Last week we had the story of the Passover. The story that has shaped a people’s identity. A story that tells of liberation from slavery to freedom. A story that continues to be told and remembered today, a perpetual ordinance as God ordained (Exodus 12:17). As Moses told them “when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ you shall say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” (Exodus 12:26-27).
You can have your memory refreshed by watching this clip from the Dreamworks’ animated musical film Prince of Egypt:
At midnight God struck down all the firstborn in Egypt. Wealth, status, hierarchy did not matter, all the firstborn were killed from the firstborn of Pharaoh to the prisoners in the dungeon, even the firstborn of the livestock died. There was not a house without someone dead. The grief was widespread.
As one who believes God is a God of love and life I struggle with this story and the death. Do not Egyptian lives matter? Do the ends justify the means?
Do you struggle with this story and the destruction of life?
How do you reconcile a God of love and life as the one who also brings destruction and death?
It took the death of all the first born for Pharaoh to repent and let go of his power and control. Not until such death and chaos was unleashed did Pharaoh let the people go. After this night of death he summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Go away from my people, you and the Israelites! Go, worship your God. Take your flocks and your herds and be gone. And bring a blessing on me too!”
The people fled with urgency. God led the people toward the Red Sea. God went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. You can watch and listen to the song When You Believe from the Dreamworks’ animated musical film
Prince of Egypt:
It did not take Pharaoh and his officials long to change their minds.
“What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?” So Pharaoh had his chariot made ready, and took his army with him; he took six hundred of the best chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them… As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” (Exodus 14:5-7, 10-12)
The people prefer the security of slavery over the uncertainty of freedom. Wouldn’t it be better to be close to the riches of a wealthy nation than to be lost in the wilderness?
Are there ways in which we are the tyrant who weld the power and threaten withdrawal of finances in order to control?
In what ways and to what things do we as individuals, as community and as the church remain bound to power and wealth?
But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today” (Exodus 14:13)
This brings us to this week’s reading. God spoke to Moses telling him to tell the Israelites to go forward. God also tells Moses to hold out his staff out over the sea which he does overnight while God drove the sea back by a strong east wind which dived the water allowing the Israelites to cross over on dry land. The Egyptian army pursued them but God, in the pillar of fire and cloud, threw the Egyptian army into panic and clogged the chariot wheels so that they had difficulty turning. Then God told Moses to again stretch his hand out over the sea so that the water would return which it did covering the chariots and drivers destroying the entire army.
Again, I ask don’t Egyptian lives matter? Do the ends justify the means? I have been thinking a lot about this over the last few months. As we have seen protests in Hong Kong against China the Communist Government. As we have seen protests in the USA and around the world for Black Lives Matter. As we commemorated the 75th anniversary of Atom bombs being dropped on Japan. As we commemorated the end of World War II in which people on both sides of the war were fighting believing God was on their side. I have thought of Bonhoeffer who spoke out against the Nazi regime. He led one of only a few churches who went against the Nazi, Arian, White Supremacist ideology. He was killed not long before the end of the war because of his involvement in a plan to assassinate Hitler. Do the ends ever justify the means? And if so how do we judge when the ends justify the means?
Do we find it hard to believe the ends justify the means when we are not the ones who are being oppressed? After all when the status quo works for us why change it?
Separating the water from the land is an echo of creation, on the third day when God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” The creational themes are important here they remind us that God’s conflict with Pharaoh is not simply between two rulers. The true conflict is between forces of creation and chaos, between freedom and tyranny. Pharaoh is a tyrant, a ruler who acts without concern for checks and balances, one who uses power oppressively and absolutely. Pharaoh’s policies of enslavement, domination, and violence are the forces of chaos, oppression and death. It is a force that is opposed to the flourishing of life, it is anti-creational. God’s decision to confront Pharaoh represents a decision to give the forces of creation a chance again to flourish, bringing them out from underneath the suffocating chokehold of pharaonic oppression.
Can we empathise with those who are oppressed and marginalised?
Our scriptures tell us that God empathises with those who are poor, oppressed and marginalised and God wants them to be liberated. God also wants the oppressors to repent, to turn to God and let go of their power and control so human life can flourish.
Do we prefer power and control over human life and flourishing?
Do we bring disaster upon ourselves when we are unwilling to repent and love God and our neighbours (all of our neighbours)?
The rabbis were particularly insightful in naming this reality when commenting on this story they say the ministering angels desired to sing a song of praise before God in response to the decisive victory over the Egyptians. God, however, said to them: “My handiwork [the Egyptians] are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before me?”
Death and destruction are not the will of God but the outworking’s of sin, of tyranny, of enslavement, domination, oppression, of making some fellow humans less than.
Rev Tammy Hollands