God almost seems frustrated and impatient in his tone. Look, I brought you out of Egypt. Haven’t I proven myself over and over again in that process? Now I am asking you to show up for the party . . . to participate in your own redemption . . . to step out in faith. It’s all there, right in front of you. So, get going.
This is not the story we saw in the movie “The Prince of Egypt,” is it? The Hebrew people were out there in the middle of the desert with impossibility on one side and horror on the other, and God asked them to act decisively in faith, to face their fear and to move forward.
If we believe Hollywood, as the water parted there was accompanying music swelling in the background, but we know that was not the case. The soundtrack of that moment was more like: the noise of a huge, approaching army, soldiers yelling, chariots creaking, horses’ bridles jangling . . . and in the middle of the Hebrews’ crowd, children crying in terror, people yelling in confusion, nobody sure exactly which way to turn. Terrifying.
But God remained firm. Why are you asking me what to do next? I’ve laid it out for you as plainly as I can. What it is going to take now is you . . . facing up to the fear, putting one foot in front of the other, and walking toward freedom.
Oh, it must have been so hard. Terrifying. They were being asking to step into the unknown, to risk everything dear to them, to follow God not just with their words but with their very lives. And they were scared.
Then it was Moses who took God seriously and decided to step out—literally—in faith. He raised his hand and the water of the sea began gently lapping outward. Before their fearful eyes, a path opened up through the very middle of the sea, ground dry enough to walk unencumbered. All they had to do was take the first step.
The question was not, “will God bail us out?” but “will we have the courage to step out in faith?” And so they did. To the eternal credit of the beleaguered Hebrew people, they swallowed their fear, lifted their feet and walked right into the middle of the sea. Sure the path was there, but the text says the water made a huge wall on their right and on their left. With every step you know it must have taken courage and faith like they’d never had before, one step in front of the other, each step a signal that faith and hope were bigger than the fear that had held them back. Step, step, step, one after the other, biting their lips to contain their cries of terror, they walked . . . right through the middle of the sea.
The folks in Hollywood are not the only ones to see the power of this story and to fill in the gaps in the Hebrew text. Rabbis have been doing it for centuries—it’s called Midrash. Think of it like tradition surrounding the story. There is a Midrash tale about this story that suggests the waters did not, in fact, part with one sweep of Moses’ hand, but that the winds didn’t begin to blow the waters apart . . . until the people started wading in. Water in front of them, the army behind, God’s invitation to move into their future . . . and when they tied up their robes and took off their sandals and waded hip deep into the water of their fears . . . then, it was then, that the waves picked up and the water receded and the path emerged.
There’s no illusion that this kind of faithful living is easy. We tell this story of the Hebrew people, in fact, to illustrate with more drama than we’d ever want to experience in our own lives, that a life of faithfully following God can be paralyzingly terrifying.
But in the hardest moments of your life and mine there are decisions that need to be made, decisions about whether or not we will lift our feet and take the next step, even though we have no idea what’s ahead, or we’re scared beyond belief or both. The letter to the Hebrews says that this is the essence of faith: the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things unseen. We trust in God to guide us, and God expects us to believe with our feet . . . to take the next step into the fear and move into the promise of everything our lives can be.
Terrifying, for sure. But look at verses 19 and 20. The angel of the Lord, who had been out in front leading the people, moved to the back of the crowd. The angel of the Lord came between the Hebrew people and the army of Egypt and made a buffer for them. And a pillar of cloud went out ahead of them, leading them forward. The text describes this as the all-encompassing presence of God in front, behind, on the sides . . . surrounding the people with protection and guidance once they had the courage to take that first step.
And so it is with us. God makes a way; God asks us to act in faith; and God is with us.
God is with us.
The Hebrew people felt it more tangibly than ever before that day—can you imagine the stories they told their children and grandchildren? And we can feel it, too. When we step out in faith, facing our fear we will be able to recount the miraculous presence of God, too. God is with us, behind and before, protecting and leading us right through the middle of the scariest parts of human living.
And, then, at the end? They couldn’t believe it. They looked out over the huge expanse of water, Pharaoh’s massive army destroyed and everything they loved safe and dry on the other side of slavery, and they could not believe it.
It was Miriam and the women of Israel who voiced the songs of the people, digging in her bag to find her tambourine and shaking the bells in celebration, they danced and sang and exclaimed in awe: “I will sing unto the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously!”
It was true; God was faithful. But it took their fear-filled steps into the middle of the sea, their participation in the miraculous deliverance of God, for God’s promise and possibility to unfold in their lives.
Today’s story invites us to roll up our pant legs and take that first step into the water of whatever it is we fear the most. God is before us; God is behind us; God has made a way. Now, we’ve got to take the first step, to wade in the water, and to believe . . . with our feet.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.