Tuesday of week 16 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Exod 14:21

Following on yesterday’s reading we see today the great moment when Moses, at the Lord’s command, separated the waters and the Israelites walked across on dry land. 

Just before this (not in our reading) Exodus tells us that God’s protecting angel which had been leading the Israelites now moves to protect their rear. Similarly, the pillar of cloud, the visible sign of Yahweh’s presence, which had been leading the people from the front now moved to the rear to be between the Israelites and the Egyptians. And, before night fell, the cloud became dark so that the two sides could not see each other and come in contact.

It was now, in obedience to the Lord’s command, that Moses stretched out his hand over the Sea of Reeds. A strong east wind began to blow all through the night and turned the sea into dry land. The Israelites then marched right into the sea on dry land with the waters piled like a wall to their right and to their left.

The Egyptians with all their horses, chariots and charioteers went in pursuit right into the sea. It was then that the Lord struck: “Just before dawn the Lord cast through the column of the fiery cloud upon the Egyptian force a glance that threw it into a panic.” Moreover, the wheels of the chariots bogged down on the soft bottom of the sea so that they could hardly move.

Seeing the situation, that their God was supporting the Israelites, the Egyptians immediately sounded a retreat. But it was too late. The Lord told Moses to stretch out his hand once more for the sea to flow back. Immediately the sea began to return to its normal depth. The Egyptians were thrown back into the surging waters. The whole army of the Pharaoh, chariots and charioteers were drowned. Not one man escaped.

In this way, the Lord rescued his people from the hands of the Egyptians. When the Israelites saw the bodies of the drowned Egyptians lying on the seashore, they were made aware of the great power the Lord had shown against the Egyptians. 

The scene is a film director’s dream and it is no wonder that the story has been re-enacted in more than one film epic over the years.

On seeing all that had happened and how they had been rescued from certain capture and death, “The Israelites feared the Lord and believed in him and in his servant Moses.” However, it was a faith that would have many ups and downs, as we shall see.

Then Moses and all the people broke out into a marvellous hymn of praise and thanksgiving. Our reading ends with just the opening verse of the hymn:

  I will sing to the Lord, for he is gloriously triumphant;

  horse and rider he has cast into the sea.”

It is a long and magnificent hymn (Exodus 15:1-18) well worth reading in full. It is a whole psalm of thanksgiving (the first and most famous of the ‘canticles’ which the Christian liturgy takes from the Old Testament). Its starting point is the destruction of Pharaoh’s army but it goes on to develop the theme of God’s power and his care for his people; the wonders of the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan, even the building of the Temple in Jerusalem – all indicating it is a much later composition.

Parts of it probably sound rather aggressive and triumphalist to our ears today but the underlying theme is a realisation of God’s awesome power and thanksgiving for his protection in times of danger. Verses from it form the response to the reading for yesterday and today and it is also used during the Easter Vigil liturgy.

As the Jerusalem Bible notes, “Old Testament tradition consistently regards the ‘crossing of the Red Sea’ as one of the most, if not the most striking evidence of Yahweh’s intervention on behalf of his people. The episode is equally prominent in Christian tradition from the New Testament onwards, as a figure of the decisive ‘exodus’ effected by Jesus, and particularly of the baptism by which the Christian enters into it, (cf. 1 Cor 10:1 – ‘Our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; by the cloud and the sea all of them were baptised into Moses…’).” In the waters of baptism – more significantly when it is by total immersion – we pass through the saving waters to life in Christ.

The idea running all through both in the Old and New Testaments is liberation; God makes his people free. He liberates us from slavery of all kinds. 

To be honest, am I as a Christian experiencing that liberation and sense of freedom in my life? If not, why not?

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