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.

5 thoughts on “How Empires Are Undone”

  1. Hi, I like the text written here, it’s beautiful. The quote, as well as the article.

    You are so right about not just empires, but also oppressors in particular. They are bound to perish. The Pharao is taken as the most oppressing ruler so far, he committed the gravest sin: Asking others to worship him as a god.

    The miracle really happened, if we find scientific explanations to it, then good. Life after death is supernatural, it will remain. God is supernatural, He created the natural world (that won’t remain), therefore the Supernatural (spiritual) rules over the natural (material). No need to doubt when we’re believers.

    From an intellectual point of view, this story is confirmed with additional information and further dialogues of Moses (peace be with him) during his struggles, by a document that cannot be ignored if we want to examine all accounts of the event: It is the Qur’an.

    Gone are the testimonies of living people about this miraculous event, gone are the Messengers of God also (peace be upon them all). Nobody who was there and saw the miracles of David, of Jesus (peace be with them), including his virgin birth, is here to testify, so there is a need to have more tangible signs. What the last Messenger delivered as completion of the sacred mission, was the Message and the Miracle tied together as one, so that we don’t rely on blind faith. The Qur’an takes spirituality into the (most) mature level, where finally, reason and heart can harmonize without contradicting each other, less is needed to bring out “magic” tricks. It is not made of “verses” because there is no Book like it, it is made of “ayahs” and the correct translation is not “Verses” but “signs”.

    “Brillance of The Book”

    The video above is to replace us within the historical context during which the Qur’an was revealed. This is a humble invitation to know more and know accurately. The heart may follow if it’s Allah’s will.


  2. Just a story? in the article? it is not just a story,,,so it all is the real and it manifests into Jesus forgiveness the God Himself the Lord the Word become flesh, and walk among men, to forgive sins and that precious blood the Way out of slavery and bondage and the door to rescue form the physical death.The promised land is here and now through Christ- but on earth still co existent with sin, so not actually the second coming or total ultimate plan but – but the Way and the regeneration of sorts beyond the grave is all that the promised land is parallel to. it is real, Jesus is the gate now He fulfilled the law with truth and grace, thats waht makes us whole and even death life, JEsus is the promised land and the rescue-not just a story

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