Salvation story (Exodus 14:15-25, 30)
Published in Mennonite Weekly Review (June 15, 2009)
God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt provides the pattern for the Bible’s presentation of salvation. This act, described in Exodus 14, rescued God’s covenant people from threatened annihilation in Egypt and established them as the people through whom God will bless all the families of the Earth.
The rest of the Old Testament continually looks back at this event as the core memory of God’s faithfulness. And the exodus story provides the model for how the New Testament presents Jesus’ (the name means “savior”) bringing about healing and liberation (that is, “salvation”).
The exodus from Egypt
When we get to Exodus 14, we have seen how the situation gets more and more perilous for the Hebrews as Pharaoh’s heart grows ever harder and his whip grows ever more devastating. Finally, even amidst the powerful doubts of many Hebrews, God acts. God opens the sea, the Hebrews pass through to their deliverance, and God crashes the waters down on the Egyptian warriors, horses and chariots.
As Millard Lind points out in his classic study of this story, Yahweh is a Warrior, God makes a statement here. The key to faithfulness is trust in God — a type of trust directly contrasted with trust in weapons of war and human kings. This contrast characterizes the biblical story from now on, culminating in Jesus’ definitive expression of the kind of life trust in God leads to: compassion for the vulnerable, love of neighbors (including even enemies), and a politics of servanthood and not domination.
What does it mean for us today?
How relevant is this story in our present world which, to say the least, does not seem to be filled with miraculous Red Sea crossings?
One danger is to say it has no relevance since it happened in such a different world. Another danger is to think of the relevance just on the personal, spiritual level. And another danger is to see this story’s main relevance as a means of undercutting Jesus’ call to love enemies.
The key to a more faithful application lies in Ex. 14:25, where the Egyptians finally acknowledge Yahweh. Back in Ex. 5:2 Pharaoh had scornfully dismissed Yahweh. The practical significance of Pharaoh’s dismissal of Yahweh was the continuation of oppression of the vulnerable.
We see a parallel in Mark 15:39. Caesar (represented by Pontius Pilate) had scornfully dismissed Jesus’ identity as God’s Messiah (“the king of the Jews”). But in the end, another representative of the Empire, a centurion, confesses, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” — that is, the Messiah.
The point both stories make has to do with loyalty. Pharaoh and Yahweh compete for people’s loyalty. When some of the Hebrews bitterly question Moses (Ex. 14:11-12), they studiously avoid mentioning Yahweh’s name — implying that Pharaoh is the power who matters. Likewise, the religious leaders in Jesus’ day cried out, “We have no king but Caesar!”
God’s deliverance through the Red Sea and God’s vindication of Jesus through resurrection both confirm the confession the Egyptians make (“The Lord is fighting for Israel”) and the Roman soldier makes (“Truly this man was God’s Son!”).
So, for the people of God, the choice of to whom to give loyalty is clear. Torah details the direction that life centered on loyalty to God takes — in contrast to life centered on loyalty to Pharaoh. At the heart of the difference is love of the vulnerable ones in your midst (Leviticus 19). Jesus repeats the same kind of message about loyalty: “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over their subjects; it must not be so among you. Your leaders must be servants of all” (Mark 10:42-45).
Ted Grimsrud teaches theology and peace studies at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.