This is our third week following the story of Abraham, Sarah and their descendants. God called these two to leave their home and journey with God. God entered a covenant with them and promised them three things: many, many descendants; land to live on; and God promised to be with them always—blessing them so that through them all the world’s people would be blessed. The stories we are hearing are full of tension as they explore two questions: Will God keep God’s promises? Will human beings make choices that support God’s promises and desires, or will they not? Last week we heard the story of Joseph, Abraham and Sarah’s great grandson. When he is just a boy, his jealous, hateful brothers sell him off as a slave. Joseph ends up in Egypt where his story twists and turns–he suffers and he succeeds, loses and gains. At the end of the story, Joseph is a powerful man in the Egyptian government, and when his brothers come to Egypt to buy food during a famine, they have to deal with him. Ultimately, he treats them with kindness. And looking back over his life, Joseph recognizes that although his brothers meant evil against him, God has brought good out of the whole bloody mess. God was with him. God was working in, with, and through him. Because Joseph ended up in Egypt and because of his Divine wisdom, there is ample food in Egypt, not only to save his little family, but to save many, many others as well. So Joseph and his kinfolk settle down in the land of Egypt.
Years and years go by, generations are born and die. And at some point in time, a new Pharoah comes to power who has absolutely no memory of Joseph and all the good he did for the Egyptian Empire. When the King needs slaves to do the backbreaking work of building his opulent royal cities, it is these foreigners, these undocumented immigrants, Joseph’s descendants, who are enslaved. And yet they thrive. God is with them. Their offspring multiply. Pharoah, fearing that they will stage a rebellion increases the burden on them, authorizes their beating, and ultimately orders that all their infant boys be killed. God sees their suffering and hears their cries and determines to break the chains of their oppression and bring them out into freedom. God’s plan unfolds. There is a baby boy whose mother saves his life by hiding him in a basket and placing him in the Nile River. Pharoah’s daughter rescues him, names him Moses, and raises him as her own. When he is grown, God chooses Moses to bring the people of Israel out of slavery. Moses doesn’t want this job, but God wins the argument. So Moses goes to Pharaoh and asks him nicely to let these people go. Of course he won’t. He needs this cheap labor force. So, as the story is told, God plagues the Egyptians with all kinds of suffering and devastation, until finally Pharaoh begs them to leave, and even gives them gifts—gold and silver, sheep and gold—just to be rid of them. And off they go. They are free.
Exodus 14: 5-7, 10-14 21-29
5 When the king of Egypt realized that the Israelite slaves had departed, the minds of Pharaoh and his officials were changed, and they said, “What have we done, letting these people leave our service?” 6 So he had his chariot made ready, and took his army with him and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them.
10 As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them, and the Red sea in front of them. In great fear they cried out to God: SAVE US! 11 And they said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in this way? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? 12 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 this way.” 13 But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that God will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. 14 God will fight for you. You have only to keep still.”
21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. God drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. 22 The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23 The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers.
26 Then God said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” 27 So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled they were tossed into the sea. 28 The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them survived. 29 But the Israelites walked on dry land through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. “The Word…”
Again this week, a long story, which leaves me brief time to say some things about it, which is hard because there is so much here. But I’m going to rein myself in and focus on the theme of “dry land.” These two words are repeated three times in the account of God’s liberation of the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt. Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and God brought a strong east wind and turned the sea into “dry land.” The Israelites went into the sea on “dry land.” The Israelites walked on “dry land” through the sea.
There is an echo here. In this story itself, but also, there is an echo from the story of God’s creation of the world. In the beginning, the earth was a formless void and the Spirit of God, swept over the face of the waters. God gathered up the waters and caused dry land to appear. In the Hebrew Scriptures water is always shorthand for chaos, uncontrollable forces that overwhelm the dry land and make a diversity of life forms impossible. Fish may do well when waters cover the earth, but cats and dogs and people, not so much. Untamed waters create chaos and take lives. [Indonesia] In order to make dry land, God has to deal with the chaos.
The words “dry land” carry a whole heap of meaning. Dry land is what God provides so that a great diversity of plants, human beings and other animals have a good home, a hospitable place where every living thing can flourish. Not just some plants, and some human beings, and some animals—God provides dry land so that all of life can thrive. This is the forever intention of the Creator. The Psalmist says, the earth is God’s, and the fullness thereof, the world and all who dwell in it. The “dry land” isn’t a human possession, free for the taking by whomever is there first, or whoever comes later and plants their flag in the soil. Dry land is a sacred, holy gift.
In the beginning, God takes control of the chaotic, life-threatening waters. In the story of the Exodus God does it again. I’m not interested in figuring out what really happened to the Red Sea back then. The ancient Isrealites understand and tell this story of their liberation as a story of new creation. God makes dry land. God opens a way out of no way. And in this story, it isn’t just life-threatening waters that God must contend with. It is the chaos unleashed by self-serving, greedy human beings that God confronts. It is the ways of Pharoah’s empire that God is undoing. The Exodus story points to the end result of an economy and society built on the exploitation and domination of certain human beings by others with political power. In refusing to let these enslaved people go free, Pharaoh leads his own people to their grave. They have willingly followed him for years. They have gone along with his vision. It has worked for them. They have happily hoarded God’s gift of dry land, and have flourished at the expense of others. Without realizing it, they have become slaves to an ideology and a way of life that is not sustainable because it runs contrary to the alternative intention of the Creator who provides dry land so that all of life—every plant, person, and animal can flourish.
At the heart of these stories from the Hebrew scriptures is the conviction that God has established an order and intention for life that cannot be ignored. Human beings can work for or against God’s intention that every person enjoy God’s good gift of dry land, not as possession, but as the ground on which we live and thrive together in mutuality, with care and regard for the life of the neighbor. In every generation the story of the Exodus reminds us that we can and must choose how we will live. We can choose to become conscious of the inequities and oppressions that still exist all around us, and we can choose to work for or against their undoing.
In January, 1865, when the liberation of thousands of African American slaves was in view, General William T. Sherman developed a plan with black leaders in the South that when the slaves were freed, each family would receive up to forty acres of arable land. President Lincoln approved the plan and issued an executive order. By June of 1865, 40,000 freed slaves had been settled on 400,000 of what was called “Sherman” land. Not only were they free, they had the means to provide and sustain themselves and future generations. After Lincoln’s assassination, his successor, Andrew Johnson reversed the order, took the land from the freed slaves, and gave it back to its original owners. How different this nation would be if that plan and the promise of reparations for emancipated slaves had not been undone. How different things would be if African Americans had received the same gift of free land that their white neighbors and former masters enjoyed.
In every generation the themes of Israel’s enslavement and liberation are played out again and again. In this nation’s Civil War, in the Civil Rights and Black Lives matter movements. In the story of Nazi Germany and Jewish genocide. In the ongoing struggle of LGBTQ persons and women to be heard and embraced as equals. In the story of nation after nation fighting to be freed from the domination of colonial powers who robbed them of their land and their dignity. In the beginning of time, God causes dry land to emerge from the chaos of the life-threatening waters. In the Exodus God causes dry land to emerge from both the waters and the chaos of human greed, self-interest, and oppression. God makes a way out of no way. Dry land is the gift God gives so that every living being can flourish. This is the forever intention of God. This is God’s alternative to every other way we might choose to live. The story of the Exodus declares the certainty that what God intends, what God promises will come to be. God’s will for creation, God’s will for liberation is, as Walter Brueggeman says, “relentless and cannot finally be resisted.” [repeat] And God’s invitation comes again and again for us to see and celebrate the dry land that is already beneath your feet, to give thanks for our own thriving, and to see and hear and fight for those who are drowning in poverty and oppression and waiting for someone to walk with them to that place where God’s good earth is solidly under their feet and they are at home and free to flourish.