Light from the Sidra

Beshalach ('When he let go...')

Torah: Exodus 13:17-17:16. Haftarah: Judges 4:4-5:31

It is necessarily so

A fascinating debate took place in September 2012 between Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, and Richard Dawkins the patron saint of the new atheists. The debate is available to watch on YouTube and about fifteen minutes into the conversation Richard Dawkins asks th e Chief Rabbi if the biblical accounts of the burning bush and the parting of the Read Sea are to be read ‘literally’.

‘The Red Sea?’ responds Lord Sacks. ‘Totally literal!’ The account of the parting of the Red Sea can be read literally, he explains, because in September 2010 a computer simulation developed at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in America demonstrated that an east wind blowing at 63mph would have parted the waters of the ‘Sea of Reeds’, allowing the escaping Israelites to cross to the other side on foot. The computer simulation can be viewed on the NCRA website.

When Dawkins then challenges the Chief Rabbi about the historicity of Adam and Eve, Rabbi Sacks responds that the Genesis account ‘is clearly a parable because there was no first human,’ although there may have been a ‘mitochondrial Eve’. The tenth century rabbis, the Chief Rabbi points out, laid down a principle that ‘if a biblical narrative is incompatible with established scientific fact it’s not to be read literally’. According to Judaism, states the Chief Rabbi, reading the Bible ‘literally’ is heresy because of the Oral Tradition. The Oral Tradition governs biblical interpretation.

There is much in the position of both Richard Dawkins and Jonathan Sacks to take issue with but what I find most disturbing about the Chief Rabbi’s line of reasoning is that for him and – if he is correct in what he claims – with Judaism itself, is that for Jews the Bible is not the final authority in matters of faith and practice. Science, for the Jewish leader, is above the Bible and, even higher still it would seem, is the Oral Tradition for which, incidentally, there is not a shred of evidence in the pages of the Torah. The Jewish writer Jacob Neusner agrees. In his book Jews and Christians: The Myth of a Common Tradition, Neusner states that Christianity is the religion of the Bible, whereas Judaism is the religion of the Babylonian Talmud.

For Jonathan Sacks, the account of the parting of the Red Sea is true because Science allows us to believe it. And the essence of the account of the crossing of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptian army is, quoting Czech dramatist and politician, Václav Havel, ‘the power of the powerless’. Israel was a weak rabble fleeing slavery and pursued by the greatest military power of the day equipped with the latest military and the triumph of the weak over the strong. The Bible, says the Chief Rabbi, is a polemic about the power of the powerless over the power of the powerful.

But that is not the message of the Exodus. Though we might wish it to be so, the story of the parting of the Red Sea is not a message to every oppressed minority that they shall overcome. The fleeing Israelites didn’t overcome the Egyptians; Israel’s almighty God defeated their enemies for them. On the Red Sea shore the people were all for surrendering to the Egyptians and were prepared to go back into slavery. But Moses encouraged them to trust in their God: ‘Do not be afraid! Stand fast and see YHWH’s deliverance that he will work for you today . . . YHWH will make war for you, and you—be still!’ (Ex. 14:13,14. The Five Books of Moses: A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary, and Notes by Everett Fox).

After the people passed through the sea and witnessed the waters destroy the Egyptian army, they sang: ‘I will sing to YHWH, for he has triumphed, yes, triumphed, the horse and its charioteers he flung into the sea! My fierce-might and strength is YAH, he has become deliverance for me . . . YHWH is a man of war, YHWH is his name! Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he hurled into the sea . . .’ (Ex. 15:1-4. Fox)

The Exodus thus became the greatest demonstration of the power of YHWH, even greater than his creation of the cosmos. To create the heavens and the earth God had only to speak a word of command. To redeem his people Israel, he ‘came down’ (Ex. 3:8). To deliver Egypt from the power of the gods of Egypt required more than words, it required the work of YHWH’s powerful arm; at the Exodus, God came down from his throne, rolled up his sleeves, flexed his muscles and hurled the entire army of Pharaoh into the Red Sea!

In the Haftarah the same imagery describes Barak’s astonishing victory over the forces of Sisera: ‘The LORD threw Sisera and all his chariots and army before the onslaught of Barak…’ (Judges 4:15. Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures. The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text).

In the song of Deborah and Barak in Judges 5 there are powerful echoes of the song of YHWH’s victory at the Red Sea: ‘I will sing, will sing to the LORD, will hymn the LORD, the God of Israel. O LORD, when You came forth from Seir, advanced from the country of Edom, the earth trembled; the heavens dripped, yea, the clouds dripped water, the mountains quaked—before the LORD, Him of Sinai, before the LORD, God of Israel’ (Judges 5:3-5. Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures).

In the book of Isaiah, God foretells that his ‘arm’ will bring about a future deliverance for Israel that will put the Egyptian Exodus in the shade. Isaiah 51:9-11 recalls the deliverance of Israel at the Red Sea and the prophet calls on God to do something even greater for his people:

Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD; awake, as in the days of old, the generations of ancient times. Art thou not it that hewed Rahab in pieces, that pierced the dragon? Art thou not it that dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep; that made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over? And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come with singing unto Zion, and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Jewish Publication Society translation)

In chapter 52:9,10, the LORD calls on Jerusalem to ‘Break forth into joy, sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem; for the LORD hath comforted His people, He hath redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD hath made bare His holy arm [he has rolled up his sleeve] in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God (JPS translation).

In Isaiah 53, ‘the arm of the LORD’ is a man who redeems Israel by taking upon himself the wrath of God in the place of Israel. The irony is that Israel will not believe that this is the case: ‘Who would have believed our report?’ asks the prophet, ‘And to whom hath the arm of the LORD been revealed?’ (JPS translation).

The writers of the New Testament saw in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth the omnipotent ‘arm of YHWH’. In a letter to Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus in the ancient Turkish city of Colossae, former rabbi Shaul of Tarsus used the language of the Exodus to describe the death and resurrection of Jesus as the redemption foretold by Isaiah and the Hebrew prophets:

[God] has delivered us from the domain of darkness [as Israel was redeemed from the domain of Pharaoh] and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

In a few weeks, Jewish people around the world will celebrate the Exodus and will commemorated the redemption from Egypt while neglecting the even great redemption accomplished by their Messiah. In commemorating their deliverance from slavery to an earthly power, however, most will not believe the possibility of being delivered from the power of the Satan and from their own sins.

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