In Exodus 14 the children of Israel are saved when the waters of the Red Sea part for them to walk through and then come crashing down on Pharaoh and his chariots. The good guys live, the bad guys die. But what does the story say about God?
Reading Exodus has stirred up some questions. For instance, a couple of weeks ago Kasey Buckland left this comment:
I’m having a hard time pairing the God of the Old Testament to God in the New. People didn’t have the “free will” we have now. God called the shots and wasn’t afraid to punish, hurt or wound his people in the Old. Is there an easy way to explain this? You know when people have to act business-like and tough at work then they can come home and feel comfortable and get all vulnerable? (ie-like a police man at work, then family man at home) I’m seeing God like that. Seems like his “work” persona in the Old and “home” persona in the New. Help me straighten this out in my head.
Kasey came to Lunch Break Bible Study (Wednesdays at noon) and we had a lively discussion of her question. We talked about how Jesus came to demonstrate what God is really like (expecting, for instance, not “eye for an eye” but “turn the other cheek”). We talked about the role of editors who shaped the ancient stories of Exodus into the book we now have. We discussed lots of possibilities for reconciling very different portrayals of God, but when all was said and done, our questions were not all answered and what remained was mystery.
The rabbis have always known this. They would spend their lifetimes studying scripture, trying to understand and explain seeming paradoxes. For instance, if God is love, how is it that so many Egyptians are slaughtered as the Children of Israel are being freed from slavery. Troubled by the simplistic “God protected the Hebrews by killing Egyptians,” the rabbis told this story:
There is a story in the Jewish Talmud about the angels in heaven as they watch the children of Israel who are trapped at the Red Sea. The Egyptian army is coming right up behind them. Suddenly the sea opened, and the children of Israel ran through to safety on the other side. The Egyptian army came charging into the sea after them, but the walls of water collapsed and they were drowned. The angels burst into songs of joy celebrating Israel’s miraculous escape. They invited God to come join in their celebration, but God responded, “how can I sing when my children are dying?” “Oh No” the angels said, “come look, they aren’t dying, they made it to the other side, they’re safe”. To which God solemnly answers: “the Egyptians are also my children, and they are dying… how can I sing songs of joy”?
As the great philosopher Jerry Jeff Walker once said, “Anything that’s not a mystery is just guesswork.”