By Amber Noel
This section of Exodus reminds me irresistibly of tiramisu. Or perhaps lasagna. No — let’s stick with tiramisu. Starting with chapter 12, the text alternates between energy-soaked story and dense, rich commands. The story of the final plague pauses for precise instructions for Passover (12:1-27). Then we have plot (12:28-41), Passover restrictions (12:43-49), plot (12:50-51), rules for consecration of the firstborn (13:1-16), plot (13:17-14:31). Why was this text prepared this way, in layers? Why this enfolded repeating? Obviously, there are some things God doesn’t want his people to forget. In all the noise, motion, fear, hopes, uncertainty, and ecstasy of deliverance, remembering who God is — or learning it in the first place — is crucial.
Leaving Egypt, Stage 1: Passover and Firstborn (12:33-13:16)
After staying up all night, almost in a fever dream, 430 years of slavery has come to a sudden end, and the Hebrews are practically driven out of Egypt. Their neighbors pile clothing and jewelry on them. It’s almost too much. And with the 600,000 adults (not including children) who head to Succoth to make camp, a “mixed crowd” (12:38) go with them, along with a zoo of domestic animals. Among this “mixed crowd,” are surely some Egyptians, and perhaps other non-Egyptians too, immigrants or “foreigners” like the Hebrews, catching this wave of deliverance.
In all this apparent chaos and rush, we pause to get a review of the Passover Israel has just celebrated — specifically, how to distinguish, in the “mixed crowd” of God’s people, who can celebrate the holy meal, and who cannot. It seems clear: “no foreigner may eat of it” (12:43). But the Lord goes on to get very specific, even pastoral, about who is considered a foreigner, and he provides clear guidelines for strangers to gain their “citizenship” in the people of God. In fact, born-and-bred Israelites who do not submit to the rite of circumcision — the primary mark of God’s promise to them — are treated like foreigners. So is any non-Israelite who might treat the meal lightly: temporary residents, hired workers, those who won’t circumcise their males — in other words, those who won’t commit to being permanently marked as a part of the people. (God also makes provision for slaves — circumcised — who can’t help being there, and thus shouldn’t be punished for not being Hebrew. On a side note, we might also wonder whether Israel saw irony here, as slaveowners just recently freed from slavery themselves.) The point: born citizens don’t get special favors over obedient aliens (12:49).
This “vigil” meal that Israel is commanded to keep mirrors and remembers the Lord’s vigil for them in the land of Egypt. This feast cannot become a holiday or beautiful tradition empty of gravity or concrete commitment. We see here that God’s memorials are always effective. They carve into the flesh and into a people a concrete “yes” to God. They invite the stranger. They require the gift of self. Through this, God sets a foundation stone for his newly freed people’s life.
Moving into chapter 13, we see that witness, too, is tied to this foundation. “When the Lord brings you into the land” of the Gentiles, “you are to observe this ceremony” (13:5) of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, to the climax of Passover, and do it faithfully. Those who neglect a jot of the ordinances are cut off (12:15). Why? The Lord is articulating who he is very carefully in the Passover — both in his protection of Israel as well as in his vengeance on Egypt. This isn’t time for riffing, making exceptions, or altering in any way. Every single detail has significance, not only for avoiding the Angel of Death and getting the heck out of Egypt, but also for hearing who God is, who he is among his chosen people, what his character is like, and for communicating that to Egypt and the other Gentiles they will one day live among. “Tell your children” (13:8), the Lord repeats, wear it on your body (13:9). Remember and be accurate. The Lord’s Name and Israel’s identity are at stake.
This obedience is both urgent and meant to carry on a singular, unbroken witness until the end of time. This also means something else is at stake: the Gentiles’ ability to know God as savior. Like the Passover rules, the laws for the redeeming of the firstborn require a concrete and repeated commitment to being part of God’s people. They are also a stark reminder that God delivers out of nothing, that he chooses according to his pleasure, that his promises aren’t earned, and that our lives aren’t owed to us. We are fragile, prone to falling back into the chaos from which we’ve come. Every firstborn animal that dies and every firstborn human and donkey that are redeemed make this clear, to Israel and to her neighbors — and to her enemies.
These are stark commands, but the integrity of Israel’s witness to God’s character hangs on specific acts of trust, not on general “spiritual” principles. It is incumbent upon Israel to give the rest of creation the right idea about who God is. And so, we see here too another important testimony to the way God works in the world: witness happens primarily by others seeing what God is doing in the middle of his people, as a people. How does Egypt know who God is? Look what happens to God’s people. Look what happens among them. Look what happens because of them. Look what they’re doing with their festivals, their fasts, their food, servants, neighbors, children, and animals. God’s work and character are destined to be known best through these things. We see this vocation of blessing, promised to Abraham, beginning to unfold here on the risky borderlands of freedom. God guides them very, very carefully. Later on, in the new Church, the Spirit of God, though visions, apostles, prophets, and councils, will do the same. The people of God have known the long, slow tragedies of failing to obey. But we see God’s provision to set a faithful course, and we see his clear message that what he promises he brings to pass.
Leaving Egypt, Stage 2: Camping (13:17-14:14)
God is also getting down to the tricky work of reassuring Israel that he, and not Pharaoh, is God. His people have been enslaved for 430 years, repeatedly traumatized by the fist of Egypt. First, they were ensnared into living as a sub-class, marginalized by Egypt’s fear and jealousy over their success as refugees on Egyptian soil. Surely this kind of success, this kind of flourishing, can’t be allowed? After time, they become an outright slave class, subject to a king who abuses and torments. When Pharoah hits, he hits hard. Pharoah is unpredictable, has violent mood swings. And when he’s riled, woe to the entire people if one of them (as we saw with Moses earlier) steps a toe out of line. After 430 years of living with this, you don’t learn to love overnight the next power that — even rightly — lays claim to your life. Even if you obey, there is more psychological work to do. Your knee-jerk reaction is suspicion. You may move forward, but you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. God has to woo his people to love him, and this means teaching them, again and again, who he is.
And he is not — repeat, not — Pharoah. The Lord claims power over their entire communal life. He commands obedience. He tells them to do things that are strange. And, especially now, he is forceful and urgent. So what is the difference between this power and the power of Egypt they have been so immersed in for so long?
First, though the meaning of God’s commands may unfold over time, the Lord is not capricious or selfish, and he is sensitive to this downtrodden people’s ability to get discouraged. Instead of leading by the shortest road, toward Philistine territory, he thoughtfully leads them around the Philistines, so they don’t get spooked (13:17). Their loins are girded, but there are still some senses in which they’re not ready to be “toughened up.” God can be gentle. As he will also be after his incarnation, the Lord is “touched with the feeling of [their] infirmities” (Heb. 4:15) and he leads them “with cords of kindness” (Hos. 11:4). This contrasts starkly with Pharoah’s “hard heart,” which, in the face of God’s mercy, is only getting harder (14:4).
Second, God’s power is manifestly creative and salvific. He does not have Pharoah’s habit of sending out all the horses and chariots in the land in order to capture, destroy, and quench the life of a vulnerable people with their sheep and cows.
And third, of course, as we have seen and will soon see again, Pharoah may claim to have a tyrannical power over all, the power to claim and keep lives bound to him and his service indefinitely, but he does not. Only the Lord does, and that power is both total and collaborative. From the deeps of the sea and the deeps of the human heart, to the elements of fire and air and earth, to animals and the most sophisticated technologies of warfare, God calls all creation to his service and enlists many intermediaries to accomplish his will, whether that will is to speak to conscience, split waters, or destroy what he enlists by letting it play itself out to its logical end, like the chariot wheels which we will soon see locked in primordial mud.
Seeing all of these attributes of God, Israel is still afraid when they see the entire Egyptian army rushing toward them. And who would blame them? Families, kneading bowls, animals, refugees, the clothes on their backs, a few weapons — this is what stands against a ruthless machine of war. They’re completely vulnerable. And so they cry out, “What have you done to us?” (14:11).
Hope after long suffering is fragile, and we’ve seen God recognize this by tenderly and powerfully protecting his people. But again, to heal trauma, it takes time and repeated, profound experiences of trauma’s opposites. Yet after daring, just daring, to believe this could be it, here comes Egypt again, and there’s no way out. With a sharp pinch, they wake up from their dream of freedom to a nightmare. “Better to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness!” (14:12) Better to live without hope than follow a false hope to a bad end! Will God really come through for those who need it most? This is a bitter cry, and yet, again, how easy to understand! We hear the bitterness of barely-surviving, and the Lord, though not soft with his people, will go about the work of winning their trust. He is patient as he speaks through Moses: “Do not be afraid…The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (14:14). And, of course, they won’t be still, they can’t; they will be on the move, they’ll have to be, courageously; but they will move ahead in what the Lord provides. There is no other way.
Leaving Egypt, Stage 3: Crossing the Red Sea (14:15-31)
And now comes another definitive display of God’s power and character, one that, like Passover, shapes the life of God’s people to this day. “Don’t wait another second!” God tells Moses (14:15), “Split the sea, and lead the people across.” And Moses does, and God splits the sea, and his people flee their enemies through it. As if their fragility and dependence could not be emphasized to them enough: where there was literally no way, where there was only death or drowning, God plucked them out. This is who he is. This is what he can do. They are facing a Holy Saturday. Their entire existence is in God’s hands. And they will learn he can be trusted with it.
Meanwhile, they witness the wrong response to God played out in Pharoah’s army. Imagine the hardness of heart it takes to run someone down while they are crossing a split sea. The Egyptians, like true “foreigners” to the people of God, show a complete, almost miraculous, insensitivity to his miracles and love. Their goal is totally blinding: please the Pharoah, recapture their slaves.
Panic and mud, fear and mechanical problems, the warnings of faltering technology and upturned nature and confused animals and their own confused minds, finally drive them to consider that they should probably repent. But it is too late. By being drowned and cast up on the shores, as a body, Pharoah’s army embodies the logical end of insisting on being a “stranger” to God’s people. We see that the true “aliens” are not the ones who sojourn, but the ones who turn against God’s purposes, and against those God has marked as his own. They are aliens to God’s people, and, in a sense, aliens to the world, because by preserving their own lives at all costs and by their own definitions alone, they refuse life and lose it. They refuse the peaceful, if demanding, logic of communion with the Lord and so find themselves cast off from creation, into the chaotic abyss from which the world was made.
Once again, Israel sees a multitude of Egyptians dead. This is a sobering moment. It is also breathtaking. It is a sign for the Egyptians, that they may know the Lord and his mercy, and let go of lives build on enslavement. And it is a sign for Israel, that they may better know the one who loves them. In these three chapters of Exodus, the Lord says, “Let me make clear who I am, what I’m doing, and who I’m with. Join my people, but at a cost; refuse to recognize me, but at your peril.” This was Israel’s baptism; it was also Egypt’s.
The Red Sea drama is quite a slice of tiramisu. And far more than a just desert.