Toorak Uniting Church

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Through the sea

Exodus 13: 3 – 4   14: 10 – 18
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
9:00am, 7 October 2007

The story we have read is a story about leaving slavery, about leaving a situation of oppression and hardship and moving to another, better place. It is a story about change, about moving from one situation to another, about adjustment to new ways of living and being.
Something we, as people, will all be able to relate to. Some of us in a big way because things not dissimilar to the dramatic story of the Israelites leaving Egypt have happened in our lives: Some of us came to Australia as refugees, some as asylum seekers, some emigrated or moved from one place to another for far less compelling reasons than war, poverty or other significant threats to our lives, but still went through deep and dramatic change. Others will have experienced it in much smaller ways. Changing schools or jobs, getting older, moving house, implementing life style changes, in the end all involve the same mechanisms and adjustments which are described in the story: Getting up, going, and leaving behind.

And big or small, we will discover that this will always be a hard thing to do. It will unsettle us and make us anxious and insecure.

People who have been taken hostage and have been forced to stay with their hostage takers for a long time will find it difficult to adjust to freedom. They identify with their oppressor and will find it difficult to separate themselves from them or from the situation they have been in. There is a reluctance to leave because to put it very simply (too simply) "you know what you’ve got and you don’t know what you’ll get". Things may get worse, even if you are in a situation that can’t really get any worse.

So you can understand that if the situation we are in is not that bad we are even more inclined to stay where we are. That is a human thing. We need a lot of encouragement before we are prepared for change in a significant way. And the story reflects that.

The Israelites get ready, flurry of packing and baking bread, they have every intention to go because their situation is pretty grim, but once they are out there in the big world they hesitate and find it hard to muster faith and trust, even after they’ve seen miracles happen and the mighty Egyptians brought to their knees.

So they tell Moses they want to go back. Their desire to go back to where they came from is so strong the story tells us they have to be led through the wilderness in a round about way.
They need not only miracles to tear themselves away from slavery and oppression, to stand up and defy a power that is perceived to be almighty, they need to be tricked into staying away from the bad situation they have come from. That is another insight that concurs with psychological insights. Victims of abuse and violence often need to travel down seemingly roundabout paths to keep themselves from renewed harm.

And who does not have trouble believing that we can leave the mighty powers that seem to have us and our world in their grip behind and travel into another world where other rules apply and other values prevail? World poverty, incessant and seemingly endless wars all over the world, a consumerist society and profit driven economy that does damage to so many of its subjects: who believes we can leave them behind for something better? And on a smaller scale: bullying at school, a difficult marriage, a hopeless job, we all know tearing away from those situations is difficult because it involves believing what seems impossible.

There will always be threats or perceived threats.
In the story they are pretty daunting and take the form of Pharaoh and his army. In real life they can be all sorts of other things. Every change, every move we make, in our lives, big or small, comes with these difficulties, these primal feelings. One of the things a mythical story like this does is make us aware that this is what happens and this is what we do: Even where we want change, where we hanker for it, where life is really difficult, where we call out to God for it, fear and anxiety will try to take over at some stage and suddenly we will no longer be so sure, so confident that we want change at all and we’ll need a bit of a miracle, a push to get us across to the other side when it comes.

Where we then, when we look back, see the threats and difficulties that instilled such fear into us have drowned and become powerless where we with faith and a sense of purpose have pressed on.

Of course this is not the only way we can read the story: As a parable of everyman’s life. A tale about the workings of our psyche and how there is a way out of slavery and oppression and through the sea of fear and anxiety to the other side although, over there it will still be hard work to get to the promised land. Because that’s another thing the story teaches: If you manage to leave slavery and oppression behind you can’t sit back and relax but there is still a lot more work to do. More learning to trust, more learning to have faith, more anxiety and fear to overcome.

We can also read the story in a more historic scientific sort of way.
We can trace the journey of the Israelites, and reconstruct it. Discover the journey of various Hebrew tribes who’d been involved in building the great pyramids through the Sinai desert, taking different routes at different times before they all end up in what is now Israel and are over the course of about a 1000 years or more moulded into one people. How King David authorizes the writing of a common history that included some of the primal memories of slavery and salvation, a journey from Egypt, nomadic life and years of hardship in the desert. Memories about Israel’s arch enemy Egypt who were seemingly invincible and all powerful in the region at the time.
Scholars will tell you that the crossing of the Red Sea wasn’t half as impossible as some children’s bibles and movies have, in ignorance of the geographical lay out, suggested.
The sea of reeds are mud flats from which the water retracts every so many hours with the tides. Which to ignorant slaves who had lived in Egypt all their lives must have seemed a miracle and made a very deep impression that stayed with them over the generations and grew more miraculous over the ages until they had all forgotten what he place is really like and what really happened.

The story can also be read as a political manifesto. When King David’s historians write these stories down they do so with a purpose. To them they are not objective historic reports but stories of resistance that say how with God’s help they were able to hold their own against even the mightiest of enemies. Then the story is a political story of a small but fiercely independent country forever under the shadow of a much greater power, defending itself and standing up for itself through sheer force of faith in the impossible and with God’s help succeeding.
A story that takes on new meaning in times of trouble, when the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Crusaders and more recently Hamass come and try to take over. We can stand up to them it says, we’ve done it before and have come through to the other side. Faith and trust will see us through in the end.
And those who oppress and defeat us will bite the dust. You wait and see.

For us, Christians in Toorak the story can be all those things: We can read the story as a parable of what happens in our own lives. We can read it with a scientific interest in how this mythical story has come about and where its roots lie. We can also read it as a political statement: that God saves and liberates, even against the odds and that those who oppress and violate will not win in the end.

Some suggest we should not be reading this story at all. The poor Egyptians! Isn’t the God we know through Christ a God of compassion and not a God who drowns and kills his opponents? To me that is like wondering if we should stop telling the story of Red Riding Hood. Shouldn’t we feel sorry for the wolf in the story of Red Riding Hood? Of course we do and of course we should.

But that’s not the point of the story! The point of the story is to address our fears and to encourage us to leave situations of slavery and oppression behind, to help us trust that we can and that others can, and that those who seek to impose oppression and slavery are, in the end, traveling a road that will end in disaster for them and not for those they have oppressed and violated. That we should leave what oppresses and enslaves us behind, trusting that God will be on our side and not on the side of those who visit those things upon us or others.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2007

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