Salvation and the Exodus (Ex 14)
The Exodus is the paradigmatic story of salvation in the Old Testament. What the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is to the New Testament, the Exodus is to the Old. In other words, it’s hard to find a more central story to the history of Israel than this one.
One of the keys to this story is geography. God gives some very odd instructions at the start of the story when the Israelites initially commence their journey. God tells the Israelites to “turn and encamp in front of Pi-hahiroth between Migdol and the sea in front of Baal-Zephon by the sea” (Ex 14.2).
Let me be the first to admit that scholars have long been puzzled over just where these towns really are. That said, Migdol (which means “Tower” in Hebrew) shows up in the book of Ezekiel as the northernmost town in Egypt (Eze 29.10). If we’re talking about the same place (and, it’s still a big “if”), this means God gives the very odd command to turn northward and camp out by the sea.
This is important because it’s so counterintuitive. If we were trying to leave Egypt in a hurry, we almost certainly wouldn’t turn north and camp out by the sea. Rather, we would likely keep going east across the Sinai Peninsula. At the time, there were several well-trod trading routes which did exactly that. God tells Israel to take none of these routes.
Instead, God likely commands Moses to have the Israelites turn north and encamp by the sea, an action which blocks their egress. God essentially makes it impossible for the Israelites to escape when the Egyptian army comes bearing down upon them because their backs are to the sea and they have no boats to exit across the water.
Thus the Israelites are really forced to rely on God. God gives them very little choice besides perhaps surrendering, something the people, in their fear, apparently wanted to do. But, as becomes clear, surrendering is no longer an option because Pharaoh’s heart has been hardened to the point where he is more interested in Israel’s annihilation than its surrender.
In the midst of this terrifying scene, Moses utters some justifiably famous words: “Fear not, stand firm and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today” (Ex 14.13). Some have taken this to mean that if you get your back against the wall, God is promising to deliver you. Thus do nothing except look up and wait for his deliverance.
That sounds very pious, but I’m not convinced that reliance on God necessarily entails our passivity. I would certainly love it if God would just take care of all my problems, especially the really hard ones. But, in my experience, that’s usually not how it works. God generally expects us to involve ourselves in the deliverance in some kind of active way.
This text is one of those times when it really helps to look at what the underlying Hebrew is claiming. For example, the idea of “standing firm” is a good translation, but misses some of the nuance that’s there. According to Old Testament Scholar Victor Hamilton, the Hebrew word (yazav) employed here “is a technical term for the readiness required before a spectacular theophany.” In other words, this text is not counseling passivity; it’s counseling receptivity to the presence of God and courage in the midst of difficulties. Waiting on God is usually not about doing nothing; it’s more often about being still and quiet enough to hear what God wants to give us.
Christians are right to read the Exodus story as a metaphor for salvation. In fact, according to the author of Hebrews, the Old Testament is “a shadow of the good things to come” (Heb 10.1). As Christians, we read the Old in light of the New. Jesus, in his incarnation and resurrection, becomes a kind of interpretive key for reading the OT well.
In this case, it’s the apostle Paul who guides us: “I want you to know, brethren that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Cor 10.1-2). Paul reads the Exodus story as a story of salvation that begins in a kind of baptism.
Thus baptism really does have something to do with salvation because, in it, we receive the grace to live the spiritual life. Further, baptism enables us to enter the Church which nourishes our spiritual life through the preaching of the Word of God and the administration of the sacraments. As our baptismal liturgy puts it:
We thank you, Almighty God for the gift of water…through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life (BCP, P. 306).
The really hard work – the saving work in baptism – is all God’s. Having prepared for baptism, we show up, humbly recognize our need for a savior and confess our faith. But after our baptisms, we then actively cooperate with the grace which has been given to us the rest of our lives, which is why the church and her sacraments are so vital.
Thus salvation is not really a one-time individualistic free ticket to heaven. The salvation that begins at our baptisms is merely the start of invitation to join with Christ in his person and his work. In salvation, God rescues us, enabling us to live in a loving relationship with him and with others.
Kevin Dodge is the author of several books on the spiritual life, including Confessions of a Bishop: A Guide to Augustine’s Confessions and Reading Dante: A Theological Paraphrase of the Inferno. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a ThM with Highest Honors from Dallas Theological Seminary.