When working on a dementia unit, I learned through the nursing staff and others, how reassuring it can be to remind patients of their own history, their own past. When dementia and other diseases try to strip humans of their identity, memory photos, songs, memory-books, and stories either of happier times or of struggles overcome can help to anchor those facing a sea of loss, isolation, and an on-going diminishment of their faculties.
Similarly, for a people who have been dislocated or ravaged by time, disaster, or circumstance, stories can take on a saving function, as they recreate identity, purpose, and serve as a way to move forward by remembering the past.
The crossing of the Red Sea is one of those stories that serves such a function. But first we have to deal with the gruesomeness of the text.
Somewhere in our memory we may recall this story from Exodus: how the Egyptians were in hot pursuit of the Israelites, how the Israelites reached the sea and with water ahead of them and enemy chariots behind them. How Moses raised his hand, and the waters parted and the Israelites crossed to dry land. And then, we remember, (don’t we?), the next part—how a massacre happens, as the Egyptian army panics, wheels get clogged with mud, and Moses stretches forth his hand again, and the waters close all around the Egyptian fighters, drowning them all.
The Israelites are saved. But ugh.
It is a victory story for the winners, complete with Moses and Miriam (Moses’ sister) singing their victory songs on dry land with tambourine in hand: “Horse and rider God has thrown into the sea.” We who imagine that God’s character doesn’t applaud victors and slaughter the enemy just to prove a point can certainly take issue with this problematic text that remembers Egyptians lying “dead on the seashore.”
Many have said that this was written as a remembrance of God’s saving acts to an exiled people living under the threat of extinction in Babylon. If your people are in exile, your culture is under threat, and you have no idea if God is listening to your tears or panic, then it is understandable that your storytellers and the transmitters of hope would try to help you to remember other times when God’s justice came, albeit in delayed and graphic form. Our sensibilities may cringe at horrifying details of bodies floating in the Red Sea or anywhere else for that matter, or that God’s hand would be praised in the Egyptian downfall, yet our spiritual ancestors were trying to foster hope in the midst of on-going injustice.
It is as though these biblical storytellers are saying: Remember when the Egyptians brutalized our people with slavery? Remember how they refused to listen to our suffering? Remember how Pharaoh not only rejected God’s command to free those oppressed, but doubled up on the hard labor and the brick-making without sufficient straw or relief? Remember how, Pharaoh and his minions still wouldn’t let us go after plague upon plague? Remember his hard heart and his evil schemes to destroy our people?
We still survived. Justice came. And it will come again. We were brought out onto dry land, amazingly enough, with walls all around and the cold waters churning, and the enemy closing in from behind. The unrelenting pursuit of the tyrant Pharaoh did not go unnoticed by our justice-seeking God. The enemy’s plans to destroy us—our culture, our witness, our families, our desire to live in freedom, peace, and security—did not go unnoticed because God looks upon the poor and dispossessed, upon the hurting and the disenfranchised, upon the hungry and the economically disadvantaged.
Anathea Portier-Young, who is author of Apocalypse against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism (Eerdmans, 2011) writes: “I will not justify or mitigate the violence of Pharaoh’s destruction or of the deaths of his soldiers and horses. I do not wish to defend or explain the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart that led him to choose pursuit (14:4-5). This part of the story is hard to hear and hard to preach.
“But it foregrounds the consequence of Pharaoh’s grasping. It shows the end result of an economy built on forced labor, exploitation, and domination. In refusing to let God’s people go, Pharaoh leads his own people to their grave. The gaze of God undoes his vision of mastery; the waters of new creation dismantle his chariots and drown the machinery of war and abduction.”
For those of us who hear these lines in a public worship so far removed from our ancestors’ motivations or theology, we must remember to take a hard look at what this text may teach us, not only about God, but about ourselves. Are we relentlessly pursuing another goal or people to our own horrific destruction? Have we set ourselves up as tyrants without any fear of God’s justice finding us? Are we more likely to cast ourselves in the part of Moses and the Israelites, or can we consider the notion that we more resemble Pharaoh and his officers who have brutalized and terrorized those living within our borders? And if we imagine God involved in our human battles, for what exactly would God go to battle, and why? What is so very necessary to human flourishing that God would risk God’s very character and Creation to help bring it about?
Disturbing though this passage may be, theologically or otherwise, the Exodus story may indeed foster hope. The Israelites give oral and written testimony that they were accompanied by God in their fleeing and in their struggle for justice. The Israelites are on foot. Imagine their fear at being pursued by horses and chariots. Families with children and the elderly simply cannot move as quickly as a war making machine—as those pursuing in chariots or on horseback. We share a similar shudder of horror when a tank is brought in against a protesting people, or a car used as a lethal weapon to plow down innocents. And so, this passage reminds those who would rely on the weapons of war, that those weapons will ultimately be destroyed and thrown into the sea.
We, as a people of God, teach and believe in a God who accompanies the displaced, dispossessed, despairing, and discouraged. This God accompanied the Israelites not to the exclusion of the Egyptians, rather, God was sensed in the deepest part of the Israelites’ trauma and fear. The story testifies to an awareness of God’s presence even in the midst of great terror and hardship. In the beginning of this passage, we read something very curious: “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.” That is, the presence of God somehow shifts—the presence that, at times, had led them like a dramatic cloud formation moves from vanguard to rear. That our biblical writers mention something about the shifting presence of God is intriguing. The presence of God leads those fearful Israelites to the waters and then, just as they are facing the watery chaos with the enemy’s weapons of war behind them, the Presence shifts and is at their back.
We remember that when someone has our back, how reassuring that is. It is though we feel not only protected, but that someone has our interests at heart and is willing to defend us in the heavenly courts. If something is missed somehow, the one who has your back will “see” it and act. The person will stand in the gap for us and keep us from being further maligned without a witness. It is something that we say to people when we really want them to know that we care: “I will have your back. If things come to a pretty pass, don’t worry, I will be there.”
The cloud of Presence that shifts to the back of the Israelites is like having an angel at their back. In Psalm 97, we hear: “Clouds and thick darkness are all around [God]; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.” The cloud confounds Pharaoh’s plans and confuses his army as the Israelites flee into the waters. Just as Moses and his people are facing the prospect of certain death, they step in faith onto dry land and God’s justice. We might remember the disciple Peter stepping forward in faith onto the waters.
Who or what has your back in this world? Ultimately, faith is trusting with your life that God has your back when the way is unclear and your prospects far from certain. Not to the exclusion of your enemies and their families, no. But that God can be counted on to advocate for your best interests, your better self, and your thriving, growing, self-in-community, even with diminished circumstances and enemies, real and imagined, in hot pursuit. God stand with the angels at our back.
Sometimes, even when we question God’s presence, we are showing our faith, as we cling tenaciously to hope. The popular music group, Train, has a song, “Calling all Angels” which says:
“I need a sign to let me know you’re here
All of these lines are being crossed over the atmosphere
I need to know that things are gonna look up
‘Cause I feel us drowning in a sea spilled from a cup…
When there is no place safe and no safe place to put my head
When you feel the world shake from the words that are said…
I need a sign to let me know you’re here
‘Cause my TV set just keeps it all from being clear
I want a reason for the way things have to be
I need a hand to help build up some kind of hope inside of me
And I’m calling all angels
I’m calling all you angels…”
Sisters and brothers, that is our calling. To help build up hope inside of people, when dry land seems far away and the Pharaohs of this world have chosen tyranny over the way of compassion. Perhaps we will find that the God of Abraham, Moses, Jacob, Sarah, Isaac, Ruth, Mary, and Jesus will have been encouraging us all along, at our back, as we step into our courage.
For further background—
Please read Aimee Niles’ commentary from “A Plain Account” : “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? 
 Anathea Portier-Young, Commentary on Exodus 14:19-31, Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2179
 Casey Thornburgh Sigmon, Commentary on Exodus 14:19-31, Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3403
 Train, “Calling All Angels,” from the album My Private Nation, Columbia, 2003.
 Aimee Niles. A Plain Account. http://www.aplainaccount.org/proper-19a-alt-1st-reading