When the Israelites left Egypt to worship in the wilderness, in Exodus 14, Pharaoh quickly realized the economic implications of his decision and decided that it was a mistake to have let the slaves go.
He and his army and all the chariots of Egypt (advanced military technology for the time) came thundering after the fleeing slaves, pinning them against the sea with no escape.
Faced with destruction on either side, the people turned to a favorite defense mechanism of all humanity: sarcasm. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?
Seeing the army of Egypt on one side and a sea on the other, they decided that they would have been better off as slaves in Egypt.
That’s a conclusion that I think we can sympathize with!
Moving into salvation, toward love and justice, away from the safety of the death we know and into the unknown of a new life, can sometimes… for a time… leave us feeling like we would have been better off if we hadn’t started on the journey at all.
We take a risk, and we can’t see yet how it might pay off. We tell the truth, and the reward is pain or rejection. We choose compassion, and it’s not as fun as it looks.
What do we do next? Moses gave the people one answer: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
But in the very next verse, God gives them what seems like the opposite answer: “The Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on…””
Stand still. Move on.
They’re both the right answer, aren’t they?
Stand still: don’t panic, don’t go crying back into the death from which you’ve come. Moses accurately sees that what lies behind the sarcastic question about the plentitude of graves in Egypt is fear.
Moses also shows good leadership in not addressing the Israelites’ fears by downplaying them.
Pharaoh is truly frightening, and his army is terrifying, and Moses does not condescendingly ask the Israelites to believe otherwise. Their fear is real because the danger is real, not because they have somehow misunderstood the situation.
When Moses tells the people not to be afraid, he links it solely to God’s ability to deliver them. They should let go of their fear, not because the Egyptians are not really a threat to them, but because God is capable of redeeming even the most hopeless of situations.
So they should stand still, rather than trying to undo the steps they’ve taken toward salvation now that the journey has perils.
Stand still, but also, move on. Keep going when the path isn’t clear, keep taking steps into the unknown, trust that something marvelous is about to happen.
Imagine yourself as one of the Israelites, there on the edge. The pillar of fire lighting up the night sky between you and the armies of Egypt, and before you an impassable sea. There is nowhere to turn, nowhere to go.
Then Moses stretches his hand over the sea, and the Lord leads the sea with a mighty eastern wind, and the waters are split apart, and suddenly a new way forward appears.
Would you be one to put your foot onto the now dry seabed? With the water piled up into walls on either side, would you brave enough to move on? Or, perhaps, might you still be thinking about running back to Egypt?
Exodus gives the time of this journey through the dry sea as the “morning watch,” or the last third of the night: the time when a watchman would be waiting for the morning. The pillar of fire is behind them, so this puts us launching ourselves forward into the darkness, with neither a sense of where we are going nor any understanding of how this redemption is coming to pass.
But dawn follows darkness, and just as sure as that, the new way forward is steady and sure for long enough to allow the Israelites to pass out of slavery’s land and onto their journey toward Mt Sinai.
Stand still. Move on.
See the Lord’s salvation.
Julie Rudd is Pastor of Wilmington Friends Meeting.