Be careful what you teach, especially if you teach fifth grade, for there is bound to be a student in your class like Hamon Berryman who will raise his hand and say, “If God is so good, why did he let the Egyptians drown in the Red Sea?”
This happens to be a very good question. One approach to it, of course, is that God has very different ideas of life and death than we do. If I am really able to believe that God is pure life and God is pure love, then I will know, at least at some level, that what we call death is actually birth and that the Egyptians were not killed, merely received. Unfortunately, this answer is not likely to satisfy a fifth grader, nor did it satisfy the Israelites.
The Lord is a warrior; (sang Moses to his dancing people)
the Lord is his name.
Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea;
his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea.
The floods covered them;
they went down into the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power—
your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy.
In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew your adversaries;
you sent out your fury, it consumed them like stubble.
At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up,
the floods stood up in a heap;
the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.
This is not the poetry of resurrection! Perhaps it was the Egyptians’ fault to pursue the Israelites when it was clear that the receding seas were giving way to an incoming tsunami. So blinded were these men by their obedience to earthly power that they did not even notice what was coming. Therefore, the Egyptians congealed in the heart of the sea serve as a reminder that it is better to pay attention to the world than to attempt to overpower it.
But this answer did not impress Hamon Berryman any more than the death as birth move. As it happened, we were having this part of the conversation during actual flood conditions as we hiked up to Mirror Lake in Yosemite in the pouring rain. There’s something especially vivid about drowning Egyptians at the very moment I discover that my waterproof gear was only rated for 45 minutes of dryness and that I’ve hit minute 46. As minute 46 turned into minute 50 and the clock crept toward a drenched 90 minutes, the conversation grew ever more interesting, wandering, as conversations with Hamon usually did, from Exodus to a series of fantasy novels set in the underworld that all the kids were reading that year. It was still raining when we arrived back to a completely flooded camp. By then, we were willing to entertain that there might be fates more evil than being drowned in the Red Sea. Who says that you can’t experience the Biblical on a school camping trip?
The next day dawned in the insouciant way days can dawn after rain, beautiful and sunny, and for a time all thoughts of the Red Sea dissolved on the trail. We were on our way to the top of Nevada Falls via the Mist Trail. It had only been opened several days before and at some places the rapids flowed mere inches from our path, roaring and sweeping over the rocks while we navigated the narrows and looked down over double rainbows from the dizzying heights. One of the boys froze with fear and had to be brought up the back way, but that did not exclude him from the story. It just gave him a different path.
The truth of Egypt, as Joseph Campbell writes in his book The Masks of God, is that it understood the “secret of the two partners,” the truth that life and death are part of a great continuum, that female and male are not opposite sexes but different paths to the same place, that animals and humans share a great and sacred continuum. To walk through the temple at Luxor is to be surprised by the divine in all things: in cobra, crocodile and jackal, in ibis, hawk and lion. To meet a goddess of the sun and a god of the moon, to contemplate the scales of Osiris and the justice of Ma’at, to see human and divine fused in the person of Pharaoh whose job it was to maintain this sacred balance.
But, as we’ve seen, Israel found the gap between the two partners, because Israel was not allowed to participate in this measured and stately world. Someone, after all, had to clean up after the Gods. So God, who thinks we should all clean up after our messes, let the Israelite slaves go. If this is the foundation story of the Jews, it cannot be verified from any other source. If we refuse to believe Torah, then the story becomes pure myth. If the Exodus literally never historically happened and is in fact a symbol of something else, no Egyptians died pursuing them across the Red Sea, and you may accept that answer if you like.
After forty years, the Israelites attained the “good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” that God in the burning bush promised Moses. Which leads me to ask. When Israel became its own great kingdom, would it become just as intolerant and exclusive as Egypt? Yes, it would. Would God get mad? Yes, God would. Is the story over? No it is not, for Israel and Egypt are still fighting. Does that make one right and the other wrong? No, because the point is not rightness. It has never been rightness. It is been about a partnership large enough to include us all. The theological word for this is reconciliation.
So let us modestly return to my student’s moment, remembering that it is not the only moment. But at that moment, according to our story, the Egyptians failed at their own best game. These so called masters of the Divine failed to see the Divine when it appeared in their own back yard. On the shores of the Red Sea that day, they saw only that their labor force was getting away with something, which is not a very spiritually noble observation. Immigration of the working class is not supposed to happen in reverse. They are supposed to be grateful to be our gardeners and our cleaning ladies and to pick our fruit and build big box homes they will never inhabit. Right? The Egyptians in all likelihood pursued for no other reason than economic interest. And caught up in their assumption that they held understanding and authority over heaven and earth, they did not notice that offshore more than a metaphor was rising, that the path was no longer before them, that their workers had escaped and all that was left was a raging sea. The waters swallowed them, and they left the Kingdom of Egypt for the Realm of Osiris. Were they lost? For a time, perhaps, but since the God who hears the cries of the slaves and their wasted lives is all about making sure that lives aren’t wasted, we must assume that these lives were not wasted through any fault of their Creator. Or as Hamon finally concluded, "Death isn't always a bad thing, is it?"
The Israelites or, if you prefer them, the Egyptians, may still represent all our deepest, unanswered questions, our desire to wrap things up once and for all and tell the world definitively what God is and is not. I do not know. I do know, however, that by the time we arrived at the top of Vernal Falls we had come through our own Red Sea. The white water behind the falls leaped over a rock like chariots drawn by wild horses. Rainbows colored the sky as in the days of Noah. And while we stood watching it, we knew that we had faced fears within ourselves and had come through them, deeply and vibrantly alive.