Exodus Day Thirty-Three
August 14, 2020, 5:00 AM

The Bad Guys
Exodus 14:23-30

The Egyptians pursued and went in after them into the midst of the sea,
all Pharaoh's horses, his chariots, and his horsemen.
And in the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and of cloud
looked down on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic,
clogging their chariot wheels so that they drove heavily.
And the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from before Israel,
for the LORD fights for them against the Egyptians.”
Then the LORD said to Moses,
“Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may come back upon the Egyptians,
upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen.”
So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea,
and the sea returned to its normal course when the morning appeared.
And as the Egyptians fled into it, the LORD threw the Egyptians into the midst of the sea.
The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen;
of all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained.
But the people of Israel walked on dry ground through the sea,
the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.
Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians,
and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.

On the first day of our Holy Land trip last February, I was getting to know our guide, Khalil, on the bus ride from the airport to Caesarea Maritima. Khalil was born and raised in Nazareth— a Palestinian and a Christian. Palestinians and Israelis do not get on very well, and that may well be the most massive understatement I’ve ever written. Recognizing I’d brought a busload of Evangelical Christians to tour Israel; and knowing instinctively Khalil would be giving the group a perspective they’d probably never heard before— the primary narrative of Israel in many Evangelical tribes being that God promised this physical, 263 by 71 mile parcel of Land to the Israelis; not the Palestinians — I thought I better have a meeting of minds with my new friend before we embarked upon this adventure.

Turns out Khalil was a man of definite, iron-clad convictions. His family, originally from Safed in the area of the Sea of Galilee, had uprooted and relocated to Nazareth in response to the increasing flow of Jewish immigrants in the area. Khalil had no appetite for the Evangelical Left Behind diet, so I wanted him to know where his new tour group was mostly situated on the theological grid. After some perfunctory conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian challenges, I looked over at him, and I can’t believe I let these words slip from my lips: “Khalil, you do realize that in this group’s general mindset, you guys are the bad guys.” I’ll never forget the look on his face. He looked wounded. And then he shook his head in disbelief. We did go on to have a wonderful time, and Khalil made sure we got that other perspective to stir and expand our understanding of this sacred, contested strip of Middle Eastern geography.

From the Exodus account, the Story is clear: Pharaoh and the Egyptians are the bad guys. And they do play the part so very well. Pharaoh lives up to his billing as the stiff-necked, hard-hearted despot. His policies of oppression and grandiose building plans on the backs of free labor were cruel. He was untrustworthy, and his word meant nothing. He. Was. A. Bad. Guy. And, bottom line, Pharaoh and company get their well-deserved royal comeuppance from God.

Broadly and generally, even a casual reading of the Bible is sufficient to discern who be the villains in the Bible. Egyptians — bad (especially Pharaoh). Assyrians — bad. Babylonians — bad – except when Nebuchadnezzar seems to sort of get it in the book of Daniel, but then goes bad again, really quick. The Persians — well, Cyrus moves them across the good/bad line to little good… just barely. In the NT – those Sanhedrin yay-hoos, the Pharisees and Sadducees - really bad. Most of that lot, bad guys. That was my conventional wisdom.

And then… I remember well the day— many, many years ago, pressing to read through the book of Isaiah, I stumbled across a passage that really messed up my CW thinking: Isaiah 19:20-25 – “It will be a sign and a witness to the LORD of hosts in the land of Egypt. When they [Egypt!] cry to the LORD because of oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and deliver them. And the LORD will make himself known to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians will know the LORD in that day and worship with sacrifice and offering[!], and they will make vows to the LORD and perform them. And the LORD will strike Egypt, striking and healing, and they will return to the LORD, and he will listen to their pleas for mercy and heal them[!] In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria [Assyria?], and Assyria will come into Egypt, and Egypt into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians[!] In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria[!] the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.’” Mind blown.

Here in this oracle, Isaiah is putting two of the worst, most bitter enemies of the people of God, together in the same breath – Egypt and Assyria – and he’s speaking of their “healing” (salvation). He’s speaking of God’s care and compassion on these people. These bad people!

But then, when you step back and take in the big picture of God’s purposes in the world, it’s not so shocking. From the beginning, God intended to reach the nations. Abraham and his “Seed” (Christ) was to be a blessing to the world. Israel was to be a Kingdom of priests, not a Holy Huddle, to mediate the ways of God to everybody else. The Law and prophets both looked forward to the day when these salvific purposes would go global in Messiah. Jesus was, as we’ve noted many times from John the Baptist, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” For God did so love the world. He did send his one and only Son for the whosoever to prove it. The whosoever includes Egyptians and Assyrians and Babylonians and Sadducees and Pharisees. Whosoever and everlasting life are not mutually exclusive. Having a heart that’s softened by faith in God’s provision is all that’s necessary to be the whosoever. The crowning end of all ends, when God is all in all and everything is restored in the New Creation, it comes down to this “Behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10)

God’s judgments in the Exodus are carried out in true justice. Pharaoh brought ruin upon Egypt through his own inclinations towards evil. But no people, no person is beyond the pale of the smile of Providence. This is why we (the Church) are the fulfillment of the Kingdom of priests of old. To mediate the Gospel to the Pharaohs of the world. Pharaoh was certainly given plenty of opportunities to hear and respond to God’s entreaties to life. I find it very illustrative that in subsequent references to the Red Sea crossing, the emphasis usually falls upon the deliverance of God’s people. This ringing line, “I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea” (Ex. 15:1) is about as graphic in description as it gets on Pharaoh’s end. The focus is on God’s saving actions, not vengeance and ill will towards the Egyptians.

…And this is a good thing, because we ourselves, with our proclivities to hard-heartedness, are nothing if not trophies of grace.

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