The Wednesday Bible study is reading Exodus, and yesterday morning we got to the part of the story where the Israelites are about to cross the Red Sea. They have been enslaved for 400 years at this point, and lately two charismatic leaders, Moses and Aaron, have given voice to their common pain and galvanized a movement. “Let my people go,” Moses says to Pharaoh, “we don’t belong in this narrow place anymore. We’re not slaves to you, we are children of God.”
The boundary the people must cross is both literal and metaphoric. The water separates Egypt from the wilderness, where Pharaoh does not rule, but perhaps more importantly, walking through it is their access to emotional and spiritual freedom. The Sea is liminal space, “a boundary between two domains that must be traversed if one is to enter into a new mode of living.” (Covenant and Conversation, Jonathan Sacks) We talked about the rich symbolism of water, how it refreshes and cleanses and accompanies birth, but also noted that the Israelites’ crossing is full of danger. The observant reader sees in their watery passage a rehearsal of Genesis’ creation story. Talk to anyone who has turned from some death-dealing behavior toward wholeness, and you see what the scripture is giving voice to: one has to go through chaos to reach the order of any longed for promised land.
Such crossings are tough sledding. Three days into their new life, the Israelites complain to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?” It’s an honest question; most of us won’t choose this kind of difficult growth, unless where we are has become untenable. Who hasn’t opted for familiar hells when faced with a strange, new heaven? But conviction and circumstances compel them to start moving: they deserve to be agents of their own destiny, and besides, 600 Egyptian chariots are closing in on them fast! Moreover, the Red Sea crossing is an enactment of covenant, which suggests that the Israelites not only enter a new land on the other side, they also exit the water as a new people.
The central verb of covenant is “to cut,” and this kind of promise was usually ritualized by dividing an animal into pieces, with the parties to the covenant then sitting or standing between the sides of the slaughtered beast. In a memorable scene from Genesis, Abram cuts an assortment of birds and ruminants into pieces and then falls into a deep sleep, in which he hears the Lord. “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated 400 years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves… and in four generations your descendants will come back (home)… When the sun had set and the darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram.” In a similar action at the Red Sea, the Israelites pass between two walls of water, crossing from being slaves of Pharaoh to being servants of God.
As individuals and a nation, we are being invited to cross fairly troubled waters right now, and to navigate by a rhetoric of fear or by love. How we walk and the steps we take will make all the difference; they shape not only our destination, but who we are as a people when we get there.