Commentary on Exodus 14:10-14, 21-29
Last week’s scenes from the Joseph story showed God at work quietly, delivering God’s people in subversive ways.
God enabled Joseph to interpret dreams, rise quickly through Pharaoh’s palace ranks, and use human systems in all their brokenness to bring about safety, prosperity, reunification, and reconciliation for Jacob’s family.
This week’s reading from Exodus 14 shows God delivering God’s people, too, but there is nothing quiet about it. Horses’ hooves pound the dirt, the Israelites cry out in fear, the Egyptians scream in panic, the wind howls, and the waters churn in their great vertical walls. Add to that the pyrotechnics of the pillar of fire and cloud, and Exodus 14 describes a big, chaotic mess.
Given this chaos, Moses’ instructions to the terrified Israelites are all the more remarkable: stand, see, keep still: “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still” (Exodus 14:13-14). As they were being chased down by the most technologically equipped fighting force anywhere around, the Israelites were surely inclined toward fight or flight: resist or run, sure, but keep still? What good will that do?
Their mandate from God here is neither to neither fight nor flee, but to witness: to observe God’s power and might. God will do all the fighting for them. This detail underscores the fact that all the agency in this story belongs to God. This is the LORD’s victory alone. Through this victory, the people of Israel as well as the Egyptians (verse 18) see that the LORD’s glories far surpass any of Pharaoh’s claims either to military prowess or to the status of deity. The contest between God and Pharaoh has been building throughout Exodus 1-13 to this showdown at the sea, and God has won.
You may wish to add verses 30-31 to the selected readings for this week, because they bring full circle the observations made in verses 10-14 about “seeing” and “fearing.” In v. 10, the Israelites saw the Egyptians advancing; in verse 30, “Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore,” and in verse 31, “Israel saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians.” In verse 10, the Israelites feared greatly for their lives in the face of the advancing Egyptians; in verse 30, they feared the LORD. When they stood, saw, and kept still, they believed.
If the Joseph story showed us everyday miracles, the exodus story shows us a once-in-a-lifetime (or once-in-a-millennium, or even once-in-a-Testament!) miracle. In many ways it is the miracle; Exodus 14 just might be the most important chapter in the entire Old Testament. The story of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Pharaoh’s army at the Red (or Reed) Sea is the bedrock of the covenant relationship between God and Israel.
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the two parties continually remind each other of this particular saving act. Here are just a few examples:
In the opening lines of the Ten Commandments, God declares, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3). The people of Israel have been freed in order to worship and serve God by keeping God’s commandments.
At the conclusion of the description of the Jubilee laws, Leviticus 25:55 reiterates that the people now serve God instead of Pharaoh: “For to me the people of Israel are servants; they are my servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 25:55).
References to the exodus proliferate in Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings). One especially compelling metaphor refers to Egypt as an “iron-smelter” from which Israel has been delivered (Deut 4:20). The re-statement of the Decalogue in Deuteronomy 5 will also cite the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery as rationale for keeping the Sabbath (Deuteronomy 5:15).
The prophets use the exodus as an analogy for later periods of suffering in Israel (e.g., Amos 4:10 and Isa 52:4) and as evidence for the kind of deliverance of which God is capable (e.g., Jeremiah 23:7-8 and Micah 7:15).
The exodus has pride of place in any recitation of the story of God’s relationship with Israel. Such recitations can be comprehensive, such as Ezra’s prayer in Nehemiah 9, or succinct, as in Micah 6:4-5.
The exodus is a favorite topic for the psalms, and thus its remembrance forms a centerpiece of ancient Israel’s liturgical life. Some, like Psalm 106, list the exodus as the first in a litany of God’s “mighty acts,” while others, like Psalm 114, retell the story of the exodus in poetic ways.
The story of the exodus testifies to Christians today about the power God has to defeat oppressors and deliver the oppressed, and about the special love God has for Israel. When we read about God’s redemption of humanity in the New Testament, we should remember that God shas been delivering God’s people all along: from the waters of the flood, from famine, from slavery in Egypt, from exile in Babylon. As readers of this sacred story, we are called to join the Israelites in their witness to God’s victory: stand, see, keep still, and believe.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of salvation, you rescued the Israelites at the edge of the Red Sea. Rescue us from the things of this world that threaten our lives and livelihoods, so that we might forever place our trust in you. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Praise, praise! You are my rock ELW 862
Calm to the waves ELW 794
Eternal Father,strong to save ELW 756
Make my life a living prayer, Aaron David Miller