Photo credit: Emiliano Arano on Pexels
Readings: Exodus 14:19-31, Secrets of Heaven #8206 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/SeBh1ORLHXM
Today we pop up right in the middle of some serious action for Moses and the children of Israel. Let’s back up a little to set the scene. We left off back in July with the story of Jacob and Esau. Jacob would have son named Joseph, whose brothers would sell him into slavery in Egypt. But due to Joseph’s success there, eventually his whole family would join him as honored citizens in that new land. Over time, Joseph’s family grew into a numerous people, the children of Israel. And unfortunately, over time as well, the leaders of Egypt grew fearful of of the children of Israel and enslaved them, forcing them to perform hard labor. Into this situation comes Moses, an Israelite child secretly adopted into the Egyptian royal family, who after being called by God in the form of a burning bush, sets out to free his brethren. The Pharaoh, of course, has no interest in freeing such a lucrative source of labor for Egypt, but after God sends ten plagues upon him, he finally relents and lets the children of Israel leave.
And this is just about where we find ourselves in our text today. The children of Israel have followed Moses into the desert away from Egypt and towards his vision of the promised land. But eventually they come to the vast Red Sea, which hems them in and they can go no further. Even though Pharaoh agreed to their leaving, he cannot resist such a strategic gift, and he once again tries to assert his dominance. He orders his mighty army to pursue the children of Israel and bring them back.
The children of Israel are understandably afraid, and begin to wonder if they should have left Egypt at all. But God works a mighty miracle through Moses, who parts the waters of the Red Sea in two, so that the children of Israel might walk on dry land to the other side, and the pursuing Egyptians are drowned in the sea as the waters return.
This story has been a powerfully important narrative of liberation for many peoples over time. It gives hope because it tells us not only what God will do but what God is for. God is for the freedom and autonomy of people who are enslaved and diminished, and God is against forces that dominate and degrade and take advantage. This is an important thing to know about God.
The Swedenborgian interpretation brings it home to the level of our own personal psychological landscape: the domineering and hard hearted Pharaoh represents false ideas that enslave us. Perhaps we can all identify a particular idea that has gotten its hooks into us and prevents us from living as freely and authentically and as charitably as we might otherwise. Perhaps we have a story, a false but seductive story, that we tell ourselves about someone’s approval that we need, about our own lack of worthiness or conversely about our own natural superiority, a story about how we think things are supposed to go, about who our children are supposed to be, a story about what constitutes success, or honor, or safety, a story about what God wants that ever so conveniently coincides with what we also want.
We all have many notions such as these, bumping around inside of us. We are all enslaved to false ideas of some kind or variety, under the thumb of a metaphorical Pharaoh, being made to do Pharaoh’s bidding, and building mighty monuments that perpetuate his dominion, all inside our own mind. But the children of Israel represent our growing awareness that there is freedom that can be had, that there is something else beyond that which Pharaoh decrees. They represent truths becoming clearer from goodness and love. The growing recognition that the false Pharaoh idea does not serve love and goodness, doesn’t not perpetuate love and goodness, and it so must not be true. In this moment, we start to wriggle free from our servitude.
And our text today gives us one way of understanding how God is present for us within this dynamic. Newly free, newly exploring what it feels like to think differently, we are not always free and clear right away. Reframing or reimagining how we think is often a lengthy winding process. We start to let go, we explore new ways of seeing things, but the old ideas hang on, coming back for us when we are particularly vulnerable or stressed. This is pictured by the Pharaoh’s army pursuing us, well after we thought we were finally free of them. In these times, we might feel frustrated, disappointed, afraid. The children of Israel resort to some dark sarcasm towards Moses saying: “Were there no graves in Egypt that you have brought us into the desert to die?” They are panicking. But Moses tells them simply: “The Lord will fight for you; you need only be still.”
And from this we understand that we are not in this alone. When we wish for freedom from false ideas, from ingrained and habitual ways of thinking, God helps to preserve and grow that freedom within us. If we were to look at Swedenborg’s verse by verse interpretation of this story, every action that occurs, the pillars of fire and cloud standing in the way, Moses stretching out his arm, the waters parting and standing as a wall - they are all in various ways picturing how God works to protect us internally from the false ideas that we are trying to move away from. And what is particularly important about this dynamic is the one that is highlighted in the reading: we are active participants in the process. When we move away from false ideas, and back that up with choosing new behaviors that allow us to live in a new way, this is the dynamic into which God can act. Our false ideas, "they are constantly attempting to rush in…, but they cannot do so because the Lord's presence, residing in the goodness and truth, holds them back.” When we take our own steps towards freedom, tiny but concrete steps, good and loving steps, God resides in the growing goodness and love that is being born there, and works from the center of our being to expand our access to our new freedom, to our new ways of living. The biblical text is but a pictorial representation of a process that might well take many go arounds, but it helps us to get a sense of God’s will for us, and God’s desire to help us.
But now, as with all Swedenborgian interpretation, which makes the bible about our own internal process, it is important to turn in the other direction and broaden the scope, lest the message become too much about our own internal reality, or exclusively about the personal spiritual journey. The bible IS about the personal spiritual journey, but all of our personal spiritual journeys are inter-connected. The false ideas that govern our thinking, feeling and acting, ripple outward from us like the circles from a stone dropped in a pond.
False ideas based in dominion, control, cruelty, superiority, tribalism; they have a cost, not only a cost to our psyche, but an actual human cost. We need only return to the literal meaning of the story to see this in the false and evil idea that one culture should be allowed to enslave another. The personal and the societal work hand and hand. The Pharaoh, enslaved himself by avarice, ego, domination in own mind, turns around and enslaves the children of Israel in body.
When false ideas are enacted through policy and culture they create suffering. We all have a collective responsibility to prevent this suffering, and to recognize when our own inner Pharaoh is adversely affecting the lives of others. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr has said, no one is free until we are all free. And this takes on a particularly complicated shade when we get to verses 28-30:
28 The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived…30 That day the LORD saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore.
We might wonder, how are we supposed to react to this? Are we supposed to be happy that the Egyptian soldiers are dead? Does the bible include this verse so we can gloat and cheer that they got what was coming?
Surely not. One commentary that I drew from for this sermon pointed to the Talmud for illumination on this point, and I quote:
…ministering angels desired to sing a song of praise before God in response to the decisive victory over the Egyptians. God, however, said to them: “My handiwork [the Egyptians] are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before me?” These observations illuminate Exodus 14’s ethical sophistication.(1)
I so appreciate how the author highlights this aspect. The parting of the Red Sea is an iconic, exciting and cinematic battle, and the ones we are rooting for, the children of Israel, are victorious! But this story doesn’t actually allow us to have it so easy. It resists being a “tribalistic, us-vs-them story.”(2) Even as we acknowledge that God saved the Israelites, we must also look at the Egyptian soldiers dead on the shore (in the very same verse, and the very same sentence), and grapple with what that means. God sees the human cost of false ideas, the human cost of division, the human cost of collective hubris and the diminishment of empathy and God grieves it all. Let’s be clear; the army was prevented by God from doing the harm that Pharaoh intended. God’s stand is not negotiable; God’s stands for the value of every human person, and means for enslavement, for dominion over others, to end, in whatever form it takes. But God looks back at the whole it, and grieves every lost life, even the ones lost while still living, like Pharaoh.
And thank goodness this is so, for otherwise our God would be nothing but the captain of our particular team, and what a small God that would be. Amen.
19 Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, 20 coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long. 21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, 22 and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. 23 The Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. 24 During the last watch of the night the LORD looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion. 25 He jammed the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.” 26 Then the LORD said to Moses,“Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.” 27 Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing toward it, and the LORD swept them into the sea. 28 The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived. 29 But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. 30 That day the LORD saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore. 31 And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.
Secrets of Heaven #8206
'And the waters were a wall for them on their right and on their left' means that they were held back from falsities on every side…
 Goodness accompanied by truth destroys, that is, removes evil accompanied by falsity, because goodness is from God and consequently possesses all power…When the evils accompanied by falsities residing with a person are removed they stand around us, as stated, like a wall. They are constantly attempting to rush in on a person, but they cannot do so because the Lord's presence, residing in the goodness and truth, holds them back. These are the considerations meant by the waters being like a wall for them on the left and on the right…Yet no one can be held back from evil and maintained in good unless they have received that ability through exercising charity in the world. A life of good, that is, a life led in accordance with the truths of faith, and therefore an affection for or a love of good, achieves this. The person who has a love of and affection for good as a result of the life they lead can be in a sphere of goodness and truth, but not one who through the life they lead has taken on the nature of evil.