Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hot Pursuit! Exodus 14

The Lord God has freed the Israelites from oppression in Egypt, and now they are on their way to the Promised Land. At last look, they were headed by a bit of a detour to avoid the Philistines and are headed out of Egypt by going south-west. Which isn't really the quick way, but it was the way God led them.

He leads them, then, to a place hemmed-in on the edge of the Red Sea in Exodus 14 (link). At this point, Pharaoh declares, in his best Buford T. Justice voice, that he has changed his mind and is setting out in "Hot Pursuit!" of the Israelites. The source of his change of heart is not clear, but I think it's two-fold. The first being the loss of labor, certainly, but Egypt had other slaves, so that's not all. I think the other reason is the loss of prestige. Here Pharaoh has lost a chunk of his intimidation power. Whether by not exacting revenge for the damage or by the world seeing Israel leave, he's lost that. Angry leaders do not care for loss of prestige.

So, saddle up your chariots and let's go get those Israelites!

In fact, the Israelites are nearly willing to surrender in Exodus 14:12, where they cry to Moses that he should have left them in Egypt. Moses tells them to hush, and then God parts the Red Sea that they may cross on dry land. He works this through two aspects: the first is a wind blowing all night that causes the waters to pile up; the second that the angel of God, in the pillar of cloud, separates the Israelites from the Egyptians.

The sea parts, the Israelites cross, and the Egyptians begin to follow. That action boggles my mind. I'm thinking that if ever there was a time for insubordination, it's when the Pharaoh sends me into the midst of two walls of water that should come crashing down any second. Yet the Egyptians follow orders and go in. The waters do come back down, and the pessimists in the Egyptian Army get the opportunity to rub in their rightness—just before they drown with the rest of their comrades-in-arms.

There are several things to draw here, and some of them you know. You likely are aware that sometimes earthly solutions are worn out, but God has other plans. You are likely aware that people have a tendency to complain as soon as things go wrong, no matter what good was done to get them there. You are likely smart enough not to go into the midst of the sea if you're not sure who parted it in the first place.

Yet do we really know these? Because we have trouble acting on them. We know that God makes no mistakes in His directions, yet we hesitate to use the Bible as our sole standard and structure for Christian life. Yes, I know that we see certain things as cultural: that whole "greet each other with a holy kiss" thing is not happening in Almyra. We'll stick with handshakes, thank you very much. What of other cases? Why do we think that churches will thrive by spending effort on things not directed in the Word of God?

Or by preaching things not in the Word of God? Would Christians really be as clueless about the content of the Bible if we believed, really, that God has better directions than earthly plans? I don't think we would. I think there is a place to apply God-honoring, God-originating wisdom, but too often we come looking to proof-text our own plan. That doesn't work.

We complain, quickly, when we should gave thanks extensively. How quickly we complain about the President (oftentimes with pretty good reasons) without giving thanks that we get to vote on that office every four years. No violence—just votes. That part is good. President is always a temp job in the US, and we can keep it that way. How quickly we complain about a new church leader without considering our own opportunities to help that person grow or to strengthen the ministry ourselves. Or without giving thanks that we have freedom to walk out the door and not return…

Our gratitude is weak. God has saved us, yet we are bitter that we don't have what the other person has. God lets me preach, but I want a bigger church or a wider blog audience or a book deal or …you get the point.

Then there's chasing hard against God. No one would do that, right? Even if as we chase the chariot wheels come off, we wouldn't continue, right? We see it and do it so often. Whether it's trying to be someone else or trying to achieve something by inappropriate methods, it falls apart. At some point, the sea comes crashing down. Try not to go that way.

Today's nerd note: It's time to discuss it. That footnote in your Bible that says "Or Sea of Reeds" when you see "Red Sea" in your text. This weighs heavily on the debate of the route of the Exodus. The location is challenging to determine with certainty. Here's why: technically, the Hebrew terms here are for "Sea of Reeds" rather than "Red Sea." That's not a textual problem, it's actually a traditional interpretation problem.

However, it's still there to deal with. Is there a difference in the Yam Suph, or Sea of Reeds, and the Red Sea? Some have suggested other routes, such as through the Bitter Lakes region of Egypt, that would go through reedy, marshy lakes. These lakes offer the benefit of a shallowness and windiness that is known to allow strong winds to blow dry paths through them. The resulting surge would then be enough to drown Egyptian charioteers who are trying to get out of the mud.

I don't like that as an option. First of all, there's the internal evidence. The Hebrew language is more complex than I know, but I know this: there are differing words for lakes and seas. The idea that Moses authored this and used "seashore" when he was referring to a lake is a bit much. Second, the Bitter Lakes, as well as Lake Timsah or others, are still in Egyptian Territory. It appears that the Israelites are expressing that they are on the far edge, if not out, of  Egyptian territory.

Finally there is a Biblical reference in 1 Kings 9:26 that puts Solomon's trading fleet on the "Yam Suph" when they are based at a port in the Gulf of Aqaba. That's right. Aqaba. Part of the modern Red Sea, the Gulf of Aqaba is the northeastern arm, while the Gulf of Suez is the western arm of the Red Sea. It was also the boundary of Egypt at the time.

So, I'm inclined, though the evidence is thin, to put the crossing of the Yam Suph there, on the Gulf of Aqaba. Now, there are some emails that circulate claiming 'definitive proof' of a crossing site in that region. Suffice it to say that I am not convinced of the legitimacy of those findings. Good archaeology requires verification, and none of that was collected in a manner that allowed independent verification. That does not make the idea wrong—I actually tend to agree in general. It's just not undisputed.

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