Bronzino, Crossing of the Red Sea (1541-42), fresco, 320 cm x 490 cm, Chapel of Eleonora of Toledo, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence
In Exodus 14:10-15:21, we read how God delivered the Israelites from the Egyptians by opening up a highway through the Red Sea. At the climax of the story we read, “For the horse of Pharaoh went in with his chariots and with his horsemen into the sea, and the LORD brought again the waters of the sea upon them; but the children of Israel went on dry land in the midst of the sea” (15:19). Was this a miracle from God or a Jewish fable? Is there a rational explanation for what happened? I think such questions miss the point of the passage. A better question would be, What is God saying to us through this story?
It is interesting how St. Paul interprets this story of deliverance in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13. Without denying the literal truth of the events in Exodus, he interprets them non-literally and Christologically, and uses the Israelites’ experience as a cautionary tale for Christians. He says, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come” (v. 11). In the original Greek, “as examples” (typikōs) means “typologically, as a foreshadowing” (Zerwick). Passing through the Red Sea was a picture of baptism: “And they were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (v. 2). This verse presents a couple problems for us Baptists, because (1) “all” passed through the water (men, women, children, infants), and (2) this “baptism” in Red Sea was a means of their salvation. (For Baptists, baptism is symbolic of redemption, not a means of it, and it’s only for those old enough and capable enough to make their own profession of faith.) However, Paul was not teaching a lesson about baptism but about holiness, and it would be a mistake to push the imagery too far. He used the experience of the Israelites to warn Christians at Corinth against spiritual pride: they were no better than the Israelites and subject to the same temptations. The children of Israel had all experienced God’s salvation. They all ate the same spiritual food and “drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ” (v.4), which seems clearly a reference to the Lord’s Supper. The point is that the Israelites received baptism and took communion just as we Christians have, yet “God was not pleased with most of them” (v. 5). Even after their deliverance many committed heinous sins, so heinous in fact that God killed many of them in judgment as a result and none of those who passed through the Red Sea made it to the Promised Land. Then Paul says to his readers: don’t be idolaters as they were; don’t be sexually impure as they were; don’t test God as they did; and don’t grumble as they did (vv. 7-10). The consequence for many of the Israelites who did these things was judgment and death. At this point some may object, But that was in the Old Testament! God doesn’t punish people like that in the New Testament! Really? Every hear of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-10)?
The lesson Paul wanted Christians to take away from stories of God’s judgment was this: “Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). When I taught history at a Christian college, I had my students read Christopher Browning’s book Ordinary Men, about Reserve Police Battalion 101 and their role in the mass murder of Jews during WWII. The book challenges readers to ask themselves, Could I become a genocidal killer like the plumbers, bus drivers, and other working-class Germans of Battalion 101? I required my students to write an essay in which they were to respond to this question. I’ll never forget one response I received: “I could never be a genocidal killer, because I am not an ordinary man but an extraordinary man—a Christian man.” I later reminded the student that most of the men of Police Battalion 101 were also Christians. He disagreed. Christians in his mind were not capable of committing such heinous sins as murder; therefore, anyone who did so was by definition not a Christian.
Paul made the opposite point in scripture. Being a Christian doesn’t make you immune from sinning. It doesn’t even keep you from committing serious sins. What good is being a Christian then? Being a Christian doesn’t guarantee spiritual perfection—“all have sinned,” Paul said—but it does give us a way of escape from sin, if we so choose to take it. After putting the fear of God into the Corinthians, Paul reminded them of God’s promise of deliverance: “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (10:13).
Is there a temptation that seems too difficult for you to resist, that trips you up in your spiritual walk every time? If you feel like you’re about to drown in your sin, remember, the same God who parted the Red Sea has promised a way for you to escape.