A few weeks ago, I was talking to a Jewish friend with a deep understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures and the commentaries around them, the Midrash. Midrash are centuries old interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures – based on close readings by rabbinic scholars of the text and the oral tradition around them.
My friend shared a fascinating insight, based on these Midrash texts. He was talking about the moment Moses led the Israelites through the Red Sea. The rabbinic interpreters saw details there that differ from what we have come to expect.
Hemmed in at the Sea
Here is the scene. (See Ex. 14:1-22 for context)
The people of Israel stand before the Red Sea. They are hemmed in by the sea in front of them and the military forces of Egypt gathering up behind them.
The people are terrified. They lament that Moses has led them out in the desert to die at the hand of the Egyptians. In this moment, Moses has a surprising word for them:
“Do not fear! Stand fast and see the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today. For as you see Egypt today, you will never see it again for the ages! The Lord will make war for you. And you – be still!” Ex. 14:13-14.
According to rabbinic interpretation, these verses constitute God’s response to the people’s grumbling and cries. The view was that God was responding, through Moses, to four different objections raised to Moses by the people. God’s response here, through Moses, also comes in four parts.
First: there was a group of the Israelites who wanted to give up. They saw the sea before them, the Egyptians behind them and their hearts failed. They gave in to despair. They wanted to just slink away: to fold, to cower. To run for cover.
To them, God says:
“Do not fear! Stand fast and see the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today.”
There was also a second group, with a different frame of mind. They were thinking “Oh, if we could just turn back. Go back to Egypt. Things were better then. We had food. We had security.”
To this group, eager to turn back, God says, do not go back:
“For as you see Egypt today, you will never see it again for the ages!”
There was a third group. Belligerent in spirit. Indomitable. Fiesty. They sized up the situation and concluded: if someone wants to go to war against us, we’ll strike right back. They wanted to fight with Egypt, no matter the cost or likely outcome. To these God said:
“The Lord will make war for you.”
God did not need their violent spirits, in other words. They would receive victory from his hands.
Finally, according to my friend, there was a fourth group: the charismatics. They believed in loud, dramatic prayers to heaven, with hands and voices raised. They wanted to pray in loud voices, hands lifted to heaven in supplication. To these God said:
“And you – be still.”
God will work out your deliverance, in other words; you need but quietly receive it.
I find this to be an interesting read on this passage. One that helps us enter the experience of it, to connect more with the psychology of what the Israelites were experiencing. We can ask ourselves: which of the 4 camps might we have fallen into? And then consider the response that applies to us.
First Steps in Dark Waters
But this wasn’t the best insight my friend shared. Apparently, in the Midrash there is also commentary about just how and when the people passed through the sea. Consider this: we tend to assume that Moses raised his staff, the sea parted, and then “the Israelites entered into the midst of the sea on dry land, with the water as a wall to their right and to their left.” (Ex 14:22)
But when exactly did the sea part? The text, in fact, allows for a different interpretation than is commonly believed. According to my friend, the people had to set out before the sea parted. This view yields a fascinating insight.
Consider verse 15. It states that Moses told the people to set out first, then he raised his staff and parted the waters:
“Then the Lord said to Moses: Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to set out. And you, lift up your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea, and split it in two, that the Israelites may pass through the sea on dry land.” (Ex. 14:15-16)
Note the sequence. Moses tells the people to set out, first, and then he lifts up his staff.
So the people would have had to set out before the waters had actually parted. While danger still loomed before and behind.
According to my friend, there was one man who stepped into the waters first. Moses had given the command for the people to go forth and this man obeyed first.
He stepped into the waters: it was at the level of his ankles. The waters did not part.
The man waded up to his knees. The waters had not yet parted.
Now he waded up to his waist, then his chest. Still the waters had not parted.
The man kept walking. The water was now up to his chin. And at this point, so goes the Midrash, the waters lowered and gradually receded. Moses staff remained raised. There now formed a wall of waters to their left and their right. And the people walked through it.
Water up to the Neck
I like to think of this man, the first man in the water. Aren’t we all sometimes like him?
He receives a word from the Lord, a path towards which he is called in faith. He takes the first step. Before him lay menacing waters; behind him are forces of evil. Everything in his lived experience tells him things look dark. But he takes a step forward in faith anyway, despite the evidence to the contrary.
Water up to his ankles, then his knees, then his chest. Egyptians with chariots and horses arrayed behind him. He takes these initial steps before he sees any change. Before the waters part. The first steps are taken in faith, in the absence of corroborating evidence. As he walks, he seems to find evidence that his faith is unfounded.
Have you ever felt this way?
Yet the man presses on. He believes. He acts in accords with his belief. And, in time, the word of God, through Moses, proves true.
But only after he takes steps of faith in the presence of evidence that contradicts it.
Journey Forth in Faith
So what was God’s message to the Israelites who were wedged between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea? There is a single Hebrew word, my friend told me, that says it all: vayisaou. It can be translated simply as journey on, journey forth. What is interesting about this Hebrew word, he said, is that God never tells them ‘how’ to proceed, only that they should proceed. That they should just journey forward. To journey forward with pure faith (emunah).
I find that I can relate to this man, water up to his chest, then his neck, thinking he had received a word from God, responding, then finding evidence to the contrary.
I wonder if God somehow wanted him – and wants us – in this space of unknowing, where what we know at the level of sense and reason does not correspond to the path of faith we have understood to be true. I wonder if a new muscle is being exercised in this moment. The muscle of faith. A muscle of faith that holds firm despite the conflicting messages of reason and sense perception. A muscle that is not irrational but supra-rational.
Think of it this way: If Moses had raised his staff first and, immediately, the sea parted, there would not have been much need for faith. The pathway through the sea would have been immediately visible. But if the interpretation from the Midrash is correct, the soul would have needed to move, to act, to trust in God’s word through Moses first, even though the data of sense and reason initially contradicted that word.
Jesus often made a point to say to people, after healing them, that their faith had saved them. And he was unable to heal in towns where people had little faith. Faith in the heart was somehow critical to Jesus’ ability to work miracles. If this is so, perhaps we can understand why this miracle at the Red Sea unfolded as it did. It unfolded in such a way that called for the people to grow in faith as they took their first steps out of Egypt toward the promised land.
It seems that growth in faith matters to God.
Let us try to follow their example, when our tests of faith come. Let us vayisaou with emunah. Let us journey on in faith. Journey on until what we hear through faith becomes visible at the level of sense and reason. Journey on even if we initially perceive evidence to the contrary.
Father, I place my trust in you. I will step into the waters. I will take the first steps in faith. I will journey forth along the path where you have summoned me. I believe. Help my unbelief.