We heard the most iconic story from Exodus this morning: the crossing of the Red Sea. In the lead up to that event, you may need a bit of a reminder. After ten plagues culminating with the angel of death passing through the land, Pharaoh relents and lets the Israelites leave Egypt. The Almighty guides the fleeing Israelites into the wilderness toward the Red Sea even though that way is less direct. Pharaoh, realizing his cheap labor is gone and seeing them head towards the sea, gives chase.
That’s when the Israelite people panic. Seeing the chariots in the distance as they camp at the banks of the Red Sea, they know they are trapped. The Lord—seen as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night—moves to protect the people of Israel by coming between them and the Egyptians. That’s when the big deal happens: Moses stretches out his hand and lifts up his staff toward the sea. The water divides into two parts, and there in front of the Israelites is dry land. They cross over to the other side.
Once they get across safely, the Lord in that huge cloud moves away allowing the Egyptians to see the Israelites on the far side and the sea divided into those towering walls of water. Pharaoh gives the command for his armies to pursue them, and they head down to the sea floor. But the wheels of the chariots get clogged with mud and the charioteers begin to panic. And then the Lord commands Moses to lift up his staff once more, and suddenly the waters of the Red Sea that had been held back back by God crash down. We read: “As the Egyptians fled before it the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 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 remained.”
Well, you can imagine the elation of the Israelites on the far shore. Their captors had been vanquished by the mighty hand of God. After having endured generations of slavery, they were finally free of those who had oppressed them. We didn’t hear it this morning, but Moses and the people of Israel break in to song in the verses that follow. “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. … You blew with your wind, the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters.” It goes on for 18 verses, all extolling the greatness of God for killing all those Egyptians.
Which should perhaps make us stop short. Does God join in the exhilaration of the Israelites at the demise of their enemies? Is God pleased by the death of those whom God has created? Or, asking it another way, does God choose sides?
The Talmud, a collection of commentaries and teachings on the Torah by Jewish rabbis over the centuries, dives into this ethical question. Included in those teachings is this story: “On seeing the drowning Egyptians the angels [of heaven] were about to break into song when God silenced them declaring, ‘How dare you sing for joy when My creatures are dying.’” On looking down on this scene with the drowning Egyptians and the celebrating Israelites, the angels realize that the descendants of Abraham are finally free. And yet, in spite of those shackles being released, God doesn’t want the angels to join in the merrymaking. God sees the totality of the situation, both the joy of the end of oppression and the weeping of those who have lost husbands and fathers and sons when those waters caved in.
This is hard for us since we like to put people into groups, right? We like to think that our enemies are also God’s enemies. And this makes it possible for us to make declarations about those whom God loves and those whom God hates. And yet here in our text are the Israelites singing with gusto as Egyptian bodies wash up on the far shore.
A commentator for the Jewish Chronicle on this text writes this, “[I]f God stopped the angels from singing, why were our ancestors allowed [to do so]? Maybe because they needed to give voice to the huge relief of finally being redeemed. On the other hand, the Talmud also teaches that our personal elation should never make us forget the misfortunes afflicting others. [A] medieval commentary… gives this as the source for the custom of breaking a glass at the end of a wedding ceremony. And that is why we spill out drops of wine on Seder night, to remind us that our cup of deliverance and celebration cannot be full when others have to suffer.” Even as our Jewish friends commemorate the Passover and the Exodus each year, they spill out wine to be reminded of other people’s suffering. And sometimes those suffering ones may include people we perceive as our enemies.
So what are we to make of all this? Should we give thanks when those who oppress others are stopped? Of course. The degradation of any human being is contrary to the way of God. We should always work to end oppression in all its many forms. And additionally we should not degrade others ourselves because we perceive their actions or ways of thinking to be wrong. But this is hard work.
At a time in our country when even wearing a mask due to a pandemic labels one as either friend or foe, it is easy to slide down that slippery slope of wishing others misfortune. Or maybe wishing God would set them straight through misfortune, especially when we think we’re the ones on God’s true team. And yet our baptismal covenant includes the vow that we will respect the dignity of every human being.
I do not find this easy. If I were among the Israelites on the far side of the Red Sea, I would be singing my heart out. And yet I realize that there may be some out there in our world—even followers of God—who might wish me harm. This could be due to my voting record, or my privilege as a white educated American male, or because weapons from our country have been used against them or those they love, or because our nation’s policies have separated their families from one another. I’m sure some in our world today could easily see me as a modern day Egyptian given my demographics. Perhaps even praying for my demise.
And on this I’m glad that God is merciful. That God doesn’t always answer the prayers of the faithful asking for the downfall of one’s enemies. That God stopped the angels from dancing on the graves of the Egyptians.
I would encourage us all to try to look at things as God sees them. To pursue the way of justice where injustice thrives, while also viewing others as beloved children of God. In the 50 days until the Election, and in its aftermath, may we remain committed to our baptismal promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. Do not demonize or dehumanize in the name of God, because it is God who lovingly created the one you despise, just as God lovingly created you. Rather friends, let us seek instead the way of love, for it is the only way that leads to life.