How Empires Are Undone

Exodus 14:19-31

The Red Sea Parting
Frame from The Ten Commandments, 1956

God’s avatar, a great dark pillar of cloud, moved from the front of Israel’s camp to interpose itself behind them, between the Israelites and the pursuing Egyptian armies. The cloud remained there separating the two camps through the night, so dark that even the night seemed bright.

Moses stretched his hand over the sea, and God drove the sea back by the power of the east wind, splitting the water until dry land appeared. The Israelites walked through the sea, a great sea-wall on either side. The Egyptians, in hot pursuit, went in after them with everything they had – crack troops, tanks, artillery. As morning approached, God looked down on the Egyptians from the top of the storm cloud and threw them into panic. God caused their equipment to fail, so they were stuck. The Egyptians said, “We’ve got to get out of here. God is on their side against us.

Then God said to Moses, “Stretch your hand over the sea to close the water over the Egyptians, their weapons and their troops. So Moses stretched his hand over the sea. As the morning broke, the sea-walls closed over the Egyptians. As they fled, the Egyptians were drowned. Not one of them who had followed the Israelites into the sea passage, neither man nor machine, survived. But the Israelites all made it through between the sea-walls, without even getting their feet wet.

That was the day God freed the Israelites from the Egyptians. Seeing the Egyptians’ dead bodies washing up on the shore, they were amazed that God’s power had outmatched the world’s most powerful fighting forces. They stood in awe. In that moment, they believed what Moses had told them about God.

For all its hokey technicolor naivete, the Charlton Heston movie really does get the image right with the wall of water thing. It’s exactly the picture the story gives. Scholars debate whether there is a plausible natural explanation: it was actually a shallow “sea of reeds” near the Nile delta, not the red sea; there were tidal forces at work. Back and forth over whether it could have really happened. On it goes.

But the whole point is that there is not and cannot be any plausible natural explanation for it. The point of the story (and it’s a story) is that God orchestrated a miraculous escape, that the laws of nature were suspended to allow an oppressed people to be free and to deal an invincible empire catastrophic and unmitigated defeat.

Drawing from ancient mythic traditions, this passage came into its current form during the Hebrews’ captivity in Babylon. It was the story that enabled them to hang on until, for reasons quite beyond themselves, the empire fell and they were set free. The story is the wish-dream of every oppressed people for a miraculous escape and for the defeat of their oppressors. As such, it speaks to the imagination, not to the history books. And it’s purpose is to inspire hope, not debate. Particularly, it gives hope to those for whom the capacity to free themselves is impossibly out of reach.

One might think that a story like this, bringing hope to the hopeless, is a cruel kind of trick, a sham. But in fact, it is vindicated by the fact that sooner or later, for reasons that are entirely unforeseen, empires fall. It was so with Egypt, Babylon, China, Greece, Rome, Spain, England, Japan, Germany. And it’s no less true of today’s empires. Hang on long enough, and eventually it will fall. Call it the hand of God if you like.

But to hang on long enough people need hope against the humanly impossible. That’s what this story is about. Every empire is doomed to destruction by its own hubris when it thinks that its tanks, artillery and crack troops can solve all its problems.