Narrative Lectionary Reflection
September 30, 2018
In our last lesson, we talked about Joseph the great-grandson of Abraham who was sold in slavery in Egypt. He becomes the head caretaker in the house of Potiphar, only to be pestered by Potiphar’s wife and her advances. He is then falsely accused when he rejects her temptations and is placed in jail.
But all is not lost for Joseph. We are told over and over in this story that God was with Joseph and indeed, God was present in both good times and in times that were challenging. He is released from prison becomes the most powerful man in Egypt after the Pharaoh, and saves his family from a local famine. Pharaoh invites all of Joseph’s kin come and live in Egypt, a happy ending. But of course, it wasn’t a happy ending. Today we talk about Joseph’s descendents as they leave the place that was one a refuge and became of place of hardship.
Engaging the Text
13 But Moses said to the people, “Don’t be afraid. Stand your ground, and watch the Lord rescue you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never ever see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you. You just keep still.”
As the book of Exodus starts, we find things are not so good for the descendants of Joseph and his brothers. The book opens us by telling us that a new pharaoh rules the land and he “did not know Joseph.” Between the time of Joseph and the current period, the Hebrews grew in size from a handful of people to a vast group within Egypt. The new Pharaoh did not have the same generous attitude as the first Pharaoh. He feared the Hebrews because of their large numbers. In order to keep the Hebrews from being a threat due to their vast numbers, he set them to work doing hard labor on his building projects. A people who were once guests were now slaves.
Enter Moses. He was saved from a terror campaign initiated by the Pharaoh which killed every Hebrew male child. Ironically, Moses grows up in the Pharaoh’s household taken care of by Pharaoh’s daughter. God calls Moses to lead his people out of Egypt. Pharaoh refuses to let the people leave and it become a match between Pharaoh and God. A series of plagues strike the Egyptians until after a final plague kills all the firstborn Egyptians, Pharaoh lets the Hebrews go.
But then Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he sends the army after the Hebrews. This is where the story beings for us.
Pharaoh sends his army on chariots to catch the Hebrews who are stopped at the seashore. Word gets to the Hebrews of the advancing Egyptian army who naturally, freak out.
Moses tells the people to calm down. See God’s work of salvation at hand. God was going to save the Hebrews once and for all in spectacular fashion.
It seems that God is working long before the showdown at the sea. Jewish commentaries note that God had the Hebrews take a circuitous route to the promised land instead the more direct route- which would make a great escape route back to Egypt if things got dicey. This wandering would make it seem like the Israelites were lost, which then prompted the Egyptians to attack. (Beshalach Aliyah Summary, Chabad.org.)
It’s important to note that the two pillars that led the Hebrews, a cloud and fire are examples of God’s presence.
While the common story is that the Hebrews crossed the Red Sea, some biblical scholars think they crossed the Reed Sea, which is shallow and surrounded by marshy land. East winds can push the water away. The Egyptian army gets bogged down in the soggy soil.
Did all of this happen at the Red Sea or the Reed Sea? If it’s the Reed Sea, how could the Egyptian army be drowned in shallow water? Who knows. The story was handed down orally and there is a possibility the story became “bigger” with each telling. Whether it happened at the Red See or the Reed Sea; whether it was winds that pushed away the shallow water or a huge wall of water is not the main point of the passage. The point is that God saves the Hebrews from oppression. The people see the power of God and place their trust in God.
This text is a well-known one not simply because the story has been told over and over, but because of movies that have dramatized the event. In Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments the most memorable scene is when Moses (played by Charleston Heston) lifts up his rod and the mighty waters are swept away for provide a corridor for escape.
While we know Hollywood’s telling of this story, what does this story have to do with our own story? How do we see ourselves in this larger story?
The story of the Israelites in Egypt has been a story that resonated with African Americans. Bogged down by slavery and then official segregation, Blacks in the United States looked to these passages as assurance that God was on the side of the oppressed and that someday, Pharaoh would be toppled.
Beyond this application, what does this story mean to you? What does the liberation of a people thousands of years ago by God have anything to do with us today?
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.