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Exodus 14:19-31

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NRSV

Exo 14:19-31 The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. (20) It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night. (21) Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. (22) The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. (23) The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh's horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. (24) At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. (25) He clogged [27] their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, "Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt." (26) Then the Lord said to Moses, "Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers." (27) So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. (28) The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. (29) But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. (30) Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. (31) Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.

Sermon

You know, my friends that know me best know that I love movies. When I was living back in Ohio it was unusual for me to go a weekend without seeing a movie in the theater. And of course, being a guy, the more action and special effects a movie has the better. But you know what, despite all the advancements in movie technology in the last 50 years, one of my favorites is still “The 10 Commandments” with Charlton Heston. There’s just something about the way Heston acted that just makes you think – yes, this must be how the story actually took place!

You have the entire nation of Israel together with their backs up against the Red Sea, the Egyptian army of chariots breathing down their neck, and miraculously Moses calls upon God to hold back the chariots and part the seas. At the end of the scene, Pharaoh is left alone – all his warriors dead – and admits defeat and proclaims that Moses’ god is The God. Now, I don’t always like bringing movies into my sermons, but I bring this one up for a couple of reasons. One, because it’s one of the highest grossing religious movies of all time and includes a memorable scene dealing with our scripture reading from this morning, and two I suppose in part because I’d like to give some tribute to Charlton Heston who died earlier this year.

But you know, I wonder, has anyone here ever tried to match up the movie to the story in the Bible? I’m just curious – raise your hand if you ever have tried to sit down and compare the two stories. Yeah? Did it match up one for one? Well, let’s look at some of the differences. Now, the movie shows nation of Israel as this large mass of people – hundreds of thousands if not millions of Jews – who reach the mighty Red Sea right as the Egyptian army catches up to them. Then, the pillar of fire appears between the Egyptians and the Israelites, just long enough for Moses to raise his hand, part the sea, and allow the Jews to cross. Once they get most of the way through, the fire recedes and the chariots chase after them. Just as the last Jew steps onto the land, Moses lowers his hand and seas collapse on all of Pharaoh’s army.

Well, our passage from this morning doesn’t really say how many Jews were at the parting of the sea. But, the traditional view is that somewhere between 2 and 3 million were present. We get this from a passage a few chapters earlier – Exodus 12:37 says “The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. So, if you figure the average family size is somewhere between 3 and 5 (husband, wife, and 1-3 children) – you come up with 2-3 million total Jews. Okay – so far so good, right?

Well, I know that’s what the Bible says, but I’ve just kind of wondered – if there was that many Jews, why were they so afraid of the Egyptian army pursuing them? I mean, even if you just consider the men present – there’s 600,000 of them, right? In the movie, we see what looks like about 600 chariots. If those numbers are accurate, the Jews would have outnumbered the Egyptians by 1000 to 1. Weapons or not, stand and fight!

Well, there’s a couple ways of looking at this. Now, in Exodus 14:7 we see just how many chariots Pharaoh brought with him. It says “he took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them.” Okay, well if that is to be taken literally, then we have the entire Egyptian army marching after the Jewish nation. I could see how that would be pretty formidable. Given the choice, I think I’d run too.

But, there’s quite a few problems with that theory. Unfortunately I don’t have time to go into all of them, but I’ll highlight a couple of examples. First of all, is the number of Jews that supposedly went out from the Exodus. Archeologists estimate that the entire population of Egypt before the Exodus was between 2 and 5 million people. So if 2-3 million Jews left, along with what we are told are “many other people” in Exodus 12:38, we would basically have the entire Egyptian population leaving on the Exodus. But the Egyptian nation continue to flourish for a thousand years after that.

Another problem is that we are told after the parting of the Red Sea that the Israelites were afraid and needed God’s help when they entered the foreign cities in the land of Canaan. If you figure there was about 5,000 or so soldiers in these cities, it would again seem strange that the millions would be afraid. That, and Deuteronomy 7:7 says the Israelites were the fewest of all peoples.

So, given all of that, how do we make sense of the story of the exodus? Well, some scholars will tell you this story is all made up. Some say the Israelites were never in Egypt in to begin with and the story was just told to give the people held in the Babylonian exile some hope, and others will tell you that the exodus was really just a few people leaving at a time over many, many years.

Personally, I think if that were true the Jews that first heard the story – whether it was at the time of the Babylonian exile or whenever – would laugh at it and say “we know that’s not true!” Well, there is another way of looking at this. Now, when I read you that there were 600,000 men plus women and children leaving Egypt, that was from the NIV translation. You’ll find pretty much the same thing in any other modern English translation. The Hebrew word for thousand is “eleph”. But eleph doesn’t just mean thousand. It really means any large unit or group. It could mean family, or clan, or military unit, or in some instances “a thousand.” So, if it were meant to read families instead of thousands, we would have 600 heads of families (the men), plus women and children. Now, instead of 2-3 million we have 2-3 thousand. Considering there were only 70 Jews that entered Egypt some 400 years before the exodus, a few thousand seems much more likely.

Not only that, but if there were a few thousand, the problems I mentioned kind of just go away. Now, if that’s true, let’s take another look at the number of chariots. We read that it was 600 of the best chariots, plus all the other chariots in Egypt. That second part – “all the other chariots” is one of those statements that seems just too exaggerated. If you’re a Jew being chased out of Egypt by an army of chariots, chances are you aren’t going to stop and count the number. Instead you’re probably going to say “they have more chariots than us – we’re doomed! We have 600 families – they must have brought one of the best chariots for each of our families, plus enough chariots for all the members of our families.” It wouldn’t have to be the entire army of Egypt for a group of a few thousand being chased by them to think it was the entire army.

Okay – so what about the rest of the story? Well, the traditional view is that the Jews came to the Red Sea at the Gulf of Suez, parted the waters, then followed the gulf down to the bottom of the peninsula. It was here that they found the Mountain of Horeb, or Mt. Sinai, received the 10 commandments, and then went up the other side of the peninsula on their way up to Canaan. The main way we come up with this is that there is a mountain down at the bottom of the peninsula that has been traditionally associated with the Mountain of Moses. From there, we use the very vague clues in the bible to figure out the rest of the route. But, more and more scholars are starting to believe that the exodus actually took a different route, and crossed in the gulf of Aqaba where the sea was parted.

There’s a few reasons why this makes sense. First, there is a major trade route that goes straight across the two gulfs that Moses likely would have used. Second, we can infer from a few chapters earlier that the Jews probably had about a week’s head start on Pharaoh’s army. Now, to go from Egypt to the Gulf of Suez is about 50 miles. It’s another 100 miles to get from there to the Gulf of Aqaba. If you figure the average person can walk around 15-20 miles a day, this would put them closer to the Gulf of Aqaba before the Egyptians caught up to them. Also, there’s a volcano on the other side of the gulf, which easily could have seemed to be a cloud of smoke and a pillar of fire. Not only that, but recent studies on the Gulf of Aqaba have shown that there is an underwater land bridge near the northern part, and there’s even been chariot wheels found in the water here dating back to the time period that this took place at.

Some of these scholars will even go so far as to say that, given the right conditions, a strong wind can actually create the water to part here. Can you see the controversy? The whole thing kind of takes away from the miracle of God. Instead of Moses reaching out his hand to part the sea, it was just a natural phenomenon, and instead of God appearing in a mountain of smoke and fire, we simply have a volcano. These same scholars will even look at the 10 plagues visited upon Pharaoh and say they were all from natural causes too!

I appreciate trying to find out the truth behind the exodus, but doesn’t it bother you just a bit to hear all these people say that the whole thing was nothing more than the weather cooperating – just a bunch of good luck? If you look at the 10 plagues, I can see how some of them are acts of nature, but not all of them. How do you explain the Nile River turning to blood, or the death of all the firstborns? There’s been some pretty strange attempts to explain these away, but to me they are nothing but supernatural. Actually, if you look at it, the first plague is the water into blood and the last is the death of the firstborn. The 8 plagues in between are all instances of nature going awry – locusts, gnats, flies, etc. So we start with the supernatural, followed by miracles of nature, ending with the supernatural.

I don’t think that’s to say the 8 plagues in the middle are not miracles. To have that many instances of natural disasters all together just at the right time when Moses predicts them is a bit too coincidental. To me, it is clearly God at work. But the fact that the first and last are supernatural miracles, and the others are miracles of nature paints a poetic picture.

Perhaps after the plagues we can see something similar. Now, the miracles along the path of the exodus are the parting of the red sea, the mana from heaven, the water from a rock, Moses controlling the outcome of war with a staff, and God appearing to Moses on the mountain. Okay, well those all sound pretty supernatural. So much for that. I suppose if our new route of the exodus is right, then the last one would be natural – God appearing in the form of a volcano. Again – the timing in the story makes it certain that it must be a miracle, but I could see how it would be a miracle of nature. And, I suppose if the scholars are right that the wind blowing strong enough in the right direction could cause the waters to part in Aqaba, that it would be a miracle of nature too. Again, for the timing to be so perfect, where the Jews make it across just in time, it would have to be a miracle. But, it would be a miracle of nature. But, that’s not what the Bible says, is it? It says Moses stretched out his hand and the seas parted.

You would have to have a wind blowing strong all night in a Northeastern direction to part those waters. And what does our scripture say? “Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into a dry land.” Wait – maybe that does work. God used a strong wind blowing all night in an Eastern direction? Actually, that’s exactly the conditions that our scientists say would be necessary to part the waters.

So, here we do have God using a miracle of nature. The plagues on Egypt are marked with supernatural miracles on the first and last, and natural miracles in the middle. The exodus of the Jews is completely the opposite – natural miracles on the first and last, and supernatural miracles in the middle.

Okay, so what does that mean for us? Well, in the first set of miracles we see God’s judgment on Egypt. But in the second set we see the salvation of God’s chosen people. The most important miracles in that salvation are miracles of nature. So when we look at our lives, perhaps we should expect to see the same. I think often we pray and pray and pray for a supernatural miracle from God to deliver us from our situation, whatever that situation might be. Yet, how often do we pay attention to the miracles of nature – those little coincidences in life that seem too good to be true? In my experience, it is those miracles – the ones that might be overlooked if we’re not careful – that are the really important ones. Those are the miracles that give us direction in life, and bring us into the new creation that God has promised. The Jews had trained themselves in the Egyptian exile to see these, and when they presented themselves, they gave thanks to God. Somehow, we’ve lost that art, and instead try to interpret the big, natural disasters as God’s wrath upon us and we complain that the lack of supernatural miracles means God has forgotten us. Perhaps the reverse is true, and we simply need to open our eyes.

Amen.

Before we begin our closing hymn, I want to let you know that if you are interested in more about the parting of the Red Sea and the route of the Exodus, I have posted some resources on the website.

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