Commentary on Exodus 14:19-31
This fourth semi-continuous selection from the Book of Exodus focuses on what most people mean by the Exodus: the escape from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea.
Sermon preparation may not seem like an ideal time to revisit the vagaries of the Pentateuch, but it is good to know that there are at least three accounts of that deliverance from Egypt in the Book of Exodus.
The Song of Moses
One account of the victory at the sea is poetic in form in Exodus 15:1-18 (the Song of Moses) where Yahweh attacks the Egyptians like a divine warrior, climaxing in the doxology of verse 18: “Yahweh will be king forever and ever.” This picture of divine kingship, therefore, is not hierarchical, but shows rather that God’s kingship in the Bible often refers to God’s care for the poor and oppressed, in this case the Israelites.
The Priestly Account
In chapter 14, verses 21-23, 26, and 28-29 come from the priestly writer and depict what most of us naturally imagine when we think of this crossing — waters piled up on the left and right, with the Israelites marching through the sea on dry land, as if it were a liturgical procession.
The Egyptians followed in hot pursuit, but when Moses raised his hand over the sea, the sea collapsed and destroyed the whole Egyptian army. This fits well with a priestly theme that in the Exodus Yahweh is manifesting his glory over the Egyptians and exposing Pharaoh and all other tyrants as hollow, burnt out cases (Exodus 14:4, 17-18)
The Yahwist Account
The remainder of our semi-continuous selection comes from the Yahwist source (verses 19b-20, 24, 25b, 27a, 30-31). Here the pillar of cloud and fire settles down between the Israelites and the Egyptians, preventing any kind of violent confrontation between the two peoples. At daybreak Yahweh threw the Egyptians into a panic and they plunged foolishly into the sea and perished.
It is the climax of this account that offers additional materials for preaching. As a result of this saving action (verse 30), Israel reverenced (or feared) Yahweh and believed in Yahweh and in his servant Moses. This brings to a fitting conclusion a theme that has been explored since the time of the call of Moses in chapters 3-4.
As you will recall, Moses came up with every possible excuse not to follow Yahweh’s call (many preachers have travelled this Moses route before they finally answered God’s call). In Exodus 4:1 Moses says, “They won’t believe this story or that you, Yahweh, even appeared to me.”
Moses was then given three signs — a staff that turned into a snake and back into a staff; a hand that turned leprous and then was restored; and water from the Nile that will turn into blood when poured out on the ground. When Moses and Aaron showed up back in Egypt, however, the people believed (Exodus 4:31)! No doubt many of them fretted about the ultimate outcome during the protracted negotiations with Pharaoh and the ten plagues. But now when they had escaped from Egypt without a scratch we read in Exodus 14:31: They believed in Yahweh. Oh, and also in his servant Moses.
Preaching God’s Good News for Contemporary Bad Situations
In the twenty-first century, many Christians struggle to maintain their faith. If Luther worried about finding a righteous and forgiving God, we worry about finding God at all. What made the Israelites believe in the Book of Exodus? Was it really the three trick signs that Moses was able to pull off? Was it the supernatural power of the Exodus experience itself? Perhaps.
But chances are it was the fact that God had heard their groaning and remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites and took notice of them (Exodus 2:24-25). A literal translation of Exodus 2:25 reveals an even more poignant depiction of Yahweh’s compassion: God looked upon the Israelites, and God knew. God knew what they needed, God knew what they were going through, and then God came up with good news for their bad situation. God knew.
As we struggle to live out the life of faith, we have a God who knows us, knows our problems, knows our failings, knows our needs. As we preach to and for the people of God, we try to describe a God who provides good news for whatever bad situations our people are going through — unemployment, family discord, depression and serious illness, doubt, fear, loneliness — you name it.
How does God’s activity in Jesus provide hope and the basis for faith for such people and such situations? Moses underestimated God. “They won’t believe me; they won’t believe you.” That’s a mistake we dare not make. Exodus presents a well-defined situation of oppression and how Yahweh met that need. Our assignment, should we choose to accept it, is to articulate the means of grace in ways that intersect with the current real plight of our people. Then people will believe in God and will trust the word delivered by us latter day Moses’ or Miriam’s.