This is one of those Old Testament stories that gives people pause; one of the stories that casts doubt upon what we (think) know about the character and nature of God. We, as Wesleyans, believe the defining characteristic of God is love and yet, there’s this story of massacre. It would be easy to skip over this passage, to choose another, less controversial, one. But that might be a mistake: our world is a world of difficult stories. A world questioning where God is in the midst of conflict and suffering. A world that wonders how God could allow pain to happen. This passage requires wrestling with everything we know and believe, and it’s a good thing.
We join the story amid panic—the Israelites have finally been freed from their oppressors and have begun their journey towards the Promised Land but they find their freedom may be short lived. The Egyptians, with all the power, might, and latest military technology, have caught up to them at the edge of the sea. Caught between the two, it seems as if they will face certain annihilation. But, then, a miracle: the sea splits, they cross upon dry land, and their pursuers are drowned to a man. Verse 30 tells us “…Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.” Ugh.
Holding literalism loosely is important. Truth for the ancient writers of this story was different than our post-Enlightenment, modern definition of truth. To consider that the ancients’ intention was to relay an event exactly as it happened would be a misreading of the text. We have to ask ourselves the purpose of a story like this for the writers and the intended audience. As best we know, Exodus was written down while exiled in Babylon. It was taken from earlier, oral traditions, but this story had a purpose for an exiled people.
Exile tore apart the identity of Israel; they were no longer the people of judges and kings, but a conquered people whose entire power structure was carried away to a distant land. The cohesion of common experience and story was fading for God’s chosen people and stories like this became important as the people tried to salvage their identity and rediscover hope amid despair. Egypt may, perhaps, be seen as a metaphor for Babylon; the writers perhaps telling this story as a means of reminding the people that they have faced an exile before and God saved them.
The God seen in this passage is a powerful god, a god that has control over the very waves of the sea. This God is a God that is stronger than the gods of their oppressors—why should the Babylonians’ gods be any different? The people and the God in this story are not the scattered, powerless people of exile but the chosen nation rising to eminence with the bodies of their enemies scattered about.
However, we cannot simply dismiss this story as fabrication important for the exiled Israel but unimportant for our understanding of God. If we actually believe what we say we believe about scripture, then there is important truth contained in this difficult passage. What does this story say about the nature and character of God?
This is a story of justice. Egypt is a brutal regime built on the backs of slaves. Pharaoh cares more about maintaining his power and comfort than about recognizing and honoring the humanity of the Israelites. His heart is hardened over and over again until his thirst leads to destruction.
It’s uncomfortable to use massacre as an example of God’s heart, yet God’s heart is plain: God’s preference for the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden, and powerless is evident. Divine justice brings about restoration of the people of Israel.
It’s tempting to read ourselves into the text as God’s chosen people. We take the New Testament idea of adoption as children of God and apply it to Old Testament stories. At times, this can be appropriate. However, we have to do the hard work of truthfully looking at ourselves, our power, our possessions, our positions in society, our skin color, gender, socio-economic status, age, religion, and nationality. If we look closely and honestly, are we Israel? Or are we Egypt?