The Red Sea: From Obstacle to Opening (Exodus 14)

This is the text from the message I gave at Camas Friends Church September 11, 2011.

The Experience of the Experience

This past week we were at the beach. Searching for rocks. Lily and Mae scooped while Emily and I carefully picked. At first this was frustrating. It felt like an obstacle to us having fun. I found myself continually saying come on, just pick up one special one, not all of them. I want to keep moving! I realized the goal for me was to find really unique rocks, that’s why I was out there, or that was at least why I was feeling frustrated. The girls didn’t understand the point of what we were doing! The girls had an entirely different approach to what was happening there. Their joy was not in thinking about which were the most beautiful and unique rocks, but in the experience of simply being together on the beach, and running their hands through the sand. For me, the realization that what was important was the experience rather than the end product, or my understanding of what we were doing, helped to create an “opening” or a different kind of experience for on the beach. I was able to relax and enjoy what was going on.

Al shared with me yesterday a quote from Thomas Merton: “What is important is to experience the experience, not to understand the experience.” This is the difference between talking about doing something and actually doing it.

It’s like the impulse to have a meeting to plan for our upcoming coming meeting.

This past Wednesday during our Discernment class we talked about how it’s easy to feel frustrated with the how we do business together. We often just want to get it done and over with, we all know the feeling. We’re tired, we’ve had a long day at work, we have a lot other things to do. And if the end goal, that final decision, is really what is most important, then just making the decision and moving on is what we should do. Anything else is just an obstacle that creates frustration. But what if the decision we make is not really the point at all? What if in fact God is not interested in the decision we make as much as in the experience of making that decision? What if discernment isn’t about efficient decision-making, but rather about helping the church become a community? What if the whole point is the experience of becoming the people of God, regardless of what the outcome of the final decision is?

This provides a shift in perspective, at least for me, in thinking about what it is I’m doing. From playing on the beach with my daughters to things we do as meeting. The emphasis moves onto the actual experience which is really the field where transformation will take place if we let it. It also recognizes a move from something being an obstacle to something becoming an opening or an opportunity for us. All of a sudden, if what I am no long just doing “business as usual” but I actually enter into the process of being transformed through my lived experiences, I am far more interested and engaged in what it is I am doing. I am interested in learning how to listen, how to hear God’s voice, and how to hear God through my brothers and sisters. In other words, I am opened up to a whole new level of opportunity for development.

This shift in perspective, this movement from understanding to experience, from obstacle to opening, sheds interesting light on the way we can read the story of the red sea.

Trapped: From Understanding to Experience

The angle I want to take on this story this morning is this – I think the Hebrew people crossing the Red Sea is a metaphor for what it means for us, as the children of God, to face the tragic reality of what it takes for us to become free. The Red Sea is a deeply transformative experience for those who pass through it and both an obstacle and an opening depending on which characters we identify within the story.

Here in 14:1-18 The Hebrews are found in the midst of their flight, caught between the transition of oppression and liberation, with a deep feeling of being trapped.

[Slide] In 14:3 the thoughts of Pharaoh are foretold “The Israelites are lost; they’re confused. The wilderness has closed in on them.”

The people on the run are not equipped to stand up to Pharaoh’s army and feel that vulnerability of being under-equipped for the crisis they face.

They are trapped. Like a lost driver whose found himself at the end of a cul-de-sac, the Israelites have no place to go. What we learn here is that even in the movement toward freedom, you are not free until that liberation is a final reality. Moving toward freedom, traveling through the many houses on the underground railroad is not the same of finding yourself on the other side of the border.

In fact, they feel the way we do when we find ourselves in similar situations, like it’s a big trick. Often, don’t we believe that God is a gotcha-God, waiting around the corner to spook us, trick us, turn something that looked good into something that snags and grabs us? How many of you know the feeling that “I can’t really enjoy this thing yet, because I know there’s a catch?”

The Hebrews wonder if this YHWH and Moses by extension can be trusted. Is God a gotcha-God? This is what is so hard about finding freedom, the transition space between unfreedom and true liberation is a vulnerable space, not clearly marked out and will often leave you feeling trapped.

And like all of us, they plead for understanding. This frustrated feeling of being trapped makes them begin to murmur, complaining they want to know what is going on?

Read – 14:11-12

What is happening here? Why did you bring us here? These are all legitimate complaints and questions of understanding? Goldingay says “When God guides you and you end up trapped in a cul-de-sac, it’s reaonable to react the way the Israelites did (63). But their questions are similar to what happened to me on the beach, what are we doing here are we scooping up sand or looking for unique rocks?

What I love hear about Moses’ response is that it is such a great pastoral response to people who are in crisis.

Read – 14:13-14

These murmurings are not rebuked or condemned by Moses. Their desire to return to Egypt makes sense. Those benefits of the old system were in a twisted way, actually comfort and stabilize. Here they are in a no-place. In the wilderness they begin to face the harshness of reality outside the old system.

And while Moses doesn’t condemn or rebuke he does calls them forward through the experience. “Don’t try to understand what is happening, but instead experience the experience. See what unfolds before you. YHWH will fight for you. Watch and be still.”

Here Moses is the people’s advocates. He stands in solidarity with them, rooting for them offers a “Salvation Oracle.” What Moses says is rooted in how we understand the Gospel, God’s power and faithfulness will bring resolution.

Moses says “do not be afraid.”

The people’s lament is heard by Moses who responds by drawing them back to the bigger picture, siding with them Moses reminds them that YHWH will liberate them as he has promised. But they need to hang in there in order to experience what is about to take place. This is why he calls them to stand firm and keep still. This keeping still is not a call to passivity, it is a call to silence. Maybe Moses was a Quaker? The Gospel word from Moses to the people is “Stand firm, Watch, listen…God will deliver you.” Sometimes we need to be quiet, we need to stop talking, we need to stop trying to understand things and stop trying to have the answers. When Moses says keep still he means “What you have to say will have no bearing on what is about to happen” (Frietheim).

When you are trapped, cry out, then “Stand firm, Watch, listen…for what God will do.”

Traversing the Red Sea

The situation, as it usually seems to work, turns from bad to worse before it gets better. While they are trapped they must move forward despite the fear, through the difficult task of “passing through the red sea.”  This sea, which we remember from Sunday School as the “sea of reeds,” is more interestingly and more literally called the “sea of ends.” They final stage for the Hebrew people on the way to liberation is to traverse through the sea of ends, from Chaos to creation, from death to life. Passing through the sea of ends they move from slavery to the reality of liberation, and lament and fear to a celebration on the other side of the water’s edge.

[Slide] It is like James McClendon said: “In our testing we are often undone, and yet this becomes the occasion of our redemption.” McClendon

This passage isn’t an argument about the miracle of how God and Moses splits the Red Sea, if that is our focus we miss the bigger picture. It is about the experience of coming undone, passing through loss and coming out whole on the other side. WB says it is “witness and summons to faith.” It is a story about how the Hebrew people experience rebirth, and a new founded faith in YHWH through this liberation.

We can see then that the Red Sea holds both social and spiritual meaning. It marks God’s critique of empire and the end of oppression for a marginalized people. The Egyptian army is waylaid, and the from the other side of the water’s edge the Hebrew people now see the finality of their liberation.

The other layer to this is that they encounter, in the middle of the sea, with walls of water on both sides, there is a traumatic loss of their previous identity as slaves. Their experience of oppression of Egypt was by far a horrible thing, but at the present moment it may not have looked so bad facing the terror and instability of the unknown. In Egypt they could exist in a kind of dream-state, lulled to sleep, here they are confronted for the first time with the trauma of reality. (sometimes it’s easier to just go back to sleep).

And make no mistake about it, standing in the middle of a sea split open like this, with “waters forming a wall for them on their left and on their right,” would have been a terrifying experience to pass through. [Slide] I doubt anyone was moonwalking through this that day, or updating their status. They would have been freaked out.  There were loads of questions, awe,jubilation, uncertainty and I think fear, wrapped up in this experience.

If they turn around they die, if the waters crash in on them they die, the only movement now is forward, to push through and to leave everything behind them that they once knew. The Red Sea, the sea of end” here is a metaphor for both the passage into death, as well as the birth canal (Ex 2). The Hebrew identity of slaves perishes in these waters that day, and a people wholly new, and liberated are born.

[Slide] “Moses’ capacity to divide the waters or drive them back suggests that he is replicating the coming of dry land in creation, when the sea is divided for the sake of inhabitable land. In this moment of liberation, God does a deed as powerful, original, and life-giving as the very newness of creation.


In closing, We should consider then that the ways that we feel trapped and how our perspective on what is taking place may hinder or help our experience of what is happening. When we are trapped it is appropriate to cry out, to find an advocate, and to “Stand firm, Watch, listen…for what God will do.”

And we also recognize that the Red Sea is an experience that we go through, we don’t have to understand how it works to pass through it. If it truly is a Red Sea experience, we know that God is bringing about liberation through it. We don’t always know how this plays out. Sometimes when we’re in the middle of the Red Sea we can see it as an obstacle or an opening. Sometimes we may need to turn around and get out of there, sometimes we need to pass through.