Week 6 / Exodus 13-15
It’s a theme that tends not to feature highly in the songs and hymns of Churches rooted in the culture of a liberal democracy: ‘God is a warrior…In the greatness of your majesty you threw down those who opposed you. You unleashed your burning anger…’ (Ex.15:3 & 6-7). And yet the same act that brings deliverance for God’s people brings destruction on those who oppose Him – in this case, the Egyptian army (14:26-31). Even more disturbingly for many is that fact that both deliverance and destruction sit comfortably side by side in the Church’s worship. The same song that celebrates: ‘In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed’, speaks of the LORD hurling His enemies into the sea, shattering His enemies, and anticipates the nations trembling as terror and dread fall on them as a result of the LORD’s action in history.
Whilst, in our basically therapeutic age, we may struggle with the question of how a loving God could treat people like this (14:26-31), and how a Church could celebrate it (15:1-12), the Bible (and much of today’s Church in other parts of the world) seems to struggle far more with exactly the opposite question: How can a loving God not treat people like this more often? Why do the wicked seem so often to prosper, and ‘get away with it’? I wonder if our unease with God acting in such direct destruction is to do with our proximity to persecution and oppression. We do not delight in the God who avenges, if there is nothing particularly to avenge.
There is a certain cultural elitism that would dismiss the ancient Church’s celebration on the shores of the Red Sea as primitive, mis-guided or just under-developed. Some might seek to evade the supposed problems of Moses & Miriam’s praise with a pious remark about how the Church has thankfully grown out of such a militaristic mind-set. We have, they maintain, heard the ways of Jesus – forgiveness, love for enemies, turning the other cheek – in a way that Moses, in his hopelessly barbaric and primeval world view could never have anticipated, or appreciated.
It is easy for a self-indulgent Christianity, which has never suffered the horrors of systemic persecution (Ex.1-2&5); which has never birthed martyrs, prisoners of conscience or slaves, which has never endured family members being kidnapped, loss of property or security raids, to fall into a kind of sentimental naiveté. The idea that Moses & Miriam are hampered by a limited awareness of God’s character and ways (as if God’s revelation was evolutionary), or that they are blinded by cultural blinkers is such patent nonsense it almost laughable. The Church never ‘grows out’ of this vision of God (Rev.6:10; 19:2 etc.). Whether we are comfortable with it or not, the honest listening to the text of Scripture presents us throughout with a vision of God who is a Warrior, and who in the same act both delivers His people and destroys His enemies.
How would you feel if God slaughtered the security forces and the government, imploded the economy, collapsed the ecology, instigated famine and bereaved the families of a nation where the Church is persecuted in our own generation? Could you worship such a God? What questions would it raise for you as a Christian? What questions does it cause you to ask that God doesn’t do such things?
What would you say to a political or military leader who appealed to the story of Exodus to justify their own violence?
What do you think / feel about parts of the Bible that recount stories in which many people (sometimes whole nations) are killed either by God or by the command of God?
In the light of the coming Day of the LORD, what do you think we need to learn from such narratives?
Do you think the militaristic vision of God is appropriate for use in the Church’s worship and celebration in our day and age? Why / why not?
13:19 (cf. Gen.50:25). How do you think the Israelites kept / could have kept their hope of deliverance alive during the years of oppression?
In the drama we are witnessing in Exodus, what are we supposed to learn from the Angel of the LORD’s presence with His people in the fiery, cloudy pillar (13:21-22; 14:19 etc.)?
What do you make of the fact that the LORD seems to be deliberately misleading Pharaoh in order to induce him to pursue the Israelites (14:1-3)?
How will the LORD ‘gain glory’ through the death of ‘Pharaoh and all his army’ (14:4)? What does the LORD mean when He says that ‘the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD’?
Read 14:10-12. Why do you think the faith of the Israelites is so fragile after everything they have lived through in recent months? How can we strengthen our own faith?
Generations later, the prophet Hosea reflected on the heart of God to His people as revealed in the deliverance of His people from Egypt. ‘When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son (Hos.11:1). What do you think it means that Israel ends up back in Egypt during the days of the exile (see e.g. Jeremiah 42-44 / Hos.8:13 & 11:5)? Is there anything we can learn from this for our own experience of discipleship and Church? Why does Jesus return to Egypt (Matt.2:13-15)?
Paul in I Cor.10:2, famously refers to the deliverance of Israel through the Red Sea as their being ‘baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea’. What does Paul mean by this? Why does he say they were baptised ‘into Moses’, rather than Christ? What effect is his teaching supposed to have in the Church at Corinth? What do we learn about Paul’s thinking on sacraments here?
How do you think Moses felt being so directly implicated in the destruction of the Egyptian army (14:26-28)?
There are typically three questions asked by the western Church as they read accounts of God’s acting in judgement and destruction. The first relates to the love of God. Interestingly, Ex.15:13 is the first time in the Bible we are told that God is loving. The love of God is revealed precisely through His redemption of His people, and the consequent condemnation of those who love darkness and do evil (see Jn.3:16-20). The second relates to whether Moses had an inherently incomplete or impoverished revelation of God, which explained why he thought this was appropriate. In fact, Moses has an incredibly deep experience and full vision of God. He speaks with the Father on Sinai (Ex.19:20f); the Angel of the LORD face-to-face (33:11), enjoys fellowship with the Holy Spirit, and exercises His gifts (Num.11:17-29). We also need to recognise that acts and rhetoric of judgement and destruction such as these run throughout the Old and New Testaments, and can’t simply be relegated to an embarrassing corner of ancient history. Quite apart from the testimony of later prophets (Is.63:1-6), the language of Jesus Himself in the Gospels is pretty stark (Matt.24:51; 25:46 etc.), not to mention that of the Apostles (II Pet.3:7), who seem to envisage the Church’s anticipation of the destruction of their enemies (II Thess.2:6-10), and indeed their own participation in that ‘holy war’ (I Cor.6:2-4; Rev.19:14). The third question explores how we make sense of God’s acts of judgement in light of Jesus’ teaching e.g. to love our enemies. But God’s acting in judgement doesn’t stand in opposition to the command to love our enemies, rather it provides the context in which it is possible to do so (Rom.12:17-21; I Pet.2:21-25).