Abide: Exodus 14-17

  • In some ways, Israel has to be feeling pretty great in Exodus 14-17. They’re finally escaping enslavement and have been delivered by God through His prophet. On the other hand, they are also between Pharaoh’s army and the Red Sea. Spoilers: they escape. But they didn’t know that until the moment of deliverance–they had to have faith that the Lord would provide a way for them. What can we learn from the ancient Israelites living, figuratively and literally, on the water’s edge? We’ll discuss that and more on today’s episode of “Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast.”

  • In some ways, Israel has to be feeling pretty great in Exodus 14-17. Their finally escaping enslavement and have been delivered by God through his prophet. On the other hand, they are also between Pharaoh’s army and the Red Sea. Now, spoiler alert, they escape but they didn’t know that until that moment of deliverance. They had to have faith that the Lord would provide a way for them. What can we learn from the ancient Israelites living, figuratively and literally, on the water’s edge? We’ll discuss that and more on today’s episode of Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast. My name is Joseph Stuart. I’m the Public Communications Specialist for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Kristian Heal is a research fellow at the institute and each week we will be discussing the week’s block of reading from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Come, Follow Me curriculum. We aren’t here to present a lesson, but rather hit on a few key themes from the scripture block so as to help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-day Saints and their testimonies of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ and engage the world of religious ideas.


    Joseph Stuart: Today we are again joined by Truman Callens, one of our research assistants and an Ancient Near-eastern Studies major here at BYU from Seattle, Washington. After he graduates, he plans to attend graduate school to study Theology and Sacred Texts. Welcome back, Truman.


    Truman Callens: It’s good to be here, thank you.


    Joseph Stuart: Glad to have you back. Krisitan, what’s going on in Exodus chapters 14-17?


    Kristian Heal: Well the narrative tension that makes this story of the Exodus so compelling continues to its climax in chapter 14. Pharaoh has let the people of Israel go and they are camped between the Migdol and the Reed Sea, but almost immediately Pharaoh regrets his decision and so marshals his forces to bring Israel back. The people of Israel panic when they see the Egyptians, but Moses reassures them, “Have no fear, stand by and witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. The Lord will battle for you. Hold your peace.” The Lord does indeed do battle for them. And Israel is delivered while all the Egyptian forces perish. This moment becomes the cause of faith for the people of Israel ever after. It is celebrated immediately in the song of the sea found in Exodus 15, and remembered in several other places in the Bible. The remaining chapters relate the ongoing revelation of the Lord to his people. God is clearly mighty in battle as he showed against the Egyptians, and again at the end of these chapters against Amulek. But he also promises to protect them against sickness, reminding them that, “I am the Lord your healer.” He miraculously provides water for them when they thirst and food for them when they hunger. The people of Israel murmur, and God hears their murmurs and responds. All this he did so that they would know it was the Lord who brought them out of the land of Egypt, and so that they would see the Lord’s glory.


    Joseph Stuart: Thanks for that helpful overview, Krisitan. Truman, let’s have a big picture check here. Where is Israel at this point, physically and spiritually?


    Truman Callens: Right as we kind of step out of the Red Sea and move into a new part of Israel’s history, both historically as a people and literarily in the text of the Book of Exodus. This is kind of a new transition point. It’s a really good place to step back and assess and look at who Israel is. I really like these chapters that sit in between the Reed Sea and Mount Sinai because you have Israel at their lowest point then transitioning to Mount Sinai which is physically the highest point. And so we have a lot of these little chapters and little stories in between that link these two points together. I think there’s a lot to learn about the character of Israel. I think that there is a lot the Lord is trying to teach us about who Israel is at this point as we move into the exodus. In my studies there are three big points that really define Israel. And number one is that Israel at this point in the narrative is unorganized and undisciplined. We see that in the stories of the bitter water and the water coming out of the rock and manna, this unorganized picture of Israel, this kind of raw, unformed mass. Number two would be that Israel at this point still does not trust the Lord, even though they have come through the Red Sea in this miraculous event, even though they’ve seen and been protected from all the plagues, they still display a lack of trust in the Lord. And last, we learn that Israel is still focused on primal based needs, such as food and water and the people around them that they’re fighting, and they still haven’t grasped the concept of their divine potential. They are focused on very primal things and these three things are really what’s defining Israel at this point and I really like the imagery of this raw, unformed mass that Israel is because it reminds me of the creation and of when the Lord created the world out of these raw materials and placed into a cohesive whole, into the Lord’s goal. And I think that’s the same way with Israel at this point.


    Joseph Stuart: That’s really helpful. It calls to mind in Section 1 of the Doctrine and Covenants in verse 30 where the Lord says that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, “with which I the Lord am well pleased.” Speaking under the church collectively and not individually. In thinking about what it means for the Lord to be pleased in organization, but also for one to be true and living, to constantly have the ability and the expectation that it’s going to shift. And despite the fact that the Lord isn’t pleased with everything that’s going on, it’s important to remember that in these latter-days, but also in the Old Testament that God remembers his chosen people.


    Truman Callens: Yeah, and I think there’s a lot we can apply because sometimes we think of Israel, at least I think of Israel as I read the Old Testament as oh this is Israel of the Exodus, this Israel of the Old Testament, but really this is also us. It’s cool to take this picture of Israel and superimpose it onto ourselves and we can ask ourselves the question, where is our focus? I really love the image of Israel’s looking down there, looking down at the bitter water, or they’re looking down at the manna that’s on the ground, or they’re looking down at the people that they’re fighting and it isn’t until they reach Mount Sinai that they are physically forced to look up to the Lord and up to their divine potential. I think we can kind of ask ourselves that same question because though the Lord provides manna in the wilderness, we have to remember that that’s not the goal. Manna in the wilderness isn’t the goal for Israel, it’s a land flowing with milk and honey. And though they are surviving on manna, they have to keep their mindset focused on their potential and I think we’re the same way. Sometimes we can get distracted with things that are good but not the most important, and we should always keep in mind the divine potential and the covenants that we’ve made.


    Joseph Stuart: I think it’s also important to remember that understandably, ancient Israel is  a little freaked out right now. They are refugees, to use a modern term for it. And I think it’s important for us to remember that fear can sometimes draw a fight or flight response out of us, but also in the words of what historian Richard Bushman said, “Panic can precede revelation.” Krisitan, how do we balance the fear that we may have a failure with faith that the Lord will help us to succeed?


    Kristian Heal: That’s a really great question. I think it’s worth thinking about fear at this junction in the story, thinking about this episode in God saving the Egyptians reminds me of a story when I was a boy, about twelve or thirteen going down to the village shop with my older brother and meeting a friend from a village there, a girl, saying hello to her but somehow kind of arousing the anger of her boyfriend, who decided that he was going to go after my brother, and they were kind of facing off against each other. Somehow in the course of this he was on drugs and he seemed sort of a bit crazy-eyed and manic. I thought it was a good time to run home and get my dad, so I did and we only lived a few minutes away from the shop. But we drove back with my dad, he jumped out of my car, shouted, rushed up, grabbed this guy who was facing off against his son, my brother and asked him what he was doing. The guy who was facing off against my brother was bigger than my brother was, but my dad was bigger than this guy and he spent his whole life building houses, has sort of hands like dustbin lids, and is this larger than life character. And at that moment, I felt two emotions simultaneously. One, I was a bit afraid of my dad. I thought, I wouldn’t have liked to been that guy. And the other is, this kid of absolute faith that my dad was able to protect us, to look after us. And so we see these dynamic forces of fear acting in Israel at this point in the story. Forces that led Israel to feel fear and faith in God ultimately. Now as they come up to the edge of the water, of this image of them at the edge of the water is a minimal space where some sort of transition is happening. What they feared most at that point, we actually learn as they recollect back to the conversation they had with Moses when he first said that he was going to come and redeem them, or first said that the Lord was going to redeem them and bring them out of Israel, and he says in Exodus 14:11-12, “What have you done to us taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt saying, let us be and we will serve the Egyptians? For it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” So Israel sort of emerges after all these experiences, and the thing that they fear the most is dying in the wilderness. And as they see or could imagine the Egyptian army, this cloud of dust coming over the horizon, it feels that all of their fears are going to be realized at this moment, that they are going to die in the wilderness. And this episode ends instead with the Egyptians dying in the wilderness and their bodies lying on the shore or floating past Israel. And now they feel a new emotion, a different emotion, as we read in Exodus 14:3, “and when Israel saw the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord, and they had faith in the Lord and in God’s servant Moses.”


    Joseph Stuart: I think that it makes sense that these ancient Israelites are afraid, but what does fear do in this situation. What should we reading the text, understand fear to be?


    Kristian Heal: So the word, the Hebrew, underlying the people fearing the Lord is simply the word to be scared, to be afraid of something. It’s the same word or feeling that Jacob felt as he approached Esau and worried about him attacking him on his return. Or the same word to describe how Adam and Eve felt after they had partaken of the fruit and they’re sort of hiding, fearing to see God. So it is this sense or fear that they’re feeling, but we do have — right at the beginning of this passage, Moses tells them to fear not. Fear is serving these two functions. The difference I think that we see going on here is, it’s okay to fear God because of who he is. God is a consuming fire as we read in Hebrews. He’s a mighty warrior. He’s glorious in power as we read in this song of the sea. What God doesn’t want us to do is to fear the people around us. God wants us to have faith in the fact that he is more mighty, he is more powerful. So the whole story is leading up to this one moment, one of many moments throughout the scriptures in which God is repeatedly demonstrating this thing. You’re afraid of other people, you’re afraid of things that you don’t need to be afraid of. Fear God, have faith in God and his servants and trust that God can take care of you.


    Joseph Stuart: Thanks, Kristian. I find that really helpful in thinking about not only that fear does operate, but thinking how fear can operate in propelling us to be better. I love that you mention in Exodus 15, the song of the sea, because it brings back sea shanty tik tok from last year, but I would love to hear more about it’s context and how it fits in to a sort of identity building process for these ancient Israelites, what it reveals about them.


    Kristian Heal: This is really one of the most beautiful poems that we have in the Bible. What we know from other contexts is that after an especially unexpected victory there would be singing and rejoicing. Often singing from women, and women would compose and sing songs, and that’s what we have here inserted into the text at this point. This marvelous, miraculous victory has happened and we have this beautiful poem. It’s not clear. Scholars have argued when this was written. Is this Miriam writing this poem? She would be the most likely candidate among those sort of contemporary with these events or is this written later in the final compilation of these stories, in the exile and a way that is archaizing and trying to seem like an older poem? So scholars place this poem in this very ancient period in the second millennium BC or in the sixth century. But what we find in it is this marvelous recounting of the events in the story, an accounting which shows that this episode, this moment in the sea when all seems lost becomes the great moment in the history of Israel. The moment that epitomizes God’s ability to rescue them and to redeem them from the seemingly impossible forces arrayed against them. In one particular introduction to the Old Testament by Walter Brugerman and Tod Linafelt, they say that, “… it is clear that this story has funded the imagination of Judaism through the centuries and has provided ground for hope when circumstances on the ground would yield none, even as the circumstances on the ground in Egypt has yielded no hope.” I love the way that they put this, this notion of both funding the imagination of Judaism and providing grounds for hope when the circumstances on the ground don’t offer any.


    Joseph Stuart: Yeah, it reminds me of the prophet Joseph saying, “just at that moment of great alarm,” when he experiences the First Vision. In similarly thinking about how the First Vision comes into the lives of average Latter-day Saints who also at moments of great alarm are calling upon God to give them answers, to come out of nowhere. So you mention that this becomes part of the memory of ancient Israel. What do you mean by that?


    Kristian Heal: Yeah I think that we see this story being retold again at key moments in the history of Israel. For example, in the end of the book of Joshua when what seems to be a covenant making moments, key events in the history of Israel, are being reiterated as a way to shape the identity of the people there and to show how God has intervened in their life. And this story is the one that is told. The Exodus is summarized into plagues, a fairly long account of how the Egyptians pursued your fathers to the sea of reeds with chariots and horses. They cried out to the Lord, the fathers, “…and he put darkness between you and the Egyptians and he brought the sea upon you.” That’s in Joshua 24. Similarly, the prophet Jeremiah remembers back to this moment, reminding Israel that God took note of your father’s affliction in Egypt and heard their cry at the Sea of Reeds. And in Psalms when we are talking about the history of Israel in Psalms 106 we read, “Our forefathers in Egypt did not receive your wonders. They did not remember your abundant love but rebelled at the Sea of Reeds yet, he saved them as befits his name, to make known his might he send blasts against the Sea of Reeds, it became dry and he led them through the deep as through the wilderness.” So we have these moments again and again where this story, this particular episode becomes the archetypal moment in which God acts in the world on behalf of Israel, providing this faith, funding their imagination.


    Joseph Stuart: There’s very much a before and after, and with what you’ve said in previous episodes it makes sense that this is the hingepoint for Jewish history, for Israelite history.


    Kristian Heal: Yeah, exactly. This is the story that he evokes when he’s trying to get his brothers to show faith in God. This is the story that he gestures back to. I think that suggests that something important and something archetypal is happening here. Every believer needs moments like this that epitomize the power of God in the lives of his people. And it’s easy to imagine those times when Israelites, in the history of Judaism, individual Jews would look back on this moment and say, well if God can do that then he can help me now. And I think that is also precisely the same for us, that as we look back on this story, it’s a reminder to us that when everything is stacked against us that God is able to help, and also a reminder that as you said, to look to our own tradition, to the stories of the prophets, to our own families, to the stories that we have. These vignettes that pass down through and let those fund our imaginations and fuel our faith in God’s ability to save and bless and heal.


    Joseph Stuart: Yes. It’s not only the promises he makes to us as individuals through covenant, but also to people as a matter of covenant as well.


    Kristian Heal: Yeah. I think that this is vital to remember that this was an act of covenant deliverance, not just God acting on the world on the behalf of his children. But acting as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob to fulfill the promises that he had made to the patriarchs, that he would make their seed a great nation, that he would lead them to the promised land, and that he would fulfill the promises that he made to them. And I think when we frame this experience as covenant faithfulness, we then start to see more deeply how it can apply to our own experience as we make covenants with God to bless and help and save us.


    Truman Callens: If I can just insert a question here, because we see this idea of covenant deliverance but as a group and as Israel, and I’m wondering how do we see that today in our world as a church because I sometimes struggle feeling this cohesiveness as Israel that they might have felt back then, so where do we feel this covenant deliverance as Israel today?


    Kristian Heal: I think that some people would see as a recent example of that, the way that in subtle and explicit ways President Nelson prepared the church to continue to worship God through the pandemic. In this moment in which all the structures of our religious observance would be removed and we would be left in a home-centered church environment, we’d already been prepared for a home-centered church environment. So one of the ways we can look to kind of covenant deliverance, is precisely through the counsel and teaching of prophets who are seeking to deliver to us precisely the warnings of the Lord that are prepared. So I think corporately we can see these kind of activities taking place. Another interesting way to think of this is in our own personal lives. How are we delivered from difficulties or how is our path led or straightened? I love this notion of God preparing paths for us, and this I’ve seen in my own life as a lovely example of covenant deliverance. My favorite kind of deliverance, I have to say, is deliverance from problems that I’ve avoided by following the promptings of the spirit. That’s my favorite kind of deliverance because I’d rather not learn lessons through experience, personally. But I think that’s a really great question and something that’s worth thinking about as we look in our own lives and think, how are the promises of the covenant that I’ve made with God being fulfilled and worked out in my life.


    Joseph Stuart: I think that’s a great place to end. Have a blessed week y’all.


    Thank you for listening to Abide: A Maxwell Institute Podcast. Could you please rate, review, and subscribe to the podcast wherever you’re listening to this podcast and follow us on social media at @byumaxwell on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, FaceBook, and sign up for our newsletter at mi.byu/edu? Thank you and have a great week.