Reenacting the Exodus – August 14

A sermon based on 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on August 14, 2022 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott

A young boy got pretty excited when he read in the Bible about God parting the Red Sea so the Hebrews could escape slavery and cause the pursing army to be defeated. When he mentioned it to his dad, his dad said “That’s easily explained. The Red Sea in that area was only 10-inches deep, so the Israelites had no problem just wading across.” The young boy excitedly replied “Wow! God drowned the whole Egyptian army in 10 inches of water!”
Some of us take the Bible literally and understand Biblical reports of miracles to be historical accounts. Some of us do not take the Bible so literally and understand Biblical reports of miracles to more likely have metaphoric or other symbolic purposes. There is a lot of arguing over these approaches, but as I’ve pointed out before, the arguments miss the point of the stories, that whatever way we see them, we should ask what they mean. Like, what does it mean for God to help slaves on an exodus from oppression?

A few weeks ago, we discussed the prophet Elijah and how he was unnerved until God helped him find the nerve to continue God’s work. Today we again encounter Elijah. He is about to be taken up into heaven by a whirlwind at the same time his mission is transferred over to his successor, the prophet Elisha. It’s telling that before he leaves Elijah’s last act as a prophet is to part water and that Elisha’s first act as a prophet is to part water. The miracle of the first Exodus is remembered, reoccurring and reenacted.

The Exodus thread that began with Moses continues on in Joshua, Moses’ apprentice, in Elijah, and in Elijah’s apprentice, Elisha. In our lesson we are told Elisha asked to “inherit a double share . . .” of Elijah’s spirit. Elijah notes that’s a hard thing to ask for, but if Elisha sees Elijah being taken, then the request will be granted. Which is what happened. Elisha sees the whirlwind like a chariot and horses of fire that separate him from Elijah. As Elijah ascends to heaven he drops his mantel to pass it on to Elisha. But seeing that miracle of ascension and getting that mantle is not enough. The real proof in the story occurs when Elisha

“took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, ‘Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?’ When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.”

Regardless of how we understand the nature of reported miracles there can be common meaning. What could it mean to have water parting miracles appear at the end of Elijah’s ministry and at the beginning of Elisha’s ministry?

Moses had the first and biggest water parting story, which is why I brought it up at the start of the sermon. In the first Exodus, God used Moses to part the Red Sea– and to free the Hebrew slaves from oppression in Egypt. Moses’ miracle is not outdone in later stories, but is emulated. Joshua, Moses’ successor, parts the river Jordan. Elijah also parts the Jordan, and so does Elisha. I’ve mentioned before how bodies of water in the Ancient Near East represent chaos in the Bible, through God, the prophets have some control over chaos, they can make water stand on end so that God’s people can walk through it. Chaos is overcome. God’s beloved are saved.

A common theme in the Bible is that Our God, the God of Moses, the God of Joshua, the God of Elijah and the God of Elisha is an Exodus-wise God. God works through prophets to help free people from trouble, most especially injustice. Indeed, the test for a true prophet is that the acts they do for God are Exodus-wise, specifically that they aim toward aiding the liberation of the oppressed. See the original Exodus with Moses parting the Red Sea is a confessional story about God’s rescue of Israel from their oppression as slaves and the deliverance of Israel to the promised land. The Exodus tradition is a fundamental part of God’s relationship with God’s people.

Exodus has spoken for ages of God’s care for the oppressed; and promise to save the oppressed; and deliver the oppressed to a better place. Moses prophetically parts a sea and leads oppressed slaves out of Egypt, out of bondage. Joshua completes that journey by parting a river and leading all of the children of those slaves out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land. Elijah later works passionately to try and lead the people of Israel and its leaders away from idiolatry, false gods and related oppression, and back toward God and justice. Elisha whose name means “God is my salvation,” continues Elijah’s work, but adds to it education of God’s people and helping the leaders and armies of Israel. Elisha leads an exodus out of ignorance saving God’s people from their lesser selves– and lesser ways of being.

Israel continually looked to the Exodus story and reinterpreted it to find theological meanings, always remembering and reflecting upon the characteristic Exodus-wise manner in which God is experienced. The Exodus tradition became the paradigm for all Israel’s confessional stories and is a dominant theme throughout the Bible. We can hear it resonating in our reading today, and in many Bible stories and in Christian theology. The original Exodus was and still is theological in nature.

As far as history goes it may surprise us that while many Bible academics won’t claim it details an actual event in history, many think the Exodus may have roots in an actual event. The details of any such event have long been lost in the reshaping of the story while it was passed along through generations in oral and written forms. But the historic and cultural context in which the story evolved may in part be understood by theories about the contexts in which the Exodus story arose. These theories are based on analysis of the biblical text and extra-biblical evidence from archeology, anthropology and history. 1

The earliest tradition stories of Israel are believed to have started taking shape between 1250 B.C. and the start of the first monarchy in 1000 B.C. These earliest bits of tradition included memories, stories and legends about God’s involvement with Israel and its people. Nomadic tribes coming to Palestine probably brought these bits of tradition with them and then shared them as they gathered with other related groups at common cult sites. As wider circles of the group heard the traditions. Bits of those traditions, like the Exodus story, resonated and were adopted by the early Hebrew group as a whole. 2

The root event which gave rise to the exodus tradition is believed to have occurred sometime around 1250 B.C. It appears from Biblical text and historical and archeological data that a small group settling in Palestine, probably the “Jacob” group, may have actually experienced being liberated from slavery in Egypt and brought into Palestine. This may explain why the tradition hallows Jacob as a common ancestor and names him Israel.
Although not all early parts of the nomadic Hebrew tribes experienced an actual exodus from Egypt, they could probably all claim A “God saves” experience and so adopted Exodus as Israel’s common story to express all of their remembered experiences of salvation by a caring, loving God.

Many scholars believe that salvation may be the earliest core theme celebrated. Deuteronomy 26:4-10 suggests this as it refers to a harvest ritual which does not celebrate creation as expected, but instead celebrates the exodus and salvation by Yahweh. It appears “exodus is the seed” by which harvest was celebrated, traditions grew, and how God’s repeatedly experienced. 3 “Exodus seed” sprouts can be found throughout the Bible (4) (5).Common themes of land, ancestors, wilderness and Sinai (6) are tied to the core of the Exodus tradition. In short, early Israel saw God through the “lens” of exodus, experienced God exodus-wise, and expected God to act exodus-wise. God brought Israel out of trouble, delivered them and redeemed them and Israel commits to God because of this (7); and Israel constantly looks toward the promise of God’s salvation. That a god would love slaves and desire their well-being and actually act to free them was a very radical notion in Ancient Near East. That there was just THE one God and he loved slaves was even more radical.

The earliest version of the Exodus story may be Exodus 15:21 which has Miriam as a female prophet prayerfully singing to Yahweh in celebration of Yahweh’s triumph over “horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” In Exodus 15:1-18, a longer and probably later version of the story, Moses sings that same song and Yahweh is portrayed in many respects as ancient Near East gods were portrayed. He is a male with the attributes of a warrior who champions his people battling triumphantly over chaos, sea, and death by using forces of nature. This warrior portrait fits Ancient Near East understandings of gods. But other ancient Near East gods were said to fend for people in power, Yahweh uniquely and quite remarkably fends for slaves, the powerless people. In both Miriam and Moses versions in Exodus 15 this slave loving Yahweh God is a revolutionary departure from the portrait of other ancient Near East gods who love and protect the powerful. 8

Indeed, it can be said that “Exodus 15 re-imagines the world.” 9 God is no longer a warrior who sides with the powerful, but, is a warrior who sides with the powerless fighting the powerful. In the first reported Exodus story Yahweh defeated Pharaoh (whom other gods protected), and Yahweh did so by disrupting the order of the world for the oppressed, for slaves. God takes the slaves out of bondage in Egypt, brings them through death and chaos (the sea) to life in the land of milk and honey. God brings God’s people to a place of well-being.

Exodus, this earliest of Bible themes, of rescue and salvation is of utmost importance to early Israel’s understanding of God, it “sings” to them and becomes the core of the Bible from creation to exile and beyond. It also influences the Jewish Rabbi Jesus, and the stories about him in the New Testament. Exodus is so revered that as early Israel traditions are developed they are connected to the Exodus tradition. Christians are connected to it still. God disrupted the order of the world for all of humanity through Jesus’ own exodus from death and chaos to life everlasting. Jesus parts the chaos of life for Christians and brings us to a place of well-being, saving us from a lesser way of being and beckoning us to bring well-being to others.

The God of the Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha, and Jesus, the God of the Hebrews, the God of Christians and the God of us all– OUR GOD– is an Exodus-wise God. Always has been. Always will be. Thank God. AMEN.

* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2016 which itself was based on notes from my Old Testament course taught by Prof. John Bracke in 2003 at Eden Seminary.
1. In addition to the biblical exodus tradition there is some circumstantial evidence, such as 12th century occupation of Edom & Moab, a 12th century non-biblical reference to Israel, epigraphical and archeological evidence Palestine was in a state of flux, and a body of information on ancient Near East culture in general.
2 Other such stories were related to themes of land, ancestors, wilderness and Sinai.
3 Quoting Dr. John Bracke from a September 17, 2003 lecture.
4 Deut. 26:4-10, 6:20-23; Josh 24: 1-13.
5 Hoesa 11:1ff, Psalm 114.
6 Exodus 20:1-3 links Sinai to the exodus story.
7 Josh:24.
8 That Miriam, a female, directly speaks to God is also unique in the ANE
9 Quoting Dr. John Bracke from a September 19, 2003, lecture.